History, since the agricultural revolution, can be usefully conceptualized as an offensive-defensive arms race between technologies of abundance and social structures of expropriation.
Until the appearance of agriculture, human society didn’t produce a large enough surplus to support much in the way of social organization above the hunter-gatherer group. Agriculture was the first technology of abundance sufficiently productive to support parasitic classes on a large scale. With agriculture came a superstructure of kings, priests, martial castes and landlords who milked the producing classes like cattle.
We now seem to be nearing the end of an interval of ten thousand years or so between two thresholds. The first threshold was the appearance of the first large-scale technology of abundance — agriculture.
Since then we have been in that aforementioned arms race. Sometimes technologies of abundance produce an increase in the social surplus faster than the class superstructure can expropriate it, and things become better for the ordinary person — as in the late Middle Ages, when the horse collar and crop rotation caused a massive increase in agricultural productivity, the craftsmen of the free towns developed new production technologies, and the decay of feudalism resulted in falling rents and de facto emancipation of large sectors of the peasantry. Sometimes the advantage shifts to the social structures of expropriation, and things get worse — as in the case of the absolute monarchies’ suppression of the free towns, what Immanuel Wallerstein called the “long sixteenth century,” and the Enclosures.
We’re approaching the second threshold, when the technologies of abundance reach a takeoff point beyond which the social structures of expropriation can no longer keep up with the rising production curve.
The interval between the two thresholds has been comparatively brief, compared to the hundreds of thousands of years that homo sapiens has existed in something like its present form and the billion years or so that the sun will likely be able to support human life. Seen in that light, this interval is a brief initial adjustment period in the early stages of human productivity. The state was an anomaly in this early stage of the technological explosion, in the childhood of the human race, by whose means the parasitic classes were briefly able to piggyback on the revolution in productivity and harness it as a source of income for themselves.
During this brief interval, parasitic classes — bureaucrats, usurers, landlords, and assorted rentiers — used the state to create scarcity by artificial means, in order to enclose the increased productivity from technologies of abundance as a source of rents for themselves. But after these first few millennia, the productivity curve has shifted so sharply upward that the increases in output will dwarf the rentier classes’ ability to expropriate it. What’s more, new technologies of abundance are rendering artificial scarcities unenforceable.
Around forty years ago, it was fashionable to say that humanity was entering the “Age of Aquarius.” There is a sense in which the 1970s really were the beginning of a new age of human liberation. They saw the birth of the two technologies of abundance — the desktop computer and cheap numerically-controlled machine tools — which will eventually free us from the grip of the corporate state and its artificial scarcities.
The apparent reaction of the decades since — neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus, Reaganism and Thatcherism, the jackbooted police state of the Drug War and War on Terror, the neocons’ wet dream of a Thousand Year Reich enforced by the Sole Remaining Superpower, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act — can be seen as a desperate rear guard action by the corporate state, the death throes of a dying system, a last-ditch effort by the forces of artificial scarcity to suppress the forces that will destroy them.
This effort will fail. What file-sharing has done to the record industry, and what Wikileaks has done to the national security state, are only the dimmest foreshadowings of what technologies of abundance and freedom will do to the old authoritarian institutions.
Encryption and darknets are destroying the power of the music, publishing, and movie industries to collect rents on their so-called “intellectual property,” and eliminating economic transactions as a tax base to support bureaucrats.
New physical production technologies, by extracting greater outputs from ever smaller inputs, are rendering the privileged classes’ huge supplies of land and capital utterly useless as a source of income.
Ordinary people, with cheap means of informational and physical production, will soon be able to meet our needs through peaceful production and trade in a fraction of the present workweek, and dump the rentiers off our backs.
If this framing of human history is valid, we’re just finishing the dawn of humanity’s brief childhood, and entering the long afternoon of its maturity.
Translations for this article:
- Spanish, El Fin de la Infancia de la Humanidad.