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.

 

A Voice of Sanity in the Gun Control Debate

In the following film, historian and Native activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz discusses her book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. The major premise of her most recent book is that the Second Amendment relates mainly to the right and obligation of white settlers to keep guns, which they used in voluntary militias to massacre Native Americans and (in many cases) compulsory slave patrols to hunt down runaway slaves.

She begins by reminding us of the real issue (not the one we we’re taught in school) that triggered the Revolutionary War – namely the British ban on white settlement on unceded Indian lands west of the Appalachians. The hated Stamp Act, which triggered the familiar cry of “taxation without representation,” was enacted to finance British troops to roust settlers who were illegally squatting on Native lands.

She also points out that George Washington and most of the other founding fathers acquired their substantial wealth by illegally surveying and speculating in unceded Native land.

She disagrees with gun control advocates that the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms” only relates to their use in “well-regulated militias.” She insists that it refers to an individual right, like all the other amendments in the Bill of Rights. She argues the right to participate in voluntary militias is already covered in Article 1 of the Constitution. Moreover the Second Amendment was specially modeled on an individual right to gun ownership in various state constitutions.

I found the Q&A’s at the end the most interesting part of her talk. Dunbar-Ortiz doesn’t believe gun control laws would end mass shootings in the US – mainly because American gun violence is directly rooted in the historically racist and genocidal nature of US gun culture. She contrasts the US with Switzerland and Canada. Despite the absence of any gun control laws (the Swiss are required to keep weapons in their homes), there is no gun violence in Switzerland. Likewise Canada has much less gun violence despite fewer gun control laws.

In both cases, she attributes the absence of gun violence to the historical absence of slavery or rampant militarism.

Dunbar-Ortiz also disputes Democratic claims that opposition to gun control stems from NRA lobbying. Noting that the US gun culture precedes the NRA by more than a century, she adds that the NRA spends far less on lobbying than Big Oil and Big Pharma. The NRA mainly derives its strength by mobilizing thousands of volunteers at the state level, where most gun control laws originate. These volunteers track the voting records of every state and local politician to ensure that anti-gun legislators don’t get re-elected.

Patriarchy: The Crucial Role of Women’s Unpaid Labor Under Capitalism

Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour

by Maria Mies

Zed Books (2014 edition)

Book Review

In this 1986 classic, Mies challenges Marx’s description of the unpaid labor of women (childrearing, care of the sick and elderly, housekeeping and subsistence agriculture, handicrafts and firewood and water collecting in the Third World) as part of their “natural” function. In doing so, she provides the first comprehensive economic analysis of patriarchy.

While Marx and Engels readily acknowledge that capitalism oppresses women, they overlook the fact it also exploits them via the massive amount of free labor it makes them provide. According to Mies, it’s only this unpaid labor, which Mies refers to as super-exploitation, that makes wage labor exploitation possible.

Super-exploitation of Women and Colonies Finances Capitalist Expansion and War

She compares the super-exploitation of women under patriarchy to the super-exploitation that occurs under colonization. Both are intimately associated with violence, and both increase during the periods of rapid capital accumulation, which are necessary to finance capitalist expansion and war.

Violence and the Sexual Division of Labor

Based on modern anthropological research, Miles also offers a much clearer explanation of how the sexual division of labor arose, as well as its intimate link with violence. Citing numerous studies, she shows how women’s childrearing role made them them responsible for most food production in primitive societies (80% in hunter gatherer societies). Women also developed the first tools – namely baskets and pots for storing grain.

Popular culture places much more emphasis on the tools invented by men – weapons – and their use in hunting. Current anthropological evidence suggests they played a much bigger role in raiding other tribes to kidnap and enslave women (over time men were also enslaved), both for procreation and their food producing capacity.

Witchcraft Trials, Colonization, Mass Enslavement and the Rise of Capitalism

With the rise of capitalism, violence against both women and colonies (to compel their free labor) significantly increased. The pervasive witchcraft trials (and land confiscations) that began in the late 15th century, accompanied by the violent enslavement of New World colonies and Africans, would create the massive capitalist accumulation required for full scale industrial development.

Why Violence Against Women is Increasing

Mies also provides an eloquent analysis – linked to the intensification of capital accumulation – for the global increase in violence against women and Third World colonies over the last four decades. The onset of global recession in the 1970s forced capitalists to shift their labor intensive work to the Third World, where harsh US- and European-backed puppets use violence to suppress wages..

In the First World, simultaneous cuts in public services, have significantly increased demands on women for free labor (especially in the area of childcare and care of the sick and elderly). The simultaneous increase in violence against women (and the psychic trauma it induces) make it all the more difficult for women to organize and resist this super-exploitation.

