1000 – 1750 AD: The Birth of Global Commerce

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Episode 31: The Advent of Global Commerce

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin explores the gradual transition to global commerce that occurred between 1000 and 1750 AD.

He credits the major technological innovations of the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) in southern China with a major role in this process. With the shrinkage of the territory under their control, this Song began relying on trade, rather than tribute, as their major source of government funding. For this reason, they generously subsidized new  technological innovations with potential for improving export trade. Major inventions during this period included paper money, movable type printing, agricultural terracing (of entire mountains), gunpowder, sophisticated silk reeling machines and advanced irrigation technology. It would be another 600 years before these technologies would appear in Europe (a mostly illiterate backwater mired in continuous civil wars).

During this period, Benjamin maintains, European progress was slow owning to what he refers to as a “Malthusian cycle.” Between 800-1200 AD, a warmer, wetter European climate increased both agricultural output and population. Between 1400-1700 AD (the “Little Ice Age”), temperatures plummeted and crops failed. Famine combined with the Black Death (starting in the 1340s) would kill 30-50% in many European towns and cities.

With reduced tax take stemming from declining populations, European governments also sought to expand foreign trade as a way of funding government. The Portuguese were the first to establish trade networks with Asia in the 16th century. After 1600, the British and Dutch joined the lucrative Indian Ocean trade. In the 16th and 17th century the Portuguese and Spanish carved out huge empires in Central and South America, destroying the Inca and Aztec empires.

The silver the Spanish mined in Peru would form the basis of a global banking system that would ultimately finance global trade.

During the 16th century, China’s own population grew rapidly due to the introduction of corn, sweet potatoes and peanuts from the New World. After the Chinese government demanded that all taxes be paid in silver, most Spanish silver ended up in China. Some was transported by Spanish sailors to the Philippines, where Chinese merchants sold them silks and porcelain. Some reached China via bankers who used it to finance their Indian Ocean trade.

The triangular trade involving African slaves and plantation crops (sugar, tobacco and cotton) would be a key source of European wealth.

The discovery of new peoples (in in the Americas, Australia and the Pacific) not mentioned in the Bible led to growing intellectual skepticism, as scholars such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo and Isaac Newton claiming a need to base knowledge on empirical evidence rather than the study of ancient texts. The adoption of so-called scientific method in Europe would lead to a “scientific revolution,” driven in part by warring European states in search of new military technologies.

Gutenberg’s introduction (to Europe) of the moveable type printing press* in 1439 contributed to the speed of scientific innovation. By 1600, Europe had printed nearly 200 million books.

By 1700, global trade was large enough that most European governments derived their income from taxes on trade. Yet as late as 1750, most of the world was directly involved in agriculture, with only 10-20% living in cities and towns. This changed with Europe’s enactment of a series of Enclosures Acts starting in the late 1600s. Roughly 50% pf the rural population would be driven off land they farmed communally and forced to take up menial work in the cities and towns.


*The moveable type printing press was first invented in Korea during the 11th century.

Can be viewed free on Kanopy.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/advent-global-commerce

Grand Theft World: A New Propaganda Research Resource

Mouse Utopia and the Blackest Pill – #PropagandaWatch

Directed by James Corbett 2020

Film Review

The main purpose of this documentary is to debunk the fear of overpopulation popularized by British East Indian Company agent Thomas Malthus in 1798 and Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb.

Corbett begins by examining a series of “Mouse Utopia” experiments researcher John B Calhoun conducted for the National Institutes of Mental Health in the 1960s. In Calhoun’s experiments, colonies of mice enjoyed immediate gratification of all their physical needs except for living space. As colonies got more and more overcrowded, the mice became increasing self-focused. They eventually ceased all social interaction, including reproduction, and eventually died out.

Corbett first learned about the Mouse Utopia experiments from a Grant Theft World, a new research resource on propaganda. According to Grand Theft World, the primary funder of Calhoun’s Mouse Utopia experiments was the Rockefeller Foundation. The same foundation produced Scenarios for the Future of Technology and International Development, the original source of the novel proposal to use lockdowns* to control pandemics. (See https://evolveconsciousness.org/rockefeller-authoritarian-lockdown-document-from-2010-for-world-pandemic-response/).

The film goes on to explore  how numerous researchers and foundations have subsequently applied Calhoun’s Mouse Utopia findings to human culture, to help promulgate the myth that the world is hopelessly overpopulated. Many of these ideas found their way into fictional books and films  apocalypse driven by overcrowding in the sixties and seventies.**

Corbett also links the 1972 Club of Rome report Limits to Growth to overpopulation mania, but I’m not sure I agree with him. In addition to addressing population growth, Limits to Growth also raises concerns about depletion of non-renewable resources and environmental degradation.***


*2020 was the first time in history lockdowns (ie quarantining healthy people) were used to control the spread of contagious illness.

**Corbett gives the example of the 1973 Soylent Green an ecological dystopian thriller about the year 2022, in which the cumulative effects of overpopulation, pollution and some apparent climate catastrophe have caused severe worldwide shortages of food, water and housing.

***The Club of Rome is an elite roundtable group consisting current and former heads of state and government, UN administrators, high-level politicians and government officials, diplomats, scientists, economists, and business leaders. According to the abstract, rapid population growth was only one of five parameters (along with accelerating industrialization, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources and a deteriorating environment) MIT scientists commissioned by the Club of Rome considered in their complex system modeling experiments. See https://www.isprambiente.gov.it/files/agenda21/1972-the-limits-to-growth.pdf

Nixon’s Guaranteed Basic Income Proposal

nixon

Imagine my recent surprise on learning Republican president Richard Nixon, in 1968, was on the verge of enacting an unconditional income for all poor families. It would have guaranteed a family of four $1,600 a year, equivalent to roughly $10,000 in 2016. Here we have yet another historical event that’s been conveniently erased from US history books.

