Looking for a way towards civilization – I
by G.S. <george.salzman@umb.edu> 27 July 2008
this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/s/2008-07-27.htm

Drowning in the blood of Armageddon

The great paradox we face

      Our ability to conceptualize, to think about the world – from the sub-microscopic scale through the ordinary macroscopic and even to the vast cosmological scales, is unique to our species. Our conceptualization of time is likewise not shared with any other species. We are unique in the subtlety of our thinking ability. No other species even comes close to us in this respect. Like all life forms we obey basic drives that exist independently of rationality – drives that must be satisfied in order to maintain our individual lives (the need for food and water and the maintenance of our body temperature within a quite narrow range), and for the propagation of our species (sexual reproduction), these being several essentials. The paradox is that despite the startling rational heights to which humans have evolved, it is uniquely our species-specific calculated actions that inflict on humans (as well as other animals) the most horrible forms of deprivation, torture and death, and that threaten massive destruction of the biosphere, the basic foundation that supports all life. We are living through, and multitudes – at least many millions – of us are dying violently in what seems to me a kind of species suicide, carrying out actions that cannot fail to make life worse, if not a physical impossibility, for the majority of the world's people. How can we understand the causes of this growing catastrophe, and how can we change the current dismal reality so that all peoples can thrive?

      To come to grips with understanding the all-encompassing tragic paradox, it may be helpful to consider a brief encapsulation of the status of European so-called ‘civilization’ almost one hundred years ago, at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Forty years later historian Isaac Deutscher wrote of this cataclysmic event, [1]

THE outbreak of the First World War brought to an abrupt end the golden age of European Liberal capitalism, parliametarianism, and refomist socialism which had flourished together in nearly half a century of peace, interrupted only by minor wars in the colonies and on the Balkan fringe. Two generations of Europeans had grown up in the optimistic belief that man had progressed far enough to secure ascendancy over nature and to change and perfect his social environment through argument, conciliation, and the majority vote. They had also been inclined to view war as a relic of a barbarous past, to which mankind would surely not revert. The accumulation of wealth in Europe as a whole had been so impressive and so rapid that it appeared to guarantee growing prosperity to all classes of society and to rule out violent social conflict.
   Nowhere were these illusions more deeply seated than in the Labour movement, especially in the Second International. The International had inherited its ideology, it watchwords, and its symbols from the revolutionary periods of the past century, from the upheavals of 1848, from the Paris Commune of 1871, and from the underground struggle of German socialism against Bismark. The watchwords and symbols spoke of the wokers’ international solidarity and of their irreconcilable class struggle, culminating in the overthrow of bourgeois government. The practical work of the Socialist parties had long since ceased to have much in common with these traditions. Irreconcilable class struggle had given way to peaceful bargaining and parliamentary reformism. The more successful these methods, the closer grew the connexion between the formerly outlawed Socialist parties and trade unions on the one hand and the governments and associations of employers on the other and the more effectively did national interests and viewpoints prevail over inherited watchwords of internationalism. Up to 1914 the Socialist parties still managed, on the whole, to explain and justify their reformist work in customary revolutionary terms. Their leaders continued to profess Marxism, internationalism, and anti-militarism until the first day of war, when the International crumbled.
   Of the great European nations, Russia was the only one that had participated but little in the peaceful progress of the preceding era.
      As Deutscher succinctly explains, war trumped the until-then professed international solidarity of the labor and anti-capitalist parties in the nations of central Europe. Even so profoundly committed a person as Peter Kropotkin, the great humanitarian Russian anarchist, wanted to take up arms against the Germans. I think there is an almost totally unrecognized though not hidden hand of history that drives humanity, that drove it into the First World War – the first of a seemingly interminable series of wars – and that is today driving the entire human species over the cliff into the abyss of Armageddon. It is within our rational ability to recognize this hand and to abruptly change course from ongoing disaster to a true flowering of life, nurtured by human intelligence and our shared desires for love and respect. We can recognize the same basic cause at work today that drove the major powers into World War I a century ago. In the last sentence quoted above, Deutscher was mistaken when, in speaking of Russia, he said it was largely left out of “the peaceful progress of the preceding era”. His mistake was in characterizing that period preceding World War I as one of ‘peaceful progress’ The world was ‘progressing’ blindly towards massive slaughter and destruction, in the grip of that unrecognized deadly ideology.

