Posts Tagged ‘coltan

15
Jun
10

[In]tolerable Evil

The myth that Capitalism is a great and fair system is becoming rapidly dispelled. Such disasters as the Bhopal gas catastrophe, the BP oil spills, the Minamata bay dumpings,  the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and the general level of corruption, ecological devastation, poverty, and exploitation brought on by our current economic structure have brought many to an understanding that Capitalism is in fact an inherently evil system that benefits a lucky few. Even so, the contemporary attitudes toward towards Capitalism are tolerant. In spite of the repeated evils brought on by this system, the simple fact is people don’t care!

People are angry at BP, sure, but not angry enough to illicit action. We’ll scream our heads off after an hour in traffic, but what do we do when we hear about a sweatshop in Indonesia? We’ll tear apart a stadium during a football riot but do we riot when we hear about waste being dumped in the ocean? We’ll get into fistfights when the neighbor’s playing music too loud but do we so much as lift a finger when a man dies because he’s too poor to afford insurance or pay for medical bills?

Why? Because we’re the ones benefiting from Capitalism? Because the evils of Capitalism aren’t oppressing us? What makes me different than a coltan miner in the Congo, or a child slave in Bangladesh? If it weren’t for pure and simple dumb luck– I’d be the one working fourteen hours a day for pennies. I am not where I am today because I worked hard. I am not where I am today because I was smart or because I took advantage of the opportunities offered to me. I am where I am because I was simply born. Others are simply born into poverty, slavery, and starvation and no matter how hard they work, no matter how much they struggle they never advance. Is Capitalism a tolerable evil to them?

One of the greatest ills of Capitalism that affects not merely the proletariat but the middle and upper class as well is the concept of individuality- a flimsy facade for the uglier terms selfishness and egocentricity. We are led to imagine that we are rich because of our own hard work. We’re responsible only for ourselves. It is because of this concept that shrug and walk away from tragedies, be it a mugging or a multinational corporation paying 12 cents a day for designer jeans to be made. And we continue to hold this egomaniacal point of view because we are terrified of what it would mean if we were responsible for each other. If an old woman gets mugged, it’s not just the fault of the old woman for being more careful or the fault of the mugger for choosing to rob her- it our fault for doing nothing to stop it. If a manufacturing plant in Peru has children working for little or no pay, we’re just as much to blame for doing nothing to resist!

And for those who insist upon tolerating the evils of Capitalism and the suffering of others, I can only offer you these words written with greater urgency and eloquence than I could ever hope to have:

THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

THEN THEY CAME for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

-F.G.E. Martin Niemoller, 1892-1984

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22
Sep
09

Communism, Capitalism, and Culture

In film and literature, Communist (or at least, Communistic) societies are often portrayed as dark, Spartan places where variety is almost non-existent. Indeed, Communism is sometimes portrayed as espousing complete and utter uniformity- and perhaps this is understandable. After all, Communism does demand a single class where all citizens are equal without exception, and Soviet city-planning and architecture tended to be more than slightly lacking as far as aesthetics go.

However, as has been repeatedly stated throughout this blog, Soviet Russia was not a true Communist country and as far as equality goes, “equality” doesn’t mean “identical”. For the average foundry worker to live in an equal society, the rest of society doesn’t have to be average foundry workers- they must simply have the same rights, responsibilities, and opportunities. Within equality lies endless variety- more so than can ever be achieved in the Capitalist society.

