The Self/Other Dialectic

I will try to resolve the contradiction between self and other, or subject and object, in order to help show the unity between people, and move us in the direction of a cure for the social alienation, disintegration, and fragmentation that plague our relationships. A unifying analysis of all human relationships, starting with the family and fanning outward, can, I believe, help us better understand how to deal with their ups and downs.

We start with the most basic unit, the mother and her baby. In the best of circumstances, the mother gives the most love and attention to the baby that she can, unifying them; in the worst of cases, she is terribly neglectful, even abusive to her baby, as Sandy McDougall is to her baby, Randy, in ‘Salem’s Lot, or as Margaret White is to her ‘psychological baby’ Carrie. Then, of course, there’s every intermediate circumstance between the best and worst along a continuum.

(Recall from my previous posts that I don’t conceive of a continuum as being in a straight line, with the extremes at either end, far away from each other; but as coiled in a circle, with the extremes touching and phasing into each other. I use the ouroboros to symbolize this dialectical conception of any continuum, including the self/other dialectic, with the serpent biting its tail at the extremes. We should strive towards a unity of the opposites, not an irreconcilable dichotomy.)

While allowing for various levels of parental imperfection, we can see a good enough mother (or, by extension, a good enough early caregiver of either sex) as lying anywhere along the ouroboros’s length from its head (the best mothers) to the middle of its body (average mothers); anywhere on the other half of its body, approaching the bitten tail, is where all the bad mothers, fathers, and other early caregivers lie, at every point of severity, from moderately bad to the very worst.

The dichotomy of a splitting into the ‘good mother’ and ‘bad mother’, where the head bites the tail, is the only way the baby is able to understand his or her caregiver; in fact, during the first few months, he or she is capable of conceiving only a partobject, a ‘good breast‘ that gives milk immediately on demand, and a ‘bad breast’ that frustrates the baby with its absence. Without yet a clearly-defined sense of self, the baby imagines the breast, later the whole mother, as an extension of himself, something he in his fantasied omnipotence can (or should be able to) summon at will to satisfy his needs.

Even the best of parents fail to satisfy the baby for extended periods of time. The baby, however, doesn’t understand the inevitability of at least some parental failures; it can’t differentiate between good enough parents who sometimes fail, and bad parents who fail by habit or by design.

In its frustration, the baby slides in its bad experiences along the length of the ouroboros’s body to its bitten tail, where frustrations are extreme. The baby experiences the paranoid-schizoid position as it hates, and bites the tardily provided nipple of, the ‘bad mother’; ‘schizoid’, because the baby splits the mother into absolute ‘good’ and ‘bad’, since it can’t yet conceive of a good and bad mother; ‘paranoid’, because after the baby has bitten the ‘bad’ mother’s nipple and/or attacked her in unconscious phantasy, it has persecutory anxiety from its belief of her wanting to get revenge on it.

Along with this paranoid fear of parental revenge is the baby’s fear of losing the parent (who is now understood to be separate from the baby), and her damaged internalized object, forever. Sometimes Mother leaves the baby for, in its opinion, inordinately lengthy periods of time; it has no way of knowing the real (presumably legitimate) reason for her absence, so it imagines all kinds of horrors. Is she dead and gone forever? Has she abandoned me after all my fantasized revenges on her? Have I killed her?

Now the baby goes into the depressive position, and yearns for reparation with the parent. This is represented by a move from the biting head/bitten tail of extreme conflict with Mother, to the upper-middle of the ouroboros’s body, where the baby learns to accept a good enough mother, who is a combination of good and bad qualities. This is the best we can do with regard to parent/child relationships, though we can always go down from there…and we way too often do.

The paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions don’t apply only to parent/infant relationships; we all sway back and forth between the two positions throughout life, and in our relationships with all people. The same universalizing can be done with the lord/bondsman dialectic in Hegel‘s Phenomenology of Spirit, as I discussed it here. (Examples of this dialectic being applied to many other human relationships, in particular those involving power imbalances, can be found in this video.)

In healthy families, conflicts–of the sort that lead to the placement at the biting head/bitten tail (paranoid-schizoid position, or Hegel‘s metaphorical ‘death struggle’)–are usually resolved fairly quickly; for example, in tribal societies (as opposed to our much more alienated ones), crying babies are typically picked up much faster and held, whereas modern families tend to leave the distressed infants to cry themselves to sleep.

In unhealthy families, power imbalances cause emotional conflicts to be constant, with only brief resolutions. Cycles of abuse, a passing round and round the body of the ouroboros, involve brief good times (‘honeymoons’ at the serpent’s head), then small episodes of conflict that grow and grow (moving along the serpent’s body, from the head to the tail) until there’s an explosive confrontation (the bitten tail) and a phoney resolution (biting head), and the cycle begins all over again.

This kind of abusive relationship can begin in the family, then be patterned in other relationships (school bullying, workplace bullying, cyberbullying, etc.). When children experience the primarily or exclusively bad parent, they internalize the parent, creating a bad object relation, like a ghost of that parent, haunting them and inhabiting their minds, and intruding into their thoughts. The bad object is like a demon to be exorcised.

WRD Fairbairn wrote of the bad effects of non-empathic parents on children, who as a result of this problem feel their egos split three ways. The original, Central Ego, connected to its external Ideal Object (for our libido is object-seeking, that is, wanting friendships and loving relationships with people, not merely pleasure-seeking [i.e., sex, drugs, etc.], as Freud would have had it), now internalizes object relations in unconscious phantasy with two new ego-object configurations, the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object (e.g., idolizing of celebrities, lusting after pornographic models/actresses, etc.), and the Anti-libidinal Ego [formerly known as the Internal Saboteur]/Rejecting Object (our hostile feeling towards either real or imagined enemies).

Note how the self/other dialectic permeates Fairbairn’s total reorganizing of Freud’s id/ego/superego personality structure. Unlike Freud, Fairbairn correctly saw energy and structure as inseparable. We project, or give energy to, and introject, or receive it from, other people all the time; and because of our mutual alienation and isolation, we yearn for each other’s company, deep down inside, despite our pushing of others away.

Fairbairn’s Central Ego/Ideal Object (replacing and approximating Freud’s ego) would reside along the upper body of the ouroboros, towards the biting head, where the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object (replacing and approximating Freud’s id) sinks its teeth into the serpent’s tail. The Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (replacing, but only marginally comparable to, Freud’s superego) configuration would be at the bitten tail. Note how these unhealthy latter two are in the same position as that of the paranoid-schizoid position, at the bitten tail/biting head, the splitting of idealized good, and hated bad, objects, the point of maximum alienation between self and other.

Everyone experiences the ‘biting/bitten’ area of human relationships to some extent, but if we have largely good internalized objects, we can shift back to the ouroboros’s upper half soon enough, and enjoy friendly relations with real, external objects for most of our lives. If those primal objects are bad, though, a child will experience the agitation of the ‘biting/bitten’ area for traumatically extended periods of time, scarring him terribly and possibly even giving him C-PTSD.

When threatened, we have four basic responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Fighting is the biting head of the ouroboros; the other three fs are responses to the bitten tail experience. Dysfunctional families may result in child bullies, the biting first of the four fs; or in the fleeing/freezing child victims of bullies, the bitten second and third of the fs…or in the last of the four fs, the fawning people-pleasers, but also (if they’re really successful at pleasing Cluster B types) sometimes narcissistic golden children, a combination of fight and fawn who tend to hover between biting and bitten (i.e., bully and victim), in my experience, at least (my sister, J.).

