Misery and Stagnation in the Agrarian State
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
People in Mesopotamia where agrarian states first established themselves resisted them stoutly and often successfully. But the simplicity and profitability of a protection racket state, particularly stealing from grain producing subsistence peasants, won out.
People in Mesopotamia where agrarian states first established themselves resisted them stoutly and often successfully. But the simplicity and profitability of a protection racket state, particularly stealing from grain producing subsistence peasants, won out. The result was millennia of abject misery for people corralled in agrarian states.
Mark Twain said, ‘What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.’ The idea can be applied to the entire range of popular beliefs about the desirability of the Democratic Socialist state - they are almost without exception incorrect. For this post, and its successor on the Industrial Revolution, the issue is what most people think they know about life in the past.
Why does it matter? Because most people are much more impressed by ideas based on historical precedent than they are by those based on economic principles. People correctly understand that ‘official economics’ (i.e. Keynesian macroeconomics) is incorrect. It is actually a perversion of correct principles. It just serves as intellectual cover for parasitic states and irresponsible, enabling banks.
People cannot quite put their finger on what is wrong. Few people are taught economics, even its faulty Keynesian version. Those who are, are Keynesians who mainly work for the state and its money printing banker allies.
The general population does not understand that there really are changeless economic principles governing how humans cooperate for mutual benefit and well-being. These principles offer eternally valid explanations about what goes wrong with any and all state efforts to replace cooperation with coercion. Hence the desirability of relying on historical examples rather than arguing from economic first principles.
The population is more open to persuasion based on historical rather than economics arguments. It would be good to know that the population had an accurate grasp of historical realities. You can’t know where you may be going if you are not clear about where you have been. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of TV programs such as ‘Time Team’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ (arguably the best history documentary on agrarian societies ever made) people generally have a badly falsified understanding of historical realities.
Therefore they can’t place their current predicament in a correct context. At an often-subconscious level, most people would, I believe, subscribe to roughly the following tripartite take on history:
1) Agrarian or Pre-industrial Society
Monarchical states first arise in Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago. They facilitate progress and technology by creating legal and administrative systems and security against invaders. Humanity moves away from backward hunter gathering to much more productive agricultural, mainly grain producing, ways of living. Over the next thousands of years technological progress encouraged by the state enables civilization to progress and to expand beyond irrigable valleys in the Middle East, Egypt and the Indus Valley. Commerce flourishes under the kings’ benevolent gaze.
There follow millennia of quite glamorous agrarian monarchies. Their histories are marred by squabbles between and within royal dynasties. But in the meantime, a lot of impressive capital cities, temples, cathedrals and mosques, palaces and monuments get built.
Based on watching historical dramas on TV, disproportionately set in Rome or Tudor England, people seem to have been reasonably well dressed and housed. All such dramas feature the top 0.01% of society at the top of the predation hierarchy. They seem, inevitably, as healthy and presentable as the contemporary actors playing the roles. Despite a certain amount of bad behaviour from celebrities like Nero, Cleopatra, the Sheriff of Nottingham or Henry VIII, the agrarian pre-industrial set-up is deemed reasonably admirable, possibly more ‘spiritual’, and less polluting if not downright environmentally ‘sustainable’. With the exception of Robin Hood and Game of Thrones, the peasants making up 90% of the population are absent from the picture. Despite being a bit ‘medieval’ at times, the agrarian past is usually regarded much more favourably than the Industrial Revolution.
2) The Industrial Revolution
Briefly, since it is the subject of the next post. Most people agree that the Industrial Revolution was a very bad thing. It is safely distanced from agrarian Merrie Olde England which happened some unspecified time before that. Unaccountably, millions migrated from their charming rural villages to squalid badly built industrial cities. There they barely survived in a state of indescribable poverty and in dreadful living conditions. Oppressive, exploitative mill and mine owners sent children up chimneys and worked everyone to death for low wages. Literature, especially Dickens, for the first time depicts the urban poor, leading us to suppose, mistakenly, that Britain had gone downhill and everybody was living in ‘Dickensian’ conditions.
