As the occupations, arrests, and harassments continue across our homeland, the faint drumbeat of war echoes ever louder from the big white house in D.C. And, who is at the center of all this attention, the considered target for military aggression, hegemonic expansion, and resource re-distribution? Well, Iran is, of course. The secret is out – Iran has been developing nuclear weapons capabilities (OMG). Yet, within the doomsday scenario now percolating inside those heady heads in the capitol of Empire, Russia, North Korea, and Pakistan are also to be implicated. So, what else is new? Everyone get under the desks! Quick! The West – led by our very own Prince of Peace and his bellicose entourage here in the USA – is dead set on starting WWIII in order to bring things to a head; snatch up all the goodies they can possibly steal in a last ditch effort to escape their own financial shenanigans, display yet again the poverty of their institutional heartlessness, and satisfy their apparently bottomless greed for cheap energy, mineral resources, and global domination. However, they may achieve their objectives only on the cusp of global collapse.
Meanwhile, the OWS People’s Court has been holding forth at the gates of Sodom and Gomorrah in lower Manhattan, presided over by none other than the recently released civil-convict Chris Hedges and his new sidekick, the good doctor, Cornell West. They are setting forth the people’s sundry complaints against the alleged pimps and prostitutes peopling the halls of Goldman Sachs and friends. It amazes me that the occupation has devolved so quickly to such a trivial level of discourse and whining. According to the charges laid out at the People’s Court, it appears that “We, the people” want more public housing, real publicly-funded education, financial regulations, and stronger unions. It appears, furthermore, that these demands are emanating from the poorer urban populations of the greater New York City area.
Now, I am not criticizing their critique, the mock trial, or even their specific “demands.” What concerns me, however, is the apparent acquiescence that has already seeped into the rhetoric of this incipient domestic rebellion. As these groups continue to marshal such voices, articulating concrete economic demands, we will witness the rapid evaporation of a once-promising challenge to industrial civilization and its driving hegemony – global capitalism. Such voices will only redirect focus away from the central problems of institutional hierarchy, guiding everything from religion to economics, and its business-as-usual reduction of all things to objects of commodification and manipulation – continuing the trajectory of alienation and enslavement of human “capital” as well as the wholesale destruction of non-human capital or “natural resources.”
The movement appears to be degenerating into politics as usual, calling for new schools, new housing projects, new jobs and new directions for empire. Yet, it does not appear to question the need for empire or imperial leadership, for organizational hierarchy, or even the economic model currently driving this ship of State. It wants to re-tune but not overturn the trajectory of the Western curriculum.
Yet, as things continue to transpire, the Greek Prime Minister has just resigned, Berlusconi in Italy is stepping down, Gadaffi is gone, Mubarak gone, elections have taken place in Tunisia, and the rest of MENA is poised for leadership transitions as well. What does this tell us? It says that people want new leaders…. It does not say people want NO leadership. Well, I imagine the people have spoken, and they are likely to speak similarly here in America. Hierarchy appears to be a fundamental requirement, prefigured in the very texture of the modern State. The citizens of these “once-and-future” or would-be empires cannot imagine life without a head of State, even for a moment. Civilians everywhere seem to be in desperate need of institutional authorities directing and controlling them. Apparently, global capitalism will survive this onslaught of occupation, even if bleeding a bit and limping slightly across the continents. Abusive destruction of life on the planet will also continue. Both human and non-human nature will remain grist for the mill of a self-possessed industrial hegemony, even as its engines falter. The palpable bellicosity and rapacity of the culture will continue to assert themselves, even if temporarily muted.
This brings us to the item of central concern in today’s posting. There have been numerous discussions recently, both here and elsewhere, concerning the nature of this evil — the avarice, the greed, the selfishness — infecting the civilized West. Specifically, one of our own habitués has pronounced on various occasions that our individual and collective complicity in this rampant evil is a result of our basic genetic makeup. He disagrees with the proposition that such complicity is the result of a culturally induced hypnosis from which we all suffer; rather, he sees it as an instinctual predisposition, a genetic flaw driving the species phylogenetically and ontogenetically. I would wager that, like many others, he has swallowed – hook, line, and sinker – this fairytale of man’s evil nature, long-ago articulated by Thucydides in his reflections on the Peloponnesian Wars, later fleshed-out by Thomas Hobbes, and proffered by political theorists ever since in justifying the necessity of the modern State and its institutional hierarchies of manipulation and control.
It would appear that not a few today have accepted this myth concerning a heart of darkness lurking in the human genome – a frightful conception of “human nature” that sees us as hard-wired with self-serving and heartless intent whenever the opportunity presents itself. Such a point of view believes the statecraft(ed) myth of man’s natural bellicosity, cupidity, and avarice. Speaking to this evil nature dwelling within, our own contributor says, our “complicity is encrypted in the DNA…and it is truly up to each of us to overcome our genes. Alas, to truly understand…it is essential to recognize that our tendency is always to be greedy, destructive, and heartless when it comes to our own interests.”
