Why Systems Become Murderous Exploitation Machines
Arguably the three most influential end-point models of political organization are best represented by Adam Smith (capitalism), Karl Marx (socialism/communism), and Mikhail Bakunin (anarchism).1 ,2 ,3 These three men and many other persons who contributed to critiquing, perfecting and adapting or combining these end-point models were unquestionably brilliant, acute, and incisive.
The problem is none of these models has ever been put into practice in a sustainable way. This is because none of these models or their adaptations and combinations can successfully be put into practice by engineering a system for people to inhabit.
For these ideal models to work they must arise from a self-organization in which every individual has both the capacity to recognize when a foundational element of the model is being corrupted by a particular practice and the capacity to intervene to prevent or correct the corruption. With the capacity to intervene comes capacity to recognize.
The American libertarians understood this and inspired a revolutionary constitution that guaranteed the individual the right to intervene (bear arms, free speech, etc.). This libertarianism also nurtured a deep and healthy cultural distrust of governments, institutions, banks, and corporations.
To be sustainable, the above-mentioned socio-politico-economic models and their combinations cannot be imposed and managed from the top but instead must be driven from the base; must be discovered and developed by the individual connected to his/her community, and must be controlled by the individual via personal agency. As soon as the individual has little or no influence to correct the system then there is runaway hierarchical command and control and all the nasty oppressions that this necessarily implies.
For example, all three men mentioned above knew (expressly believed) that capitalism would lead to capital monopoly and the associated predation of the top corporatists and financiers. Smith wanted to prevent this by government and international regulations – although he underestimated the now obvious reality that capital would always evolve to own government. Marx saw world economic monopoly (globalization) as an inevitable consequence of capitalism and he elevated globalization to the status of a natural law. Bakunin saw that Marx’s model could not be applied without leading to the same kind of irreversible hierarchical predation as with capitalism.
Instead of being based on the power of individuals to monitor and correct, applied “capitalism” and “socialism” have been organized from the top, put in place via elite-run social engineering, and have used theoretical concepts of capitalism and socialism to rationalize and justify unrestrained hierarchical control by a dominant elite which has graciously provided illusions of democratic participation via workers’ councils, unions owned by the bosses, and fixed elections of elite-selected candidates.4
Activism to Stop the Exploitation Machine
This brings us to the question of First-World activism. How can individuals best obtain enough power to correct the most destructive aberrations of the present runaway command and control hierarchy of exploitation and oppression?
Here, in my view, two of the most important critics and theorists of First-World activism are Herbert Marcuse (One Dimensional Man) and Ward Churchill (Pacifism as Pathology)5 , 6 their work on the psycho-sociology of First-World activism is as acute and incisive as the works of Smith-Marx-Bakunin on socio-politico-economic models. I must add the canonical work of Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) geared towards liberation of the most wrenched but, in my opinion, universal and applicable to First-World activism.7 ,8
Marcuse explains in detail the fundamental challenge of activism seated in the relative comfort and relative personal freedom of the modern middle class. Churchill focuses on the main psychological defence reaction of First-World activists challenged by their consciousness of the broad murderous underbelly of the system. Freire simply lays out the universal essence of liberation from a necessarily-oppressive hierarchy, like few others have.
The goal of activism within capitalist and socialist hierarchies is for the individuals (ordinary citizens and mid-level managers) to find ways to effectively challenge and correct the system, thereby flattening the hierarchical pyramid rather than allowing or enabling its otherwise incessant sharpening. The goal of the activist is to increase democratic participation (i.e., direct influence) in all areas of activity and to reverse or impede the otherwise increasing concentration of power.
Optimally, the activist practices direct influence at the point of his/her strongest connection to the economy; at work for the worker, at school for the student, on the street for the homeless person, etc. This is the point at which the system has the strongest grip on the individual, but it is also the point where the individual has the most power against the system’s authoritarian oppression. Expressed as the Freirian mantra – in activism, in the struggle for liberation, “one can only fight one’s own oppression.” Our oppression primarily results from the undemocratic hierarchy that controls our lives.9
As middle class citizens of an empire, if we create an increase in democracy and a reduction of authoritarianism, then those exploited by the empire in the under classes and abroad immediately benefit from a loosening of the system’s grip.
