The Village Almost Without Greed

Lily Begg & James Soderholm

JS: I understand that you have read my dialogue with Drishti Rai (“The Village Without Greed”) and I am wondering how your present circumstances contribute to a discussion of what I shall politely called the depredations of capitalism. At times like these, I always seek out one of my oldest friends—etymology.

Depredation: late 15c., from Middle French déprédation, from Late Latin depraedationem (nominative depraedatio) "a plundering," from past participle stem of Latin depraedari "to pillage," from de-"thoroughly" (see de-) + praedari "to plunder," literally "to make prey of," from praeda "prey" (see prey (n.)).

Tell me more about your life in New Caledonia and what you have discovered about how the world works—and plays.

LB: I’ve only spent two months here in New Caledonia (a South Pacific island between Australia and New Zealand) and so I haven’t seen everything, but there are some striking aspects of life here which have caused much reflection. Firstly, to provide the backdrop. The indigenous inhabitants are called Kanaks. The French came here in full force in 1853, and New Caledonia only became autonomous in 1998 – the country is still a French overseas territory. Up until the 80s, the Kanaks were treated as inferior and still to this day they are mistrusted to govern their own country. However, despite this massive intrusion of the West on this little mountainous island, many Kanaks I met have rigidly resisted adopting a capitalist mind-set – the Western brainwashing programme which very few have flouted. All Kanaks now have the same right to education as the French as well as the same right to work, but a minimal percentage do. As a result, they are often criticised as lazy, but that makes me laugh and laugh because what they are is exceptionally clever. Kanaks are used to living life as “peasants”, in the sense that they tend to their fields, go fishing in the rich ocean and rivers and hunt in the deer-ridden forests. Being a peasant doesn’t mean that they are poor – to them, life like this is abundant, as nature gives everything that man would ever need and more. Furthermore, the tribal system in which Kanaks still live means that a family clan is tied to the same piece of land, and that everything must be shared. Usually, one clan member gets a job, and the money is used by everyone for beer, cigarettes and rice, as these are the only real expenses. Most show little interest in material possession – the tribal system demands that everything is shared equally between its members, which is supposed to eliminate personal greed, and the lack of shops means that there is little to aspire to buy. Why go to work when there is nothing really to spend money on? Yet I’m still constantly amazed by how the temptations of capitalism don’t cause even the slightest stir in the tribe. I was fortunate to spend some time living with a tribe and there I passed several days with an incredibly wise and highly-respected man, le vieux Dede. Dede lives by repeating catch phrases which he deems to be nuggets of wisdom. One nugget which he like to repeat an awful lot is: “money comes and goes, so it’s best left alone.” However, I don’t want to depict a perfectly innocent, capitalist-free people. They really do like their cigarettes and beer, and they don’t complain for a second about having to buy that.

JS: Why do they like their cigarettes and beer? The Kanaks sound a bit like many people under Soviet or any other oppressive rule who have learnt how to play the system: they barely have to work and everyone lives ‘well’. Full ‘employment’ but no one is making much money and no one is working very hard. In contrast to America. How can one culture presume to judge another? And yet we do it all the time. You are doing it by replicating the white guilt you grew up with and beating up on Western imperialist stooges. The difference is: you have empirical evidence and ‘ethnography’ on your side. That allows you to have a go at the French and by implication all colonial powers because you have first-rate second-hand experience about the oppressed islanders. Do you think that not all cultures are created equal? Are you morally disgusted enough with Western culture and its depredations to remove yourself from them? Or is the best thing to travel, to learn other customs, to see the temptations and horrors of unregenerate capitalism and then attempt to check or curb its greed and rapacity once you have returned to its comfort, safety and luxury?

