Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

North Korean Monopoly: Progress and Poverty

Image Source: hajo via NRC.

VICE recently reported (below) that North Korea is making billions of dollars by sending its forced labour pool to work in Poland and other European countries. If you follow VICE, you know that North Korea is one of Shane Smith's favourite subjects. I have previously blogged about his coverage, here. VICE's report drew from earlier articles in the Dutch media, NRC (11 February 2016), and Reuters (26 April 2016). I was struck by the North Korean Monopoly illustration that appears in the VICE video, reproduced from the NRC report, and the implication that North Korea's totalitarian family dictatorship and weird communists are exporting forced labour around the world as a capitalist commodity. Reuters maintained that the money earned by North Korean forced labour in the seemingly humanitarian European Union was funding the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programme:
"[T]here is arguably a strong link between North Korean human rights infringements and something that is happening in the EU today. Preliminary research shows that several hundred, possibly thousands, of North Korean workers are hired with legal work permits, but under often illegal circumstances, in EU member states. These states include Poland, Malta and others. The companies hiring North Koreans include those involved in shipyards, construction, manufacturing and agriculture. Details about these companies will be included in a forthcoming report later this year. Once workers are issued these permits, it is not clear what happens after they arrive in the EU.

Funds earned by North Korean laborers working in the EU under what appear to be conditions of forced labor a[re] sent to Pyongyang enable the missile-launching posturing we are now witnessing. Effectively, this means that action to address North Korea’s dire human rights situation could be intimately connected to efforts to fight its threat to regional security."

"Cash for Kim: North Korean Forced Laborers in Poland," VICE (31 May 2016). Video Source: Youtube.

The NRC cartoon of Kim Jong-un's Monopoly board made me return to the game itself, to understand what it means to combine authoritarian control, popular wealth and power, socialism, and capitalism. The recent recession proved that central failings of the current economic system include rampant investment arising from mesmerized manipulations of financial technologies; technological change outpacing the productive capacity of the old working system, even when that system is globalized; and blind faith in progress and endless growth, leading to a denial of natural economic ups and downs. When confronted with a bust, current progressive economic theory tries to brute force the system into a state of fake prosperity, fake growth, and fake progress until natural prosperity returns, regardless of how the natural system responds.

A different way to resolve economic booms and busts once and for all was presented in the American children's game, Monopoly. The game was invented in 1903 but first released in 1935 during the Great DepressionWiki:
"Monopoly is a board game that originated in the United States in 1903 as a way to demonstrate that an economy which rewards wealth creation is better than one in which monopolists work under few constraints and to promote the economic theories of Henry George [1839-1897] and in particular his ideas about taxation. The current version was first published by Parker Brothers in 1935. Subtitled 'The Fast-Dealing Property Trading Game,' the game is named after the economic concept of monopoly—the domination of a market by a single entity."
In other words, the aim of the game was actually progressive and ironically anti-monopolist. The game taught players that owning and developing land property would enrich them, while becoming renters would impoverish them. The game also encouraged the development of public works and a certain type of taxation, to blend socialism with capitalism.

The original Monopoly design from 1903, patent application filed in 1904. The game was initially called 'The Landlord's Game.' The four corners represent the four extremes between which players must move; they signify a patrician, wealthy landed class; public charity; crime, deviance and bare subsistence; and jobs. The top left corner, which became the 'Go to Jail' square, reads: "Owner Lord Blueblood London Exchange No Trespassing Go to Jail." The top right corner, which became the 'GO' square, reads: "Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages." The bottom left corner, which became 'Free Parking,' reads: "Public Park Poor House." And the bottom right corner, which depicts expenditures on absolute necessities (represented by a coal tax and could be correlated to our expenditures on gasoline, plastics, and petroleum today) became the 'In Jail / Just Visiting' square. The 1935 patent application for the board is here. Image Source: Wiki.

Monopoly's predecessor, 'The Landlord's Game,' was developed by Elizabeth Magie (1866-1948) to explore the ideas of the Progressive Era economist, Peter George. For some people, playing Monopoly during childhood is the only course on American economics and capitalism that they will ever get before real life takes over. Thus, it is important to understand the lessons the game's creator meant to teach, because the game has been teaching those lessons to children inside and outside America for nearly a century.

