The return of the peasant: or the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 2. Agriculture & civilisation

It’s time for the second instalment of ten-and-a-half in my history of the world cycle. But first a couple of brief announcements. First, I just wanted to mention that I’m lucky enough to be getting a number of my blog posts replicated on various other websites. But I’m also finding that I’m spending too much time online and not enough working my holding, so I just wanted to mention that I feel the need to prioritise responding to comments here on my own website at Small Farm Future and may not find the time to respond on other sites, much as I’d like to. Apologies about that – but please do feel free to talk to me if you want to at Small Farm Future where I’ll do my best to respond.

Second, talking of my holding I thought it was time for a new header photo, and what better than this recent drone photograph of (most of) my own humble abode, as fine an example of the gentleman-peasant’s farm as you can find in all of, er, northwest Frome. I’m guessing it’s fairly obvious where the boundaries of my holding are. Something that may not be so clear is where my house is – not the residential cluster on the left, which is outside my boundaries, but the unobtrusive buildings towards the right at the end of the track, which took years of bureaucratic wrangling to gain assent for. Such are the vagaries of the English planning system. But how did we get from the Palaeolithic foraging of my last post to the very apogee of mixed agrarianism shown in the picture? I’m glad you asked. To answer it, I need to go to way back when and return to my main historical thread by looking at some of the tensions within…

2. Agriculture and civilisation*

A major one historically is that between tillers and herders. Livestock herding can’t support population densities to match that of arable cropping but it’s easier to do, it’s compatible with a wider set of ecological circumstances, and its characteristic practices – a wandering way of life, horsemanship, defence of ambiguous boundaries against animal and human predators – provide skills that are readily transferable to warfare. Indeed, much of the history of Eurasia can be understood in terms of conflicts between tillers and pastoralists that only ended decisively in favour of the tillers in relatively recent times as a result of their larger surpluses and more stable forms of political hierarchy. As an advocate of a mixed farming, I’d favour splitting the difference and doing a bit of both. But in historical terms mixed farming is quite a modern high-tech method – which is rather ironic in view of the fact that large-scale commercial agriculture in the wealthy countries today has largely reverted to the old-fashioned separation of arable and pastoral.

There are distinctions worth highlighting within pastoralism too. The classic case is that of grassland peoples who are ethnically distinct from their cropland foes – Mongols, Tatars, Huns etc. But in some cases the distinction maps within a given ‘ethnic’ population over time (eg. the probable abandonment of grain farming in favour of pastoralism in Neolithic Britain as a response to climate change and population decline – lessons for the future there, perhaps?) or space (eg. the distinction between pastoral desert nomads and townsfolk in Arab lands). Then there are mountain or forest pastoralists living a largely self-reliant existence beyond the geographical reach of the hierarchical civilisations bearing down on the tillers of the soil (Switzerland furnishes one later historic example). Extending that logic, there’s the paramilitary pastoralism of frontier or outlaw zones, where growing crops is impossible because it invites enemy expropriation – the reivers of the England-Scotland borders in late medieval and early modern times spring to mind. Finally, there’s the special case of the commercial pastoralist, often in the employ of noble or capitalist landowners. I’ll shortly return to some of these historical types.

But getting back to the political centres, and to my chronology, the agricultural epoch eventually brought forth large-scale Iron Age empires in various parts of the world: to name a few, in the circum-Mediterranean, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Persia; in the Indian sub-continent, the Mauryas; and in China, the Qin and Han dynasties. Smaller and somewhat more mysterious centralised states also arose contemporaneously in the Americas, such as the Olmecs. In the Old World at least, these strong states typically unified large areas through a tripartite and conjoint package of standing army, standard coinage and market trade. This created a set of centre-periphery dynamics which look fairly familiar in the modern world: population growth, population movement (forced or unforced) between periphery and centre, economic growth and rising court and government expenditures.

It’s worth distinguishing between tax and tribute states in the ancient world. Generally, collecting taxes is much more remunerative than taking tribute or extracting rents from land, but more burdensome to organise – so it was only undertaken by states with high revenue costs such as large standing armies or civic administrations. Once established, tax states tend to be stronger, with a more centralised apparatus and fewer tendencies towards fragmenting into regionalised polities. It would be too glib to superimpose a second distinction – between citizen and subject – neatly onto the tax/tribute distinction, but I’d suggest there’s an association. Subjects typically expect little or nothing in return for paying tribute – perhaps at best military protection from other would-be tribute-takers whose rapacity is worse. Citizens, on the other hand, usually expect a whole lot more in return for their payments – services, legal process, perhaps even a say in governance. It’s generally worth asking the question in relation to any particular social actor – am I a subject or a citizen?