LB: You are quite right—it is far too easy for me to beat up my own culture from my privileged standpoint, where I am fortunate enough to have seen into both worlds. However, I believe that it is my duty to use this privilege to help change things and that starts exactly like this; by having public discussions to raise awareness. I do not think that any culture is superior to another; however, it is undeniable that colonisation was one of the most terrible ideas that the West has ever had, and we are quite simply not doing enough to repair what we damaged and obliterated. What I do believe, however, is that an indigenous culture is most suited to rule in its own country than foreign systems of ruling are. They say that it takes a people 300 years after first settlement to understand the place in which they have settled, and how to use it as well as how to give back to it. The Kanaks have been in New Caledonia for 3,000 years, and all of their knowledge and understanding has developed in the context of where they live, therefore all of their principles and customs are in perfect harmony with their surroundings. They know how to cultivate the right crops at the right time of year, how not to overfish certain species and how to protect the coastline from erosion by planting mangroves – their indigenous knowledge has preserved the island for thousands of years. However, since the West has been there, we have managed to decapitate mountains from nickel-mining, which then causes landslides in the rainy season because all the trees are gone, we have brought our European plants which are gradually beginning to dominate the endemic plants, pushing them further to extinction, and the deer and pigs which were imported for sport a hundred years ago have now become an extreme pest problem as there are no mammals on the island to compete with/ prey upon them, and they are munching through all the virgin forests. The list could really go on a long time. The point is that the Western culture has no idea about how to be present in and in harmony with an island in the South Pacific, and so it seems dreadfully wrong that it now dictates the way in which things are conducted. This is what I believe needs to change. A capitalist system with Western ideals is never going to work there. The French state will always defend itself by quite rightly pointing out that it gives as much money and opportunities to the Kanaks as possible – free education, free health care and other social benefits. But this money does no good – all it does is erode the Kanak’s independence, as they are just being taught how to rely on western privileges and how to forget their own way of educating, healing and surviving. Which, by the way, they did perfectly well for 3,000 years. The situation has reached a point where it’s critical, as most traditional knowledge and guidance is being forgotten rapidly and the Kanaks are losing touch with their understanding of the land around them. For example, traditionally, a field is burned after several harvests in order to replenish the soil’s nutrients so that yield continues to be high. According to the traditional way, this burning is supposed to be done in the evening – because the sea breeze of the morning has died down, dew will calm the heat and you see problematic embers better at night. But nowadays, most either ignore or are unaware of this rule. During my time in New Caledonia this year, the country saw the most disastrous forest fires its ever seen – over 300 in total, and thousands of hectares of land burned. Pretty much every fire was started by irresponsible field-burning.

And to answer the cigarettes and beer question. They “like” beer because they have become hereditary alcoholics after decades of being pumped with alcohol as a tool of oppression. Kanaks weren’t introduced to alcohol as a social substance and so they have never seen it as a substance of moderation. These lessons have stayed with them, and continue to plague their society. The cigarettes are a bad habit picked up from the French and are one of the only things readily available in the few shops there are.

JS: I think ‘consciousness raising’ or ‘raising awareness’ are overrated. Barn raising is not overrated. Or building a habitat for humanity, as Jimmy Carter advised and followed through on—helping thousands of people build homes [Habitat has helped more than 4 million people construct, rehabilitate or preserve more than 800,000 homes since its founding in 1976, making Habitat the largest not-for-profit builder in the world]. Spreading the word is all well and good but what you were doing in New Caledonia seems to me far superior to entering the nebulae of editorial consciousness, the easy grafting in the margins of the problem rather than taking a hammer to capitalist adventurousness (to put it kindly) by helping the islanders reclaim their ancient and authentic way of life. Is it possible to wean the Kanaks away from Western corruptions and luxuries? Or is that ugly genie well out of the [beer] bottle? As you rightly observe, capitalism and democracy do not always transplant very well, particularly in far-flung and basically tribal cultures. And yet—I have to ask—how do you know for sure, on limited experience, that the Kanaks are not somewhat happy about getting to try a few ‘Western’ vices? How much immersion would it take—especially an immersion in their language and, what’s much more, their idioms and expressions, to fathom the degree of their delight or dole in their susceptibility to Western forms of pleasure?

I really admire you for your ethnic and ethical excursions—they are far more than I ever did at your age—but I am also suspicious of hanging a Western ‘mea culpa’ plank around one’s neck whilst one is enjoying all the freedoms and liberality that made one’s excursions possible in the first place. You wanted me to hold your privileged feet to the fire for a reason, no?

LB: That’s the problem. They are “happy” to adopt and succumb to a few Western vices. But this a complicated kind of happiness. Happy, because they have no choice. They are aware that the world is for the most part run by capitalist systems, for they have now been wrenched into closer contact with the outside world: Canada and Japan own the some of the mines, and Australia is keen to develop the tourist industry there. They know that undoing these connections to the outside world is impossible – the country is too clearly on the map now - and so to some extent they have to keep up rather than fight against it. Even though they know that the French education system has no relevance to their immediate way of life in the tribe, that education gives them an advantage in the outside world, of which they are unavoidably a part. So they are “happy” to be French, but they wouldn’t be if they didn’t have to be. And like you say, once the capitalist genie is out of the bottle, it’s pretty hard to put him back in. Kanaks are so used to having gas stations where they can buy baguettes and booze and cigarettes, that it would be impossible to go back completely to how it was before. But their tribal values do very often come into conflict with Western ones, and to a surprising extent they have managed to resist the plagues of the system which crushes them by sticking to the system they know and trust. From what I have seen, their nonchalance when faced with money-earning opportunities is remarkable, and this is what gives me hope. We do not need to “wean” the Kanaks away from Western corruptions. We just need to stop bringing our corruptions into their society - what is the West even doing over there, still wrecking things by writing poorly-suited laws and school curricula? Did they not get the memo that colonisation was over? The Kanaks should be allowed to decide for themselves how they want to interact with the capitalist world around them – it could be possible for them to rule over their own territory with their tribal system, and at the same time use their experience of capitalism to navigate relations with the outside world.

