Agriculture and the Macabre

31 January 2012


A revaluation of agricultural civilization

In several posts I have made a tripartite distinction in human history between hunter-gatherer nomadism, agriculturalism, and industrialism. There is a sense, then, from the perspective of la longue duree, that the macro-historical division of agriculturalism constitutes the “middle ages” of human social development. Prior to agriculturalism, nothing like this settled way of life even existed; now, later, from the perspective of industrialized civilization, agriculture is an enormous industry that can feed seven billion people, but it is a demographically marginal activity that occupies only a small fragment of our species. During those “middle ages” of agriculturalism (comprising maybe fifteen thousand years of human society) the vast bulk of our species was engaged in agricultural production. The very small class of elites oversaw agricultural production and its distribution, and the small class of the career military class or the career priestly class facilitated the work of elites in overseeing agricultural production. This civilizational focus is perhaps unparalleled by any other macro-historical epoch of human social development (and I have elsewhere implicitly referred to this focus in Pure Agriculturalism).

The advent of agricultural civilization was simultaneously the advent of settled civilization, and the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism left the institution of settled civilization in place. Other continuities are also still in place, and many of these continuities from agriculturalism to industrialism are simply the result of the youth of industrial civilization. When industrial civilization is ten thousand years old — should it survive so long, which is not at all certain — I suspect that it will preserve far fewer traces of its agricultural past. For the present, however, we live in a milieu of agricultural institutions held over from the long macro-historical division of agriculturalism and emergent institutions of a still-inchoate industrialism.

The institutions of agricultural civilization are uniquely macabre, and it is worthwhile to inquiry as to how an entire class of civilizations (all the civilizations that belong within the macro-historical division of settled agriculturalism) could come to embody a particular (and, indeed, a peculiar) moral-aesthetic tenor. What do I mean by “macabre”? The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “macabre” as follows:

1: having death as a subject: comprising or including a personalized representation of death

2: dwelling on the gruesome

3: tending to produce horror in a beholder

All of the above characterize settled agricultural civilization, which has death as its subject, dwells upon the gruesome, and as a consequence tends to produce horror in the beholder.

The thousand years of medieval European society, which approximated pure agriculturalism perhaps more closely than many other agricultural civilizations (and which we might call a little bit of civilization in its pure form), stands as a monument to the macabre, especially after the experience of the Black Death (bubonic plague), which gave the culture of Europe a decidedly death-obsessed aspect still to be seen in graphically explicit painting and sculpture. But medieval Europe is not unique in this respect; all settled agricultural civilization, to a greater or a lesser extent, has a macabre element at its core. The Agricultural Apocalypse that I wrote about in my previous post constitutes a concrete expression of the horrors that agricultural civilization has inflicted upon itself. What makes agricultural civilization so horrific? What is the source of the macabre Weltanschauung of agriculturalism?

Both the lives of nomadic hunter-gatherers and the lives of settled agriculturalists are bound up with a daily experience of death: human beings must kill in order to live, and other living beings must die so that human beings can live. Occasionally a human being dies so that another species may live, and while this still happens in our own time when someone is eaten by a bear or a mountain lion, it happens much less often that the alternative, which explains why there are seven billion human beings on the planet while no other vertebrate predator comes close to these numbers. The only vertebrate species that flourish are those that we allow to flourish (there are, for example, about sixteen billion chickens in the world), with the exception of a few successful parasitic species such as rats and seagulls. (Even then, there are about five billion rats on the planet, and each rat weighs only a faction of the mass of a human being, so that total human biomass is disproportionately great.)

Although nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agriculturalists both confront pervasive experiences of death, the experience of death is different in each case, and this difference in the experience and indeed in the practice of death informs everything about human life that is bound up in this relationship to death. John Stuart Mill wrote in his The Utility of Religion:

“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor, its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be; is it not a matter of far deeper interest to us to learn, or even to conjecture, from whence came this nearer world which we inhabit; what cause or agency made it what it is, and on what powers depend its future fate?”

While Mill wrote that human existence is girt round with mystery, he might well have said that human existence is girt round with death, and in many religious traditions death and mystery or synonymous. The response to the death that surrounds human existence, and the kind of death that surrounds human existence, shapes the mythological traditions of the people so girt round.

Joseph Campbell explicitly recognized the striking difference in mythologies between nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agricultural peoples. This is a theme to which Campbell returns time and again in his books and lectures. The mythologies of hunting peoples, Campbell maintained, revolved around placating the spirits of killed prey, while the mythologies of agricultural peoples resolved around sacrifice, according to the formula that, since life grows out of death, in order to create more life, one must create more death. Hence sacrifice. Campbell clearly explains a link between the mythologies peculiar to macro-historically distinct peoples, but why should peoples respond so strongly (and so differently) to distinct experiences of death? And, perhaps as importantly, why should peoples respond mythologically to death? To answer this question demands a more fundamental perspective upon human life in its embeddedness in socio-cultural milieux, and we can find such a perspective in a psychoanalytic interpretation of history derived from Freud.

