Sunday, May 11, 2014

Handbook for Democracy: Ideology

The first basic power technique addressed in this handbook was force; the second was economic control. The third basic technique is mental control or ideology. These are general categories and we can fit most, if not all, of the rest of the power techniques that we'll discuss under them: elites control people by coercing them with force, compelling them with economic incentives, and/or conning them to conform.

There are many specific techniques that fall under each of these broad categories, but ideology is perhaps the most varied is its control devices, especially in our post-modern, media-saturated world. 

Unlike the compulsion of force or incentive, ideology is aimed at getting people to willingly control themselves. We're not talking about mental control through hypnosis, subliminal messaging, computer-brain interfaces, or other fictions that are the stuff of conspiracy theories. We're talking about the basic fact that ideas, along with semi-conscious and subconscious psychological factors, guide and control human behavior, and all of these are subject to external influence. Ideology, then, means elites guiding the behavior of large numbers of human beings by controlling, or at least having hegemony over, the ideas and beliefs that they use as guides for how to act. Not mind control, but simply myth, propaganda, and advertising; these create in the demos what Marx called "false consciousness," or a set of beliefs that support a society that ruins and despoils the lives of common people, but which they willing endorse anyway. 

All societies tell stories; groups of people create and spread narratives that help them understand and orient themselves to their natural and social world. The stories that a society tells itself direct it's members to act in some ways, but also close off some possible courses of action by preventing them from being thought in the first place. These narratives take different forms: some make up a group's background lifeworld of shared understandings, some are discourses about more immediate concerns, large and small; some are descriptive, some are normative. All help to make a society what it is.  

Whereas earlier, less technological societies mainly relied on religion, ancestor worship, tribal norms, or at most the virtue ethics of the res publica to establish controlling ideas, during modernity the media channels and institutions for spreading ideas have proliferated and so created a multiplicity of techniques and institutions of ideological control: from books and newspapers, to film and television, to the internet and social media; from schools and churches, to universities and think tanks, to foundations and advertising firms. The very proliferation of means of communication may help explain why the world in the early years of the 21st century seems stuck and unable to make progress, for currently there are a great many methods for ideological stabilization of society in its current state. 

Ideology works to undermine democracy in multiple ways. Ideas influence behavior, so getting people to buy into the system makes them controllable and exploitable. This can be done by convincing common people that the current system is advantageous to them, even when it is not; or you can convince them that it is natural and unchangeable, so that they think there is no alternative. Either way reduces impulses and forces of resistance and therefore forestalls systemic social change and revolution. While I would try to offer an inclusive list here, ideology can work its pernicious effects in many other ways: it can be used to help divide and conquer the working class; to get people to submit to their own labor for exploitation; to promote consumerism that both distracts the people and profits elites. It can also shape basic perception as well as the formation of identity.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Misguided Primacy of Social Stability

American political culture currently contains a strong bias in favor of political and social stability over other values -- implicitly, stability is promoted even more than the political values that we trumpet to the world, such as freedom, democracy, and justice. Social stability has its proper place, to be sure: no one wants social chaos; excessive change, dynamism, and tumult make for uncertain and miserable living; and a foundation of stability is needed not only for prosperity but for democracy too.* But the degree of stability that is needed is often overestimated, and the excessive emphasis on stability impedes badly needed social change -- and therefore perpetuates injustice, for justice delayed is justice denied. 

In current circumstances, America's stress on stability is preventing much-needed social, economic, and political change: the civil rights movement remains incomplete, oligarchy has infested the world, and we are committing slow environmental suicide. The history of political and social progress in the United States is a history of gradual reforms achieved only after generations of exasperating struggle. This historical pattern must now give way to a new era of open-minded experimentation and adaptation.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Handbook for Democracy: Economic Deprivation

This essay is an entry in the Handbook for Democracy, a catalog of power techniques used by elites to exercise control and undermine the democratic self-government of the people.

The next basic power technique is economic deprivation: if you can deprive an individual or group of the material resources needed for survival, for comfort, or to achieve important goals, then you can exert a great deal of control over them. Economic deprivation is only one step removed from direct coercive force: whereas force causes harm directly, economic deprivation causes it indirectly. If I hit you or shoot you I harm you directly; if I deprive you of food, with some delay starvation causes harm – but I have caused the starvation. Yet the harm is certainly proximate enough to function as a powerful control technique. In the case of both force and economic deprivation, not only the act, but also the threat, is sufficient to exert power.

