"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.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Real Change

David Michael Green's recent article "How to Squander the Presidency in One Year" portrayed Obama as follows: "It's almost as if he were a Republican sleeper politician in some party politics version of the Manchurian Candidate, planted to arise on cue and destroy the Democratic Party from within."

The truth is that there was no need for a Manchurian candidate - the Democratic Party had already been destroyed from within. We voted for Obama because we wanted to believe that the possibilities that once seemed so real were still alive. Obama skillfully packaged this longing while being savvy enough to know whom he actually served. We progressives, on the other hand, chose to cling to our illusions that genuine social change was possible under the current power structure and the shattering of our illusions accounts for the bitterness of DMG's articles.

I also agree with the likelihood of his future scenario. It feels like we're locked in our seats on a train flying like a bullet toward a new age of slavery and superstition. If the only political options were the ones recognized by the American political system, then perhaps the despair shown by DMG would be justified. But I don't believe it is.

There are alternative political possibilities, but to realize them the first step is to abandon the obsessive focus on Obama. DMG says he no longer cares about Obama, but he obviously does or else he wouldn't blame the failure of an entire political system on him. The roots of this crisis go a lot deeper than the lack of leadership of one man, even the President.

The assumption seems to be that the American system is not so sick that one man in the right position of power could change it. Unfortunately, it is, but we'll never get a chance to truly test out the theory because the system is set up so that such a man or woman could never get close to the Presidency.

The focus on the failures of the Democratic Party masks a continued faith in the American system. Some of us believe that the American people are great enough to reinvent their system of government and that is exactly what's currently needed: to recognize that the system of government founded 200 years ago was flawed in ways that can no longer be fixed and to accept the challenge of creating a new system of government based on fulfilling human needs and recreating a flourishing human and natural ecology.

Before we can understand what needs to be done to achieve this new government, we need to analyze the roots of our current impotent political psychology. In the words of Paulo Friere, "The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibility. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion." - Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

In other words, the root of our passivity is our internalization of the oppressor. The media constantly paints images on our imagination with the colors of power, beauty, wealth and happiness, but these images are images of oppression. They represent a psychological infiltration that plants the oppressor within us, with whom we wish to identify because it is the only image we have of powerful and free human existence. We want to be like the dominator because of our longing to live according the standards of real humanity which we secretly nourish behind a facade of resigned cynicism.

But as Friere says, "Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift." Alienated forms of religion often play their traditional role here, promising a magical solution to our longing for a life suited to our actual human capabilities, virtually all of which are wasted by a social system blind to anything but exchange value. By promising such a life in the afterworld, these religions endorse the reign of the current order. They teach us that we must accept this world with all its injustices. Though we may add a ray of hope here and there, the message is "Here we have no abiding home. We are sojourners in this world of darkness, citizens of a heavenly world that will one day sweep this one away ..."

Thus the order of oppression is blessed by God who encourages us to flee this world and all its wiles. But something in our conscience can't let us rest in this cowardly heaven. Something tells us that real humanity doesn't close its eyes in the face of human suffering and flee into imaginary solace. Real humanity has something to do with struggling toward freedom, but the only culturally acceptable images of freedom are those of wealth and power. So we consent internally to the oppressor within and seek to realize our humanity in the only socially acceptable way.

So the path to freedom begins with taking a risk for freedom. That begins the process of building the psychological resilience necessary for freedom. Taking a risk means speaking up for justice when you fear that those you are speaking to will treat you as a fanatic or a fool. You can already hear their cynical laughter, but you speak anyway, not afraid of losing their esteem. It means speaking up for the insights and moral beauties that you have been given the privilege to witness in yourself or others. It means accepting the silence of those who wish to continue in their cynical acceptance of the "real world" which has no place for your insights.

