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Comment and Discussion on Central Planning in the Bronze Age  

In our earlier post, we suggest that the economic organization of Greek Bronze Age civilizations had many elements similar with what we today identify as central planning — centralized control of the economy for extraction and redistribution of resources.

William Parkinson and Gary Feinman from the The Field Museum in Chicago have sent this comment pointing to some recent, more nuanced interpretations. Here is their comment:

The study of ancient economies is evolving, bolstered by years of painstaking data collection by archaeologists and their collaborators. Archaeology yields key perspectives, providing kinds of information often unmentioned in textual sources. We agree that more-or-less centralized economic and political systems certainly existed in the past, many early states, which in the past were described as centralized, redistributive, economies, now are understood based on new empirical underpinnings to have been much more dynamic systems with characteristics of decentralized economies and even vibrant markets. One key reference is the synthetic review by M. E. Smith in 2004 Annual Review of Anthropology. While in another, G. M. Feinman and C. P. Garraty (in 2010 Annual Review of Anthropology) review the importance of ancient markets and their under-emphasis in traditional theoretical approaches.

In the case of the Aegean Late Bronze Age, for example, Mycenaean palaces were initially characterized as redistributive centers because the Linear B tablets originally translated by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick in the 1950s documented goods that were moving into and out of the palatial centers. As a result, for almost a generation after the decipherment of Linear B, Mycenaean palaces were characterized as powerful redistributive centers whose primary role was to extract labor and materials from the hinterland, and to support production and distribution of those specialized craft products.

Over the last decade the roles and relationships of Mycenaean palaces have been redefined significantly. Rather than being portrayed as centralized rulers that controlled nearly every aspect of the political economy, the Mycenaean palatial elite now are understood to have been very savvy statesmen who managed to gain some limited political benefits by directing very specific aspects of the palatial economy. This revisionist perspective depicts Mycenaean palaces not as omnipotent, highly centralized, redistributive centers, but as cogs in more delicate, networked, sociopolitical systems that were dependent on economic activities that they could not completely control.

Models of ancient Near Eastern temple economies, which previously also were described as centralized, redistributive, centers, have undergone similar modifications. Across the ocean, later prehispanic Mesoamerican economies are now seen as having been characterized by active market systems with flexible economic valuations, and broadly accepted currencies, albeit not coinage. Earlier theoretical perspectives that reflexively applied the centralized and command economy model to this region have largely been rejected as increasing bodies of evidence have revealed that most productive activities for exchange were implemented in domestic contexts and so would have been near impossible to control centrally.

Gary Feinman and William Parkinson certainly know more about this literature than we do. The more nuanced picture they suggest is likely a better summary of recent developments in the literature.

Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between absolute control of the governing institutions (e.g., the palace in the context of Greek Bronze Age civilizations), which certainly doesn’t need to be part of central planning (Soviet elites probably never had absolute control over their vast territories, even under Stalin), and central planning itself. Central planning involves the suppression of markets and price systems for the governing institutions and elites to better extract resources and politically and economically control society. The fact that the palace elites were “cogs in more delicate, networked, sociopolitical systems that were dependent on economic activities that they could not completely control” does not imply that there was no central planning.

The recent survey by John Bennett in the authoritative Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard Saller reiterates the view of Greek Bronze Age economy organized along central planning lines, partly based on classic work by T.J. Killen in Y. Duhoux and A. Morpurgo’s A Companion to Linear B: Mycenean Greek Texts and Their World. Bennett writes:

The major economic organization in Middle and Late Minoan Crete and Late Helladic mainland Greece was something we customarily call the “palace”. The presence of large-scale storage facilities for staples and craft products, together with spaces for rituals, evidence of bureaucratic control, and the Minoan palaces’s sheer size suggest strongly that they could extract what they wished and manage economic activity over quite large areas. (Page 188)

He continues:

[Finley] described the palatial economy as “a massive redistributive operation”…. while the Mycenaean economy clearly fits into this broad model, it covers a range of types of economic organization. Killian, in an authoritative overview, reinforces Finley’s points about the similarity with Near Eastern economies, but suggests that the nature of Mycenaean “redistribution” needs to be made more precise. A better term is “mobilization,” citing Earle’s definition: “the recruitment of goods and services for the benefit of a group not coterminous with the contributing members”. This better captures the way we now understand the selective nature of palatial interest — seeking to acquire commodities essential to the support and maintenance of the ruling elite — while reinforcing the essential point: the ability of the palatial economy to centralize control of those aspects of the economy it chose to manage. (Page 190)

So though the literature is evolving and though the control of the elite was certainly not absolute, the economic organization of Bronze Age Greek civilizations still appears to have many many parallels with central planning.


Why Africa lacked Centralized States – The Role of the Bronze Age

In a previous post we examined how the Greek Bronze Age was associated with the rise of city states and nascent urbanization. Many of these, such as Knossos, Mycenae, Pylos and Tiryns, are on every tourist schedule today with impressive ruins and ‘cyclopean walls’ (so called because they were so large that they could only have been built by the legendary Cyclops). Archaeologists have suggested a theory linking the use of bronze to political centralization. Copper and tin are both scarce and need to be traded, their supplies can be monopolized, and so can trade. This seems to have created both the incentive and the opportunity to concentrate power and develop urban centers, for example in Knossos in Crete which was the core of Minoan Greece. While the Greek Bronze Age cities were destroyed around 1200 BCE and some, like Mycenae, never re-emerged, many, such as Athens re-emerged on the same spot so the early centralization of the Bronze Age may have left a path dependent legacy.

Not every part of the world experienced a Bronze Age, however. Though some parts of Africa, like Benin, are now famous for their bronze work, in general Sub-Saharan Africa jumped right into the Iron Age without ever passing through this intermediate stage.

In contrast to copper and tin, iron is very widely spread as the great archaeologist Gordon Childe put it “cheap iron democratized agriculture and industry and warfare too”. So the jump to Iron Age technology may have impeded the development of states in Africa by making it more difficult for elite to concentrate and monopolize power. Africa never experienced the nascent period of political centralization that Europe did during the Bronze Age, perhaps also with a path dependent legacy.


Why Central Planning?

In the last two posts (here and here) we have discussed examples of societies which practiced central planning but without any of the ideological trappings that supposedly created Soviet central panning. But if central planning was not something just created by Marxist ideology, where does the idea come from? The fact that it appeared independently during many different time periods and in quite different societies suggests that central planning is a solution to a well-defined economic or political problem . But what problem?

To see what this problem might be, let’s return to the creation of central planning in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. A significant part of this was the decision to collectivize agriculture and move all peasants into a system of state controlled collective farms. Though this might be interpreted as an ideological decision, another way of seeing it is that Stalin did this in order to more effectively tax and control the peasantry — that is, more effectively for Stalin and the elite controlling the Soviet state, but of course disastrously for the peasants themselves. The peasants produced a lot less in a collectivized farm, but the Soviet state got a bigger share of the smaller pie and a larger amount in absolute.

Essentially central planning is not about the efficient allocation of economic resources, it is about control.

Central planning maximizes the extent of control that the state, and the people running the state, exercise. The desire to control others is a constant in history and is part and parcel of the construction of states. If the state can grab all the land and resources and control who and on what terms people get access to them, then this maximizes control, even if it sacrifices economic efficiency.

This sort of economic and political control — not Marxist ideology — is what central planning is all about. This is not to deny that Marxist ideology supported and legitimized central planning in several 20th-century societies. But it is to emphasize that the emergence and persistence of central planning is often a solution to the central economic and political problem of many elites: to control and extract resources from society.


Central Planning in History – Tawantinsuyu  

In our last blog post we explained how the great societies of the Greek Bronze Age used central planning to organize their economies. Archaeologists don’t call this central planning but rather, following Polanyi (see his article “The Economy as an Instituted Process” in Trade and Markets in Early Empires), redistributive states, but it boils down to the same thing.

