The Great Machine V: Full of Passionate Intensity

Our story so far: in a thrilling series of bold acquisitions and mergers, occasional plague- or famine-related downsizing and aggressive management restructuring rounds, the human race has managed to invent, in approximate sequence: banditry, tax, cities, bureaucracy, capital wealth, relative wealth, underclasses, social revolutions, writing, statist/hierarchical models of governance and universities. [1] This brought us to the point of answering the initial query: “Just what is it that centralised, statist/hierarchical models of capitalist civilisation are better at than all of the competitor systems human ingenuity has suggested?”.

The answers are scaling, and technological boot-strapping

I have covered in IV the self-reinforcing spiral of development. Centralised, violently hierarchical societies scale better than any other method of administration in a low-bandwidth, low education environment. They’re better at gaining control over large populations and land areas which can provide an effective tax-base, or “capital accumulation”. They’re better at enforcing and monitoring the tax system so that they’ve still got enough peasants next year but also have enough food and other essentials to sustain urbanisation. Urban centres are key to developing pre-industrial manufacturing and technology industries, which in turn create conditions for natural industrialisation. In Britain, those conditions occurred in a geographical and communications context which permitted a technological singularity in the 1770s. After that, the rest is about how efficiently and how quickly people learnt from our mistakes.

Cash Flow

Thus, right from early Anatolian and Sumerian city-builders up to the modern plutocracy of a tiny few compared to the many who feed it, we’re seeing a single, coherent story played out over and over again. Any attempt to deviate from that path has resulted in system failure, for the reasons outlined above. The more you move wealth from the edge of the network to the centre of the network, the more effective a competitor you will be.

Which brings us to our next contentious statement. Therefore, our evolved global economic system is, inherently, a machine for taking money away from those at the edge and moving it into the hands of those in the centre.

It is from this observation that I drew the title of the series of posts. There’s a lot of ways people try to mask or ignore the underlying truth of it, including pointing out that where the only capitalists used to be royalty, they had to add aristocracy, then the upper mercantile classes, then the bourgeoisie until now everyone has a chance of a CD player and an iPhone. This analysis misses the significance of relative wealth entirely.

The number of people who are in the centre of the web of constantly in-flowing money, expressed as a proportion of the total world population, is smaller than it has ever been. The real-terms power gap between those in the centre and everyone else, expressed in terms of capital accumulation, is at least as big as it has been since Pharaonic times. The liklihood of a complete outsider joining that plutocracy, and thus gaining the power and security which come from being stinking rich, is lower now than it was in Anglo-Saxon England (for a man; it was easier for women to become wealthy in the Plantaganet era). The Great Machine is still working, though it’s beginning to grind its gears: money still flows to the centre. That’s the whole point of the system.

It’s not anyone’s fault. I just want to re-iterate that. It’s not the fault of the Robber Barons that aggressive market capitalism was a good way to get USA Corp. up and running as fast as and effectively as possible. It’s because at the scale of the North American continent, telegraphs and steam trains are still a very low-bandwidth communications infrastructure; and when they started you were talking about river-boats and horses. This is true right back to Enki: to get to any scale larger than about three hundred people, being a top-down capitalist is the only way at low tech levels. Which leads us to the reason the right don’t want to answer the question the left don’t like to ask.

We’re not a low-bandwidth civilisation any more. We’re increasingly a high-education civilisation. The nature of the Information Revolution is species convergence; the divided nature of our past is being replaced by an economic unitary future as we break down information flow barriers. We’re on a path leading towards global information availability, which leads towards global education normalisation, which leads towards global economics; cf. how much easier it is for a group of stupid people in America to domino an entire species economy now, than it was even 80 years ago. We can move data very fast, now. We can communicate very fast. Also, very effectively. Scale has ceased to be a problem for non-centralised authority structures.

So, controversial conclusion four: the entire body of historical data on alternative civilisation structures must be re-examined for future viability.

Open Source Society

There’s a simple reason why nothing quite like the Open Source phenomenon was invented in the telephone era. On a phone network, all the power (autonomy; decision-making) is in the core and the edge devices are as dumb as possible. A user can only make one decision; a number symbolic of a destination. All other decisions; switching, network path, network reliability, connection bitrate, sampling rate, etc. are dictated by the core. That means they are controlled by the center of the human hierarchy; all decisions affecting these things are made in the middle.

The reason internet communication precipitated a truly comprehensive uplift in human capacity is that the very largest quantity of autonomy possible was moved to the edge of the network. Computers are smart; internet networks are dumb. I know, I used to design them for a living. That also meant I had to fix them. They’re dumb very very quickly indeed, and in some creatively organic ways at times, but as much autonomy as possible is passed to the user. Not just where to go, or what to say, but also how to get there, what languages to write in, what MTU you wish to set, whether to use tcp or udp, whether to compress or encrypt your traffic, which search engine to use: all of these decisions are placed, to the greatest extent we can engineer, into the hands of the user. The edge device is smart, the network is dumb. On the phones, it’s the opposite; a dial phone handset is a very dumb bit of kit.

The internet generation are simply better at all three of the earlier-stated determinant factors: what do you know, how fast do you learn, how quickly can you get the word out, than any previous human culture. The more eyes on the problem, the faster you find bugs. The more minds can publish their work, the faster you find the diamonds in the rough. Access more of your brainpower as a species; lower the cost of entry into the free market of ideas, and you will see business models no-one in Bill Gates’ generation could see coming. We know this because they didn’t.

