Posts Tagged 'capitalism'

The “transmission belts” Of Misinformation

I feel blessed that I am no longer responsible for launching an ICBM as I was during the Cuban Missile Crisis when John F. Kennedy was president and I do not envy those charged with that responsibility now. I trusted JFK to comprehend the enormity of launching even one nuclear weapon and basing any decision on clear reasoning and facts. I cannot even imagine trusting Donald Trump — he of the “alternative facts.” 

The world has heard alternative facts before, fed to receptive audiences by dictators on the rise. Hannah Arendt’s,  “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, is a primer for those wanting to understand how the democratic process unwinds from seemingly harmless origins and feeds on discontent. 

As techniques of government, the totalitarian devices appear simple and ingenious and effective. They assure not only an absolute power monopoly, but unparalleled certainty that all commands will always be carried out; the multiplicity of the transmission belts, the confusion of the hierarchy, secure the dictator’s complete independence from all his inferiors and make possible the swift and surprising changes in policy for which totalitarianism has become famous.

Trump’s alternative facts are the “transmission belts” of conflicting information that cause confusion and uncertainty.  We are directed to fear people we don’t know, have never met, and about whose culture and beliefs we know very little.  Throughout history there have always been necessary “others” to be pointed at, to be vilified and held responsible for popular discontent. We are told we are the victims of “others” and we marshal our resources against the onslaught of otherness, whoever those others may be.  The taxonomy of “otherness” is vast — color, ethnicity, language, social class, a foreign accent, whether a person is rural or urban, religion of course, national origin, occupation, age, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation.  The list is long and ever growing. You might even find yourself on the list — one never knows.

History has shown us this process before, the slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. This transformation has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of the public wanting to be saved from whatever. Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed, discredited, and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The so-called “elites”, whoever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people, while the true elites remain out of sight.

The world has been down this path many times before — we should know it by heart. Alternative facts are disseminated, cronies rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated are the most susceptible to pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who, without ethical or moral commitment to the truth, prey with a simplistic vocabulary. The target of those whirlwinds of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of a foundational social contract.

Our country has become a theater where politicians mouth carefully scripted, democracy-drenched syntax and promises all the while doing their best to deny voting rights and marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions. In Congress efforts are being initiated to undo banking rules, Social Security, health care, and other social programs. Meanwhile, the president cries “fake news” at anything that contradicts the alternative version of reality he is spinning for his followers. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The messengers of the press are vilified and perforce people don’t know what or who to believe. The inevitable confusion ensuing from all of the above lays the groundwork for social discord — fertile ground for a dictator to offer delusionary comfort via social control.

 

Would you obey an ICBM launch order from such a commander in chief akin to the commando raid in Yemen? You say, “It couldn’t happen here.” Don’t be so sure.

The Notion of Democracy

Democracy in the United States has become notional, perhaps it has always been this way and we simply haven’t noticed. Our beliefs are always either evolving or devolving, always changing with the times, and eventually delivering less than what has been promised. A version of death by a thousand cuts  or what is aptly described as “creeping normality”. All the trappings of the real thing are there but behind the red-white and blue bunting lies another story. That story is the devolution from the principles of democracy to populism and its evil cousin, neoliberalism. Our long history of mistreatment of minorities especially minorities of color, for example, exposes many of the contradictions. But since our founding, it is the firm grip of wealth on political processes that invariably influences political and social outcomes. The notion of democracy stands for the reality of capitalism, the greatest social zero-sum game ever invented.

It isn’t that wealth has had more seats at the table than the working class proletariat.Today the influence and control of wealth concentrated in the bank accounts of fewer and fewer individuals has overwhelmed the rest of us. The predicates of democracy are diametrically opposed to those of capitalism. The rewards and power of capitalism far exceed the perceived rewards of democracy. It’s a deadly conundrum. Our world has become a kind of theater where politicians mouth democracy drenched words all the while doing their best to deny voting rights to marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions.

Consider how many Americans do not vote; fewer than half of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016.  Many people surveyed expressed doubt that their votes matter and that being what it is – a self-fulfilling proposition. There cannot be true representative government without participation and that is why certain politicians are doing their best to devise and pass ever more restrictive voting regulations.

