Friday, February 18, 2011

Underhistories of Capitalism

'Mount Firestone' tire fire that burned for 4 months at a landfill in Everett, Washington, 1984

“ I see us hurtling through the dark.

I tell Viktor there is a curious connection between weapons and waste. I don’t know exactly what. He smiles and puts his feet up on the bench, something of a gargoyle squat. He says maybe one is the mystical twin of the other. He likes this idea. He says waste is the devil twin. Because waste is the secret history, the underhistory, the way archaeologists dig out the history of early cultures, every sort of bone heap and broken tool, literally horn under the ground.

All those decades, he says, when we thought about weapons all the time and never thought about the dark multiplying byproduct.

“And in this case,” I say. “In our case, in our age. What we excrete comes back to consume us.”

We don’t dig it up, he says. We try to bury it. But maybe this is not enough. That’s why we have this idea. Kill the devil. And he smiles from his steeple perch. The fusion of two streams of history, weapons and waste. We destroy contaminated nuclear waste by means of nuclear explosions.

I cross the body of the aircraft to get my cap refilled.

“It is only obvious,” he says.

Don Delillo, Underworld (pp. 791)

The frontier is where overflow of every kind is deposited, the rightful domain of superfluous social material of all kinds. Violent conflict is often rife there at the limits of society. In the early 20th century, labor disputes in swiftly expanding industries often turned bloody.

The northwest frontier village of Everett, Washington was officially established as a town in 1890 by the giant Weyerhaeuser timber concern. Gradually, men who had moved west and were desperate for work came to find employment in the booming timber industry. Everett was a classic ‘company town’ with prices on everything from food, gas, electricity, wharfage and land—even graveyards. Soon conflict over working conditions and wages erupted between the workers and the managers of the swiftly consolidating business interests operating in Everett. It was a classic confrontation between striking workers demanding ambiguous change and a business establishment intransigently defending the status quo. On November 5, 1916 over 200 armed and deputized vigilantes in the employ of local authorities met a marching workers rally at the docks. The vigilantes opened fire, killing 18 and wounding perhaps 50 more. Such class conflicts were a common feature of westward expansion of the United States. Yet these disputes are almost always left out of the national narrative.

Funeral of Felix Baran, one of many striking workers killed in the Everett Massacre of 1916. Everett, Washington, 1916

Today Everett is an industrial town of roughly 90,000 people; its landscape dominated by the enormous factory where Boeing assembles 747 jets for military and commercial customers.Everett is also a major transport hub for solid waste in Washington State. Unsightly primary industries as well as landfills, the critical beginning and terminal stages of the production cycle, are pushed to the margins, out of sight, and largely out of our consciousness.Contradictions, cognitive dissonance, and conflict are features of the frontier.

Mythmaking, then, can be seen as an attempt to smooth over these conflicts.

"How the West Was Won" - MGM 1962

Everywhere it seems the logic of capitalism inscribes its manifesto on the landscape. The conduits of industrial production, consumption and disposal constrain and guide the movement and distribution of materials, products, waste, people, and all the heterogeneous inputs and outputs of the great machine we call production. In this vein, it is the imperative to explore and exploit new natural resources which historically has most often impelled people to the spaces at the very edge of society—the so-called frontier. With an eye to critique, social scientists, anthropologists and archaeologists have often re-branded this space 'the margin'. And it's often the marginalia of human activity that is of greatest interest to modern archaeology.

Clear cut forest tract. Northwest Washington State, near Everette.

The frontier is (by nature) the leading edge of rapid social change, where the engine of production and of hegemony is at its most dynamic. The machine of capitalism is forever adapting to new environments in order to lay its incipient writ. Also in this space is where the ennobling mythology of a society takes shape. The settling of the west is one of the most enduring myths of this kind. Despite the fact that the story of “how the west was won” has sustained very heavy criticism in the last few decades, it is a surprisingly persistent part of our culture.

Questions for Discussion:

11.. What is different about the social order at the frontiers? How can we think of this?

2. 2. How is the mythology of the frontier different from sociological concept of the margin?

3. 3. To what degree are economic forces separate from historical ones? And can archaeologists uncover the economic forces behind social change?

4. 4. Why is capitalism a topic that is often left out of historical discourse?

1 comment:

  1. I found the discussion interesting, however, I found it difficult to separate myself from my capitalistic upbringing and approach the topic from a more open standpoint. Capitalism is a way of life and it is difficult to imagine our world without it. Perhaps what I find more fascinating is the culture created by those trying to lessen their consumerism and the terminology used to describe them. This discussion reminded me of a novel by Edward Abbey called "The Monkey Wrench Gang" in which we an example of the fringe trying to fight against the capitalists wishing to develop of the West.