Fred Jameson famously said
“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”
And if that were the truth we really would be staring into an abyss. But things are changing. In 2017 an American named Trevor Hill stood up during a televised town hall meeting in New York and posed a simple question to Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives at the time and one of the most powerful people in the world. He had read a study by Harvard University that showed that 51 per cent of Americans between the age of eighteen and twenty-nine no longer supported capitalism and asked whether the Democrats, Pelosi’s party, could embrace the fast-changing reality and stake out a vision for an alternative economy.
Pelosi was visibly taken aback.
“I thank you for your question,” she said “but I’m sorry to say we’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is”
The footage went viral. It was powerful because it dramatised the taboo against questioning capitalism, now here it was, right out in the open, the cat was finally out of the bag.
Hill was no lefty just a bright kid informed and curious about the world. He had asked a sincere question, and yet Pelosi, stammering and defensive, was unable to accept it, and unable to say why she held such a view.
Pelosi’s response “That’s just the way it is” did not shut down the question it only pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz.
A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 64 per cent of people in Britain believe capitalism is unfair. In the US, it was as high as 55 per cent, Germany, a solid 77 per cent. A survey in 2020 by the Edelman Trust Barometer showed that a majority of people around the world (56 per cent) agree with the statement,
“Capitalism does more harm than good”
In France, it was as high as 69 per cent. In India, it’s a staggering 74 per cent. And on top of all these a full three-quarters of people across all major capitalist economies say they believe corporations are corrupt.
In 2019 the European Council on Foreign Relations asked people in fourteen EU countries,
“Do you believe that environment should be made a priority even if doing so DAMAGES economic growth?”
Surely no one was going to agree with such a trade-off. Yet large majorities (between 55 and 70 per cent said YES.
Hope over fear.
All my life politicians of all colours and shades have told me we need growth in order to improve people’s lives but this has turned out to be untrue. We are now well past the point in this country where the relationship between GDP and well-being completely breaks down. It is not Growth that matters it is how income and resources are distributed, that is what matters.
(In Scotland we badly need Land Reform)
Consider this – over the past 40 years, 28 per cent of all new income from global GDP growth has gone to the richest 1 per cent (all already million if not billionaires). Pretty staggering really, for it means that one-third of all labour, all the resources we extract, and all the CO2 we have emitted over the past half-century has been done to make rich people richer.
Now once you get your head around this and realise WE DO NOT NEED GROWTH we are free to think about something better than CAPITALISM.
Scientists have made it clear to us that the only way out of trouble and keep global warming down under 1.5 degrees C, or even 2 degrees C, is for high-income countries, to slow down the pace of extraction, and the production of waste. Reducing resource use removes pressure from ecosystems and gives nature a fighting chance of a comeback. This they call – “DEGROWTH” remember it, you should be hearing a lot about it in the near future.
Today’s scientists are now being heard and listened too, (possibly because of the internet, and why it is such a threat to capitalist thinking and needs to be shut down).
Biologists are discovering the humans are not standalone individuals but composed of microorganisms on which we depend for functions as basic as digestion.
Psychiatrists are learning that spending time around plants is essential to people’s mental health, and indeed that certain plants can heal humans from complex psychological traumas, (gardeners were way ahead of them on that one).
Ecologists are learning that trees, far from being inanimate, communicate with each other and even share food and medicines through invisible mycelia networks in the soil.
Quantum physicists are teaching us that individual particles that appear to be distinct are interlinked with others, even across vast distances. And Earth-systems scientists are finding evidence that the planet itself operates like a living superorganism.
It is not just or economics that needs to change. We need to change the way we see the world and our place within it.
For over 300,000 years humans have lived on this planet, and they did so in relative harmony with the Earth’s ecosystems. It was only with the rise in capitalism a few hundred years ago and the acceleration of industrialisation, and from the 1950s that things began to tip out of balance. Strangely enough, our problems have little to do with humans and more to do with an economic system – one that is recent in origin, which came about at a particular time and a particular place in history. Once we get our head around this we can start to ask a new question,
“How did this happen?” “Where did capitalism come from?” “Why did it take hold?”
Every schoolchild learned that feudalism was a brutal system that produced terrible human misery. However contrary to narratives that were abounding at schools it was not capitalism that put an end to this system. The victory was in fact even more remarkable, it is down to the courageous struggle fought by a long tradition of everyday revolutionaries who have for some reason been written out of the story.
In the early 1300s, commoners across Europe began rebelling against the feudal system. They refused to submit to unpaid labour, they rejected the taxes and tithes extracted by nobles and the church and began demanding direct control over the land they tilled. This was organised resistance. And in some cases, it grew into outright military conflicts. In 1323, peasants and workers took up arms in Flanders in a battle that lasted five years before their defeat by Flemish nobility. Similar rebellions erupted elsewhere across Europe, in Bruges, Ghent, Florence, liege and Paris. Most of these were quickly put down by well-armed militaries. Then came the Black Death of 1347, this triggered social and political crises.
Strangely enough, it proved to be a blessing in disguise, because labour was scarce and land abundant, suddenly peasants and workers had more bargaining power, they demander more pay, lower rents, Nobles were not happy they were caught on the back foot. Now the balance of power favoured the commoner. This was their chance to change the very foundations of the social and political order. As confidence grew the rebellions gained traction. (Read Wat Tyler – England)
The rebellions spread right across Europe and in England serfdom was completely eradicated in the wake of the 1381 revolt. Surfs became free farmers, subsisting on their own land. With free access to commons, pasture for grazing, forests for game and timber, waterways for fishing and irrigation. They worked for wages if they wanted extra income. In Germany, peasants came to control up to 90 per cent of the countries land.
