Tag: industrial revolution

Gods & monsters

By Daniel Margrain

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During the dark pre-enlightenment days before science, the earth was widely perceived as a stable force at the centre of the universe overseen by a God who envisaged humanity as having a fixed set of roles within it. To step outside this framework of ‘stability and order’ was to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that shaped society. By challenging the existence of God (and hence the nature of society) through science, Galileo and others paid the ultimate price with their lives.

For man to disobey God by tasting the fruit of the forbidden tree was deemed to have brought evil into the world. Thus theology and the clergy explained the existence of wrongdoing as a primordial human condition that had to be controlled by a deity for whom the wrongdoers were required to seek salvation. This salvation took root in a system of ideas that underpinned the philosophical writings of Aristotle who conceived a world in which everything had a purpose.

The purpose of individual beings, and the places they naturally occupy, all dovetailed together, according to Aristotle, to form the pattern of the universe in order to give everything its place in the world. Religion and Aristotlian philosophy are therefore mutually reinforcing concepts that helped maintain uneven relations of power, centred on order.

Although the enlightenment and the emergence of science was a great leap forward from the idea that the power of Kings was historically fixed predicated on a grand purpose and design ordained by God, it nevertheless remained tied to the concept of progress as being that of the development of the human mind and of human nature as unchanging. So just as the church regarded stability and order as a primordial human condition, the classical economists that arose out of the enlightenment treated private property also as a fixed primordial human condition.

The religious and political establishment continue to blind the masses with this propaganda today. Hierarchical structures are as rigid in class stratified modern Britain (where social mobility is actually in reverse) as they have ever been. The masses of ordinary people have been conditioned to know their place within an ‘unchanging’ society even though the great changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution prove that power had transferred from feudal landlords to corporate grandees.

The supplanting of the aristocracy of land with money in this way led to the reduction of the great estates to commodities in which almost everyone and everything became “objectified”. The worker devotes his life to producing objects which he does not own or control. The labour of the worker, according to Karl Marx, thus becomes a separate, external being:

“Man’s labour exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power, the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.”

In the year of Marx’s birth in 1818, a young English author called Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published, in London, the first edition of the Gothic and Romantic science fiction novel, Frankenstein – the tale of a monster which turns against its creator. It’s the externalizing and uncontrollable force that provides the catalyst for change that Shelley describes in her masterpiece which draws parallels with the daily lot of workers. It’s these workers who continually produce what they cannot keep until eventually, as was the case with the Luddites, they rebel against the machines that churn out the fruits of their alienated labour by smashing them to pieces.

In dialectical terms, change in nature is reality. But as Marx understood, the dialectic also applies to the social world in which alienation is considered to be a material and social process. Since humans are an integral part of nature, they can not be excluded from the forces that govern it. The forces that determine changes in nature also, therefore, apply to the social world. At some point quantitative change results in fundamental qualitative change. An acorn, in becoming an oak, for example, will have ceased to be an acorn. Yet implicit within the acorn is the potential to become an oak. The economic system of capitalism, in potentially becoming something else, will similarly, cease to be.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn is indicative of the kind of transformation from quantitative to qualitative change outlined. This explains why the establishment are doing their utmost to prevent it. Just as Dr Frankenstein couldn’t control the monster he created and the machines couldn’t ultimately control the impulses of workers in the factories wrought by the impacts of industrial capitalism, so it is the case that the establishment won’t be able to control the forces which Corbynism has unleashed.

What has typified the history of colonial and imperialist oppression thus far, has been the ability of the oppressors to suppress opposition to their rule using monsters as part of their strategy of divide and conquer based on the concept of “my enemies enemy is my friend”. However, what the oppressors rarely appear to factor in to their strategies, is the potential for both the monsters and ordinary people alike, to break free from their chains. The brainwashing techniques of the corporate media, as well as the Machiavellian politicians who sing to the tune of their paymasters, is not sustainable. Corbyn is leading a movement that potentially will be at the forefront of tearing the entire edifice down.

Not only are monsters able to break free from the oppressors who create and nurture them, but paradoxically they also create the conditions in which a greater number of other monsters emerge. This was, for example, the case in Afghanistan during the 1980s following president Carter’s 1979 authorization of a $500 million covert action programme in support of tribal groups known as the mujahedin.

