Thoughts on this 42 years later?
I have highlighted the conclusion because I like it, agree with it and, unfortunately, could relate strongly at the time to what it is arguing against.
To make it easier to read…
Thoughts on this 42 years later?
I have highlighted the conclusion because I like it, agree with it and, unfortunately, could relate strongly at the time to what it is arguing against.
To make it easier to read…
* * * *
Reprinting this from David McMullen’s site, Simply Marxism. Originally published in May 2017.
The so-called Austrian school of economics makes much of what they call the socialist calculation problem. They argue that a society based on social ownership could not have an effective price system and therefore could not have the decentralized decision-making we see in a market economy.
The claim was first made by Ludwig Von Mises in the 1920s. Really all he is saying is that transfers between enterprises using a decentralized price system must be market exchanges. Without explaining why, he rules out the possibility of such transfers occurring between socially owned enterprises where there is no exchange of ownership but simply a transfer of socially owned property from one custodian to another. I am thinking here of a transfer between a supplier and user of some component in production. Without predicting what will actually happen in the communist future we could easily imagine production units using decentralized pricing to determine least costs methods of production and assigning output to the highest bidder. We could also easily imagine such a system being ultimately driven by consumer demand.
Then we had the intervention of Frederick Hayek in the 1930s and 40s. He demolished the rather lame decentralized socialist model devised by the economist Oskar Lange. That model confines decentralized price adjustments to consumer goods while price adjustments for intermediate goods are carried out by a central agency that is keeping an eye on inventory levels. Hayek correctly points out the inadequacy of such an arrangement and how it does not represent a fully functioning price system. Discrediting the Lange model is all very well, but Hayek did not then go on to show that an economy based on social ownership would in fact be limited to the Lange model. In other words he did not show that there is something about social ownership that would prevent the use of decentralized price adjustment in the allocation of intermediate goods. So I think I can justly say that all that Hayek has done is refute a straw man.
OK now we come to the final version of the argument and this was developed in the 1980s by Don Lavoie of George Mason University. He conceded that a socially owned economy could have a price system but that it would not be a very good one. In his book Rivalry and Economic Planning, he contends that any price system under social ownership would be inferior to a market based one because it would be unable to reflect the discovery process that emerges from competition between market participants. According to Lavoie, it is important, in the presence of uncertainty, to have numerous participants trying out different approaches to problems, based on their own opinions, guesses and hunches. Those who come up with the best and most highly valued products using the cheapest methods win out in this competitive contest. I fully agree with what he is saying. However, if, as I contend, decentralized custodianship is an important part of social ownership, diversity of approach should not be a problem.
Under social ownership, it would still be very common for an individual enterprise or facility to be just one of many producing the same good or close substitutes and each of them would be free to try out different production methods and product designs. Some would be new entrants who were either existing enterprises moving into a new field with synergies or starts ups established by enthusiasts with ideas that the incumbents were not open to or capable of developing. This diversity would be greatly assisted by having numerous independent agencies being responsible for disbursing funds in each industry and making their own assessment of what were good investments. At the same time, enterprises would be free to choose their suppliers based on cost and quality, and would have to outbid other users of a resource or intermediate good. Discovering and adopting the best methods and products would of course mean that it would be common to see activities abandoned and enterprises closed or reorganized. So, the only real obstacle to a decentralized price system would be the absence of daring and conscientious custodians and this gets us back to the question of whether we can do without the profit motive. Can we do our best just because we enjoy the work and want to contribute? As I argue elsewhere this does not strike me as being all that fanciful if we are sharing high and increasing affluence and all the unpleasant work is performed by robots and computers.
So the calculation argument is not a separate argument from the standard one about whether we need the profit motive.
I think it is appropriate to point out that there is no reason to be smug about economic calculation under capitalism. Communist workers could hardly do a worse job of allocating investment funds than do highly fluctuating interest rates and exchange rates produced by capitalist finance. And there are good reasons for thinking that economic decision-making would be far superior to that under capitalism. To begin with, the absence of ownership barriers would increase the scope for coordination, and lessen the scope for secrecy and deception.
So to sum up. My basic point is that when it comes to economic calculation, communism will be able to do anything capitalism can and do a better job of it.
I have links below to a number of articles that go into more detail on this topic.
The following poem is terrific. It’s from a site called One Poem .One Planet.
Karl Marx was playing a parlor game
with his daughters. To their question
What is the quality one should most abhor?
he wrote: Servility.
This was found–a scrap of paper
amongst the family albums and letters;
it is the most essential of all
the Complete Works.
— Robert Gray (Australia)
Thanks to Tom G for drawing my attention to it.
From ‘Simply Marxism‘, excellent new site:
A Marxist Response to the CEA’s Report “The Opportunity Cost of Socialism”
The Council of Economic Advisers to the President (CEA) in October 2018 issued a report called “The Opportunity Cost of Socialism”. It covers a diverse range of “socialisms”. In this reply I will only be defending socialism in the Marxist sense – a period of revolutionary transition during which capitalism is transformed into communism. I will not be defending “socialism” when it simply means government intervention under the present capitalist system.
The report starts with the “communist” regimes in the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, and zooms in on the famines during the collectivization of agriculture as prime examples of their failings. I suggest that when putting their inadequacies and disasters in perspective, one needs to keep in mind a bit of background. Two things strike me as being particularly important.
First thing, the transition from backwardness to modernity has been, and still is, generally a nasty business. The prime example is western Europe. When it emerged from the Middle Ages and started on the road to capitalism, it managed with the aid of ocean-going sailing ships to devastate every other society on the planet. While this was necessary in order to bring the rest of the world into modern history it was accompanied by a lot of awful behavior such as the slave trade, and the trashing of India and China in ways that brought death and misery to millions. At the same time, on the home front, we saw the expulsion of peasants from the land, and stage one of the Industrial Revolution with its expendable workforce.
Second thing, a successful socialist revolution requires advanced capitalism to prepare the ground. Both the Soviet Union and Mao’s China had to deal with essentially pre-capitalist societies. They were ready for capitalism not for a transition to communism, and once the regimes were taken over by people who had lost interest in revolution, “socialism” had little trouble in becoming nothing more than a hollow shell.
At the end of the day, these countries did quite well compared with similarly backward countries in the capitalist sphere. Furthermore, the Soviet Union’s feverish industrialization during the 1930s gave it the means to defeat fascism in the 1940s, something from which we have all benefited.
Through its development of industry, capitalism prepares the ground for communism by eliminating the necessity of want and toil. Once we no longer need to compete for decent material conditions, our good side can start to shine through. We can begin to think about doing without “market incentives” and doing work for its own sake and the desire to contribute while being happy with a shared prosperity. Economists argue that this would be all in vain because of the “calculation problem” while greens claim we are stuck with want and toil because of “limits to growth”. In this paper I respond to both of these views.
The report endorses the claim of the Venezuelan regime that it is socialist when it is clearly just a very corrupt kleptocracy. The involvement of the zombie regime in Cuba is fully in keeping with this assessment. The people are starving, and are inheriting rundown industrial capacity and lots of foreign debt.
Like all “free marketeers”, the CEA attempts to dissociate capitalism from the behavior of its own state. They fail to recognize that “government failure” is endogenous to the system and not some exogenous imposition on an otherwise pristine capitalism.
The report ends with a rather stern assessment of “Medicare for All”. It points to the problems of free government provision and the negative impact of having to raise so much more tax revenue to pay for it.
I make the point that a proletarian government could well make extensive use of user pays and that as health provision increasingly takes on a communist character, care that is both high quality and economical will require less and less material inducement.
As for the increasing need for revenue, a proletarian government would have a range of options that would eliminate or greatly reduce distortions, and would have low collection and compliance costs. With income secure and distribution far more equal, there would not be the present political problems in having a regressive income tax or in employing a poll tax. Then there is Henry George’s land value tax that capitalist countries have failed to make significant use of.
The Council of Economic Advisers to the President (CEA) in October 2018 issued a report called “The Opportunity Cost of Socialism”. (CEA 2018.) The term “opportunity cost” is used by economists and simply means the benefit you forgo by doing one thing rather than the best alternative. If what you choose to do has greater benefit you are ahead. If not then you have made a mistake. It is an odd title but does sound more profound and eye-catching than “The Failure of Socialism.”
The report starts with the “communist” regimes in the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, and zooms in on their collectivization of agriculture as prime examples of their failing. We are then brought right up to the here and now and reminded of the disaster that is Venezuela’s “Socialism of the 21st Century”. This is followed by a discussion of the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) Index which measures an economy’s freedom from government intervention (ie “socialist policies”) and its positive correlation with economic performance. Next we are shown how the U.S. has fared better than the “socialist” Nordic Countries. Last but not least we come to the U.S. itself where there is a looming threat of socialism in the form of free health care. Here the concern is the excess burden of taxation and the perverse effects of having a third-party payer.