As for myself, I have been born into the Western system, and I am through and through British from a family which runs on Western, capitalist ideals. I can’t just be lily-livered and leave this system because I’m upset by what it does to other cultures and I can’t jump into the tribe and become a “socialist” Kanak either. I am not and never can be a Kanak. But I can do two things: I can change my own system. And I can fight to stop my system from squashing out other systems. That includes standing alongside peoples like the Kanaks and helping them “take a hammer” to the foreign system which threatens their culture’s survival, as well as the survival of the natural environment in which they live. I agree, chatting to you is doing nothing for the fate of the Kanaks. When I was in the tribe I was helping in a language preservation project – a linguist there is writing a dictionary and grammar book of the language Vamale, which has until now been an exclusively oral language, and his project is sparking some motivation to keep the language in use in the tribe. Even though I was there for such a short time, I could see the importance of the project and how it really had the power to fight against the erosion of ancient knowledge and Kanak identity. My plan is to join or start other projects like this, and to go back to countries like New Caledonia as soon as possible.

JS: I suppose what I would want to know at this point is what several conversations on this very subject in their native language would yield from the Kanaks. Did you engage any of them in these issues? Did you get a sense of their ‘take’ on the very mixed blessing—or rather mixed curse—of Western encroachment? Is colonisation ever over until a culture throws it off completely or naturalises its rituals and routines, blending them more or less felicitously with more ancient practices?

Your thoughts bring to mind a couple of lines from William Blake:

“I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.”
“One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.”

LB: I have found this question difficult to answer as of course I’m limited to the interactions which I had there, which might not have always been genuine: sometimes it was hard to tell whether people were putting a brave face on things, or whether they were actually in denial. Most of the conversations which I had gave me the impression that every Kanak was PROUD to be a Kanak, and that their loyalty to their traditions and beliefs were powerful forces which preserved them as Kanaks, even against the inevitable encroachment of the Western world. “On fait comme ça chez nous!” was proclaimed proudly by smiling Kanaks whenever they taught me something about tribal life. However, there were moments where the wounds of their communal identity crisis were revealed to me, where I saw how impossible they found it to reconcile their Kanak selves with the French self which had been forcibly, but inextricably woven into them. Once, some middle-aged men explained to me and Jean how they had been beaten at school for speaking in their tribal language, and how they were so afraid that they obediently learned French. Of course, there were some who rebelled quietly against this linguistic oppression – children would hide in abandoned huts after school and chat in their maternal tongue, finding liberation and shelter inside their ancestral voice. But, after so many years of being told that their language was inferior to French, many started to believe it, for real. This belief in their inferiority seeped into other areas of their lives: wow, the white man has made cars and bridges and boats and gunpowder. They are so much more advanced than us – we’d be better off being French like them! What unnerved me most about my time in the tribe was that to a certain extent, this conviction that the white man is in some way superior still exists. “C’est lourd d’être Kanak” is how someone phrased it to me – heavy from carrying the trauma of oppression, but also heavy because they are doomed to carry around two conflicting identities which can never be combined, but can never be separated either. This weight contributes to their inability to fight for their independence – many are scared that they will be a weaker country without the guidance, the money and the military protection of the French. So, to explain the relevance of that to your question – to a certain extent, they are incapable of seeing some of the most toxic Western encroachments as a curse, as they are complimentary add-ons to their sewn-on French self which must be absorbed.

There is something else at work which prevents the Kanaks from “throwing off” a colonial encroachment. A philosophy essential to the Kanak is the importance of just letting things happen, and not fighting against fate. This attitude means that the Kanaks don’t mind the inevitable yearly cyclone which damages their houses and boats. It means that they accept bad fortune as an important learning process, rather than grieving and complaining. So, somehow, they have to include the violence of colonialism in this. Despite their pride in traditions and Kanak-ness, in some areas they didn’t mind yielding to alternative methods. Kanaks maintain a “laissez-faire” attitude in life – linked to their ability to go with the flow in life - which means that they are quite easily tempted to take the path of less resistance in life. When I was there, the boys had embarked upon a pirogue-building project – a traditional boat carved from a Colonnary Pine with axes and machetes. After about two hours of hacking away sweatily with axes, Tarsis dug out a motorised sander and the boys all dropped their axes and machetes and watched the power tool do its work. Jean-Philippe lit up a joint and they laughed when Jean pointed out that this wasn’t a very traditional boat-building method.

