As we try to peer backwards into human history - our origins, our emergence from Africa as roaming hunter-gatherers, our development of so-called civilisations - we look for the common threads that run through this history and which must certainly be part of the people we have become today.
Many people think that the change from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to that of ‘farmers’ - people who settled on the land, domesticating animals and planting crops to harvest - marked a fundamental moment in human history. That’s a proposal I’m happy to accept. A second major change is often attributed to industrialisation - people moving from a dependence, or partial dependence, on the land and becoming dependent instead on jobs in factories, living in homes with insufficient land for them to be self-sufficient in terms of food production. This is the so-called Industrial Revolution. It had its precursors in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It was also preceded by the market economy - the cash economy. Indeed, it was the accumulation of ‘surplus’ cash and its application that allowed the development of ‘capitalism’ (in the economic, rather than the political sense) - the use of accumulated savings to invest in mechanical contrivances - to usher in the Industrial Revolution.
And this is the world of today - one where we are surrounded by factories and technology which have allowed the world’s population to increase vertiginously (there are now three times as many people alive on the planet as there were when I was born), and huge progress to be made in terms of overcoming disease, famine and war. We live today in a world that is, in material terms astonishingly richer than any that has gone before - think of medicine, travel, hygiene, digital communication, access to information, and so on. But it is a world that too often seems full of heart-rending pain, abuse, exploitation and humiliation. Media reports too often seem to have little more to offer than political shenanigans, corruption, cheating, terrorism or war. What is going on?
I spend a lot of time thinking about these issues. Since I last added to this Blog, I have become a subscriber to The Economist, the best source of responsible news I know (and have learned to largely ignore the BBC as a channel of impartial information). But I also try to do my own thinking. It seems to me that the main problem confronting people in the world today is ‘poor governance’ - thus exploitation by politicians of their own citizens, corruption, violence or the threat of violence (often religiously motivated) and, in so-called democracies, subversion of fair representation by many means. But thinking more deeply, I think I have spotted something important, something that does not seem to be clearly stated anywhere I have yet seen. I think that what is going on is the most important change in human society since hunter-gathering gave way to sedentary agriculture and the emergence of settlements and civilisations. What is it?
For the whole of human history, it seems to me, until, lets say, the second half of the eighteenth century, mankind operated on a model of control by force. So, men were stronger than women (which meant patriarchal societies prevailed), some men were stronger (physically or intellectually) than others, which meant tribalism, autocracies, monarchies, dictatorships, Fascism, Communism, and so on. Strong men controlled territories and all the property, real and human, within their domains. Government by these strong men (very rarely women) told people what they could and could not do, what they must and must not do. Society was stratified and individual people from the lower levels of society were commodities - they were of no account.
But slowly, as the cash or market economy began to emerge, given an impulse by the Black Death and other plagues, which led to a shortage of the commodity ‘labour’, people began to free themselves from the control of the more powerful. They began to be able to negotiate on their own behalf, feudalism was forced into retreat. Then, slowly, society (and we are certainly social animals) began to discover that a free person is more productive than a slave or serf, that people of low rank can be more intelligent than those of higher social status, and that all of society can benefit from the intellectual creativity of one person, or a group of people. There is, indeed, a goose that lays golden eggs.
This was the big gain - not capitalism, not industrialisation, not science or technology, but the individual creativity that is unleashed when people are given freedom to act, are allowed to keep the fruit of their creativity and use it to better their own circumstances. Manifestations of this came in the establishment of the United States in 1776 or, chaotically, in the French Revolution of 1789. The seeds were there in Magna Carta and in Parliamentary resistance to the Divine Right of Kings in England.
It has been well said that ‘democracy is the least-bad form of government’. Today about 167 countries call themselves ‘democracies’ and only 21 are classed as autocracies. But no two of the 167 are the same - rights and responsibilities, freedoms and restrictions differ in all. Many provide ‘poor governance’ (e.g. Brazil, of which I have considerable personal experience, Venezuela, many Arab countries, many African countries and the thuggery of Russia). It is not aid that these countries need, it is good governance.
Poorly governed countries still benefit disproportionately from the greater freedoms enjoyed in what I’ll call ‘Western Liberal Democracies’ - the technology of Silicon Valley enriches the lives of all, even the most benighted terrorists.