Class Warfare Blog

April 10, 2018

The Pull of Religious Community

Filed under: Culture,History,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 12:30 pm
Tags: , , ,

On Quora yesterday the question was asked why Christianity has become the #1 religion in all of the world. My response was that “Christianity” was imaginary. There are tens of thousands of different sects of Christianity, each so defined because they couldn’t find enough common ground to join one of the pre-existing sects. Some of these sects are vehemently opposed to some of the others, to the extent that they do not believe some of the others are Christians at all. If you listed the population of each of these sects individually, few of them would make the top ten list in the world.

This question came close on the heels of my finishing of the book, Sapiens. One of the points made near the end of that book was that the idea of an individual was developed quite recently. Harari claims that the individual was an invention of “governments and markets.” Here he was painting with broad strokes, so don’t think of individual markets but markets as a local and global phenomenon.

You do not have to go back too far to a time in which an individual had almost no chance of surviving without their family. The family provided shelter and food and education. If something was desired that the immediate family could not handle, extended family was brought in, e.g. uncles and cousins would help raise a barn or other building. No pay was provided or expected. If even larger projects were involved, e.g. a large ditch to bring in water from a lake or river, the local community banded together. The key thing was that everyone knew each other and had information as to whether others could be trusted. These values correspond almost exactly to “small town values” even to this day.

There was no government to appeal to, no institutions, like banks, from which to get resources. And this covered almost all of the “civilized” period of humanity, at least until quite recently.

Then governments based upon laws were created and institutions sprung up that provided what families used to provide. The “markets” provided jobs so that we were no longer beholden to family entirely. Banks provided loans to buy houses and start businesses. Police forces and courts provided justice in place of relatives making visits to malcontents with axe handles in hand.

People still talk about times in which they could leave their houses with the doors unlocked in their small town. This, of course, was due to the fact that these small towns were generally agricultural and spread out over quite some acreage. The odds on some stranger walking by your house was close to zero, and the perceived safety was not some moral superiority of their community being enacted, just a manifestation of isolation.

But people still yearn for “community.” We are social animals after all. One institution that provides a link from now to “back then” is the churches. Back then, the churches were part of the intimate community in that everyone who went to a church knew all of the others. So, churches didn’t create community, they were just a manifestation of the community. Today, churches offer community and Community. They offer a community of like minded believers in whatever. Many of the churches, the smaller ones, become intimate in that everyone in the church knows all of the others (fairly well). Lots of the others, especially the mega-churches, are creating imaginary Communities. These institutions talk of “belonging to something bigger.” They spin this to immense proportions when they talk about their religion expanding to cover the entire globe. And, of course, they connect this “belong to something bigger” to include their supernatural entities as well.

Some point to this “ability” of churches, that is to create community/Community, as an indicator of why they will be with us forever. Of that, I am dubious. Humanity creates communities at a bewildering pace. My favorite example is that there is an Association of Playing Card Manufacturers Association Executives. Churches are just what we have been handed down to perform a certain community practice. That this practice can be “played” to include abortions like prosperity gospels or atheist’s churches, shows that there is nothing behind it but inertia (tradition is just a way of saying “we have always done it this way”).

“Christianity” is an imaginary Community including groups of people who wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room at the same time. Most of the individuals in this community only know their own experience in their intimate community of their local church. This is conflated to include the imaginary group to the extent that when someone criticizes the idiocy of, say, the Biblical Literalists, others declare it to be a War on Christianity.

It has been often said by atheists that if we could only get Christians to read the Bible, half of them would drop out of their religion before they finished reading it. Maybe we need to educate Christians as to their own imaginary community’s history. How the Ebionites, for example, a sect whose beliefs are closer to the teaching of Jesus than any of the others has been declared a heretical cult by orthodox Christianity.

The cracks are already there in the giant edifice of the Christian Imaginary Community. Even small wedges should do the job of breaking it up.


April 8, 2018

The U.S. Constitution is Based Upon Christian Principles … Really, Again? Still?


