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Is Civilisation A Pyramid Scheme?

by das monde Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 04:17:53 AM EST

As this diary originated from a discussion of real estate markets, we will eventually get to financial matters of today. The sweeping bottom question is: how can an apparently steady growth or progress be possibly halted, or even voided? Do civilisations collapse often, and how? Do they just meet bad luck or barbaric invaders sooner or later,  or do they always collapse once they fully employ a "no-brainer" affluence strategy, like greed or self-indulgence? Can gains of globalization and free markets increase forever, or will they abruptly end just "around a corner"?

Globalization must have the limits of the globe, or not? It works all fine while new markets open and expand, while masses of new individuals enter speculative markets, either directly or via inescapably more aggressive pension funds. Will the global economy continue to prosper when the stream of eager new buyers will dry out?

Deep down, it is not exceptionally remarkable that evaluation of the markets grows while their volume rapidly expands. You can run a pyramid scheme with the same effect!

From the diaries - afew


While I was preparing this diary, I googled up an internet article with almost the same title. Interestingly, it was written in the year 2000. (Remember those times?) For the beginning, let's follow the article.

Earth is full of dead cities. Civilizations, like individuals, are born, flourish and die. Except ours. Ours, we believe, is different, the beneficiary of all the rest. The sunny afternoon in which we thrive will stretch ahead forever. In this belief, we carry on our lives against the evidence of time.

Indeed. Egyptians and Maya had much more than their stone pyramids. Yet we know now well only the pyramids. How did it happen that everything else went gone?

Tikal, the greatest city, seems a Manhattan of art deco pyramids [presiding] over a conurbation of 120 square kilometres. It took 1,500 years to reach that size, yet all of Tikal's skyscrapers were built in its final century, an extravagant flowering on the eve of collapse.

Jared Diamond has the same observation: civilisations tend to collapse after an imposing boom.

Civilizations rise because they find new ways to exploit natural and human resources, to tip the balance between culture and nature. They feed on their local ecology until it is degraded, thriving only while they grow. When they can no longer expand, they fall victim to their own success. Civilization is a pyramid scheme.

The cusp between rise and fall is a matter of scale, of demand outrunning natural limits.

Are we sure the modern civilisation was never warned?

[There] was a cost, a debt to nature accruing so gradually it was seldom observed, let alone understood. Woods dwindled and receded, denuded land became prone to drought and flood (including, perhaps, the Flood), irrigated fields turned sour. The cities of the plain turned their surroundings into a saltpan. The desert in which their ruins stand is a desert of their making.

Can we make better guesses, what can the greatest biblical human folly possibly be? What about blind confidence that growing wealth can grow forever? Or that things never go catastrophically badly to a prospering civilisation? That greed is an ultimate vehicle of progress?

In the past, these cycles were regional. As Rome fell in the Mediterranean, the Maya rose in Central America, and so on; the setbacks were local, the overall experiment kept going. But now the 10,000-year bets all rest on a single throw. We have one big civilization, feeding on the whole Earth at such a rate that we can observe the exhaustion of natural capital within our lifetimes, whether it be the loss of wildlife, water, coral reefs or rain forests. We are razing forests everywhere, we are irrigating everywhere, we are fishing everywhere [...]

Couldn't Darwinnian selection of civilisations be somewhat more effective up until this global moment?

During the 20th century alone, our population multiplied by four, while our consumption grew by 40. Yet the number in abject poverty today is as great as all mankind in 1900. Is this progress? Can the stock market be trusted to run the world? Or is our consumerist boom the illusory wealth of wastrels blowing an inheritance - by no means only their own? Is the promise of prosperity for six billion the Big Lie of our time?

Will we be very lucky if just a meek portion of humanity will survive a sweeping climate/geological change and self-inflicted chaos? Should we at worst hope for not much more but unambiguous preservation of a single big lesson for the next civilisation cycle?

Ok, I stop here with digging the apocalyptic spectrum. Please browse that great article by Ronald Wright on your own.

I am changing the subject with the words stock market.  I may be dumb with putting this "demystification" in a heartlessly depressing way, but would it be really more considerate to wait?

As I write, financial markets are having a bad day across the world, after a rocky week. Can we make more sense of this than a combination of factors?

The hypothesis is that the modern economy is dominated by ever increasing and ever expanding speculation in stock and real estate markets. These markets will grow just as long as the volume increases. The markets are vastly overvalued due to a pyramid-style growth of the number of players. The markets will fail when there won't be any bottom to add to participants' pyramid.

How did we got here? What is the more important effect of Bush's tax cuts: blatant enrichment of already the most wealthy and most influential, or inducing millions of Americans into stock and real estate markets? Do we need now many thousands (a day) of Chinese entrants into financial markets to keep the world economy afloat?

An important factor for market's fall last week was the anticipation that the Chinese government is going to control China's speculative markets more seriously, or raise capital gain taxes making speculation less profitable. Even conservative pro-market gurus stress that. Isn't this is a striking test of how important is the volume growth to the current economy?

What the world has been following now is perhaps precisely a recipe of a pyramid disaster - a moment without buyers is coming, and most of the players will never exercise the equity they nominally have at this moment. We should look closely to similarities with the First Great Depression. The pro-market leaders might have been following the same pattern inadvertently, believing they found perpetum mobile for the fulfillment in this world. But it is not so that governments were never building financial pyramids unknowingly. Does humanity has no better ambition than gambling for an eternally easy living?

Show me some rays of light.

Poll
Is civilisation a pyramid scheme?
. Yes. The bottom layer is being laid by us 18%
. Yes. But we will overcome the Bush dynasty 0%
. Yes. This episode is a global pyramide scheme 18%
. No. The world is getting better 9%
. Whatever we make of it 54%
. Yes. Only Halliburton shares will go up 0%
. No. Halliburton shares will only go up 0%

Votes: 11
Results | Other Polls
Display:
Our deficit-based money IS a pyramid scheme.

Sooner or later there aren't enough assets for new IOU's to be issued against, or energy to create those assets, or liquid fuel for those assets.

That's where we are pretty much at, and I'm two years bid, five years offered on a hedge fund/credit derivative/ private equity merry-go-round - precipitated meltdown.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 10:42:05 AM EST
This diary and Privileges: http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2007/3/5/290/06967 begin to summarise the deep fault lines in Capitalism.

Are the social and economic structures we have built too rigid for the big earthquake that may arrive at any day?

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 10:51:44 AM EST
to answer the question:  yes

any model that depends on perpetual growth for success is a pyramid scheme... finance capitalism as we know it, or indeed any capitalist model that relies on the magic of compound interest, future discounting, and evergrowing markets to snowball (illusory) profits, is a Ponzi scheme.  why this isn't obvious to everyone is a great puzzle to me.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 12:39:25 PM EST
Either your second paragraph doesn't have anything to do with the first, or you're equating civilisation with financial capitalism.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 01:41:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
hmmm well, what else is our present phase of civilisation based on?

but more to the point, finance capitalism seems more and more to me like the logical end state -- or more pessimistically, just the latest release of the software -- for the historical dynamic of "civilisation".  i.e. a new pseudorational ideology that justifies/perpetuates the regime of accumulation and the core/periphery dynamic needed to support a parasitical and idle elite, monumental construction, massive resource hoarding and concentration, grotesque displays of status and the other markers which we recognise as indicating "high" culture.

the ethic of perpetual growth predates capitalism;  it's built into the imperial model.  empires must grow -- acquiring fresh periphery to loot -- or their overheated cores collapse, they can no longer offer the outrageous profit margins in loot and luxury which command the allegiance of their mercenary armies, or support the lifestyle to which their elites feel entitled.  so capitalism often seems to me merely a fresh ideological paint job, replacing Divine Descent, Apotheosis, or their watered-down descendant Divine Right as the legitimating myth of the regime of elite accumulation and the core/periphery Ponzi scheme.  

industrial technology ups the ante; by extending the supply lines and multiplying human effort by cheap energy, it sets the core/periphery game on Fast Forward so that the looting/pithing of the periphery now achieves in a few decades a degree of damage and mayhem that, using more primitive tools, would have taken centuries.  but the essential regime of accumulation, hoarding, conspicuous consumption and exterminism doesn't seem to have changed much.

no pyramids w/o slaves -- including pyramid schemes.  and no skyscrapers without energy slaves;  no energy slaves (cheap fossil fuel) without immiseration and displacement and warfare.

the civitas or imperial city (in contrast to the market town which has a more symbiotic relationship with agrarian realities) is a microcore, draining its periphery.  but now we have "progressed" to the global-imperial megalopolis that drains the entire world, its dragnets (literal and figurative) liquidating biotic systems and enslaving peasants worldwide.

the "civilised" -- that is, those who are committed to the priorities and purposes of the imperial city and "high" culture -- are at perpetual war with their periphery, whether it be the smallholders just outside the walls, or the unfortunate Iraqis whose oil is required to keep the lights on and the elevators running.  I'd say without too much sense of rhetorical exaggeration that slavery is written into the structure of any building with stairs too long for an average resident to climb, as much as it was written into the design of Queen Cleopatra's barge.

...or so I would argue based on the evidence currently available.  Bookchin insists that the polis as a healthy and symbiotic human institution and lifeway is distinguishable from the civitas and is recoverable.  I am only halfway through his argument and have not yet decided whether I find it convincing.  maybe he will convince me that civilisation -- a human life based in cities -- can be achieved without theft, murder, slavery and warfare.  he will have some uphill work to do so, but I'm still reading.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 04:02:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
1)    Government in service to ordinary people is evil and incompetent.
  1.    "Lower taxes", or lower wages, or possibly both can solve all economic problems.
  2.    "Investment" is a magic elixir and must always have first priority for public policy.
  3.    The poor are to blame for systematic poverty and nothing can really be done about poverty.
  4.    Everything would be fine if government would just leave "industry" alone.
  5.    "Private Property" is so obviously sacred that even asking for a definition makes the asker deeply suspect.
  6.    People who don't accept 1-6 might be well intended, but they are really just stupid and making things worse.

Ideological dogma over reality, meet self.

by MarekNYC on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 04:27:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think financial capitalism is a logical end state of anything. My own narrative about this is that financial capitalism as we know it was made possible by the rapid and sustained economic expansion in the Renaissance [recovering from the collapse of 14th century Europe] and that the cultural change that brought made it look like growth was the outcome and financial capitalism the means when in reality it was growth that made financial capitalism possible.

Please point me to a culture without a parasitical elite and grotesque displays of status.

You say the ethic of perpetual growth is built in to the imperial model, and I would have to agree with you, but at various historical points there have been choices over whether to embark in Empire or not, and this has sometimes been resisted, or empires have decided it was not worth their while to continue expansion.

Now you decry the civitas but embrace the market town which has its own supply network, except that you call the supply network of the civitas a dragnet, and you say the supply network of the market town is a symbiotic relationship. I have some news for you: the market town will lead to specialisation and division of labour and a permanent population in the market town which you would then would go on to call a parasitic elite.

The only way you are going to avoid division of labour and specialisation is by reducing all communities to the size of a family, all economic activity to subsistence, and by suppressing trade. I will take the city any day.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 05:36:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The difference comes about when the king and the army are introduced. And their introduction was a prehistoric phenomenon occurring IIRC between 8000-5000 BC
by bil on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 07:29:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Do they  develop or are they introduced. As far as I can tell societies are shaped to a large extent by the physical realities of the technology (in the broad sense) and resources available to them.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 07:32:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The king and the army are not universal phenomena, and it is the mercenary army or the standing army that becomes a drain on the resources of the whole through the centre.

On the other hand, the alpha male was not a prehistoric invention dating back 7 to 10 thousand years. It's much, much older.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 07:38:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
They're not universal? Is there one place on this earth they do not control?
As for the alpha male, the King and army are still an introduction, not a necessity. Nor is biology destiny. Nor are such concepts as the alpha male "real", that is simply a concept used to make a simple picture of our given reality.
by bil on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:26:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You're going to have to be a bit more specific about what happened 7k-10k years ago, and especially what social organisation was like before "kings and armies".

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:45:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's my impression that first there was a village organization, then the introduction of somewhat larger agglomerations with permanent dwellings, a somewhat larger population, intensive agriculture, but no walls yet. And then something happened. The domestication of the horse, invention of bronze weapons, population pressure, I don't know.
After this we find walls, very hierarchical societies, kings, priestly religions, organized conquest and so forth. The present era, in other words. And I think we ahve to recognize that this is a particular historical phase we are passing through (hopefully) in order to combat the ills it brings, save the benefits, and bring about change.
by bil on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 10:07:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, the domestication of the horse is a Eurasian phenomenon (actually excluding South Asia) and happened quite late (4000 to 2000 BC) in comparison to your 8000 BC - 5000 BC transition period. I suppose you really intended to refer to the Bronze Age?

(legend for the map here)

Agriculture did develop between 10000 and 5000 BC.

The earliest known wall is in Jericho and dates from the 8th millennium BC:

Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, 8350 BC to 7370 BC. Sometimes it is called Sultanian. The site is a 40,000 square metre settlement surrounded by a stone wall, with a stone tower in the centre of one wall. This is so far the oldest wall ever to be discovered, thus suggesting some kind of social organization, even if based on charisma. The town contained round mud-brick houses, yet no street planning. The 400-2000 dwellers used domesticated emmer wheat, barley and pulses and hunted wild animals.

The difference between a town and a city seems to be division of labour and organised government, and the first cities seem to date from the Bronze age (e.g., Mohenjo-Daro). But metalworking (copper) is much older than that, so apparently that didn't require or lead to complex social organisation or division of labour?

Now, to call the last 5000 to 10000 years "a particular historical phase" seems a bit much. And consider that "kings" were replaced by "republics" in various places around 500 BC. Though maybe by "kings and armies" you meant "states" (see the map above).

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 10:49:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The republics in turn replaced by kings. And coming down to the present where the most we have progressed to is an oligarchy held in precarious check by some proto-democratic institutions.
But the point I think I am trying to make is that, yes, what we call states are still variants of the original king & army, with supporting religious belief that we have had for the past 8, 10 thousand years or so. And it's the attitudes that have been formed by those thousands of years which are hampering our progress.
Oh, and also on alpha males, it's really the betas that are the problem. They're the supporters of the regime.
by bil on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 04:02:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...You're going to have to be a bit more specific about what happened 7k-10k years ago

Agriculture happened.