Nixon began by commissioning a study involving a little over 8,500 Americans in cities around the country. Researchers attempted to answer three questions: (1) Would people work significantly less with a guaranteed income? (2) Would the program cost too much? (3) Would it prove politically unfeasible?

Outcomes were surprisingly favorable. Hours of work decreased only slightly and allowed for an increase in other useful activities, such as searching for better jobs or working in the home. Among youth, almost all the reduced work hours were used for education. In New Jersey, the rate of high school graduation for participants rose thirty percent.

Polls showed that 90 percent of US newspapers were enthusiastic about unconditional income for poor families. The Chicago Sun Times called it “A Giant Leap Forward,” the Los Angeles Times “a bold new blueprint.” The National Council of Churches, the labor unions, and even the corporate sector were also all in favor.

In 1970 it seemed that the time for a basic income had well and truly arrived.

With 243 votes for and 155 against, the House of Representative approved President Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP) on April 16, 1970. Most expected the plan to pass the Senate, too, which was even more progressive than the House. Sadly the Senate killed it.

Writing in Jacobin,Rutger Bregman describes how Nixon adviser Martin Anderson cunningly scuttled Nixon’s guaranteed basic income proposal. A great admirer of libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand, Anderson widely circulated excerpts from sociologist Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book The Great Transformation. The latter describes a historical system similar to Nixon’s proposed basic income: the Speenhamland system enacted in 1795 to alleviate rural poverty in Britain.

In addition to summarizing a Royal Commission Report highlighting Speenhamland’s adverse effects  on both the poor and the community, Polyani cites prominent 19th century economists, such as Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo and Karl Marx, who all roundly condemned the Speenhamland experiment.

It now turns out the Royal Commission Report was based on flawed methodology and essentially fabricated.

Read more about Nixon’s guaranteed income plan, the Royal Commission Report and the devastating impact of dismantling Speenhamland and replacing it with the heinous 1834 Poor Law.

 

The Innate Sloth and Indolence of the Working Class

Invention

The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation

By Michael Perelman
Duke University Press (2000)

Download Free PDF

The Invention of Capitalism is about the origin of an economic concept known as “primitive accumulation.” Marx defined primitive accumulation as the process by which precapitalist modes of production, such as feudalism and chattel slavery, are transformed into the capitalist mode of production. Using the term somewhat differently, Perelman describes it as the brutal process by which government denies peasants the means of subsistence to force them into wage labor.

Tracing the rise of capitalism in the 18th and 19th century, the Invention of Capitalism also studies the origin of the concept in the work of classical economists, such as Adam Smith, Ricardo and Malthus.

Forcing Workers to Accept Wage Labor

Nearly all the 18th century economists and social philosophers seem to agree that workers never voluntarily accept wage labor so long they have alternative means of providing for themselves. They all acknowledge, either directly or indirectly, that it’s natural for human beings to prefer “self-provisioning,” in which they own or rent a piece of land to produce their own food, clothing, fuel and other necessities. In addition to allowing them more control over their work, there is more leisure time associated with this lifestyle, as well as strong community ties that disappear with wage labor. Unless brutal force must be applied to strip people of the ability to provide for themselves, they never voluntarily agree to wage labor.

In Britain, “primitive accumulation” was largely accomplished through the Enclosure Acts, the Poor Laws and the Game Laws. The Enclosure Acts drove peasants off large tracts of land they had farmed communally for thousands of years; the Poor Laws forced disposed peasants into poorhouses and workhouses; and the Game Acts denied them the right to hunt (ie poach) or gather berries, firewood etc on unoccupied land.

Capitalism developed more slowly in Scotland, France, Italy, Spain and the British colonies, where the ruling elite was less savage in stripping the peasantry of access to land. These regions enjoyed a long transition in which factory workers performed wage labor and self-provisioning simultaneously, by raising crops and chickens and engaging in spinning and other crafts in their leisure time.

The Innate Sloth and Indolence of Workers

As Perelman quite ably demonstrates, most classical economists gloss over the brutal force required to establish a successful capitalist economic system. A few of the lesser known political economists (Perelman focuses in Sir James Steuart, one of Adam Smith’s rivals) are honest about need for laws that prevent workers from self-provisioning. They blame the need for such laws on an innate tendency towards “sloth and indolence” in workers and peasants (and indigenous peoples).

Perelman devotes special attention to the Scottish economist Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, as well as the political economists and social philosophers who influenced Smith’s work. He also explores attitudes toward primitive accumulation in the work of Marx, Benjamin Franklin, Lenin and Mao Tse Tung. The forceful primitive accumulation that industrialized the Soviet Union and Communist China occurred much more rapidly than in Western Europe or North America. This makes the Soviet and Chinese process appear much more savage. However a close look at British history suggests they were far more brutal, especially in Ireland and the colonies, than either the Chinese or Soviets.

Yields Drop Under Commercial Agriculture

The part of the book I found most interesting concerns the drop in crop yields that occurred with the shift from labor intensive “spade labor” to commercial agriculture employing horse driven plows and eventually farm machinery. This corresponds closely with modern research showing that plowing reduces yields by destroying soil fertility. Then, as now, it’s clear that the goal of commercial agriculture isn’t to produce more food but to extract more profit from other people’s work.

A Return to Self-Provisioning

Perelman’s research seems especially significant in the face of growing unemployment and part time and casual labor. A growing number of unemployed and part time workers use their enforced leisure time to plant veggie gardens, collect rainwater, preserve their own food and make their own clothes and cleaning and beauty products. In other words, the cycle of primitive accumulation is being reversed, as more and more people leave formal employment and return to self-provisioning.