Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How Relocalization Worked

One of the points that I’ve tried to make repeatedly in these essays is the place of history as a guide to what works. It’s a point that deserves repetition. A good many worldsaving plans now in circulation, however new the rhetoric that surrounds them, simply rehash proposals that were tried in the past and failed repeatedly; trying them yet again may thus not be the best use of our limited resources and time.

Of course there’s another side to history that’s more hopeful: something that worked well in the past can be a useful guide to what might work well in the future. I’d like to spend a little time discussing one example of this, partly because it ties into the theme of the current series of posts – the abject failure of current economic notions, and the options for replacing them with ideas that actually make sense – and partly because it addresses one of the more popular topics in the ongoing peak oil discussion, the need for economic relocalization as the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end.

That relocalization needs to happen, and will happen, is clear. Among other things, it’s clear from history; when complex societies overshoot their resource bases and decline, one of the things that consistently happens is that centralized economic arrangements fall apart, long distance trade declines sharply, and the vast majority of what we now call consumer goods get made at home, or very close to home. Now of course that violates some of the conventional wisdom that governs economic decisions these days; centralized economic arrangements are thought to yield economies of scale that make them more profitable by definition than decentralized local arrangements.

When history conflicts with theory, though, it’s not history that’s wrong, so a second look at the conventional wisdom is in order. The economies of scale and resulting profits of centralized economic arrangements don’t happen by themselves. They depend, among other things, on transportation infrastructure. This doesn’t happen by itself, either; it happens because governments pay for it, for purposes of their own. The Roman roads that made the tightly integrated Roman economy possible, for example, and the interstate highway system that does the same thing for America, were not produced by entrepreneurs; they were created by central governments for military purposes. (The legislation that launched the interstate system in the US, for example, was pushed by the Department of Defense, which wrestled with transportation bottlenecks all through the Second World War.)

Government programs of this kind subsidize economic centralization. The same thing is true of other requirements for centralization – for example, the maintenance of public order, so that shipments of consumer goods can get from one side of the country to the other without being looted. Governments don’t establish police forces and defend their borders for the purpose of allowing businesses to ship goods safely over long distances, but businesses profit mightily from these indirect subsidies nonetheless.

When civilizations come unglued, in turn, all these indirect subsidies for economic centralization go away. Roads are no longer maintained, harbors silt up, bandits infest the countryside, migrant nations invade and carve out chunks of territory for their own, and so on. Centralization stops being profitable, because the indirect subsidies that make it profitable aren’t there any more.

Ugo Bardi has written a very readable summary of how this process unfolded in one of the best documented cases, the fall of the Roman Empire. The end of Rome was a process of radical relocalization, and the result was the Middle Ages. The Roman Empire handled defense by putting huge linear fortifications along its frontiers; the Middle Ages replaced this with fortifications around every city and baronial hall. The Roman Empire was a political unity where decisions affecting every person within its borders were made by bureaucrats in Rome. Medieval Europe was the antithesis of this, a patchwork of independent feudal kingdoms the size of a Roman province, which were internally divided into self-governing fiefs, those into still smaller fiefs, and so on, to the point that a single village with a fortified manor house could be an autonomous political unit with its own laws and the recognized right to wage war on its neighbors.

The same process of radical decentralization affected the economy as well. The Roman economy was just as centralized as the Roman polity; in major industries such as pottery, mass production at huge regional factories was the order of the day, and the products were shipped out via sea and land for anything up to a thousand miles to the end user. That came to a screeching halt when the roads weren’t repaired any more, the Mediterranean became pirate heaven, and too many of the end users were getting dispossessed, and often dismembered as well, by invading Visigoths. The economic system that evolved to fill the void left by Rome’s implosion was thus every bit as relocalized as a feudal barony, and for exactly the same reasons.

Here’s how it worked. Each city – and “city” in this context means anything down to a town of a few thousand people – was an independent economic center; it might have a few industries of more than local fame, but most of its business consisted of manufacturing and selling things to its own citizens and the surrounding countryside. The manufacturing and selling was managed by guilds, which were cooperatives of master craftsmen. To get into a guild-run profession, you had to serve an apprenticeship, usually seven years, during which you got room and board in exchange for learning the craft and working for your master; you then became a journeyman, and worked for a master for wages, until you could produce your masterpiece – yes, that’s where the word came from – which was an example of craftwork fine enough to convince the other masters to accept you as an equal. Then you became a master, with voting rights in the guild.

The guild had the legal responsibility under feudal municipal laws to establish minimum standards for the quality of goods, to regulate working hours and conditions, and to control prices. The economic theory of the time held that there was a “just price” for any good or service, usually the price that had been customary in the region since time out of mind, and the municipal authorities could be counted on to crack down on attempts to push prices above the just price unless there was some very pressing reason for it. Most forms of competition between masters were off limits; if you made your apprentices and journeymen work evenings and weekends to outproduce your competitors, for example, or sold goods below the just price, you’d get in trouble with the guild, and could be barred from doing business in the town. The only form of competition that was encouraged was to make and sell a superior product.

This was the secret weapon of the guild economy, and it helped drive an age of technical innovation. As Jean Gimpel showed conclusively in The Medieval Machine, the stereotype of the Middle Ages as a period of technological stagnation is completely off the mark. Medieval craftsmen invented the clock, the cannon, and the movable-type printing press, perfected the magnetic compass and the water wheel, and made massive improvements in everything from shipbuilding and steelmaking to architecture and windmills, just for starters. The competition between masters and guilds for market share in a legal setting that made quality and innovation the only fields of combat wasn’t the only force behind these transformations, to be sure – the medieval monastic system, which put a good fraction of intellectuals of both genders in settings where they could use their leisure for just about any purpose that could be chalked up to the greater glory of God, was also a potent factor – but it certainly played a massive role.

The guild system has nonetheless been a whipping boy for mainstream economists for a long time now. The person who started that fashion was none other than Adam Smith, whose The Wealth of Nations castigates the guilds of his time for what we’d now call antitrust violations. From within his own perspective, Smith had a point. The guilds were structured in a way that limited the total number of people who could work in any given business in any given town, and of course the just price principle kept prices from fluctuating along with supply and demand. Thus the prices paid for the goods or services produced by that business were higher, all things considered, than they would have been under the free market regime Smith advocated.

The problem with Smith’s analysis is that there are crucial issues involved that he didn’t address. He lived at a time when transportation was rapidly expanding, public order was more or less guaranteed, and the conditions for economic centralization were coming back into play. Thus the very different realities of limited, localized markets did not enter into his calculations. In the context of localized economics, a laissez-faire free market approach doesn’t produce improved access to better and cheaper goods and services, as Smith argued it should; instead, it makes it impossible to produce many kinds of goods and services at all.

Let’s take a specific example for the sake of clarity. A master blacksmith in a medieval town of 5000 people, say, was in no position to specialize in only one kind of ironwork. He might be better at fancy ironmongery than anyone else in town, for example, but most of the business that kept his shop open, his apprentices fed and clothed, and his journeymen paid was humbler stuff: nails, hinges, buckles, and the like. Most of this could be done by people with much less skill than our blacksmith; that’s why he had his apprentices make nails while he sat upstairs at the table with the local abbot and discussed the ironwork for a dizzyingly complex new cutting-edge technology, just introduced from overseas, called a clock.

The fact that most of his business could be done by relatively unskilled labor, though, left our blacksmith vulnerable to competition. His shop, with its specialized tools and its staff of apprentices and journeymen, was expensive to maintain. If somebody else who could only make nails, hinges, and buckles could open a smithy next door, and offer goods at a lower price, our blacksmith could be driven out of business, since the specialized work that only he could do wouldn’t be enough to pay his bills. The cut-rate blacksmith then becomes the only game in town – at least, until someone who limited his work to even cheaper products made at even lower costs cut into his profits. The resulting race to the bottom, in a small enough market, might end with nobody able to make a living as a blacksmith at all.

Thus in a restricted market where specialization is limited, a free market in which prices are set by supply and demand, and there are no barriers to entry, can make it impossible for many useful specialties to be economically viable at all. This is the problem that the guild system evolved to counter. By restricting the number of people who could enter any given trade, the guilds made sure that the income earned by master craftsmen was high enough to allow them to produce specialty products that were not needed in large enough quantities to provide a full time income. Since most of the money earned by a master craftsman was spent in the town and surrounding region – our blacksmith and his family would have needed bread from the baker, groceries from the grocer, meat from the butcher, and so on – the higher prices evened out; since nearly everyone in town was charging guild prices and earning guild incomes, no one was unfairly penalized.

Now of course the guild system did finally break down; by Adam Smith’s time, the economic conditions that made it the best option were a matter of distant memory, and other arrangements were arguably better suited to the new reality of easy transport and renewed economies of scale. Still, it’s interesting that in recent years, the same race to the bottom in which quality goods become unavailable and local communities suffer has taken place in nearly the same way in most of small-town America.

A torrent of cheap shoddy goods funneled through Wal-Mart and its ilk, in a close parallel to the cheap blacksmiths of the example, have driven local businesses out of existence and made the superior products and services once provided by those businesses effectively unavailable to a great many Americans. In theory, this produces a business environment that is more efficient and innovative; in practice, the efficiencies are by no means clear and the innovation seems mostly to involve the creation of ever more exotic and unstable financial instruments: not necessarily the sort of thing that our society is better off encouraging.

