13 April 2014
The great age of horse nomads
In discussions of the large-scale historical structure of civilization I often have recourse to a tripartite distinction between pre-civilized nomadic foragers, settled agriculturalism (which I also call agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization), and settled industrialism (which I usually call industrial-technological civilization). I did not originate this tripartite distinction, and I cannot remember where I first encountered an exposition of human history in these terms, but this decomposition of human history serves the purposes of large-scale historiography — call it the “big picture” if you like, or Big History — so I continue to employ it.
In this model of the descent with modification of civilization, agriculturalism proved to be so successful a way of life that it eventually (after a period of several thousand years of transition) displaced nomadic hunter-gatherers, who became a minority and a marginalized population while agriculturalism came to literally dominate the landscape. Agriculturalism in turn has been and is being supplanted by industrialism, which holds such potential for economic and military expansion that no agricultural people can hope to stand against an industrialized people. As a result, agriculturalism in its turn is becoming a minority and marginalized activity, while the world continues its industrialization — a process which has been underway a little more than two hundred years (or, say, five hundred years, if we date from the scientific revolution that made this new civilization possible).
Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization persisted for more than ten thousand years, but these ten thousand or more years were in no sense static and unchanging. Agricultural civilization, especially pure agriculturalism, is an intensely local form of civilization, and as it is subject to the variability of local climatic conditions, it is subject to periodic famine. Thus agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization repeatedly fell into dark ages, sometimes triggered by climatic events. Socioeconomic stress is often manifested in armed conflict, so these low points in the history of civilization, besides being wracked by famine and pandemics, were also frequently made all the more miserable by pervasive, persistent violence. But agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization not only rebounded from its dark ages, but also seemed to gain in strength and extent, so that subsequent dark ages were shorter and less severe (thus perhaps making civilization itself an example of what Nassim Taleb calls antifragility).
What is missing in this narrative is, that prior to the industrial revolution, settled agricultural civilization underwent a great challenge — a challenge to its socioeconomic institutions almost as wrenching as that of the industrial revolution, although this challenge came in a very different form than machines. It came in the form of horses, that is to say, mounted horse warriors from the steppes of Eurasia, who brutally plundered the vast inland empires of the medieval and early modern periods as the Vikings had earlier brutally plundered the coastal areas of early medieval Europe. History mostly remembers these peoples as barbarians, but that is because histories are mostly written by settled agricultural peoples. The miseries and sufferings of settled agricultural peoples at the hands of these barbarians was at the same time the great age of nomadic pastoralists, when the latter came close to seizing the momentum of history.
A distinct form of civilization
As western civilization stumbled with the collapse of Roman power in the west, and was repeatedly prevented from full recovery due to famine, plague, and violence, a very different form of socioeconomic organization was consolidated in the steppes of Central Asia: nomadic horse warriors. Whether one wishes to call this a distinct form of civilization — say, nomadic-pastoralist civilization — or a non-civilization, if civilization is understood to consist, by definition, of settled peoples, the form of social organization that emerged in Eurasia represented by nomadic pastoralists was both distinct and unique. It was also, for a time, highly successful, especially in armed conflict.
The nomadic pastoralists were not without precedent. In my post The Nature of Viking Power Projection, I wrote, “Ships came out of Scandinavia like horses came out of Mongolia.” I have elsewhere argued that Viking civilization represented a unique form of civilization not often recognized in histories of civilization. Here I would like to argue that nomadic pastoralists also represent a unique form of civilization; like the Vikings, this civilization is not based on settlement, but unlike the Vikings, it is a way of life based on the land and not the sea.
Nomadic pastoralists often adopt a semi-settled way of life called transhumance, which involves an annual migration between winter and summer pastures, ascending to higher elevations for summer pasture and descending into the valleys for winter pasture. Thus they may be considered to exemplify a transitional way of life between pure nomadism and settled life. But this is not the only difference between horse nomads and foragers. One important feature of life that distinguishes nomadic pastoralists from nomadic foragers is that the economy of the former is based on domesticated animals (generally, the horse) while that of the latter involves following herds of non-domesticated animals (generally, reindeer). The nomadic pastoralist exercises a far greater control over the landscape in which he makes his life, and a much greater control over the animals upon which he is dependent. It is in this sense that the nomadic pastoralists deserve to be called a civilization, because the relationship between these peoples and their horses was as central to their way of life as the relationship between settled peoples and their crops — only it was a different relationship of dependence.
