The Inner Ring and the Moral Question of Our Time

Half a century ago, one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century C. S. Lewis delivered a memorial lecture at King’s College, University of London. He opened his lecture titled The Inner Ring with excerpts from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which he claimed offered advice and warnings about things he regarded as so “perennial that no one calls them ‘current affairs”.

In the Tolstoy story that Lewis cited, a young second lieutenant discovered the existence of two different hierarchies in the army. One is structured according to explicitly stated rules that everyone knows; A general is superior to a colonel and a colonel to a captain etc. The other is a system that is not printed anywhere. Lewis said that this unwritten system exists almost everywhere and he termed it the phenomenon of “the Inner Ring”:

You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps … you are inside it. There are what correspond to passwords, but they too are spontaneous and informal.

Lewis described how the Inner Ring is exclusive and secretive in nature and penetration of one ring often opens a door for opportunities of fame, money and status and the feeling of being part of something special. In many ways, governments have increasingly become beholden to the principles of the Inner Ring. WikiLeaks revelations of government secrecy revealed a vast gap between the actions of governments and public perception. Any government whose primary function is to serve a special group has itself become an Inner Ring where ‘ordinary’ people are excluded from knowing or benefiting from its activity.

Lewis clarified that the existence of the Inner Ring itself is not necessarily evil and in some ways is inevitable, as at times there must be confidential discussions. Although friendship can grow within this given framework, he asserted how the desire that draws one toward the Inner Ring is a different matter. He asked: “What of our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in?” He saw in the desire to be inside the ring something that can become a predominant force that runs throughout one’s life and in it also lie the seeds for corruption. This desire is inherent in the impulse to be a part of something special, a kind of belonging, which, in the presence of the inner ring is often experienced as the fear of being left outside. This yearning for acceptance is stimulated and channeled through PR and advertisement industries to manufacture a sense of belonging in the stifling confines of conformity. The acquisition of brand goods from Nike shoes to iPhones signifies one’s membership in a circle of consumer culture.

Lewis warned the University students that often, unless one makes a conscious effort, this desire can dictate one’s life. He called those who do nothing about it and are carried away with it an ‘inner ringer.’ Many a society is woven by layers of the Inner Ring. The Founders of the American experiment understood these potential abuses of power within governing bodies. Working out of an ideal, they installed a system of transparency and balance that was meant to keep government open and relatively free from forming such an Inner Ring. It was based on the idea of the ‘consent of the governed’ and ‘equality under the law’. For a government to truly serve for its own people, it is necessary that citizens are informed and participate in its activities. The Press as a profession was exclusively recognized with a role under the First Amendment to check and balance the inherent tendency for abuse of power; of man’s fallen nature of desire for the Inner Ring.

Former constitutional law and civil rights attorney Glenn Greenwald (2011) explained how with the formation and evolution of the US power structures, the concentration of wealth and inequality always existed, but there lived an idea that all need to be commonly bound by a set of rules regardless of privilege, power and position. There was a common understanding among people that the law was one area where money, status and position should not confer special insulation from its application. He described how the founding fathers themselves, with slavery and disfranchisement of women violated the idea of equality under the law, yet it was always an aspirational principle at work. Greenwald showed how this has now changed and the desire of those in the inner circle for unchecked power seems to have broken loose. America’s elites seemed to have openly rejected these ideals and caused it to lose its original aspirations. The principle of equality before the law has been effectively eliminated and what has emerged is a two-tiered system of justice that protects the rich and powerful while the poor, disadvantaged and those that question the system are disproportionately punished.

The corruption that is currently taking root has evolved since at least the beginning of the industrial era, though previously in a more nascent state. Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the founder of modern corporate advertising (1928), put forth the idea that: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” (p. 37). To Bernays, democracy required centralized control of the masses and to use Lewis’s analogy, they must be managed through an Inner Ring.

Bernay’s vision has found manifestation in its full force in modern American governance. Thomas B. Ross and David Wise (1946) in The Invisible Government revealed the existence of two forms of governance, one visible and the other invisible. The former is the version that citizens read about in newspapers and is taught at school, and the latter, the interlocking hidden machinery that exercises secret operations around the globe.

It is this hidden network of governance that the editor of whistleblowing site WikiLeaks, Julian Assange saw a kind of collaborative secrecy and defined it as conspiracy. In an early essay, Conspiracy as Governance, he wrote: “When we look at an authoritarian conspiracy as a whole, we see a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment”.

It all starts with a tiny seed in each person, a desire to be inside an elusive center. Like a beast fed by a desire for power or driven by the fear of being rejected, unchecked desire seems to have grown exponentially within the artificial entity called the corporation. The corporate structure, with its exclusive hierarchical nature was a perfect match to meet this internal desire. Vertical forms of communication and top down decision-making has created a new form of ruling elite; the top management class. The distance between the inner ring and all others is reflected not only in massive gap in income, but also in the narrow self-interests that are divorced from that of everyday working people.

