Leaving Amazon

“Even though it is indeed not true that success also justifies the evil deed and the reprehensible means, it is similarly out of the question to regard success as something that is ethically wholly neutral. It so happens that historical success creates the ground on which alone life can go on. The question remains as to whether it is ethically more responsible to go to war like Don Quixote against a new age or, conceding one’s defeat and freely consenting to it, finally to serve the new age. Success, after all, makes history, and the One who guides history always creates good from the bad over the head of the men who make history. It is a short circuit when the stickler for principle, thinking ahistorically and hence irresponsibly, simply ignores the ethical significance of success. It is good that for once we are forced to engage seriously the ethical problem of success. As long as the good is successful, we can afford the luxury of thinking of success as ethically irrelevant. But the problem arises once evil means bring about success.” 
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, On Success

The other day, I had a negative experience with Amazon customer service. I had no prior problems with the company and so I hadn’t earlier given it much thought. But this recent experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I wasn’t dealt with honestly. It took me by surprise, as I didn’t expect such treatment. I’m used to customer service, in any business, treating me the customer as if I mattered. This has led me to question my use of Amazon and to think more carefully about what kind of company it is.

It’s not that I’ve been clueless and unaware of certain aspects of Amazon that are less than optimal, such as their refusal to pay local taxes and their practice of underselling brick-and-mortar bookstores for years at a profit loss. I’ve never liked these the anti-competitive tactics. It’s been sad what large businesses in general have done to small businesses, local economies, and once thriving downtowns. But Amazon has gone beyond the standard problems of big biz.

As I looked around, it became clear that many people have had difficulties with Amazon. With or without warning and explanation, Amazon takes actions that can be frustrating or even harmful. They regularly suspend accounts of third party sellers and, in many cases, this forces those sellers out of business because of how much Amazon’s platform dominates the online market. Customers can even get lifetime bans on making purchases or making comments. For some people, they’ve eliminated all Kindle ebooks from their accounts. There is little an individual can do. Getting a repeal or even just a fair response from a private bureaucracy can be challenging, assuming you can get a response at all. You can hire an arbitration company or something, although in many cases that isn’t successful either.

I’ve come to realize that Amazon isn’t a company I can depend upon and trust. Worse still, Jeff Bezos sounds like a psychopath. This wouldn’t be surprising, as studies have shown that psychopaths are common among corporate executives (one study showing that more than one in five, about the same percentage as found in the prison population); and others have noted that, if we take seriously corporate personhood, corporations fit the description of a psychopath. The way Amazon is run is more than a bit sociopathic with heavy leaning toward authoritarian-style Social Darwinism. Employees are treated like crap with one of the highest employee turnover rates.

Bezos is well known for publicly screaming at and demeaning people. He even has a highly disturbing evil laugh. He once bizarrely demanded that employees act with empathy or else they’d be fired, it not occurring him that such a demand was the complete opposite of empathy (his emotions mattering while the employees emotions not so much) Employees are encouraged to report on each other and that means they have to be constantly on the defense to protect themselves from anonymous complaints, sometimes without being told exactly what is the complaint. It’s a fairly common practice to receive an email from management or from Bezos himself with just a single word in it or just a question mark, apparently with the expectation that employees can read minds.

Working there would leave a normal person in a constant state of anxiety and paranoia, which is to say that to succeed in such an environment would require you to be extremely abnormal in the psychological sense. But that is the point. Bezos doesn’t want normal people working for him and because of how he dominates the online market he can demand almost anything he wants, burning through employees as if they are of little value. It’s a situation of severe inequality of power where employees have no leverage and have no union to turn to.

There is a large community of ex-employees that share horror stories. One guy a while back attempted suicide by jumping off one of Amazon’s buildings, after sending Bezos a scathing email. In the warehouses, employees are constantly monitored by a camera about every ten feet and are expected to work at high speed for long hours and for little pay and benefits. During a heat wave, employees were forced to continue working without air conditioning until they dropped from heat exhaustion and were carted away by a waiting ambulance. One employee talked about his hearing being damaged from the loud machinery, even with wearing ear protection, but the company doctor denied that it was work-related so that their insurance wouldn’t have to pay for it.

