Idle Musings on Sir Richard Francis Burton and the Arab Slave Trade

Here again the Demon of Slavery will reign over a solitude of his own creation. Can it be, that, by some inexplicable law, where Nature has done her best for the happiness of mankind, man, doomed to misery, must work out his own unhappiness?

The Lake Regions of Central Africa, Volume I, p. 85.

I didn’t learn about the Arab Slave Trade in school. I don’t remember the Arab Slave Trade ever being the subject of any conversation I’ve ever been involved in, until recently, when I’ve started a few such conversations. Slavery, in modern times at least, seemed to always be assumed to be something White People made happen.

The other night I finished reading Sir Richard Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration. Sir Richard Burton, the eccentric Nineteenth Century British explorer, not Richard Burton (CBE) the eccentric Twentieth Century British actor. The adventures of Burton and his rarely named “companion”, John Hanning Speke, read alternately like a dull economic travelogue, an extremely extended and excessively juvenile Monty Python sketch, a presentation and presumption of accuracy of the racist Hamitic Hypothesis, and, dissonantly, a lament for the tragic state of the people of East Africa in the mid-nineteenth century. As well, for a moment, Burton’s book is a sketch of a plan to eliminate slavery in the region. Clearly Burton was a conflicted fellow in a conflicted time, in East Africa, a terribly conflicted place in the mid-Nineteenth Century.

A particular incident of Burton’s journey has haunted me, as it seems to have haunted Burton — he mentions it twice in his book:

The Kirangozi or Mnyamwezi guide, who had accompanied the Expedition from the coast, remained behind, because his newly-purchased slave-girl had become foot-sore, and unable to advance; finding the case hopeless, he cut off her head, lest of his evil good might come to another.

Volume II, pp. 161-2

This indescribably horrible and likely oft repeated moment came at a time when there were perhaps a half dozen Europeans on the mainland of East Africa, at a time when the internal and Arabian slave trade had continued for untold generations. This was a developed, agricultural society whose economy was driven almost completely by the internal marketing and exporting to Arab lands of slaves and, to a lesser extent, the export of elephant ivory across the Indian Ocean. I can’t help but think that at that moment, unlike almost any other time in White, Upper Class, British, Victorian Burton’s life, there was no such thing as Race. In that moment, there was only Good and Evil, and Burton was seeing the Horror of Evil. Yes, that is a Heart of Darkness reference.

But what could Burton do? The Arab Slave Trade in East Africa was at least 1000 years old. It had been 700 years old when the European Transatlantic Slave Trade began. Burton was almost alone. To hear Burton describe him, his companion, Speke, wasn’t much better than useless. And they were lone Europeans, both very ill, in an extremely violent slaving society which saw them as nothing but (possibly) wealthy interlopers whose lives were worth nothing more than their merchandise that might be bought or stolen.

Burton stayed silent on that bloody path on that bloody day. The foot-sore young woman died, unnamed and unremembered but for Burton’s written memorial.

But, long before Burton ever laid eyes on the poor victim, he was campaigning in his way to end the slave trade in East Africa. Although he had almost died on an earlier journey, speared through the face at the hands of Somali warriors, he wrote home from a ship off the coast with concern for the people he had met and was yet to meet and a suggestion of a military/diplomatic remedy:

By means of two such steamers we shall, I believe, be prepared for any contingencies which might arise in the Red Sea; and if to this squadron be added an allowance for interpreters and a slave approver in each harbour, in fact a few of the precautions practised by the West African Squadron, the slave-trade in the Red Sea will soon have received its deathblow, and Eastern Africa its regeneration at our hands.

From a letter from R. F. Burton, sent to the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, London, from HEIC Sloop-of-War Elphinstone, 15 December 1856, reprinted in Appendix 2 of The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration, Volume II, p. 428.

His letter was not well received:

From H. L. Anderson, Esquire, Secretary to Government, Bombay, to Captain R. F. Burton, 18th Regiment Bombay N. I.

Dated the 23rd July, 1857.
Sir, — With reference to your letter, dated the 15th December, 1856, to the address of the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society of London, communicating your views on affairs in the Red Sea, and commenting on the political measures of the Government of India, I am directed by the Right Honourable the Governor in Council to state, your want of discretion, and due respect for the authorities to whom you are subordinate, has been regarded with displeasure by Government.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your most obedient Servant,

(Signed) H. L. Anderson,
Secretary to Government
Bombay Castle, 23rd July, 1857.”

Volume II, p. 428

It seems the British government had little stomach for interfering with Indigenous and Arab affairs in East Africa, and certainly not in playing the long game Burton had proposed.

