New Internationalist

Heaven, Hell And Spring Sunshine

Issue 309

Heaven, hell
and spring sunshine
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Chris Brazier's last thoughts on the twentieth century take in Disney and Jules Verne,
Isaiah Berlin and Josef Mengele, the World Bank and the Tower of Progress.

One of Disneyland Paris’s more impressive exhibits is a nine-screen cinema which shows films in the 360-degree round, so that if you see the Matterhorn in front of you, you will be able to turn your head and see Zermatt behind you as if you were truly amidst the Swiss Alps. Such setpiece scenes are woven together by an enjoyable nonsense of a narrative that has a robot time-traveller picking up nineteenth-century science-fiction writer Jules Verne by mistake and taking him on a journey into our own age. Naturally Verne is a sucker for the wonders of scientific progress – space rockets and racing cars – and a veil is drawn over the debit side of the ledger, such as environmental destruction. Eventually we and Verne are taken farther on into the future and are vouchsafed a brief vision of a Parisian metropolis a century or so on as a kind of science-fiction heaven on earth.

This firm faith in scientific advancement as a guarantor of human progress will come as no surprise to readers of the NI’s recent issue on the Disney corporation (NI 308). And it can beguile even the most cynical of us. But in truth only the most blinkered, privileged observer could retain an unalloyed faith in the notion of human progress at the end of the twentieth century of which the philosopher Isaiah Berlin said: ‘I remember it only as the most terrible century in human history.’

Of course the balance sheet at the end of the century can point to amazing improvements, not least in higher life expectancy and declining infant-mortality rates all over the world. Most inhabitants of industrialized countries, and a significant élite in developing nations, benefit from a level of comfort, education and access to information undreamed of by even the most ardent optimist in 1900.

But all too much of the progress has been for the exclusive benefit of the richest fifth of the world’s people, who now receive over 80 per cent of the world’s income compared to the 2 per cent earned by the poorest fifth.1 The scale of destruction of human life in the century should alone be enough to dispel any lingering illusions about the inevitability of progress. ‘Hundreds of millions starved to death because of the permanent maldistribution of the available food in the world. In addition, about 100 million died in the great famines of the century... War killed another 150 million, government repression about 100 million. The total of 14 million who died in the century’s genocides was, on this scale, comparatively small, but they were victims of the greatest acts of deliberate murder.’1

All meditations on the meaning of the century, even the mainstream ones, must inevitably return to the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews – and the Romanies, gays and socialists who perished in the death camps alongside them. The ethnic genocide which began and ended the century – the Turkish massacre of Armenians at the beginning and the Serb extinction of Bosnians and Albanians at the end – is depressing enough evidence of the human incapacity to outgrow blind prejudice and bloodthirstiness. But the Nazi extermination programme stands unique in history for its particular horror – the industrialization of mass murder, the routine annihilation of six million people by faceless bureaucrats and soldiers who were simply ‘doing their job’.

A recent interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel with a man who worked as a doctor at Auschwitz underlines the peculiarly twentieth-century horror of what Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’. Dr Hans Münch conducted scientific experiments on people under the auspices of the notorious Josef Mengele. He still feels no remorse, no regrets about the part he played and he lives in comfortable retirement. ‘To eradicate the Jews, that was the job of the SS at the time,’ says Münch. ‘I could do experiments on people, which otherwise were only possible on rabbits. It was important work for science... No, I can’t say I felt pity.’

The Holocaust single-handedly demolished the idea that the century’s undoubted scientific progress was paralleled by a comparable moral progress. Even those who experienced it at first hand confess themselves unable to testify to its essential horror. ‘We who survived the Camps are not true witnesses,’ said the great Italian writer Primo Levi. ‘We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom.Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.’2 We can only hope that the Nazi Holocaust remains unparalleled in human history. By the end of the next century the historical memory of this bleakest of episodes must remain starkly alive, its lessons remembered and understood.

The other force undermining the Tower of Progress at the end of the century is the destruction of the global environment. Even the greatest scientific achievements seem to have their counterpoint in environmental devastation. Vast increases in food production have destroyed natural habitats and rendered huge tracts of land infertile. The advantages of electricity or high-speed travel have ultimately, through the emission of gases into the atmosphere, produced the alarming phenomenon of global warming.