It is abundantly obvious, in observing the struggle for life, that organisms are possessed of a powerful instinct to preserve the life of the individual at all costs and to reproduce that life (sometimes called eros or libido), but Freud theorized that, in addition to the survival instinct that there is also a “death drive” (sometimes called thanatos). Here is Freud’s account of the death drive:

“At one time or another, by some operation of force which still completely baffles conjecture, the properties of life were awakened in lifeless matter. Perhaps the process was a prototype resembling that other one which later in a certain stratum of living matter gave rise to consciousness. The tension then aroused in the previously inanimate matter strove to attain an equilibrium; the first instinct was present, that to return to lifelessness. The living substance at that time had death within easy reach; there was probably only a short course of life to run, the direction of which was determined by the chemical structure of the young organism. So through a long period of time the living substance may have been constantly created anew, and easily extinguished, until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to compel the still surviving substance to ever greater deviations from the original path of life, and to ever more complicated and circuitous routes to the attainment of the goal of death. These circuitous ways to death, faithfully retained by the conservative instincts, would be neither more nor less than the phenomena of life as we now know it. If the exclusively conservative nature of the instincts is accepted as true, it is impossible to arrive at any other suppositions with regard to the origin and goal of life.”

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, authorized translation from the second German edition by C. J. M. Hubback, London and Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1922, pp. 47-48

The death drive, or thanatos, does not appear to be as urgent as the drive to live and to reproduce, but according to Freud it is equally implicated in society and culture. Moreover, given the emergence of war from the same settled agricultural societies that practiced a mythology of sacrifice (according to Campbell), there has been a further “production” of death by the social organization made possible by settled societies. It is to be expected that the production of death by sacrifice in order to ensure a good harvest would become entangled with the production of death in order to ensure the continuity of the community, and indeed in societies in which war became highly ritualized (e.g., Aztec civilization and Japanese civilization) there is a strong element of sacrifice in combat.

Freud’s explanation of the death drive may strike the reader as a bit odd and perhaps unlikely, but the mechanism that Freud is proposing is not all that different from Sartre’s contention that being-for-itself seeks to become being-in-itself (to put it simply, everyone wants to be God): life — finite life, human life — is problematic, unstable, uncertain, subject to calamity, and pregnant with every kind of danger. Why would such a contingent, finite being not desire to possess the quiescence and security of being-in-itself, to be free of all contingencies, which Shakespeare called all the ills that flesh is heir to? The mythologies that Campbell describes as being intrinsic to nomadic and settled peoples are mechanisms that attempt to restore the equilibrium to the world that has been disturbed by human activity.

Agricultural civilization is the institutionalization of the death drive. The mythology of sacrifice institutionalizes death as the norm and even the ideal of agricultural civilizations. As such, settled agricultural civilization is (has been) a pathological permutation of human society that has resulted in the social equivalent of neurotic misery. That is to say, agricultural civilization is a civilization of neurotic misery, but all civilization need not be neurotically miserable. The Industrial Revolution has accomplished part of the world of overcoming the institutions of settled agriculturalism, but we still retain much of its legacy. To make the complete transition from the neurotic misery of settled agricultural civilization to ordinary civilizational unhappiness will require an additional effort above and beyond industrialization.

Despite the explicit recognition of a Paleolithic Golden Age prior to settled agriculturalism, there is a strong bias in contemporary civilization against nomadism and in favor of settled civilization. Both Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (both of which I have cited with approval in many posts) make broad evaluative judgments to the detriment of nomadic societies — an entirely superfluous judgment, as though the representatives of settled civilization felt that they needed to defend an existential orientation of their civilization by condemning the way of life of uncivilized peoples, who are called savages and barbarians. The contempt that has been shown for the world’s surviving nomadic peoples — the Sami, the Gypsies, and others — as well as programs of forced sedentarization — e.g., among the Kyrgyz — show the high level of emotional feeling that still attaches to the difference between fundamentally distinct forms of life, even when one pattern of life has become disproporationately successful and no longer needs to defend itself against the depredations of the other.

Given this low esteem in which existential alternatives are held, it is important to see settled agricultural civilization, as well as its direct descendent, settled industrial civilization, in their true colors and true dimensions, and to explicitly recognize the pathological and explicitly macabre elements of the civilization that we have called our own in order to see it for what it is and therefore to see its overcoming as an historical achievement for the good the species.

We are not yet free of the institutions of settled agricultural civilization, which means that we are not yet free of a Weltanschauung constructed around macabre rituals focused on death. And despite the far-reaching changes to life that have come with the Industrial Revolution, there is no certainly that the developments that separate us from the settled agricultural macabre will continue. I wrote above that, given the consolidation of industrial civilization, we will probably have institutions far less agricultural in character, but it remains possible that the industrialism may falter, may collapse, or may even, after consolidating itself as a macro-historical division, give way to a future macro-historical division in which the old ways of agriculturalism will be reasserted.

I count among the alternatives of future macro-historical developments the possibility of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism. In any civilization largely constituted by either the historical processes of pastoralization of neo-agriculturalism, agriculture would once again play a central and perhaps a dominant role in the life of the people. In a future macro-historical division in which agriculture was once again the dominant feature of human experience, I would expect that the macabre character of agricultural civilization would once against reassert itself in a new mythology eventually consolidated in the axialization of a future historical paradigm centered on agriculture.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Agriculture and the Macabre”

  1. xcalibur said

    I always wondered about ritual sacrifice in past cultures – of animals, and especially of humans. It seemed to me a bizarre cultural pattern. The neurotic misery of agricultural civilization goes a long way in explaining the stranger forms of institutionalized violence.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I’ve been thinking of further developing this thesis so that it embraces both agrarian and industrial civilization. We find institutionalized violence in both, but the character of the violence, and its ideological justification, is different in each case. I started taking notes on this, and had an unifying idea, but I can’t recall it at this time, so I need to read through my notebooks to find it again.

      Best wishes,


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