A few years ago I attended a conference, the subject of which was some social issue or issues. At one point, some individual stood up and said words to the effect that there was far less crime years ago - everybody knew each other, people used to leave their doors unlocked, etc. At this point, Dr Bill Thompson, a well-known right wing sociologist, (1) stood up and said that there were two reasons for this. One was that years ago (referring to the 1930s) the reason people used to leave their doors open was because “nobody had anything worth nicking”. The other reason was that because most crime nowadays involved motor vehicles. (2)
Dr Thompson’s amusing outburst had a profound effect on me, and set off a train of thought which I find truly disturbing. If nobody (ie ordinary working people) had “anything worth nicking”, what have all the wars in history been fought over? More specifically, what have ordinary working people had to preserve much less gain by engaging in periodic bouts of slaughter of their fellow men?
The entry for the Mediaeval usurer Aaron of Lincoln in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia boasts that he became the wealthiest man in England next to the King; he lived in a fine stone house and lorded it over the local Christians. (3) Fine, but what did the guy have in the 12th Century? What did even the wealthiest usurer or monarch have? For all his vast wealth, Aaron never owned a TV set, much less a computer, and he certainly never connected to the Internet and engaged in chit chat with people on the other side of the world like Yours Truly does regularly, and as do countless other people of my humble origins.
Going back further in history to the time of Alexander the Great, we are told by history books that this mighty conqueror ruled an empire that stretched from the Adriatic to India and that he acquired fantastic wealth after sacking the Imperial treasure of the sacred city of Persepolis. Okay, so he owned a horse, and most people nowadays don’t, indeed, most people can’t afford horses. But many millions of people in Britain and countless millions across the world own their own cars. Alexander the Great never did, and he certainly never zipped up the M1 at seventy miles an hour to visit his Auntie Edna, or took the train to the South Coast for the Bank Holiday. And vast though his empire may have been, he didn’t do what a friend of mine did, fly to the Continental USA with his fianceé to get married and honeymoon in a fabulous desert city before flying on to the island paradise of Hawaii.
If we haven’t actually been to Las Vegas, most of us know someone who has been there, and many of us travel regularly to the Continent and further afield. No conqueror in history ever did this. During the 18th and 19th Centuries it was customary for the aristocracy to send their well-educated offspring on the Grand Tour around the cultural cities of Europe. But this was only for the aristocracy, and was painfully slow by today’s standards. One can fly from London to Australia nowadays in less time than it would take for an Eighteenth Century tourist to ride to Paris, and one can do it in considerably greater comfort.
There are not a few other things which the overwhelming majority of us have in every country throughout the Western World and indeed throughout most of the rest of the world, which Aaron of Lincoln, Alexander the Great and all rulers and wealthy men before, between and the vast majority since, could not even have dreamed of.
A typical scenario of a winter’s morning in a working household in Britain might be as follows. The family rises shortly before 7am, they queue up to use the bathroom, turn up the central heating - which has been on all night - flick on the radio and/or TV, open packets of cereals, loaves of bread and tubs of margarine, fry eggs, bacon, brew tea in an electric kettle, perhaps use the telephone, and quite likely peruse the newspaper over breakast.
The male of the household has had one too many the night before, so helps himself to a couple of Paracetomol. The eldest son is diabetic so with his mother he prepares an insulin injection; a hundred years ago he wouldn’t have lived to be the eldest son. His sister has a new boyfriend whom she met three weeks ago at a dance fifteen miles away. His parents are taking him for a skiing holiday in Switzerland on Friday and she just has to speak to him before breakfast, so she’s on the telephone. No telephones or foreign holidays in the 18th Century.
After breakfast they’re off; the youngest son walks to school, the eldest rides a bike; the daughter is driven by her father who, after dropping her near the school, continues on to the station and takes a short journey, fifteen miles to his office, where he arrives shortly after ten. As he works flexitime, no problem. His wife works from home; she is a graphic designer and is connected to the Internet. She goes to her office two or three times a month; she receives most of her assignments either by mail or through the Internet. Mail is the slowest; it may take three or even four days for her to receive a low priority commission. Internet access is instantaneous. Alexander the Great and Aaron of Lincoln never had it so good.
