The Great Machine III: The Widening Gyre

[ Editor’s Note: 8.6.09:- I have only just got around to answering questions by Eithin, posed below, about where my source data and civilisation models come from. I have replied in two parts below, but want to include the basic details here.

The Emergence of Civilisation, Charles Maisels 1990
Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, Michael Roaf, 1990 ]

One can tell that the Great Machine series were not planned that way because this would probably have been post one, if they had been. However, I should be able to fix that by offering a different reading order on the Series page.

As an illustration of a point I was making about ideology, I discussed in detail why both ‘capital’ and ‘capitalism’ do not necessarily mean what you think they mean. The functional definition of ‘capital’ that I arrived at is “accumulations of unused wealth”; implying that capitalism is any social system in which it is possible to accumulate and defend unexploited wealth. In the same article I also posed the question “What is it that statist/hierarchical systems are good for?”


First Principles

The earliest record of unused wealth being accumulated under one controlling will is the evolution of cities. Anywhere archeology finds a city, there you have found proto-capitalism, because one of the things that’s true about cities is you can’t have one unless someone outside the city is feeding you. Anyone living in the city has to get fed; they can’t grow it themselves, so they have to get it from someone else who grows it. The earliest model for this process went like this.

Feller who’s really good with a spear rounds up some lads, and goes out to all the local farms saying “If you give me some of your food I won’t burn your farm down”. Some of them refuse, so he burns their farms. This provides him with a nice source of displaced people he can suggest immigrate to his city, where he will feed them.

He stores and protects this resource of food; it is now unused wealth, or capital. He employs it to feed immigrants to his city. He now has a base of lads who can provide him with an army: supported by craftsmen (like smiths) who can upgrade the weaponry. He only has any of this for as long as he keeps feeding the people in his city: but that’s okay, because he has hit upon the method for accumulating capital.

All he needs to do now to be successful is keep expanding. The more capital he can concentrate, the more expansion he can afford. The more people out in the hinterland look to him for protection and pay him their tithes, the more people he can support in his city and the higher the level of civic and technological development he can afford. And by the law of large numbers, the higher the level of skim he can keep to raise his personal lifestyle with. That’s commonly known as “the profit motive“.

He started out as a nomad (because we’re only just inventing cities) so he’s good with horses. He sends some lads out in each direction to repeat the process a bit further away and bring back more food, which accumulates (more unused wealth) and is then used to finance more lads, who go a bit further. Eventually, his lads meet some lads coming the other way from the next city over, and thus is competition introduced to the proto-capitalist’s world. What happens then is either blood or gold. More typically it’s both in that order.

In a low-bandwidth society it takes a while to get taxation systems properly sorted out and operating effectively. In fact, to get them working well it takes writing. So roll on through several millennia of trial and (mostly!) error until the Sumerians and the Egyptians (and, a bit later, the Chinese) get involved. They streamline the process because they fix some of the comms issues and, most importantly, systematise the record-keeping function at new levels. But still, what you see happening is the same as the Anatolian city-muggers. Wealth that is being produced at the edge of society is concentrated towards the middle until there is so damn much of it that you end up building pyramids with it. That is the origin of capital accumulation: early taxation models. They permitted for the first time the accumulation of unused wealth, which is a concept pretty much alien to any pre-urban civilisation [1]. So the first controversial conclusion is this: taxation is the origin of capital accumulation, and therefore of capitalism.

The first thing you’ll want to notice here is the reciprocal nature of this process. In order for our proto-capitalist, or ‘king’, to accumulate capital, lots of other people each need to have less than they had before he came along. [2] There is no other way for a first-time capitalist to accumulate capital. He can only do so by taking it from a large number of other people. If he’s a long-term thinker, he does this in sufficiently small amounts each that they can still be alive to farm next season; but from sufficiently large numbers of people that he is able to usefully store wealth he does not need to survive the winter (or dry season, or whatever).

Our proto-capitalist has created relative wealth for the first time.


