Ch. 7. Summary of Traditional Society

    We have just completed a quick survey of the tribal and aristocrat-peasant universal patterns of history. They are many thousands of years old, and together they make up the traditional group of societies. The modern transformation and democratic-market patterns are new; they have originated in the last five hundred years. Combined, they make up the modern group of societies. This can be illustrated with a very simple taxonomic chart. 1

Mixed Tribal and Aristocratic Patterns

    It might be easier to observe and understand tribal and aristocrat-peasant societies if they had remained completely separate. History is more complicated than that. Tribal people and aristocratic states lived alongside each other for six thousand years. There were contacts, trade, and even some intermarriage between them. 2

    Tribal people lived on land that was ill-suited for cereal agriculture. Because of this, they could not assimilate the full pattern of aristocrat-peasant society, where peasant villages provided reliable, storable food for aristocrats, specialized workers, and cities. But tribal populations could, and did, adopt many aristocratic institutions. 3

    For thousands of years there have been tribal kings who ruled in tribal courts, sometimes from a palace built of stone, sometimes from a city of tents. As always, such kings found ways to collect taxes from their own people and from trade. Raiding was a source of income for many of them. 4

    There were also tribal barons who were essentially chieftains but had adopted a more prestigious sounding aristocratic title. Tribal aristocrats often functioned as the heads of extensive and intertwined patron-client relationship networks. In some cultures, there were tribal priests who functioned in many ways like religious aristocrats. 5

    These more sophisticated tribal societies usually lived in close proximity to aristocratic states. The Scots and Irish had plenty of experience with tribal chieftains and druids, but they also had barons, priests, bishops, and kings. Through all of this religious and political change, they still retained the essence of tribal society. The reason is because most of their land was not suited for growing grain. 6

The Great Eurasian Steppe

    In his book When Asia Was the World, Stewart Gordon describes two kinds of traditional Asian societies that were not strictly tribal but were not entirely aristocrat-peasant either. One of these includes the kingdoms that were created by strong, tribal leaders on or near the great Eurasian steppe. These “temporary” kingdoms were formed largely by Turkish, Iranian, or Mongolian warlords through conquest and lasted for some number of generations. 7

    Some of these kingdoms contained mostly tribal populations who became wealthy through a combination of trading and raiding. Their increased income was used to support tribal aristocrats, merchants, priests, monasteries, and a level of civilization not normally found in tribal society. 8

    Some of the steppe warlords were able to conquer agricultural lands with Chinese, Indian, or Iranian peasants. This could result in a tribal kingdom with a tribal dynasty and a half tribal and half peasant population. Many of these kingdoms were formed, but most of them came and went without leaving much more than a few stone foundations. 9

Indian Ocean Trading States

    Gordon also describes the large number of trading emirates, sultanates, and principalities that ringed the Indian Ocean. There were a wide variety of these. Most of them did not have large stretches of cropland with an aristocrat-peasant social structure. Being in a tropical environment, fruits and vegetables grew in profusion. The most productive form of cereal agriculture, paddy rice, was widely available. Fishing and seafood provided much of the protein. 10

    Distribution included every known mechanism. There was sharing among extended families that produced both food and commercial crops, such as spice, sugar, and tropical woods. There were command economy systems—where slaves, indentured servants, or debt peonage provided the field labor. And, there were market farmers and fishermen who sold their production. 11

    Governments were run by hereditary ruling dynasties. After the conversion to Islam, Koranic scholars took over much of the judicial function. Taxes were collected as a quota of the commercial crops produced. Tariffs were imposed on the merchants. 12

    These maritime trading states around the Indian Ocean are the most difficult that I have found in terms of placing them somewhere within my taxonomic chart. Because food grew all year around in the tropics, having large granaries full of dried storable grain was not nearly as important as in temperate climates. That is why it was not necessary to institutionalize the formal aristocrat-peasant relationship and command economy. My tendency is to put these trading principalities under tribal society, but I am open to other suggestions. 13

Traditional Economic Institutions

    There was a great deal of variation in the economies of traditional societies, but tribal and aristocratic-peasant mechanisms can be universally identified. There was always some amount of hunting, fishing, and gathering. Marginal land everywhere supported a wide variety of subsistence farmers and herders. 14