But Burton continued. His book about his travels to the Lake Region is certainly a travel narrative, but Burton devotes a remarkable proportion of his tale to description of the economic and political facts and potentials of the region. These details may at first seem to be gathered as a guide to colonial exploitation of East Africa, for example when Burton suggests a Biblical/genetic basis for the European colonial urge to build railroads:

For long centuries past and for centuries to come the Semite and the Hamite have been and will be contented with human labour. The first thought which suggests itself to the sons of Japhet is a tramroad from the coast to the Lake regions.

Volume II, p. 411.

But Burton makes clear a few pages later what his true goal is:

To conclude the subject of commerce in East Africa. It is rather to the merchant than to the missionary that we must look for the regeneration of the country by the development of her resources. The attention of the civilized world, now turned towards this hitherto neglected region, will presently cause slavery to cease; man will not risk his all in petty and passionless feuds undertaken to sell his weaker neighbour ; and commerce, which induces mansuetude of manners, will create wants and interests at present unknown. As the remote is gradually drawn nigh, and the difficult becomes accessible, the intercourse of man — strongest instrument of civilisation in the hand of Providence — will raise Africa to that place in the great republic of nations from which she has hitherto been unhappily excluded.

Volume II, p. 419

This is nothing other than a manifesto of economic development and globalisation as tools to give all people a hand up to greater welfare, happiness, and self-sufficiency. Some might argue that it is also a recipe for colonial exploitation, but exploitation is clearly not the dish Burton dreams of cooking up. “That place in the great republic of nations from which she has hitherto been unhappily excluded” is an aspirational phrase that ranks alongside any of the great Declarations of the United Nations. Perhaps Burton is expressing some paternalism, but nothing in the final sentiments of The Lake Regions of Africa smacks of colonial exploitation.

Burton returned to Britain after this journey with his health shattered. After a heroic series of dangerous adventures in Arabia, Asia, and finally Africa, he never made another journey of exploration more dangerous than a brief visit to Brigham Young’s Salt Lake City. He took a series of uneventful diplomatic postings and turned his attention to writing and translating works from some of the dozens of languages in which he had become fluent. Thirty years after the death of the footsore young lady on that path in East Africa, Burton died at the age of sixty-nine. The slave trade on the island of Zanzibar was abolished seven years later.

In 1953, almost a century after Burton witnessed the beheading of a tired young woman, slaves were part of the Qatari delegation to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Mauritania, in Northwest Africa, banned slavery in 2007.

And I was pretty much unaware of the Arab Slave Trade until I read The Lake Regions of Central Africa. Thank you, Sir Richard Francis Burton, for enlightening me.

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“I am just of middle station”: Tolkien’s “Kullervo”, Kirby’s “Kalevala”, and Editorial Responsibility

. . . no one can really write or make anything purely privately.
— J. R. R. Tolkien, in a letter to W. H. Auden, June 7th, 1955

Last night I stayed up late to finish reading Verlyn Flieger’s edition of some of J. R. R. Tolkien’s youthful undergraduate jottings published under the title The Story of Kullervo. I did so with growing annoyance if not anger as I became more and more convinced that the volume was a betrayal of Tolkien and his memory as well as being a betrayal of a fundamental principal of scholarship.

This volume is yet another in the ever growing collection of Tolkien’s posthumous titles, a collection certainly destined to grow as long as there is a single Tolkien grocery list left unpublished (on paper stock of ever declining quality) between hard covers. This particular slim volume consists in part of two rough versions of an informal talk given by undergraduate Tolkien on the subject of the Finnish folkloric pastiche The Kalevala. These talks were delivered at a time when Tolkien, by his own admission, was unable to read Finnish, and are based on his reading of W. F. Kirby’s translation published in Everyman’s Library in 1907. As well, the volume contains Tolkien’s very rough, unfinished, first and only draught of The Story of Kullervo, a recasting of one of the stories in The Kalevala. The volume concludes with a brief essay by Flieger about The Story of Kullervo as the seed of much that came later in Tolkien’s elaborately imagined mythology. Everything in the volume has been previously published separately elsewhere.

Tolkien’s abandoned project of adapting the story of Kullervo is interesting enough to a Tolkien fancier, but the commentary provided by Flieger is thin and seems to have been largely “phoned in”. And the two versions of Tolkien’s talk are — unsurprisingly — repetitive and, as might be expected of an undergrad talk, pretty juvenile and shallow. Tolkien is obviously excited about this new thing he’s found, but he is, at this point in his career, not yet an expert on anything, let alone on the language and literature of Finland.

While the forty pages or so at the heart of the volume are interesting enough, I find what Flieger has done with this text, or rather, what she has not done, to be a bit of a disturbing misrepresentation of both Tolkien and of this text which he obviously never intended to be published.

