Right. I promised an acid-fueled lunatic rant so here goes!
This one has been cooking for a while now. After my last three posts all critical of the America-that-is, I thought it might be a good act of balance to talk about the America I believe in. Describe what I’m fighting for, what I hope to turn this country into, the ideal modern state.
Unfortunately, the longer I thought about it, the less positive a spin that seemed to be.
It’s naive to talk about government independent of the cultural context. Let’s set aside for the moment our thoroughly broken political system, designed as it was to transfer power and wealth from the British Empire to the hands of American aristocrats — the whole system needs to be flushed. Let’s instead talk about culture, American culture, consumerist culture, capitalist culture.
There’s a book everyone should read, called Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, that talks at some length about the points I’m going to touch upon here. I bring it up to prod anyone reading this who hasn’t read that to get on with it already, seriously, I recommend it higher than Stranger and VALIS and if that doesn’t tell you something then … I dunno, go read my “About” page. But here’s the upshot: our way of life is literally a cancer and if we genuinely want to fix things we’re going to have to be willing to tolerate a serious step “backwards.”
Here’s how it breaks down.
Modern life is a function of industrialization. While we are, to an extent, beginning to realize information-age changes to the periphery, the substrate remains: extract natural resources (via exploiting labor), hammer it into something you can sell (via exploiting labor), and put it on the market for the labor you exploited to make the things to buy with the wages you allow them to have. That’s … modern life, in a nutshell. Sure, we have every conceivable distraction under the sun available to us, so it’s easy to miss this truth. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and crucially, our political establishment depends on us staying distracted.
This is playing out in Standing Rock, right now. While the government stepped in to “put a halt” to the pipeline, that halt is just for a forty-mile stretch of a pipeline that’s intended to run from Montana to the Mississippi. The rest is still good to go, and the halt is just a halt. It’s not a cancellation, it’s a temporary stay of execution pending public commentary and the re-evaluation of the possible environmental impact. Now, kudos to the seven thousand protesters currently camping out in the pipeline’s path. Mad props to those who have been chaining themselves to the heavy equipment, taking attack dogs to the face, facing arrest and gunfire for the right to not have an industrial chemical pipeline slowly leaking poison into their drinking water. These people are the reason we got a government response at all.
What’s being played for now is time. The thinking goes that the protesters can’t hold out forever, which to a point is true. More importantly, in four months or so, when the government gives the go-ahead to start construction again, everyone will be tired. The news cycle will have moved on. We’ll be arguing about the legitimacy of the election we just went through, and in all the chaos and confusion…
People are easily distracted.
So instead, take a look at the machine you’re reading this on. For many of you, that’s going to be a smartphone — a technological marvel that was used as a cipher for “the far future” as recently as twenty years ago. You have a literal supercomputer network in your pocket at all times, 24/7. It’s a miraculous piece of technology, that only exists because of tens of thousands of poor people making sub-slave wages in “third-world” countries.
(The usage of “third-world” is itself fraught. We’re acknowledging this, and then putting it aside.)
See, all the crap that goes into the magic blue smoke that makes technology work has to be pulled out of the ground. Or. Harvested from living faeries. Maybe actual dragons are involved somewhere, I don’t know technology. The point is, the rare-earth materials in your smartphone didn’t just magically appear out of an Apple-branded replicator. They had to be mined, which is typically done in such labor-friendly countries as the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where miners, often children, are paid what passes for slave wages in fucking Africa to pull those toxic materials out of the ground.
But it gets better! Those materials then go to other “developing” nations, mostly China, increasingly Taiwan or Malaysia, where they are processed and turned into the magic blinking box you statistically probably have in your hand right now. Those people are also paid sub-slave wages and work in conditions so inhumane that the factories have suicide nets installed.
At each step of the process — mining, refining, manufacturing, shipping, sales — there is a chain of humanity involved, each getting paid the absolute fucking minimum possible whilst still attracting people to the job. Which absolutely must tell you something about the standard of living enjoyed by the vast majority of people who labored to put that device in your hand. Meanwhile a good chunk of that six hundred dollars you paid for the magic passport gets handed up to the stockholders, who produce nothing and contribute nothing whilst they gaze serenely from their penthouses across the land they’ve destroyed.
I might have swayed a bit too far into rhetoric there. The point is this: no matter how expensive you think your personal technology is, that cost is still heavily subsidized in terms of human exploitation. The only reason you have electronics as cheap as they are is because somebody, somewhere, is an actual, literal slave working on it. Ditto just about everything else that gets manufactured, or manufactured from materials procured, overseas.
What does all this mean? It means that even if we pulled off the Hail Mary and elected Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, even if we got full-blooded progressives in both houses of Congress, even if we took control of the Supreme Court for the next century, we still haven’t really escaped the problem. The problem is seeped into the foundations of our society. No, that isn’t so — the problem is the foundation of our society. The problem is capitalism.
Capitalism is the idea that infinite growth is not only possible, but desirable. More resource extraction means more raw materials means more fodder for the machines means more product to sell means more profits to float to the top and be squirreled away in foreign tax havens. Wait, that’s not how it goes. It “trickles down.” Yeah. Because oats that have passed through the horse are just as nice as those plucked off the vine. Or … tree? I don’t know agriculture, and I’m getting off the point.
Anyway the point is, capitalism is an exercise in wealth transferrence from the people at the bottom to the people at the top. It’s just that we’ve gotten so good at capitalism that we can squeeze the entire fucking planet like an orange, with the juice going to the one percent and the pulp and seeds for the rest of us. (And that pulp, by the way? Poisonous, soaked through with toxins, and handed off, again, to poor people, who dig through our garbage, exposing themselves to said poisons, in order to extract anything that might still be of use.) Of course it is unsustainable, and it’s only the fact that it has generated so much wealth for the one percent that allows those of us in the “first world” to enjoy our absurd standard of living as it is. Even a hundred or so years ago, prior to the labor movement getting any traction here in the US, our current lifestyle would be considered palatial. If you are reading this, you are one of the most privileged, pampered humans who has ever existed.
And it was all built on the backs of slavery. Even now, in 2016.
Any discussion of an “ideal America” must start with the end of capitalism. It must begin with an end to the exploitative practices that have turned us into one of the most overfed societies in history. As I’ve said before, it is necessary for us to accept a reduction in our standard of living if we’re going to get anywhere as a species, if we’re going to avoid choking to death on our own waste. Because that waste doesn’t magically disappear just because you bribed some official in the Far East to look the other way while you poured it into the local aquifer. News flash, Earth is a closed system — the water you’re drinking has statistically been inside both Hitler and Mr Rogers, not to mention innumerable dinosaurs.
My vision of an “ideal America” is one in which human potential is fully realized, in which nobody is a slave or is made to suffer, in which nobody can become privileged at others’ expense without their explicit consent, in which the environment is exploited only for the good of all and only with their explicit consent. But that’s bigger than winning elections, than changing electoral laws, than drafting a whole new Constitution. It requires razing our civilization to its foundations, and building it up again on a new, sustainable base.
Enjoy your iPhone 7. I hear it doesn’t have a headphone jack.