Vision of a New World
We are entering an epoch of revolution, as has occurred in past periods, only much more profound and consequential. At moments like this, it helps to stand back in order to see the significance of our time, and more critically, the importance of new ideas and of our acting upon them.
To many it may seem that the world as we know it is unraveling. The rules we lived by in bygone times don’t seem to apply. The social contract, where it functioned, is in tatters. We contemplate a world full of contradictions, where labor-less production produces an unheard potential of abundance. Yet people are condemned to starve, die homeless, or go without basic necessities for lack of a job. Our freedoms are fast disappearing, victims of the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, and National Security Agency. Like sheep led off to slaughter, we are being prepared by our leaders mind, body and soul for perpetual war.
Europe at the time of the arrival of the Europeans to the Americas in 1492 was still mired in the dark ages of feudalism, despondency, and despair as described by Barbara Tuchman in her book A Distant Mirror. Much as today, society was unraveling. The people were losing their faith in the established order in the face of pestilence, incessant wars and peasant uprisings. Jaded by corruption and schisms within the Catholic Church, brutally suppressed when they rose up against the kings and feudal lords, the people were mired in a rigid, hierarchical system and traditions that stifled the development of society and any new ideas. To many, the world was flat, their knowledge of the outside world was limited, and world trade was the tortuous and dangerous Silk Road described by Marco Polo.
The discovery and subsequent exploitation of the Americas changed everything. The plunder and pillage of the New World fueled the development of capitalism in Europe. In 1869 Karl Marx wrote in the first volume of Capital: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”
The world became knowable, navigable, exploitable, and appeared to offer Europeans almost boundless opportunity. The conquest of America and the rise of capitalism forever changed the world, leading to world-wide trade and a new social order.
A New Division of Labor
From the beginning, a division of labor developed in the new, increasingly inter-connected world. Some, like the aborigines of the Americas, were enslaved, forced into missions or exterminated, if they did not flee captivity. When their scant numbers did not suffice for the demands of labor required in the new world, Africans were introduced as slaves to replace them. Their labors were primarily directed towards enriching colonial empires of Europe. Slavery in the Americas, including the West Indies, as Eric Williams in his pathbreaking work Capitalism and Slavery showed, was the foundation upon which world-wide modern capitalism developed
For common everyday Europeans the new division of labor meant being obligated to work for a wage or else starve, as the European peasant was increasingly being driven off the land, much as today, Mexican peasants are being driven off their land by NAFTA. Back then, the burgeoning capitalist enterprise in Europe required a plentiful supply of cheap, readily available manpower, as well as soldiers for its wars of expansion. Stripped of feudal protections and despoiled of their claims to the land, the wages system meant that the former peasant, though nominally free, became a slave to the employers.
From the beginning, a difference appeared between the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas, on the one hand, and the English colonies on the other. In his book, Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano shows that, for the former, the colonies served as a means of enriching the nobility, though it came at the cost of stagnating the mother country’s industrial development compared to the rest of Europe. This static, feudal, hierarchical system, with the Catholic Church at its center, was imposed on Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America.
This rule was reinforced by the Spanish Inquisition, which quelled dissent and innovation, both at home and in the colonies. The English, by contrast, were forced to develop a system of mercantilism, and subsequently their industrial capacity. The ethos of Protestantism facilitated these developments.
The North American colonies became a central leg in the triangular trade of the 1600s, operating between the American colonies, the Caribbean, West Africa and Europe. The West Indies plantations depended almost exclusively on slave labor, because a monoculture of sugar or tobacco was more efficient with a large slave labor force than with small, independent white farmers producing the same products. English ships transported slaves from Africa to the islands, and the thirteen colonies provided them with supplies. Sugar, cotton, and tobacco were shipped back to Europe and in turn helped to purchase slaves and finished goods for the trade. This division of labor allowed England to concentrate on shipping, refining and customs revenue. As commerce and industry developed, especially in the Northern part of the thirteen colonies, the colonial relation with England put a damper on their further economic development.
A Promise Yet to be Fulfilled
The New World offered the English mainland colonialists the hope of a new beginning with religious freedom, abundant land, and economic opportunity. Puritans, displaced farmers, and ruined artisans flocked there, seeking to escape the rigid class structure that stifled their Latin counterparts in the New World and in Europe. Their existence and independent development was tolerated, even encouraged by England, which grew to depend on their participation in the new global trade arrangement.
The American Revolution was born out of the birthing pains of nascent capitalism amid the decay and destruction of the dying feudal system in Europe. It is no coincidence that Adam Smith’s bible of developing capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, and the American Declaration of Independence both were published in 1776. The American Revolution was inspired by new ideas born in Europe compatible with the new, developing capitalist system. In 1679, the English philosopher John Locke had promoted a vision of a different world – the universal, natural Rights of Man, particularly the right to own property, democratic governance with checks and balances, and the right of the people to use force against an executive if it did not govern in accordance with those rights. In America, Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense crystallized the essence of what Americans were fighting and dying for by belittling King George III and the tyranny of despots.
The American Revolution inspired revolutions in all of Latin America, and even in Europe. News of its success spread quickly throughout the Americas, leading eventually to wars of independence in Mexico, Haiti, and the rest of Latin America. In its revolution of 1789, France, the U.S’s ally in defeating the British in the American Revolution, rose up against its monarchy and feudal order. In Latin America, the disadvantages of feudal structures, lack of industrialization, and later, U.S. interventions delayed progress towards the vision of what had been fought for.
Despite the vision of a different world, other contradictions prevailed. In the U.S., rights were only for property owners who were white and male. Though slavery was abolished in Mexico and most of Latin America by 1821, in the U.S. it was so profitable to the Southern planters that it was protected by U.S. law and politics. Chattel slavery festered and grew into a large-scale industry that ground down human beings to meet the world demand for cotton. It led to wars of aggression such as those against Mexico, fought with the intent of expanding the territory for slavery and countering the political influence of the industrializing Northern states. It took a Civil War to end slavery, yet another century elapsed before full civil rights were granted to the descendants of the former slaves.
The Importance of New Ideas
Today, we are at a crossroads. As in the previous revolutionary period, everything is in turmoil. All that was sacrosanct is now turned upside down. An economic crisis has been fostered by new means of production as momentous as the conquest of the Americas. The microchip and the computer are creating a social and political crisis. Goods do not sell because jobs are being replaced, and people are starving because they do not have jobs. Yet there is a wealth of goods out there that are not distributed because people do not have wages to buy them. Thus we face the contradiction of starvation in the midst of plenty. Worse yet, we face incessant wars and perhaps a catastrophic nuclear war, as world powers struggle for a shrinking market to sell their goods.
Today we face a new tyranny of heartless corporations that control government in their interests. Without jobs for us, we are worthless to them. That is why they are eliminating unemployment benefits, pensions, and food stamps among other social services.
Capitalism, like feudalism and slavery before it, is coming to the end of its road. The time is ripe for new ideas that correspond to the new reality. The reality is that we need a communal society where goods are distributed according to need and not for profit. The means are within our grasp if we only realize our potential. We can end forever the tyranny of human exploitation.
To get there we have to organize ourselves to achieve the task. The corporations and those that serve them will not voluntarily give us what we need, just as the feudal lords and kings in Europe and the Southern plantation owners in the U.S. did not voluntarily relinquish their power. If we do not rise to the challenge, we face a bleak and heartless world of fascism and destruction that would make the Spanish Inquisition, Hitler’s Germany, and the terror of the Ku Klux Klan seem like child’s play. But history is with us. We are in a position to achieve the vision of peace, freedom and abundance of which our forbears could only dream.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011