The big societal changes

With this text I try to outline, how technologies instead of ideologies changed the societies throughout history and will do in the future. A lot of talk these days is about how we will or should ‘retrain’ our behavior, morals and conscience in order to achieve a more peaceful or more equal society. These are in my view futile, damaging ideas which may lead to short term changes, but these changes are often reverted and rarely last over several generations. Big leaps in technology however change societies forever.

Hunter gatherer society

A hunter gatherer society couldn’t possibly be capitalistic, simply because they had no way to store value. Most of their food would rot away in a short while, as well as their abodes. Some might have been hierarchical, even tyrannical and at least territorial for some time. If their territory was exhausted of food and game they had to move, so any accumulated wealth would have to be carried to the next camp site. But they were usually rather small tribes, in which every able body was needed for a hunt, for defense, to gather food, repair huts etc. There was not much of an incentive to let one tribe member starve to death, just because he was unlucky and didn’t catch a rabbit for a few days. It is much more likely they behaved like a sharing society. See

Although the view of hunter gatherer societies as egalitarian can’t really be proven and books about that are more speculation than research, this view nevertheless makes more sense, than the believe that they were strongly hierarchical. A small tribe in the middle of nothing would probably not have survived if the scarce supplies would not have been shared.

It is assumed that men were the hunters and women the gatherers, mainly because the few stone age tribes that are still around show this sexual division of labor. The amount of work to be done for gathering is often much more than for hunting. Nevertheless, the meat brought by the hunters was more valuable than the gathered grains. We know now that some nutrients that only come from meat, fish and eggs are absolutely needed for brain development.

Throughout this time, both men and women were the work animals, even though men had the more dangerous jobs.

Agricultural society

Guns,Germs and Steel – by Jared Diamond is probably the most important book for understanding the development of civilizations.

He describes how in some areas of the world people started growing their own food and developed agriculture. They domesticated plants and later animals. The invention of grain storage lead to a surplus of food, independent of seasons. It started roughly 10,000 years ago mainly in the fertile crescent in the Middle East.

Those who were lucky enough to live in an environment (Europe, North Africa, Asia) with the nutritious grains that could be efficiently planted and harvested, and farm animals, could afford to have members of the society who didn’t have to farm. The larger the food surplus, the more specialists could emerge. Specialists who developed the plow, an iron smelter, house builders, etc.

People started to live in one and the same place by the hundreds, not in small inter-generational tribes any more. These were different societies. It is largely unknown how the thousands of tribes around the world were organized, if the smartest or strongest was the clan chief or the mother with the most children. Small farming towns with hundreds of people had to be organized, not based on an extended family structure, but by some new societal structure. This lead in most places to a feudal society based on land ownership and control. Specialists developed new weapons and writing, with which knowledge could be stored.

Why have the Egyptians invested so much energy into building giant temples and the pyramids? The Mayans did apparently the same. The Europeans and Arabs built giant temples, mosques and churches. Obviously all of them were lucky enough to live in an area and environment that allowed for a large surplus of food. There was enough food, so that artists, inventors and soldiers could be supported. The new technologies were mainly invented for farming, buildings and weaponry. The later was used by the Europeans to conquer other parts of the world, like the Americas and some parts of Africa and Asia.

Men were still the ‘work animals’, tilling the fields with horses and oxen, but besides the conquistadors and soldiers, they were mainly at home with their family.

Industrial society

The industrial revolution started in the 18th century in England. It was triggered by an agricultural revolution in Britain in the mid 17th century. Agricultural production grew faster than the population, so that people could spend more time on technological improvements. Robert E. Lucas Jr. says that up to around the 18th century, per capita incomes of all societies were stagnated at around 400 to 800$ per year (in units of 1985 US Dollars).


[…]Between year 0 and year 1750, world population grew from around 160 million to perhaps 700 million (an increase of a factor of four in 1,750 years). In the assumed absence of growth in income per person, this means a factor of four increase in total production as well, which obviously could not have taken place without important technological changes. But in contrast to a modern society, a traditional agricultural society responds to technological change by increasing population, not living standards. Population dynamics in such a society obey a Malthusian law that maintains product per capita at $600 per year, independent of changes in productivity.

How then did these traditional societies support the vast accomplishments of the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, of China and India? Obviously, not everyone in these societies was living on $600 per year. The answer lies in the role and wealth of landowners, who receive about 30 percent to 40 percent of agricultural income. A nation of 10 million people with a per capita production of $600 per year has a total income of $6 billion. Thirty percent of $6 billion is $1.8 billion. In the hands of a small elite, this kind of money can support a fairly lavish lifestyle or build impressive temples or subsidize many artists and intellectuals. As we know from many historical examples, traditional agricultural society can support an impressive civilization. What it cannot do is generate improvement in the living standards of masses of people.

But then how come, that the living conditions of people improved so much with the industrial revolution? For some reason people decided that they would rather enjoy their new riches instead of having more kids. In many highly industrialized countries today, we see a decline in population, whereas still mainly agrarian countries (parts of Asia, Africa) increase in population.

