By Ryan Salisbury
A glut of capitalist propaganda and apologism, techno-optimism, and scientific utopianism has left us with the unforgettable cliché that thanks to the social, technological, and scientific progress of the last few hundred years, we are all better off. Any criticism of the state capitalist system must contend with the undeniable fact that our lives have improved dramatically compared to the backwards and brutal system of medieval feudalism, all thanks to the social reforms and innovations brought about by capitalism. It is quite easy to find even radical anti-capitalists that will reluctantly nod in agreement over this frequently-regurgitated platitude, but much harder to find those who have actually taken a critical look over it. Just about the only group who has questioned this assertion are the nutty anarcho-primitivists, which for most people simply reinforces the strength of the affirmative argument. How much “better off” are we, really? Is it really true that we modern peasants are dramatically better off than feudal peasants, and is any of this thanks to capitalism or its technological landscape?
The very basics of our quality of life should be examined according to our access to the very basics of human life—food, water, and shelter.
The beginning of the industrial revolution was the capitalist agricultural revolution; here our food-producing infrastructure changed radically from its feudal form, becoming much more productive than under the medieval regime thanks to improved technologies and the concentration of agricultural land through enclosure. At least, that’s the way most people understand it—a closer examination reveals that enclosure, and most of the other changes alleged to compose the agricultural revolution, actually did very little for productivity, or even for the economy. Most of the increases in productivity were thanks to the strengthening of the rights of the yeoman—peasant family farmers with firm rights over their land and produce. Other increases in productivity could be attributed to the increase in utilization, or the ratio of productive workers to idle workers; in other words, idleness was less tolerated in a more hierarchical work situation. The elimination of idleness will be expanded upon later.
Since the commodification of food, access to food has become more costly for society’s peasants. Since the commodification of food, the price of food has increased continuously, only becoming more affordable to those lucky enough to be on the receiving end of wage increases. Since the commodification of food, the wastage of food has increased to such a degree that dumpster diving in the city could support hundreds or perhaps even thousands of families. In total, food waste is proportionally almost half of all food production, which does not even consider the proportion of food crops which is used to produce utterly inferior biofuels. It is quite likely that in taking those two together, we could rid the world entirely of want for food.
The diet under the capitalist system is unique in its composition, often being called the “western diet”, but the “capitalist diet” would probably be more accurate. Under the capitalist diet, most people, more than four in five, experience malnutrition. Despite our modern understanding of diet, and the billions that have been spent in the scientific development of agriculture and dietary science, most people lack vitamins D and E, and a large proportion lack magnesium, calcium, and vitamin A. It is thanks to the capitalist diet that we do not eat the basic vegetables that would supply all these nutrients. The primary characteristic of the capitalist diet is immense quantities of corn, and meat fed by corn; the diet is taken to a comical degree in the modern “paleo” diet, which supposes that our ancient ancestors were both the perpetrators of animal genocide and somehow had an abundant supply of tree nuts, contrary to the reality of hunter-gatherers, who primarily ate berries, tubers, and bitter greens, and secondarily ate meat. Medieval peasants, also unlike the “paleos”, had a relatively balanced diet, with a higher calorie and nutritional content than our highly-sophisticated diet of corn and animal flesh grown by corn.
The production of food, similarly, has turned into an absurd contradiction of advanced science and inefficacy: Our agricultural system today uses more external, synthetic inputs than ever, while producing more waste than ever. The amount of synthetic nitrogen added to the soil, which could be entirely replaced by planting edible legumes, or weeds such as clover, is so great that it’s actually disrupting ecosystems. Phosphorous is in a similar category, except unlike nitrogen, many scientists suggest that we are actually in danger of running out of its artificial, mineral source, resulting in widespread food crisis should no adequate replacement be found. The two together can cause effects such as eutrophication, resulting in algae blooms and anoxia, which disrupt the situation of biodiversity in aquatic environments. This does not even consider pesticide and herbicide use, each of which now numbers in the millions of tons, while the targets of such poisons grow increasingly resistant to it. Similarly, animal husbandry is the chief source of antibiotics use, while it also produces more than anything else diseases resistant to such treatments. The waste problem in agriculture is quite more repulsive, with megatons of compostable plant materials ending up in landfills, and animal farms producing rivers of shit. On the whole, agriculture is unequivocally the chief contributor to climate change, biodiversity loss, and all other forms of ecological devastation.
