Friday, May 13, 2005


A little learning may not be a dangerous thing...

...but it's surely not as good as a lot of learning.

The Daily Reckoning, a (what else?) daily e-newsletter, has this to say about America's coming collapse:
On the cover of one of this week's newsmagazines is a story about China. It is the world's second super-power, the piece tells us. We don't doubt it. But now our little system of connected thoughts has turned into a galaxy. We look all the way back to the 18th century...when Britain and America stole a march on the entire world. While the Chinese were still tilling their fields with wooden hoes, the Anglo-Saxons were building mechanized looms...and steam engines...and then railroads...and skyscrapers...and airlines. They worked like mad...saved their money...and built up a base of capital that sent them racing far ahead their potential rivals. The Chinese...the Indians...there were vast groups of the world's population that had plenty of manpower. What they lacked was capital, know-how and a market culture that rewarded risk taking and innovation.
The "Anglo-Saxons" so lauded in this encomium were a small fraction of greedy, ruthless men who exploited their workers almost as cruelly as Pharoah did the Israelites. They forced farm laborers off their land, they summoned the yeomanry any time the workers even thought about organizing, they polluted the land and the air and the water, stripmined coal, turned vast numbers of women into prostitutes and children into factory hands, and did a whole host of other awful things.

For every "Anglo-Saxon" who "built a mechanized loom," there were 50,000 who were all but chained to them. They "worked like mad," all right, because it was either that or starve. They didn't save their money, however, because none of them had any. They lost limbs and eyes, they coughed their lungs out, saw their children die in infancy and died young themselves.

One can argue that this was the price of progress, what Marx called "primitive capitalist accumulation," and that without it we would not have become the richest countries in human history. There is a lot of historical accuracy to it. But if you're going to make that argument, don't cast it as if it was the calculated choice of an entire society from whose superior discipline we have sadly gone astray. I guarantee you that nearly every British worker who suffered during the Industrial Revolution would have chosen less progress if it meant he did not have to work a 12- or 14-hour day tending unfenced machinery in a stinking, dark, smoky, din-filled cavernous factory for pennies a week.

That doesn't mean he would be right, either. Most of human history has been mightily cruel to most humans. Poor people have suffered for millennia, and it's only due to their suffering that we have a better world today. But at least acknowledge that. Don't lionize the greedy bastards who profited off their suffering. Lionize the inventors, the artists, the writers and composers and poets and explorers and scientists and doctors and nurses and teachers and discoverers and statesmen, the philosophers and humanitarians. The ones who actually made the world better.

As for us - well, yes, too many Americans are addicted to credit cards (as if the economy could possibly function if we weren't). But we work plenty hard. If we don't save enough, whose fault is that? Bush gave tax breaks to the wealthiest - why aren't they saving more of it? I thought that was the whole point - give money to the monied, who don't need it and who will therefore invest it in ways that will eventually redound to the greater profit of all. Doesn't seem to have worked that way, huh? Oh well, I guess the next round of tax cuts will cure all diseases.

In any case, China is now going through the "primitive capitalist accumulation" Marx was certain was a prerequisite for any eventual communist revolution. He was a good describer, much better at that than as a prescriber. It's hard for any country to go through that twice, although if the Republicans have their way, we're going to have to (labor movement, environmental protection laws, all the victories we thought we'd won). There are many reasons why Britain led the way industrially and commercially, and many reasons why China is taking off so shockingly now. Lecturing and scolding us will not lead to enlightenment on these complex issues, especially not when your history is faulty. Businessmen are a necessary evil. They should not be celebrated for that - letting them get rich is enough reward.
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