Settled agriculturalism in the European Middle Ages.

Settled agriculturalism in the European Middle Ages.

It was until recently uncontroversial that civilization begins with settled agriculturalism. The excavations at Göbekli Tepe have shown an unexpected light on some of the earliest human communities. The structures at Göbekli Tepe seem to have been been ritual spaces — perhaps the world’s earliest example of monumental architecture, one of the sure markers of civilization — but evidence suggests that the peoples who gathered at Göbekli Tepe neither cultivated grains nor actively engaged in pastoralism. If Göbekli Tepe provides an alternative to the agricultural model of what civilization might have been, it was not a model that was widely adopted; indeed, the site seems to have been not only abandoned, but purposefully covered over, and does not seem to have served as a social model for any other society except for the other hills in the immediate area that probably contain similar remains. An obvious alternative hypothesis is that Göbekli Tepe represents a transitional stage on the way to the development of settled agricultural civilization.

Göbekli Tepe, where large-scale social organization may have preceded both agriculturalism and pastoralism.

Göbekli Tepe, where large-scale social organization may have preceded both agriculturalism and pastoralism.

Thus while settled agriculturalism might not be the earliest or only model for the origins of civilization, it is unquestionably the most pervasive and the most successful. Independently in widely separated geographical regions peoples settled in communities and engaged in the production of staple crops. From these communities cities grew, and a network of such cities has meant civilization. Just as there were likely alternative paths to civilization that were abandoned in favor of the most robust path, so there have been alternative forms of the development of civilization. Several thousand years after the breakthrough to settled agriculturalism as a form of large-scale social organization, an alternative form emerged in Central Asia: pastoralism, in which the large-scale domestication and herding of animals substituted for the large-scale domestication of staple crops. This is not commonly recognized as a distinct form of civilization, because nomadic herders have rarely developed written languages, whereas settled agriculturalists did invent written languages, wrote histories, and called the nomadic pastoralists “barbarians” — a cultural slander that has endured to the present day.

Nomadic pastoralism: “The Qashqai of Iran use a system of opportunistic management that has evolved over centuries of dependence on a varied and unpredictable environment.” (from

Nomadic pastoralism: “The Qashqai of Iran use a system of opportunistic management that has evolved over centuries of dependence on a varied and unpredictable environment.” (from

Common to both settled agriculturalism and nomadic pastoralism as large-scale forms of social organization is the coupling of the fate of other species with human beings. Domestication, whether of plants or animals, lies at the basis of civilization as we know it. This suggests what I call the biological conception of civilization. I first explicitly formulated the biological conception of civilization in my Centauri Dreams post Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation:

“Each biome into which human beings inserted themselves during our planetary diaspora out of our African origins has made available a unique cohort of species, some of which have been domesticated and the fates of which have thus become tied to human beings and their civilization (no less than our fate is joined to theirs). Terrestrial food production involves this tightly-coupled cohort of co-evolving species dependent upon one another as a consequence of domestication (which latter formulation would constitute a biologically minimalist conception of civilization). This species cohort varies according to endemic species, topography, and climatic conditions… Thus each region of Earth not only possesses a cultural diversity of civilizations, but also a biological diversity of civilizations, each of which may be defined in terms of the unique cohort of tightly-coupled co-evolving species. To date, this process has been an exclusively terrestrial one, but when cohorts of species representative of terrestrial civilizations leave Earth and establish themselves in other environments, the same principles will be iterated at higher orders of magnitude.”

Occasionally I refer to civilizations as “biocentric” (as, for example, in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization). Biocentric civilization can defined in terms of the biological conception of civilization: a biocentric civilization is a civilization that can be exhaustively described by the biological conception of civilization. As a civilization begins to transcend its biocentric origins, the biological conception of civilization becomes less adequate for the description of that civilization. If a civilization were ever to wholly transcend its biocentric origins, the biological conception of civilization would be wholly inadequate and would at that point fail to capture the meaning of civilization. Yet as long as civilization continues to be associated with the biological beings from which it originated, it will continue to have recognizably biocentric features.

