Dateline 2010: the world-historical situation

In the twilight century of western civilisation, the US, the last resting place of western power, has as its primary purpose the containment of rising China. China has as its primary purpose to put the world 'back to rights'. It is playing a waiting game, and is anxious not to jump the gun.

Dark Age Watch (DAW on hold.)

Issue du jour 1: War with Iran--important to containing China but delayed over two years

Issue du jour 2: The world economy--unbalanced, interwoven, delusional--some predict its unravelling

Issue du jour 3: Somalia--leading the world into a dark age

Issue du jour 4: Pirates exploit the decline of international order

Monday, 2 April 2007

The terrible coming of iron

In an earlier post, I presented history as a straight line of steady, upward growth in human capability. This is true only to a first approximation.

Examining history at the next level of detail reveals occasional dark ages, during which the documentary and archaeological records are meagre. This meagreness would appear to be the result of retrenchment in both government and commerce, whereby people no longer produced the kind of durable remains that would survive to the present.

As well as times of retrenchment, these dark ages were also times of innovation, being associated with major transformations of society.

Take as an example the dark age that affected early civilisations in the eastern end of the mediterranean and south-west Asia, around 1000 BC, and that was linked to the introduction of iron. [See a map of the inter-bronze-iron dark age (c. 1200-700 BC) here, in Google Earth. For a Google Maps version, go here.]

The story went something like this. A series of bronze age societies had taken shape over the preceding millennium and were in relative equilibrium, both internally and in their interactions with each other. The introduction of iron changed the equation, and upset the logic on which these societies were based.

  1. Whereas the ingredients of bronze, copper and tin, are found only in a few places, iron is found practically everywhere. Although iron-working requires a more advanced technology, once the process was developed, it could be adopted by almost anyone. The people who had grown rich and powerful controlling the sources of raw materials and distribution networks for the bronze-based economy, suddenly saw their livelihoods disappear.
  2. Since iron-working did not spread instantaneously, those who adopted it first had a great edge over rivals who were still complacently using bronze. Societies that had been most successful with bronze technology were, if anything, least enthusiastic about making the switch, and their rulers and peoples suddenly lost the dominant position they had enjoyed.
As commercial networks collapsed and previously marginal groups began to assert themselves, people struggled to achieve a new equilibrium, i.e. a new way of life adapted to the availability of iron. It is this upheaval that lies behind the meagreness of the historical record. People stopped building large structures, such as palaces, temples and other monuments; trade dwindled, leaving few artefacts for us to find; and society no longer supported administrators and scholars, the kinds of people who generate written records.

It took up to several hundred years to attain the new equilibrium, but when violence abated and commerce resumed, society had been transformed.

In some respects, iron had a 'democratising' effect, producing a proliferation of small states, in which people were given a say in governing themselves. Being less scarce than bronze, it was also less exclusively directed towards elite consumption, and there emerged a middle class, producing and consuming iron-related goods and services. At the same time, iron allowed some rulers to amass military power and conquer a succession of empires. Slavery, although it had existed before, became widespread and endemic, with a large part of the population reduced to unfree status and traded as a commodity.

The author Jim Bailey has characterised these changes, and the disruption from which they emerged, as 'the terrible coming of iron'. This was also the view of the Greek poet Hesiod (late 8th century BC), who regarded the iron-using world of his time as harsher and more miserable than the preceding era of bronze (with a 'race of heroes' having dominated the centuries of conflict between the two).

To sum up, the political, economic and social institutions that 'worked' for the bronze age were not those that would 'work' for the iron age. The period during which bronze institutions were transformed into iron institutions appears from our perspective as a dark age.

I have given this account of the coming of iron not for its own sake but to illuminate a general principle.

History is not a process of steady upward movement but is characterised by periodic setbacks. These setbacks, rather than being mere interruptions to progress, are necessary and fundamental to the way that progress occurs. I call this the phoenix principle.

I would like to make two further points.
  1. This explanation of the bronze-iron dark age does not mean that technology drives history. It only says that to go from bronze to iron required passage through a dark age. What drove that change is another matter, which we will come to.
  2. As an account of some five centuries of history, the above is highly simplified. The aim is to introduce and illustrate the phoenix principle. Ultimately we are going to need more than the phoenix principle to understand history, but we must learn to walk before we run.