Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Some historical perspective on inequality

Readers have probably noticed that as of late my thoughts on where our society is heading tend to gravitate towards the somber side, even after denouncing neomalthusians for their excess of pessimism (but after also lambasting cornucopians for their unfounded optimism, a big thanks to my admired Pedro Linares for teaching such wonderful word to me). I see inequality rising, economic growth staying anemic at best, with crises and setbacks outnumbering periods of expansion, and technological progress slowing, stopping, and eventually regressing. You read here and there that humanity can’t unlearn the results of centuries accumulating progress… people saying that have the most limited understanding of how technology works and how detailed drawings, blueprints for machines and process documentation are stored… the Antikythera mechanism shows that complex technologies with immediate practical application can be forgotten for centuries, and for additional confirmation look no further than our ability to send a human being to the moon: we did it in 1969 and we are completely unable to do it now, to the point it would take us a decade at best to repeat it, as much of the underlying  technology would need to be redeveloped from scratch.

Of course the three trends are tightly linked: inequality rises because there is no growth of aggregated wealth, so the advantaged class (advantaged because they have more intelligence, more discipline, more willpower, and also start with far more capital, which between other things ensures they control the means for imposing social compliance on the rest –they command the institutions that have the more or less complete monopoly of violence, plus the ones that most contribute to the creation of public opinion) can only satisfy their impulse for improving their situation and their children’s by taking more of everything, at the expense of everybody else; the economy doesn’t grow and will not grow because one of the bigger motors behind historical upwards trends (demographical expansion that puts more consumers on the market for goods) has mostly disappeared (there would still be some global growth to reap from the increased income of many millions of consumers that today are unacceptably poor –the traditional “lifting the masses out of poverty”, and the few good news we may still hope to receive in the forthcoming years will come from that area,  but as long as the plutocrats find it more profitable for themselves to increase their riches by keeping a higher percentage of the total produced by mankind, there is little hope for the downtrodden of the Earth to rise much higher); finally, a contracting economy for a contracting population with rising levels of inequality only poses one problem for the more brilliant minds to tinker with: how to keep the masses entertained to prevent them from revolting (so the little “progress” we see centers on how to move information around so it is presented in the most attractive manner, as if all the traditional challenges of mankind –how to generate energy, how to distribute the material goods we create from it, how to improve our knowledge of the world to lead better lives, how to ameliorate illness and death- had already been solved), and leaves every other concern in the dark, with one exception: the rich will keep financing generously medical advances, socially expensive as they may turn out to be, in the vain hope of one day avoiding their own death, an especially pressing concern in an age that has stopped believing in any kind of transcendent reality beyond this life.

Some critics would say the three worrisome trends have one underlying cause: the dominating global system, aka “capitalism” (this line of criticism is traditionally peddled by the old, stale left, so in the end is just pinning all the blame for society’s ills in their traditional bugbear, as they have been doing for the last two hundred years, when these particular problems are with us only for the past five decades, and have become really threatening in the past ten years), but I don’t think that explanation carries much water. Talking about “the social system” or (usually meaning the same thing) about “capitalism” to diagnose worldwide problems is like appealing to “animal spirits” to explain the business cycle. It may make the appealer sound vaguely knowledgeable, but when you scratch under the surface there is not much in terms of explanatory power (no isolatable causes, no levers you can pull, no experiments you can devise, no causal connection between the explanandum and the explananda). Although there is one single social system (or, as Wallerstein puts it, a single contemporary world-system) that encompasses from the CEO of the multinational company and the Wall Street banker to the Melanesian hunter-gatherer or the dalit living from a city dump in Varanasi, it is wholly inadequate to describe it as “capitalism”. Not because the means of production are not in private hands, those of the name-bearing capitalist (some are, and some aren’t, as the public sector plays an important part –to different degrees but important in all cases- in all national economies), but because such label has been applied to too many social agreements (or impositions) to be able to be of much significance. Of course, what is really behind the appellation to a worn-out label is a programmatic intent to replace it (whatever “it” may be) with something that, although being very imprecisely imagined by a not too brilliant thinker almost two centuries ago (that’s Karl for you boys and girls), the proponents of the term still consider the most advanced blueprint of a perfect society ever devised, organized around the “social” ownership of the means of production (without noticing that in our current age those means are becoming less and less “ownable”, and there may lie a good part of the problem). Rather, then, that blaming everything on “capitalism” (a quite useless term in my humble opinion –although I guess good ol’ partisans would accuse me of “false class consciousness” or being a “lackey of capital”, as behind the denunciation of old categories they always suspect a conscious attempt to hide the original reason of all inequality, i.e. the illegitimate appropriation by the capitalist of all the surplus value generated by the worker… I couldn’t care less, really, as I think I’ve done my part and then some, as I’m still doing, for denouncing the true reasons of inequality without resorting to clichés that cloud more than what they reveal) I would say the problem is a dominant reason that was as common and pervasive in communist countries, and would likely be in a “socialist paradise” if we ever see one, as it is today  in capitalist ones. A dominant reason that presents as the only defensible claims on how humans should behave the ones that maximize the desires they can satisfy, and that only understands those desires that require for their satisfaction the consumption of some material good. As only socially sanctioned way of reasoning, it has proven to be superb (for the last three hundred years when it has been hegemonic) to increase the per capita income, measured in terms of material goods amenable to being priced, but abysmal at giving humans fulfilling lives.

