Category: Economics


Des Johnston

When we read about historical events in a particular place or time, we can miss out on the fact that they may be linked up with events evn thousands of kilometres away during roughly the same period. If we do spot something like this we may be inclined to dismiss it at coincidence, rather than cause and effect, perhaps arising from happenings in another area of the world over roughly the same period.

When there is a large time-gap between events, we may think of “coincidence” or other factors.  When they occur reasonably close together in Time, even though widely separated in Space, it may well pay to look for links – perhaps via events in yet another place. In the 19th. century Napoleon invaded Russia with disastrous  consequences. In the 20th. century Hitler invaded Russia with similar results. We can dismiss “cause and effect” in favour of other factors such…

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Today’s World – is it all That Different?



History, they tell us, is about the past. But the study of history shows an oft-repeated cycle of events. Since human beings have not changed over thousands of years, they have reacted time after time in the same way to events as we do today. The emphasis in the teaching of history in schools and universities has always tended to be on political history (monarchs, wars, treaties, laws) and has perhaps made us forget that history is about people like ourselves, trying desperately to get on with their lives in spite of what their rulers, neighbours, the climate, etc etc may throw at them.


Today’s world, at least for most of us, is an urbanised, industrialised one, with a sophisticated governmental, social, economic, legal, and educational system. We tend to forget that when the first urban civilisations developed in the Middle East over 5000 years ago they too had to develop systems parallel to our own in order to survive. They experienced the need to have adequate food, clothing and shelter, to plan their environment, to evolve a legal code which enabled society to run efficiently. They were concerned not just with survival but with “getting on” in the world. They deplored the lack of discipline and respect in the “younger generation”. They despaired of the lack of interest in education in the young. They rejected malign “foreign” influence on their lifestyle. As states grew wealthy the “haves” competed with one another for bigger, better, and more beautiful possessions. The “have-nots” either strove to emulate their better-off neighbours or expressed their anger and resentment at those who had done better for themselves. Social classes evolved, usually based on wealth, privilege, birth, and ownership of property, (traditionally land).

Wars took place — sometimes through sheer “need” — at other times through sheer “greed”. Prosperity brought with it all sorts of problems — not least such questions as “who inherits your property after you’re gone?” I.e. — what happens to the share of the children of the original marriage if the mother dies and the father remarries, producing more children? (Pliny’s Letters Ist. Cent. AD).


Modern states have for the most part only just solved, over the last 150 years, the age-old problem of the fact that ownership of land gave one a higher status in society than ownership of, for example, a business. The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries has put status firmly in the ownership of business, money, and property generally . But has this “solution” made us any happier? Is the power conferred by economic status much different from that once obtained from land? Just how “democratic” is our system today, where on paper in most places everyone has equal rights?


Our ancestors spoke strange languages, wore funny clothes, did not have our present means of transport, communicated by speech and writing without electronic assistance. Yet they faced and tackled the same issues as ourselves in a parallel environment. Intricately carved ornaments and cave paintings of 40,000 years ago show manual and artistic skills even in the less sophisticated societies of that time.


We tend to regard present-day issues, whether personal, national, or international as unique to our current time and situation. This is only natural — and yet the same situations have been affecting people and society for thousands of years. Perhaps it should make us more optimistic when we realise that the human race has survived all this time in spite of such recurrent problem situations. On the other hand some folk may feel depressed that mankind has not yet solved such problems and driven them away for all time — “Will we never learn?”


A few points are worth bearing in mind. The first is that human intelligence over the last, for example, 10,000 years has not changed. Whether a culture is or was more sophisticated or less sophisticated has no relation to the IQ of its members. The second is that human society evolving from the basic family situation shares common elements equally with the early hunter-gatherers and with today’s urban dwellers. Concepts of acceptable behaviour and of right and wrong are permanently and universally valid. Thirdly, human personality, psychology — call it what you will — has remained unchanged for thousands of years.


Many things have changed over the millennia — government in particular has evolved from the tribal assembly to that of the city state, through the nation state, to that of the international community (European Community). But what we tend to forget is that our generation didn’t invent the city, the nation, or even the “empire”. The process of urbanisation began between 4000 and 3000 BC – possibly in Iraq (Mesopotamia), the Indus Valley (north-west India), Iran (Persia), and Egypt. As these areas developed cities they evolved written, legal, government, economic, and religious systems on a par with our own. They handled diplomatic relations, international trade, war, employment, price and quality control, town planning, building standards (to name but a few), on a daily basis. Such areas as religion, recreation and social welfare were all catered for.


