When the state is unjust, citizens may use justifiable violence

The following is written from a classical liberal point of view but one does not have to be a liberal to agree with the conclusions. It brings to mind some of the thinking, and arguments, we had on the left back in the late 1960s and early 1970s when police routinely framed and/or beat people up on political demonstrations with a view to thwarting the developing mass movement and growing influence of revolutionary socialist ideas.

Article republished from Aeon under Creative Commons, written by Jason Brennan

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If you see police choking someone to death – such as Eric Garner, the 43-year-old black horticulturalist wrestled down on the streets of New York City in 2014 – you might choose to pepper-spray them and flee. You might even save an innocent life. But what ethical considerations justify such dangerous heroics? (After all, the cops might arrest or kill you.) More important: do we have the right to defend ourselves and others from government injustice when government agents are following an unjust law? I think the answer is yes. But that view needs defending. Under what circumstances might active self-defence, including possible violence, be justified, as opposed to the passive resistance of civil disobedience that Americans generally applaud?

Civil disobedience is a public act that aims to create social or legal change. Think of Henry David Thoreau’s arrest in 1846 for refusing to pay taxes to fund the colonial exploits of the United States, or Martin Luther King Jr courting the ire of the authorities in 1963 to shame white America into respecting black civil rights. In such cases, disobedient citizens visibly break the law and accept punishment, so as to draw attention to a cause. But justifiable resistance need not have a civic character. It need not aim at changing the law, reforming dysfunctional institutions or replacing bad leaders. Sometimes, it is simply about stopping an immediate injustice­. If you stop a mugging, you are trying to stop that mugging in that moment, not trying to end muggings everywhere. Indeed, had you pepper-sprayed the police officer Daniel Pantaleo while he choked Eric Garner, you’d have been trying to save Garner, not reform US policing.

Generally, we agree that it’s wrong to lie, cheat, steal, deceive, manipulate, destroy property or attack people. But few of us think that the prohibitions against such actions are absolute. Commonsense morality holds that such actions are permissible in self-defence or in defence of others (even if the law doesn’t always agree). You may lie to the murderer at the door. You may smash the windows of the would-be kidnapper’s car. You may kill the would-be rapist.

Here’s a philosophical exercise. Imagine a situation in which a civilian commits an injustice, the kind against which you believe it is permissible to use deception, subterfuge or violence to defend yourself or others. For instance, imagine your friend makes an improper stop at a red light, and his dad, in anger, yanks him out of the car, beats the hell out of him, and continues to strike the back of his skull even after your friend lies subdued and prostrate. May you use violence, if it’s necessary to stop the father? Now imagine the same scene, except this time the attacker is a police officer in Ohio, and the victim is Richard Hubbard III, who in 2017 experienced just such an attack as described. Does that change things? Must you let the police officer possibly kill Hubbard rather than intervene?

Most people answer yes, believing that we are forbidden from stopping government agents who violate our rights. I find this puzzling. On this view, my neighbours can eliminate our right of self-defence and our rights to defend others by granting someone an office or passing a bad law. On this view, our rights to life, liberty, due process and security of person can disappear by political fiat – or even when a cop has a bad day. In When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice (2019), I argue instead that we may act defensively against government agents under the same conditions in which we may act defensively against civilians. In my view, civilian and government agents are on a par, and we have identical rights of self-defence (and defence of others) against both. We should presume, by default, that government agents have no special immunity against self-defence, unless we can discover good reason to think otherwise. But it turns out that the leading arguments for special immunity are weak.

Some people say we may not defend ourselves against government injustice because governments and their agents have ‘authority’. (By definition, a government has authority over you if, and only if, it can oblige you to obey by fiat: you have to do what it says because it says so.) But the authority argument doesn’t work. It’s one thing to say that you have a duty to pay your taxes, show up for jury duty, or follow the speed limit. It is quite another to show that you are specifically bound to allow a government and its agents to use excessive violence and ignore your rights to due process. A central idea in liberalism is that whatever authority governments have is limited.

Others say that we should resist government injustice, but only through peaceful methods. Indeed, we should, but that doesn’t differentiate between self-defence against civilians or government. The common-law doctrine of self-defence is always governed by a necessity proviso: you may lie or use violence only if necessary, that is, only if peaceful actions are not as effective. But peaceful methods often fail to stop wrongdoing. Eric Garner peacefully complained: ‘I can’t breathe,’ until he drew his last breath.

Another argument is that we shouldn’t act as vigilantes. But invoking this point here misunderstands the antivigilante principle, which says that when there exists a workable public system of justice, you should defer to public agents trying, in good faith, to administer justice. So if cops attempt to stop a mugging, you shouldn’t insert yourself. But if they ignore or can’t stop a mugging, you may intervene. If the police themselves are the muggers – as in unjust civil forfeiture – the antivigilante principle does not forbid you from defending yourself. It insists you defer to more competent government agents when they administer justice, not that you must let them commit injustice.

Some people find my thesis too dangerous. They claim that it’s hard to know exactly when self-defence is justified; that people make mistakes, resisting when they should not. Perhaps. But that’s true of self-defence against civilians, too. No one says we lack a right of self-defence against each other because applying the principle is hard. Rather, some moral principles are hard to apply.

However, this objection gets the problem exactly backwards. In real life, people are too deferential and conformist in the face of government authority. They are all-too-willing to electrocute experimental subjects, gas Jews or bomb civilians when ordered to, and reluctant to stand up to political injustice. If anything, the dangerous thesis – the thesis that most people will mistakenly misapply – is that we should defer to government agents when they seem to act unjustly. Remember, self-defence against the state is about stopping an immediate injustice, not fixing broken rules.

