WE SHOULD NOT WORK JUST TO SURVIVE : INEQUALITY

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Hello. I remember, when I was three years old, back in my nursery class, we were singing this song, or at least, trying to sing a song. Some of you might have heard of it actually.

It’s about a wise man who builds his house upon the rock, and a foolish man who builds his house upon the sand. When the rains came down, and the floods came up, it was the house on the rock that stood firm. Looking back now,

I see there’s a clear message to this song. And that is that the best way to allow all of us to flourish as much as possible is to provide us with firm foundations from which to build our lives. In the song, these foundations were a physical rock from which the wise man built his house. Now I see these foundations as financial.

That is, enough money to cover our basic necessities; a roof over our head, food on our table, heat and light for our home, before we earn extra money through paid employment. That’s the idea I want to share with you today: that we shouldn’t have to work just to survive. I know what you’re thinking. It was emphatically articulated by a so-called “social media troll” last time we did this, back in November, and that is, “Why should I listen to some posh bloke, with a ridiculous double-barreled name, and a center parting in his hair, tell me about why we shouldn’t have to work to survive?” Well, they were right. That haircut? Absolutely terrible. (Laughter)

But for those of you who are skeptical about this idea, I invite you to consider this with me. Because if work is just about survival, just about putting food on our table, just about getting a roof over our head, or even just about struggling to make it to the end of the month, week, or even day then it’s very difficult for any of us to look beyond that. For it is only when we can look past the question of, “What do I need to do today to survive?” that we can ask ourselves, “What do I want to do to live?” This isn’t my idea. It’s not something I’ve read in a book, or a theory, or anything like that. The benefits of it can be seen all around us. Take this university, right here. Hundreds of thousands of students, many of you will be sitting in this room today, a part of a vibrant community of student-led organizations; societies, social enterprises, start-ups, voluntary organizations, all kinds of things. TEDx University of Edinburgh being one example.

Another example, as Alistair said earlier, is The Buchanan Institute, Edinburgh’s first student-led think-tank, which I, and a few others, helped to set up back in January. None of us do these things because we have to, but because we love doing them. And for many of us, they almost become like full-time jobs. People ask us, “Do you get paid to do it?”

We don’t, for the most part. And I speak for myself, but I also did it because I could. You see, I was lucky. I had enough money through a combination of student loans and allowances to cover my basic necessities so that I didn’t need to work. I stress this because in reality, if I was having to work 30 hours, 20 hours, even 15 hours a week, on top of my studies to cover my basic necessities of being here, then there’s no way I would have had the time and energy necessary to set up The Buchanan Institute.

Many people will say, “That’s all well and good these voluntary student organizations, they’re very nice, but where’s the money going to come from? Who’s going to make the money so that we can pay for this situation where nobody needs to work to survive?” Well, the most entrepreneurial and innovative people in our society also benefited from a situation where they didn’t need to work just to survive.

Take for example, Steve Jobs. Back in 1976, he co-founded Apple whilst working with his friend Steve Wozniak in his parents’ garage. Job’s wasn’t rich. But he had a roof over his head, he had food on his table, he had all the appliances and tools he needed so that he could focus his time and energy on creating the first Apple prototype in 1976. You see, if Steve Jobs had to work in a minimum wage job, 50 hours, 40 hours a week, just to pay for his basic necessities, then he wouldn’t have been the founder of Apple. We may never have heard of iPhones or iPods.

But let me take you to the Namibian village of Otjivero, Omitara. For it is here where an organization called, “The Basic Income Earth Network” conducted a simple yet groundbreaking experiment.

They provided every single Namibian villager in this village with a basic income, enough to cover their basic subsistence. The skeptical among us – and I was talking to a few today – would say, “These Namibians! if they’re given enough to survive on, then they’re going to be lazy. They’re not going to work. They’ll sit on their asses all day.”

Well actually, the opposite happened. The percentage of those involved in income generating activities rose in that year from 44% to 55%. This is what happened: freed from reliance on low-paid labor, just to cover their survival, the villagers could choose what they did with their lives and decide how they earned extra money for themselves and their families. For many, this was starting up their own small businesses.

Becoming dressmakers, brick makers, or bread bakers. People have said, “That’s all well and good, but that’s Namibia. That’s a developing country. The west is different; it won’t work.” Well for them we can say, “Canada”. In 1976, the Canadian government conducted a similar experiment in the town of Dauphin, Manitoba.

