LONG STORY SHORT
By L. Dean Webb
CHAPTER 1. THE PHASES OF HISTORY
Questions to Consider:
- What does this have to do with what I'm studying this year/semester?
- What does a surplus of food make possible?
- What does technological change make possible?
- When do people begin to have notions of freedom?
- Does freedom necessarily imply fairness?
- Why have authoritarian governments collapsed?
- What does the information presented here imply for the future?
Different parts of the world move through history at different rates.
Let me define history. History is the record of changes humanity has gone through. Where there is no written record, there is no history. There is archaeology, anthropology, and the study of oral traditions, but nothing I would call history.
Where there aren't any changes, there isn't any history. If things stay the same for a long period of time, then there's nothing really noticeable from a historical perspective. Sure, there's still some cultural information for the anthropologists and cultural geographers, but no changes. Life in West Africa in the year 834 was a whole lot like life in West Africa in the year 835. It was like life was in West Africa for a very, very long time. There's very little point writing a chapter on West Africa in 834 and then another about West Africa in 835. The chapters would be nearly identical. By contrast, life in Europe in the year 1814 had some significant differences from life in Europe in the year 1815. Those differences were because of certain changes, and the record of those changes is history.
When a culture begins recording its changes, or when a culture has its changes recorded by an outside observer, it enters from prehistory into history. Some cultures, like those of Egypt, India, Mesopotamia, and China, enter into history ahead of pretty much all other areas in the world. Others, like those of the plains Indians of North America, don't enter into history until Spanish explorers make mention of them.
So you don't think those other cultures that don't enter into history early aren't worth studying?
I think they are worthy of study, but more as providing a backstory for the historical context. It's important to know about other peoples and their past, whether it's documented or not. But not all of those cultures are going to rise through the course of time to produce major changes that affect the course of events leading to the current world. The basket-weaving cultures of the Upper Amazon don't really do a whole lot to affect the course of future events. I might come back and add a few sections on them, but that's after I cover the main sequence of events. This is about history, not specific primitive cultures.
So where does history start?
History starts with the plow. I take this idea largely from James Burke, author of Connections. Before the plow, societies remained primitive and didn't go through significant changes. After the introduction of the plow, civilizations were built atop the agricultural surpluses the plow made possible. With civilization came change.
Next are the predominantly agrarian civilizations with urban populations sufficiently large to start an industrial and commercial revolution. After that, industrialized civilizations, then post-industrial ones. That's where the USA, Japan, and Western Europe are right now.
How awfully Eurocentric of you.
And why not? European civilization produced most of the changes that affected the present and that will affect the future. That doesn't make them a better civilization: they also make most of the wars that affect the present and that will affect the future.
But you're saying European civilization is the most important. Whatever happened to *world* history?
This is world history. It's just that most of the world doesn't go through a whole lot of change until the Europeans show up. Then, major changes. I argue that true world history doesn't begin until the Portuguese initiate trade with India and Africa at the same time the Spanish discover people have been living in America for about 20,000 years. That's half a millenium ago, around the year 1500, but it's when all the peoples of the world begin to interact with each other on a grand scale. I could also argue world history doesn't really begin until the decolonialization movements after World War Two because that's when a host of new nations enter the world, each seeking some form of independence from European culture and identities. Even so, there are some areas in a state of change and other areas in a steady state, with very little going on. It's not my fault most of the changes are taking place in areas associated with European civilization.
Anyway, There are five phases of history: Prehistoric, Ancient-Medieval, Pre-Industrial, Industrialized, Post-Industrial. There are certain kinds of governments and certain economic characteristics associated with each level, as I've noted below:
Prehistoric: Nearly everyone is gathering, hunting, herding, or growing food. There is very little surplus food, and hence, very little ability to support non-food-making population. There's no real need to record much of anything because there's no real changes. Sure, people live and die, but society itself is in a steady state. Many of these cultures are stateless societies, where family bonds are used to find people to settle disputes and where tradition dictates economic choices. Others are simple monarchies. "Monarchy" is a Greek word meaning "rule by one person". (Mon = one, -archy = rule by) In these simple monarchies, we see god-kings, tribal rulers, priest-kings, matriarchs (matri = woman, -arch = ruler), or other standalone bosses of the local clan, tribe, or cluster of mud huts.
The whole world is Prehistoric up to about 4000 BC, which is about 6000 years ago.
Most of the people during this time were hunter-gatherers. Up to about 6000-5000 BC, such a lifestyle worked out just fine. But when the ice age ended and the world dried up somewhat, huge herds that could support lots of hunting thinned out and people had to find other ways to survive. Those who did survive turned to agriculture. The drier the area, the faster people had to turn to agriculture. That's why you see the early agricultural developments not in the middle of lush, well-vegetated areas, but in the middle of deserts.
Ancient-Medieval: Organized agriculture makes large food surpluses possible for the first time, and that makes large non-food-producing urban populations possible. Cities existed before this phase, but now they can grow even more. We see people start to specialize in trades and organized commerce. We see governments form to organize economic and political activity, and governments expand to include more people than just the guy at the top. Non-governmental service workers also enter the scene.
The majority of people in the Level One civilization are still farming. The vast majority are still farming. The artisans and non-governmental workers will later become the middle classes of later periods, but aren't strong enough now to flex any sort of political muscle. Consequently, governments in this time period are either monarchies, feudal monarchies, or early republics.
