Saturday 12 January 2008

The First Systems- Why Man invented Tyranny

To understand our history, we need to understand human cultures. Or as we should really say, human systems.

That is the difference between us and all other animals. We live by systems.

Systems are a purely human invention. Human history is the history of systematic development. Development of increasingly more complex, but more efficient systems designed to improve our overall state of happiness.

It is worthwhile viewing history this way. It is Darwin's laws at work, at work on a collective level. It is the evolution of a species through the systems it devises by itself to fulfill Darwin's laws- survival of the fittest.

The fittest species.
And the fittest system to serve that species.

I want to start by explaining phases 1&2. These two phases are closely linked. Phase 1 has to happen for phase 2 to be possible, but often phase 2 is where things stay. Together they make up what I will call Primitive systems. Note that Primitive systems does not imply that culture was primitive. Often the cultures of such systems were anything but. It is the system itself, that in systematic terms that was primitive, as we shall see.

Before systems, man lived what we would call a hunter-gatherer existence. Pre-systems man, is Paleolithic man. He is Cro-Magnon man, but he is also many later men. Man without systems includes the Bushmen, the Aboriginal Australians, Many Amerindian tribes. Pre-systems man is Homo Sapiens as Homo Sapiens lived in nature.

The Lord of Nature, but only the last of a long line. As yet, there is nothing here to secure man's future. To be sure, he is the top of the food chain, he will extinct any other predator he shares his territory with, but he has not tilled the earth.

And this is when it starts. Sedentary life entails a system. This is where it all starts. Human beings need to co-ordinate their lives a bit. People need to co-operate. One person farms, another hunts, another makes spears, another studies herbs and how to use them when people are ill, everyone has a task to do.
And everybody gets fed.

Life is more secure. Less precarious.

And all the males club together when needed, but battles, whilst bloody and often fatal for many participants, rarely involve more than a hundred people, and are usually over the right to cross a river or other territory issues.

And each person is responsible for their own bit of infrastructure. If you want to be covered, build yourself a hut.

This is what it is. A primitive system.

Now we need to get to grips with how the first phase becomes the second. In a given set of circumstances, in isolated areas, certain of these primitive societies moved up a gear. That change was rapid and happened the same way in all places. It was an amazing social change, but the fact that it happened several times in isolation, and always in a similar way, we can state simply that in all cases it was the logical way for the Primitive system to develop, how it would always given the chance, and why it was that it took a special of circumstances for humanity to move beyond Primitive systems.

It would have started in settlements that were able to become highly systemised. Good co-ordination of labour, clear allocation of responsibilities, clearly codified arrangements for allocating females to males, clear values attached to materials and human labour, able to defend large areas of good agricultural land.

They would have gone over that threshold where everybody knows eachother- say, five hundred people.
Increasingly, authority and planning is a matter of in-groups and out-groups.

A pyramid structure is the only way to keep communication channels working best. An inner circle and an outer circle.

A small group of decision makers, than a circle of enforcers, than everybody else.

And it works. The village becomes a city.
And it believes in itself. The gods have made it great. The gods of this city, must be the ones who made the world, because they do a lot better than the gods of other cities.
A home is built for them.

And then it occurs to somebody. Pyramid structures can be extended downwards. The people of other settlements can be brought in. Their settlements will help feed the city. The enforcers of the city are sent out and enforce the will of the city on those around. Their settlements will worship the gods of the city, they will send a certain part of their produce to the city.

And the gods of course, tend to be on the side of these great war leaders.

Who come back as conquerors. As Kings.

This is the second phase of a primitive system.
It corresponds to Egypt from about 3,000 BC to 500BC, to the Mesopotamian cultures of the same time frame, to China from 2,000 BC to the Mongol invasions, to Central America and the Andes from the year 0 to the coming of the Conquistadors.

It corresponds in a certain sense to the Greek city states who hovered at the brink of developing into the second phase, but didn't quite. They were part of the birth of a different system, which we will look at another day.

The pyramid structure works because of the massive centralisation of the decision making process and it's obvious efficiency in communicating that outward. It is the exertion of pressure on the whole structure by a nucleus.
As a result, the systems works because decision makers and enforcers have a better quality of life, so they uphold it. The common people of the city mostly have better lives and it is only the slaves at the very bottom of the edifice who are materially worse off as a result of this powerful drive towards tyranny.

Because that is the central dynamic of primitive systems. The impulse is towards tyranny.
Pyramids, Aqueducts, great feats of engineering need tyrants and slaves to be possible.

This is primitive society. This was the first phase of human development.

There are problems with this system. It has in it the seeds of it's own doom. It is like most organisations, (a noticeable feature of capitalist corporations), prone to ossify, for elites to become entrenched. Elites are self selecting, and whilst the original elite got there by being the best men for the job, the best decision makers and the best enforcers, their sons are not the men their fathers were, but they control the distribution of materials, so they cannot be removed by the better men below.

Power, instead of being used positively, is mainly exerted to protect the inner elite from imploding.
And eventually these societies decay. The Mayas did so, the builders of Tiuhuanaco did so, the Eqyptians were decaying before the Persians came.

Because there is no system in place for the diffusion of thought other than the rigid communication from the centre outwards.

The system stops working because it is failing in working to it's best efficiency. It's success was it's rigid structure, now that rigid structure is it's downfall.

