Three Times Exodus, Three Phase Transitions

In my lectures, based on my reading of history books during 2003-2004, I use a genealogy of social change and phase transitions from one system to another, that starts with the crisis of a dominant system, creating an exodus or flight out of the system, which in turns leads to a mutual reconfiguration of both managerial and producing classes into a new arrangement which forms the seed of the next stage of society and civilization.

Here is that narrative, and I’m interested in your thoughts, and challenges, especially based on the historical record.

The narrative is of course simplified, but the aim is to get the main points of the process, and my hypothesis, across.

The first transition: Rome to feudalism

At some point in its evolution (3rd century onwards?), the Roman empire ceases to expand (the cost of of maintaining empire and expansion exceeds its benefits). No conquests means a drying up of the most important raw material of a slave economy, i.e. the slaves, which therefore become more ‘expensive’. At the same time, the tax base dries up, making it more and more difficult to maintain both internal coercion and external defenses. It is in this context that Perry Anderson mentions for example that when Germanic tribes were about to lay siege to a Roman city, they would offer to free the slaves, leading to an exodus of the city population. This exodus and the set of difficulties just described, set of a reorientation of some slave owners, who shift to the system of coloni, i.e. serfs. I.e. slaves are partially freed, can have families, can produce from themselves and have villages, giving the surplus to the new domain holders.

Hence, the phase transition goes something like this: 1) systemic crisis ; 2) exodus 3) mutual reconfiguration of the classes.

This whole process would of course take five centuries. In the First European Revolution, historian xxx claims that the feudal system would only consolidate around 975, the date of the political revolution confirming the previous phase transition, and setting up a consolidated growth phase for the new system (doubling of the population between 10 and 13th century).

The second transition: feudalism to capitalism

Something very similar starts occurring as of the 16th century. The feudal system enters in crisis, and serfs start fleeing the countryside, installing themselves in the cities, where they are rejected by the feudal guild system, but embraced by a new type of proto-capitalist entrepreneurs. In other words, a section of the feudal class (as well as some upstarts from the lower classes) re-orient themselves by investing in the new mode of production (and those that don’t gradually impoverish themselves), while serfs become workers.

In short, we have the same scheme:

1) Systemic crisis

2) Exodus

3) Mutual reconfiguration of classes

4) After a long period of re-orientation and phase transitions: the political revolutions that configure the new capitalist system as dominant
Again, the process of reconfiguration takes several centuries, and the political revolutions come at the end of it.

Hypothesis of a third transition: capitalism to peer to peer

Again, we have a system faced with a crisis of extensive globalization, where nature itself has become the ultimate limit. It’s way out, cognitive capitalism, shows itself to be a mirage.

What we have then is an exodus, which takes multiple forms: precarity and flight from the salaried conditions; disenchantement with the salaried condition and turn towards passionate production. The formation of communities and commons are shared knowledge, code and design which show themselves to be a superior mode of social and economic organization.

The exodus into peer production creates a mutual reconfiguration of the classes. A section of capital becomes netarchical and ‘empowers and enables peer production’, while attempting to extract value from it, but thereby also building the new infrastructures of cooperation.

This process will take time but there is one crucial difference: the biosphere will not allow centuries of transition. So the maturation of the new configuration will have to consolidate faster and the political revolutions come earlier.

For a related view, see the book Escape Routes.

Commentary from Kevin Carson:


I think here you may be conflating two different exoduses (exodi?).
The free towns themselves, which marked the high point of the medieval
system, were established largely by runaway serfs, and formed around
the nuclei of large strategically situated villages at major
crossroads, fords, etc. The shift to capitalist employment, I think,
was associated with the later alliance between absolute monarchs and
the plutocracy, and involved the suppression of the free towns.

So the founding of the original free towns and guild systems by exodus
from the countryside, and the employment of refugees from the
countryside in proto-capitalist shops outside the guild system, were
two separate phases.

I’m basing this largely on my memory of Kropotkin’s account in The
State and Mutual Aid.


I think the third exodus Michel describes is an exodus with the others
mainly by way of analogy. He doesn’t mean it as a physical exodus in
the same sense as the two previous ones, but rather a dropping out in
place that’s fully compatible with urban residence. It takes the
primary form of dropping out, completely or partially, from wage
employment. It’s what James O’Connor described as “conserving
labour-power” in Accumulation Crisis, as workers shifted to shorter
hours and produced a greater share of total consumption value in the
informal sector. A good example might be the creation of Web 2.0 by
unemployed tech workers following the collapse of the Tech Boom.

