Piracy and Life
I. The Madness of Life
it is not just us. Ants swarm to attack an anteater even as he sucks
them down by the tens of thousands. The maple trees in my back yard
must drop a hundred thousand seeds every spring, not one of which will
ever grow into a tree, unless for some reason our suburb is abandoned
and reverts to woodland. Against that one-in-a-thousand chance the
trees are prepared. There is a sort of madness about life, like vines
that thrust their way into any crack, no matter how many times they are
pruned back, no matter that the crack leads only into a dark space
where their leaves will wither and die. This is why I have never
believed that there might be life hiding somewhere on Mars, in deep
caves or underground lakes. Life as we know it is so powerful and
adaptable that it would find a way to live everywhere on the planet,
building shields against the ultraviolet radiation and insulation
against the cold.
Trumpets, drums, banners, pennons,
standards, horses white and black,
we'll soon see, and the times will be good,
as we'll part usurers from their money,
and mule drivers will not dare to go on roads
in broad daylight, nor townsmen without fear,
nor merchants on their way from France.
Those who gladly rob will be rich.
Of course, most did not get rich, but a few did, and that was much more of a chance than any of them had in peacetime. Betran de Born's zeal for war has a sadistic quality, but it still points toward the grim reality of life in an aristocratic society. Most of the wealth was in the hands of the aristocrats, and the only way poor people would ever get any was by taking it. When the law is controlled by the oppressors, the only possibility of freedom may be as part of a criminal gang.
Violence shook up society, and since in the normal run of things society was grotesquely unfair, that meant that poor people might gain from war and turmoil what they could not hope to get in peace. Of course the poor were also the main victims of war, and most of them ended up poor no matter what happened, but violence at least gave some the hope of getting more for themselves. Who can read about one of those protocol-bound courts, like those of the French kings or Chinese emperors, places where outsiders were doomed by embarrassing public miscues or done in by backstairs whispering, without fantasizing that a barbarian horde would ride in and sweep them away?
Nor was violence only a matter or war or piracy. I have lately been working on the history of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was built in the 1830s by thousands of workers, most of them Irish immigrants. The canal was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy, and the workmen's pay was often short or months behind. Excluded from most kinds of work by "no Irish need apply" rules, the Irish canallers badly needed to be paid for the backbreaking work they did. To get the wages they were owed, some groups rioted and threatened to dynamite the dams and culverts they had spent months building. It worked; faced with the prospect of losing their investment, the Canal Company paid up. When work on the canal wound down and jobs were short, the canallers formed associations based on their counties of origin and tried to drive all the other workers off the canal. Non-Irish workers were their first targets, but they also fought against each other. Work on the canal was so important to them that they fought to keep it. Again, it worked, at least for a while. When the Canal Company finally called in the state militia and arrested the leaders of the associations, wages on the canal fell from $1.25 a day to 87 cents. By banding together and using illegal force, or the threat of it, the workers got much more for themselves than they would have by meekly obeying the law.
Those societies most deeply devoted to freedom are often very violent, for example the plains Indians. In some borderlands peasants who were often needed as soldiers paid much lower rents than their counterparts in peaceful regions. Because of the constant threat of violence, their lords had to offer them good terms to get them to stay. The Roman tradition records that their commoners won political rights by refusing to serve as soldiers in wartime. The patricians tried to argue that in time of war the whole community had to stick together, but the commoners were not moved by this argument. During war was the only time the patricians really needed them, so it was then that they had their only real leverage.
So are violent societies more free? Not necessarily. The Spartans managed to combine regimentation with violence, as did many others. Oppressors can use violence, too, and usually have. It is also important to note that those able to take advantage of the freedom that war and violence brought were mostly men, and that women were more likely to be victims. Some of those free, violent societies, like the Bedouin and the Plains Indians, were particularly harsh to women. Yet when men won power with swords and guns, the women's world was shaken up, too, and they rose and fell with their men.
So violence was an ambiguous force, but until modern times it was the one thing able to undermine the fixed and grotesquely unfair order of the world. Before the rampant technological progress of the modern age, civilization tended toward a hereditary hierarchy. In an old civilization, each person's place was fixed when he or she was born, and only extraordinary effort, or extraordinary luck, could ever change it. During long periods of peace, like the heyday of the Roman empire or Ming Dynasty China, social stratification could reach absurd heights, with a tiny minority controlling almost all the wealth. But then the barbarians came, the rulers were cast down, and the deck was reshuffled. The men who overturned the old order were no better than the men they replaced, but they, like the pirates, understood that only hope for change was in violent upheaval.
III. Demography and Destiny
Why did the sailors do it, or the gunflint makers, or the slaves? Because they had no choice. The only real freedom the poor of pre-industrial Europe had was the freedom to starve. If they wanted to stay alive, they had to accept one of the slots the system allowed them. The political science of the 17th and 18th centuries is full of the fear that if poor people ever got too comfortable, they would refuse to do the miserable, badly paid jobs on which society depended. Only people threatened with starvation, the philosophers reasoned, would make gunflints or mine coal. No one in that era seems ever to have considered that such jobs could be made safe and profitable enough to tempt free, well-fed people to take them.
