Human history has largely been driven by the creation and use of surplus production — that is, production beyond subsistence. (Subsistence meaning sufficient to sustain life and reproduction.) The change from prehistory to history is very much a matter of the generation and use of surplus production.
There are essentially only three ways for such surplus to be created.
(1) Labour scarcity
If the scarcity of labour compared to land and capital increases, then the return to labour rises as the marginal productivity of labour increases (since there is more land and/or capital per unit of labour) and so labour income can rise above subsistence. A demographic disaster such as the Black Death creates such labour scarcity.
Given the historical norm of low levels of capital in human societies, such labour scarcity as did occur was predominantly increased scarcity relative to available land. For most of human history, demographic disaster was the dominant way for labour scarcity to occur, apart from a sufficiently quick increase in the ease of calorie production (such as the introduction of potatoes and other crop transfers from the Columbian Exchange) raising the productivity of land.
Sufficiently quick because, in the normal course of events, any labour scarcity would be (literally) eaten away by increased production of babies. What is known as Malthusian dynamics. (The most accessible discussion of Malthusian dynamics is in Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms; though see Deidre McCloskey’s response to his [pdf] explanation for the onset of the Industrial Revolution.)
Historically, most labour scarcity generating occurrences were once-off events with, due to Malthusian dynamics, temporary effects on labour scarcity. Hence, after the Black Death, across most of Europe (but strikingly not in NW Europe), wage rates declined back to their pre-Black Death level.
Until the Growth Revolution (i.e. the Industrial Revolution and associated changes), growth in production mainly went into increased population. That is the essence of Malthusian dynamics.
There were some exceptions, periods of economic efflorescence that various scholars have noted: the Greek city states; the Roman Republic and Early Empire; early Abbasid Mesopotamia; C18th Qing China; Tokugawa Japan; early modern NW Europe. But these periods and places were historically unusual (and are matters of lively debate among scholars) and were generally followed by return to Malthusian norms. Long-term population growth was very low — slightly over 2 surviving children per woman.
Increased labour scarcity (relative to other factors of production) is the only mechanism for increasing average returns to labour other than increasing productivity of existing factors of production (which historically mean land, as capital was so limited) through technological change (e.g. increased calories production via new crops).
(2) Capital intensity
If resources are set aside from consumption, capital (the produced means of production) can be created. That setting aside creates an initial surplus. It can be done as a setting aside from reproduction — say, to support religious devotions. It can also be done as a deliberate investment in higher quality children (i.e. with more human capital) rather than simply more children.
Whatever the motive for the original setting aside, capital so created can then generate surplus production and do so for the owners of the capital (for, if it does not, there won’t be much capital creation). It, however, will only generate a surplus for the holders of capital unless the production of capital is of such a scale as to increase general labour scarcity. (I.e. sufficient capital per unit of labour to raise labour productivity, giving labour a scarcity premium above subsistence.) Even then, the production of capital will only have a continuing effect if the resultant increase in the ratio of capital to labour is persistent: if the labour force is growing, that then requires capital to be created at the same, or faster rate, than the growth of the labour force.
Central to the Growth Revolution was capital being continually created at a higher rate than the growth in the labour force; including investment in higher quality children. The latter effect eventually led to the demographic transition — a dramatic drop in fertility rates. Especially as a drop in child mortality rates encouraged greater investment in child quality, rather than more children, while the increased role of capital in production, and concomitant increased labour scarcity, led to expanding economic role and status for women (who disproportionately bear the costs of child rearing; so giving them more say and options can be expected to lower fertility rates). The expansion of the importance of human capital further broadened benefits from capital deepening and increased capital complexity; both effects then moving societies even further away (pdf) from any worker-capitalist class dynamic.
As Adam Smith famously noted with his example of division of labour in pin manufacture, specialisation increases production; this, of itself, does not increase incomes above subsistence, apart from some initial labour scarcity effects eaten away by normal Malthusian dynamics. If specialisation does increase incomes above subsistence in any persistent way, it is usually to the owners of the capital involved, and may also involve some combination of human capital, specific-location resources, advantages in information and risk management. Specialisation increases the scope and scale of production and, typically, of markets but does not, thereby, increase labour income.
Note: one should generally not use the term capital accumulation to describe the process of expansion of capital. Capital does not “accumulate” like dust bunnies under the bed. Capital is the produced means of production; someone has to make the conscious decision to use resources to produce capital rather than simply consuming the resources; and to produce some specific capital. Who is making such a decision, why and in what circumstances is not some mere bagatelle, it is utterly central to understand any process of capital formation. The phrase capital accumulation does not put capital into history, it takes it out of history–that is, out of the realm of contingent human action.
Note also: in the Growth Revolution, innovation hugely dominated allocation. That is, it was not merely that resources were set aside for the production of capital, it was that–due to the invention and application of technology that we call innovation–the range and productivity of capital (and thus labour) that could be, and was, produced hugely expanded; notably through the expansion in access to, and use of, energy. The increase in the range and productivity of capital then further encouraged the further creation of capital and innovation, creating a reinforcing upward spiral.
It was not merely the “piling up” of capital that counted, but the institutions and habits for the expanding creation, and effective use, of capital. (The importance of effective use is a major reason why foreign aid has often had such disappointing results–including the, often dreadful, incentives it generates for authoritarian rulers.)
Economic historian Deidre McCloskey has written extensively on how innovation, and the habits and institutions thereof, came to dominate allocation; but the more general point of innovation hugely dominating allocation in explaining growth and expanded capacities of the Growth Revolution is widely acknowledged by those who attend seriously to the history of such matters. In Gregory Clark’s words:
investments in knowledge capital that generate efficiency growth not only explain most modern economic growth at a proximate level, they explain all modern growth (p.207).
Thus, given any significant degree of potential technological dynamism, the costs of any scheme which sacrifices innovation for allocation (including redistribution) will expand dramatically over time.
NB: This section has been slightly expanded to (hopefully) clarify the importance of efficiency growth in the Growth Revolution.
The third way to generate a surplus is to seize production before it can be use to support reproduction. That is, to expropriate it.
Mere increased production does not generate a surplus above subsistence. The normal historical effect of increased production is simply to support more babies. Expropriation allows production to be seized and diverted (pdf) before it supports more babies, thereby creating a social surplus.
Across human history, from the development of farming around 11,000 years ago until the Growth Revolution, what was the dominant way to create a social surplus? Expropriation.
Leaving aside low level thievery and brigandage, by far the dominant expropriators were wielders of organised violence. Which is why the history of major human constructions prior to the Growth Revolution is utterly dominated by such wielders. Either the rulers of states, or their agents, or those holding expropriation franchises under them.
Hence also, the production of enough stored food able to be so expropriated is basic to the development of ranked societies, and social hierarchy more generally. Thus social hierarchies, and ultimately states, evolved where (pdf) cereals (which are highly seasonal, so have to be stored, so can be expropriated) dominated farming and not where non-seasonal tubers (which don’t have to be stored, so can’t be sufficiently expropriated) dominated farming — potatoes, being seasonal, had the same dynamics as cereals.
All of which meant that elite social position tended to be much more about one’s (direct) relationship to the process of expropriation than to (what might be a quite indirect) relationship to the means of production. Thus, in medieval societies, that mounted armoured warriors were capable of dominating (and expropriating surplus from) local peasants was much more central to their social position than simply holding land–especially as, in the case of Islamic societies, they held tax grants, not land as such. (Tax grants were used rather than land grants, as owned land would be subject to Sharia inheritance laws, requiring division between heirs into holdings not large enough to support a mounted armoured warrior).