3 Comments Three Times Exodus, Three Phase Transitions

  1. AvatarSepp Hasslberger

    I can see the current exodus in the movement towards growing your own food, even in the city, and in the engagement of much brain capacity in p2p and free and open software (non salaried) which ends up forming an important part of a new paradigm of living.

    How long will it be until we are at the reconfiguration step? Years? Decades?

    When we do reconfigure, I believe we will have both the current mode of (capitalist, factory) production for some goods that need large concentration of effort, and a new mode of production which is personalized, component based (using ready-made components) and distributed, meaning the production is happening in many places, close to the consumers who are being served by it.

    There will be a diversification of finance systems, where state sponsored, bank created money is not the only medium of exchange, and there will be a de-centralization of energy production, mediated by a smart grid and new energy storage systems, which allow to better distribute the energy produces, both in space and in time.

    We will probably find that for some applications, the old industrial system that is being (partially) replaced to be superior to the distributed manufacturing that is a characteristic of the p2p world.

    P2P will also reform government where we no longer rely on representatives to be elected every four or five years. The internet will make direct citizen participation in decision making a real possibility.

  2. AvatarPatrick Anderson

    Sepp Hasslberger wrote:

    > current mode of (capitalist, factory)
    > production for some goods that need
    > large concentration of effort,

    We can use factories to produce goods while remaining Peers if the ownership of those factories is distributed (as in avoiding the payment of tribute) and the profit gained during growth is treated as an investment from the Peer who paid it.

  3. AvatarJeff Mowatt

    In Simferopol Crimea 2003, with a proposal for assisting the re-patriated Tatar community, P-CED founder Terry Hallman reflects on the evolution of the information age and those disenfranchised from it.

    “In 1996, I wrote a position paper for the Committee to Re-elect the President (US.) The paper broke new ground in matters worth mentioning here.

    Overall was a warning about leaving more than a billion people in the world to live in poverty. Poverty is a dangerous human condition, and will rarely endure long before explosive consequences result.

    One key point of the paper was that we are now entering only the third age of human civilization in recorded history. The first age was agrarian, where agriculture was the primary method of economic sustenance. This phase of human development allowed people to end nomadic lives of hunting, gathering, and always on the move from one place to another for the purpose of survival. We learned to plant crops, cultivate fields, domesticate animals, and settle in one location to grow food and take care of basic physical survival needs. Once past the need to constantly move around to seek food, we were able to settle down and create more permanent living situations. This in turn allowed the first villages, the first permanent fixtures that gave rise to all of human civilization. This phase continued through most of our history, gradually being refined and improved such that we developed towns, small cities, larger cities, and ultimately, empires. Larger cities and empires were relatively recent developments, within the past five thousand years.

    Then, about three hundred years ago, a revolution took place which ultimately transformed human civilization around the world. This was second phase of civilization, the Industrial Revolution born from Western culture. Machines were invented and developed to do much of the production work required of men or animals for thousands and thousands of years. New machines were created to make clothes, plow fields, reap crops, process food – and of course make war. The Industrial Revolution created the Industrial Age, in which many of us and our ancestors have lived for at least three centuries. It allowed the development of larger cities, new nations, the disappearance of old empires and creation of new ones. It also created considerable culture shock regarding news ways of life as contrasted with how we lived for thousands of years prior.

    During only the past thirty years, another revolution has begun. This is the Information Revolution, the third phase of civilization, now giving rise to the Information Age. This age is characterized by rapid, efficient exchange of information as being the basic economic factor for human survival, whether individuals or nations. Any person or group of people excluded from access to common information will be at a disadvantage serious enough to be a risk to survival. Further, the Information Age is, by its very nature, highly technical. The education and training required to participate may be beyond the grasp of billions of people in the early phase, leaving them at serious economic disadvantage. Thus some people can be excluded from the emerging Information Age, and we come to the problem of the digital haves and have-nots. Those who have access and opportunity to participate in the Information Age can expect a much higher chance of survival than those who do not have such opportunity. Following my 1996 paper, this concept became known as the “digital divide”, a problem to which the US has now addressed tens of billions of dollars.

