The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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… Eyetopia, Weyalltopia for…

June 19th, 2007 · No Comments · history

It is an imperative of Life that we each must search for more of what we have, only better. It’s no accident that hominids, like most herding species, were originally nomadic. They were always searching over the next hill, beyond the next valley, for the greener pastures and fatter sheep. The advent of semi-agricultural habits redirected the search for “better” from environmental to social changes.

The first such change was an agreement, perhaps between brothers (as the suggests), to settle part of their clan near a region of fertile crops in a village of households, such that they would meet periodically to exchange complimentary goods. Thus began the first market. Over time, the households of the village made similar agreements to provide complimentary goods for each other, creating specialization in the village. Specialization engendered excesses which frequently resulted in gradually improving lives for those settled.

It was a long time before the quality of life for settled agrarians improved beyond that of the nomads. Frequently villages, and sometimes whole towns, would pull stakes and revert to nomadic patterns, preferring the clean environment and dietary variation not found in the settled places. The romance of the nomad inspired town and city dwellers throughout the ancient world.

One does not need an outrageous reason to want to disappear into the wilderness. It’s a deeply ingrained human desire.

[From Daniel Snell’s Life in the Ancient Near East comes a simple model of ancient economics, which I summarize here.]A “household” in the context of these primitive cultures is not much different than it is today: a group of people, usually closely related, who live together, sharing resources without regard for production capacity. The oldest member generally led the household and would make decisions about who could be in it and how responsibilities would be divided.

The idea of a “market” as an interchange of information about available goods is still valid, but in this context, a “market” can also be described as the agreements made between households regarding the exchange of goods. Markets and Households exist in opposition: one begins where the other ends. Households are stable and Markets are continually in flux. As the value of Markets decrease, either in quality or price, Households make their own or do without. As the value of Markets increase, Households prefer trade over self-production.

Among various other problems we’ve built from cast iron for ourselves, we can be right proud of the fact that 95% of all households in America are completely without the capability of being sustainably self sufficient. We may no longer choose to ‘opt out’ of our Market, because otherwise, we have no ability to create food, textiles, or even basic tools for ourselves. The great majority of the world population lives close to the coast, packed tightly into cramped cities where few live at ground level, much less owning enough land to produce enough food for one family for one year. This isn’t new information, in fact it’s been absorbed into the culture: social convention expects most citizens to exchange services for currency and currency for goods. No one is expected to be a producer unless they’ve invested a great deal of capitalNever mind global warming, peak oil, Armageddon, comets, terrorists, or nuclear war. Just getting away from the crowds is enough reason for many to move so far away from the cities that they commute for hours on packed highways in order to afford their standards of living. Needless to say, most would prefer to cut the commute out entirely, but one simply can’t move out into the sticks and expect to make any money from the local economy. Unless you’re buying a ranch or an oil well, land doesn’t usually make more money than it costs in labor to earn it.

We can’t generally escape this cycle. We lack the skills and resources to successfully farm our own food, or to build our own shelters. Today when people attempt to escape the Market they discover that this causes them to lose their Household: we call them ‘homeless’ or ‘transient’. They are nomads in the sense that they tend to move around quite a bit, but not in the classic sense of the free-roaming tribes that fed and clothed themselves from the wild animals they hunted and the foods they gathered and textiles they made. Modern transients are still dependent on the urban markets, but being unable to work the levers themselves must wait until others initiate an aberration of the market, providing goods for free. They are not self sufficient, they are simply parasitic.

The experience of modern, middle-class, white folks who abandon their urban life for an agrarian one, either as part of a utopian society or as the rebellion of a single person, has been uniformly unpleasant. Most folks find that they are completely unconditioned for the labor of an agrarian homestead. Few are willing to trade the convenience and safety of urban life for the rigors and risks of subsistence farming. Some success has come to those with the best fields and the best luck to those who, for generations, have kept with the simple ways. Their lives are not easy, and they come in constant conflict with the consumer culture around them.

There are three fundamental issues which confront separatist communities through history: sustaining membership, retaining culture, and economic relevance. Varieties of political intrigue, weather-borne misfortune, or incompetence have thwarted many a utopian encampment, but these are mere obstacles to be avoided through planning and effort. The fundamental issues, however, cannot be planned away and efforts toward mastering these must be regularly renewed.The reasons behind the separation of a group from general society are generally irrelevant except as they limit the options of the group. For example, groups opposed to popular activities or dominant cultures may find their pool of potential candidates rather shallow. Groups opposed to sexuality not only could not reproduce to fill their ranks but had great difficulty attracting quality membership, and typically died out in a single generation. Groups that began as exclusionary cliques (“It’s just gonna be me and my friends!”) rarely lasted a full year. Groups that were accepting of a greater range of human behavior, and provided their membership security and profit, lasted the longest — some for generations!

