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.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Preface to a Handbook For Democracy

I’ve had an idea kicking around my head for a needful project: a collection of political theory essays and entries that describes the multitude of ways that elites and oligarchs use power to undermine democracy.  The idea is to lay out threats to democracy in clear language to help people be more aware of them, and to suggest solutions to combat them.

The word democracy is an ancient Greek word, of course, and combines two terms: demos meaning “the common people” and -kratos meaning “to rule.”  Democracy thus means a government in which regular people wield power and rule over the upper classes, rather than be ruled, and usually tyrannized, by them.  A related idea from the later school of political thought known as classical republicanism (as in the Roman or Florentine republic, not the U.S. political party) is that public affairs are to be run for the good of all and not for the benefit of a single corrupt class.  This entails that the common people, who make up the most numerous class, must have the ability to protect themselves from the rich and powerful, and indeed should have predominant say in setting the direction of government policy (even if they do not always directly run the day-to-day affairs of the government).*  In the modern world popular control is supposed to be exercised through representation, in which political leaders are held accountable to the common people through free, fair, and competitive elections.  Elections are supposed to be a way for citizens to ensure that public institutions are run for the good of all, rather than for a narrow section of elites who already possess power, wealth, and/or privilege.  

The dynamics of power are such that the demos always has to work diligently against the corruption and undermining of democratic/republican government by elites.  The ability of regular people to hold elites to account, however, has been eroding for some time, in the United States and globally.  A reassertion of democratic control will be needed for the world to solve its many problems, and the Handbook For Democracy is meant to assist that. 

The idea is drawn from a genre of political theory texts written in antiquity and the Middle Ages called mirrors for princes.  Mirrors for princes were handbooks that offered advice to leaders (especially young princes under training at court) about how to rule justly and effectively.  From the fall of the Roman republic until the emergence of modern representative democracy, educated and experienced political thinkers were deprived of channels to directly contribute to politics, so they had to exert influence by acting as advisors to emperors and kings, and one way they did so was to pen mirrors for princes.  These books were usually intended to improve the moral character of leaders, and often did so by presenting mythological or historical examples of just and good rulers to follow, shining examples held up for the prince to compare himself to, a sort of looking-glass to induce princes to examine and improve their own behavior.  These handbooks were written by Cicero, Seneca, John of Salisbury, Christine de Pizan, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, and many others.  When it was Machiavelli's turn, however, he introduced a twist: in his book The Prince, rather than advising how a leader should be good, he advised how a leader in an insecure political position could effectively wield power to establish stability.  One could argue that another of his political works, The Discourses, was also a mirror, but this time not for princes but for the citizens of a republic, where he describes how they could effectively maintain their liberties and ward off tyranny.

The Handbook For Democracy is intended to be a mirror for the demos, a companion guidebook to help people govern themselves effectively in the face of the constant pressures of power in the modern world that tend to undermine popular government and aggrandize oligarchy, police states, military dictatorship, or totalitarian fascism.  Our demos needs to better understand how power is used against them -- not just direct political power, but economic power, the power of the media, and the power of cultural control.  There are a host of techniques that political and economic elites use to exert social control and to keep the demos in line.  The Handbook is intended to schematically describe many of these different ways in which power is used against the demos, and it will also give recommendations for how to defeat, deflect, defuse, or otherwise deal with those techniques.  

I’m going to periodically use my blog to write up some of the essays and entries that I’ll eventually compile for the book.  Here are some (but hardly all) of the control techniques I hope to deal with, from time-to-time, over the next couple years:
  • Political
    • Armed suppression of dissent, when deemed necessary by the elite
    • War in foreign places as a domestic control device
    • Divide-and-conquer the working class using racism, sexism, homophobia
    • Control of policy-making through the lobbying process
    • Privatization of public functions, reducing the range of policy under public control
    • Limitation of political participation 
    • Control over election processes 
    • Small numbers of “mainstream” political parties to reduce the range of political debate to what is acceptable 
  • Economic
    • Concentration of wealth
    • Inequality is itself a control device
    • Controlling nearly all of society’s capital investment allocation
    • Ability to hire and fire workers, and to control promotions and demotions, pay and benefit raises and cuts, working conditions, etc.
    • Marginalization of worker unions
    • Control of the lobbying process through money
    • Maintenance of poverty levels as a method of keeping people passive.
    • Consumerism combined with mass entertainment as the modern bread-and-circuses
  • Ideological
    • Predominant control over the mass media
    • Increased private funding of education at the primary, secondary, and university levels
    • False consciousness: convincing many in the demos to identify with the wealthy
    • Mass spectacles, celebrity worship, and other entertainments as distraction from the political
    • Stupefaction of media programming to reduce intelligence levels
    • Centrism as enabling of elite control
    • Radical individualism and social alienation to isolate members of the demos and prevent strong communities and a truly vibrant civil society

One question that has to be asked is, what is the proper role of the political theorist in this?  Is this really a book that promotes democracy if it’s written by someone who has a doctorate in political theory?  Shouldn’t it be written by the demos?  First, I think the role of the political theorist here is exactly the same as past writers in the “mirrors-for-” genre: an advisor who shares political education and experience with those who are supposed to be political decision-makers.  Since most of the members of the demos don’t have high levels of political knowledge, it’s perfectly permissible for those who do to offer advice for their consideration; and since that’s all that it is, advice, there’s nothing objectionable about it.  (Advising the demos in order to help them is perfectly fine; if it crossed over into the line of contemptuously judging them to be incapable of understanding would be elitist, and to trying to take direct control would be authoritarian.)  Indeed, if a political theorist believes in democracy, it is not only allowable, but, one could argue, morally obligatory for him or her to share it in democracy’s defense.  Second, yhe common people, collectively, have great expertise, but it is divided up between its members.  To draw on it the individual members must offer it up for public consideration, and that's that’s being done here.  (I am a part of the demos:  I am neither wealthy nor in a position of political, military, or bureaucratic power.)  That being said, I do think it would ultimately be useful to use the handbook as the core or beginning, of an online democracy wiki in which people can contribute; the problem would be preventing elite colonization of it once it is open to all.

