from moon beam - Wednesday, October 12, 2005
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Freddy Jones realised that he had heard a rattling somewhere in the front of the car for some time. On the fateful day it had become a lot worse, but he didn’t do anything about it. He had just backed out of the drive, and one of the kids was holding the dog on a lead. There was another car coming up behind him so he put his food down to get going, and had just looked to the side to wave when the nearside wheel came off and the car jolted and skidded violently to the left, just missing Mary but crushing the dog against the curb.
They were all devastated. Only a dog, but Freddy was so sorry. In fact he thought he’d never really get over that event. He couldn’t get it out of his head for weeks.
It never once occurred to Freddy to ask himself why the wheel had fallen off. He just saw it as one of those annoying things that happens in life now and then, and you then just cope as best you can.
It’s difficult to believe this but a few years later almost the very same thing happened. The wheel began to rattle. It grew louder over a few days. But this time Freddy knew what it meant; it meant that the damn wheel was going to come off again. He remembered how very unpleasant things were last time that happened.
Sure enough the rattles got worse and worse. Freddy and the whole family were very worried. They just hoped that when the wheel came off it wouldn’t injure any of them. But it didn’t occur to any of them to ask why the wheel might be coming off again, and whether there just might be something that could be done to stop this happening.
There is a technical term we would use to describe Freddy —- It is "idiot." When the wheel comes off Freddy is very very upset, so very sorry. But it never occurs to him to think about why it comes off, let alone whether or not there is anything he could do to make sure it doesn’t come off.
This story is of course incredible. No one could possibly be as stupid as Freddy and his family —could they?
In 2003-4 Americans spent $1,000,000,000,000 on the effort to get people to buy things they otherwise would not have bought; i.e., on advertising and marketing. That’s about $16,000 per family. How many person-hours of work, how many offices and computers, and CEOs and brains and PhDs working so hard to cajole people into buying even more Coke and DVDs. What might be the size of the workforce involved here, how many think-tanks and graduate schools of marketing and accountants devoted to this effort?
In the Twentieth Century about 160 million people were killed in wars. What was the magnitude of the effort devoted to solving the question, "Why do we from time to time find ourselves at war?", or the question, "Why did this or that particular war occur?" The answer is, almost none. A tiny few academics potter at this sort of question; generating a literature that must be around one millionth the size of that devoted to marketing. And almost no one ever reads anything they say or think about the issues. Is this any more stupid than Freddy’s behaviour?
Every now and then our leaders tell us our children must go and slaughter the children of other people just like us, and everyone eagerly flocks to the task. They work so hard at it, talented people train for months, learning how to operate complicated machinery and how important it is to have polished buckles and how to make sure that they all lift their left foot at the same time. After it’s all over they are usually extremely sorry about the whole affair, but hardly any of them will have given a moments thought to the questions like, "What got us into this? What were the causal factors here? Were there a other options….and what might we all have done years previously to make sure we didn’t end up in this situation?"
What would you say if I asked you to go and kill someone? It seems to me that before you agreed you should make very very sure that this is something you really ought to do. It is a very serious and distasteful business to set out to deliberately harm another person. Most people have an intense reluctance to do this. In fact Crossman (On Killing) says most soldiers in the US Civil War and World War I battles refused to fire their weapons at all. So you would think that any human would go to a great deal of trouble to make sure that they didn’t get into a situation where they might harm another unless they had thoroughly thought out whether this was necessary, and whether there were any more satisfactory options. Surely anyone who acted otherwise would be even more stupid and irresponsible than Freddy.
I could be wrong but in my estimate, judging from a life time of listening to broadcasts of Anzac Day events, just about none of the people who go to them ever ask these kinds of questions. They are so overcome by the sacrifice, the heroism, the sadness, and they all seem very very sorry wars happen — but they seem never to show the slightest interest in why the wars occurred, whether they could have been avoided, and what it is we keep doing to get ourselves into them and what we have to do to make sure we don’t. Wouldn’t you agree that by comparison Freddy is beginning to look no more stupid than the rest of us?
