Memoirs from beyond the tomb
from Peter Radford
Right at the end of his book called “Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb” Chateaubriand gives us a remarkable insight into our current troubles. I wonder whether we will solve them or whether we will simply write an addendum to his book.
He asks, for instance:
“Is it possible for a political system to subsist, in which some individuals have so many millions a year while other individuals are dying of hunger, when religion is no longer there with its other-worldly hopes to explain the sacrifice?”
A little later, with respect to the spread of education downward in society, he goes on :
“The excessive disproportion of conditions and fortunes was endurable as long as it remained concealed; but as soon as this disproportion was generally perceived, the old order received its death-blow. Recompose the aristocratic fictions if you can; try to convince the poor man, once he has learnt to read and ceased to believe, once he has become as well informed as yourself, try to convince him that he must submit to every sort of privation, while his neighbor possesses a thousand times what he needs: as a last resource you will have to kill him.”
Chateaubriand, as we know, lived through a great transition in society. He was born in the last days of the old order, lived through its overthrow, through the subsequent tumult, through wars and revolutions, and then through the first stages of the rise of democracy. He was hardly a democrat, but he saw clearly the social adjustment being made in consequence to industrialization. He finished this book in 1841, ahead of the great upheavals of 1848 and ahead of the development of ideas far more radical than even those he was familiar with.
He follows up with this paragraph:
“When steam has been perfected and when, linked with the telegraph and the railways, it has destroyed distances, we shall see not only merchandise travel but also ideas, restored to the use of their wings. When fiscal and commercial barriers between the various States have been abolished, as they have been already been abolished between the provinces of a single State, and when different countries, in daily contact with one another, seek to promote the unity of all nations, how can you hope to resuscitate the old type of separation?”
Then he delivers perhaps his most prescient thought:
“Imagine labor condemned to idleness by reason of the multiplication and variety of new machines; picture to yourselves a single mercenary matter replacing the mercenaries of farm and household: what will you do with the unemployed human race?”
There is so much here for us to think about. We ought not pretend we have answered Chateaubriand. Instead we ought to remain in silence while we absorb that these words, written in 1841, sound so imminently urgent.
They speak straight to our most important dilemmas: what are we to make of, and do about, the rise in inequality in our society? And what, if anything, are we to do about the apparent decline in the need for work brought about by the unceasing invasion of technology into our prior lives? And are these two great trends that threaten to undermine what we know as our current social organization somehow linked?
In the great cloud of dust raised in reaction to Piketty’s work on inequality most effort seemed to me to be picayune. It reflected perfectly our over-emphasis on technical nit-picking and ever more detailed parsing of words. It failed lamentably to latch onto the meta-theme that some change is afoot and that this change has within it the power to undo our most cherished triumphs of the past two hundred or so years: the rise of democracy and the extension of dignity on a more equal basis throughout our society.
It became clear to me throughout the discussion Piketty inspired that much of economics, conceived as it was during the early years of our march toward democracy, totally ignored the later triumph. Indeed, as you know, I think much of economics is relentlessly anti-democratic: it relies on an old and fusty definition of individualism that sits uneasily in a modern complex and interrelated world. It seems to defend plutocracy and ignore the emotions, and the right to a dignified equality, of those who provide the labor within its ridiculous ‘production functions’. This equality is not absolute of course, but it assuredly more relative than that we now witness.
More specifically: as capital displaces labor in more and more aspects of our economy what are we to do about the disruption that it implies between the continuing accrual of wealth and its dispersal throughout society.
When Chateaubriand wrote he could not have foreseen the great advances the machinery he mentions would bring, nor the great leap forward in wellbeing experienced by the descendants of the workers he observed, but he saw instinctively that, unless new opportunities open up, as in the transition from agriculture to industry as the dominant force in society, we will be faced with a crisis of work. For it is work that is now less valued and capital that is more highly valued.
The elimination of, or reduction in demand for, work is a noble goal: it allows us to project a time when we are all released from a demeaning tedious life and can bask in one more rewarding. Or so the idealists would tell us. But will our current social and political arrangements withstand the shock of Chateaubriand’s “unemployed human race”? Do we need to re-organize to take advantage of those returns to capital and the great benefits automation bring us?
If, a few decades from now, the gap between rising productivity and stagnant returns to work has not been bridged satisfactorily will a future Chateaubriand witness and then document a reverse march backwards from democracy towards a re-establishment of absolutism. Will he, or she, lament the closure of schools and the abandonment of mass education, the necessary dumbing down of workers so that they accept an impoverished fate rather than agitate to preserve whatever is left of their heritage? Will she, or he, write of the rebirth of privilege and the subsequent overthrow of a democratic experiment then deemed to be an obstruction to the relentless pursuit of profit?
Worse: is this already happening? Is that new Chateaubriand already amongst us?