It might seem odd writing about civilization and city life on a site that focuses on nature and traditional way of life, but as the latter connects to history and our reading of it, and to our way of applying our understanding of it to our own time and our place in nature, I think the topic discussed here is very relevant, and growingly more so by the day, even. So please bear with me for a bit.
I will begin by speaking a little bit about ideals. Ideals are by their very nature unfulfillable as true perfection can never be achieved. That however, does not mean ideals are pointless as the journey towards the goal has a great value on its own, especially the closer you get to the goal.
The closer you get, however, the more difficult it gets holding on to them, since you easily loose sight of both the starting point and the distance travelled, focusing on the small distance ahead, and like the event horizon of a black hole, close to it the remaining distance seems to extend, stretching to appear longer than it actually is.
The distance travelled, the starting point and the reason for the journey musn’t be forgotten though. Anything else is both a betrayal to ourselves and a great disrespect to our forefathers who fought for the ideals we today greatly benefit from.
This is true for both individual perspective and for society.
Now, some argue that we are at the brink of catastrophy and societal collapse, that things used to be so much better at some unspecified point in time, but generally before our own. If you are one of them, if you think Western society of today is in a decline, then you really should read the personal stories of people living in the first few decades of the 20th century, which means the generations that are just now dying off.
On the surface things can look idyllic in old photos, with romantic dresses and men in suits like in the paintings of Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson, but when you scratch on things, they quickly fall apart. But, to understand this, we need to look at the precursors of proper 19th cent industrialism, with business and industry relating to primarily mines and forest. In Sweden, processing of such raw materials to refined products like iron ore, planks, charcoal, glass and paper was often done at special remote farms called “bruk”. This term is noted as far back as 16th cent and directly translated means “making/using”, but is roughly equivalent to “company village”. These were independent small factories, and unlike e.g. tool making did not need state/crown permission. These villages were very important for the development of modern states, but were often run as small kingdoms by investors seeking quick profit in lands where resources and workforce was cheap.
Up until the end of WW2 in 1945, the majority of the Swedish population still lived in the countryside, while in 1910-20 only ca 25% lived in cities, and around 1870 less than 12% did the same. Most cities were still very small. By the end of the 1700s, Sweden’s two largest cities, Stockholm had 75,000 inhabitants, while Gothenburg had a mere 12,800 citizens. It is in this light, the processing factories, the bruk, should be regarded.
Around these bruk, villages called “brukssamhällen” were formed, with people mainly employed by the owner of the “bruk”, often with a somewhat particular identity and customs, and much of this controlled by the owner. Commonly it was forbidden to let out a room to someone not employed by the company, thus controlling the amount of strangers in the village. Likewise, it was commonly forbidden to run a business from one’s farm. Other characteristics for these societies was strict social control, low interest in higher education, little social mobility and little social interchange between classes.
The absolute majority of the population would start working already as small children, like my own grandfather who started working in the woods at the age of 5, then as young men and women working 12-14 hours per day, not counting overtime which was unpaid. Working six days per week, and no vacation, but not being paid enough even to cover what they ate during the work day, earning less than what was spent on the food for prisoners. Walking long distances, up to 10km/6mi, to work every morning and evening was not uncommon, sometimes carrying heavy work equipment every time. This would add several hours to the already long work day. Housing was crude, with families often living in a single room so covered in beds that it was difficult to even move, with very basic sustenance, at times literally starving.
Having no real influence or power over their lives, the workers could count on losing jobs regularly and without forewarning, and on being robbed of earned pay by abusive employers. Bachelors had it even rougher, often renting a small, unheated room from a family or living in cramped, filthy and cockroach and lice-ridden barracks, sharing a small bed with another man, and being forced to travel long distances on foot for job opportunities. Financially they were slightly better off than families though, as the latter commonly only had just enough money for food, but not for clothes.
