Wednesday, April 16, 2008 — Who Wrote Don Giovanni?

There is a con­sis­tent pat­tern, among those who describe soci­eties and economies, past and present, to reverse cause and effect in sig­nif­i­cant events. I would like to dub this the Emper­or Josef Wrote Don Gio­van­ni Syn­drome. This is the ten­den­cy to shift atten­tion from those who cre­ate to those who rule, some­times blunt­ly, some­times sub­tly, until one has the vague impres­sion that those who rule are the ones who create.

This, of course, begins at the crud­est lev­el when his­to­ri­ans casu­al­ly assert that some­thing that hap­pened to come into exis­tence dur­ing the reign of a king, or an emper­or, or a pharaoh was “made” by them or “built” by them. The his­to­ri­an may retreat to the excuse that this is a con­ven­tion­al form, under­stood by all to mean its oppo­site, but this leaves unex­plained why there should be any need to have a for­mu­la­ic phras­ing so mis­lead­ing and per­verse. In fact, it is usu­al­ly easy enough to tell from the con­text that the author does not real­ly con­tra­dict or qual­i­fy, in his mind, the con­ven­tion­al phrase, and real­ly does believe that a ruler is the cre­ative force, in every sense, behind what­ev­er admirable achieve­ments hap­pen to be known from his reign. The more dis­tant the events are in time, the more this pre­vails. No his­to­ri­an can get away with claim­ing that the Emper­or Joseph II was the com­pos­er of Don Gio­van­ni, but that is because the events are recent, and approach­ing the time when com­posers were begin­ning to be be per­ceived as impor­tant peo­ple. How­ev­er, those who know Mozart know that it was a close call. He was a celebri­ty as a child, because of his pre­coc­i­ty, but any­one who under­stands the era knows that the aris­toc­ra­cy of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an empire thought of him as noth­ing more impor­tant than a ser­vant, and when he left their brief atten­tion span, he died in pover­ty. His body van­ished into an anony­mous pauper’s grave. If his rep­u­ta­tion had not been relent­less­ly cham­pi­oned by musi­cians who knew him, his named would have been forgotten.

If these events had tak­en place a few cen­turies ear­li­er, then the fact that Josef II took music lessons would have been tak­en as suf­fi­cient evi­dence that he com­posed the opera, in the same way that the pop­u­lar song “Greensleeves” is con­tin­u­ous­ly, and absurd­ly attrib­uted to Hen­ry VIII (though the known prove­nance and style prove, with­out a shad­ow of a doubt, that the attri­bu­tion is impos­si­ble, I pos­sess sev­er­al record­ings that assert it in their lin­er notes). The thresh­old of creduli­ty for this sort of thing is very low. Spe­cif­ic attri­bu­tion by evi­dence is deemed unnec­es­sary when the events take place any time before 1400, when the indi­vid­ual authors of most cre­ative works remain anony­mous. We are told, with monot­o­nous reg­u­lar­i­ty that var­i­ous kings, emper­ors, and bar­bar­ians who burned cities and stacked skulls in pyra­mids were bril­liant archi­tects, poets, artists, philoso­phers, inven­tors, sci­en­tists and civ­il engi­neers. If an aque­duct was built dur­ing some king’s reign, we are giv­en the vague impres­sion that, in between assas­si­na­tions and mil­i­tary cam­paigns, he spent all his spare time sur­vey­ing, draw­ing up con­struc­tion plans, and study­ing hydraulic engi­neer­ing. The impres­sion is based on noth­ing, con­veyed by impli­ca­tion, and propped up by rep­e­ti­tion. The more lim­it­ed our knowl­edge of the era, the more the asso­ci­a­tion of a ruler and his “works” becomes part of our men­tal fur­ni­ture. Slap­ping a ruler’s name on some­thing pret­ty much clinch­es the deal. Peo­ple are quick to admire Hadrian’s crafts­man­ship in “Hadrian’s “ Wall, and can bare­ly be restrained from point­ing out the deft strokes with which he trow­eled the mor­tar. If a legal code or a procla­ma­tion sur­vives from a monarch’s life­time, his­to­ri­ans are quick to see it as evi­dence of the work­ings of his mind, even if com­mon sense tells us that it was prob­a­bly con­ceived, devised and writ­ten by some name­less clerk, while the monarch was snor­ing and fart­ing, dead drunk, sprawled on the cush­ions of the harem. Just because the title “Code of Ham­mura­bi” is poked in cuneiform wedges at the top of the clay tablet doesn’t mean that he either wrote it or thunk it. Yet, even if a his­to­ri­an con­cedes this in a foot­note, it is instant­ly for­got­ten, and every word writ­ten on the sub­ject belies the foot­note, and pro­motes the fantasy.