In any case, whether we’re talking about strong tax states or weaker tributary ones, the dynamics of territorial, fiscal and population growth created problems for ancient governments of rising state costs that they could only really try to solve in one (or more) of five ways, which again have endured down to the present. They could (first) squeeze the populace harder through tax or other exactions, or (second) expand territorially through conquest, placing the fiscal burden mainly on the conquered – at least until, in time, the conquered too became citizens (one of the problems in the late Roman empire, with its contingents of wandering, militarised Romano-Germans). The disadvantage of these two options is that they involved annoying a lot of people, thus potentially inciting blowback. A third option was various forms of credit or debt finance – essentially, acting as if you have the resources to achieve your ends even when you don’t – a strategy that can work very well, especially if the economy is growing. But eventually debts are almost always called in.

A fourth strategy is to increase economic productivity, but that’s easier said than done. The simplest way to achieve it is by drawing down harder on (often relatively non-renewable) natural resources like soil (or, later, oil), the problem being the potential ecological blowback. An example here is the renowned Vallis Veg grass-mowing trial, which showed conclusively that the medieval scythe was a trade-off free improvement on the ancient sickle, whereas modern mechanised mowing technology involves a less efficient drawdown on non-renewable resources than the scythe. Another problem with Strategy 4 is that, even if initially successful, it tends to prompt population growth and further expenditures which soon bring the original problem around again. The final option is to fiddle about, perhaps by adopting some or all of the other measures in mild form while tightening the government’s fiscal belt, and hoping to keep the resulting tensions in check.

Most of the early civilisations of this so-called ‘Axial Age’ eventually crumbled through their inability to resolve the various contradictions outlined above, perhaps with the exception of China, whose emperors proved for the most part to be highly adept fiddlers down the centuries. In a moment, I’ll consider the consequences of this crumbling, but first I want to look briefly at some other aspects of the ancient empires, beginning with their class structures.

At the bottom end of the scale were various gradations of unfree workers – perhaps a key distinction being between debt peonage, when locals or insiders fell upon hard times (a fate that could happen to almost anyone), and a more juridically absolute chattel slavery, typically applying to people coming in as strangers, often war captives. In his classic account of the transition from ancient to medieval Europe, Perry Anderson identifies the invention of chattel slavery as a new development in the classical societies of both Greece and Rome – but Greece relied more heavily on free peasant farming, whereas Rome depended on the large estate, the latifundium, worked by the gang labour of those enslaved in the empire’s impressive outward drive. So when that drive finally faltered and the Roman empire entered its terminal crisis, the latifundium-based western empire quickly crumbled almost into nothing, whereas the Hellenized eastern empire fared better – its strong tax state and localised small-farm traditions transmogrified into the Byzantine empire, which persisted through various ups and downs for almost another millennium before being carved up by the successor empires of the middle ages. More recent historical research de-emphasises the importance of slave-based latifundia in the west, but so far as I can see doesn’t wholly undermine Anderson’s thesis about the different eastern and western paths.

A parallel dimension of difference between east and west was the relationship between city and country. Rome institutionalised a chronic exploitation of its peasant-soldiers, as described by Tiberius Gracchus: “the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else…they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and…have not a single clod of earth that is their own”. Gracchus’ attempted agrarian reforms in favour of small farmers, the Lex Sempronia Agraria, contributed to his assassination and paved the way a generation or so later for the proto-fascist structure of military strongman, large-scale absentee landownership, urban mass and subjugated peasantry achieved by Julius Caesar, pioneer of the ‘Caesarist’ political tradition that has recurred often enough down the ages. In Athens, Solon’s reforms abolishing debt peonage, and those of his successors in building a democratic polity that limited aristocratic power, were more successful, allowing representation to the voice of the peasant-citizen. Ellen Meiksins Wood has pressed this point further, rejecting the notion that the flowering of classical Athens stemmed from the luxury of its reliance on chattel slavery, which she suggests was limited and marginal to agricultural production. For her, the glories of democratic Athens were essentially the achievement of a free peasant society, and a beacon of possibilities illuminating later ages. But it was eclipsed through a series of conflicts, starting with its defeat in the Peloponnesian war, typically involving alliances between rival monarchical and oligarchical states and its own disaffected aristocracy. So maybe there’s a warning beacon for later ages there too.

