Tactical Linguistics Research Institute

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Posts Tagged ‘Democracy

Wrestling with Phantoms

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Last month, ABC News reported on the results of an undercover Department of Homeland Security test to assess the effectiveness of security screening procedures at US airports.  Although the results of the study could not be independently confirmed, multiple media outlets repeated the claim that agents smuggling fake contraban through aiport security were able to get 95% of their fake weapons and explosves past screening agents the Transportation Security Administration’s travel checkpoints.

While most of the recycled news stories predictably framed the findings in terms of the ineptitude of the upopular TSA, from a statistical perspective the meaning of the report are much different.

A 95% security failure rate is the best empirical evidence we have to suggest there are no terrorists are airports.  If there were terrorists smuggling guns and bombs into airports, then, presumably, we would have heard about some horrible jihadi shooting spree at an airport by now.  It would seem the only people smuggling contraban into airports these days is the government itself.

This state of affairs — where the government bureaucracy terrorizes itself on TV, with the general population as collateral damage — has a long pedigree.  It is, effectively, a Cold War phenomenon wrapped in a new garb to keep the boogieman scary.

During the Cold War, American schoolchildren were periodically terrorized by “duck and cover” drills, which presumed to offer some defense against a suprise Soviet nuclear attack.  Despite all the hype about the Soviet nuclear threat, however, the only radioactive fallout Americans were ever exposed to during the Cold War came from the American government itself.  Decades of atmospheric tests, thermonuclear tourism in Las Vegas, nuclear accidents like Mighty Oak (radiation from which was blamed on Chernobyl) and Midas Myth, all exposed Americans to nuclear fallout in the name of fighting the Soviet nuclear threat.

Today, during the War on Terrorwhich continues despite the retirement of that epithet — we have a similar scenario, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation incites and entraps would-be terrorists in order to justify the government’s anti-terrorism policies.  From the “Detroit Sleeper Cell” (a farce created by prosecutorial misconduct) to the “Liberty City Seven”, most high-profile terrorism cases have been the creation of the FBI.  Even if the charges in these cases are overturned, once the incident gets into the mass media, the damage is done.  This is a reality TV replacement for the fruity loops terror alerts.

While the first victim in all this is the truth, the un-critical parroting of spurious claims by the media adds a new dimension to the current brainwashing.  We like to assume that because of the Internet, information is more accessible than ever.  Unfortunately, the critical distinctions between information, facts, truth, and intelligence has been lost.

Primer on Resistance and the Surveillance State

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There’s no Internet without surveillance. The Internet was built by the US military to be robust, not for privacy or security.  Privacy was not part of the Internet’s design goals.

The Internet became a commonplace household word in part because of the hype surrounding an economic bubble created during the presidency of Bill Clinton.  Under Bill Clinton, the US Congress also enacted the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act at the same time that Windows 95 introduced Americans to personal computers and the phrase “information superhighway” introduced Americans to networking. Surveillance was an integral part of handing the Internet over to commerce.

The relationship between commerce and the surveillance state is now well-established: Apple and Microsoft are suspect, and Yahoo has made surveillance a business proposition — as per 18 U.S.C. § 2706, Yahoo’s 2009 rates ran as follows:

Basic subscriber records cost $20 for the first ID, $10 per ID thereafter; basic group Information (including information about moderators) cost $20 for a group with a single moderator; contents of subscriber accounts — including email — cost $30-$40 per user; contents of groups cost $40 – $80 per group.

Given that typical internet advertising revenue brings in only pennies per click, the current scale of Internet surveillance clearly implies that spying on customers is big business for online firms.

Other telecommunications carriers have made similar overtures, some companies have faced legal and economic reprisal for refusing to cooperate, and yet others have availed themselves of their free speech rights as corporate persons to engage in this dubious commerce.

It should be reason enough to be disturbed by NSA surveillance that the Founders prohibited this type of information gathering in the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution. The excuse “I’ve got nothing to hide” misses the point.  The government should obey the law, that’s a core feature of what “rule of law” means. And the example of non-violent resistance through non-participation set by Ghandi and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and vegetarians and vegans offers a clear a lesson for how to resist the surveillance society: stop participating in an abusive system.  The Internet is cruelty to human animals and it’s bad for the social environment.

