The Root of All Evil

Seen on the street in San Francisco!

Almost as consistently as the Christian insistence on an unspoiled Eden from which humans have “fallen” is the notion that evil is an independent force with a will of its own. Given that common belief, it follows that there is a centuries-long project to determine where the “root” of this evil lies. The results of evil behavior, intentions, and institutions are plain to see throughout history: barbaric slavery imposed by some people on others is perhaps the most obvious. But the obliteration of countless species and lands—unique habitats wrought by creative interaction among multiple living beings over generations, is at least as shocking as the reduction of individual humans to slavery. Seeking to explain the recurrent horrors that beset the history of humanity, it’s understandable that we try to reach the ultimate cause, the best explanation, the switch that we could perhaps reverse to stop the madness.

Part of my ongoing fascination with history is finding the patterns that offer a glimmer of such explanations, even if I’m not convinced that we’ll ever settle on any one quality or institution or social dynamic that will explain everything else. Still, some recent readings, pieced together, seem to underscore a combination of money and property as compelling candidates to explain a lot about the wrong turns so-called civilization has made, going back a very long time. What follows is a peculiar trajectory through ten books that I’ve read in the past months… not atypical for this blog, but it does lead to a long post and perhaps some bewilderment about why I put these writings together under this title. By the end I hope it makes sense!

I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 Mayflower recently, after a friend gave it a strong recommendation. It’s an illuminating look at the first arriving English pilgrims, people who have been largely reduced to false clichés amid ridiculous tales of a Thanksgiving that never happened. The original Puritans were extreme religious zealots who embarked on the risky trip to North America in the early 1600s to establish a place where they could live according to their beliefs without repression. The original pilgrims recognized that they needed to make some kind of accommodations with the people who were already present when they arrived, though by fluke of fate they missed their targeted landing near the Dutch colony in Manhattan and ended up on the outer edges of Cape Cod. It turns out that preceding their arrival other European fishing fleets had visited coastal New England, and even an English raider who landed and forcibly captured some dozens of local people, carrying them off to slavery in the Caribbean. Locals were not entirely unfamiliar with Europeans, and some trade had already happened, and some had even learned some English. Disease had already decimated the population of the coast where the pilgrims landed, feeding the false sense of available land for settlement. But for my purposes here, the following quote gets to the issue at hand. Already, after one generation of complicated and fraught relations with the many tribes thriving in the area, the children of the first colonists were turning away from the religious focus of their parents to grab the opportunities they could see around them.

At the root of the trend toward town building was, Governor Bradford insisted, a growing hunger for land. For Bradford, land had been a way to create a community of Saints. For an increasing number of Pilgrims and especially for their children, land was a way to get rich. Bradford claimed that the formation of new towns was “not for want or necessity,” but “for the enriching of themselves,” and he predicted it would be “the ruin of New England.” Even Roger Williams, whose vision of an ideal community was very different from Bradford’s, shared his concern about land. Williams railed against the rise of “God Land” in New England and feared that it would become “as great with us English as God Gold was with the Spaniards.” (p. 185)

Back in England during the 1640s, King Charles I was overthrown and eventually beheaded by the religiously inspired New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell. Some Puritans in New England returned to join the new society emerging in England at the heart of which was their own religiosity. But for Levellers and Diggers and other English radicals of that time, it was a chance to agitate for a new equality in the face of God, in defense of the commons and a common wealth. I have not delved deeply into the “Putney Debates” because they’re rather unreadable, but those public debates held over several weeks in Putney (now subsumed in London), were the opportunity in 1647 for the rank-and-file soldiers and their immediate officers of the New Model Army to debate the higher officers over the terms of the unfolding English revolution. They debated the role of commons, property, nobility, monarchy, republicanism, and more. A great many of the radicals of this period were millenarian believers in the End Times, and it was jarring when Christ did NOT return in the early 1650s, leading to the unraveling of the revolutionary fervor that carried the movement through the prior decade. By 1661 the monarchy was restored and many of the most radical agitators—some of whom had helped found Quakerism, too, during the ferment of the revolution—were in jail or already dead.

Cruising back to Emeryville after a CIIS Bay Cruise on October 5.

