What Is History?
By Masse Bloomfield
According to the dictionary, History is defined as: “The study of the past, the branch of knowledge that records and analyzes past events”. Another definition is: “What has happened in the past: the past events of a period of time in the life or development of a people, an institution, or a place.” I have no argument with those definitions. My problem comes with the analysis. I seem to have a peculiar way of interpreting past history. I have generalized history in terms of technology, of sociology and of culture in such a way that I forecast a predetermined future.
Everyone characterizes the present condition as continuous change. I say that this current change is indicative of a transition. If we are in a transition, humanity has to be coming from somewhere and going somewhere. We are coming from an agricultural and/or peasant society which was stable for about 8000 years and will become a stable automated society sometime within the next 300 years.
In terms of sociology, it seems that all groups of primates, including man, have a dominant male as a leader. To me, this means that all groups of men, primitive, peasant, industrial or automated, have someone in charge. During the primitive period or tribal society, there were chiefs whose span of control was very small and they had little power. But the tribes had a dominant male in charge more or less. In the peasant society, the noblemen had real power over the peasants. In an industrial society, our bosses have some control, but it is mostly restricted to the work place. In the future automated society, there will be men who will dominate the society, but their power probably will be restricted to production and distribution of goods as well as setting goals.
Before 8,000 BC, most people were hunter-gatherers plus some horticulturists. I think that the horticulturists used the same tools as the hunter-gatherers so I have grouped them with the hunter-gatherers. There is almost no emphasis in history books on humans who were hunter-gatherers, whom I label as a tribal society. Hunter-gatherers had no recorded history and therefore of little interest to historians. Tribal people left only artifacts such as stone tools, spears, arrow heads and remains from fires. The history of the hunter-gatherers is lodged in the stories told by the medicine men. There is an oral history these people tell to each other relaying the history of the tribe.
Because of the way history professors teach the subject in college, many Americans do not recognize the period between 10,000 years ago and to 1700 AD as a peasant society. This period has been called an agricultural society. I find the term agricultural society to be ambiguous because our current society is based on agriculture. We may call our present period as an industrial or information society, but it is founded on agriculture. Whereas the period from 8,000 BC to 1700 AD, featured peasants who comprised ninety percent of the population. I call it a peasant society.
The reason I bring up these matters is that the way I analyze history, it begins with an animal society then after a transition developed into a tribal society. The tribal society transitioned into a farming community based on a peasant, a domesticated animal and a plow on dedicated land. Then three hundred years ago, humans started the great transition into an industrial/information society which if the trend continues will develop into a stable automated society.
I have written two books describing the changes. These books are Mankind in Transition and The Automated Society published in the 1990s. The basic message in these books is that we are currently in an enormous transition. In my books, I have a chart of history which shows the transition clearly. The chart shows a staircase development of humanity; that is, long periods of stability and short periods of transition. This reflects Stephan Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium for biological evolution. I have suggested that human cultural evolution is similar to biological punctuated equilibrium. The stable periods for mankind were the animal society, tribal society and the peasant society, It is important to understand that in a stable society, very little changes. That is the population does not change much and the technology remains about the same. Because the technology remains more or less constant, productivity does not change during periods of stability.
I see humans in terms of social systems. Our three social systems, tribal, peasant and industrial are based on the technology of food procurement. Each social system has its own technology of food procurement. If the food procurement is hunting and gathering, then the best the social system produces is a chief and a shaman plus the rest of the tribe. Even when food is plentiful for a tribal society, rarely will there be artifacts other than some jewelry, few clothes, stone tools and containers. In some cases, there is somewhat permanent housing, but the tools of agriculture do not change. That is it for a tribal society technology.
A peasant society has a food technology based on a man, a domesticated animal, a plow and dedicated fields. This kind of agriculture produces a surplus of food which can be used to build houses, furniture, pyramids, carts and all kinds of tools to keep equipment like harnesses in good shape. The transition from a tribal society to a peasant society manifests itself in terms of increased productivity of food production and population. This transition took place from about 12,000 years ago to 8,000 years ago or a four thousand year transition.
