peonage ahead, next ten millenia

For a very long time, our species lived in small, hyperegalitarian nomadic bands on the edge of subsistence. It was what it was. Then, around ten thousand years ago or so, we discovered/invented agriculture, staying in one place and directly manipulating plants and animals to regularly and reliably produce lots of food. This had the potential to be really really great, since it meant on average one person’s labor could generate more than enough food to feed many people, and therefore other people could create things above-and-beyond food, both material stuff and memetic stuff, knowledge and science and art. This was really great.

But it had its problems. There were logistical and administrative problems, of course, which required inventing many supporting technologies like wheels, plows, writing, law, mathematics, money, finance, etc. There was also what you might call the Hobbesian problem, or the free-rider problem, or the bandit problem – one group of people might work very hard to generate a lot of wealth, and another group could work far less hard and simply take the stuff using violence.

Different societies solved all these problems in different ways and came up with different technologies (Mesoamerica, for example, had no wheel, which still confounds me) but almost all of them came up with some sort of system by which a subset of people were designated to be organized defenders, using violence and force to prevent both external and internal individuals and groups from taking all the stuff.

This technology had its own problem, though; namely that the people who were in charge of the “official” force-wielding group tended to use that force to vastly enrich themselves at the expense of society – exactly the thing they were supposed to prevent! And other people were canny at manipulating things like law and finance to somehow gain rights to a large share of the group’s stuff while not actually seeming to be working very hard. And by this point the vast majority of people were working very hard, but all the extra stuff was going to the manipulators and force-wielders. Different societies negotiated this in different ways, but they all took the form of some kind of ideology.

The ideologies differed over place and time, but they basically provided systematic ways of thinking that justified the general system by which most people would work very hard but still subsist while a few people would be very wealthy and control everything. These ideologies usually contained some sort of explicit hierarchy and an extra-material justification for it; that is, a large cosmic reason that a few people were in charge and the rest were consigned to permanent subsistence labor.  It’s not very easy to see how this could have been different, given the circumstances, but it still wasn’t great for most people. So even though average wealth had increased, modal wealth had not; the surplus all flowed to the nobles and kings and emperors and priests.

After about 9800 years of this or so, a couple things began to happen. The first was that a few societies had figured out some new technologies (and exceptional combinations of new technologies) that allowed them to break through the agricultural wealth plateau and start creating much more wealth per capita; the second (which in some part predated and in some other part was catalyzed and accelerated by the first) was the rise of new ideologies that rejected the old ideologies and said everyone, fundamentally, should be equal in law, dignity, and even to varying degrees materially. From around the time of the American Revolution through World War II, societies around the world were rocked by both the economic changes as these new technologies spread rapidly as well as the social changes as these new ideologies spread rapidly as well, and were often met with fierce resistance by those who benefited from the old ideologies.

Eventually, something kind of amazing happened – by 1950, after astounding and rapidly escalating traumas of violence, dislocation, and destruction, the world emerged divided into two ideological camps; but both of these camps firmly rejected the old ideologies and instead were products of the new ideologies, the ones that wanted everyone to be equal. Now, these ideologies differed in some important ways, mostly around trade-offs between stressing equality under law and individual freedom or stressing equality of material wealth and dignity, and they certainly didn’t like each other very much and viewed each other as very threatening, but nonetheless both ideologies – called “welfare-state democratic capitalism” and “socialism,” respectively – believed very much in the new ideology and rejected the old ones. After another few decades, it turned out that the second one didn’t work very well and eventually most of the countries that subscribed to it switched to some version of the first one and even the ones that didn’t started implicitly trying to borrow from it and that’s the world today, or at least a few years.

But then a funny thing started to happen, in the richest and most powerful country, the one that was the flagbearer of that first ideology. Some of the people started to quietly, then more loudly, reject the new ideologies altogether and start to embrace the old ones. They started to make arguments about why the very few rich people (because remember, that first new ideology put less stress on material equality, so some people were still very rich relative to most people) deserved that wealth and why others didn’t; they started to talk about restricting people’s right to vote, and even to restrict their right to elect representatives to negotiate with their bosses even when their bosses wanted them to. Many of them started to frown on the simplest ideas, like giving everyone the right to have a doctor, or modest payments in old age, explicitly because it would prevent them from working harder and longer. They once again began to see the very few, as opposed to the many, as the reason society existed and the reason for the many as service to the few, as opposed to the new way, the way that supposedly won, in which the reason society existed was for the many and the reason there was a few at all was because that was a consequence of organizing a system that best balanced the tradeoffs between individual freedom and shared prosperity.

I don’t know about you, but I like the new ideology, the first one, the one that supposedly won out over all the others, in which everyone is equal and deserving and that says that as society gets wealthier everyone should benefit. I really don’t like those old ideologies, in which a very few people had all the power and wealth. We don’t have to accept those old ideologies, and we shouldn’t.