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The Fourth Transition
Webdiarist Ian MacDougall writes:
The Fourth Transition
by Ian MacDougall
The ‘natural state’ which humans seem to gravitate to, both while they are in and when they get beyond the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer band, is not Mailer’s pessimistic fascism but a more generalised order of which fascism is but an extreme example. That order is hierarchy, its most stable form being a pyramid of competence, or as Denis Dutton describes it, a reverse dominance hierarchy:
Across the stages of social order from the hunter-gatherer hierarchy we see a tension between power based on experience and ability, and one based on inheritance. Tribal chieftains were leaders in both war and peace, and a process of natural selection must have weeded out the incompetents. A transfer of power by simple inheritance, typically from father to eldest son, arguably minimised disputes over succession, but often at the expense of quality in leadership. Nobody likes obeying orders from a fool, no matter how well the fool is connected. People naturally follow those they have greatest confidence in, and will only follow a fool if the alternative is something worse, like summary execution. That for example, was the choice presented to British soldiers unlucky enough to be under the command of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, (1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB,
The transition from the egalitarian social organisation of hunter-gatherers to more elaborate and uneven hierarchical distribution of power can be seen in the agricultural communities of Melanesians in the islands of the Western Pacific. Chiefs and Grand Chiefs must be treated with the greatest respect, their housing traditionally is superior and set well apart from the rest of the village, and one does not simply call at their front door for a friendly chat, as one might do with people lower down the ladder. These fishermen-gardeners have a way to go, and clearly models originating in the expanses of the continental landmasses will have only limited application for them, but further economic development will bring more elaborate division of labour and more aloof hierarchy. They are on their way to feudalism.
Whether they can circumvent that stage and plunge straight into capitalism is an open question. The current situation in Niugini suggests not.
Agriculture developed because it consolidated food supply around plants and animals that were themselves in process of rapid domestication. The division of labour in agricultural societies gave rise to villages, towns and cities, and the required defence abilities produced systems of marked ranking and social stratification, underpinned in the consciousness of the participants by elaborate religious justifications. In Europe there developed what we know as feudalism and in
The creation of order out of wilderness: fields, harvests in granaries, paved roads, and villages of mud-brick houses, requires work to bring about an entropy reduction, or reduction in disorder. Left to itself the order will go into reverse: houses will decay and the fields go wild with a multitude of species instead of a mere few desirable ones. Thus if work has to be done, and especially repetitive tasks involving great muscular exertion, then one either does it oneself, or organises for one or more others to do it. One man can command a fortress, but he cannot build it on his own. Hierarchy follows, as night follows day. Thus in time, the castles on the Rhine and the
Feudalism was elaborated upon until, in an ironic European twist, an urban-based class of traders, tradespeople, merchants, manufacturers and professionals, which over several hundred years had developed within the shelter it provided, rebelled against its absolutist and aristocratic political structures, and its hierarchies’ self-favour in distribution of wealth. In the aftermath, feudal estates started turning into capitalist farms, there to be bought and sold like the produce off them. At around the same time (in the mid-Eighteenth Century) that same class of people who had been revolutionising society began what we now call the Industrial Revolution, in which the energy of fossil fuels progressively displaced animal and human muscle power from many tasks.
The changed social relations of the successful bourgeois and industrial revolutions also extended the Agricultural Revolution, industrialising agriculture. Feudal revivals and new feudal ventures became impossible, even in the colonies. The project sponsored in 1853 by such notables as WC Wentworth and John Macarthur, which would have set up a ‘bunyip’ aristocracy in
In 1989, when I.M. Pei’s Glass Pyramid was installed in the courtyard of the
In feudal society, a man of whatever rank gave service to his liege or patron. As a member of a hierarchically organised society, in return he received in return certain benefits, chiefly protection from the lord’s enemies, but also from the lord himself. The hierarchy of feudalism was arguably the greatest chain-letter protection racket yet devised, and to escape from it one had to have tradeable skills, such as those of the international brotherhood of cathedral-building stonemasons, the mercenaries and romanticised ‘knights errant’ in the feudal wars of Europe, or of the ronin samurai of feudal Japan in the period 1185-1868. Sometimes whole companies of men would serve as ‘free lances’. One modern survival of this is the Pope’s company of Swiss Guards.
