Private property 2, planet Earth 0

Yesterday was a great day for private property and a setback for life on Earth.

A militarized police squad pepper-sprayed and arrested hundreds of protestors, mostly members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, to clear the way for the Dakota Access Pipeline to run through sacred burial sites, threaten to pollute Sioux ancestral homeland with toxic crude oil, and undoubtedly pollute the homeland of all life on Earth with resulting gas emissions.

And an Oregon jury acquitted the armed militants who earlier this year ousted the federal government from a national wildlife refuge. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established by Teddy Roosevelt to protect threatened wildlife habitats and archaeological sites of Paiute tribes. Militia members and other heavily armed “sovereign citizens” took the wildlife refuge by force to support their cause of returning federally protected resources to the exploitation of private property owners. And a jury of their peers found them not guilty of what everyone agrees they willingly did.

Work

We work too much. We work for too little. Work is our means toward others’ ends. Work is sitting in an office chair breathing recirculated air, dying slowly from a combination of atrophy, asphyxiation, and ulcers. Work is standing on our feet long enough to realize no shoes are comfortable. Work is not seeing sunlight for days. Work is breaking our backs under a beating sun. Work is feeling bored when we aren’t stressed and stressed when we aren’t bored. Work is surfing the Internet when we should be working and worrying about work when we are on vacation. Work is the time between wasted evenings with take-out, beer, and TV and exhausting weekends of outings, chores, and errands. Work is spending more time with coworkers than loved ones. Work is being part of a team on which we each do our own thing without input from each other and send passive aggressive emails about it. Work is losing interest in what we expressed passion for in cover letters. Work is complaining about customers, salespeople, patients, doctors, lawyers, clients, students, parents, teachers, assistants, managers, anyone. Work is making stuff we don’t need and convincing each other we do. Work is wishing it were Friday evening. Work is wishing we were sixty-five years old. Work is wishing we lived in Europe. Work is not being able to take it anymore and then taking it more.

Message in a bottle

Racism and sexism are not primal drives themselves but epiphenomena of power dynamics. Each is a construct, in some contexts used by the greedy to gain power (e.g., slavery and coverture), in other contexts by the powerful to protect their gains (e.g., Jim Crow and anti-abortion laws), in still other contexts by those losing power to regain it. The latter describes this moment in America, when white males are desperately trying to hold on to their waning historical privilege of disproportionate power.

To address racism and sexism below the epiphenomenal level on which they present to us, we must plunge into the depths, the dark slow-moving currents of our ways of thinking and relating. There we may explore our mentalities of individuality and insecurity, self and other, identity and difference, superiority and inferiority. There we may realize our alienation from each other, from nature, from our nature, from ourself. Based on this understanding, we can go beyond mere knowledge of history and respond to it. This daring to respond, this wading into the torrent of becoming, requires that we exercise our own power, the intellectual power to critique the entrenched dynamics of domination, and the social power to create new dynamics of equality.

We study history not so much as scholars attempting to understand what happened, but as agents of change trying to influence what is happening. The point is not merely to catalog and chronicle the histories of racism or sexism throughout each period of the past. It is to recognize that history is not past at all. The forces of domination and submission propelling the people and events of the past collide into us every moment of every day. They propel us, too, whether we know it or not. The point is to know it and have a say in it.

We can be passive vessels buoyed by the changing currents of historical power dynamics like so many bottles scattered across the seas, or we can read aloud the message inside each of us, and chart a path forward together.

 

Hostages

The core challenge is to take responsibility for our history. Our world is mostly predetermined by the decisions and events preceding this moment, most of which were made before any of us were born. If we remain ignorant of this history and how forcefully it shapes the present, we remain powerless to overcome the past’s strong tendency to determine the decisions and events of the future. There is much that was great in our past, but there is more that was prejudice, tyranny, ignorance, and short-sightedness. Consider the war on drugs or the carving up of the Middle East after World War One. Consider the Second Amendment and the electoral college.

Consider the white nationalism propelling the candidacy of Donald Trump. If Clinton wins, the election will be touted as the death throes of white male domination in American politics. But remember 2008, when Obama became the first black president and Democrats won control of both houses of Congress thanks to the electoral strength of minorities and women — only to be crippled by the Tea Party backlash and the conservative Supreme Court appointees of past presidents. Even if Trump loses the election, he will almost certainly win a majority of both whites and males, who despite 150 years of national struggle for the equal dignity of African Americans cling to the mentality of racial superiority and inferiority that gave us slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, and their ongoing economic and social legacies. Clinton will still need to reckon with this powerful constituency and she will be limited by it.

We remain hostages to the past.

Otherwise

Another way the “free” market is anything but: the continuous threat of material deprivation forces compliance with the system of subsistence-wage employment.

Most people most of the time are required to work practically every hour that is not consumed by basic necessities such as rest, preparing and eating food, hygiene, home maintenance, and dependent care. We may have a few hours to spare every week that we tend to spend on distractions so we can forget for a while the drudgery of our existence.

We do not have the free time or energy necessary for the genuine callings of human being, for self-determined meaningful life activities such as education, collaboration, and art. The best that most of us can hope for is a job that provides the opportunity for such human activity, albeit on our employers’ terms and determined by the demands of the market. Even that is a privilege not available to most because of inadequate public education and narrow-minded conceptions of workplace efficiency.

Yet it need not be so. With modern technology allowing for instantaneous global communication as well as automation of production and distribution with fractional human labor input, what prevents us from distributing adequate resources to everyone? Perhaps our sense of justice: if we – as individuals or as a country – had to toil relentlessly to obtain the standard of living we have, then everyone should have to. More likely it is the allure of power. The deprivation of the many gives inordinate power to the few who have much. Those few have manifold forms of power, not only economic but political and ideological. They keep the many stultified, ignorant, divided. They do not even know they do so, for it is more comfortable for them to believe the system of which they are beneficiaries is natural and right. Who will tell them otherwise?