If it weren’t for so many Americans purchasing data plans on “smart” phones, purchasing home Internet access, and dutifully reporting their daily thoughts and habits psychological makeup on FaceBook accounts, the costs to Uncle Sam for maintaining the current surveillance state would very rapidly prove prohibitive.  That is, if the government had to pay your phone bill and your internet costs and pay a spy to follow you around to listen in on your conversations, it could no longer afford to spy on everybody. Through consumer habits and the cultural value placed on convenience, Americans effectively subsidize the surveillance state on behalf of the governmentDan Geer stated the matter succinctly: our online choices are between freedom, security, and convenience, but we can only pick two.

From a cost perspective, a “vegetarian” approach to resisting the surveillance state (that is, by simply opting out) is an inexpensive solution that aims at increasing the cost of surveillance to the state.  This approach requires little social coordination other than a shared will to change prevailing circumstances — and a little personal initiative.   Such a “vegetarian” approach also serves to inject additional uncertainty into what data is gathered (thereby diminishing the value of what data Uncle Sam does collect).  This doesn’t mean life without the internet any more than vegetarianism means life without food, it just means being more selective about where your internet comes from, where you take it, and what you do with it.

You don’t need to be online all day.  A good starting point would be to make a habit of leaving your cellphone tracking device at home once in a while.  Just because your cellphone is wireless, that doesn’t mean you need to take it with you everywhere you go.  If you take it with you everywhere you go, it’s more of a tracking device than a phone.  When Uncle Sam looks through your cell tower data, changing your cellphone habits will increase the uncertainty as to your location at any given time during the day.

If you care to preserve “democracy,” all that’s really needed is a little social coordination and a willingness to put up with a little less “convenience.”  This may sound incompatible with the modern world, but there’s good reason to get motivated: the modern world is incompatible with the perpetuation of the human race.  There’s more at stake than a little privacy, though the more fundamental problem is bound up with the psychology of consumer society: in a growth economy based on persuasion though advertising — where consumers must make choices about the allocation of their scarce resources — every new product requiring new investment must be presented as needful and fundamental to the modern way of life.

Many people know things have gone awry with the modern world: between the threats posed by persistent national militarism, thermonuclear war, war over resources, mass hunger, environmental degradation, climate change, shortening attention spans, new communicable diseases — something is clearly wrong.  And yet, somehow, everyone looks to another for the solution.  Nobody is willing to see their complicity and change their behavior.  So: if you don’t like internet surveillance, stop surveilling yourself.  The problem isn’t some nebulous “big brother,” it’s you. The government isn’t going to change its behavior, so stop waiting for the government to save you from the government. You have to save yourself from yourself.

 

Myth-Making for a Conservative Nation

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In 1988, Guy Debord observed:

“We believe we know that in Greece, history and democracy appeared at the same time. We can prove that their disappearances have also been simultaneous.”

“To this list of the triumphs of power we should, however, add one result which has proved negative for it: a State, in which one has durably installed a great deficit of historical knowledge so as to manage it, can no longer be governed strategically.”

This absence of historical knowledge manifests itself today.  In Fall of 2013, after weeks of partisan gridlock, the US Congress managed to re-opened the Federal government with a last-minute deal.  This partisanship, however, is not ideological: it is emotional, it is irrational, and its results are unpredictable.

In response to this minor “accomplishment” President Obama remarked:

“Let’s work together to make the government work better, instead of treating it like an enemy, or making it worse.  That’s not what the founders of this nation envisioned when they gave us the gift of self-government.”

The President’s statement seems, on its face, uncontroversial — and that’s a big part of the problem.  His statement is profoundly anti-historical, and in the most problematic manner possible, reads present values into the past.