[1] Observe how our assumptions are embedded in our language. Our very word for ‘appropriately behaving humans’ actually means ‘people who live in cities’: therefore, people whose system of organisation involves the accumulation of capital reserves by definition. Isn’t that interesting? It’s like the words ‘policeman’ and ‘politician’ …

[2] The second thing you’ll want to notice is that our proto-capitalists, by developing the ability to accumulate and maintain unused wealth, have also created the need for inheritance law. Relative wealth, indeed…

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Great Machine III: The Widening Gyre

  1. Mark

    OK…
    I think I shall reserve my comments for a later edition.

  2. I disagree with your concept of unused wealth. In your first example, “He stores and protects this resource of food; it is now unused wealth, or capital.”, it’s working damn hard – it’s there as insurance, psychological reassurance, and conspicuous evidence of competence at leveraging economies of scale.

    I’d argue that capital accumulation doesn’t originate with taxation, but just with common sense; the first- and second-stage societies you’re talking about, before the switch to stratified capital-intensive chiefdoms, are generally considered to number about 100 people and up to a few thousand people, respectively. (The divisions were codified by Elman Service, and tweaked a bit since.) So within those groups, there’s plenty of space for equal give and take – you’ve got a bit more in one season, I’ve got a bit more the next, Khalid across the way makes better tools but Ping makes damn good beer. Capital isn’t necessarily stuff whose only function is to be stockpiled for trade, just the accumulation of enough stuff that you can trade or give away (or be taxed) some of it and not suffer unduly.

    So accumulating enough stuff so that you can trade for all your needs, and become a crafts specialist (or a ritual specialist – which often correlates with being a ruler) instead of a subsistence farmer with a sideline, is a natural development. It also requires accumulating enough trade partners, but that’s a natural process for any group with access to resources and the opposite sex.

    Taxation isn’t an idea ab initio, just a natural extension of the dynamic imbalances you get from any trading economy, and the need for middlemen once your pool of potential trade partners grows above a certain number and geographic area.

    This isn’t to say I reject your Anatolian mugger theory – in fact, we have plenty of evidence that that sort of thing did happen – but I don’t think that they were the first to leverage imbalances and economies of scale.

    • johnqpublican

      I disagree with your concept of unused wealth. In your first example, “He stores and protects this resource of food; it is now unused wealth, or capital.”, it’s working damn hard – it’s there as insurance, psychological reassurance, and conspicuous evidence of competence at leveraging economies of scale.

      Take your analysis back one step. The reason I mentioned, in the initial discussion here, that Western readers will find this hard to understand is precisely this problem.

      You cannot store food, or generate wealth that is not immediately being consumed, in a subsistence agricultural society. Seriously. Why do you think the African famines in the 1980s were so bad? They’d all been well educated in market capitalism by the British occupying governments, they should have known how to manage such things. But they couldn’t, because their economies at the end of the Colonial era were, for the vast part, subsistence agricultural and muscle-powered; and they still were in the 80s.

      I lived through those famines. No-one had the reserves to deal with more than one bad harvest, and most didn’t have that. What they got was four harvests that weren’t just bad, they were absent altogether. People didn’t live without reserves because they were stupid; they didn’t have reserves because they had no economic capacity or opportunity to either build them up or to protect them from external interference if they did.

      That kind of thing happens at absolute minimum every 30 years. Food, even well-kept, spoils in at most 7 months. Who’s ever going to have a surplus if they try to build it incrementally? Who’s ever going to even think about trying to build one, until something changes the environmental variables?

      The only way to create a single-point administration for a stock of stored wealth, that is not currently under consumption; i.e. a surplus in a subsistence economy, is by force. Someone has to come along and make the farmers give up a tithe of their crop every year for seven years, when the cows are fat; that way, during the seven lean years, there is a reserve which can be used to sustain a society, rather than having it fall backwards through die-off and internal strife and banditry.

      During the time in between, the stockpile is unused wealth; that’s an alien concept to the pre-urban subsistence society.

