How Arrogance Blinds the West to Their Historic Decline

Peter Frankopan – The Silk Roads

Directed by Justin Hardy (2017)

Film Review

This documentary, based on historian Peter Frankopan’s best selling book Silk Roads, explores the Western trait of putting their own interests at the center of their world and possessing no interest or capacity to understand other cultures.

Typically both Europeans and Americans believe they have a monopoly on “goodness” – that only they can save the world from darkness and suffering. Their ruling elite uses these beliefs to justify invading and occupying third world countries and are surprised when other cultures regard us as smug and arrogant.

According to Frankopan, Europe and the US presently find themselves at the wrong end of global trade routes. Asian countries, especially China, that used to be poor are rich now. Asia provides the vast majority of Western consumer goods and owns most Western debt. Over the last 40 years, there has been a vast transfer of wealth from the West to Asia. These new centers of wealth (especially China) have become the hub of scientific, technological and intellectual progress. However owing to their self-centered navel gazing, most Westerners are totally unaware this is happening.

Frankopan also maintains Europe has never had much to offer in the way of natural resources or intellectual innovation (Christianity has always suppressed knowledge and progress). In 800 AD, Mesopotamia was the wealthiest region in the world, with Baghdad viewed as the global center of trade and learning. During this period, Europe’s most important resource was slaves, with Dublin, Mainz, Utrecht and Venice serving as major trafficking centers for kidnapped women and children.

All this changed with the conquest of the New World, the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans, and the flow of silver and gold back to Europe. This illicit capture of mineral wealth and human beings enabled Europe to developed highly specialized skills in violence and conquest. They no longer needed to produce their own wealth because they could use their military prowess to steal it from other regions.

Over time, the economic decline of the West has eroded their military capability to the point they can no longer win wars.

As in Rome, obscene income inequality is one of the main indicators of an empire in decline.

 

Portrait of a Homeless Philosopher

Martin

Directed by Donal Moloney (2018)

Film Review

Martin is a profoundly moving portrait of a homeless man befriended by Irish filmmaker Donal Moloney. Martin Holt, who lives under a bridge, considers himself much better off than people who live in houses – mainly because he has no debt, obligations or stress.

He maintains happiness is an illusion. Life, for him, is the simple pleasures of feeding pigeons, reading books at the library and enjoying seasonal changes.

The cinematography is stunning.

Oil Privatization: NAFTA and the Rape and Pillage of Mexico

Crude Harvest: Selling Mexico’s Oil

Al Jazeera (2017)

Crude Harvest is about a controversial law Mexico has enacted that puts its publicly owned oil industry up for sale to foreign corporations. The law also grants foreign oil companies the right to override the wishes of Mexican farmers if oil is discovered on their land.

Following a massive popular uprising, Mexico nationalized their oil industry in 1938. It’s the last nationally owned oil company to be opened to foreign investment. US oil economies are extremely excited as Mexico is an extremely corrupt country that makes no effort to regulate oil production. They will be allowed to pollute Mexican water and air as much as they like without consequences.

The documentary goes on to reveal how NAFTA has systemically “raped” the Mexican economy and forced the government to sell their oil industry to pay off Wall Street debt. By flooding the Mexican market with cheap (subsidized) American food, the US has wiped out most small Mexican farmers and ranchers and turned many small indigenous villages into ghost towns. Left with no way to support themselves, these former farmers can only survive by turning to organized crime or illegally entering the US.

Once that their lands are to be turned over to foreign oil companies, yet more farmers will lose their livelihood. Meanwhile Mexican debt will only increase as the government loses oil profits that currently comprise 40% of government revenue.

 

The End of Capitalism

The End of Capitalism

David Harvey (2016)

In The End of Capitalism, geography and anthropology professor Anthropology David Harvey makes the case that economic crises and inequality are part and parcel of capitalism and can only be ended by dismantling the capitalist economic system.

He begins by examining the cumulative “perception control” by the corporate media that has made it virtually impossible (except perhaps in Iceland) to look at any alternative economic systems despite the deplorable performance of capitalism since the 2007 global economic crash.