Another aspect of the ancient civilisations worth mentioning is their spiritual-philosophical focus. While rulers imposed political order on the ground, thinkers imposed spiritual order in the mind – this was the time of Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, Plato and – much later on the scene – Muhammad. The ideas that these figures came up with had many differences, which were quite consequential for the politics of the societies they influenced, but the traditions they founded shared a tendency towards universalising, systemic thought. Typically, they were cosmologies of town and merchant, which sought to break the particular identities of kin-group or place. “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” as Jesus sternly put it.

From this flowed a tension in most spiritual traditions between a structured religious practice with formal institutional trappings which usually validated the political status quo – the religion of church and state – and world-denying renunciative practices which were usually more individualistic or schismatic, transcending and critiquing church-state worldviews. These two poles of religious practice are endlessly malleable and have been reworked according to the designs of numerous groups, classes and social movements down the ages. In the Axial Age civilisations, they often played out in the form of a spiritual and sometimes a material/military clash between a church closely identified with urban aristocratic rule, and renunciative religion associated with the farmers and herders of the rural fringe who took a dim view of urban decadence. This was often expressed in terms of male asceticism and military virtue, and female chastity, especially in view of the pervasive loosening and marketization of social relations in the cities. Think Babylon, Sodom, Gomorrah – or the idea, curious to the religions of city and trader, that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. This tension too has contemporary resonance.

One other feature of Axial Age spiritual thought in the west worth mentioning in passing was the notion that humanity had acquired godlike powers – the Greek myth of Prometheus (‘Promethean environmentalism’ was a forerunner of what now usually goes by the name of ‘ecomodernism’), or the story of Eden in the Book of Genesis (“Behold the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil”, as God put it). Perhaps it seems laughable to us today that these vanished civilisations with their rudimentary technologies should consider their powers divine. Judging by the titles of the books we now write, or our soi disant geological imprimatur of the ‘Anthropocene’, we seem to feel that our Iron Age predecessors jumped the gun, and should have left it to us to do the God stuff. But it’s at this point that Professor Dylan’s admonitions keep coming back to me “…as the present now will later be past…for the wheel’s still in spin…” And so on. These Axial Age philosophical traditions emphasised the hubris of human claims to divinity – a wise counsel even then, I’d argue, and a still wiser one now. So let us leave the overworked seam of human divinity and take a peek at what came after the ‘Axial Age’ states.

* A fully referenced version of this essay can be found here.

15 thoughts on “The return of the peasant: or the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 2. Agriculture & civilisation

  1. Gee shucks… given your Genesis scholarship in past postings here I was really looking for a Cain and Abel reference when you compared pastoral ag vs. cropping systems. Maybe next time.

    I am glad you make a wave toward the difference between nomadic pastoralism and settled pastoral efforts. The Range Wars (Fence Wars) on the then frontier geographies of the US West (High Plains) were more recent rehashings of the conflict (though the nomadic model was modified somewhat). Still, the issue of property rights vs. managing a sort of commons (open range) did get bloody as recently as the late 19th century here.

    • Yes, Cain & Abel should probably have made an appearance – though two other biblical references in the essay is probably enough.

      I touch on a few issues concerning US prairie farming later in the essay, though not the Range Wars as such. Another interesting bit of history demanding a more detailed treatment…

  2. Clearly I couldn’t wait for you to publish 10 ½ blog posts but read the whole piece instead!

    By and large I concur with its essence, and also with the conclusion that some things can’t be easily ascertained, such as the main origin of capitalism. I also agree with the general sentiment that the peasant way might play out a lot better than in history provided we get rid of various oppressive mechanism from bigger powers, be it the state, the lord or voracious capitalists. Meanwhile it will still be a rather hard life and the question is how much of the “good things” in contemporary society that it can sustain. You don’t answer, which I believe is wise. There are so many interactions and cascades of effects in complex systems that we simply can’t know.

