Monday, 28 June 2010

Rousseau (III) Hiding the Facts

The guidebooks are all wrong. What must you do to find your way around... use your nose, ask people; walk around the blocks. You miss some monuments? Create you own! That dilapidated house? Look at the blue rafters! A temple of strange beauty.

What can we believe these days…

In criticizing the great Dutch jurist Grotius, and his view that it is right that human government is not for the governed, Rousseau writes that this may be fact, but that is all – it does not mean it is right and cannot be changed. Two hundred years later this fact remains, but the values have changed: now we, along with Rousseau, believe that the government should be for us.

During this time the governors have changed, of course. Indeed whole new social systems have been created; the King and the Court replaced by the City and the multinational corporation. But our view, the ideology that underpins our culture, is that we the public run the show; we are a democracy with the people in charge.

This is a significant change, in two ways. One is the shift in value, which has not been accompanied by a shift in facts. The other is that the facts are camouflaged, to hide this anomaly.

Why the shift in values? In part this a result of popular pressure going back to at least 17th century England; and given injections of adrenalin during the French and Russian revolutions. In this period there was the rise of mass parties representing the working classes, who, together with the unions, were able to transform their nation states. Since the 1970s we have lived in a time of reaction, and there has been a significant rollback of these changes – leading to weaker unions, job insecurity and growing inequality. Nevertheless, the core achievements of that time have remained intact; they are too close to the core values of western societies, and its needs, to be removed completely.

We also live in a democracy which sets limits on the powerful. As Russell writes, a democracy might be the best means discovered of ensuring the consent of the populace; but to achieve this the state and the governing classes must not oppress the population too much – there will resistance, and possible revolution (in Greece today we see what happens when the rich go too far).

As we become less democratic, with cartels and a fusion of the economic and political systems creating a culture more akin to oligarchy, it is possible that there will be a far greater retrenchment; to the point where the belief and practice of democracy will have weakened; thus allowing for far greater oppression. There are suggestions we are reaching this point now, with the public’s disenchantment with both the City and Westminster. What happens next is a mystery, but the expectation is that the developments of the last forty years will continue, with greater concentation of capital and increasing financialization of the economy. This will surely put enormous pressure on our democracy.

Another reason for this shift in values is industrialisation and the scientific revolution. Both promote egalitarianism – people must be like machine parts, replaceable and interchangeable; racism and sexism, throwbacks to older moralities, prevent this, creating inefficiencies in the use of human resources. While science, which provides the foundation on which our values and ideas are built, is outside cultural particularities, treating nature as a homogenous whole, which can be broken down into separate but equal parts; to be manipulated at will.

Thus democracy and industry push our values in a certain way; and they are too important for our governors to remove. Industry, because it gives them immense power; and democracy, because it’s the best way to ensure the acquiescence of the governed.

What about the facts! Because they are in conflict with our values they have to be manipulated. This is a very modern phenomena, and is reflected in the rise of a very modern industry – public relations. A whole industry built on the premise that it must distort the truth; whether it be politics or consumer goods. Extraordinary, when you think of it, of how much our world is made up of lies – this may in part explain the ease with which politicians can survive, even after their falsehoods have been uncovered. It has become the norm, and we accept it easily. Indeed, we have another industry that says there is no difference between lies and truth, they are all stories – the Post-modern intellectuals in our universities.

Any attempt to understand the world must first see through these distortions; life is not nearly as transparent as at the time of Rousseau (though with the rise of capitalism, these trends were noticeable by the 18th century). However, they have seeped into our assumptions, they are the substance of our ideas; they dominate the airways and newsprint - it is the scholasticism of the mainstream media and intelligentsia.

A good example is Columbia professor Mark Lilla in the New York Review of Books. Discussing the Tea Party he writes of two revolutions in the last 50 years: the social individualism of the Sixties; and the economic individualism of the Eighties. It is these two events (or trends is a better word) that explain the values and facts of our times, rather than older concepts of left and right. For Lilla

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything by themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that…. Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

Economic or political causes are dismissed.

Despite great affluence and relative peace Americans have far less trust in their government than they did up to the mid-Sixties.

It is difficult to find out what has caused this, but the article suggests it has something to do with the culture. The new individualism encouraged by the twin revolutions already mentioned, that has turned people to irrational egoists, who hate politics and the government.

You arrive in New York, you spend five days in Manhattan, and you go “everywhere”, but you miss the Empire State Building. How can you not see the tallest building on the island? How indeed.

Since the mid-Sixties America has experienced three major wars; one a substantial defeat. It has suffered its first attack on home soil since 1812. In both wars the lies and mistakes have been quickly exposed, thousands lost their lives; for reasons people found hard to understand. Yet America has been at “relative peace”? Relative to what?

Great affluence? The stats suggest that this has not been equally shared; going mostly to the rich, it has led to stagnating incomes, particularly for middle America. No wonder people are angry; and they are right to be so. However, with little in the way of informed dissent the Tea party and their associates accept the simple messages of Fox News and the Talk shows. Their anger is rational, but their response, the framing of their ideas, is uninformed, and often crazy.

If these people like the free market and think that government is inefficient why is this so? Especially as the realities of American society are almost the reverse of this simple picture: all of the high technology industry, and most innovative research, has its source in the state. Do people just believe it? Is it some sort of an emanation from God himself? For in this analysis, and much like it, events seem to have no causal agent; they just happen. An idea comes along, and it carries people away. That there might be an agent that sells the idea, profits from it, and makes it attractive and encourages us to buy it; this is hardly stated. It’s as if an Apple computer materializes in the shop one day, all by itself; with no need of a factory, container ship or custom official. Such analysis is akin to religious faith, no matter how liberal or analytical it appears.

Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth. To this inquiry an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author. But as truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose, we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church? (Edward Gibbon, quoted in Gellner)

These secondary causes are not hard to find. Since the Sixties corporations have exerted continual pressure, through politics and propaganda (think of all those corporately funded institutes pushing for Adam Smith and laissez faire), telling us how bad government is, and how we must rely on the market. The market? Another free standing deity, although it depends, all too obviously, as the recent bailouts show, on the state.

But a question little asked, but to the point: who runs the market? By selecting economics over politics we exchange our right to vote for the right to serve, in a corporation. For economic rights and political rights are very different things. Through the latter the populace can hope to influence the governors; while in the former we sell our freedom in return for a wage – we give up power to the chief executive and the senior management team.

A good description of the PR and intellectual campaign is Adam Curtis’ The Trap. His commentary on game theory and Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty are particularly enlightening: Berlin’s liberalism accepts the assumptions of the 18th century, when the state and Catholic church were the main threats to liberty, but ignores the influence of the corporation; and the need for a countervailing force against it (for a deeper view see Chomsky in Bryan Magee’s Men of Ideas). Harold Perkins, in a fascinating analysis of the rise of the professions, shows how since the 1970s the public sector professionals have lost the ideological battle to their private sector counterparts, who resented the costs imposed on themselves.

In practice what does Lilla’s mistakes mean? The most important is that we can’t rely on our intellectual leaders if we want to understand the world; we have to dismantle their ideology, and create a new one for ourselves. To do this new institutions and educational facilities are required. Already this is happening via the net, and through movements like the World Social Forum. But the task in many ways is harder than before. The power of that worldview, through centralisation, education and decades of enforced habit, together with the media and PR factories, has surrounded and penetrated us. It has grown inside us, and is part of our understanding. It is so easy for us to be misled! Hence the Tea Party, and the professor’s article. We have to work harder to see more clearly, but see we must. Shall we? 

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