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Keynes and the Pyramids

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05/03/2011Paul A. Cantor

[This article originally appeared in 2002. An MP3 audio file of it, narrated by Joel Sams, is available for download.]

Ancient Egypt was doubly fortunate and doubtless owed to this its fabled wealth, in that it possessed two activities, namely pyramid building as well as the search for precious metals, the fruits of which, since they could not serve the needs of man by being consumed, did not stale with abundance. The Middle Ages built cathedrals and sang dirges. Two pyramids, two masses for the dead, are twice as good as one; but not so two railways from London to York.
—John Maynard Keynes

Lord Keynes's daffy paean to the power of pyramids has been something of an embarrassment to his followers, but, far from being uncharacteristic of his thought, this passage actually goes right to its heart. It is after all just another way of Keynes saying, "I never met a government expenditure I didn't like."

The Egyptian pyramids do indeed provide an anticipatory image of the sort of large-scale public-works projects that government after government built in the 20th century in Keynes's name. And Keynes is right — no free market would ever produce a pyramid — unless, as in Las Vegas, it housed a profitable hotel and an even more profitable casino. The free market has an annoying habit of producing goods that people actually desire and want to consume. It might even produce two railways from London to York if there were sufficient demand to justify the investment — and lower the price for travelers as a result of the competition.

But Keynes wouldn't want something like that to happen. He prefers to turn matters over to the government and let it produce things that nobody wants — and at as extravagant a cost as possible. Keynes's preference for pyramids over railways is emblematic of statist thinking in general — he values the static over the dynamic; he champions monuments to state power over enterprises that might actually get ordinary people where they want to go.

Thus, as much as I myself admire the Egyptian pyramids — I never miss the latest Discovery or History Channel special on Imhotep — I get nervous when someone starts praising the society that produced them. If Keynes liked the pyramids, there had to be something wrong with them, and indeed there seems to be a connection between liking the pyramids and liking big government.

Just think of how many government activities take the form of pyramid schemes: Social Security, the national debt, the Federal Reserve System (and let's not forget that pyramid in the Great Seal of the United States and hence on the back of the dollar bill).

My suspicion of the pyramids was confirmed when the Fox network aired on September 16 a National Geographic special entitled "Pyramids Live: Secret Chambers Revealed." With a burst of advance publicity, this program promised to solve a number of age-old mysteries surrounding the pyramids live on camera right before our eyes ("tape-delayed in some areas," the TV Guide ad cautioned).

In the culminating moment of this two-hour special, a robotic probe, called "the pyramid rover," was supposed to penetrate what appeared to be a sealed shaft in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Employing a fiber-optic camera, the rover was to broadcast live to a worldwide audience whatever mysteries had lain concealed for 4,500 years behind the blocked passage.

Experts speculated on what the rover might find: perhaps the hidden treasure of King Khufu or ancient documents that might shed light on how the pyramids were built. Viewers should have been warned, however, by a statement that appeared on CNN.com in a preview of the show. Zahi Hawass, an official of the Egyptian Higher Council of Antiquities, was quoted as saying: "To find out what is behind the door — if there is something, it will be great. If there is nothing? It will be great."

I love that statement. It captures perfectly the attitude of government bureaucrats everywhere. "Results? You want results from what we do? Forget about it. Whether we produce anything or not, it's the job of you people out there to think that whatever we do is great." King Khufu himself couldn't have put it any better. I can just picture him if the poor laborers slaving away at building his pyramid had had the nerve to ask whether anything worthwhile would result from their efforts. His reply too would have been "If there is something, it will be great. If there is nothing? It will be great."

All hail King Khufu the Great.

For those who may not watch as many TV documentaries as I do, I should explain that Zahi Hawass appears to be the Egyptian official in charge of the pyramid excavations at Giza. Over the past few years he has emerged as the chief PR man for the Egyptian pharaohs. Thus it fell to Hawass to put the best spin possible on events when the robotic probe managed to penetrate the blocked passage and revealed behind it — another blocked passage. Without betraying the slightest sign of disappointment, Hawass hailed this momentous discovery and broadly hinted that in a year or so, he and National Geographic might be back to have a go at the new blocked passage. As we have been told many times, there are a lot of blocks in the Great Pyramid.

One wonders if the TV executives back at Fox headquarters were as pleased as Hawass seemed to be with the outcome of this show. Reviewers were merciless, panning the program as the biggest disappointment on live TV since 1986, when in another Fox special, Geraldo Rivera opened the secret vault of a modern-day pharaoh — Al Capone — and found not another vault but a pile of dirt. But Hawass actually had reason to be pleased with the Fox special, even though its outcome was a trifle anticlimactic by King Tut standards. For several years, he has been using his position as the resident expert on the pyramids to pursue an ideological agenda in the many Egyptian documentaries in which he appears.

However admirable the pyramids are as architectural achievements, they have long served as emblems of government oppression. The Bible itself takes a dim view of Egyptian taskmasters, and for millennia people have assumed that the pyramids were the product of slave labor. Contemporary Egyptians are understandably unhappy with the idea of their ancestral land serving as a byword for slavery. Hence Hawass, along with others, has seized upon recent archaeological finds to try to reverse the interpretation of the pyramids as monuments to a slave culture.

In several specials on the pyramids, Hawass has used the opportunity to proclaim that the pyramids were in fact built by free and well-rewarded laborers, and thus should be viewed as monuments to the greatness of the ancient Egyptian nation.

The key to Hawass's reinterpretation of the pyramids was provided by excavations at a nearby site, which appears to be the village or encampment where the people who worked to build the pyramids lived. Evidence from this site suggests that the living conditions of the pyramid laborers were better than many people had assumed. They evidently had their families with them, their diet was more varied than had been expected, and there are even signs that they were provided with medical care. Thus, Hawass and others argue, the pyramid laborers cannot have been slaves — their living conditions were too good for slaves.

