A Call for Community
Will We Accept Failure as They Have?
Inaction has consequences. The structural fractures in the current global economic order are spreading, but the power elite who stand to benefit from its survival are too busy satisfying their greed to recognize its weaknesses as such. Yet just as serfs depend on their masters, we on the lower strata will be the first to suffer as the pool of wealth dries up. Corporations, tyrannical systems that amass power by at once creating vast wealth and depriving the majority of most of it, permeate our coalescing economies. Our day-to-day lives have been reduced to a series of monetary transactions involving corporations. Such ubiquity means that when they suffer, we suffer. As the tiny minority who possess the most utilize any and all means available to get even more, economic activity is losing steam as less people have the means to participate in the economy. This is clearly unsustainable, but when greed is deemed good, getting more becomes even more important than maintaining the health of the systems on which one depends—whether that be the economy, educating our children, or even the biosphere itself. By undermining the health of capitalism, the elite who derive their power from it are unwittingly severing the chains of more and more people as unemployment grows, commerce slows and financial health deteriorates. Though the un- and underemployed are justifiably upset for not being able to secure a niche in today’s capitalist economy—for there is presently no viable alternative in which to provide for oneself—the masses are finally beginning to scrutinize what they had heretofore blindly accepted.
The Short Version
A half-century of America as a global superpower began as a result of advantageous circumstances in which the “United States accounted for one-third of world exports and half of the world’s manufacturing.” Hedges, Chris. The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, p. 257. Perseus Books Group, 2011. World War II left much of the rest of the world in rubble and we were happy to help rebuild it. We soon became accustomed to the comforts that this position afforded us, but when the rest of the developed world recovered, their rivaling economies began to shift the weight around. As the decades have passed, less and less have we been able to create wealth by producing and exporting. Economic power is as corrupting as any other kind. Given humanity’s population growth, an increase in international trade was surely inevitable, but the nature of today’s global economy is not the result of laws of nature; rather, it is the result of conscious design by the developed countries with the military might to make sure the systems of exchange are tipped in their direction. Through various means has the United States, more than any other political economy, been able to not only preserve but increase its exceptional level of consumption Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H. The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, p. 217. Island Press, 2008.: suckering developing countries into accepting trade agreements in which we can siphon away their human and natural resources; propping up and renewing support for authoritarian regimes where our multinational corporations have an “interest”; using our technology to extract and sell raw materials, whether or not they are located within our borders; our highly illegal wars of aggression over natural resources and economic hegemony, not to mention the uncounted covert military operations carried out for the same reasons. This neocolonialism differs from the older type only in its methods; by and large the Western nations’ use of overt military force for economic aims is not as common as it once was simply because the indirect approach has become more effective.
We outsourced our manufacturing to the impoverished regions of the world, where labor comes cheap, so as to gain even more immediate wealth. But for a country to maintain extreme consumption without actually manufacturing very much is a very hard thing to do. Ultimately, for a nation’s consumption to significantly exceed its manufacturing as the United States has done is inherently unsustainable because doing so makes us extremely dependent on imports. So it seems we are about to reap what we have sown. Slowly but surely, making products for multinational companies based in the West schooled the peoples of the developing world in modern methods of production, who now have companies of their own that can compete in the global market. Although fears that China and India will soon become the world’s dual economic superpowers are unwarranted, it is true that the concentration of the world’s wealth is shifting away from the United States. Lacking the financial strength to keep importing like we once could, and because we essentially gave away our manufacturing sector, our level of consumption has begun to drop. Hence our faltering economy.
Deregulation has been all the rage for some time now, and though the self-destructive short-sightedness of unrestrained greed should have become obvious in these years following the late-2000s global financial crisis, the persistent popularity of deregulation is a reflection of just how widespread the mind-reality disconnect is in this country. The short-lived gains in wealth (mostly for the already wealthy) initiated in the 1970s by letting loose certain market forces—though not all, as exemplified by the Reagan administration’s liberal doses of corporate welfare—led to a prevalent faith in unfettered capitalism. And even now, after the whole thing has blown up in our faces, Wall Street still remains relatively deregulated. The ones who want change are, for all intents and purposes, the disenfranchised masses who are trying to make a living on Main Street. Our country’s once-bustling service sector is running out of fuel. Our outsourced economy was dependent on neverending growth, something which just never happens; and America is about to experience the brunt of corporate-led globalization. Occasional slumps should be a regularity for economies. The healthy ones can recover because they have a history of dealing with such downswings; a society hooking unsuccessful companies up to life-support is one that does not know how to adapt. Business-friendly politicians may shout “laissez-faire” when confronted with regulatory legislation, but that philosophy mysteriously disappears when the topic of subsidizing big business comes up. The primary reason the U.S. economy has not been able to recover from the financial crisis that began when the housing bubble burst is a very simple one, and one that portends a bleak future for this country as we know it: the disappearance of the manufacturing sector. This structural weakness has been with us for some time—we’ve just been too busy eating at the trough to notice it as such. Not all of us, of course. Whether it’s CEOs vs. assembly line workers, stockholders vs. stakeholders, suburbs vs. inner-city ghettos, the financial sector vs. the manufacturing sector, etc., the disparity of wealth has reached astounding proportions. Though the recession came as a surprise to most, the consequences of unfettered capitalism are hardly unpredictable, as there are analogues to the current situation. Preceding the Great Depression was a decade in which government had a very “friendly” relationship with big business; and the overconfidence that was also pervasive at that time ended in a way not unlike how it did for us in 2007-8, with their speculative bubble bursting in the 1929 stock market crash.
The Long Road to the Present Day
Although the concentration of capital in the hands of a relative few gives them great influence over the state of things, today’s world is much more a product of long historical trends (i.e. exogenous, or outside, forces) than it is consciously designed by human beings. The homogenization of contemporary society and culture, from city to city, business to business, country to country, etc. has come about because the minds and actions of more and more people are tied less and less to their local vicinity, and more to institutions based far away. This is anything but a recent phenomenon. Over many millennia human societies have witnessed local authorities wane as power has shifted to distant institutions, a phenomenon which is especially acute in the present-day with our globalized economy dominated by multinational corporations and nation-states.
Two longstanding criticisms of governments of the past two hundred years or so—what historians refer to as the “late modern period”—is how they both individualize society and exert direct control over the individual. This is no coincidence. In a society where people live as independent individuals lacking membership in local organizations that serve functional purposes, a centralized government can then rule people directly without having to worry about any intermediate layers of authority. Of course, history has taught us the perils of allowing the government to get too big, and so a healthy fear of one’s governments becoming too powerful is pretty widespread. The debate in the United States over whether we should have a single-payer national health care system is a fitting example. The federal government can’t even admit to blatantly lying their way into the Iraq War—to name but one in a long list of debacles—so it’s no wonder that so many are afraid of the idea of them managing our health care system. (Although I’m doubtful as to whether a national health care system could perform any worse than the presently grotesque private “health care” industry). Largely due to it’s poor leadership, the Tea Party is misguided in certain respects—especially when it comes to environmental policies—but the fight for smaller government taps into something primal. More recently, peoples in cities around the world have taken to civil disobedience to protest an economic system that is making a relative few richer while sending the rest of us on the path to serfdom. What those in both the right and left sides of the political spectrum share is outrage over the excessive power the elite have over our lives. As those at the top are increasingly brushing us off as small enough to suffer, that which formerly divided us is becoming less important as our jobs are outsourced; as victims of natural disasters are deemed collateral damage; as a struggling public education system cripples our children’s future; and as public infrastructure crumbles at the expense of developing private enclaves.
