Tuesday, December 10, 2013

That Golden Age

Today I came across this article in Reuters blogs about the amazing amount of free time enjoyed by our peasant forebears. It's tempting to think of this past in comparison to our own lives and marvel at the opportunities they had back then to participate in cultural events, to gather with family and friends, to make art, to think, to discover the world around them.  Indeed, there are many, many people around who idolize this golden past and would love nothing better than to abandon the modern rat-race to return to the languid lives of our ancestors, who apparently got hours and hours every day to pursue "cultural work".

Sadly they also often got:

- a multitude of plagues [1]
- famine [2]
- incredible infant mortality [3]
- young deaths due to injury from heavy labour [4]
- wartime atrocities (limited time offer not available at all locations)
- bandits
- owned by their lords [5]

But hopefully they enjoyed their time off.

Yeah, that Keynsian [6] future is definitely the better option.

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes proposed a model of development in which he predicted that by 2030 properly developed economies would be populated by people who could achieve everything necessary for life in 2 or 3 hours of labour each day. [7] The idea was endorsed by some other thinkers of the period and has since resulted in parody, serious political movements, and general complaint against the grinding drudgery of the modern world. 

A number of possible approaches to achieving this wonderful state of affairs have been proposed over the years.  Most prominent, perhaps, are the "refuseniks"[8] who yearn for the golden ages of yore in which work didn't dominate your life and there was plenty of time for activities that were culturally enriching. The exact age considered "golden" varies a little from person to person, but the typical theme is "back to nature" and fairly unapologetically Luddite in its philosophy.

I will admit, the sylvan scenes their depictions of the golden age (whenever it might have been) are very attractive. Unfortunately there are two basic problems with the proposition of turning back the clock as they suggest. 

The first problem is that their vision of the golden age in question tends to be incomplete. As already mentioned, far from being the idyllic life depicted in addition to plenty of free time real life also included (literally) backbreaking labour just to break even, famine, oppression, disease, and crushing poverty. [9]

The second problem is their assertion that people "back then" [10] were better able to participate in culturally enriching activities because of their abundant free time.

Let's allow people their fantasy for a moment, and presume that peasants of the past were generally happy sorts living in harmony with the land and taking advantage of their largely seasonal duties to produce as much of cultural value as they could. [11] Of course, they would still need to perform some work daily just to keep things working - milking gentle-giant cows, gathering eggs from chuckling hens, basic home maintenance, hunting and fishing, food preparation etc. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that outside the busiest times of year (harvest, sowing, etc) every waking minute not required for unavoidable daily chores was dedicated to arts, crafts, learning, and other sundry cultural engagements.

Here's the trouble with the idea that the average folk of times long past had far more opportunity to engage in cultural pursuits than we do, and thus we are (intellectually) poorer than they were: this blog.

You're reading it. You are (hopefully - at least at some level) being culturally enriched.

OK, putting aside the question of whether this blog has any cultural worth [12] the fact of the matter is that because of the nature of the society we've built, and despite the number of hours and the effort we need to put into keeping it running we have hitherto unknown opportunities for enrichment.

There are those who look back at 19th Century London and the tradition of "Christmas Lectures" and other events where the average man [13] could for free or at most a token fee go to hear experts speak on the latest developments in science, technology and other topics, and they deplore the lack of such events today. Oh sure, we have occasional events of a similar nature but it's not like the old days they say.

For these people I have really only one word of rebuttal: the internet. [14]

Seriously, the average denizen of our modern world can learn more in 15 minutes in front of a web browser than any 19th Century middle manager could have learned from an entire season of lectures at the Royal Society.

Similarly, while peasants of ages past may have benefited greatly from the opportunity to gather around the fire in the evening and chat, tell stories, exchange news, the simple fact of the matter is that our technology makes it possible for us to do these things in little bursts of activity all day...with people from all over the globe! 

The sheer scale at which we can now exchange ideas and opinions [15] is incredible, and it's only getting better. 

The very idea that we live in an age that isn't experiencing an unimaginable level of cross-fertilization and stimulation, an age with amazing levels of cultural engagement, is laughable.