Monarchies of this time have a ruler supported by a bureaucracy: he does not stand alone. There are likely to be other noble families in a civilization, and when those royal families exercise a great deal of political and economic control outside the monarch's main domain around the capitol, we call such a government a feudal monarchy or feudalism. Feudal monarchies typically feature weak monarchs. If we see strong monarchs in a feudal government, they tend to fight a lot with the noble families who don't appreciate having a strong monarch.
Early republics are not like the modern USA or the UK. Very few people have a right to vote in early republics. Voting privileges, or franchisement, are granted to people who own at least a certain amount of land. Since women, children, minority groups, and people who don't belong to certain families are typically forbidden from owning land in these cultures, early republics are not necessarily the cradles of democracy folks in the modern world think them to be. To be sure, they do offer a form of government where leaders can be dismissed in a non-violent fashion, but those leaders are drawn from and are chosen by a very small group of people, not by the society at large. More on that later.
When cultures organize and start writing things down, they enter this phase. Most stay in this time period for a very long time. Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China entered this phase around 4000 BC. Most of the world was in this phase by 1000 AD. Many remote areas of the world never entered this phase on their own. Europe didn't start to leave this phase until around 1300, along with China, India, the Ottoman Empire, and various other states in and around those areas.
Pre-Industrial: Agriculture has improved to the point where a much larger part of the population need not farm for a living. A pre-industrial civilization is characterized by an expansion of the middle classes, coupled with a strong tendency for the monarchy to become stronger, leaving feudalism behind for absolutism. Absolutism, as the name implies, is a form of government where the monarch has absolute control over his nation, should he choose to exercise such control.
The problem with absolutism crops up when the growing middle classes push to have more say in how they are governed. Three possible forms of government can result when the middle classes succeed in their revolution against the absolute monarchy. The first is a constitutional monarchy, a monarchy with limits on its power dictated by law. England got one of these as an end result of its civil war in the 1640's. The next government is an early republic, such as the American colonies formed some time after they won independence from England. The third form of government is Communism, which starts off trying to eliminate economic inequality by making everyone uniformly poor, but then preserves wealth for the absolutist leaders. Although the men who first thought up the notion of Communism believed it would be the government of choice for the next phase, industrialized civilization, the only nations to see a successful Communist revolution were ones that had not yet industrialized. Communism's a strange beast, and we'll have more on that later. Anyway, Russia and China both had Communist revolutions at this phase of their history.
Industrial: During this phase, agricultural workers move from being a majority to a minority of the population. Urban populations swell as ex-farmers move to the city to search for work in factories, government, or in service industries. These sorts of jobs increase the overall standard of wealth and industrialization increases the pace of change. This results in two major movements. The first is a desire on the part of this expanded middle class to have more say in its government. The second is a desire to control the pace of change and to minimize the negative consequences of technology and economic cycles.
These two desires are at odds with each other. Pushing for more say in government goes directly against having that same government dictate how things are to be. That never stops governments, so we see the development of both trends in the USA and UK, where their republican and parliamentary governments expand to free slaves, give votes to men who don't own property, then votes to women, while at the same time embracing statist policies. Statism is a government using policy to control, minimize, or eliminate the negative aspects of a society. The more statist a government, the more authoritarian or totalitarian it becomes.
While the USA and UK mingled expanding freedoms with statist policies during their industrialized phases, states like Italy, Germany, USSR, and People's Republic of China plunged headlong into statist controls as part of their Fascist and Communist governments. The German, Soviet, and Chinese governments were particularly nasty, employing state-sponsored mass murder to attain their desired ends.
I'll come forward at this point to say I detest the notion of statism. I believe governments should exist to ensure contracts are enforced and a few other handy functions, little else. That's my bias and I'm stickin' to it.
Thank goodness none of the totalitarian governments survive much past the opening of the next phase...
Post-Industrial: If you're in Western Europe, Japan, Canada, or the USA, *you are here*. Welcome to phase IV. The post-industrial phase is characterized by agricultural and industrial improvements so advanced, the vast majority of people in such societies don't have to sweat for a living. Unless they want to. Go to the first table on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Employment and Wages, 2001 and you'll see just how few people in the US workforce in 2001 were engaged in agriculture or manufacturing. The biggest segments of the workforce were in office staff and sales: 28.3% of the workforce. Add in other groups, and the service industry is well over three-fourths of the total workforce. A population such as that requires tremendous wealth to maintain and with that wealth, people's desire to control their own lives increases all the more.
The only governments that satisfy those needs are the democracies: republics and parliaments. All around the world, Communist, mititarist, and fascist governments are in retreat as people press for greater say in how they handle their personal and economic affairs. Statism, although still a force to reckon with in most governments, is slowly in retreat in the minds of the citizens of those governments. The only place in the world where radical Communism still survives is in ultra-isolated and medieval North Korea. Strict authoritarianism exists in Byelorussia and a few other places, but depends upon shaky leadership to sustain it. Nearly everywhere else, state power is in erosion. The statist policies popular in the USA from the 1930's to the 1960's would now render any politician seriously in favor of them unelectable. The Labour party in England had to retool itself to offer far less socialism in its party platform planks. These nations are just at the beginning of phase IV, but already these patterns are in evidence and show no sign of coming to an abrupt halt.
LONG STORY SHORT