by Bill Bonner
Government is a fact. It exists. It is as common as stomach gas. It is as ubiquitous as lice and as inescapable as vanity. But what is it? Why is it? And what has it become?
We know very little about the actual origins of government. All we know, and this from the archeological records, is that one group often conquered another. There are skeletons more than 100,000 years old, showing the kind of head wounds that you get from fighting. We presume this meant that ‘government’ changed. Whoever had been in charge was chased out or murdered. Then, someone else was in charge.
Tribal groups, or even family groups for that matter, probably had “chiefs.” They could have been little more than bullies…or perhaps respected elders. Over the millennia there were probably as many different examples of primitive ‘government’ as there were tribes. Some elected their leaders. Some may have chosen them randomly, for all we know. Many probably simply conferred leadership by consensus. Some probably had no identifiable leaders at all. But it seems to be a characteristic of the human race that some people want to be in charge…and many people want someone to be in charge of them.
In adversity, there was probably an advantage to having a leader. Hunts were often collective enterprises. There were also group decisions to be made…about how food was stored up or rationed out, for example…that would affect the survival of the whole group. Under attack from another group, a strong, able leader could make the difference between life and death.
We can guess that people enter into leader/follower roles today because they are programmed for it by evolution. Those who can’t or won’t…well, perhaps they died out many millennia ago.
We don’t have to look back to the Last Glacial Period to see what happens in small political units. We can see them today. They are all around us. Every church has its governing board. Every community has some form of government. Every corporation…group…club…every place where humans get together seems to develop rules and power relationships. Leaders arise. Informal groups typically yield to the strong personality. Juries try to control it. Families resist it. Dinner parties try to avoid it.
But that’s just the way it is. Some people seek to dominate. Others like being dominated.
Trouble is, there is usually more than one person or one group that wants to do the dominating. This leads to conflict. Treachery. Murder. Rivalry. And elections. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re talking about the origins of government and trying to guess what they were like. On a small scale, we conclude, governments were both extremely variable in form…and extremely limited in scope. That is, how much governing can you get away with in a small group? Not much. You can boss people around, but they won’t take too much bossing. And there is always a rival bosser who is ready to topple the big boss if he should lose his popular support. In a tribal setting, we imagine that the strongest, fiercest warrior might have been able to set himself up as the governing authority. But he could be stabbed in the back as he slept…or even shot with an arrow in a ‘hunting accident.’ Even in the best of circumstances, his reign wouldn’t last much longer than his own strength.
In a small town, government proceeds tolerably well. There is not much distance between governors and the governed. The latter know where the former live…and how they live…and how little difference there is between them. If the governors overreach, they are likely to find themselves beaten in the next election…or in the middle of the street.
But as the scale increases…as the distance between the governed and the governors increases…and as the institutional setting grows and ages…government becomes a bigger deal. More formal. More powerful. It can begin governing more grandly.
The first large scale, long-term government we know about was in Egypt. After the unification of the upper and lower kingdoms in about 3,150 BC, the dynastic period began. It continued for two millennia, not ending until the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC. We don’t know exactly how government worked during those many centuries, but we know that a theory of government arose out of them. At the time, it was not considered a theory at all, but a fact. The ruler was divine. A god.
As a theory, it is a good one. It answers the question: why should you take orders from another human being? In Ancient Egypt, the question didn’t arise. Because Pharaoh was not another human being. He was something else. Precisely what he was…or what people thought he was…is not clear. But the archeological record shows that he was treated as though he was at least a step or two higher up on the ladder than the rest of us. If not a full god, he was at least a demi-god…on the mezzanine between Earth and Heaven.
If that was so…and who are we to doubt it?…the theory holds together perfectly well. The divine authority is transmitted from heaven to man via his intermediary…the pharaoh.
You might think that would be the end of the story. It was not. There were Asiatic settlers moving in the delta area — the Hyskos — who apparently had a different idea. And the Thebans. And the Nubians. And the Assyrians. And the Hittites. There arose hundreds of years of internal warfare against dozens of different groups…not to mention the struggles within the divine families themselves.
If God had wanted His man on the throne, you’d think he would have done more to help him. Or at least you’d think he would have been a little clearer about who His man was. Why let people guess and rumble, trying to decide who really is God’s choice? But who can figure the mind of God? Maybe the whole divinity hypothesis was just a lie. Maybe God liked to see His man get a workout. We can’t know.
