“The Continuum Concept,” Jean Liedloff, Perseus Books, 1975
A majority of Eastern Germans feel that life was better under communism, according to a 2009 poll. The Der Spiegel article is incredulous at the results, and tries hard to paint the poll’s respondents as deluded. “What about the Stasi?” asks Julia Bronstein, the article’s writer. What about the shooting of people trying to escape across the Wall by border guards? The answer of one man interviewed for the article:
“As far as I’m concerned, what we had in those days was less of a dictatorship than what we have today… People lie and cheat everywhere today, and today’s injustices are simply perpetrated in a more cunning way than in the GDR, where starvation wages and slashed car tires were unheard of.”
God bless the Germans. The article’s writer, unable to step outside of the official ideology, calls this the “whitewashing” of memories of the dictatorship. East Germans defend the GDR “as if reproaching the state meant calling their own past into question,” a political scientist interviewed for the article insists. “Many eastern Germans perceive all criticism of the system as a personal attack.” They are lying through their teeth because they are insecure, see. Ironically, the ideology of liberal democracy ought to see the opinion of the majority as legitimate, but as Noam Chomsky has never tired of repeating, it’s never been about that. The real issue is the supremacy of capitalist society and liberal democracy over all alternative ways of life, and if 99% of the people thought otherwise, as they sometimes do, they would be in the wrong.
The article sounds like a badly made propaganda film at times as it tries to paint the majority of the people of eastern Germany as dupes or worse. Clearly, since democracy and capitalism are by definition good, and they call modern Germany such things as a “slave state” and a “dictatorship of capital,” they are sick in the soft parts (“I am afraid that a majority of eastern Germans do not identify with the current sociopolitical system,” laments the political scientist). Tisk tisk.
Let’s try to answer some of the questions which leave the journalists and the academics baffled by carefully reading the article as written, leaving the ideological blinders off for the time being. Here is another interviewee, a man named Schön who has become very rich since the reunification.
“In the past, a campground was a place where people enjoyed their freedom together,” he says. What he misses today is “that feeling of companionship and solidarity.” The economy of scarcity (GDR had a GDP of $9800 in 1984, $21,000 in 2008 dollars), complete with barter transactions, was “more like a hobby… As far as I’m concerned, what we had in those days was less of a dictatorship than what we have today.”
Elsewhere, the sentiment is expressed that modern Germany is a soulless capitalist hell. The respondents are saying that they may have gained materially, but nevertheless lost something intangible in the process: a feeling and a way of being part of a community. “I’m better off today than I was before, but I’m not more satisfied.” Of course, many people are neither better off nor more satisfied. We don’t know how many because capitalist society, lacking an overt mandate to care for those who fall through the economic cracks, doesn’t bother to find out how many such unfortunates exist and seems to go so far as to purposely distort the numbers, as is the case with the U.S. unemployment rate.
I hope it doesn’t seem like I am defending state socialism. That’s not at all what I’m trying to say. Having lived for ten years in the U.S.S.R., I have no illusions about what it is like, nor any need to defend the system. What I’m concerned with is human happiness. Clearly, for people under late capitalist societies life is not good (it goes without saying that it’s not good for the species we drive extinct, the animals we keep in industrial feed lots, the planet which provides for us all, etc). The usual way to justify this unfortunate fact is to compare life under capitalism to other social systems, but this is a faulty comparison.
To say that what we have under capitalism is the best we can do is to make a number of assumptions about the nature of humans that are insupportable, assumptions like “all men are greedy” and “people are too stupid to be trusted with direct democracy” and such, not to mention the more basic assumptions regarding the role of mankind, vis a vis other life, the planet, and the universe. I’ve dealt elsewhere with some of these assumptions. Suffice it to say that people are by and large what they believe is appropriate under the circumstances, greedy in a greedy society, selfless in a selfless one. Yes, all men want the same things, to love and be loved, above all, to thrive, etc., but there is nothing in human nature that forces us to enslave fellow men or scratch and claw our way into a position of hegemony no matter who or what stands in the way: this is the life we live under late capitalism, state socialism, etc., and see how far it’s gotten us.
