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A post-capitalist society must be a diverse society

November 25, 2011

A few days ago I wrote on the subject of neurodiversity. Regrettably I’m still stuck in a position where spending a great deal of time around an Occupy camp is difficult, so I thought I’d use my time to present some more thoughts for others to talk about and thrash out around a camp in the evenings. I’m holed up in one of my favourite coffee shops in Edinburgh, trying to write and not watch the world go by. I’ve been thinking about mimetic diversity, in the face of two semi-conflicting views of how the world should work. I want to show how a set of diverse cultural and social models tied more or less loosely into a global network could work to the advantage of our species and the natural world. This is informed by my understanding of ecology

A couple of days ago, I was reading some news about the latest idiotic racist idea to come out of the Tory government in London. For many years the Indian takeaway (typically a modern fusion of Bangladeshi and Punjabi cuisine and Western Expectations) has been by far the most popular takeaway food in the UK. The racists in the Tory party have come up with the not-so-smart idea of training a few Whites (sic) in the simple art of Indian cuisine and then throwing out all the immigrants. It’s a classic example of tabloid sheepthink: the ongoing drive towards socio-cultural homogeneity on the basis that what you know is what is most comfortable. I have visions of a chain of Pukka Pickles restaurants springing up like a Starbucks infestation. Please tell me I’m wrong, with evidence.

The fact that a 2009 study by the London School of Economics, an institution not known for its radical politics, showed that regularising the status of the irregular residents of London alone would benefit the economy to the tune of around three billion pounds was, naturally, lost on those politicians who write policy on the basis of Hate Mail editorial, but that’s not the point.  Nor is the point that the creation of decent Indian food takes practice and years of experience. The point is the loss of diversity.

I will admit to an element of bias here. I like places where I can spend a fortnight sampling a different cuisine for every meal. I’m also a bit of a culture vulture. I like variety. I despise chains of shops and eateries (few deserve the sobriquet of restaurant), producing the same unimaginative rubbish over and over again. Places where I see the same colour faces and hear the same language over and over again might be interesting to visit, even immerse myself in for weeks or months, but they eventually become as boring as a sitka spruce plantation.

That said, let me draw an analogy. As any biologist or naturalist will tell you, any drop in diversity in a habitat threatens the entire ecosystem. In part, this is because natural ecosystems are comprised of complex webs of interdependent relationships, which I admit is a strained analogy in the utterly unnatural environments that are modern urban areas. In part this is because any loss of diversity reduces resistance to external threats such as disease.

Modern human societies face all kinds of threats, of which disease is only one. Modern consumerism might be likened to a monoculture plantation with occasional patches of semi-isolated semi-natural habitat of individuals and groups who think differently from the “norm” and the kind of independent coffee shop I’m sitting in.

What happens when it becomes clear that there is something wrong in a monoculture? In all likelihood, the whole thing is liable to collapse. Natural succession means that new species will eventually move in and the ecosystem will recover, often in a different form. In conservation management we talk about climax communities – the natural “final” stage of succession where the ecosystem will become more or less stable, assuming there are no external influences. Here in Scotland, that is mostly Scots pine – birch forest, with pine dominating in dryer areas, birch in damper ones, with scatterings of other trees, such as oak, holly, hazel, rowan and alder in the canopy, with shrub and herb layers below, supporting a diverse range of fauna much of which, like the European beaver and the wolf, we have lost to human policies of extermination.

That said, no ecosystem is static. By definition, all ecosystems are dynamic. They change over time, and the life forms change with them. This is one key to evolution. On relatively rare occasions this process accelerates as a result of pressure: many species go extinct, sometimes even the dominant orders, and there is a flowering of new species evolving to fill the empty niches. Perhaps the best known of these periods occurred around 65 million years ago, when a large asteroid struck the Earth just off the coast of what is now Mexico.*

A similar, but less well known, extinction event is the Holocene event, now extending into the Late Anthropocene extinction. I, like others, talk about the Late Anthropocene for the simple reason that if we don’t get our collective act together we may well go the same way as the passenger pigeon and the thousands of other species that we’re responsible for wiping out.**

There is a part of me that would regard human extinction, preferably sooner rather than later, as no bad thing. The part of me that tries to be more optimistic regards conscious human activity to restore ecosystems as a better solution all round, although from the perspective of other life on this planet I find that hard to defend.

