Category Archives: The rights of indigenous peoples
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it many times more in whatever future is left to me: Capitalism is the root of all, or most, evils, including climate change, political corruption, etc. I expressed this belief most recently two days ago during a far-ranging political and philosophical conversation with two of my young-adult grandchildren, both very concerned about the environmental and moral state of the world (as are, movingly, many of their contemporaries).
I was reminded of it again this morning, rereading my notes on Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014) by Sven Beckert. Beckert concludes his book by saying, “Slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence [including the genocidal seizure of indigenous lands], have been at the very core of the history of capitalism. Civilization and barbarity are linked at the hip, both in the evolution of the world’s first global industry [cotton] and in the many other industries that have modeled themselves after it.” All of this, including the devastation of the environment, the oppression of workers and indigenous peoples (Standing Rock), and the manipulation of supposedly democratic political systems for, ultimately, corporate ends, continues today.
I don’t have a quick solution, other than to say that the creation of solutions begins with identifying the problem. As my grandchildren and I agreed, it will take time, because it depends on respectful one-on-one communication, and it will involve group effort/the creation of democratic communities.
The Final Empire: The Collapse of Civilization and the Seed of the Future by William H. Kötke, 1993
Agriculture began the destruction of our natural earth wealth, and industrial society, which will begin a swift collapse in the 2020s, is providing the finishing blow. The human trend toward empire, which travels under the euphemism of civilization, has been in existence for 10,000 years, only 1% of human existence. The culture of empire is characterized by ecological imbalance caused by cities, centralization, hierarchy, patriarchy, militarism, and materialism. We find aspects of this cultural form among the Aztecs and Mayans of Mesoamerica, the Incas of Peru, certain African kingdoms, and the Egyptian dynasties, but the most virulent strains of this cultural pathology developed in China, the Indus river valley, and in Central Asia among Indo-Europeans. All of these areas are now ecologically damaged.
Many of the Greek wars of conquest were to gain new forests for use in building warships. Greece and Rome, then the Arabs and Turks destroyed the ecology of North Africa. At one time 600 colonial cities stretched from Egypt to Morocco, and the area provided Rome with 2/3 of its wheat. Now much of the area is barren and eroded and can barely support goats. It’s no accident that the diet of these former empires is now based on goats, grapes, and olives. This is ecological poverty food (goats, grapes, and olives can subsist on denuded and dry soils).
In pre-industrial days plowing vegetation back into the earth and manure from draft and food animals slowed the soil’s depletion. When artificial fertilizers become too costly to purchase, and/or the easily extracted petroleum from which they’re made is exhausted, the world will face starvation, because its soils are dead. If chemical fertilizers were eliminated at once, world food production would drop by one-third.
Compaction of soils is another problem. When weight is put on soil, its pores are crushed, interfering with its ability to breathe and hold water. Water runs off as compaction increases, causing the erosion of topsoil. Plowing with heavy equipment causes much compaction, as does trampling by confined livestock. Plowing also dries out the soil and increases salinization.
The failure of water to infiltrate to underground water supplies affects the hydrology of entire regions. Even in a semi-arid region, if the topsoil is intact and vegetative cover exists to absorb a large percentage of the rainfall, water will seep into the subsoil. When soils are abused, and the spiral of deterioration is triggered, the flood/drought cycle begins. Floods occur when water runs off rapidly rather than infiltrating, followed by drought because springs haven’t been fed. As the planet deteriorates, droughts and floods increase. Erosion, desertification, toxification, and non-agricultural uses will eat up one-fifth of the world’s arable land between 1975 and 2000, and another one-fifth will go by 2025.
Wild herbivores don’t overgraze – they migrate, and each species eats different plants. Large herbivores never existed in Australia until they were imported by Europeans. When aborigines decided to return to their lands in the outback near Ernabella and Papunya recently, they found that 60% of the food plants for which they had traditionally foraged were extinct, and the rest were greatly diminished in numbers because of overgrazing by feral cattle, horses, camels, goats, and rabbits. The manure of these animals is wasted, because there are no native insects or microbes to break it down.
Deforestation and overgrazing eventually produce desertification. While the natural undisturbed deserts of the earth are healthy, thriving, diverse ecosystems with many types of plants and animals, deserts created by poor land use are damaged ecosystems comparatively devoid of life. Deserts are usually created by destroying the vegetation of formerly semi-arid lands, but sometimes they’re the result of deforestation.
Sixty-one percent of the world’s drylands are desertified (defined as a loss of more than 25% soil nutrient with consequent decline of the productivity of biomass). In 1980 the percentage of some dryland areas that had become desertified were: Mediterranean Europe: 30%, North America: 40%, South America and Mexico: 71%, southern Africa: 80%, Mediterranean Africa: 83%, west Asia: 82%, south Asia: 70%, the USSR: 55%, and China and Mongolia: 69%. Desertification threatens a third of the world’s land surface. While deforestation and devegetation caused by clearing land for the plow contribute to desertification, as does firewood gathering, the chief culprit is overgrazing. In every area of the world where herding is a significant industry, desertification is spreading.
