What Really Happened, Who Knew, and When Did They Know It?



History is about what happened. But in many cases there is the additional question of what really happened. In some cases, there aren't a lot of people who know what really happened and in many of these cases, they don't find out until much later.

In this essay, I am going to describe two major events in history and make the case that nobody really knew what really happened until much later, and that many people still don't know what happened. Then I am going to describe a third event which is underway now which I think we could understand much better if we consider it in the light of the first two examples.

At this point, you are probably saying, "Huh?" so I'll try to be more specific from here on.

The first historical event I would like to describe is the abolition of slavery. It is well known when the various countries of the world officially banned slavery. We also know that illegal slavery still thrives in most countries of the world in spite of being illegal. But the question I would like to ask is why did the people of the world decide at more or less the same time that slavery should be abolished and then make it illegal?

Moralists might argue that the idea of slavery has grated on sensible people all those thousands of years while slavery was ubiquitous, and it just happened that in the nineteenth century, the guilt became so overwhelming that they began active abolitionist campaigns. These broke the back of slavery as an accepted institution.

I don't think that's what really happened. It seems pretty clear to me that for thousands of years, slavery was economically profitable for the slave owners and slave traders. In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution introduced methods of utilizing energy from coal and oil, and applying that energy to many of the tasks formerly done by slaves. This made slavery uneconomical over a period of time and over different geographic regions. This removed the resistance to the abolitionists and allowed for the institutional change. The abolitionists were there during all those centuries, but it took the harnessing of powerful forms of natural energy in order to actually get rid of slavery.

So, to answer my title question, I would say that the Industrial Revolution really did away with slavery; that nobody knew that was the reason at the time; and that most people don't realize that is the reason even today. Instead, they give the credit to someone like Wilberforce or Lincoln.

The second historical event was the movement of the majority of the population (over 90%) from farms to cities. What really happened here was again due to the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of steam and later gasoline and diesel powered machinery, it was no longer economical for a farmer to make a living farming a quarter, or even a section, of land. The machinery allowed a single farmer to manage hundreds or thousands of acres so as a result, there became fewer and fewer farmers as a percentage of the population.

Back to the title questions again, who knew? It seems clear to me that people during the transition (say from 1850 to 1950) didn't understand that the transformation was happening, or if they did, they tried to stop or reverse it. They sang songs asking, "How're you going to keep them down on the farm?". They decried the loss of the traditional rural lifestyle with its values and mores. They tried to "preserve the family farm" with government subsidized price supports. Nobody said, "Isn't it wonderful that we can now produce the food we need with so few people that most of us can go do something else?" There might have been some who even felt guilty that they had somehow put one over on God by eating their bread but skipping the part about the sweat of their faces.

Now, it could be that a lot of people knew what was going on, but it was just too tempting to take those price supports and subsidies and maintain the rural lifestyle. In many ways farm life is preferable to hectic urban living. It is also true that political power which was established when most people were farmers, gave the farmers a huge lopsided advantage when the demographics changed. This allowed the farmers to keep giving themselves these price supports even though they no longer represented anything near a majority of the population. So, if there were some people who knew what was really happening, they weren't talking about it.

So, with those two examples of historical events we can see that both the fostering of change and the resistance to change can be quite distinct from the real causes of the change and may have nothing to do with what really happens.

With those examples in mind, let's take a look at a change underway in the US right now - the flight of "jobs" to foreign countries. Let's look for something obvious.

In the case of slavery and the move from farms to cities, the effects of the Industrial Revolution should have been obvious. It should have been obvious that in spite of the work of the Luddites, there was no stopping the mechanization that was going on. It also should have been obvious what the effects of mechanization would have on human labor. It shouldn't have taken a rocket scientist to figure out that slaves and small farmers would eventually not be competitive against machines.

Now that mechanization has replaced virtually all manual labor, the term 'work' has taken on a completely different meaning. 'Work' used to mean 'dig', 'lift', 'carry', 'pound', 'fasten', 'paint', and a host of other things that people no longer do because machines do them instead. We now use the term 'work' to mean 'file', 'serve', 'check', 'read', 'copy', 'open', 'judge', 'code', 'watch', 'buy', and a host of other things that take more brain than muscle to do. And, just about the time we got used to these service and clerical jobs, machines started doing them as well.

So, looking for something obvious, I think it is right there in front of us. It used to be, for thousands of years, that it took almost everybody, working at their job almost all day, almost every day, in order to produce the things we needed and wanted. Now, it only takes a relatively few people, hardly working at all, to produce way more than we need, and everything we should reasonably want. Obviously, the old notion of 'job' will change just like the notion of 'work' changed. The fact that these 'jobs' are moving to third-world countries is simply an indication of the shift that is underway. It is not an indication of a problem but a disruption, or relocation. Of course it will cause trouble for some individuals just as some found it difficult to throw down the shovel and learn to run a back hoe. But in looking at the consequences to the overall US economy, I think it is much more important for the US to be in the lead learning how to manage whatever replaces 'jobs' than it is to hold on to a larger share of the old 'jobs' that are on their way out anyway.

The whole point of this essay is that it seems like it should be possible to notice some inevitable changes going on, to figure out how to take advantage of the changes and minimize the adverse effects, and to "go with the flow" of the changes rather than resisting them. I don't think this has happened very often historically, and I am sure history doesn't care a whit. The changes happen anyway.

Please send me an email with your comments.

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