Quoting from Volume 2 of Marx’s Capital, he goes to demonstrate that growth and debt are structural components of capitalism – how the amount of debt created always equals the amount of capital growth created. In fact, repaying all government debt (as many conservatives advocate) would end capitalism faster than a workers revolution.

He also quotes Reagan advisor David Stockman and former vice president Dick Cheney to demonstrate how the Reagan and both Bush administrations deliberately ramped up the deficit (on unfunded wars) as a strategy to force future administrations to cut social spending.

For me, the most interesting part of his talk is his discussion of the Chinese economy, specifically how their willingness to employ Keynesian tactics (of government deliberately spending money into the economy) to generate 10% economic growth and save the global economy from total collapse.

In elucidating a viable alternative to capitalism, Harvey quotes from volume 3 of Capital, where Marx defines capitalism as a “class relation between owner and worker such that the owner extracts surplus value (profit) from the worker’s labor.” Thus in his (and Marx’s) view, the only viable alternative is a system of worker self-management of our own productive process (ie worker cooperatives). He believes such a system would coordinate production via a Just in Time networking strategy similar to those used by Wall Street corporations.

The video has an extremely long introduction and Harvey starts speaking at 8.00.

 

Decadence: The Meaninglessness of Modern Life

Decadence: The Meaninglessness of Modern Life

Pria Viswalingam

Review

Decadence is a 2006 Australian TV series examining the plummeting quality of Australian life, which director and narrator Pria Viswalingam blames on a global economic system based on frenetic consumption, fueled by debt and ridiculously long hours of work. The cinematography choreographs to perfection the self-indulgent moral degradation of a culture that has been subsumed by US political and cultural norms that reward narcissism and the vacuous idolization of celebrity.

The only critique I would have is the absence class perspective. I have a problem with Viswalingam’s blanket assertion that all Australians are working ridiculously long hours because they value the accumulation of luxuries more than family time or friendships. I think this criticism applies chiefly to the shrinking Australian middle class – which I estimate at around 20-30% of the population. From my experience, the majority of Aussies – like their Kiwi and American counterparts – work ridiculously long hours because this is the only way they can put food on the table.

The series consists of six episodes:

Episode 1 Money – describes the MacDonaldization of Australian society, where workers work longer hours than Germany, Japan or even the US and are plagued by debt, depression, drugs and high suicide rates. Viswalingam makes the assertion that greed and ignorance are a far bigger threat to civilization than terrorism. I agree.

Episode 2 Sex – describes how the commodification of sex has led to a situation where more “sex” occurs in the street than in bedroom. Viswalingam especially deplores the sexualization of children for commercial reasons, the alarming increase in culturally driven misogyny and the epidemic of pedophilia in the church.

Episode 3 Democracy – explores America’s zeal in exporting “democracy” to the rest of the world and the undermining of Australia’s parliamentary democracy by wealthy business interests.

Episode 4 Education – explores the decline of Australia’s educational system, which focuses more on fast tracking students into lucrative jobs than on teaching ideas and critical thinking.

Episode 5 Family – explores statistics showing Aussies are marrying less, breaking up more and increasingly opting to remain childless. Viswalingam blames this partly on the absence of good paying jobs (forcing mothers into the work place) and the failure of the feminist movement to win support for women in their struggle to balance  work and family responsibilities.

Episode 6 Religion – describes how organized religion sowed the seeds of its own destruction through centuries of justifying wealth accumulation and genocidal western expansion. Here Viswalingam makes some fuzzy, poorly supported assertions about the fundamental importance of spirituality in facilitating human connection.

 

 

The Hidden History of Money, Debt and Organized Religion

Debt the First 5,000 Years

David Graeber (2012)

In this presentation, anthropologist David Graeber talks about his 2012 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years

For me, the most interesting part of the talk is his discussion of the historical link between debt and the rise of the world’s major religions (Hinduism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism) between 500 BC and 600 AD.

As Graeber describes it, all commerce was based on credit prior to the development of coinage around 500 BC. In all societies, coinage arose in conjunction with the onset of empire building – traveling armies had to be paid in hard currency rather than credit. The result, according to Graeber, was the simultaneous rise of military/coinage/slavery* empires in Greece, China and India.