Advocates of relocalization in the age of peak oil may thus find it useful to keep the medieval example and its modern equivalent in mind while planning for the economics of the future. Relocalized communities must be economically viable or they will soon cease to exist, and while viable local communities will be possible in the future – just as they were in the Middle Ages – the steps that will be necessary to make them viable may require some serious rethinking of the habits that now shape our economic lives.


Tony N said...

Another excellent post. I am most impressed with the quality of the analysis of the issues of the age and the vast and crucial historical vision and context included therein.

Another possible example of the failure of "free market" thinking in the modern context has got to be the production of food. Farmers who cannot earn a decent living despite producing record volumes of crops, and a food industry that produces ever larger quantities of ever poorer quality "food", to the point that much of it is actually anti-nutritional.

Keep up the wonderful work.

Thank you.

Arabella said...

Another excellent post, JMG!

I have really liked the idea of participating in a knitting guild; hand knitting will again be a viable means of livelihood as it was in the days of the guilds. (There is a photo of a knitted Masterpiece from medieval times in "Mary Thomas's Knitting Book" [originally published in the early 1940s].)

Perhaps this time around guild membership won't be limited to men.

Also, I wanted to let you know that I followed your advice and got a copy of your book, THE LONG DESCENT, from my local bookstore. I ordered it Friday morning and picked it up after work on Monday. It's really nice to know that shopping locally also gets the author the maximum royalty.

I'm really enjoying reading your book - THE LONG DESCENT - which any of your blog readers can purchase at their local bookstore.

Thank you again for sharing your wisdom and vision.
--Arabella in Vermont

Dave Wahler said...

It would be interesting to see the technical innovations that will eventually arise from the next era of local economies. I wrote "would be" because we will probably not stay alive long enough to witness the really cool stuff that comes after the Salvage Age.

Longtime readers of this blog will already know the general characteristics of this post-Salvage tech: elegant design; lots of wood, ceramics, and other "natural" materials (with just a bit of metal thrown in); and low energy requirements for operation. Refrigerators are out, clay pot-in-pot evaporation coolers are in.

In my own field of interest -- mathematics -- there are plenty of old computational aids that will most likely witness a revival as the last electronic computers and pocket calculators break down and replacement components run out. Expect log and trig tables to make a comeback among engineers. Inventors tinkered with new designs for slide rules and abaci up through the mid-twentieth century; their descendants will no doubt pick up the refinement process exactly where the old-timers left off. Waterwheel-driven Babbage engine, anyone?

Here's a free tip for any budding sci-fi writers out there in search of a vision for the low-energy future: windpunk is the new steampunk.

ariel55 said...

Bravo, Mr. Greer! Again I see your genius! Thank you very much for the post!

Duncan Kinder said...

There is an aesthetic as well as an economic aspect to this, which John Rushkin explored in his essay about the nature of the Gothic in The Stones of Venice.

Eg: Wherever the workman is utterly enslaved, the parts of the building must of course be absolutely like each other; for the perfection of his execution can only be reached by exercising him in doing one thing, and giving him nothing else to do. The degree in which the workman is degraded may be thus known at a glance, by observing whether the several parts of the building are similar or not; and if, as in Greek work, all the capitals are alike, and all the mouldings unvaried, then the degradation is complete; if, as in Egyptian or Ninevite work, though the manner of executing certain figures is always the same, the order of design is perpetually varied, the degradation less total; if, as in Gothic work, there is perpetual change both in design and execution, the workman must have been altogether set free.

Jan Suzukawa said...

I agree that the relocalizing of goods and services is overall a positive thing. I recently chose to shop at a local (non-big chain) grocery store, in order to buy canned goods to donate at a local foodbank - thus doing two things for my neighborhood in one. :)

But it's hard to imagine the American population making the adjustment easily. We've come to view the national chains and corporate labels as being "safe" and "better" than local-produced goods and services. If indeed this system was only made possible by cheap oil, and now cheap oil is going away, and we have to do most of our exchanging of goods and services - most of our living, in other words - locally... life in many of our big cities is going to change in almost unimaginable ways.

Winfield said...

Thanks for the fresh point of view and way to give credit to what had worked for its time. If guilds were to return to Main Street, what new form would it take? David Korten and BALLE would like to redefine corporations and give them kill-switches. They would like some organization to review them as they were in the past every 10 years. A corporation's charter can be dissolved should they continue to operate as a cancer growing without regard to the organism as a whole. So my question is... If we are rebuilding Main Street, then would a good model be in a land trust owned by the community? The rents are reduced to allow for moderately priced goods at a living wage and to effectively remove real estate speculation. The shop owner has the incentive to be a good citizen in that his/her lease is up for review every 2-3 years - which can be voted on by council or, even better, direct democracy. I think new guilds would need better transparency and social responsibility. So here is a local community controlling their markets democratically without the need to rewrite corporate law and in the case where there is no corporate law. Any thoughts?

nutty professor said...

This is thought-provoking, John Michael, thank you. I wonder if the guild model would work in the distant future, when technical skills that are now owned by professionals, such as health care, become relocalized in the form of domestic healing arts, alternative medicine practices, herbalism and such. Not very "scientific," perhaps, and it wouldn't be long before "they" came to suppress and crush the dangerous, powerful, unconventional traditions and spiritualities that such practices and practitioners might embody, much like the lynching of hypatia...

Thardiust said...

The shantytowns growing around cities in The Long Descent and regionalized communities, resulting from a breakdown of large economic systems due to looting of them by bandits driven to their brinks due to resouce scarcities, from How Relocalization Works remind me of a game called Saint's Row 2. Also if you haven't found it already here's a link about the stats of peak oil.

John Michael Greer said...

Tony, yes, that's another good example of the same process at work.

Arabella, thank you! By all means keep up your knitting, and remember that the best way to be included in a guild is to start one...

Dave, I've wished for years for the chance to see how all this will work out. As for tables and slide rules, that's a subject dear to my heart -- longtime readers will know that I passed my Amateur Extra class ham radio exam using a slide rule for the calculations, and didn't miss any of the math questions. If we're going to save any of the mathematics of the last two thousand years or so, and there's good reason to do so, we need to get cracking.

Ariel, er, thank you.

Duncan, many thanks for the quote. The Gothic stonemasons tie into something else dear to my heart, as I belong to the organization descended from them.

Jan, granted, it's not going to be easy or welcome, and a lot of people may refuse to go through that door until it's too late for them to save their lives. No one said this was going to be fun.

Winfield, a land trust "owned by the community" is effectively owned by whichever official or unofficial holder of power ends up managing it. A balance of power between private ownership and public regulation seems much more likely to work. As for corporations, I have some specific proposals for them, which I suspect corporate officers would find much less pleasant than Korten's charter review process (which would very quickly become corrupt -- how many people in charge of the "kill switch" would resist the level of bribery and seduction a wealthy corporation can bring to bear?) I'll get into that in a future post.

Professor, it's much more likely that the last MDs would be torn to pieces by urban mobs. Hypatia, remember, was one of the last representatives of the old elite intellectual tradition -- the equivalent of a Harvard professor, in the terms of her time.

hapibeli said...

It seems to hold that a relocalized "guild" economy will likely work best with MANY fewer humans alive.I can't imagine that current economic and ecological forces will allow the 6-7 billion people to continue in existence as the various civilizations come apart.

hapibeli said...

" a land trust "owned by the community" is effectively owned by whichever official or unofficial holder of power ends up managing it."

I can guarantee this result in any "community owned" lands. In my working with a local Official Community Plan Advisory Committee, I've seen how entrenched cliques have succeeded for the past 20 years or so, to thwart any ideas that don't come from the clique.
Relocalization will happen, but as in all human endeavors, the price of "freedom" is vigilance.

Drake said...

Dear JMG, An excellent post once more. Insightful and beautifully written. I had not considered the guild-system in this light, always wonderful to learn something thought-provoking.

The only point that many commentators seem to miss here - though not you, in light of your previous posts - is that the transition to the local quaint small village life will not happen painlessly. Like the end of Rome, the times before something new has chance to emerge are dark.

There are too many people in the world for the local economy system. For the excess people the future is not so nice.

And probably, before the system disintegrates it will first unify more. Meaning that the times of the republic are getting fewer and fewer, and around the corner, somewhere, is growing the first American emperor. He will be smooth looking, eloquent and seemingly sincere, but of course a psychopath. The time of the Caesars, how ever they choose to call themselves is getting nearer.

Biostan said...

Great stuff!! We had an incident here locally where an individual who was stockpiling weapons against the coming collapse was targeted and killed by (you guessed it) brigands who stole his high powered weapons. Reminded me of the passage in The Long Descent where you describe how people who hoarded gold during the collapse of Rome as a survival strategy actually made their survival less likely as they became targets of thieves.

John Michael Greer said...

Thardiust, thanks for the link. I don't play video games, so can't comment usefully on the other reference.

Hapibeli, no matter what else happens, a major decline in population levels is a given. How it happens is still up in the air, but I don't see any reason to hope that it will happen voluntarily.

As for the "land trust" idea, yes, I've seen that in action too. So often ideas that sound great on paper turn out less pleasant in practice!