Every single person who lived in that town no longer had to work just to survive. It was called, “The town without poverty”. Once again, people didn’t stop working. The only groups of people who worked slightly less in that year were mothers, and some fathers, with newborn babies. And some teenagers who relieved from the pressures of earning money for their families, could now go back to school. But something else happened. Relieved from the daily mental and physical stresses of having to work to survive, the ‘town without poverty’ became a healthier one. They actually, in that year, saved 13% on their overall healthcare costs. Something in the UK, with strains on NHS budgets, we could perhaps think about. So what about the UK? Could we try something similar here?

Well actually, yes! An organization called “The Citizen’s Income Trust” have shown that by simply reorganizing our existing tax and benefits system, we could provide every single UK adult with nearly 3,700 pounds a year. This is without hardly spending an extra penny. How? Well first of all, this basic income would replace means-tested benefits that we would no longer need, whilst ensuring that no-one was worse off. But also it would replace the personal tax allowance that we get to a certain level of our income.

So rather than paying tax and then getting money back in a personal tax allowance from the government, you would have this tax-free cash lump sum called, “a basic income” in it’s place. Then what if people say, “Well what if the rich get it? The rich don’t need it. It wouldn’t work.” Then we can say, “In this country we have something called ‘the basic state pension’ for all pensioners. “The basic state income” is the same thing, but for all adults. And the Swiss? Well, they could go further. Much further. In 2016, they will hold a popular referendum to decide whether to introduce a basic annual income to every Swiss citizen of nearly 21,000 pounds a year. Fully-funded, fully-costed.

Sounds good. So, I want to ask you. Let’s imagine that you woke up in Switzerland the morning after that referendum passed and you found yourself with a guarantee of 21,000 pounds a year. Put your hands up, how many of you, would stop working completely? There’s actually nobody. Not one person. It’s not actually surprising. Some of you might work a bit less. Spend more time with the family, spend more time doing leisure. Some of you might realise that you hate your job, and you’re going to use that basic income as a platform to go and do something that you really want to do. It isn’t surprising because as many of us know, work doesn’t have to be just about surviving. It can be about following our passions, fulfilling out dreams, or, as I have been so lucky to do during this whole TEDx process, meet, and work with, and build lifelong friendships.

About six months ago, I was at the hospital, just after my sister had given birth to her son and my nephew called Raffi. I remember, standing there, holding this little thing in my arms and thinking, “Don’t drop him.”

(Laughter) Then I thought, these questions about the future, and how to be OK in the future, and what kind of society we can live in in the future, aren’t just for our generation sitting here. They’re for the ones behind us. The ones being born or yet to be born. And when he grows up and if he ever gets around to and wants to ask his uncle for advice about work and life, – which is wishful thinking- I’d like to tell him, and be that uncle that tells him something similar to what you might tell your kids and probably do. “Raffi, don’t just work because you need to.

Do it so that every day, you wake up doing something you are really passionate about, with the people that you love.” My nephew will probably have the opportunity to do this. He may never have to work just to survive. And people have said to me, “So Johnny, in that case, why do you care? Why do you care whether or not people should have to work to survive? Because it’s not enough. It’s not enough that my nephew has this opportunity. It’s not enough that I had this opportunity. It’s not enough that many people I know, and many of us in this room, probably had this opportunity. In fact, it’s not enough until every single person, every single one of us in this room, in this country, or even in this world, can at least wake up every single morning and genuinely ask themselves, not “What do I need to do today just to survive?”, but “What do I want to do to live?” Thank you very much. Have a great day and enjoy the rest of the talks. (Applause)


You are simply wrong. How can you say he wants handouts when he is arguing for giving out handouts?

He is doing this because he is the one with the opportunity to do so. And he is doing so to help those without the opportunities he has and has had. You did not invent the computer or internet, you are using someone else’s hard work, every technology you use is likely not anything you had any hand in creating. You are arguing that no one should share their hard work so the person who invented the computer should have simply kept it to himself correct?

We should all just be left to fend for ourselves is what you are arguing for but by that logic you would not have a computer unless you could build one yourself and without any starting materials as no one is going to share a single thing with you, material or knowledge, by your logic no one should give up anything they worked to create. Oh but you say it is different because you paid for your computer right? Paid for how? With money you earned working a job? In other words money you earned via the mere fact you had the opportunity to be born in a place with access to a paying job and without any disabilities to performing that job.

