By Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action-Los Angeles/People Against Racist Terror (ARA-LA/PART)
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the US Civil War and the triumph of incipient industrial capitalism over earlier, deeply-rooted mercantile and slave-based and land-based forms of capitalism. It set the stage for what is coming to be known as the “Anthropocene.” This is a period of bio-geological development in which human activity is shaping the atmospheric, oceanic and planetary ecological systems in ways that the pre-existing natural systems can no longer contain or accommodate. The consequences of the ensuing 15 decades of intensive exploitation of carbon-based energy resources for warfare, agribusiness, industrial production, and transportation are becoming increasingly undeniable.
We are facing a climatological catastrophe, global mass extinctions, and a possibly irreversible environmental transformation that will mark the end of the 10,000 year period, the Holocene, during which human civilization, based on agriculture, has developed. Global warming, ocean acidification, melting of polar ice, sea level rise, extreme weather events including super-storms, floods and droughts, may soon make the planet unrecognizable, and possibly uninhabitable for humans and thousands of other species whose physical evolution and life cycles cannot keep pace with these transformations.
It behooves us, if we have any hope of staving off such calamities, or of surviving them if and as they occur, to analyze the roots of the social, political and economic behaviors and practices that have brought them about. We must also understand and undo the reasons for the failures of previous efforts to transform human society.
To do so, we must look further back in time, first to the birth of capitalism as a particular form of class society and of exploitation of nature and of humanity within nature, further into the beginnings of history and class society, and then into the entirety of the geological and biological development of earth including the emergence of our species. Doing that in a page or so of this newspaper, 2000 words, is an ambitious goal, so bear with me if what follows is particularly dense. It is also, though I begin by quoting Marx, not going to be the typical “Marxist” presentation of what purports to be class analysis or dialectical and historical materialism, because that has proven insufficient.
There were some incipient forms of capital developing in Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and the western hemisphere, based on trade, farming, handicrafts and early forms of money and banking in pre-existing patriarchal, slave-based and feudal societies. But “capital” is not the same as “capitalism.” As Marx has said, “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, turning Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These … proceedings are the chief momenta of primary accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre…the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, …England’s Anti-Jacobin War, …the opium wars against China, etc.”
But there’s an odd inversion in Marx’s brief recounting of the birth of capitalism. The paragraph he put before the one just cited should’ve followed it. He says, “The money capital formed by means of usury and commerce was prevented from turning into industrial capital, in the country by the feudal constitution, in the towns by the guilds. These fetters vanished with the dissolution of feudal society, with the expropriation and eviction of the country population. The new manufactures were established at sea-ports, or at inland points beyond the control of the old municipalities and their guilds.” Putting that first is a critical transposition of developments, chronologically and logically, that has plagued subsequent “vulgar” Marxists, who persist in identifying capitalism with what developed in Europe proper and with the class conflict between the new ruling bourgeoisie and the European proletarians.
In fact, as Marx stated, capitalism was born in the colonies – with the conquest and privatization of land in the Americas and the enslavement of indigenous and African people as labor. It is only on that base of “primary accumulation” – which is still proceeding – that the later enclosure of the commons in Europe, the eviction of the peasantry, and the formation of the proletariat, first in Europe and then globally, could occur. Marx recognized that private ownership of land (and therefore money rent) was an independent form of capital, and an independent basis for capitalist relations among people and between people and nature, but because the bulk of his work focused on abstracting from industrial and financial capital in order to understand its laws of development, this insight has in large measure been lost. In recent years, Monthly Review and related Marxian scholars have done tremendous work recuperating the ecological kernel in Marx’s thinking and analysis, but they have not yet overcome this fundamental weakness. They underplay the significance of the fact that private ownership of land affects class status.
