‘For America to Live, Europe Must Die’ – existential torpor versus modernity’s melting dialectic (a critique of the reactionary outlook of the late North American Indian activist Russell Means)

Russell Means was a prominent and divisive North American Indian activist, artist, writer (ironic given what he has to say about writing below) and actor who died in 2012. He first came to widespread prominence for his role in the Wounded Knee uprising in 1973. The speech below ‘For America to Live, Europe Must Die’ was given in 1980 and is broadly representative of his views. Visit the Wikipedia page here and follow links for more detailed information. The speech, apparently his best known, was given before several thousand people who had assembled from all over the world for the Black Hills International Survival Gathering, in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

It was forwarded to me by Barry asking my opinion of it and my response was immediate. I was working in Alice Springs at the time and in two nights after work I fired back my comments, contained in the text of the speech. This was certainly a more convenient way for me to respond as I was able to use the framework of the speech without having to develop a separate framework that would have been required by an article. But it also kept the response more lively and in direct contact with what Means was saying; more concrete I guess. Means was clearly a very intelligent and passionate activist and my argument with him, if I can put it that way, is over what road to take as we respond to the challenges thrown up by capitalism and modernity’s melting dialectic more generally. His being divisive is not the problem (we could actually do with more). What divisiveness is over is another matter entirely. Nearly forty years down the track the issues raised by him remain current.

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(Thanks to Tom Griffiths for this article).

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Russell Means’ article is in plain font. Tom’s responses are in italics.

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The only possible opening for a statement of this kind is that I detest writing. The process itself epitomizes the European concept of “legitimate” thinking; what is written has an importance that is denied the spoken. My culture, the Lakota culture, has an oral tradition, so I ordinarily reject writing. It is one of the white world’s ways of destroying the cultures of non-European peoples, the imposing of an abstraction over the spoken relationship of a people.

 

An inauspicious opening salvo that sets the scene pretty nicely for what follows, not least his romanticisation of traditional culture (here tribal) and his confusion about the abstract and the concrete.

 

So what you read here is not what I’ve written. It’s what I’ve said and someone else has written down. I will allow this because it seems that the only way to communicate with the white world is through the dead, dry leaves of a book. I don’t really care whether my words reach whites or not. They have already demonstrated through their history that they cannot hear, cannot see; they can only read (of course, there are exceptions, but the exceptions only prove the rule). I’m more concerned with American Indian people, students and others, who have begun to be absorbed into the white world through universities and other institutions. But even then it’s a marginal sort of concern. It’s very possible to grow into a red face with a white mind; and if that’s a person’s individual choice, so be it, but I have no use for them. This is part of the process of cultural genocide being waged by Europeans against American Indian peoples’ today. My concern is with those American Indians who choose to resist this genocide, but who may be confused as to how to proceed.

 

Well, learning how to write and learning how to use writing as a tool/weapon is a good place to start. It’s not the writing; people have been historically keen to learn and ruling classes, until modernity had matured a little, equally keen to deny them that opportunity. Whose side are you on? His reference to cultural genocide is plainly wrong if we understand by culture something that is living and it being a user’s guide to finding one’s way through the maze of social existence. If we see it as something fixed and eternal then his claim has validity, although then the idea of a requiem might be more appropriate. His view differs radically from American Indian voices I became aware of when visiting Toronto recently. In the Toronto Museum was an extraordinary exhibit of three traditional Indian figures, ‘residents’ of the museum for over a century, transformed by the addition of a power drill, a camera tripod and an ipod. Beneath it was this explanation:

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

 

(You notice I use the term American Indian rather than Native American or Native indigenous people or Amerindian when referring to my people. There has been some controversy about such terms, and frankly, at this point, I find it absurd. Primarily it seems that American Indian is being rejected as European in origin–which is true. But all the above terms are European in origin; the only non-European way is to speak of Lakota–or, more precisely, of Oglala, Brule, etc.–and of the Dineh, the Miccousukee, and all the rest of the several hundred correct tribal names).

 

I don’t have a problem with this paragraph. The term he favours – American Indian and the terms he rejects all have the benefit of drawing multiple tribal backgrounds into a unity. In this it is much like nationality. Within this unity however there is difference, or diversity and I don’t have an issue with that being acknowledged.

 

(There is also some confusion about the word Indian, a mistaken belief that it refers somehow to the country, India. When Columbus washed up on the beach in the Caribbean, he was not looking for a country called India. Europeans were calling that country Hindustan in 1492. Look it up on the old maps. Columbus called the tribal people he met “Indio,” from the Italian in dio, meaning “in God.”)

 

I know I’m being picky, but he argues against himself here – he, we, know this because  we can not only read the maps, but the historical record.

 

It takes a strong effort on the part of each American Indian not to become Europeanized. The strength for this effort can only come from the traditional ways, the traditional values that our elders retain. It must come from the hoop, the four directions, the relations: it cannot come from the pages of a book or a thousand books. No European can ever teach a Lakota to be Lakota, a Hopi to be Hopi. A master’s degree in “Indian Studies” or in “education” or in anything else cannot make a person into a human being or provide knowledge into traditional ways. It can only make you into a mental European, an outsider.

 

And what is wrong with an outsider? Tribalism and small community thinking generally do not trust outsiders. Small group paranoia aids survival when our dependence and domination by the external environment prevents or limits our ability to be open and to trust. If you want to live with your head stuck up a dark and malodorous hole…

 

I should be clear about something here, because there seems to be some confusion about it. When I speak of Europeans or mental Europeans, I’m not allowing for false distinctions. I’m not saying that on the one hand there are the by-products of a few thousand years of genocidal, reactionary, European intellectual development which is bad; and on the other hand there is some new revolutionary intellectual development which is good. I’m referring here to the so-called theories of Marxism and anarchism and “leftism” in general. I don’t believe these theories can be separated from the rest of the of the European intellectual tradition. It’s really just the same old song.

 

Yes and no. They emerge from the same song sheet but music is then developed and its constraints transcended. He is exposing his non dialectical way of thinking – he doesn’t need the word, although he is clearly familiar with it, he needs the idea of how and why things change internally.

 

The process began much earlier. Newton, for example, “revolutionized” physics and the so-called natural sciences by reducing the physical universe to a linear mathematical equation. Descartes did the same thing with culture. John Locke did it with politics, and Adam Smith did it with economics. Each one of these “thinkers” took a piece of the spirituality of human existence and converted it into code, an abstraction.

 

Good grief, as if how he talks about spirituality is not an abstraction! The ‘code’, the abstractions he accuses Descartes et al of making were no match for his whopper, a damn sight more useful and, dare I say it, closer to the concrete.

 

They picked up where Christianity ended: they “secularized” Christian religion, as the “scholars” like to say–and in doing so they made Europe more able and ready to act as an expansionist culture. Each of these intellectual revolutions served to abstract the European mentality even further, to remove the wonderful complexity and spirituality from the universe and replace it with a logical sequence: one, two, three. Answer!

 

This is nonsense. He is suggesting, bluntly, that the “wonderful complexity and spirituality from the universe” under medievalism, or the Dark Ages, or under slave owning societies, traditional players all of them according to his criteria (and mine too actually) was better than what we have and can realistically achieve or aspire to today. Reactionary is a polite description, nutty more to the point.

 

This is what has come to be termed “efficiency” in the European mind. Whatever is mechanical is perfect; whatever seems to work at the moment–that is, proves the mechanical model to be the right one–is considered correct, even when it is clearly untrue. This is why “truth” changes so fast in the European mind; the answers which result from such a process are only stopgaps, only temporary, and must be continuously discarded in favor of new stopgaps which support the mechanical models and keep them (the models) alive.

 

All that is solid old chap, all that is solid… He craves for the certainty of eternal truths and when we consider this in relation to social relations, including family relations, he is eulogising a trap, especially if you are female.

 

Hegel and Marx were heirs to the thinking of Newton, Descartes, Locke and Smith. Hegel finished the process of secularizing theology–and that is put in his own terms–he secularized the religious thinking through which Europe understood the universe. Then Marx put Hegel’s philosophy in terms of “materialism,” which is to say that Marx despiritualized Hegel’s work altogether. Again, this is in Marx’ own terms. And this is now seen as the future revolutionary potential of Europe. Europeans may see this as revolutionary, but American Indians see it simply as still more of that same old European conflict between being and gaining. The intellectual roots of a new Marxist form of European imperialism lie in Marx – and his followers’ – links to the tradition of Newton, Hegel and the others.

 

This “conflict” is a false antithesis. As he uses this purported contradiction “being” is seen as being static, rather than dynamic, a form of existential torpor. And his use of “gaining” is a ruse employed because it can be seen as having negative, materialist connotations. He uses it to dismiss the idea and promise of development – economic, social or personal. Replace “gaining” with “improvement”, also a word denoting growth, reread his ’contradiction’ and note the different vibe given off.

 

Being is a spiritual proposition. Gaining is a material act. Traditionally, American Indians have always attempted to be the best people they could. Part of that spiritual process was and is to give away wealth, to discard wealth in order not to gain. Material gain is an indicator of false status among traditional people, while it is “proof that the system works” to Europeans. Clearly, there are two completely opposing views at issue here, and Marxism is very far over to the other side from the American Indian view. But let’s look at a major implication of this; it is not merely an intellectual debate.

The European materialist tradition of despiritualizing the universe is very similar to the mental process which goes into dehumanizing another person.

