I still have many excellent books from my study of European history as a young man and the doctorate I eventually completed at Boston College much later in life. Some of them came up in a conversation the other night with Scott Van Doren, one of my BC mentors during the 1970s and today a trusted and dear friend.
As historians, we talked about similarities and differences between the crisis of the Later Middle Ages during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that laid bare much of Western and Central Europe, and the one we are now experiencing. We agreed that both should be understood as structural and irreversible crises resulting from the decline and decay of existing modes of production and social relations, but also seedbeds for something qualitatively different. In the case of medieval Europe, crisis brought the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Scott’s own lifelong journey into the history of a single province in southern France, working through dusty documents lodged in provincial and municipal archives that exposed him to a disease actually called “historians lung,” only affirms the grander treatments of more famous colleagues.
We also agreed that a comparison of the two crises provides compelling lessons in the present. The crisis of European feudalism was at root one of subsistence and survival. Population had surpassed agricultural production and food supply due to crop failures, changing weather patterns, and infectious diseases in cattle and sheep; in other words, economic collapse spurred by environmental distress. Consequently, what historians call The Great Famine of 1315-1322 took a heavy toll on humans and left survivors malnourished and more vulnerable to disease. When the Black Death struck in 1347, it killed 30 million people, a third of the European population, in only three years. (Bear in mind that bubonic plague first spread from flea bites carried on rattus rattus, the black rat, and then became pneumonic and thus deadlier.)
Depopulation relieved pressure on the soil as agricultural production declined precipitously. Marginal lands put into cultivation needed for larger crops were abandoned. Fewer people meant rising wages, which landlords fought to contain. From all this the late fourteenth century became a moment of widespread unrest and sporadic uprisings in the countryside, the most significant being The Peasants’ Revolt in England during the summer of 1381. Added to the turmoil was the distress of wartime taxation caused by the so-called Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337-1458), which further sapped the vitality of an already reeling peasantry. A general crisis indeed!
But within the ruins of feudalism was the genesis of capitalism, a system based on the private ownership of property. Out went agricultural production based on large estates owned by a class of nobles and the institution of serfdom which had bound peasant producers to the land. Free wage labor, simple possession of land and in some places peasant ownership took root, especially in England where we find the genesis of capitalist property relations and the famed yeoman farmer. Similar developments appeared in northern France and eastward into present day Belgium and Holland and across what is now Germany. Where capitalist enterprise was the most advanced, political unrest took the form of urban rebellions and warfare between rival factions of great merchant and banking families. We have the history of the Italian city-states in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to see how early capitalist rivalries spurred war between competing urban elites and periodic rebellions by those below them who made up a nascent European working class.
Capitalist modernization in Europe, which had extended to North America and the rest of the world by the end of the nineteenth century, also created a modern culture. Among its paradigmatic features was an emphasis on the individual. Just as capitalism swept aside all vestiges of the old feudal order, so did modern ideas of freedom and democracy replace those of subordination and obeisance to religious and political authority characteristic of medieval culture. In like manner, capitalist modernization brought forth the principle of representative democracy in world-historical terms. The French Revolution of 1789 made clear to the rest of the world that all were entitled to liberty and freedom of choice. Such ideas became the cornerstones of representative democracy. Government by consent of the people became foundational to modern liberalism, the concept of private property a basic tenet of capitalist political economy.
By comparison, our crisis bears parallels to its medieval predecessor but with key differences. In late medieval Europe, the collapse of feudal production set conditions for a devastating plague that ripped apart the fabric of medieval European society, and then chaos, violence, and revolutionary developments, all marking the genesis of capitalist production and relations. For us the Second Great Depression, of which COVID-19 can be viewed as both a catalyst and the most immediate, primary cause, has brought a structural and irreversible crisis of American capitalism long in the making to its most acute stage. Since the 1970s, capitalist exploitation, political subjugation, racism, sexism, unprecedented polarization of wealth and poverty, rampant consumerism fueling out-of-control indebtedness, state-sponsored terrorism at home and abroad, a culture devoid of aesthetic dimensions once consciously cultivated in earlier times of prosperity, the certainty of an ecological nightmare that could eventually make COVID-19 seem a prelude to what is left of human history – all this is now upon us.
Both crises were the outcome of protracted developments that in medieval Europe culminated in a crisis of class rule. A similar occurrence here and now is plausible. Then, the ruling class of feudal lords, some kings, and their layers of vassals – all landowners, gave way to a new ruling class of merchants and bankers many of whom also were large landowners. This is what we call the bourgeoisie. Now, the American bourgeoisie sitting atop the pyramid of capitalist wealth, the Wall Street titans who own Amazon and Facebook as well as the diversified giants who singularly make up the military-industrial complex, face fundamental contradictions that threaten its own class rule. What we called the 1 percent a decade ago fears most is the self-realization of the working class.
Today, America’s bourgeoisie and its servants in government and the media can probably fit in Yankee Stadium, as one study showed a few years ago. It is probably even smaller and more concentrated now. And make no mistake. They’re not all Republicans. So in the midst of a pandemic, economic collapse and a rising, indeed revolutionary surge by African Americans throughout the country committed to the end of white supremacy, we are nearing the boiling point on all major fronts.
