Uncommon Sense


They have to work very hard to get people to go to war. They have to work very hard to get people to participate in the greed of a capitalist society.

People aren’t naturally capitalistic. There isn’t a gene for capitalism. It’s good to know these things; it’s encouraging to know what potential there is in people, what people can do, what people have done from time to time.

In order for war to prevail, in order for an unfair, unjust, irrational economic system to prevail, in order for their policies to prevail (you know what I mean by “their” – “Them”) – they have to obliterate history. They have to get people so that people don’t remember, don’t study – don’t remember even what happened ten or twenty years ago. Don’t remember that the women’s movement was a great surprise. There too: no help from The Constitution, no Equal Rights Amendment, no help from the White House. no help from Congress. The Supreme Court only comes through with Roe V. Wade after a women’s movement has grown up in the country and changed the atmosphere.

Help him. Help the bombardier.

It’s important when you begin to get depressed – a lot of my friends are depressed – I don’t know if they’re depressed because they’re my friends. I think they’re depressed because they read the state of the world through the eyes of CBS News, which does everything it can to obliterate historical perspective and to have us all be born yesterday. If you’re born yesterday you believe anything that’s said to you because you have no way of checking up on it. So somebody says, “we’re fighting this war to liberate the Kuwaitis – well – of course – but if you knew a little bit of history, if you remember how we went into Cuba to liberate the Cubans in 1898, if you know how we went everywhere to liberate everybody, and what the consequences were … Just a little bit of history will put you on guard against the statements of the political leaders and of the media.

It helps to have some perspective no matter how tough things look and what terrible things are happening. to look at what a jury does in Los Angeles, and the manifestations of racism… It’s very easy to draw up a whole list of terrible things to get us more and more depressed. But the fact is, there are things that are going on in this country, there is a consciousness in this country today about many things that did not exist thirty years ago. For example, the amount of discrimination against gay people: thirty years ago you didn’t even talk about gay people. You discriminated against them quietly, not openly. Now, the police chief of Portland Oregon hires his lesbian daughter as an officer on the police force, and to show his support for her, marches in two gay/lesbian parades. The Chief of Police – frankly I used to be a little prejudiced against Chiefs of Police – but it shows how narrow-minded I was.

[extract from a talk entitled “Virtual Optimism” recorded by Pacifica Radio Archive in Berkeley in 1992]

------ divider ------ When Zinn says “political leaders” (Just a little bit of history will put you on guard against the statements of the political leaders.) it’s in the tone of someone spitting rotten meat from their mouth.

Many of Zinn’s speeches are delivered with deep sarcasm. There are moments when he sounds like Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, “… And Brutus is an honorable man.” Of course he had a tremendous amount of practice at speechifying, so he had plenty of chances to refine his timing and tone.

 

Comments

  1. says

    “They have to work very hard to get people to participate in the greed of a capitalist society.”

    While I think that’s certainly true for different places and times, I don’t think it’s true nowadays – at least, in the bowels of the beast. To exist necessarily entails participation in neoliberal capitalism. If we refuse or don’t learn the skills necessary to navigate this ultra-competitive landscape then we risk being unable to afford the necessities for life.

    Children lack the capacity to truly know that which they are indoctrinated into. As they age, it can be detrimental to think critically about why things are the way they are, and it may hinder their abilities to compete for jobs.

    And yet, I also think it true that we are certainly not capitalistic by nature – after all, almost all of human history has occurred without it.

    (To this day, I can’t believe I was fortunate enough to have Zinn speak at my podunk little university)

  2. invivoMark says

    1992? Wow, in the last 26 years, we have come SO FAR as a society.

    /exasperated cynical sarcasm

  3. says

    They have to work very hard to get people to participate in the greed of a capitalist society.
    People aren’t naturally capitalistic. There isn’t a gene for capitalism.

    I probably disagree with this one. I’m saying “probably,” because, without an explanation (and Zinn doesn’t give an explanation here), this is a statement that’s open to interpretation—there are various ways how to understand this. Firstly, how do we define “capitalism”? Capitalism as practiced in USA and capitalism as practiced in Scandinavian countries isn’t one and the same thing. Secondly, which component of capitalism is the one that supposedly goes against human nature? Capitalism is a system that can be broken down into its components or rules for the sake of discussing it. For example, “capitalism sucks” is a pretty meaningless statement as it doesn’t really explain anything; on the other hand, a statement like “forcing people to unnecessarily compete against each other sucks” is much clearer. Thirdly, what does “participate in a capitalist society” even means? For example, there are plenty of people who work part-time, buy very little stuff and instead choose to enjoy non-material aspects of their lives. Are they participating in the capitalist society?

    Still, in general it seems for me like people readily accept capitalism; it doesn’t take that much effort to convince them that a capitalistic economic system is a good thing. Or, at least, to convince them that some of the components of capitalism are great to have. Under a communist economic system states were forced to build walls on their borders, because otherwise too many citizens tried to escape their homeland. Despite all their propaganda efforts, it still wasn’t possible to convince the citizens that a communist economic system is a good thing. For me it seems that convincing people to like a capitalistic economic system is a lot easier.