Lucky you. Not everyone has those opportunities thus not everyone can afford not just a computer but even the basic things necessary for survival like food and shelter. He is arguing that everyone should have the opportunity to do what they want not just what they need to do to survive.

Example, if you are living on the street it is very hard to take the time to find a job when all your time is spent finding food for the day or a place to sleep for the night and how do you even get to a job interview with no transportation? Again you can’t just hop on the bus because you need to find something to eat first you haven’t eaten in 24 hours and the last thing you ate was scraps from the garbage, you need to find more not sit around on a bus and in a job interview and besides you were digging in the trash who is going to hire you when you smell and look like garbage? You would need to clean up first but then you don’t have any time for that cause oh you found some food but you still need to find a place to sleep for the night.

Maybe you’ll sit on the corner and ask for handouts so you can afford something other than garbage to eat, cause you know there is some food in that trashcan nearby if you don’t get enough money for some food, but you cant hop on the bus to your job interview and come back to find the trash empty or eaten by some other homeless person and not have gotten the job and now its too late to sit out asking for hand outs its cold outside and you don’t have much to keep warm so you need to go inside with no food for the day and you didn’t get the job cause your clothes are dirty and you smell like garbage and why would you even bother attempting to get a job in that situation?

They just don’t have the opportunities as someone in a stable household. It has nothing to do with laziness or even drugs or alcohol because addiction is the same problem, an addicts life revolves around their addiction the same way a homeless persons life revolves around daily survival, there is just no time for any improvements to be made on themselves.

FEUDALISM

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In medieval Europe feudalism was a political and economic system during the middle ages from around the 8th century to the 15th century AD so it was a system that lasted for many hundreds of years feudalism involved four levels of society the king was at the top as he was a leader of the entire kingdom, beneath him with a feudal lords also known as Nobles or barons and these were the world these landowners.

Following the lords and knights or vessels and their roles of the fighting warrior who usually battled on horseback finally on the bottom of society where the peasants or service peasants or farmers who worked the land painting the crops and animals they were the poorest members of many of the world made up the biggest majority of the population.

In these for social levels feudalism worked through an exchange of land for protection money or food let’s have a look at this in more detail in the early Middle Ages Europe was very unstable due two wars and invasions the Kings were quite weak and struggled to rule their entire kingdom by themselves the system of feudalism arose as a matter of security for these European kings who decided it would be best to divide their land.

So that they do not have to look after such a large area alone if i strengthen my kingdom it would then be harder for foreign people to invade in the feudal system the King would keep share the land for himself this would be used for his talents and hunting forest for example the rest of the kingdom was divided between nobleman who have been loyal to the king the size of the land they received will depend on their personal ties with the king and the status of their family.

Those Lords would then keep some of the land of themselves and divide the rest up between lots of their choosing in turn the knights would give some of their portion of the kingdom to peasants who became serves to retire to the land and were not free to leave of course.

These Kings nobles and knights we’re not giving away their land for no reason as I said earlier feudalism was based on an exchange of land for protection, money and food looking at this flow chart you can see on the right hand side the granting of land to people of a lower social status as I’ve just explained but on the left hand side you can see what is being exchanged for this giving a land on the very bottom of society the peasants will work great food and tending to animals they were the background of society as all the food they grew was not just for themselves and their families who would actually feed the entire kingdom.

So the Knights would give land to peasants, so that I had farming area to grow the food in return the knights would protect the peasants this was the exchange of land for labor next up on the scale we can see that knights we give a land by the nobles on the condition that the Knights would be loyal to the Lord in fighting battles were needed this again was an exchange of land for labor on the top of the scale the nobles were given land by the king.

So that they would provide these knights to the king the role of the nobles was to build up an army be loyal give money to the king and this is what they had to do an exchange for their land so the feudal system is quite beneficial to the king of the top all he had to do was share some of his land and in return he would receive food military protection money and knights at this strength in the kingdom and allowed him to remain in power to summarize what we have learned Europe in the early Middle Ages was weak and under threat from foreign invasion teams needed to share their lens among their people to lessen their responsibilities and so the feudal system was established the order of society was the king of the top than the nobility followed by the Knights than the peasants on the bottom the system was based on an exchange of land for money loyalty and protection and food this helped to secure Europe.

