What Use does a Society Make of its Surplus? (the fundamental question of political economy)

In the 16th Century, a Mughal Emperor named Akbar founded a beautiful city named Fatehpur Sikri. The buildings, made of red sandstone so that the city famously glows pink, were stunning examples of architecture, designed to emulate the glories of a past Persian culture. The Imperial Palace is particularly lovely, with its enclosed pools and open air cupolas along the upper levels, which aimed to make best use of cooling winds. Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned about ten years after its construction was complete – the lake upon which it depended for water dried up. It turned out to be another one of earth’s beautiful follies and is now a ghost city. Akbar, though he was renowned for his wisdom, was not immune to the grandiosity of rulers, who almost inevitably desire to build monuments by which they will be remembered.

Image result for fatehpur sikri

(Panorama Image by Jorg Dauerer)

 

Monuments and legacies require wealth. Wealth gathered from what the people produce. The surplus gathered by their rulers.

 

There are (at least) two theories of political economy, one based on surplus, and one based on scarcity. The theory of surplus is known as the classical theory and the theory of scarcity is the modern one. That is, the presumption of scarcity is what our present economics is built around. We should ask questions as to why the system moved from a theory of surplus to a theory of scarcity. Keep in mind that a system based on scarcity benefits only a very rarified few.

Many activities are used to bolster the idea of scarcity. Surplus food products are routinely destroyed to maintain prices on the open market. Wheat is burned, milk is poured away, farmers are forced to dump unwanted produce. Wages are kept artificially low, so that people live week to week and accumulate little savings. Goods that are coded as high status are sold at extravagant prices, prices that do not reflect the cost of the raw materials, nor the price paid to the enslaved people who provided those materials For example, the raw resources for high end furnitures, furnishings and fabrics, digital products, epicurean foods are usually sourced from semi-slavery. The regular citizens are fed a daily diet of news alerting them to scarcity – how the social welfare system will be over-whelmed by spongers, how hospitals cannot cope, how water, fuel, clean air are running out and must be conserved. The small person must conserve, the prole must fret – meanwhile, the big corporations can plunder and squander resources with mind-boggling profligacy.

 

Image result for theory of scarcity

 

 

There is certainly some scarcity. Carbon based fuels, for example, will not last forever. But they are not the only or best source of energy. Renewable resources, however, are not financed in any way approaching the financial underpinning of fossil fuels. This fosters scarcity and thus an accumulation of power at the hands of those controlling supposedly scarce resources. That cohort of power will shift themselves eventually to control renewable fuels. And  then scarcity will again be promoted as our underpinning reality.

 

In general, however, the evidence of life around us, if we actually look without blinkers, contradicts the theory of scarcity. The sun abundantly provides its solar power without any demand for reimbursement. It shines on all equally, as they say. From that solar power is born the natural flowering excess of plant, human and animal life. One seed produces a plant which bears millions of similar seeds, all capable of multiplying infinitely. Creatures thrive on the food facilitated by the solar power and bring forth progeny, and the species proliferates. In the cycles of nature we see constant surplus. Why, therefore, are we constantly primed about scarcity? Does it have the function of ensuring power remains centralised, while the majority remain deprived?

 

Before human beings gathered an agricultural surplus, they lived day to day, hunting and gathering. We can imagine they were masterless persons, as the hunt requires co-operation, and an absence of excess goods requires little war. Yes, there was violence, the evidence is such, but less so than in later societies. With the advent of surplus, warrior chiefs emerged. Surpluses were raided and carried off. Fortified stores were constructed. Armies protected the chief’s hoard. Later as society became more ‘civilised’ the raiding sorties were called tax collections. People handed over their surpluses to the person with the greatest fire power and the most willingness towards violence. Gradually the State emerged – those we elected to provide us with protection from the marauding bandits in exchange for them gathering in our surplus to the State organs.  Politics is really the evolution of what those state organs have decided to do with the accumulated surplus. Did or do they support art and culture? Did or do they finance religious extravaganzas to placate the blood-thirsty gods and goddesses? Did or do they provide for the weaker members of the tribe? Did or do they build monuments designed to reach towards the heavens from among the slums where their people lived enslaved? And so on.

 

Image result for wealth and poverty alongside wach other

 

 

Looking briefly at our present systems, it appears that the people’s surplus goes in large part to such activities as war, and despolation. There is sufficient redistribution of surplus (in the developed world) to keep the natives from revolting – minimal health and education services, sufficient income to buy distraction and entertainment, and access to the pharmacopeia of anaesthesia. The masses are kept generally poor, half the world’s people on starvation rations, and yet great monuments appear. Space programs. Sky scrapers. Artificial Intelligence. Medical advances financed that only the uber-rich will ever obtain. New and ever more devious implements of mass destruction. Bloated bureacrats and financiers who circulate the surplus in ever-tightening spheres. We are as enslaved by a false theory of scarcity as our long-ago antecedents were cowed before the swords and violent excesses of demonic warlords.

I do not intend to be the bearer of bad news. It is not bad news once one can ask oneself the questions, and understand in ones own way what is happening. You may understand it differently than me, and be correct. It is my intention to have a broader view of the way things are than the vista offered from the hamster wheel.

Image result for human trapped on hamster wheel

 

 

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About

Generally just Being. Nothing in particular, no claims to fame. I like gardening and the sea, nature, art in all forms from poetry to films and everything in between, and being in the company of my family.

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