Book Club: Code Economy: Economics as Information Theory

If the suggestion… that the economy is “alive” seems fanciful or far-fetched, it is much less so if we consider the alternative: that it is dead.

Welcome back to your regularly scheduled discussion of Auerswald’s The Code Economy: a Forty-Thousand-Year History. Today we are discussing Chapter 9: Platforms, but feel free to jump into the discussion even if you haven’t read the book.

I loved this chapter.

We can safely answer that the economy–or the sum total of human provisioning, consumptive, productive and social activities–is neither “alive” nor, exactly, “non-living.”

The economy has a structure, yes. (So does a crystal.) It requires energy, like a plant, sponge, or macaque. It creates waste. But like a beehive, it is not “conscious;” voters struggle to make any kind of coherent policies.

Can economies reproduce themselves, like a beehive sending out swarms to found new hives? Yes, though it is difficult in a world where most of the sensible human niches have already been filled.

Auerswald notes that his use of the word “code” throughout the book is not (just) because of its modern sense in the coding of computer programs, but because of its use in the structure of DNA–we are literally built from the instructions in our genetic “code,” and society is, on top of that, layers and layers of more code, for everything from “how to raise vegetables” to “how to build an iPhone” to, yes, Angry Birds.

Indeed, as I have insisted throughout, this is more than an analogy: the introduction of production recipes into economics is… exactly what the introduction of DNA i to molecular biology. it is the essential first step toward a transformation of economics into a branch of information theory.

I don’t have much to say about information theory because I haven’t studied information theory, beyond once reading a problem about a couple of people named Alice and Bob who were trying to send messages to each other, but I did read Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and, Kenneth Cukier‘s Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think a couple of weeks ago. It doesn’t rise to the level of “OMG this was great you must read it,” but if you’re interested in the subject, it’s a good introduction and pairs nicely with The Code Economy, as many of the developments in “big data” are relevant to recent developments in code. It’s also helpful in understanding why on earth anyone sees anything of value in companies like Facebook and LinkedIn, which will be coming up soon.

You know, we know that bees live in a hive, but do bees know? (No, not for any meaningful definition of “knowing.”) But imagine being a bee, and slowly working out that you live in a hive, and that the hive “behaves” in certain ways that you can model, just like you can model the behavior of an individual bee…

Anyway:

Economics has a lot to say about how to optimize the level of inputs to get output, but what about the actual process of tuning inputs into outputs? … In the Wonderful World of Widgets that i standard economic, ingredients combine to make a final product, but the recipe by which the ingredients actually become the product is nowhere explicitly represented.

After some papers on the NK model and th shift in organizational demands from pre-industrial economic production to post-industrial large-scale production by mega firms, (or in the case of communism, by whole states,) Auerswald concludes that

…the economy manages increasing complexity by “hard-wiring” solution into standards, which in turn define platforms.

Original Morse Telegraph machine, circa 1835 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Morse

This is an important insight. Electricity was once a new technology, whose mathematical rules were explored by cutting-edge scientists. Electrical appliances and the grid to deliver the electricity they run on were developed by folks like Edison and Tesla.

But today, the electrical grid reaches nearly every house in America. You don’t have to understand electricity at all to plug in your toaster. You don’t have to be Thomas Edison to lay electrical lines. You just have to follow instructions.

Electricity + electrical appliances replaced many jobs people used to do, like candle making or pony express delivery man, but electricity has not resulted in an overall loss of jobs. Rather, far more jobs now exist that depend on the electrical grid (or “platform”) than were eliminated.

(However, one of the difficulties or problems with codifying things into platforms is then, systems have difficulty handling other, perfectly valid methods of doing things. Early codification may lock-in certain ways of doing things that are actually suboptimal, like how our computer keyboard layout is intentionally difficult to use not because of anything to do with computers, but because typewriters in the 1800s jammed if people typed on them too quickly. Today, we would be better off with a more sensible keyboard layout, but the old one persists because too many systems use it.)

