JR'S Free Thought Pages
            No Gods  ~ No Masters   


The Conservative Corporate Welfare State: The State against Democracy

An anarchist perspective on the nature of Conservatism and the Conservative Nanny State

Possible Subtitles: “Neo-Conservatism (is) for Dummies” or “Socialism for the Rich”

 JR - August-November 2008

"For rulers to continue ruling it is necessary that those at the bottom of the social ladder not only accept their condition, but eventually lose their sense of being exploited" - Maurice Brinton

“Capitalism is the theory that the worst people, acting from their worst motives, will somehow produce the most good.”

Note to the reader: I have used the symbol * to denote footnotes which will follow the paragraph(s) in which they are located.

Conservatism: The Nature of the Beast

Conservative (My Personal Definition): An ostensibly decent bloke and knee jerk regressive who preaches the work ethic for those in his employ while he manages the inherited family fortune from an offshore tax shelter - also one whose ethics is restricted to the table manners of the Royal family, the Ten Commandments and the evils of homosexuality. In the former Soviet Union he was referred to as a commissar.

The best synonyms for “conservative” of which I am aware are “regressive” and “reactionary” and are in my view more appropriate labels. Conservatism is more akin to a virus or deadly disease than it is a political philosophy and it ought to be tarred and feathered and banished from the annals of civilized socio-political philosophies along with theocracy, monarchism and the Divine Right of Kings. Conservatives resist change and promote the status quo - and there’s often a reason for this. When you are perched atop the economic pyramid there’s very little personal reason to change unless of course you have some compassion for the living conditions of your fellow earthlings. Traditionally conservatives have only cared about those beneath them on the economic totem pole when they feel threatened by them and feel compelled to concede a few measly crumbs. Historically they have not been noted for their sympathies for the less fortunate as any Dickens novel will graphically illustrate. There’s a wonderful quote attributed to both James Branch Cabell and Robert Oppenheimer: The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true. I think there’s a great deal of wisdom to be gleaned from this adage and one could replace optimist with conservative and pessimist with liberal (or progressive) and it would be equally applicable. I’ll elaborate on this idea later. Religions and religious institutions are uniquely conservative and provide what I believe to be the most suitable prototype for all conservative ideologies. Religions, in particular Christianity, are the vehicles those in power have always used to add an aura of determinism to the status quo. In embracing an economic system that mandates an acquiescent working class, those in positions of power, the corporate elite and management class, have created a continuum of social stratification from extremely poor to extremely rich that not only allows immorality and injustice, but encourage it.

Christianity, at least if you are selective in your reading of the Bible, preaches peace, cooperation, loving your neighbor as well as your enemy and that the poor are the children of God and will inherit the earth. But the reality of our contemporary Judeo-Christian culture is the very antithesis of this. A primary purpose of Judeo-Christianity has not been to move us toward a universal empathy and compassion, but rather a theological apologetics for a self-serving capitalist system of power politics and economic exploitation. Easy as this is to say, not many people are willing to admit it in the presence of others, especially Christians, many of whom at best suffer from incurable confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. It is more expedient and comforting for both exploiter and exploited to pretend their parasitic relationship is natural, ordained by God. It is easier to believe in a logic that leads directly from original sin to totalitarianism - because human beings are selfish, evil creatures, they must be controlled; therefore might, guided by an all-seeing God as interpreted by an elite priesthood, makes right - than it is to take responsibility for one's own actions, and to fight for justice and fairness. It is easier to listen to the voice of your Pastor or God than it is to listen to the voice of one's conscience, suffering, and indignation. And it is easier to follow the well-worn yet faulty logic leading once again from original sin this time to apocalypse - Because human beings are evil, and have sinned, they must die. All beings on earth die. Therefore, all beings on Earth must be evil, and must have sinned. Death is the flower of sin. To avoid death requires the annihilation of evil: therefore, all things on Earth must be anni­hilated - far easier than it is to accept one's death as natural. It is all so easy, so sanctimonious, to shift responsibility for your own choices and their consequences onto the divine plan of some invisible all-powerful vindictive celestial dictator.

What follows is a piece I wrote as a preface to one of a series of essays on the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas from the time of Columbus that is germane to the zeitgeist of a uniquely Christian conservatism.

White Christian notions of self-righteousness, superiority and dominance do not come by accident. We have all been indoctrinated to accept it from our parents, churches, schools and mass culture as a whole. It is steeped into the fabric of every Western Christian country’s religion, socio-economic system and cultural mythology. Judeo-Christian religions provide a perfect template for hierarchical arrangements and class division. It’s the notion of one God above all, certain humans above other humans, and humans over the rest of nature. Political and economic systems are similarly arranged and organized along rigid hierarchical lines so that all of nature's resources are regarded only in terms of how they serve the one god - the god of growth, acquisitiveness, greed, power and expansion. Success in this culture is measured by how much “stuff” we can cram into our over-sized homes. In this way, all of these systems have a missionary quality and zeal with the primary objective of domination and control where “stuff” is more important than people and taking more valued than giving. And through their mutual collusion, these cultural values form a seamless web that engulfs and directs us throughout our lives. We live inside these hermetically sealed ethnocentric world views and cultural predispositions and are engulfed and driven by them, never thinking that anything could be different. They excuse and legitimize our behaviors and life’s choices. Most people spend their entire lives on a one way path without a trace of skeptical challenge to them.

These are the values that led to the exploitation and denigration of indigenous people in the Americas and throughout the world by Christian Europeans and the subsequent 500 years of ethnic cleansing and genocide that followed. For over five centuries Europeans have conveniently ignored the exhortation of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”   

What do we gain when we covet the wealth of the world that can come with accepting the systems and structures of power? When feeling self-righteous, we are tempted to say that we agree with Jesus, that when we place too much value on material rewards we lose something greater. But if we are to be honest, we have to acknowledge that those material rewards in the world can be extremely seductive. If you doubt this just visit a shopping mall.

We who prayed and wept
for liberty from kings
and the yoke of liberty
accept the tyranny of things
we do not need.
In plenitude too free,
we have become adept
beneath the yoke of greed.

Wendell Berry, from “We Who Prayed and Wept”

A Political Philosophy Primer

“Under capitalism man exploits man. Under communism it’s the opposite.” - Unknown

“A good man is one whose opinions and actions are pleasing to the holders of power.” - Bertrand Russell

Due largely to distortions by pundits from every political affiliation, traditional political labels over the past several decades have become blurred to such an extent that they have been rendered meaningless.* Zealots on the left refer to Conservatives as Fascists and those on the right refer to Liberals as Communists. To cite a recent example, the editor of the extreme right wing journal The National Review (founded by the late William F Buckley) Jonah Goldberg has had the audacity to write a disgraceful book with the oxymoronic title Liberal Fascists. The man clearly has no idea about history or political philosophy and the generally accepted historical or classical definitions of the various political labels and where they are located on the continuum.  His extreme ignorance of political philosophy and history is graphically demonstrated when he refers to Hitler as a socialist. It would be laughable if it were not so pathetically ignorant. Someone ought to have suggested to Goldberg that he consult a good dictionary before he came up with the laughable title. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines fascism as “a philosophy or system of dictatorial government of the extreme Right typically through the merger of state and corporate leadership usually tied to an ideology of belligerent nationalism.” Pay attention to the expressions “state and corporate” and especially “extreme right”. Any attempt to conflate liberalism with fascism demonstrates total ignorance of where it located on the political spectrum since it’s universally accepted that Conservatism is to the right of centre on the scale whereas Liberalism is to the left. Robert F. Kennedy provided a somewhat facile distinction when he referred to Communism as a system in which government controls business and Fascism as one in which business controls government.  If he were alive today and applied his own definition, he would likely conclude that both Canada and particularly the United States are fascist states. In light of what I have written above, communication is impossible when no attention is paid to semantics or generally accepted conceptual understanding and writers like Goldberg deserve to be relegated to the trash heap of philosophical nonsense.  

It has been argued by many that one’s susceptibility to fascism is traceable to forms of strict religious upbringing, particularly the German Protestant variety. Studies conducted following the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War have confirmed that every one of the convicted defendants were from families in which there was a strict religious upbringing. Moreover, in recent years it has been found that 60% of German terrorists have been the children of Protestant ministers. (Alice Miller (1985) For Your Own Good) It would seem that people raised in such doctrinaire environments lack any intellectual autonomy and will adapt to any form of authority that claims to be legitimate and has the power to make the claim stick. As Wilhelm Reich has said, the average mind is wired for fascism - for authoritarianism, for dominance, for power. The mind attaches itself to power, it respects power, it defers to power greater than its own, it uses power on individuals' minds that are weaker than its own. If that's true, then it would seem that it’s very much easier for the right to win an election in this country than it is for the left, because it has so little way to go to tap into the worst instincts of all of us.

Most dictionary definitions and books on political philosophy agree that fascism is the conjoining of industry, capital and government into one constituent to facilitate the plunder of state resources from an often unwilling or ambivalent public. Democracy is condensed into the corporate state where business, labor, and government are conflated, with labor relegated to an inert subordinate, having lost its right to collective bargaining and the right to strike. One of the first acts by both Hitler and Mussolini was to declare unions illegal and purge the country of socialists and communists. No less an authority than Mussolini stated that "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of State and corporate power." And, finally, a characterization from the Communist Georgi Dimitrov, who was exonerated in court on the Nazi charge of conspiring to start the Reichstag fire in 1933: “Fascism is the open terrorist rule of the most reactionary, chauvinist, militarist sectors of finance capital or the financial oligarchy.” Lawrence Britt has written a piece in Free Inquiry Magazine that has subsequently been widely distributed throughout the internet called “Fascism anyone” and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the fundamental characteristics of fascism. There are also some good scholarly books on the topic such as the recent Fascism: A Very Short Introduction, published by respected Oxford University Press. Umberto Ecco in a 1997 book, Five Moral Pieces, outlined the dispositional traits of someone attracted to fascism which included anti-intellectualism, intolerance of ambiguity and dissent, the need for action as against conciliation, preference for false dichotomies or bifurcations (it’s either us or them), rejection of pacifism, paternalism, and rigid unyielding authoritarian world views and moral codes. Ironically these traits quite aptly describe either of the two dominant monotheisms of Islam and Christianity.

*In my home province of British Columbia the ruling party for the past several years has been the Liberal Party which became populated by retreads from the defunct provincial Social Credit Party and federal Reform Party in the early 1990s when it went from lowly third party status to winning the election of 2001. Both the Social Credit and Reform parties were big business corporatist parties of the extreme right, not “liberal” in any traditional sense. One of the first legislative acts by Gordon Campbell, the provincial Liberal party leader and subsequent premier, was to invoke Bill 29, an anti-labor union bashing assault on working people.  Bill 29 would have made Adolph Hitler proud and has been several years in the courts under challenge by several unions and recently declared a violation of the Canadian Bill of Rights by the Supreme Court of Canada. For the thousands of people who have already lost their union jobs as a result of this regressive brutal legislation they will receive little consolation or compensation. My sister-in-law was victimized shortly after Bill 29 became law when one morning she and the other employees of the Senior Citizen Care Center where she worked for 25 years were told that their union job was gone and they could sign back on for $9 an hour with no benefits. Campbell, who must have received his sensitivity training from someone like Pol Pot is a man bent on privatizing anything and everything in the province. He has sold off the profitable publicly owned railroad BC Rail as well as many other assets owned by the people of BC and even attempted to privatize the highway system. While Herr Campbell proudly preaches about the huge budget surpluses there are thousands of homeless people living on the streets.

“Islamofascism” is a neologism invoked by Bush administration to describe Islamic fanatics following 9-11. Religious fundamentalism, including the Christian variety, does have many characteristics in common with fascism and ironically “fascism” is a word that has been used to describe the Bush administration itself – the perpetrators of union bashing and other assaults on working people, unfettered militarism and corporatism, warrantless wiretaps, the Patriot Act, suspension of Habeas Corpus for detainees at Guantanamo, violations of international law, the United Nations Charter and the Nuremberg Tribunal, torture of military prisoners, secret prisons, the highest incarceration rate in prisons of any country in the world, extraordinary rendition, preemptive unjustified attacks on defenseless countries and overthrowing non-compliant governments abroad who won’t yield to the US corporations plundering their resources. Now that’s a comparison with some validity.

Arguably, the most conservative of institutions are religions which adhere to draconian archaic rigid world views and moral codes that have changed little for thousands of years in spite of the corrosive influence of science and the liberating effects of the Enlightenment. Personally, I have never been attracted to conservatism as a political stance even as a young naive high school student trying to figure out the workings of the world. Of course it’s obvious that we all we all hold at least some conservative tendencies and values that have stood the test of time and place. From an apolitical perspective conservatives may be described as those who hold to the old adage: “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” On the face of it, a sentiment such as this sounds like a truism and home spun common sense. But simply because something works doesn’t mean that it’s working for everyone or can’t be improved. It’s also possible that it may be unjust or untrue. One of the cornerstones of rationality, critical thinking and the scientific outlook is to be continually vigilant and skeptical about accepted theories and beliefs, to be open to new ideas, ready to modify or even abandon those previously held in the face of new evidence. In my view those dispositional traits are the very antithesis of those held by conservatives. Even technicians and engineers for example need to be taught to think critically, to venture beyond the surface appearances of structure and materials, to follow ideas and hunches where they lead, to insist that truth claims be verified and not accepted on authority alone. Indeed the first duty of an intellectual is to be skeptical and to criticize, for only be stripping away dubious assumptions and false ideas can the truth be discovered. Corralling ideas and beliefs, immunizing them from critical inquiry as religion has done for millennia only inspires a genuine intellectual to trespass. This was the spirit of the Enlightenment challenge to the despotic rule of the Catholic Church and the Divine Right of Kings in the Medieval World. In this sense it’s difficult to conceive of anything that could be categorized as a conservative intellectual since by their acceptance of the status quo they have abandoned any meaningful criticism.

It seems to me that one of the primary problems with the United States in recent decades has been the uniquely conservative attitude that since we are perfect in every way and that we are #1, why change? The assumption of perfection requires neither thought nor action. Yes, Americans are number one in many areas such as the largest number of citizens incarcerated in the world, number one in invasion and bombing other countries with impunity and without legal or moral justification, number one in military expenditures (more than the rest of the world combined) and number one in religious fundamentalism* in the free world.  They also claim to be number one in education and health care which is true if you are a member of the wealthy elite. But their privatized health care system is highly inefficient and 50 million people are without health insurance. Their education system especially in the poorer areas and inner cities is dysfunctional and dreadful. American 15 year olds rank 24th out of 29 countries in mathematics literacy and their parents are as likely to believe in horoscopes and angels as in evolution. Americans are unwilling to look at how truly horrendous their educational system is because they have all been indoctrinated and propagandized with the idea that they are the best at everything, that “we're number one”. Consequently there’s no need for skepticism, self-examination and self-criticism. Claims to number one in many socio-economic domains may have been true for a couple of decades following World War II, but certainly not anymore.

In the 2004 election, nearly seventy percent of Bush supporters falsely believed the United States had "clear evidence" that Saddam Hussein was working closely with al Qaeda; a third believed weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq; and more than a third that a substantial majority of world opinion supported the U.S. led invasion, according to the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. The political right and allied culture warriors actively ignore evidence and encourage misinformation. To motivate their followers, they label intelligent and informed as "elite," implying that ignorance is somehow both valuable and under attack.

*A fundamentalist is one who believes in a literal interpretation of sacred books and a third of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. It’s a shocking statistic for a country that considers itself enlightened and an integral part of the global scientific community. The levels of religious fundamentalism in the United States are roughly ten times more than any other developed democratic country in the world. It's clearly possible to be a religious believer and to accept science, but not if you're a Biblical literalist. You can't believe that the world was literally created in six days by a conceptually opaque invisible creator, and be amenable to even the most rudimentary modern scientific knowledge. Although many Americans reject the Scientific World View, they have always had more confidence in the primary products of science (technology) than other countries. But one of the problems with a lot of technology such as computers and cell phones is that we believe in technological solutions to what are essentially non-technological problems. Ignorance and not knowing is a distinctly non-technological problem. These basic knowledge deficits of Americans - the fact that their 15-year-olds are near the bottom in mathematical knowledge compared with other advanced countries, for example - actually affect the ability of many Americans to understand larger public issues that personally affect them. To understand what it means that the top 1% of income earners are getting huge tax breaks and control over 50% of the wealth in their country, you have to know the meaning of “percent”.

The idea that the United States is number one, exceptional and better than everybody else on the planet is a very powerful factor in American life, and the credulity and blind faith in such a notion prevents them from examining the many areas in which they are clearly not number one. One could start by just examining US infant mortality and life expectancy statistics. Another is the notion that America is the quintessence of benevolence and can do no wrong, a belief in a divine command ethical outlook with the American government playing the role of the deity. For example, there’s a perception among the majority of Americans that their foreign policy is motivated by honorable intentions, to promote democracy abroad, even when they bomb a country into oblivion. Obviously The Pentagon works in mysterious ways.  There’s also a totally false perception by Americans that the United States donates more money to the underdeveloped nations and poor in the world than any other industrialized country. But on a per capita basis it is dead last and gives far less than countries such as Canada, Finland and Norway. From recent polls taken outside America the two countries most widely considered as having the most negative influence in the world are the United States and Russia. Interestingly the country with the most negative attitude toward the United States is their neighbor Mexico.

Another issue that makes political labels so confusing these days is the behavior of politicians like Tony Blair, the former Labor Party leader and Prime Minister of Britain. Ironically, this man is a rabid neo-conservative who agreed to participate in Bush’s disastrous immoral debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet he’s the leader of a party that was once considered a votary of the common man, a socialist party. Again, political labels mean very little anymore in a Machiavellian world of opportunism, greed, lust for power and the moral equivalent of “the end justifies the means.” Blair, along with his predecessors Margaret Thatcher and John Major were responsible for the sweetheart deal transference of huge swaths of public resources and wealth into the private sector which have become unmitigated disasters for the working classes. The catastrophic privatization of the British rail system is one such tragedy. Railways are a public service which is why the French government invests in them as do the Germans, Italians and Spanish. They treat the huge subsidy given their train system as an investment in the national and local economies, the environment, health, tourism, and social mobility. Railways are not a business but a service that the state provides for the common good of its citizens at collective expense. To treat trains like a corporate entity best run by ravenous entrepreneurs whose shareholders expect a cash dividend and capital gain on their investment is to misunderstand their very nature. Capitalism, contrary to what many conservatives these days believe and promote, is not synonymous with democracy. Today’s neo-conservatives embrace the “End of History” thesis articulated by Francis Fukuyama in a book with a title having the same name, who espoused the idea that we have reached the utopian apotheosis called laissez-faire capitalism. Nothing further is needed other than to periodically tweak a perfect sanctified system that is clearly a gift of God, not unlike the Divine Right of Kings or the Second Coming of the Messiah. Would the reader like to provide a defense in a few paragraphs detailing his or her preferred blueprint for Marxian historical determinism, state capitalism or the Rapture and explain in detail the rational and ethical dimensions and how it promotes democracy, fairness and justice for all and not just a select few?

But markets do not determine the objective merit or intrinsic value of things, only their price. As Confucius once said, “The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.” We need to continually remind ourselves that democracy is not an outgrowth of free markets, about personal gain, profit or even enlightened self-interest but self sacrifice and concern for the common good.

Humankind has been searching for salvation for as long as recorded history. Of all the socio-economic systems, secular “isms” and religious doctrines devised by man, all of them contain intrinsic irrationalities, self-contradictions, inconsistencies and other intrinsic flaws. In my view conservatives are the worst offenders in this regard primarily for their preference for the status quo and aversion to change. The conservative mutants of the past three decades, the so-called neo-conservatives have their own precious salvation plan called state capitalism, a system of unfettered de-regulated markets and government supported tax favors and incentives. It’s modeled on a Social Darwinian law of the jungle until a business fails – then it’s the Nanny State to the rescue. Those who cling politically to some facet of the airy fairy left from democratic socialists to hard line Marxists, in spite of the fact they have never really had a genuine opportunity to carry out their agenda without interference from powerful Western Capitalist countries, dogmatically cling to their precious doctrines as well. What conservatives must now realize is that unbridled capitalism and economic growth for its own sake is creating huge inequities in wealth accumulation and is slowly destroying the ecosystem due to over-population and exploitation of both people and the natural environment. Religious salvation plans defy logic because of their faith based pre-scientific systems of belief and consequently fall beyond the purview of any rational debate. Faith is impervious to rational examination and critique so I will not squander any words on their medieval machinations.

In the Fifties and Sixties conservatism was widely regarded as a deluded relic, an anachronism populated by inflexible elitist grumpy old rich white men from an earlier age. Interestingly, since John A Macdonald’s time conservatives in Canada were called “Progressive” Conservatives (PC) and the choice of this absurd characterization may have been motivated by the effort to dispel the negative regressive and reactionary qualities of conservatism. In recent years the label has been mysteriously dropped. Conservatives in the earlier days since Confederation, in spite of the fact that their primary concern continued to be “conserving” the interests of big business and the privileged, maintained at least some token gesture of concern for the common good. But conservatives during the past three or four decades have been transmogrified into Social Darwinian Neanderthals, in many cases not even remotely resembling those traditional conservatives I recall from the 1950s and 1960s. Back then at least some conservatives still had a sense of noblesse oblige - an understanding of the importance of working for the common good, even if not from a genuine sense of moral obligation. However, the neo-conservatism of people like George W Bush and Stephen Harper that speaks to us through its rhetoric and actions is philosophically and institutionally opposed to those baseline good intentions of citizenship and community that were inculcated during our public schooling.

A belief in the common good, sharing, a sense of community and the public will, we are now told by these new versions of conservatism and their uncountable corporate funded “think tanks” are anathema to the deity of unfettered free markets. Its leaders dismiss the idea of the public interest, the common good or helping the worst off in society as airy-fairy wimpy nonsense; they are averse to bringing top-quality talent into government service; they declare war on public workers and denounce unions. They have made a cult of under-funding social services, outsourcing and privatizing everything within the public realm; they have demolished established publicly owned corporations and utilities because they are ideologically opposed to them, and they have deliberately piled up a mountain of debt in order to force the government into crisis. By running up the national debt, they provide a pretext to sell off valuable public assets to their corporate cronies in the private sector – often at a huge discount to market value. Government is thereby simply another instrument of exploitation for business. Ronald Reagan, who continually preached about fiscal responsibility, tripled the national debt of the United States during his eight years tenure as president and George W Bush has doubled it to currently stand at $10 trillion. The damage to the spirit of democracy and social destruction they have fashioned has been thorough; it’s been a professional hatchet job. Assuming what democracy remains can be salvaged, restoring it will require decades of political action.

W. A. C. Bennett, the conservative premier of British Columbia during the two decades of the 1950s and 60s believed strongly that certain sectors of the economy should be under public control. In spite of the scandals and corruption within his administration, he created BC Hydro, BC Rail and BC Ferries and other public entities by taking over and transforming ineffective and inefficient private businesses into extraordinarily successful government controlled corporations. The neo-conservatives in today’s world such as Stephen Harper or George W Bush would brand a man like Bennett a socialist. Our present neo-conservative premier Gordon Campbell must spend sleepless nights devising ways of dismantling and selling off profitable public assets at distress prices to the private sector. He has been successful in a scandal plagued process in selling off BC Rail to Canadian National Railway, a transaction that has been under investigation by the RCMP and stalled in the courts for the past several years. He’s a heartless robotic man who never tires of informing the public of how wonderful the economy is (of course this he claims is attributable to his economic policies and not the global bull market in commodity prices) and what huge budget surpluses we have in British Columbia as desperate homeless people live on the streets of our cities and towns and he legislates huge budget cuts to our social security and public health care system. Of course there are billions available for a new highway to the lavish ski and golf resort at Whistler so the rich and famous can drive to their million dollar condos more quickly. This is explained away by as a requirement for the 2010 Winter Olympics, another extravaganza that is only affordable by the big corporate sponsors and the super rich. Governments for Conservative politicians these days are merely business ventures and canny career moves, reconnaissance missions whereby one can gain useful business connections for lining one’s own pockets. This has been the case in municipal politics for as long as I can remember but now it’s the game played by these amoral rapacious politicians at all levels.

Conservatives: The Folks who brought you Feudalism and the Divine Right of kings

“The education system will always be applied toward serving the role of cultural transmission of the status quo.” – Henry M Levin

Throughout history Conservatives have invariably been people born into privilege who value the status quo, resisting change regardless of whether or not the change has any merit - practical or moral. They hold to this rule, unless of course change benefits their own privileged status. Not unlike the religious, most conservatives value authoritarian hierarchical moral and political systems of power, naturally of course with them being at the pinnacle of the economic hierarchy. Conservatives tend to value certainty and fear ambiguity and are prone to conformity and dichotomous rigidity of thought - often standing firm to draconian tradition and dogmatic belief. They are often submissive to power and suspicious of intellectuals and free thought. Sounds like a monarchical theocracy or the Vatican, does it not?  Most conservatives praise the George W Bush patriot act, pledge of allegiance, his immoral and illegal imperialistic wars; they favor rigid inflexible moral codes and law and order for keeping the masses docile and in a constant state of credulity and fear. They revel in mindless rituals such as singing of the national anthem, pledges of allegiance and placing your hand on the Bible during testimony in court. George W Bush by the way is the son, grandson and great grandson of wealthy and powerful men. Is there anyone who believes that a man of his limited intellect and unsavory personality traits would have gotten him anywhere near Yale and Harvard Business School or the owner of a professional baseball team – much less the presidency – without his family name and connections? George W Bush is your typical conservative silver spoon unearned “success story.”  Is it any surprise that 90% of the benefits of tax cuts by the former rich boy alcoholic “born again” Christian George W Bush during the past eight years have gone to the top 1% of wealthiest Americans?  And is it any surprise that the “wall of separation of church and state” as articulated in the First Amendment is being demolished by the infusion of religiosity into every aspect of government under the Bush Administration? I’ve always wondered why within democracies we have we never seen anyone from the working classes rise to the presidency of any country and why invariably politicians come from the business and professional classes. How can anyone from the working classes believe that these people care about their interests? They never have. But working class people, in addition to conservatives, are also suspicious of candidates from the intellectual ranks. Wealthy businessmen, lawyers, accountants and real estate developers seem to populate our political ranks – why no plumbers, carpenters or auto mechanics? This may be changing however since in Bolivia they have elected a president Evo Morales, an indigenous peasant born into a poor humble family of seven children.

During the early years of the enlightenment conservatives were monarchists and theocrats and during the nineteenth and early twentieth century democratic movements they zealously resisted liberalism of any kind such as women’s rights, racial equality, public education, trade unions, attempts at wealth redistribution, egalitarianism, the removal of Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer in the public schools as well as civilized working conditions and wages for the working classes. Many who call themselves conservatives today espouse freedom but love to deny them to people who don’t hold to their inflexible elitist and often evangelical or fundamentalist Christian based world view. They are invariably the ones who love to wave the flag, march lockstep in parades, display bumper stickers with mind numbing expressions like “Support the Troops and “America, Love it or leave it” and sing “God Bless America” at the seventh inning stretch. The super rich conservatives are habitually the most enthusiastic supporters of war but leave the inconvenience and revulsion of fighting and dying in them to the working classes and poor. Conservative chicken hawks like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz love to start wars but would never be caught dead in a military uniform in harm’s way. This has been the case throughout recorded history.

An Historical Perspective:

“When ideas go unexamined and unchallenged for a long enough time, they become mythological, and very, very powerful. They create conformity. They intimidate. They coerce....My job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” - E. L. Doctorow

At the beginning of the 21st century many in the free world wonder, as we reflect on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other avoidable horrors that continue to prevail, whether much if any moral progress has been achieved over the past five centuries. But we should reflect with satisfaction on at least one thing: that the history of Western Civilization has been such that most ordinary people have reached a position which at the beginning of that era was attainable by only a minute minority of elites, namely monarchs, aristocrats, and senior clergy. Since the beginning of the 16th century, literacy and education, civilized living and working conditions, democratic institutions and participation in the political process for all, freedom of movement, due process of law and so on, have been the direct result of liberal minded people inspired by the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. These reforms were achieved not by conservatives, but liberals, skeptics and free thinkers who challenged the status quo and the existing moral order and political authority of their time.

People who call themselves conservative and insist on distorting and demonizing liberalism ought to take pause and read some history and political philosophy because the freedoms that we cherish and enjoy today are the direct result of the thoughts and actions of liberal minded people and members of the oppressed poor who often risked and lost their lives in the process.  In fact it was conservatives who resisted such changes at every turn and who were most often the persecutors, exploiters and executioners. Add into the ledger the many achievements of democratic institutions and social movements that led to the betterment of life for the common man and of science, benign technology and medicine and the attractions and justifications for the liberal outlook increase immensely. Many of these free thinking people died in furthering their liberal causes – tortured to death by the church, in the monarchy’s dungeons, on the battlefields and in the streets. These liberties are seriously under threat today. No one in a rational state of mind will classify the Catholic Church, the Moral majority, Focus on the family, the Taliban, Iranian power structure or even the Bush administration as liberal entities. They are patently conservative.

I often think of one of my youthful heroes, Tommy Douglas, as one of these liberal minded people. J. S Woodsworth, the founder of the CCF, was the Douglas family pastor in Saskatchewan when Douglas was a youngster and was unmistakably influenced by him. In 1924 he enrolled in Brandon College a hybrid liberal arts and Bible college run by the Baptist Church. After graduation Douglas enrolled at McMaster University where he earned his MA in sociology and then went on the University of Chicago for a doctorate, writing his thesis on the plight of the many homeless living on Chicago streets. In 1931 he was ordained as a Baptist pastor in Weyburn, Saskatchewan and it was there that he observed the abysmal conditions of ordinary people suffering under the harsh conditions of drought, abysmal wages and working conditions, the Depression and political indifference to their sufferings. Douglas was a hands-on Christian, who possessed a deep innate sense of moral obligation to help those without power or means, the underprivileged and the worst off in his community. The church hierarchy urged Tommy Douglas to stay out of politics but an incident during a miner’s strike changed all that. He was bringing food and supplies, apparently solicited through the church, to the strikers when the company thugs called the RCMP appeared, poised to disrupt the strikers, but instead opened fire on the defenseless strikers, killing three and wounding many others. From that point onward Douglas could no longer be an apolitical Christian activist. The rest is a wonderful inspirational story of a man who brought government sponsored universal health care first to Saskatchewan and then to the whole of Canada. I first heard Douglas speak at UBC when I was a young undergraduate mathematics major and the first thing I noticed about him was what a tiny man he was. But as soon as he smiled and began to speak, his inspirational words, engaging personality and sense of humor won over everyone. I have never before experienced such charisma and motivational charm. Perhaps other than Pierre Trudeau, he’s the only politician I have truly admired.

In 2004 Canadians voted for "The Greatest Canadian." Tommy Douglas, a socialist and progressive reformer known as Canada's 'father of Medicare,' won the honor. This is remarkable in that Douglas’ party the CCF (later renamed the NDP) never came close to winning the federal election, although his party did win several provincial elections in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. As I write this the election in the United States is about one month away and the Republican candidate John McCain is only a few points behind the charismatic democrat candidate Barrack Obama. How can McCain even stand a chance in this election, given the abysmal state of the country? Why hasn't "conservative" become a dirty word, given the results of the last 8 (or is it 30?) years of conservative rule? How is it that the Republicans get away with lies, dirty tricks, thievery and gross hypocrisy, over and over again? Why are congressional Democrats so spineless, so deferential around Republicans? Why are Bush and Cheney not being impeached over the debacle in Iraq alone? What is going on? Why the cognitive dissonance, ignorance of history and lack of collective memory even about the immediate past? What has happened to the United States, home of revolutionary democracy? Who do they have - Franklin Roosevelt, Joe Hill and Eugene Debs? Martin Luther King? The freedom riders? Elizabeth Staunton and Susan B. Anthony? Mario Savio? Malcolm X? John Brown? Tom Paine? Emma Goldman? With the exception of King and FDR Americans remember these people only indistinctly, if at all. The founding father heroes have been stripped of their progressive revolutionary content, to emerge in our times as staunch Christian conservatives. Whether the man of the Enlightenment Thomas Jefferson was actually an atheist social revolutionary is not the point; he is perceived as something else.

The American Culture of Greed

“In Fourteen Hundred and ninety three Columbus stole all he could see.”

“If you’re robbing somebody, oppressing them, dictating their lives, it’s a very rare person who can say: “Look, I’m a monster. I’m doing this for my own good.” Even Himmler didn’t say that. When you have your boot on someone’s neck, you have to justify it. The justification has to be their depravity.” - Noam Chomsky

The problems with America are distinctly cultural. Americans have always been obsessed with the rich and famous from stories about Horatio Alger to Donald Trump. Trump, a real estate tycoon and distinctly arrogant and boorish man, now has an obscene television series about how to get rich by stomping on everyone and everything in your path. Americans deify men like Henry Ford and the feel good stories about them. American high school students know that Henry Ford built the first mass-produced automobiles, and that he offered a living wage to his workers based on the self-interested assumption that he needed buyers for his products. What we are not taught or have conveniently forgotten however is that Ford was an admirer of both Mussolini and Hitler and published anti-Semitic rants in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent. On TV and radio we are deluged by endless get-rich-quick commercials; one snake oil salesman after another hawking his easier, faster way to make "life-changing" money. Even Christian televangelists like Joel Osteen are into the game – some call it Christian wealth television. Jesus wants you to be rich! We love to peek into millionaire mansions and the rapacious lives of the rich and famous, the garages full of Ferraris and classic cars. One man is so rich he collects tanks and has massive warehouses to hold them – I’m not kidding! Is greed really good as Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street informs us?  Haven't too many Americans come to believe that making money in itself is a goal worthy of a lifetime pursuit? In Thailand for example they talk of "suspiciously wealthy" individuals - people so rich one should be suspicious of how they got it. We have no similar conception.

The fundamental premise of Horatio Alger stories that many conservatives must have had their mothers read to them as bedtime stories is that acquiring wealth beyond your wildest dreams is the loftiest of pursuits, even divinely inspired and sanctioned. Left unexamined, and, certainly, unanswered, are awkward questions about the origins of someone’s wealth, and of the inevitability of one person's wealth being based not only on another person's poverty and exploitation but on the privation of the planet. At least nineteenth-century slave owners occasionally had the hon­esty to admit that their wealth was based on the misery of others. That is more than I can say for our latest crop of robber barons on Wall Street.

