Tyranny, Exploitation, and Unsustainability
Too many otherwise extremely critical people concerned with social justice overlook a vital area. It's a shame, really, considering how otherwise thoroughly this field of discourse seems to have explored so many aspects of life by these folks. But in this one area, so many radical groups have ignored the most fundamental aspect of life, and in so doing have set up the course for a system doomed down the line to repeat the tyranny of the masters they revolt against. What they've ignored is the landbase, the ecosphere, the environment, or whatever you want to call it.
Of course, one can easily make the observation that environmentalism is more popular now than fifty years ago, and this is true. However, the environmentalism we see plastered all over the television and movie screens, that we get inconveniently from corrupt politicians-turned-celebrity, and from corporate greenwashing has nothing to do with protecting our landbases and ensuring justice for traditional communities. It has to do with the illusion of being "green", of giving people small lies that they can digest easily and trick themselves into believing that they don't have to fundamentally change their lifestyles to keep a living planet. They want to be able to keep producing and consuming, without thinking about the real effects these habits have beyond the check-out line.
This lack of deep insight into the landbase is what I think was the primary problem of the Soviet Union, as well as several other radical revolutions that birthed repressive regimes, and ultimately all empires. The Bolsheviks revolted with the intent of taking the power to the people and creating a "worker's paradise" out of the wreckage of a corrupt monarchy. Sounds like a great idea, right? So many of us today, and especially those of us who critique capitalism, want to create a setting in which people are treated fairly and not exploited by predatory economics and robber baron governments. The Bolsheviks had a pretty good critique going, and what appeared to be a good setup for fair distribution of resources and human rights. But we know something went wrong.
They were doomed from the start, though, because they didn't question the relationship that their culture had with the land(s) on which they lived. Indeed, in the attempt to collectivize the food production and maximize productivity (sound familiar?) they ignored the damage that agriculture, and especially industrial agriculture, does to the land. Traditional methods of food cultivation were completely ignored in the Communists' drive towards widespread industrialism. As Lierre Keith, author of "The Vegetarian Myth", puts it:
The truth is that agriculture is a relentless assault against the planet, and more of the same won't save us. In service to annual grains, humans have devastated prairies and forests, driven countless species extinct, altered the climate, and destroyed the topsoil- the basis of life itself.
So I bet some of you are thinking, "So what? That doesn't mean they'll treat the [human] people badly, does it?"
The problem with unsustainable ways of living is that you can't do it forever, especially not in one spot. If you could, it wouldn't be unsustainable (duh). Damaging continuously, using the same resources over and over faster than they replenish (if they replenish) means you'll run out. You'll strip it from the landscape and do irrevocable damage to said landbase. So, what happens when you've stripped something from the land, something your way of life is based on (like food or the nutrients necessary to grow the food, or perhaps oil) is that you'll go somewhere else for it. Maybe at first you can just trade for it, using some non-essential thing like gold or spices to get your grain. This might work out for a little while. But eventually trade becomes unreliable, and your neighbors say they can no longer trade as much with you as they previously had. If it's something your way of life depend on, something your people perceive that they need (whether or not that perception is true), you're going to go over there and take it, by force if necessary (and it almost always is when it comes to stealing resources).
To do this continually, you need to create a culture that makes this sort of exploitation not only acceptable, but encouraged, as well as making a mythos encouraging constant expansion and increased production ("be fruitful and multiply"). Hierarchal, abusive relationships become the norm. It comes to permeate the relationships throughout all parts of the culture. Chances are the culture already developed a bit of this, if you've already decided that humans are above other creatures and that clearing and destroying the land solely for your own use is acceptable.
In the case of the Soviet Union, we see that their unsustainability led them to many military actions for resources, especially oil, much in the same way that the U.S. military has been operating for the last few generations. One thing that hastened their collapse was the degradation of their soil, which reduced agricultural output (as any degradation of land eventually does) and forced them to import their food from elsewhere. This coincided with the rapid decline of their oil production, i.e. "Peak Oil", since their industrial agriculture, like that practiced widely in the U.S., depended on the stuff. It should be noted that, in fact, both countries had degraded their soil beforehand; the Dustbowl of the Great Depression was the result of just a few centuries of "organic" agriculture. Both countries "fixed" (read: 'hid') the problem with oil, creating massive amounts of chemical fertilizers.
This is where ethnographies and other testaments concerning indigenous people come in handy; while not perfect, we can see that peoples who relate to their landbases through some combination of hunting, gathering, and gardening are highly egalitarian people with few social problems. Reportedly, the language of the Okinagans of British Columbia have no word for violating a woman; their closest word literally translates to 'looking at her funny'. Six Nation clan mothers, from a society that traditionally lived off of a combination of complex horticulture, hunting, fishing, trapping, and foraging, themselves were the primary holders of political power, as were other women to a lesser extent on the Womens' Councils. This is a clear difference from civilized, agricultural peoples, who even in societies considered more 'progressive' in regards to gender politics have a huge level of disparity in economic, social, and political power between genders.
More to the point is that these cultures do not have slavery (and it could be argued that the outstanding treatment of women is related, as patriarchal cultures basically view women as property). Slavery, like exploitational warfare and destruction of one's landbase, requires that those who perpetrate it consider themselves as a higher form of life that has the right to dominate others. This is especially true in race-based forms of slavery; racial systems of slavery are built upon the superiority of one accident of birth over another, usually having primarily to do with skin tone. These systems are almost universal in civilized people, though contemporary forms of wage slavery and indebted servitude go under different guises to conceal their true nature.
Indigenous peoples, in contrast, don't have slavery. In big part it just doesn't make economic sense; there is no need to till the land, and most of the "work" they do is viewed as fun to them (being things that many people in our society consider vacation activities). The exception is often brought up of a few societies like the Six Nations and some Pacific Northwest cultures, but in reality what some Westerners view as slavery as practiced by them was in usually a form of hazing new members. I don't particularly agree with these forms of membership enculturation, but I need to make clear that it was not slavery in our sense, in the sense of ownership and superiority. In that same regard, I consider the Six Nations' infamous "wars of conquest" to be an exception that proves the rule in terms of expansionist warfare; they formed the League after making peace between the various nations and agreeing not to capture from one another, and in the tradition of adopting captured members of other groups they replenished their lost members through raids. And it should be noted that at the time of European contact with the Six Nations, many large Onondaga villages were made up of over 60% by people not born Onondaga. Again, not something I really endorse, but we need to name it for what it was.
Therefore I put forward this assertion: anyone with the slightest bit of caring and compassion, who is in any way involved in promoting social justice and equitable treatment of all people, needs to understand that degradation of the land and soil makes truly just societies impossible, and have at least a basic understanding of ecologically sound food production that reinforces and even improves biodiversity. You need to understand that agriculture is damaging in any form, even "organic" agriculture. Without these understandings, we're doomed to repeat the processes that have historically lead to tyranny and exploitation, in addition to overshoot and crash.
Look forward to upcoming essays concerning why radicals need to understand collapse (and how it effects subjugated peoples), why collapse is a good thing for humanity, and the differences between hard and soft collapse.