“He who controls the past, controls the future; and he who controls the present, controls the past.”–George Orwell
“The mistake of judging the men of other periods by the morality of our own day has its parallel in the mistake of supposing that every wheel and bolt in the modern social machine had its counterpart in more rudimentary societies…”–H.S. Maine
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” –L.P. Hartley
I’ve often referred to the “Flintstonization of history”—a concept I borrowed from the book Sex at Dawn. It’s the tendency to project our present-day circumstances onto the past, assuming that people basically thought and acted much as we do. But when we do that, we bring our “modern” sensibilities and worldview along with us. And those have been decisively shaped by the time and culture in which we live.
Today I’d like to introduce a related concept–the retconning of history.
Looking back, that’s been the theme of a lot of my writing over the past year. I’ve looked at a lot of history which challenges and overturns the conventional narrative that our present-day circumstances and social organization are basically the same as past societies, except with better technology and a few more creature comforts (i.e. the past, but with cell phones). Or that they are the way things have always been, and that there are no alternatives.
Now, most of you probably know what retconning is. It is short for the phrase “retrocative continuity”. In order to make a narrative coherent, the authors “rewrite” (or simply ignore) what has occurred in previous episodes or iterations of a long-running franchise in order to maintain continuity with the ongoing “new” narrative arc and characters. The phrase originated with comic books, and is typically used in reference to films, television shows, books, video games, etc.
From there, the word has passed into common parlance. Normally, retcon is still used in the context of a work of fiction. However, I’ve seen the word spread beyond just talking about movies and TV shows to the world in general. When people say retcon now, they are usually referring to an attempt to “rewrite” past events by deliberately distorting them or altering the record after the fact. That is, “[people] tell themselves a different story about what happened in prior events in order to maintain consistency with their current circumstances.” That story may include a blatant distortion of facts and a general disregard for reality. Much of this is derived from our current political situation. A politician may suddenly reverse their position, and then declare that what came before didn’t happen (“fake news”), or simply ignore it altogether if it doesn’t fit with the narrative “spin” of the political parties.
At it’s heart, it is an attempt to “erase” or “rewrite” the past for the sake of present circumstances. As one of it’s earliest descriptions had it, “retroactive continuity ultimately means that history flows fundamentally from the future into the past.”
What’s any of this got to do with history? It strikes me that much of what we learn about history are attempts to “retcon” the past.
What do I mean by this? It seems that history often adopts a “modern” point of view to explain past events. In this narrative, we were always heading to exactly where we are: globalized free-market corporate monopoly capitalism.This is done to depict our present circumstances not as deliberately engineered, or contingent on any historical circumstances, or political choices, but rather as something “natural” and just an expression of unchanging human nature. With this retconning, we are unable to think of different ways of organizing things, because those ways—even in the very recent past—have been retconed out of history. Even things in recent living memory—such as not going into debt for an education, or being able to afford a single family house on 25 percent of your income—are retconned to make it so that they never happened.
Here are just a few of the major retcons I have discovered over the past year or so:
1. Economists tend to depict all of human history as heading towards “free and open” markets, if only government would only just “get out of the way” and drop all restrictions and regulations on merchant princes and wealthy oligarchs. That is, globalized corporate free trade is “natural” (as is currency), and collective governance is “artificial” and unnecessary. Our “natural instinct” is to “truck, barter and exchange” declared Adam Smith. John Locke argued that the reason governments came to exist was to protect and secure private property, and that they should do little else besides this.
Of course, all of this is false. For example, an attempt at retconning history was engaged in by economists Santhi Hejeebu and Deirdre McCloskey (of ‘bourgois virtues’ fame) attempting to refute some of Karl Polanyi’s book The Great Transformation. As political economist Mark Blyth countered, citing the works of Polanyi and Albert Hirschmann:
“While gain-seeking has indeed existed throughout history…the historical oddity was that gain-seeking became equated with market transactions only relatively recently. This was a qualitative and not a quantitative change; otherwise Incas, Mayans, Romans, and contemporary Britons were/are all living in societies that were more or less similar in their economic structure, despite the differences in, for example, the presence of slaves.”