I went on the Internet looking for support for my analysis of the period from 8000 BC to 1700 AD, as the peasant society. I found “Politics of Aristocratic Empires” by John H. Kautsky (1997). Kautsky comments on the peasant as being part and parcel of empires. From my study of history, kings or their equivalent ran just about every nation from 5000 BC through 1700 AD, or when the area could not support a king, then these lands were ruled by the lesser nobility. There were no kings in areas where hunter-gatherers lived. Kautsky states “aristocrats [kings and the nobility] want wealth and they therefore complete with each other for opportunities, above all, to exploit peasants, a competition that takes the form of conflict over control of land which the peasants live and work.” He goes on to write, “Often, however, free peasants lose their freedom eventually.” Also, he writes, “I define peasants simply as those engaged in agriculture in aristocratic empires.”
The nobility is most interested in expanding the land they control. This kind of thinking on the part of the nobility leads to armed conflict with their neighbors. When one of the noblemen feels strong enough and has the leadership, he can establish himself as a king and/or emperor. It should be noted that war was endemic in a peasant society and probably was in the tribal society as well.
I thought I should add more weight to the role of the peasant. Toynbee in his The Study of History (1972) wrote: “… the economic basis for the universal state was almost exclusively agricultural, and the burden of the peasantry in maintaining a universal state – a burden that is heavy even under the best regime.”
I think that the measure of where a society is, (stable or unstable) is in its productivity of food procurement. Another measure is population. But population can increase even during periods of stability while the productivity of food procurement remains almost the same. The reason for increases in population during periods of stability is people are migrating to new areas.
When a society becomes stable as did the animal societies, the tribal societies, and the peasant societies, the productivity of food production for that society does not change very much. This means that a peasant 5000 years ago would find life and technology about the same if he reappeared in today’s peasant Egyptian village. The people would be different but the farming techniques would be about the same.
The peasant social system built on surplus food provides for a nobility, overseers and as well as the peasants. Along with the food production social category, there is a military category, a religious category, tradesmen and craftsmen. There are variations in the way the social system is expressed in different places, but ordinarily when there is a king, there must be peasants to support the hierarchy with food. And generally, peasants were treated miserably. Right across the world of the peasant society, you will find kings or their equivalent as well as soldiers to enforce the king’s demands. From time to time, the peasants revolted. Because the technology did not change, sooner or later, a new king would appear and the peasants would be back where they started. Or in other words, for the last five thousand years hardly anything changed in technology, agriculture, sociology or culture for the peasant society. There was stability. When you were born, your social status was predetermined for almost everyone.
England, which had an unusual development, had independent farmers called yeomen as well as independent tradesmen and craftsmen. This was unique. Unique because noblemen who controlled the land, did not have very much reason to want to see anyone establish themselves where they could be a threat. And independent people might be a threat. This English independence may have stemmed from the fact that England was invaded and ruled by the Normans. The Magna Carta could have been an expression of resistance by the English nobility to the Norman invaders, which gave some independence to some peasants as well as to some of the tradesmen and craftsmen. Once there was independence and economic freedom for some people, there was an incentive for these people to increase productivity. Why would normal peasants want to increase their productivity so that their noble could be richer?
The beginning of the increase in productivity toward the Industrial Revolution, came in England, This happened when Newcomen invented the steam engine about 1700. The steam engine was the first machine using all metal parts that could be used to increase productivity. Then Englishmen developed the textile machines which resulted in the power loom invented by Cartwright in 1785 which resulted in more productivity.
