Sunday, 11 March 2007

21. Why do many people work so hard?

People usually prefer leisure to labour. Even if they say they like work, it is often preferable to watch others doing it, or contemplate doing it some time in the future. Jerome K. Jerome joked that ‘I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.’ So most people have to be compelled to work, especially if, as is usually the case, it is boring and physical. How are people forced to work?

One method is the system of 'free' market relations, labour for wages, which is the one you are familiar with. A second form is serfdom. Serfs have to do certain labour services for their lord and pay animals as a form of rent. They cannot sell or alienate their holdings without their lord’s agreement in the manorial court. They are under pressure to have their grain ground in the manorial mill. They have to consult with their neighbours about what crops they will grow. They cannot enclose their strips of land without permission. Often they have to pay a tax if they marry off their children. Sometimes they are not allowed to move from their holding without the lord’s consent.

On the other hand they are not slaves. They should not be physically abused by their lord. They cannot be bought and sold. They can own personal property. In other words they are not things, but active and right-bearing human beings, though tied down to a particular place and occupation. Such serfdom existed in England until the fifteenth century when its last remnants mysteriously vanished. In Eastern Europe, it remained the major form of labour condition until the nineteenth century.

Then there is a widespread form of organization which often overlaps with but is different from serfdom. This is family-based, or household, production. Its central feature is that the compulsion to work is exerted neither through the market (wages) mechanism, nor through direct lordly power (serfdom). It comes at one remove from the lord through the compulsion of the family. There is often an enormous pressure towards hard work, but this comes to bear on the individual through loyalty to the family line. There is also a desperate need to extract a living and pay rents to the lord. This is the characteristic form in much of Africa, India, China and South America, as well as many Mediterranean countries.

A final form is slavery, which is characteristic of ancient civilizations. Here people are bought and sold as goods, they are the property of others and have no rights. The technologies of metals, writing, weaving, ploughing led for centuries to the use of slaves. Rome was the last great civilization in the West to be based on slavery, the end of an era lasting over three thousand years. There were periods of revival, such as that in the southern states of America, but the system has been dying out. Although there are still many slaves in parts of North Africa, Southern and Central America and elsewhere, slavery is not the world’s way of working any longer.

Slavery and the family farming system both make people unwilling to use animals or machines. It is almost always 'cheaper' to work all hours than to keep capital invested in animals, mills and other machinery. These forms, which covered much of East Asia and India, and to a certain extent Mediterranean Europe, tend to drive out labour-saving tools. Slavery and family labour make human labour a priority. Only a free market system, and sometimes serfdom, makes it highly desirable to replace humans by machines.

How did we get to our world?

If you had looked at the world in around 1750 you would have seen that much of it seemed to have reached a plateau where it could not get any richer. Indeed, much of it was already getting poorer. With the technologies then known it was impossible to improve the general position of mankind. Nor could the earth feed many more than the five hundred million then living on the planet.

There were, however, two exceptions. One was North America, which was experiencing the fastest economic growth in the world. Its population was tiny and the resources vast. This looked as if it would be a temporary phenomenon once again, for it would quite soon use up its immense resources of soil and timber. There would be a burst of growth as there had been in China, India or the Mediterranean, and in a century or two the country would arrive at the same plateau.

The other exception was England. It had started at a low level, it was a trading nation sucking in materials from elsewhere. The country had an odd social structure where there was no large poverty stricken rural group, but rather a large and prosperous, increasingly urban and urbanised culture. It had a highly efficient farming system. For centuries it had gradually grown richer and it was continuing to do so. By the 1750s it was, per head and in terms of energy available per person, the wealthiest and technologically most sophisticated country on earth.

Yet in 1750 it seemed inevitable that even England, in due course, would hit the invisible buffers. The conversion of current energy from the sun using plants and animals will only yield a certain amount for humans. Another century of growth, at the most, and then England, like America, would end on a high-level but flat path, civilizations which could not move in a new direction.

England’s special state was plainly visible. People noticed the improving technologies of production, the interest in wealth creation and scientific discovery. They even noted the increasing use of fossil fuels and the growth of wealth flowing in from the British Empire. Yet no-one at that stage could see the impending revolutionary change. For the English had harnessed the power of steam.

Who could foresee that the long path of replacing human labour by animals, wind, water and increasingly coal, and doing this through sophisticated machines (especially mills) would suddenly transform the world? Who could have seen that what was at first merely a change in scale, a movement along a pre-existing path, almost a natural evolution, would suddenly alter everything and become a revolution?

What did the steam engine do?

The steam engine was only a small adjustment to a device which had been known to the Romans and the Chinese for thousands of years. Hitherto it had no significance whatsoever. Now the fact that humans could convert coal into energy by way of fire and steam was to alter life on earth.

The human species stopped having to live off supplies of energy from the sun, a current account where the sun’s energy was converted to human use through living creatures. Instead, it began to draw on an immense deposit account, the energy locked up in fossil fuels. Of course, living off stored energy was not entirely new. Humans have often done this by using the stocks of fish, timber, rich land on new frontiers. Yet in the past they had quickly burned up much of this surface energy.

What the steam engine did was to sit at the top of a funnel which went down into the vast reserves of highly concentrated sunlight which had fallen on the earth over millions of years. The stored energy in the fallen timber had become coal. Later the process was repeated with oil. In each case, the thin trickle of energy available to each person from the sun became a gushing torrent. A world not only of vast energy resources, but also of many other side products in alloys, chemicals and plastics opened up.

We could not have predicted any of this in the middle of the eighteenth century. Even as late as the middle of the nineteenth century many intelligent people could still not appreciate what had happened and its implications. The economic laws which had limited humankind for thousands of years had been temporarily suspended.

