The Great Machine IV: The Centre Cannot Hold

Relative Wealth

At the end of our last episode, our proto-capitalist tax baron has collected enough food from enough places to build an urban settlement, and has in the process created a situation of wealth imbalance: he has more than he needs, everyone else has slightly less but not so much less that they’ll die off.

And in so doing, our proto-capitalist has invented a whole new social problem; underclasses. Eventually, some bright spark always asks himself why the feller in the middle gets to take some of what he worked to create; the answer is lads with swords. The bright spark realises that there’s a lot more farmers than there are people in the city: depending on tech level and hydrogeography the rural population are about 98-80% in pre-industrial societies. [1] So Sparky gets some plough-shares and beats them into swords, but after the revolution he finds himself with a city to feed and they’re all looking at him and the only way to fix that is…

And so you create centralised/hierarchical state models. There’s two ways to run an effective society; educate everyone to the extent that they truly understand both ‘enlightened self-interest’ and ‘your right to swing your fist ends at my nose’, or educate a small number of people in joined-up thinking and then indoctrinate the rest with the principle of taking orders from the few. Humans en masse act like herd animals anyway; guess which of these is easier to implement in a low-bandwidth society? Subsistence farmers really don’t have time to screw around with theoretical models of governance.

Once they’ve figured out boats, these groupings of proto-capitalists start getting involved in serious trading with each other. Once you start that process, you also initiate capital competition; different capital reserve administrators start competing with each other directly, and thus you invent market capitalism. It’s intrinsically statist, because no-one who doesn’t have a hierarchical, violence-maintained state can hold together long enough to be a competitor. What determines who wins?

What do you know? How fast do you learn?

In any given civilisation conflict, a variety of factors. Look at the differences between what happened to Attic Greece during the bronze age, compared with what happened when the Medes and the Persians met Leonidas and his lads, with the career of Alexander with Genghiz Khan. Numbers make a difference, efficiency of hierarchy makes a difference, speed of movement makes a difference, geography makes a huge difference, but in the long run a pattern does emerge.

From fairly early on the determinant seems to be ‘the guy who can write’. Why? Because centralised capital hierarchies which have writing can disseminate any good idea that is had in any part of their hegemony faster and more accurately than a pre-literate competitor can. The idea of iron-working, for example gets to the capitalist; the capitalist says “That’s a good idea! I shall tell all my bronze smiths to start learning about iron. I can spread the word fast, because I have writing; I can ensure the technique is accurately reproduced, because I have writing. I can afford it, because I have capital. Everyone will do what they’re told because I have an army.” The idea spreads throughout your political hegemony. The guy over the hill is still only making iron knives for one village.

Time and again, from Mesopotamia and Europe through the meso-American civilisations, from the Parsees and the Kyrgyz down past the Ganges delta to Siam, you see one system evolving, over and over and over again. The Chinese start getting organised pretty early, as do the Koreans. In each place the exact path, rate of development and shape of society is different but everywhere that starts to tax develops bureaucracy like mushrooms in the dark. With writing comes efficient information flow, and with that comes the capacity to accumulate ever more capital reserves and centralise their control ever more effectively.

Centralised and hierarchical states are the best competitors at distributing knowledge in a low-bandwidth environment. When travel is hard and information is scarce, the more centralised your control systems, the more efficient your learning curve. The more you know, the better you learn, the faster you get the word out; these things self-reinforce to place a culture firmly on the path towards modern, industrial capitalism of the kind everyone is familiar with from the rhetoric of the Cold War.

*        *        *

So the answer to the question the left doesn’t like to ask is this: centralised/hierarchical capitalist models are spectacularly effective at generating and disseminating technological progress in a low-bandwidth, high-risk environment. They’re better at that than any other model which has so far been tried, anywhere. As a result, civilisations which centralise effectively and document effectively scale better than any other option at low tech levels. Britain’s success at large scale administration owes as much to Domesday Book as to the Navy.

But the story, inevitably, doesn’t end there. The left may not like the question: but when you follow through the implications of history, you realise very quickly that the right cannot accept the answer.

[1] The ordering is chronological. Lower-tech societies need more farmers per urban head, therefore in earlier urbanising cultures, the percentage of rural people is higher.



Filed under Content, Signal

7 responses to “The Great Machine IV: The Centre Cannot Hold

  1. Mark

    Surely the whole point about a capitalist system is that it is less hierachical and centralised than despotism.