European countries currently use three times more water than returns to natural sources. In North America the groundwater outtake is twice the replenishment rate.
Forests are the lungs of the earth, exhaling oxygen and inhaling carbon dioxide; they also build soil, absorb moisture, and translate sunlight into biomass more efficiently than any other ecosystem on earth. Forests create rain, as trees send moisture into the atmosphere. Native forests provide habitat for the largest number of species per acre of any ecosystem, except possibly a coral reef. The few native agriculturalists remaining in tropical rainforests can easily grow more food per unit of energy input than the modern industrial system. Swidden agriculture, which rotates small clearings in the forest, is one of the most energy-efficient food-producing systems known. And there’s no damage to the environment, because of area rotation and because domesticated and semi-domesticated garden plants feather off into the mature forest, creating no real break in the ecosystem.
More than a third of the earth was forested prior to the culture of empire, and only about a tenth of these forests remain. Mexico was originally 50% forested. It’s lost one-fourth of its forest lands in each century since the conquest, much of it to fire mine smelters. No Mexican forests remain in their original condition.
Acid rain is killing forests, and, in time, whole ecosystems as the growth and regeneration rate of trees slows. Northeastern United States, southern Canada, areas around Mexico City, areas of Russia, Scandinavia, and Europe are most affected. Acid rain also lowers the productivity of many crops and causes human allergies, emphysema, and heart disease.
Forests balance and moderate meteorological systems. Without them we can expect heat and aridity interspersed with torrential rain, unusual winds, tornadoes, and cyclones.
The tribal Tsembaga people of the New Guinea highlands raise sweet potatoes at an expenditure of 1 kilocalorie of energy for each 16 kilocalories of food produced. Approximately 20 kilocalories of energy are required to produce one kilocalorie of food in the industrial system, and this doesn’t include the deterioration in the food’s nutritive value and disease caused by pollution.
There are basically 10 food plants grown in the world today when looked at on a volume basis. Wheat, rice, and corn make up half of the food consumed on the planet, with barley, oats, sorghum, and millet making up the next quarter. If we add beans and potatoes, these 10 species of plants are the essential basis of world agriculture.
As of 1989, one in three U.S. citizens will have cancer in their lifetime. In 1900 cancer was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., responsible for 3% of deaths. Today it ranks second, and causes 20% of deaths.
The United States destroyed almost 5 million acres of tropical rainforest in Vietnam during the Vietnam War (more if other parts of southeast Asia are included). Bomb craters destroyed the topsoil of over 300,000 acres, and half of the country’s biologically rich coastal mangrove swamps were destroyed as well. In 1943 44% of Vietnam was still forested, in 1975 29%, and in 1983 23.6%. Because of deforestation the country, whose population has doubled in the last 40 years, now experiences drought/flood syndrome.
Fishing is down globally, and the phytoplankton of the ocean that produces 70% of the world’s oxygen is being adversely affected by pollution and the thinning of the ozone layer. The continental shelves produce the basic populations of life in the sea, with bays, wetlands, estuaries, mangrove swamps, coral reefs, and other coastline sanctuaries incubating that life. Garbage, sewage, chemical poisons, and oil spills concentrate near coastlines – 85% percent of ocean pollution originates on land. The run-off of heavy metals from the continents into the oceans is now 2½ times the natural level for mercury; 4 times for manganese; 12 times for zinc, copper, and lead; 30 times for antimony; and 80 times for phosphorous. Toxic wastes have been found in the deepest part of the ocean and in most ocean habitats. The United States, some European countries, Japan, and others have dumped radioactive waste into the ocean. An estimated 6-8 million tons of petroleum reaches the ocean each year from leaks in refineries and drilling platforms, runoff from land, dumping from ships, and the breaking up of tankers. In the United States 8 billion gallons of municipal sewage is dumped into coastal waters per day. One-third of the shell-fishing areas of the country are closed because of toxic contamination. Commercial fishing fleets dump 52 million pounds of plastic packing material and 298 million pounds of plastic fishing gear, nets, lines, and buoys into the ocean every year. Shoreline garbage accounts for millions more pounds of plastic. 100,000 marine mammals die each year from entanglement in and ingestion of plastics.
Ecological sinks, areas where life function has broken down completely, include extremely desertified areas, bodies of water where eutrophication has used up all the oxygen, and lakes killed by acid rain. Ecological sinks are now being created within the oceans, particularly along coastlines and in enclosed seas. Huge algae blooms and dead fish, seals, and dolphins washing ashore in many areas signal the approaching death of the oceans.
People are concerned about larger life forms, many of whose remnants are “saved” in zoos, but few know that microorganisms, insects, and microscopic plant species are going, too. Mammals are only 1% and vertebrates only 3% of all species, and they’re all dependent on microorganisms. Europe has hosted industrial society the longest. In France 57% of the remaining mammal species are threatened with extinction, as are 58% of the bird species, 39% of the reptile species, 53% of the amphibian species, and 27% of the fish species.