Even if we presume that excessive wealth does not cause a concomitant and much broader poverty, in their rags-to-riches tales that conservatives conveniently ignore is the fact that the primary means by which people become wealthy in our culture is through the contingency of socio-economic background and inheritance, with the secondary means being government subsidies. One could argue that both of these lag far behind theft as a form of enrichment: theft of land from indigenous peoples, theft of habitat from nonhumans, theft of habitat from future humans, outright grants of huge tracts of public land by governments and so on. But the point, as it relates to this discussion, is that the tale strongly suggests that if you don't strike it rich, if your American Dream turns into a nightmare of minimum wage, unpaid overtime, delayed gratification, and quiet desperation (assuming no hunger, degradation, and early death), it's your own damn fault. Blame the victim. You're too lazy, too stupid, or you just didn't follow the rules quite carefully enough as laid out by people like Wayne Dyer, Joel Osteen, Rhonda Byrne. Or, maybe, you weren't the right color.

A few weeks ago I saw a bumper sticker that said, "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich." It’s attributable to Napoleon and I think and it’s an accurate depiction of the power and control that hyper-conservative religious institutions have held over the masses for centuries, but it's also only part of the story. The multi-tiered judicial system is also what keeps the poor from murdering the rich – and of course the police and military who have always sided with the elites and the powerful during times of dissent from working people. The history of the labor, women, indigenous peoples and civil rights movements, histories conveniently deleted from the history curriculums in our public schools provide sufficient evidence of this claim. The ethnocentric feel good stories we are taught at home from infancy and the values that are inculcated at school are what keeps the poor from murdering the rich. The belief that it is acceptable to be rich while others live on the street living like rats is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich. The desire to be like them keeps the poor from murdering the rich. None of this, of course, never has and never will keep the rich from murdering the poor. For a chronology of the inconvenient truths of the real history of real people I strongly recommend Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and A Peoples History of American Empire and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.

There’s an insightful quote from one of my intellectual heroes, the historian Howard Zinn, who I mentioned in the previous paragraph: "[Civil disobedience] is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. ... Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That's our problem."

The belief that wealth is divinely ordained is nearly ubiquitous among the rich and it’s sad to say, among many of the poor. This has been a maxim of the conservative mind set for centuries. John D. Rockefeller, for example, stated, "I believe the power to make money is a gift of God ... to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience." There was no reason for him to mention the relationship between his "gift of God," and his use of child labor, hiring Pinkerton thugs to beat up and kill strikers, rape of the environment or his devastation of communities. It probably did not occur to him: Within a culture like ours, all things - children, men, women, communities, land, plants, animals—belong by right to those who have the "gifts" to seize them. This right is the endowment of an all-knowing God who, as we can all clearly see, has everyone's interests at heart. As George E. Baer, president of the Philadelphia and Reading, stated, "The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for by the Christian men to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country." Not much has changed. A number of years ago I recall listening with great interest a television interview with British Columbia’s resident billionaire Jim Pattison who was asked to account for why he has accumulated so much wealth. His response was, not surprisingly, “It was the will of the Lord that I be rich.”

It is not only the rich themselves who preach the gospel of divine wealth. The famous Calvinist theologian Henry Ward Beecher, who accepted boatloads of money from the Northern Pacific Railroad Company to preach the good railroad's virtues, once said, "God has intended the great to be great and the little to be little." Low wages were not a problem to the workingman, he said, because "the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live." History does not record his own dinner menus. The immensely popular nineteenth-century Baptist minister, Russell H. Conwell, was even more vociferous, traveling the country, giving a lecture, entitled, "Success was an outward sign of inward grace." He told his flock, "I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich…To make money honestly is to preach the gospel. . . . The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community." When asked whether he sympathized with the poor, he replied, "To sympathize with a man whom God has pun­ished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, no doubt about it, and we do that more than we help those who are more deserving. While we should sympathize with God's poor - that is, those who cannot help themselves - let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings, or by the shortcomings of someone else. It is all wrong to be poor, anyhow."  This bankrupt predestined Christian morality of “blame the victim” is the essence of conservatism.

The Class System

“Ten men in our country could buy the whole world and ten million can’t buy enough to eat”. – Will Rogers, 1931

“The utility of intelligence is admitted only theoretically, not practically: it is not desired that people should think for themselves, because it is felt that people who think for themselves are awkward to manage and cause administrative difficulties”. - Bertrand Russell

I would now like to discuss a class of people that has existed throughout history and for the sake of convenience refer to them as the “third class” and how they are dealt with by the system of coercion and power. If class one is the rulers, and class two is the wage earners and laborers, that is, the people who've literally bought into the system of propaganda, the third class is those who either do not buy into the system or who are unable to. They are the ones Bob Dylan described as having “nothing to lose” and who radical criminologist Steven Spritzer calls "social dynamite." They are the ones who feel they're owed more by the system or who believe the system must be de­stroyed. They are those with the potential to do something about it, the ones who could possibly resist whether organized as a group – or alone. They are the ones who, in the 1870s, would have refused to let themselves be whipped, and because of that would have been hanged. They are the risk takers, labor leaders who fought for civilized wages and working conditions and who refused to fight in World War I or who wrote articles against war and spent years in jail as did the socialist Eugene Debs. Even Bertrand Russell, a man with aristocratic roots, spent six months in jail for writing pacifist pamphlets. They're the ones who see through the myth of egalitarianism and see through the myths of social mobility and opportunity. They are the ones who see the social structure, class system and hierarchy for what it really is.

How do you deal with them? Christian Parenti put it well. "Controlling them requires both a defensive policy of containment and aggressive policy of direct attack and active destabilization. They are contained and crushed, confined to the ghetto, demoralized and pilloried in warehouse public schools, demonized by a lurid media, sent to prison, and at times dispatched by lethal injection or police bullets. This is the class - or more accurately the caste, because they are increasingly people of color - which must be constantly undermined, divided, intimidated, attacked, discredited, and ultimately kept in check with what Franz Fanon called the 'language of naked force.'"

Those in power have always known that the way to win battles, as Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest put it, is to "Get there first with the most." This is no less true in battles for the mind than it is in battles for physical territory. It's far more efficient to repress peo­ple before they begin to exercise any sort of political freedom, before they begin to even perceive the system might be unfair, than it is to wait until the deferred dream explodes. What this means today is that it's far more efficient - expensive as incarceration might be - to lock up poor people or non-Whites before they have a chance to become politically active, or revolutionary. By the time they gain any sort of full political awareness they're already locked away, in some cases for the rest of their lives.

Let me describe this system differently. For some people, the system uses enticements and a propaganda system based on classless inclusivity, a belief in conspicuous consumption, rights and that we actually do live in a democracy: Every four years I get to vote for a choice of millionaires, I enjoy my golf or tennis, my computer, my stereo and DVD collection and my shelves full of books. I like my new car, high definition LCD television and my inalienable rights to the home where I live

For others, the system uses force, and propaganda based on ter­ror. If group one is kept in line through inane and insane luxuries, and by a propaganda that, at one time, told them they ruled by the divine right of kings, but now tells them they rule by the divine right of money (or because as in the perceptive Bruce Hornsby song, that's just the way it is), and group two is kept in line through propaganda tying self-worth to industrial pro­ductivity (which means tying identity to the very system that exploits them), as well as the provision of enough comforts and conveniences to keep them in the game, then group three is kept in line through the use of force, and, more importantly, by the spectacle of terror. You don't need to see many of your neighbors castrated, burned to death, or hanged before you decide that you might just be better off not voting, and that, the next time you sell your crops, it would probably be a good idea to take whatever the white man offers. Similarly, you don't need to see many of your people's villages burned before you realize your best chance to live free might be to accept whatever treaty the white man offers for you to give up the land where your ancestors have lived since the beginning of the world, and move west further away from him, his guns, and his torches. And you needn't see many of your neighbors pulled from their beds and sent to prison, some for the rest of their lives (three strikes, boy, and you're out) before you de­cide that Walmart or McDonald's just might be your kind of place to work. Indeed, it might even be, you say with more of a grimace than a smile - a hap-hap-happy place where the bosses refer to you as “associate” to mollify your feelings of inadequacy and the starvation wages.

American Rambo

“We must never lose sight of the distinction between what we are told to do and what we ought to do.” - R. M. Hare

"If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties . . . must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective."  - Martin Luther King Jr.

"God and Country are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed." - Luis Bunuel

Who can count the seemingly infinite number of American heroes dispensing justice from their fists or from the barrel of a gun? From John Wayne to Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry to Rambo, the Terminator and the young Vito Corleone, we thrill to our heroes walking tall, carrying a big stick, but preferably a gun or automatic weapon, which is much more efficient, to right the wrongs of society. They do it pretty much alone. No social action to achieve social justice here. Rambo invades Vietnam to free American prisoners. Bronson's character fights and kills the evil inner city gangs that the inept and corrupt police forces and systems of justice cannot contain. A contemptible judicial bureaucracy wrongly prevents Dirty Harry from dispensing real justice. Here we have a righteous vigilante who fights for freedom his beloved family. The young Michael Corleone does what is necessary to "protect his family." We want to forget he is a gangster and murderer, but he attends mass every Sunday. We want to forget Bronson's vocation is murder, because he is right to fight evil in any way he can. In all this there is a strong flavor of the virtuous ends justifying the means. If you have to lie, cheat and kill to achieve the Kingdom of God on earth, the real America, so be it. Sound familiar? Can anyone be surprised about US imperialist foreign policy and the fact that they are global bullies and consider themselves owners of the moral high ground and the world? We agonize about bullies on the school grounds but are silent about the global bully called the United States of America. Given these cultural norms, why should Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq be a surprise to anyone?

Why do Americans refuse to vote for intellectuals, eggheads or pointy headed liberals? Recall the highly intelligent articulate Adlai Stevenson who ran against Dwight D. Eisenhower back in the 1950s. Stevenson didn't stand a chance, primarily because he was deemed too intellectual to be President. We prefer our leaders to be plain spoken, pragmatic Machiavellian men of action who don't think, reflect or read too much. An obtuse philistine like Ronald Reagan or an illiterate cowboy like George W Bush fit the job description beautifully. It is hard to think of an American icon, fictional or real, who is an intellectual. Can you think of anyone? Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain? Gore Vidal? Is anyone surprised that Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, two third rate Hollywood movie stars, both became governors of California? You can bet John Wayne, a lifetime Republican, would be a strong supporter of the Bush administration. He would cheer us on to "victory" in Iraq and Afghanistan. We'd have to respect the opinion of such an American hero. But then we forget that John Wayne was born Marion Morrison, and it is an uncomfortable fact that he was a draft dodger during World War II.

People v The State: An Anarchist Perspective

“Power corrupts, Absolute power corrupts absolutely, God is all-powerful, draw your own conclusions….” - Me

“Every state has been an instrument by which a privileged few have wielded power over the immense majority. And every church has been a loyal ally of the state in the subjugation of mankind.” - Michael Bakunin

Contrary to public perception and the rhetoric of pundits of every political stripe, all political alliances from the margins of the extreme left to the extreme right desire a strong state. It’s just a question of emphasis and whose interests the state will sustain and eventually benefit. Conservatives pontificate on the value of unfettered free markets and the “invisible hand of the marketplace” free from government interference. However, they have been at the same time effective in concealing their tacit preference for big government and their agenda to use the state to distribute income upward to higher-paid managerial and executives types, business owners, passive investors and financial elites and their support for the establishment of laws and mechanisms to facilitate this outcome. The entire state run capitalist system is supported on a taxpayer provided floatation device that bears no resemblance to the "invisible hand" capitalism envisioned by Adam Smith, but is rather Marxism for the big corporations and the wealthy. As of 2001, this system of redistribution of wealth upward has resulted in the top 1 percent of wealth holders owning more than twice as much as the bottom 80 percent of the population in both the United States and Canada.

In my view the only genuine democracy lies in an anarchist non-hierarchical anti-authoritarian direct democracy and for anyone interested in anarchist political philosophy, the literature is considerable. In a letter to Madison, Thomas Jefferson wrote,

“Societies exist under three forms, sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government, as among our Indians. 2. Under government wherein the will of everyone has a just influence; as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our States in a great one. 3. Under government of force, as is the case in all other monarchies, and in most of the other republics. To have an idea of the curse of existence in these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep. It is a problem not clear in my mind that the first condition is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population. The second state has a great deal of good in it ... It has its evils too, the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. ... But even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to public affairs. I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”

And in a subsequent letter,

“God forbid that we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion! ...What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that the people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take up arms ... The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Jefferson, in his first reference to the Native American societies, was referring to their absence of a state or representative type of government. Native American societies were clearly anarchist in this sense and were far more democratic, tolerant and egalitarian than their white European Christian counterparts. African Americans, for example, often fled to welcoming Native Indian societies to escape the bondage of their white Christian slave owners. But what did the many whites find so alluring about indigenous society? According to Ben Franklin, “All their government is by the Counsel of the sages. There is no Force, there are no Prisons, no Officers (police) to compel Obedience or inflict Punishment. North American native societies and religion lacked authoritarian hierarchical structures and were more democratic, tolerant and open minded than their so-called enlightened Spanish, French and British counterparts in the 17th and 18th centuries. Moreover, Native American women were accorded far more freedom, responsibility and power than Christian European women and white women that were held in captivity noted this difference with envy. Although leadership was hereditary in most North American indigenous societies, the chief was expected to put the welfare and common good of the tribe beyond all other considerations and was under constant scrutiny for his moral and intellectual qualities. Native Americans lived in a classless society of sharing where the concepts of private property and greed within their own tribe at least was non-existent. The authority of the leaders was secured on the basis of tribal consensus with input from every member. This form of direct democracy was unique and consistent with anarchist principles and authority ceased once the esteem and respect of the tribe members was lost. Native ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality found their way to Europe, influencing Thomas More, John Locke, Montaigne and Rousseau, who in turn influenced Jefferson, Franklin and Madison.

An adage popular in anarchist circles maintains that "Elections are the means by which we choose the goo with which we will be barbecued." Anarchists have a deep-seated problem with claims of representation made by politicians whether Marxist, Liberal or Conservative because no one can truly represent anyone other than themselves, except in some "best guess" approximation of other people's interests. For many anarchists, the limited access to politics that many individuals and social movements seek, whether through representational or policy reforms, at base reaffirm one's consent to be ruled and have crucial decisions managed on one's behalf. Reinventing democracy - and what is meant by "participatory democracy” - has been a key concern of contemporary anti-globalization movements. It’s a public condemnation of what passes for democracy under capitalist neo-conservatism, in which fundamental decisions impacting billions of the world's inhabitants can be made by a handful of rich men in luxury hotels surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by paramilitary forces. On the other hand, it is an expression of activists' understanding that the means by which these undemocratic processes are con­fronted and impeded must themselves be built on a participatory and egalitarian basis. Democracy is not what is happening in luxury suites, parliaments, and marble conference halls. Participatory democracy can be messy, chaotic, slow and unstable. Anarchists fear none of these outcomes and indeed generally embrace them as acceptable trade-offs for the ability to take part in and carry out the fundamental decisions that affect their lives. They are certainly preferable to the perhaps more convenient, but also more dangerous alternatives of coercion, special interest, lobbies and policy decisions made without any consideration of what the populace at large really wants. Witness what has happened in the United States for the past eight years in particular. Consider wars, specifically the War in Iraq, a war based on deceptions, conspiracy of government and media and outright lies. Do the public want imperialistic wars? - Of course not. It can be argued that the United States is on the cusp of a fascist police state. Herman Goering, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe under Hitler’s Third Reich, understood this only too well:

"Why of course the people don't want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war, neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship ...Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger."

The French anarchist Sebastian Faure identified two assumptions that dominate all politics including our self-styled democratic system: first, the acquisition of power by all means and second, to keep that power by all means, regardless of how contemptible. At a fundamental level an anarchist is anyone who challenges the legitimacy of authority and power whether it is state, church, patriarchy or economic elitism of any kind. Anarchists promote a genuine classless democratic society, a direct democracy free of any dogmatic creed, political ideology or hierarchical authority structure. They are just as opposed to Communism as they are to Capitalism. A dictatorship of the plutocrat is just as loathsome as a dictatorship of the proletariat. As I have stated in a previous essay, anarchists generally believe that human beings desire and are capable of managing their own affairs on the basis of creativity, cooperation, sharing, reciprocal support, common humanity and mutual respect. In my view these admirable human qualities are more consistent with human nature and preferable than are the values of individualism, assertiveness, selfishness, domination, power and greed that we diligently instill into children in our so-called capitalist societies. In any event these disagreeable attributes become self-fulfilling prophesies and consequently we can think of no other alternative values of founding a civilized society. Moreover, I have not as yet read any compelling argument that human nature is grounded in the latter. Anarchists of every persuasion believe that power and coercion of any kind is inherently immoral and corruptive, and that authorities are inevitably more concerned with self-perpetuation and increasing their own power than they are with doing what is best for their constituents. This is equally true in ostensibly apolitical environments such as the workplace or church as it is in the political realm whether in Totalitarian or Fascist regimes, Communist states or Capitalist Liberal Democracies.

Top down bureaucratic hierarchies are by their very nature authoritarian, self-perpetuating and oppressive so anarchists prefers to go “topless”. By “topless” I mean an egalitarian notion that can be expressed metaphorically as everyone living on the surface of an ocean with lifeboats that represent small voluntary organizational units interacting with one another allowing for face to face interaction. But instead the metaphor for the modern state is represented by an existence within mountainous regions with certain privileged powerful people on the mountain peaks dictating to the rest who flounder on the slopes like the man in the myth of Sisyphus. The states that pretend to democracy allow its citizens to go to the polls every four years to choose between two or more multi-millionaire candidates who represent exclusively the interests of those living on or near the mountaintops. At some point in the ceaseless expansion of our culture's realm of control, the notion of a community was replaced by the acceptance of communal control by distant and increasingly hierarchical and unre­sponsive corruptive institutions. The larger the institution, the more accumulative power it takes to reach the top. It therefore follows that the primary motivations of those at the top are grounded in the securing and maintenance of power, which means the more likely that the institution will manifest this particular form of destructive and psychopathic behavior. Presently, Switzerland is the only country I can think of that comes anywhere close to the anarchic ideal, although in recent years it seems to be gravitating toward the more traditional elitist top down faceless behemoth type of government that we tolerate in Canada, the United States and elsewhere.

Those in positions of power are those who often covet that same power and they are surely the least desirable candidates. What you do when you have power determines more accurately than anything the quality of your morals and the record throughout history is not encouraging. Robert Hare, who has become recognized as the foremost authority on psychopaths after conducting 35 years of research at the University of British Columbia tells us that within the general population 1% are psychopaths; that's well over 300,000 in Canada alone. But more disturbing is his claim that for politicians, popes, employers, bosses and others in positions of power and authority, the percentage rises to 10%. "They seem to lack the ability to feel genuine empathy, guilt, or remorse, or to form deep emotional attachments or connections with other people," he once stated in an interview. In his best-selling book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, he coined the phrase "sub-criminal psychopath" to describe the successful and dangerous egos with an uncanny knack for office politics. Gandhi once wrote a letter to Hitler pleading with him to stop committing atrocities and was mystified that it had no effect whatsoever. I personally continue to write letters to the editor pointing out distortions, untruths and glaring omissions, and continue to be appalled each time a corporate newspaper such as the Vancouver Sun or National Post continues unabated to publish its next irrationality or when it purposely refuses to criticize absurdities and ethical failings of the sacred cows of religion, capitalism or the incumbent right wing party that invariably it shamelessly endorses. Then there is the unpleasant news it refuses to cover because it conflicts with their blatant conservative political bias. Needless to say, they rarely get published. I’m a slow learner I suppose but at least I’ve stopped writing to politicians.

Anarchists generally maintain that ethics are a personal matter and by definition must be based on compassion and sympathy for others and the well being of society as a whole, rather than upon laws imposed by a secular or religious authority or even revered jurisdictions such as those based on the U.S. Constitution. Not unlike existentialist and humanist philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre, most anarchist philosophies hold that individuals are responsible for their own behavior, life goals and ultimate purposes in life. Anything imposed from an external source, whether God or the State is illegitimate and inauthentic. The anarchist needs no one to tell him how to think, what he ought to do or how to create a meaningful life. Paternalistic authorities foster a dehumanized mindset in which people expect elites to make decisions for them and meet their needs, rather than thinking and acting for themselves. When an authority expropriates the right to overrule the most fundamental personal moral decisions, such as what is worth killing or dying for (as in military conscription or abortion), human freedom is immeasurably diminished. Anarchism has never really been tried within modern European or North American societies, with the possible exception of short periods during the Spanish Civil War under abysmal conditions. It seems more viable with smaller communities where people have a feeling that their decisions are voluntary and that they have direct input into those decisions that impact them. But even if we were to admit that anarchism is impractical or unworkable, it would not follow that it has no value. As a skeptical political position it is still worth entertaining (as is all critical skepticism) and indeed is foundational to political philosophy and must be grappled with in any serious proposal for a just political system. One could say that anarchism serves the same function in politics and political theory as critical rational skepticism serves in epistemology and the scientific method. It’s interesting that nearly all of the existing forms of human endeavor and organization are voluntary with the only exceptions being the state and organized crime. Tennis clubs for example are anarchist because no one is forced to join and no one is coerced into obeying its rules, but rather enjoyment of the activity depends on its intrinsic value and the fact that it is rule governed and yet by and large those rules are followed.

Public perception and surprisingly many in the intellectual community correlate anarchism with chaos, violence, bombs, disruption, and so on. Consequently, people are often surprised when public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn speak positively of anarchism and identify themselves with leading traditions within it. Misconceptions and misunderstanding of anarchists are pervasive among the masses, having been indoctrinated into perceiving anarchists as bomb-throwing savages who only crave disorder and chaos. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact many anarchists throughout history have been incarcerated by the state because they were pacifists and conscientious objectors. Anarchists believe in genuine direct democracy, endorsing the sanguine vision that people can cooperate and organize their own lives rather than having it orchestrated from God and the Church, an autocrat or an oppressive state controlled top down authoritarian bureaucracy. Anarchism, although often mistakenly thought of as violent and destructive, is not that at all.  Anarchists, though some may advocate a swift and violent revolution, envision a peaceful and harmonious society, based on a natural order of cooperation rather than an artificial system based on coercion.

Throughout history order within societies has often been maintained by those few who have power and wish to maintain the social order in which they are at the top of the heap. This continues today even within so-called constitutional democracies where often a very small group of plutocrats control most of the wealth and influence. The excellent documentary American Anarchism (1983) may be viewed at:


The movie begins with an effort to dispel the mythologies that even most so-called educated people in North American credulously and unreservedly accept about anarchists and anarchism in general. Anarchism and its history are not taught in our schools other than the distortions that are nothing better than urban myths. But this is equally true about the long struggles by working people, women and indigenous peoples to achieve any modicum of social justice. There is a lengthy interview with Murray Bookchin as well as a short segment on Emma Goldman.

Noam Chomsky was exposed to anarchism as a young inquiring teenager during the depths of the Great Depression and discovered that “it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom”. Much of the misrepresentation of anarchism can be traced back to structures of power and privilege that have a vested interest in maintaining the social and economic order, promoting ignorance, preventing discernment and critical thought and squelching dissent - for quite understandable reasons. The roots of anarchism have a long history and can be traced as far back as the pre-Socratic philosophers. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) in his Principles of Government expressed great astonishment that people are so docile, rarely questioning the legitimacy of their rulers and acquiescing so readily to their oppressors. He concluded that since “force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. 'Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.” Hume was astute and insightful but he was not a libertarian by the standards of the day. He surely underestimated the efficacy of force and fear, but his observation seems to me basically correct, and important, particularly in the more democratic societies, where the art of controlling opinion is far more sophisticated, flagrant and - as Chomsky has argued so skillfully - necessary. Misrepresentation, distortion and outright prevarication as well as other more subtle forms of calculated befuddlement by the power elites are a natural concomitant. "The public must be put in its place," Walter Lippmann wrote, so that we (those who hold power) may "live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd," whose "function" is to be "interested spectators of action," not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals have been advising for many years. 

As Noam Chomsky convincingly argued in his 1988 Massey Lecture “Necessary Illusions”, subversion of democracy by concentrations of private power controlling the parameters of debate and  public opinion is not unfamiliar: mainstream commentators such as Robert Reich casually observe that "business is in complete control of the machinery of government", echoing Woodrow Wilson's observation, days before he took   office that " the masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States." America’s leading twentieth -century social philosopher, John Dewey, concluded that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business" and will remain so as long as power resides in " business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents and other means of publicity and propaganda." Accordingly, reforms will not suffice. Fundamental social change is necessary to bring meaningful democracy." It should be recalled that Nazi propaganda techniques were borrowed from business doctrines and practices that were mostly pioneered in Anglo-American societies. These techniques were based on an appeal to facile and emotionally charged symbols and slogans with tremendously reiterated impressions that appeal to fear and other elementary passions in the manner of commercial advertising, a contemporary review observes. Goebbels conscripted most of the leading commercial advertising men in Germany for his propaganda ministry, and boasted that he would use American advertising methods to sell the Nazi agenda much as business seeks to sell deodorant, toothpaste, and patent medicines. These measures were dreadfully successful in bringing about the sudden descent from decency and enlightenment to barbarism. It’s worthy of mention as well that Hitler admired and followed the program of genocide of indigenous peoples employed especially by the Americans and other colonialist European powers in his solution to the “Jewish problem”.

Constitutional democracies rely on mechanisms to limit the extent and redress the abuses of state power, ideally holding itself accountable to the citizenry that other systems cannot and the more this power is mitigated, the more it observes those limits. But if you study the evolution of democracies especially in the United States, you see a creeping tendency towards a squishy totalitarianism in which what the majority of the populace desire such as universal health care and better access to higher quality education are totally ignored. The ability of the US government plutocracy in collusion with the lap dog corporate media to manipulate the malleable and credulous populace with countless lies and deceptions that promote imperialistic ventures such as the War in Iraq is a shocking indictment on the state of democracy. When one considers that the vast majority of Americans and almost everyone outside the United States is against this unjust war, you would infer that the principles of democracy would prevail and this could never happen. But at a minimum it is obvious that even a democratic state does not require consent of the populace but only the consent of those who actually operate or can appeal to its mechanisms of oppression and violence. All social contract theories such as those outlined by Locke, Rousseau and the authors of the US constitution such as James Madison at first appeal to universal or majority consent and then as a second move, promptly throw it overboard when it conflicts with the programs and agendas of the power brokers and elites who invariably end up running the system. We are all born within the context and confines of a state system and are inculcated to cherish it as just, an article of faith, and never question its legitimacy. Like atheists and other skeptics in the theocracies and monarchies of the Middle Ages, anarchists are repressed and marginalized for not sharing the bedrock faith on which the world seems to stand. You can torture someone or burn them at the stake, but you can also just ignore them or dismiss them by not publishing their works or refusing to provide a platform for the expression of their dissenting views. Any old argument, even an unashamedly fallacious one, is a good argument if it purports to establish and confirm your most cherished beliefs. That’s the nature of one of humankind’s most nefarious intellectual foibles, cognitive dissonance and the confirmation bias.

 As several prominent anarchists such as Voltairine de Cleyre have pointed out, there can really be no strict political philosophy of anarchism if by that we mean a detailed prescription, ideology or utopian vision of how people will arrange their lives once those lives are completely voluntary and free of coercion. State capitalism and Marxist communism are the most famous examples of such ideologies that come immediately to mind. But any socio-economic system that starts with a salvation plan for the human race whether Plato’s Republic, Christianity or even the democratic visions of Locke or Jefferson are ideological or utopian in this sense. But any effort to impose a future or teleological programs such as these that have been so tyrannical, oppressive and destructive is what anarchism refuses to endorse. Just witness the carnage of the age of faith over the centuries and the age of ideology – the twentieth century. And the way the twenty-first century has been launched, by two unwarranted imperialistic ventures by the so-called icon of democracy, the United States, into Afghanistan and Iraq, the future for this century looks bleak indeed.

Big Business and the American Political System

“Suppose you took an oath by placing your right hand on the Bible and raising your left? Would it still count? Does God really give a shit? Does anyone?”  - George Carlin

"Those who say that we should love our fellow-citizens but not foreigners, destroy the universal brotherhood of mankind, with which benevolence and justice would perish forever."  - Cicero

The political system in the United States that is primary focus of this critique bears some resemblance to the initial design, though the framers of the US constitution would surely have been appalled by many subsequent developments, in particular the radical judicial activism that granted rights of persons to "collectivist legal entities" later called corporations, rights extended far beyond those of real flesh and blood persons especially in recent international economic arrangements inappropriately called " free trade agreements". Each such step has been a severe attack against humanism, classical liberal principles, the working classes, democracy and the marketplace. As "free trade" is construed in these arrangements, it incorporates monopoly pricing rights and other highly protectionist devices to benefit huge multinational corporations while at the same time excluding measures that have been traditionally used by industrial societies to achieve their current state of economic development including government social programs and projects, responding to majority public preferences and to favor popular majority concerns over investor rights. These international trade agreements such as NAFTA guarantee free movement of capital while rejecting free movement of labor, a core principle of free trade for Adam Smith. It also defines trade in expansive ways, including, for example, transfers internal to a firm that happen to cross international borders, a very substantial component of "trade." Apart from having only a limited relation to free trade, these "agreements" are certainly not agreements, at least not if citizens, who are generally opposed, are regarded as part of their countries. The "agreements" are reached only by deceiving the public about the real intent other concealment mechanisms to marginalize the disgruntled and confused public. In the term “North American Free Trade Agreement" (NAFTA), the only accurate words are "North American." Other agreements are generally no different. Moreover, it grants to corporations the power to sue their own governments if profits are compromised by environmental, labor and other regulatory controls and mechanisms ensuing from the public will, thus antithetical to the spirit of democracy. They are not so much designed to reduce state power but to strengthen the state to serve corporate power, a transfer of important decisions affecting citizens from the public arena to unaccountable private tyrannies. The casino capitalism that has prevailed in recent years and the subsequent current financial debacle and stock market crash are the direct result of these anti-democratic measures over the past several decades.

"The powerful means of publicity and propaganda" of which John Dewey spoke must be deployed to ensure that an "aroused public" does not come to understand the workings of the conservative state-corporate system. The initial design was articulated clearly by the most influential of the framers, James Madison. He held that power should be in the hands of "the wealth of the nation and the more capable set of men ". People "without property, or the hope of acquiring it,... he reflected at the end of his life, "cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights, to be safe depositories of power over them." The rights are but those of property, which has no rights, but of property owners, who therefore should have extra rights beyond those of citizens generally. In his "determination to protect minorities against majority infringements of their rights," the prominent Madison scholar Lance Banning observes, "it is absolutely clear that he was most especially concerned for propertied minorities among the people." Madison could hardly have been unaware of the force of Adam Smith's observation that "civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all." It was Adam Smith who also pointed out that if you see two businessmen in the corner, they are probably arranging a conspiracy against the public or its putative representatives the government.

To expect police to do other than use pepper spray, tasers or firearms on those citizens who prefer cooperation over competition, liberty over coercion, conservation over exploitation and life over production is to delude ourselves. The history of the labor, civil rights and environmental movements are just two glaring illustrations of this experience. To expect the institutions created by our capitalist culture to do any other than to poison waters, clear cut mountainsides, pollute the oceans, drill holes in pristine forests, invade countries for their resources or for differences in political ideologies, eliminate alternative ways of living, commit genocide, and so on, is to engage in magical thinking. As a youngster, bearing witness to the horrors of using public funding to build dams on Western British Columbia rivers to provide power for Alcan Aluminum by flooding once picturesque mountain lakes like Ootsa teeming with fish, seeing hideous clear cuts descending near the mountaintops to the shores of Takla Lake in North Western BC, dislodging native peoples from their homes and traditional culture without compensation, government inaction and acquiescence in the face of huge oil spills by Exxon in the Alaska panhandle, global warming, the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet, surely by now there are few who still believe the purpose of government is to protect citizens from the activities of those who would destroy. Ultimately most of us must understand that the opposite is true: that Adam Smith was correct in noting that the primary purpose of govern­ment is to protect those who own the country and manage the economy from the outrage of injured citizens.

A British prime minister, Edward Heath, observed 25 years ago that a businessman, a truly horrible savage called “Tiny” Rowland, represented “the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism.” The description was fitting because Rowland was an eclectic con man and thug who had indulged in bribery, tax-dodging, and the general range of ingenious whiz-kid schemes designed to make viciously unscrupulous people rich and keep them that way. He had never been to business school but has been a model for those Masters of Business Administration who scrabble and grab for money without regard for moral principles – or the law of their land, if they think they can break it without being found out. There seem to be a lot of people like that over the past several decades of neo-conservative crap shoot capitalism and as we are now discovering many of them are leading politicians and CEOs of large corporations.

Capitalism is marvelous, or so it is claimed by those who prosper mightily by using other people’s labor and hard earned savings to gamble on financial markets to make enormous profits. But capitalism hasn’t been working very well of late for anyone, particularly for countless thousands of ordinary people who are much poorer or even ruined and cheated out of their homes and promised pensions because they were sucked into disaster by slick, fast-talking con artists. In the film “Trading Places” one of the leading characters, the delightful Eddie Murphy, tells a pair of self-satisfied, pompous, scheming, rich, amoral money-manipulators that “You’re nothing but a couple of bookies,” and rarely have more appropriate words been uttered to describe the antics of those whom Tom Wolfe so ironically dubbed ‘Masters of the Universe.’ You and I would call them
squalid spivs – those who, according to the dictionary, “make a living by underhand dealings or swindling.” The recent collapse of Lehman Brothers caused concern among the rich and utter despair to countless thousands of ordinary people. It appeared amazing that such an enormous bank could suddenly go under, although to insiders it was no surprise because the avaricious guttersnipes running it had been out of control for years. But not so out of control that just before it went bust the greed heads awarded themselves a nice little gift. It was reported that “staff [in New York] . . . of the bankrupt bank will share a bonus pool set aside for them that is worth $2.5 billion.”