Drake, we'll see our Caesars -- that's one of Spengler's prophecies I very much doubt will miss fire -- but I'm less sure that the system will get more centralized as a result. It's not at all uncommon for a dictator, while concentrating certain powers in his own hands, to disperse power elsewhere as broadly as possible to keep rival power centers from forming, for example.

But of course you're quite correct that one way or another, the road to the future is not going to be strewn with rose petals!

John Michael Greer said...

Biostan, that's sad but not at all surprising. Where's "here locally," and can you post a link to a news story? That would be welcome.

Biostan said...

here is the link to the newspaper article:

hapibeli said...

According to Ugo Bardi in his summary,by keeping a vast military and adding to our various bureaucracies, we are maintaining empirical homeostasis to prevent "equilibrium", or the "death" of the empire. Such an explanation makes sense as the news media speak of adding new layers of government for each new problem. [Hurricane Katrina, drug wars, financial meltdowns]
All the while with a tiny minority of people seriously discussing anything like a collapse of civilization, save for a smattering of news blurbs from ecology or financially minded folk, or those of us attached to blogs such as this. Ahhhhh! I'm certainly glad to have found a home! LOL!
I think I'll go do some yoga and forget about this for awhile.

William said...

I have observed close at hand the destructive consequences to nutrition and the environment as food producers rush to the bottom, moving their giant milk factories from California to New Mexico, for example, when California moved to require slightly more humane treatment of the animals. Family farmers have an incentive to protect the land for their children and grand children. Now, much of that land is rented to agribusiness, and "nothing accelerates as fast, corners as hard, or stops as fast as a rental car." Agribusiness mines the topsoil, destroys fisheriers and our acquifers. Our nearby "kosher" meat factory pumps a million gallons of salt water a day back into the ground. And people complain about the "high" price of organic food raised with humane treatment of animals and responsible protection of the environment.

Mark said...

One thing that the permaculture movement and organic farming movement have relied heavily upon is the master, tradesman, apprenticeship relationship you describe. From WWOOF to the mentorship roles many permaculture teachers and designers use to educate and help mature young cohorts in the field.

More importantly though, I think re-localization movements will benefit greatly from, regardless of what they do or do not label themselves as, is the observation of feedback -- ecological, namely. "The school of the hardknocks" as it's most commonly referred to is probably THE most important thing to human development. From the personal to collective level we will all benefit greatly from observing feedback loops, both positive and negative, as it is the most profound insight into what we are doing correctly or fatally wrong (as industrial civilization has been ignoring so well). Having a social structure that can affectively incorporate these loops into their "curriculum" if you will, will most likely have the most lasting effects on our future.

Thanks for another insightful and though provoking essay.

J Gav said...


Another fine mess you've gotten yourself into ... since, as you well know, you'll be attacked on two counts for this post. Firstly, by the "Oh, so you want to live in the Middle Ages? Be my guest" crowd; and secondly by the folks who will insist that "History never repeats itself."

Not that I think you will be particularly exercised by either as I see your view of what history can do for us as being closer to what French writer Jean Baudrillard was fond of saying. From memory, it was something along these lines: "It may be true that History never repeats itself - but it certainly does a lot of stuttering."

Llewellyn said...

Another excellent post JMG!
I think the economies in the medieval period were more stable than today because the pace of change was much slower then, than it's now, IMHO.

RudolfC said...

Excellent post (as usual)! I wonder whether the stability of the guild system makes up for its statsis - one couldn't decide at age 40 that one wished to be, say, a cobbler rather than a cooper!
How did the Middle Ages deal with inequitably distributed resources? Your blacksmith would have had to get his iron somewhere. In our future, the stuff will be more or less evenly distributed, but back then there had to have been mining areas. Were there guilds of miners and smelters with "customary prices" or were the prices more supply/demand based?

John Michael Greer said...

Biostan, thank you! That will be a good reference to bring up the next time somebody insists that holing up in a cabin with enough firepower to equip a panzer division is the best approach to the future.

Hapibeli, yoga's probably one of the best responses you could make. In troubled times, a clear mind in a strong and flexible body beats most other investments three falls out of three.

William, this is one of the reasons I encourage people to start learning how to grow at least a little of their own food. That model of agriculture can't last.

Mark, this is good to hear. Has anybody considered transitioning to a full-scale guild structure, with live-in apprentices, cooperative health benefits, and the like?

Gav, I get around a troll a day, most of them from the "progress uber alles" school of thought, and the cliches you've listed are pretty standard fodder. I sometimes wonder if the people who insist that history doesn't repeat itself are surprised every year when winter shows up again.

Llewellyn, the pace of change in the Middle Ages looks slower to us, but I'm not at all sure it actually was. So much of what passes for change nowadays is simply vagaries of fashion and the yelling of the media! The major difference, as I see it, is simply that up until recently, we've had expanding supplies of energy, and in the Middle Ages energy supplies were pretty stable.

John Michael Greer said...

Rudolf, it varied from place to place, not least because they used a lot of bog iron -- iron sulfides concentrated by chemosynthetic bacteria in swamps. It's very widely distributed and can be smelted using charcoal, so a lot of blacksmiths, especially in the early Middle Ages, simply dug and smelted their own. Later on, high-quality ores from a few regions of Europe became more popular, and iirc that was handled in a more or less protocapitalist fashion, since an iron mine isn't something that one master and half a dozen journeymen and apprentices can work effectively; you need scores of guys with picks and shovels, who can be paid by the day, and the prices did tend to fluctuate along supply-and-demand lines.

Twilight said...

Thanks for another interesting post. I'm wondering how the guild system compares to how things operated in my local region (eastern Pennsylvania) at the end of the 19th century. Things were far more localized then than they are now, and each village had its own blacksmith, miller, butcher, etc. Yet there was no guild system. I do not believe there were any barriers to a lower cost producer moving in next door.

On the other hand, there was more access to goods and services from farther away, and of course that period didn't last very long - so perhaps it was only a transient phase leading to what we've got today.

As an aside, I was given a Kindle by my Mother, and she was so excited about it that I didn't have the heart to tell her I'd rather have a Big Berkey water filter or some such. So I read The Long Decent on it, and the mismatch between reading a book about the end of industrial civilization on what must be the poster child for needless and unsustainable complexity was humorous. Shame though, as it's actually a rather enjoyable way to read. Anyway, it's a great book and I appreciate your ability to explain with simplicity and clarity.

John Michael Greer said...

Sin City (offlist), I should know better than to typo my own contact email! That's info (at) aoda (dot) org, instead of (dot) com.

PseudoPhil said...

Another fascinating post Mr. Greer, but you don't go very far into the process by which the centralized economy of the Roman Empire gave way to the medieval guild system, other than to note that the economies of scale supported by the infrastructure of the empire became unworkable when the empire was forced to abandon maintenance of it's road system and enforcement of public order in the outlying reaches of the empire. This would seem to be a critical consideration in planning for the inevitable relocalization our society faces in the next few years or decades.

How was relocalization accomplished? Can mechanisms for achieving this peacefully be created and introduced in the context of a society well past the point of diminishing returns? Or must a society facing such stesses necessarily come to chaos before new social and economic mechanisms are accepted?

I find it intriguing that you correlate the need for the wage/price controls introduced by the guild system with the decreasing geographic scope of functioning economies and political systems, which forced guild members to compete on the basis of the quality of goods, as opposed to the strictly price/availability competition supported by the broader scope of a larger society.

Your entire thrust in this latest series of posts is excellent fodder for those contemplating workable structures for relocalized economies and the processes of transition by which we shall arrive at our inevitable future.

Thanks Again -


Ricardo Rolo said...

Well, I have to strongly disagree with your reference to the Roman empire ( that, in your defense, is taken of a external source ). True, the fall of the centralized entity known as western Roman Empire didn't helped the commerce of the big factories, but they lived on until the 7th century ... the wheat still shipped in Carthage to feel Rome far after Romulus Augustus being deposed, the Massilia tegulae were still being shipped through the mediterraneam shores and the Syrii were still a enough common sight in the western Roman lands to deserve their own neighbourhoods in a lot of cities. The real blow to the economical network that came from the times of the Roman empire was the mess that Justinian and the Arab conquest ( better said, the inability of the muslim Arabs to conquer Constantinople and of subduing the Franks kingdom )created that disruped what was the core of the Roman trade network, the relatively free trade between the shores of what the romans called Mare Nostrum. But your point is pretty much correct: big factories of whatever can't live without secure trade lines and that rarely is made by the traders themselfes ( the only exception I remember is the German Hansa, but it was a last resort of the trader cities due to the nullity that the Holy roman Empire was at the time ).

I think the point of the Guilds is pretty much step on. In fact , if you look it right, even today there is still a guild operating to give mankind high-tech products: we normally call it scientific community ( note, I'm not talking of the scientific-based products makers/sellers, but of the community of researchers themselfes, that is still trying to resist to the massification waves and the more stuff = better line of thought ) . I would even add that, without some kind of guild behaviour, technological advance is pretty much put on stall on the "what works now and sells" products: why change a winning recipe? It is ironical to see that our pseudo-market economy claims of being better than anything besides God himself ( because of what it brings ) stand on the shoulders of the work of a guild-like community that still prices more the quality of their work ( scientists still have to make master pieces ;) ) than low-quality work en masse

On the latter comment you made on the rate of scientific changes, just to end, I tend to agree with you. 90% of the technological advances in the XX century in fact are simple variations on the same theme, like no cathedral was equal in the middle ages or no sword or armor was equal to other. I'm not sure if the comparation between the XIII and the XX century would look so rosy to the latter if every piece of armor or every cathedral had the same value as every patent of the previous century....