But the Quakers, originally partisans of the Army and the radical egalitarianism of the English revolution, turned to pacifism as a way to remove themselves from the political fray that accompanied the Restoration. And within the decade, Quakers were migrating in large numbers to the colonies in North America. William Penn was granted by King Charles II a sizable portion of land in the Delaware River Valley, north of the Chesapeake Bay, to establish the Quaker colony that eventually becomes Pennsylvania. Disputes with Maryland (and Lord Baltimore) lead Penn’s agents to seek out the Susquehannock leaders who traditionally controlled the lands on either side of the Susquehanna River that drains into the northernmost extension of the Chesapeake Bay. These same Susquehannocks were reaching the end of a ten-year period of constant war with the Virginia colony and the Maryland colony, described in eloquent detail by Matthew Kruer in his remarkable book Time of Anarchy: Indigenous Power and the Crisis of Colonialism in Early America (Harvard University Press: 2021). The title of his book refers to the decade 1675-1685 in which a dozen conflicts raged between different indigenous cultures as well as between English colonists and surrounding societies. Various tribes became tributary to the Virginia colony or the Catholic colony in Maryland to seek protection from their vulnerability to raid and plunder from larger nearby societies, of which the most powerful in 1675 were the Susquehannas.

But it was during Bacon’s Rebellion, a relatively short but very violent uprising of both white and black indentured and enslaved workers in the still-young tobacco plantations of Virginia, that racialized hatred was forged.

…settlers and Natives lived in close proximity, part of the same multicultural society. Algonquian men and women worked on plantations alongside English servants and enslaved Africans, as both wage earners and indentured servants. Indigenous artisans crafted baskets, blankets, canoes, and tobacco pipes, shaping the everyday material experience of most colonists. Natives were regular visitors to English settlements and mainstays of social spaces such as taverns; English men visited Native towns for companionship and sex. The development of ethnic hatred was neither preordained nor automatic. It was the result of violent ideological work that men like Nathaniel Bacon performed in the midst of war with Susquehannocks. Indian-hating, in other words, was not a cause of the Time of Anarchy. It was its consequence. (p. 101)… Bacon’s solution was as simple as it was radical: “To assert all those neighbour Indians as well as others to be Outlawed, wholly unqualifyed for the benefitt and Protection of the Law.” This quasi-constitutional argument for the expulsion of Native peoples from the body politic was unprecedented in the history of English colonization in North America. Settlers had targeted specific nations during the bloody Anglo-Powhatan Wars, usually with the assistance of other Indigenous allies. Even the devastating destruction New England militias inflicted on Algonquians during King Philip’s War was justified on the grounds that “rebellion” must be punished so the rebels could return to their proper place as subjected peoples. (pp. 118-119)

Our basic understanding of colonial North America is usually terribly limited. Great scholarship by new historians during the past few decades has opened up new ways of seeing the roots of our current cultural dynamics, written into our political and cultural DNA centuries ago, still haunting us today. Kruer’s brilliant book shows how a key period in the late 1600s at the conjunction of today’s Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey “constituted a revolution in Anglo-Indian relations with lasting consequences for Indigenous peoples and the course of English colonization,” not least of which was a dramatic expansion in Native slave trade while accelerating racial thinking and racialized slavery. As the 1619 Project has emphasized, the beginning of our racist society and the “real story” of the United States, has to begin with the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia. In the decades that followed, the idea of permanent racially encoded and heritable slavery gained ground, apparently with a forceful boost from the ten-year war waged by Susquehannas against English colonists and their allied “tributary” tribes.

In Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America (Liveright Publishing/W.W. Norton, NY: 2022), the great historian of the Comanches and the Lakota, Pekka Hämäläinen, offers a broad definition of the kinds of cultures that had evolved in North America for the centuries prior to the arrival of the Europeans:

The majority of North American Indians became generalists who farmed, hunted, and gathered to sustain themselves. Instead of striving to maximize agricultural output—an aspiration that had animated Ancestral Puebloans, Cahokians, and other early farming societies—they sought stability, security, and solidarity. Instead of priestly rulers, they preferred leaders whose principal obligation was to maintain consensus and support participatory political systems. Power flowed through the leaders, not from them. Most North Americans lived in villages rather than cities. Ancestral Pawnees, Arikaras, Mandans, and Hidatsas were typical. They settled along the upper Missouri Valley, where capillary action drew groundwater to the surface. They lived in dome-shaped earth-lodge villages that housed hundreds rather than thousands. They were horticulturists and built fortifications only rarely. This sweeping retreat from hierarchies, elite dominance, and large-scale urbanization may have turned North America—along with Australia—into the world’s most egalitarian continent at the time. (p. 22-23)

