A Course of History

This was a stupid idea. I thought it would be handy to talk about the transition from feudal to capitalist society to get a better basis for an elf game economy, and ended up writing about economic development from the origin of organized society (according to some) to the state of the world since about the twentieth century.

The section about pre-society is mostly speculative about how mass organization originated and why, but afterwards I talk in more general terms about a historical path from feudal or tributary society (whatever) to a capitalist one, and also the impact of capitalist imperialism on undeveloped or developing nations. I was wanting to do something like this for Traveller, so this is kind of killing two birds with one stone.

I apologize for teetering the line between speculation and painting with too broad a brush, but at least it felt engaging to write. Enjoy?


See: Engels (1884), Mumford (1967), Irigaray (1979), Diamond (1997), Scott (2017)

It is not a given that human beings should be organized into vast social machines. For most of 200,000 years, human beings lived in bands of a couple dozen members: some nomadic, some sedentary; some agricultural, some herders, some hunter-gatherers. We should not take for granted that anyone lifestyle should have been the direct predecessor to organized society, which is characterized not only by large groups of people but also a social division of labor which organizes individuals into hierarchical classes [1]. After all, because so many worlds have converged into the modern capitalist one, it stands to reason that there is more than one way to arrive at this penultimate endpoint.

One option is that cereal crops could not have been desired to cultivate except by force, since the initial drawbacks of the urban sedentary lifestyle are greater than any benefits, according to Scott (2017); thus organized society was from the onset built on agriculture forced onto ur-serfs by ur-state violence. Like Diamond (1998), Scott attributes the political development of human organization not to any intrinsic characteristics but to geographical circumstance. However, cereal crops alone do not a state make; there is no guarantee that the cultivation of cereal crops necessarily results from forceful agriculture or vice versa. There are likely one or more other factors that tipped the scale to result in social organization, forced labor, and state formation.

My friend John B. from The Retired Adventurer suggested to me that the discovery of bronze or similar materials could have led to much greater social formation (or disruption) than did the cultivation of cereals. Bronze was hard to acquire from mining copper and tin, such that mining was an slave industry from very early on. Unlike organic products, metal doesn’t rot or decompose (at least, not as quickly), which makes it easier to transport over long distances. Finally, bronze is used for domestic and military purpose; with bronze comes weapon smithing and, likely, organized warfare (at least, they seem to originate around the same time in the archaeological record). This locates bronze and similar materials as a candidate for the origin of forced labor, commodity exchange, and society, or it is a clearer path to those things than from cereal crops alone.

John B. and I also both agree that some notion of property must have preceded the origin of the patriarchy or the family (along with property inheritance et cetera) since it seems more likely a side product of an existing economic system than something which was invented or which had emerged for its own sake. If not without notions of property and exchange, what would the rationale be to exchange and own women? Graeber (2011) suggests that slavery emerges from a sort of social death that tears people away from their social networks; if an origin of slavery is to be found in the bronze industry, then an origin of patriarchy in controlling property by commodifying women as slaves would seem a possible candidate as per Irigaray (1979).

Whatever the case, at some point the following things emerged alongside, resulted from, or were constitutive of organized society and perhaps each other: a family unit centered on paternal authority; a division of labor within the family unit; a social division of labor; private property; exchange of property. Not all these things emerged everywhere or in the exact same way, of course, but with respect to organized societies these factors are very common and operate on similar bases. It also tends to be agreed upon that the earliest states did not exist to maintain an economic system, like we think of them now, but they themselves were social machines of mass production and distribution. As such, I think it is fair to begin a more general course of history with tributary, feudal, or palatial society to speak broadly about social organizations which extracted produce (and value) from its members in the form of rent.

Tributary Society

See: Marx (1867), Graeber (2011)

In societies where rent predominates over other possible economic relations, money originates as a unit of account to levy taxes with respect to some measure of average value, e.g. the average produce generated per unit (of land, of population, etc.) over some measure of time.

In medieval England, the annual productivity of a hide (an abstraction of average family holdings of 120 acres) was 1 pound sterling, divisible into 20 shillings or 240 pence. Yet this tax was levied as food rent, that is, harvested crops rather than in currency. The tax was itself a progression of an earlier tax based on concrete land holdings rather than the abstract measure of the hide; counting heads is easier than keeping track of which family has what.

