Middle Ages Redux
Last autumn I spotted a job ad in the classifieds of a local newspaper. I cannot remember whether it was in one of Ottawa’s main dailies or in one of those free weeklies that get dropped off at my door. The ad was for a contract part-time position doing bulk deliveries of that same newspaper to drop-off points east of the city, as far as Hawkesbury, which is about an hour east of Ottawa. The requirements for the job were to be available from 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. 6 days per week, be bilingual and to own a reliable car. The published pay rate, and the job did not include a mileage allowance, was around $12 per hour. I estimated that the round trip would cost from $15-$20 in gasoline every day which would bring the income down to around minimum wage. To that, one must also factor in increased maintenance costs on the vehicle.
It is difficult to imagine anyone taking this job. The net income from the work would not be enough to save up for a replacement vehicle so the job is basically un-sustainable. In the medium to long run, it would cost one more to go to work than to stay home. By implication, the employers are assuming that the employee will subsidize them. I could make the argument that one would be better off selling the car and living off the proceeds, while continuing to look for other work, rather than take this position. The only way I can see it paying off is if the person in the job used it as a legal cover for illegal drug deliveries. Now that would make sense.
We used to call this serfdom, but they probably do not teach history in schools anymore so the number of people left who know the term is diminishing daily.
U.S. robber baron coal mining companies used to charge rent to their employees for the shacks they lived in and also held monopolies on the retail and bar trade near those mining communities. In the long run, by amazing coincidence, it used to cost those workers more money to go to work than to not go to work, all of it paid back to the companies that employed them. It’s interesting to note the historical role that ignorance plays. The less history we know and the less educated the general population is, the easier it becomes to pull this con off.
In the southeastern U.S. coal mining towns of the last century old-time religion played an important role is keeping people stupid. They promised eternal happiness in the afterlife if you towed the line in this one. (Actually that’s pretty much what they preach now.) That such fundamentalists frowned on non-approved reading and learning benefited someone, notably not the miners. The continued ignorance of the members of fundamentalist religions and social movements is paramount. The Catholic Church still maintains (I believe) an Index of forbidden books. They actually try to tell people what not to read! Evangelical and fundamentalist Islamic movements do much the same thing.
In the Middle Ages, maintaining a general low level of knowledge among serfs was relatively easy. There weren’t many books and the sharecropping life was a daily struggle that didn’t allow much time for reading, even if one knew how to read. It sometimes appears to me that modern society is trying to replicate that state of affairs. Religion may not always be an easy sell these days, but professional sports and inane television offer equivalent altars for the masses. There are plenty of diversions from reality, large home plasma screens, babes on TV, etc, and they all cost money.
The other feature of medieval times was the noble class. The criterion for entry back then was genetically based which did a good job of denying access to power to the unwashed for a long time. For centuries no one even questioned it, an amazing feat of spin doctoring. I believe that today’s power elite is nostalgic for that convenient state of affairs and want to bring it back. They like having serfs around and who can blame them. Popular reports tell that Louis XIV had servants who did his wiping up after bowel movements. Imagine being at the meeting of the household staff when they asked for volunteers for that job! It’s really convenient to pay nannies less than minimum wage so that we can go off to work all day and buy SUV’s, gourmet restaurant meals and large plasma screen televisions.
Ridiculously pathetic and stupid public leaders are something else that we have in common with the Middle Ages, it seems to me. Over the last decade or more, corporate bigwigs have paid themselves scandalously high salaries and bonuses for oftentimes just showing up. The people in charge of the HP-Compaq merger a few years ago got millions in performance bonuses for having merely executed the joining of the two firms. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to wait a few years and pay them according to how successful the merger turned out to be? They basically rewarded themselves for being in the right seat at the right time. The self-congratulatory tendencies of present-day political classes are spectacular to behold and their resemblance to medieval nobility is note-worthy. Our neighbours to the south seem to only want Presidents who are related to previous Presidents. The Florida Bush brother, Jeb, is high on the list of possible future Commanders-in-Chief. Power all over the world is handed down to wives, sons, daughters, and I never hear a word of ridicule or protest about the practice.
Another feature of the Middle Ages was bad hygiene and the occasional plague. That doesn’t bear thinking about.