And humans have this silly tendency to base their decisions about reproduction on how well their individual lives have subjectively gone (how they perceive them to have gone so far), as that in turn influences how valuable they think life is overall. Give enough of them shitty lives, and they understandably will choose not to propagate such “gift” (nothing new here, that’s my “gonadal vote” theory of social reproduction in a nutshell), and our current social compact is just not that good in providing lives that are not shitty. So if I were to identify the root cause it would go something like this:

Desiderative reason -> Meaningless lives -> no reproduction -> no economic growth -> no technological (or scientific) progress -> more inequality

So really capitalism has not much to do with it (unless you equate “desiderative reason” with “superstructure developed by evil capitalists to keep proletarians working their asses off for a pittance once religion has exhausted its original usefulness”, which seems like quite a stretch! –and gets you a bonus if you can read it all in one breath). Which leads us (after the usual circuitous and rambling route you should all have grown accustomed to by now) to the initial intent of the post, which was to reflect on what kind of inequality we have seen historically, for the clues it may provide us about the levels we may reach before everybody comes to their senses and impose a UBI.

You still can read (and hear) some fools arguing that primitive societies were havens of equality, and that the appearance of private property spoiled everything forever. Such a claim comes straight from Rousseau (unknowingly in most cases, as those who spout it are too illiterate to have read or heard of the Genevan), and it was as idiotic in his time as it is in ours, maybe a bit less, as the ethnographic record has provided us with countless factual examples of societies that were as primitive as you may wish and unequal to the hilt. It is generally accepted that the agricultural revolution was really bad news for the hoi polloi (the archaeological record shows that average protein intake, average life span, average height and average bone density all fell precipitously after the domestication of plants and the onset of stable sedentary agrarian societies), although great for the budding caste of rulers that now had a much bigger aggregate product to plunder and enjoy for themselves.

The advent of writing has allowed us to peer in more detail in the wealth distribution of ancient societies (Babylonia, Egypt, Sumer, Assyria, Mayan, Aztec, Inca, Indus valley, pre-Confucian China) and the landscape is uniformly bleak. The justification for the extreme concentration of wealth at the top may vary (depending of the source of legitimacy of such rule, be it military success, religious dogma, political savvy or raw charisma), but the result for those at the bottom (which were about 90 or 95%) was similar: very little in terms of material comforts, long working hours and the totality of their production being confiscated by the ruling elite. Hunger when the crops were not good (and temporary fullness when they were), poor health, lack of security (be it from foreign invaders or from the whims of the local despot), few surviving children and the general expectation that life for them would not be very different from what it had been for their parents, or for their parents’ parents.  

A quick note on those few surviving children: some modern commenters seem to think that during all of world history women have been busy having one child per year starting with their first menstruation and until menopause, and that only starvation and disease put a merciful brake to demographic explosion. According to that (quite uninformed) narrative, the advances in medicine and sanitation that started to see the light in the XVII century just blowed off those brakes,  and only the discovery of contraceptives in the 1960’s has delivered us from the terrifying evil of an (even more) overpopulated planet. That downright moronic view is exemplified by a (presumably Western and well educated) reader of the NYT that commented on an article about the one child policy imposed by the CCP exulting on how beneficial it had been for the whole of humanity, as absent such a coercive measure there would be untold millions of Chinese people lurking around in our already overburdened land. Never mind that the article itself reported how even before the policy was enacted all the urban population of the country were already limiting themselves (voluntarily) to one children per family, as having more was anti economical an incompatible with the social advancement that even back then they were actively pursuing (or that the official end to the policy has barely dented the 1.2 boys per family that the Chinese keep having). And never mind that for centuries China had managed to keep its population stable, at very high numbers for the level of technological advancement it had achieved (something that already marveled Adam Smith in the 1870’s, as Giovanni Arrighi never tires of reminding us)… The fact of the matter is all societies, regardless of their size or level of technical development, have been practicing diverse measures of birth control (in some cases post-birth, from Taygetus mountain to exposure) for many centuries before the 1960’s, and that the supposed revolution of social mores and the basic fabric of human organization that the modern technologies (“the pill”) has supposedly enabled happened mostly in their proponents heads and nowhere else.