Once a food surplus is achieved you have to have a place to put it (pottery), a way of telling whose it is ("writing"), someone to keep track of it all (bureaucrats) ....

and an annual, all-together-now, 'making of the whoopie' to make sure the seeds germinate ... at least that's the excuse and

LO!

Religion is born.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 08:18:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And agriculture happened because of the Younger Dryas event and the convenience of using cereals to avoid starvation.
When major climate change took place after the last ice age c.11,000 BC much of the earth became subject to long dry seasons. These conditions favoured annual plants which die off in the long dry season, leaving a dormant seed or tuber. These plants tended to put more energy into producing seeds than into woody growth. An abundance of readily storable wild grains and pulses enabled hunter-gatherers in some areas to form the first settled villages at this time.

The practice of agriculture first began around 8000 BC in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia (part of present day Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Jordan which was then greener). This region was home to the greatest diversity of annual plants and according to one study 32 of the 56 largest grass seeds.

The first crops to be domesticated were all crops of edible seeds, wheat, barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, bitter vetch and flax. These plants were all readily storable, easy to grow and grew quickly. They had to undergo few genetic changes to be of use to farmers, their wild relatives remaining easily recognisable to this day. Crop domestication took place independently in geographically distant human populations.

In China, rice and millet were domesticated by 7500 BC, followed by the beans mung, soy and azuki. In the Sahel region of Africa local rice and sorghum were domestic by 5000 BC. Local crops were domesticated independently in West Africa and possibly in New Guinea and Ethiopia. Three regions of the Americas independently domesticated corn, squashes, potato and sunflowers.

Humans in many different areas of the earth took up farming in what is, set against the 500,000 year age span of modern humans, a very short time. This is the most convincing evidence that global climate change, and the resultant adaptations by vegetation, were the cause of the beginning of agriculture.



"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:35:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I had a suspicion that empires are not so natural as they appear to us, Western conquerors.
by das monde on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:15:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you're wrong (wiki).

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:26:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The meme of empire must be evolving. It cannot be the same before Alexander the Great and Julius Cesar, and after them.

Besides, other memes of governing might have been more competative at other times or locations.

by das monde on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:38:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You're going to have to give a precise definition of "empire", then, and find a name for all the things that the wiki's list of "empires" calls "empire". Then we can compare it with De's implicit definition of "imperial".

Sigh, nominalism.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:45:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Please point me to a culture without a parasitical elite and grotesque displays of status.

There is too little information to be conclusive, but some people consider Minoan civilization to be remarkable for its almost completely unmilitary character.  Furthermore, the Cretan "palaces", such as Knossos, might not in fact have been centers of monarchial or theocratic power, as there was no effort to glorify any one person or even group of persons as rulers or elite (other than, perhaps, goddess priestesses).  The so-called "throne room" (so named by discoverer Arthur Evans) was hardly "fit for a king".  And the complex itself, lacking fortifications but endowed with a thousand interlocking rooms and storerooms and extremely sophisticated plumbing (including flush toilets and bathtubs) and courtyards, was less a castle than a resort cum warehouse cum factory cum office building.  An ancient club-med/community center/city hall?

I agree, the world norm has always been hierarchy, exploitation, and oppression.  But it's nice to dream that ancient Crete supported one society that beat the odds and came up with something fairer, egalitarian, without repression, slavery and warfare.

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:44:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In the book "Collapse", Jared Diamond consider the example of Tikopia island, where people lived for several centuries sustainably. Not only they kept the population constant, they even set aside the pleasure of having pigs (due to their degrading behaviour).

The Edo era Japan was peaceful 200 years, actually. But the role of elites was clearly not modest.  

by das monde on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 09:07:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
one problem with the challenge is that the Euro/Anglo (and indeed the imperial Asian, the imperial Roman, the imperial anyone) tradition is not to recognise any culture as a legitimate "culture" unless it has elites, accumulation, and grotesque displays of status :-)

so I could point to hundreds of indigenous cultures, worldwide, who lived for centuries or millennia in their native biomes with distinctive, highly-adaptive culture and languages without developing the imperialistic virus -- only to be enslaved, slaughtered, hunted for sport, driven off their land, exterminated by the imperially-infected shortly after first contact.  but the "civilised" would not recognise these people as "cultures" precisely because they did not live in cities, construct monumental architecture, impose theocratic control, wage wars (thus "creating history"), accumulate, enslave, etc. -- and precisely because, having destroyed them and their ways of life, it is necessary for us to salve our consciences by pretending that they were inferior and of no account, and that what we have built over their dead bodies is somehow worthier, superior to anything that came before.  [even as we shoot ourselves in both feet with ever-increasing accuracy.]

all such people are dismissed as "barbarians," "savages," "heathen," "primitive," etc. by the allegedly superior "civilisation" -- whether it be the Romans enslaving the Germanic tribes or the Conquistadores massacring S American indigenes or my own British ancestors machine-gunning the "bloody wogs" and hunting Australian Aborigines.  and despite all the first-hand testimony of original Anglo explorers in N America for example, who report with amazement on the health, robustness and happiness of the indigenes -- despite the serious "problem" reported by the early colonial administrators, of Anglo colonists running away to "join the Indians" (particularly those captured by and then "rescued from" the Indians, who often persisted on running away repeatedly to rejoin their "captors") -- we perpetuate the myth that their lives were miserable, full of disease, hunger, hardship, fear, ignorance and violence -- in other words the life of the slums of our own cities.  [in other words we may be repeating the myth of our own elites, the myth that all kings have recited to all commoners:  without our elites and their way of life, we would be lost, we would be miserable, hungry and cold;  without the king's divine blessing the crops will fail and the wells run dry :-)]

so I would say that history is absolutely chockfull of examples of people who did not take the elite accumulator route, but like decent folks in a neighbourhood being invaded by drug dealers and mafiosi, they didn't stand much of a chance when the wheat/beef marauders showed up;  and since the winners get to write history, these people are defined out of history as "non-cultures," their achievements (particularly in permaculture, plant breeding, and sustainable livelihood) belittled and denied, their languages and oral traditions deliberately extirpated (the kidnapping and brainwashing of indigenous children by the colonisers is well-documented).

Bookchin explores some of these themes in Limits of the City, and Mike Davis is very good on the dynamics of the global capitalist city in Planet of Slums (his analysis of Los Angeles as an imperial city, particularly its role in stealing water from a huge surrounding area [incidentally destroying several ancient indigenous settlements] is found in City of Quartz).  I find Bookchin far too sentimental about the Athenians, but he gets a better grip on his subject in The Ecology of Freedom, if one can persist through the initial series of hectoring Introductions.  Derrick Jensen tackles the Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis in Endgame I... and as to alpha males, primatology is fairly clear on our closer genetic relationship to less warlike monkey-shaped animals than to the baboons whose behaviour "civilisation" most closely models.

in many non-imperialist cultures, status is displayed by generosity rather than accumulation, so that elites are gift-givers rather than parasites (see "gift economy" and potlatch before it was corrupted by Anglo interference).  kingship is a non-concept (no semantic place holder for it) in most indigenous languages;  "big men" are temporary and situation-specific.  even "property" -- that "universal" of imperialist culture -- is unknown to many cultures, usufruct being a far older (and less destructive) substitute.  in some Native American languages there isn't even a verb "to have" (as in "own") -- one does not say "I have an axe" or even "I have a brother," but "I live with an axe," "I live with a brother."  the Wintu people didn't have verbs of coercion, like "take someone someplace" or "make someone do something."  where in English we would say "the mother took her child into the sunny place," the Wintu would say, "the mother went with the child into the sunny place."

hereditary kingship, propertarianism, accumulation, universal abstract money, and the totalitarian control they enable seem to be a very specific cultural development, and a curious one at that.  it's not unique to Euroland;  we have plenty of evidence of imperial "civilising" tendencies in the S Pacific (King Kamehameha comes to mind), Asia, Africa, S America.  it seems adaptive in the short term, i.e. it enables conquest and expansion in a big way;  but the conquest and expansion are so patently self-defeating in the long term (the life cycle of empires, now seen in fast-forward on crack) that the longterm adaptive value of this development seems dubious at best and one has to wonder whether it's one of those evolutionary "wrong turns" that leads a species to a dead end...

whether specialisation leads inevitably to hierarchy is yet another of those vexed questions;  speaking from within a hierarchical culture, we are trained from birth to evaluate all things in hierarchy, to believe that of any two things that are not identical, one is bound to be of greater "value" or rank or status.  but there are degrees of specialisation in many non-imperial cultures, and much debate rages over whether these represent "ranks" or "castes" in the sense that we, the hierarchy-afflicted, perceive them, or whether our anthropologists merely project our own obsessions onto neutral data sets.  

the idea that early (non imperialist) people did not have trade has, frankly, been debunked long long ago.  there was extensive trade between humans wherever two tribes, bands, or language groups happened to encounter each other;  certainly we find N American artifacts in S American sites, and vice versa.  another myth of imperialism is that empires are the only way to engage in commerce, i.e. if it were not for our elites and their enslaving, violent ways we would never see a foreign artifact in our short, miserable, boring lives.  

dear me, where is kcurie when we need her/him/them?


The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 02:29:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Okay, you have addressed "the myths of empire". Do you care to address what I am saying?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 02:47:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
one problem with the challenge is that the Euro/Anglo (and indeed the imperial Asian, the imperial Roman, the imperial anyone) tradition is not to recognise any culture as a legitimate "culture" unless it has elites, accumulation, and grotesque displays of status :-)
Are you saying I would not recognise any culture as a legitimate "culture" unless it has elites, etc? If so, allow me to be offended. If not, this paragraph is a non-sequitur.
all such people are dismissed as "barbarians," "savages," "heathen," "primitive," etc. by the allegedly superior "civilisation" -- whether it be the Romans enslaving the Germanic tribes or the Conquistadores massacring S American indigenes or my own British ancestors machine-gunning the "bloody wogs" and hunting Australian Aborigines.
Because, of course, the Germanic tribes were not Indo-European marauding cattle herders and farmers like the Romans were, nor the Incas an urban empire. What exactly is the point you're trying to make about "barbarians"? That they were fundamentally different and better than the peoples that took them over? And didn't the Germanic tribes end up overriding the Romans and installing themselves as rules of the romanised populations they took over?
in many non-imperialist cultures, status is displayed by generosity rather than accumulation, so that elites are gift-givers rather than parasites
Okay, cool, so status is compatible with non-imperialism. Surely that means that it's the imperialism and not the display of status that is "grotesque" in your initial comment.
hereditary kingship, propertarianism, accumulation, universal abstract money, and the totalitarian control they enable seem to be a very specific cultural development, and a curious one at that.  it's not unique to Euroland;  we have plenty of evidence of imperial "civilising" tendencies in the S Pacific (King Kamehameha comes to mind), Asia, Africa, S America.  it seems adaptive in the short term, i.e. it enables conquest and expansion in a big way;  but the conquest and expansion are so patently self-defeating in the long term (the life cycle of empires, now seen in fast-forward on crack) that the longterm adaptive value of this development seems dubious at best and one has to wonder whether it's one of those evolutionary "wrong turns" that leads a species to a dead end...
It seems to be adapted to economies of scarcity. The problem is that these cultures are incapable of operate properly in an environment of abundance: they always operate in scarcity mode (hence, maybe, the insistence that economic theory is about allocation of scarce resources and that abundant resources are outside economics, with the result that externalities and depletion of natural capital are not properly accounted for until they become a problem, that is, they cause scarcity).
whether specialisation leads inevitably to hierarchy is yet another of those vexed questions
Yes, it is another of those vexed questions that I didn't pose. What I did was to reply to your distinction of city = bad vs market town = good and your contention that city dwellers necessarily exploit the farmers that the "good" market town will necessarily develop a permanent (exploitative?) population and (evil?) division of labour. At the intersection of division of labour and the fact that human communities develop status systems there may or may not be "hierarchy", but that was not my point. Or perhaps it was.
the idea that early (non imperialist) people did not have trade has, frankly, been debunked long long ago.
Again, did I ever say that? This is again something that was not even under discussion since you opposed the "market town" to the "imperial city". So, again, a non-sequitur.

I also find it takes patience to make it through your hectoring.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 03:15:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
oh dear, this exchange seems to be becoming acrimonious.

and I do think M is being a bit slippery as well :-)

having said Please point me to a culture without a parasitical elite and grotesque displays of status. -- when it is common knowledge, surely, that many such cultures have existed and some are still hanging on by their fingernails -- does seem to me to suggest that these cultures are somehow being defined out of the category "culture."  otherwise it would be no challenge at all, since any quick survey of ethnography or field anthropology would reveal the wealth of literature (and the longstanding academic and political squabbles) over the world's non-imperialistic (aka indigenous) cultures.  not all of which are cultures of abundance, btw.  but all are cultures of reciprocity, gift exchange, and other "sharing" mechanisms rather than hoarding and hierarchical control.  and the way the challenge is phrased seems to indicate either an unfamiliarity with the literature which I didn't find credible in someone as widely literate as M, or a disinclination to view these people as "real" cultures.

I don't think I ever said that a division of labour would inevitably lead to authoritarian hierarchy, or that skilled craftspersons were the same thing as parasitical elites.  we seem to be talking past each other, somehow.  I do believe it is possible for the town to be symbiotic with the rural bioregion; but not when it becomes the traditional imperial core, importing negentropy and exporting entropy.

The only way you are going to avoid division of labour and specialisation is by reducing all communities to the size of a family, all economic activity to subsistence, and by suppressing trade certainly seems to me to imply that early (subsistence horticulturalists, nonimperialist, kingroup organised, more generalist than specialised) humans did not engage in trade -- and since this is a common misconception (certainly one that I was taught in school: that first nations people lived in isolated bands with no communication, no long range commerce, and no knowledge of a larger world) I felt compelled to refute it.

It also assumes that I wish to abolish specialisation, which (again) is not a goal I ever intentionally advocated.  It also seems prima facie to assume the nuclear family (a recent invention) as the earliest unit of human survival, when the tribe, kingroup, band or village has afaik historic primacy.

