Class Warfare Blog

October 24, 2017

Moving On Up …

I have been writing recently about the genesis of human “civilization.” The word civilization itself is derived from “cities,” the existence of which marks the beginning of civilization. It seems quite apparent that what we call “civilization” was created by elites for elites. The average Joe not only didn’t benefit from this “advance,” he ate less well, he worked harder, and he likely ended up a slave serving the interests of the wealthy elites.

My original thinking was that this was a larger scale manifestation of the consequences of physical prowess. My fantasy goes like this: when we were mostly members of wandering tribes of hunter-gathers, I suspect that there was some guy who was bigger, stronger, and braver than anyone else in a small troop (fewer than 25 extended family members). Because Mongo was the best hunter, he had a hand in doling out the fruits of the hunt, so he had power. He probably was responsible for defending the tribe against predators and the occasional raids from other tribes (looking for mates or …). Because of these actions, people deferred to Mongo (and if they didn’t he might smack them around a little). Mongo was the Alpha Male in a troop of great apes. Now the fly in the soup came in the form of not the Beta, Gamma, or Delta Males in the group, they were happy to form Mongo’s posse on hunts and benefit from his largess. The wild card in this was a low status male who resented not getting the prime cuts from the hunt or access to the best women as mates, but one who had cunning. At some point in time, a natural happening shocked the tribe: a flood, an earthquake, a lunar or solar eclipse, a huge lightning storm, a volcanic eruption, something alarming and the cunning Omega Male took a chance. Thinking he was in no immediate danger, he stood up to the burning mountain, or raging flood, or eclipse and spouted made up bullshit about how the gods were angry and that only he knew how to placate them. He followed this with mumble, mumble, mumble and the crisis soon ended (the eruption of the volcano subsided, the storm passed, the flood subsided, the eclipse burped up the sun or moon). A tribal shaman is born. He gets treated better, consulted by Mongo more often, gets better cuts of the food when it was divided, etc.

So, my imagination leads to the religious leader gravy training on the physical leader (general, king, chief, main hunter, whatever).

Imagine my surprise when I learned that the earliest cities were run by religious cliques, not “strongmen.” Large cities started forming 3500-3000 BCE, but the first mention of anyone whose title could be translated as “king,” didn’t happen until about 1700 BCE. Apparently Mongo was strong and capable but not all that smart. The clever shaman usurped his position at the top of the tribe. In those early large cities, you see, the chief warrior was subservient to the priestly class. This is born out by a story about Gilgamesh, one of the first Sumerian kings. (Seeking permission from the religious council to make war on a neighbor, the council though it too risky and told Gilgamesh to chill. Gilgamesh went out and riled up his warriors and went to war anyway. Gilgamesh might have been a king at this point but he hadn’t earned the Divine Rights Merit Badge and was seen as a minion of the religious elites.

So, I was wrong about the elite pyramid being topped by a strongman, instead it was the clever, cooperative religious cadre forming the core of the people benefiting from “civilization.” (I guess they had practiced the role for millennia and were just “movin’ on up…”.)

These cities rose and failed at a phenomenal rate. (The famous city-state of Ur-III, which had five kings listed in its records, lasted all of 100 years.) The inevitability woven into the standard narrative of: agriculture makes storable surplus of grain which makes cities possible: iPhones! is misleading at the very least.

In actuality these cities were very, very fragile. They were dependent on slave labor, often their populations were dependent on acquiring female slaves of child-bearing age (so many children and women died in childbirth that “replacement breeders” were vigorously sought).

With so many such processes there is a minimum size and a set of minimum conditions that result in a tipping point that goes on to some kind of stability.

What I am struck with is the easy comparison between the elite class in those days, 5000-5500 years ago and the modern Republican Party. The elites then needed cheap labor, so they coerced it. They created a system in which all of the surplus wealth ended up in their hands. They discouraged any collective action on the part of their coerced laborers. They rigorously controlled the reproduction of more citizens.

The GOP, in contrast, suppresses wages so that labor is cheap, it distorts the political system so that all of the wealth and power flows to the elites, it discourages collective action of laborers by disadvantaging unions, and it is obsessed with controlling the reproductive rights of women, and it seems they are subservient to a religious clique.

Oh, I guess that is not a contrast.

Has anything changed since the dawn of civilization?

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