Now this statement may seem to be based on faulty reasoning, after all, if Capitalism presents opportunity for anyone and everyone to sell their own product or service, then there will be an unending fountain of culture, technology, art, music, and so on. Now if Capitalism were only the opportunity of every individual to sell his own product or service, this might be true. In reality, Capitalism doesn’t quite work that way. You see Capitalism based heavily on competition- the struggle for dominance over others. In order to attain Capitalism’s end goal- capital (money)- the individuals selling their products and/or services forced to compete with each other for the customers. In short, if there are two tailors in one town, they are going to be at war with each other for customers. “But surely this would cause their quality to increase, their prices to drop, and the variety of products to expand!” You might retort. Now this is partly true- and only temporarily so at that. As much as the competitors will try to undercut each other’s prices, there is a point they will not drop below to ensure a profit is still made. Eventually, one of the competitors, either through poor planning or just bad luck, is going to lose and the moment that happens, the winning competitor no longer has any reason to keep prices low or variety wide. In a free, Capitalist society, this is what inevitably happens- the weak are killed off and devoured by the strong until eventually, one company reigns supreme and becomes a monopoly. We can see this battle of giants all around us- Pepsi versus Coke, Apple versus Microsoft, Nintendo versus Xbox versus Play Station 3, and so on. Do we actually imagine this to be some sort of dualistic system- that these companies will forever be locked in a fight for dominance? No- eventually, Pepsi is going to fall to Coke or Coke will fall to Pepsi or both of them will be conquered (somehow) by Jones Soda. “But this will never happen- there’s always going to be some fresh competition to challenge the old dinosaurs. Monopolies are impossible.” Really? Just take a look at history- read about Standard Oil and the British East India Company. “Granted,” one might reply “but the consumer still has a basic level of control over the monopolies- if there’s a Pepsi monopoly and Pepsi raises its prices too high, the people can’t be forced to buy Pepsi. In fact, Pepsi is limited to selling its products at the price the public will pay for them.” Very well then, but what about a different kind of monopoly. What about a lumber monopoly, or an oil monopoly? Society is dependent on these resources to function without regressing to the stone age. Even if a single monopoly were to arise that controlled the mining of Coltan (a rare mineral used in cell phones and communication), the world could be brought its knees.

But perhaps I’m getting a little off-track. The point is, after enough expansion, Capitalism can trade variety for cut production-cost profit. “So what if that is true? We don’t have monopolies at this point in time- Capitalism still offers us variety now.” For the sake of space, we’ll skip addressing the issue with concentrating only on the here-and-now and focus on how Capitalism, which, even at a pre-monopoly stage, reduces variety rather than promoting it.

As I was traveling through the US this summer, I was presented with an interesting thought. No matter how many towns and cities I drove through, there were always (to varying degrees) the same stores, restaurants, and hotels. Every hamlet in America now has a Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Starbucks, etc. Granted, it’s not dramatic, but let us keep in mind that this is only in a single country. Lets take a look at the world. Now with distances of over a thousand miles between some of these countries, one would imagine the cultures would be diverse- alas, this is no longer true. Due to the imperialistic march of McDonalds, Starbucks, and other companies, the cultures already present within are suddenly forced to compete with the Western culture these companies represent. Take the cases of Syria and Jordan, for example. Syria has, on the whole, resisted foreign interference in its affairs, and, after pretty much closing its borders to would-be investors such as McDonalds, has managed to retain much of its cultural heritage and traditions. The same cannot be said for its neighbor to the south, Jordan. Jordan has embraced the West and Western companies, such as McDonalds, Papa John’s, and various clothing outlets, have thrived there. If you were to walk down the fashionable area of Amman, it would be hard for you to tell if you were in the Middle East or Southern California. While Jordan does still have a unique culture, that culture has been drowned out by the commercialism of the West. Is this the West’s fault? No- not entirely, anyways. The companies that attempt to exploit foreign markets are spreading Western culture, but doing so only because they themselves are part of Western culture. Quite simply, if you are told it is fashionable to dress in Western clothes (and Western clothes outlets are more than happy to let you have that illusion), then chances are your traditional dress will be forgotten. If local restaurants are forced out of business by fast-food, then chances are the aspect of eating (a form of socializing in almost every culture) will change dramatically. In short, along with expansion of companies is the expansion of the cultures of those companies. As we can see by looking at the world today, rather than promoting diversity, Capitalism destroys it.

But what about Communism? Doesn’t it, like Capitalism, attempt to spread across the globe? Yes, Communism does attempt to encompass the world, but Communism has nothing to gain from a monocultural society. Quite the opposite, Communism can only flourish if variety and diversity are accepted- we can’t expect a society to exist if everyone acts the same way and holds the same values. Indeed, the very lack of corporations telling you what is and is not fashionable or desirable can lead nothing other than a diverse society. In conclusion, don’t be sold on the Capitalist illusion of culture.