LABOUR AND CLASS

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Labour and class. So we’re talking about production, making products, and in order to make any product you first need two things: you’ll need the “means of production.”.

This video is like a product, which I made, and I can show you some of my means of production right now, it’s my camera, my microphone, my tripod, lighting, the backboards I’ve got in my little studio here, and of course – the talent! – as well as the editing software and so on. All of these things I own. But that only gets me a video; in order to get a YouTube video, I need YouTube, the website. That’s the most important means of production for me, and it’s owned not by me but by Google.

This means that making YouTube videos is what Karl Marx called “capitalistic production,” where the means of production are privately owned, rather than owned by the labourers, and the products are sold in a market for profit – in this case Google sells ad space on my videos.

The second thing you’ll need is labour. And Labour for Marx is really important because it’s the only thing that can increase the value of what you have. If you a buy a block of wood and do nothing with it then its value will remain constant. But if you labour to carve that wood into a chair you will increase its value. Now you could try to rip somebody off and sell the wood for more than it’s worth, and supply and demand will come into it, but those things will only affect its price, which for Marx is not the same thing.

He thought that prices would generally be proportional to value, but value he thought was, definitionally, how much labour it takes to make something under normal circumstances. Labour is measured in time, hours and minutes: the more labour time it takes to make something under normal conditions, the more valuable it is. That’s why if you can automate a process then the products become cheaper, because it now takes less labour to make them. If you’ve got a job needs doing takes a lot of special training then it becomes more expensive because the time spent training is necessary labour for doing the job. Time is Money – literally.

This is called the Labour Theory of Value. The “normal conditions” caveat is important here: if you slack off and it takes you two hours to do something that would normally only take one well then the value of the product doesn’t double.

It stays the same ‘coz under normal conditions it would only take one hour to make that. Similarly, if you work really hard and get the job done in 30 minutes, the value of the product doesn’t halve.

Now the Labour Theory of Value is, at this moment in history, unorthodox. Mainstream economics prefers a theory of value called Marginalism: Marginalists say that the Labour Theory breaks down in certain circumstances; Marxists and Post-Marxists say that actually it’s Marginalism that beaks down in the right circumstances, so just bear in mind as we go here that a lot of this is very hotly debated, and as we’ll be seeing later in the series there’s a lot riding on it.

How exactly value becomes price is one of the big talking points, though some economists prefer to just ignore value altogether and just focus on prices, since you can model an economy and find out how to make that mad dolla just by looking at something’s price.

Value brings with it a whole bunch of questions about fairness and whether the price is right, and mainstream economics often prefers to just gloss over those issues. The other big talking point is the so-called “Great Contradiction;” if labour is the source of value then why aren’t the most valuable products made in the most labour-intensive industries?

Some people think this completely scuppers the Labour Theory; there might be ways of getting around it but we don’t need to worry about that, I’m just making sure you know where we are on the theoretical map.

Labour-power, the ability to labour, is, in Marxist economics, the most important commodity in the world. It’s the only commodity that when applied, increases the value of what you have. Labour power is found only in people, and when you go to work you rent out your labour power for the day.

But your ability to work, your labour power, doesn’t just grow on trees. It takes a certain amount of food, and shelter, and clothing and so on, to sustain your labour power from 9 to 5. Now, all of those things have values that can be measured in labour time as well.

So let’s assume that it takes, say, 4 hours of labour to produce everything you need to work for one day. You go to work at 9am, and by 1pm, four hours later, you have paid for yourself for that day. The amount of labour going into you is the same as the amount of labour coming out of you. But you don’t go home at 1pm. You have to stay the rest of the day.

So your boss gets 4 hours labour out of you during which time you are generating what Marx called “surplus value.” Value on top of the value it took to get you there. Profit, essentially. But because the means of production are privately owned, anything you make belongs to your boss or to your company, and they sell the products you make for profit and keep that profit. The surplus value goes, not to you, but to them.

And that right there, in a nutshell, is why Marx thought capitalism was unavoidably exploitative. Even if you’re making a great wage and you’re happy with your job, under capitalism he thought you are always being paid less than what your labour is actually worth. That’s how capitalism works: you hire other people to increase the value of what you have, and then you keep that extra value for yourself. Marx thought that capitalism, and everything that has come with it, is sustained only by exploiting the working class.

