This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 44th week, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
During August, two historical events are commemorated, both of which had a major impact on the destiny of millions of people and changed the face of the world forever. The first, remembered on August 6 and 9, is the horrific nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The second, marked on August 23, reminds us of the abolition of the slave trade, a system that devastated African societies for hundreds of years. What is the nature of the system that allows for atrocities such as these and countless others? Jacques Depelchin goes to the heart of capitalism and finds a system gone mad.
Capitalism has been so genocidal that it is worthwhile to posit that it cannot do otherwise, despite attempts to humanize it. How it came about, how it has been portrayed (by friends and foes) over the centuries but especially now, reinforces the idea that it cannot be done away with. How and where it has slaughtered in massive and horrific ways should be understood as only the smallest manifestation of its genocidal nature – not just against one group of people, but against all human beings. Could it have been otherwise?
Those who are convinced that capitalism can be humanized shall argue yes. Unfortunately, the data are so skewed in their favor that to argue the opposite is as huge an obstacle as the challenge faced by the slaves who rose up against slavery in Haiti in 1791. If the above question is going to be discussed adequately, capitalism and its history must no longer be treated as if, by definition, it is immune from evil. The hypothesis is that the principles which have sustained it, propagate death. Capitalism kills everything it touches, especially when it claims to do otherwise. It has devised as many ways of killing as there are declared and undeclared worshippers.
Capitalism and how victims of genocides become killers
Self-appointed certifiers of evil can easily be blind to their own actions. For former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the death of half a million children in Iraq as a result of US imposed sanctions was considered “worth” the effort. Yet, why does it seem easier to accept the description of a Hutu machete-wielding genocider as beyond barbarism? It is as if certain epithets and words can only be linked to certain peoples. Yet, victims of genocides can easily become killers; more easily than can be imagined. In its history of always imposing its principles, rules and laws, capitalism shall eventually face the very practices it has attributed to its enemies.
As capitalism inaugurated itself, about 500 years ago, so it has continued to reproduce itself, modernizing its ways and refining how it sells itself. The current occupation of Iraq is a modernized, updated visual illustration of how Amerindians were stripped of their land and how Africans and Asians were yanked from their homes and land by what came to be known initially as The System – meaning slavery and all that grew out of it.
There is a tendency, even among the most critical voices (e.g. Howard Zinn’s History of the United States), not to see the connections between what could be described as the inaugural homelessness of the Amerindians and the Africans, Hitler’s lebensraum, today’s homelessness in the richest countries of the Planet and the same phenomenon in the streets of Fallujah, Palestine and South Africa. At this rate, for how long will humanity be able to call Planet Earth home?
I do not claim to say anything new. Many have said it before, more eloquently, forcefully and inspiringly (e.g. Fredy Perlman, Against His-tory, Against Leviathan; Bertram Gross, Friendly Fascism). The tradition of resisting the system did not just start from 19th century Europe, as it included those who left no writings, but screamed and fought like hell against their kin predators. It has included the survivors of certified and uncertified holocausts. It must include the voices which continue to be silenced because their suffering did not register on the Richter Scale of genocidal certification, and remain stubbornly unacknowledged. Repetition, in different multiple ways, can be helpful in strengthening resistance to capitalism, in its terrorizing and/or user-friendly forms. For example, the well-known genocidal sequences of the twentieth century have been identified (and certified) in ways which, in one stroke, exempt and anonymize the real culprit from closer scrutiny.
Why ‘Never Again’ has always been applied selectively
And, if the famous ‘Never Again’ should really be stood by, it is necessary to look at capitalism with less benevolent, opportunistic eyes simply because the pillars of power today (military, economic, political, juridical, cultural and religious) have been molded by the manner in which capitalism emerged and sees itself as angelic, in triumphal colors. One of the measures (and by no means the only one) of how total the triumph has been, can be seen, most recently, in how the current US administration is forcing the nation-state signatories of environmental and international criminal laws to retreat from signed agreements, whether in Geneva, Kyoto or Rome. But then, this ignoring of international conventions and covenants is not new, as, for example, can be seen today by how the Convention Against Genocide (1948) has been ignored by the signatories.
Globalization as being portrayed today by the G8 has been sold in the same fashion over the last 500 years: through a combination of military conquests, territorial occupation, minimal social and humanitarian programs, corruption, severe and protracted punishment for those who, collectively or individually, do not submit (e.g. Haiti, Cuba, Grenada, Nicaragua, Lumumba, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal, to only mention a few).
By definition, capitalism carries within it an unrelenting need for total control not just of the market, but of everything, of life and death. There is no other morality or ethics but the triumph of the power principle “might is right”. ‘Never Again’ cannot just apply to the WWII Holocaust, but must be linked to the genocidal sequences unleashed by capitalism, otherwise, ‘Never Again’ will never apply (or ever so selectively as has been the practice).