Yet paradoxically, from the point of view of resistance adopted by this magazine, the environment provides hope as well as despair. For it is here that the cracks in the capitalist system yawn widest. The free market may be capable of a great number of things for which it has not been given credit but protecting the environment is certainly not one of them. A system built on the pursuit of profit by competing companies is bound to be incapable of safeguarding the earth’s natural resources. If the environment is to be protected and the exploitation of its resources controlled – and not even the most enthusiastic optimist could believe that current rates of economic growth might be sustained throughout the next century – it will have to be ordered and regulated by the national and supranational state.

In the working out of a sustainable future – and in the resurgence of interest in regulating the free market which will go hand in hand with it – will come the opportunity of the resistance movements featured in this magazine to find their voice and exert their influence. The fissures in the free-market ‘end-of-history’ model are already opening up.

When Eric Hobsbawm wrote his seminal history of the ‘short twentieth century’ in the early 1990s, he correctly identified the free-market flagellation of Russia and Eastern Europe as a disastrous mistake and explained why the current mania for globalization and growth could not last. But he still accepted, as did everyone else, South Korea’s status as an economic tiger, suggesting that the uncontrolled power of the global machine ‘raised both economic and social problems, though obviously far more immediately troubling ones in some countries (eg Britain) than in others (eg South Korea).’2 The collapse of South Korea, vaunted as a model by experts for so many years, has opened up an uncomfortably large trapdoor beneath the globalists’ pretensions.

As a result even the world’s economic thought police, the World Bank and the IMF, are having to take stock. Again, when Hobsbawm was writing in the early 1990s, there was no sign of this. The two institutions, he wrote, pursued free-market policies which suited the late twentieth-century US economy as well as they had the mid-nineteenth-century British one, but did not suit the world. ‘If global decision-making was to realize its potential,’ he continued, ‘such policies would have to be changed. This did not look like an immediate prospect.’2

Yet the shock to the system is such that the Chief Economist at the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, is now touring the world on an apparent personal crusade to show that the policies of ‘the Washington Consensus’ since the 1970s – structural adjustment, privatization, deregulation – have been a failure. This has been obvious to any sensible observer for at least the last decade – if any national finance ministry had the record of consistent failure shown by IMF they would have been disbanded long ago. There are two perspectives on how and why the message has finally got through. The cynical response is that the ‘change of heart’ is simply because Western economists and financiers are concerned that the East Asian shockwaves could actually bring their own houses tumbling around their ears rather than just the insignificant mud walls of the poor.

But the more positive response is that this is yet another example where a long campaign of resistance has finally won its reward, where an apparently marginal idea has finally become the accepted wisdom of the mainstream. Stiglitz argues that the State must intervene to correct the market’s shortcomings and that a successful economy and balanced society will see government playing a strong role in regulation, social security, health and education. This, he maintains, must form the core of a new consensus – a new economic agenda for the twenty-first century. We should not look this particular gift horse in the mouth, but should keep up the pressure for the more profound changes – especially in the environmental area – which the World Bank is still far from contemplating.

Popular protest and resistance can still make a difference, especially in an age when politicians are more distrusted than ever before. The fall of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe shows this as clearly as it does Communism’s failure: once public consent and willing obedience were lost, the bureaucrats melted away as quickly as snow in spring sunshine, for all their tanks and secret police.

Yesterday’s alternative tributary becomes today’s mainstream. Not by any means in all cases, since, God knows, resistance movements have no monopoly on wisdom; the catalogue of their errors would run very long. But the need for an alternative vision of human progress and development based on social justice, ecological sanity, equality and human rights is no less essential at the end of the century than it was at the beginning. People in the protest movements of today are advancing much-needed ideas that will be considered orthodox a further hundred years on. Green activists’ challenge to the Great God Growth – still so heretical for politicians the world over – is the clearest current example but it is not the only one. Our resistance and our idealism has made a difference to the twentieth century – and it must make an even greater difference to the twenty-first.

FOOTNOTES / WORTH READING
1 Clive Ponting, Progress and Barbarism: The World in the Twentieth Century, Chatto & Windus 1998.
2
Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Michael Joseph 1994.
Millennial books are now pouring out but these are the two best companions on a journey through the century. Ponting’s account follows his Green History of the World (Penguin 1993) and thus has a welcome tilt towards environmental concerns and the perspective of the Majority World. Hobsbawm’s book follows his trilogy on the ‘long nineteenth century’ from 1789 to 1914. His idea of a ‘short twentieth century’ ending in 1991 leads him to focus mainly on the clash of the titans in the North and he can be dismissive of Green concerns. But his insights into the workings (and failures) of both capitalism and communism are consistently fascinating.

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