Who is Radical?

We grow up and we idolize the radical.  Yet you would never know it.  Because we take what was radical and wrap it in the gaudy sheen of reasonability and pragmatism.  Let’s take the most obvious example: Martin Luther King, a non-violent preacher who wanted to make sure that all the races had equal access to the marketplace.  No wonder such a man would become the idol for the high priests of the free market: Glenn Beck, Barak Obama, NPR, Fox News.

Yet this is speaks not so much to history as to the ideology of history.  To be blunt, King has become less of a man and more of fantasy, a figure that we can conform to the image of our best intentions.  But where was King when he died?  His strident opposition to the Vietnam was had outcasted from the Democratic establishment (not least of all LBJ).  His moral honestly became too toxic to the party that once used him to racially stratify the vote.  As we know, he was killed in Memphis, Tennessee.  But we were never taught why he was there: to support the union of sanitary workers who were on strike.  His leftists economic advocacy further removed him from the political establishment of the two parties.

It’s no surprise that the schooling of King offers such narrow vision of the man.  How power must love to lecture us on the virtues of non-violence. Yet King’s non-violence, like Ghandi’s, was a method, not a fetish.  Civil Disobedience can come in many forms, and we need not restrain ourselves with absurd effusions of passivity.  Though others may construct it as such, this is not how King understood the demand for change.  For King, people had a moral obligation to resist the abusive structures of power.  Such a call will be, always, a demand for radical thought and action.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.”

– Martin Luther King, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, April 3, 1968

Manufactured Poverty: a reality but not a necessity

Valencia and 14th, San Francisco

Valencia and 14th, San Francisco (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The history of poverty in the United States is depressing.  So we repress it.  Instead our history books talk about industrial revolutions, wars, economic prosperity, global trade, and so on.  The consequences that such events have on the poor and oppressed are either whitewashed or legitimized.  Our history books serve as an example of a larger ideological mission to naturalize poverty and to give us reasons to ignore it.  In other words, there has been a direct and systematic attempt to make poverty appear to be innate, unchanging, irreversible, and everlasting.  If people can be convinced to accept poverty, then the incentive to alleviate it is removed.

Even well meaning progressives will, unsuspectingly, get caught up in a regressive language.  They will say, “Poverty is complex.”  But the perception of poverty’s complexity has been conditioned in us in order to overwhelm our motivation.  What if we accepted the uncontroversial fact that a small fraction of US military spending could feed, house, and educate everyone on the planet, 10 times over.  If we wanted to eliminate poverty in the United States, it could be done within a week.

What is our impediment?  There is a concerted effort, by those with economic and political power, to manufacture and to maintain poverty.  Currently, an effort is underway to eliminate the minimum wage.  On the surface, advocates will unabashedly argue that the goal is to create the cheapest possible labor force.  But it should be lost on no one that the ability to push the working class into economic desperation is, in itself, a political end.  People who are merely trying to survive do not have the time, the energy, or the resources for political advocacy.  Economic exploitation always accompanies marginalization.

The desire to eliminate the minimum wage is only the most recent and flagrant part of an organized effort to barricade the halls of wealth and power.  The series of so-called free trade agreements in the 1990s consistently lowered human rights standards abroad while, simultaneously, forcing US workers to compete with third world labor.  The intent is clear: to drive down real wages and to decrease the quality of life of the working class.  The tax cuts of Bush the Second’s presidency redistributed wealth from the bottom to the top in an explicit effort to further consolidate economic and political power.  These efforts coincided with a national push for ‘right to work laws’ (or really, right to work for nothing laws) so that workers were politically disenfranchised while also being economically exploited.  No politician worthy of the name would be foolish enough to discuss these practices in public, but the strategy is unmistakable.  There is a political motivation to fossilize poverty.

Unfortunately, the Obama years have made the problem worse.  The bailouts of the banks assured the financial sector that they will always be protected.  In order to guarantee poverty, the powerful maintain this simple equation: privatize profits, socialize losses.  After the downturn of 2008, everyone has become poorer except the people who caused the crash.  To call this an accident ignores the facts and ignores the history.  Still, there are people, many people, who genuinely want to combat poverty.  But this needs to be done with eyes wide open.  To face poverty is not to fight laziness or circumstance or ability; these are mirages.  To combat poverty is to take the fight directly against those who have consciously made poverty one of the most shameful institutions of the United States.