President Trump is beloved by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians because he uses their methods (aka “He understands us.”). The prime method they share is to state propaganda points over and over to the point that everyone accepts them as being the case, if not being true.

One such claim is that the U.S. government is built upon Christian principles. I was tempted to call this a lie, but for it to be a lie the people making the claim need to understand that it is false and state it any way. It is possible they haven’t reasonned it through, because, well, reason is not their long suit. It is none the less untrue, false, wrong.

Some start by claiming the Constituion is based upon the Ten Commandments or at least incorporates them. Let’s look at that. Here, in short form they are …

The Ten Commandments

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
    2. You shall not make idols.
    3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
    4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
    5. Honor your father and your mother.
    6. You shall not murder.
    7. You shall not commit adultery.
    8. You shall not steal.
    9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
    10. You shall not covet.

And here is their relation to the Constitution:

  1. Not addressed. In fact, God is not mentioned in the Constitution. And the First Amendment to the Constitution strictly forbids the U.S. Government from creating or sponsoring a religion or forbidding any religious practice of any kind. (The states can, however.)
    2. Not mentioned.
    3. Not mentioned.
    4. Not mentioned.
    5. Not mentioned.
    6. Not mentioned.
    7. Not mentioned.
    8. Not mentioned.
    9. Not mentioned. Perjury is illegal in most senses, otherwise the legal system would fall apart, but it is not part of our federal government structure.
    10. Actually, the assumed economic system, capitalism, is based upon coveting things, so this is 100% assbackward.

Okay, here’s the Consitution, again in short.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure … etc.

Article 1
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

Article 2
Clause 1. The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen …

Article 3
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the suprem…

Article 4
Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which suc…

Article 5
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several Stat…

Article 6
Section 1. All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.

Article 7
The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.

The Bill of Rights may well be the most celebrated part of the Constitution of the United States, the home to long-cherished guarantees of Americans’ most fundamental rights and freedoms. Here they are (in short):

  1. Freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.
    2. Right to keep and bear arms in order to maintain a well regulated militia.
    3. No quartering of soldiers.
    4. Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
    5. Right to due process of law, freedom from self-incrimination, double jeopardy.
    6. Rights of accused persons, e.g., right to a speedy and public trial.
    7. Right of trial by jury in civil cases.
    8. Freedom from excessive bail, cruel and unusual punishments.
    9. Other rights of the people.
    10. Powers reserved to the states.

Anything even remotely Christian there? Nope. Christianity claims that the only proper form of government is a theocracy, in which their god calls all of the shots. God makes and enforces all of the rules (often through others). The religious elites decide who gets to speak for god (the Catholics do this when they elect a Pope, but the common people do not get a vote). So, no voting, no courts, no three branches of government, none of that is in the Christian Bible. The Bible does not and would not approve of democracy: represenative, direct, or otherwise.

So, where is this influence?

Many say that the framers were all Christians, so they had to include Christian principles if for no other reason it was woven into their psyches. I guess we need to be thankful that all of the framers, or most, weren’t poker or whist players. Can you imagine the whist influence on the Constitution?

Since many, if not most, of the framers were deists, we can accept that they were “god believers,” although their definition of “god” may be at variance with that of today’s believers. Since they were all god believers, then if the logic of this argument holds, we should see god in the Constitution. Do you see any god in the Constitution? I do not.

Consequently this claim (“the U.S. government is built upon Christian principles”) is, in effect, a big lie, one told over and over often enough that a great many people believe it. Call it a big untruth if you will, it just ain’t so.

April 7, 2018

Finally Finishing “Sapiens”

Filed under: History — Steve Ruis @ 9:31 am
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I have blogged on several issues I have encountered while making my way through Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” a book which I find both illuminating and irritating, although not in equal measure. If you want to know what I think of the effort, I have already bought the next book of his “Homo Deus.”