“Painting the history of all hitherto existing societies as the history of capitalism in vitro probably obscures more economic history than it illuminates…capitalism did not simply evolve, it was argued for. It was propagandized by Scottish enlightenment intellectuals, English liberals, and French physiocrats long “before its triumph”. And it was as much a project of governance; limiting the state; constructing the commodified individual; building a singular notion of economically based self-interest, as much as it was one of creating wealth…”
“Capitalism was created, it did not just ‘happen’, and labeling all hitherto existing societies as ‘almost capitalism’ hardly erases the distinctions between historical periods and economic systems. The fact the ‘we’ today accept Smith far more readily than ‘we’ accept Polanyi speaks directly to the power of ideas rather than the discovery of facts…”
The great transformation in understanding Polanyi: Reply to Hejeebu and Mccloskey (Critical Review)
As Polanyi himself summed it up: “Laissez-faire was planned, planning was not”. From The Great Transformation:
Indeed, on the evidence available it would be rash to assert that local markets ever developed from individual acts of barter.
Obscure as the beginnings of local markets are, this much can be asserted: that from the start this institution was surrounded by a number of safeguards designed to protect the prevailing economic organization of society from interference on the part of market practices. The peace of the market was secured at the price of rituals and ceremonies which restricted its scope while ensuring its ability to function within the given narrow limits. The most significant result of markets—the birth of towns and urban civilization—was, in effect, the outcome of a paradoxical development. Towns, insofar as they sprang from markets, were not only the protectors of those markets, but also the means of preventing them from expanding into the countryside and thus encroaching on the prevailing economic organization of society…
Such a permanent severance of local trade and long-distance trade within the organization of the town must come as another shock to the evolutionist, with whom things always seem so easily to grow into one another. And yet this peculiar fact forms the key to the social history of urban life in Western Europe…Internal trade in Western Europe was actually created by the intervention of the state.
Right up to the time of the Commercial Revolution what may appear to us as national trade was not national, but municipal…The trade map of Europe in this period should rightly show only towns, and leave blank the countryside—it might as well have not existed as far as organized trade was concerned. So-called nations were merely political units, and very loose ones at that, consisting economically of innumerable smaller and bigger self sufficing households and insignificant local markets in the villages. Trade was limited to organized townships which carried it on either locally, as neighborhood trade, or as long-distance trade—the two were strictly separated, and neither was allowed to infiltrate into the countryside indiscriminately…neither long-distance trade nor local trade was the parent of the internal trade of modern times—thus apparently leaving no alternative but to turn for an explanation to the deus ex machina of state intervention…
This retconning has been particularly egregious by the debunked “Austrian economic school” which was expressly created to overturn history and rewrite it for the benefit of capitalists and the wealthy. Michael Hudson, an economist who probably knows more about ancient economic organization than anyone since Polanyi, writes:
…Karl Polanyi[‘s] doctrine was designed to rescue economics from [the Austrian] school, which makes up a fake history of how economics and civilization originated.
One of the first Austrian’s [sic] was Carl Menger in the 1870s. His “individualistic” theory about the origins of money – without any role played by temples, palaces or other public institutions – still governs Austrian economics. Just as Margaret Thatcher said, “There’s no such thing as society,” the Austrians developed a picture of the economy without any positive role for government. It was as if money were created by producers and merchants bartering their output. This is a travesty of history.
All ancient money was issued by temples or public mints so as to guarantee standards of purity and weight. You can read Biblical and Babylonian denunciation of merchants using false weights and measures so see why money had to be public. The major trading areas were agora spaces in front of temples, which kept the official weights and measures. And much exchange was between the community’s families and the public institutions.
Most important, money was brought into being not for trade (which was conducted mainly on credit), but for paying debts. And most debts were owed to the temples and palaces for pubic services or tribute. But to the Austrians, the idea was that anything the government does to protect labor, consumers and society from rentiers and grabbers is deadweight overhead.
Above all, they opposed governments creating their own money, e.g. as the United States did with its greenbacks in the Civil War. They wanted to privatize money creation in the hands of commercial banks, so that they could receive interest on their privilege of credit creation and also to determine the allocation of resources.
Rewriting Economic Thought (Michael Hudson)
So we see that in this case that there is a very specific political agenda behind the retconning of history. It’s pressed in economic textbooks and expressly designed to promote a libertarian point of view. Much of retconning history does serve a political agenda that benefits a select group of people.
Trying to analyze all premodern economies as though they were just proto-capitalists lead to all sorts of errors, as Branko Milanovich points out in a recent post:
“The equilibrium (normal) price in a feudal economy, or in a guild system where capital is not allowed to move between the branches will be different from equilibrium prices in a capitalist economy with the free movement of capital. To many economists this is still not obvious. They use today’s capitalist categories for the Roman Empire where wage labor was (to quote Moses Finley) ‘spasmodic, casual and marginal’.”
