Violent overlordship, as we mentioned last week, is not eternal and in fact did not exist for long periods of time. In this week's segment we will describe its beginnings.
It is important in our time to understand this. If rulership is eternal and inevitable, as we are taught, then all we can do is fight about how to divide the scraps that our rulers deign to leave us. But if rulership is not inevitable, a new world of possibilities opens to us.
Continued from last week…
THE RISE OF VIOLENCE
No student takes seriously the seventeenth-century notion that states arose out of a "social contract" among individuals or between the people and the ruler. – Will and Ariel Durant
The boundaries of human life have, for a long time, been set and maintained by violence. But it was not always thus. The reign of plunder began in specific places and in specific ways. The first settled group to have this lesson thrust upon them were the Pre-Sumerian farmers of Mesopotamia. Professor Quigley1 describes it this way:
The chief event was the invention of agriculture, metallurgy, and civilized living by the Highland Zone peoples and the subsequent linguistic and cultural submergence of these peoples by inflective-speaking longheaded pastoralists who pushed in waves from the Flatlands by the two post-glacial dry periods. One of the chief results of this process, a result seen most clearly in Europe, was to create a political and social structure in which patriarchal, warlike, horse-loving, sky-worshiping, honor-seeking Indo-Europeans were established as a ruling class over peaceful, earth-loving, fertility-dominated, female-oriented peaceful peoples. This pattern, first established in central Europe almost four thousand years ago, was not destroyed, in spite of Rome, Christianity, and later migrations, until the appearance of industrialized urban society in the last four generations.
Farming created large stores of food, typically as grain, which did not rot if carefully stored. Following shortly were other imperishable goods, such as clothing, furs, tools, and so on. By any ancient standard, these farmers were stunningly rich. And while our farmers were happy living cooperative, productive lives, there were others who operated, not by a cooperation model, but by a plunder model. Our farmers were now immobile. Stationary targets are easy to hit and sedentary people are not well suited for combat. They were easy victims.
The first plunderers were the nomadic hunters and herdsmen described previously. At some point they expanded into new areas and discovered that rich, stationary farmers were easy to rob. The consciences of these people were informed by sky gods who imposed power from above and by clan groupings that featured dominance, submission and structure. They were emotionally suited to plunder. Furthermore, these people had the necessary skills for rapid movement and killing; they hunted, captured and killed mammals regularly. They would also have resented the prosperity of the farmers and their wealth, as it made them look second-rate, something that would not be permissible in their hierarchical, "we must be the head, not the tail" view of the world. Outsiders being richer and better was not a contradiction that they could bear.
These nomads could easily remove the spoils of conquest, either to a safe place or simply to the next settlement for the purposes of barter. And it is likely that their first actions against the farmers were simple looting missions.
In some places, some of these nomads would have been so successful that they drove the farmers away, leaving them to either look for new victims or return to their previous lives. Before long they developed a third option: Steal only a limited amount, not enough to drive the farmers away. This way, you can work the same ground, as it were, for life. Thus, the first rulers were born. Like it or not, the probable scenario is that governance began as persistent theft, with hierarchical nomad groups sustaining plunder at a level that was low enough for the productive farmers to accept their rulership with limited resistance.
On the farmer's side, giving a fifth of his crops to the thug every harvest was a lot less bad than facing death, or going back to being a traveling gardener or a forager. So he grimaced and accepted it, as would most modern men. To illustrate this point, here are the words of modern man in a similar situation: An exceedingly remote Tibetan nomad, commenting upon his first ruler2:
The Panchen Llama owned areas and appointed officials to settle our disputes and collect taxes. He was our lord, although he never came here himself. Our taxes were heavy in those days, but we never went hungry.
This series of events could easily have been predicted in advance. It was the incentives that the players faced that led to precisely this situation: Stationary, peaceful farmers colliding with nomadic herding and hunting societies could hardly turn out any other way.
AND GOD CHANGED
One way this "conquest of the productive by the plunderer" shows up in the archaeological record is in the mixing of the gods. We have said that the early farmers held to female gods based upon the productive principle. We have also said that the nomads held to male dominator gods. Sumer was eventually overrun by a nomadic group called the Akkadians. Dianne Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer3, studying the development of the goddess Inanna, report the following:
In the cycle of Inanna, we encounter aspects of the earlier Sumerian Dumuzi (her male companion) as well as the more politicized Akkadian Dumuzi. The Sumerian Dumuzi… is characterized as the force in the grain and as the priestly lover and attendant of the Fertility Goddess, Inanna. The Akkadian Dumuzi, coming from the northern nomadic peoples who emphasized the arbitrary will and power of the gods is characterized as the shepherd, the astral heavenly bull, and the king who has "godlike" powers.
Whether imposed by force or accepted by intermingling over time, the dominator male gods of the nomadic plunderers were mixed with the productive female gods of the cooperative farmers. Again, this was entirely sensible, since extracting plunder openly is an expensive process. Violence is never cheap. So, the sensible ruler would certainly prefer to have his subjects give willingly, and because the gods were super-human, they were the obvious tool to use. Since the gods did not speak directly to men, their "true message" was a matter of interpretation and could be turned to the ruler's advantage, if done carefully.
Although the first instances of rulership were mostly naked impositions of force, an ethic was later created that said that the gods, if obeyed, would assure great harvests and prosperity. Furthermore, clever priests were added to the equation. These first public intellectuals promoted a theology in which the king played a 'legitimate' role. Thus, rebellion against the king became rebellion against the gods.