      I’d argue that capital accumulation doesn’t originate with taxation, but just with common sense; the first- and second-stage societies you’re talking about, before the switch to stratified capital-intensive chiefdoms, are generally considered to number about 100 people and up to a few thousand people, respectively.

      The tilt point is considered to be around 300 people; specifically, in mid-Bronze age culture in the Cradle of Humanity, at that bandwidth- and tech-level, you could co-operatively manage a community of about 300 before you had to start enforcing hierarchies to scale any further up.

      The thing that is significant to the current debate, which is about food, is that once you have about 300 people living in one stable [1] and permanent community, at least 50% are unable to farm because (on average) there isn’t enough fertile land within walking distance. One poor harvest, and the other half can’t grow enough food to feed the whole. Half your population then need feeding from somewhere other than the internal production of your micro-economy. Society has neither a conceptual nor an economic model for this; one must be created. So someone sends the lads out… See what I mean?

      Capital isn’t necessarily stuff whose only function is to be stockpiled for trade, just the accumulation of enough stuff that you can trade or give away (or be taxed) some of it and not suffer unduly.

      That’s just comfort. Capital is about what happens to the wealth after it’s been taken away from you, not how well you can survive having it taken away. You’re talking about trade, not capital. I have something, you want it, you have something I want, we trade.

      Capital doesn’t work like that. Capital is: I have a thing I wish to see done. That thing can be build a pyramid; that can be feed some lads for a while to mine gold so I can send the gold to someplace else and get the secret of working iron knives. That can be ‘make me a boat’. That can be ‘make me miles of cloth that I can sell someplace else and bring back salt and leather’. The proto-capitalist can afford to tell people to do it in return for (money, food, not getting their farms burned).

      If the capitalist is smart, the thing they want done enhances trade or civic life: building a city-wall, for example, really seriously enhances civic stability and survival rates. So does stock-piling food for several years so you can feed your city through a duff harvest or a siege. So does financing a guard company to take a caravan of private traders to the next city in safety from the bandits up in the hills. Large-scale irrigation projects are a notable feature of those cities which survive long enough to matter.

      My point from the start was that capitalism begins with cities. Cities, according to the definitions both you and I have apparently read, start when you get an urban confluence of more than 300 people, and in the Cradle of Humanity that happens approximately simultaneously across about 30 sites so far discovered, between about 6,500 BCE and 5,800 BCE.

      The only way to run a city at that tech level is via violent hierarchy; the only way to feed it is by people who don’t live in it sending a part of their wealth inwards: edge of society to centre of society. Those truths produce tax regimes. Tax regimes develop the first accumulations of capital wealth. Thus, tax is the origin of capitalism.

      Taxation isn’t an idea ab initio, just a natural extension of the dynamic imbalances you get from any trading economy,

      Er, no. Tax is when a governing authority takes (note takes: not has donated) money from those governed to support its existence. It is pretty much entirely, from very early to quite recently, concerned with but three things. Early tax regimes support the funding, feeding and equipping of bodies of armed men, since the primary service provided by governance in this era was civil defense and law enforcement; at this tech level, both require standing bodies of armed men, or at least regular mercenaries you can trust. Tax is indeed an independent concept; it well pre-dates the concept of market trading that you describe here. [3]

      The next step is that tax collection + writing = bureaucracy, which also has to be fed. Over time it becomes apparent that you have just raised the bandwidth-level of your society, and so if you’re effective, you start exercising hegemonic control at a larger scale.

      The step that has to come first, to get out of ‘everyone has what they eat and what they make, with limited barter’ level of economy and up to the ‘we can support urban populations which are able to accelerate information flow and therefore society by concentrating knowledge and supporting specialisation’, is that someone has to force a lot of people to give up a little bit so that the people who are his problem can be fed and protected.

      It won’t happen organically, because no-one, and I do mean no-one, at that social level cares about too much beyond survival. That’s what subsistence means. For Britain, the last time we were operating at that tech level was circa 650CE and even then we knew what civilisation and cities looked like, if only by myth and ruin, and we were already monetarised to a limited extent. Realistically, we were last at pre-capitalist tech levels circa 3k BCE, when we started raising megalithic complexes rather than solitary stones, wood circles and cursues.

