Taming the Beast – Governance in the Past, Present and Future

Taming the Beast – Governance in the Past, Present and Future

Alone among animals, humans are burdened with knowledge of history. While other animals may retain memory, humans have not only our own memories to contend with, we also have the memories of our forbearers that managed to document their experiences. The human experience that were are the inheritors of is one that encompasses a gargantuan amount of suffering and turmoil; it is also one that shows a gradual softening of fear and hatred directed to our own kind. The human story is the greatest story ever told, and yet it has no beginning we can pin down and no ending we can discern; we must be satisfied with the fragments of memory passed down the centuries so we can try and direct our future.

Humanity has its roots in Africa, with its initial genesis believed to come out of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. Being animals, humans pursued pleasure and avoided pain, while the biological imperative of reproduction made our numbers swell. From this geographical womb, humanity spread across the world. As time wore on, that base of human society began to evolve – the family structure that was the cornerstone of survival in the Stone Age was supplanted by the extended family structure of the tribe.

A tribe is effectively several families that band together. Some tribes were settled, some tribes were nomadic and some tribes were somewhere in between. The methodology of maintaining safety and cohesiveness differed from tribe to tribe, but some aspect of mysticism seems to be present in many archaeological sites. Human sacrifice was not out of the ordinary, nor was cannibalism. Mysticism is where natural events are assigned supernatural causes, and during the time of prehistory the lack of accumulated knowledge assured that humanity’s understanding of its surroundings was more speculation than science.

The oldest building that we know of is believed to have been a location for this speculation that would come to be known as religion. Gobekli Tepe in Turkey is believed to have been founded over 12,000 years ago, 6,000 years before Stonehenge was erected. Believed to have been more of a congregation site rather than a permanent settlement, structures such as these laid the foundation for the amalgamation of tribes into nations.

A nation is a group of humans that share the same cultural traits, though it is also widely believed that a nation is a group of people within a genetic lineage. For all intents and purposes, it is identical to a tribe in all ways except scope. There is a concept known as Dunbar’s Number which states that a human has a soft limit on how many relationships they are able to maintain at any given time, estimated at 150 but likely higher. This is the estimated size of what Dunbar considered a “band” of humans, but we would recognize as a tribe. As such, a nation is a group that a human considers itself a part of, but does not have a personal relationship with every other human of that group.

Another foundational necessity for the development of nations is agriculture. While a tribe can certainly live off of hunting animals and gathering edible plants for sustenance, agriculture gave humanity the ability to create food more reliably than ever before. It is hypothesized that the settlements that would precursor cities first came to be because humans started to have enough spare grain to brew alcohol, which in turn attracted more humans to the settlement. The fact that the oldest recipe that survived to this day is a recipe for beer (that had pieces of bread floating in it) gives some weight to this hypothesis.

The beginning of verifiable history begins with the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian Empire is the result of the city-state of Nineveh (near Mosul, in modern-day Iraq) expanding its influence to surrounding lands and cities. The concept of a city-state is a vital development in human history; this was the first recorded instance of a government being created. In the same way that the first responsibility of any living being is to try not to die, the first and foremost responsibility of government is to maintain order, be it by stopping an assault by outsiders or enforcing laws for citizens. The concept of legitimacy is one that every government has to be concerned with, and governments tend to attribute their legitimacy to a divine source or to popular interest.

The self-interest of maintaining order in the city state so the government would not be overthrown made popular interest a means of achieving a goal more than an end goal for the Assyrians; they were very much in the divine source camp, as were surrounding city-states in this time. Each city-state had their own god, and wars would often end with the victor taking the statue of the subjugated city-state’s god and bring it to their trophy room.

 Annual rituals where the King would grasp the hand of their city’s statue were of monumental importance to the people, for they believed being in communion with divinity would assure good fortune, plentiful harvests and success in battle. This made the priesthood an important class in this day – while in ritual they served as the conduit between the King and the divine, in functionality they served as the conduit between the King and the people. This divine reinforcement of legitimacy would be a recurring theme throughout history, from the Chinese Mandate of Heaven to the European Divine Right of Kings to the Blood Debt of the Aztecs.