Of course, strategic nonviolence is usually the most effective way to induce lasting social change. But we should not assume that strategic nonviolence of the sort that King practised always works alone. Two recent books – Charles Cobb Jr’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed (2014) and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back (2013) – show that the later ‘nonviolent’ phase of US civil rights activism succeeded (in so far as it has) only because, in earlier phases, black people armed themselves and shot back in self-defence. Once murderous mobs and white police learned that black people would fight back, they turned to less violent forms of oppression, and black people in turn began using nonviolent tactics. Defensive subterfuge, deceit and violence are rarely first resorts, but that doesn’t mean they are never justified.Aeon counter – do not remove

Jason Brennan

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Assassinations of Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Jneid – the democratic revolution continues

Raed Fares best one

The assassination of Syrian democratic revolutionaries Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Jneid in Kafr Nabl was very bad and sad news. Raed was an icon of the people’s uprising, especially in Kafr Nabl, from where he ran an alternative anti-regime, anti-Daesh, radio station called ‘Radio Fresh‘.

It had received US funding until five months ago when President Trump stopped the US government’s $200 million in ‘stablilization aid’ to Syrian civil society organisations and humanitarian groups, including Radio Fresh. (Which must have pleased the anti-US-interventionist pseudo-left).

I followed Raed Fares on facebook over the years. Images of his satirical cartoons and political banners went viral. They had a distinct style and could be savage in their mocking of the regime and of the west’s failure to effectively support the revolutionaries.

There’s a lot of muck on social media but also great stuff, like the photos of Raed’s cartoons and banners, usually held up by groups of men in Kafr Nabl.

I’m republishing below a letter seeking support for Radio Fresh, to allow it to keep going.

Also, I’ve been gathering images of some of Raed’s work and share them here, after the letter below. My favourite is the one linking the Syrian uprising to the bigger picture of democratic revolution beyond Syria.

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Dear friends,

I am still reeling from the news of Raed Fares’s assassination on Friday. The heartbreak and collective grief so many Syrians and people around the world share at his loss are almost unbearable. But with every hour that passes it becomes more obvious what we need to do. We need to keep his work alive, we need to keep Radio Fresh on the air and power the work of the hundreds of journalists and activists he trained.

As a prominent civil society leader and media activist, Raed knew his life was in imminent danger, especially in his last weeks. His work was always very dangerous and he knew that both the Syrian regime and Al-Qaeda’s thugs wanted him dead. However he was determined to stay in his hometown of Kafranbel and continue his work. Fearing he might be assassinated, he gave instructions to his loyal students about how to continue what he had built. Radio Fresh would continue. The United Revolutionary Bureaus he set up would continue.

I’ve had many conversations over the last couple of days with Raed’s kids and his team. No one is giving up. Everyone wants to continue what Raed started — he made it clear that that’s what he would’ve wanted.  

Raed launched a campaign to fund Radio Fresh three months before his death when international aid was cut to the project. His family and colleagues have called on us to do everything we can to continue the campaign, fund his work and keep Raed’s dream of independent radio alive.

Please donate now to keep Radio Fresh on the air, and share the link with all your friends.

Radio Fresh is an independent radio station in northwest Syria that resists both Assad and extremist groups. Raed considered Radio Fresh an essential service to the community – its brave reporters discussed local issues, investigated cases of injustice, and held authorities to account. They even warned the community of incoming airstrikes.

When he survived his first assassination attempt by an armed group in Idlib in January 2016, Raed posted this to Facebook:

“Freedom is an idea, and an idea cannot die

Fresh is an idea, and an idea cannot die

Ideas cannot die, people die, and we will stay here so the pain goes away

Oh my homeland, of sacrifices

I cannot thank enough those who stood in solidarity, and letters cannot do justice to my emotions, all I can say is: You are the Revolution, and the Revolution saved its children”

Let’s put our support now behind the hundreds of journalists and activists trained by Raed and let’s help continue their critical work. The extremists will not defeat his indomitable will.

Donate now to keep Radio Fresh on the air.

Raed’s death is huge loss to humanity, to everyone everywhere who believes in freedom, democracy and equal rights for all. The only way to honour him is to continue his incredible work.

Thank you.

Yours,

Kenan Rahmani

 

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‘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.

 

 

 

 

Ideological Statistics: Inflated Death Rates of China’s Famine, the Russian one Ignored

“The figure of 30 million deaths during China’s famine has no scholarly basis whatsoever but passed into popular folklore. The demographic collapse in Russia in the first half of the 1990s has been met with a deafening silence”.

An extract from Patnaik’s lecture The Republic of Hunger (2004)

(With thanks to the author, Utsa Patnaik, for permission to reprint her article here. It was originally published at Socialist Economics).

* * * *

The alleged massive famine in China during the Great Leap, 1958-61, and the internationally unrecognized famine in Russia in the first half of the 1990s.

When we look at these cases it becomes clear enough that the entire field of the discussion of hunger and famine is a highly ideological one, and has been routinely characterized by the abandoning of the minimum academic criteria with respect to evidence and estimation.

* * * *

First, let us consider the allegation that 27 to 30 million people died in China during the ‘Great Leap’ period. This allegation is contained in the books of two US demographers Ansley J Coale (1984), and Judith Banister (1987). Few in the developing world however would have bothered to read the discussion of these demographers, couched in technical language. The main popularizer and ardently uncritical supporter of the conclusions of these US demographers, has been Amartya K. Sen and it is through Sen’s writings first in the New York Review of Books and subsequently in his many lectures and books including Development as Freedom (1999) that the world, and the reading public in this country has been informed that “China has had what is almost certainly the largest recorded famine in history (when thirty million people died in the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward) in 1958-61) whereas India has not had a famine since independence in 1947 ” (Sen, 1999, 43). The figure of 30 million has passed into popular folklore. However, a study of how it has been arrived at shows that this estimate has no scholarly basis whatsoever.