These object relations–whether in the good area of the upper half of the serpent’s body, or in the bad, hind area, near where the biting of the tail is experienced–are transferred from the family into the larger social sphere, a cyclical revolving around the ouroboros’s body to experience the same self/other dialectic, but in a broader social context. As the children grow older, they replay their particular versions of the self/other dialectic in school and among their friends or enemies in the neighbourhood.

So, if the child has loving parents who create a safe, soothing environment for him or her at home, subsequent social settings will tend to give off the same basic feelings for him or her, providing lots of friends and minimal enemies at school and in the neighbourhood. This is so because that soothing, loving home environment, providing positive object relations for the child, an internalized group of friendly Caspers, if you will, who make the child feel that everything is OK, gives him or her confidence and an easy-going nature that attracts mostly friendliness in other kids.

But if the child has neglectful, domineering, non-empathic, or outright abusive parents, the child will feel trapped in a hostile environment (haunted by the frightening ghosts of bad internalized objects); and his or her agitation will rub off on all the other kids at school or in the neighbourhood, attracting bullies if he or she is in flight or freeze mode (at the bitten tail), or making him or her into a bully if in fight mode (at the biting head). If he or she is in fawn mode (specifically of the golden child/flying monkey sort discussed above), this could make him or her into a socially manipulative type, or simply into a more benign people-pleaser.

Such observations should be obvious to most people, but we who were bullied by non-empathic families were typically blamed victims, told that it was our inherent nature that made us incapable of making friends; this is how abusive families avoid taking responsibility for their wickedness, and thus traumatize their victims all the worse.

Heinz Kohut observed that a lack of empathy in parenting can lead to splits in the child’s personality, a bipolar one with, in the best of cases, his grandiosity mirrored in an empathic parent self-object on one side, and an idealized parent self-object on the other side. This is the primal self/other dialectic expressed in the child/parent relationship. Normally, the child’s grandiosity and idealizing of his parents are let down in bearable steps; this letting down parallels the infant’s shift from the paranoid-schizoid to depressive position, a move from the biting head to upper middle half of the ouroboros. If the reader is unfamiliar with these concepts of self-psychology, please see these posts, scrolling down to where you see ‘Heinz Kohut’ to find the relevant explanations.

A lack of parental empathy can result in failed mirroring of grandiosity and traumatic disappointments in the idealized parent. This results in a dichotomizing of the child’s self-esteem, his narcissism hovering around the serpent’s biting head (pathological grandiosity/bullying attitude) and the bitten tail (toxic shame/victim mentality), a combination of fawning, freezing, and fighting. The child fancies himself as Superman to hide, or disavow, his self-hate, a vertical split; he grows up consciously idolizing his ideal parent (to the inordinate extent that he did in childhood), while also being unconsciously disappointed with that parent, a horizontal split, or repression of this disappointment.

If this kind of fragmented adult nonetheless has great talents in leading and manipulating others, he could become the kind of charming, smooth-talking psychopath/narcissist who sweet-talks his way into powerful positions in business, politics, or religion. Enter the capitalist, or the politician or religious leader who props up the system of class antagonisms.

The lord/bondsman dialectic can be seen most obviously in the class struggles of history (ancient masters and slaves, then feudal lords and their vassals), as well as in the authoritarian rule of the Church over its flock; but many today are still in denial over how it can be seen in the bourgeois/proletarian dialectic.

Now, according to Hegel, the bondsman should grow to see, through all of his work and his achievements, his own mastery and self-realization. This insight should inspire him to rise up against his lord and overthrow him. The problem is that, in our contemporary world, which has grown to have greater and greater pathologies of the self (as Kohut had observed back in the 1970s [pages 267-280], coinciding with the beginnings of the rise of neoliberalism, by the way), problems with increasing fragmentation and narcissism from children getting insufficient parental stimulation or empathy, people still aren’t self-aware, and therefore they don’t have it in them to rebel.

Problems of fragmentation and narcissism mean we weren’t getting our childhood grandiosity empathically mirrored, resulting in a “lack of initiative, empty depression and lethargy”, as Kohut saw it (p.284), so we, for example, just stare at our phones or play online games. On the other side of the bipolar self, the other side of the primal psychic bridge, the ‘other’ of the self/other dialectic, our traumatic disappointment in our idealized parent imago means we need a new figure to idealize. Here’s where the smooth-talking politician comes in.

That idealized father figure, who could be Trump, Hitler, Mussolini, or any of a host of other demagogues, reinvigorates our once-sluggish grandiosity, and in following our leader, we feel a phoney sense of community in wearing our MAGA caps, or our brown or black shirts. We enjoy collective narcissism, and become the flying monkeys of our new ‘parent’, smearing and scapegoating anyone who challenges the validity of our new ideal.

This is how fascism and quasi-fascism work to destroy our ability to rise up against the ruling class, by redirecting our rage away from our true masters and towards those labelled as our scapegoats: Jews, Muslims, illegal immigrants, etc. Opposition to the likes of Trump must be seen in its proper light: these narcissistic leaders aren’t in themselves the problem, but are mere symptoms of a much greater social and political pathology.

Our psychological fragmentation stems from our sustained experience, from infancy to adulthood, of the self/other dialectic in its painful biting head/bitten tail manifestation: the paranoid-schizoid position (splitting); the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object (idealizing Trump, Hitler, etc.) and Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (hating Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, etc.) configurations; the bipolar self’s idealized imago of the fascist/authoritarian demagogue on the one side, and the collective grandiosity of being in the fascist followers’ in-group on the other side, and repressing any self-doubt about the wisdom in choosing to follow such a leader blindly.

To go to the psychological roots of the pathology of the leader, we must go back to his childhood, and his tempestuous relationship with his parents. Let’s take Adolph Hitler as an illuminating example (Trump, by the way, is also a good example).

Adolph’s father, Alois Hitler, was a bad-tempered, domineering, authoritarian type. A civil servant (customs officer), he hoped little Adolph would follow in his footsteps; but the boy had different dreams for his future (to be a painter), so father and son fought all the time. Here we see little Adolph in a sustained ordeal of the paranoid-schizoid position, with no hope for reparation with his father.

As a child, Adolph had a beloved brother, Edmund, who died. The loss of this important good internalized object caused little Adolph to go from being a confident, happy boy to a sullen, lonely one. His family was drowning in dysfunction; Alois, a bad internalized object, used to beat him.

While his doting, indulgent mother, Klara, would have mirrored his childhood grandiosity and encouraged his dream of becoming an artist, little Adolph’s grumpy father traumatically disappointed him by failing to be an ideal parental imago for him. Alois died when Adolph was 13, and though it is said that the whole family was plunged into grief, considering the endless father/son fighting, I doubt that Adolph was really all that heartbroken; but Klara’s death in 1907 devastated him, and he felt that pain for the rest of his life. He needed new mirrors to feed his ego, and an ideal to adore.

That ideal, a looming danger for the world, would be German nationalism, which for Adolph was a gratifying contrast to the Austrian nationalism of Alois, something Adolph naturally despised. The mirrors of his pathological grandiosity would be the members of the German Workers Party, to whose name would be added “National Socialist”…to divert the German working class from real socialism.

