Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wealth creates civilization

Immense wealth is definitely immoral. The idea that a handful of people can control the resources of the entire planet flies in the face of everything American school children are taught publicly to hold dear. The alternative is communism, which also flies in the face of everything American school children are taught publicly to hold dear.

In 1491, North America had a thriving, bountiful ecosystem shared by a diverse population of native tribes. It was far from a paradise, as these tribes exerted their influence on their own citizens and on neighboring groups with the full range of human tactics from cooperation and diplomacy to violence and treachery. We are told that many of them had a different notion of property than Europeans did, so there were fewer walls and fortified borders.

They seem to have had a less adversary relationship with nature. That made them more vulnerable to nature's culling forces as weather and food supplies fluctuated. From what I have read, you needed to stay on top of your game in those days if you were going to last long. Most of us today are pretty sure we would not like to spend our lives that way. That's why we have cars and television sets and supermarkets and stuff like that. If people didn't want those things, the companies that make them would have gone out of business long ago. So clearly we have a preference for civilization.

European-style civilization is a direct outgrowth of concentrated wealth. The inhabitants of Europe evolved personalities that led to conflicts that resolved themselves in a system of enclaves centered around a rich guy's castle. Over the centuries, these accreted into nations. The shape of those nations kept changing as the basis of connection changed. Philosophies came and went or came and stayed to create a complex intellectual landscape.

The rich guys needed people to work for them. Sometimes these people would suffer hardships so great that they threatened the well-being of the rich guys. A really bad plague or famine would have such a negative effect on the work force that the rich themselves would suffer. So medicine and agriculture advanced, improving living conditions for the lowly as well as the high and mighty.

When Europeans ventured to the Americas, it was rich corporations establishing commercial beach heads, not plucky refugees seeking a place to live according to their noble consciences. Plucky refugees might have made good subjects for the dirty and dangerous work of colonization, but they did not foot most of the bill. The concept of private property arrived in the Americas like any other disease or invasive species for which the native biome was completely unprepared.

All the infrastructure of the American colonies was established to make business more profitable. Long before independence was declared, American entrepreneurs were getting their piece of the action. Between the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, more than a century and a half passed. A couple of generations lived and died. In the name of wealth and power, settlers moved outward from initial landing sites into the interior.

A bold pioneer with a sharp ax, a trusty musket, quick reflexes and a good lawyer could establish a family fortune just by marking a bunch of trees and making darn sure his land claims were duly registered. The next poor schmuck to wander into that happy valley to set up a little farm or a sawmill or something would find out he was already behind on his rent.

Between 1776 and 1876 a century passed in which no one questioned the concept of personal wealth. Steal some land from the natives, chop it into parcels and sell it off. The natives weren't using it, they were just living on it. They were smelly and talked weird and just might kill you.

Interestingly, between 1876 and 1976 a lot of people questioned the time-honored concept of minority ownership of majority necessities, particularly once the 20th Century arrived. As civilization advanced on the backs of  millions of laborers and the wallets of hundreds of wealthy people, mostly men, the standard of living accidentally increased to the point where the working class and people in the middle income bracket were now healthy and well fed enough to start exerting some real political influence.

After many attempts to crush this rebellion by force, the wealthy had to accept the new economic landscape. However, they still had the advantage of their own close associations, better schools for their children, better homes and gardens to shelter and nourish their progeny and generations of tradition enforcing their superiority. In the long run, all the wealthy have to do is wait. The ignorant rabble will waste its substance. They will not give up the comforts of civilization, and civilization is still very much the property of the wealthy, run for their benefit. It's their world. The rest of us just get to live in it...as long as we don't make too much trouble.

The wealthy hold the whole planet hostage. The war necessary to dislodge them would have to destroy everything. If anyone survived, they would probably reinvent the whole messed-up paradigm anyway because the war would have reduced them to such savagery that all gentle enlightenment had been scorched out of them.

The problem with any meritocracy is that some people will be bad winners no matter what the basis of the competition is. Back in the dim past we chose warriors as our leaders. Some time in the 20th Century we switched to CEOs. Warriors are basically predisposed to be pricks, despite what you may believe about knights in shining armor. Defender of the weak, blah blah blah. When your clout comes from your actual ability to clout that can't help shaping your thinking. And CEOs are supposed to be all about earnings. What's good for the company bottom line may not be good for your individual ass. Be warned.

Whatever the basis of merit, it creates a hierarchy, which gives abusers of power the tools they need.

Consensus would be nice but we can't even agree to seek it.

So, for what it's worth, the desire of the wealthy to create good neighborhoods for themselves created the model for good neighborhoods throughout history. Their ability to put up defenses against their bad neighbors established the concept by which we still live. In wide open spaces where no one is fenced in, no one is fenced out, either. While that can be wonderfully welcoming and inclusive, it also means you could get an arrow stuck in you when you step out to take a leak in the morning. It means someone has to sit up all night to watch the horses or you might not have any in the morning. It means you may repeatedly have to kick someone's ass until yours finally gets kicked for good, just to have a little space to call your own.

The wealthy seem like greedy bastards who don't play well with others and don't like to share their toys. They are vastly annoying and downright damaging to society in a great many ways. But being a jerk is a basic human characteristic. We should at least give a nod to rich jerks through the centuries who accidentally bestowed the benefits of shelter and sanitation on the rest of us jerks who have actually built and operated it for them.