'Production Versus Plunder' ~ Part 5
By Paul Rosenberg - May 02, 2015

Surveillance is nothing new. In fact, it goes back some seven thousand years. Then, as now, it quietly destroyed productive modes of life. Furthermore, it was fundamental in setting one class of people (rulers) above all other people (the ruled).

This two-class division of humanity was not always with us; it began in specific ways, which we'll examine today.

Continued from last week


As illustrated by last week's time line, the great benefactors of humanity – the unnamed first farmers – experienced a stunning explosion of creativity and very shortly found themselves the effective prisoners of barbaric, ignorant men who harnessed and slowly ruined what they had created.

At first, the farmers simply gave up a portion of their harvest and tried their best to work around the stupid, barbaric rulers. It was only when a more clever set of rulers arrived that the more serious damage began. This, more serious damage, was two-fold:

  1. Piece by piece, their actions were restricted and monitored. It is difficult enough to create useful things when a man is fully unopposed, but if, before he acts, he must also consider whether or not he will be punished, creativity is forced to overcome additional and large obstacles. The more controls, observations and punishments, the fewer useful innovations arise.
  2. More importantly, their range of thought was restricted. The imposition of a dominating, arbitrary, punishing god upon men's thoughts is inherently intimidating, and intimidation powerfully opposes creative thought. When men fear that new thoughts will be punished, they allow few to pass through their minds, and admit to even fewer.

It is important to remember that the cities we are discussing here were small by modern standards. That meant that the ruler was never terribly far away and there was often no dark corner to hide in. The watcher was close and records were kept. Hiding was difficult.

As successive waves of rulership rolled over the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the structures of government and their associated theologies and punishments occupied more and more of men's minds and activities. During the semi-creative city-state period (5400-3000 B.C.) temple complexes like the one shown below1 were common.

The Government Buildings of Uruk in 3400 B.C.

Image courtesy of R. K. Englund, UCLA

One of the primary features of these temple complexes was that they separated 'ordinary' men from their rulers and, especially, from the holy places. Restricted passages, courtyards, and great stairways had to be traversed in order to reach the important places. This had multiple effects:

  • It instilled the idea that the rulers, priests and gods were of a different class than the average men. They were literally above and figuratively above.
  • When a man was given access to the special places, he felt as though an honor was bestowed upon him. He had attained a special status and enjoyed the feeling. He would now be considerably less likely to turn against the regime.
  • The king, seeing that his subject was proud and moved to be admitted to his presence, was confirmed in his own eyes as being of a higher class of humans and worthy to rule. The kings of old often did consider themselves gods, and this effect of reflected glory contributed considerably to it.
  • Occupying a position of power (able to call forth violence) and being associated with the gods, made the ruler a very powerful imposer of shame. That gave them a terribly powerful weapon to use in securing the acquiescence of their subjects.

Another function of the temple complex buildings and palace buildings were as halls of records. This love of control and order extended all through the years after 5400 B.C. For example, an archive has been unearthed at a city called Ebla, dating from 2350 B.C. The room was ringed with shelves and held approximately 2100 clay tablets. On the tablets were administrative records of:

  • Textile accounts
  • Metal accounts
  • Tax deliveries
  • Temple offerings
  • Letters
  • State reports
  • Scribal exercises
  • Villages (hundreds)
  • Large animal herds (thousands of animals)
  • A wool industry
  • Large quantities of gold and silver
  • Tribute paid to a superior city named Mari

This is but one example of Sumerian record-keeping. Thousands of additional tablets have been found, recording things such as:

  • An appointment to a clerkship
  • The establishment of a Food Office
  • Legal documents in regard to slaves
  • Legal document in regard to an office
  • Agreements between parties
  • Deed of sale of palm grove
  • Deed of sale of a male slave
  • Receipt of purchase money for a pair of slaves
  • Documents in regard to loans of silver
  • Promissory notes
  • Acknowledgments of loans of grain
  • Acknowledgment of loan of dates
  • A bond
  • Receipt for silver
  • Receipts for grain
  • Receipts for vegetables of various kinds
  • Receipts for different kinds of beans
  • Receipt for dates
  • Receipts for figs
  • Receipts for straw
  • Accounts of the receipts for corn
  • Account of the receipts for bronze
  • Statement of silver, corn, oil, etc., received and at hand
  • Statements of shiploads of grain delivered
  • Statement of corn, wheat and vegetables delivered and at hand
  • Statement of garments at hand
  • Statement of chairs on hand
  • Storehouse accounts: corn, wheat, grain, vegetables, beans, dates, bronze
  • Accounts of the cost of the tilling of fields, as wages, feed of oxen,
  • Renting of fields to different persons
  • Account of fields, their measurements, condition
  • Enumeration of belongings, as implements, weapons, victuals, silver
  • Assignments of garments
  • Expenditure of sesame oil
  • Grain for the temple of En-lil
  • Grain for temple offerings
  • Flour and grain for temple offerings
  • Temple offerings and porphyry stone for couches for the deities
  • Lists of wages paid to officials, employees, artisans and laborers

A final and crucial area of importance was the general psychology of the people of Sumer. Enough records exist to reconstruct the general mind-set of the Sumerian period; that is, in the period of serious decline. Kramer says2:

A Sumerian tended to take a tragic view of his fate and destiny. They were convinced that man was fashioned from clay and created for one purpose only: to serve the gods by supplying them with food, drink and shelter so that they might have leisure for their divine activities.

You can see here the result of the long centuries (millennia, in fact) of indoctrination by rulers and priests. Holding a tragic view of life means that very little action will be taken to change anything. By this point, these people had accepted that their role in life was little different than that of slaves or intelligent beasts of burden.

At about 2200 B.C., near the end of the Sumerian empire, a father writes this to his son:

Do not speak ill, speak only good. Do not say evil things, speak well of people. He who speaks ill and says evil—people will waylay him because of his debt to Shamash. Do not talk too freely, watch what you say. Do not express your innermost thoughts even when you are alone. What you say in haste you may regret later. Exert yourself to restrain your speech.

Worship your god every day. Sacrifice and pious utterance are the proper accompaniment of incense. Have a freewill offering for your god, for this is proper toward a god. Prayer, supplication, and prostration offer him daily, then your prayer will be granted, and you will be in harmony with god.

Note the caution, the uncertainty of mind, the fear of being impious. This is what control, regulation and fear breed. It created a mass of people who were easy to rule but unable to adapt, arise or create. Thus Sumer, the place of humanity's greatest explosion of progress, descended into uselessness and was overrun in full.

By the time of the death of the Sumerian empire, rulers the world over were trying to conquer city after city and string them into empires. This lasted for more than five hundred years, during which time there were Egyptian, Babylonian, Hittite, Assyrian, Kassite and Elamite empires.


1This is an excavation grid from the city of Uruk, which was constructed at about 3400 B.C.

2Again, from his essay "Sumerian History, Culture and Literature."

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To be continued…

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