The Return of the Barbarian

Our cartoon view of history goes straight from the Flintstones to Jetsons without developmental stages of any consequence in between. Hunter-gatherers and settled modern civilizations loom large, as bookends, in our study of history. The more I study history though, the more I realize that hunter-gatherer lifestyles are mostly of importance in evolutionary prehistory, not in history proper. If you think about history proper, a different lifestyle, pastoral nomadism, starts to loom large, and its influence on the course of human history is grossly underestimated. This is partly because civilizations and pastoral nomad cultures have a figure-ground relationship. You need to understand both to understand the gestalt of world history.

Modern hunter-gatherer lifestyles are cul-de-sacs in cultural evolution terms. They stopped mattering by around 4000 BC, and haven’t significantly affected world events since. Pastoral nomads though, played a crucial role until at least World War I. Until about 1405 (the year Timur died), they actually played the starring role. And in reconstructed form, the lifestyle may again start to dominate world affairs within the next few decades. Their eclipse over the last 5oo or so years, I am going to argue, was an accident of history that is finally being corrected.

The barbarians are about to return to their proper place at the helm of the world’s affairs, and the story revolves around this picture:

I am about to zoom from about 15,000 BC to 2011 AD in less than 4000 words, so you may want to fasten your seat belts and grab a few pinches of salt.

Savagery, Barbarism and Civilization

From hunter-gatherers to early pastoral nomads, you get a gradual evolution, and at some point (the Neolithic revolution, probably between 15,000 to 10,000 BC) you get a fork in the road. One path leads to settled civilizations and the other leads to increasingly sophisticated modes of pastoralism. Pre-Columbian Plains Indians could be viewed as being right at the fork: they didn’t quite herd domesticated beasts so much as follow buffalo around on their normal migratory routes. There were also other tribes that were more sedentary, but didn’t develop into full-blown settled civilizations like their cousins further south in Central and Latin America.

On the pastoral nomad branch of the fork, you get, in reverse chronological order of influence on world history, Turks, Mongols, Arabs, Northern Europeans and Proto Indo-Europeans.

On the sedentary branch, you get,  in no particular order, American, Soviet, British, Continental-European, Persian, Graeco-Roman, Ancient Near Eastern, later-stage Arabic (the Abbassids more than the Ummayads), Sinic and Indian. There aren’t actually more of them, though it looks that way. They are merely easier to count off since they stay in one place and give each other names that stick.

I like Thorstein Veblen‘s labels for hunter gatherers, pastoral nomads and settled peoples (savage, barbarian and civilized respectively, from his 1899 classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class) but lest you take offense (and in case it isn’t obvious), in this post, “barbarian” is a term of approbation, while “civilized” is an insult. The term for hunter-gatherers, “savage,” is neutral. They don’t feature much in this story, but they will if I ever do a post on prehistory between 100,000 BC to 10,000 BC.

My treatment also differs from Veblen’s in one crucial way: what he views as a linear progression, I view as a forking path with barbarian and civilized branches evolving interdependently and in parallel. Like others thinkers of the 19th century, he also used the metaphor of progression from childlike to adult stages (a sort of “ontogeny recapitulates phyllogeny” idea applied to cultural evolution) to think about the linear model, which I think is fundamentally mistaken (though it persists as a trope in movies and television).  So to acknowledge my debt to Veblen while distinguishing my views from his, I am going to call the anchor picture the Neo-Veblen Fork.

This post is partly an attempt to reconstruct a portion of Veblen’s ideas, but you can read it independently of the book. I strongly recommend the book though, another one of my top 10 reads. It covers vastly more territory than this post (though mostly within the context of late 19th century Robber Baron America), and most of it applies without any reconstruction in 2011.

The Idle Savage

Hunter gatherers need and create very little technology. They manage to live in a stable relationship with their environments. To the extent that they follow their main prey species around, they are more like proto-nomads. To the extent that they live around their main plant food sources, they are like proto-sedentary cultures. These are the lifestyles Veblen labeled savage.

The biblical archetype for hunter-gatherers has traditionally been the Garden of Eden. Savages are minimalist predators, and simply live off the bounty of nature, in areas where it is effectively inexhaustible.  To the extent that their gathering has evolved into agriculture, it is slash-and-burn agriculture based on immediate consumption and natural renewal rather than accumulation and storage of vast quantities of non-perishable food over long periods of time. You could call their style of farming “nomadic” farming, since they move from cultivating one cleared patch of forest to the next, rather than staying put and practicing crop rotation in a small confined (and “owned”) patch of land.

For the record, I think the Garden of Eden story has it right. Savagery is the most pleasurable state of existence, if you can get it (until you annoy the witch doctor or get a toothache). Not in the sense of noble savage (an idea within what is known as romantic primitivism that is currently enjoying a somewhat silly revival thanks to things like the Paleo diet), but in the sense of what you might call the idle savage state. In some ways, an idle savage is what I am, in private, on weekends.

Though they don’t play a big part in this story, don’t underestimate what they did when they were center-stage: fire, spoken language, art and archery are all savage inventions. Wisely, they didn’t get addicted to invention and stayed idle.

Idle savagery is basically unsustainable today unless you retreat completely from the mainstream, so though I’d like to be an idle savage, I’ve settled for the compromise state of being a barbarian. That’s where it gets interesting.

The Illegible Barbarian

Pastoral nomads need, and develop, a good deal more technology, and in areas that matter to them, are usually ahead of settled civilizations. They are not quite as predatory as hunter-gatherers. Unlike hunter-gatherers, they don’t just follow prey around. They consciously domesticate and manage their herds. Rather than let the herds move by instinct, they direct their migratory instincts (hence “herding”). They don’t just occasionally slaughter what they need for food and clothing. They develop dairy, husbandry and veterinary practices as well . You could say they cultivate animals (a more demanding task than cultivating plants). The biblical reference point is of course Abel the shepherd, of killed-by-Cain fame (at one point I was enamored of Daniel Quinn’s reading of the Cain-Abel tale in Ishmael, which I now think is completely mistaken, and a case of confusing hunter-gatherers with pastoral nomads).

I’ve already argued that barbarians were responsible for the development of iron technology. I’d also credit them for the invention of the wheel, chariots, leather craft, rope-making, animal husbandry, falconry and sewing (via sewing of hide tents with gut-string and bone needles, which clearly must have come before cloth woven from plant fibers needed sewing). Basically, if anything looks like it came out of a mobile lifestyle, pastoral nomads probably invented it. At a more abstract level, barbarian cultures create fundamentally predatory technologies: technologies that allow you to do less work to get the same returns, freeing up time for idleness.  What Hegel would have called “Master” technologies. The barbarian works to earn the idleness which the luckier savage gets for free.