Economic reward is the flip side of this power technique of economic deprivation, but is interesting enough to be explored on its own, and in my opinion is secondary to economic deprivation as a systemic control device.

The basic power principle of depriving or threatening to deprive someone of needed material goods and services is applied in many ways by human beings to exert economic control over each other. While methods like criminal extortion or slavery mainly use the threat of direct force, both wage labor and capital flight mainly use the threat of deprivation. It is even the basic mechanism by which the market controls market participants: buyers can threaten to take their money elsewhere. It is also a means by which working people can exert control over economic elites, on the occasions in this capitalist age when they are able to do so, in the form of the work stoppage or strike, which deprive the capitalist elite of the absolutely essential resource of labor.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Handbook for Democracy: Force

This essay is an entry in the Handbook for Democracy, a catalog of power techniques used by elites to exercise control and undermine the democratic self-government of the people.

The most obvious and fundamental technique to exercise power is, of course, naked, physical force. Force - the direct use of violence, or the threat to do so - is the most basic way of controlling people, and many other power techniques use it or are backed up by it, directly or indirectly. Indeed for some people, freedom is defined simply as the absence of physical coercion, i.e. the use of brute force. Force has been used to control people in every large society, and it remains widespread in the modern world. It exists in institutionalized forms such as military and police forces, as well as in small-scale forms such as domestic violence and bullying. 

Both the organized and unorganized forms of force run through and underlie daily life in the modern world. For example, modern, technological economies that run on petroleum have needed military intervention in unstable oil-rich states to maintain their energy supplies. As another example, hidden, small-scale violence in the home and the office has always been a key part in maintaining sexism.

Some might observe that there are also economic forms of violence, such as causing people to starve, or depriving them of income so they are threatened with starving, but in this essay I am talking about direct violence, not indirect. Those violent techniques are distinct enough to be dealt with in detail elsewhere in the handbook.

The use of force tends to undermine democracy because control of it is inevitably unequal. Democracy requires that citizens treat each other substantially as equals. But some people are always more powerful than others: some are stronger than others, have access to better weapons, lead larger, more disciplined, or more effective organizations of force, are at the top rather than the bottom of hierarchies, or otherwise have access to greater force. Those who control more force are susceptible to the temptation to use it to control other people – which is the opposite of democracy, which means the control of people over themselves, collectively.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The "Irresponsible Populism" Construct

There's an elitist way of criticizing social democracy that frames policies for the common people as ill-considered and destructive; you've been exposed to it any time you've heard the phrase "irresponsible populism." This phrase is most often used by conservative and centrist/technocrat pundits, but also sometimes by reasonable-sounding economists and financial analysts, and all of them are trying to make it sound like public programs go against objective economic science. In reality, the trope is a weapon to target programs and institutions that benefit common people instead of the wealthy, so that the wealthy can protect their privilege.

One point of clarification to start: currently, the term “populism” is sometimes used to refer to a politics of race-baiting, especially in reference to the xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist parties of the far right gaining ground in Europe in the wake of the economic crash. But what I’m talking about here is “economic populism,” which is a subtly derogatory term used to describe traditional center-left welfare state policies and programs from unemployment insurance to public pensions.  On substantive policy there is no logical connection between ultra-nationalist racism and social democracy (although sometime far-right parties support such programs when they can use them to intensify nationalist sentiments). But elitist rhetoric, I think, exploits the term “populism” to falsely imply connections between these two very contrasting agendas of the right and left. I supposed elites perceive both as ideologies supported by the lazy losers of the capitalism’s economic game, who they see as casting about for scapegoats and easy solutions rather than knuckling down and earning their money as proper people do.

Often, the premise behind criticisms is that public programs that benefit large numbers of regular people cost too much, and indeed are in principle unaffordable under any conditions, and therefore must be eliminated or kept at minimal levels. Spending too much on them, the argument goes, would tax the treasury beyond its limits, cause excess debt, and bankrupt the government. Of course, the billions spent on subsidies and tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy are never criticized in the same manner.

The trope is quite old, as this Charles Krauthammer piece from twenty-five years ago shows, with its claims from a conservative supporter of the Reagan Revolution -- which exploded the debt! -- that liberal policies will balloon the deficit until “the budget is hopelessly busted.”  Recently some on the left have pointed to the increasing influence and popularity of liberal populism as people become disillusioned with centrist and conservative privileging of markets, followed by a predictable backlash from the right.

