I’m on my way home for Thanksgiving on a bus that has been delayed several times due to traffic. What should be a 4-5 hour ride is looking like at least 7 in total. Weird that a group of people who don’t know each other (except for those who bought tickets together) are found careening together through space, hurtling from one city to another, seeking out loved ones hundreds of miles away and stiffening away from the slumbering person in the seat next to them.
What is our community, nowadays? Do we have one, or are we members of many? We are Westerners, by and large, and even those of us who wouldn’t identify as Western World by birth still buy into the values espoused in Western societies: economies exist to support the population (thus positioning resources – human, natural and manmade – as having a value in direct relationship to their support of our society), and work is considered the most valid contribution to this economy. Capitalism dominates now, but socialism and communism also existed as economic models in the past (and still do today, though they have adopted capitalist priorities, as in China); through the gradual building of civilizations that consider themselves now above, and custodially linked to, the fate of Nature, our world has become a web of extraction of energy to be converted into a life support system that sustains, albeit more and more weakly, an ever-growing world population.
Yet feelings of isolation and depression, even in an era of massive connectivity dominated by social media, advertising, cell phones and computers, and other means of shuttling messages and meanings across space, are growing. Experiments have been done to show that when people use more social media, they feel less connected to each other. Perhaps a bit less human, as well.
All of these disquieting thoughts are inspired by a speech given in 1980 by Russell Means of the Lakota Tribe, which is called one of the First Nations. Means – who supported an interesting explanation as to why the term “American Indian” may not the misnomer we have been trained to think it is – spoke in 1980 about the sickness of humankind that has been brought by European thinking, European ways, European influence, and European dominance in modern times. He argued that capitalism’s ills cannot be remedied by Marxist solutions, because Marx’s thinking – like that of other social “radicals” such as Paulo Freire and John Dewey – originated in the same mode of Westernism, which dictates first and foremost that man stands above Nature, and uses it to his benefit. This thinking I remember seeing in John Locke, as he spoke about the conversion of Nature in his theory of property, which is inert and without inherent value, into something of use to humanity through labor. The purpose of Nature, by this logic, is to serve man. While this is both a pre-capitalist and pre-Marxist view, each economic system indicates such a viewpoint as instrumental, if latent, to its formula.
Why is this a problem? Take a look around. We are causing the global temperature to rise, emitting more pollution than we can ever hope to eliminate, and soaking up fossil fuels, forests, animal populations, and natural habitats so quickly that projections for the end of natural energy in the form of fossil fuels are signaling crisis within 100 years. With the notion of human capital as developed by Becker in the mid-20th century, we have turned to each other – or more often, to the less powerful among us – to be producers of value as well. Couldn’t we argue that the “labor” a manager or CEO applies to the potential of a worker “converts” this worker into a source of value?
With such a functionalist view of our environment and even each other, we alter our ability to perceive loss or the subjugation of what is natural without our interference. This has become much, much more sinister in the last couple of decades of corporate involvement in government decision-making, education, health care, policing and prisons, and environmental actions. Such influence carries a familiar banner: it’s all about the value added! We seek to quantify, to measure, to calculate outcomes nowadays – I’m using neoliberal discourse here now – and further mediate our ability to perceive through this lens. A good example of such changes is taking place in education; by this model, our children are only doing well if a test can tell us so, thus indicating their “success” or “failure”; we are working on the beginnings of a system which will monitor their “progress” and report back constantly on every change, hiccup, or moment of resistance. We will then reward submission with more opportunities to submit in the future, in the form of jobs.
Sound conspiracy theory-y? Might be. I have heard recently that people tend to reach for such theories when they have become desperate, losing a sense of control over their lives. I know we’ve lost a sense of control over the machine that inhales raw materials into its hungry mouth and spits out products for the many and profits for the few. And I feel a loss of control over my role in that process. I feel useless, powerless, ineffective, and hopelessly bleeding-heart leftist.
And I want to ask Russell Means of the Lakota People: If my culture has made me, and I make my culture, what room is there for you and yours…even if you are right? How do we stop this runaway beast tearing down the mountainside, savage and faceless, mouth full of dying forests and choking air, to consume us all?