Fragments of Ideas Concerning Free Will and Political Freedom
“I do not argue for one moment that a two-party, still less a multi-party state, is necessarily a guarantee of freedom. That always depends, first, on the parallelogram of economic forces in a society, and, second, their relation to its political structure.” (Laski, p.g24)
Power is given up via the desire for comfort and certainty.
How does one define ‘political freedom’?
The widest range of actions permitted based on the underlying supposition that all said actions will benefit the community as a whole.
In the twentieth century, ‘political freedom’ involves a wealth of rights and privileges, including freedom of speech and assembly, the right to privacy, habeas corpus, and the right to property (which in many ways, when first introduced in democratic states in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the chief factor in the permission to accumulate wealth and power, as the ownership of land was a near guarantee of this occurring).
Democracy – existing in prototypical form in ancient Greece – creates a rule of law from the ground up, with each citizen having a say on what the standards (laws) of the community will be, and how they will be enforced.
Since democracy’s tenuous inception centuries ago, political freedom has waxed and waned in regions that have elected officials representing the will of the people, but for the most part it has made a steady progression towards bringing more and more citizens under its umbrella and participate in its clear benefits.
But this does not mean that we can move continually forward without constant and continual assessment of the effectiveness of these democratic institutions and how they presently fare at offering political freedom to their respective citizens.
A measure of what is best for the community as a whole is looking to how the majority of the citizenry lives.
Realistically, a strong middle class and a small income-inequality gap have consistently shown to be two powerful measures as to the weight and effectiveness of the political freedoms in a given state. Both of these qualities offers strong foundations for citizens to best succeed and live in relative comfort. It makes it easier for those with less to rise to the middle class, and increases the odds that those in the middle class can possibly reach the upper. This type of social mobility is created in part due to the presence of opportunity and liberty, which are two sides of the same coin. The former a series of advantageous situations, and the latter the availability for anyone to take advantage of them.
What should be noted at this point is that this continual striving for betterment can result in a concentration of power. In the late nineteenth century it had became a habitual enough occurrence that the name ‘Robber Barons’ was given to the wealthy industrialists in the United States (Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller), alluding to the sudden creation of an aristocracy of sorts that democracy itself was instituted to prevent.
It should come as no surprise then that during the Great Depression this absurdly small concentration of power found itself vilified by the rest of the state. While throughout the early twentieth century there were attempts to limit or dismantle some of these industrial monopolies, it was through the Great Depression and the harsh civil unrest of the 1930s when were laws passed that saw to it that this accumulation of power was slowly distributed throughout the government and the nation, mainly through President Roosevelt’s introduction of the New Deal.
For free will to exist, there must be a universal ignorance to the near-infinite amount of choices – and their results – that are available to each person at every moment of their lives. For if all the choices were somehow known, then there would not be free will, there would be billions of billions of paths to take, all of which correspond to a series planned reactions. Free will is beyond this concept of choice.
A choice between two options and a choice between billions of them still suggest that decisions can be mapped, followed, analyzed. All of which suggests there is no randomness, which is necessary for free will to exist.
This is the wrong start to looking at this issue, and it is not the availability of choice that is the issue, but how the subject chooses which path to take.
If you have to choose one of three doors, one can map out what would be the result if you choose each particular one, but no one can say for certain which one you will choose (or why), and that is free will.
[As far as a god or omnipotent being ‘knowing’ what you will do, it’s a completely irrelevant point because the notion of god (or at least the qualities typically attributed to god) exists outside of human understanding and experience. Despite our talk of god having omnipotence and omnipresence, we cannot apply these notions to how our own perception of reality works. To have these qualities ‘here’ would not only be breaking the rules of our temporal and spatial reality, but refusing to acknowledge that the rules exist in the first place, since in this one glaring example, they can be effortlessly broken. Applying such qualities to an entity and then wondering how it experiences or understands us and our reality is an episode in futility. Including such entities in human affairs is akin to playing Trivial Pursuit with Monopoly money.]
[Particularly vexing is the idea of a personal god, which has a direct interest in what individuals do, and can be affected to change its decisions based on how people act towards it or others. Believing in such a schematic has no place in these series of arguments, but I will acknowledge how strongly this notion has in the ability to change people’s beliefs and behaviour, hence it holds a certain amount of power than can be exploited – sadly, rather easily – by religious and political organizations]
In terms of measurable evidence of how people make decisions, results from scientific experiments make a strong argument that free will certainly doesn’t come into play very often. People’s behaviour for the most part can be effectively pre-determined, or whittled down to a handful of typical choices.
But ‘for the most part’ is not always, is not absolute, which suggests that randomness can creep into the most logical and supposedly pre-determined system. Models break down at 99.9999%. The Uncertainty Principles lies at the heart of modern physics. The laws of the universe do not apply at the sliver-like moments surrounding the big bang.
Which is why free will has to exist. There is no way to fit everything into the schema of the unfolding universe of which we are all a part of. But how much this plays in the role of how we live in a global community is difficult to properly ascertain.
The most simplistic form of exercising free will is the acquisition and utilization of power, either momentarily – to have control of one’s immediate surroundings in regards to obtaining one’s basic needs such as food and shelter – or on a much more permanent basis – to have control of such basic needs but in addition particular wants that can be held or stored for later use.
The possession and exchange of needs and wants is at the heart of power.
Democracy was supposed to prevent corruption and abuse of power by diffusing power among a large body of citizens (members of congress or parliament, themselves each representing larger bodies of citizens, typically in certain regions or districts in the respective state). The most sensible way to govern was through the rule of the majority, where what was good for most citizens was generally agreed upon what was the best – not objectively correct, simply the best available – decision regarding a particular issue.
Of course, this could cause many problems for the minority, which in many cases was not a small section of the populace. While Mill is wary of this ‘majority ruling over the minority’ abuse of power (Mill, pg.8), what has happened in many powerful democratic states of late – and why a restructuring of certain institutions may be required – is the reverse: A minority ruling over the majority, a situation that all but guarantees a heightened and more crippling abuse of power.