Marx for me (and hopefully for others too) (globalinequality)
2. The individual has always been the basic unit of social organization. People have always thought of themselves primarily as citizens of territorial nation-states (British, German, French, Canadian, etc.) with well-defined borders. The neolocal monogamous nuclear family is the only natural and logical form of human social organization.
None of these statements are true, of course. Such arrangements are very contingent upon time and place and culture, and often very recent. For most of human history, the nation-state did not exist. There is nothing “natural” about it–it was created from above by oligarchic elites, just like the One Big Market. They are artificial creations.
And while families are, indeed, “natural,” the form they take varies widely. Most families were extended, and consisted of many generations living either on the same land or under the same roof, together with agnatic relations. Who was or was not considered a part of the family had to do with kinship structures, typically encoded into the language and culture.
Extended kinship networks were the primordial form of human social organization (as Lewis Henry Moran discovered). Religion, too, played a significant role, especially ancestor worship, collective rituals, and food-sharing meals and feasts (even bonobos do it).
This was the conclusion made by Henry Sumner Maine by studying ancient legal structures and comparing to them to surviving village communities in India, Java, North America, and elsewhere. He writes, “We have the strongest reason for thinking that property once belonged not to individuals nor even to isolated families, but to larger societies composed on the patriarchal model.” Concerning private property, he concludes,
“…[P]rivate property, in the shape in which we know it, was chiefly formed by the gradual disentanglement of the separate rights of individuals from the blended rights of a community. Our studies…seemed to show us the Family expanding into the Agnatic group of kinsmen, then the Agnatic group dissolving into separate households; lastly the household supplanted by the individual; and it is now suggested that each step in the change corresponds to an analogous alteration in the nature of Ownership.”
“…if it be true that far the most important passage in the history of Private Property is its gradual elimination from the co-ownership of kinsmen, then the great point of inquiry…what were the motives which originally prompted men to hold together in the family union? To such a question, Jurisprudence, unassisted by other sciences, is not competent to give a reply. The fact can only be noted.” (p. 159)
This is why Marxists argued that “primitive communism” was the original form of property ownership, i.e. socialism. Historically, this is correct. The problem was that this was predicated upon extended kinship networks and not large, industrial, nation states, composed of strangers. That is, primitive communism does not scale, which is why market economies came to supplant them over time.
Regarding the “lone individual” posited by Classical Liberals as the primordial atomic unit of society, this, too, is ahistorical. Like the primitive barter economy, anthropology has failed to turn it up anywhere it has looked for it:
It is here that archaic law renders us one of the greatest of its services, and fills up a gap which otherwise could have only been bridged by conjecture. It is full, in all its provinces, of the clearest indications that society in primitive times was not what it is assumed to be at present, a collection of *individuals*. In fact, and in the view of the men who composed it, it was an *aggregation of families*. The contrast may be most forcibly expressed by saying that the *unit* of an ancient society was the Family, or a modern society the individual. We must be prepared to find in ancient law all the consequences of this difference.
[Archaic Law] is so framed as to be adjusted to a system of small independent corporations. It is therefore scanty, because it is supplemented by the despotic commands of the heads of households. It is ceremonious, because the transactions to which it pays regard resemble international concerns much more than the quick play of intercourse between individuals.
Above all…it takes a view of *life* wholly unlike any which appears in developed jurisprudence. Corporations never die, and accordingly primitive law considers the entities with which it deals, i.e. the patriarchal or family groups, as perpetual and inditinguishable…
Ancient Law pp. 134-135
Surveying continental Europe and much of the colonial world, French scholar Emile de Lavaleye came to the same conclusion:
Originally the clan, or village, is the collective body owning the soil ; later on, it is the family, which has all the characteristics of a perpetual corporation. The father of the family is merely the administrator of the patrimony: when he dies, he is replaced by another administrator. There is no place for the testament, nor even for individual succession…Such was also the law everywhere where these communities have existed; and, probably, every nation has passed through the system.
The point of all this, of course, is not to advocate a rewind to the past. Rather, it is to show us that social forms change over time; and what may adaptive in one context (say, Fordism), will not work in another (say, an information economy). Lavaleye points this out himself:
“…the object of this book is not to advocate a return to the primitive agrarian community; but to establish historically the natural right of property as proclaimed by philosophers, as well as to show that ownership has assumed very various forms, and is consequently susceptible of progressive reform.”