What the present outcry against tyranny needs is a fundamental basis: one which puts current concerns in a very broad historical context so that a new order can successfully spring forth… and endure. For centralized power is not only old but has exacerbated in its many forms over the millennia; and along with these alienating monoliths have come not only protestations but intellectually deep and, as the late, great sociologist Robert A. Nisbet pointed out in his encyclopedic The Social Philosophers, eerily similar proposed alternatives.
… between [Sir Thomas] More’s Utopia and any actual socialist or communist nation in the contemporary world there is as much solid difference as there is between his ideal society and any manifestation of capitalism. Utopia, as described in More’s vivid pages, is the very opposite of the huge, nationalist, collectivist, centralized, and bureaucratized societies of the twentieth century, whether these be labeled “socialist,” “communist,” or “capitalist.” In short, it cannot be said that More’s remarkable book has exerted any influence upon the course of actual political, economic, and social history in the Western world.
Nor would it appear to have influenced significantly any of the great mass movements of reform and revolution which have taken place since the French Revolution. I said above that the book has clearly had effect upon the Western mind; of this there can be no question. But if we look at the kinds of organized social and political movement—nineteenth-century populism in the United States, and socialism in Europe, and those vaster, more powerful ones of communism and fascism in the twentieth century—which have actually affected the characters of governments and economies, it would be hard to trace any line of relationship back to More’s Utopia.
Both the Physiocrats and [Adam] Smith were profoundly interested in what they regarded as the natural order, the order of human relationships most in accord with man’s actual nature, which—so it was argued—would be in existence were it not for the kinds of interference with man’s nature emanating from the political state, the church, and other well-meaning but disruptive influences in the economy. Despite a belief fairly widespread in our own day, Adam Smith was by no means the uncritical worshiper of business interests and finance that he might seem to be, judging from the particular pattern so-called laissez-faire economics was to take in the nineteenth century in Europe and America. Careful readers of his Wealth of Nations and also of his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, will find a mind keenly tuned to the needs of all classes in Europe, especially the poorer ones. For it was Smith’s belief that much hardship and misery sprang directly from governmental alliance with some of the more powerful economic interests, thus degrading the economy as a whole and risking the impoverishment of many of the smaller farming and business entrepeneurs.…[The Physiocrats and Smith] had in common a strong belief in the existence of a natural economic order, arising from the innate character of man, that would come into existence if only present repressive and interfering institutions were removed…. This whole tradition of thought has come to be labeled laissez-faire simply because of its fundamental conviction that if human beings were but left alone to their own intelligences and interests, a harmonious, balanced, simple, and autonomous system of economic activity would result, one that would be true to nature.
Is it not fascinating that the same qualities which Benedict [of Nursia] had made so basic to his Rule and to the monastic system he founded, and which Sir Thomas More had declared to be the constitutive elements of his cherished imaginary community of Utopians, should in the eighteenth century have come to be regarded by some of Europe’s most distinguished philosophers as the qualities best fitted for the whole society—as, indeed, the very elements of the whole society—if only nature were allowed to take command?
Alas, what actually came into existence in the nineteenth century—and often under the spur of Adam Smith’s imagined message, so largely distorted and misapplied—was a system in which increasingly centralized political power and ever-widening governmental bureaucracy were united with large-scale industry. Adam Smith and the Physiocrats would have been horrified had they chanced to visit the economic scene of, say, England and the United States in the late nineteenth century and see the new kinds of power that had come into being. For such structures of political and economic power were the very opposite of what they had had in mind. Who knows, perhaps they would have become members of the utopian-anarchist movement…. Nisbet, Robert A. The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought, pp. 350-1,352-4 Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Inc., 1973.
Just as large institutions in centuries past had a tendency to repress the aspirations of the common folk, today’s powerful special interests (mainly economic institutions) coexist harmoniously with our mammoth federal government, feeding on each other and working with each other to subtly quell potential revolts and revolutions (e.g. “astroturfing” the Tea Party movement). The Republocratic Party that dominates our political system in the service of the elite divides Americans into various camps, and the corporate media wastes no time amplifying these divisions as if they were the real issues. So it’s no wonder Americans have fallen into cynicism when it comes to voting in their own interests. We are so divided and uninformed that we can’t even talk to each other about the most basic truths about the most pressing issues—cementing the elite’s firm control over such matters.
Beginning with his groundbreaking Quest for Community in 1953, Nisbet wrote numerous books over the course of two decades which continued the pluralist tradition promoted by the likes of Aristotle, Burke and Tocqueville. Nisbet’s basic argument was that there have been two types of governance throughout history: monism and pluralism. In a pluralistic society there are a number of legitimate authorities stretching from the local level to the more distant centers of power. In such a society people’s wants and needs are performed more by people with whom one has a relatively close relationship with, generating a true community; the fruits of labor are, at least for the most part, consumed by the community that produces them. Alternatively, monistic societies are lacking in local authorities because a great deal of people’s lives are under the control of distant institutions; the State’s populace becomes a mass of people whose lives are essentially streamlined for the sake of effective control.
Of course, there is not only a wide spectrum between the two poles of an extremely monistic society on one end and a very pluralistic society on the other, but there are varying types of both. In the case of pluralism, throughout history there have been instances where a central authority existed alongside less remote authorities. And prior to the emergence of civilization, central authorities of any kind were completely absent. Similarly, there are different types of monism. In the Soviet Union, the national government reigned supreme, whereas the contemporary United States is comprised of a number of centralized powers—but in both cases the individual is seriously deprived of legitimate, functional authorities at the local level. Despite what Nisbet argued to be the many indispensable benefits of a society comprised of a number of intermediate authorities, human society has witnessed monism tending to win out over the millennia, with the rise of nation-states and other far-reaching power structures. Why? One factor which has contributed to the popularity of centralized power is the psychological affinity people have for the monolithic community (omitting, of course, those who have had their naivete stomped out by the ill effects of placing faith in such juggernauts). As Nisbet put it, “the pluralist envisagement of community has never had the sheer appeal, the capacity to generate movements in its behalf, of the political, religious, and revolutionary communities.” Nisbet, Robert A. The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought, p. 387 Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Inc., 1973.