The problem was that eventually the special interests and institutions of the privileged class – certainly a porous group of citizens, although mostly with common socioeconomic perspectives, as it was these values that defined this class, not any other particular attributes as citizens – grew so large that they were able to coerce and take command of most of this democratic body.
Which means it became democratic in name only.
A further complication arises when one acknowledges that democracy began in such a fashion, where only a handful of citizens were even permitted to vote. To go as far back as Greece, only ‘free’ citizens were permitted to participate in politics, and in Athens, there were 60,000 free males in city of 350,000 to half a million. Abuse was also rife when modern democracy was in its infancy. In the late 1700s, in newly democratic America, only 39,000 landowning men could vote, in a country of four million. In pre-modern England, a ‘rotten borough’ was a district that few or no citizens at all, but still sent a representative to parliament, typically a gentleman that owned the land.
Changes in the twentieth century have extended the right of voting – that is, participation in the democratic process – and for varying periods this resulted in wealth and power being more evenly distributed across the state. But currently this level of political freedom – forever associated with how wealth and power are diffused – has been under attack from the now powerful minority of corporate interests and a concentration of wealthy citizens.
John Stuart Mill:
“The aim, therefore, of patriots was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It was attempted in two ways. First by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which, if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment of constitutional checks, by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power.” (Mill, pg.6)
This is the ideal, and we of course never function on such a plane. Which means that much of the debate surrounding the notion of freedom and rights consists of how exactly the ruler/governing body fails to offer such ‘political liberties’, as Mill calls them.
Do citizens have a right to vote every x amount of years – or not vote at all – and expect that their elected leaders will make every decision in their public interest and that they can tune out and not give these now-powerful men and women in the capitol weekly or daily check ups to make sure this is so?
If one does believe this, what is the recourse when the opposite becomes true, when it’s clear that the politicians are enacting or re-shaping laws that benefit small and specific segments of the population?
At what point is it not only acceptable but also necessary for a resistance or rebellion to occur? The suspension of rights typically occur during states of emergency, which is rather shocking because in many ways it is this time above all others when freedom must be protected. Saying, ‘to protect democracy we must momentarily subvert it’ is a slippery slope towards never returning to a true democratic state, even after the emergency period passes. If citizens accept a removal of democratic principles in a democratic fashion – by voting for those who are in support of such a policy or not rebelling when it is suddenly instituted by the ruling power – do they still live in a democracy? Is it legitimate to move from a democracy to ‘something else’ in a democratic fashion? Is that now the will of the people?
Freedom Under ‘Attack’: Teasing Out the Real from the Ridiculous
The extension of basic rights to every citizen is a relatively new phenomenon, as even in the most advanced states they are less than a century old.
If all are treated fairly, all have a fair chance to succeed or fail based on their own merit. But in many developed nations this level of individualism is supported by a social safety net that provides certain services and assistance such as unemployment insurance, pensions, education grants, and health care. Not to mention basic services such as sanitation, police and fire departments, post offices, and infrastructure maintenance.
All of these policies and programs are designed with the understanding that this is what a majority of the public desires, and they certainly have a say in this as it is their tax dollars – literally, their power – which is paying for these services.
Community standards are the ever-changing measuring sticks for what is accepted and what is prohibited in a society. The government is expected to represent the ‘will of the people’, enforced ideally by elections, which requires an informed body of citizens to properly vote for their best interest.
The complication that results from this plethora of voices is one that democracy is constantly grappling with. It is extremely difficult to govern without polarizing large segments of the population in a postindustrial state.
Prior to the emancipation of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, decisions may have been made more efficiently, but that doesn’t mean they were done any more ethically.
In a globalized world that is becoming more and more complex, power by no means remains stagnant, and instead flows to those people or groups that are able to best maneuver around and through such bureaucratic morasses.
Once again this returns to a pre-twentieth century form of ‘democratic’ power, where despite the extolling of political freedom, the pressing decisions have once again retreated into the hands of the few.
A key factor in this assessment is the acknowledgment that this power remains fluid within powerful institutions and not necessarily within the whims and actions of the individuals that run them. The wealthy and powerful – whether CEOs, politicians, or investors – may tinker with laws and find loopholes in statutes that wholly damage democratic fundamentals, but they themselves are beholden to the institutions whose core philosophies can run counter to such forms of government regulation. This important point is not brought up to excuse the actions of those people that undermine democracy, but to carefully explain that the problems lay with the private corporations and government bureaucracies themselves, not necessarily with the people that run them.
For when we look for persons to blame when evidence of abuse of power arises, a democratic state offers many scapegoats. While bribery – which has also gone under the guise of ‘donations’ and ‘fundraising’ – of politicians offer up a clear indication of abuse, it is hard to pin down, and its ramifications can be a legitimate passing of a law that benefits only those that offered the bribe/donation that can be difficult to undo. Are the individual politicians to blame? The lobbyist or group that offer the bribe? The system itself that permits such abuse? How is it possible to enforce such backdoor transfers of power?
Obviously we are now addressing a basic aspect of the human condition and free will. By no means are people inherently moral, or beholden to some ideal or force to act only in benign ways. Instead there seems to be no compunction to acting in one’s own interest at the expense of another (or many others), despite the promise to adhere to strict rules and regulations when becoming a representative of the people. The term ‘checks and balances’ is used in democracy to describe the attempt to restrain and remove as many of the unhealthy qualities as possible, but the only true remedy is the most difficult one to harness: Public accountability.
Constant vigilance is the price to pay for a functioning democratic state, and the increase of voting rolls can either increase the chance of accountability (more people willing to ‘keep watch’) or slack on the part of many (it is easier for those with power to keep greater numbers of people distracted or divided).
As democracy was slowly introduced across the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries, the elites who created such a system were afraid of the latter, and with good reason.
When one does not understand the issue they are voting on – or cannot properly understand what has previously occurred in the halls of power since the last election – then democracy is already in trouble.
By the early twentieth-first century, the community has become a global one, an incredibly complex and interdependent system of politics and economics. And so expecting every citizen in a democratic state to understand how it functions and how the policies of the politicians they vote for can impact himself or herself is one of folly.
