Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Scenes From The Birth Of "The Economy"

Must be serendipity: following on the comments I made yesterday about the invention of "The Economy" by political theorists in the eighteenth century, Naked Capitalism features a great cross post by Yasha Levine about a bit of "forgotten" (or covered up) part of the development of modern economic thought. In the introduction Yves Smith adds some history on Adam Smith, the "founder" of modern economics:
I do have one quibble with Levine’s piece: just as Keynes has been done a disservice by Keynesians, so has Adam Smith been badly used by some of his purported followers. His “invisible hand” likely came from Macbeth (it was the most famous usage at the time and Smith, a serious Shakespearean actor, would have known its origin). The “invisible hand” is a conjurer’s trick, so Smith appears to have been signaling some reservations about the seeming efficiency of market activity. Similarly, Smith wanted to be remembered for his Theory of Moral Sentiments, not the Wealth of Nations, and he criticized some of the abuses of early capitalism.
The article is about a book entitled "The Invention of Capitalism" by Michael Perelman which describes how self-sufficient rural communities were forcibly destroyed and peasants forced off the land so that they could become dependent and obedient workers for the factories which were being built by wealthy landowners. The poor need to have their means of support removed so that they would become "productive." Furthermore, they needed to be kept in a perpetual state of poverty and misery so that they would continue to work, otherwise they would become "unproductive," meaning they would have everything that they needed. This was not an abomination - this was all an intentional part of the plan as described by early capitalist thinkers. The money quote:

…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.

—Arthur Young; 1771

And this is now the philosophy that has taken over the whole globe, driving people off the land worldwide and forcing them into sprawling "arrival cities" where desperate teeming masses live in squalid conditions and compete for whatever miserable work is available, often in factories. And of course certain economic propagandists tell us how much better off they are. Today, of course, this inconvenient fact is hushed up and economist claim that over a long enough time period, everyone will be rich. Amazingly, it hasn't even worked in the United States, the so-called "Richest Country On Earth," where most citizens are getting poorer living paycheck-to-paycheck. The article uncovers the dirty truth - they're supposed to! That's how capitalism works.
Perelman outlines the many different policies through which peasants were forced off the land—from the enactment of so-called Game Laws that prohibited peasants from hunting, to the destruction of the peasant productivity by fencing the commons into smaller lots—but by far the most interesting parts of the book are where you get to read Adam Smith’s proto-capitalist colleagues complaining and whining about how peasants are too independent and comfortable to be properly exploited, and trying to figure out how to force them to accept a life of wage slavery.

This pamphlet from the time captures the general attitude towards successful, self-sufficient peasant farmers:

The possession of a cow or two, with a hog, and a few geese, naturally exalts the peasant. . . . In sauntering after his cattle, he acquires a habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and occasionally whole days, are imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes disgusting; the aversion in- creases by indulgence. And at length the sale of a half-fed calf, or hog, furnishes the means of adding intemperance to idleness.

While another pamphleteer wrote:

Nor can I conceive a greater curse upon a body of people, than to be thrown upon a spot of land, where the productions for subsistence and food were, in great measure, spontaneous, and the climate required or admitted little care for raiment or covering.

John Bellers, a Quaker “philanthropist” and economic thinker saw independent peasants as a hindrance to his plan of forcing poor people into prison-factories, where they would live, work and produce a profit of 45% for aristocratic owners:

Our Forests and great Commons (make the Poor that are upon them too much like the Indians) being a hindrance to Industry, and are Nurseries of Idleness and Insolence.

Daniel Defoe, the novelist and trader, noted that in the Scottish Highlands “people were extremely well furnished with provisions. … venison exceedingly plentiful, and at all seasons, young or old, which they kill with their guns whenever they find it.’’

To Thomas Pennant, a botanist, this self-sufficiency was ruining a perfectly good peasant population:

The manners of the native Highlanders may be expressed in these words: indolent to a high degree, unless roused to war, or any animating amusement.

