Saturday, January 28, 2012

Parasites Lost

Parasites Lost
©Douglas S. Harvey 2012

I once asked a Native American if he thought whether North America was in any way in a post-colonial period.  His response was, “Have they left yet?”  Of the New World republics that came about as a result of colonization, the United States is going to have the hardest time dealing with its past.  Recently, we’ve see a lot of people willing to strut about with their guns and imagine themselves in some pre-pubescent fantasy of John Wayne’s “unbridled individualism.”  Some become so deluded as to be willing to use these guns on perceived “enemies.”  But this is symptomatic only; it is useful to remember how the actual land of North America came to be claimed by European and Euro-American colonists.  More importantly, the causes of these neuroses can be better understood when one realizes what separating people from their resource base means.
            For over ninety-nine percent of human history, the earth and its human offspring were united.  Humans were unique in their ability to fashion bits of the earth into useful items.  With our minds, hands, and intuition we made the stuff of the earth more useful to us.  Nothing came between us and our resources – we were one with our environment and what we did to improve our surroundings and make our lives better we ourselves enjoyed.  As the Thoreau disciple and wilderness advocate Bradford Angier once pointed out, “The hardest part about roughing it is smoothing it.”  We were pretty good at “smoothing it.”  Even cave paintings, figurines, Petroglyphs and the like helped people to understand their relationship with the world into which they had emerged.  Contrary to the assumptions of the old “Whig” histories, people were generally time-rich – indeed, they could easily make more than they needed.  These surplus goods could be traded for others’ surplus goods and the fruits of individuals’ skills could be shared.  At some point someone began to think about accumulating these surplus goods.  How, the calculating mind asked, might I enjoy these manufactures and the potential wealth they represent without having to engage in this difficult work myself?  Many methods were tried with varying degrees of success.  But one that did work and continues to work was coercion – physical, political, legal, economic – forcing a wedge between people and their resource base (the land) and make their reunion with it conditional.  The condition for this reunion with the “means of production” is a controlling cut of the wealth produced by the interaction of human and other-than-human nature. 
            This division between people and nature put us on a path many are beginning to question.  Besides the sense of alienation being cut off from our natural relationships with the other-than-human world produces, we are separated from our own means of production.  Now, instead of using our wits and our hands to mold the stuff of the earth into usefulness, we have to go to the bourgeois “owner” and ask him to buy our labor, since it is often all we have since being deprived of access to resources.  The bourgeoisie figured out that if you usurp the land and resources, you have control of interaction between human and other-than-human – also known as labor power, which is the only real power humans have. 
            This defense of the relationship between humans and their resources should in no way be construed as a defense of, say, corporate access to the minerals of the Grand Canyon or oil in the Arctic.  That is a looting of both nature and labor that I have discussed elsewhere.  No, we have come so far down the path of exploitation of both human and other-than-human nature that assumptions and myths regarding the righteousness of this path remain unquestioned from the halls of power to the public discourse.
            The surplus of useful goods that was often so abundant in pre-modern communities – under the influence of market-obsession, has acquired an exchange-value separate from its use.  The result is “capital,” or surplus-value flowing to the bourgoisie but which they themselves did not produce.  Capital bought and still buys power and influence to entrench this economic system and heavily skew it toward the bourgeoisie – a sort of modern feudalism.  A wedge was driven between people and their resources.  Having been deracinated – alienated from their resources, homes, families, and livelihood – people had nothing to sell but their labor, and oftentimes the going rate was at starvation levels.  In some regions where this deracination is at full throttle, many have chosen suicide over this type of slavery.
