Monday, May 4, 2009

Where The Wealth Pools

Where does the wealth go? Two places ... which I intend to address in this and the next post.

Most of what I’ve said so far applies to the mainstream of those living in the economic system – a collection of ordinary individuals satisfying their needs or their immediate wants, mostly lacking in education or any sort of extraordinary competence. This must describe the greater part of the population.

We live in a world where there exists a myth – that those persons who possess great wealth are, by definition, competent. This has arisen through various public relations exercises, greatly inspired by philosophies which arose during the Baroque period and embraced by most right-wing parties the world wide. It takes brains to make money – we’re told. It takes extraordinary ability. It proves the superiority of those persons who have money. And so on.

The source for this argument dates from the period that I have been describing, namely the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Certain cultures rose to eminence out of the dark ages, principally because they embraced certain technologies and philosophies, or because they were blessed with a superior agricultural base or the geographical position that would allow them to take advantage of the movement of goods throughout the economic system.

Constantinople (modern Istanbul) is the leading example, one which rose to economic pre-eminence before the Dark Ages began and which continued as the greatest center of knowledge and religion the Earth knew for almost a millennium. This was not chance. A close inspection of Constantinople’s location reveals the inevitability. Not only does the city straddle two considerable hinterlands, western Anatolia and the Balkans, but it controls the most natural trade route from Europe to Russia and most of Asia – including China. Astoundingly, this remarkable position is aided by a strait which is a mere 800 yards in diameter – so that it possesses an optimum military defensiveness as well, from both land AND sea. No wonder that it took six centuries of internal bleeding, corruption on a scale not seen since and the massive force of an entire national religious movement (Islam) – which the city yet withstood for seven centuries - to destroy it. Rule during that period was mostly by usurpation, with most emperors lasting three years or less. Byzantium is the classic demonstration of how to fuck up a good thing.

The wealth in Byzantium during its height, while Europe was wrapped in darkness and both India and China were inward looking, would be by our standards today incomprehensible. By the year 1200, it had become a money sink of gargantuan proportions, paying off with magnificent bribes every other culture in the region: the Seljuk Turks, the Bulgars, the Tatars and the Damascan Arabs. And still having the money to hire Venice – not a few pirates, but the entire Republic – to start another war in the Holy Land. However, the Venetians, heavily in debt and lacking in resolve, were encouraged by one of their mercenary leaders, a certain Baldwin of Flanders, to change their target. In 1204 they sacked Constantinople – the first time that had been done. Even during the barbarian raids which touched off the Dark Ages. Constantinople simply paid the barbarians to keep going west. This raid, which filled Venetian coffers and touched off that nation’s success for the next three centuries, failed to empty the city of wealth. Baldwin established himself as the new Emperor, his line ruling for more than a century before being replaced again by a Byzantine dynasty, which then lasted for another century before finally falling to the Turks. That is power, baby.

Throughout the Middle Ages, to greater or lesser degree, certain groups and regions were able through chance or through resourcefulness to establish pockets of great wealth: Lubeck and the creation of the Hanseatic League; Venice, Genoa and Florence; Bavaria, whose position at the north gate of the Alps enabled the Fuggers to become extraordinarily wealthy bankers; Tombouctou, whose position at the north end of the mid-African Niger swamp provided an ample source of paper (papyrus) for documentation, allowing for a vast, intelligent empire controlling West African trade across the Saharan desert. Other examples abound.

The common thread running through these examples includes technology (bookkeeping, architectural and transport engineering, ballistics), philosophy (political ideology, demagoguery, nationalism) and diplomacy, the last a particular consideration in Italy. The simple fact that Tuscany was one of the richest agricultural places in Europe was considerably aided by an educated, largely free population who were encouraged to express their political beliefs openly, even if this meant almost constant civil strife in the various city states within that region. Venice and its considerable naval fleet were greatly aided by a democratic government at a time when a republic was nearly unthinkable. Similar arguments can be made for Lubeck and later Sweden, and certainly for the rise of England at the end of the Renaissance. People, when encouraged to act freely within a state not bound by religious qualms, could band together to impose a vibrant, ready social policy – indeed, a military policy – against their more reactionary, monarchistic neighbours. This was still true in the late 18th century, when a freshly revolutionized France demonstrated the awesome political power available by tapping a recently liberated populace.

Part of the problem in most invented D&D worlds is their emphasis on one form of government, spread throughout the system, mostly unchallenged by new ideas or alternative methods of government. This is mostly the fault of looking at a D&D world through the modern lens – we live in a world which is mostly interconnected and interdependent, where every part of that world is potentially reached within the space of day by anyone with means. I can sell a few things and liquidate other assets and be in Burma by Friday ... provided I already have my passport and am able to obtain my shots by then. If I am a regular traveller to such places, I could be there by noon today.

No D&D world should be that accessible. Though wealth may accumulate in certain logical places within the system due to unusual levels of trade or spontaneous war, those places will still exist in a bubble of cultural isolation that we can hardly conceive. What is more, the residents within a wealthy social environment will be deeply resentful of foreigners or even strangers from within the country, AND will act very proactively when their culture is threatened.

A common D&D trope follows. Take the usual situation of a thief who has attempted to rob a member of the town, and in failing to do so produces the usual thief’s flight through the crowd pursued by the injured party and perhaps a few of the town guard. True to our perception of such events, none of the crowd pays any attention to what is going on. The scene is directly out of a Charles Dickens novel – writing at a time when society has become deeply divided between outward looking industrialists and the inward-looking poor. In other words, a period having nothing to do with the Middle Ages. Compare the representation of that scene to a similar occurrence in a Greek town, even in the 20th Century, of a few thousand persons – in which life was hardly affected by the Industrial Revolution on account of Greece’s lack of plunderable resources. A thief in that situation could not “run through a crowd.” He would be struck down by the first citizen whose arm he ran past.

A considerable amount of D&D adventuring demands either ignorance or apathy ... conditions which we take for granted but which would not exist in abundance in highly charged political centers such as Florence or Zurich. D&D depends upon bored, listless guards, lazy or disgruntled labourers who can be easily bribed, disenfranchised members of the community seeking personal revenge against blithely unaware upper-class twits, who never imagine that four thieves might jump over their easily climbed walls to snatch the family jewels. Never mind that actual merchants from the period lived atop towers more than a hundred feet high (too high for a low-level thief to climb, whatever their climb percentage might be, since only the most enduring would not fall from mere exhaustion) or in blockhouses with windows too small for even a halfling to slip through. Never mind that foreigners in a town were often required to wear marks on their clothing indicating their status, or that they would not be allowed to purchase the clothing reserved for members of the city, or that their odd features or way of talking would automatically remove any chance that they might “talk their way in” or otherwise create support for their cause.

In the poorer parts of the world, in Poland or Portugal for example, strangers might be welcomed since they would almost always bring money to spend. But the greater the potential for obtaining wealth, the greater the resistance of the indigenous populace to incursions by outside competitors. In other words, Mr. Thief and Mr. Fighter, you aren’t welcome here. Go home. We have plenty of money, yes ... but it is our money, and we’d just as soon keep it that way.

If your characters want some of that money, they’d better show up with an army.

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