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The Tragedy of Human Development: A Genealogy of Capital as Power

The Tragedy of Human Development: A Genealogy of Capital as Power

by Tim Di Muzio Lecturer in the School of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong, Australia


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How might an objective observer conceive of what humans have accomplished as a species over its brief history? Benjamin argues that history can be judged as one giant catastrophe. Liberals suggest that this is to sombre an assessment and that human history can be read as a story of greater and greater progress in human rights, prosperity and the decrease of arbitrary and extra-judicial violence. But is there a third reading of history, one that neither interprets human history as a giant catastrophe or endless progress? Could we not say that human development has been a tragedy? This book explores the idea of human development as a tragedy from the perspective of capitalist power. Although the argument of this book draws heavily on critical political economy, the analysis considers interdisciplinary literature in an effort to explore how major revolutions have transformed human social relations of power and created certain path dependencies that may ultimately lead to our downfall as a species. Intellectually sophisticated and readable, this book offers a provocative genealogy of capitalist power and the tragedy of human development.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783487141
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 12/12/2017
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Tim Di Muzio is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Global Political Economy in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He is author of Carbon Capitalism (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015), The 1% and the Rest of Us (Zed, 2015), and with Richard H. Robbins, Debt as Power (2016) and An Anthropology of Money (2017).

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Act I

The First Power Civilizations

To understand the emergence of capital as a mode of power and the tragedy of human development, we need to consider earlier modes of power and the rise of complex human hierarchies. It has been suggested by scientists of complexity that any complex system such as human political communities follows certain rules of interaction that results in certain outcomes while at the same time restricting alternative possibilities. What this suggests to us is that within any mode of power there will be fairly particular rules of interaction that tend to reinforce, but yet perhaps at times undermine the social relations of power, privilege, and hierarchy. It is the task of Act I to begin our genealogy of capital as a mode of power by considering the historical and anthropological literature on the emergence of human hierarchies and inequality and to consider some of the rules of interaction that were followed to reproduce power relations that were non-capitalist. By what mechanisms and justifications were these rules of interaction instantiated and how did they buttress early social relations of power between dominant and dominated? To set the scene this act begins with a few basic facts about the emergence of modern Homo sapiens and the "Out of Africa" Hypothesis. The hypothesis suggests that modern H. sapiens emerged in East Africa about 200,000 years ago and, over time, spread throughout the habitable continents of the world. I will then consider one of the most significant transformations in human history: the transition from hunting and gathering/foraging to agricultural-based societies. This period of human history, though it begins in fits and starts in geographically differentiated spaces, is commonly known as the Neolithic Revolution. Some date this revolution in human affairs from 12,000 to 7,000 years ago and it took place "in the Near East, New Guinea, China, Central and South America, and eastern North America" (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2008: 105). While we could examine developments in any of these regions, the transition to agriculture and the revolution in human affairs it caused takes or will take us to Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, where we have reasonably clear records on the emergence of three main things that are important for explaining the development of capital as power: counting, accounting, and money as a unit of account. Act I then moves to focus on developments in Lydia, Greece, and Rome, where we find a very curious and revolutionary development: money, not simply as a unit of account, store of value or a means by which to measure the relative value of people and things, but money as relatively standardized gold and silver coin. The steadfast belief, primarily among rulers, traders, and mercenaries that gold and silver were the only true money — and how this idea spread throughout the world — not only shaped the modern world and intersocietal relations but also laid the groundwork for the capitalist mode of power. As I will explicate, while qualitative things had become "accounted" for at least since the rise of the first agrarian civilizations, from the sixth century BCE, qualitative things came increasingly to be "accounted" for in gold and silver coin. As we will uncover, the adoption of coin as money had tremendous consequences for political and social developments and the lives of countless peoples.