An unparalleled weapons system
The military accomplishment of the Mongols and the other horse nomads of Eurasia was remarkable. To train, equip, and maintain a fighting force capable of defeating any other force in the world would be a challenge even for the greatest land empires, but that this was accomplished without the established infrastructure of a settled civilization producing agricultural surpluses, which was what equipped and maintained the armies of settled agricultural peoples. John Keegan, famous for his The Face of Battle, also wrote A History of Warfare, in which he includes much interesting material on what he calls the “horse peoples” (especially Chapter 3, “Flesh”).
The most successful of the nomadic pastoralists from the Asian steppe were unquestionably the Mongols, sometimes called the Devil’s Horsemen. From the historical accounts of Mongol depredations upon Europe and the European periphery, the the attacks of the Mongols sound like a natural disaster, like a plague of locusts, but the Mongols were in fact highly disciplined and employed battlefield tactics that the European armies of the period could not effectively counter for hundreds of years. This is an important point, and it is what accounts for the Mongols’ success: although predicated upon a profoundly different socioeconomic organization than that of the agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization of Europe and the European periphery, the Mongols created a land-based fighting force that for several centuries out-matched every military competitor in Eurasia.
The Mongols perfected a weapons system of mobile fire, which latter I have argued has always been the most potent instruments of warfare in any age. If the Mongols had achieved a level of political organization commensurate with its military organization, their socioeconomic system might have ultimately triumphed in Eurasia, and agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization would have been supplanted by nomadic-pastoralist civilization instead of later being supplanted by industrial-technological civilization.
A uniquely brutal conquest
The Mongols militarily defeated both China and Russia, two of the largest land empires on the planet, and would have permanently subjugated these peoples had they the political structures capable of administering the territories they conquered. Instead of the brutality of horsemen, the Chinese were ultimately subject to the brutality of Chinese emperors and the Russians to the brutalities of their Tsars, which despite being horrific, was less horrific than the depredations of horse nomads.
The conquests of the Mongols were destructive beyond the level of destruction typical of that inflicted by the armies of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and this brutality possibly reached its peak with the depredations of Tamerlane, also called Timur the Lame, who is estimated to have been responsible for the death of about five percent of total global population of the time (the Wikipedia article cites two sources for this claim). In this sense, Tamerlane had much in common with a natural disaster (I noted above the the depredations of horse nomads were often treated like natural disasters by the settled civilizations who suffered from them), as such mortality levels are usually confined to pandemics.
It may have been this brutality and destruction as much as the lack of higher order political organization that ultimately limited the ability of pastoral nomads to rule the peoples they defeated. Notorious leaders of horse nomads such as Attila the Hun, Ghengiz Khan, and Tamerlane seemed to be blind to the most basic forms of enlightened self-interest, as they could have extended their own rule, and had more wealth to plunder, if they have been less destructive in their conquests. This is part of the reason that the peoples that they led are commonly called barbarians, and their way of life is denied the honorific of being called a civilization.
The end of horse nomads as an historical force
If we think of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia as the inheritors of the traditions of horse nomads, the period of the pastoralist challenge to settled agriculturalism continues into the early modern period of European history, up to the two sieges of Vienna, Siege of Vienna in 1529 by the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent, and the Battle of Vienna in 1683, when in both cases Turkish forces sought to take Vienna and were repulsed.
Western history remembers the turning back of the Turks at the Gates of Vienna as the turning point in the depredations of the Turkish Ottomans on Europe. In the following years, the Turks would be pushed back further, and lands would be recovered for Europe from the Turks. But we might also remember this as the last rally of the tradition of conquest that began with the horse nomads of Eurasia. By this time, the Turks had transformed themselves into an empire — the Ottoman Empire — and had adopted the ways of settled peoples. At this point, horse nomads dropped out of history and ceased to be a force shaping civilization.