Secondly, the comparison between liberal democracies and often dictatorial third world or second world societies is faulty because the two are opposite sides of a coin, each impossible without the existence of the other. If there weren’t free trade zones in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Indonesia, China, Bangladesh, etc., the semi-starved semi-slaves who populate the sweatshops and maciladoras would have to exist somewhere else, namely, inside the “developed” countries themselves where they could, god forbid, be seen, and questions would be raised. It’s not as easy to justify keeping an American, a German, or an Englishman in slavery conditions, lacking in rights and completely disposable, but there is no way to maintain the high level of return on investment our markets are used to without slave labor. The high return on investment is written into the architecture of the civilizations we’ve created around the globe, a condition as basic as gravity: everything is built around maintaining continued growth.
There is another reason one might prefer life in a dictatorship. In “Manufacturing Consent,” the documentary, Noam Chomsky says that “in a totalitarian state, it doesn’t matter what people think, because you’ve got a bludgeon over their head with which you can control what they do. But when the state loses the bludgeon, when you can’t control people by force and when the voice of the people can be heard, you have this problem: it may make people so curious and so arrogant that they don’t have the humility to submit to a civil rule. And therefore you have to control what people think.”
Someone, at some point, figured out that people who live in large close-knit groups don’t make for very good workers or consumers, and without telling the rest of us about their discovery, little by little transformed the world into a shape hostile to communitarianism. People who live among their kin are just not depressed enough to consider spending their free time in mind and soul-numbing wage-labor so they can buy objects and experiences. As far as they are concerned, their lives are fine as is. Don’t take my word for it, this is something the original capitalists were well aware of and discussed among themselves in earnest. The history of this process is described in scores of books such as E.P. Thompson’s classic “The Making of the English Working Class.” The would-be “working class” fought the new order every step of the way, from the medieval enclosure laws to Taylorism in the early 20th century and on.
You really have to isolate a person and destroy their life before the little pleasure they can derive from consuming products and services is something they find appealing. And even then, as advertisers well know, whatever it is they are buying, the consumer is forever trying to purchase love and belonging with their hard-earned dollars, regardless of what you’ve been told about the individualism of “generation Pepsi.” The most mundane day following your own whims in your native village, among your kin, is preferable to working a highly compensated nine to five job and taking your sulking wife and your selfish, bratty kids out afterwards. Even drugs, unlimited amounts of heroin and cocaine, the supposed straight pathway to the pleasure receptors of the brain, are experimentally proven to appeal to animals only if they are kept isolated. Given the choice to continuously press a button that releases IV dope into their bloodstream, or doing the regular things animals do with their kind, the animals invariably choose to be drug-free. Think about that, think about what that means for all the fucked-up drug addicts we have in our society: given half a chance to live dignified, productive lives among their own kind, they would leave the drugs! For whose benefit are we spending billions of dollars fighting the war on drugs and billions more importing drugs into the U.S. from places we spent yet billions more destabilizing so that they can grow the drugs, since it is so clearly not for the benefit of the drug users?
Today, the ideological battle continues. Globalization is, according to its promoters, turning impoverished peasants into happy middle class consumers the world over. Yes, the workers assembling our crap in China are paid pennies, the ideologues acknowledge, but the reason they accept such wages is because they stand to make nothing back at the farm, and eventually, little by little, they are going to swing themselves up, bootstraps and all, into the ranks of the middle class. Unfortunately, this is sheer propaganda.
The truth is somewhat more complicated, and as such, less easily packaged into a soundbite for TV. The process of making peasants into wage-slaves begins with overpopulation, which has its own nefarious dynamics. (Normally, the food supply remains evenly matched to the population, but in our case, petroleum-based agriculture has allowed an unprecedented explosion in the amount of food we are able to grow.) The next stage is making it impossible for people to make a living back on the farm, forcing their children to look for work in the cities. There, they will take work at wages offered, the alternative being starvation. The fact that people somehow manage to survive and sometimes even send a family member to the U.S. doesn’t mean that anyone anywhere is going to become middle class. This is simply not something capitalism does, the sole thing capitalism is concerned with is maximizing profits for the capitalist. There is no disagreement about this fact, as there is no disagreement that there is no room for altruism in capitalism. Instead, the ideologues claim that everyone will somehow benefit by selling and buying each other’s crap, and those who fail to benefit are just lazy or stupid and deserve to die.