This dovetails with the arguments of Graeber and Wengrow in The Dawn of Everythingwhere they identify a similarly widespread anti-hierarchical commitment by cultures across the continent. They propose that this developed in response to a revolt against Cahokia at its peak, hundreds of years before European arrival, when it was a city of 70,000 people characterized by large earthen mounds and sustained an elaborate society of religious and military leaders. Hard to know. But however it got going, it clearly spread far and wide, and the societies that thrived in all sorts of ecological spaces in North America were not based on private property or monetary exchange or accumulation of wealth.

English colonies conflicted with each other almost as much as they worked to co-opt and displace the cultures that were the permanent inhabitants of the lands they claimed. Maryland’s Catholicism was mistrusted by the Protestants of Virginia and New York. The Quakers who landed in the Delaware River Valley and helped build a burgeoning city at Philadelphia may have arrived with very particular religious and cultural practices, but the colonizing experience produced the same kind of propertarian and self-aggrandizing individuals that emerged earlier in New England and Virginia. But because Quakerism had its roots in the radicalism of the English revolution, some individuals refused to go along with the values of the rising merchant and slave-trading elite. Perhaps the most notorious individual among the Quaker dissenters is brought back to light by Marcus Rediker’s biography The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (Beacon Press: 2017).

Poster made by early abolitionists celebrating Benjamin Lay in front of his tree cave.

He spoke truth to power, shaming and defying slave traders and keepers. He dared to live in a new way based on an ethical relationship to all living things. He applied evolving radical principles to all aspects of his life, changing himself as he changed the world. Benjamin’s radicalism combined Quakerism, ancient philosophy, seafaring culture, abolitionism, and commonism. He chose what he considered the best practices from multiple social worlds as he tried to create a new one. He wrote and lived an eighteenth-century “theology of liberation.” (p. 142)

A vegan who lived in a cave in a tree some miles outside Philadelphia, he ate from a large apiary full of honey in the field outside his home, relying on his kitchen garden and the surrounding orchard for his fruit and vegetables. Lay was more than a paragon of “right living.” He was a firebrand and a relentless agitator who was expelled from one congregation after another for his unwillingness to tolerate slave-holding among his fellow Quakers. Embracing the radical tradition of the founders of Quakerism,

Benjamin wrote in the margins of a book, “Mammon—cursed love of mammon—mammon surfeits and corrupts the mind, and darkens the understanding—Oh the blessed doctrine and practice of the first christians, which kept out luxury, pride, and cursed covetousness.” (p. 104) [He] wrote in the margins of another book, “Money—the love of money—the destruction of nations—the fountain of evil.” (p. 105)

Like Governor Bradford in Massachusetts a generation earlier, Lay saw around him a society divorcing itself from principles that he considered sacrosanct: “I do believe here is in this Land of America, as selfish, sordid, greedy, Covetous, Earthly minded People of almost all Names, as any in the World.” As Rediker discovers, [Lay] asked of his fellow Quakers “can there be a worse Devil [than money], or more unclean Spirit or Root from which all Evil grows, or a worse Fountain than that from which all our Misery flows?”

While Benjamin Lay was in his tree cave, an early and enthusiastic participant in the underground railroad helping fugitive slaves make their way northward towards Canada, others were escaping Virginia and Maryland plantations into the Great Dismal Swamp that once occupied thousands of acres between Virginia and what became North Carolina. From the mid-1600s all the way to the Civil War’s end in 1865, autonomous communities of “maroons” remained undiscovered deep in the interior of the swamp. This story is told in Dismal Freedom: A History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp by J. Brent Morris (University of North Carolina Press: 2022). Today’s Dismal Swamp has been sliced, diced, drained, and radically diminished, but for more than two centuries, the area was virtually off limits to white colonists who knew that it was a site of refuge for the “human property” that had the audacity to free itself. Morris was invited to participate in the archaeological investigations led by Daniel Sayers, who argues,

