Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Some Remarks: how the West came to relate to the rest of the world

Sophia Matta has written for the conference “Cultures and training programs” held in Strasbourg November 23 – 25, 2005 a crucial position paper in which she asks why certain training methods work in Europe but not in Africa? There come to my mind several issues, including the specific understanding of training when compared to a broader education. The difference becomes noticeable if training implies learning how to use specific tools but leaves out comprehension of culture as a way to deal with complexity.

For instance, I recall how S. Freud used Frazer’s book ‘the Golden Bough’ to understand how magical beliefs worked in African tribes. He marveled how a healthy warrior could suddenly die after he did something not allowed, namely to break a taboo linked to the pipe of the chief no one else supposed to smoke. Amazing in that story is despite of being very healthy till then, the moment he smoked the pipe out of mistake (not knowing), once told what he had done, he died instantly. Such was the power feared most if one had gone and broken a taboo. Here power is upheld in an extreme form of self punishment since it means sudden death by self affixation. Thus safeguarding one’s life and that of others means to make sure that one stays inside the belief system of that power.

By contrast, Michel Foucault said ‘power’ in the Western world is there to be ‘trespassed’ (in German ‘zu ueberschreiten’). It echoes what Hegel said about the ‘bourgeoisie society and state for they are only able to survive by trespassing borders’. It seems to be the only way out, see the drive towards expansion by the European Union. As if following a business model of ever greater mergers to obtain market control, everyone seems to be outdoing the other within this same rationale as global business expands.

Alone if the contrast between these two very different models of survival (expansion compared with sustainable development) is not misunderstood as a clash of civilization but taken as to what it means, then it is possible to grasp the subtle difference between those wishing no economic growth but cultural survival as did the Indians in North America and those acting upon the need of the system in order to remain dynamic i.e. an ever expanding force.

Why Western people need to trespass other cultures, the case of the Indians being brought to near extinction by just giving them alcohol against which their culture had no answer but which was a condition of exchange, namely the chief giving away all the land for just one bottle of whisky, proves that rightly so the White man could consider the Indian being stupid. In reality, the Indian had a much more sophisticated culture when it came to understand not only nature, but how to live with nature and thereby able to fulfill criteria of sustainability long before this concept made its way to the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg 2002.

One answer to this need to trespass is entailed already in the the need to prove something although in a most contradictory way, namely to prove by a non cultural approach to another culture that the own but in reality non existing culture is superior. While the Indians would move and live where the herd of animals went, the saying goes that the white man would not appreciate the beauty of land left wide open but begin to build immediately a fence and ready to shot anyone who dared to trespass the border around the house as marked by a fence.

There is an even more startling observation made by the anthropologist Levy Strauss: while Indians had many more categories to describe nature, a white man uses only a limited vocabulary to describe that only those things exist in nature only insofar as they are useful to him. Here a value system bolstered by a certain epistemology as key link between culture and civilization favors a certain technique of survival and once formed into a system in the most narrow sense as to what is useful to mankind, then it constitutes Western civilization. It determines directly at the core of all human relationships how men and women view and treat each other.

The lack of culture in that equation as underlined by the separation of economy from culture explains why here there has to be dealt with archetypes as defined by Max Weber. As immigrants to Northern American, these men and women are uprooted and need to redefine themselves. It takes place, as was shown on hand of the Greek Diaspora, as well at social and institutional level. The Greek Orthodox Church was implanted once no longer just men sought work but women joined them and therefore the need to facilitate marriage, baptizing of children and burials as families explained the coming of the church. The latter promises to provide a more stable personal and social environment while it creates conditions for continuity in life i.e. after death the own children can still go to a community composed by people with similar values and experiences of life.

Culturally speaking, a review of the past will show how much in North America the wisdom to live was shed for the sake of a rational being with the aim to exist like a machine on its own: being self sufficient translated with time into a value system based on ‘independence’. That meant existing without need for history and therefore without ‘memory’ of the past. Both are left aside what otherwise is cultural heritage in need of being preserved. Instead the ‘techne’, the art of doing things, was the closest this rational way of thinking and existing came to realize in life. It was devoid of any appreciation of life and therefore lacked cultural comprehension filled with wonder about life marked by beauty as in the experience of a sunrise. In that sense trespassing happened more often by not knowing what they were doing when erecting fences to mark their private claims upon land which once belonged to no one, but had been a wide open nature accessible to everyone. Indeed colonization of the American West meant trespassing of nature often called trail blazing to make a path. In reality it meant a destruction of subtle cultural fabrics existing in the place like nearly invisible threads of a spider’s web.

