Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bum Rap for the Rapa Nui

Thomas Riggins

A new report in Science News Magazine (1-25-2014) by Bruce Bower details a reevaluation of the view that the Rapa Nuians, the native inhabitants of Easter Island ( Rapa Nui ), were responsible for the collapse of their population and society due to over exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of the rain forest on their island, a view recently popularized by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse (2005).

As Bower reports, the anthropologist Maria Mulrooney has published the results of her studies of the Rapa Nui culture (Journal of Archeological Science, December 2013) based on new radiocarbon dates from archeological sites on the island. She has concluded that after the clear cutting of the forest in the 1500s, to make room for agricultural production, the population of Rapa Nui remained sufficiently vibrant to carry on food production and continue their cultural development.

Exactly when the Rapa Nui arrived on Easter Island is unknown but it was on or before 1200 A.D. or so. Mulrooney maintains they had a thriving culture which was still going strong even after their "discovery" by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday 1722. This would indicate that they had not suffered"collapse" as a result of forest clearance.

Roggeveen reported that the island had about 2000 to 3000 inhabitants he was the first to report on the moai-- the giant statues (erected as religious symbols as part of an ancestor cult) for which the island is famous. They were all in place and standing when he was visiting the island (for less than two weeks). In his short time there he managed to kill a dozen or so natives and so his estimate of the population may be incorrect as many people fled and hid out until after he left.

The Spanish showed up in 1770, claimed the island for King Carlos III, then sailed away. The moai were all standing and the people were still engaged in agriculture. Captain Cook showed up in 1774 and noticed some of the moai had fallen but there was no sign of cultural "collapse."

Bower quotes Mulrooney as saying, "Deforestation did not equal societal failure on Rapi Nui. We should celebrate the remarkable achievements of this island civilization"

Yet the culture did end up almost completely destroyed. After Capitan Cook's visit Europeans visited more regularly in the 19th Century. It has been suggested that Rapa Nui's decline may have been caused by the introduction of European diseases. By the early 1800s most of the moai been toppled and the society had broken up into warring factions.

Peruvian slavers invaded in the 1860s and carried away 1500 of the 2000 or so Rapa Nuians into bondage in the mines of Peru.  By 1878 only 111 natives were still living on the island. 97 per cent of the cultural memory of the people had been lost after contact with the Europeans. The greatest loss may have been that of rongorongo  the native writing system of Rapa Nui and the only writing system created by any Polynesian group. All of those who knew the writing system died in the mines of Peru or from European introduced TB which ravaged the survivors.

Chile annexed the island in 1888. The Rapa Nui were given citizenship in 1966 but they no longer rule on their island. Of the 6000 or so people living on the island today about 3600 are Rapa Nui. The archeologist Carl Lipo is quoted as saying, "The idea of societal collapse on Rapa Nui has long been assumed but there is no scientific basis for it." He is referring to a self induced collapse. Their traditional culture was destroyed, and the people today are trying to reinvigorate it, but it is a bum rap to blame them for the loss of their civilization.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Lenin's State and Revolution: Chapter One Part 2

Thomas Riggins

Chapter One Sections 2 & 3.

2. "Special Bodies of Armed Men, Prisons, ETC."

Still basing himself on Engel's Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,
Lenin points out that the state is the first form of society exclusively to base itself on a given territory as opposed to tribal societies and bands which can move about and change locations while searching for food and shelter. This is the first innovation of the state.

The second is that the state sets up a source of power independent of the general population. The Roman state, for example, maintained an army as opposed to  tribal societies such as the Gauls and Germans in which all the able bodied men were warriors. The public power of the state includes prisons, courts, an educational system and, Engels says "institutions of coercion of all kinds." However, Lenin stresses that, "A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power." Today we can see that while the bulk of the armed forces and police are recruited from the 99%, they are controlled by, and serve the the interests of the 1%.

This is the case because every state "is split into antagonistic, and moreover, irreconcilably antagonistic classes" so that the dominant class must control the instruments of state power to remain in control. This is denied, of course, by all the ruling class factions. In the US the Republicans accuse the progressives, especially progressive Democrats, of wanting to foment "class war" when they try to put forth new taxes on the rich or criticize the right of trying to curtail voting rights of the poor. The Democrats vehemently deny that there is "class war" and that they only want fairness for the "middle class" and to help the poor advance themselves via the "American dream." Meanwhile both parties support the National Security Agency's keeping tabs on every single American citizen (as well as those of other countries) in order protect the security of the state (i.e., class rule).

This is the context in which Lenin maintains that the "exploited class," or to use the metaphor currently in use, the 99 %, must create a new type of state "capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters."

3. "The State -- An Instrument for the Exploitation of the Oppressed Class."

The representatives of the state demand special immunities, honors and privileges above and beyond those accorded to regular members of society. Special honor is accorded to judges to underscore the importance of the laws enacted by the dominant class. The police and military can often literally get away with murders and brutalities that would subject regular citizens to extreme state punishment. Rampant police brutality and lawlessness is well known throughout the United States as well as military atrocities carried out abroad that amount to war crimes. Breaking up strikes of working people and clamping down on protesters are regular features of the police function. 

Lenin will answer the following question: "what is it that places them above society?" He quotes Engels to answer this question. "Because the state arose from the need to hold class antagonisms in check, at the same time, in the midst of the conflict between these classes." Because the state is the tool of the economically dominant class this class also becomes the politically dominant class. In the U.S. it is no accident that with the rise of progressive political movements the Supreme Court in the Citizens United ruling opened the flood gates so that unlimited amounts of money could inundate the electoral arena and allow the 1% to literally position itself to buy elections and asphyxiate the democratic aspirations of regular citizens. This is nothing new. Engels long ago remarked that "the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage labour by capital." In face of the consensus of economists, for example, that in the U.S. a living wage would come to $15.00 an hour the most the government is willing to push for is $10.10 per hour. A fine illustration of Engels' point.

How does the 1% actually exercise control by the use of wealth? Lenin gives a couple of examples after quoting Engels---i.e., "direct corruption of officials" (America) and "alliance of the government and the Stock Exchange" (France, America). Imperialism and the banks working together have perfected the methods of both direct and indirect control of the state. Democratic republics, such as the U.S. and many others as well, are the best forms of government for the capitalists. "The reason why the omnipotence of 'wealth' is more
certain in a democratic republic," Lenin says, "is that it does not depend on individual defects in the political machinery or on the faulty political shell of capitalism. A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capitalism has gained possession of this very best shell it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it." This may be why "No we can't" is a more realistic political slogan than "Yes we can" for workers under the control of a bourgeois democracy (but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try!).

Elections are important and voting is important in a bourgeois-democratic republic such as the U.S. Participation in elections is an important educational tool and helps working people understand the nature of bourgeois democracy and leads to greater class consciousness. Nevertheless, Lenin insists that we "note that Engels  is most explicit in calling universal suffrage an instrument of bourgeois rule."

Knowing how elections actually work, how they are corrupted by money, how the nature of bourgeois democracy is objectively structured to keep the working class under control, Lenin thinks socialists (i.e., real socialists not the phony social democrats) should not reinforce "the false notion that universal suffrage 'in the present-day state' is really capable of revealing the will of the majority of the working people and of securing its realisation." Well, the accuracy of this depends on what the meaning of what "present" means in "present-day state." Is Lenin out of date here, or not? In any event, Lenin is in favor of the struggle for universal suffrage but he is under no illusion that it will solve the problems of working class people.

We will finish off Chapter One next time with a discussion of the "Withering Away" of the state.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Lenin: Class Society and the State

Thomas Riggins

State and Revolution  Chapter One "Class Society and the State".
1. "The State-- A Product of the Irreconcilability of Class Antagonisms"

Lenin begins by remarking that the great leaders of oppressed humanity are reviled and hated by the rulers of the day but after their deaths attempts are made "to convert them into harmless icons." Martin Luther King was reviled in his day as a trouble maker because of his civil rights work and as a traitor because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. Now he has schools named after him and his birthday is a national holiday. His fiery rhetoric against racism and  imperialism forgotten. Malcolm X has suffered a similar fate. Once hated by the establishment and mass media he now has streets and housing projects named in his honor and his image graces postage stamps. His ideas virtually forgotten. 

Just recently we have seen the arch "terrorist" and communist agent Nelson Mandela rechristened as the grandfatherly "Madiba" an advocate of nonviolence-- his call for the oppressed to arm themselves and fight for their liberation lost among the platitudes of the world figures who rushed to his funeral to heap praises on the man they tried for so many years to undermine and destroy.

Just so was the fate of Karl Marx according to Lenin. Many left wing politicians and labor leaders of Lenin's day praised Marxism and even called themselves Marxist-- along with university professors and public intellectuals (then as now their name is Legion)-- but their real purpose was "to omit, obscure or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul." 