The Industrial Revolution was a time of first technological development, and then encoding into platforms of many varieties–transportation networks of water and rail; electrical, sewer, and fresh water grids; the large-scale production of antibiotics and vaccines; and even the codification of governments.

The English, a nation of a couple thousand years or so, are governed under a system known as “Common Law,” which is just all of the legal precedents and traditions built up over that time that have come into customary use.

When America was founded, it didn’t have a thousand years of experience to draw on because, well, it had just been founded, but it did have a thousand years of cultural memory of England’s government. English Common Law was codified as the base of the American legal system.

The Articles of Confederation, famous only for not working very well, were the fledgling country’s first attempt at codifying how the government should operate. They are typically described as failing because they allocated insufficient power to the federal government, but I propose a more nuanced take: the Articles laid out insufficient code for dealing with nation-level problems. The Constitution solved these problems and instituted the basic “platform” on which the rest of the government is built. Today, whether we want to ratify a treaty or change the speed limit on i-405, we don’t have to re-derive the entire decisions-making structure from scratch; legitimacy (for better or for worse) is already built into the system.

Since the days of the American and French revolutions, new countries have typically had “constitutions,” not because Common Law is bad, but because there is no need to re-derive from scratch successful governing platforms–they can just be copied from other countries, just as one firm can copy another firms organizational structure.

Continuing with Auerswald and the march of time:

Ask yourself what the greatest inventions were over the past 150 years: Penicillin? The transistor? Electrical power? Each of these has been transformative, but equally compelling candidates include universal time, container shipping, the TCP/IP protocols underlying the Internet, and the GSM and CDMA standards that underlie mobile telephony. These are the technologies that make global trade possible by making code developed in one place interoperable with code developed in another. Standards reduce barriers among people…

Auerswald, as a code enthusiast, doesn’t devote much space to the downsides of code. Clearly, code can make life easier, by reducing the number of cognitive tasks required to get a job done. Let’s take the matter of household management. If a husband and wife both adhere to “traditional gender norms,” such as an expectation that the wife will take care of internal household chores like cooking and vacuuming, and the husband will take care of external chores, like mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, and pumping gas, neither spouse has to ever discuss “who is going to do this job” or wonder “hey, did that job get done?”

Following an established code thus aids efficiency and appears to decrease marital stress (there are studies on this,) but this does not mean that the code itself is optimal. Perhaps men make better dish-washers than women. Or for a couple with a disabled partner, perhaps all of the jobs would be better performed by reversing the roles.

Technological change also encourages code change:

The replacement of manual push-mowers with gas-powered mowers makes mowing the lawn easier for women, so perhaps this task would be better performed by housewives. (Even the Amish have adopted milking machines on the grounds that by pumping the milk away from the cow for you, the machines enable women to participate equally in the milking–a task that previously involved picking up and carrying around 90 lb milkjugs.)

But re-writing the entire code is work and involves a learning curve as both parties sort out and get used to new expectations. (See my previous thread on “emotional labor” and its relation to gender norms.) So even if you think the old code isn’t fair or optimal, it still might be easier than trying to make a new code–and this extends to far more human relations than just marriage.

And then you get cases where the new technology is incompatible with the old code. Take, for example, the relationship between transportation, weights and measures, and the French Revolution.

A country in which there is no efficient way to get from Point A to Point B has no need for a standardized set of weights and measures, as people in Community A will never encounter or contend with whatever system they are using over in Community B. Even if a king wanted to create a standard system, he would have difficulty enforcing it. Instead, each community tends to evolve a system that works well for its own needs. A community that grows bananas, for example, will come up with measures suitable to bananas, like the “bunch,” a community that deals in grain will invent the “bushel,” and a community that enumerates no goods, like the Piraha, will not bother with large quantities quantities.

