Sam Littlefair


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Hills in the Canary Islands.
  • photography
  • travel

Claire and I went to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands for the holidays. Lanzarote is a volcanic island, with a beautiful barren landscape.

We had a relaxing week at a resort. The beach was populated with very friendly stray cays.

We took one day to roadtrip around the island.

Our first stop was at the volcano, which last erupted in the 1700s.

Then we visited some of the beautiful small towns.

Finally, we drove to the northern tip of the island for a stunning panorama.

Two men in trench coats with umbrellas looking at Notre Dame cathedral.
  • photography

Fiorentinos have fashion. Their outfits cut dramatic silhouettes against the powdery stone buildings.

Two young men having a smoke

I can't tell expensive clothes from thrift-store rags, but whatever they're wearing, I think Fiorentinos wear it with confidence.

A man walking

I think people are beautiful by default, but I especially love some of these outfits.

A middle-aged couple wearing bright hats

I have taken fewer photos so far this year, because I don't have a convenient film lab. A few weeks ago, I left the house in the morning to take two rolls of film to the post office. I had a brand new roll in my camera.

An old man (blurry)

As I started walking around central Florence, I confidently shot passers by. I had a few errands to run, so I wound my way around the city center in a couple of loops. After an hour, I had already shot most of the roll, so I decided to do something I never normally do — finish the whole roll in one outing so I could add it to the envelope with the other two.

An old man looking at a dog

This is an expensive film stock: Kodak Portra 800. I got an Amazon gift card last year, and I spent it on five rolls of Portra on sale. It was a splurge, but I justified it as an education expense. Portra is a very fast, very sharp, very beautiful film. I knew it would help me gain confidence shooting strangers.

A shopkeeper in a market

The Portra let me shoot faster, wider photos that stay sharp even with a tight crop. As a result, my photos — which are already quite close for my comfort — can get even closer and more intimate.

A man in a town square

I love these encounters with people. The more photography I shoot, the more I want to honor these random strangers with my voyeuristic photos. I want to reveal how incredible ordinary people can be.

A bus driver

A good photo can make an ordinary person look larger than life. Because, in a sense, we are all larger than life. Every person is an epic tale — a myth.

A woman in a mink coat

I hope these photos just ask the question: who is this mythical person?

  • movies

Poor Things was the real Barbenheimer all along.

A woman treated as a doll with no autonomy going on an adventure to discover the world.

A mad scientist experimenting with human lives.

Men who can only define themselves in relation to the women in their lives.

Philosophical questions about whether people are fundamentally cruel.

Kitchsy yet beautiful anachronistic set design.

A throwback to another era that feels pressingly relevant today.

A tiny fairy godmother character who extols the virtue of sexualizing young women.

A protagonist who has an existential crisis upon encountering the brutality of the real world.

A treatise on the importance and danger of curiosity and discovery.

Review: The Invention of Peace, by Michael Howard

Michael Howard
A survey of war through history.
  • society
  • history

I love a good bookstore. I can browse for hours. The best bookstore I've ever been to is Leakey's in Inverness — a cathedral to used books and old maps, with a giant wood stove in the middle (fire hazard be damned), and a wrap-around second-floor balcony — jammed with many more books — accessed from a spiral staircase. I went a couple of years ago after a massive lunch of fish tea (that's fish, chips, bread, coleslaws, and a pot of tea). Runners-up for great bookshops include Shakespeare and Co in Paris, the old JW Doull's in downtown Halifax, and St. George's in Berlin. But none of those rank as my all-time favorite bookstore.

My favorite is the Oxfam bookstore in Glasgow's Govanhill neighbhorhood. Claire and I lived in Shawlands, ten minutes away — on the other side of Queen's Park (so-named because that's where Mary Queen of Scots staged her last stand before being captured insurrectionist troops). Govanhill is known as an immigrant neighborhood. It's a beautiful community that branches off of the wide boulevard that is Victoria Road, running from the gates of Queen's Park in the south toward the Clyde River in the North. The low buildings and wide street allow sunlight to fill all of the shops and cafes of Victoria Road, making it a great mid-day stroll when the sun breaks out through the Glasgow clouds.

During my time in Glasgow, I took many mid-day strolls across Queen's Park and up Victoria Road, grabbing a pastry at Short Long Black cafe, dropping off film at Gulabi, perusing the racks at one of the many charity shops, and — almost every time — stopping for a prolonged browse at the tiny Oxfam bookstore. The shop is one room, with shelves on the two long walls, and a row of stacks in the middle. There are always overflowing cardboard boxes on the floor, and usually a hand-written sign in the window saying "Not accepting donations," because they're already at capacity.

When you walk through the door, the cookbooks, arts, crafts, and hobbies are on the left. I got a great photography book and some beautiful art books there. Opposite are the staff picks, rare books, and first editions. Next is the non-fiction: business, economics, philosophy, spirituality, politics, history, local interest. That's where I spent most of my time. Slowly, studiously browsing all of the spines. As I check the two small shelves beside me in my office, I count eight books from that little non-fiction section. There are more on the living room bookshelf, and more still that I donated back to Oxfam or to friends.

There are many Oxfam bookstores in the UK, and I've visited a handful of them. But, the Govanhill location really specialized in critical politics and history books. There I found Piketty, Hobsbawm, Varoufakis, and Marx. Due to its strong worker's movement, Glasgow has been known as "Red Clydeside," and Govanhill is a firmly working-class neighbhood, which probably skews the genres on offer at the Oxfam bookstore.

The Invention of Peace was one of those books that I picked up at the Oxfam bookstore. The first page bears the pencil mark, "WK51 £2.49". The sun barely gets out of bed in the winter in Scotland, so I must have picked up the book on a January day when I was on an essential vitamin–D walk around noontime.

The author, Michael Howard, is a historian of war. A quote on the front acclaims him "Arguably Britain's greatest living historian," giving the air that these 113 pages will have something valuable to say.

I took the book on a flight and read the whole thing between takeoff and landing. Howard teases the book with the thesis that war has always existed, but peace is a novel idea. This may be marketing, however, as the book is mostly a synopsis of the history of war, and the thesis falls largely by the wayside. Inasmuch as the idea of an "invention of peace" remains relevant, I think it's conceivable that "peace" didn't become a major project until "war" became a perennial liability for rulers. "Peace may or may not be a modern invention," writes Howard, "but it is certainly a more complex affair than war."

On a small scale, wars can occur without major destruction. In some societies, war might play out like a sporting event, a rite of passage, or a ritual, but at some point war became much more calamitous.

Howard espouses the conventional view that a warrior culture dominated Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century.

Over centuries of fighting, warrior leaders emerged who provided local protection and whose families became the nuclei of a society whose structure was predicated on the assumption of permanent war.

The church wrote divine law to justify political violence. To this end, St Augustine justified war as part of the fallen condition of man. But, to be religiously justified, a war had to be waged under proper authority, as a last resort, to right a wrong, and in proportion.

Basically, war had the function of upholding or restoring the secular order sanctified by the Church; an order that provided peace, justice and protection for all Christians... War was thus recognized as an intrinsic part of the social and political order, and the warrior was accepted as a servant of God, his sword as a symbol of the Cross. A culture of chivalry developed around the role and activities of the knight, that had little to do with the brute realities of war, and nothing whatsoever with wars against the infidel which could be, and were, fought with unrestrained brutality. This assimilation between warrior and priest was underpinned by the concordat between the most powerful family in Western Europe, the Carolingian dynasty, and the surviving Christian church in the West, which was sealed by the coronation in AD 800 of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor. Legitimized both as the heir of the vanished but still respected hegemony of Rome and as the instrument of the church, Charlemagne did not have the power to sustain this notional hegemony beyond his own generation and it was to be repeatedly devolved and divided. Nonetheless, the concept of the Holy Roman Empire remained one of enormous importance until the Westphalian settlement of 1648, if not until its ultimate demise in 1803.

In the feudal Europe of the Middle Ages, war became a form of litigation to settle property rights, "limited, like all litigation, by the resources of the litigants."

The warrior class regarded peace as a an interval between conflicts, to be filled with tournaments, hunts, and crusades, "a habit that has survived into our own day in the upper-class obsession with hunting and field sports." War was an "almost automatic activity." But war is also expensive and destructive, and gradually weakened the ruling class, with their limited resources. Noble power was "legitimized by the ritual of kingship." Wars were fought with paid soldiers or mercenaries, which forced rulers to raise funds through loans or taxes, creating an evermore important relationship between the ruler, the soldiers who fought for him, the merchants who financed and supplied his campaigns, and the citizens who paid for them, creating a geographical border to encircle a newly emerging legal entity that comprised these parties and their relationships: the state.

The Reformation took power away from the church, shifting the balance of power to the state. Rulers sponsored education to support the growth of their new secular legal system and bureaucracy. "Indeed, the entire apparatus of the state primarily came into being to enable princes to wage war. With few exceptions, these princes still saw themselves, and were seen by their subjects, essentially as warrior leaders, and they took every opportunity to extend their power."

At the end of the Middle Ages, this power-grasping culminated into "a bid by the Habsburgs to sustain a hegemony which they had inherited over most of western Europe against all their foreign rivals and dissident subjects," creating a period of continuous warfare through the sixteen and seventeenth centuries, draining Europe of wealth. Previously, I wrote about the history of human violence, hypothesizing that humanity has become much more deadly since the 1300s, up to (and perhaps including) the current century.

Unpaid armies mutinied, overtaxed citizens revolted, and mercenaries went rogue. "The old order had irretrievably broken down, and a new seemed powerless to be born."

In 1648, the leaders of Europe signed the Peace of Westphalia, which "effectively affirmed the state as the unchallenged guarantor of domestic order and legitimiser of external war."

The borders of the states had been drawn, and the stage was set for a new era of international relations. However, rather than solving war, the new order seemed to create the parameters for it. The treaty was signed in the midst of the English Civil Wars. Within a few years, England and the Dutch Republic went to war. Not long after, England went to war with France. By the end of the 1600s, Europe had fallen back into a near-perpetual state of global conflict that would persist until the present day.

European peace was, by and large, world peace, while European wars had been world wars and had been so since the eighteenth century (the socalled 'First' World War was in fact about the sixth).

Howard ends the book on a pessimistic note.

The West continues to breed its own conflicts. Western societies may now all be peacefully bourgeois; but bourgeois society is boring... So although it is tempting to believe that as the international bourgeois community extends its influence a new and stable world order will gradually come into being, we would be unwise to expect anything of the kind. This was what Norman Angell and others believed in 1914: war had become so irrational a means of settling disputes that sensible people would never again fight one. But alas, they did.

Howard is a capitalist realist. He assumes that liberalism is the only natural order, and so he ascribes discontentment to "boredom," rather than dissent. This feels like a strange oversight, given that he also argues that the state was an invention of princes to wage self-serving wars at the expense of a subjugated populace. If that's true, it also seems natural that the populace might push back sometimes.

Howard's whole view falls quite cleanly into a mainstream narrative of social progress, viewing human history as a march from dirty prehistory to an enlightened future. Nonetheless, his summary offers a useful synopsis of war.

When I picked up the book, it was still clean with a pristine spine — evidently never read. Inside, I found a bookmark — the book's receipt. It was purchased on the fifth of January, 2004, at the Blackwells in Oxford — incidentally, another great bookstore where I picked up a few classics. The receipt reveals that the original purchaser also picked up two textbooks on politics and Islam, looking very much like the reading list for a university class. I imagine this Oxford alum moving to Glasgow, maybe for a masters at the University of Glasgow. And, eventually, dropping off some old textbooks at the Oxfam bookstore, spines unbroken — apparently unenlightened by Howard's tour of military history.

I thought often about Mary Queen of Scots as I walked around her namesake park. I feel a warmth toward her. She was obviously a fierce leader, but she was also a wealthy noble who sought power for her own gain (she repeatedly caused problems by claiming the throne of England, which belonged to her cousin Elizabeth). Elizabeth and Mary were members of the first generation of post-reformation leaders, and they grappled with the question of governance in that new era. They both ushered in the dawning era of perpetual warfare — which we are still puzzling about in university classes and books and long walks today. They both bucked the image of rulers as male warriors. And they both navigated impossible, torturous situations to do what they thought best. In a way, they seem emblematic of the forever war.

Changing Names

What does your name say about you?
  • travel
  • language
  • life

Since moving to Italy, I have learned that my name is "Samuel Joseph Littlefair-Wallace."

To live in Italy, you need a tax code. The tax code is some sixteen-character smorgasbord of letters and numbers from your life. A business might ask you for your tax code for any ordinary transaction, like ordering a piece of furniture. Your name and your tax code must match. Since my tax code is based on the name in my passport ("Samuel Joseph Littlefair-Wallace"), that means that I now use the name "Samuel Joseph Littlefair-Wallace" in all of my Italian dealings.

In elementary school, I was "Sam Wallace," which felt simple and definitive. Then, one day in junior high, the secretary called for me on the P.A., asking for "Sam Littlefair-Wallace." Everyone looked at me like a bomb had just dropped, "What did they call you???" Apparently, a secret extra name is a big deal.

When I asked my mom about it, she disclosed that she had finally enrolled me in school by my legal name rather than the paternal shorthand I was familiar with (an assertion of authority some years after my parent's divorce). From that day, I was "Sam Littlefair-Wallace." I liked having a long name. It felt special. Sometimes I would brag about my middle names, too. "I have seven names" I would say dramatically, prompting gasps. In high school, my drama teacher took to calling me by the Tibetan name I had been given as an infant, "Tashi Dawa," putting his own personal spin on it, "Tashi Wawa."

I kept the hyphenation well into my twenties, until it started to chafe. I always felt embarrassed spelling it for a customer service person, and I couldn't fit it into a Twitter handle. Plus, I was starting to think about marriage and family. I surely wasn't planning to lend a hyphenated surname to my wife or children.

So, I sat my dad down. "Dad, I want to go by Sam Littlefair." Littlefair is less common than Wallace, so it's better for SEO. (I didn't realize at the other time that there are at least two other blond millennial Sam Littlefairs who also work in IT.)

I also felt a sense of pride in preserving a unique name. I once read online that "Littlefair" was a name given to English orphans. I have no idea where I got that, though, because years later when I suggested this etymology to my mom she laughed at me in disbelief. "It just means small and light-skinned!" I scoured the internet for my original source, but it was gone. I had thought of us as a family of orphans. My mom's mom was an orphan. My mom's dad was a bastard. This was a lineage of non-lineage. But apparently it wasn't.

Dad was okay with the change. I was surprised when my boss seemed excited about it, "Should I change it in the masthead!?" I updated all of my social media profiles, but I never changed it legally — that seemed like too much trouble. After all, it was mostly for my personal brand.

Then I moved to Scotland. The game of moving to a new country is forms. Lots of forms. Dealing with formal matters, I found myself spelling out my full name regularly. "Littlefair. Littlefair. Like 'small circus.' Yes I can spell it. L... I... T... T... L... E... F... A... I... R... Yes. Then a hyphen. Yep. Then 'Wallace', W... Oh! Yes. Wallace as in William."

You don't need to tell a Scot how to spell "Wallace." So I started defaulting to it. "Sam Wallace," it came back around. Simple. Definitive. And, in Scotland, quite respectable too. I would use it for little things like restaurant reservations. All the while, I was investigating my Wallaceness.

I researched the origin of our Wallace branch back to a small town in the northeast. I plumbed a Facebook group for the town, and found a blond-haired Wallace woman posting about school fundraisers. These are my people, I thought. Claire and I did a road-trip in the area, visiting the farm where my ancestors lived. There, I found the lineage of non-lineage I had been grasping at in "Littlefair."