There is only one instance in which a sizable middle class was born out of the working class, and that was in post WWII U.S.A. and Europe. This was the result of social policies such as a heavily progressive tax rate, the government taking responsibility for creating full employment, social security and unemployment benefits, and many others. As the U.S. has shifted away from these policies, the results are plain to see: the middle class has been living off of the savings of the previous generation and credit, social investment has plummeted, and the only profit being made is by the wealthy, while the rest of the country is in a holding pattern at best. If you’re inclined to be more cynical, the argument that the only reason these progressive policies were put in place during the great depression was because the country was on the brink of a revolution has a lot to recommend it. Further more, someone somewhere has to buy all the crap being manufactured, although it is starting to appear that the richest 1% may be capable of doing all the consuming for the rest of us. Maybe the future of America will look like Brunei, where the entire country sells goods and services to the royal family.
The difference between the village and the city is, above all, the difference between people who live in the supportive embrace of a community, and those who live alone.
The price of exporting the brutality inherent in the system we live under is felt by the citizens of the first world in ailments of the mind and soul. I suppose this is preferable to the outright torture experienced by the citizens of the third world, and lets not imagine they are entirely immune to psychological assault either. But by and large, their souls are healthier because they all know who they are: the victims of a brutal, unjust, and exploitative system, and they have one another for support as they struggle against their circumstances. We in the first world can’t count on the support of anyone, and, since no one wants to admit to the identity of the beneficiary of an apartheid system, we have a psyche rent in two by knowledge we can’t dare process, and no positive identity to speak of. This phenomenon was brilliantly analyzed by James Baldwin as it applied to the minds of whites in segregated America, but it applies equally well to any situation where an unequal society exists.
Unfortunately, the mental problems experienced by the well-fed citizens of the first world are often as debilitating as any physical ailment. When one speaks of mental pathology, images of schizophrenia and psychosis may come to mind. But it need not be a full blown psychotic breakdown to destroy a person’s life. What does it mean to “lead a life of quiet desperation?” Why are so many Americans on drugs, legal and otherwise, or alcoholics, or suffering from depression? Where are the happy people, what are they like, what do they do with their time?
Jean Liedloff’s book “The Continuum Concept” offers just that: an example of contented and functional human beings. It offers much more, as well. The author refers to her time spent with Indians living in the Venezuelan rainforest as “unlearning,” principally because the life of the people she found herself among was so clearly superior in every way to what she’s known. They didn’t have a concept for “work,” using a corruption of the Spanish “trabajar” when they had to communicate what the westerners spent their time doing, abhorred coercion of any kind, even in regards to their children, and didn’t seem to experience unhappiness. Here is an illustrative story from early in the book:
…Cesar had been “adopted” by Venezuelans when very young and had gone to live with them in a small town. He was sent to school, learned to read and write, and was reared as a Venezuelan. When he was grown, he came, like many of the men of those Guianese towns, to the Upper Caroni to try his luck at diamond hunting. He was working with a group of Venezuelans when he was recognized by Mundo, chief of the Tauripans at Guayparu.
“Were you not taken to live with Jose Grande?” Mundo asked.
“I was brought up by Jose Grande,” said Cesar, according to the story.
“Then you have come back to your own people. You are a Tauripan,” said Mundo.
Whereupon Cesar, after a great deal of thought, decided that he would be better off living as an Indian than as a Venezuelan and came to Arepuchi where Pepe lived.
For five years Cesar lived with Pepe’s family, marrying a pretty Tauripan woman and becoming the father of a little girl. As Cesar did not like to work, he and his wife and daughter ate the food grown on Pepe’s plantation. Cesar was delighted to find Pepe did not expect him to clear a garden of his own or even help with the work in his. Pepe enjoyed working and since Cesar did not, the arrangement suited everyone.
Cesar’s wife liked joining the other women and girls in cutting and preparing cassava to eat, but all Cesar liked was hunting tapir and occasionally other game. After a couple of years he developed a taste for fishing and added his catches to those of Pepe and his sons, who always liked to fish and who supplied his family as generously as their own.
Just before we arrived, Cesar decided to clear a garden of his own, and Pepe helped with every detail, from choosing the site to felling and burning the trees. Pepe enjoyed it all the more because he and his friend talked and joked the whole time.
Cesar, after five years’ assurance, felt that no one was pushing him into the project ans was free to enjoy working as Pepe, or any other Indian.