Furthermore, these days a neo-colonisation is taking its grip all across the world. It is a colonisation masquerading in the form of mobile phones and access to internet and Western books. These devices, platforms and resources of information are all portals which were created by and for the Western lifestyle, without consideration for the perspective or needs of people like the Kanaks. Although at the moment, not all tribes have internet access or phone reception, this is certainly something which will infiltrate in the coming years. This inevitability paired with the Kanaks’ willingness to accept whatever comes their way, worries me in terms of their ability to fight for the preservation of their ancient knowledge. Although I maintain that Kanaks are and always will be fundamentally resistant to ideals of the West such as capitalism and individualism, I fear that they will far too willingly assimilate Western short-cuts to the detriment of their traditional methods.

It is indeed heavy to be a Kanak, and my impression is that they live in a very confused way, and that sometimes denial is an attitude which must be adopted in order to get on with life. If a Kanak were to sit around all day thinking about all these poisonous ways in which the Western way has infiltrated their minds and their lifestyle, and their fundamental inability to resist that, it would certainly provoke a violent identity crisis of the individual. Denial is the best form of self-protection.

JS: Once colonial genies are out of the bottle they are not easily stuffed back in. The colonialists want to keep the genies extant and influential, it seems, even long after the colonialism has peaked. The colonized tribes—I am generalizing here—no doubt want to re-bottle the genie but your narrative suggests that—in the case of the Kanaks—habit, curiosity and fatalism combine to make them assimilate outside influences and ideals.

I read somewhere that George Washington’s rudimentary foreign policy was: “Keep your powder dry and stay home.” In other words, prepare for war but do not seek it out. Imperialism, expansionism, colonialism and empire make an alteration: “Keep your powder dry and don’t stay home.” But not all cultures are grasping and “outward looking,” at least not nearly to the same degree. How can we explain this radical difference in degree of acquisitiveness? Were the Kanaks ever expansionist, even if that only meant poking around a neighboring island to see what they could get off of it? At the other end of the spectrum is someone like King Leopold II of Belgium, who just had to go to the Congo to loot it as efficiently and rapaciously as possible, murdering the natives as necessity required. I submit that these colonial forays and empire-building adventures have little to do with capitalism, because many of them pre-date capitalism by thousands of years. And it is not simply a matter of the conquering West. Empires have come and gone for all of recorded history. And they were even more brutal long before capitalism rode into town. And so I put it to you: why do so many human beings find it so difficult to keep their powder dry—and stay the hell home? Is this lethal restlessness somehow tied to Pascal’s observation that “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

LB: In fact, the ancestors of the Kanaks were the some of the earliest and most intrepid colonisers of all time. In the prehistoric era (around 1000 BCE), the Lapita people of modern-day Papua New Guinea felt a bit crowded and bored on the island, so they left in search of new lands. They built enormous boats, selected men and women in equal numbers and set out to discover and create new tribal settlements. All the islands in the South Pacific were uninhabited at this time – they were land formations which had (fairly) recently emerged due to tectonic plate movements and volcanic activity. The Lapita were able to locate tiny islands hidden in the enormous Pacific Ocean – their navigating knowledge and techniques were far superior to those of Western colonisers. Furthermore, when the Lapita people arrived in modern-day New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands, etc. there was no one to colonise – just the forests and the beaches. The Kanaks are the descendants of these intrepid explorers. The Oceanic ethnicities which are referred to as Melanesians, Polynesians and Micronesians are all descendants of the Lapita. However, there is very little coverage in the history books about the Lapita people and their explorations since their existence was discovered by colonial archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries; it was not in the colonials’ interest to make public the fact that their COLONISED natives could have been more sophisticated colonisers themselves! But yes, the point is that Kanaks are inherently adventurous. The arrival of French colonials was a pretty abrupt and efficient end to their adventuring, however. They do still have a custom which encourages them marry into different tribes (avoiding incest) and quite often the mainlanders mix with the Loyalty Islanders: they tend to marry Kanak, but they will marry the most far-flung Kanak they can find. Marriages with Polynesians and Ni-Vanuatu aren’t uncommon either. Apart from that they (mostly) stick to the tribe because the tribal system compels them to. Also, due to CAPITALISM (yes, it's back), they don’t have the funds to go adventuring these days. But, just like all us humans, they have an adventurous spirit – every Kanak I spoke with spoke to me about the outside world and places they had never been, and would never have the chance to go to.

