By MARK HARRIS
“The imposing edifice of society above my head holds no delights for me. It is the foundation of the edifice that interests me. There I am content to labor, crowbar in hand, shoulder to shoulder with intellectuals, idealists, and class-conscious workingmen, getting a solid pry now and again and setting the whole edifice rocking.
“Some day, when we get a few more hands and crowbars to work, we’ll topple it over, along with all its rotten life and unburied dead, its monstrous selfishness and sodden materialism. Then we’ll cleanse the cellar and build a new habitation for mankind in which there will be no parlor floor, in which all the rooms will be bright and airy, and where the air that is breathed will be clean, noble and alive….
“Last of all, my faith is in the working class. As some Frenchman has said, ‘The stairway of time is ever echoing with the wooden shoe going up, the polished boot descending.'”
-Jack London, 1906
A thousand years ago, according to some versions of popular history, Europe braced for the coming of the new millennium. Fear was in the air. Would the year 1000 not only flip the calendar page but trigger the advent of a long-foretold divine reckoning? When humanity would at last stand accountable before the celestial tribunal of an all-powerful and highly critical God?
Not surprisingly, considering the way human beings had been treating each other, fears of eternal damnation ran high. The apocalyptic fever thus gave rise to a flurry of repentance, forgiveness, and general good-deed doing. When the momentous year 1000 was finally upon them, Europeans took a collective breath and braced for the inevitable.
And then, nothing happened.
In reality, the dawn of the second millennium was not nearly so neat and tidy an exercise in historical drama. The Christian calendar at what we now consider the year 999 A.D. was at the time far from the widely accepted standard. Nor was the Arabic zero yet a part of Western mathematics.
The small matter of when a day or a week actually began was also a subject for debate. Overall, Christianity still was a rather “fragile plant” in Europe, as religious historian Karen Armstrong has noted. Thus, for most inhabitants of the globe, the year 1000 simply … was not.
The millennial fever, such as it was, actually played itself out over the course of many, sometimes messy, decades. And the apocalypse averted at century’s dawn culminated in the apocalypse realized of century’s end, in the form of slaughtered Jewish and Islamic victims of the First Christian Crusade.
Glorious wealth, skewed values
Today the world is about to enter a new millennium, at least according to the Western calendar. If it is worth anything at all, other than the inevitable marketing moment it is destined to be, perhaps the coming of the millennium offers an opportunity to consider where modern society is heading, or should be heading.
This time around the apocalyptic specter is largely focused on the technological problem of how to reset the dates on the world’s computers. No doubt it is an issue to ponder.
Yet the “Year 2000” problem appears somehow modernly mundane next to the fated and fiery visions of old. Predictions of an economy pockmarked by breakdowns and computer chaos may eventually prove prescient. But it seems reasonable that any epidemic of technological glitches will eventually and most likely be fixed.
But what cannot be fixed, at least under the present economic system, is the more fundamental glitch of modern society. And that is the division of society into economically opposed classes. Capitalism expropriates the wealth created by working people through their labor. This is the essence of the entire modern crisis of society.
Social production on a world scale is the norm. Yet the fruits of that production remain privately owned and controlled. This is the inherent contradiction of capitalism, a reality many otherwise trenchant critics of injustice hesitate to confront.
The absurdity of capitalism reveals itself in many ways, but probably no more so than in the truly obscene-and growing-disparity of wealth that defines our modern culture.
A fact: The average Nike factory worker in Indonesia would have to work 60,000 years to earn what Michael Jordan earned just in 1998 as spokesman for the shoe giant.
Another fact: Haitian factory workers, mostly women, make about 28 cents an hour sewing Pocohantas pajamas for the Disney company. Disney’s CEO, however, does a little better. He earns $97,000 an hour. Although to be fair, being a salaried employee, he is probably excluded from overtime rates.
Another, even more astounding, fact: Three hundred and fifty eight “global billionaires” had in 1995 a total wealth equal to the combined income of the world’s 2.3 billion poorest people.
Meanwhile, as Paul Farmer, MD, of Harvard Medical School, reports in the American Journal of Public Health (October 1999), an epidemic of tuberculosis among Russian jail inmates goes largely untreated because global experts consider treatment too expensive. And every day an estimated 30,000 children worldwide die of malnutrition and other preventable diseases.
This is the harsh reality of “globalization,” a sanitized term if ever there was to describe the system of entrenched structural violence that capitalism represents to the world’s impoverished peoples. There’s another, perhaps more precise term to describe the exploitative reality of the emerging global economy. It’s called imperialism.
What Kind of Future?
Is it possible to imagine a different kind of future, one in which human society transcends the “eternal” power struggles, violence, poverty, and social oppression so endemic to modern life?
This is not a question asked much in the popular media. But as we come to the close of a century whose stunning technological progress is dwarfed only by the extent to which that technology has also been used to expand the depths of human suffering, it is a question worth asking.
Is it possible to imagine a different future? Yes, it is. For history is nothing if not the story of confrontation with oppression, of the enslaved and marginalized discovering their voice and their power to uproot injustice and remake the world for the better.
Not so long ago, slavery was considered morally justified, women could not vote or open a bank account, and psychologists advised parents not to hug or kiss their babies too much. Under feudalism, it was considered dishonorable for noblemen to buy land. The “manly” thing to do was to just take your neighbor’s land, and kill him if he didn’t like it. The capitalist idea of free enterprise originally offered a kind of civilizing antidote to this mentality.