    Also, not sure about your definition of high/low bandwidth, but the history of Europe from the 13th century onwards seems to demonstrate that less centralisation is better – look at the Italian city states or the freedoms granted to cities at this time. Perhaps, as you alude to, centralisation is effective as a tool of subjugation, but not really so great for anything else.

    And the success of Britain from the 18th century onwards is a direct result of their relatively non-centralised political and economic system when compared to European despots.

    • johnqpublican

      Surely the whole point about a capitalist system is that it is less hierachical and centralised than despotism.

      Your ideology is showing. Also, you are conflating ‘free-market, post-Enlightenment, industrial, monetarised, urban capitalism’ with ‘capitalism’; which is pretty much exactly what I was talking about back here. For the purposes of this discussion we are using the functional definition of capital that I that I laid out earlier; accumulations of unused wealth. Capitalism, or proto-capitalism, is defined by how it works (functionally) rather than by how much it fits with the views of a 19th Century polemicist.

      The whole point of the last two posts was to illustrate how it is impossible to get capitalism without a centralised, statist hierarchy, and to explain that this is why capitalism has become synonymously identified with hierarchical, statist politics.

      Also, not sure about your definition of high/low bandwidth, but the history of Europe from the 13th century onwards seems to demonstrate that less centralisation is better – look at the Italian city states or the freedoms granted to cities at this time.

      Interesting you should note that: the Great Fairs and the truce of the Fair (guaranteed by extremely effective, violent hierarchies called ‘knights’ who had figured out communal planning under the aegis of another very effective hierarchical capitalist, the Pope) raised the bandwidth level of European society during exactly this era, and the printing press caused an information singularity similar in scale, if much slower, to the one we have going on now. The Reformation, for one, could not have happened without the printing press.

      Bandwidth means how fast you can move data. Sneaker, or horseshoe, networks are slow, particularly when travel is hard and terrain is a bitch. They gain considerably higher bandwidth with writing than they had with just memory; they gain higher bandwidth again with the printing press. Ships raise your bandwidth as a society very significantly; they move really fast and can carry lots of letters. This, of course, is why Venice in particular is a very effective competitor early. They are able to establish a semi-hegemonic trade empire which they then back up with actual political hegemony via a take-over of the Papacy. They’re able to do it because of their geographical environment; just as Britain industrialises first because of the geography of this island.

      There’s an immense amount of background material you’ll need to break out of the ideological mind-set which says ‘Capitalism is better than despotism’. There is no functional difference. A despot rules first because he has lads with swords, then because he can accumulate and spend capital. State capital reserves are still capital accumulations; the earliests capitalists are all states.

      Christendom was ruled as two federalised hierarchies until the Divorce Crisis. Yes, there were frequent internecine and civil wars, but the Pope led a centralised power, capital and, very significantly, information distribution and scholarship hierarchy that spanned Europe and drew it together into a single political hegemony, centred on Rome. Look at the effects of the Cluniac revival. Henry VIII couldn’t take on the monasteries until societal bandwidth (via the printing press) had elevated to an extent that putting all your geeks in a large building and feeding them until they came up with ideas wasn’t the best way of learning stuff.

      Secondly, I start getting into British industrial history in the next one. The reason why British history from the 18th century onwards becomes capable of decentralising authority to elected members from all over the country who yet meet and work centrally is that a huge infrastructure project was going on throughout the century; canal-building. The four great rivers which had already made us the most effective country in Europe at internal communication (high-bandwidth society) were being networked up.

      Perhaps, as you alude to, centralisation is effective as a tool of subjugation, but not really so great for anything else.

      You’ll have a better idea of what I’m saying in two posts time, and you will see why this point is hard for me to answer with alluding to things that are in the next two posts. Broadly speaking, it’s great for subjugation, and therefore great for scaling society at low-tech and thus low-bandwidth infrastructure levels. Also, you seem to have failed to understand the basic point made in the last two posts about capital accumulation, which is that it can only exist as a result of early centralisation efforts: taxes. Government created tax, which creates capital accumulation, which creates capitalists; by this point it should be fairly clear how that process worked.

      • Mark

        The fundamental difference between despotism and capitalism (as those post enlightenment urban types see it) is that one is reliant upon arbitrary rule backed by force, while the other is organised with reference to the law and common agreement.
        Basically, *capitalism* is more communal than despotism. Therefore, I`m not sure it`s correct to equate those societies which we generally regard as “capitalist” with those ruled by despots (if that was what you were saying).