That said, I do wonder where my Keynesian 3 hour work day is. 

There are organizations who are working toward a four hour work day, but unfortunately I don't see any sign that they have a concrete plan for how we keep the wheels of our civilization turning properly with everyone putting in that little actual labour. Yes, automation can do wonders but the fact of the matter is that first we need to make sure the necessities are taken care of, then we need to make sure that there's some way to make sure that the economy will continue to function when everyone decides to take half the week off. [16]

I look forward to having even more time to devote to the things I love without undue concern over how I will pay the rent - but for now I'm just glad that dysentery is very, very low on my list of concerns.


1. Pneumonia (caused by various diseases, including influenza), measles, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever, meningitis (again caused by all sorts of things), whooping cough (also known as pertussis) - all known as leading causes of death in the mid 1800s.  If you want a chilling view into the medical reality of our fairly recent past, I suggest perusing the Wellcome Library's archive of the London Medical Officer of Health Reports.

2. I leave full documentation this as an exercise for the interested (or skeptical) reader, but suffice to say that I know of more than 20 documented famines in the 19th Century. A simple starting source is Wikipedia's List of Famines.  I warn you now: the list is depressing reading. If you're not shocked by the number of entries you need to scroll through to find the entries for the 19th Century, then you should be shocked to see how much is left of the page once you reach them. And if that doesn't do it, consider this: it's Wikipedia - therefore probably incomplete - and in any case this is a list of famines listed in written history. Those that occurred in areas with no writing at the time, or that were small enough in scale not to get noticed in the big cities are missing.

3. You know, because of things like those listed in [1] & [2]

4. Contrary to many who idolize the virtues of doing things "the natural way" one of the biggest killers right up into the early 20th Century was injury sustained during heavy labour - the combined toll of direct death from the injuries and deaths from complications such as infection. 

5. Reportedly not much different from some people's relationship with their employers today - and admittedly not a real issue of the 19th Century in most of the developed world of the era. But note that "most" - there were quite large populations of people officially referred to as peasants and serfs in parts of Europe, particularly in Russia. Add to this the survival of slavery in the Americas until very recently (in fact, there are arguments to be made that officially sanctioned slavery didn't end with the US emancipation proclamation of 1862 - and some might argue that even the civil rights movement of the 1960s didn't completely eliminate it) and the continuance of official serfdom in other parts of the world until quite recently and the window of "times it would be good to live in" becomes quite narrow.

6. I mean this one, not that one.

7. Read his idea in detail here.

8. Unexpectedly, I discover that although the current usage of refusenik refers to someone who refuses to do something out of protest the term actually originates as a reference to people who were refused exit visas by the former Soviet Union.

9. And to forestall the inevitable "but they were rich in spirit!" or "poverty is created by the capitalist net we're trapped in!" sorts of arguments, I'll point out that I don't just mean poverty in the sense of not having two pennies to rub together - until very, very recently the vast majority of people were illiterate, unaware of anything happening outside the borders of their own small communities, and largely without the energy or for that matter education needed to either learn more or to create for creation's sake. The poverty, I assure you, was very much pervasive.

10. For the various values of "back then" that have been proposed.

11. As opposed to languishing in debt because they had no income outside of the season in question, or chafing under the yoke of some petty noble's whim, or perhaps wondering fearfully where the next meal would come from and whether plague would strike before or after that.

12. No, really - put it aside. Let me have some fantasies.

13. Women apparently also attended, but were not - generally - encouraged to do so.

14. OK, so it's two - but only if you count the article separately.

15. And amusing cat videos, to our everlasting shame.

16. Contrary to the claims of many anti-capitalists it seems that no society of any scale can work without some kind of abstract means of representing the exchange of labour. I won't say that I'm necessarily convinced that fiat currency controlled by governments is the only - or even best - way to do this, but it seems self-evident that as much as we'd like to think that direct exchange and barter would be more fair I for one have never seen an example (theoretical or concrete) of how this would work in a large scale, highly interconnected society such as ours.

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