wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Ernest Gellner


Agrarian societies are based on food production and storage, and a relatively stable technology. This virtually is the definition of agrarian society. Within it, apart from the distinction already introduced, between state-endowed and stateless societies, there is also the important distinction between illiterate and script-using societies. The latter, as you might say, are capable of storing not only provisions, but also ideas. Or rather, they are equipped with a specially powerful technique for the storage of ideas. Even without writing, societies can 'freeze' ideas, or at least phrases, by ritual incantations which preserve patterns and make them normative.

The technological stability or stagnation of agrarian society has certain overwhelmingly important implications. It means that no radical improvement in output is conceivable: the only increase possible is one based on increasing the use of one of the available factors of production—land and labour—and this inevitably comes up against the Law of Diminishing Returns. In simpler terms, agrarian society has a kind of limit of possible output put upon it, determined by the (ex hypothesi) fixed technology, and the finite local resources amenable to that technology. In simple terms: there is a ceiling on possible production, though not on population growth. These societies are Malthusian. Crucial consequence: the struggle for resources or produce in such a society, between its constituent members or sub-groups, is, inevitably, a zero-sum game. No one can gain without someone else incurring a corresponding loss.

Agrarian societies are inherently Malthusian. The requirements of labour and defence power make them value offspring or, at any rate, male offspring; the stability of technology imposes a limit on production. These two factors jointly have the implication which made Malthus famous: the exponential growth of population, jointly with the non-exponential growth (if any) of output, means that the society as a whole is never too far removed from the point when it becomes incapable of feeding all its members, and periodically, as a result of harvest failure or social disruption, it faces famine.

Famine does not strike at random. In agrarian societies, men starve according to rank. Agrarian society is a food-producing and storing system; the silos or stores are guarded, and the contents are distributed only in accordance with the enforced entitlements of the members. In north Africa, the local name for the state is or was Makhzen, a word with the same root as store, magazine. The term is highly suggestive: government is by control of the store; government is the control of the store.

In this situation, the correct strategy for any individual or group within society is to be intensely concerned with its own position or rank, within the social order, and not with the enhancement of output. It is your social standing, your station and its entitlements, which will determine your fate. Extra output is only likely to attract pillage or taxation. It is pointless. Occasionally, extra output may be hidden and used to enhance its owners' security and prospects. But that is rare. More often, the path leads from power to wealth, rather than from wealth to power. In medieval Spain, a saying affirmed that warfare was a quicker as well as a more honourable route to riches than trade. This point can, all in all, be generalised for most agrarian societies.

This profound and important truth is reflected in the characteristic value system of agrarian societies. Generally speaking, they despise work and value honour. What is honour? A touchy sensitivity about one's own status, blended with a cult of aggressiveness and skill in coercion and intimidation. These tend to be the dominant values of the ruling strata of agrarian societies. Generally they constitute a 'nobility,' and the term, very characteristically, wobbles between referring to membership of a status group, and possession and display of values summed up as 'honour.' Frequently, these as it were 'red' values are combined, in various ways, with the 'black' values of a clerisy. The coercion which dominates agrarian society requires cohesion, which in turn depends on principles of legitimacy for its operation—you need to know whom to gang up with. Coercion operates best if the gangs of coercers are well defined and cohesive, and if their internal authority structure is clear. The ritual and doctrinal maintenance of these principles of legitimacy of membership and leadership also require specialists—namely, priests or clerics of one kind or another—and in this manner, the Black tend to share power and authority with the Red in the agrarian world. The social philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment consisted, basically, of a repudiation of this world: notoriously, its ambition was to see the last king throttled with the entrails of the last priest. The Enlightenment correctly characterised the basic features of the world it was rejecting; it was mistaken in thinking that world, and the oppression and superstition it lived by, to be simply the fruit of human stupidity, of lack of 'Enlightenment'. The strangling of monarchs with the guts of clerics, attractive though the picture may be, would not on its own terminate the agrarian world and its system of values and illusions. That system is rooted in the logic of the agrarian world, and not in human stupidity, or at least not in stupidity alone.

The basic circle in which agrarian society is locked, is complete, and it is difficult to see how one could break out of it (in fact, this has happened, though no one is quite sure of how it was done). The agrarian situation dictates certain values which inhibit innovation and productive growth; this entails a zero-sum situation which dictates certain values; that in turn...There is no exit from this circle. (Or, if you like, there is one, but it has only happened once, miraculously.)

What concerns us here are the implications of this for the relationship of organisation and culture. Agrarian society tends to be organised hierarchically, with each stratum, and its members, jealously guarding its standing and its privileges, and eager to differentiate itself from lower strata which would, given the chance, usurp some of its perks. The lowest of the large strata in this society, namely the rustic agricultural producers, is also segregated into local village communities. Mobility between these is restricted, mainly because the agricultural producers are generally tied to the land, formally or informally. It helps to impose discipline and ensure that the available surplus is handed over: it would not help the social order if peasants could wander in pursuit of more benign overlords. In western Europe, the diminution of the rigours of serfdom is attributed to the shortage of labour following the Black Death, which apparently encouraged gentry to behave more leniently to underlings, so as to encourage them to stay.

Agrarian society is generally inegalitarian in its values. It even exaggerates its own inequality and hides such mobility as occurs, just as our society tends to do the exact opposite. A rough law seems to apply to social development: the more complex and 'developed,' the more inegalitarian (cf. Lenski 1966: 43). So it goes on, until the coming of modernity, which, for reasons to be discussed, reverses the trend and also, for related reasons, engenders nationalism.

Agrarian society encourages cultural differentiation within itself. Such differentiation greatly helps it in its daily functioning. Agrarian society depends on the maintenance of a complex system of ranks, and it is important that these be both visible and felt, that they be both externalised and internalised. If they are clearly seen in all external aspects of conduct, in dress, commensality, accent, body posture, limits of permissible consumption and so forth, this eliminates ambiguity and thus diminishes friction. If a man's station and its rights and duties become part of his soul, his pride, this, once again, helps maintain social discipline. That great classic of the social theory of agrarian society, Plato's Republic, in fact defines morality in these very terms: morality consists of each element in the hierarchical social structure performing its assigned task, and no other.

This leads us to the main generalisation concerning the role of culture in agrarian society: its main function is to reinforce, underwrite, and render visible and authoritative, the hierarchical status system of that social order. (The lateral differences between members of the food-producing stratum have a slightly different role in helping to tie its members to their community.) Note that, if this is the primary role of culture in such a society, it cannot at the same time perform a quite different role: namely, to mark the boundaries of the polity.

This is the basic reason why nationalism—the view that the legitimate political unit is made up of anonymous members of the same culture—cannot easily operate in agrarian society. It is deeply antithetical to its main organising principle, status expressed through culture. It is not mobile and anonymous, but holds its members in their 'places,' and the places are highlighted by cultural nuance. Similarity of culture does not constitute a political bond within it: quite often, differences of culture express social complementarity and interdependence. In such circumstances, cultural differences often do create or strengthen political solidarity. The characteristic political unit of the agrarian age is generally either much smaller than the limits of a culture—city-states, village communities, tribal segments—or very much larger: culturally eclectic empires which have no reason whatsoever to limit their expansion when they encounter linguistic or cultural boundaries (of which they may be wholly ignorant, and to which they are indifferent). The most characteristic political unit of the agrarian age tended to make joint use of both these principles: a trans-ethnic empire would be superimposed on sub-ethnic communities, which it used as its local agent, tax-collector and deputy.

The characteristic forms of violence and aggression were intra- rather than inter-cultural. Feuds occur between clans of the same wider culture, aristocrats in principle fight or duel only with others of the same rank. When violent conflict passes beyond the local group, it is generally indifferent to culture and language, even if no longer contained within their limits. Lines of conflict within peasant populations tend to concern local resources, and consequently, the opponents are frequently of the same culture. There is something odd about the idea that people geographically distant, and with no real shared or opposed interests, should align themselves simply in virtue of shared or distinct accent: that is a modern idea, which is generally absent in the agrarian world.