There isn't really any contradiction between subsistence farming (meaning that one can subsist, i.e. survive independently by one's own efforts) and trade;  surpluses can always be traded -- without losing autonomy.  That's been going on for millennia.  Some of the Peruvian highland cultures had a whole separate caste of persons whose specialised function was to trade surplus and luxury goods with neighbouring polities;  but that trade and its currency were kept strictly and absolutely isolated from the subsistence economy necessary to ensure food security... What kingship/empire/hierarchy/colonialism introduces seems to be labour without food security, with elites controlling not only surpluses but all production;  whoever controls the food supply controls our lives, which explains a lot about ADM and Monsanto...

anyway, the day job requires my mental presence so I can't dig as deeply into this wrangle at present as I might like.  I note in passing that crosscultural studies are very subversive of established order;  every regime has a burning need to naturalise its own features -- be that the regime of male supremacy, white supremacy, the supremacy of city dwellers over peasants, the supremacy of my religion over yours, my empire over your colony...  which means that assertions about "human nature" and about history bear very closely on the foundations of our ideologies.  the book Threatening Anthropology is very interesting on this topic.  what we believe is "natural" conditions and limits what we believe is possible;  enlarging our notion of what is possible is directly threatening to elites who (for good reason!) want us to believe that things either have always been just as they are now, or are getting better and better every day.

in fact one of the troubling questions that engage our attention today is somewhat similar to the old election-year rhetoric:  "Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?"... are we better off than we were 10,000 years ago?

certainly many of us are wondering whether our (putative) grandchildren have any hope of being other than far, far worse off than we ourselves...  which again brings us back to a crisis of confidence in the narrative of Progress and Civilisation...  are we "progressing" and if so, towards what?  did we take a wrong turn some millennia back?  are our (mostly male) elites stereotypically unwilling to ask for directions or consult a map?

I have already read (and liked) the major works of Jane Jacobs, -- perhaps the most fluent, passionate, and inspiring defender of cities -- and have a few years invested in the literature of "Livable Cities" and similar optimistic attempts to render the industrial civitas sustainable.  perhaps M would do me the reciprocal courtesy of reading Hornborg (Power of the Machine), Bookchin (Ecology of Freedom), or even the recent Declaration from the 2006 conference on Food Sovereignty... for a glimpse of another -- lateral or tangential rather than diametrically oppositional -- PoV on the relation of city and country, farmed and "wild" land, commerce and non-market economies, which I find it hard to represent adequately in brief comment form?

as to finance capitalism being a side effect of imperial growth, I suspect it's both -- an outcome and a rationalisation.  certainly people who wax misty-eyed over the "birth of freedom" and entrepreneurial ineguity and capital investment in Euroland tend to glide tactfully over the enormous influx of gold and silver looted by main force and exterminist policy from the New World, and the essential role of slave labour in enabling the profit margins and the resource stripping that fuelled the nascent industrial age.

As Peter Linebaugh points out in a scathing review of the recent movie 'Amazing Grace'

What passes for 'the civilization of the west', to use the traditional but absurd phrase, is the direct result of the unpaid labors of millions of African proletarians, a fact so fundamental that it is the beginning of all modern history as Franz Fanon taught us long ago, and hence of our understanding of the world. The movie reduces this fact to the sugar cube. However, this historical premise of modernity applied to all European wealth and treasure because wealth in one form quickly turned to other forms by the alchemy of trade and money. Thus that sugar and rum, that tobacco and coffee, the staple products of the slave's labor on plantations, was transmuted into the infrastructure - the bricks and mortar, the bridges and roads, the ports and factories of the industrial revolution, and these in turn were represented by stocks and bonds, by paper and debentures, and the chits of the gambling table.

The movie shows us the young William Wilberforce gambling against the Duke of Clarence, a royal pipsqueak, who runs out of cash and must play by the rules of the club which say that, even if at a loss for money, he may wager any other possession he might have with him. "Bring me my nigger," he commands. The illusion of the entire social system shatters at this point as the Afro-British coachman enters to be traded at the gaming table of White's (one of the exclusive clubs of Pall Mall). Wilberforce in shocked naiveté concedes his hand and withdraws in a huff. Where did he think money came from? The trees?

I suppose our squabble here could be reduced to a cartoon version:

D:  show me a city and a 'civilised' lifeway that is/was not founded on slavery, immiseration, and theft.

M:  slavery, immiseration, and theft we have always with us:  we may as well get the benefits of urban culture out of them!

as an unregenerate Leftist (and one semi-literate in the outer layers anthro and paleo and ethno cross-cultural studies) I reject the naturalisation of hiearchy, elite accumulation, etc.  I'm not sure where this leaves us...  though if we accept that dominance/hierarchy cultures are an automatic response to scarcity (not supported by the literature, but let's entertain the idea), the future looks grim:  the imperial model embodied in capitalism exhausts resources at an accelerating pace, thus creating artificial scarcity and intensifying the preconditions for imperial/hierarchical strategy.  sounds like a positive feedback loop to me :-(

I think this whole wrangle is connected to the topic that Nomad and I touched on weeks ago and meant to get back to one day -- how much of our present "industrial civilisation" can we hope to preserve, if we accept the goal of living within our planetary means as a worthier one than exterminating (whether by MIHOP or LIHOP) bios of people so that we can keep up the Growth Myth a while longer?  I think I'm coming around to the idea that we can't afford cities -- by which I mean large imperial energy-sink cities with monumental architecture, etc.  at the heart of Jacobs' and Bookchin's (and many other people's) inquiry right now are questions of scale and limits.  what "civilised" lifestyle is possible without (a) cheap fossil fuel and (b) slavery, expropriation, genocide, etc.?

Some people point to the fact that there are more human beings alive today than ever before, and this means Success, and should be credited to Civilisation, Progress, and Capitalism.  OTOH in terms of absolute numbers, more human beings than ever before are living with fear, hunger, thirst, lack of shelter, fear of arbitrary violence, etc. -- and those who are not, are largely enjoying that privilege at the direct expense of those who are.  And even those in the affluent West don't seem to be particularly happy, if we use antidepressant sales, murder and suicide rates, and self-reporting in response to public surveys as rough indicators.  Capitalism understands Growth as in Quantity, but is curiously mute on Quality... and now I've worked my way back to Pirsig (!) and it's time to stop this and get some "real [meaningless technocratic] work" done...

I am sorry to quarrel with Migeru;  no personal animus is intended in my ramblings.  I'm coming into contact with new ideas, or deeper readings of ideas I've met before, and struggling myself with these questions -- becoming very urgent in our time -- of whether my own urbanised/industrial lifeway can be rationalised (I fear it cannot) and what I can do about that.  and where we are going and why we are in this handbasket :-(

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 05:11:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
the supremacy of city dwellers over peasants

I happen to prefer city dwelling to rural dwelling. Some people prefer the reverse. But the problem with your analysis is that you are hosting up rural dwelling food producers as somehow superior to everybody else. Even more, you posit a pre modern agrarian lifestyle as a 'natural one'. That makes no more sense than calling my home a 'natural' society. Your understanding of 'nature' and 'natural' are just a variant on old Enlightenment constructs, no more, and no less, than the concept of 'Progress' that you deride.

But all societies are a question of values and technology - they are human creations. That's true of the Native American hunter gatherers, that's true of Native American small scale agricultural communities, and that's true of the serf and nobiligy society of eighteenth century Poland, the industrial urban one of the turn of the century Ruhr, and the service one of modern day NYC.

The technology imposes constraints - a society where you need one hundred people to produce enough food for one hundred and twenty has less options available than the one where that same hundred can feed one thousand.

Those choices can be good or bad, and what is good and bad is a question of values as well - i.e. not natural, but a social construct. We can build pyramids to our rulers, have more leisure, construct cathedrals and temples to the glory of our gods, mass armies, provide health care, build McMansions, provide education and running water, fashionable clothing, research history, produce sitcoms - all choices.

Within your commentary you amalgate the question of one important constraint - energy in a future without large scale use of fossil fuels, and that of what constitute good choices within those constraints. But they are two completely different matters.

by MarekNYC on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 05:54:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I happen to prefer city dwelling to rural dwelling. Some people prefer the reverse. But the problem with your analysis is that you are hosting up rural dwelling food producers as somehow superior to everybody else. Even more, you posit a pre modern agrarian lifestyle as a 'natural one'. That makes no more sense than calling my home a 'natural' society. Your understanding of 'nature' and 'natural' are just a variant on old Enlightenment constructs, no more, and no less, than the concept of 'Progress' that you deride.
De Anander's comments in this thread actually reminded me of a the literary genre "contempt of court and praise of village" [Spanish: "menosprecio de corte y alabanza de aldea"] which was very popular among the courtier elite in the late Renaissance, and which involved looking back on the mythical Arcadia and romanticising rural life (sometimes they even dressed up as peasants and went to frolic in the fields while the real peasants toiled).

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 06:14:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ah, the good ol' "latte liberal" meme?

my family goes back on both sides to peasant and yeoman farmers and fishers, sorry, no courtiers (at least not with paternity acknowledged).  the closest we get to aristocracy is a Thane, a kind or rural Big Man or squire, way way back on the paternal side.  the other side is "peasants all the way down."  I suppose family history (oral and written) may explain some of my political thought processes and sympathies.

somehow the experiments I've done in sustainable living -- like using a manual composting loo for 18 months, living without a car, conserving water and heating gas, vegetable gardening, eating local food in season etc -- don't strike me as quite equivalent to dressing up in shepherd costume and frolicking at the Petit Trianon or the Spanish equivalent :-)  but ymmv.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 07:48:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
said one latte liberal to another latte liberal.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:27:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I just grepped carefully through my posts on this thread and find that I never used the words nature or natural except when criticising the attempts of elites to naturalise their privileges.  (sigh)  I wish folks would argue with what I actually typed, but that is a common complaint :-) and according to Migeru I am not always arguing with what he actually types either...

FTR I make no claims of more or less "natural" standing for human cultures.  [we can play semantic games with the word "natural" until it's perfectly "natural" to destroy the temperate climatic balance or to wage nuclear war -- so fuhgeddaboudit.]  my questions are about more or less happiness, more or less freedom, more and less egalitarian sharing of resources, more or less potential longevity for human social organisations, more or less violence, slavery, authoritarianism, control, torture, etc.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 07:54:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I just grepped carefully through my posts on this thread and find that I never used the words nature or natural except when criticising the attempts of elites to naturalise their privileges.[...]my questions are about more or less happiness, more or less freedom, more and less egalitarian sharing of resources, more or less potential longevity for human social organisations, more or less violence, slavery, authoritarianism, control, torture, etc.

for the historical dynamic of "civilisation".  i.e. a new pseudorational ideology that justifies/perpetuates the regime of accumulation and the core/periphery dynamic needed to support a parasitical and idle elite, monumental construction, massive resource hoarding and concentration, grotesque displays of status and the other markers which we recognise as indicating "high" culture.

Some of the Peruvian highland cultures had a whole separate caste of persons whose specialised function was to trade surplus and luxury goods with neighbouring polities;  but that trade and its currency were kept strictly and absolutely isolated from the subsistence economy necessary to ensure food security... What kingship/empire/hierarchy/colonialism introduces seems to be labour without food security, with elites controlling not only surpluses but all production;  whoever controls the food supply controls our lives, which explains a lot about ADM and Monsanto...

btw, can we observe a distinction of terminology between agriculture, the tradition of the ploughed field and the (varying degrees of) monocrop, vs horticulture or permaculture, both of which were practised with high sophistication by many non-imperial type people?

There are value judgements throughout that imply the 'noble savage' vision of the world. No, you wouldn't put in those words, vocabularies change, but that's what it amounts to. For you the society where people have to work in the capitalistic economy or starve equals slavery - even those with redistribution that actually makes the choices less stark. On the other hand where you have to work as a food producer in a non-capitalistic agrarian economy - that's a laudable society. City dwellers providing goods and services  are 'parasitical' upon the resource producing 'periphery'. The agriculture of the 'ploughed field' is imperialist and bad, 'horticulture' and 'permaculture' practiced by 'non imperialist' cultures, good. Small kinship based communities good, large political units bad. Non-indigenous 'imperialist' cultures vs. non-imperialist indigenous ones.

If it weren't for those type of value judgements I could read you as just an extreme pessimist, but they are there.

by MarekNYC on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:49:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
first off, I don't refer to indigenous people as "savages," and secondly, I don't regard gift economies or  similar reciprocal networks as "noble" (implying some kind of moral superiority or conscious, righteous refraining from the temptations of bad behaviour).  the question is, are they practical and what problems do they solve?  what I ask myself is how long those cultures endured in their biomes, how healthy the people were, how much or little coercion and control they experienced in daily life;  and some of these answers are accessible from field anthropology, journals of first contact, or living memory.  those answers do not support a Hobbesian view of preindustrial life.

being "made to work as a food producer in a non-capitalistic agrarian economy" is not, in fact, anyone's idea of a good time -- nor did I ever suggest it was.  monocropping and field agriculture do seem to be correlated historically with corvee labour (for both irrigation and monocrop cultivation), taxation, tribute, and control of [usually hard wheat] grain stores by a kind of evolving priest/king caste.  this type of field labour is not an "alternative" to city life -- it's the original basis of city life.  I don't see what is unreasonable about preferring the type of agriculture practised by some N Am indigenes, i.e. "food forest" tending and dense polyculture.  it's a lot less backbreaking labour and it doesn't impoverish the soil, and provides a more varied diet.  it's also quite adequate (modern experiments confirm the extremely high productivity per acre of intensive polyculture) to feed a fairly large population, unlike gatherer-hunter methods which require more hectares per person than we have left.

and yes, the ploughed field is a "bad" form of agriculture in many ways -- "bad" meaning inefficient or spendthrift -- in that it reverses carbon sequestration, and over time impoverishes the soil ecosystems on which all our lives depend.  in combination with industrial equipment, neurotoxins (pesticides) and artificial and longhaul overkill "amendments," it's agricultural suicide.  "bad" and "good" here have everything to do with our long term survival prospects.  our culture will live longer if we don't kill the soil.  that seems to me a working definition of "good".

so the question still remains for me, in what ways have non-imperial, indigenous cultures been more successful in staying power or sustainability than imperial cultures which tend to crash-n-burn regularly (not to mention in personal liberty or democratic decision making traditions) and why?  and what lessons in adaptive behaviour could we learn from them now that the borders of imperial aggression have pretty much run up against each other, i.e. every square mile of the planet's surface is claimed by an imperial core?

is imperialistic behaviour adaptive?  or maladaptive?

"nobility" (or "glory" for that matter) have nowt to do with it.  it's a soft landing I'm hoping for, nothing more.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 10:33:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"made to work as a food producer in a non-capitalistic agrarian economy" is not, in fact, anyone's idea of a good time -- nor did I ever suggest it was.  monocropping and field agriculture do seem to be correlated historically with corvee labour (for both irrigation and monocrop cultivation), taxation, tribute, and control of [usually hard wheat] grain stores by a kind of evolving priest/king caste.

