Uncommon Sense

February 14, 2018

Did Civilization Have to Be the Way It Was (Is)?

Filed under: Culture,History,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 9:59 am
Tags: , , ,


This is a follow-up to my recent posts on civilization, whether it has been “driven” by a desire for immortality (I think not) or greed (I think so). The basic story of civilization shows elites coercing the mass’s labor at agriculture (first), skimming the benefits off for themselves. Karen Armstrong, author of many really good books on religion, says it better than I can:

But robbed of the fruits of their labors, the peasants were little better than slaves: plowing, harvesting, digging irrigation canals, being forced into degradation and penury, their hard labor in the fields draining their lifeblood.” Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

Here is the scholarly argument, then, that it had to be this way, again from Karen Armstrong (same source):

Yet, historians argue, without this cruel arrangement that did violence to the vast majority of the population, humans would not have developed the arts and sciences that made progress possible. Civilization itself required a leisured class to cultivate it, and so our finest achievements were for thousands of years built on the backs of an exploited peasantry. By no coincidence, when the Sumerians invented writing, it was for the purpose of social control.

This is not just this simple argument, there is quite a bit of scholarship behind this position. Again from the same source:

But the (Sumerian) aristocrats had begun to study astronomy and discovered regular patterns in the movements of the heavenly bodies. They marveled at the way the different elements of the natural world worked together to create a stable universe, and they concluded that the cosmos itself must be a kind of state in which everything had its allotted function. They decided that if they modeled their cities on this celestial order, their experimental society would be in tune with the way the world worked and would therefore thrive and endure. The cosmic state, they believed, was managed by gods who were inseparable from the natural forces and nothing like the “God” worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims today.”

But I note that various justifications are also being put in place. Again from the same source:

For these pioneers of civilization, the myth of the cosmic state was an exercise in political science. The Sumerians knew that their stratified society was a shocking departure from the egalitarian norm that had prevailed from time immemorial, but they were convinced that it was somehow enshrined in the very nature of things and that even the gods were bound by it. Long before humans existed, it was said, the gods had lived in the Mesopotamian cities, growing their own food and managing the irrigation system. After the Great Flood, they had withdrawn from earth to heaven and appointed the Sumerian aristocracy to govern the cities in their stead. Answerable to their divine masters, the ruling class had had no choice in the matter.

Aw, they had no choice! The poor, poor, elites.

Here is her summary of the whole magilla.

“It seemed like an iron law because no society ever found an alternative. By the end of the fifteenth century CE, agrarian civilizations would be established in the Middle East, South and East Asia, North Africa, and Europe, and in every one— whether in India, Russia, Turkey, Mongolia, the Levant, China, Greece, or Scandinavia— aristocrats would exploit their peasants as the Sumerians did. Without the coercion of the ruling class, it would have been impossible to force peasants to produce an economic surplus, because population growth would have kept pace with advances in productivity. Unpalatable as this may seem, by forcing the masses to live at subsistence level, the aristocracy kept population growth in check and made human progress feasible. Had their surplus not been taken from the peasants, there would have been no economic resource to support the technicians, scientists, inventors, artists, and philosophers who eventually brought our modern civilization into being. As the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton pointed out, all of us who have benefited from this systemic violence are implicated in the suffering inflicted for over five thousand years on the vast majority of men and women. Or as the philosopher Walter Benjamin put it: ‘There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’”

Okay, do you buy this? That “Had their surplus not been taken from the peasants, there would have been no economic resource to support the technicians, scientists, inventors, artists, and philosophers who eventually brought our modern civilization into being.” That you owe your refrigerators, iPhones, TV sets, bath tubs, etc. to the elites who were basically forced by the gods to do what they did?

I have no qualms with the “Had their surplus not been taken from the peasants, there would have been no economic resource to support the technicians, scientists, …” part, but there are some holes in the argument. The concern that the masses would breed out of control and eat up the surplus is based in science (biologically, populations expand up to the limits of their food supply) but not history. These early civilizations were always, it seemed, starved for labor, resulting in widespread slave raiding to acquire it.

I also do not accept it was necessary to be done the way it was. Every step of the way, the elites lived better than the masses, usually very much better. Some might argue that using the greed of the elites was the only reliable pathway to get to where we are, but that is just a justification. The elites were interested only in creating civilization for themselves and this is the flaw in this whole process.

Was there ever a time that even just one elite chose to live as his/her “subjects” did? Was there ever an elite who worked harder to improve the lot of his subjects lives harder than his/her own? Was there ever an elite who didn’t husband his/her own power for his/her own sake rather than for the “good of the people”? If there were, it is hard to find evidence for it and it was, I suspect, very temporary. So, the argument distills down to basically the elites operated out of greed, using secular and religious power to make their lives better: more secure, healthier, better fed, housed, clothed, etc. And civilization for the masses … happened by accident.

I wonder how scholars, like Karen Armstrong, determine that “Answerable to their divine masters, the ruling class had had no choice in the matter.” How can you read intentions from 5-6 millennia in the past distance. Were their written records, diaries perhaps? She is writing about a time when writing was a rare thing. The elites basically invented writing as a method for accounting for their confiscations. Writing was not a skill widespread in early civilizations. Scribes were trained to work for the elites. Ordinary people did not have the wherewithal to afford the services of a scribe, not did they have the wherewithal to deliver a message once written. Only the elites had the capacity to place things into written records. So, I think it is no stretch of the imagination that the earliest non-accounting forms of writing were done at the behest of the elites, to serve the interests of the elites, and that those writings would be “self-serving.” Only much later did writing become something that could actually serve to undermine the interests of the elites (usually in the form of plays that conveyed messages to a largely illiterate population). So, how do these scholars “know” that the elites felt that they had “no choice in the matter” of how they organized society?

