By Owen Lloyd / Deep Green Resistance
Indian people stood in the way of progress, and progress is a sort of madness that is a god to people. Decent people commit horrible crimes that are acceptable because of progress. -Linda Hogan
People who are engaged in utopian projects tend to envision the world in a state of being that precedes another state of being. The common wisdom among the converted is that things are progressing in a positive way toward the realization of the utopia. Inherent in true utopian thought, therefore, is a notion of progress. While the members of the group are awaiting its arrival– sometimes over very long periods of time– they are urged or coerced or terrorized in myriad ways to continue to believe that it will in fact arrive. -John Mohawk
When we demystify the term progress, we can understand that we’re actually talking about manifest destiny. Progress is a mythology that tells us where we came from and where we are going, that pushes us to actualize the values and ideals of our culture. It might be that the role of people in any culture is to manifest the ideals of their culture. But the ideals of any one culture may not be shared by those of another.
If the purpose of a culture is to keep its members happy, healthy, well-fed, sheltered, and grounded in place, then the actualization of these values will be harmless and benevolent. However, what happens when the purpose of a culture is simply to dominate? What does it mean for a sick culture to actualize its values?
In her book Female Power and Male Dominance, anthropologist Peggy Reeves makes an important distinction between cultures with an “inner orientation” and those with an “outer orientation”.
Cultures with an inner orientation often place their origins within the earth itself, and locate power as centered within the community and the inner space where people live. Within these cultures, the people often see themselves as being an extension of the land. Paula Gunn Allen has said, “We are the land, and the land is mother to us all… To the best of my understanding, this is the fundamental idea that permeates American Indian life.” In a similar vein, Jeanette Armstrong writes that “When we say the Okanagan word for ourselves, we are actually saying ‘the ones who are dream and land together.'” And Winona LaDuke tells us that
in Ojibway, nishnabe akin means “the land to which the people belong”… Nishnabe akin doesn’t mean “the allotment to which the people belong,” nor does it mean “the land that belongs to the people.” It means that we belong to the land.
By contrast, cultures with an outer orientation find their origins in something outside: for instance, the Judeo-Christian belief in their creation by a male sun god who lives far away in distant space. These cultures tend towards seeing power as originating from without, and place value on those who can tap into those external sources of power.
Within this culture, and within any culture that we would identify as civilized, the orientation is clearly outwards. As a city cannot be maintained without extracting resources from the outside world, civilization cannot arise so long as a people locate their power solely within their communities and the land they see themselves a part of. These are fundamentally cultures of occupation, cultures that believe themselves entitled to the entirety of existence, and willing to utilize and justify any type of force necessary to obtain it.
When we start to identify power as something originating outside of our home or community, when we start to see other places and other peoples as objects to exploit for power, we forget that we live in a world of subjects, a world that, as Oren Lyons once said, is full not of resources but of relatives. We have not only forgotten this, we’ve sought to destroy any trace of the memory.
Culture of Occupation
The ideals that are pursued by those in power rarely concern such matters as harmonious relations among peoples or the regeneration of the ecology of a distressed region. They are almost always ideals that, if pursued, involve some level of dispossession, removal of populations, exploitation, pollution, economic devastation, or other evil. -John Mohawk
Cultural anthropologists have often struggled to define the word “culture”, treating it as a vague amalgamation of beliefs and behavior. It is far more useful to think of a culture as the base structure of a people, organizing together all superstructures (including economic and political systems) to actualize a vision of what life should be. That vision belongs to the culture itself and needn’t have any relation to that of the people who live within it.
A corporation doesn’t care whether its workers truly believe or even accept its corporate goals; what matters is that their work helps to accomplish them. Similarly, what matters to a culture is that people participate. And we are rewarded when we do so.
Systems of oppression such as patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy are necessary to the functioning of the cultural system, insofar as the culture cannot operate without rewarding and reinforcing antisocial behavior, and cannot operate without a small group of dedicated human agents. Meanwhile, these systems ensure that the heaviest costs are borne by those least important to the purposes of the culture. To provide one example among many, journalist Ken Saro-Wiwa (later put to death by Shell) writes of devastation in the Niger Delta:
Thirty-five years of reckless oil exploration by multinational oil companies has left the Ogoni environment completely devastated. Four gas flares burning for twenty-four hours a day over thirty-five years in very close proximity to human habitation; over one hundred oil wells in village backyards; and a petrochemical complex, two oil refineries, a fertilizer plant, and oil pipelines crisscrossing the landscape aboveground have spelled death for human beings, flora, and fauna.
We might assume that the culture is simply apathetic about those that are killed and violated to service its functioning, or about the damage that is borne by the land. That these assaults are simply side effects of a larger cultural raison d’être: the enrichment of a special class of rich white men at the expense of all others. But what if we have this backwards? What if the violent class systems this culture enforces exist to manifest the nihilistic vision of the culture, rather than the other way around? What if this culture doesn’t destroy for the benefit of elites, but actually benefits elites in order to better destroy?
We should remember that, from the perspective of this culture, there are numerous intrinsic benefits to displacing, colonizing, or killing indigenous people and people of color; there are intrinsic benefits to rape and prostitution; there are intrinsic benefits to plant and animal extinctions, to clearcut forests, to oil spills; there are intrinsic benefits to pesticide-laden rivers, to carcinogenic releases, and even to climate change. What all of these things share in common is that they reinforce our dependence on the culture.
By killing the planet itself, and by killing or colonizing indigenous people, the culture is intentionally foreclosing all routes of escape. We can’t depend on rivers for water or food when they are clogged with pesticides or mine tailings. We can’t depend on forests when they are all being destroyed. We can’t learn a way out from indigenous people if they are all colonized or killed. As the globe continues to burn, the same culture that set it aflame will give us a new choice: let us geoengineer the planet or die.
In saying all of this, I don’t want to suggest that there isn’t a class of people who are in power and who need to be stopped. On the contrary, we need to understand systems of oppression and privilege as the vital engine that empowers this culture to destroy any and all possibilities outside of itself.
We need to understand the culture is functioning as an actor for its own ends, and willing to do whatever it needs to in order for us to manifest those ends. For instance, while the culture inflicts extraordinary violence against both human and non-human communities in order to strengthen itself, it is also careful to frame that destruction in a positive way in order to justify it. Words like “progress”, “development”, and “growth” frame destruction as construction. Any violence that incurs on the way towards these ends can either be ignored as irrelevant (too far down the hierarchy to matter) or framed as an unfortunate side effect to be pitied. This mask allows us to continue doing the culture’s dirty work. It’s past time we started to look past this mask. It’s time we started to look this culture in the face. And then dismantle it.