Monday, June 8, 2009

Economic Foundations

The writing of blog entries, with the implied possibility that people all over the world might just chance to see it, has a somewhat bracing effect on something that I’ve engaged in all of my life—the keeping of diaries or notes. When doing the latter the only presumed audience is yourself, and the reasonable use of the time is to clarify ideas. But when you have the feeling of people peering over your shoulder, you tend to feel the pressure to get things right, to look things up. The process becomes more stimulating. You tend to follow up on hunches and seek out the hard copy of things you remember reading. Thus one of my recent posts somewhere reminded me that the late Stephen J. Gould had written a scathing book about abuses in science. Gould has figured in my thought as a genuinely original thinker—on evolution and much else. It was he who proposed an explanation of evolution (with Niles Eldredge) by a process of “punctuated equilibrium,” thus abrupt departures over against gradualistic changes based on tiny increments. I happen to have a minor (and meaningless) link to the man in that we shared the same literary agent over many years. In any case, having been reminded, I found one of three copies I own of Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man and put the book on my nightstand. But this only by way of introduction—and a little plug for a fine writer on difficult scientific subjects.

I spent several nights perusing the book, particularly the dreary story of how IQ testing began and why it is the sham that it is. But the other night, and now we’re getting warmer, I dreaded once more being awash in the abuses of thought to which Modernity is prone. And not wishing to get out of bed again for one of those midnight hunts of my shelves, I just eased out a volume within my reach but buried deep in time and began rereading Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ. The book was there because quite a long time ago I was restudying the reign of Diocletian—and in the course of that discovered that both that great emperor as well as Constantine were what today we would call Serbs—not Italians at all. In fact when Diocletian retired—to raise those prize chickens of his—he did so in what is today Split, the largest coastal city of Croatia on the Adriatic.

I skipped the introductory chapters that take us to the dawn of Caesar’s time and began reading Chapter VI, “The Agrarian Revolt”—and once more felt the shock I’d felt on the last reading years ago, as my marginal notes throughout the book make clear. I put a representative quote on another blog, visible here, explaining the causes of the revolt which, in due time, set the stage for Caesar’s rise and the days of empire in Rome: slavery. My marginal notes and my refreshed memory of the first reading have to do with the economic foundations of civilization. Ancient civilization was undoubtedly based on agriculture; and Rome’s slow-motion collapse began with the introduction of slavery on a large scale. Rome had transformed its economic base from yeoman farming to military conquest—which yielded the slaves and impoverished its masses. And for me this has obvious parallels in that American civilization was also founded on agriculture; indeed, it was heavily supported by—guess what? Slavery. When cotton was king, it was slaves that produced it. Only later, when we discovered a new kind of slave, did the economy shift from agriculture to industry. That industry, in turn, manifesting predominantly in manufacturing, depends on energy slaves, the fossil fuels.

Now it is worth noting that the imperial period of Rome dawned when the importation of slaves on a grand scale began to deform the Roman Republic—as the quotes on LaMarotte clearly show in summary. We face a similar but two-pronged challenge today, albeit we appear to be at an earlier stage of the problem. And these things are all too clear to me because, for the past twenty years, I’ve either been directly or indirectly the chronicler of manufacturing in the United States—in a statistical series originally called Manufacturing USA and now Manufacturing & Distribution USA. I looked up some data the current editor, Joyce P. Simkin, has complied in the latest edition. It shows decline in manufacturing employment (this predates the automotive collapse) from 17.8 to 13 million people between 1982 and 2006. The decline has been accelerating. This is one prong of the challenge—our yielding a function to imports, not of slaves, as it were, but to those who work at much lower wages than we pay. The second prong of the challenge is that manufacturing in the modern sense is unimaginable without fossil fuels, and we can now clearly see that these fuels will be pretty much exhausted by the end of the twenty-first century.

When I then peruse the shocking consequences to society that the heavy uptick in slavery produced in Rome, I find it entirely appropriate to suggest that we should put our house in order, at every level, in anticipation of bad times to come—not just the usual bad times that come routinely, punctuating our equilibrium, but major transformations that will make the future, even if we master fusion power, utterly different from what we see all around us today.

1 comment:

  1. Most interesting. I better go and read the LaMarotte post right away!

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