JR'S Free Thought Pages
The Conservative Corporate Surveillance State
The Omnipresence of Big Brother
by Johnny Reb
To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, listed and checked off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about by creatures without knowledge and without virtues. To be ruled is at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected. - Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
With some hesitation, reservation and lack of concrete evidence, I believe young people today have never had even the remotest sense of freedom and opportunity that my generation has enjoyed. I was born during closing years of the Second World War and those of us born during that time and the few years following the war (provided they weren't born into an oppressed minority) have likely seen the best of all possible worlds for the working class. The reasons for this are clear to anyone who knows the history of working class movements and economic gains that peaked during the years of the Great Depression and the 25 years following the war.
It's hard not to be filled with despair when I witness the number of unthinking, insensitive, selfish, thoughtless, narcissistic and self-absorbed technophiles who walk among us locked into a state of self-lobotomizing solipsism, wired into their i-phones 24-7. It's not that these people are totally unaware of the problems facing their future, they just don't seem to care and it's reflected in their cavalier mental states, increased alienation, rejection of involvement in politics and the music they listen to. A 2010 study found that American college students are 48% less empathetic than they were in 1979 with a sharper decline of 61% occurring in the past decade. The US National Institutes of Health inform us that the prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high as it is for my generation in the sixty-five years or older group. This development reveals a strong correlation to the increase in reclusiveness and atomization I alluded to above.
I suppose it's always been the case that the majority of people are basically sheep, not real humans with potentially functioning brains who so easily defer to some authority, such as the church or latest New Age guru. Thinking for oneself is hard work and most people take the path of least resistance, throwing in the intellectual towel, allowing someone to do their thinking for them. I do sometimes feel as though the ruling class of conservative corporate plutocrats would like to further tame the herd and that they're actually planning to do just that. The revelations of Edward Snowden ought to convince even the most complacent credulous drone that we're on the cusp of a full-blown fascist police state. It feels a lot like my reading of the history of Germany in 1933, but even more ominous when one considers the impending ecological disasters we face.
I have many friends and acquaintances who simply stick their heads in the sand and do not want to know and understand what's happening. They are more concerned about how the Vancouver Canucks or BC Lions are faring or wrapped up in the trivia and hysteria surrounding the banality of the Royal family's latest pregnancy. They are averse to engage in any serious dialogue about the dire problems facing our beleaguered planet and prefer to starve their brain cells with barber shop and tabloid gossip, their favorite sports team or mind numbing TV sitcom, movie celebrity, multi-billionaire and other endless distractions and intellectual rubbish. But following the next inevitable global economic crisis, civil disobedience is going to be the result in North America as it presently is in the Middle East and Europe. Perhaps a much needed revolution is forthcoming and will replace the hideous hegemony of unfettered global capitalism.
Ironically, progressives and those on the left of the political divide such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Tommy Douglas are universally revered by liberals and conservatives alike. Why, one might rightly ask? I contend that it's because they did not incite or bring about a revolution. If you examine the people who did in fact bring about a revolution, you will also be considering the most universally reviled and demonized group of people by these same liberals and conservatives. Again, why? Because they had the audacity to demand not only a morsel, a few crumbs of the economic pie for the working classes, but control of the economic order. After all, they argued, they are in the majority, do all the work and fight and die in their masters imperialistic and colonial wars. Simply pleading for it politely by appealing to the most fundamental moral tenets of justice and fairness or acting through prevailing political channels has never worked and never will. In the latter group one could mention Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, the Bolsheviks, Villa and Zapata, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and many others. But even those revolutions that were "successful", were eventually co-opted or short-circuited and terrorized by counter-revolutions led by capitalist countries in the West by inciting a civil war * - as in Bolshevik Russia. Or they were crushed by superior military force and power as they attempted to set up a genuine people's democracy.
* The source of real violence and suffering was the direct result of a counter-revolution led by the White Tsarist army. The White army had the support of at least fourteen capitalist nations including the US, France and Britain who sent financing, weapons, materiel and soldiers to fight on the side of the counter revolution. Mainstream historians conveniently omit that distasteful fact and the fact that the Red Army directed by Leon Trotsky (not a military man, but a brilliant organizer) was able to defeat them, but at a huge cost to the future success of the people's revolution. Reactionary/conservative establishment historians have demonized the Russian Revolution relentlessly. One can include the biases, embellishments and distortions in David Lean's otherwise brilliant 1966 film Dr. Zhivago.
