"It is possible now, if the population of the world does not increase too fast, for one mans labour to produce much more than is needed to provide a bare subsistence for himself and his family. Given an intelligent democracy not misled by some dogmatic creed this possibility will be used to raise the standard of life. It has been so used, to a limited extent in Britain and America and would have been so used more efficiently but for war. Its use in raising the standard of living has depended mainly upon three things: democracy, trade unionism, and birth control. All three, of course, have incurred the hostility from the rich. If these three things can be extended to the rest of the world as it becomes industrialized, and if the danger of great wars can be eliminated, poverty can be abolished throughout the whole world and excessive hours of labour will no longer be necessary anywhere. But without these three things industrialism will create a regime like that in which the Pharaohs built the pyramids. In particular, if the world population continues to increase at the present rate, the abolition of poverty and excessive work will be totally impossible."
- Bertrand Russell in "Science and Values" (1952)
Some of my own ideas that were raised by the quote:
History has already amply shown how right Bertrand Russell was 50 years ago when he wrote this piece. The standard of living has actually risen dramatically during the last 50 years in all of those countries where democracy, trade unionism, and birth control have been in general and widespread use. At the same time, the rise in the standard of living has been slower in all of the countries where some or all of these ingredients have been missing.
Of course, there are many countries that lie in between. China has made a good use of population control. A fact of life is that without implementing this country would still be housing an immense and horrible dens of misery and poverty in its countryside. However, ironically the communist masters have at the same time prevented real trade unionism and strictly prevented the birth of true democracy.
Largely because of these handicaps the benefits of rapid industrialization of China have been going to western investors. This has happened to a far greater extent that would unquestionably have been necessary in a situation where real unions and democratic institutions would have been defending also the workers interests in China.
On the other hand, there is the United States. There democracy has made it possible to divide at least a small bit of the enormous wealth. However, largely the weakness of the trade union -system in general has prevented a European-style rise of standard of living in the lowest income classes in the United States. United States would be a much richer country per capita if the religious opposition to birth control would not have kept the number of people in the poorest (and most religious) social groups rising dramatically.
The dismantling of the 'welfare states' that is going on in the west is a result of the exportation of much of the manual work to countries cheaper labor. This work moves to countries which have no labor movement, democracy or birth control. The lack of them is naturally a very basic reason for the cheapness of labor in these countries in the first place.
The incredible fall in prices of international transport after the adaptation of containers is, of course, the main reason why so much of manual labor has been transferred overseas during the last couple of decades. However, the net effect of this is that the amount of people who can contribute to the general tax-base is diminishing here in the industrialized west because of this process.
So, the CEO:s who move production to cheap countries are the one who are in reality dismantling the base for the welfare state. Of course, this process is now mostly publicly presented as dismantling of the excesses that were created by the leftist and liberal-leaning governments of the past.
However, they were not excesses at the time of their creation. They were things that the society could well afford at the time, when also the less well-educated could find work and could so also pay taxes. The growing unemployment of the less educated swells the ranks of those in need of support and eats at the same time the income-base of the society.
These problems are not, however, the legacy of some leftist and liberal mismanagement of state-finances. They are causes by the actions of the owning class, who have no other goal than to maximize their profits, without giving a single thought of the consequences of their actions to their own societies.
A startling fact is that, for example, IT-giant Apple does not produce a single item in the United States anymore and nobody really cares. On the other hand, how could it be that such a simple idea cannot get through. The less there are people dividing the surplus that an economy can create, the more there is to be had by every single member of that society.
Of course, there are limits. There must be enough people for the production of goods and services, but, on the other hand, just the lack of workers drives wages upwards. This trend drives the standard of living upwards. However, it also drives at the same time the productivity upwards. There is an incentive to invest in work-saving equipment, that does not exist if enough cheap workers are available.
When productivity rises, there is a growing ability to pay more to individual workers. However, there will be less of them in any individual corporation. The rise in service-sector has offset this development, but now the moving of the work to overseas does cut off the spiral of good development.
All the societies that really have moved from poverty to even relative general wealth have achieved the goal of controlling the rise of population. Even large, wealthy elites can naturally exist in their separate communities alongside poor masses also in situations where the growth of the population is not controlled. However, the rise of the general level of wealth has always needed that the growth of the population is within reasonable limits.
One of the big secrets of the modern economics is the role that was played by the trade unions in creating the rise of living standards that did produce the modern western societies as we know them.
The role of trade unions was central in forcing the industrialists to hand out at least part of the profits that we mechanization of industry did produce. This influx of new income then to a great deal did produce the mass-markets that a more modern production of consumer goods did demand.
This process did benefit immensely also the owning class. It did the trick by creating the new markets they needed to expand, but this is a dark secret. One just needs to look at things from a bit longer perspective to see this process. Unfortunately, the modern economics is mostly worried about just the next quarter anymore.
This is a secret that the economists of today keep extremely mum about, as according to the modern wisdom in economics all advancement just must come from the owners and the actions of the employed can just hinder the march of the market forces.
However, just now we would benefit immensely from the implementation of Bertrand Russell's original ideas of spreading democracy, trade unionism and birth control all over the world. The evolution of our own standard of living is more and more dependent on the standard of living of people living in the other side of the world.
(This piece was completely refurbished on 6th of December, 2012)
Bertrand Russell is in Facebook at:
"Bertrand Russell is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy along with his predecessor Gottlob Frege and his protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein, and is widely held to be one of the 20th century's premier logicians. He co-authored, with A. N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica, an attempt to ground mathematics on logic. His philosophical essay "On Denoting" has been considered a "paradigm of philosophy." His work has had a considerable influence on logic, mathematics, set theory, linguistics, computer science (see type theory and type system), and philosophy, especially philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics."