Someone pointed me to this earlier. It's so fascinating, I'm reproducing it here.
Idle Theory takes a new look at this old problem. Using a simple physical model of life, it first explores biology, and evolution, and then extends into human economics, ethics, and politics. In Idle Theory, all forms of life are regarded as alternating between periods when they actively work to maintain themselves, and periods when they are idle or inactive. The most idle forms of life, that do the least work, are those most likely to survive crises during which more work needs to be done. Human life is another form of idle life. The history of human society, human technology, trade and law, is one long attempt to increase human idleness. Humans are free to act as they like to the extent they are idle: they are part-time free agents. All human culture - art, music, poetry, literature - is the product of idle time.
In Idle Theory, human life is regarded as simply another variety of natural life. Individual humans coalesce into human societies, in ways precisely analogous to the coalescing of individual cells into multicellular life. And the evolution of human society mirrors the evolution of preceding natural life. The basic problem for human life is the same as it is for all other life: how to survive.
In the scheme of evolution just outlined, life is easy and idle for long periods, and interspersed episodes of difficulty. It seems plausible to suppose that for long periods early human life was easy and idle, but interspersed with episodes when life became hard, and human idleness was driven downwards, forcing idleness-increasing innovation. Necessity (Latin, ne-cessare to not be idle) was the mother of invention. But human evolution did not entail modifications of human physiology so much as the development of social organisations, techniques, tools, and weapons. The history of human evolution is the history of the evolution of technology.
The idleness of a dependent system is the idleness of its least idle member, much as the strength of a chain is that of its weakest link. Thus as human society developed, it became important to ensure that idle time was equally distributed among its members. If it was not, and some were overworked, shortages of tools would appear, and these shortages would result in decreased social idleness, threatening the entire society. Egalitarian societies would survive crises which inegalitarian societies could not.
The primary human need is for idle time. This time need not be spent in complete inactivity. It can be used for games, pastimes, and the production of amusing luxuries. The time that can be devoted to these secondary wants is restricted by available idle time. If there is no idle time, there can be no games or luxuries. Thus there are two kinds of goods: primary tools which create idle time, and secondary luxuries which use up idle time.
The value of a tool such as a knife is the idle time it provides, which is an objective, measurable quantity. The value of a luxury, or toy, or game, is subjective and changeable. What one person likes, another may not. What one person enjoys one day, he may not the next. Needs can be distributed equally. Wants, of their nature, cannot.
The primary purpose of human society, and all its innovations and inventions, is to increase human idleness. This idleness is the fund of time that enables all art, music, literature, games, friendships, love affairs - everything that humans enjoy.
4. Human predators: conquest and empire
A tribe of nomadic hunters, in lean times, could turn their skill with spear and bow against rich but defenceless farming communities. It was either a hard life hunting animals, or an easy life robbing rich human settlements with their abundant stores of food. Once successful in this, the switch from hunting animals to pillaging farms became permanent. The idleness of the nomadic hunters increased. The idleness of farming communities fell, as losses to the new predators were made good, and defences constructed, militias trained.
Thus opened an era, in which the principal way for a society to increase idleness was through the subjection of other societies. Egalitarian human societies gave way to inegalitarian societies whose predatory rulers enjoyed a largely idle existence, and whose subjects were forcibly reduced to slave labour. The rulers interested themselves in the art of war. Their education stressed physical fitness, courage, endurance. Their ingenuity was devoted to the development of new weapons, new military tactics. Since their armies were made up exclusively of physically more powerful males, the role of women was reduced to providing the maximum supply of males to restock decimated armies. The rulers had little interest in the development of labour-saving technologies in farming and industry because their slaves performed this work for them. So technical innovation languished.
Since a larger army would usually defeat a smaller army, larger states subjugated smaller states, and expanded into empires.
This era resulted in a progressive fall in social idleness. Towns and cities became fortified, and garrisoned with militias. This in turn led to the development of siege warfare - catapults, scaling ladders, mines, battering rams. And that in turn led to the improvement of defences, with thick stone walls, moats, ramparts. All of which required increasing amounts of labour, and proportionally larger numbers of slaves. Falling idleness brought inflation, as the real cost of living increased.
While an empire expanded, it could enlarge the numbers of its aristocracy. Once it ceased to expand, or contracted, the numbers of idle rulers that the empire could support began to decrease. Increasingly, aristocrats were reduced to slavery. Civil wars within the aristocracy broke out as factions struggled for supremacy and security.
Ultimately, falling idleness brought the complete collapse of these coercive societies. The dwindling aristocracy became unable to impose its will, or to collect taxes and tributes. If the empires did not fall to external invaders, they disintegrated into a collection of independent smaller states, largely free of coercion. Freed from high taxation and the need for military defence, social idleness rose. Technical innovation to increase idleness, rather than improve weaponry, restarted.
In this way, and in other ways, human society has alternated between an easy, idle life and a life of toil and difficulty. Idleness increased as new techniques and technologies emerged, and decreased as populations rose and wars broke out.
5. European Civilizations.
After the collapse of the Western empire, Europe dissolved into a set of small feudal societies, whose peasant farmers paid taxes to local barons in exchange for protection from bandits and invaders. From about 500 AD to 1500 AD, new farming methods, ploughs, watermills, and other innovations appear to have raised social idleness. In the late medieval period, there were some 100 public holidays each year, in addition to the 52 sabbath days.
European innovation and invention produced technologies which surpassed those of other states. One likely reason for this is that in the cold north of the planet, life is much harder than in tropical regions, and idleness-increasing innovation is essential. Tropical humans, in Africa and America, living largely idle lives, had no need for such innovation.
Around 1500 AD, Western Christianity disintegrated, and began to be replaced by a secular humanism, which owed much to Greece and Rome. Emulating Rome, Europe began to use its technical superiority to forge a global empire. The Americas became colonies of Portugal and Spain. Africa was carved up. India became a British colony, as did Australia. When the expansion was nearly complete, and a few European nations controlled most of the world, European civil war shattered this hegemony. The empire broke up into small self-governing nations.