One problem with someone whose mental state suffers sustained experiences of the biting head/bitten tail area of the ouroboros of the self/other dialectic, as young Adolph surely did, is the constant feeling of emotional dysregulation. This means that one’s emotions go up and down like a roller coaster, affecting one’s ability to think rationally. This mood instability can lead to delusional, paranoid thinking, even to hallucinations and psychosis, because one is feeling first and thinking later, all while emotionally distraught: one’s turbulent inner world is thus projected onto the external world, where one sees threats and dangers that aren’t actually there.

It’s easy to see how a paranoid-schizoid minded Adolph–already living in a Europe that was getting increasingly, even virulently anti-Semitic, embracing Jewish conspiracy theories as if they were scientifically proven fact–could go from idealizing Germany, and enjoying the mirroring fandom of a clique of fellow German nationalists, to scapegoating Jews and Communists, whom he and his coterie blamed for putting Germany into the economic mire it had found itself in back in the early 1920s, egged on by the spurious stab-in-the-back myth of how Germany lost WWI.

The capitalist class found people like Hitler useful for turning workers away from communism. The ruling classes had encouraged Mussolini to keep Italy fighting in WWI, and later, through his fascism, to crush Italian socialism in the early 1920s; they were content to leave Spain in the fascist lurch from 1939 to 1975; and they were willing to let Nazi Germany extend its genocidal ambitions well into the USSR. It’s only when the Axis Powers were threatening the capitalist West that they finally began to fight fascism.

If you are getting dizzy from my jumping around from one idea to another, Dear Reader, I’ll try to link everything together now. My point is that we need to focus on the psychological origins of fragmentation, emotional dysregulation, and alienation to change our world from one ruled by narcissistic capitalists, including those bordering on (or lapsing into) fascism, like Trump or Hitler, to one ruled by empathic socialism. We start with the individual, grow from there to the family, then to society, and finally to business hierarchies, nations, and the whole world.

Our current world is like a storm at sea: the high crests of an economic elite come crashing down on the troughs of the poor, splashing us, the water, everywhere in fragmented drops. The contradiction of rich and poor causes this social alienation, which in turn causes our internal fragmentation. What’s true of the outside is true on the inside. We’re broken away from each other, and we’re broken inside.

Understanding the self/other dialectic–that the other is in ourselves (introjection), and what’s in the self is in other people (projection)–can help us to build mutual empathy. To understand the self/other dialectic, an opposition whose unity can and must be found, we need to understand what dialectics in general are, even before dialectical materialism. That means going back to Hegel’s philosophy.

Hegel’s dialectic, popularly described in terms of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” (though he never used those terms, nor did he present his philosophy in so formulaic a way), can be seen as beginning with the ouroboros’s bitten tail (the ‘thesis’, an abstract, untested, theoretical idea, such as ‘being’); then we shift over to the biting head of the negation of that starting idea (the ‘antithesis’, such as ‘nothing’); then we continue moving along the length of the serpent’s body (the ‘synthesis’, such as ‘becoming’–see Hegel, pages 82-83), in a process of resolving the contradiction confronted at the bitten tail/biting head area. Once the contradiction is fully resolved (and thus concretized), we have a new, refined idea to be negated again, then resolved again, in repeated revolutions around the ouroboros’s body. This is the unifying of opposites.

This, basically, is how we must resolve these emotional and social problems: not by stubbornly staying at the point of irreconcilable opposites (the head biting into the tail), two people facing each other in hatred; but by going beyond all binary thinking (moving along the middle of the serpent’s body) and turning hate into friendship. This is how we resolve the contradictions in our relationships, through a synthesis of the self and other, from conflict to harmony and solidarity.

We start this unifying by replacing the bad internal objects of our parents with good ones. This can be done through psychotherapy, through object relations therapists or self-psychology ones, or, I believe, through meditation and hypnosis, as I described it in my previous post, Beyond the Pairs of Opposites.

We can also do inner-child work, by imagining ourselves in the role of the soothing, empathic parent, consoling the wounded inner child in ourselves (since psychological pain tends to cause greater levels of self-centredness, because one is forced to be focused more on one’s own pain than on others’, then healing that pain should generate more selflessness). Self-compassion can help us to realize more fully and deeply that everyone feels the same pain, that we all deserve to hear words of kindness, and we must be mindful of our feelings, to make sure we are neither suppressing nor having negative thoughts in excess.

I’m not trying to be a sentimentalist here; this won’t be easy work. It will take a long time to master such a profound inner change as we fight against our inner critic, the collective of bad internal object relations that will try to sabotage our progress; but in the end, it will be worth it, for ourselves and for our neighbours.

(I’m not trying to say that this brotherly love will be an absolute one, felt by each and every person for each and every other. Some people simply cannot be reconciled, if only because some others won’t be reconciled with us, no matter how hard we try to merge with them. That’s certainly true of my relationship with my family, as I’ve explained so many times before; for a narcissistic parent’s flying monkeys will do all in their power to keep old power imbalances intact. This irreconcilability is especially true of the people’s relationship with the 1%, who will never be legislated out of their wealth; but such reconciliation is possible, I believe, between the common people in a general sense, and that’s the basis we all need to work on, to build up a sizeable amount of solidarity.)

From this healing basis, we can meditate on our oneness with everyone else, and project our newly-built self-love and compassion out into the world, to all the others we now identify with; and we’ll introject the love of the outside world. This projection and introjection will repeat and repeat in our meditative trance, where our suggestible unconscious will be more open to these healing feelings. Finally, we’ll come to an understanding of the dialectical monism in everything. This, in turn, will inspire solidarity in the people. No longer alienated, we’ll unite against the ruling class.

Then, instead of having the ever-stormy seas of interpersonal and class conflict, with their clashing and splashing of water that breaks and fragments us into a myriad of tiny droplets that chaotically fly out in all directions, we’ll have calm waters, with gently moving waves of slight crests (“from each according to his/her ability”) to slight troughs (“to each according to his/her need”).

This is the Unity of Space, an infinite ocean where we’re all one. The self/other contradiction will be a unity.

It’s time for the calm after the storm.

The Ouroboros of Capital

In The Ouroboros of Dialectical Materialism, I discussed how the ouroboros, a serpent coiled into a circle and biting its tail, can be an effective symbol of the relationship between opposites. The biting head represents one extreme, the bitten tail is the opposite extreme, and every point along the length of the snake’s body symbolizes a different point on the circular continuum, somewhere between the extremes.

In that other post, I discussed how the ouroboros can represent the class struggle in history and at the present. I mentioned how there is a tendency to shift counter-clockwise from the tail of communism to the liberal centre at the bottom of the serpentine coil, then to the right-libertarian front half of the serpent’s body, and ultimately to the fascist snake’s head. Since that counter-clockwise movement is in the interests of the capitalist class, we’ll now be exploring why the bourgeoisie is compelled to move in that direction, as well as what causes the clockwise movements that the ruling class must counteract.

The most basic dialectical opposition in capitalism, as Marx noted in Capital, Volume One, is the commodity, which is a use-value and an exchange-value. Seen as only a use-value, a commodity will gradually depreciate in value as it is used repeatedly over time, thus causing a clockwise movement from the head of the serpent to its tail; once its worth is reduced to nothing, it has to be replaced with a new use-value commodity, a movement from the bitten tail to the biting head. If, however, a commodity is to become an exchange-value, efforts must be made to improve and preserve its quality, thus making it saleable.