The facts are that there was a run of three bad harvests and a steep 30% drop in foodgrains output took place in China in 1960, while the government’s procurement from the villages did not decline, lowering availability per head. The official death rate, which had been falling up to 1958 owing to public health and sanitation measures, registered a rise to 25.4 per thousand in 1960. (This peak ‘famine’ death rate in China was however little different from India’s actual, ‘normal’ death rate, 24.6, in the same year). The birth rate also fell steeply in 1958, mainly owing to labour mobilisation for collective work.

Two alternative routes have been used to estimate ‘famine deaths’, both of very dubious validity. In the first, the ‘missing millions’ totalling 27 millions in the population pyramid during 1958 to 1961, have been identified with ‘famine deaths’. The problem with this is that not only the people who were actually living and who died in excess of normal numbers are included in the missing millions, but so are all those hypothetical persons included, who were never born at all and who ‘should’ have been born if the birth rate had not fallen. This is not a common-sense definition nor is it a logical definition of famine deaths: for, to ‘die’ in a famine, a minimum necessary condition is to be born in the first place. The Chinese are a highly talented people but even they cannot achieve the feat of dying without being born. If a person is told that 30 million people died, then quite correctly she would infer that those 30 million were alive and then died. The fact that 19 million of them never existed because they were never born in the first place, is not conveyed by the formulation. Hence, there is disingenuousness involved in saying that 30 million people ‘died’: it is an untrue proposition.

The fact that 19 million of them never existed because they were never born in the first place, is not conveyed by the formulation.

The second route, followed by the demographers Coale and Banister, is perhaps even more dubious. They take the population totals yielded by the official 1953 and 1964 Censuses in China to be correct, but dispute the official fertility rate even though it was based on a very large sample of 30 million persons or 5% of the then population, especially canvassed along with the 1953 Census as Nai- Ruenn Chen (1966) had informed us. Instead, they use the much later, Census 1982 study to project back very high fertility rates to the past, thus constructing an entirely hypothetical larger total of births between 1953 and 1964.

 

People's_commune_canteen

1958 People’s commune free for all canteen, where members were supposed to be able to eat all they can eat. The slogan: Eating meal don’t cost money, working hard to production. (Wikimedia Commons).

 

If more people were born over the inter-censal period 1953 to 1964, correspondingly these extra people must also have died over the same period: for both authors despite rejecting every official vital rate, display a touching faith in the absolute Census population totals at these two dates. Hence the official increase in population is kept unchanged, enabling them to assume exactly as many extra deaths as they assume extra births. With this procedure the official figure of total deaths over the inter-censal period, was raised by a heroic 60 percent. Both authors then arbitrarily allocated the assumed higher numbers of deaths over the individual inter-censal years, by assuming varying rates by which deaths were allegedly ‘under-reported’ during each of these years. In short it was entirely up to the demographer how many extra deaths he or she assigned to the Great Leap years, and the totally arbitrary nature of the procedure can be gauged by the fact that Coale raised the 1960 death rate to nearly 39 while Banister raised it to 44.6 (compared to the official death rate of 25.4). There is no reasonable basis for either figure.

Nor is this all: a linear time trend was then fitted by both, to deaths derived from a variable – the death rate – which always behaves non-linearly, and the extent to which the (arbitrarily constructed) death rate was above this declining trend, was then used to derive total ‘excess deaths’, the figure being 27 million for Coale and 30 million for Banister. We know that deaths in a population can never reach zero, so fitting linear trends makes no sense. The linear trend procedure implies that the Chinese population would have reached zero deaths and attained immortality in a few years – a remarkable achievement indeed, an impossible achievement outside the nonsensical statistical procedures followed by the US demographers.

It is a travesty of the norms of academic integrity, that grossly exaggerated estimates of ‘famine’ deaths derived in this arbitrary manner have been uncritically quoted and promoted and that they enjoy so much currency. In my detailed critique (Patnaik 2002) I have also shown the inconsistency of the peak death rates constructed by Coale and Banister, with the foodgrains output and availability figures in China. My calculations also show that the lowest possible availability figures we can get for China after taking into account government procurement, is still higher than in India, and it is a puzzle why, given a much more egalitarian distribution, the death rate should have risen even to the officially declared level. Because the internal political developments in China after 1978 were in the direction of attacking Maoist egalitarianism and the commune system, no repudiation from Chinese sources of the US estimates are to be seen.

 

Related: In a more detailed essay Patnaik estimates that the actual “excess deaths during 1959-61” were not 30 million as Coale and Banister say, but around 11.6 million.

Patnaik’s essay is available here and titled: “On famine and measuring famine death”, in S. Patel, J. Bagchi and Krishna Raj (eds.), Thinking Social Science in India, Essays in Honour of Alice Thorner, Sage, New Delhi, 2002c.