Yes, the mutation of capitalism we have inherited for the past thirty years has worked pretty well for those who helped create the crisis – but it was catastrophic for those who had invested in their rancid schemes and for employees who lost their jobs with little prospect of re-employment. The head of Lehman, one Richard S. Fuld, received a package of over $40 million in 2007. He bought one of his houses, the one on the ocean-front in Florida, for $13 million four years ago. No mortgage for Fuld of course, unlike the poor victims suffering from the financial disaster caused by scum like Fuld. Another of the former tycoons of Lehman, the insufferable Joe Gregory, wants to sell his modest home in New York. Anyone got $32 million to spare? The repulsive farce of Lehman Brothers is only one example of how rapacious high mucky-mucks rip off the credulous defenseless John Q Public. As the New York Times put it, “Bankers’ excessive risk-taking is a significant cause of this financial crisis . . . Mortgage lenders blithely lent enormous sums to those who could not afford to pay them back, dicing the loans and selling them off to the next financial institution along the chain.” A bunch of low life bookies, indeed – lower than a snakes belly.

The so-called ‘free market’ has for years lined many pockets and benefited yacht-builders and auction houses selling obscenely-priced artifacts, classic cars and artwork to people with more money than morality that has proved to be grotesquely perverted. But the Masters of the Universe did very well, because, as London’s Financial Times recorded, the pay and benefits of those running “the seven largest US banks totaled $95 billion over the past three years, even as the banks recorded $500 billion in losses.” Here is Clive Dilnot, writing for the New Statesman in an article called "The Triumph of Greed" on the fine line between big business and organized crime:

"Caribbean tax havens run on tax evasion and money-laundering, as do their British counterparts, something their governments no longer bother to deny. (Barack Obama had a telling line in one of his campaign speeches: "By the way, did you know that there's a building in the Cayman Islands that supposedly houses 18,000 corporations? That's either the biggest building or the biggest tax scam on record. And I think we know which one it is.") In Europe as a whole, crime is now one of the largest single sectors of business, with the Mafia alone controlling, through "legitimate" companies, roughly 15 per cent of Italy's GNP (worth as much as $800bn a year). We know this, but we pretend - along with our governments - that the institutionalization of crime within the "mainstream" economy does not matter; that it doesn't come with acute costs. This is nonsense. The global cost of tax evasion and avoidance is estimated, conservatively, at roughly $500bn. When more than 40 per cent of the value of African bank accounts is in Swiss banks, we know that looting and corruption - the politics of spoil, as Oswald Spengler named it nearly 80 years ago - has taken place on a huge scale. The (failed) reconstruction of Iraq, with almost no new infrastructure or working institutions to show for it, will be recorded as probably the largest site of embezzlement in history.

One could go on. This should merely serve to remind us that crime is indeed a redistribution of wealth, but there is nothing of Robin Hood about it. It is the most regressive form of "taxation" and the one most debilitating, in all its consequences, to social well-being. It is also - though we tend to forget this - economically destructive, and even incompetent. After all, crime is nothing but theft; by definition it does not make, it takes. It leeches monies out of the economy and it erodes the conditions for real economic life, because these are dependent on the structures of trust that crime destroys.To slip towards crime, therefore, is to slip into an economic model in which wealth is no longer created in any real sense but only extracted from what already exists. In fact, the much-vaunted "creativity" of the financial markets since 2001 boils down to little more than the invention of extraordinary mechanisms which increase the circulation of capital through the system (enabling revenue to be skimmed from each stage in the process) but which do not actually create wealth."

Washington has had a long term love affair with big business that continues unabated. In recent years the affair has been especially torrid and is not in the least surprising when you consider that the marionette president and his puppet master, Dick Cheney, along with hundreds of members of the administration, are beholden to business interests for their wealth and re-election - or selection for prestigious government posts regardless of credentials or merit. There is also the quite obvious fact that corporate lobbies call the shots in Washington and likely the Pentagon as well. What the public want such as access to quality education and universal health care are far down the list of priorities for politicians both Republican and Democrat, despite their rhetoric. So we should not be surprised when gross violations of law and morality (“God Bless America” is a truly hypocritical mantra, coming from such disgusting degenerates) are dealt with by wrist-slaps of touching delicacy. Consider Halliburton, Cheney’s old firm, whose subsidiary KBR, “agreed to pay” 8 million dollars for bilking the taxpayer by over-billing on contracts. This was clearly a criminal act. If you or I did anything approaching such a swindle we would be in the slammer before you could say “Cheney’s a lying bastard.” But not in the white collar mafia con games of Big Business whose fat rats and silver spooned brats are those whom Bush refers to as “my base”, and the “haves and the have-mores.” Cheney and Bush have displayed crass vulgarity of the most disgraceful kind, but we all get the message - if you have money, we’ll protect you but if you are powerless and vulnerable, tough it out and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Capitalism is in crisis, mired in a moral abyss, courtesy of greedy amoral American crap shooters and their nefarious associates and dupes in other countries around the world. They are the unacceptable evil face of conservative crony capitalism that plunders the public treasury and rarely faces accountability for its criminal activities in a two tiered justice system. Because if you happen to be Joe Lunch Bucket or some poor slob forced to live on the streets, don’t get caught peddling two ounces of weed because that will get you ten years.

We now face an environmental meltdown as well as an economic meltdown. This would not have surprised Karl Polanyi, who fled fascist Europe in 1933 and eventually taught at Columbia University. Those who run our corporate state and state capitalism have fought environmental regulation as tenaciously as they have fought financial regulation, civilized wages and safety in the workplace. They are responsible, as Polanyi predicted, for our personal impoverishment and the impoverishment of our ecosystem. Polanyi in his 1944 book “The Great Transformation,” laid out the devastating consequences corporatism whereby business controls and dictates to government - the depressions, wars and totalitarianism - that grow out of a so-called self-regulated free market. He grasped that “fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that refused to function.” He warned that a financial system always devolved, without heavy government control, into a Mafia Capitalism - and a Mafia political system - which is an apt description of the American government under George W. Bush. Polanyi wrote that a self-regulating market, the kind bequeathed to us since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, turned human beings, the natural environment and all living things within it into commodities, a situation that ensures the destruction of both civilized society and the ecosystem. He decried the free market’s belief that nature and human beings are objects whose worth is determined by market forces. He reminded us that a society no longer recognizing that nature and human life have a sacred dimension, an intrinsic Kantian worth beyond monetary value, ultimately commits collective suicide. Such societies cannibalize themselves until they are extinguished. Speculative excesses and growing inequality, he wrote, always destroy the foundation for a continued prosperity for all. It is only when these elites are exposed as incompetent parasites and dethroned that we will have any hope of restoring an enlightened social, economic and political order and civility. 

The Reagan-Thatcher socio-economic model has taken on the agency of a religion – "the market as god," as Harvard theologian Harvey Cox has branded it. Its core principle maintains that society is an economic free for all where we all just promote our own interests. Thrust aside has been the notion of society as a co-operative effort in which everyone has certain rights as well as responsibilities, and that together we work toward a "common good." In the recent Canadian federal election, a mere 37.6 per cent of Canadians voted for the winning Conservative party, led by a Bush clone neo-conservative ideologue deeply mired in the Reagan-Thatcher ideas of supply side economics, the so-called “trickle-down theory.” Conservative market fundamentalism has increased the share of national wealth among the richest 1 percent to the highest point since the Gilded Age of Robber Barons from the late nineteenth century. "The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans held more than half the nation's direct holdings of publicly traded stocks in 2004 according to the Federal Reserve". (Wall Street Journal) Those figures have ballooned since 2004 and created the same kind of economic polarization that exists in third world countries. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that "The United States has the highest inequality and poverty rates in the 30-country organization after Mexico and Turkey.

These are ideas more akin to feudalism than a flourishing democracy – anachronisms that will hopefully soon to be out of favor in the White House if Barack Obama wins the presidency. Government policy under Bush has been conducted by a Mafia of right wing corporatists, Wall Street tycoons, and strident Chicago-school class warriors. Their interests are dramatically different then the people they are supposed to serve. Financial-industry rep Henry Paulson with his bailout package has devoted all his time to saving his banker buddies while maxed-out workers slip further into debt and destitution. Of the more than $1 trillion the Fed has spent to prop up the financial system, not one dime has gone to anyone who wasn't a banker. Novelist Honore d'Balzac said, "Behind every fortune is a crime". The perceptive Frenchman must have anticipated the multitude of venal money-grubbers who currently occupy the penthouse suites on Wall Street and Bay Street. There are likely only two ways to deal with greed and cynicism on this scale; regulation and taxation.  

Democracy is not an upshot of free market capitalism. Despite the rhetoric and misinformation of right wing think tanks, democracy and capitalism are not synonymous, but rather antithetical and antagonistic entities. Democracy, like morality is not based on personal gain or “enlightened self-interest” but conciliation, cooperation and self-sacrifice. A flourishing democracy must challenge the unappeasable economic interests of elites on behalf of its citizens or we will simply regress to an oligarchic plutocracy. But this is not happening and many would argue we are already there because the last three or four decades of neo-conservatism “voodoo economics” have certainly moved us closer. Ordinary citizens must wake themselves up from their credulity, ignorance, complacency, docility and moral stupor because before democracy becomes a rotting corpse.

Warning his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention of the perils of democracy, James Madison asked them to consider what would happen in England "if elections were open to all classes of people." The population would then use its voting rights to distribute land more equitably. To ward off such “injustice”, he recommended arrangements "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”, subsequently implemented.

The problem Madison posed was an old one, tracing back to the first classic of political science, Aristotle’s Politics. Of the variety of systems he surveyed, Aristotle found democracy "the most tolerable, " though of course he had in mind a limited democracy of privileged free men, much as did Madison two thousand years later. Aristotle recognized flaws in democracy, however, among them the one that Madison presented to the convention. The poor "covet their neighbors' goods," Aristotle observed, and “if wealth is narrowly concentrated, they will use their majority power to redistribute it more equitably, which would be unfair. In democracies the rich should be spared - not only should their property not be divided, bur their incomes too…should be protected…Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much and others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy that does not recognize the rights of the rich, perhaps deteriorating even beyond.”

Aristotle and Madison essentially addressed the same problem, but drew opposite conclusions. Madison's solution was to restrict democracy, while Aristotle's was to reduce inequality, by what amount to welfare state programs. For democracy to function properly, he argued, "measures therefore should be taken which will give [all people] lasting prosperity." The "proceeds of the public revenues should be accumulated and distributed among its poor" to enable them to " purchase a little farm, or, at any rate make a beginning in trade or husbandry," along with other mean s, such as "common meals " with costs defrayed by "public land ."

We might best think of the American polity as a dual system. First, there are the elections, political personalities, public pronouncements, image making, and that handful of visible issues that inspire public officials and win passing attention in the media. This system is inculcated in the schools, dissected by academics and gossiped about by news pundits but real issues that concern the masses are conspicuous by their absence or are only discussed within narrow parameters set by the moderator. This was visibly evident from the recent presidential debates in the United States.

Second, there is the system of coercive state power that is used to protect the dominant structure of the political economy, specifi­cally, the domestic and international interests of finance capital. This system is not taught in the schools nor discussed in the press. In fact mainstream media commentators seem never to have heard of it. A right-wing pundit like the late William F Buckley has heard of it and is part of it, but he would rather that we not think about it. His failure to mention this system of state power and elitism is symptomatic of an acute class consciousness rather than a lack of it. To the extent that conservatives born into privilege like Buckley address class issues, it is to lament the excessive privileges and powers wielded by welfare mothers, the unemployed, trade unions, affirmative action and advocates of racial equality.

This dual system roughly reflects the differences between government and state. The government deals with visible officeholders, pressure group politics, special interests, lobbies and popular demands. It provides the cloak of representative government and whatever form of genuine democratic organization that has been won through generations of mass struggle. Of course the monopoly of government is never complete and it may even authorize some people not part of itself to exercise coercion such as the hiring of mercenaries in Iraq or such as the efforts to privatize the prison systems. It may in fact condone violence in various other cases such as putting down peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience. Governments have frequently done this to circumvent strikes for example, often resorting to using not only local police but private thugs such as the Pinkerton’s or even federal troops to employ deadly force against its own citizens.

The state has little if anything to do with popular rule or the cre­ation of public policy. It is the ultimate coercive instrument of class power. Max Weber observed that the state's essential trait, its irreducible feature, is its monopoly over the legitimate uses of force ("legitimate" in that they are legally sanctioned by the con­stituted authority).

The State against Democracy

“When people learn no tools of judgement and merely follow their hopes, the seeds of political manipulation are sown.” - Stephen J. Gould

“So long as men are not trained to withhold judgement in the absence of evidence, cocksure prophets will lead them astray, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans.” - Bertrand Russell

To fulfill its role as guardian of existing order of class and privilege, the state often circumvents whatever democratic restraints exist within government, regrettably often with the tacit support of the majority of the populace. Anyone who has studied the political philosophies and history of anarchism knows that this is the norm. The late FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover noted in a 1970 interview that "justice is merely incidental to law and order. It's a part of law and order but not the whole of it." Indeed, the whole of it, the indispensable goal of the law enforcement agencies of the state, Mr. Hoover made clear by his actions on many occasions, was the preservation of existing class relations, safeguarding the socio-eco­nomic structure from fundamental reform and revolutionary change. The preservation of public safety and justice are secondary concerns of the state and the state will violate both when it is deemed necessary to secure the prevailing social order.

Recall what the English political philosopher John Locke wrote in 1689: "The great and chief end of Men's uniting into Commonwealths and putting themselves under Government is the Preservation of their Property." And Adam Smith wrote in 1776: "The necessity of civil government grows up with the acquisition of valuable property." And "till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth, and to defend the rich from the poor." It should be remembered that, from ancient Athens to the present day, the historic rationale of democratic government has been to protect the rich from the poor and religion has systematically been pressed into service by conservative elites to promote this goal. Those of you who know your Bible ought to recall the tendentious passage from Romans 13:1-4:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed…For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you are wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on wrongdoers.”

Divine Right of Kings anyone?

One of the reasons people express loyalty and acquiesce to state authority is the same reason they submit to religious authority – to offload the burden of intellectual autonomy and moral agency. Anyone who believes in the ideal that all people ought to be free, equal and independent and that no one can be removed from this autonomous condition and subjected to the power and coercion, political or otherwise, of another without his own consent is an anarchist. It’s a magnificent liberal principle but throughout recorded history it’s never been realized because the state, with the blessing of the church, has continually made use of the enthusiasm and propensity of many people for their own subordination. The objection I regularly experience when I promote this position is not disagreement with the ideal but the assertion that power is essential to prevent what Thomas Hobbes described as a chaotic state of nature whereby it’s every man for himself. They further go on to promote the uniquely cynical Christian and capitalist notion that man is depraved, sinful, self-interested, wicked, short-sighted, dishonest and in need of redemption and consequently will try to get away with anything he can. Therefore, people must be restrained, coerced and denied the most basic freedoms – but by whom? Anarchism, they claim, would be marvelous if we were all angels, but people are more akin to demons and anarchism is by definition unworkable, therefore state power is demanded. Well perhaps not. I see no reason to accept this unsupported premise while at the same time accepting that there are certain people who do need to be restrained. Can anyone cite a culture founded on a positive view of human nature and based on sharing, mutual respect and cooperation and whereby our children are educated to behave in this manner? I suppose one could maintain that this cultural quality was practiced by many indigenous cultures before they were systematically subjected to slavery, cruelty and genocide by white Christian colonialism since the time of Columbus?

One thing I have noticed about the aforementioned argument from depravity is that it’s invariably self-congratulatory. Very few people who peddle this negative view of human nature believe of themselves that the only thing that prevents them from stealing, raping, killing and pillaging is the strong arm of the state police. On the other hand they always believe it of someone else or some other group of people. It might be black folks, atheists, welfare recipients, the poor or moral relativist liberals who are without the robust good sense and moral sensibilities of conservative folks like us. I would propose that this is not necessarily false in any particular or individual instance, but that if you personally consider yourself as one who behaves decently in the absence of thugs with weapons, prisons, statutes and massive law books that control your behavior, you might want to at least provisionally extend the same charity to others. To have power yields access to techniques in order to conceal the real nature of one’s activities, and the secrecy and deceptions of governments is at least partially intended to carve out a locale of impunity. Do I need to mention the war in Iraq once more? As long as you believe that people are naturally greedy and vicious, huge concentrations of state power can be predicted to have long-term disastrous results. The fact that we live in a capitalist society dominated by greed, envy, hyper-competition and acquisitiveness and have been inculcated with values by our parents, schools and others that are adaptive to such an environment is quite obviously a significant factor in our inability to understand human nature in any other light. From my extensive readings in political philosophy I have found that many arguments, particularly from those on the conservative right,  are uniquely elitist, speciously asserting that, while of course people like themselves are trustworthy free men, others must be continuously restrained or coerced.

The twentieth century has been the apogee of state power when every morsel of land and material asset was claimed by some state or another, whereby the secret police penetrated into the lives of countless innocent people and the military might of thousands goose stepped proudly in lock step singing their national anthems and pledging allegiance to the state, when bureaucracies sucked economies into their realm, never to be heard of again, not only in communist dictatorships but in capitalist democracies as well.

Roughly speaking, the difference between government and state is the difference between the city council and the municipal police, between Congress and the CIA.* Government mediates public policy while the state orchestrates coercion and control, both overtly and covertly. However, this is a conceptual distinction between what are really empirically overlapping phenomena. The overlap is especially evident in regard to the executive, which is both the center of govern­ment policy and the purveyor of state power. The line between state and government also clouded with the judiciary and certain administrative agencies, and with those members of Congress who serve on committees that deal with intelligence and military affairs and who act primarily as national security collaborators rather than independent legislators exercising critical oversight.

*CIA: (Convenient International Assassinations) A clandestine vehicle of Corporate America but run by the American government. The sole purpose of this instrument of death is to erase democratically elected leaders of third world countries and replace them with fascist puppet dictators that can be easily manipulated to serve US corporate aspirations and interests.

The conceptual distinction between state and government allows us to understand something about the relationship between politico-economic power and popular governance. For one thing, we become more aware that taking office in government seldom guarantees full access to the instruments of state power. When Salvador Allende, a Popular Unity candidate dedicated to democratic reforms and social justice on behalf of the laboring classes, was elected president of Chile in 1971, he took over the reins of government and was able to initiate certain policy changes - such as getting a daily half-liter of milk to every poor child in Chile. But he could never gain control of the state appa­ratus, the military, the police, the security forces, the intelligence ser­vices, the courts, and the fundamental organic law that engineered and manipulated the whole socio-economic system in favor of the wealthy propertied class. When Allende began to advance into redistributive social democratic politics and against class privilege, the military with the help of the CIA seized power and murdered him along with thousands of his supporters. The CIA-backed Chicago school pro capitalist coup and subsequent dictatorship destroyed not only Allende's government but the democracy that produced it. The result was a United States orchestrated bloody takeover leading to almost 20 years of tyranny under the US supported fascist military dictator Augusto Pinochet. (This is the modus operandi the United States followed since the Second World War: In Iran during early fifties a democratically elected socialist became a victim of a CIA orchestrated coup d'état that installed the Shah, a brutal police state monarch sympathetic to British and US oil interests in Iran) Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were the primary instruments in promoting and setting the stage for the military coup in Chile. Nixon, very early in Allende’s short term of office said “Let’s make the economy (of Chile) scream” and Kissinger’s comment was “I don't see why we should have to stand by and let a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people."  Noam Chomsky in an interview commented on this incident:

“Later, when the military coup finally came [in September, 1973] and the government was overthrown - and thousands of people were being imprisoned, tortured and slaughtered - the economic aid which had been canceled immediately began to flow again. As a reward for the military junta's achievement in reversing Chilean democracy, the US gave massive support to the new government. The US ambassador to Chile brought up the question of torture to Kissinger but Kissinger rebuked him sharply saying something like, don't give me any of those political science lectures. We don't care about torture - we care about important things. Abu Ghraib is nothing new. Then he explained what the important things were. Kissinger said he was concerned that the success of social democracy in Chile would be contagious. It would infect southern Europe and southern Italy, for example and would lead to the possible success of what was then called Euro-communism (meaning that Communist parties would hook up with social democratic parties in a united front).”

In Nicaragua, after the left revolutionary Sandinistas lost the 1990 election to a right-centrist coalition, the army and police remained in their hands. However, in contrast to the Chilean military, which was backed by the immense power of the United States, the Nicaraguan military was the target of that power and was unable to keep the government on its revolutionary course. At the same time, the anomaly of a left military did sufficiently diffuse state power as to make it difficult for the newly installed Chamorro government to effect the pro US capitalist changes at a pace agreeable to Washington. These are just two examples of a long list of US imperialistic military interventions in the affairs of Latin American countries designed to protect American corporate interests at whatever cost.

However, countries with ostensibly democratic governments often mani­fest a markedly undemocratic state power. In the United States, not just conservatives but Cold War liberals have used the FBI to protect the security interests of the state. They thereby helped create an independent, unaccountable political police that increasingly involved itself in a variety of unconstitutional actions, including the surveillance of anti-war pacifists, union organizers, lawful dissidents and protestors. In 1947, President Harry Truman created the Central Intelligence Agency to gather and coordinate foreign intelligence. As ex-senator George McGovern noted {Parade, August 9, 1987):

“Almost from the beginning, the CIA engaged not only in the collection of intelligence information, but also in covert operations which involved rigging elections and manipulating labor unions abroad, carrying on paramilitary operations, overturning governments, assassinating foreign officials, protecting former Nazis and lying to Congress.”

In a book about J. Edgar Hoover, Anthony Summers noted that the FBI retained close links with organized crime. Former CIA oper­ative Robert Morrow in his book Firsthand Knowledge records how unsettling it was to discover that the CIA was cozy with the mafia. Over the years, several congressional investigative committees uncovered links between the CIA and the narcotics trade. With its deep operations, laundering of funds, drug trafficking, and often illegal use of violence, the national security state stands close to organized crime. And with its assassinations, intimidation of labor, expropriation of wealth, and influence in high places, organized crime stands close to the state. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the USA's most famous mobster, Al Capone, when reflecting on the wider political universe, sounded unnervingly like J. Edgar Hoover:

“The American system of ours; call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you like, gives each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it. . . . Bolshevism is knocking at our gates. We can't afford to let it in. We have got to organize ourselves against it, and put our shoulders together and hold fast. We must keep America whole and safe and unspoiled. We must keep the worker away from Red literature and Red ruses; we must see that his mind remains healthy.” (Liberty Magazine, 1929)

In other "Western democracies" secret paramilitary forces of neo-fascist persuasion (the most widely publicized being Operation Gladio in Italy) were created by NATO to act as resistance forces should anti-capitalist revolutionaries take over their countries. Short of that, these secret units were involved in terrorist attacks against the Left. The conservative dominated countries of Britain, France and the United States did nothing to support the democratic Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)* against the fascist Franco (who was supported militarily by Hitler and Mussolini as well as financially by American big business), helped prop up a fascist regime in Portugal and in Spain after 1939, partici­pated in the Turkish military coups of 1971 and 1980 and the 1967 coup in Greece. They drew up plans to assassinate social democratic leaders in Germany and stage "preemptive" attacks against socialist and communist organizations in Greece and Italy. They also formed secret communication networks and drew up detention lists of polit­ical opponents to be rounded up in various countries. (*See the appendix at the end of this paper for a synopsis and relevance of the Spanish Civil War to this discussion)

Ben Lowe notes (Guardian, December 5, 1990), "The operations flowed from NATO's unwillingness to distinguish between a Soviet invasion and a victory at the polls by local communist parties." As far as NATO was concerned there was not much distinction between losing Europe to Soviet tanks or to peaceful ballots. Indeed, the latter prospect seemed more likely. The Soviet tanks could not roll without risking a nuclear conflagration but the anti-capitalists might take over whole countries without firing a shot - through the electoral process.

Again I remind you of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's disgraceful comment, supporting the overthrow of Chilean democracy: "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go socialist because of the irresponsibility of its own people." The function of these secret operations was to make sure that the Western democracies did not move in an "irresponsible," anti-capitalist direction. In the United States, various right-wing groups, with well-armed paramilitary camps and secret armies flourish unmolested by the Justice Department, which does not find them in violation of any law. Were they anti-capitalist armed groups, they would likely be attacked by federal and local police and their members killed, as happened to the Black Panther party in various parts of the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Conservative Consistencies

“Law in origin was simply the codification of the power of dominant groups, and it did not aim at anything that to a modern man would appear to be justice. . . Wherever aristocracy existed, its members had various privileges that were not accorded to the plebs. In Japan before the Meiji era began a man who omitted to smile in the presence of a social superior could legally be killed then and there by the superior in question. This explains why European travellers find the Japanese a smiling race.” - Bertrand Russell

“A good man is one whose opinions and actions are pleasing to the holders of power.” - Bertrand Russell

 “President George Bush declared a National Day of Prayer for Peace. This was after he had carefully arranged and started a war.”

“I worry about my judgment when anything I believe in or do regularly begin to be accepted by the American public.”  – George Carlin

Some extreme right-wing Republicans advocate that we return to the traditions of the "founding fathers." In particular, they want judges to ignore or rescind two centuries of moral progress and history, a yearning to turn the calendar back to the politics of 1787. For conservatives, the myth is that somehow the Founding Fathers are symbolic of better times, better than we are today – more intelligent, more able and above all more ethical. But the “founding fathers” were not representative of the population of the country, then or now. If they represented anyone, it was no more than a mere 1% of the population – the aristocratic plutocrats represented by financiers, land owners and slave holders. Jefferson and Madison, as well as many other founders of the American Constitution and revered American historical icons of liberalism such as Ben Franklin and George Washington were themselves slave owners.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution, as I have alluded to earlier, repeatedly asserted in their private discussions and letters that one of the essential rationales of government is to defend against egalitarianism and any redistribution of wealth from the landowning oligarchy downwards to the masses. Their objective was to secure the interests of affluent property holders against the competing demands of small farmers, artisans, and debtors. They desired a strong state in order to defend the haves from the have-nots. Blacks, indigenous peoples, women and anyone who did not own land did not have the vote under the US Constitution and most of these groups did not acquire the right to vote until well into the twentieth century. The number who actually consented to the US Constitution at the outset was miniscule. Considered as the act of the entire populace, the adoption of the constitution was the merest farce and subterfuge, binding upon no one. Women, children, blacks, indigenous peoples and those who did not own property were not consulted, nor were they safeguarded or granted rights by its lofty declarations. It was a social contract not of the people and for the people, but of and for the conservative land owning aristocracy designed to maintain the status quo. This inequitable principle of privilege has been promoted by Conservatives right to the present.

Today, conservative theorists represent themselves as favoring global free markets and extreme laissez-faire capitalism. They clamor for government to stay out of the free marketplace but in practice the so-called "free enterprise" system is rooted in state power. Every corporation and business enterprise in America is publicly chartered, legitimized by the state, with ownership rights and privileges protected by the laws, courts, police, and armed forces. If a strong government did not exist, there would be no legally established private corporations - or their preferential status within the state.

It is ironic that those conservative interests—those of big business and corporatism are so overwhelmingly dependent on government largesse in the form of grants, tax credits and outright concessions, interest free government loans, incentives* and write-offs**, bankruptcy protection***, bailouts, interest and money supply manipulations, public land giveaways, price supports, tax subsidies for debt leverage and financial speculation and an array of other public financial support – hypocritically continue to denounce the baneful intrusions of government. Moreover, there is the refusal of the state to do anything about loss of billions of dollars of tax revenue from offshore tax shelters for the rich and the registration of corporate charters of North American companies offshore in places like the Cayman Islands and Bahamas where they can also avoid local tax. The allegation that conservatives detest government interference in business is merely a platitudinous smoke screen and there is an unspoken consistency to it, for when conservatives say they want less government, they are referring to support for public education, minimum wage laws, civilized working conditions, pensions and health care benefits****, human services to the less fortunate and poor, environmental regulations, consumer protections, and occupational safety, the kind of policies that might compromise business profits. These include all forms of public assistance that potentially preempt private markets and provide alternative sources of income to working people, leaving them less inclined to work for still lower wages. Most wealth these days that is not acquired by inheritance or marriage is acquired and maintained through special tax privileges such as obscenely low capital gains and estate taxes. It’s no surprise that the most powerful lobbies and contributors to political campaigns come from the financial sector followed by real estate. As a system of taxation becomes more regressive, poverty and inequalities increase and the stage is set for an oligarchy. For the past several decades the financial sector has made steady incursions into the role of government. Today’s libertarian anti-tax “free market” rhetoric is simply a cover for the financial sector’s replacement of elected democratic government.

* Tax Incentive: Corporate welfare in the form of risk protection courtesy of the working poor.

** Tax Write-off: Tickets to the Vancouver Canucks and Rolling Stones, Lexus SUV, dinner and Dom Perignon with your secretary, exclusive golf club memberships, holidays to Cancun and scores of other gratuitous corporate rip offs parading as business expenses, courtesy of the working poor taxpayer.

*** Bankruptcy (and “bailout”): A failed business venture, the cost of which is borne by the taxpayers.

**** U.S. corporate philosophy has been more driven by knee-jerk ideology than by enlightened self-interest. General Motors has pointed out that it has to pay enormous health care costs that its foreign competitors don't. Some sixty years belatedly it's finally discovered that socialized medicine is more efficient that health care privatized by predatory financial and insurance operators. Government services don't build in interest rate costs, dividends, exorbitant management remuneration, stock options and legal fees. All this absorbs a big part of the corporate expense for its work force ­ without raising labor's living standards in the process.

The hotel heiress and convicted tax evader Leona Helmsley reportedly said that “taxes are for the little people.” This could quite suitably serve as the official mantra for conservatism and conservative nanny state. While the biggest injustices of the conservative welfare state stem from the way in which it stacks the deck in favor of the wealthy in the distribution of pre-tax income, it also provides ample opportunities for the wealthy to gain further advantage when it comes to paying their tax bills. This is apparent both in the structure of the tax code and also in the resources devoted to its enforcement. Until tax evasion is treated as a serious crime in which evaders do serious jail time, it is a safe bet that many wealthy people will take advantage of opportunities to pay little or no tax. Why is it that the same conservative types who always jump with glee in passionate support of tough crime laws for possession of drugs or prostitution, imperialistic wars and their death squads and killing machines, don't apply the same logic to nice, white-collar where billions are pilfered both from government and their own companies and whereby thousands of lives are destroyed? Would it be too much to ask that we also have regulations, accountability, laws and appropriate punishments to help prevent white-collar crimes that can demolish an entire global economic system, bringing wholesale grief to hundreds of millions of people, and no doubt producing boatloads of deaths in their wake, all in the name of satisfying the infinite greed of already obscenely wealthy people? 

Most North Americans think it noble and magnificent to pursue careers which serve the public interest, but the reality is most are taught, and ultimately accept, that one should aspire to making boatloads of money, and that the measure of one's achievement and “wealth” are the size of their bank account and the number of toys parked in the driveways of their bloated homes. I’m constantly bewildered by the number of people whose expressed primary goal in life is simply to make lots of money, which I find especially bizarre since they don't seem to have any particular use in mind for all this dough other than to add to the pile. What this phenomenon has long suggested to me is a country full of docile robots so banal, so philistine in their thinking that they can't even figure out what to aspire to on their own, and a society so ethically bankrupt that it feeds them the goal of wanton greed to fill that yawning void. All that's bad enough, but, besides the current economic meltdown and a society populated by moral midgets, there are also other repercussions to this ethical failure and this poverty of imagination. Chief among these is the false dichotomy we are always presented between governance in the public interest, on the one hand, and prosperity, on the other. 

While conservative elites may want less government control, they usu­ally want more state power to limit the egalitarian presuppositions of democracy. Conservatives, and some who call themselves liberals, want strong, intrusive state action to maintain the socio-politico-economic status quo. They prefer a state that restricts access to information about its own illicit activities, yet wire taps telephones, jails revolutionaries, strikers, environmentalists, social activists and reformers often on trumped-up charges, harasses dissidents, war protestors and acts punitively not toward the abusers of power but toward their victims. Consider the recent sub-prime mortgage debacle. This legalized larceny, not unlike the savings and loan scandals of the Reagan and Bush I administrations has resulted in welfare in the form of taxpayer bailouts to Wall Street corporate criminals but nothing to the victimized mortgage holders. The Federal Reserve in the United States exists purely to protect the huge financial institutions and its wealthy clients, not its victims, and conservative Congressional hearts are bleeding for them, not the working poor who were scammed by these Wall Street hucksters who have already taken the money out the back door and deposited in an offshore tax shelter while all the alarm bells were disarmed by neo-conservatives from Reagan to Clinton to Bush. It’s the neo-conservative strategy of socialism for the rich – privatize the profit and socialize the risk. In his Ayn Rand Fantasy World, Alan Greenspan, who is an acolyte and as a young man a member of the inner circle of Rand, deregulated the banking system and marketplace thereby unleashing the usual array of financial goons to fleece the public without risk courtesy of the Nanny State who stands by with rescue and bailout packages when things fall apart. Hello Gordon Gecko. But anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of how compound interest works knows that in the end no government that assumes all the risks without benefit can ever pay off its debts. The federal national debt of the United States is verging on $11 trillion, thanks to the disastrous Bush administration who has doubled it during their eight year tenure. Here is Michael Hudson in a recent article on Counterpunch:

“We are not in a cycle but the end of an era. The old world of debt pyramiding to a fraudulent degree cannot be restored, despite the repeal Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 that unleashed financial conflicts of interest when the Clinton Administration backed Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and financial lobbyist Greenspan in claiming that financial markets would be self-regulating and law-abiding. The real estate bubble was made possible by the unique degree to which America’s population emerged from World War II relatively debt free. Each recovery has taken off from a higher debt level. This is something like trying to drive a car with the brakes pressed tighter and tighter to the floor each time there is a stoplight (recession). We have now reached the debt limit, and the economy is stuck. The class war is back in business, with a vengeance. Instead of it being the familiar old class war between industrial employers and their work force, this one reverts to the old pre-industrial class war of creditors versus debtors. Its guiding principle is “Big Fish Eat Little Fish,” mainly by the debt dynamic that crowds out the promised economy of free choice.

This is being portrayed as a post-industrial economy, but it is a much older story. No economy in history ever has been able to pay off its debts. That is the essence of the “magic of compound interest.” Debts grow inexorably, making creditors rich but impoverishing the economy in the process, thereby destroying its ability to pay. Recognizing this financial dynamic, most societies have chosen the logical response. From Sumer in the third millennium BC and Babylonia the second millennium through Greece and Rome in the first millennium BC, and then from feudal Europe to the Inter-Ally war debts and reparations tangle that wrecked international finance after World War I, the response has been to bring debts back within the ability to pay.

