History Teaches: Deadly Pandemics Can Topple Whole Economic Systems — Like This Pandemic Is Toppling Ours

From Black Death to fatal flu, past pandemics show why people on the  margins suffer most | Science | AAAS

The right wing and our punditry are beside themselves that Americans are refusing to go back to work. Um, no — they’re not refusing “to go back to work”, they’re refusing to return to work 1) that doesn’t suit them or their skill sets, 2) doesn’t pay what the work should be paid and 3) doesn’t fit into their lives. This is how workers are supposed to think — not as the slave-like drones conservatives want American workers to be. Leave America and you discover that the rest of the world works in order to live. Americans, by contrast, live to work. It’s not because we love our work; it’s because, in essence, we’re meant to be chained to it. Something in conservatism loves the idea of a workhouse where the indigent work for virtually nothing until they drop dead. Their hands or legs are easily replaced by another. The worker herself is irrelevant; all that matters is that “the work” gets done so the bosses atop the food chain can get paid.

The Black Death that blew through Europe in the fourteenth century (Historian Barbara Tuchman called it “the calamitous 14th century in the subtitle of her brilliant book “A Distant Mirror” — her deep dive into the century that, in Europe — produced not only the Black Death but also, during the same time frame, the hundred years war (between England and France) and the papal schism that put one pope in Rome and a second pope in Avignon, France. For a short time, a third pope also entered the picture but he soon disappeared.

The feudal system that dominated Europe worked vertically. Atop it was the king. Below him were all the families that supported his being king. Below them were the far flung landowners of the realm and wealthy merchants and below all of them were the vassals — the dirt poor peasants working the dirt for everyone above. This was economic slavery. No vassal was ever going to get rich and set himself up in business somewhere. Such things didn’t happen. The system wasn’t designed for anything to happen. Money pre-capitalism was undynamic in nature. A country was worth what it could physically produce. Or pilfer in war.

The bubonic plague killed more than half the population in many places — even more in some, less in others. It devastated the work force. Even as the world succumbed to plague all around them, the healthy tried to keep life going. People still had to eat. Crops had to be farmed and, somehow, gotten to market — if there was still a market. The plague pandemic cut down the number of available hands to do that farming to a bare minimum. Now, the peasant who lived on “Sir John’s” land might normally have been obligated to pick Sir John’s crops so that he could generate income for his estate and family by getting that produce to market. But Sir John’s neighbor — Sir Neville — was offering actual cash to Sir John’s vassals if Sir John’s vassals would pick Sir Neville’s crops first. It’s not like Sir John was a prince who treated them like princes.

So, off to Sir Neville’s Sir John’s vassals went. And, just like that, feudalism in Europe died.

In time, the guilds arose — representing the crafts and then labor in general. With the rise of capitalism, labor became a commodity. Industrialization meant mass production which meant the likelihood of abuse on the factory floor. Industrialization became another form of feudalism to the laborers until the unions — based on the old guilds — rose up and demanded fairness in wages and working conditions.

The Black Death gave life to labor.

Though the death wasn’t anywhere near as catastrophic as during the plague, the coronavirus pandemic still reached everywhere with the potential for mass death. If your loved one’s body is in the pile, you’re not going to measure one pandemic’s body count versus another. You’re mourning a loss that changed your world.

The way this pandemic has already changed ours.

We’ve experienced the “for worse part”. There is a “for better” out there. It’s coming and, if the workers of the world unite? We may see the pandemic with mixed emotions. For some people, this new world will be their salvation.

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