I was at lunch with my son this afternoon — something I’m going to miss, since he is taking a new job and moving to California with his girlfriend — and I mentioned something he had never thought about before, and he had to stop and take it in. It was something I thought everyone knew, so his reaction surprised me.
Apropos of the midterm elections coming up, we were talking about voting, and the difference between a democracy and a republic, and what appears to be the ever-increasing ignorance, apathy, and bad faith of political actors and voters alike in the US, and I made a comment about the American Civil War.
Now, I’m hardly a Civil War buff — what I know is mostly just a jumble of bits and pieces I’ve picked up over the years. We all know, of course, that the Civil War was about ending American slavery. Some people (particularly modern residents of the Old South) like to say it was more about States’ Rights.
But from what I’ve read, the war was primarily about neither of these things: it was mostly about a major sea-change taking place throughout Western Civilization at that time, from agriculture to industry. Specifically, it was a war between the industrialized North, and the agricultural South.
Since the development of a particular kind of farming some 10,000 years ago in the fertile crescent — something anthropologists call the Agricultural Revolution — agriculture has been king. It allowed fortified cities and large armies to be formed and fed. It allowed independent nomadic tribes to be driven back into the hills, starved out, and eventually assimilated. It allowed people who did not comply with the will of the leaders to be starved as a way of compelling them to obey.
Wars were fought mostly over land ownership, and one of the most fundamental strategies of war was to burn the fields and villages, so that the opposing armies would be deprived of the food surplus they needed to make war. If you wanted to destroy your enemies, rather than simply defeat them, you would burn and salt their fields, sterilizing the soil so that nothing could be grown there for years to come: the people would be forced to move elsewhere, effectively ending them as a nation.
Things started to shift sometime in the early centuries of the second millennium, as the so-called “feudal era” of Europe disintegrated. Driven along by the Black Death, which caused major labor shortages in the late 1300’s and a shift from serfdom to hired farmhands, the implosion of the landed gentry, the rise of the merchant class, and the start of large-scale machine-based manufacturing, the Industrial Revolution came into its own and began to eclipse the Agricultural Revolution.
By the 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Luddites protested the textile machines in England. Colleges like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were founded throughout the US. The John Henry legend was born, of man pitted against the steam engine.
The US North embraced the Industrial Revolution. The US South remained agricultural. They had very different economic priorities, slavery being merely one of many.
What passed without much notice was a more fundamental change.
Land has been the basis of any city, state, or nation for roughly ten thousand years. You can’t “outsource” the land or the food it produces. Furthermore, if the land is used for agriculture, you have to protect and conserve the productive capacity of the land: the land is your income and lifeline. If someone salts your fields, or if you inadvertently salt your own fields, you are well and truly screwed. Without land, you are out of a job, out of income, out of food, out of options.
One of the reasons the vote in the US was originally restricted to land-owners was based on this ten-thousand-year-old truth. The land is the nation, but was also the wealth of its owners, so if the land-owners vote, they will presumably vote according to their own self-interest and will seek to conserve their land for their well-being, and will thus — overall — promote the well-being of the nation.
In other words, in an agricultural society, private ownership (of land) and the public commonwealth are generally pretty closely aligned.
After the Civil War, this ten-thousand-year-old truth was no longer true, at least in the US. The victory of the North ensured that the newly-federalized Union of States would be partial to the industrial concerns of the North, and indifferent if not hostile to the agricultural concerns of the South. Agriculture was no longer king. Industry was the new king.
Industry is very different from agriculture.
Most obviously, industry is portable. Anyone who has had his or her manufacturing job outsourced to new facilities in Malaysia or Mexico knows how that works. It isn’t tied to any particular place.
Less obviously, the relationship of industry to land is inherently toxic. Industry takes “raw materials” from the land, and renders back “waste.” Most of the raw materials that industry uses are non-renewable: metal, stone, oil, rare hardwoods. The waste produced by any industrial process is something industry has no profitable use for — it’s too finely ground, too impure, or damaged in some way — and it typically ends up being dumped someplace in an ever-increasing pile of waste. In some cases, like gold or uranium tailings, fracking fluid, or spent plutonium rods, it’s truly (and highly) toxic, and extremely long-lived as waste. Industrial end-products that become broken or worn also end up in a trash-heap, somewhere, so that industry can sell the previous owner a new product.
This is hardly restricted to modern industry. Archaeologists look for “tells” associated with ancient civilizations, which are typically local waste-dumps, filled with the cast-off remains of whatever industries the city or village supported, be it flint arrowheads or clay pots or automobiles. It is the nature of industry to use up non-renewable raw materials, produce long-lifetime waste, and move on: it may even be that this is a reasonable definition of industry.
Least obviously, perhaps, the industrial owners — the capitalists or cartel members who own the “means of production” — have virtually no long-term economic interest in the land. Land represents a source of raw materials to be exploited, dead space to dispose of waste, or “real estate” with speculative value. Once the mine is played out, the landfill is full, the malls are built and sold, the relationship with that land is over. It’s a “wham, bam, thank-you ma’am” sort of relationship: a trick with a twenty-dollar whore, to be walked away from the instant the business is done.