No matter how hard I try, I have no prior personal connection to Scotland beyond statistical demographics and an appreciation for the bagpipes. Scots bristle when they hear someone with a North American accent claim to be Scottish. As Ewan McGregor says in Trainspotting, "It's shite being Scottish!" Sometimes a Scot would say to me, "I have family in Canada!" and I would rankle them by responding, "I have family in Scotland — two centuries ago!"

Wallace and Littlefair are each a needle on a compass pointing me to somewhere I've never been. Every time I took the train from Glasgow to London, I would snap a photo of the "Lancashire" sign for my mum as the train rolled through the station. "The ancestral home of the Littlefairs!" she responded. I thought Lancashire looked nice, but I wouldn't really know — I've never been.

Then I moved to Italy, and I became "Samuel Joseph Littlefair-Wallace," reminding me that my name isn't a chronicle of where I've been — or who my ancestors were. It's a relationship between myself and the world. It's a token by which others hold their relationship with me — whether legal, professional, familial, or practical. In that sense, my name is always changing from day to day, person to person.

In Italy, "Samuel Joseph Littlefair-Wallace" is also useful as a phonetic sound. For Italians, "Samuel" is also easier to understand than "Sam." That's what you learn when you're making a restaurant reservation: "Sam. Sam. [In an Italian accent] Samuel. Grazie."

Last week, I made a restaurant reservation for me and some friends. When they asked for my name, I adopted my Italian accent, "Sam-u-el." But the waiter on the phone didn't get it. I repeated a couple of times with different inflections, "Sam-well. Sam-oo-elle." Finally they got it, "Ah, okay. Seven thirty."

When we arrived at the restaurant, I told the waiter I had a reservation for four. "Ah yes!" she replied. "For 'Sandal'?"

  • history

This is such an incredible Nova Scotia ghost ship story, I really can't believe I had never heard it before.

In December 1735, a ship with decks covered in blood sailed into Chebogue, in present-day Yarmouth County, N.S., and dropped anchor.  

It was the brigantine Baltimore and the story of what happened on board remains shrouded in mystery to this day.

  • history
  • society

Joel Mokyr is one of the most important historians on the Industrial Revolution — the period when, through aggressive industrial expansion, Europe became the wealthiest (and, let's face it, probably most violent) region of the world.

I studied Mokyr in university (investigating the question: why did the Netherlands miss out on the Industrial Revolution?). Since I've been diving back into economic history recently, he's been sitting at the top of my reading list. Then I re-discovered this essay by him, which I read a year or two ago and then forgot about. Here, Mokyr summarizes the main points of his research.

In the second millennium, Europe emerged as an extremely diverse region, with long, twisting coastlines drawing peninsulas divided by rivers and mountains. As wealth grew in Europe, so too did a cosmopolitan culture of knowledge exchange. Religious and political leaders failed to censor intellectual and cultural advancements because the great thinkers could simply publish in or move to another country, like when Galileo's banned books were smuggled out of Catholic Italy and published in Protestant Northern Europe.

Mokyr paints a picture of Early Modern Europe as a colorful tapestry of arts and scholarship. As true as that may be, I suspect that Mokyr glosses over the real engine of European enrichment. Mokyr writes:

In 18th-century Europe, the interplay between pure science and the work of engineers and mechanics became progressively stronger. This interaction of propositional knowledge (knowledge of ‘what’) and prescriptive knowledge (knowledge of ‘how’) constituted a positive feedback or autocatalytic model. In such systems, once the process gets underway, it can become self-propelled. In that sense, knowledge-based growth is one of the most persistent of all historical phenomena – though the conditions of its persistence are complex and require above all a competitive and open market for ideas.

Romantic views of the past focus on the what: Galileo and Newton investigating the forces of the universe. But the real power for the advancement of knowledge came from the how: how to weave cloth more quickly, how to get coal out of the mines more easily, how to sustain a growing workforce more frugally, how to move trips more rapidly. These military and industrial advancements in the how provided the incentive for studying the what. But it's ridiculous to say that the system is self-propelling. I think Mokyr betrays this in the phrase "open market for ideas." A market implies buyers and sellers. If academics and scientists are the sellers, then who are the buyers? More importantly, where does their money come from? Obviously, farmers, miners, and housewives weren't going to the store to buy a fresh treatise on the movement of celestial bodies. Knowledge-based growth depends on colonial and military appropriation to fund the universities, monasteries, and societies that produce knowledge.

Mokyr acknowledges this in his essay:

The idea of knowledge-driven economic progress as the primum movens of the Industrial Revolution and early economic growth is still controversial, and rightly so. Examples of purely science-driven inventions in the 18th century are few.

Europe had gone through many centuries of economic transformation before technological innovation became part of the equation. So, Mokyr is acknowledging that his thesis ignores the fundamental factors in European enrichment — the causes of Europe's economic transformation from the end of the first millennium until late in the second millennium (almost a thousand years of economic transition!).

I appreciate that Mokyr asserts that Europe's "Great Enrichment" was "in no way inevitable." In doing so, Mokyr makes an effort to buck European exceptionalism (the idea that Europeans are essentially more intelligent or civilized) and capitalist realism (the idea that capitalism is an inevitable outcome of history). But, I feel like Mokyr's analysis lacks a critical investigation of the environmental and economic forces that drove industrialization — the Medieval development of a market for land, the immiseration of a proletarian class, the development of centralized nation–states. These are some of the ingredients I've been reading about in Debt, The Origin of Capitalism, and The Great Transition.

  • technology

Evermore tweeters are fleeing the sinking ship, so more and more often I hear the question "Are you using something instead of Twitter?" Each time, I answer with increasing fervor "Yes! RSS!"

I love my RSS reader (Reeder.) I get only the content I want, without ads or trackers. There is no algorithm (except the chronological one).

I really enjoyed this list of RSS recommendations from Matt Webb. I'll be sure to post my own soon.

Two men in trench coats with umbrellas looking at Notre Dame cathedral.
  • photography

{alt} When you feel the drizzle on your coat.

A man walking along the plaza at Parc Belleville, with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
  • photography

{alt} The view from Parc de Belleville.

A woman walking past a doorway
  • photography

{alt} Sometimes a little blur makes the world feel softer.

  • society
  • mind

Some people can tell what direction they're facing by sensing the earth's magnetic field.

The Gurindji people of Australia use cardinal directions to describe position, like "It's in my east hand." That requires a constant sense of geographical orientation — what direction are you facing at any given time. It turns out that human brains actually sense the earth's magnetic field and react to changes in ambient magnetic fields. "We are all, in a sense, compasses." While most people are completely oblivious to this, researchers have found that Gurindji people can reliably detect changes in magnetic fields — and perhaps use that sense to tell what direction they're facing.

In this essay for Aeon, James McElvenny raises the question: how can we understand how language influences experience?

We start with a feeling, an ineffable je ne sais quoi, that our language shapes our world. But to assess the truth of this claim, the scientist wants a hypothesis – a rigorous, experimentally testable statement of precisely how language shapes our world. Quasi-mystical meditations on my life in language are not the stuff of modern scientific journals. But any properly formulated hypothesis will necessarily be reductive and deflationary – devising empirical tests of the supposed differences in our worldviews inevitably means transforming our innermost feelings into detached, foreign objects that we can observe and analyse from the outside. Such tests can arguably never capture the totality and primordiality of the original feeling.

  • history

If you take a guided tour through the bleached-white columns and ruins of Ancient Rome, your guide will be sure to tell you that the image of brilliant white Roman monuments is a modern invention. Today's neoclassical monuments are famous for their stark façades — just look at the White House itself. But this is an accident of history. Roman monuments were painted in brilliant colors, matching the colorful fashions and decorations of the Roman people. But those colors were lost with time, leaving behind blank stone.

I love to think that the past was more vibrant and lively than we can possibly imagine. This article describes Medieval Europe in the same way as a tour guide might describe ancient Rome. We imagine medieval castles and churches as grey, cold, dreary spaces — which probably just reflects how they appear today. But many centuries ago these same spaces were filled colorful light, filtered through stained glass, which played across the brilliant tapestries that adorned the walls, which themselves were painted in bright colors. In the evening, the spaces would have been filled with warm candlelight, illuminating ornate religious shrines filled with ornaments. Perhaps their inhabitants rested on plush furniture underneath lush canopies — all details lost to time.

  • history

I've been reading a lot of history lately. I love how it describes our present. Case in point: for thousands of years, Brittons have imagined a mysterious, forested Britain in the recent past:

[Forests] remind us of an older English past that has become heavily mythologised and distorted — like the knights on the Grail Quest who periodically disappeared and were lost in the trees — and yet depends on the perception that much of England was forested for the greater part of its history. A perception that is wrong... We suffer from what might be called Sherwood Syndrome: the need to believe that much of England — most of England — was both wild and wooded until modern history ‘began’ in 1066 [the year of the Norman Conquest], or indeed stayed so until much later; and that these ancient forests were the repository of ‘a spirit of England’, the Green Man, that could be summoned at times when we needed to be reminded of our national identity; where Robin Hoods of all subsequent generations could escape, where the Druids gathered their mistletoe from the trees, where the oak that built our battleships came from.

Many thousands of years ago, Bronze Age Brittons felled most of the forests of England. By the time the Romans arrived, England was already mostly settled:

Villa abutted on villa for mile after mile, and most of the gaps were filled by small towns and the lands of British farmsteads.

We can imagine that forest clearing was an incredibly intensive and ambitious project for ancient Brittons, who used tree trunks as monuments and ax heads as currency. But, nonetheless, those people are unknown to us. And yet we keep pulling that ancient mystery into the recent past:

We are forever constructing prelapsarian narratives in which a golden sunlit time — the Pax Romana, the Elizabethan golden age, that Edwardian summer before the First World War, a brief moment in the mid-1960s with the Beatles — prefigure anarchy and decay. Or the cutting down of the forest... Britons are supremely comfortable with that blurring — with a mythic dimension that adds gravitas to our self-understanding, and that imbues the land with a kind of enchantment, a magical aspect that is echoed in our narratives of how we came to be a nation.

To understand who we are today, it's important to remember that a thousand years ago the British were still pining for a simpler time when they could down tools and wander into the mystical forest. Somehow, it seems that we have always tended to be uncomfortable with the idea that our ancient ancestors were as innovative and industrious as ourselves.

  • history

This is a surprising twist in history: some believe that Robin Hood was based on a gay radical knight.

Last week I wrote about the Lollards — a radical sect of proto-Protestantism that arose in England following the Black Plague. The Lollards criticized the extravagance of the Catholic Church, arguing for vernacular religion and asceticism. The crown and the church tolerated the Lollard heresy until a Lollard-influenced uprising marched on London in 1381. After the rising, the Lollard movement was quashed and the Lollards driven underground. Nonetheless, their legacy influenced more Christian reform movements, including Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation.

However, King Richard II — the same one who suppressed the Lollards — apparently kept a court of "Lollard Knights," who somehow eluded persecution.

Two of these knights were Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe. As knights, they fought in wars and crusades. William and John joined a union called "Wedded Brotherhood," which some historians interpret as a sort of same-sex marriage. In 1391, when the two were on a mission abroad, John died. William died two days later, seemingly of grief. The two men were buried in a joint tomb, bearing an engraving of their helmets facing each other — as if kissing — and their shields overlapping in the style of a husband and wife.

As well as a knight, John was a poet and wrote the original Robin Hood legend. It is believed that John based Robin Hood on William and Little John on himself. Both John and William were close personal friends of Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote the most important literary work of the era — The Canterbury Tales.

In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow explore the question "Where did inequality come from?", gradually turning it around to "Where did equality come from?" In their estimation, equality is a strange concept that only appeared in the modern era. They argue that it emerged from dialogues between strongly hierarchical European societies and more egalitarian societies like the Algonquins. Graeber and Wengrow say that until Indigenous North Americans introduced the idea of economic equality to European philosophy, Europeans only understood equality to mean equality before God.

I think it's really interesting to investigate how people understood such ideas of fairness or unfairnes (ideas which dominate all aspects of our modern public discourse) in the past. The period when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, John Clanvowe wrote Robin Hood, and an unknown author wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was also the moment when capitalism was taking form. All of these stories grapple with the anxiety of a changing economic worldview — an anxiety that remains unresolved today. Imagine how John Clanvowe — a gay, radical knight–poet who grew up during the the plague, the deadliest catastrophe in human history — articulated that anxiety in the form of a hero who persists today as the essential rebel. I've always thought it's amazing that we continue to celebrate a man whose slogan is "steal from the rich and give to the poor" — an full-throated call for criminality. What does that say about the world we inhabit?

Edit: After more research, I learned the theory that Sir John Clanvowe wrote "Robin Hood" comes from community historian Tony Scupham-Bilton, though I couldn't find any academic discussion of the theory.

  • history

In the Early Middle Ages, the word "bastard" didn't necessarily mean "illegitimate child." William the Conqueror — the Norman king who conquered England in 1066 — is also known as "William the Bastard," and, while his parents were not married, the epithet "bastard" likely referred rather to the fact that his mother was not of noble birth. Of course, this didn't ultimately matter, since he became a very successful and influential king.

But "bastardy" would eventually became a very important concept in Western law. That's not because anyone saw anything particularly reprehensible about love children. In prosperous years of the High Middle Ages, as incredible wealth abounded, the church codified moral law, states followed suit, and eventually ordinary people started operating as legal agents. This was largely caused by the booming value of land and emerging market for labor, which created new bureaucratic–commercial frameworks for daily life. Suddenly, lots of ordinary people were very concerned with abstract legal questions such as, "According to bible law, can my niece inherit my brother's estate if his marriage was illegal?"

Society then did not operate subject to rigid Christian canon law rules. Instead, it measured the value of its leaders based on their claims to celebrated ancestry, and the power attached to that kind of legitimacy. To be sure, marrying legitimately certainly received a good deal of lip service throughout the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, in this pre-13th-century world, the most intense attention was paid not to the formation of legitimate marriages, but to the lineage and respectability of mothers. Only beginning in the second half of the 12th century did birth outside of lawful marriage begin to render a child illegitimate, a ‘bastard’, and as such potentially ineligible to inherit noble or royal title.

This ties into the larger theme that is the evolution of family roles through the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, England (and much of Europe) was pagan and governed through multifarious tribes and chiefdoms. These pre-Christians had strong kinship ties, with trusted elders in positions of authority. The church — which was advancing a colonial project across Europe — saw this as an obstacle to its expansion and authority, and so worked to dissolve traditional family ties and institute the nuclear (or "neolocal") family unit. The church invented proscriptions on consanguineous marriage (marrying your cousins, or even distant cousins), which we still uphold today in the West (though not in other cultures). Over the course of many centuries, the traditional understanding of family was eroded and replaced with a new Christian idea of family. One of the most important changes in the transition to the modern society was certainly the evolution of the family from an expansive political organization with porous boundaries to a small legal unit based solely on blood and contracts.

Consider the fact that Indigenous North Americans were shocked to learn about poverty and homelessness when they visited France in the 1700s. To them, it was shameful to let someone starve while you have food. If we understand family as a broad concept, then we are more likely to work together to ensure everyone has food. But when we divide our families into small economic units, we create more cracks for people to fall through. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Scandinavian countries tend to place less import on family values and also have stronger social welfare programs — they believe that love is based on freedom. Centuries after the church restricted the scope of family in Europe, the Canadian government defined who qualifies as a Status Indian based on modern European ideas of lineage, separating countless Indigenous women and children from their families. Just last week, Indigenous staff at my alma mater raised concerns about a new verification process that would reassert the same prescriptive ideas of family to determine an Indigenous employee's qualifications — a reminder that laws written by the church more than a millennium ago during a colonial project in Europe continue to enforce the ongoing colonial project in North America.