Isn’t it just like us humans, that “shit happened” and later we determine the “meaning of it all.”

To too many people, religion is a real thing in their lives. (Karen Armstrong flunked out of nun school.) They seem to think that religion is more than a tool, a vehicle to move some into the elite column of society and to keep others out of it. Some are inclined to give religion a pass as the religious elites were just trying to satisfy the dictates of the gods.

I do not.

I see very greedy people on the make for anything they can use to advantage them and their immediate family and disadvantage everyone else, especially those who competed with them for their oversized share of the pie created by the coerced labor of the masses. There was an uneasy alliance between the secular elites and the religious elites; sometimes these were merged but often enough they were not. (Why? Because their separation allowed for more elites and more elites allowed for more coercion.) The secular elites used religion’s rules to control the masses. The religious elites used secular force to enforce religious authority. Hand meet glove.

This is still the case, even though some of the benefits of civilization have “trickled down” to the masses (to the great profit of the elites who consider the masses to be “consumers” now).

As to the question “did it have to be this way” I answer, well it was that way (and still is), but it could have been different. Imagine a society in which the “aristocrats” consider themselves to be stewards of the lives of the masses (in democracies we call them “public servants”). These stewards spend all of their time trying to improve the lot of the masses, while simultaneously urging the masses to do the labor necessary to support that work. These stewards earn the trust of the masses by sharing the surpluses in ways unforeseen by the masses and by living austere lives themselves. Ordinary people saw the benefit of these wise leaders and bought into the better lives they could organize and didn’t begrudge their labor to serve the whole effort.

Under such, albeit imaginary, leadership civilization could have been something done for the people rather than to the people.

It still could.







  1. Provocative post Steve. I’m thinking on this one a while. My first instinct is no. It didn’t have to be this way. But people with power tend to get shitty, but not always. I remember a white paper several years ago about the barons of the middle ages ransacking villages ins burning homes because they were bored. “What else are we to do?” Their religious beliefs allowed them to justify their behaviors, which is usually where the problems start.


    Comment by jim- — February 14, 2018 @ 11:55 am | Reply

    • A recent NYT article made the point that wealth/power cause personality changes. we become less compassionate, less caring, etc. Maybe there is more than a little hard wiring involved here.

      On Wed, Feb 14, 2018 at 11:55 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — February 14, 2018 @ 12:10 pm | Reply

  2. My short answer to the title question is an emphatic NO!. I do not accept that what passes as civilization had to turn out as it has done. There are almost always alternatives. Being an old fart who is becoming ever more entrenched in his own ways, I am becoming ever more certain that things turned out as they are due to the fact that those at the top wanted to stay there as long as possible. One cannot make a person ignorant, but the rulers can and have done their best to keep the masses, us peons, as ignorant as possible. They did this by limiting access to education in days long past (though now days they keep trying this by raising the cost of college education) also, the fools at the top liked living high while the masses, us eons again,did the best we can/could with what limited resources the rulers allowed us to have.
    Yeah, I do think Marx was a damn wimp, he didn’t go far enough. His “worker of the world unite. You have nothing to lose except your chains” is all well and good, but I still thing a real revolt was and is needed. I just wish it doesn’t have to be a violent revolt as nothing much good ever seems to come from violence. IF blood flowing in the streets is necessary, well, that is a whole different kettle of fish. Just me personally, I’d rather it not come to that. I saw and participated in more than enough physical violence in that damn fool Vietnam war to last me at least ten life times.
    Yes, I DO think different outcomes were/are still possible for civilization. The big obstacle, my own opinion to a different/better out come, is the greed of the ruling class, secular and religious.


    Comment by Walter Kronkat — February 15, 2018 @ 9:35 am | Reply

  3. “Yet, historians argue, without this cruel arrangement that did violence to the vast majority of the population, humans would not have developed the arts and sciences that made progress possible. Civilization itself required a leisured class to cultivate it, and so our finest achievements were for thousands of years built on the backs of an exploited peasantry….”
    This statement sort of explains my opening statements on Darwin and the development of Evolution by Natural Selection in my class. I start my lessons by saying that Darwin was the right man at the right time and the right place for the development of his hypothesis. Why? He was English, the Brits pretty much ruled the world with a huge empire that needed exploring; wealthy, he didn’t have to work and got an education when most people didn’t have that opportunity, the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. A time of change in the world, in political, social and scientific terms that allowed new thoughts to be brought into existence without total opposition. True enough, the old order would go down kicking and screaming, but things definitely had changed. The place, The HMS Beagle a survey ship to explore that Empire they had. If Darwin was a coal miner, boot maker or a butler, he could not have come up with or had the possibility to develop his insights into the natural world. Hopefully, though I have my doubts at times, we have advanced past this measure of civilization.


    Comment by Holding The Line In Florida — February 15, 2018 @ 11:02 am | Reply

    • Right now, I accept that the work of many have to contribute to the work of few to effect progress. I don’t think they is up for debate. The real debate is how this is done and for how long is this done and is there another mechanism that can be used (a small tax on many to support the few) instead of the widespread coercion and oppression we still see. Currently everything still seems to be skimmed off of the top by the elites. For example, did Bill Gates do enough work to be the recipient of billions and billions of dollars? Could he not have settled for merely rich and used the rest to support others? He seems to be saying now that he didn’t need all of the money he accumulated, but he is also saying that he will use his money as he deems fit and screw everybody else. Had he simply skimmed less off of us, we could decide what to do with much of that money.

      On Thu, Feb 15, 2018 at 11:02 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — February 16, 2018 @ 11:37 am | Reply

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