So although totalitarianism is commonly thought of as a phenomenon birthed in the 20th century—for that is when it certainly reached new heights—history teaches us that the State itself is intrinsically “individualizing and totalitarian.” Edited by Faubion, James D. Translated by Hurley, Robert. Foucault, Michel. Power: Essential Works of Foucalt, 1954-1984, pp. 325. The New Press, 2000. Especially in Western civilization, the predominant view of ourselves has been of individuals belonging to a nation-state. In many countries, nationalism/patriotism has an almost religious appeal; political parties offer a sense of community to the vast majority who feel they do not belong to a real community, and this was especially true before it was popular to be politically apathetic; anti-Communism, the War on Terror, and other national agendas unite the populace of a society that otherwise lacks a sense of belonging due to “dislocations that have been created to a great extent by the structure of the Western political State” in the first place. Nisbet, Robert A. The Quest for Community, pp. 46-7. Oxford University Press, 1953. Hence, the elements that Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy thrived on exist to a lesser degree throughout all of Western civilization (and throughout most of today’s world, for that matter). And just as those particular governments were excesses of the totalitarian characteristic that is innate to all States, the excessive individualism rampant in today’s culture is also an extension of how all States tend to individualize society. When one views oneself as one of a mass of units in a massive society, the State exploits—intentionally or not—the resultant feelings of alienation and isolation by offering images of community that can give us a sense of belonging (in the form of wars and other international events, government agencies, military service, political parties, and nationwide cultural issues like the sanctity of marriage). Real communities at the local level providing functional services tend not to benefit the State because their very existence produces a potential conflict of allegiance within the individual. Therefore, the State seeks to individualize society because a State comprised of autonomous communities is one in which its strength is compromised. For those who wish to be more than servants of power, however, there are greater concerns than just the objectives of the State (or other centers of power, for that matter). Given that I place a higher value on human beings, I am inclined to heed Montesquieu’s admonishment that “The only safeguard against power is rival power.”
And the State is not unique in this respect. Governments are not physical things, but rather a form of social organization. A government is simply an idea which people adhere to for the sake of cooperative behavior. Other social systems that control people’s lives can and have come about throughout history, whether we decide to call them “governments” or some other word. So it is not just governments but all forms of centralized power—whether it be manifested in a chiefdom’s chief, a fiefdom’s lord, a kingdom’s monarch, or today’s corporation—that are always seeking to expand. As our finite planet has become increasingly populated with humans over the millennia, our social organizations have become larger and denser, and have come into increasing contact with each other. This has naturally led to a greater centralization of these organizations. Emerging out of the economic domain of human affairs, the modern corporation is arguably today’s most powerful institution. Little wonder, then, that those protesting corporate power are using many of the same terms and symbols—such as “liberty,” “freedom” and “tyranny”—that our predecessors used to fight their oppressors, for we today are fighting for the same rights and principles.
So living as isolated individuals in a world dominated by distant institutions did not appear out of thin air; rather, it is a trend that has been underway for some time. Michel Foucault warned of the futility of the blame game: “Those who resist or rebel against a form of power cannot merely be content to denounce violence or criticize an institution…. What has to be questioned is the form of rationality at stake…. How are [institutional-individual] relations of power rationalized? Asking it is the only way to avoid other institutions, with the same objectives and the same effects, from taking their stead.” Edited by Faubion, James D. Translated by Hurley, Robert. Foucault, Michel. Power: Essential Works of Foucalt, 1954-1984, pp. 324-5. The New Press, 2000. As I write this my web browser displays an article touching on this repeat currently taking place in Egypt. Revolution is what many Egyptians had in mind as they overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s regime, but there are many facets to society. Revolting against one’s government does little to dismantle the other powerful institutions that have carved a niche for themselves in the status quo; sometimes it only makes them stronger since rivaling institutions sometimes check (and always envy) each other’s power. Thus, Egypt’s military played its cards quite wisely by supporting their people’s revolt against Mubarak. Similarly, in the United States corporations have our government do things like wage illegal but profitable wars, while at the same time corporations use their financial clout to do other things like dismantle government functions that impede their sacred profits (e.g. the Environmental Protection Agency).
I’ll take it one step further than Foucault did and suggest that the rationalizations for some degree of centralized power have merit, but that such institutions come to possess minds of their own. They have their own objectives and, because they hoard capital, have at their disposal the means to win handily when their interests conflict with the interests of the people–and the power struggle has become especially imbalanced as society has come to be comprised of a disconnected, unorganized mass of individuals. Because power itself is naturally intent on absorbing more power, so long as it exists people must, at a minimum, be wary of it, keeping open the option of abolishment if necessary. The checks and balances built into the U.S. political system have to some extent preserved our liberties, but nothing can counter abuses of power like actions taken by the people. All States tend to gravitate towards totalitarianism, whether the people are ruled by a fascist dictator or representatives voted in through fair elections; whether the political system arises out of a popular revolution or a miltary coup; whether the government is a monarchy, plutocracy or democracy; whether the bureaucracy is obedient to popular wishes, special interests, or ideologues. “Tyranny is tyranny, let it come from whom it may.” This is why Jefferson believed the “tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” The same sentiment has been echoed by Chris Hedges, yet without the same tinge of optimism; and understandably so, for in many ways we are living in a world much less free than that of our nation’s founding fathers: “Rebellion—which is different from revolution because it is perpetual alienation from power rather than the replacement of one power system with another—should be our natural state. And faith, for me, is a belief that rebellion is always worth it, even if all outward signs point to our lives and struggles as penultimate failures.“ Hedges, Chris. The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, p. xv. Perseus Books Group, 2011.
Many present-day institutions will probably be necessary so long as society is structured as it presently is, and the functions they perform are performed by no serious rivals; and so long as the historical trends from which they sprouted remain, those institutions that don’t stand the test of time will be succeeded by something fundamentally similar. For all his faults, John F. Kennedy wisely understood why one shouldn’t “tear down a fence until you know why it was put up.” For the first step to limiting, and perhaps someday dismantling, distant centers of power lies in building communities that we can rely on as an alternative. Criticisms, protests, rebellions, and proportionately subversive activities are good in and of themselves because it is the only way to make demands of a government that has become insensitive to its people’s needs, but they are not the same as revolutions. In fact, the real revolution will not be a revolution in the traditional sense of the word. Camus once wrote, “All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State…. The strange and terrifying growth of the modern State… [is] foreign to the true spirit of rebellion, but which nevertheless gave birth to the revolutionary spirit of our time.” Camus, Albert. The Rebel, p. 177. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1956. Thus, fundamentally changing the world will come about less by coercing the hands wielding power, and more by local communities taking matters into their own hands. The invisible hand that during other, more free periods of history was busy feeding autonomous local communities will remain idle for as long as people continue to devote their time and energy to strengthening distant, calculating and alienating systems of power. Certain centers of power—militaries, national governments, and the United Nations—or something like them may never lose their purpose. While the exorbitant “defense” budget of the United States is clearly unjustified, to unilaterally dissolve our own defenses would be to invite both civil war and invasion. But this doesn’t mean that military might need be abused as it is today; that the United Nations must remain irrelevant in matters of great international concern; or that international commerce should be conducted in the manner that unregulated capitalism typically does. The cavalier manner in which today’s most powerful institutions conduct themselves is a reflection of their impunity, and we the people will continue to refrain from holding them accountable until their power is balanced by more participatory systems. Complain and protest we may, but the near-total freedom corporations have in how they conduct business is reinforced every second we work for them and every dollar we give to them, instead of putting our time and money into local community.
