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The Traumatised Society
How to Outlaw Cheating and Save our Civilisation
By Fred Harrison
Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd Copyright © 2012 Fred Harrison
All rights reserved.
God's Land Deal
It was the first criminal act in history. Genesis reports the deed, but we are not told how Cain killed his younger brother. Did he pick up a rock that marked the edge of his field and smash Abel's skull? Or was a dagger concealed beneath his cloak, its sharp point plunged with mortal effect?
God's role is problematic. He sat in judgement on the offerings brought by the brothers. He approved of Abel's offering, but not Cain's. Why? What made the difference that it should incur the displeasure of God? Cain was mortified. God remonstrated with him. The next thing we know is that the brothers met in that field, and Cain had murder on his mind.
Abel's blood soaked into the soil.
This was not just a family tragedy. Genesis intends it as a warning. For the narrative is set in the context of God's reason for intervening in earthly affairs. They did not own the land. He did. That is what the Old Testament is about. God.
God and the Landless.
The social pressures that lead to murder may be inferred from the account of the deed. We learn nothing about the brothers, other than how they earned their living. This information is given its significance by the context. The Old Testament is the first formal contract to delineate the ownership and use of land.
God's offer of land came with a price tag: compliance with a moral code.
The Old Testament is a covenant. A theology of land.
And so we learn that Abel was a shepherd, "but Cain was a tiller of the ground" (Genesis 4:2). Why but? What may we infer from the difference in the way they earned their living? Their household economies were worlds apart. They dramatised the interface between two universes: the natural and the social. Abel was from the old world. Cain symbolised the future. The differences between those two worlds were most starkly defined by the way land was possessed, and the way that the benefits were distributed.
Biblical scholars continue to dispute whether the narratives should be treated as history or as meaningful myths. Either way, the covenant is an inspired account of the psychology and sociology of land. It goes to the heart of the issue that might one day threaten the survival of the human species. Undisciplined, might civilisation grow into an all-devouring monster with the power to destroy life on planet Earth?
Frictions in the model of urban settlements were not being resolved by the people whose genius had made civilisation possible. The issues at stake were laid bare by the story of Cain and Abel. For what happened in that field is a metaphor for the social forces that were crushing the cities of the Near East.
Abel subsisted by hunting and by gathering food and fuel from nature. He could live comfortably, if the rains came, the grass grew and his flock could eat. He was at the end of a cultural continuum spanning the better part of 200,000 years.
Cain had moved on.
The secrets of nature were being unlocked. Those secrets would make it possible to transform culture. In the annals of our species, that transformation would eclipse in significance events like landing men on the moon. Cain produced a surplus of food that could be traded and invested. That made possible giant leaps in the arts of governance and the formation of urban infrastructure.
The Bible is not interested in morbid family gossip. So why provide the account of Cain's crime in a text that elaborated a theology of land? The answer to that question, in my view, is that we are invited to reflect on the consequences of a social transition that threatened the tranquillity of ancient communities.
The shift from pastoralism to agriculture ruptured more than personal relationships. It triggered a systemic crisis. It shattered the terms on which people had co-existed, a breach in ways of living unprecedented in the history of our species. The big problem was that people had forgotten how to resolve conflicts over the possession of land.
God arrived to remind them. But would they listen?
Abel's nomadic lifestyle relied on practises sanctioned by an evolutionary process tracking back millions of years. Territorial behaviour, encoded in DNA, mediated the evolution of animals and vegetables. The territorial instinct was the organising principle that guided foraging and reproductive behaviour, and in regulating population size. It was the mechanism that framed the evolution of our species. But if humans were to evolve out of nature, they had to adapt that instinct by developing a cultural equivalent. If they were to access new layers of existence, expanding their numbers and diversifying their cultures, a code of conduct was needed that was flexible, but resilient, and faithful to the principles of territorialism.
To co-evolve with nature, and to live in harmony with their fellow beings, a law was needed that synchronised spatial resources with abilities inscribed in DNA. Lawyers class the rules of this code under the concept of tenure. The rules had to be flexible but robust. Humans were unleashing themselves from the rigid laws of nature. If they were to create their own dynamic world, they would need to elaborate and honour a system of tenure that preserved harmony within their communities. The shift from gathering to growing food would create the greatest challenge of all. The confrontation between Cain and Abel represented the dangers in that transformation.
