Taped to the bookshelf above my desk is a scribbled quote from William Gibson’s novel Zero History: “Reading, his therapist had suggested, had likely been his first drug.” That deadpan comment could have come straight from my FBI file. But it may also apply to civilization as a whole.
Written language was independently invented in all the early imperial civilizations – Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India, and Mesoamerica. It was first used to track the inventory of ancient granaries, but soon evolved beyond mere accounting. The written word took widely varied shapes around the world, but evidently civilization itself could not have developed without some method of translating a complex reality into a convenient system of symbols on clay tablets, papyrus, even knotted rope.
Indigenous mythologies speak of a time when animals and humans shared a common language and lived in community – their version of the Golden Age. Many tribal peoples still live in a living world where medicinal plants teach the healers their craft and animal spirits guide the shamans. Writing down what had once been spoken language, the theory goes, took people a step away from their natural surroundings into a realm of intellectual abstraction, allowing them to mentally objectify the world and its creatures. Slowly but inevitably this led to the scientific revolution and the extraction economy that threatens the entire planet today.
Other theorists disagree – all reading addicts, no doubt. Before the granaries could be inventoried they had to be filled with grain. So maybe agriculture was the Original Sin, rather than literacy?
Maybe. But as Riane Eisler explains in The Chalice & the Blade (1987), the domestication of plants itself was nothing new; the religion and art of the Neolithic or Late Stone Age revolved around the sacred cycle of seedtime and harvest. Some prehistoric cultures were quite prosperous, but according to archeologist Marija Gimbutas, no Neolithic site in Mesopotamia or the Mediterranean has yielded either weapons of war or evidence of a ruling class.
Origin of “the Megamachine”
So what changed? What made it possible for farming villages to expand into imperial cities? What enabled tribal chieftains to become godlike emperors ruling ever-expanding domains? To make a 10,000-year story short, how did humanity make the evolutionary leap from Mutual Aid to Mutual Assured Destruction?
Daniel Quinn offers his theory in Ishmael (1992), a Socratic dialogue disguised as a novel. Ishmael, a wise and well-read gorilla, convinces a slow-witted human that the key invention was not agriculture but the granary itself, which allowed larger amounts of grain to be grown and stored, which allowed ambitious tribal chieftains to become kings by simply locking up the food. Subjects of the king were forced to work in order to eat, leaving behind a leisurely lifestyle of hunting and gathering between naps, arts and crafts, and storytelling around the campfire.
Starvation became increasingly rare as agricultural technologies such as irrigation improved. But back in the pre-civilized era, if food was scarce, everyone went hungry, including the chieftain. In the kingdoms of civilization, the king sat down to a daily feast even when the peasants starved – clearly a major step forward.
But how could one man impose his will over so many? In his two-volume masterwork The Myth of the Machine (1967/1970), Lewis Mumford proposes that the Industrial Revolution began not with the invention of the steam engine in the 18th century, but 10,000 years earlier. The first machine, he says, was constructed not of metal, wood, or stone, but of people. The chieftain became an emperor by organizing the hunters and gatherers of tribal society into armies that operated in well-drilled unison. An army of fieldworkers to plant, tend and harvest vast fields of grain. An army of stonecutters and masons to build palaces and temples and those all-important granaries. An army of soldiers to guard the granaries, and another to conquer new territories in order to grow more grain and conscript more subjects for the labor force that served the king.
But how were all those people persuaded to believe they were not free individuals like their grandparents, but interchangeable parts in what Mumford calls “the Megamachine”? Many of them had no choice; every empire was built on the backs of slaves. But every emperor needs loyal subjects to oversee the slaves, true believers in his dream of conquest to follow him into battle. Naturalist Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid (1902) describes how humans, like many other species, are social creatures – dependent on their tribe not just for daily survival but for emotional support, spiritual communion, a sense of belonging. The early kings exploited this inherent need for connection, transferring tribal loyalty to the empire and its godlike leader.
Rise of the Corporate Economy
The concept of society as a machine took a huge stride forward in the 18th century, when it became fashionable among the intellectuals of Europe – all wealthy aristocrats – to see the natural world itself as a sophisticated mechanical apparatus. Philosophers like Rene Descartes and scientists like Isaac Newton were eager to take nature apart to see what made it tick. The invention of the steam engine kicked off a race to take it apart more literally and use the parts to build, fuel, and feed a more literal class of machines.
Soon the machinery of civilization was running on coal, then on petroleum, which exponentially expanded its power, its wealth, and its insatiable need to dig up the Earth to feed both literal and metaphorical machinery. Thanks to a newly-discovered scientific principle called the “free market,” the armies and bureaucracies of colonial empire were slowly but surely superseded by a far more efficient mechanism for global dominance: the corporate economy.
The Industrial Revolution’s expanding array of new inventions undeniably made life easier, at least for those who could afford them. But the most beneficent invention of all was the corporation. Its motto was “customer service,” and it advertised itself as zealously devoted to producing goods and services for the public at the lowest possible price. Billions have been spent to polish that shiny image. But as early as 1906, Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary defined the corporation as “an ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.” Behind the façade of marketing, PR, and customer service, the corporate structure is a machine designed to funnel money to stockholders while shielding them from liability. The real product of every corporation is profit, maximizing revenue while externalizing costs.
Early corporations like the Dutch East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company were chartered by royal governments to help colonize new territories. Though the “private sector” has gradually expanded to rival the State, the two systems have always functioned most effectively as one machine. The so-called “free market” seems to require regular lubrication with tax-funded – and blood-soaked – military interventions. And while in theory the U.S. government regulates corporate behavior, through lobbying, campaign contributions and the proverbial “revolving door,” the opposite is generally true.
The Growth Imperative
Unlike an agrarian Neolithic village, an empire must constantly grow. Life in the imperial court might seem stable and routine, but out on the frontiers, legions of soldiers must continually be conquering new colonies and plundering their resources to feed the factories and fuel the labor of servants, workers, bureaucrats, soldiers – all to support the luxurious lifestyle of the ruling class. As the empire grows, it has more people to feed, requiring further growth. The modern secular doctrine of Progress, a.k.a. perpetual economic growth, profit, interest, return on investment, is only the latest incarnation of this 10,000-year-old imperative.
Like any machine, the global corporate economy has no inner moral compass, no perspective beyond its own self-focused tunnel-vision. Even the stockholders of the One Percent are helpless cogs in the machine. Corporate officers must do their “fiduciary duty” or be replaced. New technologies hit the market in relentless waves, each re-creating human society in its own image as we mere humans struggle to keep up. As citizens we may protest, but as “consumers” we all depend on a supply chain thousands of miles long for our daily bread. We continue to shovel the planet’s reserves of fossil fuel into the firebox of economic growth, even as disaster looms on the tracks ahead.
And suddenly, right on cue, here comes the inevitable end result of plugging ourselves into a machine: Artificial Intelligence. The machine has been running the show from behind the scenes for 10,000 years. Now it’s ready to take center stage. What a relief! We can finally admit we are not in charge; we have handed our free will over to a machine. A machine that is programmed to drive and direct human affairs, but owes no obligation to us or our children. A machine that is efficiently dismantling our glorious, irreplaceable planet to run its algorithms of profit, progress, and power. A machine called civilization.
But what can we do about it? It starts with unplugging from the machine mentality. But how? Sorry, time’s up! You’ll have to deposit another quarter in my word machine. I’ll get back to you next month.
stickers available at