This prompts us to ask each other in a kind of collective neurotic bubble: What if Trump wins? What if he loses and refuses to leave? Or maybe he loses and leaves while screaming all the way out the door of the White House that the election was a fraud, an attack on everything held sacred, thus goading his rabid followers into a fight to save America from fellow Americans. What does this sound like to you?
Then again, what if Joe Biden doesn’t pick an African-American woman to be his running mate? Will black and brown people, young folk of all colors who have been galvanized in recent weeks in protest against white supremacy and who have demonstrated that real power in America is in the street, vote for two white Democrats in November? Will they even bother voting? What kind of election will it be if two white supremacists, one a fascist, the other a Great White Pretender promising reform in an effort to return to so-called normalcy, are our only choices? Jeez, just the thought of it is sickening given the videotaped police murders of black men and women we’ve recently witnessed. But we shall see.
So why all this stuff about historical comparisons? Does history even matter?
For one thing, factually based history is good food for thought. Despite profound differences between the fourteenth century crisis and ours, we should examine the past from the standpoint of the present to help us navigate these difficult, highly personal, and increasingly painful moments, taking time to think, analyze, and reflect on what’s swirling around us – and then act! For one thing, our medieval predecessors were victimized by a subsistence crisis that made life and death immediate and paramount, then worse from disease, chaos, and the conflicts that followed. Still, what emerged in the centuries to come under capitalism were revolutionary changes that took the world from subsistence to abundance, all while sweeping away the old order and reducing its vestiges to anachronisms in fulfillment of modernity and its promise of steady and uninterrupted progress. Capitalism was surely an advance over feudalism because it ended subsistence and made possible mass production to create things essential for human survival, needs, and desires.
Indeed, the history of capitalism is one of progress but all of it based on contradiction and paradox. Capitalist progress is contradictory because it works primarily for the owners of capital and those who serve its interests. It is a system based on the fundamental and irreparable divide between capital and labor. For the capitalist, economic growth for the singular purpose of profit requires that it be gained exponentially and always at the expense of labor power and wages. This is especially true since the end of the nineteenth century, which historians call the epoch of monopoly-finance capitalism, whereby the magnitude of capital accumulation must advance at greater and greater levels leading to the total control and ownership of government and all institutions that make up what we call civil society. Thus in our times we behold the spectacle of a handful of oligarchs owning and controlling most of the wealth in the United States, while the vast majority sinks into deprivation and the fear of impoverishment and destitution.
Herein we find paradox. Stunning achievements in the ways we make things characterize the contemporary global experience in America. But unlike fourteenth century peasants, who starved and died because there wasn’t enough food, most working Americans are sinking into greater poverty amid a wondrous spectacle of commodities that most cannot afford without credit and debt, whether of things or of services they actually produce or construct themselves. Growing poverty in an ever-expanding sea of plenty defines all progress under capitalism. Moreover, we are not medieval peasants bound to the soil but free to determine our destinies, individually and collectively.
Undoubtedly, this is a revolutionary moment in America. But the counterrevolution is much stronger because it has turned fascist. Such is the moribund state of Late Capitalism that can only bring greater conflict and destruction among and between us. Remarkably or so it seems, we continue to rely on the gurus working for capitalist elites who tell us what is happening and why and what we should expect but never what we really need to know and do. American fascism breeds on the capacity of the ruling capitalist class to feed on the anarchy it perpetuates below it, consciously serving its own ends, which is the defense of the profit system at all costs.
This is why COVID-19 is the perfect disease to fuel the resurgence of fascism in the United States and much of the rest of the capitalist world. Here, the disaster of economic collapse made worse by Trump & Co.’s handling of the pandemic only demonstrates the simple and cruel truth that the crisis is benefiting the very people who were responsible for it and before the coming of COVID-19 sealed the deal and created what is quickly becoming a full-blown depression. The rich are getting richer and fewer in numbers as the poor become poorer and constitute an even greater multitude of people left behind.
Yet, despite the moribund state of monopoly-finance capitalism that has taken us further toward fascism as the result of a pandemic, the magical spell of capitalist propaganda continues to promote false consciousness among our people that only serves to advance the myriad powers of capital itself. We know that advertising and public relations motivated by deception and manipulation has long driven consumers to buy what they do not need, colonizing our minds on the basis of capitalist imperatives and thus owning them in the same way they own things. Just as capitalists privatize space and time in the production of commodities, so they seek to privatize our minds by bending them to their wishes. The outcome is moronic thought and action that motivates privatized individuals to decide that it is their right to do whatever they want in the name of liberty, freedom, and democracy. Talk about mass psychosis!