Here’s where the capitalist steps in. He ensures that the commodity’s quality moves counter-clockwise on the serpent’s body, moving towards the biting head. He does this through the application of abstract labour, as opposed to the concrete labour that produces mere use-values. This counter-clockwise movement, achieved through socially necessary labour time and effort, creates value by combining use-and exchange-value, pushing up to the biting head and past it to do another revolution past the bitten tail and counter-clockwise along the serpent’s body; for new units of the said commodity, or other new commodities in general, start the counter-clockwise cycle all over again.

This is why the labour theory of value (LTV) is so crucial to Marxian economics. Granted, many economists reject the LTV, but since they aren’t Marxists, it’s safe to assume that many, if not most (or, possibly, even all!) of them are working, on some level at least, in the interests of the minority bourgeoisie; so if they want to accuse us Marxists of bias, we can respond by saying theirs is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

With successfully-achieved value, the capitalist has a business to run. His products are on the shelves of his store, and customers gaze on them with awe, then perhaps buy them. They see the finished product, as if its value were a magically produced presence, a spirit inhabiting an idol. This adoration of the finished commodity, ignoring the process of how it was made, is rather like contemplating Athena sprung fully-grown from the forehead of Zeus, complete with her armour, helmet, shield, and sword; and just as one may not have seen pregnant Metis swallowed whole by her Olympian lover, the consumer doesn’t see all the work put into the manufacturing of the commodity. The employees of the sated capitalist are hidden in his bloated belly, as it were.

Now we must examine the fortunes of the new businessman. There are several obstacles and dangers that he must overcome in his quest to make money, those forces that cause a clockwise movement from the biting head of success to the bitten tail of a bitter going-out-of-business. These include being outdone by the competition, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF), workers’ demands for better pay and enforcement of safety standards, shorter hours, etc., and other potential problems.

Now the capitalist must find ways to minimize costs. There’s little he can do about the cost of constant capital (the means of production), but there’s much he can do to lower the cost of variable capital (i.e., minimizing his workers’ wages), as well as demand maximum hours of work from his employees, to maximize production and profit, a counter-clockwise movement towards the serpent’s head. As for the workers’ struggle to move things clockwise, read my condensed history of that here.

When the capitalist’s business succeeds to the point of going past the serpent’s head and into a new revolution counter-clockwise towards the head again, we see the circulation, reproduction, and expansion of capital discussed in volume two of Marx’s Capital: in other words, we encounter the reinvestment of some of the accumulated capital into even more commodity production, or, in the best of circumstances, the opening of new stores of the business.

If the expansion doesn’t happen in this way, then perhaps an entrepreneur will see the potential of a business, buy it off the original owner(s), and grow it into a business empire, all in accordance with the entrepreneur’s ambitious vision. This is how one store selling coffee beans in Seattle in the early 1970s grew into a worldwide gourmet coffee empire. It’s also how one burger joint in San Bernardino, California in the 1940s grew into an international fast food empire. So many counter-clockwise revolutions along the body of the ouroboros (granted, I’m oversimplifying here, for the sake of brevity; the ups and downs of these businesses’ fortunes will be expressed in the back-and-forth movement along the length of the ouroboros, too–like the swaying of a pendulum; but the general trend towards successful business empires is still clearly visible over time, and, succeed or fail, this trend is the aspiration of capitalists, the very reason to get into business in the first place).

Next, we must examine the ouroboros of the economic cycle. When business is booming, as it was in the Roaring Twenties and (to an extent) in the early-to-mid 2000s, speculators get overconfident and act as though the good times will last forever. Deregulation will continue in order to maximize profit, as a countermeasure against the TRPF. This will result in such things as overproduction and the housing-bubble recklessness that is believed to have come from Bill Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall legislation, and all of this will lead to economic crises: the counter-clockwise movement of the snake’s head of prosperity ends up passing over to the bitten tail of recession.

The movement out of the hind part of the serpent (recession) back to the front half (economic health) will be faster or slower in accordance with the severity of the given crisis. Hence the interminable length of recovery from both the Great Depression and the 2008 financial crisis. Marx predicted, in volume three of Capital, that one day, the crisis will be too great to recover from, and we’ll either have, as Rosa Luxemburg called it, socialism, or barbarism; one has a gut feeling that day may be soon upon us.

In the meantime, the capitalist class finds new ways to stave off that apocalypse. The days of free competition, the laissez-faire of the nineteenth century, pushed things to the limit by the first decade or two of the twentieth century, a counter-clockwise move past the biting head of the ouroboros and the beginning of capitalist imperialism, as Lenin noted: hence the competition for control of the largest portions of the colonized world in World War I.

Markets were drying up in the local countries, and so capitalists had to seek out markets in other countries, including underdeveloped countries. The merging of banks with industrial cartels resulted in finance capitalism (to provide capital, via investment, in the underdeveloped countries), which in turn led to the division of the world among monopolist business companies and the great powers. An example of this, the scramble for Africa, had already been going on in the latter half of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth; hence, the counter-clockwise movement past the biting head (in the local success of capitalism) through another revolution from tail to head again (in the quest for profit abroad, through imperialism).

Today, this imperialism is in an exacerbated state, what with outsourcing, NAFTA, and sweatshops in the Third World. The proletariat in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia are suffering what the English working class had endured in the nineteenth century. Third World attempts at resistance against imperialism, as with Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communists, are more clockwise shifts towards the tail of the ouroboros.

The exploitation of the working class in the poorer countries is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Imperialist war is the far greater evil of our day, along with coup after coup, which the US has been guilty of ever since the end of World War II. There was the Iranian coup in 1953, in which the CIA helped MI6 overthrow the democratically-elected Mohammad Mosaddegh, who’d wanted to nationalize Iranian oil to provide for his people, thus limiting the profits of the AIOC and making a clockwise movement away from the serpent’s head. Other coups were those in Guatemala in 1954 (after Arbenz’s policies ran afoul of the United Fruit Company) and in Chile in 1973, when Allende had wanted to nationalize industry.

The sweetest words to touch the tongues of US imperialists are these: regime change. By the late 1990s, a variation on this idea appeared: “humanitarian war”…what an abuse of paradoxes! Once the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc had catastrophically fallen, the West, lying that NATO wouldn’t advance “one inch eastward”, in this regard set its sights on its first prey: Yugoslavia. Consider the destruction and suffering the NATO bombings caused the people in Serbia–not just those who died, but also those exposed to the carcinogenic depleted uranium from the NATO bombs–all to pin a bogus charge of genocide on Slobodan Milosevic. Now, a huge US military base sits in Kosovo, the NATO headquarters for KFOR’s Multinational Battle Group East (MNBG-E).

Combine this Balkanization atrocity with the ruining of Russia in the 1990s, and we see the movement that US/NATO imperialism made, counter-clockwise (as in counterrevolution) past the biting head to the bitten tail, and around again, in preparation for the next set of conquests, all in the name of neoconservatism and neoliberalism, and all for the sake of the multinational corporations.

Note how the counter-clockwise movement around the ouroboros is a like a spiral, an upward spiral from the point of view of the capitalist class; but for everyone else, regardless of whether the lower classes can see it or not, it’s a downward spiral.