Dwig said...

Thanks for the nice exposition of the guild system; I'd been intending to look more into it for a while. One of the best aspects of the essay was the elucidation of the conditions under which the guild system flourished, vs. the centralized mass production systems of the Roman (and current) times.

From some of the earlier comments (and a few observations of my own), it seems that there are at least proto-guild systems around today, and they may increase as the centralized systems become increasingly unworkable. Could it be, during a period of at least temporary stability, that a largish region will have a mix of systems, with a large number of localized guilds plus a "semi-centralized" network to supply, say, raw materials (hmm, how will the ruinmen's gleanings get distributed?).

This relates to another interesting factor that I've learned about recently. In Bernard Litaer's article "White Paper on the Options for Managing Systemic Bank Crises " (, Section V.B, "Stability and Sustainable Viability in Complex Flow Systems", he discusses complex systems, and says:

Decades of studying natural ecosystems, in particular, have led to very sophisticated mathematical understandings of how a network structure affects an ecosystem’s long-term viability, as judged by its balance between efficiency and resilience. Efficiency measures the ability of a system to process volumes of the relevant matter-, energy- and/or information-flow. Resilience measures the ability of a system to recover from a disturbance. These variables have been more formally defined as follows:
1) Efficiency: a network’s capacity to perform in a sufficiently organized and efficient manner as to maintain its integrity over time (May 1972); and
2) Resilience: a networks reserve of flexible fall-back positions and diversity of actions that can be used to meet the exigencies of novel disturbances and the novelty needed for on-going development and evolution (Holling, 1973, 1986; Walker, et al., 2006).

Two key structure-related variables - Diversity (the existence of different types of agents acting as “nodes” in the network) and Interconnectivity (number of pathways between agents) - play a central role in both efficiency and resilience but in the opposite direction. In general, a system’s resilience is enhanced by more diversity and more connections, because there are more channels to fall back on in times of trouble or change. Efficiency, on the other hand, increases through streamlining, which usually means reducing diversity and connectivity.

The main point is that nature does not select for maximum efficiency, but for an optimal balance between the two opposing poles of efficiency and resilience. Because both are indispensable for long-term sustainability and health, the healthiest flow systems are those that maintain an optimal balance between these two opposing pulls. Conversely, an excess of either attribute leads to systemic instability. Too much efficiency leads to brittleness and too much resilience leads to stagnation; the former is caused by too little diversity and connectivity and the latter by too much diversity and connectivity.

Sustainability of a complex flow system can therefore be defined as the optimal balance between efficiency and resilience of its network.

This provides support for the argument that, in unstable times, the optimal strategies would select for resilience. It might also provide yet another useful perspective on the Roman experience.

andrewbwatt said...

Arabella said that she hoped guilds would be open to women as well as men.

They always were, at least to some extent. But (and I hope and expect JMG addresses this in a future essay), we must be aware that re-localization should also mean the re-nucleation of families.

One of JMG's points, if I've read him aright, is that the chimerical and illusory nature of money is likely to result in a lot of suffering among people wedded to the currency when it no longer buys anything (useful). Food is one of those things, at least in quantities sufficient to feed people.

The apparent gender bias of medieval guilds is actually a reflection of the true nature of medieval division of labor. The skilled blacksmith who builds clocks while his apprentices cut nails and his journeymen fit hinges would starve without the attentive efforts of his wife and daughters to put food on the table — whether from the garden or the market. The same coal which fuels the smithy furnace may or may not be suitable for the goodwife's kitchen. Depending on how far re-localization goes, there's gardening to be done, dough to be set to rise, market shopping to do, accounts to settle, pickling to be done, fires to tend, and a root cellar to manage. There are children to teach, clothes to be made, rags to be picked, cheese to be made, clothes washing to be done, pots and pans to be scrubbed... cleaning cleaning cleaning.

I've always tried to remember that a "household" has to be held together in this sort of economy by a VERY active manager. The blacksmith is responsible for feeding the men and women (apprentices, journeymen, and family) under his roof with the money he earns... which money has to provide all the essentials and extras that his household cannot provide.

If his wife or daughter or mother can't provide those services, the blacksmith's business is doomed... or worse, the smith is going to find himself shackled to his anvil by a broken and badly-set ankle, and his own chain.

There is equally a possibility of a return to Roman-style equal-opportunity slave labor. Given America's history, I think such a thing in North America would be particularly vile and ugly.

I don't think such things are right around the corner, so to speak — either the return of wife-as-househood-manager-to-the-exclusion-of-ouside-career or blacksmith-chained-to-his-anvil, much less the branded slave on sale in the marketplace.

But we who can see a future lit only by fire must remember well — it is a world we must imagine in many particulars. We and our successors must structure law, culture and overarching tradition in such a way that certain concepts, rights and dignities reach our posterity.

Robert C. Guy said...

PseudoPhil, you made a statement that brought a thought to mind: "must a society facing such stresses necessarily come to chaos before new social and economic mechanisms are accepted?" It appears to me that the concept of what is and is not chaotic is inexorably tied to the perspective of the observer who is trying to evaluate whether what is being observed should be classified as chaotic. From the perspective of some I suspect that our modern society if viewed by a random observer of the many thousands of years of human history long gone by, the motions of individual's daily lives inside this/these societies, are quite chaotic from their perspective. Chaos and order;, if one is to be considered the opposite of the other, are polar opposites, they are 'the poles apart' and I remember listening time and again to Alan Watts discussion on the nature of that particular relationship.
They say they found noodles in China that were 4,000 years old. Did the culture and society which made those noodles disappear, was it bound by chaos or order? I am sorry if I seem to ramble but my perspective may not be easy to reconcile with most as I have many times in my left left everything behind and simply started over somewhere new in the United States having lived from East to West and North to South in nearly 30 different places in less than 30 years and it seems to me that there is no order without chaos anymore than there is North without South in any situation and the experience of what we feel is order exercised in our own lives is the result of our own perspectives and decisions. I knew an old minister, a man who said (and I must paraphrase as I could never remember his words straight enough to quote them) 'truth is truth because it is true. Not because I said it, not because someone else said it and not because it is in a book. It is true because it is true and that may be the reason why someone tried to write it in a book.' who also said many times that a person grounded in what they believe is truth could say 'though there is confusion above me and though there is confusion below me and all around me. I am not confused.'

jagged ben said...

This is somewhat speculative, but I strongly suspect that one feature of the "race-to-the-bottom" economy is a larger environmental footprint for any given product. If I'm buying the cheaper, inferior nails, I'm actually going to end up needing more of them, because more of them are going to bend and break while I'm trying to hammer them in. Thus more iron is consumed for the same benefit. Suppose I can only find a cheap inferior ice cream scoop to buy, instead of a quality one my like mother owns (an example of this phenomenon dear to my heart, obviously). I end up breaking those cheap scoops every 5 years, while my mother's scoop, which she inherited from her grandmother, never breaks. So I (and my children) buy multiple ice cream scoops, consuming more natural resources for equal or even less benefit. This is assuming that the only differences between the superior and inferior products are the design and workmanship, rather than the amount of materials used, but I suspect that in many or even most cases that is precisely true.

Tim said...

One of the problems with the guilds, though, is that they were controlled in many locales by the nobility or royalty - even though official guild charters often expressly forbade special privileges granted to noble members. Additionally, in many instances, if you were a journeyman working towards your masterpiece, you would never have the chance to become a practicising master in your town (with a shop of your own) unless your father was a member or you married the daughter of a member. In France and Germany today, especially, we see remaining journeyman brotherhoods which grew up to protect the rights of the skilled journeyman laborers from the corrupt guilds. It was not uncommon for the journeyman brotherhoods to organize strikes in individual shops, or across entire towns - which regularly granted them the enmity of the guilds, town leaders and not to mention the Catholic church which felt threatened by the extent of the infrastructural reach of the journeymen, nevermind their extensive use of quasi-Christian symbolism and lay rites.

The French 'compagnons' (compagnonnage) travel from town to town - traditionally on foot - through the Tour de France (not the bicycle race), visiting historical and sacred sites with architectural, craft or other relevance ('remarques') while staying in fraternal chapter houses across the land, working for whatever shops and masters will hire them locally.

Related to that, and interesting to me in the context of relocalization is a cherished right of the journeymen, the LDP or liberte de passe - meaning that they had the right to pass unmolested from work site to work site as free men (with valuable skills) while other common labourers were inextricably tied to the land they worked.

* Check out: "The Artisans and Guilds of France" by Francois Icher, a book translated into English from the French. Excellent resource.

Great subject and happy to see people talking about it!

- Tim Boucher

John Michael Greer said...

Twilight, that's a good question; I haven't researched the 19th century economy enough to have a solid answer yet.

PseudoPhil, relocalization at the end of the Roman Empire was accomplished by barbarian invasions, economic collapse, and the struggles of local communities to survive in a chaotic environment. It's likely to happen the same way this time, too.

