Sunday, June 17, 2012

Cats, Slaves and Jefferson's Dream

Raising cats all these years, I've noticed something interesting about their behavior.

House-cats (common felis domesticus) are not really solitary creatures; they do have forms of society. In Nature, normally each adult individual will go out and establish a personal territory -- a hunting-ground, sufficient to feed him/herself, which also contains a safe den and its immediate den-yard. This is remarkably similar to a human's ranch or farm, farm/ranch-house, and farm-yard. The territories are normally staggered between the male's and the female's; that is, one female's territory will overlap those of two to four males, and vice-versa. This gives each female a good selection of males at mating-time, and the same for the males. The cats will then treat each other with a noticeable social equality. It's a neat, workable system.

However, when there's a large, reliable and centralized food-source -- such as a human with several bowls and lots of cat-food -- cats will form a different sort of society. When forced, by the food-supply, into this sort of communal society, the animals will form social hierarchies -- complete with the politics thereof. The males will form a hierarchy that depends on which tomcat can beat up all the others, and which tom-cat can beat up the next-biggest number of others, and so on. The females will form a more complicated hierarchy, one that depends not only on which female can beat up the others, but also on which female is pregnant or nursing; a nursing female automatically goes to the top of the hierarchy, with the toughest female taking second place, and so on. I've noticed that the hierarchy becomes obvious when the food is spread out for the group. The other cats will hang back until the top cat comes up, takes at least one ritual bite of the food, pronounces it good, and then withdraws -- whereupon the other cats will line up at the food-dish in order of rank. If the top-cat pronounces the food "not good" -- usually by taking a bite or sniff, then backing off and kicking dirt over it -- then the other cats won't touch it. Again, we can see similarities here to human societies.

In short, where each individual has his/her own territory that can provide for his/her survival, there is social equality. Where a population is dependent on a central food-source/territory, hierarchies (and politics) form.

No less a philosopher than Thomas Jefferson noticed something similar among human societies of his day, and remarked on it in his various writings. This is why, as President, he sent Lewis and Clark off to explore the "wilderness" in hopes of finding lots of potential farmland. This is also why he passed the Homesteading Act. His dream was to create a society where every individual had his/her own "territory" -- enough land to support his/her own family on his/her own labor, without dependence on somebody else. In his day there was enough unoccupied land that, he assumed, Americans would always have home-territories and be independent; all Americans would be "yeomen", and there would be no aristocracy -- and, hopefully, no more slaves. That was Jefferson's dream, and he tried hard to make it work.

It did work, after a fashion, for about a century. Then (once slavery was abolished, causing a shortage of cheap labor), wide-open (and encouraged) immigration, improved medicine that severely reduced infant mortality, and a social penchant for large numbers of children caused a population boom that nobody at the time could have foreseen. That's why today we have a national population of at least (the Census Department will freely tell you that they miss roughly 15%) 310 million, which is straining our natural and social resources.

That's why today most of our population is piled up in large cities, living in rental housing, owning no land, dependent on jobs provided by other people, and arranged in social hierarchies varying from the infamous 1% Super-Rich down to the desperately poor -- whose labor is about as cheap as that of slaves. I don't think this happened entirely by accident. There always were people who wanted to be aristocrats, and who hated Jefferson's Dream.

There have always been people who hate cats, too.

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(


TJIC said...

Great post, but I quibble with this:

> once slavery was abolished, causing a shortage of cheap labor

Given that importation of new slaves ended in 1808, as prescribed in the Constitution, the quantity of slaves was more or less fixed (barring smuggling and reproduction), and the prices quickly rose to clearing, meaning that the price of slaves were bid up to the point where an employer should be ambivalent between buying a slave or hiring free labor.

In fact, even before 1808, slaves were quite pricey. I've even read some arguments that they were bid up to a point where they cost more than they were worth in purely economic terms, as ownership also had strong social effects, signally status.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, TJ. Actually, there was quite a sufficient increase in slaves due to natural reproduction (not to mention the masters often making free with the female slaves). The price of slaves actually dropped after 1808 -- in the United States, at least.

What made slavery less economical than free labor was the Irish Potato Famine, which brought a couple million starving and desperate Irishmen to America, all willing to work for whatever wages would buy them food. From 1847 onward, it was cheaper to hire an Irishman for 10 cents a week, work him to death, bury him in a 50-cent coffin and hire another Irishman, than it was to maintain a slave 24/7, 365 days a year, whether he was working or not. By 1860 only 10% of all Southerners owned any slaves at all, and 9% of those owned just six slaves or less: a cook, a groom, a maid, a gardener, a seamstress and a butler. Only about 1% of southerners were plantation owners with large numbers of agricultural-working slaves. Nothing but the arrogance of that 1% made slavery an important issue, and the Civil War necessary. But for them, pure economics would have brought slavery to a natural end.

After the Civil War (with Ireland producing sufficient food again, plenty of new lands opened for settlement in the western states, and some half-a-million working-age adults killed in the war), yes, there was a shortage of cheap labor. Ironically, the pinch was felt most in the northern industrial cities -- which is why 'twas northern Captains of Industry who sent out agents to Europe and Asia, urging poor folks to come to America "where the streets are paved with gold". That's what caused the big surge of immigration in the late 19th century, with all it's subsequent effects.

Aya Katz said...