Barbarian technologies, like savage technologies, are fundamentally sustainable, since using them tends to fulfill immediate needs rather than causing wealth accumulation. The connection to mobility is central to this characteristic: nomadic cultures do not accumulate useless things. It is a naturally self-limiting way of life. If it doesn’t fit in saddlebags or is too heavy to be carried by pack animals, it isn’t useful.

Mobility is also the fundamental reason why barbarian cultures are illegible (see my post A Big Little Idea Called Legibility) to civilized ones in literal and abstract ways.

They self-organize in sophisticated ways, but you cannot draw organization charts (the Romans tried and failed).

For most of history, they’ve owned most of the map of the world, yet you cannot draw boundaries and identify proto-nations, since they are defined by patterns of movement rather than patterns of settlement.

They practice the most evolved forms of leadership, but actual leaders change from one situation to the next (a fact which confused the Roman army no end when it fought them).

Pastoral nomads come in two varieties, which Veblen called lower and higher barbarian stages. Lower barbarian pastoral nomads include groups like the 12th century Mongols. Higher barbarian stages look like settled civilizations on the surface, but (and this was Veblen’s enduring contribution in his book) are characterized by a vigorous ruling class, with roots in pastoral nomadism, that generally maintains at least a metaphoric version of that lifestyle.

Among the more obvious symbols, as late as the 19th century, the higher barbarians often maintained herds of unnecessary domestic animals, hunted for sport (rather than for sustenance, unlike the hunter-gatherers) and generally spent their wealth recreating idealized pastoral nomad landscapes.

When the vigorous leaders of a higher barbarian culture start to settle down like their subjects, you get civilization.

The Stationary Civilized

Veblen’s notion of “civilized” roughly corresponds to agrarian (or more generally, production-accumulation based) cultures governed by social contracts and non-absolute rulers. By this measure, parts of the Near East became “civilized” by about 1500 BC (I regard the Hittites as the first true examples), followed by southern Europe around 800 BC and northern Europe around the time of the Magna Carta.

Asian cultures are much harder to track: Veblen considered them all “higher barbarian,”  but depending on how you read the history of Persia, China and India, they’ve oscillated between “higher barbarian” and “civilized” over the centuries (for instance, the “growth and consolidation” reigns of Ashoka and Akbar were civilized while the entrepreneurial “startup” reigns of their respective grandfathers, Chandragupta Maurya and Babur, were higher barbarian; I don’t know Persian and Chinese history well enough to cite equivalent examples).

The mark of “civilization” is the replacement of sustainable predatory patterns of life based on immediate consumption with unsustainable non-predatory ones based on accumulation.

Civilized cultures create different types of technology compared to barbarian cultures. What Hegel would have called “Slave” technologies. Technologies that keep you working harder and harder to accumulate stuff.

Civilization is the opposite of idleness. It is a treadmill of increasing industriousness and productivity.

This isn’t irrational: sedentary lifestyles allow you to store everything from grain to gold in large quantities and lower the risk of future starvation. The carrot and stick of surplus-fueled hedonism and starvation-avoiding accumulation lock sedentary people into human zoos that become fundamentally harder to break out of over time.

But the effects are inevitable. As you settle down and accumulate stuff, the risks of existence gradually decrease and the surpluses available for hedonism increase.  The net effect of both is that less actual thinking, but more work, is required to exist.

To peek ahead a bit, settled civilization is a fundamentally Gollumizing force. It makes you comfortable, stupid and addicted to the security and accumulated fruits of your labor.

Which brings us to the figure-ground interaction pattern that scripts world history.

The Barbarians and the Civilized

The most famous lower and higher barbarians in history are Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan respectively. They represent the classic historical pattern of interaction between pastoral nomads and civilized peoples.

The pattern is a simple one: a settled civilization grows old, stupid and tired, and a vigorous barbarian culture swoops in and takes over from the top, and gradually gets civilized and stupid in turn, until it too is ripe for destruction by pastoral nomads on its periphery.

Modern Europeans since the time of Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) have managed to rejoice in a rather contradictory view of themselves: they celebrate their dual origins in the vigorous barbarian cultures of the North and the exhausted cultures of antiquity. Over the protests of modern Italians and Greeks, Northern Europeans have successfully managed to appropriate for themselves the role of “true” stewards of the achievements of Greece and Rome, cultures that their barbarian forbears were instrumental in destroying (if you want to know which origin myth is closer to the hearts of Europeans, look no further than the tattoos of white gangs in prisons: they tend to be drawn from Scandinavian mythologies).

Here’s a rather suggestive piece of European history that illustrates the barbarian/civilized dynamic. In the traditional account of the “civilization of Europe,” wine played an interesting role. The Gauls (so the story goes, according to Gibbon) became Romanized first, as Roman wine-making techniques spread to what is today modern France. The Goths were interested in many of the luxuries of Rome, but the one that tempted them the most was wine, which they grew to prefer over the cruder spirits they themselves distilled.

I don’t want to hang my entire theory of civilization on this little item, but it is interesting that the barbarians were civilized, in part, through the temptations of an addiction: better booze, the refined product of an agrarian accumulation culture.

Enough examples, let’s note the two interesting questions that emerge, that deserve analysis:

First, how is it that apparently “inferior” cultures have repeatedly swooped in and destroyed and/or taken over “superior” cultures? Why was Genghis Khan able to take over China, and how did his grandson successfully create the Yuan dynasty? How did Arab armies conquer the vastly more civilized and sophisticated Persian society? How did Turks pretty much take over most of South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa? Going further back, how did the Proto Indo-European (or “Aryans”) take down the entire Bronze Age family of civilizations?

Second, given the astounding win record of the “barbarians” against the “civilized,” how come history isn’t written from the point of view of the pastoral nomads? Why aren’t the histories of Egypt, Greece, Rome, Babylon, Persia, India and China sideshows, with pride of place being given to Mongols, Turks, Arabs and Northern Europeans (pre 1000 AD)? Isn’t history supposed to be written by the winners?

Refinement and Stupidity

Here’s the answer to the first question: “barbarians” are on average, individually smarter, but collectively stupider than a thriving settled civilization.

One-on-one, a lower barbarian can outthink, outfight, and out-innovate a civilized citizen any day.

But a settled civilization at its peak can blow a lower barbarian civilization away. Not least because at the very top, you still have Veblen’s “uncivilized” higher barbarians (or, to use the Ribbonfarm term, sociopaths). But once it begins its decline, the greater live intelligence of the barbarians begins to take effect.

The explanation for this contradiction is a very simple one: by definition, civilization is the process of taking intelligence out of human minds and putting it into institutions. And by “institution” I mean something completely general: any codified organizational form based on writing will do. Writing, as Plato noted in Phaedrus, is the main medium through which intelligence passes from humans to institutions.

“[Writing] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own…You’d think they[written words] were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.” (Phaedrus 275d-e)

In the short term this works brilliantly. The ideas of the smartest people (usually embedded higher barbarians) are externalized and encoded into the design of institutions, which can then make far stupider people vastly more effective than their raw capabilities would allow (this is the reason why the modern economic notion of “productivity” is so misleading).

