"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.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Surrender to Utopia

The typical U.S. anti-socialism meme resembles this recent post in Common Dreams: "Socialism goes against human nature. Humans are greedy creatures, just look at a toddler crying if it doesn't get the toy someone else has. In adults, the greed becomes more sophisticated and predatory. So I hate to agree with the scums on the Right, socialism IS utopia." - Common Dreams, "Is Obama a Socialist?" comment on Sept.27, 2009

The reply, which I fully endorse, went as follows: "But other aspects of human nature include solidarity, sacrifice, cooperation, and compassion - aspects which our society does not usually reward. Should our society reward these aspects, and there is no reason why it can't, then we can have a society that reflects these more cooperative, if not humane, aspects of human nature rather than the self-centered and destructive aspects our society does reflect. Societal design isn't written in stone, it isn't delivered by the gods, it is a manifestation of social and political choices. Different choices will yield different outcomes. Socialism does not go against human nature, as you suggest, it merely appeals to different aspects of human nature than capitalism does. Socialism is not utopia, and the 'right' is wrong to say so, and you are wrong to believe it is so." - Common Dreams, "Is Obama a Socialist?" comment on Sept.27, 2009

But we must go farther. The choice of whether to reward greed and self-interest or cooperation and compassion is not a neutral one. Another part of human nature, as well documented in history as greed and war, is the human tendency to transcend its own nature, to constantly repudiate a static condition in which no moral or spiritual growth occurs. There is a logic to social and political choices that truly inspire humanity. Socialism may not in and of itself be a utopia, but utopia lives within all of us and drives to constantly create and destroy all would-be utopias.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Siren Call of Ecological Despair

Erich Fromm, who has a section in the "Sane Society" called "The Principle of Nonfrustration" seems particularly relevant to the current ecological crisis. As Aldous Huxley said in Brave New World, the principle of the current world order is: "Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today." Happiness has become the instant realization of wishes, and these wishes, moreover, are largely dictated by corporate marketing departments who form the personal images that we unconsciously emulate.

In the context of the current climate crisis, this attitude translates into deliberate self-deception. Psyches formed by the principle of non-frustration cannot cope with our inherent limitations. We are impelled to achieve higher and higher degrees of satisfaction, which in real terms mean greater and greater exploitation of the world's limited resources. To accept this reality would mean a sudden and devastating sense of despair. Eventually, if we had the courage, we would crawl out of that despair, but being the people we currently are, we simply can't face it. We WILL have our satisfaction, even if it means starvation for hundreds of millions of our fellow creatures.

We have been transformed into a system of desires and satisfactions. This is the system that guides us without the use of force. No matter what the depth of our disappointment with the satisfactions on sale, we return to them again and again because alternatives have been systematically excluded from consciousness. We are eternal infants, never weaned from our receptive orientation. Aldous Huxley described it well, "There's no such thing as a divided allegiance; you're so conditioned that you can't help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren't any temptations to resist." - Brave New World.

Indeed, the temptation to save the planet sheds dim light compared to those temptations to which we have become addicted. And the corporations continue to sing their siren song and we, unlike Odysseus, are not bound to the ship's mast, but steer passionately toward the empire of illusion:

"First you will raise the island of the Sirens,
those creatures who spellbind any man alive,
whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close,
off guard, and catches the Sirens' voices in the air -
no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him,
no happy children beaming up at their father's face.
The high, thrilling song of the s=Sirens will transfix him,
lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses,
rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones..."

- The Odyssey, Book 12, verses 44 - 52.

Capitalism and the Technologies of Desire

I applaud Robert Jensen's spirited defense of the "narrow gate," in his recent article, Is Obama a Socialist? Reflection on the Degradation of Politics and the Ecosystem. His is one of many efforts to break through the constricted vision of twentieth century ideologies to embrace the many dimensions of liberation: economic, political, and even religious.