To be without either a patron or a means of independent livelihood left one vulnerable. The only social security any individual had was as now: that provided by other people. But whatever largesse they produced was collected and redistributed on terms dictated by the aristocracy. Translating this to the context of a modern feudal society, we can see its importance. After the Americans defeated the Iraqi Army in 2003, their administrator Paul Bremer disbanded it, leaving 300,000 trained soldiers with no patron, social security or independent means of support. Many turned to banditry, or sold their services to warlords, as in the glory days of European or Asiatic feudalism. Many today, faced with the choice of serving a patron or trying to survive out there in the remorseless market, happily choose the patron.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809), who lived on the cusp of time between collapsing feudalism and rising capitalist liberal democracy, made this observation:
Transmission of office of leadership by inheritance avoided many a bloody squabble over succession, but not all. However, inheritance of office came with its own problems. Nothing gives better insight into the times than the fact that Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense became a best-seller, running to half a million copies. It was revolutionary because it was seen by so many as being so right. Paine’s challenge to the rights of birth was a crowbar in the biggest crack running in European feudalism, because life was at the time getting steadily worse for the growing mass comprising the lower orders and at the same time top heavy with privilege and conspicuous consumption of the elite. Principles that had given
Peasant revolts were as old as feudalism itself, but were always easily crushed due to the peasantry’s rural isolation and difficulties of organisation as compared with the aristocracy’s. In the classic formulation of Karl Marx regarding the French peasantry in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
The history of the ‘third world’ in the Twentieth Century proved Marx somewhat pessimistic on the subject of the initiative and power of the peasantry to relieve itself of oppression. A peasantry led by town bourgeois like an Oliver Cromwell, a Citizen Robespierre, middle class radicals like Lenin, Gandhi, Mao, Ho Chi Minh or Castro, or a peasant-born soldier like Chu Teh was capable of overturning a lot of order, particularly since that order tended to tear itself apart in wars rather similar to those of the gangs of Chicago.
In its earliest phase, before the bourgeois began to opt out, there was no land or man without a lord above him. The King’s liege was God, and he ruled by God’s grace and grant of divine right, thus extending the social hierarchy all the way to the highest rank in Heaven. The Christian Church dovetailed into this system, being in many ways a parallel and rival to the power of states, and owning much land, the prevailing form of wealth. Suzerains, moreover, could be individuals or collectives. While bishops were commonly aristocrats by birth and lords in their own right, monasticism offered the lowly a way to a slice of the action, becoming to feudalism what the joint stock company was to the later capitalism. The catch was that on their departure for the next life, the unmarried and perhaps celibate clerics, monks and nuns, lacking legitimate offspring, would pass any and all of their accumulated property to the Church.
In the subsequent European epoch of capitalism, wealth was synonymous with money, and readily convertible to it. Inherited privilege steadily gave way to a combination of monetary ‘worth’ and individual achievement. Inherited right to state power was replaced by that conferred by popular suffrage, though this varied from country to country. The power of aristocrats across Europe declined as a result of the 1789 revolution in
Representative democracy in the 19th and the first half of the 20th Century tended not to replicate itself. The colonial powers of
Feudal societies were also open to attack by pre-feudal tribesmen, such as the Central European ‘barbarians’ who brought down the later
A zoological analogy: every member of the Class Reptilia alive today, every lizard, snake, crocodile, monitor and turtle, is a dinosaur in waiting. Its chance would come if only the mammals and maybe the birds would get out of the way. In the same manner, every leader of a local teenage gang, higher order gangster or drug ‘baron’ is a Charlemagne, Harold the Great, Richard Coeur de Leon (or more likely, Ivan the Terrible) couchant. Though they manage to do quite nicely in a strong liberal capitalist environment, such people cannot hope to go rampant and transcend it. Only where liberalism is weak or non-existent can they do so as, for example, in certain parts of
Imperialism won for the metropolitan countries practising it unprecedented sources of wealth in markets and raw materials, enabling assaults on peoples still in the tribal or feudal stages. Empire began in the Ancient World, and in Europe following the collapse of
European imperialism led