This can be done only by wiping out debts that cannot be paid. The alternative is debt peonage. Throughout most of history, countries have found again and again that bankruptcy – wiping out the debts – is the way to free economies. The idea is to free them from a situation where the economic surplus is diverted away from new tangible investment to pay bankers. The classical idea of free markets is to avoid privatizing monopolies, such as the unique privilege of commercial bankers to create bank credit and charge interest on it. Current proposals would replace bad debts that are not publicly insured (except by an “implicit” guarantee that relevant legislators have bought into) with new debts, and new suckers are to be left holding the bag. Bahrainis and Saudis in particular are being courted.

But most of all, there is a public campaign being waged by the FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) to convince the American public that, in the infamous words of Margaret Thatcher, TINA, “there is no alternative.” (See for instance the Wall Street Journal’s excellent coverage of the FNMA/mortgage crisis on July 11, 2002, p. A12.) When one hears this, it means that political censorship is being mobilized to flood the popular media with the intellectual equivalent of sterile fruit flies being released to stop the spread of a threat. All one hears is a barrage of claims that the government must preserve the financial fictions of FNMA and Freddie Mac in order to ‘save the market’.

But what is “the market” that is to be “saved”? To Wall Street and its Congressional advocates, it is the mass of bad debts growing at compound “magic” rates of interest, beyond the ability of debtors to pay. If the debtors cannot pay, then the Government – specifically “taxpayers” are to pick up the check to Wall Street. Meanwhile, more tax breaks are to be given to leave the finance, insurance and real estate sectors with enough money to “earn back” their losses, by extracting yet more rent and interest from the industrial economy’s consumers and wage-earners.

The usual hypocrisy is being brought to bear claiming that all this is necessary to “save the middle class,” even as what is being saved are its debts, not its assets. Something must give – and the upper 10 percent of the population wants to make sure that it is not its own economic position, but that of the bottom 90 percent. The “way of life” that is being saved is not that of home ownership, but debt peonage to support the concentration of wealth at the top of the economic pyramid.” (Counterpunch, August 2008)

Michael Hudson is a former Wall Street economist specializing in the balance of payments and real estate at the Chase Manhattan Bank (now JP Morgan Chase & Co.), Arthur Anderson, and later at the Hudson Institute (no relation). In 1990 he helped established the world’s first sovereign debt fund for Scudder Stevens & Clark. Dr. Hudson was Dennis Kucinich’s Chief Economic Advisor in the recent Democratic primary presidential campaign, and has advised the U.S., Canadian, Mexican and Latvian governments, as well as the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). A Distinguished Research Professor at University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), he is the author of many books, including Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (new ed., Pluto Press, 2002)

The infamous Margaret Thatcher acronym TINA (there is no alternative – to laissez faire capitalism of course) illustrates what is so seriously wrong with the conservative mind set. It’s the epitome of dogmatism and anti-science – the failure of imagination and critical thought, that there can be no other way to live other than the system of greed and power that presently exists as it grinds down most people in the world, while the few enjoy a world of plentitude. It’s no surprise that dogmatism and conservatism flow from someone like Margaret Thatcher whose father was a lay preacher and herself a staunch Methodist from early childhood.

Another notorious statement from Margaret Thatcher is “There is no such thing as society”. This statement by Thatcher is, of course, demonstrably false. Anyone who makes a claim such as this is openly intimating that we humans are nothing more than atomized amoral entities with no sense of community; that we’re merely narcissistic hedonists whose only goals are self-satisfaction and self-interest, having no commitment to cooperation, the common good or welfare of others. It’s the epitaph for the “me-first” morally bankrupt neo-conservatism of the 1980’s that has continued unabated and uncontested up to the present global financial debacle by which we are now besieged. The quote was taken from a 1980’s vitriolic attack by Thatcher on unions as well as social security and welfare programs intended to help the disadvantaged and poor. She would I assume prefer to use that money to subsidize big business which has forever been many times the amounts ever allotted by the British government to help the underprivileged and powerless. Nonetheless, the fact that both unions and corporations are “societies” designed to promote the welfare of their members/shareholders didn’t seem to trouble Thatcher in the least.

Ironically, Thatcher was simply reflecting the consumer greed of the post World War II era by proclaiming a culture and politics of selfishness; a virtual acknowledgement that community had been usurped by the “culture of narcissism,” to use the title of a book by the late social critic Christopher Lasch. A population indulging in the delights of hedonistic consumerism was easily seduced by this political dogma and moral decadence that suggested specific benefit to the individual rather than to society as a whole.

After months of denial, according to financial gurus and pundits, we are now officially inn a global recession. Economic downturns and recessions are an excellent example of how individual efforts to avoid financial problems unintentionally result in recessions. Most economists, including conservative ones, accept the following description of recessions by John Maynard Keynes. During normal times, there is a continuous circular flow of money in the economy. My spending becomes part of your earnings, and your spending becomes part of my earnings. For a wide variety of reasons, however, you may lose confidence in the economy. You may therefore decide to spend less and save more in anticipation of the perceived difficult economic times ahead. This may be a rational strategy for an individual, but it leads to disastrous and unintended consequences for the group when everyone does it. That is because your decision to spend less means that I earn less, which makes things tougher for me. So I follow the same personal strategy; I hoard my money, but that only makes things tougher for you. The circular flow of money falters, and the result is a full-blown recession. Keynes believed that social policies, not individual efforts, were best for relieving recessions. He called for state central banks to expand the money supply, which would put more money in the hands of consumers and encourage spending again, an approach that has been a resounding success in the past. In the six decades since World War II, all nations that have followed Keynes' policies have completely eliminated the once-common depression from their economies. The current meltdown and loss of confidence however is of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression and it remains to be seen how it will play out.

The fact that groups can accomplish things much more easily and efficiently than individuals is well-known. Many conservatives and libertarian capitalists acknowledge as much, but claim that that the free market could offer and perform all these social services more efficiently than government. Let's ignore, for the moment, the side-issue of whether or not the free market is more efficient than government. At the true center of this argument is an admission that the market is a social institution, one that provides important social services. Acknowledging this role of the market is irreconcilable with the notion that "there is no such thing as society.”

Social institutions are not created by disparate individuals; they require group agreements. Our so-called "free market" actually consists of two types of social agreement. The first is the private corporation, which is a social enterprise legally sanctioned by the state to promote the interests of shareholders. It is populated by managers and workers who agree to offer their services for remuneration, thereby acting collectively to create and sell a product. The second is government, which underwrites the charter of the corporation and supports, defends and upholds the free market in which corporations function. Government defends and interferes in the free market with economic policies such as interest rate manipulations. It is also ostensibly obligated to oversee the market with police and military force, to identify and protect various types of property, and ensure fair play on the free market by prosecuting fraud, insider-trading, price-gouging, copyright infringement, monopolistic abuse, broken contracts, false advertising, dishonest disclosure, embezzlement, and a thousand other ways that people can and do lie, cheat and steal on the free market. In the past several decades of de-regulated unfettered free market capitalism this due diligence has been sadly lacking. Hence, in light of the recent financial malfeasance, outright fraud by banks and other financial institutions and subsequent global real estate and market meltdown, there is reason for serious doubt about the role of government as a regulatory mechanism. In other words, the market is only "free" within the parameters that society agrees to establish. Libertarians and conservatives who believe that the market allows individuals to act freely as individuals are therefore in error, because the market itself is first and foremost a social institution – and a not very democratic one at that. This would remain true even if government could somehow privatize all its services. The only question that remains is: what is the best form of society? It’s evident to me that by any traditional standard measure, the conservative model that has created huge disparities in wealth and a steady upward movement of capital to those that already control most of it has been an abysmal failure.

The inability to see anything viable beyond the context of your own cultural biases, religion or conservative doctrinaire world view like a Margaret Thatcher has been the primary reason for most of the wars, conflict, oppression and misery in the world. The genocide of hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples throughout the word from Western colonialism and imperialism is the most graphic illustration of this form of intransigence. When talking with people about the downside of our capitalist system, I’ve had people ask me why I don’t move to Cuba, Vietnam or some other third world country that have been decimated by the ravages and exploitation of hundreds of years of Western colonialism and imperialism? Why should I? I was born in Canada and my indigenous Cree and Métis ancestors* have been here for hundreds of years before the good Christian white man arrived and subjected them to slavery, genocide and disease – and for those who survived, followed by decades of racism, isolation in gulags called reservations, cultural destruction and family division by taking children from families and placing them in vile Christian residential schools for indoctrination and ethnic cleansing. I may “love my country” (whatever that may mean I’ve never been able to ascertain nor articulate) but I certainly have no love affair with my government. Surely we can do much better. It’s my belief that self-criticism is the highest form of patriotism and there is certainly much to criticize.

* I traced my father’s (John Travers was his father) maternal ancestry to 1785 in Alberta and possibly as early as 1634 in Nova Scotia (Acadia).  I have discovered that we have ancestors who lived at Lac la Biche as early as 1775. My great-great-great-great grandfather was one Joseph Ladouceur.  I’m also related to the Desmarais, Cardinal, Auger and other Métis clans traceable to New France and then to France (c1650).

Foreclosures are presently an epidemic in the United States and will likely get worse and spread to other countries, including Canada. But foreclosures are an age-old problem and ploy, so there is a broad repertory of ways to deal with them. In my mind the most effective law is New York State's law of Fraudulent Conveyance. On the books back when New York was a colony, it was retained when New York became part of the United States. The problem was that predatory English creditors sought to grab New York's rich upstate farmland. Their gambit was to lend mortgage money to farmers who pledged their land as collateral. Then they would foreclose, frequently before the crop was in when farmers simply lacked the liquidity to pay. Other lenders would lend too much for the borrowers to pay back when the loan was suddenly called in ­ as could be done back then. So New York passed a law ruling that if a creditor made a loan without having a realistic idea of how the debtor was to pay it back, the transaction would be deemed to be fraudulent and the debt would be declared null and void. This law ought to be broadened to apply to the entire country.

In the 1980s, companies brought this defense against corporate raiders using junk bonds as their weapon of choice. Targeted companies claimed that they would be forced to downsize radically or even have their assets stripped to the point of bankruptcy. It seems to me that Third World* countries that borrowed from the large New York banks through the IMF and World Bank** should have raised this defense, as the only way they could pay was by either borrowing the interest, or, as matters turned out, stripped their assets by privatizing their public domain to raise the dollars.

* Third World: A country vulnerable to attack by the United States military, particularly if it has a large reserves of oil and a dictator amenable to manipulation by American corporate power.

**IMF and World Bank: Oppressive predatory institutions controlled by US corporate interests designed to manipulate the economies of third world countries in order to make them more amenable to exploitation.

It seems evident to me that Free Enterprise as it presently functions today is neither free nor enterprising. If such a pure untainted system deified by neo-conservatives actually existed the whole edifice of the state sustaining marketplace as we know it would collapse like a stack of dominos. The recent taxpayer bailouts in the United States of Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the most recent spectacular illustrations of the collapse of American casino capitalism which at the same time exposes the mythology and façade of so-called “free enterprise” where costs and losses are socialized while profits are privatized. As I write Lehman Brothers has declared bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch has been rescued by Bank of America and AIG, the worlds’ largest insurance conglomerate, is being bailed out by the equally bankrupt US government. Who needs regulation of the capitalist casino when everyone gets granted golden parachutes by the corporate controlled Nanny State? The endless invocations of the virtues of private enterprise, individual entrepreneurship and self-reliance, used to demonize government social programs and defend a system that exploits the vast majority for the benefit of the financial elite, have been exposed as frauds. When it comes to big capital, losses are socialized. Only profits remain private. The same forces who year after year have inveighed against “big government” in order to justify the removal of all legal impediments to the accumulation of corporate profits and private fortunes, and carry out the destruction of social safeguards for the working class, have engineered a massive expansion of government power and socialism for the wealthy to safeguard the interests of the privileged elites who are the real owners of the country and who call all the shots.

In short, there is no such thing as a “free market.” Shortly after the announcement of the roughly $1 trillion heist of the public treasury to bailout US banks, some knee-jerk opponents of government spending accused the no-strings bailout as being “socialism,” but they quickly discovered that not all government spending is socialist if it benefits corporations and the already wealthy. Regardless of what economic system is followed, all markets are planned, and have been ever since the calendar was invented back in the Ancient World. Most market structures throughout history have been organized in a way that provides for the status quo of the privileged classes and their vested interests with a free lunch. This remains the essence of post-feudal capitalism – or as some, such as John Ralston Saul, have expressed it, corporatism. Applying the “privatize the profits, socialize the losses” rationale that bank and other corporate lobbyists have refined over the past century or more, it has decided that the best way to “stabilize the economy” is to swap Treasury bonds for high-risk junk assets at face value, saving the banks from having to take a  well deserved loss. The assumption is that taxpayers represent a bottomless pit of cash. The Big Three automakers, which have been technically insolvent for years due to mismanagement, greed and shoddy products will likely be lining up at the trough next if the economic meltdown deepens. Car lots are already looking like desolate ghost towns.

As Noam Chomsky has rightfully described it:

“...free enterprise, [is] a term that refers, in practice, to a system of public subsidy and private profit, with massive government intervention in the economy to maintain a welfare state for the rich.” 

George W Bush in his typical obtuse manner explained the carnage in the housing and stock market with the glib comment, “Wall Street got drunk. “ But the real reason for the carnage are first, the neo-conservative policies of market de-regulation and the assumption that the markets can regulate themselves, a disastrous 1920s policy that resulted in the Great Depression. Second, there are the obscene and outrageous compensation packages for corporate executives that are so out of proportion to any other sector of the economy and the using of high risk investment instruments and subsequent short term gambling with investor’s funds to earn equally obscene bonuses. American free lance financial writer Mike Whitney was more explicit in his description of the turmoil.

“…Will someone please explain how free markets can exist when speculators are subsidized by the state, or when the risk is removed from risky investing? That’s what it means when the Fed opens its auction facilities to the investment banks and brokerage houses. It makes no sense at all. Government “safety nets” are anathema to free market capitalism. “You pays yer money and you takes yer chances.” That’s finance capitalism; deal with it.

What we are seeing is a hybridized version of capitalism, ‘Paulson’s Scatterbrain Capitalism,’ a hodge-podge of taxpayer bailouts, government intervention and free market mumbo-jumbo. It’s a toxic mix of off-balance sheets operations, over-the-counter “unregulated” derivatives, dark pool trading, opaque hedge funds, dodgy Enron-style accounting, and complex, hard-to-pronounce debt instruments wrapped up into one, cheesy, unsustainable shell game, managed by Harvard-educated flim-flam men and backed by a 100 percent government guarantee. That’s the system we’re supporting with our tax dollars and that’s the system that is dragging us headlong to ruin.

It ain’t capitalism, my friend. It’s a crooked system run by corporate carpetbaggers and banking scalawags who’ve shot the Golden Goose in hopes of keeping the larder at the cottage on the New Jersey coast chock-full of Dom Perignon and halibut fillets. They created this nightmare and they’ve doomed us all. As long as we prop up the existing system, the economy will continue to flounder, unemployment will continue to rise, foreclosures will continue to soar, banks will continue to be shuttered, and the wobbly old greenback will continue its inexorable march towards Pesoville. It’s time to clean house and we can start by firing Hank Paulson.” (The Road to Perdition, Counterpunch, July 25, 2008)

The extraordinary rapidity by which the bailout legislation was passed demonstrates the most fundamental fact of American political life: the complete subordination of Congress and both parties to the American financial aristocracy. When it comes to the vital interests of Wall Street, the much bemoaned gridlock in Congress disappears and both parties jump to attention and provide the votes needed to bail out the big financial interests. The emergency bailout provisions in the bill were attached to Democratic-sponsored housing legislation that had been wending its way through Congress for months. Under conditions in which millions of Americans were losing their homes as a result of predatory and reckless lending practices by usurious mortgage companies and banks, Congress had failed to act to provide even the minimal relief contained in the Democratic proposal. Only the near-collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which hold or guarantee more than half of the country’s $12 trillion mortgage debt, prompted Congress to pass the housing bill to which the lenders’ bailout had been appended. The actions of President Bush underscore the plutocratic reality behind the façade of American democracy. Bush had for months threatened to veto the housing bill, citing a provision for victims by allocating a paltry $4 billion to states and localities to buy and refurbish foreclosed homes. He reiterated his veto threat earlier but within days, after a discussion with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson—the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, and committed Christian Scientist and whose net worth is estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars - Bush reversed himself and said he would sign the combined housing and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailout legislation.

In the neo-conservative* world view capitalism is synonymous with democracy and everything in the universe is marketable and should be fair game for private exploitation and profit. Even infinity has now been granted a non-mathematical definition - the upper limit of the greed for American corporate executives. If you deemed an MBA** degree anti-intellectual rubbish, think again. One can now earn a university degree in something as mundane and banal as “marketing”. Does anyone study history, philosophy, literature, mathematics or physics at university anymore? In recent decades the University has been morphed into an institution once renowned for rigorous entrance requirements and intellectually demanding and mind expanding academic disciplines like philosophy, history, physics and mathematics where one was ostensibly taught how to think and exposed to the greatest intellects and free thinkers of antiquity. This program has now been hijacked by the Mickey Mouse Club whereby students now study humdrum tedious courses such as “marketing” and “entrepreneurship” which belong in a third rate vocational school. The University has been thus reduced to an adjunct of the corporate world where economists, business administration majors, accountants, corporate lawyers and marketing specialists are churned out like widgets on an assembly line.

*Neo-Conservative: a right wing zealot born into privilege and wealth who is an avid supporter of the “self-made man” theory while at the same a supporter of huge government handouts in the form of tax concessions, bankruptcy protection and bailouts to his class justified by the “trickle-down theory” junk science economic theory. Neo-Conservatives are often referred to as neo-liberals, particularly in Europe. But in spite of the welfare handouts they willingly accept from the state, they maintain that government should stay out of business, off people's backs and out of their wallets. They promote rugged individualism, bootstrap psychology and Social Darwinism couched in terms like "personal responsibility," "freedom" and "independence." "Greed is good!" was the mantra of Michael Douglas' character, Gordon Gecko, in the 1980s movie "Wall Street," and became the facile bankrupt morality to live by in the '80s and '90s. This law of the jungle philosophy of greed has been taken to its logical conclusion by corporate mafia dons such as Enron’s Ken Lay and Worldcom’s Bernie Ebbers, and, over the past three decades, this twisted ethic - underlined by the values of individualism and the culture of consumerism - has turned back the clock on human development with devastating consequences. On the issue of “bootstrap psychology”: On the face of it there’s nothing wrong with recommending to someone that they “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” provided they have boots. The conservatives who tout this mantra of course have straps and boots called a silver spoon and the family fortune, respectively.

Since the early 1970s the Neo-Conservative agenda has treated us to a bankrupt philosophy of raw greed, acquisitiveness and crass materialism that could have easily been lifted from the pages of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness. It’s the glorification of private privilege and corporate power and the intrusion of fundamentalist religion into politics to supply the moral backdrop; the abrogation of personal freedoms, labor legislation and hard won civil rights gained, at such high cost since the early twentieth century; and the destruction of the very idea of a common good, of the notion that the qualities of life for families in a community - justice, egalitarianism, equality of opportunity, culture, recreation, infrastructure (quality public schools, roads, parks, libraries, other amenities), meaningful labor, civilized commerce and working conditions, opportunity for personal growth, and productive participation in a genuinely open and responsive democratic process. Instead we have government of the few, by the few and for the few.

** MBA: A bearer of a bogus academic credential akin to a third rate vocational school certificate unencumbered by great literature, philosophy, science, critical thinking, free thought or history and therefore held in high esteem throughout the business world - generally hired by thriving entrepreneurial companies to help convert them into rigid anachronistic behemoths.

Conservatives are big supporters of repressive crime bills, religion (Christianity of course) in the public schools, taxpayer exemptions for churches and support for private Christian schools, teaching creationism in the public school science classes, limitations on the rights of women, minorities, gays and lesbians, censorship of films, art, literature and television. There is a seemingly endless list of bans and prohibitions, based primarily in biblical literalism and other forms of religious dogmatism and obscurantism. My own views on censorship are distinctly libertarian. Anyone should be allowed to think, write or say what he will and discharge his pseudo-history, ludicrous world view or hate literature where he will on the grounds of practicality and a basic principle of liberty. I’m deeply concerned for the ethical status of a society that restricts liberties of self-expression, even to the smallest extent, under the specious reasoning that in this way freedom or decency can be protected - But for whom and by whom? - And on what authority? Freedom and decency can only be protected if people in a society fight for them against governments, religions and moralizers of every stripe. That is why I am also opposed to anti-hate laws just as I am to the anti-pornography laws; people will choose to be ignorant, to hate as much and lust as much as ever, whatever the laws, and negative emotions are less dangerous when they are not repressed by Big Brother, the Church or any other specious authority.

Many neo-conservatives are Christian fundamentalists* and if you do a Google search for “junk science” you will spew out an endless succession of right wing blogs devoted to the proposition that the consensus of mainstream science is the “junk” and that fearless dissidents on issues ranging from evolution, stem cell research, global warming and vaccines are being stifled by closed mined PhD liberal scientists. Many of these blogs are bankrolled by the dominant right wing corporate news and corporations such as integrated oil companies with an interest in furthering their profits by debunking global warming and the impact of humans on our ecosystem. Junk thought within conservative America has become so pervasive that as soon as someone criticizes, to cite one example, attempts by religious groups to restrict abortion or stem cell research, the charlatans of irrationality and intellectual quackery trot out the worn out straw man analogy about the cruel experiments conducted by Nazi doctors during the Third Reich.

* By 1980, some close observers were already noticing parallels between the development of religious extremism in the rise o f the Nazis (the German Christian Church) and a potential "Christian fascism " in the United States – the words of Dr. James Luther Adams of the Harvard Divinity School who spoke from personal experience, having worked with Dietrich Bonhoeffer's underground anti-Nazi church in Germany in 1935 36. Fritz Stern's observations of the descent to barbarism reflect the increasing significance o f these warnings. Journalist Chris Hedges reports that "Christian fundamentalists now hold a majority of seats in 36 percent of all Republican Party state committees, or 18 of 50 states ,"as well as " large minorities in 81 percent of the rest of the states," with George Bush playing - or being used to play - an important role in the mobilization.

During the elections of 2000 and 2004 the Republican propaganda machine railed against gay marriage and abortion rights that they quite rightly believed appealed to Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists. The bigotry of the message was couched in the language of preserving the traditional family or “family values”. The important question of course is what is meant by vague expressions like “family values” and "moral values" when the purely emotional appeal is subtracted from them. Even in a country such as the United States where levels of religious fundamentalism far surpass any other Western industrialized democracy, most people would consider gay marriage and abortion low on the list of moral priorities. Education, the environment, family poverty and homelessness, American military aggression and universal health care are what dominate the minds of most Americans. In one poll when voters were asked to choose the most urgent moral crisis facing the country, 33 percent cited “greed and materialism,” 31 per cent selected “poverty and economic justice,” 16 percent named abortion and 12 percent selected gay marriage. In another, when surveyed voters were asked to list the moral issue that most affected their vote, the Iraq war placed first at 42 percent, while 13 percent named abortion and 9 percent named gay marriage.

Other studies reveal that most of the large majorities that favor national health insurance regard it as a moral issue. In spite of the steady deluge of corporate propaganda against universal health care, it appears a large majority of the population supports extensive government intervention. An NBC- Wall Street Journal  poll found that over two-thirds of all Americans thought the government should guarantee 'everyone' the best and most advanced health care that technology can supply, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 80 percent regard universal health care as "more important than holding down taxes”; polls reported in Business Week found that 67% of Americans think it's a good idea to guarantee health care for all U.S. citizens, as Canada and Britain do, with just 27% dissenting; the Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of Americans favor the U.S, government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens, even if it means raising taxes (30 percent opposed). By the late 1980s, more than 70 percent of Americans thought health care should be a constitutional guarantee, while 40 percent thought it already was. One can only imagine what the figures would be if the topics were not virtually off the public agenda. It’s called democracy folks – that wonderful system whereby the public will is satisfied and the majority rules. The facts are sometimes acknowledged, with an interesting twist. The rare allusions to public support for guaranteed health care describe the idea as lacking "political support," or "politically impossible" because of "tangled politics." These are polite ways of saying that the pharmaceutical and financial industries and other private powers are strongly opposed. The will of the public is marginalized or simply banned from the political arena.

As in the markets constructed by the PR industry, so also in the democratic elections they run, a primary task is to delude the public by carefully constructed images that have only the vaguest resemblance to reality. Not surprisingly, voters disapprove. Large majorities believe the nation would be better off if its leaders paid more attention to the views of the public and to public opinion polls. But the public can be ignored as long as consumer choice can be barred from the political arena by the carefully honed means used to undermine markets. Bush won large majorities of those concerned with “moral values” and the threat of terrorism from Islamic fanatics that are lurking under every bed. These results again tell us very little. Popular judgments about terror are another tribute to effective marketing by government and media. The public is hardly aware of the preference of Bush planners for policies that increase the threat of terrorism, which is not a high priority for them. We learn more about the guiding moral values of Bush and associates from their unconcealed efforts to transfer to future generations the costs of their dedicated service to privilege and wealth. Republican administrations since Reagan have run huge deficits and increased the federal debt to astronomical levels by massive tax cuts to the wealthy and big business interests as well as huge military budgets and an involvement in costly imperialistic wars around the world. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OEED) warns leading countries, primarily the United States during the Bush years, are “sacrificing' their children."

The Liberal Media Myth

“The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment. This is the way opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way they are held in theology. Science is empirical, tentative, and un-dogmatic; all immutable dogma is unscientific. The scientific outlook, accordingly, is the intellectual counterpart of what is, in the practical sphere, the outlook of Liberalism.” - Bertrand Russell

“If there is one idea that may be called intrinsically coercive, it is the idea of truth; since what is true is independent of what anyone wants or believes.”    - David Stove

There is a blatantly false perception among conservatives that the extreme right wing media in North America, controlled by less than a half dozen multi-national corporations is dominated by left wing bias. We have reached the point at which huge corporate giants like Time Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, General Electric and Viacom control nearly everything we read, watch, hear and ultimately think. Conservative right wingers incessantly complain about "pointy headed cultural elites" and "liberal media" that dominate the monopolistic corporate media. Even on the face of it, this is a highly counter intuitive and ludicrous claim – and patently false. Can anyone even in their wildest imagination accept such an assertion based on the ultra-conservative reactionary nature of the above mentioned mega corporations? The existence of a dispassionate liberal media is the ultimate conservative corporate lie. Why does the average citizen not know that four to five times more of his taxes go to corporate welfare than social welfare? Why does he not know that 95% of the GDP of the United States is controlled by just 2% of the population and that 1% controls more wealth than the bottom 90%? These are facts, conspicuous by their absence in our corporate controlled media. If John Q Public gets his news from liberal television and newspapers, why does he harbor such contempt for liberals? If the media was truly liberal, why would corporate America spend so much money buying advertising to support it? The products sold by the media are viewers, listeners, and readers; these products are then sold to advertisers. The advertisers are oil companies, investment firms, insurance companies, and banks, not minorities, unions, the elderly or the disenfranchised. When our conservative media want an expert opinion of an ethical issue, their choice is inevitably a theologian or some distinguished member from the religious community, rather than a professor of moral philosophy. Other than rare token gestures to liberal thought, if it’s opinion on any other issue they only publish responses from right wing conservative “think tanks” such as the Fraser Institute. This is patently obvious to anyone who regularly opens the reactionary pages of the Vancouver Sun or the National Post. C.E.O.’s of media outlets are not going to risk advertising revenue by being controversial. Consider the reply of William Randolph Hearst when reminded his newspapers were losing a million dollars a day, “True and at this rate I will be broke in 100 years.” His economic interests were so extensive that the raison d'être of his newspaper empire was no longer profit. Most media today is controlled by conglomerates with interests that extend well beyond broadcasting.

The notion of a liberal dominated media is a fabrication promoted by Conservatives that has been with us for a very long time. During the “red scare” following the Bolshevik Revolution a diligent and ambitious employee in the Department of Justice by the name of J. Edgar Hoover began targeting foreign born radical intellectuals and political dissidents from a dossier complied by that very same Department of Justice. On December 19th, 1919, 249 immigrants involved in various forms of leftist politics - many of whom were citizens and had lived in the United States for decades and professed anti-Marxist libertarianism and anarchism rather than communism – were deported to the Soviet Union on a ship dubbed the Red Ark by the right wing dominated press. One of them was the articulate brilliant fiery anarchist Emma Goldman who was given the misnomer “Red Emma” by the same right wing press.  Goldman was sixteen when she immigrated to the United States in 1885 and her early influences were a steady diet of American icons such as Thomas Paine, Walt Whitman and Thoreau whom she discovered after a stint in jail for simply delivering a speech on the injustice of abysmal working conditions in New York sweat shops at the time.  

 Unlike many other anarchists, who opposed a socialist or communist government as much as a capitalist one, Goldman arrived in the Soviet Union with high hopes that the recent Russian Revolution had established the new, liberated stateless society of which she had written so eloquently.  Instead, she was shocked by the ruthless authoritarianism of the Bolshevik regime, its severe repression of anarchists, and its disregard for individual freedom. In a face-to-face meeting with Lenin in 1920, Goldman and Alexander Berkman questioned the Soviet leader on the lack of personal freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the persecution of anarchists in Soviet Russia. The inadequacy of Lenin's response, together with growing repression in Russia and the slaughter of the Kronstadt rebels in 1921, prompted the two anarchists to leave the Soviet Union after only 23 months in residence. After returning from the Soviet Union she wrote My Disillusionment with Russia, one of the earliest and most powerful leftist indictments of the emerging totalitarian state.

Clarence Darrow, the nation’s most celebrated atheist and best known defense lawyer at the time would later describe the period of fanatical conservatism as “an era of tyranny, brutality and despotism that undermined the foundations upon which our republic was laid.” It was during this period that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded. Witch hunts and the contemporaneous suspension of civil liberties such as these were sadly repeated during the early fifties McCarthyism and following 9-11 under George W Bush. During the McCarthy purges even the humanistic socialist Yip Harburg, writer of “Over the Rainbow” from the Wizard of Oz, who had nothing but contempt for hard core communism, was blacklisted as a “commie”. These periods of Americana graphically illustrate how close the United States has come to a full blown fascist police state.

These periods of conservative paranoia and oppression of leftist artists, activists and intellectuals were eloquently described by one of my favorite writers, Arthur Miller* who was subpoenaed by HUAC in 1956, seven years after the overwhelm­ing success of his play Death of a Salesman and four years after the Broadway production of The Crucible, with its implicit comparison of the Salem witch trials to the persecution of Communists and others on the left. (*Fascinating 2003 interview in 3 parts)

Miller, who was never a Communist Party member but who, like other writers of his generation, surely counted many former Communists among his friends, agreed to answer questions about his own political past and opinions but refused provide the names of others. Unlike many writers who made self-aggrandizing statements of principle against informing (the sanctimonious Lillian Hellman comes to mind) and then shielded themselves from going to jail by taking the Fifth Amendment, Miller did not take the Fifth and was convicted of con­tempt of Congress in 1957. His conviction, coming as it did in the twilight of anti-Communist fervor, was overturned on appeal. The parallel between the Salem witch trials and anti-communist hysteria, Miller writes in his autobiography Timebends, was the guilt “of holding illicit, suppressed feelings of alienation and hostility toward standard, daylight society as defined by its most orthodox proponents.”

Here’s Arthur Miller:

“Without guilt the 1950s Red-hunt could never have generated such power. Once it was conceded that absolutely any idea remotely similar to a Marxist position was not only politically but morally illicit, the liberal, with his customary adaptations of Marxist theory and attitudes, was effectively paralyzed. The for­mer Communist was guilty because he had in fact believed the Soviets were developing the system of the future, without human exploitation and irrational waste. Even his naïveté in seeing Russia not as an earthly empire but rather as a kind of spiritual condition was now a source of guilt and shame.

... as in Salem, a point arrived, in the late forties, when the rules of social intercourse quite suddenly changed, or were changed, and attitudes that had been merely anti-capitalist or anti-establishment were now made unholy, morally repulsive, if not actually treasonous then implicitly so. America has always been a religious country.”

Even in periods of political tranquility free speech in North America is practically speaking, a fiction. Freedom of speech may be defined as the inalienable right of every member of a modern democratic society to express their opinion. But in a corporatist dominated mass media ordinary citizens really have no platform for its expression. It’s essentially been reduced to the god given right to agree with the right wing media who are more or less lapdogs for the conservative powers that be. If you have ever written a provocative or dissenting letter to the editor, then you have likely been muffled by what I call the sacred cow gag rule. For example, any serious criticism of religion or the corporate culture of welfare capitalism, class and privilege is verboten. Noam Chomsky, celebrated linguist at MIT who was voted the “most important public intellectual in the world today” by recent magazine polls and vehement critic of US foreign policy, has been ruthlessly muted for decades by the corporate media for the sin of speaking truth to power. Chomsky is admired and respected throughout Europe and the rest of the world but is marginalized to such an extent to be virtually unknown in his own country. You will never see Chomsky on Fox, CNN or any of the other half dozen corporate multinationals that control the print media and airwaves. However, the shallow lives of celebrities and the rich and famous such as Brittany Spears or steroid use in professional sports will get plenty of coverage to distract the masses from their genuine concerns.