The problem is far greater than a failure to think about how we keep getting into wars. Wars don’t come like the rain or volcanoes. They are caused by social processes. Nor are they unfortunate, unavoidable accidents. The most distressing core of it all is that the main causes lie within some of the taken for granted, never questioned, never even recognised assumptions and values and commitments of our culture. We bring it all on ourselves. We have a society that inevitably, by its very nature unavoidably generates vicious conflicts, which easily and often result in war.
At the core of modern Western culture is the fierce, unquenchable determination to get more. Enough is unacceptable, indeed inconceivable. Nobody is satisfied with enough. They all want more — and more. No one’s income is ever high enough. No one’s house is ever big or luxurious enough. Even the middle class and the rich and the super rich want more, and more and more. The fundamental, supreme goal of all western societies is to increase "living standards"; i.e., to get richer, all the time and without end. The overriding goal of all nations is economic growth. Never mind the fact that rich world per capita "living standards" are now about 80 times those of the poorest 3 billion people on earth, and far higher than all people on earth can ever rise to, or the fact that if all the world’s people were to rise to the present "living standards" of the rich countries world resource production would have to be about 8 times as great as it is now, and all estimated coal, oil and gas resources would be totally exhausted in about 18 years.
Despite all this, our supreme goal is to get richer, as fast as possible, and without any limit. Yet we in the rich countries can’t even have our present living standards without taking far more than our fair share of the world’s resources, and running down our ecological capital stocks. Does this seem to have anything to do with the occurrence of war?
In other words, a fundamental and central element in Western culture is greed. Western culture is not about being content with what is sufficient for a nice quality of life, or about frugality, or sharing and helping or living simply in community. These kinds of values are generally ignored at best, and more commonly spurned and despised. The point of existence is to get as rich as possible, without limit. Many might seem to plod along content with moderate or low incomes but let them win the lottery and see if they don’t instantly purchase lots of big houses and cars and travel.
Modern history is little more than the wreckage strewn path that this mentality has generated. Nations have been led by their "entrepreneurial" classes to go after more than they have, either through direct conquest and plunder, or through the exercise of economic power, i.e., the capacity to take wealth by competing and winning according to the prevailing rules of exchange and trade. The glorious British Empire was made up of many countries and millions of people conquered in something like 72 colonial wars, at the cost of millions slaughtered in the process or killed later by the devastated economies. We now have to deal with the powder keg that is the Middle East, and with "terrorism", created in large part by British and French arrogance and thuggery. Britain promised the Arabs a homeland if they would help in overthrowing the Turkish empire, (so the British and French could carve it up between them.) But then they and the French promptly made the the Sykes-Picot agreement to divided the Arab lands between themselves while totally ignoring the Arabs and their wishes and rights. Their Balfour Declaration enabled a Jewish state to be set up on Arab land. The American CIA eliminated the Mossadeq government in Iran, transferring control over the oil to US corporations, and …the list is endless. World Wars 1 and 2 can be seen as attempts by Germany and Japan to push into the imperial game. Outrageous of course — in the eyes of the British, French, Dutch and Americans, who had already grabbed just about everything worth taking. A major factor in Japan’s declaration of war was America’s blocking of Japanese access to oil in Pacific regions. Not irrelevant of course was Japan’s threat to the lands the US had stolen from the Spanish, who had stolen them from the Phillipinos long before.
This is what modern history has overwhelmingly been about — that is, national thuggery, deceit, theft, conquest and grabbing, driven by greed. Had anyone in 19th Century Britain been asked is it acceptable to beat up another person and take their property, they would have said, "Of course it isn’t!" To explain then how they could have not only supported the British Empire, not only have eagerly fought all those wars to secure it, but how they could also have come to regard it with fierce pride, surely gets us into territory where Freddy starts to look like the epitomy of rationality.
"Ah but that’s history; it isn’t like that now." Yes it is. Your empire is bigger than ever. The global economy is grotesquely unjust. One and a half billion people have far more than they need while the poorest 3 billion have to get by on under $2 a day, about 1.2 billion are malnourished and perhaps 30,000 children perish every day through deprivation. The deprivation does not occur because resources are too scarce to provide for all people. There is in fact more farm land per person in Bangladesh than in Britain. The reason for the deadly impoverishment and deprivation is of course to do with the savage inequality in access to wealth, and more importantly, to productive capacity like land. These are a direct and inevitable consequence of our economic system.
