Monday, 16 November 2015

The Ancient Art of Industrial Action: the World's First Strike

Our society, with its arrogant belief in our modernity, often looks back at our ancestors with a mixture of disdain towards their supposedly primitive, superstitious nature yet, paradoxically if sometimes patronisingly, stares in awe at some of their (literally) monumental achievements, from the Great Wall to the Colosseum, or from the polished marble statues of the Hellenes to the giant pyramids of Egypt.

And yet, while we may look back at seemingly distant, lost landscapes of elusive societies and long dead beliefs, in truth, far more commonality stretches across the centuries than we often realise. So many of the norms and values and challenges we face now are the very same that those who were here aeons ago also encountered.

The very earliest human societies, back in Palaeolithic times, had all the hallmarks of equality and co-operation: archaeology almost universally has excavated village after village of similarly sized houses, commonly used tools and shared fields and livestock. Contrary to the Hollywood version of savage tribes led by psychopathic cavemen, the earliest humans, who dominated our world for as much as ten times as long as the so-called civilised world we now inhabit, were an egalitarian lot, with men and women working together and sharing their resources communally, leading Marx and Engels to name them "primitive communists".

However, a combination of climate change and the innovation it spurred in agriculture and technology led increasingly to specialisation: the development of the plough, the domestication of the horse, irrigating and fertilising fields and the advances in metal work all led to the need for workers with specialist skills. Trade developed too as materials were sought from further afield. Finally, and most powerfully, village life became transformed into urban as the first cities grew - not, as traditional history would have it, from one place (Ur) gradually spreading out, but quite spontaneously in different places across the planet where humans encountered similar situations.

Subsistence economies began to produce surpluses - by 2,500BC, crops in the Fertile Crescent (modern Iraq) had yields of 86 times the sowing and with these surpluses came the rise of the first ruling classes. These initially consisted of men selected by their communities as protectors from outside threats or as priests directed to foster the surplus for the common good.

While at first both depended on the consent of their communities, in time, through what Neil Faulkener (A Marxist History of the World) has described as "force and fraud", they gradually "usurped the power of society to become power over society". Archaeology from around 4,000BC on shows increasing gaps in wealth with some houses four or five times the size of the norm, while early records show temple property gradually passing into the hands of priests and other officials appointed to administer public services such as irrigation and building. Sometimes, as in ancient Sumeria, the priesthood held sway and appointed the military; in others, such as Pharaonic Egypt, it was the opposite way round, although the militaristic Pharaoh was always proclaimed a living god as well as commander of the army.

Yet, even as once free, equal people were pressed into hierarchical and patriarchal societies where the overwhelming majority lived as slaves or peasants, ancient notions of equity and the public good persisted, ingrained deep in the human psyche, our mental DNA. And in 1152BC, during the construction of the pyramid of Pharaoh Rameses III, a combination of failure to pay rations and corruption by priests and public officials led, remarkably, to the first verifiable recorded strike*, which is preserved in the so called "Strike Papyrus" in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.

After their due rations of beer and grain had been delivered intermittently for some weeks, skilled stonemasons downed tools on 14 November and over the next week staged a series of protests first at the local town hall and then, it seems, in various places within the pyramid itself. This astonishingly included a sit-in in what was to be the sacred chamber where the Pharaoh himself would be laid to rest for his voyage to the after-life. In a show of sisterly solidarity, their wives joined them after the first couple of days.

The police attended, including the Chief of Police, who tried to reason with them, while the Mayor of Thebes did a Blairite "I'm an honest guy" turn with the disbelieving workers. Completely at a loss, on the seventh day, management caved in and provided the strikers with:

Year 29, second month of winter, day 17
Giving the ration of the second month:
1 foreman: 7½ sacks
the scribe: 3¾ sacks
8 men, each one: 52/4 sacks, making 44 sacks.
Left side:
1 foreman: 7½ sacks
the scribe: 3¾ sacks
8 men, each one: 52/4 sacks, making 44 sacks.
The two gatekeepers, the four washermen ...

Although they returned to work, the stonemasons were back on the picket line just four weeks later and this time called a scribe to set down their grievances to go to the Pharaoh himself (as with many later examples, such as the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 in England, ordinary people, saturated by the propaganda of the irreplaceable efficacy or even the fraudulent divinity of the ruling class, still saw the king ultimately as The Benefactor, unknowingly let down by corrupt or incompetent officials). However, it wasn't failure to pay rations that was on their minds, but corruption by temple administrators (priests). As well as accusing one Weserhat of unpriestly activities with a Lady Menat, they charged the holy-man and his colleague Pentaweret with stealing building materials and oxen which were meant to belong to the communal religious site.

The outcome of the second dispute is not clearly preserved but further strikes are documented and they apparently became a feature of pyramid building. It seems the skilled craftsmen grew aware of their value to the ruler as he needed them to construct what was intended to be a powerful totem of his alleged supremacy, a hallmark of his god-given dominance over his people and all the lands of Earth.

However, whatever the Pharaoh's delusions of grandeur, the first strike was a success for the workers and a powerful reminder that, whatever system of power is in place, our species is rooted in values of fairness, justice and solidarity.

*It is to be noted this is the first strike that is verifiable by contemporary documents. The "Father of History", Herodotus, refers to one that may have occurred as much as 400 years earlier, also in Egypt, by workers building the Great Pyramid of Cheops, who were angry when their garlic rations were late.

The Strike Papyrus

1 comment:

  1. I expect censorship of papyrus filled with subversive hieroglyphs soon followed.