Archive | December 2013

Seeds of Authoritarianism: No True Capitalism

The polarized ideologies subsumed into the economic systems of Capitalism and Communism are based fundamentally on an interpretation of human nature. On the face of it now, it seems amazing that any government could believe that a single understanding of human nature and ideology could guide humanity. But contemporary societies still grip ideologies thought to have been discredited in the nightmarish 20th century. Capitalism is necessarily more interested in human nature at the level of the individual and then works upward, while Communism begins its analysis with a critique of the history of human social organization. Outsiders looked askance at the obsession of the Soviet Union with constant reanalysis and perfection of Marxist ideology. But try to imagine that you are in a society that reaches for a utopia of perfect unity, unsullied by cretinous human selfishness and individuality. Since the object of Communism is unity of purpose, the Soviet government attempted to unite all aspects of the human experience under one explanatory theory. Conjure the physicist grasping desperately for The Theory of Everything that unites General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and you can understand the mindset of the Soviet Marxist ideologue trying to reconcile genetics with art history. The Soviet leadership understood that it was impossible to unite humanity behind an ideal freely, and so they consciously decided to coerce the citizenry under a modern system of government by totalitarianism.

Strict adherence to ideology necessitates authoritarian government. In the beginning, the megalomaniac believes that he has discovered the theory of everything, the true nature of the human. In the United States, the prevailing ideology of our government adheres to the most diabolical insight of Adam Smith, that rational self-interest governs human behavior. Our society is governed by strict competition, with cooperation only appearing in certain settings. We retrofit the notion of rational self-interest, from the exploits of big business to the research performed in chemistry laboratories. You may personally find it abhorrent that your behavior can be entirely attributed to rational self-interest, you may even find it to be un-Christian. But the rules of the game are such that you must compete, or society will set you aside as a failure no matter how resplendent your talents. The more your behavior conforms to the prevailing ideology, the more success you can expect. And yet there are obvious cracks in our reigning ideology. An entire alternative economy of non-profits, community organizing, and social entrepreneurs has developed. The radicalism inside this alternative economy varies wildly, but the point is that a huge portion of the American economy does not adhere to the prevailing ideology of rational self-interest. Reality contradicts orthodoxy.

So what happens when it becomes obvious that no one theory of human behavior can guide a government? There are two impulses. One is to accommodate a pluralist conception of a Democratic society, and the second is to embrace authoritarian governance to enforce adherence to the ideology. The Republican Party is emblematic of this embrace of the authoritarian impulse. It explains the party’s deranged hatred of the alternative economy because it presents an existential threat to the reactionary way of life. Yet most reactionaries are just as upset as leftists about the state of American society. They complain that the U.S. economy is a parody of the ideals of Capitalism. And it is! But that’s the point. You cannot engineer society to produce the ideals of Capitalism or Communism. When put into practice, rational self-interest can only explain a facet of human nature. Disappointed idealists believe that if we could only install true capitalism and enforce their understanding of human nature we could have a perfect society. And that is the essence of megalomania. 

“Person A: ‘No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.’
Person B: ‘I am Scottish, and put sugar on my porridge.’
Person A: ‘Then you are not a true Scotsman.'”


The Case for Economic Populism

The dysfunction of U.S. society has reached such heights that even capitalist true-believers feel that something is amiss. Income inequality has eclipsed that of the Gilded Age – a time period usually trotted out as a cautionary tale and prelude to the Great Depression by history teachers. Unemployment is permanently high – if not at the “failed state” level of some European countries – and middle class careers disappear in favor of unpleasant service jobs that pay poverty wages. That is, the experience of the very poor and the working poor is starting to creep up the social ladder, and the middle class with its political power and huge megaphone understands that its livelihood is at stake.

Much of this nightmare can be traced to the powerful reactionary response to the Civil Rights movement and the upheaval of the 1960s. Union density falls and income inequality rises as soon as the revolutionary 60s end. Two ideologically diverse political parties segregated ideologically and geographically. Nixon’s election in 1968 due to his southern strategy was the first major success of the nascent reactionary movement. The movement peaks in the 1980s in the golden age of self-interest and ultranationalism. Since then, the reactionary movement’s power has declined. Social conservatism has suddenly been defeated, as gay marriage spreads across the states. But the big money capitalists still prop up the reactionaries, now in the form of the Tea Party movement.

Now we are in the unenviable position of widespread government-supported social equality and economic inequality. Naturally these two concepts cannot be isolated. But when the working class sees the rapid spread of gay marriages combined with economic stalemate, they may draw some unflattering conclusions about the nominally center-left Democratic Party. The big money men of the Republican Party have always been the strongest member of the right-wing coalition. They desperately seek to elect ethnic/sexual/cultural minorities under the Republican banner to Congress in a desperate attempt to mollify creeping social liberalism, while maintaining their grip on an unfair and highly unequal economy. It’s why big business conservatives will hedge their bets and support “inequality Democrats” with social liberal credibility like Cory Booker, Chuck Schumer, and Dianne Feinstein in states that will no longer elect Republicans anyway.