The prevailing hypothesis on the origins of H. sapiens is that anatomically and genetically modern humans emerged in eastern Africa at least 150,000, if not 200,000, years ago. The evidence is based on DNA patterning of current members of the human family and skeletal remains (Mellars 2006: 9381). Though heavily debated, new studies have argued that rather than one dispersal from Africa there were two migration waves. The first is believed to have occurred 130,000–115,000 years ago. Some suggest that, for reasons that are not quite clear, this initial population either retreated back to Africa or died out (Armitage 2011). But a recent discovery of teeth in Fuyan Cave in southern China suggests that this might not be the case (Wu et al. 2015). A team of researchers have argued that the forty-seven teeth are unequivocally those of modern humans and date to at least 80,000 years ago. The fossil evidence suggests that modern humans were highly likely in China before the second wave of migration into the Levant and Europe, believed to have taken place from 40,000 to 74,000 years ago (Appenzeller 2012). Since China is east of Africa, this suggests that modern humans may have also been in other Eurasian regions as well. The reason for this migration is largely lost to history but some scholars have suggested technological developments that made new environments easier to adapt to, climate disruptions that threatened preexisting habitats, the search for more appealing environments, and population growth as all possible answers (Mellars 2006). Both debates on the dispersion of modern humans and the reasons for departing Africa will continue as archeologists and geneticists uncover new evidence, but one thing is certain: H. sapiens gradually spread throughout the habitable earth and populated new territories and, in Eurasia, replaced early hominins such as Neanderthals.

As Harari (2011: 16ff) points out, there are two major lines of reasoning when it comes to explaining what happened to our earlier ancestors. The first theory holds that as H. sapiens migrated out of Africa they lived, survived, and interbred with the Neanderthals largely found in Europe and Homo erectus, largely found in Asia. In this sense, interbreeding would ultimately lead to a mix of DNA between H. sapiens and earlier members of the homo genus. There is indeed some evidence for sexual relations between the two species as scientists discovered in 2010. However, as Harari warns us, further tests must be done before we fully adopt the interbreeding theory to explain the disappearance of our close cousins. The second theory, the one most commonly adhered to, is called the replacement theory. The idea here is that the H. sapien diaspora into Eurasia led to the killing off of earlier settled peoples. Though the debate continues, some scholars argue that H. sapiens were better mentally equipped than their counterparts and had better technology and organizational abilities. This suggests that acts of violence would have been easier to accomplish against a less technologically and mentally sophisticated species. This is certainly plausible and, as Harari suggests, the move out of Africa to the Eurasian landmass may prove to be "the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history" (2011: 19). However, there is the possibility of another culprit: tropical disease. Some scholars have suggested that the migrating H. sapiens may have brought diseases from tropical Africa that our early cousins had no previous exposure to, and thus, no proper immunity from newly introduced pathogens (Houldcroft and Underdown 2016). The jury is still out on the precise reasons other members of the genus Homo disappeared altogether from the historical record save for their remains, but it is highly likely that while there may have been some interbreeding and mixing of DNA, the replacement by "violence and disease" hypothesis has considerable archeological weight behind it. In fact, a recent finding in Africa on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya suggests that prehistorical hunter-gatherers may have been just as prone to violent conflict as are more settled agrarian societies. At Lake Turkana, archeologists found the following gruesome evidence of an early massacre 10,000 years ago:

Of 12 relatively complete skeletons, 10 showed unmistakable signs of violent death, the scientists said. Partial remains of at least 15 other persons were found at the site and are thought to have died in the same attack. The bones at the lake, in northern Kenya, tell a tale of ferocity. One man was hit twice in the head by arrows or small spears and in the knee by a club. A woman, pregnant with a 6- to 9-month-old fetus, was killed by a blow to the head, the fetal skeleton preserved in her abdomen. The position of her hands and feet suggest that she may have been tied up before she was killed.

This not only suggests that hunters and gatherers, like their more settled counterparts, had the propensity for violence, but also that this tendency toward overcoming hardship or adversity through violence was a possibility even among what were previously thought to be more peaceful and communal peoples eking out a living by foraging and hunting live game (Boehm 2001). But while H. sapiens may be hard-wired for aggression and violence, we must remember that environmental conditions also influence intergroup interactions. The stress of survival could be very real just as much as the potential for a lack or exhaustion of local resources. However, given the magnitude of the African and Eurasian landmass, the diversity of species edible by human omnivores, and the fact that the population of the time would have been extremely low, it is difficult to fathom that there would necessarily be "resource wars" encouraged by "resource shortages." This does not mean that there could not be conflict over local resources from time to time or that two unrelated groups, prompted by some grievance, could not war or fight with one another. I merely suggest here that it seems a bit far-fetched to hold to the view that our ancestors were hyper-competitive for a shortage of resources given the territory open to them and the overall size of the incipient human population. Despite our lack of concrete evidence that would allow for a general theory of H. sapiens interacting with and perhaps more likely massacring non-sapiens, we end this section of Act I with an undeniable fact: modern H. sapiens colonized, in fits and starts and over tens of thousands of years, the habitable regions of the earth. What some groups would do with their surrounding environment would have profound consequences for the tragedy of human development and the eventual emergence of capital as a mode of power.