Populism is only irresponsible by the lights of failed right-wing economic ideology: conservatives believe the mistaken theory that too much government spending, rather than too little revenue from the wealthy, is the primary cause of government debt. The chart below from the Center on Budgeting and Policy Priorities (which is been circulating in different forms around the Internet for several years) illustrates the proportion of the  debt caused by wars, Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, the lost economic growth caused by the Great Recession, and recovery measures. If the worry is public debt, top solutions include ending the wars and using public spending to prime the pump and restore economic growth; but the best solution is to raise taxes for the wealthy and make them pay their fair share until the debt is paid off in full.

The irresponsible populism trope, however, is designed to prevent exactly that latter solution. It is mainly a strategy to continue, and even intensify, the decades-long redistribution of society's shared economic production away from the working class to the upper-class. Of course, this only allows those who have become obscenely wealthy to expand their decadent standards of living while accelerating the increasing inequality and middle-class squeeze that began in the 1970s.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Legitimacy of Government

A great weakness of the center left since the 1980s has been the failure to make the deep philosophical arguments that are necessary to strategically frame issues, successfully persuade people over time, and bring about political change. Actually arguing for good principles and values, and arguing against bad ones, is necessary to strategically shape the landscape of political opinion to accept better policies when political circumstances become opportune. While there has always been a principled far left, it was marginalized long ago, and policy debates since the Reagan years in Washington and the media have consequently shifted to the right simply because the left does not successfully advance its principles. This leaves us now with an ideologically constricted debate between centrist third way Democrats (who are actually center-right) and the far right as exemplified by House Republicans and the tea children.

The result is that left is never heard, while the center-left push a liberal agenda only weakly. We keep letting the right have the philosophical and ideological initiative; we keep accepting their terms of debate; we keep beginning the debate with the premise that government is bad. With such weak support, is it any wonder that our social programs are weak and that inequality grows year after year?  But allowing the right to set the agenda and dominate public debate only weakens and delays necessary social programs, causes great suffering, magnifies injustice, divides society, and is now leading us quickly to oligarchy.

The failure to champion equality as a political principle, and the welfare state as its material actualization in everyday life, has meant that the left conducts the fight in the other side's terms. This leaves us fighting an uphill battle, despite the fact that the left's principles are more sound, its values more humane, and its policies more successful than the right. We must counter these standard conservative/libertarian arguments that government is illegitimate: 
  • Freedom: only a small government is legitimate, because (while people need some public authority) government and law inherently limit people's freedom by coercive means, and are thus oppressive. Therefore the smallest possible government is best. Taxes are seen here as a form of theft of the property of the individual.
  • Efficiency: bureaucracy is the standard organizational form of government, but bureaucracy is inherently inefficient. Government structures do not channel the self-interest of individuals in the most efficient way for the public good, markets and charities do. Therefore market solutions and privatization are preferable to public policy options.
  • Moral character: social programs and subsidies create dependency and laziness because they give people resources and rewards whether they work to earn them or not. Markets demand that people exchange their labor for resources and rewards, and therefore avoid this moral problem.

Each of these arguments is either wrong or a vast oversimplification, and principled left-wing arguments should be made publicly, and made often, to counter them:
  • Freedom: freedom can be taken not just by government but by powerful private entities such as corporations. Public, democratically accountable regulations helped prevent such threats to freedom. Social programs, including education, healthcare, public pensions, unemployment support, and other programs do not limit people's freedom; they empower people to be fully free and active citizens who lead full lives in which they can pursue their vision of the good life. Taxes are seen as a fee that one pays to provide public goods and maintain a civilized society. 
  • Efficiency: markets may be efficient at providing some consumer goods, but they are inefficient at providing public goods and they cause all sorts of problems with pollution and other externalities. Even conservatives accept that police, the courts, the military, diplomacy, and other things are public goods best provided universally to all, free of charge, by the state. They fail to see that many other aspects of modern life are he same. For example, health insurance is most efficiently provided by government because it is based on the principle of an insurance pool, and the larger the pool the more efficient it is.
  • Moral character: as mentioned above, social programs provide basic goods, services, and empowerment to enable people to be fully active citizens; and this improves their character. Education creates informed citizens and cultured members of society; unemployment insurance and social security provide the financial confidence to base decisions on reason, not fear; the welfare state improves people’s ability to fulfill their dreams and thus gives them confidence; greater equality reduces the ability of the greedy and wealthy to think they are better than everyone else. Welfare almost always serves exactly the purpose that Americans think it should: temporary help for people who need it to get back on their feet and be productive contributors to society.