But in the long term this fails. The smart people die, and their ideas become obsolete and ritualized. Initially, more intelligence is being externalized into institutions than is being taken away through ritualization, but at some point, you get a peak, and the decline begins. As entropy accumulates, it becomes a simple matter for another wave of lower barbarians on the periphery to take down the civilization.

The reason this seems like a strange phenomenon is that we confuse refinement with advancement. Finely-crafted jewelry is not more advanced than roughly-hewn jewelry.  A Boeing 747 is about a million times more capable than the Wright Flyer I, but it does not contain a million times as much intelligence. It is merely more refined (in the sense of cocaine, by the same logic I applied in The Gollum Effect). The difference between advancement and refinement is clearest in disruption. A beautifully-crafted sword is not more advanced than a crude gun. It is merely more refined.

Or to go back to our earlier example, wine isn’t more intelligent than a crude country-brew. It is merely more refined.

The intelligence manifest in an artifact is simply the amount of human thought that has been externalized into it. Refinement on the other hand, is a measure of the amount of work that has gone into it. In Hegelian terms, intelligence in design is fundamentally a predatory quality put in by barbarian-Masters. Refinement in design is a non-predatory quality put in by civilized-Slaves.

We miss this dynamic because of a curious phenomenon: history is only written by the winners if the winners can actually write. At their apogee, when civilizations have the most surplus wealth, they indulge in the most refined forms of writing: writing histories with autocentric conceit, they focus on the visibly-refined glories of their own age, rather than the higher-barbarian sensibilities at the foundations. Genghis Khan is the sole exception in being more famous than his grandson. In the other two examples I’ve mentioned, Ashoka and Akbar both traditionally get “the Great” added to their names. Their empire-founding barbarian grandfathers do not. The most famous symbol of the Mughal empire is the Taj Mahal, which was built by Shah Jahan, who bankrupted his empire in the process, hastening the fall that followed his reign. Babur’s tomb is a  modest little building in Kabul that few would recognize in a photograph.

As a civilization becomes increasingly refined, and far less intelligent, it becomes easy prey for pastoral nomads on the margins, who swoop in cleanse the culture of accumulated stupidity, and revitalize it with a fresh infusion of barbarian blood at the top.

You might even say that barbarians operate at a meta-level: they plant and harvest value out of civilizations. They are civilization farmers, just as they are animal herders.

The Eclipse and Return of the Barbarian

The reign of Timur was the last time a true barbarian ruled a significant proportion of the world. Since his death in 1405, the barbarian has been in decline. The process reached its peak during the Cold War. In America, the Organization Man threatened to squeeze higher barbarians out of the capitalist world, while in Soviet Russia, forced settlement and collectivization in Siberia and Mongolia threatened to corral the last of the wandering lower barbarians.

It almost seemed like the fountain of barbarian culture at which humanity drinks to renew itself, was about to be completely exhausted once and for all.

The moment, thankfully passed. The Gervais Principle kicked in to re-invigorate capitalism, and the High Modernist doctrines of the Soviet state collapsed (followed by a remarkably quick return to pastoral nomadism in Mongolia and Siberia).

That was just the opening act. Today as institutions of all sorts crumble and collapse, and the written word becomes a living, dancing, hyperlinked thing that would have made Plato happy, the barbarian is set to return. I’ll blog about this in a future piece, when I extrapolate this speculative history into a speculative future.

Note, some of the ideas in this post were inspired by Seb Paquet’s two-part series on how social movements happen. I don’t entirely agree with Seb’s model, but you should check it out if these things interest you.

This was also partly motivated by the impending April 12th release of Francis Fukuyama’s new book, The Origins of Political Order.  I wanted to get my own thoughts on the subject down before tackling his.  His first book, The End of History and the Last Man, was in many ways my personal introduction to this sort of subject matter. And no, I am not a neocon.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Dude. Read Hutchins’ Cognition in the Wild if you haven’t already.

    • Hoppered.

      Sea cultures/fishing cultures have also been sadly under-studied in history. Am reading Mahan’s “The Role of Sea Power in History” right now and it’s quite fascinating.

      • Ah, the ship navigation team is just the setting. The book is about how groups organize and communicate, and how they externalize their cognition into their environment. Hutchins slices their actions into to a fine julienne and exposes the innards of how they acquire a common objective.

        It’s objectives that got me thinking about it. The objectives of a barbarian are clear and easily communicated, enabling them to organize ad hoc. In a declining civilization, there are no goals, only tasks. Like you mention, the systems do the thinking—but potentially more accurately, they do the steering. The happy path effect is that people perform far outside their unassisted capacity. The failure mode is that the barbarians sneaking over the hill are not on their radar.

  2. I don’t buy it. Nomad groups are routinely wiped out by civilizations; civilizations, in so far as they are wiped out, tend to be wiped out by cultural spread, not nomads. The Roman empire still exists; it’s called the Catholic Church, its centurions are bishops, its counties are parishes, and its culture has spread over the globe.

    It seems to me that you are straining really hard to fit data to your preconceived theories about elite barbarians. I read this post as story-telling with cherry-picked events, rather than a cohesive argument and defense against alternative stories.

    • The Catholic Church is the biggest landowner in the world today. On the other hand, Genghis Khan has 16 million descendants. You decide which fact is more interesting.

      If the geneticists are right, Khan and his descendants spread his distinctive Y chromosome to about half a percent of the world’s male population alive today, or some 16 million men. Strikingly, the region where almost all of those men live matches the boundaries of the old Mongol Empire.

      Every attempt at history is “story-telling with cherry-picked events” so that does not bother me. I am interested in the insight that can be obtained by flipping the figure-ground perspective. I am not saying settled civilizations are unimportant. But it is interesting to read history from the yang perspective instead of the yin perspective for a change.

      • If you judge by genetic spread, by all means, try to be the biggest rapist in history. I believe ideas are more worth spreading than sperm.

        • Not condoning the actions so much as pointing out that different bits of data suggest different proportions of impact. Not really addressing morality in this piece at all… I think on that front both civilized/barbarians have an equally abysmal record.

          Genghis Khan was probably no better/worse than many civilized militarist rulers, but his sins get magnified and his virtues minimized due to his being on the “barbarian” side of the fence.

          The etymology of “barbarian” is quite curious. From what I’ve read it seems to have something to do with beards (hence “barber” and “barbary pirates” and even the common name “Barbara”).

          • Online Etymology Dictionary has the following:

            mid-14c., from M.L. barbarinus (cf. O.Fr. barbarin “Berber, pagan, Saracen, barbarian”), from L. barbaria “foreign country,” from Gk. barbaros “foreign, strange, ignorant,” from PIE base *barbar- echoic of unintelligible speech of foreigners (cf. Skt. barbara- “stammering,” also “non-Aryan”). Greek barbaroi (n.) meant “all that are not Greek,” but especially the Medes and Persians. Originally not entirely pejorative, its sense darkened after the Persian wars. The Romans (technically themselves barbaroi) took up the word and applied it to tribes or nations which had no Greek or Roman accomplishments.