The rise of neoliberalism is itself the greatest threat to democracy to ever have faced the United States. Neoliberalism will be the final blow. Neoliberalism combined with populism will serve double-speak, compromised founding principles, and no firm or verifiable truth will be accepted.  All we will have will be “alternative facts”. Truth made fungible and pliant to suit the moment and the desired ends. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The president has gone so far as to launch a federal investigation to validate his claims. 

In a country founded on the principle of religious freedom we have a vice-president, who is a self-identified Christian zealot proclaiming Christianity as the founding belief of the United States. The new Vice-President has proclaimed his Christianity on the floor of the House of Representatives stating the creationism should be taught in public schools and continues his personal “agenda in office. According to the PEW research organization, eight in ten voters who identified as “Christian” voted for the new administration. For people like this religion and politics are one and the same. Populist politics is become a crusade.   

  History has shown us this process, this slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. And it has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of public approval. “Save us from this!” “Save us from that!” Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The “elites”, whomever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people. We have been here before. Alternative truth is disseminated, cronies are rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated, are at large the most susceptible to the pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who are without ethical or moral commitment to the truth preying with the simplistic vocabulary of a child. The net result of this whirlwind of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of the social contract.

Don’t say you didn’t see it coming. “Trust me … I’m a smart person.” Famous last words.

Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here”

Some time back I wrote a review of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here”. I picked the book up again yesterday because, in fact, it did happen here. This essay will use excerpts from that review to illustrate and make what I believe are important points regarding recent political events in which a clearly unqualified and unsuitable individual won the 2016 race for President of the United States. In that essay I wrote:

Yes, it can happen here, and some would say it’s already happening. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ prescient novel, “It Can’t Happen Here” tells what happens to a country when people are complacent and compliant while others feel their time has come. The novel is an allegory, a morality tale, a story depicting the unquenchable quest for renown, power, and oftentimes wealth in a “go along to get along” complacent society. This is also what is referred to as Big Man theory and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Big Man, often inflicted with NPD, dispenses favors, employment, and material gain to sycophants in return for loyalty and support.

Sad to say, my opening sentence was also prescient and I felt it more than I thought it. There were other reasons of course, including what many of us thought was a dishonest primary with high party officials, including the party chairwoman, colluding to favor one candidate over another a fact later confirmed by ballot counts. Complacency in the form of a great many eligible people simply not voting either in the primary or in the general election added to the debacle. The lack of voter interest and participation is, in and of itself, a terrible commentary on and worrisome omen for the future of politics in the United States. Think for just a moment of those who sacrificed, either with lengthy commitment of time out of their lives or by making the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to preserve this so-called Democracy. The depth of tragedy is unavoidably clear.

Where were all those “Freedom Loving” Americans who stand for the national anthem even if they don’t know the words and can’t follow the music? Do they not know, have they not been taught, do they not understand the importance of voting, of informing themselves of what is at stake? What happened? Where did the American socialization process go off the tracks, substituting consumerism for patriotism?

Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation …  from local politics to labor unions. It’s a two way street. The “leader” generally requires obsequious feedback and loyalty and the followers require favors in return for their affirmation and adoration. Everyone in the game has a handful of “gimme” and a mouthful of “much obliged”. It often doesn’t matter what the actors receive so long as they get “something” – a vote, a ride in a limo, a free meal, or simply an “atta boy” pat on the back. Such “leaders” possess an innate primal instinct to identify and exploit weaknesses crucial to their success.

And, it is a pathology, a disintegration of a social contract that requires responsibility for the conduct of a society and the outcomes of its governance. It’s a pathology that can become fatal. I have witnessed instances of these kinds of “leaders” asserting control over organizations and social scenes and the pattern is always the same. Favors are given, loyalty replaces thoughtful engagement, “goodies” flow, and promises predicting even more “goodies” or “free” munchies for the faithful. It is, on evidence, an “innate primal instinct”. It is a matter of ambition over integrity, of emotion over reason.

… consider the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described by the DSM-5 diagnostic text and … ask yourself if you recognize any of these in the current political milieu.