 

In sharp contrast to the retrospective, patently ideological construction of hypothetical large famine deaths in China’s Great Leap period and the publicizing of these figures, we find that the demographic collapse in Russia in the first half of the 1990s has been met with a deafening silence from the same academics. The estimation methods which they applied to China are not applied by them to Russia. The facts are that so-called ‘shock therapy’ to usher in capitalism, under the advice of Western experts, led to a catastrophic collapse of GDP in the former socialist states between 1990 and 1996. As Table 1 summarizing United Nations data shows, the GDP level was half or less in Russia and Ukraine by 1996 compared to a decade earlier and collapsed to only one-fifth of the mid-eighties level in Georgia, which was the worst affected. Never in peacetime have we ever seen such a comprehensive destruction of productive capacities and outputs, entirely owing to the wrong macro-economic policies advised by foreign experts and followed by the local policy makers. The human effects have been devastating, with a sharp reversal of the decades of improvement in all human development indicators. The death rate among the able-bodied rose from nearly 49 to 58 (per thousand) comparing 1992 with 1990, and rose further to 84 per thousand by 1994.1  The male expectation of life declined by nearly 6 years in Russia. With the steep rise in the death rate, the total population of Russia showed absolute decline – again, an unprecedented situation in peacetime.

‟The Russian famine is neither internationally recognized nor publicized, for the very good reason that Russia was making a transition to capitalism”.

Where were those academics who profess to be concerned with hunger and famine, when it came to analyzing the economic and demographic collapse in Russia? It can hardly be argued that journalists and the media had no access to the country after 1990. I have said earlier that it is not reasonable to count the effects of the decline in the birth rate if any, to estimate ‘famine deaths’. If we apply a reasonable method of simply taking the 1990 death rate in Russia as the bench mark and calculate the cumulated extra deaths among the able-bodied by 1996 owing to the observed rise in the death rate, we get a figure of more than 4 million excess deaths in Russia alone. Expressed in relation to Russia’s population, this famine was three times larger than the great Bengal famine in India in 1943-44 and twice as large as the Chinese excess mortality – accepting the official figures – during the Great Leap years. The Russian famine is neither internationally recognized nor publicized, for the very good reason that Russia was making a transition to capitalism and it is this process which gave rise to the famine. Those who are eager to try to discredit socialism even at the cost of indefensible statistical procedures, appear to be less than willing to recognize the existence of famine or estimate famine deaths in a ‘transitional’ society like Russia even though the case is a contemporary one and is well documented.

* * * *

The text above is an extract from a lecture from Utsa Patnaik given in 2004 titled The Republic of Hunger, focussed on malnourishment problems in India. This extract, on China and Russia, was included in the lecture as ‘international context of the discussion’. Read a more detailed critique by Patnaik of the estimates of Coale and Banister on China’s death rates here.

 

NOTES

 

1 These death rates were presented in a paper on poverty in Russia, by Prof. P. Gregory, at an international workshop on country studies in poverty held at UNDP, New York on September 20, 1997 and attended by the author.

Bolsheviks got the imperialist war right

 

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The first world war resulted in 40 million casualties: 15 to 19 million deaths and 23 million wounded. (Population of the world was less than two billion – so, in today’s terms, think 150 million casualties). 

It’s one of the major things on which it can be said ‘the Bolsheviks got it right’. They opposed the war as an imperialist one. 

Here’s (excerpts from) what Lenin had to say in a lecture ‘War and Revolution’, May 1917:

 

From the point of view of Marxism, that is, of modern scientific socialism, the main issue in any discussion by socialists on how to assess the war and what attitude to adopt towards it is this: what is the war being waged for, and what classes staged and directed it. We Marxists do not belong to that category of people who are unqualified opponents of all war. We say: our aim is to achieve a socialist   system of society, which, by eliminating the division of mankind into classes, by eliminating all exploitation of man by man and nation by nation, will inevitably eliminate the very possibility of war. But in the war to win that socialist system of society we are bound to encounter conditions under which the class struggle within each given nation may come up against a war between the different nations, a war conditioned by this very class struggle. Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility of revolutionary wars, i.e., wars arising from the class struggle, wars waged by revolutionary classes, wars which are of direct and immediate revolutionary significance. Still less can we rule this out when we remember that though the history of European revolutions during the last century, in the course of 125–135 years, say, gave us wars which were mostly reactionary, it also gave us revolutionary wars, such as the war of the French revolutionary masses against a united monarchist, backward, feudal and semi-feudal Europe. No deception of the masses is more widespread today in Western Europe, and latterly here in Russia, too, than that which is practised by citing the example of revolutionary wars. There are wars and wars. We must be clear as to what historical conditions have given rise to the war, what classes are waging it, and for what ends. Unless we grasp this, all our talk about the war will necessarily be utterly futile, engendering more heat than light.

****

We say: if you have not studied the policies of both belligerent groups over a period of decades so as to avoid accidental factors and the quoting of random examples if you have not shown what bearing this war has on preceding policies, then you don’t understand what this war is all about.

These policies show us just one thing continuous economic rivalry between the world’s two greatest giants, capitalist   economies. On the one hand we have Britain, a country which owns the greater part of the globe, a country which ranks first in wealth, which has created this wealth not so much by the labour of its workers as by the exploitation of innumerable colonies, by the vast power of its banks which have developed at the head of all the others into an insignificantly small group of some four or five super-banks handling billions of rubles, and handling them in such a way that it can he said without exaggeration that there is not a patch of land in the world today on which this capital has not laid its heavy hand, not a patch of land which British capital has not enmeshed by a thousand threads. This capital grew to such dimensions by the turn of the century that its activities extended far beyond the borders of individual states and formed a group of giant banks possessed of fabulous wealth. Having begotten this tiny group of banks, it has caught the whole world in the net of its billions. This is the sum and substance of Britain’s economic policy and of the economic policy of France, of which even French writers, some of them contributors to L’Humanité,[5] a paper now controlled by ex-socialists (in fact, no less a man than Lysis, the well-known financial writer), stated several years before the war: “France is a financial monarchy, France is a financial oligarchy, France is the world’s money-lender.”