Being a unit of account, money lends itself for exchange of items of equivalent value. Such exchange already took place at various scales, whether between families or between fiefs, but generally between folks of equal status rather than of varying status (between whom rent takes place); however these exchanges were at most based on recording favors expressed in money, rather than there being a direct and immediate exchange of money for the thing. Barter is relatively uncommon except between strangers who cannot guarantee that a favor can be repaid.

Throughout these contexts, however, money already serves in the capacity as a unit of value qua average productivity; that equivalences are being made is given even if there is no exchange of currency. Human activity is already abstracted and compared on the basis of what value one activity proffers versus another. The law of value, even if it does not yet predominate society (though, considering value tax, this is difficult to argue), is germinating.

Early-to-Middle Capitalist Society

See: Marx (1867), Graeber (2011)

Currency does not originate to facilitate barter, but to facilitate exchange on the basis of an existing notion of value which has already constituted organized society hitherto. States often invent currencies to compensate soldiers during war, giving them tokens promising a fraction of the state’s inventory of value to exchange for equivalent values with others: an I.O.U. Even better, the state then extracts taxes in the form of currency, forcing conquered peoples to sell to occupiers and then pay back the occupying power in rent. Currency rapidly proliferates across the society wherever it will be accepted, which expands through conquest or when the volume of purchasable produce is so great that the value of the currency as a medium of exchange is intuitive. Finally, it is not until money makes the world turn that we begin to understand that, despite appearances, land has always been a metaphor—an expression, a representation, a substitution—for social value.

In the face of free exchange of value, the rent extracted from feudal and absolutist states on the basis of divine right seemed unjust and exploitative. Bourgeois revolutions were headed by peasants and the middle class (consisting of merchants) to overthrow their overlords. After these uprisings, there were already individuals with more valuable holdings than others; yet primitive accumulation would ensue to forcibly privatize common lands and force the peasantry to become increasingly landless, with nothing of value except their capacity to produce more; this is the basis of a working class (proletariat) which sells their time in order to survive, and a capitalist class (bourgeoisie) with the capital to purchase their time and sell the new value they generate.

Peasants who still owned land were yet at risk of proletarianization, i.e. the process of losing their capital assets and being forced to join the working class. This same holds true for artisans who own their own capital and can employ their own time, but over time risk losing their market share and livelihood to increasingly large firms. These members of the petite bourgeoisie may have left their homelands while they still had their chance, to colonize other worlds and take from indigenous people there what would have been taken from themselves by big capitalists or the state. Rinse and repeat all that had happened. The world bleeds with colonization and industrialization.

Middle-to-Late Capitalist Society

See: Marx (1867), Luxemburg (1909), Lenin (1917), Fanon (1961), Debord (1967)

Industries industrialize. Or, in order to compete with other firms or to make large-scale production possible, machines powered by steam (and later electricity) are invented to increase productivity. Such machines employ "dead labor" in the sense that capitalists do not pay wages to employ them, but only pay the cost of purchasing them at their market value. Once a machine becomes commonplace in an industry (or, rather, the productivity granted by the machine), the value of the final product is partly pegged to the value of the machine. Some reactionary workers blame machines for worsening the human condition, or for turning what was once an artisan craft into a mass industry. Others realize it is not the machines to blame, but capital which seeks its own expansion blind to any other factor.

Firms which have attained a degree of international success may find themselves having more capital than they know what to do with. They export goods and capital to undeveloped nations, commanding the markets there by wielding control over their productivity. For nations without any previous capitalist relations, this economic imperialism accelerates the development of capitalism therein—at the whim of the international firm rather than the national bourgeoisie if one even exists. Nationalist revolutions, class collaborationist unions of bourgeoisie and peasantry and even proletariat, strive to ostensibly retake control of the nation from outside forces; in reality, the nation at this stage is in the middle of its own creation.