Lenin wants to reverse this trend-- which is even more prevalent today than in Lenin's time-- at least on the socialist left and among those he called "petty bourgeois intellectuals." He sees the main purpose of his book "is to re-establish what Marx really taught on the subject of the state." My purpose is to establish what Lenin actually thought Marx's teaching was-- not decide on its correctness or the truth or falsity of the teaching --at least we will be able to tell the difference between those who only give lip service to Marxism and those who take it it more seriously.

Lenin's procedure is to look up the passages that Marx and Engels devoted to the state and to clearly present them so that, he thinks, no one can be confused about what their ideas really where. He starts off with passages from "the most popular of Engels's works"-- namely The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Popular as this book may be, I don't think it is today Engels's most popular work-- I doubt if, outside of the socialist left, any of Engels's works are considered "popular."

In any event, in this work Engels tells us that the state appears at a particular time in the history of social development. It is not present in bands of hunter gatherers, or in clan or tribal societies but arises when social development has led to specialization of functions in city states where there are food producing peasants, and a ruling upper strata has evolved with professional armed "peace keepers" at their disposal. What has appeared are "classes" of people with different economic functions who find their interests are not always harmonious and they are often in conflict with each other. These developments began during the late new stone age (the Neolithic Revolution) as a result of the creation of agriculture which allowed for the production of a surplus food supply which called for management and storage.

In order for the society in question to maintain social peace and not tear itself apart a power needed to be created that could enforce "order" or social peace and, Engels says, "this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state." 

But why was it that social peace was disrupted by the creation of an agricultural surplus? Because the management and distribution of the surplus was delegated to a group of individuals who were relieved from the daily work of actual production. In times of scarcity conflicts arose between the actual producers and those responsible for distribution of the surplus. These two groups each had one important goal in mind-- group survival-- and thus  ultimately found themselves at loggerheads over the distribution of the social surplus. This resulted in an irreconcilable contradiction between the classes and is the basis for the proposition enunciated in the Communist Manifesto that history, as we know it, is a history of class conflicts.

"The state," Lenin writes, " is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled."  According to Lenin this fundamental  Marxist principle means that where we have state power-- that is wherever we find societies based on classes -- we will find that the education system, the mass media, and the political system in general is dedicated to the view that "the state is an organ for the reconciliation of classes." The class in power knows better but, at least in modern times, their pundits, press, and propagandists preach this doctrine incessantly.

 "According to Marx," however,  "the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another." No harmonious society here. If you have ever wondered why the government can't (or won't) control the banks and big corporations, why it doesn't end  fracking, why it won't act on climate change or really protect the environment, why food companies and restaurant chains can sell us junk to eat, why women, workers, immigrants, minorities and the poor always get the short end of the stick, the cops always bust up the strikers and protestors demonstrating for their rights, why the interests of the 99% can't democratically get anywhere with respect to the interests of the 1% and whistleblowers go to jail and hypocrites to the state house all you need remember is that it's the 1%'s state not the 99%'s. 

"That the state," says Lenin, "is an organ of the rule of a definite class which cannot be reconciled with its antipode (the class opposite to it) is something the petty-bourgeois democrats will never be able to understand." If Lenin is correct this could have long term implications for left-center unity. The left could make tactical alliances with the center on definite issues but how could the left make long term strategical alliances with people who will never be able to understand what's really going on? This is a question we will hopefully get back to later.

Lenin ends this section by referring to Kautsky's views which are relevant here. There are some who, like Kautsky, agree in theory with what Lenin has explained is Marx's theory of the state but they distort it and do not draw the proper conclusions in practice which are, according to Lenin, "that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class and which is the embodiment" of the "alienation"  of the state from the society it dominates.

Well this is indeed a radical conclusion which cannot  be drawn from  the evidence Lenin has so far put forth from the quotes he has produced from Marx and Engels.  Lenin is aware that he has jumped the gun here and tells us that he will demonstrate the truth of the above conclusions later in his work. We shall see. One of the laws of dialectics is the  unity and reconciliation of opposites so it will be interesting to see why this does not apply to the organ of one class and its "antipode."

SR Chapter One will continue.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Lenin's State and Revolution Today-- The Preface

Thomas Riggins

It's been 97 years since Lenin first wrote what has since become a "classic" of Marxism:The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution, hereafter referred to as SR. I propose to discuss the significance of this work for today (the beginning of the 21st Century) and so will not spend a lot of time discussing its relevance to the world of 97 years ago. 