 

The reality is actually in inverse proportion and the comparison he promotes is fraudulent. He is right of course that the materialist spirit has despiritualized, ie, demystified the universe. It does so by reeling in understanding from its hiding place beyond the clouds, where it was the property of the gods, onto the ground and hence within our grasp. Tribalism certainly encourages the dehumanization of ‘other’. Modernity does not. Since when is understanding the richness and possibilities present in “another person”, indeed, all of us, “dehumanizing”? As Berman observes in his tribute to Times Square the one nice thing about American imperialism is that it embraced everybody. “Despiritualizing the universe”, as he puts it, is making the universe and us in it, explicable. Seeking answers, pushing the limits and transcending, rather than being trapped inside boundaries, makes us active players, not spiritual zombies.

 

And who seems most expert at dehumanizing other people? And why? Soldiers who have seen a lot of combat learn to do this to the enemy before going back into combat. Murderers do it before going out to commit murder. Nazi SS guards did it to concentration camp inmates. Cops do it. Corporation leaders do it to the workers they send into uranium mines and steel mills. Politicians do it to everyone in sight. And what the process has in common for each group doing the dehumanizing is that it makes it all right to kill and otherwise destroy other people. One of the Christian commandments says, “Thou shalt not kill,” at least not humans, so the trick is to mentally convert the victims into non-humans. Then you can proclaim violation of your own commandment as a virtue.

 

If there is a trick here he is the one playing it, although I suspect the trick is being played on him too. When the Old Testament God was taking a breather from smoting this tribe and that he issued the Commandments to his select tribe. “Thou shalt not kill” was an instruction to not kill one’s own. As for the others, follow my example… Christianity deserves praise here because it broadened the Old Testament definition of human and tribe to include everyone. Jared Diamond speaks of precisely the same traditional dehumanizing of other tribes in the New Guinea Highlands (The World Until Yesterday)

 

In terms of the despiritualization of the universe, the mental process works so that it becomes virtuous to destroy the planet. Terms like progress and development are used as cover words here, the way victory and freedom are used to justify butchery in the dehumanization process. For example, a real-estate speculator may refer to “developing” a parcel of ground by opening a gravel quarry; development here means total, permanent destruction, with the earth itself removed.

 

I’ll let the hyperbole go through to the keeper, but what he is doing is humanizing the planet and dehumanizing us.

 

But European logic has gained a few tons of gravel with which more land can be “developed” through the construction of road beds. Ultimately, the whole universe is open–in the European view–to this sort of insanity.

 

Yes, openness is what it’s about. In one sense he is highlighting the contradiction between the politics of the ‘House’ (or tepee in his case) and the politics of the ‘Street’, closed versus open systems of intercourse. The philosophers he holds a grudge against haven’t despiritualized the world, they have demystified it. This is the high end of town version of what general human intercourse does and it enriches us – materially and spiritually, in the process. What’s not to like? And as for his ‘satisfaction’ being only measured ‘in terms of gaining material’ he not only articulates a lot of pre capitalist thinking, but greenie and pseudo thinking. Good grief, could there be a link? He employs a common sleight of hand here by focussing our attention on only the narrowest impacts and drivers behind capitalist accumulation – profit, exploitation and destruction – the former going only to the capitalist, the middle referring to ‘mother’ earth and humanity and the latter also to dear old mum and the human spirit. (He is reducing human spirit to a form of miserablism, no fun at all). Some of this is true – capitalists do exploit nature and human labour – but he dismisses altogether the accrued benefits of this through increased social wealth and the social, cultural and personal development that this enables. By only highlighting the destructive and venal aspects he opens a wide door for the sort of moral posturing that is rife these days among the pseudos and greenies. For him I suspect it is much more than posturing, more a reflection of a genuine existential crisis or funk. Whichever, we cannot excuse his solutions.

One of the problems he has, and it’s a biggie, is his essential inability to shift between what systems jargon calls different level thinking. A sociological or group perspective as opposed to an individual or personal perspective, what we ‘see’ or experience and the conclusions we draw when inhabiting each level is an example we would immediately recognize. Norbert Elias uses the example of the pilot and the swimmer to explain the tension (advantages/disadvantages) between different level thinking. The latter has the advantage of being above, seeing the overall picture, whether the swimmers are heading toward rough water or dangerous currents or not, whether their direction leads to safety or danger. The swimmer cannot see this, but what he/she can see and experience and what the pilot cannot is what is useful/possible in the immediate situation, what the affect of the currents/tidal pull is on a personal or small group level and what can be done about that in the immediate (or here and now). Revolutionaries, especially ones that have fealty to Marxism, need to be able to swim and fly at the same time. Russell was stuck on the ground, gazing skywards and as we now know, thanks to those wretched scientists and philosophers, the light from the sky reflects a distant past; this is why he is able to romanticize it.

 

Most important here, perhaps, is the fact that Europeans feel no sense of loss in all this. After all, their philosophers have despiritualized reality, so there is no satisfaction (for them) to be gained in simply observing the wonder of a mountain or a lake or a people in being. No, satisfaction is measured in terms of gaining material. So the mountain becomes gravel, and the lake becomes coolant for a factory, and the people are rounded up for processing through the indoctrination mills Europeans like to call schools.

But each new piece of that “progress” ups the ante out in the real world. Take fuel for the industrial machine as an example. Little more than two centuries ago, nearly everyone used wood–a replenishable, natural item–as fuel for the very human needs of cooking and staying warm. Along came the Industrial Revolution and coal became the dominant fuel, as production became the social imperative for Europe. Pollution began to become a problem in the cities, and the earth was ripped open to provide coal whereas wood had always simply been gathered or harvested at no great expense to the environment. Later, oil became the major fuel, as the technology of production was perfected through a series of scientific “revolutions.” Pollution increased dramatically, and nobody yet knows what the environmental costs of pumping all that oil out of the ground will really be in the long run. Now there’s an “energy crisis,” and uranium is becoming the dominant fuel.

 

While not confined to this paragraph I detect a lot of envy here (envy is a primitive emotion and seeks to destroy what it cannot have). He is in good company of course, it is pretty rampant in pseudo circles. I think it is a displacement of feelings of disappointment and failure many of us have felt but only a few of us have owned and taken responsibility for. I do not mean that we have ‘caused’ the malaise, although we have certainly been part of it. The malaise is ours, that is the left’s, and not the systems (its problems, contradictions remain, requiring a synthesizing resolution). Rather than spitting the dummy and pointing our collective finger only at the perfidious 1% we need to shake off our dependence on those we make theoretical gods (avoiding responsibility) and understand that we have some work to do.

Above I said that envy seeks to destroy what it cannot have. Jealousy at least aspires to possession. Rather than acknowledging his confusion and existential angst he rationalizes it by blaming the system totally and romanticizing the past. It saves him from thinking his predicament through. This is a pity because he was obviously an intelligent man.

 

Capitalists, at least, can be relied upon to develop uranium as fuel only at the rate which they can show a good profit. That’s their ethic, and maybe they will buy some time. Marxists, on the other hand, can be relied upon to develop uranium fuel as rapidly as possible simply because it’s the most “efficient” production fuel available. That’s their ethic, and I fail to see where it’s preferable. Like I said, Marxism is right smack in the middle of European tradition. It’s the same old song.

 

Yep, it’s part of the European song sheet, but with an improved score.

 

There’s a rule of thumb which can be applied here. You cannot judge the real nature of a European revolutionary doctrine on the basis of the changes it proposes to make within the European power structure and society. You can only judge it by the effects it will have on non-European peoples. This is because every revolution in European history has served to reinforce Europe’s tendencies and abilities to export destruction to other peoples, other cultures and the environment itself. I defy anyone to point out an example where this is not true.  

 

Happy to pick up the gauntlet. We defy anyone to venerate the old ways once they become familiar with what traditional life was actually like, still is in some places,  for individuals – women particularly – by reading memoirs by people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Phoolan Devi among others or anthropological accounts by people like Jared Diamond. What they will see – if they so wish – are accounts by or about people who have emerged from traditional settings or settings in the earlier stages of transition where, so to speak, the plane has barely left the tarmac.

The destruction he cites was real but it was first and foremost ideological, the destruction of those venerable ideas, as Marx put it, that proclaimed and enforced the belief that nothing different was either possible or permissible.

 

So now we, as American Indian people, are asked to believe that a “new” European revolutionary doctrine such as Marxism will reverse the negative effects of European history on us. European power relations are to be adjusted once again, and that’s supposed to make things better for all of us. But what does this really mean?

Right now, today, we who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation are living in what white society has designated a “National Sacrifice Area.” What this means is that we have a lot of uranium deposits here, and white culture (not us) needs this uranium as energy production material. The cheapest, most efficient way for industry to extract and deal with the processing of this uranium is to dump the waste by-products right here at the digging sites. Right here where we live. This waste is radioactive and will make the entire region uninhabitable forever. This is considered by the industry, and by the white society that created this industry, to be an “acceptable” price to pay for energy resource development.

 

Note the sleight of hand – not capitalists or their proverbial lackeys, not bourgeois governments, but ALL of us. He turns a good point about dumping into an attack on all people of European background. It’s so slack it doesn’t even qualify as racist (which he was not in any case).

 

Along the way they also plan to drain the water table under this part of South Dakota as part of the industrial process, so the region becomes doubly uninhabitable. The same sort of thing is happening down in the land of the Navajo and Hopi, up in the land of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow, and elsewhere. Thirty percent of the coal in the West and half of the uranium deposits in the United States have been found to lie under reservation land, so there is no way this can be called a minor issue.

