I once asked a Native American if he thought whether North America was in any way in a post-colonial period. His response was, “Have they left yet?” Of the New World republics that came about as a result of colonization, the United States is going to have the hardest time dealing with its past. Recently, we’ve see a lot of people willing to strut about with their guns and imagine themselves in some pre-pubescent fantasy of John Wayne’s “unbridled individualism.” Some become so deluded as to be willing to use these guns on perceived “enemies.” But this is symptomatic only; it is useful to remember how the actual land of North America came to be claimed by European and Euro-American colonists. More importantly, the causes of these neuroses can be better understood when one realizes what separating people from their resource base means.
For over ninety-nine percent of human history, the earth and its human offspring were united. Humans were unique in the degree to which we could fashion natural products into useful items. With our minds, hands, and intuition we made the stuff of the earth more useful to us. Nothing stood between us and our resources – we were immersed in our environment and what we did to improve our surroundings and make our lives better we ourselves enjoyed. As the Thoreau disciple and wilderness advocate Bradford Angier once pointed out, “The hardest part about roughing it is smoothing it.” We were pretty good at “smoothing it.” Even cave paintings, figurines, Petroglyphs and the like helped people to understand their relationship with the world into which they had emerged. Contrary to the assumptions of the old “Whig” histories, people were generally time-rich – indeed, they could easily make more than they needed. These surplus goods could be traded for others’ surplus goods and the fruits of individuals’ skills could be shared. At some point someone began to think about accumulating these surplus goods. How, the calculating mind asked, might I enjoy these manufactures and the potential wealth they represent without having to engage in this difficult work myself? Many methods were tried with varying degrees of success. But one that did work and continues to work was coercion – physical, political, legal, economic – forcing a wedge between people and their resource base (the land) and make their reunion with it conditional. The condition for this reunion with the “means of production” is a controlling cut of the wealth produced by the interaction of human and other-than-human nature.
This division between people and nature put us on a path many are beginning to question. Besides the sense of alienation being cut off from our natural relationships with the other-than-human world produces, we are separated from our own means of production. Now, instead of using our wits and our hands to mold the stuff of the earth into usefulness, we have to go to the bourgeois “owner” and ask him to buy our labor, since it is often all we have since being deprived of our access to resources. The bourgeoisie figured out that if you usurp the land and resources, you have control of interaction between human and other-than-human – also known as labor power, which is the only real power humans have.
This defense of the relationship between humans and their resources should in no way be construed as a defense of, say, corporate access to the minerals of the Grand Canyon or oil in the Arctic. That is a looting of both nature and labor that I have discussed elsewhere. No, we have come so far down the path of exploitation of both human and other-than-human nature that assumptions and myths regarding the righteousness of this path remain unquestioned from the halls of power to the public discourse.
The surplus of useful goods that was often so abundant in pre-modern communities – under the influence of market-obsession, has acquired an exchange-value separate from its use. The result is “capital,” or surplus-value flowing to the bourgeoisie but which they themselves did not produce. Capital bought and still buys power and influence to entrench this economic system and heavily skew it toward the bourgeoisie – a sort of modern feudalism. A wedge was driven between people and their resources. Having been deracinated – alienated from their resources, homes, families, and livelihood – people had nothing to sell but their labor, and oftentimes the going rate was at starvation levels. In some regions where this deracination is at full throttle, many have chosen suicide over this type of slavery.
In North America, this separation of the land from the indigenous peoples took on an unprecedented scope. While there was certainly plenty of room in North America in 1492, there were still no fewer than five to ten million people who, in most respects, lived off the fat of an abundant land. Then, Europeans and unwilling and unwitting Africans came to the New World. With varying degrees, separating indigenous people from the land became an institution and was developed to the point of becoming a national myth: of course the Indians must be removed in the face of “progress” – removed or exterminated. Cold hard fact that it is we have yet to internalize this as a society; denial or ignorance of this history remains rampant in the U.S.
The denial becomes increasingly difficult as the separation of people from property takes on new dimensions, (if nothing else, the bourgeois class is very creative about accumulating wealth and power). Now, newcomers as well as descendents of the original colonizers – who themselves usurped the land – have found themselves being separated from their resources by a rigged system in which they have no say. Some might call this karma and that may be true, but it is certainly a continuation.
Working people took a stand in the U.S. from the Industrial Revolution to the post-World War II era and created the wealthiest working class in history. It was so successful that this working class took to calling itself the “middle class,” a democratization of the original turf held by the bourgeoisie and characterized by untitled wealth. Many people once again had a say in their relationship between themselves and their tools and resources. They did not go to the so-called “owner” with hat in hand begging to sell their labor, they collectively bargained with him to get a reasonable share of the surplus value they were producing. Some would say these negotiations were a gift to the bourgeoisie from producers who cut them more slack than they deserved. The abandonment of the American working class by the bourgeoisie, by their politicians, and even by their unions, has been nothing short of a betrayal and indeed a form of robbery.
The wealth accumulated by hook or by crook and used to manipulate the economy and political power structure is turned against the people who produced it. The old tried and true strategy of divide and conquer – white and blue collar, black and white skin, English- and Spanish-speaking, male and female, etc., etc., ad nauseum – so far still works. The financialization of the economy has turned Wall Street into a giant Las Vegas, operating – at least in part – independently of actual wealth production – subsidized and insured by taxing those who actually do produce wealth. It must keep moving fast, though, because something is gaining on it. The separation of workers from the wealth they produce; of workers from their resources; of humans from nature, is a contrivance that cannot last.
People are looking for that part of themselves that is connected to everything else. There is a deep cognitive dissonance in the U.S. resulting from a simple historical truth: wealth enjoyed by many American citizens came from resources acquired through systematic conquest and pillage. It makes it particularly hard to defend your resources on moral grounds when they were stolen to begin with. Much easier to deny or invent an alternative narrative.
Parasites often kill their hosts. To the extent that humans have become parasites, of labor and/or the resource base, we act for our own destruction. The short-term thinking institutionalized in this system is an indulgence we can no longer afford. One alternative to the path of exploitation remains vaguely familiar to us: the path of husbandry and cooperation. But alternative paths require introspection, a difficult facing of fears and facts and, finally, understanding what the relationship between humans and the earth means. As people have known for over ninety-nine percent of our history, the earth is literally our mother – our source of life. It is human nature to interact with our environment and treat it with the respect it deserves – as a part of ourselves. We act self-destructively when we assume the exploitative attitude of parasites. As with most problems, the answers are in the mirror, which is why they don’t get solved.
© 2012 Douglas S. Harvey