Sunday, August 9, 2015
Opiates of the People
In our disjointed political life, perhaps no symptom is as chronic as the claim that everything any politician does, or wants to do, is “for the people” (or “for the children”, assuming that “children” is a subset of “people”), when in fact nearly everything they do is precisely the opposite. They are serving corporations, banks, foreign powers, special interests, rent-seekers, and -- last but far from least -- themselves, and any benefits that accrue to the average citizen are mere side effects. What counts in politics is not results, but stated intentions, as witness the continued woes of “inner cities” after decades of rule by Democrats, who are full of promises but largely empty of results. But that doesn’t matter, you see, because they “tried”, and they were “compassionate”, and were people “of the people”, whereas the Republicans, apparently, are an alien race from another galaxy determined to spread human suffering as far and wide as possible -- “compassionate conservatism“ being almost universally regarded as a contradiction in terms.
So if politicians always have to represent “the people”, and be working day and night for the peoples’ interest, then so do political campaigns and political action committees. No one can come out and say they’re for anything else -- at least not until they take office and are besieged by lobbyists, at which point they go from being populists to being experts in special pleading, and the political train moves on, leaving “the people” on the platform as always. (The inner cities are far from the only example, but they are the most stark.)
We also have to consider that politicians of various stripes have a wide variety of opinions about “the people” -- about their wisdom, their way of life, their general worthiness. Communists have, for nearly 100 years now, styled their dictatorships “people’s republics”, as if that everlasting cachet was sufficient to justify all enormities -- which, to easily-misled intellectuals, theorists, and academicians, it does. No matter if a tyrant sucks the life blood out of the citizenry and confiscates everything of value in the country, he is still a hero to the left if he rules over a “people’s republic”. (Who says language doesn’t count? Language is everything.)
But really, haven’t all politicians, at least since the French Revolution, used “the people” as a magic key with which to acquire unlimited power? Hitler and the Nazi Party were all about the “volk”. The New Deal glorified the “common man”, picking up where the earlier Progressives had left off. Who campaigns, or openly leads, on behalf of an elite -- of the rich -- of the well-born -- of the “1%”? No one, basically. And yet when it comes to despising, and even fearing, real people and their values and life style, it’s hard to match the liberal/socialist/collectivist elite of any society, including ours. “The people” are great as an icon -- as subjects of a stirring mural or sculpture or folk song -- but for heaven’s sake stay away from the real thing (as Hillary Clinton invariably does)! They might start making demands… asking questions… exposing some weakness in your arguments... calling you a hypocrite or an elitist. Why, they might even be dangerous. And one thing is certain, they will always be guilty of the cardinal sins of our time: racism, sexism, homophobia, and now “transphobia”, not to mention general “hate”.
So if “the people” is a universal theme in politics, how to explain populism, or what might be called “people-ism”? I mean, if it’s always about the people how can populists be even more about the people than anyone else? I think the answer is that the populists are, at least at the beginning, actually sincere and non-hypocritical. They genuinely want what’s best for the ordinary citizen, but this is where things break down. For who is an ordinary citizen? And who are his enemies? Take the two most prominent populist movements of our time, the Tea Party and “Occupy”. They are each for the people, but on closer inspection they are only for a segment of the people, and those segments do not overlap. “Occupy” seems obsessed with Wall Street and the rich, but their only answer is more government regulation (including confiscatory taxation), which automatically means bigger government. (They ignore the fact that it's precisely big government in partnership with big business that has created the situation they are protesting.) It is basically a revolt of the allegedly disenfranchised against privilege, with the middle class being pretty much ignored except when they are acting as tools of the elite. The Tea Party, on the other hand, is about the middle class being liberated from Big Government (which, basically, means from redistribution of wealth), with both the rich and the poor being pretty much ignored. So each of these movements represents a segment that the other has no interest in. And the rich don’t need representation, obviously, since they already have it -- in the form of bought and paid-for politicians. The problem the Tea Party has with the rich is that they would all like the chance to get rich themselves, so they’re not about to suggest making wealth illegal, the way the Occupiers and other radical socialists do. And the Occupiers, like so many of their communist/collectivist forebears, know that getting rid of the rich is only the first step -- one must also get rid of the middle class in order to achieve a true worker’s paradise. It’s not so much that the middle class are an economic burden as that they’re a metaphysical burden. To the purist who dreams of a class-free society, they’re an eyesore -- a non-necessity that must be eliminated as soon as possible (if need be, even with the aid of the rich and their political servants). To put it another way, the middle class has no friends except itself, whereas the rich enjoy the esteem of the middle class (and the envy of the lower class), and the lower class has at least a claim on the guilt of some of the middle class (but not of the rich, who never feel guilty about anything).
Populism of any sort is bound to fail in the long run, or even the medium run, simply because “the people” (or whatever one’s preferred subset is) have no political power. Really, you might ask? But don’t we still have elections, and the right to vote? Right -- we need to talk. Let’s just cut to the chase and say that the people have their leaders handed to them, and don’t have a whole lot of say in the matter -- and that those leaders are already working for someone, and it isn’t you. As one political commentator once said, anything they allow you to vote on can’t be that important. (And that includes, obviously, who’s president, governor, Congressman, etc.) Plus, our very governmental structure makes it inevitable that a fool and his vote are soon parted. We don’t live in a radical democracy where every question or issue is brought up for a popular vote. We live in a republic, and therein lies the disconnect. Politicians are ostensibly elected by the people, but once elected they answer to higher powers, simply because that’s where the power, money, and other privileges reside. Winning an election instantly propels you into a privileged class, where you enter a protective, well-defended bubble, never to return to ordinary existence (which makes it laughable every time some candidate starts bragging about his or her humble origins -- they're trying to shed and escape those humble origins as soon and as thoroughly as possible). It really is like something right out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” -- the regular Joe you voted for yesterday comes back strangely changed… in a sort of trance… robot-like. We see this effect right up the line, including presidents. They get “the talk”, they get that plate installed in their skull, and they become living, breathing servants of the Regime… political zombies who are subordinate to stronger wills. And this process has to start fairly far down the line politically, because, after all, it is from those grass roots and farm teams that tomorrow’s leaders come (after many rounds of meticulous vetting, you may be sure). (You think it’s an accident that some political candidates “come out of nowhere”? No -- they come out of somewhere… out of some political hatchery… some provincial hotbed of corruption… so by the time they appear on the national scene they are ready for prime time, thoroughly trained and conditioned like athletes, and ready for the rough and tumble.)
Another bit of evidence is that populist movements tend to be short-lived. Heard about any “Occupiers” lately? How about the Tea Party? Is it about to make a comeback? Highly doubtful. What typically happens is that people drop out from sheer fatigue or discouragement (“burn-out”), or they become co-opted by more establishment entities, or they go the other way and become more radicalized, confining their efforts to university and college campuses, obscure political journals, fringe “think tanks”, and (in our time) the Internet. But their day is over, and all of the initiative is passed into other hands.
But what’s wrong with populist movements -- their fatal flaws -- isn’t necessarily wrong with the people per se. What’s wrong with the people is that, as I indicated previously, no one is actually interested in what they think, but what they ought to think. So to the Soviets, every peasant, factory worker, and soldier was a sophisticated political, economic, and social theorist -- or should have been -- or will be, the minute he attends a few evening sessions with the political officer of the factory, collective farm, or military unit. The problems arise when people turn out to have the same old ideas, values, and goals their ancestors had, focused on outmoded things like race, ethnic group, tribe, religion, family, and gender. So clearly these things have to be dealt with first -- the table has to be cleared -- and the foremost instruments for accomplishing this are the media and the public schools (along with ancillary organs like libraries and social “service” organizations). And every nation on the road to totalitarianism has come up with a slightly different formula for accomplishing these things -- with different degrees of severity and different concepts of reward and punishment. But they usually perish or seriously decay before they fully succeed in getting human nature out of human beings. Oh sure, some people fall into line and conform perfectly -- or at least seem to. They turn into little goose-stepping robots and love and adore Big Brother. And they are heartbroken when it all comes crashing down, and turn into what are then called “reactionaries”, which is ironic because they spent all of their prime years fighting “reactionaries”. But they are typically in the minority; everyone else heaves a big sigh of relief (volume to be adjusted depending on who might be listening).