    There are some gems in the text. Such as:
    “with the advent of mechanised agriculture and the relative costs of fuel and labour the situation is now reversed, with agriculture in the core dominated by the large-scale mechanised production of staples, and agriculture in the ‘periphery’ contributing more of the high value, labour-intensive products.”
    “How that story unfolds will surely be conditioned by global energy futures as well as climate change, though debates on automation and energy seem curiously disconnected.”
    ” like a replicating virus, once the capitalist economic machinery is unleashed it ultimately becomes hard for other economic forms to do anything but turn themselves into replicas of it, regardless of the damage it causes to the host.”
    There were also a few facts I didn’t know and references which I will look more into (in particular Milanovic, which I haven’t read).

    *
    I miss is a similar discussion around cooperation and competition as the one about equality and status. It seems to me that striking a balance between cooperation and competition within communities/societies and between societies or economies is very important and that competition has got far too much the upper hand today.
    You also touch upon the division of labour and I totally agree that some division of labour is benevolent but that it is not clear that constantly more and more division is desirable.

    Both competition vs cooperation and the extent of division of labour leads to “the market”.
    Your long essay seems to say that capitalist markets are not sustainable, but it is surprisingly silent about the effects of competitive markets in general. For sure, I agree that a 2% (or whatever percentage) growth rate isn’t sustainable. “a 2% return on investment is quite enough to turn mountains into dust, turn peasant cultivators into either slaves or CEOs, and possibly to turn the entire planet into an uninhabitable waste dump” is a very good statement! But in my view competitive markets are also an important part of capitalism as well as equally problematic. And even more so when, through division of labour, markets become the organizing principle for everything in life, including education, health care, parenting etc.
    You are certainly not alone in claiming that big corporations manipulate markets and seek monopoly. I also share that view. But I don’t share the equally common view among peasant visionaries in the Anglo-Saxon world that there is a fair and free market out there somewhere. I don’t dispute that there are some beauty in the organizing principles of the market, the dynamic control of supply and demand. But I would argue that markets always need to be regulated (and always are regulated) and that it is not desirable to let our whole life be organized according to market principles. On the contrary, I think we should regulate and limit the role of markets to a very large extent. It is the aspect of competition, which is inherent in markets, that is the main culprit. This is also the reason for why competition has been very much regulated in most markets (you refer to Polanyi and no one has better than him analyzed markets in my view).
    I believe that non-market relationships need to expand on the expense of both market and the state, rather than that we should put our faith in some mythical free market that never existed. This would go hand in hand with a rebalancing of societies towards cooperation instead of competition as well as a reduction of the extent of division of labour.
    (please feel free to move this comment to a later post if it fits better later on, I am not very patient so I post it here)

  3. Thanks for that Gunnar. I agree with everything you’ve written here, albeit maybe with a few differences of emphasis. I guess I’d argue that competitive markets sometimes have their place, and that place is serving wider societal goals, not determining them. In that sense, I agree with you that markets always need to be regulated and that there is no such thing as an intrinsically ‘fair and free’ market. I guess I must not be very Anglo-Saxon… The key to capitalism for me is not that it’s necessarily more competitive than other economic forms but that it involves indeed as you say making the market the organising principle of everything in life. One of the best historic alternatives to the market as the key organising principle is the household (ie a degree of self-reliance, meaning you’re not completely dependent on the market), which is one of several reasons why I’d count myself among the ‘peasant visionaries’. However, there are some downsides to a society comprised mostly of peasant households, which I try to address in the essay. One issue (though probably not the major one, IMO) is how many of the ‘good things’ in life could be retained in such a society of the future, as you put it. I don’t answer this partly because, as you rightly say, it’s impossible to say, and partly because this essay was focused on the past – I’ll come on to the future in due course! In a future neo-peasant society there would undoubtedly be ‘good things’ from the present that we’d have to relinquish, but perhaps also some ‘good things’ we’d gain that we don’t presently have.

    • I once lived in a village that was very poor, very exotic and had significant and strange cultural differences from the city in which I had grown up. My wife and I arrived at the village, on an admittedly beautiful tropical atoll, in the launch of what might be called a tramp steamer (except that it was diesel powered).

      As we neared the shore, an elderly woman came running down the beach into the water and motioned for my young, blonde wife to climb on her back so she wouldn’t have to get her feet wet. Karen gave me this puzzled look that said, “What the heck do I do now?” Neither of us wanted to be rude, but it was ridiculously far-fetched to us that anyone would be concerned about her getting her bare feet wet in a few inches of tropical salt water.

      In the end, after attempts to decline, Karen climbed on the back of the old woman, who staggered forward a few steps and let Karen down on the sand. The watching crowd murmured approvingly. Like I said, strange and exotic.