One consequence of the biocentric origins of civilization as we know it (which I recently formulated in Another Way to Think about Civilization), is that the human control of the reproduction of plants and animals has led to a radical change in the biology of our homeworld. One way to understand this radical change in the terrestrial biosphere due to civilization would be to identify the advent of civilization with initiating the process of creating an artificial biosphere in which naturally occurring ecosystems are progressively supplanted by artificial ecosystems constructed for the purpose of meeting the needs of civilization.

The interpolation of artificially maintained ecosystems within a wild ecosystem would simply disappear if it were not sustained by the agents who originated it. But as the artificial ecosystem of civilization expands and supplants the wild ecosystem of the planet, its expansion becomes a selection event that selects for domesticated species (as well as a range of parasitical species) and selects against non-domesticated species. As civilization has expanded, wild ecosystems have been pushed to the margins of the civilized world and the greater part of the planet has become dominated by human activities that have shaped the biosphere in a distinctive way. Non-agricultural peoples have also been pushed to the margins. When artificial ecosystems were first introduced by human beings, almost all of the world was the province of nomadic hunter-gathers who wandered freely through a wild landscape. Now the entire surface of our homeworld has been meticulously divided up among nation-states that all have their origins in the states or empires of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

On Earth, the artificial biosphere created and maintained by biocentric civilization supplants a wild biosphere, but biocentric civilization could continue its development, facilitated by the resources of emergent technocentric civilization, through the extension of civilization’s artificial biospheres to other worlds or to artificial habitats. If the artificial biosphere of civilization is transitioned into artificial habitats, artificial ecosystems can be expanded without limit under controlled conditions that will allow for an even greater precision in the management artificial ecosystems. In so far as the initial creation of artificial ecosystems has aimed at greater human control over agricultural outcomes, we can regard this as the telos of agriculture, evident since the earliest stirrings of civilization, and the only context in which the implications of artificial ecosystems can be fully explored. Thus the departures from a strictly biological conception of civilization that point to a nascent technocentric civilization becomes another form of exaptation of coevolution, in which technology coevolves with biology by providing new scope to biocentric civilization.

The biological conception of civilization outlined above is neither anthropocentric nor necessarily tied to terrestrial forms of life, although we must express the concept by means of life as we know it; the biological conception of civilization is generalizable to any biota. Any biosphere that is sufficiently complex for the emergence of intelligent life will embody a high degree of biodiversity, i.e., a large number of distinct species forming complex biological communities, and we can furthermore expect that species will be grouped in the biomes to which they are endemic. Thus the same conditions as are found on Earth, and which have been exapted by human intelligence to produce civilization in the form of a cohort of coevolving species, will likely be present on any world with an intelligent species, and equally available for exaptation in the civilizing process.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .



The Harvesters, 1565,  Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“The Harvesters,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

What could explain the particularly brutal symbolic celebrations of mortality salience I described in Agriculture and the Macabre (notwithstanding the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy)? In my previous explorations of this idea I advanced no causal mechanism or explanatory framework for the prominence of the macabre in agrarian civilization, but further thought on this question has suggested a possible explanation, or, rather, a cluster of related explanations that bear upon unique features of agrarian civilization that differentiate it from other modes of human life.

Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is differentiated from the hunter-gatherer nomadism that preceded it both in its economic basis and its ideological superstructure, or, as I prefer to name the two, both economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure. For obvious reasons, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA) of our hunter-gatherer ancestors differs radically from the settled life of agricultural peoples, and this alone would be sufficient to introduce a biologically-based discomfiture of settled peoples, whose way of life is essentially at odds with their instincts, the latter refined over millions of years, while their farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species. There is, then, an existential mismatch between the economic infrastructure of the EEA and the economic infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

There is also a mismatch between the intellectual superstructure of agrarian peoples and nomadic peoples. Joseph Campbell frequently made the point that the mythologies of hunter-gatherer peoples differs profoundly from that of agricultural peoples. A hunting people needs to reconcile itself with the daily practice of killing, while agricultural peoples often have myths of sacrifice, because the agricultural cycle demonstrates that life comes out of death, so that to make more life, it is necessary to make more death. The cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is a function of the agricultural mythos of sacrifice, which regards the individual as dispensable, and the intrinsic interest the individual has in his own existence. This sacrificial mythology of settled agricultural peoples is the ultimate affront to individualism, and no matter how much justification and rationalization is deployed, this affront would have been felt by every individual within an agricultural economy at some level.