Once the peasants owned the land they of course would look after it better than under the feudal system, which had been a disaster for the ecosystem. Democratic assemblies were set up with careful rules that regulated tillage, grazing and forest use. Europe’s soils began to recover and the forest re-grew.
Hardly surprising that this did not please the elites, who considered high wages as scandalous and were irritated that commoners would only hire themselves out for short periods or limited tasks. As national income was shared more evenly across the population it became more difficult for nobles to gain large fortunes on the backs of the poor. The post-feudalist society brought with it self-sufficiency, high wages, grassroots democracy and collective management of resources.
What this new society may have grown to look like we will never know for it was brutally crushed by nobles and Church.
The merchant bourgeoisie united in an organised attempt to end peasant autonomy and drive wages back down. They did so, not by re-ensuring peasants that would have proved impossible. Rather they evicted them from the land in a sustained and often violent campaign of eviction. As for the commons, collective managed pastures, forests and rivers that sustained rural communities, they were fenced off and privatised for elite use. They became, in a word, property.
For the first time in history, commoners were systematically denied access to the most basic resources necessary for survival. People were left without homes and food. We don’t need to romanticise subsistence life to recognise that ENCLOSURE produced conditions that were far worse than under serfdom, the word POVERTY came into common use.
If you travel up the Sma’ Glen and stop in the lay-by halfway up you will be able to read a notice that will tell you, the highland clearances came about because people left Scotland for a better life, no they were driven off the land by absentee landlords.
Enclosure worked like magic for the capitalists of Europe, it gave them huge amounts of land and resources that had previously been off-limits. Some form of accumulation was necessary for the rise of capitalism. Adam Smith called this “Previous Accumulation” and claimed that it came about because a few people worked really hard and saved their earnings – such an idyllic tale, that is still repeated in textbooks. Karl Marx insisted on calling it “primitive accumulation”, to highlight the barbaric nature of the violence it entailed.
Now we really have the rise of capitalism – lots of cheap labour was now available. With subsistence economies destroyed and commons fenced off, people had no choice but to sell their labour for wages, not now, for a bit of extra income like under the previous regime, but simply in order to survive.
This at the time was called Free Labour, but of course, it was anything but. Although they were not forced to work as slaves or serfs, nonetheless they had little choice, those who controlled the means of production could get away with paying rock-bottom wages and people would have to take it. Any wage, no matter how small, was better than death.
Capitalism rose on the back of organised violence, mass impoverishment, and the systematic destruction of self-sufficient subsistence economies, replaced by the satanic mills immortalised in the poetry of William Blake.
The enclosure brought many into the cities, refugees, who ended up in urban slums had no choice but to accept work for meagre wages, because the refugees were many and jobs were few, competition among workers drove down the cost of labour this, in turn, destroyed the GUILD system that had previously protected the livelihoods of skilled craftsmen. Now the threat of being replaced and under pressure to produce workers would work sixteen hours a day, just to keep their job.
Think what Maggie Thatcher was trying to achieve, kill off the unions, and privatise the major industries so that governments could no longer be held to ransom. (At Grangemouth when the men went on strike the owner simply told them he was closing the plant down if they demanded higher wages, it worked, better half a loaf than none) high unemployment will drive down wages, they will be glad of a job, is the mantra of the Tory party in the UK.
John Locke admitted that enclosure was a process of theft from the commons, and from commoners, but he argued that this theft was morally justifiable because it enabled a shift to commercial methods that increased output. Any increase in total output, he said was a contribution to the “Greater Good”.
The same argument is spouted today virtually anything can be justified if it contributes to GDP growth. It is of course a lie; the only good is to the pocketbook of the land or factory owner.
This capitalism was not something that just happened along, it was a conscious strategy on the part of Europe’s capitalists. They saw enclosure as a tool for enhancing the “industry” of the masses.
In 1695 the Quaker John Bellers wrote, our commons make the poor that are upon them too much like the Indians, a hindrance to industry and are nurseries of idleness and insolence. In 1771, Arthur Young noted that “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious”. In 1786 the reverend Joseph Townsend emphasised “It is only hunger which can spur and goad them on to labour”.
You do not have to look far to see the Tory Ideology of today’s world – same words different era (Universal Credits, food Banks, School Uniform Banks.) “Well fucked and poorly glad”, was how the Church kept its parishioners in order. Today the capitalist system is doing the same with the same lies.
Simon Szreter, one of the world’s foremost historians and experts on public health data, has shown that this first century of the Industrial Revolution was characterised by a striking deterioration in life expectancy, down to levels not seen since the Black Death. In Manchester and Liverpool, the two giants of industrialisation, life expectancy collapsed compared to non-industrial parts of the country. In Manchester, it fell to a mere twenty-five years. The first few years of capitalism generated misery to a degree unknown in the pre-capitalism era.
And why I voted Labour all my working life and served as a shop steward. Sadly there is no difference in the political parties anymore – the great Labour Party of the people became ‘New Labour’ or should we just call it by its real name, ‘The Tory Party. As for the SNP here in Scotland, Sturgeon will continue to dangle the indiref2 carrot in front of gullible voters noses so long as it keeps her in her post as First Minister, but the SNP policies of the post-2014 referendum are no different from the Tories, that Sturgeon now serves. However, like the Black Death before it, coronavirus and global warming, have stopped their ideology in its tracks, this may be the chink of light we needed in order to change the system.
This blog has become overly long, for I do go off on tangents, but next time I will try to tackle the thorny subject of what comes after the collapse of capitalism, global warming and post coronavirus. Ma wee heid is hurting already.