On the other hand, opposed to this, mainly Anglo-French group, we have another group of capitalists, an even more rapacious, even more predatory one, a group who came to the capitalist banqueting table when all the seats were occupied, but who introduced into the struggle new methods for developing capitalist production, improved techniques, and superior organisation, which turned the old capitalism, the capitalism of the free-competition age, into the capitalism of giant trusts, syndicates, and cartels. This group introduced the beginnings of state-controlled capitalist production, combining the colossal power of capitalism with the colossal power of the state into a single mechanism and bringing tens of millions of people within the single organisation of state capitalism. Here is economic history, here is diplomatic history, covering several decades, from which no one can get away. It is the one and only guide-post to a proper solution of the problem of war; it leads you to the conclusion that the present war, too, is the outcome of the policies of the classes who have come to grips in it, of the two supreme giants, who, long before the war, had caught the whole world, all countries, in the net of financial exploitation and economically divided the globe up among themselves. They were bound to clash, because a redivision of this supremacy, from the point of view of capitalism, had become inevitable.

 

****

The present war is a continuation of the policy of conquest, of the shooting down of whole nationalities, of unbelievable atrocities committed by the Germans and the British in Africa, and by the British and the Russians in Persia which of them committed most it is difficult to say. It was for this reason that the German capitalists looked upon them as their enemies. Ah, they said, you are strong because you are rich? But we are stronger, therefore we have the same “sacred” right to plunder. That is what the real history of British and German finance capital in the course of several decades preceding the war amounts to. That is what the history of Russo-German, Russo-British, and German-British relations amounts to. There you have the clue to an understanding of what the war is about. That is why the story that is current about the cause of the war is sheer duplicity and humbug. Forgetting the history of finance capital, the history of how this war had been brewing over the issue of redivision, they present the matter like this: two nations were living at peace, then one attacked the other, and the other fought back. All science, all banks are forgotten, and the peoples are told to take up arms, and so are the peasants, who know nothing about politics. All they have to do is to fight back! The logical thing, following this line of argument, would be to close down all newspapers, burn all books and ban all mention of annexations in the newspapers. In this way such a view of annexations could be justified. They can’t tell the truth about annexations because the whole history of Russia,   Britain, and Germany has been one of continuous, ruthless and sanguinary war over annexations. Ruthless wars were waged in Persia and Africa by the Liberals, who flogged political offenders in India for daring to put forward demands which were being fought for here in Russia. The French colonial troops oppressed peoples too. There you have the pre-history, the real history of unprecedented plunder! Such is the policy of these classes, of which the present war is a continuation. That is why, on the question of annexations, they cannot give the reply that we give, when we say that any nation joined to another one, not by the voluntary choice of its majority but by a decision of a king or government, is an annexed nation. To renounce annexation is to give each nation the right to form a separate state or to live in union with whomsoever it chooses. An answer like that is perfectly clear to every worker who is at all class-conscious.

****

On the question of America entering the war I shall say this. People argue that America is a democracy, America   has the White House. I say: slavery was abolished there half a century ago. The anti-slave war ended in 1865. Since then multimillionaires have mushroomed. They have the whole of America in their financial grip. They are making ready to subdue Mexico and will inevitably come to war with Japan over a carve-up of the Pacific. This war has been brewing for several decades. All literature speaks about it. America’s real aim in entering the war is to prepare for this future war with Japan. The American people do enjoy considerable freedom and it is difficult to conceive them standing for compulsory military service, for the setting up of an army pursuing any aims of conquest a struggle with Japan, for instance. The Americans have the example of Europe to show them what this leads to. The American capitalists have stepped into this war in order to have an excuse, behind a smoke-screen of lofty ideals championing the rights of small nations, for building up a strong standing army

 

****

Those interested in the socialist movement should read the Basle Manifesto of 1912 adopted unanimously by all the socialist parties of the world, a manifesto that was published in our newspaper Pravda, a manifesto that can be published now in none of the belligerent countries, neither in “free” Britain nor in republican France, because it said the truth about war before the war. It said that there would be war between Britain and Germany as a result of capitalist competition. It said that so much powder had accumulated that the guns would start shooting of their own accord. It told us what the war would be fought for, and said that the war would lead to a proletarian revolution. Therefore, we tell those socialists who signed this Manifesto and then went over to the side of their capitalist governments that they have betrayed socialism. There has been a split among the socialists all over the world. Some are in ministerial cabinets, others in prison. All over the world some socialists are preaching a war build-up, while others, like Eugene Debs, the American Bebel, who enjoys immense popularity among the American workers, say: “I’d rather be shot than give a cent towards the war. I’m willing to fight only the proletariat’s war against the capitalists all over the world.” That is how the socialists have split throughout the world. The world’s social-patriots think they are defending their country. They are mistaken they are defending the interests of one band of capitalists against another. We preach proletarian revolution the only true cause, for which scores of people have gone to the scaffold, and hundreds and thousands have been thrown into prison. These imprisoned socialists are a minority, but the working class is for them, the whole course of economic development is for them. All this tells us that there is no other way out. The only way to end this war is by a workers’ revolution in several countries. In the meantime we should make preparations for that revolution, we should assist it. For all its hatred of war and desire for peace, the Russian people could do nothing against the war, so long as it was being waged by the tsar, except work for a revolution   against the tsar and for the tsar’s overthrow. And that is what happened. History proved this to you yesterday and will prove it to you tomorrow. We said long ago that the mounting Russian revolution must be assisted. We said that at the end of 1914. Our Duma deputies were deported to Siberia for this, and we were told: “You are giving no answer. You talk about revolution when the strikes are off, when the deputies are doing hard labour, and when you haven’t a single newspaper!” And we were accused of evading an answer. We heard those accusations for a number of years. We answered: You can be indignant about it, but so long as the tsar has not been overthrown we can do nothing against the war. And our prediction was justified. It is not fully justified yet, but it has already begun to receive justification. The revolution is beginning to change the war on Russia’s part. The capitalists are still continuing the war, and we say: Until there is a workers’ revolution in several countries the war cannot be stopped, because the people who want that war are still in power. We are told: “In a number of countries everything seems to be asleep. In Germany all the socialists to a man are for the war, and Liebknecht is the only one against it.” To this I say: This only one, Liebknecht, represents the working class. The hopes of all are in him alone, in his supporters, in the German proletariat. You don’t believe this? Carry on with the war then! There is no other way. If you don’t believe in Liebknecht, if you don’t believe in the workers’ revolution, a revolution that is coming to a head if you don’t believe this then believe the capitalists!