Commonly they were forced to buy their supplies from the company’s supplies store, never receiving any cash, but only getting credits in the company store, and often ending up in deep debt to the company due to the wages being so low that they couldn’t cover the expenses of a normal family. Cash money, the workers often had to apply for, and were forced to explain the reasons why they needed it, but commonly not getting what they asked for. Some companies even printed their own money which could only be used in their own stores.
By the early 1900s nearly half the previously privately owned land in provinces like Jämtland and parts of Värmland had been sold to the timber companies. In some parishes nearly all land was sold. Whole villages were bit by bit put into debt as the farmers, often analphabets, were first filled up with booze and scammed into selling their forests for scandalously low amounts of money, like the farmers of Skålan, Sweden where some of my forefathers lived, who sold a 50-year right to fell trees in their woods for 7,000 Swedish Crowns, a right expected to earn the company about 100,000,000 Swedish Crowns. This was common practice and normally between 1 percent and 1 permille of the actual value was paid. In the cases where the farmers didn’t agree it was not uncommon for them to be threatened or simply beat up with sticks or whips until they did.
Many of the farmers were then tricked into switching to working in the promised lucrative timber industry on their previously owned land, but too late realized the debt-incurring trap their contract put them in. A timber sled/carriage driver could well end up several hundreds of Swedish Crowns in debt in a single winter, which would have indebted him for life. And through this, they soon ended up in bankruptcy, seeing their homes falling into disrepair and being forced to sell their horses and cattle, with villages in the end completely abandoned. The enormous wealth in profit ending up solely in the pockets of what often amounted to outright criminals, with much of it also ending up in the pockets of foreign stock holders. And the profit was immense. Between 1875-1895 alone, the profit from the northern woods was an estimated 2,000 million SEK, this at a time when a year’s salary for the normal 72-84 hour workweek paid about 4-500SEK.
In an old book with saw mill worker autobiographies one of them tells how he considers himself lucky to only have spent about 15 months hospitalized with broken limbs in his 30 year career, this since according to him most men lost limbs working in the saw mill, with the saws and machinery being completely exposed and the workers commonly worn out and dead tired. And the drinking among the workers was crazy heavy by today’s standards, even at young age, with fist and knife fights very common, further adding to the risk of severe bodily harm. Luckily the worker’s sobriety movement would in time improve on this.
Still, even if you managed to escape accidents and injuries, the work was physically extremely hard and a stacker would be worn out in six to eight years, which is what happened to my grandfather in the 1940s, with neck damage for the rest of his life, making it impossible for him to turn his head. MP and Aftonbladet’s Chief Editor Ernst Beckman describes the stackers in the following words:
The stackers are easily recognized, their clothes are soaked in sweat, sticking to their limbs, their body, naturally strong, is twisted, one shoulder raised, the chest sunken, the skin not seldom greyish, a sign of general overexertion. They sacrifice a lot to bring the world beautiful floors and sturdy ship decks. If any mortal, when the night falls, needs rest and deserves her, it is them, they are the martyrs of the timber movement.
With early industrialization of the 19th cent, toxic waste was poured straight into the streams, rivers and oceans that people lived with and used, leading up to my own birth island being nicknamed the “Cancer Island” due to the dioxin waste of the heavy industries and saw mills nearby ruining people’s health. People who got old or cronically ill were simply fired and unless they had relatives to help, they ended up as beggars with soon death.
Social travelling, from a worker or peasant family to becoming a merchant or academic, was almost non-existant as there simply were no real means available for it. Outside of a military “career”, farming, crafting or industry were the only options available for the majority, with the first being a risky prospect as it relied on the unreliable forces of nature, and the last risky due to the lack of safety regulations in the very dangerous working environments. As for commercial crafting there were rarely any opportunities to learn, and do business with, such trades outside of the cities”, and commonly not allowed in the “company villages”.
Meanwhile the rich sawmill owners led extremely luxurious lives, completely disconnected from the harsh realities of the people they exploited. This is very well exemplified by the timber crisis of 1879, where the state of Sweden gave an emergency loan of 3 million Swedish Crowns to the largest company owners, to cover for a drastic drop in timber prices which was affecting the whole timber industry.