06
Aug
09

Working Class Hero

The term “working class” is thrown around a lot these days. It’s applied to everything from Congolese coltan miners to New York City construction workers to cab drivers to anyone employed by a corporation. It’s not easy to define exactly what “Proletariat” is anymore, definitions and conditions have changed since the time of Marx. Do we apply the term to anyone who works for a company? A marketing executive is hardly “working class”. Do we call anyone who works with his hands a member of the working class? Technically a doctor works with his hands. What about mechanics and engineers? Some are down in the pits tinkering with the greasy hearts of machines and some sit behind desks jotting down plans of how to get lever-1 to connect to piston-2. What about the third world? Is a street sweeper in Chiang Mai less or more Proletariat than a janitor in San Diego? Where does the working class end and the middle class begin?

All in all, it isn’t easy to define exactly what “Proletariat” means anymore. For the sake of the arguments used in this post, we will define “proletariat/working class” as follows: The members of society who are employed in such fields that require little or no education and involve physical/manual labor.

So what’s so special about the working class that made Marx hail them as the future of humanity? Well even though we’ve found a definition, let us look at what it is exactly that the Proletariat do.

In Capitalism, society is organized like pillar- or better yet- a pyramid. The base of the pyramid constitutes the largest class, the proletariat or “working class”. The working class supports the entire pyramid, producing the food, mining the hills, hacking down the trees, and generally manufacturing and producing everything consumed by society. Resting on top of the proletariat is a smaller class known as the Bourgeoisie or “middle class”. What separates the Bourgeoisie from the Proletariat is that (1) the middle class is dramatically more wealthy than the working class, (2) smaller, (3) consumes more, and (4) does very little production outside of various “middle-man” jobs. In short, while the Proletariat consist largely of the farmers, the fishers, the miners, the janitors, the construction workers, etc. the Bourgeoisie consists of such people as lawyers, doctors, small business owners, secretaries, non-manual-labor business employees, etc. The Bourgeoisie, however, are in turn forced to support the very top of the pyramid, the Elite or “upper-class”. Just as the Bourgeoisie are considerably more wealthy, smaller (in numbers), and less productive than the Proletariat are, the Elite are vastly more wealthy, smaller in number, and less productive than the Bourgeoisie. The Elite consists primarily of tycoons, multinational corporation owners, bankers, oil barons, actors, etc. For some odd reason this class, which produces and contributes the least, is given the most wealthy and power.

Now in a Capitalist society (which at this point in time is almost every society on the planet), it is impossible to deviate from this social-class pyramid. The size might vary, as well as the slope, but the pyramid is always there. Of course, there have been those who have attempted to deny this. A famous, anonymous anti-Communist quote states that “The communist [sic], seeing the rich man and his fine home, says: ‘No man should have so much.’ The capitalist, seeing the same thing, says: ‘All men should have as much'”. Even a child can see the problem with this logic. If this statement were to be applied, then the lower classes- the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat- would be all crammed into the pinnacle of the pyramid which- having now no lower supports- would come crashing to the ground. The statement should actually read “The Communist, seeing the rich man and his fine home, says: ‘Not all men can have so much!'”. Quite simply, the wealthy can only be wealthy because they are supported by a large middle class and the middle class can only be the middle class because they are supported by the massive working class. As I said- it’s a pyramid. The top can only exist because of the middle, the middle can only exist because of the bottom and the bottom… well, they really don’t need the two layers on top, now do they?

Naturally, some would contest this. Author Ayn Rand, in her famous/notorious novel Atlas Shrugged attempts to convince the reader that it is not the Proletariat but the Elite who support and fuel society. In her book, the mysterious character John Galt essentially leads the wealthy tycoons on a strike, forcing the world to come to a shuddering halt. Of course, the idea that the absence of the least productive members of society would stop the world from turning is laughable. The equivalent would be to claim that losing the decorative fuzzy-dice from a car would keep the car from running. If anything, with the removed weight of the Elite, society would probably run more smoothly. The Elite needs the Proletariat, the Proletariat do not need the Elite.