I would call atten­tion to the events in Roma­nia, in very recent times. The Com­mu­nist regime required all sci­en­tists and schol­ars to pub­lish their books, reports and papers with the author­ship attrib­uted to the wife of the dic­ta­tor, who was referred to in every ref­er­ence source, broad­cast, and pub­lic record as “the great­est sci­en­tif­ic mind of the cen­tu­ry”. In real­i­ty, she was bare­ly able to read, and had all the knowl­edge and intel­li­gence of a lump of stale cook­ie dough. Yet thou­sands upon thou­sands of writ­ten doc­u­ments sur­vive, in libraries scat­tered around the world, with her name on them, and a few hun­dred years from now, schol­ars will be cer­tain that there exist­ed a woman of unpar­al­leled genius, a shin­ing Com­mu­nist Queen of Roma­nia. If any ref­er­ences to the fraud sur­vive, they will be dis­missed as pro­pa­gan­da from jeal­ous ene­mies, out­weighed by the “bal­ance” of evi­dence. His­to­ri­ans want shin­ing queens, not sor­did lit­tle brain­less sluts who gig­gle while they order sci­en­tists and poets to be dragged to the base­ment and tor­tured with elec­tric cat­tle prods. Fidel Cas­tro imag­ined him­self an expert on agron­o­my and ani­mal hus­bandry, and his idi­ot­ic decrees reduced Cuban agri­cul­ture to a sham­bles, but I can find no end of ref­er­ences to his genius in the mat­ter. Mao Zedong’s delu­sions that he was an expert on steel man­u­fac­ture not only wrecked the Chi­nese econ­o­my, and killed off tens of mil­lions in famine, but pro­duced no usable steel. Yet China’s lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry books are now full of his imag­i­nary accom­plish­ments, and prac­ti­cal­ly none of China’s bil­lion peo­ple have any oth­er source of infor­ma­tion. Even though the evi­dence for the truth is irrefutable, it will grad­u­al­ly be sup­pressed in the rest of the world, too, as the historian’s instinct to glo­ri­fy the pow­er­ful, because they are pow­er­ful, grad­u­al­ly over­comes mere truth. In a cen­tu­ry, Hitler’s rep­u­ta­tion as a mon­ster will fade, under the same impulse, which will be unchecked when the last of the sur­vivors of the Holo­caust die off. He will morph into that clever guy who briefly “uni­fied Europe” and built the Auto­bahn. After all, he was an “artist”, and an artist couldn’t real­ly do bad things, unless com­pelled to by polit­i­cal neces­si­ty. Sure­ly some­one who paint­ed such charm­ing water-colours could not have been a bad man. There will be dra­mas filmed in which he is shown sur­round­ed by his archi­tec­tur­al mod­els, look­ing up from his sketch­book, and tear­ful­ly philosophis­ing about the trag­ic neces­si­ty that com­pelled him to resolve the Jew­ish Prob­lem. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.

An inter­est­ing vari­ant of the Emper­or Josef Wrote Don Gio­van­ni Syn­drome is the Tory Inter­pre­ta­tion of wealth cre­ation. This is the belief that whomev­er hap­pens to be rich­est and most pow­er­ful, or live in the biggest hous­es, must be the cre­ators and gen­er­a­tors of a society’s wealth. You could see this atti­tude in the “trick­le down” non­sense ped­dled by Neo-Con­ser­v­a­tive econ­o­mists back in the days of Ronald Rea­gan, and still taught in many macro-eco­nom­ic text­books. A noto­ri­ous­ly dis­as­trous tax­a­tion pol­i­cy was based on it, but there is no short­age of peo­ple today eager to repeat it. The argu­ment was that tax breaks should be giv­en to the rich, because rich peo­ple are the “pro­duc­tive class”, the engine of eco­nom­ic cre­ativ­i­ty, and if they have low­er tax­es, then they will auto­mat­i­cal­ly invest their wealth in cre­at­ing new wealth. Every­one will be bet­ter off, because their cre­ativ­i­ty will gen­er­ate so much wealth that the ben­e­fits will “trick­le down” to the mid­dle class and the poor, who will then gen­er­ate more tax rev­enue. It all pre­sumed that the rich are the “cre­ative” com­po­nent of the econ­o­my. It was bull­shit, of course. In the econ­o­my of a coun­try like Unit­ed States or Cana­da, new enter­pris­es and wealth have always been cre­at­ed by peo­ple with­out mon­ey, who are try­ing to make some, not by those who were already rich. It is the num­ber of bur­dens and restric­tions on those peo­ple, the strug­gling have-nots, that deter­mines whether new wealth will be gen­er­at­ed. Invest­ment in new enter­pris­es by rich peo­ple plays lit­tle part in the suc­cess of these enter­pris­es ― the bulk of invest­ment cap­i­tal comes from pen­sion funds, bank deposits, and var­i­ous forms of pooled sav­ings gen­er­at­ed by peo­ple of mod­est means.