      We’ve had a long time to forget what subsistence looks and smells like, and thus our economic analyses tend to ignore the question of where the first wealth concentrations came from, and how they were created. I’m unwilling to do that.

      [1] A note here, pimarily not aimed at you, since you seem reasonably read in the development process of CoH civilisations. The confusing factor in reading city development in Mesopotamia and Anatolya is that in both regions there were “cities” for some period in nomadic times. They were the great camps at major oases, fords and other trade-route junctions. Their populations were unstable and constantly changing, and there was no need for external food support because no-one actually lived there long enough to run out of the food they brought with them [2].

      The thing that changes in the 7th millenium BCE is that some such places, and several places that weren’t like that, grow permanent, solid-house settlements which rapidly trend towards the 500-5,000 inhabitant mark. These mostly seem to be mechanically planned (in clear, approximately even plot grids much like an American city) and most see their first wall constructed when they’re at about 3-500 people. There are usually several later walls, enclosing larger areas of ‘city’.

      [2] One of these survives today in unbroken occupation; it is now an adobe ant-hill of a city sticking out of a flat plain of sand in the Ahaggar. Tamanrasset is a phenomenal, beautiful, ancient and very very smelly place; and the area around it is pretty much carpeted in camels, pretty much all the time. Wiki says it has an airport now, which I’m fairly sure it didn’t when I was there twenty years ago.

      [3] And yet, in another way, it does not: nomadic trade-cities implement a market considerably freer than anything you get after cities develop, partly because until the stable cities develop no-one has invented tax. The concept of property doesn’t include the ground yet, except by the ‘I’m currently using it’ test: so no-one has the ‘right’ to charge tariffs.

      • Mm, given those definitional explanations I’m less inclined to argue. (Though I’d still maintain that you’re talking about socioeconomic power, not “capital” per se. Obviously, the distinction is rather a fine one.) However, I am going to nitpick a few points slightly at random.

        The tilt point is considered to be around 300 people; specifically, in mid-Bronze age culture in the Cradle of Humanity, at that bandwidth- and tech-level, you could co-operatively manage a community of about 300 before you had to start enforcing hierarchies to scale any further up.

        On the other hand, I’m wondering whether the difference in some of our definitions is down to the historian/archaeologist split – the numbers I quoted for first- and second-stage civilizations came from my copy of Renfrew & Bahn. Do you have a link handy for yours? (I’m not disputing, just wondering about associated axioms. In particular, archaeologists don’t use the term “city” until we get to something much larger.)

        It won’t happen organically, because no-one, and I do mean no-one, at that social level cares about too much beyond survival. That’s what subsistence means. For Britain, the last time we were operating at that tech level was circa 650CE and even then we knew what civilisation and cities looked like, if only by myth and ruin, and we were already monetarised to a limited extent.

        I think you’re begging the question there, because everyone who does get to a social level where they can care about something beyond survival is no longer a subsistence farmer. (Whether they get there by bootstrapping themselves through seven really lucky years, or through envying and imitating neighbours.) I agree that your thug mechanism is plausible, and that it’s supported in some instances by evidence – I don’t believe that we have enough evidence to support that model and only that model. I also can’t agree with your assertion that violence is the only possible mechanism, but that might just be a fundamental difference between us.

        • johnqpublican

          On the other hand, I’m wondering whether the difference in some of our definitions is down to the historian/archaeologist split – the numbers I quoted for first- and second-stage civilizations came from my copy of Renfrew & Bahn. Do you have a link handy for yours? (I’m not disputing, just wondering about associated axioms. In particular, archaeologists don’t use the term “city” until we get to something much larger.)

