Friday, August 17, 2007

Feudalism, Religion, and Muslim Aggression

In previous posts, I discussed the development of archaic and tribal religion [here and here]. The use of totems provided the key element of social organization, as it unified large groups of loosely related people behind their totemic representation. In these early societies, the prime totems were an amalgamation of ancestors, animals, and natural forces, taking the shape of what we now call gods.

Feudal society arose out of tribal society with the invention of conquest. The root cause is actually quite simple: one tribe figured out it could conquer and enslave other tribes. The enabling conditions are also quite mundane: agriculture and weapons technology. The dawn of the Bronze Age provided for the dawn of feudalism, by providing the first weapons breakthrough: metal armor and weapons. Agriculture provided both the concentrated nutrition for a large population of slaves to survive on, as well as the work for the slaves to accomplish. We see slavery already entrenched in the social systems and laws of the first civilizations in the Near East and China.

The primary beneficiaries: hunter/herder tribes. Naturally warlike and violent because of their hunting economy, with an eye for effective weapons, they were also the first to tame the horse. Thus, they become the world first mounted cavalry, providing an insurmountable power against the non-mounted non-armored agricultural peasants. From the time of the ancient Aryans, circa 2000 B.C. up until the late medieval period, circa 1500 A.D., the feudal world thrived and grew. The Mongol hordes were the most glorious example of the type and the pattern. The violent hunter tribes would conquer the agriculturalists, setting themselves up as the weapon-wielding nobility. In all feudal systems, the slave-peasants are prohibited from having weapons, reflecting and continuing the pattern of enslavement forced on their conquered ancestors.

These is the origin of human government. The history of kingdoms throughout the world is little more than a history of which tribes were in power. They called themselves dynasties, and a dynasty ended when some other tribe overthrew the tribe in power. The feudal system worked so well, they usually lasted hundreds of years. Overthrow rarely occur from within, but was only accomplished by a vigorous warrior tribe from the outside.

Religion played the key role in the stability of the feudal system. In all feudal systems, the warriors were granted the divine right to rule, willed by the gods, guaranteed by the laws of the universe. Slaves were constrained from rebelling by fear of punishment in the afterlife. Rebellion against the ruling class was considered a crime against nature itself. The slave/serf population always vastly outnumbered the population of the warrior/nobility, but the servant classes usually never even thought of rebellion. The most effective feudal religions, like Hinduism, made the servants fear to even think bad thoughts, because even their bad thoughts would be punished through the laws of karma.

The power of the feudal system was brilliant in its simplicity and fueled its own growth and spread. The warrior tribes are freed from labor by the work of their slaves, allowing them to specialize in war and continue further conquests. The merchant and intellectual classes developed out of the warrior tribes. Merchant activity was a natural outgrowth of the travel and communication that accompanied the scouting of the warriors. Intellectual activity was a natural outgrowth of the activity of the priests, who maintained the laws and scriptures. Writing and mathematics grew out of the joint needs and activities of merchants, lawyers, tax-collectors, and priests.

The feudal expansion pattern of conquest and enslavement would only slow down when bumping up against another slave-supported warrior society. Naturally-enclosed societies, like China and Japan, were relatively safer from external conquest, and so their feudal dynasties tended to last longer and were only interrupted by the rare outsiders. Surrounded on all sides by enemies, the empires in the Near East/Mediterranean had shorter lives, but also grew larger and stronger, forged as they were in a more extreme environment, refined and perfected to a greater degree.

An example of this refining process is found with the Arabs, who stumbled upon the single most successful feudal formula, which involved the key ingredient of polygamy. Polygamy has been practiced at all times in all warrior societies, as conquest provided a surplus of girls from conquered populations. However, such polygamy is not usually systemic, as it depends on fresh conquests, and usually it passed out of stable societies as fresh conquests became less available.

However, Arabs formalized and guaranteed permanent polygamy through their religion, and thus introduced a powerful destabilizing element in their own societies. For every rich older man with 4 wives, there are 3 young men with no women available, and the powerful sheiks would collect dozens of wives. I have previously discussed the socially negative effects of a woman shortage, here. This continual and perpetual shortage of women created a continual and perpetual surplus of warriors, fodder for the expansion of the society through conquest.

The logic of this Arabic polygamous feudal culture was completed through an ingenious stratagem utilizing captured slaves as palace guards. In essence, this fully utilized and channeled the destabilizing element created by polygamy. Their scheme was diabolically brilliant: create a surplus of warriors through polygamy, send that warrior surplus on conquering missions, turn the captured slaves into eunuchs or celibates (removing the threat to the harems of surplus women), and use those slaves to administer the government and as elite palace troops! Incidentally, those captured slaves came exclusively from the Christian lands of southern Europe and Russia.