However, to fully compensate for the drop in profit, the sawmill owners had already lowered the wages for the workers by 20%, far below the starving point, and children were at the time noted as literally dying of starvation with several recorded deaths. Ignoring this, the sawmill owners put all of the emergency loan in their own pockets, letting the workers alone take the hit of the crisis. As a result the sawmill owners saw no drop in profit, despite the crisis, even gaining a beneficial loan for further investment.
Happy with their great fortune the sawmill owners held a great party to celebrate. When the starving workers learned of all this, they became furious and went on a peaceful strike with regular prayer meetings, supported and calmed by the religious sobriety movement. This strike never went violent from the workers’ side, but ended after eight days with a brutal display of power as King Oscar II sent General Weidenhielm, along with six cannon boats and one mine ship with in total 300 navy soldiers, and another near 700 infantry soldiers, armed with rifles, bayonets, sabres and heavy machine guns, completely surrounding the gathered 1,200 striking workers.
Nobleman, and strict conservative, Governor Curry Treffenberg then gave the workers the “fatherly advice” to without furher delay return to the sawmills or risk lethal violence, (something which was indeed put to use 50 years later in Ådalen in 1931, where five workers were killed by rifle and machine gun fire). Continuing, the governor appealead to their belief in God, stating that they by divine order had to obey their king, that not doing so would be blasphemy. Furthermore, they would risk being arrested, replaced by strike breakers, and evicted from their homes. Under these threats, the strike finally caved in and the workers returned, without having been met in their demands for having full salary again. Following this, another 200 soldiers under the command of Colonel Rehausen, arrived, sent to further safeguard the company interests.
Happy with this victory and shortly after, the sawmill owners held another party to celebrate, while their threats were made good and the chosen strike leaders, picked as such by the governor, were fired with their families being evicted from their homes, and the men forced to do hard labour since they were now considered drifters. The strikers in reality had no leaders, being a leaderless roots movement and spokespersons just chosen by coincidence and due to happening to stand near the governor at the rally. Although incarcerated for a very harsh six weeks, none of them were convicted in court. Many were however prohibited from ever working in the city again.
Conservative newspapers at the time portrayed Governor Treffenberg as a hero for his “courageous display of restraint” and his “protecting of society“. The official conservative explanation for the strike was that the causes were to be found within the ties between Christian anarchism and political radicalism, with evil forces seeking to take possessions and freedoms from the pillars of society.
For brick and mortar breed filth and crime,
With a pulse of evil that throbs and beats;
And men are whithered before their prime
By the curse paved in with the lanes and streets.
And lungs are poisoned and shoulders bowed,
In the smothering reek of mill and mine;
And death stalks in on the struggling crowd — But he shuns the shadow of the oak and pine
– George “Nessmuk” Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1884
What about public safety then? Well, in the larger cities criminality was rampant with organized gangs of young men robbing and stealing, fighting the police and other gangs with clubs and knives, making the streets very unsafe for everyone. All industrial cities suffered from them and in some, like Paris, they were tens of thousands strong, making them up to four times stronger than the police force.
Turning to Sweden again, the quick growth of Stockholm had caused a severe shortage of housing. By the first decades of the 1900s, Stockholm was nearing 400,000 people, almost a 100,000 more people than 20 years before. Many poor families lived in unthinkable conditions, with the fortunate ones sharing a small single room for five people, oftentimes sleeping in shifts. Others worse off slept in factories and sheds, in filthy and cramped barracks, even living under boats and tool sheds with children half-blind and crippled from never really walking in the cramped, dark and sooty spaces.
The shantytown of Stockholm, built from cardboard boxes and tin sheets had lone children lying in the dirt while their parents were away working in the factories. In some parts of Stockholm, half the youths and children quit school before sixth grade. Many joined gangs and lived off of smalltime robberies, theft and scamming, and were reported hassling passengers and staff on the commuter trains, even throwing rocks at the trains and breaking lamps. Every fourth prisoner at the Långholmen prison was under the age of 21.