Liberal values are positive values for other reasons. They provide greater equality between citizens, something that is necessary for a democratic society to endure. They create greater stability in the political system. And they sustain a shared public sphere that is necessary to building a common national and social identity.

Despite the initial Obamacare difficulties, we should right now be arguing for bigger government, a larger welfare state, more public control over corporations, and economic democracy, because these things are more just, lead to a healthier society, increase equality among citizens, and increase the freedom of common people, an argument I will flesh out next time.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Iraq Syndrome, or War Wisdom

A month-and-a-half ago, before the nation’s attention was diverted by the unnecessary and artificial shutdown crisis, the United States government was on the verge of embroiling itself in another war, this time in Syria.  Public opposition stopped it, evoking comparison to the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome,” the aversion that the US public had to war for a generation after Vietnam.  Hopefully the American public has learned from the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan and entered a similar period of aversion to war that lasts for at least the next generation.  Because of the historical precedence of the term “Vietnam Syndrome” we are probably stuck calling it the Iraq Syndrome, although that makes sounds like an abnormal ailment, a temporary illness to overcome; it would better to recognize that the desire for peace is a learned experience of a people and call it War Wisdom or something similar.  I’ll use both. 

A month-and-a-half ago, the DC establishment doggedly argued for military action in Syria despite the weakness of their case.  Everyone agreed that strikes would not reduce Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles, degrade his ability to deliver them, nor even deter Assad from using them. But the DC elite who favored military strikes argued that they somehow would “send a message” that chemical weapons were unacceptable and therefore, I don’t know, through some “message” magic, bombs would stop Assad from using them.  A major public outcry quashed the very, very bad idea of starting yet another war, and this forced our government to find a diplomatic rather than a violent solution, and to cooperate with other countries, including Russia, to achieve our end goal. Since then, both the United States and Russia have praised the Assad regime’s compliance in dismantling chemical weapons and inspectors have proceeded with their mission to catalog and disable Syria’s chemical weapons, with the cooperation of the Syrian government.

A Washington media consensus quickly emerged that the threat of US military violence forced Assad to compromise, and there may be some truth to that claim.  I am not expert enough in such matter to judge, but the claim that coercive diplomacy worked in this case, or works in general, has been questioned by those more knowledgeable. 

The Vietnam Syndrome helped keep America resistant to wars for about 25 years after the fall of Saigon; at least during that period wars had to be quick and above all they had to have few causalities.  (If you think about it, the US has always had relatively low casualties in its wars compared to other countries. Only the Civil War and WWII involved large numbers of war dead, and in the latter war we suffered far fewer than many other belligerents like Russia.)  The post-Vietnam demand by the public to, as much as possible, stay out of wars was a real sociological phenomenon, and the power of mass opinion can keep politicians restrained to at least some degree.  The Vietnam Syndrome underwent a process of weakening from the 1990s with Bush Sr.’s invasion of Panama, and then with the Gulf War – but both of those wars were still relatively quick and resulted in few American body bags.  The Syndrome persisted through the 1990s, however, as demonstrated by the reluctance to intervene in the Balkans War and Rwanda (a case that illustrates that aversion to war sometimes leads to overcautious failures to intervene when needed - but the Rwanda genocide may have been preventable only by occupying the country with tens or hundred of thousands of troops and making it into a virtual colony). It was only 9/11 that fully overcame the Vietnam Syndrome and allowed for multiple, full-scale warfare again; yet even then, aversion to casualties has driven developments like better body armor and military drones to keep troops out of harm’s way as much as possible.

The re-emergence of War Wisdom again signals a shift in public attitude back to the pre-9/11 period. Whereas after 9/11 people were angry, hungry for revenge, and tribalistic, after more than a decade of war people are tired of it, they don’t think we can afford it, and they’ve seen great failures in the wars we’ve embarked on. The killing of Osama bin Ladin, the big victory of the Global War on Terror, has not brought it to an end; how could the elite think that high levels of public enthusiasm could literally be maintained indefinitely for this endless project?  Furthermore, the spin and deceit by those who made a false case for war in Iraq are now well known, and the people don’t trust their leaders about war anymore. That advertising campaign also focused on claims about chemical weapons.  Remember the boy who cried wolf?  The elite have no more credibility to make the case for war. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Shutdown Vandals Are Zealots, Not Nihilists

I keep hearing the media call the faction that has caused the government shutdown "nihilists."  But that's a misdiagnosis.  They're zealots, not nihilists: nihilists don't believe in anything, but these guys are fanatics, true believers in the dogma of unregulated markets, minimal government, no social programs, and all the other unbalanced ideas of modern conservatism. 