 

Correct on this one.

 

We are resisting being turned into a National Sacrifice Area. We are resisting being turned into a national sacrifice people. The costs of this industrial process are not acceptable to us. It is genocide to dig uranium here and drain the water table–no more, no less.

Now let’s suppose that in our resistance to extermination we begin to seek allies (we have). Let’s suppose further that we were to take revolutionary Marxism at its word: that it intends nothing less than the complete overthrow of the European capitalists order which has presented this threat to our very existence. This would seem to be a natural alliance for American Indian people to enter into. After all, as the Marxists say, it is the capitalists who set us up to be a national sacrifice. This is true as far as it goes.

But, as I’ve tried to point out, this “truth” is very deceptive. Revolutionary Marxism is committed to even further perpetuation and perfection of the very industrial process which is destroying us all. It offers only to “redistribute” the results–the money, maybe–of this industrialization to a wider section of the population.

 

Yes and no. Yes to his first two sentences, no to his third. Marxists do not aim to level downwards, but upwards. We do not take wealth from the capitalists, but their capital. This is then used to create more socially beneficial wealth and the benefits of that are ‘passed around’.

 

It offers to take wealth from the capitalists and pass it around; but in order to do so, Marxism must maintain the industrial system. Once again, the power relations within European society will have to be altered, but once again the effects upon American Indian peoples here and non-Europeans elsewhere will remain the same. This is much the same as when power was redistributed from the church to private business during the so-called bourgeois revolution. European society changed a bit, at least superficially, but its conduct toward non-Europeans continued as before. You can see what the American Revolution of 1776 did for American Indians. It’s the same old song. song.

 

Revolutionary Marxism, like industrial society in other forms, seeks to “rationalize” all people in relation to industry–maximum industry, maximum production. It is a doctrine that despises the American Indian spiritual tradition, our cultures, our lifeways.

 

“Despise’ is too visceral, but I’ll let it pass. Do we ‘despise’ if we see it as a permanent resting place, a veritable burying ground for human aspiration and progress? Certainly. As something that can, like the rest of us, develop quantitatively and qualitatively? Certainly not; we respect the individuals and people too much to sacrifice them on a mythologized and idealized altar.

 

Marx himself called us “precapitalists” and “primitive.” Precapitalist simply means that, in his view, we would eventually discover capitalism and become capitalists; we have always been economically retarded in Marxist terms. The only manner in which American Indian people could participate in a Marxist revolution would be to join the industrial system, to become factory workers, or “proletarians,” as Marx called them. The man was very clear about the fact that his revolution could only occur through the struggle of the proletariat, that the existence of a massive industrial system is a precondition of a successful Marxist society.

 

He has this roughly right, but it is his failure to get dialectics, either intellectually or viscerally that sees him fantasize about the either/or – losing one, idealized and good permanent existential state to another bad and demonized existential state.

 

I think there’s a problem with language here. Christians, capitalists, Marxists. All of them have been revolutionary in their own minds, but none of them really means revolution. What they really mean is continuation. They do what they do in order that European culture can continue to exist and develop according to its needs.

 

He is onto something here. Much of what calls itself revolutionary – including things we have been involved with, has not really been able (has not desired?) to see past capitalism in either its economic or social relations. In this sense a % of what he is railing against are things we rail against too. And, paying respect to his reference to language, let’s toss in revisionism and mechanical materialism in their numerous manifestations.

 

So, in order for us to really join forces with Marxism, we American Indians would have to accept the national sacrifice of our homeland; we would have to commit cultural suicide and become industrialized and Europeanized.

 

Cultural suicide? This needs to be confronted. Cultures – any of them – that do not change to reflect the conditions and challenges of contemporary life – die. Their ‘permanence’ reflects a relationship between humans and their environment that is static, or nearly so. Cultures redeem themselves, if I can put it that way, by being adaptive and with only a little effort they can also maintain links with their past. But in this relationship between the past and the present we serve the present, not the past.

 

At this point, I’ve got to stop and ask myself whether I’m being too harsh. Marxism has something of a history. Does this history bear out my observations? I look to the process of industrialization in the Soviet Union since 1920 and I see that these Marxists have done what it took the English Industrial Revolution 300 years to do; and the Marxists did it in 60 years. I see that the territory of the USSR used to contain a number of tribal peoples and that they have been crushed to make way for the factories. The Soviets refer to this as “the National Question,” the question of whether the tribal peoples had the right to exist as peoples; and they decided the tribal peoples were an acceptable sacrifice to the industrial needs. I look to China and I see the same thing. I look to Vietnam and I see Marxists imposing an industrial order and rooting out the indigenous tribal mountain people.

 

As Marxists we can look at this and accept valid criticisms of the ‘how’, but not about the ‘whether’.

 

I hear the leading Soviet scientist saying that when uranium is exhausted, then alternatives will be found. I see the Vietnamese taking over a nuclear power plant abandoned by the U.S. military. Have they dismantled and destroyed it? No, they are using it. I see China exploding nuclear bombs, developing uranium reactors, and preparing a space program in order to colonize and exploit the planets the same as the Europeans colonized and exploited this hemisphere. It’s the same old song, but maybe with a faster tempo this time.

 

This is a dummy spit. His placing planets uninhabited by anything, except maybe microbes, on the same level as earth inhabited by real people and a bunch of near and not so near rellies gives the game away. He is lost (willingly it seems) in a fog of idealized abstractions. Has he any idea about the real circumstances and conditions of the peasants et al he so casually dismisses? It is the system – or his view of it – that he focuses on, not actual people.

 

The statement of the Soviet scientist is very interesting. Does he know what this alternative energy source will be? No, he simply has faith. Science will find a way. I hear revolutionary Marxists saying that the destruction of the environment, pollution, and radiation will all be controlled. And I see them act upon their words. Do they know how these things will be controlled? No, they simply have faith. Science will find a way. Industrialization is fine and necessary. How do they know this? Faith. Science will find a way. Faith of this sort has always been known in Europe as religion. Science has become the new European religion for both capitalists and Marxists; they are truly inseparable; they are part and parcel of the same culture. So, in both theory and practice, Marxism demands that non-European peoples give up their values, their traditions, their cultural existence altogether. We will all be industrialized science addicts in a Marxist society.

 

Well the track record gives a basis for this faith – a faith based in evidence I hasten to add – and the capitalists have shown a remarkable capacity to get on top of these ever emergent issues.

 

I do not believe that capitalism itself is really responsible for the situation in which American Indians have been declared a national sacrifice. No, it is the European tradition; European culture itself is responsible. Marxism is just the latest continuation of this tradition, not a solution to it. To ally with Marxism is to ally with the very same forces that declare us an acceptable cost.

 

This too gives the game away. While Marxism is certainly part of the European tradition his letting capitalism off the hook indicates that he is opposed to development full stop.

 

There is another way. There is the traditional Lakota way and the ways of the American Indian peoples. It is the way that knows that humans do not have the right to degrade Mother Earth, that there are forces beyond anything the European mind has conceived, that humans must be in harmony with all relations or the relations will eventually eliminate the disharmony. A lopsided emphasis on humans by humans–the Europeans’ arrogance of acting as though they were beyond the nature of all related things–can only result in a total disharmony and a readjustment which cuts arrogant humans down to size, gives them a taste of that reality beyond their grasp or control and restores the harmony. There is no need for a revolutionary theory to bring this about; it’s beyond human control. The nature peoples of this planet know this and so they do not theorize about it. Theory is an abstract; our knowledge is real.

 

Assert away. The real knowledge he valorizes is real knowledge that fitted and that emerged (was won) from a particular past. He elevates it to an abstraction, an idealized one at that, cut adrift from real, contemporary life.

 

Distilled to its basic terms, European faith–including the new faith in science–equals a belief that man is God.

 

Sounds good to me, we made him after all. Making man a god (and knocking down the Gods in the process) is a progressive yearning and achievement. It is an inherent part of overcoming a near complete and passive dependency on nature. Modernity has given us the means to dispose of them and place ourselves centre stage. Along the way there has been pushback, a cultural drag that sees us make ‘gods’ of leaders and ‘makers and shakers’ (he cites some) and we transfer our dependency – or, at least, too much of it – onto them. Phil Court’s pithy description of this, made in the late 70’s – “Follow me and you need never think again” has been etched in my mind ever since.

 

Europe has always sought a Messiah, whether that be the man Jesus Christ or the man Karl Marx or the man Albert Einstein. American Indians know this to be totally absurd. Humans are the weakest of all creatures, so weak that other creatures are willing to give up their flesh that we may live. Humans are able to survive only through the exercise of rationality since they lack the abilities of other creatures to gain food through the use of fang and claw.

But rationality is a curse since it can cause humans to forget the natural order of things in ways other creatures do not. A wolf never forgets his or her place in the natural order. American Indians can. Europeans almost always do. We pray our thanks to the deer, our relations, for allowing us their flesh to eat; Europeans simply take the flesh for granted and consider the deer inferior.

 

There is a poetic beauty to this prose and its creative impulse should not be dismissed, but let us not confuse the beauty of words with science which has a beauty and majesty of its own.

 

After all, Europeans consider themselves godlike in their rationalism and science. God is the Supreme Being; all else must be inferior.

 

This is childish. Creatures do not willingly give us their flesh, nor do they see us as weak and pity us. The wolf and the deer are not capable of making rational choices. A wolf does not choose to accept the natural order. To do so it would need to, and be capable of, appreciating alternatives. Wile E Coyote our wolf is not. He does not get hold of ACME goodies as he unhatches his diabolical (and tragically flawed)  plans to catch the Road Runner. He/she obeys instinct or dies (a fate that may await anyway). Russell is running with an animistic mysticism that belongs to the childhood of our social evolution. Such thinking may have provided succour in our earlier days but time, us with it, has moved on. And need I add that in the process of moving on we have used plenty of fang and claw. The prose he uses reflects an early grappling with trying to make sense of the world and our place in it. It helped with the overriding task of survival. There is no point at all in looking for higher level explanations unless we have the time and opportunity to do so. When we do not, spending time is a waste of time and may undermine our ability to survive.

 

All European tradition, Marxism included, has conspired to defy the natural order of all things.

 

Quite so, that’s why we love it. As Gerrard Winstanley, the most radical voice of the English Revolution observed, “Freedom is the man who turns the world upside down, and he therefore maketh many enemies.”

 

Mother Earth has been abused, the powers have been abused, and this cannot go on forever. No theory can alter that simple fact. Mother Earth will retaliate, the whole environment will retaliate, and the abusers will be eliminated. Things come full circle, back to where they started. That’s revolution. And that’s a prophecy of my people, of the Hopi people and of other correct peoples.

 

The spirituality so enamoured by him is, compared to the spirituality made possible by modernity, impoverished. It leaves us as dependent children. I much prefer to stand up with and join my fellows.

 

American Indians have been trying to explain this to Europeans for centuries. But, as I said earlier, Europeans have proven themselves unable to hear.

 

Oh we’ve heard all right and not just from American Indians. Many such voices were raised during medieval times across Europe resisting change and wanting to keep people ‘spiritually enriched’ and in their place. That’s why we’ve moved on.

 

The natural order will win out, and the offenders will die out, the way deer die when they offend the harmony by over-populating a given region. It’s only a matter of time until what Europeans call “a major catastrophe of global proportions” will occur. It is the role of American Indian peoples, the role of all natural beings, to survive. A part of our survival is to resist.

 

He is right here – at least much of the time. Survival is the name of the game and has been since year dot – ask the wolf. But where is abundance, thriving (and I’m thinking more culturally/spiritually than materially although they are connected)? Without these survival is also a trap that holds us tight and it has taken our forebears millennia of struggle, suffering  and resilience to break free from its constraints.

 

We resist not to overthrow a government or to take political power, but because it is natural to resist extermination, to survive. We don’t want power over white institutions; we want white institutions to disappear. That’s revolution.

 

American Indians are still in touch with these realities–the prophecies, the traditions of our ancestors. We learn from the elders, from nature, from the powers. And when the catastrophe is over, we American Indian peoples will still be here to inhabit the hemisphere. I don’t care if it’s only a handful living high in the Andes. American Indian people will survive; harmony will be re-established. That’s revolution.

 

No, it’s nihilism.

 

At this point, perhaps I should be very clear about another matter, one which should already be clear as a result of what I’ve said. But confusion breeds easily these days, so I want to hammer home this point. When I use the term European, I’m not referring to a skin color or a particular genetic structure. What I’m referring to is a mind-set, a worldview that is a product of the development of European culture. People are not genetically encoded to hold this outlook; they are acculturated to hold it. The same is true for American Indians or for the members of any culture.

 

This is a good point and one our current ‘right on’ identity set could take notice of. Indeed he is miles ahead of them and I have a sneaking feeling he saw them coming.

 

It is possible for an American Indian to share European values, a European worldview. We have a term for these people; we call them “apples”–red on the outside (genetics) and white on the inside (their values). Other groups have similar terms: Blacks have their “oreos”; Hispanos have “Coconuts” and so on. And, as I said before, there are exceptions to the white norm: people who are white on the outside, but not white inside. I’m not sure what term should be applied to them other than “human beings.”

What I’m putting out here is not a racial proposition but a cultural proposition. Those who ultimately advocate and defend the realities of European culture and its industrialism are my enemies. Those who resist it, who struggle against it, are my allies, the allies of American Indian people. And I don’t give a damn what their skin color happens to be. Caucasian is the white term for the white race: European is an outlook I oppose.

 

In spite of the generally reactionary nature of the speech his discrimination here is well made.

 

The Vietnamese Communists are not exactly what you might consider genetic Caucasians, but they are now functioning as mental Europeans. The same holds true for Chinese Communists, for Japanese capitalists or Bantu Catholics or Peter “MacDollar” down at the Navajo Reservation or Dickie Wilson up here at Pine Ridge. There is no racism involved in this, just an acknowledgment of the mind and spirit that make up culture.

In Marxist terms I suppose I’m a “cultural nationalist.” I work first with my people, the traditional Lakota people, because we hold a common worldview and share an immediate struggle. Beyond this, I work with other traditional American Indian peoples, again because of a certain commonality in worldview and form of struggle. Beyond that, I work with anyone who has experienced the colonial oppression of Europe and who resists its cultural and industrial totality. Obviously, this includes genetic Caucasians who struggle to resist the dominant norms of European culture. The Irish and the Basques come immediately to mind, but there are many others.

 

His working at ground level (or should that be sea level?) is essentially correct. Where do correct ideas come from after all? It is his failure to link this with an abstract that springs from, and in turn speaks to, the present and future that leaves him stranded on the docks after the ship has well and truly sailed.

 

I work primarily with my own people, with my own community. Other people who hold non-European perspectives should do the same. I believe in the slogan, “Trust your brother’s vision,” although I’d like to add sisters into the bargain. I trust the community and the culturally based vision of all the races that naturally resist industrialization and human extinction. Clearly, individual whites can share in this, given only that they have reached the awareness that continuation of the industrial imperatives of Europe is not a vision, but species suicide. White is one of the sacred colors of the Lakota people–red, yellow, white and black. The four directions. The four seasons. The four periods of life and aging. The four races of humanity. Mix red, yellow, white and black together and you get brown, the color of the fifth race. This is a natural ordering of things. It therefore seems natural to me to work with all races, each with its own special meaning, identity and message.

 

The ‘natural order of things’ for most of our species time has been clan and tribalism and very ‘in house’. This has engendered separatism, or perhaps more accurately, justified it. Trust and mutual reliance was ‘in house’ and outsiders, the ‘other’, were mistrusted or feared. This is what modernity has helped us overcome. It is ironic and a pity that this progressive aspect he holds is swamped and almost lost in a reactionary covering.

 

But there is a peculiar behavior among most Caucasians. As soon as I become critical of Europe and its impact on other cultures, they become defensive. They begin to defend themselves. But I’m not attacking them personally; I’m attacking Europe. In personalizing my observations on Europe they are personalizing European culture, identifying themselves with it.

 

Yes they are – and with good reason because key components of the individualizing synthesis have been hard wired.

 

By defending themselves in this context, they are ultimately defending the death culture. This is a confusion which must be overcome, and it must be overcome in a hurry. None of us has energy to waste in such false struggles.

Caucasians have a more positive vision to offer humanity than European culture. I believe this. But in order to attain this vision it is necessary for Caucasians to step outside European culture–alongside the rest of humanity–to see Europe for what it is and what it does.

 

Contradictions are not resolved (synthesised) by stepping outside of them. Or as Blake put it in Heaven and Hell “Without Contraries is no progression”. But the synthesising process here is a subjective one – we have to want to do it rather than having it done for us.

 

To cling to capitalism and Marxism and all other “isms” is simply to remain within European culture. There is no avoiding this basic fact. As a fact, this constitutes a choice. Understand that the choice is based on culture, not race.

 

Well, he is making a choice too, but I take his essentially correct point. We are choosing to move forward and just because ‘beyond here there be dragons’ is no reason to go backwards.

 

Understand that to choose European culture and industrialism is to choose to be my enemy. And understand that the choice is yours, not mine.

This leads me back to address those American Indians who are drifting through the universities, the city slums, and other European institutions. If you are there to resist the oppressor in accordance with your traditional ways, so be it. I don’t know how you manage to combine the two, but perhaps you will succeed. But retain your sense of reality. Beware of coming to believe the white world now offers solutions to the problems it confronts us with. Beware, too, of allowing the words of native people to be twisted to the advantages of our enemies. Europe invented the practice of turning words around on themselves. You need only look to the treaties between American Indian peoples and various European governments to know that this is true. Draw your strength from who you are.

 

This is a fair enough point and could be taken from any self help manual – which means it is easily transformed into the sententious. The problems presented by the treaties are not merely hedges in their maze, impassable barriers, but present opportunities too, not to be given, but to be fought for. Solutions and progress are to be found, in other words, on the arena. Going off in a high dudgeon is no solution.

 

A culture which regularly confuses revolt with resistance, has nothing helpful to teach you and nothing to offer you as a way of life. Europeans have long since lost all touch with reality, if ever they were in touch with who you are as American Indians.

 

This hints to me of a hostility to revolution and here I am meaning social rather than political revolution.

 

So, I suppose to conclude this, I should state clearly that leading anyone toward Marxism is the last thing on my mind. Marxism is as alien to my culture as capitalism and Christianity are. In fact, I can say I don’t think I’m trying to lead anyone toward anything. To some extent I tried to be a “leader,” in the sense that the white media like to use that term, when the American Indian Movement was a young organization. This was a result of a confusion I no longer have. You cannot be everything to everyone. I do not propose to be used in such a fashion by my enemies. I am not a leader. I am an Oglala Lakota patriot. That is all I want and all I need to be. And I am very comfortable with who I am.