This explanation of the dangers that democratic nations face everyday is offered up in the most general of terms, and it should be noted that the machinations that allow for such abuses within the system to take place are extremely detailed and multifaceted.
Many extremely short term and insular plans to subvert or alter laws and regulations can awkwardly overlap – especially when all the goals are similar (more power) – and with that comes an appearance of a larger and more carefully orchestrated plan.
From this comes the reductionist and ultimately illusory view that an elite group of people – not complex and unwieldy systemic institutions – controls the means and modes of contemporary civilization from behind manor gates and annual clandestine meetings. At present day, with wealth and power becoming more concentrated, alternate and impossible systems of control are buoyed as legitimate by certain disenfranchised circles.
The Spiraling Dangers of Misinformation (a momentary digression in a slightly less formal tongue that one is free to skip)
-why would a core group of politicians and titans of industry and finance who spent decades slowly and discreetly tinkering with the rules and laws of powerful Western nations for their benefit – with perhaps the benefit of the rest of the world coming in second place – throw it all away on a crazed false flag gamble like 9/11? These people (and we already hesitate to group them all together and suggest they all think the same) do not like risk, do not like things out of their control, and that operation – the way ‘truthers’ believe it happened anyway – reeks of unpredictability and possible failure. For it to have happened like some believed, the size of the conspiracy, the amount of people involved, boggles the mind. Quite simply, as Chomsky surmised, someone would have talked and become one of the biggest whistle-blowers/heroes in world history. Either everyone involved were amoral Nietzchean supermen who – let’s be honest – therefore deserve to rule over us (if they’re that damn efficient), or it was a bunch of Middle Eastern terrorists who took advantage of large security failures in the plodding American transportation and intelligence system.
-does the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and the Bilderberg Group control the world? It certainly has a large say how the main measure of global power – economics – is managed. And really, that’s all it has to do to play a large role in how the world works. No need for bizarre shit like fluoridation and one world currency to control the masses. Small print and market matrices rule the world, and the people that can understand them get to sit in the driver’s seat. The point is that anyone who busts their ass throughout their life can take the world for spin. Sure, some who are born with a silver spoon in their mouths – Rockefeller, Bush – get an (I’m switching metaphors here, sorry Taibbi) early seat at the proverbial table, but for everyone one of those there’s a Barack Obama or Lloyd Blankfein, who worked hard to get where they have. There’s no glass ceiling. It’s a porous membrane.
-what do they talk about at these supposedly secret cabal meetings? Pretty much what US Diplomat Cables’ leak of 2010 and 2011 revealed. Frank discussions about the Chinese trade deficit, austerity measures, the perception in the US about the power of the banks, the corruption of the Middle Eastern government and whether it’s going to lead to such internal instability that it will compromise the region’s contribution to the globe’s energy supply.
-uncertainty (fear) and personal greed run these groups, but they do have the best interests for the globe somewhere in their tiny black-ish hearts (without the rest of us being around, who will they have people to treat like their social inferiors?). The idea is as follows (not saying it’s moral or acceptable by any means):
The world is a complicated place, and all of us at the top are the ones who best understand these complexities, and therefore we are going to try to make the world as good for as many people as possible. But first we better make sure that our roles as ‘the shapers of the world’ are secure, because it’s really going to fuck up our plan if we’re all replaced by a bunch of people who don’t have the same ideas as us (who, in fact, with different ideas, might destroy civilization completely). So to make sure we keep our positions, we have to make sure we hold on to the cash and seats of power so nothing rocks our tugboat as we drag the ocean liner that is humanity to utopia.
-so there’s a general distrust of the poor by the rich (‘they can’t take care of themselves and society, so we have to look over them at all times’), just as there is a general distrust of the rich by the poor (‘they are greedy and hog all the money and power’).
-Phillip K. Dick said, ‘to fight the empire is to be infected by its madness’. There are times when the conspiracy theorists sound a lot like the conspirators they revile and try to expose. This dichotomy is forever set in perfect stone. Both lament the stupidity and ignorance of most of the people and attempt to control this group for their own ends (the so-called conspirators to retain power, the theorists to take down the conspirators group). Both are willing to manipulate evidence that supports their cause (and dismissing the other’s accusations by claiming their material is factually incorrect or misleading), and ignore evidence that criticizes it. Additionally, in trying to understand how this decision-making process works – and not simply its talking points, but the actual nuts and bolts, meaning you’re a lawyer, economist, CEO or politician – means your qualified to join the group. If your politics line up, that is.
-Regarding the evidence against the men who control the globe: In many conspiracy films – Loose Change, Zeitgeist, Invisible Empire – it is mentioned that these powerful people/groups own the media corporations and fashion them to suppress information that might challenge their authority and instead focus on superficial stories such as celebrities, sports, and the personalities of politicians. But then throughout the same films the conspiracy theorists insert many clips of mainstream news anchors breaking stories about the government’s malfeasance and duplicity (Iran Contra and the 1993 WTC bombing, for example). How can we trust these news stories if they’re coming from organizations that we’ve just been told not to trust? Because they support the theories found in the conspiracy film we can trust them in this respect? And what does it say about the power of these powerful men and secret groups if a lot of their plans are uncovered and reported upon by the very media they are supposed to effortlessly control? If these few people manipulate the government, how come it was broadcast on the news that there were government committees in the late seventies that determined that the JFK and MLK assassinations were probably conspiracies and not the acts of lone gunmen? Are these all supposed to be red herrings, all this media coverage on supposedly important events, the stuff that takes our attention away from the ‘real’ and ‘secret’ decisions that we actually never hear about?
-and this attempt to make America and the West appear to be the only superpower with secret people controlling the globe is pretty much falling apart thanks to the rise of China. It seems like some pretty weak global control if they couldn’t see the Asian nation rising to take over.
Power’s not racist, sexist, or bigoted. Power doesn’t give a shit. Power will use whatever’s lying around to bludgeon whatever’s in its way. Power will shake hands with A while smacking A’s loved ones with a bat wrapped in barbed wire. Power is amoral, colourblind, and will do business with anyone to destroy anyone.
