Friday, June 1, 2012

Medieval 1 Percent

The king, his courtiers, and entourage ride on powerful horses through a village of serfs. The serfs assemble, can’t help themselves—such events are very rare. Barefoot and dressed in much mended dark clothing, they look up with uncombed heads at the passing splendor: the mounts are magnificent, the armor silver, the gowns purple and silk, the feathers tall, the shields like magic paintings. Above all, these people are so high, they look so well fed, the merest dagger carelessly doing its front-to-back-and-front-again movements on  the king’s hip would buy enough land for a serf-family to feed itself. The king, now and again, acknowledges the rude hurrah’s of the awed crowd with a mild wave of the hand.

Here we have the medieval 1 percent passing through a tiny sample of the 99 percent. But we see some striking differences. The armor might protect the lords from angrily thrown stones, but king, dukes, and lesser retainers can actually hear the voices, can see the misery in which the population lives. Furthermore the inequality between the two is acknowledged and unquestioned on both sides.

Oil-based technology, modern communications, and insanely huge accumulations of wealth, by contrast, erect quite inhuman barriers between serfs and lords in our day. Our institutions are walled off. Impenetrable barriers of cybernetics protect the high from any voices that are raised. Our tools enable the formation of vast institutions stretching over enormous distances well beyond human scale. The numbers are too big to permit a genuine democracy so that our own conceptualization, based on equality, is altogether hollow.

It was bad enough in medieval times. Since then we have achieved universal education (never mind its quality—it’s great compared to that of serfs). The quality of our lives has greatly improved; the TV set, the car (however scratched and bumped and ill-maintained) is present at the lowest levels. But the inequality we see a thousand years ago is actually vastly greater now than it was then. If we don’t actually feel it, that too has its explanation. The oil-wealth has lifted all. But oil is running out. Human labor will once more matter in the approaching times. The need for serfs will rise. The consolation is that in future, when kings and dukes will once more ride on horses, inequality will actually be less again. As for who is really in the saddle, for that we have a poet’s formulation: Horse, neat, purse, meat, chattel. Web to weave, and corn to grind, things are in the saddle, and ride mankind. (With apologies to Emerson.)

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