Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A future remembered in past tense

Phoenix Insurgent

Below I have embedded Helena Norberg's classic film "Ancient Futures" about globalization and capitalist accumulation on the Indian/Tibetan border. Her video, brought to my attention this week by the very informative anti-authoritarian radio show Unwelcome Guests, shows visually what many have tried to articulate in words: that poverty is an inevitable result of capitalism, not the failure of it. That is, capitalism creates poverty from whole cloth where none existed before. Norberg illustrates this by showing us that material deprivation and poverty are not the same thing.

Indeed, we see this in Mexico, where the process of capital accumulation that has occurred since the Spanish set foot there, and increasing steadily with the passage of NAFTA and the laws that preceded it, has privatized vast swaths of land, uprooting whole communities. Once living lives without material abundance as most economists would understand it but high degrees of autonomy, now they are forced into the cities of North America where they must work for a wage, creating the phenomenon of rising wages alongside rising poverty.

Capitalist economists literally don't count what you produce for yourself or trade to others in your small hamlet, but it does count those rent payments and grocery store bills. If you didn't sell it, it doesn't count, in other words. Thus, your material wealth may seem to increase at the same time your level of poverty does.

Since the PCWC members have recently read John Gibler's wonderfully insightful book "Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt", I thought I would introduce Norberg's video with an excerpt from that. As an aside, PCWC recently got a chance to hang with Gibler after a talk he gave and we can vouch that this guy is the real deal and his book is an insightful and provocative people's history of Mexico. Go get it now. You'll thank us for it.

John Gibler:
But what is this, one may resonably ask, about poverty being an ideology, an idea? Isn't poverty a condition, and a bad one at that? Isn't poverty about living without nutritious food, without electricity and indoor plumbing, without access to adequate medical care, drinking water, good roads? Wouldn't it be insulting to say these conditions don't exist or aren't bad?

Excavating poverty's ideological content does not deny the existence of harsh and brutal living conditions, or insinuate that such conditions reflect a wiser, truer way of life than modern industrial capitalism (a typical red herring used to counter critics). The excavation is meant to show how people ended up in horrid conditions, why they are seldom able to change those conditions, and who is responsible for pinning them there; it is meant to help understand both historical and present human actions that forced (and continue to force) people into miserable situations. The ideology of poverty performs a kind of discursive illusion to obscure both historical and current human responsibility for the creation of destitution and suffering, and thus to convince the hundreds of millions of people who are destitute that no one is really to blame for their state, and that national governments and international economists are the best ones to figure out how to help them in their toil.
We can take this a step further by considering that what this discourse further does is lock us into a dialectic in which the struggle is against poverty, or for the advancement of particular groups (workers, women, national minorities) within this economic construct. Thus, the logic of the system that creates poverty becomes the defining characteristic of the struggle against it. You can see how it's very difficult to escape from this two-edged sword. In the end, this explains why so many struggles against capitalism only wind up with the subject further embedded within it. Take the unions and communist parties as prime examples. Once standing in opposition to Capital, they everywhere now bargain with it and even prop it up.

What this illustrates is the complexity of our task as revolutionaries and the depths to which the dominant ideology of capitalism has infected the dialogue of even those who seek to resist it. Here at PCWC, we seek to dig deep beyond the surface. But one question dogs us at every turn: what if our distance from these changes, what if the transformation wrought by Capital on our lives is so complete, that our imaginations fail us? This is the question of our time.

Perhaps my answer will sound more than a little Situationist influenced, then, when I say:
All power to the imagination!

And now, "Ancient Futures":

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