Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Of human bondage and history’s selection processes

In farming (i.e. agrarian) societies it has been standard for about 8 out of 10 people to be farmers. The land/labour ratio is a crucial determinant of social patterns in such societies. For example, which of the two factors – land or labour – is more constrained affects profoundly the use of human bondage.

If land is more constrained than labour (i.e. the fertile area is densely populated for the existing technology level), then the cost of labour will be low and control of land will provide the basis for extracting a surplus (for production above the level required to support the producers). Any use of slavery is likely to be limited to households, specific forms of production that dangerous or unpleasant and easily supervised (e.g. mining, cotton production, rowing galleys) or to tie loyalty to rulers by eliminating family ties (eunuchs, state slaves, slave warriors).

If labour is more constrained than land (i.e. the fertile area is lightly populated for the existing technology level) then the cost of free labour will be high, the return to control of land low and there is likely to be extensive use of bondage to extract a surplus, since the cost of subsistence plus supervision and lessened productivity will still less than that of free labour. Some form of bonded farming (such as serfdom) is likely to be used, since it has lower supervision costs and productivity loss than outright slavery and, unlike slave populations, serf or similar populations will reproduce themselves, so provides more reliable continuous labour supply than outright slavery.

(The only substantial slave population which might have reproduced itself is that of the antebellum American South and, even there, is seems likely that slave smuggling was significantly larger than has been commonly admitted. Elsewhere, the total lack of family rights usually pushed slave fertility well below replacement. Even in the Roman Empire, the significant prospect of manumission [pdf] is unlikely to have substantially improved fertility before freedom was gained.)

Some classic examples where loosening of the land constraint led to mass use of human bondage are the Americas after the importing of the Eurasian disease pool decimated the existing population, enserfment in Eastern Europe after the defeat of the “Tatars” and blocking of the Ottoman Turks freed large tracts of land for farming and the development of coloni in the later Roman Empire after the devastation of the Antonine plague and the Cyprian plague, a process which accentuated after the population crash at the end of the Western Roman Empire. Demand for staple products such as grain, sugar, tobacco (production of which are easily supervised) accentuated the process.

There is one great exception to all this: post Black Death Latin Christendom. Attempts to re-imposed serfdom failed, because the various Crowns refused to provide the necessary enforcement. The most obvious reason why they failed to do so is that knight’s service (i.e. military service by landlords) was no longer their key source of military power: taxes paying for the hire of free peasants was a crucial part of their forces and their men-at-arms were often contracted rather than feudal levies. (In Eastern Europe, by contrast, the reliance of the local Crowns on the military service of the servitor class meant that the Crowns were willing to enforce serfdom.)

But even among the knightly class of C14th Latin Christendom, the pressure for re-enserfment was uneven. This was not merely a matter of great magnates having other options (they were to be also less interested in enserfment in Eastern Europe than the lesser servitors) or the uneven impact of the Black Death (which just encouraged labour to “spread out”). It was also that tenancy and capital substitution provided alternative ways landowners could respond to labour shortages. The technological and capital market dynamism of medieval Europe, along with the depth of available skilled (i.e. “craft”) labour, the range of enforceable contracts and forms of property, made capital substitution a much more “live” option than it was in any of the other cases.

In other words, C14th Latin Christendom had, far more than the others, more intensive use of capital as an alternative to imposing bondage on human labour. Social capital in the form of effective laws and range of property rights; human capital in the form of skilled labour; financial capital in the form of sophisticated capital markets; and physical capital in the form of a machine-oriented production. The efficiency of mixed production (pigs, sheep, cattle, crop rotation), by raising supervision costs, may also have been a factor.

One might object: why did this not happen in the later examples of the Americas and Eastern Europe? To which the answer is: it did, eventually. As the institutions of the Commercial and then Industrial Revolutions seeped into Central and Eastern Europe, serfdom decayed and was eventually abolished. Greater New England adopted the free labour/capital intensification approach while the antebellum South remained with the “tropical zone” pattern of cheap labour and concentrated wealth. Unfortunately, the combination of British institutions and American practicality led to slavery becoming more profitable and efficient, hence the resistance to any abolition of slavery (which would have wiped out about a third of the wealth of the South and reduced significantly the value of white votes). Latin America lagged somewhat, as one would expect from its lower level of capital intensity. Islam lagged further still, in part due to slavery having Sharia endorsement. Conversely, densely populated and comparatively capital-intense Japan was one of the first non-Christian countries to abolish slavery in the medieval and post-medieval era.