From slavery until today, the system has been regularly updated and modernized. In times of crisis, when its real nature is difficult to hide, capitalism takes on a reformist mantle as it did through the abolition of slavery, or in other transitional phases, such as from colonial rule, or from Apartheid in South Africa.
To those who argue that what we are seeing is no different from how previous empires have come and gone, one can only say that it is the first time in history that humans have mastered the capacity to instantly destroy all life on the Planet. From the end of World War II, or more precisely, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, efforts have been made to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Those efforts have failed, are failing and shall continue to fail unless the deep, rarely acknowledged causes which led to WW I, WW II, WW III (The so-called Cold War) and WW IV (Worldwide Structural Adjustment Programs which have come full circle to the US via the attempt to do away with social security) and WW V (the current war, without end, against terror) are looked at without complacency. As of now it is possible to argue that nuclear power is to the physics world or to nature as capitalism is to economics: both are untamable.
The submission/integration to capital has now reached an unprecedented level: geographical, political, ideological, legal, cultural and religious. In an analysis of the crisis of political leadership in the DRC, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba (2005) pointed out that the state (as fashioned in Africa by capital, from colonial to post-colonial times) appears as genetically coded to be at the service of capital, regardless of geographical borders. Capital has no allegiance and can be truly described as “sans foi ni loi” (faithless and lawless), rewriting rules and laws as it spreads, facilitating its never ending expansion. All and everything is fodder to its insatiable appetite. Could it ever have been emancipatory as envisaged at one point? What can be answered with certainty is that, from how it has unfolded, humanity must extract some sort of emancipatory breathing space, while avoiding falling into the very same practices of seeking power by any means necessary.
What if evil had always been at the core of capitalism?
The process of definitively extricating ourselves from its shackles will require applying the following principles: resist its further spread through constant and systematic non-violence against all of its manifestations wherever and whenever they are seen and understood. Affirm the mortality of capital by upholding the immortality of the human.
‘Unrealistic’ will say some. When millions of human beings on earth are faced with living off less than 5 dollars a day, the only realistic position ought to strive to change it as urgently as possible; maybe under the form of ‘A Declaration Against Capital as Genocidal’ which could signal the beginning of a truth procedure toward rendering capitalism and its sustaining structures obsolete.
The genocidal nature of capital is hidden from view, in great part, because the rules for identifying a genocide are written in such a way that capital is safely disconnected from responsibility. In that process basic notions like justice lose their universal integrity because the system has become extremely adept at justifying and rationalizing the most unacceptable, the most unjustifiable crimes. The very history of the WW II Holocaust has preferred to focus on the personalization of the culprits while, at the same time, trying very hard to erase or downplay corporate responsibility. But even at the level of corporate responsibility, personalizing evil by actually naming corporations which benefited from the Holocaust is not very helpful from the perspective of determining with as much precision as possible what is responsible for the inability, reluctance and refusal to identify the most intractable source of evil.
It is obvious why capital, its history and all of the structures which have grown out of it should not be considered as the ultimate source of evil in today’s world. Most people, even among those who suffer the most from capital’s impact world wide, are willing to give capital the benefit of the doubt, if only on account of a list of “positive things” which are associated with capital. Yet, if given a real viable choice, most people would certainly prefer to be able to feed themselves without having to rely on charity.
The convergence and concentration, through and thanks to corporations, of military, economic, financial, political, scientific and religious power in the hands of very few individuals worldwide, is unprecedented. Sometimes it looks as if WW II never really ended, and that the fight for world supremacy was reconfigured for the benefit of the one capable of frightening the rest of the world into submission because its military arsenal had the demonstrated capacity to destroy life on Earth. This capacity is easy to understand when referring to the nuclear armament industry and militarism, but most advocates of peace on earth are not willing to confront the system which, according to them, sustains both the positive and the negative; because the unstated assumption is that capitalism, by definition, cannot be evil, cannot lead to evil behavior. Thus, such evil institutions as The Gulag cannot be associated with the US in any way, as Amnesty International found out upon publishing its latest annual report in which it compares the prison networks maintained by the US to the Soviet Gulag. Entertaining such comparisons, thoughts and hypotheses would undermine the basis upon which the triumphal histories of the so-called most advanced nations have been written.
Global capital vs. US capital to capital vs. all the peoples of the world?
Sometimes the proof that something no longer works takes several failures to be accepted, but what if capital has no way of recognizing failure? Capital can no longer impose itself through wars of conquests, even if some continue to think that owning the biggest military machine in history gives them the right to keep re-conquering the Planet, over and over.