On top of all that, Jeff Bezos has become the poster boy of Friendly Fascism by hiding his company’s dark side. He is a wealthy and powerful man with proven ability to influence political outcomes. Using the pseudo-libertarian rhetoric of corporatism, Bezos likes to push the standard plutocratic worldview of school privatization, anti-labor organizing, tax cuts for the rich, tax avoidance/exemptions for big biz, etc. He has expanded his business through entering numerous new markets, by buying the Washington Post and Whole Foods, and by getting a highly lucrative contract with the CIA. Unsurprisingly, his acquired newspaper has used anonymous CIA sources and he kicked Wikileaks off Amazon’s servers.

Amazon was troubling enough in the past. But it feels like the company has moved into a new stage of dominance. That is why many people are once again talking about anti-trust laws, specifically in relation to Amazon. Trump has been threatening Bezos which makes for an interesting dynamic, two plutocrats challenging each other’s power. I guess we can count our blessings that at least the rich and powerful are somewhat divided at the moment. That often happens before major societal changes, if not reform then possibly revolution. Nick Hanauer, an early investor in Amazon, has since come to warn of the pitchforks coming for the plutocrats. One might note that the corruption and oppressiveness of big biz corporatism was a major reason for the American Revolution which, after the country’s founding, caused the founders to narrowly define corporations as being required by law to serve the public good.

I’ve done a lot of business with Amazon over the years. Maybe I shouldn’t have. I regret having recently bought a new Kindle. I didn’t realize how bad it was getting, but now my conscience is bothering me. I feel compelled to begin the process of separating from Amazon. I’ll look around for new companies to do business with. It won’t be easy. The first step is that I won’t buy any further content from Amazon. I presently cancelled my Amazon Prime membership and Audible membership. Maybe this means I’ll have to go back to reading physical books and become reacquainted with the local bookstores.

In the long term, this will be a good thing. I don’t want to personally participate in the further decline of America, as we head into a dystopian future. I’ve been told that I should vote with my dollars, which always seemed like an idiotic thing to say when plutocrats control so much of the world. It’s about impossible to avoid big biz these days. Still, I don’t like the feeling of being complicit in these problems. I suppose my small actions might mean little, but we each have to start somewhere. Thomas Paine, for example, took his first step toward revolution simply by writing a petition that by itself meant nothing for it had no hope of influencing the British Empire. Yet after losing his job over that incident, it eventually led Paine to meet Benjamin Franklin who invited him to the colonies.

So, let me take my first step toward wherever it will lead. I can hope that others will head in the same direction.

 

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Alt-Right Martyrdom for the Cause

The misogynistic gender ‘realist’ of recent fame, James Damore, has responded to the backlash. He wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal: Why I Was Fired by Google. I’m willing to listen to contrarian views, even when ill-informed, if only to hear the other side. After spending much time in human biodiversity and race realist blogosphere, I’m already familiar with the standard arguments that get rolled out. That said, I actually think he makes at least one good point, albeit unintentionally. Such issues are complicated and in ways that few would like to acknowledge, specifically in terms of the historical context.

Damore complains that his free speech is being trampled upon. A problem with corporations, specifically big biz, is that they aren’t democratic institutions. By design, they don’t uphold democratic values and processes. This is an old argument from the political left and now this critical rhetoric is being co-opted by the alt-right. For example, most of the prejudice and oppression during the Cold War came from corporations, not government — such private sector blackballing and other tactics led to social ostracism, effective silencing, destroyed careers, and even suicide; while redbaiting and witchhunts were used to attack civil rights activists and labor organizers.

Yet the alt-right wants us to now believe that white men, especially the privileged professionals and the aspiring technocracy in the comfortable class, are the real victims. They suddenly feel betrayed by the powerful business interests they assumed were on their side. Well, business comes down to profit and recent research shows that diversity is good for business. The capitalist class for the most part aren’t going to put ideology before profit, at least not any ideology other than capitalist realism.

Capitalism is as much a political system as an economic system. Corporate charters are political constructs and so corporations are political entities, but their politics have rarely been anything close to democracy (although anarchosyncialists have aspired to a different business model, not that they have had much influence in the US and global economic system). Capitalism and democracy have historically been two separate things, occasionally overlapping but more often not. China and Russia presently have capitalism, as did Nazi Germany along with numerous fascist countries.

