General recovery

My item Monday which, unlike my item for Tuesday, I decided not to suppress, touched on the advantages of feudalism over e.g. socialism and capitalism. It has long struck me as the unexplored option in our ideological cold wars. That Left and Right are united in ridicule of the “feudal” economic system points me to its attractions. It was, after all, compatible with a very high order of civilization; whereas, Left and Right are compatible only with barbarity.

But now I am bombarded with what might be called the Penicillin Letters. These are from good-hearted folk who fear I may have overlooked antibiotics, vaccinations, anaesthesia, and other laboratory thrills. Alternatively they note that with the world’s present population, but without modern industrial methods of farming and distribution, there could be starvation issues. Some accuse me of the post-modern irony of using some of the devices that were not available in the thirteenth century. A couple of wits observed that I am myself published in an electronic medium.

Starting with the easiest, I reply that this last is an empty charge. For in the thirteenth century, this blog would not have been necessary. Had we world enough and time, I would respond in a more detailed way (as I have sometimes done) about the methods our ancestors used in place of the noisome contraptions we use today — to the same end, but with economy of means. It is possible to characterize the entire modern age as a make-work project. (There, I just did it myself.)

In a time study I read, some decades ago, modern housework was compared to that of a mere century before. It was found that the modern “housewife” (a category still recognized as late as 1980) spent more time on her domestic chores, than her great-grandmother did without the help of “modern conveniences.” (I’d guess the great-grandma also did a better job.)

The trick of the study was to count machine-minding and set-up times, which the advertisers are loath to do; and to discount pointless activities. Of course, great-grandma spent the time actually working; the modern housewife more time, but mostly in a fog. For exercise she might add more time still, going to a gym.

A case more effective could be made by piling on the time required to earn the cash to obtain the machines which our contemporary “domestic scientists” think they need; including the car to deliver and collect children who, in the olden days, could walk.

You’ve got me on penicillin, however. Until I confess that I find no reason to ban the stuff. Or to ban anything, for that matter, that has some defensible, specialized use. Even the back-hoe, for that matter: which one reader recalls having been used to dig the hole in which a particular great-grandma was buried. It was a nice touch: the family’s own back-hoe. Families used to dig their own graves, without back-hoes, back when. But at least the family tradition of cost-benefit analysis was kept alive. (It would have cost them much more to hire professionals.)

Few appear to understand that technological improvements are cumulative, not “progressive.” We sleep on the shoulders of giants, &c. But they accumulate only so long as the civilization remains alive. After that they are all lost, and the next lot start again from scratch. “Improvements” which reduce the life expectancy of the civilization itself may thus be seen in their true light.

By the way, there were continuous technological advances throughout the Middle Ages (from which all later ones extend). Gentle reader should go there sometime.

As for life expectancy at the more personal level, it is not generally appreciated that people in the High Middle Ages lived longer on average than their descendants from sixteenth until towards the middle of the twentieth century. This can be known by statisticizing European parish records, wherever they survive; but also from reason. The Black Death was, I admit, a setback, but for the rest people lived healthier, outdoor lives. (Even today, rural people tend to outlive urban.) An important point was that they bathed frequently. It is only quite recently in historical time that this mediaeval habit was restored. Penicillin doesn’t come into it.

The biggest error of my critics, however, is expressed in a glib misunderstanding of agriculture, both ancient and modern. It is assumed that high productivity, per acre, requires the surrender of farmers to machines. This is not true. Industrial farming only increases the productivity per farmer. It is one way to make food cheaper by proportion of income. (It hardly makes it better.)

Recent advances in productivity have come not from the invention of ever bigger and more powerful machines, but from the hands-on genetic advances of the “green revolutions.” That is what improves yield per acre, and if you add labour-intensive practices, the yield may be made to improve still more. In Japan, for instance, on tiny traditional paddies, cadastrally unchanged for centuries, with no room for equipment that is not miniaturized, they get seven times the yield of rice that is obtained in Thailand (long among the world’s leading rice exporters).

Indeed those (Japanese) islands, when I was walking around them, were like one unending Victory Garden, on the one-fifth of land that was not mountain. And it was beautiful, in ways that the “wheat-mining” quarter-sections of our North American West cannot be, which lack new vistas around every turn.

Our contemporaries value labour over materials. We’ve made commodities cheap, and put all emphasis on processing. (“Process” is among the chief liberal gods.) I am merely recommending that we reverse this process: enhance the value of materials and make labour cheap. By this course, it would be possible to restore some human qualities to our production, and verily, make the cathedrals affordable again. Hands to work and minds to God, as it were.

But I can see why this course wouldn’t win elections. One must lie to do that, as all our modern “environmentalists” have discovered.