Friday, January 23, 2009

"Guns, Germs, and Steel"

Over Christmas, while in Canada at my grandfathers, I picked up his copy of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. It is a few years old, and I had always been meaning to read it, but hadn't got around to it yet. It actually was really easy to read and I finished it quite quickly.

Diamond's thesis is, contrary to what was accepted by most people and still is by many, environment is the major reason certain areas of the world developed more than others, not race and culture. It was simply an accident of geography that Europe and Asia developed guns, writing, general technology, and domesticated animals. This made the Spanish able to easily rout South American societies, as well as the English in Australia and North America, the Dutch and French in parts of the "new world," and still others who colonized areas all over the world.

This seems obvious, but it is no doubt hard for some to realize as many of us have had near meaningless catchphrases like "personal responsibility" jammed down our throats since we were able to comprehend ideas. This, I believe, is a way to rationalize the otherwise blatant murderous greed of a few in our society, a society which we like to claim is superior to others largely due to our Judeo-Christian values, which in text claims to empathize with the oppressed, but in practice tends to get around that with established church doctrines like "free will". Diamond's environment thesis puts a material cause to what many thought had strictly cultural and divine implications. In short, we aren't any more special than anyone else from anywhere else.

Diamond also throws a bucket of reality in the faces of those "leftists/liberals" who have a fetish for the developing world. No doubt we've all encountered those who believe all of western Europe and its offshoots are evil, and all those in the developing world are hopelessly exploited, downtrodden, and seemingly incapable of horrific deeds. In reality, African chiefs sold other Africans as slaves; Mesoamerican societies were as, and sometimes more, brutal than those in Eurasia; and so on. Today, Robert Mugabe certainly needs no help from the west to brutally exploit anyone unfortunate enough to live under his rule. If the natural world would have evolved in a different way, there's nothing to say Native Americans wouldn't have colonized, and nearly wiped out, Europeans.

That brings me to my main criticism of Diamond's book. While he tells us why Europe was able to colonize the world, he doesn't offer any reasons why they went ahead and did it. If Europe isn't full of a bunch of innately brutal people, why did they do so many brutal things? This requires an economic, class-based, analysis. Much of the wealth created by the natural resources bestowed on Eurasians (as well as wealth creating human labor) was eventually privatized. Ever since societies have created surplus wealth, that is when societies made it able for some (chiefs, lords, kings, capitalists, bureaucrats, etc.) to live off the work of others, there has been a struggle over who controls this surplus. This is a struggle of classes. Be it the obvious ownership of the surplus and subsequent exploitation of the oppressed classes in feudalistic and slave driven societies, or the less obvious ownership and exploitation in modern capitalist societies- whoever owns that surplus wealth, and the economic system that justifies that ownership, are obvious major factors in why these societies were compelled to colonize other lands. This is completely absent from Diamond's work. He does attempt to answer why Europe colonized the "new world" and places like China, despite their technological prowess, didn't. (He says that in China- because it was geographically prudent for them to have a single central government- merchants, explorers, and others looking for wealth and adventure, had pretty much only one option to gets funds. In Europe, on the other hand, there were many kings and queens to fund expeditions if one happened to decline.) But he seems completely unaware of, or completely disregards, the effect economics has had on world history. In the afterward Diamond seems downright giddy about the businesspeople and economists that have contacted him about his book. Again, he appears to either not be aware of, or disregard, any argument that holds their dictatorship of industry, and their justification of that dictatorship, at any way responsible for the wars of conquest that have plagued our history. This is a major omission if we want to formulate any meaningful ways to learn from our past.

Of course there are other reasons that aren't directly related to environment that make our societies different. There are also reasons of conquest other than economics. But I challenge anyone to find a case in history where environment doesn't have any effect on a society and economics isn't involved in a conquest. Jared Diamond tells half the story, but then bows down to bourgeois sensibility. Perhaps a class analysis wouldn't have got him the endorsement from Bill Gates, but it doesn't always pay, at least in the monetary sense, to be honest.

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