In developed countries, firms invent new needs to create new markets. It becomes more apparent than ever before that value was never about creating something useful, but creating something demanded; and now demand can be created ex nihilo, by asserting the value of what has been invested in its production. Mass media proliferates and culminates in a topsy turvy society of spectacle, a world of images detached from the physical world and subject to commodity logic alone. Similar to how value seized upon every product once human activity could be measured, the spectacle seizes upon every image, every signifier, to reconcile it with the world of spectacular demand.


The outline above is not inclusive of every possible organization of human society or, more broadly, lifestyle. It also does not represent a path which necessarily had to happen. The most we can do is look at the past and understand what circumstances determined history’s course in retrospect. Being conscious that this is but one path, yet one path which history actually took, we can refer to it to situate the social and historical contexts of our fictional worlds.

I hope it’s clear, though, that this is at least not a taxonomy of discrete time periods or socioeconomic organizations or whatever. Each of these periods, whether or not their inhabitants are aware, are always transitioning (if not collapsing) into new states of “history”. For example, I have chosen to distinguish between different stages of capitalism not as early, middle, and late, but as early-to-middle and middle-to-late. That is because these phases are not really distinct but always developing into the other as market forces intensify and advance themselves. Even more important is that late stage capitalisms depend on earlier stage capitalisms in order to continue to valorize themselves (what Lenin called the imperialist stage), the latter often also being engaged with feudal society such as in pre-revolutionary Russia and China [1]. I am also reminded of the bronze age collapse in Mycenaean Greece, where the palatial city states collapsed into a peasant economy that would later develop into the city states we now associate with Classical Greece [2]. History is about constantly failing, and I hesitate to say it fails upward. The task is thus to figure out exactly in what (non-vertical) direction it fails.

Post Script: I wrote this two months before learning about and playing Disco Elysium by the now-defunct ZAUM. However, in hindsight, I would absolutely recommend reading "Disco Elysium Outro" by co-creator Robert Kurvitz [3].


[1] I’ll be the first to say that I think most of the post-1917 revolutions are better described as national bourgeois movements rather than proletarian ones, since their struggle was mostly against international economy and national feudalism. I just don’t really care; I find it more interesting than anything else.

[2] The iconic ones being democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta, both having vast slave economies to support their citizens.

[3] Kurvitz, Robert. 2020. "Disco Elysium Outro", Disco Elysium Artbook.


Debord, Guy. 1967. The Society of the Spectacle.

Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

Engels, Frederich. 1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.

Fanon, Franz. 1961. The Wretched of the Earth.

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

Lenin, Vladimir I. 1917. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 1909. The National Question.

Marx, Karl. 1867. Capital, Volume I: The Process of Production of Capital.

Mumford, Louis. 1967. The Myth of the Machine, Volume I: Technics and Human Development.

Scott, James C. 2017. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.


  1. Hello, Marcia! I respect the ambition of this post. Like many other folks who study history though very specialized lenses (or are gearing up to do so in grad school…), getting a lil twitchy when working at scales so vast is my natural response, but hopefully I can engage with this in an effective manner by limiting comments to the “Presociety” section. Alas, I’ll be forced to ignore your injunction to DISCUSS INDUSTRIALIZATION - forgive me. :P

    I suspect that a good deal of the obscurity you’re running up against in that part of the post is due to the nature of the sources being drawn upon. God forgive me for sounding like a cliodynamics freak, but the historian’s craft is one that does improve on its own analytical toolkit, and it def feels easier to see that improvement through the negative case here with writers that are either unable (like Engels, Mumford, and Irigaray) or unwilling (like Diamond, though the issue may very well just be ignorance there) to engage with the transformative impact of newer work in social anthropology on history. Scott is unsurprisingly the most in-sync with this body of work, especially with the focus on mobility, but Against the Grain misses the forest for the trees in some important ways imo.