A recent illuminating documentary by Norman Solomon called “War Made Easy” articulates well the extent of the collusion between the corporate media and government. The most shameless propaganda of the American conservative political class is to hide the fact that its interests are vastly different from and diametrically opposed to those of the vast majority of working class Americans and the rest of the world. To do this it must neutralize public opinion and opposition by, says Noam Chomsky, “manufacturing consent” for “necessary illusions.” Step two is to anaesthetize the masses with the banal and the mundane. Similarly, as the sociologist Robert Putnam has argued, one of the effects of the modern American political system is to dissolve the important bonds of working class community and solidarity, from sports clubs and charities to labor unions that have been recognized as essential for democracy and a genuine sense of community. According to Solomon, “War becomes perpetual when it’s used as a rationale for peace,” Solomon says in the film, and then goes on to provide ample evidence of how the justification for perpetual war has been manufactured, packaged, and sold. If it weren’t such serious business, the producers’ collection of sound bites from presidents - Democrats and Republicans alike, all mouthing some version of “We seek peace” - would be comical. From Korea through Vietnam and every conflict up to Iraq, the rhetoric is remarkably similar, as are the real aims and the deadly consequences of the policy. One could trace history further back and find the same deceptive strategy. Solomon’s target is not just the politicians, however, but the journalists who become the vehicle for selling that story. His work reminds us that even when journalists seem to be reporting critically about failed war policies, they almost always implicitly endorse U.S. officials’ underlying claim about the desire for peace and democracy. Solomon reminds us that for all the talk about precision weapons, the percentage of deaths that are civilians has climbed steadily from 10 percent in World War I to almost 90 percent in Iraq. He describes how “an acculturated callousness” to the effects of massive bombardment has built up in our society, facilitated to a large extent by journalists who are more likely to focus on how a weapon works than what it does to victims.

American big business and the financial and political elites that really own and control this country want you to “shop till you drop”, sitting in front of your TV or computer screen watching football or American Idol like a mindless cretin, sniping an Ebay bid or watching the mind-numbing Oprah or Jerry Springer. It wants you to be completely atomized, avoiding solidarity with fellow wage slaves, docile and entirely divorced from the really important issues that affect your life. It certainly doesn't want you doing anything more political than printing an “X”, pulling a lever or touching a screen to ratify the rule of choosing essentially indistinguishable multi-millionaire candidates, candidates who will follow basically lockstep the same regressive policies that promote the interests of power and privilege.

It’s not only conservatives that have a lot to answer for, but liberal intellectuals as well. One of their most serious blind spots has been a reluctance to acknowledge the political significance of public ignorance, credulity and intellectual sloth. Liberals have tended to point the finger at the Bush administration as the problem and the source of all that has gone wrong in the world during the past eight years and assume that an outraged citizenry will throw the incompetent bums out. They deluded themselves into thinking this would happen in 2004 even if Homer Simpson ran as the Democratic candidate against the bumbling Bush. Although an irate public may be the short term solution, an ignorant gullible unthinking public is the long term problem in the United States. Like many Democrat politicians, left of center intellectuals have focused on the Republicans and their complicit lapdog press with their string of lies and deceptions to sell the war in Iraq rather than on the ignorance and erosion of historical memory that enables those serious deceptions as possible and plausible, not only about Iraq but an extensive array of domestic and international concerns.

Conservative propaganda that is intended for mass consumption implicitly distinguishes between government and state. It invites peo­ple to see government as akin to the Anti-Christ, their principal enemy. At the same time, such propaganda encourages an uncritical public admiration for the corporatist oligarchic state, its flag, its national anthem, the pledge of allegiance*, and other symbols denoting superiority and the visible instruments of its power such as the military. And never is an opportunity missed to sing “God Bless America” at any gathering of the masses such as a professional baseball game where robotic fans place their hand over the heart and players point skyward to the deity after hitting a ball out of the park (Oddly, they don’t follow this mindless ritual after striking out or hitting a ground ball into a double play). Even in the law courts one is compelled to swear to tell the truth while keeping one hand on the Bible as if a book written by a disparate group of itinerant Arabs 2000 years ago has some relevance to truth telling.

*“Pledges of allegiance are marks of totalitarian states, not democracies,” says David Kertzer, a Brown University anthropologist who specializes in political rituals. “I can’t think of a single democracy except the United States that has a pledge of allegiance.” (Ironically, the American Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy, a founding member, in 1889, of the Society of Christian Socialists, a group of Protestant ministers who asserted that “the teachings of Jesus Christ lead directly to some form or forms of socialism.”)

The Executive State

“The utility of intelligence is admitted only theoretically, not practically: it is not desired that people should think for themselves, because it is felt that people who think for themselves are awkward to manage and cause administrative difficulties.” -Bertrand Russell

“As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our trouble. Whose authority? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? In practice, people choose the book considered sacred by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the others. At one time, the most influential text in the Bible was: 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.' Nowadays, people pass over this text, in silence if possible; if not, with an apology.” – Bertrand Russell

The executive, be it monarch, dictator, prime minister, or president, usually stands closer to state functions than does the legislature. Some European systems have a prime minister, who deals with legislative and budgetary agendas and related issues, and a president, who is comman­der in chief of the armed forces and head of state - a duality that gives unspoken embodiment to the distinction between government and state. In the U.S. system the executive combines the functions both of prime minister and president, of state and government, of popular leader and constitutional monarch.

Marx understood the special role of the executive in the preservation of class dominance. He is often misquoted as having said that the state is the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. Actually, in The Communist Manifesto, he and Engels say that "the executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." Thus Marx and Engels recognized the particular function of the executive in promoting the interests of the financial elites. They also implicitly acknowledged that bourgeois government is not a fixed unit. Parts of it can become an arena of struggle.

This is true even within the executive branch itself. Thus, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development sometimes deal with constituen­cies and interests that differ markedly from those of the executive as represented by the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, or the Departments of Treasury and Commerce. It is up to the president to resolve these pluralistic interests, making sure that the state remains essentially undiminished in its promotion of class privilege.

Nesting within the executive is that most virulent purveyor of state power: the national security state, an informal configuration of mili­tary and intelligence agencies, of which the CIA (Capitalism’s International Army) is a key unit. The president operates effectively as head of the national security state as long as he stays within the parameters of its primary dedication - which is the maximization of power on behalf of corporate interests and capitalist global hegemony. If a progressive such as Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson or Dennis Kucinich were elected president, he would have a hard time getting control of the state, assuming he would be allowed to survive in office.

In 1977, President Carter tried to appoint Theodore Sorenson as director of the CIA. Sorenson, a high-profile liberal, had been a con­scientious objector and had filed affidavits defending Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo for their role in releasing the Pentagon Papers. Conservative Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, along with Democrats like chair person Daniel Inouye, opposed Sorenson. They said his association with a law firm that dealt with countries in which the CIA had a great deal of influence might cause a "conflict of interest." They questioned his use of classified documents when writing a book and raised a number of other rather unconvincing complaints. As reported in the New York Times (January 18, 1977), "Congres­sional sources close to the committee suggested that behind such objections lay the conviction on the part of several senators that the CIA director should be a more hard line conservative figure than Mr. Sorenson." Officials in the CIA itself quietly made known their opposition and Sorenson withdrew himself from consideration.

After John Kennedy assumed office in 1961, CIA director Allen Dulles regularly withheld information from the White House regard­ing various covert operations. When Kennedy replaced Dulles with John McCone, the agency began to withhold information from McCone, its own director. Placed at the head of the CIA in order to help control it, McCone was never able to penetrate to the deeper operations of the agency. A president who works closely with the national security state usually can operate outside the laws of democratic governance with impunity. Thus President Reagan violated several provisions of the Arms Export Control Act, including one requiring that he report to Congress when major military equipment is transferred to another country and he violated the Constitution by engaging in a war against Grenada without congressional approval. He also violated the Constitution when he refused to spend monies allocated by Congress for various human services.

Reagan and other members of his administration refused to hand over information when specific actions of theirs were investigated by Congress. By presidential order, he removed Congress's restrictions on the CIA's surveillance of domestic organizations and activities, even though a presidential order does not supersede an act of Congress. His intervention against Nicaragua was ruled by the World Court, in a 13 to 1 decision, to be a violation of international law, but Congress did nothing to call him to account. He claimed ignorance but was clearly up to his ears in the Iran-Contra conspiracy and was never called before any investigative committee while in office.

Disclosure as Smoke Screen

“So long as men are not trained to withhold judgement in the absence of evidence, cocksure prophets will lead them astray, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans.” - Bertrand Russell

“Another not uncommon victim of persecution mania is a certain type of philanthropist, who is always doing good to people against their will, and is amazed and horrified that they display no grati­tude. Our motives in doing good are seldom as pure as we imagine them to be. Love of power is insidious; it has many disguises, and is often the source of the pleasure we derive from doing what we believe to be good to other people. Not infrequently, yet another element enters in. "Doing good" to people generally consists in depriving them of some pleasure: drink, or gambling, or idleness, or what not.” – Bertrand Russell

"I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator."  -Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf

"I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so" - Adolph Hitler, to Gen. Gerhard Engel, 1941

With enough agitation and publicity, government sometimes is able to put the state under public scrutiny and rein it in – if only a bit. During the late seventies, House and Senate committees investigated some of the CIA's unsavory operations. Congress laid down restrictive guidelines for the FBI, investigated the skullduggery of the Iran-Contra conspiracy, and conducted other important inquiries that proved limited in scope and impact. What remained unquestioned throughout all these exposures are the policy premises and class ded­ications of the national security state itself. The Iran-Contra hearings reveal the damage-control function of most official inquiries. As representatives of popular sovereignty, the Joint Select Committee of Congress investigating the conspiracy had to reassure the public that these unlawful, unconstitutional shenanigans would be exposed and punished. However, such exposure conflicted with the first rule of the state, which is that democracy should never do anything to destabilize the state itself.

The process of legitimization through rectification is a two-edged sword. It must go far enough to demonstrate that the system is self-cleansing and self-correcting, but not so far as to destabilize the executive power itself. So the same congressional investigators who professed a determi­nation to get to the bottom of Iran-Contra were also reminding us that "this country needs a successful presidency," meaning that after the scandals of Watergate and President Nixon's downfall, they had better not uncover too much and risk further damage to executive legitimacy.

In sum, the investigation was an expose and a cover-up, unearthing wrongdoing at the subordinate level while leaving President Reagan and Vice President Bush largely untouched. In both the cover up and the expose the purpose was the same: to enhance the legitimacy of the state by a show of self-regulation, unearthing some of the malfeasance and denying the existence of the rest.

As I write this, a massive bailout of failing US financial institutions has been put in place by the Bush administration – on the backs of the American working people. Who will be held accountable for all this? Certainly it will not be the plutocrats who ran the Federal Reserve such as Alan Greenspan who orchestrated two economic bubble and subsequent financial meltdowns nor the con men of Wall Street. Not surprisingly to some I expect, is that Henry Paulsen, who earned hundreds of millions as CEO of Goldman Sachs selling this toxic sludge to greedy investors, has been chosen to orchestrate the huge bailout. Once again the fox guards the henhouse.

The American taxpayer is being coerced into paying up to $1 trillion for the speculative greed and excesses of Wall Street investment banks and their fraudulent securities scams. Treasury Secretary Paulson and President Bush have announced the salvation plan to shore up collapsing financial markets and called on Congress to pass legislation next week to use, in Paulson’s words, “hundreds of billions” of taxpayer dollars to buy virtually worthless mortgage-backed assets that cannot be sold on the market from banks and other financial institutions, including Goldman Sachs.

Like obsequious robots, the presidential candidates of both major parties, Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Barack Obama, quickly endorsed the wholesale bailout of the larcenous banksters.

“There will be ample opportunity to debate the origins of this problem,” Ben Bernanke tells us. “Now is the time to solve it.” As with most white collar crime, there will, in fact, be no debate or discussion and nobody will be held accountable for the greatest financial disgrace in world history. There will be no penalties. No one who made tens and hundreds of millions from the looting of America will be forced to give back a penny.

The immediate compliance of both parties and the media behind the bailout plan for Wall Street stands in glaring contrast to their indifference and inaction with regard to the plight of millions of American working people, who face a rising deluge of home foreclosures, layoffs and plummeting living standards.

When it comes to the societal needs of the people, the collective cry from corporate America and the two right wing corporate controlled parties is, “There is no money,” but when the fortunes of the financial elite are threatened or billions needed to finance the latest imperialistic war such as the present horror show in Iraq, the full power of the government and unlimited resources are marshaled virtually at the drop of a hat. There was no suggestion in the statements of Bush and Paulson of any relief for the working classes - nothing to stop home foreclosures or help those who have already lost their homes. Rather, hundreds of billions, more likely trillions of dollars in public funds will be used to protect the felonious financial institutions.

All of those involved in pushing through this scheme to unconditionally funnel the entire wealth of the country into the coffers of the financial elite have direct financial stakes in the outcome. As mentioned earlier, Hank Paulson has made hundreds of millions of dollars as chairman of Goldman Sachs flogging these sub-prime mortgages.

 It’s called “free enterprise” folks - but it’s neither free nor enterprising. It’s a smoke screen and sham for unmitigated greed and plutocracy whereby profits are privatized and losses socialized. It’s the conservative way and always has been.

Keeping the Government in Line

"I believe that there's somebody out there who watches over us. Unfortunately, it's the government." - Woody Allen

“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction.”

“Capitalists, militarists and ecclesiastics co-operate in education because all depend for their power on the prevalence of emotionalism and the rarity of critical judgement.” -  Bertrand Russell

Generally, the state is more effective in reining in the government than vice versa. Congressional intelligence committees are usually occupied by members of both parties who identify closely with the needs of the national security state. The Bush Sr. administration was reportedly stunned by the appointment of five liberals to the House Intelligence Committee that consisted of twenty or so members. In effect, the administration was saying that the committee has a special relation­ship to the state and that there should be an ideological test for its members.

Lawmakers who fail the state's ideological test but who occupy key legislative positions run certain risks. When Jim Wright (D-Texas), became Speaker of the House of Representatives, he began raising critical questions about CIA covert actions against Nicaragua. Wright also took a friendly position toward labor, civil rights, the environment, and human services. Here was a prominent leader publicly questioning a major policy of U.S. imperialism - of course Wright was discreet enough to never call it imperialism. Criticisms of national security state policy from a left or liberal perspective usually are denied exposure in the media. But because the Speaker of the House was not someone who could easily be ignored, his charges received press coverage. Indeed, he was taken seriously enough to be attacked editorially by the Washington Post and the New York Times for his comments on Nicaragua.

Rebels and iconoclasts such as Jim Wright who question sacred cows often mysteriously suffer a fatal accident or die suddenly of so-called natural causes. But there is a neater way of getting rid of troublesome and inquiring politicians these days. The Republican-controlled Justice Department did a thorough back­ground check on Wright and found questionable financial dealings - not too difficult to do because most politicians are constantly in need of campaign funds. He allegedly had accepted improper gifts from a Texas developer and a publisher. A seemingly unwritten rule of U.S. politics is that political leaders caught in shady deals can give up office in order to avoid criminal prosecution. Prominent instances of this trade-off were President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew. This is what Wright prudently did. Next in line to be Speaker was Tom Foley of Washington State, a flaccid Tip O'Neill retread, who could be counted on never to raise problematic awkward questions about the murky doings of the national secu­rity state and the course of U.S. militarism, hegemony and global capitalism.

Critics of the national security state are a minority within Congress. Generally, congressional leaders are complicit with the state and with their own disempowerment. Most of them go along with the veil of secrecy that permeates CIA operations and U.S. foreign pol­icy. Members serving on intelligence committees rarely fulfill their oversight function; they ask precious few questions about secret operations, dirty tricks, weapons testing, nuclear arms, counterinsurgency, and aid to tyrants. If one is too skeptical and inquires too much, then ques­tions might be raised about one's patriotism, belief in God and Country or loyalty. Why does this member want to know all these secrets? So they allow the state to continue with its nefarious and surreptitious programs virtually unchecked.

During the Iran-Contra hearings, Representative Jack Brooks (D-Texas), taking his investigative functions seriously, asked Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North if there was any truth to the story that he had helped draft a secret plan, code-named Rex Alpha 84, to suspend the Constitution and impose martial law in the USA. A stunned expres­sion appeared on North's face and the committee chair, Senator Daniel Inouye, stopped Brooks from pursuing the question, declaring in stern tones "I believe the question touches upon a highly sensitive and classified area. So may I request that you not touch upon that, sir?" Brooks responded that he had read in several newspapers that the National Security Council had developed "a contingency plan in the event of emergency that would suspend the American Constitution and I was deeply concerned about it." Inouye again cut him off. It was a tense moment. The committee's leadership was inadvertently admitting that it would refrain from asking about a secret, illegal plan, devised by persons within the national security state for a mil­itary coup d'etat in the United States. Since then we’ve gone through much worse. The events following September 11, 2001 and the magnitude and scale of the lies and deceptions surrounding the conspiracy leading up to the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent erosion of civil rights are without precedent in US history.

Constitutional Autocracy

“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”  - Oliver Wendell Holmes

“The Framers of the Constitution knew that free speech is the friend of change and revolution. But they also knew that it is always the deadliest enemy of tyranny.”  - Hugo Black

“Since Iraq needs a constitution, why can’t they just take ours? We don’t use it anymore?” – George Carlin

The Constitution has provisions that apply directly to state power, for instance, the power to organize and arm the militia and call it forth to "suppress Insurrections." Provision is made for "the erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards and other needful Buildings" and for the maintenance of an army and navy for both national defense and to establish an armed federal presence within potentially insurrectionary states, a power that was to prove most useful to the moneyed barons a century later when corporate thugs and even the military were used repeatedly to suppress industrial strikes. Well into the twentieth century many unarmed strikers were gunned down in such confrontations. Today the control of strikes is a task largely carried out by the police and National Guard. Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution says that the writ of habeas corpus, intended to defend individuals from arbitrary arrest, can be suspended during national emergencies and insurrections. A presidential edict is sufficient for that purpose. In effect, the Constitution provides for its own suspension on behalf of executive absolutism.

The national security state has largely succeeded in removing much of its activities from democratic oversight. The CIA has a secret budget that is explicitly in violation of Article I, Section 9, which reads in part: "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law. And a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time." There are no published statements of expenditures for the intelligence community, guessed to be between $35 billion and $50 billion a year. Its appro­priations are hidden in other parts of the budget and are unknown even to most members of Congress who vote the funds.

Sometimes the state's determination to set itself above and out­side the Constitution is not done secretly but quite overtly, as during the Gulf crisis in 1991 when Secretary of State James Baker stated, "We feel no obligation to go to Congress for a declaration of war," and President Bush announced he would commit troops to combat regardless of whether he got a single supporting vote in Congress. Rather than being censored for such a lawless declaration and for acting as if the army were his personal force, Bush was hailed in the media for his "strong leadership."

One is reminded of Teddy Roosevelt's boast almost a century ago regarding his imperialist intervention in Panama: "I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate." The danger of the executive is that it executes. It has its hands on the daily levers of command and enforceable action.

The State in Society

“They debated NAFTA for a long time: should we sign it or not? Either way the people get fucked. Trade always exists for the traders. Anytime you hear businessmen debating “which policy is better for America,” - don’t bend over”. – George Carlin

Governments throughout history have used religion both as a means of keeping men in ignorance and as a “safety-valve” for human misery and frustration. - Michael Bakunin

Having said that the national security state is removed from the democratic process, I do not wish to imply that it is removed from our lives. In fact, it reaches deeply into various areas of society. Consider organized labor. The AFL-CIO leadership has sponsored organizations like the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) in Latin America, along with similar ones in Africa and Asia, dedicated to building collaborationist, anti-communist, pro capitalist unions that undermine the more militant leftist ones both at home and abroad. With globalization many of the big Unions have become corrupt and self serving not unlike the corporate bosses, having sold out the rank and file, recommending rollbacks and caving in to contract concessions that were unheard in the three decades following the Second World War.

The national security state exercises tremendous influence over the corporate media which is unequivocally right wing. The CIA owns numerous news organizations, publishing houses, and wire services abroad, which produce disinformation that makes its way back to the our own country. In the United States, the CIA has actively trained local police Red squads in methods of surveillance and infiltration. Not surprisingly, the narcotics traffic has been supported in part by elements in the CIA and various local police forces with the inevitable effect, and probably actual intent, of disorganizing and demoralizing the inner-city masses and discouraging any forms of militant community leadership from emerging.

Numerous crime bills have contained "counterterrorist" measures that pose more dangers to our freedom and security than anything terrorists might do. These measures have gone on unabated long before George W Bush and the Patriot Act. President Reagan proposed a bill that would have made it a felony to give support to terrorists. Since the administration had designated the Salvador guerrillas as terrorists, then anyone doing solidarity work for democratic dissidents and rebels in El Salvador could have been prosecuted for aiding and abetting "terrorism." So the state tries to repress anti-imperialist efforts and defend the empire by repressing democracy itself. The complicit Democratic-controlled Congress not surprisingly refused to act on the Reagan bill. The process of executive usurpation of power is aided by a conservative judiciary. The courts have given the widest latitude to executive state prerogatives and supported restrictions on dissent, freedom of information, and travel in the name of national security.

Executive usurpation is visible in Eastern Europe, where the peoples of former communist nations now are able to savor the draconian joys of the capitalist paradise. The social benefits they once had under state socialism have been abolished, including the guaranteed right to a job, free education to the highest level of one's ability, free medical care, a secure retirement, low-cost housing, and subsidized utilities and transportation. Replacing these things are an oppressive mafia type oligarchy and the free-market blessings of hyperinflation, the collapse of productivity, widespread unemployment, homelessness, prostitution, poverty, hunger, disease, corruption, ethnic warfare, mob rule, and violent crime.

Hardest hit are the more vulnerable segments of society, among whom the mortality rate has more than doubled: elderly pensioners, the disabled, low-income workers, low-income women and children. Anticipating that they would become part of the First World once they embraced capitalism, Eastern Europeans, like much of Latin America, Africa and Asia are rapidly being reduced to Third World misery with the help of the IMF and World Bank.  A bitter joke circulating in Russia sums it up:

Q. What has capitalism accomplished in one year that communism could not accomplish in seventy years? A. It makes communism look good.

Like all doctrinaire socio-economic all-encompassing systems, capitalism is seriously flawed. It is not a system in search of the common good. In fact, it is anathema to it. You don’t have to read Karl Marx to understand that Capitalism demands a balkanization of society into economic classes, most important of which is a large pool of cheap labour to work for a small number of managers or bosses who accumulate a disproportionate amount of power and wealth. In short, capitalism is not a moral political system. In fact, it thrives on some of the most unsavoury human attributes and systemic inequities. Sadly, religions throughout history have been pressed into service to reinforce those inequities. Christianity in particular has been a vehicle those in power have systematically used to add an aura of determinism to the status quo. In embracing an economic system that mandates an acquiescent working class, those in positions of power, the corporate elite and management class, have created a continuum of social stratification from extremely poor to extremely rich that not only allows immorality and injustice (after all, business is business) - but encourage it. Unfortunately for the human race and the future of democracy, religion is likely to survive and be pressed into service by the powerful as long as there are psychological and social forces to sustain it. Marx, of course, saw religion as a ridiculous intellectual position and essentially a tool for leaders to keep the masses docile, referring to religion as the “opiate of the masses.”

The social misery of the capitalist paradise has caused an anger and discontent in the former communist nations that has to be con­tained. The political democracy that had been used to overthrow communism now became something of a hindrance for the draconian free-market measures needed for capitalist restoration. So democracy itself needed to be diluted or circumvented in order that the "democratic reforms" - that is, the transition from socialism to free market - be fully implemented. In the Soviet Union this translated into all the public assets of the former Soviet state to be sold off at fire sale prices, often at 1 cent on the dollar or less, to cronies and former commissars who converted from Marxism to Capitalism overnight. The new capitalist Russia is now essentially run and owned by mafia type fascist thugs.

Not surprisingly the presidents of various Eastern European states have repeatedly chosen state over government, calling for the right to put aside democracy and rule by executive fiat. In Russia, President Boris Yeltsin did just that, using force and violence to tear up the constitution, suppress the democratically elected parliament and provin­cial councils, monopolize the media, kill over a thousand people and arrest thousands more - all in the name of saving democracy. When capitalism is in crisis, the capitalist state escalates its repression, from attacking the people's standard of living to attacking the democratic rights that might allow them to defend that standard of living.

In addition, the material and political aid that the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and East Germany gave to Third World liberation strug­gles is no longer forthcoming. Instead, ex-communist countries now join in imperialist wars, as with Desert Storm in 1991, un­directed interventions, as in Somalia in 1993 and to a limited extent the present debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, further strengthening the interventionist powers of the most powerful imperialist states.

Politics Plagued by Ignorance and Anti-intellectualism

“The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable. . . . Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy. Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions. Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty."  - Carl Sagan

"Here and there in the midst of American society you meet with men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism, which hardly exists in Europe. From time to time strange sects arise which endeavour to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness.  Religious insanity is very common in the United States."    - Alexis de Tocqueville

 “The various modes of religious worship that prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the leaders as equally useful.” – Gibbon

“When a person has a delusion it is called a psychosis; when several people share the same delusion, it is called Religion.” - Owen Fauvel

How did politics in the United States come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of stupidity and ignorance? How did George W Bush, a man of such negligible intelligence and appalling depth of character spend two terms as president? How did he, Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering numbskulls get to where they are? How did such ethically challenged sociopaths like Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld acquire so much power? How could Republican rallies during the 2008 election campaign be drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama is a Muslim and a terrorist? The paradox of American culture is that it has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It excels in scientific discoveries and technological advances. Its wealth and power depend on the application of reason, knowledge and intelligence. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations intellectual sophistication and learning is a serious political encumbrance. It wasn’t always like this. The founding fathers of the Republic - men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W Bush and Sarah Palin? There have been exceptions over the past century: Franklin Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Bill Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived; but Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully slighted and scorned by their conservative opponents as members of the intellectual liberal elite as if this were a detriment to the presidency. America, for all its emphasis on technology and science, continues to produce an abundant crop of intellectual vegetables and managerial drones that neither care about what is true nor even if they did, how to go about ascertaining what is true. We are born with the capacity to reason but not the reasoning skills and our education system has sadly failed us in this regard. One could argue that this is not by accident or oversight.

On a facile level this is easy to answer. Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on earth, one adult in five believes the sun revolves around the earth; only more than 1 in 4 accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of US voters cannot name the three branches of government and the mathematical skills of 15 year-olds in the are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries of the OECD. The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest Protestant denomination in the US, was to slavery and segregation what the Dutch Reformed Church was to apartheid in South Africa. It has done more than any other force to keep the South stupid. In the 1960s it tried to hold back desegregation by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities. A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree without any exposure to secular teaching. Southern Baptist beliefs pass intact through the public school system as well. A survey by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that one in four of the state’s public school biology teachers believed that humans and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time.*

* A Gallup poll in June 1993 found that only 11 percent of Americans accepted the standard secular account of evolution, that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process"; 35 percent thought that humans evolved over millions of years, but with divine guidance; and 47 percent maintained that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so" - the creation story as told in the Book of Genesis. Other polls at about the same time discovered that 49 percent of Americans believed in demonic possession, 36 percent in telepathy, and 25 percent in astrology; and that no fewer than 68 percent approved of creationism being taught in biology classes. By then, however, few of creationism's advocates actually used the word any more. "Religious America is awakening," Ronald Reagan had announced jubilantly in 1980, shortly before the states of Arkansas and Louisiana passed bills obliging public schools to teach creationism in science lessons. But the laws were struck down by higher courts, which ruled that because creationism was indeed a religious belief it could not be added to the biology curriculum without infringing the constitutional ban on promoting religion, and thereafter the fundamentalists adopted a more scientific-sounding phraseology - "abrupt appearance theory," "intelligent-design theory" - to disguise the fact that their only textbook was the Old Testament.

But this merely extends the mystery: how did so many US citizens become so dumb, and so suspicious of intelligence? Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason (2007) provides the most compelling explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies. One theme is both familiar and clear: religion - in particular fundamentalist religion - makes people stupid. The US is the only advanced Western democracy in which Christian fundamentalism is widespread and growing. In fact to find countries in the world that have levels of religiosity that compare with the United States you have to look at countries like Iran.

I will not delve into Jacoby’s insightful book further because it is beyond the scope of this paper although I will briefly return to this issue later. Jacoby provides other factors within American culture that contribute to the mass stupidity so I urge everyone to read the book. But until the great failures of the US education system are reversed or religious fundamentalism withers there will be political opportunities for people, like George W Bush and Sarah Palin, who flaunt their religious nonsense and ignorance. Even the elite ivy league schools such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford do an extremely poor job of teaching students to think creatively and critically, according to a recent article by Chris Hedges titled "The Best and Brightest have led American off a Cliff". They have forgot that the real purpose of the university is to make minds, not careers. Here is Hedges:

"The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced-placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Mass., Princeton, N.J., and New Haven, Conn., to the financial and political centers of power. 

The nation’s elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers and rigid structures that are designed to produce certain answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service -- economic, political and social -- come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and with a highly specialized vocabulary. This vocabulary, a sign of the "specialist" and of course the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students and, finally, experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most-pressing moral, political and cultural questions. Those who defy the system -- people like Ralph Nader -- are branded as irrational and irrelevant. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement and information systems are the only things that matter...Students are as distracted and specialized and atomized as most of their professors. It’s vertical integration gone cultural...The more these universities churn out these stunted men and women, the more we are flooded with a peculiar breed of specialist. This specialist blindly services tiny parts of a corporate power structure he or she has never been taught to question and looks down on the rest of us with thinly veiled contempt....These institutions, no matter how mediocre you are, feed students with the comforting self-delusion that they are there because they are not only the best but they deserve the best. You can see this attitude on display in every word uttered by George W. Bush. Here is a man with severely limited intellectual capacity and no moral core. He, along with Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who attended my boarding school and went on to Yale, is an example of the legions of self-centered mediocrities churned out by places like Andover, Yale and Harvard. Bush was, like the rest of his caste, propelled forward by his money and his connections. That is the real purpose of these well-endowed schools is to perpetuate their own...what is taught exists in a moral void.

Intelligence is morally neutral. It is no more virtuous than athletic prowess. It can be used to further the rape of the working class by corporations and the mechanisms of repression and war, or it can be used to fight these forces. But if you determine worth by wealth, as these institutions invariably do, then fighting the system is inherently devalued. The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as much money as you can to sustain the elitist system. College presidents are not voices for the common good and the protection of intellectual integrity, but obsequious fundraisers. They shower honorary degrees and trusteeships on hedge-fund managers and Wall Street titans whose lives are usually examples of moral squalor and unchecked greed. The message to the students is clear. But grabbing what you can, as John Ruskin said, isn’t any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your brains than with the power of your fists...Challenging authority is not a career advancer. Freshmen arrive on elite campuses and begin to network their way into the elite eating clubs, test into the elite academic programs and lobby for elite summer internships. By the time they graduate, they are superbly conditioned to work 10 or 12 hours a day, electronically moving large sums of money around. 

These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find "solutions," such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until it dies. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes, and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us."

Unlike religion, a genuine democracy is not a fixed and final system of immutable rules and verities but a dynamic process of continual struggle and realization. Like scientific theories, democratic gains are continually exposed to skepticism and counter-evidence and hence never absolutely secure. They can be modified, rolled back or rescinded if the contradictions of capitalism threaten to throw the system into crisis as we see happening now with the corporate welfare state bailing out larcenous banks and financial institutions, institutions that created the debacle in the first place. Contrary to what neo-conservative free market fundamentalist’s claim, capitalism is not synonymous with democracy – in fact capitalism flourished as never before in the Germany of the Third Reich and in Mussolini’s Italy.

“The crowd doesn’t have to know”, Mussolini often said. “It must believe…If only we can give them faith that mountains can be moved; then they will accept the illusion that mountains are moveable, and thus an illusion may become reality.” Always, he said, be “electric and explosive.” Belief over knowledge - emotion over thought. One of the characteristics of propaganda is that, wherever possible, music and images replace words. People become so obsessed at hating government that they forget it is meant to be their government and is the only powerful public force they have purchase on. This is what makes the neo-conservative and market force arguments so disingenuous. Their remarkably successful demonization of the public sector has turned much of the citizenry against the only mechanism they have to promote social justice. God it seems has been replaced today by another ideology called the marketplace.   

The essence of capitalism, its raison d'etre, is not to build democracy, create a just society, promote the commonweal, and help work­ing people by creating jobs, save the environment or build homes for the home­less. Its goal is to convert nature into commodities and commodities into capital, to invest and accumulate, transmuting every part of the world into its own image for its own realization. The triumph of neo-conservative ideology, its deregulation and unrestrained global capitalism, has facilitated not only the erosion of government control of public resources by multinational corporations and privatization but a steady reduction in the standard of living for all but the already wealthy in the top 1-2%. Some people reject this critique as "conspiracy theory." They do not believe that policymakers may sometimes be lying and may have undeclared agendas in the service of powerful interests. They insist that, unlike the rest of us, the rich and powerful do not act with deliberate intent. By that view, domestic and foreign policies are lit­tle more than a series of innocent happenings having nothing to do with the preservation of wealthy interests. Certainly this is the impression officials want to create. Shit happens.

I recall a cartoon of two steers in a meadow. One has an anguished look on its face and is saying, "Good grief, I just found out how they make hamburgers!" The other steer is saying, "Oh, you leftist paranoids with your conspiracy theories." Those who are victimized by the policies of the conservative corporate welfare state should start recognizing, lest they be turned into hamburger, that the conditions they endure are something more than the result of innocent folly and unintended consequences.

In some quarters, just calling something a "conspiracy theory" is considered sufficient grounds for dismissing it. To be sure, there are conspiracy theories that are without foundation, for instance, the view that the Zionists or Catholics or communists or ecologists or Arab terrorists or blacks or the United Nations are taking over America. Whether a conspiracy theory is to be accepted or rejected depends on the evidence. Those of us who claim that highly placed parties in the capitalist state mobilize immense resources to preserve and advance the interests of the existing class system would like the courtesy of something more than a dismissive smirk about "conspiracy theory."

As noted earlier, some people spurn any suggestion that self-interested human agency and power are involved in state policy. To dismiss as conspiracy fantasy all assertions that elite power is consciously and intelligently exercised is to arrive at the implausible position that there is no self-interested planning, no secrecy, and no attempt to deceive the public, no suppression of information, no deliberate victimization, no ruthless policy pursuits, and no intentionally unjust or illegal wars or gains. It is as if all elite interests are to be considered principled and perfectly honest, though occasionally confused. That certainly would be a remarkably naive view of political reality. Witness the undeclared immoral War in Iraq and the recent taxpayer bailouts of greed ridden investment banks and who the primary benefactors are?

The alternative is to have a coincidence theory or an innocence theory, which says that things just happen because of unintended happenstance (“stuff happens” as Donald Rumsfeld explains the looting of the priceless artifacts of Baghdad museums following the Iraq invasion), or a muddling through, with a lack of awareness of what is at stake, of who gets what, when, and how. It maintains that workers, farmers, and most other ordinary people might make con­certed attempts to pursue their own interests but not the corporate elites and top financial interests, who own and control so much.