The system was like a perpetual motion machine, continually feeding and rewarding aggression, war, and slavetaking. Given this brilliant system, it is hardly surprising that the feudal Islamic empires spread so far, from India to China to Europe to Africa. If the modern period had not developed in Western Europe, southeastern Europe (all of the Balkans including Greece) would no doubt have remained under Muslims rulers. It wasn’t until the time of Napoleon in the late 1700’s that European armies could regularly defeat the Muslims, and of course, the Ottoman Empire survived until the end of WW1. Albania remains today a Muslim-majority country, a vestige of the Muslim dominance of Europe in the past, and perhaps a harbinger of things to come as the Islamic world regains its cultural agression in our post-modern world.

Throughout the modern period, Muslim societies were disfunctional messes because they had no outlet for that aggression, it was all inward directed. In the post-modern period of Western self-imposed weakness, the Muslim aggression is again being expressed outwardly, although they are still so weak relative to the rest of the world that most of their aggression is still inward, expressed in civil wars, ethnic conflict, and sectarian violence.

Feudalism was only ended by the democratizing forces that unleashed modernity, forces which I will cover in a subsequent post.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Totems, Myth, and Ritual in Tribal Society

In a previous post [here] I discussed the archaic origins of religion in the experiences of the earliest people. The next phase of social development took off with the development of language. It was with language that culture and society as we know it became possible, for without language, humans were basically animals in habit and organization.

Socially, language facilitated the breakthrough into tribal society. Without language, the only natural authority is the alpha male and alpha female parents, and the only natural cooperation is within the family bloodline. With language, life expectancy skyrocketed as old folks because useful as cultural transmitters, and a new abstract authority developed – the totem.

A totem is an object of power with which people emotionally identify. The first totems were the objects of power in that ancient non-civilized world: animals and forces of nature. Primitive gods combined these functions, representing a force of nature and taking an animal form. For example, in ancient Greece, Zeus, the King of the gods, the highest godly power, was therefore represented by the most powerful natural forces: the thunderstorm and the bull.

In all cases, even today, totems facilitate social grouping, by providing an abstract authority and rallying point. When guided by a totem, people are no longer solely under the authority of their brute-force physical companions, but rather, they are under the authority of an abstract higher power. While operating under a totem, leaders no longer act under their own personal authority, but rather, they represent the higher authority, acting as the agents of that totem.

Totems are so powerful that social organization is almost inconceivable without them, even today. Remember, totems are objects of power with which people identify, and their function is to create a sense of community between strangers. Examples of the most powerful modern totems include nation-states, races, and religions. None of these things exist except in the minds of their totemic followers, but those followers act as if they are real, to the point of being willing to kill or die for them.

A simple test for your totemic identification if to ask yourself whose deaths you care about. Keep in mind, millions of strangers die every day, and you don’t care at all. However, when a member of your totem dies, you are emotionally affected. Another test for totemic identification is to ask yourself who you would fight to protect. If a member of your totem is oppressed, you are outraged and want to take action.

In short, a totem extends your natural familial feelings to strangers, and gives them the emotional aura of a family member. In fact, fellow members of totems often use the terms of family, such as brother, sister, father, mother, to refer to one another. However, a totem is a complete fabrication, an utter fiction. The emotional connection certainly is real. But the totem exists only in the minds of the totem members, although to them the totem seems like it is a real thing.

Try telling an American that there is no such thing as America, or a Christian that there is no such thing as Christianity. They look at you like you are nuts! The mind struggles to grasp the fact that there is no such thing in reality as America or Christianity. America and Christianity exist only in the minds of Americans and Christians. They are, literally, figments of the imagination! Weird, huh?

Totems, both ancient and modern, are created and kept alive through communal myth and ritual. Totems rely on their stories being told and the acting out of those stories in ritual, continually. When the story is no longer told and acted out, the totem simply disappears. That is, when the mythology and rituals are not kept alive, the totem dies.

The ritual is just as important as they myth for creating totemic identification. We don’t just tell the story of national independence in 1776, we act it out by gathering in masses and shooting off fireworks. We don’t just tell the story of Jesus’ birth, we act it out by putting stars on trees and giving gifts. A myth without a ritual is hollow, like reading about ancient Greek gods. It has to be acted out and taken seriously, or it doesn’t produce its full effect.

Tribes were organized as the first totemic groups. The totem brought together the second natural social group, the extended family, the clan. Notice that even today, without a unifying totem, the extended family is usually just a collection of squabbling strangers (perhaps even worse than strangers since they are more intimate).

Tribes became cohesive social groups, based on the life ways established by the ancient ancestors, the founding heroes whose great deeds were kept alive through myth and ritual. These ancestral heroes were always described as children of the gods, which provided an intimate connection to the natural forces and animals around them, the human link to the tribal totem.

Social organization was defined by the taboos established by the first ancestors, and by adherence to their traditions. Tribal culture is inherently conservative, highly resistant to change. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever,” is the primal structure of all tribal myth, tying the present in lockstep with the past.

It was under this conservative tribal structure that people mastered the world, filling up the globe. Rising population levels set the stage for the next phase in human development: feudalism.