In the last couple of years I’ve been absorbed by travel & exploration literature. Not the Bill Bryson type, but the pioneering type. It fascinates me how for thousands of years there were whole continents with civilizations carving their own trajectories through space and time in complete ignorance of other continents. The Inca, the Maya and the Aztecs had elaborate systems of government, religion, warfare and economy. They had writing, ways of recording their past, architecture, astronomy. I find very exciting the impressions on the Europeans who saw these wonders for the first time. Bernal Diaz, one of Hernán Cortés‘ soldiers in the conquest of Tenochtitlan and the author of The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, sang the praises of the Aztec capital, whose market was greater and richer than any he had seen in Europe, noting also its extreme cleanliness.
North American native nations had their own systems of belief, culture, craft. The Plains tribes of North America, spanning from what is today Canada to the area north of the Rio Grande had developed a fully functional sign language to overcome the barriers formed by their numerous linguistic groups. They subsisted on the buffalo hunt and moved with the herds. They bizarrely did not develop building with stone or mining of gold, copper and silver as was the case with those south of the Rio Grande, as if the river and the desert became a barrier to that.
Horses and iron mining were unknown to the native Americans, either side of the Rio Grande. When the Spanish conquistadores and then the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French descended on their shores, they were at first terrified, impressed and finally subjugated by this advantage. The Aztecs had darts and clubs. The Spaniards came with cannons, gunpowder and steel blades. Diseases such as measles, chickenpox and smallpox had been non-existent in America and had as devastating an effect on the natives as slavery and famine.
The Europeans were after one thing: precious metals. The promise of gold and silver drove exploration and brought with it the enslavement of all who stood in the way. Some were after the Fountain of Youth or the Northwest Passage. When the gold hopes were dashed, farming and carving the land into estates took over. In Bolivia and Peru the Spaniards’ drive to enslave the native populations and employ them in the the silver mines decimated the native tribes to the extent where African slaves had to be imported to do their work. The same happened in the islands of the Caribbean, with the native Caribs the first to meet this fate. If you like a spoonful of sugar in your tea, you’d better know where it came from.
In North America the Navajo, the Sioux and the Blackfoot, to mention but a few, were displaced and restricted in reservations where they starved, away from their cultural means of acquiring food, all in a European drive to acquire the land, the minerals, the buffalo hides and finally the fertile soil.
And then came the gold rush, the oil rush and whatever else the white man brought with him in addition to the smallpox. The natives were restricted, forced to starve and inevitably rebel, leading to a series of massacres. It all may sound like ancient history to you, but this process was still happening 100 years ago. The Wounded Knee massacre happened in 1890, 14 years after the Ottoman government was denounced in Europe for the Bulgarian atrocities.
Eventually in the once developed Europe, industry declined and moved to ‘developing’ areas where workers on slave wages (if any) continued to ensure maximum profit margins for the few. In the meantime, a shrinking European working class has found it difficult to keep up with the drive for consumption, especially since loans and credit cards are harder to come by as a result of the credit crunch. And it is beginning to agitate, as the class barriers are rigid but there is no employment in industry, the sector which had guaranteed them work ever since their forefathers moved from the countryside to the slums of the industrial revolution. Governments in debt are now scrapping the welfare system, while tuition fees go up, making the prospect of climbing is non-existent. The factories have closed, so there is no work. Rock and hard place.
Capitalism won, and those at the top of the pyramid exhausted the world’s natural resources. The oil is running out, the forests are shrinking, we have fished, hunted and skinned everything, and what survives is enclosed in safari parks and zoos so we can enjoy seeing it while eating ice cream on a Saturday afternoon. Now that the ice is melting, we are drilling for oil in the Arctic. Our governments are in debt to the banks, their puppet states are beginning to collapse. The myth of material prosperity for all and universal peace does not hold water any more. The wealth of the world is accumulated in a few hundred mansions, scattered from California to the Persian Gulf. The short-sightedness of the system is leading to its downfall with mathematical precision, as the prosperity which Europe and North America have enjoyed in the post-WWII era is proving to be unsustainable and will soon come to an end. There is no more Eldorado, however. The greedy, the poor and the desperate cannot move any more towards the west, there is no more planet left. China also happens to be there, and they’re no Aztecs…did capitalism eat itself? Is there hope?