Under The Shadow Of The Lance

The Chinese used to have a word for the civilised world as opposed to the warlike steppes: huaxia. We might put this in terms of sustainable as opposed to predatory economies. In the one, at least the theory was to grow your wealth; in the other, the idea was to go and take it from someone else. Or that is how the sedentary peoples felt about it anyway.

Writing about his local nomads, Ibn Khaldun wrote, “It is their nature to plunder whatever other people possess.” If this reminds us of George R R. Martin’s “iron price”, so it should; while the rugged islands and fast ships of his Ironmen might evoke the Vikings. Whose addiction to the instant gain long outlasted them; long after they were done with raiding, the men of the Norwegian west coast lived high on the unpredictable herring, which came and went beyond anyone’s knowledge or control. And then although you had to make investments, the subsequent oil age smacked equally of the basic “bonanza” mentality or maximum extraction in the shortest possible time.

That is, of course, a Spanish word; and the conquistadors would probably have struck Ibn Khaldun as akin to his desert warrior, the enemies of settled civilisation. Some would claim that the Spaniards never were able to change their mental gears out of the idea that the “gold of the Indies” was something you went and took from abroad rather than something you earned or made at home, which is why they fell into dire poverty after it had run out.

The steppe neighbours of the Chinese would probably have retorted that they believed in free trade, and it is perfectly true that the Son of Heaven generally did not. Our question might then become, is going a long way to plunder people’s goods a special case of going a long way to exchange for them, or is it the other way round? Ayn Rand made mooching into one of her three alternatives, but it was never enough of a historical ideology to deserve such a fundamental status. She might have done better to define them as growing, trading and looting, and the difference between the latter two may not be as clear as she thought. Just ask the customers of the East India Company.

Now, were we to classify all economic systems under the ancient Chinese dualism of sedentary value-creation versus violent nomad seizure, how would the dominant structures of our own time appear? Of whom might we say, with Ibn Khaldun, “Their sustenance lies wherever the shadow of their lances falls”?

Posted on December 31, 2011 at 15:47 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, Resistance Is Futile, Miscellaneous

Leave a Reply