So what’s the solution to this glorified pyramid scheme we call “society”? Well as we’ve covered before, it’s only a matter of time before the Proletariat are starved, beaten, and oppressed beyond the limits of their endurance and the upper-class’s ability to contain. Revolution, Comrades. The day when the exploiters and enslavers look out of their alabaster windows to see all the Moseses, Toussaint L’ouvertures, Nat Turners, John Browns, Che Geuvaras, and George Habashes of the world bearing down their gilded palaces, howling for justice. By the time the dust settles, there is no more Elite, no more Bourgeoisie- even the old, exploited, “drugged-with-religion-and-sex-and-tv” (as Lennon once said) working class is gone. What exists instead? The new Proletariat.

In Communism, there is but a single class (though Marxism sometimes refer to this as being “classless“). Rather than being the down-trodden support for the Bourgeoisie and the Elite, the new Proletariat combines the best of all classes and purges what was negative. This new working class still is the working class, however, it exists as an individual and independent entity. The wealth that was once funneled to the rich is now equally shared, giving the public a higher standard of living. Everyone has the opportunity to be whatever they are skilled at doing- an opportunity once only attainable by the wealthy. Society is healthier and stronger, since in addition to doing whatever they are talented at doing, the manual labor is shared equally by the public, rather than being forced onto the backs of a single group. With an equal starting point, everyone is able to advance solely by their own merit, rather than by accident of birth and dumb luck.

In the old days, our heroes were god-kings and dragon-slaying aristocrats, today we look up to the Average Joe and the Homer Simpsons, but the future of the world belongs not to nobles and white-collar employees but to those who truly merit praise. Long live the working class hero.

07
Jul
09

Marx and History

If one were to read the works of Marx, or indeed, any major Communist writer, one would find that large portions of the publications are dedicated to criticizing (or often, lambasting) Capitalism and Capitalists. Even this blog has almost as many anti-Capitalist arguments as it does pro-Communist. This of course leads to issues with the Communist image- Marxists are often perceived as self-righteous, angry, and destructive malcontents bent on ripping apart the fabric of society. Perhaps on some level this is true, however, there is a simple and often overlooked factor that contributes to all this: Marx’s theory of history.

In his works, Marx describes his theory as “Historical Materialism”. Now the term “materialism” is often misinterpreted (particularly by members of the religious community) to mean atheistic, worldly, and Darwinist. As I’ve said, this is a misinterpretation. In this case, “materialism” merely means “pertaining to resources” including capital (money), land, and most importantly, people. While Marx’s description of his theory is more than slightly complex and long winded, it can be broken down and simplified.

According to Marx’s theory, the history of the world is shaped by economics and politics, the pair of which are- as Marx claims- inseparably linked. Humanity once lived in a state where the elite- the aristocracy, nobility, and royalty- controlled their nations and the wealth of their nations. The middle class is almost nonexistent and the remainder of society not fortunate enough to be born to the elite are slaves or feudal serfs and peasants. Eventually, as kingdoms become less warlike and more permanently established, merchants, bankers, etc. will be created, resulting in the middle-class or as Marx called it, the “Bourgeoisie”.

As time progresses, the public will become increasingly dissatisfied with the system of monarchy and aristocracy and revolt, creating a democracy. While the elite class will still exist, due to the fewness of their numbers, the political power they once wielded will be limited, and the wealthy and numerous Bourgeoisie will dominate society. In this new society it is not claims to divine heritage or noble blood that count as power but money. The Bourgeoisie will compete viciously with each other in the attempt to gain as much money as possible, and in the process the proletariat (working class) will be used and exploited by the upper-classes. The proletariat themselves living in a state of “wage-slavery”, bound to work for whatever pay is available in order to survive.

After so long, the proletariat will be unable to take any more exploitation and violently revolt- toppling the class system and establishing a single-class society where all wealth and resources are shared equally: Socialism. The state- which controls the public- will wither away and be replaced with a system of government where the public controls the state. Marx defines this state of egalitarianism, public property, and democracy as “Communism”. Marx states that when Communism is achieved Historical Materialism ends (at least for those living in the Communist system).

