Tuesday, December 30, 2014

An Inconvenient Truth

I want to return to something I mentioned in my review of Thomas Piketty's Capitalism in the 21st Century. I'd hoped people would have noticed it at the time:
Piketty talks about how the world wars and the Great Depression were the real causes of greater social equality from 1940 to 1980. He talks about real-estate destroyed, investments liquidated (or repudiated), empires lost, whittled away by inflation, but there's not much talk about the impact of trade unions and full employment policies and public social spending. (Oh yes, and the "threat" of a socialist alternative in the USSR and China.)

The terrifying thing that I took away from Piketty's book though, is that if it took two world wars and a great depression to produce the postwar compromise, that means that all the activism of a far more radical period was insufficient to have changed anything. The depressing failures of the left to stop and roll-back the depredations of the predator classes since the 1980s are just part of the historical norm. The rich have always been rich and the poor will always stay poor.
The elites blundered themselves into World War I. The Great Depression was a consequence of the financial instability caused by that war. And World War II was, again a consequence of that initial elite mistake. Unless they fuck-up again on their own, we're doomed to re-living the world of Downton Abbey, with us as the chumps. Forever.
So, do you get what I'm saying? You people have known for a long time that given the dismal response to my campaign to unseat harper and given the undeniable absence of any other alternative campaign, I think we're hopeless and doomed, right? Well, it appears from Piketty's data, that this is in fact the case!

People tell me now, "But thwap, there's all sorts of activism and victories going on. Here, take a look at this for instance." And stuff like that link is all about numerous campaigns, and some of the "victories" that the author at that link speaks about are merely the campaigns themselves.

But there were activists and campaigns and victories before 1914, weren't there? Wasn't there an activist labour movement? Wasn't there a huge socialist movement? Read Peter Linebaugh's and Marcus Rediker's excellent The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. (Read that review too.) But all of it needed the elite's self-inflicted catastrophe of World War I (and its consequences of the Great Depression and World War II) to fall from their lofty perch.

Piketty actually discusses the results of the French Revolution's reforms of inheritance laws, and the whole gamut of Revolutionary legislation, that opened careers up to talent, freed markets from state control and broke up the great aristocratic estates so that their lands could be bought and sold. Inequality didn't decrease under the French Revolution. It increased slightly. The end of aristocratic privileges and the introduction of capitalist social-economic laws had less than zero impact on inequality. The same held true for the milder social reforms in 18th and 19th Century Great Britain and for the republic of the USA.

So, fellow leftists, you can talk about your "victories" and your "movements" to me until you're blue in the face. Unless, and until, you start to talk seriously about breaking the power of capitalists to control the distribution of income and wealth, utterly and irrevocably, you're getting lost in a forest of saplings, unable to even conceive of the forest itself.

Without World War I we would not have had the Soviet Union, which, however horrible and tragic it was, served as a challenge to the capitalist system and a spur to more worker-friendly political-economic policies for decades.

Without World War I women would not have gotten the vote when they did.

Without the Great Depression we would not have gotten Franklin Roosevelt's pro-union labour laws and social security.

Without the Great Depression and World War II we would not have gotten the Beveridge Report in the UK and the inspiration for the welfare state.

Without the crisis from 1914-1945 we would not have had the break-up of the European empires.

And on and on it goes.

It wasn't a genuine revolution though, and right now, capitalism is in the driver's seat. Ordinary people do NOT appear up to the job of bringing about revolutionary change on their own. This is partly the fault of leftist delusion and navel-gazing, and partly the fault of those bone-stupid people such as the right-wing commentors with the shit-for-brains such as you see at the CBC website.

Do we really need another elite-caused cataclysm in order to even be able to hope for genuine change?


Owen Gray said...

It seems to me that Barbara Tuchman was right, thwap. History is all about the March of Folly.

thwap said...


I wonder if you caught the meaning of the accompanying image. It's a castle tower, meant to represent "The Proud Tower" that Tuchman described pre-1914 Europe as being. Before the deluge.

Anonymous said...

"Do we really need another elite-caused cataclysm in order to even be able to hope for genuine change?"
Short Version: Yes, we do.
And remember Rule 62: "You can't take any of this shit seriously 'cause none of us are going to survive it anyway." A bit of A.A. fatalistic humor for you.
Happy Fucking New Year!

thwap said...


Sadly, I think you're right.

And, yes, we are all going to die. Life is a bowl of cherries, don't take it serious, it's too mysterious, life is a bowl of cherries, so live and laugh at it all.

Of course, the conditions under which we live make the difference between living and laughing and unmitigated suffering and squalor.

Happy 2015 to you too.

Whoever you are.