But what were the Bolsheviks supposed to do, hold out the clenched fist salute with flowers in the other hand in the face of the White monarchist and capitalist armies of fourteen technologically advanced capitalist countries? These were countries whose conservative elites were terrified the Russian people's movement would spread to their own countries. Consequently they were hell bent on crushing the first successful workers revolution in history.
The US commander in Siberia in1919, General William S. Graves, testified that "I am well on the side of safety when I say that the anti-Bolsheviks killed one hundred people in Eastern Siberia, to everyone killed by the Bolsheviks." The Bolsheviks ultimately defeated the counter revolution but at a devastating cost. The working class, the base of the Bolshevik Party, was decimated. It was in this context and the death of Lenin following a stroke in 1923 that one must include the defeat of the German Revolution of 1918-1923. And most crucially, and against Lenin's warnings, that Stalin rose to power, creating the very un-socialist idea of "socialism in one country", the purges (murders or imprisonments) of most of the old Bolsheviks (the original revolutionaries) from the Party and finally the assassination of Leon Trotsky who was pursued for years by Stalin's NKVD, and finally murdered in Mexico in 1940.
As the 20th century moved on from 1917, the paltry gains of the social contracts won by the labour union battles, social justice movements, civil disobedience and pragmatic visionaries on the left like Tommy Douglas are now being systematically revoked and dismantled by the Reagan/Thatcher counter-revolution. More recently, since the multi-trillion dollar taxpayer bailouts of our "too big to fail" conservative corporate masters in 2007-09, the take down of modest social contracts of the welfare state are being replaced by raw power - an ominous proto-fascist partnership of state and big business* - the Conservative Corporate Welfare State. Conservative elites have always been the group with the real "entitlements" (root word "title" - get it?) and the crumbs they have conceded since the Great Depression... well, they now simply want it all back!
* Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini referred to this sinister partnership as "corporatism".
An interesting fact about the French Revolution is that far fewer people were killed during this insurrection than were killed during the counter revolution that crushed the ill-fated revolution of the Paris Commune 80 years later. Over thirty thousand Communards were lined up against the walls of Paris and executed without trial by the Versailles government's military police. Tens of thousands of others were subsequently arrested for trial perhaps as many as 50,000 later executed or imprisoned and 7,000 were exiled to New Caledonia. Throughout history this was the fate of most people's attempts at social and economic justice from an entrenched conservative oligarchy, whether the church, the monarchy, the feudal lord or the corporate masters who we now serve.
The Surveillance Planet
Surveillance and its despotic companion, censorship, have existed for a long time, long before the recent and not-so-surprising exposes of widespread state spying by Edward Snowden. Snowden is deemed a security risk and state criminal by our conservative power elites but ought to be celebrated as a courageous patriot by freedom loving citizens throughout the world. The revelations that our governments are snoops and spies should have been revealed through the normal channels of our corporate mass media. But no, our multinational corporate news sources are merely incompetent dupes for the state and have become sycophantic defenders of its corporatist agendas. Anytime you hear a politician invoke "it's in the national interest", immediately realize your are very likely being dealt a pile of bullshit.
With the digital technology that is now available to them, more than ever before, the state resembles George Orwell's foreboding and oppressive Big Brother in his prophetic dystopian 1949 novel titled "1984".
Before the advent of the nation state, control of free thought, critique and dissent was carried out by the church and religious hierarchy that invariably aligned itself with the powers of the monarch and feudal land barons. As most were under Hitler's Third Reich, organized religions are currently one of the biggest cheerleaders in every corporate state imperialistic venture. Nothing much has changed except that those who formerly sat in the pulpit and on the throne now sit in plush offices in Washington, Ottawa and corporate headquarters.
Conservatives throughout history have always had contempt and revulsion for democracy - it's the nature of their intellectually and morally bankrupt ideology which can be condensed to: "what's in it for me?" But many in the working class have been duped into voting for conservative candidate trolls every four years during the ritual called "elections". This farcical ritual changes nothing, regardless of which ultra right wing or pseudo-leftist corporatist party prevails. The one party corporatist "democracy" in the United States is nothing but a cruel joke. The religious invariably follow the orders of their pastor and priest and avoid placing their ballot for any candidate that utters any word remotely associated with the demonic "socialism". This, despite the fact that their guru god-man Jesus might reasonably be regarded as one of the first socialists.
Conservative power elites have always been terrified of any potential power by the peasantry. Today under state capitalism it's the underclass of wage slaves and small business owners we lump together as "working people". The few paltry gains hard fought for by the working classes before and especially following the Great Depression have, in the past three decades, been subjected to a slow erosion, propelling us toward a neo-feudalistic corporate oligarchy. Our conservative masters now want to take it back. Their greed knows no limits and they want it all. Even their neo-conservative affront to common sense called "trickle-down" (or Reaganomics) whereby the 99% scramble for the drippings from the chins of the wealthy 1% is too much for them. But propaganda works, and works well. Keep pounding away at the same message and most people accept it and internalize it, justifying their oppression, poverty and misery as caused by their own poor decisions and sloth. Religions reinforce this by preaching the obscurantist consolation that justice will prevail in an enigmatic delusion called the "afterlife" (provided you accept Christ as your personal saviour - otherwise your option is limited to the grim reaper and to fry in a lake of fire for eternity).
Perhaps we need to try to get people to participate in a grass roots collective action without appealing to their sense of morality, fairness and justice, because in a capitalist system of self-interest and greed morality simply does not sufficiently exist. Business ethics is an worn-out oxymoron. Moreover, by the time the majority of the people move down to the suffering underclass, which seems inevitable under capitalism, it will be too late, given the environmental threats. Marxist ideology no longer is able to motivate the masses who are yet to face the worst effects of state capitalism because most are still adjusting and adapting to the assaults and further serious threats to their standard of living. Most of us are still benefiting by ignoring and living in an evil empire that exploits both people and resources throughout the Third World while externalizing its costs.
But unless people quit waiting for the inevitable collapse, wake up and lift the jack boot from their necks, it will be far too late and they'll have nothing left. The public domain is being relentlessly pillaged by the corporate steam roller. Soon everything on the planet will be in private hands. I just heard that the city of Detroit has declared bankruptcy. The once vibrant city obviously does not qualify under the dictum "too big to fail". All the jobs have been moved to sweat shops in some Third World dystopia. There is a battle underway in Detroit between bondholders and pensioners that has the ruling Democratic Party of the last forty years supporting the impoverishment of pensioners to pay financial speculators for financing infrastructure spending. Let's be clear: public (and private) pensions are not gifts, but deferred income negotiated in lieu of current income. But, like the multi-trillion dollar bailouts of rogue banks in 2008-09, the bond holders are to be paid off by stealing from pensioners.
This is just the tip of the iceberg folks. The notion of "the common good" is dead, and soon nothing will be left of the public domain. The next financial collapse appears inevitable and it will likely make the last meltdown look like a Sunday School Picnic.
There is a long history of religious propaganda during ancient and medieval times but since the advent of the state, using propaganda in conjunction with technology and huge data bases, has dramatically expanded over the past 150 years. If indoctrination didn't accomplish compliance and docility, the police and military were always available to crush and eradicate any and all progressive movements that challenged the source and legitimacy of entrenched power and the historical entitlements and privileges of conservative elites (the real entitlements).
There is, of course, a name for systematic surveillance, propaganda, denial of right to protest, persecution, bullying, coercion, threats, ransacking of activist offices, interrogation, police brutality, arrest and detention. It's called tyranny. Socialists, anarchists, communists, labour unions, pacifists and war protestors and groups that fought against racism and oppression and for civil right and social justice have all been victims of state tyranny in both the United States and Canada. It's a long and often violent history that we are not taught in our institutions of indoctrination called public schools and universities.*
* In the latter part of the 20th century, the increased number of students attending university, because of lowered scholastic aptitude standards, required the establishment and maintenance of intellectual distinctions. Thus, in 2003, the British Minister for Universities, Margaret Hodge, criticized "Mickey Mouse" degrees as a negative consequence of universities "dumbing down" curricula to meet “the needs of the market”, degrees conferred for studies in a field of endeavour "where the content is not as intellectually rigorous as one would expect, and where the degree, itself, may not have huge relevance in the labour market". Can there be a more depressing view of human existence than corporations training human as commodities, clients and consumers in the barren ideology of financial capitalism?
Hence, a university degree of slight intellectual substance, which the student earned by "simply stacking up numbers on Mickey Mouse courses like marketing, business management and underwater basket weaving, is not acceptable. These programs belong in vocational schools, not Universities.
In our farcical democracies, conservatives have always been aware that the masses, referred to as the "swinish multitude" by conservative icon Edmund Burke and "bewildered herd" by liberal Walter Lippmann, must be rendered docile and ignorant. Indoctrination by organized religion, the education system and our corporate "lame stream" media has been extremely effective in creating bleak conditions of mass ignorance and stupidity. Now with i-phones, i-pads and other self-lobotomizing devices that permeate our cultural and technological landscape and the endless wasteland of mind-numbing corporate network news, celebrity worship and sports talking head programs, the state has a useful ally in distracting and anaesthetizing the populace. We're creating a generation of zombies. But corporations are no longer just a propaganda appendage of our oligarchic governments engaged in corroding the intellect the populace, they're in fact the essence of government itself. There's been a corporate coup, in case you haven't been paying attention. But if your source of information is Fox News or Canwest Global, you'll have no idea what's been happening to you, your friends and your family. But they'll provide you with plenty of worthless news about the newest addition to the Royal Family* or some mind-numbing gossip or scandal about a sports or movie celebrity.
* Why would anyone with an operational free thinking mind and democratic outlook care about the birth of another member of the anachronistic oppressive abomination of the decadent British Monarchy, an institution that should have been abolished two centuries ago? If the British Isles had undergone a much needed people's revolution, the entire membership of the Royal Family would have been lined up against the nearest wall and shot for their crimes of past centuries. It's quite remarkable and disconcerting that these pathetic decadent and repulsive institutions of obscene privilege still exist in much of Western Europe. Do some people want to resurrect the Divine Right of Kings? Is it any wonder why we make so little progress toward real democracy when people are having wet dreams genuflecting at the feet of the members of the monarchy?
I think the continued existence of the monarchy, religion and other residuals of the Dark Ages in so-called liberal democracies demonstrates the impossibility, or at best, extreme difficulty, in bringing about meaningful substantive changes from within existing socio-political structures. Marx was right about "false consciousness". Without a revolution, the elements of pre-existing societal orders that are deeply unjust, inequitable and immoral rarely, if ever, change to any meaningful degree. In order to prevent people from understanding this historical truism and accepting the idea of a revolution, massive levels of conservative historical revisionism and religious hypocrisy, piety and sanctimony have to be deployed against the people in order to manufacture consent, to convince them that revolutions never produce any positive results as compared to exclusively nonviolent strategies working through existing political channels.
The United States has been the most reactionary, counter-revolutionary force in the 20th and 21st centuries. As William Blum, in his 2008 updated book Killing Hope puts it, the United States invests so much in counter-revolution not because it's merely a concession to their spying industries and other mechanisms of control and coercion, but because most of the time, it is unfortunately successful. In fact, much of the time when the United States intervenes in favour of typically totalitarian elites around the world, it wasn't because of any serious danger from revolution; it was rather a pre-emptive strategy to prevent moderate changes that would benefit disempowered majorities. Or, alternatively, and in most cases, to control the target countries natural resources such as oil and create strategic military installations to protect its bloated empire. Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti have correctly analyzed and critiqued this phenomenon since they started writing about it during the Vietnam War. Two shocking first hand exposes are John Perkin's Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and The Secret History of the American Empire. But writers such as these who speak truth to power are marginalized from the mainstream by our organized religions, education systems, lapdog corporate media and other dominant conservative cultural forces.
Bogus Democracies, Bogus Freedoms
For anyone who still thinks the US (or Canada) are, or ever have been democracies, consider the experience of Eugene V Debs, once prominent Socialist Party Leader, labour activist and socialist candidate for President (when socialist parties were actually tolerated in the US). In addition to Eugene Debs, there are literally thousands of similar cases one could cite, but I have chosen Debs because I've read his writings and two biographies of him. During the First World War Debs was arrested, charged with sedition, incarcerated and handed a ten year sentence by the Woodrow Wilson administration for simply delivering a pacifist speech against the US decision of join the slaughter of the Great War. Debs was prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, which was just another smoke screen designed to block freedom of speech and assembly, specifically aimed at pro democracy and leftist activists. Debs was a socialist presidential candidate in several prior US elections, but despite this distinction, was jailed for delivering a speech in a hypocritical undemocratic country that preached freedom, but denied it if one held the incorrect "un-American" religious beliefs and political sentiments. Sound familiar?
There has not been a bona fide prominent left wing party in the United States since Deb's incarceration, regardless of what obtuse Republicans Party pundits and demagogues claim about the Democratic Party. The political culture of the United States is in reality a one party system in which the election campaign rhetoric of both parties conflict with the reality of what both parties do once elected. And despite the strong unassailable clause in the Constitution about the "wall of separation between church and state", an atheist could not get elected dog catcher.
Now consider Red Scare Round 2 and the Smith Act of 1940 whereby people went to jail under a law that made it illegal to join a group (specifically the Communist Party) which advocated, yet never really did anything about, altering the social order of the prevailing conservative and big business plutocracy. What the Smith Act meant was that it was a criminal offense to belong to any organization that adhered to any smattering of socialist doctrine. All of the prosecutions under the Smith Act were upheld by the Supreme Court and deemed consistent with the farcical sham of the Constitution. As mentioned, Debs was far from being an isolated case. Bertrand Russell, one of the most influential and gifted philosophers and mathematicians of the 20th century, spent six months in a British jail for roughly the same offence as Debs in the US, namely, imploring young men to defy conscription into the same ugly war, a war fought like most, by the working classes, in the interests of wealth, power and imperialism.* Young men were needlessly slaughtered in the millions, with 600,000 deaths alone at the Battle of the Somme, useless carnage orchestrated by incompetent, ruthless and pompous military officers.
* Russell was persecuted again in February of 1940, this time by the self-appointed inquisitors of both the Protestant and Catholic Churches of New York City. The Board of Higher Education of New York City appointed the great mathematician, philosopher, logician, essayist, and social critic to a Philosophy chair at the College of the City of New York to teach courses in mathematics and logic. This was considered a prestigious hiring for the University but as soon as the announcement became public, William Manning, a bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church, sent a letter to the New York Times denouncing Russell as an infamous propagandist for socialism, free thought and sexual liberty and against religion, and more specifically, Christian morality. This letter prompted strong opposition against the appointment, voiced particularly by organized conservative religious and reactionary conservative groups. Many academics, students, humanist, civic groups and even liberal religious groups came to the defense of Russell with pronouncements for freedom of speech and against censorship. But the forces of irrationality and obscurantism won out -and Russell's appointment was denied. (see the fascinating book Appointment Denied: The Inquisition of Bertrand Russell by Thom Weidrich)
The repression and suppression of free thought and left wing groups, including labor unions and antiwar activists, in both the US and Canada following the Bolshevik Revolution (the fear of elites was that this people's revolt would spread) was insidious and violent. The "Palmer Raids" by J Edgar Hoover were especially vile. This fascist police state experience of the "Red Scare" (ver. 1) was continued with a vengeance following the Second World War (ver. 2) with the emergence of McCarthyism whereby thousands of people with leftist sympathies were blacklisted, unable to find employment anywhere in their countries.
The relentless attacks on labour unions, the peace movement, the civil rights movement, the Communist Party and any other group on the political left have always existed since at least the mid 19th century , but these two periods were especially brutal and violent. Honourable and peace-loving patriotic Americans and thousands of others such as revered artists, actors, musicians and writers such as Paul Robeson, Zero Mostel, Howard Fast and Pete Seeger were harassed, persecuted, blacklisted and even jailed for their political beliefs. A few, like Lucille Ball, were allowed to pass with garbled and meaningless testimony, but most were pinned down. Fame was no protection. A lifelong anti-Communist progressive and socialist like Sam Jaffe was blacklisted for refusal to cooperate. Jaffe, who had been nominated for an Oscar for his brilliant performance in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and was famous for roles in Lost Horizon (1937) and Gunga Din (1939), was reduced to teaching high school math and living with his sisters. He would eventually make a comeback as Dr. Zorba on the successful Ben Casey television series. No more than 10 percent of the blacklisted would be able to return to careers in Hollywood. Even the biggest names were vulnerable. Larry Parks, fresh from triumphs in two films about Al Jolson, was banned for his brief membership in the CP and did not appear on-screen again until getting a small role in Freud (1962). Charles Chaplin, the most famous face in the world, had remained a British citizen and a firm believer in socialism and had supported the Spanish Republic against Franco and the fascists (supported by the military power of Hitler and Mussolini) in the Spanish Civil War. Many Americans who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War were persecuted as well. Many who wanted to fight fascism again in the Second World War were denied participation by the US military.
Many in the peace and civil rights movement and even those who wrote about "social justice" were automatically labelled "commies" and, of course some were. But what if that was the case? The reality is that freedom of belief and speech have always been a sham. Teachers, for example, were forced to take an annual oath of allegiance, a practise unique to dictatorships and fascist tyrannies, not real democracies. The same can be said for national anthems, flags and appeals to a deity.
However, it was perfectly acceptable to belong to the US Nazi Party or the KKK. These events occurred in Canada as well, but not with the ferocity, intensity and hatred of the governments (both Truman and Eisenhower) in United States. It's difficult to believe such things happened to people, but they did. It was a crime to belong to a socialist party and anyone who was in a peace group, the civil rights movement, or who wrote about social justice, was labelled a "commie" and fair game for police oppression, harassment and violence.
Even Canadian political icon Tommy Douglas (referred to as "Tommy the Commie" by his right wing adversaries), a uniquely moral and honest man considered our most admired Canadian by a CBC poll, has the distinction of a 1152 page RCMP dossier. The Douglas family has been trying for years to get this document released.
It is a cruel irony that the great promise of democracy is rarely realized in practise through expected channels such as the parliamentary system. Both the British parliamentary system in Canada and the republican system in the US are little more than platforms for the protection and benefit of the top 10- 15% of wealth and income distribution. In recent years since the massive 2007-09 multi-trillion dollar public bailouts of criminal banks and financial institutions on Wall Street and in Europe, this percentage of the 10-15% range has been reduced to more like 1-5%. Privatizing profit and socializing loss has always been the standard of state capitalism. But there are not many resources left in the public domain that can be plundered or brought to bear to further bail out rogue corporations. Governments are financially hog tied at all levels and the working classes are taking huge financial hits with reduced wages and living standards and the steady erosion of social services.
Under any definition of real democracy, no matter how broadly considered, authentic freedom under conditions of extreme inequality is a farce. For market fundamentalists, the dominant ideology of neo-conservatism and acolytes of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, everything is deemed a commodity, including people. Selling ones kidney or child is, after all a voluntary choice, and consequently an act of free will, the terms of which under an unencumbered free market, are valid. This is, of course a grotesque logical distortion of the notion of free will, but it's the logic propagated by disciples of neo-conservative economists and the talking heads on the plethora of business channels such as BNN in Canada and CNBC in the US. In this context, Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" was not far off the mark. These corporate cost-benefit philistines, including the politicians they finance, who tout the ideology of kamikaze capitalism know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Let's briefly examine some generalizations of real history, not the varnished fairy tale conservative versions that we were spoon-fed in our high school history courses.
First, conservative elites have never conceded anything without a demand, often confrontation that became violent with the working class taking truncheons in the head or shot by police, company goon squads and the military before anything was conceded. Second, most of the great political reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries have been accompanied by massive episodes of civil disobedience, riots, strikes, law breaking, the disruption of public order, and, when taken to the limit, civil war. Such turmoil and mayhem not only accompanied dramatic political changes but was often instrumental in bringing them about. Third, representative institutions and elections by themselves have rarely initiated and brought about major changes in the absence of the force majeure afforded by, say, an economic depression or global war. Finally, owing to the traditional concentration of property and wealth in capitalist "democracies" and the privileged access to media, culture, and political influence these positional advantages afford the richest stratum, it is little wonder that, as Antonio Gramsci* and Rosa Luxemburg noted, giving the working class the vote did not translate into radical political change. Ordinary conservative parliamentary politics is noted more for its immobility and atrophy to the status quo than for facilitating major reforms. Emma Goldman was right when she proclaimed, "If elections actually changed anything, they would be declared illegal."
* A brilliant and original Italian thinker, Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of "hegemony" to explain the failure of universal suffrage to bring about working-class rule. In 1925 Gransci asserted that "A main obstacle to change is the reproduction by the dominating forces of elements of the hegemonic ideology. It’s an important and urgent task to develop alternative interpretations of reality." By "alternative interpretations" of reality, Gramsci of course meant, a "revolutionary act, "telling the truth", something politicians and the religious are generally incapable of doing. When Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned after the fascist takeover of Italy by Mussolini, the government summed up its case by saying: "We must stop this brain from functioning for twenty years".
To repeat, contempt for democracy has always been a dominant characteristic of conservatism and its intellectual elite's, and as disturbing as this is, has incomprehensively spilled over to many in the working classes.
As Gramsci pointed out, if you capture people’s minds through indoctrination and the continual repetition of alleged truisms long enough, you will have manufactured consent and the masses like docile robots will obsequiously follow you anywhere. Gramsci called this “hegemony”, the symbolic level of the dominant culture that convinces people, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, that this is the best of all possible worlds. In other words by hegemony, Gramsci means the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and ethical norms that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an “organizing principle” that is diffused by the process of socialization into every area of daily life. To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalized by the population it becomes part of what is generally called “common sense” so that the philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the natural order of things. Fascists like Mussolini, Hitler and Franco and other reactionary authoritarians knew this only too well.
The extremely gifted Gramsci suffered from a variety of serious health problems that were exacerbated by the abysmal conditions of his 11 year imprisonment by Benito Mussolini simply because of his radical socialist political views. He died shortly after his release. His prison notebooks are a fascinating read.
Gramsci felt that what was missing from Marxist thought was an understanding of the subtle but pervasive forms of ideological control and manipulation that served to perpetuate all repressive institutions. He identified two quite distinct forms of political control: domination, which referred to direct physical coercion by police and armed forces and hegemony which referred to both ideological control and more crucially, manufactured consent. He assumed that no regime, regardless of how authoritarian it might be, could sustain itself primarily through organized state power and armed force. In the long run, it had to have popular support and legitimacy in order to maintain stability. The power elites who control history and human thought convince the members of the subservient classes that the prevailing conservative ideology is serving their interests as well. Not unlike the degraded justification for suffering in the face of a benevolent and omnipotent Christian deity, the exploited worker who gets up early and puts in a 12-14 hour day for a pittance in the bosses mine or factory internalizes the ideological view that such suffering and dehumanizing work was an inevitability in the natural order that was free choice act on his part.
To sum up, by hegemony, Gramsci meant the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an “organizing principle” that is diffused by the process of socialization into every area of daily life. To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalized by the population it becomes part of what is generally called “common sense” so that the philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the natural order of things. For example, schooling played an important part in Gramsci’s analysis of modern society. The school system was just one part of the complex system of ideological hegemony in which individuals were socialized into maintaining the status quo.
From the perspective of a philosophical anarchist, I’ve attempted to come up with a stipulative definition as applied to self-styled democracies like our own; namely, that ideology is the set of societal beliefs, attitudes and habits of feeling which those who hold the real power in a society inculcate in order to generate consensus and an automatic reproduction of its structuring premises, preserving stratification and social and political power in the absence of direct coercion. This conception is consistent with Bertrand Russell’s astute observation that in any society “the good man is one whose opinions and actions are pleasing to the holders of power.” In totalitarian states however, those who hold power can disregard the manufacture of consent because they simply threaten incarceration or even death to anyone who takes it upon himself to think the wrong thoughts or behave in an unacceptable manner. In democracies, since there does exist at least a tacit pretense to free expression and freedom of thought, people need to be controlled by more subtle means - inculcation by indoctrination via the church, the schools, the media and other cultural mechanisms. Any serious study of history will demonstrate that regardless of what it is called, every society or political body with rare exception has been controlled by some conservative power elite. This has been universally true in nation states, including so-called constitutional democracies such as our own. The mechanisms of ideological control in today’s world of mass media are so subtle, sophisticated and sinister most people don’t even realize they are being propagandized and controlled. That is not to say that democracies will not resort to violence. The police and military are always available to "serve and protect" the conservative oligarchy that pays their salaries and follows their orders. The history of the civil rights, women and labor movements where people were brutalized and often killed is a testament to that.
One of the clever methods employed is to keep people passive, docile and obedient by strictly limiting and framing the spectrum of acceptable opinions, but allowing very lively debate within that narrow spectrum, even encouraging the more critical and dissident views provided they are confined within the pre-conceived frame. Our corporate media, lapdogs of wealth, privilege and power – the conservative elitist oligarchs who are the real owners of the country - perform this function exceedingly well. Then every four years we are given the privilege of choice and the illusion of freedom – of voting for one of a pre-loaded selection of wealthy conservative demagogues who we assume are addressing our concerns and looking after our interests.
[See Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishan, 1971 ).
We are obliged; if my assessment is broadly valid, to confront the paradox of the contribution of lawbreaking and disruption to democratic political change. Taking the twentieth century United States as a case in point, we can identify two major policy reform periods, the Great Depression of the
1930's and the civil rights movement of the 1960's. What is most striking about each, from this perspective, is the vital role massive disruption and threats to public order played in the process of reform. Contrary to popular perception, history moves in often unpredictable and chaotic ways.
The great policy shifts and modest concessions to the working classes, represented by the institution of unemployment compensation, modest pensions, massive public works projects, social security aid, and other aspects of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal were, to be sure, abetted by the emergency of the world depression and the possible implosion of the capitalist system. The essential strategy of FDR, a man born into wealth and privilege, was to rescue this increasingly reckless exploitive system that was self-destructing. But the manner in which the economic emergency made its political weight felt was not through studies and statistics on income, unemployment and the sources of poverty, but through radical political movements, rampant strikes, looting, rent boycotts, quasi-violent sieges of government agencies and relief offices, and riots that instilled fear and trepidation in the hearts conservative business and political elites. They were thoroughly alarmed at what seemed at the time to be potentially revolutionary ferment. The ferment in question was, in the first instance, not institutionalized. The Communist Party, though influential, was never a revolutionary threat. Neither was it a threat during the Cold War. That is to say, the disobedience and disruptions were not initially shaped by established political parties, trade unions, or recognizable social movements .
During the Great Depression both in the United States and Canada, protests by unemployed and workers in the 1930s, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women's rights movement and the welfare rights movement, what success the movements enjoyed was at their most disruptive, most confrontational, least organized, and least hierarchical. It was the effort to staunch the contagion of a spreading, non-institutionalized challenge to the existing order that prompted concessions. There were no leaders to negotiate a deal with, no one who could promise to get people off the streets in return for concessions. No one to buy off. As Pierre Berton brilliantly chronicled in his book on the Great Depression in Canada, many Canadians were literally starving as the governments of both R B Bennett (Conservative) and Mackenzie King (Liberal) dithered, and even blamed the powerless working classes for their abysmal conditions. Mass defiance, precisely because it threatens the institutional order, gives rise to organizations that try to channel that defiance into the flow of normal politics, where it can be contained, co-opted or violently crushed. This was not possible during the Great Depression as it was not for the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. Elites were distressed by the fact that there were no political parties that could be co-opted or leaders that could be bribed or bought off. And that's very likely why they were was brutally shut down by the "serve and protect" boys or , failing that, the military.