“Our complex global economy is built upon millions of small, private acts of psychological surrender, the willingness of people to acquiesce in playing their assigned parts as cogs in the great social machine that encompasses all other machines. They must shape themselves to the prefabricated identities that make efficient coordination possible . . . that capacity for self-enslavement must be broken.”
The Voice Of The Earth)
Few tasks are more challenging than that of attending to our subtle, internal responses to the world against the deafening roar of what is deemed “obviously true.” Writing in the 1930s, the anarchist Rudolf Rocker made the point that the state is not a disinterested spectator on the issue of freedom of thought. In his classic work, Culture And Nationalism, Rocker wrote:
The state welcomes only those forms of cultural activity which help it to maintain its power. It persecutes with implacable hatred any activity which oversteps the limits set by it and calls its existence into question. It is, therefore, as senseless as it is mendacious to speak of a “state culture”; for it is precisely the state which lives in constant warfare with all higher forms of intellectual culture and always tries to avoid the creative will of culture. (Rocker, Culture and Nationalism, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.85)
The stakes, Rocker noted, are high:
If the state does not succeed in guiding the cultural forces within its sphere of power into courses favorable to its ends, and thus inhibit the growth of higher forms, these very higher forms will sooner or later destroy the political frame which they rightly regard as a hindrance. (Rocker, p.83)
If this strikes us as implausible (as it should), it is for a very good reason. It seems incredible to us that individuals working for the state -- in government, education, local government -- could be eagerly working to “reduce all human activity to a single pattern.” Are they not human beings like us? Do they not seek freedom of thought, independence of mind, for their own children?
It is a very reasonable argument and applies equally to the media. Dissident analysts claim, and in fact demonstrate, that truth is filtered, depleted to a dramatic degree by the corporate media. But surely the men and women of the press -- again, human beings like us -- are not eagerly striving to oppress humanity.
The answer is found in the way the performance of an organization is shaped by its primary, bottom line goals. As I have discussed elsewhere, the process is similar to the mechanisms underlying crystal formation. The near-perfect, symmetrical shapes of snowflakes and other crystalline structures are no accident but flow from the founding conditions around which the crystals form.
If we pour a stream of marbles into a square framework, they will inevitably form a pyramid. In accounting for the perfect conformity on every side of the structure no one need propose eager participation on the part of the marbles. In organizations for which profit-seeking, say, is the bottom line -- the equivalent of the wooden framework -- facts, ideas, values, policies and individuals are naturally selected that fit the structure, that act in structure-supportive ways, and that do not challenge the founding framework.
In the absence of the overt, big Brother-style control of past history, we imagine we are at last free. Erich Fromm thought otherwise:
Anonymous authority is more effective than overt authority, since one never suspects that there is any order which one is expected to follow. In external authority it is clear that there is an order and who gives it; one can fight against the authority, and in this fight personal independence and moral courage can develop... It is like being fired at by an invisible enemy. There is nobody and nothing to fight back against. (Erich Fromm, The Fear Of Freedom)
In our society, education policy, schools, curricula, professional training, cultural presumptions, media output, our deepest notions of what is true and important in life, are all filtered by the founding frameworks of profit and power.
Where does the capacity to think for ourselves, to take ourselves seriously, fit into this framework? Rocker explains:
Education is character development, harmonious completion of human personality. But what the state accomplishes in this field is dull drill, extinction of natural feeling, narrowing of the spiritual field of vision, destruction of all the deeper elements of character in man. The state can train subjects... but it can never develop free men who take their affairs into their own hands; for independent thought is the greatest danger that it has to fear. (Rocker, p.190)
And what a price we pay for the averting of this human threat! As children, it means we must be persuaded to defer to external judgments -- to feel sure they must be superior to our own; for then we will learn to disregard our internal disagreements. We must be made to mouth prayers that mean nothing, to wave meaningless flags at meaningless ceremonies; to bow low to people born into a particular family - for then we will learn to accept confusion as our lot, to accept unreason with a shrug.
How many of us recognize the appalling oppression implicit in the simple fact that schools are named according to this or that religious tradition? What does this tell us about our commitment to protecting, rather than defeating, the precious independence of mind that exists in the new minds that we welcome into our society?
I am always startled by the gleaming intelligence, sincerity and openness of young children. As Freud commented, they are intellectually far superior to us adults. It is vital that young human beings quickly learn to understand, realistically, the nature of the world around them with all its demands and dangers. Children seem superbly evolved to discover the truth, to think for themselves, to work things out. No wonder societies have to work so hard to mould these dangerous minds into workable conformists.
School -- Sculpting The Pyramid
In his book, Dumbing Us Down, teacher John Taylor Gatto described the seven real lessons taught by modern schooling.