    You basically got at it yourself - “it stands to reason that there is more than one way to arrive at this penultimate endpoint.” There’s been a lot of thinking done on what factors exactly contribute to the formation of the “social division of labor which organizes individuals into hierarchical classes” that you rightly point out as the key feature(s) of concern here - anthropologists and ethnographers in the 80s grappling with this specific question realized that the understanding of inequality as an emergent property of a *state structure* or its processes in opposition to those “involved” in genericized imaginings of hunter-gatherer/forager societies missed out on the vast differences between h-gs themselves. A number of these folks, most famously the late great James Woodburn, conducted research working with relatively recent ethnographic accounts and living h-g cultures aimed at trying to find out why some h-gs form remarkably egalitarian societies (like some !Kung groups, the Mbendjele, the Hadza, the Mbuti, several Australian aboriginal peoples) and others lived in ones with marked social inequality, strong institutions of leadership, slavery, population density, organized violence, occupational specalization, systems for reinforcing patriarchy, and other stuff previously - and wrongly - associated with farming/mining cultures in particular (like the Haida, the Babito, the Chumash, other Australian aboriginal peoples, the Tlingit or the Chukchi.) To summarize, a very strong and consistent pattern was found - those h-gs that formed post- or trans-egalitarian societies lived in areas where a hunting and foraging strategy could produce consistent resource surpluses, particularly through the logic of *delayed-return* social economics where storage and extended time investment was involved. There was also a strong correlation between the employment of immediate-return systems, occupation of relatively marginal territories, and the “[imposition] of economically egalitarian relations through procedures that force sharing on anyone with more than they can immediately consume and so prevent saving and accumulation." I’ll avoid some of the thornier questions about what generates the difference and just point out that it’s widely agreed upon that the majority of immediate-return societies live in environments which render immediate-return options more adaptive, producing the overall effect of egalitarianism - I go into how exactly this works a bit more in this post here if you’re interested, but it’s sort of rambly: https://majesticflywhisk.blogspot.com/2022/09/egalitarian-constraints-thinking-about.html

    1. Later scholars continue to confirm these results, although the model has been refined - thinking specifically of the paper that Robert Layton put out this year on the topic that (partially) argues for an new understanding of the delayed-return/immediate-return categories along several interrelated axes instead of two monolithic blocs. There’s also differences between the materialist/conditional school of interpretation as represented by figures like Brian Hayden and the older one associated with Woodburn, though that’s just a distraction at this point.

      Farming or mining or w/e is p clearly unnecessary, people can and did build societies that fully hit the “social division of labor which organizes individuals into hierarchical classes” target with stone tools and foraging systems in the right conditions. Farming actually kinda sucks ass as a road to doing this. This is reinforced by current work on Paleolithic sites like the recent book-length study on Dolní Vestonice-Pavlov by Jirí Svoboda, where scholars have begun interpreting features of some sites (Sunghir being another example) as indications of post-/trans-egalitarian social structures. Which makes sense! Mammoth product storage systems, some textiles, strong hints at semi-sedentarism along the river - reading Svoboda’s book, I was struck by how similar the reconstruction was to the incipient/weak trans-egalitarianism of Siberian peoples like the Yukaghir and the Nenets. Maybe that’s a point for Hayden, the last remnants of the mammoth steppe biome today are Siberian after all. This also works the other way; in the aforementioned Layton paper, the author points out that even Scott’s work on the moral economy of peasantries kinda implicitly accepts the presence of what most modern social anthropologists would call immediate-return strategies in the forms of altered mobilities and demand-sharing. I’ll allow hubris to consume me for a moment and forward a theory, admittedly based on the research of much smarter people like David Schoenbrun and Holly Hanson, that the societies of the northern Lakelands around Africa’s Inland Sea/Nnalubaale/”””Lake Victoria””” (blegh) prior to the 1700s could probably be understood along similar lines.

      There’s probably something to an amended version of Scott’s thesis - perhaps there’s some feature of the *particular* delayed-return strategy of grain cultivation that lent itself to a particularly vicious series of scaffolding incidents with other delayed-return resource strategies (the mining mentioned in the post comes to mind) which ends in things like the young states of the Near East. Maybe it's the inefficiency? Like everyone and their mom has already pointed out, early grain farming is kind of like smashing your head into a wall, so it’s possible that expanded social technologies for organizing violence and maintaining difference were required for elites to achieve the surpluses that flowed more easily out of trans-egalitarian hunting-gathering strategies on the Zambezi floodplain or in the PNW. Anyways, this new formulation moves away from ideas about the evolution of class or slavery or the like (for good reason), so it’s already kind of beyond our original question.