With one stroke, the Egyptian pharaohs are thus cleared of millennia of libelous charges. Far from being slavemasters, they were noble leaders of a grateful people. In this most recent special, Hawass and others conjured up images of dedicated pyramid workers organizing themselves into teams, cheerfully competing to see who could move the great blocks of stone faster. Though there was occasional talk of people being conscripted into the job, one almost got the feeling that the pyramids were built by willing volunteers, in some early form of community service, perhaps called Habitat for Pharaohs.

I am not an egyptologist, and thus I would not presume to enter into a debate involving the serious examination of archaeological data. But as an amateur, I can detect signs of someone having an ideological axe to grind in interpreting this data. All we now know is that the people who worked on the pyramids were fed and to some extent cared for.

But that is pretty much true of all human beings who do not die on the spot. As evil as slavemasters are, they have an interest in seeing to it that their slaves are adequately fed and generally fit to work on the tasks to which they have been assigned. Only careful comparative studies could help determine if the pyramid builders were slaves or not. Were their working conditions demonstrably better than those we find in cultures we know to be slave-holding? How did their working conditions compare with those of people we know to have been free among their contemporaries in ancient Egypt?

Merely posing these questions suggests how far we are from knowing the exact socioeconomic status of the pyramid laborers just because some fishbones have been found in the ruins of their village. Maybe when the empty bottles of Chardonnay turn up, I'll be prepared to conclude that the pyramid builders were the yuppies of their day.

But my questions point to an even more fundamental issue: is it meaningful to speak of a distinct class of slaves within ancient Egyptian society as a whole? It may be true that the pyramid builders were in some sense not inferior to their contemporaries in status, but perhaps that just means that all the ancient Egyptians were in effect enslaved to their pharaohs.

From what I have read about the hierarchical ancient Egyptian society, meaningful political freedom was not an option for anyone. Thus even to show that the pyramid builders were treated as well as any other workers would prove little in my eyes about their freedom. Personally I find it hard to believe that anyone assigned to pyramid building had the reaction: "Oh good — now there's a job I'll really enjoy."

But let's for argument's sake accept the idea that the pyramid builders never complained about their labor, even to themselves. That to me would be the ultimate sign of their slavery — slavery to a view of the world that led them to believe that their lives and labor should be sacrificed to the glory of their rulers.

Hawass's reply to my line of argument appeared in an earlier Egyptian special, devoted to the original excavation of the pyramid builders' village, in which he evoked the principle of Egyptian nationalism. However backbreaking the labor of building the pyramids may have been, the ancient Egyptians did not mind it because they knew that what they were doing redounded to the greater glory of Egypt as a nation. We see once again how celebrating the pyramids harmonizes with statist ideology.

This kind of argument is profoundly anachronistic. There was no Egyptian nation-state at the time the pyramids were built. There was an Egyptian empire, but precisely because it was an empire, the people who lived in it did not participate in it as a community in the way that modern citizens participate in a modern nation-state.

As Martin van Creveld and other historians have shown, today we tend to be prisoners of the idea of the nation-state, and we have trouble thinking outside that particular ideological box. We have difficulty imagining that people were ever organized into communities other than nation-states, and we are constantly tempted to project existing nation-states and their boundaries back into the past — when they did not exist or may have taken very different forms and shapes.

The Egyptian nation-state in reality dates from the 1950s or at least no earlier than the 20th century. Well into the 20th century, Egypt was still technically a province of the Ottoman Empire (and ruled by a dynasty of Albanian origin!). At various times in the past, the area we know as Egypt has been part of the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great's Empire, and the Roman Empire. A look at a historical atlas will show how vast and complex have been the changes in the borders of what has been called "Egypt" over the centuries and millennia.

Hawass's ideological reading of the history of the pyramids is a perfect example of what van Creveld and others mean when they talk about projecting the nation-state back into a prenationalist past. In 2500 BC, nobody was conscious of Egypt as a nation-state. The region was in effect the personal property of the pharaohs who ruled the land (and in the time of Khufu that area bore little resemblance to the borders of modern Egypt). The poor laborers on the pyramids may have deluded themselves into taking pride in what they were doing for their beloved pharaoh, but they could have no concept of Egypt as a nation-state.

The ancient Egyptians may have anticipated modern mathematics in their pyramid calculations, but they did not anticipate modern nationalism, which is basically a product of the French Revolution and the Romantic movement — in short, a distinctly 19th-century phenomenon.

The one who is being nationalistic therefore is Zahi Hawass. He is trying to use the Egyptian past to shore up Egypt's image of itself in the present. It is no doubt troubling to a modern nation to think of its cultural heritage as one of slavemasters. The pyramids are what put Egypt on the cultural map, and modern Egyptians would rather not think that slaves had any part in that achievement. Hence, like Hawass, they will seize on any shred of evidence that the men who built the pyramids were whistling while they worked, instead of groaning.

Television documentaries, which tend to be statist in their attitudes, are helping to propagate the new myth about the pyramids and how they were built. Again, I don't presume to know the historical truth about the pyramids, and it may well turn out to be wrong that they were built by people properly described as slaves.

But I cannot help suspecting that the rehabilitation of the reputation of the pyramid project is part of a larger cultural effort to prop up the respectability of government in general and the nation-state in particular. I don't know if Lord Keynes can pick up TV signals in whatever tomb he is enshrined in — whether pyramid-shaped or not — but I somehow feel that if he could hear Zahi Hawass on that Fox special, he was smiling. But I wonder if even he would think that two blocked passages are twice as good as one.


Paul A. Cantor

Paul A. Cantor (1945–2022) was Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies.

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