The US had armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s to bleed the USSR dry, and in the process, armed men like Osama bin Laden. Then, just before the USSR collapsed (and, with the-then collaboration of the weakening USSR with US interests in the Persian Gulf War, anticipating US unipolarity?), George HW Bush declared a “new world order”, not the NWO of the conspiracy theorists, but a neoliberal one, for no formidable leftist resistance would again exist; US/NATO imperialism could do anything it wanted to!

Military bases in Saudi Arabia, as well as such things as the US support of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and the crushing economic sanctions on Saddam’s Iraq in the 1990s, meant that imperialism’s having armed bin Laden would bite the US in the ass one day–September 11th, 2001, to be exact. The biting head of imperial conquest would result in the bitten tail of American humiliation, the double emasculation of New York’s skyline.

At first, the US received some global sympathy, so there was some support of the US invasion of Afghanistan a month after the terrorist attacks; but it wouldn’t take long for the US to squander the sympathy she’d garnered. Dubya’s invasion of Iraq, done under protest of most of the international community (except for America’s obliging lapdog, the UK), pushed the movement past the biting head of victory (long-desired regime change) to the bitten tail of international opprobrium.

The years have gone by, though, and the world has grown desensitized to the expansion of Bush-style imperialism; it helped having a charming black Democrat to do it for eight years, of course. For this reason, the ouroboros has felt another counter-clockwise revolution…or two, or three…from its tail to its head, with little, if any, protest from bourgeois liberals. Because of how much Trump is justifiably despised, George W Bush has been unjustifiably forgiven.

Now, with Trump’s appointment of Pompeo and Bolton, we can only assume that more war-mongering is in the near future. The rise in strength of Russia and China (add to that their beneficial acts and investments [though, in China’s case, this investment can be a double-edged sword, admittedly], to contrast with the meanness of the US ruling class), as well as Iran’s getting in the way of the US’s wish to control the oil market, means the US is worried about more clockwise movements to limit her profits (as well as an end to her empire). The ruling class is hoping that more imperialist conquests will ensure more profits for Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin, et al, while they all turn a blind eye to the destruction and loss of innocent life they’re causing.

Bickering between the Dems and GOP continues to blind Americans, and western liberals in general, to the real problem: the juggernaut of capitalist accumulation, the cycles of the ouroboros of capital that never stop going round and round, a counter-clockwise reaction, making us all go backwards, as against real human progress.

So, how can we break these cycles? How can we end the alienation that causes this bickering? How can we get people to recognize the value of human labour, the process of making commodities that goes along the length of the ouroboros to create value, rather than contemplate only the value of the finished product (commodity fetishism)? How can we keep people mindful of the need to change from a profit-motive mindset to one geared towards production for the sake of providing for everyone?

Can we do this before the escalations of this current Cold War result in nuclear war? The counter-clockwise clock of the ouroboros of capital is ticking. The current time appears to be two minutes past midnight.

The Ouroboros of Dialectical Materialism

Marxism is based on the idea of historical materialism, that everything in our world is properly understood in terms of its material basis. Any people in their history have had the kind of culture and belief systems they have because of the prevailing material conditions in their world (Eagleton, pages 128-159).

Are they a wealthy nation, prospering, and with most of their people doing well, as in the Scandinavian countries? Then it’s likely they’ll be mostly a gentle, tolerant people. Are they a poor people, oppressed by Western imperialism, like those in the Islamic world (peoples often much more liberal and modern before war and imperialism tear their worlds apart)? Their religion, for example, will probably have more militant members (though even with that, still a small minority of all believers) than there are in developed countries. Are they a First World country, but with terrible wealth inequality, as in the US or the UK? Well, there will be lots of discontent, plus lots of division over what is considered the hated establishment, as well as a lazy, complacent attitude towards revolution.

Another important factor in Marxism is dialectics, not the idealist version of Hegel and Zižek, but the materialist version of Marx and Lenin. As Mao said, everything is made up of conflicting contradictions; furthermore, there is a yin and yang-like unity with all contradictions. One cannot have one thing without contemplating or observing its opposite.

How can we interpret the relationship between one opposite and the other? In ‘On Contradiction,’ Mao gave some good examples of that relationship. For example: “…at every stage in the development of a process, there is only one principal contradiction which plays the leading role.” (Mao, page 157) Also, ‘Why is it that “the human mind should take these opposites not as dead, rigid, but as living, conditional, mobile, transforming themselves into one another”? Because that is just how things are in objective reality. The fact is that the unity or identity of opposites in objective things is not dead or rigid, but is living, conditional, mobile, temporary and relative; in given conditions, every contradictory aspect transforms itself into its opposite. Reflected in man’s thinking, this becomes the Marxist world outlook of materialist dialectics.’ (Mao, page 166)

I would like to offer my own ideas of how all contradictions relate to each other, as well as give examples from history as to how my ideas have manifested themselves. I mean the below ideas as only a guideline as to how the events of history can be seen, though, not as a prescription of how these things must be seen every time. The following is only a contribution to dialectical materialism; it’s not meant as any kind of dogma. Anyway, here’s my idea: I see opposites as on the ends of a continuum that is coiled into a circle, like the ouroboros, normally a symbol of eternity. For me, it symbolizes the dialectic.

Imagine, at the top of this coiled continuum, the snake’s head biting its tail. There we have the two extreme opposites meeting. At the bottom, the middle of the snake’s body, is the moderate, middle point between the extremes; and of course, everywhere on the snakes’s body approaching the head is a movement toward the one extreme, and movement toward the tail is an approaching of the other extreme.

To give a simple example, imagine the ouroboros as the political spectrum, the head as Fascism and the tail as Communism. Do not confuse this with the horseshoe theory: the biting head and bitten tail are not to be understood as similar, but as one opposite phasing into the other as a result of the aggravation of class struggle.

When the Russian Revolution shook up the world, and (failed) attempts at Communist revolution happened in Germany, Hungary, and Italy from about 1918 to the early 1920s, the capitalist class got nervous, and Fascism arose to divert the working class’s attention from class issues to scapegoating such targets as foreigners, Jews, Communists, etc. Hence, broadly speaking, Communism led to a Fascist reaction–the serpent’s bitten tail to its biting head.

In the particular case of Germany during the 1920s, though, the move from an attempt at Communism to the rise of Naziism went in the other direction, since the progressive policies of the Weimar Republic, though irritatingly insufficient for the far left, were enough to bring Germany from the tail to the bottom middle of the ouroboros’s body. Then, the Nazis manipulated their way into power through the very democratic process they would soon destroy from within. From the bottom middle, Germany slid up to the serpent’s head.

Then, the rise of Fascism in Italy, Naziism in Germany, and imperialism in Japan led to the USSR’s crushing of Naziism and the defeat of imperial Japan by such efforts as the protracted war in China, the victors there being a coalition of Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists, the latter ultimately ousting the former from China in 1949 and establishing Communist China. Similarly in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany led to the creation of the Eastern Bloc. Fascism led to a Communist reaction–head to tail.