That's the social organization. How about minus corvee labour, taxation, tribute and control by a priest/king caste? It's still not anyone's idea of a good time - or is it?

it's also quite adequate (modern experiments confirm the extremely high productivity per acre of intensive polyculture)

Productivity per acre, how about productivity per hour of manual labour? And how practical is it when you add in the much larger amount of infrastructure you'd want - running water, electricity, schools, hospitals, telecommunication networks, decent housing, libraries, transport infrastructure - plus the industrial, administrative and service economy infrastructure necessary for such things for the six plus billion people in this world?  

by MarekNYC on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 11:35:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You do realise that importing negentropy and exporting entropy is the definition of a living organism.

in fact one of the troubling questions that engage our attention today is somewhat similar to the old election-year rhetoric:  "Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?"... are we better off than we were 10,000 years ago?
Maybe, maybe not. But it appears that 10,000 years ago we invented agriculture because to avoid the fate of most other large mammals in Eurasia, namely extinction. For some reason I find it really hard to accept the narrative that agriculture is the root of all evil. If anything, it's the root of food security. Our problems stem from elsewhere.
as to finance capitalism being a side effect of imperial growth
There you go again. I never said that but to you "growth" is necessarily imperial, and you have not understood what I've said about finance capitalism in this and other threads. To be very brief, the growth I am talking about is the radiation phase after the 14th century collapse. Maybe a mention of the Lotka-Volterra equation wouldn't be out of place either, imagine that the red line in the chart is humanity and the black line its renewable resource base. Growth in this context has nothing to do with the cultural mode that we call imperialism, or with core-periphery, but maybe it does have a connection with (neg)entropy.
I suppose our squabble here could be reduced to a cartoon version:

D:  show me a city and a 'civilised' lifeway that is/was not founded on slavery, immiseration, and theft.

M:  slavery, immiseration, and theft we have always with us:  we may as well get the benefits of urban culture out of them!

Cartoon indeed. I don't know, maybe the Mayans had a 'civilised' way of life that was not based on slavery, immiseration and theft (given your positive reference to the Peruvian Highland Cultures).
I reject the naturalisation of hiearchy, elite accumulation, etc.  I'm not sure where this leaves us...  though if we accept that dominance/hierarchy cultures are an automatic response to scarcity (not supported by the literature, but let's entertain the idea), the future looks grim:  the imperial model embodied in capitalism exhausts resources at an accelerating pace, thus creating artificial scarcity and intensifying the preconditions for imperial/hierarchical strategy.  sounds like a positive feedback loop to me :-(
You see, in The Ape and the Sushi Master, while completely demolishing the "human exceptionalist" view of culture, etologist Frns de Waal also makes some points about hierarchical structures being nearly inevitable, and not only among humans, which are quite shocking from an egalitarian leftist point of view [one of his best quotes is "put a bunch of left-leaning professors with an egalitarian ethos in the same room and watch a hierarchy develop: it's automatic"]. As you point out, in some cultures the "big man" position changes with context, and indeed there are two ways to look at our own culture. One is to say that it has only one hierarchy and that that comes from somehow, by institutionalising the natural hierarchy of status arising in one situation, extrapolating it to all realms of community life; the other would be to recognise that we, too, are active in multiple realms in our community life and that the status system in each of them is different. One of the features of blogs like this [and of the entire open-content/creative commons movement] is that the status system is a gift culture: the more you give to the community the higher the status. And you and I have enough experience in academia to see an entire parallel status [and hierarchy] system separate from the "main" societal one.

The reason for my frustration with this exchange ("acrimony") is that there are a number of assumptions in what you write (growth = imperialism = city = parasitism) which 1) I want [you] to make explicit; and 2) seem to me unnecessary (though maybe true historically, that I can't argue with absolute certainty) and, most of all, unhelpful, because we're not in 9500 BC, deciding whether to invent agriculture and what social organisation is going to work best for our first permanent settlement in the very long term, but we're in 2000 CE and we have to think about how to get to where from here. I wonder whether you saw my exchange with Nomad on the issue you mention of how much of the current civilisation can be made sustainable, where I pointed out that you have to take into account and utilise the modern knowledge base, and moreover that there are certain advanced technologies that one would like to deploy for a sustainable, prosperous lifestyle and that are impossible without certain economies of scale and a modern industrial base (like, for instance, how are you going to manufacture the advanced materials you need for solar panels, or wind mills? Certainly not in a smithy.) Cue in technopolitical's constant quip that we're so wasteful because we're just very bad at making things.

So, yes, I suppose I have to say that we might as well get the benefits of urban culture [literacy, vaccines, antibiotics, industrial capacity] while we have them and put them to good use, all the more so if one believes that a Lotka-Volterra-like collapse like in the chart above is likely in the coming century. Once the tipping point for a die-off is exceeded it doesn't matter whether the reason was lemming-lie behaviour or an "exterministic" culture (to use Stan Goff's term). And, really, considering I was born after the 1970's oil shocks, I really feel like I am not responsible for exceeding the tipping point, and that at some level it is irrelevant whether exterminism was the cause, or just a narrative more palatable to leftists than just plain human stupidity. What I am responsible for is for what I do about the consequences of living after the tipping point.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 06:09:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You see, in The Ape and the Sushi Master, while completely demolishing the "human exceptionalist" view of culture, etologist Frns de Waal also makes some points about hierarchical structures being nearly inevitable, and not only among humans, which are quite shocking from an egalitarian leftist point of view [one of his best quotes is "put a bunch of left-leaning professors with an egalitarian ethos in the same room and watch a hierarchy develop: it's automatic"]. As you point out, in some cultures the "big man" position changes with context, and indeed there are two ways to look at our own culture. One is to say that it has only one hierarchy and that that comes from somehow, by institutionalising the natural hierarchy of status arising in one situation, extrapolating it to all realms of community life; the other would be to recognise that we, too, are active in multiple realms in our community life and that the status system in each of them is different.

I'm going to finish one more book before I do a diary on the final death of my leftist idealism over the past few years stemming from acceptance of evolutionary theory and evolutionary psychology. I think that is all that is standing between your views and deanander's.

In my (newish) universe, the cultures humans are able to create can be used to either amplify or retard the base "desires" innate to our pesky brain stems. I have no other starting point now that I reject the "blank slate" concept.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 07:08:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you might warm up (as I have been reluctantly) to Bookchin in this realm.  He's a fairly doctrinaire human exceptionalist, but with some interesting twists that almost undermine the position.

I always thought the "evolutionary psychology" crowd tended to undervalue and underreport symbiotic and cooperative, mimetic and reciprocal organisations in evolving biotic systems;  at least when I dipped into the lit a while back it struck me as being over-enamoured of "Nature red in tooth and claw" and rather grimly determined to see all mammalian hardwiring as base and selfish (reading mammals as reptilian, you might say).  But this doesn't jibe well with many decades of field observation of mammal social behaviours, in which kingroup selection is at least as important as individual survivalism, and deep reciprocal bonds are observed between individuals and between individual and pack or kingroup...

What are they up to lately, the evo psych gang?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 08:03:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I already put the Bookchin book into my queue. I've been reading mostly pop science books on the topic, I haven't dove into the "state of the art" in the field. Dawkins' explanation for his view that altruism and cooperative behavior is a form of selfishness makes sense to me, as does his explanation for how various behavioral traits (for any variable from total violence to complete non-violence) get selected for and in what proportions in a given population. Nothing I've come across yet reads as "nature is 100% violence all the time" which, again just referencing Dawkins writings all the way back in the 70's, is a very poor reproductive strategy for an entire population.

Even with that I'm not very optimistic for a couple of reasons. The first can be summed up as "locking horns with nuclear weapons is not a stable survival strategy" and the second relates to the burden of consciousness and the very delicate (and thus difficult to achieve) balance needed to make and keep humans happy.

I'll rant further some other time.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 11:22:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
might want to look up the debates between Dawkins and Gould.  excellent reading :-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 08:48:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Does it boil down to this?

However, as Sterelny says, these disagreements are not adequate to explain the antagonism and in Chapter 12 (p. 123) he gets down to the more philosophical ones. "Dawkins is an old-fashioned science worshiper" he states (and lines up with him), while "Gould's take on the status of science is much more ambiguous. ... In Gould's view, science is irrelevant to moral claims. Science and religion are concerned with independent domains."

That might be enough to explain Gould's issues with sociobiology, which I will look into more this evening.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 05:03:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One of the features of blogs like this [and of the entire open-content/creative commons movement] is that the status system is a gift culture: the more you give to the community the higher the status. And you and I have enough experience in academia to see an entire parallel status [and hierarchy] system separate from the "main" societal one.

That brings up a really interesting and key issue:  What kinds of hierarchy are "alright" (and even necessary), and what kinds are noxious.  (See ATinNM's comment below that There is nothing necessary wrong with "Heirarchy." )

Maybe a key distinction is that between "power-created/enforced hierarchies" and "gift-generated hierarchies"?

I wonder whether you saw my exchange with Nomad on the issue you mention of how much of the current civilisation can be made sustainable, where I pointed out that you have to take into account and utilise the modern knowledge base, and moreover that there are certain advanced technologies that one would like to deploy for a sustainable, prosperous lifestyle and that are impossible without certain economies of scale and a modern industrial base (like, for instance, how are you going to manufacture the advanced materials you need for solar panels, or wind mills? Certainly not in a smithy.)

Could  you indicate what diary that exchange was in?

For what it's worth, I am finding this acrimonious exchange extremely informative, challenging and stimulating.  I'm glad I got ring-side tickets!  ;-)

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:01:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What kinds of hierarchy are "alright" (and even necessary), and what kinds are noxious.

I'd say that given that a status system is unavoidable, it's the hierarchies that are out of context that are noxious. Like, for instance, listening to Stephen Hawking's ideas as if he were an authority on the future of mankind because of his groundbreaking work in Cosmology.

Could  you indicate what diary that exchange was in?

This one in Jerome's Fossil Fools story.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:23:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
maybe the Mayans

Er... Incas.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:40:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You are deceived by modern biology, specifically evolution theory, which correctly notes that species evolve, but which, by focussing on too narrow an aspect of the process and using a model borrowed from 19th century English capitalism, completely misses the truth about how biology, in the large, actually works.  

How long do you have to wander outside the lab to realize that biology has been studied completely upside down?  Indeed, competition DOES happen, but it is only possible because MOST biological activity is co-operative.  

Do not trust energy transformation theories beyond their limits.  Even where it is true, it may not be telling you what is important.  It may tell you what is possible (or not  possible) but not what is desirable, or even what living systems seek.  

And that co-operative activity is what most biologists never look at, with the result that their theories are fine for creating frankenfoods, but are no use to us at all.  We have to start THINKING.  

Any economic model based on counting trade markers will just get us killed.  This is not how sustainable people think, and it is not how ecologies function either.  

We have to open our discourse WAY beyond the boundaries of imperialist/unsustainable patterns.  

And, really, considering I was born after the 1970's oil shocks, I really feel like I am not responsible for exceeding the tipping point, and that at some level it is irrelevant whether exterminism was the cause, or just a narrative more palatable to leftists than just plain human stupidity. What I am responsible for is for what I do about the consequences of living after the tipping point.  

Guilt is not the issue.  No guilt!  Exterminism vs. stupidity:  For whatever reason we have chosen death, not all peoples have done so.  Can we unchoose it?  What would it take to even WANT to unchoose it?  

Some humans are likely to survive.  What would we WANT to be carried into the future?

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Mar 20th, 2007 at 11:13:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think I ever said that a division of labour would inevitably lead to authoritarian hierarchy, or that skilled craftspersons were the same thing as parasitical elites.  we seem to be talking past each other, somehow.  I do believe it is possible for the town to be symbiotic with the rural bioregion; but not when it becomes the traditional imperial core, importing negentropy and exporting entropy.
You have equated city with empire with parasitism and apparently archaeologists studying early setltements seem to reserve the name city for towns where there is evidence of division of labour.

Anyway, the town also imports negentropy and exports entropy from its surrounding bioregion. To claim otherwise is to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The question is whether the situation is sustainable once one takes into account the Sun's negentropy input into the bioregion.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 06:53:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
the way the challenge is phrased seems to indicate either an unfamiliarity with the literature which I didn't find credible in someone as widely literate as M, or a disinclination to view these people as "real" cultures.
In other words, you misunderestimate me because you misoverestimate me.
dominance/hierarchy cultures are an automatic response to scarcity (not supported by the literature, but let's entertain the idea)
I did not say anything about automatic, I said adapted.
people who wax misty-eyed over the "birth of freedom" and entrepreneurial ineguity and capital investment in Euroland tend to glide tactfully over the enormous influx of gold and silver looted by main force and exterminist policy from the New World
Again, I invite you to dig in the ET archives for my comments on that particular bit of Spanish history...
I think I'm coming around to the idea that we can't afford cities -- by which I mean large imperial energy-sink cities with monumental architecture, etc.
I have long wanted to write a diary about "glory", motivated by some remarks by a friend of mine about "the glory of mankind".

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 07:12:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... the world's non-imperialistic (aka indigenous) cultures.  not all of which are cultures of abundance, btw.  but all are cultures of reciprocity, gift exchange, and other "sharing" mechanisms rather than hoarding and hierarchical control.

The vast majority of humans who ever lived did so in "non-imperialistic (aka indigenous) cultures", so if you are right, then that sentence is one of the most hopeful things I have read in a while.  Because it implies that human society can once again be organized in such a way that does not posit self-interest and greed -- Homo economicus =  Homo avarus -- but rather generosity and cooperation -- Homo economicus as Homo benignus -- as the prime incentives/motivations that drive human co-existence.

In other words, a civilization in which people get up and go to work not to make money to obtain things and a "better standard of living", but in which people get up and go to work to contribute, to be creative, and to give to others, knowing that their needs will be taken care of because everyone else is doing the same.

I've dreamed about this, but wrote it off as irresponsible idealism.  But what you are saying, it seems, is that this was actually the norm and the default for tens of thousands of years.  Is that right?

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 07:31:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But what you are saying, it seems, is that this was actually the norm and the default for tens of thousands of years.  Is that right?

I feel like being a devil's advocate here because, as much as I'd like to believe that, there is no historical record of it. And the reason is not that history is written by the imperialistic winners of wars, but that history is written by literate people [hence civilised, hence city-dwelling].

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 07:36:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Good point:  Writing is a product of civilization.