In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow propose that one of the fundamental freedoms is the freedom to create political groups. This includes a political unit like a party, but it's also much more profound than that. A workplace is a political unit. A family is a political unit. It is a group of people who operate cooperatively. The ability to create new collectives is incredibly powerful, and it seems like it has been much more common at other times and places in human history. Maybe, the imposition of a rigid family structure has also been the expropriation of our freedom to imagine the world we want to inhabit.

a rose bush in bloom
  • photography

{alt} Roses in Glasgow in the springtime.

Review: Revenge Capitalism, by Max Haiven

Max Haiven
Max Haiven argues that revenge is the heart of capitalism.
  • society

I was perusing the stacks at Shakespeare and Co in Paris when I noticed a familiar name: Haiven. Max Haiven. Isn't that Omri's brother? I asked myself.

I picked up the book, Revenge Capitalism, and read the back. The first testimonial was from one of my favorite writers, David Graeber: "Perhaps the most theoretically creative radical thinker of the moment." Wow, I thought. That's high praise.

I went to high school and university with Omri. I always knew his family was involved in activism. The coincidence was underscored by the fact that one year ago I stood looking at the same stack, when my eyes fell on No Place to Go, the book by my university professor Lezlie Lowe, who got my first article published. As I stared at the spine, a woman pulled the lone copy off of the shelf. "She taught me how to write," I spluttered. And, on the same shelf sat Page Boy by Halifax native Elliot Page. This is the Halifax section, I thought.

I took Haiven's book over to a comfy chair to read. After a couple of pages I realized something else: his book seemed more interesting than anything else in the politics section. From Graeber's testimonial to a quote from George Orwell in the preface to a Ruth Wilson Gilmore citation in the bibliography, this felt like my book.

Now the spoiler: ultimately, it wasn't my book. But I agree with Graeber that Haiven's exploration is creative and interesting and thoughtful.

Haiven's contends that revenge describes the spirit of capitalism. He starts the book:

"When you live in someone else's utopia, all you have is revenge. We live in capitalism's utopia, a world almost completely reconfigured to suit the needs of accumulation."

In the introduction, Haiven promises to explore the idea that capitalism is a "revenge economy," which exacts self-defeating vengeance on the world.

Haiven argues that capitalism is unique as an economic system with three specific attributes:

  • Complex financial mechanisms

  • Dramatic inequality with an exploited laboring underclass

  • A ruling class that perpetuates itself through force In capitalism, moneys serves as the "lifeblood" of a system where a minority ruling class appropriate the productivity of a majority underclass under threat of violence. This system is self-perpetuating because it depends on competition between capitalists. Writes Haiven,

Capitalism, like all systems of domination, is held together through a kind of normalized vengefulness, which is mystified as law, tradition, economic necessity, or justice.

And, later:

The vengeful dimension of capital is a reflection of its inherent structural tendencies and contradictions. Importantly it is a system not orchestrated by a total monarch, an oligarchy, or a conspiracy but, rather, by the sum of the contradictory actions of innumerable competitive capitalist actors.

Haiven argues that the spirit of revenge is essential to capitalism in two ways:

  • Capitalism's ruling class enacts violence to maintain its economic superiority

  • Capital accumulation is a destructive force that breeds vengefulness

"Revenge is the outcome, not the motivation, of capitalism," writes Haiven — which I think is too bad. I think it would be interesting to explore vengeance as both outcome and motivation. How does a spirit of revenge engender the attitude of capitalism? How does the attitude of capitalism create a spirit of revenge?

In general, I found Haiven's ideas stimulating, but his rhetoric unpersuasive. While I'm open to the idea that capitalism is essentially vengeful, Haiven never really convinced me and his historical research left me wanting more. In a short detour through the Enlightenment, Haiven mentions that good friends John Locke and Issac Newton collaborated in their "management of the nascent capitalist economy, Locke in the realm of policy and Newton as an early but formative Governor of the Bank of England. Both agreed that no punishment was too severe for proletarians who dared defy the state's control over the money supply, and they therefore helped pass a bevy of laws that criminalized the slightest economic infraction." I thought this was fascinating, but Haiven didn't go much further exploring Enlightenment thought or connecting it to his thesis, and I ultimately felt unsatisfied.

Haiven drawns an outline of a framework for revenge capitalism, without filling in the detail. He breaks revenge capitalism into three "patterns": unpayable debts, surplussed people, and "hyperenclosure" (referencing the English practice of land enclosures).

Haiven argues that the vengefulness of capitalism can afflict the wealthy as well as the workers, though the spirit of vengeance that is embodied in the working class has a different flavor. For example, the vengeance of the underclass might be understood as "terrorism." While we understand terrorism as anticapitalism, revenge capitalism might invite us to understand terrorism as an essential mechanism of capitalism — a response to "moments when the powerful operate vengefully on the oppressed with impunity, and when that impunity is disguised as necessary, unavoidable, natural, and just."

But the vengeance of the oppressed can also be more subtle, such as "a rejection of the oppressors' and exploiters' thought-world and stunted, narcissistic moral universe." Nonetheless, Haiven says that the revenge of the oppressed is likely to reinforce the capitalist worldview.

I loved the George Orwell quote from the preface,

There is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.

This quote serves as a meditation that carries on throughout the book. What is revenge? I think that what Orwell really means is that revenge is counterproductive. The fantasy of revenge — that you will be satisfied after you punish your tormenter — never delivers. Haiven quotes James Baldwin:

Revenge is a human dream ... there is no way of conveying to the corpse the reasons you have made him one – you have the corpse, and you are, thereafter, at the mercy of a fact which missed the truth, which means that the corpse has you.

Perhaps this is true: capitalism is a counterproductive system in which we are all in turn either fleeing or enacting vengeance. Perhaps the productivity of capitalism lies in the pursuit — the military buildup that produces innovation, the worker ambition that masks a fear of failure, the state bailouts that prevent recession. Perhaps it is a culture of anger and fear — a cycle of retribution.

On the other hand, what about the delightful side of revenge? The joy of getting back with a water balloon someone who just got you. The exquisite retort that leaves a bully speechless. The prize won back from a competitor after years of training. Maybe this is irrelevant to the discussion, but to me it undermines the idea that revenge is only a fantasy, and — in turn — the idea that revenge has no productive outcome.

Haiven never really convinced me that revenge is the spirit of capitalism, but he did leave a breadcrumb for me when he mentioned that anthropologists (notably David Graeber) associate debt and vengeance. That is an idea I will explore more when I keep reading Graeber's Debt.

Update: I did.

In the meantime, I'm still open to the idea that revenge — or at least, some mild antisocial sense of spite — is foundational to capitalism. I just read Ellen Meiksins Wood's The Origin of Capitalism which described the early days of capitalism in agrarian England. How might we imagine a spirit of vengeance to have animated England's early capitalists? At the dawn of capitalism, England's nobility were experiencing a period of extreme hardship. They coped with this hardship through increasing exploitation of the peasantry, and the peasantry responded with revolts and rebellions. What does this tell us about vengefulness in the latter days of feudalism and early days of capitalism? The coming centuries were defined by the rise of a capitalist bourgeoisie and, simultaneously, the rise of constant rebellion and warfare.

Overall, Revenge Capitalism felt perhaps too choleric. I understand that capitalism has caused profound harm, and that many capitalists have acted with deliberate intent. But Haiven's logic doesn't convince me that this is the essence of capitalism (even though I'm open to the idea). Instead, I feel like Haiven is projecting his anger towards capitalism, because we want to imagine this horrible machine to be a beast of vengeance. But, maybe that blinds us to other possibilities. I guess I'm not ready to abandon the possibility that there's something else at the heart of capitalism.

  • history

Today I learned about Lollardy — a medieval English religious movement that had a huge influence on Protestantism. The movement was led by a preacher named John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was born around 1320. As a young priest, he lived through the Black Plague, which killed a third of the population of England in two years — including up to 40% of priests, who devotedly tended to the sick and dead.

The Black Plague caused a fracture in Europeans' religious and political worldview. Practically, the plague — the deadliest event in human history — made Europeans painfully aware of death. The Catholic Church was in the habit of selling prayer services to shave off years in purgatory. After watching millions of people die unprepared, these prayer services became more popular. In many ways, the plague increased the wealth of the church and the church's involvement in secular life. But, at the same time, the devastation reminded the poorer classes that all people are equal in the face of death.

The die-off caused an economic redistribution, making the poorer classes (temporarily) much wealthier. The poor now had more leisure time, which created a sense of moral crisis. Among the clergy, there was a panic that the workers were sitting around idly.

At the same time, the working class had grown resentful of the wealthy (who had fled the cities during the years of the plague, prompting conspiracy theories that the rich had someone created the plague) and distrustful of the church, which had failed to protect the laity.

John Wycliffe lived through the devastation of the plague, which would have shaken him to his core. Decades after the plague, he began preaching as a reformer. Wycliffe's movement was disparagingly labelled "lollards" — meaning people who speak nonsense. The Lollards criticized corruption in the church and called for religion for the people. Wycliffe created the first English translation of the Bible, on the principle that everyone should be able to read the Bible in their own language.

The heresy of the Lollards was tolerated by the church until 1381, when a Lollard preacher — John Ball — led the Peasants' Rebellion, which burned court records across England and marched on London. The rebels called for an end to unfree labor (serfdom) and free access to the land. The King heard the rebels demands and acquiesced — only to betray them the following day. He branded the rebels traitors and executed the leaders. After the rebellion was quashed, the broader movement of Lollardy was suppressed too, and the Lollards went underground.

However, the Lollards had a lasting influence. The Czech Reformer Jan Hus drew on the Lollard ideas in his Hussite Movement. Hus garnered much greater support in Bohemia, constituting a real threat to the papacy. In 1414, the Catholic Chuch held a counsel to address various crises in the church — including the insurrections of the Lollards and the Hussites. The church had promised amnesty to Hus. But, at the counsel, they betrayed him and burned him at the stake. The betrayal only inflamed Czech anger toward the church.

The Lollards had a significant lasting influence. More than a century after Wycliffe's death, when Martin Luther initiated the protestant reformation, his movement was called the "foster child" of Lollardy.

There are two major theories about the origin of capitalism: Max Weber argues that capitalism is a product of the Protestant Reformation, while Marx argues that is is a product of the English Enclosures. However, both of those movements can be traced back directly to the Black Plague and broader environmental and economic changes happening across Western Europe. At root was a change in worldview, whereby English peasants in particular began to see land and life as a scarce and tradable commodity. Ones time in this life could be traded for salvation in the afterlife, as wool can be traded for grain.

Review: Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell

George Orwell
  • society
  • history

In December of 1936, George Orwell travelled to Spain to fight against the fascists in the civil war. Orwell had just finished writing his first work of non-fiction, The Road to Wigan Pier, an investigation into working class living conditions in Northern England, in which he articulated his support for socialism and critique of capitalism:

Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation–an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.

Orwell died young and garnered fame only toward the end of his life. He published his first major success, Animal Farm, in 1945. He wrote his next and final work, Nineteen Eighty-four mostly from his deathbed; he published it in 1949 and died six months later. He was 45 years old.

At age 32, as he travelled to Spain, Orwell was still a young writer searching for his perspective. His experience in Spain would give him that perspective, which he would describe in his next book Homage to Catalonia.

In the second half of the 1930s, Fascism was growing in Europe. Mussolini and Hitler were already in power, and Franco was fighting for control of Spain. Leftists across Western Europe were mostly democratic capitalists and Stalinist communists — united in their opposition to fascism. Orwell writes in Homage to Catalonia, "When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist – after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct."

Orwell spent some months on the front line, firing shots across no man's land towards fascist lines, but for the most part his military service in Spain was an exercise in futility. The republican soldiers lacked in everything — uniforms, weapons, food, tools, matches, latrines, strategy. In Orwell's account, the greatest fight was the constant search for firewood. Second to that was the effort to avoid getting killed by a rowdy comrade, a malfunctioning weapon, or a crude bomb.

Nonetheless, Orwell writes very fondly of his time on the front, in large part due to the political organization of his division — an anarchist militia, where all soldiers were treated as equals:

Everyone drew the same pay, wore the same clothes, ate the same food, and called everyone else 'thou' and 'comrade'; there was no boss-class, no menial-class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers, no priests, no boot-licking, no cap-touching. I was breathing the air of equality, and I was simple enough to imagine that it existed all over Spain. I did not realize that more or less by chance I was isolated among the most revolutionary section of the Spanish working class.

In July of 1936, a monarchist coup d'état had kicked off the civil war. The monarchists wanted a revolution. According to Orwell, the first wave of resistance against the coup came not from the government but from anarchist trade unions.

As soon as the rising broke out the organized town workers replied by calling a general strike and then by demanding – and, after a struggle, getting – arms from the public arsenals. If they had not acted spontaneously and more or less independently it is quite conceivable that Franco would never have been resisted... During the first two months of the war it was the Anarchists more than anyone else who had saved the situation.

The anarchists launched a counter-revolution, and then they went further, pushing a revolution of their own.

Their resistance was accompanied by – one might almost say it consisted of – a definite revolutionary outbreak. Land was seized by the peasants; many factories and most of the transport were seized by the trade unions; churches were wrecked and the priests driven out or killed.

This was the militant anarchism in which Orwell found himself embedded, more or less by happenstance.

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

Orwell was amazed by the authentic air of solidarity and equality. His squadron was guarding a hill in the Spanish countryside, overlooking a valley filled with peasant farms, facing another hill guarded by fascist troops. The operation may have been dysfunctional, but Orwell says that it was "not far from" perfect equality, "a foretaste of Socialism... However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable."

Today, "anarchism" and "chaos" are synonymous, but the anarchism that Orwell experienced was a very specific political movement. Anarchists stood for direct control of industry by workers; government by local committees; and opposition to centralized government, the bourgeoisie, and the church.

The end-goal of anarchism is equality and socialism, which is why the anarchists formed an alliance with the communists during the civil war. But, Orwell writes, "Philosophically, Communism and Anarchism are poles apart... The Communist's emphasis is always on centralism and efficiency, the Anarchist's on liberty and equality."

The revolutionary attitude of the Spanish anarchists made them vulnerable. As the war progressed, the communist contingent emerged as the most influential wing of the republican forces. The Stalinist communists had no interest in revolution. A communist revolution on the far side of the continent would strain the Soviet Union's diplomatic and economic resources at home. So the communist party took a conservative position, pushing to win the war at any cost in order to preserve democratic capitalism in Spain, with a view to eventually realize Spanish communism. This directly contradicted the anarchist view: "the war and the revolution are inseparable." While Orwell agreed with the communist strategy in principle, he grew skeptical over time:

On paper the Communist case was a good one; the trouble was that their actual behaviour made it difficult to believe that they were advancing it in good faith... The thing for which the Communists were working was not to postpone the Spanish revolution till a more suitable time, but to make sure that it never happened.

Spoiler alert: The following paragraphs discuss the final chapters of the book.

Late in the spring, Orwell took a bullet to the neck, which failed to kill him but succeeded to remove him from active duty. Upon his return to Barcelona, where he intended to convalesce, Orwell discovered that the republican government had cracked down on the anarchists. The government had propagated conspiracy theories that the anarchists were fascist spies working to undermine the republican movement from the inside, finally the police swept anarchist strongholds imprisoning anyone they found and executing their leaders.

