We Live Like Kings But Pity Ourselves as Peons

Posted on Saturday, 12th May 2012 @ 08:24 PM by Text Size A | A | A

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An ordinary modern person enjoys luxuries ancient kings couldn’t have dreamed of.

Yet throughout history, we see kings standing in the way of innovations that raise the standard of living for everyone.
If absolute monarchs still ran things, we surely wouldn’t have a shower and microwave in every house.
For short-sighted despots, having an abject, beaten population incapable of organization or resistance serves their interests.
It does not cross their minds that loosening their stranglehold on their own people could enrich them far more.

Yet people in power aren’t in power because they are enlightened visionaries.  They are in power because they are good at staying in power.
The system gets exactly what it selects for.

These despots have always understood on some level that they cannot possibly anticipate all the complex changes brought about by a rampant stream of invention and innovation.
The same technology that allows everyone to communicate instantly across hundreds of miles or cook a meal in a minute might also undermine the ruler’s power.

We might think of the story of the town mouse and the country mouse. The country mouse enjoys the riches of the city but finds he must live in constant fear and uncertainty.  He ultimately chooses to return to a secure life in the country.

Thus, an overwhelming desire for security becomes the poverty of the rich.

I’ve seen the tombs of the rich and famous of medieval Europe, I couldn’t help but notice that none of them lived past age 60.
I’ve imagined what modern medicine could have done for an older, ailing Henry Tudor.
These winners of the social game lived sickly lives alongside those they’d beaten.  In some ways, they had not succeeded in being truly prosperous but only in becoming less wretched than their counterparts.

And so long as they were less wretched than anyone else and were secure in their power, any uncontrolled change was more likely to be a threat than an asset.  In their circumstances crushing new ideas was rational.

But to really understand the conservative tendencies of the powerful down to the present day, we have to be honest about human nature.

How much does an i-phone or a television really improve our lives if everyone has one?

The ruler loses when one of his prized luxuries becomes commonplace amongst the seething masses.  He will soon turn his attentions to some other thing that is still inaccessible to most people.
The more ways he can distinguish himself from his peons, the happier he is.
As humans, we tend to perceive our wellbeing not by an absolute barometer but by the capriciously shifting circumstances of others.

Might not the farmer who makes a decent living while his neighbors are starving feel a greater swelling of satisfaction than a modern millionaire who owns the same i-pod as the commonest of peasants?

It’s all about relative status and power.

Does a television or a hot shower change the fact that most of us are impotent corporate cogs?

On the other hand does dying young while ruling over a neolithic cave change anything if you can mate with anyone you want and wield ultimate power over life and death?

Does ‘progress’ then really change the way we experience life and our place in society?

Do ‘conveniences’ and ‘entertainment’ do anything more than make our lives as tools and slaves slightly more palatable?

If not, can we blame tyrants who prefer to die in filth as the absolute rulers of starving peasants to living in a wealthy society as mere ‘representatives?’

1. “These despots have always understood on some level that they cannot possibly anticipate all the complex changes brought about by a rampant stream of invention and innovation.”
  1. Clearly your idea is sometimes right.  E.g. theocrats in the medieval Church suppressed heresy because it would undermine their propaganda regime.

    However, I think a lot of traditional monarchs encouraged technology precisely because they had no idea that they were undermining their own monarchy.  Monarchy is not anti-technology;  late European monarchy is a society/government structured on the belief that some bloodline is inexplicably chosen by God to rule. Earlier forms of European monarchy were basically just chieftains.  The Vikings even elected kings.

    There are also economic factors like guilds.  The physicians’ guild will be interested in suppressing competition, for example.

    2. “And so long as they were less wretched than anyone else and were secure in their power, any uncontrolled change was more likely to be a threat than an asset.”

    I think a lot of changes happened without the rulers being aware.  When gunpowder was discovered by alchemists in China, the emperor didn’t have anything to say about it.  The alchemists were going to work, no matter what.

    Think about how smug and complacent people in power can get.  Think about the Sun King, who was not afraid of scientists.  Much of the time, the bloated ego of the despot sees all progress as revolving around him.

    3. “The more ways he can distinguish himself from his peons, the happier he is.
    As humans, we tend to perceive our wellbeing not by an absolute barometer but by the capriciously shifting circumstances of others.”

    I think you’re overstating the case. The desire to dominate others is just one facet of human character.

      • Monarchs certainly have hired inventors and encouraged them whenever they feel it suits these purposes.
        Usually this purpose is finding an edge over other landlords.
        Or if they feel secure against their neighbors they don’t even take these measures.

      A major inspiration for this post was an essay I read on the Idle Theory website.