In the CEA report, and in popular discourse generally, the term socialism is used for a grab bag of things. For Marxists it can only mean the period of revolutionary transition that begins with the old capitalist ruling class losing its property, power and influence and then proceeds with the proletariat transforming itself and society. At the core is joint or shared ownership of the means of production which enables the typical individual to thrive for the first time. As a Marxist, it is only in this sense of the word that I am interested in defending socialism. I will not be defending “socialism” that is simply government intervention under capitalism.
Karl Marx’s referred to this transition period on various occasions. The most well-known comes from Critique of the Gotha Program (1875):
“Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other.”
And as a young man, he had this to say in The German Ideology (1846):
“Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” (Part I, section D)
Socialism in this sense should not be seen as a social system in its own right. It is an unstable transition phase during which both regression and progression are possible. It is a period of struggle between conflicting forces. The more unfavorable the underlying conditions, the more chance of regression, and hence the rocky road travelled in the 20th century. The matters raised in the CEA report will be examined from this perspective.
First in the line-up we have the “communist” regimes in the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. Famines during their early years come in for special scrutiny. The events are used to highlight the question of property rights and economic incentives given that they occurred at the times when the regimes were trying to collectivize peasant agriculture while increasing the food supplies available either for the increasing non-farm population or for exports in return for investment goods such as machinery.
I am unqualified to comment on the contributing factors or the extent of these famines. So I will confine myself to two key points that should be kept in mind before anything else when looking at these events. Firstly, the transition from a backward agricultural society to a modern industrial one has been and still is a nasty business no matter where you look. Secondly, any attempt to go from feudal backwardness to socialism while circumventing capitalism is bound to have its own serious problems. So let us look at these in turn.
Historically, we should look to Western Europe for the worst case of this universally nasty business. Its emergence from the Middle Ages into the bright shiny day of capitalism was a thoroughly messy affair. Peasants were thrown off the land and made to work in factories where they did not need to survive for long because there was no shortage of fresh “hands” to replace them. The power loom that launched the industrial revolution saw the starvation of handloom weavers. This was just the home front. Elsewhere, it was even worse. While ocean going sailing ships and the creation of a world market were just what were needed to get the west on the road to capitalism, the effect on the rest of the world was total devastation. Of course, things had to be that way unless you think that Europe should have stayed in the Middle Ages. Marx saw the whole business as nasty but necessary. It brought the rest of the world into modern history. This meant that capitalism would eventually catch on there and create an international proletariat that would march together towards world communism.
Marx expresses this globalist point of view in The Communist Manifesto (1848) as follows:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
Then in a letter to Frederick Engels of October 8 1858 he expresses the same sentiment:
The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market. Since the world is round, the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process.
Here I will just look at some of the more prominent cases of European beastliness.
We have the African slave trade of course. Millions became slaves and millions died during capture and transportation. With that there was also the economic destruction. The young and fit were the target; and kidnapping or the avoidance of kidnapping was the primary activity of virtually an entire continent. The subsequent colonial period was also somewhat less than benevolent. Forced labor, mutilation and murder in the Belgian Congo comes readily to mind. At the moment, Africans are still waiting for the benefits of being dragged into the modern world.
Then there was British rule in India where the most notable horrors were the famines.
British policy did much to contribute to the great famines during the dry years of 1876-79 and 1896-1902. Estimates range from 12 to 30 million deaths. (Davis 2007: 7) Most appalling was the fact that grain was exported to Britain while Indians starved. (Davis 2007: 299) Also, the British created a range of realities that made the country vulnerable to famine. Land was converted from subsistence crops to export crops such as cotton and opium. There was the neglect of rural improvement such as irrigation both by the government and the local elites who were encouraged to be usurers rather than capitalists. (Davis 323ff.)
According to Davis (2007 p.346): “As far back as 1785, Edmund Burke had indicted the East India Company for allowing native irrigation to fall into decay, thereby ensuring higher famine mortality during droughts.” This was still the case a century later.
At the same time the appalling tax and debt burdens on the peasants meant the need for short-term income at the expense of longer-term fertility. And their usurious landlords opposed any improvement work that would reduce peasants’ dependence on them. (Davis 2007: 333)
As for famine relief, the railroad system ensured that grain moved speedily to where it would get the best price, which made things worse for the starving penniless. (Polanyi 2001 : 160.)
While still on India, we should not pass up the opportunity to mention the handloom weavers crushed by competition from the English power loom. In Capital, Marx quotes the Governor General reporting in the 1830s: “The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India”. (Marx 1976 : 557)
Writing for the New York Daily News, Marx explained Britain’s dual role. In “The British Rule in India” (June 25, 1853) he wrote:
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.
And in “The Future Results of British Rule in India” (July 22, 1853) he made much the same the same point:
England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundation of Western society in Asia.
Looking back from the present point in time we can say that the British performed their dual role in a rather lopsided fashion. They were far more efficient at undermining the existing socio-economic system in ways that deepened the misery of the vast mass of people than they were in creating the conditions that would encourage the development of capitalism. As well as discouraging capitalism in agriculture they also discouraged any local industry that would compete with British imports. Capitalist development eventually caught on but even now there is still considerable backwardness with 50 percent of the population employed in agriculture.
When we come to China, we can blame the British once again for death and misery. It all started with the importation of Indian opium that destroyed the lives of multitudes and drained the country of silver. The Qing Dynasty was further weakened economically and politically by its defeat at the hands of the British in the First Opium War of 1841. This laid the ground for the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war from 1850 to 1864 that lead to many millions of deaths through plague, famine and the sword, together with long-term economic damage. The rebellion may have contributed to the necessary unravelling of Old China but was still a very nasty business.
The El Nino weather conditions that struck India in the late 19th century also struck China and caused deadly famines there as well. Prior to its degeneration, the Qing Dynasty had been quite adept at reducing famine and food insecurity. (Davis p. 367) In the 18th century they had budget surpluses, well stocked granaries and the ability to move large stocks of food across long distances. They also had flood control, extensive irrigation, and canal navigation.
When writing about Britain’s role in China, Marx took the same dual nature approach that he did with India. So that in The New York Daily News of June 14 1853 he wrote:
It is almost needless to observe that, in the same measure in which opium has obtained the sovereignty over the Chinese, the Emperor and his staff of pedantic mandarins have become dispossessed of their own sovereignty. It would seem as though history had first to make this whole people drunk before it could rouse them out of their hereditary stupidity. ….
All these dissolving agencies acting together on the finances, the morals, the industry, and political structure of China, received their full development under the English cannon in 1840, which broke down the authority of the Emperor, and forced the Celestial Empire into contact with the terrestrial world. Complete isolation was the prime condition of the preservation of Old China. That isolation having come to a violent end by the medium of England, dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air.
In the 20th century, China got a second going-over. This time it was at the hands of the Japanese. Their emergence from feudal seclusion brought a toxic mix of industrial development and militarists who thought stealing resources would be better than buying them. In this case one cannot talk of a dual role. China was already well and truly “opened up”. This was better described as a disemboweling. Total Chinese deaths during the China-Japan War from 1937-1945 have been estimated at between 15 and 20 million. (Ho Ping-ti, 1959, p. 252)
After making a mess everywhere else, the European powers turned in on themselves and committed another major act of depravity, to wit, World War I from 1914 to 1918. This was a war of imperialist rivalries in which 15-19 million died and which some naively believed had been ruled out by the international nature of capitalism. Capitalists instead rallied to the flag, produced lots of guns and made lots of profits. Added to the war toll was the 1918 influenza pandemic made particularly deadly by war conditions. (Gladwell 1997: 55) This saw the death of 50-100 million people worldwide.
One upshot of this awful affair was the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Increasing military defeats and the economic strains of the war were the final straw for the Czarist regime. And the Czar did not help matters by taking command of the armed forces and leaving his wife and Rasputin to run the government. The collapse of the regime was followed by a four year civil war in which the Reds defeated the Whites. The Whites were Russian nationalists with a penchant for massacring Jews. So the alternative to the Reds were not nice democrats; indeed, many exiled Whites subsequently joined fascist organizations.
The CEA report uses the failings in Soviet and Chinese agriculture to argue the case for incentives and the need for private property and markets to prompt us to work and to produce the things we want. The Marxist view is that once we achieve an advanced level of economic development this is no longer the case because the possibility of eliminating want and toil changes the rules of the game. It is now possible to contemplate social ownership where the prime motivation is mutual regard and the satisfaction obtained from labor, with material reward being of diminishing importance.