“Industrial agriculture” in particular plows the earth like it is a baby-making prostitute in a vending machine. Yes, that’s a grotesque and offensive simile, and it’s intended to be grotesque and offensive: that is precisely the nature of the relationship in this oxymoronic term, “industrial agriculture.” The long-term consequences to the land are the opposite of permaculture: it’s well-known that much of the agricultural soil in the US is by now, under the gentle ministrations of the “green revolution,” effectively dead — it has to be constantly replenished with nitrogen fertilizer (synthesized from natural gas) and phosphates (mined) just to produce a crop.
We’ve salted our own fields, and use technological necromancy to raise zombie crops from dead soil. Gods help us if the magic falters.
As it is with the industrial owners, so it is with the population at large. Very few people are tied to the land by any kind of economic incentive or true self-interest. The land is not their income. The land is not a source of support. The land is not security, prosperity, or legacy to descendants.
For most people, the land is a piece of dead earth supporting the apartment complex they live in, and something on which to anchor the pavement by which they commute to work. They may be lightly tied to place by friendship, perhaps family, but not because that place feeds them: working a job within industrial society feeds them. They follow the work, and abandon old friends with little notice and make new ones wherever they land.
In short, the idea of the nation as a place became archaic after the American Civil War.
The Civil War did not cause this shift. It merely marked a watershed in the concept of “the nation,” not just for the US, but throughout the world.
With that change came a radical change in the vision of government.
In an agricultural society, government is primarily about protecting the rights of landowners within the nation, which is a place. So the government merely needs to support national defense, civil order (which could be largely delegated to state and local government), general trade agreements between states, and the like. It’s a simple, hands-off, protective role. If all goes well, it has nothing to do other than referee disputes over property lines and prosecute cattle thieves. It is entirely up to landowners to find prosperity for themselves and their descendants. The key is that, in an agricultural society, the landowners have everything they need — the land itself — to provide themselves with that prosperity.
In an industrial society, government is the nation, or conversely, the nation is its government. Just as industry is process, government is process. It must have a positive function — we’re paying for it, after all — and we evaluate that function on the basis of the efficiency with which it performs, assuming we know what it’s supposed to be doing. If it performs that function poorly, or performs no positive function at all, we can consider replacing it or getting rid of it entirely. Since the government is the nation, that calls nationality itself into question.
Another, pithier, way to look at it is this. It is possible to be a great agricultural nation with a corrupt government and bad laws: there is no contradiction in that idea, because the nation is a place, filled with people — government is another thing entirely. If an industrial nation has a corrupt government with bad laws, then it is a corrupt nation, because the nation is the government.
In an industrial society, there is a lot of confusion about government. We have the “limited government” folks who are still living in a pre-Civil War mindset. People who live with a post-Civil War mindset have a lot of different ideas about what positive functions government should be providing, and whether that function can be replaced by non-governmental alternatives, or even dispensed with entirely.
A lot of the apparent bad faith of politicians and voters can be chalked up to fundamental disagreements about what positive function the government is supposed to be providing.
We are now taking matters a step further into the void, just within the last decade. Work is becoming virtualized, and our lives as well.
Even within classical industrial society, we had co-workers and neighbors, and a lot of maintaining civil order has had to do with enforcing a large number of basic rules of civil behavior within increasingly crowded conditions among astonishingly clueless people. Yes, corporations with white owners must hire black people. Yes, you can call the police to shut down a loud party still going at three in the morning. No, you cannot be legitimately fired because you refused to perform oral sex on the boss. Yes, a company that forced you to work in unsafe conditions where you lost a hand in the machinery owes you compensation. The list is nearly endless.
But then I look at my situation. I work from home: all I need is an Internet connection and the stuff I have in my head. I could move to Spain, a country where people are leaving in droves because of the economic troubles, and be back at work in a matter of days. Apart from the change in my daytime schedule, no one at work would even know.
I know more intimate details about the lives of virtual friends on the East Coast, than I do about my next-door-neighbors.
I’m not passing judgment on this, merely noting that it’s the case. But it does raise the question: what does “nationality” even mean in such a virtual context? I work on a consistent basis with people in Australia, England, and India. My oldest son works closely with Ukrainians, so the recent events in the Ukraine affected him far more personally than the police brutality in Chicago, where he lives.
In the context of such a virtual life, which is where my real economic prosperity lies, what does nationality even mean? Do I even care whether Hillary or Mitt is the next President of the US? If the US government grows too corrupt, should I march on Washington (and risk being shot down in the street by a cop who will claim I pulled a gun on him), or just move to Spain? Or, for that matter, just pay my taxes, keep my head down, and ignore the government altogether?
When we take the leap into fully-virtualized environments, how much will people care if their body is sick and starving, so long as their in-game avatar is totally badass?
I have my own opinions on where this is all headed, of course, but I’ll save that for a later post.