The future of nomadic pastoralism
In several posts — Three Futures, Pastoralization, and The Argument for Pastoralization, inter alia — I formulated a kind of pastoralism that could define a future pathway of development for human civilization (note that “development” does not here mean “progress”). If this idea of a future for pastoralism is integrated with the realization I have attempted to describe above — viz. that nomadic pastoralism was the greatest challenge to settled agricultural civilization until industrialization — it is easy to see the possibility of a neo-pastoralist future in which industrial-technological civilization itself is challenged by technologically sophisticated pastoral nomads.
While this scenario of technologically sophisticated nomads sounds more like a script for a science fiction film than a likely scenario for the future, it describes possible forms of existential risk, such as permanent stagnation and flawed realization — the former if such a development took us below the level of technological progress necessary to maintain the momentum of industrial-technological civilization, and the latter if this technological progress continues but issues in a society (or, more likely, two or more distinct societies in conflict, i.e., settled and nomadic) that channels this progress into a new dark age, made the more protracted by the lights of a perverted science.
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17 January 2013
Permutations of Militancy, Hierarchy, and Settlement
as Predictors of Post-Civilization Successor Institutions
War is coextensive with civilization. Or, to add an important qualification, war has been coextensive with civilization so far. Another way to express this is to say that warfare is an invariant property of civilization as we know always known it. Where there is civilization, there will be war, and where there is war (except for the Hobbesian war of all against all) there is a civilization making that war possible.
War is not the only invariant property of civilization. I can think of at least two other civilizational invariants, namely hierarchy and settlement. Civilizations as we have known them to date vary according to the particular kind of militancy, the particular kind of social hierarchy, and the particular kind of settlement practised, yet the possession of some kind of militancy, some kind of hierarchy, and some kind of settlement has proved invariant in the history of civilization.
I have addressed this question previously in separate posts that did not make clear the systematic relationship that holds among invariant properties of civilizations. For example, in Civilization and War as Social Technologies I emphasized that war and civilization are locked in a coevolutionary spiral. It could with equal justification be said that civilization and hierarchy are locked in a coevolutionary spiral, or that civilization and settlement are locked in a coevolutionary spiral.
In Invariant Social Structures I observed that the one social structure that remained constant in the transition from agrarian civilization to industrialized civilization was, “a very small political elite in positions of real power and the vast majority of people without any access to power at all.” It could with equal justification be said that war and settlement also remained constant in the transition from agrarian to industrialized civilization.
In Civilizations Settled and Unsettled and in Settled Life, Settled Thought I tried to show how settlement is intrinsic to civilization and is central to the thought of civilized peoples. It could be said with equal justification that militarism and hierarchy have been constitutive of the thought of civilized peoples.
In Civilizations Settled and Unsettled, in distinguishing between settled and transient civilizations, I observed that transient civilizations (such as the Vikings, the Mongols, and the plains Indians) were exceptions to the rule of settled civilization, that there had not yet been an industrialized transient civilization, and that this possibility, i.e., transient industrialism, remains an unfulfilled possibility of human history. A related thought appeared in What comes after civilization? in which I speculated on the possibility of post-civilizational social institutions. I took this thought a step further in Civilization, War, and Industrial Technology, in which I wrote the following:
“…the conception of civilization without war is far more radical than the conception of civilization without technological progress. It is, in fact, so radical, and war is, in fact, so inherent to civilization, that the end of war would also mean the end of civilization. Civilization could not survive intact the excision of war. The end of war would mean not the emergence of a civilization without war — war and civilization have been co-extensive — but rather the emergence of some new social institution that would supplant civilization.”
Taking together the civilizational invariants of militarism, hierarchy, and settlement, we arrive at eight possible permutations, one of which is civilization as we know it today, while the others may have some vague historical precedents — the most radically distinct social institution of nomadic egalitarian pacifism bears a striking resemblance to what has been called the Paleolithic Golden Age — but which may also be understood as templates for post-civilizational successor institutions.
