Some ponderings for a cold and quiet Monday morning...
I am pondering whether we ever actually get to chose some of the most common aspects of our lives: especially the technological side of it. I ponder this because it has occurred to me recently that the car that I currently drive is the car that I have owned the longest. This is really quite weird.
This car “Trotsky” (because it’s an old red commo, where the powers and privileges of the driver match those of the driven in every way except those which are necessary to drive) was bought for $700 many years ago as a very short interim measure because we needed a six-seater car and couldn’t find a decent one. But it’s a daggy old bucket of bolts. It’s strange how we tend to form our identity, at least partially, on dumb things like the kind of car we drive. Does it matter if we drive a daggy car or not?
I was hearing this story the other day that some fairly prominent female thinkers were arguing about what point in history, what event, thing or factor did more for the liberation of women than any other. Mary Wollstonecraft’s fantastic treatise was suggested, as was the sweep of voting rights around the world, starting with South Australia in 1897 and the two World Wars which threw the female population into the workforce. The winner though, was the invention of the washing machine. It seems strange and practical to the point of being offensive, but the argument that the washing machine was the single biggest blow for the freedom of women is a very strong one. It allowed women time – which is really all they needed to do everything else relating to equality.
With the invention of the steam engine and development of a steam train system, some of the wealthy, ruling classes in Britain worried that the freedom to move would be the death of the class system that existed. If you allowed the working and poorer classes to move around, that would end life as they knew it. They would no longer be a slave to the local production, thus the bogan was born.
Similar concerns existed about the increase in the production of sugar. To an extent, they were probably directly right about these two things. But these two things pale in comparison to the one thing that wiped the ruling classes off the face of the earth, at their absolute high point of wealth, luxury and freedom. This was without a doubt World War One. It destroyed five empires and their ruling classes at the peak of their existence.
Coming into the twentieth century, the ruling classes of the five empires were at their most lucrative, powerful and discriminatory, none more so than in Britain. Sometime toward 1918, they were all broke and in debt without the productive means for recovering ... ever. One hundred years later, we are still in debt to the stupid choices they made. We have to pay for what has always been free.
But is this just the ability of human intelligence (or lack of it)? We have always been willing and eager to cut our own noses off in spite of our faces, even with the knowledge that doing this is pointless.
‘how did we get so advanced then?’ I hear you ask.
And that is a point. If we are stupid, how did we end up rising to the dominant species on the planet? Maybe we’re just the slaves of some groovy green men who visit us, or live amongst us. Some fairly strange things have come out lately about aliens: from the CIA kind of fessing up about Roswell, to the University of California saying that we have always had them amongst us (says so in the bible even) and to the discovery of a planet that could sustain us, less than 16 light years away.
But surely the old adage that the one proof that there is intelligent life forms out there somewhere is that they have never visited us? All joking aside, where are the little green men? The contemplation of the infinite in the universe must lead to the existence of planets lesser and greater than us.
There is an argument from science that states that there are aliens out there. There has to be. There are simply too many planets capable of sustaining life (as we know it) for there to not be one. There are hundreds of billions of planets in hundreds of billions of galaxies, any one of which would do. From a scientific point of view, the maths is beyond convincing. But the problem, the counter-consideration then, is where are they? Why are we not swamped with them? Why is the winner of Miss Universe always from Earth?
An answer may well be that they have all wiped each other out. If these groovy aliens want to come visit us, they have to be able to travel through space – Star Trek style. Well before any civilisation develops the technology to do this, I think it would be a fair assumption to say it must, necessarily, develop the technology to wipe itself out. I’m not talking about mass-killings, genocide or the like; I mean to annihilate its own species. The production of power, the ability to transport its own kind and the ability to economically exist at that level is way beyond the ability to wipe out one’s own kind.
That’s not really the issue though, the issue is – does this have to happen to a species when that species mechanises itself beyond a point? Does the mechanisation of labour necessarily sow the seeds of a species’ annihilation ?
Well, firstly we’d have to ask when did us good old homo sapiens develop the ability to wipe our own species out of existence and how?
I know what you’re thinking dear reader – the atomic bomb and its use. But I don’t think so. It has only ever been used once, and it was used by a power that had it against a power that didn’t. That may well have been our saviour there – atomic warfare was witnessed first on a country that could not return fire. If they could, we probably wouldn’t be here. The witnessing of this power has probably saved us since: and since then, no one really has had the chops to push that button.
There is also a fair argument to say that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had little to no effect on ending the war. The Americans had already destroyed most of Japan by firebombing it.
The Hiroshima bomb was dropped on 6th of August, 1945, the war didn’t end on the sixth. On the ninth, Stalin ordered the Red Army to invade Japan. The very next day Japan unconditionally surrendered to the United States. I know – you’re saying what about Nagasaki? Well, maybe, but I think we developed our own power a long time before 1945. I think we had easily had it by 1914.
The question then becomes how? What exactly was it that gave us this power?
