Story of Civilization Volume I: Economic Organization

This post is a part of my series on The Story of Civilization by Will Durant.

This section traces the development of property-owning civilization: we started as communists sharing food and property among our neighbors and then turned into capitalist property-owners through the advent of agriculture and money. I particularly like these lines, which Durant must have passed off as afterthoughts, as he relegated them to a footnote:

Every growing civilization is a scene of multiplying inequalities; the natural differences of human endowment unite with differences of opportunity to produce artificial differences of wealth and power; and where no laws or despots suppress these artificial inequalities they reach at last a bursting point where the poor have nothing to lose by violence and the chaos of revolution levels man again into a community of destitution.

Hence the dream of communism lurks in every modern society as a racial memory of a simpler and more equal life; and where inequality or insecurity rises beyond sufferance, men welcome a return to a condition which they idealize by recalling its equality and forgetting its poverty.

After reading this, I really want to learn more about socialism & communism. Have its promoters taken history into account? What are their motivators? What’s their utopia? It’s clear things go the same way every time. What makes this time different? I genuinely want to know.

It goes without saying that a capitalist’s utopia is not ideal for all of his neighbors, but as Margaret Thatcher demonstrated here with some funny gestures, the standard of living still increases for everyone even though it may increase faster for those at the top. Isn’t that  still superior to a society which remains equally impoverished, forever?

The passage above also reminds me of a section in The Lessons of History where Durant relates free society to extreme inequality: because man is so varied in his abilities, and because obtaining the right combination of opportunity and ability is so fraught with chance, that given a free society in which each man has a clear stage to perform for an audience of opportunity, only a small number of men can actually succeed. Most men will either not have the skills, not develop the skills, be lazy, or simply not see the opportunity. Those that succeed will reap the rewards of those who don’t.

Hence the freer a society, the more economic inequality there will be. It’s inevitable. By design—the innate variation in humankind. Freedom in society enables superior men to ‘take’ what a lesser man couldn’t. Just as the better predator gets more prey: no one is equal.1 People vary wildly in their own abilities in the context of economic opportunities. So why should society be equal?

That blew my mind.

Of course, after a while, inequality becomes so intolerable that redistribution must happen somehow, and it’s usually violent. It seems to be a pattern throughout history. I’ll quote another line on the topic, only because I find income inequality so fascinating:

In this aspect all of economic history is the slow heart-beat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of naturally concentrating wealth and naturally explosive revolution.

All of a sudden, Thomas Piketty’s proposal for a ‘global wealth tax’ of 80% doesn’t seem so ridiculous. It would help avert the inevitable catastrophe we have on-hand now. Among a host of enormous issues, however, and the reason I’d be against it, is the fact that such a tax wouldn’t actually effectively redistribute capital. The corrupt cabal of governments this capital would go to would simply enrich themselves and their corporate overlords through even more empire-building and exploitation of the weak.

This doesn’t mean redistribution isn’t necessary. It simply means we need to think of more creative ways to effect it peacefully to maximize its impact.

1 Let’s clarify that I’m not advocating for any kind of -ism (race, gender, orientation, religion, etc). Stereotypes are stupid. But people are unequal—they do clearly vary in effectiveness—but it’s not because of any particular -ism characteristics. Instead, factors such as upbringing, habits, education, discipline, character, etc. determine a human’s effectiveness. I absolutely do not believe any of these factors are determined by race, gender, orientation, etc.

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