Everyone at Arepuchi was glad, Pepe told us, because Cesar had been growing discontented and irritable. “He wanted to make a garden of his own”–Pepe laughed–”but he didn’t know it himself!” Pepe though it hilarious that anyone should not know that he wanted to work.
“The Continuum Concept” is an unaccountably obscure book, an injustice which I hope will be remedied. Jean Liedloff is, I believe, unaware or uninterested in the details of ideology and politics discussed above, but her book is a perfect and necessary part of any attempt to understand why our world has become as bleak as it has, and what might be done about it, if anything. While “The Continuum Concept” is in large part about child rearing, it is far from a parenting manual. Simply, the author happened to observe what life is like for people who are mostly untouched by centuries of western learning, living in small groups composed of a number of extended families as we all used to do until we adopted agriculture, animal husbandry, and the rest.
Among the book’s points is that we in the west have done ourselves a disservice by denying our instinctive know-how as far as child-rearing is concerned. We swaddle babies from the minute they are born, tell ourselves that their cries are OK to ignore, and set up a lifelong battle of wills between ourselves and our children when all they really want to do is follow us around and do right by us. J.L. was struck by the lack of conflict, intergenerational or otherwise, between the Indians, by the way the children never seemed to cry, by the lack of parenting done among these people:
When he goes about on hands and knees, a baby can travel at a fair speed. Among the Yequana, I watched uneasily as one creeper rushed up and stopped at the edge of a pit five feet deep that had been dug for mud to make walls. In his progress about the compound, he did this several times a day. With the inattentiveness of an animal grazing at the edge of a cliff, he would tumble to a sitting position, as often as not facing away from the pit. Occupied with a stick or stone or his fingers or toes, he played and rolled about in every direction, seemingly heedless of the pit, until one realized he landed everywhere but the danger zone. The non-intellect-directed mechanisms of self-preservation worked unfailingly, and, being so precise in their calculations, functioned equally well at any distance from the pit, starting from the very edge. Unattended, or, more often, at the periphery of attention of a group of children playing with the same lack of respect for the pit, he took charge of his own relationships to all the surrounding possibilities.
Perhaps the most profound revelation offered by “The Continuum Concept” is that humans are, above all, social animals. The worst thing that anyone can do to anyone else is to banish them, right on par with death. Among a species as social as we humans are, it takes special effort to induce disobedience in our children. Much of the effort has been expended already on our behalf by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and by a society set on molding people into workers and consumers rather than human beings. We don’t have to work hard to raise our children to be insecure, confused, defiant and petulant, yet at the same time self-absorbed and possessing of over-inflated egos. We will raise our kids as we ourselves were raised.
The implication of our species’ innate sociability are myriad, but the entire notion can be summarized, albeit rather vaguely, by saying that in a social setting that agrees with our species’ time-tested needs and habits, little or no further work is required to maintain the system in an equilibrium. Children need no parenting, they will merely follow the example of adults and older children and raise themselves. Policing isn’t necessary, because group shunning will get the offender to change his or her behavior with less conflict and stress than any jailhouse could, and of their own free will, and permanently! People will find themselves having less and being more, and the result of this effortlessness will be greater sanity and contentment.
Obviously, this is no prescription for how to improve (or even maintain) the world we live in today, since there’s no way 7 billion people can live like hunters and gatherers. Perhaps if we took all the land horded by the rich, tore out the useless crops grown for export or ethanol, and had everyone plant subsistence crops, 7 billion people may have a chance of surviving the present century. Assuming we also somehow stopped and then reversed the warming of the planet we set into motion in the 20th century, tore out all the dams to restore fisheries and wetlands, got rid of all the guns and bombs since their presence makes it highly unlikely people will have the fruits of their spring and summer labor to sustain them through fall and winter– someone will always find it easier to just steal stuff if they have the means. And did all this right away, since time’s not on our side at this point. Let’s just say the odds are against the present situation being sustainable in any shape or form.
But if you want to know what’s gone wrong, read this book: it will show you what your life would be like if you were to be happy. Perhaps bits and pieces of the knowledge it offers can make it into your miserable 21st century existence to make nominal improvements. Sadly, this may be the limit to what we can do now, even with the best information possible. It may be time to admit we fucked up, close down the mines and the factories, and start over. God bless all of us.