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Although the consumers of Europe may have profited from cheaper goods in the short-term, the film shows that the oppression of the proletariat at home and the exploitation of natives abroad was in fact part of the same system that enriched the bourgeois and aristocracy, and kept others in their service either by fear or through the dispensing of small economic rewards.
Trade is thus viewed with a very cautious eye by this film, as the development of foreign trade is tied to colonialism and to the creation of exploitative forms of capitalism. In most conventional history books, European exploration and trade is viewed as a positive development. The creation of mercantilism during Medieval times, which spawned the first middle class, is usually seen as a democratic development, as it turned Europe away from the highly stratified feudal system. In the feudal system, serfs labored upon the land for their lords, and were unable to travel. However, the struggle between the emerging middle-class merchants and the aristocracy seldom yielded real benefits for peasants and workers, although the modern state may have offered more opportunities for some persons to be socially mobile than did the rigid code of feudalism. Still, this mobility was hardly enjoyed by all. Later, the Industrial Revolution also failed to cash in on its promise to make prosperity truly democratic. Some members of the middle and lower classes grew rich through factory production and ownership, but far more did not, as they were forced to toil for the bankers and factory owner's profit.
Rather than the generally optimistic view of history that suggests that all history is 'progress' -- progressing to more political and economic opportunities for all -- this video suggest a more circular view of history, where some persons benefit, but the vast majority fail to do so, and are harmed rather than helped by innovations in economics and trade. The most heart-wrenching examples of economic victimization are as the victims of the slave trade, followed by the residents of Africa, India, and Latin America subject to colonization, first by Portugal, then Spain, and followed by the rest of Europe. By viewing history in primarily economic terms, the film shows how slavery and colonialism was not merely about racism, or a patronizing desire to carry the White Man's so-called burden, but was rooted in a desire to make a profit. Even highly sympathetic depictions of slavery and colonialism tend to stress the human cost in terms of emotion, not in the financial terms of how these systems created great gain for the traders and owners involved in trafficking and colonial profiteering. ("The African Slave Trade and the Middle Passage," PBS.org: Africans in America, 2006)
One of the most challenging aspects to conventional economic wisdom is the way that the video takes a dim view of capitalism, not simply because of capitalism's moral injustices but also because it suggests that the development of finance capital leads inevitably to economic crises, beginning with the now little known European industrial crisis of 1873, as well as the better known worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s, in the aftermath of World War I. The periods of boom and bust that are accepted parts of the business cycle, "The History Book" regards as evidence of the defects of capitalism, although it does not provide a similar critique of communism, or provides a real solution to these excesses.
The video ends with locating the ways that foreign aid is dispensed to the developing world and the ways that multinational corporations, continue to exploit ordinary workers. It also notes how unhealthy aspects of urban life, like congestion and human pollution, were spawned by the Industrial Revolution, and how these ills are becoming more widespread as the rest of the world becomes more economically developed. The film ends with a call for a better way to organize economic growth and society, but with little clear prescriptive solutions as to how this can occur. Overall, "The History Book" provides a satisfying companion to more conventional views of history, although it remains lacking in terms of offering a clear program to remedy the historical ills that it highlights.
The African Slave Trade and the Middle Passage." PBS.org: Africans in America. 2006. [22 May 2006]
Colonialism." Answers.com. [22 May 2006] http://www.answers.com/topic/colonialism
The History Book." Directed, written, and compiled by Li Vilstrup and Jannik Hastrup 1975.[continue]
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