Until 1850 or so, only white men with substantial wealth — such as bankers, factory owners, or plantation owners — were allowed the vote.  Renters, subsistence farmers, and the laboring majority — whites and blacks — lacked political representation at the time of the US’s founding.  The Constitution made no mention of suffrage until the 14th and 15th Amendments in 1868 and 1870 — almost 100 years after the original Constitution was ratified.  In 1875, the US Supreme Court explicitly ruled that the 14th Amendment — which defined citizenship for the first time — did not give women the right to vote.  Women didn’t get the vote until 1920.  Blacks didn’t get full rights until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

That’s an odd “gift of self-government.”  Truly, it sounds more like a long, hard struggle to obtain self-government — IN SPITE OF the Founding Fathers.  Indeed, despite being subjects to the Crown, the British managed to outlaw the slave trade, abolish slavery, and enfranchise women before the United States.  And despite being subject to the Crown, the British today enjoy many of the same rights — like freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech — that Americans consider distinctly American innovations under the Bill of Rights.

Though the myth of Democracy endures, it is plain to see that the Founders feared Democracy, and made provision to prevent its emergence in the New World.  That so much time passed before American citizens obtained universal suffrage is testament to the effectiveness of the Founding Fathers’ plans.

In arguing for a new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, Founding Father Elbridge Gerry complained to the Constitutional Convention on May 31, 1787: “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.”  Founding Father Edmund Randolf also complained about the “turbulence and follies of democracy.”  In Convention, Founding Father John Dickinson argued against expanding political enfranchisement: “The danger to free governments has not been from freeholders, but those who are not freeholders.”  Dickinson went so far as to claim that a constitutional monarchy was “one of the best Governments in the world.”

Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, in Convention on June 18, 1787, expressed his belief that “nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy … you cannot have a sound executive upon a democratic plan.”  In The Federalist #10, James Madison wrote: “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention, have ever been found incompatible with personal security and the rights of property.”

Thomas Jefferson — who did favor democracy — was not particularly effective in pushing his views.  He was not even in the country when the Constitution was drafted and ratified.

The attainment of self-government in the United States was no “gift.” President Obama is either unaware of this nation’s history, or perhaps he has no problem brushing it aside in his public statements.  Perhaps he is content that the myth of America’s long history of revolutionary self-government is a suitable expedient in the short-sighted calculus of contemporary electoral politics.

Assuming a political narrative where “liberals” oppose “conservatives,” one might think the first black president in the United States would show some slight interest in calling attention to the heritage of liberal reformers and progressives who paved the way for him to attain high office.  One might suppose it would be in his political advantage to make it clear for all to see that the rights most “conservatives” today enjoy are the result of the efforts of their political adversaries.

Instead, the President’s choice to ignore this history — and to implicitly endorse the a-historical nationalist myth favored by self-described “conservatives” — obscures real threats to what measure of democracy Americans have gained by long struggle.

“Conservatives” who think they are defending the “gift” of democracy vehemently favor so-called “voter ID” laws — which have the effect of disenfranchising students and the elderly.  The ostensible rationale for these laws — that they prevent voter fraud — not only points to a problem that does not appear to exist, but affects a sort of bait-and-switch.  These laws brush aside legitimate concerns about election fraud — they ignore systemic flaws with electronic voting machines, irregularities in the 2004 elections which may have been covered up, voting irregularities and questionable legal activities surrounding the contested 2000 election, and ongoing voting irregularities in parts of small town America like Waukesha, Wisconsin.

In addition to enacting “voter ID” laws, “conservative” governors have been purging voter rolls, and continue to push for national policies — such as the failed War on Drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing laws — which have had the net effect of leaving one in five black men disenfranchised.

The “conservatives” perhaps don’t know to what condition their “traditionalist” views are returning this country — and our “liberal” President does not seem particularly concerned with remedying the matter.  And for all the lofty speech of “history” surrounding the 2008 elections, the word was routinely used not by way of elucidating the past, but by way of branding what was then the present moment.

All this is perhaps fitting.  President Obama’s policies are by and large center-right.  With the exception of gay marriage, he has a dismal civil rights record, that includes granting amnesty to CIA torturers, failing to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, extrajudicial assassinations of US citizens, requesting indefinite detention provisions in the 2012 National Defence Authorization Act, negotiating secret  treaties, expanding and legitimating Bush-era surveillance programsdespite well-documented evidence detailing what these programs can lead to, violating the sovereignty of foreign nations with drone strikes, prosecuting whistleblowers with a vengeance … and the list goes on.