Don’t be silly, none of us is really ever going to be able to stay at home. There’s no point in trying to stifle a desire that is impossible to stifle. Humans are instilled with a desire to explore, to experience new things, and an inability to resist the urge to look further around the corner or climb higher in the tree. This is something profoundly beautiful about that, too. It is instead the way in which we approach this exploration where problems arise. We can explore and reinvent and settle without oppressing anybody, and without damaging the world around us. If we do it properly.

JS: World history is a narrative that goes from exploration to exploitation without much punctuation. What separates an ‘intrepid explorer’ from a ‘bloody colonialist’? The consequences? The intent? Who decides that?

LB: Hm. I would argue that the slope between exploration and exploitation isn’t very slippery. Surely there is a big difference between being a curious, open-minded explorer, keen to see and experience what there is outside a sphere of familiarity, and then trampling onto an unknown piece of land, and seeing it as just land to be exploited for its produce and to be taken away from the people who are already living on it, even if that involves violence. Surely it’s possible to explore without oppressing other people and bypassing basic human respect for them? Perhaps a bit of Kanak thinking could guide the intrepid explorer: land owns us, rather than we own the land. We are temporary guardians of land, and we are tied to it out of our responsibility towards it – to cultivate and to keep it alive, rather than being tied to it financially and possessively. Since we do not own the land, we cannot refuse entry to others wanting to live there and we have no right to remove anyone from the land. It was this Western idea of land ownership which made our civilisation so greedy in the first place that we were willing to place that above a need to respect other human beings.

JS: I think civilized travelling is benign exploration, now mostly degenerating into routine tourism, for most people. But humans have been hunter-gatherers for thousands of years, for far more years than they have settled down as agrarians or, latterly, as industrialists. And most of that roaming was in search of food to eat and then resources to use. So I think the impulse to go from exploration to exploitation is deeply embedded in us. A polite handful of explorers do not exploit, unless buying souvenirs from the locals is exploitative. I think we are ‘temporary guardians of the land’ but I also think that is a minority view. Most people and nations are happy to grab whatever they can get off someone else’s territory. The Congo in the last one hundred years and the next one hundred years is going to make Dante’s Inferno look like a Sunday picnic because of the rapaciousness of those exploring\exploiting. That forward slash is the slippery slope, and human greed ices it over every day.

LB: Yes, history has proven that it is greed which makes that slope slippery, even though in theory I don’t believe it has to be. And yes, tourism is fake exploration, and often verges on exploitation in that way that the country has to sell itself in perfectly-formed packages and stereotyped spectacles to exhibit its culture for applauding, open-mouthed and money-throwing tourists. But. I’m young and optimistic. My generation is horrified at the consequences of colonisation, and unsatisfied with the exploitative nature of much tourist activity. Perhaps it’ll be us who finally work out how to abandon that obsession with drawing red lines on maps and gathering up slithers of land. I’m not naïve enough to think that we aren’t greedy. But I do think that we’ve reached a point where most things in the world have been so ruined by this Dantesque narrative of stealing and pillaging and enslaving that we cannot possibly find a way to justify that any longer. The media, despite all its flaws, is everywhere, and now that a lot of media is shared independently by individuals it is unforgiving in exposing the truth – e.g., the recent exposure of slavery in Libya. The world will always be full of bad people acting on greed with no concern for other human beings or the natural world, but I believe that this will become an increasingly less powerful and restricted minority.

JS: I would have thought that capitalism and globalisation are the twin-justifications for continuing exploitation of various countries and their populations: an entrepreneurial ambitiousness tempered in some—if not many?—cases by a true concern to raise the standard of living of the workers who put together my Jermyn Street shirts (very few of which are ‘made in England’). But I suspect the kind of colonialism the French and Belgians (and many others) practised in the last century is mostly dead. And so we will not have to countenance the kind of report that Marlow sent to us from the heart of darkness over a century ago:

It was a wanton smash-up. At last I got under the trees. My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno.

Any yet 50 elephants are still slaughtered every day in the Congo for their ivory tusks. Of course, the number was much higher when Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness (1899). I suppose we can call that ‘progress in history’. If we could only change human beings, and not merely tinker with economic systems and forms of government, imagine how the world might be refreshed and enlivened overnight.