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The End of the Megamachine

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The End of the Megamachine provides a very interesting, although just slightly shallow historical account of the ways humanity has gone in the wrong direction in the past five millennia. For Schneidler, the people have veered away from the right path of development due to four things he calls tyrannies. Though four, they all stem from the same base desire - that for endless capital accumulation. Everything, from the creation of cities and countries, to that of the monotheistic religions comes from this greed for getting more and more. Seeing how the world ended up where it is now through the lense of Schneidler's observation is equally enlightening and depressing, but it is something everyone should read.
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Exploitation, alienation. Human cruelty, violence, impending ecological catastrophe.

How did things ever get to the predicament we collectively face now? How it it that 99% of the world's wealth is currently owned and controlled by a mere bus load of billionaires?

This book attempts to answer this question by looking at the ways our civilisation has evolved. 

More crucially, how this Machine evolved since the evolution of the first city states. Before that, the nomadic bunter/gatherer way of life persisted for tens of thousands and millions of years. But with this relatively highly recent development, metallurgy, profiteerism and war became linked into an unholy alliance of power-over and has always been essentially malevolent. The need for constant growth through making profits leads to rapacious growth, to viewing nature as a commodity to be exploited (especially post Bacon and Descartes), the glorification of war, and innate inequality. This is what this writer has called the Machine, and it is time it was dismantled - for the sake of our survival of the species, as well as for the planet we are rapidly destroying.

Sheidler's guru in the first instance is Lewis Mumford, though there is also more than a nod towards Karl Marx. Most individuals caught up in the dystopic world we have to work or beg in now must surely recognise without being told what 'alienation' actually means: having to work at unsatisfying jobs just to survive at a pace we didn't choose, and for employees whose priorities are not ours. 

This is a heavy read, this writer has no qualms reminding us what certain heroic adventurers and explorers such as Columbus for example, were really like, betrayal being of second nature to them. Refusals to hand over land, resources and crops to European conquerors often being punished via atrocities. Even relatively benign free-market democracies will show the iron fist once challenged for more demands for equality, this writer claims - and he has done the research and provided the footnotes for the reader here to check his claims. 

Scheidler does, however, see hope in the egalitarian movements that evolved from the late 60's on, that challenge this Machine, though his reminders about what has happened to activists so many times in our history before, don't create that many grounds for optimism, it has to be said here. He does, however, point out that these more recent movements do challenge the. dominion of the Machine on all of the fronts needed, being aware of the ecological. Issues as well as the economic and political ones. 

A question not asked that much here is whether or not the tendencies towards violence and exploitativeness night not be innate in human nature, and that the societies we create are only a reflection of this animal. How nurture might trump nature in terms of creating a viablly equal society would belong in another book, however. 

This is an excellent sociological and anthropological study of how and why we have reached this current, precarious state of affairs, either way.
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Because those in power get to write down “true” history, much of the world is steeped in the idea that Western civilization represents progress and reason. According to Western (economic and political) mythology, historical events by and large represent progress (so long as the victors become wealthy and the standard of life, for a large cross-section in the winning culture, is acceptable). This historical “truth” is embraced by most college students even though real history is a stream of wars, destruction and oppression of the weak. Scheidler explains that the root cause of this myth is not really liberalism favoring free market capitalism so much as a much older predatory system that seeks increased gains for those in power, forever justified by a publicly announced mission to bring about religious salvation, and when that justification was scuttled, the mission was modified to bring about development, a free market, and a higher standard of living.

No matter what is blamed for wars, the overall promotion of consumerism and exploitation of the earth is running into two 21st century walls: a structural global economic crisis that “can no longer be explained away by the usual economic cycles” (loc 157 of 5298) and the steady dwindling lack of security for a growing number of people (let alone the issues of global warming and ecological crisis).  The End of the Megamachine is no mere exploration of a theory; it is a prophecy.

Scheidler supports his thesis with a historical study of cultural commercialism, and in so doing, he proves that we do not have to put up with the economic structure that we are saddled with today. The beginnings of the modern free market are tied to state gain. Scheidler asserts that those who “cultivated European market expansion at the threshold of modern times were not peaceful merchants” but they were in fact VIPs from militarized city states who used warfare “to assert their commercial interests” (1171). By contrast, Arab merchants did not use physical force and were not part of state policy making and were removed from state power.

The First Crusade involved the conquest of the port city of Acre in Galilee in 1104, for which Genoa received a third of the port city’s revenues The first crusade “led to the enormous enrichment of Genoese merchants and was the basis for much of the city’s subsequent power.” Scheilder cites William of Tyre’s eyewitness account of the massacre at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and it is horrific. The knights and soldiers from the Christian West massacred without mercy, and the “‘whole place was flooded with the blood of victims.’” Tyre described his revulsion at “‘the spectacle of headless bodies, mutilated limbs strewn in all directions that roused horror in all who looked upon them’ and insists that the victors themselves, dripping from blood from head to foot,’” brought terror to the beholder. In the Al Aqsa Mosque alone, ten thousand died, and a similar number of victims were dragged out from wherever they hid  in the city and slain like sheep or “‘dashed headlong to the ground from some elevated place so that they perished miserably.’” All the spoils went to the victors by agreement before the slaughter, explaining the pitiless lack of humanity among the victors (1197).