Mr. Obama’s calls for “unity” are perhaps well-intentioned, but cannot be strategically effective in the absence of historical knowledge among the population.  Something closer to a one-party system is unlikely to mend the damage caused by a dysfunctional two-party system.  What America needs is not “unity” but a real opposition party — a role that, in the face of “conservative” efforts in the Tea Party Caucus — the Democratic party seems unwilling or unable to fulfill.

Written by Indigo Jones

October 21, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Plutocracy, Oligarchy, and the Myth of Free Markets

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The Occupy Philosophy blog recently posted an article about “plutocracy,” or rule by the wealthy, written by Brian Leiter, Director of The Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago.  In his commentary on American plutocracy, Leiter asserts that “at historical moments pregnant with the potential for significant social and economic change, the choice of language sometimes matters.”  In light of these premises, let us examine his position.

Leiter identifies “plutocracy” as the primary ill in the modern United States.  He asserts that “plutocrats” have undermined democracy.  He states that “the United States is the most powerful ‘plutocracy’ in the world. It is no longer a democracy.”

To be precise about our “choice of language,” the United States Constitution guarantees a republican form of government, not democracy; and, insofar as the law originally limited political participation to white, land-owning males (the capitalist class), the United States has always been a plutocracy.

But the more profound problem with Leiter’s argument lies in his particular invocation of “plutocracy” as the source of the problem: to equate wealth with power does nothing to explain how wealth translates to power, but simply assumes this as a fact.  This, in one sense, amounts to simply stating the obvious.   It is like pointing out that businesses are run by businessmen, without discussing at all what varieties of business are present, how they operate, or how they are integrated with or, as the case may be, antagonistic to society at large.

I. Whither Capitalism?

Leiter begins by observing that “we are now in the fourth year of the worst economic catastrophe in the capitalist world since the Great Depression.”  While this, at first glance, may appear uncontroversial, some qualification is needed with respect to the use of the term “capitalism.”  Not only are there ideological disputes at issue, but historical conditions which are, on the whole, inadequately addressed in contemporary discourse.

The late 19th Century, in which wage labor became a dominant mode of subsistence, brought about radical changes in the nature of capitalism as industry became increasingly institutionalized and bureaucratized.  The entrepreneurialism of the revolutionary bourgeoisie gave way to a commingling of private and public bureaucracy — of capital and political power — and set the stage for the working conditions of the early 20th century.

It was here we saw the ascendency of the labor union as a serious political and economic power.  The antagonism of government to unionization was a result of the union’s encroachment on the management prerogatives of industry (that is, the setting of wages and working conditions). The state, acting on behalf of capital, revealed the presence of the close-knit connections between political and industrial power that had developed during the second half of the 19th Century.

By the middle of the 20th century, this trend continued to the point where, what had traditionally been called “the market” had ceased to be a relevant force in the dominant culture of the United States.  Classical liberalism assumes that capital (land and machinery) is fixed, while labor is flexible.  Industrialization caused mass migrations of labor from farms to urbanized areas, and workers readily acquired new skills to adapt to different types of labor.

As labor has become increasingly specialized, as two-income households have become more common, and as benefits have become an increasingly important part of employee compensation, labor has accordingly become less flexible.  At the same time, capital has moved overseas, and become more flexible.  By the end of the 20th century, the traditional relationship between capital and labor had been well inverted.

Today, when one uses the term “capitalism,” this term means different things to different people.  The American conservative uses the word to invoke a nostalgic vision of 19th century entrepreneurialism.  The American liberal typically uses the word to indicate a mode of collectivist action wherein professional managers control the means of industrial-scale production on behalf of absentee owners.

There is an important sense in which even Nazi Germany was a capitalist country.  To be sure, it wasn’t market capitalism — any more than market capitalism prevails in the United States today — it was a form of monopoly capitalism that took the State as the primary consumer, and which used an imperialist war of expansion to organize production.

Although the official ideology of the Nazi Party espoused a socialist organization of society, the Nazis did very little to restructure private property or private profit along the lines of socialist ideology (except for the expropriation of Jewish wealth, which was handed over to industrialists and bankers).

