"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 )

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Post Passover Thoughts - Does it matter who built the Pyramids ?

The Jewish Passover ceremony (by far my favorite ) has one and sole purpose: To retell and transmit the story of the Exodus of the People of Israel from Egypt that took place some 3000 years ago. The ancient sages defined that principle from the very beginning of the Haggadah ( the "textbook" of the ceremony) in the following way:  

“Even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus from Egypt; and everyone who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy”. ( From the Haggadah)

Many people understand the above principle mainly through its culinary aspect, with a special emphasis on “The more, the better”...  generally turning the celebration into a mere and succulent  feast accompanied with a robotic manual called "Haggadah" ...a sort of  "Read and Eat". However, I personally understand my ancestors´ advice as a challenge, an invitation to an active reflection beyond the traditional texts. Therefore , even a modest post with a modern political economic flavor should deserve to be seen as part of the “Seder”.

And now, to the content ( developed from a post I wrote two years ago)  

Some two years ago, the press announced a surprising archaeological discovery in Egypt: Under the surface and nearby the famous Giza Pyramids archaeologists discovered a few graves which contained the rests of  people which ,apparently, took part in the process of building the local pyramids (app. 2400 BCE).

“….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). Source : “Egypt tombs suggest free men built pyramids, not slaves” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8451538.stm January 2010

I am not archaeologist, but common sense should tell us that deriving important conclusions about ancient labor relationships from just a few graves is a bit too early. For example , isn´t it possible that out of the millions slaves involved in the construction of the monuments, a few “lottery winners”,were allowed to enjoy an eternal life close to the royalty?. Who knows ? 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 that spent 30 years of their lives (Herodotus) carving, shipping and piling millions of heavy stones underneath the Egyptian burning sun is a secondary issue. Any dispute concerning the legal status of the builders cannot hide the pervert and twisted nature of the Pyramids (you can call it Cathedrals, Palaces, Coliseums, Temples etc.) , i.e. the waste of human work and lives for useless ends.

First, let´s see the figures to get an idea: The Giza Pyramid is a 2.5 million block pile (2.5 ton/block) which required the physical work of 10,000 people (Herodotus wrote 100,000) for 30 years. ...just for one Pyramid ….and remember that the Egyptian soil is covered with Pyramids, Tombs, Temples, etc.

That army of workers had to be fed; someone had to supply cloth , tools, infrastructure and other means, and all of it in exchange for nothing : In the economic sense of the word, the Pyramids lack from any intrinsic value. The only possible source for food and materials for the huge army of workers was the surplus the Nile valley originated beyond subsistence which was funneled through coercive means mixed with a good dose of religion and property rights) to the mouths of the workers/slaves.

If Egypt could generate such enormous surplus, why wasn´t it applied  in “real” and useful ends? For example,  improving the infrastructure of the country, modernizing its irrigation system.….or alternatively, why not to finance the development of science ? Or upgrading the medical services for a population whose life expectancy was about 35 for men and 30 for women, a society that reaching adulthood was a challenge by itself as one-third of the kids just couldn´t make it and died in infancy? And don´t tell me they couldn´t do it : If they were able to develop amazing mummification techniques, they could probably improve  the overall state of medicine. All those bothering questions make me define the pyramids construction as a “perversion”.

Are the perversions of the ancient Egypt still among us? The British economist Lord Keynes in his "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... (people claim that Keynes was in favor of pyramids....) and deeply sarcastic comment is trying to tell us that pyramids (or wars…) become “solutions” to unemployment when the rulers are dumb enough to stick into their education or "Classical Economics " pack instead of an open mindedness Lord Keynes advocated for. With all the humility, I would like to remind to our readers that ancient Egyptians were not very familiar with “Classical Economics”, and Eaton is  a modern British institution, not an Egyptian one …. Therefore the common denominator between “Now and Then” should be looked after in a different place than just education or economy.

So, my conclusion is that the “real thing that stands in the way of anything better” is simple as the raison d'etre of any ruling class: to maintain, the RELATIVE distribution of incomes, wealth and power. Lord Keynes may have told us us in a  subtle and British way that it´s all about power (and I add exploitation), not only an education obstacle. For example to regard “war” or "earthquake" as a way to increase “wealth” sounds like a bad joke unless you interpret it in the ruling class way: The misery of a whole society (war = destruction) is a mean to increase Wealth of the few ( and in the case of the Pyramids also to symbolize the rule of the few over the rest).

If we understand that in the broader way,Pyramids had the same task as Wars or Earthquakes : the tool and the symbol which transmits a clear message toward the rest of  mortals: You are here, in this world, only to serve , fight or die for us. Therefore, it really doesn´t matter if the workers were forced as “slaves” or as “free workers” to take part in the perversion called Pyramids. They just sweat for the eternal lives of the others.  

True, Pharaohs´ pretensions were radically perverse since they had in mind  not only to maintain his superior status among his contemporaries but also to preserve his status forever ( and the evidence is that we are dealing with a monument built 3000 years ago.... ) . However, since the principles of classical “pyramidal economics” are still among us, I can easily find a lot of “Modern Pyramids” – beginning with Cathedrals, Armies, Brands, Luxury products, the celebrity industry etc… all of them function as a mean to soak the surplus but also to create the symbols of the superiority of a minority .The choice, as Keynes pointed , between "Wars, Earthquakes or Pyramids " and " Anything better " is still, on my humble opinion, very relevant for our modern times, regardless the nominal status of our working force, call it "Slaves", "Wage Workers" or whatever.

A final comment or the opening of a new debate . According to the biblical sources,

"And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour." ( Exodus 1 :13)  

As you can notice, that literal phrase ( Sorry , I am not familiar with the exegesis) that does not indicate the legal status of the working force. Therefore it could fit into the recent archaeological findings . Eureka?
Alternatively , Perhaps , the legal status of the workers was not very important in the eyes of the ancient "worker/slaves"?  (as a matter of fact, Moses did not demand from Pharaoh to end slavery but to leave country .....  and in the beginning he just asks for 3 days of vacations.... )

Perhaps, these humble and  poor ancestors  understood with their intuition that the line between ”Slavery” and “Free Worker” is blurrier than we, the sophisticated modern citizens tend to think?

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