Today, corporations don’t steal people’s livelihood by outright force, they just “downsize” employees out of jobs when it suits short-term profits, if not human needs.
The fiefdoms of feudal privilege have given way to the facades of choreographed elections in which two white guys in blue suits (usually) pretend to be enemies, instead of the “evil of two lessers” filmmaker Michael Moore describes. And the illiteracy that marked the Middle Ages has evolved into a modern media culture whose modus operandi is stupefying sensationalism and conformity.
Even popular self-help author Jack Canfield (of the best-seller “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series) acknowledges a contemporary economy charged with tension, with an epidemic of stress-related illnesses, and “wretchedly soulless work” rampant.
“For those of us who choose to see,” says Canfield, “we find insecurity, fear, despair, resignation, and cynicism are at an all-time high. Catastrophic social changes are upon us and all of our systems seem to be on self-destruct. The message is ‘profits before people,’ and as a result, the dreams of a better life have become the nightmares of disappointment for far too many people.”
Uneven and Combined Development
Globally, the reality is even more stark. In his book “End of Millennium,” Manuel Castells, director of the Center for Western European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, describes the extraordinary gap between our “technological overdevelopment” and our “social underdevelopment.”
Social institutions, says Castells, remain enmeshed in values or levels of consciousness that “limit collective creativity, confiscate the harvest of information technology, and deviate our energy into self-destructive confrontation.”
The result is a paradox. A world rich in a veritable banquet of modern achievements, technological progress, and growing wealth, yet haunted by the specter of poverty and social injustice. Technology writers may glow over the brave and convenient new world of the internet consumer, yet half the world’s households remain too poor to own a telephone.
Consequently, there is growing peril in what Castells describes as the “black holes of social exclusion” spreading precipitously across the planet.
This “new geography” of exclusionism, says Castells, represents a largely forgotten world of “millions of homeless, incarcerated, prostituted, criminalized, brutalized, stigmatized, sick, and illiterate persons,” populating not only impoverished rural Africa, Latin America, and Asia, but literally every country and every city in the world. And their ranks are growing.
Perhaps no group captures the bleak reality of what globalization means for the world’s disenfranchised more than the Zapatista movement in Chiapas. As they proclaimed to the world, on the very day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed:
“We are denied the most elementary education so that they can use us as cannon fodder and plunder our country’s riches, uncaring that we are dying of hunger and curable diseases. Nor do they care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, no decent roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health, no food, no education. We do not have the right to freely and democratically elect our own authorities, nor do we have peace or justice for ourselves and our children.”
“The calculus of soul over gold”
Interestingly, the original concept of millennium referred not just to any old thousand-year period, but to the future thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. It was to be a reign inaugurated in the apocalyptic destruction of the established order and ending in the Last Judgment of all who have lived.
If the “Great Gettin’ Up Morning” has been slow in coming, however, the apocalyptic vision has nonetheless endured. And for good reason.
“Apocalypticism,” writes Stephen Jay Gould in “Questioning the Millennium,” “is the province of the wretched, the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the political radical, the theological revolutionary, and the self-proclaimed savior.”
To the oppressed Christian under the heel of the Roman Empire, the Anabaptist peasant of the 16th century, and the modern marcher for civil rights, there is a sustaining vision to the belief that the bullies and tyrants are, in fact, operating on borrowed time. The belief in a divine and imminent judgment also gives force to ethical choices favoring, as Gould remarks, the “calculus of soul over gold.”
Today, whatever judgment awaits us will be primarily of our own, collective, making. The ideas of equality and democracy, of free speech and representative government, that 300 years ago seemed radical and unproven are now in the West largely taken for granted. But we continue to face the reality of a world driven to war, divided by economic exploitation and miseries of poverty, a world in which democracy goes no further than powerful moneyed interests allow.
In his last major public address, Leon Trotsky captured the essence of the modern crisis:
“To save society,” Trotsky argued in a 1932 speech in Copenhagen, “it is not necessary either to check the development of technique, to shut down factories, to award premiums to farmers for sabotaging agriculture, to turn a third of the workers into paupers, or to call upon maniacs to be dictators. Not one of these measures, which are a shocking mockery of the interests of society, are necessary.
“What is indispensable and urgent is to separate the means of production from their present parasitic owners and to organize society in accordance with a rational plan. Then it would be possible really to cure society of its ills.
“All those able to work would find a job. The workday would gradually decrease. The wants of all members of society would secure increasing satisfaction. The words ‘property,’ ‘crisis,’ ‘exploitation,’ would drop out of circulation. Mankind would at last cross the threshold into true humanity.”
Will future generations one day look back in wonder at our age, how for so long we put up with so much pain and cruelty, war and divisiveness, such glaring contrasts of poverty and wealth? Or, will the present chaos and crises of modern capitalism descend ever further into self-destruction and an abyss of human suffering? This is the millennial challenge.
As Jack London wrote early in this century, the stairway of history echoes with the wooden shoe of the oppressed, ever ascending. Let the dawn of the new millennium be the story of how the working class found its voice and power, its revolutionary vision and leadership to at last do away with class privilege and all the social antagonisms and economic waste that the system of modern capitalism represents.
I think we can be confident that it will be.