Just recently (June 20-24), Beijing was flexing its muscles in a bid to buy one of the US oil companies, (UNOCAL). As if this was not enough of a sign of the changing times, Mr. Greenspan, Head of the US Federal Reserve Bank, has warned the Bush administration against trying punitive measures against Chinese imports because such a move would not help increase jobs in the US market. However, neither Greenspan’s proposed remedy (among other things, specializing in “smart jobs” as once advocated by Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under the first Clinton Administration) will not work because, across the board, from India to China, via Malaysia, Taiwan and South Korea, blue and white collar workers have become smarter and more productive than their US counterparts. Mr. Greenspan’s thinking is typical of a believer in the global capitalist system, joining hands with the CEOs of IBM, Intel, financiers, bankers, etc. who look at the Chinese market as the ultimate promised land.
Is it bio-technology (life) or thanato-technology (death)?
The US ruling establishment has convinced itself and a great part of the world that its monopoly of weapons of mass destruction is the safest protection against evil, even though the 500 year build-up to this supremacy demonstrates the opposite. And the situation is getting worse. One of the most important indicators of how much more lethal capital has become, is the privatization of the US Army and the flow of profits to the corporations. This domination of the military industrial and prison complex is complimented by domination in the entertainment/sport/leisure industry (which includes the food industry, the film and advertising industries) whose combined function is to prevent the citizens from thinking, or better to have the illusion of thinking, under the sedation of the entertainment industry. Thinking outside the box is only meant for profit, for increasing consumption, not for solving social issues. Outside of the box is actually within an already prepared larger box. Empowerment within the pyramidal configuration of the existing power structure can not help but reproduce that structure when what is called for is its dissolution in favor of the sphere (as beautifully shown by Ayi Kwei Armah in his last novel KMT: In the House of Life, Per Ankh, 2002) where the emphasis is away from competition and confrontation and toward cooperation and harmony among people and with nature.
The emphasis on competition has been so severe that it has transformed, for example, the meaning of words like healing. As practiced today in the US, the health industry is not about healing, it is much more about how, as the popular phrase goes, to “make a killing” by looking for (and selling) the miracle cure or the miracle medical technical procedure. The market reigns supreme in the collective and individual minds. Its relentlessness so completely blinds those who should be served that it has acquired a life of its own as though nothing can be done to dampen or control its most destructive features. Simple, common sense understanding of the relationship between one’s health and what is eaten and drunk as the best and most effective way of maintaining health is losing credibility, thanks to skilful advertising.
Primitive accumulation is no longer about separating the producers from their means of production, but about stripping human beings of their capacity to think. This divisive mechanism has been so refined, so internalized, that individuals are instinctively more concerned about the survival of the system which is killing them rather than about the survival of their bodies.
Which way forward?
A criminal running away from the crime ends up committing more and more horrendous crimes in order to cover up the previous ones, and so it has been and continues with capitalism. Since the crimes have never been acknowledged as such, runaway genocidal sequences continue and are getting worse despite ethics courses being taught in law, business and medical schools, and despite the proliferation of human rights organizations. When the G8 and their formal and informal acolytes vow to fight for Africa and make poverty history it sounded like previous pious vows about abolition. The source of poverty is greed. Capitalism thrives on greed, poverty, violence, warfare and injustice. Why not make capitalism history?
A system which has been genocidal cannot help but seek to reproduce itself through what it perceives as “having worked” even though the price is becoming less and less acceptable. Given the economic, financial and legal system, conviction will never happen and could only happen if people battle for another world on the basis of principles framed by a higher law, a law which is not framed by the dictates of capital, but by the principles of solidarity, cooperation, justice and peace with all peoples of the Planet.
Every year on August 6th and 9th, the Hibakusha (survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), along with nuclear abolitionists and supporters try to remind the world, anxiously, that no one should ever suffer what they went through. Should it not be obvious that the triumphant managers of capitalism and their millions upon millions (generation after generation) of nameless victims are generic Hibakusha, before their time, of a system gone mad.
The anxiety in the voices of the Hibakusha from Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes from wondering what will happen when they die. But one is also encouraged by the inexhaustible fidelity to what is best in humanity, exemplified by Haitians from 1791 to 1804 and through to today (2005), by survivors of the WW II Holocaust battling for Palestinians, by anti-apartheid militants who have refused to cash in on their dues because, as they saw the seamless slide from South African to global apartheid, their conscience called on them to continue in the spirit of those who, in 1791, in Haiti, faced unimaginably worst odds.
* Jacques Depelchin is Executive Director of the Ota Benga Alliance for Peace in the DRC.