Now, consider the middle of the tail, to which most ‘liberal democracies’ gravitate. Here, we’ve usually seen a moderate level of social liberalism mixed with a ‘free market’: in other words, the class structure of the bourgeoisie is firmly intact, while lip service–and usually not much more than that–is paid to acknowledging the rights and needs of people of colour, LGBT people, and to attaining equality of the sexes (hence, the ‘ideal’ of being ‘socially liberal’ and ‘fiscally conservative’). The swaying between Democrats and Republicans in US elections reflect this swinging of the pendulum from ‘moderate left’ to ‘moderate right’. This is a sliding back and forth along the middle of the serpent’s body at the coil’s bottom…indeed, it is the lowest of the low, for it is a terrible state of affairs where little substantive change ever happens. As awful as the threat of Fascism is, at least–theoretically–it could prompt real change, one hopes, in the form of a socialist reaction to it, as it did in the bloody aftermath of WWII.

Most people prefer the moderatism of that middle of the serpent’s body, where things are ‘stable’. People are scared of instability, and thus are willing to endure a number of injustices as long as their whole familiar world doesn’t get torn apart before their horrified eyes. The capitalist class thrives on our complacency.

The Cold War era brought about an interesting development, though, where we found ourselves in the area of the back half of the serpent’s body: not quite at the bitten tail, but in that hind area, approaching the bitten end. The Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam together posed a formidable threat to the capitalist West, so much so that even they made a number of left-leaning concessions to their citizens–higher taxes for the rich (high enough, at least, to curb greed), a welfare state, strong unions, and the like, coupled with Keynesian economics–in spite of their long-standing imperialism.

The ruling class soon grew weary of all this growing social justice, and they recruited the aid of right-wing economists like Milton Friedman, who advocated a return to classical liberalism and the ‘virtues’ of the so-called ‘free market’. The seductive appeal of that hack writer, Ayn Rand, was also used. (The Canadian rock band, Rush, whose otherwise brilliant music was progressive only in the musical sense, fell under her Siren song back in the 1970s; to be fair to drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, though, he later saw the error of his youth, and has since renounced Rand’s ‘virtue of selfishness’.)

When even Keynesian economics couldn’t fix the economic crises of the mid-1970s, the stage was set to ‘relax’ government influence over the market economies of the West, starting with Carter. Then, Reagan and Thatcher came along with their talk of ‘smaller’ government (translation: a strengthening of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, through a weakening of unions, plotting–if not yet succeeding–to cut social welfare, and cutting the taxes of the 1%). We began moving from the hind half of the serpent to the front half…and we’ve been inching closer to the head ever since.

Right-libertarians, imagining they understand economics far better than they actually do, are living in a fool’s paradise if they think that unfettered capitalism will lead to a horn of plenty for everyone. Unregulated capitalism produces less growth, it rarely makes poor countries rich (Chang, pages 62-73), and it doesn’t reduce government interference in the world (consider the bloated US military budget, all in the service of capitalist imperialism); it merely gives the rich more power over everyone, by allowing them to keep the money (profits) that they steal from their overworked, underpaid workers, who increasingly have been in outsourced operations in Third World countries.

The notion of the ‘free market’ as creating a level playing field, where all businesses, big or small, can compete fairly, is a chimera. Capitalists eat each other up all the time, without apology. As Karl Marx said, “…as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, the further socialization of labour and the further transformation of the soil and other means of production into socially exploited and therefore communal means of production takes on a new form. What is now to be expropriated is not the self-employed worker, but the capitalist who exploits a large number of workers.

“This expropriation is accomplished through the action of the immanent laws of capitalist production itself, through the centralization of capitals. One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, Capital, Volume One, pages 928-929).

Capitalism is competition, but it isn’t a sport: there are no rules, and regulation-hating right-libertarians should know this better than everyone else. The purpose of rules is to create fairness, and to keep monopolistic capitalism from destroying itself via its own contradictions; capitalists hate regulations, because they hate fairness, and they refuse to contemplate the consequences of their own rapaciousness. Capitalists cheat all the time.

The only law in capitalism is the need for endless accumulation. Regulations limit profits and accumulation, hence right-libertarians feel ‘fettered’ by rules. They speak of the ‘freedom’ that capitalism supposedly brings, but their ‘freedom’ is really just licence, and it’s used for selfish ends. Talk to the labourers in sweatshops in Third World countries, people who slave away for minuscule amounts of money, about the ‘freedom’ of capitalism.

The whole point of capitalist competition is that somebody wins, and everyone else loses.  In capitalism, the winners keep a maximum of wealth and profits (thanks to all those tax cuts), and this extra money is used to buy political power. It is naïve to assume that most of this wealth will be reinvested to grow their businesses and strengthen the economy. We know from such scandals as the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers that huge amounts of this wealth is put into offshore bank accounts, not that many of us didn’t already know about that.

Much of the money is also used to buy political influence: just watch how those two ‘libertarians’, the Koch brothers, have been wooing (and bankrolling) right-wing causes for decades. It’s not about ‘less’ government; it’s about more bourgeois government. The ‘less’ government myth is a lie to suck in the petite bourgeoisie.

Right-libertarians’ fantasy about a return to the simpler capitalism of 19th century laissez-faire, without all these foreign wars, the cronyism, and government favouritism to the multinational corporations, is also anachronistic. The deregulation of the 1990s and 2000s, ironically (and dialectically), led to the cronyism of today–the bitten tail of the ‘free market’ leading to the biting head of the Big Government that we now have. There will be no movement back in the other direction.

Imperialism, with its monopolies, finance capital, and corrupt banks, is a natural outgrowth of its opposite, the free competition of the 19th century, a move from the serpent’s tail to its head. Imperialism is not only the ineluctable reality of today’s late-stage capitalism, but has been that reality for the past one hundred years or so. Lenin wrote about it, and he would be horrified to see how much imperialism (i.e., US imperialism) has metastasized by now.

Other examples of the ouroboros of dialectical, historical materialism can be seen in the shifting from feudalism to capitalism, then from the latter into socialism. Consider the terrible state of poverty in late feudal France and China, which was one of the factors that led to their bourgeois revolutions in 1789 and 1911 respectively. Extreme want and powerlessness (the bitten tail), as well as the contradiction between the aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie, led to a seizing of power (the biting head).

Similarly, the want of the Parisian workers at the end of the Franco-Prussian War led to the proletariat protecting themselves with cannons and declaring the Paris Commune (Marx/Lenin, pages 47-48). The threat that this thrilling proletarian experiment posed to the European bourgeoisie led, in turn, to a brutal suppression two months later. From tail to head, then back to tail again.

Decades later, the repressive tsarist autocracy was pushing the Russian proletariat ever closer to the biting head of the serpent; then a kind of reprieve happened with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the creation of the Provisional Government in early 1917. But the new state’s refusal to pull out of the most-unpopular First World War pushed things along the length of the tail all the way back to the head again, with angry demonstrations that summer, and the seizing of power by Lenin and the Soviets in November (New Style). From biting head to bitten tail.

The capitalist class never tolerates a communist revolution, regardless of whether the ruling class is in the form of the relatively progressive Weimar Republic, Mussolini’s Fascists, or the White Army, the last of these having invaded Russia in 1918 and starting the Russian Civil War. The pressure this put on the Bolsheviks forced them to go to the authoritarian measures they went to (i.e., top-down decision-making, instead of Soviet egalitarianism).

Let’s superimpose the ouroboros–with the biting head to the right of the bitten tail, and both extremes at the top, as we conceived of it earlier in this essay–on top of the four-way political compass, not only with the self-explanatory left and right, but with the top representing authoritarianism and bottom indicating libertarianism. Thus, the top left box would be for the Marxist-Leninists, the bottom left the anarchists, the bottom right the ‘free market’ fetishists (including the ‘anarcho’-capitalists), and the top right everything from the Trump-lovers to the idolizers of the likes of Pinochet, Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. The neo-con, neoliberal Clintons, Obamas, and Bushes would be near the bottom-middle-right.

