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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Occupy Monasteries!

You know, that would have been the title of the occupy movement 500 years ago.

Monasteries were immensely wealthy, they created, disseminated and advanced technology throughout the Middle Ages and right through into the Renaissance. They were the entrepreneurs of the ancients.

The Romans may have known about the water wheel, but they simply never employed it on the scale that Benedictine monasteries did. The horse collar, the three-field system, the iron plow, the mechanical clock, corned gunpowder and the gun, and a host of other inventions were developed or spread by monastic communities across Europe.

By the late middle ages, those same monastic communities were also incredibly wealthy by dint of generations of renting out the land that the monks had cleared. Today's modern corporations, the ones we complain about for their unparalleled greed, are matched in medieval times by the monastic orders, as no less a wag than Chaucer readily attests.

What Marx never understood is today accepted as a simple fact. The top 1% of any culture owns between 40% and 50% of the wealth of the culture they occupy. This was true during pagan Roman times, it was true during medieval European times and it is true today.

It is a constant of human history, not because the secret cabal of conspirators would have it so, but because that's how any human culture based on a monetary system seems to arrange itself.

Furthermore, as the total wealth of a culture increases, the possibility of greater wealth inequality expands.

Let us assume I have two dollars and you have ten dollars. The total system has only twelve dollars in it, and you have a wealth five times greater than mine.

But let us assume that we both work hard during the year and manage to expand our wealth so that I now have twenty dollars while you have 200 dollars. Now you have ten times as much wealth as I have, but I am not the worse off for it. Indeed, I am better off.

That's exactly what happens to the poor in any industrial society. They may not have much cash in hand. Perhaps their percentage share of the cash in hand has actually dropped as dramatically as my share did in the previous example. But these poor now have access to goods they didn't have before. They have access to automobiles, air conditioning, penicillin, laparoscopy, and really cheap computers. And, even as a poor person in that society, they have more money now than they did a generation previously.

So, even if their cash in hand cannot purchase them all the goods that are available, they now have a much wider choice of goods than their fathers did, and they definitely benefit from the fact that these goods exist. Food can be transported to them even if they don't personally own cars. A hospital may accept and treat them with new techniques even if they have not sufficient money to pay.

What was extraordinary luxury yesterday is simply to the lifestyle to be expected for even the poorest among us tomorrow. The prisoners we punish in our jails arguably live more richly than Henry VIII did at the height of his syphilitic reign.

And Henry, remember, was the one who crushed the English monastic system, giving away the lands and killing or exiling all the monks. By so doing, he killed the technological powerhouses of England.

In other words, Henry was the first Occupy protester.

The major difference is, he actually managed to make the Occupy movement permanent, at least in regard to the wealthy monastic communities of his age.

And England was the worse for it.

So, Occupiers, be careful what you wish for.
Like any good father, God often finds it useful to punish us by giving us exactly what we ask.


scotju said...

Yep, just like our Lord said,"The poor you shall always have with you." While it may seem unfair that a small minority has so much, as you point out, where would all the progress, spiritual and material come from? Only those with a surplus of wealth can finance the progress that can make life better in the long run for all of us. The envy of the rich promoted by Marxists, Nazis, Facists, Socialists, and Distributists has never been shown to cause economic or moral progress. Rather, it has crippled or even destroyed the morale and the work ethic of the countries they have taken over.
Henry's surpression of the monasteries was noticed in Dickens's "A Christmas Carol". Remember the line about the workhouses? Their establishment was one of the results of the closing of the monasteries. The poor didn't have anyplace to go, so the government threw them into these hellish places to keep them off the streets. If the Occuy morons have their way, we may see them come back in America.

bgeorge77 said...

So help me with this question (and this is honest, I don't know the answer):

In your example, yes, at the end you (the poor man) are richer at the end, but the rich person is now 10x richer than you, and if money is power then he is also 10x more able to enact legislation beneficial to himself which may or may not be of benefit to you.

I guess the real question is: Is money power?

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Sure, money is power.

But that cuts both ways.

Watch this youtube video on the growth of wealth around the world. Observe how, for most of human history, everyone lived in abject poverty, at least compared to today.

Now, in that life of abject power, most countries were ruled by despotic kings and princes, who could do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted without much consequence.

With the growth in wealth came the LOSS of the ability to do that.

The only places that retain tinpot dictators are countries where people live in abject poverty.

It would seem to be the case that when people get wealth - ANY kind of wealth at all - they get the ability to reign in the really wealthy.

Limitation on the power of the extremely wealthy seems to correlate to increases in inequal wealth distributions... or at least it does SO LONG AS the general population is being pulled out of poverty at the same time as the wealthy are getting wealthier.

It's counter-intuitive, but that's what all the data of the last 200 years show.