My latest quibble is in a discussion of how capitalism was at the root of empire and its associated oppressions, which are covered quite well. And in that discussion YNH states “At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe.” He goes on to show how capitalism was at the root of the Atlantic slave trade and more. Fair enough but … the phrasing “At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe” makes it sound as if Christianity had something to do with the elimination of the slave trade. I think not.

People use the phrase “Middle Ages” to describe Europe between the “fall of Rome” in 476 CE and the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century. And I take “at the end of the Middle Ages” to be roughly the year 1450.

So, why might slavery be “almost unknown,” if there were no prohibition movement or even anti-slavery sentiment, etc? Please do realize that the medieval serfs were basically slaves. They had no choice as to their labor, they did not get paid, they could not leave the land, and their lord and master could kill them with impunity. There was rampant “slavery” in the Middle Ages.

The reason slavery had basically disappeared in “Europe” was due to one simple thing: a monumental labor shortage. This was caused by plagues, the most notorious of which was the Black Death of 1347 to 1352. The Black Death was the first major European outbreak of the first of the great plague pandemics that occurred over the 14th to 18th centuries. The Black Death killed a quarter of the population of Europe, over 25 million people! A second major epidemic occurred in 1361, the “pestis secunda,” in which 10 to 20% of Europe’s population died. By 1430, Europe’s population was lower than it had been in 1290 and would not recover to pre-pandemic levels until the 16th century.

In order for slavery to work, you need surplus population to enslave, or you need to go out and get the slaves and bring them back. Then you need to control them, both of which require a great deal of manpower. The Europeans of the time (the end of the Middle Ages) fit for work were weakened by disease, malnutritioned, and not very healthy. Treat them poorly and they would either die or leave. Whole villages starved to death during the Black Death and other plagues because there was not enough labor to work the fields, even to harvest crops already planted.

Now YNH’s statement could be defended as “Christian Europe” being a designation of a region as opposed to being the reason slavery was on the decline, but that argument is weak at best. According to Wikipedia “From the Middle Ages onwards, as the centralized Roman power waned in southern and central Europe, the dominance of the Catholic Church was the only consistent force in Western Europe.” So, Christian Europe was about the only Europe there was.

Also, consider the fact that Christianity would never have gotten to where is was without the support of the Roman Empire and it would never have gotten that support had it not supported slavery. So, Christianity was “pro slavery” and not a basis for its abolition. The role of Christian ministers and whole denominations opposing slavery in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries was in spite of scripture, not because of it.

So, what could YNH have said instead of “At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe?” Easily enough he could have said “At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Europe (mostly due to population losses from plagues).” This would not have undermined his argument that it was capitalists who financed the slave trade, not governments. In any case capitalists worked hand in glove with governments as they both were “elites” who used religion to control the masses. The control mentioned was that civilization was built upon cheap labor coerced from the masses and religion was one of the more powerful coercive tools used. When that faltered, state power filled in.

When writing for a lay audience, especially a broad one, more care is needed with the use of language as misperceptions are easier.

March 28, 2018

What Would Christies Do?

Filed under: History,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 9:08 am
Tags: , , ,

I read another Quora question based upon the questioner’s belief that Noah’s Ark, or evidence for Noah’s Ark, has been found. I believe I have posted before that this event is more than highly unlikely, first because the tale is almost certainly fictional wisdom literature (You better be good or God will kill you and your little dog, too!), but specifically because after the entire planet has been underwater for a year or more, there would be no suitable building materials available: no straw, no wood (not waterlogged), etc. although there would be some stone. So, what would Noah’s family’s shelters, livestock pens, and altars be made of? Piles of small stones? Well, there is this giant pile of lumber sitting there that no longer had a use, so I expect that, if this really happened, the ark would have been dismantled to provide a wealth of building materials. And as time wore on, I am sure having some part of the ark used to make one’s dwelling would be looked upon as being lucky or holy or some other nonsense and soon an expanding population woudl guarantee that the ark would be gone, dispersed, burned, carved up.

