Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Most Successful Peasant Revolt In European History

According to some historians, during the thousand year long Middle Ages in Europe there was on average one peasant revolt per year. All of them failed.

There are several reasons for the failure of the peasantry to successfully revolt against the elites of the Middle Ages, but I'll mention only one reason to illustrate the difficulty the peasants faced. Before the advent of the hand-held firearm, it required years of training to produce someone highly competent in the best weapons of the Middle Ages. Most peasants didn't train in those weapons, and as a consequence, were usually over-matched when they revolted. Sickles against lances, hammers against swords.

But why did the peasants so frequently revolt in the first place? The most usual reason seems to have been famine. During most of the middle ages, transportation was so poor that it was almost unheard of to ship food in bulk for any distance. So, if the crops failed in one locality, that locality could experience famine even though there might be a surplus of food a mere 30 miles away. When famine struck a locality, the elites had custom, law and force all on their side -- they got what food there was, despite that the peasants produced the food. That left the peasants starving and prone to revolt.

Broadly speaking, at least three things came together to end the thousand year landscape of the Middle Ages. The first was the rise of capitalism, which can be traced back to very early beginnings around 900 A.D. The second was the British Agricultural Revolution -- a remarkable increase in agricultural productivity -- that can be traced back to around 1500 A.D. And the third was the Industrial Revolution, which began around 1700 A.D.

Those three factors, working together, created Europe's most successful peasant revolt. For, while all the revolts of the Middle Ages failed, capitalism, the British Agricultural Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution eventually brought not only wealth and long lifespans to the peasantry, but arguably contributed to their political liberation.

It seems odd to me that nowadays so many of us have come to resent those three developments. We see the many serious problems they have created and we sometimes imagine it would be a good thing if we were rid of capitalism, industrialization, and even large scale agriculture. Yet, to get rid of those things would surely plunge us back into an age when most people lived a short life of scarcity and want. So, I think the real problem is not to get rid of the very things that have lifted societies out of poverty, but to "update" them. We do not need, for instance, to abolish capitalism so much as we need a newer, more useful version of it with the most pressing bugs worked out.

A final consideration here is my gripe against ideologies. Not just any ideology, but all ideologies suffer from the fact they are either impossible or cumbersome to change. The world moves on, but the world's ideologies merely turn into retarded and retarding dogmas. I have never met an ideology that didn't turn to stone all it touched. If a software company were ever to adopt an ideology of software, you can bet they would go out of business -- because they would never update their product in any meaningful or useful way. Version 2.0 would have the same bugs as version 1.0 -- and only the marketing department would say it was better than 1.0. If we are ever so unwise as to leave the future of capitalism, the agricultural and industrial revolutions entirely to ideologists, we will surely get the disasters we deserve for our folly.

After all, it wasn't Christianity, the ideology of the day, that brought about Europe's most successful peasant revolt. Nor should we expect the ideologies of our day to bring about a successful social and economic future for humanity.

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