It is often claimed today that individualism is a social construct of Western Civilization that is not present in other cultures, or, at least, not present to the extent that it shapes western thought. Now, it certainly could be argued that the particular conception and understanding of individualism as we know it today is a result of contingent factors arising from industrial-technological civilization that first emerged in Western Europe. One could readily identify points along the seriation of western civilization at which the individual took on a particular importance — Periclean Athens, the value of each individual soul in the Christian tradition, Florence under the Medici, the priesthood of all believers in Protestantism, the American Revolution, and the special place accorded to individual celebrity in today’s winner-take-all society. However, the idea of the individual, and the presence of individualism in the human condition, is not limited to the particular expression given to individualism since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, nor is it specific to western thought.

Individualism has a biological basis. In a famous paper, “What is it like to be bat?” (to which I previously referred in What is it like to be a serpent?), Thomas Nagel wrote that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” We might similarly observe that there is something that it is like to be an individual. The kind of organisms that we are makes our individual bodies a locus of sensation, consciousness, and action. Each individual body is such a locus, sensing on its own, feeling on its own, acting on its own, and conscious of itself as an individual and as a unity. The very idea that there is something that we call the “human condition” is a reflection of the ontological individualism of human being.

One of the features of the human condition that has shaped the human mind most profoundly has been the loneliness of our individual consciousness. The existential loneliness of the self is a function of its emergence from a single brain, which is in turn a function of the kind of individual organisms that evolved on our planet. One might suggest many possible counterfactuals in relation to this isolation of the human condition, but the possibility of alternative forms of consciousness does not alter the individuality of our consciousness. The individuality of human conscious has issued in individualism as a social principle, realized in many different ways across different cultures. Egalitarianism is the social expression of the recognition of the individual as a locus of consciousness and agency. The egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer bands that dominated the vast bulk of human history before the recent emergence of civilization was in part a reflection of this biologically-driven individualism.

There is another counterfactual that interests me more at present than the counterfactuals of other forms of consciousness. Above I wrote, “farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species,” and this is a statement that requires qualification. “Decisively” is the operative word in this context. Farming has undoubtedly shaped our species, but not yet decisively in the sense of resulting in speciation (keeping in mind that behavioral adaptation often precedes structural adaptation, so that the behavioral adaptation of farming might be expected, over a sufficiently long period of time, to give rise to structural adaptations). This suggests an interesting counterfactual, namely, an intelligent species that invents settled agriculturalism and maintains this way of life at a certain equilibrium (a high level equilibrium trap) for a biologically significant period of time, so that the species in question self-domesticates, and this domestication to settled agrarian life is reflected in changes in the genome — and perhaps also eventually in the phenotype.

Important qualifications need to be made to the above. We know from the fact that the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium does not hold that evolution is always occurring, even at a small scale that is only incrementally recognizable at in the genotype and phenotype. This is micro-evolution, and only results in cladogenesis over very long periods of time (more or less Darwin’s original gradualist model); macro-evolution resulting in cladogenesis over shorter periods of time probably involves specific selection pressures. The disruption to human life patterns caused by the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism ought to be sufficient for the emergence of a new species, Homo agrariensis — not metaphorically, as we have so often come to speak of a “new breed” of man, but biologically — except that the developments of civilization continue to disrupt human life in new ways, so that no stabilizing selection occurs specifically driven by the agricultural mode of life.

Settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and even as our civilization today continues to ever so gradually replace the ideological infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastial civilization — like the planks replaced one-by-one in the ship of Theseus — much remains of the agricultural past (and even the agricultural macabre) in our institutions today. Industrialism is extremely recent in evolutionary terms.

While settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and one might assume that civilization simpliciter involves a radical departure from pre-civilized life that must entail compromises with the instinctual life (as was apparently Freud’s position in Civilization and its Discontents), this is not a necessary aspect of civilization. Other kinds of civilization have existed that did not entail the severe instinctual curbs of settled agriculturalism, and other forms of civilization may yet arise that are more in tune with human nature and the human condition.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

A Civilized Countryside

21 February 2013


Tuscan countryside

When I returned from my recent trip to Tokyo my sister picked me up at the airport and on the drive she asked me about the weather. I said that it was cold and windy, but also very clear and sunny. How cold? I had to pause. I didn’t really know how cold it had been. I didn’t even know whether or not it had been below freezing. In a rural environment one would know immediately whether or not the temperature had dropped below freezing, but in the urban intensity of Tokyo there were no obvious (natural) signs of the temperature. One would only know that it was freezing if puddles in the street were frozen over; if there are no puddles, as when it is cold and clear, there are not obvious signs of the temperature. This made me think about the differences between urban and rural life, and ultimately rural and urban civilization.

In Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View the author introduces the idea of a civilized countryside, immediately after describing what he considered to be one of the high points of (urban) civilization in Urbino under Federigo and Guidobaldo Montefeltro:

“…there is such thing as civilized countryside. Looking at the Tuscan landscape with its terraces of vines and olives and the dark vertical accents of the cypresses, one has the impression of timeless order. There must have been a time when it was all forest and swamp — shapeless and formless; and to bring order out of chaos is a process of civilization. But of this ancient, rustic civilization we have no record beyond the farmhouses themselves, whose noble proportions seem to be the basis of Italian architecture; and when the men of the Renaissance looked at the countryside it was not as a place of ploughing and digging, but as a kind of earthly paradise.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, pp. 112-113, I have selectively Americanized Clark’s irritatingly British orthography

There are several themes in this passage that touch on concerns to which Clark returned repeatedly in his survey of civilization: his mention of “timeless order” invokes his earlier emphasis on permanence and the ambition to engage in monumental, multi-generational projects. Yet it is a bit odd that Clark should mention the romanticization of the countryside during the renaissance as an earthly paradise, as this points to older models of the countryside as an Arcadian paradise, as in Virgil’s Pastorals, in which shepherds play the lyre and sing poetry to each other. This is an idyllic picture of the Golden Age in which the countryside is most definitely not civilized, but rather a retreat from the corruption of civilization.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole idea of a civilized countryside both for its internal contradictions and romantic idealization of country life that has little to do with the reality of life in the country — however. However. The civilization of the European Middle Ages, which was a pervasively agrarian civilization, and especially in so far as it approximated pure agriculturalism, was essentially a rural civilization. The great manors or feudal lords were located in the countryside because this is where the food production activity that was the basis of the medieval economy was centered. In other words, the economy was centered on the rural countryside, and not on cities.

Certainly during the Middle Ages there were thriving and cosmopolitan cities engaged in sea-borne commerce with the known world, but these were at this time essentially centers of luxury commerce that touched the lives of only a very few persons. The vast majority of the population were peasants working the land; a few percent were landed nobility and a few percent were churchmen. This left only a very small fragment of bourgeoisie — people of the town, i.e., of the berg (bourg) — who were engaged in urban life year-round. This was important, but not central, to the medieval economy. What was central was agrarian production on great landed estates, which were the true measure of medieval wealth. Having money scarcely counted as “wealth.”