 

I am not so sure that he was comfortable with who he was – or perhaps became. By all means dismiss Marxism; a lot of crap has been associated with it and he may well have been disillusioned with the crap as we are too. But the tone of his speech speaks of defeat, disillusion, even despair, leading to withdrawal and a full scale retreat. Whatever we may think of this, it is not where the future lies. For this we should direct our sights to the statement provided by those North American Indians behind the Ontario Museum exhibit.

 

 

 

 

A Genuine Left Would Support Western Civilisation – by David McMullen

First published at On Line Opinion

… western civilisation is no longer western. It is global and a far better term is modernity. By the end of this century we can expect it to have totally supplanted all pre-existing conditions, even in the most backward regions. This will be a jolly good thing too.

* * * * * *

The pseudo-left wants to stop a multi-million-dollar donation by the conservative Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to the Australian National University for a new course on Western civilisation. According to the heads of the staff and student unions at the university it is racist to prioritize western history or culture. It mustn’t be “privileged”.

I guess we are supposed to look back lovingly at all those civilisations that crumbled in the face of the western onslaught, for example, Czarist Russia, Qing China, Mughal India, Ottoman MENA and Aztec Mesoamerica. And then of course there were the remnants of hunter-gathering society that lived in harmony with nature, and from whom we can learn so much, so we are told.

Of course, western civilisation is no longer western. It is global and a far better term is modernity. By the end of this century we can expect it to have totally supplanted all pre-existing conditions, even in the most backward regions. This will be a jolly good thing too.

Western history should indeed be prioritized over other history because that is where modernity began. The history of other regions is still important, but mainly in order to understand how their traditional cultures are an obstacle to modernity.

By studying western history, we get to understand how the connection between the economic, social and political transform the way be live.

The collapse of the Roman Empire is a good place to start. That’s when things slowly began to get interesting. Under the dead hand of Rome, innovation had been forbidden or a matter of indifference. But with the “Dark Ages” came something of a technological revolution in comparison. For the first time we saw the harnessing of horse-power with the adoption of the saddle, stirrups, horse shoes, bridle, horse collar and tandem harness. Water and wind mills sprang up everywhere.  The cranks and gears used in mills would become the basis of modern machinery. Lock gates in rivers and streams appeared for the first time. There were ships that could sail into the wind. And in the meantime, the church was doing a good job preserving literacy for a later time when it could be put to good use.

We gradually saw the spread of the market. This was assisted by the political fragmentation of Europe where the local thugs (sorry, lords) did not have their own raw materials for weapons and finery, and also of course by the development of ocean going sailing ships.

However, the feudal conditions became a fetter that could only be broken by the development of capitalist property relations. Small scale production could not meet the demand of the growing markets. Production carried out with the cooperation of large numbers of workers using machinery replaced small scale individual production. Steam power for machines and locomotion replaced wind and water.

This new economic system was compatible with, indeed required, more freedom of thought and action by the individual. A totally new society sprung up.

Studying the emergence of the modern world also gives an appreciation of how progress can be a messy thing.

When Martin Luther undermined a pillar of the feudal order, the Catholic Church, the achievement did not come cheaply. Notably, the subsequent religious wars killed off a quarter or more of the population of central Europe and half the male population of Germany.  About the same time, we had The English Civil War. This was critical to the creation of modern Britain but was a protracted bloodbath and lead to the death of 40 percent of the population of Ireland. Then it took a century of mucking about for the French Revolution to replace the old feudal regime with a respectable bourgeois one.

And nearer to the present we have seen the rocky road out of feudalism achieved in the former Czarist empire, China and eastern Europe. In the 1940s, we had to resist fascism’s attempt to roll back history, and that struggle cost millions of lives. So, if you think change seems pretty messy in the Middle East at the moment just look back at modern history.

The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation will of course want modernity to stop at capitalism. They are aptly called conservative. In their view, not only are capitalist property relations superior to older forms but attempts to move beyond them are bound to be a tragic folly. Exhibit one is the failed attempts in the 20th century to create post-capitalist societies on the back of totally unsuitable pre-capitalist conditions. Exhibit two is the doubtful results of “socialist” tinkering under capitalism. That sort of evidence would not get past a committal hearing but it has wide acceptance.

We then have the revolutionary wing of western civilisation that I belong to. Modernity in its preliminary capitalist form is a vast advance on everything else past or present and lays the conditions for the next stage. We should welcome its global spread.

In a letter to Engels of October 8 1858 Marx wrote: “The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market. Since the world is round, the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process.” He was being rather optimistic but his point of view is clear. And notice the reference to Australia. No black armband there. (You may like to check out more Marx at the Marx Engels Archive.)

While capitalism is an advance it is still the exploitation of the many by the few.  But as luck would have it capitalism is an incubator of the next stage, a classless society based on social ownership of the means of production. Capitalism turns most people into workers with no vested interest in capitalism; it unshackles our brains from pre-capitalist, traditional junk; and it creates a level of economic development that makes it possible to imagine equality because it would no longer be a case of sharing want and toil.

We can expect a messy transition. To start with those who want change will be confused about what they want and how to get there while those opposed to change will have a very clear idea on both counts and years of practice. But let’s hope the transition is not as tortuous as the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

However, that is for the future. At the moment there is no revolutionary movement nor any support for revolution. For now, fully entrenching and advancing the present capitalist stage of modernity is the priority. There are still large regions of the world where backwardness and tyranny reign supreme.  MENA is a priority area from the point of view of lifting tyranny from people’s backs. Then in the long hall we have Sub-Saharan Africa. It is the most backward region and has a huge and growing population. Possibly a third of people will live there by century’s end.

Unfortunately, there seems to be an alignment of toxic trends hampering this process. In the US and Europe, “both sides of politics” are heavily infected by isolationism and protectionism. Europe has its disgraceful agricultural policy that adds to Africa’s misery and a limited ability to project military power.  Then we had Obama’s appalling failure to stay the course in Iraq and to intervene in a timely fashion in Syria.

And now nobody is denouncing Trump’s failure to do the right thing and occupy Syria while arranging regime change. Doing nothing is a policy fully endorsed by both the pseudo-left and the alt-right. The former all supported Saddam and now some even support Assad.

The pseudos have also built a whole movement over the last 20 years or so opposing the global spread of capitalism. And even more insidiously, they oppose economic development because it is “unsustainable”. They want the darkies to live in noble simplicity.

To get down to brass tacks, a genuine left would align itself with the neo-cons and support their re-emergence. They stand for an activist foreign policy of regime change, nation building and economic development. There needs to be military support for change where it has a chance of success. (It is worth noting here that the recent Iraqi elections have been surprisingly open notwithstanding the violent efforts of Baathists and Islamo-fascists.)  Diplomacy should be heavily focused on giving kleptocrats and tyrants a hard time.

Australia could play a special role given the failure of the Americans and Europeans. We can pressure them to act and take a much more activist military policy. Being a pipsqueak power, our contribution is limited. However, we can be good at training and deploying special forces.

* * * * * *

David McMullen lives in Melbourne and he can be found at The Communist Manifesto Project.

 

 

 

“Factfulness”

Just finished this book and VERY strongly recommend it.

First do this quiz is at the main site for the book (with lots of other very useful material):
http://forms.gapminder.org/s3/test-2018

Do above first for quick preview without spoilers. Numerous surveys done with this quiz. Consistently show that most people including most “experts” do worse on choosing between 3 plausible answers to basic factual questions about the world than random one out of three guesses of “Chimpanzees”.

Continue reading

Toronto Museum – An exercise in ‘education’, irritation and Bertolt Brecht

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

– North American Indigenous exhibit, Toronto Museum

* * * * * *

(by Tom Griffiths)

Recently my wife and I had the opportunity of visiting the Toronto Museum at the invitation of a Toronto based colleague of hers, in order to see a Viking exhibition. Well, historical remnants and explanations thereof – if you want to see the long boats you need to go to the Viking Museum in Oslo. We did not expect this to be able to match the Viking museum, not a fair ask in any case and in this sense our expectations were met.

Before moving on to the purpose of this post, which is not really about the Viking exhibits, two comments about it, both positive, are worth making, especially since they affected my expectations (and disappointments) of what I would be exposed to in the rest of the museum, or rather those parts I visited. And these left me peeved and irritated with Brecht buzzing around my head. But more on this later.

The two positives, while modest in themselves, showed an attempt being made by either the curating bods at Toronto or Oslo to engage the visitor in the life and times of the Vikings. And having vicariously visited Valhalla courtesy of Dirk Gently’s adventures in The Long Dark Tea-Time of The Soul I was ready to be engaged.

The first positive was an obvious attempt by the curators to explain aspects of context, specifically social and economic, that helped shape the Vikings. As one would expect these days particular attention was placed on the place and role of women, making them visible. This aspect painted with a broad brush. The other positive was about fine detail. As one would expect after a thousand odd years many of the exhibits were showing their age and associated brittleness. One, a sword, made decrepit and fragile by rust, was partnered by a reproduction that had been placed in front of it. Above the repro was a sign saying Touch Me. I didn’t need to be asked twice. Briefly, for a fleeting second, I was able to imagine myself there. I will leave it to your imagination to decide whether ‘there’ was somewhere in the former Viking territories or in Valhalla.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that I was buoyed by this experience, it had certainly lodged somewhere in my head as my wife headed off to work leaving me to explore the rest of the museum. At this stage Brecht was, shall I say, keeping a low profile.

