30.3.09

A Short History of Mankind

I was planning to write my version of the evolution of human society, and particularly the changing nature of the state, drawing on the stuff I have studied in university so far (you can't say I lack ambition). But then I came across someone much cleverer than me, who managed to do this much better than I could ever have done. The book is Nationalism by Ernest Gellner. It was the last thing he ever wrote, and was published posthumously. It could be seen as a summary and a final say on the various topics that interested him through his career. And it's short, clear and very easy to understand. A pamphlet for the starving, ignorant multitude. The following is just some of the enlightenment to be gained from reading it.

Human beings are distinguished from other animals by their ability to organise and to create culture (language, religion etc.). These two things are the raw materials of social science. Their relationship to each other is often the most interesting aspect of studying history, I have found. Anyway, mankind has gone through three basic stages of organisation: foraging, agriculture and industrial society. In the first we have small communities living off the land. I have little confidence in making any comments on the structure of these bands, except to say that they are probably more egalitarian - personality and physical ability being the deciding factors of one's status. Gellner goes into no details on the matter, unfortunately.

He gives plenty of details on the agrarian age, however. Increased food production and storage lead to an explosion in human population. But with work tied to a piece of land, defence becomes an issue. Specialists in coercion and violence emerge, aided by specialists in ritual, doctrine, salvation, therapy and mediation. A hierarchy is created: warlords, divines and peasants.

Such hierarchies are based on food production, food storage, and a relatively stable technology. Technology is fixed, only land and labour are variable. So you can only increase output by increasing land and labour, which inevitably comes up against the Law of Diminishing Returns. Basically, stagnant technology imposes a limit on possible production. However, there is no limit on population growth, so periodically (harvest failure/social upheaval), there is not enough land to feed the population and you get famine (see Malthus). In which case, people starve according to rank. Agrarian society is primarily a food producing and storage system. The silos are guarded by heavies, and they get first priority. Government is essentially control of the store.

This means everyone is primarily concerned with their rank within the hierarchy, rather than the enhancement of output, because rank determines the amount of stuff you get. Extra output is only going to attract pillage or taxation, so it's pointless. Saving and investing is thus difficult and rare, and so technological advance remains sluggish. More often you get power leading to wealth. It's not farmers, but badass fighters, who get rich (or die tryin'). Accordingly, you often find the idea that warfare is a quicker and more honourable route to riches than trade.

The value system of an agrarian society in general despises work and values honour - which can be defined as a cult of aggressiveness and skill in coercion and intimidation. The coercion which dominates agrarian society needs legitimacy, which is where manipulating culture and the divines come in. To cover their backs, the nobility promulgate a value system that is overtly inegalitarian and corporatist. Everyone has their own purpose. Rights and duties become part of the soul (see Plato's Republic). The nobility/clergy also have to establish a distinctive cultural identity, in opposition to other gangs of coercers/states. However, this is less important than culturally reinforcing the internal social hierarchy, which means cultural boundaries and definitions are stronger horizontally (grouping classes) rather than vertically (grouping nations). This is why the political unit you often find in this age is either much smaller than the vertical limits of a culture (tribes, city-states) or much larger (empires). The nation-state, on the other hand, where states map onto cultures, is a modern ideal.

Agrarian society is locked in a circle. The situation dictates certain values which inhibit innovation and growth, production is a zero sum game dictated by finite factors (land, labour), which in turn dictates certain values which inhibit innovation and growth... Organisation and culture mutually support each other and prolong the status quo. Gellner points out that we have no clear theory as to how we broke out of this cycle, i.e. what caused the Industrial Revolution. I'm gonna be brave here, and say that while the rate of technological advance is slow in agrarian society, it's not static. Gradually, a collection of technologies became available that allowed for capitalist mode of production. Why this occurred specifically in England at the end of 18th century (before spreading across the world), I'll leave for others to answer (any ideas?).

The fundamental break between agrarian and modern society is constant economic and scientific growth, often much faster than population growth. The world is no longer Malthusian - capital can increase alongside land and labour. This means that political legitimacy is no longer established through terror and superstition, but through economic growth. Regimes are acceptable if they can engender prosperity. They lose their authority if they do not.

Growth-orientation results in pervasive social mobility. Technological innovation leads to the creation of new jobs, and the relinquishing of old ones. The occupational structure is unstable, so a corporatist society of orders is no longer viable. Technological sophistication make skills and training vital, so hereditary authority is replaced with meritocracy. All men become to some extent equals - differences in their bank balances do not enter their souls or affect certain baseline rights - status is confined to office hours.

That doesn't mean that modern societies are equal. There is often great differences in wealth and power. But these are not ratified by ritual, custom or law. And as such differences are normally incompatible with modern society's basic principles, they are liable to cause a scandal. And do. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!

Modern society is dynamic and atomised. Individuals may wish to join associations, but they are always voluntary, rather than being dictated by birth (army) or fortified by ritual (worship). Another complementary characteristic is the semantic nature of work. Men no longer work with their muscle, but employ developed abilities to contact often invisible partners or manipulate messages out of context (use telephones, read manuals etc.). Before, only a few had the skills to do this - lawyers, theologians, bureaucrats. Now, everyone is required to undergo prolonged schooling and literacy is near universal. As a result, 'high' culture can filter down and be shared by everybody, displacing previous 'low' or folk culture. Dialects get eaten away by a standardised language. Horizontal cultural barriers vanish. Vertical ones become crucial - it gets difficult to work with people who don't speak your language. Hence, nationalism is born and the nation state becomes the norm.

Thanks Gellner. Now, where do we go from here? The last couple of decades we've seen the world becoming incrementally more interconnected, in terms of culture as well as economics. However, I'm not keen to herald the end of the nation state and a new globalised stage in the history of mankind. Developing countries have a way to go yet. Some have yet to carve out and fortify their own nation states - see for instance the unrest in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan. And as for us, Europe speaks a host of different languages, and America practices a different religion. The world is still too culturally diverse for people to abandon their national identities and interests. We'll be stuck in the industrial/scientific age for quite a while yet.

That is, if global warming doesn't lead to the destruction of human civilization. Gellner can mislead in this respect. History moves forward, but society can sometimes regress backward.

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