Pharaohs may have lived like lords. They may have governed like gods. But they died just like everyone else. And after the 30 dynasties, as counted by Menes, the whole system was kaput. Cleopatra Ptlolemy got herself rolled up in a carpet so she could spin out at the feet of Julius Caesar. She had a child by him…but then went over to Marc Antony’s side. That proved a mistake. Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, was better organized and a shrewder politician. Antony’s army was beaten at Actium.
But the idea of a divine ruler survived. Antony had already begun to feel the blood of divinity pumping in his veins when Octavian cornered him. His omniscience failed. Thinking Cleopatra was dead, he stabbed himself to death. Then, hardly had the half-god pharaohs gone to their graves in Egypt than the half-mad Caesars in Rome started to sprout wings…
You may have doubts about the divinity of the Pharaohs. Certainly, either the Egyptians had some doubts themselves, or they were among the most impious people who ever lived. Pharaoh was supposed to be a god. He was supposed to be in charge of everything, even the annual flooding of the Nile, the weather…life, death, you name it. But that didn’t stop him from getting the old heave-ho from time to time. Rival groups didn’t wait for God to decide who would sit on the throne. Men fought it out.
We don’t have any way of knowing about the pharaohs’ divine bona fides. But as a theory of government, it does the job. Government claims the right to tell you what to do. Using the blunt instrument of ‘government’ some people are able to direct the energy of a whole society to where they want it to go — categorizing, regulating, taxing, inspecting, dragooning, conscripting, enslaving, bullying, incarcerating, murdering and pushing around other people.
There must be at least 10,000 commandments we Americans are expected to obey. The IRS code probably has that many alone. We cannot build a house or cash a check without fulfilling hundreds of (often invisible) requirements. We pass through an airport and we submit to indignities, usually without question. We know the TSA agent is a moron. But “dress’d in a little brief authority,” as Shakespeare put it, “most ignorant of what he’s most assur d, glassy essence, like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven, as make the angels weep.”
For the two thousand years of the 30 dynasties, men killed each other to determine who would hold the pharaonic power. The last of them was clearly an interloper. The Ptolemies weren’t even Egyptian. They were Greeks, who conquered Egypt with Alexander. Then, finally, Julius Caesar and his nephew Octavian put an end to the divine tradition in Egypt forever. God either abandoned His man on the Nile, or he is playing tricks with us.
Caesar took the role of emperor of the whole Roman world. He did not seem to be too concerned about the theory of it. People bowed to him and paid tribute. That was how an empire worked. And he never had too much time to think about it anyway. He was cut down on the Ides of March at the age of 55 in 44 BC.
But the appeal of divinity did not die with the Ptolemies. Four score years after Cleopatra’s death the emperor Caligula declared that he was a god. This didn’t seem to take him very far. Romans came to the conclusion that he was not divine at all, but insane. He was murdered soon after by his own guards.
Rome struggled on for another 4 centuries. If there was a theory to dignify one man’s bending to another we aren’t aware of it. It was considered normal and natural. Those who got control of the government of Rome were able to exercise the rights of governors. They were victors on the field of battle…and in the halls and assemblies of Roman government.
What did they do with this power? “Ad victorem spolias.” Simple enough. You defeat someone. You take his stuff. His land. His wife. His children. At least there was no humbug about it. And the rules were simple. Government operated its naked form. As Mao described it two millennia later, political power came “from the barrel of a gun,” not from the Rights of Man or the Social Contract.
In the exploits of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, too, we find a very pure form of government at work…and a very clear theory about it. Genghis announced his theory of government as follows:
“Man’s greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding, use his women as a nightshirt and support, gazing upon and kissing their rosy breasts, sucking their lips which are as sweet as the berries of their breasts.”
Tamerlane was no less direct. He saw government as a legitimate enterprise. He raised troops with the intention of conquering other peoples and replacing their governments with his own. His warriors were paid in booty — jewels, coins, horses, women, and furs. He was paid in loot, tribute and taxes.
This is not to say that there was anything wrong with running a government in such a way. We are not giving advice or making suggestions. We are just trying to understand the essence of what government is and how it careens to the downside.
By Bill Bonner