Limiting the power of our federal government isn’t a bad idea, and recognizing that in many ways it fits very well in the status quo is a less naive way to begin. Seeing centralized government as the root of all evil, however, precludes one from acknowledging the root cause of centralized government, as well as the size and corruption of many other institutions that have sprouted up for related reasons. Some private companies, for instance, have become even more powerful than many national governments. General Motors, Royal Dutch Shell and Wal-Mart, for example, each have incomes larger than the gross domestic products of many nation-states. All institutions are shaped in part by the historical trends they arise out of. They are built by those solving historical problems, yet human beings seem to be too good at solving problems. We get carried away, immersing ourselves in one thing and forgetting about other things; we lack an innate sense of caution strong enough to anticipate unintended consequences. In the end, solving the problems concentrated power creates can only be done by understanding how and why current forms of it came to be so that we may consciously balance—with more local and participatory systems—these titanic systems history has put in place for us.
Perhaps the best example of our narrow vision is the fossil fuel industry’s intentionally deceiving the public about global warming through a massive (and largely successful) disinformation campaign that began in the 1980s, and which has grown only more perverse as the issue has grown in the public mind. This, in spite of the fact that the industry’s leaders are generally well aware that global warming is very real, a very big problem, and that humans are causing it.
Or perhaps our knack for selective perception is best exemplified when Adam Smith—and the laissez-faire economic doctrine he supported in his Wealth of Nations—is invoked in opposition to attempts to redistribute concentrations of wealth and/or property, demonizing such efforts as disruptions to the natural state of the free market. Yet it is a most basic and uncontroversial fact that corporations make use of other powerful institutions—like governments and the mass media—to bolster their positions in the market. It was not that Smith sought to remove all obstructions to business interests; rather, he wished centralized power of all kinds would cease disturbing the economic activities of the populace—activities from which a fluid, beneficial and self-perpetuating economic system would theoretically naturally emerge.
That people know what’s best for themselves is a reasonable belief, and Smith intuited that such a philosophy is needed for a society to fulfill its own wants and needs. But while the practice of pursuing one’s own desires does have many macroscale benefits to society—something which we wealthy Americans can and do attest to—there are also many detrimental consequences to everyone doing only what’s best for him or herself. Unfair trade with the weaker societies of the world is one. Ecologist Garrett Hardin delved into another in his “The Tragedy of the Commons,” wherein a dilemma of dwindling resources is posed when a group of people are dependent on the ability of a common pool of resources to replenish at a rate at least equal to its being consumed, yet limiting one’s own consumption is not in the rational self-interest of any individual. Sustainability in such a situation can only be achieved if the consumers act according to agreed upon rules of behavior. The Paleolithic world had a much greater carrying capacity, so their extremely simple economies sufficed, so it’s no wonder that many of us—with a fundamentally similar psychology to that of our ancestors—seek the same relatively unregulated conditions for our own lives.
It’s regrettable yet unavoidable that there are many systemic problems (like Hardin’s tragedy of the commons) posed by the complicated nature of civilized societies, and recognizing modern-day problems as such is necessary—sweeping these problems under the rug doesn’t make them go away, and neither does scapegoating others (e.g. Iran, Venezuela, the Soviet Union) with which we share our shrinking world. There never will be a simple model—whether it be boxed as “capitalist,” “communist,” “libertarian,” “or “anarchist”—that will be able to avoid the problems that come with all complex societies because we are limited in our human capacities to tackle the problems of our rapidly changing world. Believing markets to be a panacea, as many today do, ignores the many problems we are already living with as a result of deregulated markets. Moreover, granting collective entities the legal rights of a person, as the U.S. political system has done for corporations, is itself a horrible perversion of the market system. When elites fein shock and shout “Overreach!” at the idea of redistributing some of the wealth and/or property hoarded by corporations, they are doing nothing less than waging an all-out war on the lower classes. Corporations are only so strong because they were given the legal rights of persons so they as “individuals” could have much more influence in the markets than your average flesh-and-blood person. This was all done with the purpose of putting the “enlightened” upper class in a position to control markets, a goal that has long since been achieved. And if all the remaining tools today’s lower classes have in government to check the power of big business were to disappear, the rate of capital concentration would speed up even faster than it currently is.
The many flaws of unfettered capitalism (an economic system in which the powerful become more and more so—and then “legitimize” it all by fixing the political system) have been obvious for some time. Antitrust laws–which have unfortunately been weakened over time thanks to big businesses using their growing war chests to lobby policymakers— have a long history in this country; and it was early in the 20th century that G. K. Chesterton famously stated “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” For an economy operating on a market system free from any rules guiding economic behavior would be anything but a free world (nor would it be sustainable, given our finite planet). Over time, such a system would—and in our economy already has—experience ever-growing concentrations of capital; and as a consequence, large economic institutions now have de facto power over our lives in general, not just in the economic realm. Society shuns the act of getting what one wants by force because otherwise it would degenerate into a world where might makes right. Yet today might often does make “right” when “it’s just business, not personal”—despite the fact that business is not a game, but very much a part of the real world—only because aggressive behavior in our complicated business world is much more subtle than physical brute force. Wall Street criminals are awarded prestige for grand theft while drug-dealers desperate for work serve time.
On the Verge of Unity: Community vs. Slavery
Here in the United States many people are divided and confused about current events, but it’s difficult to exaggerate the potential there is for solidarity. The so-called liberals and conservatives agree on much more than what is conveyed in the popular press. Liberals are upset because the organs of government which they would like to see used to improve the lives of the people are instead being used by both of the major political parties to increase corporate profit. Conservatives are upset because the ideology of small government has become as unpopular in the Republican Party as in the Democratic Party. This is a recipe for disaster if you still have faith in the formal political system. But with disaster comes opportunity.
It basically boils down to the fact that the U.S. political system has abandoned it’s public; hoping elites will someday serve popular interests is a fantasy we must leave behind in kind. Our bureaucratic government doesn’t just serve corporate interests; the line dividing the two simply does not exist anymore. The revolving door through which legislators, industry leaders, and employees at various other levels of government and the private sector regularly flow has evolved—thanks to a cultural environment in which corruption is accepted as commonplace— melding our society’s dominant institutions into a giant beast with several heads. Take the following examples:
- Private military companies have grown substantially over the last decade, as the government is increasingly hiring freelance soldiers in place of deploying its own forces. Post-invasion Iraq War II saw 30,000 freelances operating there. Geraghty, Tony. Soldiers of Fortune: A History of the Mercenary in Modern Warfare, pp. 3-4. Pegasus Books LLC, 2009. This outsourcing of our national security work was initiated by Dick Cheney when he was Secretary of Defense under the Bush I administration. Halliburton quickly became the military’s largest private contractor, and in 1995 Cheney was appointed its CEO, leaving in 2000 to campaign for the Bush II vice-presidency. The company thrived off of the Clinton administration’s military exploits in southeastern Europe, and was awarded (though later repealed due to outrage in Congress) a no-bid contract during Iraq War II.