Now I have to think that this search is wrong-headed. First, finding that evidence would mean more to Jews than Christians and Jews are quite few in number. So, if you were going to go looking for tangible artifacts to support Christianity, what should you look for? Think about it; I will wait.

<insert Jeopardy theme music here>

If you came up with “remnants of the cross” or “the Holy Grail” or some such, you are a victim of indoctrination. I ask you: what was Jesus’s occupation? All say he was a “carpenter,” with that term not quite meaning what we think of today as a carpenter, but more of a jack-of-all-trades handyman, who worked a lot with wood. Jesus would have been taught his craft when he turned a certain age, 11, 12, 13 whatever, so he would have a body of work created over a 20-year span before he went off on his wild hare chase. So, over that time, he must have made a great many pieces of, say, furniture: stools on which to milk goats, benches, chairs, tables, etc. And being a good craftsman, perfect actually, would have involved a little self promotion so, on the bottoms of these pieces don’t you think he would have written or carved “Made by Jesus of Nazareth, 7 Goatherd Street, Nazareth” or some such? If a contemporary were to pick up one of these pieces second hand and wonder where he could get more, there needs to be a connection to its maker, no? And these pieces, I mean, made by a god! They would be beautiful to the eye, sturdy, long lasting, etc. Find one of these pieces and cha-ching! Can you imagine what such a piece would bring at auction?

What would Christies do?

(Hint: they would go out of their fricking minds!)

March 26, 2018

Oh, The Irony!

When the American Experiment in self-governance began, the creators of the government we now possess were significantly concerned that the hoi polloi, the “middling sort,” as they called them, not get too involved in the process. The Founding Fathers were elitists, by design. They felt that only people like them had the education, the perspectives, and experience to lead the government.

One of the fears expressly stated was the fear that if the poor got control of  the government that they would use the government’s powers to strip the wealthy of their wealth. Most of the FFs were quite well-to-do, don’t you know. (Like you I was shocked, shocked, I tell you!)

This fear: that the poor would go after the wealth of the wealthy, has lived on in the hearts of most of the wealthy persons since the later eighteenth century and exists today.

In all of that time, I can only think of one period in which the wealth of the wealthy was effectively restricted and that was due to the New Deal of the quite wealthy President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was called a “traitor to his class” for his efforts). People often point to the 90% tax bracket introduced during WW2 and kept there after (even under Republican Dwight Eisenhower) as an example of  wealth stripping by “the people.” But this doesn’t hold up. This onerous tax bracket didn’t kick in until one had an annual income in excess of $100,000. Considering that the average worker’s income was around $3000, this was quite a lofty salary. So this 90% tax bracket applied to very few people. Plus SS taxes were quite low in the 1950’s as opposed to now. (Thank you, Ron Reagan!) And one can argue that effective tax rates (the rates people actually pay, not listings in tax tables) are higher now than in the 1950’s, so this does not wash as an example of a time in which the rich were attacked by the poor. The actual slowdown of the accumulation of wealth in the 1950’s was, I believe, caused not so much by policy (some was) but by a feeling of “we are all in this together” due to the war, making it harder to screw your neighbors.

There are, however, more than a few periods, including the one in which we are in now, in which the wealthy have joyfully robbed the poor and middle class. (Oh, the irony!)

If you are unfamiliar with wealth inequality (really it should be termed wealth inequity because really no one is arguing that all should be equally wealthy) you need to educate yourself on this very hot topic. Wealth “inequality” as currently defined is at an all-time high, worse than it was in the Gilded Age or any other period in U.S. history.

The entire process of civilization has been fueled by coercing inexpensive labor out of the masses to benefit the religious and secular elites. Any advantages of civilization that have been gotten down to the poor are the result of trickle down process and we all know how effective those are. Still, a certain amount of this is acceptable but when it gets excessive, as it is now, the torches and pitchforks tend to come out and, well, there are more of us than them.