This all happened while anarchist militants continued to fight on the front lines as members of the republican army, not knowing that their comrades and commanders were being jailed and murdered back home.

Orwell was in danger. As a member of the anarchist division, he was liable to be imprisoned indefinitely without trial. He spent the following days on the lam. At night, he slept in empty lots. During the day, he cleaned himself up in the public bathhouses and then played tourist in the city's expensive shops and restaurants,

For the first time in my life I took to writing things on walls. The passage-ways of several smart restaurants had 'Visca P.O.U.M.!'' scrawled on them as large as I could write it.

("Visca P.O.U.M." means "Long live the workers' party.")

Orwell was injured, outlawed, and outraged. He wanted to keep fighting for the cause, but he could never enlist in a communist unit:

"Sooner or later it might mean being used against the Spanish working class... and if I had to use my rifle at all in such an affair I would use it on the side of the working class and not against them."

When Orwell had arrived in Barcelona, it had been an egalitarian society. The wealthy dressed down in simple clothes and workers had seized control. By the time he left six months later, Barcelona had again appeared its bourgeois-capitalist self. On the train out of the country, Orwell was sitting in a first-class dining car when two detectives came in:

When they saw us in the dining car they seemed satisfied that we were respectable. It was queer how everything had changed. Only six months ago, when the Anarchists still reigned, it was looking like a proletarian that made you respectable.

In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell makes his political views clear. He despises capitalism and Stalinism. He sees the police as the "natural enemy" of the working class. While he never joined the anarchist party, he expresses the most sympathy toward the anarchists. Orwell is a socialist, but a socialist with a particular contempt for power and inequality.

Homage to Catalonia is considered a classic work of memoir, but when it was released in 1938 it was a critical and commercial flop. The book sold some hundreds of copies in the UK and received no reprints, translations, or international distribution until after Orwell's death. The problem was that Orwell's political views were too radical for the communist thinkers of his day.

I think Orwell disdained communism in the way we can only criticize the thing we know best. Orwell hated capitalism, monarchism, and fascism — but that was easy, because he was so removed from them. Orwell's publishers and editors were communist. They refused to publish his writing because it was too critical of the Party. Orwell could have been a communist himself, but he had seen its ugly face. He wrote Animal Farm as a satire of Stalin's Russia. And then he wrote Nineteen Eight-four as a critique of political power with a strong esthetic of communism.

After Orwell's death, his work found a new life as anti-communist propaganda, which missed the point. Orwell hated authoritarianism, which he saw in all of the world's major powers. The three superpowers in Nineteen Eighty-four — Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia — were based on the "Big Three" Allied leaders in WWII: the USSR, the UK, and the USA. In 1945, Orwell coined the term the "cold war" to describe the stalemate between these three powers:

Looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications – that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of “cold war” with its neighbours.

Orwell foresaw the rise of a self-stabilizing, technocratic bureaucracy that could not really be called "democracy." He saw this coming because he had seen its opposite — an organic form of self-organizing collectivism — and he watched that form get crushed, not by an obvious evil like Hitler, Franco, or Mussolini, but by a supposed friend — the so-called leftists and progressives who said they wanted to create a better world. In the end, it is the people who have power — in whatever form — who will do anything to keep it.

Review: Debt, by David Graeber

David Graeber
To whom do we owe the pleasure?
  • history

Benjamin Franklin said that nothing is certain except death and taxes. Death is obvious, but taxes?

One common explanation for this is because we owe our lives to a greater community, embodied in the state. However, the state is a human construct. Perhaps, alternatively, we owe our lives to our parents. But that also doesn't make sense.

A debt is an agreement between two consenting parties. No one consents to their own conception, and we can't assume that life is a gift; some find it burdensome. In 2019, an Indian man sued his parents for giving birth to him. So, parents force their children to exist, in hopes that their children will be grateful. In that sense, it seems like the parent owes a debt to the child. If that's the case, the parent has an obligation to repay the debt by raising their child until the child is self-sufficient. Or, in a collectivist mindset, we might expand that arrangement to say that the whole community has a debt to the child, since reproduction is essential for the preservation of the community. The community rears young because it wants to, not because the children want to be born.

But, nonetheless — even if we our creation serves the will of someone else — we come into the world with a heavy sense that we owe something, that we are indebted.

David Graeber's Debt explores the idea of debt — emotional, philosophical, financial, political, and how this sense of indebted arises.

In the first chapters of the book, Graeber demonstrates that debt is a human experience. Cultures around the world have notions of debt — with varied legal and moral associations. In some contexts, a debt might be friendly, like the way an American might use the phrase "I owe you one" for a favor. In others, it is spiritual, like a karmic debt. Most often today, it is a political–economic idea — a mortgage, a payday loan, rental arrears, the national debt.

Graeber draws history in the shape of a long curve with two undulations. History knows periods of bullion money (which is backed by precious metals) and virtual money (which is backed by social promises). The periods of bullion money are periods of social flourishing and warfare. Bullion and war go together because rulers use war to plunder treasures, and then use those treasure to finance wars, pumping money into their own citizenry.

The first period of virtual money was the Axial Age from 800 BC to 600 AD, corresponding to the heights of ancient Chinese, Indian, and Greek civilization. The growing wealth and complex mechanisms of state drove a rise in abstract forms of thinking, fueling scholarship and philosophy. It was in the middle of the 500s BC that Pythagorus, the Buddha, and Confucius were all alive. The Axial Age also sees the rise of coinage — a money supply for citizens to exchange in markets and pay taxes.

The end of the Axial Age sees a decline in the money supply and a return to virtual money — systems of social credit and bartering. This is the Middle Ages, which lasts from 600 to 1450 AD.

The Middle Ages end with the Capitalist Age, which starts around 1450. Graeber puts the end of this age in 1971, with the end of the gold standard. I'm less certain about that, so I'll leave it aside for now.

In order to understand why we use money, we need to understand what money really is. Graeber uses the parable of a system of IOUs.

Imagine if Jack gave Jill his apple, and Jill gave him an IOU for one apple. Jack could redeem that IOU with Jill; but, if he's creative, he could also trade it with someone else. If Jill keeps issuing IOUs, they could turn into a system of currency. This will work for as long as Jill keeps a stockpile of apples, or else for as long as no one tries to trade in their IOUs.

This situation actually happened in my eighth-grade class. An unusually brilliant classmate named Edward invented a system that he called "The Economy." Edward was a great illustrator, so he drew banknotes with elaborate illustrations and details. Then he traded the banknotes or gave them away. He wanted to create a real economic system in the classroom. Why? I don't know. Maybe it was a social experiment. Maybe it was a power play. In any case, it worked. Students quickly started using the currency to trade with one another for food and favors and school supplies. Like in ancient Eurasia, the money supply eventually dwindled and the currency fell out of usage.

But this is remarkably similar to how a state creates currency. In 1694, a consortium of English bankers loaned £1,200,000 to the King of England. In exchange, the king gave them a contract to distribute royal banknotes, for which the bankers were allowed to charge interest. The king used the money to pay for war with France. Meanwhile, the bankers charged 8% interest to the king and another 8% to the subjects who borrowed the banknotes. In theory, the bankers could have collected all of the banknotes, returned them to the king, and asked for their money back — but they never did. It was that loan that constituted the Bank of England, which remains the backbone of the British economy to this day.

The same way my friend Edward created an economy in our classroom, the state creates a national economy by distributing currency. Then, the state imposes taxes on that economy to siphon off revenue. The taxes fund the royal coffers, but — more importantly — they also propel the economy. In order to pay taxes, citizens need royal currency, which means they must participate in the market economy. Now, if a king wants to raise an army, he can simply offer to pay soldiers in the currency that he has invented, distributed via merchants, and collected in the form of taxes. The soldiers will come to work to earn money to pay their own taxes. Writes Graeber:

If one simply hands out coins to the soldiers and then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you, one would, in one blow, turn one's entire national economy into a vast machine for the provisioning of soldiers, since now every family, in order to get their hands on the coins, must find some way to contribute to the general effort to provide soldiers with things they want. Markets are brought into existence as a side effect. This is a bit of a cartoon version, but it is very clear that markets did spring up around ancient armies... The cre­ation of markets of this sort was not just convenient for feeding sol­diers, but useful in all sorts of ways, since it meant officials no longer had to requisition everything they needed directly from the populace, or figure out a way to produce it on royal estates or royal workshops.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes said that money is a creature of state. While the state didn't invent money, only a state can turn money into the lifeblood of a society.

The King of England created his bank as the economy of England was proceeding through a dramatic transition — the transition from medieval feudalism to the modern capitalism we know and love today. What caused that transition?

The Middle Ages was not the period of squalor and dogma we picture today. It was a relatively peaceful time of contemplative philosophy. This began to change in the High Middle Ages, from 1000–1300, which corresponds with a period of climatic warming (see my writeup of The Little Ice Age). This was the heyday of feudalism, but also a period of economic growth. While feudal serfs couldn't borrow money, there was a growing free peasantry who could. (England was virtually all countryside at this point.) The time also saw a rise in commercial farming and craft guilds, "which finally brought Western Europe to a level of economic activity comparable to that long since considered normal in other parts of the world."

At this point, Western Europe is dominated by a culture of honor. The idea of "chivalry" — based on the image of King Arthur and his knights — the upper-class fashion of the time.

King Arthur is said to have lived at the end of the Axial Age, during the 500s AD, in the waning days of the Roman Empire. According to myth, he was a Roman–British king who fought off Anglo-Saxon invaders from continental Europe. Ultimately, the Anglo-Saxons would eventually succeed in their conquest. Whether or not Arthur was a real person, his myth survived in folk history for centuries, until it was revived more than five centuries later by writers in the High Middle Ages.

The legend of Arthur gained popularity at a time of incredible prosperity for the nobility of Western Europe. This created a large class of wealthy, idle nobles who were prone to creating trouble. While the eldest legitimate son of a noble would inherit his father's wealth, title, and obligations, any younger or bastard sons had to make their fortunes otherwise, and so they often became freelance warriors — knights.

Many became little more than roving bands of thugs, in an endless pursuit of plunder—precisely the sort of people who made merchants' lives so dangerous. Culminating in the twelfth century, there was a concerted effort to bring this dangerous population under the control of the civil authorities: not only the code of chivalry, but the tournament, the joust—all these were more than anything else ways of keeping them out of trouble, as it were, in part by setting knights against each other, in part by turning their entire existence into a kind of stylized ritual.

The gallant knight was actually a spoiled rich kid. So how did the knights earn their mythical status?

The knights relied heavily on merchants to furnish their lifestyles — from supplying their festivals to financing their quests. But, excluded from nobility, the merchants could never earn the prestige of knighthood for themselves. So, instead, they profited off of the knights, making good business out off the knighthood-industrial complex, occasionally seizing and liquidating the knight's assets when he defaults after their frequent failed schemes, spending sprees, and gambling losses.

While the knights performed an image of splendor at home, the merchants travelled abroad on trade missions. Eventually, the authors of the time combined the image of the knight and the merchant into the image of the adventuring knight, "wandering the forests of a mythic Albion, challenging rivals, confronting ogres, fairies, wizards, and mys­terious beasts."

Poets popularized the folk legends of Lancelot and Gawain. The story Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, written in 1180, is recognized as perhaps the first novel — or at least a major precursor to the novel. These stories popularized the idea of the adventurous knight undertaking dangerous quests in the spirit of honor — at a time when actual knights embodied a very different spirit. Graeber points out that even the myth of the Grail represented a new genre of fixation for medieval Europeans. It was not a concrete treasure. It was an abstract idea:

Richard Wagner, composer of the opera Parzifal, first suggested that the Grail was a sym­bol inspired by the new forms of finance. Where earlier epic heroes sought after, and fought over, piles of real, concrete gold and silver­... these new ones, born of the new commercial economy, pursued purely abstract forms of value. No one, after all, knew precisely what the Grail was. Even the epics disagree: sometimes it's a plate, sometimes a cup, sometimes a stone. (Wolfram von Eschen­bach imagined it to be a jewel knocked from Lucifer's helmet in a bat­tle at the dawn of time.) In a way it doesn't matter. The point is that it's invisible, intangible, but at the same time of infinite, inexhaustible value, containing everything, capable of making the wasteland flower, feeding the world, providing spiritual sustenance, and healing wounded bodies. Marc Shell even suggested that it would best be conceived as a blank check, the ultimate financial abstraction.

In 1250, at the height of this new commercial moment, the Pope legitimated the concept of a corporation as a legal fiction — a body comprised of many people. Monasteries, universities, municipalities, and guilds could be considered individual entities that could own property, make decisions, and be governed by the state — a new innovation in abstract thought that would create the mechanism for a commercial explosion in later centuries.

At the end of the 1200s, Western Europe has immense wealth, abstract financial and commercial concepts, and a spoiled nobility mythologized as a warrior class. No one anticipated the forthcoming disaster.

The 1300s was perhaps the worst century in human history. Environmental conditions drove recurring surges of famine, disaster, and disease. A famine starting in 1315 killed millions. A bovine pestilence killed up to 50% of cattle in some areas. The Hundred Years war, starting in 1337, killed millions more and inspired France to implement permanent taxation to fund the first standing army in Western Europe. Then the first outbreak of the Black Plague struck in 1346, killing perhaps half of the population of Europe. In the course of a few decades, one of the greatest periods of prosperity in European history turned into one of the most nightmarish periods in the history of the world.

For the preceding three centuries, the population of Europe had been growing quickly. Now, Europe fell into a period of demographic stagnation, which wouldn't start to recover for more than a century.

At the same time, the catastrophe reduced inequality. Wealth of the dominant class was washed away. Peasants inherited land from dead relatives and the labor shortage drove wages up.

The state reacted by freezing wages and tried to enforce serfdom, provoking peasant rebellions. While the uprisings failed, governments nonetheless made concessions, and wealth flowed into the working class, who used their newfound wealth to buy luxury goods and hold evermore feast days. "The fifteenth century is, in fact, considered the heydey of Medieval festive life, with its floats and dragons, maypoles and church ales, its Abbots of Unreason and Lords of Misrule."

At this point, peasants still operated in a virtual economy. For ordinary people, trust — not coins — served as the medium of exchange. Through the 1600s, communities would keep track of trades through systems of promises. Every six or twelve months, communities would come together for a public "reckoning," where they would weigh all of their debts to cancel everything out and then settle the remaining differences with coins or goods. In this system, "everyone was both creditor and debtor."

Villagers often managed their natural resources — farm fields, streams, and forests — collectively. And, when they engaged in market exchange, it was based on these communal systems of trust and cooperation. Even lending could be a respected vocation in a community, often left to widows with no other source of income or neighbors with surplus coin.

This might be the most important point in Graeber's book. In early England, finance was an organic system based on cooperation.

In this world, trust was everything. Most money literally was trust, since most credit arrangements were handshake deals. When people used the word "credit," they referred above all to a reputation for honesty and integrity; and a man or woman's honor, virtue, and respectability, but also, reputation for generosity, decency, and good-natured sociability, were at least as important considerations when deciding whether to make a loan as were assessments of net income. As a result, financial terms became indistinguishable from moral ones. One could speak of others as "worthies," as "a woman of high estimation" or "a man of no account," and equally of "giving credit" to someone's words when one believes what they say ("credit" is from the same root as "creed" or "credibility") , or of "extending credit" to them, when one takes them at their word that they will pay one back... For most English villagers, the real font and focus of social and moral life was not so much the church as the local ale-house—and community was embodied above all in the conviviality of popular festivals like Christmas or May Day, with everything that such celebrations entailed: the sharing of pleasures, the communion of the senses, all the physical embodiment of what was called "good neighborhood."