3. Everyone before the Industrial Revolution was miserable, sick, and hungry all the time, irrespective of time and place. Life was, as Hobbes argued, “nasty, brutish and short” throughout prehistory before the last hundred years or so. We’ve doubled the human lifespan—a thirty year-old man was considered “old” just a few generations ago.
I’ve written so much disproving this idea that it’s not worth reiterating here. But here is yet another item that shows us that life in the past was not as horrible as it is commonly depicted by the evangelists of the Progress Gospel:
Medieval peasant food was frigging delicious (BoingBoing)
This Reddit Ask Historians question: Was there ever a civilization that had proper nutrition prior to modern society? begs the question. Its very formulation assumes that everyone was malnourished—a product of such retconning. Here are some good answers:
According to my history professor at Dalhousie University, Cynthia Neville (one of the top scholars in early medieval Scottish history), the Scots in medieval times had an incredibly healthy diet compared to many other parts of Europe at the time.
Wheat doesn’t grow well so far north, but hardier grains like oats and barley do quite well, and provide much better staple foodstock, along with many native vegetable varieties. Also, because cows weren’t as viable (except for the wealthiest lowland nobles), they lived on sheep’s milk and goat milk, which are much easier on the human digestive system. Much of their proteins came from seafood, which, as we know today, are loaded with omega fatty acids and essential vitamins.
There was a bit more to it, but that’s about all I can recall off the top of my head from her classes. This is one of the reasons why the Scots had a reputation for being taller and stronger, because their diets and hardy lifestyles kept them fit and healthy.
When the Romans invaded Gaul, they noticed the Gauls were more than a foot taller, on average, than the Romans. This was due to better nutrition. Many prehistoric people’s had great nutrition. They were defeated by “civilized” people’s who had the advantages of greater numbers and organization. The same was true of the Indians of Massachusetts, when the Pilgrims arrived.
Not all prehistoric people had good nutrition, and not so people’s proliferate societies had bad nutrition. The Norse (Vikings) were dairy farmers and fishermen, and had excellent nutrition, like the Scotch, in medieval times.
4. People need “jobs” in order to feel valuable, or else they will go crazy. That is, we need to find a willing buyer for our labor, or we will feel like a useless burden on society. Furthermore, working forty hours a week is something we’ve just always done since forever. We would all be bored otherwise.
Of course, “jobs” are very recent invention. Most people in the past did not have formalized “jobs”—wage-labor was actually seen as a kind of slavery for much of ancient history. Yet today we’re told that jobs are an absolute necessity to feel “meaningful” and to have any kind of social outlet in today’s society.
Moreover, even when wages were paid, it was for a specific task and a specific duration (say, bringing in the harvest), not selling precisely 40 hours a week of your time to the highest bidder. Modern jobs are more of a babysitting operation than anything else. Of course people in earlier times had occupations and professions—farmers, craftsmen, warriors, artisans, clerks, priests, and so on. One of the biggest challenges capitalism faced was overcoming the previous work/leisure patterns and “disciplining” workers. Ryan Cooper sums up the very novelty of these ‘eternal’ notions:
The idea that work is a bedrock of society, that absolutely everyone who is not too old, too young, or disabled must have a job, was not handed down on tablets from Mount Sinai. It is the result of a historical development, one which may not continue forever. On the contrary, based on current trends, it is already breaking down.
The history of nearly universal labor participation is only about a century and a half old. Back in the early days of capitalism, demand for labor was so strong that all the ancient arrangements of society and family were shredded to accommodate it. Marx’s Capital famously described how women and very young children were press-ganged into the textile mills and coal mines, how the nighttime was colonized for additional shifts, and how capitalists fought to extend the working day to the very limits of human endurance (and often beyond).
The resulting misery, abuse, and wretchedness were so staggering, and the resulting class conflicts so intense, that various hard-won reforms were instituted: the eight-hour day, the weekend, the abolition of child labor, and so forth.
But this process of drawing more people into the labor force peaked in the late 1990s, when women finally finished joining the labor force (after having been forced out to make room for returning veterans after World War II). The valorization of work as the source of all that is good in life is to a great degree the result of the need to legitimate capital’s voracious demand for labor.
America is running out of jobs. It’s time for a universal basic income (The Week)
And here’s investigative journalist Yasha Levine recounting part of capitalism that have been retconned out of existence, citing the underappreciated work of economist Michael Perelman:
One thing that the historical record makes obviously clear is that Adam Smith and his laissez-faire buddies were a bunch of closet-case statists, who needed brutal government policies to whip the English peasantry into a good capitalistic workforce willing to accept wage slavery.