The philosopher Ernst Bloch went even further by saying ‘thinking means trespassing’ – ‘Denken heisst Ueberschreiten’ in German. Here the cultural question is what frightens people of Western civilization especially if they stay inside their own circle of understanding? Is it because they feel to be only negatively determined by not knowing anything (since Socrates a mark of Western through) and therefore without the needed cultural determination to deal openly with doubt? Or is it fear of being inferior compared to anyone else who seems to be happy even if without economic means? Self doubt and self guilt for not being happy can easily lead to a denial of solutions which could otherwise make a difference in life. The denial has to be upheld in order to prove that despite existing on the wrong side of the street, so to speak, it is the only way out when in fact it is not.

The only way out of such a static situation is to create a movement as if any movement is better than remaining static, at home, cut off from the world. It led Ivan Illich to say the only thing the Western world understands to export is ‘transportation’ and for that matter ‘communication’. To facilitate and to expand this export, nowadays ever more cars, trains, communication networks etc. swamp new markets like China. It means other worlds must be broken up, disarranged and reconnected just like a child madly constructing something by destroying everything. (For instance in China streets were occupied by everyone cooking up front and those no straight path was available; as long as everyone was using a bicycle it was not a problem. Streets remained as they were over generations: a differentiated use of private and public space. However, the coming of the car ended the communication networks existing in front of everyone’s house.) The mistake made is to assume that culture can be reconstructed after having been broken up like a car in repair. But culture is not like a car which can be taken apart and reassembled again. Like the bug a boy can kill only to discover very quickly that not everything can be brought back to life once destroyed.

If this is so, Levy Strauss offers us another way to understand what has replaced ‘Totem and Taboo’ or the way societies organize marriages in order to avoid incest. The Western world is made up of abstract societies which entail according to Karl Popper more freedom than the case when still living in a predetermined society of a village. A city has an abstract order to ensure that freedom. It gives to everyone the freedom of choice: multiple possibilities to strike up any relationship in order to go on. That alters also the inherent value of faithfulness in love and children taking care of their parents once old. Rather personal relationships are subject to change and go beyond a sense of continuity the way cities expand and continue trespassing ever new land till then not build on. That leaves life short of original commitments made explicit by dreams about a truthful life.

Lewis Mumford in ‘The Story of the City’ attributes urban expansion to men moving out of their family homes in order to set up a business not only on the other side of the town but also to have there a mistress without his family knowing. Expansion goes hand in hand with separation. Different private truths are then covered up by an unknown public truth more often replaced by mendacity. Once that has become a pattern, then urban distance means a different quality of the known to the still unknown. What the family has to know has nothing to do with the other ‘unknown’: the space used to develop business and other opportunities to satisfy different needs and to explore other possibilities in case they prove to be more satisfactory than what was known before. In such an expansive society people are left behind while others turn out to be highly attractive precisely because they offer an easy way out of the past or at least facilitate a kind of forgetting becoming with time chronic if less and less continuity forms the pattern. Orientation remains what is left for people to talk about and still can clarify what are their common assumptions. They shall only respond to what affects them in their survival strategies clearly linked to image making processes and kinds of reputation in terms of how they wish to be seen by others i.e. as successful rather than failures. Levy Strauss says the only orientation left is what affects the minds when people speak to each other, thereby indicating that language has replaced ‘totem and taboo’. It becomes apparent in how someone wishes to relate to others i.e. with whom he or she wishes to speak or not. Silence takes on here a special meaning once it can be used to punish. No wonder that Kant spoke about the need of laws to affect the minds if they are to exist i.e. be followed for otherwise those silenced feel not the same law applying to them.

Certainly ever since explorers started to discover new lands in need to be chartered and claimed, this ‘unknown’ became a drive for innovation and expansion. And once Darwin brought back from his excursions many descriptions of the natives found in those far away exotic lands, the anthropological approach gave rise to another concept of man. This was indicated already in the writings by Kant and Rousseau and started off all kinds of contrasts between civilized people and primitives. It prompted still further going voyages leading on to not merely discoveries but claims of new land. Soon the founding of colonies were linked by the golden triangle of transport with first own goods to Africa, then slaves to America and finally cotton back to Europe. The triangle was cruel and enduring, but profitable for those who knew how to gain out of the margins of differences. This was still the time of the fast schooners, that is before industrialization set in and with it steam ships replacing those which sailed with the wind.

In discussions about this development leading up to the brutal colonization of the ‘Third World’, references are made to the amazing double approach with military conquest being followed by economic exploitation on the one hand and religious fervor translated into missionary zeal on the other hand. Perhaps conquest of these lands was only possible, so a text book of the former East German state when still under Communist rule and therefore guided by a different version of Colonialism, if the power of abstraction through an anonymous Gods exceeded all other kinds of deities being worshipped in the Third World. For in the degree of abstraction lay not only the abstract distance from reality, but also the possibility to unify things under a single concept leading on to a definition of power as being the power to define things in a certain way. Naturally it meant as well the ability to keep things apart or to partition things. ‘Divide and rule’ became after all ‘the’ principle long followed by the British Empire with a different taste for tee and cricket games set apart from those miserable others: the poor slaves and the uneducated ones, indeed the illiterate people. Clearly literacy was made into a credo of culture versus primitive forms of existence. It was only superseded by a system of administrative control having the power to exclude and to dominate all those who did not share in that specific kind of literacy.