            Based on that, it seems to mean, most literally, “the illegible.”

          • By the way, I’m pretty sure barbers are so called because they used to stick you with a barb, in an effort to treat illnesses within the “four humors” system of traditional medicine. Gauze that sopped up the blood from such a therapeutic bleeding would be wound around a stick to advertise the barber’s services.

          • Gah…I looked it up, and I’m wrong on that last point.

            Oops. You’re right, it has to do with beards.

          • It’s somewhat conflicted, but you’ll also see an etymology based on the “illegible” thing and baa-ing. That is, they’re hard to understand because they literally “baa-baa” like sheep.

            I don’t know if that’s discredited, or just not accepted as definite.

        • If you judge by genetic spread, by all means, try to be the biggest rapist in history.
          It is unclear which side are you arguing with, the Catholic Church or the Khan?

  3. Some connections to this that you could look into:

    Robin Hanson has a well developed vision on how ‘farmers’ differ from ‘foragers’. Institutions are farmer constructs, and egalitarianism and self-expression are forager values. A key part is that wealth enables people to indulge hard-wired forager instincts, which explains modern trends in work and social life.

    I have bought into the hunter- and warrior archetypes since reading Carlos Castaneda. His type of hunter is a minimalist version of your opportunistic decision maker. When I read your post about opportunism, there was a big click, as the hypnotic dreams of Castaneda’s hunter fused with AI theory. Castaneda’s warrior is basically an ubermensch who values freed cognition and imagination above all else, so in some ways that could inspire your definition of the new barbarian.

    There is a bad-but-interesting novel called Blood Sport, by Robert F. Jones, that evokes the kind of wildness you felt in Namdapha, with a scary social element. In that story, the role of the tiger is played by the leader of a savage tribe, and the main characters are assimilated.

  4. PS: For stimulation, here is a quote from one of your evil twins:

    “The three most harmful addictions are heroin,
    carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

    • Taleb, I presume? Or Ferris?

      Now I just have to give up carbs.

      • Taleb, in The Bed of Procrustes. Although Ferriss is going paleo too.

      • >I just have to give up carbs.

        Uh, joking I hope?

        Carbohydrates are necessary for the metabolism to function, although there’s plenty enough starch in healthy muscle or liver tissue to make strict carnivorism healthy in that respect.

        It’s strange that the paleo diet assumes we haven’t evolved since the ag revolution. It seems like some of the success of proto-Indo-Europeans was due neotenous expression of the lactase enzyme, and it’s very common for a high-starch diet to result in extra copies of the amylase gene (and more of that enzyme in saliva) after enough generations. Some groups of people really have evolved to make use of domesticated carbohydrate sources; ironically, I think most of the people who can afford to follow the paleo diet fall into that category.

        There are also groups that have adapted to a diet where carbs are even less accessible than in a typical hunter-gatherer’s diet: using mesquite flour as a staple, for example, can mean a very sensitive insulin response. Some people in the Southwestern US and Northern Mexico might be adapted to an even lower-GI diet than paleo (lots of carbs, but in forms such as inulin).

        • Jack Christopher says

          What’s with the “take that” at the Paleo diet/primitivism?

          “Carbohydrates are necessary for the metabolism to function”

          Carbohydrates are physiologically unnecessary. But almost no one argues that zero carb is the human norm. And the Paleo/Primal diet isn’t automatically “low” carb either. A tribe’s carbohydrate consumption would vary depending on the local ecology.

          And few Paleo dieters believe that we haven’t changed since H-G times. For that matter few primitivist do either. The argument is, we mostly haven’t changed.

    • I would say alcohol, nicotine, and indignation.

      Heroin qua such isn’t directly harmful. I also get the general impression that the endorphin system is safer to tamper with than the dopamine system: look how thin the margin is between the dose of nicotine from a cigar, and the LD50!

      If you want to open up the field to habits that aren’t harmful, but are associated with great harm, I would still put helplessness far ahead of heroin. A case might be made that heroin addiction requires learned helplessness before it can take hold.

  5. Making a couple synapses here…

    Clay Shirky: “Process is an embedded reaction to prior stupidity”

    Yishan Wong: “Subtly, operating flexibility is reduced and through the fault of no one, descriptive process has become prescriptive. ”

  6. Thought provoking stuff. A few observations I would like to get your thoughts on:

    The barbarian/civilized distinction is not actually a matter of distinct groups but of the prevalence of each type within a given group. A barbarian group will have its agents of civilization and a civilized group will have its internal barbarians. I presume that your historical classification relies on which type managed to dominate the prevailing culture.

    It would seem also that which type dominates will be a function of the environment, both natural and human created. If we are at a tipping point now that would mean that we have in a sense become over-civilized and therefore the marginal benefit of barbarism far outweighs its marginal cost.

    That leads me to an observation about abundance vs scarcity. When chaos prevails the civilizers create abundance and reduce scarcity by sowing order and stability. Once the civilization becomes ossified the machine consumes more than it produces (witness the financial system, now derivatives of derivatives removed from the financing of actual productive activities). At this point scarcity is reduced by unleashing the resources consumed by the machine.

    • Once the civilization becomes ossified …

      Much more generally it’s decreasing marginal returns on complexity and this strikes at any level of complexity (depends on the resources environment) see Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies.

    • The context from which I picked the above the link is also worth a read.

    • I think you are right that the boundary conditions driving all this have to do with abundance vs. scarcity. There will be no pure savage/barbarian/civilized archetype communities anywhere. The mix will vary depending on the path-dependent delayed impact of important boundary/initial condition events, as well as ongoing environmental factors.

      The biggest of these was obviously the last retreat of the glaciers. The Black Death is another big one. Ideas from Jared Diamond and Joel Mokyr get at these effects.

    • The barbarian/civilized distinction is not actually a matter of distinct groups but of the prevalence of each type within a given group.

      That’s more or less the conclusion of Terence Watts’ Warriors Settlers and Nomads model BTW.

    • “If we are at a tipping point . . .”

      We passed over to the dark side of the tipping point when Home Economics was added to the college curriculum.

  7. You are getting some traction Venkat! ;-)

  8. Any barbarians in our midst? How about “proto-barbarians:” Non-corporate organic farmers, perhaps? Those yearning to be barbarian: Permaculturists?

  9. jld: you’ll see that Greg Rader has commented above you. If these ideas get some traction, yeah, barbarians can hope to take over the world again.

    Tainter’s book has been on my list to read since the garbage eschatology post last year. The hopper is far too full at the moment unfortunately.

    Joel: yeah, am kidding about carbs obviously, esp. since I am a vegetarian. hope you’re kidding about heroin.