At the height of the “Reaganomics” fol­ly, use­ful gov­ern­ment ser­vices were cut back, while use­less ones were pre­served, and eco­nom­i­cal­ly destruc­tive mil­i­tary spend­ing was increased. Since tax­es on the wealthy were cut back, every­one else took up a heav­ier tax bur­den, and it was pre­cise­ly these peo­ple, the ones who actu­al­ly pro­duce new enter­pris­es and new wealth, who were sti­fled. The rich did not invest their wind­fall of cash in new enter­pris­es at all. Instead, they did what the rich always pre­fer to do: they export­ed their cap­i­tal to oth­er coun­tries, ploughed it into estab­lished and pro­tect­ed busi­ness, or spent it on real estate. No amount of buy­ing real estate gen­er­ates new wealth. It mere­ly gen­er­ates emp­ty spec­u­la­tive bub­bles. Neo-Con­ser­v­a­tive dog­ma also man­dat­ed infi­nite­ly expand­ing spend­ing on the mil­i­tary. This is an eco­nom­ic dead end that fur­ther exports cap­i­tal, or turns it into fire­crack­ers. These trends could only cre­ate mas­sive debts and par­a­lyze eco­nom­ic cre­ativ­i­ty. The occa­sion­al tech­ni­cal spin­off from mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy does not come close to off­set­ting these los­es. These results have, in fact, come to pass in the Unit­ed States, a sad jour­ney to bank­rupt­cy that can be chart­ed in a spec­tac­u­lar upward arrow of nation­al debt, start­ing in Rea­gan’s first term. If you don’t care for charts, you can just look out the win­dow, and learn the same thing.

Under­ly­ing all this eco­nom­ic dis­as­ter was the notion that those who have received and accu­mu­lat­ed wealth must, ipso fac­to, be the peo­ple who cre­at­ed it. Now, it is some­times true, in par­tic­u­lar cas­es, that indi­vid­ual wealth can be traced to cre­ative enter­prise in the per­son who has it, but the bulk of great wealth in the Unit­ed States and Cana­da has been accu­mu­lat­ed through hold­ing cor­po­ra­tions and oth­er eco­nom­ic mech­a­nisms by which already exist­ing enter­pris­es are bought up (and some­times gut­ted and ruined), Increas­ing­ly, they just come from hand­outs from the tax­pay­er ― like the thir­ty bil­lion dol­lars in sub­si­dies giv­en to six sug­ar indus­try fam­i­lies in Flori­da, quid-pro-noth­ing. The tax­a­tion and bank­ing sys­tems are rigged to force the inven­tors and cre­ators of new enter­pris­es to hand them over to hold­ing cor­po­ra­tions, which per­form no func­tion oth­er than to own them, and divert prof­its to their key share­hold­ers. These share­hold­ers are, by and large, already wealthy fam­i­lies, who pre­served their wealth over gen­er­a­tions through trust funds, foun­da­tions, and oth­er legal devices not avail­able to small­er prop­er­ty own­ers. They hire pro­fes­sion­al man­agers to man­age the process. There is a minor cre­ative com­po­nent ― some par­tic­u­lar con­fig­u­ra­tions of these accu­mu­lat­ed enter­pris­es work bet­ter than oth­ers ― but for the last half cen­tu­ry it has been quite rare for any­one who cre­at­ed a new prod­uct, or devel­oped a new process, or invent­ed some­thing, or built an enter­prise from scratch, to retain con­trol or own­er­ship of it past its ini­tial stages. Banks, for exam­ple, start pres­sur­ing entre­pre­neurs to relin­quish con­trol the sec­ond their enter­pris­es start to show a prof­it, usu­al­ly suc­ceed­ing to oust them at the point were invest­ment cap­i­tal is crit­i­cal. Tax­a­tion is, and has always been, set up to favour large hold­ings over small enter­prise. Val­ue Added tax­es, for exam­ple, always pop­u­lar with estab­lished pow­er, auto­mat­i­cal­ly ben­e­fit exist­ing large enter­pris­es, since small enter­pris­es must depend on a greater per­cent­age of exter­nal trans­ac­tions. This, and hun­dreds of oth­er sub­tle pres­sures, act to shove the results of cre­ative enter­prise into the hands of a wealthy minor­i­ty who can­not, by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion, be described as the “engine” or the “cre­ative force” of wealth. These process­es have noth­ing to do with the oper­a­tions of a free mar­ket. They are invari­ably deter­mined by law, and by gov­ern­ment policy.