The kinds of monsters which successive US governments help nurture have managed to either strain at the leash (as in the case of Israel), or completely break free from their masters grip (as was the case with the mujahedin in Afghanistan). In terms of the former, as a result of the law of unintended consequence, the US-dependent monster often bites the financial hand that feeds it. This is rooted in uncontrollable and unpredictable geopolitical forces.

However, there are other monsters which their creators manage to exert a tight control of. An example, is the extent to which the the US government have managed to maintain leverage over the terrorist fighters that continue to emerge from what was formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA). Since 1946, the SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers and policemen as well as torturers, mass murderers, dictators and state terrorists who, according to SOA Watch, have “ripped the continent apart.” Two-thirds of the El Salvador army who committed some of the worst atrocities in its civil war had been trained at the SOA.

Moreover, the school has been complicit in numerous other dirty wars – particularly throughout the 1980s – fought on behalf of the US as well as training various other dictators from all over central and south America. More recently, the school was almost certainly responsible for training the killers who were a component part of the brutal regime that overthrew the Honduran government headed by Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009. Media Lens pointed out in early March this year, that those responsible for the coup d’etat – which was supported by successive U.S administrations – assassinated the leading grass-roots Honduran environmental activist, Berta Caceres.

These kinds of Faustian pacts with the devil have, largely by way of ‘blow back’, contributed significantly to the exponential spread of terrorism worldwide, as well as the destabilization of entire countries and even regions. This is evidenced by the emergence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq following the 2003 illegal US-led invasion, the chaos that is unfolding in Honduras and the spread of ISIS in Libya and beyond. The latter were spawned in the Wests favoured regional client, Saudi Arabia – the authoritarian religious extremist state that has been bombarding Yemen for the last 19 months using, as journalist Iona Craig has documented, weaponry sold to them by the UK-US governments’.

Given that the FBI defines terrorism as “violent acts …intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government, or affect the conduct of a government”, it’s difficult to rationalize how violations of international law in this way, under the guise of illegal war, is not illustrative of anything other than the kinds of terrorism the Western powers accuse their official enemies of committing.

Famously, Peter Ustinov eloquently articulated the conflation of war with terrorism. “War”, he said, “is the terrorism of the rich and powerful, and terrorism is the war of the poor and powerless.” In other words, the wars initiated by the powerful represent the substantial terror. Under such circumstances, the greater monsters are closer to home than many of us would perhaps care to admit. If God does exist, maybe he will be at the gates of Heaven to pass judgement on our rulers.

In the meantime, ordinary people are trying to establish the number to the combination lock to the chain that binds them to the Gods and monsters created by imperial power. Jeremy Corbyn has the number to the combination in the jacket pocket of his unkempt suit.

The Rich Need To Be Forced To Pay Their Way For The Benefit Of All

Leading American venture capitalist Nick Hanauer has argued that the actions of capitalists’ need to be reined in through a system of planned and coordinated regulation in order for the capitalist system to be sustainable. This is what he said in a BBC TV interview in front of a live audience:

Capitalists have the idea that THEIR things will be bought by everybody else as a result of higher wages paid by OTHER capitalists. But this logic of paying higher wages to staff to help improve business activity more generally, doesn’t seem to apply equally to them since they will insist on paying THEIR OWN workers next to nothing thereby not absorbing the costs themselves resulting in them gaining a competitive advantage over their rivals. The simple truth is, if a higher minimum wage was introduced universally, not only would it be affordable, but something like 40% of American’s would be able to buy more products from everybody thus benefiting all capitalists across the board. Business is challenged today because fewer and fewer people are able to buy things [1].

The implication, in other words, is that the capitalist system needs to be regulated by governments’ in order to save it from the rapacious actions of competing capitalists driven by their insatiable need for profit maximization. This rationale was long ago grasped by Karl Marx who understood that the essence of the capitalist system is, in his phrase, “accumulation for accumulations sake.”

So why don’t capitalists insist on using free labour and make their workers work all the hours under the sun? After all, wouldn’t that lead to higher profits? And one might also ask why their representatives within the elite political establishment would bother to spend any money at all on welfare? The simple but correct answer is that where they have a choice, they don’t. Where labour supply is low, the state is in effect forced to intervene on behalf of capitalists by introducing welfare as the means of preserving and reproducing labour.

