Welcome back. In Part One, I outlined our obsession with modernity, and looked at some of the problems surrounding it. In this post, I will examine in more detail the reality of modern life for the majority of so-called modern people, or as I term us, the Modern Peasants.
So who is a Modern Peasant? I am. You probably are too. Most people in Western societies are, and most of them don’t realise it. We are the people who work like slaves in exchange for the privilege of rubbing up alongside the ruling classes. We are fed with the dream that we matter, that we can join the elite. This dream is nourished with all manner of trinkets and deceptions that distract us from the fact that we, the many, work primarily for the benefit of a few.
This is not meant to be a political statement, as such. Despite what is written in manifestos, most political systems boil down to the same scenario. Left wing, right wing, it’s only the window dressing that changes, because when these ideas become reality, they are put in the hands of human beings, and human nature is largely the same wherever you go. We all compete for resources, security and dominance. A few are better equipped to win this competition than others. The remainder pick sides and keep their heads down. In our societies, these are the Modern Peasants.
It’s not all bad being a Modern Peasant. Things could always be worse, we could be plain old Peasants, without the comfortable trappings of modernity! The system in which we exist has brought us many gains. In theory, we have better health than ever before. We live longer lives, with more gadgets to help us. Travel and communication have never been easier. We live in a world that, hypothetically, offers us more choices than any of our ancestors ever had. Information and education are literally at our fingertips. On balance, in many ways life has never been easier. It’s just not all that it’s made out to be.
Anyone who’s worked in any type of sales will tell you that features are meaningless without benefits. So let’s have a look at the net benefits of some features of modern living. This is a huge topic, so I’ll only look at a couple of areas in detail. Long life is a great place to start, and kind of ties together a lot of features often held up without much examination of their benefits or otherwise.
Improved understanding of human health, nutrition and medicine have extended our lives like never before. We are living for longer, and many previously widespread causes of death have been eradicated or greatly reduced. But is our health generally significantly better than previous generations? We may have control of many horrible diseases through cures and prevention, but we are faced with new issues in their place. Many of our new epidemics are self-inflicted, such as type-2 diabetes, obesity, and drug abuse. Some of these are born of gluttony, but often they are driven by poverty and disenfranchisement. As some types of cancer become treatable and curable, others are becoming prevalent due to sedentary lifestyles, poor diet and environmental factors. Health has improved for some, but those at the bottom of the heap are still waiting for the trickle down. In countries with some sort of social health care system, you at least have a chance of treatment. In countries like the US, if you can’t afford health insurance, the system says you don’t deserve to be cared for. Indeed, many people now face the fact that their children will be the first, since these things have been measured, to have a predicted lifespan shorter than their parent’s generation. Dying younger may yet prove to be an advantage, as we face a return to a world without effective antibiotics, thanks to our lack of wisdom in using them.
Still, the fact is we have longer lifespans than if we were born a hundred years ago. What do we do with this extra time? Primarily, we work. The retirement age seems to increase with the expected lifespan. Living until you’re 83, fit and sound of mind and body, seems great. Until you discover your extra years will be spent at work. The poorer you are, the greatly likelihood your work will destroy your body and if you live long enough to retire, you will be too physically ravaged to enjoy it. Now, old people have always worked in some form. In times where basic survival was a group chore, everyone had a role. But I’m not talking about meaningful work, I’m talking about modern work. The kind of work that feels like work, meaningless tasks that most of us do to pay the bills. The reality now is that many, many people will work well past the retirement age of their parents, and probably have less to show for it.
How can this be, in the modern world of long life and security? Well, that’s just another illusion too. Here in New Zealand, home ownership is declining. The Kiwi dream of owning your own house on a quarter acre section, reaching a comfortable retirement with the mortgage paid, is vanishing fast. House prices are so out of control, annual average mortgage payments soak up the average annual wage. This has resulted in more people than ever renting. They will work their whole lives and never own the roof over their head. In fact, the increase in renters has now had the effect of pushing up rental prices to the point where many people can’t afford to even rent a room. Where to next for them? The average house price could fall to $5000, but the flipside of this is that the average house will be a 1996 Toyota Corolla. Meanwhile, the average size of a new house has nearly doubled in the last few decades, as only the rich can afford to buy, and builders are businesses who must meet the demands of their market and make as much money as they can. Remember, this is in a “First World” country.
If housing security is perilous, so too is work security. The Modern Peasant must be prepared to retrain and start again several times throughout their life. Workers are just another resource to the all powerful corporations and multi-nationals that decide our fates. Delivering a bottom line to shareholders outweighs any responsibility to the people that actually deliver that pay out. Throw in the ever increasing speed of technological change, and we are all disposable. Globalisation means that people in wealthier countries are forced to compete in a labour market against people who are so poor they will tolerate appalling pay and conditions simply to keep from starving. You may think that these poor people will be lifted up from poverty by their work, but they are not paid enough to get ahead in life. They are only paid enough to keep them at the sweet spot of being capable enough yet desperate enough to make cheap goods. Meanwhile, us Modern Peasants can only afford cheap sneakers because of all the people willing to make cheap sneakers. So we buy them, which supports the demand for cheap sneakers and ensures the whole rotten system perpetuates. We all lose, unless we are shareholders in Cheap Sneakers Inc.
Food security is increasingly becoming an issue. This may sound far fetched in an era of unprecedented obesity, but that same epidemic is a symptom of what modern life has done to the very food we eat. Obesity used to be a rich person’s disease. Previously, only the wealthy could afford to sit about eating all day. Now, in the glorious modern world, obesity has become a poor person’s disease. The wealthy can still gorge themselves, but for a significant number of Modern Peasants, the only food they have economic or physical access to is nutrient poor, processed garbage. Food has become so commodified that priority is given to shelf-life and profit margins ahead of health and well being. Rich people can get fresh food from all over the world. Poor people can’t even get fresh food. Even growing your own food is under threat as land ownership concentrates in the hands of a few, and genetic modification and global trade agreements remove the ability of individuals to feed themselves. Water security is increasingly on the agenda, and this will only become more pertinent as the climate continues to change. Energy security has long been the cause of wars, and will remain so, although the battlefield may shift uncomfortably close to home for some.
This is all connected, work, health, lifespan, economics, freedom, all of it. I haven’t even touched on the divide between who can afford justice and who can’t, the theory and reality of education systems, and how many people fall through the cracks and effectively become invisible, even to the Modern Peasants. I could ramble on all day, but to sum it up I would say: we live longer so we can work longer, buying meaningless junk we don’t need, while our economic security diminishes with every passing day. The very food that is meant to nourish us is killing us. We are sold the illusion that because the supermarkets are full of food, we are all ok. But if the delivery trucks stopped working for even a week, 99% of Modern Peasants are screwed. They have no means or knowledge to provide for themselves, as they have spent their long lives feathering the nests of the rich and powerful.
Are we really better off? Or have we just traded one set of problems for another? We’ve certainly gotten good at convincing ourselves we have things sorted, but is it all a delicate house of cards? We are still living a subsistence life, just by proxy, hidden behind a few middle men. The majority of people are only a few months away from homelessness, from becoming the invisible collateral damage of a system that promises so much yet delivers so little. Who benefits from this system, and how do they get away with it? The rant continues in Part Three!