The demonization of "socialism" plays a central role in the capitalist strategy of consent that tells us much about why it has succeeded so spectacularly against its rivals. This communication strategy represents "socialism" as the repression of the unlimited ("free") indulgence of desire which corporations constantly encourage. This is represented symbolically by the "nanny" state, a potent image that embodies the repressive morality which it fears. The real content of the word "freedom" in modern political speech is "immediate satisfaction of desire", in particular the artificial desires that are stimulated to a fever pitch with the apparatus of modern marketing.

Capitalism enslaves the imagination through a highly-developed technology of desire. Capitalism captures and distorts human desire so that rather than serving the good of humanity or the glory of God, desire operates according to the golden rule of production for the market. This insight has major consequences for progressive counter-strategies.

Capitalism is successful because it creates a constant stream of new desires which demand immediate satisfaction. By redirecting desire into these carefully controlled channels, attention that might be directed to social concerns follows the groove of personal satisfaction and image. It works by convincing us that this system alone lets us participate in images of personal success. We participate in these images through the stimulation and immediate satisfaction of artificial desires, with all the infantile reasoning that this implies and encourages.

Religious mythology as represented by the "mega-church" phenomenon also plays a significant role. "Sinfulness" in the form of greed, sexual indulgence, selfishness, drugs, and corruption embodies the image of a "fallen" world that can only be magically redeemed. It becomes part of orthodox religious belief that the features of contemporary capitalism are the unalterable features of fallen humanity. Rather than believing that we are God's agents who can liberate ourselves through his gifts, as Jesus taught, we are forced into the belief that "Jesus" will magically liberate us through miraculous events. These beliefs reinforce the faith that capitalism can continue forever.

For instance, George Gilder says, "... man is not finite; the human mind is not bound in material brain...the energy crisis is essentially a religious disorder, a failure of faith. It can be overcome chiefly by worship; by a recognition that beyond the darkness and opacity of our material entrapment is a realm of redemptive spirit, reachable through that interplay of faith and fact which some call science, others poetry, but which is most luminously comprehended as forms of prayer." - George Gilder, The Spirit of Enterprise.

This is precisely the idolatry which enraptures the contemporary religious mind and cultivates the belief that the "creativity" of our economic system will always save us, no matter what "reality" may say. The fuel behind the fire that is devouring our planet is the constant stimulus of new desires which can only be satisfied by the organized productive capacity of globalized capital.

Resistance to climate change can't gain traction because it presents itself as a restriction on the satisfaction of infinite desire. The dynamic of capitalism is that we can become endlessly more through the multiplication of new technologies. Climate change activism opposes this irrationalism, and so can be easily characterized as dull, repressive, and totalitarian - in a word "socialist".

What Jensen and contemporary socialists call for is the liberation of desire from this bondage. Submission to this bondage is rapidly destroying its own ecological foundation, which is right now causing natural destruction that will take millennia to heal.

Capitalism creates a spiritual void and then fills it with an unending stream of artificial desire to quell the boredom and despair engendered by the thwarting of social development.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Squandered Summer? or the Maestro?

If only it were just a matter of a squandered summer. Frank Rich's editorial in the New York Times this Sunday "Obama's Squandered Summer" focuses on the tactical and strategic errors of the Obama administration, but a shift of perspective quickly unblurs the actual scenery and highlights the superb successes Obama has achieved this summer. His behavior this summer appears incompetent only if one assumes that his goal was to get a health care package that addressed the needs of ordinary Americans. If, on the other hand, he was responding to the needs and desires of the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries, then his strategy has been a model for others to emulate.

Writers who are given a national stage usually reinforce the notion that presidents are primary actors within the drama of national politics, that their decisions and tactics are decisive factors guiding the development of the historical moment. This meta-message is far more important that the well-wrought details of their critiques. As long as we focus on personality and style, the real forces behind the health care debacle can be safely ignored.

Once we step away from personalities, it quickly becomes obvious that Obama is carrying out the interests of his class, conveniently masked by his progressive image. He is serving the interests of the health insurance industry because they are representative of those who have advanced his career and who will support his continued advancement as long as he is useful to them. Public opinion counts for nothing in this realm.