Power doesn’t ebb and flow, only the people who hold it do.
Forever Under the Gun
-the role of the military in this economic-political relationship is, not surprisingly, a difficult one to ascertain. Making far-reaching conclusions as to the immorality of some of the actions done in the past several decades by the Western military powers (namely, American, which, by virtue of being in the business of exporting its form of democracy with the most powerful army in the world to assist, typically gets the brunt of the commentary) and almost always with approval from the current administration in power (in America’s case, interfering with elections and regime changes in South America and the Middle East and Southeast Asia that took the lives of millions), typically means not realizing that this has been a common tool utilized by powerful nations and empires throughout history.
The misconception comes in believing that the current states of Western civilization somehow discourages this practice, when it reality all it requires is tacit support from the domestic populace and active support by those in power.
-history is getting longer every day.
-conquering and subjugating weaker cultures has been done for many reasons throughout the course of human history. During the age of exploration, when Europeans set sail for the Americas and began to penetrate further into Africa, the grounds for killing natives on these three continents, putting them in chains, and eradicating their customs and traditions was to civilize them (when in reality it was brutal economics).
And just like now, there were people who thought this was abhorrent and exploitative (some even from the religious establishment that was ‘converting’ the heathens), but most of the citizens in the home countries did not know or did not care.
-the British empire had a 1/6 of the world live under its subjugation, including all of modern day India. The basic rule of law was that ‘might made right’, and anyone not part of the conquering force was weaker in some essential form (intellectually, physically, culturally).
-It is essential to remember that this was used domestically as well, even up to the 1960s, as visible minorities in several western nations weren’t even seen as equal in the eyes of the law until only sixty-odd years ago.
-but this change – an (attempted) tolerance of diversity in both voter participation and political opinion – meant that new reasons had to be created and sold to the public for military intervention. Typically it is done by claiming that the other state is a threat to you, and therefore must be eradicated in a pre-emptive strike.
-Throughout history democratic states (of varying quality) have looked at its own military and its commanders with great suspicion, as the threat it would soon dictate political policy was always close at hand. In Ancient Rome, armies were not permitted to cross the Rubicon – which was simply a stream, no great rushing river – towards the capital itself, as it was believed that the presence of such basic strength could jeopardize the democratic process. A reasonable concern, as when Julius Caesar crossed it, he began a three-year civil war that resulted in him being crowned emperor. In the documentary ‘Why We Fight’, it was observed that upon leaving the White House in 1961, President Eisenhower – who lead the American military forces in World War Two, said, “God help this country when someone sits at this desk who does not know as much about the military as I do.” As much as he could – including his famed ‘military industrial complex’ speech – Eisenhower was concerned with this possibility of unchecked power. In a little over two years, Kennedy was sending troops to Vietnam.
The Cold War created a permanent war economy in the most powerful democratic nation on earth, making the relationship between government, industry, and the military that much more entrenched and co-dependant, and a war-based economy eventually requires a war (or, at the very least, several explosive skirmishes).
Even after the end of the conflict with the Soviet Union, the US government found it difficult to cut its military budget, and after 9/11 it appeared that ‘The War on Terror’ became another opportunity to expand military expenditures.
Certain contemporary writers see a connection between the reaction to the 2001 terrorist attacks and the incremental rise of police state tactics in wake of the worldwide ‘Occupy’ protests. Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi states:
“We had all of these arguments in the Bush years and it’s nothing new to assert that much of our population made a huge mistake in giving up so many of our basic rights to due process. What’s new is that we’re now seeing the political consequences of those decisions.
“Again, when we abandoned our principles in order to use force against terrorists and drug dealers, the answer to the question, What are we defending? started to change.
“The original answer, ostensibly, was, ‘We are defending the peaceful and law-abiding citizens of the United States, their principles, and everything America stands for.’
“Then after a while it became, ‘We’re defending the current population of the country, but we can’t defend the principles so much anymore, because they weigh us down in the fight against a ruthless enemy who must be stopped at all costs.’
Then finally it became this: ‘We are defending ourselves, against the citizens who insist on keeping their rights and their principles’.” (Taibbi)
Salon.com writer Glenn Greenwald notes:
“The intent and effect of such abuse is that it renders those guaranteed freedoms meaningless. If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed — or hears that an Occupy protester suffered brain damage and almost died after being shot in the skull with a rubber bullet — many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power. That’s a natural response, and it’s exactly what the climate of fear imposed by all abusive police state actions is intended to achieve: to coerce citizens to “decide” on their own to be passive and compliant — to refrain from exercising their rights — out of fear of what will happen if they don’t.” (Greenwald)
Breaking points are hard to find.
How many crimes of the wealthy? How many incidents involving the law using what is clearly unnecessary force? How many laws concerning basic rights and privileges ignored or secretly overturned?
The most delicate and dangerous question for a citizen genuinely concerned with the erosion of rights and freedoms deemed essential is when to take up arms against the government or ruler that no longer represents the community’s interest, and the community itself can no longer petition for change in typical, democratic means.
It is a matter of treason, as both sides accuse the other of that most grievous crime. But whose is worse? So much of that depends not only on the actions of the government or ruler currently in power, but the methods of the rebellion in their attempts to regain control of the state.
It is a choice that immediately involves violence, terror, death and unquestionably a period of no democratic principles at all, by both the old regime – in trying to quell the rebellion – and, if successful, the new – in the always unstable transitional period of trying to set up a completely new system of democratic governance.
Democracy is rarely the first thing instituted once there is a regime change, even if a corrupt and inefficient democracy of sorts is what was replaced. The results of the Arab Spring nations – Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya – are going to be very instructive as to the fate of these sorts of movements in the early 21st century.
Troubling though, is the repetition of familiar past mistakes, which is of little surprise in a society for whom even recent history can be forgotten quite effortlessly. Writing in 1947, the Second World War fresh in his mind, Harold Laski states in Liberty in the Modern State that, “the day has passed when, over most of the world, at least the major instruments of production could be left in private hands. Where they were so left, the danger developed rapidly that the unequal claim to well-being would mean mass unemployment, and that this, in its turn, would beget disastrous social tensions it was beyond the power of society to resolve by constitutional means. When tensions of this kind can be settled only by ‘violence’, it is plain that freedom is certain to be suspended.” (Laski, pg.18)
Where are we now in this scenario? Are we in the midst of ‘disastrous social tensions’? What can keep us from stumbling over the brink into violence?
