Wayward beasts of riotous belligerence and, on occasion, rapturous beauty, we are the keystone predators of the present, re-timing nature to the fevered steps of an instinctive tango between our collective id and ego. We flatter ourselves "the rational animal" while diligently destroying our ecological patrimony, slaves to the drives of instincts for habitats we've already eradicated and of who's primacy in our motives we remain oblivious. What we are is the "energy capture" animal: while a great deal now sets us apart from our simian ancestors, it was the energy captured from fire in cooking to pre-digest our food that allowed our genes to re-allocate energy and blood flow from our bellies to our brains delivering to us the illusion of reason. We can be reasonable, but our nature is to be smart leading us to reason only under duress, when our cleverness fails.
And in duress we reason beautifully. Some become enamored with this beauty and commit themselves to lives of reason, but these are Cassandra's mostly in an animal world ruled mostly by the hierarchical impulses bequeathed us by our ancestors on some extinct savanna. While our day to day social relations have likely evolved little from those early post-simian glen dwellers, our habitat has. Particularly, wherever the written word has imposed historical order on societies, burdening them with the institutions and memories of civilization, a systematic re-ordering of the living landscape around us has zoned life and its functions for our conscious predilections imposing ever increasing order on the production, flow and distribution of the necessaries of human life. Here those rational aesthetes, people committed to the beauty of careful thinking, have re-imagined our physical world to better support what we believe we want, or at least what the powerful tell us we want.
While civilization has mostly occupied a stable ecological niche, relying on the living energy of its people, their animals, their plants and the sun, industrialization has introduced an anthropocentric instability. While we burned wood or grass or vegetable oils to fuel our stoves, the carbon emissions thus produced re-cylced into new wood or grass or vegetables for future cycles. The living systems that harvested the suns rays and transubstantiated them into life's essentials remained natural in the sense of relying only on the sun and other living things to sustain the human built systems. It is in our nature to capture external energy and bend it to our will: as for cooking over a wood fire, so with coal and latter oil once their capabilities were understood. Industrialization and its growing dependence on these fossil fuels has disconnected human civilization from the ancient rhythms of life and at the same time precipitated a steady build up of carbon and other products of combustion in the atmosphere. We take now what energy we can from wherever we can find it to try to sustain the growth of our economic system burdening our ecology with evermore chthonic carbon and its resulting heat.
But before that it was the energy of beasts that provided the power with which we molded our habitat. Horses, cattle, elephants, dogs and countless other animals have been recruited into the work of making the human environment since before the dawn of cities. With the phase shift in social order introduced by civilization, beast of burden became a category into which we proved willing to relegate our fellow man. In future I'll write in detail about the mirror relationship between the human institutions of money and slavery, for now it suffices to point out the simultaneity of their invention, their parallel histories and the necessary hierarchy between them: slavery cannot exist without money though money can exist without slavery: dehumanized value as embodied in money creates the space for dehumanized humans in civilization.
Slavery cannot exist without civilization. While civilization can exist without slavery, there's damn little record of it prior to industrialization. Slavery is energy capture for psychopaths, but its long and persistent reality is as clear a statement of the universal psychopathic tendencies in all of us as can be made: that tolerance of slavery has been more therule than exception since the advent of civilization tells us much we do not want to know about our irrational nature and the more primitive impulses that animate us and set our community values. While civilization's beautiful thinkers built spectacular water works and highways, cities and canals, ports and plantations, the human animals who ruled debased a class of their subjects, sometimes more, sometimes less, to the purely instrumental status of beasts and deployed their energy to the frequently vain projects of the narcissists and full bore psychopaths always and everywhere most comfortable with the iniquity of power relationships.
Whether material energy capture or social dominance, power is central to who and what we are. It is the stored power of the sun in grass and wood that pre-digested our ancestors food when they began to cook. It led to our shrunken guts and our expanded brains. It is the social power of the collectivist social impulse that draws us together in communities making our re-ordering of the physical world so beneficial to our species, both in raw numbers and in quality of life. This habitat/artifact creates the time and resources for careful thinkers to build the systems that have made civilizations around the world sustainable. To their credit and our mutual benefit all these systems serve to make life's essentials, frequently in better quality, available in greater quantity. This yields greater freedom of the general population from the energy expenditure of producing what is essential. But these systems work on reason while power generally derives from our much more ancient cleverness. To be powerful one need not understand how systems work, only how people do. That is the liability of systems: they are ultimately morally neutral and can be used for good or evil and multitudes freed from the drudgery of subsistence can be set to cultural flourishing or, just as easily, slavery.
While relationships like slavery have been documented in pre-civilized societies, the coercive quality of these relationships is more pedantic than authoritarian: the harsh conditions in which such primitive societies exist leaves them with a socially agreed discipline about the necessary expenditures of individual energy for the sustenance of the group. When captives, unfamiliar with their systems of survival are brought into such groups they are coercively disciplined into the essential survival functions. As they integrate, the coercion dissipates and they are fully integrated into the group. It is the surplus civilization produces that allows the pathology of power to view the individuals that constitute its base in a strictly instrumental light: because they are no longer directly engaged in production for their own survival, they can be coerced into doing things of benefit only to the powerful. The coercive effort is too expensive for a pre-civilized society, it is only where substantial surpluses are commanded by the socially dominant that slavery can be sustained. We are energy capture animals who are by and large happy to harvest the energy of our compatriots so long as it does not affect us, or affects us only positively in our own social position.
