Slavery and society

| December 15, 2020

If we look at the historical context – Egypt, Mesopotamia, Rome, the Vikings – they all followed similar paths. Armies went out and brought slaves back. These slaves were put to work, usually doing mundane, dangerous or repetitive tasks.

The conquerors began to accumulate more and more wealth, become better educated and demand more fulfilling work. After a few generations, the supply of interesting occupations dried up. People generally need a challenge in order to be satisfied.

As time goes on, the population find the number of slaves approaches that of the citizens. The people, knowing the hatred born them by their slaves, begin to fear them, treat them harshly and in so doing find they need more police and military assistance. They begin to live in fear of a revolt.

After a few generations slavery disappears – the erstwhile slaves are absorbed into the community, are released or escape. In the United States they have now been freed but as a group are still feared and therefore hated, being forced into subordinate jobs and controlled by the police.

More and more people think of themselves as ‘the ruling class’ with more just sitting around feeling useless as is the situation in Saudi Arabia where the only way to achieve much is to join one of the ruling princes or stir up trouble in a neighbouring state. In the United States elite jobs do not multiply as fast as elites do.

There are still only 100 Senate seats, but more people than ever have enough money or degrees to think they should be running the country. You have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites.

When we think of slavery now, we tend to feel it is an overseas problem and little to do with us. However, we in the West do have it under our noses – we buy cheap clothes, toys and equipment, we bring in workers to help with the harvest – students and labourers from poorer countries. And more and more these days we are using autonomous robots to do more of the work we don’t want to do ourselves.

These robots are our modern slaves. They have no feelings, morals or ethics but they are taking on more of the mundane tasks that are required to keep us in the comfort we think we deserve. With the rise of artificial intelligence they are taking on more important tasks – surgery, diagnostics, transport, military applications, space exploration, warehousing to name but a few.

Maybe we should think of introducing limits over what are necessarily human tasks and what can safely be left to autonomous machines, bearing in mind that once a machine takes over a particular task it will not be an easy exercise to reclaim it.

Peter Turkin has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an “age of discord,” civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip – not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before – they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels.

Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive.

The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies – and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.