Under this new theocratic regime the female god – formerly the friendly catalyst of production – became an arbitrary withholder of prosperity4.
Soon enough, the rulers began building temples and monuments under the rationale that these things would help them connect with now-arbitrary gods, who had been removed to somewhere above, not with them on earth. The gods had become high and glorious, and the people were low and dirty. Only very special men who were very specially prepared could move between the two worlds. By convincing people that special men, massive structures and dramatic statements were necessary to reach the gods, a larger share of crops and labor could be collected more easily.
The first priesthood and state theologies were developed at these times. Related to this is the fact that many monuments of this era featured inscriptions regarding the importance of properly worshiping the gods. Such inscriptions had relatively little religious importance to the rulers; rather, they were designed to encourage tax compliance. They were apparently the world's first propaganda campaigns.
Details varied from place to place and time to time, but since all the incentives of the time led directly to this line of development, it was, again, nearly inevitable. The subjects had acclimated to being ruled and the rulers wanted more power and glory. The rest was obvious.
This more elaborate religious model mentioned above began in Mesopotamia in about 5400 B.C. and was also present in Egypt at a very early date.
THE HORRIFYING HISTORY OF SUMER
One sows, another reaps. – Ancient Proverb
Our first farmers from Armenia suffered a fate common to a shocking number of the true innovators and benefactors of mankind: They were overtaken by aggressive and abusive outsiders who claimed the innovators' discoveries as their own. Worse, the names of the innovators – who paid the dues, who expended heroic effort, whose genius it was that created human progress – were completely forgotten, and their usurpers were given their credit. Humanity's greatest benefactors have thus suffered the greatest injustice. In this case, as in so many others, a modern proverb is every bit as true as the ancient one shown above: No good deed goes unpunished5.
An annotated time line of human life in Sumer6 shows this process:
Prior to 6000 B.C.
Gardeners travel down the Tigris River from Armenia into the land that will eventually be called Sumer. Stumbling upon the fact that they could create permanent settlements in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, they remain and create stationary agriculture. In effect, they create civilization. They become, as Samuel Kramer says, the "first farmers, cattle-raisers, fishermen, weavers, leather workers, woodworkers, smiths, potters and masons." Nonetheless, we have no written record of these people, few artifacts and only traces of their language. We don't even have a name for them.
Shortly after the Tigris-Euphrates Valley was settled, Semitic nomads from what are now Arabia and Syria begin to raid the agriculturalists. At some point thereafter, they invade and remain, setting themselves up as a dominant political group. In other words, they make themselves the first stationary rulers, collect a portion of the harvest every year and claim a monopoly on the right to dispense justice to the agriculturalists, all by force of arms.
The agricultural settlements continue under the coercive rule of the nomads. Technologies and arts continue to develop, albeit more slowly.
A new group of invaders, apparently originating in central Eurasia, arrive from the north. These are more effective than the southern nomads and overrun them. They develop more efficient schemes of rulership and control. It is likely that they leave much of the previous ruling elite in place as middle managers.
Eridu, the earliest city in southern Mesopotamia, is founded. Monuments and temples begin to be built. A new myth is propagated, retelling the story of the goddess Inanna, and stating that she had to travel to Eridu in order to receive the gift of civilization. This is fundamental to the new strategy of using the gods to create the moral legitimacy of the rulers and to decrease the difficulty of tax collections.
Groups of cities are built around temples, eventually almost within sight of one another.
City-state governments continually organize and control daily life. Creativity decays.
A powerful ruler appears and organizes all of the city-states of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley into a single empire. A list of kings calls this man Etana, and describes him as, "the shepherd, who ascended to heaven and consolidated all the foreign countries."
A variety of kings and dynasties rule and fight for rulership of what is now properly (and finally) called the Sumerian civilization. They exercise great care in organizing and regulating human life. Creativity and production finally fail and the civilization irreversibly degrades.
The death throes of civilization in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. They are overrun by the Babylonian empire of Hammurabi. The name, Sumer, ceases to be associated with any living group.
1 Again, from The Evolution of Civilizations, published in 1960.
2 National Geographic, June 1989
3 In their book, Inanna
4 This change would have greatly affected the psyches of the farmers (almost certainly damaging them), making this a fascinating field of study. How might humans think of themselves and experience themselves differently if they presumed that the divine principle was with them, warm rather than aloof, and creating alongside them? And if they were included in the physical act of creation, in which divine magic erupted as sexual ecstasy? The issue here would not be the truthfulness of these beliefs, or even their broad usefulness, but the emotional health they might engender. Scientific examination in this area could be of great value.
5 This is so common that it indicates structural causes. The innovator is hated and the exceptionally healthy man must be eliminated. Humanity seeking comfort in stasis is a potential explanation, unfavorable contrast being punished is a similar cause, and others are possible. In any event, this is a phenomenon worthy of close examination: The smart kid is picked on, the superior man is despised, Jesus must die.
6 This outline is partly based upon Samuel Noah Kramer's essay, "Sumerian History, Culture and Literature," which appears in the book Inanna, mentioned previously. Kramer (1897-1990) was one of the world's leading Assyriologists and a world-renowned expert in Sumerian history and Sumerian language. An Institute of Assyriology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies is named for him at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel. Recent studies and findings were also used.
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To be continued…
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