But even those who were directly involved in production had their lives profoundly affected by the processes of expropriation. Indeed, anthropologist and political scientist James C Scott has written a brilliant book on how basic mode of production (farming, horticulture, foraging), and even cultural identities, resulted from different social strategies regarding the process of expropriation. (Seriously, if you have any interest whatsoever in historical dynamics, one really should read Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.)
Expropriation could also be a way of blocking labour from enjoying the benefits of labour scarcity–through operation of human bondage (i.e. slavery or serfdom).
Providing so as to extract
It would be incorrect, however, to think that expropriation was merely extraction. To have stable expropriation, a certain amount of public goods had to be provided to establish and maintain the social order needed for routine expropriation.
State societies (societies with a dominant wielder of violence) were safer than non-state societies and societies where the state was the effective monopoly wielder of violence tended to be safer still. There was an implicit protection deal attached to state expropriation, as live-and-productive farmers provided so much more to expropriate than dead-or-devestated ones.
That the state both expropriates and protects (and protects in order to expropriate) is the basis of the paradox of politics or paradox of rulership. The fundamental idea was expressed by Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406):
[The residents] are thus prevented by the influence of force and governmental authority from mutual injustice, save such injustice as comes from the ruler himself (p.97).
The paradox can be expressed more generally:
We need the state to protect us from social predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of social predators.
A paradox that can never be solved, only managed more or less well. (Lebanon represents the technique of avoiding state predation by having a state so weak it fails to provide basic public goods.) The delusion that one has solved the paradox of politics typically just leads to much greater levels of state predation, since said delusion generally leads to abandonment of checks and balances on wielding state power. (The entire history of Leninism is one long, dreadful, series of examples of this principle.)
The struggle over expropriation
Until the Growth Revolution, production was overwhelmingly dominated by land (i.e. farming, fishing, mining); expropriation dominated the creation of social surpluses; and organised violence dominated expropriation. Therefore, violent struggles over land productive enough to support expropriation were a hardy perennial of human affairs. Even in our time, high value production fixed in location (such as oil or diamonds) is disproportionately important in promoting armed conflict (pdf).
Historically, trade complicated but did not transform matters. Trade was potentially mobile, so it was a somewhat more difficult expropriation problem than fleecing stationary standard-crops farmers, as trade typically required more specific provision of public goods.
But precisely because trade could swell or shrink in ways sensitive to state action (such as provision of public goods of what quality over what territory), and given its nodes-and-routes network structure and effects, trade almost certainly had positive economies of scale for revenue collection–unlike land, whose revenue possibilities likely simply scaled up proportionately for any given quality of land. Trade was thus likely disproportionately important for the size and scale of state activity; as revenue from trade counteracted diseconomies of scale in costs of control over territory while revenue from land generally did not. (Even gold and silver mining mostly got its revenue benefits from the value of gold and silver as trade goods.)
But taxing trade was not so much more difficult an exercise than fleecing stationary farmers that states did not also use organised violence to seize key trade nodes and attempt to dominate trade routes. This was the world aptly described by Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) in his Discourses on Livy:
… it is not gold, as is vulgarly supposed, that is the sinews of war, but good soldiers; for while gold by itself will not gain you good soldiers, good soldiers may readily get you gold.
A transformed dynamic
The Growth Revolution‘s dramatic increase in the role of capital, especially given the diverse (i.e. heterogeneous) nature of capital, did transform matters. Expansion in the ways of producing social surplus made expropriation much more derivative in accessing any surplus, as it became much more about taxing surplus production after it was generated rather than creating surplus by seizing production before it was used to support reproduction.
But becoming more derivative did not mean that the return to expropriation declined. On the contrary, the Growth Revolution’s expansion of documented employment arrangements has massively increased tax’s share of total production (especially in societies which have adopted the full Growth Revolution deal), by making production much more transparent to the state and turning firms into agents of the expropriation process. But that is about accessing surplus production, not creating surplus by removal, so seriously shifts the expropriation incentives in dealing with those from whom production is to be expropriated.
