Recent draft thoughts in progress….
Economics is dominated by urgency about growth. Why do we care so much about it? If I run a small business, say selling cheeses, and I do as well this year as last, I can be happy – unless. Unless I borrowed money to support the business in the expectation that growth would allow me to pay back the loan with interest and have some left over. Then growth becomes necessary. If I had stayed happy with last year’s result (It did feed the family, support education costs and pay taxes) my situation would be very different. But over time the dynamics of borrowing and having to pay back plus interest, has driven the economy – and war and poverty. In fact the drive for creating and paying off debt can be seen as the major thread that runs through history since the first villages to the 8 billion we have today. Needing to pay back with “more” tears apart old social arrangements as it creates new ones. The change masters seem to benefit, but for the rest of us, well, a mixed story. Growth seems obviously necessary – and a bit mysterious. I want to take the mysterious side seriously and do some exploration.
I am going to make a proposal about growth. which is that the economics we have is a clear development out of antique culture and its ways of handling our species interchange with nature. In short the early practices of protecting herds and the relationship of those herds to the well-being of the population, and modern capitalism are intimately related and current practice is a recognizable extension of ancient practice. What has shifted is that sense that the herd was managed for the good of all, with strong practice of distribution (of which more in a minute) But production now, justified as using market forces to meet needs broadly and at lowest cost, has failed to care for society and its fragile place in nature.
What happened? Well, Elites have always taken more than a fair share and left many people to stagnate, starve and live out miserable lives. But it has gotten worse. Elites, in agricultural societies (the great middle eastern press of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome) needed agricultural workers to produce , and elites in industrial societies (expanded from Europe in say the 13th century) needed workers in the factors to produce. But in digitalizing societies it is no longer clear who and how many are needed. The economy is almost developing an of ouroboros-like structure (the snake who, starting with its tail, swallows itself) where production is not for people broadly, but for other organizations. The economy is treated as a game of self-aggrandizement where each can take what they can get, and arrange the rules so that is possible. The tendency is to leave out people who then have no way to make claims on the structures of society for their own benefit.
There are many issues here, such as democracy, individualism, the nation state, banking, the meaning of property, the quality of life, and the effect on the land. I am going to follow the line which recently has given me the greatest insight into how this works. And insight is necessary if we are to try to design better. (And you will hear that design is bad, interferes with tradition and imposes concepts on reality, destroying the tried and true. What this ignores is that the current systems were, often long ago, designed and sort of worked so long as elites needed the population to produce, consume, and fight wars. Times change, things need to be rethought.
Business people these last decades have come to think of their own business or industry well being without consideration of its impact on society. For all his good thinking, steve jobs does not seem to have been very conscious of the choices society was making, nor he fairness of taking government sponsored research and repackaging it as the mac and the iPhone.
So, some explorations of history. I cannot emphasize how important I think this is. We are, pretty much everyone agrees, in a capitalism economy where politics nd economics support the 0ne percent. There are some key parts of the current system we should explore. Here ares some.
Amazing how much people use the word “capital”, or capitalism, without being curious as to where they come from. People know that capital can go for capital of a country, capital in the hands of the rich, (rich because they have capital), capital as the stuff on top of a greeks or roman style column.
Less in awareness is the idea of “capital punishment” (some imagine, wrongly, that it is because it is imposed by the folks in the capital or just “the authorities”. ) To avoid having your mind criss-crossed by confusing associations many people just simplify the complexities by equating capital with money (which has a magic all its own, we will explore after we deal with capital.). There are some uses of “capital” that we don’t see the connection to. Baseball “cap”. “Cap it off.” these actually only make sense if we make the connection to its origin.
The word “capital” and capitalism come from the latin “caput..” Latin for “head”. You all know the phrase “head of cattle” (As in “How many head you got over there on the ranch?”) The line of most interest here is that ancient practice is still mirrored in out own “head of cattle.”and the ancient practice of herd management had to deal with the birth of new cattle – new head of cattle ( a phrase we still use). That birth created a problem for a tribe. Who owned it? When could it be bred, what happens to it? The word in english cattle is a distortion of the word “chattle”, still used in english,, which came from capital and meant moveable assets. This was in a world where cattle were the measure of wealth. Herding societies had strict rules about breeding. Cattle were seen as gods, or gifts from the gods, and involved with sacrifice, the mystery of sexuality and the meaning of life. This might seem to you so far as maybe irelevant. The missing piece is the understanding of how central to the whole culture cattle were. . Cattle were the core around which beliefs and institutions were formed in the western ancient world. And in our own time, the central place of the coboy, the stockyards, the cattle drives from SAbilene North to Chicago../ Note the word stock maintaining some of these meanings into our own time, from stock yards to stock market to stock up.
The practices in Rome and Greece are actually late in the development of these “economic” meanings. In hunter societies the tribes lived off of the kill. The part of important interest to us is that the kill was not owned, but tribal, and distributed. You can feel how this must have worked.
As society becomes more settled, protecting cattle that had moved from wild roaming and dangerous prey to docile herds, the kill was replaced with the sacrifice. We end to imagine sacrifice as a rare perhaps celebratory event (as in the Travels of Odysseus). What we do not yet fully understand was that cattle remained central to society and the sacrifice was a way of maintaining distribution. Ownership was not yet. The word in Greek for law as in eco-nomus, economics, was earlier enomia, which meant equal distribution. The society was held together by participation in a social structure that evolved from killing to herding with sacrifice in a culture where the community was to be cared for.
The extension of this is extraordinary. At the time of Plato Athens had a heard of 100,000 cattle bred and maintained just for sacrifice.
So my proposal is that we look at modern culture and rules around “capital” as evolving from earlier cattle based social arrangements. Because of the origin of capital in cattle, we can see how the present contains – and jettisoned some of – the past. Then, if modern society has its roots on cattle culture, perhaps we can rethink how it might work for the benefit of society rather than the inner take all damn the climate and the wards and the poverty – of modern capitalism.
There are a number of books that have been exploring this complex origin.
I have read widely in this literature and mention especially
Sahlins, Christopher : Stoneage Economy
Seafford, Richard: Money and the early Greek mind
Heichelheim, Fritz Early economy
Heichelman An Ancient Economic History.
Goetzman Money changes everything.
Schabaz, Margaret The Natural Origins of Economics.
McInerney, Jeremy The Cattle of the Sun: cows and culture in world of the ancient greeks.
Merchant, Carolyn. Reinventing Eden: the fate of nature in Western Civilization
more to come….