I’ve often referenced Steve Sailer’s dirt theory of warfare, because it’s simple to understand and sounds plausible to me. In short, wealth and state power used to be based on land which means war over territory. Now the returns, even at the top, go to labor (Sailer says its the buildings that are valuable, but it’s really the concentration of people & organizational capital). Part of the reason it seems plausible to me is that I’m a cultural product of the Anglo Settler revolution, and the idea that population will shortly outstrip the carrying capacity of land and have to move on seems only natural to me. History before the industrial revolution is correctly described by Malthus, and Darwin’s theory helped us see how the same logic shaped evolutionary history, easily demonstrated with the growth of bacterial cultures.

In Sailer’s linked post there is a parenthetical reference to slaves, but like me he may have underestimated their importance in the past. James Scott’s focus in his latest book (and some of his prior work) is on southeast asia, which had a population density considerably lower than Europe, China or India and many areas peasants could flee to and escape the state’s grasp. There rulers were not identified with and concerned with control over land but people, and even fertile cropland without people was considered worthless. Their wars were primarily struggles to obtain captives and with little focus on killing (but plenty of destruction in the process of intimidating targets and supplying armies). This made me recall hearing how different Aztec war was and how easily the Spanish (whose focus was on destroying rival armies rather than taking captives) defeated much larger numbers. In school the Aztecs were presented as a strange curiosity, but they not have been so even by the standards of European history. Scott notes that Athens & Sparta were majority slave societies who came into conflict over tribute rather than land. Those states do seem different in that the military forces were supposed to consist of citizens rather than slave conscripts, but it also makes what I considered normal to seem more of a special case.

Now for a complaint: Scott often reinterprets edicts by reading them “against the grain” to deduce that a ruler was unable to solve the festering problem being addressed. The same logic applied today would conclude that all our attention devoted to child molesters & terrorists must mean that they reached epidemic proportions in the 21st century U.S.