(Diamonds are measured in “carats,” which have nothing to do with the orange vegetable, but instead are derived from the seeds of the carob tree, which apparently are small enough to be weighed against small stones.)

Since the French paid taxes, there was some demand for standardized weights and measures within each province–if your taxes are “one bushel of grain,” you want to make sure “bushel” is well defined so the local lord doesn’t suddenly define this year’s bushel as twice as big as last year’s bushel–and likewise, the lord doesn’t want this year’s bushel to be defined as half the size as last year’s.

But as roads improved and trade increased, people became concerned with making sure that a bushel of grain sold in Paris was the same as a bushel purchased in Nice, or that 5 carats of diamonds in Bordeaux was still 5 carats when you reached Cognac.

But the established local power of the local nobility made it very hard to change whatever measures people were using in each individual place. That is, the existing code made it hard to change to a more efficient code, probably because local lords were concerned the new measures would result in fewer taxes, and the local peasants concerned it would result in higher taxes.

Thus it was only with the decapitation of the Ancien Regime and wiping away of the privileges and prerogatives of the nobility that Revolutionary France established, as one of its few lasting reforms, a universal system of weights and measures that has come down to us today as the metric or SI system.

Now, speaking as an American who has been trained in both Metric and Imperial units, using multiple systems can be annoying, but is rarely deadly. On the scale of sub-optimal ideas, humans have invented far worse.

Quoting Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

“The end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses.

This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a “strategy of attrition.” The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a “strategy” so familiar by now that it almost sounds normal. It was not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response.

“The war machine,” concludes Elliot, “rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.”

No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine. A new mechanism, the tank, ended the stalemate.”

Russian Troops waiting for death

On the Eastern Front, the Death Machine was defeated by the Russian Revolution, as the canon fodder decided it didn’t want to be turned into corpses anymore.

I find World War I more interesting than WWII because it makes far less sense. The combatants in WWII had something resembling sensible goals, some chance of achieving their goals, and attempted to protect the lives of their own people. WWI, by contrast, has no such underlying logic, yet it happened anyway–proof that seemingly logical people can engage in the ultimate illogic, even as it reduces whole countries to nothing but death machines.

Why did some countries revolt against the cruel code of war, and others not? Perhaps an important factor is the perceived legitimacy of the government itself (though regular food shipments are probably just as critical.) Getting back to information theory, democracy itself is a kind of blockchain for establishing political legitimacy, (more on this in a couple of chapters) which may account for why some countries perceived their leadership as more legitimate, and other countries suddenly discovered, as information about other people’s opinions became easier to obtain, that the government enjoyed very little legitimacy.

But I am speculating, and have gotten totally off-topic (Auerswald was just discussing the establishment of TCP/IP protocols and other similar standards that aid international trade, not WWI!)

Returning to Auerswald, he cites a brilliant quote from Alfred North Whitehead

“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

As we were saying, while sub-optimal (or suicidal) code can and does destroy human societies, good code can substantially increase human well-being.

The discovery and refinement of new inventions, technologies, production recipes, etc., involves a steep learning curve as people first figure out how to make the thing work and to source and put together all of the parts necessary to build it, (eg, the invention of the automobile in the late 1800s and early 1900s,) but once the technology spreads, it simply becomes part of the expected infrastructure of everyday life (eg, the building of interstate highways and gas stations, allowing people to drive cars all around the US,) a “platform” on which other, future innovations build. Post-1950, most automobile-driven innovation was located not in refinements to the engines or brakes, but in things you can do with vehicles, like long-distance shipping.

Interesting things happen to income as code becomes platforms, but I haven’t worked out all of the details.

Continuing with Auerswald:

Note that, in code economics, a given country’s level of “development” is not sensibly measured by the total monetary value of all goods and services it produces…. Rather, the development of a country consists of … it capacity to execute more complex code. …

Less-developed countries that lack the code to produce complex products will import them, and they will export simpler intermediate products and raw materials in order to pay for the required imports.