You know that you are moving toward freedom when you can say with Gandhi "Truth is God" and you can serve him even in total solitude, perhaps all the way to death.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

True Generosity

"True generosity consist precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the 'rejects of life,' to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands-whether of individuals or entire peoples-need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world." - Paulo Friere "Pedagogy of the Oppressed"

These words must be remembered by progressives as we all dig to give. As Bill Quigley proves in his recent article "Why the U.S. Owes Haiti Billions - the Briefest History",  the West owes far more than it can ever pay for what it has taken from the people of Haiti. Our task now is to help Haitians renew and carry to completion the revolution begun in 1804 so that hands which tremble now can transform the world.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Capitalism is Violence Against the Soul

Frank Rich's article belongs to the category of "Backhanded Apologias for Current Capitalism". It's a classic example of the genre, in fact. While seemingly a powerful denunciation of current Wall Street practice, it is in fact a subtly designed propaganda piece that supports the ruling economic class much more effectively than right-wing screeds.  

Let's start with real perspective. "The central task of the ruling ideology in the present crisis is to impose a narrative which will place the blame for the meltdown not on the global capitalist system as such, but on secondary and contingent deviations (overly lax legal regulations, the corruption of big financial institutions, and so on)." Slavoj Zizek, "First as Tragedy, Then as Farce" His ideological purpose is to contrast 'productive' capitalism to the bad, aberrant capitalism of the present. He praises Andrew Carnegie's bounty: "... some 1,600 public libraries, just for starters - but also for creating a steel empire that actually helped build America's industrial infrastructure in the late 19th century." How Andrew Carnegie treated his workers to build that empire is left conveniently unspoken.  

The inner drive that fueled AIG and still powers the record bonuses of Goldman Sachs is the same as the one that drove Andrew Carnegie. It is the constant pressure "...to expand the sphere of circulation in order to keep the machinery running, inscribed into the very system of capitalist relations. In other words, the temptation to 'morph' legitimate business into a pyramid scheme is part of the very nature of the capitalist circulation process. There is no exact point at which the Rubicon was crossed and the legitimate business morphed into an illegal scheme; the very dynamic of capitalism blurs the frontier between 'legitimate' investment and 'wild' speculation, because capitalist investment is, at its very core, a risky wager that a scheme will turn out to be profitable, an act of borrowing from the future." - Slavoj Zizek.  

Sorry, Frank, but Carnegie's capitalism and Robert Rubin's are born from the same litter. The idea that a new Pecora will clean up the mess is a recycled mythological trope intended to legitimize the beast that by definition cannot be controlled.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Who Narrates Rules

"Who narrates governs" - this key insight deserves development. As David Michael Green rightly points out in his recent article, "The Implosion of the American Political Consciousness", Orwell understands how power gains control over narrative. The most effective way is to "... just remove the possibility of imagining alternatives from the public's consciousness. Much easier. Much cheaper."

This is how propaganda works - by the removal of possibilities. "The goal of all enemy propaganda is not to annihilate an existing force (this function is generally left to police forces), but rather to annihilate an unnoticed possibility of the situation." - Alain Badiou.

The possibilities they don't want us to notice are obviously the ones Green uncovers. But the hypocrisy he senses behind the propaganda machine hides a deeper cynicism that has become all-pervasive: "...it is cynical precisely insofar as it does believe it's own words, since it's message is a resigned conviction that the world we live in, even if it is not the best of all possible worlds, is the least bad, such that any radical change will only make things worse." - Slavoj Zizek. It is the chains of this cynicism that we must first shake off.

This imaginative failure is due to the false restrictions that we have unconsciously absorbed from the main channels of political discourse. But the obvious possibilities he raises point in the direction of yet more hopeful ones. For instance,

1) Direct control over productive capacity by those who do the actual work in this country - producing goods to meet human need so that all can share in the bounty that technology has made possible.

2) The expropriation of idle and destructive wealth now in the hands of those determined to ruin the earth's ecology. Their violation of the common good has voided their right to that wealth.

Such ideas were the common currency of political discourse not so long ago - what's happened to our minds? Those interested in these ideas might want to take a look at the Universal Birthright proposal: http://dissidentvoice.org/2010/01/universal-birthright/