Homo sapiens is a cooperative group species. The collaboration centers on the provision of the basics, food and shelter, but extends to qualities surpassing the basic needs of existence.
Other such species, famously ants or bees, share the basic collaboratve efforts of providing the basics, they build homes and organize their society to provide the food necessary to guarantee the survival of the species – but nothing more.
Others, mostly mammals, live in social groups, but by the pecularities of their living space, do not need to build homes – elephants, wolves, apes, horses and the like. Their building abilities are impeded for the lack of fingers and thumbs (yes, the elephants’ trunks, and apes’ dexterity) but more by the lack of abstract intelligence. They are perfectly able to perform all the necessary acts to ensure the survival of the species (unless we kill them, of course) – but nothing that transcends biological necessity.
Homo sapies has developed a brain able of deductive reasoning, has the body structure to create most anything he sets his mind to and, given Occam’s Razor, we should expect that similar experiences would lead to similar solutions to intraspecies problems.
Thus it works in the scientific process, who was invented by deductive reasoning to great success. After myriads of years to figure out how to build a flying machine, we have figured it out by discarding all the models that did not work, until we arrived at a solution which does.
Why is so little of this process apparent in the organsation of our societies. Giving first things first, the needs of human societies are rather similar than different. Most people would agree that a preferable organisation of society rest on relatively few desiderata:
It should, simply for reasons of effectiveness, strive to utilize all available intellectual abilities of the members. Such abilities can come to fruition only if the circumstances of living for the prospective assistants in society-building are as conducive as they can be.
Every child which does not learn to read and write is a poor candidate for the next step in human development. Everybody who dies unnecessarily – that is, not from medical reasons – is a poor candidate for the enlargement of knowledge or experience.
That is, the desired forms of organization must reflect these basic requirements. Practical deductions from this insight should be derived with little effort and can of course be tested – one civilisation may flourish because of A,B and C, another may fail because of D,E, and F.
We have mentioned the basic requirements of food, shelter and health. Next come, logically, the fundamentals that support cooperation, that is, the collaboration of groups.
Groups must live in proximity of each other to function cooperatively, hence we build towns. A town whose inner workings provide better services and connectivity than the competition simply has a better mathematical chance of prosperity – because talents will hear about it and move there.
This is why we build roads, schools, found and extend services, from police, banks, fire brigades, parks, hotels, airports and the like. These basic ideas are pretty much standard and publicly accepted – but – why do they work in A-Town but not in B-Town?
Here we come to these imponderabilities which lie in the organisational underbelly – those principles of social engineering, which lay principally in the field we call “politics”. The word itself naturally comes from Greek “polis”, which simply means “town”.
We may take a small detour here on the development of town structures. Towns existed at all times, but many of the most important changes on the road to the development to the modern world occurred in Middle Europe and were based on the evolution of the “rights” of towns – that is, in the first place, a certain legal independence of the town and its magistrates, which, in Western culture, began mostly in the Roman Empire – a recognition of their growing importance amongst the declining significance of agricultural concerns – and was greatly enhanced by the change in the social status of their inhabitants.
Some of the basic occurrences in the downfall of Rome were the widespread abandonment of agricultural land from about AD 200 – indeed, the granting of settlement of Roman emperors to Germanic tribes in the fourth century AD was much eased by the fact that wide provinces of the Empire had fallen into agricultural disrepair – the ruin of the public taxation system which at length robbed the Empire of the means to finance the legions and led on the way to the Middle Ages to the replacement of the standing army of citizens of the Republic to the transfer of defense to the knights of the landed gentry – climate problems as the bad mid-350s and deforestation – changes which led to the weakening of the Empire and its subsequent demise.
Whereby – the “Fall of the Empire” must be taken with many pounds of salt. Many Roman structures remained – the Ostrogothic realm of Theodoric was for practical reasons virtually indistiguishable from Imperial times, and – in general – we must not confuse the maps in an historical atlas with our modern interpretation. That land X is marked blue and Y red did not mean that for the greatest part of the population their life was any different. Borders were often spurious, and the only difference farmers and villagers noticed after a regime-change was the new taxman.
But what changed in the Italian and German parts of the new Frankish – later “German” Reich was the legal status of the townsman. All antique societies kept slaves – although it took Mauretania until 2007 to outlaw it. Contrary to the sandal movies, most slaves were indigenous residents – while estimates differ, most scholars agree that, e.g. in Rome, probably only 5% of slaves were of foreign origin.
Yet slaves could be purchased and used only by a moneyed society, and cash fell into disuse in the Middle Ages and hence out of custom. The greatest percentage of Europeans in the early Middle Ages were sharecroppers, whose situation was slightly different from area to area. These serfs were, in Germany, called “leibeigen”. In general, they had to live on the grounds of the liege-lord, and pay him a share of all they produced – up to 50%. They were his legal subjects – in some areas up to the death penalty for the theft of a chicken – could marry only with the lord’s permission. A certain number of days each year (their number was up to the lord and not limited) they had to provide free labour and/or services.
When the circulation of money revived, these services could, of course, replaced with coin. Smart farmers early found ways the lessen the burden by earning money – which could be made far easier in towns. Many farmers established their residency, so they could, preferentially around religious institutions, where the monks were somewhat refrained by Christian charity and conditions better, or around smaller castles, where their promise of military aid might similarly lead to a social improvement, and slowly towns developed around these places. In addition, if they could not be found, the lord’s rights could not be claimed.
Thus it slowly became legal custom that a serf who escaped the authority of his lord for one year and one day by living in a town, became a townsman, lost his obligations and could not be forced back. Naturally, everybody who could did so.
The economic importance of towns rose greatly with the onset of the Renaissance (craftsmen and service providers) and even more at the onset of industrialisation, and serfdom was gradually given up, except in rural areas.
Especially the ruin of agriculture after the Seven Years’ War (sometimes called French and Indian War in the USA and UK) and the studies and experiments of Hans Graf von Rantzau (who proved that leaseholds were more profitable for the lord than serfdom) lead to the legal abolishment of serdom in the years after 1800 – first in Braunschweig AD 1433 , in Bavaria 1783, last in Hannover 1833. The Russian delay (not before 1861 and then not effective) was one big factor for the following revolutions.
Industrialisation made towns the economic locomotives of the new age, and a rural exodus took off.