Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A History of the World in 500 words

[In every country, there is a debate about what should be taught, especially in relation to history. One answer is that all educators should teach at least one simple lesson on how we got to where we are. Here’s the proposed set text for your reference:]

In the beginning, there was land – where people could find food and shelter, where they could herd livestock or cultivate crops. Rules evolved to prevent some from stealing the fruits of others’ labour. Customs developed to sanctify the reciprocity of treating others as one would have others treat one.

Then came the Con-men (and they were mostly men). They said the land belonged to them. On a good day they would say some supreme deity had given them the land. On a not so good day, they would warn that something bad would happen to anyone who dared to question their claim. The upshot was that people would only be ‘safe’ if they agreed to serve these new ‘masters’ of the land.

Henceforth, people needed permission to work, rest or play anywhere on the land taken over by the Con-men. Whatever they found or made on Con-land belonged to the ‘owners’. For the work they put in, they would be paid a wage. But for the privilege of using the land, and any building or equipment thereon, they would have to pay the Con-men rent, interest, and the bulk of what they had produced, otherwise known as ‘profit’.

The Con-men passed on to their descendants their ‘rightful’ inheritance; while the labouring masses became precariously dependent on what they were paid. At times, workers would be told there was no work for them, and they would end up with no pay, no food, and nowhere to sleep.

Gradually, people began to realise it was all a con. Resources should never have been carved up just to suit the masters of exploitation. Power and wealth should be distributed fairly, and people at large should democratically decide how best to share the rewards from their collective endeavours.

Calls for reforms were ignored until rebellions and revolutions were threatened. At the sight of Con-men getting overthrown in one country after another, concessions were finally granted. Citizens were given a real say in government, and reforms were put in place so that those privileged by the rigged distribution of resources would have to share a little bit more of their wealth with the wider population who generated that wealth in the first place.

Alas, this trend was halted. All too many revolutionaries became Con-men themselves once they had a taste of power. As for the moderate reformists who stayed true to their principles, they were brushed aside again as soon as the threat of revolution subsided.

Thus from the ancient Pharaohs to today’s plutocrats, the same old mix of manipulative tricks continue to be deployed. Everyone is told that if those with the most do not keep getting even more, everything would fall apart. And anyone with not enough to get by is urged to blame it all on those with even less.

If history has one lesson for us, it is this. The Con will go on – unless and until the lies are exposed, and power reclaimed for the wellbeing of all.

[For a book-length history of the struggle against power inequalities, read Against Power Inequalities, by Henry Tam.]

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