    Zinn also mentioned greed here. My opinion is that humans are naturally greedy. Greed is basically the desire to have nice things—tasty food, comfortable home, fashionable clothes, etc. goods. It’s in human nature to desire material wellbeing. It just feels good to have nice things. Money also grants you a sense of security about the future, it gives you power over others, it helps to inflate your self-esteem. It’s natural to desire also these things. Of course, it’s tricky to say where “satisfying basic necessities” ends and “greed” starts. Personally, my opinion is that pretty much everybody in the developed world owns more than truly necessary. At least I definitely could survive with a lot less material goods than what I currently have. But it feels nice to have nice stuff. So, yeah, I perceive myself (and also humanity in general) as greedy.

    I Have Forgiven Jesus @#1

    And yet, I also think it true that we are certainly not capitalistic by nature – after all, almost all of human history has occurred without it.

    Sure, historically people didn’t live under capitalism, but they still had private property. They still attempted to accumulate wealth and material goods. They still competed with each other over who gets the most of the available nice stuff.

  4. springa73 says

    I think even in hunter-gatherer societies, people liked nice things and comfort. Certainly hunter-gatherers traded and exchanged goods and sometimes services. It’s not the same thing as capitalism today, of course, but it has some of the roots of it.

  5. Dunc says

    Even long after the shift to agriculture, there often wasn’t much in the way of private property in the modern sense. For example, under feudalism in Britain (and I suspect most of the rest of Europe) the important property – most of the land and everything produced from it, aka “the means of production” – belonged to the King, and was basically rented out in exchange for feudal service (it’s actually a lot more complicated than that, but this will do for now). Even a rich, powerful baron didn’t actually own his most important assets as we would understand it. Once you get down to the level of ordinary people, the land they made their living on was held in common, and its use was governed by a complex set of rights and responsibilities. Arguably, the concepts of private property and capital accumulation (in Britain) only really take off on a significant scale around the 16th century.

    I’d also argue that if your conception of capitalism is so broad as to potentially include any society where people trade or exchange goods and services, then it’s become completely meaningless – you literally might as well define it as “any economic system involving more than one person”.

  6. says

    Dunc@#7

    I’d also argue that if your conception of capitalism is so broad as to potentially include any society where people trade or exchange goods and services, then it’s become completely meaningless – you literally might as well define it as “any economic system involving more than one person”.

    I wasn’t trying to widen the definition of “capitalism” in order to prove that historically people have lived in economic systems that resembled capitalism.* I was trying to make a different point, namely that capitalism does a good job promising people an opportunity to fulfill their natural desires. I perceive some desires (owning nice stuff, living in comfortable conditions) as natural, because people seem to exhibit these desires and crave this stuff while living under various economic systems. For example, my mother who spent most of her life living in a communist country sure desired to own nice stuff—fashionable clothes, a nice home, etc. No capitalist propagandist ever told her that she should crave these things, she just wanted them anyway. In fact, she desired all the nice stuff despite communist propagandists trying to convince her of the opposite, namely that she is supposed to care about the common good rather than about herself.

    For me it seems like capitalism does a great job promising people what they desire (a.k.a. material wealth). Simultaneously, it also does a poor job delivering on these promises, though. Compared with aristocracies (where only those born in rich families can have material wealth) or communism (where only high ranking party members can have material wealth), capitalism creates the illusion that anybody who works hard can get rich. You have heard a handful of rags-to-riches stories, and therefore it feels like also you can succeed. Of course, the probability of experiencing a financial success is minuscule, but, hey, it still feels like if only you work hard you will succeed. Capitalism lets people dream about the day when they will get rich. And people seem to like this dream.


    *By the way, I’m somewhat skeptical about the whole argument that historically people lived under different economic systems and therefore it somehow proves something about human nature and desires. For example, saying that cavemen didn’t eat any sugar couldn’t prove the argument that “humans don’t have a natural tendency to like sugar.” After all, cavemen didn’t eat sugar not because they didn’t like it, but because it wasn’t available. The same goes for accumulating wealth and property. Historically most people didn’t accumulate wealth and property, because they didn’t have an opportunity to do so—hunter gatherers produce very little surplus stuff and they regularly move around, thus amassing wealth is difficult; medieval peasants couldn’t amass wealth, because the church and king had already amassed everything of value.

  7. Dunc says

    Ieva – that point was rather more directed at springa73 than at you. I’m sorry that I didn’t make that clear.

  8. says

    “By the way, I’m somewhat skeptical about the whole argument that historically people lived under different economic systems and therefore it somehow proves something about human nature and desires.”

    It gives strong evidence that humans are flexible, and are able to live in many different types of societies, some of which share more, compete less, place less value on property accumulation, and have less of an ecological footprint. Again, this comprises most of human history. However, I in no way am making a claim that this proves anything about human nature.

