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Polite Fictions spacer Issue 3
Polite Fictions
by om lekha
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There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles;
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George Bernard Shaw
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A major drawback to commenting on exploitation and the hypocrisies it generates is that one is inevitably being topical, with the attendant dangers of being assumed into the foul charade of moral posturing that topicality breeds. And now that the spiritual loathsomeness of our venture has been indicated, let us proceed.
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First to put on a naïve position: that somehow it is a mystery that the simple, visceral pleasures in life are inextricably linked to abstract, global forces such as politics, law and economics. Why does it seem so contradictory that the ape's teeth piercing the apple's flesh be both simple immediate necessity and the consummation of its subsumed position in some dull overworld, be it woolly biosphere or proto-Marxist totality of material relations?
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The mystery and the contradiction are illusions of course, because what trades under the name of politics, law and economics is no more abstract than eating, sleeping and shitting. They are comprised of a multitude of actualities. What makes these actualities more than just more conjured abstraction is our knowing them as vehicles for the exercise of power. Further to this is the understanding of our own role as agents of power - active, participative, exploitative, subject. The alternative is an eternity as hollow men, which follows from our understanding the world as hollow of its actuality, its reality, which is to sever thought from deed. This is the dead land of modernity, the cactus land of post-modernity.
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This arrangement is no different now to any other time in human history. It is tempting and narcissistic to think otherwise; for example to imagine that the almost ostentatious notion that food itself is now the ghost at the feast [genetic modification as body-horror morbidity where food equals poison, patenting of crops as the ultimate in alienation between material world and its administration] is karmic retribution for the immoral exploitations carried out by Imperial powers leading up to and following the industrial revolution.
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The opportunistic marauders who did the groundwork for the sweetened tea, coffee and chocolate bar that one intends to enjoy shortly may have pushed discourtesy to the level of positive undecorousness at the time, but what does it say about our own élan that we perceive ourselves within the systems of their devising - legal, economic, political - rather than reading those systems as purely functional tools, and getting on with the task at hand - devising and modifying our own tools to our own ends?
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By their fruits you shall know them, and included in the fruits of imperial adventuring are spuds, coffee, sugar, tea, tomatoes, and a multitude of herbs and spices, amongst many other pleasures. The history of how these foodstuffs came to the nascent powers of Europe reveals the same level of low-down realpolitical skulduggery that accompanies much of the current foreign policy of nation states. The original large-scale importing of tea from China is a case in point. While China remained outside of immediate European control in the 17 & 1800s, the strict controls on foreign merchants in China, due to Europe simply not providing goods that China would want prior to the Industrial revolution and a history of Chinese economic and cultural protectionism, was challenged by the British East India Company illegally trading opium for tea and other goods, despite the fierce hostility of the Chinese government to having industrial quantities of opium floating about the general populace.
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The British were relieved of the dependence on China for tea by early industrial espionage, procuring enough seeds to establish plantations in the Indian region of Assam, under British rule
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with the rest of India. The plantation system itself, using the land and people of conquered and subjugated colonies to develop new industries, was developed firstly by the Dutch in the East Indies [modern-day Indonesia] in the early 1600s, where spices were grown for export. European investment in developing an infrastructure in its colonies that was geared towards producing large quantities of cash crops for export, without altering significantly the subsistence farming sector, has historically contributed to the inbuilt instability of post-colonial countries. Specialisation can work as part of a closed economic system, such as within an imperial domain, but when subject to the fluctuations of the open market poverty and starvation will come around sooner or later.
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The plantation system is most famously linked to the sugar industry in the West Indies. The development of the sugar industry was directly linked with the African slave trade, due to the harsh physical demands and labour intensiveness of farming sugar. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French were involved in early ventures in sugar production, but British Imperial hegemony led to a significant involvement in this efficacious business. The triangular trade maximised the profitability of going to sea, whereby manufactured goods were shipped from Britain to Africa, traded for a cargo of slaves, the slaves then brought to the West Indies to work on the plantations and the hull filled with sugar and rum for the homeward trip.
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What better reason could there ever be for causing suffering than in the pursuit of one's own pleasure? The hues of these pleasures may vary from the debased and acrid textures of one's heart of darkness, to the pleasant aromas of the parlour, and a nice cup of tea. What a sorry state to be implicated in the suffering of others and still remain numb to the pleasures consequent from that situation - shape without form, shade without colour, like an apple without flavour, knowledge without revelation. To assert the primacy of system over agency, to cast the world as a sphere of regulation rather than action is to exemplify paralysed force, gesture without motion. Let us be done with sightless eyes, let us be done with seeing when it's too late.
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Behaving as the wind behaves.
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