Back when historians actually cared about the behavior of real people, they looked at big-picture stuff like “labor mobility.” Ever wonder why all that cool shit Archimedes invented never went anywhere? The Romans had a primitive steam turbine. Why did it remain a clever party trick? Romans were fabulous engineers — these are the guys, you’ll recall, who just built a harbor in a convenient spot when they couldn’t find a good enough natural one. Surely their eminently practical brains could spot some use for these gizmos….?
The thing is — as old-school historians would tell you if any were still alive — technology is all about saving labor. Physical labor, mental labor, same deal. Consider the abacus, for instance. It’s a childishly simple device — it’s literally a child’s toy now — but think about actually doing math with it, when the only alternative is scratch paper. How much time do you save, not having to jot things down (remember where you put the jottings, etc.)?
I’m sure you see where this is going. The Romans did NOT lack for labor. They had, in fact, the exact opposite problem: Far, far too much labor. It’s almost a cliche to say that a particular group in the ancient world didn’t qualify as a “civilization” until they started putting up as ginormous a monument as they could figure out. They raised monuments for lots of reasons, of course, but not least among them was the excess-labor problem. What else are you supposed to do with the tribe you just conquered? Unless you want to wipe them out, to the last old man, woman, and child, slavery is the only humane solution.
If that’s true, then the opposite should also hold — technological innovation starts with a labor shortage. Survey says… yep. There’s a reason the Scientific Revolution dates to the Renaissance: The massive labor shortage following the Black Death. That this is also the start of the great age of exploration is also no accident. While the labor (over-)supply was fairly constant in the ancient world, once technological innovation really got going, the labor-supply pendulum started swinging wildly. The under-supply after the Black Death led to over-supply once technological work-arounds were discovered; that over-supply was exported to the colonies, which were grossly under-supplied, etc.
In short: If you want to know what kind of society you’re going to have, look at labor mobility.
This is not to say that slavery is the only answer. There are lots of ways to absorb excess labor. Ever gone shopping in the Third World? There’s one guy who greets you at the door. Another guy follows you around the store, helpfully suggesting items to buy. A third guy rings up your purchases, which are packed up by a fourth guy, and a fifth guy carries them out (or arranges delivery by a sixth guy). And none of those guys are actually the shopkeeper. They’re all his cousins and whatnot, fresh from the sticks, and all of them are working four jobs with four other uncles at different places in the city.
Nor is it just a Third World thing. Basic College Girls love that Downton Abbey show, so I’d use that to illustrate the point if BCGs were capable of comprehending metaphors. George Orwell wrote eloquently about growing up on the very ragged edge of “respectability” at the turn of the century. He knew all about servants, he said, and the elaborate codes of conduct in dealing with them, even though his family could afford only one part-time helper. Your real toffs, of course, had battalions of servants to do every conceivable job for them. What else is that, old bean, but an elegant solution to labor oversupply?
Note also, since I’m giving you very basic Marxist history here, that we’ve just discovered the foundations of Feminism. Though Karl Marx was — of course — a total asshole to both his wife and his domestic help (of course he had “help;” the tradition of using and abusing servants while bemoaning the plight of the proletariat comes straight from the Master himself), he realized that his theories had a hard time accounting for the very real economic effects of domestic labor. Hence Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which proves that even lemon-faced termagants with three degrees and six cats pulling down $100K per year shrieking about Feminism are MOPEs. You can cut the labor supply in half by shackling single gals to the Kinder, Küche, Kirche treadmill.
At this point, old-school historians would point out that since the purpose of history is to connect stuff to other stuff, it’s obvious that Current Year America has a serious labor oversupply problem, and that none of the old-school solutions seem to be on the cards. Wuhan Flu has proven that a great deal of our “jobs” are nothing but make-work. What are we going to do, re-institute slavery? Get back to “the angel in the house” somehow, with our sub-replacement fertility rate? Mass human sacrifice? (Hey, it worked for the Aztecs, and if you told the Karens of the world it’d prevent COVID…). Even bringing back the Downton Abbey model is ludicrous, though I for one would love it if we all started suggesting that to Leftists — “The best thing for you to do to make sure Black Lives Matter is to give Black people the keys to your house and car. I’m sure Supercalufragalisticexpealadocious and he homeboys will make truly excellent butlers and footmen.”
There’s more to life than work, of course, but since all this stuff is just Marxism 101, it’s worth acknowledging that Marx was right about the fundamental problem of our age: Alienation. We’re so alienated from the products of our labor, as Marxists would put it, that “labor” is itself an all-but-meaningless concept. You might keep the masses tranquil, for a time, with bread and circuses… but find me a time when bread and circuses worked as a long-term solution. And by “long term” I mean “didn’t end in massive bloodshed within a few decades, max.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.
There used to be a fundamental dignity to an honest day’s labor, even — make that especially — the “labor” of raising children in your home. Bringing that back would solve a great many of our problems.