An blog by a member of the Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi, to explore the nexus between contemplation and resistance. "The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Illusion of Change

The gushing enthusiasm over Obama has been manufactured in order to evoke the illusion of change. This illusion is extremely useful for many purposes, but primarily because it allows the same policies to be pursued with different apparent justifications. The masses by necessity live on hope. Nurturing this hope is a key factor in the continuing dominance of the command and control system of which Obama is now the visible symbol. Decent people will endure hardship as long as they believe that those at the top truly have their best interests at heart, but require sacrifices of them during crises. Obama symbolizes the intelligence, compassion, and unruffled endurance that are required to realize this drama.

Before describing the forces that control Obama, as they controlled Bush and Clinton before him, I don't think there's a need to buy into conspiracy theories. The conspiracy is out in the open, not hidden. There is a psyops operation going on against the American people, but the propaganda machine and those behind it are fairly easy to identify. It consists of the heads of transnational corporations and Wall Street banks, along with their minions in government. It consists of those who have grown fabulously rich from neoliberal policies and wish to continue imposing the same policies. No need to invoke the Bilderburg Group or the Trilateral Commission. It's important not to mystify the struggle by making oppression appear to be the product of a secret group because that makes it seem as if we only need to eliminate this evil group and the New Age will dawn. The truth is less dramatic and more challenging. The ruling elite does not consist of evil individuals who are constantly scheming towards world domination, but of clever and accomplished people of differing moral characters, who have pursued a strategy that has resulted in great personal success. That success has been accomplished in a particular economic and political context that they wish to preserve because by preserving it, they can preserve their wealth and sense of accomplishment. So far their strategy seems to be working extremely well.

The point is that the ruling elite propagandize themselves as much as those whom they wish to control. The nature of their domination has been clearly set forth by Herbert Marcuse, “In the social reality, despite all change, the domination of man by man is still the historical continuum that links pre-technological and technological Reason. However, the society which projects and undertakes the technological transformation of nature alters the base of domination by gradually replacing personal dependence (of the slave on the master, the serf on the lord of the manor, the lord on the donor of the fief, etc.) with dependence on the “objective order of things” (on economic laws, the market etc.). To be sure, the ‘objective order of things’ is itself the result of domination, but it is nevertheless true that domination now generates a higher rationality – that of a society which sustains its hierarchic structure while exploiting ever more efficiently the natural and mental resources, and distributing the benefits of this exploitation on an ever-larger scale. The limits of this rationality, and its sinister force, appear in the progressive enslavement of man by a productive apparatus which perpetuates the struggle for existence and extends it to a total international struggle which ruins the lives of those who build and use this apparatus. – “The One-Dimensional Man” The result of the “objective order of things” is false consciousness, described as follows: “…To the degree to which they correspond to the given reality, thought and behavior express a false consciousness, responding to and contributing to the preservation of a false order of facts. And this false consciousness has become embodied in the prevailing technical apparatus which in turn reproduces it.” – “The One-Dimensional Man”. Through technology the dominance of the ruling elite is enforced and the objective order of things established.

So, there is no need to posit an all-knowing Bilderburg group on one side and the ignorant, propagandized masses on the other. This dramatized image of the domination system actually serves the purposes of that system by pretending that those who recognize the obvious fact that the owning classes control virtually all economic and political power in this society are “conspiracy theorists”. “Conspiracy theory” is also the product of a slave mentality in which the masters are all-powerful deities and the slaves must accept and cooperate in their own oppression. It is very doubtful that the elite gather together in secret to plan world domination. It is simply the case that those who control political and economic power instinctively understand the best ways to continue their dominance and act on that understanding both individually and as a class. They are not “evil”, but are usually acting in good conscience, though with a conscience formed in a peculiar way. Their conscience is formed by their experiences of economic success, which they generalize into working tools for the formation of mass economic policy. They do not speculate on the roots or final ends of their policy, but they are certain that obedience to their policy will maintain their control and their success. And for them that is only goal worth achieving.

To make the point more transparent, we need to contrast the personal and the political, which the corporate media tend to confuse. Barack Obama is by all reports a decent, intelligent, and compassionate man. But like many intelligent and compassionate men, he has become entangled in power webs that favor certain types of decisions over others. The leaders who make these decisions are, in their minds, simply recognizing the “objective order of things”, regrettable as that order may be in certain instances and sometimes contrary to their personal morality. Nevertheless, precisely because they are decent and compassionate men, they must sacrifice their personal values to ensure the greater good of the whole, conditioned as it is by the “objective order of things” which must be respected.

