Our world was stolen. Current wealth, even when no recent crimes transpired to obtain it, flows from a legacy of murder, theft, and oppression.
I’m no communist, mind you. It’s quite clear the the total wealth available to the world is not a static number. People’s effort to create more should be rewarded. The basic principles of capitalism are, to my mind, the best way of doling out those rewards.
For instance, the wealth of many modern nations comes from oil reserves. But petroleum, for ages, had little value. It was noxious black muck. Wasn’t until the invention of machines that use petroleum as fuel that oil became real wealth.
And it’d be ridiculous to claim that the wealth of internet barons was merely appropriated. They had ideas, and in recognition of the value of those ideas, they were given wealth. Those inventors did nothing wrong.
The problem is, the wealth they were given is tainted.
This is easiest to see when we consider wealth tied up in land holdings. Millions of years ago, bands of Homo sapiens ranged over relatively small tracts of land. Many other species of humans also inhabited the planet, and the land was shared with other animals (although I’ve noticed that when my daughter shares toys with other toddlers, there’s generally less spilt blood, singed fur, and rent flesh than there would’ve been when early humans “shared” territory with wolves, lions, hyenas, elephants, hippopotamuses, etc.).
As time went on, Homo sapiens spread and killed off all other species of humans, either directly, with spears through the chest and rocks concussed against skulls, or indirectly, by excluding competitors from fertile land and waterholes, letting the conquered tribes fragment and starve and slowly waste away. The spread of Homo sapiens was a violent apocalypse for all other humans. There were zero survivors.
Homo sapiens didn’t just kill off their human competitors. Throughout most of the world, the spread of Homo sapiens coincided with the prompt extinction of all other large animals (Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens has a lovely discussion of the archaeological data supporting this. You can get a pretty good sense of the impact of Homo sapiens migration by looking at the “Timeline of History” that Harari compiled, with entries like: “45,000 years ago: Sapiens settle Australia. Extinction of Australian megafauna.” “16,000 years ago: Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American megafauna.”).
And then, once the world harbored growing numbers of Homo sapiens, clash after clash occurred as newcomers made forays into already-settled land. Sometimes the newcomers were repulsed. It’s unlikely that we preserve a record of many of those instances, because a failed invasion is generally more transient than a successful one, and the archaeological record would show no dramatic changes since the same style of architecture and artifacts will predominate in an area before and after.
At other times, the newcomers were more numerous, or brought more advanced weaponry, or were accompanied by crippling diseases spawned by their cohabitation with swine. In those instances, the newcomers often expunged the previous inhabitants. This happened over and over again. I don’t know much about the history of England, but I know a bit about Stonehenge, and how the people who built Stonehenge suffered a devastating apocalypse when newcomers arrived bearing bronze weaponry … and then those newcomers, firmly established years later, were in turn conquered during the Norman Invasion.
Which always seems unfair. After each wave of violence, a culture becomes established that would like for the cycle to end. Sure, history up until now has featured wave after wave of newcomers coming and crushing and taking, but now that we are here the killing should stop.
I think this idea is conveyed beautifully by a line from Marcel Proust (trans. CK Scott Moncrieff): “But like those persons recently decorated who, their investiture once accomplished, would like to see the fountain of honor turned off at the main, Mme Bontemps would have preferred that, after herself, no one else in her own circle should be made known to the Princess.” A gorgeous phrase, “the fountain of honor turned off at the main.” And quite telling. It’s incredibly common for people to buck at the idea of losing their status to others who follow their own footsteps.
For a contemporary example, you could read Alec MacGillis’s recent opinion piece. He provides several examples of past beneficiaries of government aid voting to end that aid for others once they themselves no longer need it.
No matter how our good fortune came about, we don’t want to lose it to others.
So, the world formed. Then humans spread and claimed certain tracts of land as their own. Then humans kept migrating and re-claiming land. Taking it from others. In relatively modern times, the argument was often put forward that previous inhabitants were not using the land well and so had no real claim to it. This was the justification given for the slaughter of Native Americans, and the same argument is alluded to in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake as regards the slaughter of the people who built Stonehenge:
anglisc folc cum here across the sea many years ago. wilde was this land wilde with ingegas with wealsc folc with aelfs and the wulf. cum we did in our scips our great carfan scips with the wyrms heafod and we macd good this land what had been weac and uncept and was thus ours by right
Roughly: English folk came here from across the sea many years ago. The land was wild with foreigners, natives, elves, and wolves. Our people came in dragon-prowed ships and then worked the land to make good what had been weak and unkept, so the land was ours by right.
But there are many ways to define what good stewardship means. Although they did not build fences, by many measures the Native Americans took better care of their land than the European settlers did after stealing it. And this same argument could be used by any culture with more advanced technology than another. From the perspective of someone who discovers a more productive farming method, vast tracts of U.S. farmland could be seen as underutilized and therefore free for the taking.
We’ve had many years now of relative stability in ownership of land, but this is due in large part to the knowledge that any unrestrained attempts at conquest could now exterminate the entire species. Yes, newspapers make the world sound violent. But compared to the past (and especially if you weight this comparison for population density), the advent of nuclear weapons has slowed the spigot of violence to a trickle.
Still, it’s worth acknowledging that violent conquest set an initial distribution of holdings that our current allotments stem from. That’s why it’s so valuable to consider what those conquests might have felt like for the losers. Their tragedies birthed our prosperity. True gratitude for our lot acknowledges what they lost.
