On Collusion

[the shot above was taken in a Melbourne laneway in 2010]

On Collusion

Thesis: ‘We in the West are the beneficiaries of imperialism. The spoils of exploitation are the means of our corruption.’
– Bertrand Russell, War Crimes in Vietnam

We may have little interest in changing things because we profit from the way things are. The unjust world economic system is a product of our ancestors’ explicit colonialism and imperialism and still prolongs those unequal structures of violence in current forms of economic neo-colonialism. This global system is inherently geared to providing most of us in the over-industrialized countries with the goods for our affluent lifestyles. Why should we want to become aware of that system, much less question it, as long as it provides us with those goods?

We over-consuming middle and working classes in the rich countries belong to the roughly 20% of the world’s population that hogs about 85% of the world’s resources. Have the wealthy and powerful in history ever given up their privileges without being violently forced to do so?

Marx’ Communist Manifesto (1848) famously called on the workers to overthrow capitalism since they had ‘nothing to lose but their chains’. They may now certainly have an (albeit mortgaged) house, swimming pool, two cars, a plasma TV and holidays in Bali to lose as well. Since the neo-liberal privatization of retirement schemes, most of us now have our superannuation money tied up in investment funds that prop up the system of exploitation of man and nature. Have the working and middle classes in affluent societies been ‘bought off’?

Do we all silently collude in the destruction of nature and unjust neo-colonial trade patterns that keep us (for the historical moment) supplied with the cheap goods and luxuries that define what have come to be called our ‘living standards’? Could it be that we simply cannot psychologically afford to see the truths and deep changes needed in social, economic and international structures because at some gut-level we fear we might have so much to lose if we do so?

The question of how far increasing numbers of people in western societies have benefited first from colonial and then from neo-colonial patterns of world trade and the industrial rape of nature is not a new one. Late 19th century social democrats in Europe already raised the question and were characteristically split in their response, with right-wing ‘revisionists’ and ‘social imperialists’ welcoming the capitalist spoils flowing back to their nations to ameliorate social conditions and left-wing ‘revolutionaries’ and ‘anti-imperialists’ opposing the international exploitation of serfs, peasants and workers they were based on. The latter social democrats (e.g. Lenin) also saw the dangers of proletarian collusion in imperialism for the weakening of revolutionary consciousness and the formation of a conservative ‘labour aristocracy’. (Given the comparatively low level of industrialization, neither wing of Social Democracy at the time of course saw any dangers in the wholesale industrial modification or destruction of natural ecosystems.)

In the 1930s George Orwell (especially in The Road to Wigan Pier) saw elements of such collusion and its psychological ramifications in both middle and working classes in Britain. With regard to middle class attitudes towards the drudgery of the English miners and workers in general, he surmised that

…even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work: it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence.

(And do we not still today ‘prefer to forget’?)

With regard to the English working class itself, Orwell theorized that – despite the continuation of intense and widespread poverty –

Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life. […] Of course, the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish-and-chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea, and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution.

Thus, in Orwell’s view, both middle and working classes in Britain of course in turn benefited from the Empire and its ‘cheap luxuries’ for the masses. In his opinion, even anti-imperialist left-wingers, just by enjoying British living standards, necessarily colluded or ‘acquiesced’ in the colonial exploitation and oppression of the subjected peoples and thus did not, in their heart of hearts, really want the Empire to disintegrate:

[…] the high standard of living we enjoy in England depends upon our keeping a tight hold on the Empire, particularly the tropical portions of it such as India and Africa. Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation – an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream. The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes. That is the last thing any left-winger wants.

Similarly, in the 1950s Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse, echoing the contemporary mainstream sociological theories of proletarian ‘embourgeoisement’, saw all radical and working class dissent, all systemic critique and opposition, finally pacified in the quasi-totalitarian affluence of ‘one-dimensional society’. A Keynesian ‘welfare-warfare state’ and ‘Huxleyan’ bread and circuses had finally achieved what ‘Orwellian’ fascism had not: the collusive integration of dissent and the revolutionary potential of the once oppositional working class.

Now that the welfare state has been fatally weakened by thirty years of neoliberal attack culminating in global financial crisis, will the global anti-austerity and occupy movements be helplessly seeking to reinstate some form of it? Or will it move towards a radical questioning of the collusion and ecological devastation that has been at its foundation from the beginning, and thus move towards the construction of an alternative, necessarily post-capitalist system of meeting basic human and ecological needs?

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on October 8, 2012.

2 Responses to “On Collusion”

  1. Nice ,, Great Collections Of Thinking ,

  2. Amassing Stuff, And Nice Picture collection.

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