"When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals.
We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues"

( JM Keynes, "Economic Possibilities for our Granchildren" 1930 )

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Were the Pyramids Built by Slaves ?

Main stream press recently released news concerning a major archeological discovery in Egypt: Under the surface and nearby the Giza Pyramids were discovered a number of graves belonging to workers that built the local pyramids (app. 2400 BCE). According to the experts quoted, the discovery (and the subsequent conclusion) should not be considered trivial:

“….These tombs were built beside the king’s pyramid, which indicates that these people were not by any means slaves. If they were slaves, they would not have been able to build their tombs beside their king’s…” said Dr. Hawass (Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities).

The revolutionary conclusion from the graves is that the idea of the Giza Pyramids being built by slaves is a myth – it has never had any basis in archaeological fact. I am not sure that this specific discovery consisting of not more than a few graves, can support (or refute) such an overwhelming conclusion. Since the construction of these monuments involved many thousands of people, a few possible “lottery winners” (or foremen) allowed to enjoy their eternal life in vicinity to the royalty can hardly tell us anything about the fate of the vast majority of workers/slaves. However, that was a side note about the conclusion since the main interesting issue related to the Pyramids lies in another place.

On my humble opinion, the legal status of thousands of human beings which carved, shipped and piled millions of stones (along 30 years according to Herodotus) under the burning sun is a particular aspect of that matter though not the principal one. Any dispute concerning the legal status of the builders cannot hide the most pervert aspect related to the Pyramids: This enterprise is an enormous human effort dedicated for a useless purpose. A few figures are sufficient to reveal the magnitude of that effort; Giza Pyramid made from 2,5 Million 2,5 tons blocks each entailed the physical work of 10,000 people (Herodotus wrote 100,000) for 30 years. And this is just for one Pyramid ….and we still got plenty of Pyramids, Tombs, Temples and other magnificent monuments that literally cover the Egyptian soil.

Since the Pyramid is not more than a big tomb, it does not create any economic (in the sense of exchange or utility) value. Therefore, someone had to feed those laborers/slaves; someone had to supply cloth and other means in exchange for nothing. The only possible source for food and materials for that army of workers was the surplus the Nile valley originated beyond the level of subsistence of the population. That surplus funneled through somewhat coercive means mixed with a good dose of religion and property rights managed to feed thousands of workers which served the upper class and also transformed its muscle power into an impressive and useless pile of stones. Now, why wasn´t the surplus or the amazing skills applied, for example, to improve the infrastructure of the country? Alternatively, why weren´t these resources serve to allow more gifted individuals to devote their skills to science? Or to upgrade the medical services for a population whose life expectancy was about 35 for men and 30 for women, in which reaching adulthood was difficult as about one-third of the population died in infancy? (Remember that Egyptians were very advanced in many medical techniques as the mummification…). All those bothering questions make me define the pyramids construction as a “perversion”.

Are the perversions of ancient Egypt still among us? The British economist Lord Keynes in his famous General Theory observed that in the context of involuntary unemployment “…Pyramid-building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth, if the education of our statesmen on the principles of the classical economics stands in the way of anything better…”. p. 129). This generally misunderstood and sarcastic comment reveals that pyramids (and other calamities as well) are very close to the solutions classical economics tend to provide to economic crisis with unemployment ( just think about it , Pyramids or wars as a solution to unemployment,,,,) . I think that these phenomena are even closer than what Keynes meant as he was wrong in one important detail: It was not the “…education ….on principles of classical economics” that stood between ancient and modern Pharaohs and “better ways” to avoid unemployment. Dear Lord, 5000 years ago there was no “classical economics” at all!.

The common denominator between classic economics and ancient pyramids is to be found in a different place . Whether you call it extraction of surplus from Nile peasants or the reduction of involuntary unemployment, the “real thing that stands in the way of anything better” is the willingness to maintain as much as possible the prevailing distribution of incomes, wealth and power. It´s a matter of power and exploitation, not only an education obstacle . If we understand that , the Pyramids turn become a symbol which embedding a clear message toward the rest of the mortals : Some of us deserve the work of most of you whether you like it or not.

True, Pharaohs´ pretentions seems to our modern eyes as absolutely perverse as they try not only to maintain their superior status but also to eternalize it . However, since the principles of classical pyramidal economics are still among us, I can easily find a lot of “modern pyramids” erected and managed around us as a mere and poor substitute for anything better that goes beyond the education and the interest of our statement. The choice is, on my humble opinion, a very relevant open issue even in our modern times.

A related final and not serious (?) comment: According to the biblical sources, the Israelites were enslaved by Pharaoh to build cities and warehouses, but the Torah doesn´t mention any Pyramid or another spectacular building. Anyhow, an interesting intent to bridge the gap between the Bible and the recent archeological findings would claim that that our ancestors were indeed wage earners, but they felt and treated as slaves… A modern interpretation for the Haggadah?

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