Two Points

We’re going to do something a bit different today. We’re not really going to talk about the bike, the trip, or what I’ve done in the past week (which has been nothing). Instead I’m going to try to explain a little bit why I believe the things I’ve written under the beliefs section.

Be warned: This could get a little rambly.

There is a difference between what is discussed as possible and what is actually possible. The things that are discussed as possible are defined by modern culture, while what is actually possible is limited only by the human mind and body. My understanding of actual possibilities continues to expand as I confront various cultural limits that constrain the ways we seek to cooperate. The recognition of two major aspects of modern culture opened my thinking to  the realm of possible societies we can create and maintain expanded.

I’ll cover the two points individually, offer applications of the points and examples of how they offer constrictions on thinking about possible social structures.

  • Expectations of labor are based on societies which practiced slavery.

This point ranges in application from the simple historical line drawn from civilizations more than 5000 years ago (China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, etc), through Asian, European, African, American and Middle-Eastern societies into the 19th and 20th centuries, to less literal concepts like the notion of work as requirement of survival and worthiness in society.

It is worth noting that slavery came in many forms across the world. The differences, the amount of dignity and humanity granted to the enslaved by the culture which endorsed the practices, are important distinctions in terms of historical exercises but matter little for the central goal of keeping this point in mind. It also matters little, in the context of this point, if there did exist societies which wholly rejected the practice of enslavement. These societies deserve to be recognized, of course, and held up as beacons of humanity in a largely inhumane world; they were not adopted by the cultures which led more directly to our current cultures, which is why they are irrelevant to this point.

It’s also not important that societies across the globe made slavery technically illegal worldwide by the end of the 20th century. This is but a blip in the time of culture and human history. Certainly not insignificant (and I’m definitely not complaining) in terms of a human achievement, to come to a global political consensus that human slavery is an shameful practice. However, slavery still exists in various, usually brutal, forms all over the world, and the lingering effects in the culture can still be seen from the millenia of slavery-based systems.

Remember that culture works similarly to evolution. Changes have an impact over huge spans of time—centuries, often longer—even though the catalyst or the result of that change may be seen as sudden, when looking back.

The central goal of this point is, however, to make it clear where our cultural expectations of labor come from. That is to say, we inherited [this particular word is problematic at times, and I’ll get to why later] an expectation of labor to perform those least desirable tasks and receive little more than what was necessary for their survival. In the worst cases (looking at you, American nations), the survival of the enslaved was contingent upon the labor required of them; the effort was even to convince slaves to be grateful of their oppressors for providing them not just the meager shelter and food, the oppressive and deadly discipline, but also the demoralizing work itself.

The enslaved were to appreciate their oppressors for giving them access to a society the likes of which they never would have experienced otherwise. What fortune, it was told to the slaves, that they labored under the purview of a society which saw fit to convert them to its own religion (and torture them for practicing anything different). How good their lives were, their overseers proclaimed, now that they were taught enough of the local language to understand instructions shouted in the fields and hissed in the homes.

If it weren’t for the culture and the slavers directly monitoring the enslaved, they would be lost. They would be without that one piece, that one essential ingredient that every human is nothing when they lack it: work.

And here we come to the crux of the thing. That work itself, regardless of the conditions or what is gained from it, is essential to the elevation of the human spirit. This line of thinking is pushed forward today, with almost identical rhetoric as it was pushed onto the enslaved of centuries past.

There’s a strong case to be made here for wage slavery, a system in which people are forced to work for a wage or offered the alternative: no legal ability to survive. We often reject the term when we first hear it because, duh, slavery is illegal and, moreover, people working for a wage are making a choice to work for that wage. The argument in favor of the term is that while you may have some (tiny) control over your particular wage, you have no reasonable option but to work for a wage.

[I should point out that wage, in this particular example, doesn’t mean hourly wage, it means any payment.]

We can examine that, and we’ll find exceptions: of people who have successfully survived without participating in the larger economy. But those examples are few and far between. There’s little evidence or even discussion promoting the idea to the people most damaged by the wage system: the working poor.

And I don’t just mean the American working poor, I mean peasant farmers in Asia and South America, factory workers in Central America, miners in Africa and Europe, and everyone else working to keep the global economy functioning while unable to adequately provide for their own families.

Even if you don’t believe that American workers are de facto slaves, forced (though not as often physically) to work for wages they only have moderate control over, the evidence of a more brutal wage slavery happening in lesser-developed nations is quite prominent. And, despite our claims of being vehemently opposed to slavery wherever it may occur, we do almost nothing to stop the effective enslavement of millions of impoverished workers around the world.

We encourage it, even. We buy the clothes and food they make. We turn a blind eye when military technology or training developed here is used to put down their riots and strikes. We accuse them of stealing our jobs, as if the workers themselves actively lobbied the companies to move those jobs, as if we were so enamoured of them in the first place.

If your response is a near-immediate retort of how we may not have liked those jobs, but we most certainly need them, I want to thank you for strengthening my point.

This is where I was, just before I came to recognize this point, at this statement: We need jobs, even if we don’t like them. But this argument is circular. It is a way to constantly divert yourself from actually answering questions. One simple follow-up question started me to recognizing the lingering effects of slavery upon work itself: why do we need jobs?

The answer would seem easy, it’s because we need money to pay our bills and buy what we want. But that becomes more tricky when you recognize that the same institutions which we are paying our bills to and purchasing our luxuries from are those which employ us (not always directly).

Once you remember that it’s only been a couple hundred years since political leaders around the world began to outlaw practices of slavery—and with segments of the populations kicking and screaming throughout the process—and that culture changes slowly, it’s easy to see the lingering effects of a slaveholding society. The effects which are harder to lose and think of societies as not having are the ones which don’t result in direct physical abuse; there’s no question that modern sex trafficking is a holdover from a slave society, theres more room for discussion on the idea that your worth is determined by your work.

Why is work treated as mandatory? Why should we be thankful to companies for providing us with jobs we don’t like at wages that, often, barely support us? Why is it a problem when workers want benefits, a greater share of revenues, reduced working hours and safer workplaces?

The answer, as I see it, lies in our historical relationship with slavery. It also lies in my second point.

  • What is considered beneficial to society is largely controlled by those who benefit from the status quo.

Once we’re presented with this statement, our heads will quickly swirl with exceptions to it. The counter argument is two-fold: First is to keep in mind the success of the exception in terms of how it impacted the long-term society; second is to ask what was really changed or, more usefully, what remained the same.

Taking the American Revolution as an example, we can look back and see that while the changes were not insignificant, for the majority of the population they made little difference. In many of the states, as it was in the colonies before, minimum property ownership was required not only to seek positions in government, but also just to cast a ballot. Women were left out of politics by rule of law. Free blacks were banished from participation in the political process. Slavery continued, as did the economic benefits of it for the upper classes.

Immigrants were treated as marginally better than slaves. Gains in productivity and profitability from increases in both slaveholding practices and independent (of the British) determined trading were not only unattainable by the lower classes, they were banished from attempting to take a greater share by law.

When looking at what remained the same in independent America as it was in British America we can see that little changed for the majority of the population. What really changed was that an attitude of competitive profiteering won out over a mercantile system in which the lion’s share of profit went to a single monarch.

The question that arises at this point is, very understandably, why did competitive profiteering win out?

The answer is quite simple, in that it was more beneficial to a significant portion of America’s upper class, as was keeping many aspects of the status quo intact.

The economic gains made from opening up trade routes would have quickly been negated had slavery been abolished. The staggering profits made off land speculation west of the Appalachians would have been lost if British treaties with Native Americans had been maintained. The wealth of lenders and landowners would have been greatly diminished if tenant farmers (many of them revolutionary soldiers) had been granted property rights.

Throughout history the religious, economic, political and academic institutions have been closely tied, often one-and-the-same. What benefitted one benefitted the others. While splits and conflicts have occurred between specific institutions, the trend through history has been mutual support. It therefore benefits the academic institutions to reinforce the status quo of the economic system and/or the political system, given the support academics get from one or both (in way of jobs, funding, credibility, etc).

It remains the same today. In discussions about inequality, the major media, academic and political leaders bemoan the level of inequality, not inequality itself. Some leaders, even those considered progressive or left-wing (Krugman and Reich), tout the importance of inequality—just in smaller, more manageable doses. This statement is accepted almost without thinking. It just passes by. Of course inequality is good for the economy, no duh.

But why is inequality good? And for whom? Certainly it is good for those making the most, those in positions of greater power. But is it good for those making less, with less power? And, if it’s not, what would be? We are not presented with those questions, nor are we presented with answers to them.

It is in this way that we inherit our culture, our values, our laws, our beliefs. Handed down from the upper classes to the lower. Those who adopt other values are shunned as members of the fringe. Cast out.

This is a natural phenomenon, I would find it hard to believe that any single group is orchestrating the development of society and culture. But it must be countered by a conscious, tenacious effort to always question, to constantly reevaluate, to incessantly demand.

Why should this be countered? What’s wrong with the status quo?

Because there are people who the status quo does not benefit. They are the poor; immigrants; foreigners; women; people of color. They deserve the to live their lives the way they want to, without proving themselves worthy through work or school. They deserve equality because you and I deserve it, and the only thing preventing them from having equality is you and I.

Because every time we assume someone’s worth as a human is determined by their work or their education we make them unequal to ourselves. Because when we hold one person up for what they have done, we push whole groups of people down for what they have not.

I believe that by seeing the two aspects of culture I have talked about here, and by questioning them, we can begin the process of viewing those around us as equals.

Once we can see and treat each other as equals, we can achieve incredible things.

2 thoughts on “Two Points

  1. Pingback: Congratulations, it’s 2015 | The Cycling Socialist

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