    A second key point was the consideration of what will happen with those people who are excluded from economic development, doomed to live in poverty with little hope of escape. In the Industrial Age, the agrarian economy did not simply disappear. In the Information Age, the agrarian and industrial economies will not simply disappear. Agrarian, industrial, and information economies will co-exist because all are integral to our collective survival. Still, agrarian and industrial economies will recede to secondary importance as measured by level of income, and those who must rely on the older economies for income will be comparatively worse off than those in the leading economic system, information.

    In order for economic development to take place in any given location, the very first thing required, before anything else can possibly happen, is information. This information includes first and foremost where to look for the necessary resources to do anything. If new businesses are needed, knowing they are needed and finding funding for them are two very different things. The first step is to locate possible capital resources in order to move forward, and this step is no more and no less than information. Once resources are located, the next step is what terms and conditions are involved in obtaining those resources — more information. Once this is known, paperwork must be completed, business plans made, market research and due diligence conducted, and all of this compiled and forwarded to the appropriate parties. Again, nothing more than information. In fact, most of the work involved between identifying a need and solving the problem is information acquisition and management: getting and developing information. Neither agrarian nor industrial economies are possible otherwise. Fast, reliable and efficient exchange of information is essential. Information has now become a critical factor in determining whether any business or economic activity succeeds, or fails. Information and technology specialists are essential to keeping information flowing, and their value is such that they are generally paid more money for work than agriculture or industrial workers. Information workers manage symbols: writing computer programs, compiling and analyzing numbers, and so on. This is the life blood of national economies and the global economy. Nations with inferior information and communication systems suffer more economic difficulties than those with superior systems.

    So the question arises: what happens to those people left out of the information world? Even agrarian and industrial economies are becoming more and more dependent on efficient communication and information. Technology has improved the efficiency of both those economies by replacing human workers with machines. Possibly these displaced workers simply are not needed, nor those people who are already excluded from the information world. Possibly the world can get along just fine with a billion less people. All of us are not needed for a sustainable global economy. In fact, a sustainable global economy can probably be achieved more easily with a smaller human population. In which case, the question arises: who will be disposed of? Are human beings disposable?

    This is a tricky question. Except in the case of self-defense, if for any reason we answer “Yes”, regardless of what that reason is, we are in effect agreeing with the proposition of disposing of human beings. Whether disposal be from deprivation or execution, the result is the same for the victim. If we agree that sometimes, for some reasons, it is acceptable and permissible to dispose of human beings, actively or passively, the next question is “Which people?” Of course I will never argue that one of them should be me, though perhaps it should be you. You respond in kind, it cannot be you, but maybe it should be me. Not only can it not be you, it also cannot be your spouse, your children, your mother or father, your friends, your neighbors, but, maybe someone else. Naturally I feel the same way. Maybe we come to an agreement that it shouldn’t be either you or me, or our families and friends, that can be disposed of, but perhaps someone else. While we are debating this — passionately and sincerely, no doubt — a third party comes along and without warning disposes of the both of us, or our families, or our friends. And there is the trap we have fallen into, because whether or not we approve of our or our families’ and friends’ demise is irrelevant. It is fair because we accepted the principle of human disposability. We just didn’t intend that it be us who are tossed, but if we or our families and friends die, it is in accordance with principles that we ourselves have accepted and so must live and die by.

    Once a nation or government puts people in the position of defending their own lives, or that of family and friends, and they all will die if they do nothing about it, at that point all laws, social contracts and covenants end. Laws, social contracts and covenants define civilization. Without them, there is no civilization at all, there is only the law of the jungle: kill, or be killed. This is where we started, tens of thousands of years ago.

    By leaving people in poverty, at risk of their lives due to lack of basic living essentials, we have stepped across the boundary of civilization. We have conceded that these people do not matter, are not important. Allowing them to starve to death, freeze to death, die from deprivation, or simply shooting them, is in the end exactly the same thing. Inflicting or allowing poverty on a group of people or an entire country is a formula for disaster.

    These points were made to the President of the United States near the end of 1996. They were heard, appreciated and acted upon, but unfortunately, were not able to be addressed fully and quickly due primarily to political inertia. By way of September 11, 2001 attacks on the US out of Afghanistan – on which the US and the former Soviet Union both inflicted havoc, destruction, and certainly poverty – I rest my case. The tragedy was proof of all I warned about, but, was no more tragedy than that left behind to a people in an far corner of the world whom we thought did not matter and whom we thought were less important than ourselves.

    We were wrong.”

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