12 August 2017

The Evil of Mercantilism

When I was studying library management I clearly remember reading a book on technology published in 1971. It noted that immediately after WWII there were very significant gains in productivity due to mechanisation of work. The early prediction was that everyone would work less and retire early. Filling up our leisure time was predicted to be our pressing problem. ROFL.

Here it is, 2017, and productivity is something like hundreds of times higher than it was in 1945 and we are working longer and retirement as a concept is being phased out. What went wrong?

One answer is that the share of the wealth created by the economy going to the ruling classes has increased exponentially. So despite the fact that productivity has increased by so much, inequality has grown even faster.

Capitalists will rightly point out that everyone has benefited - we are all richer than we were in 1945. We all eat better, lived longer, child mortality is down etc. This is all true. But the rich have benefited more.

The thing is that if you worked hard to get by in 1945; your family are probably still working hard to get by in 2017. The poor still have to work very hard just to get by. And that is the plan. That has been the plan for 600 years. Marx and Engels noted it 150 years ago, but even then it had been going on for more than four centuries.

The plan is always for the poor to have to work hard all their lives just to get by.

600 years ago it wasn't like this. Poor people mostly worked in the fields and had little supervision. Staying alive was quite a good motivator. They might have paid a tax once per year, but the rest of the time ordered their own lives. They worked hard at planting and harvest time; moderately in the middle, and not much at all over winter. They grew all their own food, mostly on common land. If they were lucky they might own a cow or a goat or two. At that level, they all had to look after each other and work together. At that point it was probably the Church who inflicted artificial rules on the people, telling them how to live.

The ruling classes technically provided law and order to enable trading on a wider scale (between towns for example) but in practice, they often just fought amongst themselves for profit. The taxes paid for a standing army, and crimes like theft and murder were adjudicated by a ruler, if at all.

Gradually work and wealth took on moral tones. Being rich or working hard were good. Being idle or poor were bad. Working hard but being poor was OK; being idle but rich was also OK. Working hard and being rich was the ideal. Working hard was linked to being rich, though for most of history and now, the two are usually unrelated. The people who work the hardest, doing physical labour, are paid the least.

Since the ruling classes wanted to see the poor working hard, they took away the common land and forced the poor to pay for food. The industrial revolution offered crippling hours and dangerous conditions for the poor, so they could just about earn enough to live in unsanitary conditions and eat food that was often unfit for consumption. Sometimes whole families had to work for 12 hours a day to achieve this. And this was seen as a good thing by the mercantilists. It also broke up communities and the networks of care and assistance that had existed for centuries.

The mercantilists gradually took over running things from the aristocracy and the church. Hereditary wealth replaced mere birth as the mark of the ruling class, and morality changed from saving souls to ensuring that people were useful.

Increased wealth and reach required increased administration and bean-counting. Universities that used to train priests now trained civil servants. The middle classes were inculcated with the values of mercantilism: consumerism was born. From the middle class, some hoped to ascend into the ruling class - though opportunities for outsiders were strictly limited. Others simply became acquisitive.

As technology destroyed more and more of the jobs of traditionally working class people, the idea of social mobility was born. Let the working poor become middle class. Infect them with the virus of consumerism and acquisitiveness to distract them from the fact that their communities were being destroyed. Flood the market with cheap imitations built by their even poorer counterparts in Asia.

The thing is that this story arc is hardly affected by the politics of the government or by wars. Women hail the "progress" of them re-entering the workforce, but they mostly did so at rock bottom wages. Nowadays only a two salary family can afford to own a home. 70 years later they have almost reached pay parity, but generally speaking wages are falling and the poor and getting less and less from participating in production. Far from winning, they have simply played into the hands of mercantilists. The idea is that we all work very hard to just get by. Nothing we do is going to change this unless we stop acting like mushrooms. A smart woman might have fought for her right not to work. Nowadays women's empowerment seems to mean parading around in your underwear, while the idea of empowering men is seen as akin to genocide or eugenics.

Humans need time for socialising. For sitting around chewing the fat, telling stories, and laughing. We need time to make music, to sing and dance together. Working together for a common goal is uplifting, but what is the common goal of most workplaces now? Certainly screwing workers out of their fair share is inherent in all workplaces these days. We thrive in small communities where most people are social equals but merits are acknowledged. We still have not figured out a good way to organise ourselves in larger units. Democracy is, as that epitome of the ruling classes, Winston Churchill said, the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

But until workers get their fair share of production; until workers own the means of production; this world is going to be unfair and unjust and it will continue to break the backs of the poor so that the ruling classes can be comfortable and fight wars when they get bored.

I have no hope that technology is going to change the basic philosophy of mercantilism. Look at the internet. It was supposed to give power to the people. But it is clearly just another tool for enslaving people now. I get to say what I like, but amidst millions of conflicting voices, what I say doesn't register or matter. Those who do register are part of the system and therefore part of the problem.

Mercantile capitalism, or mercantilism, has been winning, largely in the background, for 600 years. Despite changes in technology, revolutions, wars, and empires.

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