it is no more a fully natural space than a city block, a residential yard, a shantytown, or a holy site. The historic Dismal Swamp emerged because of an alienating process of the “nonflow of capital’’ during the colonial period. This was a landscape in the way of “progress,” threatening development that was forced to avoid and work around it… Virginia lawmakers looking down their noses south declared the Dismal “altogether useless.” “Outlaw” Virginians of the mid-seventeenth century viewed the treacherous region more positively, and used the swamp’s protection to their advantage as they sought refuge from Virginia authorities and Chesapeake overcrowding. Even they, however, mostly moved around it and not through it. They did not move into the Dismal in sizable numbers until they had to as a last resort as the squeeze of development and political oppression pressed in against the swamp in the early 1700s. (p. 42)

George Washington on the shores of Lake Drummond in the Dismal Swamp during his early days of land speculating and surveying.

Lest we think these tales of slavery and oppression in the mid-Atlantic are somehow irrelevant to California history, Jean Pfaelzer has returned with her latest, California, A Slave State, to expose for once and for all the lie about “freedom” at the heart of California’s self-congratulatory tale of its founding.

The story of California is a history of 250 years of uninterrupted human bondage. California thrived because it welcomed, honed, and legalized numerous ways for humans to own humans. (p. 17) Settler colonialism is not an event, such as the Gold Rush; its impact cannot be canceled or undone. It lives forever. (p. 21) Slavery endured in California after the Civil War because the state copied repressive Jim Crow codes from the U.S. South. California made the unlawful lawful. Unfettered, it gave itself the sovereign right to legalize human bondage and enjoy the revenue from unpaid labor. (p. 25)

Following on the heels of Benjamin Madley’s American Genocide that documents in excruciating detail the slaughter of native Californians by white Americans from 1846-1873, Pfaelzer offers a parallel account of the brutal white regime that kept African Americans in slavery, that wrote Indian slavery into the California constitutions of 1850 and 1860, that kept hundreds of young Chinese women in sexual slavery into the 20th century, and became an infamous carceral state using forced prison labor up to the present. When then-Governor Leland Stanford repealed the section of the Indian Acts of 1850 and 1860 that authorized forced indenture a few months after Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, it did little to end de facto slavery: in 1863 there were 4,522 Indian children living in non-Native households in California; the next year the number rose to 5,987.

From the Indian Act of 1850 to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, approximately ten thousand to twenty thousand Indians were kidnapped, indentured, and delivered into bondage; of those, three thousand to four thousand were children, seized and sold. By 1852 one-third of the Native boys in California were indentured and 65 percent of Native females were bound over before they were fifteen years old. The baptismal records of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oakland, from 1850 to 1853, list fifty-seven forcibly indentured Indian children whose average age was nine years old. (p. 175) By 1858 three out of four households in Northern California held at least one Native American. That year the popular San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin reported that travelers across California noticed that, at every ranch they passed, a white man “possessed” an Indian woman. (p. 187)

The importation of at least 1,500 enslaved African Americans during the early years of American California was met by a vibrant abolitionist movement made up of free Blacks and some white lawyers, but it wasn’t until the late 1850s when San Francisco and California courts stopped returning people to slave-owners. The Chinese who poured into the state as contract laborers to build the transcontinental railroad and become the backbone of agricultural labor after the Indian genocide eliminated so much of the potential workforce, themselves were brutalized and exploited. I learned from Pfaelzer that California’s early state budget was funded by $58 million in Foreign Miner’s Tax revenues, covering between 25-50% of the state’s revenue between 1852 and 1870! This book is full of great research that turns a lot of the received history of early California on its head, making it clear how much of the phenomenal early wealth was stolen from original inhabitants, and enslaved and exploited labor. I was disappointed that she didn’t do a chapter on the near-slavery endured by sailors on the merchant marine ships of the 19th century, famously upheld by the 1897 U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of the 13th amendment’s ban on involuntary servitude for sailors. But it’s a must-read, and no one should claim to know about early California without having digested this book.