Ricardo, and yet by the seventh century, nobody in Saxon Britain could get pottery made on a wheel -- look at the pottery found in the Sutton Hoo burial. Some economic links survived, but a great deal did not, and those that did reached a much diminished area. Still, of course you're right that it was a more ragged and gradual process than my very rough outline suggested.

Dwig, the distinction between efficiency and resilience in the quote you posted will be central to an upcoming post.

Andrew, this is one of the points I made a while back in discussing the household economy -- there'll be more on this in upcoming posts, too.

Robert, well, there's chaos and then there's chaos...

Ben, good. Another way of talking about the same thing is to say that in a race to the bottom, shifting costs away from producers and onto society as a whole is just one more successful strategy.

Tim, granted the guilds had problems of their own -- this side of Neverland, there's no such thing as a perfectly fair and functional economy, and there never will be. The question is simply whether the problems of any given system are bearable in a given context.

William said...

I am tempted to apply jaggedben's comment about using more of an inferior product to nutritionally inferior food. I know from my own experience that poor food is less satisfying, and I tend to eat more as a result. Maybe the explosion of crap food has contributed to the obesity explosion! I am mixing taste satisfaction with nutritional satisfaction, but there is sometimes a relationship. Locally grown,slow food is more satisfying.

Arabella said...


Where do I start? First I want to be clear that I cherish the phenomenological biological role granted by Nature to women of giving birth (even though I have chosen not to, for many, many reasons) and in no way is the following meant to discount that.
Nor do I think that a society structured in a way that results in many parents feeling they need to spend most of their day away from their children, as ours is, is in any way healthy.

The point I want to make is that in the same way that 'it takes a village to raise a child,' in my humble opinion, it takes a community to sustain a community.

Why can it not be possible that those who are best at a particular task, be they male or female, should be the ones chosen to do that task?

I cannot knit for many hours a day every day for very long, and I'm willing to bet our blacksmith cannot forge iron for more than a few hours a day on an ongoing basis. When I am not knitting, I can bake bread, say, and when he's not forging iron, our blacksmith can, say, spend some time gardening or hunting.

Like our access to 'easy energy,' the 'nuclear family' is, I think, or at least hope, a screwy anomaly peculiar to recent memory.

It is my distinct impression that it has been far more common over human history for child care, food gathering and preparation and other "women's work" to be shared among many people in either a village or an extended family or a clan, than it has been to rely on the 'goodwife' to be the sole provider of 'household management services' for her husband.

Kevin said...

This reminds me of what I've read about the early Florentine Renaissance, which ran on the guild system. Artists were craftsmen among whom the more successful kept a bottega, or studio shop staffed by apprentices, which filled all kinds of orders from wedding portraits to altar pieces. Leonardo among many others was trained under this system.

I like what you tell us about the way this system upheld both quality and a fair price that could sustain craftspeople in the various guilds on an equitable footing within a given community. It seems like a kind of social safety net, at least for that class. Adam Smith's "best and cheapest" approach to product manufacture and marketing may work well enough for widgets and mouse traps, but not so well for quality altar paintings.

I can't help comparing this economic arrangement in my mind with that of the ancient Greek city states. Surely those too were more or less self-sufficient communities that must have operated on a similar economic basis? Yet the two cultures seem so radically different.

Didn't the Church provide something of a cultural continuity throughout Medieval Europe? Though I do think of it as more of a religious franchise than a unifying political system. Speaking of which, what about the reigns of monarchs like Charlemagne? Didn't they provide some degree of public order throughout their realms?

I just hope we can learn to combine locally-based economies with at least a Roman standard of plumbing, sanitation, hygiene and public health. Midden heaps and sewers in the streets are not aspects of Medieval society that I would wish to revisit.

HoustonB said...

I am curious why you ignore the role of the elite (historically royalty / the church). Whilst the skill-set may have been acquired through a guild-like apprenticeship, there can be little doubt that the greatest masterpieces and the greatest thinking / innovation (Darwin, Bach, Beethoven, Handle, Mozart, et al.) have come about through direct sponsorship from the elite.

Will the elite of the future (if there is one) not want to do its version of build cathederals, pyramids, etc.?

Digressing, one common mistake I often witness, is the belief in many people, that innovation will cease without modern economic incentives. I postulate that some of the greatest thinkers simply could not stop themselves.

sv koho said...

Thank you JMG for another interesting post. The guild system is largely gone but persists in some fields. My field is medicine and for example, medicine restricts new entrants to keep prices artificially high. For example, residency programs in ophthalmology restrict how many trainees they take on . Most ophthalmologists in small and medium towns do little more than refraction and cataracts for the bulk of their work, procedures which are amazingly simple to perform and for which they are richly rewarded. This is not the case at the large medical centers where the staff do a large variety of procedures. Another example is orthodontics which has tight entry requirements but lasts only 2 years and rewards its graduates with vast sums for relatively simple easily performed work. Computer programs now model how and when wires are placed.

Gaelan said...

I'm seeing some of this already in the farmers markets in my city. They've essentially become something like a farmers guild, and I think it's headed even more in that direction. While the state and counties have their own regulations regarding commerce and food safety, the market managers also make rules. Most, for example, require that vendors sell only what they produce. If a farmer discovers that another produce vendor is simply buying veggies at the auction to resell at the farmers market, he complains to the manager. Some managers enforce this more strictly than others. Those that are slack find themselves with an empty market, as the angry farmers abandon the place for a market where the "producer only" rule is more strictly enforced. Consequently, managers who allow inferior products end up with a market that sells only that.

The farmers also have a gentlemen's agreement among themselves that prohibits competition on prices. The managers have nothing to do with this. It's simply considered scandalously bad taste to discount your products so much that it puts a competing farmer at a disadvantage over price alone. It's a surefire way to alienate everyone quickly.

This isn't to say that everyone's prices match exactly--there's enough variation in the products that some difference can always be justified--but if you're new to a market or offering a new product and you're uncertain what to charge, it's generally advised that you find someone else who's selling the same thing and charge about what they do. And if you charge less, be ready to explain that it's because your own product is somehow shoddier than theirs. ("I figured since your tomatoes were organic certified heirloom breeds, yours were worth a little more.")

Something that the managers do tightly control is who gets in. You don't simply register and send in a fee. All vendors have to fill out an application. Even if you meet all the guidelines for the market (baking with 70% local ingredients, for example), you can still be refused simply on the grounds that they already have a vendor who sells what you do. The smaller a market is, the touchier they are about this. Managers don't even like to have another manager hosting a market nearby at the same time. It's all very anti-competition.

One difference from the guild system you describe, though, is that there's no upper limit on prices. If you charge too much, people simply won't buy what you have. But when we set the prices, no thought is given to what's fair to the consumer. The thinking is that cheap food is plentiful in the grocery store. We're offering a premium product and should be allowed to charge a premium price. Our patrons agree, and when one of us wins the loyalty of a customer, it is always because of quality (or personality) rather than price. If prices dip too low, we'll just eat what we grow, feed it to livestock, or stop producing that product. Accepting grocery store prices is a point of shame among farmers market vendors. At the same time, though, we freely give things to each other or offer each other steep discounts.

I mentioned that it's becoming even more guild-like. My wife is on the board of a fairly new organization called the Farmers Market Management Network. It's a non-profit organization, but the meetings are held at the state Department of Agriculture, and they work closely with the Dept. of Ag. to offer input on policies that would affect farmers and farmers markets. They're currently working on a plan to create a statewide database so managers who inspect a farm (to see if the farmer is complying with market rules about production methods) can share the information easily with other managers in the network. This way, if a farmer wants to sell in multiple markets, he doesn't have to have multiple inspections, and it saves the managers time, too. The end result, of course, is much tighter control of entry to local markets.

They're also working on writing a handbook for market managers. About all that's left are funny hats and secret initiation ceremonies!

John Michael Greer said...

William, good. Of course there's a relationship -- our taste buds evolved as a way to figure out what was safe and nourishing to eat.

Arabella, all that is quite true. It's nonetheless been common in most human societies for women and men to have different occupational roles, and to structure those roles so that the activities women do in their fertile years won't be too greatly inconvenienced by pregnancy and nursing.

Kevin, excellent! The medieval guilds are one example of successful localization; the Greek city-states are another; and of course there are many others. As for Charlemagne, well, what passed for public order in his time would count as near-anarchy in ours, though it was less chaotic than what came before or after him.

When medieval chroniclers wanted to praise a king's ability to maintain order, they'd say (for example) that during his reign, a woman with a purse full of gold could travel from one end of the kingdom to the other and not get robbed, raped, and murdered. The implication, of course, is that during ordinary times she wouldn't have been so fortunate, and indeed medieval records bear that out. I suspect most people nowadays have no idea just how brutal things get, and how sharply that limits the possibilities of human action, in times of social disintegration.

Houston, oh, eventually we'll have an elite again that wants its equivalent of cathedrals and oil portraits. That'll take centuries, though. One of the features of a dark age that rarely gets mentioned in today's speculations on the future is that the elite groups of the old civilization get it in the neck -- their power depends utterly on social structures that collapse out from under them -- and the petty warlords that replace them are too busy fighting for survival to fund cathedrals and sit for portraits. It's only when things stabilize and new institutional forms arise that you start getting patronage again.