****

Also worth checking out is Lenin in July 1915 on ‘The defeat of one’s own government in the imperialist war‘. He gives Trotsky a serving for being a ‘social chauvinist’.

Lest we forget.

****

 

The politics of the House and of the City… New York, New York, So Good They Named it Twice…

‘… an ongoing commitment to revolutionary politics have pulled me up and enabled me to appreciate that 280 odd years ago Montesquieu identified what was vital and, in terms of social relations, revolutionary about the city. His heroes, were a couple of expat Sultans (what else), caught up in the thrall of the street where everybody is unveiled. “Here everything speaks out; everything can be seen; everything can be heard; the heart is as open as the face”. And it wasn’t long before the fact that “everything can be seen” exposed the Bourbons and the aristocracy in general as emperors with no clothes’.

Thanks to Tom Griffiths for this contribution.

* * * *

New York, New York, So Good They Named it Twice…

And the rest goes…

 

New York, New York, all the scandal and the vice …

I love it.

New York New York, now isn’t it a pity

What they say about New York City?

 

I loved this song when it came out, its cheek, irreverence and capacity to laugh at itself. And I couldn’t help being reminded of it as I was reading the late Marshall Berman’s On The Town, One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. Both seemed to be singing from the same song sheet.

 

While this post has been prompted by my reading of Berman’s final book my point in doing so springs from my view of how important the city – urban life and experience – is in human development and how ‘missing the boat’ much of the left has been in accepting both the opportunities and challenges this development has thrown up.  The politics I will be drawing attention to (and where the left is, or should be in relation to it) can be summarised in the distinction to be made between the politics of the House and the politics of the Street. And let me be clear, I’m for the politics of the Street. I will give some space to the House further down, but first lets go for a walk because the modern city creates an essential link in providing individuals, in particular working class individuals, with opportunities for personal development and growth (they are individuals as well as members of a class, remember) opportunities for them to break free of the constraints imposed by the House.

 

What impressed me about Berman’s book – the spin Berman puts on the maelstrom that is the modern world generally and of which Times Square is a highly concentrated symbol – is its vitality and its liberating aspect. And in saying this I in no way wish to downplay or ignore the challenges that have accompanied this. Berman makes no claim to being the first to highlight this and makes reference to two French writers of past centuries to point out that the link between modernity and the Street, while an essential feature of modernity,  is not new. A key Enlightenment figure, Montesquieu wrote of it in his Persian Letters (1721), and over a century later the poet Baudelaire identified the modern urban centre as a space where old (pre modern) boundaries were broken down and new possibilities opened up, coining the term “the heroism of modern life’ in the process. Times Square, the flawed hero of Berman’s book has lived, or should I say enabled, Baudelaire’s heroism in concentrated form since the 1890’s.

 

Berman gets down to business straight away describing the modern city as a place that enables an individual to be both oneself and someone else. Being social animals we carry the seeds of curiosity, a desire for growth and an empathic sensibility within us and the possibilities described by Berman enables their germination and growth. What is made possible here is to expand beyond oneself, beyond formerly socially or family imposed boundaries and constraints, to be able to transcend these limits and grow.

 

In the early 21stC the Islamic fascists are acutely aware of and threatened by this possibility and this helps explain their violent hatred of modernizing influences that disrupt and transform social and family relations. Please note that social and family relations are not being spoken of here as abstract relations, but as relations that still have pre modern or medieval hooks embedded in the flesh of the men, women and children who are the real life players in those relations. Those who identify with the left should not be too smug about this because although what now passes for the left have never approached the loony killjoy levels of the Islamic fascists or Islamic fundamentalists generally, it  has historically contained a strong current of killjoyism of which the odd parallel can be drawn – that being the antipathy and mistrust felt about the unconstrained individual, let loose from the ‘safe’ bonds of the House where, historically, the teaching and maintenance of family and social hierarchy were enacted.

“One of the primary human rights is the right to the city” argues Berman, the right to a space and an opportunity for individual and social transformation. But how does the city enable this, what makes it happen? And, in any case, anticipating mutterings coming from the background, aren’t there casualties, I mean cities are hardly beds of thornless roses and many with progressive pretensions think thorns is about all they have or have come to have.

Enter Times square, what it represents and opens up.

Times Square as we know it – an entertainment and commercial centre – came into its own with electrification and by the 1890’s had already developed a ‘reputation’ that scandalized the morally precious of the day by giving them innumerable reasons to hyperventilate and complain about falling moral standards. It takes little imagination to write their script – the denunciation of public spaces like bars, theatres, dance halls, cafes and the like as “brothels” or to understand it as a voice belonging to the House.