Stepping back a bit in time again, by the middle of the 1800s, Sweden saw about 150 murders per year, compared to today’s ca 100, despite a population of just above 3.4 million, i.e. about a third of today. Medical and social advances of course account for some of the lower numbers of today, but not all, as the relative number of reported acts of violence, not least knife violence, has also dropped in half, and considering how violence in the home and fisticuffs between drunk men, even using clubs and kicking people lying down was both very common and, more or less, socially accepted and thus commonly never reported, while today people are far more likely to report most such incidents.
The big change in Sweden came with the sobriety movement and the social improvements of the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century, something which would turn for the worse again with the mid to late 20th century, and the quickly expanding drug market.
Opium, morphine and cocaine addictions, or “habits” as they were called, were growingly more common in cities like Paris, London, San Fransisco, Chicago, New York, Nashville, Memphis and Victoria, Canada, ever since the 1800s. This was a hugely important and profitable trade, and the British Empire literally fought wars in order to safeguard its international drug trade, while China was suffering badly from widespread drug use, driven by this foreign trade.
From China, this then spread to the West where these drugs were used mainly by the middle and the upper classes, with notable authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens being associated with the use. At one time, opium is said to have been as popular as alcohol in 19th cent England, this among both men and women.
Without this valuable and essential medicine it would be next to impossible for a Physician to practice his profession with any considerable degree of success. It may…be called the…soothing angel of moral and physical pain.
Dr. John C. Gunn, on opium, 1830
Today’s issues with drug addiction finds its roots in the late 19th cent pharmaceutical industry. Even as early as in 1782, it was common practice for women in some parts of Massachusetts to take a dose of opium every morning. And women of all social standings used it, either out of boredom, stress and anxiety, or to be able to endure the long workhours in the factories, or the harsh life of a prostitute, where 2/3 of the latter were reported to use it in 1870’s New York. Unlike alcohol, the use of opiates was far less stigmatizing and thus tempting for women in particular. An estimated 150,000-200,000 opiate users were living in the US in the late 19th century, this at a time when the USA had a population of ca 40 million.
The upper class women commonly received the drug from their private physicians, but it was readily available to everyone in various forms, not least in drinks and tinctures like Coca Cola, Peruvian Wine of Coca and Pemberton’s French Wine. Cocaine itself was at first regarded as a cure against opiate addiction and was readily sold in drug stores. By 1900 it grew immensely popular in large parts of the US and people of all social standings injected, sniffed or drank it. Heroin too was a commercial product, from the Bayer pharmaceutical company, first sold in 1898. It was heavily marketed as non-addictive, and this too used to “cure” morphine addiction. Within a decade New York City alone had an estimated 200,000 heroin addicts, this with a population of 4.7 million.
While first synthesized already in 1887 and sold from 1934 as benzedrine, amphetamine became properly popular with WW2, used by both the Allied and the Axis forces to stimulate the worn out soldiers. After the war, now with a surplus of already produced amphetamine, the drug was liberally prescribed to millions of American and European housewives, curing them of their “moods” and “nerves”, enabling them to work more, and keeping them slim.
The late 19th century is also the period of the intense drinking of absinthe, which the French drank 36 million litres per year of, on top of their 5 billion litres of wine. This for a total population of 40 million, men, women and children. Sweden, on the other hand, originally driven by the workers’ sobriety movements, introduced a system for limiting the amount of alcohol people were allowed to buy each month in 1919. The limitations were very mild by today’s standards, which says something about the levels of drinking at the time, limiting the allowable amount for purchase of hard liquour to 3 litres per month, not counting beer or wine. You could also apply for larger purchases, which the wealthy commonly did and were granted, in some cases up to 50 litres per year. The USA went even farther, completely forbidding the production, import, transport and sale of alchohol with the Prohibition of 1920, something which would last until 1933.