"Obama is a master when it comes to embodying what the formerly left Christopher Hitchens once (in a book about the Clintons) called 'the essence of American politics' - 'the manipulation of populism by elitism.' The president is a maestro at executing what former Clinton administration official David Rothokopf calls 'the violin model,' under which 'you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.' In other words, 'you' gain and keep office with populace-pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric but govern in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions." - Paul Street, "They Employ a Lot of Our Friends: Left Reflections on Obama's Corporatist Health Care Speech", Sept. 12, 2009.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Don't Feed the Frenzy

Many liberal pundits have fallen into a frenzy of Obama-bashing, but they’re blasting at the wrong target. Obama is not the cause of this crisis. He stands at the end of a long trail of decisions made by powerful elites in business and government over many decades. These decisions box the type of decisions that can be made into tight crevices, into one of which Obama is now cramped. One man, even if he is President, can't reverse the momentum of that long trail. As beautiful a sight as it would be to see Obama challenging the power of Wall Street, we can easily foresee what the consequence would be. The ruling elite would find a way to remove him, either politically or physically, if necessary.

However, a real leader would have used the opportunity, even if he faced certain defeat. He would realize that "the political center" is an optical illusion. He would have instinctively understood that Republican support could only be a cruel hoax. Instead, he would have rallied his newly fledged legions of young fans and proclaimed positions radical enough to get them excited, even if he secretly knew they would face severe obstacles. He would set the bar high enough for real achievement to be possible.

But Obama was not that leader. The reason he never challenged entrenched power is that he was chosen by that power to fulfill specific corporate goals. This is how David Michael Green characterizes the health care debacle, “I mean, if you had asked me in January, ‘How could Obama bungle this program most thoroughly?’, I would have written a prescription that varies little from what we've observed over the last eight months: Don't frame the issue, but instead let the radical right backed by greedy industry monsters do it, on the worst possible terms for you. And to you. Don't fight back when they say the most outrageous things about your plan. In fact, don't even have a plan. Let Congress do it. Better yet, let the by-far-and-away-minority party have an equal voice in the proceedings, even if they ultimately won't vote for the bill under any circumstances, and even while they're running around trashing it and you in the most egregious terms. Have these savages negotiate with a small group of right-wing Democrats, all of them major recipients of industry campaign donations. Blow off your base completely. Cut secret sweetheart deals with the Big Pharma and Big Insurance corporate vampires. Build a communications strategy around a series of hapless press conferences and town hall meetings, waiting until it's too late to give a major speech on the issue. Set a timetable for action and then let it slip. Indicate what you want in the bill but then be completely unclear about whether you necessarily require those things. Travel all over the world doing foreign policy meet-and-greets. Go on vacation in the heat of the battle. Rinse and repeat.” David Michael Green, “After Obama”, Sept. 4, 2009. This wonderful paragraph may not be simply a caricature of incompetence. The result of his political moves will be the defeat of real health care reform for at least the next four years. There are many who would consider that a significant success.

Another foreseeable result of the cumulative crises which he is bound to mishandle will be the election of a far-right Republican president in 2012. This Republican may have the intellectual chops of an Arnold Schwartzenegger or the feckless, good-old-girl charm of Sarah Palin, but it won't matter. This president will take orders from the same corporate headquarters as Obama, but with the incomparable advantage of arriving after 4 years of feckless "liberalism." It's the Hannity and Colmes strategy. Use a cartoonish liberal cliche to highlight the granite chin of fascism.

This new president will be empowered to wipe away what's left of the Constitution, establish military rule, and eliminate all government programs other than the armed forces, law enforcement, and the prison system. Anything less will be characterized as "Obamism.”

The hard truth is that we love our illusions and no longer care whether they are grounded in reality. Obama provoked the illusion of liberalism, evoking memories of real decency once embodied by the term. And we bought the illusion, secretly knowing that it was no longer possible. Once the chosen messiah failed to live up to the illusion he represented, the crowd turned vicious. But the illusion had already worked its magic. The purpose of the brilliant marketing campaign was accomplished. Now it is simply a matter of re-establishing dominance from Caracas to Kabul. And that is the formula for insanity. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.