There are 70,000 different artificially produced chemicals, with at least 1,000 new ones produced each year. The industry-dominated US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies 35,000 of these as harmful or potentially harmful. Only a handful of the more popularly known toxins have been thoroughly tested for their carcinogenic, tetragenic (producing fetal deformities), or mutagenic (producing inherited mutations) properties. Most toxins that have been approved for use in the U.S. haven’t been tested for their cancer-causing or birth defect-causing properties. Years ago the U.S. Congress ordered the agency to begin testing already approved compounds for these dangers, but by 1990 only 6 had completed the process. Complete health hazard assessments have been done on perhaps 10% of the pesticides produced, 2% of the cosmetics, 18% of drugs and drug excipients (binders), and 5% of food additives.
Seventy percent of hazardous waste comes from the chemical and petrochemical industries. Production of plastics, soap, synthetic rubber and fibers, fertilizers, medicines, detergents, cosmetics, paints, adhesives, explosives, pesticides, and herbicides either produces toxic by-products, the products are toxic themselves, or both. As with radiation exposure, cancers after exposure to toxic chemicals often don’t appear until 20-30 years after exposure, so it’s difficult to prove what caused what.
Underground aquifers are being poisoned with industrial toxins by the deliberate injection of waste into wells, a common industrial practice, by percolation from the surface, and seepage from landfills and nuclear installations. Agriculture also poisons aquifers.
Toxins come to us in water, air, and food. In the World War II era one in 30 Americans died of cancer – now it’s between one in 4 and one in 5. The rate of birth defects has doubled since 1950.
“Civilization” represents a lowering of living standards, using the values of longevity, food, labor, and health for people outside the elite class. It’s the ultimate in materialism to say that we’ve made great progress because we invented airplanes, computers, and satellites, and went to the moon in a rocket ship, when billions are dying on a dying planet.
With agriculture, humans began to take more than their share and live as parasites on the earth. Eventually they believed it was their role to control the cosmos. Conquest is piracy, and ownership and differential profits are theft, according to Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin.
We live in a culture of such limited psychological rewards that children kill themselves rather than grow up in it. (Suicide is the number one cause of death in the age group 15-25.)
We must cease investing in civilization and create a positive and adaptive new culture.
It may be conservatively estimated that during the 150 years between 1780 and 1930 world tribal populations were reduced by at least 30 million as a result of the spread of industrial civilization. A more realistic estimate would be 50-100 million, as diseases raced ahead of the conquerors. This incredible mass murder occupies little space in history books. The genocide of native tribal hunter-foragers continues today in India, Bangladesh, southeast Asia, Paraguay, Chile, and the Amazon jungle – carried out by militaries, industrial interests, and settlers.
Book Two: The Seed of the Future
The self-regulation of each species gives the ecosystem its balance. Balance and cycle are the basic processes of the cosmos, as are diversity and symbiotic relationships. Relationship is a matter of individual responsibility, founded in intuition that precedes the analytical mind. Most natural cultures believe that we are conscious participants in world processes, that the thinking, intention, and balance of each person has an effect on the whole.
Spend time in nature, opening your self to its communication. Have this experience as often as possible, and gather these images into your memory. Set up land-based seed communities outside the money economy. Decentralization and permaculture, living in balance with nature. Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution describes ‘do-nothing’ farming – no plows, no chemicals, no weeding. Seeding and harvesting follow natural patterns. The process builds the soil, so that ¼ acre can support 5-10 people with little work.
Books serve as an introduction, but there’s no substitute for observation.
The natural history of one’s area may be difficult to discover, depending on the length of its colonization, but understanding it helps you gauge the land’s potential and identify its climax ecosystem (which probably no longer exists). Understanding the lifeways of native people in the area is equally important, including tools, materials, migration patterns, ethnobotany, sacred places, and myths. Get identification manuals for plants, trees, birds, animals, mushrooms, fish, and other life forms, and watch their habits. Where do plants grow? What soils do they like? Examine the soil carefully – smell and taste it – in different areas and at different times. Keep track of moisture through the seasons. Study undisturbed areas. Begin to create seed inventories. Store them carefully with notes on plant description, place of residence, date, etc. Your goal is to create a facsimile ecosystem as close to the complex original as possible, and let Gaia do the rest in terms of healing and growth.
Our solutions aren’t political, religious, or ideological – they’re simply the patterns of life.
One of the most fundamental concepts of permaculture is to arrange plants, animals, insects, and whatever life one can find so that each provides services for the other, allowing a self-energizing pattern to begin. Beavers are the hydrologists of nature, so help them resume their rightful place on the watershed (at the top, or they’ll be flooded out lower down). Fence riparian habitat off from grazing. Plant trees, bushes, and grasses. In general, the most efficient grass seeding is to seed the ridges, and let the grass move down the slopes. Know the healing succession of plants and help it along. Small depressions, organic material, and soil aeration help seeds germinate. Dam gullies so plants can become established and spread. Sandy soils can be fertile (the sand acts as a mulch). If animals come and eat your crops, eat them.
