History of Civilisation - A Story of the Rich versus the Poor

Dec 2011
2,295
#1
The coming of civilisation resulted in large settled populations, which required changes to the form of government, which previously, in the hunter-gatherer situation, would presumably been carried out largely by tribal councils.

Civilisation involves the production of fixed capital eg cultivable land, irrigation channels, fences and walls, functional buildings, that are critical to producing other things of value. It seemed natural that, on the death of the owner of such capital, that the offspring must inherit the capital. Over time, industriousness, intelligence and sheer luck would result in some families accumulating more capital than others. On balance, those with a relatively large amount of capital would be able to retain it through famines, and other vicissitudes, that would ruin those with only a small amount. Thus the tendency would be for the richest to get richer and the condition of the poor would relatively reduce.

Perhaps the first civilised peoples operated democratically, but the concentration of capital in the hands of a few would make them difficult to control. For example, a decision by the political body of a town that the richest should hand over some of their grain to help feed the poor during a famine, might fail when the few rich people say that they won't abide by such an imposition, and would refuse to give work to the labourers if the decision was to be enforced. And of course, the richest would be able to pay a few of the poor people to defend them, and rough up those who might speak in favour of decisions that the rich did not like.

In time the richest would regard it as their right, and responsibility, to rule over the city, and of course they would naturally favour rules and regulations that did not disadvantage themselves. At the same time, I expect that, where the cities had not yet grown very large, say only about 10,000 people, there would still be social norms that all, rich and poor, would be expected to follow. The rich wouldn't be able to do just exactly as they pleased, not yet.

Presumably there was always conflict between tribes, even before civilisation arose, and then when populous cities arose, full-scale war involving armies of thousands became possible. Obviously, chances are one city, or ruler, would come to dominate over a large area, hence the rise of empires such as Sumeria. Eannatum was one of the first emperors known to history, who used terror to conquer almost all of Sumeria and extracted tribute. The use of armed force and murder, to establish a system of routine theft, became the norm, in fact the rich would begin to believe that such behaviour made them great. In Egypt, the first pharoah of the first dynasty, who unified Egypt "led the army across the frontier and won great glory", in other words he went killing and ruled by by force.

Ruling great armies and nations, the richest were able to do what they liked. In Egypt (and other places such as China) they wasted their wealth in creating great tombs, in the vain hope of that they could maintain their lavish lives forever. Pliny the Elder wrote "
the Pyramids of Egypt, so many idle and frivolous pieces of ostentation of their resources, on the part of the monarchs of that country. Indeed, it is asserted by most persons, that the only motive for constructing them, was either a determination not to leave
their treasures to their successors or to rivals that might be plotting to supplant them, or to preventthe lower classes from remaining unoccupied. There was great vanity displayed by these men in constructions of this description".

Thus the rich and powerful wasted the resources of their country by spending selfishly and acting cruelly. Humanity could not develop much in such conditions.

Empires came and went, and in between there could be city states with some measure of independence and some measure of control by ordinary people of how they were ruled. The classical Greek systems of democracy and eugertism gave the masses some power and the rich, to gain recognition and the chance to of official positions, had to pay for things that ordinary people could benefit from. In this situation the Greek world advanced significantly and accumulated ample wealth. But of course the situation changed drastically when Roman armies added Greece to its empire, and it was duly plundered, giving great wealth to a few Romans, who of course used their money to raise armies and fight each other, until one became undisputed top dog. There was then fixed in place a system with the primary purpose of making the rich richer. In the beginning the income of the Senatorial class would have been about 50-100 times that of the ordinary soldier or labourer. 3 centuries later the difference appears to be a factor, incredibly, of about 60,000.

Only in the last 1000 years has there been an extremely slow loosening of the vice-like grip of the rich and powerful over the great majority of people. In the European nation-states, the absence of empires generally made Kings less rich and powerful that emperors. There was some accommodation for those who were not the richest. The English parliament, giving a voice to the "commonalty" (meaning the common people but really only the well-off, at first) sometimes restrained the absolute power of the monarch. More importantly, parliament took over from the monarch the onerous task of ensuring that the country ran smoothly. With more ordinary people having a say in the making of laws, the amount of judicial cruelty began to reduce (because the lawmakers knew that people close to them, or even themselves, might have the misfortune of suffering the penalties that the law imposed). Thus people became less fearful of speaking out to authority, and the just demands of the people could be satisfied.
 