Booker, Schumer, and Feinstein sabotage left-wing economic policy that would win over those disappointed with the dreadful economy. It’s a missed opportunity, and it may set the stage for President Chris Christie in 2016. Or it may set the stage for a populist takeover of the Democratic Party. It would be better for the country if the Democratic Party would reform in time to stop the election of an executive with a serious authoritarian streak like Chris Christie.

The Purpose of Faith

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.”

– Abraham Heschel

For a very long time, I did not understand the purpose of faith. I have had an above-average religious education for an American, but it was by no means world-class. I wonder how it could be that after years of discussing religion, faith, and God, that I could never felt anything more than a rote understanding of millennia of wisdom. I think it was the hypocrisy. Even as my teachers preached the necessity of faith, we students sensed their lack of organic enthusiasm. They understood “faith” as another human responsibility, an incomprehensible orthodoxy that one must accept for personal salvation. In their worst interpretation we were faithful to please God, and in their best interpretation faith would lead us on the path to a righteous life. An excellent religious education would have urged discussion on the purpose of faith, but I was disappointed to find that we young students were relegated to the role of passive consumers of information. Faith was demanded of us, so we must give ourselves to it freely. Many students recognized that oddity of subsuming our God-given free will to the edicts of a school with an authoritarianism problem. I can see the results today. Those who paid little attention to our education and never felt the grip of inner conflict, remain nominally religious. Those who struggled to reconcile this education with our own aesthetic sensibilities have become atheists, agnostics, or any manner of apostate.

Faith is irrational, and any attempt to reconcile faith with rationalism results in absurdities like Pascal’s Wager. I speak of faith in broad terms. If we have faith in God and we are made in His image, are we not also required to have faith in our fellow man? Faith gives us the opportunity to do the impossible. When cold rationalists read a situation, they quickly establish the limits of possibility. A faithful person sees that same situation and has the faith that the limits imposed by the rationalist are as artificial as the political boundaries on a map of Earth. In the conundrum of human relationships, faith is what holds us together. Anwar Sadat attributed his agreement to sign the Camp David Accords to a personal religious experience. You may scoff at this explanation, and it does seem that every professional sportsman attributes his personal success to faith in God. But Sadat’s faith differs from that childishness – faith drove him to risk his life for the betterment of humanity. Is there any doubt that the calculating rationalist would have spurned Carter and Begin? Sadat was assassinated 2 years later largely due to his signature on the accords, but a pragmatist would have lived forever.

There is still a place for faith in contemporary society. Dreary pragmatic technocrats may rule the day in the western world, and their cowardly self-interest scleroses. They fritter away the gains for humanity with their desire to achieve the possible while shunning the necessary; their offices replete with the stench of objectless ambition. But I do not dismiss the possibility of fundamental change, a realignment of human values. I have faith that such a thing could occur, however unlikely. Faith is what remains when nothing else is worth having.

“Careerism is a leprosy, a leprosy.”

– Pope Francis

The Horror of the Professional Class

Young professionals horrify me these days because that is what everyone expected me to become. Young professionals are the company men of American society, but they do not know it. They see themselves as emancipated intellectuals who can make a positive contribution to society and make a living at the same time. They are well scrubbed, need to feel competent, and eager to please. They are in graduate school, law school, or have struck out on their own as social entrepreneurs. They are weirdly unrealistic about American politics, but specific issues rile them. I woke up one morning and they all suddenly seemed delusional.

Graduate school is the factory of professionals. Having experienced graduate school myself, I can assure you that it is a factory and that graduate students are floor workers. It is easy to get into graduate school, but very difficult to graduate. Graduate school is so painful that some studies find that half of all graduate students suffer from diagnosed mental disorders. That is astoundingly high. But how can this be if they are all living a privileged life of the mind?! That is exactly the problem. Graduate school is a long process of hazing, ideological conditioning, and initiation. Graduate school is about ideas, while labor is about the manufacturing of a product. When you are a laborer, your employer controls your body but has little domain over your mind. In graduate school, your employer controls your mind. The purpose of the dissertation committee resembles that of the Spanish Inquisition – the verification of orthodoxy.

When you work with a dissertation committee you will find that they have criticism, and that is natural. But when you respond to that criticism with your own arguments, you may find that they reject them. They say your arguments are not good enough, come up with better ones. In many cases, the committee members are asking for a reproduction of their own ideology in your own words. If in exasperation to their objections the graduate student asks what he could theoretically say to respond, he will receive a sneer. The graduate student cannot reveal that the point is to reify the ideology of the committee member, that would embarrass.

