First iteration Jan 29, 2015 • Revisited on 09.17.18
Reformists and radicals both want to make the world a better place. But we have entirely different visions of what needs to be fixed, and how, and the difference is not just quantitative.
Reformists believe that our traditional notions of ethical behavior, success, and the so-called “American dream” — the fundamental principles of our society — are all sound. The problems all around us merely mean that our society has strayed from those principles. That’s why reformists believe the corruption can be cleaned up gradually through mere reforms, without any fundamental change in goals and vision. They believe the world is as it appears to be, and all the cards are already on the table, and so they believe Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) is the beginning and end of any efforts to make the world a better place. We just need to elect better leaders.
(NOTE: A PREVIOUS VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE RAN ON 29 Dec. 2014, in annotated version.)
Conspiracy theorists are slightly more imaginative. Their “American dream” is similar to that of the reformists, but they have begun to realize that not all the cards are on the table. As they see it, the visible rulers of the world — the presidents, prime ministers, parliaments, and so on — are merely puppets of some secret cabal — the Rothschilds, the Federal Reserve, the Deep State, the Illuminati. Conspiracy theorists believe this cabal is the source of all our problems. Moreover, they believe the cabal is unified — which would be comforting, if it were true, because at least that would mean there was someone in control, and some method in the madness. If we could just expose and lock up the evil rulers, then we’d quickly replace them with good rulers, and the world would right itself.
Radicals like myself believe the delusion is much larger, and of a different nature, and that’s what this essay is about. We radicals are not so concerned about difficulties in attaining “the American dream,” because that’s the wrong dream anyway. As we see it, most people have never really thought very deeply about our society’s fundamental principles. It turns out that those principles have consequences entirely different from what people have been told, and the problem is that our society has not strayed enough from those principles.
The problem is too deep, too fundamental, to be addressed gradually; mere reforms will not suffice. Going through a pregnancy takes nine months, but either you’re pregnant or you’re not — it means many changes to the system, and there is no halfway about it. The old world is dying; we need to give birth to a new and very different world.
Our politicians and other public speakers may be part of the problem, but only part of it. They may be lying quite consciously about surface matters, but they too are fooled by the deeper lies, the fundamental myths underlying our society, and so their perpetuation of that worldview is inadvertent. The source of our problems is our entire political and economic system, our entire culture, our entire way of living and of seeing the world, which has been developing for a long time.
Though our worldviews vary a bit from person to person, the problematic culture is in all of us, not just in our rulers. Indeed, if we were to lock up the plutocrats without changing the culture, then that culture would quickly generate a new batch of plutocrats. In fact, locking up “the people in control” doesn’t even make sense, because – as I will presently explain – there really isn’t anyone in control.
On the other hand, if we change our culture, and bring society to see what is really going on, then together we will change everything — we will unseat the rulers, but we will also change our entire way of life.
Everything you know is wrong; things are not as they seem. The truth is hidden all around us, in plain sight. To see it, we only have to adjust our vision.
Most people are asleep. The film The Matrix is a great metaphor for our era, but only a metaphor. In the film, when the hacker Thomas Anderson takes the red pill, he awakens to an entirely different physical reality. But when we awaken from our own society’s great delusion, physical things around us are not changed. What changes are our history, our expectations, and the meanings of things all around us.
And where Anderson’s revelation is a single abrupt transition, our own revelation is a gradual education on many issues. And some people who have learned about part of one issue believe they now know it all, but they’ve barely begun the journey down the rabbit hole. I’ll now describe four major revelations, concerning government, economics, the ecosystem, and human nature.
1st revelation: GOVERNMENT (starts at 5:45 in the video)
They’ve been lying. About everything. And they’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s easier to spot the older crimes; for instance, by now everyone knows the USA was founded on slavery and genocide, formerly known as “spreading civilization.”
The government lies about little things. For instance, they’ve lied about the effects of marijuana. But that little lie has put thousands of people in prison. In fact, we in the so-called “land of the free” have a higher percentage of our own people in prison than any other nation in the world.
The government also lies about bigger things, like wars. They’ve lied about why they nuked Japan, why they overthrew Iran and other democracies, why they bombed Vietnam and Iraq back to the stone age, why they imprisoned Palestine and gradually erased it, and so on.
Our world is currently divided into nations. National borders are lines drawn on maps by politicians, so that they can tell their people that other people are different. But really, the people on the other side of the border are just our cousins. If anyone is different, it’s the politicians.
Reforms might achieve some short-lived and small relief, but that relief becomes shorter-lived and smaller as the ruling class becomes better organized. Move To Amend ‘s new amendment to repair the 14th amendment will get twisted out of shape as easily as the 14th did, and the US government has been ignoring laws altogether in its pursuit of what it calls “national security.” Laws are only as good (and wise) as the society backing them up.
