I recently started reading “Marxism and Native Americans”, a series of essays edited by Ward Churchill and featuring Russell Means, Winona Laduke, Frank Black Elk and Vine Deloria Jr., among others. Really interesting mix of Marxist and non (anti?) Marxist Native American activists and thinkers, and the RCP is also in there being the shitheads they normally are.
The first essay “The Same Old Song”, is actually a speech delivered by Russell Means at the 1980 Black Hills International Survival Gathering. Means pulls no punches in denouncing Marxism, anarchism and other “isms” as not part of ‘revolution’, but of ‘continuation’ of the European tradition, the real responsible for the situation which makes Native Peoples the “national sacrifice.” Means continues:
“Distilled to its basic terms, European faith – including the new faith in science – equals a belief that man is god. Europe has always sought a messiah, whether be the man Jesus Christ, the man Karl Marx or the man Albert Einstein. American Indians know this to be totally absurd. Humans are the weakest creatures, so weak that other creatures are willing to give up their flesh so we may live. Humans are only able to survive through the exercise of rationality since they lack the abilities of other creatures to gain food through the use of fang and claw. But rationality is a curse since it can cause humans to forget the natural order of things in ways other creatures do not. A wolf can never forget his/her place in the natural order. American Indians can. Europeans almost always do. We pray our thanks to the deer, our relations, for allowing us their flesh to eat. Europeans simply take the flesh for granted and consider the deer inferior. After all, Europeans consider themselves godlike in their rationalism and science; god is the supreme being, all else must be inferior. Thus, the ability of Europe to create disharmony knows no limits.
Means’ words are hard to be refuted if we just look at history. Means attribute the European attitude to a ideology of de-spiritualization, of materializing the cosmos. From his perspective, it is that ideology that permeates the European tradition and that makes it easy to dehumanize people. I can’t but agree that this alienation from the natural world is one of the most defining features of European culture. It is dangerous fetishization of the natural world into “commodities” and “resources” that paves the way to fetishization of humans as “human resources”, “labor power” or “collateral damage.” While Means attribute this to a materialistic vision, it is actually a concept of complete abstraction, of dematerializing humanity and creating this idea of “man equals god” that is pervasive in European culture, from capitalism to Communism and, to a certain extent, even anarchism. This is exemplified in the most crass way by the response to Means’ speech written by the Revolutionary Communist Party – USA called “Searching for a Second Harvest.” The RCP response is a classical arrogant rant about the correct line and about “man’s struggle against nature.” It, unwittingly I presume, reaffirms Means’ fear that Communist production systems tend to be more destructive to the planet than capitalists, because they are not hindered by the profit methodology, but will be driven to “develop” the natural world as fast as possible, to increase “efficiency”. Abstraction is one of the primary processes of rationality. it confers us the ability to separate one thing from the other, to categorize the feelings we have as love, hate, friendship and loyalty; to assign animals and plants names and categories, like fish, bears and birds, and, most importantly, to be able to discern their behavior and counsciously adapt to them. Abstraction makes us able to separate dreams from awakening, independently of how you relate to dream-state, if you believe them to be illusion or real. Rationality has allowed humans to survive where they would have perished. While it is not an exclusive feature of humans (chimps and dolphins show a amazing level of rationality and passing on cultural traits to their descendents) the abstraction and conceptualizing of the natural world seems at this moment to be a exclusively human trait. And of all concepts, morality and moral judgments are the most human of them. When Means says that a wolf cannot forget his/her place in the natural world, it is also understood that the wolf makes no moral judgments about its position in the natural world. It does not feel guilty for killing another animal, it does not have to justify to itself or its peers the need to kill to eat. It is this abstraction, in its basic form, that makes us respect and revere the animals we kill, the plants that we eat and empathize with the suffering of other animals. It makes us love our pets, it creates healthy taboos as the widespread prohibitions against killing younglings and pregnant females. It makes us understand life and respect it and revere it. The European tradition, however, seems to abstract life to the point of making it unreal. This is not a feature that it is exclusive to European culture. Hinduism, for example, works with the concept of Maya, that this world is only an illusion, and only the spiritual world is real. Christianity, much similarly, preaches that this world is a place of punishment, a place we must free ourselves from in order to reach the Kingdom of Heaven. Christianity fears life, it worships Thanatos, the death drive, the renunciation of our real, material life for the future netherworldly life of the absolute spiritual. It sees this world as the enemy, as the prison of the “pure” spirit, the soul. Nietzche was able to read that into Christianity, although unable to rid himself of fable of biological determinism and “social Darwinism:”