Permanent agriculture (permaculture) is based in perennial plants and plants that can easily reseed themselves.
Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, Arid-Land Permaculture, Permaculture: A Practical Guide for A Sustainable Future, and Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison
Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation by Gary Paul Nabhan
Cornucopia: A Source Book of Edible Plants by Stephan Facciola
In “Stopping Fascism,” his most recent podcast on “Alternative Radio,” writer and social critic Chris Hedges compares the declining Roman Empire with the US in 2017 – both “dominated by a bloated military and corrupt oligarchy.” He adds that just as getting rid of the vain and incompetent Emperor Commodus in 192 AD didn’t stop Rome’s decline, getting rid of Donald Trump won’t stop ours. “The choice is between inept fascists like Trump and competent fascists like Pence. Our republic and our democracy are dead,” as the result of a four-decade takeover by the conservative elite and the corporate state. Hedges goes on to describe what’s happening and detail the only way he sees to counter it.
“Idiots, seeing in such decay the chance for personal advancement and/or profit, take over in the final days of crumbling civilizations. Idiot generals wage endless unwinnable wars that bankrupt the nation. Idiot economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programs for the poor and falsely project economic growth. Idiot industrialists poison the water, the soil, and the air, slash jobs, and depress wages. Idiot bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on citizens. Idiot journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Idiot intelligence operatives orchestrate the overthrowing of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. And idiot professors, experts, and specialists busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttress the policies of the rulers. Idiot entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore, and fantasy.
There’s a familiar checklist for extinction, and we’re ticking off every item on it. The idiots know only one word: ‘more.’ They’re unencumbered by common sense. They hoard wealth and resources until workers can’t make a living and the infrastructure collapses. They live in privileged compounds where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. They see the state as a projection of their own vanity. The Roman, Mayan, French, Hapsburg, Ottoman, Romanoff, Wilhelmine, Pahlavi, and Soviet dynasties crumbled because the whims and obsessions of ruling idiots were law.
Trump is the face of our collective idiocy. He is what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality, a sputtering, narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniac. This face in the past was hidden, at least to most white Americans, but with the destruction of democratic institutions and the disempowerment of the citizen, the oligarchs and the kleptocrats have become brazen. They no longer need to pretend. They steal and lie openly. They wield armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignore the looming catastrophe caused by global warming, and cannibalizing the nation. Forget the paralysis in Congress and the inanity of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president. The crisis we face isn’t embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. It’s a four-decade-long slow-motion corporate coup d’état that’s left corporations and the war machine omnipotent, turned our electoral system into legalized bribery, and elevated public figures who master the arts of entertainment and artifice. Trump is the symptom; he is not the disease.
Our descent into despotism began with the pardoning of Richard Nixon, all of whose impeachable crimes are now legal, and the extrajudicial assault, including targeted assassinations and imprisonment, carried out on dissidents and radicals, especially black radicals. This assault, done in the name of law and order, put the organs of internal security, from the FBI to Homeland Security, beyond the reach of the law. It began with the creation of corporate- funded foundations and organizations that took control of the press, the courts, the universities, scientific research, and the two major political parties. It began with empowering militarized police to kill unarmed citizens and the spread of a horrendous system of mass incarceration and the death penalty. It began with the stripping away of our most basic constitutional rights: privacy, due process, habeas corpus, fair elections, and dissent. It began when big money was employed by political operatives such as Roger Stone, a close adviser to Trump, who spread malicious gossip and false narratives, eagerly amplified by a media devoted to profits and ratings rather than truth, until political debate became burlesque.
The ruling elites, terrified by the mobilization of the left in the 1960s, built counter-institutions to delegitimize and marginalize critics of corporate capitalism and imperialism. They bought the allegiances of the two main political parties, and imposed obedience to the neoliberal ideology within academia and the press. This campaign, laid out by Lewis Powell in his 1971 memorandum titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was the blueprint for the creeping coup d’état that 45 years later is complete.
Our failure to defend the rights of those who are demonized and persecuted leaves us all demonized and persecuted, and now we’re paying for our complacency, trapped like rats in a cage. A con artist may be turning the electric shocks on and off, but the problem is the corporate state. Until we dismantle that, we’re doomed.
Racist, violent, and despotic forces have always been part of the American landscape. They have often been tolerated and empowered by the state to persecute poor people of color and dissidents. These forces are denied absolute power as long as a majority of citizens have a say in their own governance. But once citizens are locked out of government and denied a voice, power shifts into the hands of the enemies of the open society. When democratic institutions cease to function, when the consent of the governed becomes a joke, despots fill the political void. They give vent to popular anger and frustration while arming the state to do to the majority what it has long done to the minority.