Cash was mostly reserved for strangers, rents, taxes, and tithes — interactions with no sense of trust.

The landed gentry and wealthy merchants, who eschewed handshake deals, would often use cash with one another, especially to pay off bills of exchange drawn on London markets.

The most important function of bullion currency was to allow the government to purchase arms and pay soldiers — or else by criminals to fund their enterprises. This created a sense that cash was a cold, antisocial technology.

Coins were most likely to be used both by the sort of people who ran the legal system... and by those violent elements of society they saw it as their business to control... Over time, this led to an increasing disjuncture of moral universes. For most, who tried to avoid entanglement in the legal system just as much as they tried to avoid the affairs of soldiers and criminals, debt remained the very fabric of sociability. But those who spent their work ing lives within the halls of government and great commercial houses gradually began to develop a very different perspective, whereby cash exchange was normal and it was debt that came to be seen as tinged with criminality.

For ordinary people, debts were normal agreements between neighbors: "all moral relations came to be conceived as debts," explains Graeber. But for bureaucrats and nobles, debts were seen in the modern sense — as risky liabilities. This was the tip of the wedge that would introduce the early logic of capitalism into daily life.

If this was a period of relative prosperity for the peasantry, then why do we remember the Middle Ages as a time of poverty and darkness. This is an idea that was advanced during the French Enlightenment, and it was largely based on a particular view of the time — the experience of the nobility. For the wealthy, this was a period of existential stress and profound anxiety. Artworks of the time depict mortality and death. Poetry discusses deep depression and sadness. According to the historian Johan Huizinga, it would have been rather gauche for a noble of the time to express optimism.

In this climate, we begin to see a new philosophy emerge: a philosophy that regards people as selfish and untrustworthy. In 1524, Martin Luther wrote "The world needs a strict, hard, temporal government that will compel and constrain the wicked not to rob and to return what they borrow." This flies in the face of ordinary village life, where such disputes would have been settled in the community. Luther is instead arguing that the state must settle such scores, "in order that the world not become a desert, peace may not perish, and trade and society not be utterly destroyed... Let no one think that the world can be ruled without blood; the sword of the ruler must be red and bloody; for the world will and must be evil, and the sword is God's rod and vengeance upon it."

Luther is describing a morality that isn't based on human interactions. Rather, it's based on business interactions, calling for a government that will use violence to compel people to return what they borrow so that trade will not be destroyed.

A century later, in 1624, Francis Bacon wrote his philosophical justifications for "public revenge" — violence by the state against mischievous persons, such as witches. And, a quarter-century later, in 1651, Bacon's mentee, Thomas Hobbes, published his masterwork on political science, Leviathan, in which he argued that people are fundamentally selfish and so the government must compel them to act responsibly. Hobbes took a radically pessimistic view, arguing that humans are basically self-interested machines who only cooperate if they believe it is in their long-term interest to do so, famously writing that human life in nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

The subject of money-lending was a contentious point in Western Europe. The de-facto stance of the church was that it was unethical. Philosophers debated the point in great depth. In this context, scholars rediscovered the ancient Roman idea of interesse: the compensation of loss for late payment. Extending that idea, philosophers surmised that it's reasonable to charge a fee for the profit lost on a loan that could have been invested elsewhere.

To make his case, Hobbes picked up the relatively new idea of interesse, using the mathematical term to lend a sense of scientific authority to his theory. But the roots of Hobbes theory — that humans are self-interested — actually comes from the bourgeois religious idea that we are all primordially sinners, and that without intervention we will all encumber ourselves evermore with the debt of sin. Hobbes imagined a world of endless desire and, therefore, endless competition, "which in turn is why, as Hobbes insisted, our only hope of social peace lies in contractual arrangements and strict enforcement by the apparatus of the state."

To Hobbes' contemporaries, these ideas may have seemed cynical and foreign. But over the coming centuries they would establish deep roots in the English psyche. A century and a quarter later, in 1776, Adam Smith would formalize the capitalist logic of self-interest in his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, enshrining cold self-interest as a moral ideal.

Graeber ties his case together:

The story of the origin of capitalism, then, is not the story of the gradual destruction of traditional communities by the impersonal power of the market. It is, rather, the story of how an economy of credit was converted into an economy of interest; of the gradual transformation of moral networks by the intrusion of the impersonal—and often vindictive—power of the state.

The integration of the new capitalist logic into working class English life was not remotely natural or peaceful. The English government invented draconian measures to safeguard the emerging capitalist economy by criminalizing poverty, unemployment, debt delinquency, breach of contract, and bankruptcy. "Under Elizabeth, for example, the punishment for vagrancy (unemployment) was, for first offense, to have one's ears nailed to a pillory; for repeat offenders, death." This was "the criminalization of the very basis of human society," writes Graeber.

It cannot be overemphasized that in a small community, everyone normally was both lender and borrower. One can only imagine the tensions and temptations that must have existed in a communities—and communities, much though they are based on love, in fact, because they are based on love, will always also be full of hatred, rivalry and passion—when it became clear that with sufficiently clever scheming, manipulation, and perhaps a bit of strategic bribery, they could arrange to have almost anyone they hated imprisoned or even hanged... The effects on communal solidarity must have been devastating. The sudden accessibility of violence really did threaten to transform what had been the essence of sociality into a war of all against all. It's not surprising then, that by the eighteenth century, the very notion of personal credit had acquired a bad name, with both lenders and borrowers considered equally suspect. The use of coins—at least among those who had access to them-had come to seem moral in itself.

Peasant life had fundamentally shifted, but it would take an era-defining turn of event to really propel capitalism.

In the crises at the end of the Middle Ages, Western rulers had lost their access to the Orient — an important source of luxury goods. Now they turned to their new class of knightly merchants for their enrichment:

The ground was only really prepared for capitalism in the familiar sense of the term when the merchants began to organize themselves into eternal bodies as a way to win monopolies, legal or de facto, and avoid the ordinary risks of trade. An excellent case in point was the Society of Merchant Adventurers, charted by King Henry IV in London in 1407, who, despite the romantic-sounding name, were mainly in the business of buying up British woolens and selling them in the Flanders fairs. They were not a modern joint-stock company, but a rather old-fashioned Medieval merchant guild, but they provided a structure whereby older, more substantial merchants could simply provide loans to younger ones, and they managed to secure enough of an exclusive control over the woolen trade that substantial profits were pretty much guaranteed. When such companies began to engage in armed ventures overseas, though, a new era of human history might be said to have begun.

The "merchant adventurer" was the businessman who undertook risky voyages abroad in search of commercial opportunity. In a way, this was the seminal capitalist: the pairing of a "gambler, willing to take any risk" with the "careful financier, whose entire operations are organized around producing steady, mathematical, inexorable growth of income, lies at the the very heart of what we now call 'capitalism.'"

In 1488, European explorers found their new route to Asia around the southern tip of Africa. And then, in 1492, they found their Holy Grail: the New World.

To be clear, Columbus did not discover the New World. Not only were their people already there; not only had Asian explorers likely already crossed the Pacific; but a good number of Europeans had already been there. The Vikings had famously established settlements, and the North American fisheries were an open secret among Basque fishermen. What was new then was not the discovery of a place (who really cares about new a place, anyway; at this point in history, Europe is seriously under-populated and new land isn't that important); it was the discovery of an economic opportunity. This was, after all, the nascent age of conquest.

The early expeditions to the Americas were largely projects seeking to find the precious metals to pay for themselves. But, quickly, they became profitable. The new supply of metals caused a glut of silver across Europe, driving inflation. Following the end of the Black Plague in the 1350, English villages had enjoyed an era of mild reprieve, with relative freedom and prosperity. That period had ended by the 1500s, starting with massive inflation. Between 1500 and 1650, real wages fell by more than half across Europe.

Despite the massive supply of metals, the average peasant remained cash poor. Merchants traded their gold and silver directly to the Far East for cash goods, maintaining a tight money supply back home. The lack of coins in Europe was a huge benefit to the ruling class. Despite inflation, they garnered a massive advantage in terms of purchasing power with their new wealth. When the rulers levied taxes in the inflated currency, the peasants could barely afford to pay them.

Despite the massive influx of metal from the Americas, most families were so low on cash that they were regularly reduced to melting down the family silver to pay their taxes. This was because taxes had to be paid in metal. Everyday business in contrast continued to be transacted much as it had in the Middle Ages, by means of various forms of virtual credit money: tallies, promissory notes, or, within smaller communities, simply by keeping track of who owed what to whom. What really caused the inflation is that those who ended up in control of the bullion—governments, bankers, large-scale merchants—were able to use that control to begin changing the rules, first by insisting that gold and silver were money, and second by introducing new forms of credit-money for their own use while slowly undermining and destroying the local systems of trust that had allowed small-scale communities across Europe to operate largely without the use of metal currency.

The balance of power shifted back to the nobles.

The ruling classes responded to the economic contraction with opportunism. They launched the era of enclosures — surrounding collectively-managed fields with stone walls to declare them as private property. The first major peasant rebellion took place in 1381, launching an endless era of endemic revolt. European governments responded with ruthless suppression. As mentioned earlier, France implemented its first permanent tax to fund Europe's first standing army, creating the economic circulation described by Graeber at the start of the book: taxes fund war, soldiers pay taxes.

This is the true end of the Middle Ages, at the moment when the governments of Europe found their fortune and enforced their newly-created ethic of self-interest.

Until this point, hoarding money had been seen as unethical. Money is a tool of exchange. Hoarding it is like "kidnapping a postman." What's the point?

This is the turning point (and differentiator) between ordinary market economics and capitalism:

While markets are ways of exchanging goods through the medium of money—historically, ways for those with a sur­plus of grain to acquire candles and vice versa—capitalism is first and foremost the art of using money to get more money. Normally, the easiest way to do this is by establishing some kind of formal or de facto monopoly. For this reason, capitalists, whether mer­chant princes, financiers, or industrialists, invariably try to ally them­ selves with political authorities to limit the freedom of the market, so as to make it easier for them to do so.

This is the switch between using money as a medium between commodities (abbreviated C–M–C) and using commodities as a medium between money (abbreviated M–C–M). In this system, money is power. Money is the goal. Money becomes the imperative.

Under the newly emerging capitalist order, the logic of money was granted autonomy; political and military power were then gradually reorganized around it... All of this helps explain why the Church had been so uncompromising in its attitude toward usury. It was not just a philosophical question; it was a matter of moral rivalry. Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself. Allow it to expand, and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison. For the debtor, the world is reduced to a collection of potential dangers, potential tools, and potential merchandise. Even human relations become a matter of cost-benefit calculation.

In the end, this is what happened: we reframed human relations as financial interactions, and the financial aspect supersedes the social one, and subsumed all relations to the will of capital — a new abstract entity with a will of its own. And that will is to grow in perpetuity. "Capitalism is a system that demands constant, endless growth. Enterprises have to grow in order to remain viable."

We have heard a myth that capitalism is a system of free markets. This notion falls apart immediately under scrutiny. Surely a medieval English village could be considered a free market, yet we would never call it capitalist because it orients itself toward communal enterprise, which capitalism abhors.

More importantly, capitalism clashes with freedom at every step. First, capitalism was built on the backs of workers in bondage — serfs, slaves, servants, children, sweatshop workers, debt peons, prisoners. Marxists argue that even wage labor isn't truly free — whether in a factory or at a office desk — "someone with nothing to sell but his or her body cannot in any sense be considered a genuinely free agent." A true free laborer would be an entrepreneur or a contractor who is free to sell their skills to the highest bidder on any given day. But that livelihood was erased through market force and government intervention in the industrial revolution. Self-employed artisans who protested factory automation were gunned down in the streets by government forces. Under capitalism, workers found themselves stuck in perpetual wage labor, virtually indentured to industrial barons. These forms of disenfranchised labor — from slavery to wage labor — fit cleanly with Hobbes' moral worldview of self-interest; they are based on governance by an impersonal, distrusting, centralized lord, rather than relationships based on mutual respect and trust between professionals of relatively equal standing. Second, Capitalism grew by misappropriating the land of entire continents (including Europe itself). And third, capitalism relies on systems of violence — police, prisons, and military — to remain secure and profitable.

If we imagine a bird as an emblem of freedom, then capitalism is much more akin to a cage in a house where the bird is told when to fly and lives under the watchful eye of a hungry cat.

What we see at the dawn of modern capitalism is a gigantic financial apparatus of credit and debt that operates—in practical effect—to pump more and more labor out of just about everyone with whom it comes into contact, and as a result produces an endlessly expanding volume of material goods. It does so not just by moral compulsion, but above all by using moral compulsion to mobilize sheer physical force.

At the end of this chapter, we have come into the industrial revolution. Capitalism is in full force, and Europe is — for the first time in history — approaching a standard of living that had been normal in China for millennia. Europe has abolished the slave trade after enslaving tens of millions of Africans, millions of whom died on the passage across the Atlantic. European conquests have killed millions of indigenous people in Oceania and the Americas and stolen their land. Having invented industrial warfare, the European rulers are preparing to invent industrial genocide. This is the culture of self-interest — a fine one imposes upon oneself for late payment of a debt to no one.

Curiously, capitalism has always embodied an unsettling contradiction: how can a system grow forever? Any capitalist will say that this is essential to capitalism. Graeber argues: they didn't expect it to grow forever; they expected it to self-destruct.

Almost none of the great theorists of capitalism, from anywhere on the political spectrum... felt that capitalism was likely to be around for more than another generation or two at the most... the moment that the fear of imminent social revolution no longer seemed plausible, by the end of World War II, we were immediately presented with the specter of nuclear holocaust. Then, when that no longer seemed plausible, we discovered global warming. This is not to say that these threats were not, and are not, real. Yet it does seem strange that capitalism feels the constant need to imagine, or to actually manufacture, the means of its own imminent extinction... Presented with the prospect of its own eternity, capitalism—or anyway, financial capitalism—simply explodes.

The success of capitalism rests on a secret premise that it will inevitably bring about its own end—the ultimate reckoning of debts. And those generations of capitalists who have already departed will leave the rest of us to foot the bill.

Umbrellas at Notre Dame

Two women under umbrellas
When it rains in Paris.
  • photography

Two women under umbrellas

On a rainy Saturday last in November, I walked down around Paris's first arrondissement with my camera, and took photos of people under their umbrellas.

Kathryn Jezer-Morton has a theory about why wide-brimmed hats are popular on Instagram:

Wide-brimmed hats have become popular because influencers started using them to define their heads in photos, to enable them to look like be-haloed Madonnas rather than pin-headed little plebes.

I find that umbrellas have the same effect, creating a halo for their owner. Thanks also to the lovely diffuse light of drizzly days, I have collected a good number of photos featuring umbrellas.

I took these four photos as I circumambulated Notre Dame, following my old route from the Marais, across Île Saint-Louis to the left bank, stopping at Shakespeare and Co, then across Île de la Cité toward Hôtel de Ville — one of my favorite walks in the world.

A couple under an umbrella looking at the back of Notre Dame, covered in scaffolding

Two men in trench coats under umbrellas looking at the front of Notre Dame

A row of pedestrians under umbrellas. One of the umbrellas is pink.

