Monday, June 4, 2012

Fast Plagues and Slow

What do the Black Death and Modern Capitalism have in common? They both shed people. The Black Death did so outright; it killed people. It did it rapidly; people died in two to seven days after being infected. World population was around 443 million when it began, spreading from Asia to Europe around 1328.  In Europe in lasted until 1351 and took around 45 percent of the population, world-wide about 15 percent. World population in 1400 was around 374 million, thus 69 million had disappeared. This almost unspeakable phenomenon has faded from memory, by now, but it brought in its trail incredible chaos in social and economic life.

Modern Capitalism sheds people—but they stay alive. They’re simply pushed aside by a combination of machines and fossil fuels. The process, however, is very slow—and in consequence of it, humanity has adapted. Its consequence was first noted around 1811, with the rise of the Luddite movement. It is still doing its thing, but by now that people-shedding tendency has been institutionalized and is called productivity. The very wealth created by those fuels, furthermore, has been used—through income redistribution—to keep the shed people fed, clothed, and housed.

One of the consequences of the “slow plague” has been the huge rise in the services sector in all modern economies—so that that sector is where most of the employment is. And that sector, in turn, is under attack by machines—else I’d get a human voice when I call a company or government agency. Some components of services (transportation, warehousing, wholesale, and retail trade, and health care) are intimately related to goods production; major portions of it, however, produce services the population can quite easily do without. Hence in economic downturns, when, of necessity, people have to mind their nickels and their dimes, we have surging unemployment. Indeed full employment absolutely demands passionate consumption, not just to maintain employment in services but even in those elements of goods production that make unnecessary products.

Another similarity between these two is that we are helpless in facing them. In the fourteenth century no one understood or could cure the disease. It just rolled over the population and then crossed the next border, riding on flees that rode on rats. In our day, vis-à-vis the economic “ecology,” we are equally ignorant of what is in store for us as the Fossil Age passes. And our methods of government are such that we cannot implement adaptations that will help us transit to an age where labor will once more be desperately needed.

Ironically, one of the great problems Europe faced in the wake of the plague was a shortage of people. The one that’s slouching toward us is a shortage of jobs.

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