This tale is as old as civilization. It was played out in ancient Greece and Rome, the Soviet Union, fascist Germany, fascist Italy, and the former Yugoslavia. Once a tiny cabal seizes power – monarchist, Communist, fascist, or corporate – it creates a Mafia economy and a Mafia state.
Corporations are legally empowered to exploit and loot, and it’s impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or Exxon Mobil. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries are legally empowered to hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. Banks are legally empowered to burden people with student loans that can’t be forgiven by declaring bankruptcy. The animal agriculture industry is legally empowered in many states to charge those who attempt to publicize the conditions in the vast factory farms, where diseased animals are warehoused for slaughter, with a criminal offense. Corporations are legally empowered to carry out tax boycotts. Free-trade deals legally empower global corporations to destroy small farmers and businesses and deindustrialize the country. Government agencies designed to protect the public from contaminated air, water, and food and usurious creditors and lenders have been gutted. The Supreme Court, in an inversion of rights worthy of George Orwell, defines unlimited corporate contributions to electoral campaigns as the right to petition the government and a form of free speech. The press, owned by corporations, is an echo chamber for the elites. State and city enterprises and utilities are sold off to corporations that hike rates and deny services. The educational system is being privatized and turned into a species of rote vocational training. Wages are stagnant or have declined. Unemployment and underemployment, masked by falsified statistics, have thrust half the country into chronic poverty. Social services are abolished in the name of austerity. The infrastructure, neglected and underfunded, is collapsing. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, food shortages, and untreated illnesses that lead to early death plague a harried underclass. The state, rather than address the economic misery, militarizes police departments and empowers them to use lethal force against unarmed citizens. It fills the prisons with 2.3 million people, few of whom ever got a trial. And a million prisoners now work for corporations inside prisons as modern-day slaves paid pennies on the dollar without any rights or protection.
The amendments to the Constitution, designed to protect the citizen from tyranny, are meaningless. The Fourth Amendment, for example, reads, ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’ The reality is that our telephone calls, emails, texts, and financial, judicial, and medical records, along with every website we visit and our physical travels, are tracked, recorded, and stored in perpetuity in government computer banks. The executive branch of government is empowered to assassinate U.S. citizens. It can call the army into the streets to quell civil unrest under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, overturning the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force. The executive branch can order the military to seize US citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists in a process called extraordinary rendition. Those seized can be denied due process and habeas corpus and held indefinitely in military facilities. Constitutionally protected statements, beliefs, and associations are now criminalized. The state can detain and prosecute people not for what they have done, or even for what they are planning to do, but for holding religious or political beliefs that the state deems seditious. The first of those targeted have been observant Muslims, but they will not be the last. The outward forms of democratic participation – voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight, and legislation – are meaningless theater. No one who lives under constant surveillance, who is subject to detention anywhere, at any time, who can’t protect themselves from corporate exploitation, can be described as free. The relationship between the state and the citizen is one of master and slave, and the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.
The coup destroyed the two-party system, labor unions, education, the judiciary, the press, academia, consumer and environmental protection, our industrial base, communities and cities, and the lives of tens of millions of Americans no longer able to find work that provides a living wage, cursed to live in chronic poverty or locked in cages. Perhaps even more ominously, this coup destroyed the credibility of liberal democracy itself. Self-identified liberals such as the Clintons and Barack Obama mouthed the words of liberal democratic values while making war on these values in the service of corporate power, thus rendering these values meaningless.
The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970s created a crisis that forced the ruling elites to adopt a new ideology, telling undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was discredited as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens, and social parasites, opening the door to an authoritarian populism begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which supposedly championed family values, traditional morality, individual autonomy, law and order, the Christian faith, and the return of a mythical past. It turns out, 45 years later, that those who truly hate us for our freedoms are not the array of dehumanized enemies cooked up by the war machine: the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, even the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or ISIS. They are the financiers, bankers, politicians, public intellectuals and pundits, lawyers, journalists, and business people cultivated in the elite universities and business schools who sold us the utopian dream of neoliberalism.
We are entering the twilight phase of capitalism. Capitalists, unable to generate profits by expanding markets, have, as Karl Marx predicted, begun to cannibalize the state like ravenous parasites. Wealth is no longer created by producing or manufacturing, but by manipulating the prices of stocks and commodities and imposing a crippling debt peonage on the public. This casino capitalism is designed to prey on the desperate young men and women burdened by student loans, underpaid workers burdened by credit-card debt and mortgages, and towns and cities forced to borrow to maintain municipal services.
This seminal moment in human history marks the end of a long, tragic tale of plunder and murder by the white race. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting, and polluting the earth in the name of civilization and human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone or anything, especially indigenous cultures, that stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet’s wealth and resources, and believed their orgy of blood and gold would never end. Even now, as we stand on the cusp of extinction, we lack the ability to free ourselves from this myth of human progress. The taxes of corporations and the rich are cut, and public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry.
The merging of the self with a capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self- reflection, and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character, but by the material standards set by capitalism: wealth, brands, status, and career advancement. We’ve been molded into a compliant and repressed collective, a conformity characteristic of totalitarian states. And when magical thinking doesn’t work, we’re told and often accept that we are the problem. We must have more faith, we must try harder.