[…]What occurred around 1800 that is new, that differentiates the modern age from all previous periods, is not technological change by itself but the fact that sometime after that date fertility increases ceased to translate improvements in technology into increases in population. That is, the industrial revolution is invariably associated with the reduction in fertility known as the demographic transition.

People in industrialized countries decided to not invest their riches in more and more offspring, but in the quality of their kids. Latest since entering the post colonial period, it became clear that there were no new lands to conquer – at least none which could be settled without killing off the indigenous population. Also, due to the huge increases in farmland productivity, and therefor decreasing prices for food, it was not any more useful to acquire large tracts of land. Much more wealth could be made with a skilled trade. Human capital became much more important than land.

[…]But of the vast increase in the well-being of hundreds of millions of people that has occurred in the 200-year course of the industrial revolution to date, virtually none of it can be attributed to the direct redistribution of resources from rich to poor.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Lucas (IMO) points out that socialism and communism is doing nothing to improve the lives of people around the world. Starting with the industrial revolution, landless workers had the option to work in factories instead on the fields. This factory work separated the men from their families for the whole day. Individual craftsmen had no chance against cheaper industrialized goods. Since the acquisition of wealth was not based on land, a ‘smart’ class could emerge. Technologists, Managers etc. became the middle class. A rural society became increasingly an urban society and maybe the pressure of small confined living spaces in the manufacturing cities also contributed to the decision to reduce fertility. Capitalism replaced Feudalism and Capitalists became the new ruling class, with increasing wealth differences between the capital owners and the workers. Today, individual capitalists can own more wealth than entire countries of millions of people.

Organization of the societies

The ways societies organized and ruled themselves changed very much over time. In tribal hunter gatherer societies, the best hunters and forest farmers were probably most revered, and those with most reproductive success, i.e. the largest families, likely dominated. If a leader emerged and made bad decisions, he was either killed or ousted, or the tribe died out. Feudal lords and their superstructures (large land areas with kings) most likely emerged only through military conquest. The strongest warriors would follow someone who was good in strategy, so that they could win fights with minimal losses. This was necessary, because the agricultural societies were landlocked and had to fight off tribes and immigrants. And as soon as their population increased beyond what their farmlands could support, they’d have to settle in the next valley, which they might have had to conquer. The industrialists however had to get into an ‘unholy alliance’ with the feudal lords, first to get the capital and land needed to start the factory, and then to secure their distribution of raw materials and products. Nowadays, farmland isn’t worth much anymore and the capitalists have accumulated incredible wealth. They don’t rule directly, but by proxy; politicians who are appointed or supported with propaganda to get elected.

Hunter gatherer societies had a very unstable life. They depended on the ecology and seasons, had to fight off predators and wouldn’t have food every day. Agricultural societies had stable food supplies, but had to expand by military force, which could lead to their extinction or regional dominance. Dominance meant also conflict; either by having to capture slaves from other areas or by oppressing a class of serfs. This is somewhat translated into the industrial society where the lucky capital owners dominate the workers. Worker unions and laws can resolve these conflicts peacefully in a capitalist society, whereas communist societies only emerged after major bloodshed (and didn’t do well in comparison). Dominance through competition is a major factor in industrial societies and caused two world wars.

Throughout these times the physical strength of men was always needed, as well as their intelligence in order to improve tools and later on machines. Highly industrialized countries today have not much need anymore for physically challenging work. Surpluses in food through efficient and automated farming and the use of electric power for small and huge machines, allows many women to do much more than housework. Experience and ingenuity comes from intelligence and practice, so it’s logical to assume that women who work in industries acquire this just the same as men. That’s the main reason the feminist model of blaming men for women’s underachievement is just plain false. One just cannot claim experience and ingenuity for a job in industry without the years of practice that lead to it. No one jumps out of child nursing or the kitchen at home and becomes a successful leader of industry.

Into the future

The societal challenge is to break through the capitalist dominance structure (which is based on the feudal dominance model). It turns out that we have giant surpluses not only in food, but for nearly all goods that people need. Scarcity is not really an issue any more. As in farming before, industrial production becomes highly automated, so that we need only a small amount of physical labor to produce all we want. But our ideologies are still based on the old feudal, military based structures. The newer ideologies, like Marxism and Feminism only try to shift power structures from one group to another group. Ideologies or philosophies don’t solve any real problem.

If we follow a technological path however, we can find solutions. We can increase automation much more and apply it for human benefit instead of military use. The basic work is almost done. You see robots that can walk and talk, 3D-printers, self driving cars, remotely controlled medical operations, etc. which are in development or in their first applications today. Try to push this mentally to a stage where we all have a robot that does all the house work, a 3D-printer which makes any goods that we need, a fully automated transportation and distribution system for people and goods, intelligent medical machines that repair our physical defects. Then we wouldn’t have to do any more work, or very very little to have a good life. Our current ideologies, philosophies and power structures only hamper our path towards such a future. I’ll expand on this in a future article.