Stephen Davies is my sort of libertarian historian in many ways, and in particular in not denying the historic importance of the predator class in times gone by. It is one thing to regret the enormous power held by predators, and the comparative powerlessness of producers – the power of the taxers and the impotence of the taxed – but it is quite another to assert that the powerful predators were not in fact the people who made the historically significant decisions and that the impotent producers were actually very powerful. Libertarianism is the claim that the predators should lose their power, not that they have already lost it, or worse, never, historically, had it.
At the heart of Davies’s book The Wealth Explosion is the claim that the wealth explosion only happened because of a rather anomalous glitch in the typical behaviour of the predator class, which took the form of a non-united Europe. Normal predator behaviour throughout the rest of Eurasia meant that the wealth explosion was only able to happen in Europe.
Here (pp. 11-12) is some of what Davies says about this distinction:
There was a basic social division found in all societies after the advent of agriculture. This was between those who produced wealth by production or exchange on the one hand and those who acquired it through the use of force or fraud on the other. The first category included peasant farmers (the great majority) as well as artisans, merchants, and traders of all kinds. The second category were those who controlled not the means of production but what we may call the means of predation – organised force or systematic mystification in other words. These were the ruling classes of society such as aristocrats and clergy. The second group often did come to control and own great wealth and much productive resources, such as land for example, but this was a consequence of their privileged position rather than the cause of it. That position derived in the first instance from their greater access to the means of violence. They were not however simply parasitical because, partly for their own advantage, they came to provide what economists call ‘public goods’ such as defence against other human predators (bandits, criminals, or members of other tribes and political communities), or a means of settling disputes peacefully (so a legal system).
These ruling groups were the primary subjects of historical accounts until very recently. There is a good reason for this, quite apart from the practical point that most of the surviving sources are concerned with them, which is that they were the primary active force in human history. It was rulers and elites who had the power to actually make things happen. They were the ones with agency in other words. In addition, as Peter Laslett famously argued, they were the only social class in society with true class-consciousness, a self-conscious awareness of their own group interest. (Laslett, 2015) This and their nature meant that their relation to innovation and activities that actually changed the world in a positive way was ambivalent. On the one hand, to the extent that innovation led to actual growth in productivity, that meant more resources for them to extract from the productive part of society. On the other hand if it went on for a long enough time it would tend to weaken their position and increase the capacity of other social groups for effective action. Another aspect of the ruling classes historical role was the way that successful groups tended to expand the area of the planet that they controlled and so create an empire. Empires produced internal peace and so although they were created using (often) savage violence, once established they brought social peace to a large part of the planet’s surface. However this also meant an even stronger incentive for the successful group to keep things the same.
And mostly, except in Europe, this is what happened.
Find your way to more bits from this book by going here.