What's the mess we live in - System series

What's the mess we live in - System series

Draft article for a series on 'the system we live in - for west London workers' paper WorkersWildWest

We are in a novel and slightly awkward situation of trying to write a series of articles about 'the system we live in' for our local workers' paper. The following is a draft version. We want to discuss various aspects:

a) why writing semi-educational articles 'for' workers' discussion at all?
b) does the article hit the right tone and issues for the current social grappling
c) is it historically and politically at least vaguely correct, given it's having to be short and to the point


Series: The system we live in: why we’re in the mess we’re in… And is there a way a out? Part I

If we like it or not, what happens on the other side of the globe affects us - even in remote places like Greenford or Southall. This happens in all sorts of ways. We have seen a ‘global financial crisis’, where the fact that poor Americans couldn’t pay their mortgages caused a domino effect that crippled the economy all over the world. We have seen call centres closing in Sheffield and moving to Bombay. We see the global dimension of climate change - the most industrialised nations produce the most pollution and poor people in less industrialised countries suffer the consequences more. We have seen a ‘global war on terror’, which caused a lot of mess in Iraq and the Middle East and has now led to the ‘refugee crisis’ right on our doorstep.

It is easy to see how this worsening situation makes people want to stick their two fingers up to the current establishment. Voting for Trump in the USA or Brexit in the UK has promised people to 'shut out the global problems'. But will this really change things..?

When all this stuff is happening we start to realise that things are very connected nowadays and we start looking around for some answers. Some tell us it is the American government that controls everything; others say it is the banks and this can lead to a theory of Jewish conspiracy; others blame the internet or God’s will. But we think looking for answers in history is the most useful thing. We start by asking some basic questions: when did people in one part of the world become more dependent on, or more linked to, people in other parts of the world? When and how did this change take place?

Looking back into history can also help us to understand the general situation we are in. The daily grind seems natural to us, something that has always been this way and something that cannot be changed. We have to get up, go to work to get money to pay our bills. We have little say in this, all we can do is look for another job - if we can find one. The only say we have is to make a cross on a ballot paper every four years or so. Which does not change much either. We have a choice though: we can buy a flat-screen TV manufactured in China or Mexico. When we come home from work we can watch India playing Pakistan, or Italy playing Poland and bet on this or that national team. It all seems like an eternal cycle. But it ain’t!

In this series of articles we want to look at this system we’re living in. We will see that certain things that we take for granted or as unchangeable are actually pretty new - on a mass scale perhaps only 300 to 400 years old:

* to work for someone for money
* to be a ‘citizen’ of a nation
* to buy products, especially those made far away

Things were not necessarily better before. We only want to say that they were different. We can see that things changed. They changed not because of ‘natural progress’ or a ‘wicked conspiracy’, but because of the struggle of people like us - the struggle against being exploited and oppressed. We have structured this series in this way:

Part 1: How did it all begin?
Part 2: What are the main features of the new social system?
Part 3: What happened in the last century?
Part 4: How do we see the situation today?
Part 5: Is there a way out?

We don’t write this as experts. We write it as workers in west London, who don’t just want to stare into the headlights of global events as victims. If we don’t question the system as it is, we will fight over the crumbs they throw at us. It will be dog-eat-dog. We write this for discussion with our neighbours and workmates. We might see things wrong, we don’t mind re-thinking stuff. Let us know what you think:



Back in the day…

Humans have been on this planet for around 1.5 million years and there has been interaction and migration across the continents. We want to focus on the very recent past, on the conditions since around 500 years ago. This is because we know more about it and because it can show us how much our life and society in general has changed in a relatively short period of time. If we - low-paid workers in 2017 - would have lived 500 years ago, our situation would have probably looked like this:

* we would have lived in a smaller village in the countryside
* we would have been either working as a serf for someone or as a poor peasant, who has to give part off their harvest to a landlord
* we would not have worked for a wage, but either paid in kind (food and stuff) or have had to sell a small share of our produce
* in many cases the local landlord would have had the right to decide about our personal life, such as marriage, and to punish us if he thought necessary
* we would not be able to just ‘change our job’ as we were tied to one landlord, either as servants or through debt
* the household would have been the centre not just of family life, but also of work
* the rich landlords would exploit us, but mainly in order to finance their better lifestyles, not in order to invest the money somewhere; (nowadays they tell us that 'competitiveness' is a natural human characteristics and that therefore the current system is 'just natural'; back then the rich just wanted to live an easy life, there was little competition or need for 'more and more' going on)
* in most cases there was no central nation state, but smaller local states run by lords, e.g. what is now Germany used to be dozens of small local states
* even language was still very local, e.g. 300 to 400 years ago people spoke 30 or more different local languages in France and people would have had difficulties understanding each other.