In any country, capitalism by itself has never stopped the silencing, persecution, imprisonment, and assassination of political dissidents. Many authoritarian governments were promoted and supported by US business interests and the US government (e.g., the American plutocracy’s ties to the Nazi regime, which is how the Bush family made its original wealth). Is the political right now suggesting that capitalism needs to be made to conform to democracy, rather than sacrificing democracy to business interests? Or are they just complaining that American capitalism isn’t authoritarian enough in privileging the appropriate identity politics and not fascist enough in maintaining gender and racial hierarchy?

In American society, corporations have no legal requirement nor social expectation to be democratic, much less respect the free speech of employees. That has been true for a long time. It’s true that many of the American revolutionaries and founders did expect that corporations should serve the public good, but that was a much earlier and more idealistic time. The capitalist economy and corporatist government have long left behind that original intent of the country’s founding. The US has essentially returned to the British imperial collusion between big gov and big biz that the American revolutionaries fought against.

If we want to return to the revolutionary ideal of corporations serving public good or at least not undermining personal freedom, we might need a new revolution. This is an old conflict that has been fought over by generations of Americans. It is why originally libertarianism was aligned with the workers movement and not with the capitalist ownership class. No worker, not even a professional in the tech industry, should assume their interests are aligned with corporate interests nor that their rights will be protected by corporate management. That class conflict is as old as capitalism itself.

It must be remembered that incipient capitalism in the Anglo-American world preceded modern democracy by centuries. The hope that some of the more revolutionary founders had was that capitalism could be made to conform to or at least be kept in check by a democratic system, a government by the people rather than a government by monarchs, aristocrats, and plutocrats. But they had plenty of experience with crony capitalism and oppressive corporatism so as to give them good reason to fear corporations, which is why they sought to severely constrain them in being legally obligated to serve the public good or else have their government-sanctioned corporate charters annulled and eliminated. They were careful to not conflate a for-profit business with a public-serving corporate charter, based on an important lesson we have forgotten.

If actual freedom for all citizens is our shared intention as a society, then we have a long way to go. That would require a complete overhaul of our present political and economic system. The tech bros and pseudo-libertarians complaining about Google probably don’t understand the implications of their own claims (e.g., James Damore quoting Noam Chomsky). That is what makes these times both dangerous and promising. Before any revolution or other societal transformation, most people don’t understand the implications of much of anything, until it is too late. There is a coming storm and no one knows what it portends.

For certain, the fracturing of our society goes far beyond the challenge of feminists in demanding fair treatment and a tech industry giant upholding those demands. Yet another men’s rights manifesto is not going to bring back old school patriarchal capitalism where flagrant misogyny is acceptable and where gender bias will rule over the social order. Like it or not, the ideal of equality is becoming normalized, just as a minority majority is forming and the Confederate statues are coming down. It’s a new world we are entering, even as the old forms of power still hold much sway. So what is the alt-right hoping to accomplish, other than concern trolling and general fuckery?

Paul Adkin on Decadence & Stagnation

“Decadence: when things are just too good and easy that no one bothers to push forward anymore, bringing about stagnation …

But there is also another kind of stagnation: one which comes about because there just isn’t enough time to go forward; when all time is taken up with something that is essentially futile when considered from the point of view of the bigger picture. Like making money. Even the seemingly dynamic world of business, if it is dedicated only to business and not to authentically meaningful human progress (things associated with knowledge and discovery), it is essentially stagnating. Any society that is a simulacra society, hell-bent on reproducing copies rather than on developing its creativity, is a decadent, stagnating society. We are stagnant not because of what we are doing, our anthill society is always busy, but because what we are driven by, in all this anthill activity, is not creative. When production is synonymous with reproduction, then we know we have fallen into the stagnant pool of decadence.

“Nietzsche talked about the residual nature of decadence[1]. That decadence is a cumulative thing. Certainly, it is nurtured both by dogma and nihilism. Only a sceptical meaningfulness can push forward in a creative way.

“Sceptical meaningfulness? How can such a thing be? Surely it is a contradiction in terms.

“To understand how this oxymoron combination can work, we need to see meaningfulness as a forward pushing phenomenon. Once it stops pushing forward, meaningfulness slips into dogma. Meaning is fuelled by truth, but it does not swim in truth as if truth were a lake. Truth, in order to be lasting, has to be a river.”

from Decadence & Stagnation by Paul Adkin

Is there a balance point in a society of extremes?