This is a slightly better off than average hypothetical family, but there are millions of others like them throughout Britain and the entire world. They are all wealthier than Aaron and Alexander, and in some respects they are more wealthy than John D. Rockefeller, said in 1997 to have been the wealthiest American in history. (4)
Why? Because wealth is measured by money: pounds, yen, the almighty dollar or whatever, but at the end of the day, money is just bits of paper, or entries in a ledger, or today, blips in a computer. It is a well known fact - not just to Social Crediters - that most money has no tangible existence. This is a state of affairs which has prevailed since the invention of the cheque. Money is a measure of wealth, but it is not wealth itself. Wealth is the goods and services the community can produce. For a few people, state financiers such as Aaron of Lincoln and empire builders like Alexander the Great, wealth means power, which in practice means the ability to control men’s lives. For most people though, from the year dot to the present day, wealth meant and continues to mean the necessities of life, creature comforts and leisure. And, increasingly, a wider range of consumer goods with which to enjoy that leisure.
Many of the things we today regard as necessities would have been regarded as luxuries beyond all meaning of the word by Alexander the Great and Aaron of Lincoln. What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Cornflakes? Banana crunch? Cereal with nuts and dried pineapple chunks? And a few rounds of toast, coffee and perhaps a fried egg. Aaron of Lincoln never saw much less tasted a pineapple. In those days, even the very wealthy in England would have existed mostly on a diet of coarse grain, root vegetables and a few chunks of meat a week. (5)
If Aaron of Lincoln ever suffered a headache, well, tough. The best he could have done was take a few swigs of mead and try to sleep it off. If Alexander or one of his troops tripped on the dry desert rocks and cut his knee, well, there were no band aids. Bad cuts could be bandaged, but what if he were to fall and break a leg, or an arm? The only pain killer in general use was alco- hol. Suppose he had a toothache. Nowadays if you have a toothache you can visit the dentist, who will give you an injection and fill the cavity. But in Alexander’s and Aaron’s times, well, you just had to grin and bear it, comrade.
Like our hypothetical family, many people nowadays think noth- ing of travelling ten or fifteen miles a day to work. Many people of course commute far greater distances, and for a lucky minority, extensive travel is a way of life. Until the middle of the 19th Century the fastest way to travel was on horseback. Most ordinary people would never travel any distance at all from their homes and would spend their entire lives within the confines of their parishes, unless they were conscripted into the army.
True, people did have leisure, even in the most austere and repressive of times, but they didn’t have TV sets and computer games. And books were both few in quantity and poorly produced, as well as relatively expensive.
Which brings me to the subject of war. The two greatest wars in history were without doubt the First World War (known formerly as the Great War) and the Second World War. They are called world wars because, although not every country took part as a combatant, they were certainly global in scale and involved all the major powers. Countless millions died in both world wars, including, and especially in the Second World War, an enormous number of civilians.
One of the great battles of the First World War was fought at Verdun in France. According to a recent article in the Times, over 23 million shells were fired during this nine month long mutual slaughter, which left over 650,000 men dead. (6) One writer has written of this battle that “Neither side ‘won’ at Verdun. It was the indecisive battle in an unnecessary war; the battle that had no victors, in a war that had no victors.” (7)
Imagine a column of men marching in single file a yard apart. If all the men who were killed at Verdun were to have marched in such a column they would have formed a line over 1,100 miles in length. So what were they fighting for? The answer is...a few feet of ground. Why in this and other great conflicts did Germans slay Frenchmen, Englishmen slay Germans, Russians slay Poles, Tutsis slay Hutus, Japanese slay Chinese, and so on ad nauseum?
How did the deaths of 650,000 men at Verdun make the world a better place, and for whom? Equally, what did ordinary working people gain from fighting in this terrible bloodbath?
The answer must surely be not much. We are reminded constantly that wars are fought to make the world safe for democracy, to destroy a tyrant and his tyranny, or self-determination, and, most of all, for freedom. In practice, for ordinary working people this fight for freedom means the unalluring prospect of exchanging one set of tyrants for another as everywhere the state becomes more repressive and attempts by myriad means to control more and more facets of people’s lives.
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