Yet, the facts of the matter may diverge significantly from the above presumption. In brief, our genus (Homo) emerged on the scene roughly 2.5 million years ago with the beginning of Pleistocene epoch. The sapiens species showed up around two hundred thousand years ago, during the later Pleistocene. Accordingly, it was in that epoch that our genetic makeup developed. We are essentially animals of the Pleistocene; a position proferred by Paul Shepard. Studies in disciplines as diverse as paleontology, archeology, ethnology, history of religions, anthropology, human ecology, and the ethnography of extant “Paleolithic” tribes strongly suggest that such traits – “greed, destructiveness, and heartlessness” – cannot be attributed matter-of-factly, if at all, to our pre-civilized, pre-agricultural primogenitors. Indeed, there is virtually no indication that such behavioral tendencies can be traced to our Pleistocene forebears. In addition, there were no institutional hierarchies, no standing armies, no mass murders, no hoarding of resources or wars to protect them, no large-scale environmental destruction, and none of the signs of modern “heartlessness” until the birth of cities in the late Neolithic period. In other words, there is little, if any, evidence for grounding such behaviors in our genetic makeup.
On the contrary, there is ample evidence in pre-history and among extant H/G tribes supporting the reverse hypothesis: demonstrations of non-acquisitiveness, voluntary sharing of essential resources, even gratuitous communal feasting among our pre-civilized forebears. These evidently generous progenitors existed for quite a long time (2MM+ years) until something radically changed it all; and what that was has been the subject of long and arduous debate.
As Paul Shepard pointed out in his posthumous publication, Coming Home To The Pleistocene, “Unlike history, prehistory does not participate in the dichotomy that divides experience into good and evil, eternal and temporal…”
We perceive the dark side of our present condition as our failure to adhere to the standards of ‘civilization.’ Crime, tyranny, psychopathology, addiction, poverty, malnutrition, starvation, war, terrorism, and other forms of social disintegration seem to be the weaknesses and flaws in our ability to live up to the expectation of being civilized… [But, he concludes] We must now ask in what sense our present dilemmas are measured by departure from some kind of diffuse, primordial scheme of human life and what is possible in terms of recovery… We must begin by remembering beyond history.
In Shepard’s view, it is not some inherent weakness of the human condition that causes us to fall short of presumed civilized standards. On the contrary, it is the psychotic demands of civilization that have created these very troubling forms of social disintegration along with the weakness that haunts individuals in their complicit acquiescence, in their enslavement to these urban walls and the psychopathologies they generate.
Even the most widely disseminated myth in Western culture, the Book of Genesis, alludes to the tardy emergence of the knowledge of good and evil (viz., the origins of evil), and pegs it to our expulsion from the garden of Eden (a more primordial setting in contact with nature) and the beginnings of agriculture and animal domestication – the toilsome and archetypal settings upon which urban (civilized) life would come to rest, along with the first gratuitous murder born of rapacious jealousy (Cain and Abel).
[I]n toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Yet, ignoring such mythopoeic suggestions, as well as the evidentiary foundations of social-scientific analyses, our own contributor concludes: “[If] I am correct that our impulses are genetic…we will fight over scraps until there is only rubble left.” Such an assumption comes straight from the fable of Hobbes’ Leviathan and the presumed evil of human nature that needs corralling by laws and legislators. Now, it may be the case that in a post-collapse world, we will indeed see that war of all against all; but it will not be the result of our Pleistocene genetic heritage, rather the culmination of a psychopathology that emerged only with the birth of civilization, exacerbated by its intractable and accelerating trajectory of abuse and alienation.
In conclusion. It is not that we are complicit in the greed and self-serving abuses of modern culture due to some interiorized human nature, some primal genetic flaw; rather such complicity is the result of us following what is most highly valued and rewarded in our society – individuality, acquisitiveness, and maximization of resources (i.e., productivity and profitability). There is no need to say, “Yes, but Aristotle spoke of moderation in all things.” True enough; but there are exceptions to that rule. And boy, do we have a BIG one! They call it “American Exceptionalism.” And you cannot find any exception bigger than that one. It is the hallmark by which we are all judged — on earth and, according to several of our current candidates for president, in their mythological conception of heaven as well.
But, perhaps the more relevant concern at this juncture is whether the OWSers can overcome the extraordinary pressure of cultural forces driving them for a statement of demands, for negotiation, for acquiescence, and for what may well become continuing complicity in the exceptional avarice of empire.