The Story of Kullervo is a very rough initial draught of an almost immediately abandoned project to transform a long disjointed verse story from The Kalevala into a coherent story told in prose interspersed with characters’ speeches cast in verse. Tolkien’s process, which was interrupted by abandonment of the project, seems to have been to write the prose passages in order and to write the verse speeches when he could, but to lift passages directly from Kirby’s translation to use as placeholders until inspiration came to him to create original passages. A few of the verse passages are wholey Tolkien’s. Others are made up of Kirby’s lines unchanged, Kirby’s lines modified, and Kirby’s lines intermingled with Tolkien’s own lines. And some few passages are transcribed virtually unchanged from Kirby’s translation. But, apart from one mention of two crossed out lines as being “transferred unchanged from Kirby” (p. 143), Flieger makes no mention of the fact that a not insubstantial portion of this book with “Tolkien” in big letters on the cover is actually verse composed by W. F. Kirby.

Consider the following passages, only a few that might be examples, the first from early in Kullervo’s story:

Now a man in sooth I deem me
Though mine ages have seen few summers
And this springtime in the woodlands
Still is new to me and lovely.
Nobler am I now than erstwhile
And the strength of five within me
And the valour of my father.

Tolkien, The Story of Kullervo, p. 13

“Now I first a man can deem me,
When my hands the axe are wielding.
I am handsomer to gaze on,
Far more noble than aforetime,
Five men’s strength I feel within me
And I equal six in valour.”

Kirby, Kalevala, Runo 31, ll. 239-244

Here, early in the text, Tolkien has already done much to make the passage his own. But as the manuscript proceeds:

Let no sapling sprout here ever
Nor the blades of grass stand greening
While the mighty earth endureth
Or the golden moon is shining
And its rays come filtering fdimly
Through the boughs of Saki’s forest.
Now the seed to earth had fallen
And the young corn shooteth upward
And its tender leaf unfoldeth
Till the stalks do form upon it.
May it never come to earing
Nor its yellow head droop ripely
In this clearing in the forest
In the woods of Sakehonto.

The Story of Kullervo, p. 14

“Let no sapling here be growing,
Let no blade of grass be standing,
Never while the earth endureth,
Or the golden moon is shining,
Here in Kalervo’s son’s forest,
Here upon the good man’s clearing.
“If the seed on earth has fallen,
And the young corn should shoot upward,
If the sprout should be developed,
And the stalk should form upon it,
May it never come to earing,
Or the stalk-end be developed.”

Kirby, Runo 31, ll. 283-294

A little more of Kirby remains in Tolkien’s draught. And then:

Let them herd among the bushes
And the milch kine in the meadow:
These with wide horns to the aspens
These with curved horns to the birches
That they thus may fatten on them
And their flesh be sweet and goodly.
Out upon the open meadows
Out among the forest borders
Wandering in the birchen woodland
And the lofty growing aspens
Lowing now in silver copses
Roaming in the golden firwoods.
. . .
If my herdsman is an ill one
Make the willow then a neatherd
Let the alder watch the cattle
And the mountain ash protect them
Let the cherry lead them homeward
In the milktime in the even.
If the willow will not herd them
Nor the mountain ash protecdt them
And the alder will not watch them
Nor the cherry drive them homeward
Send thou then thy better servants,
Send the daughters of Ilwinti
To guard my kine from danger
And protect my horned cattle
For a many are thy maidens
At thy bidding in Manoine
And skilled to herd the white kine
On the blue meads of Ilwinti
Until Ukko comes to milk them
And gives drink to thirsty Keme.
Come thou maidens great and ancient
Mighty daughters of the Heaven . . .

The Story of Kullervo, pp. 21-23

“Send the cows among the bushes,
And the milkers in the meadow,
Those with wide horns to the aspens,
Those with curved horns to the birches,
That they thus may fatten on them,
And may load themselves with tallow,
There upon the open meadows,
And among the wide-spread borders,
From the lofty birchen forest,
And the lower growing aspens,
From among the golden fir-woods,
From among the silver woodlands.
. . .
“If my herdsman is a bad one,
Or the herd-girls should be timid,
Make the willow then a herdsman,
Let the alder watch the cattle,
Let the mountain-ash protect them,
And the cherry lead them homeward,
That the mistress need not seek them,
Nor need other folks be anxious.
“If the willow will not herd them,
Nor the mountain-ash protect them,
Nor the alder watch the cattle,
Nor the cherry lead them homeward,
Send thou then thy better servants,
Send the Daughters of Creation,
That they may protect my cattle,
And the whole herd may look after.
Very many are thy maidens,
Hundreds are beneath thy orders,
Dwelling underneath the heavens,
Noble Daughters of Creation.

Kirby, Runo 32, ll. 37-82

Here Tolkien weaving himself through Kirby. But finally, at the end of Tolkien’s manuscript, he hasn’t done anything much other than place Kirby’s verse onto his own page with only such changes as might arise from incomplete memorization, as a place holder for future work in the end never undertaken:

Nay my race is not a great one
Not a great one nor a small one:
I am just of middle station:
Kalervo’s unhappy offspring
Uncouth boy and ever foolish
Worthless child and good for nothing.
Nay but tell me of thy people
Of the brave race whence thou comest.
Maybe a Might race has born thee
Fairest child of mighty father.