What does resistance look like now? It won’t come by investing hope in the Democratic Party, which didn’t lose the election because of Comey or the Russians, but because it betrayed working men and women on behalf of corporate power and used its machinery to deny the one candidate, Bernie Sanders, who could have defeated Trump, from getting the nomination. Resistance will entail a personal commitment to refuse to cooperate in large and small ways with the machinery of corporate power.
In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races, and nationalities who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead, some are forgotten, most are unknown. These individuals, despite their vast cultural differences, had common traits: a profound commitment to the truth, incorruptibility, courage, a distrust of power, a hatred of violence, and a deep empathy that was extended to people different from them, even to people defined by the dominant culture as the enemy. They are the most remarkable men and women I met in my 20 years as a foreign correspondent, and to this day I set my life by the standards they set.
You have heard of some, such as Václav Havel, whom I and other foreign reporters met during the Velvet Revolution in Prague in 1989. Others no less great you may not know, such as the Jesuit priest, Ignacio Ellacuría, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1989. And then there are those ordinary people – although, as the writer V.S. Pritchett said, ‘No people are ordinary’ – who risked their lives in wartime to shelter and protect those of an opposing religion or ethnicity who were being persecuted and hunted. To some of these ordinary people I owe my life.
To resist radical evil is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure. It’s defying injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency, and at times your life. It’s being a lifelong heretic, accepting that the dominant culture and perhaps, and maybe even especially, the liberal elites will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do but your character. When I returned to the newsroom at the New York Times in 2003, after denouncing the invasion of Iraq and being publicly reprimanded for my stance against the war, reporters and editors I’d known and worked with for 15 years lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby.
Ruling institutions – the state, the press, the church, the courts, and academia – mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, which provide them with money, status, and authority. Individuals who defy these institutions, as we saw with the thousands of academics who were fired from their jobs and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, are purged and turned into pariahs. All institutions, including the church, as Paul Tillich wrote, are inherently demonic. A life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is temporary, because sooner or later that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience won’t allow you to make. Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression ‘a sublime madness in the soul,’ and wrote that ‘nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and spiritual wickedness in high places.’ This ‘sublime madness’ is the essential quality for a life of resistance. As Daniel Berrigan said, ‘We are called to do the good, insofar as we can determine it, and then let it go.’ As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘The only morally reliable people are not those who say “This is wrong” or “This should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.”’ They know that, as Immanuel Kant wrote, ‘If justice perishes, human life has lost its meaning.’ This means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. We must at once see and act. And given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair, not by reason but by faith.
I saw in the conflicts I covered the power of this faith that lies outside of any religious or philosophical creed – what Havel called ‘living in the truth,’ exposing the corruption, lies, and deceit of the state. It’s a refusal to be part of the charade. And it has a cost. ‘You do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,’ Havel wrote. ‘You’re thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You’re cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well and ends with being branded an enemy of society.’
The dissident doesn’t operate in the realm of power. He or she has no desire for office and doesn’t try to charm the public. His or her actions simply articulate their dignity as a citizen regardless of the cost.
The long, long road of sacrifice and defiance that led to the collapse of the Communist regime stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They didn’t try to reform the Communist Party or work within the system; they didn’t even know what, if anything, their tiny protests, ignored by the state-controlled media, would accomplish. But through it all they held fast to moral imperatives, because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue, and they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these rebels – the poets, playwrights, actors, singers, and writers – ultimately triumphed over state and military power, because, however cowed and broken the people around them appeared, their message did not go unheard or unseen.
We may feel powerless, but we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements to follow. It passes on another narrative. And it will, as the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers. Perhaps this will not happen in our lifetimes, but if we persist, we keep this possibility alive.
Dr. Rieux, in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, isn’t driven by ideology, but by empathy – the duty to minister to the suffering of others no matter the cost. Empathy for human beings locked in cages, for undocumented mothers and fathers being torn from their children on the streets of our cities, for Muslims demonized and banned from our shores as they try to flee the wars and terror we created, for poor people of color gunned down by police in our streets, for girls and women trafficked into prostitution, and for the earth, which gives us life and which is being destroyed, is viewed as seditious by despots.
Accept sorrow, for who cannot be profoundly sorrowful at the state of our nation and world? But know that in resistance there is a balm that leads to wisdom, and if not joy, a strange transcendent happiness. Because as long as we resist, we keep hope alive.
The days ahead will be dark and frightening, but we must fight for the sacred, we must fight for life, we must fight the forces of death. We fight not only for ourselves, but for those who will come after us – our children. We must not be complicit. We must live in truth. The moment we defy power in any form, we are victorious – when we stand with the oppressed and accept being treated like the oppressed, when we hold up a flickering light in the darkness for others to see, when we thwart the building of a pipeline or a fracking site, when we keep a mother faced with deportation with her children, and when we mass in the streets to defy police violence. We must turn the tide of fear. We must, by taking the streets, make the ruling elites frightened of us.