But where labour is plentiful, the state rarely feels compelled to introduce health and safety, minimum wage laws and welfare.The rationale for this is that if a worker dies of malnutrition or has an accident at work, he or she can be easily replaced by another worker. Under such circumstances, the state regards these kinds of misfortunes as a price worth paying. Consider this account of the conditions of child labour in the lace industry in Nottingham in 1861 by a local magistrate:

Children of nine or ten years are dragged from their squalid beds at two, three, four o’clock in the morning and compelled to work for a bare subsistence until ten, eleven or twelve at night, their limbs wearing away, their frames dwindling, their faces whitening, and their humanity absolutely sinking into a stone-like torpor, utterly horrible to contemplate [2].

Compare and contrast that to a recent study of the conditions of life for rural migrants in contemporary China:

The trafficked children] came from faraway Liangshan in Sichuan and most of them are not yet 16. The overseers sought and recruited them from families mired in poverty, promising them high wages; some were even abducted and sent off in batches to Dongguan and from there distributed by the truckload to factories across the Pearl River Delta. On unfamiliar soil these children are often scolded and beaten and have only one proper meal every few days. Some little girls are even raped. Day after day they undertake arduous labour. Some children think about escape, but the road is blocked. The overseers threaten them and warn them that if they try to run away, there will be a price to pay [3].

What the above illustrates, is that the plentiful supply of labour power was as pertinent during the early days of the industrial revolution in Britain as it is to present day China. In both cases the introduction of welfare as the means of preserving and reproducing labour was not a concern for capitalists or the state. Consequently, welfare provision is as scant in China today as it was in 19th century Britain.

Similarly, while the deaths of more than 1,100 garment workers in a factory building collapse in Dhaka,Bangladesh, in April 2013 [4], most of them women on subsistence wages, is an unspeakable tragedy for their families and friends, it is of much less significance, other than concerns about negative publicity, for companies such as Primark for whom they were producing cheap clothes, simply because there are plenty more desperate workers who will take their place [5].

Where, however, the supply of labour is less plentiful or where labour becomes more skilled and consequently more expensive, losing workers through injury or disablement, or through working them to death doesn’t really make economic sense. But that doesn’t mean that capitalists in Britain or America wouldn’t insist that their workers work all the hours under the sun in the short term for peanuts if they thought they could get away with it.

One of the contradictions inherent to capitalism is that the system as a whole needs to spend money to make profits, yet every individual capitalist wants to spend as little as possible. The lengths to which giant companies like Amazon, Google and Starbucks will go in order to avoid paying tax shows how that dilemma is played out.

In the longer term, having workers working 14 or 16 hours a day for peanuts is very wasteful. It’s like over-exploiting the soil. However, given that individual capitalists themselves won’t do anything about it for fear of losing their competitive advantage over their rivals, the state as the representative of the capitalist class as a whole is forced to step in.

This brings me back to the wisdom implicit in the Nick Hanauer quote at the beginning of this article. Hanaeur’s argument about the necessity of the United States government to substantially increase the legal minimum wage across the board in order to save capitalism from itself, is in principle, no different from the minority of capitalists in 19th century Britain who argued in favour of the introduction of the Factory Acts of the 1830s and 1840s which set down a maximum length for the working day.

An advanced low wage and minimal welfare provision capitalist state like Britain is the modern equivalent of its counterpart during the industrial revolution prior to the introduction of the Factory Acts. What is required is a radical re-think with regards to our current direction of travel.away from the failed neoliberal economic model of austerity which economist Paul Krugman describes as:

A con that does nothing but harm to the wealth of this nation. It has been discredited everywhere else: only in Britain do we cling to the myth.[6].

It’s in Britain where the redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top continues at apace, much of it as a result of huge subsidies paid to the richest landowners [7]. As inequality continues to rise so does the potential for public disorder. At present, the richest tenth pay 35% of their income in tax, while the poorest tenth pay 43% [8]. Is it too much to ask that those with the deepest pockets pay their way, thus creating the potential for the kind of equitable society in which everybody wins?

This is not pie in the sky stuff but a pragmatic solution to the problems we face. Individuals as politically and ideologically as far apart like Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas, Nick Hanauer, Joseph Stiglitz, and other top economists and capitalists, understand what’s required to get us out of the mess we’re in. It’s a pity that people like Duncan Smith, Cameron and Osborne prefer to put ideology before pragmatism.