This is a point well worth expanding on because it goes to the heart of why capitalism “succeeds”. Its driving force is the success of the leading members of society. These members have mastered behaviors that this social and economic order rewards. In their own eyes, their actions are dictated by noble aspirations for success and many of them are quite altruistic in wanting to spread the formula for this success to others. For them to fail to apply this formula would be felt as moral degeneration and they view those who cannot do what they do as insufficiently ambitious. The key understanding is that their success shapes the rules through which this society governs. Exceptions to the rule are experienced as unnecessary concessions to weakness, which must be overcome as quickly as possible. Capitalism does not arise from a secret conspiracy of bankers plotting world domination. Its main support consists of decent, compassionate individuals such as Barack Obama who wish to apply the rules that led to their “success” to as many as possible.

But it is precisely in their success that their blindness lies. Having mastered the rules so superbly, much of the world’s suffering becomes invisible to them, not because they are consciously ignoring it, but because minimizing those realities is part of the definition of their type of success. In reality, massive suffering is the reverse side of their achievements, but those achievements would not be possible unless they saw only the towering city and not the foundation it rests on.

What they cannot see is that the “objective order of things” did not spring up full-grown out of the void. It is in fact the creation of human beings, who could have decided to make different choices. A good example is the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. At this point in time, Barack Obama is obliged to recognize the objective fact that hundreds of thousands are already living on Palestinian land. It is regrettable that they have done this illegally, but that does not negate the “objective facts.” These facts have become part of the objective order of things that must be respected. The decision to remove these settlements becomes more impractical with each passing day, but did this situation arise due to some unknown physical law? No indeed, these “objective realities” were consciously created by political agents precisely so that the facts on the ground would enforce a certain power relationship between Jews and Palestinians. In deciding to back the Israelis, Obama is simply recognizing political reality and trying to work within the system to make whatever “progressive change” is realistically possible.

What is invisible to these good and intelligent men (and women) is that by working within the constraints of the “objective order of things”, no real change in that order is possible. What is implicit in this decision is to accept, willingly or not, the current state of power relationships which are the result of political maneuverings in the recent or distant past. The inability to challenge these relationships restricts the latitude of one’s own political maneuvering so that those relationships can never be transcended except by the pressure of events. And, as helpful as events may be, they can never by themselves provide the theoretical standpoint which allows leaders to guide the people through them to a more compassionate and sane society. Reacting to the pressure of events is passive, not the active, guiding role that only a sound theoretical viewpoint can provide.

Unless and until Obama can step out of the frames in which the financial elite have bracketed him, there can only be a continuance of the same system, in whatever crippled fashion may now be possible.

To dramatize the constraints applied to economic policy options, consider the media reaction if it were suggested that the assets of the banks which have caused the current crisis be expropriated and distributed to the population at large. Yet what could be more just or economically sane? And what would more quickly restore prosperity and economic justice? Yet such a suggestion would be so far outside the pale of current dialog as to be considered absurd.

How about considering the immediate elimination of harmful or useless industries, such as arms manufacturing, or the banking and insurance industries? If the boss at your workplace doesn’t place the interests of the workers first, why not consider direct action that cripples the boss's ability to make a profit and force him to recognize the justice of the workers' demands? Such ideas are taboo in the mainstream media and we have been socialized in a thousand different ways to instinctively reject such ideas as totally unrealistic.

What is important to see is why these ideas are taboo. They have not been carefully researched by teams of advanced economists and found to be scientifically defective. Instead, they do not accord with the elite’s success strategy described above. That strategy is exclusively focused on capital accumulation and increased profit margins. But it does not promote the human welfare of any but a tiny minority and even then only if you define human good in terms of the accumulation of commodities. The welfare of the vast majority is a possible side effect of the main goal, but one that can quickly be ejected if it interferes with profit maximization.

The choice is socialism or barbarism. If we continue to subsist in an economy focused on profit maximization, the planet will eventually (and in the not-too-distant future) become incapable of sustaining life. If we decide to make human welfare, not profit, the goal of economics, then a long and brilliant future lies ahead of us.


Dave Mendoza said...

Nice and interesting opinion, and very close to the truth. You're definitely on to something there, however, not quite there.

Of course, nobody wants to belong to the crazy bunch of conspiracy theorists, just as little as to the fanatical Creationists who refuse to believe that we're nothing but evolved monkeys.

Political correctness has its price.

And the price of truth is often our political correctness.

Boyd said...

Actually, I spent some time refuting "conspiracy theories" because I don't think they are necessary. The "conspiracy" is fairly obvious once you carefully think about what Washington and Wall Street are currently doing. But I'm interested in the "not quite there" that you see.