From 2000 BC this more sophisticated lifestyle began to spread to the fringes of Europe, with Cretan, Phoenician and Anatolian (Turkish)  cultures creating “modern” systems and in particular international trade. By 700 BC in Greece urban areas (city states) began to grow, with a prosperity based on the manufacture and exchange of agricultural and other products. These cities were independent of each other and each set up colonies (mirror images of itself) all around the Mediterranean Sea. These cities — in particular Athens — began to gain a reputation for philosophy, literature, and above all experiments in government (democracy).


It is not always appreciated however that the “classical” Greeks in the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle etc.  went for their tertiary education to Egypt — providing a link between the early Middle Eastern cultures and Western Europe. (Links between the Cretan culture of 2000 BC and Egypt were strong and Crete influenced Mycenae and Greece).


In the centre of Italy the town of Rome began to expand from around 300 BC, over the centuries taking over Italy, Greece, North Africa, West Asia, and a great part of Western Europe (excluding Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia). This Roman culture produced an international language (Latin) which is still the basis of many European tongues, a legal system on which much modern European law is based, a government system which has been adapted right up to modern times. Many Roman concepts and ideas in themselves were borrowed from Greece.


One point about these cultures over the past 6000 years is that they faced the same problems as we do today. Since they had evolved writing systems we can follow their recognition of these issues which we are still coping with today and their attempts to solve them. Surviving written material is more limited from Egypt and Mesopotamia, much less limited from Greece and Rome. (Even there a vast amount of material was lost during the Dark Ages after Rome fell). Because of the greater amount of source materials is from Greek and Roman  sources we tend to make the mistake of thinking that their civilization was in some way on a higher plane than older cultures such as Sumeria.

Nor should we think that urban cultures parallel to our own represent a higher level of intelligence. For example the Celtic tribes of the Upper Danube and Alpine areas had a more rural-based culture which in intellectual achievement was on a par with their neighbours and contemporaries in Greece and Rome. Although literate, they preferred to learn by heart, and to learn through live discussion and argument, rather than via books. This indicates to us that we will probably never learn the real capacity of cultures such as that of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey around 8000 BC. We tend to judge a culture by the amount and quality of three-dimensional material remains it leaves behind. Perhaps the fact that the science of archaeology evolved in the materialistic Victorian Era has a lot to answer for!

Des Johnston.







In the last two posts we have looked at such questions as rulers changing religious (not to mention political and philosophical) beliefs of their people, and the question of national sovereignty as opposed to perceived national interests. We have used two examples over 3000 years apart – Akhenaten  of Egypt and Henry VIII of England. We have looked at the beginnings of an international organization to maintain peace and hopefully enable nations to settle differences as represented by the Western Christian Church, based on Rome, from mediaeval times onwards.

This early organization had its weaknesses. For example it could encourage member states to combine together to make war on a defaulting member or an outsider – not the best if we regard world peace as a Christian ideal. (Crusades). Again, it represented only a proportion of the nations which were within the orbit of the Western European community. Middle Eastern countries  and the Byzantine Empire could never be part of the set-up.

However it was a great step forward compared with early history when a powerful nation could create an empire and keep a number of nations in subjection – no question of consultation around the table! Ancient Egypt and later Persia created their areas of influence without the need to refer to an international body, so the Western Christian Church was a big step forward in international affairs. After Spain and Portugal had made their voyages to Central and South America each felt that the world was literally “its oyster”. There was huge potential for conflict between the two, which would have involved other nations as well. Papal intervention ensured that a line could be drawn dividing the huge new tracts of the world now in dispute peacefully between the disputing parties.

Philosophers/Idealists did explore the concept of “world” cooperation and world government from early times. In practical terms it was always regarded as requiring the sacrifice of too much national sovereignty. Every nation could envisage a situation where it might have to sacrifice too much of its independence in the general interest. However there were occasions where cooperation in matters of international trade made it possible to avoid a common cause of war. Even disputes over territory could be settled from time to time by nations meeting together.

The period from the 16th. to the 20th. century had seen the encroachment of Western Europe into all the Continents. Wars of conquest, and wars between would-be conquerors, were frequent and costly. The culmination of all this was the bloodbath of 1914-1918, the First World War – dubbed by some as “The War to End All Wars”. (Interestingly it was also described as “The Great War For Civilization” – did they really believe that?) As a consequence the League of Nations was set up. Sadly The League has been condemned as a failure – but it was a colossal advance in world thinking. It did not stop war. It was condemned for” having no teeth” which sounds an unfair comment on a peaceful body. But a key issue relevant to our discussion was that it must infringe too much on some members’ policies, notably those of the “great dictators”, who found resignation the appropriate answer.

