Possibly as a result of inadvertently attending a rock concert on Monday, I spent a while yesterday listening to music, and ended up watching a two-part (1, 2) documentary about the history of the blues.
According to the documentary, the blues had emerged around 1900 in the postbellum black American south. And had moved north to places like Chicago in the 1930s and 40s. And had (improbably) crossed the black-white racial divide in England, where people like Keith Richards were listening to Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, before they re-exported it back to white USA in the 1960s.
What wasn’t clear was whether the blues had deeper roots in antebellum black slave society, or whether it was the unique product of postbellum freed slaves. Had life got better for the freed slaves, or had it got worse? Had they been singing the lament of the blues before they were freed, or did they only start singing it after?
One striking remark by somebody was that in the postbellum cotton fields, people worked “from cain to cain’t“: from when you can see in the morning to when you can’t see at night. They may have been “free”, but they were working just as hard as before. And quite probably, precisely because they were free, their existence was far more tenuous and uncertain than it had been when they were slaves, with food and shelter provided by their masters. And they started drifting north to places like Chicago and Detroit when the cotton plantations began to be industrialised with machines.
And the crossover of the blues from black to white in the 1960s saw the beginning of white shame and guilt about the historic slave culture of the south, and the continuing segregation of blacks and whites well into the 20th century. White liberals wondered how their forebears could have been so cruel and exploitative. They still are wondering, and a lot of the current political tension in the USA seems to be an expression of that guilt: it was white liberals who demolished the statue of southern civil war general Robert E Lee in Charlotteville a week or two back. Same with another statue (snapshot from a YouTube video):
Should white liberals feel such intense shame and guilt? You’d almost think that slavery was something that was first invented by people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But they didn’t invent it at all. The institution of slavery has existed for thousands of years. It underpinned both Greek and Roman civilisations. It has probably always existed. And probably still does. And it wasn’t just black people who were always being enslaved.
The way I see it, and have written about it here and there, slavery is just something that just happens when people have to work very hard to stay alive. It’s got nothing to do with race or sex or creed. It’s just that in any society, some people come out on top, and other people wind up on the bottom. If nothing else, some people are always going to be richer (and idler) than other people. In slave societies, that inequity is institutionalised as a permanent arrangement. And it gets institutionalised because life is hard – and remains hard – for people. Slavery concentrates all the idle time of a society in a few people, who are thereby freed to become full-time philosophers and writers and mathematicians and architects and engineers. And in Rome, the engineers built roads and bridges and ports and aqueducts (using slave labour) which made transport and travel a bit easier for everyone (including the slaves). The Romans – or those of them who were free man – were great innovators. Some of their roads and bridges are still in use today. And it’s been entirely due to countless innovations of this sort that life has gotten to be much easier for everyone today than it was 2,000 years ago, or 8,000 years ago. And that’s also why we no longer have the institution of slavery: we don’t need it any more. If our technological civilisation should collapse for any reason – war, plague, or asteroid impact -, slavery will re-appear overnight.
And that’s probably why slavery re-appeared in Nazi Germany during WW2. Wars are times when everyone has to work harder to survive. And when, circa 1941, Nazi Germany began to lose the war, everyone in Germany had to work harder. Germany had a ring of steel around it, preventing almost everything they needed from being imported from the outside world. There were shortages of everything, and there was starvation as well. In these circumstances, forced labour – slavery – re-emerged. It wasn’t because Hitler and the Nazis were uniquely nasty people (many of them were highly cultured people), but because life had become very hard for everyone in Nazi Germany. Slavery isn’t something that comes out of people’s bad character, but from the conditions in which they find themselves living. If Germany had defeated the Soviet Union in 1941, there would have been no slave labour in Germany, and most likely no Holocaust either.
But in much of the Western world these days, many people believe that the Nazis were just nasty people, and so were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – and now Donald Trump. If they knew about them, they’d probably say that the Romans and the Greeks were nasty people as well, for enslaving all those slaves in Rome and Athens. The same people seem to think that the Industrial Revolution was something whereby nasty people built factories whose sole purpose was to tear open the earth and pollute it with poison and belch out black smoke, while employing thousands of women and children in factories, working from cain to cain’t. They want to end the exploitation of minorities like blacks and women and above all children. And they want to undo the Industrial Revolution, and close all the factories, and make everybody equal.
The same people want to rid the roads of cars and trucks, and have everyone cycle everywhere, or walk everywhere, or – better still – run everywhere. Instead of using innovation to make life easier for everyone, they want to make life much harder for everyone, because the harder people have to work, the fitter and healthier they become. These people look back with approval on a wartime era when people had to work hard on not much food, and everyone was so much leaner and fitter than they are now. They’d have loved Nazi Germany.
In addition to exploring the history of American blues yesterday, I spent a while exploring the astonishing world of fitness trackers. These wrist-mounted devices seem to be able to measure heart rates, energy expenditure, footsteps, sleep, and more. Some of them even include GPS positioning. They also come with apps which can be used to analyse the data they store. They seem to be mostly intended for athletic people who do a lot of running or sports. The ads for them show people running up steps or playing sports. And they seem to have a work ethic built into them: some of them include alarms to wake people up, and prompts to get them to do something if they’ve been immobile for too long. They seemed to be designed to keep people as busy as possible. The FitBit Charge 2, for example, includes:
Reminders to Move
To help you stay active throughout the day, Charge 2 sends Reminders to Move that encourage you to take 250 steps every hour.
I was vaguely thinking of buying one. Not because I want to keep busy and fit, but because I don’t. I was thinking instead that, with the work ethic and alarms and reminders taken out of them, they might be useful for monitoring hospital patient activity levels (a current interest of mine). Wouldn’t it be useful for hospital doctors to monitor their patients recovery, and count the number of steps they have to take in order to smoke a cigarette outside the hospital gates?