Do we need government to be moral? an homage to naive ideals and practical courage

The square in Barcelona renamed in Orwell's honour

The square in Barcelona renamed in Orwell’s honour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Orwell’s unheralded masterpiece, Homage to Catalonia, provides both a gripping narrative of collectivist solidarity and acute political observations that challenge our most petrified assumptions.  He documents his experience in the Spanish Civil War and he gives powerful descriptions of the influential, albeit brief, moment of anarcho-syndicalism in Barcelona.  It was a place run and operated by the working class.  Tipping, perceived as a bourgeois condescension, was outlawed, all workings groups were organized, and even formal linguistic addresses were abandoned.  People wanted to live with shared dignity and, to my mind, this might have been the closest we have ever come.  It was short and rough at times, but for a instant history witnessed a social organization based on collective progress as opposed to individual competition.

But, today, to discuss the prospect of life without authoritative structures of power, we are told, is naive, foolish, foolhardy, potentially dangerous.  To live in society, we are told, is not to accept responsibility for others, but rather to accept your own position of subjugation.  So it was in Plato’s Republic, in Salisbury’s Policraticus, in Hobbes’ Leviathan, in Burke’s Reflections, and so on.  These are the works men read when they seek control that they are not owed.

But we should never be fooled into believing that these are the only books of the political imagination.  Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Henry David Thoreau, Peter Kropotkin, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Luxembourg, to name but a few, show us a radically, a revolutionary, different perspective.  Instead of writing about how to maintain and reinforce oppressive structures of authority, these cogent and brave authors tell us about the potential of reorganization, and what society might look like if we had the courage to treat every person, – every person -, with the dignity and respect that we expect for ourselves.

The corporate media, which is unfortunately most media, describes the civil dissident as the disaffected sociopath running amok. His or her only goal in life, it would seem, is to vandalize a starbucks or to get plundered by a water cannon.  Of course, I am not trying to disparage either propensity … to everything there is a season.  But the image the talking heads so emphatically create of our black masked misanthrope does tell us something.  Namely, it tells us a great deal about the repressed desires and the unspoken dreams of our sad pale anchors.  Should we not pity those wretched orators, yelling into the void of a camera lens, saying whatever will keep the corporate sponsors from switching to a personality slightly more obeisant?  I, for one, do not envy such a desire.

Regardless, we need not turn on the television, ever, if we are concerned with genuine progress and if we want to ask interesting questions.

Do we need government to be moral?  The question is, admittedly, impractical.  There does not seem to be an alternative so why waste intellectual effort on an impossibility.  This is fair enough, unless we consider what we mean, and what we want, by an ‘alternative.’  That is to say, what if the question is not intended to overthrow systems of social organization, oppressive as they may be, but rather to encourage people to reorient their own systems of personal belief.

In order to live in a society, we are told that we have to submit ourselves to an authoritative structure which will, in turn, guarantee our own security.  At times, this will require that we exercise authority over others.  Is this the American Dream – that one day the lowly server will ‘raise’ him or herself to become a manager of lesser servants?

Such a dynamic strikes against the most essential category of the individual: because we do not believe it is right for someone to wield significant authority against us, we know it is equally wrong to wield that authority against someone else.  But without a superstructure of authority, would we devolve into chaos?  This is certainly the image that the schools, the government, and the corporations push onto us.  We might ask, do these pharisees have an interest in such a doctrine?  Significantly, their argument relies on the assumption that man, at heart, is barbaric, sadistic, cruel, and vicious.  We couldn’t possibly live together without being constantly told what to do.  In all the discussions of political theory, ask yourself if you have ever heard a response to such a striking and sweeping claim … would a response, a mere attempt at deliberative discourse, even be tolerated?  I believe there are a few ideas, consistently and strategically ignored, that deserve a place in the discussion:

1) For over hundreds of thousands of years we lived, evolved, and indeed thrived on horizontal social arrangements; we did not need a police state to tell us how to use tools, to tell us how to speak, to tell us how to farm, or tell us how to love.  Indeed, if such an authority had monitored these activities, they would have been greatly hindered, if not only entirely repressed.