It is a bias of industrial-technological civilization to assume that cities are the center of civilization, because cities are the centers of industrial-technological civilization, and the industrial city is the center of industrial production. This early paradigm of industrial cities is already changing as industrial production facilities move to industrial parks on the outskirts of cities, and we tend to identify the great cities as centers of administration, education and research, the arts and cultural opportunities, and so on. But whatever the function of the city, whether producing articles of manufacture or producing prestige requirements, the city is central to the kind of civilization we have created since the end of the Middle Ages and the end of medieval agrarian civilization.

The life of the countryside has its own complexity, but this complexity is of a different order and of a different kind than the complexity of life in the city; in the city, one finds that the primary features of the intellectual landscape are the actions of other human beings whereas in the country the primary intellectual landscape is that of the natural order of things. These differing sources of complexity structure lives differently.

A certain kind of mind is cultivated by urban life in the same way that a certain kind of mind is cultivated by life in the country, which latter of course Marx dismissed as rural idiocy. The mind and life of the country, as opposed to the city, results in its own distinctive institutions. The kind of civilization that emerges in the countryside is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by life in the country, and, contrariwise, the kind of civilization that emerges in the city is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by urban life.

At least for the moment, the tradition of rural civilization has been lost to us. The great demographic development of our time is the movement of mass populations into urban areas — and the corollary of rural depopulation — as though by a spontaneous agreement the world’s peoples had decided to attempt to prove Doxiadis right about ecumenopolis as the telos of the city and of human life. This demographic trend shows every sign of smoothly extrapolating into the future, so that we can expect even more urban growth and rural depopulation over time.

Nevertheless, it remains possible to consider alternative futures in which this trend is reversed or replaced by a different trend — or even a different civilization. Global networking means that anyone can live anywhere and be in touch with the world’s rapidly changing knowledge. If you have a connection to the internet, you can live in a rural village not necessarily be subject to the idiocy of rural life that Marx bemoaned. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough right now to keep people in the countryside, especially when all the economic opportunities are to be found in the world’s growing cities.

But there is nothing inevitable about the relentless expansion or indefinite continuation of industrial-technological civilization. Agrarian civilization, like the European Middle Ages with which it is identified, is a completed part of our past, which stands like a whole, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this way we can fashion a narrative of agrarian civilization, but we cannot yet fashion a narrative of industrial-technological civilization, since this is today a going concern and not a completed whole. There is a sense in which we can treat scientific civilization — what I have called modernism without industrialism — as a completed whole, a finished era of history. Although I do not regard it as likely, it is possible that our civilization may join the ranks of finished civilizations that have run their course and added themselves to the archive of human history.

I have touched on these possibilities in several posts, as when I have considered Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios and in my argument for Viking Civilization, which constituted a very different kind of civilization — neither rural nor urban, but mobile, i.e., a nomadic civilization. This latter is the possibility that seems so apparently remote but which most fascinates me. Other kinds of civilizations have existed in the past; distinct forms remain possible today, however unlikely.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


In several posts I have suggested a generalization of Karl Jaspers idea of an “Axial Age.” For Jaspers (and Lewis Mumford, and others who have followed them), the “Axial Age” was a unique period of human history in which peoples all over the world generated the religious and philosophical ideas that were to inform all subsequent civilization, and chronologically corresponded to the period from about the 8th to 3rd centuries BC. I call the generalization of the idea of a “Axial Age” “axialization,” which seeks to understand the processes of Jasper’s Axial Age as a general historical process that is not confined to the single instance Jaspers had in mind.

The posts I have written on this include (inter alia):

The Aftermath of War

The Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm

Abortive Paradigmata

Axial Crisis or Axial Fulfillment?

Addendum on Axialization: Organicism and Ecology

I have just realized that axialization as an historical process is closely tied to institutionalization as an historical process. In so far as axialization involves a period of unusual intellectual innovation, creativity, and originality in which new ideas and new traditions emerge, it is to be expected that later less creative ages will seek to formulate, elaborate, and establish these intellectual innovations of an Axial Age, and this latter process is institutionalization.

