Note - Last week I posted the Intro to this series. If you haven't read it, you can read it here.
Before one can understand modern day progressivism, one must understand its historic development, which actually began in Europe under the heavy hand of European monarchies.
Before the Industrial Revolution, Europeans (and their several offshore colonies) operated as agrarian based societies. The source of wealth was property, all property was a gift of the monarch, and the people who lived on the land, who worked the land, were beholden to their noble overlord.
Initially, common people never questioned the right of nobles because it was believed that monarchs, and their lesser nobles, were leaders by divine right. God willed them to rule, and if that were not so, then someone else would be a king, or a duke, or a count. In some countries, the offspring of a noble would inherit his father’s land so long as he swore fealty to the king. The people of the land — serfs or peasants — fell under the authority of their new lord. Because the survival of the peasants depended on the noble’s good graces, they did his bidding almost without question. The reward for their labors was a portion of the food they produced for the landlord. They did not have the right to leave the land. They could not hunt for meat without the noble’s permission. And because they were tied to the land, the land determined the size of human population. There was a direct relationship between the number of people on the land, and the amount of food available to sustain them.
Two remarkable events transpired that signaled a change in the relationship between nobles and peasants. The first was the Age of Exploration, which resulted in the discovery and transplantation of new foods found in the Americas and elsewhere. An increase in the abundance of food resulted in an increase in the size of human populations among commoners. The second event was the industrial revolution. As more foods were produced, trading centers developed near well-traveled crossroads and a merchant class was established. With the development of industry, mostly cottage industries, people were able to move from agricultural labors to producing and selling goods and services. It was the beginning of human mobility, mostly with the blessing of the noble, but some times not.
Amazingly, with minor exception, the first major change in the relationship between the monarch and his lesser nobles did not originate from within the peasant class, but with the nobles themselves. Fed up with high taxes levied upon them to sustain King John’s wars with France, the nobles forced him into signing a pact with them; it provided that the king could not tax his subjects without their permission. This great pact or Magna Carta was actually the beginning of a constitutional relationship with the monarch; for the first time, it limited his power. But even if the Magna Carta did not benefit peasants initially, over a period of time the commoner would become its principle beneficiary.
As the industrial period progressed, more and more people shifted from agriculture to producing and selling goods. It was the genesis of villages, then towns, and eventually cities. Peasants became “workers.” Property, as a source of wealth, now included small factories and shops. For the common people, their labor still fed them — but currency replaced a percentage of food production. It was the beginning of capitalism, founded in industrialism. Goods were produced to meet the demand and the higher the demand, the more money the industrialist made. Factory owners were becoming wealthy, while the wages paid to worker remained static.
Inflation is the result of increased wealth. As more people become wealthy, they can afford to pay increased prices for goods and services. Industrialists and merchants, understanding that they could charger higher prices, willingly raised them. The problem was the workers' static wage. At first, workers didn’t expect the property owner to share his wealth, but they did anticipate a higher wage in return for their labors. After all, without their labor, there could be no wealth. When property owners refused to reward workers with a higher wage, particularly when they were working twelve-hour days, the workers became resentful.
It was this particular idea — distributing wealth — that led to the first “progressive” movements. Workers may have been free from the land and the nobles that owned it, but they became every bit as enslaved to the factories and the businesses. In the mid-1800s, a man named Karl Marx developed a theory about the source of wealth, published in the Communist Manifesto. He correctly observed that as industrialists became richer, workers suffered from dangerous working environments, long hours, and that they were becoming poorer.
The new (capitalist) nobility lived comfortably, as did the middle class merchants, whose wealth came at the expense of the working class of people, economically enslaved to the interests of property owners. Over time, the relationship between industrialists and workers deteriorated. Wealthy property owners refused to acknowledge any responsibility to “share their wealth,” and workers became steadily more resentful. It was always possible for workers to quit their jobs, but with more workers than jobs, workers had no advocates and no bargaining chips. It was such an intolerable situation that many parents put their young children to work — just to put food on the table.
In truth, Karl Marx was less concerned about an equal distribution of wealth than he was empowerment. Labor unions became the tool to achieve empowerment. Marx's theory addressed well-defined inequities in the gap between rich and poor, but his solutions were harsh and threatened the status-quo of industrialists. It was a theory that many along the way began to believe that could provide equality to mankind. In time, political parties catering to workers focused on punishing the wealthy, but in such a way that gave power to themselves. For their part, industrialists believed labor unions and politicians were holding them hostage — the so-called Robin Hood principle of economic management.
But as we saw from the seizures of factories in pre-Mussolini Italy, socialist workers (as they were now called) took control of many prominent businesses and proceeded to run them into the ground; eventually they closed down. In the United States during the 1970s, labor unions held White Trucking Company hostage — the owners decided to close the factory, resulting in well-paid union workers being forced into the fast-food industry. From this failure, one can see there needs to be a balance of power and wealth created between the capitalists and those that labor in their businesses. It must be a balanced and reasonable approach that fosters hard work, ingenuity, and meritocracy. Most corporations understand this today, and they are working to provide this balance of interests.
Today's progressives originate from two camps: political socialists who demonize the corporations that create opportunities for both jobs and investment, and unionists who are little more than thieves whom steal from their constituencies. In both camps, profit is a bad thing — as are those who assume the risks of capital investment, which in turn provides opportunity for ordinary people. We understand that the point of capital investment is to increase wealth, but social progressives view this as some kind of economical sacrilege. Equal opportunity only has merit when workers benefit, not their employers.
Today’s Marxists refuse to acknowledge that conditions that once existed in industrially developing countries are very different from contemporary conditions. In spite of the fact that most economic problems are more the result of people making bad decisions, from accumulating massive debt to pursuing “get rich quick” schemes, socialist progressives have developed a hypocritical attitude that more than anything else, benefits politicians and of course, themselves.
Today, we have people that have amassed enough wealth in the corporate world to maintain a good living in retirement, but who now embrace principles that follow outdated Marxist theories. One good example of this is healthcare. Neo-Marxists who have achieved wealth now clamor for a national single-payer health care system so that others can foot the bill; never mind that such nitwits did not have the presence of mind to plan for their later years.
Co-written by Mustang of Social Sense.
Next: More history.