The Story of Kullervo, p. 37

“No, my race is not a great one,
Not a great one, not a small one,
I am just of middle station,
Kalervo’s unhappy offspring,
Stupid boy, and very foolish,
Worthless child, and good for nothing.
Tell me now about your people,
And the brave race that you spring from,
Perhaps from mighty race descended,
Offspring of a mighty father.”

Kirby, Runo 35, ll. 199-208

I have no patience for misattribution. In the case of The Story of Kullervo as published, W. F. Kirby is denied due credit for his creation, and Tolkien is, through dereliction of editorial and scholarly duty, given undue creative credit for what is at times nothing more than transcribing someone else’s work. I do not in any way think that Tolkien can be accused of plagiarizing Kirby: Tolkien had no intention that his very rough working document would ever be published. Tolkien became, and probably already was as an undergraduate, enough of a scholar that he wouldn’t have dreamt of taking credit for another scholar’s work.

It is unfortunate that Flieger, and Harper Collins, the publisher of The Story of Kullervo, seem to have no such scruples about proper attribution.

An open letter to (some) advocates for those with intellectual disabilities

Dear intellectual disability inclusion advocates who are anti-“segregation” & want full integration, always, everywhere:

Would you never let the intellectually disabled gather with peers? Must they always be integrated into the larger society? As physical challenges often accompany intellectual disabilities, would you prevent them from taking part in adapted physical activities/education? No Special Olympics? Would you prevent them from joining an artists’ collective (I’ve witnessed such a denial myself)? Deny them the opportunity to publicly exhibit their art?

Would you also ban self-support groups for the physically disabled? For Veterans? For cancer survivors? Would you ban the Paralympics?

Would you also ban GSAs? Gay and lesbian nightclubs? Ladies’ Art Nights? Chinese students’ associations? Native Friendship Centres?

I hope not.

But seems that when it comes to people with intellectual disabilities, some people’s idea of “inclusion” has as a fundamental tenet “isolation from peers at all costs, whatever the actual needs or desires of the individual.”

That is a tragically dangerous and damaging mission statement that would not be tolerated by any group that has a voice, indeed, would not be tolerated in a truly inclusive society. And it is a betrayal of a disparate group of too-often-isolated individuals that desperately needs its myriad of long-silenced and ignored voices heard.

Like any other group in our society, those with intellectual disabilities have a need and a fundamental human right to freely associate with their peers. Not enabling  that right — or outright banning it as some “advocates” and groups desire — is not inclusion. It is segregation as damaging to the individual and to the individual’s human spirit and potential as any other form of segregation.

I simply have to end with a song:

A Few Privileged and Hasty Notes on Two Edmonton Planning Concerns

I have a bit of time on my hands, unlike the majority of people in my neighbourhood. Most people around me are still students, parents, renters, workers, homeless, marginalized, seniors, mobility challenged, with an “and/or” between each item. With each passing year the proportion of well-off, privileged, work-from-home, non-parent, chronically healthy, house/condo-owning individuals increases in my neighbourhood. I confess I am one of the privileged, fortunate enough to have moved into the neighbourhood in the 80s and stayed on through the decades of change. I have time to sit and do online surveys where the City attempts to “engage” with citizens (but really just gives the time-privileged a place to vent about their pet projects) and write blog posts.

Right now I have two pet beefs: the “planned” Centre Line LRT and the ongoing “Renewal” of the infrastructure of Strathcona. I’ll begin with the renewal because it is the one that has actually had a concrete start on the avenue in front of my house.

Renewal in Strathcona

Over the last few summers, 83 Avenue, most thoroughly in the stretch between 99 Street and the Mill Creek Ravine, has been closed for long periods while the road has been rebuilt, sidewalks and streetlights have been replaced, and a dedicated bike lane has been added. Superficially and in principle I love it all. I will soon be able to cycle to my little bit of part-time retirement work in (confusion and) safety (sort of). I can walk safely to the wonderful amenities of Strathcona, in my case, particularly the theatres and restaurants, and pretty much only in daylight. Bus service is wonderful for all the places I need to get that are a little too far to walk or too cold to cycle. And I’m privileged to have a car for the further trips or when I’ve a little too much to carry. The neighbourhood is good to me.

But. There has to be a but.

When the planners came up with the bike lane design, they decided on a multitude of them, particularly if the 106 Street doubled, multi-level, skinny lanes are considered. Between the Ravine and 99 Street on 83 Ave the lane is painted, dedicated to bikes one way and shared with cars the other, with wacky little roundabouts at the intersections and no left turns for cars off 99th. The roundabouts are a dangerous and confusing menace to pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. They limit access for emergency vehicles, city maintenance vehicles, and moving and delivery trucks. The restriction on left turns off 99th forces resident motorists and visitor motorists to make convoluted loops through the neighbourhood, or to make dangerous left turns down back alleys, merely to get to their home/destination.