But hang on a minute, what was that about “class?” How can you take everybody working in very different jobs and lump them all together into one group called “the working class?” Well, the idea that society is made up of groups, which we call classes that struggle with each other is called “conflict theory.”

And it doesn’t mean that everybody within the same class has exactly the same experience. It just means that we can model society as being made up of those groups. A little bit like in meteorology: when we look at a weather front, we know that not every molecule of air has the same temperature and moves in the same direction, but we can observe trends in groups of them and model those trends.

Marx thought that we could model class conflict so accurately we could even predict the future with it: he thought that society would follow an inevitable progress towards Communism as the relations of the working classes to the means of production changed. This is called “Historical Materialism,” and as we’ll be seeing later in the series he may have been a little hasty there. But it’s not just the working class who get a raw deal, Marx thought.

Remember earlier on we said that capitalism is when the means of production are privately owned. So, how do capitalists get to own them? You’ve gotta have money in order to buy somebody else’s labour – you gotta have money to make money – so how does capitalism get started? Marx’s answer is that it’s usually violence. He lived in 19th Century England, where a lot of capital and property was either being violently confiscated from foreigners – there’s the link between capitalism and imperialism – or inherited from people who, at some point in history, got their wealth through Feudalism or conquest.

Even if people invent totally new inventions, as during the Industrial Revolution they did, the conditions that allow them to do that often come about through that violence.

MARX’S IDEA

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Most people agree that we need to improve our economic system somehow. Yet we’re also often keen to dismiss the ideas of capitalism’s most famous and ambitious critic, Karl Marx.

This isn’t very surprising. In practice, his political and economic ideas have been used to design disastrously planned economies and nasty dictatorships. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t reject Marx too quickly.

We ought to see him as a guide whose diagnosis of Capitalism’s ills helps us navigate towards a more promising future. Capitalism is going to have be reformed – and Marx’s analyse are going to be part of any answer.

Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, Germany. Soon he became involved with the Communist party, a tiny group of intellectuals advocating for the overthrow of the class system and the abolition of private property. He worked as a journalist and had to flee Germany, eventually settling in London. Marx wrote an enormous number of books and articles, sometimes with his friend Friedrich Engels Mostly, Marx wrote about Capitalism, the type of economy that dominates the western world. It was, in his day, still getting going, and Marx was one of its most intelligent and perceptive critics. These were some of the problems he identified with it:

Modern work is “alienated” One of Marx’s greatest insights is that work can be one of the sources of our greatest joys. But in order to be fulfilled at work, Marx wrote that workers need ‘to see themselves in the objects they have created’. Think of the person who built this chair: it is straightforward, strong, honest and elegant It’s an example of how, at its best, labour offers us a chance to externalise what’s good inside us. But this is increasingly rare in the modern world. Part of the problem is that modern work is incredibly specialised.

Specialised jobs make the modern economy highly efficient, but they also mean that it is seldom possible for any one worker to derive a sense of the genuine contribution they might be making to the real needs of humanity.

Marx argued that modern work leads to alienation = Entfremdung in other words, a feeling of disconnection between what you do all day and who you feel you really are and would ideally be able to contribute to existence. Modern work is insecure Capitalism makes the human being utterly expendable; just one factor among others in the forces of production that can ruthlessly be let go the minute that costs rise or savings can be made through technology.

And yet, as Marx knew, deep inside of us, we don’t want to be arbitrarily let go, we are terrified of being abandoned. Communism isn’t just an economic theory. Understood emotionally, it expresses a deep-seated longing that we always have a place in the world’s heart, that we will not be cast out. Workers get paid little while capitalists get rich This is perhaps the most obvious qualm Marx had with Capitalism.

In particular, he believed that capitalists shrunk the wages of the labourers as much as possible in order to skim off a wide profit margin. He called this primitive accumulation = ursprüngliche Akkumulation Whereas capitalists see profit as a reward for ingenuity and technological talent, Marx was far more damning. Profit is simply theft, and what you are stealing is the talent and hard work of your work force.

However much one dresses up the fundamentals, Marx insists that at its crudest, capitalism means paying a worker one price for doing something that can be sold for another, much higher one. Profit is a fancy term for exploitation. Capitalism is very unstable Marx proposed that capitalist systems are characterised by series of crises. Every crisis is dressed up by capitalists as being somehow freakish and rare and soon to be the last one.