Firstly the market system enables the rich countries to take most of the resources produced in the world for sale, simply because we can pay more for them.. Secondly, Third world "development" has taken a form whereby the only things developed are those which will maximise the return on investment of capital by a corporation. As a result most of the Third World’s productive capacity has been put into producing food and goods to export to rich world supermarkets, enriching corporations in the process. More than half the best land in countries like the Philippines grows crops to export while the people who work in the plantations are among the poorest in the world. In Bangladlesh people are paid 15c a day to make shirts, when they would obviously be far better off if that time and energy could be going into local firms and farms directly producing for themselves things they urgently need.
But the rich countries prevent development of that kind. Agencies such as the World Bank will not allow resources or aid to be put into anything but capitalist development. Indeed the only conception of development that exists is capitalist development; ie., development is and can only be development of whatever people with capital want to develop. Thus in many of the places most in need of appropriate development like Tuvalu, where good profits cant be made, no development takes place, even though there are abundant resources of soil, forest, labour and talent.
These are the basic elements in your empire i.e., the system whereby you get so much. The global economy is now an empire governed not primarily by military force but by the force of market economics. The agencies of the rich countries such as the World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organisation, and especially the capital markets, force poor countries to let corporations take whatever will maximise their profits and force those countries to gear productive capacity to rich world demand.
Third World countries are highly indebted and have no choice but to comply. Even minor rich countries like Australia could not resist, if they wanted to. Any country that decided to hinder the freedom of corporations, or to tax corporations properly (half the transnationals in Australia pay no tax at all) or control their economies for the good of the people, or to spend more on public goods like hospitals, would be dumped and crushed by global capital. The foreign investors would leave and the capital markets would refuse to lend to that country. If a country tried to increase regulation and taxation in order to do these things would make their exports would be uncompetitive. Globalisation now cannot be resisted.
Thus globalisation is eliminating the capacity of Third World countries to preserve their forests and fisheries and mineral resources for their own benefit. There must be no impediments to free trade and investment, i.e., corporate access. This is a far more efficient way to run an empire than with the use of military force. No need to send a gunboat when the rules of the World Trade Organisation prohibit governments from interfering with the freedom of access of corporations to a country’s resources. Monbiot ("Stealing Nations", The Guardian, 19th Aug., 2003) is one of many who explain how the standard rules of the IMF routinely, again and again, enforce the theft of entire national economies.
Well, it’s not quite that smooth all the time. Yes mostly the economy forces impoverished people to remain quietly in the plantations and sweatshops producing your chocolate and running shoes for starvation wages. But from time to time it is necessary to resort to military activity to keep in place or install the regimes that will follow the kinds of policies that benefit our corporations and supermarket shoppers. We supported Suharto for 40 years, supplying lots of arms which he use to suppress dissent while he looted Indonesia and gave away its riches to his cronies. Why? Because he allowed our corporations to get at much of the loot. Ditto for many other brutal dictators, like Marcos, Noriega, Mobutu, and Saddam Hussein. (If you doubt any of this, you might have a look at the material at Note 1 below.)
"International relations" is in other words essentially about thuggery and bullying ---- polite and impolite, subtle and ham-fisted, --- with a view to grabbing and looting as much as is possible. Take for example, at the relatively polite end of the scale, Australia’s recognition of Indonesia as the rulers of East Timor soon after the invasion (almost the only nation to recognise)…in exchange for rights to the oil fields in the Timor sea. In 2004 East Timor sought to have these fields renegotiated, but Australia refused to allow the international tribunals to hear the case, because they would have ruled in favour of East Timor. Meanwhile as time goes by Australia gets revenues from exploration leases granted in those regions. By the time a legal settlement is reached there will probably be no oil regions left unallocated.
Our high "living standards" in rich countries could not be as high as they are if these kinds of things were not done to secure for us access to most of the world’s wealth. You and I get most of the world’s resources. Our per capita consumption is about 17 times that of the poorest 3 billion people. We could not do so if the global economy was at all just. From time to time we have to engage in coups, assassinations and invasions, and supply murderers with weapons, in order to maintain the flows of wealth from their fields and mines and forests to our supermarkets rather than to them.