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. Needing constant admiration from others
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs

These specifications describe our 2016 Presidential election. The specifications apply to both sides, some elements applying more to one candidate than the other. To these I would add two more. There is a certain kind of ruthlessness that specifically negates civility and exploits weakness in others. If you add together the elements of anomic personality disorder you can come up with a fair and accurate description of the actors in this modern-day drama especially the over-weaning necessity to dominate and to receive submission. Last but not least, in connection with the former, include the need for revenge as punishment for failure of obsequiousness and obedience. 

The obvious parallels are manifested in Windrip’s startling resemblance to two of the current candidates running for President of the US and Jessup’s avuncular resemblance to a sidelined populist former candidate for President.  Yes, history does indeed repeat itself. I vividly remember the turmoil of 1968 and the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read … I believe you’ll find yourself wondering if things ever actually change and what is our fate as a society if we cannot do better than this? Think of “It Can’t Happen Here” as an early warning call to action.

As much as some people are revolted by the notion, our social contract is underwritten by socialistic policies such as Social Security, Health Care, highways and by ways maintained by governments, police departments, and a standing military; for the benefit and good of all, even if more for some than others. Will all of this be dismantled in a sociopathic jihad that posits everyone should be on their own in some kind of jungle ethos? Are we just going to give this a whirl and see where it ends while the rest of the world watches?

The Beginning and the End

The Beginning and the End

My first day teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was an eye-opener. Following my PhD I was asked to stay and teach in the Department of Educational Policy Studies. Of course I was thrilled and, at the same time, thoroughly intimidated. On the first day I picked up the enrollment roster at the department office and, although I was half an hour early, I went to the assigned classroom, which was empty. I took a seat somewhat in the middle of the room and imagined myself at the lectern. What was I going to say? I had plenty of experience having taught for the university’s extension service for several years, but this was different. My PhD was in adult education – well, I concluded, students are adults so what’s the problem? 

Soon after taking my seat the bell rang, the corridors were filled, and students began to arrive. I remained in my seat in the middle of the room as students took their seats. I was amazed that the room was nearly filled and my anxiety level rose in proportion. Pretty soon things quieted down and the expectant group sat facing the front of the room. Eventually the 10 minute bell rang indicating that if the professor had not arrived students were free to leave. A few gathered their belongings and made for the door. “Whoa, hold it!” I said while remaining in my seat. “Where are you going?” “The Prof isn’t here, we’re leaving.” “How do you know the professor isn’t here?” The student pointed to the empty desk – “He isn’t here.” “Are you telling me your expectation is that teachers are always to be found at the front of the room?” At this point suspicions were aroused, my cover was blown, I introduced myself, and thus began my teaching career seated in the middle of the room. For me and for the students this was the beginning of the dialectic which defined our time together, which defined my teaching.

Teachers are not always at the front of the room. Teachers can be anywhere. Yes, the front of the room carries the weight of established authority but what kind of authority? Is a teacher’s authority defined by where they are standing or by what they know and by what they are capable of getting across? If a teacher’s authority is defined by anything other than what they know and are capable of communicating, what is being taught? What is being learned? Teachers must, I believe, ask themselves these questions every time they enter a classroom – I did and I reminded myself of it constantly. How could I teach what I didn’t practice, especially when my students were future teachers?

Schools are an extension of society and that alone establishes their value and importance. If this were not true, totalitarian governments would not exercise such control as they do over teachers and students. Public education is, of necessity, as much about social control as it is about subject matter. Social control at an early age is preparation for a lifetime of respect for authentic authority and responsible membership in society.

Children must be educated to be fully functioning members of society, a process that is thousands of years old. And, how does this happen when children’s noses are pressed against computer screens informing only themselves in a circumscribed and contrived personal world? Well, it won’t happen because “public” means all of us including children, working and learning as a community, not as self-enclosed, hermetic, self-absorbed centers of private experience. Public is the antithesis of self-centeredness. Public means all of us working together, learning and teaching, not grasping whatever we can at whatever cost to the community, oblivious to an inclusive  social contract. The foundational conception of public education is neither capitalism or socialism, it is not about Republicans or Democrats, not about profit, but about civility, about community, about Democracy. How can this be taught? Not from the front of the room that’s for sure. LauTzu instructed us to lead from behind.