The monopoly of centralised, hierarchical structures on effecient scaling has been broken by the internet. That means that any competitor system which failed in the past, can be re-assessed: is the information infrastructure and educational penetration advanced enough for this idea? We can make rational, functional assessments of things currently assigned to history by ideological entrenchments from old wars. We can re-assess what works in the context of a completely new capacity to move power to the edge of the network; to give autonomy to the users, rather than the gears, of the Great Machine.


[1] One may debate the positive or negative attributes of pretty much any of these except writing. History’s pretty consistent on the point that writing is a cunning plan.

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31 Comments

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31 responses to “The Great Machine V: Full of Passionate Intensity

  1. I’m really enjoying this series of posts, and not just because we appear to share the same analysis and conclusions!

    My major concern about moving forwards in the manner that you appear to be alluding to (distributive/P2P) is a simple one: will we be allowed? Who is it that owns and controls the technological infrastructure that may permit this future mode of existence to come into being? How are they likely to respond to the threat to their current hegemony implicit in mans’ use of it against their interests?

    I presume that you’ll be addressing these sort of questions in the next post of this series?

    • johnqpublican

      In a manner of speaking; and thank you for the compliments.

      Who is it that owns and controls the technological infrastructure that may permit this future mode of existence to come into being? How are they likely to respond to the threat to their current hegemony implicit in mans’ use of it against their interests?

      I’m going to respond by pointing to some examples. Jim Baen’s Free Library is still pushing up sales for his authors over a decade later, in spite of the fuss it caused among publishers. The MPAA and the RIAA are losing their argument, as proved by the iTunes store and in spite of the Pirate Bay judgement.

      Worldcom and Clueless & Witless never managed to stop the proliferation of other ISPs. Last I looked there were six figures worth of Autonomous Systems in the global routing table, and they are in over 130 countries. Vodafone have recently abandoned one of the great cartel cash-grabs of the last twenty years by letting go of inflated roaming charges.

      The impact of independent comment media (the “blogosphere”) has been clearly visible in the UK of late; it is on the verge of turning into citizen journalism. The spread of cameras alongside mobile phones is changing the balance of informational power between the centre of the network and the edge in Western society. I spoke before about the significance of the shift of agency from the network core to the edge device. There are too many ways the thousands of kids and teachers and barristas and musicians on the net can win that arms race.

      And most significantly, the closed-source software manufacturers have failed to win in the market or in the courts against the Open Source Software operations model. Apple, one of the two Operating System giants that dominated the PC revolution, has adopted *BSD and released Darwin as an open-sourced system. They make money selling what they do well, which is the UI and user environment, and the applications. They use the power of the open-source model to enhance and secure their OS. Linux is big business; Apache fueled the rise of the World-Wide Web, not IIS.

      The further you lower the cost of entry to the information market, the better your model is able to exploit the combined inspiration resources of the species. What do you know, how well do you learn, and how fast do you get the word out. We need to keep working on people’s minds; we need to keep working the system to keep the laws from getting too unrealistic. But mainly what we need to do is out-perform the competing models. For the first time ever I believe that to be technologically possible.

  2. Perhaps I’m just a natural pessimist, and you an optimist ;-)

    I take on board your examples, but could point to signs at attempts to stifle the processes.

    With blogging, we’ve got both the EU and the US Govt. looking to censor content that they don’t want folks reading, and many countries now routinely filter out content from whole domains.

    Another example of continuing centralisation and control is the ongoing concentration of ‘intellectual property’ in fewer and fewer hands, as corps. continue to swallow each other up (never mind the issues around the extension of IP to areas previously explicitly disallowed, like biological matter).

    I won’t prattle on with more examples; we could both think of plenty! My concern, as I said previously, is about control of the infrastructure.

    Even if we discount fears about a ‘terrorist’ attack shutting down the medium that we’re communicating on, there are plenty of people who have — perfectly valid, IMHO — concerns about the future of net neutrality. We might be a broadband global community at the moment (or getting there, pdq), but will non-corporate/non-state traffic continue to enjoy that position? Similarly, something as apparently innocuous as web search is open to ‘massage’ by the likes of the Do No Evil boys, and there are people crying foul over that (and on other platforms like YouTube) already.

    Perhaps I am just being unduly pessimistic, but my expectation (unless distributed comms comes into its own) is more of a future modeled on that we see in China today. Yes, you can get around net censorship/access issues, but would most people even bother to, so long as they still had unrestricted access to the cultural gloop produced by the MSM that passes for news and entertainment?

    Those of us reading/writing blogs (or otherise vaguely techy) are still a tiny minority in our nation, and across the world. I have a sneaking suspicion that we sometimes tend to believe that the ways in which we see and understand the world are more widespread than they are in reality, a reality where Joe Public still largely gets their news, entertainment and ready-rolled opinions from the likes of the BBC and the Daily Mail. Maybe a trifle harsh, but fair…?

    • johnqpublican

      I took about 20 years to develop this view, from a starting point of quite genuinely believing the Christian Armageddon was going to be triggered prior to 2012 by the actions of the Americans (I was very young and it was the 80s). First hearing the word glasnost and then hearing the Iron Curtain rattle down started me actually thinking there was an outside chance we might survive as a species.

      When it comes to pessimism I learned from the best, and as soon as I attained intellectual independence I headed full steam for the calm waters of cynicism. I like to think of my current attitude as realism, but then I suspect that both pessimists and optimists would make that claim anyway.

      With blogging, we’ve got both the EU and the US Govt. looking to censor content that they don’t want folks reading, and many countries now routinely filter out content from whole domains.

      But you also see them failing. Even the great firewall of China has holes in it. Cory Doctrow handles this better than I can, but my thesis here is this: you can’t win an arms race when the other side are all of smarter, more creative and massively more numerous than you. This statement is particularly true when the cost of entry for creating new ‘weapons’ is so low.