It was this increase in productivity beginning with the steam engine that led to the introduction of the industrial revolution leading in our time to the computer, the tractor and machine tools. It should be noted that it has been the productivity of food production based on technological inventions along the other inventions which has produced an industrial society. The increase in productivity can be seen in the data about the relationship of food to population. Deevey in a 1960 Scientific American article had productivity data. He wrote that tribal societies could support 0.4 people per square kilometer, peasant societies could support one person per square kilometer and industrial societies can support 16.4 people per square kilometer. The Wikipedia entry for Industrial Agriculture has about the same kind of increase in productivity. The entry states that 30,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers could support six million people; 3,000 years ago, primitive agriculture could support sixty million people; today, industrial agriculture can support six billion people. In J. M. Roberts book The New Penguin History of the World, he also uses these kinds of numbers. He states that hunter-gatherers needed thousands of acres to support one family; a primitive agriculture needed twenty-five acres to support one family; my figures show that with industrial agriculture one family can be supported by ten acres.
The current changes in food production brought about by the tractor provided the food which produced the enormous increase in population. The tractor also forced both peasants and independent farmers off the land. The tractor was the greatest influence in changing the sociology of the peasant society. The tractor forced the farmers off the land and into the cities where they became workers in factories.
The factory was an impossible place for a noblemen and a gentlemen. These people would not allow themselves to work in or to supervise a factory. The social system for a factory meant top management who were not invisible or absentee owners, but themselves competent workers. The top management were supported by middle managers and workers. Agriculture followed suit for the very large farms. With tractors, it is possible to operate independent farms with just three percent of the population whereas it took ninety percent of the population to work the peasant technology farms.
The transition we are in seems obvious. We are experiencing nothing but change in our technology and subtly in our sociology. We have almost no relationship to the stable peasant society. The tractor used for farming changed that for agriculture. The industrial factory, which was a new invention, was able to be so productive that practically every family in the United States owns an automobile, a television set, a telephone, a refrigerator, and many other luxuries in comparison to the way people lived a thousand years ago. The sociology changed when the factory was introduced. You cannot run a factory with a nobility leading it. The top managers of every business have to be embedded in the factory sociology. They have to control the direction of the business and in many instances have to be aware of the day to day activities including production, sales, accounting, human relations and overhead. If a top manager fails to take into account what is happening to his business, the chances are great that business will fail. The competition and the innovation taking place globally seems to force almost every manufacturer and businessman into the position where he/she must watch his competition closely to be sure his operation remains competitive and profitable.
The Industrial Society has a social system an order of magnitude different from the peasant society. It is the managers now who are in control of much of the social system where it used to be the nobility. In our current transitional industrial society, there are all kinds of other categories in the social system besides the production category. We still have the religious and military categories carried over from the peasant society. But we have added many more; such as a medical category, a legal category, an educational category, an entertainment category, a sports category and others. This kind of social system is far more complex than could be developed in a peasant society. The automated society doesn’t need to be any more complex than what we now have. Our society is so different from the peasant society, that it may already resemble what the automated society will look like.
Since 1700, there has been nothing but change in the way material goods are produced. The first factory was established in 1715 in England. The major inventions that changed the world were interchangeable parts, the assembly line and the transistor. Eli Whitney developed interchangeable parts, Henry Ford developed the assembly line and the scientists at Bell Telephone Labs. invented the transistor. Each one of these American developments revolutionized the assembly line. It is the computer based on the transistor which controls machine tools that has fostered automation. No where do I see any reduction in our pell mell race to increase productivity to the point where it can no longer be increased. No where do I see a reduction in our effort to increase innovation and/or productivity. It seems to be a race to create an industrial world based on automation.
There is an aspect of our technology is seldom mentioned anywhere. That is one that relates to productivity. When productivity can no long be increased, it means the humans are no longer part of the manufacturing process. Humans could be monitors but they would no longer be workers. When productivity has reached its limit, we are at the stable automated society. But there is one stipulation, in an automated society there will be an elite that will control everything, just as the nobility did in the agricultural society. I believe everyone will accept that arrangement. When everyone has everything they want and need, without physical labor, there shouldn’t be much call for a revolution.
The thrust of the transition since 1700 has been to enhance productivity. There has been no let up in the increase of productivity. The other countries of the world like Japan, China and India who were basically peasant societies a hundred years ago and now have either caught up the United States in productivity or are gaining. We have watched Japan transform over the last 100 years from an peasant/agricultural country to a leading industrial nation. There is no way to stop the thrust of increasing productivity. This increase means we will be putting more and more computers and robots to work in our factories. As the computers and robots increase productivity they will also be increasing automation, displacing human workers. We have yet to face the problem of what to do with these displaced workers.