To sum this up, in most cases we would have worked for a local landlord, who could not only exploit us, but also decide about our personal lives. We had little chance to escape all this because we would either be punished or there were no alternative ‘jobs’ we could easily get. This whole situation was declared ‘the God-given natural order’ of things. Religion, through its Church/Temple and local priests backed up the lords to keep their own influential and wealthy position. They declared our misery to be 'our divine fate on earth'. So how could things change?

Since humans ruled over other humans and lived off the work of other humans there have been rebellions. Around 500 years ago we saw many uprisings of peasants and poor folk against the landlords - in particular after bad harvests. People saw that it was them who ploughed the fields and collected the harvest, so why would they need the lords?

The lords saw that people believed less and less that the position of the lord was the ‘will of God’. They needed a new justification for their power and they called it ‘protection’. Only the lord and his armed men could protect the poor from other lords and their armed men, who might invade the country. Lords started to increase taxation, in order to finance their local armies. They started to take common land away from the poor, in order to finance the increasing expenditures. This only intensified the rebellions and created civil war situations: from the Peasant Wars in Germany to the Civil War in England. At this point history came to a fundamental turning point: the lords were not able to maintain their rule over the poor, but would the poor be able to overthrow their power?

Here in Europe we saw three different outcomes of this struggle, which decided the future of each region. In main parts of what is now Germany, Poland, large parts of eastern Europe and Russia the poor peasants and serfs and their rebellions were not strong enough. The poor remained largely without their own land and they were still tied to the personal rule of the landlords, backed by the state. In the area of France the revolutions, e.g. the big one in 1789, liberated the peasants from much of the personal domination. Not only that, they were often able to either keep their land or get hold of land. This meant that most peasants, unless they were drafted into the army during war, could ‘work for themselves’ on their own land. In this way the relationship between rulers and ruled in both eastern Europe and in France - although very different in nature - remained fairly stable.

Things were different in England. Here the poor were able to overthrow serfdom and personal slavery, but their struggle was not strong enough to keep their land like in France. More and more people were ‘free’, meaning they were not tied to a specific landlord, but they had no land and income. This meant that the social situation in England at the turn of the 17th century was the most explosive and unstable. The existence of a huge mass of free, but poor and hungry people was the main reason why a relatively small country like England became an expanding empire and the starting point of industrialisation.

A different type of system…

The rulers could only handle this unstable social situation by constantly expanding their rule through development of the ‘commodity market and trade’, the state and industrial apparatus. They had to move poor people around, they had to provide new sources of income and new ways to convince them of their ruling power. In this way the outcome of the struggle against personal rule and exploitation actually changed the system, meaning it changed the form of society fundamentally:

* People were now largely dependent not on a single lord, but on a job in order to earn money - we were free, but forced to sell our time and energy to the rich.
* The landlords themselves wanted to escape the direct and brutal relationship on the land, so they started to invest in trade and manufacturing - what they had robbed from the poor peasants they now invested into business to exploit the children of peasants.
* Given the enormous migration of poor people looking for income the state had to develop and centralise its administration: establishing workhouses; increasing expenditure on the police; shipping poor people to the new colonies etc.
* The rulers were not able to justify their rule either by God’s will nor by pure military power, but they had to pretend that they are the source of ‘social development’: as industrialists, as politicians, as scientists, as artists - and that the poor can ‘work their way up’.
* For the first time in history poor people would have the the chance, at least in theory, to change their class and become rich and powerful; this ‘freedom’ is a carrot and stick and the rulers became more and more skilled at using them for a new divide and rule: only poor men, not women were allowed to learn certain trades (or to vote and be voted for, later on); in the new colonies black slaves remained slaves, whereas poor white folks could become ‘free men’ after a certain period of time etc.

