Shocking how little fun the masters of the universe seem to have
On capitalism and child labor
Like every American woman with a graduate degree I spent ten hours in 2017 watching The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu.
The scene I remember best was in the 8th episode when Nick is hanging out at the Commander's brothel, and he's in the kitchen and one of the kitchen Ritas who is sweet on him lets him try some new dish she's whipped up. As they talk, you realize that in the before-fore she was an award-winning chef. And now, even though she’s basically a slave, she still loves to cook.
I turned to Rachel, and I was like...this woman is literally the only human being in the entire Handmaid's Tale universe who is having any fun.
Every other character, even Commander Fred himself, seemed utterly miserable! Here he was, in the utopia he had created, and he seemed so bored and ambivalent. Even Aunt Lydia was relentlessly grim and unhappy. Not a single person seemed to think, hey, we toppled the Great Satan! We did it! Go us! Let's do fun things!
It was the Protestant work ethic run amok.
I had this thought again while reading the Making of the English Working Class. Here we are at the height of Britain's power, during the time and place that would give rise to two ideologies--nationalism and white supremacy--which ought notionally to benefit the working class by allowing them to identify on a visceral level with the accomplishments of their nation, and yet the ordinary Briton seems absolutely miserable.
I'm being a bit unfair, because the middle classes were having plenty of fun. But still, what's the point of all this colonialism if back home you've got children worked to death in factories? What a waste! How pointless! I just imagine some Indian person in Bengal, forbidden to engage in textile manufacture by the East India Company, and I bet they're thinking, wow, in Britain, the weavers must be living like kings--after all, the whole point of this oppression is to provide a market for the British weaving industry. But in Britain the weavers are poor and starving and sending their kids to work in factories from six in the morning to eleven at night. What's the point of it all?
Of course it's not at all rare to look at conquest societies and wonder if anyone was having any fun. Look at Genghis Khan. Reputedly the only stone building he ever stepped inside was the Great Mosque at Bukhara. What is the point of conquering these cities if you’re not even gonna go and take a look around inside the palaces of the people you’ve killed. Or take the Soviets in the 40s. They conquered Europe and came back to get shipped off to the camps. Or the men of Sparta, who had to live in barracks and couldn't marry. Or the shockingly similar regime of Shaka Zulu, where you also had to live in barracks and couldn't marry. Say what you will about the Nazis, but at least they had fun. The Nazis were shocking in their gratuitous indulgence of all the base urges. Usually the conquest generation gives way to a decadent one, but the Nazis combined decadence--cruelty, rape, theft, indulgence in food and art, etc--with conquest. And from what I've read, individual Nazis and even ordinary Germans partook of the riches (witness, for instance, the children stolen to be raised in Germany or the Poles shipped to Germany to be enslaved as domestic laborers). With the Nazis, you understand what it was all for: there was no ideology, there was no grand vision, they just wanted to enjoy themselves. With the heroes of both capitalism and communism, although both ideologies are notionally more appealing, both are in some sense more perplexing, because it doesn't seem like even the leaders (much less the peons) have that much fun! There are exceptions, of course, Beria enjoyed himself. Elon seems to enjoy himself. But this is the most perplexing aspect of the Jeffrey Epstein saga--all of these wealthy men seem utterly bewitched by a con artist whose only ability is that he can put them in proximity to attractive women and girls. And for this they give him hundreds of millions of dollars and endanger their own freedom and reputations. Like most people, I had assumed that the whole point of making billions of dollars was to satisfy yourself sensually. The world is full of attractive men and women who are more than willing to enter into transactional relationships of various forms with wealthy people. It seems like even a modicum of effort (maybe half a day) would suffice any billionaire to create a regime where they could be around any number of attractive humans and have sex with some number of them, and do all of it consensually, if not legally. It’s appalling that Bill Gates can build the world’s largest fortune, but he can’t figure out how to get laid in a safe and consensual way—or, failing that, to at least figure out how to abuse women in a way that’s less absurd and involves less legal and personal trouble.
Similarly, in Victorian England...what's the point of capitalism if it entails working children to death? Surely with all this wealth, we can create a system where no children are worked to death.
Reading this book I understand for the first time this thing pseudo-intellectuals love to harp upon, which is the idea that "childhood", as a time of innocence and purity, didn't exist before the Victorian era; It's not an idea that really makes sense, because when they talk about it, the pseuds seem to be saying that before the Victorian era, people didn't try to protect their kids from adult harms. And yet the evidence seems to go in rather the opposite direction. Before the 19th century, people didn't send their kids into service, far from home, and let some dude work them to death.
EP Thompson's book spends a chapter discussing 18th century attitudes to children's work, particularly in the artisan class. Children worked in the 18th century, and they often worked very long hours, but the nature of work was different. The work took place in the home, under the supervision of the parents. A child might spend a few hours combing wool or running and fetching or beating out cotton. The work was remunerative, without being economical. It wasn't structured by the clock or by wage rates. Labor discipline and parental discipline were unified. And later, if a child was apprenticed, they had a place within a community, where local pressure could be brought to bear against cruel masters, and within a household, where they had both economic and personal relations with the master's family. It was rare in the 18th century, with some notable exceptions (ship's boys come to mind) for children to experience the full brunt of the working world, unmediated by any humanitarian impulses or any understanding of their special vulnerability.
