Ruling class lament, or, redefining ‘crisis’

A staple of ancient Near Eastern study is the pattern of imperial and cultural collapses. Thus, the Sumerian expansion, running through from the revolution of Uruk to the elaborate and rather extraordinary organizational achievements of “The Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad” (Ur III), eventually collapses around 2000 BCE, due to a variety of causes. To continue our sample from a large collection, in the sixteenth century a “dark age” descends upon the ANE, and then later again another such age at the close of the second millennium – the Hittites’ modest achievements also collapse, as does the Creto-Mycenaean sphere at about the same time in the thirteenth century. By the first millennium it is the turn of Assyria, the Neo-Babylonians, and then the Persians. This narrative in various forms is one of the staples of ANE history (going back to Herodotus), with a consistent pattern of fluorescence and collapse, or expansion and contraction, as one despot after another attempts a phallic-like extension of his powers, penetrating his neighbors and holding them under his seminal splurge, only to find that the rush of blood does not last forever.

We need to ask: collapse and crisis for whom? From the perspective of the ruling class it is indeed collapse and the ensuing period is a prolonged time of crisis. The sources of wealth have been removed, the palaces and temples destroyed, the estate system or patterns of tribute and exchange have been dismantled, and power has been lost. In these contexts, the archaeological record begins to show signs of “crisis architecture,” “termination rituals,” and “calamity feasts,” in which the desperate rulers use up their last reserves to appease furious gods. At times, dispossessed elites do indeed produce remarkable works – the collection of texts in the Hebrew Bible is an excellent example. Yet, from the perspective of the village-communes, of the subsistence and estate laborers, of socially determining clan households, a “collapse” actually means a blessed relief from various means of extraction. We can hardly expect the peasants, laborers, and common people to sit back and wait for such much-desired collapses to happen. From the Habiru through to archaeological signals of urban destruction by the town’s own exploited class, they were more than keen to hasten the demise. Semi-nomadic pastoralists too were ready to join in, for throughout Mesopotamian history their annual and usually “peaceful” migration “could be transformed into aggressive campaigns if the power of the centralized state was weak.” The outcome was highly desirable: no longer do the young men and women have to work periodically or permanently on the palatine estates; no longer does the despised usurer-merchant-tax-collector call with his thugs to collect a debt slave or take a portion of the herd or some of the girls for his sexual usage; no longer do the temple and palace suck away the foodstuffs needed for subsistence survival. These periods were also ones of innovation: horse and chariot in the sixteenth century “dark age,” for instance, or iron technology at the end of the second millennium.

Too many secondary works unwittingly take the perspective of the ruling classes, who produced most of the records that skew our efforts at reconstruction. A case in point is the lament in the Erra Epic. Set in Babylon and during the “crisis” of the late second millennium, it purports to reflect on general chaos and collapse. Nothing could be further from the truth, for it is a lament of a ruling class at the end of its run.

He who did not die in battle, will die in the epidemic

He who did not die in the epidemic, the enemy will rob him

He whom the enemy has not robbed, the thief will thrash him

He whom the thief did not thrash, the king’s weapon will overcome him

He whom the king’s weapon did not overcome, the prince will kill him

He whom the prince did not kill, the storm god will wash away

He whom the storm god did not wash away, the sun god will carry him away

He who has left for the countryside, the wind will sweep him away

He who has entered his own house, a demon will strike him

He who climbed up a high place, will die of thirst

He who went down to a low place, will die in the waters

You have destroyed high and low place alike!

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10 thoughts on “Ruling class lament, or, redefining ‘crisis’

  1. This makes sense. How does this apply to the ‘Dark Ages’, if one can use that term any more, in Europe and British Isles.

    The indications are that the population of Anglo-Saxon England was less than half that of Roman Britain.

    I’m not disagreeing, just asking.

    1. I know nothing about the situation on your isles a few years ago, but I would suggest that the Romans probably operated more with a maximal usage of resources, while the Angles and Saxons were more into optimal usage, and thereby optimal population.

  2. Your comment about the production of the Hebrew Bible by dispossessed elites has me wondering what you think of biblical minimalism. Were the texts mainly written/compiled during a “Babylonian exile” or during the Persian and Greek periods of Palestinian history?

    1. To begin with, it makes little difference,since the Levant was always a marginal zone, economically and politically. But the minimalist-maximalist debate was and is really very traditional. By engaging in the debate, they shore up the rather worn out values and modes of engagement in biblical criticism.

    2. That was a bit of a sidestep there, Roland. Often you remind me of Nietzsche’s madman who rushes into the public square, except that in your case the deranged cry is “All is ideology! All is ideology!”

      To give a more straightforward answer to your question, Stephen, see Boer 2007*, who disputes the existence of an historical Ezra or Nehemiah, and summarises that “many of the theories about the formation of the text suggest that much of the activity of writing took place at some time in the Persian period (537-333 BCE).” In his footnote to this, Boer cites only Philip Davies, In Search of “Ancient Israel” (1992), who defended the late Persian period or early Hellenistic era as the period of composition of much of what now makes up the Hebrew BIble.

      * Roland Boer, Criticism of Heaven: Marxism and Theology, Historical Materialism Book Series, 18 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007), p. 18.

    3. Don’t get me wrong. I see no inconsistency between your two statements, Roland; they address different concerns. I was just providing an answer to Stephen’s question.

      I remain, naturally, a most attentive reader of your many works. Yours, etc.

  3. On a related note, I think most apocalypticism nowadays is the expression of the petty bourgeoisie being dissolved into the proletariat.

  4. If you see elites as purely extractive, then sure, their collapse would be no bad thing. And if – as in James Scott’s Zhomia – you have the resources and the landscape to flourish without the state, then a state is simply an encumbrance. But quite ordinary people are attracted to living better by exploiting other people (see the bonders who manned viking ships, or the soldier-farmers of Rome, or numerous others). If you live in Mesopotamia, where some necessities (like metals) can only be obtained by trade, and farmers live in uneasy balance with desert and mountain pastoralists, then the state starts to look more like an unwelcome necessity.

    Which is not to say that it gives fair return, or that it cannot be extremely oppressive. It’s just that the available alternatives often seem to have felt to be worse even for ordinary people.

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