It’s horrifying to consider what the end times must have felt like for the last of those people who had built Stonehenge. Did they know that their culture was being obliterated? Even worse, what did the end times feel like for the last Neanderthals? The last Homo habilis? The last Homo floresiensis? Did they know that their kind were going extinct? Did an individual Neanderthal know that his language would be lost forever, his myths forgotten, his lineage come to an absolute halt?
In The Wake, Kingsnorth addresses these horrors in a not-too-unfamiliar way by depicting the travails of an Englishman losing his world to the Norman Invasion. The protagonist is wicked, the owner of large land holdings that he forces servile tenants to work for him, an occasional wife beater, wielder of a sword smithed by a revered figure who raped and murdered the innocent children of his adversaries… but Kingsnorth presents him sympathetically. The man’s family is killed by the French. He is driven away from his land. And his way of life is coming to an end. In Kingsnorth’s words,
The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history. It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery, and widespread land confiscation to the English population, along with a new ruling class who had, in many cases, little but contempt for their new subjects.
As long as we restrict ourselves to considering events for which we have historical documentation, I’m inclined to agree. The language I now speak was starkly branded by that occupation. Some of the most telling relics are our words for meats. The names of the animals stem from their Old English roots, because the animals continued to be raised by the conquered people. The names for prepared meats come from French, because French speakers ate the food. Cows and swine and sheep become beef and pork and mutton once they’re ready to be served.
Kingsnorth’s book begins with the protagonist as a man of appreciable wealth.
three oxgangs of good land i had and two geburs to worc for me on it and four oxen of my own for the plough this was mor than any other man in this ham. baerlic i had and rye sceap and hors also i had swine pasture holt my own water aeppels on many good treows
a great man i was in my ham all cnawan me a seat i had on the wapentac and free i was from the worc of other men. this was my land it was my fathers land i will not spec of my father. geld wolde i gif but only to the gyng not to the thegn. sum lytel worc wolde i do for the thegn for this was how things was but no man was ofer me no man will be ofer me
But then he loses his land. All Englishmen lost their land, because after the invasion it was all claimed by their new king. Kingsnorth points out that a legacy of that violence is still with us today, because a huge percentage of land in England is owned by just one percent of the population. Although that concentration of wealth almost certainly would have occurred eventually, Normans or no. There was nothing particularly special about the culture of that particular set of murderers and thieves that led to the current distribution of English wealth.
Wouldn’t have needed violence, even… although if you’re plotting a massive land grab, history has shown us that violence clearly helps. But, inequality has been with us forever. From the beginning of time, not all territory was equally productive. Some spots were better for fishing or hunting than others, and there’s no reason to suspect that these were equitably shared. With more advanced technology, the severity of inequality that can be maintained increases. It’s easier to tax and horde grain than felled elk. And easier still to horde gold. Grain rots. Gold does not.
Plus, as technology advances, the productivity of a worker’s efforts diminish in comparison to the productivity of owned wealth itself. This is easiest to see if we consider advances in something like shoemaking. At one point in time, a worker would make an entire shoe. That worker’s skill and training determined how good the shoe would be, so the worker was highly compensated. Later, a worker would stitch just one single component in a factory. The identity of the worker did not matter much; how hard would it be to train someone new to make that stitch? So compensation decreased. Later still, the shoe will be made entirely by a machine. Our worker will do no work, and won’t be compensated at all. Only the owner of the machine makes money.
It’s pretty clear that the concentration of wealth Kingsnorth writes about would have happened eventually. But in this world, in England, it happened then.
I do wish, though, that Kingsnorth had written his book in English. As you probably noticed from the excerpts I quoted above, it isn’t. The language he invented is related to modern English, but I found it difficult to read. Multiple sentence fragments are often conjoined without clarifying punctuation, many words are spelled eccentrically, and archaic words are used in place of their contemporary equivalents. Kingsnorth explains this choice as a way to emphasize the temporal setting of his work.
The early English created the nation we now live in. They are, in a very real sense, the ancestors of all of us living in England today, wherever our actual ancestors come from. Despite this link, though, their world was distant from ours; not only in time but in values, understanding, mythopoesis. Language seemed the best way to convey this.
Personally I disagree with this reasoning, but I have to admit that my disagreement stems from my own failings. I speak only English and read many books in translation. I’d like to think that I can understand Proust even though he saw the world as a French speaker and I’ve read only English translations of his work. I’d like to think that I can understand the Ramayana even though I can’t read the original Sanskrit. I’d like to think that I can understand Beowulf, which is set amongst people with beliefs very similar to those that might’ve been held by Kingsnorth’s characters, even though I read Seamus Heaney’s translation into contemporary English.
(Heaney did permit himself a few archaic terms. I love his explanation for one of these: “Putting a bawn [Irish word for fortification] into Beowulf seems one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history which has to be clearly acknowledged by all in order to render it ever more ‘willable forward / Again and again and again.’ ” And it made me smile that the word Kingsnorth used for “foreigner” was translated by Heaney as “stalker.”)
Even though I would’ve rather read Kingsnorth’s book in contemporary English, I should point out an unexpected (for me) virtue of his choice. The book’s language compels a reader to slow down. Many passages are difficult to understand without sounding out words. Parsing sentences without much clarifying punctuation requires careful attention. And good literature rewards attentive reading. In our era of glitzy headlines and scrollable text, there’s some merit in forcing people to read assiduously.
All told, I appreciated the chance to read Kingsnorth’s take on the end of a world. It gave me a lot to think about. And makes me want to read more about the last Neanderthals. It’s just brutal, trying to empathize with the magnitude of their loss. Sure, I know that species go extinct all the time (another species vanishes forever every ten minutes… not that this isn’t tragic), but it hits so much harder knowing they were humans. People with their own cultures, languages, dreams.