1. settled hierarchical militarism
2. nomadic hierarchical militarism
3. settled egalitarian militarism
4. nomadic egalitarian militarism
5. settled hierarchical pacifism
6. nomadic hierarchical pacifism
7. settled egalitarian pacifism
8. nomadic egalitarian pacifism
It is an interesting corollary the entanglement of civilizational invariants that, not only is each engaged in coevolution with civilization, but each is also engaged in coevolution with the others, so that there is a coevolutionary spiral of war and settlement, of war and hierarchy, and of hierarchy and settlement.
There has been a scientific revolution in historiography that has unfolded for the last several decades, and, in so far as history studies civilizations, the next step is to think scientifically about civilization. Thinking scientifically about civilization is obviously going to result in difference according to how one conceives science and how one conceives civilization. While my approach to this is rather different than mainstream historiography, I have written about the possibility of The Future Science of Civilizations, and the above investigation in the invariants of civilization may be taken as representative of how I would approach such a science of civilization (as well as of post-civilizational successor institutions).
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15 March 2012
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):
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.
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6 February 2012
In Geopolitics and Biopolitics, and again in Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics, I suggested that the struggle between the geopolitical perspective and the biopolitical perspective could be a significant constituent of the ideological struggles in the coming century and centuries.
In so saying, I could be interpreted as saying that one epoch of history marked by the nation-state and its theoretical expression in geopolitics is slowly beginning to yield its place to an incipient epoch of history that will, in the long term, be marked by the dissolution of the nation-state and the theoretical justification of this dissolution in biopolitics. Since this is one interpretation (inter alia), I want to address this immediately simply in order to say that this is not what I am saying when I explicitly contrast the geopolitical style of thought with the biopolitical style of thought.
I would not say that the age of the nation-state, and its implicit theoretical expression in geopolitics, constitutes a division of macro-history on the order or nomadism, agriculturalism, or industrialism. The institution of the nation-state emerges in the agricultural paradigm and is preserved in the transition to industrialism, and thus represents a continuity, much like the fact of settled life, which originates with agriculturalism and remains the norm under industrialism.
It would be entirely plausible to make the argument that the advent of the nation-state is a political event on the level of macro-history, and that we ought to name a new division of macro-history on the basis of this form of socio-political order. I would not myself make this argument, but certainly the argument could be made. The advent of the nation-state is important, but not, in my opinion, that important.
I assume that it is possible that a struggle between the geopolitical perspective and the biopolitical perspective could proceed even as the macro-historical division of industrialism is consolidated and the process of globalization brings industrial-technological civilization to the planet entire.
Moreover, the struggle between the geopolitical and the biopolitical could animate the development of any of the possible scenarios for future macro-historical divisions such as I have identified: singularization, pastoralization, extraterrestrialization, and, most recently, neo-agriculturalism. It could even be argued that the next future will develop as a result of this conflict, much as Marx thought that communism would develop as a result of class conflict.
It is not that I suppose that the geopolitical and the biopolitical perspectives are indifferent to any and all of these macro-historical outcomes — I seems to me that the geopolitical perspective would be most likely to lead to extraterrestrialization while the biopolitical perspective would most likely lead to pastoralization or neo-agriculturalism if it were to become the dominant mode of thought — but rather that the dialectic of geopolitics and biopolitics is the form of development that will issue in a novel macro-historical division, and it is a further question, beyond the mere fact of the dialectic, which mode of thought becomes (or remains) dominant.
In any of these long term scenarios for macro-history I don’t think that the nation-state as we know it today will remain the central feature of political organization. Some form of political organization that is the successor to the nation-state system, and which evolves out of the nation-state system, is likely to prevail, but in the case of global, macro-historical developments, the geographically defined nation-state must give way to forms of political order less dependent upon geographical boundaries. It is not likely that the successor to the nation-state system will involve a complete dissolution of these boundaries, but rather a change in boundaries — their extension, extrapolation, or transformation.
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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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