More pragmatically, I know that seven billion humans won’t go quietly so, regardless of my opinions, we need another idea.

My position, on that basis, is that the key has to be diversity. This diversity includes diversity of species, diversity among our own species, and diversity of ideas. In such circumstances, racism as practised by the Tory Party is not just morally wrong in that it harms its victims: it’s also incredibly stupid.

I will begin with some observations on species. I doubt many of my readers will need to have it pointed out to them that the healthiest ecosystems tend to be the most diverse ones. The value of a diverse ecosystem, both extrinsically and intrinsically, has been so widely written about that it probably does not require repetition. A background rate of extinction is perfectly normal, as is a background rate of speciation. According to the Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium, these processes sometimes accelerate under environmental pressure. If so, we would expect to see increased speciation as a consequence of the pressures causing the current extinction event.

Something does need to be said about anthropocentrism: the view, often unstated, that everything else in the world exists for human needs and purposes. The view is common in some religions (notably but not exclusively Judeo-Christian ones), and is a prima facie assumption of capitalist economic philosophy. If one takes an anthropocentric viewpoint, diversity is valuable on the basis of the resources it can produce and the potential for a fallback position in the face of population collapse or extinction of, for example, economically valuable fish supplies. Given the number of valuable medicines that have already been extracted from living things, mainly plants, loss of biodiversity will almost certainly impact negatively upon our species.

Needless to say, I do not share this anthropocentric philosophy, but I think the point needs to be made in case you, the reader, hold such a view, which I regard as disturbingly common. My own view is that living things, and ecosystems, exist for themselves, and have no purpose beyond their own existence (this also, obviously, applies to humans, which is about the only reason for me not to advocate our extinction). In this I’m unashamedly biocentric, at least philosophically.

Either way, biodiversity is a good thing!

Diversity among our own species is a little more complex. There is an important critique of human activity that suggests that the deliberate or accidental introduction of species from completely different ecosystems creates a tendency towards homogeneity (frequently an impoverished homogeneity as invasive species with no natural pests or predators outcompete domestic ones). In the case of human migration a balance needs to be struck and, at the moment, we’re getting it very, very wrong.

From the time that early humans left Africa, and possibly before, our species has migrated. It has not always been a happy story. The other hominid species are all now extinct, as are many other species that our ancestors came into contact with, many as a result of hunting or habitat change that was a direct result of human activity. I have a t-shirt that depicts several Native Americans with rifles over the slogan “Fighting terrorism since 1492”, exemplifying the activity of invasive colonial cultures.

On the other hand, there is an important difference between invasive activity and migration. Migration is driven by various factors, and invasion is only one of them. I need to mention the ongoing disgrace that is slavery, but I plan to write separately on that subject. Then there is the migratory activity that is caused by scarcity of resources.

Until as late as the middle of the twentieth century, much migration was deliberately colonial. Several European powers built what were openly empires in order to plunder resources, often enslaving both native peoples and others whom they could ship to work in their respective colonies. Even without modern migration, the result would now be an interesting patchwork of cultures. The dominant language of much of South America is now Spanish (and the dominant language of much of the rest of it is Portuguese), along with patches of English, Dutch, French, Hindi, Urdu, Cantonese and assorted other languages from south-east Asia and Africa, along with dozens of odd creole dialects.

Expatriates from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia will often speak Spanish in favour of Quechua or Aymara, even if those are their native languages, simply because the colonial language has higher status. The United States has a high proportion of people of African origin, many the descendants of slaves. Their disproportionate numbers in American jails (and on Death Row) is clear evidence of an ongoing racism problem from the dominant culture, which is primarily composed of descendants of European colonists. The native inhabitants largely live in apartheid conditions on “reservations”.

I could go on, but that would change this from blog to rant, which is always tempting, but not a good idea!