Francis Hutcheson, from whom Adam Smith learned all about the virtue of natural liberty, wrote: ”it is the one great design of civil laws to strengthen by political sanctions the several laws of nature. … The populace needs to be taught, and engaged by laws, into the best methods of managing their own affairs and exercising mechanic art.”
Yep, despite what you might have learned, the transition to a capitalistic society did not happen naturally or smoothly. See, English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in shitty, dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists. And for good reason, too. Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?
But in order for capitalism to work, capitalists needed a pool of cheap, surplus labor. So what to do? Call in the National Guard!
Faced with a peasantry that didn’t feel like playing the role of slave, philosophers, economists, politicians, moralists and leading business figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support.
“The brutal acts associated with the process of stripping the majority of the people of the means of producing for themselves might seem far removed from the laissez-faire reputation of classical political economy,” writes Perelman. “In reality, the dispossession of the majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as “primitive accumulation.”
Yasha Levine: Recovered Economic History – “Everyone But an Idiot Knows That The Lower Classes Must Be Kept Poor, or They Will Never Be Industrious” (Naked Capitalism)
Indeed, average non-agricultural workers had much more autonomy and leisure time in the past, according to Perelman:
A medieval peasant had plenty of things to worry about, but the year-round control of daily life was not one of them. Perelman points out that in pre-capitalist societies, people toiled relatively few hours over the course of a year compared to what Americans work now. They labored like dogs during the harvest, but there was ample free time during the off-seasons. Holidays were abundant – as many as 200 per year. It was Karl Marx, in his Theory of Alienation, who saw that modern industrial production under capitalist conditions would rob workers of control of their lives as they lost control of their work. Unlike the blacksmith or the shoemaker who owned his shop, decided on his own working conditions, shaped his product, and had a say in how his goods were bartered or sold, the modern worker would have little autonomy. His relationships with the people at work would become impersonal and hollow.
Clearly, the technological wonders of our capitalist system have not released human beings from the burden of work. They have brought us more work. They have not brought most of us more freedom, but less.
Fifty Shades of Capitalism: Pain and Bondage in the American Workplace (Naked Capitalism)
Yet now we’re told that we need “jobs” to have any sort of meaning? Really?? WTF??? The vast majority of human existence has occurred outside of formalized wage work, as anthropologist James Suzman points out. Yet society will fall apart if we don’t submit ourselves to worker ‘discipline’ and scientific management? I don’t buy it. Whom does this narrative benefit, anyway?
See also this post from Reddit: What did an average day look like in medieval Europe? And this: Myths about the Medieval Times? Lots of good debunking in that last one.
In addition, laborers who recalled the previous autonomous lifeways–as late as the eighteenth century–were much more resistant to the constraints and insults of corporate capitalism. Now that the past has been retconned, we no longer even remember those past ways of being. Why is there no longer any resistance to the crushing or workers? Why do we not resist, even celebrate, the fortunes of today’s robber barons, unlike our forefathers? American resistance to our ruling elites has vanished. A lot of it has to do with the retconning of history, as this review of the Steve Fraser’s excellent book The Age of Acquiescence makes clear:
The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.
This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.
It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.
A similar point is made in this review of the book in the London Review of Books:
Resistance to capitalism, it appeared, could look back as well as forwards; it was rooted not only in utopian visions of the future but also in concrete experience of the present and past, in older ways of being in the world, depending on family, craft, community, faith – all of which were threatened with dissolution (as Marx and Engels said) in ‘the icy waters of egotistical calculation’. Radical critiques of capitalism might well arise from conservative commitment to pre-capitalist ways of life, or memories of that life.
This wasn’t only an American pattern. E.P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), rescued the Luddites and other artisans from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ by showing that their apparently reactionary attachments to custom and tradition created the leading edge of working-class consciousness. Soon American historians were making similar discoveries.
The Thompsonian history of the working class revealed a common pattern on both sides of the Atlantic: as workers became less grounded in traditional ways, their critique of capitalism tended to soften.
The Long Con (The London Review of Books)
5. New technology and innovation increases leisure time.The Industrial Revolution was accomplished purely by technological advances with no dislocation or bloodshed, and it made everyone better off with no government intervention whatsoever.