“That decadence is a cumulative thing. Certainly, it is nurtured both by dogma and nihilism. Only a sceptical meaningfulness can push forward in a creative way.”
~ Paul Adkin, Decadence & Stagnation

Many liberals in the United States have become or always were rather conservative in personality and/or ideology. This is an old complaint made by many further to the left, myself included.

Quite a few liberals maybe would have identified as conservatives at a different time or in a different society. The US political spectrum is shifted so far right that moderate conservatives appear as liberals and typically portray themselves as liberals, but even these moderate conservatives long to push society further right into neoliberal corporatism and neocon authoritarianism. That is how so much of the political left gets excluded from mainstream respectability and legitimacy for, in big biz media and plutocratic politics, even a moderate liberal gets portrayed as a radical.

But the other thing about our society is how reactionary it is, not merely right-wing in the way seen a century ago. This forces the entire political left into an oppositional position that gets defined by what it isn’t and so leftists are forced into a narrow corner of the dominant paradigm. This causes many left-wingers to be constantly on the defensive or to be overly preoccupied with the other side.

And it is so easy to become more like what is opposed. There is a surprising number of left-wingers who become right-wingers or otherwise fall into reactionary thinking, who become obsessed with fringe ideologies and movements that feed into authoritarianism or get lost in dark fantasies of dystopia and apocalypse. Many others on the political left simply lose hope, becoming cynical and apathetic.

In a society like this, it’s very difficult to remain solidly on the political left while maintaining balance. One hopes there is a sweet spot between what goes for liberalism and the far left, these two in themselves forming extremes on a spectrum.

The danger on the political right is far different. Conservative, right-wing, and reactionary have all become conflated into an ideological confusion that is held together by an authoritarian streak. This is a vague set of overlapping visons involving dominance and oppression, fear and anxiety, righteousness and resentment, nostalgia and pseudo-realism, theocracy and nationalism, crude libertarianism and fascist-like futurism.

This scattered political left and mixed-up political right is what goes for American politics.

How does an individual as a member of the public gain enough distance from the very social order that dominates the public mind and frames public debate, manages public perception and manipulates public behavior? And where does one find solid ground to make a stand?

* * *

Let me add some thoughts.

We Americans live in an authoritarian society. There is a long history of authoritarianism: genocide, slavery, land theft, population displacement, reservations, internment camps, re-enslavement through chain gangs, Jim Crow, sundown towns, race wars, redlining, eugenics, human medical testing, tough-on-crime laws, war on drugs, war on the poor, racial profiling, mass incarceration, police brutality, military-industrial complex, near continuous war-mongering, anti-democratic covert operations (foreign and domestic), intelligence-security state, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, etc.

In America, there were openly stated racist laws on the books for several centuries. Of course, we inherited this authoritarian tradition from Britain and Europe. They have their own long histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, pogroms, Holocaust, eugenics, ghettoization, exploitation, oppression, prejudice, violence, state terrorism, wars of aggression, world war, and on and on. We can’t rationalize this as being just human nature, as not all humans have acted this way. There are societies like the Piraha that wouldn’t even understand authoritarianism, much less be prone to it. But even among modern nation-states, not all of them have an extensive past of conquering and dominating other people.

Anyway, what other societies do is a moot issue, as far as dealing with one’s own society and one’s own culpability and complicity. So you say that you’re an anti-authoritarian. Well, good for you. What does that mean?

Our lives are ruled over by authoritarianism. But it’s not just something that comes from above for it is built into every aspect of our society and economy. On a daily basis, we act out scripts of authoritarianism and play by its rules. Our lives are dependent on the internalized benefits of externalized costs, the latter being mostly paid by the worst victims of authoritarianism, typically poor dark-skinned people in distant countries. The cheap gas and cheap products you consume were paid for by the blood and suffering of untold others who remain unseen and unheard.

Even to embrace anti-authoritarianism is to remain captured within the gravity of authoritarianism’s pull. The challenge is that maybe authoritarianism can’t ever be directly opposed because opposition is part of the language of authoritarianism. Opposition can always be co-opted, subverted, or redirected. There is either authoritarianism or there is not. For it to end, something entirely new would have to take its place.