Another reoccurring theme is the use of torture to cow the populace into obedience. The Assyrians made a point to spread word of the horrors they would inflict on those that would take up arms against them. Statues, reliefs and sculptures depicting towers of severed heads, rebels being skinned alive and royal feasts in a room filled with the skulls of fallen foes were not just made for artistic expression – they had the specific goal of dissuading rebellion and invasion (Cohen, Slon, Barash, et al, 2015).

The importance of dissuading rebellion for the empires of this day was largely due to restricted communication; commands from a ruler could only travel as fast as a horse with a rider, and an army moves much slower than that. Military campaigns are always a costly expense in money and very often in lives; it would this be in a ruler’s interest to make sure he did not have to send out his army to constantly put down rebellions. Terrorizing a city by publically mutilating ringleaders of a rebellion was one way; occasionally the wholesale slaughter of a town would be committed to warn its neighbors of what would happen if the wrath of the Assyrians fell onto them.

Regardless of the Assyrian’s predication for brutality, they still had a duty toward their citizens in maintaining order. The Assyrian government had to assure that the people would be able to eat, sleep and trade in peace so that the rebellions would not happen in the first place. The need of the state to maintain order made such public displays of cruelty a norm. Disproportionate punishment was meted out with a purpose; the ability of a government to solve a crime in these times was minimal, so when a criminal was caught and punished, the punishment was inflicted to dissuade crime. In short, a person would be executed not because he stole a horse, but so horses would not be stolen. This is the same mentality that the Romans would follow in their Bread and Circus doctrine; in the interest of maintaining order, they would supply the plebs with sustenance and distraction.

The Assyrians were supplanted by the Persians, who were a semi-nomadic group that led a coalition of other nomadic groups and several cities underneath the yoke of the Assyrian Empire. The Persians were comparatively a gentle empire; while they created extraordinary cruel punishments such as scaphism, they did not commit mass slaughter. Cyrus the Great, the only non-Hebrew prophet in the Old Testament, made the effort of distributing texts of his positive influence on the people and city of Babylon as well as giving the people of Mesopotamia the opportunity to live in peace, as well as his more generous offerings to the gods.

The last Shah of Iran claimed that this text, gleaned from an artifact known as the Cyrus Cylinder, was the first declaration of human rights. It is more widely believed to have been an example of what rulers generally did when they ascended the throne – they gave a reason to the people why they should be happy that the current occupier of the throne is capable and has his people’s best interest at heart. While the Cyrus Cylinder may not be the first declaration of human rights, it is the first example of the social compact in action (Ferguson, 2013).

The Persian expeditions into Europe served as the foundational event of European identity, and the modern popular perspective is one of freedom-loving Greeks defeating and embarrassing the tyrannical Persian Empire. In reality, there were many Greeks who did not mind Persian suzerainty. In the conquered Ionian coast and the free Attica peninsula alike, there was conflict between Greeks that thought Persian rule would be beneficial and Greeks that thought Persian dominion would be disastrous. The conflict inside these cities generally forgotten, but are very similar to how political parties function in the modern day.

The two most important cities that took up arms against the Persians were the Spartans and the Athenians; the Spartans had a dual monarchy that was totally dependent on slaves while the Athenians practiced a direct democracy that still incorporated slavery into its society. These bastions of Western identity stood in direct contrast to the Achaemenid Persians, who did not practice slavery outside of pressing prisoners of war into labor and forcing suppressed rebel groups to pack up and move to a different province. And it is not that slavery was an alien concept to the Persians; the Babylonians they supplanted and the Egyptians that they conquered were both widespread practitioners of human bondage (Roth, 1988).

If humanity has an original sin, it is slavery. The desire to force another person to perform menial tasks or serve in sexual bondage had its genesis far before recorded history. Slavery has existed in some form all across the breadth of human habitation, with regional variations showing priorities in economy; Roman mining sites in Spain and cotton pickers in the antebellum American South serve as examples. In some cases, slaves might have a higher quality of life than their free compatriots – the Janissaries and Mamluks are the foremost example of this. Because of their discipline, skill at arms and proximity to power, they were lavished with wealth – sometimes as rewards, sometimes to have a Sultan avoid a fate that would befall many Roman Emperors by the hand of the Praetorian Guard. Unfortunately for the vast majority of slaves throughout history, this was not a common theme.