Of course one also supports the struggles across social classes and across national borders and one derives knowledge and inspiration from the struggles of others, but the murderous killing machine will only become more powerful and more ferocious if we do not practice anti-hierarchy activism at the point of our strongest contact with the hierarchy.2 , 3 , 6 , 7 , 10
Of course, this true activism against our own oppression and against hierarchical domination, like any true activism, is an activism that carries the highest potential risk for the individual. One cannot fight an oppressor without exposing oneself to backlash.11 And the best safety net against this consequence of the battle is organization and community.
And Now the Pathology
And this is where the pathology starts. Why lose a good thing? Why risk job loss? Why create tension at work? Why not just get the degree and climb the hierarchy from which one can act? Cannot more be achieved by cooperation? Isn’t confrontation what oppressors do? Won’t we just become oppressors? Etc.
There are a million elaborate and slogan-supported rationalizations to not be an activist and most involve re-definitions of activism in terms of actions that present no significant risk to one’s socio-economic status.
For example, several players pick up the above need in activism to “organize” and substitute the organizing itself for the activism. The latter organizing is not one rooted in necessity for safety and in self-defence but instead takes on the characteristics of a membership drive and an educational program to build shared opinions.
This avoidance often involves the mystical notion of the “critical mass” whereby if enough citizens acquire the same opinion, then this opinion is magically implemented by the system, by some unspecified mechanism never before observed in history. Critical mass is a concept of physics and involves a nuclear chain reaction, but it is only relevant if one has a critical mass of radioactive nuclei – determined individuals prepared to react and create an explosion. It doesn’t work for opinions acquired mainly by reading flyers and watching documentary films.
Following this mythology of critical mass of opinion, organizers note that the 1960s brought out 10s and 100s of thousands of protesters into the streets and falsely conclude that we therefore need only bring out large numbers of protesters to accomplish societal change. They fail to realize that the protesters of the 1960s were protesting as an external demonstration and extension of their real activism at work and in community and that their mass movements included riots that were a serious concern for power that was already overstretched in Vietnam.5 , 12
In the present context of relatively advanced corporate fascism and socially engineered compliance,13 ,14 power knows that even large numbers of peaceful demonstrators will obediently go back to work on Monday morning and will not spontaneously and physically unseat their elected “representatives” or bosses.
Pacifism is the main pathology identified by Churchill. Not the true combatant-pacifism of Gandhi who said that it was better to take up arms than to practice a false pacifism of cowardice,15 but the pacifism of dogmatic non-violence as a substitute for direct anti-hierarchical activism. This pacifism is often accompanied by pathological conflict avoidance and by escapism into religion or ecological sectarianism and by the privileged practice of isolated alternative community building as an escape from the hierarchy of the dominant system. All these reactions were explained by Marcuse.
Other diversions include the amplification of valid but secondary and privileged preoccupations to be oppressed fairly within one’s class. Here I tentatively include: gay marriage, pay equity for women, affirmative action, political correctness activism, co-optation unionism, health care protection activism, ethical investment activism, and so on.
I mean that these struggles are generally rigorously confined by their practitioners in such a way as to protect and reinforce the overarching (workplace) economic hierarchical domination which in turn continues to increase its violent oppression of the included groups and to increase its exploitation of the excluded groups.
Gay marriage activism is a move towards equal treatment for all but is practiced in such a way to increase the state’s hierarchical control of relationships by strengthening rather than reforming the intrusive institution of state marriage; and the married gay couples continue to be oppressed by work and their children by school.
Pay equity activism is equal treatment by the oppressor in the wage slavery enterprise but is generally practiced in such a way as to bring women into the fold without necessarily making the workplace more democratic.
Affirmative action corrects a wrong but maintains the oppressive workplace unless individual employees directly fight against both racism and undemocratic authoritarianism.
Political correctness is an offshoot of pathological conflict avoidance, a desire to isolate oneself from any risk of (verbal) conflict via mental environment oversight rather than a commitment to participatory cultural transformation.
Co-optation unionism, the dominant form of unionism in North America, is a cancerous affliction in which workplace democracy and individual responsibility (e.g., professional or trades person independence) are horse traded away for salaries and benefits, under the threat of global economic “restructuring.” It works hand in hand with power to drive the system towards increased central command and control, towards corporate fascism. It dehumanizes the worker. Instead, unionism could be practiced as an arm in the struggle to democratize the workplace but it almost never is.