For some unexplained reason we are to assume that the rich and powerful, so well-schooled in business and politics, so at home in the circles of power, are unaware of where their interests lie and that they lift not a competent finger in support of them. Such an innocence theory appears vastly more farfetched than the idea that people with immense wealth and overweening power will resort to every conceivable means to pursue their interests - the state being their most important weapon in this heartless and relentless under­taking.

Money, Stuff and Happiness

“Shopping and buying and getting and having comprise the Great American Addiction. No one is immune. When the underclass riots in this country they don’t kill policemen and politicians, they steal merchandise. How embarrassing.”

“Everywhere you look there are families with too many vehicles. You see them on the highways with their RVs. But apparently the RVs aren’t enough, because behind them they are towing cars, motor boats, go-carts, dune buggies, dirt bikes, ski jets, snowmobiles, parasails, hang gliders, hot air balloons and two small two-man deep sea diving bells. The only thing these people lack are lunar excursion modules. Doesn’t anyone take a fucking walk anymore?”   George Carlin

Wisdom generally informs us that that if you have wealth, you should enjoy it, that money has only instrumental value so use it to enhance the good life. It’s better to be healthy and rich than sick and poor – who can disagree with that? However, sages and philosophers almost never say it is worth it to go out and get rich as a pri­mary mission in life, a corridor to peaceful bliss and happiness. Aristotle brilliantly cautioned us away from seeking happiness by chasing the almighty dollar. To pursue wealth as an end in itself, Aristotle tells us, is akin to a psychological disorder. To demonstrate my point in an ironic yet convincing manner, permit me to cite capitalism's earliest and greatest proponents who cautioned us as to the folly of that strategy. In 1759, seven years before he wrote his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith earned fame with a work called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. We think of Adam Smith as capitalism's original and optimistic theorist, but he was wise and skeptical as well, not unlike his friend and contemporary, the illustrious skeptical atheist philosopher and countryman David Hume. In this earlier book, Smith says that when a poor man's son has ambition, it is a curse. The condition of the rich "appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings," and to reach it, the young man "sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power." If he attains wealth, "he will find [it] to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it." Power and riches are high-maintenance machines "contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body." The machines "must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and ... in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor…They leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death." Of those without wealth Smith writes: "In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for." Aristotle would likely concur.

Most neo-conservatives and free market ideologues from the many right wing propaganda machines such as Canada’s Fraser Institute know nothing of Adam Smith’s moral treatise and, like many Christians only cherry pick the passages that confirm what they already believe. The Fraser Institute also assigns itself the distinction of being an expert in all things including our public education system. Every year it has its biased ranking system published in the obsequious right wing corporate newspapers such as the Vancouver Sun, suggesting that, like everything on the planet, it ought to be privatized. In Adam Smith’s moral treatise which I mentioned earlier he, like his friend and contemporary David Hume based human relationships upon sympathy. But he based the exercise of that sympathy on three virtues: propriety, prudence and benevolence. A reading of the Theory of Moral Sentiments and even The Wealth of Nations will induce anyone to realize that Smith would have had nothing but contempt for Milton Friedman, the Chicago School of Business, self-regulating markets and the neo-conservative ideologues it has spawned.

The neo-conservatives who consider free-for-all capitalism to be the salvation plan for humanity ought to actually read the books of the man whose name they arrogantly and ignorantly invoke as a hero and deity and they will realize that Smith’s criticisms of the economic system he promoted were not unlike those of Karl Marx. Smith realized that a system based on some of humankind’s most unsavory characteristics and inclinations needed checks and balances to maintain any semblance of a civilized society. There are no salvation plans for the human race whether it’s capitalism, socialism or the rapture. We humans have to keep the dialogue going and figure things out as we go along. We must be continually vigilant and adaptive to current socio-economic conditions if we are at all concerned about a just and civilized society for all. Those doctrinaire conservatives who are already at the top of the societal and economic pyramid often espouse the bankrupt morality of “might is right”, urging the rest of us to just pull ourselves up by our boot straps without thinking that some may not have boots.

Voodoo Economics: Welfare for the rich

The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it. - P.J. O'Rourke

“A mystic is a person who is puzzled before the obvious but who understands the non-existent.” - Elbert Hubbard

“No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world.” - Michael Bakunin

During the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years we have been victimized by “Voodoo Economics”, a reverse Robin Hood economic strategy that has taken the national debt of the United States from less than $1 trillion in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected to $3.5 trillion following his profligate two terms to nearly $10 trillion in 2008. George W Bush is personally responsible for increasing the national debt by 60% and that does not take into account the recent morally repugnant bailouts of Wall Street malfeasance. It’s called “conservatism”, the political salvation plan they claim is designed for the liberty and prosperity of the common man, when it’s really a perpetuation of the status quo of wealth and privilege - socialism for the Rich. These are the ultra-conservative folks who continually pontificate about fiscal responsibility but rob the public treasury for the benefit of their private sector cronies and who have now as I write effectively bankrupted the United States of America. Ironically, “voodoo economics” is a disparaging term that George H. W. Bush contrived during the Republican primaries of 1980 when he was a contender for the nomination against the aforementioned Ronald Reagan. The phrase haunted him when he served as vice president under Reagan. Voodoo economics is really what is commonly referred to as “supply side economics”, a laissez faire* trickle down ideology that hypothesizes that if market forces are free from external constraints and huge tax exemptions are granted to big business and the wealthy that the wealth will trickle down to the working classes and “raise all boats”. Comic Robin Williams appropriately referred to this counter-intuitive hocus pocus economic theory as “someone pissing on you.”  Some have used the analogy of “feeding the sparrows through the horses”, referring to the way sparrows pick undigested grain particles our of horse manure. Exactly how tax reductions for the already wealthy financial elites and corporations end up funneling wealth down to benefit the masses in never made explicit. I suppose the conservative faith based premise is that the money freed up by tax breaks will go to new investment and ultimately more jobs. But why is such a counter-intuitive assumption uncritically accepted, even by those in the lower and middle classes it is designed to eventually help? The statistics over the past several decades show the opposite – that those in the top 2-3% have seen massive improvements in their net worth while the rest of us have seen a steady erosion of living standards, earnings and working conditions. We are now witnessing the effects of these policies with the implosion of the real estate bubble and subsequent stock market meltdown unprecedented since the Great Depression. The financial contagion has now mushroomed to include Europe, Asia and the rest of the world.

*laissez faire: turning off the burglar alarm until the crooks can make their getaway with all the loot.

The reality however is that the conservative idea of government staying out of business is a full-blown myth, propaganda campaign and cruel joke perpetrated on a credulous public. Contrary to what so-called libertarian right wing pundits on Fox, CNN and CNBC profess, conservatives are the most vehement proponents of big government across the entire political spectrum, even more so than the most rabid Marxists and socialists. During the Bush I tenure the taxpayers were stuck with a nearly $1 trillion bill for the corporate debacle of the Savings and Loan scandal. More recently we have seen the taxpayer bailout* of Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, AIG and the funneling of interest free taxpayer funds now up to over $1 trillion to financially stressed larcenous US banks, insurance companies and mortgage lenders such as AIG and Citicorp to keep them afloat. This has been done in the face of the sub-prime loan fiasco which has been responsible for massive foreclosures of working class home owners, who it seems, unlike the crooks who fleeced them, have been as usual subjected to the harsh discipline of market forces, unlike the banks who fleeced them. As I write Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage behemoths created by FDR as part of the New Deal (later privatized), are now being bailed out by the beleaguered taxpayers.

* Bailout: Another form of government hand-out and corporate welfare by the Conservative Nanny State - a flagrant violation of capitalism’s Social Darwinian maxim of “flourish or die”.

For conservatives, the bedrock of all individual rights is the enjoyment of so-called free markets (free to whom one might ask), the right to lucrative tax write-offs and bailouts when the free hand of the marketplace is not cooperative, the right to make obscene profits from the labor of others and the right to exploit the environment and to exploit resources and tax proceeds that belong to the people. Conservatives have systematically robbed the public purse for the benefit of private investors and imperialistic wars. Ronald Reagan was the worst profligate spender of taxpayer money than anyone in US history, more than tripling the national debt during his eight year reign. George W Bush since being elected in 2000 has granted huge tax concessions to big business and the wealthy, involved his country in illegal and immoral wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, increased the national debt by over 60% and has run deficits every year after the Clinton years of balanced budgets. Big business has always been ready to pocket all the profits from privatizations and obscenely low tax rates but socialize the costs. So liabilities such as environmental pollution caused by the corporate world and the debt incurred by conservative deficits become the property of ordinary citizens. Their law of the jungle and free market disciple are reserved only for ordinary workers while the wealthy and the big corporations are given a free pass and get out of jail free card. If the laws of the “invisible hand of the marketplace” was actually followed as is relentlessly preached by most capitalists, then these larcenous banks and mortgage companies should be allowed to fail. The marketplace is getting as bad as the public school system where no one fails anymore either.

In the past eight years the largest national budget surplus ever was rapidly turned into the greatest national deficit ever, adding and compounding now to nearly $10 trillion in debt, and rapidly accelerating, twice what it was when Boy George was elected in 2000. Maybe that’s the global disaster that the millennium cults were warning us about?  Bush has added $66,666 (maybe all those sixes mean the devil is nearby?) per taxpayer to the national debt, for those of you depressed enough to keep score. If Bush's massive tax transfers that he erroneously and affectionately refers to as “cuts” are continued, as McCain vows to do, that number will explode even more than if they did nothing. Meanwhile, the dollar is lower in value than ever, the trade deficit is astronomical, inflation is rising behind gas and food prices climbing off the charts, and a steady diet of regressive deregulation has jeopardized the entire global economy, requiring taxpayers to ante up another trillion bucks to rescue us from the depredations of the robber baron elites, whose vision of capitalism - abetted by their cronies in government - is that all profits go to them and all risks go to gullible stupid “little people”. 

What a superlative economic record, eh?  Since the 1970s, when the right handed hitters came to the plate, polarization of wealth in America has increased to banana republic proportions. The super rich now account for half of the income in this country - up from one-third during the liberal New Deal era of the 1930s through the 1960s - and the middle class has actually lost ground, despite an economy that has been fairly steadily growing over the last decades. It’s not rocket science, folks. Cut the legs off of unions, apply pressure to workers to keep them too frightened to organize (in fact labor unions are effectively illegal in the United States), globalize jobs abroad and reward their export with tax incentives, change the structure of the tax system to favor the rich - guess what's going to happen? Guess what has happened?  Of course, it hasn't hurt to also throw in a few scary foreign boogeyman monsters and distractions, racism, homophobia, firearm restrictions, and some other nifty tricks to keep voters distracted long enough to loot their wallets. Bush is the most widely reviled president ever since polls have been taken and many notable historians have abandoned their traditional reluctance to weigh in on any subject that isn't half a century old and have gone ahead and declared the Bush presidency the worst in over 200 years of American history. But we need to remember that Bush, of course, is only the most visible manifestation of an entire regressive movement, which is as completely predatory as it is patently a massive boondoggle. But can McCain get elected? Certainly – never underestimate the stupidity of the American populace, in spite of the fact that Americans definitively line up in favor of liberal positions, often by wide margins. They want universal national healthcare, they want regulation of guns, they support equality for women and gays, they oppose “free trade”, they favor government steps to ameliorate the polarization of wealth in America, they want to protect the environment, they approve ‘big government' providing more services to the worst off, they want the minimum wage raised, they support stem-cell research and massively oppose Terri Schiavo-type government interventions into personal morality, they strongly support abortion rights and oppose repealing Roe by a two-to-one ratio. Nowadays, they're even giving up on the draconian and sordid death penalty.  But what the people want is consistently ignored by the conservative oligarchy.

In the kindergarten world of conservatism, the world is a lot easier to understand if you keep two important ideas in mind. The first is that there are only two kinds of people – the good guys and the bad guys, the winners and the losers  - you know, just like they teach you in Sunday school, or Lord of the Rings or the old Hollywood Western movie mythology of the good Christian settlers fighting the savage heathen Indians. And, second, your side is invariably the good guy, the winner’s side. Likewise, Mr. Bush and his insidious immoral wars are a lot easier to understand if you’ve never quite graduated from pre-school, emotionally or intellectually. Saddam, you see, was a very evil man, and we are the good Christian folks who had to valiantly vanquish him in order to eliminate the imaginary weapons of mass destruction and save his innocent would-be victims. Given this construction, it was obviously crucial in the run-up to the war not to dwell too much on the past history of American friendly relations with Saddam, back when he was, er, a good, evil man waging war with the even more evil Iranians and committing genocide on the Kurds using US chemical weapons. Another collective memory loss involves the creation, financing and military support by the United States of Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. But a decade or so later they have mysteriously morphed into “Islamo-fascists” and our most evil enemy. These inconvenient facts, of course, represent massive cognitive overload for those Americans enrolled in History and Political Science .001, Ethics and Civics for Pre-School. Fortunately, the walking misnomer that goes by the name of the American corporate news media was gracious enough to interject neither complexity nor reality into the comic strip morality play fabricated for our benefit by the good Christian men of faith in Washington. Unfortunately the right wing conservative media have turned the masses into credulous buffoons serving up nothing but infotainment , government propaganda and trivia promoting the Old Testament adage: “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow.” – Ecclesiastes 1:18

There are uncountable similar examples throughout the world but consider the home grown case of Appalachia which in 1962 was referred to as the “shame of the nation” because of its wretched poverty. But Appalachia is very rich in natural resources (or at least was). Just ask the Mellons, Morgans and Rockerfellers whose mining companies carved out the vast coal reserves and made obscene fortunes while turning the land into a scarred moonscape of slag heaps and toxic waste dumps, while paying native Appalachian workers slave wages. Yet no one in government expected the mine owners, after skimming off huge profits at the expense of the environment and the wretched lives of the working poor, to pay for the social costs and massive clean-up – this is a public responsibility - left to the taxpayers. Corporate welfare is the name of the game and over the years the federal government has sold off or leased to private profit at fees of 1-10% of market value, billions of dollars worth of forest lands, gold, real estate, mineral reserves and oil leases that belong to the people of The United States and Canada. Before that is was the indigenous peoples who were who were the victims of slavery and systematic genocide and then those that survived had their land, culture and religion stolen.

In addition the government develops whole new industries, takes all the risks, absorbs all the costs, then hands the industries to private companies for profit – as has been done in aerospace, communications, mineral exploration, pharmaceuticals and computer systems. One of the victories for corporations and the rich since Reagan has been the virtual elimination of the progressive income tax which was as high as 70% in the decades following the Second World War. Now it’s basically a flat 28% whether you earn $25,000 or $25,000,000. Capital gains taxes, a bonanza for the wealthy is now at 12.5%. In the late 1940s over half of all tax revenue came from corporations – but today it is a paltry 7% and the government is borrowing money from those it should be taxing, creating huge deficits. Over half of all tax dollars collected in the United States is now directed to servicing the national debt and that will accelerate dramatically with the taxpayer bailouts of the past weeks. The present tax system favors speculative gains and absentee ownership rather than genuine investment in viable businesses. Ironic as it may sound obscenely wealthy people prefer not to take in any income at all. They prefer to focus on total returns, which they take in the form of capital gains. This is why hedge fund billionaires and people like Warren Buffett pay a much lower tax than their secretaries. Regressive tax policies such as this explain the huge disparities in wealth that have accelerated over the past three decades. The casino atmosphere created by deregulation has shaped a market where it pays to speculate rather than invest in creative enterprises. Much of what goes on in the markets is glorified paper shuffling. We are now facing what was called the Spanish Syndrome after the 16th century and the Roman Empire syndrome before that: an economy where the wealthy magnates made them tax-free while they shifted the burden onto labor and small business enterprises and withdrew into their gated estates as economies lapsed back into localized subsistence production. It’s the conservative way and differs very little from the divine guiding principles of monarchs, popes and feudal lords in past eras. So why do gullible working people vote against their economic interest and support conservative candidates? Other than the hypothesis that they simply believe the propaganda of their politicians and the complicit corporate media, I have no idea. It’s mystified me for as long as I was old enough to vote.

We stand at or near the end of a long global experiment in economic laissez-faire with concomitant deregulation in the markets. Free markets have dramatically accelerated economic growth rates in emerging nations - especially in China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Brazil. But does this mean that there should be no regulation? Witness the credit crunch, banking crisis and meltdown in the stock markets, not just in the United States, but globally. As I write this we are now paying the price with the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down over 800 points and the Toronto exchange almost 1200 points (9% in a few hours of trading). While there have been favorable results, notably the rapid diffusion of newer-generation technologies in the developing world, the human costs have been sobering. Across not only the United States but the world, a super-wealthy majority has grown even wealthier. The poor in many countries have gained little ground, and in some countries they are significantly worse off than they were in decades past. Most disturbingly, the broad middle class, ranging from better-paid manufacturing workers to professionals who in more stable times might themselves have been considered well off, have seen their standard of living eroded while at the same time working more hours than ever before. Since the 1700s in the West and more recently across the world, a growing middle class has been a bellwether for the expansion of democratic rights. Does a retreat of the middle class presage their reversal?

It’s deplorable to read in right wing corporate newspapers such as the National Post articles that praise the emergence of billionaires worldwide, not only in the United States and Europe, but in India, China, Russia, and Latin America. Of special concern is the inordinate political power that such wealthy oligarchs have in their home countries. If the unequal distribution process continues, the accelerated transformation of democracies into plutocracies seems likely.

Especially disturbing are recent figures that show the great disparities in wealth and the uneven income distributions that have emerged in the United States, especially since 2000. In 2000, the average family income of the bottom 90 percent of the total U.S. population (excluding capital gains but adjusted for inflation) was $31,437. In 2006, it was only $30,173, a decline of 4 percent whereas for the top .01 percent it had increased 22 percent, from $14,128,673 in 2000 to approximately $16,954,408 in 2006. Again, these figures exclude capital gains, most of which accrue to wealthier individuals. Had capital gains been included, the disparities between rich and poor would likely be far greater. In any case, income of the topmost echelon grew at a far faster pace than that of any other sector of the population. Capital gains taxes in the United States are at historical lows (12.5%) and are so embarrassing to the billionaire Warren Buffett that he was embarrassed and appalled to discover that he paid a lower tax rate than his maid.

The reason that conservative Democrats such as Bill Clinton haven't taxed wealth is the power of lobbyists whom the special interests hire and the public relations think tanks they employ to continue the promotion of supply side Voodoo Economics. These days, most wealth is gained by special tax privileges and the financial sector is the largest contributor to political campaigns, followed by real estate.  As Thorstein Veblen pointed out in Absentee Ownership, municipal politics in particular is essentially a real-estate reconnaissance and promotion project where politicians get the inside track on future projects so they can line their pockets. I can recall in my home town of Prince George, British Columbia the city political machine back in the 1940s and 1950s was run by a Mafioso of about a half-dozen or so business and real estate cronies who used municipal politics as a vehicle for lining their own pockets. I won’t provide any names but on my long walk to school every morning I would see these same business types chatting in a local café obviously discussing their next business coup. Nothing much has likely changed since, there or elsewhere.

Paul Harris of the UK newspaper The Guardian wrote a tremendous article in the UK Guardian, "Welcome to Richistan, USA" in which he discusses the huge wealth-disparity in America today. He says:

"America's super-rich have returned to the days of the Roaring Twenties. As the rest of the country struggles to get by, a huge bubble of multi-millionaires lives almost in a parallel world. The rich now live in their own world of private education, private health care and gated mansions. They have their own schools and their own banks. They even travel apart - creating a booming industry of private jets and yachts. Their world now has a name, thanks to a new book by Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank which has dubbed it 'Richistan'. In 1985 there were just 13 US billionaires. Now there are more than 1,000. In 2005 the US saw 227,000 new millionaires being created. One survey showed that the wealth of all US millionaires was $30 trillion, more than the GDPs of China, Japan, Brazil, Russia and the EU combined. The rich have now created their own economy for their needs, at a time when the average worker's wage increments will barely match inflation and where 36 million people live below the poverty line."

For the past three decades the conservative agenda has been the Third Worldization of the Americas, to reduce the North American working populace to Third World conditions by smashing unions, outsourcing jobs and dismantling regulatory mechanisms that once made capitalism at least semi-civilized. This includes a return to the 19th Century Robber Baron era where environmental and workplace safety standards were non-existent and where the social services that once looked after our worst off are being starved of funds. According to the late Harvard Moral and Political Philosopher John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice (1971), any society that does not first take into account its worst off as a priority for all decisions is not a civilized society.

Canadian Naomi Klein's must read remarkable ground-breaking work The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism chronicles the last 30 years of neo-liberal (aka neo-conservative) machinations. These vile strategies have had a stranglehold on the global economy for decades. Klein convincingly argues that it is primarily in moments of societal or natural upheaval that capitalist zealots, trained by gurus like Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, have been most able to impose their political and economic agenda. Even if a natural disaster didn't present itself, Friedman's disciples, like Kissinger, Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Clinton, had no problem wreaking their own violent havoc on vulnerable countries. These policies can be traced to the 1973 CIA led coup in Chile that led to the installment of the brutal US puppet dictator Augusto Pinochet. This conservative strategy by the United States toward the third world is also being applied at home by the creation of financial crises in the form of economic bubbles, imperialistic wars, massive budget deficits, tax concessions to big business and the wealthy and ballooning national debt. In this way, politicians can justify the slashing of social services and government programs followed by valuable public assets being sold off to their cronies in the private sector at fire sale prices.

By now, the mantra of the "Chicago Boys" has become all too familiar: Eliminate regulations, cut taxes, slash public spending, privatize public services, etc. Their policies dominated the global political landscape, unraveling the gains of centuries of social movements while global elites have been enriched beyond imagination. A handful of people have become super-wealthy, and mega corporations have become even bigger and more powerful.

American cultural and economic hegemony have taken over from their imperialistic British conservative pre­decessors the derisive desire to make every place in the world an adjunct of their perceived cultural superiority, a focal point of their economic influence and a safe and profitable environment for their corporate supremacy. From the Nile Hilton in Cairo to its sister hotels in Mexico City, Hong Kong and Istan­bul, one sees them, stitching a few colored beads of exotic memory onto an experience they could have enjoyed just as well in hotels of the same chain in New York or Chicago. Macdonald’s and Starbucks are now ubiquitous icons of American corporate intrusions from Shanghai to Moscow. One of the most unsettling features of Mary McCarthy’s book Vietnam is that she presents us with tourists at war, Americans trying to create a home away from home in wretched countries of which they have no historical/cultural understanding or empathy and in which in their propagandizing and delusional arrogance imagine they are promoting freedom and democracy. One observes a people living in the dreadful moral vacuum, not of calculated moral depravity, but of a decaying credulity and conceit which even the most harrowing experience does not seem able to breach. Just as Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George W Bush are more horrifying than Hitler or Stalin because they are obviously not evil men yet sanction equally grotesque acts, so their schemes and agendas are more disturbing than those of Hitler or Stalin because of their pretense or delusion of acting as moral agents.

Is “Compassionate Conservative” an Oxymoron?

“America: where Irish, English, Germans, Scandinavians, Poles and Italians come together to kill Indians, lynch niggers and beat the shit out of spics and Jews.”

“Are you sick of this “royal family” shit? Who gives a fuck about these people? Who cares about the English in general? The uncivilized, murderous, backward English. Inbred savages hiding behind Shakespeare, pretending to be cultured. Don’t be misled by the manners – if you want to know what lurks beneath the surface, take a look at soccer crowds. That’s the true British character. I’m Irish and American and we had to kick these degenerate mother fuckers out of both countries”. – George Carlin

Of course not all conservatives, nor any person who claims to belong to a political group or party, can be forced into a Procrustean bed categorization by any strict definition. We are all conservatives in the general non-political sense that most of us abide by certain traditions and moral norms that have stood the test of time. But for anyone who resists change by never entertaining a new idea or belief without assessing it on its own merits is an irrational dogmatist. As I have outlined earlier, many who call themselves Conservatives these days such as George W Bush and Dick Cheney do not resemble the conservatives of the two decades following World War II such as Dwight Eisenhower and John Diefenbaker.  First, the latter two men were able to separate their religious beliefs from their politics and at least demonstrated some sense of empathy for the less fortunate in society, even if it was only a symbolic gesture. Diefenbaker, before he entered politics was a brilliant defense lawyer from Saskatchewan who was a champion of the downtrodden and became renowned for defending powerless and poverty stricken clients.

Read the words gleaned from a speech Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered in 1953 during his presidency and ask yourself whether in your wildest imagination such words could have ever been uttered by a George W Bush or any of his neo-con contemporaries of recent decades?

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists and the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”

 It does this Republican president and former military man credit that when he left office in 1960 he issued a dire warning while coining a phrase used often today against the “industrial-military complex” which he had come to think was running and  ruining the country. Throughout history there have been conservatives like Eisenhower who were clearly considerate of those less fortunate and who realized, unlike our contemporary variety such as George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Gordon Campbell and Stephen Harper, that a civilized society could not be maintained by a culture of continual imperialistic wars, international conflict, greed and self-interest. They realized that any society that does not take into account its worst off as a primary consideration for any policy formation is not a civilized one. One such British conservative from the nineteenth century that comes immediately to mind is Benjamin Disraeli. The worst problem about America's present predicament is that there seems to be insufficient dissent and no organized resistance opposing extreme financial polarization. Without a counterforce, without an opposition to the anti-scientific and economic Counter-Enlightenment plutocracy that's taking place, economic horizons will continue to diminish.

To understand more fully how far we have descended into the dark age of conservatism and bigoted ignorance in the past fifty years, yesterday I heard that Republican presidential candidate John McCain has chosen a fundamentalist Christian woman Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate, a woman who believes that the war in Iraq is “God’s task” for Americans. I suppose it’s no surprise that Palin’s nomination is being hailed by the regressive feudalists and theocrats on the extreme-right and Neanderthal Christian fundamentalist elements who have long dominated among Republican Party activists, and who have been largely estranged from the McCain campaign. The Alaska governor Palin is an evangelical Pentecostal who opposes abortion rights even for victims of rape and incest or when the life of the mother is at stake. She opposes gay marriage and even visitation rights for gay parents in the event of illness, and advocates the teaching of creationism in public schools. I thought “red neck” only referred to homophobic reactionary male chauvinists – I stand corrected. Why do we have to keep fighting these ridiculous battles about evolution over and over again? There is no controversy anywhere in the free world about evolutionary theory other than the United States which has levels of religious fundamentalism ten times that of any other advanced western country. Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology and without it biology as we know it would regress 100 years. The United States recently underwent a Supreme Court trial over this issue for the umpteenth time in the Dover Trial in 2005 and for the umpteenth time creationists are exposed as medieval simpletons by esteemed members of the scientific community and the closing remarks by the judge John Jones III. The Palin selection demonstrates once again the nasty secret of American politics - that semi-fascistic forces within the religious right exercise near-veto power over the Republican Party.

We're indeed entering a bifurcation of our economy, essentially a dual economy society. John Edwards picked up the theme and almost the same wording that British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli made popular in the late 19th century. He created Britain's Conservative Party in its modern form, recruiting compassionate conservatives known as Young England. Much like the socialists decrying the unfairness of the market economy in the brutal form it took in Britain. Unlike the rigid hard-nosed Christian Conservatives of today who conveniently ignore Christ’s messages of the poor being the children of God, inheriting the earth and the sympathies in the Sermon on the Mount, many in the late 19th century embraced socialism’s consistency with Christ’s most important imperatives. The dream of people like Disraeli was to make industrialization compatible with a more socially minded morality. His major political adversary was not socialism but libertarian free-market ideals that urged nations to compete by lowering their wages ­ what today is called a “race to the bottom”. His welfare legislation was highlighted by the public health system introduced from 1874 to 1881 and promoted under his motto Sanitas sanitatum, Health, all is health. Compare that to today's hard ass heartless conservatives!

In 1845, three years before the Communist Manifesto and the revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848, Disraeli addressed the horrors of unbridled laissez faire in a novel, Sybil, or The Two Nations. The subtitle referred to the rich and the poor, two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, and who are not governed by the same laws. Although Disraeli placed his hopes in a morally regenerate noblesse oblige aristocracy, he assigned the loftiest ideals to Sybil, the daughter of a factory worker. And when the novel's protagonist, Egremont, asks about conditions in British cities, a young stranger, dressed modestly in black, explains that although "men may be drawn into contiguous relationship, they still continue virtually isolated. . . . In great cities men are brought together by the desire of material gain. They are not in a state of co-operation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes. . . Christianity teaches us to love our neighbor as ourself but modern Christian culture acknowledges no neighbour.’ ‘Well, we live in strange times . . . society may be in its infancy,’ said Egremont . . . ‘but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.’ ‘Which nation?’ asked the younger stranger, ‘for she reigns over two. . . . Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’ ‘You speak of - ’ said Egremont, hesitatingly; ‘The rich and the poor.’"

Not unlike Charles Dickens, Disraeli characterized financial interests as the villain, thus popularizing the myth of the avaricious Jewish banker. His major political adversary was not socialism but liberal free-market ideals that urged nations to compete by lowering their wages – what today I would call the regression to serfdom. The Conservative Party’s economic compassion, however, was limited by the fact that it also was the party of landowners, aristocrats, monarchists and above all those in the House of Lords who blocked the Liberal attempt to tax land rent in 1909. The dichotomy is not merely between the elite and the masses or between the vested interests and the downtrodden, the cultured and the great unwashed. It is something much more specific. These two nations, two cities, actually are two economies – Economy #1 (production and consumption) vs. financial and property-based Economy #2 which controls the economic surplus in the form of savings and investment. And the different characteristics of these two economies go far beyond the merely economic dimension. I cite this example to show what a true compassionate conservatism might be. It would be a good framework in which a potential President Obama might present his policies in ways that would maximize support from groups that used to be called liberal Republicans. Much of the business community might come on board if he balances his program well. Charles Dickens many novels, including A Tale of Two Cities expressed the same idea of cities divided between the idle rich and those who had to work for a living. It is hard to imagine any politician writing such a novel today, although the socialist Michael Harrington popularized the theme in the 1960s in The Other America, and Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards campaigned in 2004 on the two Americas theme.

What can we do?

“It would be extremely naïve to expect the dominant classes to develop a type of education that would enable subordinate classes to perceive social injustices critically.” Paulo Freire

‘The yearning for absolutes is very often the expression of an urge to shed the burden of responsibility for one’s fate by transferring it to a vast impersonal monolithic whole - “nature, or history, or class or race, or the harsh realities of our time, or the irresistible evolution of the social structure, that will absorb and integrate us into limitless, indifferent, neutral texture, which it is senseless to evaluate or criticize, and against which we fight to our certain doom.”  Men are eager to trade the doubts and agonies of moral responsibility for determinist visions, conservative or radical, which give to them “the peace of imprisonment, a contented security, a sense of at last having found one’s proper place in the cosmos”’.  -Isaiah Berlin, on Alexander Herzen

We desperately need to re-evaluate the paradigms under which we are living, one of which is the notion of economic growth. Our planet is suffering accelerating environmental degradation, depletion of forests, oceans, water supplies and species extinction at alarming rates. Total annual corporate after tax profits in the United States in 2002 were approximately $500 billion, while the direct costs of the activities from which these profits derive are more than $2.5 trillion. These include $51 billion in direct subsidies and $53 billion in tax breaks, $274.7 billion lost because of deaths from workplace cancer, $225.9 billion lost be­cause of the health costs of stationary source air pollution, and so on. This is to speak only of calculable costs, since other values - such as a sustainable planet - do not, because they're not calculable, exist. The fact remains, however, that it is manifestly senseless to destroy your land-base, regardless of the abstract financial reward you may obtain. Yet, for example, our culture spends more to build and maintain commercial fishing vessels than the fiscal value of the fish caught. Biologists tell us that if we continue on our trajectory of population increments and environmental destruction there will be no fish anywhere on the planet within 30-40 years.

Consider the production of aluminum. And it takes nearly twenty times more energy to extract aluminum from ore and process it than it does for iron. And of 2002, it took between fourteen and twenty-five kilowatt-hours to smelt one kilogram of aluminum. Consequently, governments all over the world have subsidized electricity sales to huge aluminum companies, tying the price of electricity to the worldwide price of aluminum. Right now it takes about two to five dollars' worth of electricity to produce a single pound of aluminum, which then sells for about $.70. In the Pacific Northwest, aluminum smelters consume one-third of the region's cheap electricity - cheap because the hydropower dams that were devastating to watersheds and the environment in general were built at taxpayer expense decades ago. Of course, you could argue that these smelters create jobs - which is a feeble and foolish argument that could have been made as well for the producers of Zyklon B - but if you divide the number of jobs in the aluminum industry in the United States by the size of the subsidy, you discover that tax­payers pay $135,000 to $150,000 per employee: We'd all be better off handing the money directly to individuals, giving them sledgehammers and dynamite, and pointing them toward the nearest dam.

Aluminum is the prime, if not sole, reason for the construction of a large percentage of dams worldwide. These dams are often built over the strenuous objections of the people who will be displaced. In the 1950s, for example, British Columbia gave Alcan the rights to the Nechako River, a tributary of the Fraser River, for hydroelectricity, to build the world's largest aluminum smelter which caused massive environmental degradation including the flooding of several pristine mountain lakes. The Cheslatta peoples were relocated from the area flooded by the dam's three hundred-mile reservoir. In 1988, Alcan announced it would divert even more water (it already takes 30 to 70 percent of the Nechako River's flow) in a second phase of the project. The Canadian government ex­empted the project from environmental assessment requirements. In 1995, after years of challenges by indigenous peoples, environmen­talists, and government scientists, the Kemano Completion Project was canceled by British Columbia. While receiving these subsidies, Alcan which was recently bought out by Rio Tinto, owes $888 million in deferred taxes to the British Columbia provincial government.

The planet is in trouble on all fronts and the trouble is wider and deeper than most of us, especially those in positions of power, have been willing to admit. As journalism professor at the University of Texas, Robert Jensen, wrote in a recent essay, “For all our cleverness, we human beings are far more ignorant than knowledgeable…and we are seduced into believing the illusion that we can control a world that is complex beyond our ability to understand.” He goes on to write:

“Whatever our individual conception of the future, we all should re-evaluate the assumptions on which those conceptions have been based. This is a moment in which we should abandon any political certainties to which we may want to cling. Given humans' failure to predict the place we find ourselves today, I don't think that's such a radical statement. As we stand at the edge of the end of the ability of the ecosystem in which we live to sustain human life as we know it, what kind of hubris would it take to make claims that we can know the future?”