When most scholars consider the Neolithic Revolution or what is sometimes called the Agrarian Revolution they focus on what appears to be a troublesome riddle: why did hunters and foragers abandon their seemingly easily reproducible lifestyles with what is generally assumed to be nutritious (or at least diverse) diets for a more difficult life of working the soil? After all, archeological evidence suggests that sedentary agriculturalists were relatively malnourished compared to hunters and gatherers and had far less time for leisure. Before we can consider this riddle we can dispense with the idea that this transition to social reproduction based on agriculture production happened suddenly, as most evidence suggests the two practices — settled agriculture and hunting and gathering — were synchronous. Again, hypothesizing about the distant human past leads to little absolute certainty but are there some more convincing explanations for the transition, despite the fact that there is scant academic consensus on the issue and our gaps in knowledge remain fairly vast, particularly given regional differences among early farmers? Though most scholars believe that hunters and gatherers did not become farmers overnight and that there was likely a considerable amount of oscillation or comingling between the two practices, one leading explanation has it that a warmer climate and the natural tendency of early humans to intervene in their environment contributed most to a gradual transition (Barker 2009). Another view is that early farmers or their progeny eventually dispersed to new regions where little was known of farming, bringing skills and knowledge to new parts of the world (Bellwood 2005). A final hypothesis does not necessarily discount climate change or past practices of human intervention into their environments in order to acquire sustenance, but focuses more on the social relations of power in more hierarchically arranged human groups. In this vein, hunters and foragers became farmers over time because of a power struggle between a minority in a position of strength and a majority who submitted to paying tribute in forms such as grain and animals to their would-be rulers who likely claimed some special privilege such as knowledge about the spirit world or afterlife (Bell and Henry 2001; Henry in Wray 1994: 79–98). In hierarchical prescientific civilizations rulers invented, inherited, or adopted religious or mystical ideas about the natural and cosmological order and what happened after death. The adoption of a superhuman world served to justify certain actions while at the same time prohibiting others. The evidence that the transition to agriculture was primarily about consolidating the power of privileged elites is of course scant, but for some, such as Richard Manning, the built environment of some early agrarian civilizations is highly suggestive:

Farming did not improve most lives. The evidence that best points to the answer, I think, lies in the difference between early agricultural villages and their preagricultural counterparts — the presence not just of grain but of granaries and, more tellingly, of just a few houses significantly larger and more ornate than all the others attached to those granaries. Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the accumulation of wealth. It benefited some humans, and those people have been in charge ever since (2004: 38, see also Wells 2010).

Whether the shift to agriculture was the result of a gradual power process or the result of happenstance and experimentation, one thing is certain: the gradual shift toward agriculture provided the enabling conditions for the accumulation of greater power in the hands of a minority in all early "agrarian command economies" (Ingham 2004: 91). But what does seem beyond dispute is that with the rise of agrarian civilizations we witness the first forms of complex hierarchy where the majority is clearly subordinated to a ruler or a ruling priestly caste. To be sure, the transition to agriculture will continue to generate interest among scholars and we may never have a precise answer to such a direct and seemingly simple question given how far the transition lingers in our distant past. But while credible explanations for the transition loom large, an equally important question can be asked once humans start to domesticate plants, animals, and, in many ways, themselves. This question is not so much a probe into why hunters and gatherers become farmers, but more about the cosmology, organization, and unique developments that happened to early agrarian societies. There appears to be a general agreement that the cosmology held by hunters and gatherers and early farmers differed. However, due to a lack of historical evidence, it is difficult to say with any precision how different groups of hunters and gatherers understood the universe and their place within it and how these understandings may have diverged from those of the first farmers organized into a social hierarchy. While the debate on the transition to agriculture is important, it is in the first agrarian empires where we start to witness the first kernels of capital as power.


Excerpted from "The Tragedy of Human Development"
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Copyright © 2018 Tim Di Muzio.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Planet of the Apes Hypothesis / Act I: The First Power Civilizations / Act II: Western Colonialism and the Transatlantic Slave Trade / Act III: The Fossil Fuel Revolution and the Rise of Military-Industrial Complexes / Act IV: The Rise of Corporate Capitalism / Act V: The Birth of Human Development / Epilogue: To be or Not to Be

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