Mankind’s most revolutionary invention was not tool-making, pottery, the wheel or even agriculture. It was work. Previously, people hunted or went hungry and, if their bellies were full, they stayed at home. Then some bright character, possibly the first politician, decided he wouldn’t hunt (except purely for pleasure) or grow vegetables (not even for pleasure) but would get someone else to do it for him. He had invented work! He had invented the exploitation of one human being by another. Instead of hunting and eating other people, it was far more efficient to put them to work. Since that day, human activity has revolved around creating new, ever more efficient systems to this end: the tribal system, feudalism, monarchy, capitalism, communism to name but just a few.
You will possibly object that work is not necessarily “exploitation” but “cooperation”, or even “specialization”, a means by which society satisfies its members’ needs and progresses socially, materially, technologically and artistically. But history doesn’t fully support such contentions: hunter-gatherers spent (and spend) less time and fewer calories producing their food and satisfying their needs than does the average office worker today. The great artists who painted the walls of the Lascaux caves thirty thousand years ago were not revered specialists, in life shown at the Tate and in death used (their works, that is) as a refuge for ill-gained capital. No, we’ve been taken for a ride. Work does not ennoble us or give us liberty, as we have been taught to believe. It does that for the chosen few who don’t actually work. And has done so for several thousand years: people have been made, by force or trickery, to produce a surplus for the dubious privilege of belonging to a complex stratified society in which they have maintained in great wealth and ostentation an aristocracy and, to a lesser degree, an armed force as well as a judicial system and a host of administrators whose primary task has always been to defend the interests of that aristocracy.
I’m not saying we don’t need leaders, scientists, schoolteachers, bankers, fulltime artists, judges and administrators: if we want to live as gregarious human beings, we do. I’m just trying to put the dots on the “i”s.
Technology is a fairly accurate measure of a society’s degree of “advancement” in so far that it is an indication of the individual’s subordination to the system. An example: when I was a lad, gypsies would come around selling the clothespegs they made. These were finger-thick twigs of ash, split halfway lengthways and with a little metal band nailed round them. A gypsy could probably make ten or twenty in an hour. Today, clothespegs are two bits of plastic joined by a spring and are possibly not touched by a human hand at all in their production and distribution. There is no pleasure or incentive for pride in the factory operators’ work. If we average things out, perhaps a thousand clothespegs represent a man-hour of work. This is what we call “productivity”: clearly a devaluation of human activity. Technology improves productivity, it devaluates work and destroys existing employment. The individual becomes even more dependent and, consequently, loses even more of his little store of freedom. Productivity (and its cousin competitivity) has nothing to do with added value.
I recently heard in the mouth of a trade-unionist the expression “democratization of work”. This is, of course, by definition, absolute rubbish. What has been going on for some time in parallel with the advance of technology, slowly at first then faster after the second world war and even faster in the last twenty or thirty years, is the democratization of the aristocracy. With the last visible members of the aristocracy little more than doddering relics and royal families suspect and diluted with dubious entrepreneurs’ blood, a vacuum at the top of the social pyramid has been created. And there has been a rush to cash in and, while it lasts, take advantage of the working man’s, and woman’s, surplus.
But trade-unionists are not the only ones to use the idea of “democracy” rather loosely. I also heard a politician cynically call elections the “celebration of democracy”. Today we mean by the term something like “government according to the wishes of the people”. We, the people, however, are characteristically loathe to express our wishes: little more than half of us turn out for elections; we tend to prefer others to form our opinions – after all, it is rather tiresome to consider all the implications of any particular course of action – so we delegate opinion-making to TV and the press and to the political parties and the politicians who are supposed to represent us. These latter, even if they were able to interpret the enormous mass of information they dispose of, are, of course, more preoccupied with filling and hanging on to the voids left by the demise of the aristocracy than with using that information for the benefit of the people.
I believe there has never been democracy in the sense in which we use it. Simply because it never meant that. Even in ancient Greece, “the cradle of democracy”, it was a euphemism for “government by the bosses”. Literally the word (demos + kratia) meant something like “power of the people” (sounds a bit like “dictatorship of the masses”, doesn’t it?) but those who participated in decision-making were precisely those who did not work, the aristocracy –“the best powerful people”, another Greek compound word – who lived off the surplus created by peasants, tradesmen, craftsmen and, especially, their slaves. Bertrand Russell said something to the effect that absolutism cannot exist without serfdom. But, in practice, all government is inevitably absolute to a certain degree whether it be by Luis XV, Greek democracy, a communist politbureau, the Pope, a parliamentary monarchy, a constitutional republic …, which probably means that we have to become reconciled to the idea that there will always be some degree of serfdom in organized human society, these days disguised as productivity and competitivity.