        Also for basic capital accumulation to take place there is no need for “taxation” as such or for a centralised political system – the construction of houses, farms, storehouses or fishing boats are capital accumulation which take place without central bodies.
        Again, are you sure you aren`t mistaking an unfortunate side effect of violent human nature and the needs of society to protect themselves for some fundamental building block of society?

        • johnqpublican

          The fundamental difference between despotism and capitalism (as those post enlightenment urban types see it) is that one is reliant upon arbitrary rule backed by force, while the other is organised with reference to the law and common agreement.

          Which is an after-the-fact analysis. Capitalism gave rise to the Enlightenment, therefore the Enlightenment thinks of capitalism as being “good”.

          I don’t care.

          I’m making a functional assessment not a moral one. Capitalism is good at certain things: I’ve spent a lot of time explaining that.

    • johnqpublican

      There’s something really big here, that I think I may be able to do justice to in a very, very compressed form. It’s not in the series of articles because from the pov of a medieval historian it’s unmissable, but it seems I need to lay it out.

      the history of Europe from the 13th century onwards seems to demonstrate that less centralisation is better

      Let’s start from 800BCE instead. The bronze-age city-state accretions in Attic Greece have given rise to politically functional city-states which are now competing in a fairly free civilisation market. They have a relatively high-bandwidth society for their tech level, because it’s all about the sea trade. You could get from Macedonia to Athens faster by sea than by land.

      In the rest of “Europe” you’ve got a heavily decentralised, largely tribal rather than hierarchical, social order. There is one group which have strung a lot of tribes together around a data delivery system known as ‘druids’ but they’re quite low bandwidth. The Scands haven’t really figured out boats yet. The Teutons are still getting the hang of farming.

      Over the next 800 years, what you see is the guys who’re good at centralisation, who invent capital economics, who develop a massive enhancement of land-based bandwidth (Roman roads), the guys who above all are extremely effective hierarchy administrators, these guys fundamentally win. They eventually lose because they attempt to scale their polity beyond where even their bandwidth enhancements can sustain it. There is a period of devolution to truly decentralised models, usually known as “The Dark Ages” to the general public.

      This is the point where Britain starts being important. Under the post-Roman Britons and the Anglo-Saxons we were pretty thoroughly decentralised but that wasn’t because it worked better, it was because we hadn’t evolved indigenous hierarchies capable of scaling that far. We eventually evolve them in response to unceasing invasion, generation after generation, a process which is extremely significant in British cultural history as well.

      The successful competitors (Mercia, Wessex, etc.) are still less centralised than the Romans. None is able to gain full control over Britain as a whole, at that tech level. If nothing else, Northumberland could just grin at you from Bamburgh and wait ’till you went away. But that all changes with the last of the great invasions and the arrival of William the Bastard. Domesday Book creates the English, and eventually British, state more directly than any other single invention of the early medieval period.

      Centralisation and rigorous hierarchies are precisely why Britain’s technological progress from the Norman Conquest onwards eclipses that of the rest of Europe and we end up industrialising first. Compare with France, where the King couldn’t get organised centrally over the decentralising influence of the Counts and Dukes; the result is that Britain gets way out ahead of France in the civilisation stakes, even to the point of having our Revolution a century earlier and much better organised.

      European history illustrates my point particularly well, and I know it best so I used it: but I could as easily have made the same points through the Inca, the Kublai Khan’s rule in China or the rise of the Punjabi court at Lahore. The better your information flow, the better you scale. The better you scale, the better you compete. Centralised, hierarchical systems are better at information dissemination than any other system at low tech levels. Therefore, the better you centralise, the better you compete: at low tech levels.

      • Mark

        Geographical centralisation (in the form of cities), not neccesarily political centralisation though….
        Obviously maintainance of order is important in all of this – but maintainance of order under the arbitrary rule of one man is less effective, at all levels of technology, than the rule of law generally agreed by society at large.

        • johnqpublican

          Er, actually, you’re fundamentally wrong, here. Less coherent with modern principles, yes: less effective, absolutely not. When communications technology sucks, extremely clear and violently maintained hierarchies consistently win against “democracies” (I am not convinced the Roman Republic should qualify for that term under modern definitions).

          I say again; historical evidence is that every time a freer society went up against a hierarchical, resource-centralising society (i.e. proto-capitalists) the freer society lost. That really hasn’t been doubt anywhere outside the temporary Leninist/Maoist intellectual hegeomony at any point since professional history began. You have yet to adduce an example where the reverse happened in the long run; therefore your claim remains irrelevant.