They believe there is an absolute truth about governing, and that they have it.  And it's their zealotry that makes them so destructive, not any supposed nihilism.

Polls show that more Americans blame Republicans than Democrats for the shutdown, and they’re right.  Of course, it's also the case that there are different factions within the Republican Party, and much has been made about the disproportionate dominance of the tea party wing over against the moderates.  These factions do have somewhat different beliefs and motivations.  Some are in it mainly for power, self-aggrandizement, or ego.  Modern conservatism, with its ethos that "greed is good," attracts more than its share of narcissistic sociopaths with no beliefs or principles other than those which promotes their interests in the moment.  But for a generation the Republican party has been shaped and propelled by its many fanatical Social Darwinists and culture warriors who believe in reactionary economics and/or “Heartland Americuh” for the sake of these beliefs themselves, regardless of personal gain.  And of course many in the party combine selfishness and zealotry.  But the zealots, with the energy and determination that fanaticism gives them, are the driving force behind the shutdown -- not the merely greedy wing of the party.

While most American conservatives are strong in their beliefs, the tea party are the hard-core and are well-represented in the House.  They really believe that Obama is a Muslim sympathizer, that Obamacare is creeping socialism (this Heritage Foundation plan with its market insurance exchanges!), that social programs endanger the republic, and that they are making a heroic stand for America.  They’ve dug in to oppose Obamacare because they see it as an existential threat: they associate it with socialized medicine, which to their minds puts the country on the road to serfdom.  Indeed they see themselves as victims and probably have something of a martyr complex.  Unfortunately as with all martyrs, their self-destructive impulses are dangerous for those around them, which in this case means the whole country.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Handbook for Democracy: Know Your Enemy

This essay is an entry in the Handbook for Democracy, a catalog of power techniques used by elites to exercise control and undermine the democratic self-government of the people.

The first lesson that must be learned to have a healthy democracy is this: there are those in society who, intentionally or not, are enemies of democracy. There is always an elite that believes itself better able to rule than everyone else, that holds self-government by the people in contempt, and that tries to acquire predominance of control through force, fraud, ideology, money, and other forms of power. Maintaining a vibrant democracy that creates good lives for all its people requires that the common people use power to constrain the authoritarian-minded, control-seeking elite.

Aristotle, who had a habit of categorizing everything, classified governments according to which part of society ruled: one person, an elite few, or the many common people, and whether that class governed in its own interest or in the interest of all. He believed that there could be a good form of government by one person, led by a wise and gentle ruler, and he called it monarchy; he called the bad form of rule by one person tyranny, when the ruler governed arbitrarily according to uncontrolled impulse. The good form of government by an elite, consisting of the best and most experienced people that society had to offer, was aristocracy; the bad form was oligarchy, government by the avaricious, self-interested wealthy few. Government by the common people, or the demos, was called democracy, and Aristotle thought, as did many other premodern political thinkers, that it was an unstable, impulsive, and incompetent form of government. Aristotle called the good form of popular government polity, but it was a mixed government that had a role for all classes, so the interests of all could be expressed. It served as inspiration for later civic republican thinkers. Aristotle also believed that an economy that supported a strong, large middle class was best: too much inequality put the rich and the poor at odds, almost as if they belonged to different societies, for their interests and experiences are too different to be reconciled. 

The point is that Aristotle was right: there are different classes in society, they have fundamentally different interests, and they inevitably enter into politics. If we are to defend the self government of all the people, then we must prevent the dominance of rule by an elite few or a single person. Over the last forty years the oligarchs have been gathering more and more wealth, privileges, and power to themselves, and the principle political challenge of our time is to prevent and reverse this trend. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Trayvon Martin Case: Let's End This Stereotype of Black Criminality

The Zimmerman acquittal is about preserving a pernicious, but deeply embedded, cultural image in America that young black men are, almost by nature, criminals.  It isn't true, of course; high crime in inner city neighborhoods where many black people have no choice but to live is due to poverty and other factors, not race. Yet this stereotype exists and must be knocked down.

Trayvon Martin, an innocent minor, was killed because some paranoid, armed, wanna-be cop saw him and immediately, unthinkingly thought he looked like a suspicious trouble-maker -- even though all Trayvon had done was go to the 7-11 for Skittles.  Every white person out there knows what I'm talking about, if they are honest and candid about it: if they see a black man in a white suburb, they immediately feel uneasy and suspicious and assume something is wrong.  It’s a form of automatic, emotive racial profiling.  But you know what? Most actual gang members know enough not to go to nice neighborhoods, because the policing is too good. So it's really unlikely that your nice subdivision with the green lawns and picture book houses is about to be overrun by crime just because a young black man shows up. 