I think we all need to take a page out of the playbook of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and establish a single issue voting block. I will no longer vote for any candidate who has an A or B rating from the NRA, in support of their effort. (Vote them out!)

How about a wealth inequality inequity single issue voting block? Establish a few parameters and then VOTE THEM OUT. Unfortunately this will go badly for all Republicans and the corporate Democrats. On second thought, strike the word “unfortunately.”

March 24, 2018

The Men Who Built America!

There is a new series of TV shows under this rubric. The first such series was about labor crushing industrialists. This one is labeled: The Men Who Built America: Frontiersman. You know, like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, etc.

In the long standing tradition of the winners writing the history, these “men” are portrayed in U.S. history of icons of bravery, basically heroes. Unfortunately, that is not what motivated them. The central and western parts of the nascent United States were claimed by Spain, England, and France. At various times, these countries authorized Americans to go awandering in the “wilderness,” otherwise known as “Indian Country.”

Of course, all we are looking at here is the point of the spear of white supremacy. Everyone knew that the continent was occupied, by Native Americans, but they weren’t white, don’t you see.

The U.S., even when it was just a set of colonies of England, was created as a capitalistic enterprise. (Many people don’t know that the Plymouth Rock Colony was a business venture with a corporate charter and all.) And as far as the “Americans” were concerned, land was wealth and land was there to be taken … so they took it. The “frontiersmen” established the resources of the “unclaimed land” (“Hey, the damned Indians didn’t even believe in owning the land!” was their claim.) and made maps. And, well, they carved out a few plots for themselves; for example, Davy Crockett was a major land speculator. The next thing to happen was “settlers” were moved in, uh, well-armed settlers. That the land already had cities, nations, and villages was obvious to one and all, but it was still considered “unsettled” by white people.

This practice, generally supported by regional, state, and the U.S. federal governments, continued until we reached the Pacific Ocean. Even when we ran up against national boundaries, such as with Canada and Mexico, we didn’t stop then.

Presumably, you have heard of the Texas Rangers. Rangers were not exclusive to Texas as many states, especially southern states, had collections of rangers. Well, the Texas Rangers were instrumental in acquiring the states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Basically, a small army of Texas Rangers sailed down to Mexico and moved inland to Mexico City. There they terrorized the city’s population and politicians, shooting up whole sections of the city. The price to get them to leave was … wait for it … the succession of the states we now call California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas to the U.S. And, besides, those Mexican people were brown and not white, so we screwed them over with no hit to our consciousness. Extortion’s not a sin when done in the service of white supremacy, is it?

The “historians” followed this up by deifying the trespassing poachers who began it all: the frontiersmen. (They also turned many a criminal into Robin Hood-like figures.)

Oh, and the firepower generated to perform this wholesale theft and slaughter (it was easier to eradicate the Native Americans than evict them, so we rode through villages and shot everyone: men, women, children), that firepower was the justification for the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The militias referred to were not state or governmental militias, but volunteer and corporate militias, like the Texas Rangers. Governmental Militias were established in Article 1 of the Constitution, so the Second Amendment was just about arming hordes of Black slave and Indian killers.

As a school child I was educated to be proud of my country. I now realize that much of that “education” was propaganda covering up the mass murders of and illegal and immoral land appropriations from the original inhabitants of this land.

We did not make war, most of the time, we just moved in and when anyone complained we shot them. Easy peasey. But it was all okay, the clergy told us the Bible said it was. And then the U.S. History course offered in our schools whitewashed what was left.

February 16, 2018

The “Right-to-Try” Scam

There seems to be a movement to disrupt or remove “regulations” on pharmaceuticals. I mean why should those poor companies have to jump through all of those hoops to get a drug to market? This is called the “right-to-try” movement. Even President Trump has heard of it (ergo Fox (sic) News reported on it).

So, would people who are in need of some medical help be given the right to try unproven pharmaceuticals? This has been on option for richer citizens for quite some time. At the peak of the AIDS epidemic, people who could afford the effort were heading for Asia and Mexico to try all kinds of “therapies” to save their lives. I am unaware if any of these proved a source of drugs that ended up actually helping people so afflicted.