The great religious traditions of the world’s great divisions of civilizations that were the focus of Jaspers’ conception of an Axial Age, I have previously observed, were all emergent from agricultural civilization, and, at least to a certain extent, reflect the concerns of agricultural civilization. In this spirit, I suggested that the the great cave paintings of the late Paleolithic in ice age Europe constituted an axialization of the nomadic paradigm of macro-history.

It now strikes me that not only were the great religious traditions of the world emergent from agricultural civilization, but all of these religions and all of their associated civilizations experienced both axialization and institutionalization under the agricultural paradigm. The institutions of organized religion that have largely served as the organizing principles of the associated civilizations were developed and formalized throughout the duration of agricultural civilization.

I suspect that, since the axialization of the nomadic period came so late in the human development of that period that this axialization never achieved institutionalization, both because the structures of nomadic life did not readily lend themselves to the establishment of institutions, and — just as importantly — because the macro-historical shift from nomadism to agriculturalism meant that the interest and focus of the greater bulk of the human population had shifted to other concerns with the emergence of settled agriculturalism. It is interesting to speculate what an institutionalization of nomadic axial ideas might have been, had settled civilization never emerged.

Agricultural civilization persisted for a period of time sufficient both for the axialization and institutionalization of the ideas implicit in this particular form of human life. Because the ideas implicit in agriculturalism received both axialization (an initial statement) and institutionalization (a definitive formulation), these ideas were not swept aside by the Industrial Revolution in the same way that the ideas implicit in the axialization of the Nomadic paradigm were swept away by agricultural civilization. The nomadic paradigm was swept away so completely by agricultural civilization that this entire epoch of human history was lost to us until it was recovered by the methods of scientific historiography. Throughout the agricultural paradigm, human beings knew nothing except the ideas of the agricultural paradigm. This gave agricultural civilization both a certain narrowness and a certain strength.

I speculated earlier that macro-history may exhibit a “speeding up” such that, while the axialization of the nomadic paradigm came very late in that very long-lasting paradigm, the axialization of the agricultural paradigm did not come nearly so late in the development of agriculturalism. Perhaps, I suggested, the axialization of the industrial paradigm will come even sooner in the relative history of that macro-historical division. But when I wrote that I was not counting on the fact that the institutionalization of the agricultural paradigm had given the axial ideas of agriculturalism a staying power beyond that macro-historical division itself.

Throughout most of the world today, agricultural civilization has been utterly swept away by the industrial revolution and ways of life have been radically change. Yet the ideas of agricultural civilization persist, and they persist partly because of their institutionalization and partly because nothing of commensurate scope and power has emerged to displace them.

Beyond the historical processes of axialization and institutionalization we may have to posit another stage — ossification — in which axial ideas are preserved beyond the macro-historical division that produced them. These ossified ideas serve a retrograde function in keeping human thought tied to a now-lapsed paradigm of human social interaction.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


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.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


In Three Futures I considered a trio of possible developments based upon the extrapolation of certain strategic trends already present in the present. These three futures included:

Extraterrestrialization, in which the greater part of humanity eventually resides off the surface of the earth.

Pastoralization, in which urbanization and rural depopulation continue their trends with the greater part of humanity residing in cities (already technically true, in so far as more than half of all human populations today are urban populations, but the disproportion is not yet overwhelming) and the countryside is returned to something like pastoralism.

Singularization, in which escalating computer technology transforms the life of the greater part of humanity, or simply displaces it. This scenario is based on Ray Kurzweil’s technological singularity, though treated as a process rather than an event (we are, after all, talking about history and not about divine fiat).

Recently in Marxist Eschatology I acknowledged that an old favorite must be added to our list of possible futures:

Communism, in which, following the totality of globalization and there being under this global (crony) capitalist regime no alternatives to proletarianism, the workers really do throw the bums out and take over for themselves.

All three of these potential futures were treated in the spirit of developing strategic trends that could conceivably become the dominant strategic trend of the future, and in so doing define a new division of macro-temporality. In other words, the strategic trend in question is treated as possessing the possibility of becoming a macro-historical trend. I say here “developing” and “possibility” in order to stress that these strategic trends, even if they do become the dominant trend, will not come about with catastrophic suddenness, as the result of a revolutionary upheaval.

