Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Early society and its ideas (part 1)

Following Engels, we can accept the suggestion that it is impossible to say exactly why certain ideas, political, social or religious, originate when they do, but if these ideas "catch on", become widespread and begin seriously to influence people's lives, this can only be because social and economic conditions are in some sense ready for them. Thus, in a very broad way, the classic Liberalism of Locke and his followers was appropriate to a time when trade and manufacturing were becoming increasingly important, the rise of Socialism was plainly linked with the appearance of a large urban working class in the 19th century, and Fascism only became significant through the turmoil and dislocation resulting from the First World War.

In this essay I shall be looking at early, pre-urban society and the ideas appropriate to it. This outlook can be called "conservative",though it hardly constitutes a systematic ideology: ideological Conservatism (with a capital "C") only comes into being in reaction to the French Revolution.

The chief characteristic of a pre-industrial society is that the vast majority of the population (as many as 90% in some cases) will be peasant farmers working on the land. Sometimes these will be independent proprietors, sometimes they will be outright slaves, most likely they will be semi-free serfs; but in any case they will be extremely poor. Agricultural productivity will be so low, and technology so basic, that it will take seven, eight or nine people tilling the soil to feed the minority who do something else. There will be so little surplus accumulated that a single bad harvests will bring hardship; a series of them could lead to outright starvation. Furthermore, many of the non-agricultural minority will be economically unproductive: warriors or priests. It is inevitable that the peasant majority will be illiterate and ignorant of the outside world. Even if they should be able to read, there will be hardly anything in their villages for them to read. This is what Marx meant when he wrote of "the idiocy of rural life", from which modern capitalist industry had liberated society. Many writers have idealised peasant life, but it was noticeable that when in 19th century Russia well-meaning young reformers tried going amongst the peasants they found them brutal, drunken, superstitious, deeply suspicious of outsiders and stubbornly resistant to any new ideas. (In many cases, the peasants simply handed their would-be helpers over to the police!)

Almost all wealth will be linked with farming. The vast majority will own nothing of value except their farm animals and a few tools, mostly locally made. Trade will be small-scale and mostly local, and very little cash will be involved. The wealth of the rich minority will consist almost entirely of the land which they own, and this ownership will give them power over the peasantry who work the land. In societies of the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages, even this powerful ruling elite are not necessarily literate: the art of reading and writing may be confined to the clergy: hence the word "clerk" comes to mean either a clergyman or someone who earns his living by writing.

The basic social division in such a society is between those who are obliged to get their hands dirty by working in the fields, and those who are wealthy enough to be able to keep their hands clean. The latter class can be labelled the "gentry", or nobility. It is very noticeable how many terms of abuse originally meant merely that the person so labelled was a working farmer. To call someone "villainous", "churlish" or "boorish" mean in derivation that the person so described "behaves like a farmer" In the later Roman empire the working farmers were the "humiliores"; in the Scottish Highlands the lowest rank of clansmen were the "humblies". By contrast the landowner was a "gentleman"; he would expect to be addressed as "my lord" ("sir", "monsieur", "mein herr" etc), and in later Rome he was a "honestiores". As time progressed and society became more complicated, the question arose as to whether lawyers, rich merchants and so forth counted as gentlemen, until in the end it attained its present meaning of merely someone who has nice manners.

At the summit of the noble class stood the king. In fact, in these early societies, central government had very little independent power, and no king could rule without the consent and co-operation of the nobility. A king had insufficient money to employ a professional army or professional bureaucracy of any great size. The bulk of royal soldiers were supplied by the nobility leading their own followers, and all government officials had to be drawn from the sparse literate classes. With the poor communications of the time, armies could not travel more than about 20 miles a day. Loyalties were local and personal: thus it was said that in the north of England "there was no king but Percy" - the Percy family, as Earls of Northumberland, ruled the Scottish border, and the king was a long way away; and in the event of a conflict of loyalties, the men of the north would follow Percy rather than the king. In mountain areas, such as the Scottish highlands, society was still basically tribal, and the royal writ scarcely ran at all. Until the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 many highland clan chiefs held "the right of pit and gallows": that is, they were entitled to imprison or execute offenders on their territory by their own authority, without any reference to the king's judges! No king could afford to antagonise the great nobility: on occasion a king might be able to execute a rebellious noble, but only if the other nobles agreed that the victim deserved it, and even then they would be well aware that this assertion of royal power implied a threat to them all. In most cases a king contented himself with exiling a delinquent and confiscating his land and then, after a decent interval, pardoning him.

No king could hope to govern the country from a stationary capital. He would always have to be on the move, meeting the great nobles and keeping their obedience by a mixture of blandishments and implied threats. Apart from these considerations, the sheer problem of supplies kept the court in motion around the country. Consider in Shakespeare's "King Lear", where Lear demands to be accompanied by a hundred knights when travelling. Each knight would have to be accompanied by at least one or two servants, and such a vast entourage would soon exhaust the food suppiles in a district and have to move on. It is no wonder that Lear's daughters soon revolted against his demands!

(In the next part, I shall examine the sort of political and moral ideas likely to emerge in such a society)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent Peter. I plan to write about early social evolution myself during the summer, and you've given me considerable food for thought. I look forward to the next instalment.