An unexpected addition to her account is the story of Russian enslavement of Aleutian islanders from near Alaska to “harvest” most of the eastern Pacific sea otter population in the late 1700s and early 1800s. A key moment in that process occurred in the San Francisco Bay Area and adds to the lore of the Farallon Islands in a surprising way:

In the winter of 1807, on the way to his winter vacation in Hawaii, [Boston shipper Joseph Burling] O’Cain deposited 150 Alaska Natives and seventy kayaks on the Farralon Islands, a stark twelve-mile chain of jagged uninhabitable outcroppings… Despite the armed Spanish guards, American Captain Oliver Kimball, from the brig Peacock, ordered the Alaskan hunters to sneak into San Francisco Bay, where thousands of otters still thrived. The Alaskans were to slip in at the narrow strait at the Golden Gate or portage their kayaks across the steep headlands of Marin County. In 1807, after just three months, the Peacock returned to Sitka with 1,261 pelts. The trade with China was flourishing and, ever greedy, O’Cain ordered the hunters in California to slaughter young otters; half the rapacious “harvest” were yearlings, killed before they could reproduce future generations. (p. 103)

In 1815 there were still thousands of sea otters around the San Francisco Bay, in obscure marshes, creeks, and estuaries. “Russians negotiated for permission to enter the bay by offering Alaska Natives as slaves. While dinners, silks, watches, iron tools, and horses were graciously exchanged between the invading nations, Governor Pablo Vicente de Solá … refused to let the Russians hunt south of Fort Ross… the records of Fort Ross reveal that slavery persisted and that the Pomo men who refused to labor in the fields were exiled to the deadly Farallon Islands. In 1818 the Alaska Natives killed only thirteen otters along the California coast. The silky mammal was [practically] extinct.” (p. 110-111)

Russians carried on their maritime slaughter into the 1830s, and kept their foothold at Fort Ross until 1840, a scant few years before the U.S. invaded Mexico and took California by force. A smallpox outbreak wiped out 60% of the Alaska natives at Fort Ross in 1836, while killing up to 100,000 free, uncolonized California Indians in the same epidemic. Pfaelzer bluntly describes the end point of this carnage: “After twenty-nine years of occupation [in 1840], slavery, and ecological annihilation, the Russians abandoned everything that could not fit in the hold of a ship.” (p. 115)

In Sea Otters: A History, (University of Nebraska Press: 2018) Richard Ravalli gives a complete overview of the demise and unexpected survival of the sea otter along the Pacific Coast of North America. Continuing our theme of identifying money and property at the heart of the destruction of life, Ravalli explains when the killing of sea otters was at its most intense.

Whereas the California hunt peaked from 1801 to 1809, when 22,578 pelts were collected and exported from the coast, the Aleutians produced a comparable number of pelts—above 20,000—as early as the 1750s, and for the rest of the eighteenth century the total catch brought back by Russian vessels never dipped below that threshold for any decade. A dramatic spike for the years 1790-97 is partly the result of a decade-long take ending in 1793 of 64,000 sea otters by Shelikhov’s company. The figure is a dramatic punctuation of steady and unprecedented mass killings of sea otters over a sixty-year period.

Curiously, the Russian-led decimation of the sea otter and other marine mammals in the far north during the late 1700s was impeded along the California coast by mercantilist inflexibility and the Spanish settler culture’s lack of trading infrastructure, and complete absence of commercial ambition. Thanks to Spain’s formal control of the coast neither the Russians, the English, nor eventually the Americans were able to exploit the sea otter “rafts” offshore, leaving their population relatively stable at the start of the nineteenth century.

In 1938 sea otters were re-discovered off the central California coast and were soon getting wide publicity. Curiously marine research associated with atomic tests in the Aleutian Islands during the 1960s and 70s revealed the role of sea otters in shaping kelp forests and nearshore ecosystems, reinforcing the new paradigm of keystone species and trophic cascade. This bolstered the conservationist arguments for species protection.