      Another example of continuing centralisation and control is the ongoing concentration of ‘intellectual property’ in fewer and fewer hands, as corps. continue to swallow each other up (never mind the issues around the extension of IP to areas previously explicitly disallowed, like biological matter).

      This is a major issue of concern to me, as I am in the unusual position of being a) an Open Source geek and b) someone who’d like to make a living writing print fiction.

      Robert Anton Wilson spoke eloquently in 1975 about the enemy within; the voice that says ‘the rules have absolute meaning’. They don’t. People are making laws which say American companies get to bully the world. 200 years ago the British were making laws which said our companies got to do the same. I do not believe America’s economy will sustain this current level of dominance any longer than ours did: I suspect, in fact, that with the accelerated pace of change it’ll fall faster than we did.

      There are currently two competing models for IP: closed and open. Open is currently outperforming closed in all the markets they are competing in. Give ’em time :)

      Even if we discount fears about a ‘terrorist’ attack shutting down the medium that we’re communicating on,

      Can’t be done, and it’s been tried (the closest being the attack on the root name servers). The absolute most someone might be able to manage is to take a large group of autonomous systems off the net. To give an example from 2001, if someone had stacked a 747 into Telehouse North they’d have wiped about 2/3s of the inter-AS bandwdith out of Britain’s network topology. But Britain wouldn’t have dropped off the net; it would just have slowed down. Nowadays, there are considerably more places you’d have to hit than just Telehouse.

      Distributed architectures. They really work. Until 20 years ago they weren’t technologically possible. Go figure.

      Perhaps I am just being unduly pessimistic, but my expectation (unless distributed comms comes into its own)

      Which is entirely the direction to be going in. There’s a project in Cambridge looking to do this, and several off the ground in America. Most ISPs, certainly when I worked for them, want nothing to do with content responsibility. The great power of the internet for the ISP is that what the user puts through their pipe is not the ISP’s problem. Government has tried to make it the carrier’s problem before. We’ve beaten them, so far; and there’s a lot of cash behind the desire of the network carriers to remain free of responsibility for the data.

      Censorship is a lot more worrying. I point you to these guys as a response.

      I have a sneaking suspicion that we sometimes tend to believe that the ways in which we see and understand the world are more widespread than they are in reality,

      I don’t. I think the adequately educated are, as yet, a small number in society. But the liberals who banned slavery were not in the majority when they started to educate the masses. The adequately educated will be in Parliament in 10 years, and Congress in 30. They’ll be running most of the world in 50, because being properly educated gives you a huge competition advantage if you are not bound by ideology. I’m a very patient man who believes in starting to work now on things that might bear fruit in the lives of my children or grandchildren.

      news, entertainment and ready-rolled opinions from the likes of the BBC and the Daily Mail. Maybe a trifle harsh, but fair…?

      Well, I feel your comparison is a bit harsh on the BBC…

      I occasionally buy the Sport, the Star and the Sun. Those three papers carry the particular brand of propaganda which is aimed at the least educated segment of our society: this is synonymous with those least likely to question perceived authority. I buy those papers for advance warning of what the plutarchs want the stupid people to think. I usually hear those opinions being parroted over the bar in less than three days.

      Education enhances the questioning of authority. Education makes people want to compare sources. Education drives inquiry. And education is absolutely necessary to a high-tech work force. Expand access to information; lower the cost of entry to the market of ideas: extend the high-bandwidth network outwards to include more of your species, and a singularity becomes likely.

      • [I mentioned a ‘terrorist’ attack] “Can’t be done, and it’s been tried (the closest being the attack on the root name servers).”

        I too don’t believe that a real terrorist attack could close the ‘net. My concern (hence the scare quotes around ‘terrorist’) is about the response by the authorities — who do have the power to pull the plug — to either a genuine terrorist cyber attack, or to a false-flag event. And please don’t suggest that TPTB wouldn’t stoop so low as to entertain the latter; history shows otherwise :-(

        “Education enhances the questioning of authority. Education makes people want to compare sources. Education drives inquiry.”

        Before I respond, can you clarify if you are talking about formal education or personal education? I would strenuously argue that one of the primary functions of the former is to depress the interest in, and ability to develop, the latter… See here (and the links therein) for a brief overview of my thoughts:
        http://towardsmutualbenefit.blogspot.com/2009/05/education-education-education.html

        The overwhelming reason for my pessimism, though, is that of resource scarcity. My personal belief (supported and evidenced by worldwide governmental action) is that this century will see us starting to run empty on several natural resources; the single most important being oil. In those circumstances, and with the inevitable effect upon our way of life, I can only presume that those at the top of the current hierarchy will fight tooth and nail to maintain their position, as they have throughout history. That, IMHO, will inevitably mean an increasing loss of freedom for us little folks, as force takes over from conscious (and unconscious) voluntary compliance as the only mechanism capable of keeping us in order. Of course, the end game will be inevitable collapse anyway; whether the opportunities that you are talking about would exist in the world following the basic systemic failure of our current civilisation is another matter entirely…

        • johnqpublican

          who do have the power to pull the plug

          This I debate. Legal authority; yes. Technological capacity: in my opinion, no. I believe we went past that point circa 1998.

          And please don’t suggest that TPTB wouldn’t stoop so low as to entertain the latter; history shows otherwise

          Good lord, not at all. It’s the typical response of a gerontocracy; if you don’t understand it, claim it’s dangerous and if it isn’t, start a fire and claim they did it. You see the same pattern in the policing of G20.

          The difference, for me, is that we’re now better at beating information blockades than they are at building them.