Between 99th and 103 and beyond 104 it seems to be largely a physically separated two way lane with one way car traffic and greatly reduced parking, largely in front of walk up, largely rental apartments, rather than single family-owned homes. Clearly those who depend on cars, particularly renters and the mobility challenged, were not considered in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Between 103 and 104 the bike lane is a slightly elevated abomination which I expect will lead to countless trips, falls, and injuries during summer festival season. Clearly pedestrian safety was not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

The north-south lane on 106 street is an ugly and confusing collections of winding curbs and grin pillars that make driving or cycling feel like flying an x-wing down the trench on the Death Star. With speed bumps. Bus stops are separated from sidewalks by bicycle traffic lanes, and busses are boarded from a thin curb on the edge of the bike lane, a virtual impossibility for those with walkers or in wheelchairs. Clearly transit users and the mobility challenged were not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

I won’t even imagine the headaches of snow removal.

The sidewalks that have been rebuilt so far are very nice and walkable. A+ on the final concrete work.

The new streetlights on 83 Ave east of 99th are very pretty in the daytime, I expect they save energy at night, and the adequately light the road and bike lane after dark. But after dark the sidewalks are a pitch black abyss. Often when walking home after dark — which, face it, is any time after 4 pm for a good part of the year — I have been infinitely grateful for the home owner who has left a porch light on to help guide my steps. Clearly pedestrians with or without mobility issues were not a huge consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Given the inconsistency of the designs used in these really quite small and straight stretches of bike lanes and the confusion and danger this inconsistency will cause, I feel it clear that cyclists weren’t actually a huge consideration in this particular planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Right now the City is “consulting” with citizens (who have the privilege of leisure and time to go online and do a survey or show up at open houses) about the future steps in this reconstruction of Strathcona’s infrastructure. Much of the open and less open thrust of what little discussion there has been has been a giddy push for more bike lanes, apparently whatever the design or consequences of that design.

The Centre Line

There seems to be a desire on the part of unnamed planners to have a surface, low-floor LRT line down Whyte Avenue between the University of Alberta and Bonnie Doon, replicating one of Edmonton’s wonderful old streetcar lines. Right now that stretch is well serviced by a fleet of convenient kneeling buses which are regularly filled with citizens of all social and mobility levels. But, okay. I like the LRT. I take it fairly regularly. Having a stop a block from home would be nice.

But.

Where are these planners? Have they ever been to Edmonton? Have they never even looked at a map of the current LRT lines? “. . . connections between Downtown, the Alberta Legislature, the University of Alberta, Strathcona, Bonnie Doon, east Edmonton and the wider LRT network” the blabbity says. But, Downtown, the Legislature and the U of A have had LRT connections for years. For decades! If you look at the map accompanying the “plan”, every bit of the proposed route, except the bit down Whyte Avenue, parallels/duplicates an existing and expensively constructed underground LRT line — through downtown it would be the third east west line! And a new bridge will have to be built almost on top of two existing ones. Why? What is the reason for duplicating that line on the surface and those bridges? Are they trying to justify the (inevitably monumentally disruptive) line down Whyte Avenue? Why not just build a surface line from Health Sciences station to Bonnie Doon and beyond? Even just between Health Sciences and Bonnie Doon the line would be significantly longer than the current continually troubled NAIT line, and it would be a good start on a long overdue commuter line to Sherwood Park. And no redundancy (if we forget about the buses which are doing so nicely on that route).

As someone who uses/has used all transportation modes in the city –car, bus, LRT, High Level Streetcar, walking, cycling, motorscooter — even unicycling in my younger days — but not those Segway river valley tours, I wish Edmonton’s planners would spend less time on narrowly focused dreams and misleading consultations with privileged single-issue citizen activists and a little more time actually walking, driving, cycling, LRTing, and bussing through the areas they’re treating like big sandboxes of expensive experiment.

Reminiscences of the Future

I’m writing this about twenty-four hours after the last burn of the upper stage of the first Falcon Heavy test flight sent a red Tesla Roadster and it’s laid-back space-suited mannequin driver on it’s million year ever-circling picnic to the Asteroid Belt, replete with pop culture references to David Bowie, Star Wars and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and overflowing with Geeee Whizzzz!!!!! excitement and boys with toys eye-rolling. I confess, I enjoyed the ride. After all, I grew up waiting for the latest National Geographic to see six-month-old photos from Apollo moon landings. But now, as a grown up, living in this science fiction future, I can watch it all in real time, on the supercomputer in my pocket.