The water situation is quite a bit simpler than that of food, which is so complex in its horribleness that it’s impossible to cover in its entirety in such an article. But this is not to suggest that the water situation is any better today, which is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. In The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin notes: Communism (as in everyday communism) “prevails in [ . . . ] the distribution of one commodity at least, which is found in abundance, the water supplied to each house.” Since the 19th century, water has been increasingly enclosed, often by such force that many have termed the enclosure process the “water wars.” This has been aided, in recent years, by laws that penalize the collection of rainwater, considering it a violation of building codes not to be connected to the municipal water supply, or worse, theft under the law. In other places, air and water pollution exists to such a degree as to make rain or well water collection dangerous, putting residents at the whims of water treatment plants thanks to the nearby factory owners who have no interest in the health of the local populations.
The process of privatization and pollution gives capitalists yet another advantage: They are able to charge whatever they want for the most essential substance of sustenance, and of course the good capitalist will take advantage of this situation. The result, once again, is less for the peasant and more for the lord, or in many cases, water becomes the more expensive commodity compared to something the new lord is more interested in selling, such as Coca-Cola. In the privatization of water we have seen the viciousness that the capitalists are willing to deploy to defend the sources of their profits. The riots in Cochabamba, Bolivia are the archetypal example, with the government deploying heavily armed, heavily armored troops against a population defending their right to fulfill their thirst with the same water supplies they have always used.
One of the commonly-cited advantages of the private property system of course, is its ability to efficiently and rationally ration provisions so that shortages are not experienced. We hear this time and again from the right wing, the apologists, the economists, and the bosses, that this, above all, is why private property is necessary, that this is why socialism will ultimately fail, why socialism has failed. Yet it is in the highly capitalist countries where drought has recently become most worrisome, where water supplies have run short thanks to massive water use by bottling companies, animal agriculture, monstrous data centers, fracking operations, and the rest of industry. The phenomenon of the sinkhole is symbolic of not only the provision of water under a capitalist system, but could represent the capitalist system as a whole, which proudly exploits every microgram of raw material at as close to light speed as possible, describing this velocity as “efficiency” and the result as increasing quality of life.
Thanks to one of the most massive failures in capitalism’s “dismal” history, housing is somewhat more affordable, but this is a humorously relative statement. Housing prices have increased manifold over any timescale take, rendering houses unaffordable to anyone except those with the knowledge to build them on their own or willing to submit themselves to the mercy of the bankers. As in the 19th century, it’s not because of the labor that went into the house, the materials that form the house, or the increased utility of the house that form its value, but the potential profit that could be generated from the house that result in its exorbitant price. It’s thanks to the relation of the house to the rest of society, and the ability to profit from the house’s resale that those wealthy enough are willing to pay such a price for it.
Despite the apparently high value of many houses, many other houses sit unoccupied for years, unwanted, yet scarcely more affordable than those highly-coveted ones, and no more available to those in need of shelter, either. The design of modern homes has changed over the years, such that these empty homes often need to be powered and climate-controlled, otherwise they will develop molds or pests, and their grass lawns must be manicured lest they develop weeds. Each empty home represents not just wasted construction and wasted resources, but also an act of violence toward each homeless person prevented from living there with the sticks and guns of the proprietarians.
Despite each part of a Western home improving in its performance and efficiency, between the foundation, the frame, the walls, the roof, the windows, the doors, the pipes, the ventilation, the electricity, the heat, and the cool, houses have become no more material, water, or energy-efficient than their medieval counterparts, last no longer, and are often hardly more comfortable. This is all thanks to the commodification and contractification of construction, where each part of a house, each component of each part, each design of each concern, each installation of each concern, and the whole assembly of each house, are all done by independent and isolated companies and contractors who have no tendency or interest in coordinating with one another to build quality homes. Because of the high prices, the focus is entirely on cost, convenience, and aesthetic, with no mind to longevity, efficacy, or efficiency.