It’s About Groceries

It seems at times that the world is what it must be like for a fly climbing a window pane. You can see it all out there but you can’t get to it. The window is transparent but, is what you are seeing the truth? How could you know? How could you be sure? Reality is itself a construct which you accept or not at your own peril. We suffer an opaque political system working overtime, as it does, to corrupt itself at every turn while trying to convince us it isn’t. The sensational hour by hour revelations about or for each candidate become a yawn for some people or raw meat thrown to a madding crowd for others. The final political question eventually devolves to how many times we must hold our collective noses and vote for a lesser evil before the political system crumbles into the darkness of chaos?

Required reading for one of the classes I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Radical School Reform, was Saul Alinsky’s “Rules For Radicals”. It was published the same year I started teaching, 1972. I still keep the book on my desk and pick it up from time-to-time scanning through for a random jewel, perhaps a random memory. My favorite passage has always been the concluding paragraph. “The great American dream that reached out to the stars has been lost to the stripes. We have forgotten where we came from, we don’t know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. … When Americans can no longer see the stars, the times are tragic. We must believe that it is darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world we will see when we believe it.”

It is indeed about believing. We live in a complex world believing in, among other things, truth, equality, other people to fear, and something called “fairness”, and a world in which people are asked to believe in an economic system that favors a few at the disadvantage of many. As with religious dogma our economic belief system, Capitalism, may not be challenged in spite of clear evidence that it is destroying social contracts and the environment globally. If you doubt this you haven’t been paying attention to the exodus of American business to other countries, places where there are little or no health and safety regulations and pay scales that are a fraction of those in the US.. In many of those offshore countries workers earn less in a day than what Americans doing the same work earned in an hour. The irony, of course, is that those goods now being made abroad are brought to the US for Americans to “consume”. At the same time that the general public is being impoverished, infrastructure is crumbling across the country to pay for the perpetual and profitable war machine. It is reasonable, I believe, to ask what our values are as a nation when people are without medical care, and children without sufficient daily meals or a proper education? Are our voices not heard at the seats of power or are our voices simply inconsequential?

Capitalism, a zero sum enterprise that ultimately has only one winner has become both a belief system and an economic system. In the words of S.D. King in, When The Money Runs Out, “In reality, the financial system prices beliefs – and beliefs – not ultimate truth.” The economic pie is just one size and as someone else’s slice gets bigger someone else’s inevitably becomes smaller. In the end, regardless of Calvin Coolidge’s belief that “The business of the American people is business”, what really makes for a healthy equitable society is truth and the truth is about groceries not overseas bank accounts. It’s supermarket shoppers trying to put a meal on the table every day who are the real economy and who make the economy function; that’s what keeps a civil society alive and healthy.

Circling The Drain

In mathematics there is a concept called Pareto efficiency, it describes the impossibility for one side of an equation to keep taking without depriving or diminishing  the other side. A common sense idea in which the losing side inevitably goes to zero. Because of the finite quality of available resources namely money, Capitalism is a Pareto efficient economic system – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In other words it is a zero-sum game – I win and you lose. This raises an interesting question: how can a so-called “Democratic” society  tolerate or thrive within a anti-democratic economic model? As a consequence of too few having too much too many have too little of this stuff to spend. It doesn’t require a PhD in Economics to figure out that if too few have to little to spend the general economy will suffer. So, a truthful Economics 101 should tell us that the imbalance caused by greed is a foundational cause of economic failure and, eventually, social collapse.

It is important to understand that aside from accumulating as much as possible, there is no moral or ethical code associated with the Capitalist belief system. To understand this consider: A pharmaceuticals company acquires the rights to a vital medicine which has been selling at $56.64 per dose they raise the price overnight to $317.82 for the same amount and at the same time raise the compensation of their CEO from $2,453,456.00 to $18,931,068.00. The drug went up 461%  and the CEO’s salary went up 671%. As they say, nice work if you can get it and pity the people who need the drug to survive.

Pick up any economics texts and you’ll be treated to an amazing variety of theories explaining why we had a crash in 2008 or why the world’s (and our) economy has failed to regenerate from said crash in spite of various governmental interventions. One theory after another is generated by learned professors at various universities and think-tanks. Of course none of this wisdom accords with what we experience in our everyday lives but it sounds profound. The reason why the economy isn’t recovering is actually quite simple – we live in a Pareto efficient economic system, that is to say, too few people have too much of available monetary resources and too many have too little.