The sexual aspect of slavery is one that must be mentioned. Concubines have been a part of Chinese history since the beginning; the Ottoman harem was of mythic reputation. The Romans made thorough use of prostituting their spoils of war; a foundational event in Roman history known as the Rape of the Sabine Women occurred when young Roman men went into the territory of the Sabines, seized their women and bought them back to Rome. The breeding of slaves in America incorporated both forced copulation between slaves and rape by the master onto his slave.

Historical enforced division of society was not just restricted to slavery. The Western European hierarchy is often simplified to nobles at the top, clergy in the middle and peasants at the bottom; Eastern Europe called their peasants “serfs”, and while both peasants and serfs would chafe at the title of “slave”, the fact that they would need permission from their sovereign to leave their land should say enough. The Hacienda system of the Spanish American economies had a hierarchy determined by ethnicity, with Spaniards at the top, Amerinds in the middle and Africans at the bottom. India had a caste system based on tribal affiliation. The Manchus considered the Han Chinese lesser, and forced the Han to dress as Manchus. The Romans cared more about citizenship than ethnicity, but a sharp divide between the patricians and plebeians would contribute to several civil wars.

The most important of these civil wars was the one between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Pompey was fabulous wealthy and had the support of the patrician Optimates, while Caesar was adored by his soldiers and harnessed the backing of the plebian Populares. Assisting Caesar was long-standing resentment by the poor toward the rich, exacerbated by the murder of Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters roughly a century prior. Gracchus gained popularity with the plebians by advocating for a maximum cap on wealth, a public stipend for all citizens, and the redistribution of large estates to give soldiers land to farm when they retire or were not on campaign. This would be the first bloodshed in a century of turmoil that would spell the end of the Roman Republic and the formation of the Roman Empire.

The later disintegration of the Roman Empire in Western Europe was a gradual fall; as areas could no longer depend on the protection of Roman armies from invasion, they started to exercise autonomy. The military commanders of Roman provinces, known as dux, would evolve over time into dukes that controlled duchies; these duchies would conglomerate into kingdoms as well as divided into counties. The most important figure in this time in Western Europe was Charlemagne. King of the Franks, Charlemagne would come to control the lands of France, Germany, northern Italy and the Netherlands. After Charlemagne's death, his property was split between his sons. As his property included the lands he ruled, this succession law known as gavelkind assured that power would not remain centralized through successions. It also assured wars between brothers, as each heir tried to extend his claim on his brothers lands. This would directly lead to many wars among the French, Germans, Dutch, Italians and Austrians through the 1900's.

Leading to further conflict was the surprise coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans by the Pope. Done to bind Charlemagne into protecting Rome from the Lombards and other invaders, it would lead to centuries of disagreement between the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and Popes concerning supremacy. Did the temporal power of the Emperor extend to controlling the Pope, or did the divine power of the Pope give him dominion over the Emperor and his lands? For several centuries, this conflict between nobility and clergy for power would hamper development in Western Europe as commoners were drafted into war, towns were pillaged and children were made orphans (Cristenson, 2013).

Beginning around 1400, a shift started to occur in Western Europe. Cities became more numerous and started to exercise greater autonomy from royalty and clergy; the citizens of these cities, known as burghers, began to care more for wealth than for social status. Meanwhile, popular rebellions started to spring up more frequently; they came in secular forms, such as the Peasant’s Rebellion in England in 1381 and the Peasant’s War in Germany in 1524, and religious forms such as the Hussite Wars in the early 1400’s and the Munster Rebellion in 1534.

Despite the ideological and contextual differences between these and other revolts, there was a common link of self-determination; the lowly people ached for self-determination that the circumstances of their birth denied them. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 would be a benchmark for self-determination; while it didn't give the common people intrinsic rights, it did forbid one nation from imposing its will on the citizens of another nation. This is where the concept of statehood, in opposition to the personal demesne of a noble or clergyman, began to gain traction (Croxton, 1999). Likewise, this is where governments began to draw their legitimacy from the people instead of from the divine.

European Imperialism would be the greatest influence on world events since the Mongolian Invasions; spurred on by national rivalry in Europe and the pursuit of profit, imperialism decimated the Amerind population due to the introduction of Eurasian diseases and upended governments in India, China, and Africa. The export of European populations, crafted goods and weapons to their colonies changed the culture of every land they made contact with, for better or worse. Ultimately, the most important result of European Imperialism may be the foundation of the American colonies that would become the United States of America.