Industrialization disrupted this historical pattern by exponentially increasing the surplus. At the same time it disconnected human production from the cycles of life creating a world of machine production to which we will return. Surpluses are only valuable to the extent they can be put to use. When they are controlled by socially dominant individuals or groups, what incentive exists to put them to use is the social enhancement of these interests. Large populations of serfs gave way to large populations of wage earners in industrializing civilizations in order to form markets from which the powerful could extract money claims to make the benefits of their social position portable and fungible. Our capitalist, market based system freed its slaves to create markets: by paying former serfs for their work the population was injected with money with which it could purchase the surpluses controlled by the socially dominant. This allowed the dominant to capture the money value of the surpluses being both made and purchased by serfs re purposed as consumers.
The key property of capitalistic markets is the incentive structure: it is all about money. All sorts of collaborative ways exist to create valuable things and to exchange them. Capitalism reorganizes all of these around money: capitalism is a way to make money from money, sometimes through the manufacture and exchange of things or services, but make no mistake it is the return of money in the form of profit that incentivizes the entire structure, the making and distributing of things, where it happens, is incidental. Our current "secular stagnation" is an excellent example of the lack of interest of capitalists in the production and exchange of real things: they will only invest where they see money returns and in a world of hoarded wealth it is much easier to manipulate the hoards than to address the real world risks and uncertainty of the actual trade, production or service of actual things. Likewise it is an example of the way the dehumanized value embodied in money creates the space to dehumanize humans where our wealthy think that some how the poor will be incentivized by decreasing wages for increasing work while they themselves insist on ever greater incentives to go on with their rapacious plunder: there is a rampant belief among the wealthy that if only the poor could be made poorer and the rich richer everything would be fine.
Failing to understand the distributive system that underwrote the rise of democratic capitalism since industrialization, our current capitalist class cannot understand that the employment of populations for money wages was the geotechnical condition in which capitalism could take root and, while expanding popular wealth, exponentially increase the money wealth of the capitalist class itself. This failure to understand the system it purports to pursue leaves people who call themselves capitalists today thinking if the poor can be made to work for less they themselves can somehow be made richer. But as their policies play out and the poor are increasingly excluded from the system by lack of money, the initiating key to the whole system, due to lack of paid work, the capitalist class resorts more to machines to produce surpluses of those things people so far not excluded from participation continue to want in a process of ever expanding economic exclusion.
You can see the essential systemic and moral problem here. A system devised to engage the broadest possible population into the exchange of money for goods and services has been the heart of capitalism for several hundred years has now. But those who control it have lost site of why the system wanted to pay the broadest possible base of society for productive work in the first place: to make more money for itself. The abolition of slavery was for capitalists an innovation to expand the reach and scope of markets, not some humanitarian ethical claim. From the sociopathic view of capitalism those humanists were useful fellow travelers for that moment, but little more. Now as more and more people are excluded from the system through unemployment, a policy pursued to force down the wage share of profits so that capitalists can capture ever larger majorities of it, the systemic effect is that markets necessarily shrink. The moral one is that those excluded now inhabit a man made habitat that has overwritten the one in which the excluded could fall back on the fruits of the land. It is now one in which there is no way to afford the necessaries of subsistence without the money from participation in the labor market, from which they are deliberately excluded by policies of wage suppression counterproductively insisted on by self styled capitalists. Power, for those who have it, allows us to displace cost elsewhere. In western economies those who have power have displaced their costs onto the poor who have no power to resist in the same way our machines displace their costs onto our natural habitat, again as an ecological cost thus far to the poor. But eventually this cost will be borne by all.
Systems can not be used endlessly against the purpose of their design. As we operate our capitalist system in anti-capitalist fashion, displacing the base of the population from participation through unemployment and sustaining the flows of capital through the purely monetary channels of interest rate policy, manipulations of liquidity and the absorption of private monetary losses onto the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve, the utility of the system dissipates. When the feedback of money losses still influenced investor decisions and the feedback of increased profitability increased wage share in proportion to increased productivity, and for a population where everyone who wanted work had work the capitalist system was a beneficial one. But as all these feed back mechanisms have been short circuited by the powerful who dominate the system for immediate personal gains, its benefits have disappeared. As more and more are excluded from participation, the pre-industrial social values of earlier systems begin to reappear and the dehumanizing value of money begins to reassert the historically normal attitudes towards the weak and the poor that made slavery the norm until the advent of industrial, democratic capitalism.
Systems can be built to support innumerable value sets. Once they exist they impose their own values on the social relations with which they interact. The more complex and more numerous are the systems we live with, the more remote we are from the essentials of human existence. As we become more remote from the essential it becomes easier and easier to allow our values to reshape themselves around those of the systems to which we acclimate in lieu of an organic habitat. These systems mostly exist because some rational aesthete somewhere in the past rationalized some aspect of our existence to free more of our human energy to higher pursuits than sustenance. At the same time, the sociopaths and narcissists best acclimated to the iniquities of power manipulated the systems at hand for personal benefit. They engaged in their compulsive abrasions against the popular values that drove the initial design of systems. Whether husbanded in peace or redeployed from war civilization's essential systems have been redeployed to new use antithetical to their designers intent: those obsessed with power can easily turn institutions of liberation into systems of control, systems of power into systems of domination, systems of distribution into systems of scarcity. We are none of us in the modern world any more able to survive without the vast industrial systems on which we now depend. Unless we collectively bend our systems back to the universalist values that made them beneficial to begin with we will see them used to enslave us as the fuel runs out on industrialization and we will revert to the historical mean, we will revert to systems of slavery.