In North America, this separation of the land from the indigenous peoples took on an unprecedented scope.  While there was certainly plenty of room in North America in 1492, there were still no fewer than five to ten million people who, in most respects, lived off the fat of an abundant land.  Then, Europeans and unwilling and unwitting Africans came to the New World.  With varying degrees, separating indigenous people from the land became an institution and was developed to the point of becoming a national myth: of course the Indians must be removed in the face of “progress” – removed or exterminated.  Cold hard fact that it is we have yet to internalize this as a society; denial or ignorance of this history is rampant in the U.S.
The denial becomes increasingly difficult as the separation of people from property takes on new dimensions, (if nothing else, the “bourgeois” class is very creative about accumulating wealth and power).  Now, newcomers as well as descendents of the original colonizers – who themselves usurped the land – have found themselves being separated from their resources by a rigged system in which they have no say.  Some might call this karma and that may be true, but it is certainly a continuation. 
Working people took a stand in the U.S. from the Industrial Revolution to the post-World War II era and created the wealthiest working class in history.  It was so successful that this working class took to calling itself the “middle class,” a democratization of the original turf held by the bourgeoisie and characterized by untitled wealth.  Many people once again had a say in their relationship between themselves and their tools and resources.  They did not go to the so-called “owner” with hat in hand begging to sell their labor, they collectively bargained with him to get a reasonable share of the surplus value they were producing.  Some would say these negotiations were a gift to the bourgeoisie from producers who cut them more slack than they deserved.  The abandonment of the American working class by the bourgeoisie, by their politicians, and even by their unions, has been nothing short of a betrayal and indeed a form of robbery.
The wealth accumulated by hook or by crook and now used to manipulate the economy and political power structure is turned against the people who produced it.  The old tried and true strategy of divide and conquer – white and blue collar, black and white skin, English- and Spanish-speaking, male and female, etc., etc., ad nauseum – so far still works.  The financialization of the economy has turned Wall Street into a kind of giant Las Vegas, detached from actual production, subsidized and insured by taxing those who actually do produce wealth.  It must keep moving fast, though, because something is gaining on it.  The separation of workers from the wealth they produce; of workers from their resources; of humans from nature, is a contrivance that cannot last. 
People are looking for that part of themselves that is connected to everything else.  There is a deep cognitive dissonance in the U.S. resulting from a simple historical truth: wealth enjoyed by many American citizens came from resources acquired through systematic conquest and pillage.  It makes it particularly hard to defend your resources on moral grounds when they were stolen to begin with.  Much easier to deny or invent an alternative narrative. 
Parasites often kill their hosts.  To the extent that humans have become parasites, of labor and/or the resource base, we act for our own destruction.  The short-term thinking institutionalized in this system is an indulgence we can no longer afford.  One alternative to the path of exploitation remains vaguely familiar to us: the path of husbandry and cooperation.  But alternative paths require introspection, a difficult facing of fears and facts and, finally, understanding what the relationship between humans and the earth means.  As people have known for over ninety-nine percent of our history, the earth is literally our mother – our source of life.  It is human nature to interact with our environment and treat it with the respect it deserves – as a part of ourselves.  We act self-destructively when we assume the exploitative attitude of parasites.  As with most problems, the answers are in the mirror, which is why they don’t get solved.
January 28, 2012