Transport. Not from sugar or steam or washing machines, but not devoid of them either.
In the first four weeks of the First World War in August 1914, about three quarters of a million people were killed. This figure is a military one, and may not accurately represent civilian deaths as well. Never had anywhere near that amount of people been killed in such a short amount of time. The Belgian forces worried that the piles of dead, German soldiers were creating a decent barrier to their guns and didn’t know whether to shoot through the dead or send out soldiers to try to clear the way. How messed up is that?
So was it the machine gun? While this was the specific device that allowed much of the killing, artillery and conditions did a lot too, but that’s to overlook the fact that armies had, for a few decades at least, the ability to launch many, many bullets at one time. While the machine gun did this more efficiently, it didn’t invent the concept. The supremacy of the British in a great part came from their ability to launch many bullets in a short time. Many accounts of the BEF in the Battles of the Frontier retold their skill with a rifle as far more effective than a machine gun. The statistics of the BEF being able to slaughter 160,000 German college boys at the Massacre of the Innocents of Ypres would support this idea.
The invention of the machine gun does nothing to put someone in front of it.
So guns don’t kill people, people kill people. The people who put the people in front of the guns killed them, not the people pulling the trigger. The reason three quarters of a million people died in a month in August, 1914, is that they were in front of a machine gun, or in range of an artillery shell etc. Never before in human history had this been able to be achieved. Never before was an army able to be so large and so mobile. Never were millions of men able to be alone and divorced from their homeland, occupying or defending on strange lands, while being kept alive.
Most battles prior to 1914 lasted a day or two. The massive defeat of Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo was over in less than a day. All of a sudden, armies could be mobilised, and they stayed mobilised; they stayed engaged at each other for weeks and months of constant death. Later in the war, on the Western Front, even in ‘quieter’ parts of the conflict hundreds of deaths per day were expected and recorded.
How did this happen? What invention led to this new ability?
Well, probably the humble can of food. Canned food enabled armies to be fed while mobile. It didn’t matter where they were or how many chickens or fish or whatever was there. One soldier’s life became accountable in all circumstance. Humanity had been able to be treated as a standard number. No longer were there good soldiers and bad soldiers. They were now all soldiers.
Maths then replaces honour and skill.
So what happened ? The military had become mechanised. Killing became a mathematic equation. This equation was no longer about life, nor was it about money. An entire army was able to be killed without any thought for the human element or the monetary cost.
Devoid of a lack of a qualifiable element such as money or life, the military looks for some value scale to rate itself. This is where capitalism comes in to probably destroy the human race. This is also where we stop asking how much money it costs to have a military. This has become a silly question; the military then just becomes a necessary part of the modern state. We spend more money on it than anything else. We spend more of our life on this type of death than on anything else.
But we have to, lest we have a lesser military than our neighbours. This is the true destruction of the human race. We can no longer stand still, we have to move forward, and this costs every spare penny we have, and quite a few that we don’t have (let’s just take that away from poor people and families – they don’t need it).
And this is the true destruction that capitalism brings – the inability to be stable. Think about it from a military point of view. There has not been too many changes to the way military types kill each other prior to just over a century ago. If you had the ability to take people out of history and put them in battle, you could take Julius Ceasar’s army and put it into battle against an army that is about a thousand years further along in history (say Charlemagne) and he’d do alright. This is regardless of the fact that there are hundreds of years of human development between them.
However, if you take the worst army from the First World War, the Austrio-Hungarian Army and pitted them against an army from merely a century earlier, say Napoleon, it wouldn’t be a battle, it would be a massacre. It would be a blood bath and you wouldn’t expect too many casualties on the side of the Austrio-Hungarian Army. However, if you take that same Austrio-Hungarian Army from 1914 and put them into battle with an army from less than thirty years later - say the Nazis, and it would be the same result, but the other way around. It wouldn’t be a battle, it would be a massacre. The only difference between these armies is the technology. The people are no different, neither is much of the training. The military itself has become mechanised. The rate of advancement in technology is the new honour, the monetary cost is not regarded at all. We have to spend it, lest our neighbours have a gun with a bigger range or a plane that can fly faster.
This ‘development has crept into all aspects of our life. I can do more on the phone that came free with a contract today that I could even dream of doing with a multi-thousand dollar computer ten years ago. The music quality at times rival my Dad’s old solid state Rotel, and the pictures it takes rival that Nikon F90 the price tag of which made me feel ill a few times when we bought it about fifteen years ago. Yet the pictures I take on it are fairly crappy. I don’t give more than a cursive glance in the viewfinder before pressing the button. Most of the time I couldn’t be bothered finding the HD or whatever is the best version on youtube of the song which has been dancing in my head all day. And I am no better driver in my crappy old, $700 Commodore than I was in its predecessor, an unbelievably expensive and costly Jeep. So I guess I’ll continue to drive around in my daggy old car, named after a communist ...
But I know that capitalism doesn’t have just the seeds of its own destruction, it contains the seeds of ours.