Still operating as a pastoralist, living off nature, Abel needed to roam the land with his flock. Cain, on the other hand, had learnt how to harness nature's powers to increase the productivity of his labour. That meant his household would enjoy a higher income. But to achieve the greater output, he needed to erect fences to protect his crops against foraging flocks. This collision of land uses signposted the most profound break between genetic past and cultural future.
In the pre-agricultural age, land was held and used in common. Rights of access were determined by carefully honed customs and practises. People enjoyed equal rights that were defined by kinship associations. Without those rights, the rites of courtship, marriage and the reproduction of the family would have been meaningless.
Agriculture demanded a new kind of tenure: a demarcation of boundaries. Private possession. This was necessary, if people were to invest their labour and capital to feed the present and fund the future. Primordial practises would be rendered obsolete.
Uncertainty remains about much of our evolutionary past. Archaeologists have not settled the question of when early humans came out of Africa and began using stone tools. Such tools discovered in present-day United Arab Emirates are dated to about 125,000 years ago. But we can be confident about certain aspects of our past. One of these is related to the changing role of land use, and the rights that regulated the relationships between people. Customs and practises were evolved to secure a sensitively balanced use of nature. Oral techniques transmitted knowledge down the generations. The moral in the tragedy of Cain and Abel, for example, appears not only in the Old Testament but other holy texts, and it is featured in mythologies of pre-literate peoples around the world.
And Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him (Genesis 4:8).
That drama is enacted in similar contests over land which divide communities to this day. It is the template for Hollywood Westerns which relive the way cattlemen who roamed the open range tried to resist barbed wire fences, causing many a gunfight showdown (Box 1:1). So the challenge presented by God of the landless remains with us to this day: the search for the meaning of the Good Life without letting the blood of our brothers.
The systemic problem was incubated 10,000 years ago. Neolithic people began to transform fields by selecting seeds, channelling water and tilling the soil. But why would the capacity to nurture food out of the fields incur the disrespect of God? The clues are contained in Cain's offering to God. What was exceptional about it? Was it all the product of Cain's labour, or did God have a stake in it? Did God disapprove of the way in which the surplus was being used? Was Cain hoarding his extra output without sharing the bounty with others? Why should Cain share any part of what was surplus to the immediate needs of his family?
The Old Testament is a dialectic on moral governance and economics, at the heart of which is the issue of land. People willing to hear were left in no doubt about the terms on which land gifted by God may be occupied, but they would have to work out the practical rules to suit particular circumstances.
Fenced off land was no longer available to those who had previously accessed it. Was Cain under an obligation to compensate the losers? What form could such compensation take?
Should the surplus product be used for purposes other than current consumption? If so, how should it be invested, and how would this affect the rest of the community?
That something was terribly wrong in those emerging city settlements was evident from the abject poverty of able-bodied people, the bloody territorial conflicts that tore nations apart, the abuse of nature. People had lost the wisdom that had sustained their communities for tens of thousands of years. Civilisation was threatening to become a dead-end experiment.
The Metaphysics of Earth
The genius of early humans was displayed when they combined the natural and social universes.
When Neolithic people took the final step out of nature, they needed abstract images to help them to visualise a unique way of existing. They were shifting away from biologically-based instincts to a universe that was unique in the solar system. Without practical rules for regulating their behaviour, there was nothing to stop them from pitting their lethal powers against each other.
Their solution was divine.
The title deeds to nature were assigned to deities. Super-natural forces regulated the flow of the energy circulating within nature. Gods lived in trees, were borne on the wind, brought the rains, inhabited caves, breathed fire. That determined the ownership rights. Mere mortals would settle for being the stewards of nature.
Two South African scholars, David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, drew the links between the material and spiritual worlds. Economic activity and social organisation were articulated in
an overall cosmology, a framework that simultaneously made sense of religious experience, belief and practice, as well as land rights. Religion, embedded in cosmology, validated land rights and the authority of those who managed the construction of monuments and their use.
People would not fight each other for privileged access to nature's resources, because the resources belonged to the gods. Each individual was given the equal chance to contribute further to the biological, psychological and cultural welfare of those within the gene pool.
