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GEORGE: Energy in social change driver's seat

May 22, 2018 - 12:05 PM

 


OPINION


It is self-evident that society changes. Sometimes these changes seem spontaneous. Sometimes they can be attributed to changes in the environment. 

Over the span of recorded history, the pace of change has increased and many who think of such things attribute that increase to our increased use of technology. I think of it a bit differently, and see both change and the increase in the pace of change as being primarily driven by our collective use of energy. And that means that we are facing a disruption, as our use of energy, both the scale and the scope, are in the process of changing.

The medieval towns that became the centres of large rural areas provided one of the essential ingredients for the rise of capitalism, namely the artisanal and merchant communities. These families provided a template for the transition from a more economically focused family life, something that was common to the rural experience across a wide area, towards a more urban, capitalist and individual way of life.

Marx saw pre-capitalist societies as focusing on use-value and capitalist societies focused on exchange value. This difference is only meaningful on a large scale as a consequence of the great wealth generated by fossil energy and industrialization. The rise of both poured the fertilizer of wealth onto the seeds of capitalist forms of wealth concentration that these family enterprises were. As wealth began to flow in ever-increasing amounts, the old social arrangements of traditional society crumbled.

This wealth spurred the exploration of the three distinct forms of political economy that make up today's world. Capitalism, socialism and communism were new ways of thinking about political economy and society. Without the wealth generated by industrialization, the demographic transition to the towns and cities, and the rise of the nation-state, none of these political forms would be possible. They are political forms that do not translate into the older agrarian societies, except in very limited ways and in specific circumstances.

Industrialization changed the form of production, from one that relied on labour and land, to one that relied on labour and capital. One last bout of plague in the mid to late 17th century provided another destabilizing kick to the feudal society. The increasing precarity of the lord/serf relationship, the formation of capitalist ventures to harvest and sell slaves, and the invention of innovative methods of organizing capital, like the passage of LLC legislation, led to the corporate form that supplies one half of our current bureaucracy, the other half is made up of the positions created within the nation-state.

The division of labour that capitalism and industrialization enabled could be said to be a feature of industrial civilization. Never before had so many people been able to live off of a mono-skilled job. A peasant was pretty much the ultimate jack of all trades. Their skills were wide, unsophisticated and effective at solving an ever-shifting mass of basic problems. With enough food being supplied from peasant labour, the medieval towns began to expand their pool of skilled artisans, people who made their livings from specialized services, like blacksmiths, millers, bakers and coopers.

Industrialization would drive many of these people into the urban areas, along with many peasants as the forces of enclosure drove more and more of them off the land. The mix of these early market dependent people led to the formation of a new class of people, the precursor to the middle class of today. Some lords made the transition to a capitalist, many of the skilled artisans and the more successful town merchants did as well. The middle class was different. They were not selling their labour so much as their skills in management, technology, accounting and other valuable components of the new capitalist means of production.

The depersonalization of power relations was a significant social effect of this transition. The traditional society mediated power relations and wealth by controlling people. Peasants and serfs were attached to the land, their social position was ascribed by their birth. The same was true for the lords. Their position in the hierarchy of the nobility was ascribed at birth and their social mobility was just as limited as that of those serfs attached to their lands.

The modern arrangements of capitalism and the worker saw these power relations now mediated by things. Those who controlled property, whether it was land for agrarian pursuits, a factory for the capitalist industrial production of goods or the built infrastructure such as houses for rent to people and buildings for rent to businesses were now exercising power in society. Social mobility was increased manyfold.

People were now theoretically equal, but the possession of property would quickly come to be an increasingly difficult unearned privilege to counteract for new entrants into the new economic order. We are still struggling today to address this problem. Socialism, and to an extent, communism was the answer to the imbalances in distribution that capitalism cannot help but produce.

It is self-evident that society changes. The question before us, now, is what comes next. No matter how hard elements of our society try to stifle change, change will come. Either we will stop using fossil energy due to climate change, or we will stop using it because it simply isn't profitable to do so any longer. Either way, we will soon see a change in the scale and scope of how our society uses energy. And it is well past the time that we started thinking about how that change is going to play out in society.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.


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