To sit idle, to refuse to defy these forces, to be complicit will atrophy and wither our souls. This is not only a fight for life – it’s a fight that gives life. It’s the supreme expression of faith: the belief that no matter how great the power of evil, the power of love is greater. I do not, in the end, fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. Thank you.”
I highly recommend that you subscribe to the Alternative Radio podcast and look back in your feed so that you can listen to this incredibly eloquent speech. You can also get a CD, an MP3, or a transcript on www.alternativeradio.org.
I like Joanna Bock’s take on the #MeToo phenomenon, published October 19th in Yes! Magazine, except that she calls it a “movement,” which I think is a much bigger thing than just a Facebook/Twitter hashtag. Here are the main points in the article with which I agree:
“Movements like #MeToo can be powerful in many ways. But we limit their potential and pervert them when we insist that everyone get in a box and become one of three things: perpetrators, victims, or allies. How many of us don’t neatly fit any of those categories? How many of us are weakened by the divisions?Something similar happens when we talk about race and racism. People of color are the victims. Outright bigots are the villains. And among the rest of us, we make a mad dash to position ourselves as allies. To be allies, we have to publicly condemn the racist ‘other.’ [Or his/her behavior…]
#MeToo has given voice to the rage many female friends of mine feel at specific perpetrators of harassment and violence in their own lives. But the truth is that no one human being is to blame for this sickness of the culture we’re a part of. And our scramble to crucify the Harvey Weinsteins and Donald Trumps of the world only obfuscates the issue, just as our scramble to line up simply as victims does.
In this oppressive system – where women’s bodies are not safe, where people of color’s bodies are not safe, and where women of color’s bodies are unspeakably violated terrain – we are all suffering. And in this system, where men’s internal and emotional landscapes have been violated from birth, as well as the bodies [and minds] of women, we are all victims – playing out our roles or resisting them when and where we can. We’re enormously alienated from one other. Our most radical option is to undo that alienation, but easy labels and unjust oversimplifications deepen it. We’re all responsible for saving each other.”
I agree with the gist of Bock’s message, but want to say that I Facebook-posted “Me too” to help show the extent of the problem and to show solidarity with other women similarly violated – not to express anger at my rapist, though I don’t go so far as to feel empathy with him. I don’t feel anger at men in general either, and deplore the boxes our society tries to put them in. My main concern is that we all recognize the extent of our sexist, racist, and violent, war-mongering culture as a necessary prelude to changing it for the better. It seems kind of ironic to say this while we have a racist, sexist, war-mongering president, proud of his selfishness and sexual predation, but maybe that’s what’s opened up the wounds – and the necessary conversations.
Let’s use empathy in those conversations – really listening to what others need to express. Some of it may be ugly, even poisonous. But feelings are never wrong – only behavior can be – and the poison needs to be exposed and transformed, however gradually, in love and acceptance. We’re challenged as speakers to be that trusting and honest and as listeners to be that compassionate. Alienation can become connection and caring community, but we can’t skip any of steps.
William C. Anderson and Zoé Samudzi have an incisive article “The Anarchism of Blackness” in the current issue of “Roar” magazine (roarmag.org), headlined: “The Democratic Party has led Black America down a dead end. The sooner we begin to understand that, the more realistically we’ll be able to organize against fascism.” The authors believe that “in the coming months and years, left and left-leaning constituencies in the United States will need to make clear distinctions between actual and potentially counterproductive symbolic progress.” They also think the Black liberation struggle has and will provide “a blueprint for transformative social change,” thanks to “its positioning as an inherently radical social formation.”
Under the heading “The Failings of American Liberalism,” the authors write, “The United States’ self-ascribed democratic traits have long been filtered through oppressive forms deemed necessary by the state and a capitalist system benefiting only a few. For many years now, American liberalism has been a bitter disappointment to many who somehow maintained faith in the two-party system. The Democratic Party has seemingly been the only choice for those who consider themselves progressives working for a better society, but the notion that social inequities will be solved through the electoral process was always naïve at best. The entrails of this system are lined with the far-right fascism currently rising and long bubbling under the façade of liberal democracy at the expense of non-whites in a white supremacist society. A system predicated on the over-emphasis of ‘order’ and ‘security’ is primed for authoritarianism.
Over time, the genocide, enslavement, and other forms of violence present at this nation’s birth have been displaced and restructured by more insidious and invisible modalities of community destruction facilitated by liberalism like the reservation, the prison system, and austerity policies. Over the past few decades, the United States has seen a shift in liberal politics leaving the Democratic Party in a completely compromised position. Instead of moving left, the Democratic Party pandered to the right, facilitating a conservative shift. Liberal support for the Iraq War, post-9/11 domestic policy, and the foreign policy extensions of the War on Terror have led to the current administration led by a plutocratic tyrant hell-bent on the destruction of vulnerable populations. Despite the optics of change and the promises of a new day and the moral victories of ‘going high,’ an old sun is rising on a white horizon.