The commodification and destruction of sea otters was far from unique. Andrew Isenberg’s now classic The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History 1750-1920, does an amazing job of going behind the oft-told story of the mass slaughter of bison in the post-Civil War era. “In just a few years, two dynamic forces—the plains environment and the American industrial economy—had combined to nearly obliterate the millions of bison that had inhabited the grasslands.” (p. 141) He credits and debunks a number of explanations offered for the demise of the bison, from wolf predation to competition from cattle and horses to drought. I was fascinated, if not surprised, to learn that

The destruction of the bison in the plains to fuel the demand for hides was part of a broad pattern of environmental degradation in industrializing America. The tanning industry consumed not only animal hides but trees and lime in enormous quantities; it returned unused portions of those resources to local environments in the form of pollution. The tanning industry initially concentrated in northeastern Pennsylvania and the Adirondack region of New York, amidst dense forests of Eastern hemlock (Tusga canadensis), because the bark of hemlock is rich in tannin, the chemical essential to the production of leather… The industry’s unsustainable consumption of tanbark had depleted accessible supplies of hemlock in the Adirondacks by the mid-1880s and a few decades later in Pennsylvania. (p. 132)

In the end, Isenberg concludes, “The market in bison robes and hides was not an exclusively anthropogenic cause of the bison’s destruction, but the leading cause among several eco-social factors.” (p. 196) Similarly, a range of eco-social factors has shifted us into what Stephen J. Pyne has dubbed the Pyrocene. In The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next (Univ of California Press: 2021) he cites a common metaphor to suggest we reverse it to see things in a necessary new light:

Like a virus, fire is not itself alive, but it relies on the living world to propagate. We often speak of an epidemic spreading like wildfire, but it makes equal sense to speak of a fire spreading like a plague, a contagion of combustion. (p. 14)

Pyne is a fire historian and this rather short book is his urgent appeal to get everyday people to think again about fire. He suggests that it was during the Enlightenment, perhaps the discovery of oxygen, that made fire cease “to be a phenomenon that saturated the world and human society.” Fire ceased to be an ongoing and evolving relationship between humans and nature, and was reduced to merely a tool. But a mighty useful tool it has been!

Over time people learned to cook sand, ores, clay, mud, limestone, wood, and oils to create glass, metal, pottery, bricks, cement, tars and turpentine, and assorted potions and aromas. They used fire to make other tools, from fire-hardened spears to plows to cannons. Few technologies did not involve fire at some point in their chain of creation. Fire was interactive: fire as a tool could make other tools. (p. 59)

But these discoveries led inexorably to the rise of fossil fuels.

Instead of using fire to grow feed for draft oxen, people could plow with tractors fed diesel. Instead of flame to fumigate and fertilize, they could appeal to herbicides, insecticides, and synthetic fertilizers derived from reserves of fossil biomass and processed by fossil-fuel-burning machines. (p. 87) Taking fuels out of the geologic past, burning them in the present, and releasing their by-product to a geologic future—this is fire’s new narrative arc and one of the grand markers in Earthly history. (p. 92) …our industrial transformation did not banish fire; it only displaced it, stuffed it in machines, and replaced tamed fire in many landscapes with feral fire. (p. 126)

And while we’re beset by annual wildfires, the promise of rising sea levels, barbaric wars and savage attacks, and the always distinct possibility of nuclear annihilation, we also ignore the visible collapse of modern agriculture as we know it. In Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It, Tom Philpott details the dire condition of California’s precarious relationship with water and agriculture in the Central Valley, but eventually turns his attention to the massive output produced in the midwest.

…our country’s gargantuan corn and soybean crops, concentrated in Iowa and surrounding states and occupying more than half of U.S. farmland, are essentially a zero-profit industry for farmers, propped up by billions in government payouts. The main beneficiaries are a set of interlocking, enormous corporations, each generating billions of dollars for shareholders and delivering in exchange a mountain of health-ruining food. (p. 96)

I suppose we could eat money and cut out all the intermediate steps!

Finally we come to the last book of my odd essay, John Holloway’s recent Hope in Hopeless Times (Pluto Press: 2022). It’s the third installment of a trilogy, following Change the World Without Taking Power (2001) and Crack Capitalism (2012). As the title hints, it’s a book rooted in a despair appropriate for our difficult times: “We have lost confidence in the idea that the logic of the system will carry us through to the other side. On the contrary, this logic seems to be taking us to the abyss.” Holloway is a long-time Marxist professor teaching in Puebla, Mexico for the past few decades, and is well acquainted with the motivating myths of the Left. His repudiation of the inevitabilism of traditional Marxism is a welcome break from those who are still clinging to the historical materialist myth. In the last post I cited Saito’s work on Marx’s late notebooks that have never been widely known until recently, showing how Marx breaks with his own earlier ideas of the stages of progress from serfdom to capitalism to socialism and eventually communism. Holloway does something similar in this book, proposing that the task for revolutionaries now is not to “fulfill the narrative, as in traditional Marxism, but … to break it.” He approvingly invokes Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that the task of revolution is to pull the emergency brake on the train of history—or at least jump from the train before it crashes!