These societies were not alone in world history, and central planning was independently invented many times over, for example by the Incas (actually the Incas was the name of the ruling class of the empire of Tawantinsuyu – meaning the four regions) as they built their huge empire in modern Andean South America. The Incas had no money or writing but the state conducted decennial censuses. They built around 25,000 miles of roads, had a system of runners for sending messages and collecting information. They also recorded vast amounts of information of knotted strings called quipus, most of which cannot be read today.

In the Inca Empire, all the land was the Inca’s and large parts were allocated to the Temple of the Sun and other religious cults, others to the army, and yet others to the Crown. The rest which the state did not claim was granted to local communities for their subsistence production. The state lands, distributed throughout the empire, were then worked for free by the local people using various forms of corvée labor. Local people also had to weave llama wool given to them for this purpose by the state.

There seems to have been little or no market exchange but instead the state moved people into different areas where different crops could be grown, the so-called archipelago economy, and then distributed the goods by fiat. For example, Inca administrators who supervised the farming of crown lands would arrange for some of the goods to be moved to Cuzco or other regional capitals, while another part would be stored locally in warehouses. This system, vividly described by the anthropologist John Murra in his book The Economic Organization of the Inka State was a vast system of central planning developed without the aid of Das Kapital or indeed Eurasian role models.

It seems that like farming or democracy, central planning was independently invented many times over in world history. As Murra put it (page 121):

The Inca state functioned like a market: it absorbed the surplus production of a self-sufficient population and “exchanged” it by feeding the royals, the army and those on corvée as well as by issuing a lot of it as grants or benefactions.


Central Planning in History – The Greek Bronze Age

The idea that the central planning of the economy in the Soviet Union was driven by ideology seems compelling and obviously true. But it isn’t that simple actually.

For one thing, it turns out that centrally planning the economy was not something rare or anomalous in history. Actually, it was quite common. So central planning in itself has nothing whatsoever to do with Marxism.

To see what might have driven central planning as a way to organize the economy, let’s consider some famous historical examples of central planning. One of the best documented and agreed on occurs during the Greek Bronze Age.

Around 3200 BCE there was the start of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Though this terminology refers to the use of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) which replaced stone for tools and weapons, there was a whole series of correlated technological, social and political changes. In particular the Bronze Age was associated with increased political centralization and the formation of states throughout the Mediterranean basin.

How did the economy of the Greek Bronze Age states work? These states were based on a city where the political elite lived. We have a unique record of the activities of these polities because many clay ‘Linear B’ tablets written by state administrators have survived. Fascinatingly, these tablets have only survived from the period right before these states were destroyed in conflicts (think Troy…). The palaces were burned down, we don’t really know by who (the Sea People?), and the fire baked and preserved the clay. The tablets basically are state records of taxation and industrial production. There was no money and apparently no markets. As the Cambridge archaeologist T.J. Killen points out in his review article in Y. Duhoux and A. Morpurgo Davies’s volume A Companion to Linear B: Mycenean Greek Texts and Their World, only four or maybe five of the existing Linear B tablets ever use the word ‘bought’ and always in the context of slaves. 

The state seems to have taxed agricultural output, though we do not know to what extent they directly owned land. They seem to have controlled nearly all industrial production, for instance of textiles, ceramics, tools and weapons. They monopolized trade, and Killen characterizes trade as a type of reciprocal gift-exchange. This was useful probably because Knossos, for example, one of the best studied of the bronze age states, had neither copper nor tin locally and thus had to import them from outside via this type of exchange.

Since there was no money, the state basically moved around all of the goods itself by fiat. It supplied food and inputs to weavers and then took their output. It stored large amounts of food and goods in the palace complex.

As Killen puts it: 

the key role in the movement of goods and the employment of labour was played, not by a market or money, but by a central redistributive agency… in the Mycenaean world, by a central palace.

Killen concludes:

this was a redistributive (or command) economy.