          You’re right that I’m not an archaeologist but I live with one: when I asked him ‘Which of your books do I need to check these numbers in’ he gave me one and I’ll post the details when I get home from work. As far as I’m aware, the use of the term ‘city’ is contentious but acceptable, at that period, for anything with a wall, a temple and evidence of sufficient housing plots to support an urban population of between three and five thousand people.

          I think you’re begging the question there, because everyone who does get to a social level where they can care about something beyond survival is no longer a subsistence farmer. (Whether they get there by bootstrapping themselves through seven really lucky years, or through envying and imitating neighbours.)

          Whereas I think you’re ignoring the answer because you come from a society which doesn’t remember what subsistence agriculture looks like. You can’t do this in seven years. You could today, but that’s because speed of societal and technological change is accelerated by higher bandwidth.

          It would take several generations to achieve what we’re talking about, not seven years. If society substantially changes, or tech levels do, across an area the size of Britain in a century, that would be rapid dissemination of change at these tech levels. The earlier you go, the longer your proto-polity has to be maintained with a single purpose to achieve anything.

          I agree that your thug mechanism is plausible, and that it’s supported in some instances by evidence – I don’t believe that we have enough evidence to support that model and only that model.

          I would be interested in seeing evidence of a non-hierarchical culture which develops urban civilisation and is able to scale as effectively to the level of, say, Middle Kingdom Egypt, at equivalent bandwidth levels. I do not know of any. As I noted in my comment about the Icelandic Confederates, they found a balance of societal bandwidth with social cohesion with geographical scale which allowed them to decentralise from monarchy to confederacy. But as soon as they got into direct competition with a centralised society which had therefore scaled considerably further, they lost.

          I also can’t agree with your assertion that violence is the only possible mechanism, but that might just be a fundamental difference between us.

          I am afraid I can see this only as a statement of ideological bias on your part?

          I am not interested in the theoretical merits of violence over non-violence. I massively prefer non-violence. I also massively prefer non-hierarchy. I was born in an era of relatively high-bandwidth society and I have a very high education level: these things are the predicators for being able to think like you and I do. One has to be supported by an immensely wealth society to permit that kind of philosophical squeamishness.

          What I’m interested in is the question I posed: given that every successfully scaling civilisation in history (that I know of) has been hierarchical, centralised, violent and urbanising (and literate), what is it that capitalist societies of that type were better at than all of the competing societies which failed? Every time decentralised has met centralised, they’ve lost. Every time pacific has met violent, they’ve lost (viz. the settlement of the East coast of America, where most of the indigenous tribes were remarkably pacific by comparison with their western and plains cousins).

          What we see in the history of our species is that violence has played approximately the same role in every successfully scaling, low-bandwidth society. From that, I deduce certain things, including that hierarchy cannot be enforced without violence, and that since hierarchy is good for low-bandwidth scaling, violence comes with that.

          I’m not speaking in defense of violence; quite the reverse. I’m explaining why pacifism has always failed before today. This entire series is about why violent hierarchies are now something humanity might be able to get beyond. I’m trying to argue that we no longer need to think like that, and that permitting such patterns of thought to be perpetuated is not only stupid, but that it will result in civilisation failure as new social models begin to out-perform the statist/hierarchical/capitalist one. Partly because they’ll be less violent.

        • johnqpublican

          the numbers I quoted for first- and second-stage civilizations came from my copy of Renfrew & Bahn.

          I was using Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, Michael Roaf 1990. It’s also worth noting that Roaf defines cities as starting at the point when the urban centres broke 5k and began to expand in a modular fashion, which is circa 4kBCE (so 6k years ago). Prior to that he calls them towns; you were right, I was using the term too early. It’s noteworthy that several of the settlements in question are of course the same places in both eras, continuously developing; which both explains my thinking and nicely illustrates the point of how long your hierarchy needs to survive to pay off.

          I agree that your thug mechanism is plausible, and that it’s supported in some instances by evidence – I don’t believe that we have enough evidence to support that model and only that model.