Review: The Origin of Capitalism, by Ellen Meiksins Wood

Ellen Meiksins Wood
Capitalism changed the world forever. This book explains how it happened.
  • history

2000 years ago, Celtic peoples inhabited the island of Great Britain. In the year 43, these people came under the rule of the Roman Empire. After 400 years of rule, the Roman empire collapsed and its soldiers left Great Britain. In their wake, German tribal chiefs crossed the channel and established early kingdoms and the Anglo-Saxon culture. By 886, Alfred the Great had emerged as a regional king in England, and his descendants would become the first kings of England, beginning the line of English monarchs that wove a thread through history to today's King Charles. In 1066, William the Conqueror (a French–Viking cousin of the family) conquered England to claim the throne. William instituted the Norman language, a Norman ruling class, and the Norman system of feudalism. Feudalism governed English life for the remainder of the Middle Ages until it yielded to capitalism — the system we know today.

This is where The Origin of Capitalism begins, in the latter days of feudalism.

How did capitalism emerge in England after centuries of feudalism? And why has it never never emerged anywhere else in the world?

After reading The Origin of Capitalism, I went back to the essays I wrote for my economic history classes in university. (These were the best part of my major in economics.) I found a heavily annotated PDF of an article about why industrialization happened in the UK before the Netherlands, even though the Netherlands was far more economically advanced. That article offered no satisfying explanation. It left me with a sense that no one really knows why industrialization happened in England. Since industrialization was bound to happen sooner or later, it happened in England first more-or-less by chance.

That's not really true. At least, not according to Meiksins Wood.

Industrialization was never inevitable. It was a consequence of capitalism, and capitalism emerged in England for specific reasons. We can imagine an alternative timeline where the British monarchy quashed a nascent bourgeois class, preventing the rise of capitalism and industrialization altogether. In that timeline, we might still be living in some aristocratic province of the Americas, still in the Age of Sail.

What is capitalism?

That being the case, it's important to understand how capitalism came about — and, for that matter — what it is. Meiksins Wood starts her book with a definition of capitalism as good as any I've ever read, which is worth quoting in full:

Capitalism is a system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labour-power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where all economic actors are dependent on the market. This is true not only of workers, who must sell their labour-power for a wage, but also of capitalists, who depend on the market to buy their inputs, including labour-power, and to sell their output for profit. Capitalism differs from other social forms because producers depend on the market for access to the means of production (unlike, for instance, peasants, who remain in direct, non-market possession of land); while appropriators cannot rely on ‘extra-economic’ powers of appropriation by means of direct coercion – such as the military, political, and judicial powers that enable feudal lords to extract surplus labour from peasants – but must depend on the purely ‘economic’ mechanisms of the market. This distinct system of market dependence means that the requirements of competition and profit-maximization are the fundamental rules of life. Because of those rules, capitalism is a system uniquely driven to improve the productivity of labour by technical means. Above all, it is a system in which the bulk of society’s work is done by propertyless labourers who are obliged to sell their labour-power in exchange for a wage in order to gain access to the means of life and of labour itself. In the process of supplying the needs and wants of society, workers are at the same time and inseparably creating profits for those who buy their labour-power. In fact, the production of goods and services is subordinate to the production of capital and capitalist profit. The basic objective of the capitalist system, in other words, is the production and self-expansion of capital.

This distinctive way of supplying the material needs of human beings, so very different from all preceding ways of organizing material life and social reproduction, has existed for a very short time, barely a fraction of humanity’s existence on earth. Even those who most emphatically insist on the system’s roots in human nature and its natural continuity with age-old human practices would not claim that it really existed before the early modern period, and then only in Western Europe. They may see bits of it in earlier periods, or detect its beginnings in the Middle Ages as a looming threat to a declining feudalism but still constrained by feudal restrictions, or they may say that it began with the expansion of trade or with voyages of discovery – with, say, Columbus’s explorations at the end of the fifteenth century. Some might call these early forms ‘proto-capitalism’, but few would say that the capitalist system existed in earnest before the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and some would place it as late as the eighteenth, or perhaps even the nineteenth, when it matured into its industrial form.

Yet, paradoxically, historical accounts of how this system came into being have typically treated it as the natural realization of ever-present tendencies. Since historians first began explaining the emergence of capitalism, there has scarcely existed an explanation that did not begin by assuming the very thing that needed to be explained. Almost without exception, accounts of the origin of capitalism have been fundamentally circular: they have assumed the prior existence of capitalism in order to explain its coming into being. In order to explain capitalism’s distinctive drive to maximize profit, they have presupposed the existence of a universal profit-maximizing rationality. In order to explain capitalism’s drive to improve labour-productivity by technical means, they have also presupposed a continuous, almost natural, progress of technological improvement in the productivity of labour.

In most accounts of capitalism and its origin, there really is no origin. Capitalism seems always to be there, somewhere; and it only needs to be released from its chains – for instance, from the fetters of feudalism – to be allowed to grow and mature.

So, capitalism is a unique way of organizing society that emerged in England in the 16th century. It is unique in that most people depend on a market economy to access food and shelter, while the minority dominant class depends on the market to maintain its dominance. The dominant class does not directly use violence to get what it wants. Instead, the dominant class outsources violence to the state, which maintains a monopoly on violence in the form of police, military, and a carceral system. While Meiksins Wood doesn't make this argument, I think it's also pertinent that the capitalist system forces participation in capitalism through taxation. All citizens must pay taxes in state currency, and therefore must participate in the capitalist economy to earn currency. So, capitalism has three parts:

  • The laborer, who works

  • The appropriator, who owns the land, debt, machinery, and ideas

  • The state, who enforces cooperation in the system

The laborer and appropriator interact through economic mechanisms while the state interacts with both through extra-economic mechanisms.

Before capitalism

The first part of the book summarizes the history of capitalism. Historians agree that capitalism has an origin, somewhere between the creation of the city-state and the Industrial Revolution:

Economic historian and anthropologist Karl Polanyi maintained that the motive of individual profit associated with market exchange was never till the modern age the dominant principle of economic life. Even where markets were well-developed, a sharp distinction must be made, he said, between societies with markets, such as have existed throughout recorded history, and a 'market society.' In all earlier societies, 'economic' relations and practices were 'embedded' or submerged in non-economic — kinship, communal, religion, and political — relationships. There have been other motives driving economic activity than the purely 'economic' motives of profit and material gain, such as the achievement of status and prestige, or the maintenance of communal solidarity. There have been other ways of organizing economic life than through the mechanisms of market exchange.

That is to say, economics has always been secondary to community. Even in societies that have markets, the market necessarily govern daily life.

Meiksins Wood outlines the mainstream history of the origin of capitalism ("the commercialization model"), debates within Marxism ("the transition debate"), and countervailing views in Marxism ("the Brenner debate"). Meiksins Wood argues that most historians — including most Marxists — treat capitalism as an inherent property of human collectives, which requires no explanation. Meiksins Wood arguges to the contrary that capitalism was a system that needed inventing.

What fails to emerge from all of this is an appreciation of the ways in which a radical transformation of social relations preceded industrialization. The revolutionizing of productive forces presupposed a transformation of property relations and a change in the form of exploitation that created a historically unique need to improve the productivity of labour. It presupposed the emergence of capitalist imperatives: competition, accumulation, and profit-maximization... The specific imperatives of the capitalist market — the pressures of accumulation and increasing labour–productivity — are treated not as the product of specific social relations but as a result of technological improvements that seem more or less inevitable.

Industrialization needed an economic system to drive it. The resources required to invent the steam engine or the factory were so great that they couldn't have emerged in the absence of immense economic pressure. Capitalism provided the pressure to drive the innovation that produced the industrial revolution. Historians often treat these innovations as a historical inevitability that paved the way for capitalism, but that view is mistaken.


Many historians see capitalism as having emerged from European feudalism. Meiksins Wood uses Perry Anderson's definition of feudalism:

A mode of production defined by an 'organic unity of economy and polity', which took the form of a 'chain of parcellized sovereignties', together with a hierarchical chain of conditional property. State power was fragmented among feudal lords, and lordship represented a unity of political and economic power. The fragment of the state that feudal lords possessed — their political, juridical, and military powers — at one and the same time constituted their economic power to appropriate surplus labour from dependent peasants. Lordship was accompanied by 'a mechanism of surplus extraction', serfdom, in which 'economic exploitation and politico-legal coercion were fused.'

Feudalism existed in England from roughly the 1000s to the 1400s. In capitalism, state power is centralized. In feudalism, state power is diffused among feudal lords. Those lords have dominion over the serfs who live on their land, and they extract surplus from their peasantry through economics and threat of violence. Serfs are peasants who are legally bound to the land, and the state of being a serf is called serfdom. (So serfdom is a status within feudalism.) The children of a serf will also be bound to the land. Serfs had obligations to their lord, such as labor, payment, or agricultural produce. To be fair, it doesn't sound like a nice life.

Holland and mercantilism

Outside of feudalism, medieval Europe also had extensive mercantilism — an economic system of international trade. Trade is "the exchange of reciprocal requirements." Meiksins Wood argues that "It does not by itself generate the need to maximize profit and, even less, to produce competitively." A more advanced evolution of trade is profit-taking, which is:

buying cheap in one market and selling dear in another... But here too there is no inherent and systematic compulsion to transform production... Profit by means of carrying trade or arbitrage between markets has strategies of its own. These do not depend on transforming production, nor do they promote the development of the kind of integrated market that imposes competitive imperatives. On the contrary, they thrive on fragmented markets and movement between them.

Meiksins Woods says that before there was capitalist trade, there was an extensive trade in grain across Europe. However, the trade in grain was not the motor of European commerce. It was likely a supporting trade for luxury commerce,

in the sense that the (grain-consuming) urban population of Europe was swelled by people servicing the opulent living and 'conspicuous consumption' of richer consumers. In the Middle Ages, international trade was driven by the wealth of the landed aristocracy, whose consumption patterns — their hunger for luxuries, as well as for the instruments of 'extra-economic' coercion — especially military goods, on which their economic power depended — dictated the logic of the commercial system.

Trade in basic necessities was a secondary market. Trade in cosmopolitan luxuries was the primary market. But consumption and production were not linked as a capitalist system, because lower costs in a grain-producing region wouldn't have imposed economic pressures on the consuming economies — unlike in the cyclical system of a capitalist economy. So, mercantilism was opportunistic (and likely violent, colonial, and exploitative), but not competitive.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the mercantilist Dutch Republic offered the strongest rival to England's claim as the first capitalist economy.

Its commercial wealth and cultural achievements were enormous. It pioneered some of the most sophisticated commercial practices and instruments, in banking, stock trading, and financial speculation, to say nothing of its technical capacities in shipping and its military successes... [it] seems to have been the most highly commercialized society in history, before the advent of capitalism.

Meiksins Wood argues that the Dutch Republic "failed" to transition to capitalism because it was simply not a capitalist economy, and it had different economic incentives.

The Dutch economy itself was dominated not by capitalist producers but by the commercial interests of merchants whose principal vocation, even when they invested in agriculture or industry, was circulation rather than production.

The Dutch republic also relied on "extra-economic" power, like trade wars and privateering. The Dutch Republic's golden age ended during the catastrophic 1600s.

Florence and the Renaissance

Similarly, Meiksins Wood says that Florence was a very advanced and wealthy city at the end of the Middle Ages, but it wasn't a capitalist economy. On the contrary, Florence's wealth likely precluded market economics:

It may be possible to argue (as I would be inclined to do) that the non-capitalist character of such commercial economies was as much their strength as their weakness, and that, for instance, the Italian Renaissance, which flourished in the environment of commercial city-states in northern Italy like Florence, would not have achieved its great heights under the pressures of capitalist imperatives... in the absence of those imperatives, the pattern of economic development was bound to be different... the dominant classes were willing and bale to encourage and exploit not only commerce but also production... Yet the appropriation of great wealth still depended on extra-economic powers and privileges... A system of this kind would inevitably respond to declining market opportunities not by enhancing labour-productivity and improving cost-effectiveness but by squeezing producers harder or by withdrawing altogether from production.


Most of world was free of market imperatives through the eighteenth century. Where markets existed, they were not driven by profit-maximization. Instead, dominant classes extracted surplus labour through extra-economic forces like rent or taxation:

While all kinds of people might buy and sell all kinds of things in the market, neither the peasant-proprietors who produced, nor the landlords and officeholders who appropriated what others produced, depended directly on the market for the conditions of their self-reproduction, and the relations between them were not mediated by the market... It was a fundamental change in these social property relations — a change that made producers, appropriators, and the relations between them market-dependent — that would bring about capitalism.

Capitalism was born when market imperatives seized hold of food production, the provision of life's most irreducible necessity.

Historians imagine that capitalism somehow triumphed over feudalism, breaking the chains of history. Meiksins Wood outlines a different narrative, where capitalism didn't need to compete with feudalism, since both were driven by class struggle between lords and peasants. Capitalism wasn't an inevitable "next step" from feudalism, otherwise capitalism would have emerged in other feudal states. In France, feudalism turned into absolutism rather than capitalism. But other than its formation in early modern England, capitalism has never independently emerged anywhere else in the world. Capitalism has only spread through the (usually violent) expansion and diplomacy of capitalist states.

In capitalism, laborers and lords perpetually compete in the market, forming a cycle of consumption, like an ever-growing ouroboros. This system pulls everything into its orbit and drives participants to reduce costs and increase prices. Participants with more power (by default, the lords) have more economic leverage, so the system tends to tip in their favor. With all else held equal, wages will fall and prices will rise. In theory, this might be offset somewhat by innovation, as it increases efficiency. However, the competition and innovation of capitalism also has high human costs, and so laborers tend to lose out in this equation. Meiksins Wood sums up why capitalism tends towards explotation:

Not the emergence of steam or the factory system, but rather the need inherent in capitalist property relations to increase productivity and profit. Those capitalist imperatives were imposed on traditional forms of work no less than on new forms of labour, on artisans still engaged in pre-industrial production no less than on factory hands.

The emergence of capitalism shifted peasants' understanding of the world. Previously, if a peasant couldn't find food in a marketplace, there would have been a transparent reason. Capitalism put the market beyond the control of the people, passing control to "self-regulating" price mechanisms. Peasants were forced to accept that sometimes food was unavailable for abstract reasons of supply and profit. As this new worldview took hold, with new conceptions of property and profit, it took precedence in law. The state enforced the ethic of profit with force, placing capitalists' right to profit over the customary rights of subsistence and communal or customary lands. "Coercion by the state was required to impose the coercion of the market."

If this sounds like a peaceful compromise, it was not. The rise of capitalism was marked by persistent war, rebellion, revolution, oppression, famine, and exploitation.

Only in capitalism is the dominant mode of appropriation based on the complete dispossession of direct producers, who (unlike chattel slaves) are legally free and whose surplus labour is appropriated by purely ‘economic’ means. Because direct producers in a fully developer capitalism are propertyless, and because their only access to the means of production, to the requirements of their own reproduction, even to the means of their own labour, is the sale of their labour-power in exchange for a wage, capitalists can appropriate the workers' surplus labour without direct coercion... Just as workers depend on the market to sell their labour-power as a commodity, capitalists depend on it to buy labour-power... This market dependence gives the market an unprecedented role in capitalist societies, as not only a simple mechanism of exchange or distribution but the principal determinant and regulator of social reproduction.

How capitalism emerged

Halfway through the book, Meiksins Wood formulates her research question:

Given that producers were exploited by appropriators in non-capitalist ways for millennia before the advent of capitalism, and given that markets have also existed 'time out of mind' and almost everywhere, how did it happen that producers and appropriators, and the relations between them, came to be so market-dependent?