Likes: Futurist
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
#2
The coming of civilisation resulted in large settled populations, which required changes to the form of government, which previously, in the hunter-gatherer situation, would presumably been carried out largely by tribal councils.

Civilisation involves the production of fixed capital eg cultivable land, irrigation channels, fences and walls, functional buildings, that are critical to producing other things of value. It seemed natural that, on the death of the owner of such capital, that the offspring must inherit the capital. Over time, industriousness, intelligence and sheer luck would result in some families accumulating more capital than others. On balance, those with a relatively large amount of capital would be able to retain it through famines, and other vicissitudes, that would ruin those with only a small amount. Thus the tendency would be for the richest to get richer and the condition of the poor would relatively reduce.

Perhaps the first civilised peoples operated democratically, but the concentration of capital in the hands of a few would make them difficult to control. For example, a decision by the political body of a town that the richest should hand over some of their grain to help feed the poor during a famine, might fail when the few rich people say that they won't abide by such an imposition, and would refuse to give work to the labourers if the decision was to be enforced. And of course, the richest would be able to pay a few of the poor people to defend them, and rough up those who might speak in favour of decisions that the rich did not like.

In time the richest would regard it as their right, and responsibility, to rule over the city, and of course they would naturally favour rules and regulations that did not disadvantage themselves. At the same time, I expect that, where the cities had not yet grown very large, say only about 10,000 people, there would still be social norms that all, rich and poor, would be expected to follow. The rich wouldn't be able to do just exactly as they pleased, not yet.

Presumably there was always conflict between tribes, even before civilisation arose, and then when populous cities arose, full-scale war involving armies of thousands became possible. Obviously, chances are one city, or ruler, would come to dominate over a large area, hence the rise of empires such as Sumeria. Eannatum was one of the first emperors known to history, who used terror to conquer almost all of Sumeria and extracted tribute. The use of armed force and murder, to establish a system of routine theft, became the norm, in fact the rich would begin to believe that such behaviour made them great. In Egypt, the first pharoah of the first dynasty, who unified Egypt "led the army across the frontier and won great glory", in other words he went killing and ruled by by force.

Ruling great armies and nations, the richest were able to do what they liked. In Egypt (and other places such as China) they wasted their wealth in creating great tombs, in the vain hope of that they could maintain their lavish lives forever. Pliny the Elder wrote "
the Pyramids of Egypt, so many idle and frivolous pieces of ostentation of their resources, on the part of the monarchs of that country. Indeed, it is asserted by most persons, that the only motive for constructing them, was either a determination not to leave
their treasures to their successors or to rivals that might be plotting to supplant them, or to preventthe lower classes from remaining unoccupied. There was great vanity displayed by these men in constructions of this description".

Thus the rich and powerful wasted the resources of their country by spending selfishly and acting cruelly. Humanity could not develop much in such conditions.

Empires came and went, and in between there could be city states with some measure of independence and some measure of control by ordinary people of how they were ruled. The classical Greek systems of democracy and eugertism gave the masses some power and the rich, to gain recognition and the chance to of official positions, had to pay for things that ordinary people could benefit from. In this situation the Greek world advanced significantly and accumulated ample wealth. But of course the situation changed drastically when Roman armies added Greece to its empire, and it was duly plundered, giving great wealth to a few Romans, who of course used their money to raise armies and fight each other, until one became undisputed top dog. There was then fixed in place a system with the primary purpose of making the rich richer. In the beginning the income of the Senatorial class would have been about 50-100 times that of the ordinary soldier or labourer. 3 centuries later the difference appears to be a factor, incredibly, of about 60,000.

Only in the last 1000 years has there been an extremely slow loosening of the vice-like grip of the rich and powerful over the great majority of people. In the European nation-states, the absence of empires generally made Kings less rich and powerful that emperors. There was some accommodation for those who were not the richest. The English parliament, giving a voice to the "commonalty" (meaning the common people but really only the well-off, at first) sometimes restrained the absolute power of the monarch. More importantly, parliament took over from the monarch the onerous task of ensuring that the country ran smoothly. With more ordinary people having a say in the making of laws, the amount of judicial cruelty began to reduce (because the lawmakers knew that people close to them, or even themselves, might have the misfortune of suffering the penalties that the law imposed). Thus people became less fearful of speaking out to authority, and the just demands of the people could be satisfied.
Interesting narrative!