Another reality must be considered before we go on: there is a natural tendency to slide counter-clockwise, from the tail, along the middle of the body, and up towards the head of the serpent. We saw how free competition led to imperialism a century ago (then to the rise of Fascism); then how the post-war combination of Keynesian economics with a strong welfare state gave way to the ‘free market’ and deregulation, which in turn has led to the aggravated imperialism of the ‘war on terror’, as well as to Trump and the rise of the alt-right. It all goes round and round, a cycle of increasing suffering.

Capitalist accumulation leads to exacerbated class conflict and internal crises, which in turn lead to more right-wing authoritarianism and imperialism, as noted above. This problem, exacerbated by the capitalist class’s machinations (i.e., their attempted or successful coups of socialist states, or of those otherwise opposed to US interests; their sabotage, spying, and propagandizing against leftist governments, too), means that countries like the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, Mao’s China, and the DPRK were and are forced to take a hard line against reactionaries and revisionists.

In the language of the ouroboros, this means one must aggressively counteract that tendency to slide counter-clockwise from the tail around to the head, a kind of vomiting up of the snake’s past. Revisionism is regurgitation of capitalist hegemony. To keep socialist society on the left side, one must push back clockwise and keep it in the top left, to be safe, for as long as capitalism continues to exist.

Such is the true meaning of the aggravation of class struggle under socialism; such was the real intention of Stalin, Mao, and the Kim dynasty. Doing things the left-libertarian way would have resulted in a swaying to the right, and thus a wasted communist revolution. Stalin’s and Mao’s ‘excesses’, on the other hand, meant a swaying from the tail to the bottom left corner–in other words, a success.

Only once all capitalism has been wiped off the face of the earth can the Marxist-Leninist states relax their control over everything. Then the state can wither away, and we’ll naturally incline toward the middle-to-hind area of the serpent, the libertarian bottom left.

To create a world where all production is for the sake of providing for everyone, we have to do more than just remove the political and economic obstacles (the ruling class and their bourgeois state): we also have to wean ourselves from old, bad habits, i.e., production for profit, exploiting labourers, hoarding food, etc. If these bad habits aren’t broken, the libertarian left of the hind half of the serpent will slide towards the ‘libertarian’ right of unfettered capitalism, the front half of the serpent.

Stalin’s push for rapid industrialization, collectivization,  ruthless punishing of grain-hoarding kulaks, execution of traitors, spies, and other enemies within the USSR, as well as defeating the Nazis and building up of a nuclear arsenal, were all needed measures to keep the USSR from slipping from the hind area of the ouroboros to the front half. The same can be said of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the DPRK’s development of nukes, a perfectly reasonable reaction to the US bombing of the Korean Peninsula, Iraq, and Libya.

The fact that, ultimately, both Russia and China backslid into capitalism doesn’t invalidate Stalin’s and Mao’s efforts: it proves, all the more, the urgent necessity of those efforts. More of that effort was needed, not less.

The error of liberalism is assuming that an easy-going acceptance of the moderate bottom middle of the ouroboros will result in the world staying there. Nothing stands still forever; all things flow. Our material conditions won’t stay in the bottom middle: they will slide from there to the front half of the serpent, and continue to slide up to the head, as they have for the past forty years. It’s easy to see how Reagan, the Bushes, and Trump have contributed to this trend, but many remain willfully ignorant as to how Carter, the Clintons, and Obama have contributed to it.

The ‘free market’ policies began under Carter, who–under Brzezinski‘s influence–also provoked the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was a major factor leading to the USSR’s weakening and collapse (to say nothing of the provocation of contemporary Islamic terrorism). I have, in previous posts, gone over many of the egregious things the Clintons did: NAFTA, the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, repealing the Glass-Steagall legislation, the Telecommunications Act (and its consequences), etc., and right-wingers claim the Clintons are ‘left-leaning’! That ‘socialist’ Obama not only continued Dubya’s evils, but expanded them; small wonder liberals are nostalgic about Bush Jr. these days.

And look at our world today, with Fascist tendencies taking root again, and Trump’s excesses are just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the UKIP’s influence on Brexit, the neo-Nazis in the Ukraine, Fascism in Austria, the Front national almost winning in the French elections, Golden Dawn in Greece, nostalgia for Franco in Spain, and the far-right marching in Poland.

We can go in either of two directions to fix these evils, and neither will be pleasant. We could go insane with accelerationism to the right, leading to a violent reaction against extreme Fascism, which–assuming a left-wing victory–we would hope in turn will lead to Marxism-Leninism (from the serpent’s head to its tail); but will we be able to live with the horrors we’ll have allowed to happen? Or we could engage in a kind of protracted war against the bourgeoisie, an adapting of Mao’s tactics (those against imperial Japan in the 1930s) to our present struggle against neoliberalism (go along the length of the ouroboros from its head to its tail); but will we have the stomach and the patience to see it through?

We have a tough choice ahead of us, don’t we?

Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011

Mao Zedong, Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, 2014

Karl Marx [Ben Fowkes (Translator)], Capital, Volume I, Penguin Classics, London, 1990

Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Penguin Books, London, 2010

Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, The Civil War in France: The Paris Commune, International Publishers, New York, 2008

The Third World Is the First Priority

Introduction

An odd thing often happens whenever I post a meme on Facebook to raise awareness–and, I hope, concern–about suffering in the Third World. Comments are often made to the effect of distracting people from the issue raised. When the Ice Bucket Challenge was a trend last year, I posted memes criticizing the frivolous waste of water, and reminding First Worlders of how difficult it is for people in Africa to get access to potable water.

People responded with the usual snark, like advising saving water while showering, or saying it’s bad to guilt-trip people who are trying to ‘make a difference’ by raising awareness about ALS. The notion that people can save water by just donating money to the cause, without making soaking-wet buffoons of themselves, apparently was too difficult for them to grasp. But of course, that was all beside the point: raising sympathy for Third World suffering isn’t about making people feel guilty for dumping freezing cold water on themselves; nor is it about distracting us from other charitable work. The reverse, on the other hand, seems very true to me. Criticizing the memes’ criticism of the Ice Bucket Challenge seems to shame those who would raise sympathy for the Third World, and to distract us from focusing on how we can try to end the suffering of people in developing countries.

Another meme I posted was of two emaciated Africans, a mother giving her child water to drink. The caption read, “So, you think you have problems?” Here’s another one with the same in-your-face message.

Some may say this kind of caption is tactless and poorly-worded, but I still consider its message valid, for as I interpreted the meme, it was referring to these kinds of problems. One response I received was from someone who obviously reads too much right-wing propaganda. He spouted the usual ignorant nonsense: “They [i.e., the poor in the Third World] should stop breeding!” That these people earn so little a day they’re forced to reproduce just to help them survive (i.e., to have their sons and daughters raise money as child labourers for their families) was lost on this guy, as was the reality of Western imperialists exploiting Africa for resources. He blamed their woes on their local, corrupt governments, ignoring how those dictators are simply the puppets of Western imperialism.