Should we be particularly concerned that those with a concentrated amount of the world’s wealth are so tone deaf and dependent on their tax breaks and corporate ownership that they do not understand that their continued success is dependent on the rest of the world’s own ability to stay solvent (to use an economic term to describe being able to provide food and shelter for themselves and their family)?
The fact that for the past three decades there have been few signs – thanks to a series of catastrophes involving economic bubbles, malfeasance, and unprotected risks – of any return to a fiscal system in which actually benefits a great majority of any state’s population forces us to ask not only what conditions must be in place for change, but what exactly that change could look like.
If we look back to a brief time when there was a more egalitarian approach to prosperity, what did they have that we do not, and are such qualities compatible in a hyperactive, globalized marketplace?
A Pressing Aside: The True Revelation: I have been to the mountaintop. It’s just a mountaintop.
The inherent fallibility of human nature and understanding ensures a sociopolitical hierarchy like the one we see now: The few ruling over the many, delusions of an endless other by both nebulous and impermanent sides, luck and chance (or randomness, for the scientifically minded) favouring some individuals and damning others, and an inability to properly contextualize the present upon the long and winding road that is history.
[The rich and powerful think the poor are lazy and stupid and the poor think the rich are greedy and amoral. And they are both right because people act in these ways whether they have wealth and power or they don’t. As Orwell said, ‘the rich are just poor people with money’. Each side likes to think that they are in the right, but it’s never that clear, never that easy. It’s not black and white, it’s grey all the way down]
If the general agreement is that the wealthy 1% cannot be trusted with the keys to the power of the planet, the question, then, is simply: Can the masses be trusted with said power? (the cabal of politicians and businessmen think not, but they are just people like the masses who happen to have the power) Can ‘true’ democracy work? Orwell also said – through protagonist Winston Smith in 1984 – that ‘all hope lies with the proles’. Can they be properly educated (whatever that means) and then trusted to make the right decisions (whatever that might be) for themselves (which really means all of us)?
Will everything die in committee? Will people taking advantage of other’s faults and foibles inevitably create a sadly similar hierarchy once again?
CAN YOU TRUST THE PROLES? (and how much does it depend on who ‘you’ are?) (can you ‘teach’ them the issues? Can they overcome the stereotype of themselves by the powerful, that the powerful helped create? Has culture and superficial political discourse made them ignorant to the pressing matters at hand, or are certain large segments of the population simply choosing ignorance themselves, without prompting? What kind of system will exist while they are ‘educated’? And how can any of this occur without some form of agenda by an involved party, especially considering the language used above makes it sound like the writer and reader are discussing this group of people as if they are something separate and distinct from us, unfortunately uneducated and unable or unwilling to participate in democratic processes. I will be the first to admit that this is an incredibly condescending and hierarchical musing of what I am characterizing as an ‘other’, which itself is practically guaranteeing further disagreements and divisions within ranks that in many ways would have to be unified in order for political liberties to exist in an as close to ideal state as possible.)
Laski euphemistically describes these persons as ‘humble men’, who are not educated in the complex rules and regulations that govern the modern world and, “are schooled to obedience by the rigorous discipline of their lives. It is no easy task to give them the sense of grave dangers to be arrested, of big ideas which need an army to fight for them. Only great leadership can strike their imagination into that action which responds to the call.” (Laski, pg.31)
Which is now just another call for an ‘elite’ figure to lead this group of ‘proles/humble men’.
Berlin states that such a concept of ‘the masses’ is as old as philosophy itself, citing, “thinkers like Plato, or De Maistre, Swift or Carlyle, who looked on the majority of mankind as unalterably stupid or incurably vicious, and therefore concerned themselves with how the world might be made safe for the exception, enlightened, or otherwise superior minority or individual. For their view did at least concede the reality of the painful problems, and merely denied the capacity of the majority to solve them.” (Berlin, pg.25)
The hierarchy just is. It has always existed, from the earliest days of civilization where ‘might made right’ in the most basic sense, with the evolution of the sciences and its discoveries giving rise to a combination of ‘might and ingenuity making right’ continuing to this day in a slightly more complex relationship. And throughout this time, the lot for the average individual improved, then perhaps worsened slightly, them improved again, going back and forth repeatedly, two steps forward, one step back. Through wars, plagues, persecution, natural disasters, crumbling empires, technological breakthroughs, shocking truths concerning the nature of reality, and an endless amount of hope, despondence, and absurdity.
The relationship between the powerful and the powerless warped and twisted, ebbed and flowed, and while it is typically those on the lower rungs of the ladder suffer more, history is rife with examples of leaders and formidable individuals being subjected to what is sometimes comeuppance and sometimes blind and unlucky rage.
Through the industrial and post-industrial revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the transitioning of power (by this time, measured mainly in economic terms) not only sped up, but also became less traumatic in a physical sense.
With the Western world still holding on to dominance of the globalized economy (although the rise of Asia will herald many changes), looking at the changes in income disparity and wealth distribution in the last three decades (especially compared to the five decades or so prior), one must conclude that there must be an effective overhaul of the system for the sake of its continued functioning. The economic plans and regulations instituted in the wake of the Great Depression and The Second World War gave way to one of the most prosperous periods for the lower and middle classes not only in America but the Western world as well (which has now belatedly extended to other continents). The distance between rich and poor shrunk, regulation in all its guises worked for the benefit of the populace (ensuring products were safe, corporations were honest, and banks would not act irresponsible).
In the early nineteen-eighties however, began a period where many of these advances were undone (tax cuts that mainly benefited the wealthy, deregulation en masse for any corporate entity that could afford a lobbyist), and quite quickly wealth moved back to a smaller collection of people, financial institutions took more risks, and corporations moved their factories to poor nations to maximize profits.