This new technology could be exported. But it was not an easy or obvious change for even after the first model of how the industrial system based on steam was revealed, it took almost eighty years for this success to be repeated anywhere else, in Germany, Japan and North America. The huge momentum of China and India was leading them in other directions and it was over a hundred and fifty years after the start of the British industrial revolution that a similar change began to happen in those great civilizations. So it is not an easy change to make, even when there are successful models to follow and much of the technology can be bought off the shelf.

What are the possible paths through time?

It is clear that these various pressures constitute a series of paths. A society or civilization starts off with new potentials. It has fresh, unused soil and forests, a good stock of animals and knowledge of the technologies of the wheel, fire and of simple mills to use water power. Its social structure is fairly firm and just.

Yet, over time, the normal tendency is not towards bettering the lot of the majority or finding new ways to get nature to yield up its goods. The flocks and herds do not increase, the coal seams are hardly exploited, the winds and waters are not increasingly harnessed, the agricultural tools are not decisively improved. A shortage of working capital leads people to borrow against their future harvests at a very high rate of interest. The power of lenders increases and the ordinary villagers become debt-ridden and increasingly impoverished.

We might have expected human labour to be supplemented and hence human material life to be improved. Yet the desire of the powerful to become more so, growing population pressing on resources and the fear of shortages constrain people and force them in a direction which is, in the long run, harmful to them and their descendants. This leads away from the one possibility of an escape from agrarian labour.

Unless we understand these powerful paths which lie behind the long-term development of civilizations and become self re-enforcing, we cannot begin to see what has happened in the world. We have to understand that the great civilizations of India, China, Japan and much of continental Europe were heading towards, or had already reached, a high-level path which could not lead towards industrialization. They were, if anything, moving away from an industrial solution.

Why do humans often give up using animals?

Domesticated animals are the earliest and most effective ‘machines’ available to humans. They take the strain off the human back and arms. Used with other techniques animals can raise human living standards very considerably both as supplementary foodstuffs (protein in meat and milk) and as carrying machines, plough animals, working to lift water, grind grain. Since they are so obviously of great benefit, we might expect to find that over the centuries humans would increase the number and quality of the animals they kept. Surprisingly, this has not usually been the case.

In Japan domesticated animals were quite widely used in the period up to about 1600. There were large numbers of horses and oxen. After that, as the population grew, the animals were gradually replaced by human labour. By the later nineteenth century there were practically no large domestic animals in the intensive rice growing areas of central Japan. All the land was being used to grow crops so there was nowhere for the animals to be kept. In any case human labour was cheaper.

I saw this process happening over a very short period of a couple of generations in a Nepalese village. In the middle of the twentieth century there were large numbers of buffaloes, cows, sheep, goats, oxen and other animals providing milk, meat, manure and plough animals. By the end of the century three quarters of the animals had disappeared. People could no longer ‘afford’ to keep them. It was cheaper to hire a man to carry goods up to the village, a five hour walk up a steep mountain, than to keep or hire a mule.

It was not only in Asia that this was happening. It is possible to see the same pattern over many parts of western Europe. For instance in France, the animal energy available per head in terms of oxen, horses, sheep and goats was higher in the thirteenth than the eighteenth century. It seems a law of nature that animals are replaced by humans and that people have to turn from a protein rich to a carbohydrate diet.
Animals are in many ways a luxury. Only the relatively well off can afford them. Poverty edges them out. A son will replace a donkey or ox, carry goods on his back or dig with a hoe or spade rather than plough with an animal. Domesticated animals have no collective bargaining power.

Why does ‘more’ often lead to ‘less’?

Animals are just one example. The use of wind, water, wheels, gunpowder, rather than increasing as civilizations grew in population and sophistication tended to decline. Almost everywhere human labour replaced every other form of power. A form of virtual, and sometimes actual, slavery was the answer.

Sometimes this concentration on human labour was increased by the ecological conditions in a civilization, and particularly by the nature of the staple crop. Some crops, such as wheat, encourage the use of animals in ploughing and mills in grinding. Others, like rice, encourage the use of humans in planting, weeding and cutting, and human labour in the process of threshing and de-husking.

Rice also has the special ability to increase the population size since the usual law by which, after a certain point, extra work brings less and less reward, was slow to act. Extra children improve the output of rice for a considerable time. Furthermore, much of the fertilizing of the rice plants is done by natural processes in the water so that less animal manure is needed. The decline of domesticated animals has a less harmful effect than it does with wheat, maize and barley. Growing wet rice encourages hard work, rather than the move towards non-human power, that is to say industrialization.

Rice is such a fruitful grain that it tempts people down a dangerous path. Temptation also comes from other plants such as bamboo, which is so wonderfully versatile that it inhibits the use of other woods and metals. Likewise the paper mulberry saved much of Asia from developing the much more difficult rag-based paper of the west. Yet it was the effort of pounding the rags which helped the development of machinery and water power. So there was a vast difference between a bamboo and paper civilization, such as China and Japan, and a wood and stone civilization such as western Europe.

In Asia, nature provided the raw tools which merely had to be shaped. In the west, nature was stingier and more effort had to be put into making the substitutes in glass and iron and stone. Yet the extra effort and increased knowledge paid off in the longer term.

For most of history, the Asian solution was far more effective in bringing a reasonable standard of living to many millions of people. In the end, however, it was the path through coal, iron and steam which led to our modern world of industry.

That many of us no longer have to labour for long hours in the fields is a merciful release and a giant accident. The changes which occurred in one small island in the eighteenth century was the second great productive revolution in human history, equal to the domestication of animals and plants. It is very recent and it still only alleviates the stress of hard physical work for less than half of those who live on this planet.

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