Initially this group had, to rope in modern terminology, some diversity, being a collection of traditional moralists, including secular moralists and evangelicals. Low hanging fruit one might think. But by the early 20thC their number came to include secular intellectuals with left politics “who wanted the masses to be radical and militant and to struggle for their rights…” [just so long as these rights didn’t extend to expressions of individual and sexual freedom] “…who believed that commercial mass culture was corrupting their minds”. In spite of the cultural shift in social attitudes to sexual mores this whinge remains a very contemporary trope. And it wasn’t just (or even, if we are to be honest) commercial mass culture that was the main corrupting element, it was sex. No surprises here of course.

Both men and women had good reason to be drawn to the Square’s promise, to be able to break free of the rigid stereotypes and expectations of the House, stereotypes and expectations that had been particularly constraining on women. A good way of looking at the complaints of the moralists (of whatever hue) – the Mary Whitehouse set and the Iranian and Saudi  moral police being more contemporary equivalents – was that they were complaining about the breakdown between the rigid separation of the House and Street and the power relations between the sexes that were reflected in this. This distinction rang bells for me in two ways. Most importantly (and most recently) it summed up a lot of what I have seen in the work I have been doing in the family violence arena and the refugee/new settlers arena where individuals and families have come from regions where the transition from the traditional to the modern is unfinished business. Here women are supposed to belong in the House; it is not only their domain, it is where they belong and where they have been kept.

In western societies women have been on the Street and fighting for their right to be there for a considerable period as the examples of Montesquieu, Baudelaire, Jacques Brel (see below), amongst others and Times Square indicate, but for many coming from backward or relatively undeveloped regions this fight is in its early stages. By way of example a former colleague had recorded a series of interviews with three former refugees from Africa dealing with family based violence and “upside down families”. The female interviewee, entering middle age and with dependent children, had likened traditional marriage in Africa to “a prison” where she was obliged to obey her mother in law and submit to the overall authority of the men of her husband’s family. She initially found the situation in Australia so different and confusing that, she explained, “for two years we go mad”. She meant by this that the breakdown of the rigid and hierarchical boundaries between the House and the Street was so exhilarating and discombobulating that it took, in her experience, two years for the penny to drop that with this new freedom came the opportunity for personal growth and, contained in this package, personal responsibility. That being said, she was under no illusions that upside down was the right way up.

 

Baudelaire’s ‘heroism of the street’ spoke of this development in the mid 19th century, but over a century earlier Montesquieu had noticed that the cat was already coming out of the bag in his Persian Letters. Montesquieu and I go back a long way, to my first year at university and we parted company soon after (read almost immediately) and too soon for me to really get was he was on about when it came to urban life and modernity. Time, Berman and an ongoing commitment to revolutionary politics have pulled me up and enabled me to appreciate that 280 odd years ago Montesquieu identified what was vital and, in terms of social relations, revolutionary about the city. His heroes, were a couple of expat Sultans (what else), caught up in the thrall of the street where everybody is unveiled. “Here everything speaks out; everything can be seen; everything can be heard; the heart is as open as the face,”” And it wasn’t long before the fact that “everything can be seen” exposed the Bourbons and the aristocracy in general as emperors with no clothes.

And this brings me to the second bell ringing aspect of the distinction between the House and the Street and that is the overtly political aspect, that which should be the bread and butter of those holding revolutionary or radical pretensions. Here I found Berman’s take on Times Square (and by implication its equivalents elsewhere) refreshing, thought provoking and speaking directly to the synthesising sensibility that sits at the analytic heart of Marxism – or, rather, should sit at its heart. Above I had touched upon the modern cities transformative qualities, qualities that enable growth and that throw up new challenges. Berman describes Broadway street culture as being created by the sons of migrants, especially from the more backward areas of Europe, who had come to America seeking a better life. With them they not only brought aspirations that challenged the old ways, but constraints that contained them, a cultural drag from the old times, representing the mores of the traditional House. One of the aspirations of the sons was for this street culture to include women. Women also wanted that space and stepped in, although not yet as equals. It was a task of the daughters (and granddaughters …) to begin to renegotiate the rules of the dance.

But from the word go the daughters were part of the action and as early as 1892, a mere eight years before the formation of the International Ladies’ Garment Union in New York, a writer wrote of working class women, lonely after a working day venturing out of their hall bedroom, cold and lonely ”to lose herself in the unending procession on Broadway.” Berman points out that “there may never have been such a vast variety of women thrown together in any one place before.”

The square emerged as a place where men, women, kids from all over the world dreamed of ‘making spectacles of themselves’, of being unveiled. Picking up the same theme late Belgian singer/songwriter, Jacques Brel, in his song Timid Frieda picked up in the mid 20thC where Montesquieu and Baudelaire had left off in the preceding two. And in doing so he was able to highlight the tensions and challenges of the politics of the Street that had now fully matured. Timid Frieda:

Will they greet her

On the street where

Young strangers travel

On magic carpets

Floating lightly

In beaded caravans

Who can know if

They will free her

On the street where

She comes to join them

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Will life seize her

On the street where

The new dreams gather

Like fearless robins

Joined together

In high-flying bands

She feels taller

Troubles smaller

On the street where

She’s lost in wonder

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Won’t return now

To the home where

They do not need her

But always feed her

Little lessons

And platitudes from cans

She is free now

She will be now

On the street where

The beat’s electric

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Who will lead her

On the street where

The cops all perish

For they can’t break her

And she can take her

Brave new fuck you stand

Yet she’s frightened

Her senses heightened

On the street where

The darkness brightens

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

If you see her

On the street where

The future gathers

Just let her be her

Let her play in

The broken times of sand

There she goes now

Down the sidewalk

On the street where

The world is bursting

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands.