The next attempt at following on from the two earlier international bodies was the United Nations after the Second World War. Again similar problems emerged in countries being frustrated when their policies were called into question. Again, a problem was its location in the USA, the most powerful participant in the War. A location in somewhere neutral and small – as had happened with the League – might have been more easy to accept. As so often sovereignty rears its head, and nations see resignation from the general body as the only solution.

We mentioned earlier the occasional coming-together of nations involved in mutual trade and commerce voluntarily agreeing in policy for their mutual advantage. Three tiny nations, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxemburg formed the Benelux group after the War. The European Coal and Steel Community was formed around the same period for the general good.

Out of all this emerged the Common Market concept, and the European Community. The Vatican , Geneva, New York were succeeded by Brussels (perhaps as a tribute to Benelux origins?) Regulations governing trade, manufacture etc., etc., became perhaps bureaucracy for its own sake in the eyes of many. The concept of breeding a “straight banana”, creation of “lakes” of unwanted milk and butter mountains etc. in a starving world did not appeal to all. Paying farmers not to grow food or to destroy their crops seemed strange to many. No doubt much good was done , but it is always the crazy stuff which makes an impact on “the man in the street”. And it is he who in a democracy has the vote.

One very interesting and hopeful aspect of the European Community was the European Parliament. The concept of moving from cooperation in  trade, commerce, manufacture into the political scene was a great step forward. But how did England feel about it all? One indication all along was that England retained the Pound Sterling and did not adopt the Euro. Henry VIII must have been cheering on the sidelines. That was a warning sign that perhaps was ignored – it indicated only conditional support of the project. Again we are faced with an island’s sovereignty, and with a stubborn independence. Western Europe under the unifying influence of the Church, under Napoleon, Hitler, and the European Community is used to a “group concept” – England is not. Confused? Join the club! A Happy Hallowe’en to all.

I Resign!

Such appeared to be the call from the people of England (as opposed to “Britain”) a few weeks ago. Now that the dust is at least partly settling it is a good time to look at things in a historical context.

First of all, did the English people really make that decision? Britain is, they say, a parliamentary democracy. But here we are reminded of the words of the French political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in the mid 1700’s  -” democracy is  dictatorship by the majority”. OK if, as some would have us believe, the majority is always right. But is it?

What do we mean by the majority? That is a very valid question in this case. The “majority” was small. We are told that the younger generation who would have supported maintaining the European connection didn’t for the most part turn out to vote! So where does that leave us? Again, something that surprises me is that it went on a 50/50 system. I would have thought that such plebiscites usually went on a two-thirds majority to prevent the sort of situation mentioned above.

Historically how does the vote measure up? Britain is an island, and islands historically claim the right to go it alone, manage their own affairs, pull up the drawbridge on foreign interference. Perhaps the larger half of Britain represented by England has a long and deep-rooted desire for independence and a suspicion of foreigners. I am minded of a poem by the Roman poet Horace almost 2000 years ago where he prays that heaven will protect the Emperor Augustus on his visit to the “Stranger-hating Britons”.    Such long-standing traditions must be hard to break – and let us stop blaming the Anglo-Saxons who didn’t appear until much later!

Scotland, a virtual “peninsula” of England, has historically much stronger ties with the Continent, going back over centuries. Ireland also, an isolated island, likewise has long-standing European connections. It is possible that both Scotland and Ireland have regarded certain European countries as potential allies against their larger neighbor. England on the other hand has over the centuries cause to  regard European countries, particularly from the south and east, as enemies (EG Scandinavia, Holland, France, Spain).

To look at a specific example of this we have only to consider the case of Henry VIII. Henry, in common with other European monarchs, had cause to resent an international system where hostile alliances could be made against them through link between the Pope of the day and other states. Far too much has been made of “religion” in looking at

Henry’s break with Rome. What we see here is an international situation where England’s independence and right to manage its own affairs was under threat.

An island nation has the advantage, given a strong navy, of being able to follow its own destiny without the constant apprehension of attack from a land-neighbor.  Ithas the disadvantage of losing cultural and other contact with the rest of the world. When exposed to outside influences suspicion can set in and a phobia may even develop.

The Romans went through this phase as their Empire developed. Juvenal and other writers condemned the decline in traditional Roman standards brought in by Greeks and other  races from  the east. Sounds familiar?

A factor which may have played some part in the vote would be the growing “Middle Eastern” presence. Probably the last time this happened was around 5000 BC when the first farmers arrived among the hunter-gatherer inhabitants of Britain , coming also from “Middle Eastern” countries. Emigration and resulting tensions never stop, do they? Did they have a brexit vote then? Can’t take the word brexit seriously – still sounds like a new breakfast cereal!