Universal health care coverage activism is practiced in a way which further locks us into the insane Big Pharma and technological medicine trap that the medical establishment has driven us into and further moves us away from public health and towards an ignorant dependence on a corrupt profession; whereas it could be an occasion for citizen involvement and for a broad participatory and empowered debate. Instead, it does nothing to put individuals responsibly in charge of health priorities.16
Let me not even address the absurdity of “ethical investment activism,” an oxymoron if ever there were one. It’s up there with the insanity of the corporate plan to make ethanol from food as a substitute for oil which some green anti-CO2 sectarians have supported. (If you don’t want to produce CO2, kill yourself.)17
And so on. Equal treatment activism should be an occasion for anti-hierarchical activism not a substitute for it. That is not what one observes.
Let us not forget lifestyle and consumer choice false activisms, the less extreme versions of isolated alternative community life. I vote with my consumer choices? If we all just consumed responsibly and reduced our carbon footprints, the world could be saved? In fact, all societal efficiency gains are always made up for by increased global consumption. If cars can be made to consume less energy, then there will be more cars… This false activism is a classic guilt alleviation strategy that does nothing to confront the oppressive hierarchy. Instead, it protects the system by diverting individual attention towards inconsequential pursuits.
There are as many creative psychological devices to rationalize and internalize one’s subservience to the oppressor as there are individuals that support the killing machine. Since the killing machine most brutally targets brown people, Churchill proposes that this pathology of pacifism (which enables the killing machine) is a supreme racism, no matter how politically correct one’s language and consumer choices are.
Resilience of the Pathology
The first problem is one of perception.
The single largest barrier to human perception in a hierarchy is the individual’s desire to maintain his/her status within the hierarchy, as measured by economic and class status.
This barrier to perception is so strong that it may as well be physiological. In most circumstances it is just as difficult for a slave to perceive that he/she is a slave as it would be for the slave to see in the ultraviolet segment of the light spectrum. “I need the master because he protects us and organizes the work…” Indeed, the largest practical challenge in Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed is to create circumstances and occasions in the hope that self-awareness of the subject’s oppression will be catalyzed and nurtured.
Similarly, it is virtually impossible for members of the First-World middle class to perceive the depth of their own oppression and exploitation. They reason that they are relatively privileged and therefore cannot be oppressed, and they adopt the oppressions of others; or they blame themselves for all “failures” and difficulties and practice self-destruction; or they displace their need for meaningful work and societal agency with any number of transfers and escapes; etc.
The second problem is one of perception.
Most of all, it is impossible for institutionalized individuals in the First-World middle class to perceive solutions that involve risk, the possibility of losing economic and social status. We have no experience of defending ourselves against our oppression. We only have the experience of an institutionalized existence of compliance where our lives are laid out in stages: school, graduations, diplomas, career development, student debt management, mortgage payments, retirement savings…
In addition to this, individuals subjected to a hierarchy of domination are trained to seek approval and to fit in. They lose the natural tendency to seek truth and instead accept and feed upon the “tapestry of lies” (both right and left) provided and maintained by power and its army of service intellectuals.4 , 18 Information that is contrary to the approved mental environment is considered threatening and is either vehemently rejected or ridiculed. A good example of this response is the vicious cynicism of so-called-progressive left citizens and “activists” that is reserved for “conspiracy nuts” such as the proponents (truthers) of the 911-truth movement.
Information that would cause the First World middle class activist to question his/her no-risk-to-status response to perceived (and transferred/displaced) injustices or to question the value of his/her longstanding investment in the particular adopted no-risk-to-status response to the perceived injustices is denied entry and attacked.19 It cannot be perceived as something that is potentially true. The truthers themselves, for example, can delve into off-the-charts considerations only because this information is not threatening to them: They have adopted the belief that simply uncovering the truth and exposing it and explaining it can produce the needed change, if only a critical mass of informed citizens can be achieved via cyber space and public event or media activism.
All in all, truth is not compatible with approval and individuals subjected to a hierarchy of domination have little regard for truth. The substitute of choice is “like-mindedness”. This is why so-called-progressives hold “education” in such high regard. They intuitively understand that flyering and documentary films (etc.) are effective ways to sway institutionalized citizens into a given variety of like-mindedness.
