Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Obscuring power: or why Jared Diamond, Thomas Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs make me see red

In the final episode of "Guns, Germs and Steel", I had some hope. Diamond pointed out that Africa, difficult for the west to settle, became a colonial source of slaves, mineral & agricultural wealth. "And I realized" Diamond said on the train "that the very train I was on, today still served the same purpose." My hopes rose: would he say it? These are still western colonies! Say it! "But these aren't colonies anymore. They are free democratic societies." Arrrrgh!!!!! He then blames malaria for poverty. It's unbelievable. This is what passes for anaylsis in the 21st century: a man who can't connect the dots, because it would accuse people he knows -- of continuing the tradition of Projecting Power.

It could be that Diamond is just a poor reader. He needs to study Rousseau, Marx, and lots of Chomsky. But, it's more likely that he just suffers from not wanting to accuse those in his class ... fellow professors, writers etc.

Take the other two in my title: Thomas Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs. Professors, writers, movers & shakers ... they've also positioned themselves. Diamond is a biogeographical apologist for power. Friedman is a geopolitical apologist for power. Sachs is a macroeconomic apologist for power. And they all use the world's massive inequalities to further their punditry and obscure the truth: that poverty exists to continuously concentrate wealth & power, and does so now, at this very moment. It didn't stop in 1865, 1914, 1945, 1961 or 1990. It is still going on today, as fast as ever, killing millions. And the wealthy classes in all countries are hiding this fact from their intellectual & managerial classes ("civil society"), ensuring the masses continue to be enslaved, their resources stolen, their environments polluted, nature destroyed, etc.

The only difference, perhaps: Sachs & Friedman certainly know their crimes, because they purposely hide their own roles (Sachs in the destruction of every country he's ever advised, Friedman as propagandist for the Council on Foreign Relations). But Diamond is just an author, being polite, working within the framework. Maybe he'll open his eyes someday.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Blaming geography for 'progress'

On PBS, Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs & Steel" suffers from standard academic blinkering. Asked by a New Guinean why "white men have so much cargo, but we have none", he doesn't look at the power projection he represents in this aboriginal culture. He doesn't say: "because some people in my world make a lot of money from that disparity".

No. He starts to insult their food supply: not enough protein. In a strange oversight, somehow he doesn't mention that river & coastal-dwelling New Guineans eat fish. He says their food supply (he mentions mostly roots) "is viable, just not abundant". And he contrives a correlation between powerful civilizations and large domesticated animals. Somehow, Incan civilization was due to the Llama. I suppose Mayan civilization was fueled by magical-realist dreams about future cows? He's a biologist, but somehow hasn't noticed that 'progress' often happens because of scarcity, not abundance. And there's no questioning, in this show, of whether "cargo" is progress. Although, from the name of the series, we'll be seeing that western 'progress' is violent. I'd give him points for that, if it was a new idea.

Of course luck plays some role in the development of extreme power inequality. Or else there would be none. But power inequality develops to some degree in all human communities ... it exists on Papua New Guinea too. He just doesn't show it. With larger populations, the inequalities grow, as does the accumulation of habits & technology for conquest. He hints at this, but the overwrought presentation of his weak geographic evidence clouds over it. This is really a missed opportunity.

We live in a material world built on inequality. The system thrives upon it, and fools its intellectual class, who don't want to think of themselves as vampires, into instead thinking that inequality was an accident, and that it is lessening. In fact it is increasing dramatically, everywhere, continually. The only cases where this reverses, historically, are when mass opinion and action push back, against the inequality imposed upon it by the wealthy, powerful & violent minority.