      In the process of moving this from Docs to Blogger, I realized that this kinda has the energy of a rant, so I’ll emphasize that I liked this post a lot! Anything that promotes the investigation of historical systems in this hobby earns an A+ from me and I don’t even think the stuff discussed undercuts the arguments of later sections. I really hope you work on more posts of this nature in the future. Stay cool! ^_^

    2. Having some understanding of the economy of a setting is at the core of all the best ones, but it's an axis of world development I always bounce off of. I appreciate you making it a little more bite-sized here.

    3. hello enziramire! thank you for your kind words and for sharing your post :) that makes a lot of sense that societies which have egalitarian relations tend to come out of environments which facilitate that (i.e. immediate-return environments). i think you're right that, when it comes to the earliest states, it was probably a variety of different scarcity factors that contributed to increasingly complex and non-egalitarian societies. also, thank you for pointing out that i forgot to update a paragraph haha! updated since :)

      and hello nick! thank you as always for your kind words and encouragement :D

    4. It was worth the wait! Already colonized the comments for long enough but I had a quick question on that industrialization section - would it make sense to think of Lukács’s reification as a sociological extension of Marx’s dead labor? The crystallized effort of so many workers going back generations and reanimated in the production process dominating the living labor of workers feels like it bears a more than passing resemblance to the triumph of rationalized (in a Weberian sense, not a value judgement ofc) institutions and impersonal laws - the congealing of past labor into a thing simultaneously creating a law-governed world of reified social “things.” I fully admit that it could be stretching the metaphor beyond usefulness, but it *feels* like in both processes, it’s an ossified form of workers’ products that stands over and against them. Wael Hallaq’s Shari’a: Theory, Practice, Transformation goes into the effects of common-lawification and the colonial (or self-colonizing - in the case of the Ottoman Tanzimat) experience on shari’a in a Lukácsian manner and he talks about “entexting” as functionally the killing and preserving of a once-living world of social negotiation into a codified system of rationalized law in a way that now sounds eerily similar to the discussion of dead labor in your post:

      “As we have seen, it was in British India that the ‘entexting’ of fiqh first occurred – where, that is, the fiqh was fixed into texts as a conceptual act of codification. British India, subjected to direct forms of colonialism, displayed the processes and effects of crude power and hegemonic discourse more clearly than, say, the Ottoman Empire, although the latter was no less affected by hegemonic modernity, in all its aspects, than any other directly colonized subject. The Indian experiment (and no less the Ottoman) served an immediate epistemological function in the colonialist articulation of Islam. What amounted to a large-scale operation by which Islamic jural practices were reduced to fixed texts created a new way of understanding India and the rest of the Muslim world. Integral to this understanding was the pervasive idea that to study Islam and its history was to study texts, and not its societies, social practices or social orders. Entexting the Shari’a therefore had the effect of severing nearly all its ties with the anthropological and sociological legal past, much like the consignment of events to the ‘dark ages’ or medieval period in the European historical imagination. Once the anthropological past was trampled under by an entexted Shari’a, the very meaning of fiqh was severely curtailed, if not transformed, having been emptied of the content and expertise necessary for a genuine evaluation of Shari’a-on-the-ground, and of its operation within an ecological system. It was also, as a consequence, stripped of much of its previous relevance. The new nationalist elites, endowed with the legacy of colonial state structures, aggressively pursued this severance of Shari’a from its anthropological past. Entexting served the nation-state’s project of social engineering very well.”

    5. finally got a new computer!!! i think the connection between reification and capital as dead labor is extremely apt, especially in the context of what debord calls the spectacle--the social dimension of capitalism which remaps social relations according to commodity logic (in order to reshape society towards increased capital valorization). your connection is well-spotted and extremely fascinating :D

      also thank you for sharing the passage by hallaq! i appreciate the description of how a society becomes detached from the conditions which produced it, and acquires the perception of existing according to inherent beliefs or mores. that sort of zombification seems central to identity construction that we see in colonialism, state formation, and capitalism.


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