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Nature Regards Itself

Nature Regards Itself
©Douglas S. Harvey, 2012

Growing up in a household that worshipped capitalism, (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was the de facto family Bible), in a Catholic community that had defended the faith from Bavaria to the Volga to the heart of North America, I was confronted early on by two significant conundrums.  One involved the usual questions thinking people experience with religious dogma: if God is omnipotent, can He make a rock so big that He Himself can’t lift it?  The second was, if capitalism is the epitome of unrestrained virtue, why is there so much war, poverty, and environmental degradation?   
             Historical geographer David Harvey has shown how Capital flies from crisis to crisis to avoid facing the music of its own contradictions.  Phenomena ranging from the simultaneous growth of homelessness and empty houses to the boom of the storage unit in the face of dire want and a “working poor” are symbolic of capitalism’s absurdity.  As a young man growing up in Small Town, America, I appreciated the general rhetoric about individual freedom although the connection was never made to anything that might be called “self-realization.”  But where the capitalist mythos lost me was when I saw first hand what capitalism did to the environment without apology or explanation, much less a voluntary effort to clean up after itself.  The social reform movements of the early 1900s and again in the 1960s and ‘70s forced the issue; otherwise, Big Capital has made no willing effort to acknowledge that dead rivers, clear-cut forests, eroded hillsides, and poisonous fumes were a bad thing for both humans and other-than-humans.  Indeed, the assumption was that this was the price we had to pay for the wonders of modern life – automobiles, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, electric toothbrushes – in short, capitalism.  Stuff – the myth tells us – that’s what we need and that’s what will make the people happy and the capitalists rich, which is all good.  In this mythology, the resource base, (i.e. Earth – to all appearances the complicated speck of dust that produced us all), plays second fiddle to that great concertmaster, Mankind; or, more to the point, “Man as Capitalist.” 
            There are several events that epitomize the real world consequences of this fantasy.   One is the degradation of the world’s forests – over half have been cut since 1850 and it does not look good for most of the rest without concerted effort.  The fact of climate change is beyond question among reasonable people who read the evidence.  When Rachel Carson exposed the abuses of the chemical industry and its collusion with government in Silent Spring; when Cleveland’s Cuyohaga River caught fire in 1969; when the horrors of Agent Orange came home to roost, many people in the U.S. began waking up to the dire consequences of this mythos.  This awakening has been tamped down since the 1980s, but very recently the #Occupy movement has begun to rekindle awareness of these and other contradictions in our dominant mythos.
            The prevalent attitude of the modern era in the so-called western world has been the result of the combination of capitalist and Christian mythology.   Culturally, we have separated ourselves from the resource base.  We have cut ourselves off from Earth.  But we are not separate – we ARE the Earth.  And it is time to wake up, smell the coffee, and look at what is before us in stark relief.  Most people in the western world incorporate some form of the 3,000-year-old myth that our forebears were expelled from Paradise and deposited on this wretched plane of existence with the inclination to kill, rape, plunder, and otherwise use pointy objects to the detriment of our fellows.  Elsewhere, it says that we are to subdue the Earth and the things therein.  It seems clear that Yahweh was predisposed to capitalist exploitation.  What a coincidence!  Yet, a clear-eyed appraisal of where we stand shows that we see the Earth beneath our feet and “above us only sky.”  Heaven, Hell, the angels, demons, saints and all the rest are right here, right now, in our psyches – fears and dreams manifested in psychic imagery. 
            What capitalism has done and continues to do to workers – degrade them, force them to work for lower wages, fewer benefits, longer hours, etc., it does also to Earth.  Philosopher Howard Parsons once observed that Capital similarly extorts labor from the worker, fertility and productivity from the soil – all for short-term goals.  It robs both of “vitality, freedom, and independence.”
            We humans are organic critters, much like chimps, dogs, frogs, bugs, and trees. To violate human nature through the exploitation and extortion of value from workers has a direct equivalency in violating other-than-human nature for short-term gain.  The heart of this equivalency centers on a very simple fact: human beings ARE nature.  To violate nature is to violate ourselves and vice versa.  We are Nature regarding itself.  Mythic assumptions that once upon a time perhaps lessened the degree of bloodlust among humans or dispersed economic power among a broader population and freed creative energy are reaching a threshold.  Letting go of our old mythical assumptions is key to moving forward into a more realistic view of our situation and, ultimately, our survival as a self-aware planetary organism.  We have a right to sustain ourselves in a way that contributes BOTH to the health of the individual and the health of the planet.  But we do not have a right to do so at the expense of the future.
            Both our dominant political and economic systems here in the U.S. (and elsewhere) are notorious for their focus on shortsighted goals.  Instant profits and votes – some people will literally do or say anything to acquire these, including wreck the economy of our society and the ecology of Earth, which are ultimately identical.  To this, one simply asks, what about the rights of our now-voiceless offspring?  What about the rights of those whose energy is yet to emerge into this realm of dualities – to engage in what the late comedian Bill Hicks said was “just a ride.”  Don’t they have a right to be born into a functional environment with the hope and opportunity to live a fulfilled life and enjoy the “ride” in a fruitful and healthy way?  If THAT right isn’t worth guarding, what IS? 
            Yes, we humans are Nature, but that doesn’t mean that we should cater to our basest instincts, petty shortsightedness, and the political expediency of the day.  Bad habits gained at the expense of others – human and other-than-human – have been inculcated into our pantheon of assumptions.   We are Nature regarding itself, but that does not give us license to trash the resource base.  Many of us deem it unwise to jab a screwdriver into our eye sockets; yet, cutting all the tropical forests, for example, is no different.  We are Nature regarding itself, and we owe it to ourselves and to our descendants to embrace rational, long-term resource policies and institutionalize them.  In spite of what the narcissistic, grasping capitalist mythos tells us from the cradle to the grave, the Earth is “an inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of a chain of successive generations of the human race,” as well as other-than-human generations upon which all are dependent.  We are Nature regarding itself, and to embrace the real world consequences of our actions and take remedial steps is the ultimate act of humanism. 
These condundrums with which I struggled mightily in my youth have largely been resolved.  My allegiances are no longer divided.  To quote Howard Parsons’s cogent essay again, “[T]he true humanist turns out to be the true naturalist and the true radical to be the true conservative.”[1]  Damn it!  I ALWAYS thought that, but I was protected from such insight in the prison of an ideological mythos.  We ARE Nature regarding itself – and at some level, I knew it all along.