Such prac­tices are not exclu­sive to an indus­tri­al econ­o­my or the prod­uct of “moder­ni­ty”. Among native cul­tures of the Amer­i­c­as, for exam­ple, there is a long his­to­ry of long-dis­tance trade. This trade depend­ed on the dis­cov­ery and main­te­nance of trade routes, which was often the result of the indi­vid­ual enter­prise of ambi­tious explor­ers, who would risk life and limb to map out and estab­lish them. This risky and dif­fi­cult activ­i­ty was open to any­one, and, in the­o­ry, much of the result­ing prof­its would come to the entre­pre­neur. But most of the soci­eties that engaged in this type of trade were divid­ed into clans. These clans were, in the­o­ry, sup­posed to be equal enti­ties, but there were ways of manip­u­lat­ing the exist­ing cer­e­mo­ni­al, reli­gious, and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions to accu­mu­late pres­tige and spe­cial pow­ers in favoured clans. These clan-based soci­eties had pro­to-demo­c­ra­t­ic con­cil­iar gov­ern­ment, but the pos­ses­sion of sacred bun­dles or totems, gains and loss­es in war, and accu­mu­lat­ed polit­i­cal pay­offs pre­sent­ed open­ings for assert­ing an aris­to­crat­ic or favoured sta­tus. The lead­ing fig­ures in these pre­ferred clans rarely under­took to cre­ate new trade routes them­selves, but they had a way of accu­mu­lat­ing own­er­ship of them. Entre­pre­neurs would face rit­u­al and cer­e­mo­ni­al demands, need spe­cial per­mis­sions or face harass­ment through the coun­cils, need loans, go bank­rupt, and so on. Soon­er or lat­er, all the trade routes and their prof­its would belong to the pre-emi­nent clan, which had done noth­ing to cre­ate them. Dur­ing the peri­ods when tribes cre­at­ed new wealth, explored and devel­oped new trade routes and link­ages, the work was done large­ly by entre­pre­neurs in low-pres­tige clans, but dur­ing the peri­ods of eco­nom­ic decline, it was usu­al­ly sewn up in the pow­er of a sin­gle clan, or a sin­gle fam­i­ly. If you asked the head of that clan who had “made” the wealth, you can be pret­ty sure of what answer you would get, and pret­ty sure that it was wrong.

This is a pat­tern that would be famil­iar to a cit­i­zen of Detroit, or 19th cen­tu­ry Man­ches­ter, or any “one-indus­try town” that went into pre­cip­i­tous decline after its brief day in the sun. Exam­ples of this process can be found every­where from Medieval Europe to Com­mu­nist Chi­na, from head­hunt­ing vil­lages in remote jun­gles to cor­po­rate board­rooms in New York. Elites do it when­ev­er they can get away with it, in any place and any time, and the same mis-iden­ti­fic­tion of the “cre­ative ele­ment” can expected,

I’ve been led to reflect on this dur­ing my recent read­ing. His­to­ri­ans and archae­ol­o­gists are try­ing to imag­ine how agri­cul­ture orig­i­nat­ed, and how it spread. The archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence, of course, is only use­ful if inter­pret­ed, and the inter­pre­ta­tions depend on ideas of what sort of thing caus­es what, of how soci­eties, and economies work in gen­er­al. I find the prob­lem very inter­est­ing, because these very abstract ideas appear in the raw, so to speak. There are so few facts ― most­ly assem­blages of site mate­ri­als, our ever-chang­ing knowl­edge of ani­mal and plant biol­o­gy, cli­mate his­to­ry, and com­pet­ing the­o­ries of pop­u­la­tion dynam­ics and ecol­o­gy. This is not the sort of thing you can solve by find­ing a chron­i­cle in a monastery.