    William: I do have a theory of embedded neo-barbarians. I’ll post that as a sequel once I clarify the ideas to my own satisfaction. I am leaning towards literally mobile people and how they cause migrations in creative capital a la Richard Florida’s ideas. Haven’t yet worked it out.

    • I’m not exactly kidding.

      It’s all too common for very harmful things to enter the bloodstream along with heroin (air, quinine, HIV, staph), but an appropriate harm-reduction program can limit the direct harm from a heroin habit to little more than constipation.

      Nicotine and alcohol, in the quantities that addicts tend to use, are directly harmful: even if no polonium or fusel oils (respectively) are included, they’re both implicated in heart disease and a host of other problems.

  10. Next Gervais Princple piece? How will the Sociopath end?

    After this post, it’s like I’ve watched a film where we see 5 different characters, and now we see how their stories intersect.

    Great work!

    • Entirely unintended convergence, but I suppose subconsciously the themes have all been related for me (and many of the regular commenters who’ve been influencing all the threads and often making connections I miss).

  11. Continuing the ribbonfarm tradition, the labels are carefully mischosen to mislead the casual newcomer. Barbarians, as opposed to savages, are the wild, untamed, unconventional, creative folk whose self-assured smugness has to be kept in check with a label that connotes backwardness and lack of refinement.

    While this discussion is sweeping, these phenomena apply in the corporate context. One obvious analogy is to process standards. Cowboy coding savages face new standards and templates set by the “process quality” barbarians, which a large, settled civilized corporate developer crowd can benefit by blindly adhering. When external changes make some of the older methods or tools irrelevant, there is resistance until barbarian skunkworks prove new agile approaches and help assimilate them into the codified knowledge base.

    Barbarians in this sense have to periodically tame savages and disrupt the civilized. If they succeed, the inevitable next phase of civilization will threaten them (of “Gollumization”?) so they have to go elsewhere or find a way to shake up the system.

    The enlightened among the civilized would welcome and even facilitate the barbarians’ occasional paradigm busting.

    Barbarians are “stupid” only from the viewpoint of civilization. By definition they cannot collectively be “intelligent”. Cats cannot decide to dog-ize themselves.

    • I admit, I do enjoy that part of my writing the most, twisting labels around to mislead/distract/emphasize downplayed aspects of something. It’s a useful litmus test to separate those who can follow the actual conceptual train of thought instead of being tied to labels. Kinda like asking interviewees a question about pointers in C.

      I keep meaning to blog about this sometime. There are basically 3 ways to achieve conceptual precision: invent and define terms (the academic way), very carefully use regular language with 100x precision (the analytical philosopher’s way) or use terms in deliberately messed-up humpty-dumpty ways.

      I prefer the last one because with the first two the reader has to load the frame of reference into his/her brain consciously and remember to keep it there, and the writer has to work to keep reinforcing it. In the first case, there is a rational (and tedious) learning curve that has to be worth the value at the other end, instead of a subconscious perspective jump. In the second case, a tired reader can read sloppily and get the wrong idea.

      In the last model, the ideas are simply incomprehensible if you DON’T make the mental shift (in the Necker Cube sense), but if you manage to do it, it tends to be instantaneous, and the rest is easy. It makes my job easier in the comments section. It is also not an arbitrary barrier in the way technical jargon often is, which is in danger of turning into a silo insider-language.

      I’ll blog about this when I am able to think through the technique a little more carefully.

  12. Engaging stuff. Of course, the rise of the barbarians brings immediately to mind 9/11 and Al Qaeda. Everything seems to map pretty neatly. Pastoral nomads attacking the settled West with its own infrastructure .

    • And you could interpret the fact that the attacks didn’t bring down the capitalist system infrastructure, just the buildings, as evidence that financial system itself is a piece of barbarian technology :).

      • Interesting thought. Would you differentiate at all between the infrastructure and the underlying values of the system? It seems reasonable to say that quid pro quo values in a market context could be part of barbarian technology. Many of the specific implementations of the financial system however seem to be forces of civilization…

        And yes I realize I am over-analyzing what was probably an off the cuff remark ;)

      • And perhaps the yet-unresolved mortgage derivatives mess of 2008 is evidence that the barbarian financial technology grew into an institution, emptying itself of intelligence in the process.

      • Hah, interesting point. I’d be interested in future posts on barbarian economics. I could see the possibility that modern trading networks have roots in barbarian culture. I like the idea that schools of economics which have sprung up to predict markets are attempts to build civilized frameworks around a technology that never will behave rationally. Perhaps the fact that Wall Street seems so capable of evading “civilizing” regulation is a healthier sign than most people would want to acknowledge these days. In my thinking, I’m tempted to place us closer to the end stage of this cycle–where we’re becoming overly ritualized and losing our barbarian vitality but perhaps the West isn’t quite there yet in your view. I’ll have to read up on my Veblen to get a better feel for the state of our ruling sociopaths. Love the way this guy writes.

        • After thinking about this a bit more I think financial systems do serve as very good examples of the civilized influence on “barbarian” human nature. Consider that our financial conventions represent very specific processes that serve to institutionalize the more general motivation to exchange value between parties. The danger of collapse exists when people forget that the institutionalized form derives from the natural form. People begin to behave as if the “laws” of economics are rules of reality rather than rules of human convention. These same people are then unable to recognize when the human convention begins to diverge from the underlying reality…they begin to believe that stock markets SHOULD always yield 8% over the long term or that interest rates are intrinsically defined by central banks.

          • check out Paula’s post on liminality/supraliminality, and my comment on metacognition. Wild thought… perhaps financial instruments are so “meta” they are by definition a part of civilization, because barbarians never get so meta?

            I think a true barbarian would be suspicious of betting on the historic 8% idea. I know I certainly am, now more than ever.

          • In reply to Venkat on 3/17/2011 11:41 below (seems we can’t thread replies any further):

            I started to reply to this a couple weeks ago but my thoughts wandered so far into the Wild realm I had to allow some time for integration and consolidation. Some of the subsequent comments below have helped with this…

            We are going to have trouble with any heuristic in which we talk about the barbarian/civilized distinction without some specific reference point. The trouble I suspect a lot of people have with this oscillating model is that it is patently obvious that we are becoming more civilized. I think the distinction in this post that works best is “barbarians are individually smarter, civilized are collectively smarter”. By that metric we are all civilized relative to past peoples. Put any of us out in the wild and we will fail at the most basic survival tasks. Many will even lack the capacity to attempt to learn these things and would die of fear more than any particular survival pressure.

            Yet, it is surely true that within any given society there are barbarian types and civilized types. The fact that we would be helpless in past environments doesn’t change the fact that many people act as barbarians within the current environment. So any claim like “barbarians never get so meta” requires some context. Dollar bills would be extraordinarily meta to a hunter-gatherer tribe that hardly has enough sense of personal property to engage in barter.