And yet

any quick survey of ethnography or field anthropology would reveal the wealth of literature (and the longstanding academic and political squabbles) over the world's non-imperialistic (aka indigenous) cultures

all of which, DeAnander continues,

are cultures of reciprocity, gift exchange, and other "sharing" mechanisms rather than hoarding and hierarchical control.

What this says to me is that we are at a point in history where we recognize and treasure the fruits and benefits of civilization (e.g. writing, science, surfing, etc.), while at the same time have evidence that what drove that civilization until now -- "hoarding and hierarchical control" -- is not what drove human (pre-civilizational) society until very recently.  And what drove most of human society before -- "reciprocity, gift exchange, and other 'sharing' mechanisms", if what DeAnander  says is true, or at least the impulses of generosity that underly them -- could be harnessesed to move civilization to a next level -- a post- acquisitive-economy -based civilization.

Thesis: non-hierarchical, sharing/giving-based pre-civilization

+

Antithesis: hierarchical, hoarding/controlling/appropriating-based civilization

=

Synthesis: less-hierarchical, sharing/giving-based civilization

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 08:23:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Society 1.0

Decentralised but disconnected. Anarchy?

Society 2.0 (now)

Centralised, but connected. Hierarchy?

Society 3.0

Decentralised but connected. Synarchy?

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 08:34:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
it's just a phase we are going through?

nice thought.

on a lighter note

I've often said that if intellectual property lawyers had been dominant in our late prehistory, we'd never have got past the stone knife stage...

The debate over who was here first started about the same time that Columbus was first arriving in the New World. In 1590, a Spanish Monk named Friar Joseph de Acosta reasoned, after much examination and comparison, that most of what was in the New World simply walked over from the Old World. He postulated a land connection between northeast Asia and northwest North America, even though that area was completely uncharted in his day. In the post-Revolutionary War United States, the scientific community was discouraged from looking into the issue so that they wouldn't inadvertently give any kind of legitimacy to the Native Americans or to their claims to the land the Europeans were stealing. [emphasis mine:  politicising science is nothing new!]

By the early 1900's, the archeological community had been looking and was generally in agreement that Native Americans had been in the country no more than 4,000 years. Then, in 1908, George McJunkin, the son of former slave parents, found the first Folsom Point. At the time, he was working as foreman on the Crowfoot Ranch near Folsom in northeastern New Mexico. He was also an amateur fossil collector, arrowhead hunter and naturalist. One day after a flash flood he came across some strange looking bones sticking out of the side of Wild Horse Arroyo. They were a local curiosity item until Carl Schwachheim came over from Raton and took a look at "McJunkin's site." He got in touch with Jesse Figgins, director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History. Figgins visited the site in 1926 and organized a full excavation for 1927. That's when the actual Folsom Point was found. Radiocarbon dating places these artifacts at 10-to-11,000 years old.

  pop history web site

was chatting with a colleague today who said the archaeology/paleo-ethnography world is buzzing with the new notion that the chronological spread of Folsom Point technique may not have indicated the movements of "Folsom Point People" (as it has been interpreted for quite some time by academics raised in a culture of ownership, patents, etc -- plus in some cases lingering infection with racial/genetic superiority memes) but the free dissemination of a new idea/technology via visiting, trading, ceremonial warfare and the usual intertribal contacts.  "hey that's a cool idea, let's try it!" is mostly how we refined and invented and improved our techne.  monkey see, monkey copy, monkey improve :-)  same goes for small farmers sharing and improving and further specialising seeds.

what this means about the current state of intelprop Enclosure and monopoly control I shudder to think.  good thing there were no C&D letters when we were working on stuff like pottery glazing :-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:04:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
the chronological spread of Folsom Point technique may not have indicated the movements of "Folsom Point People"

D'UH'oooooo, ya THINK?

It's called:  Trade Networks.

(Now if Egyptologists would figure-out graffiti is not a reliable dating methodology .... )

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 10:08:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
it's just a phase we are going through?

nice thought.

Come on, you yourself encouraged this renascent optimism in me with your comment that

what we believe is "natural" conditions and limits what we believe is possible;  enlarging our notion of what is possible is directly threatening to elites who (for good reason!) want us to believe that things either have always been just as they are now, or are getting better and better every day.

We all agree it is our responsibiltiy to make things get better in fact, and not just in the rhetoric and ideology of those you call the "elites" (I prefer "entrenched interests" myself, because in my book you and I are both members of the "elites", but whatever: I think we are both referring to the same forces of inertia and reaction).  And to do that, we have to enlarge our notion of what is possible, as you say, and for me my notion of "the possible" has not really included the idea of a "giving/sharing-based industrial economy": I took self-interest, hierarchy and "hoarding" as you say, as unalterable givens of human nature in any society, however it may be organized.  While I note (and must look further into) Miguel's reference to the The Ape and the Sushi Master and Millman's mention of evolutionary psychology's descriptions of humans' inevitable "base 'desires'", I remain hopeful, and optimistic, that humans -- with courage, imagination, and perseverance -- will prove creative and resourceful enough to overcome the entrenched interests (including whatever destructive tendencies and instincts we are genetically programmed with) to keep the baby of civilization while throwing out the bathwater of imperialism and the rest of it.

Nice connection of the new Folsom Point technique "monkey see, monkey copy, monkey improve, monkey disseminate" hypothesis to Intellectual Property, Enclosure and Monopoly issues.  More evidence that pre-civilizational humanity can teach contemporary imperial-civilizational humanity how to achieve a non-imperial civilizational humanity.

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 10:24:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And yet

any quick survey of ethnography or field anthropology would reveal the wealth of literature (and the longstanding academic and political squabbles) over the world's non-imperialistic (aka indigenous) cultures

And yet, you said tens of thousands of years, which is outside the realm of ethnography.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:46:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Of course it is possible. All you need is to heavily tax wealth and redistribute the proceeds to stamp out material deprivation.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 07:40:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ah, but wealth that comes from where?  the whole point of the Linebaugh review was that the wealth of the affluent British anti-slavery philanthropist was generated by the very system of slavery and expropriation that he deplored.

as long as wealth comes from accumulation by force, i.e. by forcing the market/finance economy into the indigenous and subsistence economy, it is achieved by scarcity and precarity creation.  I don't see how "redistributing wealth" solves the problem -- it becomes ouroborean very fast, like "waging war for peace."

redistributing land maybe -- now we're talking.  but that would vitiate the most essential operating requirement of the wealth-accumulating system:  the utter dependence on the money economy of all persons below the elite, so that their labour and obedience can be commanded.

btw, can we observe a distinction of terminology between agriculture, the tradition of the ploughed field and the (varying degrees of) monocrop, vs horticulture or permaculture, both of which were practised with high sophistication by many non-imperial type people?  it would make discourse a bit easier if we could separate these two practises which have very different impacts on surrounding biomes.


The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 08:19:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
redistributing land maybe

Thanks for pointing out the obvious, that land ownership is wealth.

I'd venture that more blood has been spilled over land reform than over anything else since the invention of agriculture.

the whole point of the Linebaugh review was that the wealth of the affluent British anti-slavery philanthropist was generated by the very system of slavery and expropriation that he deplored
Guess who wrote this, and in what year:
The principle of private property has never yet had a fair trial in any country; and less so, perhaps, in this country than in some others. The social arrangements of modern Europe commenced from a distribution of property which was the result, not of just partition, or acquisition by industry, but of conquest and violence: and notwithstanding what industry has been doing for many centuries to modify the work of force, the system still retains many and large traces of its origin. The laws of property have never yet conformed to the principles on which the justification of private property rests. They have made property of things which never ought to be property, and absolute property where only a qualified property ought to exist. They have not held the balance fairly between human beings, but have heaped impediments upon some, to give advantage to others; they have purposely fostered inequalities, and prevented all from starting fair in the race.


"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:39:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Land ownership used to be wealth. I don't think the ties are as strict as they used to be.

I know someone whose father (now brother) owns a very impressive country estate in Norfolk. His family, ancestral pile and thousands of acres and all, are as worried about paying repair bills as anyone else is.

Some slight exaggeration there, for sure, but the pile and land aren't quite the meal ticket they used to be. And don't forget most of these piles were built using slave money, based on the remote ownership not just of plantations but of people to work them.

The same is true today, where wealth is created by corporate quasi-slavery. Owning a corporate tower block means nothing unless you can rent it out, or - better - fill it with productive workers who will do your accumulation for you, in return for wage payments that can be as nominal as you can make them.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:27:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That must be because the Norfolk estate is idle, surely? If owning the estate loses money, why don't they sell it to someone who will figure out how to make monay out of it? And if it can't pay for its own maintenance, well, it's going to decay.

But if you don't own the corporate tower block you can't enslave the productive workers... And the productive workers are only productive when enslaved, presumably?

What, then, are sources of wealth?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:36:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What, then, are sources of wealth?

Power.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:41:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And the sources of power?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:43:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Wealth.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:46:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Let's not forget violence.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:49:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Circular reasoning?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 11:45:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Feedback loop.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 11:46:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Norfolk estate always was idle. Ornamental lakes and manicured lawns cost money to maintain.

But that was my point. Owning huge swathes of land does not produce income automatically.

In fact the source of income of most landowners wasn't land - it was the exploitation of physical and intellectual labour.

The idea that land ownership is inherently productive is a feudal throwback, when ownership really meant a right to tithes from the productive work performed on the land.

Now we've moved on to symbolic feudalism, where being a CEO or a shareholder means that tithes are paid symbolically, in the form of credits which can be bartered, rather than in terms of cattle that can be slaughtered and roasted and wheat that can be turned into bread.

Effectively, symbolic capital has replaced land as the primary form marker of social dominance. But the model is very similar - 'growth' and 'profit' are what happens when you add labour to capital, just as much as when you add them to land.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:52:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But surely the value of land is based upon what individuals are prepared to pay for exclusive rights of use.

Agreed that the estate has ceased to be used productively with a tangible "usufruct" but lots of people are prepared to pay NOW very large sums of money for the permanent rights of exclusive use of the estate for whatever use they wish (subject to planning permisissio!  ;-))

So to the extent that someone is prepared to pay a large rental value in exchange for use this land REMAINS "productive".

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 09:12:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You're confusing access rights with an income stream.

The access rights are a cost, paid for with a one-off payment in fee simple and supported with continuing maintenance outgoings.

It's true that exclusive access has some market value, which possibly increases over time, but unless that value is realised (with the disbenefit of losing somewhere to live) it remains a cost, not a benefit.

Even with rocketing real-estate prices, the inherent profitability of an ancient pile with landscaped gardens is much lower than other kinds of real estate investment.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 11:16:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If they're really losing money on it they could give it to me for free. Or even pay me to take it.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 11:18:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd suggest reading Alan Clark's diaries.

I'd suggest reading them anyway, because they're entertaining. But there's one memorable scene where he's looking at a wall of water coming down one of his interior walls during a storm and thinking 'I really can't afford to fix this.'

It's true that it's hard to be sympathetic when people are - by most people's standards - really very rich.

But the original argument was that land is inherently a source of power. And while there's some legacy traditional value associated with it, my point is that if you have £x million to spend and want to make a good return on it, buying a big country house may possibly not be the best way to do it.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 11:27:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, I would say that is because a big country house is a way of spending money luxuriously. Is and I would say has always been. Having a lot of land and not using it in a productive manner is showing of your wealth, like having a gold-plated SUV. Or lighting cigarettes with money.

If people insist in keeping the symbols of wealth when the sources of wealth has passed, they might find it hard to do. If reformed from symbols of wealth to productively used assets, the former symbols (land, gold, money) can be very productive, but that includes giving up the status of the symbol.

Land is not inherently a source of power, it has to be used as well.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:15:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But you can convert the valuable access rights into a sizeable revenue stream. If you have a stately home that you can't pay the maintenance bills for but you can sell to the likes of Madonna for a few million pounds, and oget yourself a nice house that you can afford to maintain and a nice revenue stream from the rest of the cash.

Or you can sell the house to a hotel developer, or for a conference centre, or to someone who will turn the manicured gardens into an organic farm. In any case, if the house and land are wealth they can be turned into economic power. If they can't, they're not wealth to begin with.

Or if the house really has sentimental value for you and you want to die in it you can take a reverse mortgage on the damn thing.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 04:30:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Or rather than take out a reverse mortgage, you agree with an investor that your house is worth £500k and that you will pay him 10% of an agreed market rental for as long as you use the £50k he invested.

And use an LLC or LLP wrapper to do so.

Then when the time comes to go into sheltered accommodation, you still have a (100-x)% share of the ownership and of the market rental, and have the option of selling the property conventionally, or bringing in another "Occupier" into the property and selling some or part of your share of the rentals he pays over time.

Or to minimise your Inheritance Tax liability when you die in the house you love, you can pass over some of your Equity Shares over time to your kids and pay them a rental in cash or even in more equity shares instead of cash.

Infinitely configurable, (and you don't need a Will cos the LLP agreement says what happens when you die). You won't read much about it because simple models like this don't appeal to professional advisers paid by the hour, rather than by the outcome.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 10:53:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
agree with an investor that your house is worth £500k and that you will pay him 10% of an agreed market rental for as long as you use the £50k he invested.

Sorry, I can't think on a full stomach. Why does the investor give you the money, what is the "agreed market rental" and who lives in the house?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 11:01:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
can we observe a distinction of terminology between agriculture, the tradition of the ploughed field and the (varying degrees of) monocrop, vs horticulture or permaculture
Sure, now you need to give one-line definitions of horticulture and permaculture and since you've decided to call monoculture "agriculture", you need to give a new name to the three together.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:42:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
All you need is to heavily tax wealth and redistribute the proceeds to stamp out material deprivation.

I am talking about something more radical.

You are talking about what to do with the surplus output of economic activity, economic activity that currently is driven primarily by an assumption of scarcity and a conditioned impulsion to acquire and accumulate -- in a word, a primarily self-interest based economy.

What I am talking about is changing the pimary basis/motive power of the economic activity itself from self-interest to giving/sharing.  In other words, one will not work primarily to gain wealth or status or power for oneself, or even for one's kin, but rather primarily for the benefit of others in general, with the understanding that others will help the individual achieve their own physical, psychological, intellectual, social and even spiritual needs.

I guess this is a sort of blown up extrapolation of some recent psych findings that have given a lot of press in the media that people obtain a lot of "happiness" through giving to others.  (Though it's always dangerous to build castles in their based on pop-media interpretations of feel good psychology!)