The original October 1917 Revolution in the Russian Empire was actually a military coup, distinct from most others of the genre by originating in the lower rather than the upper ranks of the army. A destructive civil war ensued, ensuring that whatever emerged from it, the least likely was a liberal democracy. To their credit, the insurrectionary Bolshevik leadership of the time made a sincere effort to flatten the social pyramid of feudal privilege widely taken for granted in
The ‘Second Industrial Revolution’, starting in the mid Twentieth Century, saw automatic systems and computers take over the control functions of both blue and white collar workers in industrialised countries. Also called the Cybernetic Revolution, it combined the power of the machine with the skill, patience and contented repetitiveness of the machine. Like the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions before, it was driven by the rewards and savings in time, energy and money to those in positions to make decisions regarding use of such systems. Surprisingly little industrial or political opposition to it was attempted, unlike the case of the Industrial Revolution where the (commonly misunderstood) ‘Luddite’ movement of machine-wrecking craft workers made its appearance. In the corporate capitalist environments where computerisation was introduced there was hierarchy of power like feudalism. But corporations and companies are inevitably ant-heaps, with personnel and shareholders coming and going, while the corporate entity continues until absorbed into another in the process of capital concentration.
Each of the three major revolutions in humanity’s economic base so far considered has had enormous social effects, so much so that return to the preceding economy and base was rendered impossible. We 6.6 billion inhabitants of this planet cannot return to our distant ancestors’ hunter-gatherer stage with its stone and wooden technology, nor to the stage dominated by agriculture, with power supplied directly by human and animal muscle, by wind for shipping, and by wind and water for industrial mills. If a nuclear war or comet impact did no more than supply a massive electromagnetic pulse to blow out all the circuitry of computers and other electronic devices, the modern economic world would come to a standstill, probably with terrible consequences. Electronic data storage and record-keeping underpins government and commerce: banking, finance, insurance, transport and communications everywhere, and there are simply not enough clerks or paper and pens in the world to take over should computers for whatever reason leave off, nor, I guess, personnel to run the industrial plants that are presently under automated control.
All of the previous mode transitions were incentive driven: the next immediate step to increased bounty, benefit and profits was easily seen from the preceding one. Though driven by the carrot rather than the stick, what those who each added their bit to the larger unfolding change did not see were the very long-term consequences. Those hunter-gatherers who increased their food supplies by clearing weeds away from desirable plants were oblivious to one logical consequence of that activity: castles and crusades. Nor did a pair of bicycle mechanics known to their locality as the Wright brothers realise in their time that beyond their flying machine project lay anything like the Boeing Corporation, the US Strategic Air Command, NASA and the European Space Agency. Likewise, while Tom Paine only had limited forward vision towards the modern world, his was undoubtedly better than that enjoyed by King Louis the Sixteenth of France, during those halcyon days when he still had his head connected to the rest of him.
The last Revolution is the one we are now starting, and it is driven not by the carrot, but by the sticks of climate change on the one hand and impending resource and fossil fuel exhaustion on the other. Like the Agricultural, Industrial and Cybernetic Revolutions before it, what I choose to call here the Sustainability Revolution implies enormous social consequences, impossible to foresee in detail from this vantage point in time.
In the Agricultural Revolution, progressive influence was exerted upon the ecological systems limiting human populations. Once humanity was dependent on diets based on domesticated animals and plants there was no going back to hunter-gathering. In the Industrial Revolution, our not-so-distant ancestors began tapping into the energy stored in huge natural deposits of carbon and its compounds, in turn derived from fossilised remains of plants and ecosystems that flourished tens to hundreds of millions of years previously. The factory system evolved to make elaborate products in a series of relatively simple steps, learnable by the peasants migrating to the cities. In the Cybernetic Revolution, we humans broke through the limitations of our own awareness and attention spans to create simplified brain analogues (a computer being to this point a high-speed electronic moron) that could process information millions of times faster and store huge volumes of it in memory devices, themselves ever diminishing in size and unit cost.