- While campaigning for the presidency, Barack Obama promised to curtail the hiring of lobbyists as government officials; twenty days after being elected, he announced he would nominate former Goldman Sachs lobbyist Timothy Geithner as U.S. Treasury Secretary. No other company gave more money in 2008 to Obama’s campaign than Goldman Sachs. Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson have also had the distinguished honor of being able to both serve (serve who, one might reasonably ask) as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury after working for Goldman Sachs.
- In 1997, at the behest of Monsanto—and notwithstanding not just the open defiance but even a lawsuit filed by Fox’s own reporters—Fox News tried to whitewash a story that was eventually scrapped outright for being too critical of the biotechnology multinational, the facts (and its responsibilities as a news source to the public) be damned.
If people are unsatisfied with certain politicians, why don’t we just vote in people we do like? The problem is not the politicians themselves—most of them are weak, pathetic, vile shells of a human being capable of little more than jumping on command. Take Scott Walker’s phone conversation with whom he thought was billionaire businessman, campaign donor, and Tea Party puppetmaster David Koch, in which he responded to “I tell you what, Scott: once you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time” with “All right, that would be outstanding. Thanks, thanks for all the support and helping us move the cause forward, and we appreciate it.” The real problem is the system by which candidates are vetted through the election screening process. For the elite, democracy is only popular as a word, not in practice. In the words of foreign policy puppeteer Henry A. Kissinger, “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” Make no mistake: universal suffrage is a fairly effective way in which people can safeguard their liberties, and Corporate America knows (and loaths) this very well—which is why corporations put so much effort into thwarting it—even if the American people seem to have forgotten it. With ruthlessness inherent to their design, corporations have come to dominate the private sphere, and in order for them to do so they must dominate the public sphere as well, to hell with our democratic principles. So corporations have minimized the liberating effects of the representative democracy put in place by our nation’s Founding Fathers, calling themselves legal “persons” and touting the First Amendment as legitimacy for their campaign contributions.
Aside from the large political influence corporations have by stuffing the ballot box full of cash, the ways in which they directly manipulate the American people into voting for corporate interests at the expense of our own interests has been succinctly summarized by the corporate world itself: the public relations industry. The practice of public relations includes such things as building brand image, lobbying the government, holding conferences, working with the media on the behalf of one’s client, internal communications, working with other organizations on the behalf of one’s client, creating both positive and negative publicity—basically anything involving paying a company to disseminate a certain message to a wider audience. Walter Lippmann’s seminal Public Opinion did a lot of the groundwork in making the public relations industry what it is today. Written in the early 20th century, Lippmann believed that in order for a large society to be cohesive and cooperative, public opinion must be controlled by a ruling elite who are unique in their ability to understand the world in all its complexity, and thus unique in their ability to determine the best interests of a country as a whole. Because we live in a “democratic” country, “soft” methods of control must be employed to shape popular opinion, rather than using overt force as ruling classes had historically done before people began asserting their inalienable rights. Edward Bernays, the so-called “father of public relations” and amongst Life magazines 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century, was strikingly honest in his Propaganda:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power. We are governed, our minds moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. In almost every act of our lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind. Bernays, Edward L. Propaganda, 1978.
Today, the Public Relations Society of America is the largest public relations organization, with a membership of 21,000 professionals. The industry is a multi-billion dollar one, although public relations firms are not “big names” because wide popularity would be detrimental to their success. And public relations is another good example of the longstanding ties between business and government, as the practice became a dominant force after the success of the propaganda methods employed by Woodrow Wilson’s Creel Commission—of which Bernays was a key player.
Moreover, corporations also have a great deal of indirect influence on public perception. We are dependent on the mass media to keep up with what goes on in the world, to form ideas about how society is structured, and to be knowledgeable about the actions of both the government we vote for and the companies we work for. Yet because most of that information is itself produced by news corporations, the news is shaped in a way that benefits the corporate world. Into the news industry corporations pump the advertising dollars that for-profit media are entirely dependent on, and out of it comes news that is sanitized and packaged before affecting the hearts and minds of the public. The reasons for this are largely systemic, and not always a matter of any intentional biasing on the part of those who work in the media, and include:
- Non-media companies and banks own a great deal of stock in the media giants; and “these large investors can make themselves heard, and their actions can affect the welfare of the companies and their managers.” Herman, Edward S. and Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent, pp. 8-11. Pantheon Books, 1988.
- The boards of directors of the media giants are fully entrenched in the corporate world.
- Those in the news industry with the “right” views and preconceptions of the world gravitate towards stories and selection of facts that fit snugly with the views corporate media wants to be associated with, and thus easily advance in their careers. Herman, Edward S. and Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent, pp. 303-6. Pantheon Books, 1988.
- Both corporate and government bureaucracies churn out a regular flow of newsworthy information, satisfying the needs of news bureaucracies to fulfill the public’s demand for daily news. Consequenty, these “official” sources become highly valuable to those in the media. Herman, Edward S. and Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent, pp. 18-9. Pantheon Books, 1988.
- Reporting things that cast companies, industries, the government, and other powerful institutions in a bad light is essentially biting the hand that feeds the media giants, and primarily for three reasons: potentially upsetting current clients and information sources; potentially upsetting prospective clients; every ad-based news company wants an audience of big-time consumers—the type of people likely to be turned away by such stories—because other companies seek to advertise in places where big-time consumers frequent.
- Those working in the news who question government and other reputable sources of information earn their company a lot of flak from the government and other institutions with whom media conglomerates have a symbiotic relationship. Herman, Edward S. and Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent, pp. 26-8. Pantheon Books, 1988.
- Taking the time to get information from an array of reputable sources alternative to the official ones is difficult, time-consuming and usually offers no benefit to one’s news career.
Needless to say, there are many reasons why corporate news organizations produce corporate- and government-friendlly news, and often even without its own employees, let alone the public at large, being conscious of it; all of them are small examples of a larger truism: like attracts like.
We are free to say whatever we want about what we see, hear and read, yet that’s the beauty of our propaganda system: the freedom to speak one’s mind deludes people into thinking public opinion plays a big role in shaping the news. After the central nodes of communication disseminate the information that has been filtered through the ad-based media system, people are free and unrestrained to enter into discourse about it— although the discourse is also essentially undemocratically limited by virtue of its also mostly taking place at central nodes of communication (e.g., TV programs, debates and interviews; newspaper and magazine columns). The effectivenes of our propaganda system lies in its subtleties; people are allowed the freedom to speak their minds, and so they believe their First Amendment rights are protected. But the principle underlying the First Amendment—that by communicating with each other, the people of a society can determine their own society instead of being ruled over—is under severe attack. This is an important reason why so many Americans feel they do not live in a democratic society. And the increase in person-to-person interconnectivity provided by the Internet is an important reason for the rebellions that have shook up North Africa and the Middle East.