Despite this brutal conquest of other people and their lands, one person stands out insofar as he attempted to make a difference: Erasmus. He influenced according to art historian Hans Haufe the priests going to the Colonies by becoming humanists. They took care to preserve the cultures of the locals and in particular that of the Incas faced by total extinction due to the behavior of the conquerors. Still, Carlos Fuentes names in his book ‘Change of Skin’ betrayal through love as the start of the conquest. A native woman who had fallen in love with Cortez warned him that the priests would have daggers underneath their gowns when they would invite him to attend a religious festival. As history unfolded, their god never survived. Cortez and his men hid guns underneath their clothes and when the moment came they killed the priests. After that they started to ransack everything: first the temples, then the settlements.

The brutal slaughter of people continues into the present because the West feels de-masked and therefore exposed by other ways to live. There exists intolerance in the West with regards to other approaches to life. Moreover as the novel by Fuentes portrays, betrayal out of love without answering that love truly evokes not merely conflicts of loyalty, but reveals the cynical attitude of the powerful ones when it comes to using love for other purposes than love itself. That game with the meaning of love without meaning love in substance has continued to ensure that the West keeps always the ‘upper hand’ in a deadly game.

Some tried to reverse that trend by breaking out of the pattern of conquest and over exploitation but they get murdered or sidelined in the process, Dag Hammersjold just one example.

Interestingly enough it was Gunnar Myrdal who spoke about this problem in clear terms. He called it ‘Asian Drama’. His analysis made it at least conceivable that future development policy would not rest solely on an economic theory meant to facilitate exploitation and capitalization, but would need to face the institutions of these other countries, in order to be more just to the socio-historical situation and thereby bring about a levelling with these other institutions. To what extent he succeeded in making an impact remains to be seen but it was a worthy attempt.

Additional insights can be gained through the work by Michael Polanyi who examined the differences between primitive, archaic and modern economies and who has influenced to some extent Louis Baeck in his approach to economic history. The key question for Polanyi has been whether Western Societies can uphold the claim to be the most sophisticated of all societies since they have found one unifying decision carrier, namely ‘money’? Polanyi doubts that money is as sophisticated as claimed; he believed it depends on how well complexity can be handled not just by an abstract unification principle linking money to purchasing power, but how just a society can become in the process. In that sense he thought that a society based on reciprocity (practiced by not exchanging goods or services for money but by giving something to whoever has real needs without precondition to receive something in return, since in the reciprocity society others would take care of one’s needs) allowed people to participate in the decision making process on how to distribute rare resources according to real needs of everyone.

Still, this alternative to Capitalism has yet to be worked out and to convince those referring to the free market neo liberal model as the most preferred one, at least rhetorically speaking. No space was given within Western Universities to work out such an alternative model. Instead development policy followed the ideas of both Johnson and more so of Milton Friedman whose model basing consumption on life time earnings was tested for the first time in Chile after Pinochet’s Putsch of Allende’s government in 1973. It showed that with military power holding down any opposition the regulation of the economy solely by the bank looking after money flow relieved the government of any responsibility for social justice. Friedman’s assumption is that consumer behavior depends no longer on short term earnings, but on life time income, including expectations to inherit something in future. That is why economic policy sought to avoid responses to short term fluctuations and concentrate instead on long term stability pacts. A military rule was for that the best guarantee.

Such an economic model which was thrust down the throat of the people in Chile after 1973 was sold in the West as success story (without mentioning the costs of human lives) and Friedman got the Nobel prize for Economics. Followers of his theory (economic policy backed up by a military clamp down) used this success story to repute the Keynesian approach to the responsibility of the state for economic policy. By now the Keynesian approach is almost forgotten. President Bush with his tax cut for the rich has shown where this leads to, namely to a state abandoning all responsibilities for fair and just distribution of resources. The equivocal answer to reduction in state intervention is the fake free market argument favoring global business beyond any state control. It means doing business with dictators in the so called Third World and if that does not work favorable, then by means of violent regime change to occupy countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. The war against terrorism has made that violation of democratic principles possible. The direction of that war is revealed in the signatures when oil rich countries like Iraq are occupied while in the meantime not only poor people but many of the middle class are left behind. They all have to pay the prize of a life without clean water, electricity, education and safe neighborhoods. What counts is not so much the economic growth of the dynamic sectors of global economy but what purchasing power can be gained when faced by new challenges, in particular India and China.

More than anything else this has determined the relationship of the West to the developing countries many of which were former colonies.

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