[1] Howard L. Parsons, “Introduction,” Marx and Engels on Ecology (Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1977), 19.  It is interesting to revisit the critics of capitalism in the post-Cold War era.   They made some very important points and we ignore their critique to our own detriment.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Institutionalization of the Criminal Mind

The Institutionalization of the Criminal Mind
©Douglas S. Harvey 2012

It is interesting that Adam Smith, the oft-cited codifier of “classical economics,” whose 1776 book The Wealth of Nations continues to be mentioned with great frequency, did not advocate cold, amoral rationalism in all one’s economic affairs.  Smith maintained a moral center in which concepts of justice took precedence over “enlightened self-interest.”  Indeed, Smith even referred to the “beneficent” society which served as an embellishment to a “just” society.  Yet, the concept of “enlightened self-interest" has become a phrase conflated with cold, calculating – even cunning – behavior.  The expansion of economic empire has made this behavior an assumption in capitalist market societies like the U.S. and Britain.  This assumption whispers to us that profit is our proper priority, greed is good, “self-interest” equals capital and material accumulation, and this “self-interest,” when pursued by all, creates an ideal population of virtuous individuals. 
In the so-called “developed” world, this assumption seeps into our pores as we mature into adulthood.  Indeed, we are led to believe that this is the only way to motivate people – without the profit incentive, no one would ever do anything.  This brings to mind the mythos prevalent in western religions that without the threat of eternal damnation, people would succumb to their “base instincts” and the world would deteriorate into pagan barbarism.  Indeed, as many on the political “right” would argue, profit motive is the only legitimate motivation.  Some have gone to great lengths to associate capital accumulation with virtue, and with Christian virtue, at that.  In this mythos, “self-realization” is measured by accumulation – money, houses, cars, clothes, jewels, etc.  Wealth accumulation became the measure of virtue.  As for barbarism, a cleared-eyed body count of the victims of economic expansion might cause us to redefine the concept. 
This is not a process that began with the Industrial Revolution, or even Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  The search for resources and markets to facilitate the continued accumulation of capital can be traced at least to the thirteenth-century Mediterranean world.  There, for a brief time, connections were established between the Silk Road and the relative backwaters of northwestern Europe that spelled profit for the merchant middle-men.  When the search for resources and markets expanded into the New World after Columbus, unprecedented engines of commerce and accumulation were kick-started that continue to ebb, flow, and expand to this day.  Wealth once enjoyed only by “divine-right” monarchs was now realized by a growing number of individuals who, often, had not even a title before their name.  The liberal economic revolution was in full swing.
It is worth asking, as many have done: where did the wealth actually come from?  Who took the stuff of the earth and transformed it into something of greater value AND did they enjoy the “surplus value” they created?  The answers to the first question is: well, it wasn’t the capitalists.  The correct response to the second question is, no they did not.  Those who hoarded the surplus value were those who were in a position to steer some of that added value their way.  They were in such a position because of influence or access to existing wealth that had been accumulated through, for example, policies deracinating entire communities, redistributing land (resources) to the wealthy, enslaving thousands of people, and creating a large number of itinerant, landless laborers.  This can be seen in Europe, Africa, and the Americas in the early modern period, and it can be seen in Mexico, India, Brazil, China, and elsewhere today. 
Those accumulating this wealth had a deeply-rooted interest in creating the assumption that “wealth = virtue.”  This accumulation of “capital,” the value added to the fruits of the earth by the work of artisans, became the standard rate of measure for “success.”  This was accomplished through books instructing one in the arts of polite society, through various theater plays that depicted accumulation as virtue, and by demonizing or dismissing alternative viewpoints in the public sphere.  For example, the notion of “commonwealth” – that certain aspects of the earth are owned by all as fellow creatures – was downplayed or forgotten.  Holding resources in common was said to be “savage”; simply not the way civilized people behave.  In the 1980s, champion of laissez-faire capitalism Margaret Thatcher announced that “there is no such thing as society.”
One may study the historical record and a pattern emerges: people must be displaced and alienated from the land so that Big Capital, (those who have accumulated the surplus value they themselves did not produce), can control the extraction and production of resources.  “Peace Treaty” meetings held with native peoples in North America were conducted with a veneer of sincerity, but behind the scenes there was a calculation that the indigenous peoples would ultimately be alienated from their land.  One basic way that this can be illustrated is by observing that these “treaties,” which invariably meant more land for whites, less land for Indians, had to be ratified by the colonial authorities be they British or Anglo-American.  Indigenous people, while they often held treaty ratification votes of their own back home, considered all that was said at the treaty meeting to BE the treaty.  For the colonial interests, it was only the markings on the paper that constituted the treaty, regardless of what had been said.  Since the indigenous peoples often could not read English and were in any case an oral culture, this paper was secondary to the words spoken at the meeting.  Here is what an English official told Tanighrisson, the Seneca leader who met with them at Logstown, Pennsylvania colony in 1752 to discuss their presence in the Ohio Valley:

Brethren, be assur’d that the King [George II], our Father, by purchasing your Lands, had never any Intention of taking them from you, but that we might live together as one People . . .

The deceit plainly visible in hindsight is the rule, not the exception.  From the Canary Islanders of the fifteenth century to the Taino peoples of the sixteenth, the Lakotas of the nineteenth, and the farming folk of Mexico, India, China and beyond in the twentieth, the deracination of people from their land by hook, crook, bullet, and bomb has been a feature of this economic empire.  Native “leaders” willing to sign-off on this resource usurpation are bought off, created or, failing those methods, native resistance to economic empire is crushed by a publicly-funded military.
The same pattern continues through to Latin America, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and other regions where there are resources and markets coveted by Big Capital.  The death of innocents who just happen to be in the coveted region can be numbered in the millions.  Yet, those who champion this behavior, from the Donald Trumps to the Dick Cheneys to the Koch Brothers are put forward as exemplars of virtue – “hard workers” who have been “successful.”  In most cases, their “success” is built on deceit and cunning.  They have institutionalized the criminal mind.   
There was a brief time – about two generations' worth of time – labor unions mitigated the leak of surplus value flowing into the coffers of the rich.  This is the American "middle" class of the mid-twentieth century – probably the largest affluent working class in the modern period.  (Note: the "middle" class works, hence they are "working" class.  It doesn't really matter what color your collar is.  If you want to know what "class" you're in, stop making your house payments or paying your rent; this will clarify the issue for you.)  Yet, we are told that the rich are the "job creators" and that they need regulators and government in general "off their backs."  Here's a secret they either don't know themselves or they certainly don't want the rest of us to know: they don't create the jobs.  People with ideas, people with skills, and a large, well-paid working class with money to spend create jobs.  Ultimately, the capital accumulators are superfluous - if they don't know it they may suspect it – hence the burning need to control the discourse and equate wealth with virtue.
The cultural echo chamber that measures success in private wealth accumulation needs to be called out in its deceit again and again and again until the values and mores of the mainstream begin to be called into question not daily but hourly.  A value system that champions values of health – for humans AND their environment – a good quality of life for ALL, and allowing food producers, artisans, craftsmen, and laborers to enjoy the fruits of the wealth they produce needs to replace the institutionalized criminal mind of deceit and cunning. Truly “enlightened” self-interest includes the welfare of our home and all who are in it.  This home is Planet Earth.