The other day, someone complained how his community’s wealth had been squandered and embezzled by politicians and their cronies, by quangos and by civil servants and administrators right down the line. One question is are these people consciously out to rip us all off? Have they set out to drain dishonestly the working man’s earnings into their pockets? I don’t think so. In the past you became an aristocrat by being born into an aristocratic family, i.e. your dad was one. Today you become one by climbing a steep, uncertain ladder in the Administration or, preferably, in a political party, until you are eventually accepted and awarded a “position of authority”. This climb requires a great deal of guile, but not necessarily intelligence, perseverance and total submission to the prevalent ideology and self-denying subservience to those already higher up. Once there, as a member of the New Aristocracy, you will be promoted from post to post until you pass your threshold of incompetence and there, just like your hereditary predecessors, you will be put out to grass, un-required to take decisions: these will be taken in your name and at your responsibility by un-named, unseen forces. In fact, the whole process seems designed to mold your mind to the assumption of being an aristocrat, one of the “best people”, and you really believe it. There is no better proof that this is so than the condescending absurdities uttered by government and party spokesmen, and spokeswomen.
The New Aristocrat, and the New-Aristocrat-in-the-making, receives a salary. Normally quite a good salary and once “in authority” a very good one. To receive a salary implies doing a job but aristocrats do not work for their money. Other people work to support them. In this way, the New Aristocrat is faced with a schizophrenic dilemma which he, or she, resolves quite simply by separating in his mind the work for which he is paid from what he sees as his due as an aristocrat, as personified by the post held. If party receipts are greater than party expenditure, then the difference is shared among the New Aristocratic party members. If he has the power to award a contract to a company, it is only natural that the company should show gratitude to the New Aristocrat for doing so. If travel expenses are paid, they are paid in virtue of the post and not for the work done and therefore should be paid even if no work is done and/or if members of the New Aristocrat’s family also travel. If he buys a piece of land cheaply, then sells it at a huge profit, he has incurred in no irregularity: the New Aristocrat (or in extremely sensitive situations perhaps his wife) has bought and sold the property. He as worker in the town hall has, disassociated from his “alter ego” as owner of the property, no more than signed the planning permission. And so on.
What the New Aristocrat is doing in each of these cases is clearly skimming off public money, i.e. the tax payers’ money, for his personal profit, avoiding, naturally, making it public or paying tax on it. To the man-in-the-street this is corruption but to the New Aristocrat there is, of course, nothing wrong in what he has done: it is his prerogative as an aristocrat, he is one of the “best” people, quite unlike the plumber who asks “With or without VAT?” or the man who claims a benefit he is not entitled to. These know they are “doing wrongly” while the New Aristocrat, if he sees anything censurable in his actions at all, only laments having them seen as part of his retribution for work and thus taxable. This peculiar vision explains the New Aristocrat’s insistence on only recognizing judicial sentences of guilt. The sin resides in being caught and, in any case, is quickly and understandingly quickly forgotten. Besides, there is always the possibility that the judge himself is climbing a parallel ladder or is already at the top of one.
Further evidence of this is notorious in national and international institutions. Certain New Aristocrats - if they have some knowledge of a field they are known as “technocrats - are appointed “digitally” by their peers to positions of relevance in, for example, monetary organizations, or even to the office of prime minister of a disgraced nation, with total disregard for democratic procedure and their dubious past. That is as long as it only concerns financial questions. Woe to the New Aristocrat who is caught with his trousers down!
It should be clear I do not like New Aristocrats and I do not approve of their corruption. But I believe they are not inherently wicked, only people who are mentally predisposed to climbing that ladder, just like teaching or scientific research seem to attract their specific types of person. In the past, society has turned on its abusive aristocrats and heads have rolled and families have been brought before firing squads. The aftermaths have been none too encouraging.
Baraka is a 1992 non-narrative film directed by Ron Fricke.