Societal fascism describes the process and political logic of state formation wherein entire populations are either excluded or ejected from the social contract. They’re excluded pre-contractually because they’ve never been part of the social contract and never will be; or they’re ejected from a contract they were previously a part of. Black Americans are the former: residents in a settler colony predicated on the genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans; residents in the United States, as opposed to citizens of. Despite a constitution laden with European Enlightenment values and a document of independence declaring egalitarianism and inalienable rights as the law of the land, Black existence was that of private property. The Black American condition is perpetual relegation to the afterlife of slavery as long as the United States continues to exist as an ongoing settler project. Black exclusion from the social contract is existence within a heavily surveilled and heavily regulated state of subjection.
Whiteness has long sought to grapple with the existential threat posed by Black freedom. Black repatriation to Africa was the solution for slaveholders concerned that the presence of free Blacks would inspire enslaved Blacks to revolt and worried that Black families would burden state welfare systems and that interracial labor competition would ultimately compromise wages for white workers. The ‘Back to Africa’ project was subsequently taken up by Black thinkers like Marcus Garvey in the late-19th and early-20th centuries following the failures of Reconstruction in the South, the first attempt to meaningfully extend citizenship to newly emancipated Blacks and protect them from white supremacist violence, and also the social and political disillusionment of Blacks who had migrated to northern states.
Since then progress has been secured by Black people’s mobilization rather than by any political party. We’re the ones who have achieved much of the progress that’s changed the nation for the better for everyone. Our organization can be as effective now as it has been in the past, serving every locality and community based on their needs and determinations. This can be achieved through disassociating ourselves from party politics that fail to serve us.
While bound to the laws of the land, Black America can be understood as an extra-state entity because of Black exclusion from the liberal social contract. Due to this extra-state location, Blackness is in many ways anarchistic. African-Americans, as an ethno-social identity comprised of descendants from enslaved Africans, have innovated new cultures and social organizations and have engaged in anarchistic resistances since our very arrival in the Americas. From slave ship and plantation rebellions, to the creation of maroon societies in the American South, to Harriet Tubman’s removal of enslaved peoples from the custody of their owners, to post-Emancipation labor and prison camps, to combatting the historic (and present) collusion between state law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, assertions of Black personhood, humanity and liberation have necessarily called into question both the foundations and legitimacy of the American state.
Liberalism can’t defeat fascism; it can only engage it through symbolic political rigmarole. The triteness of electoral politics that’s been superimposed onto Black life in the United States positions Black people as a mule for much of this nation’s social progression. Our hyper-visible struggle is a fight for all people’s freedom, and we die only to realize that everything gained can be reversed with the quick flick of a pen. While liberalism takes up the burden of protecting ‘free speech’ and the rights of those who would annihilate non-whites, Black people and other people of color assume all the risks and harms. The symbolic battles the Democratic Party and its liberal constituents engage in pose direct existential threats to Black people because they protect esteemed ideals of a constitution that has never guaranteed Black people safety or security. The current fascist moment is neither ideologically new nor temporally surprising; it’s an inevitability.
The mechanisms working against us deal death and destruction in countless numbers across the non-Western world while turning domestic Black and Brown neighborhoods into proxies for how to treat sub-citizen ‘others.’ The militarization of police, border regimes, stop-and-frisk, and ICE are clear examples of how the state regards the communities it targets and brutalizes. At the very least, a conversation on self-defense that doesn’t mistreat our survival as a form of violence is sorely needed. It would be even better if the conversation normalized anti-fascist organizing that prepared people for the possibility of a fight, instead of simply hoping that day never comes and respectably tut-tutting about those currently fighting in the streets.
Everyone has a stake in the fight against fascism. It can’t be defeated with bargaining, petitioning, pleading, ‘civilized’ dialogue, or any other mode of response we were taught was best. Fascists have no respect for ‘othered’ humanities. Regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, religion, physical ability, or nationality, there’s a place for each of us in this struggle. We’re always fighting against the odds because there’s no respite in a perpetually abusive state. It can only function through this abuse, so we can only prevail through organizing grounded in radical love and solidarity. This solidarity must prioritize accountability, and it must be authentic. Strategic organizing of this sort, organizing where we understand the inextricable linkedness of our respective struggles, is our means of bolstering the makings of a cohesive left in the United States. We no longer have time to waste on dogma, sectarianism, prejudice, and incoherence.
The sooner Black America in particular begins to understand our position as an inherently anarchistic element of the United States, the more realistically we’ll be able to organize. A better society has to be written through our inalienable self-determinations, and that will only happen when we realize that we are holding the pen.
William C. Anderson is a freelance writer, published by The Guardian, Pitchfork, Truthout, and at the Praxis Center for Kalamazoo College, where he’s a contributing editor covering race, class and immigration.
Zoé Samudzi is a Black feminist writer and PhD student in Medical Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. Her current research is focused on critical race theory and biomedicalization.