The anarchist critique of the state, of capital, of power and coercion, is a compelling one, and the lessons of this critique are constantly relearned through experience: people who do not benefit from the system will hopefully organize to create alternatives. Our ability to dispassionately examine and criticize the world order has been impaired by 150 years or more of inculcation, propaganda and practice. We often mistake technology for science, capitalism for democracy, profit for freedom, parliamentary procedure for democracy and genuine representative government and money and acquisitiveness for happiness and wealth. These misconceptions are not challenged because the paradigms and assumptions that underpin them are imprinted on our consciousness from birth by the church, the school and our mass media. We bring our kids up with the idea that they must be competitive rather than cooperative, to take rather than give, to believe rather to be skeptical and to not question authority. They become self-fulfilling prophesies. The effect is to convince us that this is the best of all possible worlds and to recoil from the ability to dream about the prospect for a much more just and civilized world. As has been the case throughout recorded history, this is clearly beneficial to the few and detrimental to the vast majority.

Anti-Intellectualism and the Conservative Mind

What did you learn in school today
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today
Dear little boy of mine?
I learned our government must be strong
It's always right and never wrong
Our leaders are the finest men
That's why we elect them again and again
And that's what I learned in school today,
That's what I learned in school.

Tom Paxton – What did you learn in school today?

“I went to a bookstore and asked the sales woman, "Where's the self-help section?" She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.”

“Here’s more middlebrow bullshit philosophy. “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” I’ve got something more realistic: “That which does not kill me may sever my spinal cord, crush my rib cage, cave in my skull and leave me helpless and paralyzed, soaking in a puddle of my own waste.” Put that in your T-shirt, touchy feely New Age asshole!” – George Carlin

A year before his death, Arthur Schlesinger, in an essay titled History and National Stupidity, poignantly wrote:

“Sometimes, when I am particularly depressed, I ascribe our behav­ior to stupidity - the stupidity of our leadership, the stupidity of our culture. Thirty years ago we suffered military defeat - fighting an un-winnable war against a country about which we knew nothing. . . . Vietnam was bad enough, but to repeat the same experiment thirty years later in Iraq is a strong argument for a case of national stupidity.

In the meantime, let a thousand historical flowers bloom. History is never a closed book or a final verdict. It is always in the making. Let historians not forsake the quest for knowledge, however tricky and full of problems that quest may be, in the interests of an ideology, a nation, a race, a sex, or a cause. The great strength of the practice of history in a free society is its capacity for self-correction.”

This is the voice of a genuinely civic-minded intellectual and could have quite easily been written by Noam Chomsky, using his scholarly gifts in an effort to encourage his countrymen to consider their behavior from a humanist scientifically oriented self-critical perspective. It should be the goal of all public intellectuals to exert their influence, insofar as it exists, as Schlesinger did in his passionate appeal for emphasis on a common civic culture in the teaching of history. Similar efforts are needed, by true scholars who have not taken up residence on the wilder shores of political dogma, to combat the epidemic of junk thought in every area of the humanities and social sciences. But this message rarely gets out as Chomsky knows only too well, a man revered and respected throughout the world but marginalized and virtually unknown in his own country. People like Schlesinger and Chomsky are the real patriots, people who care enough about their country to show revulsion when politicians and community leaders ignore the common good and behave badly and who are willing to criticize foreign policies that are oppressive and immoral. The flag-waving, pledge of allegiance and “God Bless America” types who display “Support our Troops” on their car bumpers are not patriots, but unthinking chumps.

One problem that cries out for collaboration between liberal and conservative intellectuals is the pandering of higher education institutions to students who apparently want to major in infotainment. Anyone who takes more than a cursory look at the vast array of college curriculum offerings on popular culture, from "fat studies" to in-depth examinations of television sitcoms or even marketing and business management for which one can now earn a degree knows how far standards have been lowered to accommodate both students and their teachers - many of the latter having cut their teeth on the worst aspects of sixties and seventies pop culture.

A sorry insight into the kinds of courses offered at countless uni­versities throughout the nation was a by-product of the immense publicity surrounding the shooting of thirty-two people on the Vir­ginia Tech University campus in 2007. A few days after the massacre, front-page stories revealed that professors and students in the English department had been especially concerned about the behavior and writings of the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui. It seems that Cho was a student in an English course in contemporary horror films and litera­ture, in which the class studied such immortal English-language works as the movie Friday the 13th and the best-selling novels of Stephen King and Patricia Cornwell, whose heroine happens to be a Virginia forensic pathologist. The existence of such a class tells us nothing about the shooter or his motives, but it says a good deal about what passes for higher education today. The works of both Cornwell and King are excellent aids in getting through transcontinental airline flights, their chief virtues being their length and an impressive amount of suspense and gore, sufficient to distract the reader from the real horrors of flying third class. In the Virginia Tech class, students were also required to keep "fear journals," in which they wrote about their reactions to the works covered in class and even their private bogeymen. How can it be that American culture has so debased itself that institutions calling themselves universities, and academic bodies calling themselves English departments, actually give course credit for writing "fear journals"?

The objective of higher education is not to instruct students in popular culture but to expose them to something better. Genuine intellectuals - some of whom still exist on college campuses - ought to make a crusade out of ridding their institutions of such rubbish. Courses in popular culture are extremely fashionable with students, and the faculty members who teach them argue that such classes enable students to "deconstruct" and think critically about mass entertainment. I’m sorry, but those faculty members are dead wrong. What classes in popular culture really do is allow students to continue focusing their minds on low brow hokum. Offer a course in which students are required to read Les Miserable, Crime and Punishment and Great Expectations, and they may come to understand why Friday the 13th and Stephen King's novels are not worthy objects for deconstruction.

Intellectuals could also make a much greater contribution to public understanding than they have over the past few decades. We need more Richard Dawkins’, Noam Chomsky’s and Howard Zinn’s. Luminaries in the world of science have recently shown that genuine experts can make a genuine difference in the quality of public debate and public knowledge about scientific matters. For decades, top-level scien­tists stood aloof from the battle over the teaching of evolution in public schools, in part because they felt that answering the arguments of creationists and intelligent design proponents would afford greater respectability to anti-evolutionist and creationists. I suppose it’s based on the old adage, “never argue with a fool in public.” For the past few years, though, many scientists and scientific organizations have done an about-face and entered the battle by speaking about evolution in a wide variety of public forums and testifying in court to keep intelligent design and creationism out of public school biology classes. As Judge John E. Jones III said explicitly in his Kitzmiller v. Dover opinion, extensive scientific testimony played a critical role in building the case that intelligent design was not a scientific theory but a religiously based argument for the existence of a supernatural creator, a rework of creationist dogma. In 2006, Scientists and Engineers for America, a nonpartisan group with sixteen Nobel laureates on its board, was formed for the explicit purpose of endorsing candidates who support mainstream scientific positions and providing "pro-science" candidates with background material on issues ranging from energy policy to stem cell research. There is no such thing as right-wing or left-wing science - although there are certainly left-wing and right-wing scientists - but respected researchers generally agree on what separates real science, dedicated to the search for truth in the natural world, from pseudoscience designed to serve political, religious, or social ends. There could be no more important task today than the communication of that distinction to the public and scientifically accomplished intellectuals - or, to put it another way, scientists who are intellectual generalists - are uniquely equipped for the task.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself." In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson struck that note mainly as a rhetorical device, in a young nation obviously engaged in building up its intellectual capital. But Emerson's straw man has come to life in America's new age of irrationality, illogic and trivialization, and the inescapable theme of our time is the erosion of memory, knowledge and critical thought. Memory loss has made us poor guardians of our intellectual inheritance, and the dissipation of our cultural heritage gives rise in turn to new cycles of forgetting. Anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism flourish in a mix that includes addiction to infotainment, every form of superstition and credulity, and an educational system that does a poor job of teaching not only basic skills but the logic, reasoning skills and conceptual understanding underlying those skills. We are as the late Neil Postman warned us in the title of his book, “amusing ourselves to death.”

It has become something of a literary convention for an author, at the end of a nonfiction book with an essentially pessimistic outlook, to propose solutions that, at least in theory, offer some basis for hope. But America's current cultural predicament resists amelioration precisely because so many of the customarily proffered remedies have themselves become formidable problems. Daniel Webster, in an 1826 eulogy for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (both of whom, in one of the more poignant coincidences in American history, died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence), declared that the young republic, as Jefferson and Adams had hoped, was already distinguished by "a newly awakened, and an unconquerable spirit of free inquiry, and by a diffusion of knowledge throughout the community, such as has been before altogether unknown and unheard of." The future of America, Webster argued, "is inseparably connected, fast bound up, in fortune and by fate, with these great interests. If they fall, we fall with them; if they stand, it will be because we have upholden them."

Free inquiry and the dissemination of knowledge - inevitably involv­ing more education for more people - have always been the secular rays of hope in every vision of America's future, but they will not suf­fice in an era when, despite the steady rise in the formal educational level of the population, so many Americans seem to know less and less. Literacy rates, mathematical skills, scientific understanding and knowledge of history are at near to all time lows. Science - how deep a faith it inspired in the Enlightenment ratio­nalists of America's founding generation and their freethinking late nineteenth-century heirs! - can by itself provide no remedy for those who, out of ignorance or in servitude to an anti-rational form of faith, know little and care less about the basic principles that consti­tute the scientific method. Technology, our servant, has also become our master, as the information highway - potentially the greatest tool for the diffusion of learning ever devised - has, for too many, become a highway to the far-flung regions of junk thought. Religious fundamentalism is ten times that of any other country in the industrialized world and I’m sure this disturbing fact goes a long way to explaining the pervasive ignorance of science, mathematics and history. Religion, I’m sorry to say, makes many people incredibly stupid.

It is difficult to suppress the fear that our expanding "digital democracy," coupled with the decline of reading, is imposing what Alexis de Tocqueville called a "new physiognomy of servitude." Con­cerned that unchecked majority rule might reward conformity rather than individuality, Tocqueville observed, "I very clearly discern two tendencies; one leading the mind of every man to untried thoughts, the other prohibiting him from thinking at all." His cautionary statement is just as pertinent to contemporary society, in which technology transmits the same information and ideas instantaneously to millions, thereby encouraging conformity while offering a theoretically unlimited array of choices.

The idea that truth is merely a social construct or that it’s subjective, relative to anyone’s perception of it, first appeared in academia as a corruption of post-modernism, but it's taken root in our culture without our really realizing it or understanding its implications. It began with liberal academics arguing, for example, that some Southwestern Indians' belief that humans are descended from a subterranean world of supernatural spirits is, as one archaeologist put it, "just as valid as archaeology." This is the view that there are many equally valid ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them, and it has alas, taken very deep root. General public acceptance of lame-brained ideas such as this have created a huge market for New Age pseudoscientific gibberish, the latest of which is Rhonda Byne’s best seller The Secret.

Although this kind of thinking, relativism and constructivism, started with the Left, many conservatives now feel empowered by it as well and some of them have embraced it with a vengeance on issues ranging from global warming and evolution to the war in Iraq. "Journalists live in the reality-based world," a White House official told Ron Suskind, writing for The New York Times Magazine back in the headier days of 2004. "The world doesn't really work that way anymore. We're an Empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." I respectfully disagree. The Church was wrong, and Copernicus and Galileo were right. There is not one truth for Fox News and another for The Nation. Fair is not always balanced, and balanced is not always fair. Truth cannot simply be a matter of personal preference or what will make you feel better about yourself like most of the ethnocentric culturally biased history we were taught. No matter how devoutly they may have believed their own propaganda, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were wrong about Enron, and a whole lot of very clever, very rich people were very wrong about deregulated capitalism, supply side economics, mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps.

The declaration that the empire is creating its own reality, and that the rest of us can just take notes, is not just bullshit, but meta-bullshit, bullshit about bullshitting. The disdain for the reality-based community is merely the latest manifesta­tion of a long and successful campaign of faith-based right-wing reality creation, and bullshitting about their own bullshit. For example, Bush and his ilk have done an excellent job of redefining certain words, like democracy, elitist, theory, fact, conservative, capitalism, and liberal. The list of Orwellian redefinitions* would require several pages. Elite used to mean somebody with lots of wealth and power, like, say, Dick Cheney, Hank Paulsen or Bill Gates. Now elite means someone who is an intellectual who reads arcane philosophy and literature and indulges in “unpatriotic” social critique. By “unpatriotic”, I mean the depiction of anyone who challenges the legitimacy of power and the status quo. Bush and the gang are not conservatives in the traditional sense of an Edmund Burke, of having respect for established authority and tradition. They may be social conservatives, but more than anything else they are authoritarian inflexible free-market radicals and historical amnesiacs who dismantle long standing social programs and the regulatory mechanisms introduced by FDR during the 1930’s to guard against another 1929. And of course an appeal to God is always on standby as with George W Bush with his claim that God instructed him to invade Iraq. Many of these conservatives on crack are Christian zealots and fundamentalists and some are clearly fascists as were many hard line right wing sympathizers of the Hitler’s Third Reich and Mussolini’s Italy during the Great Depression such as Henry Ford and Prescott Bush, the grandfather of George W Bush, who were both complicit in a planned coup to overthrow FDR.

Even though the United States and Canada are founded on the liberal principles of the Enlightenment, like freedom and democracy, the word liberal has been hijacked from its classical or historical meaning in the tradition and spirit of enlightenment intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill; and curiously transformed into a synonym for godless flag burning commie America-hater. Bush's insistence that America was founded on Christian faith is historically inaccurate and prime cut bullshit, but this is a common perception by the masses which have been conditioned and convinced by the religiously dominated culture as they have been about their false perceptions of atheists and the foundations of morality and democracy. First, by their very nature all religions are authoritarian and undemocratic and second, most of the Founding Fathers of the US constitution were men of the Enlightenment, freethinkers and deists who put far more emphasis on science and reason than they did religion. Thomas Paine, for example, famously declared that the only church he needed was the one in his head. Jefferson edited his own Bible, which kept Jesus' practical moral teachings, and tossed all the dogma and supernatural events. Sure, some may have believed in a benevolent Creator, but they were also very adamant about the separation of church and state, for the benefit of both institutions.

After the 2004 election, historian Garry Wills wrote an editorial for the New York Times that the re-election of Bush marked a turn away from the tolerance, classical liberalism and free thought of the Enlightenment and a turn toward rigid theocracy, dogmatism and blind faith. His claim might be somewhat hyperbolic, but it is not without merit. Faith after all is a high risk game! Try using it on a used car lot. Bush's claim that freedom is God’s gift (the Christian one of course) skips a logical upshot in the old deist formula. Since God gives us the intellectual capacity to apply reason and evidence, we subsequently use those sanctified faculties to build political and social institutions that promote, tolerate and protect freedom and yes, question the veracity of religious claims. The Bible certainly didn't lay the groundwork for free and democratic societies. In fact in several passages, the Bible explicitly condones slavery and forms of punishment that can only be described as barbaric. Should we trust the religious to protect and preserve that precious legacy? I think not. In fact reading the Bible propelled me on the path to atheism than anything else I have read.

Some of you might remember the scene in the 1964 movie Zorba the Greek, based on the extraordinary novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, starring Anthony Quinn (who played Zorba brilliantly) where the Greek widow played by Irene Papas was stoned and then brutally executed by the men in the community. Her “sin” was having had an affair with Zorbas sidekick, a British writer played by Alan Bates. Adultery within the Greek Orthodox Church was taboo even when the husband had been long deceased. How was such savage retributive justice warranted? You have one guess. Now ask yourself how the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were justified?

Yet there are countervailing forces, as there always have been even when the voices of ignorance, rabid religiosity, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism have resounded most loudly in the public square. As the 2008 presidential campaign began, a strange and welcome locution was heard in the land: critics of the war in Iraq, in both parties, began calling themselves "reality-based" candidates. In the triumphant fer­vor of President Bush's first term, a White House aide had spoken contemptuously of scholars, scientists, and journalists - all those who "believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality." Now, it seems, Americans have lost their patience with politicians who ignore reality - at the very least, with those who boast about ignoring reality - and many ordinary voters are at last making a connection between disdain for evidence and the loss of American lives. Call it the revenge of the reality-based world. Evidence-based science is also looking better and better to much of the public. In Kansas, voters have removed Christian fundamentalist anti-evolutionists from the state board of education, and in state after state, the public continues to reject faith-based restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Public support for the research is growing even as Bush continues to keep faith with his right-wing religious base by blocking con­gressional efforts to expand federal support for embryonic studies. We might have arrived at what psychologists call a "teachable moment" - a point at which citizens are attuned, as a result of events that cannot be ignored, to the perils of making decisions based on faith and emotion rather than facts and logic. At such times, people are willing to consider ideas, and even make changes in behavior, that they generally prefer to avoid.

To seize the moment, however, Americans must realize that we are living through an overarching crisis of memory and knowledge involving everything about the way we learn and think. Such a realization would have to come from ordinary citizens as well as their elected representatives, from non-intellectuals and intellectuals alike. The first essential step is a negative: we must give up the delusion that technology can supply the fix for a condition that, however much it is abetted by our new machines, is essentially non-technological. In 2007, when Bill Gates announced the launch of Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system, he spoke earnestly about the ways in which the new software program, unlike the old Windows, allows him and his wife to limit the number of hours their preteen children spend on the computer. I had no sense that Gates was being evasive in order to sell his latest product, which we will all have to buy eventually anyway; he was simply indulging himself in the pleasant parental and, in his case, entrepreneurial delusion that there is a technological means of controlling the hunger for technologically generated sensation.

On the one hand, the founder of Microsoft knows that a bright twelve-year-old will surely figure out and probably in short order, how to get around a system that supposedly enables Mom and Dad to control his screen time. On the other hand, rather like the Lord placing the fruit tree in Eden and warning Adam and Eve to not touch, the parent Bill Gates wants to believe that there is a way of shielding children from over-exposure to the tempting wares he has helped to create. The pretense that there is some mechanical, relatively simple means of breaking the intergenerational cycle of addiction to infotainment is just one example of our failure, as a society, to acknowledge the profundity and breadth of our cultural loss.

When the dumbing down of culture is seen as a collection of largely unrelated problems, concerned leaders in business, govern­ment, and education can only offer solutions that nibble at the edges. The crisis in contemporary American education, as suggested by the title of the No Child Left Behind Act, is treated by politicians, on the left and the right, as an affliction confined to a disadvantaged minority of the young, who can be helped by a concerted effort to raise standardized test scores. The testing prescription is, in fact, the educational equivalent of Microsoft's parental controls: both are reasonable, decent ideas, and they will do almost nothing to alleviate the cultural malaise that is leaving a majority, not a minority, of children behind - if the bar is set higher than a pitifully low checklist of basic skills. The low bar is the real issue, and the failure of so many poor blacks and Hispanics to meet the most minimal standards attests only to the vast racial, class, and economic disparities in American society. That children from more affluent homes can pass undemanding standardized tests does not mean that they are learning what citizens of a functional democracy need to know.

What might help alert the public to the deeper significance of our nation's intellectual shortcomings? Real political leadership, comparable to Franklin Roosevelt's effort to educate Americans in the late 1930s about their stake in the future of Europe and the threat posed by Nazism, could take advantage of the public anger about the war in Iraq to make this a truly teachable moment instead of a simple repudiation of a failed policy. But it would take awesome courage for a candidate to say to voters: "The problem isn't just that you were lied to. The real problem is intellectual sloth; that we, as a people, have become too lazy to learn what we need to know to assess dubious claims and specious arguments in order make sound public decisions. The other problem is a serious lack of critical skepticism, a disposition that is not promoted at all in our schools. Huge swaths of the American population believe in absurdities such as horoscopes and angels, religious beliefs that fly in the face of a most basic scientific understanding and all sorts of pseudoscientific nonsense that is sadly and shamelessly promoted by the corporate media. Two thirds of Americans can't find Iraq on a map, and George W Bush and many members of Congress don't know a Shiite from a Sunni. The problem is that the public doesn't know enough or care enough about culture to be outraged when a dim-witted United States secretary of defense, informed that some of the oldest artifacts of Western civilization are being looted from a Baghdad museum on our watch, says dismissively, “Shit happens.” The problem is that most of us don't bother to read good books or even watch the precious few investigate or documentary programs on television. Reading is an admirable activity to promote but it matters very much what you read. Our own ignorance and credulity is our worst enemy. It is so much easier, so much safer politically, to simply say, "You were the victims of a lie," than to suggest that both voters and their elected representatives, in both parties, must shoulder much of the blame for their willingness to be deceived. It is easy to imagine the chorus of sneers from ignorant talking heads on cable news if a presidential candidate dared to use the word "ignorance" in public. Al Gore, who really did try to educate the public about global warming, was mocked unceasingly and called a bore and a pedant during his vice presidency and throughout his presidential campaign; only when he left the political stage, or was assumed to have left the political stage, did he find a voice that made Americans pay attention.

The public's growing concern about global warming and environmental degradation is one more indication of the renewal of interest in the pesky, reality-based world and offers yet another teachable moment. Given the losing track record of politicians who have tried to educate voters about complicated issues during the past twenty years, it is certainly a long shot, even during this potentially receptive period of national self-doubt, to bet on the emergence of leadership that aspires to a higher standard of reason and knowledge. But it has happened before -  and not only in the Enlightenment dawn of the Republic. John Kennedy's famous 1963 speech at American University, calling for negotiations with the Soviet Union on a nuclear test-ban treaty, is generally regarded today as the beginning of detente. In a masterful invocation of reason and its power for good, Kennedy described peace as "the necessary rational end of rational men," and asserted that human "reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable - and we believe they can do it again." Drawing a distinction between attainable goals and unattain­able dreams, Kennedy said, "I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and goodwill of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams, but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal." In spite of the semi-literate oafish Bush, I can still imagine such a speech about any number of life-and-death issues today, and I can imagine an American audience eager to hear a politician speaking in the voice of reason rather than the voice of fantasy couched in gratuitous religious verbiage.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

"Only two things are infinite. The universe and human stupidity." - Albert Einstein

“The two most common elements in the universe are Hydrogen and stupidity.” Harlan Ellison

 “The world is drowning in detail and information - but starved for knowledge. What we need is meaning, coherence, unity, connections, but all without trivializing, without giving us a kind of handbook or bulletin that bypasses the process and the need to think critically. Many people want ready-made answers and quick-fixes so that they can follow them without undergoing, as Sheridan said in 1779, "the fatigue of judging for themselves."  - Vartan Gregorian

“Obedience might be prudent, but prudence is not morality.” - Mary Midgley

I can remember in the early Seventies my Math Department colleagues and I prided ourselves on our very high standards particularly in our Math 11 and 12 courses, regularly failing 30% or more in our Math 11 classes in those days. When I retired in 1999, 5% was considered too high for a failure rate by deluded administrators. We also offered an Honors Math 12 class back then by double blocking exceptional students; it’s a course I taught for several years, as well as the Advanced Placement Calculus course that came later. To earn an “A” in any of our courses a student had to demonstrate excellence, independent of effort. Effort is and still ought to be considered a subjective and separate measure. On the report cards of that time “effort” was deemed as such (after all, who knows how students spent their time at home?) and students were granted G, N or U for their work ethic. Effort is commendable but can’t be confused with what the student actually achieves on examinations. I’ve always admired and commended kids who worked hard but if you scored 45%, sorry, no cigar! Toward the end of my 30 year career I was getting so tired of the feeble pleas of students to grant them an “A” because they “tried hard” or had 84% (couldn’t you bump this up to 86?) After years of tiring of these pitiful requests my response often became glib: “Cry me a river” or “You’re obviously confusing me with….” This trend of grade inflation and marks for effort has unfortunately invaded the Universities. Isn’t it depressing enough that you can now get a University graduate degree in something as banal and mind-numbing as “Business Administration” or “Marketing”?

Is it surprising to anyone that there are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth or fifth grade level? Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate and their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image based delusionary existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book. When people do read it’s usually one of the incredibly ludicrous best selling self-help books like The Secret by “Help Me Rhoda” Byrne. In this quasi-religious muddle of New Age gobbledygook, home spun common sense and Eastern Mysticism we are told that all we have to do is visualize what we want, believe in ourselves and summon those hidden inner resources, whether divine or innate, that force the world into a procrustean bed of our dreams and desires. Reality is not an impediment to our ability to succeed according to Byrne. We can simply think ourselves to success, thus creating our own mind dependent realities. By success, of course Byrne means accumulating boatloads of money and filling your bloated homes with useless “stuff”.

Most people today think with a bumper sticker mentality. The core values of our liberal free thinking open society, the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions and express oneself freely, to be skeptical of dubious claims and to be able to assess the cogency of an argument, to express dissent when judgment and common sense indicate something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, yield to evidence, to understand historical facts, to separate truth from lies, to advocate for change and to acknowledge that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable, are dying. We are instead lapsing into a medieval conservatism – a resignation to the status quo of privilege and power by remaining dumb. Both McCain and Obama used hundreds of millions of corporate donations and campaign funds from the corporate world and he wealthy to appeal to and manipulate this illiteracy and irrationalism to their advantage, but these forces will prove to be their most deadly nemesis once they collide with the alarming reality that awaits us.

I've slowly come to understand the reason public school lasts twelve years. It takes that long to sufficiently break a child's will, his innate curiosity and skepticism of all things. Religious schools can accomplish the process of indoctrination and enculturation in at least half the time. I have nothing against education; it's just that education - from the Greek root educere, meaning to lead forth or draw out - is not the primary function of schooling. Consider the notion of testing and assigning grades in school. It’s the proverbial Christian idea of the bribe – that without rewards and punishments, people would not do as required by those in power. Like the wages for which people later slave - once they've entered "the real world" -the primary function of grades is to offer an external reinforcement to coerce people to perform tasks they'd rather not do. Did anyone grade you when you learned how to tie your shoes, fish or learn to hit a baseball? What grades did you get for pretending, shooting a hockey puck, playing chess, reading good books, kissing ("I'm sorry, dear, but you receive a C-"), riding a bike, swimming in a local lake, having passionate conversations with close friends or even daydreaming, something I would fully endorse as having educational value? On the other hand, how often have you returned, simply for the intrinsic value or the sheer joy of it, to not only peruse your high school history textbook, but to memorize names and dates, and, once again for the joy of it, to have a teacher mark, in bright red, your answers as incorrect? Anything worth doing for its own sake requires neither reward nor punishment. If I play tennis out of my passion or enjoyment for playing and win the club tennis singles title, I don’t need to be rewarded by a dust collecting trophy.

Grades, as is the case for wages in later life, are an implicit acknowledgment that the process of schooling is insuf­ficiently rewarding on its own grounds for people to participate of their own volition. If I go fishing, the time on the water - listening to frogs and shore birds, smelling the rich black scent of lily pads and decaying cat­tails, holding long conversations with my fishing partner, opening a cold beer, watching osprey dive to emerge holding a squirming trout - serves me well enough to make me want to return. And even if I have a bad day fishing, which, as the bumper sticker proclaims, is supposed to be "better than a good day at work," I still receive the reward of the beautiful tranquil experience of being on the water and close to nature. Tennis is like that for me too. Even on a day when you are not your best and you are ground into the court by your opponent, you’ll be back for more.

Underlying testing in schools are the presumptions not only that correct answers to specific questions exist, but that these answers are known to authority figures and can be found in books. And the “authority figures”, especially the writers of high school history texts are plagued by inaccuracies, ethnocentrism, patriotic rubbish, cultural bias, racism and feel good fabrications. Tests also generally encourage the capitalist mantra of competition rather than communal problem solving. Equally important is the presumption that a primary purpose of school is to deliver information to students. Never asked is the question of how and why this information is important or makes us better people. Systematically - inherent in the process - direct personal experience is subsumed to external authority, and at every turn curiosity, creativity, critical thought, and the questioning of fundamental cultural and religious assumptions (such as, for example, the role of schooling on one's socialization and indoctrination) are discouraged.

It is possible that nothing will help to remedy a culture steeped in distractions, trivia, the latest technology and infotainment. I mention again the late cultural and educational critic Neil Postman who said, “We are amusing ourselves to death.” In fact that was the title of one of his books, a must read for anyone concerned with the appalling state of our education system today. The nation's memory and attention span may already have sustained so much damage that they cannot be revived by the best efforts of America's best minds. I too am nibbling at the edges by talking about the need for political leaders who address Americans as thinking adults; for intellectuals willing to step up and bring their knowledge, instead of a lust for power, to the public square; for educators devoted to teaching how to think, and think critically, and to promote real learning in the great intellectual traditions of our cultural past rather than to the latest fads in pop psychology such as the self-esteem movement. The self-esteem revolution began, as most do in education, with the best of intentions. Boomer parents and teachers shared a belief that bolstering the egos of youngsters with praise and reward, even on occasions when it was neither warranted nor deserved, was better than tearing it down with criticism and unreasonably high standards. In this they assumed it would enhance achievement. It did not – and in fact recent studies have shown it had the reverse effect. When the student's self-esteem increasingly took precedence over those of their education and where being right was subordinated to feeling good, the opposite outcome prevailed. Failure and criticism was removed from the educational lexicon as literacy and mathematical skills headed south while grades headed north, inflated and rendered meaningless with a plethora of unjustified A’s and B’s rather than the C’s and D’s that are warranted. When you endorse the American way, that you are above criticism and deem yourself #1 and already perfect in every way, how can improvement or progress prevail? When we’re all considered super-human athletes and intellectual giants, the notion of excellence in all areas of human endeavor is rendered meaningless. If everyone gets an ‘A” then, as a qualitative and quantitative measurement, it’s rendered meaningless.

Knowledge and factual information are of course important but when these are detached from understanding, connections, causality, conceptual understanding, skepticism and critical analysis, they are a nothing better than isolated factoids. Our institutions of public education are not environments for cultivation of the intellect; rather, they are indoctrination centers where students are trained to behave like docile sheep, accept the status quo and never question anything, facilitating their entry into the corporate state culture of greed, consumerism, mindless patriotism, rugged individualism, competitiveness and acquisitiveness - and for most of us, mind-numbing employment in the work force. This is the conservative zeitgeist and if they had their way we’d be back to the dull days of beginning every school day with tedious obedience enhancing Bible readings, the Lord’s Prayer, Oh Canada and God Save the Queen.

    None of these suggestions addresses the core problem created by the media - the pacifiers of the mind that permeate our homes, schools, and politics. There is little evidence to indicate that Americans have either the desire or the will to lessen their dependency on the easy satisfactions and palliatives held out by the video and digital world; on the contrary, the successful marketing of infant videos suggests that many parents are eager to draw their children into the infotainment snare before they even have any chance to explore the world on their own. But our dysfunctional and ineffective system of education is only one of a myriad of problems we face on a local and global level.

One of the primary aims of education, in addition to critical thinking and scepticism, ought to be to the encouragement of individual responsibility. The person who does reflect on the probable effects of his decisions on those who are likely to be affected, who relies on reason and evidence, if only to eliminate some choices, acts responsibly even if he later finds that he has done the wrong thing. A person who does not consider how his actions are likely to affect other people is to that extent irresponsible, even if he acts on “principle”.

The whole point of education, not only of philosophy, is to make people better thinkers, to conscientiously seek out the truth and to be more responsible in all aspects of life. One cannot teach one’s students, not even oneself, always to do what is best; but one can try to teach oneself to become a little less impulsive and irrational and more sceptical, conscientious, logical and responsible. Nobody favours always acting with an utter disregard for evidence and reason; but some people admonish us to throw both to the wind when it comes to the most important choices - which is rather like being very careful when walking, but shutting both eyes firmly when running at high speeds or like picking one’s dinner guests carefully while picking one’s spouse out of a hat. If it does not matter what one believes and one opinion is as good as any other, then the most sophisticated scientific theory fares no better than a mythological Biblical story or the simplest fairy tale. Intellectual integrity and the foundation of  morality demands that we give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibilities of knowledge.   

It would be difficult to find a purported scientific belief system more bizarre than Creationism (more recently called “Intelligent Design)”, whose claims deny not only evolutionary biology but most of cosmology, physics, palaeontology, archaeology, historical geology, zoology, botany, biogeography, not to mention much of early human history. There is perhaps only one modern claim that compares with the arrogance and certainty with which it asks us to ignore or dismiss so much existing knowledge. That is Holocaust denial. And the similarities between the two in their methods of reasoning are disturbingly noteworthy.

Today’s students have been conditioned by an overly nurturing, handholding educational system not to take responsibility for their own thought and actions. The prime responsibility surely rests with the devotees of customer and consumer driven education and enrolment maximizing educational administrators who foster an atmosphere in which teachers must exert near Herculean effort to make the necessary adaptations to ensure that all students are successful and self-satisfied. ”Failure” has now become anathema to the education system and the responsibility for success of a student has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the classroom teacher. As humans we have our “failures” every day, but we hopefully learn from them, correct them and go forward.

Free markets can be beneficial. The marketplace of ideas does for ideas what the free, competitive market ostensibly does for material products. It winnows out silly opinions, just as the market winnows out shoddy widgets. Universities have become pawns in the hands of huge corporations and this has turned them into glorified trade schools. Noam Chomsky, in particular, articulates the mood of Campus Inc. in contending that universities, once institutions for change, are becoming proponents of the status quo and endorsers of intellectual and moral stasis. The university should challenge the system. Healthy institutions, Chomsky argues, encourage students to be critical, skeptical, inquiring and creative rather than obedient corporate drones.

