More Ancient History They Don’t Teach in School

History of the World Part 2

BBC (2018)

Film Review

Part 2 of the BBC “History of the World” series covers the rise of the first western empires. This is commonly referred to as “ancient history,” a subject no longer taught in US schools (recently, however, it seems to be a popular topic for Hollywood features films). Although the reenactments in Part 2 are shorter and more plausible, Part 2’s failure to cover non-Western empires is a serious weakness.

The empires described include

  • The Assyrian Empire (2,500 – 609 BC) – focusing on the rule of Sennacherib (705-681 BC), who initiated the use of “total warfare” (killing non-combatant elderly women and children) and “shock and awe” terror tactics to subjugate neighboring nations. Sennacherib created the blueprint for every subsequent tyrant who has sought to rule by terror.
  • The Persian Empire – founded by Cyrus the Great with the conquest of the Median, Lydian, and Babylonian empires in 550 BC. Unlike Sennacherib, Cyrus ruled via by diplomacy and sought to integrate the various cultures under his rule.
  • The brief empire ruled by Alexander the Great (334-323 BC) – which included Turkey, Egypt, North Africa, and Asia Minor to the Indian border. Like Cyrus, Alexander also attempted to integrate the different cultures under his rule.

Part 2 goes on covers the rise of democracy in the city-state of Athens in the 6th century BC and their successful rebuff of a much larger Persian army that tried to conquer them.

This episode also explores the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha (5th-6th century BC) in India, Confucius (551-479 BC) in China and Socrates (470-399 BC) in Athens. All three promoted philosophies that were at odds with the violent and hierarchical empire building of the times.

 

 

 

Engels on the Origins of Class Society

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

By Friedrich Engels (1884)

Free PDF: Origin of the Family

Book review

Relying on the pioneering work of Lewis Morgan and other early anthropologists, Engels traces the origins of class society back to the agricultural revolution (around 10,000 BC when our hunter gatherer ancestors transformed themselves into farmers). The advent of agriculture resulted in a “surplus” of food, which became the responsibility of an elite (kings and priests) to safeguard for the winter and hard times.

The production of an agricultural surplus also enables the accumulation of wealth and the desire to bequeath one’s riches to descendants. This can only happen if men can trace the paternity of their offspring. Men’s desire to pass on wealth resulted in the introduction of the marriage contract to bind all women to a single man (while men were allowed unlimited partners)  and the replacement of matriarchal society with patriarchy.

Engels goes on to trace how this early wealth creation led to the concept of private property and the feudalistic state. To have a state you have to have a king or supreme leader. He maintains power via a standing army and rewards “knights” in his army with gifts of private property. And because property is no longer owned communally, peasants are forced off the land that provides their subsistence and forced to go to work for knights and lords who have expropriated their land.

The book contains a fascinating section about the way the Iroquois Nation governed themselves – including their use of consensus in decision making, inheritance through the female line and their collective ownership of property. He also outlines how various Iroquois tribes were united in a Confederacy governed by a Federal Council (which formed the basis for state-federal structure the colonists adopted in the Articles of Confederation).

There is also a section about democracy in ancient Athens and the coalescence of Latin tribes into a single Roman government. The final chapter concerns the amalgamation of the various Germanic tribes into the states of Germany and France.

The Global Movement for Participatory Democracy

Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas

Directed by Silvia Leindecker and Michael Fox

Film Review

Beyond Elections is about the global participatory democracy (aka direct or deliberative democracy) movement – the grassroots effort to replace so-called representative democracy (aka polyarchy*) with a process in which citizens participate directly in policy decisions that affect their lives. Historically participatory democracy began in ancient Athens, where people governed directly through large public assemblies (unfortunately assemblies were limited to free born men, who comprised only one-fifth of the population).

According to the filmmakers, participatory democracy died out until 1989, when the Brazilian Workers Party resurrected it in Porto Allegre Brazil by creating participatory budget assemblies. In my view, this isn’t strictly correct, as the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who the Marxists expelled from the First International** , advocated for a system of participatory democracy called “collective anarchism.” Workers used participatory democracy to run the 1871 Paris Commune, as did numerous Spanish cities during the Spanish Civil War.

The Spread of Participatory Democracy

The documentary explores how this new style of local government spread throughout Brazil and to other Latin American countries, as well as to Europe, Africa and even parts of Canada (Guelph Ontario and parts of Montreal). A few US activists are campaigning for more American communities to adopt participatory democracy (several are described in the 2012 book Slow Democracy), but most Americans have never heard of it. The only aspect of participatory democracy widely adopted in the US are workers cooperatives.

Beyond Elections presents numerous examples of participatory democracies in the various Latin American countries that have implemented it. Under representative democracy, local councils are nearly always controlled by local business interests, and elected officials typically enact budgets that benefit these interests. When ordinary people control the budgeting processes through popular assemblies, they spend the money on programs benefiting the entire community, eg on clean safe housing, health centers and basic sanitation.

The Venezuelan Example

Following Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998, the Venezuelan government called a constitutional assembly to write a new constitution. The latter enabled Venezuelans to directly govern their communities through communal councils, as well as water committees, workers committees (to set up and run workers cooperatives), health committees and land committees (to implement land reform and set up farmers cooperatives).

The projects carried out by the communal councils and various committee were funded by grants from the central government. Despite endemic corruption in the Venezuelan bureaucracy, these new grassroots-run structures succeeded in bringing health care, decent housing and basic sanitation to Venezuelan slums for the very first time.

The film also examines the adoption of participatory democracy in Bolivia, Ecuador and parts of Mexico controlled by the Zapatistas.

The film is in 16 parts of roughly 5 minutes. Each successive segment starts automatically as the preceding segment finishes.


*In a polyarchy, power is closely guarded by a wealthy elite and the population remains passive except for periodic “free elections” in which they vote for the elites of their choice. When a tiny minority controls nearly all the wealth, “free elections” are only possible if the majority is systematically controlled with psychological propaganda. See Emancipate Yourself from Mental Slavery
**The First International Working Man’s Association was an international organization which aimed at uniting a variety of different left-wing socialist, communist[1] and anarchist political groups and trade union organizations that were based on the working class and class struggle.