The modern West is perhaps unique in world history for its adulation of the future. Throughout history, most writers have been at best uninterested in, and at worst fearful of, what the future will bring. The whole linear view of history is perhaps a Western idea, but the idea of ‘progress’, of the upward, usually exponential, trend of human history is certainly our mistake. If one chooses to view history in terms of technological progress, one must look over millennia, at countless civilisations all over the world, most rising to a similar technological stage, and ruling for hundreds if not thousands of years, then collapsing into dust. One may imagine the Romans as the most advanced civilisation before the advent of ours, but of course ‘progress’ didn’t continue on from there; society regressed. Perhaps China would be a better candidate. China achieved incredible technological advancement around the time of Qin Shi Huangdi, building monumental canals, tombs and the early stages of a well-known wall. They set up a complicated professional government, built around an educated civil service. They maintained a similar system for the next 1900 years. Events continued, China was conquered, it split, it had coups and was at times rendered lawless by wandering warlords. But one would struggle to identify any serious cultural or technological revolution. At the end of that 1900 years, China was felled by a people that had, only 1500 years previously, consisted of pagan warbands.
China isn’t the only civilisation that got caught in a ‘rut’. Ancient Egypt existed for almost three millennia, the Greco-Roman world for 1400 years, the Mayans for 3500 years. None of these civilisations achieved what we have now. We are not an accumulation of these societies. We are something different. If we were to graph human technological development properly, it would not look like exponential growth; progress would look digital, not analog. This is important, as it has completely twisted our view of the world. It has moved us away from the old cyclical nature of history towards one where the future is idealised. Our culture is formed around the concept of progress, of outdoing the past and driving ever ‘forward’, towards a goal no one is quite sure of. It is a view that affects our science and it affects our politics. Anything that is old is ‘backward’. If something was used in the past and is no longer used, it must be because it has been improved upon. Despite our own problems, we look at past societies with disdain.
This brings me to the Luddites. Luddite has become a byword for the ignorant and the ‘backward’. They were a people who misunderstood the world, feared the future and, now we can look back at them with hindsight, were completely wrong. Or were they? The future did prevail and the ancestors of those Luddites are undoubtedly more materially wealthy than they ever were before. Whether they are happier is less clear. What is also less clear, is how it is that the Luddites could be wrong. The mathematics is fairly simple. Say one tailor can make a shirt per day, and a shirt lasts a man a year. To keep a town of 3650 people in shirts would require ten tailors. If one of those tailors can make a machine that allows him to produce ten shirts per day, not only can he keep up with the whole town’s demand on his own, but he will also be able to produce the shirts cheaper as each one requires less labour, thus outselling his competitors. The only result is 9 unemployed tailors.
This has to be the way it works. People often talk about industrialisation and automation as if those 9 tailors can be employed somewhere else in the shirt industry, perhaps as shirt-machine mechanics. ‘The jobs of the future’. Of course this makes no economic sense at all. If, when our tailor buys this machine, he finds it requires 9 mechanics at any one time, the cost of the shirts return to normal. He can no longer outsell is competitors. He has, instead, the same sales but nine men on the payroll and the interest on the machine eating into his profit. No matters how you rearrange it, the goods, after industrialisation and certainly after automation, are made with less man hours than before and therefore people will lose their jobs. But that didn’t happen and, despite the clear maths, the Luddites were proved wrong and will forever by categorised as reactionary fools. This is because they didn’t predict consumerism.
If those ten tailors all want to keep their jobs, there are two ways they can go about it. First, they can all agree to restrictions on the price they sell their goods at. This was how the guild system worked and it stifles progress a great deal. It would prevent any of them getting a machine; they would all continue as normal. Needless to say this didn’t happen in the end. The second solution is that all ten of them get machines. They reach equilibrium again and all are competitive with one another. But now they have 36500 shirts to sell. This is material progress. This is how industrialisation and automation does not lead to (much) unemployment. The production of goods and services must grow exponentially to keep up with rising efficiency.
We all know this, its rudimentary economics. But it is the shifting of this goods surplus that causes a great deal of the dissatisfaction that industrial society inspires. The first way to shift it is to find new markets. That village of 3650 is not the whole world. Tailors can start selling shirts in neighbouring towns and countries, but this of course is likely to out compete and destroy the industry of the native tailors. On the other hand, the native tailors may develop superior manufacturing methods and outcompete our village tailors. One can either institute protectionist trade restrictions to prevent this (but in the Anglo-American tradition that is unprogressive), or one can conquer, destroy the native industry and force the natives to consume your goods. This was the primary drive behind imperialism, a desperate thirst for new consumers and a desperate fear of new competitors.
The second way is to encourage faddism. The tailors can come up with very slightly different styles of shirt, say, every month. Using advertising and other tricks of the trade, the tailors can convince the townsfolk that they simply must have a new shirt every month, or they will look like old-fashioned fools. Not only will the same 3650 people consume the full 36500 shirts, but in a stroke of genius there is now an inadequate supply, meaning prices can be driven up higher than the original, more practical, shirt had.
This has the same result as the third way. An easier way to increase shirt consumption, without the marketing costs associated with encouraging a fad, is to purposely lower the quality of the shirts so that they wear through. This has a double benefit; the shirts are likely to be cheaper to make. Profits expand in every direction. As with faddism, the great victim of this, other than the consumer who is made a mug, is the planet. More pollution, more material waste, lower quality, higher price. The clever tailors can, of course, shirk responsibility for this with some simple actions; perhaps with an ‘eco’ brand or an apologetic twitter account.
There is an even more catastrophically short sighted way to keep up with supply. Population increase. The more people in the town, the more shirts they can buy. Of course the real tragedy of this is that, when the population has doubled, they import another ten tailors. Now the citizens of the village live in a rather smoggy textile town, their houses have been turned into flats to accommodate the population growth and of course, with twenty tailors, the problem of selling surplus shirts has not been alleviated at all in the long term.
People tend to blame corporations or politicians for the ills of capitalism, but they can’t be seriously blamed. The issues we are suffering from are not a by-product of progress, they are progress. If technological progress continues, consumption must. The economy has to grow or it will utterly collapse. We are not a people bravely hacking through the jungle towards a brighter future, we are a people trapped on a hurtling train with no idea where it is going and no means to stop it going there. We are the shark civilisation; if we stop moving we will die. Capitalism far an away the best way to achieve progress, and progress has been good to us in most spheres of our lives. But we need control. We mustn’t be slaves to it. Perhaps if people could see more clearly what the Luddites were rejecting when they destroyed machinery, they would have a little more sympathy for their movement.