From at least 10,000BCt to the 15th Century AD Humanity at it’s most advanced level was organized on a strictly top-down basis. Agriculture involving most people underpinned of these societies. Highly labor intensive, agriculture needed organization. When to plant, when to harvest and where and how to store the harvest called for certain retained knowledge. As we have pointed out in this series on “More”, a society can only get “More” in three ways, take it from somebody else, trade for it or innovate. Once the easy areas were planted only innovations such as irrigation and better tools, akin to the plow, axes and saws could bring more land under cultivation. Unfortunately, major innovations were few and far between. For instance, the wheel came into use at about 3,500BC, but as a potter’s wheel, not for transportation or carrying burdens. That came even later. The wheelbarrow dates only from 600 BC in Greece. That left it for trade and taking stuff from others as the preferred ways to get “More.”
Settled agrarian communities with seemingly abundant food and fiber, couldn’t help but attract those looking to relieve them of the fruits of their labor. The protective organization was a necessity. Military and policing needed leadership, organization and a means to pay for it. Accumulated knowledge had to be preserved and passed down. Who keeps the calendar? Who makes and enforces the laws.?
Trade, the other means of acquiring “More” also had its requirements. Exchanging goods need central protected markets and routes. It’s no wonder towns and cities combined administration, religion and markets in a protected area.
Laws, religion (often the same), administration and trade then all needed ways to preserve and tally. Fortunately, civilizations learned to write, read and compute. Sadly, for most of history, this was laborious, costly and limited. Even if you could read and write cuneiform, can you imagine War and Peace written on clay tablets? As a result, literacy was severely limited. As of late 1475 BC, literacy was 5% in France and 1% in Sweden. Out of necessity, a narrow group of literate elites filled the upper clergy, government administration, military and those in mercantile endeavors across all civilizations. Heredity in most cases played a major part in the makeup of these elites. The other more than 90% of the “civilized world” was an illiterate mass, mostly tied to the soil. Whether they were called peasants, serfs, slaves, coolies or some other name denoting those at the bottom, they, for the most part, led mean short lives, partaking in little or none of the “better things of life.”
As we pointed out in our post “the 15th Century came and nothing would ever be the Same” (Part of this series ‘The Long Journey to More”) innovation reached a breakout point. From a very slow contributor to our obtaining “More” innovation is now providing it at an ever-increasing rate. Incredible as it seems from then to now the percent of those worldwide living in extreme poverty dropped from over 90 to under 10. We a getting to a point where you have to live in very remote areas or you and/or your leaders really work at it to live in poverty.
With this vast change in the human condition, wouldn’t it be appropriate to re-evaluate our assumptions about how society should be organized? Top-down government by “elites” may have worked in a different era, has proved to no match for the increasingly rapid changes now occurring. Where we now need much greater flexibility to cope with the changes brought about by innovation, many governments tend to look backward. Whenever “elites” are in unchallenged control of government they tend to resist change especially if it affects them directly. In order to achieve their permanence, they require increasing control just when we need to be nimble.
This has resulted in a rather bizarre outcome where the only large numbers of people living in extreme poverty are in those nations where governments exercise the greatest control. This couldn’t be more evident than in the contrast between the two Koreas. Separated only by a line on the map, in the tightly controlled North the populace barely gets by on caloric-ally challenged diets, while in the South they worry more about an obesity problem. This is because the GDP per person in the North is $1,800 vs. $32,400 in the South. From basically the same starting point South Koreans are enjoying much “More” while in the north most of the populous.
The Soviet Union crashed after a series of grandiose 5-year plans and China saw the handwriting on the wall and loosened up and allowed the market to make more of the decisions. Ordinary people rather than elites could make some and adopting innovation and trade put China on the path to “More.” The problem is what the Soviets found out during the 1920s. With a failing economy, Lenin loosened up with his New Economic Plan allowing more individual economic freedom. The economy reversed and grew but the party realized if the individuals could succeed without them what was the point of party elites? Threatened existentially, the party clamped down bringing on the horrors of Stalinism. China now stands at an even greater crossroads. Trade and adopting innovations have lifted the Chinese People to “More.” But if there are successful market-based decisions and innovations from the bottom up, the party is redundant at best and an impediment at worst. The people in control invariably react to possible loss with even more control. Venezuela shows the lengths a controlling group will go to save their position. A nation once the envy of Latin America is slowly starving its people to death rather than loosen its grip. China seems headed in the same direction. Tiananmen Square was an insight into how the party in control reacts to bottom-up change. Since then we have seen the expected steady tightening of the screws. But if the decisions are increasingly made top-down, How is this different from the old Soviet Union, Cuba or Venezuela? What is to prevent people from experiencing “Less.”
We have to come to grips with how we got to “More” and what we have to do to continue humanity’s journey to even “More.” We will explore this in our next post.