The main way to integrate the poor into the new system of exploitation was through the development of industry. In the history books we learn that ‘industrialisation’ was some kind of natural progress or that it came out of the heads of great inventors. Some clever guy all of a sudden thought about a steam engine and that changed the world and so on. If we look back in history we can see it is more complicated than that. The masses of poor people who had lost their land or freed themselves from the ties to their lord started working in the emerging industries. Most of these industries were so-called cottage industries, where people would work at home or in small workshops. They often worked as independent artisans, using their own tools, e.g. for spinning, weaving or wood work. Men, women and other family members worked together. They depended on the big business owners for the supply of raw material, such as wool. These early workers organised themselves, they went on strike if prices for their products dropped or if bread prices increased too much. They stopped working as soon as they had earned enough. Their rebellions were not scattered and isolated in the countryside like those of the peasants, but they came pretty close to the seats of power in urban areas.

Their increasing power as a class of workers was a threat to the control of the new business owners. They had to break the main power that artisans had: their individual skills and control over their work. The first machines did exactly that: they copied the artisan’s physical movements and transferred it onto an apparatus, such as the weaving loom or the spinning machine. Major investment was necessary for engines to move these machines, while workers who operated them could be paid much less, given that they were unskilled. Some of the male artisans were bought over as supervisors, who made sure that the women and children who worked the machines did a good job. These first factories made dozens, if not hundreds of workers work together under the control of machines and foremen. They were way more productive than the cottage industry and the independent artisans died a rapid social death - becoming unemployed they were forced to become factory workers themselves. They lost the competition not only with the factories, but also with an increasingly global trade that they had no access to, e.g. in form of cotton, coming from the plantations based on slavery in the new colonies.

The enormous boost in productivity also meant that the market was more rapidly filled up with goods. The competition over markets became more fierce, not only within England, but more and more so on a global level. The emerging industries demanded raw materials and later on markets to sell products to, too - from cotton cloth to opium. The state increased taxes in order to finance its fleets and armies. The combination of more peasants and poor country folks becoming uprooted, of expanding trade beyond small local areas and of the intensifying competition to grab new markets meant that states were forced to centralise their power. The nation states as we know them today emerged during this period between the 18th and 19th century - mainly as entities to discipline their own emerging working class and to wage wars over territory and markets.

Money as a rare means of exchange had existed before, but by this time money had become a seemingly independent power that ruled society: most poor people, who had previously been paid in kind or consumed their own produce now fully depended on wages; lords had turned into ‘capitalists’, who needed money in order to invest in new machinery to keep up with their competitors; the state siphoned off more and more money in the form of taxes to finance a growing bureaucracy and professional army. What started in England spread across the globe, sometimes in different ways, but mostly with the same result: peasants became workers and money became the new link between exploited and exploiters - with the state waiting in the background with real shackles, in case workers didn’t just accept their new ‘freedom’ as wage slaves.

The struggle of poor countryside folks against exploitation and oppression has changed the system. The shackle that tied the poor to one individual exploiter has been broken. But the newly gained freedom went only so far. The new shackle in the form of money forces the worker to sell themselves to various exploiters. Being robbed by their former lords they own nothing, but their heads and hands and souls. But they create the wealth which becomes the means of their exploitation: the new factory buildings, the new machines and the guns of the growing armies. Soon enough, workers became aware of this fact and that it could be turned around: if we produce everything, we might be able to change everything too…

In the next part we will look at how this new system which emerged after the 17th century functions - and more importantly - why it often does not function. We will try to understand why it regularly produces crises which threaten the lives of millions and, more often than not, lead to increasingly brutal wars.

Posted By

Mar 13 2017 14:21


  • The struggle of poor countryside folks against exploitation and oppression has changed the system. The shackle that tied the poor to one individual exploiter has been broken. But the newly gained freedom went only so far.

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Mar 13 2017 16:58

Hey, really good article and looks like an extremely interesting series, thanks for writing/posting it!

Would be good to see something similar to this on the origins of the nation state and race as well…