What gave birth to ‘true economy’ and how did it stem inequality?

The previous week I happened to see ‘Platform’ by director Galder Gaztelu Urrutia, which is essentially mirroring today’s capitalistic world. The movie which is set in a prison is a metaphor for the society which capitalism has enabled. The idea of need ceases to exist and people loot the resources, which in the movie’s context is a platform full of food that circulates from Level 1 to Level 333. The catch here is that the food quantity of food that begins from Level 1 is what is to be shared between all the levels but the greed of the inmates on upper levels(Level 1- Level 50) leaves nothing for the ones below. This leads to cannibalism on the lower level and the gore nature of certain scenes in the movie portray it in a disturbingly real manner.

The movie is layered with nuances of the society that we are living such as the different levels of the prison exhibit the class disparity, where the people at the top are greedy and the ones at the bottom are starving and desperate. The movie tells its tale through various characters, where each represents a certain section of the society and makes you think hard upon the world we have created for ourselves through our own self-interests. The inequality that has grown exponentially with the rise of capitalism makes you wonder whether a different model could be more fit for the society? The exodus of labourers and their plight amidst the virus exposes the failings of the capitalistic world. But to begin with answering the question of what could it be if not capitalism as socialism also doesn’t end up answering all our questions, it becomes necessary to ask as to how did all this come about in the first place? Why does inequality exist and grow by each passing year? How did the birth of true economy take place? What is a market society?

The former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis in his book ‘Talking to my daughter’  breaks down the building blocks of economics which helps the reader in understanding why do we live in a capitalistic world. He tries to answer the question of inequality by taking us back 12,000 years ago. It was the time when humans learnt to cultivate the earth. The resources were beginning to prove insufficient due to the increasing population in certain areas and it gave rise to different farming technologies so as to cope with the limited nature of our resources. But in this process growing food, our society experienced a fundamental shift because for the first time agricultural production created the basic element of true economy: surplus.

The birth of agriculture surplus gave rise to writing, debt , money, state, bureaucracy, armies, clergy and even the first biochemical war.

The first forms of writing that emerged in Mesopotamia was essentially invented to document each farmer’s deposited share in the shared granary. These farmers were then paid in shells engraved with numbers indicating the pound of grains that rulers owed them for their labour in the fields. Before the invention of metal currency, the account of it was noted in written format and the transactions were carried out with the imagined form of money which is inherently today’s concept of virtual currency.  For this virtual currency to work, as the author states there needs to be faith in the system that is facilitating this. This is ensured when the people are guaranteed by something or someone powerful which brings in the idea of rulers and in it’s today day and age, our government. It is essentially an authority that is trusted by the people and is believed to have the future power to reimburse even if the ruler or the people in power are to die.

Economy exists on the idea of debt because as debt appeared money flourished. Yanis in his book also mentions that bureaucracies and armies wouldn’t have been formed without the agriculture surplus because to sustain all these people meant that grains had to be in surplus and if that hadn’t happened then this society structure wouldn’t have been formed. He also goes a step further by stating that agriculture surplus gave birth to clergy which interestingly also justifies the increasing inequality in today’s world. These states that emerged out of agricultural surplus distributed the surplus in an unequal manner in the society which would benefit the people in power. The next rational thought would be that why not overthrow the rulers who enable all this but that didn’t happen and in times when such events have taken place they take a lot of effort to mobilize. The way the rulers managed to keep themselves in power and create a certain power structure in the society which was unchallenged by the majority is through the power of religion. This institutionalization of ideology that justified that only the rulers had the right to rule was performed by the clergy. Without organized religion, the ruler’s authority could have been challenged very easily. This not only holds true back then but also in the society we are living today which is being polarised on the basis of religion.

Inequality is a self-perpetuating ideology and it is this very nature of the thought that we still have that has given rise to such class disparities. The clergy justified unequal distribution of surplus for the entire society which consisted of both -the haves and the have nots. The privileged perpetuate this thought by believing that we get what we deserve and we do not allow ourselves to ponder upon the thought that our privilege comes at the cost of the under-privileged because we are all a part of the same process.

Today’s world is a product of market societies. Market societies were formed when the most productive activity was channelled through markets which was further transformed into a commodity. Such as when labour itself became a commodity which was extinct before industrialization or land acquired an exchange value or that each exquisite skill could be charged. This transformation amalgamated with the advancement in shipbuilding gave rise to global trade and the rest as we know is history because we as a society today are the result of that.

The past years have seen a rise in the world turning inward which was majorly a reaction to the 2008 global financial crisis. Governments over the world have tried to reduce the flow of migrants or curbing free flow of goods and money even though we have taken a big leap in connecting virtually as a society with the rise of the internet. The pandemic has accelerated the process of countries turning inward as the populist governments now have a reason now to curb the inflow of migrants or refrain from competition that arises due to global trade, hence the national economies are now turning towards local industries to produce goods and services. The anti-China narrative has been developing since the lack of accountability or responsibility of the Chinese government has made it difficult for the entire world to function at the moment. Along with this narrative, the ‘anti-trade’ narrative has also been shaping up. President Emmanuel Macron of France is trying to harbour economic patriotism and has talked about delegating food supply. The increasing food nationalism has led to the suspension of rice exports from Vietnam which is one of the largest rice producers and has also led to Russia, the largest wheat export to impose quotas on grain export. This could also mean that leaders with autocratic tendencies could give birth to closed societies and what’s interesting to note in this is that the paradigm shift that gave birth to society as we live in was initiated by agriculture surplus and the inversion of the society as we know today could also be initiated through the capacity of a nation to produce its own grains.

The inversion of global trade could have a lot of negative impacts like the deteriorating quality of goods and life, increasing monopoly, but the upside to this could lead to the empowerment of one of the most neglected class in the society,i.e. the farmers. The government in the past one month has come up with numerous digital interventions like Kisan Sabha app, E-NAM app, etc. which reduce the need of the middleman and directly connect the farmer to the mandi or the consumer. This intervention which should have happened without the pandemic but the pandemic made it a necessity to establish a clearer platform with the farmers. This may not be the ideal time for talking about fair pay for farmers which could be enabled by digitization when the doctors are being overworked in order ensure the safety of the society, but at such a time we could grapple onto any optimism that we can get. Maybe digitisation of workspaces could create work opportunities for people(especially homemakers) which could help in economical upliftment of the society and also in a way break gender stereotypes. One could also hope for newer ways of commodifying services through digitization, the way labour turned into a commodity during the industrial revolution. Just a food for thought, what if digitization paved the way for reducing inequality and connecting people in spite of all the actual and metaphorical barriers created by the governments over the world?



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