It was precisely because the protection afforded to children was customary and, to some degree, unspoken, that later on children proved so vulnerable to capitalism. Given their druthers, most adult human beings would never treat a child as if they were an adult laborer. It was only under capitalism, with its regimentation of the working day and acceleration of labor, that children were stripped of those customary protections.
People didn't know how to protect children from capitalism, because they didn't understand the unique feature of capitalism was that it mechanized human relations and stripped from them any quality of volition. Under capitalism overseers and managers possess the usual human tenderness towards kids, but there is no way for them to express that tenderness. There is no way to systematically relax labor discipline, because if they do, they get fired by bosses who, while they don’t overtly condone child abuse, nonetheless demand continual increase in profits.
Because customary protections were eroded, there was a belated realization that legal protections were required. And the idea of childhood developed from the articulation of these legal principles.
The whole book is about, in essence, this dialectic, the way that the rise of capitalism necessitated the articulation of previously unspoken understandings. Under capitalism, anything that wasn't specifically protected from economic exploitation would eventually be destroyed. That's why the idea of, say, leisure arose. When people were autonomous, and they determined their own pace of work, there was less need to articulate the principle that leisure was important. To the extent that people needed leisure and could pursue it without starving, they did so. But under capitalism, the intensification of labor eroded this thing people didn't even know they had possessed—and in trying to protect that thing, they came up with the concept of leisure. That doesn't mean leisure didn't exist before capitalism or that it wasn't necessary, it just means that it wasn't under threat in the same way.
Any talk about capitalism is sure to lead to the question, "Wasn't it good? Didn't it result in increased living standards?" But this is really a begging of the question. Rather than asking whether something is good, perhaps it's more important to ask "What was it? How did it operate? What changed once it came into existence?" To me these latter questions are much more interesting than the value judgements. Was it good that kids had to work from morning to night in factories? Was it good that at the same time Britain was destroying the livelihoods of Indian weavers it was doing the same to domestic ones? Was it good that the physical environment became increasingly ugly and polluted? Well, no. But so what? It's much more interesting to think, given that nobody wanted these things to happen, why did they happen? And why did thy happen now? Could they have not happened? Was the good extricable in this case from the bad?
I am reminded of a book that came out last year which all the ‘heterodox’ thinkers on Substack loved. It was called Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, by Nigel Biggar, a former professor of ethics at Oxford. The book originally was going to be published by Bloomsbury, but it was essentially canceled by the publisher for being too politically provocative. Because of this, the anti-woke crowd was predisposed to like it, and they gave it great notices (although I doubt many of them read it).
If you're Indian, the book was a bit comical, because it's just a recapitulation of what British people have been saying to Indians for two hundred years. "Yes there were some excesses, but the Spanish did a lot worse! And we also did a ton of good things."
The argument is that a lot of the bad in colonialism is just stuff that countries have been doing to each other for thousands of years, while the good was uniquely good. For instance, slavery is old hat. The Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Han Chinese, Sokoto Caliphate of Nigeria…all of these societies held slaves. But abolishing the slave trade and then abolishing slavery as a whole—these are uniquely good and civilized things to do. Similarly,.conquerng a territory is old hat--Genghis Khan conquered half the world—but voluntarily leaving a territory so that its people can rule themselves, this is world-historically unique. Ergo, the British Empire was the best of all possible empires.
You can quibble with the details, but on a broader level, who gives a shit whether the British or the Belgians were the worse colonialists? Today, in 2024, it is unambiguously the case that much of what Britain did was evil. Today, in 2024, it is bad to conquer another country, just like today, in 2024, child labor, whether of the in-home or factory variety, is bad. We know now what we consider to be right or wrong. To attempt to apply these moral judgements to the past is absurd, because you end up trying to prove that according to their own moral system, these people ought to have known they were doing evil. But...that's quite obviously a pretty iffy proposition, because if they'd known it was evil, they wouldn't have done it! We know right now, without any investigation, that the slaver, factory owner, or colonialist had, in their own time, much reason to think what they were doing was good. We know, without any investigation, that these issues are decided firmly now, but that once upon a time, they weren't decided nearly so firmly. So what is the point of writing a book where you recapitulate what everyone already knows? Just seems silly.
All of this moral taxonomy is very much a distraction. Everyone exists within a certain society that is structured in a certain way. Were there factory owners in 1830 that were against child labor? Absolutely, yes—industrialist John Fielden very famously entered Parliament and worked for the eight hour day and for the abolition of child labor. Friedrich Engels himself ran a factory! On a personal level, people attempt to live good lives, just like Commander Fred attempts, on a personal level, to connect with June and experience some kind of joy. When we reduce society to a collection of personal impulses and personal moral conflicts, we purposefully elide the possibility of societal change, and we obscure any discussion of underlying mechanisms. Yes, there were good industrialists—but is the difference between then and now simply that more of our industrialists are good? Obviously not! The idea is absurd! Look at Epstein—our industrialists are just as, if not more, sleazy than they were in Victorian times. So why aren’t we working kids to death in London? That question is, to me, much more interesting than any sort of “moral reckoning”.