And for the three decades since, the lower and middle class found their fortune shrink ever faster.
It’s time to reverse these policies that all Western nations are trying to ignore or downplay as important. What power is measured in is what must be overhauled. The inequality gap must be shrunk. Raise taxes on the wealthy (on income and investments), raise taxes on corporations (or at least have them pay something, as GE paid no tax at all in 2010), and regulate corporate mergers and financial instruments more effectively.
Corporate influence on government policy must be weakened.
A good barometer as to whether these changes would be effective is to see how those in power react to the possibility of such changes. Their reluctance is a sign that they aren’t interested in ‘sharing’, are unwilling to admit that this is a problem. Their dependency on this clearly corrosive system must be broken as soon as possible
Certainly it appears to be unfair or bad luck if you’re part of the current crop of rich folk that has to now to share their bank account with the rest of us, but that’s the ebb and flow of history. Better a tax hike than pitchforks.
It’s not that you can’t be rich, but do you really have to be that rich at the expense of what it does to the rest of the world?
And that’s the ideal, which might not happen at all.
Where is this supposed to lead, this attempt at global equality? Is that even the attempt? How is power to be distributed? Equally? Do we live in communes? Are we trying to simply re-introduce 1940s financial regulation, skewered a bit to take into consideration the CDOs market? Is there a basic level of existence (food, clothing, shelter) that the system must guarantee to every person on earth?
And if we say these goals are really just ideals to strive for, and that few actually believe reaching them in totality is not really possible, are we admitting that in a large sense the current system is always going to be a fall-back position for humanity? That we naturally (biologically) create a hierarchy of power amongst ourselves, with the few haves, and the many, many have-nots?
How are we to overcome this psychological urge (or mental fallibility)? Is this kind of evolution in thinking that we are to achieve? And how the hell does that happen, this reorganization and improvement of the perspective of the human condition in each one of us?
It’s like evolving a third eye or second head.
AND IF THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN, AT LEAST LEAN ON THE FOLLOWING SENTENCE THAT CAN APPLY TO ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY: Most people get fucked over, and those that do the fucking are evil, stupid, or a bit of both
Evolution is the taking advantage of nature’s mistakes
History is taking advantage of human mistakes
But the greatest mistake is seeing a grand design or plan in either
Sartre made the rather contradictory concepts of freedom and responsibility a cornerstone of existentialist thought (responsibility means accepting certain consequences to your actions, which means you will not necessarily do whatever you want at any time, which itself is the most basic definition of freedom), but in reality this has long been understood as a hallmark of political philosophy: Giving up a certain amount of freedom for a certain amount of security (a responsibility of following agreed-upon laws).
Condemned outright by Benjamin Franklin, who said that those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither, it has long been accepted that laws curtail freedom, but exist for the benefit of the community (total freedom would allow you to kill your neighbour if you wanted his land, but if this was allowed to occur without punishment or responsibility (that is, the law), society would quickly collapse into chaos).
‘How much security?’ then is one way to pose the most important question of democratic governance.
The Patriot Act – or any of the other anti-terrorism bills passed in various countries in the wake of 9/11 – is a prime example of an accumulation of power by the government, enforced by its military apparatus. Letting the government subvert basic rights to protect basic rights exposes the inherent hypocrisy of its actions. When wiretapping and surveillance can occur without warrants, or habeas corpus is suspended, political freedom is in grave danger. These are the hallmarks of a police state, and just like military expenditures, if they are created, they have to be used to justify their existence. In terms of crystallizing 1984-like doublespeak, one cannot find a better example than ‘The Patriot Act’, which subverts the very principles patriots fought and died for.
The United States has – since the early twentieth century – given the world two ‘gifts’. The first is being a shining example of the ability for each citizen of a nation to have the right of free speech, free assembly, due and equal recourse under the law, and achieve as an individual whatever goal their abilities and fortunes allow. The second is the ability for a small segment of the population to carefully – and almost completely without serious objection – control the extent of the first gift.
The price of being number one is being the biggest, hypocritical bastard on the playground, sometimes without even knowing it (as being that big means your right hand really isn’t always sure what your left is doing). Where your good public work is balanced out by mostly secret dirty work. Being fawned over by some, resented by others (sometimes for wholly legitimate reasons, sometimes in resentment for your success). Some will plot your demise incessantly in the shadows, others will bide their time for your first show of weakness, or keep on waiting until you’re a moth-ridden corpse.
To expect to be a proud example of all that is good in the world is unreasonable, as part of your role of being number one is to make sure you remain number one, and that can require breaking the rules you propagate.
Free speech isn’t free. It costs you the duty of being a responsible citizen. When you start to slip, the system begins to suffer. And certainly in many recesses and pools of power there is a distinct advantage for them if you begin to tune out and not pay attention to the passage of legislation that benefits them at your expense.
It’s even difficult to assess how certain bills and potential bills can impact the community as a whole. Some of the major legislative drafts that have recently passed into law in the United States are thousands of pages long, which many politicians admit to never having read in full.
As the world becomes globalized, and economic integration is the most important form of diplomacy, the language and process of democratic legislation is changing at a rapid pace that many people are not able to adequately comprehend.
“To transform the ultimate economic foundations of society is the most hazardous enterprise to which men can lay their hands. It touches habits more profound, prejudices and convictions more sincerely held, than any other form of social change. It can never be effected without the pain and disappointment that invariably accompany the failure of established expectations. Perhaps, even, it cannot be accomplished save at the price of violent conflict between man and man.” (Laski, pg.32-33)
Laski wrote this 1947, dreading what would later be called by President Eisenhower the ‘military industrial complex’. Laski was concerned that these early stages of military buildup – which became a key backbone of both nations’ economies – of the United States and the Soviet Union was dangerous and unsustainable, but he was sure it was going to come to a head quite soon (Laski, pg.33). In a epic example of ‘kicking the can down the alley’, it continued for over four decades, helping bankroll prosperity in the West and slowly starving the Soviets. Even at the end of the Cold War America couldn’t bring itself to dismantle its war machine, which is key reason why it faces the problems it does today.