This is where radical imagination comes in. We need entirely different thinking made possible through a paradigm shift, a revolution of the mind. We aren’t going to debate or analyze, petition or vote our way out of authoritarianism. That puts us in a tricky spot, for those of us dissatisfied with the options being forced upon us.

The Way of Radical Imagination

Someone questioned me about what is radical imagination. I wasn’t sure if they were being merely disingenuous in playing Devil’s advocate as an intellectual pose. An intellectual debate about the issue wouldn’t have brought either of us closer to understanding.

Anyone who has ever had their mind shook loose by seeing in a new way knows the power of radical imagination, whether or not they could explain it. Radical means that which goes to the root. As such, radical imagination is what has the capacity to shake us to our foundation or send us tumbling down unexplored caverns.

The intellectual who was interrogating me seems more attracted to the dark imagination than to the radical imagination, not that the two are mutually exclusive. He considers himself a radical and yet he apparently has a hard time imagining what exists outside of the iron prison. I get the sense that he has come to romanticize dystopia and apocalypse, which he rationalizes as his seeking to understand. The danger is that it can lead to a mirror image of the dogmatic utopian, exchanging one absolutist fantasy for another.

I’m not dismissing this motivation to bleakly stare down ugly truths. Some of my favorite writers leaned heavily in this direction. There is a dark bent to Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, etc; but their speculations didn’t end in mere gloomy cynicism. They were always looking beyond. Even a perverse and pessimistic visionary like William S. Burroughs sought to creatively portray alternative societies and other ways of being.

In my own sense of radical imagination, what drives my thinking is a profound epistemological dissatisfaction and ideological disloyalty, not just toward the status quo but also toward much of what opposes it. I’ve grown tired of predictable conflicts that endlessly repeat, like some cosmic tragicomedy. Each side reinforces the other, making victory for either side impossible. Radical imagination, however, seeks to escape this trap.

No amount of studying the hegemonic order will necessarily help one to see the hidden aporia and lacuna, the gaps in the structure. Negative capability is only useful to the degree that it opens the mind to negative space as creative void and a passageway through. The darkness can paralyze us in blind immobility or it can shift our perception into other senses.

The stakes are high. And the consequences all too personal. It goes far beyond any social order. This touches upon our humanity, the psychological reality of our being.

We stand in a hallway of doors, not knowing what is behind them. The entire social reality we live within is that hallway. We stand there in that tight place, the crowd shuffling back and forth. Groups form taking up different positions along the hallway and sometimes fight with the other groups. A few curious souls notice the doors themselves, but the doors remain unopened. That hallway is warm and safe. We are surrounded by the familiar and we have no fear of loneliness.

But what if some of the doors were cracked open, allowing one to barely glimpse something else? What then? Radical imagination is that inability to ignore the light coming through the crack, the temptation to press against the door, the curiosity about what is on the other side.

 

Delirium of Hyper-Individualism

Individualism is a strange thing. For anyone who has spent much time meditating, it’s obvious that there is no there there. It slips through one’s grasp like an ancient philosopher trying to study aether. The individual self is the modernization of the soul. Like the ghost in the machine and the god in the gaps, it is a theological belief defined by its absence in the world. It’s a social construct, a statement that is easily misunderstood.

In modern society, individualism has been raised up to an entire ideological worldview. It is all-encompassing, having infiltrated nearly every aspect of our social lives and become internalized as a cognitive frame. Traditional societies didn’t have this obsession with an idealized self as isolated and autonomous. Go back far enough and the records seem to show societies that didn’t even have a concept, much less an experience, of individuality.

Yet for all its dominance, the ideology of individualism is superficial. It doesn’t explain much of our social order and personal behavior. We don’t act as if we actually believe in it. It’s a convenient fiction that we so easily disregard when inconvenient, as if it isn’t all that important after all. In our most direct experience, individuality simply makes no sense. We are social creatures through and through. We don’t know how to be anything else, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

The ultimate value of this individualistic ideology is, ironically, as social control and social justification.

The wealthy, the powerful and privileged, even the mere middle class to a lesser degree — they get to be individuals when everything goes right. They get all the credit and all the benefits. All of society serves them because they deserve it. But when anything goes wrong, they hire lawyers who threaten anyone who challenges them or they settle out of court, they use their crony connections and regulatory capture to avoid consequences, they declare bankruptcy when one of their business ventures fail, and they endlessly scapegoat those far below them in the social hierarchy.

