"Whenever surplus wealth accumulates in any society, whenever people emerge from a cooperative subsistence economy, some portion of the population will do everything it can to exploit the labor of the rest of the people in as pitiless a manner as possible. This is true whether it be the slaveholders of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the antebellum American South; or the feudal aristocracy of medieval Europe; or the financial moguls of modern capitalist society." - Michael Parenti
French economist Thomas Piketty ‘s book “Capital in the 21st Century,” is now selling out at amazon so fast that used copies are being sold for $70 or more each. In addition, the book continues to set off a firestorm of media commentary in places as disparate as the New York Times Review of Books to the National Review.. In the book, Piketty painstakingly reconstructs the last couple of centuries of wealth and income inequality in the world and provides cogent theories to explain the origin and dynamics. He uses those theories and projections about future growth to predict what the next century of inequality will look like, and it’s not a pretty picture. Among other things, we will see the further rise of inheritance (for do nothing rich scions) as a major player in economic fortunes.
Worse, inheritance delivers a powerful head start for the rich who merely have to become rentiers – parking their loot in some family friendly fund – to have it grow and grow. They can then use it to leverage business deals or even start businesses – and mostly automate them so they don’t have to hire flesh and blood workers and pay benefits.
Is all of this really new? Not really! Though Piketty makes the excessive accumulation of wealth to be some newfangled phenomenon, it really isnt’. As Douglas Rushkoff observes in his earlier book, LIFE, INC- How Corporations Conquered the World, economies of scarcity were engineered into Western European societies from the Middle Ages. Nearly all the nasty events, including the bubonic plague which wiped out a third of
How did this occur? Rushkoff is detailed in his explanations, but it basically can be reduced to the deliberate elimination of local currencies. The first destabilization transpired in the 1290s when “
The effect was nasty and brutish, as within ten years the population had reversed to a decline as standards of living fell. With those lowered standards of living the quality of living conditions themselves deteriorated with cleanliness and waste disposal the first casualty. No surprise that by the time the plague hit, a dramatic decline in population was already under way – and conditions deteriorated to the basest.
“Unable to earn a living on their farms or in towns, people migrated to cities for jobs as unskilled day laborers in dirty and dangerous workshops. With less money to spare, towns made fewer investments in basic sanitation. The increase in forced loyalty to central patriarchal authorities ,,,,led to the repression of folk remedies and women’s access to work. As a result people’s access to health care diminished as well. Superstition rose, witches and other suspicious characters burned and communities turned against themselves.
In the meantime, the central monetary authorities raked in the wealth, often from confiscated properties of all those forced to live outside the privileged system. Many of these had died in penury. Indeed, Rushkoff notes that “ten percent of
In other words, the centralized currency system cast the population into destitution and “
Rushkoff explains (p. 171) that what we call the “Renaissance” wasn’t a true Renaissance at all but a false one that just marked the end of the plague whereby “a small group exploited monetary policy to accumulate massive wealth.” This wealth would then allow them to hire labor at any wage they wished, but usually payable just above survival level.
The real Renaissance, meanwhile, was “a period of bottom up prosperity and abundance facilitated by the co-existence of multiple currencies.”
Why eliminate them? Because by doing so the nefarious path was paved to scarcity and hoarding, both of which benefited the wealthiest - who were simultaneously able to generate the most scarcity (by monopolizing job choices, pay, resources) as well as hoarding - whether currency or resources. More discussion of this to follow in Part II.