Mankind has ventured to call pity a virtue (–in every superior moral system it appears as a weakness–); going still further, it has been called the virtue, the source and foundation of all other virtues–but let us always bear in mind that this was from the standpoint of a philosophy that was nihilistic, and upon whose shield the denial of life was inscribed. Schopenhauer was right in this: that by means of pity life is denied, and made worthy of denial–pity is the technic of nihilism. Let me repeat: this depressing and contagious instinct stands against all those instincts which work for the preservation and enhancement of life: in the role of protector of the miserable, it is a prime agent in the promotion of decadence–pity persuades to extinction….Of course, one doesn’t say “extinction”: one says “the other world,” or “God,” or “the true life,” or Nirvana, salvation, blessedness…. This innocent rhetoric, from the realm of religious-ethical balderdash, appears a good deal less innocent when one reflects upon the tendency that it conceals beneath sublime words: the tendency to destroy life. Schopenhauer was hostile to life: that is why pity appeared to him as a virtue. . . . Aristotle, as every one knows, saw in pity a sickly and dangerous state of mind, the remedy for which was an occasional purgative: he regarded tragedy as that purgative. The instinct of life should prompt us to seek some means of puncturing any such pathological and dangerous accumulation of pity as that appearing in Schopenhauer’s case (and also, alack, in that of our whole literary decadence, from St. Petersburg to Paris, from Tolstoi to Wagner), that it may burst and be discharged. . . Nothing is more unhealthy, amid all our unhealthy modernism, than Christian pity.
This Christian pity is not concerned with the bodies and lives of the “miserable” but with their souls. Christianity teaches the poor and the sick that their condition is a virtue, that they are better off being sick and poor in this world because that will assure them the Forever Glory in the presence of God. Nietzche however, is sick himself, and cannot understand how this alienation is more than just an individual phenomenon, more than just a need to assert individually the instinct for life. Because of his individualizing of the problem, Nietzche’s solution is an individualistic rebellion, the will to power. Marx, on the other hand, understood that the problem was social, but looked at the problem from a economic perspective. Therefore, all the alienation Marx could see was the alienation of labor, of the fruit of one’s work and the consequences of that. Marx continued to alienate himself from life through moralism and from the natural world through a perspective of mastery of the natural world. It is not until Wilhelm Reich that we see a truly revolutionary perspective about alienation in the European tradition. Reich draws from a diverse array of fields to talk about the alienation of “man” (the European archetype for itself) from life. As he puts it:
Since the emergency of patriarchy, the natural pleasure of work and activity has been replaced by compulsive duty. The average structure of masses of people has been transformed into a distorted structure marked by impotence and fear of life. This distorted structure not only forms the psychological basis of authoritarian dictatorship, it enables these dictatorships to justify themselves by pointing to human attitudes such as irresponsibility and childishness. The international catastrophe [the rise of fascism and WWII – my note] through which we are living is the ultimate consequence of this alienation of life.
What Reich points to is the enmity of life to which Nietzche alludes, but he reveals it for what it is, for what it does and for where it comes from. He also comes close to the point made by Means, by linking the instincts behind fascism and war-mongering, genocide and ethnic violence, authoritarian Communism and so-called democracies that rob humans of their sense of place and responsibility, that reduced humans to sheep blindly following autocratic leaders who can justify massacres in name of “a greater good”, or as “collateral damage.” The original alienation is the alienation of human from the natural world. The wolf cannot see itself as not part of the natural world, neither it sees humans as separate from the natural world. The current ideology inside the “ecological” movement shares that perspective, it talks about the natural world as “the other”, as a commodity or a resource, even if it is “the most precious one.” I remember watching the BBC series “Life” and loving it, but at the same time disparaging at its crass positioning of the natural world as human free. We are not part of this world, apparently we are some alien species that drizzled down from the heavens and have no organic connection to it. The world doesn’t affect us, it is ours to destroy or save as we wish. Man is God. It is the ultimate alienation, the primordial alienation, one that permeates all the current history of Western thought. What is impressive though, is how much those theories that claim to challenge it seem to ape the same analisis, and recreate the thought-pattern of alienation. Well, this is it for now. I’ll come back with part II soon enough, in which I aim to show that while “progress” by European tradition standards is no progress at all, neither are entropic theories like Primitivism and deep ecology, and that taking our place in the natural world is not a matter of “regressing” but a real feat of progress.