Scheidler observes that a similar fate awaited the inhabitants of the Americas, calling the phenomenon “destructive violence produced by the combination of capitalism, militarism and Western missionary zeal”(1197). He furthermore brands the Crusades (in which Europe was the victor) as revelatory of what the rest of the world would soon taste. From the Crusades, the West moved into new forms of mercenary combat that threw out old rules, evident in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France. The age of chivalry died when rules of combat were tossed aside and the number of dead were not limited—not even of other Christians. The “Black Prince,” Edward III’s son, resorted to a scorched earth policy that devastated large parts of southern France. His armies were financed by the Florentine banks, investors.

If the world’s wars have seemed disjointed or part of convoluted political maneuvering on a world stage, reading Scheidler’s assessment in the light of economic aggression and entitlement will have the advantage of tying everything together. He makes a tremendously strong argument for the driving force that could lead to mankind’s ultimate destruction. There is a section of the book that appears to argue that the belief systems supporting a dominant god have played into the global economic aggression, and that very well may be, but that segment (which many religious followers will take at least some issue with) does not detract from the overall convincing thesis that concepts can be distorted.  He draws attention to this idea by quoting Levi-Strauss, who wrote, “The primary function for writing as a means of communication is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings”(366). One would hardly imagine that Scheidler would advocate a cessation of writing and reading lessons; here, he simply makes a good point about propaganda and the power of disseminated ideas.

It is ironic that religious and philosophical playbooks for living at peace and in harmony with each other and the earth have been in existence for centuries, but mankind has chosen to applaud the road of greed. This is not a book without hope, for at the outset Scheidler explains that the entire world agricultural system could be shifted to organic within a few years, if people wanted. It was good that he started on such a note, because one needs a little hope in the face of such a tidal wave of evidence. #TheEndoftheMegamachine #NetGalley #JohnHuntPublishing
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Human society is not just heading in the wrong direction, it has forcefully made the wrong turn and doubled down on it for five thousand years now. According to Fabian Scheidler, whose book The End of the Megamachine has finally been published in English, that wrong approach can be clearly broken into four tyrannies that all trace their root to endless capital accumulation. It is an alternative history that can be very persuasive.

The four tyrannies are physical, economic, ideological, and linear thinking. Scheidler shows repeatedly how they have been manifesting themselves throughout history, causing ever-increasing misery and death, inequality and the destruction of the planet. At some point, the unceasing quest for growth at all costs must come to an end, as the planet will have been stripped of air, soil, water and its ability to sustain human life. 

It was not always so. Scheidler says that equality was the normal state. People had little and co-operated fully, for the benefit of all. Conspicuous consumption would have puzzled them. People must be forced to live under the thumb of others. Democracy was not invented by the ancient Greeks. It was corrupted by the ancient Greeks, as only white male elites could vote and hold office. Much as in the early years of the USA, only 15-20% of the populace qualified to participate.

The quest for more led to the subjugating of others. This required mercenaries to impose state violence on the general population, as no one would volunteer to do it. It made no sense to them. The mercenaries required payment to hang around, and that led to massive mining operations using forced, slave labor. As the snowball rolled, kingdoms went to war to obtain more silver through more mines and more slaves, leading to constant states of warring. There was never enough. It was a vicious circle of needing more money to pay more soldiers to find more silver to pay the soldiers. War profiteers became wealthier than the king.

He says that wars between countries used to be affairs of a few thousand men, as that was the most a king could round up – and afford. Technology, particularly in metallurgy, allowed for leverage in violence and death. And still does, as bigger and more weapons are widely available and in use continuously. Today, countries maintain armed forces in the millions. In World War II alone, 60-75 million people were killed. The curve is going parabolic, which is not encouraging for the future of mankind.

Religion fit perfectly into this scenario. Ideologies lent themselves to exclusivity, superiority, and subjugation of others. Early gods were specialized and equals among themselves. “The idea of a ruling god does appear in history until earthly forms of domination emerge,” Scheidler says. 

The other big invention was markets. Finding silver, making coins and distributing them to mercenaries solved a big problem. Armies could not travel far because of the weight and bulk of all the loot. Coins streamlined it all. But they necessitated the invention of supply chains as armies ranged ever further. Markets had to form to supply the war machine.

Coins became the government payment of choice. The greater population, which had none, were required to make tax payments in government coins instead of in kind. This quickly led to a new disease – debt. Constant indebtedness became the greatest misery for Man. It was passed on to future generations, caused people to go into slavery, sell their children and commit suicide. 