What strikes me is that most of the the­o­riz­ing seems to fol­low one or anoth­er, or some­times a fusion, of these two ver­sions of the Emper­or Josef Wrote Don Gio­van­ni Syn­drome. It appears to be accept­ed, with­out any skep­ti­cism, by most the­o­reti­cians on the sub­ject, that elite pow­er of some sort was the source of ancient inno­va­tions. This is an old shib­bo­leth. Cities were “cre­at­ed” by tem­ple elites and kings. Agri­cul­ture was “made pos­si­ble” by social strat­i­fi­ca­tion. In fact, a maze of intel­lec­tu­al con­struc­tions have depend­ed, ever since the days of Gor­don Childe, on defin­ing “social com­plex­i­ty” as the pres­ence of ranked priv­iledge and pow­er. The scheme of an inevitable “evo­lu­tion­ary process” in which progress is deter­mined by the appear­ance of pow­er­ful chief­tains, priest­hoods, and then kings and mper­ors, was tak­en to be the very essence of civ­i­liza­tion. The the­o­ret­i­cal land­scape is still dom­i­nat­ed by squab­bles about exact­ly how this “com­plex­i­ty” comes into being, and what abstract forces (cli­mate, pop­u­la­tion pres­sure, reli­gion, “car­ry­ing capac­i­ty”) cre­at­ed the social inequal­i­ty that marks “com­plex­i­ty”. It is sim­ply tak­en for grant­ed, with­out ques­tion, that who­ev­er holds the most wealth or pow­er, has the high­est sta­tus, or com­mands the most fear, must be respon­si­ble for tech­no­log­i­cal change, the intro­duc­tion of new lifestyles, any increase in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, or any­thing per­ceived as an advance. This is our old friend Emper­or Josef, again.

I’m pleased that there is start­ing to be some small, ten­ta­tive steps towards rec­og­niz­ing the impor­tance of trade in such his­tor­i­cal events as the domes­ti­ca­tion of ani­mals and plants, the devel­op­ment of vil­lage life, the spread of agri­cul­ture from region to region, and the devel­op­ment of the first cities. His­to­ri­ans began by imag­in­ing that trade didn’t even exist in ancient times, that it was some­thing that devel­oped late human his­to­ry. Grad­u­al­ly, they were forced by accu­mu­lat­ed evi­dence to acknowl­edge that it exist­ed in ancient civ­i­liza­tions, then in ear­ly urban cen­ters, then in ear­ly vil­lage life, and even in non-seden­tary life, though they squirmed con­stant­ly to rede­fine it or qual­i­fy it in some way that made it appear less “com­mer­cial” when­ev­er they could. I have nev­er felt such dis­com­fort. I begin with the assump­tion that trade is built into human cul­ture from its ear­li­est stages. In fact, I see trade as prob­a­bly being the activ­i­ty that brought about many of the changes that have been attrib­uted to “com­plex­i­ty”. I see domes­ti­ca­tion, vil­lage life, urban­iza­tion, and changes in tech­nol­o­gy as side-effects of trade ― a cumu­la­tive chain of cau­sa­tion link­ing social and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments with trad­ing activ­i­ty, going back into the dimmest recess­es of time. I see trade as an essen­tial­ly co-oper­a­tive activ­i­ty, close­ly linked to the same psy­chol­o­gy that pro­duces egal­i­tar­i­an polit­i­cal institutions.