The first lesson is confusion -- the child is presented with a multitude of unrelated facts; meaning is not sought and so presumed not to exist. We know that there was a war in Vietnam, but we don’t really know why. We know people are starving, but we don’t know why. Failure to understand deeply is presented as an irrelevance -- the key is to memorize facts and reproduce them on demand. This obsessive focus on retention of information is a monstrous trivialization and betrayal of the human need to understand.
The second lesson is class position -- the child is told his or her place in the hierarchy. We are taught to envy the ‘brighter’ and revile the “slower”. Offered a choice between “success” on the terms of authority, or “failure”, we naturally choose ‘success’. The A-level students shown leaping in delight at their results on the news every year are celebrating their submission to conformity. They have been judged a “success” by authority and have accepted that judgment as real. By inevitable implication, they have accepted that authority as legitimate. They are now surrounded by an electric fence of conformity -- to later “fail” by society’s standards will be exquisitely painful.
After joining a new primary school as a child, I came 14th out of 18 in my end of year exams. Some of my best friends came second and third. I felt keenly that I was an imposter, that I didn’t belong in their company -- they were “up there,” exalted; I was a failure. The shame was intense.
Later in my academic experience, I was labeled “lazy”, then “average”, then “above average,” then “not academic”, and then “bright”. My “brightness” appeared to be on a dimmer switch dependent on where I was and what I was studying. I cringe when I hear a child labeled ‘bright‘ or “dim”. It seems to me that a lot of ’dim’ children are too ‘bright’, or at least too true to themselves, to tolerate the trivia imposed on them as “education”. To be indifferent to what is of minimal human significance is not a sign of stupidity.
The point is that a child who accepts the label “not very bright” will, in his or her own mind, deem risible the notion that he or she might seek to understand the world, much less to challenge the assumptions accepted by the society by which he or she has been labeled. For a “failure” who has been successfully undermined in this way, to reject the labeling system itself will seem like the most obvious and wretched sour grapes. How can this one individual be right against a whole world of opinion? And from where can we gain the confidence that has been stripped away from us by the very system we are presuming to challenge?
On the other hand, the “bright” child will feel a sense of affirmation and belonging that will make him or her disinclined to challenge the fundamental legitimacy and wisdom of the source of his or her own self-esteem. These are the “winners” who populate our public schools, Oxbridge universities and corporate media offices.
The third lesson, Gatto tells us, is indifference -- the child is taught to care, but not too much. When the bell rings, enthusiasm makes way for timetables -- learning and passion are subordinated to strict routine. This makes understanding the world a kind of hobby or game -- it is important and interesting but it shouldn’t get in the way of “real life.”
In the second term of my third year at university, a lot of my fellow students quickly turned their attention away from their studies towards organizing career jobs for the following autumn. Where once the concern had been Rousseau’s description of the social chasm separating human beings from their real needs, now it was selling chocolate for Cadburys and biscuits for McVitees. The irony and absurdity, the casual betrayal of what was supposed to be important, were painful for me to witness.
I was not a fanatical bookworm, but I felt deeply that the issues I was studying -- the nature of human happiness and the implications for political theory -- really did matter. And yet it was clear that these subjects were not deemed of any great merit in themselves, but were merely a means to an end, a resource to be crammed for exam passes into high-paid conformity. It seemed that this game was somehow psychologically and ethically walled off from reality. So, for example, we read J.S. Mill’s words:
Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress. (J.S. Mill, On Individuality)
This was quoted in exams, but was not deemed remotely relevant in considering the value of the exams themselves, or of the corporate work so eagerly being sought.
This was one of my first experiences of a phenomenon I have encountered very often in my work with Media Lens. Erich Fromm explained:
Modern man exhibits an amazing lack of realism for all that matters. For the meaning of life and death, for happiness and suffering, for feeling and serious thought. He has covered up the whole reality of human existence and replaced it with his artificial, prettified picture of pseudo-reality, not too different from the savages [sic] who lost their land and freedom for glittering glass beads. (Erich Fromm, The Sane Society)
This, actually, is where the Media Lens project might be said to have started for me. Even before I read the likes of Fromm, Chomsky and Rocker, I was already astonished, and fascinated, that so much that so clearly matters could be suppressed in so many people.
Eight years later, I read this description of Glaxo chairman, Paul Girolami, by David Jack, Ex-Head of Research at the same company:
“I can tell you quite frankly he doesn't have any great regard for scientists, or for science as a way of living. His whole purpose is to make money. I don't think there is much folly in his mind about doing good.” (Quoted, Matthew Lynn, “Prudence and the pill pusher,” Independent on Sunday, November 3, 1991)
This, again, contained a sense that all of life -- compassion, suffering, moral responsibility, life and death -- was a kind of game to be subordinated to some higher reality. But what was that “higher reality” exactly? Career success? Wealth? Corporate greed?