            I would propose that what you are describing is an evolutionary process with a general trend towards more collective intelligence but with significant individual intelligence tendencies that serve as checks and balances. By analogy, the civilizing tendency is the process that replicates 99+% of dna perfectly and the civilized people are analogous to that 99% of dna. The barbarian is the fraction of a percent of dna that ends up mutated and thereby introduces variation and resilience into the genome.

            In terms of human civilization, the civilized is the portion of a given society that attempts to adopt and optimize the current paradigm. The barbarians are the skeptics that point out the flaws in the current paradigm, either by introducing a new paradigm or simply toppling the existing one. They are both however part of the same search process.

            To avoid falling into the linear progress fallacy I would allow that some apparent steps forward can prove to be dramatic mistakes. Sometimes the oscillation is not contained and predictable but instead leads to a protracted “dark age” because the whole system veered off in the wrong direction for far too long. I would offer up socialism as an example of one of these dead end. Socialism has no place in a linear progress model…there was no soft landing that left behind technologies that might be used to construct a new paradigm. It simply collapsed, forcing a good portion of the world’s population to start over from a place they might have otherwise been decades earlier.

      • Hrm,
        Actually, as I remember it, the financial system didn’t go belly-up after 11th September because one vainglorious leader exhorted everyone to participate in the economy (by going shopping) and the sheeple responded accordingly.

        Look at the financial markets’ response to Japan recently, and you’ll see the <<true>> response to a disaster by the financial market. Or even Argentina, if you prefer.

        So I don’t think it’s right to sound the conch for it, nor to place too much hype around this so called ‘barbarian technology’!

      • Hate to rain on this glorious parade,
        But, as I remember it, one vainglorious leader exhorted the sheeple soon after the 11th September incident to contribute and participate in the economy (by shopping, what else?). The sheeple responded in strength, and all’s well that ended well back then.

        Look at Japan today and in its aftermath, you’ll see true responses of the financial markets to disasters – flight flight flight! The Argentine crisis also if you please for true responses, not artificially propped responses.

        Sorry to rain on this parade, but this remark sounds like the classic “I have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” to me ;-)

        • Whoa,
          Sorry about the multiple posts. I posted it yesterday night, and I got a 404 error. So, I reposted it today. Delete the one you feel like Venkat!

  13. Regarding Quinn’s Ishmael, I believe he was trying to lay the ground work between a slightly different perspective, Takers and Leavers – leaving the distinction between the sustainable Leavers culture and the unsustainable Taker culture. Where the Takers are the modern civilizations who continue to work harder to maintain consumption, where the Leavers use only what is essential. The further classification of the hunter-gatherer versus pastoral are shades of grey in that perspective, because the Leavers fundamentally use only what they need, leaving nature/resources to thrive – whereas the takers take everything they can, exploiting and refining the system to accumulate the most wealth/goods possible.

    Ultimately the hunter-gatherer/savage I agree had the most ideal existence for humans to date (save the tooth ache), where they would reach our definition of “work” only ~4-8 hours per week on average and the rest of their idleness was left to thought, art, play, etc. In essence, they were gollumization-free. What characteristics must they posses to resist gollumization? Is it religious (“the great spirit,” the Tao, etc), or the transfer of knowledge into institutions? Hunter gatheres certainly had just as much intelligence as we do today, but their intelligence was applied and refined in different ways. For example, the ability of an Apache to track animals across the plains, or the sheer amount of information required to do proper plant identification to avoid poisonous plants and find the correct food. However, they did not have much writing, if any, leaving their knowledge transfer purely on an individual basis through rituals, poems, and other means other than writing.

  14. I love the insights you bring, Dorian! Declining civilizations are goal-less because they focus on maintenance and extraction; by contrast, barbarian civilizations focus on creation and adaptation, which are goal-driven.

    About the systems doing the steering: “We shape our tools,” McLuhan said, “and then our tools shape us.” So it is for our institutions.

  15. I came to this same conclusion my self, independently from different sources . Good to have confirmation!

    Alexis de Tocqueville in” Democracy in America” had some observations on this himself regarding the North American Indian. Tocqueville was aware of his Barbarian origins ans a Norman aristocrat and saw a real affinity between his ancestors and the Indians. He concluded that the prognosis for them was grim since barbarians, in his words, only became civilized through conquest not by being conquered.

  16. What do you mean by ‘fundamentally sustainable’? Not a rhetorical question.

    Nature is basically a a furious, shifting dynamic equilibrium of a bunch of fundamentally unsustainable, exponentially growing thingies.

    An individual barbarian may be constrained by what he can carry, but that says nothing of the number of barbarians in the system. A plague of locusts is constrained by what they can carry in their bellies, and yet it is difficult to claim – either from the locust POV or from that of its victims – that it is sustainable.

    Civilized hedonism increases per-capita “resource catchment area” requirements, so even though civilized people are boxed in like cattle, their territory requirements are like tigers. However, a rising hedonic treadmill seems to impact reproduction rates – kids seriously cut into hedonism, something validated to a certain extent by the negative pop. growth rates in the first world. It’s a race between rising per capita resource requirements and falling number of capitas. I can certainly imagine a world where one continent has a civilized society where aggregate resource requirements are shrinking in spite of increasing hedonism, while on the other continent growing populations of barbarians have stripped the land bare and suffer population crashes, endemic war and so on.

    • perhaps asymptotically, “less unsustainable than nature by itself is”??

      dunno, yeah, the phrase is a bit of lazy thinking I guess. I think I redeemed myself a while back with meditation on disequilibrium in nature, so I’ll cash in the whuffie from that less lazy post now.

      • So the link leads to an early ribbonfarm post that is thought-provoking but short. It is tubelite who is enriched in whuffies for his comments there :-)

  17. Utility is when you have one telephone, luxury is when you have two, opulence is when you have three — and paradise is when you have none. — Doug Larson

  18. kIRAN nAYAK says

    Hi there

    Very interesting theory…..What I got from it an correct me if i wander off…is that barbarians are like the pioneers or discoverers\innovators and civilized are like the optimizers\improvers.

    But what also needs to be noted is both have their pros n cons.Barbarians are innovative bcs they r free wild an experimental which also makes them highly risk prone….. 50-50% chance that smthng would work for a barbarian.They may get success or failure\death even at times.On other hand the so called civilized who work on the most barbarian foundations have far more security.They are pretty safe.This though comes at cost of averting risks by taking so called calculated risks,lack\fear of innovation and more junk work to secure things.

    Also I would like to share my 2 cents w.r.t view that barbarians need not come from outside an destroy an civilization,it can happen from within a civilized.New groups topple older ones in acts of revolution\coups in one way or other.They are not completed barbarians but frustrated civils who tend to\bend more to barbaric natures already existing within them.