Central to my understanding not only of current affairs but also of history, and especially history understand on the grandest scale, is the idea of a strategic trend. A strategic trend is any historical phenomenon that takes on a life of its own. There are major strategic trends that shape macro-history and there are small strategic trends that are little more than fads. The decline of printed newspapers in the wake of the growing importance of the internet is a strategic trend. The refinement of precision munitions is a strategic trend. The collapse of the horse-drawn buggy industry in the wake of automobiles was a strategic trend in the past, but now is irrelevant.

Thinking in terms of strategic trends is a kind of extension and extrapolation of uniformitarianism. If the past is to be interpreted in terms of processes known to be acting in the present (which is uniformitarianism), so too the future can be interpreted in terms of processes known to be acting in the present, or to have acted in the past. The use of uniformitarianism in the physical sciences focuses on physical laws discoverable in the present and applicable to natural events in the past. The use of uniformitarianism in the philosophy of history focuses on patterns of human behavior discoverable in the present or the past, and possible applicable to distinct human societies at any time in history, past, present, or future.

It was never my intention to present these Three Futures as exhaustive or as mutually exclusive, and I guess I really ought not to worry too much about it, since no one has commented on this post and suggested that my intention had been misconstrued. In any case, my recent addition of a (revised and reinterpreted) communism should make the non-exclusive character of my original list obvious. In this spirit of identifying strategic trends in the present that may become dominant strategic trends in the future, and in no way committed to an exclusive or closed list, I want to propose another possibility for the long term human future.

Human beings being what they are, there is always the possibility of returning to a past mode of life that proved robust and sustainable. Our long prehistory dominated, as it was, by a cyclical conception of time has deeply inculcated the idea of a “return to roots” in almost all human societies. A “return” to the agricultural paradigm, following on the experience of industrialization, and therefore transformed by this experience, could constitute a new division of macro-temporality, and this possibility I will call post-industrial agriculturalism, or neo-agriculturalism, or neo-agriculturalization when speaking of an historical process.

I have written quite a number of posts touching on the nature of settled agricultural civilization. The most significant of these posts include:

Civilizations Settled and Unsettled

The Agricultural Paradigm

Some Rough Notes on Agricultural Civilization

Pure Agriculturalism

The Telos of Agriculturalism

Many other posts of mine have touched upon agricultural civilization, but these are the ones with the most meat in them.

The strategic trend of agriculturalism as it reveals itself in the present dates at least to the “back to the land” movement of the late twentieth century, especially in its counter-culture iteration, and continues to crop up now and again in the popular media. For example, Japan’s youth turn to rural areas seeking a slower life by Roland Buerk of BBC News, Tokyo, is a typical expression of this.

In contemporary society we can identify strategic trends that are both a “pull” toward agriculturalism and a “push” away from industrialism. I have written on many occasions about the dehumanization and depersonalization of industrial-technological civilization, and escape from this regime is a recurring theme of popular culture. That is the “push” toward the supposedly simpler life of agriculturalism. On the “pull” side of the historical equation there is the long tradition of a kind of mysticism of the soil, such that in the event of neo-agriculturalism it might be possible to speak of the re-enchantment of the world (since the disenchantment of the world — die Entzauberung der Welt — has been one of the discontents of industrial-technological civilization).

The contemporary strategic trends of environmentalism and anti-globalization, while they garner a great deal of press, have not ultimately accomplished much. Environmentalism has changed the way some things are done, but a radical interpretation of environmentalism, the success of which would involve the abandonment of industrial-technological civilization, has made no headway at all. Only the most mild and inoffensive initiatives of environmentalism have had any traction, and certainly nothing that makes the ordinary person uncomfortable or even mildly inconvenienced is countenanced. That being said, the anti-globalization movement, in so far as it is a “movement” at all, has accomplished absolutely nothing except furnishing a pretext for protests and vandalism, which is great fun for a certain segment of society. However, in so far as “venting” is important, these protests have served a certain social function.

