IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES…
“… it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
YES, THIS COULD BE ABOUT TRUMP, but for now let’s call him a symptom not a disease, OK? The disease being rationalistic capitalism, now called neo-liberalism—though neither new nor liberal in the current definition of that word—unhampered by democracy.
Dickens was referring to the late 1700s and the French revolution, but at the same time there was as well the so-called enlightenment which, almost from the beginning, betrayed itself with the industrial revolution with its rationalistic capitalism. Yes, aristocrats were guillotined and peasants were freed, but what happened next was the capitalists became the new aristocrats and re-enslaved the peasants who were no longer chained to the land, but were now chained to machines.
Before the industrial revolution you were either a member of the landed gentry (one percent or less of the population) or you were a serf. OK, there were a few bureaucrats and crafts-persons in the middle but they were really only a bit above serf. But with the industrial revolution smart, hardworking—and lucky—folks of any class to make money. Of course the lying and stealing that all humans did before they still did, but now anybody, rich and poor, can make and keep a fortune doing it.
This now moneyed middle class was still only a small chunk of society; most folks remained in the urban peasantry, but the growing middle class’s buying power drove the new consumer economy to giddy heights of profit taking. A couple of centuries later, the consumer economy rose again when capitalists, the new gentry, begrudgingly began to pay the urban peasant laborers enough—only just enough, mind you—to allow them to buy the stuff they were making. This faux altruism pushed the peasantry into an equally faux middle class, as most of the new wealth went to the capitalists.
“Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future.” —Thomas Piketty
But not enough, it seems, as the capitalists clamored for still more. New technologies let that happen: Container ships allowed the separation of laborer and consumer, and AI allowed creation of machines that needed ever fewer people chained to them. Both innovations led to greater profits and but also increased inequality. The gains for the new middle classes are being taken away and given back to the super rich by new technology and old greed.
Just a couple of decades later, another separation is happening. The consumers are losing their minds! The laborers already dehumanized by globalism don’t matter any more. Making and selling stuff is almost wholly automated now, very little more can be squeezed from the laboring classes. Now, the real money for capitalists is in buying and selling middle class intentions to buy stuff. Their intentions are being lopped off, sorted and packaged; then sold to the highest bidder. L’Ancien Régime is back and it is the one doing the chopping now.
“As long as humankind recklessly proceeds in the fateful delusion of being biologically fated for triumph, nothing essential will change.” — Peter Wessel Zapffe
NOTE: The clouds/smoke in the background was inspired by the 1801 painting Coalbrookdale by Night by Philip James de Loutherbourg that symbolized the hellishness of the early Industrial Revolution.