Header: Chad Batka/The New York Times
Recently I came across a really great, somewhat unknown, but beautifully written website in the WordPress Reader called Anrthotheorylearning. It has various anthropology students and bloggers portraying their short ideas on modern culture in their own captivating ways. They showed me sharp glances into different styles of looking at our world beyond the critiques of the more well-known, professional-type journalists and professors that I’m sure you’ve already heard of before—who I will bring up a little bit later on.
There is a certain post that is all about the movie Fight Club and how individuals have to use their imagination as a split between reality and entertainment to live cooperatively. Another shows how American culture uses subtle forms of deviance (like telling white lies) as a precursor for the defiant majority that doesn’t follow the rules (or laws) that exist in an apparently “democratic” and free society.
I must say that I really liked the one about the movie The Matrix, where the writer Rick Tufnell explains that, “it does not matter what is real or how we define real, all that matters is that we find the truth. The truth is something that can only be understood by going through our journeys both as people and as observers of people. It is in these times that we can really free ourselves from that which holds us back.” This is coming directly from the post ‘Down the rabbit hole with no spoon,’ and it finishes with:
Remember these parting words from Morpheus as you decide whether to seek the truth or not. ‘This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.’
This sort of sentiment, in the wake of the right-wing movement in 2016, has caught my attention because I feel like maybe I’ve dipped a bit too far into a rabbit-hole. I’ve found out things I do not want to forget; things that I really want to talk about with people which seem important.
In this complex phase apparently led by the Trump Presidency but also with the long withstanding neoconservatism tendency that has existed all throughout Obama’s time; there is a reactionary rise in 2017 of radical young liberal progressives and Democratic Socialists: whose party has seen their membership triple this year alone.
This all may appear to have begun with the momentum created by Bernie Sanders’ campaign (in reaction to Trump) but it wasn’t only the 75-year-old, self-identifying Democratic Socialist that created this pro-critical stance of Capitalism kind of environment in America.
It was primarily the Iraq war protests, the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, the BLM movement, and many other leftist movements which have all happened in the last decade to contribute to the acceptance of Democratic Socialism and the general understanding that partisan liberalism is dead, and that something else is needed instead of more reforms.
A majority of young people—millennials and their children, people like my friends and I—have turned to forms of dissent which only a few years ago would have appeared to be going way too far. A few decades ago though, the names and language being used would have been illegal. A century ago, Socialism and its broad ideas were a totally normal form of radical activism against Capitalism but something dramatically changed during the Cold War.
Today, the public is still very confused because most people don’t feel comfortable with the word Socialism even though they usually do agree on a majority of point-by-point basis policies changes —like for better health care, less war, more fluid immigration laws, more schools, and hospitals.
This makes most people Socialists at heart, inside of their head but they are without the reassurance of the media they believe that they trust or from the status-quo culture they’re immersed in. A lot of good people ignore everything else on the outside, in the real world and the radicals that they might see because they don’t want to appear to be a taboo.
This leaves most progressives like my friends and I in a vacuum. If they refuse to turn to Democratic Socialism they have nowhere else to go and; they are left with no alternatives except to drop out of politics completely or to vote for one of the two parties. (Granted, there are other parties, like the NDP or Green in Canada, or other grassroots parties in the US, but the general tendency is to vote for a party that has a chance to win.)
Quickly I have to bring up two other concepts which relate to this topic: the book called Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon Wolin where he introduced the theory of Inverted Totalitarianism and, the documentary Hypernormalisation by BBC journalist Adam Curtis, (which I’ve already written about here and here).
In Wolin’s book, he shows how political parties are basically just a facade of power which gives the Inverted Totalitarianism control by enabling what is going on in society without any opposition or restrictions. Of course, the Capitalist market is doing this—it is what is keeping this all going. But Wolin’s theory is “different from classical forms of totalitarianism.
It does not find its expression in a demagogue or charismatic leader but in the faceless anonymity of the corporate state.” The economy—ruled by the handful of largest corporations and billionaires—has taken over as the dictator and with the media have reversed our idea of monopoly and tyranny.
Check out this short film about Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturer Consent. It helps to explain how a far-fetched, yet realistic sounding theory like Inverted Totalitarianism is able to handle the thoughts and actions of the public with media:
What Curtis’ documentary shows is how there is only one system and everybody lives in a manufactured reality where politicians have succumbed to the market and can’t do anything anyway, so everybody just accepts how it is.
The managerial form of Capitalism attempts to prevent change by using computers to look at disasters of the past and analyzing the potential outcome by comparing the trends of the market. This leaves only a statistical outcome and anyone who tries to change the world is seen as a threat. Hypernormalisation was coined by Alexi Yurchak “to describe this process—an entropic acceptance and false belief in a clearly broken polity and the myths that undergird it.”
