In ancient Sumer the grandest monuments were temples on high platforms, called ziggurats. Like pyramids and Gothic cathedrals, ziggurats have a mountainous and sacred quality. Each is a monumental elaboration of its piece of ground, too much to be taken in from any single view. A considerable organization over a long time was required for these structures to be created and this level of organization is possible only in special circumstances. One looks at old ziggurats, castles, and pyramids and sees their beauty or functional design, but not the work required to bring them into being. When the work was finished, the scaffolding and the construction organization vanished and left the visible structure in mysterious isolation. It might be a surface feature of the local geology except for something about the shape, and perhaps an inscription cut into hard stone in the structure. The buildings appear miraculous because the work that built them is not part of their appearance. Work tends to go unidentified in many situations.
Bricks were the main building material of the most ancient civilizations, Egypt as well as Sumer. Their bricks were made of mud mixed with straw, moulded and dried in the sun. In the hot, dry climate of those places mud bricks are durable. Bricks are heavy and hard, good material for walls and support columns. The clay or mud for a brick has to be lifted into a mould and dried or baked in an oven to transform it into stone. The thought of using mud out of its natural place, made into a new solid form and subjected to the vision of a builder, is invention and imagination and involves initiation into cultural secrets. A brick is a piece of borrowed ground, placed in a new relationship to the firmament of ground, in a wall or column of a house, temple, or castle. Walls of brick are cultural elaborations of ground, and we find their essential qualities first in the hardness and heaviness of ground itself. The ground, planet Earth, keeps pulling the brick back toward its centre. The worker must exert effort against that. The cost in effort required to raise a single brick is not very great. As the size of construction increases, the effort becomes more and more difficult and reaches a point of tedium and fatigue that goes far beyond what anyone would choose. The worker feels his vital energies go out of him into the shape of the rising wall. After a day at the job, the strength of the worker is gone, he or she is empty and sucked dry. This is the bargain, a day’s strength for another day’s subsistence.
Effort on that scale is normally demanded by somebody’s project of making a gigantic mark on the environment. The worker takes on some relation to that mark in the process of spending his vitality on it. The intimate contribution he makes to its realization justifies and maybe demands that he feel some ownership. Yet there are a number of circumstances that conflict with his sense of ownership. The design and inspiration are not from him, but are foreign. Between his shifts and when his work is finished he is required to leave the thing he has made. The shape of his relationship to it in space and time is controlled by others. The wall he builds shuts him out. Credits for the construction, maybe inscribed somewhere on the structure to be witnessed by the world at large, do not include his name or an account of his part in authorship. So the worker’s attachment to his product is both inescapable and unacknowledged, stipulated by his investment in the job and then severed, alienated, stolen.
Property-possession and labour have been rival claimants to society’s rewards and honours. Like work in one way, property such as land and money is often a source of income. “Let your money work for you.” Income from property, investment, and speculation always depends on and derives from the actual work of someone. Lack of productive property forces some to submit to the dominance of people who control such things as land and money. Labour has always been the under-dog. Deprivation of property forces people into a physical dependence on resources controlled by property owners, a sort of slavery. To some it has seemed the plainest injustice that inheritors of property should be rewarded more than those working daily to produce necessities of community life. Work is a life-warping burden. It would seem that the bearers of the burden of producing what the community requires should earn most benefits.
That is all common knowledge and the injustice is plain to see. However, the injustice is not often identified, is not prohibited by law, for example, because of the pervasive dominance of crime-family cultural values in the conceptual structure of sovereign power, executive privilege, and wealth as a trophy. The injustice of that relationship of labour to monumental architecture, as well as to all forms of high culture dependent on the tastes and pleasures of those able to afford luxury goods and services such as decorative, performance, and plastic arts, undermines any claims to a legitimacy of command through contributions to civilization. Those forms of high culture are merely another crime family technology for exercising radical inequality.
This is still on the way to Machiavelli and Nietzsche.
Copyright © 2012 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.
American Serf said:
An eloquent and insightful essay. I ask: What are the roots of the “crime-family cultural values” that dominate the “conceptual structure of sovereign power, executive privilege, and wealth as a trophy”?
Nonhuman animals fight each other and maintain social hierarchies for control of territory, food, mates. One chimpanzee band raids another. Before all brick monuments and bronze age empires and neolithic revolutions, one hunter-gatherer band raids another.
Aren’t the “crime-family cultural values” you mention rooted somehow deep down in the fabric of human being?
The answer should help us determine the range of plausible solutions to problems of social order and injustice.