So what’s that have to do with anything? How is any of this relevant to why Communists always rant against Capitalism? As we can see from Marx’s view of history, Communism is meant to be the correction of Capitalism. Communism isn’t meant to be a form of government more comfortable or efficient than Capitalism- it’s the replacement of Capitalism. According to Marx and his view of history, Communism is the completion of Historical materialism- as inevitable as the change of the tides or the rotation of the earth. The reason Capitalism is constantly railed against by Communists is because, according to Marxist philosophy, Capitalism is a wall that needs to be knocked down before a door can be put in. Capitalism must be removed in order to be replaced with Communism.

“But what about the flaws in Marx’s reasoning?” one might ask, “The Chinese and Cuban people revolted and yet neither of these Communist countries have had the governments wither away or the class systems disappear.” In answer to that, one must remember that neither of these countries are Communist but rather semi-Socialist dictatorships. “If they’re Socialist, then shouldn’t they be on the brink of Communism?” Not at all. One must also remember that the definition of “Socialism” has changed since Marx’s time. Marx used the word to describe the abolition of private property in favor of public property- today the word “Socialism” refers to an economic system where property is largely controlled by the state, rather than individuals or the public. One might also argue that Marx’s theory of history is flawed due to the existence of various tribal societies that have shared property and no class system. Now this is undeniable- across the globe there are people groups that live without private property or the class system however one must keep in mind that these are societies are not democracies. Granted, many are ruled by general consensus however without a voting system, consensus does not equate democracy. A neighborhood might generally agree to regularly cut their lawns, but this doesn’t make that neighborhood a democracy. “That’s all well and good,” one might state, “but Marx’s predictions still haven’t come true. Capitalism has been in the US for well over two centuries now and there hasn’t been any revolt, any collapse in society!”. This is absolutely correct, though by no fault of Marx. In Marx’s time, each country had it’s own social strata- there was the French elite class, the French Bourgeoisie, and the French Proletariat, the English elite class, the English Bourgeoisie, and so on. Marx predicted that the Proletariat would rise up and overthrow the classes above. The reason this hasn’t happened is because of a sudden shift in the class system. Due to globalization, countries and their economies are no longer independent of each other. What affects the middle-class in France will affect the middle-class in England, Germany, Russia and so on (to varying degrees, according to what the event is and how related the countries are economically, culturally, and politically). With this sudden merge of the nations of the world, classes have merged as well, creating the same three-class system only on an international level. Yes, each country has a working class, but in general the majority of actual mining, fishing, forestry, agriculture, and manufacturing is done by workers in the third world. France no longer looks to the French Proletariat for utensils but to China. England doesn’t hire English miners to gather coltan but to Congolese workers. When an American buys a t-shirt, chances are that the cotton it’s made of was grown in Syria and manufactured in Taiwan. In short, as a result of internationalization, there is an international proletariat (primarily the third world), an international Bourgeoisie (such countries as Bulgaria, Mexico, Estonia, Ireland, etc.), and an international elite-class (Japan, Switzerland, Monaco, Kuwait, etc.). Yes, the “Proletariat” of the US aren’t likely to revolt, but that is because on a global level, the American proletariat are wealthy. Even the poorest person in America, England, or Denmark is well-off compared to the average Sudanese person. Does the class system still exist as Marx knew it? No. Does that make Marx incorrect? Not at all. Marx stated that the proletariat would, once conditions became poor enough, revolt against upper classes. This statement works whether you apply it to 1840s England or the contemporary third world. Does this mean that the third world will eventually invade the Bourgeoisie and elite countries? No, but if the publics of these countries were to seize control of their governments, declare their national debts nil, null, and void, and throw out all foreign industry (as Castro did to the US owned sugar companies in Cuba) then the rest of the world would be thrown into chaos. With the formerly indigent countries no longer willing to work in the fields, mines, or the sweatshops, the rest of the world would have to look to the Bourgeoisie countries to become the new proletariat, started the revolutionary cycle all over again until the global class system disappears and Communism encompasses the globe.

Does this mark the end of history? The beginnings of a global, one-government society where crime, hunger, and war have been eliminated? The answer is a resounding no. Marx claims that this will be the end of Historical Materialism– history as affected by wealth and the class system. History- the unbroken chain of events from the beginning of time to the end of it- marches inexorably on.