Or, is this just a cynical scam of “let’s try out drugs on desperate poor people?”

I’ll guess I’ll believe it when these assholes suggesting this shortcut to the clinical trials needed to verify a drug’s effectiveness line up to test out those drugs themselves. I suggest that what they see in this future is unproven pharmaceuticals are “tried” and then anecdotal evidence of cures is available (or fabricated) and sales soar through the roof. When problems occur (ineffectiveness, horrific side effects, deaths, etc.), the companies can pleas “How could we have known? They had a “right-to-try” and exercised it. We thought it would work. It is sad; our thoughts an prayers go out to the afflicted.” Typical of plutocrats it is: heads I win, tails you lose.


(Try a key word search for thalidomide.)



More on Civilization

In recent posts I have been parsing the claim that, if I may use Karen Armstrong’s words again, “… 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.

If one accepts this argument as being valid, then I must ask: why is it necessary that the coercion and exploitation of the masses continue as it has? Isn’t it time to say, well now that we have civilized societies all over the globe and extended the benefits to all people, poorer people should no longer be exploited.

Basically, I am asking if this coercion/oppression is the driver of civilization, will it ever end?

Will it? Will we say “Enough!” loud enough to get the elites to drop the whip? Or do we need to, as Charleton Heston once inferred, “Pry it from their cold dead hands.”

The answer to this question may revolve around crafting a new role for the elites. If we, for example, were to laud “Stewards of Humanity” enough, might it become attractive enough to elites to have them stop the exploitation and start helping people instead or would people, like the Koch brothers, think “that’s what we have been doing all along.” Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt any more, and I suspect that we would need to be very, very clever to pull something like that off.

Have any ideas about what attributes someone would have to have to qualify as a Steward of Humanity?

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.






February 11, 2018

The Reason for All of It (Hint: Why Is Civilization As It Is?)

Filed under: Culture,History — Steve Ruis @ 10:04 am
Tags: , ,

I asked the question in my previous post: is the “driver” of this process (civilization) a desire to live forever? Is this what has caused civilization to be what it is?

Behind this question is another: I wonder whether civilization has to be the way it is. It pretty damned well has been the same for the past 5500+ years. Some scholars claim that all of the inherent misery associated with civilization is necessary, that there was no other path forward than through the oppression of a majority of the human race to create the leisure for the elites who then could go on to create politics, religion, science, philosophy, etc.

I find that position hard to take and also hard to refute.

I took a step back to look at the basic elements of civilization: which are oppression and conflict, with a firm understanding that we, meaning all of us, had absolutely no idea as to how to proceed. I assume that we were all doing the best we could, under the circumstances … aka we were making it all up as we went.

My first inflection point to unpack is the moment some of us decided that agriculture was a good thing to do at a much larger scale. As hunter-gatherers we had fairly good lives, but how would we know? The appeal of “better” is always there if one possesses the tool that makes us Homo sapiens … imagination. Presumably, we slid into this rather than some proto-genius led us there (“Hey, gang, I’ve got an idea…!) So, we started by doing a little seeding of plants and harvesting what we sowed. This could have taken place before we settled down, but civilization only started up when sedentism was possible. Civilization only began on river plains, which had reliable flows of fresh water including aquatic food streams (fish, eels, lampreys, shellfish, etc.) The soft soils deposited by the rivers were rich in nutrients and the combination of rich soils and reliable fresh water sources made agriculture doable. If you lived up in the mountains or in the desert, well fugedaboutit.

Certainly agriculture began as just a supplement to what could be hunted and gathered. Living near a river meant that game came to you as all animals are drawn to fresh water sources. So, these sites had “seasons” in which various sources of food came to them or became harvestable. People settled down meaning that they built shelters out of available materials and were invested in their locations.