However, I'd argue against this representation of classical Greece (or Europe) as cases where the Little Guy had a chance to get his voice heard. While that might technically be true, it is also true that for example the citizens of 5th and 4th century Athens often owned slaves, was a hereditary defined class and probably were not quite the poorest in society. The little guy was not so Little.

Similarly, if you look at the modern day Europeans (or the Romans) to me it seems more a case that there is a connection between decentralizing wealth and political influence, and not poverty and political influence.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I am somewhat skeptical of this egalitarian ideal that the poor can somehow go and make everything "fair". (Why would they?) The answer to solving corruption and abuses by the rich seem to me to lie in letting the middle class have a dominant influence. Sure, it's nice that we modern day Westerners live in societies were even poor people can vote, but would our systems work if a majority of the population wasn't middle class?

Personally I'm skeptical, and getting increasingly skeptical of that idea as I look upon how much only my country has changed during my few years on this planet...
 
Mar 2019
1,535
KL
#3
im not sure about other cultures, but i had to read one shocking account indus valley civilization which is considered ''egalitarian'', which adequately highlights aim of this thread.

the IVC elites were probably some of the most ruthless people, and one account of such is demonstrated by archaeology, they found a dead skeleton in a mohenjo daro street corner between two houses which used to be a garbage dump, it is suggested that the poor guy died somehow and they dumped his body in the garbage.

so even in the bronze ages, the humans were doing not very different than now a days. and acting pretty ruthless, inhumane.

even though archaeologists and the present narrative is, the IVC was egalitarian but my assessment is that, these people had every facility which even the early modern world didn't have and afforded such luxury, these people living in the cities were all elites while the poor were living outside of it in a very poor condition.

regards
 
Jul 2009
9,925
#4
Interesting narrative!

However, I'd argue against this representation of classical Greece (or Europe) as cases where the Little Guy had a chance to get his voice heard. While that might technically be true, it is also true that for example the citizens of 5th and 4th century Athens often owned slaves, was a hereditary defined class and probably were not quite the poorest in society. The little guy was not so Little.

Similarly, if you look at the modern day Europeans (or the Romans) to me it seems more a case that there is a connection between decentralizing wealth and political influence, and not poverty and political influence.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I am somewhat skeptical of this egalitarian ideal that the poor can somehow go and make everything "fair". (Why would they?) The answer to solving corruption and abuses by the rich seem to me to lie in letting the middle class have a dominant influence. Sure, it's nice that we modern day Westerners live in societies were even poor people can vote, but would our systems work if a majority of the population wasn't middle class?

Personally I'm skeptical, and getting increasingly skeptical of that idea as I look upon how much only my country has changed during my few years on this planet...
The "middle class" is in a state of contraction these days as wealth has been increasingly concentrated in fewer hands. Yes, wealth has increased over the last century, but is being disproportionally controlled by a relatively small oligarchy that have changed the understanding of the wealthy from millionaires to multi-billionaires. This is a modern concept of "controlling the surplus" as was a development of early civilizations.

I would be leery of a lot of middle class dominance however. The most tumultuous revolutions in the past couple of centuries have been perpetrated by middle class interests who co-opted others for their own purposes. Very many of those so co-opted wound up as casualties of war - or in some cases in front of firing squads.

This rich-poor thing has been messier than often realized.
 
Last edited:
Likes: Jari

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,083
Dispargum
#5
Civilization arose when climate change made the older hunter-gatherer lifestyle no longer feasible. It's not a coincidence that most of the early civilizations started in deserts. North Africa used to be lush and green, but desertification drove people to watering holes or to the Nile. These movement concentrated human populations so that small groups of humans could no longer live according to the rules of hunter-gatherer society. In small groups, everyone knows each other. People are often related, either by blood or marriage. The idea that one person would abuse their power over a family member was usually abhorrent as was greed which involved a refusal to share with one's family members. After humans began clustering into larger communities powerful elites became disconnected from most of society. Inequality increased because powerful people no longer knew or saw the consequences of greed and lust for power. When you don't know someone's name, when you never have them into your home as a dinner guest, etc, it becomes easy to see other people as 'them,' someone very different from yourself.

If there has been an increase of equality in the past 1,000 years it's because the poor have discovered ways to band together against the natural oppression of the rich and powerful - using devices such as democracy or collective bargaining.
 