The profits and benefits are privatized while the costs are externalized. This is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor, with the middle class getting some combination of the two. This is why democratic rhetoric justifies plutocracy while authoritarianism keeps the masses in line. This stark reality is hidden behind the utopian ideal of individualism with its claims of meritocracy and a just world.

The fact of the matter is that no individual ever became successful. Let’s do an experiment. Take an individual baby, let’s say the little white male baby of wealthy parents with their superior genetics. Now leave that baby in the woods to raise himself into adulthood and bootstrap himself into a self-made man. I wonder how well that would work for his survival and future prospects. If privilege and power, if opportunity and resources, if social capital and collective inheritance, if public goods and the commons have no major role to play such that the individual is solely responsible to himself, we should expect great things from this self-raised wild baby.

But if it turns out that hyper-individualism is total bullshit, we should instead expect that baby to die of exposure and starvation or become the the prey of a predator feeding its own baby without any concerns for individuality. Even simply leaving a baby untouched and neglected in an orphanage will cause failure to thrive and death. Without social support, our very will to live disappears. Social science research has proven the immense social and environmental influences on humans. For a long time now there has been no real debate about this social reality of our shared humanity.

So why does this false belief and false idol persist? What horrible result do we fear if we were ever to be honest with ourselves? I get that the ruling elite are ruled by their own egotistic pride and narcissism. I get that the comfortable classes are attached to their comforting lies. But why do the rest of us go along with their self-serving delusions? It is the strangest thing in the world for a society to deny it is a society.

Social Order and Strict Parenting

“I remembered when I was a child being in a bank and other places of business with my mother and experiencing the same phenomenon of watching the white kids play while my mother insisted that I stay near her. Watching the repeat of my experience, I wondered how the little black girl who stood in the bank line felt while she watched the white boy run and play in the bank. I suspect she felt a number of emotions: fear of the consequences she might receive from disobeying her mother; shame from the curious looks of her white peers; anger at not being able to move about freely.

“Without explicitly saying so, the black mother sent a message to her children and the message was, ‘little white children can safely run and play but you cannot because it is not okay or safe for you.’ These experiences teach black children that somehow this world does not belong to black boys and girls, but it does belong to the little white children.”

This is from a book I somewhat randomly was perusing. It is Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Joy DeGruy (Kindle Locations 580-599). I get the point the author is making, but I’d widen the significance to the social order. This isn’t just a race thing. Many poor white children have had similar experiences, even without the harsh legacy of slavery. My mother grew up working class and her parents grew up poor. Her family was very strict in their parenting and it was assumed children would not stray.

By the time my brothers and I were born, the family was joining the ranks of the middle class. After living in a factory town on the edge of Appalachia, we moved to a wealthy suburb of Chicago. My mother has told me how the children of the wealthier families were given great freedom and made the center of attention. That isn’t how my mother was raised and that wasn’t how she raised us. I can’t say that my brothers and I clung to my mother’s dress, but we knew we were to be obedient and not cause trouble. As children, we most definitely didn’t run around in places of business. We stood still or sat quietly. We weren’t raised as if we had the privilege to do whatever we wanted, not matter how much it bothered others. Instead, we were raised as lower class kids who should know their place in the world.

Consider a rich kid. When Donald Trump was a little boy, did anyone tell him what he couldn’t do? Probably not. If his mother was in a bank line, he could have ran screaming around the place, punched the bank guard in the balls, and no one would have done anything about it. That isn’t because Trump was a white boy but because he had the privilege of being born into immense wealth. Everyone in that bank would have known who the Trump family was or at the very least they would have known these were rich people who were used to doing whatever they pleased.

That explains the kind of person Trump grew up to be. Trump bragged that he could shoot someone in public and he would lose no support. That mindset comes from someone who has spent his life getting away with everything. It doesn’t even take immense wealth to create this kind of a spoiled man-child. I live in a town with plenty of well off professionals in the medical field, living the good life even if not filthy rich like the Trump family. Yes, most of them are white but more importantly they have money as part of an upper class identity. As a parking ramp cashier, I’ve experienced many people get upset. This has included a wide variety of people, including minorities. Yet of those who have exploded into full tantrums, I must admit that most of them are wealthier whites.