One of the fundamental principles of our current society is hierarchical organization of power. But sociologists have demonstrated that the powerful become corrupted and abusive, regardless of how they get power over others — as politician, tycoon, workplace manager, police officer, prison guard, or occupying soldier. Indeed, it’s growing harder to distinguish those professions.
What can we do about power? We’ve often been told to try to get better rulers, but that doesn’t seem to work. The solution is to learn to live with no rulers at all. That is the real meaning of the word “anarchy,” if you consider its roots: “an” + “archy” means “no” + “rulers.” The authoritarian establishment will tell you the word means disorder and destruction, but really it doesn’t. Most of us who call ourselves “anarchists” want a very orderly society; we just want it without hierarchy. We want voluntary, horizontalist, peer-to-peer networking. That will require enormous cultural change, but not a change in human nature; sociologists have found that people cooperate when they have the opportunity to do so.
2nd revelation: ECONOMICS (starts at 9:10 in the video)
There is plenty of corruption in our economic system, but that’s not its chief problem. This becomes evident if you consider the board game Monopoly, which uses our economic system’s most fundamental ideas in simplified form. In that game, “corruption” would mean someone is cheating. But that game always ends with all the players but one totally impoverished, even if no one cheats.
We see a similar scenario playing out in the real world. The distribution of wealth in our society has become extremely unequal. That’s because the market favors whoever is in a better bargaining position, and thus it increases economic inequality. So a market economy inevitably brings plutocracy: Just a few people end up owning and controlling everything, including our workplaces, the government, and even the market itself, so any truly “free” market wouldn’t stay that way for long. Market fundamentalists blame our problems on government, but they’re deluded: If there were no government, the super-rich would create one, to “protect property rights.”
Our leaders worship the bronze bull of Wall Street, much as the Israelites turned to a golden calf while Moses was on Mount Sinai. There are so many myths about that false god! Here are four quick myths:
a. “The market has brought us progress” — no, it was science that brought us progress. And its basic innovations came from government salaries, not from profits.
b. “The market is raising everyone’s standard of living, and automation will bring us all leisure time” — no, not all of us, just the people who own the workplaces and the robots.
c. “A society of honorable small businesses is true democracy” — no, actually every privately owned workplace is a tyranny, and any honorable small businesses get crushed and/or swallowed by psychopathic large businesses.
d. “People will only work for competition and money” — no, actually they prefer a more meaningful arrangement.
So, putting aside all the bull, what is the market? It’s an attempt to harness greed. Reformists believe they can outwit the devil and his team of lawyers and accountants. Rather than learn to share, they believe they can make selfishness safe. I can only ask, “even if you could do that — which in fact you can’t — why would you want to?”
And they will respond — they always do — by asking whether I am setting an example by giving away all my possessions. No, I’m not. A penniless and homeless man in the streets, spending all his time looking for his next meal, will be heard less than an activist living frugally on a small retirement pension. Hear me now: If we start the sharing with my tiny holdings, it won’t affect the world much. Let’s begin the sharing instead with Boeing, Raytheon and the other war companies — let’s nationalize them, and take the profit out of war. I promise you that we will quickly have fewer wars.
The conspiracy theorists are partly right. The presidents and prime ministers and so on are merely puppets. They’re dependent on campaign donations and publicity, which are controlled by the wealthy — but the wealthy are not unified, nor are they the ultimate masters. No one is truly in control. Ultimately, the strings are pulled by the economic system itself, and that machine does not concern itself with the well being of society or the future. The market compels its biggest players to compete against each other in looting the commons, offering short-term profits to investors, and disregarding unmeasured, externalized costs elsewhere such as poverty, war, and ecocide. Any big player who finds scruples will be out-competed and will soon be replaced (but not necessarily become impoverished or socially powerless. As long as the billions are there in his bank account he’ll have plenty of muscle in a capitalist arrangement and will live in splendor.—Eds). Thus, it’s not just greedy big players who must be overthrown, but the game itself.
3rd revelation: THE ECOSYSTEM (starts at 13:47 in the video)
A living whale is an awesome creature, but it has no monetary value. The parts of a killed whale are worth a million dollars in quick profit. That’s why the whales are all disappearing. And the ecosystem, the interdependent system of all life on Earth, is disappearing for essentially the same reason. It’s being cut to pieces for quick profit by a few people who disregard the unmeasured costs of excessive harvesting, toxic dumping, and global warming.