Koho, the irony there is that the current medical profession is in the process of pricing itself out of a job. It's not accidental that more patient visits each year go to alternative health practitioners than to MDs, and the economic implosion now under way may just finish the job. In your place, I'd learn herbal medicine and start treating people for $20 an office visit; that way, when the rubble stops bouncing, you'll still have a job.

Gaelan, this is good to hear. One result I've already seen is that farmers who get involved in the farmers market system can make some approximation of a decent income; another, further down the road, is that as supermarkets empty out -- as I think they will -- the higher price of farmers market produce will give people a stronger incentive to get backyard gardens going, which is again all to the good.

herrma29 said...

First time commenter, long time reader.

I'm in a bit of a rush to get out the door right now, so I won't have time for all of the nice remarks that I would like to give to you.

I was just wondering if you could provide a link to data on the loss of patients by mainstream medicine to practitioners of alternative medicine. I have never heard that mentioned before, and I would like to be able to reference it in the future as a fact, not as something I heard offhand.

Thanks for all the great work!

Philip Kienholz said...

Thanks for the informative post. Did the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, however not constrict significantly monastic intellectual freedom? The notion of technological advance during the middle ages is touched on by the 1976 book by I.S. Stavrianos, " The Promise of the Coming Dark Age."

Colin said...

Dear JMG,
I nearly fell of my chair when you said 'free markets reduce specialization', that's certainly not what i was taught. But it's one of those ideas that, once some one has the vision to uncover it, it becomes ubiquitous. Now i see it everywhere. I'd like to be bold and add three other colourful examples that may not be obvious.
Newspapers versus the internet. Analysist in the print buisness hold this will be the last year of broad-sheet daily newspapers in the us. How are newspapers to compete with the cheap crap produced on the internet (present company excepted, we can agree there is alot of crap out there)? They can't they simply can't, so the whole profession of journalism is going out of existance, who will pay for forrien corrispondents, who will pay for reporters in afganistan, in bagdad, in china, who will pay for the fact checkers, who will set the standards of quality reporting - of truthfulnes and maitain the right to reply? No one. And society will lose a whole level of complexity and infromation about the outside world. Whole continents will become populated with the 'here be dragons' of news. The free market in cheap data is killing the newspapers' information.
Next victim? The Post Office, freemarketers moved in and cherry picked the best bits of the business; the parcel delivery. They simply aren't intrested in the necessary, but not profitable letter delivery side of post. The mail no longer has the lucrative parcel service to subsidize the letter side, so give it a few more years and it will be back to the oldschool of handing letters to someone who looks vaguely trustworthy, heading in the right direction and hoping for the best. Another whole layer of complexity wiped out.
I have a third example, but it is more insular. As i'm sure you guessed from the u in colour i'm from the uk, actually from ireland -but that's complicated. (i have tried to spell things with z to make you feel comfortable but i will not let go of the u it colour: it's clearly a dipthong you american lunatics!) Five years ago england alowed supermarkets to start selling bulk alcohol, and i mean BULK, think six liters of vodka for a dollar. The result is that's so cheap no one goes out to drink anymore - no more paying for the overheads of social venues; they sit at home getting smashed on cheap vodka. Now, two hundred pubs, bars and night clubs close every month, it's predicted that should this rate of attrition continue that in five years there will be no public drinking houses left, no bars, no night clubs. All gone, and all the jobs that dependend on them and more than that people actually leaving their houses to socialise will be gone to - not even to mention the wave of teenagers with sclerosis of the liver that are flooding our hospitals. The whole basis of english social life for fourhundred years, gone, and another layer of complexity in society wiped out.

In fact, doctors, lawers, teachers, professors, acountants, scientists, research and development engineers, all complex professions are supported by goverment sanctioned monopolies that accredit worthiness to practice, and limmit the numbers in the profession, through a list of degrees, licences, and charters.

Megan said...

This business about guilds makes me think that the last widespread guild in North American society is the university.

Think about it - there's a limited intake of students; you progress from an undergraduate learning the trade, to a graduate looking for a placement and beginning to produce work of your own, and once you've completed your masterpiece/thesis, you have the opportunity to become faculty. And the tenure system gives academics the same sort of protection that non-competition laws gave guild masters - the freedom to concentrate on specialized work that isn't immediately profitable or popular.

John Michael Greer said...

Herrma29, thanks for asking! I'd been given that statistic by several people, but found in the course of research that it's not quite accurate -- it should be that office visits to alternative health practitioners outnumber visits to primary care MDs, not to all MDs. For documentation, see this from the Annals of Internal Medicine, and here's another from the University of Washington Medical School.

Philip, indeed it did, but you'll note that the Council of Trent came at the end of the Middle Ages, and basically drew a line under the great age of monastic science and technology.

Colin, excellent! Yes, these are solid examples of what I'm talking about. I hope you don't mind if I use them -- with a footnote thanking you for them, of course -- in my next peak oil book. (Yes, I've already got one under contract, and it's about the economic issues I've been exploring in recent months. I'll keep everyone posted as details take shape.)

Lance Michael Foster said...

Excellent, JMG! And Joe Bageant said:

"Mankind's entire idea of what constitutes an economy is about to come into question at some point soon. Not just in America, but all the other (over) developed nations too. We cannot manufacture our way out of it, or spend or invest pour way out of it, through a free market "green economy." That's what got us here in the first place. Superheated spending to pump up a malignant economic system that devoured the earth.

No American political party is ever going to admit that. And no party will ever represent the constituencies that cannot speak for themselves, much less raise hell. The trees, the animals, the rivers cannot cry out from their appointed courses, nor the oceans from their beds that, "Hey, we are not your resources. We are the only god damned shot you have at survival!"

I never expect to see politicians tell the people: "Quit buying. Quit using all that electrical stuff. Quit traveling all over the world. Quit driving. Just eat, be happy you are breathing and work to grow your mind and soul and let's see if we can come to understand this ruined world around us and how to heal it -- or at least do less damage. Let us change our entire idea about what constitutes governance, and work and happiness."

Matt said...


Just coming to the end of The Long Descent and I wanted to write to say how thoroughly I have enjoyed it. The quality and lucidity of the writing, the calmness and the positivity were very compelling. I look forward to reading much more and continuing to enjoy your blog.

I must just respond to another contributor, however. The UK pictured in this:

Five years ago england alowed supermarkets.....The result is that's so cheap no one goes out to drink anymore - no more paying for the overheads of social venues; they sit at home getting smashed on cheap vodka. really not one I recognise. We certainly have problems of alcohol abuse and misuse and are going through one of those periods in our history (but by a long way not the first!)where the 'demon drink' is the subject of moral panic.

The reasons for these are complex and not simply licensing relaxation.

The last 15 years has seen an explosion of bars and clubs fuelled by the mirage debt economy we have been enjoying (enduring?) That that should go into reverse is no great surprise.

Good pubs will still be here for many years and probably long after peak oil - let me know if you're ever in West London and I'll buy you a pint.

Keep up the great work


LynnHarding said...

This is the only blog where some of the comments are as worthy of perusal as the blogger himself!

answers or not said...

The breakdown of very high levels of technology will happen rather quickly. However, lower levels of technology specifically war making technology will take a longer time. This will extend the transition to a stable localization process. Roving armies vying for food and fuel that have the armaments capable of destroying most defenses will pillage communities that have had time to set up marginal survival skills. Some communities will avoid these armies for a time, but until the fuel is gone and the shells are used up no community will be exempt. Armies must be fed.

Religious fanatacism will eventually destroy the medical professionals and other intellectuals that do not go underground. Herbalists may make a comeback, but only on an limited basis. They will be considered witches as they once were and ostracized.

Colin said...

Thank you, JMG, i am happy for you to use those examples in your new novel, as i look forward to your new novel. Lastnight I reread the article. I fear Guilds may not save us. You rightly, stand up to whiggish propoganda. Medieval people had a complex society, and advanced techology. But are guilds too complex to survive a colapse? You already know most of the things i am about to say, but for clarity...

Years ago I read the 'Communist Manifesto', which had a lengthy introduction by G.S. Jones that examined the history of guilds. It was more intresting than the manifesto itself!Jones pointed out that guilds depended on legal fictions to exist. Legal personhood emerges from the monastic law schools c. 11thC. The Nominalist philosophers explained the trinity using personhood. And their contempory legal theorists asked: if three persons can be one, can many be one person? Thus they created the legal fiction they called The Universitas and we call The Corporation.

Getting sued feels like a modern curse, but businessmen have always asked 'who's liable?'. The Universitas solved the problems of ownership and liablity that hampered complexity in the dark ages. For example a village cannot become a city without drains, roads etc; Who pays for them, and who's liable if something goes wrong? Those where questions 7thC society couldn't solve, so vilages remained villages, they knew cites where better but they couldn't overcome the liablity barrier.

But the legal fiction of The Municipality alowed villages to own property, employ builders, etc; all sheltered by limmited liablity. In time transforming into cities. Similarly monastaries turned into universities, warlords into soveriens, and craftsmen into guilds. The question is; can the necessary legal infrastructure survive a peak oil collapse? Enforcing medieval law took a pope, a king, an army, and the threat of damnation.