The United States of America began as a federation of independent states that granted voting rights to land-owning white males. As time dragged on, freedom and self-determination was gradually expanded to include non-landowners, non-whites and females. After the Civil War, the United States became more centralized and Americans began to refer to themselves as American more frequently than a Vermonter or a Georgian. America's industrialization, while starting slightly later than the British and French, quickly caught up and made the United States an industrial power as great as any other by 1900.

Industrialization also brought on new popular revolts. Technological advances made some workers obsolete; several simple jobs started to be done by machines, and not all workers accepted the results of progress. The Luddites are the most famous example of these workers; their attempt to stymie the forward grind of technology involved intimidation of factory owners and sabotage of machines. Unemployed tradesmen driven into cities in pursuit of a job also made up an important facet of the French Revolution.

Separate from worker's angst about technological progress was worker's anger at their working conditions. Unrestrained greed was the business practice of the day; unsafe business practices led to tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the debt slavery of workers living in company towns led to numerous strikes that were violently broken up by organizations such as the Pinkertons. The concept of socialism existed before Marx, but started to reverberate much stronger among the working classes in the wake of heavy industrialization in the West.

Theodore Roosevelt was the first American president to recognize the need of acquiescing to worker's demands in order to keep the peace. Helping to end the Coal strike of 1902, Roosevelt made the Federal government an arbiter in labor disputes for the first time. Further improvements to work and life quality such as restricting child labor, increasing worker pay, decreasing work hours and the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and the National Park System details a pragmatic application of idealism. While Roosevelt didn't put much emphasis on circuses, he fully recognized the importance of giving people the means to get quality bread with a quality paycheck. Theodore Roosevelt's attempt to reenter the White House and continue his progressive blueprint was thwarted by the spoiler effect - because of the single vote, first past the post system, Woodrow Wilson became president despite having less than 42% of the vote.

The First World War that occurred between the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was nothing short of a human catastrophe. Millions of young men were sent to die an anonymous, filthy death in corpse-laden mud upturned with constant artillery barrages. This war was nothing short of an industrial slaughter where the accumulated fortune and wealth of Europe, gained by national productivity and imperial conquest, was channeled into a futile conflict that settled nothing except men into the ground.

War, as stated before, is an expensive business. When the warring powers in 1914 realized that the war would not end quickly, then realized that their munitions stockpiles were woefully undersupplied, they turned to the one industrialized nation that did not munitions for themselves - the United States. When the warring powers no longer had money to buy munitions, they started to borrow cash from American banks to pay for American munitions. It was as if a vacuum was sucking up the wealth from Europe and depositing it into America.

The end of the First World War spelled the end of empires. While the British and French empires still held together for another 30 years, the collapse of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires saw the rise of nation-states. Nation-states are the concept that every nation of people have a state that they can call their home. Created with humanitarian vision, it led to widespread death and misery in a world already reeling from the cataclysm of the First World War and the plague of the Spanish Flu. Millions of people were displaced from lands they and their ancestors had lived in for centuries to be forcibly moved to a country drawn on a map by people that have never been there (Preece, 1998).

This pain did not reach the United States. Buoyed by munitions sales and bank interest, the Roaring 20's brought a golden age to the United States. As all good things, this came to an end - the Great Depression would destroy the economic boom and ripple across the world, contributing to the rise of Nazism in Germany and populist forces in America. Figures such as Huey Long promoted ideas that echo the mission of Tiberius Gracchus, such as a public stipend and a cap on wealth, while Father Charles Coughlin advocated for nationalization of major industries, popularized the phrase "social justice" and opined for the suppression of bankers, which eventually revealed his anti-Semitism. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did support the cause of social and financial reform with his New Deal, but did not go as far as Long or Coughlin advocated.

The Second World War that FDR navigated was bloodier than the First World War - while the First had its horrors largely confined to the battlefield, the Second had ghastly violence perpetrated on civilians as well as soldiers. This violence was not a recent development in human experience; it has been present in history going back to the Assyrians. The difference was that the scope of this violence was magnified because of technology; similarly, technology gave us the ability to witness scenes of violence without being present. When the Nazi concentration camps were liberated at the end of the war, General Eisenhower made a protracted effort to document and make public as much of the evil committed there as possible for the expressed purpose of making sure it would never happen again.