If having a full belly and productive land was the problem, then the solution to whipping these lazy bums into shape was obvious: kick ‘em off the land and let em starve.

Arthor Young, a popular writer and economic thinker respected by John Stuart Mill, wrote in 1771: “everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” Sir William Temple, a politician and Jonathan Swift’s boss, agreed, and suggested that food be taxed as much as possible to prevent the working class from a life of “sloth and debauchery.”
Yasha Levine: Recovered Economic History – “Everyone But an Idiot Knows That The Lower Classes Must Be Kept Poor, or They Will Never Be Industrious” (Naked Capitalism)

For more on Adam Smith, see the blog Adam Smith's Lost Legacy.

And, let's not forget that it is the 100-year anniversary of the Luddite uprisings: Celebrating The Luddite Uprisings (No Tech Magazine):
"November 2011 – January 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the Luddite uprisings, in which artisan cloth workers smashed machines which were destroying their trades, undercutting wages and forcing them into unemployment and destitution. Today, the industrial system that the Luddites were rebelling against has led to climate change and huge losses of biodiversity, and its new technologies, such as information technology, genetic engineering and nanotechnology raise equally profound issues. Yet anyone who raises concern about the price and side-effects of new technologies is harshly condemned as a 'luddite', someone supposedly irrationally opposed to technology and progress."

"In fact, the Luddites were not 'luddites’ in that sense: the idea that they were opposed to all technology is a history written by the victors. In fact the Luddites opposed only technology ‘hurtful to Commonality’, ie. to the common good, rather than the narrow interests of the few. They destroyed some machines whilst leaving alone others in the same workshop. So being a luddite today means being a sceptic about the dogma of technology as progress, not about denying the real benefits of some technologies. It means insisting that the crucial decisions about which technologies are developed are made democratically, not just imposed by corporations and technocratic elites. And it means standing up for our own ideas of what progress really is."
And see: Lessons of the Luddites (The Guardian):
Contrary to modern assumptions, the Luddites were not opposed to technology itself. They were opposed to the particular way it was being applied. After all, stocking frames had been around for 200 years by the time the Luddites came along, and they weren't the first to smash them up. Their protest was specifically aimed at a new class of manufacturers who were aggressively undermining wages, dismantling workers' rights and imposing a corrosive early form of free trade. To prove it, they selectively destroyed the machines owned by factory managers who were undercutting prices, leaving the other machines intact.

Technological change does not automatically equate with progress. If it did, we'd be prioritising renewable energy research and the hunt for new antibiotics. Instead, the newspaper, publishing and music industries are in terminal decline and a million "outdoor" advertising screens are blinking into life. It looks as if we're heading for a world in which journalists can't afford to hold power to account, authors to write books, and musicians to produce anything other than nostalgic mash-ups. But it will be a world in which certain players – new media companies and their advertisers – stand to benefit handsomely. Technological change isthe product neither of natural evolution nor spontaneous revolution. It's driven by corporate elites who have the power to arrange things according to their interests.

There will be some who argue that technology inevitably creates winners and losers; that the march towards efficiency means cutting prices and jobs. That progress, in other words, ain't always pretty.

But if efficiency were our only goal, we wouldn't be talking about job creation as an end in itself. We wouldn't be fretting about stagnating wages and the consequent slump in consumer spending. We wouldn't be watching Kirstie Allsop make wirework daffodil corsages with the Welsh WI And since jobs are no longer just about earning money, but fulfilment and community as well, the early 20th-century dream of technology liberating us from labour has turned into a nightmare of technology depriving people not just of their livelihoods but of their entire raison d'ĂȘetre. Not to mention the fact that the smartphone has made our leisure time into labour.
For more on being driven off the land, see Wikipedia's entries on The Enclosure Movement and The Highland Clearances. And here's a podcast: Enclosure, Luddism, and Magna Carta (Against The Grain)

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