The problem with Russia and China is that communists took over in countries that were still extremely backward. Their revolutions were very much historical accidents occurring before their due time. Under these conditions any movement down the communist road was bound to be very limited; and indeed in these cases the obstacles made it unsustainable. The same could be said about the rest of the “socialist camp” that emerged after World War II.
After dragging their countries out of extreme backwardness, the regimes in these countries lost interest in radical change and became quite reactionary. Socialism became equated with economic development plus the “communist” party in charge. The workers became ciphers rather than actors in their own right.
Notwithstanding this dead-end for the revolution, the efforts to overcome backwardness are nothing to be sneezed at. They fared better than comparable regions that remained under capitalist suzerainty. And in the case of the Soviet Union, feverish efforts in the 1930s meant that it was industrially prepared for the task of defeating fascism, an event best described as the greatest achievement of the 20th century. They are now relatively advanced capitalist societies in the “upper middle income” category, and comparable in terms of GNI per capita to countries such as Turkey, Mexico and Brazil that did not suffer “the scourge of communism”.
The modernizing efforts of the Mao years in China created the conditions the bourgeoisie needed once they took over after his death. Previously they had been confined to sabotaging socialism. Now they were in charge and had free rein to do it their way. They have really gone to town; and we also have India following up the rear. Both these mega-regions are undergoing considerable industrialization and have a shrinking peasantry and growing proletariat. From a Marxist perspective this augurs well for the future.
At the moment, only part of the world has achieved a level of development where the elimination of the necessity of want and toil is within reach. It comprises about 20 percent of the world’s population and primarily includes the United States, Europe and Japan. While some regions are not far out of reach, others still have quite a way to go. So, unfortunately a large section of the world’s population, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, will take a few generations to get on top of their backwardness.
With increasing productivity under capitalism, a stage is reached where an equal share of the social product ceases to be shared poverty. Under less developed conditions, the prospect of shared hunger and distress impels those who are in a position to do so to exploit others through plunder, slavery, serfdom or the ownership of the means of production. However, as the average share begins to promise an increasing degree of prosperity, the imperative to fare better than others diminishes.
Mechanization and automation, under developed capitalism have done much to reduce the odious or toilsome nature of work. Pick and shovel work and carrying heavy loads are things of the past and much of the remaining menial and routine work in the manufacturing and service sectors will be automated in the next generation. The work we are left with will be primarily intellectual in nature and potentially interesting and challenging. It begins to be something one could imagine doing for its own sake.
We can expect improved ability to perform complex work in a future communist society as many of the conditions that cause stunted development are eliminated. These include lack of family support, peer pressure to underperform and an inadequate education system. Social ownership will end the isolation of education from production and other activities, so uniting learning and doing. Workers will help each other to learn. We will also benefit from an increasing understanding of human development and what causes learning difficulties.
Under these new conditions where we no longer need to compete for a decent material existence, it now becomes possible to base a society on mutual regard and social ownership of the means of production. We can discard the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism where sociopaths are often the biggest winners.
Mutual regard is enlightened self-interest. You only thrive when others thrive. You do the right thing by others because you know that an increasing majority are doing the same. You know you are contributing to a “pool” of well-being that everybody shares.
This will transform work. It will end what Marxists call alienation. We will do what we can to make the work of others productive and rewarding. These relations with our fellows are what make it possible for work to become something performed for its own sake rather than simply a necessary means to an income. At the same time, we are happy with your equal share knowing that others on the whole are doing their best.
The thriving of others is critical in all areas of life. You cannot thrive if those who impact on your life are disturbed, frustrated and poorly functioning.
Mutual regard will not just be a case of caring more. It will have to also mean being willing and able to confront bad behavior directed against ourselves or others. This will require us to cast off passive, submissive and weak-spirited habits engendered by our subordination under capitalism, and acquire a strength of character that gives us the confidence and moral courage to deal with bullies, schemers and people with a whole gamut of behavioral issues. We will not let the worst people set the tone. Top of the list are those who want to lord it over us and become a new ruling class.
Critical to the process is the emergence of a large and increasing number of people who see the revolutionary transformation of the conditions around them as an important mission in life.
Most economists would argue that this is all in vain. They tell us that an economy based on social ownership has an inherent economic calculation problem: in the absence of market transactions between enterprises it could not have a properly functioning price system.
While we do not know how economic decisions will be made in the future under communism, we can say that there is nothing about the non-market transfers of custody between economic units that would prevent decentralized decision-making based on prices.
We can also counter the claim that any price system under social ownership would be inferior to a market based one because it would not reflect the discovery process that emerges from competition between market participants. It is true that in the presence of uncertainty, there needs to be multiple participants trying out their own approaches to problems on the basis of their own opinions, guesses and hunches. Those that come up with the best and most highly valued products using the cheapest methods win out in this competitive contest. However, social ownership does not throw up any inherent obstacles to a diversity of approaches.
It would still be very common for an individual enterprise or facility to be just one of many producing the same good or close substitutes and each of them could be free to try out different production methods and product designs. Some will be new entrants who are either existing enterprises moving into a new area with synergies or starts ups established by enthusiasts with ideas the incumbents are not open to or capable of developing. This diversity could be greatly assisted by having a number of independent agencies (‘banks’) disbursing funds in any given industry on the basis of their own assessment of what are good investments. Indeed, diversity could be planned if there is not enough of it emerging of its own accord.
At the same time, it is possible to imagine enterprises being free to choose their suppliers on the basis of cost and quality and having to outbid other users of a resource or intermediate good.
Economists have also spilt much ink on the impossibility of effective central economic planning. However, their view now seem out of date. Quantities for highly disaggregated product codes can be fed into an input-output table in real time with modern computer networks, and numbers crunched using modern computers and appropriate algorithms.
Collective ownership could do a great job of producing what people want. This is despite the widely held view that it would require some central body to arbitrarily decide on final output. Individuals could receive vouchers that they could spend on what they choose, with prices responding to changes in supply and demand. Consumer surveys could play a role. There could be democratic decisions on what collective goods to produce and the rate of investment, and these could be funded through taxation. And there would be nothing to stop the use of interest rates to guide investment decisions.
Initially people’s income will mainly be a wage that is a market price for their labor power but even when we get a fair way down the communist path, and income becomes pretty much separated from work performed, you could still have shadow prices for labor power where enterprises put in bids for the various kinds of workers they require.
Not only will an economy based on social ownership work fine. It will do a better job than capitalism. Capitalism may be streets ahead of stagnant pre-capitalist societies, however, the gap between what is possible and what capitalism delivers is wide and getting wider. It is an increasing fetter on the economy’s productive forces that social ownership can remove. The revolutionary transformation of the economy and society will take off the brakes by eliminating economic crises, by vastly increasing the science and innovation effort, and by unleashing the initiative and enthusiasm of workers that capitalism cannot tap.
While the economists are telling us that eliminating the necessity of want and toil cannot be the basis for communism, the green movement is telling us that want and toil are unavoidable. They say there are limits to growth and we are already exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity. However, I would suggest that prosperity for all is not difficult to imagine with scientific and technological advances. Where land is a constraint, we can build higher into the sky and tunnel deeper into the ground. Precision farming, biotechnology and other innovations will provide far more food while using less land and water, an already established trend that is gathering pace in spite of opposition from greens. There will be limitless supplies of clean energy from a range of resources. We can already be sure that future generations of nuclear power technology would be able to rely on virtually inexhaustible fuel resources. Then there are future technologies we can presently only guess at. For example, biotechnology may open up new ways of harnessing the sun. The mineral resources we rely on are more than sufficient, even without considering future access to extraterrestrial resources and our ability to devise ways to substitute one resource for another. We will protect the biosphere with more advanced and better funded waste and conservation management. Indeed, in many respects we have seen capitalist countries get cleaner as they get richer.
The report provides Venezuela as a present-day example of a country with highly socialist policies. The regime calls itself ‘socialist’ and so do its supporters and opponents. However, it is, of course, just an oppressive kleptocracy and hated by the vast majority. Like all kleptocracies it places as much of the economy as possible under state control in order to suck it dry. It is a country with 4,000 generals all on the take. Anyone who calls this ‘socialism’ is just being disingenuous, whether they are supporters or opponents of the regime.
Of course, the fact that the regime describes itself as socialist is no great surprise. You could not really have expected Chavez to call his regime “Kleptocracy of the 21st Century”. His socialist rhetoric fitted well with his anti-American demagoguery. Everyone who opposes the regime is an imperialist agent and any problem the regime was having was due to imperialist sabotage.
Kleptocracy was accompanied by the buying of votes from the poorest section of society. However, these bribes did not represent a redistribution away from the rich. Just like the billions stolen by the “boliburguesía”, these benefits were at the expense of future consumption. They were funded by oil revenue that should have gone into maintaining and increasing production capacity and by foreign loans. They have been eating their seed corn.
All Chavez did was create hopes that he then shattered. His education and healthcare schemes are now a burnt-out wreck. There was never any “from below”. Chavez dispensed the cash, and policies were his thought bubbles pronounced from on high.
There are Chavez fans who try to retrieve something by claiming that the present Maduro regime has strayed from Chavismo. In fact, it has simply taken it to the next level.
Then there is the regime’s sinister relationship with Cuba where it receives police state support in return for oil. Cuba has a zombie regime on which Marxism long ago past judgement. It is very much a Soviet clone on the lines of the old eastern Europe. Its socialism is state ownership with their “communist” party in charge. Society is not undergoing a socialist transformation and the best thing the government can do is assist the transition to a more normal bourgeois society by holding free elections, a bit like those that occurred in eastern Europe 30 years ago.
The fact that much of the “left” has some sympathy for the regimes in Caracas and Havana is one of a number of signs that it is part of the problem rather than the solution.
The report refers to studies that show a strong positive association between “economic freedom” and economic performance. The former is measured using the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) Index which measures an economy’s freedom from government intervention (ie socialist policies). (Fraser Institute 2018)
“The indicators are aggregated to five main categories, which are then given equal weight in the overall index. The first category is the size of the government in terms of spending, taxation, and the size of government-controlled enterprises. The second is the legal system and property rights in terms of the protection of persons having such rights. The third category is referred to as “sound money,” and measures policies related to inflation. The fourth is free international trade, which means that citizens are free to trade with other countries. The fifth is limited regulation, which addresses the freedom to exchange and trade domestically.” (CEA 2018: 24)
They are talking here about government intervention in a capitalist economy. Of course, Marxists do not have a dog in this fight because they are not interested in tinkering with capitalism only eliminating it. But that being said, free market or “neoliberal” economics has an extensive literature critiquing such tinkering that is fairly sound and represents a real contribution to economic thought. However, it falls short by ignoring the fact that this government failure is a form of market failure. These problems are seen as some sort of exogenous imposition on what would otherwise be a pure pristine capitalism. In fact, they are very much endogenous to the system.
A lot of government interference in the free market serves the vested interests of the capitalists and workers in the favored industries, and the bureaucrats and politicians who make a career out of it. It enhances the value of their property rights – their capital or their job and career prospects – at the expense of society as whole. Vested interest is just another name for bourgeois private property which in turn is just another name for capitalism.
Welfare programs have become great opportunities for bureaucratic empire building, but historically the primary motivator was a desire to save capitalism from itself. There was a concern that if they did not introduce a range of social welfare reforms workers would be seduced by communism. It was an attempt by the system to inoculate itself from that dreaded infection.
The report wants to disabuse American socialists and left liberals of their love affair with the Nordic countries.
They point out that the Nordic countries have abandoned many of their much admired “socialist policies” as measured by their much improved EPW Index. Besides, their higher levels of government spending do not look quite so socialist when you take into account that it is middle income earners rather than the rich who bare the tax burden.
We are also reminded that these countries are poorer economic performers with lower GDP per capita than the US. While not wanting to spend any time defending an “alternative” form of capitalism, it is difficult not to at least suggest that any comparison should also look at how people at the bottom of the heap fare.
The report also claims that the value of their free education is less than the US when measured by earning differential between graduates and non-graduates. They see this as an example of how free provision leads to lower quality. The logic is that there would be a tendency to underfund the institutions and students would be less concerned about the standard of their degree. Determining whether this is the case would require knowing a lot more about tertiary education in Nordic countries and other tuition-free countries. This is a task I am quite unwilling to take on. Furthermore, nothing hinges on it. Any problems of free provision in the Nordic or other capitalist countries tells you nothing about free provision in a society undergoing a proletarian revolutionary transition. And I must add there is nothing preventing such a society from having tuition fees.
The CEA report criticizes proposals for a universal single payer health system supported by the likes of Bernie Sanders and usually dubbed “Medicare for All” (Sanders 2017). Such a system would replace all existing private health insurance and would leave the patient with no out of pocket expenses, no copayments or deductibles. The report points to a range of problems with free government provision and to the negative impact of having to raise so much more tax revenue to pay for it.
They describe this as patients and bureaucrats spending other people’s money. Patients would have an incentive to overuse services such as doctor’s visits much like a prepaid all you can eat buffet. The healthier would crowd out the less healthy and there would be no incentive to seek out the cheapest options. At the same time bureaucrats will not have the incentive to economize or make the best purchases.
A government medical insurance monopoly as proposed would be less efficient than having many competing companies. In particular, the government healthcare bureaucracy has shown itself to be very poor at detecting fraud. Efforts to rein in government spending are bound to affect the health budget leading to waiting lists and quotas for particular treatments.
Then there is the fiscal burden of such a program. A free universal healthcare system would require a huge increase in income tax collection unless other government spending was cut drastically. This is not just the same as taking in tax what people would otherwise have spent on their own healthcare because of the so-called excess burden or deadweight loss of taxes in excess of the revenues.
“Earning additional income requires sacrifices (a loss of free time, relocating to an area with better-paying jobs, training, taking an inconvenient schedule, etc.), and people evaluate whether the net income earned is enough to justify the sacrifices. Socialism’s high tax rates fundamentally tilt that trade-off in favor of less income.” (CEA page 12)
I will leave it to “socialists” of the Bernie Sanders variety to put the case for public provision of healthcare under the present capitalist system. My only concern is whether the CEA’s critique has any relevance for a society undergoing a proletarian revolution.
While a proletarian state could have free provision of healthcare, there would be nothing to rule out significant levels of user pays.
You could have individuals paying for insurance that covers unlikely and unpredictable but high cost health events. There could be a single insurer or mutual insurance schemes owned by their members (friendly societies). At the same time, more routine or predictable health spending could be out of pocket, assisted by health saving and loan schemes. In the case of drugs, you may have patients paying the production cost while research costs are paid for out of taxation.
To the extent that people are financially secure and receiving an adequate wage, training allowance or pension we can move away from healthcare being part of the welfare system. Of course, special provisions will have to be made for people with unusually serious medical needs.
What about government revenue under socialism? A proletarian state could, for the following reasons, have high levels of taxation without the present distortions.
To begin with income tax would not have to be progressive. Tax could be a constant percentage of income or you could even have marginal rates that decline or even go to zero. To the extent that wage differences continue, they will be for good economic reasons that should not to be undone by progressive income taxation.
Scope for reducing marginal rates is limited at the moment where the tax system is seen as a means of redistribution in a world where there are some people on extremely low and insecure income and others on extremely high income such as capitalists with the dividends and senior executives pulling in economic rents.
As communism takes root and work is primarily undertaken for its own sake and from a desire to contribute, the incentive effect of income tax would be reduced even further. Also, a proletarian state could make greater use of taxes that do not distort wages or prices and have far lower collection costs.
Firstly, there are poll or head taxes. These are an equal amount paid by everyone on a regular basis regardless of their income. These are unacceptable under capitalism where income for some people is low and insecure. Indeed, it caused riots when Margaret Thatcher tried to introduce one to cover the cost of local government. In the context of medical insurance, it is worth noting that premiums in a compulsory scheme would effectively be an hypothecated poll tax. Collection and compliance costs would be low because the individual simply has to provide their bank account details and authorize regular payments just like a utility bill.
The other non-distorting tax is one imposed on land values. People would pay a tax for the natural and built amenities around where they live. If all land is deemed to be publicly owned one could describe this as a land rent. (Whether people own their residence is a separate matter.) This tax is famously associated with the 19th century economist Henry George.
The tax would be set so as to “ration” a location to those who place the highest value on living there. At the same time, improving the amenity of an area would ensure a tax revenue stream to pay for it. This would include building hospitals and other health facilities.
Collection costs would be low because you cannot conceal or move land and there are well established methods for calculating the tax. The amount that can be collected from this tax will, however, be reduced by other taxes that people have to pay. Anything that reduces their effective income will reduce what they are willing to pay in land rent. Unsurprisingly land value taxes under capitalism are opposed by wealthy landowners.
Under a proletarian regime, healthcare, like all sectors of the economy, will undergo a stage by stage transformation. Larger capitalist enterprises would have to come fairly quickly under state control. Smaller businesses in many cases would remain under individual or “cooperative” ownership for somewhat longer.
As with all the other sectors of the revolutionary transitional economy, healthcare will display its greater efficiency and effectiveness as it takes on more communist characteristics. Contributing to the best outcomes will become the overriding motivation of medical workers. This will include overcoming all of the authoritarian nastiness found here as everywhere else. There will be no deferring to incompetent or corrupt superiors nor a passive “I just work here” attitude. Everyone will be a “whistle blower” if necessary, except they will be fixing the problems themselves.
By setting out the full range of confusion on the subject of socialism, the CEA report has provided a good opportunity to both explain and defend the Marxist view on the matter.
When Marxists use the term socialism, they mean the revolutionary transition period when capitalism is transformed into communism. Attempts at this transition to date have been defeated by unfavorable conditions and balance of forces, particularly those arising from economic and social backwardness. These defeats have been achieved by means of socialist regimes losing their revolutionary nature and being “socialist” only because the people running the show continued to call themselves communists.
Key to the success of proletarian revolution is full capitalist development. This will eliminate the necessity of want and toil that historically has set all against all. When it comes to “economic calculation” there is nothing that capitalism can do that socialism cannot do better.
A proletarian government would be in a better position to freely provide healthcare and other goods and services particularly as conditions become more communist. However, there is nothing about socialism that rules out extensive user pays.
Most of the CEA report is taken up with government intervention under capitalism. The report calls this socialism, as do a lot of people. However, this is not socialism by the reckoning of Marxists and its success or failure is not their concern.
Cottrell, W. Paul and Allin Cockshott 1993. Towards a New Socialism
Council of Economic Advisers to the President (CEA). ”The Opportunity Cost of Socialism”, October 2018
Davis, Mike 2007. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño famines and the making of the Third World. Verso. London
Fraser Institute 2018. The Human Freedom Index 2018
Gladwell, M. (29 September 1997). “The Dead Zone”. New Yorker. (Cited in “Spanish Flu” Wikipedia.)
Ho Ping-ti. 1959. Studies on the Population of China, 1368–1953. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (Cited in “World War II casualties” Wikipedia.)
Lavoie, Don 1985. Rivalry and Central Planning: The Socialist Calculation Debate Reconsidered, Cambridge University Press,
Marx, Karl 1853. “The British Rule in India” Marx-Engels Collected Works Volume 12
———.1853. “Revolution in China and Europe.” Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 12. Lawrence & Wishart. London. pp. 93-100.
———.1858. “Marx to Engels 8 October 1858” Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 40. Lawrence & Wishart. London. pp. 345-7
———.1859. “The Future Results of British Rule in India” Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 12. Lawrence & Wishart. London. pp. 217-222.
———. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Programme. Online edition.
———. 1976 , Capital, volume 1 (Penguin).
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels.1846. The German Ideology, Part 1, Section D
———. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. Online edition.
McMullen, David (2019) “The Forgotten Message of Marxism”, Simply Marxism
Polanyi, Karl (2001 ). The Great Transformation, The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time.
Beacon Press. Boston.
Sanders, B. 2017. “Options to Finance Medicare for All.”
 The only industrialized exceptions were East Germany and the Czech part of Czechoslovakia. The regimes were the product of the Soviet Red Army rather than any homegrown proletarian revolution and had no independent existence.
 Lavoie (1985) best sums up this argument. There is also plenty of material at mises.org.
 See Cottrell and Cockshott (1993).
 The CEA report, does not discuss the possibility of reducing the work incentive problem by the federal government introducing a value added tax (VAT) on goods and services. This is very common in other countries. On the other side of the ledger, they do not mention the incentive to free ride by working less when the government pays for what you would otherwise have to pay for. You have a reduced need for income.
 They are paid more than their “opportunity cost” which is what they would be paid if they did an ordinary paying job. Stockholders feel they have to bid for the “best” and also reward them in ways that encourage them to act in their interest.
Where there is repression, there is resistance – Mao.
‘Qiu disappeared April 29.
‘State security agents seized him that day from Beijing’s outskirts, his classmates say. Qiu’s offense? He was the leader of the Marxist student association at the elite Peking University, a communist of conscience who defied the Communist Party of China.
‘Over the past eight months, China’s ruling party has gone to extraordinary lengths to shut down the small club of students at the country’s top university. Peking University’s young Marxists drew the government’s ire after they campaigned for workers’ rights and openly criticized social inequality and corruption in China.
‘That alone was provocative. In recent years, China’s leaders have been highly sensitive to rumblings of labor unrest as the sputtering economy lays bare the divides between rich and poor — fissures that were formed, and mostly overlooked, during decades of white-hot growth’.
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June 4th marks the 30th anniversary of the day on which troops entered Tiananmen Square and opened fire upon protestors. It was an outcome of the restoration of capitalism in China, the victory of the ‘capitalist roaders’ within the Communist Party that Mao had warned against and led struggle against.
The idea that things can turn into their opposite is a very challenging one, but it is true.
The violent repression at Tiananmen Square is proof that the Communist Party was no longer revolutionary, no longer socialist but a case of ‘capitalism without democracy’.
The Chinese parliament currently has about a hundred billionaires among its delegates, most are nominally ‘communists’. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/02/chinas-parliament-has-about-100-billionaires-according-to-data-from-the-hurun-report.html
Maoists and other pro-democracy dissidents are imprisoned and now ‘disappear’ at the hands of state authorities. https://monthlyreview.org/commentary/on-december-24-2004-maoists-in-china-get-three-year-prison-sentences-for-leafleting/
The people, however, understand revolutionary change and their own socialist revolution is within living memory.
Where there is repression, there is resistance.
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Photo of statue at York University, Canada, commemorating the resistance of students and workers in Tiananmen Square.
In the real world we live in – and never more so than in the modern era – it is not the “I” and the “We” but the I/We balance and how this has changed with economic and social development across the span of history.
Thanks to Tom Griffiths for the following article.
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Last year Michael D. Yates, the Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press had his new book ‘Can the working Class Change the World?’ published. It was received, in leftist circles at least, to popular acclaim.
I came upon the book by accident as I was looking for something to give my son. Given my concerns about the relationship between the revolutionary left and the individual I consulted the Index and sure enough, an entry “individualism, under capitalism” directed me to pp 140-41. As it turned out the preceding three pages pp 137-39 were relevant contextually to what Yates concluded as the necessity of the working class waging “its own war against the I and for the We.”
The ambiguity contained in this conclusion and the manner in which the preceding pages framed it is highly problematic, exposing as it does a pseudo Marxist and ahistorical understanding of the I/We balance and a frankly reactionary position of what this balance should look like if the working classes were in the driver’s seat. Beneath this ambiguity is an ambivalence about individuality per se that borders on hostility. Lukes’ ‘Individualism’ (1973) has done us a favor here as has MacPherson’s ‘The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism’ (1962). The latter details the development, based on need, of theories of the individual that justified the development and ascendance of capitalist property relations in the struggle to break free from feudal constraints. The former, riding on the back of modernity’s achievements, illustrated that individuality and individualism comes in a variety of shapes and sizes (well it/they would, wouldn’t they) some consistent with capitalist property relations and others not consistent. It takes a very selective reading of Marx to not get this. My thoughts on this form the substance of this piece and I should thank Yates for motivating me to post them.
But I would like to firstly clarify what are we talking about when we speak of the I/We balance. The contradiction between the “I” and the “We” – the individual and the family group/community/society, is transhistorical, predating the development of classes and going back to the dawn of human existence. Engels had this to say: “Impressive as the people of this epoch may appear to us, they differ in no way from one another, they are still bound, as Marx says, to the umbilical cord of the primordial community.”
What Engels and Marx were drawing attention to was the binding, caused not by choice, but by the harshness of circumstance, circumstance that did not allow the development of difference. This describes a frozen antithesis, any movement in the contradiction being glacial and occuring over centuries or millenia rather than decades. It has only been in the modern era that this frozen dialectic has melted and the relationship between the “I” and the “we” has not only become dynamic, but has been seen to become so.
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So let me look at the context and justification Yates provides for us, a context that I can most generously describe as a ‘softening up’ process and less generously as manipulative. He begins under a chapter sub heading, “The “I” and the “We”, and takes us on a folksy recount of a holiday spent with his wife at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. En route they passed through an agricultural area where “we choked on the pesticides … the air was so fouled we couldn’t see the mountains not far to the east.” This may be accurate enough of course but we are being led along a path where the destination is ….well, let’s read on. After references to Tom Joad and Francis Drake (he landed at Point Reyes in 1579 for ship repairs) he introduces us to the native population, the Miwok, the descendents of whom still inhabit the area. The Miwok “were gatherers and hunters, living peacefully in a land of great abundance.” James and Graziani’s California Indian Warfare paint a more nuanced picture pointing out, and providing evidence, that the word “peaceful” is an ambiguous term. Yes, the Miwok were generally a peaceful people but inter and intra tribal conflict were, shall we say, not unknown as was the stealing and raping of women. Indeed a rare surviving record of a war song eulogises this feature: “Leaders, let us go out to war! Let us go and capture a pretty girl.” Cherry picking, we need remind ourselves, is not an activity confined to orchardists.