          Before I respond, can you clarify if you are talking about formal education or personal education? I would strenuously argue that one of the primary functions of the former is to depress the interest in, and ability to develop, the latter

          The distinction you’re drawing is necessary. I’m talking about education. Not any specific system of education, but real education; the ability to pose questions and answer them, the ability to differentiate sources and assess provenance of data, the interest in knowing the other fella’s point of view.

          My personal belief (supported and evidenced by worldwide governmental action) is that this century will see us starting to run empty on several natural resources

          Yes. I’ve made the same argument.

          I can only presume that those at the top of the current hierarchy will fight tooth and nail to maintain their position, as they have throughout history

          And throughout history the one thing that will eradicate all engineered divisions between common people so that they rise up as one and smash the machine has been systematic resource scarcity. We permit our political masters to rule so long as we are fed, housed and entertained. Bread and circuses, as the man said. Stop feeding the West, and you will see revolutions that would put Paris 1782 to shame.

          force takes over from conscious (and unconscious) voluntary compliance as the only mechanism capable of keeping us in order

          That’s already happened in Britain, viz. the Culpability series.

          Of course, the end game will be inevitable collapse anyway

          Unless we change something. That’s what I’m in this for, and it’s why my hypotheses about the future which end in anything other than disaster, always start with “As long as we move industry out of our primary biosphere and into orbit, and then get off this planet and start building new ones…”

  3. Mark

    No, sorry - just because you‘ve decided to label something which is actually bronze age despotism and slavery as capitalism, doesn‘t mean that it automatically has much in common with our modern economic and political system.

    I‘m also not convinced by your contention that a high degree of political centralisation is a neccesary *at any stage of civilisation* - with the proviso that highly centralised states will probably be better at building pyramids, killing people and generally fucking up life for the ordinary man. If that‘s what you consider to be a successfull society - good luck to you - but the fact remains that trade, manufacture, specialisation and townships can emerge without the need for highly centralised political leadership. The centralised poltical leadership is an unfortunate side effect of the neccesity for military protection or religious ceremony. Literature, arts and prosperity can flourish perfectly well in less centralised areas.

  4. Mark

    So… maybe an example of “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” on your part…?

    • johnqpublican

      No, sorry - just because you‘ve decided to label something which is actually bronze age despotism and slavery as capitalism, doesn‘t mean that it automatically has much in common with our modern economic and political system.

      Of course it doesn’t. However, since I’ve provided a reasoned, evidentiary case with which you have yet to engage in any way other than the dogmatic your criticism can be safely ignored.

      I’m actually going to go through that argument in more detail as a bootnote to this series, because a) you clearly haven’t got it and b) The potted version of the reasoning provided in Idiotology is a sketch-map to the argument rather than a detailed chart.

      the fact remains that trade, manufacture, specialisation and townships can emerge without the need for highly centralised political leadership.

      Name one such polity that scaled. Also, please point me to one example of second-stage urbanisation (i.e. cities of over 5k people) happening without the evolution of hierarchical rule? And specifically, without the evolution of tax regimes?

      There are four models for very very early statehood. In three of them, bandit chieftens evolve before cities, with the intermediate step being tax. In one, the egalitarian society creates a city which then tips the 5k citizen mark and suddenly grows a king, usually after some serious burning of bits of the city.

      You have provided (as you always do) a didactic statement without evidentiary support or even theoretical cover. You seem to have completely missed that my point is not about what models of society work: committees work, but you couldn’t run Kublai Khan’s empire with them alone. My point is about what models for society scale when communications technology is very poor.

      Only hierarchical and centralised societies which funnel money from the many to the few have ever scaled well at low bandwidth levels. The violence is indeed a side-effect: it’s a side-effect of hierarchy. Since large-scale societies have won in the market-place against small-scale ones pretty consistently until very recently, an even there only because of even bigger societies which have nukes staring down the aggressors, the market has selected for hierarchies which centralise control and, most importantly, which centralise wealth.

      You have to bear in mind what question I set out to investigate: what is it that the Great Machine is simply better at doing than every other system, which could explain why only that system has ever successfully competed in our civilisation market? This entire series is an explanation of why capitalism is absolutely and unquestionably the best model for social progress and advancement at low bandwidth levels.

      So… maybe an example of “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” on your part…?

      Er, no, as that would require me to be saying “Since capitalism always follows despotism, therefore capitalism is caused by despotism”, which is not what I’m saying at all. If you’re going to level an accusation of “after it, therefore because of it” at me, please know what it means, and then point me to a specific place where I have argued that one thing was caused by another, only on the basis of order.

      I have at each stage provided specific evidence and analysis, though in avastly simplified form, because I know my audience (such as yourself) are not experts. Where one of them is an expert, I provided academic bibliographical reference that would mean something to them. I take it that it meant nothing to you.

      If you persist in making purely dogmatic statements without reference to evidence, sources or reasoned argument: and if you persist in ignoring both evidence presented to you and the completely standard academic practice of defining problematised terms [1] at the outset of a theoretical work, why would I bother to engage with you further? You’re not debating, and you’re certainly not learning. You’re most specifically breaking the rule I’ve asked people to observe in disccussions here: leave your unexamined assumptions at the door.

      [1] And both ‘capital’ and ‘capitalism’ are widely problematised terms. The bootnote I mentioned above will include some reference and quotations, along with some of the more detailed steps in my working. Since I wanted to investigate the link between cities, and the constant flow of wealth from the edge to the centre in all recorded human societies ever, I needed a functionalist, rather than an ideological, definition of capital. If you want to argue with that methodology you have to provide better points than ‘But capitalists are good, mmkay?’