As any progressive understands, colonialism did not end with the collapse of the British Empire. It was reborn under another name: the growth of international market capitalism. It may be unfair to skip over Proxy War (better but more erroneously known as the Cold War), which ended with hegemonic power shared between two, later one, superpowers. This morphed from political dominance to one of transnational corporations,*** as these corporations, some with turnovers greater than the GDP of some sovereign countries, found they could strip resources with quasi-legal backing and, sometimes, the support of state military/police apparatus or mercenary companies such as Blackwater.

What does this have to do with migration?

I’m coming to that.

Following the plundered resources, many people from the places stripped by these companies, or fleeing conflict triggered by these companies, are now seeking somewhere safer, bringing culture and ideas with them, to be faced with xenophobia.

With them, they bring not only genetic diversity, but cultural diversity. The response of the establishment in many wealthy countries follows one, or a combination, of two strands. The first is expulsion. The second is a form of “integration” that involves enforced assimilation, Borg-style, into the dominant culture. Meanwhile, the people of many developing nations feel that in order to be “developed” they need to reproduce the same behaviour seen in “developed” nations. I found this in India, attempting to adopt a western capitalist model, down to American-style malls (complete with branches of American retailers and “restrooms”: I kid you not). Of course, since all westerners smoke, they have to smoke as well. I even ran across the notion that to be more developed, and therefore more western, you have to be more white. Skin bleaching agents are a big industry (this is not helped by pale skin having had higher status in India for some time, but such nasty chemicals are not just sold to Indians). Needless to say, I headed for Aminabad bazaar to practice my Hindi and find some decent food!

The consequence of this is a form of homogenised monoculture, which does nobody any favours. At one level, we lose the cultural distinctiveness that comes from India being India, and Indians here being Indians. Worse, Tory policy is to take the modified “Indian” cuisine (actually more often a combination of Punjabi and Bangladeshi, modified for western palates), train westerners to make it, and sling out the Indians (and Bangladeshis, Punjabis and anyone else whose skin isn’t white enough), thus losing the great cultural diversity they brought with them.

Let me go back to my analogy. In nature, a population is more likely to survive unexpected pressures if it is diverse. Culturally speaking, a population with diverse backgrounds may find it easier to adopt a good idea from one of those cultures if the existing model begins to fail.

Certain groups of humans may also have greater immunity to certain diseases, as the catastrophic consequences of peoples in the Americas coming into contact with diseases such as smallpox, and the similar, (if ultimately less serious) consequences of Europeans coming into contact with yellow fever showed. For many years the West Indian Station provided junior Royal Navy officers with excellent opportunities for promotion, assuming they didn’t wind up in an early grave. A moderate level of exogamy may help buffer populations in the future from emerging diseases.

Some might not unreasonably argue that wiping out a few billion humans might not be too bad an idea, but I’d rather we did that voluntarily, not as a result of plague!

At present the world faces a crisis from the blatant failure of the dominant paradigm to cater for the needs of vast numbers of our own species, at the additional expense of massive damage to natural ecosystems. Other models are desperately needed, which is, of course, part of what the global Occupy movement is all about. One solution may come from individuals able to think creatively. That said, much of my own creativity comes from contacts with other cultures, from people from Kuala Lumpur, to Kanpur, to Prague, to Dublin, to the high Andes. If I can’t live among them, finding them living among us must come a close second.

Such an alternative model could provide the intellectual stimulus we need to halt, even reverse, the catastrophic damage already done by the culturally invasive paradigm that is western capitalism. Our social ecosystems need to change in response to internal threat – namely their own contradictions. Diversity may be key to that change. Monocultural business as usual just won’t cut it.

A point to think about is the notion that a more equitable global society might see less migration, leading to less diverse societies when looked at locally or regionally, although rates of diversity at a global level might start to rise again as cultures regain their confidence to experiment.

Regardless, xenophobia is of benefit, and then only in the short term, to the one per cent. The rest of us cannot afford it. Of course, we might get lucky: a freak disease might wipe out the inbred toffs, their immune systems compromised by overconsumption. We can hope, I suppose.