3) The Modern World
Just briefly again, since nearly every other post on www.awah.uk is about the modern world’s ill-advised flirtation with Socialism, Democratic or not. People have been told that politicians then took charge. They passed all sorts of laws. Wages and living conditions improved quickly in western countries as a result. Compulsory education, healthcare and welfare were introduced where nothing had existed before. Central planning of nearly everything, especially land use and money, now means our public-spirited officials can run our lives ‘for the greater good’, as JK Rowling put it in another context.
There are grains of truth in these popular conceptions of the past. It is after all a key principle of propaganda that every lie contain a nugget of truth. But the public’s understanding of the past is skewed badly in favour of state intervention. That amounts to a big lie. The underlying drift is fundamentally wrong. A century of socialist propaganda in schools, academia and mainstream media (MSM) does much to explain why.
The first thing to understand is how bad agrarian or pre-industrial societies really were. A key work on this, I believe, is James C Scott’s ‘Against the Grain’. At the end of the most recent glaciation or ‘ice age’ (another one will likely start at some point over the next few thousand years and make Britain uninhabitable again) not much over 10,000 years ago, humans flourished in the Near East and in particular in southern Iraq, then the land of Sumer. They were hunter gatherers exploiting a rich variety of sea and river creatures, migratory animals and birds and many different food plants.
Quite large settlements appeared of which the best known may be Catalhoyuk in central Turkey. It comprised many houses of roughly equivalent size. The walls of the outermost houses joined to form defenses. There were few signs of ‘social differentiation’ which is archaeological jargon for some people being entitled to extract value from their fellows. So there is little sign of administrators, warriors and priests, and none of the monumental palaces or temples typical of later cities.
The population seems to have been none the worse for living in stateless societies. They were on the whole as healthy and large as we are today. They could hunt wild animals. They had made a great deal of progress towards domestication of sheep and goats. One resource among many in their varied diet consisted of seasonal cereal grasses. Patches of the ancestors of wheat and barley could be found locally.
At some stage and for some reason, it is not clear how or why, people became more reliant on harvesting and cultivating grain relative to hunting, fishing and gathering. This must have improved survival chances, perhaps during famines, but it had a couple of very bad consequences. It made the first macro-parasites (states) potentially viable. Grain grows above ground, is easy to harvest, carry and store, and it can be divided and shared out. That makes life too easy for thieves. You just overrun a village and torture a few farmers to reveal their stores. For comparison imagine raiding a village of potato farmers – it would not pay. The spuds need to be dug up. And they are heavy, hard to divide and to store.
The obvious adaptation is to create a state, in other words a formalized protection racket staffed by (literally) privileged men who have the legal right to threaten or to attack other people and their justly acquired possessions. These arose in Mesopotamia where managing irrigation in river valleys increased yields and potential tribute. It also made it easier to control peasants. Centred on priest kings and temple-based estates, the state elites took a somewhat more predictable share of harvests and offered protection against raiders. They naturally had a strong vested interest in more and more grain production and less of the freer and healthier hunter gather lifestyle.
And that was the other problem. Dependence on grain as the mainstay of the diet involves a great deal more work than hunter-gathering, especially when you have to maintain all those irrigation systems too. The Biblical story of Cain and Abel makes this clear. A life of agricultural drudgery is Cain’s punishment and his descendants’ for the murder of the hunter-gatherer Abel. Grain mono-culture increases the size of tribute-paying populations. But it makes them very unhealthy. The upshot of the vaunted agricultural revolution was a population of stunted unhealthy peasants. Men were typically six inches shorter on average than their pre-agricultural ancestors, or than us.
Allied to a stunted physique was the appearance of mass disease. Hunter gatherer populations were relatively disease free – and unresistant to infection – because their groups were too small. Infectious diseases could not take hold. In big unhealthy grain fed populations disease germs living in domesticated herds of sheep, goats, and cattle constantly cross-infected human populations, producing sudden lethal plagues. With disease in human and animal populations, came weed and pest infestation in the newly cleared fields.