      • “Only hierarchical and centralised societies which funnel money from the many to the few have ever scaled well at low bandwidth levels.”

        Although somewhat still a matter of contention amongst archaeologists, there is a possible historical counter to that (but only one that I’m aware of): the Harrappan city culture of the Indus Valley.

        Whilst the archaeological evidence suggests a non-hierarchical civic life, the interpretation of that evidence has taken people into two camps; the first suggesting that ‘of course’ there was hierarchy, but we just haven’t found proof of it yet, the second that it was indeed likely a non-hierarchical society (e.g. see Refrew’s ‘The Making Of The Human Mind’), and those suggesting otherwise are simply projecting our (modern) assumptions and prejudices back in time.

        • johnqpublican

          Aye, I looked at this one for some time; bizarrely I did so long before being interested in this question, as I was at that time studying the origin of caste systems.

          If I understand correctly, though, none (or neither, depending on your reading) of the Harappan cities gained hegemonic control (i.e. none of the cities could gain a competitive advantage and thus scale by acquisition)? I’m pointing to models like Athens within Greece, early Japanese urbanisation and so on. The Harappan culture did not do this. Also; do I mis-remember or didn’t that culture eventually get taken over by external forces?

          Harappan may have been up to 23k people. That’s a lot of people, even in a place with a major agricultural surplus and phenomenally convenient river transport networks. How far do 23k people have to walk, every day, to find an unoccupied field? If they weren’t farming for themselves, who was feeding them? Harappan includes ‘administrative buildings’ and ‘civic storage structures’; implying a tax regime and some form of systematic redistribution. Who was doing it?

          The archaeology makes no clear comment either way on hierarchical versus non-hierarchical organisation in the Indus Valley circa 3k BCE. I’m not sure we’re ever going to see evidence of despotic hierarchy in Harappan, because I don’t think the evidence westerners would interpret that way necessarily exists, nor do I think single-power despotism is necessary at such a small scale. But either way, it doesn’t affect my argument because Harappan never scaled up.

          My contention was that non-hierarchical cultures don’t scale up well; they either hit a point where they out-grow their communications technology, or they lose in competition with a hierarchy that has scaled.

          • “My contention was that non-hierarchical cultures don’t scale up well; they either hit a point where they out-grow their communications technology, or they lose in competition with a hierarchy that has scaled.”

            The latter being the key point. Yep, the Harrappan were eventually overrun by outsiders, as were (small scale) indigenous folks the world over. I find their example interesting mostly as a historical curiosity; I’ve a fair degree of sympathy for the anarcho-primitivist analysis of civilisation, and the Harrappan do appear (and only appear) to go against the grain of how society is expected to develop.

            Incidentally, and whilst thinking about A-P, in your OP you suggest that writing can pretty much be viewed as an historical good. Have you read the thoughts of (e.g.) John Zerzan on why we could consider otherwise? He’s one of several folks that have looked at the arguably negative impact of symbolic thought created/expressed by/through language (verbal and written) upon our species. Interesting stuff, and something also discussed in the Renfrew book I mentioned earlier.

            • johnqpublican

              Take a look at Mayan archaeology as well, some time.

              I find their example interesting mostly as a historical curiosity; I’ve a fair degree of sympathy for the anarcho-primitivist analysis of civilisation, and the Harrappan do appear (and only appear) to go against the grain of how society is expected to develop.

              As it happens, I like that model too; but liking it doesn’t get me very far. As I said back at the beginning of this thing, locality and hydrogeography change many aspects of what happens after you pick a system and start running it. In this instance, the hydrogeography was particularly important.

              OP you suggest that writing can pretty much be viewed as an historical good. Have you read the thoughts of (e.g.) John Zerzan on why we could consider otherwise?

              I have, also the comments of Pinker among others from a cognitive and paleolinguistic perspective. However, my personal beef with writing is this: the Africans I grew up amongst had a thriving oral tradition. They were all able to get a 500 word message word-perfect in three repetitions. Some could do this phonetically when the message was in English and they didn’t speak English. Most of them couldn’t write. Those who could, didn’t remember that well. One of the things a bard does is tell stories. I have to go through a story a minimum of 50-60 public performances before I have it to the point that it’s entirely secure.

              Merits are to do with the criteria of the assessments. The original comment was made in a context of asking “What determines who wins in a civilisation clash?” Writing is one of the major determinants, because it enhances technological advancement and war tech wins fights; also, peace tech wins trade wars. My conclusion is that writing is significant because it enhances both the bandwidth and the data storage and recall capacity of your society. Therefore, in that analysis, writing is good. Making sense?

  5. “My conclusion is that writing is significant because it enhances both the bandwidth and the data storage and recall capacity of your society. Therefore, in that analysis, writing is good. Making sense?”

    Oh, it makes sense :-)

    I was just questioning the implicit ‘goodness’ about it; you’ve been careful in this series to explain _why_ things have turned out as they have, without suggesting (indeed, implicitly otherwise) that the course of events has been an unadulterated good — simply an inevitability. I just felt a slight jar between the non-judgementalism in your overall thesis and your comment that writing was in and of itself a good. I agree entirely that we wouldn’t be here without it, and also that we can’t uninvent it. I’d just view it as another step on the road to the modern world — like agriculture — that isn’t value free (and certainly not unequivocally a good).

    I look forward to your next post, and apologise if I raise points (like resources) that you’ve mentioned in prior posts: I’ve not long been reading your blog.

    • johnqpublican

      the implicit ‘goodness’ about it; you’ve been careful in this series to explain _why_ things have turned out as they have, without suggesting (indeed, implicitly otherwise) that the course of events has been an unadulterated good — simply an inevitability.