By creating and adhering to widely-observed “standards,” increasing numbers of countries (and people) are able to share inventions, code, and development.

Of the drivers of beneficial trade, international standards are at once among the most important and the least appreciated. … From the invention of bills of exchange in the Middle Ages … to the creation of twenty-first-century communications protocols, innovations in standards have lowered the cost and enhanced the value of exchange across distance. …

For entrepreneurs in developing countries, demonstrated conformity with international standards… is a universally recognized mark of organizational capacity that substantially eases entry into global production and distribution networks.

In other words, you are more likely to order steel from a foreign factory if you have some confidence that you will actually receive the variety you ordered, and the factory can signal that it knows what it is doing and will actually deliver the specified steel by adhering to international standards.

On the other hand, I think this can degenerate into a reliance on the appearance of doing things properly, which partially explains the Elizabeth Holmes affair. Holmes sounded like she knew what she was doing–she knew how to sound like she was running a successful startup because she’d been raised in the Silicon Valley startup culture. Meanwhile, the people investing in Holmes’s business didn’t know anything about blood testing (Holmes’s supposed invention tested blood)–they could only judge whether the company sounded like it was a real business.

Auerswald then has a fascinating section comparing each subsequent “platform” that builds on the previous “platform” to trophic levels in the environment. The development of each level allows for the development of another, more complex level above it–the top platform becomes the space where newest code is developed.

If goods and services are built on platforms, one atop the other, then it follows that learning at higher levels of the system should be faster than learning at lower levels, for the simple reason that leaning at higher levels benefits from incremental learning all the way down.

There are two “layers” of learning. Raw material extraction shows high volatility around a a gradually increasing trend, aka slow learning. By contrast, the delivery of services over existing infrastructure, like roads or wireless networks, show exponential growth, aka fast learning.

In other words, the more levels of code you already have established and standardized into platforms, the faster learning goes–the basic idea behind the singularity.

 

That’s all for today. See you next week!

Does the Growth of Cities Contribute to Revolutions?

Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are ostensibly “working class” candidates (and draw their support overwhelmingly from white voters,) and yet, Trump and Sanders voters don’t see themselves as allied or their candidates as advocating for the same people.

As usual, I’ve actually been reading about the French Revolution, rather than modern American electoral politics.

To summarize quickly, just in case it’s been a while since you read anything on the subject, much of the revolution was driven by hoards of hungry peasants roaming around the streets of Paris, marching on Versailles, breaking into the democratic assemblies, etc. These hungry, mostly urban peasants are generally credited with helping start the revolution and driving it to the left.

Their most frequent and vocal demand, quite sensibly, was bread. France had some very bad winters/harvests around that time, and liberalization of trade policy with Britain put a lot of textile workers out of business. The result was high grain prices and unemployed people, which leads, of course, to starvation, and if you’re going to die, you might as well do it trying to get food from the king than just succumbing in an alleyway.

The trend in the countryside tended to be the opposite of that in the cities–rural peasants felt the pinch of taxes and bad harvests, but at least they had their own farms to depend on, and rarely had the population density to march on anything, anyway. The peasant revolts in the French countryside during the revolutionary years, like that in the Vendee, tended to be counter-revolutionary and intended to push the country in a more conservative direction.

The counter-revolution in the Vendee was ruthlessly suppressed, unlike uprisings in the city.

Peasants in the city got listened to, at least early in the revolution–perhaps simply because they were in the city; they could both put pressure directly on the government, which happened to be located in the cities, and they had more opportunities to converse with and gain the ears of government officials.

Revolutionary changes that made life better for peasants in the city often made life worse for peasants in the country (whence the counter-revolutions in the countryside.) City peasants chiefly desire lower grain prices; country peasants chiefly desire higher grain prices.