Between World War I and World War II, German industrialists were a key component to the German rearmament, and the same German industrialists were the key beneficiaries of the war economy.  The industrialist Fritz Thyssen, for example, was a central financier of the Third Reich, as was the Association of German Industrialists.  The automobile manufacturer Volkswagen was a private corporation that produced automobiles for the Third Reich.  Max Amann profited enormously as a publisher of Nazi propaganda.  The Zyklon B used in Nazi gas chambers was a commercial product.

Insofar as the Nazi economy was characterized by a vast agreement between industrialists and politicians, it is worth noting that American business and government alike agree that growth is the key to success.  This is despite the fact that we live on a planet with finite resources, the exploitation of which is characterized by diminishing returns, and that increases in worker productivity are of only marginal benefit to workers themselves, who have been seeing their compensation stagnate or diminish for quite some time.  It is government and industry agreeing that growth is of the utmost importance for the industrial-scale corporation.

II. Who Competes?

The typical American conservative will construct a binary opposition between capitalism understood as “free markets” and socialism understood as “economic planning.”  This is, however, a false dichotomy.

The modern corporation is largely defined by organizational prowess, and insofar as these organizations are risk averse, the chief market operations of the industrial firm are actions meant to eliminate market forces.  This is called planning.  A farmer in the midwest can be fairly certain of finding the fertilizer he needs when he needs it precisely because modern corporations are expert planners.

Stability is the enemy of competition (which must be unpredictable if it is to be fair), and insofar as corporations want to guarantee favorable performance for their shareholders, they set out to ensure economic stability and predictable growth.  Marketing and advertising are means to ensure consistent demand.  Corporations will sell their products at a loss to undercut competitors, and if this fails, they may buy their competition outright.

Because executives rarely go to prison when corporations break the law, corporations are apt to operate in open violation of the law if it will snuff out the competition — this is precisely what Microsoft did in Europe, paying $2 billion in fines during a decade of operation in direct violation of EU trade laws.  Corporations that pollute are granted enormous subsidies: given that most homes and businesses must pay for garbage collection, why should the biggest polluters be exempt to the extent that they are?  Insofar as schooling prepares students for employment, and college trains students in industry-standard skills and software applications, the cost of education represents a form of subsidy.

The result of this relentless push by modern industry to eliminate market forces at every opportunity has a profound impact on daily life — albeit one that is difficult to perceive at first glance.  Although there are many channels to choose from on television, most markets are served by a cable TV monopoly.  Although a consumer has many different brands of computers available to them for purchase, one firm — Intel — makes most of the chips in these computersA few large firms make most of the hard drives and optical drives in these computers.  Microsoft makes the operating system for most of these computers.  Computers are highly commoditized, and relatively few firms control the market for this commodity.

This dominant market arrangement is known as oligopoly, and is characterized by collusion between a few major firms to mutually ensure their continued dominance.  And it is not just the the cable television market or the technology sector that is characterized by this arrangement: as of 2005, 90% of the soy crop grown in the US was of the patented Roundup-Ready variety sold by Monsanto.  One company — Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) — claims close to 50% of the domestic market for ethanol.

US Government mandates that gasoline be blended with ethanol increased ADM’s net earnings by 26% in 2006 alone.  This is just one way in which ADM is the beneficiary of subsidies and governmental planning.  ADM also benefits from agricultural subsidies for corn, since most of the ethanol it produces is made from corn.  In 1993, ADM was also the target of the largest price-fixing case in US history.  It’s not just Microsoft that engages in anti-competitive business practices.

The demand for ethanol in gasoline, from which ADM benefits so enormously, is predicated on access to roads.  Roads are heavily subsidized.  For federal highways to be financially solvent, for example, the federal gasoline tax would need to be raised by 40¢ per gallon.  The federal gasoline tax was last raised by a nickel in 1993 — and whatever proceeds might be had from that increase have been consumed by inflation.

Not only are roads heavily subsidized, but the research that goes into advanced biofuels represents a subsidy as well: it could be argued that, given the economic law of diminishing returns, the money spent researching biofuels could be better spent investing in various forms of mass transit (though this would make the unpleasant implication that the American way of life is, as presently constituted, unsustainable — so politicians say what they must to get elected, and corporations keep giving consumers whatever marketing departments tell consumers they want).