The Soviet Union re-introduced both slavery (state slavery, in the forced labour camps) and serfdom (as workers were banned from leaving their workplaces without permission: the essence of serfdom). Neither proved particularly efficient and the man who oversaw them longest – Lavrentiy Beria – moved to abolish both as soon as Stalin was dead.

The shift to the capital/labour ratio playing an increasingly important role in society (generally) encouraged the abolition of bondage. (The antebellum South, the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and Nazi Germany being conspicuous exceptions to the general trend: In the first and last case, the arbitration of war resolved the issue.)

Selection processes
To put the early exceptionalism of Latin Christendom another way, there was a lot more for the selection processes of history to work upon in C14th Latin Christendom than there was in the other cases (such as the later Roman Empire). Which is a general reason for the rise of North-Western Europe and its descendant societies. A significant number of competitive jurisdictions in close proximity between which ideas, capital and skills were relatively mobile; displaying a range of institutional forms; with legal and cultural diversity plus a rich intellectual and historical heritage from its Classical predecessor civilisation to draw upon. There was both more for the selection processes of history to work upon and more intense selection processes which were nevertheless operating within sufficient political stability for institutional learning and evolution to take place.

No other civilisation centre in Eurasia had that mix of features. Most others were dominated by autocracies as essentially the sole (or overwhelmingly dominant) form of government. Many had long periods of a single, dominant, autocracy. Even when that was not so, the ability of ideas, capital and skills to move between jurisdictions was often somewhat limited. In the case of Islam and Hindu India, laws being held to be of divine origin (Sharia, the laws of Manu) limited the possibilities of legal evolution.

The civilisation centre which had the largest overlap in features was Japan, with its competing daimyo—unsurprisingly, it was the non-Western civilisation which was most easily able to adapt Western methods because it already had the most similar institutional structure. But it lacked the cultural diversity of Europe or the intellectual depth provided by the Classical heritage incorporating memory of institutional variety and mathematised abstract theorising about the structure of things. It was unable to achieve the take-offs North-Western Europe did: but it was able to be first to catch up.

Having much more for the selection processes of history to work from, and a competitive-but-continuing institutional framework for them to work in, proved to be a world-beating advantage for North-Western Europe and its descendant societies.

5 comments:

  1. The land-labour trade-off that you postulate seems to have worked itself out in a somewhat different way in the Christian Roman Empire of the Greeks (Byzantium). After about AD 600 slavery was largely limited to (rich) households. And there were (a few) eunuchs. But mining and the rowing of galleys were done for pay by free people, which perhaps goes against the pattern? And Byzantium did not use slave warriors. Other than for doing household work for the upper classes, slaves were mainly important as a subject for transit taxes, i.e. levied on the slavers transporting their human merchandise through the Empire - to the Caliphate.

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  2. Anon: the Eastern Empire remained more densely populated than the Western Empire (or former Empire), so it is not surprising that slavery was more limited there and the peasantry was largely free.

    Mining as skilled occupation was also the pattern in Latin Christendom, so clearly was a viable alternative to slave-mining. Free rowers had also been the pattern in Classical Greece. Unpleasant/dangerous work that is easily supervised was "suited" to slavery, it did not require slavery.

    Slave warriors were a pattern limited (as far as I am aware) to Islam. Land tenure and kin networks operated somewhat differently in the Roman Empire and points West than they did in Islam: so that slave officials and warriors were not used in areas under Roman or various forms of Germanic or Celtic law is not surprising.

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  3. Thanks Lorenzo- I agree of course with all these points (it was the details of the model or hypothesis not the facts that I was gently querying). BTW I wanted to sign myself as 'Michael in Canberra' but there didn't seem to be that option.
    + Please keep on with posting your Big Sweep of History items. I for one love them.

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  4. Thank you Michael in Canberra! (I will try to.) The original analysis is Domar's model of bondage labour, which seems to me to capture some key elements well.

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