As weaklings and children in the chosen family are manipulated by those around them. As the smooth running of the system has long been forgotten, now the key players are sidetracked controlling the top of the pyramid, but forget what controlling it is all about.

These systems are capable only of growth or retraction. What they cannot do is assimilate. Furthermore, they are capable only of developing that which they started with.
Most Egyptian science is concerned with understanding the Nile. Most Babylonian and Maya Science is concerned with understanding the movements of heavenly bodies.

They were culturally isolated phenomena.
The Incas built more roads than the Romans did- but no wheeled vehicles travelled on them, just human feet.
They had no beasts of burden to pull wheeled vehicles, so no one had a use for inventing a wheel.

And when these cultures did implode, their knowledge was often lost. His history forgotten many? Yes, I think it has, especially of those unusual ones which seem to have appeared and imploded in a short space of time. The builders of Zimbabwe, for example.

So what changed?
What caused the change, and what was that to?

The answer, is the first KNOWLEDGE based system. The first PRACTICAL system.
And it happened over a three hundred year transition phase, lasting from the fall of Babylon to the Persians, to the conquest of Alexander the Great.

This is when a system was first created with the necessary alterations to ensure that it was able to develop. It was a system with the potential to carry man forward.

I'll leave that system and how it came into existence, for another post.


Anonymous said...

Great encapsulation.

Anonymous said...

Wow. You should write history books in this style. I'd buy them.

How has our society ossified ? As I see it a jealous middle class has usurped the aristocracy who languish in delapidated manor houses. There is new revolutionary blood in the top echelons which hungered for power but having got it has not idea what to do but to keep it for its own sake. It guards it jealously to the point of sedating our population with pulp entertainment, pulp eductation, propaganda and fast food.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the history lesson.

When I first looked at the title, I thought I read, "Tranny." (Meaning transsexual) LOL.

Did you know that women are more attracted to Cro-Magnon men like Brad Pitt and Will Smith? Guys with bulldog-like faces have been chick magnets throughout human evolutionary history.

Anonymous said...

Egypt was slightly different from the general pattern of development.

It’s development went from localities (the Nomes) directly to a National consciousness with remarkably little conflict. Thus in one bound overtaking all other Civilisations at the time.

Nor was it necessarily tyrannical. The labour of the ‘old Kingdom’ believed that its successful entry into the afterlife was dependant on the same being achieved by the Pharaoh. Hence the fervour and support for the Pyramid building programme.

Interestingly it is suggested that the Egyptians were the first to conceive of the afterlife as a result of observations of body preservation in the desert regions.

Egypt’s eventual failure was more to do with its technological conservatism than the entrenchment of elites. The desire to conform to older orthodoxies. They hung onto Bronze age technologies because that was ‘maat’ even though the Iron age was developing all around them.

This conservatism was a major factor in both the first and second intermediate periods between the old and middle and the middle and new kingdoms.

This doesn’t detract from your central points but I wanted to point out the development of Egyptian culture didn’t run the same course as the others.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting - I look forward to the continuation.

Anonymous said...

One of the things about despotism is that it's really been unstable. Call it the sword-of-Damocles syndrome.

Of course, you're not really talking about despotic tyranny per se, but rather something oligarchical. I would take issue, however, with the sentiment that this works. Rome, for example, exerted its hegemony for centuries, but its empire eventually fell. Given enough time, any tyrannical system will implode, for it will not "work" for the vast majority.

The scenario that you describe is almost inevitable in any top-down system. Think of it this way. If I'm a fat cat, will I put up with junior toiling away in the salt mines? No? Well, expect a certain incestuousness at the top, one in which (as you illustrate here) can eventually offer nothing but stagnation. And when the villagers come at it armed with torches and pitchforks, the only thing it can offer is force.

Anonymous said...

Maddy- I history as being a sequence of processes. Events cannot be viewed in isolation. It is a process of evolution.
History can be looked at scientifically, but we so often don't, because if we did, we wouldn't always like the conclusions.

E-K- More to come.
Our society hasn't ossified, for reasons which will become clear in the next part. The next chapter sees the birth of sonething that means that society can always, unless it annhilates itself, evolve.
It is the structures that become obsolete.
The characteristics you describe are those which happen with every cycle. The point is, since the coming of the persians, as systems have decayed (due to becoming obsolete and reaching the end of their cycle), newer and better ones have replaced them.
We are just in a decay phase.

Alexys- A face shows character. Speaking as a guy, I can see why women find Brad Pitt attractive. same goes for Johnny depp.
Tom Cruse I never got.

Grendel- It still resulted in a pyramid system, which as you point out solidified so that new knowledge could not permeate. Egypt's development effectively stops at c1500 BC.

The point is these early systems were monolithic, they were incapable of advancing too far because after an intitial dynamic foundation period, their values and knowledge became sacred unchallengeable taboos.

There are slight differences in all the developments.

Greece and the Indus valley remain the key outliers, because there a number of cities in close proximity arose and culturally cross-pollenated, forming a kind of federal culture.
This of course, was crucial in both cases to the what happened.

Welshcakes- It comes tonight. It will, I'm hoping, be quite a bit more interesting.

X-dell- Rome comes into the next phase, it is a product of the first knowledge based system, which for convenience I will call the Hellenic system.
From this point on, all systems THEMSELVES facilitate the ones which follow.

All systems gravitate gradually towards tyranny, but it is noticeable that each one lasts longer before it decays, with the decay period being shorter each time.