I write this not to prove that a graduate education is useless. I write this to burst the bubble of the naive. Professors justify their behavior on dissertation committees by saying that they are preparing their students for a career in academia. Sadly, they are right. Adherence to the prevailing ideology in academia is a ticket to a safe career. Graduate school is mentally damaging, because students are conditioned to reproduce the prevailing ideology in their own work. This ideological conditioning produces professionals willing to pick up an ideology and discard it at will and feel no hypocrisy.

The consequences of this system are most easily seen outside of academia. Professionals switch sides. The journalist yesterday works for a public relations company today. The good-government politician retires and becomes a lobbyist. In large companies, professionals are trusted to make ideological decisions that are good for the company. Laborers are never trusted to make these decisions, because they were never exposed to ideological conditioning. The laborer might make a decision that benefits only himself or society, and a for-profit company cannot abide by such dangers. And that is what I mean when I say that professionals are the company men of American society: they can be trusted to reproduce the prevailing ideology of their home institution.

Specialization is a Menace to Society

Everything in the United States provides an illusion of choice. There are dozens of fast food chains here, but they all basically serve the same food: fried garbage and sugary soft drinks. Big chains pick the cheapest products, dump them in the fryer, and then market them to appeal to our primal desire to gorge on sugars and fats. It’s a $200 billion industry in the USA. But this is all well-trodden territory. What of the jobs for the people that the US government at least pretends to care about?

Read any job listing and the first thing you notice is the laundry list of qualifications desired in the candidate. With high unemployment and very high underemployment, it’s an “employer’s market,” which is to say we are supposed to feel lucky if we get an interview. You may look at the job description and say “hey, I could do that job!” And you probably could. But you look below and find out that you have not worked with that specific database program for “2+ years,” and understand that it would be a waste of time to write that cover letter. I try to envision what sort of person could meet the requirements of the laundry list, and that person has the right education and has ascended the career ladder one step at a time. For his previous position he had needed 1+ years of experience with that database program, and for the past year he has been searching for a job that requires 2+ years of experience.

I doubt that the job listings of 50 years ago were so demanding of their applicants. Employers now have the ability to choose from a field of qualified applicants, all of whom would perform the job adequately. Their requests are more and more specific. In the ultimate oxymoron, entry level positions now require previous experience. And yet employers moan that they cannot find the right people. On-the-job-training no longer exists, and if it does it is vanishingly short.

The consequence is that once you are on a certain career path, you are trapped there. God help you if your sector becomes economically untenable. Those who worked in manufacturing became obsolete, the untouchables of the American economy. Big business requires ever-increasing specialization so that the titans of industry can dictate the terms of employment. If they say you need a master’s degree for a job a generation ago that required only a high school education, it becomes the law of the land. People invest in their own education, but only their employers receive the fruits of those investments.

The Self-Deported

My interest is the human relationship, personal or impersonal. Many choose to focus entirely on personal relationships in the search for meaning. Family, friendship, love, and reproduction become the cherished totems of those who clutch the personal. These same people turn away from impersonal human relationships that comprise what we call politics.  Those with a satisfying personal life shield themselves from the political, and only a presidential election may draw their attention. They tell themselves that politics is entertainment, that it has no effect on their lives. How could anyone living in the aftermath of the apocalyptic 20th century believe that? Politics shapes our lives. You may choose to ignore the political until you feel besieged, or fight against it and allow the political to define your life. Nelson Mandela, the slayer of apartheid, embraced the political and was defined by it.

In the United States, capitalist ideology rules and Republican Party politicians are the keepers of the faith. It’s subversive to believe that capitalism is an ideology, acknowledging such reveals an admission that other ideas exist. In the 2012 campaign for the presidency, the Republican Party finally publicly embraced the cornerstone of their ideology: self-deportation. The idea is to make life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they voluntarily leave the country. But the Republican Party has generalized this concept to the whole of American society. Their goals are to drive down wages, to make health care unaffordable, to reduce freedom in the workplace, to increase the surveillance state, to imprison as many as possible, and to maintain never-ending war – all in an effort to make life in the United States unbearable for everyone but a tiny elite.

In response to the broad challenges to freedom and Democracy in the United States, many have chosen to self-deport. The strengthening of subcultures (tech bros, hipsters, nerds, etc.) in American society suggests that huge groups are withdrawing intellectually and emotionally from the prevailing ideology. Unfortunately, this behavior is passive. Hipsters are widely mocked for their revealing passive-aggressive irony and impotence. We need the members of these subcultures to become citizens again to have a chance at change.

Other signs of crisis like Chelsea Manning’s release of evidence of wide-scale government criminality suggest cracks in our ideology. Many have pointed to Ms. Manning’s mental instability in an effort to discredit her. But we should credit her for the compromised mental state and profound sense of alienation that drove her to leak documents that put her life and liberty in danger. Dissidents in the Soviet Union were viewed with the same bewilderment and suspicion of mental defect. But it’s notable that the American ideology has calcified such that we now have dissidents as inscrutable and heretical as Solzhenitsyn.

“You do not become a ”dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.” – Vaclav Havel