          There was another book I couldn’t find to reference, which had a useful chart and accompanying data tables which listed three development models for urban/city-state cultures in the period in question. Of three models, one did, as you suggest, see kings/war-chiefs developing after, rather than before, urbanisation. The note I would make there is that it still developed, suggesting that my model for how to scale a polity at low bandwidth levels is still viable.

          I’m pressed for time at work atm but will continue when able.

        • johnqpublican

          The book with the models of civilisation development is Emergence of Civilisation, C.K. Maisels, 1990.

  3. Mark

    If food only lasts seven months without spoiling, the only effective way to protect against famine is international trade.
    Sorry, international trade and freezers.

    • johnqpublican

      Sort of: the other answer is ‘cities’. Management of rich river basins (i.e. scale of political hegemony) is key to development at this time; and with rains -> harvest, then flood -> harvest, you were getting two harvests a year in the areas which succeed early.

      But you’re right; inter-polity trade is the next step. I mention it in GM IV, though I mention it in the context of developing competition and thus market capitalism.

  4. Mark

    continued… so what are the bronze age rulers taxes going to achieve?

    In what sense is threatening people with death in order to make them build a pyramid capitalism?

    • johnqpublican

      All right, let’s take that one apart.

      What the bronze age ruler achieves is a city. Once you’ve got 9 people in the countryside working to provide 1 city dweller’s requirements, and once the city is able to fund an army which can protect that scale of countryside you’re set up for low-tech expansion that will really work. The power of this process is that it is a self-reinforcing system: the better you are at violent hierarchy, the more reserves of unused wealth you have, thus the more you can build and protect and the better you can cohere socially, thus the more you can improve your tech level, thus the better you get at violent hierarchy.

      You can economically support specialisation and technological experimentation. By consolidating a base of such craftspeople, you diminish the bandwidth problems: within your city, ideas travel fast. By establishing hegemonic control, you can spread them faster than the guy who hasn’t done so. With me so far?

      Now look at Egypt circa 5k BCE. Tech levels are still advancing very slowly, for several reasons. Considerably more slowly than Pharaohs are conquering places and people: the Pharoahs with their military hierarchies, and their priestly administrative hierarchy which supported consolidation, were spectactularly good at this process. Conquest brings pillage, actual wealth that was originally created outside of your economy, which belong to the central administrator, and thus become capital reserves. That gives the opportunity to create more cities. Scale comes from hierarchy at this tech level.

      Now, you’re at the centre of this evolving machine. All the money is, ultimately, flowing towards you. Once you expand far enough, once you get the process working on a self-sustaining basis, such that people lower down the chain can expand your territory at their capital risk [1] but you still garner the profits from the times they succeed; then you end up with so much capital wealth flowing to the centre that you start funding pyramids with it just because you can. Also, because it’s a huge symbol of how good you are at hierarchies; and symbols matter. Things like that make people less likely to attack you, because they see your pyramid and they go “Wow! That guy has a huge stele. He clearly is better at violence and hierarchy (and therefore capital accumulation) than me.”

      This is the same reason modern capitalists upgrade their Jaguars and mobiles every year; the same reason why the ultimate status symbol in capital development is still a fucking huge phallic symbol sticking up in the middle of a … city.

      [1] For the archetype of this procedure, the word you want to google is ‘satrapy’, and the people you want to look up are Cyrus II, Darius, and Nabonidas (not necessarily in that order). The Egyptians were good at this, but the Medes and the Persians were bloody proverbial, and some time later.

  5. Mark

    Hmmm… ok.

    I think you`re overstating the role of leaders and underestimating the importance of the societies which they lead.
    While violence is neccesary to protect society, the all too common experience of military leaders achieving disproportionate power is an unfortunate (unavoidable?) problem rather than a neccesary step towards civilisation.

    People in the modern world who, to all extents and purposes are subsistance farmers do engage in voluntary communal activity and trade where possible – often the greatest obstacle towards their development is violent interference rather than some inability to develop independantly or disseminate knowledge.

    • johnqpublican

      And they are being externally boot-strapped. You can’t isolate the fruit from the roots of the tree.