The rise of corporate power has morphed into a state of interlocking networks of transnational corporations. Author Chris Hedges (2009) described this influence of the unchecked corporate power in our everyday lives: “The American we celebrate is an illusion …. The words consent of the governed have become an empty phrase. Our textbooks on political science and economics are obsolete. Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow selfish, political, and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests.” (p. 142). Those who join the inner ring of governance become invisible to the public eye and its power is sustained through secrecy. Secrecy does not simply mean the concealment of certain information and the actions of inner ringers, but also involves a breakdown of human communication and the co-opting of meaning through intentional manipulation of language.

Essayist John Ralston Saul (1995) described how the corporate state maintains its structure through control of language. He said there are two kind of languages; one is public – which he defines as “enormous, rich, varied and more or less powerful” and the other is corporatist, “attached to power and action”. He explained how corporatist language could be broken down into three types, “rhetoric, propaganda and dialect” (p. 47). From scientific dialects to linguistic dialects, Inner Rings of experts have developed the language of specialists as an exclusive code that is generally impenetrable from outside and is used as a method of control.

Government and corporate secrecy and corruption is now passing a tipping point as the US Government over-classifies information under the pretext of national security, including information that undeniably belongs in the public domain. Former US military analyst and America’s most famous whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg described how there is valid secrecy, but most secrets are kept to protect the government from embarrassment and responsibility for their own criminal actions. Commenting on the recent sentencing of John Kiriakou, an ex-CIA agent for revealing the torture program at Guantanamo, activist Sibel Edmonds blasted the excessive government classification and the way it is used as a tool to silence whistleblowers. She said “Currently the executive branch is the sole determinant of what is classified” and then pointed out how this is being used to criminalize all whistleblowers.

Official records are kept secret and real actions and motives of those in power are systematically hidden. The new documentary Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield that premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival exposed the extent of America’s ever-expanding and never-ending ‘war on terror’. In the film directed by Rick Rowley, journalist Jeremy Scahill chases down hidden crimes in the virtually invisible wars from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen, Somalia and beyond that are being fought in resource-rich areas of the world. The film exposes secret programs of assassination and intimidation and covert wars in the shadows that are covered up by president Obama’s rhetoric and his pledge to bring an end to US wars and abuses.

Pundits and journalists with friendly smiles and fluffy sound bites exercise the language of control to shield the real motives of those in power and manage public perception for the Inner Ring. Mainstream media, monopolized and cowed by the commercial interests, have become embedded with military and transnational corporations. In the last decades, we have seen the decay of the traditional 4th estate where the Press, in its vital role as watchdog of government has been relegated to a mere guardian of the elites who advance their agendas behind the closed doors. Today, the Inner Ring seems to have moved to an extreme phase, as the US government threatens press freedom by hunting down all those who call attention to their crimes.

To the extent we are kept ignorant, complicit or subservient, we are all bound by this invisible web of hidden governance. Some are closer to the inner ring while others are in the outer layers. Our ignorance and passivity concerning the internal working of invisible governance renders us complicit with this structure of power. Lewis left us a message: “As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed, there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”

Now more than ever, Lewis’s advice appears poignant and it should be taken to heart. At the end of his lecture, he pointed to a different path saying “The quest for the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow….” Lewis spoke of how following what is uniquely in ones heart, rather than succumbing to the surface inner thirst for mere conformity and belonging shaped from outside will lead to something that at first glance may seem a bit like an Inner Ring:

“If in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the center of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product…”

This Lewis called friendship, one of the prominent virtues held in high regard by Aristotle. More and more as the corporate State reveals its hollowness and corruption, the world is seeing a new tide of dissenters against these systems of corrupt power.

Here we find the courageous whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing of those who are inside the Rings of power. They are those who restore broken trust among people. They are cultural creatives behind grassroots movements of cooperation, associative economics and sharing that are melting the invisible iron fist of the Inner Ring. We saw how in the aftermath of the massive storm that hit the East Coast, Occupy Sandy and similar horizontal networks and affinity groups came together in the spirit of mutual aid. Dedicated to crowd-sourced justice, Anonymous shakes up the walls of the Inner Ring. This leaderless collective enflamed with shared ideals fight to check entrenched abuse of power. They recently launched #OpLastResort to threaten the exposure of government secrets in retaliation for the deadly overreach in the prosecution of late internet activist Aaron Swartz.

It is human relationship based on a legion of friendship, not of privilege and power where one can find what is true inside – that which binds us together in the higher union of our humanity. Perhaps in our desire to connect as equals lies the seed for a new form of governance — one that is truly open to everyone and harbors no secrets. Inner Ring of secrecy or an open society of the commons? Literary genius C.S. Lewis offers us a choice for the moral question of our time.

Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is an essayist and author of WikiLeaks, the Global Fourth Estate: History Is Happening (Libertarian Books, 2018). Find her on twitter @nozomimagine. Read other articles by Nozomi.