There is a dark side to such a model:  The crushing of the individual and individualism for the sake of the group.  See communism, see certain aspects of Japanese culture.

But I think a healthy balance can be achieved.  I think social democracy (as far as I understand it) is a huge step in that direction.  But I want to find out if it is possible to go further and deeper.

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 08:41:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I believe that the "Open Corporate" - of which the UK LLP is the first example - ia based upon a unique synthesis of the collective (joint) responsibility of partnership but without that form's individual (several) responsibility.

In this participative model the individual may remain individual while still benefiting from the "common bond" to which he has  - consensually (not by imposed government fiat) - agreed.

Moreover this is not a RE-distributive model but a PRE-distributive model.

Within an "Open Corporate" there is no Profit and no Loss: and it is in members' interests to cooperate, rather than to compete.

It opens up the possibility of a model neither Private nor Public but both/ and - where investment may be obtained for developing public assets by selling not the assets themselves, but merely a proportional "Equity Share" of their production (or the revenues from the sale of production).

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 08:54:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, actually, I was thinking specifically about the potential of cooperatives (and your Open Corporate) as a candidate for bringing "civilization" to the next level, wherein a cooperative giving/sharing culture and social organization enables "civilization" and "progress" ("the benefits of urban culture [literacy, vaccines, antibiotics, industrial capacity]") to thrive without the undesired elements that DeAnander has described (e.g. "theft, murder, slavery and warfare").

But the more I know about cooperatives, the more I know I don't know about them, so would like to impose a moratorium on myself for mentioning them until I do some more homework.

Actually, that goes for a lot of subjects discussed here!

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:10:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There is nothing necessary wrong with "Heirarchy."  If you're hunting big game with pointy sticks having a hierarchy wherein everyone knows their job, sticks to it, and does it is a really good idea.  ;-)

Just as using "Network" is a really good idea if your band is in Gather mode.  

(In an attempt to forestall the almost inevitable ... PLEASE note I did not assign sex or gender to either the Hunters or the Gatherers.)

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 08:31:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
we perpetuate the myth that their lives were miserable, full of disease, hunger, hardship, fear, ignorance and violence -- in other words the life of the slums of our own cities.

No myth. Hunting and gathering societies had better health than pre twentieth century developed nations. Fear, hunger, hardship, ignorance and violence - same difference. Pre twentieth century settled agricultural societies were at about the same level regardless of 'imperial' or 'non imperial' form, or for that matter present day third world urban slums. Civilization and technology at least offer the possibility of something better. That they often don't deliver is not a reason to make poverty an ideal to be strived for.

by MarekNYC on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 03:21:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Please point me to a culture without a parasitical elite and grotesque displays of status.  

I make no claim that their way of life is desirable to us, only that it exists.  

I will further claim it is sustainable.  

You have to admit to what exists or can exist BEFORE you take up questions of desirability.  

Desirability is further separate from the question of whether we could reach it if we wanted to.  (Which, so far, we don't.)  

They are certainly not the only example, but civilization has been hard on indigenous cultures, nor have our anthropologists been interested (for the most part) in doing more than finding distorted mirrors of themselves.  Whence information is scarce.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Mar 20th, 2007 at 10:29:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Bookchin insists that the polis as a healthy and symbiotic human institution and lifeway is distinguishable from the civitas and is recoverable.  I am only halfway through his argument and have not yet decided whether I find it convincing.  maybe he will convince me that civilisation -- a human life based in cities -- can be achieved without theft, murder, slavery and warfare.  he will have some uphill work to do so, but I'm still reading.

Have you seen margouillat's The drifting of the "City"...?

One paragraph in particular I found fascinating, and troubling (because I think he might be right, alas!):

Many of our European countries entered the "City" way of living through the Roman empire (and some never did)!
The main difference between the Anglo-saxon view of city (community, collectivity, christianity, protestantism, etc.) and the Latin ones might just be about the Roman urban and agricultural techniques and way of life seduction...

and again in a comment:

In todays Latin countries, as in France's Middle Age, you can see on a Michelin map the two superposed layers... The Roman territorial management AND the cluster of Villages that served well feudal times.
The Northern countries evolved differently and you can still feel it on satellite pictures.

For the South the City was a dreamed utopia, for the North it was just a commodity.
Most Latin cultured urbanist, shudders when he looks at North American cities (or Australian's ones)... He feels it's wrong, while for the people living in them, it seems quite natural.

While the Anglo Saxon culture speak a lot of community, Latin culture try to break those systemically... The City heritage!
The "freedom" of each feeling, individual centered shows by houses, religion, politics. Most of those from the North.
While in the South, individual freedom is not seen as so important vs the belonging to a greater level of life quality (or power, or richness) in a collective way...

I'd like to think that we can still have the city, without sacrificing community and -- I think this is what we are talking about -- solidarity.

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 06:01:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Can you expand on how exactly you find that paragraph fascinating and (especially) troubling?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 06:08:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Can you expand on how exactly you find that paragraph fascinating and (especially) troubling?

I found it fascinating because it had never occurred to me that there was an "Anglo-Saxon" version of cities in contra-distinction to a "Latin" version of cities, and that these versions were based on different cultures and values.  I guess I had always assumed that cities emerged due to general factors that were common to any conglomeration of lots of humans living within a physical space, combined with the peculiar geographical features and limitations of their locations.  I had not considered how much impact culture and outlook could affect the physical make-up of a city.

I found it "troubling" (maybe not the right word) because when I first read it, it felt like "top-down" bureacratic "city engineering" (which I am less comfortable with, though I see its neccessity, assuming certain conditions are fulfilled) was being contraposed against "bottom-up" "community" and "collectivity" (which I am a fan of).

Having said that, I just re-read margouillat's diary, and realize that I misread it the first time.  I am not sure that I have totally gotten his idea of the city, but the first time I thought he might be advocating a certain "impersonal" administrative approach to organizing the city to correct and reign in the "natural" tribalistic, self-ghettoizing, even self-particlizing tendencies that people have -- again, the top-down administrative approach.  But I think perhaps what he is talking about is that the city -- with the right awareness, intelligence, and discipline, yes, perhaps the administrative super-ego -- can and has helped humans to live a richer, more complex, more interconnected communal existence than would otherwise be possible without that communal "discipline".

His concern about community is clear from this sentence:

I shudder at the idea that they might get "autonomous" one day, shutting most of my fellow countrymen in social darkness.

And the new possibilities of communal living he describes in this paragraph:

As the city needed new people (immigration) they were very open about beliefs and religions, as anyhow the City itself was founded by a god, a half-god, or at least a hero!  Moral was not so tight (you had people from various origins so inbreeding wasn't a risk as in villages)... And an underground economy could be tolerated... Then recuperated!

Again, I'm not suure if I "capte" his ideas quite yet, and I am still a little bit intimidated byy "the city", but I think I understand it better.

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:11:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The soils of Italy are friable as compared to the heavy loam north of the Alps.  The stick plow, widely used throughout the Mediterranean, is useable in these soil types either pulled by humans or a small'ish animal.  With this land use patterning there is a strong tendency for the population to concentrate and then 'live-in' those concentrations.  

In distinction, the heavier soils north of the Alps requires a different technology: the moldboard plow and oxen (horses) a set of equipment not available until the Middle Ages.  Therefore, the Germanic peoples: Germans, Saxons, Swedes, & etc tended to concentrate on stock raising at first.  This required a dispersed population.  In the north 'cities' were primarily established to be trading centers - I'm thinking of Hedeby - or centers of power and production - the Celtic oppidum.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:09:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'v just discovered this thread and am in the process of finding time to digest it :-)
bruno-ken is right in his re-reading of the diary, as through my not so fluent writing, search of words, etc. I was pointing at.
It doesn't oppose to local variations and geographical differences in tools. Nor the evolution of trade centers ( I call those the "Caravanserai" or "funduq" concept)...

As always, behind the obvious generalization, there are greater subtleties.
It was more meant as a wink to the "we are the cities we have" that seems to sustain a passionate debate in this thread :-)

If we must live in a global world, let it be with our differences and the understanding of those...

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman

by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 10:18:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The core problem is that humans are both exceptionally competitive and extremely talented at modifying their environment. While there is a good deal of variation among the individuals of the species, short term strength always defeats long term planning, which puts a serious damper on attempts to live in a stable and sustainable manner.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 01:08:37 PM EST
I am not sure that people are necessarily inclined to competition. The problem is, when a few blokes come so aggressively grabbing resources and exploiting everything, you have to adopt. This is similar to violence: people do not have to be violent, but they have to adopt to violence.

The question is: can you adopt to greedy exploitation without becoming more greedy yourself? (Or similarly, can you adopt to violence without escalating the violence?)

My answer is: yes you can, but it is hard. There is no easy solution: you have to upgrade constantly your "half-measures".

In particular, cooperation (or solidarity) must be a key tool in taming over-competative maniacs. That may "limit their freedoms", but you have to be kind to yourself first.

Short term bully and long term sustainability do fight. We may just living in cusp times where short term bully looks unbeatable. But the bully will beat itself badly, before long.

by das monde on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 11:19:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with you excluding your first sentence. In fact I don't think it jibes with the rest of your comment.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 02:09:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The first two sentences are indeed badly connected. The first sentecne should be read in isolation. Still, the point is, people do not necessarily wish to seek competition, but they have to adopt to other's ambitions. The adoption does not have to be just as destructive, if some effort is applied.
by das monde on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 02:53:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As the descendents of pack hunters, we tend to be cooperative within 'The Group' - however defined/established - and competitive, sometimes viciously so, with 'The Other.'

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:12:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There world is a constantly improving place.  Sure it's frustrating that it can't be perfectly democratic and wealth shared completely today.  But how can one not recognize the constant improvements happening all around us.  Here is another example of such progress (also referenced in the diary above).
by wchurchill on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 03:42:48 PM EST
Fittingly continuing the response in your diary:

The question remains: How much of the current growth is fuelled by the ever increading volume? How will the progress go without the "pyramid" fuel?

There is a possibility that progress can be indeed sustainable, but without escalation of the volume growth. My suspicion is that Bush's advisors intentionally escalated volume growth (with tax cuts, and by letting big buisinesses expand liberally abroad)  so to "assure" booming economy throughout his presidency. That is gonna be paid badly at some time.  

Sure, there are impressive examples (like Singapoure, South Korea, Ireland, Estonia) of taking the best of the liberalized growth. But some countries (like Argentina or Zambia) suffer precisely because of libertarian recipes. Again, tussle for (assumed) pyramid portions might be a factor in this distribution.

Pyramid schemes are illegal not because they "do not work" (they work marvelously for a few), but because they are deceptive or demonstratively unfair. Even if emerging rather than designed, pyramid schemes should be recognized.

If a crisis comes, some developing countries might fare much better than commanding global players. Lesser exposure to a failing global market might be a blessing then. Many countries need just bits in technology (in medicine, communications), not the whole package with speculative frenzy included. A few developing countries might be making their priorities very wisely.

by das monde on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 10:40:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't see how the pyramid analogy fits here.  Wikipedia describes this as follows:
In a typical multi-level marketing or network marketing arrangement, individuals associate with a parent company as an independent contractor or franchisee and are compensated based on their sales of products or service, as well as the sales achieved by those they bring into the business. This is like many franchise companies where royalties are paid from the sales of individual franchise operations to the franchisor as well as to an area or region manager.
In a legitimate MLM company, commissions are earned only on sales of the company's products or services. No money may be earned from recruiting alone ("sign-up fees"). One must analyze the compensation plan to determine whether participants are paid from actual sales to customers and not from money received from new recruits. If participants are paid primarily from money received from new recruits, then the company is an illegal pyramid or Ponzi scheme.
Some less legitimate companies produce revenues primarily by attracting new participants with the hope of reward and selling them products or services of dubious value at inflated prices, as opposed to selling products or services consumers would purchase at the given price without regard to the opportunity attached. One must evaluate the products or services and determine if a significant percentage of consumers would continue to purchase them if the participants do not make money from the underlying opportunity. If the products or services have dubious value or if the participants must purchase excessive quantities without reasonable intent to use or resell said items, then the company is likely a thinly veiled illegal pyramid scheme.
Multi-level marketing has a recognized image problem due to the fact that it is often difficult to distinguish legitimate MLMs from illegal scams such as pyramid or Ponzi schemes. MLM businesses operate legitimately in the United States in all 50 states and in more than 100 other countries, and new businesses may use terms like "affiliate marketing" or "home-based business franchising". However, many pyramid schemes try to present themselves as legitimate MLM businesses.
Globalization has many levels of trade, but the concept of building a pyramid of customers passing on bogus products down the levels of the pyramid doesn't apply.  Many trades are more like a country selling an indigenous product to a business in another country, like maybe rubber for auto wheels or cocoa for chocolate bars,,,,,they get paid in a currency and buy products they need.  There are of course many variations.  And particularly in the 3rd world it's hard to imagine they are buying "products or services of dubious value".  They buy food, clothes, medical supplies,,,,,things they need.  

And true pyramid schemes usually go bust with the bottom level of the pyramid getting shafted.  True there are business cycles in national and world economies, but they are not caused by the same factors that cause pyramid marketing schemes to go bust; everyone gets hurt in a downturn in the business cycle; and business cycles come back as economies recover.

I just don't see this is a good analogy.

by wchurchill on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 01:58:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for keeping the discussion going!

The point of analogy is the following: The value of stock market shares (or real estate) is now determined by the flow of newcomers, or more generally, by volume increase. You have millions of Americans, Chinese, East Europeans and others coming into markets, because this is "the way" to get good living, and once they come in, they inevitably buy, regardless of intrinsic market values. Besudes, pension funds are rapidly expanding: as they collect contributions they are effectively obliged to buy, again, regardless of real market values. For an individual contributor, these purchases are excessive, not entirely voluntarily so.

The real market value hardly enters the equation of the price. The price is determined by buyers' competition and expectations. Traded shares are almost certain to be overpriced.

Surely, market shares do not have "dubious value". But mathematically, you may speak of a pyramid scheme (whether designed or emergent) whenever volume increase alone pushes share prices up.