      But an amazing and important revelation came a few months later. We had settled in, our language skills had improved markedly, we could walk around without flocks of children following and staring, and we found to our surprise that our new home had become quite ordinary. We were used to living there. It was home.

      We had learned an important lesson, that if one’s basic physical needs were met, including absence of physical danger, it was possible to be happy and content in just about any circumstance and see living that way as perfectly normal.

      Poor agrarian peasants of the future will be just as happy as we internet blogging and commenting rich folk are now. Don’t worry about gaining or losing any “good things” in making the transition to that future except those things, like food and water, at the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy. If agrarian peasants can supply those, they will be content with their plenty.

    • A former prime minister of Sweden said that you’d like the market to be your servant rather than your master (perhaps he picked it from someone else – it sounds lika an obvious aforism) and I guess that is the trick.

  4. Great stuff, Chris – almost like those old cliffhanger serials. 🙂

    In regard to the strategies you outline for dealing with increasing state costs – much depends on the *nature* of the underlying society (itself a product of these factors, of course, leading to something of a chicken and egg issue).

    Contemporary industrial society, with its marked (and purposive) lack of genuine community – i.e. needing each other – can be easily manipulated in lots of ways, as we see every day. A more traditional, community-based society where more needs get met on a more local basis – as in the case of peasant societies of the past – perhaps less so. For example, the 3rd option, financialization, would be much less effective in a non-consumerist culture. In fact, it seems to me that the latter type of society is – all other things being equal – going to be on balance more resistant to state growth. But of course, all other things are never equal!

    All in all, a pretty complicated stew.

    • Thanks for that Oz. Yes, good points. A general aim of the essay is to reflect precisely on that interaction point between semi-autonomous rural agrarian society and centralised states – something that’s difficult to do, and almost impossible to do in the abstract, because of the constitutive effects of the interactions themselves that you mention (ie. the chicken and the egg). I talk about this in some detail in relation to various societies of the recent and more distant past in later parts of the essay.

  5. If the success of this essay is measured by how much thinking time it prompts, then it’s doing very well in my case!

    I found the section on different kinds of herding/nomadic societies very interesting, but was perplexed by the idea that mixed farming is a modern invention. Surely it’s pretty much the historical default in areas that are more or less conducive to both crop lands and pasture (i.e outside the ecological extremes of regions characterised by deserts, steppes, mountain ranges and the like)? Certainly in the case of medieval Europe the local farming units, which might for want of a better word be called townships, were characterised by variously weighted proportions of croplands in sole ownership (though sometimes managed collectively) and grazing lands managed collectively (commons, which included most paths and roads). A more strictly defined distinction in these ‘default’ regions between cropland and pastoral areas probably only emerged in the 19th century (with perhaps a couple of centuries run up), when the bulk transport infrastructure made it plausible.

    I liked your breakdown of strategies open to any self-respecting ambitious polity, though I’d add the caveat that the resources desired by the elite varied – certainly the material support of armed forces is a common recurring element, but others (often complimentary to this) might be gold (16th century Spain), slaves (pretty much any ancient society), or energy (more recent ’empires’). Some strategies were more effective than others depending on the type of resource desired.

    I’m less convinced by your distinction between tax and tribute states. In both cases we’re talking about expropriation of some kind to satisfy an elite in some capacity, and the only difference between the two appears to our in the extent of centralisation and the complexity of administration. By itself it’s a fair enough distinction to make, although I’m not sure where it takes us analytically, but your purpose seems to be the mapping of your citizen/subject distinction on top of it, and I don’t think that works.

    Societies in which many (even most) of the taxed citizens expect something back for their taxes are modern I’d imagine. You would presumably consider Rome a tax-based state, because of its administrative sophistication, but only a minority of its population saw any real benefit from taxes collected – an elite, admittedly fairly broad, comprising the army (or its upper echelons at any rate) and the civil administration, which initially mapped onto the existing elite of Rome and it’s Italian hinterland, and spread very unevenly beyond that. Most of the Roman empire would this be ‘tributary’ by your definition, including the provincial elites of backwoods places like Britain, whom Tacitus famously considered slaves to their desires for the trinkets of Roman life.

    I wonder if the citizen/subject distinction might stem more from a consideration of the legitimising strategies employed by elites, and in particular those that employ democratic strategies. In most premodern societies the elite included, or was dominated by, the militarised part of society, hence Grachus’ focus on the citizen soldiers of Rome, or the democratic example of the peasant soldiers of Athens. Democracy was one way, albeit rather unusual, of cultivating the hearts and minds of those most liable to upset the workings of the levers of power.

