These are epic times – perhaps the most epic of all human times, since the first cultivations of those large-seeded grasses – and still, that germ of all settled cultures remains – the foundation of modernity is agriculture and central to agriculture is the cultivation of cereals and pulses, which can be dried and stored for use regardless of season. Surplus can be horded for future scarcity. Grains are also (at 85% dry matter) very light, which means they can be easily traded not only in time, but also in space – to level the surplus and scarcity of both times and regions. Extreme weather is likely to increase the unpredictability of scarcity and surplus. Let’s hope, that in the face of common difficulties, humanity will pull together and not (as history often shows) apart. Let’s hope we can trade the advantages and disadvantages of particular terrains. Since difference is what might maintain us, perhaps we can value our differences – as Adam Smith suggested all those years ago (The Wealth of Nations, 1776) in the trading of comparative advantages. His idea of capitalism has never yet been tried.
Adam Smith saw rentiers, stock-jobbers (as Cobbet called them) and manipulators as parasitic to the wealth of nations. He proposed that to maximise the wealth of nations we need high wages and low profits. He proposed that legislation should thwart the rentiers and manipulators. (Today that means currency exchange manipulation, trade in bonds and shares and idle profiteering by inflating land values) He noticed that wages were high and profits were low in rich countries and the converse in poor countries. High wages stimulate productivity, whereas high profits bleed it. Adam’s “invisible hand of free trade” was for trade of goods and services, in which the comparative advantages of terrain and cultural skills; of scarcity and surplus could be exchanged without borders. In other words – the opposite of today – He proposed that people: their skills, ingenuities and cargos should move freely across borders, in spite of the foolish frivolities of kings, whereas idle rentiers, stock jobbers and currency manipulators should be strictly controlled.
How on earth could the Adam Smith Institute find a shred of titular endorsement for its advocacy of freedom for stock-jobbers, manipulators and rentiers? – of statutory control of the movement of people alongside an utter freedom of money-flow? – and also of policies for low wages and high profits?
The bonding of social systems and the efficacy of economies must share a common ethics for a just allotment of the “wealth of nations”. Without such an ethics, there is nothing – no common purpose; no measure of effects; no beauty; no truth. What else can we call the study of economics, but a branch of moral philosophy? Despite the greatest tangle of legislation the larger part of any transaction remains as trust.
Adam sought to undermine the foolishness of kings and princess (and property owners) not by revolution, but by good work. We ordinary citizens could bring that up to date by similarly undermining the foolishness of the new princedoms – of corporate power.
The future hangs, less on the ideas and experiments of research institutes (even if they existed outside intellectual property enclosure), and more on what each of us does not tomorrow, but today. The most magnificent culture is only ever the sum of what its citizens get up to – one by one. Those four hundred parts per million of carbon dioxide, which are still increasing in the atmosphere, were not swollen by giant corporations and their tamed government stooges, but by ordinary people, one by one and everywhere. That we have been coerced, bribed, frightened, seduced – both lead and forced into doing so is all the more reason to stand up at last and to make something of our lives.
Governments and corporations are abstractions. Only people exist. That is why my Midsummer Night’s Dream is of a folk movement, or fashionable surge of Bottom the Weaver, Snug the Joiner, Quince the carpenter, Flute, the Bellows-maker…. and Colin Clout the Farmer to re-discover their rusting tools and to build such a culture, such fields, houses and temples – with such elegance to their functions, that poor, idle, stupid, narcissistic, naked Theseus and his naked courtiers of mirrors the Blairs; the Camerons; the Murdochs, become happy in their dependency on the elementary rudeness of mechanicals. Puck may have other ideas for us all.
To have power would lead most of us astray and so we must limit what the powerful can do. I suggest that the best way to achieve that is to accept that not only does power attract the worst of people, but that it would also attract the worst of our selves. So we can plan to leave power where it does least harm – that is, on the throne. The theme of this book is that until the arrival of fossil fuels, the throne is where power did remain. Meanwhile, rude mechanicals were freed to run the kingdom – tend the soil, build ships, trade scarcity and surplus, build cathedrals, write books, make music….. Power kept the peace by warding off rival powers and was rewarded by pageants and a palace or two.