But what about the administration of those heaven-sent resources? Earthly representatives of the deities were needed. The bridge between the people and nature could be a tribal chief or a priest or a prince. They would act on behalf of supernatural authority to enforce behaviour which satisfied the common interest.
Changing concepts of land ownership therefore came with cosmological shifts and were represented in people's 'existential maps' – their monuments ... political entities grew in complexity and ascribed their land rights to founding ancestors whose location, both conceptually and literally, was known and who legitimized those rights.
Before they could learn to paint on Sistine ceilings, write heavenly scores for orchestras or invent technologies to take men to the moon, our ancestors had to resolve the problem beneath their feet. Thanks to the invention of, and interventions by, the deities, there would be no systematic cheating, no profane contests to monopolise nature's resources, no depletion of the creative energies of people who wished to work for the mutual benefit of themselves and their neighbours. That sacred settlement was shattered by kings who administered the city civilisations.
Enter the blunt-speaking God of the Landless.
Interpreting the Mind of God
God first exposed his mind to mortal gaze with the expression of disapproval of Cain's gift. He was signalling a problem with the way the additional income was being used.
There was something wrong with the disposition of the product that the Cains of the new world were hewing from the land. God's business was to reveal the nature of the problem.
Interpretations of God's mind were provided by the first of the great Christian bishops. Their insights were complemented by first-hand observations of the civilisations of the classical world. The empirical evidence confirmed what they knew about the plight of people in the ancient world who lost their land and lapsed into debt bondage (Box 1:2).
The Christian bishops had front seats in the unfolding drama that became the decline and fall of the Roman empire. Men like Clement of Alexandria (c150-c215), Ambrose of Milan (337?-397) and Basil the Great (329?-379). One of them, John Chrysostom (347-407), lived almost long enough to witness their warnings come true. Rome was sacked in the year 410. They monitored the emerging poverty among Roman citizens, causally connecting it to the way land owners were monopolising the rents from land. Aided with the teachings of the covenant and the sermons of Jesus of Nazareth, they repeatedly warned that Rome was being degraded. Landlessness and poverty were induced by the misappropriation of land. Culture and the moral life were being depleted.
The observations on property articulated by the patristic teachers are now missing from pulpit preaching. Charles Avila recovered them while studying at a seminary in the Philippines. He had involved himself in the fight for peasant rights. This led him to a study of early Christian teaching. He drew the threads together in this summary of the state of the late Roman Empire.
Thus the only object of the owners' drive for even greater wealth was an increase in the capacity for luxury, pleasure, and various forms of extravagance. The crafts and trades that developed among free workers were in luxury items like slaves and pomades, paintings and statues, lavish and showy construction projects, and whatever else the large landowners required for the new competition in pleasure, luxury, and ostentation.
This lifestyle was unsustainable. When resources can be consumed without having to labour for them, the biological boundaries to limitless desires (labourpower) are removed. Avarice prevails. And so, the land owners seized more of the peasants' land, to accumulate and consume yet more rents. Peasants were driven into the towns. The discontent of the unemployed was assuaged with "bread and circuses". The deterioration in the minds and morals of the population set the course for the implosion of a civilisation. Without a free peasantry that could stock the army, the Caesars had to rely on mercenaries recruited from the barbarian margins of the empire. Those barbarians would one day use their swords to take over the seats of power.
It was in the self-interest of the land owners to reverse the decline of their society, but this required reform of the tenure-and-tax system. They were not willing to heed the warnings of the bishops.
One would have expected [the] decline in the slave economy to have brought about a renaissance of a stronger free peasant economy, dictated by a nation's self-interest. Yet it did not. The owners of the latifundia simply had no intention of giving up their absolute ownership of the land. To do so would have been tantamount to parting with their power and privileges voluntarily.
The leadership of Rome lapsed into a state of trauma (see Ch.5). Once the city's culture had been corrupted by the privatisation of rent – the social revenue – all classes lost sight of the natural laws on which a viable community relies for survival and growth. The patricians gorged themselves on the rents and could not – would not – yield their power for the sake of national survival. The dispossessed lost the capacity to reclaim their natural right to share the rents which they helped to create. The end became inevitable.
Could the covenant with God have saved civilisations like Rome's?
Excerpted from The Traumatised Society by Fred Harrison. Copyright © 2012 Fred Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd.
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