Now, I expect such twaddle from conservatives. Far more depressing it is, however, when fellow Leftists and anarchists deflect us from the needed focus on the plight of the poor in developing countries. Comments I received on one of the anarchist pages I manage on FB included a statement to the effect that one shouldn’t guilt-trip others about being preoccupied with things like “crippling depression” by making them seem insignificant compared with Third World suffering.

To assess this comment fairly, the person in question acknowledged the seriousness of poverty in the developing world: also, it would be wrong to reduce to nothingness such problems as depression, the plight of LGBT people, etc., just because many of these sufferers live in the First World. That said, however, the purpose of the post was not to make those people feel guilty: it was to tell all of us in the West, regardless of how large or small our problems may be, to put our suffering in perspective.

A Brief Digression, If You’ll Indulge Me

Perhaps my mentioning the following won’t convince the reader that I don’t have a dismissive attitude towards depression or the troubles that transgender people go through; but recently I found myself having lengthy conversations with two FB friends of mine, one from Iceland who was struggling with a chronic depression, the other having bravely revealed to me that she is a trans-woman. The time I spent listening to these two women tell me what was troubling them, and the effort I made to encourage them certainly deepened my friendship with them.

The Icelandic woman, actually quite a photogenic model, was unhappy because she felt she hadn’t done much with her life; she told me she has repeatedly had these self-doubts over quite a long period of time. I reminded her of the many impressive modelling photo shoots I’ve seen of her, and of her beautiful daughter, I’m guessing about 8 or 9, someone my sad friend can only be proud of as a mother. Judging by her more recent posts, she seems much happier now. I don’t know how much my little pep talk helped in this overall recovery, but by the end of our IM chat, her spirits seemed much raised.

As for my second friend, her problems seem much more serious. She suffered terrible physical and emotional abuse from her religiously conservative guardian, hardly any kind of a father, who insisted she was a ‘boy’.

Since then, she–quite a talented guitarist and singer, whose music I’d gladly share here for you to enjoy, except that I don’t want to expose her identity to trolling from bigoted cyberbullies–has been in the middle of sexual reassignment surgery, and hasn’t enough money to finish it. She is extremely unhappy because she wants to move to France, but her passport says she’s ‘male,’ and she can’t get the authorities to change the sex on the page. She’s already too feminine-looking, in physical appearance and mannerisms, to fake looking like a man while going through customs.

While my chats with her have hardly brought a solution to her problems within reach, they have certainly made us become closer friends; they have also helped me appreciate the unique problems that transgender people go through day to day.

Perspective

Now that I have acknowledged such issues as regrettably affect many in the developed world, let’s have some real perspective. Let us begin by considering this: did my meme’s critics consider that some people in the Third World are transgender, too? That many there also suffer from crippling depression? I assure my readers that the impoverished have much more to be depressed about than, say, people in G8 countries. And women’s oppression? Consider women in the Third World, suffering such problems as genital mutilation, honour beatings, denial of education, and the like. With regard to issues concerning the sexes, what do people in the First World tend to complain about? Men sitting on NYC subways with their legs spread too wide! (I plan to deal with issues of this sort in my next blog entry; its complexity is beyond the scope of this essay.)

But let’s consider some real problems, those suffered in developing countries. People starving to death by the millions each year (especially children under five), when we produce enough food to feed the whole world, easily–food that often goes to waste in G8 countries. Consider the inaccessibility of potable water in, for example, much of Africa. Consider how children are forced to work instead of going to school, just so their families have enough money–barely enough–to live on? We in our well-lit, air-conditioned rooms tend to forget this. Again, my purpose in saying all of this is not to ‘shame’ First Worlders (after all, I’m one of them): it is to provide perspective on our problems. And maybe to teach us a little humility.

Consider Third Worlders, including children, those who are lured into lives of slavery, for example, those in Ivory Coast who make chocolate or coffee for us as we sit in comfort in such places as Starbucks, which, though it doesn’t (to my knowledge) have slave labour produce its coffee, does exploit child coffee growers in the Third World to produce their coffee cheaply. Women and girls who are forced into prostitution. Imagine the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse they are subjected to; I was subjected to emotional abuse and gas-lighting by a bullying bourgeois family when I was young; but I realize that the poor in African, southeast Asian, and Latin American countries suffer far worse when they’re subjected to the same abuse, and they haven’t the money or wherewithal to escape as I had. I don’t shame myself when I realize their greater suffering–I enlighten myself with that realization.

Consider the lack of medicine in the Third World: AIDS victims in Africa who die out of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. How many die of diseases, perfectly curable diseases, provided one has access to proper medical care, mind you? With the trillion dollars that the US spends building up its military to kill people, imagine how all that money could be spent to save people. Because we must remember that all this pillaging of the Third World is done to ensure our comfort in the First World, a comfort that allows us to delude ourselves into thinking that a ‘shaming’ meme causes a suffering worthier of our attention than a suffering caused by poverty, malnutrition, and disease. Apparently, ‘shaming’ is a worse fate than death.

Indeed, another ‘comment’ made about that second FB meme, one made on both of my anarchist pages, was made by someone who actually had the presumptuous arrogance to say that such memes “invariably” are made to shame people, and that such memes’ distraction from other forms of oppression are a form of oppression in themselves. That’s extraordinary: raising awareness of poverty in the world is “invariably” a form of oppression, rather than an attempt to fight it. (Seriously: the commenter used the word “invariably”.) Frankly, I must say that the kind of self-absorption the commenter showed, pitted against the plight of millions of starving people, is genuinely deserving of a good shaming. But that’s none of my business…

To be sure, there are all kinds of suffering and oppression in the world, all problems that need remedying as soon as possible. But some problems are clearly more urgent than others, and those people who simply point out this reality don’t deserve to be shamed for saying so, let alone have their perspective ignored. When (I hope when, and not if) a socialist revolution finally happens, regardless of it being one of libertarian socialism (as I’d prefer) or of the Leninist variety, our comrades’ first priority will be to get food, medicine, and proper educational institutions to all developing countries. They need these things as soon as possible. They. Are. Dying.

We must also remember that, while helping those in the Third World is a must, leaving the Third World alone is, too. Western imperialism is what caused the Third World: all the plundering and exploitation of cheap labour is what caused their poverty in the first place. Some like to blame the victim (like that right-wing dolt I referred to earlier), and claim their problem is just their own supposed backwardness. Nothing could be farther from the truth: their people thrived and did well before the white man came along and ruined everything for them. One of the best ways we can help them is by getting out of their countries, and letting them develop for themselves.

I’m no Third-Worldist or Maoist, and I hope my all-too-easy conflating of concepts like Third World, developing countries, First World, and developed countries (or G8 countries, for that matter) doesn’t irritate the reader too much. If my terminology isn’t too precise, I hope that doesn’t distract too much from the general message.

We must always be mindful of the fact that, though we in the West are irked by the hegemony of the 1%, we First Worlders are the 1% of the world. Our global privilege, all at the Third World’s expense, has made us so comfortable and complacent that our own revolutionary potential is severely crippled, if not virtually nonexistent. The wars that imperialism fights may benefit the super-rich most of all, but we in the developed countries also benefit, if to a lesser extent, from the looting of natural resources from the Third World. Even the poor and the starving in, for example, America, though admittedly in a terrible plight, aren’t anywhere near as bad off as those in the least developed countries of the world. Informing us of this isn’t shaming: it’s an opening of our eyes, and a turning them away from our navels.