There is almost no realization among First World activists of Freire’s praxis of liberation via fighting one’s own oppression as the only way to uncover the truth about one’s life.
Conclusion and the Vitality of the Right
We should despise both the authoritarian Right which leads to corporate fascism and the paternalistic Left of socialism and communism which leads to communal castration and death of the individual. Both Rght authoritarianism and Left paternalism depend on and produce control hierarchies. All hierarchies are violently oppressive by nature.7
First World citizens cannot significantly contribute to the needed anti-hierarchy activism and will only accommodate power and protect the killing machine as long as they are unable to authentically perceive their own oppression by the same hierarchy that is violently oppressing us all because the obedience training of school, the indoctrination of graduate and professional schools, and the complete control of the worker by the finance-corporate economy are unmistakably violent processes that deprive us of our humanity.
In this regard, the Right is more effective than the Left. Left progressives mistakenly see their privilege as proof that they are not oppressed. In fact, their “privilege” is only the reward for accepting to be violated in making them into gatekeepers and supporters of the hierarchy. Intuitively they know that effective activism could compromise their “privilege.”
The Right activists, on the other hand, root their politics in individual rights and see themselves as threatened by structures and changes that would remove their individual rights. In this way, they are closer to the true impulse of the anti-hierarchy activist and therefore represent a formidable instrument of power when they are manipulated.
Leaving aside the religious fanatics on the Right that would impose their beliefs on us all and the political correctness fanatics on the Left that would impose their beliefs on us all, American libertarianism has deep roots and is a powerful potential ally of anarchy-inspired anti-hierarchy (pro-democracy!) activism.
To my reading, American libertarianism is not an insignificant fringe movement and probably has not been co-opted to the same degree as fringe left anarchism. Dedicated anti-hierarchy activists, the only hope for significant First World contributions to liberation, would do well to ally themselves with libertarians and to participate in the societal discourse about the place of libertarianism in society.
Damn yes, own guns, no required schooling, no bank bail outs, no head office corporate decisions, voluntary taxation, accountable politicians, no insurance company controls, accessible cost-recovery-interest community-bank loans to individuals, coops and small businesses, no party-selected candidates, no wars abroad, no surveillance or personal information gathering, complete transparency in public and corporate affairs, no prohibition of any substances, no personal lifestyle and work choice criminalization, voluntary personal safety decisions, no restrictions on growing your own food, decriminalized assisted (or not) suicides, no legal or government bankruptcy protections for creditors (people first), health freedom, no barriers to work, no corporate or government controlled media, only community-controlled corporations…
A consistent application of libertarian principles anchored in individual freedom could go a long way to dismantling oppressive structures.
- “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith, 1776. [↩]
- The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1848. [↩] [↩]
- The Basic Bakunin – Writings 1869-1871 by Mikhail Bakunin. [↩] [↩]
- For a discussion of the illusions provided and maintained by power see the essay “Some big lies of science” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2010. [↩] [↩]
- One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, 1964. [↩] [↩]
- Pacifism as Pathology by Ward Churchill, 1986. [↩] [↩]
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, 1970. [↩] [↩] [↩]
- “Need for and Practice of Student Liberation” (essay) by Denis G. Rancourt, 2010. [↩]
- For an explanation applicable to the professional work environment see “Disciplined Minds” by Jeff Schmidt, 2000. [↩]
- A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, 1980. [↩]
- “Activism and Risk – Life beyond altruism” (essay) by Denis G. Rancourt, 2007. [↩]
- For example, see Understanding Power – The indispensable Chomsky by Noam Chomsky, 2002. [↩]
- “Canadian Education as an Impetus towards Fascism” (essay) by Denis G. Rancourt, 2009. [↩]
- “G20-Toronto and lost sovereignty — A critical examination of the role of the CCLA” (essay) by Denis G. Rancourt, 2010. [↩]
- “Resolving the Israel-Palestine Conflict: What we can learn from Gandhi” by Norman G. Finkelstein, 2009. [↩]
- See note-4, “Some Big Lies of Science”, for a discussion of the “medicine is health” lie. [↩]
- “Taking CO2 Seriously” (essay) by David F. Noble and Denis G. Rancourt, 2007. [↩]
- “Against Chomsky” (essay) by Denis G. Rancourt, 2008. [↩]
- “The Activist Wars” (essay) by Denis G. Rancourt, 2009. [↩]