Already the metaphor “train of history,” almost a romantic notion, begs the question of a narrative, a framework in which we are all participating. It seems so, but then, a couple of generations of academic post-modernists have tried mightily to break down the idea that there is any such thing. No Grand Narrative can encompass the myriad experiences and knowledges and identities living across the planet, certainly no historical narrative can do justice to that wide range of possibilities. But Holloway smartly proposes that there is such a narrative that is so obvious that we don’t see it.

There is indeed a global weaving of social relations that gives substance to the idea of a single narrative or world history. The yarn that binds us all together is money. But the narrative of money is not a narrative of emancipation. Just the opposite, it is a narrative that appears to be leading us towards extinction… (p. 53) …more than anything else it is the logic of money that keeps us in our place, that makes us complicit in the day-to-day reproduction of terror. (p. 87)

Money rules. The pursuit of money is the driving force, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, behind global warming and the destruction of the environment, behind the production of arms of mass and individual destruction, behind the exploitation that makes so many lives a meaningless misery, behind the elimination of communities and languages and ways of living, behind the hunger of millions. And money penetrates our refusals-resistance-rebellions, corrupting them, often channeling them into a world of endless applications for grants, reformulating the struggles in a way that makes them compatible with its own rule, the rule of money… Money is killing us. So simple. Money is killing us and the only way that humanity can survive is to kill money. But how can we kill money? By abolishing it as a social relation, by getting rid of it as the force that mediates our relations with other people, by demonetizing. Imagine a world without money. (p. 153)

Money is the cistern in which we live, the Great Container, the Great Frustrater. It limits what we can do, what we can see, what we can think. It is ahistoricity; it is impossibility. (p. 231) … It is simply that the apparent permanence of capitalism and the apparent impossibility of abolishing money impose limits on what we can think and, even more strongly, on what we can articulate. Money has become part of second nature: to say that it should be abolished is like saying that we must abolish the moon… In the years to come, this taboo of impossibility must be broken if humanity is to have a future. (p. 155)

This is the crux of his hope. First to identify money as the ultimate container, the ‘thing’ that binds us into activities and ways of thinking that we would never entertain if we weren’t coerced by “economic necessity.” Second, to recognize the way money penetrates our very being, and renders itself invisible as a social choice, as a mechanism we willing reproduce by blindly acquiescing to its supposed power. And then to realize that that penetration is two-way. It penetrates us, but we also penetrate it, and that is the basis of money’s ultimate fragility. You may at first scoff and wonder what this all refers to. Remember then that since the early 1980s, if not longer, debt and financialization have expanded at staggering rates, not just for individuals but for every level of government and the vast majority of operating corporations. The unmeasurable trillions of dollars of fictitious capital is, according to Holloway, a direct expression of money’s vulnerability. Fearing the rabble, the revolt of the dispossessed, the powers-that-be have repeatedly kicked the debt can down the road, expanding liquidity and fueling the expanding circuits of consumption that in some ways keep the profits flowing. But the system has long separated from the true source of wealth which is surplus value derived from the production and sale of real things. Money has been increasingly begetting money without any messy interlude in factories or actual production. This is a recipe for crisis, but rather than allowing that inevitable capitalist crisis to fully unfold, central banks and governments continue to create new debt, new derivatives and collateralized loan obligations and the whole panoply of fictitious capital (or fake wealth). Not that this fake wealth doesn’t continue to command power over society, because it does. But its tenuous connection to its own reproduction, its fundamental fragility and vulnerability, Holloway argues, reflects the power and “richness” that we all have to walk away and render all that wealth meaningless.

Andrej Grubacic, John Holloway, and Eddie Yuen on board the “City Front” Bay Cruise, Oct. 5.

Elsewhere in the book Holloway cautiously endorses the degrowth logic that is gaining ground these days.