    Lastly as to barbarians are not really credited for their deeds.Well this is not the case truly.They are credited at appropriate places I would hint an e.g there was this very famous indian businessman who made an gigantic empire from scratch and passed on his legacy to his 2 sons.They both have… so to say….” refined” what they got and today are among top richest ppl of the world but their father is still primarily and hugely credited for his work.But may be 25 years from today he may not be so well known who knows.After all history is a tool of the civilised an not the barbarians.

    So may be babur was actually pretty famous at his time but we lost those few pages of his glorious history in the spaces of time.

    Just few thought…

  19. This is interesting, but it seems like almost an inversion of Ibn Khaldun. He would have said that the barbarian is individually stupider but collectively smarter. The barbarians are less innovative, but their creativity is all going to vital stuff, they aren’t spending their energy coming up with innovative new types of theatre, and one-on-one, one of Genghis Khan’s horsemen loses badly to an armoured knight. But the civilisation, although full of individually smarter people, becomes collectively stupid, because it has ossified leadership processes, elements pulling in different directions, and generally a loss of asabiyah. So the hungry, dumb barbarians band together to invade – and Genghis executes anyone who tries to desert the army – but the rich, smart civilised cannot co-ordinate to defend.

    For all sorts of reasons, I find Ibn Khaldun’s story much more persuasive.

  20. Great post. I also want to recommend “The Art of Not Being Governed.” It’s all about “barbarian” hill people in south east Asia and it echoes many of the ideas you just laid out.

  21. Well, I went and took the book out “The Theory of the Liesure class” from the library and read it. I would have to say Venkat, that most of your points could be made from only having read the introduction. Is that as far as you got?

    Its interesting, I found this blog post from a link on Ran Prieur’s website. Ran probably hasn’t read the book. He’s stated before he only reads things online. You started a blog post on the book, how many commenter s here have read the book? Do people read books anymore? I think people just read other people quoting from books and what little is found of popular books on Wikipedia pages. I understand this is the “information age” and that people are inundated, but still. There is much to be said from getting down to primary sources.

    Having read the book now, this is my comment- Barbarians are violent psychopaths incapable of true creativity. This way of life, of existing primarily through warfare, only emerges after society has reached a certain level where there are things worth stealing. The barbarians that made their way in waves throughout history into the Leisure class of civilized societies, contribute nothing and live a more or less parasitic existence.

    This was Veblen’s critique of the “captains of Industry” of his day. I think the economic developments that have taken place in the 112 year interim since the book was written, is that the manufacturing process has been further broken down so that, the laboring classes have no idea what they are making, and now most of it has been shipped from America overseas to China. I think there was a decision to do this that has continued on after the gilded age of the Robber Barons.

    I think barbarians aren’t really all that smart, individually or collectively, just more skilled in organized violence, than the average person in a civilized society. Their ability to overthrow the elites of civilized societies is due to the structure of society these leisure classes created beneath them, in rendering the average person weak and harmless.

    When the barbarians attack the common people can’t come to the defense.

    I think an interesting case in history is the battle of Thermopylae, 300 hundred Spartan’s, fighting side by side as equals, defeating thousands of mercenaries enslaved by barbarian conquerors.

    • I’ve read the whole book. I just used part of it for this post. And as I said, “this is partly an attempt to reconstruct a portion of Veblen’s ideas.”

      Veblen wrote when the evils of the Robber Baron era were most obvious. To get a sense of what was good about them, read Whyte’s “Organization Man.” You’ll get a sense of the other side of the story.

      Your analysis of Thermopylae is interesting and contrary to mine. At the period in history, I would actually call Persia under Xerxes “civilized” and Sparta the “barbarian” society.

  22. Ted, I think your comment about barbarians being violent sociopaths is a serious misreading of history. “Civilized” peoples are just as likely to be violent, but they are the ones who write the histories so “barbarian invasions” tend to feature more prominently than the atrocities of the state.

  23. Clay, Well, Mongols living in Yurts and herding sheep etc, is one subset of which conquering barbarians, who eventually become the ruling class of civilized societies is another much smaller subset, looking as we are backwards through history.

    Looking backwards through history, it would be a mistake to say all Pastoral nomads are psychopaths. But people that enjoy killing and raping and pillaging, it would be safe to label as psychopaths, and possibly psychopaths have an easier time getting by in such a milieu as living among pastoral nomads.

    But anyway, the book makes it pretty obvious, that the leisure class originates from people self selected for predatory tendencies.

    as far as the Greeks go, what I am pointing to is Democracy in its nascent form. It was at that time an upper class phenomenon, but it was important that it occurred and survived there in Sparta and Athens, otherwise it may never have filtered down to lower levels of civilized society.

  24. Barbarian…civilized these are potentially loaded terms. And you already said you are taking an opposite tac on them than Veblen. At any rate its humorous for people to object at calling barbarians violent. Mass muderers violent? God forbid!

    I would say the most desireable society to live in would be the one that allows the most potential for self determination and creativity-in a word freedom. I think its romantic to imagine living wild and free on the Steppes of Central Asia, riding around on horse back brandishing weapons the wind blowing in your hair…but you know, they were illiterate for a reason. They weren’t smart.

    The reason being all they did was fight and kill constantly. They adopted warfare as a way of life. And my theory is that this bellicose attitude preceded their life has nomadic pastoralists. I think Pastoral Nomadism allowed them to survive between raids. They were brigands. The raising of sheep and cattle was incidental.

    Pastoral Nomadism was in effect a way of avoiding being eslaved by more sedentary despots, that derived their wealth and status as Agriculture. Basically by being Feudal Lords.

    I think the barbarians were pushed into life in the Steppes the same way that Viking took to the seas.

    But I don’t think the barbarians were superior intellectually. I think they were just the wild stock that despots are derived from.

    I think its like an evolutionary development .Just like at some point, billions of years ago four legged creatures emerged from the sea and some became predators and some became herbivores.

    I think some type of fairly recent evolutionary development happened among a population of humans, some developed a predatory way of life, and some developed a more domesticated way of life. The two go togerther!

    The predatory humans are the ones that domesticsated the tame humans. The tame humans are otherwise knows as slaves and peasants. Its not a happy situation. Hegel was well aware of the problems in the set up. The idea of the end of history is the idea or hope that these distinctions will be done away with eventually. Evryone will be equal, neither master nor slave.

    The thing is everyone was equal to begin with! The hope is to go back to savagery!

    Government is a really just a sophisticated criminal conspiracy. Aristocrats, elites, etc. are drawn from the criminal class. Genetic psychopaths for the most part. They enslave others and then fight amongst themselves. This is what Nation States are. This is what Corporations are.

    Its the slaves, workers, employees, servants etc. that get stupider. Not the barbarians at the top, so much. They get superior over time as administrators, liars and manipulators.

    But at base they aren’t really intellectually oriented. Picture a male african lion with opposable thumbs, and you have the mindset of a barbarian. They aren’t hard to figure out.

  25. In a nutshell: Barbarians are one half of what is defective about civilization. Its the more romantic half of the split, perhaps, but not wholeness.