    “Historically most people didn’t accumulate wealth and property, because they didn’t have an opportunity to do so”

    While that can be said to be true at various spatiotemporal junctures in history, this is categorically wrong as a blanket statement. There is an incredibly rich history of people resisting living in societies based on the accumulation of wealth and property. This is still going on today. Perhaps you think this is irrelevant to your overarching “people like nice stuff” argument, which is fine. But liking “nice stuff” certainly does not entail an innate desire to “accumulate wealth and property.”

  9. says

    Dunc@#7:
    I’d also argue that if your conception of capitalism is so broad as to potentially include any society where people trade or exchange goods and services, then it’s become completely meaningless – you literally might as well define it as “any economic system involving more than one person”.

    That’s an interesting problem: how to define capitalism without putting my thumb on the scales so that the definition is basically “abusive economics”! But I don’t think I am up to the task. It took Marx several volumes.

    A technique of political control in which the economic output of a large majority of the population is entailed from birth through the use of controlled shortage and rent collection, so that everyone must work for an investor class which has enough income or resources to be able to structure the system so as to be self-perpetuating and self-maintaining.

    Bah. The problem with that definition is that the result is indistinguishable from a government, so it’s clearly not good enough. I love playing at definitions – it turns out that with a lot of words your language vanishes in a puff of smoke when you start trying to really get into it.

  10. Dunc says

    People have lots of different (and often contradictory) desires and goals, and different people have them in different measure. While a desire to have nice stuff – or, in a wider sense, to enjoy material comfort and security – is certainly one of them, it is not by any means the only one, or necessarily the most important one. You can build a social order around lots of different concepts (security, family, hierarchy, in-group identification, etc, etc) and do either a good or a bad job of it. In order to be successful, a social order has to do two things: firstly, it has to provide for (most) people’s basic material needs – i.e. keep them alive; and secondly, satisfy one or more of (most) people’s more intangible desires…

    Lots of different social orders have existed over time, and they’ve variously failed or succeeded in different measures. We need to be careful not to make the classic mistake of privileging local conditions, by assuming that the social order we live under now is the natural and inevitable culmination of history – because everybody else also thought that, and they all turned out to be wrong in the end.

    We’re in a particularly difficult spot at the moment in that we live at a point in history where a bunch of historical contingencies have enabled one particular social order (capitalism) to more-or-less dominate the entire world, making it much harder for anybody to see viable alternatives. This is further complicated by the fact that the worldview of this particular order includes the idea that it has recently triumphed over its binary opposite (in the form of Soviet communism), thereby proving its total superiority. However, Soviet communism did a spectacularly bad job as a social order, in that it failed on both counts I outlined earlier – it did a shitty job of providing for people’s basic material needs, and a shitty job of living up to the ideals it was supposed to exemplify. Other social orders based on similar ideals have fared much better – for example, mediaeval monasticism has a number of ideological similarities to communism, but it managed to endure for hundreds of years, largely by doing a much better job of providing for people’s basic material needs that the alternatives available at the time.

    The fundamental problem that I see with capitalism as it currently functions is not so much that it exists, or even that it inevitably results in steep inequalities (most social orders do that one way or another) – it’s that it has become a totalising ideology, which attempts to redefine all human experience in terms of one particular set of relations and desires, and to the exclusion of all other values*. Also, it is doing a increasingly poor job of both providing for people’s basic material needs, and satisfying their less tangible desires.

    (*For example: the concept of the “personal brand” as a key element is all sorts of social and interpersonal relationships, but particularly in career and dating – the idea that you are a commodity and you must market yourself as such; the extent to which many people can only articulate the concept of personal autonomy in terms of property ownership – “you own your body”; the odious concept of “sexual market value”; the expansion of the concept of capital to non-financial realms, such as natural, human, and social capital… I could go on.)

  11. bmiller says

    can I just say that Marcus has accumulated? attracted? one of the best commentariates?

    I am sympathetic to leva’s main arguments, while acknowledging that their are alternative ways of structuring societies, of course, as a modern, western capitalist (of mediocre success), I might still argue my preference to living under capitalism to living under many? most? of the alternatives. Clan and caste based societies (Marcus brings out the horrors of the police, I am not sure “village justice” in which the village decides a girl needs to be raped by the entire village because she broke caste rules is better), religious theocracies, communist atheist cultures, Incan mountain communist theocracies all have their problems.

  12. Dunc says

    While I’m certainly sympathetic to arguments that people prefer living under capitalism to many, or even all, of the alternatives, they do have a flaw: your preferences are at least partly shaped by the culture you live in. If you lived under a different social order, you would almost certainly have different preferences, and most people in most reasonably functional societies would make similar arguments for the superiority of their specific arrangements.

  13. says

    bmiller@#13:
    can I just say that Marcus has accumulated? attracted? one of the best commentariates?

    I would.
    Viva The Commentariat!

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