But, when all is said and done, when the last booster core hits the Atlantic just a hundred metres (and five hundred kilometres per hour) from its intended landing spot, there remains a single, brief, glorious moving image which outshines all the hype, the marketing, the inconceivable engineering, and the sheer chutzpah of the technical achievement of the hipster capitalists at SpaceX:

Two rockets, in their fundaments direct descendants of those beautiful, streamlined, V-2-derived, Chesley Bonestell-painted, science fiction spaceships of my childhood settling majestically, magically, balletically, onto the concrete pads of Landing Zones 1 and 2 in Florida in one of the finest pieces of choreography, one of the finest works of art in history. Until that event is duplicated, but with a couple of rocketjocks riding two candles down to the Space Port, I won’t feel more like the dreams and expectations I had in my childhood have finally been met.

2001 is long past and so is the company called Pan Am, with never a single Space Clipper. And the Space Station, as amazing as the ISS is, is not a Blue Danube Waltz-playing wheel in space. But we have found more wonders at Jupiter, and beyond, than Dave Bowman and Frank Poole could have imagined. And, until yesterday, no spaceports with concrete pads welcoming home rockets — in the plural — descending gently on their tails, the way they’re supposed to descend gently! Finally, the Future is here!

And there’s also that supercomputer in my pocket.

Forty years or so ago, a little before the Space Shuttle rekindled (and quite quickly dashed) the dream of a reusable rocketship, I had an adolescent dream of being a Science Fiction writer – nay, a Science Fiction poet. I twice submitted versions of a Space Age elegiac paean, the second a sonnet, to a then-new Science Fiction magazine with a fairly well known name. Both submissions were rejected with the reassurance that my bit of verse was “better than most of the poems we see”.

I thought of that poem today, a bit of a lament of an astronaut grown old, unable to touch the sky as in youth, but finally able to feel the youthful dreams come true. At last. This morning I dug the old, original teenage typescripts (and rejection slips) out of a box in the basement. This evening I revisited the versions – which I won’t post here – and made something just a little bit new. Just a word or two changed from that teenage voice. Just a little bit older. And more hopeful:

Song of an aging astronaut (2018)

Been years since breezes from the concrete pad
have washed across the green grass of my lawn
to bring old feelings back, both good and bad,
with distant sights and voices now far gone.

My eyes rise weakly to the blazing sky
to watch the burning trail, so white, so bright.
At last. A rocketship, a fire-fly
of steel and tin come back from velvet night.

I sit, forgot, too weary to hold rage.
I, too, once flew among the glistening stars
and I have looked on Earth down from afar.
But time has passed. And youth must change to age
I rest, at peace. The breeze blows gently past.
I feel those youthful dreams come true at last.

Yesterday I felt those youthful dreams come real, and that was better than any movie. Better even the biggest stack of space art books.

That was living the future.

Bourgeois Thoughts

 

In no civilization is city life evolved independently of commerce and industry. Neither antiquity nor modern times show any exception to this rule. Diversity of climates, peoples or religions is as immaterial as diversity of eras. It is a rule which held true, in the past, in the cities of Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and the Roman and Arab Empires, just as in our day it has held true in the cities of Europe, America, India, Japan, and China.

Its universality is explained by exigence. A city group, in fact, can live only by importing its food-supply from outside. But with this importation must correspond, on the other hand, an exportation of manufactured products constituting a counterpart or countervalue. Thus is established, between the city and the surrounding country, a close interrelation of services. Commerce and industry are indispensable to the maintenance of this reciprocal dependence; without the first, to assure a steady traffic, without the second, to furnish goods for exchange, the city would perish.

— Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, tr. Frank D. Halsey (Princeton, 1952) p.130-131.

 

Recently my residential property tax assessment arrived from the City of Edmonton. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was actually three dollars lower than last year’s. Meanwhile, a friend received his business property tax assessment and found it had increased about twenty-five percent over the previous year. As a note, my friend’s business is a very small business with (apart from himself) one full-time employee and two part-timers. His small shop provides local products to the local market employing local people and is owned by a local person who also pays residential property tax locally on his own home. This friend is the epitome of “buy local”, “shop local”, “support local”. He is also the quintessence of true “Capitalism” and an example of the fundamentally “bourgeois”. And, if you are one of the 30% or so of Edmonton’s workforce who work for the Government (in healthcare, education, the civil service, or in the government-grant-supported arts), my friend and people like him are paying your salary.

There is no such thing in civilized society as self-support. In a state of society so barbarous as not even to know family cooperation, each individual may possibly support himself, though even then for a part of his life only; but from the moment that men begin to live together, and constitute even the rudest of society, self-support becomes impossible. As men grow more civilized, and the subdivision of occupations and services is carried out, a complex mutual dependence becomes the universal rule. Every man, however solitary may seem his occupation, is a member of a vast industrial partnership, as large as the nation, as large as humanity. The necessity of mutual dependence should imply the duty and guarantee of mutual support . . .
— Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, chapter XII, 1888.