Thus, the potential return to production-fostering (rather than production-seizing) government greatly increased (with the caveat about fixed-location resources noted above; though even there a certain competence in managing the resource is also required). Effects that have been further increased by innovation dominating allocation in expanding production. All of which has encouraged a strong tendency to broadening of political bargaining and participation.
The shift to taxing income (much of it labour or human capital income), the increased density and complexity of production, the political organising and bargaining implications thereof; all increased dramatically the return to linguistic homogeneity, and ethnic homogeneity more generally, for states. Linguistic and ethnic homogeneity increased the costs of exit, allowing higher taxation. Ethnic homogeneity reduced diversity in framings and preferences, allowing more efficient public good provision; while linguistic homogeneity improved the ability to negotiate taxation-public good trade-offs.
In other words, abstracting from other factors, the more ethnically homogeneous the citizens of a state are, the higher the taxation-expenditure trade-off can be expected to be; the less ethnically homogeneous the citizens of a state are, the lower the taxation-expenditure trade-off can be expected to be.
One of the inherent problems of the EU is that — due to its ethnic and linguistic diversity — it lacks a functional demos, a shared realm of political bargaining among citizens.
It is not surprising that the first political-organisation effect of the Growth Revolution — massive increases in trade due to railways and steamships — led to a surge in imperial expansion (i.e. territorially larger states) while the second political-organisation effect of the Growth Revolution — particularly given the massive expansion in literacy-based markets — was a dramatic surge in nationalism.
The latter effect, combined with the dramatic drop in the relative importance of land per se as a revenue source, then massively undermined territorial imperialism. That is, territory became both less specifically important and more problematically differentiated (at least in the sense of resident populations): though a solution to the latter has been population exchange so as to achieve ethnolinguistic homogeneity.
Expansion of political nations to include all adult citizens has tended to make such democratic states more squeamish about casualties from warfare. While the expansion of welfare states meant that colonisation of their own societies came to massively dominate colonisation of other societies as a source of expropriation-funded career paths (especially given externalisation of the welfare model — i.e. foreign aid).
But, even among authoritarian states, the decline in the return to seizing land in general, and linguistically divergent populations in particular, probably has something to do with the general drop in violence, particularly wars, as well as the shift in wars being much more intrastate (i.e. fighting over access to, and direction of, existing expropriation processes) than interstate (disruptively seizing production). One notes that regions where various states share a single language, often without much deeper history as states (the Middle East), or where borders have a high rate of failure to match ethno-linguistic patterns (Africa) have been prone to higher levels of violent conflict.
It is also not surprising that states organised to expropriate labour surplus (i.e. all command economies)* have been more highly militarised than states with broader production of social surplus (and the politics that tend to evolve with that).
On the other hand, the decline in the material return to violence tends to make other motives more salient in the violence that does occur; motives such as status (notably avoiding or achieving domination) and search for transcendence (whether secular or religious).
Even so, that we live in a world where the production of social surpluses above subsistence is not dominated by expropriation (and violent struggles over the same) is just one of several ways we live in a very different world than did those before the Growth Revolution.
* Command economies control prices and wages. That means that prices and wages can be set so that basic wages are below subsistence, but “bonuses” from extra production push wages above subsistence, increasing the systematic extraction of labour surplus beyond simply paying subsistence wages. (Public choice economist Mancur Olson explains the mechanics nicely in his posthumous Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist And Capitalist Dictatorships.) Hence command economies typically blocked exit–all labour surplus extraction systems rely on blocking alternatives for workers. (So, yes, exit-blocking command economies are in the same game as slavery and, especially, serfdom.) It is also why states that continue to have Leninist regimes (China and Vietnam) open their borders as they move away from being command economies; (1) they extract revenue from a widening range of transactions, so wish to expand the number of transactions, which closed borders militate against and (2) the less they rely on extracting labour surplus, the more the benefit in blocking exit declines.
[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]