Last summer i read Randal Collins's brillant book 'The Sociology of Philosopies'. Collins describes how philosopies develop with society. He described the church's role in the developing legal system. Pre-tenth-century the bishop of rome had no special authority. When he did set him self up as an authority it was originaly a legal authority, not a religious one. Preists where educated fifty percent theology and fifty percent law. They regarded themselves as judges. Like rabbis and immams. The medieval church used all its power and authority to standardise and expand the legal system. Collins explains the churches rise as legal phenomenon(he shows the same pattern for buddism in china)

I'm arguing that The Guild depended on a complex legal system. The legal system was already highly specialised. The code Justinian was centuries old when it hatched legal persons. It had the backing of the europe-wide church, with huge charismatic authority (obey or go to hell). It had universties to refine its elaborate arguments. Guilds had the patronage of kings and their armies. How would legal fictions could be sustained post collapse?

You are right that guilds may prevent collapse. But total collapse may bring back dark age legal conepts; ones simple enough to appear natural to a small town. No room for abstractions. Ownership and liablity will extend only to individuals and families. A return to the smith family, the tanner family, etc. Investments too expensive for individuals will be made by famlies. And, passed down through families, but with nothing like the effiency of a guild of hundreds strong. Even worse, in the dark ages technologies became family secrets, passed down father to son, but hidden from society. Should the blacksmith die suddenly his son had to fufill all his father's oustanding jobs. Back to having sons legally obliged to learn the same trade as their father, and if the blacksmith's son is a poor smith – too bad! But that's the precedent for how simple legal systems work.

Apple Jack Creek said...

I have been spending some time trying to imagine what my local landscape will look like in a low-fuel world. I find myself a bit stuck, to be honest, even with the help of various post-apocalyptic fiction novels as inspriation. It's the timing - you just can't really predict *when* it's all gonna change, even though it's clear enough (to me, and many others) that it will.

I live in a rural area, an hour by vehicle to the "big city". We have moderate sized farms, but of course everyone relies on heavy equipment for haying and planting. There is at least one working team of draft horses that I know of, and a few people with the necessary skill ... so perhaps they'll start to see more use as fuel gets more expensive.

It's just that I stumble on logistics when thinking of simple things like barter arrangements or local farmer's markets ... we are spread so far apart, and so few of us have methods of travel besides our vehicles. Even knowing the fuel is getting scarce, it is hard to time your personal transition away from fuel powered transport in this environment: a horse is a darned expensive investment and unless it's actually *replacing* your vehicle - which won't happen until things are further down the curve than they are now - that's an awfully expensive foot-in-each-world.

Maybe my best bet is just to stay on really good terms with my horse owning neighbours, and knit them all socks or something. :)

J Gav said...


Thanks for putting the Bageant quote on - I've been thinking about doing it myself for a while but couldn't have found a better one ...

Of course, governments telling people to quit this or quit that doesn't mean they would either ... at least not without a struggle ... We are communicating via computer after all, aren't we? Maybe better than TV or constantly fiddling with a cellphone but there you are ... give up what? Just how much? Until you really have to ...

J deB said...

I was following the comment thread on the re-post of this piece over on TOD and was interested when you wrote:

"I don't believe, for what it's worth, that we have the time or resources left to manage any sort of controlled relocalization; my point was that (a) this is what relocalization looks like, and (b) this is why it doesn't work in a free market system."

Do you mean by this that any and all efforts by for-benefit or public organizations or NGO's to establish CSA and farm to school programs among other attempts to re-localize the food system are going to fail abjectly?

Surprising because in your new book "The Ecotechnic Future" you devote a whole chapter describing the benefits of organic gardening and composting. I'm a little confused.

If we won't be able to re-localize anything, what on earth are we going to do ?

J deB said...

oh, and Meghan...
not sure if you saw this piece on Mish's blog about the University system in distress....

It might be the perfect example of what JMG is sort of describing. said...

This is a wonderful history lesson, John Michael, if a bit romantic when applied to our future crumbling system. I was particularly struck by Arabella's insight about knitting for many hours a day, which I did when I was much younger. It's more pleasant to look at the macro structure of the society you're describing. Up close and personal, I'm sure it was pretty brutish for those who didn't have the aptitude or patience to spend a decade or more qualifying to do a job that probably gave them some pretty painful repetitive motion injuries within a second decade. Then they died. And the knitters probably went blind.

P.M.Lawrence said...

"To get into a guild-run profession, you had to serve an apprenticeship, usually seven years, during which you got room and board in exchange for learning the craft and working for your master...".

No, it was more that you had to serve an apprenticeship during which you got room and board and learning the craft in exchange for an up front premium (usually put up by parents, to cover the early years of negative net productivity) and working for your master (later, after becoming productive). Your learning the craft was something you got, not something you gave. The premium and the skill level and capital needed to ply the trade varied; there was a 17th century series of booklets describing many trades, and the linen-draper's apprentice one made it clear that that trade needed little skill beyond keeping track of business and knowledge of the stock, but did need capital (to cover the stock).

Arabella wrote 'There is a photo of a knitted Masterpiece from medieval times in "Mary Thomas's Knitting Book" [originally published in the early 1940s]'.

It must be from somewhat later, as knitting wasn't invented until around the 16th century.

Dave Wahler wrote "In my own field of interest -- mathematics -- there are plenty of old computational aids that will most likely witness a revival as the last electronic computers and pocket calculators break down and replacement components run out. Expect log and trig tables to make a comeback among engineers. Inventors tinkered with new designs for slide rules and abaci up through the mid-twentieth century; their descendants will no doubt pick up the refinement process exactly where the old-timers left off. Waterwheel-driven Babbage engine, anyone?"

I would expect fluidics, Curta calculators, and so on.

RudolfC wrote "I wonder whether the stability of the guild system makes up for its statsis - one couldn't decide at age 40 that one wished to be, say, a cobbler rather than a cooper!"

Actually, a lot of that sort of thing was covered by monasteries, either as full blown monks or as lay brothers.

"How did the Middle Ages deal with inequitably distributed resources? Your blacksmith would have had to get his iron somewhere."

What John Michael Greer replied, plus of course a lot of iron was reworked. However, it was realistic to transport high-value, non-fragile billets of iron further distances than (say) grain or pottery, so that did happen quite early.

John Michael Greer wrote "Later on, high-quality ores from a few regions of Europe became more popular, and iirc that was handled in a more or less protocapitalist fashion, since an iron mine isn't something that one master and half a dozen journeymen and apprentices can work effectively; you need scores of guys with picks and shovels, who can be paid by the day, and the prices did tend to fluctuate along supply-and-demand lines".

Those weren't the issue so much as the need to buy charcoal and have water power to work the hammers (in the days before melting and puddling - smelting isn't melting, as only the impurities and flux melted). You needed forests and streams near the ore, whose quality often wasn't the deciding factor; the Weald of Kent was famous for this. Paying charcoal burners was what made it more a cash based enterprise. This started comparatively early, with a cash economy reviving after the Black Death tipped the balance of land/labour/capital (including land improvements like clearing) - another long story.

hapibeli said...

I've got to say, "it just keeps getting heavier and heavier all the time in these posts. :] :] I just wish my daughters and their fellows down in the States could accept what I read here and elsewhere regarding these subjects. I can only hope that they see the bad times coming from a distance and listen to what I've been telling them for years.

P.M.Lawrence said...

PseudoPhil wrote " don't go very far into the process by which the centralized economy of the Roman Empire gave way to the medieval guild system, other than to note that the economies of scale supported by the infrastructure of the empire became unworkable when the empire was forced to abandon maintenance of it's road system and enforcement of public order in the outlying reaches of the empire. This would seem to be a critical consideration in planning for the inevitable relocalization our society faces in the next few years or decades. How was relocalization accomplished? Can mechanisms for achieving this peacefully be created and introduced in the context of a society well past the point of diminishing returns?"

There were two main phases. Ricardo Rolo has described the second quite well; that damaged the remaining cash economy in northern and western Europe a lot, and in the Byzantine dominated areas somewhat less. But particularly in northern and western Europe there was a phase in the 4th century or so, in which villas with slave labour became more autarkic in the face of a greater tax burden, barbarian incursions, and increasing brigandage ("bagaudae") brought about by those other features of incipient collapse. These were in place when the barbarians came to stay, and merged with their institutions to give rise to manors. This phase may offer a guide to the mechanisms you seek, though they might not flourish and outcompete current centralised stuff before there is damage around.

Andrewbwatt wrote "Arabella said that she hoped guilds would be open to women as well as men. They always were, at least to some extent."

Well... sort of. But they carried out home based activities which were either comparatively low skilled or needed fixed capital equipment. We can see these embedded in language, where a -er ending implied a male practitioner and a -ster ending implied a female practitioner, as in brewer/brewster, weaver/webster, baker/baxter, - and, most obviously, spinner/spinster (sometimes -ster endings imply Scottish connections, as in the surname Baxter, since female practitioners were more common there than in England).

"But (and I hope and expect JMG addresses this in a future essay), we must be aware that re-localization should also mean the re-nucleation of families".

Extended families may be more relevant.

"The same coal which fuels the smithy furnace may or may not be suitable for the goodwife's kitchen".

Actually, while it might help with cooking, it would be worthless in the smithy; too much sulphur.