The Power of Pessimism and Negative Thinking

“The optimist believes we live in the best of all possible worlds whereas the pessimist fears this is true.” – Attributed to both Robert Oppenheimer and James Branch Cabell

Greed - and its cunning partner, speculation - are the designated miscreants for the ongoing financial crisis, but another, widely accepted and admired, cultural predisposition should get its share of the blame: the faith based power of positive thinking and delusional optimism that permeates every aspect of American culture. As promoted by Oprah, scores of mega-church pastors such as Joel Osteen, and an endless flow of New Age charlatans such as Anthony Robbins, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and self-help bestsellers like Rhonda (Help me Rhonda) Byrne’s The Secret, the idea is to firmly belief that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because thinking things, "visualizing" them - ardently and with concentration - actually makes them happen. You will be able to pay off that adjustable rate mortgage or, at the other end of the transaction, turn thousands of bad mortgages into mega-profits, the reasoning goes, if only you truly have faith and believe that you can. You just need to believe in the epistemological relativism of anti-scientific postmodernist philosophy that reality is merely a construct of the mind. Reality can be created like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Perhaps we ought to remember jailed mobster John Gotti who made a lot more sense by putting it this way: “It’s mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Rhonda Byrne tells us our lives are the “mirror of the dominant thoughts you think” and blames the victims of misfortune for their “negative thoughts.” Take the miserable skeletons in Darfur, prey to starvation and genocidal pogroms engineered by their fanatical Muslim overlords. It’s their own fault because of their inability to “visualize” their own happiness, safety and prosperity and wait for them to “manifest”. The secret is that this “secret” works when it does and doesn’t when it doesn’t. Every human has basic needs for food, shelter, sleep and security. Until they are met, how can you afford the time for leisure, politics, sports, religion the arts and most importantly, ethics? Remember the old adage: “Grub before ethics.” I’m sure the wretches of Darfur would love to be fretting over the trivial neuroticisms of North Americans who are bending themselves into pretzels worrying about how to get that second SUV, LCD television, latest Blackberry or Caribbean cruise.

Faith, blind optimism and positive thinking are endemic to American culture - from weight loss programs to cancer support groups - and in the last two decades it put down deep roots in the corporate world and schools as well. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is in this category which with its quasi-religious pap that encourages patients to abdicate their reason and personal responsibility by “finding their higher power” which of course means Jesus. Everyone knows that you won't get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you're a "positive person" - doubt-free, uncritical, and constantly smiling. No one moves up the corporate ladder by being a “nay sayer” and no one becomes a CEO by issuing warnings of impending disaster, regardless of whether or not you are right. The mantra of self-esteem that has plagued our educational institutions is part of the same world view. Tell yourself that you are the greatest, that you are number one – faith in some external source or enigmatic inner power is a hell of a lot easier than hard work and self-doubt. And you feel so good - even though you just scored 25% on the recent math test by using the power of positive thinking in lieu of doing your daily homework and studying.

All the paperbacks in airport bookstores' business sections scream out against "negativity" and advise the reader to be at all times upbeat, optimistic and brimming with confidence - a message companies relentlessly reinforce by treating their white collar employees to manic motivational speakers and televangelist revival-like motivational events. The top guys, meanwhile, would go off to get pumped up in exotic locales with the likes of success guru Tony Robbins, Steven Covey and Wayne Dyer who drench their messages in quasi-religious postmodernism and Eastern mysticism. Those skeptics and curmudgeons who still failed to get with the program could be subjected to personal "coaching" or of course, shown the door.

The same frothy wave of mandatory optimism swept through the once-sober finance industry. On their websites, scores of motivational speakers proudly list companies like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch among their clients. Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Mortgage whose sub-prime ventures precipitated the entire crisis, was known for his congenital optimism and described in the Guardian earlier this year as "absurdly upbeat" even as his industry unraveled. No one was psychologically prepared for hard times, when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on. This is the message of the inane best seller The Secret by Ronda Byrne – blame the victim for his negative vibes. Last May, the New York Times reported that Merrill Lynch, caught up short, was suddenly trying to "temper the Pollyannas in its ranks," and force its analysts to occasionally utter the word "sell" and perhaps even hint at a “market correction” – but never the anathema of the  “R-word.” Politicians, particularly the conservative variety, are not immune from this delusional disease either.

For those at the very top of the corporate hierarchy, all this positive thinking must not have seemed delusional at all. They could have almost anything they wanted, just by expressing the craving. CEO compensation has ballooned in recent years, creating the new class of billionaires and multi-millionaires who inhabit Lear jets and four-figure a night hotel rooms, who can dispatch a private plane to pick up a favorite wine, or a pet, they happen to have left in the Hamptons. According to a new book from the UK, Unjust Rewards by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, these masters of the universe tend to be seriously uninformed about how the other 99.99 percent lives and are often incapable of coherently explaining how their financial operations really work - the derivatives, CDS's, and so on that their wealth is derived from. If you live in a bubble of perfect wish-fulfillment, how could you imagine that some poor chump in Cleveland or East LA might run up against unexpected medical bills or car repairs that could sabotage his mortgage payments?

Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendents, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still quite likely fail; you certainly wouldn't get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or by entering the dream world of "visualizing" success. Calvinists thought "negatively" as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh ethos that positive thinking arose - among mystics, lay healers, and transcendentalists - in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the desire is focused and intense enough. This was essentially the childish message of Norman Vincent Peale in The Power of Positive Thinking. In my view, a more appropriate title for the book would be to replace “Positive” with “Biblical.”

Optimism, when encouraged as a social attitude is an infantile disposition which removes the individual's conscious power to criticize, refute and doubt. Optimism, like patriotism, is the public tool of scoundrels and ideologues. When it comes to how we think, "negative" is not the only alternative to "positive." As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as it’s opposite. The alternative to both is skepticism and realism – wanting to know how things really are, seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news, and being prepared for both feast and famine. Now, with our savings, our homes and our livelihoods on the line, we ought to give it a try.

Some Considerations for change

“If you’re robbing somebody, oppressing them, dictating their lives, it’s a very rare person who can say: ‘Look, I’m a monster. I’m doing this for my own good.’ Even Himmler didn’t say that. When you have your boot on someone’s neck, you have to justify it. The justification has to be their depravity.” - Noam Chomsky

“Totalitarian states don't really care what people think, because they always have a club to beat them over the head if they do the wrong thing. Democratic states can't use these mechanisms. Since you can't force people, you have to control what they think.” - Noam Chomsky                                         

Let’s face some unpleasant realities and finally start rethinking what we are doing to the world. Economic growth for its own sake is one of them. It’s destroying the ecosystem. Let’s drop the arrogance, willed ignorance and delusion about unfettered global capitalism as the pathway toward universal justice, freedom and democracy.

   First, the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are not fighting for justice or our freedoms. Whatever the individuals who serve in the military believe or do - and I realize that many believe they are defending these precious values, and I know that many repeatedly act in compassionate and humane ways under unbearable conditions. Let’s face the truth: the U.S. military is not a defensive force, peacekeeping mission or a humanitarian institution promoting democracy abroad. This is obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of history. It is rather an offensive force that destroys vulnerable people in other societies to entrench corporatism and the interests of powerful U.S. financial elites and deliver the short-term material benefits that may or may not filter down to middle and working class people. The violence of 9/11 should be understood as another ugly episode in a relentlessly violent period of human history. Let’s never forget that around the world people suffer 9/11-level violence on a regular basis. If that violence continues - the visible violence of war, the quiet violence of economic inequality, and the deeper violence of humans against the living world – it’s not clear there will be a world left, at least not a world we want to leave our children and grandchildren. In 2004, shortly after Bush declared victory in Iraq a poll was done conducted in which only 1% of Iraqis believed that the American invasion was to “bring democracy to Iraq.” These people are not stupid.

Second, the institutions that claim to help us understand the world, the public schools, religious institutions, churches, churches, universities, and the corporate commercial media, are key components of a propaganda system that encourages ignorance on these and many other vital matters. Whatever the individuals in these institutions believe or do - and I realize that many believe they are part of a noble tradition, and I know many do challenge the conventional wisdom - these institutions are not fundamentally educational in nature. They are ideological factories that the managerial elite use to promote a culture of intense competition, unwholesome self-interest, docility and acquiescence to the status quo of oligarchic power that undermine critical thinking and an understanding about how power operates and the possibilities for alternatives. Moreover, managerial elites manage but what is required in a complex crisis such as the current global financial meltdown is critical thought, not management, group think, mindless optimism and all-inclusive free market ideologies. In a culture of ideological true believers nothing is more anathema than skeptics, free thinkers and iconoclasts. But in a complex world these are the very people who are required to challenge existing paradigms and offer alternatives and possible solutions.

Third, find the intellectual honesty to forbear and face some undeniable truths: The crises we face in this country and the world – social, economic, political, cultural and ecological - will not be fixed by electing a new president or prime minister, nor will the culture be turned around by traditional progressive political strategies. I choose to vote, not because I find any of the candidates appealing or their status quo platforms attractive, but because I can’t convince myself it’s an exercise in futility – and I still delude myself into believing democracy still exists. But I don’t believe that the oppressive systems of power and privilege that structure our world can be dismantled through those methods. We need to think creatively, and we need to come to terms with the likelihood that until those in power believe that those of us who want to challenge power are willing to take serious risks, the machine will continue to grind out greed, injustice and destruction. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that every writer needs a “built-in shock proof bull shit detector”. But don’t we all? Anarchist philosophers like Michael Bakunin remind us that “shit rolls downhill”. It comes from those who rule and manipulate and those who hold power in all aspects of life from religious institutions, politics to your employer and have much to gain from that power. Our anger and protest must be directed upward and be forever vigilant. And we must again remind ourselves that capitalism is not synonymous with democracy or prosperity. You can have prosperous dictatorships and poor democracies. It is only when the elites, like the ones on Wall Street and in the US Congress are exposed as incompetent parasites and dethroned that we will have any hope of restoring social, economic and political justice. Here is Chris Hedges:

 Our elites - the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools - do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of the common good. They are stunted, timid and uncreative bureaucrats who are trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions which will satisfy the corporate structure. They are about numbers, profits and personal advancement. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are able to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships. The human consequences never figure into their balance sheets. The democratic system, they think, is a secondary product of the free market. And they slavishly serve the market. (Common Dreams posting, Oct 20, 2008)

Fourth, the problems we face are not the result of an aberrant moment in history or of one particularly thuggish group of politicians in power at that moment. We are dealing with the predictable consequences of a world shaped by patriarchy, white supremacy, nationalism, patriotism, religiosity and capitalism - systems of coercion and control that are at odds with goals of justice, freedom, cooperation, community and sustainability. That’s not easy to face, but it can help us break out of the insular self-indulgence that is so tempting when one lives in the most affluent society in the history of the world. Intellectuals such as Michel Foucault talked about power and cultivated the ground first tilled by Bakunin, although the anarchist would have scoffed at the rejection of materialism, class, and political action often adopted by postmodernists and post-Marxists. I'm not a subscriber to the prescriptions of the sort of perverted collectivism or communism history has demonstrated under Stalin or Mao any more than I am for the disastrous morally bankrupt crypto-fascist capitalism we have been subjected to for the past three decades for constructing the most just system of political economy, much as that might come as a surprise to any conservative reader of this paper. And I think it's fair to say that the world's experiments in communism to date - to the extent they weren't actually just experiments in totalitarianism, not Marxism - failed in large part because they possessed just the opposite flaw as that described above. They attempted to build economic systems on the equally false notion that selfishness can be completely eliminated from human psychology as a motivating force. It cannot – but surely it can be mitigated; otherwise why bother with public education? But, conversely, a system that is erected on the premise that people are only motivated by selfishness and greed, and therefore can only produce prosperity by promoting the idea that every citizen ought to pursue their own self-interest, unfettered by any societal concerns, is an equally disastrous and morally bankrupt notion. And those who prefer the euphemism “enlightened” as an adjective to describe self-interest are simply engaging in apologetics and delusion. Let’s be honest - there’s nothing enlightened or noble about greed and its precursor envy. Even the Bible gets this right. 

Reversing the Neo-Conservative Nightmare

“Everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare”. – Spinoza

“People are usually more firmly convinced that their beliefs are precious than that they are true.” - George Santayana

The current economic crisis may well be at least as bad as the crisis that produced the Great Depression of the 1930s for a number of reasons.

First, we have an integrated global economy and it will be exceedingly difficult to coordinate what must be international solutions. There is tremendous economic inequality between the United States and Western Europe on one hand and the rest of the world on the other. The technologically advanced First World can hardly expect developing Third World countries, primarily in Asia, where poverty is ubiquitous, to accept cuts in their growing industrial base just when the tide seems to be turning in their favor.

Second, there are serious problems of environmental degradation and potential disaster associated with global warming caused by industrial development. Unlike during earlier eras, the capitalist economic system can no longer count on new terrain or untapped natural resources to exploit in order to stimulate and sustain economic recovery. The environmental damage and costs have already been massive and widespread - and are perhaps irreversible.

Third, the population of the world has been growing exponentially from about 2 billion in 1930 to almost 7 billion today. Modern capitalism depends heavily on continuous technological breakthroughs to generate development and continually bailout the increasingly susceptible global economic system, but because of human population growth, there is a lot less room to maneuver. But technology has also made much human labor superfluous, creating huge pockets of unemployment. What will happen to of these people who have been dislocated?

Finally, the Great Depression of the 1930s did not end until wartime production shocked it out of its slumbers. Ultimately, World War II stimulated the U.S. economy while the newly produced weapons destroyed the productive capacity of America’s indebted competitors in Europe. Fifty million people died during World War II, so a war of this magnitude is surely not an acceptable economic bailout plan.

Pressure from the left must be for both immediate solutions that protect working people – the middle class, the working poor and huge populations of desperately poor around the world - and for long-term global economic viability that at the same time advances social justice. The corporations and the wealthy don’t need government handouts, as income disparities between the super wealthy and the rest of us have increased dramatically over the past thirty years of Neo-Con “voodoo” economic policies. Our liberal democracies have been slowly but surely moving towards oligarchy and plutocracy. This must be reversed before it is too late and we descend into a fascist style police state.

It is far past the time to banish the domination and anti-democratic intrusions of Big Business into politics. The corporate lobby now basically calls all the shots in Washington, and Ottawa is not far behind this alarming growing phenomenon. As long as corporations by way of their high paid lobbyists are able to buy politicians and elections, there will be no effective way to democratize their predatory behavior and stem the tide of a corporatist oligarchy. In every election over the past several decades they have donated vast sums of money to both Liberal and Conservative parties in a shameless attempt to purchase influence. This should be seen as exactly what it is, bribery, and it’s against the law. The situation is far worse in the United States where in spite of the populist ravings of pundits from both of the two dominant parties, it’s essentially a one party system with both the Republican and Democratic parties defending the interests of corporatism, class, wealth and privilege. In spite of their claims to the contrary neither of these parties is a votary of either the Middle class or working poor.

It is also time to end the legal myth that corporations are perceived as individual persons, thereby entitled to constitutional protections with the same rights as real people. Corporations are synthetic abstractions, organizations whose charters are underwritten and legally endorsed by their governments. They exist exclusively for profit and protecting the interests of shareholders. But they have no rights or privileges that are not granted them through the democratic process, such as it is. If they are not socially responsible, their rights and privileges ought to be terminated or, at the very least, any social costs that end up being endured by the public such as pollution or exploitation of workers ought to be subject to the full force of the law. Any corporation that pollutes the environment, exploits workers or communities, cheat consumers, damage the ecosystem, or bribe politicians, should have their charters rescinded, their companies dismantled, split up and sold off by the state.

Capitalist markets may be self-regulating up to a point, but it is time to accept that the self-regulating process does not work in a system based on greed and often intense competition. It is simply far too costly, with predictable economic lows and highs and too much social dislocation, for a civilized society to tolerate. It is also clear that corporations can never effectively “regulate” themselves. The fox guarding the henhouse is a recipe for disaster in any social environment with a pretense to equality of opportunity and social justice. Today’s big corporations are too committed to short-term profitability by whatever means necessary and their obscenely paid executives are only interested in how their next quarterly financial statements appear to Wall Street analysts. Only the public sector, meaning only government agencies genuinely representing the interests of the people, can effectively regulate corporations. This will protect workers, consumers, society in general, pensioners' social programs - and shareholders. In return for this “service,” corporations should pay requisite high taxes as do all high income earners, as they once did in the three decades following the Second World War. Corporate tax rates are the lowest they have been for at least 80 years and taxes on capital gains where most of the wealthy make their money, are also at an all time low. Our present Neo-conservative ideologue Prime Minister Stephen Harper has handed out $50 billion in tax concessions to Canada's largest corporations over the next five years, many of these of which are huge oil companies such as Suncor and Petro Canada that have made billions in profits in recent years as they gouged the public.

Free, or unregulated trade, is devastating the natural environment as well as destroying the lives and cultures of people around the world and contributing to excessive over-production and a steady downward spiral in incomes for working people. Capital has freedom of movement but for workers this same freedom is severely limited and Union busting has been a national pastime for both Big Business and Conservative governments alike. It is destabilizing the economic system and the planet on which human survival depends. Free trade is never free, especially when it promotes pollution, exploitation of workers and environmental destruction. It is time to call it what it really is – foul trade – and to organize, collectively, and refuse to purchase foul trade goods. An international boycott on goods made in China, and Wal-Mart, its leading distributor in the United States, might be a good start. Hopefully, in a capitalist market place, our position as consumers will give us some leverage. At the same time, we should push for trade agreements that deny countries and companies access to North American markets if they prevent workers from organizing independent unions and deny them living wages and safe working conditions. The history of the labor movement has been a violent one and the concessions won were won from below and were conceded kicking and screaming from above. These rights are now being systematically rescinded on a global scale.

Our global economic system, which balances free market fundamentalism and market discipline for the masses with corporate welfare for the privileged few, is threatening human life on a massive scale.

When you listen carefully to talk of the economy during and following the Canadian and US elec­tions, whether it's Stephane Dion, Jack Layton, or Stephen Harper, Barack Obama or John McCain, the scope of reforms being proposed is incredibly narrow and regressive. Huge bailouts of larcenous financial institutions on the backs of taxpayers, partial nationalization, credit injections, an orgy of tax credits to economically strapped corporations, though dazzling in their variety and technical complexity, their goal is to save, not transform, the lethal fundamental economic structures we already have. The very deregulated unfettered capitalist system that continues to exacerbate climate change, water wars, and hunger, while seriously diminishing our capacity to adapt when we need it most has not been seriously questioned by any of the major political parties in North America. If we are to reverse the destructive paradigms of the past then what we need are skeptics and critical thinkers, not true believers and proponents of the status quo.

Changes will not occur without strengthening and deepening democracy by "raising the temperature before quickening the tempo of politics,” says Princeton Law Professor Roberto Unger. One simple step, he suggests, is to give both political parties and social movements equal free time on television to articulate their ideas. But with the major media dominated by right wing reactionary bias, controlled by a half dozen multinational corporations, this has not happened and will likely not happen in the near future. He also emphasizes the need to develop strategies for mixing participatory and representative democracy in a more direct fashion, not unlike proposals promoted by anarchist philosophers, to make decisions more quickly, decentralize power and experiment with different legal regimes. Strengthening and deepening democratic accountability is also crucial if governments are to foster creativity and innovation. Presently the sense of powerlessness, cynicism and subsequent apathy of voters heading to the polls during election time is patently obvious and not a good sign for the future of democracy. People often vote for the candidate that is the least of the evils presented to them on the ballot. Very few candidates are anywhere near resembling someone who is representing the interests of the average wage earner. In the most recent election in Canada in November 2008 we had the lowest voter turnout in our history, comparable with the predictable apathy of voters south of the border that has prevailed for several decades.

To encourage investment and broaden avant-garde thinking and practice, Unger suggests that governments set up a chain of organizations to carry out the work of venture capitalists, investing in and providing guidance to small, innovative firms while inventing new legal structures that would allow them to cooperate and compete with one another at the same time. Over the past 100 years the venture capital stock markets have had a dismal record in providing funds for fledgling, creative firms and their incredibly low success rate is appalling. Often venture capital markets are just a glorified casino where paper is shuffled around for the benefit of the promoters and insiders, as the Vancouver Stock Exchange has clearly demonstrated over the years.

More generally, Unger advocates an overhaul of our notion of free trade. Today it focuses on the deregulated free movement of goods, services and money often at the expense of a country’s laws meant to protect citizens, while the movement of labor is tightly restricted by immigration laws, and the movement of ideas re­stricted by aggressive sovereign intellectual property rights. Unger calls for reversing the priorities, freeing the movement of people and ideas - the twin cores of innovation, as well as what we value most outside the economy - while moving things only to the extent that they help democratic societies transform themselves with policies consistent with social justice and to prosper as they see fit.

The policies that most affluent First World countries are now forcing on the poor of the Third World to accept (often under the auspices of the IMF and World Bank) are diametrically opposed to those that enriched those same First World countries when they were in a similar position economically. What the Neo-Conservative ideologues of deregulated free trade, especially in the United States and Great Britain, refuse to admit, is that during their many years of incredible economic growth they had the highest import tariffs and protectionist policies of any country in the past 200 years.

Countries don't very often get rich by opening their economies and letting international markets do their thing. Trade is beneficial when properly timed and with the right rules, which are different for each country. Markets can only determine price, not quality of life, ethics or justice, and on their own are more likely to lock you in place than propel you onward and upward. Samsung, one of the most successful corporations on the planet, subsidized its infant electronics division with proceeds from its textile production and sugar refining; Nokia's light manufacturing section subsidized the company's money-losing electronics division for seventeen years. Another similar success story is Hyundai. Now they are world leaders in high-tech quality products. To grow, poor countries, like businesses, will have to defy the market. In today’s world, economic development is about acquiring and mastering advanced technologies.

Not unlike the oppressive days of colonialism, by employing covert imperialistic policies, wealthy First World countries have been denying poor ones of the Third World the very tools they used to enrich themselves.

Throughout its thirty-year history, the champions of neo-conservative socio-economic doctrine - usually often depicted as “liberalization”, deregulation, and privatization -  have fought to marginalize politics and demonize government, insisting their model was the only game in town. Margaret Thatcher, one of the forerunners of "voodoo economics" along with Ronald Reagan, declared, "There is no alternative" (TINA) an expression which is the quintessence of dogmatism. American economists later devised the Orwellian term "Washington Consensus." But with his unique wit, Thomas Friedman put it best, equating market fundamentalism with a "golden straitjacket”. Even the most extreme proposals expressed by mainstream politicians and economists - like a partial and temporary nationalization of financial institutions - amount to little more than readjusting the strait-jacket.

At a time when American and Canadian infrastructures are collapsing, poverty is growing, the world financial system has melted down, huge regions are running out of fresh water, and one country that is selling and the other buying oil from tar sands that are destroying the ecosystem of huge swaths of Northern Alberta’s Athabasca Valley and the climate, the conventional wisdom that mere tinkering will close Thomas Homer-Dixon’s "ingenuity gap" seems destined to failure.

Where should we go from here?

“Nothing is so firmly believed as that which is least known.” - Michel de Montaigne (Faith is a great labour saving device - it enables one to form an opinion without having to dig up the facts.)

“To have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized man.”   - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

“The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true.  It is the chief occupation of mankind.” -  H. L. Mencken

I regret to admit that I have no well-developed plan to present other than a challenge to think seriously about alternatives to the existing social and political order by adopting a critical skepticism and a willingness to think outside existing paradigms of greed, acquisitiveness, power, militarism and oppression. My gut feeling tells me that while we prepare to vote in the upcoming elections in Canada and the United States and to continue to challenge existing authority structures and think outside the box, we have to also think about a long-term strategy focusing much more on local, small-scale endeavors that will foster solidarity during the American empire’s decline and could provide a soft landing when the empire is over. This is a project promoted by the great anarchist political philosophers from Bakunin to Chomsky. It doesn’t mean giving up our obligations to the larger world; the 500 years of brutal imperialism and exploitation that to a large extent created this acquisitive affluent society impose a clear moral obligation on us to work for global justice. But we also have to recognize that the world in which we live is going to change dramatically in the coming decades, and we need to build new institutions and networks that can help us cope with those changes.

Surely we can do much better. Sadly, Viktor Frankl died recently. Although most renowned for his book Man's Search For Meaning, in which he described the inhumanity and brutality of experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz, and articulated his understanding that those who were able to find meaning in their depraved lives and suffer­ing were better able to survive the horrors of the camp, I men­tion him because of something he said toward the end of his life that I think rings true: "There are only two human races - the race of the decent and the race of the indecent people." To restate this in terms of this essay’s investigation: there are those who listen and those who do not; those who value life and those who do not; those who destroy and those who nourish. The indigenous author Jack Forbes, professor emeritus of Native American studies at the University of California, Davis and founder of Degoniwida-Quetzalcoatl University in Davis, describes those who would destroy as literally suffering from an illness, a virulent and contagious disease he calls witiko, or cannibal sickness, because those so afflicted consume the lives of others - human and nonhuman—for private purpose or profit, and do so with no reciprocation, recompense or sense of any obligation to the society that enabled them. Do I need to mention Wall Street?

The early European Christians embodied many of the problems we face today: their arrogance and lofty goals required the exploitation, enslavement of native indigenous peoples and imported black African “heathens” and “savages”, destruction of the forests and all life in them, but they couldn't do it without at least some rationalization. The first two claims to virtue were the intertwining goals of Christianizing the natives and making a profit from them. These embodied a bizarre yet efficient exchange in which, as Captain John Chester succinctly put it, the natives gained "the knowl­edge of our faith" while the Europeans acquired "such riches as the country hath." Both the natives and the "riches" - including the forests of New England - were quickly cut down. From that point onward the lives of indigenous peoples and black slaves throughout the world steadily deteriorated. When they no longer provided any economic value, they were systematically subjected to mass genocide.

Statistics clearly show that the neo-conservative agenda of the past 35 years has seriously expanded the gap between the super rich and the rest of us, having promoted and facilitated the moral bankruptcy described by Jack Forbes. Greed and the psychopathic need for power on the one hand and poverty and homelessness on the other is an epidemic, not only globally, but in wealthy western countries such as the United States and Canada. This is clearly unacceptable. Most people I believe try to do the right thing and my conception of human nature is not based on any religious or political doctrine that we’re basically greedy, self-serving leeches beyond redemption within a secular world. I would argue the opposite – most of us want to do the right thing and behave according to the inverse golden rule that I have often in vain tried to live up to and that I learned from my mother: “do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” But we unfortunately bring our kids up to be competitive rather than cooperative because of the “me first” socio-economic system that presently exists. There’s an adage on this I like: Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.” Competition is desirable up to a point and in the fairy tale world of sports it’s generally alright because it’s just that – a child’s game with rules for indiscretions. But in real life I expect it’s not something Jesus would endorse – at least not the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and who condemned the money lenders as vermin. The reality of our Judeo-Christian culture is of course far different from the rendering of Jesus described above. A primary purpose of Judeo-Christianity has not been to move us toward a community where the teachings of some­one like Jesus, simple and necessary suggestions for how to get along with each other are made manifest in all aspects of life, but instead to provide a theological framework for a system of power, control and exploitation.

Many of us accept as an unsubstantiated premise that it’s a function of human nature that prospective leaders and entrepreneurs are only motivated by an ethos of personal greed, which has been unfortunately hammered into them through the socialization processes by a society that has lost its rational faculties and moral compass decades ago. Under those circumstances it's likely true that most people will only work for themselves, motivated exclusively by selfishness. But what if we taught our children something different, right from birth, as toddlers and reinforced those different values throughout their youth and adult lives?  What if we taught them to value the community's welfare as much as their own?  What if we taught them to be suspicious of authority and power, that war is a function of that same power and greed and that massive personal wealth was not only not the highest achievement to aspire to, but actually a sort of crass and distasteful goal, only to be found amongst the most puerile, uncultured and selfish in society?  What if we strongly stressed the idea among our people that improving the welfare of not only our own country, but the world as the ultimate life aspiration, and that those who do so are considered among our most admired and patriotic citizens. Is it not plausible that our future citizens of the world would still create, innovate and be every bit as motivated to universal social justice as they are today by greed? 

As we behold the carnage in the banking system and stock markets, hopefully what we are also witnessing is the complete and utter repudiation of the moral depravity of the Reagan-Bush conservative agenda. But it runs even deeper than that. Not just the kleptomania of the neo-conservative system is being exposed to everyone for what it is, but it is imploding into a scrap heap. Even its more moderate semi-civilized rendering - the Eisenhower model of polite, gray flannel suit capitalism – may be on the chopping block. Even that form of capitalism - quaintly tame by today's standards of astonishing predatory gluttony - was not sustainable, and part of what we've been seeing this last decade are all the stunts by which we have greedily squeezed out more than our fair share of the global pie now angrily pushing back. The gratuitous wars, the environmental degradation, the belief in untrammeled economic growth, the exploitation of any country not populated by Caucasian Christians throughout the world, the borrowing against our children's future, the tax avoidance free-riding by the wealthy and corporate world, the usurious credit card industry, the exporting of jobs to explode corporate profits, the gluttony of 300 pound Americans and their grotesque SUVs and the giant screens on which they watch “reality TV”' (a quaint euphemism for stupidity and degrading obloquy) - these are all concurrently screaming out to us  these days, in an excruciating cacophonous concord from Hell - that it must be stopped now. 

The United States is perhaps making history by being the most ignorant, cavalier and shortest-lived empires (even the brutal Belgians stretched it out longer – and their beer is far superior). Anyone heard of the Darwin Awards? I wonder if there’s a category for countries as there is for individuals who find imbecilic, albeit highly entertaining ways, to perform frontal lobotomies on themselves by performing amazing acts of stupidity like in the movie Jackass. What could be more stupid than the America of Ronald Reagan who sent billions of dollars in funds and 21st century weaponry to terrorists with 14th century religious ideologies in Afghanistan and Iraq? What could be more stupid than the America of George W Bush who invaded two countries to find a half dozen or so Islamic fanatics who rammed two airplanes into the World Trade Towers? But of course anyone with more than a brain stem knows that these invasions had nothing to do with finding Osama bin Laden or protecting Americans from terrorism.

Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul in his Massey lectures of 1995 called The Unconscious Civilization had this to say about the importance of the gadfly, the curmudgeon and the critic in a flourishing democracy:

“The very essence of individualism is the refusal to mind your own business. This is not a particularly pleasant or easy style of life. It is not profitable, efficient, competitive, or rewarded. It often consists in being stubborn and repetitive. The German voice of the Enlightenment, Friedrich Nicolai, put it clearly: “Criticism is the only helpmate we have which, while disclosing our inadequacies, can at the same time awake us to the desire for greater improvement.” Criticism is perhaps the citizen's primary weapon in the exercise of her legitimacy. That is why, in this corporatist society, conformism, loyalty and silence are so admired and rewarded; why criticism is so punished or marginalized.”

Here is Professor of Law and Ethicist Michael Josephson:

“If we define the purpose of living only as the accomplishment of a particular task, accomplishing the task becomes the moral imperative - winning the election, getting the scoop, making a profit. It's one thing to sacrifice truth for fairness. It's another thing to sacrifice truth for success. You can only sacrifice an ethical principle for another ethical principle.”

“An ethical person ought to do more than he is required to do, and less than he is allowed to do. He must exercise judgement, self-restraint and conscience. Otherwise, we have a minimalist society where everybody is blaming and suing everybody else, pushing the world to the limit, and twisting the rules.”   

If a thinking person of a century ago were told that the next hundred years would see a war in which millions of Jews were murdered out of an originally religious hatred; another war, basically over religion, on European soil (the former Yugoslavia); Middle-Eastern countries still under theocratic rule; enormously popular Islamist groups waging a worldwide jihad; millions of Chinese Falun Gong devotees following a self-anointed savior who also claims the ability to levitate and to become invisible;  that an American born-again Christian president would justify an imperialistic war in Iraq based on special instructions from God; grotesque arena-sized churches springing up all over the United States; as few as 28 percent of Americans believing evolution is a fact, and 13 percent or fewer believing it occurred through natural selection, unguided by God; the U.S. government dominated by professed evangelical or born-again Christian zealots; Christian fundamentalists holding effective veto power over Supreme Court nominations; and the Oval Office occupied by a man who starts every meeting with a prayer and has affirmed the impossibility of a non-Christian entering heaven*—that thinking person might well feel that all the intellectual progress of the previous three or four centuries had been for naught.

*Speaking of the devil, recent U.S. politics illustrates how the habit of faith spills over to politics, fostering blind faith in the politician who advertises himself as a man of god, regardless of his ignorance, incompetence, moral corruption, and/or criminality.

Surely we must deem false belief as in itself the worst of intellectual vices and an and irreducibly negative force for human progress and regard respect for truth supported by reason and evidence as a fundamental moral human obligation. We should view willful ignorance, stupidity and appeals to faith as an offense against humanity and life itself (can I permit myself to use the uniquely religious expression, "sin?"). And to my mind, to fail to learn about and even feel reverence for what science has discovered - to refuse to see in the 100-trillion-mile, 100-billion-galaxy extent of the observable universe, the strange-beyond comprehension subatomic universe, and the possibility of other universes (a separate God for each or same one for all?)—to refuse to recognize there the proper objects of our religious attention, if you will, and instead continue to hold barbaric tribal myths as sacred - I call that willful ignorance and stupidity. I call it unpardonable ingratitude toward the generations of scientists, philosophers and freethinkers over the centuries who have labored often under the threat of persecution or even death,  to discover bit by painstaking bit genuine verifiable knowledge about the world we live in; actual, precious facts that have not only made our lives longer, healthier, safer, and more pleasant and productive but are in and of themselves worthy of profound respect, if not, as I said, reverence.

The problem isn’t that science, secularism and enlightenment ideas have become the modern religion – because they have not. While fundamentally antagonistic toward science and reason, the current anti-modern, postmodern, anti-intellectual and religious intransigence isn’t against a rival belief system or philosophy, so much as against an absence of strongly held values – a spiritual-philosophical void that our acquisitive system of unfettered capitalism, corporate media and retail businesses seek to fill with toys, amusements, frivolity and celebrity and idolatry replacing old fashioned ideals with a cool cynicism, irony and disdain for any kind of seriousness and passion for the things that really matter to people and societies, whether religious, political, emotional or intellectual. Television and mass marketing have bred these virtues out of our culture because they were rivals to the cult of consumption; after all, if people start feeling their lives are rich and meaningful enough without having to buy “stuff”, then where will we be?


     Spanish Civil War: http://www.skeptic.ca/Spanish_Civil_War.htm  and http://www.skeptic.ca/Spanish_Civil_War_Preston.htm

     Who controls the media?: http://www.skeptic.ca/Propaganda_Inc.htm

     Patriotism: http://www.skeptic.ca/Patriotic_Drivel.htm , http://www.skeptic.ca/Bullshit_&_The_Contempt_For_Language.htm                           

     and http://www.skeptic.ca/Remembrance_Day.htm

     Fascism (Conservatism on speed): http://www.skeptic.ca/What_is_Fascism.htm

     Venture Capitalism for Dummies: http://www.skeptic.ca/Venture_Capitalism.htm


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