Markets were not and are not free markets. They were and continue to be corrupt. From trade deals to subsidies, from bribery to lobbying, and from consolidation by merger to hostile takeovers, markets have offered some huge gains over others. Monopoly is always the goal. Scheidler says “Where there is a truly free market, which means unrestricted competition, prices and profits quickly fall to a point where major reinvestments are no longer worthwhile.” This is clearly not the way of the world today. 

The low point of the misery came from the Europeans, who developed empires all over the world. By force, by violence, by inflicting misery, by wiping out entire populations and stripping out resources. And they did it in the name of God. “At the beginning of the modern era, Europeans turned half the world into a hell on earth in the name of salvation and progress.” He labels it the European trinity of military, merchants and missionaries, a most succinct and accurate summary of the fate of the world in the past thousand years.

Today, religion plays a smaller role thanks to the rise of the global corporation. The Dutch and the English allowed the forming of stock companies that could outlive a mere human owner, leading to literally endless quests for more profit. They used violence and the very armies of their base countries to enslave natives and send raw materials (especially gold and silver) back home for processing and further sale. The United States itself was founded by one of these companies in Jamestown.  It is the birthright of the USA, and the USA has been true to it ever since. 

The founding fathers were all multimillionaires in today’s dollars, and they set everything up to protect themselves from taxation on the one side and the will of the populace on the other. By creating a totally representative system they kept unwanted opinions out and by the system of checks and balances, prevented effective government from ever taking shape. It freed the wealthy to do as they pleased.

The rise of democracy has not been as much about spreading it as restricting it. Scheidler goes on at great length about how kings and presidents, and the founders of the USA all feared and continue to fear, actual democracy. They do not trust mere citizens, and inflict laws on them to restrain their democratic tendencies. By massive force whenever necessary.  The tendency to propose and protest for equal treatment and fairness is always perceived as an existential threat to those in power, and is promptly dealt with as such. No matter the innovation, it is immediately put down with state violence, sending a clear message to all who would follow. Whether it is protesting a fake election in Belarus or Black Lives Matter in the USA, it is intolerable to the leadership.

These tendencies keep showing up, because they are the natural state of Man. There are always groups protesting restrictions, promoting the common good, or equality, or civil rights. And the elected officials of the nation repress them with every tool available, from preventing funding of the post office to militarizing local police, to bringing in the armed forces. Secret court decisions, secret prisons, secret services and constant coverups are inherent devices of the money economy for Scheidler. There is no other way for them to operate and thrive.

There’s lots to challenge in Sheidler’s analysis. He says the whole idea of the USA was to form a powerful national government out of the various states, with a powerful federal army “to intervene in case the representatives failed to ‘refine and enlarge the public views.’” But the constitution plays the states off the federal government, making it weak and in constant competition with other bodies. Meanwhile, President George Washington flat out refused to have standing army at all, much to Alexander Hamilton’s dismay. Washington wanted to leave that burden to state militias (hence the gun lovers’ famous second amendment).

Scheidler also says Islam is unfairly labeled medieval, when “they have absolutely nothing to do with the Middle Ages and are the product of modern colonial history.” But one has only to look at Saudi Arabia, with its medieval king, medieval royal family and their absolute powers of life and death over their subjects, no matter where in the world they are living (or hiding). Relatives who remain loyally at home are nonetheless thrown into horrific prisons without charge, for life. Meanwhile the king foments chaos  in neighboring countries to keep them disorganized and off balance. This costs the lives of millions, and has no end game. Saudi Arabia is in fact as brutal and violent as any medieval monarchy, no matter what Scheidler says.

But overall, the path is pretty straightforward and clear; Scheidler is right overall. Endless capital accumulation is the way things have unfolded.

As for the future, he says, if we continue on this path, there will be an ugly end, as nature does not want to be dominated any more than our fellow humans. The astonishing increase in the rate of pollution cannot continue without ending life as we know it. On the other hand, there are always blooms in the detritus. He says numerous major cities around the world are taking back their municipal water systems from the incompetent and excessively greedy private sector. Electrical utilities, once back in the hands of local government, are implementing renewable and sustainable policies, quickly heading to zero use of fossil fuels. Local governments have also been on board for co-operative housing, taking massive numbers of housing units away from the global hedge funds that are wrecking the lives of millions. The same needs to be done against big agriculture. And big everything. It’s a realization that decentralization is far better for all. Too big to fail is a failure in itself.

Scheidler says the top 200 firms in the world produce 25% of the global national product, but employ only 0.75% of the labor force. It is still all and only about the profit. The centralizing of everything, collapsing and consolidating into megamachines, has gone too far. While the average person is ready and anxious to co-operate and deal with everyone as equal, the march of endless capital accumulation remains in direct conflict with that goal. Scheidler can only hope that more and more decentralizing can bloom, taking the world down to a human level, conscious of its effect on the planet and on fellow humans. 

David Wineberg
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