Classical Roots of "Winter's Bone"?
Ezra Klein on Ross Doutaht

I Am in Shock...

I just deleted the seventeen paragraphs I liked the most from the ms. of Slouching Towards Utopia: The Economic History of the Twentieth Century. They just don't fit the book as a whole.

Now I need strong drink...


Now there were exceptions to this rule that even well into the age of the Industrial Revolution humans were by and large worse off than our hunter-gatherer ancestors--that post-hunter gatherer pre-industrial life was really nasty, brutish, and short. These exceptions are three: exceptional eras, exceptional customs, and exceptional groups.

Exceptional eras come in two flavors. First, there are the years, the decades, and the centuries after key improvements in agriculture. The iron axe that allows for the clearing of temperate woodlands, the heavy plow that allows successful growth of grains in otherwise clayey wet soils, strains of wet rice that allow two or three crops of rice a year—if you first invest in the public works needed to flood the rice paddies—the caravel and the settlement of North America all produce times in which life for the average rural peasant, and thus for the average urban laborer as well, was relatively good. Second, there are the years after Azrael in the form of the Bubonic Plague or something similar has visited a region, the years in which populations are much smaller than they used to, farm sizes much larger, living standards higher—and populations growing to make average farm sizes lower once again.

Exceptional customs are social arrangements that constrain human fertility and as a result keep populations from growing even when people are relatively well-fed and well-nourished. The most obvious is the European marriage pattern: the postponement of the median age of marriage for young women until their early or mid twenties, because fathers demanded that potential husbands have prospects—ownership of a farm, a workshop, a profession, a competence—before they would let their daughters out of the household. Remember Romeo and Juliet? Remember the exchange between Old Capulet and Count Paris at the start of Act 1, Scene 2:

CAPULET: But saying o'er what I have said before:
My child is yet a stranger in the world;
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years,
Let two more summers wither in their pride,
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.

PARIS: Younger than she are happy mothers made.

CAPULET: And too soon marred are those so early made.
The earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she,
She is the hopeful lady of my earth:
But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart,
My will to her consent is but a part…

Lady Capulet has different ideas. And so, soon thereafter in Shakespeare’s play, does Juliet. But the drag exercised on female age of marriage by powerful patriarchal fathers who think they know better than their daughters what is good for them was (a) a social force making for older ages at marriage, (b) fewer pregnancies at a given state of nutrition and real income, (c) as a result a somewhat richer society, (d) much heartbreak among the young, and (e) most of great European literature and tragedy.

In Asia, you have a similar institution with the lineage family. If in Europe it was the father telling the suitor that “you cannot marry my daughter until you can support her in the style I want her to be accustomed to,” in Asia it was the older brother and lineage head telling his brothers, sons, and nephews that “you cannot bring a wife into this house until we have more resources.”

And, worldwide, there was the exposure of daughters unwanted by the father.

Thomas Robert Malthus was the grimmest of the early economists, admitting—or was it boasting?—that his theory “of human life has a melancholy hue,” but, Malthus went on, he believed “that he has drawn these dark tints from a conviction that they are really in the picture, and not from a jaundiced eye or an inherent spleen of disposition…” Technological progress and human invention, Malthus thought, was too small to be worth noticing. Average product per capita would fall with increasing population, as more and more people tried to work the same land and as those who did break new land found the new land increasingly unappetizing for farming. Therefore, Malthus argued, population would inevitably reach an equilibrium in which numbers were kept from expanding further by either a positive check or a preventative check. The positive check was plague, malnutrition, famine, social breakdown, and venereal disease—“poverty and vice.” The preventative check was superior: the delay of marriage, the prohibition of extramarital intercourse, the sobersides refusal to have intercourse if the house was already full of children—the path of virtue. But, humans being weak, they would only follow the path of virtue if society channeled them that way. Good societies that were not always on the edge of famine, plague, and malnutrition, Malthus thought, were societies in which people listened to and obeyed their priests, feared hell (especially as a punishment for sexual transgressions), and respected their fathers as knowing what was best for them and hence did not run off to Gretna Green as teenagers.

To Malthus at the start of the nineteenth century, therefore, a good society was orthodox, monarchical, and patriarchal: one that respected throne, altar, and (male) parent. The radicals and freethinkers of the eighteenth century like Voltaire or Rousseau or David Hume or Adam Smith or the Marquis de Condorcet or the couple of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft were, Malthus thought, public enemies. Their doctrines of free thought, free speech, and free love would inevitably undermine the respect for and obedience to throne, altar, and father on which the preventative check relied. Nature would then wreak vengeance via the positive check. Only social hierarchy could support morality. And only conventional morality could reduce the depth of poverty from abject destitution to mere want. to which the principle of population, Malthus thought, condemned humanity.

Exceptional groups are the upper and to a lesser extent the middle classes—and there are usually some upper classes since the invention of agriculture. Exceptional groups are the noblesse and the bourgeoisie, the nobility and the townspeople, the (military and priestly) upper and the (mercantile and craftmaking) middle classes. Jared Diamond points out that such privileged classes are really only possible after the invention of agriculture:

Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing élite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae c. 1500 B. C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth).

Before the invention of agriculture it is almost surely not good to be the king. You can use your status to pick the best of things, but the amount of things you have is limited to what you can personally carry. And if your exactions become too onerous the people can simply leave for the hills. But once a population becomes agricultural, people cannot leave for the hills. Hunting and gathering in the hills cannot support the population densities of agriculture in the irrigated plains, so departure means death for overwhelming numbers and also the loss of all of the value of the labor that has gone into ploughing and sowing and weeding. Agriculture opens a new career path: that of a specialist in systematic violence directed against other humans who makes threats to induce them to give you a third of their crop—or else.

A parasitic caste or class existing by virtue of their organized ability to take a substantial share of the agricultural (and craftwork) producers’ crops becomes the rule soon after the coming of agriculture. Such castes and classes live better albeit more dangerously than the peasants. (If they didn’t live better, after all, why accept the extra danger?)

A parasitic caste or class existing by virtue of their organized ability to threaten violence and then take a substantial share of the agricultural (and craftwork) producers’ crops becomes the rule soon after the coming of agriculture. Such castes and classes live better albeit more dangerously than the peasants. (If they didn’t live better, after all, why accept the extra danger?) They live more dangerously because, after all, if they do not their numbers grow until they, once again, are at the Malthusian margin—and what good is being a noble if you have to live like a peasant? Whatever social system they evolve will break down unless it (a) keeps their numbers low enough to maintain an edge in standard-of-living, (b) keeps their lifestyle focused enough that they maintain their edge in violence, (c) keeps their numbers high enough that with their edge in violence they can maintain control, (d) keeps their numbers and their skill high enough to avoid being conquered by neighboring similar groups of thugs-with-spears, and (e) keeps their exactions low enough that they are not destroyed by revolting peasants with nothing to lose anyway. Upper-class social systems that accomplish those five goals tend to be terrifyingly stable in human history since the invention of agriculture. And whenever such a system does collapse another replacement almost invariably soon grows up in its place.

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