"If his wife or daughter or mother can't provide those services, the blacksmith's business is doomed... or worse, the smith is going to find himself shackled to his anvil by a broken and badly-set ankle, and his own chain".

Hence, extended families (as in the past).

"There is equally a possibility of a return to Roman-style equal-opportunity slave labor".

Not really. Slavery only flourished with a particular balance of land/labour/capital availability in which free men could easily set up for themselves (so it made sense to restrain labour), or to provide specialist functions as under Islam (eunuchs, concubines, artisans, soldiers like Janissaries and Mamelukes, etc. - all of whom transformed economic surplus more than creating it, and can be treated as consumption goods/consumer capital); muslim slaves had better conditions and security than the oppressed free peasantry that supported their owners.

6p00e5522daa0c8833 said...

JMG: New reader & poster here.

I've been aware of ecological & related issues since forever-ago but this is the first time I've seen a good explanation of why the guild system could be the correct option for a steady-state economy in a relocalized culture. Excellent thinking, and an instant contagious meme.

I'll take this a few items at a time:

My friends & I in the geek universe have always chose to compete on the basis of smarts/skills and innovation, rather than price. Interesting that this is the dominant axis of competition in a guild system. Makes me feel right at home:-)

Re. David Wahler re. evaporation pots & no refrigeration: You just out-doomered me with that one. However, refrigeration is pretty basic industrial tech, and any community with technically capable members should be able to maintain a refrigeration system for its most critical uses.

I envision that much of our food storage and cooking will be done at the level of small groups of neighbors or extended families, for various reasons concerned with efficient use of energy and industrial products such as stoves, ovens, and refrigeration. The technology won't disappear, it will just become more expensive to the point where it's best managed on the level of groups larger than nuclear families.

Re. land trusts and direct democracy: I'm going to make myself unpopular by suggesting that direct democracy is a BAD idea. Half the people in any population are below-average intelligence, therefore subject to manipulation by clever demagogues. That's 50% of the vote right there. One need only look at examples such as the anti-marriage propositions and California's budget catastrophe to see the kinds of trouble this can cause.

Representative democracy at least assures that actual decisions will be made by people who are smart enough to be amenable to arguements based on empirical and logical consistency. (A culture that disregards empirical and logical consistency is aiming for a darwin award.)

As for land trusts having veto power over shopkeepers, no. In a steady-state economy there should be means of shutting down businesses that behave in a pernicious manner, but aside from that, regulation by eviction threat is a formula for some of the worst excesses of the present era to continue.

Humans are not free if their ability to earn their livelihood is subject to the whim of a majority, emphasis on the word "whim."

More later; gotta scoot for now.

Bat said...

Megan -- You make a great point, that system is not completely lost to modern memory. However, my experience through this country's (US) education system has been that while the structure is still there, the actual content is generally not of any quality. I've been horrified many many times, looking around me at other students and seeing the results of our (de)education system. A system that was meant to produce high-quality nails, sharp and ready to do their work, now pumps out flimsy dull versions with no real appreciation for their craft.

My assumption is that in the coming days/years, the need for sharp minds and trained hands will trump the needs served by dumbing the public down, and thus we may actually rediscover education.

tgmac said...

Thought provoking article. As a Euro Socialist, I've been thinking about the dynamics of history quite a bit during this latest economic crisis, or more to the point how we humans formulate an anlysis of history. I've always been that wee bit sceptical about historical determinism as it seems to lead to a human-centric notion of world history by both Socialist and Capitalist doctrines; one that posits a positive and linear progression of evolution without regard to the ill affects of progress. (We seem to have found both a quick mass extermination strategy through nuclear warheads and a slow environmental degradation strategy through capital accumulation doctrines and resource depletion.)

This article addresses concretely some very vague thoughts on my part that I've had about moving sideways or revisiting older notions of social structures. If we take a total world centric view rather than just a human centric viewpoint, we might just devise saner economic polity measures that allow us as a species to experiment and advance, and at the same time don't regard such "side ways" moves as retrograde measures.

Look forward to further articles.

slán agus ádh mór ort

ChristineStone said...

Thnking about how the guilds held prices and wages steady over long periods of time, it occurs to me that there must be a link to the medieval prohibition on lending money at interest, called ursury. JMG, perhaps you can elaborate? Usury today means lending at excessive interest, but for many centuries, ANY interest was a mortal sin, as bad as the very worst of any sins. This applied to Jews and Moslems too, although (and I don't mean any offence), I did read somewhere that the jews didn't mind lending to non-jews at interest. Anyway, I suspect that prices and wages could only resist inflation if money itself wasn't being inflated/increased by interest.

Ana's Daughter said...

@ PM Lawrence: Arabella is quite correct. The earliest surviving European knitted items date from the mid-13th century, including knitted gloves from a Spanish royal tomb circa 1275. Knitting was practiced much earlier than that in the Arab world, and a form of knitting called nalbinding was practiced in Egypt by the 2nd century CE.

Friend said...

4) The notion that "no-one was unfairly penalized" since "everyone was charging guild prices" is a serious oversimplification. The master craftsmen all charged high prices. But their apprentices and journeymen made low wages which didn't go very far at the "master baker's" shop. Price fixing most certainly has winners and losers.

5) I also think that the notion that a "just price" was kept low by the government is a little naive. Just like with modern governments, rich people in medieval towns tended to have a greater say in public affairs than poor people. I suspect that rather than keeping a lid on prices, the government kept a high floor on the prices charged by the most influential people in town. In a way, the master craftsmen of yesterday were like the "evil corporations" of today, using their influence with government to avoid fair competition and benefit at the expense of others.

Anyway, I'm very interested in your perspective on some of this.

P.M.Lawrence said...

Friend suggests that 'The notion that "no-one was unfairly penalized" since "everyone was charging guild prices" is a serious oversimplification. The master craftsmen all charged high prices. But their apprentices and journeymen made low wages which didn't go very far at the "master baker's" shop. Price fixing most certainly has winners and losers.'

That was irrelevant for the apprentices, who had their board and lodging covered; if anything, over their indentures cash went from them to their masters to cover that - they weren't really being paid for work at all, but paying for training. And journeymen were not simply on wages (which might also be partly in kind) but on piecework - they had more income flexibility and less need to live off fixed cash wages than the idea of fixed wages might suggest.

The whole system of fixed prices worked through to push problems further away, so the "losers" ended up being the peasants, in the form of opportunity costs and not actual cash losses.

'I also think that the notion that a "just price" was kept low by the government is a little naive. Just like with modern governments, rich people in medieval towns tended to have a greater say in public affairs than poor people.'

No, only in the affairs of their particular towns. The whole decentralised/particular privileges thing stopped it spreading further, unless and until all of them ended up aligned enough to affect things through parliament.

'I suspect that rather than keeping a lid on prices, the government kept a high floor on the prices charged by the most influential people in town. In a way, the master craftsmen of yesterday were like the "evil corporations" of today, using their influence with government to avoid fair competition and benefit at the expense of others.'

No, because the "government" (also decentralised) was mostly other interest groups like the clergy and nobility with interests in keeping the prices they paid low, subject to what amounted to an insurance premium sufficient to ensure their suppliers could weather bad times. The central government - king and court - had an interest in keeping that tax base up, but the take from that was anyway limited by custom, that wasn't the only revenue base (some taxes came from peasants via the aristocracy, who had more cash left for taxes when they didn't have to pay high prices to guilds), and central authority was comparatively weak.

By the way, my email told me that my reply to Ana's Daughter went through last week, but I don't see it up yet. Should I repost it?

Colin said...

Sorry i feel i should respond to your comment:

'is not a problem i recognise' Really, you don't notice the decline of pubs, dont you read the papers? Of course -- no one reads the papers any more.

'where the 'demon drink' is the subject of moral panic.' ... strange, i was writing about how terrible it was that pubs where closing, and you accuse me of being against acohol? I think you might be projecting your own issues. Nevertheless, we do need to think serriously about the difference between pubs that are designed to be the centers of communities and vertical fashion bars that exist to sell as much drink as fast as possible to turn in the highest profit. (Unless your happy to end up like opium-wars-era China) It's the same difference as the difference between social drinking and alcoholism.

That's also the same difference, as that between housing and suburban sprawl, and banking and usury.

'The reasons for these are complex and not simply licensing relaxation.' in the real world issues are always complex, but the supermarkets are a major sourse of the decline.

"The last 15 years has seen an explosion of bars and clubs fuelled by the mirage debt economy we have been enjoying (enduring?) That that should go into reverse is no great surprise."
Where did you get that statistic? Pubs have been steadily declining since 1979, ten years ago we where losing two a week, now it's accelerated to five a day. You can track the statistics on the British Beer and Pub Association, it publishes a Quarterly Beer Barometer. (Yes there has been neiche market growth's, city bars, fashion bars, bars targeted at under twenty-ones, new revenues from selling food, liquor lisences issued to resturants.) Here's a general summary that the Assocciation presented to the house of commons, p.3 give a graph showing the 1979-present decline in sales.

Joel said...

I just read an economics essay that comes to a similar conclusion via game theory: the good output that comes from meaningful work requires some way of guaranteeing compensation beyond what theoretically pure capitalism can provide, and probably even beyond what corporations or nonprofits can provide as they are currently structured.

I think the article is worth a read.