 

Walden and Civil Disobedience

Walden and Civil Disobedience

By Henry David Thoreau

Penguin Classics (1983)

Introduction and Endnotes by Michael Meyer

Book Review

Self-described as a “mystic, transcendalist,* and natural philosopher to boot,” Thoreau published Civil Disobedience in 1849 and Walden in 1854. Both are works of social criticism. Surprisingly most of his critiques of mid-19th century American society ae still applicable to 21st century post industrial capitalism.

In Civil Disobedience, for example, he maintains that a “standing government” is as dangerous to true democracy as a “standing army.” He is particular critical of slavery and the war against Mexico (opposed by the majority of his contempories), which he describes as “the work of a few individuals using the standing government as their tool.”

He also asserts that voting is not enough when men of conscience oppose the “wickedness” government carries out in their name. He argues that people are obliged to transgress unjust laws “rather than waiting until we persuade the majority to amend them.” He adds that  [jail] “is the only house in a slave state that a free man can abide with honor.”

In July 1846 Thoreau was arrested for failing to pay his poll tax, owing to his refusal to recognize the authority of a government “which buys and sells men, women and children at the door of the senate house.” He only spent one night in jail, after an acquaintance “interfered” and paid his tax for him.

I was unaware, prior to reading Walden, that Thoreau also popularized the concept of voluntary poverty. The philosophy he elaborates in describing his two years in the woods at Walden Pond is highly critical of the upper middle class society he was born into. He observes that a “laboring man has no time for true integrity – no time for anything but to be a machine.”

He views his time at Walden Pond – where he built his own cabin and furniture and grew most of his food – as an experiment to help him reduce his life to the absolute basic necessities and the most expedient way of procuring.

He asserts the wealthy classes spend so much time cluttering their lives with useless luxuries that they lose their ability to think clearly about what they really believe him. He also decries the lack of freedom associated with the accumulation of material wealth: “Luxury enervates and destroys nations which have accumulated dross but can’t get rid of it . . . [they] have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”

He’s also high critical of what he describes as the “factory system” – which is “not meant to ensure mankind is well and honestly clad but for corporations to get enriched.”


*Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 1830s in the eastern region of the United States. The movement was a reaction to and protest against the general state of intellectualism and spirituality in American society.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar: Parallels with Trump

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Michael Parenti (2012)

Film Review

In this presentation, Michael Parenti discusses the fraudulent history we are taught about the late Roman Republic. In particular, he focuses on the popular resistance movement that led to the rise of the Populares in the Roman senate in the second century BC. The revolt of the Roman proletariat was largely a reaction to the privatization of Rome’s collective agricultural lands as latifundia (plantations owned by Roman aristocrats). Historically there was no private land ownership in Rome until thugs hired by aristocrats drove the peasants off their land around 200 BC.

Parenti starts by demolishing the myth promulgated by mainstream historians that Rome was a republic. The Roman senate was a self-appointed oligarchy. For the most part Roman senators paid no taxes though. Instead they loaned money at interest to the Roman government (sound familiar?). The lower classes, in contrast, were heavily taxed.

The first great Populares to serve as consul was Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC. He and his brother Gaius, who succeeded him, fought for land reform to break up the latifundia and redistribute them to the landless. Despite their aristocratic background, all the Populares consuls challenged a Roman economic system that was rigged in favor of the elites All were assassinated by aristocratic death squads.

Julius Caesar would be the last Populares consul, and he, too, would be assassinated in 44 BC. Among the reforms he enacted were

  • Lowering interest and fines on debts
  • Building exceptional public libraries to be used by all Roman citizens
  • Guaranteeing freedom of religion to Roman Jews
  • Ending the practice of forcing people with unpaid debts into slavery
  • Introducing a democratic constitution
  • Creating state jobs in Rome and the colonies for the unemployed
  • Ending Cicero’s* witch hunts and extrajudicial executions

The aristocrats in the senate, who detested Caesar because he threatened their wealth and privilege, responded by labeling him a brutal tyrant and assassinating him. Ironically the emperors who succeeded him were far more tyrannical. Yet the senate aristocrats supported them as they protected their wealth and privilege.

What strikes me most about this presentation are the clear parallels with the current period, with the liberal elite and intelligence establishment portraying Trump as an unspeakable fascist tyrant based on little evidence other than his rhetoric. I’m aware that much of the liberal establishment is justifiably frightened of the ultraconservative bent of Trump’s appointees. However most of the strident anti-Trump rhetoric seems over the top to me.