In both the French and Russian Revolutions, the urban poor became convinced that high grain prices were some sort of rural conspiracy–perhaps an anti-revolution urban conspiracy–with rural peasants supposedly hording grain instead of selling it in order to drive up the price and, perhaps, destroy the revolution.

In both cases, the revolutionary governments responded by forcibly confiscating grain from the peasants (in Russia, this led to mass starvation in the countryside, as the peasants truly had not been hoarding grain!) and introduced price controls.

Communism (or more mildly, socialism,) is supposed to be about all of the poor, but in practice it often pits the needs of one group of peasants against those of another group. The growth of cities themselves may contribute to the tendency toward instability by creating a new group of people who do not have their own farms to fall back on when food prices rise and whose income is dependent on economic cycles/factors outside their own control, leading to hungry times in the city whenever a factory has to lay off workers due to a slowdown in production.

 

Bernie Sanders’s supporters basically see themselves as supporters of the urban poor; Donald Trump’s supporters basically see themselves as supporters of the rural poor.

On a related note, from the NY Times, 2/13/16 (h/t Steve Sailer)

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Mrs. Clinton asked the audience of black, white and Hispanic union members, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the L.G.B.T. community?,” she said, using an abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. “Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

At each question, the crowd called back with a resounding no.

Short thoughts on French and Russian Revolutions

The French Revolution was caused, primarily, by a confluence of three factors:

  1. Bad harvests=> to starving peasants. Starving peasants will risk death for food.
  2. The gov’t went deep into debt to fund expensive wars and could extract no more taxes from the starving peasants.
  3. The legal system was crusty and inefficient, due to old age.

The Russian Revolution was primarily caused by WWI:

  1. It was far more expensive than Russia could afford,
  2. Unarmed peasants ordered to fling themselves in front of German machine guns react a lot like starving peasants told to go eat cake
  3. Probably a lot of starving peasants.

I don’t know if the Russian legal system was as crusty as the French one, but the whole thing was run by Nicholas, which is not a good sign.

In both cases, the immediate priority for the revolutionary gov’t ought to be halting the deaths of the peasants. Things like standardizing weights and measures or executing the monarch, whether you like those ideas or not, far fall, fall below “getting people bread” and “getting rid of the machine guns.”

Unfortunately, at least in the Russian case, instead of replacing their old, peasant-starving gov’t with a gov’t sensitive to the caloric needs of its people, they replaced it with a gov’t that was massively better at not getting overthrown by starving peasants.

Leading promptly to the starvation of millions of people.

Absolute Monarchy, Revolution, and the Bourgeoisie

So I was thinking about the Russian Revolution (as is my wont,) and wondering why everyone was so vehemently against the bourgeoisie and not, at least in their rhetoric, the nobility. (I’ve long wondered the exact same thing about the French Revolution.)

If there is one thing that all commentators seem to agree on, including the man himself, it’s that Nicholas II (aka Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov, final Tsar of all Russia,) was not fit to rule. He was not an evil man (though he did send millions of his subjects to their deaths,) and he was not an idiot, but neither was he extraordinary in any of the ways necessary to rule an empire.

But this isn’t reason to go executing a guy. After all, Russia managed to survive the tsardom of Peter the Great’s retarded half-brother (principally by making Peter co-tsar,) so there’s no particular reason why the nobility couldn’t have just stepped in and run things for Nicholas. Poor little Alexei probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer, and then one of Nicholas’s brothers or nephews would have been in the running for tsar–seems like a pretty decent position to hold out for.

But in an absolute monarchy, how much power does the nobility have? Could they intervene and change the direction of the war (or stop/prevent it altogether?)

Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) consolidated an absolute monarchy in France (with the height of his power around 1680.) In 1789, about 110 years later, the French Revolution broke out; in 1793, Louis XVII was executed.