“Once the Europeans came…” the balance was destroyed. “Disease and extreme culture shock killed most of them” while our lust for land and gold took most of the rest. As he points out “The Miwoks’ “we” was no match for the white man’s “I”. One sidedness in any field of human endeavour always distorts and I make no claim of immunity, but Yates’ agenda blindsides him as he embraces (and promotes) a romanticised account of tribal and pre-modern life. Approvingly, he quotes the view of a contemporary Miwok, Kathleen Smith, who holds that her people have lived in “physical and spiritual balance” without feeling the need to go somewhere else for 8,000 years. This “requires restraint, respect, knowledge and assurance of one’s place in the world.” Not to mention a practical inability, borne of the historical constraints they lived under, to be aware, let alone assured, of any alternative.
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Idealising the past has a long history, of course. We saw it, for example, in the decades preceding the English Revolution and during the revolutionary decades themselves, where it was common for numerous radical voices to look to, and promote, the Arcadian myth of jolly Olde England before the imposition of the Norman Yoke. As we now know they were marching into the future looking backwards, an understandable reaction given that they were at the dawn of the capitalist and modern era, territory that we have become a lot more familiar with. What was baffling novelty then is no longer baffling. So why, I ask rhetorically, does Yates feel the need to promote a Miwok (or native Indian) Arcadian myth while simultaneously presenting himself as a Marxist and historical materialist?
Once booked into the hostel the reader is subjected to more ‘softening up’. He describes a ‘conversation’ with an east coast law student that degenerated into a lecture, by him, about how California was a monument to waste. In response to her puzzlement he turned his fire onto agriculture, a field of production, she believed, California to be a world leader in. This, the student was to discover, was a view, be it true or not, that would have been best kept to herself.
“This set me off on a lecture about dams, stolen water, subsidized land and water, massive use of pesticides, polluted air and water and exploited farm workers. Measured in terms of energy in and energy out, or in terms of the costs imposed on society by California’s “factories in the fields” the state’s agriculture is not as productive as the Miwok’s gathering and hunting”.
Unsurprisingly she retreats into the next room and, somewhat abashed, Yates follows a few minutes later to “make amends for lecturing her”.
In TV game shows this would be a “but wait, there’s more” moment and Yates does not disappoint. On hearing that she is a law student he seizes the opportunity to tell her (note how the only one doing much listening is her) what a Law Professor tells first years: that lawyers had to learn to be vicious by being treated viciously, a process beginning at law school. After a terse response from her to the effect that at least everyone was on the same playing field, “The woman never spoke to me again.” But Yates is not done. Over the period of his stay he observes her behaviour, concluding that she was oblivious to anyone else’s needs and he and his wife “listened, in amazement as she flirted with a German man” and how “she skillfully led the conversation to her desired outcome” an outcome that enabled her to bask in the glory of the medal she had won at the Beijing Olympics. He paints her, in other words, as a narcissist, an example of the “I” the working class needs to wage war against. Indeed he ends this section with a view of her that is as uncharitable as it is undialectical: Her studies will see her “become firmly and permanently frozen in the “I” and cut off forever from the “we””. Leaving to one side for the moment his view that the “I” is a frozen antithesis, whether she is narcissistic or not is difficult to call because of the way Yates inserts himself in the ‘drama’ and how he needs her to be as he depicts her. In the world of psychotherapy there is a term, projective identification, that describes an unconscious phantasy in which aspects of the self are split off from oneself and attributed to another. In plain language, Yates is telling us a lot more about himself than he realises. In my judgement there is at least as much evidence to suggest that Yates is describing as aspect of himself as there is evidence that the student is a narcissist and doomed to be a frozen “I” cut off permanently from the virtuous “we”.
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Whether Yates’ hypothesis about his Olympian acquaintance (or mine about him so far as that goes) holds water, his folksy tour has brought us to the kernel of his position, contained in the slightly less than two pages the index had drawn me to. “CAPITALISM IS A SYSTEM of stark individualism” (presumably the high case was to ensure we got the point that capitalism is a system). He goes on to say that “the primary institutions of capitalist society work in concert to inculcate the “I” in everyone, with the corollary that the “we” is detrimental to human welfare…For capitalism to end the “I” must be suppressed and the “we” must come to the fore”.
If he means bourgeois individualism, the kind of individualism that rests upon the individual’s right to own capital – and by extension to exploit the labor of others – and the particular distortions of individualism and individuality that come with this, he should say so. But he doesn’t, opting instead for the more ambiguous I/we dichotomy where, from my viewpoint, he persists in digging a hole for himself. Suppressing the “I” and valorising the “we”, he suggests, “would sound strange to gatherers and hunters who inhabited the earth for almost the entirety of human existence. They had no word for “I” and saw no difference between themselves and the natural world around them. Their lives hinged on cooperation and sharing, and their rituals and institutions helped to ensure that these were maintained. For them the earth was the commons, the property of all. They managed their existence in ways harmonious with nature and kept the earth’s metabolism in balance with their own.” Now what was it that Engels was saying?
This is pretty standard Greenie fare with a touch of Gaia thrown in, the “I” disappearing into a romanticised past and embracing an equally romanticised “we”. But to suggest this is revolutionary, a representation of Marxism and a synthesising pathway, is not only nonsense, it is reactionary nonsense, for while he is correct to assert that our clan and tribal forebears had no word for “I” and that their lives hinged on cooperation and sharing, the ‘decisions’ he is implying they made, were in no sense free.
It is all very well for him to have a crack at the legal student, hypothesising that she was entering a frozen “I” zone but what he describes here is an actual frozen antithesis that covered millenia and kept people, the “we’s” and the, at best, nascent “I’s” held fast within rigid and unforgiving constraints. Whether they realised it or not, they were trapped, their relationship with the natural world being precarious at best. What they did realise was that their task was one of survival and that the “we”, the family, clan or tribe, were survival units. As for the individual, the “I”, for millenia the water was simply too close to the gunnels for the individual to emerge, let alone be able to develop, stand up and rock the boat. And we can’t have the boat being rocked by unruly elements now, can we?!
Harmony was imposed by the strictures and violence of Nature, whose ‘metabolism’ by the way, insisted upon obedience. This was backed up by our own use of violence and by the development and ubiquitous use of shame as a social regulator. In this regard Hobbes’ pithy description of the natural state of humankind before the emergence of central governments as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.’ was – and remains – much closer to the mark than Yates. It bears repeating that the first struggle for freedom was freedom from danger, the freedom to survive. For the individual this meant complete identity with the social unit. The reason for the strength of this tie was simple – these are the groups from which the individual could expect help and protection when in dire need. The catch was also simple. There was no room to cherry pick the aspects of this system that one likes and discard the rest. There was nowhere else to go. The struggle, then, to wrest ourselves free from nature and to sever the umbilical cord, was contingent upon survival. It was upon this basis that the individual was able to emerge and is still in the process of emerging in the underdeveloped world.
* * * *
The antithesis has taken a long time to melt and we should certainly be grateful to our forebears for figuring out how to survive because our being here depended on it. This, however, is not an argument to go back, to refreeze. If we are to genuinely respect and thank our ancestors for the sacrifices they made – and they were innumerable and big – we need to move on, take the opportunities provided and seek new ones. Anything less would, in my view, be patronising and, frankly, insulting.
The embracing of the idea that traditional groups or societies (the more ‘natural’ or undeveloped the better) lived in a harmonious balance with Nature is our contemporary version of Arcadian myth and its emergence is not simply a sign of ideological crisis, although that is certainly a part of it. Strangely, perhaps, it is also a sign of our success, for at no stage in our history have we been as free from the clutches of the natural world than we are now. We have lifted ourselves above, and hence separated ourselves from, abject dependence to a more robust and, dare I say it, equal relationship. The whip that Nature’s metabolism cracks may well compel harmony but our nature has shown itself to be not so compliant. As Goethe’s Faust put it “Once I stand still I shall be a slave.” and it is not in our nature to be slaves. When Faust was weaving his magic it was a moribund feudalism that was being put to the sword. From at least the 20thC, before this in most of the West, we have had, or should have had, other targets in mind. With this Yates would agree; capitalism has got to go. But if he thinks that this involves getting rid of the “I”, the continued development of the individual, he is dreaming.