    Modern democratic societies are distinctive in the extent to which a large proportion of the population is involved in legitimising the elite (which is perhaps not s typical way of viewing general elections, but is I think fairly plausible). The centralised welfare administrations won as a contingency of the appeal to such a broad base are also unprecedented. But to get back to tax, we are even here still talking about elite expropriation. The idea that taxes are needed to pay for welfare provision of one form or another is undermined by the premise of the austerity agenda – i.e. that taxes aren’t enough to pay the bill, but nevertheless the money is still coming from somewhere, in this case borrowing from banks that might ultimately be propped up by the same central government.

    Ultimately, then, taxation is always some kind of power play – expropriation in the service of defining a hierarchy, and encouraging behaviour (whether forced or inveigled) that keeps the elite in its place, often historically in the form of mobilization of labour to fight, build pyramids, irrigation systems, etc. Citizenship might be said to characterise those societies in which the maintenance of the elite is dependent on appeal to a broad base, but I don’t think this necessarily maps onto the relative complexity of the expropriative system.

    And finally, I think the capacity of religious dissent to highlight some of the tensions in strategies of elite legitimation, which you discuss on your last section, is truly fascinating.

    Thanks, as ever, for the nutritious food for thought.

    • Andrew, thanks for another stimulating critique. A brief response:

      On mixed farming, well yes. I suppose I had in mind convertible husbandry or rotational ley farming incorporating legumes, which is relatively modern.

      On resources desired by states – yes to the differences between slaves, gold and energy. But there are also similarities inasmuch as they’re all means to extend economic and political power, and in all three cases the search for them often prompts essentially colonial forms of expansion.

      On tax vs tribute states, the distinction is Wickham’s – I guess you can argue that ‘the only difference is the extent of centralisation’ but to my mind that can be a pretty big difference. I suspect global history would have looked very different if the tax state of the western Roman empire hadn’t decayed into medieval tribute states. I think you’re right that I risk overplaying the identities between the citizen/subject and tax/tributary distinctions, though I do pretty much concede this point in the text and I don’t really make that much analytically of the citizen/subject distinction in the essay. But I would argue that the notion of citizenship in Rome (and Athens) wasn’t trivial, even if it only extended to a small minority by contemporary standards. Gracchus’s sentiments anticipate a good deal of the tensions within modernity, and would surely have seemed strange to many ancient elites. One way of thinking about the decline of Rome was the large demands made upon it by its notions of citizenship, which it tried to resolve essentially as you say by tributary relationships in the periphery that coexisted uneasily with citizenship, eg. in the Germanisation of the army, and that ultimately undermined it.

      I guess the bigger point here is your one about legitimisation. I like to think that I yield to few in my cynicism about the nature of power, but I salute you sir for exceeding even my own Machiavellianism. I agree with you that taxation is always a power play and that elections involve legitimation of elite projects, but I think there’s a danger here of arguing that the political process is ‘just’ about this. Perhaps something like a Gramscian concept of hegemony would be useful here, and wouldn’t be a million miles from my position: yes, politics always involves power play between social fractions who are differentially empowered, but its outcome creates particular ideologies that aren’t simply reducible to the generic exercise of power. Perhaps our disputes come full circle here – you’re differentiating between gold, slaves and energy while insisting on a unitary metric of power, whereas I’m imputing a unitary power play in the former case while insisting on the differentiated nature of the latter. I can see the case for spinning those tales both ways.

      I’m not sure I quite understand your points about tax, austerity and welfarism. I touch on these issues at the end of the essay, so perhaps it would be good to come back to this then?

      • Thanks for your comprehensive reply Chris. Wickham’s role in this didn’t occur to me at the time, so thanks for pointing it out. I’ve a lot of respect for the huge scope of his work, but I’m not sure I’m with him on a lot of his pseudo-Marxist classifications – I’ll certainly revisit his tax/tribute distinction now.

        I think you’ve got a point about how our differences relate – to some extent we’re just working from slightly different baselines. I may also have been having a cynical moment in my discussion of power politics – it was rather late when I wrote it! I suppose I do subscribe to a fairly unitary metric of power, at least in so far as ‘elites’ and ‘hierarchy’ always form part of my view of the dynamics of the world, past and present, though I’m quite happy with Gramscian hegemony too, and the manifold possibilities of how these things play out culturally.