Whilst I did not ‘do’ the whole museum I did see three of their substantial exhibitions. In order of my seeing them these were an exhibition of 1stC to 20thC AD Korean sculptures and artifacts, a North American Indigenous section and a series of 16thC to early 20thC bed and sitting room furniture in ‘typical’ domestic settings. A legacy of European style as the Museum put it. Hint: the inverted commas serve as a warning. By the time I had finished Brecht was buzzing furiously.

Leaving Odin, Thor and their Viking worshipers behind I headed off to a Korean exhibition, the focus of which was mythology, mythological figures (the King of Hell, for example), furnishings and residential representations of the wealthy and … I don’t know what the collective noun is for numerous Buddha statues gathered in a small space is – a chill of Buddhas perhaps? – and a chill of Buddhas.

An O.D. of Buddhas- insouciance for all

I entered this exhibition curious but without any specific expectations. I left it Buddha’d out, having been through a Charge of the Light Brigade moment – Buddhas to the right, Buddhas to the left … The benefit of this over dose was it forced me to think and what follows is a distillation of that.

There were several aspects to this, the most immediately obvious being the historical, the retreat inward in the face of powerlessness. Whilst not true in any absolute sense the old boy himself and his many followers were, like the Stoics of ancient Greece and the Brahmin aesthetes, to name but a few, suffering an acute on chronic shortage of places to go with any dissatisfactions or grievances they had with the material world. And more importantly the people generally had even fewer places to go – they had no choice other than to put up with it and figure out ways to survive.

Hobbes’ dystopian description of the primitive world where life outside society was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ could also have been applied to the social conditions surrounding Buddha et al because life inside these societies wasn’t much better. From such materially and spiritually impoverished soil, “a heartless world” as Marx put it, sprang both need, “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and solution.

Withdrawing into the inner self was something they could do – and proselytise about – and they did. And yes, I know that proselytising about it is an external act and a defacto, if not intentional, political act but we moderns have Buddha et al at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to passing judgement on the value of what he or others were promoting as solutions to the miseries and injustices of social life.

So what is my gripe about confronting these ‘chilled out’ stone figures? None. As just mentioned, judging those times by today’s values and insights wouldn’t even make the grade as picking low hanging fruit; my gripe with the museum’s display is with how these concrete historical figures have been removed from their actual, material conditions and the human needs these ‘nurtured’ and gave birth to and rendered them abstract.

Museums all around the world, including Toronto, promote themselves as having an educative function. Unlike their Viking display, this was not education, but mystification. The saving grace, if I can put it that way, of the Buddas one can see in temples across South and SouthEast Asia – my favourites are the giant, recumbent Buddhas I’ve seen in Thailand and Sri Lanka, whose eyes peer lazily beyond, looking like they’ve just had a shot of heroin – is that they make no attempt to educate in a rational, secular sense; they are religious figures at places of worship.

There the term education takes on an entirely different meaning, one that is part of a religious faith’s ‘job description’. I disagree with the message but have no gripes with their honesty. I am unable to be so generous with the museum and this connects it with the following.

Another aspect is quite contemporary, a comment on the times. At the dawn of the modern era we see someone like Bacon revolutionizing philosophy by turning it outward, to the objective world of things. He took more than a passing swipe at medieval predecessors and ancient Greek philosophy alike for their looking inward and took a very direct swipe at Plato and Platonism generally: “when you taught us to turn our minds inward and grovel before our own blind and confused idols under the name of contemplative philosophy; then truly you dealt us a mortal injury.”

While not directed against Buddha or what his adherents stood for it could easily have done so. There was a world to conquer. The means to do it were emerging and these means were accompanied by and encouraged a spirit full of confidence and vision. This bullish spirit (or should that be Bolshie spirit?) of the young bourgeois revolution, so admired by Marx, is now in an almost apologetic retreat. Where once a critique of the shortcomings and hypocrisies of this revolution created elbow room for proletarian promise and daring do, there is now among ‘informed opinion’ and the broad spectrum of bourgeois ideology a de energised, timid state characterised by a sense of diminished hope and glumness if not outright funk.

And just when we thought things had reached rock bottom who should step, or rather who is pushed, onto the stage, but Buddha, eyes closed or glazed over telling us to focus on the inner self. Now in whose interest could that sage advice possibly be I wonder?

Tellingly, perhaps, my favourite figure in this section of the museum was the King of Hell, a diabolical little chap who at least displayed a sense of vitality. And here Brecht made his first appearance. As I looked and smiled at the King I was reminded of Brecht’s Mask of Evil: “On my wall hangs a Japanese carving/ The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer./ Sympathetically I observe/ The swollen veins on the forehead, indicating/ What a strain it is to be evil.”

As with my little ‘mate’ the King there is tension, there is contradiction, there is life. And thank heavens for that! Or should that be thank hell?
After entering this exhibit with casual interest I found myself relieved to be leaving it and without consulting the museum map soon found myself outside (and then inside) the North American Indigenous Exhibit.

The North American Indigenous section

It may be odd to say this but these exhibits had a certain familiarity courtesy of my childhood and adolescence watching westerns on TV and Saturday arvo matinees. That being said the exhibits were of interest and some attention had been paid (not enough as I was soon to discover) to explanation of context.

Then it happened, an exhibit that not only caught my attention (seized it was more accurate) but made me audibly laugh in surprise and approval. This was the highlight of the museum and demonstrates how the dead and buried can be made to live, for their living descendents to embrace the challenges of modernity without sacrificing their heritage and how easy this transformation can be. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

This exhibit was of three native Americans, life size plaster cast figures, two men and a woman, originally installed about 100 years ago. The male figure to my left was squatting and reaching for something with his left hand; in the middle, and standing was the female figure and to her left the second male figure in a semi squatting pose. An unremarkable exhibit of the past and a defeated past at that. Comforting for the victors perhaps, but not so for the vanquished and it was this discomfort (pissed offness is probably more accurate) that transformed what was before me into something exceptional. What I actually saw and what had given the exhibit life and relevance was the male figure to my left reaching for a power drill, the female figure holding a tripod and camera and the remaining figure wired up with a ipod.

After my initial ‘wow’ response my gaze fell to an explanatory note at the base of the trio. It said it all:

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

European Style through the Ages

I left the Indigenous display in a buoyant mood and soon ended up, in more familiar territory, in the Samuel European Galleries where I was assailed and increasingly irritated by the ‘legacy of European style through the ages’ – the ages here meaning the late middle ages – the birth of the modern period – to the 20thC. I later discovered, courtesy of their website, that during the period covered, “Europe witnessed agricultural, social, economic and industrial innovation that would change how Europeans lived, worked, and viewed with the world around them” and was invited to “examine the influence these changes had through the lens of decorative arts development in central and Western Europe. Walk among period rooms and vignettes, including those of the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Victorian periods, and discover the different stylistic signatures of each.”

Now, I need to disclose that I gained this information after my visit and after the irritation I increasingly felt as I walked “among the period rooms and vignettes” conversing in my head with Brecht as I went. Had I had this info with me at the time my irritation would have been greater.

The problem I had was not with what was there but with what was not. The period rooms and vignettes displayed were, not surprisingly, either the “stylistic signatures” of the emergent bourgeoisie (landed or otherwise) or of the decaying aristocracies of Europe. This fails to surprise on two levels. The first is that the display artifacts were made by skilled craftsmen using quality materials and these have a tendency to last and to be handed down across generations. The second is political, or ideological more broadly and ironically sits in the same camp as that identified and rectified by the Indigenous activists referred to above. In much the same way as the common working people – you know, the ones that actually make all the stuff and keep it working – are written out of history, the lens employed at the museum airbrushes them out too. The pity of this is that their signature appears in every single exhibit, but remains unseen and devalued. As I traipsed my way through the centuries, looking at these rooms with their ‘stylistic signatures’ the one signature that emerged as dominant was that of class, of ownership.

On the one hand this is all rather ho hum – what had I expected to see anyway? But on the other, consigning it to the ‘ho hum’ department is itself a problem because it colludes with the obscuring of social relations. The question that kept repeating in my head was ”where are the people?” And I mean all of them – the property owners, the quality sort of chap with his quality sort of wife, their servants (who cooked the meals? who changed the sheets and cleaned? who…?) the craftsmen who had built everything before me. Where were they? And what were their quarters like? where and how did the craftsmen live?

The Indigenous example – the power drill, the camera and the ipod – demonstrated how the past can be made highly pertinent to the present, how the gap between them shrinks and can be traversed. With curatorship guided by curiosity and social awareness and how these are shaped by the times, we can be given the opportunity of asking questions of history. We can tackle, like our indigenous friends, how we can bring these questions into the present and ask ourselves what aspects of this past remain tangled in the present, holding us up and what aspects have opened doors and propelled us forward.

But why Brecht? Why him in my head, needling me? Brecht is one of my favorite poets and the answer lies in one of them, Questions From a Worker Who Reads:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?
So many reports.
So many questions.

 

* * * * * * 

Celebrating the Russian revolution: from the ox-drawn plough to nuclear power and Sputnik

 

Sputnik_670

I was six years of age when ‘Sputnik’ became the first artificial earth satellite. It was sent into orbit by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957. I have a vague memory of my parents taking me into the street that night and, with curious neighbours, peering into the dark star-lit skies over West Brunswick, Melbourne. I’m fairly sure someone said they could see it, and maybe I saw it, or something, among the stars too.

