History never repeats, except a bit…

Apple were reportedly subject last week to an employee lawsuit.

Detail from an engraving of a factory in Soho, Birmingham, c1820. Matthew Wright coll., public domain.

Detail from an engraving of a factory in Soho, Birmingham, c1820. Matthew Wright coll., public domain.

Apparently, workers at their store are searched on leaving the workplace to make sure they haven’t pocketed product.

The action by two former employees is, reportedly, not because this is demeaning and assumes employees are thieves by default. Oh no. It’s because the workers apparently haven’t been paid while waiting to prove their innocence.

Doubtless truth will out, but on the face of the media reports - doesn’t this reverse the principle of innocent-until-proven-guilty that the western justice system rests on? As a friend of mine pointed out, if an employee is asked to submit to search – meaning their integrity is being questioned – surely the accused can reasonably request the police are called to properly investigate what is, by any measure, a very serious allegation?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic there’s a report in the UK over ‘zero hour’ employment – a normal exclusive arrangement (no secondary job), except the employer picks and chooses the hours the employee works and is paid for. According to the Guardian, Buckingham Palace uses the system, apparently, among others.

To me, that one harks back 200+ years to the early industrial revolution when workers lined up outside factories in the hope of being selected for a day’s work.

I suppose someone will invent work-houses next, places to humiliate and starve those whose misfortune is not of their making, but who can be conveniently blamed for it anyway. ‘More, Mr Twist? You want MORE?’

History never repeats in the specific; cultures change over time, ideals and values move with it.  Still, in the long game of history, it is possible to see patterns – to see swings, usually between extremes, punctuated by periods of reason. But underlying human nature doesn’t change, and if we look back we can see the same patterns of power, of injustice, of have and have not emerging time and again. A common human pattern, irrespective of how they are intellectualised and couched in the moment.

Which makes me wonder. In this age of buzz-words such as ‘solution’, will there be a moment when some wonk around the world, without the slightest trace of irony – and in profound ignorance of what they are actually saying – comes up with a ‘final’ solution to some problem or other.

I think I’d laugh. And then…then I think I’d get very scared.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

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18 comments on “History never repeats, except a bit…

  1. bejamin4 says:

    Nice post. Reminded me how Soren Kierkegaard talks about repetition. Something to the idea that we can never repeat something no matter how hard we try: always something will be different, even if it is only in the slightest way. Patterns, though. That is a good word here.

    • Thanks. Yes, it’s all to do with underlying shapes and patterns. We are usually taught history as ‘events’, which never repeat. But the underlying drivers – all of which derive from the common human condition – usually do.

      • bejamin4 says:

        You’re welcome. I’ve never really thought of that before, but when you pointed it out it just makes sense. The human condition has, for the most part, always remained constant. A recent David Bowie song (Love is Lost) says something similar: everything is new and yet “fear is as old as the world.” Emotions are behind all human actions, even though we like to believe that reason has but an end to that.

  2. naimeless says:

    Such a great post – Makes me want to read Dickens. :)

    • Thanks. Yeah, he pretty much nailed it, actually..What intrigues me is the way that specific general behaviours keep re-emerging in similar contexts across time. Periods of hardship through history typically provoke one sort of general behaviour, periods of prosperity another, and every time it comes as a novelty to most of those involved. The real problem, I am convinced, is that we are taught to view history as ‘lists of facts’, whereas the reality of it is one of shape, pattern and human understanding.

  3. I suspect that if you read Livy’s History of Rome from its Foundations you’ll find the same arguments in the Roman Senate 2000+ years ago as one might find in various legislative bodies across the world. It’s less that history repeats than it is human nature — and the inability or unwillingness of most humans to learn from their mistakes — doesn’t change.

    BTW, have you ever read The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler? You might find it intriguing.

  4. kokkieh says:

    When I did Animal Farm with my senior in English we always discussed this issue, and one year in particular the students drew some interesting lines between Orwell’s novel and the political situation in SA at the time. As you say, the events are different, but you can often see the same people and same relationship dynamics as there had been before.

  5. I wish you weren’t correct. It’s frustrating hearing the disdain so many harbor towards history.

    • It was Henry Ford, I think, who claimed that ‘history is bunk’. He was wrong. A sharp contrast with Winston Churchill, whose warnings about the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s went unheeded, but who was proven quite right. It was no coincidence; he understood the human condition very well, and had seen it all before when researching his histories, particularly his account of Cromwell.

  6. Modern day slavery reinvented, we are not yet even waking up to realise it. An employer here that one of my French students works for, recently moved staff from a 3000sqm building to a 600sqm building and imposed a policy of silence. Many of the staff are suffering from depression. And it is as well known as the company you mention. Unbelievable.

  7. Stuart Young says:

    You think some historian would point it out from time to time. We never seem to learn.

  8. Yes, the term ‘final solution’ is not something I want to hear from anyone with authority. Workhouses and debtor’s prison, during the past five years, roughly 2/3′s of the population would have been included based on home foreclosures alone. Yea, scary.

    • Definitely scary. And I’m prepared to bet money it’ll happen. What’s worse, if we look back to the early industrial revolution, the conditions workers in (say) Birmingham faced in the factories were astonishingly similar to what’s reported today in some of the unfolding and industrialising Asian markets – Bangladeshi clothing factories, for instance. And, I think, it’s because of the same framework and underlying nature of people. The human condition never ceases to both amaze…and disappoint.

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