Friday, April 27, 2012

The Art of Not Being Governed, V: Not Being Squicky

Bonus post! This is what comes of having a human amount of time off.

So I want to talk about the Roman legion as a generator of social capital, and as teacher of skills, and bridge the gap between them to make a coherent picture out of what was happening with the army in the crisis of the third century. And I want to circle in on a subject that has enormous potential for the squicky, which strikes me as existing at the centre of the conversation.

If we talk about the legion as a repository of skills, it is going to be the extraordinary finds in the north of England that focus our attention. You know, because King Arthur was a Sarmatian cavalrymen in an auxiliary cavalry regiment who woke up one day to find the Roman Empire missing. So he fought some genocidal Saxons and built a hall at Birdsowald and made Keira Knightley its lady and blah blah Britain!(Or something like that; I'm hampered by not actually having seen the movie, so this is a bit inferential. The Youtube suggests that this movie is good at making people feel ways about stuff, but I'm not sure whether that's Arthurmania, North Country patriotism, or Keira. Also, white horses galloping across the moor.

So we can talk about things like the vast trove of ironware, including 750,000 nails, found at the abandoned camp at Inchtuthil. This gives us some sense of the level of industrial activity at a full legionary camp, and their possible role in deepening the skill base of the iron age in the north.

But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about things I've talked about long ago. It's the lazy man's way, and the first step on the downwards slope: so, tents.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Art of Not Being Governed, V: So What Are Your Options If You're Not?

When last we left this series, I was playing footsie with the Third Century Crisis. What the heck happened?

Well, first off, Hollywood blames itself.

When last I left this series, I was playing footsie with the Third Century Crisis. What the heck happened? Can we put economics in the drivers' seat, make all the trouble a response to bad times? So it has been argued. People so argue: in a 2009 exchange in the Journal of Roman Archaeology, Walter Scheidel puts the case for a gradual abatement between 0 and 180AD, arguing that we are seeing Malthusian limits to growth. According to this, the Golden Age was in distinct recession by the time that Marcus Aurelius came along, and his problems with the Marcomanni must have been Very Serious Indeed. [1]
Andrew Wilson, in reply, deconstructs the proxies, showing  them to be much weaker than, for example, Ian Morris would suppose. If we have a consistent trend line of economic growth, then the economic crisis preceding the political one is some kind of economic shock. As often, the Antonine Plague is waved at, but, as with other current historians, Wilson is cautious about putting too much weight on plague as an explanatory mechanism.
He then offers a more complicated argument. I) There is evidence for declining bullion production under Commodus, which is best accounted for by labour problems at the mines. II) Severus increases pay to the army massively, perhaps paying for it by reducing civil-sector spending, mainly on buildings. (Cue vicious argument amongst classicists on the adequacy or not of current databases of building dedication inscriptions.)  However, the only way that the Roman budget can pay for the Severan pay increases is through ‘invisible’ economic growth, i.e. factor productivity growth. Wilson asks, rhetorically, as Classicists are wont to do, whether the 1000 water mills attested in the England of the Domesday Book makes the England of 1000AD “more advanced” than the Roman Empire. Of course not, he answers! Therefore, there must have been an invisible spread of water power, or something like that, during the golden age of the Five Good Emperors.[2]
So if the proxies are weak, is there a better story? Wilson notes almost parenthetically, the proxies that he has himself developed suggest a localised and centrifugal growth story. That is, if the Roman Empire was broken up into many ill-coordinated economic regions, and that seems to have been the case, why expect economic trends to be empire-wide? This is dangerously plausible. But hold on for a moment. What is it about Anglo-Saxon England that makes us think that it just can’t be more advanced than ancient Rome –especially once all the available proxies have been weighted to their empirical strength? 

Oh, sure, this

to this

From these guys.
But then I've been arguing that the issue in temperate Europe wasn't agricultural productivity, but storage technology. To live, overall, well, in temperate Europe, it was necessary to live through the late winter/early spring at all. That meant storing food, and good food, for a very long time. The advantage of the climate was that it stayed pretty cold; the disadvantage was that it got pretty wet. So suspended wooden flooring is a huge deal. It's not the world's biggest invention or anything, but the development of a depth of everyday carpentry practice sufficient to make it a normal resort is a huge story. The question is, how did it happen? I was willing to buy the proxy stuff, but now I'm thrown into doubt. I still think we need to look to the Third Century. Now I've got a new guru, who wants to take a political look at the Third Century Crisis. His argument, and what it seems to account for, below the break.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Art of Not Being Governed, IV: Technological Attenuation

Today's theme, again, is the bold rejection of a past without painfully shallow but still real curve of population increase, and thus also of technological progress, or, I guess I should say, GDP per person. (The hypothesis being that we can throw out claims about culture and take these as necessarily related.) This vision is only possible if we understand human demography to be so radically constrained that it is not useful to think about our ancestors as pressing the carrying capacity of the landscape, because such "Malthusian" pressure would be indistinguishable from technological change. That is to say, that the history of technology (hence population growth) can be inferred at any point in human history. Even the invention of agriculture --in any case not to be seen as a binary on/off switch, but a transition embracing the whole of the Upper Paleolithic-- is not a decisive moment of transition.