From here, Meiksins Wood begins to answer that question in earnest. Meiksins Wood's thesis — that capitalism had its origin in changes in English agricultural economics — comes directly from Marx's Capital, though Meiksins Wood's account benefits from a century-and-a-half of intellectual development since Marx, producing a deep and nuanced understanding.

In the 1500s, England was a starkly different society than any other country in Europe. Thanks to England's isolation as an island, it was uniquely demilitarized. While feudal lordships fragmented most of continent Europe, the British crown had unified Britain under a single government. Britain saw relatively little internal conflict.

In the eleventh century (if not before), when the Norman ruling class established itself on the island as a fairly cohesive military and political entity, England already became more unified than most countries. In the sixteenth century, England went a long way toward eliminating the fragmentation of the state, the ‘parcellized sovereignty’, inherited from feudalism.

Britain already had an impressive network of roads and aqueducts. At the same time, the island of Great Britain is large and naturally well defended by the surrounding seas, with easy shipping access to the continent. England was centralized around the monarchy in London. As a result, there was little need for a built-up military. Since England's dominant class couldn't finance itself with military plunder, it needed to rely on gentler forms of exploitation.

Since the Normans introduced feudalism in the 1000s, land in England had been unusually concentrated in the hands of a small aristocracy. Relatively few lords controlled exceptionally large swaths of land. These lords maintained a compromise with the monarchy whereby they would respect the rule of London while they profited off their own land.

In a creative twist, landlords started increasing their revenue by raising rents on their tenants. Maybe this was an idea borrowed from the Netherlands, across the North Sea, where merchants had become expert at market economics through the impressive mercantile network they had built since the 1400s. For the English, it was radical to view land as a good that one could trade in a market. In principle, it held appeal to the peasants who wanted freedom from the bondage of serfdom.

Landlords saw serfdom as ultimately untenable: it depended on the violent oppression of a laboring class, which is expensive and risky. So they released their serfs from the bondage of feudalism into the competition of the market economy. For centuries, peasants had relied on customary rights to the land, paying rents that remained steady for generations. Now a peasant had the freedom to choose a tenancy as they liked. This was not a revolution, but a gradual movement that spread outwards from Southern England.

Agrarian landlords in this arrangement had a strong incentive to encourage – and, wherever possible, to compel – their tenants to find ways of reducing costs by increasing labour-productivity... Tenants were increasingly subject not only to direct pressures from landlords but also to market imperatives that compelled them to enhance their productivity... Tenants were obliged to compete not only in a market for consumers but also in a market for access to land... This market-mediated relation between landlords and peasants is visible in the attitude to rents that was emerging by the sixteenth century. In a system of ‘competitive rents’, in which landlords, wherever possible, would effectively lease land to the highest bidder, at whatever rent the market would bear, they became increasingly conscious of the difference between the fixed rents paid by customary tenants and an economic rent determined by the market.

The word "farmer" literally means "renter," preserved in the modern sense of "farm out." The landlords now increased their revenue by raising rents, evicting tenants in favor of new tenants who would pay more. Those new tenants had to produce more crops or livestock in order to pay the higher rent.

Agricultural improvement

These early agrarian capitalists invented agricultural science to increase their crop yields. Farmers learned that they could increase their productivity by consolidating many small plots into fewer large plots, buy turning idle common land into intensively-worked private land, and by hiring employees to work the land. They called this process "improvement" from the old French "into profit."

The word ‘improve’ itself, in its original meaning, did not mean just ‘make better’ in a general sense but literally meant to do something for monetary profit, especially to cultivate land for profit... By the seventeenth century, the word ‘improver’ was firmly fixed in the language to refer to someone who rendered land productive and profitable, especially by enclosing it or reclaiming waste... Improvement meant, even more fundamentally, new forms and conceptions of property. ‘Improved’ farming, for the enterprising landlord and his prosperous capitalist tenant, ideally though not necessarily meant enlarged and concentrated landholdings. It certainly meant the elimination of old customs and practices that interfered with the most productive use of land...

The most dramatic form of improvement was the enclosure of formerly-common land. Until this point, much land had been farmed communally. Now, landlords erected stone fences around their fields — a dramatic physical manifestation of the new legal fiction of private property. "Enclosure meant not simply a physical fencing of land but the extinction of common and customary use rights on which many people depended for their livelihood."

Enclosure was the end of communal life in England and the birth of a society dependent on the market exchange of private property — capitalism. Now, the peasants who did not themselves own land were excluded from the fields by physical barriers. They had no choice but to sell their labor on farms or in the growing towns.

John Locke argued that the earth exists to be used productively. Locke believed that labor created profit. Arguing in the interests of the new class of capitalists, Locke said that man creates value by mixing his labor with the land, and unworked land had virtually no value compared to cultivated English land. He specifically said that untilled American Indigenous lands at 1/10th, 1/100th, or 1/1000th the value of English lands.

We need to be reminded that the definition of property was in Locke's day not just a philosophical issue but a very practical one... a new, capitalist definition of property was in the process of establishing itself... Increasingly the principle of improvement for profitable exchange was taking precedence over other principles and other claims to property, whether those claims were based on custom or on some fundamental right of subsistence. Enhancing productivity itself became a reason for excluding other rights.

Locke gave the dominant class an ideological rationale for the dispossession of land, whether at home in England or abroad in the New World. In this new worldview, it is unethical to leave potential profits unrealized, and so it is only noble to enclose and colonize. England created a worldview that demanded acceleration. The ideology of improvement legitimized the reality of bourgeois avarice, driven by capitalist competition.


"Compulsion lies at the heart of the new economic dynamic," writes Meiksin Wood. In capitalism, no one chooses to participate; they capitulate to the system, or the system crushes them.

Once some members of a community begin acting competitively, all members of the community are forced into competition. If other tenants tried to ignore the market, they would be driven out of their land by increasing rents. So market forces spread.

Under capitalism, inefficiencies became opportunities. Any disadvantage for one party could potentially become a competitive advantage for another party. "This was, in other words, the first economic system in history in which the limitations of the market impelled instead of inhibiting the forces of production."

This is why agrarian capitalism made industrial capitalism possible. Contrary to popular belief, industrialism was not driven by invention. Meiksins Wood writes that the inventions of the early industrial revolution were "modest." Rather, innovation was a product of aggressive competition and profit-seeking.

Until the production of the means of survival and self-reproduction is market dependent, this is no capitalist mode of production. With the advent of industrial capitalism, market dependence had truly penetrated to the depths of the social order. But its precondition was an already well-established and deeply rooted market dependence, reaching back to the early days of English agrarian capitalism, when the production of food became subject to the imperatives of competition.

Capitalism is based on exploitation — landlords using the leverage of their ostensible ownership to extract an outsized share of the productivity of their land as reward for their service as managers of the land. But those landlords, who enjoy the exceptional comfort and luxury that their capital affords them, need protection. After all, what should we expect from the dispossessed, impoverished peasants with no opportunity for betterment despite their lifetimes of dedicated toil?

“The economic imperatives of capitalism are always in need of support by extra-economic powers of regulation and coercion, to create and sustain the conditions of accumulation and maintain the system of capitalist property. The transfer of certain ‘political’ powers to capital can never eliminate the need to retain others in a formally separate political ‘sphere’, preserving the division between the moment of economic appropriation and the moment of political coercion. Nor can purely economic imperatives ever completely supplant direct political coercion, or, indeed, survive at all without political support.”

“In fact, capitalism, in some ways more than any other social form, needs politically organized and legally defined stability, regularity, and predictability in its social arrangements. Yet these are conditions of capital’s existence and self-reproduction that it cannot provide for itself and that its own inherently anarchic laws of motion constantly subvert. To stabilize its constitutive social relations – between capital and labour or capital and other capitals – capitalism is especially reliant on legally defined and politically authorized regularities.”

The contract between the landlord and the laborer depends on a pretense of peace, and so the landlord must refrain from exercising violence against their tenants. But capitalism requires violence to safeguard its characteristic inequity. So landlords and government form a pact, separating the "moment of appropriation" (economic extraction) from the "moment of coercion" (extra-economic extraction). The landlord is responsible for extracting profit, while the state uses violence to enforce the system of capitalist violence, with measures such as criminalizing homelessness or quashing rebellions in order to force laborers into the workforce. In this way, capitalism created the modern nation-state.

The present

We can't understand the world we live in — technology, government, money, work — without understanding capitalism and its origin.

The capitalist system is, needless to say, in a constant state of development and flux. But we will not understand its current processes of change and contradiction if we fail to trace them to their foundations. The rise of capitalism cannot be explained as the outcome of technical improvements, 'the Western European trend of economic progress', or any other transhistorical mechanism. The specific transformation of social property relations that set in train a historically unique 'progress' of productive forces cannot be taken for granted. To acknowledge this is critical to an understanding of capitalism - not to mention the conditions of its abolition and replacement by a different social form. We must recognize not only the full force of capitalist imperatives, the compulsions of accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labour-productivity, but also their systemic roots, so we know just why they work the way they do.

Capitalism emerged at a unique point in time when a society decided to mutate traditionally collective ideas — land, shelter, food — into individual ideas. This change took hundreds of years to fully arrive. Perhaps, in the early days, it offered oppressed peoples the promise of a new world: a world which — though they couldn't possibly have understood or foreseen it at the time — would still be rigged against them.

At the end of the book, Meiksins Wood concludes:

Capitalism is not a natural and inevitable consequence of human nature, or of the age-old social tendency to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’. It is a late and localized product of very specific historical conditions. The expansionary drive of capitalism, reaching a point of virtual universality today, is not the consequence of its conformity to human nature or to some transhistorical law, or of some racial or cultural superiority of ‘the West’, but the product of its own historically specific internal laws of motion, its unique capacity as well as its unique need for constant self-expansion. Those laws of motion required vast social transformations and upheavals to set them in train. They required a transformation in the human metabolism with nature, in the provision of life’s basic necessities.

There is, in general, a great disparity between the productive capacities of capitalism and the quality of life it delivers.

We have created a world with incredible wealth, intelligence, and creativity — and yet... we have invented mass-incarceration, mass-displacement, industrial warfare, ecological collapse, colonialism, and widespread human disempowerment. What is this bargain?

Remaining questions

There are three things that the book left me wanting to understand more:

First, capitalism carries an incredibly persuasive notion of progress. Capitalist (and even Marxist) philosophers have upheld an ideological view that humanity is progressing away from a dark past toward a brilliant future. How did capitalism create this idea, and what is the alternative?

Second, why did capitalism emerge at this specific time? Humans have existed for a hundred thousand years, and the last ice age ended ten thousand year ago. My understanding, based partly on The Dawn of Everything and The Little Ice Age (and I'm sure also unpacked in more books on my reading list, including Guns, Germs, and Steel, Debt, The Great Transition, and The World the Plague Made) is that human population gradually grew after the last ice age, spiking during a warm period that started around the year 900, which then crashed around the year 1300, creating a period of unprecedented hardship in Western Europe. This is the question I plan to explore more next.

Finally, what was the attitude of the people who chose to accept this new order? Did they know what they were doing, or was it imposed on them from above? I've read a little about the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the first major uprising in English history. The peasants, who had a sophisticated understand of law, demanded an end of serfdom and equality of all men under the king. Revolutionaries across the country destroyed legal records strategically. In London, the revolutionaries received an audience with the King, who acquiesced to their demands and swore to abolish serfdom — until the following day, when the negotiations turned, the mayor of London beheaded the rebel leader, and the rebels were branded traitors. As Gerald Harriss writes in his history of the period:

The destruction of the lordship did not mean the abolition of private property — no hint of common ownership emerged — but it did imply free access to and use of natural resources like rivers, woods, and pastures. This vision of a realm composed of village communities under a distant king is indicative of the restricted horizons of the villagers who led it... In some aspects the peasant movement echoed the bastard feudal society it sought to overthrow: in the formation of sworn confederacies, the distribution of livery, the extortion of protection money, and the formation of bands or 'routs.' But their determination to eradicate law and lordship made them true radicals.

Meiksins Wood's work is radical, too, in that it rejects a mechanical view of human history. History unfolds like a dance between various peoples and their environment. Somehow we have danced our way into a very strange chapter of history — the chapter with the iPhone and the cluster munition. I would like to understand the dance steps that brought us here.

The Guys

Out for a walk.
Allister and Ken
  • photography

Ali and Ken smiling

In August, dad, Ali, Jesse, and I went over to Dartmouth for burgers. On the way, I suggested we stop for a walk at the Shannon Park trail. The trail wanders past the old military residences, through some overgrown brush, out to a look-off under the Mackay Bridge, with a beautiful view of the narrows — looking right to Bedford and left to McNab's Island.

We hung out, and the guys let me take some photos.

Afterwards, we went for burgers at Side Hustle.

Ken looking wide-eyed

Ken looking into the distance

Ali laughing

Jesse smiling

Ali and Ken walking down a path

Jesse standing on a path

Jesse leaning on a car

  • travel

The pandemic put travel on pause for years. And then, the advent of remote work put travel into overdrive. Airbnb has captured the windfall of sojourners, turning drafty studio apartments and struggling bed-and-breakfasts around the world into cash cows. Rental prices in Florence have skyrocketed since travel restarted. Claire and I fortunately found an apartment at a reasonable price, but only after looking at dozens of listings that would seem more normal in Paris or Toronto.

Florence is part of Italy's left-leaning "red belt," so it makes sense that the local government has cracked down on Airbnbs here. Though the headline might give the impression that Airbnb will be banned from the city, the reality is much more moderate. The city will allow the 15,000 current Airbnbs (up from 6,000 seven years ago) to remain, while prohibiting new ones.

  • history

Before the popularization of writing system, oral (or "preliterate") societies maintained historical records that spanned millennia through storytelling.

In the Scottish Isles, locals describe how rising sea levels divided one island into two 7,000 years ago. Indigenous storytellers in Australia, Fiji, and America that can describe volcanic eruptions that happened up to 9,000 years ago. Indigenous people in Tasmania can tell you the specific location of a southern star that last appeared in the sky more than 10,000 years ago.

These are all examples of momentous events corroborated by science, but oral history also preserves more routine records: ancestry, relationships, weather, and food. Scientist Patrick Nunn says that oral societies can carry knowledge coherently for hundreds of generations.

Compare that to your own family's oral history. Do you know your grandparents' stories? Your great grandparents' stories?

Our modern world accepts the virtue of literacy as a foregone conclusion. So, a discussion of literary and oral societies raises questions about the drawbacks of literacy. The ancient philosophers debated the virtue of reading and writing, arguing that writing diminishes the skill of memory and externalizes knowledge. Oral records live in the form of wisdom, while written records are lifeless information. More recently, the philosopher Walter Ong has said that "Those who use writing will become forgetful, relying on an external resource for what they lack in internal resources."

Today we repeat the same debate in conversations about Google and ChatGPT. Do these tools weaken our innate intelligence?

I'm inclined to see it the other way. Oral societies demonstrate the potential of the human mind. We have the capacity to hold profound, detailed, and creative knowledge within ourselves. When provided with a textbook for an open-book exam, we'll learn to find information efficiently. But when placed in a foreign country where we don't know the language, we'll study the environment and memorize details to navigate new terrain. We adapt to our context, whether that context is comfortable or challenging. Knowing how powerful the mind is, how do we want to use it?

A History of Violence

Is humanity getting more peaceful?
  • history

In 2011, Steven Pinker wrote a book called The Better Angels of our Nature, in which he argued that human violence declined over time. I never bought that argument, and I felt even more skeptical after reading The Little Ice Age by Brian Fagan. Fagan hypothesized that the changing climate of the 1300s led to an increase in war and revolution in early modern Europe. Based on Fagan's report, it seems like things have gotten much more violent in the modern era.

