Everybody who reads this post will have something in common.
When I say “everyone” I mean the theoretical “everyone”, not the actual “everyone”, which, when it comes to reading this blog, probably amounts to 2 or maybe 3 friends of mine that have been badgered into reading my well meaning waffle.
But “everyone” reading it will have access to the internet, probably via their very own PC, laptop or tablet device, or maybe even their mobile phone. They will be sitting in comfort whilst they read; physical comfort, if not mental comfort (this could be a bumpy ride). They will likely be sitting in the “developed West”; Europe or North America.
Their needs will be met. They will have food, and easily available water, and shelter. They may not have the best laptop / PC / tablet; the one they really really want, but their core needs will be met.
And they will, on the whole, have worked hard to earn this, and to have earned what luxuries they have, whether that be a home, a car, electrical equipment, two days rest per week etc
Good luck to them! Good luck to me! I like to treat myself when I’ve worked hard. Or even when I haven’t worked hard, but the pay cheque gets deposited regardless! I’m not an idle or lazy person. I deserve my treats.
We are alike in this. We like to spend our money on the little luxuries, and even the bills we dislike paying, are
still paying for the things we do like; the nice house, the new car, the televisual entertainment, the gym membership. We may like to spend on different things; some on fancy clothes or jewellery, some on holidays, some on gadgets, some on games. The variation is almost endless.
But whatever we spend it on, we deserve it. We’ve worked for it. Also, we want what money we have to go that little bit further. We want things to be cheaper so that we can have more and better of them. And we’ll shop where we can get it the cheapest. If we can get more clothes for our money at Primark, or other discount retailer we will. We want the nice wooden furniture made from exotic wood, but we don’t want to pay the earth (sic) for it.
Who wouldn’t!? Why pay more, when you can pay less. It makes sense.
It’s hard to remember when we’re wrapped up in the luxuries of Western Civilisation, that these luxuries are not universal. That there are people with nothing, not even the basics of food and water. People who could comfortably live off what we waste.
We are conditioned to this as a species; there are winners and there are losers. Survival of the fittest: it’s what’s driven evolution for millions of years.
Western Civilisation won. Over the last 500 years, Europe rose from being a nothing hinterland, to ruling the world. Australia and North America, in particular the USA, spawned from us, and too have joined the winners club.
If you read most history books in the developed world, you’ll see that Europe and her progeny were always destined to be the winners. We were the smartest, the strongest, the most motivated. Of course we were always going to win, weren’t we?
Not so! With the possible exception of the Mediterranean cultures, Rome and Greece, most of Europe was an under-developed hinterland for most of human history. Mighty empires were raised under the Chinese, also in India and under Islam, that progressed science and technology beyond anything we could imagine in Europe at the time.
While we were scrapping on a beach in Hastings, the Chinese were sailing goods up and down their 1,000 mile
Grand Canal, that had been built 500 years before, and standing guard on their 1,200 year old wall that stretched for thousands of miles. They already had gunpowder and steel manufacturing way in advance of Europe!
In the earliest contacts between Europe and Asia, we had nothing to offer them. They were entirely self sufficient, with complicated trade routes we could not hope to match or even understand. We had nothing of value to offer them! They were the winners. We were the losers.
This all changed when we discovered the Americas! We found other civilisations that couldn’t look down upon us like the superior civilisations of the East. We found people who were centuries behind us in terms of technology. Now here were people we could exploit. And we did.
We took everything they had, by force. We worked many of them to death in their own gold mines. The rest died from the diseases we brought with us. And when we killed them off, we found more victims in Africa that we could drag over to the Americas to continue the work the locals had so callously abandoned via the trick of dying on the job.
When I say “we” in this context, this was led by the Spanish and Portuguese. We Brits stood aloof. We waited till the galleons were returning from the New World laden with ill gotten gold. And then we stole it from them, mid-sea. This is how Britannia ruled the waves.
And as this gold got back to the few nations on the western seafront of Europe, it kick started the trade with the rest of Europe. Soon, most of Europe was awash with American gold and other resources. This in turn funded technological advances. We took the scraps of technology we had gained from the East and we funded enhancements.
We sparked the birth of the industrial revolution. Mass manufacture was now possible. A machine could produce as much fabric as many people but cost much less.
Now we took our new products back to the East, intent on finally getting in on the rich trade routes which had been in place for hundreds of years bringing great wealth to those involved. But guess what? We still couldn’t get in on the action. Our goods were still inferior to the local versions, despite our ingenious machines.
Then we realised something. Although we couldn’t match the East in terms of quality of goods, we could more than match them in the size and numbers of the new weapons we had developed! We bombed and killed our
way into those valuable trade routes! We took over their countries as well as their trade. Our trading corporations became the governing bodies of these lesser armed countries; the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company “owned” huge swathes of India and South East Asia. Between them, the European states, and the USA beat China into submitting to their domination. Often by importing illegal opium and getting local populations addicted to the drug.
We were the winners! Huzzah! The East were now the losers. Of course our history books didn’t tell the story quite the same way, and told us how we were always destined to rule the world by virtue of our inherent “better-ness”, but either way, we were the winners and we could grow fat off the exploitation of the losers.