As mentioned above Yates called this section “The “I” and the “We”, setting them up in lifeless opposition. Given the pages that followed his title accurately reflected content. In the real world we live in – and never more so than in the modern era – it is not the “I” and the “We” but the I/We balance and how this has changed with economic and social development across the span of history. From a historical materialist point of view this is not only developmental, but an unfolding dialectical process. During the Stone Age, for example, the meaning of ‘we’ was single layered and, as Yates correctly points out, there was no word for “I”, although he lets slide by, or fails to realise, that this was so because there was no ‘room’ or capacity for the “I” to exist. If Yates wishes to promote this, or something like it, as a ‘lifestyle’ to aspire to, he is welcome to it, but he will have Buckley’s chance in convincing the rest of us – the modern “I’s” and the modern “we’s” to tag along, either voluntarily or under coercion.
In modern societies ‘we’ has many layers including, of course, class, as well as many layers within and between classes. This many layered aspect is significant because it is both a reflection of, and in turn an enhancer, of individual expression and development. Our ‘we-ness’ now extends in a multitude of ways formerly unimaginable. Norbert Elias sums up the significance of the options this development opens up in his The Society of Individuals: “From a certain age the individual can usually withdraw from the family [or group] without forfeiting his or her chances of physical or social survival.” In other words, there is somewhere else to go. But more than this – and this is something that Yates seems not to get at all – not only are there loads of somewhere elses to go to, there are loads of someone elses to go to, or find, as well.
Unlike the “frozen I” that Yates imagines (and needs in order to support his anti “I” distortions) the development of the individual in modern societies is necessarily accompanied by the development of society itself, of, compared to any previous social formation, a multiplicity of choices in how we can be ‘we’ as well as ‘I’. ‘We’ relationships are no longer necessarily permanent and inescapable, no longer confined to family or small community and hence no longer an inescapable impediment to the development of who we choose to relate with and how we choose to do it. Elias adds that “…in combination with a reduction in the power differential (not to be confused with equality of power), the greater variability of relationships forces individuals to take a kind of repeated inventory, a test of relations which is at the same time a test of themselves. They have to ask themselves more often: how do we stand in relation to each other? As the forms of relationship across the whole spectrum, including those between men and women and children and parents, are comparatively variable, or at least not inescapable, their exact form is increasingly the responsibility of the individual partners.” Individuals being increasingly responsible for the type and form of their relationships …? Now we can’t have that, can we? Well, not if the “we” is a Yates “we” in any case.
At least on this reading Yates seems unable to understand that as the “we” develops and becomes more complex, so too does the “I”. Each contains the other and it is important that revolutionary movements, if they are to reemerge, understand this and struggle to overcome a longstanding uncertainty cum ambivalence about the place and role of the individual, be that within groups/parties, the working classes broadly or society as a whole. It is not as if Marxism is a stranger to this aspect – I give examples below – although if one were to confine oneself to much of what passes itself off as the real deal, one could be forgiven for missing this.
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One of China’s Gang of Four, Wang Hung-wen, commented during the 10th Congress of the CPC that “A true communist must act without any selfish considerations and dare to go against the tide, not fearing either removal from his post, expulsion from the party, imprisonment, divorce nor guillotine.” As a young man at the time I was impressed by the comment but it was not until much later that I came to realise how profoundly radical it was and how relevant to the substance of this post. Yes, he was addressing a Congress, a great big political “we” and through media, broad sections of the Chinese population, an even bigger “we”. But within that context he was aiming his comments at the “I”, at the individual communist or communist sympathiser. In my view, it is only possible to swim against the tide, to be able or prepared to do as Wang suggests, if you are an autonomous individual prepared to put the interests of self aside and stand up, alone if necessary, and take come what may. In fancier jargon we can call this, appropriately, taking personal responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences they invite. It should be noted that part of this responsibility lies in seeking unity in organisational form with others, but is not confined solely to it, as Wang was fully aware.
The Turkish poet and communist Nazim Hikmet spent 18 years of his adult life in gaol for his political activities and the last 13 years of his life in exile. Much of his best poetry was written ‘inside’. A few lines from two of these will suffice: From It’s This Way: “It’s this way/being captured is beside the point/ the point is not to surrender.” And from Galloping Full Tilt from Furthest Asia: “To live free and single like a tree/and in fraternity like a forest/this longing is ours.”
The Czech communist Julius Fucik, captured by the Nazis in 1942 and executed in 1943, wrote on single scraps of paper, smuggled out of prison, what was to become Report from the Gallows. George Lukacs remarked that the ‘New Man’ appears most powerfully and richly in it and it is an extraordinary testament and example of what Wang was getting at. It can still be found on internet bookshops and I would advise readers to find it.
And lastly, going back a little further to the English Revolution (no, not the ‘Glorious’ one, but the real one) there is the example of the Digger Gerrard Winstanley, the most radical voice of the time, as well as being about 200 years ahead of it, who said, circa 1650, “Freedom is the man who turns the world upside down, and he therefore maketh many enemies.” He knew what he was talking about.
There will of course be many other examples and I have only cited these because they were (are) all in my head. What unites them all, what has them singing from the same song sheet, is that they demonstrate the dynamic between the “I” and the “we”, that the development of them as exemplary individuals was enhanced by their engagement in and commitment to the cause of revolution, to the “we”. This was not only where they found themselves, it was where they made themselves. In other words we unite or seek unity on the basis of our pre existing – and valued – individuality, not in spite of, or in opposition to it. Unity (or ‘weness’) of this type, is an expression of our individuality. It does not lose itself in the ‘we’ but finds itself at a higher level of expression. It is a synthesising process of development in other words and it is this feature that is absent from Yates’ understanding of both the “I” and the “we”. His is not a model that speaks of the future.
When asked by a journo where the best place to find comedy was, Australian comedian Barry Humphries, better known, perhaps, as Dame Edna Everage, replied “under one’s nose”. It is good advice and has far broader application than just comedy for this too is where to look for the future, or its seeds, and we would do well to take heed. Looking where Yates is looking will get us nowhere.
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We shouldn’t be so squeamish about terms originally developed, adapted or appropriated by religious minds as they sought to explain external reality and human experience. Granting religion defacto monopoly rights over words like spirit, effectively allowing them to turn appropriation into expropriation, is another matter.
James Brown was the Godfather of Soul.
Word meanings and the left
The following thoughts on word meanings originated from a written or online comment contained in communication between old comrades some twenty years ago. I transcribed my response, filing it away on the cloud, many years later but the issues raised remain pertinent, hence this post. The disagreement was over a discomfort or ambivalence with the word ‘spirit’, and no, we were not talking about a stiff drink.
I have forgotten the precise gripe that this word raised – it will have had something to do with religious or idealist connotations – but I have not forgotten my irritation with the gripe and my liking of the word’s ambiguity, containing as it did the germ of all its definitions, idealist or materialist, secular or religious. Contradictions aplenty. And contradictions, how they emerge and relate to one another in their development, is supposed to be something we are both in favour of and up to speed with.
Two things in particular struck me about this:
1. What words mean, how we understand and use them, is developmental. Spirit, always about human vitality, human essence, be that defined idealistically or materialistically, was first thought of by the ancient Greeks to be about the breath. Not a bad stab at it given the constraints they operated under and not devoid of contradiction either. Was spirit extrinsic or intrinsic? did it come from within or without? delivered to us or created by us? As we know it then came to be predominantly associated with, indeed exclusively appropriated, by religion in its uses and interpretations. Since the scientific revolution of the 17thC and the Enlightenment of the 18thC, the tide has turned and by the 20thC non religious uses and interpretations were becoming common and predominant, liberated from the religious constraints spirit had suffered under.
2. The other thing is its identification with consciousness, about what is vital, quintessential, in people. So, what is consciousness? This is certainly something that, historically, has been seen to involve not just cognition, but notions of soul, spirit and heart. Use of the word ‘heart’ has been long liberated, and we probably have Harvey’s work in the 17thC on circulation of blood to thank for this. We all can and do, use ‘heart’ figuratively, without any angst or confusion. The same applies to ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ although for reasons I have only recently bothered to think about these continue to cause squeamishness among some radical circles. Recent advances in the neurosciences have added substantial weight to the materialist view advanced by Feuerbach in the 1830’s and it’s about time that the radical cum revolutionary left caught up. “The spirit develops together with the body, with the sense. …whence the skull, whence the brain, thence also the spirit; whence an organ, thence also its functioning. The spirit is in the head.”
We shouldn’t be so squeamish about terms originally developed, adapted or appropriated by religious minds as they sought to explain external reality and human experience. Granting religion defacto monopoly rights over words like spirit, effectively allowing them to turn appropriation into expropriation, is another matter. Given that we have no problems about expropriation in other areas, we should have no qualms about re-expropriating here. (By the way, Shakespeare was a master at appropriating novel and common vernacular and his is a good example to follow). The word ‘fuck’ is a prime example and I don’t know anyone who is without sin, and happily so, in using it freely. Indeed it has now become respectable (almost) and we hear it uttered on radio and TV shows daily. Adapting language, actually developing language, is something people have been doing forever and we shouldn’t be shy about it.