For me the two main ways the parallels break down are 1) the absence of a genuine reform movement from below similar to the Roman resistance movement that led to the formation of the Populares 2) the absence in Trump of the towering intelligence, charisma and military and political ingenuity that Caesar displayed. Trump’s lack of political experience raises the vital question whether he or his conservative cabinet will be in control. Despite his promise of numerous populist reforms, I’m extremely skeptical whether the prominent conservatives in his cabinet support them.

Life in the African American Aristocracy

negroland

Negroland: A Memoir

By Margo Jefferson

Granta Books (2015)

Book Review

Negroland is a memoir by theater and book critic Margo Jefferson about growing up in the American Negro aristocracy in the 1950s. Far more than a memoir, the book carefully chronicles the history of Black America’s elite professionals, academics and business people. For the most part these families are descended from the children of white slaveholders, from ancestors bought and freed by slavery-hating whites, from ancestors descended from free Negroes (non-slaves) or ancestors who bought their own freedom with hard work and cash.

These ancestors, in turn, used their wealth and privilege to ensure their own children pursued higher education and professional or academic careers. Prior to the 1970s they also used their wealth and privilege to found clubs, organizations and charities to improve the conditions of less privileged African Americans.

Jefferson’s father was a pediatrician and prior to marriage, her mother a social worker. As a member of the tiny African American aristocracy, which Jefferson refers to as “Negroland,” Jefferson grew up with very suffocating rules of refinement that were far more strict than those applied to white women. Living daily with ubiquitous mainstream racism, Jefferson came under heavy criticism (mainly from the women in her family) for drawing attention to herself with flamboyant dress, activities or talk, with “ashy” elbows or knees or poorly straightened hair that became “frizzy” in damp weather.

Jefferson writes poignantly about the identity crisis she experienced when her upbringing was challenged by the Black Power movement of the 1970s. It was at this point she realized how the pressure to assimilate to white society had isolated her from fully embracing her African American history and culture. She also suddenly became aware of the unwritten Negroland rule against experiencing or acknowledging feelings of depression. Owing to concern that emotional weakness would reflect unfavorably on the entire race, members of the Negro aristocracy were expected to power their way through depression with duty, obligation and discipline.

In Negroland, Jefferson achieves a good balance between subjective experience and a historical/cultural backdrop that helps us make sense of it. I highly recommend the book for its excellent depiction of a sadly neglected aspect of US history.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

Sharecropping: The Hidden History

and-their-children

And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – James, Agee, Walker Evans and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South

By Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson

Random House (1990)

Book Review

This book is meant as a sequel to James Agee’s 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In the original, Agee and Evans documented – though photos and biographical narrative – the profound poverty of white and black sharecroppers in the Cotton Belt. The sequel also provides historical background about the invention of the Cotton Gin* in 1794,  which first made cotton a viable crop in the southern US, and of cotton picking machines, gradually introduced in the 1950s, which ultimately put nine million sharecroppers out of work.

Between 1985-88, Maharidge and Williams revisited the same families that Agee and Evans had interviewed, compiling a coherent account of significant life events befalling children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original subjects. Sacramento Bee journalist Dale Marahidge, also provides a detailed analysis of various sharecropping schemes that were deliberately designed set up to keep families in debt. Typically the landlord advanced credit, based on a crop-lien agreement, and charged so high interest (as much as 200%) that families became virtual slaves when they couldn’t pay it. The end result was excruciating poverty, extreme malnutrition and chronic illnesses associated with malnutrition (mainly hookworm and pellagra**).

Despite contributing approximately one billion annually to the global economy, most tenant cotton farmers ended up owing money to the landlord. Maharidge maintains that without slavery and the sharecropping system that replaced it, there would have been no way the South could have produced cotton economically.

The book finishes by exploring develops that would end cotton cultivation in the Cotton Belt. In addition to the total mechanization of cotton farming that occurred after World War II, Maharidge blames the invention of and other synthetics, competition with other countries for cotton export markets and depletion of Cotton Belt soil due to the slash and burn mentality of large landholders.

At present, nearly all US cotton cultivation occurs in Texas and California and is totally mechanized. White tenant farmers displaced by the death of King Cotton could find work in southern factories that sprang up in the fifties and sixties. Owing to racial discrimination they faced from factory owners, former black tenant farmers mainly migrated to northern cities. Many, however, failed to find work, even after five years and longer.

Maharidge subscribes to the role played by massive unemployment of former black sharecroppers in triggering the early sixties civil rights movement.


*The cotton gin is a machine that quickly and easily separates cotton fibers from their seeds, allowing for much greater productivity than manual cotton separation.

**Hookworm is an intestinal parasite and pellagra is a deficiency disease stemming from absence of Vitamin B3 in the diet.