Economic downturns might be different from outright pyramid scams. But while depresion causes remain "mysterious", we cannot say that pyramid effects do not play a significant role. Buisiness cycles might be nothing more but cycles of excessive greed, so to speak.

by das monde on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 02:45:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Surely, market shares do not have "dubious value". But mathematically, you may speak of a pyramid scheme (whether designed or emergent) whenever volume increase alone pushes share prices up..
But this has the effect of labeling every successful business a pyramid scheme, which they are not.  I've used Medtronic before as an example.  A young engineer invented a product that became the world's first pacemaker.  It was expensive at first, and a little clugey, but as engineers worked on it the quality of the product improved dramatically and the costs in real terms came down.  I believe Baxter was the first company to come out with dialysis machines--same experience.  St. Jude with heart valves.  New products that address unmet customer needs are going to grow in volume dramatically.  Sometimes they will be products that are lifesaving, other times they will be products that people just enjoy--maybe Starbuck's coffee.  So you are certainly right that one of the driver's of shareholder value in these cases is that people buy the product in greater quantities, this produces more sales and profits, and the price of the shares appropriately reflect that.  But this is more of a true demand cycle.  Pyramid schemes are based upon creating false, artificial demand, where the person at the end of the chain gets caught losing his money--inevitably.  With shares in public companies, if the management runs the company well, brings out new products, continues to meet customer needs better than the competition (which of course will emerge), then the shares will continue to do well.  If the company can't keep up, management will be fired, and if new management can't get it back on track, then the company may be bought, maybe even go out of business.  But this whole cycle is not described by the marketing model known as a pyramid scheme.
by wchurchill on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 11:53:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The key difference is between the words "volume increase alone pushes share prices up" and "one of the drivers of shareholder value". It depends how negligible or significant are other factors.

There is a gray area in between. Very successful buisinesses indeed risk to run into pyramid modes. Investors have to make good judgements themselves.

I do not suggest to draw subtle lines in the gray area. I even consider profitting from brief fluxes of speculative interest as healthy. (That is the way to curb speculative interest.) Regulation is hardly possible in the gray area.

But government (or public) may keep an eye on the bubles without reccuring interventions. First of all, playing in stock markets does not have to be made as easy as possible. When people are tempted to make unjustified decisions, it's getting closer to a deception. Participation in the markets must still be free, of course, but it should not become the main way of making living for the masses. Or to put it other way, not only financial talent should be encouraged. People should have good chances to achieve good living standards without necessarily diving into pecularities of stock and real estate markets.

Secondly, when a bubble become more apparent and holds for longer time, public awareness should be raised. What usually happens now, a speculative bubble is disguised by all means possible as long as possible - which is very "fair" to the speculants of the moment, but eventually becomes unfair for a unspecified large group of later buyers.

Only then comes a more interventive stage of bubble management. Here the interesting problem is: how eager buyers should be "convinced" to cool off, or accept limitations.

by das monde on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 08:29:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But das monde, you are mixing and confusing two different concepts, speculation and pyramid marketing.  Once again using wikipedia, speculation is
Speculation, in the narrow sense of financial speculation, involves the buying, holding, selling, and short-selling of stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, collectibles, real estate, derivatives or any valuable financial instrument to profit from fluctuations in its price as opposed to buying it for use or for income via methods such as dividends or interest. Speculation or agiotage represents one of three market roles in western financial markets, distinct from hedging, long term investing and arbitrage. Speculators in an asset have no intention to have long term exposure to the asset.[1]
Pyramid marketing which I quoted above is something else.  Your argument regarding speculation and bubbles makes sense as an argument--I would argue the other side of the issue,, but still your argument is a good one.  but the comparison to pyramid marketing just doesn't make sense.
by wchurchill on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 10:06:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Speculation and pyramid schemes are not the same. But if profit margins of speculation come from new entrants alone, I call it an emergent pyramid scheme. The reason is pretty clear: if volume increase is the only fuel, the system would collapse when there are no new buyers. The biggest loosers are the last buyers. Regular traders might be loosers as well, which is worse than a designed pyramid scheme - or not, if scammers are punished. I see enough similarity between perils of both scenarios to refer to them by the same term.
by das monde on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 10:35:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
well just understand that your writings on these topics will not make sense to people in business or economics, because you are giving accepted terminology new definitions.  and most of those people reading your work will just discard it, since it will appear you are not prepared to write on the topic.
by wchurchill on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 10:49:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think I am very clear with presenting what I mean.

It is not exactly my purpose to enlighten all buisinessmen or economists. I don't care of those who would take more trouble in detecting language formalities than getting the point. What we are discussing is that certain things in market economy walk like a pyramid scheme, quark like a pyramid scheme, and most importantly, expand and collapse like a pyramid scheme.

by das monde on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 11:16:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't see what the problem is. If you think of the equity market as an entity, if newcomers put money into it in the hope of future returns, its value will appear to grow.

wchurchill - how exactly is this different to what's happening today?

Given that there's really very little of the technological innovation that you describe happening today - there's a lot of 'cheaper', but comparatively little 'new', I think the pyramid description is a perfectly apt and revealing one.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:42:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is an incredible amount of technological innovation happening today in the fields I follow closely.  I've given numerous examples before, and am not going to waste my time going through it again.  Some people can see the future and how it's going to be changed by innovation and technology, other can't.  The former group does better economically and psychologically by participating in changes that help mankind.

As to understanding the implications of pyramid marketing, versus speculation, versus "bubbles", there is plenty to read and gain insight.  It doesn't matter to me if you and das monde choose to confuse them.

by wchurchill on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 03:02:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As a matter of academic terminology, a pyramid scheme (or pyramid scam) is defined by the rigid structure of participation. Matrix schemes work the same as sustainability regards, but they have other participation structure.

On the other hand, the Russian GKO bonds are often given as an example of a pyramid scheme, though they were traded within the stock market structure. If we call this case a "created pyramid structure" in the stock market, then it makes compatable to speak about "emergent pyramid schemes" in stock markets. That is what I am talking about.

For most consistency, the cases of Ponzi & pyramid scams, matrix schemes, and created/emergent pyramid schemes in stock markets should be grouped to one term. You may come up with a better English word combination, but here is a formal definition, as general as I can:

Entrant growth - a trading structure where profit margins of beneficiaries come predominantly from new entrants.

The special case of entrant growth in stock markets can be called... bubble growth!?! Unless there are objections from bubble specialists, we may offer a mechanism how the bubbles grow in economy, or even quantify them perhaps!  

by das monde on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 09:58:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The stockmarket and pyramid schemes are examples of, what I call, a 'Multi-Expansion Copy Machine' where the system grows by making larger copies of itself until it reaches a Limit, which can comprise many different factors, and then abruptly collapse.  Since they are groupable under analysis they have common properties and have an intersection of the set of their attributes.  (In English, mostly they are the same but the differences are important.)

To an economist stock markets are Good/pyramid schemes are Bad.  Thus, economists resist seeing the commonalities.


She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 11:45:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
yes and there are also people who lack the insights or energy to understand the differences, and the different policy, or decision making, implications of the two situations.  Those with the energy and insight tend to do well in life.  Those without may write about how unfair and biased the world is.  

The world is of course unfair and biased in some areas--but personal growth and responsiblity has taken many people in history to great success, in many fields.  Great thing about life, we each get to choose our own mental attitude, our own work ethic, and then see what plays out.

by wchurchill on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 03:14:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
of ProgressiveHistorians, a community site dedicated to the interesection of history and politics, I would be honored if you would cross-post this excellent diary there.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...
by Nonpartisan on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 04:45:52 PM EST
Done. Have the best of it!
by das monde on Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 09:14:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I crossposted this diary at Booman Tribune, and Daily Kos (with a poll!)
by das monde on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 06:54:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, the poll at Daily Kos is not working, so I added it here. Enjoy!
by das monde on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 08:48:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've not forgotten... ( just a bit ashamed of the bad habit to postponing things ) !!!!

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman
by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 12:14:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It is, sadly, a reasonable title for current global civilization.

Pyramid schemes are an endless borrowing cycle, seeking to keep ahead of the accumulating debt through new money coming in, enriching a few while devastating many.

We're borrowing heavily against the future:

  • Fiscally -- e.g., retirement demands and infrastructure investment requirements
  • Peak Oil -- eating up at an accelerating rate the reserves
  • Global Warming (and other environmental damage): eating up into the globe's capacity to deal with our damage.


Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart. NOW!!!
by a siegel (siegeadATgmailIGNORETHISdotPLEASEcom) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 06:19:03 AM EST
Great diary...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 08:49:08 AM EST
In the past, these cycles were regional. As Rome fell in the Mediterranean, the Maya rose in Central America, and so on; the setbacks were local, the overall experiment kept going. But now the 10,000-year bets all rest on a single throw.
Except that the Maya experiment had no influence whatsoever on European recovery. So, what actually did happen when Rome fell? Not a whole lot.
In essence, the "fall" of the Roman Empire to a contemporary of that age depended a great deal on where they were and their status in the world. On the great villas of the Italian Campagna, the seasons rolled on without a hitch. The local overseer may have been representing an Ostrogoth, then a Lombard duke, then a Christian bishop, but the rhythm of life and the horizons of the imagined world remained the same. Even in the decayed cities of Italy consuls were still elected. In Auvergne, at Clermont, the Gallo-Roman poet and diplomat Sidonius Apollinaris, bishop of Clermont, realized that the local "fall of Rome" came in 475, with the fall of the city to the Visigoth Euric. In the north of Gaul, a Roman kingdom existed for some years and the Franks had their links to the Roman administration and military as well. In Hispania the last Arian Visigothic king Liuvigild considered himself the heir of Rome. Hispania Baetica was still essentially Roman when the Moors came in 711, but in the northwest, the invasion of the Suevi broke the last frail links with Roman culture in 409. In Aquitania and Provence, cities like Arles were not abandoned, but Roman culture in Britain collapsed in waves of violence after the last legions evacuated: the final legionary probably left Britain in 409.
For the vast majority of people, the end of the Roman Empire just meant the replacement of a distant overlord with a local one, not necessarily more thuggish than the former. And while cities dwindled in size they did not disappear.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:30:56 AM EST
Absolutely, people think of collapse as being necessarily catastophic - some obviously are - the sacking of Carthage, or the destruction of Native American populations.

But I think the collapse of perhaps more civilisations takes place over several generations and the fact of the collapse is probably not even apparent at the time. Rome and Greece are good examples. Successor civilisations usually adopt a considerable amount of cultural, political and social customs from the previous one. In other words, the collapse of a civilisation is often no bad thing for those involved.

There's also an issue of definition - its very difficult to say where one 'civilisation' ends and another begins there is arguably continuity between our 'civilisation' and Rome, which itself can be traced to Greek/Etruscan civilisation and so on.

by lemonwilmot (lemonwilmot at gmail.com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 11:01:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And true collapse like in Europe in the 14th Century need not entail a "change of civilisation", as perceived by either contemporaries or by us, because the same people, the same places, and the same political entities and cultures exist before and after the event.

I think the kind of collapse by resource exhaustion as envisioned by the likes of the Limits to Growth would be more similar to 14th century Europe than to the fall of the Roman Empire.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 11:09:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, the fall was most certainly catastrophic for many people. In Britain the cities withered, trade ground to a halt, and many people died as the rule of law (such as it was) broke down and food became much harder to come by.

The move from centralised affluence to fragmented stockades housing war bands and king-lings happened within a single lifetime, and was very hard to miss.

The closest modern equivalent would be post-Soviet Russia, with the war-bands replaced by local mafiosos. Russia had some reslience because there was something of a tradition of self-reliance and barter before everyone's pay dried up. But what happened in Russia was hardly pretty.

A similar change in the West would be much more catastrophic, because hardly anyone has similar experience of self-sufficiency, population densities are often much higher - especiallly in the UK - and most people would be in shock if they could no longer buy essentials from supermarkets.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:39:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There was something peculiar about Britain among the provinces of the Western Roman Empire, because in other places (Spain, France, Italy) while cities did wither and population declined, the end of the Roman Empire was not catastrophic.

As for comparing a putative future collapse of The West™ to that of the Soviet Union, there's this lecture by Dmitry Orlov (I think I first got a link to that from ET, but I don't know in what thread).

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 07:52:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you're underestimating the effects. For many people it clearly was catastrophic. The earth wasn't scorched, farming didn't necessarily stop altogether, but some cities were invaded or overrun, and trade diminished drastically.

If you were a merchant or someone else in the middle classes, I'd expect that it was very catastrophic indeed. If you were one of the peasants, possibly not so much.

The ruling elites were either slaughtered or adapted to new masters - which would doubtless have been catastrophic for them too.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 08:25:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For the Germanic tribes the Fall of Rome was a huge benefit.  The majority of the tribal members didn't benefit (all that much) from the luxury trade or from the wages of being a mercenary. They did benefit when they conquered and carved-up northern Italy and the south of France.

We are schooled to think the Fall of Rome was a Bad Thing. Un-privileging the Roman POV allows for a broader, better, analysis.


She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 11:26:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Rome didn't Fall so much as dwindle away with a little whimper in the West.  The Eastern Roman Empire didn't end until 1453 when the Turks finally conquered Constantinople.  The Pirenne Thesis states the "real" Fall happened in the 7th Century as the Arabs took over the ports along the eastern and southern Mediterranean.

The consequences of the Fall depend on when you date it.

shrug

Pays your money and takes your choice.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 09:23:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
We should not assume that the best what a civilisation has would be preserved after a collapse (or mere culture change). For example, there is a theory that Hellenian Greeks made important breakthoughs in technology, formulation and application of scientific method, but they knowledge was not preserved beyond Roman conquest, since only most practical and easily understandable works were partially preserved.

