Civilization was built by the exploitation of human labor. There were those who did the exploiting and those who were exploited. That’s how things got done. It’s how empires were built. It’s the way things have always been and the way things would always have to be. That was the central theme of my colleague’s argument and I agreed with him all the way up until that last part: that this was the way things would always have to be.
His argument was tautological:
Human labor has been exploited throughout human history in the building of civilization, therefore, the exploitation of human labor is a necessary component of civilization building. Thus to advocate for the end of human exploitation is tantamount to advocating for the end of human civilization.
In all due fairness, he didn’t actually explicitly state that last part, but it was implied given that the context of our discussion was the Occupy Wall Street movement and the widening wealth gap in America. The fact that there is a wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots that has significantly widened over the past 30 years was not in dispute. In fact, there wasn’t much of a dispute going on at all. I wasn’t arguing with him. For the most part, I was asking questions and listening to what he had to say.
His point of contention was that the people who were protesting didn’t have the fundamental understanding that he had of “how the world actually works.” I found this line of reasoning quite fascinatingly wrong. It seemed quite the opposite to me: people were protesting because they understood quite clearly “how the world actually works.” Rather than accepting it though, as my colleague seemed to have done, they were fed up with it and were actively trying to change it.
My colleague’s argument went further: if people in the 99 percent actually understood how the world worked and how they too were benefitting from the long-established system of the world that rewarded the 1 percent who owned the corporations that made everything from automobiles to Zyban, they would be ashamed of themselves. He was right; they would be ashamed. In fact, I believe they are ashamed. They’re outraged too. This is precisely what the big stink is all about.
Whether or not you agree with all the principles and practices of the Occupy Wall Street movement, you should recognize and appreciate that at its core it is about seeking to change the way things are and not accepting that the status quo is the way things must always be. This is important because it is exactly that kind of desire in the human spirit manifesting itself in the physical world that has brought about monumental social changes such as, say, the end of slavery in America. Imagine my colleague’s same argument applied to that? It would go something like this:
Civilization was built upon slavery. There were those who were slaves and those who were masters. It’s the way things have always been and the way things will always be. The slaves should be thankful and grateful that their masters are taking care of them.
Now, one could argue that we’ve just replaced one form of slavery with another; that there are still masters and slaves, albeit wage-earning slaves. The problem with that argument, however, is that a wage-earning “slave” isn’t a slave in the same way that a person who was kidnapped, chained up, shipped like cargo to a foreign land, and sold to an owner, was a slave. While somedays we might feel like we are “slaving away” for the company or institution we work for, we are not slaves in the same way that actual slaves were slaves.
That’s because the world, in fact, is not the way it has always been. Overall, it’s rather a better place than it used to be. And it is a better place precisely because of the deep desire to make it a better place that burns at the core of our collective human spirit. That’s not to say that every human being carries that flame within them. Stalin certainly didn’t. He slaughtered millions in an effort to snuff out that flame and maintain the status quo. Powerful and wealthy men who benefit from the way things are have a tendency to not want things to change—unless of course that change benefits them—and they will go to great lengths to prevent any changes that may, whether real or perceived, be to their personal detriment.
I think we can do better than accept that the world is the way it has always been and will forever be based on the exploitation of human labor and the environment. To do so is to ignore the human need to improve the world we live in. To do so is to become cynical and accept being only 1 percent of our human potential rather than taping into the other 99 percent of what we could be. To accept the world in its current state is a complete failure of our humanity. We can do better.