The nuclear age that followed the Second World War is largely defined by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and while proxy conflicts did arise in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and elsewhere, it has generally been a time of peace. There have been no nuclear attacks since Nagasaki; more importantly, there has not been a general war between great powers because of mutually assured destruction. The potential of absolute annihilation of humanity first reared its head in the First World War; the mushroom cloud of the Trinity test was a realization of that potential, best encapsulated by Robert Oppenheimer quoting from the Bhadavad Gita : "I am become death, destroyer of worlds". This realization led to the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955, which detailed how nuclear weapons held the potential for human extinction (Krieger, 2005). 

The framework of our present world is based on the outcome of the Second World War. The United Nations announced the Declaration of Human Rights, which was meant to give a baseline of quality of life for all of humanity. The means of enforcing this declaration was dependent on the Security Council, of which the permanent members were the five most powerful victors of the Second World War - the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China. Unfortunately for humanity, these nations rarely agree unanimously; a veto by any of these members derails any Security Council dictate, making the United Nations incapable of enforcing the Declaration of Human Rights. As such, we cannot say we have a global government - for a government to exist, it must have the means of enforcing its laws. The largest entity able to enforce laws remains the nation-state, which generally does not want to give up sovereignty. It would be easy to assign this to the powerful in each nation-state wishing to retain power, but anti-internationalism is very much a populist movement.  

With this accumulated knowledge of the current geopolitical status, human history, and human nature, what is the optimal path to take to ensure the most good for the most amount of people? We have learned that a government must be able to enforce its laws, but cruelty isn't necessary in the enforcement and is sometimes detrimental; we've learned that the personal interest of those in power can overwhelm the public interest if there are no check on their power; we've learned that people's identity can change over time and they can learn to cohabitate with people that do not share a common ancestry; we've learned we can't depend on divinity to bring peace, we've learned that fear drives humans to their most bestial state; we've learned nothing bands people together better than a common threat. Where do we go from here?

The United States has its own house to clean up, but despite the chaos still unfolding from the 2016 election, it is still in the best place to steer global governance for the common good. The United Nations must be reorganized so the citizens of member states can vote for representatives for their country instead of the state sending a bureaucrat to trod the party line; the United Nations must also have the means to assemble and unleash its own military to enforce the Declaration of Human Rights instead of depending on unreliable peacekeepers. Meanwhile, the United States should make an effort to remember what the Roosevelt's learned - keeping order is analogous to maintaining quality of life. A guaranteed base income for citizens should be seriously considered, as wealth is calcifying in the West to greater extents than was seen before the French Revolution (Eliazar & Cohen, 2014). A voting system that counters the spoiler effect should be adopted, to better reflect popular will.

 Most importantly, the United States must lead the way in acknowledging that humans are animals, and in order for an animal to live it must have an environment conducive to life. Trees must be planted and maintain to give us oxygen to breathe; fresh water must be kept clean and drinkable; the lands and seas that give us sustenance must be free of poison. Caring for our environment has nothing to do with caring for the Earth; it is humanity that is in danger. It is our duty to make sure the chain of history does not break in our lifetime.


Christenson, Gordon A. (2013). "Liberty of the exercise of religion" in the Peace of Westphalia. Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems, 21(3), 721.

Cohen, Slon, Barash, May, Medlej, & Hershkovitz. (2015). Assyrian Attitude Towards Captive Enemies: A 2700‐year‐old Paleo‐forensic Study. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 25(3), 265-280.

Croxton, D. (1999). The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and the Origins of Sovereignty. The International History Review, 21(3), 569.

Eliazar, & Cohen. (2014). On social inequality: Analyzing the rich–poor disparity. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Its Applications, 401(C), 148-158.

Ferguson, Barbara G.B. (2013). The Cyrus Cylinder--often referred to as the "first bill of human rights".(SpecialReport). Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 32(4), 38.

Krieger, David. (2005). After fifty years, do we remember our humanity? The Humanist, 65(4), 23-30.

Preece, J. (1998). Ethnic Cleansing as an Instrument of Nation-State Creation: Changing State Practices and Evolving Legal Norms. Human Rights Quarterly, 20(4), 817-842.

Roth, M. (1988). Slavery in Babylonia from Nabopolassar to Alexander the Great (626-331 BC) (Book Review). Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 47(4), 307-308.

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