The stereotype of the black male as "gangsta" is believed by many non-black people on an almost subconscious level. It isn't racism like Nazi racism, where there is a doctrine that explicitly dehumanizes a group. It is instead a cultural racism, an idea permeating the culture based on a prejudicial stereotype against an entire group. It is a key part of the worldview of (mostly white) conservatives, and indeed helps define their identity and gives them a (false) sense of superiority. The Trayvon Martin case has been such a major media event because it is in part about  protecting the ability to continue believing these stereotypes, and to keep up the profiling of people based on race.

This image of black criminality ubiquitous in the sensationalist media, and is promoted by conservative politicians and demagogues because it appeals to the fears of their voting base: fears which caused "white flight" to the suburbs that maintained de facto segregation; fears which keep little old ladies locked behind closed doors and security systems despite living in safe neighborhoods; fears which feed the false sense of victimization of privileged whites; fears which fuel the American gun culture; fears which have led to these ridiculously preemptive "Stand Your Ground" laws; fears which keep working people from unifying, regardless of skin color, to stop the rich from exploiting the poor and squeezing the middle class.

If you're not black, and when you see a black person in your neighborhood you immediately become fearful and suspicious, you are helping to make a world in which the mothers and fathers of kids like Trayvon Martin have to suffer the grief of needlessly losing a child.  You might not know you are, but you are.  So if you're a white person who lives in a nice subdivision, the next time you get uncomfortable when you see a young black man or any other person of color there, pause to think about it for a minute: really, ask yourself, is that a criminal, or is it just a person going about their legitimate business? I bet if you talked him or her, you'd find out that they're really just another human being, not a monster.  

Pausing to think like this is the first step to overcoming prejudices - because stereotypes flourish where thinking stops.  It would at least be a start.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Dear Conservative

Dear Conservative,

I'm a liberal, a progressive, some would even call me a socialist.  And I don't stay awake at night thinking of ways to take your freedom.

I don't stay awake planning a war on Christmas. Or Easter, either.

I don't stay awake thinking of ways to give your money to lazy people.

I don't stay awake plotting how to ruin families.

I don't stay awake thinking of how to drive the country into bankruptcy.

I don't stay awake scheming how to corrupt the morality of college students.

I don't stay awake plotting to be a traitor.

I don't stay awake thinking about how to kill babies. 

I don't stay awake planning to ban your religion.

I don't stay awake conspiring with terrorists and foreigners. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

We Have Met the Barbarians, and They Is Us

Our dominant cultural image of barbarians is of filthy, illiterate, bloodthirsty brutes: imagine a fur-clad, lice-infested savage ferociously raiding a village, axe in one hand and torch in the other, who then heartily celebrates with a flagon of ale and a giant roasted leg of some animal or another.  Barbarians are noted for their contempt for and domination of the weak, yet barbarians are also admired for their brawn and tenacity: think of Conan the Barbarian and other pop-culture images of warrior-heros who spurn the refinements and discourse of civilized culture and deal with problems through the sword and conquest.

Historically, the term "barbarian" came from the ancient Greeks, who heard the unfamiliar languages of other peoples as the nonsense syllables “bar, bar,” akin to our word “blah” (if we were to invent the term today we would call him Conan the Blahblahian!).  Of course, not all peoples who were foreign  to the Greeks were uncivilized or primitive.  Nor were the Vikings or Mongols or other groups upon whom Western cultural images of barbarians are based, who had developed sophisticated ways of dealing with their problems, and who were in many ways were more sophisticated than the medieval Europeans who judged them barbarous -- especially in the case of Arabs.  Indeed, Middle Age Europeans were themselves rude, filthy, illiterate, and belligerent brutes, and the Romans who had preceded them had been cruel and oppressive, and only differed from “barbarians” in that they had learned how to effectively organize large armies and large cities, and to engineer and build massive structures with marble and concrete.

Barbarism still exists today, despite all the advances of modernity and science; but the real barbarians are not to be found among the Earth's few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes, but among the most modern and technologically advanced societies.  Modern barbarians are barbarians with toys, possessors of all the sophisticated technological devices and organizational structures created by science and other forms of modern knowledge.  Advances in technology and technique have been harnessed not to create a paradise on Earth in which all human beings can flourish, but to serve primitive, impulsive drives, and to perpetuate them.