Despite the infrastructure of the basics worsening, surely other areas of quality of life have increased: We have a longer lifespan, more leisure time, we are more socially connected, and our increasing specialization has given us a higher purpose in life! After all, this is economics, and economics is all about trade-offs, so if we take a small cost in one area, we could have an immense benefit in another.
Certainly our lifespan has increased. What most people mean when they say this is that “life expectancy” has increased, which is not quite the same; while our maximum lifespan has indeed grown beyond that of medieval times, the change is not as dramatic as that of life expectancy. The devil is in the details when it comes to life expectancy, because it does not describe merely the average age that an adult dies, but also includes infant mortality. In other words, this measure of “average lifespan” is extremely susceptible to the number of infants that die. It’s the latter that is responsible for the bulk of the change in life expectancy, and there are just three changes that are responsible for nearly the entirety of the difference: Hand-washing, antibiotics, and vaccination.
Hand-washing was discovered to have been an important practice for doctors by Ignaz Semmelweis, who examined differences in infant mortality rates between two clinics in his town; he realized that doctors in one clinic, who performed autopsies and then delivered babies had a much higher incidence of child mortality, compared to the midwives of the other clinic, who only delivered babies. Semmelweis suggested that doctors have some sort of essence of death, which we now know to be pathogens, which was spread to the babies due to the lack of sanitation. This may seem obvious to us now, but in Semmelweis’s time, this was widely regarded as quackery, and Semmelweis died insane and alone in an asylum, having been ridiculed for his discovery.
Antibiotics have a long history, going all the way back to the original literate societies, or perhaps beyond. It has long been known that mold (or in Russia, warm soil) was a useful treatment for wounds, with soldiers carrying bread or oil cakes with them to treat their wounds in battle. Many scholars, apothecaries, and scientists, well before the vaunted “discovery” by Alexander Fleming, noted the use of molds in staving off bacteria, with increasing specificity until Fleming’s study. Today, antibiotics are primarily used to prevent disease in concentrated animal farming operations (CAFOs), and as a result, are becoming increasingly ineffective in the treatment of infections. We now observe, in increasing amounts, resistance to antipathogenic drugs by staphylococci, enterococci, gonoccoci, streptococci, salmonella, and tuberculosis. Now, and soon in increasing degree thanks to climate change, this resistance is transferrable between species thanks to “horizontal gene transfer”, where diseases do the neighborly thing to one another and provide the gift of drug resistance.
Vaccination, originally an evolution of innoculation attributed to the wits of Edward Jenner, has all but eliminated the most heinous diseases that have plagued us for centuries, such as measles, mumps, smallpox, malaria, influenza, and so on. In the Western world, we have all but rendered extinct these diseases, at least until now. Thanks to a small group of disgusting “entrepreneurs” eager to exploit the psychological weaknesses of ordinary people, and a widely-refuted, retracted study on the MMR vaccine, one in three young adult parents in the United States believe that vaccines cause autism in children, and we have since had the largest outbreak of measles in decades, with no signs of the anti-vaxxer movement slowing down yet. This, on top of the other pernicious effects of capitalism on medicine, such as the existence of diseases we have eradicated in the third world, thanks to their inability to pay for the vaccines we produce here in the West, whose production carries almost no cost. It is because vaccine research, and the resulting vaccines themselves, are private property that there is any concern to begin with over “recuperating research costs”, as apologists cite as the reason for charging far more than the cost of production to the receivers of these medicines.