None of this has happened by chance: the market is not an anarchy of small entrepreneurial firms as it was in the first half of the 19th century.  What we have in the West today is the result of planning.  Given that most wealth in the US is held by corporations, not plutocrats or governments, it is fair to say that most of the decisions about the US economy are the result of planning, since the modern industrial corporation is characterized by planning (that is, collusion with related firms and with government) rather than market competition (or voter turnout).

What is Excessive about CEO Compensation?

Although Mr. Leiter is content with the populist appeals of the Occupy Movement, which hold that excessive CEO compensation is the result of “avarice,” the truth of the matter is more subtle.  The problem of CEO compensation is not one of avarice, but, rather, is a particular solution to the personnel needs of the industrial corporation.

Most CEO’s are already wealthy by the time they are recruitedPay itself is not an incentive to work because they have neither fear of privation nor need for additional material comfort.  There are, then, two main approaches to providing them an incentive to work: psychological identification with the goals of the firm, or increased status.

Where CEO’s are recruited, rather than obligated to claw their way up through middle management, it is more difficult to get them to identify with the goals of the firm.  In certain industries this can be accomplished through an identification of the goals of the firm with specific social objectives (such as national defense), or through the dogma of indefinite growth (which even a tobacco company executive can participate in, and thereby contribute to society) — and it is here that a peculiar brand of nationalism comes into play — but in general it is easier to equate wealth with status, and motivate the CEO by enhancing his or her status accordingly (also satisfying the contemporary quantitative mindset).

And so growth becomes a central feature of American capitalism — providing both a psychological justification for those who manage industry on behalf of absentee owners (whose status derives from the circumstances under which they need only sit back and watch the money roll in) and what enables the firm to confer a form of status on the CEO.  It is through this fixation on growth that modern capitalism takes on an imperialist aspect.  It is moreover worth noting in this connection that the CEO is no more a capitalist than the typical pro-business unionized auto worker: the CEO is management, not a an individual proprietor, and is not inherently interested in the amassing of capital.

Of course, to the 99%, the CEO’s are, so to speak, high-status (in addition to being upper-class).  But what is often ignored is the extent to which they inhabit a completely separate social world with completely distinct norms.  There is, among industry, politics, and the military, a distinct affinity group — a set of shared goals, management practices, and close social ties.  You can see evidence of this affinity group where people who attain this status are able to move easily from one sector to the other.

Take former Vice President Dick Cheney, for example: he went from Secretary of Defense (military) to CEO of Haliburton (industry) to Vice President of the US (electoral politics).  It is not the case that the object of the work in any one occupation directly qualified him to occupy the other, especially in this era of specialization.  Yet what Cheney specialized in were certain management practices, bureaucratic proficiencies, and the cultivation of a specific social network.  His case is not an isolated one.

The personnel problem becomes a social problem where these people, who aren’t always the wealthiest, but who have access to authority and the media, set about normalizing the persistence of the affinity group from which they benefit.  It is not a matter of some wealthy folks being “well-intentioned” while others are “sociopathic” — though many in positions of power do exhibit sociopathic personality traits.  There is, more substantively, the important matter of why so many Americans go along with things.

Many Americans see collusion as waste and arrive at the conclusion that government should be run like a business, without ever stopping to think for half a second about what that means.  Many people believe that if government were run more like a business, it would work more efficiently.  If government were to hold efficiency to be of paramount importance, it would simply kill the infirm, rather than offer Social Security.  This is, of course, contrary to the US Constitution’s promise to “promote the general welfare,” understood as a means of guaranteeing “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but markets, by definition, offer few guarantees.  It is a very circumscribed definition of “efficiency,” but one that highlights why “playing the stock market” is often equated with gambling.  Sometimes the bottom line isn’t the bottom line.

There are other problems with holding that government should be run like a business.  Businesses are not democratic organizations, they are authoritarian (you do what your boss tells you to do, and you don’t get to vote your boss out of office if you don’t like it); their management practices are in many cases proprietary (as opposed to publicly announced laws) and their office holders are appointed, rather than elected.