Some few the­o­reti­cians do, nowa­days, see a role for trade in these ques­tions, but unfor­tu­nate­ly, they seem to approach it from the Emper­or Josef point of view, and try to fig­ure out how social inequal­i­ty caus­es trade, or trade depends on inequal­i­ty. When­ev­er archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence sug­gests a cor­re­la­tion, the wrong causal direc­tion is inferred. Because pres­tige buri­als appear in agri­cul­tur­al vil­lages, it is assumed that the skele­tons in those pres­tige buri­als must have been the deter­mi­nants, the cause, the cre­ators of agri­cul­ture, just as in ear­li­er con­tro­ver­sies about the for­ma­tion of cities in Mesopotamia, it was assumed the priests in the tem­ples must have cre­at­ed urban­ism. In fact, I think we can bet­ter hypoth­e­size, and that we will even­tu­al­ly demon­strate clear­ly, that trade cre­at­ed the vil­lages, cre­at­ed agri­cul­ture, cre­at­ed pas­toral­ism, cre­at­ed the ear­ly cities ― and that the Chiefs and Big Men, and the Tem­ples and the Priests and the Kings were all, at var­i­ous times, non-cre­ative and non-pro­duc­tive phe­nom­e­na that exploit­ed open­ings and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in those communities.

The error of inverse causal­i­ty is sim­i­lar to some­one con­clud­ing that, since the pres­ence of cars in any soci­ety is always accom­pa­nied by the pres­ence of car theft, then it must be car thieves who invent­ed cars.

The pres­ence of social rank­ing in a soci­ety does not con­sti­tute “com­plex­i­ty”. It is, on the con­trary, a gross over-sim­pli­ca­tion of some­thing pre­vi­ous­ly com­plex. It is the main­te­nance of social equal­i­ty that requires social com­plex­i­ty, in the form of checks and bal­ances, divi­sions of pow­er, insti­tu­tions of con­sul­ta­tion, com­pro­mise and con­sent. When this true com­plex­i­ty breaks down, a much crud­er, less sophis­ti­cat­ed form of social orga­ni­za­tion replaces it: a big tough guy makes you do stuff, and if you don’t do it, he hits you or kills you. There is absolute­ly no evi­dence that such big tough guys are pro­duc­ers of wealth, inno­va­tions, or “evo­lu­tion­ary” advances in any­thing. Their grave mounds or pyra­mids or tem­ples are not proof that they pro­duced any­thing. They are mere­ly evi­dence that the soci­eties in ques­tion pos­sessed some­thing worth steal­ing, and failed to pre­vent it from being stolen.

If we look at the archae­o­log­i­cal record of Uruk, the first known city, we see it begin­ning with a rapid increase in pop­u­la­tion, accom­pa­nied by evi­dence of extreme­ly active long-dis­tance trade. This con­cen­trates in one point, the city, clear­ly placed in a place ide­al for the con­junc­tion of trade from four direc­tions, each access­ing dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent prod­ucts. It is sur­round­ed by a net­work of pros­per­ous ham­lets and indi­vid­ual land­hold­ings, and inter­acts intense­ly with tran­shu­mant spe­cial­ists who move in and out. Mod­est tem­ples are attend­ed with offer­ings of fish, the ini­tial sta­ple of the region, but the city is pro­duc­ing tex­tiles for export. Agri­cul­ture is rapid­ly expand­ing, based on a sys­tem of irri­ga­tion man­aged by local com­mit­tees and coun­cils, of which we have clear evi­dence. The city itself has a council.

Then, in a very rapid alter­ation, the tem­ple turns into an immense­ly wealthy orga­ni­za­tion, domes­tic man­u­fac­ture of tex­tiles is replaced by tem­ple pro­duc­tion based on slave labour, and large chunks of land are con­vert­ed to a dif­fer­ent, more cen­tral­ized form of irri­ga­tion, one pos­si­ble only when the land is assigned to share­crop­pers and depen­dents, admin­is­tered by a bureau­cra­cy. Kings and nobil­i­ty appear, sub­vert­ing and dis­man­tling the city coun­cil. There is an orgy of war­fare, and con­struc­tion of palaces and expand­ed tem­ple buildings.

In a very short time after this meta­mor­pho­sis, the web of out­ly­ing vil­lages col­laps­es, and the coun­try­side rapid­ly depop­u­lates. The pop­u­la­tion of the city briefly swells, as peo­ple seek refuge from the eco­nom­i­cal­ly dead coun­try­side. Unem­ployed mobs riot, the aris­toc­ra­cy cracks down. Tech­ni­cal man­age­ment van­ish­es. The irri­ga­tion sys­tems dis­in­te­grate. Food van­ish­es. The social sys­tem col­laps­es. The pop­u­la­tion flees, and the city shriv­els into a pile of dust. The Mesopotami­an plain is cov­ered with hun­dreds of piles of dust. George Bush, Hal­ibur­ton, and Com­pa­ny are cur­rent­ly cre­at­ing some new ones.

