The Serf’s Dilemma and the Hammurabi Effect

Let me try and demonstrate some of the mathematics (loosely speaking) of social evolution in action. For convenience, let us situate ourselves sometime in the early Middle Ages, somewhere in Europe. Rome has fallen. People are casting their eyes at the heavens and the word Chaos is still warm on their lips.

We shall not concern ourselves with any particular histories and how-it-came-to-be’s. Rather, we’ll use a generic group of farmers who’ve settled on a generic piece of land and decided to grow some generic crops to support a rather mundane and peaceful way of life.

Along comes a strongman and robs them of the food they’ve grown. To the strongman, it is best to take as much as he can without having the farmers starve to death or run away. Basically, where there is no established order, the strongman becomes it. He becomes a lord, he provides protection, for his peasants, from other such ‘lords’, and some other services, maybe, to justify his taxes, and lives off the commonfolk.

There’s nothing new here. In the ancient cities of Sumer, for instance, society stratified as it was growing, creating similar positions of power and strongmen who occupied them; the people higher up the hierarchy did not always need to rely on their military skills – in that same Sumer authority emanated from the social order represented by the en (priest), and later by the lugal (king). The people believed the official had been appointed by the gods and that his authority had been valid, sanctioned by the social order.

As our generic medieval peasants were succumbing to serfdom, they too were inculcated to believe that this order that was being forced on them had been ordained by God. The Church and the nobility worked hand in hand – it has, as a local economist has commented, been observed, that the higher classes tend to bind together to protect their interests more effectively than do the lower classes. It’s human nature, it’s mathematics.

The lords themselves, in our example, are superseded by more powerful lords, all the way up to the king, who, himself, might also find himself in a similar situation – of there being a yet more powerful entity in his world which he will either have to fight for supremacy or submit to.

The order I’ve described is an oligarchy. I talk about social stratification a little more in detail in my article A Fractal Model of Society – might wanna read that as well. The gist of what I’m trying to say, though, is that once society has reached a certain level of evolution anarchy, chaos, are no longer possible. If 4 million Homo S.S. are living on earth, then it means they are all hunter gatherers who worship spirits of trees and fountains, and such – animists. 20 million – it means society has already been infected by the ideas and technologies of agriculture. We have chiefdoms and basic social stratification. 100 million – and we have oligarchies, and the age of empires has began.

The creation of oligarchies is a natural stepping stone in the evolution of any society. An oligarchy – a group of people occupying a social stratum of power, serving as an anchor for social order, yet also very concerned with protecting the interests of their own group within society, and, as a result, competing against eachother, sometimes quite aggressively, over the spoils of their own social position. Their problem is that they tend to become too short sighted, too voracious, and the society as a whole suffers from mismanagement as a result.

Such had been the condition of the Roman Empire, or, rather, of the Roman Republic, on the eve of the rise of Caesar to power (1st century BC). Theodor Mommsen (look into those glaring eyes!) says, in the last volume of his History of Rome, that for the provincials it had been better to have been slaves, in that era, for slaves, at least, did not have debtors. Or of France in the 14th century. Or of Babylonia in the early 2nd millennium BC, when Hammurabi came to power, conquered, pacified and wrote his code of legal precedents.

When the social order becomes too fragmented between the interests of separate oligarchs, or when a larger society is broken up into smaller ones that war against each other, a power vacuum is created for a strong ruler to step in and reshape society according to its newly emerging evolutionary needs. It means more centralization that will, in turn, enable the further tumescent growth of society, its further evolution – society aims to grow, endlessly.

Along comes Hammurabi, or Julius Caesar, or Charles V (a much more modest persona) and assumes that needed role. He comes from the oligarchy. He revolutionizes society, checks and overhauls the oligarchy, restores order, writes a new legal code, unites the land, politically (often a simple act of conquest), and generally appears as a savior and a protector of the people.

This is important for several reasons: first, he needs popular support as counterbalance to the power of the oligarchy. Second, he needs to restore the confidence of the people in the social order, to put them back to work, producing, having restored their faith in their ability to accumulate wealth and and that this wealth would be safe from plunderers of all kinds.

The Hammurabi (or Caesar) Effect. Of course, this does not mean we have gotten rid of the oligarchy. That can never happen. Most of the old oligarchy is likely to survive the social upheavals and become part of the new oligarchy. As time goes by, the new oligarchy will again become too powerful and too voracious, and the cycle will repeat itself, and society will evolve and grow, again.

Today it seems, we have reached a point of saturation: we live in one huge society, no new land to conquer, no more ‘savages’ to ‘civilize’. I think it was Karl Marx who said something along the lines of “when there are no more new markets to expand into the capitalist elite will begin cannibalizing the economy in order to continue their ‘expansion'”. Something like that. The way I see it, it’s the same old formula of resources divided by the population competing for them. Thomas Malthus was basically right. y/x. The bigger the x, the more stratification, competition, aggression, poverty, you will see. And the y, in spite of what all those bleary-eyed free-market farmworld idealists will tell you, is finite.

There is a book by Heinlein, one of those wonderful old sci-fi stories about space colonization, that I can’t quite remember its title right now (It’s Farmer in the Sky, 1950). I’ll dig it up. There’s also The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by the same author. I recommend.

Peace out.


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