Therefore, the tasks of the working class in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 will only be touched upon and I will concentrate instead on the Marxist theory of the state. Lenin and the Bolsheviks successfully applied this theory in their day and were able to overthrow the capitalist ruling class and its supporters in Russia and surrounding areas and to found the Soviet Union in 1922. How should we understand this theory today as we struggle to advance the interests of working people around the world in their effort to free themselves from capitalist exploitation and oppression (including the workers of the former socialist countries)?

I will begin with a few remarks about Lenin's "Preface" to the first edition of SR. First, Lenin's characterization of the state is as accurate today as it was when he wrote his preface: The "oppression of the working people by the state which is merging more and more with the all- powerful capitalist associations, is becoming increasingly monstrous."  

Capitalist states have by now practically completed the merge. In the US  the present economic depression initiated, among other reasons, by fraudulent lending practices and other illegal activities by banks and big corporations has seen the state bailing out the big capitalist firms while leaving the working people, the victims of the depression, to fend for themselves. The state has recently cut food stamps and unemployment  insurance benefits for the working people while giving subsidies to big agricultural and energy interests. There is no doubt whose interest the state serves. 

In European countries the state is either imposing regimes of extreme austerity on the working population in order to extract wealth to be turned over to bond holders and banks or pushing through measures to revamp the labor laws and retirement plans of the workers to their disadvantage in order that the corporations may more easily fire people and will not have their taxes increased to support social programs. 

In the Third World from Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia, to Mexico, Haiti and Africa , and points in between, we see the state allied with commercial interests and using its police and military to break up strikes and work stoppages in support of the owners of capital. 

Lenin also pointed out that those who claim to be champions of the working class, especially so-called "socialist" leaders have sided with the capitalist class against the workers of their own countries, but also internationally. The French socialist government, for example, openly supports the most reactionary elements of the US ruling class in its international quest to dominate Third World countries. This is in line with Lenin's observation that "the majority of the so-called Great Powers have long been exploiting and enslaving  a whole number of small and weak nations." Is the world any different today?

One of the most effective ways the capitalist class keeps the workers in thrall and off balance is by appeals to patriotism (USA! USA!) and by pitting the workers of one country against those of another ("Buy made in America!"). The idea that the state is somehow class neutral or can be made to champion the workers against the financial and industrial interests is seen by Lenin as an obstacle to mobilizing the working people to struggle for THEIR interests rather than the interests of the exploiters. Lenin uses the term "opportunism" to describe working class leaders who work to achieve narrow short term and temporary gains at the expense of the long term interests of the working class. Opportunism is not the same as reformism which brings about substantive long term changes under capitalism which will strengthen working class consciousness (such as the struggle for civil and political rights.) 

Struggles for reform increase class consciousness in the working class, while opportunism decreases it. This is why Lenin thinks understanding the nature of the state is of vital importance. "The struggle to free the working people from the influence of the bourgeoisie in general, and the imperialist bourgeoisie in particular, is impossible without a struggle against opportunistic prejudices concerning the 'state'".

Up to this point I think the ideas expressed by Lenin in his preface are still applicable today. However, there are three issues that I now turn to which have questionable merit today. 1. "The world proletarian revolution is clearly maturing." This was an overly optimistic, if understandable, position in 1917. But subsequent events actually led to the derailment of the "world proletarian revolution" which shows no sign of getting back on tract anytime soon. However, events in North America and Europe, Cuba and South America, as well as Africa and the Middle East are indicative of a general malaise of the international capitalist order the outcome of which is not now predictable. 2. While there are many lessons to be learned from the Russian Revolution, Lenin was incorrect, I think, in seeing it as the first link in a chain of revolutions which would overthrow capitalism. Capitalism ultimately overthrew it, hopefully for the nonce. 3. The emphasis on refuting the ideas of Karl Kautsky, while essential in the era of WWI, are no longer as relevant as they were in light of the developments in Marxist theory attributable to Gramsci, Trotsky, Mao and others.

Finally, Lenin ends the preface with the following words regarding the understanding of the nature of the state and its relation to the struggle for socialism which he says "is a most urgent problem of the day, the problem of explaining to the masses what they will have to do before long to free themselves from capitalist tyranny." Well, it's a long time since Lenin's "before long" but the problem is still urgent and the explanation must still be made.

Coming up-SR Chapter One "Class Society and the State".