One assumes that the game presents a rags-to-riches story, with the winner becoming the wealthiest landowner and consumer. However, the game was not created to teach its players to become land moghul populists and powerful conspicuous consumers, that is, to inspire little Donald Trumps. Monopoly entrenches a potent American principle, which combines dynamism with stability. You can see this in the 1904 patent application (above and here), where the centre of the board enforces a strict, quartered balance between privately-developed railroads; citizens' employment and wages; the banks; and the state's public purse. It is a game of temperance, not exploitation. The game lets children indulge their free marketeer selfishness, only to find themselves curtailed and drawn back by other, weird economic forces in society: property repairs, crime, luxury taxes, luck, beauty contests.

Magie designed the game after reading Henry George's book, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy (1879), which you can read for free online here and here. That means that when kids play Monopoly, they are learning a solution to the boom-bust cycles of all human economies (not just capitalist economies) proposed in response to the North American and European Long Depression of the 1870s. Progress and Poverty became hugely popular during the depression of the 1890s, when it outsold the Bible (about which I have blogged here). As an economic teaching tool, Monopoly has quietly preserved and passed on its 1870s' message. The survival, persistence and ingenuity of its message lies in the fact that it lies so far beneath the radar of the conventional arenas of political-economic discussion. It was first conceived by a woman as a game for children. It is apolitical, non-academic, and easily adaptable to local or international conditions. Perhaps it works so well because the game initially demands overt greed from its young players. It conceals a deeper message, only revealed subtly through the act of playing the game. This may explain why George Soros's favourite game as a boy was Monopoly.

Image Source: Wikihow.

The point to the game was to show children how realty connected to taxation, and how the two could be combined to produce an economic perpetual motion machine, an equilibrium, with a continually-restruck balance between economic dynamism and stability. To accomplish this, players had to learn to take on different dynamic and stable roles - at different times - whether as private individuals or agents of the public good. Monopoly taught children the role of the banks in the system, because one player was chosen to be the banker.

Boardwalk in 1920 (click to enlarge). Image Source: Medium.

The local style of upper-middle class houses: 101 South Montgomery Avenue, Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA; the house was built in 1919. Image Source: Old House Dreams.

Mediterranean Avenue. Image Source: Roadtrippers.

Mediterranean Avenue in 2016. Image Source: realtor.

The original game was based on streets in Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA in the 1930s. Atlantic City was dramatized and depicted for the earlier period of Prohibition in the 1920s through 1931 in the American HBO television series, Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014). The show was critically acclaimed for its historical costumessets, and representations of real people; it provides some fictionalized historical understanding of how and why Monopoly was developed using the streets of that particular city. It is important to see that the game represented Atlantic City just as it fell into Depression after the opulent and crime-ridden Roaring Twenties.

In the game, a bust - the Great Depression - has begun. Monopoly's inventor, Charles Darrow (1889-1967), adapted Magie's Landowner's Game when he lost his sales job after the crash of 1929. The question posed by the game is: how do you survive when your job disappears, or the poor-quality work that is available is insufficient to sustain basic needs? Is there a way to generate income and function economically beyond the jobs-consumption model? How do you move from being a renter to a property owner? Once you accumulate wealth, what are your obligations to the economy and society? More importantly, and this was a question posed by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), after your faith in the system is shattered - either because you profit from cynical exploitation and become corrupt, or because you become impoverished and your dreams are ruined - what communal values should you choose to believe? The game insists that answers to these questions are intimately connected.

Start at GO, and you quickly find your $200 salary is insufficient. The good times disappear, except for a portion of very wealthy citizens. This is why, as you move around the board, the properties are stratified so markedly in terms of social class. The game does not sugar coat it: you start in the rough part of town at Mediterranean Avenue, and claw your way up to the Boardwalk. You are supposed to progress from renting your home to buying one, then buying several like properties in groups, developing them, and charging rents. If you want to see what Monopoly's original streets look like in Atlantic City today, go here.

Boardwalk Empire production designer Bob Shaw explains how the historical sets of Atlantic City during the Roaring Twenties were constructed. Video Source: HBO via Youtube.

A video explains the historical background on which the television drama, Boardwalk Empire, was based. The original Monopoly game's landscape is immediately recognizable. Video Source: Youtube.