(As an interesting side note, we also believe this balance of power can never change! Ha! How long before we are again overwhelmed by the advances of the upcoming super-powers in Asia and South America? Ironically, not the original inhabitants of South America, as they are mainly extinct, but instead the European offspring we replaced them with).
Of course, that’s all history (whichever version) now.
We certainly don’t do that kind of thing any more!
As I write this, in May 2013, the search for bodies in a collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh has just been called off. 1,127 bodies have been pulled from the rubble. 4 million people work in garment factories in Bangladesh alone, many in poor conditions, such as the badly maintained building which collapsed. Many of those who died in this collapse were producing clothes for discount brands in the Civilised West. Discount clothes for Europe, the UK, the USA.
They worked in a building that was over crowded, with poor conditions, large cracks in the walls, and poor pay. But why wouldn’t they? They needed that pay to survive. To pay for the basics. For food and water and shelter. Would you refuse to work in these conditions if it was the only way for you to get the basics of survival? Of course not. We can’t blame them.
So should we blame the factory owners? They allowed this to happen. They made a profit by exploiting the workers. But why wouldn’t they? The profit they would have made would have been modest at best. Not enough to repair their crumbling building or buy new property. They couldn’t afford to have less people squeezed into the space as they would lose any modest profit they were making and would find themselves making a loss. Who would support them and their families then? They had to minimise costs to beat any competition for the Western business. Otherwise some other factory owner would just take their money. Would you refuse to lower your costs and risk your personal well being and that of your family? Of course not. We can’t blame them.
So let’s blame the Western corporations, who have forced the prices down on the factory owners!! Primark are an easy target! They’re not alone though. And it’s not just the discount brands. All corporations need to get as much money as they can for as little cost as possible. Whether it’s cheap resource overseas, or paying immigrants (legal or otherwise) to do the horrible jobs the rest of us don’t want for money we wouldn’t get out of bed for. If they don’t, they will go out of business, and some other Corporation will supply the goods and get the profit instead of them. The workers for the Corporations (the likes of you and I) would be out of our jobs! That’s no good! Would you sacrifice your job and the jobs of all those working with or for you? Of course not. We can’t blame them.
So maybe we should take the blame? Really? But all we’re doing is using our hard earned pay to treat ourselves to the little luxuries in life. Can we really be blamed? We don’t want people slaving away in dangerous conditions on low pay in Bangladesh, but also we don’t want to pay a fortune for our clothes, our gadgets, our little luxuries in life.
The winners rarely see the impact of their winning on the losers. There are too many other people to blame along the way. People who can only possibly be evil and twisted and corrupted. Not people just doing what they can to make a living, whether basic or more comfortable.
But should we care?
I’ll say it again: We are conditioned to this as a species; there are winners and there are losers. Survival of the fittest: it’s what’s driven evolution for millions of years.
Capitalist society is based on this premise. We don’t see the impact on the world around us. Not just the people, but the environment also, as we try to get the best quality materials at the lowest possible cost.
I believe capitalist society will one day cave in on itself; that the principles it is built on are unsustainable.
What is the alternative? Communism?
I don’t believe so. That has already been tried and failed. For me, Communism was a beautiful, well meaning idea, but it cannot work. Why not? Because we are not an altruistic species! Don’t make me say it a third time!
If we all had equal access to resources no matter how hard we work, or what we do, then where is the drive for us to perform well, to produce our quota? What is to prevent us dropping into apathy?
As a species we thrive on competition, not on equality. We want our own needs to be met. When our basic needs are met, we want our small luxuries as reward for our work. If we work even harder, we want more of those luxuries, and bigger ones to boot! And due to our subjective view points (see People Problem #2), we struggle to see the damage that does elsewhere in the world.
The problem is, despite what many think, this is a world of large, but limited resources. When our numbers were low those resources could appear almost infinite. However, as our numbers have grown (see People Problem #1) those resources can not be shared as equally and so we have to have winners and losers. For everyone of us sitting looking at the internet on a laptop / PC / tablet / mobile phone, there is another one of us who has to struggle for the basics of food, water and shelter.
Can there be a utopia in which everybody has equal access to the resources of the world? I struggle to see how at the moment, and greater minds than mine have tried to resolve this. If we all have exactly the same, where is the drive to work, to utilise the resources? If we built a robot legion to attend our every need and complete our every task, what is to stop us descending into apathy, and civilisation just coming to a standstill and stagnation?
The drive to “have” is immense. Whether it is things we “need” or not.
Am I saying I support this system? Hell no! If I could “fix it”, would I? Hell yes, but for now all I can do is merely point out the problem. The more people are aware of the problem, the more likely some bright spark might spot a solution!
In the UK right now, there is debate as to whether we should remain a part of the European Union. The debate centres around the fact that we believe we can do better by ourselves as we are currently better off than the European average, and tying ourselves closer to a poorer Europe will slightly reduce our personal wealth in the short term, as it is redistributed and evened out over our neighbours. For most in the UK that is an abhorrent thought! As it would be for anybody from any other country finding itself in a similar situation.
I admit we all like to be charitable, but as a species we do not have it in us to be truly altruistic.
And so, People Problem #3: although we often have good intentions, self interest always comes first