Seeing all of these perspectives together: the Matrix theory, Inverted Totalitarianism, and Hypernormalisation and comparing how we cope with the structure of power paints a picture which is quite daunting but there is a shimmer of potential hope. We try to live our self-expressive, family, work and consumer oriented lives but most people only look at the modern Capitalist political spectrum which only looks through a small window of conservative and liberal—either more like Neoclassical or Neoliberal or Trickle Down economics versus Keynesian economics.
These are both saturated attempts at change. They rely on proven attempts to split classical liberalism and conventionally the left itself, ever since the Cold War, has not been liberal by definition at all. The legacy of the propaganda during the Red Scare up until the 1990s—the fear against the Soviet, Communist aggressor—was too strong to wash out of Western culture in North America especially, in only one generation. This means that my parents and my grandparents were both living in a reality—because of the Cold War—that was completely cut off from Socialism and from the potential change that is possible now.
With the internet, globalization, Hypernormalisation, Inverted Totalitarianism, and the almost complete consumer freedoms coupled with perceived limited personal privacy—it is the most important time for liberals and lefties to look at class war. Capitalism and Socialism, major shareholders and workers, bourgeoisie and proletariat—these topics should be understood and no body should be afraid of them.
Don’t be blinded by the corporate destruction of the political party and hope that it will get better someday. Don’t avoid the good part of being a liberal. A lot of millennials are Socialists but they didn’t know it and now millions of Americans are becoming Socialists but they have forgotten what Socialism means and don’t understand the different systems either.
Dr. Lawrence Quill, chairman and professor of political science at San Jose State University [explains] the difference between communism, socialism, capitalism and democratic socialism — in very professorial terms.
Capitalism — or really the concept of “liberalism” — arose in the 17th century, and centers on the right to private property. In Adam Smith’s foundational “Wealth of Nations,” Quill notes, “is recognition that capitalism is going to make the lives of a good majority of the population miserable, and that there will be a need for government intervention in society and the economy to offset the worse effects.”
Socialism was in part a response to capitalism, largely through the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Socialism focuses on the inequalities that arise within capitalism through a number of possible responses. Quill outlined some possibilities: “[T]he state might ‘wither away’ or collapse altogether, in others it would regulate the production of goods and services, in yet others it would become thoroughly democratic” — all with the aim of reducing that inequality.
You can see that’s where democratic socialism arises. That philosophy, Quill writes, seeks “democratic control of sectors of society and economy in order to avoid the pitfalls of an unregulated market and — this is most important — the kind of terrible authoritarian government that emerged in the Soviet Union.”
Communism “was the endpoint of Marx’s ideas,” Quill writes, though Marx didn’t delineate what it would look like, exactly. “We find hints in works like ‘The German Ideology” (1846) where there is a description of working life that is unalienated, i.e. creative and various — we hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and become opera critics in the evening.“ During the Cold War, though, the idea came to be inextricably and pejoratively associated with the Soviet Union and with the elimination of private property. The term, in Quill’s words, ”served as a shorthand for all things un-American“ — which was the way that Trump used it.
Simplifying Quill’s explanation: “In a communist country, the government answers those questions. There’s no private business. There’s no private property. The government decides.”
“In a capitalist society, the people make those decisions. The businesses, the market decides how much products will cost, how many there are, where it will be made.”
“In the socialist system, there’s a mix of both. The government operates the system to help all, but there is opportunity for private property and private wealth. That’s generally how we talk about it.” Back to Quill’s point: A socialist government could control all of the means of production — or it could, for example, use taxes to redistribute resources among the population.
A Capitalist is stuck in the world that we see all the time on the internet, on TV, in movies, on the radio, etc.. They see Hypernormalisation; they see no possibility for change so they accept hyper-normal conditions (situations which everyone knows are wrong and unjustified in an advanced, globalized, democratic moment in human history but everyone has accepted the stupidity of the market because they can’t envision any alternative to the system).
Or we could say that Capitalists live in a hyperreality which is “an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, especially in technologically advanced postmodern societies. Hyperreality is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.”
Postmodernism is a crucial theory to know so that you don’t get conned into believing everything that is presented to you. French philosophers quantified (like in quantum physics: anything is possible) social relationships with their theories.
The “post” in postmodern suggests “after”. Postmodernism is best understood as a questioning of the ideas and values associated with a form of modernism that believes in progress and innovation.
Modernism insists on a clear divide between art and popular culture.
The two sides of politics that Capitalists have to choose are corporatised. Both the left and the right, liberals and conservatives, the Democrats and the Republicans. A Socialist, however, is also stuck between two sides but they don’t have conventional parties—the Socialist is looking for a mix of both systems but more radically in terms of reforms than a Democratic Socialist who wants a gradual more bipartisan approach.