So from time to time you are told that it is necessary to take up arms to defend against some "threat to our interests", such as our middle east oil. Usually this means that some nation is threatening to take resources that we are getting, or threatening to take back from us regions we took previously. You can’t expect to go on getting all that coffee or chocolate or oil unless you are from time to time prepared to fight off others who also want to take it. From time to time someone like Lamumba or Allende or Castro or Mossadeq comes along and wants to make sure his country’s resource wealth benefits his people, not us and our corporations. That’s unacceptable to the rich countries. If the IMF can’t rein him in by imposing its standard conditions on debt rearrangement, he will probably be branded as a "communist", or a rogue state, and dealt with.
But what about Hitler? Aren’t there cases where there is no doubt we have to fight against an unambiguously evil villain? But you shouldn’t have let it come to that, and it would not have had you been sensible long before. The time to stop a war is many years before it breaks out, and the way to stop it usually involves you refusing to take part in the grabbing that leads to it. World War I was largely about imperial grabbing. After it was over the victors carved up for themselves what had been the Turkish empire, ignoring the needs and the rights of the people in those regions. They punished Germany severely at Versailles, helping to set up World War II. If you had really wanted to avoid World War II you should have started working seriously on the problem no later than perhaps 1880 before the imperial scramble to carve up Africa began…and that would have got you nowhere if you were not prepared to relinquish the underlying drive to get more and more of the world’s wealth.
In this context consider your probable future. One and a half billion like you have resource consumption rates that are impossible for all to attain. But we have taught the rest that "development" and "progress" can only be conceived in terms of rising to our "living standards". So 9.4 billion people will soon be aspiring to rich world rates. In addition we the already very rich insist on increasing our consumption by at least 3% p.a., meaning it will be 8 times as great by 2070. Meanwhile resources are already very scarce. Even if you are no more intelligent than Freddy you must grasp that the only conceivable out come is an increasing level of armed conflict in the world. You had better hang onto your fleets and rapid deployment forces --- you will need them to secure your oilfields, mines and plantations.
Also consider the peace movement. So many good people who go to rallies to stop this or that war or to ban the bomb or eliminate landmines. — then drive home in their off-road vehicle to their too-big house, totally oblivious of the fact that their affluent way of life is the direct cause of ecological destruction, the deprivation and poverty, the resource depletion and the wars going on all around them. How many of them realise that global peace and security are not possible unless there is global justice, and that that is not possible unless people in rich countries accept movement to far lower rates of resource consumption.
There is no possibility of solving the alarming range of global problems accelerating all around us unless we recognise the need to move to ways that involve far less production, consumption, and resource use. This cannot be done without radical system change. Anzac Day seems to demonstrate conclusively that we are totally incapable of thinking in these terms. It reveals an incapacity to think beyond the immediate experience of war, when the wheel comes off. We are in fact much sillier than Freddy. At least his major life goal is not loosening his own wheel nuts.
Obviously greed is not the sole cause of war. Religious ideologies and other factors can be powerful sources too. But in our era the overwhelmingly important causal factor is insistence on "living standards" that are so high, and the quest to get richer all the time
The most important element in all this is not the crass conspicuous consumption of the super-rich. It is the taken for granted "standards" of ordinary people, the "normal", "nice" house or car or wardrobe, the buying of unnecessarily expensive things, the mindless throw-away trivia, the insistence on new things, the acceptance of cars and jet away holidays the rejection of anything old or worn or patched. No one is content with modest and sufficient standards — only resource-expensive luxurious standards are acceptable.
How many teary eyed patriots watching the Anzac Day march today were thinking in these terms? It is precisely because they flatly refuse to do so that they will eagerly enlist the next time some leader tells them their "national interests are threatened." Are we any more inclined to think in these terms than we were say 100 years ago, or 2000 years ago. For all our "education", when it comes to grasping the way our quest for riches generates the wars we get ourselves into we behave like feeble-minded cavemen. How many more centuries of slaughter and grief will it take for us to rise to Freddy’s level of wisdom? Anzac day confronts one with all this. Anzac Day is very disturbing.
1. For an overview see http://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/10-Our-Empire.html
For extensive documentation see http://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/DocsOUREMPIRE.html