We may well decide that we should produce more to solve all the problems of food and housing that exist in the world, or we may decide to produce differently, to slow down in order to respect our own lives and our relationship with other forms of life, as the proponents of ‘degrowth’ argue. (p. 140) … Today’s struggles point us towards seeing the push to produce differently as the underlying negation rather than the push to produce more. (p. 142)

Holloway directly takes on identitarian politics in a way that might dismay a number of contemporary radicals. He certainly does not negate the importance of standing up and saying “I am a woman,” or “I am black,” or “I am Mexican.” But his philosophically driven critique insists that identity is something to overflow, not to reinforce. Start with the assertion, but remember that we are all far too complex to be reduced to any essentialist label. After all, we all have the potential to become our full selves, capable of indeterminate wonders.

He also makes the provocative argument that the

established notion that capital is conservative, reactionary, and that anti-capitalism is progessive, is wrong. That is the big divide that is cutting through the so-called ‘left’ in many parts of the world today. The only ‘progress’ that is on offer today is capitalist progress and this is an attack on the richness of people’s lives. The anti-capitalist response is initially a conservative, and usually not openly anti-capitalist, response: a defense of what we have. … the only way out is an overflowing ‘yes, we have a great richness in our community, but it is not enough…’ (p. 145)

We are verbs against nouns, he says. What a charming notion! I can hear the practical organizers out there grinding their teeth about this seemingly disconnected set of ideas. What about all the people who are hungry? Unhoused? Lacking medical care? Lacking child care? Inadequate educations? Of course. The list of immediate needs is permanent, endless, and completely legitimate. And Holloway is not offering a program that addresses those things directly. Instead, he is pointing out that for all the sturm und drang of the past century and a half, we haven’t gotten very far in breaking with the logic that keeps us participating in our own oppression. We not only haven’t been able to address all the demonstrably unmet needs of countless millions, but we are hurtling towards an existential abyss. We really can’t solve all those problems with tepid politics of social democrats, and especially not through the militaristic fantasies of Leninist vanguards. In spite of the flaws and often awkward inefficiencies of it, he endorse the assembly. I wrote about different anarchist visions of the “assembly” a few posts ago. But here’s John Holloway:

…the assembly or council or commune or soviet: the other, very different organizational form that has sprung up time and time again since the origins of anti-capitalist struggle. The assembly is not the efficient instrument that the Party aims to be, it can be slow, it can be manipulated, but it aims at a movement of mutual recognizing, of coming to respect the dignities of others. It is a form of coming together that insists on not being symmetrical to the organizational forms of capital, whereas a party is a form of organization that embraces symmetry to achieve effectiveness, just as one army is symmetrical in form to another. The assembly is an anti-identitarian question, the part is an identitarian answer. The assembly is a communizing, the party is an attempt to create communism, a horrific closure. (p. 248)

Maybe not the most convincing answer. It takes a huge amount of patience to function well in this form. Not everyone, especially those acculturated into our sped-up “right now” culture, will be able to adapt easily to a self-governance model based on the assembly. But what we have isn’t working, and we know we don’t want to follow the well-trodden paths that have led into one cul-de-sac after another. So time for something completely new! And old!

Meanwhile, the root of all evil was the starting point of this meandering essay, and by now, it’s obvious that I embrace thinkers from the early Cynics to the 18th century Quaker dwarf Benjamin Lay, to John Holloway today—all of them vigorously opposed to human relationships being obscured by and reduced to money. Me too. Still, “in spite of all the struggles, the monster of Capital is still there…” and we still wonder (and hope): Where is the emergency brake and who will pull it, and how?


1 comment to The Root of All Evil

  • Martin

    Of course your essay is brilliant, and does indeed make a lot of sense, but you should know that my one and only role here and elsewhere in the lurkosphere is to draft on the sails of others and then point out the ultimate failure of the journey. Not a great role to play in the ultrasocial culture of Homo sapiens, but, hey, as David Eller titles it, the human brain is a terrible thing…
    I had come to the question of the bison extermination this week after reading the unbelievably stark numbers in Broswimmer’s “Ecocide,” and I’ve read Pyne’s work in the past year, but the central problem is this: there is no emergency brake on an inferno.

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