The Guys

Out for a walk.

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

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.

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?

The Origin of Capitalism

Author: Ellen Meiksins Wood

How did capitalism emerge in Europe after centuries of feudalism? Many historians treat capitalism as preordained. They believe that a community of humans will self-organize as capitalists if given the freedom to do so. In this worldview, capitalism emerged in the last five-hundred years or so because the obstacles to capitalism — like primitive technology and tyrannical landlords — finally subsided, allowing our true nature to flourish.

In this worldview (which underpins the dominant paradigm of the West), capitalism is pseudo-religious. It is not just a technology; it is our nature as humans.

In The Origin of Capitalism, Ellen Meiksins Wood challenges this narrative. Like so much of historian, capitalism is an accident — not fate. Meiksins Wood says capitalism emerged in the early modern period in England as the relationship changed between landowners, farmers, peasants, and the state.

Meiksins Wood starts the book with an excellent definition of capitalism:

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 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.

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.

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. But 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 capitalism 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.

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 is a system where coercive politics and economics are joined in the hands of lords, but power is fragmented.

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 (usually violent) contact with capitalist states.

Why did commerce become more exploitative under early capitalism?

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.”

On the origin of agrarian capitalism, Wood explains that England was an unusual European state in the 1500s. At the time, England was especially centralized. One government had extended sovereignty over the entire island, with relatively little remaining feudal conflict or insurgency. 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. As a result, England had little need for a built-up military, and instead exercised political–economic coercion on the citizenry through taxation.

In this environment that was relatively consolidated and free from conflict, landlords viewed the land that they claimed as property rather than domain. Up to this point, mercantilism had encouraged the idea of trading goods, but the critical mass for markets to arise. In 16th-century England, lords saw their land as a good to trade, and the first mass market emerged. Lords competed to get the highest rent from their tenants.

Up to this point, the tenants had enjoyed customary rights to the land at relatively fixed prices. Now, tenants had to buy their right to the land at extractive market rates. The rising rents forced tenants to compete to increase income from their farms by producing more or lowering prices.

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 quickly took hold and spread.

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.

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:

      54.00 ┤                        ╭╮ 
      51.40 ┤                        ││ 
      48.80 ┤                        ││ 
      46.20 ┤                       ╭╯│ 
      43.60 ┤                     ╭─╯ │ 
      41.00 ┤                  ╭╮╭╯   │ 
      38.40 ┤                  │╰╯    │ 
      35.80 ┤                  │      │ 
      33.20 ┤                  │      │ 
      30.60 ┤                  │      │ 
      28.00 ┤                  │      │ 
      25.40 ┤                  │      │ 
      22.80 ┤                  │      │ 
      20.20 ┤                  │      │ 
      17.60 ┤                  │      │ 
      15.00 ┤                  │      │ 
      12.40 ┤  ╭─╮ ╭╮    ╭─╮  ╭╯      │ 
       9.80 ┤  │ ╰╮│╰─╮  │ ╰──╯       ╰ 
       7.20 ┤  │  ╰╯  ╰──╯     ↑
       4.60 ┤  │               Black Death
       2.00 ┼──╯                        
	   -5    0    5    10   15   20

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:

      34.00 ┤                        ╭╮ 
      32.40 ┤                        ││ 
      30.80 ┤                        ││ 
      29.20 ┤                       ╭╯│ 
      27.60 ┤                       │ │ 
      26.00 ┤                       │ │ 
      24.40 ┤                      ╭╯ │ 
      22.80 ┤                     ╭╯  │ 
      21.20 ┤                     │   │ 
      19.60 ┤                     │   │ 
      18.00 ┤                    ╭╯   │ 
      16.40 ┤                  ╭─╯    │ 
      14.80 ┤                  │      │ 
      13.20 ┤  ╭─╮ ╭╮    ╭─╮  ╭╯      │ 
      11.60 ┤  │ │ │╰╮   │ ╰─╮│       ╰ 
      10.00 ┤  │ ╰─╯ ╰──╮│   ╰╯         
       8.40 ┤  │        ╰╯              
       6.80 ┤  │                        
       5.20 ┤  │                        
       3.60 ┤  │                        
       2.00 ┼──╯                      
	   -5    0    5    10   15   20

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023