If there’s one consistent trend in technology, it’s this – new technology increases the amount of work! Greater leisure has only and ever been delivered due to worker insurrection and deliberate organization, and not by the “invisible hand” of the Market. Furthermore, entire generations were sacrificed and written out of the historical narrative to make the Industrial Revolution seem like a harmless win-win. As this commenter to Slashdot writes:
“Luddites weren’t just angry conservatives (literal, not political) trying to maintain some mythical “way of life”, it was a movement stated due to massive unemployment brought on by innovation in the textile industry. It became a generic insult because we’re so far removed from their (very real) suffering.”
“There was [sic] close to 80 years of unemployment following the industrial revolution that is seldom talked about (if you took history in high school or college you got maybe a paragraph at best). This is because text book historians like to keep an upbeat tone and because school boards are often staffed by economically conservative (political now) who don’t want anyone speaking ill of capitalism. Go find a book called “A People’s History of the United States” if you want a sense for how screwed up American history actually is.”
Or, just read this post: The US Government Has Always Been a Tool of Greedy Corporations (Vice)
5. Ancient people were uniformly ruled over by evil despots (i.e. ‘Oriental Despotism’). The “West” was all about freedom, justice, and democracy compared to the yoke of despotism the rest of the world lived under in primitive places such as Asia, Africa and the Americas.
As we’ve seen, Classical civilization–from the ancient Greeks to the Romans–was the most slave-driven economy in history to that point (only to be surpassed in the ‘Western’ colonial Americas). While that slavery decayed due to the dissolution of the Roman Empire, subsequent serfdom could hardly be considered freedom. By contrast, not all “primitive” societies were anywhere near as despotic as Western Europe and Imperial China were. That was a retconning of history to depict Western European civilization as “enlightened” in opposition to the ignorant “heathens.” For example, here is an excerpt from the book The Story of Manual Labor:
At no time in the history of ancient Mexico do we find that heartless oppression of the poor by the rich, that lack of humanity toward the wage-worker, that blackens the annals of so many European peoples. Luxury existed in the court of the Montezumas, it is true, but to support that luxury the poorer classes were not plunged into poverty and degradation. They were a simple people, and their needs were small and easily satisfied. Living in a tropical climate, upon a soil that repaid a thousandfold the slightest effort of the farmer; surrounded by forests full of game and rivers teeming with edible fish, the Mexican lived a life of comfort that to the Saxon churl or French bourgeoise of the same day would have seemed idyllic.
The Story of Manual Labor (Archive.org)
There are countless other examples, from long car commutes, to 20+ years of formalized schooling and expensive post-graduate degrees required for a job (or any formalized education at all), but I think you get the point.
As Chris Hedges poignantly writes in his latest book, America: the Farewell Tour:
If we do not know our history and our culture, if we accept the history and culture manufactured for us by the elites, we will never free ourselves from the forces of oppression. The recovery of memory and culture in the 1960s by radical movements terrified the elites. It gave people an understanding of their own power and agency. It articulated and celebrated the struggles of working men and women and the oppressed rather than the mythical beneficence of the powerful. It exposed the exploitation and mendacity of the ruling class. And that is why corporatists spent billions to crush and marginalize these movements and their histories in schools, culture, the press, and in our systems of entertainment.
Not only does the people have no precise consciousness of its own historical identity,” Gramsci lamented under fascism, “it is not even conscious of the historical identity or the exact limits of its adversary.
If we do not know our history we have no point of comparison. We cannot name the forces that control us or see the long continuity of capitalist oppression and resistance… p. 17
Anyway, here’s to a happy (or at least, tolerable) 2019, and I hope you all stick around and continue reading and commenting. Thanks!
8 thoughts on “Retconning History”
great work again. should be required reading in place of required classes in high school and college. let’s do have that (sorta) better year.
Thanks! I don’t think a better year is on the horizon, though 🙁
It’s not just economics. Something I see a lot in recent years: ‘Hitler and Stalin are both good examples of Socialism/the Left’…
Great example. Some writers have made entire careers on spinning this one. I didn’t mention this one because others have been doing a good job of debunking that one. How successful they have been might be another matter, however.
Another one: when some people get a new gadget (phone, computer, that kind of thing), the old gadget immediately becomes worthless. But more than that: the previous gadget they used to rave about is not just worthless now, but was *always* worthless, even when it was new. What’s that about?
By logical extension, then they gadget currently in their possession is useless, so they should immediately throw it away.
Maybe we all should just acknowledge that planned obsolescence is real, despite economic “science” pretending it isn’t a thing.