Liberty Leading The People

Liberty Leading the People (French: La Liberté guidant le peuple) is a painting by Eugène Delacroix depicting the July Revolution of 1830.

I’ve been reading the late Eric Hobsbawm’s “The Age Of Revolution: 1789-1848: Europe, 1789-1848” lately, about the political and social consequences of the twin revolutions in Britain (the Industrial Revolution) and France (the French Revolution), from 1789 to 1848, and about the subsequent revolutions around Europe and the world that spread from these. It was a time of radical change, especially in Europe: feudalism was overthrown in France and Britain and gradually pushed aside elsewhere. “Capitalism” as we know it today was more-or-less invented.

One thing in particular has struck me about these revolutions – with the exception of the entrepreneurs of the British Industrial Revolution – and that is that the revolutionaries (including the British working classes) were remarkably left-wing: the peasant classes in general were in effect socialists and communists, or favoured left-wing solutions. Slavic peasants may have been more conservative in supporting their monarchies, but they were still opposed to their feudal overlords, Looking at the big picture, it is clear that most of the revolutionaries and peasants wanted socialist-style changes to society. And they got them to some degree: at least they got greater ‘freedom’ from feudal lords at a minimum, although in many cases this ended up amounting to unemployment and having to migrate to the cities to find paid work.

But what is this socialism that they wanted? Clearly, people wanted freedom from their bloodsucking landlords, that is, the aristocracy. Many peasants supported their monarchies though: they thought that the crown just didn’t understand. But they also wanted a fair share of the production of society. Not having any wealth to speak of, they wanted it to be given to them. So… not really straightforward socialism, wanting to contibute to a just society: more a kind of selfishness best expressed as at least getting a fair share.

But what happened, even in the radical France, was that, yes, feudalism was abolished: the land ownership laws were changed and because of the pressures from the different competing interests, ‘free’ markets were set up… so people could get the land, but in competition. There was no fair sharing out; no real socialism. This happened pretty much everywhere, at varying speeds, and so we’ve ended up with the world of today.

So, it seems to me, the ‘people’, that is, the poorest in society, are likely to tend towards the left in politics – wanting the state to give them handouts – for perfectly obvious reasons: they see their current position in society as being unfairly imposed from without, and they want a ‘fair’ share – that is, more (money, stuff, land, etc.). Well, this is quite understandable. But our societies are not organised to produce fairness. Instead, as in feudal times, money is sucked from the poor and funnelled to the rich. We have the capitalist system to do this now instead of the feudal system, but it works just as well, until it impoverishes too many people and the markets collapse every now and then (as in our current depression).

What is the answer to this? Socialism? Probably not: I doubt that many beyond a few intellectuals really want it. Yes, people want a ‘fair share’, but they also want the freedom and opportunities to improve on that. If we all lived in identical little boxes on equal patches of state-owned land, I suspect things would be pretty dull, industry would be unproductive and uncreative, the beauracracy to keep it that way oppressive, and, well, it would become ripe for a collapse or a counter-revolution, over time. We’ve seen the 20th Century experiments with this already.

It could be done differently, perhaps, with future technology. Nano-technology (molecular-size machines) could conceivably produce everything needed and wanted entirely for free, for example (except maybe land and ocean, mostly). There would be no need of capitalism or even money if production were to be free. Then society would be about getting along with people: living, not working. It could, and probably would, work. but the technology for this is probably 50-150 years away. It would rely on some degree of effective artificial intelligence behind the nano-machines anyway, and who knows if AI is ever going to actually become truly smart? Or sentient. And that may bring its own problems, of course.

Non-technologically speaking, it is probably impossible. Humans can live communistically, and it is thought that we did throughout much of the stone age, but we want a better life now. The question is, before sentient nano-machines sort everything out for us (or exterminate us), how do we fix our systems right now? The best answer I’ve seen so far seems to be some sort of ‘mixed economy’ – that is, some sort of welfare state, capitalist freedom with limitations to prevent stupid excesses and to properly enable redistribution of wealth back to the purchasing public (remember, when too much wealth is sucked from the masses, the economy collapses), and also limitations to prevent the masses from demanding too much redistribution of wealth – so limitations on the size of government to balance those restrictions limiting capitalism.

Economists consider that production requires three elements: labour (to do the work), capital (to finance the production), and land (resources, and a place to do the work). In fact, it needs another element: the rule of law to design the productive playing-field. So the rule of law (government) would balance labour and capital, as it falsely claims to do already. Labour should be taxed modestly (a low income tax or a sales tax (VAT) could do this), but capital (profits) should be taxed as well, above a certain level (small enterprises should be tax-free to encourage business). Instead, big corporations may pay billions, but as a percentage of their profit it is much less than labour pays at present. Wealthy capitalist individuals notoriously pay low marginal rates of tax, no matter what the ‘official’ rate may be.

Governments are not, but should also be, balancing the third element, land, with taxes to prevent property booms and busts – a fairly modest taxation of land automatically prevents property booms because unproductive land, of which there is a lot, has to be sold or made productive to pay the taxes, thus increasing competition. At the same time it brings in more revenue for the government to redistribute from unproductive landlords.

At present, the world’s governments largely fail to maintain these balances consciously, or at all, but primarily tax labour. Capitalists escape taxation for the most part, leading to speculative booms, corruption, collapses, relative or absolute mass poverty and then occasional insurrection and political instability. We can expect this in the West over the next few years if the economy doesn’t start to work better for the poor and if the capitalists don’t moderate their excesses. The British riots of 2011 were just an early warning – supposedly rioting over a police shooting, in fact people took the opportunity to redistribute wealth by way of looting high-status products like fancy trainers and the like from the shops.

Under current governments, land is seldom taxed at all, except sometimes when sold. Small annual taxes on commercial and rental land would bring balance here. Presently big commercial landlords hoard empty properties to keep rent levels up in other parts of their portfolios – on average they make more money that way. This would cease as unproductive property would have to come onto the market to pay the taxes on it, and Landlords wouldn’t be able to raise the rents because the extra competition would keep rental levels down, as would the stability of property prices – why pay excessive rent if you end up paying more than it would take to buy a house (or a factory), for example?

Well, that’s my general prescription for the world’s economy… what do you think? Will it ever happen? Are our governments too ignorant or too corrupt to try it? Or am I just plain wrong? Let me know!

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