But we ain’t civilized yet. To be civilized we have to live in cities. (Yes, it is just a matter of scale.) The little villages we lived in before we became civilized didn’t count.

But to create a city as we have come to know it, larger scale agriculture was needed. There is no “chicken and egg” paradox here as to which came first. Cities could not exist without plentiful food to feed the large number of people involved. Food first, then population. (Agriculture preceded cities by thousands of years.)

Once cities began to form, do realize that most were less than stable. Archeologists excavating early cities always talk about the city in stages (e.g. Ur I, Ur II, Ur III, or Troy VII, Troy VI, etc.). Cities failed all of the time and people died and retreated back into hunting and gathering. New cities were built atop the old (often the building materials were recycled as well as the site; well, if a site is good, it probably continues to be good unless the water dries up or an earthquake buries it).

Large scale agriculture, however, requires large scale mobilization of workers. Canals to move water had to be dug, fields planted, weeded, harvested, stored, etc. Who was to do this work … far more work than people had to do as hunters or gatherers (remember their food came to them; villages were often located next to migratory routes of game, etc.). People had to be coerced into becoming full-time farmers and physical force as well as psychological force, typically using religious coercion, were put into play. When the locals got worn out or, more typically, snuck off to regain the easier life they had as hunters and gatherers, replacement workers were needed and thus larger scale slave raids were put into play.

Conflicts, skirmishes with other tribes, slavery, all of these things, like agriculture, existed before civilization, there was just a change in scale. Whole villages became subject to slave raids by forces from larger cities, whereas before it was just an individual or two, now dozens were involved.

If we make a quick jump forward to historical times we see the evolved forms of such conflicts: widespread slavery and war, large scale conflicts of all kinds (physical, economic, etc.).

Is all of this because a few at the top were seeking immortality?

I do not think so.

I think all of these manifestations of civilization were about who is going to be in charge.

To me this is all about what drives elites to become elites and it is not a process driven by a search for immortality. I suspect the first elites were more than willing to press whatever issues they had to press to establish themselves as elites for the direct benefits: better food, better mates (more mates!), better clothing, better housing, etc., what we refer to as the trappings of wealth. (Think Donald Trump and his gold-plated apartments.)

But wherever such city-states grew, similar city-states grew nearby (there were only so many river plains that were suitable). Then you have two sets of elites staring at each other across the back fence and … well, what do you think they felt? Realize these elites were almost exclusively male. Because they were “rich” they had sycophants pumping their opinion of themselves, e.g. They were favored by the gods. They were better looking (a manifestation of better clothing, personal hygiene, better diet) and smarter and … well, you know the drill. They were obviously better suited to “rule” than the idiot next door, so…? Add to this normal human insecurity, e.g. what if they were to attack us?, and animosity can be assumed.

Large scale conflicts are not started by peons, serfs, slaves, or guys from Jersey. They always begin because of the elites and I say they are driven by a desire to be in fucking charge of things.

Consider the Koch Brothers … how’s that for a segue? They have so much wealth that were they to retire today, they would be hard pressed to spend all of their wealth before they died. Hell, if their wealth were in the form of paper bills they would be hard pressed to burn it all before they died. There is nothing they want they could not have. So what are they doing in their golden years? They are waging a massive campaign to dictate to others how they will live. Are they driven by a desire for immortality? Do you believe they think that we will recognize what they are doing for us later and love and “immortalize” them for their actions?

I don’t. I do not for the simple reason that everything they are doing reinforces their role as masters and our role as slaves/serfs/drones/salary men/etc.

It is all about who gets to be in charge. It is ego driven, not immortality driven. Immortality is just an intellectual toy to the elites, something that tests the boundaries of their power, their power to control the behaviors of others.

This is the driving force of civilization … and it will be what brings the whole house of cards down, unless the masses (us) figure out a way to break the grip of the elites.

The American Experiment in democracy was a step on that path, but it is clear now that the elites have figured out how the rein in those impulses and are back in complete control of the USA.



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