Here’s what I see daily in Greensboro and which a top official said is now a coronavirus hot spot in the making. An alarming number of people refuse to wear masks and for a variety of reasons but all seemingly based on personal preference. Social scientists will soon be discerning trends and creating categories of differentiation. I can’t wait to read this stuff. Nevertheless, it is clear that the sizable element of the unmasked in our city cannot be reduced to Republican and White. No way. Many black people aren’t wearing masks and for different reasons. We have educated young people of all colors who don’t think they need them, just like the 16 students who decided to get together over drinks and then all become infected. Denial of reality about COVID-19 runs across the social order and reflects the anarchy that now has us spinning. Where are we going with this?
Meanwhile, the coronavirus numbers keep rising in Greensboro and Guilford County which, I am told, lead the current surge of the disease in North Carolina. As of my last check on statistics two days ago, there were 46,855 lab-confirmed cases, 1,168 deaths, and 846 currently hospitalized. The number tested out of a population of 10.5 million remains miserably low at 667,422. This was the same day CNN reported a record high for COVID-19 hospitalizations in North Carolina, the highest number since May 16, when 86 percent of the hospitals in the state were finally reporting daily numbers to the state health department. What about the rest, I wondered? CNN also stated that North Carolina averaged about 1,240 new cases per day over the last week, an increase of about 20 percent for the previous seven-day period. A week ago, Chris Cuomo interviewed Mandy Cohen, the director of the state’s department of health and human services, on his late night show. Cohen put a positive public relations spin on matters, before telling Cuomo that North Carolinians must learn how to live with a certain amount of comfort with COVID-19. Thanks a bunch, Mandy.
Meanwhile, so many people I see in my own limited trips for groceries and medical appointments go about their business without masks, not caring a damn about anyone but themselves, primarily because they believe they have the right to do whatever they want and whenever they want. They are like addicts, really. But this is much more than addiction to drugs or alcohol or codependency or whatever other pap being generated by pop psychology in its now utterly degraded form. It is instead mainly about a culture of narcissism long in the making and now a cardinal feature of the crisis that is full blown and driving capitalist elites toward fascism, which I and others have defined as the rule of finance capital itself. Among the multitude, narcissism is a product of capitalist privatization because it subjects fragmented and alienated individuals to capitalist imperatives now so deeply embedded in mass and individual consciousness that it will take a revolutionary sea change to challenge them.
And our history shows that none of us are immune from these processes. The early efforts of psychologists in the service of capitalists to colonize the minds of Americans during the Great Boom of the 1920s set a benchmark for all that followed. Citizens became consumers who were taught to believe that real democracy is found in the marketplace and not the polling place. The right to consume aimed at the gratification of desires – this master subterfuge is a totalizing force in the shaping of consciousness among Americans who are complicit in maintaining a system of private enterprise that robs them of material needs while convincing them there is no alternative. The idea that capitalism and democracy are synonymous and essential to the eternal mission of fulfilling the false promise of prosperity for all is the mystery of all mysteries that generates the successive privatization of the mind at the expense of the soul. When everything is for sale to those who believe they have the freedom to buy regardless of affordability, the privatized mind devours the spirit.
What all this means historically is that rugged individualism has turned into its opposite as each of us becomes increasingly subject to the dictatorial rule of capital and its personifications, the capitalist ruling class and its managers, in this case the rabid fascists of Trump & Co. It is the dictatorship of capital over labor, individually and collectively. Each of us to varying degree is ruled by its myriad forces of deception, manipulation, control and domination. Capitalist exploitation of American labor has never been greater. The size and magnitude of what some economists call the reserve army of labor due to the meteoric rise of unemployment since COVID struck only months ago will complete the neoliberal agenda by establishing a new regime of labor at drastically lower wages. At the same time the daily drill aimed at our heads tells us there is no choice but to accept this rotten system, leading us into a state of self-pulverization, individually and collectively. While our bodies depend on the extent to which we are required to sell our labor power in the marketplace, our minds are driven constantly toward the consumption of what we produce. A system based on the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of so few who manage to hold our destinies in their hands can only do so if they keep us trapped in the force field of the market, which they argue must be privately owned and controlled because this is the basis of American democracy. They succeed when they are objectively at their weakest but only for their amazing capacity to privatize our minds which we, up to now, allow them to do.
This is no easy matter to grasp. For now let us consider that the problem in all of us is the extent to which we continue to think essentially in terms of “I” instead of “we.” Good people are turned when self-interest trumps mutual interests. Rugged individualism reduces people to believing that their opinion equals a fact because their supposed individuality has been shaped by the dominant ideas of the dominant class. When ruling elites spout nonsense in the name of liberty, democracy, the Constitution and national loyalty, we are not just talking about Trump & Co., which now extends to the Republican Party leadership at all levels of government and business, we are talking as well about the thousands of morons who will be in Tulsa tomorrow to show just what good Americans they are.
Such is life in the moment of a decidedly fascist turn. American Behemoth is now at full strength and must be slain by the multitude. That means us. Conscious efforts to create real democracy based on the public ownership of wealth and the forging of a socialist alternative is one choice. Fascism as the endgame of capitalism is the other. To achieve lasting progress requires the reversal of all current forms of privatization bound up in a great movement of our people that begins in the spirit of finding affinity with others and establishing cooperation as a normative value. In the process we will open our minds and hearts to the sea change that must come if we are to survive.