The fall of the Roman Empire, however, is, because it is the last example of the collapse of an archaic state  in our inventory of historical examples; the best historical candidate for understanding our current troubles, as social commentators have grasped for generations. Which is to say, the fact that I'm doing what people have been doing for centuries is a feature, not a bug!

So, on to the matter at hand:

An "Anglo-Saxon Grubenhaus" somewhere in the east of England, c. 572. (From

And here's an educational video! In German, but it's got pictures.

But let's back up a bit from the fifth/sixth century.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Art of Not Being Governed, III: Agricultural Technology makes state-resistant geographies?

Edit: Added art attribution. 

The argument here is that it is not particularly plausible that the Roman Empire in the west fell through either largescale invasion or endogenous economic or demographic decline. I expect military success to attend the armies of rich and populous nations, and such evidence as there is for Roman economic decline locates it in the second and third centuries, well before the state itself fell. As with so many proposed caused of the fall of the Roman Empire, cause comes far too early for effect.

On the contrary, trends cited as evidence of both feature prominently in James Scott's account of the "art of not being governed." Supposed barbarian invasions are better understood as ethnogenesis, an overall trend that nicely accounts for the loss of Roman family names within family descents, the rise of heresy, and the end of literacy in the secular Latin West. Deurbanisation and apparent site abandonment are similarly common symptoms of archaic (and more recent) state collapse. I'd even point to tax evasion, if I were not coming to that. According to James Scott, these indicate resistance to extractive state institutions. 

The problem is that Scott puts his model forward with some ideological naivete. For Scott, the story is of an underpopulated region, where there are always empty, or near-empty ecological niches into which to flee. It is not obvious that any such thing existed in Europe. In a Boserupian narrative, we salvage these state-free geographies with new technologies consequent to the very success of the Roman Empire in fostering economic growth. That is, we assume that the growth was unequally distributed, and that increasingly many western Romans saw an advantage in escaping the Roman social order. Better feudalism, they said, than Romanitas. 

It's not exactly a new argument. If I want to tell the story of the fall of Roman Empire in terms of disruptive technologies, I could just point to the stirrup and we'd be comfortably back in the 1950s, or the iron plougshare and take us back to the 1930s or earlier. These won't hold, but that doesn't mean that it is impossible to tell the story of pre-medieval Europe as a chapter in the history of technology.

So, yeah, I think that I have a skeleton of an account that I'm going to lay down, right after I expose some B.C. homeboys to my semi-worldwide audience of tens and tens of people. It's even vaguely relevant, although I mostly picked it for sentimental reasons that are pointless to explain.

 First, some housekeeping. Interest in the subject of the First Nations and Black DNA share of White Americans is great, the research effort is not so impressive. Per Wikipedia, this 2007 paper is still state of the art, but nowadays even dumb people like me can gin up a citation search and find later work in the same vein.

Next, we used the Native Americans, East Asians, Eurasians, and Sub-Sahara Africans from HGDP-CEPH as parental groups of the U.S. Americans (the genotype data of the 24 autosomal SNPs can be found in the Supp. Table S5) in a STRUCTURE analysis. Self-declared U.S. Europeans showed on average 93.2% of European ancestry (95% CI from 73.23% to 98.09%), self-declared U.S. Asians carried on average 89.5% of East Asian ancestry (95% CI from 37.43% to 97.46%), and self-declared U.S. Africans revealed on average 86.2 % Sub-Sahara African ancestry (95% CI from 47.82% to 98.5%)

It's interesting that by a naive reading of the data, which is not the only one possible, self-declared US East Asians would be more "Indian" than self-declared European Americans. I speculated about this possibility, obliquely, here. The virtual disappearance of the West Coast's Hawaiian minority is an interesting parallel.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Art of Not Being Governed, II: Flight Considered As a Lack of Litter

So there was a black-haired girl who belted them. She was the partner of the Governor of California, so I thought of her as a personification of the golden state of the west, and here's a song with gold and silver in it. Also, quite dispensably, the Eagles. 