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*The pedant will observe quite properly that the cause-effect relationship of the asteroid impact at the K-T Boundary and the mass extinction event that occurred around the same time remains disputed, and that the ecosystems that supported the non-avian dinosaurs and the other 65% of all species on the planet that went extinct around the same time may have been in trouble before the Chicxulub event. The final phase of extinction may not have occurred until anything up to about 300,000 years later, with possibly a series of asteroid impact events and volcanic activity around the Deccan Traps in what is now India perhaps having a greater influence. The point is that environmental stress caused an extinction event, and the Chicxulub impact event is the best known stressor involved.

** Scientifically, this is not a particularly popular position. Most earth scientist simply grade the Holocene event into one long, ongoing, phase of extinction. In some ways, this makes sense, as the slightly-higher-than-background rate of extinction has been going on for some time. My argument is that the rate of extinction occurring now has accelerated and has additional causes compared to the rest of the Holocene, and therefore requires separate treatment and a distinct definition, although drawing a clear boundary is extremely difficult. I would date it from the point that the rate of extinction began to accelerate as a consequence of human activity, although the date of this is disputed. The whole concept probably makes more sense from the perspective of ecologists than from that of geologists, but is under examination by working groups of various geological societies. In terms of geology, dating the period from the start of the Industrial Revolution might make more sense, but anthropogenic extinctions were taking place well before this time.

*** These had, of course, been around for some time, in the forms of institutions like the Hudson’s Bay Company, the VOIC (Dutch East India Company), the East India Company and the Royal African Company.

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3 Comments
  1. I think of “English Indian” cuisine as genuine English cooking, so glad to see the Tories defending their heritage.
    Government against, not for, the people, I’m having flashbacks to Thatcher’s Britain. The more things change …

  2. The above comment wound up in my spam folder, leaving me with my first decision regarding right of reply. Do I censor those I disagree with?

    In the sense that most “Indian” food in “Indian” restaurants here is a fusion cuisine, calling it “Indian” could be stretching the definition, although I disagree that it’s necessarily “English”. I’ve seen it in Edinburgh and Dublin, although there is a good case that it was first created in those towns with large Indo-Bangla-Pakistani populations in England. The balti, for instance, is not found in the Indian subcontinent, but was probably created by the Pakistani community in northern England.

    The point remains: in expelling the members of the culture that created it we lose the important diversity that allowed that cuisine to be created in the first place, thus supporting my argument. Without the migrant members of that community that cuisine would not exist, demonstrating the value of diversity and change within that social ecosystem. The place would be a lot more boring without those migrant communities. What else do they have to share that’s less well known? Music? Art? You show us yours, we’ll show you ours. We could just jam!

    I agree wholeheartedly with the remarks about Thatcher’s Britain, and it’s not a pretty sight.

  3. Of course the point remains, and why would you disagree with me, I didn’t disagree with you? 1. I genuinely believe that something new in terms of cuisine has been created that should be defended as proudly English (what, they’re not allowed to serve English cuisine in Edinburgh and Dublin?) and 2. its hilarious that the racists are in the position of defending it at all. if they truly thought about it, it must stick in the craw. I was in no way agreeing that people should be expelled, I never commented on that.
    And why shouldn’t you censor those you disagree with? Its just that you should realise people aren’t going to pop by and provide a nuanced essay in response to every single point you make. I would have thought the reference to Thatcher’s Britain would have given it away. You only have to read my poem “Thatcher’s Kitten” to see that. Through critical poetry and playing lotto, we are sticking it to the man. If you are suggesting that I am racist on the basis of the comment that I made, I do not think that is very fair, I try to treat all people equally, but I have to admit I do not like how some people in some communities engage in public throat clearing and the subsequent despoliation of the footpath, and I am enraged by so called “honour killings”. I do not think that makes me a racist. As to music and art, terrific, I look forward to a Tory program to promote the playing of the sitar amongst unemployed disaffected youth. Reminds me a tiny bit of the Dead Kennedy’s “play ethnicy jazz to parade my schnazz on my five grand stereo”
    http://6thproletarianlottoanarchosyndicate.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/my-mate-joe-chip-warns-thatchers-kitten/

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