 

It is a fabulous song. As one would anticipate after 200 plus years Brel’s lyrics picks up Montesquieu’s identification of early promise and Baudelaire’s more developed 19thC depiction and exposes a fully developed dialectic. The left I identify with walk with Timid Frieda offering encouragement if asked for – although she seems to be doing pretty well under her own steam. The square, the Street simultaneously liberated women and presented them (and the guys) with new challenges. But there was no turning back. If the rules of the dance were to be renegotiated you needed to be on the dance floor.

As touched upon above revolutionary parties or organisations (or those with pretensions), have a pretty chequered history when it comes to jumping onto the dance floor, letting their hair down and encouraging others to join in. And when it comes to understanding the transformative possibilities inherent in this they didn’t even make it onto the dance floor. The irony here is that the proverbial masses – and most were working class remember – were showing us the way and embracing “the street where the future gathers.” In doing so they ignored the cautionary, if not disapproving tones coming from comrade central about bourgeois frivolity and self indulgence undermining class solidarity and commitment to ‘the struggle’.

Breaking out and having fun, especially where sex is stirring the pot, has been more House than Street with communist parties and organisations stepping around the issue rather than embracing it. Class struggle and revolutionary politics were serious business (this aspect is true) and demanded a commitment that found the ‘letting one’s hair down’ side of things diversionary (read, with Russian Accent) petty bourgeois individualism. This aspect is not true and is a false antithesis; it is a voice coming from the House.

This is not to suggest that the tension between the serious aspect and being “on the street where the beats electric” is ever in abstract balance. Letting one’s hair down for those revolutionaries in occupied Europe during WW2 was not an option and needed to be put on ice while confusing right wing bourgeois democrats as ‘fascists’ and drawing parallels with Nazism is simply nutty and a sign of isolation. Please pass the bucket of cold water.

What the politics of the Street does, in effect, is ‘invite’ us to look forward, to grapple seriously with the contradictions inherent in its development, those affecting personal development, our place in the dance, in particular and to try and identify the synthesising processes that take us forward, that open up new possibilities and new challenges. But this remains an invitation; free will, choice and responsibility cannot be avoided whether we accept the invitation or not. While it would be drawing a long bow to say that the left’s collapse has been due to its inability to transcend the politics of the House and embrace that of the Street – its failure to get on top of economic challenges and present credible revolutionary alternatives having a bit to say about this collapse too – the left’s conflation of the development of individuality with bourgeois individualism has seen it trailing rather than leading.

This aspect has been a primary interest of mine since my work as a relational and group therapist has forced me to confront the place of choice and personal responsibility within the context of group and family dynamics and by implication social dynamics. This has taken a sharper form with the work I have done over the past 10-15 years with individuals and groups from within what is called new and emerging communities – primarily refugee communities – where the politics of the House, the traditional understandings or role and place, have been predominant. The link between this and the transformative possibilities of the Street became impossible to ignore. Nor was the link to the left’s ambivalence and its failure to confront and transcend its own assumptions regarding individual growth and development, especially as this related to the place of women. We need to get back onto the dance floor and formulate a few moves of our own.

* * * *

 

Man stupid, gorilla wise… Koko say so…

Social media can be good, as we saw with the Egyptian uprising, but it can also be dumb-arsed awful. The latest example of the latter is a clip mourning the death of a gorilla named Koko. The clip has gone viral.

 

 

Koko was a special type of gorilla, raised closely by a human. Koko learned hundreds of signs that meant she could communicate with humans far better than other gorillas.

Non-human animals can be taught to respond in particular ways through reward. It’s commonplace and known as operant conditioning. Koko was very good at it, and also displayed a capacity for affection outside her species. A youtube clip showing her caring for a kitten also went viral.

I feel sorry that an impressive beast like Koko has died. On the other hand, not being in her natural environment, not being in the wild, she lived to a long age for a gorilla – 46 years.

What is truly gob-smacking about the latest audio-visual mourning of Koko’s passing is the suggestion that somehow Koko had a wisdom that ‘Man’ does not possess. As Koko puts it, via her ‘sign language’ – of course, as interpreted by her long-time human trainer:

“Man stupid”…

“Fix Earth. Help Earth!”

“Koko love Earth”, “Hurry!” and, a not-so-subtle warning: “Nature sees you”. (The Three Stooges would have responded to the threat with nyaaaahhhh! )

Thus far, the clip has had twenty million views and ten thousand comments. Overwhelmingly, the comments are of the self-righteous, reactionary, Nature worshiping kind that belittles humanity and places the wisdom of the beast/Nature above humanity.

I wonder whether any of those posting such comments have reflected on the fact that they are doing so thanks to the Internet – something no beast could comprehend let alone create. (Not to mention the art of Leonardo or the music of Monk). Etc Etc.

It’s all very reminiscent of the Nazi philosophical commitment to a ‘religion of Nature’ and the ‘wisdom of the forests’. As German National Socialist propaganda put it:

Deep in the forest
Will be born the nation’s knowledge

In fundamental contrast to the ‘religion of Nature’ outlook, the social media commentary about Koko brought to my mind Karl Marx’s reference to another famous simian, Kanuman, in his article on the British rule in India in the New York Times in 1853.

Marx wrote that,

‘We must not forget that these little [Hindustan] communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

‘England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution’.

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People, and people alone, are the motive force of History!

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