Leisure time seems to be far and above one of the most oft-cited improvements we have experienced in quality of life since medieval times. According to the modern view, derived ultimately from that of Thomas Hobbes, the life of the medieval peasant was “brutish”, with peasants working 16-hour days, toiling in service of their lord and king, giving away most of their produce in taxes. On the contrary, one of the earliest movements in the political economics of the 18th and 19th centuries, one which had a wide consensus and as much vitriol as today’s right-wing distaste for “entitled” welfare recipients, was the idea that peasant farmers were lazy because they only worked about half the year. Medieval peasants enjoyed numerous religious holidays, over 150 of them in European countries. These were gradually eliminated, most prominently by following Voltaire’s suggestion of moving them all to Sundays, which was already a day of rest for peasants. “Yes, that may be,” you think, “but they still worked 16-hour days, and they gave most of their produce to the royals.” While it is true that peasant farmers were out in the field for up to 16 hours in a day, do not mistake it for 16 hours of toil. This time included up to 8 hours of mealtimes and napping, and was work done at a pace much more leisurely than that during and after the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The rent paid to the lord by serfs, which does not include the free peasantry, was comparable or far less than that paid to the bourgeois landlords following primitive accumulation. Taxes were even less, for as even Kropotkin notes, it was extremely unlikely for a peasant to ever see a government official or pay a tax. While it is important not to romanticize the working life of peasants, this goes both ways, and the image many of us have of the filth-covered, hunch-backed peasants performing hours and hours of exhausting manual labor is a much more accurate depiction of industrial wage work.
The work itself involved comradery with neighbors, as medieval agriculture took place in the commons, and neighbors intimately depended on and worked with one another. This sort of work can still be seen in some parts of the world, and is depicted in literary works involving peasant farmers, such as in Dostoyevsky: The difficult work of farming was done in big groups, and typically involved neighbors getting drunk together and singing as they worked. The culture of many traditional alcoholic beverages, if they did not revolve around marriage, revolved around neighborly coworking. In contrast, work today is lonely, increasingly lonely, as we are pushed into telework schedules, reducing the cost of capital and the possibility of worker organization. Today we have numerous high-tech devices and specialized venues for people to socialize, to repair the damage done by commodity relations, specialization, and suburbanization. These fixes can even exacerbate the problem, leading to even more extreme fixes, such as the ever-more utilized medication to cure social anxiety, a problem which can only exist in the context of the normalcy of social isolation.
|Fig. 2: Art by Ryan Salisbury.|
Meanwhile, our work has become increasingly meaningless and alienating. No one within the capitalist system, from the richiest, rothschildiest, richie rich to the most destitute, groveling, dirt-eating slave, has any real control over what they produce. From the bottom, production is determined by the top, and from the top, production is determined by the market, and in both cases, even cognition is shaped by the demands of capital and the market. For all of us in between, we are limited to merely being one small part in an ever-growing whole, either toiling at a job that we ourselves consider pointless and unnecessary, or providing support for those that do. “Work” today does not mean providing for oneself or for others, but the production of commodities. For those of us lucky enough to do something that we enjoy, the demands of the market make even this enjoyable work stressful and agonizing, rendering an activity as trite and fun as baking cupcakes into a mission-critical operation to maximize profits. It’s important not to rest on one’s laurels, and this is especially true when there is no accolade to celebrate in the first place. The labor movement of the 19th and 20th century certainly won us some improvements over the industrial capitalist hell that emerged prior, but since then, we have seen no substantial improvements in our lives. The peasantry of today is qualitatively little better off than that of the Middle Ages. The march toward post-scarcity might even be considered the recovery of pre-scarcity, the revenge of the yeoman, or the trek backwards from a long walk in the wrong direction. The gewgaws and doodads of industrial capitalism are no substitute for our liberty and sustenance. We are being buffaloed and bought off by those privileged bums and their bumbling bilge which proclaims we are “better off”. Better off we are not, but certainly we could be with liberatory technology and social ecology.
 From www.nuffield.ox.ac.uk/users/allen/yeoman.pdf (http://cc4.co/FZKJID): Describes how most of the benefits of the agricultural revolution came at the hands of the free peasants, not the capitalists or the monarchs.
 From http://people.eku.edu/resorc/Medieval_peasant_diet.htm (http://cc4.co/EXIRC). Medieval peasants were typically farmers who did a lot of manual labor, so of course, they ate a lot of healthy food. We aren’t, and don’t.
 p.56: Kropotkin’s description resembles today’s public water infrastructure with no prices.
 Kropotkin pp.69-70: Kropotkin describes a relational theory of value here. Unlike the individual receiver perspective of subjective theory of value, or the individual producer perspective of labor theory of value, the relational view is a social ecology perspective that is the heart of the science of “transferics”.
 From The Invention of Capitalism, Michael Perelman, 2000; p.18