* Many classical republican thinkers, including the American founders, focused not on restraining the tyranny of the elite few but on restraining the tyranny of a majority, to prevent elite classes from being crushed by what they viewed as mob rule.  I think that this has, mostly although not entirely, been a way for elites to perpetuate their class privilege, wrapped in the rhetoric of preserving the good of all.  This is a complicated topic that I cannot adequately address here.  It should suffice to say that, in our time, the major trends are against democracy, so it is the demos and so that is the class that needs to be bolstered. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

How Should One Live in an Unjust System?

While most of what I write focuses on topics of political and philosophical interest to me in an effort to help change how people think and thus, in the long run, change the world, the personal ethics of the writer, philosopher, and activist are a necessary topic to explore too.  If one finds oneself living in unjust times, how should one conduct oneself?  That question may seem like it has an easy response: "As best as one can."  But of course such a general answer is practically empty and needs to be fleshed out.

It’s not an easy task to live morally even in the best of circumstances, and certainly not when social and systemic pressures work strongly against a moral life.  Today's world is full of injustices, and for progressives most of the major trends are going in the wrong direction.  While over the last several decades we've made some very laudable, and real, progress on inclusion for minorities, women, and LGBT persons, on economic class and inequality, community, political transparency, democratic participation, and last but not least, the environment, we have gone backwards -- and the main trends all continue to go in the wrong direction.  As Chomsky wrote last week in an article, “Will Capitalism Destroy Civilization?,” advanced states, while nominally democratic, are mostly governed in the interests of finance and corporate capital, which is on a path of ecological and social destruction.  The powers-that-be use a plethora of sophisticated coercive, political, bureaucratic, economic, ideological, disciplinary, surveillance, media, and social techniques to maintain their privileged position, diminishing the material quality of life for all and making a moral life difficult to live.

Capitalism operates according to profit and is indifferent to justice, and that indifference routinely permits or produces grave injustices.  With its power to hire or fire, to grant or withhold investment, capital exerts economic control over individuals, communities, cities, and countries, ruining lives along the way.  With its control of accumulated wealth it buys enough political influence to steer public policy in its interests.  It establishes its norms and ways of thinking everywhere, privileging the commercial class over all other groups and peoples, leaving billions in poverty and billions more unfulfilled and struggling.  

As has often been noted, capitalism infiltrates and colonizes most areas of life.  Daily life is infused with buying and selling -- almost everything that you use, from your clothes and food to your electricity and water to your computer and communications, are all things that have been bought in a commercial transaction.  In advanced societies people engage in commercial transactions dozens or hundreds of times a day, and as john Dewey noted nearly a century ago the ways of thinking of the merchant become so ingrained into daily life that they seems nature and normal -- doing cost/benefit analyses on everything, seeking to maximize personal gain, career ambition through self-promotion, withholding the truth or outright lying to make a buck.  Capitalism extends its reach everywhere, such that it is almost impossible to escape -- and even if one could, that wouldn’t help to change the system.  One has to have a job; one has to use money; one may even have to invest in stock, and so exploit other people’s labor; one may even end up in a position that demands that you act unjustly against others or, if you refuse, deprives you of your entire income and possibly even everything you have.  

Thus it become a moral imperative to develop the ability to see the catch-22s and other traps that the system lays for people, in order to try and avoid or minimize them.  The Frankfurt school critical theorists asked how to overcome false consciousness under such conditions, with the hope that increased awareness itself will help change the system.  Critical theory does go far to ameliorate this problem, as do other discourses that critically interrogate discourses of power: feminism and the other identity liberation movements have helped teach us how to pierce the fog of conventional ideas that maintain systems of power, which has led to more egalitarian policy over the long run, even when resisted by those in privileged positions.  In the end this has led to greater inclusion into the existing economic and political structures of oligopoly capitalism, which is a good thing: more inclusion is obviously better than less.  But critical interrogation of the economic and class power structures and ideology is a tougher nut to crack than racial or sexual identities, for class is where real power and wealth lie.  A capitalist can accept letting women and minorities into the system, for he can then exploit them better both as workers and as consumers while giving up nothing material; but he can't let the working class have real political and economic control as the working class, for that would entail giving up every advantage that he has.

The question then isn't merely raising consciousness, but actually changing the economic structures,  Unfortunately that's going to take a while, so until we can achieve real change, it is important to find a way to be as moral as possible within them.  I recall that Michael Walzer lamented in Dissent some years ago by that he would not see democratic socialism in his time; we younger progressives are not likely to see it in ours either, and even securing rudimentary social democracy and averting environmental disaster sometimes seem like ambitious goals.  (I do think that we can potentially achieve great changes in a short time, and should continue to try to do so with all the vigor and confidence that can be mustered -- systemic changes can never be predicted, but it is wise to always be ready to promote them.)  Our current system seems likely to be around for a while; even if a systemic shift happened tomorrow, the process of building a new way of life would take years or even decades, and anyone forty or older (like me) would have, when the tally is made at the end of our lives, lived most of days in an unjust system. 

So how can one live a moral life within an unjust system, even as one works to change it?