      Thank you.

      One of the problems in my field is that the people who invented my field (history) were absolutely, morally, certainly, unquestionably and religiously convinced that the purpose of history was to create them. That ‘good’ was defined as ‘being like them’; that Progress was Improvement, and that therefore they were clearly better than anyone before them. This is the kind of attitude which underpins the ideologies Ghonorogoro keeps parroting.

      It’s not that I don’t like to make value judgements; on the contrary, I make them all the time. It’s that I don’t like to make them before I know what the hell I’m talking about. When I’m analysing a system, a question, a data set, a witness statement, a rental contract or a cask of ale, my first requirement is to look at what’s actually there and my second is to understand it functionally before I draw any conclusions.

      Using the most concrete example: first I want to know who brewed it, where and when, what type of ale they were trying to brew (because settling a true IPA and a stout are very different) and various other technical details. Then I want to see if my guess as to how long it will take to settle is close, then I want to look at the current yeast level, whether I’ve got any floating dry-hops, the colour, the head retention. From these ‘actually there’ things I can make a functional analysis; is this servable? If it is, I can then make a value judgement: will it improve if I give it another day?

      What I don’t want is my preferences for a type of result (e.g. consensus rather than democratic or despotic rule) to stop me understanding what really happens (nice, egalitarian societies always lose to violent, hierarchical ones). Then I can start to examine why: and having drawn some conclusions, I can start to examine whether I can change it.

      I’d just view it as another step on the road to the modern world — like agriculture — that isn’t value free (and certainly not unequivocally a good).

      I think that writing differs from agriculture in at least one important respect: agriculture is the result of a shift in human thinking. Writing is the cause of one. And I am very much inclined to see things that change the way people think at a fundamental level as being very, very important; because as of about the point of self-consciousness, the primary arena for natural selection in our species became the mind.

      Again, potted arguments, but mine goes like this: as soon as our species started maintaining (feeding, housing) the physically infirm for the value of their minds, we changed the rules of natural selection. Stephen Hawking is a good example. The change has happened quite slowly, because violence is still useful and therefore you need able-bodied cannon-fodder; and children are still useful, so you need able-bodied home-makers. But if you can think your way through a sustainable life while living inside a broken monkey, your species is no longer selecting purely for phyiscal or reflex traits. That makes the significance of anything which systematically modifies how humans think (another example would be learning to play musical instruments, which actually re-wires your neurochemistry in recordable ways) very high indeed.

      apologise if I raise points (like resources) that you’ve mentioned in prior posts: I’ve not long been reading your blog.

      Please do :) If I’ve already covered something I can just link back to the original argument. The points of development in the Great Machine series will provide the first few entries on the Axioms page. That will both accelerate the process of someone such as yourself being able to get precis data on earlier thoughts and arguments, it will also make the back-reference process considerably more stream-lined.

  6. Mark

    Hmmm… OK.

    Firstly – it isn’t necessary to find a city without hierarchy or taxation in order for your hypothesis to be incorrect – it is only necessary that hierarchy and taxation (as plunder) are not direct causes of urbanization and development – that they are either effects or simply incidental social phenomena which have no specific role in the creation of large cities. My criticism is of your apparent conclusion that successful cities are primarily the work of rapacious elites.

    It is clear that towns sometimes grow around their leaders. The Medieval resurgence of urban living took place under the dubious auspices of minor local Lords and the Church – peasants and tradesmen seeking security from their feudal masters. For the masters, the manorial system allowed greater control of their subjects – providing a compelling motivation for their creation. However, the vast majority of these settlements were small – by 1300, less than 5% of these towns had a population of greater than 5,000 people.[Crouzet p.46] Those cities which did grow all have one thing in common – some functional advantage, generally a location which lent itself to trade. The growth of the Italian city states can be attributed to trade rather than taxation – positioned in the perfect location to take advantage of Mediterranean routes, producing wealth unparalleled in the rest of Europe [Larano]. Paris was a religious and political center, but one surrounded by the fertile lands of the Ile-de-France and recipient of the rich river trade of the Seine. Cities created for the benefit of rulers, but which did not possess these natural advantages *did not grow*. From the middle ages onwards, the most successful cities possessed one other clear advantage – relative social and economic freedom.[Crouzet p.48] This immunity from interference by petty lords and their taxation allowed the development of trade and a middle class – the Northern Italian cities, German cities, the Hanseatic league – all examples of increasing freedom and broader political participation directly resulting in economic growth and wealth. So rather than the growth of cities being a result of the forced removal of wealth from the surrounding rural population by a despotic leader, the growth of cities was caused by their wealth producing capacity as centers of trade and industry, facilitated by relative political freedom.

    Whether political centralization is militarily effective and whether it is socially and economically effective are two largely unrelated questions. The most effective military forces until relatively recent times have not been urban or agrarian, but nomadic. [see Keegan] Cities (of any size) are not an effective means of military organization in low-bandwidth societies, so if social organization is simply a means to project the power of elites – why on earth would they exist? Could it be that they perform some useful economic or social function for the people themselves, rather than the ruler?

    Where taxation is used for communal projects such as city walls, irrigation, docks or protection, it is not a concentration of wealth in the hands of an individual, but an example of collective action for the greater good. Collective action (and taxation) do not require political centralization. Isolated villages often spontaneously develop communal arrangements for shared fields, funeral rites and insurance against misfortune [ Dasgupta, P.5] According to wikipedia, “Indus Civilization cities were remarkable for their apparent, if relative, egalitarianism. All the houses had access to water and drainage facilities. This gives the impression of a society with relatively low wealth concentration, though clear social leveling is seen in personal adornments.”
    In order for your hypothesis to hold water, it must be the case that powerful individuals using their plunder on frivolities such as pyramids (rather than items which add to the general good *as these don’t lead to a concentration of wealth*) are necessary for the establishment of cities.
    You’re also implying that this ever increasing concentration of wealth and power is the only way for cities to develop at low levels of technology.
    Not convinced.