        It struck me that one issue here concerns the ‘top-down’ nature of the power we’ve been discussing. My notions about elite power play, as per my last comment, would seem to admit no room for ‘bottom-up’ power of any kind, but that’s not an impression I’d want to give. Your work, of course, is often explicitly concerned with opening space for the latter kind. Historically, an important element within less centralised states is probably the degree to which important social roles and collective activity were organised with no reference to the centre, whether tribute-taking or otherwise. However, I may be straying too close to Wickham’s ‘peasant mode of production’ here, and that would open another can of worms!

        My point about welfarism didn’t come across well -apologies. I was essentially trying to say that even the modern notion of tax contributing to welfare provision is more ideological than real. But I think there are probably wider issues here about how any society mobilises collective labour for the ‘common good’ – it will always have to be done through some mechanism or other, rather than simple spontaneous altruism, and there will always be issues about putting something in to get something out, which the present discourse over tax articulates quite well. So maybe I’m mellowing, and in any case you’re probably right that this particular comment belongs somewhere later down the line.

        • Andrew, I find your views on tax & tribute and the wiles of the elites to be just cynical enough to suit my mood. Taxes here in the US are certainly used as a wealth pump, mostly away from the middle classes and toward the uppers. But the economics have gotten much stranger in the last 50 years or so. Money has always come out of thin air, but up until recently there was a limit to how much of it you could conjure. It seems that now the currency has been entirely separated from any underlying physical reality, and the main purpose of taxes is to regulate the amount of currency available to the general public. There appear to be subtle ways to squeeze and push so that the big lumps of the economy go to the desired set of pockets, but now that there are no hard limits, it has become abundantly clear that such things as funding the common welfare are not a priority.

          I also agree with you that the level of centralization of power is really important to how pleasant a particular society will be to live in, but to me that issue still comes back to size. A system with a large population and resource flow will tend to concentration of wealth, in my view.

          I believe that notwithstanding their venality and general moral bankruptcy, there was still a chance that the founders of the USA might have eventually produced a congenial society if the country hadn’t gotten so damn big. That is, if we had stayed small enough that the Natives and the Slaves could have forced the elites to give them some basic rights. Slaveholder Jefferson eliminated that possibility in 1803 with his deal with Napoleon.

          I hope this wasn’t too much of a digression.

          • Eric, thanks for your thoughts, I certainly agree with most of them. I read an interesting book recently called ‘Debt or Democracy’ by Mary Mellor, which took money conjuring for granted, but explored how the world might work if the conjuring process was democratically controlled, so that money was conjured for collectively agreed projects. She suggested that a taxation system could then be used simply to stop the money supply becoming too big. It did temporarily alleviate some of the worst of my cynicism, but then I started to consider how likely it was to come to pass…

            I think you’re right about size. Large governmental systems just cannot respond to the micro-realities of lives lived on the ground, no matter how well-meaning the governors, and those that aren’t so well-meaning are bound to play the system in various ways. There are some interesting implications to radical devolution of things like tax and welfare though. Whatever the many faults of the current systems, they create a discourse around fairness and justice that spans the nation state, and is even sometimes transferred to a global scale these days. How would issues around equal access to resources play if managed in thousands of different small societies, none of which was big enough to prevent people knowing how much better they did things ‘down the road’? I do wonder if some kind of system of nested levels of devolution would work better.

            Well, as you say, this is all getting a bit tangential!

  6. Eric, Andrew – thanks for that, not tangential at all. Agreed on Wickham’s rather eccentric quasi-Marxist categories, and also on your thoughts about the strange fiscal regimen of contemporary capitalism. I’d be interested in your further comments on the latter when my essay reaches the present day at the end. I’m also interested in the kind of hegemonies that give us Trump, Brexit or, for that matter, the Liberal Democrat party and the Common Agricultural Policy, and their various supporters and detractors – rather more vociferous in the case of the first two than the last two, strangely. I agree on the difficult issues around scale and have an essay roughly about this hopefully coming out soon making the pseudo-Churchillian point that liberal internationalism (as distinct from neoliberalism) is the worst way of organising societies apart from all the other ways… So I’m with you Andrew on ‘nested levels of devolution’, though the devil’s in the detail. It doesn’t seem to be working out very convincingly at the moment in either US or UK politics…

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