Far from it, argued Marx, crises are endemic to capitalism – and they’re caused by something very odd. The fact that we’re able to produce too much – far more than anyone needs to consume. Capitalist crises are crises of abundance, rather than – as in the past – crises of shortage. Our factories and systems are so efficient, we could give everyone on this planet a car, a house, access to a decent school and hospital. That’s what so enraged Marx and made him hopeful too. Few of us need to work, because the modern economy is so productive. But rather than seeing this need not to work as the freedom it is, we complain about it masochistically and describe it by a pejorative word “unemployment.” We should call it freedom.

There’s so much unemployment for a good and deeply admirable reason: because we’re so good at making things efficiently. We’re not all needed at the coal face. But in that case, we should – thought Marx – make leisure admirable.

We should redistribute the wealth of the massive corporations that make so much surplus money and give it to everyone. This is, in its own way, as beautiful a dream as Jesus’s promise of heaven; but a good deal more realistic sounding. Capitalism is bad for capitalists Marx did not think capitalists were evil. For example, he was acutely aware of the sorrows and secret agonies that lay behind bourgeois marriage.

Marx argued that marriage was actually an extension of business, and that the bourgeois family was fraught with tension, oppression, and resentment, with people staying together not for love but for financial reasons.

Marx believed that the capitalist system forces everyone to put economic interests at the heart of their lives, so that they can no longer know deep, honest relationships. He called this psychological tendency commodity fetishism = Warenfetischismus, because it makes us value things that have no objective value.

He wanted people to be freed from financial constraint so that they could – at last – start to make sensible, healthy choices in their relationships. The 20th century feminist answer to the oppression of women has been to argue that women should be able to go out to work.

Marx’s answer was more subtle. This feminist insistence merely perpetuates human slavery. The point isn’t that women should imitate the sufferings of their male colleagues, it’s that men and women should have the permanent option to enjoy leisure. Why don’t we all think a bit more like marx?

An important aspect of Marx’s work is that he proposes that there is an insidious, subtle way in which the economic system colours the sort of ideas that we ending up having. The economy generates what Marx termed an “ideology”.

A capitalist society is one where most people, rich and poor, believe all sorts of things that are really just value judgements that relate back to the economic system: that a person who doesn’t work is worthless, that leisure (beyond a few weeks a year) is sinful, that more belongings will make us happier and that worthwhile things (and people) will invariably make money.

In short, one of the biggest evils of Capitalism is not that there are corrupt people at the top—this is true in any human hierarchy—but that capitalist ideas teach all of us to be anxious, competitive, conformist, and politically complacent.

Marx didn’t only outline what was wrong capitalism: we also get glimpses of what Marx wanted the ideal utopian future to be like. In his Communist Manifesto he describes a world without private property or inherited wealth, with a steeply graduated income tax, centralised control of the banking, communication, and transport industries, and free public education.

Marx also expected that communist society would allow people to develop lots of different sides of their natures: “in communist society…it is possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”.

After Marx moved to London he was supported by his friend and intellectual partner Friedrich Engels, a wealthy man whose father owned a cotton plant in Manchester. Engels covered Marx’s debts and made sure his works were published.

Capitalism paid for Communism. The two men even wrote each other adoring poetry. Marx was not a well-regarded or popular intellectual in his day. Respectable, conventional people of Marx’s day would have laughed at the idea that his ideas could remake the world. Yet just a few decades later they did: his writings became the keystone for some of the most important ideological movements of the 20th century.

But Marx was like a brilliant doctor in the early days of medicine. He could recognise the nature of the disease, although he had no idea how to go about curing it. At this point in history, we should all be Marxists in the sense of agreeing with his diagnosis of our troubles. But we need to go out and find the cures that will really work. As Marx himself declared, and we deeply agree: Philosophers until now have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

SOCIALISM AND CAPITALISM

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Yeah, Mr. Green, capitalism just turns men into wolves.

Your purportedly free markets only make slaves of us all.

I’m going to disappoint you by being too capitalist. And I’m going to disappoint a lot of other people by not being capitalist enough. [100% guaranteed] And, I’m going to disappoint the historians by not using enough jargon.

Fortunately capitalism is all about efficiency so let’s do this, Me from College.


OKAY, LET’S TALK CAPITALISM.

So, capitalism is an economic system, but it’s also a cultural system. It’s characterized by innovation and investment to increase wealth. But today we’re going to focus on production and how industrial capitalism changed it.

So let’s say it’s 1,200 CE and you’re a rug merchant. Just like merchants today, you sometimes need to borrow money in order to buy the rugs you want to resell at a profit, and then you pay that money back, often with interest, once you’ve resold the rugs. This is called mercantile capitalism, and it was a global phenomenon, from the Chinese to the Indian Ocean trade network to Muslim merchants who would sponsor trade caravans across the Sahara.

But by the 17th century, merchants in the Netherlands and in Britain had expanded upon this idea to create joint stock companies. Those companies could finance bigger trade missions and also spread the risk of international trade. But the thing about international trade is sometimes boats sink or they get taken by pirates, [Aaarrr!] and while that’s bad if you’re a sailor because, you know, you lose your life, it’s really bad if you’re a mercantile capitalist because you lost all your money.

But if you own one tenth of ten boats, your risk is much better managed. [but is mischief managed?] That kind of investment definitely increased wealth, but it only affected a sliver of the population, and it didn’t create a culture of capitalism.

Industrial Capitalism was something altogether different, both in scale and in practice. Let’s use Joyce Appleby’s definition of industrial capitalism: “An economic system that relies on investment of capital in machines and technology that are used to increase production of marketable goods.”

Industrial capitalism developed first in Britain in the 19th century. Britain had a bunch of advantages: It was the dominant power on the seas and it was making good money off of trade with its colonies, including the slave trade. Also, the growth of capitalism was helped by the half-century of civil unrest that resulted from the 17th century English Civil War.

Now, I’m not advocating for civil wars or anything, but in this particular case it was useful, because before the war the British crown had put a lot of regulations on the economy— complicated licenses, royal monopolies, etc. —but during the turmoil, it couldn’t enforce them, which made for freer markets.

Another factor was a remarkable increase in agricultural productivity in the 16th century. As food prices started to rise, it became profitable for farmers, both large and small, to invest in agricultural technologies that would improve crop yields. Those higher prices for grain probably resulted from population growth, which in turn was encouraged by increased production of food crops.

A number of these agricultural improvements came from the Dutch, who had chronic problems feeding themselves and discovered that planting different kinds of crops, like clover that added nitrogen to the soil and could be used to feed livestock at the same time, meant that more fields could be used at once. This increased productivity eventually brought down prices, and this encouraged further innovation in order to increase yield to make up for the drop in prices. Lower food prices had an added benefit – since food cost less and wages in England remained high, workers would have more disposable income, which meant that if there were consumer goods available, they would be consumed, which incentivized people to make consumer goods more efficiently, and therefore more cheaply.

You can see how this positive feedback loop leads to more food and more stuff, culminating in a world where people have so much stuff that we must rent space to store it, and so much food that obesity has become a bigger killer than starvation.

Thanks, Thought Bubble. So this increased productivity also meant that fewer people needed to work in agriculture in order to feed the population. To put this in perspective, in 1520, 80% of the English population worked the land.

By 1800, only 36% of adult male laborers were working in agriculture, and by 1850, that percentage had dropped to 25. This meant that when the factories started humming, there were plenty of workers to hum along with them. [humming < obnoxious than whistling] Especially child laborers.

So far all this sounds pretty good, right? I mean, except for the child labor. Who wouldn’t want more, cheaper food? Yeah, well, not so fast. One of the ways the British achieved all this agricultural productivity was through the process of enclosure. Whereby landlords would re-claim and privatize fields that for centuries had been held in common by multiple tenants. [they busted up hippie communes?] This increased agricultural productivity, but it also impoverished many tenant farmers, many of whom lost their livelihoods.

Okay, for our purposes, capitalism is also a cultural system, rooted in the need of private investors to turn a profit. So the real change needed here was a change of mind. People had to develop the capitalist values of taking risks and appreciating innovation.

But capitalism isn’t without its problems, or its critics, [“haters” in the parlance of our times] and there were certainly lots of shortcomings to industrial capitalism in the 19th century. Working conditions were awful. Days were long, arduous, and monotonous. Workers lived in conditions that people living in the developed world today would associate with abject poverty.

One way that workers responded to these conditions was by organizing into labor unions. Another response was in many cases purely theoretical: socialism, [gasp, clutch the pearls] most famously Marxian socialism.