I also recall my father, Loreto, remarking on how the success of Sputnik highlighted ‘the superiority of socialism’. Of course, I didn’t understand what that meant. What was socialism? And what was it meant to be superior to? He was a Labor voter, but very much to the left, and it wasn’t uncommon for Labor men and women to talk favourably about socialism in those days.

About a decade later, when I was 16, my dad and I would sometimes take the number 19 tram from Brunswick to the City on Saturday mornings and visit the International Bookshop in Excelsior House, 17 Elizabeth Street. An antiquated rickety old lift would take us up to the second floor where we’d be greeted by the Communist Party shopkeeper, Jack Morrison.

Sometimes a couple of dad’s young workmates from the factory where he worked would meet us there. We’d browse through copies of glossy propaganda magazines like ‘Soviet Pictorial’ and ‘China Pictorial’, marvelling at the photographic evidence of bumper harvests and advanced technology. I was a reader of science fiction and the images of gigantic tractors and huge pumpkins enthused and fascinated me.

By this stage of my life I had an understanding of socialism and identified with it in a gut kind of way. It was about progress, about eradication of poverty, about imagining a better future based on scientific discovery and technological innovation – and about the working class who produced society’s wealth taking control of the means of producing it.

At a time when censorship laws in Australia and the west were ridiculous, it was also about greater freedom. The International Bookshop flaunted censorship laws by stocking some of the books that had been banned by the government for political or sexual content. (D H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was in the latter category).

An example of political censorship was a ban on a pamphlet that exposed US war crimes in Vietnam. I forget its title now but remember obtaining copies from the Eureka Youth League in 1968 and distributing them, surreptitiously, at my high school. The pamphlet was banned under the Obscene Publications Act, from memory.

* * * *

My father had served in the Second World War, volunteering in 1940 for the Royal Air Force in his homeland, Malta, when the Italian Fascists started bombarding the main island of the Mediterranean archipelago. He remembered the priests opposing British imperialism from the pulpit in the lead up to the War and assuring their congregations that Malta’s future was best served by accepting Mussolini’s Italia Irredenta.

By any measure, British imperialism’s crimes at that time were far worse than those of Italian imperialism, but on the other hand, British bourgeois democracy was much preferable to Italian/German fascism.

During the War, my father served in Africa, the Middle East, Palestine, and France, before being stationed in London after the War.

The War changed his world, everyone’s world, and in mixing with other RAF men, his eyes were opened to new ways of seeing and thinking. He remembered Jewish and Scottish airmen telling him about Stalin, the Soviet Union (“where the workers ruled”) and communism. (Note, they are called ‘airmen’ but they served on the ground, in regiments, and never flew).

The troops knew that Stalin’s Red Army were routing the Nazis in Europe and my dad’s comrades told him the story about the early British appeasement of Hitler and the west’s refusal to heed Stalin’s calls for collective security against fascism as early as 1933.

After the War, in London, still in uniform, my father thrived in the cosmopolitan environment of one of the world’s biggest cities. Servicemen in uniform were given free tickets to the West End theatres and to lectures given by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Hewlett Johnson, the ‘Red Dean of Canterbury’. My dad took advantage of such opportunities.

He started buying the ‘Daily Worker’ regularly, the organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and found that while there were strong pockets of anti-communism, in general Londoners were tolerant of it and there was sympathy for Stalin and the Red Army.

My dad told me about an occasion when he went to work at his job in the Air Ministry in London after the War, having purchased the Daily Worker that morning. Walking through the main office, one of the heads of the ministry – a ‘Lord’ no less – noticed him and asked, ‘What’s that paper you’re carrying?’ My dad saluted and replied, ‘Sir! It’s the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party’. Lord-so-and-so responded: ‘Oh, I thought it was. May I borrow it after you’ve finished with it? I forgot to buy mine this morning’.

It’s easy to forget that communism was popular after the War and that the Cold War arose in part because of communism’s popularity in Europe, west and east. If it’s true that reactionaries tremble at the mere rustle of leaves, then you can imagine how they responded to elections in places like France and Italy where between a quarter and third of the people voted Communist.

* * * *

I want to celebrate the centenary of the Russian revolution because it was an attempt to build socialism after the old feudal order had been overthrown by the people, led by the communist Bolsheviks. That it was led by communists was a rather flukish situation. The overthrow of the feudal order required a bourgeois democratic revolution that would develop capitalism. As David McMullen says in Rescuing the Message of the Communist Manifesto:

‘There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and virtually all the “communist” regimes established mid-century were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies. Most people were peasants rather than proletarians, and they were more interested in land for the tiller than social ownership. There was little modern industry and thinking was more medieval than modern. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is necessary for a successful communist revolution’.

The Russian revolution also shows how the old order never just gives in. Civil war followed the revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class, with the old order backed by military forces of more than a dozen foreign governments.

Then there came the rise of fascism in Europe and the active pro-fascist fifth columns in various countries, especially the Soviet Union. Hitler hated communism, which he called Judeo-Bolshevism. In the Soviet Union, the fifth columnists engaged in sabotage and collaboration – as they did in some western countries too. In the west, the fascist sympathisers promoted isolationism in foreign policy. It’s “over there”, not our problem, we’ll only make things worse, blah blah blah. Such is the mentality that thinks in terms of ethnic identity and nationality rather than humanity.

As if things couldn’t become more difficult, there came the Second World War which, initially, the Soviet Union tried to keep out of; though Stalin had sought collective security agreements with Britain and other powers in the early 1930s when Hitler’s Nazis took power. Britain declined and instead entered into the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1934. Poland agreed to a non-aggression pact with Hitler, rather than collective security to thwart him, also in 1934.

The Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union, and Soviet resistance, resulted in 25 million mainly Russian deaths. The Soviet Union instigated the greatest military action in world history known as Operation Bagration, codename for the 1944 Soviet Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation, which secured the defeat of the Nazis. Women were mobilised along with men and the Red Army’s women’s sniper force became legendary in the Soviet Union. Lyudmila Pavlichenko shot 309 Nazi soldiers as a Ukrainian Red Army Soviet sniper during the war. (Woody Guthrie wrote a song for her in 1942).

It was understood at that time that the Soviet Union, despite what it had been through – a revolution followed by a civil war caused by the military intervention of forces backed by a dozen foreign governments, the subversive activities and sabotage of a pro-fascist fifth column, and an invasion by the German Nazis and their Finnish and Romanian allies that killed 25 million Soviet citizens – had achieved plenty through its socialist system.

Industrialisation, massive dam construction and electrification of the countryside had lifted millions from the acute poverty experienced under Tsardom. Stalin wanted to create “a second America” in terms of industrial progress. For the first time, the socialist republics of the USSR developed their own motor, aircraft, tank, tractor, machine tool, electrical and chemical industries – with the assistance of European and American experts.

The dam built on the Dnieper River from 1927 was the biggest hydro-electric station in Europe and was consistent with Lenin’s slogan: ‘Communism is soviet power plus electrification’.

lenin electrification soviet

New cities were built, most notably Magnitogorsk, which was based on iron ore mining and steel production. Hundreds of experts were brought in as advisers, including Americans, as the city was to be based on US steel-cities, Gary (Indiana) and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania).

Roads, railways, canals also helped move Russia and the Soviet Union further from the feudal era of the ox-drawn plough. The Volga-Don Canal and the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal were achievements of a system in which need and progress motivate planning and production. And, in 1954, the Soviet Union became the first country in the world to harness nuclear power for peaceful use, with the operation of the APS-1 nuclear power plant at Obninsk, the ‘Science City’.

This material progress, the application of human ingenuity in the creative-destructive transformation of Nature through labour, is a key reason as to why so many working class people in the west were attracted to socialism.

If the unleashing of the productive forces in a backward economy like Russia in the early C20th could produce such results via social ownership, then what could be achieved under socialism in the advanced industrial west where progress was held back by concentrated private ownership of the means of production and the pursuit of maximum profit for those private owners as the goal of production?

Despite the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, these questions remain. They just need to be put back on the agenda of public discourse. Instead, we can expect the same old ritualistic denunciations based on the false premise that ‘the History is settled’.

Is capitalism the best system on offer?

“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” – Karl Marx

* * * *

This is the text of a talk given by David McMullen at the Monthly Argument on Wednesday October 19, at The Royal Oak Hotel, Fitzroy. David is the author of Bright Future.

Is capitalism the best system on offer?

As you are well aware we presently live under the capitalist system where the means of production are owned primarily by a small ruling class. Now is this system the best on offer? My answer to the question is no. However, the journey to the better alternative is going to be a tortuous process. This alternative is the very opposite of capitalism. It is a classless society where the means of production are socially owned, and it has usually been called communism.

Now how does this alternative claim to be better? It claims to be better than capitalism on the grounds that it would allow the individual to fully develop and thrive under conditions of mutual regard rather than the dog eat dog world of capitalism.

However, for such a society two things are required. These are (1) a very high level of economic development and (2) the successful completion of a rocky period of revolutionary transition during which we fundamentally transform ourselves and our relations with each other.

The first of these – a very high level of economic development – allows us to eliminate poverty and toil, and this is absolutely critical if we are going to dispense with the profit motive. This is because it opens up the possibility of people working because they like what they are doing and they want to contribute, while at the same time being happy with an equal share of an increasing prosperity. While it is possible to imagine people sharing prosperity and enjoyable work, it is not possible to imagine people sharing poverty and toil. The Middle Ages shows us that it only requires a small band of thugs who would prefer to have a lot more than everybody else and you have a very nasty class society. Also the experience of the Soviet Union, and the various regimes derived from it, shows what happens when you try and go beyond capitalism under backward economic conditions.