      “far more technological innovation has gone into weapons and warfighting than has gone into the tools and techniques of everyday life. As has been pointed out elsewhere, a Roman from the time of the Republic would recognize our 21st century brick houses with their tiled roofs and wooden doors, our plates and cups and tables, our bread and our wine. But he would not recognize our gunpowder, rifles, machine guns, missiles, jet fighters, aircraft carriers, or nuclear weapons.”

      Most of the ‘conveniences’ that improved the lives of most people tended to be offshoots of technologies developed for the purposes of domination and conquest.

      Canned food for instance was developed as a military technology during the Napoleonic war to keep troops fed in a war torn countryside that had long been stripped bare of food.
      As it so happened, canned food went on to improve civilian life.

      Or we might look at numerous technologies that arose from the US and Soviet space programs.  It was a big dick swinging contest between two opposing enclaves of landlords but in the process they stumbled on things that happened to contribute to general human wellbeing.

      Improvements in the general happiness of living happens by accident if at all where a few tyrants hold sway.  Nearly every technological improvement begins as an attempt by the powerful to gain the advantage over their peers.

      Power might not be the overwhelming imperative of any man interacting with family and friends.  I’m sure most powerful individuals try to behave benevolently.  But in aggregate, certain patterns of Machiavellian self interest emerge.  Most people are barely even aware their tireless strivings for social status and domination.
      Unaware of who they really are or why they do what they do, they resort to ruthless measures.

      As for the guilds, are they not another tier of despots doing exactly as we’d expect them to do?

      As for alchemists, where do you suppose they got the money for their expensive laboratories and the leisure time to pursue alchemy?

      When wealth is scarce the few wealthy people have a unique sort of stranglehold on the production of society.

      • This was insightful. I had really not ‘seen’ this link between innovation and war, but now, I do ‘see’. And yes, you are right that most of our human attributes are governed by the ‘social theory of relativity’ – everything that we do, everything that we create, everything that we are – is not just ‘self-interest’ but also, and more importantly, ‘one’s handiwork — the neighbor’s plight’. This leaves one to wonder: is there any other specie on earth that is as self-destructive! And to think that we call ourselves ‘superior, cognitive, rational beings’ with no trace of ‘animal instincts’. I feel even the docile bees in their hive are a better example (and I am not even suggesting their rallied attack mode, for it might put us to shame) .

      • Kropotkin has a few things to say about the valuable lessons humans can learn from social insects.

    • In China, the alchemical tradition sprang from shamanism.  Emperors had physicians, and in some cases there was cross-fertilization between the wealthy classes and the alchemists, but Chinese alchemy was not controlled by the state.  To the contrary, it was an esoteric magical tradition.
      • Interesting.  I assumed it was more like the Middle Eastern tradition which was very much a fixture of the royal court and the pursuit of eccentric children of the elite.
        This sort of alchemy also had an esoteric, mystical, and magical aspect.

      Was Chinese alchemy regulated by a series of guilds or otherwise stifling orthodoxy?  Or was it it’s own thing from one village to the next?

      Did they manage to work somewhat independently by using less ingredients such as precious gems and metals that would almost certainly require a rich patron?
      Did they do without the hugely expensive specialized glassware that characterized alchemy further west?

      In any case, the alchemists had an invention that was adopted because it proved useful in the struggles between kings.

      Otherwise, I can only imagine that alchemists who made elixirs to better the lot of humanity were left to pursue their art in obscurity or actively deprived of their means to disrupt the established order of society.

    • Even when elites are aware of technologies they tend to downplay their importance, even the experts in the field didn’t estimate the changes wrought by gunpowder, automobiles or the pc. Tons of engineers had to change their skills almost overnight when the transistor overthrew the vacuum tube. The cybernetic steam engine governor was made by a kid who just wanted to play marbles. The elite’s curiosity wasn’t stimulated enough and they had too much emotional investment in the status quo.

    The life force 8 is a good way of working out predictable human desires (Drew Whitman coined it):

  2. 1. Survival, enjoyment of life, life extension
    2. Enjoyment of food and beverages
    3. Freedom from fear, pain and danger
    4. Sexual companionship
    5. Comfortable living conditions
    6. To be superior, winning, keeping up with the joneses
    7. Care and protection of loved ones
    8. Social approval

    Things like curiosity, cleanliness, efficiency, are all put 2nd to these 8. So with those “luxuries”, the men in power get 1, 2, 4 because bitches love successful men, 5, 6, 7 (if you share) and 8. If he can do the math and see that suppressing a valuable technology would serve even two of these needs it wouldn’t be surprising to see him cave in and try to attack it.

    And even the most benevolent ruler would be surrounded with enemies in more violent times, either because of how he got his power or how he had used it. If he lets go, he and his family would be at the mercy of others. Transitions of power are usually far too volatile for diplomacy and long term thinking to rule the day.

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