There has to be a rational for the manner in which change has been introduced into the Industrial Society. It seems the pressure of capitalism is the forcing parameter. Competition a basic part of capitalism forcing every manufacturer to have the highest quality at the lowest price in order to stay in business. The British did this in textiles and steel throughout much of the nineteenth century. But the flexibility and the lack of a social hierarchy has given the lead to the Americans. Not only have Americans invented the interchangeable parts, the tractor and the transistor, but Americans have invented the computer hardware, the computer software and the Internet. The computer is vital in increasing productivity when hooked to machine tools.
An indication of the automated society is evident in the mergers and acquisitions taking place globally. Large American companies have become global. There are McDonald’s everywhere in the world. General Electric has offices and many manufacturing units overseas. It is possible to see the outline of the automated society in the way the media are consolidating. Rupert Murdoch has media outlets all over the English speaking world. Rupert Murdoch symbolizes the future elite leader of the automated society. Murdock has control over newspapers, television stations, 24-hour satellites and cable networks. No one chose Murdoch to consolidate media operations, but he has so many outlets that he can spin the news to his viewers. If workers need to be told about the way they are treated, we may have the media tools to spin the news in order to mold public opinion. A rather gentle 1984 seems to be on the way.
In our own time, we can see what marrying the computer to robots can do. In our television commercials, you have seen two kinds of automation. The first kind, is the use of robots spot welding automobile frames on an assembly lines. The assembly line looks as if there were perpetual moving arms waving rather randomly and then striking the automobile frames. The second example is the endless lines of soft drink bottles moving in perfect step, marching toward the shipping containers. If we see even two examples of what the computer matched to machine tools can do for automobiles and soft drinks, it doesn’t take much extrapolation to believe that the same kind of automation can be part of every manufacturing job, I believe once we have achieved that stable automated society, mankind will not change technologically, sociologically, religiously or culturally for a long time, in terms of thousands of years. The only area where there will be an open ended future will be man’s invasion of space. I have hopes man will be able to colonize not only the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy but other galaxies. The closest galaxy is something like two million light years away. We are going to be challenged mightily by sending space ships all over the Universe.
However, I rarely see any literature about a stable automated society, except perhaps in some science fiction stories. What I see in the main, are articles on short term trends, hardly more than fifty years in the future. That is, everyone understands that we are experiencing enormous changes. The only article that comes to mind about long term trends, those over a thousand years, was the one written by Herman Kahn in the June 1979 issue of The Futurist. The major chart at the beginning of the article compares to my chart of history in terms of time lines. Kahn recognized the transitions, but did not include the sociology of the changes. The major chart of human history in Kahn’s article, starts at 8000 BC with the agricultural revolution. Prior to 8000 BC, he has man in a hunting and gathering period. He has the beginning of his Great Transition beginning in 1775 AD (I prefer the year 1700) and ending in 2175 when he has a transition to the Post-Industrial society. Kahn’s population curve shows a spike during his Great Transition. From 8000 BC to 1775 AD and from 2175 AD to 8000 AD, his population curve shows no increase. I would suggest that from 8000 BC to 1775, there was a gradual increase in human population when peasant farming societies invaded new lands such as in the Americas. Deevey as mentioned above, developed a chart of population change. His chart inferred the same kind of analysis that I have, that is stable, unstable, stable and so on. Deevey used a log-log scale where I use a linear scale. I do not see references to either Kahn or Deevey very often.
There are five areas of innovation that will lead the way toward total automation. These are:
1. Computer (software and hardware)
2. Robots (stationary and with independent movement)
I think that my future is just a logical continuum of punctuated equilibrium or a stable, an unstable and a stable history. There is no animal including humans that I know of, who prefers to live in an unstable condition. One of our purposes then as human animals, is to strive for stability. It is my opinion when productivity can no longer be increased, we will have arrived at a stable social system, a stable technological period and a stable culture. I think that our biology will be stable as well. I do not foresee a change in our biology until we establish colonies outside of the Solar System.