Dependence on unhealthy grain mono-culture therefore meant constant risk of famine and disease, which made the tax take precarious. It was also unpopular with the ripped off peasants, or tax producers as we call them now. Archaeologists focus on the monuments left by particularly fortunate ancient dynasties. But these rulers account for a minority of ancient history. Surprisingly often not just the dynasty but the state was overthrown. So called dark ages ensued which might well have been more livable for un-taxed peasants.
With the state came writing to improve the efficiency with which the peasants were stripped of produce, but otherwise there was stagnation. That is the clear pattern in Egypt where a vibrant pre-dynastic society was frozen in a literally mummified, unchanging state dominated stasis. Innovation was not a priority for landholding elites trying to conserve power. Risk taking in always precarious peasant villages was un-affordable and unwelcome. Capital accumulated by a few successful traders was just a handy if minor, source of confiscated wealth. The pattern was early established where occasional freer mercantile societies created wealth and innovation, surrounded by backward, unchanging agricultural despotisms.
There followed millennia of agrarian monarchies whose histories are largely squabbles between and within what amount to family holdings of geographically defined protection rackets. Technological progress occurred. More areas of the world could produce enough to support the weight of state macro-parasites. A changing and overlapping cast of kings, landowners, priests, barbarians, knights and clerics populated a parade of endless predation.
Impoverished though they were, the expanding state societies enjoyed a formidable military advantage over their stateless neighbours. Their comparatively massive populations furnished large armies. Worse, over time they harboured ever more disease organisms, and eventually developed effective immunity to them, at great cost in centuries of suffering. The smaller non-state populations which they assimilated were far more vulnerable to disease. The star exhibit is the destruction of 95%-99% of the Amerindian population in the Americas during the 16th Century when the invaders from the old-world disease pool arrived. It is not the only example. For more on the relationship through history between macro-parasites (states) and micro-parasites (germs) see the incomparable ‘Plagues and Peoples’ by William McNeill.
Archaeological evidence for the miserable lot of most inhabitants in agrarian societies is sparse because their possessions and even dwellings were so insubstantial. What other information do we have? Well firstly there is modern experience of life in third world societies. The age of agrarian states lives on in corrupt, impoverished third world societies around the world exploited by feudal elites dressed up in western garb.
Eye witness accounts of absolute poverty, despair and unthinking systematic abuse of subsistence farmers and landless men and women in third world countries are plentiful.
We may not like to think Merrie Olde England was like that. But European societies, including in the British Isles, must originally have been as poor and as miserable as many third world societies still are. All, from beginning to end, had the same incredibly low living standards and quality of life. Men and women were as stunted and small in early modern England as they were in the first states in ancient Sumer.
Early modern England has however provided us with a statistical summary of a relatively prosperous agrarian society in the form of Gregory King’s contemporary estimates of the population of England and Wales in 1688. 1688 is the year when the now all but forgotten Glorious Revolution confirmed that Britain would be a society based on liberty anchored in securely protected property rights. It was followed – as a result - by two centuries of unmatched progress based on this winning formula. The Glorious Revolution was understandably celebrated for that reason, especially in 1788 and 1888. By 1988 however, Democratic Socialism’s efforts to airbrush inconvenient truths from our past had consigned this first and best modern revolution to temporary oblivion.
Gregory King estimated the total population in 1688 at five and a half million people, compared to around 60 million now. It might have been among the most prosperous of agrarian states at the time. But it was still a place, in rural areas at least, where a lot less of life was based on voluntary cooperation, and a lot more on routine daily coercion.
It was also a place with a staggering lack of productive capital investment by our standards. Just a generation or so earlier, tradesmen and merchants were still being shaken down by Charles I’s forced loans and monopolies. No surprise therefore that London and the major trading centres were united in their determination to finish Britain’s own ancien regime. It is not polite to say so, but his execution was an absolutely necessary precursor to the prosperity we have now, but may be about to lose.
Charles I’s destructive predation of the relatively tiny trading and manufacturing sector was just standard predatory behaviour in all these backward agrarian societies. Indeed in Moslem societies the ruler simply levied a 100% inheritance tax on merchants, a treatment reserved in Christian society for the Jews (who almost alone were allowed to carry on what rudimentary capital markets activity the church allowed).