Disregarding the heavy drug and alcohol abuse, circumstances were not much better earlier in history for the greater masses of people, especially in the late Middle Ages and onwards. While it came to its extreme with early industrialization and the quick growth of the cities, life for the greater majority was extremely harsh even before this. That said before the 16th century there were some, to many surprising, social efforts made, for instance free public schooling in the cities in the early 14th century, as recommended by “Aristotle” to Alexander the Great, in one of the most read books of the time, Kitab Sirr al-Asrar (Book of Secrets). However, only a very small minority of the European population actually lived in cities.
Shut up, peasant, and bear in mind what I am saying; I cannot withhold the truth any more:
You should be punished every year
With the sword, as a willow
Is wounded every year, naked and bare
And the next year it is all the more fruitful;
Its thicket would otherwise hinder its growth.
– Rhymed chronicle of the Swabian War
In the Middle Ages, the common “noble” and Christan view was that peasants couldn’t handle peace and prosperity well, becoming complacent and demanding, and therefore needed to be “pruned” regularly, i.e. having their farms burned and cattle killed, or be killed themselves. This in order to keep the peasant stock strong and sound. This also safeguarded that they were kept in place and didn’t grow wild.
Peasants are best when they grieve, and worst when they rejoice.
– Medieval saying
In short, peace, prosperity and luxury was for the nobility and patricians alone, by divine order, and anything else threatened the very fabric of society. Like with a husband and his wife and children, the poor had to be kept on a tight leash by their masters, and would benefit from it.
This may perhaps also be regarded as a somewhat perverted form of the ideas expressed by both Plato and Aristotle and debated by St. Thomas of Aquinas in his Summa Thelogica, written in 1265-74 AD, where he states.
Further, just as in a kingdom there is a ruler and subject, so also is there in a household. If therefore domestic like political is a species of prudence, there should be a paternal corresponding to regnative prudence.
Aquinas, like Plato and Aristotle argued that the function of the state was to promote virtue, which would lead to happiness, and in Aquinas’ case, this meant promoting virtuous subjects in order to serve God, which in turn would lead to happiness. In this, the benevolent father was a strong symbol used, as expressed by Aristotle:
The government of a household is a monarchy, since every house is governed by a single ruler.
This very imagery and ideas would persist well into the early 20th century with the rich company owners forbidding the forming of workers unions as they were “not in the interest of the workers” and “against both human law and divine order” and immensely dangerous as they would “disintegrate society“, as proclaimed by a sawmill owner in my hometown in 1899. Instead the company owner would see to that the workers’ needs were satisfied, of course therethrough also having the power to make the decision what exactly those needs were, just like a father with his family. And as we’ve seen, usually not doing more than what was absolutely necessary for people to at all survive, sometimes not even that.
In between this, there is of course also a small group of relatively richer farmers, with farmsteads that employed several people and who also travelled to regional markets to sell surplus of crops and cattle. And you also have the small group of townspeople, living safe within high and strong city walls, busy with work as craftsmen, buying and selling goods, and this is what we mostly think of when we think of “history”. Written history mostly revolves around the select few, the rich and those who made a personal mark in history records, the kings and nobility, the military leaders, the artists and the merchants, all against a backdrop of the city, so we mostly only see the nicer side of things. Not that of the poor, the rural peasants and workers who made up the masses. Still, the cities were a nursery, an engine for rapid development of invention and culture, for good and bad.
Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.
– The Bible, Acts 4:33
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all
– The Bible, Colossians 3:11
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus
– The Bible, Galatians 3:28
One great difference in our ways is that, like the early Christians, the Indian was a Socialist. The tribe owned the ground, the rivers and the game; only personal property was owned by the individual, and even that, it was considered a shame to greatly increase. For they held that greed grew into crime, and much property made men forget the poor. …The price of a very rich man is many poor ones, and peace of mind is worth more than railways and skyscrapers. In the Indian life there was no great wealth, so also poverty and starvation were unknown, excepting under the blight of national disaster, against which no system can insure. Without a thought of shame or mendicancy, the young, helpless and aged all were cared for by the nation that, in the days of their strength, they were taught and eager to serve.