Consider:

Pretty much all of us pay various forms of taxes and in return, of course, we all gratefully receive public services and infrastructure. To describe things very simply, those public services and infrastructure are bought with the revenue raised through taxes. And some of us, the above-mentioned 30% or so, get our wages or salary out of that same tax revenue in return for providing those services to, or building and maintaining that infrastructure for our fellow citizens. That seems a fair description, doesn’t it? Sort of?

But . . .

Let’s pretend there are 1000 people in the world, 30% government workers and 70% Bourgeois Capitalists and their employed proletarians. Furthermore, we’ll pretend each Government worker is paid $10,000 and pays 10% of that, $100,as taxes. That’s $30,000 in tax revenue contributed from workers with a combined income of $300,000. But that income comes directly from Government revenue. Clearly, $270,000 of Government revenue has to come from somewhere else, and that somewhere else must necessarily be the 70% of the population, 700 people, who are Bourgeois Capitalists and their employed proletarians. On average then, the non-Government workers and their employers will have to pay over $370 in taxes, *just to pay the Government workers wages and salaries*. Why would anyone chose to start a business? Indeed, why would anyone chose to work in the private sector?

And, really, when you sit down and think about it, even ignoring (sort of) the public/private split, how is this whole economic system in any way sustainable?

Consider again:

(the following is really just a rehash of a bit of Classical Social Credit)

My Bourgeois Capitalist friend is in debt and some months just breaks even after dealing with expenses. He and his (government employed) wife are managing to make mortgage payments on their modest house in a working-class neighbourhood — they have no extravagance. He pays his three employees a little better than minimum wage. Each employee, including the Bourgeois Capitalist, produces in an hour an amount of product which retails for more than his hourly income. This is as it must be as it is a vanishingly rare product that has the cost of labour as its only production cost. Even if profit were ignored, there must always be other input costs. So, like pretty much everyone in the private sector, each worker produces more value than he can afford to buy. If the workers cannot afford to buy that which they produce, who can? An external seems necessary for all the widgets the private sector produces or there must someday come a collapse of either price or economy. If the price collapses to an affordable level, the widgets will be priced below cost, and there will come a more general collapse. But in today’s interconnected world, where can this outside market be?

Is this necessary “external” market provided by the public sector and public sector employees? Perhaps, in the short term. But remember, the buying power of the public sector is nothing other than tax revenue from the private sector. The public sector is, in a sense, a somewhat parasitic appendage of the private sector. But, to be kind, each public sector worker, we hope, produces more value in services and infrastructure, than that worker can afford to buy on her salary. Just as the private sector can’t afford to buy all the widgets he makes in an hour, the public sector worker can’t afford to buy the bridge she helps to build.

With the ever growing interconnectedness of the global economy, there are really no longer true external markets: the global workforce of consumers produces more widgets than it can collectively afford to consume. Why do so many Canadians carry more debt than they can reasonably hope to pay off? Maybe because so many Canadians can’t afford to buy what they produce and so must borrow.

How has this continued so long? Can it be our whole economic system is nothing other than an exceptionally long-lasting financial bubble. Or, less generously, a multi-generational Ponzi scheme?

Han-headed Cathay saw it first,
Bright as brightest solar burst;
Whipped it into boy and girl,
The blinding spiral-sliced swirl:
Yang
And Yin . . .
Hegel saw it, saw it clear;
Jackal Marx drew near, drew near:
O’er his shoulder saw it plain,
Turned it upside down again:
Yang
and Yin . . .

–Frederik Pohl, “The Midas Plague”, Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954, p. 32.

 

“Long live the Communist Revolution!” I hear some of you yelling at the back, and I read some similar cry on the malignancy of Twitter nearly every day.

But is that a serious solution? Surely things called Communism have been experimented with. Yes, Cuban health-care has been marketed well around the world, but some of us are old enough to remember Peter Fechter lying beside the Wall. I once had a dedicated Marxist-Leninist professor tell me that Soviet-style and even Maoist Communism weren’t “real” communism — that the only “real” experiment with communism was Hoxha’s Albania, and he held it up as a glorious example Canada should follow. I suspect that none of you, if you had any awareness of Albanian history, would choose to live in Hoxha’s Albania instead of 21st Century Canada.

Whatever -ism we use to describe the “system” by which our economy is organized, I don’t quite see how we can avoid real functional elements we might call, “labour”, “production”, “consumption”, “management”, and, yes, “Capital”. And, whatever its limits, there will be a good deal of dissatisfaction if there is not “Growth” of “Markets”. If there is not growth, however equitable the distribution, in very short order none of us will be able to afford to consume what our labour produces. And the bubble that began to expand with the growth of mercantile cities in Late Medieval Europe will finally burst and we will be forced into something like a barter economy. While I fully realize many vocal persons on social media and elsewhere think a simple barter economy an attractive and nostalgic solution, I doubt many of them would truly enjoy living in a Medieval world. And a barter economy didn’t produce smart phones or the xanthan gum that makes their gluten-free, egg-free, vegan bread possible.

