If we imagine a return to the ordinary flow of history, then we’ll have the little people creating the culture by growing food, building houses, baking bread, building ships, mastering the fiddle, painting pictures, reciting epic poems…
We’ll have power sitting manipulatively, but otherwise idly in its parliaments, palaces, manor houses, banks and boardrooms.
That picture of ordinary history is true to at least as far back as the late Bronze Age (for Europeans). It was overturned by the extra-ordinary power of fossil fuel – a power irresistible to the powerful. Tools were removed from the little people to be driven instead by those millions of years of sequestered photosynthesis.
Land enclosure (begun in late medieval times) accelerated through the wild pillaging spree of the Reformation and on through 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Now the powerful turned to the new enclosures – oil tools.
Towns had grown by the efficiencies of fields – releasing labour for trade and the trades. Little people created both that efficient cropping and the skills of the trades. Agriculture (that is fields, towns and trades) was created by the ingenuity, conviviality and dexterity of little people. The powerful were happy to feed on the fruits but played no part in creating the fruitfulness.
Meanwhile the contrary influence of the powerful, (through forced land enclosure and the replacement of ordered cropping by sheep) created both acute and chronic poverty, migration to new city slums and fabulous wealth for a very few in sheep fleeces. And then – it spawned two new ideas. The first was the buying and selling of money and the second the rental value of land. Rent was not tax. Taxes and tithes financed monastery and state, who administered (well, or badly) welfare, law and protection.
Rent was pure pillage without return. If we pause and quietly consider rent, we’ll find it an utterly nihilistic, deeply inhumane and depraved thought. In truth, today’s fashion for buy to let is depraved – it uses both money rental and land enclosure – the classical position of modern power, utterly without responsibility.
Even so, while the depraved had their way with land rent and money rent – and also with physical violence, they were still reliant on the little people to feed, house, clothe, transport and entertain them. The little people continued to create the culture.
We can subtly trace a dramatic change in the interests of power by reading their history books. Until the arrival of coal, the literature mentions only a succession of kings, queens, wars and wool sacks. Phases of cultural history are crazily presented as Arthur, Alfred, Harold, William, Plantagenet, Tudor and so on. Bronze Age cattle raids are written as heroic and dignified adventures. To be sure, the little people in the forms of renaissance painters, musicians and poets get a mention, but only as a kind of useful dating strata for the goings-on of courts. Throughout most periods of written history, the culture – its skills, achievements and pleasures is not recorded.
The change came with those super-heroic, phallic coal tools – railways, steam ships and factory engines. The powerful longed to control them and the names of some little people became elevated to the pages of history – Brunel, Telford and so on. The powerful, for the first time began to control tools and so to create (one might say destroy) a culture. As little people were herded to the factory gates, they too got a mention – in reference to division of labour; trickle-down and so on. They were tools in the hands of the powerful and so were noted, just as a sword was noted in the hand of Bronze Age Achilles.
Of course, once history began to note the presence of little people alongside war, courtly intrigue and wool sack, so the little people (by their inherited skills skill) began to write some counter-histories.
Counter history – counter culture? Actually, oil tools are such an extra-ordinary and brief interruption to the ordinary flow of culture, that living memory can re-capture an oil-free history. For instance, the last Porthmadog schooner, which could out-sail steam ships, was built for the American and Australian trades in 1914 – only a hundred years ago.
Oil culture is likely to have destroyed all future cultures.
Nevertheless, we have no choice but to hope not and to imagine that changed cultural behaviour can be redemptive – just in time. It’s unlikely that we can remove the lust for power. Replace power and we’ll become it. However, we can carefully remove tools from power’s incompetent (and inappropriate) hands. After all, that is the ordinary course of history – elites remain in idleness, while the rest busily create the culture. So – to maintain the idle in the manner to which it’s accustomed, we can argue for a free economic hand. That is, we must shake off the perverse constraints of monopoly and enclosure which hinder our more responsible, productive, sustainable and responsive tools.
I mean the modern (& post modern) perversity of money and rent. To a small extent, we can manipulate power through the ballet box. We can choose power’s least worst options.
Property stifles the same ingenuity and labour which had originally enhanced its value and provided its services. Money leaks from good work (or any work) and flows into the stagnant ponds of the monopolies – of land, of money and of “professional” status. Other destructive enclosures include seeds, chemicals and medicine.
Land is the most extreme of those monopolies, followed by money, followed by status.
We may bring our £7 per hour to pay the lawyer/doctor/dentist/architect/consultant’s £250 per hour. Status, like land, bleeds productivity. Land rent and money rent are even more pernicious than status.
Status and rent as monopolies are protected by law to remain amoral and so monopolists can act immorally without judgement. They can pillage resources, sack ecologies and cause Earth’s climate to change without lawful rebuke. Of course, status as expertise remains moral because its advice and actions have consequence. So status can be a complex mixture of both depravity and concern.
Climate is changing so rapidly, that we little people have no choice but to begin (if we can) to apply tools of our own and to attempt to thwart the application of oil tools. Those tools are protected by law to be amoral tools and so also, if the monopolist chooses, to be immoral tools. However, the good citizen must act morally to remain a good citizen and so conflict with the immorality of status is inevitable. The mass and diversity of the ecology that feeds us is cascading towards desert, while soils are degrading, blowing and eroding. The crazy tools which cause that ecologic and so eventual economic collapse are protected by law. Some conveniently believe that the law’s endorsement is a moral endorsement and so have is no need to personally consider the moral. They are wrong.
Meanwhile, as we begin to apply tools of our own, we can also act politically. We can lobby for a land value tax to fund a citizen’s dividend or basic income. As Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, Henry George and Winston Churchill in turn, pointed out – proprietors should pay rent to the common realm for the land which they continue to hold enclosed. In doing so idle wealth can be returned to the productivity it had once bled. Money rental, trade in bonds and shares and currency manipulation can be similarly taxed – idle accumulation can be returned to a productive economy of real things – of labours and resources. Idle power can gain from the consequent economic activity by trickle-up.