King’s Survey: Winds of Capitalism

800px-Mill_District_-_Pittsburgh
Mill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1940

In which we learn about different responses to climate change

Kids, there’s a strong wind blowing.

—Well, it is winter, after all.

—Winds don’t blow only in winter.

—You know he’s not talking literal winds, right?

—I learned a little about this back when I was in fifth grade. There are different kinds of wind. Westerly winds, trade winds, some others.

Yes, Ethan. But the wind I’m talking about is the wind of industrial capitalism.

—Oh, industrial capitalism! Of course. You know that’s actually my very favorite wind.

—What are some other kinds of wind that you like, Em?

—Oh, you know, the usual ones.

—Like what, Em? I mean, given that you’re the expert.

May I, Em?

—Please do, Mr. K.

I think what Emily is trying to say is that capitalism—an economic system based on private ownership of property and production—has been around for a long time, and existed in different forms. In the colonial era and early republic, we had what is sometimes called mercantile capitalism: a form of capitalism based on largely hand-made goods and commodities. With the coming of the industrial revolution, the essence of which is mass-manufacturing by machines in factories, we entered the age of industrial capitalism, which is the topic at hand. That process began before the Civil War but really intensified after it. In the twentieth century we saw the rise of consumer capitalism, a shift in focus from the production side to the consumption side as the real engine of the economy. Here in the 21st century, people speak of financial capitalism, one in which the role of banks and speculation is central. Mercantile, industrial, consumer, mercantile: you can think of them as the north, south, east and west winds of capitalism.

—Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Thank you, Emily.

—God, Em, you are shameless.

—Thank you, Sadie.

As I was saying, there’s a strong wind blowing. The thing about the wind is that you can’t see the air itself, even as you see and feel its effects. Those effects are clear, and they’re global. All over the world (though at this point mostly in Europe and the United States), factories are springing up. Cities are growing. People are leaving farms and heading to those cities and factories. Old jobs and ways of life are disappearing; new ones are rising to the fore. The speed and power of this wind is especially apparent in the United States, particularly in cities like Chicago. Huge buildings are going up. Transportation systems are sprawling. People are flocking in from all over the world, because a voracious demand for labor is bringing immigrants to the nation’s cities. There’s a crush from all the crowding, all the jostling.

—Is that a good thing? I can’t quite tell from the way you’re talking.

Is the weather a good thing, Kylie?

—Well, sometimes. Sometimes the weather is nice. Sometimes it rains or storms.

—But the weather is the weather. It’s not really something we have any control over. It’s not really good or bad. It just is.

That’s right, Jonah. Of course, our notion of whether the weather is good or bad may be depend a little on our perspective. Most of us like sunshine, most of the time. Most of us don’t like rain. But if there’s been a drought, we may welcome the rain. Sunshine may bring with it heat and humidity. That kind of thing.

Let me take this idea a step further. Our perspective on the wind may be a matter of what the weather has been like lately. But more often than not, it’s a matter of where we happen to be standing when the weather breaks out, so to speak. If you’re Chris here, and the wind powers your literal or figurative sails, you may be very happy that a strong breeze (which is what you might call it) is blowing. If you’re Brianna, working out in a field, the wind may chill you to the bone. If you’re Paolo, relatively secluded from the wind thanks to a house in the valley, it may not matter to you one way or the other. Of course, there’s always the chance that if the wind gets strong enough it will blow his house down. But that’s unlikely, and a lot of other houses are likely to get blown away before his is. And he might have insurance in any case. Which is to say that Paolo can’t control the weather. But he might be able to limit its effects.

And that’s something that Jonquil here sees quite clearly. She sees how Chris is doing, and how Paolo is doing. And how Brianna is doing, too. And she asks, “What can I do to protect myself from the wind?” She may go a step further and ask, “What can I do protect us—me and Brianna, but also others for whom the wind has had a deeply chilling effect?” And so it is that she organizes people to respond to the weather. Her efforts may involve getting Brianna to change the way she works. But it’s also likely to involve trying to get Chris to change, and maybe even Paolo, too. Which might be a tricky proposition.

—Don’t mess with Paolo man. He’ll bite your head off.

Exactly. Then again, Chris, Paolo might not be as bad a guy as you might think. Or maybe Paolo will find it in his interest to help Brianna in ways that might not be obvious at first.

—Wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

Maybe not. Maybe that won’t matter, because Jonquil’s crowd may be able to exert enough pressure on Paolo to change whether he wants to or not.

There’s one other thing to remember: whether or not Paolo, or Jonquil, or anyone else responds or doesn’t respond to that wind, it’s important to keep in mind that the wind itself isn’t static. It shifts, in ways that are hard to predict. Maybe it dies down; maybe it intensifies. People can take advantage of the weather (or not), but they can’t control the weather. Sometimes it may seem that way for a while, and sometimes like-minded people who inhabit a similar position on the landscape can benefit over time more than others. Weather lasts forever. But the weather, so do speak, doesn’t.

So what’s my larger point here, kids?

—Always take a jacket.

—Protest climate change.

—Buy a house in a valley.

Um, can we think a little less literally?

—Well, yes, Mr. K., but that’s less fun. Besides, it’s enjoyable sometimes to frustrate your cute little analogies.

Guilty as charged, Em. But would you mind telling me what the analogy here actually is? What the wind is analogy for?

—You said it yourself. Capitalism.

Yes. Right. I guess what I really mean is who Chris, and Brianna and Jonquil are in the analogy.

—They’re the people who are dealing. Chris is like a factory owner. Brianna is like a worker. Jonquil is like one of the people who try to organize the workers, what do you call that—a union.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

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