So, I parsed the data from Wikipedia's list of anthropogenic disasters by death toll. This is a list of man-made disasters, like wars and famines. I calculated the number of deaths from man-made disasters per century and then calculated it relative to the population at the time. Here's a chart of the data:

This is the number of deaths per 100,000 people by manmade disasters per century from the fifth century BCE to the present day.

The first spike, around the second century BCE, is the Qin's wars of unification. For the following millennium and a half, the deadliest events are all in China and the Mongol Empire — until 1347. The next spike — where the death toll rises to 41 people per 100,000 — is the Black Death in Europe.

Scholars debate whether the Black Death was man-made. It's possible that it was caused by poverty and hygiene or purely environmental factors. If we remove it from the data, the chart looks like this:

Starting in the 1400s, mortality rapidly rises with the colonization of the Americas (1492–present), the transatlantic slave trade (16th–19th centuries), the German Peasants' War (1524–1525), the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), British colonization of India (1765–1947), the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), the Irish Famine (1846–1849), the American Civil War (1861–1865), and the Belgian Occupation of the Congo (1805–1908). (And many others.)

Finally, the chart peaks in the 20th century with WWI, the Russian Revolution, the Holodomor, WWII, the Holocaust, the Bengal Famine, the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies, the Korean War, China's Great Leap Forward, the Cambodian Genocide, the Ethiopian Famine, the Rwandan Genocide, and the First and Second Congo Wars. (And many others.)

The data shows a tenfold increase in violence from ancient times to the 20th century. If we want to prove that violence is increasing, we need to find at least ten times as much mortality in the ancient period. That would prove challenging, since most deaths happen in massive events. In this dataset, half of all deaths occurred in nine events (ignoring the Black Death). But disasters leave obvious evidence in history: written records, mass graves, oral histories, abandoned settlements.

To illustrate: the largest war in European history prior to the Renaissance was Caesar's conquest of Gaul (58 BCE–50 BCE), which killed 600,000 people — that's 0.4% of the world's population at the time. In the 1600s, the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) killed 6,000,000 people — 1.2% of the world's population. If you want to argue that the first century BCE was more violent than the 17th century CE, you need to find two more wars as significant as Caesar's conquest of Gaul — and that still wouldn't bring you anywhere close to 20th century mortality.

This data ignores violence on a smaller scale, like murder and raiding, which historians tend to attribute to hunter-gatherers and "cavemen." Pinker picks up Thomas Hobbes' view that prehistoric life was "nasty, brutish, and short." But Pinker's critics argue that Pinker doesn't deliver real evidence to show that prehistoric hunter-gatherer life was so violent. And, anyway, statistics indicate that murder increases with inequality, which would suggest that people are getting more murderous as we build a society with an ever-greater capacity for disparity.

So far, the 21st century has seen fewer violent deaths than the 20th, but now we are witnessing the dawn of the polycrisis. It's too soon to tell what this century will bring.

  • technology

A few weeks ago I messaged my mom about quotations. She left quotes unannotated in her writing, which I found a little jarring at times. What about italics? I suggested.

There's something romantic about dialog without quotation marks. It feels breezy, like it was just thrown together. Writers like Comac McCarthy and Sally Rooney use this style to great effect — creating a fluid feeling, where the inner world of the narrator and the outer world of the action blur together and emotions flow through everything.

Around the same time, my coworker Alex Trost shared a link to an amazing resource on web accessibility guildeines. The guidelines say that you should avoid italics, because they're harder to parse for some readers. Reading through the guidelines, I realized that the same would be true for unmarked plaintext quotations: for some readers, they're just confusing.

I realized that there should always be a reason for a choice. These stylistic choices have a cost. So, it's worth asking: is it worth the cost and, if so, why? That question helps clarify my thinking. I might abandon quotation marks if I want to be poetic, or use italics if I really want a line of speech to flow with the text. But, in general, it makes me appreciate the workhorse that is the reliable ol' quotation mark at the start of a new line.

  • environment

Parks Canada reported a die-off of horses on Sable Island last winter, bringing the population from around 600 to around 450. The mortality is no surprise nor crisis. Last year, the horse population was higher than ever — and it remains remarkably high even after the losses. However, the die-off will reignite an old debate: should the horses be on the island at all?

Ecologically speaking, the horses are an invasive species — livestock seized from Acadian farmers and marooned on the island during the Great Expulsion in the 1700s. The island offers a brutal and inhospitable environment

The inhospitable habitat of the island is defined by sand and salt water, and the malnourished horses exact a heavy toll on that delicate ecosystem. In the 1960s, politicians hatched a plan to turn the horses into dog food, sparking the current wave of romanticism and conservation around the horses of Sable Island.

The horses are beautiful, but it's hard to justify their existence on the island. As climate change brings harsher weather, stronger storms, and higher sea levels, the horses and the island both face increasing risk of extinction.

I think it would be nice to see the remaining horses moved to a comfortable sanctuary on the mainland and their romantic image as sand-swept ponies preserved in the history books.

  • news

Last week, Wab Kinew won the provincial election to become premier of Manitoba and, in doing so, became the first-ever First Nations premier of a Canadian province.

A landfill sat at the center of the race. Police believe that the bodies of two women murdered by a serial killer are buried in the landfill, but officials have rejected plans to search the landfill for their remains. During the election, Manitoba's incumbent premier ran a tasteless campaign opposing the landfill search. Knowing they were fighting a losing campaign, Stefanson ran last-minute ads reassuring voters that "You're in the voting booth alone... vote how you feel, not how others say you should... Vote like no one is watching," which maybe said the quiet part loud: Voting for us is shameful.

In his campaign, Kinew promised to search the landfil. And, as soon as he won, the federal government announced funding for a new study on the landfill. The study will cost three-quarters of a million dollars. You might be asking yourself, like I did: if that's how much the study costs, how much will the dig cost? The answer is: around $100 million dollars.

Ten years ago, I wrote about Halifax's landfill. In the nineties, Halifax built one of the most advanced landfills in the world, where a team sifts through every piece of trash before it goes in the hole. The team catches explosives, toxic materials, guns, and — yes — bodies. Or rather, they did, until murderers realized they couldn't dispose of bodies in the garbage anymore. At the time, the garbage-sifting operation cost about $10 million a year, about 1% of Halifax's $1 billion annual operating budget, and about 10% of the cost to search the landfill in Manitoba.

Conservatives in Manitoba ran a campaign that balked at that price. Who would pay $100 million to search for human remains? (The Titan submersible search, which was originally billed as a rescue mission, may have cost the Canadian Coast Guard around $20 million.) But — as the newspaper ads demonstrate — they also felt some degree of shame. That makes sense. Because, before you can discuss whether or not $100 million is too much to spend to recover human remains you have to acknowledge how we got here. How do we arrive in a place where a serial killer can murder four Indigenous women, and two of them wind up buried in a landfill? How do we live in a society where humans can be thrown away like garbage? To have talk about the landfill dig, you must first face the fact that we have erred as community. We have made some terrible mistake to arrive here.

We all know the shame that comes from ignoring a mistake. Sometimes we just live with that shame. But there are some mistakes that we have to correct — no matter what the cost.

  • history
  • environment

If humans have been around for 200,000 years, why did we only create large civilizations in the last 5,000 years or so?

We are currently living in an ice age: the quaternary glaciation, which started about 2.5 million years ago. This ice age has seen brief warm periods at regular intervals. On a chart of temperature over the last 2.5 million years, the warm periods look like heartbeats on a cardiogram.

Most of the warm periods have been quite short, with two exceptions: the most recent being the current period, which has been warm for about 12,000 years — and will probably continue to be warm for another 50,000 years. The last warm period before the current one was the Eemian Age, 130,000 years ago. At the time, humans were still mostly restricted to Africa and Asia, but we can't really know much about their activity — the intervening 100,000 years of glaciation and sea-level changes would have wiped away most traces of human activity.

  • society

Stereotyping is the attribution of characteristics to a group of people at the expense of the individuals' identity. We inherit and invent countless assumptions about other groups — some more harmful and some less. But research shows that after an economic shock, harmful stereotyping increases. The researcher put forward two reasons for this:

  1. If we see other people as competitors, our competition will increase if resources become scarce.

  2. Our mental models become outdated, and we judge people's actions according to criteria we developed in more favorable conditions.

In short, we create scapegoats.

  • books
  • history

Today I finished reading (read: skimming) The Little Ice Age by Brian Fagan. The first few chapters of the book are genuinely fascinating. The rest of the book could have been condensed down to fifty pages or so. I feel like this was a great starting point to understand the dawn of modernity — the literal environment in which the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance began. You can read my full review.

  • halifax

For many years, Atlantic News was just the place wear I bought sour gumballs after school. When I was ten, I bought my first magazine there. My best friend and I stole money from my dad's change jar to buy a copy of Mad magazine. I think the Bush–Gore election was on the cover. Dogged by guilt, I told my friend to hide the magazine at his house.

I realized Atlantic News' significance when I was in journalism school. For a young journalist, the store was a wonderland of rare and interesting publishing. "I love magazines," Michelle, the owner of Atlantic News says — and her enthusiasm is infectious. Standing in Atlantic News, you feel an appreciation for the art of magazine publishing seep into your bones. These bundles of paper, full of obscure knowledge, beautiful art, unique textures. I think that passion will carry the shop for another fifty years.

Today in Italian Bureaucracy

  • travel

I call the internet company to get wifi installed. I get a woman in Italian. Posso parlare inglese? I ask in fumbling Italian. Si she answers, indicating that yes I can speak English. Except, no, she doesn't understand any of it. We arrive at a shared understanding that I want wifi, and she gradually takes my address. Terrified that this is going to be a very long and arduous process with great risk of miscommunication, I ask again if I can speak to someone in English. Si. Due minuti. She disappears.

Two minutes later, a man picks up the phone speaking English with a suave Italian accent. His name is Antonio. He graciously guides me through the questions for an internet installation. When I spell my name, he confirms every letter with an Italian place name. T like Torino? L like Livorno? E like Empoli?

After taking all of my details, Antonio hesitates before explaining the next step. He seems unsure that I'll understand. I'm going to give you a number, okay? He explains: he will give me a number to write down. I will hang up and call that number. A machine will answer. I will press one. I will be put on hold. Then the phone will disconnect. Okay?

Italy is a country of faith. Faith in god. And faith that if you hang up and call another number and press one and disconnect and then wait, eventually you will get a wifi installation. And so I did — hang up, call, press one, disconnect, and then wait in silence for eight minutes. Until my phone rang. It's me, said Antonio.

In seven to ten days, I should have my wifi installed. Now I just have to wait for a call from a technician.

Review: How to Photograph People, by Demetrius Fordham

Demetrius Fordham
A skilled introduction to a scary subject.
  • photography
  • books

Demetrius Fordham has written a really nice textbook on a beautiful subject. This isn't a profound investigation, but it is a very competent survey. I really enjoyed learning the nuanced differences between the different genres of people pictures — from editorial to portrait to fine art.

Fordham offers lots of personal tips, but my favorite were the thoughtful gestures he uses in portrait shoots. He asks his subjects for their favorite snack and music in advance, and then has a bowl of the snacks and the music playing when they arrive to the shoot. He schedules fifteen minutes at the beginning of the shoot to make small talk. And, he engages the subject in collaboration, asking them what kind of shots they like and what they think might be good.

  • technology

In the wake of Meta banning Canadian news organizations in retaliation against Canadian government policy, the Tyee makes the case for RSS — the ingenious proto-social network that fueled the rise of blogging in the '00s.

When I was seventeen, I got a lesson in RSS from a blogger. At the time, you had to send out a "ping" to let the internet know you had published a new blog post. I thought it was so cool.

A decade and a half later, RSS is still a really excellent option for web publishing. You can subscribe to this blog via RSS (or rather, a variant called ATOM that works the same way).

Review: The Little Ice Age, by Brian Fagan

Brian Fagan
A report on the changing world at the end of the Middle Ages.
  • history
  • books
  • reading
  • environment

The Little Ice Age is Brian Fagan's report on a period of environmental change that changed the world forever.

I moved to Florence three weeks ago. Now that I'm living in the home of the Renaissance, I want to understand better how it happened. Last week I dove into the history and found Fagan's book.

Fagan describes climate changes that unfolded over the course of about a millennium — from around 900CE to 1900CE. The change was caused by long-term changes in atmospheric pressure over the North Atlantic.

The changes happened in two phases:

  • The Medieval Warm Period (MWP), from 950CE to 1250CE

  • The Little Ice Age (LIA), from 1300CE to 1850CE

During the MWP, temperatures in Western Europe were up to 1°C higher than the norm.

During the LIA, temperatures in Western Europe were up to 2°C colder than the norm.

During the MWP, Northern and Western Europe experienced exceptionally long, warm summers. The warm climate opened up huge swaths of marginal land to agriculture. Farmers planted new fields further north and into forests, marshes, and highlands. A wine industry boomed in England. Europe's economic and military power grew and Christendom expanded. The Catholic church launched an era of magnificent cathedral building, which saw the creation of the gothic cathedrals of Paris (Notre Dame), Cologne, Florence, Canterbury, Salisbury, Chartres, Reims, Rouen, Wells, Strasbourg, Exeter, and Siena. This was a golden age for Vikings, who took advantage of the ice-free oceans to settle Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. The population of Central, Western, and Northern Europe more than doubled. All of this newfound wealth created a new class of spoiled nobility that lived off of taxes and rents from the peasantry. This was the golden era of feudalism.

But then, something unexpected happened.

Between 1250 and 1350, the temperature dropped from an unusual high to a withering low. Starting in 1315, Europe saw a period of cold, wet weather that wrought devastation. Year after year, heavy rains through spring and summer washed away the fields and stopped crops from growing. There was famine for seven years. Up to 12% of the population of Northern Europe died. The famished livestock grew weak, and a bovine pestilence struck, killing half of the cattle.

Even after the famine ended, the cold weather remained. The age of prosperity had ended and Europes peasants now faced an interminable age of poverty. Twenty five years after the famine ended, the cold weather brought Bubonic Plague from Asia. The peasants lived in crowded squalor, they had weak immune systems, and they were completely unprepared for further hardship. The plague killed half of the population of Europe in about five years.

The peasantry emerged from the plague with a new outlook. The diminished workforce commanded higher wages, and many peasants had inherited land from dead relatives:

By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the depopulation of the countryside by famine, plague, and war had led to the abandonment of as many as 3,000 villages across France alone. Thousands of hectares of arable land lay vacant and did not come back into cultivation until the end of the century or even later. Again, war was a villain. Frightened peasants fled behind city walls and dared not venture out to cultivate fallow land nearby, thereby compounding food shortages caused by poor harvests and wet weather.

On the other hand, Europe's nobility — having survived famine and plague by hiding in their manor homes — now faced an economic crisis that threatened their opulent lifestyles. To maintain their status, they fought two wars: one against foreign powers to expand or preserve their kingdoms; and one against their own people, to maintain their political dominance. From the 1300s onwards, Europe saw a period of unprecedented war and rebellion peaking in the calamitous 1600s — the coldest and most violent century of the Little Ice Age. In 1560, a Prussian pastor wrote:

There is no real constant sunshine, neither a steady winter nor summer; the earth's crops and produce do not ripen, are no longer as healthy as they were in bygone years. The fruitfulness of all creatures and of the world as a whole is receding.