    Partha Dasgupta Economics: A very short introduction
    Paola Lanaro; At the Center of the Old World
    John Keegan, A History of Warfare
    Crouzet, A History of the European Economy 1000- 2000

    • johnqpublican

      Good lord.

      I appreciate your attempt to throw in book references, but I’m really not going to waste the time necessary to deconstruct this in detail. A few notes:

      It is clear that towns sometimes grow around their leaders. The Medieval resurgence of urban living took place under the dubious auspices of minor local Lords and the Church

      And on, and on. While this is a reasonable overview of European medieval urban development (and one which I’ve already dealt with in a different comment, specifically including the Great Fairs and the Italianate city states of the Rennaissance) it’s also irrelevant. By this time the machine is already in gear in the area in question, and has been since Roman times; look at the spread of state power over time and you will see it follows both the Roman Roads and the Roman municipal boundaries, as a result of the episcopal influence on social development. Centralisation across a very wide area.

      The reason your round-up is irrelevant is that I’m talking about systems, by that time. I’m talking about individual cities nearly four thousand years earlier. If you actually want to understand what I’m saying compare France 899-1350 with Britain in the same period. Examine relative power and wealth of royalty versus barons and counts, then compare the speed of technological development, the evolution of assembly-line cottage industry, the introduction of written legal process and the centralisation of the court system in each country.

      Whether political centralization is militarily effective and whether it is socially and economically effective are two largely unrelated questions.

      Unsupported assertion that is also simply wrong. I’ve demonstrated the link in the earlier articles: that you refuse to accept it is typical.

      So rather than the growth of cities being a result of the forced removal of wealth from the surrounding rural population by a despotic leader, the growth of cities was caused by their wealth producing capacity as centers of trade and industry, facilitated by relative political freedom.

      Except that isn’t true, either. To pick your example of the German principalities: do you note how much better at the economic game Germany become once it was centralised under a single military hierarchy by Bismark? The German states were politically and militarily a joke during the period you’re talking about: they were also responsible for over 2/3s of the total witch-hunt death toll during the same period. Their economic growth was massively retarded by their decentralisation, by comparison particularly with Britain.

      Not convinced.

      Well, no. I’m never going to convince you; if it takes you fourteen comments and me poking you with a stick before you bring even the semblence of actual knowledge to the table, you’re a troll.

      You seem to believe that my summary of a huge quantity of knowledge and theory has occluded your ability to understand my argument. It has not had that effect on the others reading; therefore, I’m inclined to think you’re wrong.

      Thank you for trying, really; but I’m really done with you on this thread. You are not trying to learn, merely to waste my time, and I have limited patience with the hard-of-thinking. For reference, you powered through my tolerance level with “I know I`m just a simply stooge of the capitalist masters”.

      • Mark

        No platform for the critical eh?

        Whenever I engage with your arguments, provide you with reasonable disagreement or facts, you simply ignore me and tell me i`m being foolish.
        There is nothing unreasonable about the criticisms given above – especially that the story of progressive centralisation of wealth can only be a part of the process, since for at least the last 1000 years cities have been travelling in the opposite direction – that at the very least you might have left out an important part of the equation due to gross simplification.
        That urbanisation and military stength are not synonymous for low technology civilisations.
        That military strength is not a good way to measure progress, anyway.

        Far from being free from ideology, your work is riven with it.
        You`ve failed to provide one shred of proof that initial settlement formation must be a result of centralisation. You`ve simply said it is.
        I would be failing in my duty as a commenter if I let you get away with that.

        I actually think you believe your unasserted statements are somehow proof of something – that you are, actually, a vastly arrogant man. Perhaps it was your time in Africa that did it to you – I imagine you all meant well for them, unlike the colonial masters of times past – but there was never any doubt about who was backwards and in need of help and who was going to provide it.
        You don`t *believe* in decentralised decision making as an important part of the historical process because it doesn`t appeal to your instinct that you know better than everyone else. You can`t concieve of a world in which ordinary peoples decisions might be important and so you search for intellectual fig leafs to cover the conceit.

        Finally, I`ve never been one to be swayed by the “emperors new clothes” argument. But nice try anyway ;)

        • johnqpublican

          Whenever I engage with your arguments, provide you with reasonable disagreement or facts, you simply ignore me and tell me i`m being foolish.

          Which I have not done. Your ‘reasonable disagreement’ is a repeated, unstoppable sequence of “but that’s not so!”: with regard to your fact, I refer the honourable gentleman to my previous answer.

          You don`t *believe* in decentralised decision making as an important part of the historical process because it doesn`t appeal to your instinct that you know better than everyone else.

          I believe in decentralised decision making; in so far as I have a political manifesto, that’s what it’s about. I have spent several weeks presenting a survey of the ways in which every time a non-hierarchical polity or economic base came into market competition with a hierarchical, capitalist economic base the freer society (i.e. the decentralised one) lost. That’s an argument for the view you espouse: that capitalism is good.

          With regard to your remarkable conceit that I have consistently ignored evidentiary arguments from you: the above is your first attempt to present one. I have already spent well over two man-days just dealing with y our misunderstandings and misinterpretations; there is a limit to how much energy I’m going to spend arguing with someone who is not here to learn.

          • Mark

            In future I will label evidence more clearly rather than just presenting the conclusions.
            I can see now that my former style might have been difficult for the closed-minded to follow.