Whether one plans to proselytize or organically build one’s separatist society, how one brings in enough membership to cover loss from death and abandonment — even to grow the size of the organization — is a fundamental issue that every separatist organization must address. The pool of potential members must be large enough to cover turnover and still show annual population growth. Turnover must be reduced as much as possible by providing social and economic advantages to members.

In order for an organization to retain its culture, this culture must have enough distinct elements and unique social arrangements that it is not mistaken for another kind of culture. Members should be ritually joined and periodically highlighted to the organization to promote group identity. Offspring of membership should be taught skills needed to participate most fully with the organization and encouraged to stay within it after reaching the age of self-sovereignty. A special language and shared activities also contribute to recognition of culture. Further, regular training should be mandatory for all membership — even if only as part of annual ceremonies. New members should receive one-on-one orientation.

The third leg of this structure determines the ultimate success of the group. Without economic relevance, there is no reason for membership to be attracted after the initial funds are drained. Without economic relevance, there is no reason to maintain the pretense of ancient ceremonies and languages. Each member must be able to feel that the ‘deal’ they get from the group is significantly better than any they could find themselves, and this ‘deal’ results from economic relevance — thus it is a measure of success. The group must be better at leveraging the skills of each worker, providing more money for each (beyond the welfare and social benefits of membership), than each member feels that they could do themselves. This inevitably involves some form of production, be it a primary or derived agricultural product. There’s no particular reason why a service couldn’t be the primary cash producer for an organization, although work-resource management and transportation issues may quickly overshadow any benefit.

Implicit in this is self-sustainability. The needs of the membership should be largely met by goods and services produced by the membership. Where it is inconvenient or irrational to produce needed items, they are purchased from external markets. Having the ability to choose to participate in a market is a remarkable form of political power that is only available when a group is truly self-sustaining. Organizations get to the point of sustainability when their membership has grown beyond a certain size — presumably quite large.

In the ancient world, a big city was 10,000 people; a large village held over 20 families (200+ people). Expectations and standard of living were relatively low by modern measure. In order to reproduce similar successes today, enough people should be involved to produce at least 80% of the needs of the group. My guess is that, by modern standards of living, this number is closer to the 10,000 number than 200. Even at 10,000, a great deal of the variety we have come to expect in modern markets would not be possible.

Should sustainability be reached, stepping to the place of economic relevance occurs when the market value of goods and services already produced by and provided to the group, are produced in sufficient quantity for an external market exchange. For example, if the one part of the group raised llamas, and another part converted the wool into stylish coats that everyone in the group could wear, it could be a culturally identifying item. The quality or style of the coats, or perhaps their cultural cache, might cause these to become extraordinarily valuable, perhaps in Uzbekistan, for which the membership may choose to produce an excess of coats for sale or trade to the Uzbekis, or where-ever. Finding which product(s) to market should be an afterthought, once the three fundamental issues have been completely addressed.

Centralized control of economies typically resulted in greatly reduced output due to inefficiencies in communication and resource management. Efforts necessary for tax collection and oversight generally resulted in hoarding, economic malaise, and eventually, over-taxation. Rarely did central control provide more for the people than it took from them.In ancient societies, specialization of production occurred at the household level, such that all the members of a household were devoted to the production of the specialties of the house. Demand was a known quantity, as noted by the arrangements with the other households, and thus over- and under-production was minimized through careful planning. Several houses dedicated to the same products would belong to fraternities or guilds in order to coordinate their activities and insure that a consistent level of quality came from all their products.

For a modern separatist society to be successful, it must allow for the sovereignty of households within sub-groups of self-sufficient villages, and also within the organization (clan? tribe?) as a whole. Each household must be able to choose their own markets, and thus determine their own levels of production. Producer and service guilds should regulate the processes and standards of quality of the goods or services produced by each household. Finally, a different understanding of ‘household’ may be necessary.

‘Household’ in this modern context should include more than just a single mating pair and their immature offspring. Several related mating pairs, along with elder parents or relatives, even a few unrelated adults — and all their children — should live in a large, divided structure or in a closely grouped set of structures, close at hand to their primary means of production. The important mark of membership in a household is thus not necessarily the structure of the domicile, but the way in which the social and economic needs are met by other members, without regard for ability or expectation of payment.

Among other benefits, such an arrangement provides the potential for a richer life for children, the elderly, and the handicapped. Where the means of production can be handled by a few of the adults and the older children, the remaining family members are freed to provide further economic and social benefit to the family. Economies of scale become possible in many contexts when a ‘Household’ is much more than just two adults.

To be continued…

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