But even above, in the definition of a Communist country—“In a communist country, the government answers those questions. There’s no private business,”—a contemporary Communist can be looked at as someone who wants fundamental change from what is here now or as a revolutionary who is potentially dangerous in their uprising, I guess that really depends on the person.
Communists want to see absolute control by the government making and deciding decision for the entire country, not the market. A Socialist can be thinking in the realm that there has to be a gradual more peaceful protest or to not concentrate on politics at all and look at the workplace as the main gear of control over the mass of people.
Socialists can look at worker cooperatives not top-down Capitalist corporations as a way to get the change needed to make Capitalism more livable market, but a Communist wants a revolution right now to restructure that awful distribution of wealth in society, unlike a Socialist or Capitalist which is okay with the bankers, private enterprises, to handle that reformation for us.
This financial, monetary, or business influence however you want to see it—is what keeps Capitalism mostly in control in democratic countries. The market is what keeps everything going, it is what keep people struggling and working; this kind of Capitalism of monitoring risks and avoiding collapse is what keeps stability. The business cycle which lays off millions of people every decade or so for the last three centuries is the continual incentive for young generations to settle with stability, to settle with the status quo.
The large amounts of money, the large share holders of the largest companies, the CEOs; those are the 1% that the Occupy activists were talking about in 2011, and the 99% was everybody else. One of the main faults of the Occupy movement was its inability to target the system, the structure of power. It looked at the 1% of the population and required blaming those people for the corruption of the idea of politics and economics.
Socialism proposes no adequate substitute for the motive of enlightened selfishness that today is at the basis of all human labor and effort, enterprise and new activity.
–President William Taft
Thomas Piketty, a French economist and Emmanuel Saez, a French and American economist who is currently a professor at Berkley in California, are the “go to statisticians to understand the distribution of wealth and income in the world.” They studied Capitalism’s effects over the last 250 years for the whopping-of-a-book—at over 650 pages—Capital in the Twenty-First Century. What they found was that anywhere Capitalism goes, there begins the process of capital accumulation or concentration of wealth.
Piketty and Saez show that the when the inequality gets bad enough eventually the mass of people, the workers, have an uprising of some sort. Then so-called reforms are pushed through by those protests, not radical changes of the system but a changes none the less, the system in place steps in to revoke those reforms afterward.
Sounds ridiculous but that’s why they’re called reforms because they’re temporary and a revolution is something that actually stuck. Ever since social welfare programs in the West (or the New Deal) was introduced, there have been influential forces trying to destroy those great reforms for workers but this dismantling especially ramped-up in the 1980s.
The conclusion of the book is that Capitalism, inherently, anywhere and everywhere it has been established, produces as its inherent tendency a growing inequality of wealth and income.
Periodically, people get so freaked by this that they push back, and we have a reform, and once it’s over, the same Capitalism undoes the reform.
Thomas Paine was the first revolutionary theorist in America. He wrote many pamphlets—most notably Common Sense in 1776—which teaches us that we have to have the courage to make systemic change if we want to have a better world tomorrow. We have to sacrifice our perfect social relationships that are built on avoiding the real issues and stop lying to each other in conversations to stay away from awkward or heated debate — while we keep trying reform after reform, tax cut after tax hike, over and over again, and now we’re at the stage where revolution is needed.
It’s so great to find a discussion online of three great minds—Chris Hedges, Richard Wolff, and Cornel West—all discussing the same topic of revolution together. (The video is below.) They highlight that the United States has had a lot of anarchists (like Noam Chomsky) and prophetic voices (like Malcolm X) but not revolutionary theorists. Paine was one of the only revolutionary radicals, in the 1770s remember, that always took the opportunity to oppose established power at every opportunity he got.
Watch the discussion between Chris Hedges, Richard Wolff and Cornel West here.
“Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, Princeton Professor, and Presbyterian minister”
Paine explained the structures of power leading up to the American revolution and he shows us today in his own words how the system has rendered most people “impotent to change.” Chris Hedges also noted that we’re “channeling our energy back into a dead political system.” Paine used the language of the common people—much like George Orwell did—to explain social issues, which was very important at the time and today because “we live in a society now where those who have power have created specialized vocabularies that shut the rest of us out—economists have been particularly good at this—but just about the technocrat, and we are ruled by technocrats, has created a specialized vocabulary that those of us on the outside are not able to penetrate and that becomes a kind of barrier. In terms of our ability to exercise our rights as citizens to influence power, and Paine understood that.”