            Appologies.

            • johnqpublican

              *applauds*

              I got quite snappy there; sorry. Long few days making movies, then long day at work boxed in by a Police investigation of the scene of a stabbing.

              My problem with your earlier arguments is that you were presenting dogmas as evidence; if you had unpacked your chains of reasoning it would have been easier to point out the places where those chains relied on ideological assumptions. As it was, it just got a bit repetitive.

          • Mark

            Market capitalism is the most decentralised system possible.
            Non?

            • johnqpublican

              Non, not even in the slightest. Though I applaud your choice not to say ‘free’ market capitalism; as that would have made your statement quite possibly true while simultaneously rendering it irrelevant to the real world.

              The most decentralised system possible is one where only the specific things a person is using are considered ‘theirs’; this knife is only mine until I drop it, if you pick up it’s yours. This land is only mine if I farm it or live on it; if I do neither, and someone else begins to, it is no longer mine. Decentralisation to that extent is also massively inhibiting of trade, so not necessarily a good idea in the long run. My interest in decentralisatin is as a function of personal autonomy; I want there to be the fewest number of ways possible that a person can fuck with my life without my giving them permission, and so long as I don’t fuck with theirs.

              Secondarily, what I see missing from your analysis is an understanding of the relevance of starting conditions. I’ve done this in more detail on the next post, but it boils down to this; if you have as a starting condition of your system that a small number of people have a disproportionate percentage of the money (i.e. capitalism) then you are not decentralised at all. The many are entirely subject to the autonomy of the few. There are a variety of ways to mask it, such as representative democracy and corporation law, but it’s still true that less than 5% of the population have sufficient capital accumulations that they can buy laws.

              The Great Machine of the title is precisely that; it’s the system, starting from the Anatolian city-muggers, by which money is caused to flow from the edge to the centre of the network where it accumulates. Since the whole globe has now been brought into this machine (until quite recently large parts of it were happily hanging around in the tribal iron-age) one has to look at this assessment globally: and on that level, the percentage of the human species towards whom the machine funnels the money, is lower now than it has been at any time since the advent of the Industrial era.

  7. Mark

    Oh sorry… wouldn`t claiming the existance of hierachy within society caused the development of cities (because hierachies exist and there are cities) when the two things might be largely unrelated be an example of post hoc ergo whatever?

    • johnqpublican

      wouldn`t claiming the existance of hierachy within society caused the development of cities (because hierachies exist and there are cities) when the two things might be largely unrelate

      Which I never claimed.

      Nice try at a straw man though.

      • Mark

        Uh… yes you did!

        Blimey, you`re a strange one.

        • johnqpublican

          Well, this is getting circular. No, no I didn’t.

          Don’t read a causal analysis where there is instead a correlative one.

          What I said is that when you get cities evolving, at some point they start funneling wealth (at the earlist point, food) from the peasantry (which are protected by the city’s ability to support a standing army) towards the people who operate the city.

          I also said that when two socio-economic entities compete, scale can be a crucial factor; if the imbalance of scale is large enough, the smaller ones loses.

          I then also said that in a low-bandwidth society, hierarchies scale better than any competing system.

          I then noted that if you look across human history, hierarchical state organisations are, pretty much universally, the most effective competitors, partly because of information flow and partly because by concentrating both resources and executive they beat the bandwidth limitations.

          Hierarchies do not cause cities: as I mentioned in the conversation with Eithin, out of four archaeological models for urbanisation in the Cradle, three go Egalitarian Society -> Hierarchy -> City, and one goes Egalitarian Society -> City -> Hierarchy. So not only did I not make this assertion, I explicitly disclaimed it.

  8. Mark

    Actually, I can`t remember you giving much evidence of anything…

    I know I`m just a simply stooge of the capitalist masters… but maybe if you provided me with a bit of evidence I`d see the light?

    • johnqpublican

      I’ve realised as I went through things after the fact that one reason you don’t see me as having presented ‘evidence’ is that I have rarely (in particularly the first four articles) provided case studies; that is, specific and numerical surveys of cities such as Ur, or a detailed examination of the growth of literate taxation contextualised against the competition between the Upper and Lower Nile kingdoms.

      I have not done these things because nothing I’m saying about the pattern they create is controversial or unexpected to a student of the field. You say to me (below) that I should consider more of what has happened in the last 200 years; I say to you, you should consider the term ‘starting conditions’. I was primarily interested, in this study, in finding the route through history that led to statist, hierarchical capitalism being the dominant success factor in a converging human political environment. The idea that it is the dominant paradigm today is even less in doubt than the idea that there is a sound, empirical reason for this to be true. I was interested in the reason; because leftists don’t like to talk about it and neither do rightists, and I thought that was interesting.

  9. Mark

    Regarding the definition of capital; unused wealth only has a value as insurance – stockpiling wealth and then not using it will not increase your power within society.
    Whether or not you`re defining capitalism as any system in which people can aquire wealth – it must be clear that the oversimplification of your analysis is actually *more* confusing than a more detailed explanation would be.
    At the moment we have – people get rich, use their money to influence society, thats where we are –

    Don`t you think it might be more appropriate to at least address some of the political, economic and social changes that have taken place over the last 2000 years?
    Or are those just details?

    • johnqpublican

      Regarding the definition of capital; unused wealth only has a value as insurance – stockpiling wealth and then not using it will not increase your power within society.

      In order for anything to accumulate what you’ve already got must be unused. We are discussing the origins of capital accumulation. What seems missing from your understanding is any personal measure for how small the quantity of ‘unused’ is when you’re a muscle-powered subsistence society.