2) We are born with an instinctual morality.  When we see someone beating a child, we feel it to be wrong.  In other words, we don’t need to be told that it is wrong to know that it needs to be stopped.  But when we see things that are clearly unjust, too often we assume it is someone else’s problem, be it the police, the parents, the school, whatever.  This thought is a direct product of our social structure.  We have been taught, relentlessly so, to defer to a ‘higher’ authority, to mind our own business, to not get involved.  Do not the consequences of such apathy haunt us in our sleep?

3) Leveling authority against another person inevitably results in the dehumanization of both victim and victimizer.  When we subject someone to our authority, we are forced to deny them of the humanity we innately recognize to be universal.  In other words, because we know that if we were in their position we would reject and resent such behavior, we have to deny them that impulse of what it means to be human.  In Vietnam, soldiers had to racially dehumanize the people they were killing because they could not accept the fact that they were killing people.  In Abu Ghraib, prisoners were tortured and sexually humiliated so that the guards could ignore their own moral culpability in a organization that was, at its heart, unjust.  While these examples clearly demonstrate the point, it should also be recognized that this happens all the time, though in less apparent ways.  Everyday, an officer mistreats a suspect, a judge scoffs at a victim, a boss exploits an employee, a teacher ignores a student … these things happen, not because these people are innately bad, but because this is the only way the current system will permit them to behave; they do these things because, psychologically, they have to.

But I return to the question of pragmatics.  What good is this conversation if State power is inevitable?  Is this not intellectual masturbation?  Well, far be it from me to denigrate such an act … but I will attempt to address the concern.  Though we must live with State power, we need not respect its rituals, dogmas, teachings, propaganda, or institutions.  Masturbation indeed.  By yanking off the muzzle of oppressive conditioning, we approach a deeper and grander morality.  When we have the courage to see the State as it really is, we realize that we cannot afford to defer our moral obligation to someone with the ‘proper’ authority, someone ‘higher up the chain.’  We will not permit ourselves to say, “Someone needs to take care of this,” but rather we will act, following our innate impulse to rectify the immediate and apparent wrongs we face.  We will have the courage to finally act morally, and we will not require permission to do so.

On the moral potential of evolutionary theory

“we have to make science no longer a luxury, but the foundation of every man’s life; this is what justice demands” – Kropotkin, An Appeal to the Young

The most common, and perhaps most resonant, charge against Darwinian evolution is that it constructs a threatening vision of the world where the strong prey on the weak, where survival of the fittest makes morality an inconvenience that can be readily dispensed with at the first sign of struggle.  Of course, such an argument does nothing to counter the truth of Darwinian evolution.  Even if such a representation were correct, we could do nothing more than lament the state of nature.  But the argument does suggest that there needs to be something beyond evolution if we are to have a moral society.

Admittedly, there are elements of natural selection which would be reprehensible when put into social/political/economic practice.  One need only listen to the capitalist dogma about the virtues of competition in order to hear the worst of political Darwinianism.  

But the positive moral potential of evolution is rarely discussed, even by evolutions most prominent proponents, and it has yet to be adequately accommodated in political philosophy.  We can easily imagine how violence and barbarism may have been genetically selected. In the opening sequence to Kubrick’s 2001, the tribe of chimps that conquers the watering hole does so because a single, ‘genius,’ chimp realizes that a desiccated bone can be used as a club for bludgeoning his fellow primates.  Over the course of human history, these tools have become more sophisticated, which ironically means more deadly.

2001-bone-spaceshift

Unfortunately, this is hardly the realm of science fiction.  Kubrick, rightly so, was terrified at the threat of nuclear weapons posed for humanity (see Dr Strangelove) because he had a keen awareness of our evolved predilection for violence, barbarism, conflict, and aggression.

But this is not the entire story behind evolution and the theory of natural selection.  Over the course of our genealogical story, we have also evolved profound capacities for empathy, mutual aid, and solidarity.  Still, these virtues of selection are too often ignored in our discussions about human nature and political organization.