– Ernest Thompson Seton, The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore, 1912
This is what socialism really grew out of, not out of some theoretical, academic and youthful desire for revolution, nor out of some greedy grab for power and riches, but out of utter despair and an almost completely free and unfettered, brutal exploitation of people and nature. And from deeply Christian people who turned to socialism as they saw the words of Jesus as being quite close to the core message of socialism, that the poorest had as much fundamental value as those most wealthy and that greed was the true corruptor of society and against the word of God.
Truth is, we are always in a decline compared to a glorified past, and some things will evolve while others will degrade. Empires will come and go, like the Carolingian Empire, The Macedonian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, The Austrian, Swedish, Dutch, German, British, French, Italian and Belgian empires, but we all go on in new forms, adapting and evolving, mingling and mixing with shifting powers, alliances and conflicts. After several millennias, people today still take pride in their old history thousands of years old, despite those particular empires being long gone, since their impact remains much, much longer than their actual lifespan. And considering how pretty much all of the great civilizations and empires got rich in part through war, slavery and theft on a grand scale, in one form or the other, one could question their greatness to humanity in a larger perspective. For sure, a great many people saw a great improvement in their conditions of life with the Fall of Rome, and the same is true for most of the empires. Still, empires are seemingly an unavoidable development of human society.
Regardless, the fear of the fall of civilization has always been around, going back to antiquity, and expressed very clearly in the Renaissance, by men like fencing master Joachim Meyer who, with the Fall of the Roman Empire clear in mind, and living in post-“Roman” cities, felt we all needed to practice martial arts or risk the same fate as the ancients. Those very fears were exploited by the fascists and the nazis of the Third Empire and beyond, with thinkers like Oswald Spengler and even more so Julius Evola, Miguel Serrano and Savitri Devi, speaking of Kali Yuga and taking the hated modernism and the perceived degeneration of art, architecture and other forms of culture as proof thereof, while looking to Hitler as the great saviour of the white man in their esoteric Nazism.
And the same ideas are now circulated again, in slightly new forms among exoticists, xenophobes and racists, and among some neo-pagans, “preppers” and reactionary conservatives, even among some people on the far left. That society is degenerating and that we need to be afraid of the very weakest in it; the foreigners, and their way of life, as their ethnicity threatens our own and even our very existance.
Likewise, we again hear echoes of the paternalistic, medieval Christian notion, kept alive by the 19th cent conservatives, that a prosperous life for the majority is inherently dangerous to society, with “undeserving” young or foreign people asking for benefits they have no rightful claim to, trying to steal freedoms and properties from those who do. And we hear how people have no fundamental value and aren’t to be assumed equal until they provenly have accomplished something, that meritocracy, rooted in social darwinism and elitism, should be the rule, no matter what the circumstances, and letting all this take priority over our compassion for those worst off in life, for people living under harsh circumstances not too dissimilar to those of our ancestors, finally stepping into the shoes of the people who made the lives of our ancestors so difficult.
Yes, we have issues that we need to work on and there are great dangers around us too. And eventually the existing empires will dwindle away for something else. But in many ways we have come a lot farther than anything before us, riding on the backs of our ancestors who worked and bled to make this a reality, fighting for the rights of everyone, against racism, sexism, exploitation and various forms of oppression. We mustn’t forget or disrespect their sacrifice by listening to the very voices they fought. Without it, few of us would be in the place we are, instead leading lives a lot closer to those described above.
In that perspective, we are now mostly looking at smaller setbacks, even if there are steep cliffs right by the road we are on, not least with our relationship to nature, and we need to regard those dangers with great concern still.
The photo at the top is from one of the early 20th cent sawmills on the island I grew up on, showing the workers, and the youngest, the 5-year-olds in front.