Oct 2013
14,443
Europix
#6
Thank You, fascinating, for proposing this theme.

It made me think that it's a very, but very avoided angle in historiography, unless it's used for promoting some ideas/ideals (biased, that is).
 
Jul 2009
9,925
#7
If there has been an increase of equality in the past 1,000 years it's because the poor have discovered ways to band together against the natural oppression of the rich and powerful - using devices such as democracy or collective bargaining.
The "natural oppression" of the rich and powerful, in some ways, has begun a resurgence as democracy and anti-elite collective bargaining are both under increasing pressure even in what remains of liberal political and economic models. I don't want to be branded as a gloom-and-doomer, but politics and economies seem to be increasingly trending toward, once again, mostly benefiting the elites.

This may be a reaction to an historical anomaly (last couple of centuries) of the "lower orders" and "fellows of the baser sort" having pretensions to equality, and to their standing in society, that are repellent to elites. Just an opinion.
 
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
#8
The "middle class" is in a state of contraction these days as wealth has been increasingly concentrated in fewer hands. Yes, wealth has increased over the last century, but is being controlled by a relatively small oligarchy that have changed the understanding of the wealthy from millionaires to multi-billionaires. This is a modern concept of "controlling the surplus" as was a development of early civilizations.

I would be leery of a lot of middle class dominance however. The most tumultuous revolutions in the past couple of centuries have been perpetrated by middle class interests who co-opted others for their own purposes. Very many of those so co-opted wound up as casualties of war - or in some cases in front of firing squads.

This rich-poor thing has been messier than often realized.
I agree, basically. This wealth concentration worries me as well, especially as much of it seems to come from sectors where there is little or no competition and/or the rules of the market do not work very well: either finance which is difficult to regulate or tech firms like Google, Apple etc. that almost seem to behave as if they are natural monopolies.

You could be right... on the other hand, the most bloody of these revolutions only seem to have happened in circumstances where political power was previously very concentrated to the aristocracy and monarchy alone. Absolute monarchies seem to be especially susceptible to this kind of violence, if I could generalize. Take the French revolution for example. Or the Russian one. Or perhaps Germany after 1918 even. The middle class does not seem to be so radical when its influence has been gradually and consistently increased over a long period of time (which is then ideally followed by the working class acquiring more political rights etc.)

Also, if one looks at social policy in the 1900s, isn't pretty much the entire point (EDIT: OK, that is definitely too generalizing. But I still think there is something to it...) of the welfare state to give everyone access to something close to a middle class life? That's how it was packaged, sold (and arguably succesful at) in my country anyway. So I still think there is something to the idea that any method which aims to succesfully fight abuses of the poor must have as a partial goal to basically make the poor less poor, (EDIT: and in that way somehow guarantee them some kind of economic autonomy...)

Yes, questions like this are tricky indeed.
 
Last edited:
Oct 2013
14,443
Europix
#9
...



This may be a reaction to an historical anomaly (last couple of centuries) of the "lower orders" and "fellows of the baser sort" having pretensions to equality, and to their standing in society, that are repellent to elites. Just an opinion.

IDK, I'm not totally sure about that.



In my reading, politically stable and economically comfortable societies are also more "egalitarian"/"equitable" (relatively speaking, of course). The excessive discrepancies are occurring more often in unstable societies, societies, transitioning societies.

We're living a time of profound mutations in society, and I think it's the main reason. It happened before: Renaissance-Reform-Countereform was in a way alike to what we're experiencing. Great and at a quick pace openings (culturally, scientifically, geographically) that had shaken the established order, exacerbating, amplifying everything: humanism and cruelty, science and bigotry at the same time.


Maybe I'm wrong?
 
Jul 2009
9,925
#10
IDK, I'm not totally sure about that.



In my reading, politically stable and economically comfortable societies are also more "egalitarian"/"equitable" (relatively speaking, of course). The excessive discrepancies are occurring more often in unstable societies, societies, transitioning societies.

We're living a time of profound mutations in society, and I think it's the main reason. It happened before: Renaissance-Reform-Countereform was in a way alike to what we're experiencing. Great and at a quick pace openings (culturally, scientifically, geographically) that had shaken the established order, exacerbating, amplifying everything: humanism and cruelty, science and bigotry at the same time.


Maybe I'm wrong?
Maybe I'm wrong too. This is just a bull session, so don't lose any sleep. :)
 

Similar History Discussions