Perhaps the most significant anarchist at the turn of the twentieth century, Kropotkin was also an important scientist who, inspired by his geological surveys in the harsh Siberian terrain, wrote on evolutionary theory.  His most famous work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, is still relevant, though often ignored for what I fear are political motivations.  He argues that, while it is true that individuals in a species will struggle against themselves in certain desperate conditions, there are, more often, overwhelming environmental factors that force individuals to work in solidarity.

He observed that it was only in cases of the latter that any community of organisms could have a thriving, robust population.  For example “the fishing associations of the pelicans are certainly worthy of notice for the remarkable order and intelligence displayed by these clumsy birds. They always go fishing in numerous bands, and after having chosen an appropriate bay, they form a wide half-circle in face of the shore, and narrow it by paddling towards the shore, catching all fish that happen to be enclosed in the circle … As the night comes they fly to their resting-places—always the same for each flock … In South America they gather in flocks of forty to fifty thousand individuals, part of which enjoy sleep while the others keep watch, and others again go fishing.  And finally, I should be doing an injustice to the much-calumniated house-sparrows if I did not mention how faithfully each of them shares any food it discovers with all members of the society to which it belongs. The fact was known to the Greeks.”  These are a few examples of many in Kropotkin’s work, but they illustrate the extent to which mutual aid and solidarity is required, not merely for survival, but for the proliferation of life.

Above all, science is the search for truth and, indeed, there is truth regarding the significance of individual competition in evolution.  But this is only a small element of a much more interesting and complex story.   The inordinate focus on the competitive aspect of evolution has done a great disservice to our understanding of human nature and the potential for human nature to adapt to different social, political, and economic designs.  The belief in our inherent selfishness is thrust upon us as some absolute truism that dictates how society has to be organized.  Because we are essentially greedy, we are told, we have to embrace a system that is best suited to promote greed.  Because some individuals are simply born better than others, we are told, we have to accept a vastly unequal distribution of resources; we have to privilege those who are born into such immense privilege.  I would like to believe that such none sense was abandoned in the 19th century, but the social and economic order suggests otherwise.

The human species has survived because, over the course of millennia, we have been able to act in solidarity.  Moving forward, the most immediate threats to the species are climate change and nuclear warfare.  If human nature is bound to individual competition, or if we continue to behave as if it were, then we should predict the worst.  It will simply be impossible to outcompete one another in the face of such harrowing disasters.  If, however, human nature is tied to our collective security and our common bond for solidarity, then these problems can be resolved.  We need only to reject a system that promotes individual strife, and to demand a new organization that facilities our essential empathy and our inherent drive for cooperation.

ps: if this sort of thing intrigues you, try this essay by Stephen Jay Gould – an important evolutionary biologist of the late twentieth century.

The Mistrials of James Clapper: A Demand for his Prosecution

On June 5, 2013, Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian newspaper released an article which revealed that the NSA was covertly collecting information on millions of American citizens.  The fallout has been profound and, to my knowledge, this is the most significant and substantial debate that the people in the United States have ever had about the largest security/surveillance organization in the world, the NSA.  But if you were to watch the mainstream media, you would hardly be aware of the significance of the revelations.  Instead, the character assassination of a whistleblower and a journalist has become the modus operandi for beltway journalists.  If CNN were your only source for the story, you would know more about Edward Snowden’s girlfriend than you would about the PRISM program and the collusion of Verizon and Google with the NSA.

Part of the media’s campaign has been the relentless accusation of Snowden’s, and even Geenwald’s, criminality.  On MSNBC, the coverage has been particularly minatory – here, from medialite – you can see a fear mongering chorus of ‘journalists,’ including Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd (these are the network’s respected ones?), pushing the script of the White House talking points.  Considering that Robert Gibbs, the previous White House press secretary, is now a contributor at MSNBC, they wouldn’t have to walk very far to figure out what to say.  