Leslie, I agree that a centralized food source leads to social stratification, including but not limited to slavery. But I think you give Thomas Jefferson too much credit.

Leaving aside the fact that Jefferson did not free his own slaves and was himself an "aristocrat", it was completely foreseeable that eventually there would be less land per capita after homesteading was set up, instead of hunting and gathering, Native American style. After all that's what happened in Europe, that's what happened in Asia, and that's what happened everywhere, once a hunter gatherer lifestyle was abandoned for one the included agriculture.

It's agriculture that leads to slavery.

Here's an article I wrote about that:

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Aya. Actually, Jefferson did free his slaves -- as soon as he legally could. Before the Revolution, a slave-owner in Virginia could not free his slaves at his own discretion, but had to get permission from the colonial government. After the Revolution, despite Jefferson's efforts otherwise, a slave-owner was allowed to free his slaves only after presenting proof that the freedmen would "not be burden to the community" -- in other words, that they had either land or marketable skills and could set themselves up as independent farmers or small businessmen. Jefferson was obliged to train his slaves at skilled trades, sometimes for years, before he could legally free them. Jefferson did eventually free his slaves, which cost him personally to the point where he could no longer maintain his beloved Monticello and had to move in with his children. The man really was dedicated to ending slavery.

As for agriculture causing slavery, historically it ain't so. Plenty of Indian tribes, who lived entirely by hunting and gathering, kept slaves to do the heavy work -- like skinning, scraping and tanning hides, and so on. On the other paw, the Aborigines of northern Australia had agriculture of a unique sort, and never had slaves. Likewise, the small independent farmers of the American free states were quite proud of the fact that they could survive on their home acres without ever using slaves. Agriculture will support a larger population than hunting/gathering, but it has no causal relationship with slavery.

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Aya Katz said...

Leslie, I don't happen to have biography of Jefferson on me right now, but it's not as if I have never read one. As I recall, at the time of his death, Jefferson owned quite a number of slaves, some of whom were his own children. He did not free them prior to his death.

According to the wikipedia: "Though born into a wealthy slave-owning family, Jefferson had many financial problems, and died deeply in debt. He gave instructions for disposal of his assets in his Will, and after his death, his possessions (including 130 persons he held as slaves) were sold off in public auctions starting in 1827.[143] Monticello was sold in 1831."

Strictly speaking it is not agricluture, but the existence of a food surplus, that leads to social stratification, including slavery. Without a food surplus, while alphas can bully those lower in pecking order, everybody has to work to support himself.

It's only when you are rich enough to feed your slaves or employees that you can afford to make them work exclusively for you, and then see to it that they are fed, despite not having had the time to hunt or gather or grow food of their own.

In bee societies the surplus is stored in the form of honey. In human societies, it is stored as kine, grain or money.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Aya. IIRC, Jefferson had a prolonged relationship with Sally Hemmings, and kept her as a slave primarily because -- the miscegenation laws of Virginia being what they were -- that was the closest thing to marriage that he could legally have with her (which tells you something about the institution of marriage!). He did, however, free her children when they reached the age of 25. He didn't manage to free all his slaves before he died, primarily because he couldn't afford to. He still owned 130 slaves when he died, but he'd started with close to 300.

As for food (or other) surpluses, that doesn't guarantee any particular behavior. Even without surpluses, there are societies that create artificial stratification. There were a couple of Indian tribes who kept slaves in prosperous times, and in hungry times... ate them. Right now, 'tis some of the most prosperous societies (US, Australia, the Scandinavian countries) which have the least -- and most permeable -- social stratification. On the other paw, there are also wealthy societies that have absolutely feudal stratification. Saudi Arabia, for instance, still practices (covertly, but widespread) slavery. Wealth (from food on up) is like any other tool -- neutral by itself; 'tis how the tool is used that makes all the difference. The usage depends on the psychology of the individual, or the society, that has access to the tool.

Aya Katz said...

I read it was his white daughter who set Sally's children free after his death. About the state of marriage being akin to slavery, gotta agree.

You misunderstood what I said about a food surplus. If they ate the slaves when they had no surplus, then it confirms what I said: no surplus, no slaves. You just can't afford to keep them unless you can feed them. (The same is true of pets.)

Yes, there are pecking orders in every tribe, but a slave is someone who serves you full time. This is physically impossible, unless you have a surplus to feed him with. Otherwise, he's bound to be on his own getting his own food. (Or getting eaten. ;->)

Leslie Fish said...

Ah, but what I noticed about the cats is that when there's a centralized food-source (and no food elsewhere), so that the animals can't establish separate territories, then you get politics and pecking-orders. To get an egalitarian society, you need to arrange things so that every individual has his/her own territory that's capable of supporting him/her.

Jefferson had a sense of that, and tried to arrange it for his fellow citizens -- even if he couldn't follow it very well in his own life. His daughter was following his instructions, and had the resources to do it.

Aya Katz said...

The centralized food source you're talking about _is_ the surplus.
It's not just centralized, it can be had without effort.

Eliminate the surplus and you eliminate centralization.

Leslie Fish said...

Hmmm, no, I've seen this happen where the centralized food-source was the only reliable food-source around. When your food-source is adequate or even abundant, but spread out, you get the egalitarian system. The best place to see a really nasty hierarchy is where there's only one food-source -- and it's inadequate. That's when you see the society stratifying like crazy, and the guys on the bottom rung getting starved -- or eaten.