Furthermore, there are reasons to suppose that the ethical standards of conduct with respect to business and government are incompatible. Whereas a business man must be on the lookout for opportunities to engage in commerce, when an office holder does this, it’s called bribery or a conflict of interest.

Business (of the desirable, market-based kind) needs competition, but government needs loyalty. It doesn’t even make sense to think of government as competing: the whole point of a constitutional republic is that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force as a means of coercion; the alternative is vigilante justice.

And What of it?

Where the notion that business represents a superior model for governance coincides with the ideology of political freedom deriving from economic freedom, it is worth noting that the sort of absolute freedom advocated by American conservatives is not the pinnacle of civil society, but its complete opposite.

In John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government, published 1690, he states: “where there is no law, there is no freedom: for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be, where there is no law: but freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists” (57).  Liberty is having assurances everybody obeys the same law.

Laissez-faire economics is contrary to the Western Constitutional tradition, as originally conceived, and as understood in the mid 20th century.  Some centuries after Locke, in 1944, free market advocate Friedrich Hayek echoed much the same position, in articulating his view of rule of law: “The Rule of Law thus implies limits to the scope of legislation: it restricts it to the kind of general rules known as formal law and excludes legislation either directly aimed at particular people or at enabling anybody to use the coercive power of the state for the purpose of such discrimination. It means, not that everything is regulated by law, but, on the contrary, that the coercive power of the state can be used only in cases defined in advance by the law and in such a way that it can be foreseen how it will be used” (Road to Serfdom, Chapter 6).  Provided that individuals have a say in what laws are passed, freedom is having to obey only the law, and not yield to the whims of others.

The contemporary trend to privatize governmental services, then, is contrary to the goals of a just, democratic (or, republican, as the case may be) society.  It takes public resources and removes them from democratic control, under the banner of re-instating some nostalgic, 19th Century vision of entrepreneurial capitalism.

Of course, we have the benefit of history to tell us what that style of capitalism leads to: 15 hour workdays, no weekends, sweatshop conditions, mere subsistence pay, occupational safety hazards, and the like.  Union organizers fought tooth and nail for decent working conditions.  And already we can see both how far we’ve slid back into these precise conditions, and how they represent not the cooperation of individuals under the law, but the subjugation of individuals to what working conditions employers dictate.  This is an issue of no small concern, given that most people spend the better part of their waking hours for the better part of their lives working.

Say Again?

Where Mr. Leiter explains, “The social and economic world is both vast and complex, and in market economies, all the incentives of daily life demand focus on the immediate moment: closing this deal, getting to this business meeting, pleasing that client and, overridingly, getting what you can for yourself,” he is guilty of a gross over-simplification.

The very existence of government subsidies favorable to industry speak to the fact that these firms plan quite far ahead, and the lengths to which they go to undermine competition speaks to the extent to which they are averse to market participation.  The flaw here is the assumption that the conditions of a market economy are a relevant factor in shaping the shared goals of industry and politics.  These conditions do not prevail; rather, monopoly and oligopoly prevail.  There may be competition among filling stations and convenience stores or fast food restaurants within a particular neighborhood, but, the franchise agreements under which these small operators open up shop, as elsewhere, insulate the oligopoly from the risks of actual market participation.

Written by Indigo Jones

November 11, 2011 at 1:17 am

Follow the Leader: There is Opportunity in Disaster

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Although many elected officials lay claim to the title of “leader,” it is becoming increasingly self-evident that such a title only applies insofar as they are leading us off a cliff.  It is profoundly problematic that the media unquestioningly reinforces such baseless claims to leadership by routinely using so inappropriate a term to describe these officials.

While various “leaders” may market themselves as catalysts for social change, and seek to secure the confidence of voters who also seek social change, a change in “leadership” rarely brings about the promised social changes.  Not only is electoral politics first and foremost a means of legitimating those very power structures voters would seek to change, but belief in leadership is furthermore a tool to enforce conformity among voters, since following leaders is a form of conformity.  Conformists don’t bring about social change.