As for post-collapse period of our civilisation, I put up a scenario in a parallel diary.

by das monde on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 10:19:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes

The  Antikythera Mechanism...

it is the common conceit of empires, as of adolescents, that all their elders are idiots and nothing worthwhile was ever invented or thought of until they came along :-)

the book Ancient Inventions iirc contains a very applicable quote in the Introduction...  I'll see if I can find it later.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 10:40:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
We should also not assume that what we think is the best about a civilisation is what its members, contemporaries or successors thought it was the best, either.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 04:51:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
thanks to all for an extraordinary thread.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 05:19:44 PM EST
my buddy s goff comments
>> What Gowan shows, as does Hudson, though in more arcane language, is
>> that the metastatic outgrowth of the financial pole of capital is
>> symptomatic.  It is always an outcome of of a deeper accumulaiton
>> crisis... a response to it that is a little like someone beginning to
>> lose their grip on a bar of soap.  Financial-pole ascendancy is like
>> that dangerous juggling act being done when the slippery soap is in the
>> air.  What is happening now has very specific origins that can be
>> studied and explained so long as one avoids or delimits the explanatory
>> power of standard economic mystifications.  What is happening right
>> now as financial-pole capital is reaching from one center (Wall Street)
>> into every cranny of the planet is historically unique, so it is not
>> only extremely dangerous, it is extremely dangerous in highly
>> unpredictable ways.
>>
>> Four years ago, some of us were writing that there was a housing bubble
>> being inflated with fictional exchange value.  Now, the sub-prime
>> lending monster is at the doors of the middle class; and people are
>> trying to explain it as if The Market were inhabited by fickle deities,
>> as if society were being run by poltergeists.
[...]
>> Alex Zeigler makes the case that the original expansion impulse at the
>> heart of these depredations is always scarcity, and often brought on by
>> locally unsustainable practices.  His example is that the steam engine
>> was invented in Early Greece, but it didn't become generalized in
>> application until the Brits cut all their trees down and had to dragnet
>> the coal.  Again, this hypothesis can be tested at least to some
>> degree.  There is no doubt that the expansion of US slavery was related
>> in very large part to serial soil exhaustions.

this I think starts to answer the question:  but what about large-field monocropping without corvee labour, authoritarian hierarchies, etc?  I suspect this is kind of like asking "but what about freeways without cars?" -- i.e. this is a socio-econo-techno bundle, all are part and parcel of the same social dynamic.  field ag where land ownership is not concentrated into a feudal/corporate pyramid [the other kind] scheme with ownership restricted to the tiny top tier, would tend to be small-field and diverse, not large-field and monocrop.  Balinese rice paddies might be an illustration, or traditional Chinese market gardens, or the very long-running, relatively sustainable peasant and smallholder ag of the Indian plains...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 08:43:22 PM EST
His example is that the steam engine
>> was invented in Early Greece, but it didn't become generalized in
>> application until the Brits cut all their trees down and had to dragnet
>> the coal.  Again, this hypothesis can be tested at least to some
>> degree.  There is no doubt that the expansion of US slavery was related
>> in very large part to serial soil exhaustions.

Um? Coal became a major factor because the Brits were cutting down their trees for charcoal. Yup. To the extent that the steam engine had anything to do with it it was to create demand for charcoal, and when that source of energy was disappearing, a new one needed to be found. But that is not an indictment of modernity. Demand for energy is demand for energy - whether that energy happens to have negative externalities is what matters - if we produce it with wind and solar we're fine.  And the expansion of slavery was related to the expansion of an agricultural economy based on slavery. That that had links to the growth of cotton for the textile industry, and in turn was linked to soil exhaustion by tobacco farming doesn't mean there's some sort of causal relationship between soil exhaustion and slavery. If the economy had been a non-slave based one, it would have expanded the non-slave economy. If they hadn't found a more profitable substitute, soil depletion would have led to a decline in slavery.

but what about large-field monocropping without corvee labour, authoritarian hierarchies, etc?  I suspect this is kind of like asking "but what about freeways without cars?" -- i.e. this is a socio-econo-techno bundle, all are part and parcel of the same social dynamic.  field ag where land ownership is not concentrated into a feudal/corporate pyramid [the other kind] scheme with ownership restricted to the tiny top tier, would tend to be small-field and diverse, not large-field and monocrop.  Balinese rice paddies might be an illustration, or traditional Chinese market gardens, or the very long-running, relatively sustainable peasant and smallholder ag of the Indian plains...

Who cares whether we're working in large fields or small ones? The problem is the work. If the third world slums dwellers were working in smaller non-polluting, sustainable, cooperatively owned factories but still lived under the same material conditions, doing the same work, there would still be a problem with poverty.

Environmental sustainability says nothing about standard of living or quality of life, it just means that it is sustainable over the long term. The life of a sweatshop worker is undesirable not because they are part of an unsustainable system, but because their work and living conditions are poor. The same goes for peasant farmers. Poor housing, lack of running water, lack of electricity, lack of quality health care, lack of all sorts of pleasant material goods... all not good  in and of itself.  

It's why your view of civilization as bad, and a world where everybody works as a peasant farmer under pre-modern material conditions as good bothers me so much. I see it as no different from someone saying that what the left should aspire to is to turn everyone into third world urban slum dwellers, just minus a hierarchical socio-political system and inequality.

by MarekNYC on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 09:59:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The ultimate question is: Will we avoid (or overcome) a collapse of financial markets, technology or civilisation? What we would be after a collapse?

The suspected folly of capitalism is that it provides excellent living standards to us now, at the expense of environment and natural resourses for future generations. The later human "entrants" would be big loosers compared to us. How high is the risk of this sad scenario? Does capitalism needs expansion like us air? Wouldn't "leftish" impluses allow us to live prosperous times much longer?

by das monde on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 11:46:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The ultimate question is: Will we avoid (or overcome) a collapse of financial markets, technology or civilisation? What we would be after a collapse?

We'd be in a bad situation. That's why I don't see a post-civilization society.

Does capitalism needs expansion like us air?

Yes, but not of resource consumption. It needs expanding profits, expanding economies but that's something else. More t-shirts, more cars, more downloads, higher end food, more services. Take a pound of coffee beans, make it all at home, drink it all at the 7-11, drink it all at the fancy coffee bar. Same pound of coffee, similar other resources, but to a capitalist economy very different values. What uses more resources - one thousand dollars worth of lawyer is the same one thousand dollars as a thousand dollars of cheap t-shirts at Walmart, not the same resource input. The resource question is independent of the capitalism one. The former is about what standard of living we can have on a sustainable basis, the latter is about how society is organized. If the government sets rules that force the private sector to use less natural resources, it will use less. Just like higher wages and greater equality in the post WWII period didn't cause a collapse of the capitalist system. The capitalists will have to be dragged kicking and screaming economic doom, just as they did then, and their predictions will be wrong, just as they were then.

by MarekNYC on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 11:30:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks, Marek.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 11:32:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Capitalism needs expanding profits, expanding economies - so, it will never settle for a prosperous but stagnant living standard? How large can "economies" expand?

Indeed, capitalism is supposed to be robust and function under many regimes, perhaps under any restrictions of natural environment and social agreement. After all, what is the difference between physical restrictions and social restrictions? A climate change may restict your buisiness freedoms muh more harshly than a cautios government policy.

Isn't this ironic that today's economy has to be massaged so subtly by the government?

Nevertheless, can capitalism expand much without the consumption growth? It must be able to reduce the stupendous waste of today's operations, if there exists a conceivable package of sufficient incentives. But how much growth may it have without material production?

by das monde on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 11:00:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Was it in Early Greece that a steam machine was invented?!

Anyway. If the Greeks invented a steam machine but did not implemented it, can we see here a failure of... of... free run of civilization... or something? What did they miss for making the technological jump? Was it just a wrong social system? Or did they need isolation from dominant cultures?

by das monde on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 11:54:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
but didn't Rome also basically have pretty modern plumbing and sewage systems.  I think a lot was lost in the middle ages in the western world.  and I'm very weak on this point, but I think the same was true in China, where discoveries were made, but then lost for centuries.  I'm sure someone else could comment more knowledgeably than I have, if they care to.
by wchurchill on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 02:44:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The first steam machine, the Aeolipile was invented by Hero of Alexandria (1st century CE)



"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 02:57:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
They just didn't have the need for steam machines, they had slaves instead.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 04:12:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
They thought they don't need steam machines. So "useless" machines would been sold easily with modern marketing ;-) "Hey, you can employ your slaves to bring wood!"

Did Hero himself find it useless? What applications did he imagine? Nothing helpful for himself personally?

But I wonder, if Romans were not near around at that time, wouldn't Alexandrian inventors be able to build around a more mechanised polis?

by das monde on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 04:32:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And I am sure if you had wanted to sell an expensive mechanism to a wealthy patrician you would have had no trouble.

It's possible that the thing was just a toy, a demonstration tool for the physics of steam, like the things you can buy in a science museum.

The æolipile that Melanchton illustrates is a (not particularly powerful) device for converting heat into rotational motion. In the technological context of the 1st century, I can imagine using that for a potter's turntable, but  a steam machine would have been too expensive for a potter. And then there's the problem that the æolipile as depicted doesn't operate in a cycle as the steam escapes. So, you not only need a supply of fuel, but a constant stream of water.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 04:45:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I suppose one could have combined the æolipile with an Archimedes' screw to pump water, diverting some of the water into the engile. But would that have had a positive "water return on water invested"?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 04:48:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is this a hypothesis that Hellenian Greeks were making important breakthroughs in technology and science, as mentioned in a parallel thread. They were not just making sporadic discoveries, they were advancing scientific methods. It can be reasonably guessed that they could have developed more interesting things, if not a turmoil and change to the Roman culture, which did not particularly appreciate efforts to make things better than they already are.

Speaking of particians or other wealthy "investors": It is not necessarily optimal that technology development decisions depend on their needs, inclinations and understanding. In particular, they tend to be more greedy than the society norm - which is not a fortunate aspect regarding concerns of this diary.

by das monde on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 06:57:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, it is not optimal, but that is what you have.

Two questions. When you say "optimal", what are you optimising? And what would be an "optimal" mechanism for allocation of surplus wealth?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 07:05:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The best possible optimization might be dangerous. The (probably) most effective free markets set the questions of this diary. I prefer multidimensional optimization: when one of variables is optimized usefully enough, I would not put much effort in improving it by small margins.

Immediate holders of surplus wealth would of course prefer to keep it to themselves. Whatever social agreements or deals are proposed, there will be some better off without the agreements (in the sense of game theory models). They may even use their power to prevent new agreements, or weaken exsisting ones. (As it happens now, with the global initiative from Washington DC.) They may use measure like propaganda to keep control. On the other hand, the rest of society players may decide that it is unfair to them to have no distribution. In extreme cases, they may have enough power to impose or persuade any distribution whatsoever. Of course, harmonious agreements are preferable. The "optimal" situation is perhaps when the power balance is in favour of the majority seeking a redistribution, and they persuade surplus wealth holders to apply multidimensional individual optimization, along the lines: is it the sum of your ambitions to grasp as much wealth as possible for this moment? Don't you want to be sure that this wonderful society will keep functioning happily in this marvelous environment for indefinitely long time?  

by das monde on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 07:42:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
According to some book I read he also made one variant with metallic mirrors reflecting sunlight to heat the steamengine. Voilà, sun power!

Then you just need a slave to polish the mirror.

However, there was no indication to wheter he used this for any practical purpose. Think he was more of an inventor then an entrepreneur.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 07:58:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Same dynamic for ancient Egypt.

I think the friction between organized labor (seeking greater wages and other benefits) and the capitalists / management (seeking lower wages, higher productivity, and lower overall costs) was a big driver of 20th century technological innovation, as that friction helped drive the demand for the products of such innovation. Slaves, having no power, meant that friction did not exist in ancient Greece and Egypt, and thus there was no need for productivity enhancing technology (this is admittedly oversimplified because other stresses can create that kind of demand - growing population vs limited land for agriculture, for example, requiring greater agricultural productivity).

I assume this has been studied by scholars but I've never looked into it.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 05:20:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What they were missing? The right kind of mining industry perhaps?

Now if I recall correctly the history of steam-engines it went something like this:

The brittish steamengines were for the first hundred years or so solely used in the brittish mining industry. First to pump water to prevent mines from flooding and later on to haul stuff out of the mines. To haul stuff you need rails, so you need a certain knowledge of railmaking too.

These early steamengines were rather big, (with later standards) inefficient, stationary things. Since it was costly to have them running a lot of try and error was applied to make them better. One famous succesfull improver was named Watt.

After a lot of development steamengines could be used for other things like running trains. They were not that good though. In the famous competition were Stephensons Rocket defeated Ericssons Novelty, one competing design was disqualified after it turned out they had hid a horse in the train. (Bet it would have won.)

Eventually laws of thermodynamics were formulated which gave an idea of what the machines actually did and some ways to calculate improvements and not just doing the old try and error. This is btw, were games like civilization often gets it wrong, steamengines => thermodynamics, not the other way around.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 08:59:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This is btw, were games like civilization often gets it wrong, steamengines => thermodynamics, not the other way around.

A very important point.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 09:08:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The "accepted" answer to why Hellenistic civilization didn't go industrial is that their technosystem had no need for artificial energy sources. Human labour was cheap and plentiful (After all Egyptians had built the pyramids in this way).

Whereas England in the 18th century didn't have that much labour; most of the peasantry was tied to the land, and labour wasn't as cheap.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 09:52:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
an entertaining fictional treatment of this crucial period -- the decades of early capitalism and steam engines -- is Neal Stephenson's massive trilogy:  Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World.  an ambitious and not entirely successful undertaking, fascinating in its researched details more than for any novelistic quality.  The Leibniz/Newton quarrel is a major subtheme of the plot, and mining -- both silver and coal -- features prominently also.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Mar 12th, 2007 at 04:47:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The comparison must useful, not to set thrilling alarms, but adequate analytic concerns.

On Stephen Pizzo's blog, I found a comparative analysis based on detailed history pre-depression America of historian Frederick Lewis Allen. Pizzo's diary and Allen's work are both worth reading in full. Here is just a list of Pizzo's comparison points:

  1. Auto craze drives economy during 1920s - Today it's the Housing boom.
  2. Radio technology pushes market in 1920s. Today cellphones and "iPods".
  3. In 1920s chain merchandisers squeezed out small, local merchandisers. Today WalMart, Target etc, are doing this again.
  4. Corporate Profits soar in 1920s, and today.
  5. Easy Credit in 1920 fuels the market, as it does today.
  6. Wall Street players prospered in the 1920, and today.
  7. Big Business Lauded in the 1920s, and today.
  8. Business seen as a manifestation of Godliness, then and now.
  9. The Mainstream Media, then and now.
  10. Anna Nicole Smith and O.J., then and now.
  11. Federal Reserve then and today.
  12. Happy Talk from above, then and today.
  13. Sucker rallies, then and today.
  14. Whistling past the graveyard, then and today.
  15. Insider/Government market-fixers, then and today.
  16. Market "logic," then and today.
  17. Warnings met by happy talk, then and today.
  18. Americans encouraged to shop, then and today.
  19. Consumers encouraged to buy more cars and radios, then, houses today.
  20. Recognizing the "oh shit,"moment then and today.
by das monde on Fri Mar 9th, 2007 at 01:45:56 AM EST
Given the discussion that I had with De in this thread, I don't understand why she didn't cross-link to this thread on Feral Scholar.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Mar 14th, 2007 at 04:18:18 PM EST


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