Then something happened. I tell a story to myself about that, about how she's older now and doesn't like to sing so hard. It's obviously wrong, but blaming time and age works for me. It works for all of us; that's why we tell our little story about empires aging, albeit vaster and more slow. Rome: it's a story about how we all get older. Or, more likely, it's a compelling historical event that keeps getting turned into A Hugely Relevant Story About How Right Now Is Just Like The Fall of Rome, And We Better Quit It, Or We'll All Be Sorry.  That's a summary of this post, if you hadn't guessed.

Before I get to the meat of it, though, another one, just like that: 

Neo-cons have been getting English-speaking powers into stupid wars for so long that I think there was a Kagan who didn't get his job through nepotism pushing for an Afghan war in early 1878.  As always, things got sticky. A British force and accompanying journalists got to enjoy winter in Kabul in 1879—80 under semi-siege by  self-appointed "warriors of the faith" (ghazi). Taking time out from the little war, journalist Howard Hensman went to the Kabul Arsenal to find out  how the Afghans had been spending their large British subsidy. It turned out that the arsenal was making perfectly satisfactory steel breech-loading rifled Armstrong pattern guns. Extra Oriental colour was provided by the information that the guns were bored out, rifled and polished at the water mills Deh-i-Afghan, run by a “Hindustani” named Muah Khan, who learned his art from a “Negro named Belal,” who was in turn the apprentice of an Iranian who came to Kabul early in the century. The arsenal had to put in a major research and development effort to produce modern fuzes, but had much less trouble setting up a percussion cap factory, and I do mean factory. (Here, 322--24.)

As often in Afghan interventions, controlling Kabul just meant more trouble with Kandahar and Herat. When the occupation settled for backing Kandahar, it basically invited a  Herati invasion of the Helmand Valley by Herati General Hafizullah Naib at the head of 11 battalions of infantry and 32 guns. No Kandahar government, no matter where its masters kept their palace,could tolerate Heratis in the Helmand, so a British column of three infantry battalions, two cavalry squadrons, 2 half batteries and a pioneer field squadron set out to meet him, with

Hafizullah Naib managed to outmaneouvre the British, taking the granaries of the village of Maiwand. This would have allowed him to take winter quarters in the upper valley, so the British advanced to expel him, thinking themselves outnumbered by as much as 2476 men to 6000. (Hensman, 462ff.). Those were not, however, outlandish odds for Oriental warfare, so when the survivors of the battle returned to report over 50% British/Indian casualties, all were duly appalled. It came out right in the end, but people were left wondering how it happened, although the answer is in the general's account of the battle, describing an artillery duel of a battle won, not surprisingly given the disparity of force, by the Afghans.

It's just that this is not the answer that we have. The London papers didn't like this version, so they added a vast, vague hordes of 10,000 ghazi to the Herati army, and Lord Roberts later upped the  ante to 25,000. It's not that I'm saying that the ghazis weren't there, although I strongly suspect that they weren't. It's that we know what won the battle:  superior Afghan firepower produced by a not-far-behind-cutting-edge military industrial complex. The fact that fabulists turn it into a victory for a general with half the East at heel just shows how much the average pretentious commentator likes to quote Houseman.

People keep talking about when the "Great Divergence" happened, when the West gained that crucial tech level on the Rest and officially became H. Sap.'s vanguard of progress. (Mood music.) One person likes the French Revolution, another the Scientific Revolution, yet another the Reformation. My scholarly grandfather spent his career pushing the crucial date back to the Middle Ages, if not Constantine the Great. Jared Diamond wants to blame continental drift, near as I can make out.

Me? I'm saying that it can't have happened until after Maiwand. So, you know, all those attempts to explain the West's advantage "culturally"? Blah blah essentialism racism Sokal Hoax naturalistic epistemology blah. 

Okay? Glad I got that out of my system. What if we do this another way? By this I mean that instead of  arguing endlessly about culture and technology, let's get the hell into the tank with Ester Boserup and Nathan Rosenberg. I'm not going to argue, I'm going to propose. Let's treat technology as purely endogenous to the economy. Technological progress is nothing but capitalised learning by doing. Basically, the technological level of a given society is a function of its population, nuanced by the fact that while any work of the hand will come to be done more efficiently as people do more of it, capital has to be invested in the process to realise productivity improvements. This isn't even a claim about human nature; but rather about microeconomics, a field I'm so poorly equipped to argue in that it's not even funny. That's why I say, let's take it as a hypothesis. Let's drive our tank around the ruin of the Roman Empire today, and, if I don't get distracted in the mean time, around the longrun history of Europe next week.