The world is run by seven billion people, but everyone doesn’t have an equal share in this very large pie. In fact, two pyramids beside each other – one right side up, the other upside down – might give a good indication of how power is distributed. Label right side up ‘population’ and upside down ‘power’. The few people at the top have most of the power, and the many people at the bottom have the least.
What is important to note is just how many of the people in the West belong to the upper echelons of the ‘population’ and ‘power’ pyramids, even if you aren’t an energy company CEO or investment banker. Living in a high human development nation and making $25,000 (which is the average as based on the UN Human Development Index) while living in a house worth $250,000 makes you richer – and therefore more powerful – than 87% of the people on the planet. Certainly it might not feel like it when your credit card bill arrives, or you have to start planning for your kid’s college years, but in a globalized world, you can’t just look at the people in the nicer neighbourhood and then feel like you’re in the poorhouse. $25,000 a year AND your assets (house, car) are worth much more than what billions of people across the globe have at the same time.
But certainly this feeling of powerlessness can persist, especially when you realize how limited in scope some of your choices in how to wield your true power – this would be how you spend your money, rather than how you vote – truly are.
You need to pay the energy, heating, and water bills. You need to fill the gas tank. You need to fill your family’s belly. Almost all of these resources are controlled by powerful corporations, and purchasing them just reinforces their position.
Trying to purchase products that might support a more cleaner or egalitarian future (buying local foods, more energy efficient services, products that are not created and sold by a seemingly amoral multinational corporation that treats its employees in the third world like robots instead of people) typically cost more.
You are limited in the power you wield, as money equals power.
And once again this is relative. In the West have a choice – a choice that you cannot always easily make, as buying cheap items at Walmart is sometimes a necessity – whereas in the rest of the world people, for the most part, do not.
Little decisions – or at least, seemingly innocuous ones – can have grave ramifications, which is an unnerving thought, so not one typically at the forefront of everyone’s minds, even though it should be.
And in the theatre of war and international diplomacy, there is rarely such a thing as ‘little decisions’. Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to rely on the Afghan warlords instead of an international peacekeeping force during the rebuilding of Afghanistan in the first half of 2002 – ostensibly to save money – helped the country slide once again into chaos. Which is, in a large part, why American and coalition troops are still there in masse ten years after invading. Responsibility once again rears its ugly head. Being in a position of great power might give the illusion of freedom, but one must live with the eventual consequences (the responsibility). And in a democracy, that means everyone, not just the decider.
The system we have created is so efficient in reinforcing its hierarchical stability that external situations which could topple are so remote – and are typically accompanied by a host of so many other more devastating problems – that the only possible route to systemic reform is from within. And over long periods of time, this system has actually built up internal processes that slow and obstruct the pathways to certain types of reform.
Realpolitik is an immoral, hypocritical form of diplomacy, which is perfect for people like the leaders who actively make these decisions and the citizens who passively accept them. To make light of a recent example of this by paraphrasing President Roosevelt, "Gaddafi's a bastard, but he's our bastard." Like Saddam Hussein – who the United States gave weapons and assistance to until they attacked and eventually deposed him – he served a purpose until he didn't.
Whether regarded as simple flip-flopping or the most terrible hypocrisy, this isn't a new develop by any means. International relations has long been fucked up, with kept and broke promises - depending on whatever it made sense at the time - changing history time and time again. Where the last domino falls might be quite far from the first came down. The English fought the Germans in a French ditch for four years because a Serbian nationalist shot an Austro-Hungarian archduke.
The relationship between the leaders of the nation and the citizens that make up the nation has never functioned perfectly, but for periods of time it has functioned effectively (thankfully, on occasion, in times of great importance).
As both Laski, Berlin, and I observe above, the simple notion that the best and brightest men and women should be the leaders of the nations tacitly concedes that not everyone is properly equipped to take on such responsibilities.
But when abuse is rampant, when the government cannot solve the crippling problems that the state faces, this relationship between ruler and citizen is sensibly called into question.
Becoming a politician in a democratic state in the present day presents an opportunity to become an institutionalized leader, where special interests support your fundraising and re-election campaigns provided that you support policies that benefit them, and if you happen to lose your position in the government to a candidate on an anti-special interest platform (not likely, but possible), you still have a cushy lobbyist/consultant job lined up by your benefactors. In this way, you remain in the key decision making loops and still line your pockets.
The cure for bureaucratic dysfunction is a terribly bitter and dangerous pill of overhaul, and even that term can be as euphemistically gentle or incredibly violent, depending on who you talk to.
Wrenching control of the state/community from a concentrated group of moneyed interests without a complete overhaul of the democratic systems – whether congressional or parliamentary – requires a better educated populace that only supports political candidates that refrain from engaging in the acceptance of corporate donations and influence.
This way require the birth of a new party (or in America, where the current congressional system only supports two parties, simply a third one) that must balance mainstream appeal without sacrificing any of its ideals and somehow appears in corporate owned mainstream media circles to plead its case.
Chomsky has noted that one of the most effective forms of corporate control is manufactured consent, where the best way to shape public policy is to limit the breadth of the debate, where only two options are discussed and any others are either ignored or denigrated. In doing this, creating a cohesive alternate option from the two being discussed is continually denied, and so people begin to doubt that any other option truly exists (or is not viable for the majority of the people). In this, they are forced to support one of the two options presented, even if both happen to support a similar corporate-friendly position.
If the masses cannot be counted on to unite under a strong, singular banner and build a viable political alternative beneath it, the other option is a more responsible, practically altruistic, ruling class.
Acknowledging, of course, that such a class exists – or should exist – already puts the true nature of a democratic state, where everyone is supposedly on equal footing, in jeopardy. But this estate has always been a part of every community or state.
Throughout history the nobility – to use a loaded and negative connotation – have always been an icon of dependency and target of anger from most of the population. In democracy, one of the great qualities is that at the best of times such a class is much more fluid and not nearly as powerful than in a feudal or totalitarian state.