The totality of economics can be expressed this way: 2+2=4 and 4-2=2 but more importantly, 4-4=0. That’s it, that’s the whole story in a nut shell. For all of us unwashed, economics is a simple matter of you either have it or you don’t. As of July of this year 13% of men between the ages of 25 and 54 have dropped out of the labor force consequently they don’t have any “it” to spend. The unemployment rate continues to hover around 4.9% of which 26.6% are considered long-term unemployed. Also, what the numbers don’t tell you is what kinds of jobs are available and what wages they are paying. Do they pay minimum wage? Can people support their families on this level of income? Can employed people afford health care? Is there such a thing as “disposable” income? Did you know that a large percentage of enlisted military families rely on food stamps or that the US has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the entire world? That’s real world economics, folks.

Capitalism is a dualistic belief system which, while promising fair distribution of material and social wealth, delivers quite the opposite. Now that 1% of the population owns 40% of the United States’ wealth it seems plain to see things are out of balance. Although many writers such as Thomas Piketty and Charles Lehmann, have produced incontrovertible evidence  of the imbalance, the general public seems to be in denial. To argue against inequality earns you various imprecations such as, you are a Socialist or even worse a Communist. Most using these terms don’t have a clue as to what Socialism is or means, it becomes name calling because Communists, are, as we all know, evil and totalitarian and who knows what socialists are?

Given the Pareto efficient aspect of Capitalism, the imbalance, cannot be treated with doses of feel-good Kumbaya or patriotic exhortations; eventually something has to give. A bigger question remains. When there is nothing left for the majority how long can belief in the social contract survive? Are we circling the drain? Inevitably we are going to find out.

It Can’t Happen Here

Book Review – “It Can’t Happen Here” – Sinclair Lewis

Yes it can happen here, and some would say it’s already happening. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ prescient novel, “It Can’t Happen Here” tells what happens to a country when people are complacent and compliant. The novel is an allegory, a morality tale, a story depicting the unquenchable quest for renown, power, and oftentimes wealth in a “go along to get along” complacent society. The story accords both with what is referred to as Big Man theory and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Big Man, often inflicted with NPD, dispenses favors, employment, and material gain to sycophants in return for loyalty and support. Maintaining the requisite plots and sub-plots requires a great deal of coercion and effort.

Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation as well as other organizations from local politics to labor unions. It’s a two way street. The “leader” generally requires obsequious feedback and loyalty and the followers require favors in return for their affirmation and adoration. Everyone in the game has a handful of “gimme” and a mouthful of “much obliged”. It often doesn’t matter what the actors receive so long as they get “something”; a vote, a ride in a limo, a free meal, or simply an “atta boy” pat on the back. Such “leaders” possess an innate primal instinct to identify and exploit weaknesses that is crucial to their success.

As the antagonist, Berzelius Windrip, climbs his way to absolute power the protagonist, Doremus   Jessup, whittles his life down to as low a profile as he can manage to avoid attention. Windrip, an ambition driven politician, eventually becomes the “President” surrounded by Yes Men and a vigilante posse, the CORPOs, who kill or jail anyone who opposes his and their rule. Jessup, a small town newspaper editor eventually loses his paper and thus his soapbox. Life in the small Vermont town in which most of the action takes place is slowly but surely reduced to imprisonment or sniveling obeisance. Dissenters are jailed or outright murdered by the newly ascendant former underclass CORPOs. Eventually the tide envelops Jessup — he is arrested and finds himself trying to escape into Canada.

The reader is encouraged to consider the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described by the DSM-5 diagnostic text and to ask yourself if you recognize any of these in the current political milieu.

  1. 1.   Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. Needing constant admiration from others
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs

The obvious parallels are manifested in Windrip’s startling resemblance to two of the current candidates running for President of the US and Jessup’s avuncular resemblance to a sidelined populist former candidate for President.  Yes, history does indeed repeat itself as I vividly recall the turmoil of 1968 and the populist candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read this valuable prescient book I believe you’ll find yourself wondering if things ever actually change and what is our fate as a society if we cannot do better than this. Think of “It Can’t Happen Here” as an early warning call to action.


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