From the founding of civilization to the twentieth century, people took dangerous jobs and lived in horrific places and died early deaths because there was nowhere else for them to go. Because the world was full, and every decent spot was taken. Because there were simply too many people.
In every age, advances in technology that should make us all better off lead instead to population growth, so that the mass of people are as poor and miserable as they were before. Many of my students are puzzled to discover that although Egypt was the richest place in the ancient world it had some of the poorest people – we read of peasants whose estate was one sixth of an olive tree. The riches of the Nile were paltry compared to our power to breed and consume. The technological progress of the 17th and 18th centuries could have allowed a small population to live very comfortably, but instead it set off a great wave of population growth, so that by 1810 the world was again troubled by famine and revolutionary unrest. Since then our technology has advanced so rapidly that much of the world has managed to keep ahead of the Malthusian scissors, but it has been a desperate race, and along the way many have been trampled into the coal dust. Whole peoples, like American Indians and Australian Aborigines, have been crushed, and millions of miners and factory workers used up and cast aside. Yes, there has been progress, but imagine if all that economic progress had taken place in a world with a stable population. Of course growth would have been slower, but its benefits for each person would have been vastly greater.
George Orwell once wrote that the best time in history to have been a working man was during the opening of the American frontier. "If you didn't like the boss, you socked him in the jaw and moved further west." To Orwell the availability of empty lands was the best defense against oppression. If people have somewhere else to go, there is a limit to how much they can be abused. The availability of desert islands in the Caribbean, empty because disease and enslavement had wiped out their natives, certainly helped poor sailors in the 18th century. If they could not find acceptable work, they could row to some remote islet and live for years by catching turtles and raiding sea-birds' nests. Once the region became crowded again, every bit of land claimed as somebody's property, the sea turtles hunted near to extinction, that option was gone, and it was once again work for the shipowners or starve.
In 17th-century Virginia, the authorities imposed draconian penalties on any white or black man who went to live with the Indians. If such reversion to nature ever became common, the possibility of flight would make it too hard for the rich to control their laborers. It was imperative, for Virginia's would-be aristocrats, to convince their servants that Indians were savage heathens with whom no European or African could ever be at home. If men could flee into the great wilderness whenever they felt cheated or used, there would be no keeping them down. Because their own numbers had been decimated by disease, many Indian groups welcomed fugitives who were willing to learn the ways of their hosts. This had to be stopped; scan the letters passed back and forth between Indian chiefs and colonial governors, and you see that one of the main themes is the demand by the governors that runaway slaves and servants be returned.
But the example of colonial America shows the complexity of these interactions. The outcome of the New World experiment was, not freedom for all, but freedom for whites and slavery for blacks. The desire of colonial elites to become aristocratic landowners was extraordinary strong. When they found they could not dominate their own people, they brought in foreigners to rule over. By fanning racism and respecting the basic freedoms of poor whites, they kept the masses from uniting against them, built their plantations, and found their way to riches despite the availability of cheap land on the ever-moving frontier. And consider the effect of the Black Death in Europe. In the west, the sudden death of 1/3 or more of the working people led to a great rise in wages and the disappearance of serfdom. But in the east, the authorities were able to keep control of the situation, and they forced the surviving peasants into even more burdensome servitude. We are not sure why, but part of the reason is probably the availability of alternatives. In the west, town life was more fully developed, and migration from the country to the city was already a common thing. Peasants who did like the terms of their tenements simply left, going to town or to other regions. In the east, towns were fewer, farther apart, and less welcoming of strangers, so movement was much more difficult. With no place else to go, and fewer men to fight against oppression, the eastern serfs could not turn their increased value into freedom.I think the greatest achievement of the modern world is our creation of representative democracy. This marvelous system allows the teeming masses of our crowded nations to have some degree of freedom and some degree of control over our fates. Technological progress has kept economic growth ahead of population growth, so that our incomes have risen even as our numbers have swelled. But I do not think we have escaped from the tyranny of demography. Wages are still set by the laws of supply and demand, so more workers means lower pay. These equations are not simple, as the debate over immigration in America shows, but it still must be true that the wages of shirt-sewers and plastic molders are kept low by the enormous number of people in the world who could do the same work. In rural India and parts of Africa, population growth is fast undoing the gains of the "green revolution," and hunger is still a threat to millions.
As the low birth rates of the modern world, which have already spread across east Asia and South America, reach Africa and India, we may at last achieve something unprecedented in human history: a stable population not limited by famine and early death. The great race between population and food supply may finally end, and humanity enter a new era. There may be some loss of vitality in our world, as we are less in the grip of that living madness and less driven to live anywhere and do anything to stay alive. But I do not think we will ever find life boring -- we are made to live, and so we will. We may even find that without the press of ever-growing populations, we have the time and resources to build a more just and reasoned world.
July 22, 2008
Justice being taken away, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms?
All men who feel any power of joy in battle know what it is like when the wolf rises in the heart.