When I started trying to make sense of the world, I noticed that both I, and the people around me, found it strange that anyone would seriously make the attempt: “If there were answers to be found,” I was repeatedly told, “they would have been discovered years ago and we would all know about them.” What I didn’t realize then was that many answers had been found but that they conflicted with the interests and goals of people who control what we come to know about the world. One of the most important and liberating realizations I gained was the awareness that even our most painful certainties rooted in a sense of meaningless, alienation and despair, were actually favored by a system that profits from the absence of sanity and hope.
Taylor Gatto’s fourth lesson is emotional dependency -- stars, ticks, frowns, prizes and honors manipulate children into judging themselves as they are judged by authority. When I began writing political and philosophical articles, a constant question running through my mind was: “Who on earth do I think I am to be writing this stuff?” My own question was reflected in the nonplussed, embarrassed looks of friends and family. (Mouth agape, I once made the mistake of telling my dentist what I was doing: “I’m writing a book about thought control in modern society.”) Who was I -- mere me -- to be doing that? The answer is I am no more nor less qualified than anyone else in asking questions and seeking answers to these questions.
Society had persuaded me that there was something deluded, absurd about creatures called “ordinary people” presuming to comment on the world. We are here to be judged -- selected or rejected, rewarded or punished -- by the institutions of society, are we not? Who are we to judge the judges?
In the social sciences, at least, it turns out that “expertise” is very often a label bestowed by people with power. Similarly, to be a “professional journalist” -- someone declared a competent commentator on current affairs -- is merely the result of some corporate editor awarding a contract. But the title “journalist” -- a media version of the famous white coat worn by doctors -- is used to suggest profound specialist knowledge where, often, very little exists.
In an article on Media Lens earlier this year, Peter Beaumont of The Observer asked:
“[W]hat is the aim of these self-appointed media watchdogs?” (Beaumont, “Microscope on Medialens,” The Observer, June 18, 2006)
This was interesting because Beaumont had thereby unwittingly revealed that he considers us lacking in credibility because we are not appointed by authority. But one might ask where exactly the authority resides that is qualified to confer respectability on individuals evaluating media honesty? Are we, as individuals, not able to judge the rationality of the evidence, of the arguments, for ourselves without appealing to external authority? Compare the gulf separating Beaumont’s worldview from that described by Rocker:
“Only when man shall have overcome the belief in his dependence on a higher power will the chains fall away that up to now have bowed the people beneath the yoke of spiritual and social slavery. Guardianship and authority are the death of all intellectual effort, and for just that reason the greatest hindrance to any close social union, which can arise only from free discussion of matters and can prosper only in a community not hindered in its original course by external compulsion, belief in a supernatural dogma or economic oppression.” (Rocker, p.143)
The fifth lesson is intellectual dependency -- good people wait for teacher to tell them what to do. Successful children are those who accept and reproduce what they are told with a minimum of resistance. A stubbornly questioning child will be met with exasperation and told that, in the end, the course is about preparing to take and pass exams, not about endless debate. Later, at work, the employee will be met with the same sighs and told that the project is about making money, not about discussing the rights and wrongs of business.
In an interview, Harold Pinter told me about two American journalists who insisted to their editor that it was the moral responsibility of their TV station to cover a story on GM food. The editor’s response?:
“‘Listen, what is news is what we say it is! That’s it! And for us that’s not news, right!’”
“And then they were fired.”
The deeper lesson is that intellectual and ethical freedoms are allowed, but only within certain parameters -- the parameters themselves are not up for discussion. We are trained, in other words, to accept our lot as intellectual and ethical jailbirds. To seek to be anything more is to be dismissed as “a troublemaker.” To challenge the whole version of “success” and “failure” is not even to be a failure -- it is to be, by the standards of the accepted framework, mad.
The sixth lesson is provisional self-esteem. Self-respect is taught to be dependent on “expert” opinion.
Finally, the seventh lesson is that we cannot hide: we are always being watched. There is no private space or time in which non-conformity can flourish. This is a useful preparation for work where our every move is often monitored to see that we are not wasting company time.
Conclusion -- Three Small Points
The real point of Rocker’s analysis was to suggest that only when we break free from the chains of anonymous external authority -- from the sense that we need to defer to and seek approval from, such authority -- can we learn to take seriously and develop our own powers of reason, our own critical thinking and compassion for others:
“Only in freedom does there arise in man the consciousness of responsibility for his acts and regard for the rights of others; only in freedom can there unfold in its full strength that most precious social instinct: man's sympathy for the joys and sorrows of his fellow men and the resultant impulse toward mutual aid in which are rooted all social ethics, all ideas of social justice.” (Rocker, p.148)
A few hundred years earlier, the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna said much the same thing:
“Not doing harm to others,
Not bowing down to the ignoble,
Not abandoning the path of virtue --
These are small points, but of great
Importance.” (Nagarjuna and Sakya Pandit, Elegant Sayings, Dharma
Publishing, 1977, p.12)
In the modern age, with the greed-driven state-corporate system all but unavoidable, these three points present the supreme challenge to all who would live as fully human beings.
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