You would be hard pressed to complain about the imagination and creativity that went into making Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy which includes languages, deep and intricate histories and even detailed maps. However Tolkien was undeniably better at history than economics which brings us to this week’s question….where did the orcs get their food?
As the map above illustrates, Mordor is a farmers nightmare. Depicted as an ashen wasteland where nothing grows, no rivers run through it and the ground is littered with rocky fissures with little to no rain fall, we can safely assume that Mordor is not an agricultural power house. With that in mind the Dark Lord must have been trading with an outside power.
In order for the balance of trade to work, Mordor must have something of value to trade as its hard to threaten with an army that someone else feeds. It’s hard to imagine that the orcs were highly skilled labor, but they could have been exporting swords. Sauron had mines, and forges so the mass production of swords could easily function as an export good. Keep in mind that Mordor’s political system is that of a dictatorship, so there’s no need to pay the orcs just keep them fed. This frees up any capital you might gain from exports to be spent on food supplies, after all even the Dark Lord’s army marches on its stomach. Trade seems likely for Mordor, orcs farming is odd if not impossible, but it comes with its own difficulties.
Mordor is landlocked and surrounded on three sides by suspiciously straight lines of mountains. While these natural boundaries are ideal for fending off attackers, it does make trade precarious and expensive. In the North-West there is the active volcano of Gorgoroth, from which no rivers run, to the South East lies the undrinkable bitter Sea of Nurmen, thus, all trade must travel by land which is 14 times more expensive than by sea. Mordor is beginning to look more and more like a closed economy typically plagued with underdevelopment.
For the sake of argument let us assume that the balance for trade was struck between one neighboring nation and Mordor. In order for Modor’s economy to work they would need to have constant wars to keep up the demand for swords. If Sauron were to not start a war surely morale would drop, followed by an economic meltdown and starvation.
Slaves are certainly a possible answer and the effiiceny of slave agriculture sparks heated debate. In a slave system can there be any specialization of labor? Studies have shown that individuals work better with rest and I doubt that many slaves get time off from work. Furthermore farming is extremely difficult…wouldn’t the slaves do as little as possible just to avoid punishment? Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman contest these ideas in their book Time on the Cross which discusses the economy of the U.S. south on the eve of the Civil War. Time on the Cross argues that the plantation system was more complicated and that it was extremely efficient and that the southern states economy was on rise as the Civil War approached. Engerman and Fogel’s findings have been debated and some have been discredited by historians Herbert Gutman and Peter Kolchin who write that Time on the Cross focuses on one plantation and ignores the human abuses that occurred in that time period.
While Mordor would have no concern for it’s slaves it does raise the question of the slave trade. There doesn’t appear to be any slaves in the rest of Middle Earth so where are they coming from? Are they captured men and women? Who regulates them? It’s doubtful that the orcs could regulate a team of farmers forced or not to work so even with forced agricultural labor Mordor won’t be productive.
With this economic model in mind its hard to imagine what the orcs get out of serving Sauron. The fiery eye upon the mountain and ring wraiths may not care if the lands are covered with sulfur and ash but the orcs must eat. What on Middle-Earth are they thinking serving a Lord who rules over a bankrupt nation with no imports? Even in the conquest of Gondor the lands will be turned into a similar wasteland so there’s no prospect for future riches.
In the real world economy Mordor would be riddled with debt. Orcs would become refugees streaming westward in hopes of employment in Gondor. Rather than closing its gates to invading armies Minas Tirith would be coping with huge numbers of immigrants. Orcs would hire themselves out as labor for a square meal and a days pay while the mounted bands of Rohirrim would patrol the borders and turn back those looking for a better life. Dark Lord or not Sauron would have to borrow heavily to keep Mordor from emptying of its populace. One ring or not, the real power is in the purse strings.