Despite this dismal record, and the likelihood that environmentalism and anti-globalization as strategic trends are likely to wither away in time as they become either irrelevant (anti-globalization) or completely co-opted by the status quo (environmentalism), these strategic trends might gain a new lease on a longer life if they feed into some larger movement that has a chance to fundamentally alter the way in which people live. Such opportunities come along only rarely in history, as I have attempted to argue on many occasions. Neo-agriculturalism would serve this functional quite competently, since environmentalism and anti-globalization could be given content (anti-globalization) and direction (environmentalism) by becoming associated with social change driven by a neo-agriculturist agenda.

When we think of a post-industrial agriculturalism in these terms, it becomes obvious that those strategic trends that ultimately become dominant trends that shape the next stage of macro-history are those trends that can be fed by the largest number of minor and middling strategic trend. In this way, a dominant strategic trend that comes to define a division of macro-history. Perhaps in the final analysis, the biggest tent wins. In other words, that strategic trend that can subsume under itself the greatest number of other strategic trend while retaining its essential coherency, may be that strategic trend that comes to dominate all other trends.

With this in mind we can identify a number of strategic trends that implicitly feed (or would feed) into neo-agriculturalism: being a locavore, and in fact the whole local food movement (and, to a lesser extent, the “slow food” movement), bioregionalism, eco-communalism, and radical environmental philosophies like deep ecology.

As I noted above, I don’t intend my identification of possible futures to be exclusive or exhaustive. Thus what I have previously identified as pastoralization could well coexist with neo-agriculturalization. Furthermore, pastoralization could be subsumed under neo-agriculturalization, or vice versa. A little more attention to detail would be needed to order to determine which strategic trend represented that of the greatest generality, therefore likely to subsume other strategic trends under it. However, this being history we are discussing, a certain degree of this determination is left to chance, circumstance, and contingency.

It should also be noted that these future scenarios I have been attempting to sketch do, at least to a limited degree, involve a reconsideration of, “the basic principles underlying our social order,” and constitute, “a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism” — two conditions that Francis Fukuyama named as necessary to refute his “end of history” hypothesis:

“At the core of my argument is the observation that a remarkable consensus has developed in the world concerning the legitimacy and viability of liberal democracy. This ideological consensus is neither fully universal nor automatic, but exists to an arguably higher degree than at any time in the past century.”

“In order to refute my hypothesis, then, it is not sufficient to suggest that the future holds in store large and momentous events. One would have to show that these events were driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan – horrible as that would be for those countries – does not qualify, unless it somehow forced us to reconsider the basic principles underlying our social order.”

Francis Fukuyama, “A Reply to My Critics,” Fall 1989, The National Interest

For the record, I am interested neither in refuting or defending Fukuyama’s thesis, but his formulation does provide a certain clarification for what it takes to account for a genuinely novel historical development. I would be willing to state that, “a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism,” would be a sufficient condition for the definition of a new division of macro-history, and I would further hold that no such condition has presented itself since Fukuyama’s essay.

Again, however, we can identify strategic trends in the present that could well constitute a systematic idea of political and social justice that could displace that systematic idea of political and social justice that prevails today. For example, if we consider the idea of environmental justice we have a conception which if elaborated, extended, and expanded into the future could become an alternative paradigm of political and social justice. Such changes take time and cannot be seen in a single lifetime. Changes of an intellectual order I call metaphysical history, and metaphysical history is the summum genus of historical categories, subsuming even the macro-historical concerns I have been writing about here.

Notwithstanding the fact that, if humanity fails to transcend its planet-bound civilization its future will be necessarily finite (or we can also say that any successor species of homo sapiens will necessarily have a finite future), even given a finite future there would be time enough for many macro-historical divisions yet to be determined. One of these macro-historical divisions could well be a post-industrial agriculturalism.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: