Why do many governments, particularly but not solely the British crown, pay such careful attention to home ownership amongst the populace? Why do they construct elaborate systems of nationalized mortgages, centralized interest rate control, and zoning/building codes? More broadly, what is the fundamental modus operandi of a government? Do invariant patterns recur amongst civilizations widely separated in time or space? Most importantly, how can a young man minimize his exploitation at his rulers’ hands?
I. Invariant Characteristics of Civilization
Ultimately and unavoidably, the key element of a durable civilization is to coordinate the labour of the many and deploy that labour in service of the few, while distributing some fraction of the surplus productivity to projects that benefit the populace at large. This pattern appears in many places and at many times in history.
In the days of the Egyptian Pharoahs, the system was fueled by an explicit labour tax, requiring the common man to spend a nontrivial, continguous fraction of his time erecting pyramids or otherwise serving the religious/administrative/military complex, which we’ll call the Egyptian Establishment.1 Cooperation was enforced via the usual organized violence and socialization. The Establishment got fancy monuments and a docile, tired, impoverished populace, with neither time nor energy nor capital to foment uprisings. The common man got to avoid becoming the victim of organized violence and imprisonment. This system lasted, with few substantial changes, for three millenia.
The ancient Incan empire ran a similar system with overt socialist overtones, in which surplus harvests in abundant years were confiscated, and lean years were buffered by transfer payments from the royal granaries to the peasantry. The magnitudes of transfers in both directions were carefully and explicitly tuned to insure that the people had just enough material abundance to survive, but no more, rendering them similarly docile and governable. The pre-Columbian many were incentivized to participate not only by the usual organized violence (the stick), but also by a caste system coupling social position to control of women’s bodies (the carrot).2 The system flourished until a technologically superior foreign invasion deployed biological weapons to exterminate the vast majority of pre-Columbian South Americans.
Or consider the Comanche Indians on the American plains, a society composed almost entirely of highly-mobile light cavalry and their logistical support, that maintained human populations far below their environment’s carrying capacity via superior firepower and military expulsion of rivals.3 The Comanches are ordinarily regarded as substantially and structurally different from the sedentary agricultural societies mentioned above because their economics depended on high mobility, regular marauding, and an unusually abundant, high-density energy source in the form of buffalo. But even the wild, fairly egalitarian, and meritocratic Comanches built a social system dependent upon the aggregated labour of an unprivileged class (Comanche women and occasionally slaves from other tribes) to perform the labour-intensive processing of economically critical resources (primarily buffalo carcasses) for the benefit of the established winners (Comanche men). Though somewhat less overt than in the Egyptian and Incan cases, incentivized participation of labour in the system and tranched social castes (chiefs, warriors, women, slaves, etc) were nonetheless present in Comanche society. The Comanches were the undisputed masters of the plains until numerically-superior invaders destroyed their civilization’s cornerstone by killing the vast majority of buffalo.
The three examples above come from widely different times and places, but share the common elements of transfer payments (often paid in labour) from the many to the few, often used to improve the people’s docility and governability. While examples of formalized, explicit, long-lived corvée systems abound,4 it’s surprisingly difficult to find examples of civilizations that did not have a labour-coordinating and surplus-allocating apparatus.5 This is probably because of the anthropic principle—non-corvée societies perished before leaving detailed records.
II. The Central Innovation
It’s easy to look back on the poor ancient Egyptian peasant, spending somewhat more than a third of each year in the direct service of his society’s religious-industrial complex, and receiving precious little as recompense beyond defense and minimal infrastructure. But in Britain today, the median effective income tax rate is >40%, which is economically equivalent to conscripting five months of the average Briton’s time in service of the Crown.
Of course, today’s Scouse labourer receives for his trouble far more services and infrastructure than did an Egyptian peasant, and his working conditions are likely far better than manual labour in the Egyptian desert. But these happy facts are attributable more to technological advance and improved standards of living than to any structural adjustment of the corvée deal’s terms. The real difference between the contemporary British and ancient Egyptian cases lies in the methods of coercion. While the bobbies still carry nightsticks and would eventually impose organized violence upon anyone resisting taxation on Her Majesty’s soil, in practice it hardly ever comes to that. This is because of the central innovation of modern Western consumer society, which is to incentivize popular participation in the corvée by the carrot instead of the stick.
Our peasant works long and hard, not because of the whip behind him, but because our civilization is intentionally designed such that he needs to pay high taxes, buy expensive housing, a car, stochastically-priced healthcare, and education for his children. And in order to get these things, he must become deeply indebted with a mortgage and car loan, and then hold a steady job to service his debt. To keep his job, he must possess reliable transportation, requiring debt either for automobile ownership or vast housing costs in an urban center—and the cycle is complete.
III. A Thought Experiment
Imagine a man working 40 hour weeks in Birmingham as a plumber, earning a respectable weekly salary of £1000. Monday and Tuesday’s 16 working hours are devoted entirely to paying his tax obligations to the Crown. Note the similarity to the Egyptian peasant’s labour for his Pharaoh. Our man has furthermore recently bought a frighteningly expensive flat (since all flats within plausible commuting distance of a job are frighteningly expensive), and his mortgage accrues interest at a rate of £100 per week. As such, he devotes a full 10% of his pre-tax earnings to the profits of the bank. This is economically equivalent to him spending four hours per week re-plumbing the bank’s bathroom, every week of this year, taking personal orders from the bank’s manager. Of course, as time passes, he will pay down the principal on his loan, and perhaps in a decade he’ll spend only the equivalent of two hours weekly in the bank’s service—splendid.
Servicing his car loan takes another hour’s labour each week, and paying for his children’s education requires another three. After a week’s honest work, our man has just barely enough money to eat and perhaps save a few quid for his retirement. Under no circumstances will he have capital or leisure to ponder revolutions or uprisings. This is no accident—the system’s critical parameters have been carefully tuned to consume the surplus of the common man’s labour and to transfer that surplus to the Establishment, just as the ruling Incas insured their peasantry avoided starvation without becoming rich. While Jimmy McMillan’s “The Rent is Too Damn High” American political party has achieved farcical status on the internet, a kernel of clearsightedness resides at its core—the system is very much rigged such that the people maintain a high level of productive output, with surplus productivity transferred to society’s dominant institutions and groups.
IV. Turn on, Tune in, Drop out?
The central claim here is that our modern Western system is designed to maximize the population’s productivity, labour servility,6 and governability; the mechanism of maximization is a modified corvée system in which monetary taxation and widespread debt to Establishment-allied institutions and groups (often colloquially called “The Man,” presumably in homage to the classic B-movie Undercover Brother) take the place of direct labour payments. In this respect, the modern West’s socioeconomic compact is structurally and teleologically similar to that of many successful civilizations of the past. The West’s novel innovation is to incentivize the people’s participation in the corvée system not by the stick of overt organized violence, but rather by the carrot of a comfortable life, with shelter, transportation, healthcare, education, and shiny consumer goods provided by the system in exchange for the people’s productive surplus.
Undoubtedly we live better today than at any point in recorded history. Our peasantry has modern medicine, air conditioning, laundry machines, dishwashers, splendidly reliable and powerful automobiles, and many more conveniences than even the highest nobility could imagine until very recently. This is a sign that the system is in some respects working well—the people are producing a large surplus and reaping some of its benefits. And today we have far less organized violence than formerly was deployed in service of enforcing the terms of the corvée system, which is undoubtedly an improvement.
Yet the terms of the State’s deal with the common worker today are substantially structurally similar to those of societies commonly derided as “unjust” in our history books, despite the increase of prosperity in absolute terms. Our corvée is merely camouflaged; there is a slick, convincing propaganda apparatus promulgating a consumerist, pro-debt, home owning worldview. This apparatus is so smoothly oiled that people voluntarily spend hours per day consuming its messages. But no matter how many beautifully-produced adverts for Fannie Mae or iPhone mortgages appear during the American Super Bowl, the cold hard fact remains that The Man has built a system to compel your labour with velvet gloves. He wants you to become an obedient worker bee, diligent at your tasks and unlikely to make trouble. While it is quite desirable to live in a society where everyone else has fallen in line, the independently-minded man’s best interest is seldom served by such conformity. Think hard before you sign the mortgage papers, and bear in mind the structure of the system designed to harness your energies.
Perhaps some of the Polynesian island societies come closest, with their annual ritual destruction of large surplus. These societies were consistently viable at a low level of technology because of their unusually hospitable environments.↩