What is the answer?

How would I know? I’m just another Bourgeois in my ivory tower. But since you ask, I don’t think there are any easy answers, and, I kind of have a feeling we — especially you Basic Income campaigners — would do well to revisit the thoughts of a British engineer by the name of Clifford Douglas. But there’s a fair amount of mathematics involved in that. And math, like Revolution, is hard.

But not hard like understanding the world’s money supply . . .

When we start talking about money supply, we have to talk about fractional reserve banking, and then the mind-bending headache really sets in. Fractional reserve banking may well be a contract with the Devil.

“Zu wissen sei es jedem, der’s begehrt:
Der Zettel hier ist tausend Kronen wert.
Ihm liegt gesichert, als gewisses Pfand,
Unzahl vergrabnen Guts im Kaiserland.
Nun ist gesorgt, damit der reiche Schatz,
Sogleich gehoben, diene zum Ersatz.”
— Goethe, Faust, Part II, Act I

But the magic (slight of hand?) of fractional reserve banking is stunning! And I, for one, have a strong feeling that fractional reserve banking is the single pillar — a pillar of blind faith and/or ignorance — supporting the inconceivably heavy roof of the bubble we live under.

On a spring day more than 5,000 years ago in the Mesopotamian city of Ur, a foreign merchant sold his wares in exchange for a large bundle of silver. He didn’t want to carry the bundle home because he knew he’d be back in Ur again to buy grain at the end of harvest season. Instead the merchant walked to the local temple, where valuables were often stored, and asked the priest to hold onto the silver for him. . . .
“Breaking the Bank”, Alexander Lipton and Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Scientific American, January 2018, p. 28.

In brief, fractional reserve banking creates concrete value-added through a more efficient use of money. I have cash I’m not using at the moment. Need capital to open a pie booth at the farmer’s market and to make a lottery deposit for your new play at the Fringe Festival? Use my cash and pay me back before I need the cash to start my new coffee roasting place. When the fractional reserve banking is finished there’s a new coffee roasting joint, a new pie booth at the farmer’s market, and we’re enjoying a new play at the Fringe. Concrete value added to our community. If I’d had to sit on my cash we’d just be roasting coffee. No play. No pies. Less value. A poorer community.

Could it be that fractional reserve banking is what lets us consume all the stuff we produce even though we aren’t paid enough to afford what we make?

Well, yes, perhaps mainly because governments and businesses and most private individuals avail themselves of the value-creating opportunities of fractional reserve banking. Those private sector tax payers don’t have to pay much of the salaries of government workers because governments borrow money to pay workers, borrowing from the worker’s own assets as often as not. And businesses do the same. And when my bourgeois friend makes his mortgage payment each month, he’s paying back money he’s borrowed from himself, and from his employees, and from every person with a bank account. We’re all shopping with money borrowed from our bank accounts and from the future and that’s all just fine — in fact, it seems to be the wonderful source of the amazing science fiction world we live in — but look out, brother, if we all decide to cash in our savings on the same day!

 

 

Pirenne, writing in the early 20th Century, concluded that “The antagonism between capital and labour is . . . as old as the middle class” (p. 154). But who is it in more recent, social-media fevered days, that cries out against capital and embraces the cause of labour? Who, too often for comfort, throws twitter stones through the windows of business, both small and large, local and global, willy-nilly? It is a rare person in Canada who is not living on capital leveraged from their own future capital, or intends (perhaps without full understanding) to one day soon be such a bourgeois, home-owning petty capitalist.

But few of us are interested in quitting working for others in order to invest our (usually meager) savings in a personal business making widgets we hope will interest the public. Instead, without realizing that we are ourselves Capital, we rail against Capital while continuing to play at being the proletariat. And we in the West do this while consoled to varying degrees with the comforts and protections of the Welfare State that has developed for most of us over the course of the last century. This isn’t the world of Marx and Engels, of Lenin and Hoxha. We live in a world of fiat currency, not of the gold standard. We live in the world envisioned through a fog by Goethe and Clifford Douglas and Robert Heinlein in his early days. We live in a world of imaginary money that buys more and greater real things than ever could have been produced at any other time in history. And we live in a world the workings of which few if any understand, of dangers we can little imagine, and of unprecedented feelings of entitlement, unprecedented levels of misinformation and ignorance masked as knowledge and wisdom, and of unprecedented ability to communicate masses of sophistry to vast numbers of minds aching to be filled with something.

Reality is hard. The world is difficult.

Nothing will change that.

But we really should make the effort to understand how things actually work .

Go ahead and dream of utopias — but not all the time!

 

Good luck.