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.

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    • reidhardaway

      Thank you for the kind words – Homage To Catalonia had a profound impact on me – I wish more people would read it. Orwell was a brilliant writer – and not just in 1984 and Animal Farm.

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