Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation–an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream. The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes. That is the very last thing that any left-winger wants. Yet the left-winger continues to feel that he has no moral responsibility for imperialism. He is perfectly ready to accept the products of Empire and to save his soul by sneering at the people who hold the Empire together.
Now that I’m thinking a little more clearly, I can recognise that the hopelessness I’ve been feeling lately, which reached its height this morning, stems from a very old source. Here it is:
Ever since I read this passage years ago in George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier”, I’ve been haunted by it. To me it’s as true now as it was in 1937. The Empire is dead of course, but the underlying economic structure of the world has barely changed. Governors and missionaries have been replaced by free trade laws and World Bank bureaucrats, but the essential dynamic of a handful of rich nations sucking the lifeblood out of the rest of the world remains exactly the same.
The question for me is, how not to acquiesce in a system I despise? How to live in a capitalist, imperialist society without adding to the problem? Because as Malcolm X said, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. And right now I certainly don’t feel like part of the solution. In fact I have only a hazy notion of what the solution is. So I’m stuck with eating my strawberries and taking my taxis and suffering occasional bouts of self-hatred.
When I read so much left-wing writing (my own included), I can’t help thinking of Orwell. Are we really trying to change the world? Or are we just trying to save our souls? As the famous anit-war slogan went, “Not in our name.” The implication being, you can go ahead and do it but I’ll have a clean conscience because I marched down 5th Avenue waving a placard, as I will not tire of reminding people every time I comment on the mess of the Iraq war. I’ll bash Bush, skewer Cheney, ridicule Blair and feel better about myself. I’m on the right side. I’ll even make sure all my rampant consumption is of the organic, fairtrade, hempwoven, conflict-free variety, and pay for it with a credit card that gives 0.5% of my largesse to charity.
But after all of this, am I free of moral responsibility for Iraq, for Palestine, for Gitmo, for Fallujah, for Abu Ghraib? Or am I just sneering on the sidelines, trying to salve my battered conscience by pretending to oppose that which is necessary for the perpetuation of my life as it stands? Am I prepared to go the extra mile? To put my comfortable little life on the line? To risk arrest or worse? Is anything less really acceptable given the state of the world? If this is not an emergency, then what does an emergency look like? Can I in all honesty call myself part of the solution, or am I just another soul-saving left-winger who in the final analysis is just part of the problem?