I learned recently that the later Anglo-Saxon period of England had the
local lords engaging in an eternal competition for greater wealth. The threat of
downward social mobility among the Thanes drove them to seek greater surplus
that they could exchange for currency, thus to maintain wealth and power.
To achieve this they began to demand more productivity from the land
and more rent from the farmers. Where beforehand, farmers might live
scattered, and plowing the same fields their ancestors had always
done, only making as much as they needed for personal surplus and to pay the rent, and having a fair bit of time
off, suddenly they were being moved into towns, forced to cultivate
plots they didn't own, and forced to do a lot more work with fewer
holidays and...seeing all the gains go towards the greater rents that their lords
demanded. Plus the gathering of the peasants into towns made them more vulnerable to plagues, because they were daily closer to contagious people.
The land itself saw significant changes as the peasants were forced to cutivate larger plots than they had done, and expand into fallow areas that had once been used in common, like the grassy river floodplains once used for horse pastures. There was hay to be grown, now, and harvested quickly, and the work of the common people became more difficult.
Basically the threat of
downward social mobility among the Anglo-Saxon upper middle class made the work environment for the lower classes less just, less profitable, less relenting, and less healthy.
Which is, curiously enough, a similar thing to what has occurred within the United States over the past few decades, as the competition for wealth between stockholders and constant increase in penny-pinching by companies has led employees across the land to see their wages stagnate, their work hours increase, their work benefits reduced if not revoked entirely, their prospects for retirement put out of reach among the elder cohort and out of the question for the younger, their dreams of home ownership turned into nightmares or unable to be dreamt at all. For those working in menial labor, they are frequently paid for less than the number of hours that they have worked, and sometimes paid nothing for mandatory overtime, such that their health suffers for being unable to afford treatment for minor diseases, which become major ones.
Many who witness this and endure this blame the whole thing on an unchecked capitalist economy. Yet, if the later Anglo-Saxon period serves as an example, the problem is far, far older than any of us. In light of the troubles of early English peasants, our current tribulations appear to be the result of employers demanding more work for the sole purpose of skimming off the extra surplus. It was possible, for most of the 20th century, for a capitalist economy to sustain a growing middle class where their future prospects were solid, as long as employer demands could be kept in check. Now that the designs of shareholders are less regulated by law, their desires to recieve swift returns on their stock options, combined with the weight of many generous pensions granted in more prosperous years, wind up forcing business executives to save money wherever they can, and demand more work out of fewer people.
And so we all become poorer, because fewer of us are left with enough money to buy much of anything, after making the decision between paying this month's rent and keeping the heat on.
I am informed of a similar story, from a realm far across the sea -- of a terrifying journey over the sea. The Manila Galleon, the link between the Phillipine Islands and the coast of Mexico, in the era when no other ship would dare the crossing. Often spoken of in the singular, for not more than one or two made the journey in any given year. It was not the most hideous sea voyage ever made -- the slave ships of the Atlantic hold that title -- but for the crews, oh, goodness. Think of what misery Magellan's crew went through to cross the Pacific, and you have the Manila Galleon, which never did much better than Magellan did. Rampant disease, extreme overcrowding -- because the people who sent these ships overstaffed them, because they knew the journey would kill half the men. They knew that many men would die of scurvy, would die of typhus, of typhoid, and worse still, the leg from Manila back to Mexico had no stops, no islands where to gather new supplies, so no new fresh water save from rain, and no new vegetable matter at all, so scurvy was guaranteed. 4 months without landfall.
They knew this, and yet they never bothered to improve conditions for the sailors, because to them the primary goal was profit. A single Manila Galleon, bearing spices from the Indies, could make a man's fortune. Who could resist? And who cares if half the sailors die, as long as more can be found? And that's a very old story indeed. Older than capitalism, older than feudalism. Use them up and get more. Before employees there were slaves.
The men who sent the ships so little cared about the lives of their workers that on occasion, they would take away the cistern for fresh water, so that they could store more spices in the hold. Greed made men insane.
I think of the Manila Galleon, whose passage would have been marked by bodies thrown overboard if they hadn't been weighed down, and then I think of the warehouses that Amazon runs, where a worker is forced to run from one task to another, from one end of the place to another, no breaks given, no time given, and I remember the story of the man who died of a heart attack in the midst of the shelves, where twenty minutes went by before anyone wondered about him and found him -- the same man who had been found and scolded within two minutes for making a mistake.
I think of the workers who are told they will have no bathroom breaks over an eight-hour day, no chairs to sit in over an eight-hour day, no advance notice of the next week's schedule, and then fired with no time to get their affairs in order.
I think of the workers in Flint's GM factory, who discovered that operations had been moved to Mexico without warning, because Mexican wages were cheaper.
I think of my own friend, who was injured on the job, and then forced to fight a long legal battle just for compensation.
I think of the people who make video games, who are forced to work 100-hour weeks in leadup to completion, in order to finish the work by the Christmas shopping season.
I think of The people who make TV shows, whose lives are frequently threatened by dangerous sets and stunts, in order to fill the 25-episode format of American television.
I also think of what happened to the various vice presidents at Gymboree, who were hoping to get a good cut out of the money deals when the company was going down, only to discover that the top executives had used some last-minute legal trickery to revoke their severance packages. Weren't those people supposed to be part of the top class that gets all the wealth? Weren't they supposed to share in the spoils? No honor among thieves, it seems.
And as it happens, various streaming services are attempting to come up with ways to prevent their customers from sharing passwords, because they view such sharing as money stolen from them, all too much like the record executives and movie studios of my childhood. And, as it happens, various video games companies that do a roaring business in China will happily censor their customers -- even the ones outside of China -- in order to avoid threatening their profits, with no thought to the laws and customary human rights of the countries they were founded in. The money is everything.
I think the difference between capitalism and English fedualism here is that the thanes of the Anglo-Saxons couldn't treat their serfs as literal slaves, because the supply of serfs was limited and working them to death would have killed the thanes as well. Now you can work an employee to death without risk, and get your apples all the way from New Zealand. Yet the Thanes made it clear how old that problem is. At a basic level we're dealing with human greed, and the tendency of those with the most money and power to want more of both.
Do not assume these people value your life, except in coin.