Global warming [climate change] is a much greater problem than most people realize. The mainstream media tell us our coastal cities will be flooded in a century, but they fail to mention that without immediate action, our species may be extinct just a few decades from now. It doesn’t take long to explain why:
Many of the consequences of warming — dying vegetation, melting icecaps, escaping methane, and so on — are also causes of warming. Because of these feedback loops, warming is accelerating exponentially.
Exponential growth starts out tiny and slow, as you can see at the left end of this graph; it’s invisible to the naked eye. But the bigger it gets, the faster it grows. Eventually it becomes visible, and soon after that it’s enormous and growing explosively, as you can see at the right end of this graph. Well, global warming became visible around 2012.
The world’s temperature has been higher than this before, but it hasn’t increased this rapidly in tens of millions of years. Plants and animals can’t adapt quickly enough, and so they’re going extinct far faster than new species can develop. As the ecosystem loses diversity, it grows fragile. At some point it will simply collapse, starving us all. Already, droughts are causing crop failures, rising food prices, and in some countries civil wars.
Scientists have a pretty good idea of what remedies we need. We need to shift to a carbon-neutral way of life, or better still, a carbon-negative way of life, to take excess greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
But politicians aren’t listening to the scientists. For example, a few years ago, the Arctic began melting rapidly, decreasing both the planet’s albedo and its buffer for latent heat. That should have been a wake-up call: We must phase out fossil fuels quickly, or they’ll kill us all. But instead the ruling class said, “oh, goody, now it will be so much easier to extract fossil fuels from the Arctic!” And they began squabbling among themselves about who would get what portion. That’s because the politicians are driven by their campaign donations, which are driven by the market, which can’t concern itself with the well being of society or the future, as I explained earlier.
And even our leading environmental reformists can’t quite bring themselves to talk about ending plutocracy. For instance:
- Bill McKibben’s 2012 article, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, explained that for us to avoid climate apocalypse, the fossil fuel companies will have to leave in the ground 20 trillion dollars worth of proven reserves. But McKibben could not quite bring himself to admit that under our present economic system, it simply is not possible for companies to walk away from 20 trillion dollars — and so we need a drastically different economic system.
- Naomi Klein’s 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, listed a thousand and one ways in which capitalism is attacking the climate — and yet the book left the impression that all these attacks could be merely coincidental, and might be cleaned away by reforms. The concluding chapter acknowledged that fundamental changes and a new worldview are needed, but at no point did Klein analyze capitalism and explain that it is inherently ecocidal. She could not bring herself to suggest replacing it with democratic socialism.
Some people think it’s already too late, and our species is doomed. I don’t know how they can say that. After all, we’re not dead yet. It may appear that little time remains to us, but we don’t yet know what we may discover in that time if we try. We may succeed, or we may fail. But if we don’t try, then we certainly will fail.
4th revelation: HUMAN NATURE (starts at 18:48 in the video)
We’re often told that “things always have been this way, and things always will be this way, because people are basically greedy and selfish.” But all three parts of that statement are wrong.
Things haven’t always been this way. Yes, we’ve lived separately and hierarchically for 10,000 years; but for 200,000 years before that, we lived cooperatively, without rulers (in the modern sense, that is, we had only tribal or family or clans chieftains) sharing everything of importance. That’s still in our nature.
And things won’t always be this way. They can’t be. Indeed, if “business as usual” continues just a little longer, ecocide will kill us all.
And, as I’ve already mentioned, people aren’t basically greedy and selfish. But our current culture certainly trains those traits into us. They’re built into the so-called “American dream”: You keep your stuff in your house, I keep my stuff in my house, and we’re taught that we don’t need to care about each other. Shootings in schools and shopping malls have become commonplace.
But we don’t shoot our friends; why can’t we all be friends? We need a new kind of society, one where everyone cares about everyone else, no one is left behind, and no one wants to hurt anyone else. We need a mass movement bigger than anyone can plan in advance. We need a global metamorphosis of values.
A more beautiful world IS possible. Just look inside your own heart and the hearts of your friends, and you’ll realize that all your seven billion cousins have the same things inside them too. We’re all one flesh and blood.
Of course, each of us always has a choice. There is a story (often attributed to the Cherokees) that two wolves are fighting inside each of us, one good, one evil. The wolf that wins is the one we feed. Our present culture encourages the worst in us; let’s replace it with a culture that encourages our better side.
Dream big. Spread the word.
“Ralph Nader and Robert Reich are two examples of reformists with integrity. But good intentions are not enough.”
Eric Schechter, a retired professor of mathematics at Vanderbilt U, is a senior contributing editor to The Greanville Post. He does a great deal of activism in the Nashville, Tenn., area.
2 December 2014.
What is $1 a month to support one of the greatest publications on the Left?