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the media, the Obama administration, and the NSA are in the right – this is an important program, Snowden and Greenwald belong in jail or executed, Americans do not have the right to privacy nor do they even have the right to be aware of what the government does with their information, etc.  This does nothing to respond to the fact that on March 12, 2013, James Clapper lied, under oath, during congressional testimony.  Wyden ask, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper, “No sir.” Wyden, “It does not?” Clapper, “Not wittingly.”  Now, I’ve seen enough congressional testimonies to realize when an intentionally vague word is thrown around in order to provide legal coverage to a witness.  But no stretch of that awkward, cringe worthy, “wittingly” will contravene what we now know. The NSA does collect, and “wittingly” collects, data on millions of Americans.  Where have been the calls in the US media for the prosecution of Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper?  

Even figures who are critical of the Director have not gone so far to admit what has clearly occurred.  He has committed a felony.  Perhaps there is some risk in being so blunt, but I believe that the truth must be spoken, clearly and assertively, when there are so many people who are committed to propagating a lie.  While the beltway journalists have called the actions of Snowden and Greenwald treasonous, and have either implied or stated that they deserve the death penalty, the mainstream media remains silent on the crimes of James Clapper.  This distinction of representation offers the clearest picture of how corporate discourse, in the US, operates.  On the one hand, those who speak truth to power will be punished by those who feed at the troughs of the powerful.  On the other, those who hold power, and do so with covert and illegal means, will be protected, shielded, covered, and endorsed by the apparent harmony of ‘insider journalists’ who are so frightened of the truth that they will freely and readily sacrifice any supposed legitimacy that the public may have alloted to them.  

Edward Snowden did commit a crime.  But this is an opportunity to reflect, as citizenry, and to ask ourselves when it is just to break an unjust law.  During the movement for civil rights, the laws of segregation were consistently broken in order to increase pressure against the system of racial oppression.  Daniel Ellsberg leaked the top-secret pentagon papers in order to reveal the sweeping criminality of the Vietnam War: countless lives were saved as a result.  These instances of civil disobedience undoubtedly had a positive moral impact.  So perhaps we should ask a different question: can we call ourselves moral actors when we fail to break an unjust law.  I fear history will judge us harshly for our collective timidity.  

Like Snowden, James Clapper also broke the law.  But this act was not done from a moral and democratic impulse.  Rather, Clapper lied in order to shield his own illegality, in order to cover his crimes, and to perpetuate a systematic and organized surveillance program against US citizens.  While the media has done everything it can to focus on the character of Snowden and Greenwald, we must begin to ask ourselves why those in power are so hostile to a well-informed public: what dark truth lurks behind the veil and why is that truth so desperately hidden from us?

A Freudian Christmas Carol.

It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, nothing was stirring, not even a mouse.  Well, if you listen a little more closely, and with a tincture of dread, you may have heard the soft distant creaking of a weak wooden bed.  But let’s ignore this, and just turn out the light, after all, Santa is coming, it’s Christmas night!

So on Dasher, on Rudolph, on Donner, on Blitzen!  Mommy likes Zoloft, and Prozac, and Paxil prescriptions!

Onward Santa! Slide down that bright red chimney, that narrow canal, that symbol of birth.  Give children presents and, finally, they can evaluate their worth.  Did Tommy get more than Bobby?  What about Jane?  What did little Timmy get, beside a year’s worth of shame?

But who is this Santa?  And is it really alright, that he sneaks into our house on each Christmas night?  He certainly looks like daddy, and he sounds like him too. And we always see Santa wearing our own father’s shoes …

But it can’t be, I just can’t believe, it can’t be such.  I cannot believe parents would violate their children’s trust. And why would daddy dress up like that, with a goal to deceive?  If Christmas is a lie, what can we believe?

It does seem odd, first they surround us with toys, then off to the bedroom, to make that strange creaking noise. I say, something is terribly amiss.  Just last night, I saw mommy with Santa, she gave him a sweet, soft, sugary kiss.

It was something more than a familial embrace.  But I don’t care, I certainly don’t feel, at all, displaced. Still, Santa has no right to disturb the family dynamic.  In fact, the more I consider it, the least I can stand it!

Now I know the true meaning of Christmas and this sad season of yule.  These toys have done nothing, save make me the fool.