Seti I before Ra-Horakhti, Abydos

Over the years, I have discussed my combination of religious and political inclinations several times, both face to face and on-line. Sometimes, others, particularly those unfamiliar with Egyptian religion, society and government, are confused by a seeming contradiction between my allegiance to the religion, values and outlook of Ancient Egypt, and my somewhat left wing political views.

The problem lies with popular misconceptions about several aspects of Egyptian religious, social and political life, and also about my own political outlook, that I shall seek to address here.

How can a “leftie” have any respect for a society based on systematic, institutional, mass enslavement of entire peoples? With the exception of the odd Stalinist or Maoist, I would suggest that this is an irreconcilable contradiction.

However it is not one the author faces. The old stereotypical picture of mass slave armies building the pyramids of Giza is just that, an old stereotype. A combination of recovered administrative documents, references in Anient Egyptian prose literature and archaeological excavation of the “workers towns” that housed those working on state construction projects has revealed a great deal about how the workforce was recruited, organised, and provisioned.  Such purpose built settlements have been found throughout Egypt, and from multiple different periods within the Pharaonic era. The picture from such sites is consistent. From the New Kingdom in paticular we have a wealth of administrative documents relating to the workers town known today as Deir el Medina, which housed the workers who constructed the Royal tombs of that era. These documents confirm the workers were paid monthly salaries, were provided with state-owned housing for them and their families, that they had access to health-care, police and judicial services, regular days off, additional time off for bank holidays and family events, and a state pension. The workers also undertook strike action when disputes over pay arose on repeated occasions, which concluded with the state negotiating with the workers.

It is clear, therefore, that there is no contradiction here. Indeed, I would go as far to suggest that those who revere the Greeks for their forming the “foundation of Western civilization” encounter far more contradictions, given the Greek custom of having an entire, formalised and institutionalised system of slavery, and a highly militarised culture above beyond anything imagined by even the most military minded elements of the Egyptian state.

But even if Egyptian civilization had a culture that provided for and protected its state labour, was the economy itself anything beyond, as it is often seen in the popular imagination, a robber-baron quasi-feudal arrangement, or an extortion racket of merchants?

Unlike the situation for workers, our image of how the economy functioned is known only in terms of overall generalisations. The organisation of individual enterprises is known only in a few cases, but based on our limited knowledge, the situation is very interesting.

What is clear is that the state played a major and active role in the economy. Egypt was the first civilisation known to have instituted a formal tax regime, with a formal census taken bi-annually, and a system of scribes assigned to tour the countryside during the growing season to assess and estimate the yield of agricultural produce each year. From their estimate, the taxes to be paid were calculated.

Secondly, the state directly participated in the economy through a wide variety of Royal Monopolies, including quarrying, mining and associated processing and various manufacturing industries. In many of these secondary industries, it is not certain wether or not they were formal absolute monopolies, or just state-dominated, with minor private production tolerated. Nonetheless it is known that there was large scale (and possibly exclusive) state involvement in numerous industries, the most important of which was agriculture, with the state holding ultimate ownership of all land and resources. Some of this land was given as reward to loyal officials, some to state sponsored religious institutions, and some was held by private individuals. However, a significant amount was directly held and by the state, and worked by employees and tenants.

Finally, produce from these estates, along with produce taxes was held in the treasury, essentially a state owned network of grain storage facilities  that was used to pay salaries and expenses, supply the day to day needs of the state, but most importantly to store grain as protection against crop failure. During such crises, grain was redistributed to the wider population to protect against famine. Local officials were also expected to utilise local treasury resources or their own personal wealth to deal with individual cases of need. Though there does not appear to have been a fixed or “official” universal requirement for such support for the entire population, state workers pensions were extended to widows.

The existence of the Royal Cult, and its prominence in monuments such as the pyramid complexes of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, is often regarded as a personality cult, or “cult of the individual”, where the individual dominated and ultimately subsumed the office to suit his own personality and desires. However, the reverence paid to the Royal Cult can, in the opinion of the author, more correctly be viewed as the reverence paid to the socio-religious and practical significance of the office of Pharaoh, and the powers vested in it. When we look at the evidence from Egyptian art and literature, we see that the Royal Cult is the antithesis of a personality cult. By contrast, the office of the Pharaoh, to a great degree, subordinated the persona of the individual ruler to the symbolic, ideological and practical needs of the office.

Unlike many on the political left, I regard the state as possessing a potentially strong and unique force for good, by driving forward progress, defending legal and social justice, maintaining peace and order, and bringing to bear its ability to organise and co-ordinate the large scale investments needed to create a prosperous, productive society. I am not an anarchist by any stretch of the imagination, and I see in the left’s justified defence of state ownership of key industries and enterprises, national infrastructure and social services a serious contradiction, when that same group also hope for the “withering away” of the state to be replaced by Engles’ enigmatic “administration of things”. Is the “administration of things” not one of the main tasks of the state? Rather, my fight is not against the state or “Big Government”, but rather against those of the right who seek to corrupt the state, and distort its operation to their own advantage, whilst attempting to usurp many of its roles as a means to seize its assets and provision of services for their own private profit.

Thus, just as Egyptian religion does, I see in the state a potential force for good, and that as the opposite of the anarchic destruction, which I see in excessive individualism and privateering, and I view the Royal cult as a realisation and celebration of this.

And so this brings to mind what has become a cathphrase of mine, formed from a purely throwaway remark I once made whilst sitting on a badly run private bus service in the provinces, surrounded by the lumpenproletariat:

May Horus return to His throne, and smite
the Nine Bows, those wretched forces of isfet