Peter and Catherine the Greats (1672 – 1725; 1729 – 1796) consolidated monarchical power in Russia. The Russian Revolution broke out in 1905 and then more successfully in 1917; Nicholas was executed in 1918. Assuming Catherine was fairly powerful until her death, (and I suspect she likely would have been deposed had she not,) that gives us about 110 or 120 years between absolute monarch and revolution.

Is there a connection?

Obviously one possibility is just that folks who manage to make themselves absolute monarchs are rare indeed, and their descendents tend to regress toward normal personalities until they just aren’t politically savvy enough to hold onto power, at which point a vacuum occurs and a revolution fills it.

Revolutionaries, by and large, aren’t penniless peasants or factory workers (at least, not at the beginning.) They’re fairly idle intellectuals who have the time and resources to write lots of books and articles about revolution. Lenin was hanging out in Switzerland, writing, when the Russian Revolution broke out, not slogging through the trenches or working in a factory.

As I understand it, the consolidation of absolute monarchy requires taking power from the nobles. The nobles get their support from their personal peasants (their serfs.) The Royalty get their support against the nobles, therefore, from free men–middle class folks not bound to any particular noble. These middle-class folks tend to live in the city–they are the bourgeoisie.

Think of a ladder–or a cellular automata–with four rungs: royals, nobles, bourgeoisie, and peasants.

If the royalty and bourgeoisie are aligned, and the nobles and peasants are aligned, then this might explain why, when Russia and France decided to execute their monarchs, they simultaneously attacked the bourgeoisie–but said little, at least explicitly and propagandically, against the nobility.

By using the peasants to attack the bourgeoisie, the nobles attacked the king’s base of support, leaving him unable to defend himself and hang onto power. A strong monarch might be able to prevent such maneuvering, but a weak monarch can’t. Nicholas II doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’d imprison infant relatives for their whole lives or have his son tortured to death. He didn’t even bother taking another wife after the tsarina failed to produce a suitable heir.

I see the exact same dynamic happening today. For the peasants, we have America’s minority communities–mostly blacks and Hispanics–who are disproportionately poor. Working and middle-class whites are the bourgeoisie. College students and striving rich are the nobles, and the royalty are the rich.

Occupy Wall Street was an attempt by student-types to call direct attention to the wealth of the royalty, but never got widespread support. By contrast, student protests attacking bourgeois whites on behalf of black peasants have been getting tons of support; their ideas are now considered mainstream, while OWS’s are still fringe.

There’s a great irony in Ivy League kids lecturing anyone about their “privilege,” much like the irony in Lenin sitting on his butt in Switzerland while complaining about the bourgeoisie.

But in this case, is the students’ real target actually the rich?

Les Miserables

Do you hear the people sing?

It has long amused me that one of America’s favorite plays is essentially pro-communist propaganda.

“But wait,” I hear you saying, “Isn’t Les Mis about the French Revolution, which is totally like the American Revolution’s little brother?”

No. Les Miserables takes place during the June Rebellion of 1832. The French Revolution happened in 1789, about 40 years earlier.

That’s kind of like the difference between 1945 and 1988, or 1968 and 2012.

“Ah,” you say, “but weren’t the French into all of that liberty and equality stuff? Isn’t that what the revolution is all about, just like the American Revolution?”

Look, did you hear anyone in the musical singing about how the taxes on their tea/coffee/wine were too high? Or how they wanted to vote? Or pretty much anything about liberty?

The whole play is about how much life sucks for the French proletariat because they are being oppressed by the state and the petty bourgeoisie.

Communism and democracy were not originally thought of as opposites. Communism is just a later evolution of the same intellectual tradition that brought us democracy.

You think of government and business as two different entities–unless you are an anarchist, of course. If you are an anarchist, you know they are one, and you are correct. It doesn’t matter who wears the boot that stomps your face–king, president, dictatorship of the proletariat, corporate boss–it’s still a boot stomping your face.

Not long before the American and French Revolutions–the big one, in 1789, with Robespierre and the guillotines and the Tennis Court Oath and whatnot–the economic and political system in Europe were one and the same.