“American Marxian economist, well known for his work on Marxian economics, economic methodology, and class analysis”
Most of us will acknowledge that much change is needed but the fact that people don’t really consider revolution is interesting. Professor Wolff pointed out that “we’ve got to change the system, not because it’s an alternative to achieving reforms, but because changing the system is the only way to make a reform that is durable. Revolution is the way you complete the reform process, just as it’s the condition for the reforms you get to last, and to mean what you wanted them to mean when you fought for them. It’s a big change.” When Americans told the King of England to go home during the revolution, when they said his monarchy had to leave forever: that was a powerful ending to the colonial relationship that gave the US its birth. Isn’t that the legacy now too with the corporations or the political leaders or the market?
“American philosopher, political activist, social critic, author, public intellectual, and prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America”
Dr. West blew my mind in this video. He said that “He [Paine] was willing to die if it ensured he would act honorably, think critically, and that he would be willing to sacrifice his popularity for truth and justice and would always fuse with other folk on the ground in grass root movements”
“He [Paine] was a commoner to the core and he engaged in a revolutionary act in how he wrote not just what he wrote because what he wrote was a critique of the pomposity and obscurity of the Latin and Greek obsessed language of the Edmund Burkes and others. That he was going to speak a language so clear — he said ‘I want to write as clear as the alphabet for common folk because I come out of the common folk.’ So that was a revolution in form and style and it was the first time that folk, who could hardly read at all, could be read to and get through a language that was part of their colloquial style, that was part of how they communicated,”
What we don’t have today is progressive intellectuals that haven’t been seduced by the “professional managerial tariff” and the “subculture of the university.” Dr. West passionately spoke of fewer and fewer intellectuals who will sacrifice their job and reputation to speak out and identify with common people—to fight the plight of common people.
Why? Because of what Paine didn’t have to deal with — the backdrop of impending ecological catastrophe, the backdrop of possible nuclear catastrophe, the fashionable character of being cynical and despairing — even as you are highly professionally approved and recognized. The sipping tea in the cafe with the sharp analysis but no willingness to pay a cost, no willingness to take a risk, no willingness to cut radically against the grain,
In order to get a really god job, most people have to do internships—which require working for no wage and gaining experience instead, in a certain profession or knowing somebody through personal relationships that will also fiendishly get you a top-level position. But by eliminating the majority of the workers from being able to apply or even take part in getting the experience needed to become an executive, people who don’t have savings or credit aren’t able to take part in most of these opportunities at all, and that makes them undemocratic and exclusive in a seemingly advanced market economy that’s “better than all the rest.”
Most of my writing for the last 10 years has been centered on economic struggle or class warfare because the recession really did affect me in a bad way and I have found it very difficult to overcome what happened then.
Regardless of how we look at it, what happened in 2008—the year after I graduated high school—did create an environment of going to university or college and going hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, joining the military which requires one to move constantly, starting up an online app company and/or a stagnant wage job with no opportunity for promotion, or a job that’s in construction or labor or fly-in fly-out which requires constant drug testing and also more narcotic drug or alcohol use.
This financial, monetary or business influence or lifestyle—however you want to see it—is what keeps Capitalism and those who have accumulated capital in control of everybody else. As my last article showed, the structure of the workplace enables there to be a few people to make all the decisions for potentially millions of people.
The market and the corporation is what keeps everything going because it is able to mask itself in the anonymity of the brands and products which keep the mass of people struggling and innovating; this universal kind of managerial Capitalism keeps stability by monitoring risks from the past and avoids any signs of collapse allowing there to be high levels of wealth and income inequality—as long as there is an incentive for more production and more revenue.
The very sad consequence of Thomas Paine being so radical, of him being the only revolutionary of his time who spoke a language that most people could understand, even though he is probably the key thinker behind the US being what it is now the “Greatest Country on Earth”—an independent country with a President and not a King—was that he died in 1809 in New York City at the age of 72 with only 6 people at his funeral.
Paine’s demise was the grim reality of being a martyr for a progressive revolution—in the face of propaganda by different kind of elites equipped with expensive editing equipment and financial backing; a death that is typically drenched in loneliness or in an early assassination. But the great ideas live on past the temporary skin and bones that got ridiculed by others for being so dramatic or not cool during their lifetime.
When in fact, they were cooler than anyone else around them because they actually lived a life challenging the real enemy that was in power. They fought the King, the market, the billionaires and they didn’t just write, talk, or make art about it—which has allowed all of us non-professional intellectuals to have a chance to see that we aren’t crazy and alone in an age of deception and mass information.
A lot of us are trying to cope with ignoring Socialism and Communism while loving its products at the same time. Those of us who have accepted its benefits and its historical flaws are still ridiculed by the liberal majority as being pundits for 20th-century tyrants who only used Communism and mutated its success into a political form that was anything but.
It’s about time to stop comparing ourselves to the people who lived without the internet and without 21st-century western democracy; we have something much more fundamentally powerful at our disposal and we have to start learning how to use it competently before it’s too late.