In the West a period of great advancement for the nations as a whole was in the wake of the Second World War. Despite the ongoing Cold War, the ruling classes of this time had closer annual salaries to the average citizen and were taxed at extremely high rates (upwards of 80 to 90 percent). The large companies they owned were taxed at higher rates than at present, and were strongly restricted from engaging in antitrust practices. Bank was a fairly mundane and conservative sector, with acts such as Glass-Steagall ensuring they took on minimal risk.
Expecting, or even demanding a certain level of behaviour from a small group of citizens no doubt reeks of stereotyping and – considering our overall goal, paradoxically – a lowering of political freedom.
For this argument to gain any traction, citizens would have to agree to the following statement:
People with more power have a higher degree of responsibility in wielding such power for the benefit of the community at large.
This is contrary to the democratic notion of ‘one person, one vote’, but that notion has become much less accurate in the last four decades, as the influence of a core group of special interests (power) has risen exponentially:
“The lobbyists are so effective that their backers can essentially order up a particular policy or change in regulations and the lobbyists will deliver it. An analysis by proPublica, the nonpartisan investigative news service, about the oil and gas money received by members of the National Gas Caucus (January 4, 2011) found that they received ’19 times ore money from the oil and gas industry between 2009 and 2010’ on average than members of Congress who signed a letter in support of a pro-environment proposal to require companies that engage in fracking – a technique to crack open underground formations to unlock natural gas – to disclose the chemicals they use when drilling on public lands.” (Friedman & Mandelbaum, pg.261)
If it is clear then, that when certain aspects of democracy have been subverted or weakened to the point that they are inefficient, it seems ridiculous for those who subverted it should then claim for protections under democratic principles when change is demanded of them.
Free Will necessarily re-enters this discussion because differing levels of power affords those with more of it more opportunity and freedom, in many cases to the point where the laws of the community no longer apply to them.
And when we see that the people who hold such power act in such a way that will benefit them and those close to them at the expense of the larger community it becomes clear then that free will must be carefully curtailed by the standards of the community in the form of laws.
The citizen then willingly stifles acting upon their own free will as he or she understands the necessity of abiding by the law. In this sacrifice the community or state is to benefit. This is what the citizen truly gives up when participating in governance: autonomy.
Free will is classically defined as ‘acting without constraint of necessity or fate’ (Oxford Dictionary), but in practice each person can find that his or her actions are certainly constrained depending on a wealth of social and economic factors, or in other words, the amount of power they hold.
In the mind free-will is certainly the lead hand in thought processes regarding decision making (you can certainly imagine yourself in any situation you want and how you decide to act within it), but determinism unquestionably comes into play when it comes to interacting with the world around you. Not so much that your lot in life rigidly determines how you must act at every moment of your day, but such conditions certainly force you to have a thinner selection of choices at every turn (in a simple example, not everyone has the power/freedom to go to a expensive restaurant tonight. Their financial situation constrains them).
This is not to deny that free-will exists, but that civilization deters its purest, id-driven form. One can freely think the most altruistic – or the most heinous – things imaginable without recourse from the law – that makes it an example of true freedom – but acting upon such thoughts comes with an array of consequences that can alter or outright deter certain behaviour.
A reasonable exchange, but only if the consequences apply equally to everyone. When it does not, this sense of ‘wider societal benefits’ begins to erode, and with it political freedom itself.
A Short Reframing of Failure: What Are We Measuring Our Debacles Against?
The only standards we’ve failed are our own. Standards we’ve imposed upon a reality we barely understand. Standards we’ve applied to a living organism – the earth –which we’ve only lived upon for a fraction of its existence. A failure of standards that many of us now believe will help destroy the planet, even though the earth has gone through much worse in the past (several big rocks have done more damage than we ever could, as the asteroid that created the Chicxulub crater that had a major hand in killing the dinosaurs was two million times more powerful than the most powerful atomic bomb ever developed, covering the earth in ash and dust for up to a decade).
A Note on Nature
I think pure free-market capitalism is the closest economic policy to the state of nature, as nature is merciless, amoral, and only interested in its own propagation/continuation, the cries of the weak and unlucky be damned. Which is why it is an economic model not fit for such a communally dependent species such as ourselves.
Much of human advancement includes self-created standards that we believe put us above nature, becoming, in fact, stewards of it. We continually attempt to deny certain natural desires, and thank goodness for that, as some of these qualities the great majority of us have deemed despicable.
Our ‘war on nature’ is not limited to the dialogue over environmental protection/destruction and our role in the greater ecosystem, but includes how we muzzle basic, innate urges and perceptions and instead push forward with qualities we have deemed better and more representative for an ‘advanced’ species such as ourselves.
Science is based on the suppression of instinct (or to be more clear, while instinct may inspire, conclusions should not be based on it at all), and the holding of research-based experimentation on a higher plane than eyewitness testimony or a strictly human account. Our attempts to understand nature has created an entire foundation of knowledge that has questioned all our initial assumptions concerning it.
From that, I would like to think that rather than hold a particular position on specific issues that is rigid and unbending, I hold a belief in the process of making decisions based largely on the situation and feasibility at hand, retreating to dogma only as sounding board and not an intractable guide.
Of course, it is not possible to remove one’s own beliefs and opinions completely from this practice, and certainly these views will affect this ideally partisan process, but even that awareness of this flaw is somewhat beneficial. Acknowledging the deficiencies means having a better ability of factoring them out – or at least, properly positioning them – at the proper time.
Political freedoms grew so quickly in the twentieth century that it took many years for the ruling classes to catch up and begin restricting them again. The next few decades in the twenty-first will be a continued push-and-pull between those that wish to concentrate power, and those that wish to spread it.
That is all for now.
Berlin, Irving. Four Essays on Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Friedman, Thomas & Michael Mandelbaum. That Used To Be Us. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
Greenwald, Glenn. ‘The Roots of the UC-Davis Pepper-Spraying’. Salon.com. Nov.20.2011.
Laski, Harold. Liberty In The Modern State. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1948 (1961?).
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Taibbi, Matt. ‘UC Pepper Spray Incident Reveals Weakness Up Top’. Rolling Stone. Nov.22.2011.
|In the face of sheer absurdity, your only recourse is to flunk those pancakes.|