In the driver’s seat – the prevailing ideology

      Among the fatal beliefs that marked the prevailing ideology then (and now) is the false notion that humanity “had progressed far enough to secure ascendancy over nature and to change and perfect his social environment through argument, conciliation, and the majority vote.” Science and technology opened the possibility – so it seemed – of massive engineering projects for human betterment, which indeed they did. But the dominant system of values, the prevailing ideology, insured that the choice of ‘projects for human betterment’, made of course by the controlling sector of society, would be for the immediate advantage of the minority of people in that sector – not for the benefit of the entire population. So it was a century ago and so it is today. As long as human society continues to operate according to the dictates of the currently dominant ideology, we will continue the mad race to overwhelming disaster.

      At this moment in history the scale of murder and destruction committed by the United States far surpasses that of all other national groups combined. Still, I’m sure Americns are not inherently evil, rather that this monstrous behavior is a consequence of the prevailing system of values, values that also dominate the thoughts and actions of a great part of humanity. Many of you will, I know, be unwilling to admit the extent to which you are not only compelled to comply with the dictates of the ruling ideology, but that you willingly support it. In an earlier appeal, directed primarily to Americans but which applies to everyone, I wrote [2]

      . . . We Americans know that we are not born to kill ― that our newborns are as beautiful and rich in potentialities for having lives of love and mutual respect as any other peoples in the world. They don't have to be turned into torturers and pillagers, and tortured souls themselves, and it is up to us to stop the carnage that is killing both them and their victims, but also the spirits of us all. It is up to us to make of America a land of life and love and not of death and destruction.

Natalia and her father, Juan José García Ortíz, in their home in Guelatao de Juárez, a small indigenous mountain town high in the Northern Sierras of Oaxaca, Mexico. Juan, a Zapotec Indian, is a video film maker. Natalia's occupation is "being a child", as it should be. Photo taken 23 November 2003 by G.S.

      We must cherish the children, all children. They are the true treasures of all our lives. They bear the life of humanity. They are the link to the future, the only true, organic link. We must have a world full of laughing, playing children, and parents free of tortures, economic or otherwise, parents free to enjoy their children and to be enjoyed by their children. Those should be human rights.

      This simple statement — We must cherish the children, all children. — is the basic credo we need if we are to achieve a humane global social order. It is a credo against which all values that make up a governing ideology ought to be tested, and those that don't meet the test should be rejected. Let’s examine something simple, and see where it leads. Food is a basic need of all people. Starvation is rampant in parts of the world. [3] Nevertheless cultivatable land is being increasingly used for growing biofuel crops instead of food crops. It’s easy to understand the impact this has on the level of starvation. Why is this happening? Because within the prevailing culture the profit system predominates. Thus, for example a farmland investment company tries to profit on the growing spectre of starvation by luring investors with the assertion, “Farmland is a key part of the agriculture commodity bull market story.” [4] The value of aerable land as a commodity is unexceptional in contemporary ‘civilization’, in which almost everything can be bought and sold as a commodity. By way of contrast, the Oglala Lakota Chief Crazy Horse held that, “One does not sell the land on which the people walk.” His ‘uncivilized’ culture, which people of the European-derived culture destroyed, did not produce starvation. Our supposedly civilized culture generates massive starvation and death. The very notion of speculating on the future ‘money value’ of farmland for growing edible crops would have no basis if food were not a commodity — if adequate nutrition were simply a human right.

      I would begin then by rejecting the part of the value system that makes food a commodity to be bought and sold. Access to adequate basic nutrition should be a human right, taken for granted. Opposition to such a radical change would be instantaneous and enormous from all sectors of the food industry and the allied commercial interests. The end of much competitive marketing would mean a loss of media advertising income, of which the food industry is a major source. The gulf between what is morally and ethically acceptable — that no child starve — and the capitalist economic system — which guarantees massive starvation — is clearly unbridgeable. We should not fool ourselves that within the current system, ruled by the profit motive and the entire ideology that goes with it, impoverished and starving people will not inevitably result.