We will be certain that the transition is over when human beings are no longer involved in the production of goods. Many services will demand that human beings work to make sure the services are given correctly. Humans will be monitoring the automated productive facilities, but need to do little else. The main thrust of humanity will be in space where there will be an unlimited opportunity for the growth of population as we expand into the universe.
The New Scientist magazine had an article on “Why the Demise of the Civilization May Be Inevitable” in the April 3, 2008 issue. The thrust of what I read was that complexity results in vulnerability. Sure it does. But using the charts from the book Limits to Growth, we will suffer a loss of half the population by 2100, but there was no hint of extinction. If we ever are able to establish colonies in space, there will be almost no possibility of extinction, only of growth. The New Scientist article carried the sentence that “the very nature of our civilization means that ours, like every other civilization in history is destined to collapse.” I know of no civilization other than Easter Island a small isolated island, that collapsed. There has always been people living in Rome for the last 2000 to 2500 years. I cannot think of any large population that disappeared, none. In fact, all the populations curves that I have seen show some growth from about 2 million years ago to the present. Most of the growth occurring at the transitions. Why do some people think we are headed for a decline? Even Limits to Growth reduces the human population to six billion people by 2100. This Limits to Growth decline does not need to happen. I have a solution to global warming by using artificial clouds. I have a solution to air and water pollution using algae. But there is so much inertia in our systems, that we are deferring these usable solutions.
Another belief many futurists have is that growth is good and is expected to also continue on indefinitely. We don’t need growth at all, what we need is innovation and an increase in productivity. Growth can produce pollution and shortages of goods, things we don’t need. But how to stop growth? My solution to the growth problem is the non-polluting food factory on earth and the expansion of humans into space where growth is no problem. The food factory as I have envisioned it would be located in the center of a area housing ten thousand people. The input into the factory would be sewage, energy and garbage which would be processed by algae. The algae would be used for fertilizer and/or food for animals. The food factory would be automated taking in sewage and garbage and producing food at the delivery end. There is almost no research taking place to invent the food factory. I thought that with our space activity, we would be trying to cycle waste into food on our manned spacecraft reducing the need to ferry food to astronauts. But this is not the case. NASA has tried to develop the elements of the food factory but has yet to be successful.
I am critical of historians. One of my criticisms of historians comes directly from my review of the index in Toynbee’s The Study of History (1972). Here the words I did not find in his index: peasants (even though he did use the word peasantry); productivity; cultural evolution; evolution; steam engine; tractor; or the names James Watt or Thomas Newcomen. J. D. Roberts in his book The New Penguin History of the World, did not include the following terms in his index: peasants; steam engine; textile industry; tractor; productivity; cultural evolution; evolution; punctuated equilibrium. To me, the failure to include these terms in the index, meant these authors did not consider the terms to be relevant to the thrust of history. I consider them to be central to the human trajectory.
Historians as a group shun any attempt at extrapolating a future. J. M. Roberts wrote that “Historians should never prophesy.” Of all the people who have studied the past, the historians more than anthropologists or paleontologists, have a better grasp of the underlying currents in our past. They are best equipped to see the patterns of human cultural development and then extrapolate a future from those patterns. History is a study of the past human activity and the patterns of development should be discernible. Why have the historians abdicated their birthright?
One of things I believe is: If you don’t get the past right, there is no way you can identify a reasonable future. In my opinion, the way I have analyzed history, the future is already determined. That future includes a technology, a sociology and an expansion into the Universe. The few people who have expressed this analysis are Deevey and Kahn. It may be that many of our observers have experienced nothing but change and therefore expect the changes to continue on indefinitely. This is not the case. I first drew my chart of history showing the stable, unstable, stable, unstable continuum in 1966. From that time to the present, I have seen no data that would lead to redraw my chart. We are in an enormous transition and the change of that transition is not slowing.