You knew this, of course, because you studied Medieval and early modern European economics, manorialism and feudalism in school during the 11 months of white history, right? If so, you can skip to the end.

But if all you remember from history class is something about a bunch of art that was painted in the Renaissance, and then blah-blah-Athenian Democracy-something-something-American Revolution?

*Sigh*

Okay. So “feudalism,” is basically a contractual system of obligations and responsibilities between land owners and tenants. Wikipedia defines it as, “a combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.” This is the super-simplified version.

The Medieval Lord, starting in the early Middle Ages, was the guy who owned a big chunk of land, typically called a manor. He owned it because he or his ancestors had conquered it, or because he or his ancestors got it from the king who’d conquered it, and no one else had the military power to conquer him and take it away from him.

Roland (vassal) swears fealty to Charlemagne, his king
Roland (vassal) swears fealty to Charlemagne, his king

The lord’s vassals were people who received a chunk of land to live on and farm in exchange for swearing loyalty and rendering certain services to the lord. For example, they might be required to tend to the lord’s fields 2 days a week (leaving 5 days for their own.) Or they might be required to serve one month a year in the lord’s army, in exchange for which the lord guarantees that they won’t get conquered.

Gathering the lord's wheat
Gathering the lord’s wheat

Economically, the vassal might be required to only take his grain for grinding to the lord’s mill, in exchange for which the lord guarantees him access to a functional mill, or to only mate his cows to the lord’s bull, in exchange for which the lord guarantees a higher quality bull than the peasant could afford on his own. The vassals were required to take their disputes to the lord for adjudication, and the lord was required to provide sound legal judgment on the cases brought before him.

The manor was the basic economic and legal unit of medieval society, producing all or nearly all of the goods necessary for its residents, including a bakery and mill for bread production, a tannery for leather, and quite often, luxury trade goods, like wine. All of this was coordinated and directed by the lord, (or the lord’s employees).

Plan of a typical manor, with mill, pasture, fields, and woodlot.
Plan of a typical manor, with mill, pasture, fields, and woodlot.

The system was not limited to lords and their vassals; not only were there a variety of noble landholders, independent landholders, etc., the Roman Catholic Church also owned a great deal of land, which was similarly administered. I have read that 20% of the land in France on the eve of the French Revolution was actually owned by the Catholic Church. The system persists, diminished, in many monasteries–like the Grande Chartreuse Monastery, whose monks and nuns have supported themselves via the production and sale of Chartreuse Liquor since the early 1700s. (The monastery itself was founded in 1084.)

Grande Charteuse Monastery, France
Grande Charteuse Monastery, France
Chartreuse Liquor aging in the Grande Chartreuse Monastery
Chartreuse Liquor aging in the Grande Chartreuse Monastery

Chartreuse-bottle

HBD Chick has all sorts of interesting things to say about manorialism, and in particular, how it (and the Catholic decree against cousin marriage,) may have selected for certain personality traits that influenced the development of modern Europe.

Interestingly, during the Ostsiedlung, the German eastward expansion that took place between about 1,000 and 1945 the 1400s, manorialism was spread to eastern Germany via recruitment of people from western Germany to come live in what we would now call “company towns.”

Poznan, a planned Ostiedlung town laid out in a grid
Poznan, a planned Ostsiedlung town laid out in a grid
Ostiedlung in action: The Locator (with a special hat) receives the foundation charter from the landlord. He recruits settlers, who clear the forest and build houses. The locator acts as judge in the village.
Ostsiedlung in action: The Locator (with a special hat) receives the foundation charter from the landlord. He recruits settlers, who clear the forest and build houses. The locator acts as judge in the village.

I believe the Germans also used a similar selection process when immigrating to German-founded towns in the US, probably resulting in German immigrants to the US being a particularly high-quality lot.