There is a story of the emperor Charles V, ostensibly the wealthiest monarch in the 16th Century, going from bank to bank in Seville stealing the depositors’ cash. If anything can be taken away from you at any moment, little sustained investment in the future is possible, and no prosperity can be achieved or maintained. That was the usual position in the pre-industrial past (and is in danger of becoming the norm again under the latest fake pandemic state power-grab). This is a lesson predatory modern governments evidently do not understand (or do not care about). They have done everything to make sure you do not understand.
Anyway back to the population of Britain in 1688. Just over two and a half million out of 5.5 million, were ‘Labouring People and Out Servants’ or ‘Cottagers and Paupers’. This group, along with seamen and soldiers, made up the group described as ‘Decreasing the Wealth of the Kingdom.’ Another description for these 2.8 million unlucky individuals is people living below subsistence level. This meant that they could not reliably find the means to stay alive and leave enough descendants to replace them in the population. They were absolutely poor, and utterly dependent on the charity and goodwill of those above them in the social hierarchy.
I think it is worth dwelling on the reality of absolute poverty. This is life on the losing end of a struggle to get enough to eat. It’s not today’s ‘relative poverty’ where the so-called ‘poor’ have ample food, hot and cold running water, a loo that flushes, a colour TV and a solid roof over their heads. It’s no shelter, a hovel or just a cloth stretched over a few long branches, rags for clothes. And it is total, degrading dependence on others for the chance to go on eking out a miserable existence. It’s prostituting your womenfolk to get occasional day labourer work, and blinding or maiming children to make effective beggars. And what exists still in parts of the third world obviously must have existed here too as recently as the seventeenth century.
From the time of Mao’s communist ‘Great Leap Forward’ which killed tens of millions of peasants, there is a description of starving Chinese peasants exchanging children so they didn’t have to eat their own offspring. Such hopeless famine, and desperate rebellion, were constant features of stagnant bureaucratic agrarian empires. Just one such rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century, the Taiping rebellion, is believed to have resulted in at least ten million deaths.
And then there is slavery, and its relative serfdom - being tied to the same land and the same lord. How many posh Roman villas were built on the backs of peasants legally bound by the late Roman state to perpetual servitude. Do you suppose these serfs mourned the end of Roman Britain a century later? But rural poverty never went away. In England a thousand years ago starving men would kneel before a lord and put their heads in his hands and become slaves. That meant you got fed something, unlike free men. Maybe he might free you again one day. In a desperately poor agrarian world there is no way to avoid conditions of dependence amounting to slavery.
Once one realizes that pre-industrial societies had submerged sections of a third to a half of the population living in absolute grinding poverty, it becomes possible to answer many otherwise impossible historical questions. For example, why did men ever volunteer to go to war? The primitive logistics of Medieval armies in particular seem to have guaranteed death by disease or starvation within a couple of years of campaigning. To say nothing of the horror of taking one’s place in a battle line hacking away at other men in a lethal scrum.
Emigrating to join the underclass in a stagnant clergy and guild dominated city offered similarly dismal prospects. Why do it? The answer must be that surplus landless men were pretty certain to live dismally and die early anyway. A migrant might marry a town tradesman’s daughter or widow. A small chance maybe, but better than no chance on the overpopulated land in a stagnant agrarian state.
At least as a soldier one could get lucky. If one lived one might just loot a small fortune in a sacked city. In a sacking, three days of robbery, rape and murder were traditionally allowed to soldiers in successful besieging armies. Opportunities for theft and rape were major perks for desperate landless men who willingly joined pre-modern armies. At least one Roman Emperor was killed for preventing soldiers from sacking a Roman city. A battle won might bring a ransom sufficient to buy a farm.
The point is this. If you don’t get how absolutely dreadful life in pre-industrial states was, you will not understand what a lucky break we had only two or three centuries ago when liberty opened the way to mass affluence. It is almost universally, and foolishly, taken for granted. The state could well destroy it again. That affluence is becoming increasingly fragile because of the insatiable appetites of parasitic power grabbers acting in the increasingly tarnished name of Democratic Socialism.