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common sense optimism

November 13, 2013

The other day, someone brought up an interesting quote from part two of Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, attacking the notion of monarchy and hereditary forms of succession, and asked which came first, oppression as a result of wealth or oppression as means of accumulation? Paine writes:

MANKIND being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance: the distinctions of rich and poor may in a great measure be accounted for, and that without having recourse to the harsh ill-sounding names of oppression and avarice. Oppression is often the CONSEQUENCE, but seldom or never the MEANS of riches; and tho’ avarice will preserve a man from being necessitously poor, it generally makes him too timorous to be wealthy.

To me, it seems as if Paine is taking the position that riches (i.e., wealth inequality) came first in the form of “the distinctions of rich and poor” — which is a knowledge reminiscent of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis — and with it, the consequence of oppression, the latter rarely being the means of acquiring riches.

I’m a bit surprised Paine would take that position, though. For one, he seems to have grasped that property rights create a dispossessed class, and with it, the distinctions of rich and poor (which can be viewed as a legal form of state-backed oppression, and which evokes Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s proposition in his 1754 work, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, that the establishment of property can be seen as the beginning of the evils of rivalry, competition, and the desire of profiting at the expense of others). In his 1797 pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, for example, Paine proposed the radical idea of a basic income guarantee for all US citizens as compensation for “loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.”

Of course, he wrote that two decades after Common Sense. However, the oppression exhibited by the British government and the East India Company alone in their quest for, and acquisition of, riches was one of the primary motivations for the American Revolution, and something Paine and the other revolutionaries were well aware of at the time, so it makes me wonder if that statement wasn’t more ideologically inspired than historically motivated. He was attacking the concept of monarchy and hereditary succession from both a biblical and historical perspective, after all.

It does raise the question, though, of which came first, inequality or oppression. Rather than a ‘chicken or egg’ scenario, however, I think it’s more a case of chicken and egg, especially when talking about capitalism and bourgeois social forms.

On the one hand, we can see that riches/wealth inequality in the economic sphere is carried into the political sphere since the accumulation of profit on the part of capital/the wealthy in the form of money, which itself is a form of social power, gives capital/the wealthy (particularly as a class) a disproportionate political advantage. This, of course, puts poorer people and the working class at a disadvantage on a broader political level, whether via legislation or outright state violence, as the state itself is the political representation of capital, the social relation, that subsumes the capitalist class and working class alike, and which seeks to help resolve the reoccurring crises of overaccumulation that result from the intrinsic contradictions within the capitalist mode of production itself. From this point of view, oppression can be the consequence of riches.

Looking at the inverse, primitive accumulation and accumulation by dispossession, which are grosser forms of political-economic oppression, and economic exploitation stemming from a social relation in which the worker — who gives up their rights to control over the production process, the product of their labour, and the value incorporated in the production — receives the value of their labour power and nothing else, which is a much subtler forms of oppression, are sources of riches in the form of means for the appropriation of surplus value by capital and the ruling class. From this point of view, oppression can be the means of riches (and in the case of primitive accumulation, it can even be argued that oppression in this form was the ‘original sin’ rather than riches).

So, looking at it this way, oppression can be both the cause and consequence of riches, and I think the relationship is reciprocal rather than causal (especially since I’m not a fan of first cause arguments). To use a Buddhist metaphor, it’s as if two sheaves of reeds were to stand leaning against one another. If one were to pull away one of those sheaves of reeds, the other would fall; if one were to pull away the other, the first one would fall.

And this leads me to another thing that bothers me about this. As Paine infers in the opening sentence of his attack on monarchy, the idea of one being the consequence of the other essentially presupposes that there was a period in our evolution as a species when there was no oppression or inequality, a proverbial Garden of Eden in which neither was known until the arising of one, inequality and distinctions of rich and poor (due to the instigation of a wicked serpent, perhaps) begat the other, oppression.

I’m not convinced that such a time existed, however, and I think these things evolved in tandem throughout history, along with things like cooperation, generosity, and egalitarianism. Although, to be fair to Paine and the point he was trying to make about the existence of a more equal state of affairs prior to the existence of monarchy and hereditary succession, many of the more ‘primitive’ societies we’ve studied (i.e., hunter-gatherer societies) do seem to have more egalitarian social structures than we have in our more ‘civilized’ societies, which leads me to believe that our ancient ancestors may have had similar, egalitarian social structure, just not as idealized as they’re sometimes made out to be.

In essence, I believe that, as a species, we’re neither a perfect nor fallen creation; we’re the product of material forces that have evolved into creative and producing beings, and through the social nature of that creative and productive activity, we collectively create our nature, our social consciousness, our reality. And because of this, we’re not simply limited to a modern world characterized by oppression and distinctions of rich and poor dominated by an aristocracy of wealthy capitalists and moneyed corporations instead of kings.

It may seem like there’s no alternative, that we’ve reached the ‘end of history’ and the final phase of our socio-cultural evolution; but I honestly think we have the capacity to create a world characterized by equality and material abundance in which things like distinctions of rich and poor and oppression truly become superfluous.

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