According to Graeber, all the major religions arose around the same time – as a “peace movement” opposing militarism, materialism and slavery.

Around 400 AD, when the Roman and other empires collapsed, coinage vanished, along with the standing armies that necessitated its creation. During the Middle Ages, nearly all financial transactions were based on credit. Until 1493, when the “discovery” of the New World initiated a new cycle of empire building, accompanied by militarism, coinage and slavery.

I was also intrigued to learn that Adam Smith stole most of his thinking about free markets from medieval Islamic philosophers. The Islamic ban on usury enabled the Muslim world to operate pure free markets that were totally outside of government influence or control. Trying to operate an economy without such a ban (or a system of debt forgiveness like the Biblical practice of Jubilee) leads to inevitable economic chaos and ultimately collapse, even with government intervention.

People who like this talk will also really like a series Graeber recently produced for BBC4 radio entitled Promises, Promises: The History of Debt.  In it, Graeber explores  the link between Native American genocide and the harsh debt obligations imposed on the Conquistadors.  He also discusses the formation of the Bank of England in 1694, the role of paper money as circulating government debt and the insanity of striving for government surpluses.


* In ancient times, the primary mechanism by which people became enslaved was non-payment of debt.

 

 

 

Telling the Truth About Debt, Austerity and Taxation

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The Joy of Tax: How a Fair Tax System Can Create a Better Society

by Richard Murphy

Corgi Books (2015)

Book Review

Although the topic is economics, I personally guarantee this product to be totally painless. Murphy describes economics in ordinary comprehensible language – unlike mainstream economists who treat economics like a religion that can only be understood by high priests – and who speak and write in obscure language so you can never be sure if they’re telling the truth or not.

In The Joy of Tax, UK Tax Justice Network co-founder Richard Murphy offers a radically pioneering approach to tax and fiscal policy.  Murphy is one of the first economists to link tax policy to the 400- year-old reality that nearly all money is created by private banks out of thin air.

For political reasons, most economists try to conceal that private bank loans, i.e. debt, are the source of nearly all money in circulation. According to Murphy, the recent admission by the Bank of England (Quarterly Bulletin April 2014) about the true source of our money makes it possible to debunk a number of myths perpetuated by mainstream politicians and economists. Some examples: that investment is only possible when there are sufficient savings in the economy, that government debt is bad and that austerity, balanced budgets and government surpluses are good.

A point Murphy emphasizes repeatedly is that government also has the ability to create money out of thin air. Moreover it has regularly exercised that right to stimulate a stagnant economy. In fact, because all money is created as debt, it’s essential for government to “create” money (by spending it into the economy) whenever private banks fail to create sufficient credit. If this didn’t happen, severe economic recession results.

In Murphy’s view, the primary purpose of taxation is to reclaim the money government creates to keep it from over-inflating the economy. He claims the conservative elites who rabbit on about repaying government debt are really making the case that only private banks should have the right to create money. Aside from making them enormously rich, this makes no sense. Private banks are incapable of acting in the public interest – by law they can only act in the interest of their shareholders.

Citing Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, Murphy maintains a rational tax system can deliver other important goals, such as reducing inequality, recovering externalized costs (e.g.  pollution, toxic waste) imposed by corporations and promoting economically and ecologically sustainable growth.

For the current tax system to accomplish these goals, it would need to be far less regressive. At present most of the tax burden falls on middle and low income taxpayers. According to Murphy, the global economy will continue to stagnate until the wealthy shoulder their fair share of tax.

To make our current tax system fairer, Murphy proposes to introduce a number of “progressive” taxes, including a financial transaction tax, a wealth tax, a carbon/pollution tax, a land value tax to fund local government and a special tax on corporations that fail to re-invest their profits. He also proposes to do away with the current welfare bureaucracy by introducing an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI).

Although most of these tax reform proposals are specific for the UK, they would clearly produce similar benefits for the US and other post-industrial economies.

Originally published in Dissident Voice