What we see here is not social hier­ar­chy cre­at­ing a city, but the crude over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of hier­ar­chy destroy­ing a city that was cre­at­ed by the far more sophis­ti­cat­ed and com­plex process of social equality.

Again and again, this process of com­plex equal­i­ty being destroyed by crude inequal­i­ty would be repeat­ed. Urban civ­i­liza­tions would go through it every time the pro­duc­tive efforts of ordi­nary peo­ple pro­duced some­thing worth stealing.

I think we will even­tu­al­ly come to the con­clu­sion that this strug­gle between the pro­duc­ers and the thieves is ongo­ing, char­ac­ter­is­tic of all soci­eties at all times. The egal­i­tar­i­an hunter-gath­er­er soci­eties of pre­his­to­ry were not unchal­lenged by hier­ar­chi­cal pre­da­tion. The chal­lenge always exist­ed, but there were long stretch­es of stand­off in the per­ma­nent cold-war. [see Sixth Med­i­ta­tion on Democ­ra­cy]. How­ev­er, each inno­va­tion ― fish­ing tech­niques, new lux­u­ry goods, met­al­lur­gy, hor­ti­cul­ture, ani­mal hus­bandry, arbori­cul­ture, vini­cul­ture, domes­ti­ca­tion, dehe­sas; new cer­e­mo­ni­al and reli­gious prac­tices ― opened up a new angle, a new oppor­tu­ni­ty for pow­er seek­ers to exploit, which had to be coun­tered by some egal­i­tar­i­an strat­e­gy. Dis­as­ters, dis­ease, cli­mate change, migra­tions had the same effect. When­ev­er some­thing changes, there will be some­body up there in a flash, explain­ing con­vinc­ing­ly why you now need to start tak­ing orders. There’s always a Patri­ot Act lurk­ing around the cor­ner. I sus­pect that the wave of changes that took place in the mil­len­nia start­ing in the Mesolith­ic, and pro­ceed­ing through antiq­ui­ty, rep­re­sent an era when egal­i­tar­i­an respons­es could not keep up with hier­ar­chi­cal challenges.

This is quite anal­o­gous to our bio­log­i­cal rela­tion­ship to infec­tious dis­ease. Some infec­tious dis­eases are known as “DDDs” (Den­si­ty Depen­dent Dis­eases), because they can­not sus­tain infec­tions out­side of dense pop­u­la­tions. His­tor­i­cal­ly, when we have sought the eco­nom­ic and social advan­tages of crowd­ed cities, we have simul­ta­ne­ous­ly made our­selves more vul­ner­a­ble to such dis­eases, to which we have much less evo­lu­tion­ary expe­ri­ence. From the time that we first cre­at­ed cities, until we final­ly devel­oped effec­tive strate­gies against dis­ease, a cen­tu­ry ago, we paid a heavy price in mor­tal­i­ty and suf­fer­ing for the ben­e­fits of city life.

Vil­lage life, agri­cul­ture, cities, brought new wealth and new com­forts, but they opened up new vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, as well. Grow crops, and a king needs only a small army to screw you up at har­vest time. Best cut a deal and let him “pro­tect” you, for a price. What hap­pened to the vil­lage coun­cil? Oh, now it’s the King’s coun­cil. Where’s the lit­tle tem­ple where grand-dad went to make an offer­ing, rejoic­ing at the boun­ti­ful har­vest on his plot of land? Now it’s a big tem­ple, and half the har­vest is tak­en, not giv­en, and the plot of land ain’t yours, it’s theirs. New ploys, new scams, new demands, com­ing faster than the old pro­tec­tive strate­gies can deal with, cul­mi­nat­ing in the bru­tal slave empires of antiq­ui­ty. We have only very slow­ly devel­oped appro­pri­ate counter-mea­sures, and those only par­tial­ly effec­tive. But we should not make the error of assum­ing that, because aris­toc­ra­cy, monar­chy, and tyran­ny held sway for cen­turies, that they were cre­ative forces. They are no more “respon­si­ble” for cre­at­ing civ­i­liza­tion than dis­ease is respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing cities. To assume so is to lose sight of exact­ly who it was who com­posed Don Giovanni.

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