      Along with the decommodification of basic foodstuffs should go recognition that access to safe potable water also be a human right independent of commercial considerations. The basic credo sounds simple — after all, cherishing children is hardly a challenge — but its implications — really cherishing them in our actions and not just with words — are revolutionary. Children are among those cruelly affected by wars – all wars. The concept of ‘just wars’ must therefore be rejected. According to the credo, there are no ‘just wars’. So war as a means of resolving conflicts must be rejected. And along with this the means for conducting wars should be abandoned. As with the food industry, the armaments industry is a source of enormous profits, and the outcry from the affected capitalists would be immediate and ferocious if their source of profits were threatened by abolition of wars and the markets for their deadly merchandise. [5]

      If you are a rational realist who had the patience to read to this point, in all likelihood it seems clear to you that although I may not be completely crazy, I am a utopian dreamer. ‘A world where everyone is assured basic nutrition as a human right?’, ‘a world without war?’ A utopian wish, most rational people would declare. And of course it is. But if you are truly rational, and willing to think about it, you will come to realize that unless we change the prevailing system of values that governs our lives, in accord with either the credo I suggested or one with the same implications, the orgy of death and destruction will continue, and increase in intensity. The ‘world-class’ biologist and human being George Wald put it very succinctly in 1974 when, in his address in Tokyo at the 20th World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, he said “We could begin to cope with all the problems that now threaten our lives. But we cannot cope with any of them while maximizing profits.” [6]

      What Wald did not say, at least explicitly, is that the problems threatening our lives cannot be dealt with while the world remains in the capitalist system. My view, arguble of course, is that we must replace capitalism with a radically different system for managing our society in order to have modest but decent lives for all people instead of the abject misery — the cruel wanton deprivation to which billions of poor people are subjected, many of them until dead, in order that a small fraction of the world’s rich people garner and squander the bulk of the world’s natural wealth. This brings me to the most difficult part of the argument, the part against which I think you are likely to object most strongly. It concerns the suffocating burden on humanity resulting from the psychology of the world’s privileged people, of whom I am one. I will tackle it in the next essay.

[1] Isaac Deutscher. The quote is from Volume I, The Prophet Armed – Trotsky 1879-1921, of Deutscher’s three-volume trilogy on Trotsky’s life, 1954. Alfred A. Knopf and Random House Vintage edition, published 1965.

[2] That earlier essay, titled “Raw Hate, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year —a Christmas rant—”, is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/S2/2007-12-25.htm .

[3] Simply Googling ‘world starvation’, I came upon “40,000 Third World children starve to death or die from simple preventable diseases each day. New York Times, September 17, 1992, p. a24.” in one of the more than half a million websites Google estimated it had located..

[4] Farmland investment. Posted at http://www.usetdas.com/TDAS/NewsArticle.aspx?NewsID=11856, the so-called press release begins:
   World Bank Blames Biofuel Use For Rising Food Prices and Could Divert over 10% of the World's Arable Land into Energy Production
   Calgary, Alberta CANADA, July 24, 2008 /FSC/ - Agcapita Farmland Investment Partnership (AFIP - 0),
   A confidential World Bank report unequivocally blames the mandated production of biofuels for the global food crisis. Western nations are diverting grains, oilseed products, corn and sugar into biofuel manufacturing. According to the recently published report, biofuels have increased food prices by 75 percent. By way of comparison, the US Government claims that biofuels have contributed to less than 3 percent of food price increases. Agcapita's research estimates that current biofuel targets in the US, the EU, Canada, Japan, Brazil, India and China alone could require the use of over 400 million acres of arable land or over 10% of the world's total - a trend that cannot fail to have a material effect on crop prices.

[5] Commerce in military equipment. Robert Fisk provides an informative view of the international trade in armaments and addresses the psychology and the value systems of those engaged in this highly lucrative trade. See Chapter Nineteen, Now Thrive the Armourers . . . in his monumental treatise, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East.

[6] George Wald. The New York Times on 17 August 1974 reported his talk, given on 2 August. The excerpts from his talk that the Times published are posted, along with other material on this remarkable man, at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/SfHS/2005-05-23.htm .

All comments and criticisms are welcome.    <george.salzman@umb.edu>

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