    After cereal-farming technology arrived and became efficient enough to produce a surplus, the suitable land was worked by peasants. They turned over most of the surplus production to their aristocratic lords. Because a single province often contained both fertile and marginal land in the same general area, tribal and aristocrat-peasant institutions were sometimes jumbled together. 15

    Traditional society engaged in all three primary mechanism of economic distribution. Tribal sharing and barter have been retained and used by every kind of society and are still in use among family and friends today. The aristocrat-peasant command economy for food distribution can be identified, in one form or another, in all the more complex traditional societies on any continent. Market distribution was also a common feature in the last four thousand years of traditional society. All kinds of products were bought and sold, especially prestige items for the elites. Grain was often sold, but usually after it was collected from peasants by the aristocrat-controlled command economy. 16

Commercial Activity in Traditional Societies

    There were large differences in the amount of merchant activity in traditional societies. Industry and commerce existed in most aristocratic states and tribal areas. The production and trade of commercial goods could increase the prosperity and connectivity of any society. Unfortunately, there were few economists around who could explain how it all worked and what measures should be taken to protect and encourage commerce. 17

    Some kings had good instincts for the right way to promote and tax trade and industry; others did not. The largest and most competitive market economies in the traditional world usually belonged to the largest and strongest empires, including: Persia, China, and Rome. In general, the imperial bureaucratic system of organization seems to have been more market friendly than feudalism. 18

Market Distribution of Food

    Mostly when discussing traditional business activity, we are not talking about housewives going shopping to buy the family’s daily food from the farmers who produced it. This did happen for some of the population in many towns and cities, but overall, it covered a very low percentage of the total food consumed. There were, however, a few times and places when this modern style of commerce increased and flourished. 19

    Song Dynasty China developed a system where the farmers were encouraged to sell their production at city markets. Taxes were collected in monetary form from all producers and distributors of economic goods. Modern-style market distribution seems to have worked quite well in the metropolitan regions of eastern China. The economy boomed, population increased, and prosperity spread, especially in the 11th and 12th centuries, but it did not last. Population and prosperity declined steeply during the wars of the Mongol conquest in the 1200s. 20

    There was a huge amount of variation in the 200,000 year history of traditional society. There was a large amount of variation on any given continent. Despite these differences, a close look at any traditional society will reveal characteristic tribal and/or aristocrat-peasant social mechanisms in their political, economic, family, religious, and military institutions. 21

    One economic feature that seldom appeared in traditional society was large numbers of people who earned a regular salary and used it to purchase their day-to-day food, clothing, and shelter. Most people were peasants, subsistence farmers, or herders who produced their own food. The women usually made the clothes for their families. Everyone worked together to construct their housing. The modern way of life where most people earn a salary and purchase their daily necessities was almost unknown in traditional times. 22

    In order for large numbers of people to be able to purchase their food, every day, large quantities of reasonably priced food would have had to be available for sale, every day. Traditional society did not work that way. There was usually a hunger season every year. Bad weather caused famines that could last more than a year. During these times, food was not for sale. It was more precious than money. With a few limited exceptions, markets were not used as the primary form of food distribution in traditional societies. That would be the first thing to change in the modern transformation. 23

Rule by the Strongest

    Ever since the origin of organized warfare, traditional societies were ruled by the strongest men available. This usually meant the leaders who were able to mobilize and command the largest armies. Might made right. Kings and tribal chieftains ruled their territories with a strong hand. Aristocratic and tribal dynasties continued to govern until they crumbled from within or were overpowered by a rival with a stronger army, or sometimes a stealthier assassin. 24

    One of the most difficult adjustments that all societies are required to make during the modern transformation is the change from “rule by the strongest” to “rule of the people.” Traditional societies were governed by kings, aristocrats, and tribal chieftains. Modern governments are elected by ordinary common citizens. 25

    There is a huge gap between these two different kinds of political institutions. It takes many generations for most countries to make the transition. During the modern transformation, dictators are often used to fill the void after the last ruling monarch is deposed and before a successful elected government can be organized, more about that later. 26

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