In a society that is totalitarian in many ways but remains laissez faire in many ways, such as ours, the populism issue takes on different dimensions. Genuine populists have no clout with the establishment… “for the people” hypocrites are in nominal control… and the elite for whom the “common people” are as dispensable as flies are actually in charge. It is out of this witch’s brew that we are able to have endless wars that further enrich the already rich, but which “the people” nonetheless support simply because it would be shameful to do anything else. (This comes under the heading of a cultural habit which is supported by a national mythology, and which gives rise to any number of cultural memes and tics -- like ribbons, flags, and bumper stickers.) The problem the genuine populists have -- what frustrates them to no end on any given day -- is that “the people”, whom they like to think they represent and whose interests they have at heart, by and large don’t care. They’d rather just plod along through the day, get stoned, drunk, or distracted by “entertainment” on the weekend, and not have to worry about “issues”. So, ironically, populism always becomes a plaything of the minority, if it didn‘t start out that way. And doesn’t some resentment eventually develop, like, I’m working my butt off for these people and they don’t even care? I’ll bet it does, and I’ll bet that has a lot to do with the attrition rate among populist theorists and “leaders” (assuming that’s not a contradiction in terms, the way “anarchist government” would be). And some will make the point that the people would be more interested in the issues -- especially the ones that directly impact their quality of life -- if they weren’t so distracted by “games and circuses”. And they (the critics) will convey the suspicion that these distractions are part of the program -- that they are the way in which the Regime keeps people pacified, placated, and anaesthetized. True enough, and, to give one example, I often marvel at how readily the Regime dispatched the Black Power movement in years gone by. The weapon of choice was drugs -- cheap, powerful, and the supply was virtually limitless (as it still is, for that matter). The few radical leaders who didn’t wind up dead or in jail based on entanglement with drugs retired from the scene (to academics or quiet writing, or even mainstream politics in a few cases), hoping that the next generation would succeed where they had failed. And what did the next generation wind up with? Sex (abortion), more drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (rap, hip-hop, etc.). Busted again. Busted, co-opted, neutralized, and basically nutted. So yes, the Regime has ways of dealing with troublemakers, and their spotlights are ever on the move, like in some old prison-break movie.
Here’s another concept to try out before we close. It’s what I call the “moral watershed”. In any society, no matter how advanced or well-founded, there will inevitably be some members who are moral actors, and not dependent on time, place or circumstance to remain so… others who are intrinsically immoral, or at least amoral -- morally neutral… and others who are easily swayed by clever arguments from either side, most of which boil down to money, creature comforts, and leisure time. Let us say further that the proportions of these three groups varies with the particular society we’re talking about. But let’s also say that this division cuts across all other divisions, like race, ethnicity, religion, social class, occupation, etc. There can be moral, immoral, or indifferent people in any group, in other words -- not disallowing the high probability of some strong correlations.
What’s important is not that this situation exists, because it is, I feel, universal -- you won’t find a society without it. What counts is the side of the divide on which certain key people fall -- political and religious leaders certainly, police and the military, “capitalists” in advanced societies, and, in our time, “entertainment” and media moguls -- those who represent the propaganda arm of the Regime. For any given level of society, who has the power, and are they moral or otherwise? It’s a simple question, but one that has to be asked again and again -- as with the current controversy over policing in black neighborhoods. And the problem is that things tend to default to the weakest link. You can have a sound city government, but if the police force includes criminal types, all the good intentions of city hall don’t matter. Or, you can start with a morally-sound military but then add morally-corrupt civilian overseers (yes, it can happen). The result -- unjust and immoral military operations with the resulting frustrations, traumas, atrocities, etc. Any number of other cases, both theoretical and actual, can be proposed. The point is that we live in a moral “mix”, and while there is more than enough blame to go around, it tends to be unfocused because people don’t understand the roots of the problem.
Our society, it seems, has undergone a tipping of the balance at some point. There may have been a time when we were a mostly (never entirely) moral people with leaders with high ethical standards and high standards of personal conduct. (I say “may have” because who can ever be certain?) But each national crisis has caused a falling from grace -- sometimes subtle, sometimes more dramatic. The Civil War was a catastrophe from which we have yet to fully recover -- as witness the absurd controversy over the Confederate battle flag. Then we have various imperialist exertions like the Philippines and Panama… empire-building (AKA “stepping out onto the world stage”) in World Wars I and II, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the current array of wars, mini-wars, proxy wars, “conflicts”, and “police actions”. Each of these set us down a moral notch -- or more than one -- and have we done anything to make up for these moral setbacks? Could we have? Was it even possible? Or is it just one of those things that, once lost, can never be regained? And when it comes to the moral watershed, it seems like more and more of our leadership and our culture on all levels has migrated to the other side, with predictable results -- pretending to do things, both foreign and domestic, based on principle, whereas they are based purely on politics and moral relativism. And this may be a perfectly natural progression -- or regression -- and it may be unavoidable. The issue then is, at what point do we decide that the American Experiment has run its course and it’s time for a fresh start?