In our last two blog posts (here and here) we discussed Jared Diamond’s thesis about world inequality and the Neolithic Revolution. In emphasizing the primacy of technology and its defining impact on institutions, Diamond is in fact following a great line of thinkers.
Perhaps the most famous version of the argument that technology shapes institutions is advanced by Karl Marx, who stated:
The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.
Alas, Marx was largely wrong about feudalism.
As the French historian of the feudal world Marc Bloch pointed out in his book Land and Work in Medieval Europe, milling by hand went back a long way. Nobody quite knows exactly when the handmill started being used, but it was certainly many centuries before feudalism. (We know that the first dated watermill was in 18 BC at Cabrira in an old palace of Kind Mithridates of Pontus, in modern Turkey).
Bloch writes on the handmill (page 143):
It was in fact the first machine whose use seemed capable of ameliorating the lives of countless numbers of human beings. The astonishing thing is that, having it at their disposal, they were so slow at bringing it into general use.
The handmill did not cause feudalism, quite the contrary. Bloch noted (pages 152-153):
From the 10th century onwards, however, a profound change took place in the economic and legal framework of rural life. Using their power of command – which was called the `ban’ — and fortified by the right to deal out justice … the lords … succeeded in setting up certain monopolies very much to their own advantage, monopolies concerning the use of the baking oven, the wine press, the breeding boar or bull, the sale of wine and beer … monopolies in the supply of horses for treading of corn … and lastly … a monopoly over the mill… From this point onwards the lord’s mill was the only one where tenants of land on which it was erected were allowed to grind their corn.
With lords in charge of the watermills, they then systematically suppressed and broke up handmills.
So contrary to Marx’s claim, it wasn’t technology driving the political organization of society, but the political organization and institutions of society determining what technology could be used.