That few officials, out of humility, demure that they are not “leaders” but, rather, public servants, offers an important glimpse into a profoundly disturbing dynamic underlying the facade of “politics as usual.”

Many politicians are literally sociopaths. Compare the behavioral profile of the sociopath with the actions and attitudes of the typical politician: sociopaths don’t have normal moral reservations about manipulating people like objects; this is precisely how politicians get elected. Sociopaths understand little about human emotion beyond ego gratification; the prestige of high office satisfies this desire for the politician. Sociopaths wear a facade of normalcy and are often charming, but lie compulsively. Politicians speak in polite terms while plotting to stab their colleagues in the back. If they’re not telling outright lies, they’re “spinning” facts to suit their needs. Sociopaths don’t feel guilt or remorse or empathy; no US official to date has apologized for invading Iraq on false pretenses, turning five million Iraqi’s into refugees, pumping Fallujah full of depleted uranium, or engaging in torture.  Nobody in government has publicly investigated the Bush Administration’s use of torture or civil liberties violations. Sociopaths are glib, superficial, impulsive; their goal is the creation of a dependent, willing victim.  Elected office is the ideal job description for a sociopath.  The desire to attain office should disqualify a person from holding such a position.

The term “sociopath” is imprecise.  Often, “sociopath” is used interchangeably with “psychopath,” whereas other times, “psychopath” is used to designate a genetic predisposition, and “sociopath” a set of learned behaviors.  Either way, the prevalence of this sort of anti-social personality disorder among the general population is estimated at between 1-4%.

It may not be a coincidence that 1% of the population controls some 40% of the wealth in the US, and that the top 5% controls close to 70% of the wealth.   Competitive society is in many ways optimized to benefit those who exhibit sociopathic personality traits, and it reinforces sociopathic tendencies among the general population as a behavioral adaptation.

In competitive society, people are trained by sociopaths to think like sociopaths.  The public relations and marketing firms employed by both commercial and political interests train people to be opportunistic and calculating, to always be on the lookout for ways to treat other people as means that can be manipulated to various ends.  People are taught to be individualistic and egocentric rather than compassionate and cooperative.  Much of the advertising with which individuals are daily inundated promotes impulsive behavior and acculturates individuals to the distortions of reality that characterize most advertising and marketing.  As young people are brought into the fold, they become adults who are active participants in this process of training others to think like sociopaths — to think in the terms expounded by commercial marketers and political spin doctors — to such an extent that genuinely different worldviews become completely incoherent, in virtue of a sociopathic lack of empathy.

Beyond accommodating the lies and distortions that characterize so much advertising, marketing, and political posturing, individuals are, in numerous other ways, trained to think like sociopaths.  The aesthetic appreciation of violence in films, TV, and video games is an obvious example; a less obvious example is the popularity of “funniest home video” programs.

While slapstick comedy may be the cultural context in which “funniest home video” programs are appreciated, these programs contain none of the observational humor or physical ingenuity that characterize most slapstick.  The “funniest home video” programs are not, in any substantive terms, the products of creativity or skill.  They harvest moments of trauma from among the general population, and, in terms of their presentation, they train audiences to override natural empathy responses and to find humor in the misfortune of others.

Without an awareness of these dynamics, little can be done about them.  It is hard to criticize or correct a social trend without being able to even name it.  But such contemporary developments as the imposition of “austerity measures” or the renewed effort to disrupt labor organization and revoke “collective bargaining rights” can be understood in a precise historical context; to the extent that ordinary citizens support such measures, these citizens are being manipulated by criminal sociopaths.

In The Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke wrote, “he that in the state of society would take away the freedom belonging to those in that society or commonwealth must be supposed to design or take away from them everything else, and so be looked on as in a state of war” (¶19).  John Locke is not some fringe figure; the Preamble to the US Constitution is more or less a summary of Locke’s basic ideas on legitimate authority.  What is happening today has happened before, has been studied, and named, and diagnosed already.  In the past, monarchs caused civil unrest; today it is powerful sociopaths who have rigged the game to serve their own ends, who create for themselves an aura of respectability, and thus wrest from citizens assent to a degenerate state of affairs.

Written by Indigo Jones

October 19, 2011 at 4:28 pm

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