The evolution of a demos is a complex matter, but I’m willing to stand on one leg here and declare that it depends more on the “happiness” (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a moment) of the population than on the technologies available to check its growth. The happiness I’m talking about is something we moderns (educated in the desiderative type of dominant reason I’ve spent a good part of the last five years decrying) may find it difficult to grasp. It has little to do with the satisfaction of desires (understood in their utilitarian form, as something that gives us more pleasure than the pain or renunciation it imposes), and even less with the acquisition of material goods. It has rather to do with finding that your life has a deeper meaning than providing you with pleasure. With finding your own particular place in the world (both physical and social) where you think you rightly belong, and being contented with it. With accepting a form of social organization in which you believe, and which you want to promote and extend. Some of it is quite circular, I know, but I hope I’ve made clear what I’m pointing at. We are truly happy when things (what we do, what is done to us, which we can not always control) “make sense”, and when we play a role in the chain of events around us that we can consciously identify with. 

Unfortunately, we can not create the sources of such sense all by ourselves, that is an Enlightenment fiction that, as much as I am a fan of the period, has failed every time it has been tried. We need to “inherit” it, to receive it from others (a family, a culture, even, gasp! A religious tradition) and all we can aspire to is to gently modify it at the borders to give it our imprint when in turn we pass it to others. My contention, then, is that no matter what the law says or what the technology allows for, a “happy” people, by definition, will find ways to multiply itself, whilst an “unhappy” one, no matter what incentives are provided or what compulsions are devised, will in the end shrink. I admit this contention may cause seizures and frothing at the mouth on many quarters in the left for whom anything that smacks of advocating population growth is the summit of irresponsibility, short of proposing outright genocide, female genital mutilation and cruelty towards animals (or not so short, as for unimaginative thinkers those three evils are somehow or other caused by excess population to begin with, so you can not foment the latter without endorsing the former). Bunk, I say, as I am not proposing or advocating anything so far, but pointing at what I see as an undeniable fact of social life, regardless of what we think about it. I am as troubled by the negative consequences of overpopulation as anybody (frankly, a bit more, as I consider myself vastly better informed than your average shrill Malthusian): resource depletion, anthropogenic climate change, loss of biodiversity, sea water acidification, deforestation, topsoil erosion… all aggravated by how many of us are around, and poised to get even worse before they can start to improve. All I’m saying is that those who want to improve them right away by drastically curbing population growth should at least be aware that the only way of doing so is by making life as miserable as possible for as many people as possible (not that it is so great right now for untold millions, which partly explains why we are where we are).

Back then to my reflections on inequality, after this short diversion in my own quaint ideas about demography. The old world was pretty unequal, then, nothing at all like a middle class in there. Both Greece and Rome contributed to the birth of such a class, the first through its experiment in (very limited) democracy, where all the “citizens” could be equally heard when It came to deciding what the collective should do, the second through the development of a legislative body of rules to be applied independently of the person being affected by them (in principle, as in the case of Greece the original idea suffered all kind of travesties in its implementation). Late Rome also witnessed the birth of the idea of “universal citizenship”, or a set of rights and duties that should ideally be extended to any human being, something codified by the stoics (a sect where slaves where overrepresented, hence their interest in decoupling dignity from legal citizenship) and which passed from them to Christianity.

So in the European middle ages we had a peasantry that had a couple of distinctive advantages over the multitudes that had preceded them toiling in the fields: the tradition of written rules that bound the behavior even of the rulers themselves, and an ideological motor (the Catholic Church) that preached the gospel of universal brotherhood (again, what it practiced may have been radically different, it is the ideological underpinning we are considering here, not the actual performance). Those two things, plus the right combination of fertile soil, moderately unyielding cereals (that prevented population increases like China’s, based on rice’s superior yield) and the right (rainy) climate, made possible the appearance of a new class, the Yeoman farmers in England, and similar figures in France and the Germanic lands that would create cities, launch the Reformation, start the Industrial Revolution and set the foundation of the modern world (the rest, as they say, is History).

What I wanted to get at is that the very existence of a middle class with the features we now take for granted is a very, very recent, and pretty exceptional, development in the History of our species. Let’s review some of the features of that middle class to grasp what we may be at the cusp of loosing:
·        reasonably well off as to not live in constant fear of not surviving the next month, be it by aggression, famine, or easily preventable illness (of course, what constitutes an easily preventable illness is something it has taken us some millennia to understand, and we may as well loose it if we continue abusing antibiotics)
·        politically independent and able to express their preferences and see them reflected in the general course of society. That independence has historically been supported by two tenets: the basic legitimacy of their claims granted by the “universality premise” (rights held by every individual just for being human) and the protection of their number (so it requires amply shared prosperity to be maintained)
·        entirely free to decide what interests to pursue (between the ones on offer, of course), what level of exertion apply to them and what jobs to perform to pay for them
·        filled with the expectation that their children will be better off than themselves
None of them has many parallels in our past, so we shouldn’t just assume that they are achievements enshrined in stone that no plutocrat, no elite, no ruling class would dare to take from us. They will dare indeed, and given how things look like now, chances are they may succeed.

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