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Excerpt from Dreams

Gifts (p. 230)

From chapter "Materialism"

It won’t surprise us to learn that materialism developed relatively simultaneously in three places in the world. Nor will it surprise us to learn when and where: about 2,600 years ago, in India, China, and Greece, the centers of three great civilizations, three hot spots for the emergence of the wétiko sickness. In each of these places, the necessary characteristics of civilization were already present, which are, according to Lewis Mumford, “the centralization of political power, the separation of classes, the lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the universal introduction of slavery and forced labor for both industrial and military purposes.”And because a necessary precondition for exploitation is that you deafen yourself to the suffering of those you are exploiting, also already in place were philosophical, religious, epistemological, legal, and other means to silence those to be exploited, including nonhumans. And what better way to silence these others than to deny their subjective existence? What better way to rationalize enslaving others—forcing them to jump through hoops on command— than to dissolve the reciprocal bonds of responsibility between you and all others? As Ajita Kesakambali, a materialistic philosopher from India, put it some 2,600 years ago, “There is no such thing as alms or sacrifice or offering. There is neither fruit nor result of good or evil deeds . . . It is a doctrine of fools, this talk of gifts. It is an empty lie, mere idle talk, when men say there is profit herein.”I don’t think Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris would disagree.

I do think indigenous—“uncivilized”—peoples the world over would strongly disagree. For the indigenous, and indeed, for all living beings, life is about responsibility, in its root meaning of “giving in return.” Giving in return is—lies by people like Richard Dawkins aside—the fundamental principle upon which natural selection has forever been based. We have been told that natural selection is based on competition, but as I’ve shown elsewhere, and as is easy to show, this is not true. We can show this in one sentence: Those creatures who have survived in the long run have survived in the long run; you don’t survive in the long run by hyperexploiting your surroundings; you survive in the long run by improving, strengthening, your habitat. This is what beings do. How do you think the world became so wildly diverse, so wildly resilient (resilient enough to survive an asteroid, resilient enough to so far survive this culture), so beautiful, so strong? It is because animals, plants, rivers, rocks, trees, fungi, bacteria, and everyone else have all worked together to make it so. It didn’t happen by magic (unless you call the movement of blood through capillaries magic, and the turning of tiny seeds into giant redwoods magic, and the long relationships between rivers and mountains magic, and the existence of sea cucumbers magic, and the complex dance between all members of natural communities magic). It happens because these beings live and die, and because how they live and how they die—and because what they give to those around them—makes those around them stronger.

Gifts must be given for everything that is taken. Nonhumans understand this. So do indigenous humans. It is only the civilized who believe that the giving of gifts, and the giving of offerings, is a doctrine of fools. Small wonder, since the common factor in all exploitation— and the common factor in the religions, philosophies, epistemologies, politics, and so on of civilizations—is a lack of reciprocity. This is central to slavery. This is central to military and/or economic conquest and exploitation. This is central to rape. This is central to modern science. This is central to modern culture.

But that does not mean that anything is free. Everyone pays. It’s just that some do not acknowledge that they are doing so.