In the rich countries we have reached an economic level where it is possible to imagine everyone enjoying something approaching toil free prosperity. However, what about the rest of the world where most people live? What are the prospects there? The middle income countries such as China and India should start approaching fair levels of development in a generation or so if they maintain a reasonable growth rate. On the other hand the poorest countries where most people live will need to begin, and sustain, a growth takeoff similar to India and China in order to get to out of their present poverty later this century.

Many raise doubts about the possibility of achieving global economic prosperity. They either say that everyone having high and increasing living standards is impossible because of resource limits to growth or because capitalism’s disregard for the environment will lead to ecological collapse and a very bleak future.

The limits to growth view is based on a number of notions: (1) that minerals become too difficult to extract as we have to dig deeper or rely on lower grades of mineral ore. As a result capital becomes increasingly devoted to extraction and this leaves less and less for the rest of the economy. (2) Economic growth necessarily creates an increasing waste stream that the natural environment can no longer cope with. (3) Increasing food production will ultimately deplete the soil. I think there is ample evidence technological advances can solve those sort of problems. I dealt with this issue at length at the debate in June. It is available online as is this talk.

Now is capitalism going to completely trash the environment because of its shortsighted search for profits? I think we can expect quite a lot of trashing of forests and pollution of air and water as the poorer countries develop. However, countering that is the fact that newer technologies tend to be cleaner and as countries get richer there is increasing political pressure to reduce environmental damage and remedy past damage.

As for CO2 emissions. They are very unlikely to be brought down to the levels that people are talking about. We are pretending to do something while achieving very little. The Europeans have made a lot of noise but are reneging on all their promises. India and China are continuing to build coal power plants at a cracking pace. China is also building quite a few in other countries. Germany and Japan are building more coal power plants because of their stupid decision to get out of nuclear power.

There are two strategies for significantly reducing CO2. The first would involve a massive total switch to renewable and nuclear power in coming decades. However, because these technologies are far more expensive than fossil fuels it is not going to happen. Keep in mind that it would require massive subsidies to the less developed countries who have made it clear that they are not going to abandon much cheaper fossil fuels unless compensated. These countries are already consuming more than half the world’s energy and the percentage will soon be a lot higher.

The second strategy is to to implement a massive research and development program aimed at providing energy options that greatly close the cost gap with fossil fuels. This would be far cheaper than the first strategy. And it is a strategy that Bill Gates is promoting with only modest success. And it is the strategy I support.

For the moment I am noncommittal on the level of threat to the environment that is posed by capitalism’s failure to act on CO2 emissions. Views on the subject range from little impact to a runaway greenhouse effect that would put the human race in a very sticky position.

Now on that rather uncertain note, let’s move on to the second requirement if we are to achieve a classless, collectively owned society. As said at the beginning, we have to complete a very rocky period of revolutionary transition during which we fundamentally transform ourselves and our relations with each other.

While getting rid of the capitalists and installing a revolutionary government will be a protracted and tortuous business, it will not be enough. We also require an entire historical period of struggle to make the transition from a society based on profit to one based on mutual regard. This will have many ups and downs and may possibly include major defeats.

The central thing here is a struggle with a new bourgeoisie that is bound to emerge after the revolution because you can’t immediately eliminate the old division of labor. For some time society will still have a lot of hierarchy, and all levels of government including the very top will be full of phonies pretending to be revolutionaries and also revolutionaries who become corrupted by power. This new group proved irresistible in the Soviet Union and its derivative regimes. To counter this it will be critical to have a revolutionary mass movement that can push back against it.

There is also a struggle with people at all levels of society who are slow to adopt the behavior and thinking of mutual regard. This will require people to have the moral courage, self-confidence and social skills to stand up to problematic behavior. At the moment we tend to knuckle under or run away from a problem. The principle of mutual regard can be summed up as – I will go out of my way for others and others do likewise, and we all share in the better outcome that results. It is enlightened self-interest because our welfare depends on the welfare of others. And we mustn’t forget the direct satisfaction that we get from helping others and contributing to the general good.

I rather like this paragraph from the Communist Manifesto dealing with this subject:

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Finally, a very important point to make is that the less that capitalism has modernized societies the harder the task of transition will be. Pre-capitalist societies are really awful and people’s heads are full of even more crap than modern people. In these societies the average person is ignorant and uneducated. They are servile and accepting of the idea that some people are superior to others, and have a right to push everyone else around. There is no conception of democracy or individual liberty. The individual is tied down by obligations and loyalties to groups such as extended family, clan and tribe. And women are completely subordinate to men. It is virtually impossible to imagine creating a classless society on the basis of this kind of culture.

So to sum up.

Firstly, a society more advanced than capitalism requires a high level of economic development, what is sometimes called post-scarcity.
Secondly, this new society requires more than simply installing a revolutionary government and dispossessing the capitalists. There is an entire historical period when ordinary people will have to push back against the opponents of the revolution and thoroughly internalize the new morality of mutual regard.
And thirdly, on a more mundane note, there needs to be a massive increase in research and development spending in order to develop the new energy technologies that economic growth requires.

Why ‘Earth Hour’ is silly

We should not be demonising electricity — we should be celebrating it.

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With thanks to Spiked for permission to republish this article by John Slater.

On 19 March every year, millions of people in developed countries spend 60 minutes of their lives reeling in collective guilt over the evil of fossil fuels. But when people turn off the lights for Earth Hour, they only hold a candle to their own ignorance.

Earth Hour is exactly the type of feel-good event today’s environmentalists seem to relish. It provides a ready-made opportunity for people to flaunt their social conscience by denouncing industrialisation, electricity, fossil fuels and the other ‘excesses’ that make 21st-century life worth living.

But what these candle-waving, middle-class do-gooders forget are the 1.3 billion people who will spend all of 19 March in the dark – not out of some desire to be close to nature, but because that’s how they spend every other day of the year.

How long without electricity would today’s Earth Hour enthusiasts last before their warm inner glow turned to despair?

Perhaps if people were forced seriously to contemplate life off the grid, they’d come to accept the empirical fact that nothing has done more to advance the plight of humanity than cheap, reliable electricity.

The problem with Earth Hour isn’t that burning candles actually emits more carbon than using a lightbulb, nor that large numbers of households simultaneously going dark disrupts the power grid and actually increases emissions.

No, the problem with Earth Hour is that it makes a villain out of electricity provision, the very thing that’s allowed humanity to rise out of abject poverty and reach the standard of living we enjoy today. So, since you probably won’t hear it anywhere else, here are just a few of the tremendous benefits of cheap, reliable electricity:

It feeds the world
Worldwide poverty is at its lowest rate in human history.

his is in large part because of the modern methods of mass food production that depend on cheap electricity. Industrial farming practices, including irrigation, mass food storage and transport, would all be impossible if environmentalists had their way. In the Middle Ages over 90 per cent of Europe’s workforce worked on farms; today, less than five per cent does. This has freed millions of people from backbreaking labour to develop their own skills and talents, which in turn have enriched our lives.

And once this mass-produced food reaches our homes, it is electricity that allows us to cook it quickly and safely, without exposing ourselves to health risks from chronic smoke inhalation. Two million people in developing countries still die each year from noxious fumes caused by traditional indoor heating and cooking practices. This gives some insight into what cheap electricity has meant for human welfare.

It saves lives
Electricity has made possible the advances and wide availability of modern medicine, from vaccines to antibiotics and surgery.

According to the World Health Organisation, the measles vaccine alone has saved over 17million lives worldwide since 2000. This wouldn’t have happened had there not been cheap, electrically powered refrigeration for the storage and transportation of the vaccine.

It creates prosperity
As Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, points out, the electricity available to people in wealthy countries is roughly the equivalent of having 56 servants working for you in pre-industrial times. It’s easy to forget this if you have the luxury of boiling a cup of tea and sitting down to watch a digitally recorded episode of MasterChef once your annual 60 minutes of environmental self-flagellation is up. But for the people of, say, Liberia or South Sudan or Sierra Leone, every hour is Earth Hour. Life is short and illness often deadly. People spend most of their waking hours fighting a neverending struggle for basic necessities like food and shelter.

There is no doubt that our prosperity has come at a cost to the natural world. But if we care about making the world a better place, the last thing we should be doing is turning off the lights. If what we want is a genuine accommodation with Mother Nature, we should be concentrating humanity’s collective energies on finding cleaner and cheaper ways of sustaining modern life, not harking back to some pre-industrial fantasy.

Contrary to the delusions of eco-pessimists, cheap electricity is exactly the kind of innovation we need more of. London’s air quality today is the best it’s been since coal became a common fuel for lime burners in the early Middle Ages. Why? Because thanks to electricity, factories are no longer run on coal power. Nor do households have to burn it to cook and stay warm.

The idea that human progress actually helps the environment flies in the face of everything today’s environmental zealots hold dear. In their eyes, humanity must repent for daring to industrialise. That means putting an end to the wealth and material excess that characterise our daily lives.

If people are actually interested in saving the planet, they’d be better off lighting their houses with electricity, not mourning human progress in the dark.

John Slater is a Young Voices Advocate, and an Australian writer based in Washington DC. Follow him on twitter, @JohnSlater93.