The power elite have failed in almost every important respect. They may believe that their Ivy League educations endow them with exclusive rights over and responsibilities for the rest of us, but time has proved them wrong. Environmental destruction is accelerating, despite widespread popular desire for its deceleration, as well as numerous warnings of the consequences by the scientific community. Our increasingly privatized world has produced a culture of extreme aggressiveness, to the point that our intrinsic cooperative nature is shunned as an impediment to personal gain. Our leaders view wars of aggression over natural resources as an unavoidable fact of life, and can’t even conceive the merits of an international ruling body checking the power of those with the biggest sticks. In spite of all this the elite still believe in this system in which a nation’s populace is not comprised of a multitude of self-organizing and healthy communities, but a “bewildered herd”—in the words of Lippmann—which are ruled over because they can’t possibly be expected to rule themselves. And why should the elite believe otherwise? The status quo provides them and their families with a comfortable lifestyle, and the two-tiered educational system perpetuates the myth that most people have nothing more than mindless labor to contribute to society.
Here in the United States at least, in some ways we are a very weak people right now. But that could change if we became more organized as sustainable communities, rather than submitting to the organizations dictated by today’s power elite (i.e. corporatocracy). Human beings do what they do best when they work together, and, aside from Occupy, the sad state of the protest movements is a reflection of our extremely individualistic culture. These days it is a significant hurdle to do as little as come together and cry out against epic system failures; so if we are to organize feasible alternatives to the dictatorial institutions we are opposed to, we are going to have to build strong connections. Rebellion is especially difficult in a totalitarian society, for the public is divided and its interests easily conquered, and in this country there are plenty of mental barriers and habits of doing things which inhibit local organization. The forces that the modern rebel is opposed to are very organized, and we are going to have to do the same if we ever want to do more than serve power. Building strong communities is not done through individual contributions but by people working together, for a healthy human society is much more than the sum total of individuals. Communities where people work with each other will come about when people decide to work together. Gargantuan corporate and government bureaucracies are made when people are pulled out of their neighborhoods and given specialized roles to serve the interests of those in power. The means and the end are one and the same. Creating a society in which communities coexist means striking a balance between local life and the world at large. This won’t be easy, but neither is accepting the world as it is today.
For the common good to be discerned and achieved in our vastly interconnected world, people are dependent on mass media of long-distance communication. If we cannot communicate effectively with each other, how are we to reach any kind of agreement on issues, let alone decide who is best fit to represent us? Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Moreover, the importance of a free and flourishing press in regards to a free society is not that the people should merely receive enough information, opinions and ideas, but that they should also transmit enough of them. The lack of the latter has undermined the ability of us Americans to rule ourselves for a long time, as was lamented by the late journalist A. J. Liebling when he stated “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
And Western businessess—and American multinationals in particular—have been just as effective indirectly employing violence in developing countries as they have been in using soft power to generate conformity in the countries they are based in. Just as a politically-active public is generally adverse to big business interests here at home (for the two groups tend to have different goals), a developing country’s people must also be stripped of their rights if we are to continue benefiting from their disadvantaged status. In a world of limited resources, the progress of others is not always perceived as mutually beneficial. In developing countries, programs which benefit the native populations threaten the profits of multinational corporations—institutions which often have tremendous influence over their home country’s foreign policies—and thus lose out to neocolonialism (e.g. banana republics). Nationalist ventures—whether they are democratically employed or not is of no real concern to the military-industrial complex—are snuffed out in the world’s militarily weaker nations by virtue of their audacity to see to it that what happens within their borders benefits those who reside within those borders. During the Cold War, Latin American populist struggles such as agrarian land reforms were invariably portrayed by the popular press in the U.S. as “communist”… and punished supposedly for the same reason. In the case of Guatemala, here I quote the famous 1988 foreign policy critique Manufacturing Consent: “The U.S. establishment found the pluralism and democracy of the years 1945-54 intolerable, and it eventually ended that experiment. In the succeeding thirty-two years of U.S. guidance, not only has Guatemala gradually become a terrorist state rarely matched in the scale of systematic murder of civilians, but its terrorist proclivities have increased markedly at strategic moments of escalated U.S. intervention.” Herman, Edward S. and Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent, p. 72. Pantheon Books, 1988. As a shrinking oil supply has made oil more and more valuable, the priorities of the military-industrial complex have shifted to other countries and regions; which is not to suggest our hegemony over Latin America is no longer important to Corporate America, as indicated by the (failed) CIA-led coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The terror wreaked on the hearts and minds of the world’s poor and disenfranchised—terror that has thrived off of several decades of U.S. and other developed-country funding, weapons shipments, and sometimes even military training—is the reality of Western hegemony. And the fact that the myth of democracy and capitalism going hand in hand is still widely believed is a testament to how well our advertising-based press can function as a propaganda system; keeping a lid on such things as the mass graves in post-1954 Guatemala, Herman, Edward S. and Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent, p. 75. Pantheon Books, 1988., and securing popular domestic support for the highly illegal and costly Iraq war are not easy tasks.
The truth is there for those who have a concern for it. There are a few authors and organizations (e.g. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch) who not only tirelessly dig up the facts, but present them in an interesting and easily digestible fashion so that they may get greater attention. Our ignorance may be psychologically agreeable with our democratic ideals, but the reality that the highest levels of our government have consistently supported state terrorism in the name of capitalism has frightening implications for how this country’s elite might respond here at home if the populace were to threaten their status, power and wealth by breaking out of the soft cages we are currently collectively oblivious to.
Liberals are beginning to understand that participating in what has become of the electoral system is a futile way to achieve their goals. Conservatives are realizing that the Republican Party is now anything but conservative, hence the popular attraction to the stated principles of the Tea Party. But the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is just that. It’s funders and leaders want anything but smaller government in general; they want smaller government when it comes to curtailing those market forces that increase corporate profits at the expense of human beings. The Tea Party was astroturfed from the outset into a movement that would focus the right’s anger on the government, so as to avoid a populist uprising against Corporate America. So long as people view government itself as the problem, they will look the other away as the remaining public services still provided by our government are sacrificed on the altar of greed, as the remainder of our civil liberties are stomped out, and as Wall Street loots the U.S. Treasury. Neither the Tea Party nor Occupy Wall Street are the answer, but the disillusionment with the status quo that both represent is an omen that things are about to change. There is somewhat of a cultural divide between the conservatives—who tend to be of the older generations—and liberals—who are more easily embracing change with a new set of values. This divide is reflected in the differing takes on issues such as gay rights, capital punishment, abortion, gun control, illegal immigration, and the like. Bridging the gaps separating the various subcultures of American society does not mean that we will somehow come to agreement on everything; it merely means that there is a great deal which most Americans are in agreement on, and we must set aside our differences so that we can do what’s in our own interests.