Soul and faith are two words that carry heavy religious baggage, soul denoting the seat of our corporeal self and faith denoting acceptance, in the absence of any evidence, of God’s divine providence. How else could God move in mysterious ways, I say unto you?
But in the real, material world, populated by the proverbial common man or woman and in particular by the common adolescent or young adult, word use and adaptation reflects the dynamism we associate with the modern world, with modernity itself. And the old, original (if that’s what they were) religious meanings? Seriously, they’re terminal and on life support and I see little point in radicals – genuine or even pseudo – playing a role in keeping the life support switched on. Let me give three examples of what I’m talking about:
1. “Today’s music ain’t got no soul; give me that old time rock and roll.” belts out Bob Seeger and it’s pretty clear that he’s not referring to what the God botherers mean.
2. And what about Rubber Soul, courtesy of The Beatles? Try as I may I fail to detect God’s ineffable presence.
3. Faith’s principle meaning is now confidence or trust in a person or thing. While this is somewhat ambiguous, containing as it does contradiction, we identify with that aspect that reflects social being and scientific understanding. It is on this basis that we can say that we have faith in the masses (don’t we?), in the general direction of historical development, in scientific method, and that among the numerous ‘revolutionary’ grouplets or sects there will be a higher percentage of killjoys than among the general population etc
As mentioned above the meaning of words change and new ones invented, language being subject to similar developmental pressure and opportunities that are at play generally. The left’s distancing itself of words like spirit has not stopped this; it has only stopped our engagement with it and, more tellingly, with the throb of life associated with it. ‘Out there’, among the throng of real life inhabited by the working classes that we purportedly identify with, people engage with this process, be they conscious of this or not. It’s what gives etymologists a job.
We do not need to be etymologists of course but we can certainly take a leaf out of their book and be open to, and engage with, the ongoing process of how word usage and meaning changes. This is happening anyway and will continue to do so whether or not we engage with it ourselves. I just think it’d be a good idea for us to be conscious of and open to this process. While not a big deal in itself (no, we don’t have to lose sleep on where words may be heading) it is symptomatic of something that we should be losing sleep over: do we move with the times, consciously, trying to effect speed and direction, or do we stay behind the pack, whining about the packs backwardness and kidding ourselves that our position is actually in front?
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.
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:
“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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‘… only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations… ‘
– Lenin, 1913
‘All the gang of those who rule us/Hope our quarrels never stop/Helping them to split and fool us/So they can remain on top’
– Brecht, Solidarity Song, 1929-1930
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Australia’s population reached 25 million the other day – way ahead of schedule. Experts thought it would happen at least a decade from now. The increase is mostly a product of immigration.
I’m all for mass immigration, primarily because it’s very good for immigrants. Of which my parents and I were three, in 1954. But even if I wasn’t one myself, I’d still be all for it. It’s also good for the locals, as it expands economic opportunity in the domestic market and enriches the culture and cosmopolitan sense.
At the time my parents arrived, Australia’s population was barely ten million. With more than double the population today, Australia is a much better and more interesting place than it was back then.
It makes me angry to hear politicians – sometimes ‘left’ and sometimes Right – suggesting or directly stating that migrants – ‘too many people’ – are to blame for infrastructure problems, unemployment and high house prices. How difficult is it really to run more trains in the cities at peak hour and to plan ahead? These are services that we are generally happy to pay taxes for.
Unemployment? The only way to reduce unemployment is by creating jobs, something the economy is meant to do. When we have the government actually creating the jobs, or even seeming to, we have an economy that is losing its mojo and acting as a restraint.
House prices? The great majority of people who own more than one property are Australian-born. Stop blaming immigrants!
Let’s question capitalism rather than immigration levels. No wonder bourgeois politics is pretty much on the nose all over the advanced world.
Infrastructure expansion is a political question, as is the development of new cities and regional centres. Capitalism is such a backward system in countries where it has reached maturity and outlived its previous usefulness that rapid growth doesn’t happen and people – the most precious of all things – are regarded as a problem. What’s with a system that has always had a ‘reserve army of labour‘ – the unemployed – when there is so much work that could and should be done?
Don’t blame immigrants for the fact that capitalism is a sluggish moribund system, not dead yet but certainly unable to realize genuine, realistic, opportunities for all round development, and that the governments administering it can only do good things on the basis of increasing debt.
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Many years ago, possibly the early 1990s, I was at a party in a beautiful property in Sylvania heights, Sydney, overlooking the Georges River. The property was set on several acres of attractive native bush.
Among the guests was Tim Flannery, whom I had known very briefly at Melbourne’s La Trobe University in the mid-1970s. Tim told me, with characteristic earnestness and enthusiasm, that Australia’s optimum population was seven million. By optimum, I think he meant what ‘the natural environment’ could ‘sustain’, without being changed for the worse.
I politely told him that he needed to consider what kind of society Australia was when the population was seven million, which was in 1947. With a population of approximately 17 million, as it was in the early 1990s when we talked, Australian society was a much better place, especially for women, than it was in 1947.
I also pointed out to him that Canberra, where I had settled, was now a very lush green place with tree-covered hills and a rapidly growing population of almost 250,000, yet in the early 1900s, when the population was barely a thousand, the landscape had been mostly denuded of trees.
* * * *
What kind of times are these, when/To talk about trees is almost a crime/Because it implies /silence about so many/horrors?
– Brecht, To those who follow in our wake, 1939
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Reactionaries adhere to an essentially Malthusian view that says resource development and food supply cannot possibly keep up with population growth. Malthus wrote that, ‘The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation’. (An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798, Chapter VII) This has been proven wrong – thanks to human ingenuity, democratic politics, science and technology. While population has increased to 7 billion, world hunger has declined greatly over the past few decades, as this data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation shows.
The Greens and some trade union bosses also tow an anti-population-growth line. The Greens want only ‘sustainable’ population growth, which logically must mean no population growth as more people will always strain existing infrastructure and require more physical space (which involves destruction of some ‘natural environment’). The union bosses warn against competition from foreign workers who, they say, will undercut local wages and conditions. Yet this happens when such workers are only allowed to work in Australia on restrictive temporary visae rather than on the same basis as everyone else.
The left has never fallen for such views. When it comes to ‘foreign workers’, we understand that there’s no such thing: the working class is a class not a nationality.
Marx appropriately said of Malthus’ population theory, which blamed the poor for their poverty, that he was ‘a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes’.
‘Utter baseness is a distinctive trait of Malthus—a baseness which can only he indulged in by a parson who sees human suffering as the punishment for sin and who, in any ease, needs a “vale of tears on earth”, but who, at the same time, in view of the living he draws and aided by the dogma of predestination, finds it altogether advantageous to “sweeten” their sojourn in the vale of tears for the ruling classes’.
Marx, Chapter 9, Theories of surplus value, 1861-63
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A final note: this year marks the 50th anniversary of Paul Ehrlich’s bizarre book, ‘The population bomb’. I read it back then and it made me quite worried about the future.
In 1970, in a magazine wrongly titled ‘The Progressive’, he argued that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the “Great Die-Off.” Fifty years ago, this was extremist stuff, more on the periphery (although ‘newsworthy’). Now it is thoroughly mainstream: a reflection of ongoing and deepening crisis.
In the 50 years since the first edition of his ‘Bomb’, the opposite has happened on most measures, from longer life expectancy through to greater education opportunities and women’s rights, better health and greater prosperity across the globe (with a few exceptions). Check out this excellent article from The Guardian for more evidence of just how wrong Ehrlich was and is.
And in that time, world population has doubled from 3.8 billion to more than 7 billion.
* * * *
Lenin’s words, from ‘Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration’ are still relevant:
‘Capitalism has given rise to a special form of migration of nations. The rapidly developing industrial countries, introducing machinery on a large scale and ousting the backward countries from the world market, raise wages at home above the average rate and thus attract workers from the backward countries.
‘Hundreds of thousands of workers thus wander hundreds and thousands of versts. [A verst is a Russian measurement equal to about 1.1 kilometres]. Advanced capitalism drags them forcibly into its orbit, tears them out of the backwoods in which they live, makes them participants in the world-historical movement and brings them face to face with the powerful, united, international class of factory owners.
‘There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations…
‘The bourgeoisie incites the workers of one nation against those of another in the endeavour to keep them disunited. All the gang of those who rule us/Hope our quarrels never stop/Helping them to split and fool us/So they can remain on top. Brecht Class-conscious workers, realising that the break-down of all the national barriers by capitalism is inevitable and progressive, are trying to help to enlighten and organise their fellow-workers from the backward countries’. enlightening them that the problem is not development, but ownership.
– Lenin, ‘Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration‘ 1913
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