Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Art of NOT Being Governed: Creating Subjects

“Avoiding the state was, until the past few centuries, a real option. A thousand years ago most people lived outside state structures, under loose-knot empires or in situations of fragmented society.”

What changed? Why did more fall under the heel of the state? What tools were used to make this happen?

Again, referring to earlier comments about lack of roads, trains, etc., the hills were difficult for the state to access efficiently. These tools were incorporated, but not essential in areas where transportation was relatively easy – flatlands, river access, even over oceans for a sea-faring people.

The fundamental tool to which the author points is sedentary agriculture: grain farming. In the region of the world he is studying, this means rice. He views this as the foundation of the state’s power.

What are the characteristics the author identifies that makes this so? Some examples:

1) The location is fixed, making it easy for the state to find both the people and the assets.
2) The crop is uniform, making it easy for the state to assign value.
3) Absent disease or other famine causing events, grain farming is expansionary – the excess is turned into ever larger families and thus populations under control.

This as opposed to what is otherwise a more hunter-gatherer lifestyle:

1) The location varies. Follow the buffalo, if you will.
2) The crop often grows underground, out of the eyesight of the state. It can be left underground – depending on the crop – for months or years, stored neatly out of sight.
3) The crop is diverse. Various forms of regional fruits, nuts, and vegetables are grown. This adds difficulty to assigning value, or assessing tax.
4) Population grows more naturally and consistently with the surrounding environment. Fewer people to “control.”

What does this mean today? In the modern West, only a very small fraction of the population farm for a living. However, the control mechanisms are the same.

The population is quite fixed. We have homes or apartments with physical locations. These locations are registered with a local agent of the state. We are assigned various forms of personally identifying codes: Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and passports. Our financial transactions can be tracked in complete detail.

Our crop is uniform: a standardized accounting unit (locally approved legal tender), easy to count and measure. We are greatly discouraged by penalty of tax or prison from using non-sanctioned tender.

I see something here in the relationship of government and big business as well. Laws, regulations, agreements, etc., are passed by the state. Inherently, whatever these are they favor large business over small or family run business. It takes resources to comply with edicts. It takes resources to influence the form of those edicts. In both cases, large business has an advantage over small business.

At the same time, it is the large business that is easier to track. Payroll records, tax withholding, transactions in forms other than cash, monitoring of activities by regulators, and other activities: these are all much easier the fewer and larger the number of employers. There is more certainty that the large entity will comply.

Without making any social commentary about Wal-Mart, consider this from the view of the state: is it more likely that Wal-Mart will comply with all declarations of the state than will every one of the millions of small shopkeepers that Wal-Mart replaced? I believe it is safe to say that amongst the many small shopkeepers prior to Wal-Mart, there were countless unreported cash transactions, less than full compliance with labor laws, no hope of benefits and training that are possible under Wal-Mart, etc.

The point is anchor the people to the land. Make the people and their assets easily identifiable. Make the accounting uniform. All of these allow for counting and tracking, statistics for the planners. With this, control is possible. The times have changed. The exact tools are different. However, the philosophy behind the mechanisms is quite the same.

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