Early harrowing on the prairie
Family photo -- this may be my father.
Given the enormous amounts of data available now plus the power of computers to impose algorithms or make queries, people are investigating all sorts of things with various levels of skill and kinds of motivations. I’ve been musing over an internet invitation to a book reading, which follows:
Dr. Walter Scheidel —“The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the 21st Century” (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)
• Tickets: $50 per individual (includes lecture, autographed copy of the guest’s book, hors d’oeuvres and wine).
• Venue: An architecturally award-winning home in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. Address/map emailed with your ticket.
“Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, the Stanford University historian Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world…”
Actually this sounds like a bargain since the cost of the book equals half the value of the ticket. There’s bound to be access to elite people. No guilt about poor people in this elegant home — just fear for us all but also, oddly, hope. No conversion of fear into anger either, unless Scheidel is implying that the inequality creates the catastrophe that restores peace and stability, so that we should fear the less equal people.
At Amazon there are impressive endorsements from major thinkers and a CV of high level achievement. Maybe the whiff of fascism comes from the fact of him being Austrian, which is not reasonable but understandable, or maybe whenever wealth and privilege are brought up, they drag up the anchor of history. Surely we shouldn’t be discouraged from thinking and talking about such a crucial subject.
This is quite a different angle of approach from, say, Jared Diamond’s ecological explanation of how some locations provide advantages that others don’t, and it is a welcome alternative to the idea that people are poor because they are stupid or wicked. But it does hint at Marxism in the idea that catastrophe can impact economic inequity, reducing it. I haven’t read the book, so I’m not able to say more, but I have been reflecting on the agricultural practice of harrowing, which has become a vivid metaphor for that which is terrifying and destructive.
My paternal family had a brief period of prosperity in the Twenties by selling Kovar Kultivators, a brand of harrow meant to combat quack-grass in newly plowed prairie land. (See the top.) They had been growing potatoes in South Dakota as homesteaders and then on the opening frontier of Manitoba where at first they survived on moose meat and working for new road builders. The machines were made in Minnesota, shipped as parts to be assembled and sold in Brandon, Manitoba, where my father and his sibs became adults, educated in Winnipeg. My father’s roommate was part of the Green Revolution, the invention of fertilizer and chemical weed killer, an agricultural shift from what began as a hoe to what would be a chemical industry. It was meant to save people from starvation.
What disrupted the family fortunes was a change in the law: protective tariffs on the Kovar Kultivator, even in parts, which eliminated the profit. The shift to chemicals would have killed sales anyway. The family moved to Oregon just in time for the Depression and survived by doing the work that Mexican immigrants do now: harvesting fruits and nuts. Then came war which lifted some family members into prosperity. One became a B29 pilot which led to a career with transoceanic airlines, and one became a draftsman at the Portland Kaiser shipyards.
Another did fairly well in the California land boom after the war. That’s the pattern: devastating hardship and loss, followed by a reorganization around the new terms of the planet and a new generation of people. We’ve been enjoying those post-war arrangements and assumptions for a long time, but both they and the veterans are about expired. The nuclear force that ended WWII dramatically is now not the central preoccupation, though still worrisome.
We are trying to detach from our petrochemical addiction dating back to the replacement of the horse teams that pulled my grandfather’s harrow by creating huge snorting tractors bigger than my house. In a couple of weeks, when Valier stages its “Homesteader Days” parade and lines up the ag machines in front of my house, a person could see I’m not exaggerating. Of course, I have a one-story house. A few miles away and much taller, enormous wind turbines are drawing power from the air. This last windstorm went to 80 miles per hour, but then they have to shut the turbines down or they’ll be destroyed.
The newest shift to catastrophic potential is only now unfolding: the Internet and cyber codes that have come to control everything, even your microwave, as Kellyanne Conway was ridiculed for saying. Slowly it’s knitting together the poor woman in Africa -- who owns only her hoe and her hut but has access to cell phones -- and whomever lives in that elegant San Gabriel house on the California coast. They could call each other up.
In my own life this principle of prosperity and growth after disaster has proven valid, but only if you take it on my terms instead of the larger society which mostly deals in money. First, the Sixties teaching and marriage were a great inequity. In Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation, I had become among the wealthiest and most powerful. Not because we were rolling in dough (we once figured out in the years of building the foundry that we were making about seventeen cents an hour) but because we knew things, we had contacts, and we had driving force. Also, because so many others were rock bottom poor rez Indians. It’s all about the contrast. (Now many of them are far wealthier than me.)
When I left, I lost everything. Then over the next few years at animal control I found a new power (not over the animals — but by wearing a badge and writing tickets because most people will pay attention to that) and the inequity came between those who could control their households and those who had a lot of animals, many of them troublesome, because they didn’t have enough money to resist. Dogs and cats just happen at no cost until they depend on you to feed them.
So again I deliberately abandoned everything except books and went to seminary, finally discovering that I was well-suited in some ways and disastrously unsuited in others. Part of that was realizing that unless I were younger and male, I would never be as prosperous as my parishioners and that meant they interpreted me as their servant, someone owned. Another decade of struggle and I was out again.
Civil service was my solution and it sucked me into the world of computers because I was doing clerical work with databases while trying to learn publishing software in night classes. It was 1989. Management called me in to their offices to explain search engines. In six years I earned the core of my retirement income. And the experience is what made me able to sit here writing to the world while the previous patterns of publication crash and burn. It's another new paradigm.
They say that Putin realized he would never be able to muster the resources for military dominance, but that by acting through the underground world of computers, particularly the hidden and criminal routes that handle illicit money, he could get the world by the throat. Unluckily for him, it could only tweet.
Harrowing is closely related to Jungian ideas of wounds opening up mouths that speak the truth. To harrow is to allow seeds to be planted in the earth and find root-holds for growth. It is a multiple idea in the sense that different earths will host different growths. Different kinds of people will make internet into different new kinds of society. Hacking is a kind of harrowing. But so long as the energy supply holds up -- the wind turbines and solar panels keep working -- wealth will be made and remade even after war, riot, disease or famine. When there is nothing left to lose, people find new resources.
The smart money is not on bionic people with artificial intelligence insertions. It is on those with enough direct empathy for other humans to listen closely and profit from it. I’ll see if I can get Dr. Walter Scheidel’s book through Interlibrary Loan. Libraries are a source of wealth no one should ignore. In the meantime at the moment my violent unemployed neighbor is bellowing. By now he is unemployable.