Make Change or Fall Victim to It
The pronouncements of America as the land of the free is becoming a myth: civilian surveillance; the suspension of writs of habeus corpus; the apalling degree to which corporations have a hand in writing legislation; the lost right most people have to a fair and speedy trial (especially for poor minorities); the brutal repression of those who peacefully assemble; the consolidation of powers in the executive branch; the manufactured public consent to extremely anti-democratic foreign policies that are only possible because we are incredibly misinformed by the popular press about what is being done with our taxes. Herman, Edward S. and Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent, pp. 140-2. Pantheon Books, 1988. Ralph Nader reminds us that “freedom” is a highly ambiguous word:
They leave wide areas of personal freedom so that people can confuse personal freedom with civic freedom—the freedom to go where you want, eat where you want, associate with who you want, buy what you want, work where you want, sleep when you want, play when you want. If people have given up on any civic or political role for themselves, there is a sufficient amount of elbow room to get through the day. They do not have the freedom to participate in the decisions about war, foreign policy, domestic health and safety issues, taxes or transportation. That is its genius. But one of its Achilles’ heels is that the price of the corporate state is a deteriorating political economy. They can’t stop their greed from getting the next morsel. The question is, at what point are enough people going to have a breaking point in terms of their own economic plight? At what point will they say enough is enough? Hedges, Chris. The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, p. 128. Perseus Books Group, 2011.
If more media attention is not given to voices of reason and minds of keen insight—people who not only call attention to these ugly truths but offer solutions to them—America will continue to spiral downward. The ignorant who are motivated by hate and fear are already large in number, and with access to the instruments of power extremists have already been able to do such things as persecute minorities and illegal immigrants; wage a self-perpetuating “war on terror”; and whitewash our children’s textbooks with their illegitimate revisionist history. And with a full-blown economic depression these passions could easily exacerbate. There is no guarantee that worsening economic conditions will lead to a greater awareness of its source. History teaches us that desperation tends to foment not reasoned analysis, but ignorance.
Change is coming, that much is certain, politically as well as economically. What kind of change depends on the fortitude those who know better have in battling those who know not what they do. Once conservatives are awakened to the fact that Big Money is to be feared as much as Big Government, the bloated state of each will begin to deflate. Only when liberals concede that our political system has irreversibly merged with Corporate America—that we need to start from the ground up in achieving a better standard of living—will their causes cease to be lost at the outset. Hedges, who has spent many years trying to mobilize the left out of its coma, has given up on the liberal establishment: “All resistance will take place outside the arena of electoral politics. The more we expand community credit unions, community health clinics, and food cooperatives, and build alternative energy systems, the more empowered we will become.“ Hedges, Chris. The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, p. 126. Perseus Books Group, 2011. With the fall of the two-party sham, the common goals of the right and left will have an opportunity to be realized.
Alternatively, such upheaval means things could get worse rather than better. There are evil forces in America hellbent on filling the void that widespread and total political disillusionment would leave. If a massive uprising occurs as a result of the serious suffering that will be brought on by the deepening economic crisis, it’s likely the right will seize power through a coup d’état. Hedges, Chris. The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, pp. 82-3. Perseus Books Group, 2011. The power elite are already bracing for rebellion. Even before Occupy Wall Street began, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg openly voiced his concern that continued high unemployment will lead to the kind of riots we’ve seen in North Africa. As of October 2008, the Army has had a brigade deployed in the U.S. “homeland,” primarily for humanitarian assistance, of course. (Though also in the event that civil disturbances become too large for civilian law enforcement, but don’t tell anyone). Units have been rotated annually, training them in the use of such equipment as road blocks, spike strips, shields and batons, and beanbag bullets. (The Army Times article was amended, adding that the “package is for use only in war-zone operations, not for any domestic purpose,” of course). “Brigade homeland tours start Oct. 1” Cavalloro, Gina. Army Times, http://www.armytimes.com/news/2008/09/army_homeland_090708w/. Not unrelated, concerning the London riots of 2011, National Journal‘s White House correspondent Marc Ambinder tweeted “If what happened in London ever happened in the US, the military has plans—CONPLAN 3501 and 3502—to suppress the ‘insurrection.'”
Even lacking an uprising, the political capital of the extremists in this country could build as the economy shrinks. For one, during the Great Depression people had the social safety nets of their local communities to fall back on. Today, however, our specialized careers make us ignorant of how to do such basic things as grow our own food, mend our own clothes, and give direct care to our friends, families and neighbors when they fall ill. One would hope that in coming times of need people will turn to each other, and viable alternatives to our current cookie-cutter lifestyles will emerge organically. But such a cultural leap seems far-fetched, even if our centralized society were to crumble; it seems to me that unless alternative lifestyles are incorporated in at least a few enclaves so that they may be assimilated when common culture fails, in desperation people will turn to the big institutions that failed them because they know of no other way. And by turn to, I don’t mean passively waiting for big government to help them out. I mean people making demands in the form of riots. If, for example, there was suddenly a food crisis, it would be unreasonable to expect a sudden and massive shift towards our nascent local food movement. Massive cultural change simply cannot come about overnight because the seeds of change must be planted far in advance to reap great benefits from them. No, a food crisis today would mean food riots tomorrow, as happened in the late winter of 2011 in North Africa; food and other shortages, in culmination with the youth’s growing discontent with the failed economies (well, for the majority anyhow) that were nevertheless favored by Arab autocrats (and touted as globalization success stories by the IMF and World Bank), sent the riots to suddenly boil over into insurgencies. (And because the Egyptians did not make structural changes to their society, their revolts did not lead to a revolution as many proclaimed it would).
Nowadays, in times of great crisis we expect help to come from state government, if not the federal government. We certainly pay enough taxes to expect a lot, so when hurricanes hit large cities and oil drilling rigs explode, people not only expect prompt and massive federal assistance—we demand it and are understandably outraged when it doesn’t come. Unfortunately, the crises of the near future will probably be dealt with in the same manner as the crises of the recent past: little will be done to help those in need, and virtually nothing will have been done to prevent the crisis in the first place. Those without the wealth (and connections) to help themselves will be left for dead, as they were in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (although there was a massive outpour of assistance from average folks around the country); the natural environment will be regarded as not important enough to waste tax money on—despite our dependence on it—as it was with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; and 99% of America will be brushed off as small enough to suffer as economic conditions worsen, a stance taken by the Bush and Obama administrations when they gutted the U.S. Treasury to keep our self-serving financial institutions afloat. Yet if and when future crises hit, the American public will still most likely turn to the hand that steals from them, for that is the mindset that’s been instilled in our culture for roughly a century now. Of course, we should demand it; but until we the people have our government’s strict attention, and have realigned the organs of government to serve our needs, we should not expect it. Expecting our government to be there for us is only for those who still believe it is a government of us and by us. Will we forge a better future, or will we scapegoat Muslims and Mexican immigrants, and throw more money at the military to magically make our world safer by continuing to bomb the rest of it?