But an even more interesting case is the Dutch East India Company. Established in 1602, it was granted by the Dutch parliament,

“a 21-year monopoly to carry out trade activities in Asia. It is often considered to have been the first multinational corporation in the world [2] and it was the first company to issue stock.[3] It was a powerful company, possessing quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts,[4] negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies. … By 1669, the VOC was the richest private company the world had ever seen, with over 150 merchant ships, 40 warships, 50,000 employees, a private army of 10,000 soldiers, and a dividend payment of 40% on the original investment.[27]” —Wikipedia

The Dutch East India Company engaged in a bunch of wars, and its territory later became the Dutch East Indies, which in turn expanded and became the modern country of Indonesia, to say nothing of their activities in other countries.

Closer to home,

“Nine of the original American colonies were colonial corporations whose charters granted them broad governmental powers subject to retention of “English liberties” by the residents therein and the king’s right to collect customs on merchant shipping. “…one Body corporate and politique in Fact and Name, by the Name of the Governor and Company of the Mattachusetts Bay…” was typical language in these charters. These corporations were even sometimes (as in this case) sold from one set of investors to another: the modern legal distinction between commercial and political (e.g. municipal) corporations was not yet common. …

“The idea that a majority can “consent” for other members their class also comes from medieval corporate law (it certainly does not come from contract or tort law). “Constitution” was often used as a synonym for “charter.” The United States Constitution can be profitably viewed as a corporate charter, ratified by a majority of delegates to conventions in each State but shorn of royal imprimatur. “The Queen…grants…” became “We the people of the United States…do ordain and establish.” “We the People” granted rights to ourselves, in some vague collective way. This makes no sense in legal terms outside the context of corporate charters.” –Unenumerated’s “Corporate Origins of the United States

Anyway, by the time of the American Revolution, feudalism was on the decline. It was still vaguely around in France, making trouble for people now that regular economic activity crossed old feudal jurisdictions, and Wikipedia claims that some feudal landholdings were still around in Germany until just before WWII, but large tracts of free, open land on the American continent meant that feudalism had never been a major force over here. When American colonists ran short on land, they could just engage in a little class warfare and redistribute it from the Indians to themselves.

What is this fancy new idea that came roaring in with the American and French Revolutions? What is democracy? We Americans think of democracy as simply the right to vote for our own government. Where the opening up of vast new tracts of land had effectively made each man the master of his own economic destiny, the American Revolution made them, collectively, masters of their political destinies.

But back on the continent, the vestiges of feudalism still persisted; vast tracts of land were not free for the taking. Revolution came not just to the political, legal end of the system, but also the economic.

“In the eighteenth century the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in his hugely influential The Social Contract (1762), outlined the basis for a political order based on popular sovereignty rather than the rule of monarchs.[4] His views proved influential during the French Revolution of 1789, in which various anti-monarchists, particularly the Jacobins, supported the idea of redistributing wealth equally among the people, including Jean-Paul Marat and Gracchus Babeuf. The latter was involved in the Conspiracy of the Equals of 1796 intending to establish a revolutionary regime based on communal ownership, egalitarianism and the redistribution of property.” — Wikipedia

By the time Les Miserables was published in 1862, Marx’s Communist Manifesto was already 14 years old, and communism had gone from being a sub-text in the French Revolution to a full-fledged ideology in its own right. The 1832 rebellion described in Les Miserables falls smack into the time of the early communist development, predating the publication of the Communist Manifesto by only 16 years.

Les Miserables is not about liberty, in its anarchic sense nor its American sense. It is not, for the most part, about the values that compelled Americans into their revolution. It is about the tribulations of the poor, miserable, wretched French proletariat. It is about the democratization not of the political order, but of the economic order.

It’s really the perfect combination. American elites lean communist and can appreciate Les Mis for what it is without explicitly endorsing Stalinism. But the American lower classes can also join in, enjoying the illusion that it has something to do with the founding American mythology.