Beyond Historical Materialism
One reason for this oversight has been the historic ossification of Marx’s analysis and insights into what has been called “dialectical and historical materialism,” often also denominated as “Marxism-Leninism” or “Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Tse-Tung Thought.” Marx, of course, never called himself a Marxist, nor did Lenin characterize himself as a Leninist. Mao I believe did propagate the formulation of Mao-Tse-Tung thought in his own lifetime, as the heir to and further developer of the philosophy and ideology of his revolutionary forbears, in a later historical period and a non-European context. But what is key, if we are to move beyond stale formulas and failed attempts, is to recognize the partial nature of such thinking. The “history” in “historical materialism” relates to the concept that “all history is the history of class struggle.” We require a much more sweeping and inclusive grasp of human and planetary history, and of physical and social evolution.
Humanity existed for at least a quarter-million years, probably much longer, in substantially our current physically evolved state of homo sapiens sapiens, long before the advent of “history” and class society. The basis of class society, like the basis of capitalism, was a transformation in the relationship of people to the land. Settled agriculture, conscious cultivation of plants and domestication of animals, developed in several different parts of the world independently long after the spread of humanity across the planet as hunter-gatherers (a title that simultaneously illuminates and obscures a gendered biological division of labor that precedes patriarchy). This was also, obviously, very long before the advent of capitalism.
And long prior to the rise of humanity as a dominating presence on the planet, other forms of life were instrumental in a kind of co-evolutionary process along with the physical processes of geology, solar radiation and other forces, in creating the atmosphere and the biosphere. The question and challenge is whether we can reintegrate ourselves as humans into what Marx termed the “metabolism” of the ecosphere. Can human activity and social organization be organized so that it is consistent with and embedded in the reciprocal, symbiotic processes of regional and planetary eco-systems? Or is any “production,” whether based on agriculture, industry, carbon-based energy, inherently extractivist and destructive, whether social or private?
Clearly, we must supercede capitalism, a cancerous, parasitical system based on inherently unsustainable “growth.” But to do so, especially given the centrality of the US to the global imperialist order, we must directly confront colonialism and particularly settler colonialism. The entire social order, economy and federal state apparatus of the US, including the new transnational manifestations of concentrated political and economic power such as the TPP, are based on settler colonialism – on stolen land and the control and exploitation of colonized people.
Huey P. Newton had some significant insights in putting forward the theory of revolutionary inter-communalism as his thinking and practice developed. But he made the error of misunderstanding and abandoning the concept of decolonization, and untethering Black liberation not only from nationalism and nationhood, but from a relationship to the land.
Newton rightly rejected the neo-colonial bourgeois nationalism and the process of “decolonization” authorized by the European colonial powers, which transformed “former” colonies into nominally independent but “under-developed” states modeled on the European nation-state. But true decolonization is something different – it means reversing colonialism – the theft and privatization of land, the domination, exploitation and often extermination of the people and cultures that developed on that land.
Its culmination clearly cannot be a nation state, because, despite Stalin’s various pseudo-definitions, the “nation-state” has always been, in fact, an empire state, based on the subordination of multiple cultures, languages, and ways of life by a single dominant class or class fraction claiming to speak for the “nation” and the “national interest.” If this is true in Europe, where dozens of principalities and ethnicities and languages were amalgamated to form “Spain” or “the United Kingdom,” or “Italy”, “Germany” or “Russia” – and where the maps must continually be redrawn as nation-states dissolve and reform, or in Africa, where maps were drawn arbitrarily to divide and conquer people in the interests of European colonizers, how much more must it be the case in the US, a continental empire based on land stolen from 100 or more nations, and the conquest, importation and amalgamation of innumerable peoples.
It’s only by fundamentally transforming the relationship of people to the land (and to “nature” more broadly), while simultaneously transforming the relationship of people to each other, that we can heal the breach between humanity and nature, and hopefully heal the wounded eco-systems of this planet. This requires not only a political revolution, or an economic one, but a civilizational and cultural revolution. We must regain the wisdom of indigenous peoples who have been resisting colonialism for half a millennium, relearn how to live in harmony with the water cycle and other natural processes, transform our methods of raising food, using renewable and non-toxic forms of energy, and reforest massive areas of the planet that are suffering from deforestation and desertification. That is only possible by freeing colonized lands and peoples and by expropriating the expropriators, the capitalist-colonialist class who can only exist by leeching off that land and human creativity.
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