The Agricultural Revolution made feudalism possible, and feudalism made capitalism possible; the Industrial revolution made joint-stock and corporate capitalism not just possible, but necessary, while at the same time rendering a return to feudalism impossible. The Cybernetic Revolution has given us production and marketing on a global scale, and has involved the overwhelming majority of the world’s people in production for the markets and purchase for consumption from them. This in turn has involved the destruction of ever increasing areas of forest and other wilderness, and the increasing combustion fossil fuels mined out of sedimentary deposits laid down in the 300 million year interval between the rise of the land plants and the demise of the dinosaurs. It has also consolidated what James Burnham called the ‘Managerial Revolution’, with an executive layer in a position to determine what proportion of the social product it shall award unto itself, following the precedent set by the feudal aristocracy.
In the latest revolution, we are taking control of the Earth’s climate, and at the same time looking for sustainable energy alternatives, because we have to: because we have almost certainly if unintentionally caused the climate to go dangerously out of balance and to approach ever closer to runaway change, and because there is no staying with the existing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We have to bring the international air to a previous, lower concentration, while sustaining the present growing world population. In the process, we will possibly learn how to fine tune the planetary climate to suit ourselves, making it warmer or cooler to order, though not necessarily overnight. Putting it simply, we are adding the latest to our historic series of mode transitions, without which all previous examples will cease to have any meaning for us; because if we do not, the agriculture, industry and information transmission they revolutionised will become seriously impaired, or impossible.
From the Stern Report of 2006:
Like it or not, we are already into the Sustainability Revolution. How we manage it will likely be a life and death matter for literally billions of human individuals, and for a large proportion of the million or so species on the surface of this planet. So far, the short term economic advantages to certain groups and individuals have lain behind denial or deliberate ignorance on the matter, though this becomes increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of popular acceptance of international climate control measures such as Kyoto, as expressed for example, in the 2007 federal election in Australia. Sir Nicholas Stern has stated in the same report that “climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen,” which is to say that the market mechanism has not only failed so far to correct it, its unregulated operation is the source of the problem, and is only making it worse.
Some likely consequences for
1. Coal will run down as a major export earner, and ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS) will not be able to save it, arriving either too late in proven form and on the necessary scale, or not at all.
2. The reduction in export income and therefore imports will have to be made up by import-replacement industries.
3. Massive public and private investment in natural carbon capture by plants (eg forests) will be necessary as a national contribution to global reduction of atmospheric CO2 concentration.
4. Steel, cement and road tar will become significantly more expensive, although technology exists for use of natural gas as a reducing agent in iron smelting.
5. The development of a popular consciousness reminiscent of that of the dark days of 1942 is likely: we are all in this together; there are no individual solutions; private (and particularly opulent) consumption must be adjusted downwards for the common good, particularly as revisions of the climate change scenario indicate that disaster is increasingly possible if not imminent.
6. Just as the received wisdom of feudal society was inappropriate for capitalism, that of the next, post-capitalist stage will be at least as different again. The present assumptions about what might be termed ‘human nature’ will be as appropriate as the idea that everyone has a station in life pre-ordained by God.
7. Marxian socialism sought to rein in the economic anarchy and free-for-all of capitalism by centralising economic power and decision making. At the same time it sought to decentralise political power. These two proved incompatible, and everywhere it was instituted, socialism was a combination of centralised economic and political power. Such centralisation is incompatible with individual autonomy, freedom and with democracy in the organic sense of the term.
8. The characteristics of the next social phase will largely be determined by the context: a global life-threatening crisis requiring global solutions. Capitalism will survive, but subsumed and incorporated into the next social phase. Wealth and power have been coupled through the whole history of civilisation to date. It is hard to see this situation changing much in future.
Hunter-gatherer economies still exist, and stone tools are still produced, but for the market. Feudalism also still exists, based on pastoral and farming economies, with the attendant technology, but it is integrated to some extent with the global market economy. Each stage of technical and economic development has produced pressure for considerable change in social relationships. While there is a possibility that climate change may not be a life and death issue for humanity, it is certainly seen as such by an increasing number. The changes it will likely involve in the productive base are likely to make for interesting times in future.
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