Dear friends, readers: It is now two years since I began this blog. 200,000 page views, 455 followers, 150 countries logged-on, and lots of discussion. I have been posting a story each week, for a total of 112 posts and 8,000 comments. Well. I need to change the story now. It is time. I will keep the blog, but I will no longer post each week (life demands more of me). But here is what I propose we do: I am making an open “call for guest posts.” If anyone feels they would like to place an essay on kulturCritic, I will post it. You all know the general direction of the blog, so please keep your proposals in that spirit. I hope to hear from you soon, so we may keep this thing going. I will try to post my own ideas at least once a month. Nobody is excluded… the offer is open to all. Just email your article to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Faithfully yours, Sandy
The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way… But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. (Chris Hedges)
Chris Hedges’ analyses are consistently uncompromising in their directness and clarifying in their assessment of our current social predicament. However, it appears that Chris still believes this engine of global capitalism can be “shut down,” allowing us to reconstitute the Western Curriculum on new, more egalitarian, footings. But this begs the broader question: what is the cornerstone of the phenomenon he calls global capitalism? It seems to me that its foundation is private property, its acquisition and use.
Yet, ‘private property’ was not a recent invention of colonialist or mercantilist expansions some five hundred years ago in Western Europe. Nor was it a brainchild of the late Crusades seeking to expand the reach and wealth of Christendom. Private property was an already established fact — symptomatic of a disease haunting human economic, social, and political arrangements since the advancement of agriculture, and the erection of the first city walls some seven thousand years ago in the Levant. Indeed, state-owned property is ‘private’ in a real and practical sense. Just try squatting or homesteading in a national park someday… like Zuccotti Park, for instance.
Global capitalism is like the brilliant shining star, a ruling sovereign, sitting high atop a carefully coiffed cosmos, only vaguely hinted at during the very late Neolithic period, yet already entrenching itself in ancient Greek democracy, as Aristotle was busy laying the foundations and defining the terms of those disciplines that would soon circumscribe all social, scientific, and linguistic laws, as well as our hierarchical economic relations – in short, the Curriculum of the West.
Even the 18th Century romantic philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, recognized that the problem of “ownership” went back much further in human history, back to the first glimmerings of private property that surely emerged in late Neolithic villages and then with the eruption of urban centers, leading to the establishment of “civil” society. As the political philosopher said in his work, On The Origins of Inequality, when the first man placed a fence around a piece of land and declared it his own, his comrades should have ignored such lunacy or forcibly driven him out of their communitas. It was here that the sour witches’ brew of acquisitiveness, jealousy, and greed first found solid footing.
Then, in the 1830’s, a good half-century after Rousseau’s death, we find Astolphe Louis Leonor the Marquis de Custine complaining, in the words of Nina Khrushcheva, “that Russian civilization amounted to little more than the mimicry of monkeys.” She refers, of course, to what Custine saw as tsarist Russia’s rather crude imitation of Western productivity and style. In his Letters from Russia, he wrote, “They go to a great deal of trouble to achieve some petty end, never satisfied that they have done enough to demonstrate their zeal.” And if you look around Siberia today at a vast majority of people here in Altai Krai, from their public works to the private workmanship, you see a similar type of hollow activity – facades and rigid formalities; symbolism over substance. Everything intended to produce the right effect – the same semblance of quality described by the Marquis de Custine a century and a half earlier – aping the postures and direction of the capitalist West. And, even Peter the Great’s eighteenth-century push to Westernize Russia with the niceties of French and Italian artistry did not really hit its mark.
As Custine summarizes,
Pay no heed to the boasting of Russians; they confuse splendor with elegance, luxury with refinement, policing and fear with the foundations of society… Up to now, as far as civilization is concerned, they have been satisfied with appearances.
Yet, we can forgive the Russian people. After all, Russia was largely a peasant and village-oriented society up until the last quarter of the 19th Century. Then under heavy-handed communist control they had to sit idly by and watch with envy as we in the West devoured almost all the goodies, and had all that fun. And now, since the demise of the USSR, these folks are just in the early stages of absorbing a full measure of the Western Curriculum. Yet again, they only commit to memory what they believe to be the most valuable lessons of this alien culture, a culture grounded in consumption and acquisitiveness, accompanied by jealousy and greed. One can see this reflected in a newfound arrogance among many Siberians today (successful, or not), accompanied by that still stoic Soviet ‘closedness,’ and a dismissiveness of strangers. A newly emergent “cult” of the individual has combined rather eerily with the old sense of slavish-anonymity leftover from the Soviet bureaucracy, to create a national character that simultaneously displays the worst traits of the Socialist model and the inherent destructiveness of the Western Curriculum.
Let’s face it, these new Russians have tasted the forbidden fruits from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thinking they know now both, and know them intimately. While, all they really know of the Western curriculum is the façade and not the reality behind the images, the promises, the propaganda. The lure of property, of acquisition, of unlimited consumption is overpowering, and blinds them to the dangers that inhere there. And so, they mimic the stylings, the fashions, and the tastes of the West in almost every way; indeed they outdo us in their focus on personal appearance and tidiness. They adore spectacle, and they love to show themselves in a spectacular light. Expensive cars spotlessly cleaned, well-pressed clothes and polished shoes, women made-up like porcelain dolls no matter what the occasion, and shiny products on store shelves that don’t work well. So their images often ring false; the substance behind the façade, missing in action. And, if you inquire as to this sense of style without substance, this vacuity, why things breakdown, for example, they will simply tell you: “That’s Russia.” Yet, they continue to push forward; and they are determined to do and to have exactly as we do and have. And the Indians and Chinese are even further along in some important respects, although there a brooding skepticism already looms.
Many developing countries newly drawn into capitalism as the only way to the “promised land” are now more doubtful than ever. Even those Asian countries, as the recent beneficiaries of capitalism, are having their doubts whether the whole thing was a setup — that is, a trap.
Yet, whether capitalism is the road to the promised land or to perdition is of little consequence now. For we have travelled far along this path. So what are we left to do, now, thousands of years after the fact? How are we to respond to the yoke of economic slavery, avariciousness, and greed born of private property and its enticing avatars – capital, competition, and consumptive commodities? How do we shut down the engines of global capitalism? There are no simple answers to this question. And even the Russians have no really good response; they simply mimic the rest of us monkeys. But, perhaps I should await a reply from my excellent colleague, Chris Hedges.