The 1935, patent-pending Monopoly board (click to enlarge). Image Source: Sundown Farm and Ranch.

This dynamic-stable economic conception is rather like the original design - long since abandoned - of the American governmental system, which was never (!) intended to create an entrenched political class, consisting of people like the BushesKennedys, or the Clintons. The nearly constant electioneering at the lower levels of American government was supposed to force contant turnover at the raw democratic level, while the higher level elections occurred less frequently, favouring established business people and landowners.

Instead, perpetual electioneering created a system in which American politicking became the endless industry of a stratum of well-educated political entrepreneurs. The world views and efforts of this stratum depart significantly from the old American patrician plan, because the core aim of these political animals is politics-in-itself. That is, their endgame is crafting the debate of politics-upon politics-upon politics. They are not actually devoted to building society and remaining connected to the poor, as they claim and like to believe. Rather, they build political meta-narratives about society, unrelated to real conditions. Yet their narratives are so serious and polished that their meta-pictures seem more real than reality.

In this political system - as with the parallel economic system - if your experience differs from the meta-narratives, you are the one with the problem. America's new political and economic classes diverged from their roots and created a hugely expensive system, corrupted by clannish hierarchies and special interest preserves; they are supported by slanted media mouthpieces and other centres of partisan power. Even when they claim to represent dynamism or stability, they do not; and they certainly do not desire any working combination of opposites to achieve temperance. Regardless of political persuasion, left or right, they are representatives and perpetuators of a falsely stable and truly imbalanced political and economic meta-system. The winners inside this system become isolated from the real world.

Monopoly is considered one of the top children's board games to inspire a physical reaction at the end. The game challenges the players to rethink their assumptions and make creative agreements; if they do not, someone usually flips the board and storms off because other players have not learned about balance and fairness. Without concessions, the winner is left alone in a ruined living room. Image Source: 11 Points.

The Monopoly Here and Now: Electronic Banking players' tokens (2006). Image Source: Monopoly Wikia.

Since the 1930s, the game of Monopoly has been continually reinvented. Its latest versions, spanning the Great Recession, reveal some parallels between the 1930s and the 2010s, in terms of the social disparities and uneasiness inspired by good times, followed by a crash, followed by the joint transformation of the economy, society, and science and technology.

Millennial versions of the game include: Monopoly Here and Now: World Edition; Monopoly Here and Now: Electronic Banking (you can play it online); Monopoly: Empire; and several local and national versions. These more recent versions of the game reveal how the housing bubble and Great Recession changed the original game's interest in land ownership. Newer versions dispense with properties and replace them with brands and post-Postmodern concepts, such as 'liveability.' Adaptations of the game reflect shifting values and can reveal a lot about where we think we are. Monopoly: World Edition places Montreal, Quebec, Canada in the coveted Boardwalk position, ahead of all other cities in the world (see the board here), which, in terms of 'liveability' is debatable. In spring of 2016, Monopoly was turned into a television show.

The Electronic Banking game shows how the game has departed from its roots. Here, you have a game for the middle class and working class precariat, in which players receive six credit cards or bank cards instead of cash; the tokens are a Segway, the Space Shuttle, a Baseball Cap, a Flat Screen TV, an Altoids Container, and a Dog in a Handbag; a different version has four tokens, a Car, Jet, Dog, or Headphones. You can see how the tokens have changed over the decades here. A 2012 game, Monopoly: Millionaire, depicted the life of the Super Rich.

Monopoly Here and Now: Electronic Banking (2006). Image Source: Monopoly Wikia.

Monopoly: Millionaire (2012) featured nightmarish exclusive generic locations instead of real addresses (click to enlarge). Image Source: yoyo.

Monopoly: Empire (2013) put brands instead of properties on the board (click to enlarge). Image Source: Business Insider.

A spoof board of what Monopoly would look like for renters in London, UK, in 2015, based on rents listed that year on Zoopla (pcm=per calendar month; click to enlarge). Image Source: Roost.

A spoof board (click to enlarge) classifying different social media sites in terms of virtual neighbourhoods. Blogger (the site where you are now) occupies the spot where North Carolina Ave. is on the original American board, and Piccadilly is on the original British board. The utilities are WikiLeaks and Wikipedia. Image Source: Youth Ki Awaaz.

See my earlier post on North Korea.

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