Another reason why an ever-worsening economy could lead to a surge in extremism is because widespread apathy in regards to political philosophy has made this country intellectually vulnerable. Corporations have controlling our political system down to a science. The public knows this and that is why we pay little attention to deceptive political ads and why we have become accustomed to empty campaign promises. After tiring away all day at their tiny roles in an elaborate economic system, people retreat to the trivial; why should they spend their leisure time on society at large if the impact of their efforts will be insignificant? If there is good reason for the abolishment of one’s government, a widespread lack of attachment to it can be a good thing, so long as the public is attentive to the reality of their circumstances. But the presently popular sentiment is not just a lack of attachment to our government in it’s current state; by infiltrating the political system and working its gears and levers to their advantage, Corporate America has essentially taken the reins via a slow-motion coup. The vast majority of the populace only semi-aware of what has happened so gradually, the illusion of democracy is understandably accepted as real. This country once had a strong tradition of taking an active part in influencing our elected representatives, but the cancer of special interests has spread virtually throughout the whole system, nullifying the attempts of a people that have become distracted and isolated from each other.
Our democratic republic is dead. Having long been barred from having a meaningful impact on society, we have stopped paying attention for too long and as a people have become gullible. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are giving answers (albeit terribly incorrect ones) to those confused about why their lives are becoming less secure. What’s more, militias are already feeding off of various sources of anger and fear, which would only exacerbate if the public’s understanding of it’s plight does not improve. In the coming years, Americans will be shocked out of the comfortable lifestyle that most feel they are entitled to, and the bewildered masses could be easily seduced by deluded demagogues providing false explanations for their troubles and making false promises of a return to America’s “glory days”—days that are already past and never to return. Instead of making the best of new circumstances by the sweat of their brows, the once-pampered suffering masses might very well know no better than to put blind faith into simple-minded pundits and politicians crazy enough to believe their own outrageous lies. Pledging unquestioning allegiance to them, our country could easily slip into old-fashioned totalitarianism. Hedges, Chris. The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, pp. 4-5. Perseus Books Group, 2011.
Icarus and Ideology
Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of the importance of local living and economic democracy, and a few seeds of the plurality of power have already been sown. Slow Food, the cooperative business model, farmers markets, and organic products are all growing in popularity, and are generally antithetical to the centralized and unethical world of agribusiness where profit is the sole concern. And where people have close ties to their food supply, the goals of self-sufficiency and autonomy are within reach. In The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture Wendell Berry laments the disappearance of America’s farming communities, and connects Big Ag to how most people are “detached and remote from the sources of their life… [for] it is impossible to mechanize production without mechanizing consumption, impossible to make machines of soil, plants, and animals without making machines also of people.” Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, pp. 74-5. Sierra Club Books, 1977.
Health care is another domain in which it is reasonable to believe that people could regain control over their lives. Conservatives may not be fond of a universal health care system, but contempt for the current profit-maximizing system is held by conservatives and liberals alike.
Participants in the Go Local movement can in many cities use “community barter tokens”—an alternative currency approved by the American Open Currency Standard—and whose directory of participating local businesses grows as people increasingly recognize the importance of investing in their local area. These things may seem insignificant, but they strike at the very source of centralized power’s strength. Benjamin Franklin, whose face graces the 100 dollar bill, pointed to the British Parliament’s prohibition of a colonial currency as one of the prime causes of the American Revolution. And Thomas Jefferson believed “that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies.”
Media conglomerates are probably the biggest impediment to people being able to communicate and work towards generating a society in which peoples have the autonomy to live their own lives, for such a life is the polar opposite of the current homogenization of American culture (if you can call it that). Despite our exaltations of the First Amendment, the degree to which these commercial engines of communication self-censor is unprecedented in history, so it’s highly unlikely the news corporations would give favorable coverage of a disintegrating status quo on which they depend. On the other hand, the Internet has proved itself lately to be a wonderful engine for social change in other parts of the world, so perhaps it could be one for the American people as well.
The revolutionary new society will be based less on a theoretical model, and more on experience. For by rebelling against the dictates of centralized power, the real revolution will be one in which communities organically evolve in a system where peoples can decide for themselves what works best. Therefore, I won’t presume to have specific answers to our troubles. I do know that those with wealth and power neither know how to solve our problems, nor do they care. It is their self-serving mentality which makes them good at getting money, and they are utilizing their powerful positions to transfer (i.e. manipulate) even more wealth in their direction during this confusing crisis. We have no leaders. Those who make it into political office are those who know how to do nothing more than obediently serve the system which has empowered them. Climbing enough rungs to occupy positions of real power—not mere political office—in the corporate world doesn’t make the elite any better than the rest of us, and it certainly doesn’t earn them the right to be so powerful. But it is revealing of how slavishly obedient these people are to a horrible, horrible system. If and when the rest of us come to realize our latent potential, the jig will be up. But not until things like the plight of our neighbors, economic democracy, and reversing the current human-induced mass extinction event become more important than Monday Night Football, “reality” TV, and today’s farcical political campaigns.
I also know that centralized society creates many problems that can only be solved by decentralizing society. Thinking one model fits everywhere ignites tension because different locales have different problems and different ways of solving them. Instead I urge you to solve your problems by organizing your own communities, rather than hoping big institutions will stop failing. In all probability the problems created by big business, big government, neoliberal globalization, etc. can’t be solved. Such problems are a consequence of social organizations too large to be tamed, and these monsters will stop choking us no sooner than we stop creating them. The glamorous rich and famous are today’s false idols of whom our worship can bring only ruin, and the demagogues whose lies are repeated by the corporate media are today’s false prophets. Hence I urge you, the readers, to solve your problems by organizing your own communities. As lone individuals we can at best live hollow lives in times of security, and slip into cynicism in times of turmoil. We should not look to big institutions to do what we can do for ourselves as tightly knit communities. We should not fall into rank as a mass of individuals for the sake of control, our behavior dictated by chains of command stretching to headquarters thousands of miles away. We should not be socially detached from our neighbors, bankers, grocers, doctors, and government officials so near to us. We should not wonder what is to be done for our hardworking neighbors issued foreclosure notices by big banks that gamble with our nation’s wealth. The answer is each other.
Our uncertain future is at once both a cause for hope and fear. People have long wanted smaller government, the right to bear arms, religious freedom, etc. We today are tired of paying taxes to fund illegal wars and executive bonuses; it was economic justice that compelled our Founding Fathers to declare their independence from distant power, and it has long been time for us to continue that brave tradition. We want to live in a society that empowers us and not as subjects under a government of a handful of puppets, brought to you by special interests, and for only more suffering. This will not be done by electing fresh faces to a handful of positions designed to wield centralized power. We can reasonably hope for a better future only if we can become the change we want to see.