    But then again, as Anthony Bordain once said (paraphrasing) “I have respect for the bushmen and their self reliant way of life, but boy this ostrich egg tastes like crap!”

    So maybe it is better to be a Barbarian than a hunter gatherer!

  26. I think you miss out an important part of the civilization/pastoral nomadism thing:

    Preperation vs flight.

    You suggest that it’s about day to day consumption vs accumulation, but that ignores the purpose of building up big stores; for a rainy day!

    Both types of organisation preserve things, whether flocks or crops, but the robustness in the pastoral nomad society is in preserving mobility, and in civilization it is in accumulating countermeasures. In that sense medicine is an inherently civilizing invention, because it involves using localised knowledge and tools in order to deal with infection, rather than either patching things up or leaving the infected person behind.

    This nomadism is only possible when you have a large enough circuit for the natural world being grazed to recover, and enough choices of routes to route around dangers and disasters. You can see a smoother transition between the types in slash and burn agriculture, where clearings of varying sizes are produced and the people move around to new clearings leaving the old ones to fill in.

    In a sense you might say it is only with crop rotation that civilized nations fully broke off from nomads, from then on it was possible to have “your land” which you cultivate continuously.

    So in order to cultivate a barbarian mentality, you need to have unexploited places in your back pocket, places you can go, so you can pack up and leave when you need to.

    Also you suggest that barbarians farm civilized cultures, my impression, aligned with the above, is that they do not. They graze them, like they do everything else.

    • Josh, not to dash your enthusiasm but the meaning of the word “barbarian” here at ribbonfarm may be a bit different of what you expect…

      • The power of the analogy when related to current life is in it’s historical accuracy and emotional punch. If it’s to be more than a polemic, than the falsified histories of the soviet era or the nation building of the century before, then the analogies should be defensible and contain within them roughly invarient structural patterns. You’ve come across Pask’s definition of cybernetics before right?

        If the analogies are to help you live and not just sure up your ego, they should provide a translation system between right here and now and the periods of time and contexts that contain useful insights, which is capable of pulling though potential solutions and jumping off points without mangling their functional structure into nonsense.

        The levels of rigour vary, but that kind of approach means that changes to make the original picture more accurate should ripple through to the functional consequences, possibly damaging the coherence of the here and now project, possibly making it better.

    • Good point. Cultivation implies effort. Grazing is predation followed by backing away to let the stocks regenerate. Intelligent, sustainable predation, just like the more thoughtful kinds of slash-and-burn.

      Also a good point about the topology of migration loops being related to patterns of abundance/scarcity. I had that filed away as a topic to deep dive into in a future post. Some fascinating NatGeo channel stuff going on recently about “great migrations” fueling productive speculation in that department.

      Translating these literal migration ideas from animals and pastoral nomadism to modern technomadism from one cultural hotspot to another… challenging to analyze. Sociopath M&A dynamics (nomadic predation in “corporate geography”) is one instance.

  27. Excellent. This was eye opening for me. The one piece of this puzzle I would like to see you expand on is the connection between the types of culture and their viability in terms of available resources in their geographic area. Some land is not productive enough for gardens but feeds herd animals well so it makes sense for nomadic peoples to arise there while areas of high productivity promote non-nomadic types. Along the same lines, civilized non-nomadic peoples will use up their resources in an area if they are not sophisticated enough to become sustainable and will then either decline, be conquered, or become nomadic. There is a strong connection between available geographic resources, the types of civilizations that arise there, and their level of sophistication in becoming sustainable if they are to continue to exist.

  28. heteromeles says

    Sigh. You forgot ecology! Pastoral nomadism is a perfectly valid way to live in an area where the plants (grass) won’t directly support human life. As such, it is a great alternative to hunter-gatherer, because you depend on the animals you travel with for much of your food (milk products in many places). Go read about goatwalking, or find a copy of the Nature of Nomadism, or even some nice studies in the Andes, about the intense connections between llama herders in the altiplano and the farmers lower on the slopes.

    There are still nomads out there, but they have a pretty marginal lifestyle at present. Why? Because their best rangelands have been turned into corn and wheat fields, and political boundaries cause them difficulties in moving their herds. American-style ranching is a play on making this lifestyle work in a sedentary society, but it’s not quite the same, and it’s often less sustainable.

    Additionally, some barbarians carried lots of wealth, more than they could pack . Go back and read the reports about the golden horde, for example. It was a city on wheels, complete with moving palace and blacksmiths.

  29. So how is the Barbarian mindset different from that of Nietzche’s Ubermensh?

    The Barbarian = Sociopath bridge would indicate they are one and the same.

    They are Beyond Good and Evil… as defined by the extant civilization.

  30. How would you compare barbarian-vs.-civilized to insurgency-vs.-counterinsurgency? Seems like insurgencies expropriate civilized technology, where it “falls to street level” and gets used against the masters from within the group. The problem is that counterinsurgents know how the insurgents’ technology works, so it’s easily defeated, except when hidden or used in ways the designers never imagined. Insurgents win through mass numbers and information advantage, not technology. They don’t have the goal of taking control of wealth; they’re slaves trying to become somewhat less enslaved.

  31. Alexander Boland says

    It seems to me like Barbarians have not been dying out at all. The equivalent to me seems to be multinational corporations and their corresponding magnates and entrepreneurs (and hopefully nobody thinks I’m using this as a way of saying f*** those evil corporations!!)

    So my interpretation: the so called “special interest groups” (not saying I like them either) and the multinational corporations that are becoming increasingly stateless are the barbarians on the periphery. Another similarity about this is that there is a lot of ambiguity–politicans are sitting ducks so they’re easy to strongarm, but it’s a lot harder to take down corporate institutions. Once in a while the government will slam someone like BP, but this seems to me to be random intermittent spectacle.

    And although the President of the United States is still the most powerful man in the world, it’s not as if the fall of Rome was some easily delimited rapturous confrontation. The Roman Empire was still a key cultural signifier for centuries afterwards, Byzantium continued much of Rome’s legacy, and well before Rome proper was sacked, the Romans and the Germanic barbarians had a tangled web of military and civil relationships.

    Where does that leave us? Everyone is talking about the possibility of national wars over the world’s natural resources–but maybe the real battleground is the illegible battle taking place in the financial world between the magnates and the state. But take the hypothesis with a grain of salt, I only wanted to use it as one of many possible places to look for the center vs. periphery tension that underlies this post.

  32. jim cattle says

    What would you call a George W. Bush?

  33. If you want some broader data points. I would strongly recommend David W. Anthony’s “The Horse, The Wheel, And Language”.

    It deals with the first herdsmen, the Indo Europeans, and an agricultural society’s collapse that it is so old that most people don’t even know it existed, little less collapse, meaning the copper age Old Europe.

    It is a multi-disciplanary tour deforce.

  34. Nomadic traders were like the mitochondria of most civilizations.