I should probably point out here that socialism is an imperfect opposite to capitalism, even though the two are often juxtaposed. [consider that before commenting maybe?] Capitalism’s defenders like to point out that it’s “natural,” meaning that if left to our own devices, humans would construct economic relationships that resemble capitalism.

Socialism, at least in its modern incarnations, makes fewer pretenses towards being an expression of human nature; it’s the result of human choice and human planning. So, socialism, as an intellectual construct, began in France in the border between Egypt and Libya.

There were two branches of socialism in France, utopian and revolutionary.

Utopian socialism is often associated with Comte de Saint Simon and Charles Fourier, both of whom rejected revolutionary action after having seen the disaster of the French Revolution.

Both were critical of capitalism and while Fourier is usually a punchline in history classes because he believed that, in his ideal socialist world, the seas would turn to lemonade, [wut] he was right that human beings have desires that go beyond basic self interest, and that we aren’t always economically rational actors. [truth] The other French socialists were the revolutionaries, and they saw the French Revolution, even its violence, in a much more positive light.

The most important of these revolutionaries was Auguste Blanqui, and we associate a lot of his ideas with communism, which is a term that he used. Like the utopians, he criticized capitalism, but he believed that it could only be overthrown through violent revolution by the working classes.

However, while Blanqui thought that the workers would come to dominate a communist world, he was an elitist. And he believed that workers on their own could never, on their own, overcome their superstitions and their prejudices in order to throw off bourgeois oppression.

[interesting] And that brings us to Karl Marx, whose ideas and beard cast a shadow over most of the 20th century. That’s why hardcore Marxists are literally known as “Bearded Marxists.” [not to be confused w/ “Mulleted Marxists” from the 80’s] These days, that’s an insult. But you know what, Karl Marx, when I look back at history, I prefer the bearded communists.

Let’s talk about some communists who didn’t have beards: Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-il, Joseph freakin’ Stalin with his face caterpillar.

So, yeah, Karl Marx’s beard, it’s my great regret to inform you that there are some paltry beards trying to take up the class struggle these days. Best Wishes, Marx was above all a philosopher and a historian.

It’s just that, unlike many philosophers and historians, he advocated for revolution. His greatest work, Das Kapital, sets out to explain the world of the 19th century in historical and philosophical terms.

Marx’s thinking is deep and dense and we’re low on time, but I want to introduce one of his ideas, that of class struggle. So, for Marx, the focus isn’t on the class, it’s on the struggle.

Basically Marx believed that classes don’t only struggle to make history, but that the struggle is what makes classes into themselves. The idea is that through conflict, classes develop a sense of themselves, and without conflict, there is no such thing as class consciousness.

So, Marx was writing in 19th century England and there were two classes that mattered: the workers and the capitalists. The capitalists owned most of the factors of production (in this case, land and the capital to invest in factories). The workers just had their labor. So, the class struggle here is between capitalists, who want labor at the lowest possible price, and the workers who want to be paid as much as possible for their work.

There are two key ideas that underlie this theory of class struggle. First, Marx believed that “production,” or work, was the thing that gave life material meaning. Second, is that we are by nature social [St] animals. We work together, we collaborate, we are more efficient when we share resources. Marx’s criticism of capitalism is that capitalism replaces this egalitarian collaboration with conflict. And that means that it isn’t a natural system after all. And by arguing that capitalism actually isn’t consistent with human nature, Marx sought to empower the workers.

That’s a lot more attractive than Blanqui’s elitist socialism, and while purportedly Marxist states like the USSR usually abandon worker empowerment pretty quickly, the idea of protecting our collective interest remains powerful. That’s where we’ll have to leave it for now, lest I start reading from The Communist Manifesto. [noooooo!] But, ultimately socialism has not succeeded in supplanting capitalism, as its proponents had hoped.

In the United States, at least, “socialism” has become something of a dirty word. So, industrial capitalism certainly seems to have won out, and in terms of material well being and access to goods and services for people around the world, that’s probably a good thing.

And this, I would argue, is where Marx still matters. Is capitalist competition natural and good, or should there be systems in place to check it for the sake of our collective well-being?

Should we band together to provide health care for the sick, or pensions for the old? Should government run businesses, and if so, which ones? The mail delivery business? The airport security business? The education business?.

Those are the places where industrial capitalism and socialism are still competing. And in that sense, at least, the struggle continues.