I am simplistic. We know the extremities of power and we know that power has, in many historical periods, pushed and shoved its subjects to do what they would not have done otherwise. What’s more, my idealised medieval yeoman may not always have been kind in his power over my under-mentioned medieval serf. My yeoman was active in the enclosure spree of the Reformation and as we’ve seen it is the act of enclosure, not the generation of wealth which leads to accumulated wealth in the hands of the few and to the increasing poverty of the rest.
But we know of historical periods, when populist surges towards a common good have created something approaching a good life for most – if not all.
We also know of historical periods, when power has stepped from the throne and wrought terrible havoc amongst ordinary people. Henry VIII is an example to join those of Stalin and Hitler. George Bush and Tony Blair must join them in the list – in the same breath? – Well, degrees of havoc are for historical argument, or for the embroideries of fireside tales. We have favourite ogres.
However, today’s apparently-milder political leaders (or smaller ogres) are nevertheless leading the peoples and species of Earth towards the most terrible havoc. We all know it. Even many of those leaders know it, but believe they are powerless to resist their own power – I mean the power of a consumerist electorate.
I ask that we quietly take oil-tools from the incompetent hands of the powerful by beginning to apply tools of our own. Let’s return to the ordinary flows of history – with power on the throne and the people in fields and workshops.
Today’s leaders are unfit for power and history is unsafe in their hands. However, you never know – extra-ordinary evils once germinated a Ghandi and a Mandela. Historically, passages of such leaders have been but brief flowerings. So, although we cannot sit and wait for new spring flowers, but must cultivate for ourselves in any case, it is just possible…… Who knows? What’s certain is that the ways we live now hold no hope at all.
There are many (and as always in such times) who hold messianic visions of a New Jerusalem and others who hold simply to wild revenge. Some pray for the likely economic collapse in a wilding climate as the rubble in which better-guided, small communities forage for a more egalitarian subsistence.
This book proposes that we take hold of the gifts of our lives and live them properly, so that the same gifts are passed to our children. It is an old-fashioned and I hope a new-fashioned moral admonition to a decadent world to stake stock of what it has. Extra-ordinary floods and storms may act as messengers to help the process. Can we live peacefully together and share out what has remained? That seems unlikely. Even so, it remains the only course to set, which holds a hope in hell. Though we may fail to avert catastrophic climate change and/or economic collapse, shedding dependency on the amorality of others, while occupying a morality of our own, may prove to be a course to (at the least) some happiness. Don Quixote is an honourable, if fictitious precedent.
It should be a comfort that extra-ordinary solutions won’t solve the problems of extra-ordinary times. Answers lie in ordinary physics and in ordinary human behaviour. We each have the senses to note the physics and we each have an inherited human nature. No research papers, white papers, or institutional advice can match the skills and experiences which ordinary people have accumulated in ordinary spheres. Not that research papers are uninteresting; sometimes re-assuring; sometimes a pleasure to our curious minds, but of late they have been too much of a distraction to the jobs in hand. We chatter over what experts say to defer what we must do. We sign petition, subscribe to NGOs, march with placards – all to defer what we must do.
Every one of us has the means to discover the answer to the question, what shall I do next?
You’ll notice that I’ve no scholarly references and attributions in the appendix. Well, this is my book and I hope you’ll take away your own reading of it – one citizen to another. In any case, every deeper truth is already within you.
Amid all the chattering which recedes back through time, here are Siegfried Sassoon’s last words from Sherston’s Progress – “ – that it is only from the inmost silences of the heart that we know the world for what it is, and ourselves for what the world has made us.
By the gods, by the one god, by mother nature, by spirits of place, by the saints, by the wheel of life, by the ancestors, by the scales of justice, by the first cause, by the invisible hand, by the muses, by the quantum coherence of atoms, molecules, cells, species, ecologies, social systems, solar systems – by whatever else you choose, its kingdom (sexless term) is within you.
In hope in hell – why not?