In dealing with such tantrums of privilege, does it help that I’m a white guy? Not that I can tell. Their sense of privilege is in no way checked because of our shared whiteness, as they are upper class and I am not. The only thing I have going for me is that I have the authority of the government behind me, as a public employee. I can threaten to call the police and make good on that threat, for the police will come. I’ve done that before on a number of occasions.

I remember dealing with an upper middle class white lady who simply wouldn’t cooperate in any kind of way, while a long line of cars piled up behind her. You’d think that she’d be better behaved because she had young kids in the car, but maybe that was all the more reason she felt a need to demonstrate her sense of entitlement in getting her way. Still, I wouldn’t budge and I eventually gave her an ultimatum, with my calling the police being one of the options. She went batshit crazy and it amused me to no end, although I remained outwardly professional. I’m sure she contacted my boss later and maybe even demanded I be fired. Fortunately, I’m a union member which offers some small amount of protection. If not for that protection, my whiteness wouldn’t have saved me.

Many upper class people don’t think the same rules apply to them that apply to everyone else. I’m sure that is even true of many upper class blacks. Does anyone honestly think that Obama or Oprah would accept being treated in the way poor whites are treated in this country? I doubt it. Just imagine if a wealthy black was having a tantrum in a parking ramp and a poor schmuck like me threatened to call the police on them. Do you think that they would act with submissive deference just because of some kind of supposed white privilege? I also doubt it. To return to the original example, I simply can’t imagine that the Obama daughters when they were children huddled in anxious obedience around their mother when they were at the bank.

None of this lessens the harsh reality of racism. Even so, there is an even longer history and entrenched legacy of class hierarchy. It’s easy forget that poor whites were the original oppressed race in European society, when race first developed as a scientific concept during late feudalism. Racialized slavery replaced feudalism, but it didn’t eliminate the ancient prejudices of a class-based society. No matter how racially biased is our society, that doesn’t change the fact that whites represent the majority of the poor, the majority of those abused by police, and the majority of those in prison.

As with blacks, whites aren’t a monolithic demographic with a singular experience. Most Americans, if given the choice, would take being a rich black over being a poor white. To put it more simply, most Americans would rather be rich than poor, whatever other details were involved. A large reason racial order has so much power is because it is overlaid upon and conflated with the class-based hierarchy, as blacks are disproportionately of the lower classes. That is an important detail, but the point is what makes being black so tough is that for so many it has meant being condemned to poverty for generations. Nonetheless, this is true for many whites as well, as a large part of the white population in the US has continuously been poor for longer than anyone can remember, going back to a time prior to slavery.

Strict parenting among the poor, black and white, is a central part of the maintaining the social order. There is a good reason why poor parents willingly participate in this system of control. After all, the consequences are very much real, if their children don’t learn to behave accordingly. There are many dangers in poverty, not just from the violence of poor communities but more importantly from the power of authority figures. This is why poor people, black and white, less often have tantrums in dealing with parking ramp cashiers for they have no desire to deal with the police nor any expectation that police would treat them leniently.

Predicting an Age of Paine

Thomas Paine was the most radical of the main founders. He was close friends with many of the other founders and they respected him. Some of them even saw him key to the success of the Revolution. Even John Adams, in criticizing Paine, acknowledged his importance — referring to the “age of Paine”. Most Americans don’t realize how radical was the American Revolution. Originally, the word ‘revolution’ just meant a cycle, as it was referred to astrology and astronomy. Civilizations rose and collapsed, in cycles. But the American Revolution didn’t just demonstrate a cycle for it created something entirely new. That is how the word ‘revolution’ gained a new meaning.

I’ve had a prediction. I don’t make too many predictions. But this one I’ve been saying maybe since the Bush administration. Here it is. If there is ever a major Hollywood movie or cable series about Thomas Paine (like the HBO series about John Adams), it will be a sign that the US is on the verge of revolutionary-scale changes.

We haven’t yet seen such a major production about Thomas Paine. But I did notice a smaller production. It is a one-actor play written and acted by Ian Ruskin, To Begin the World Over Again. It was filmed last year, recently played on PBS, and is available online. Sadly, few people probably have heard about it, much less watched it. I can only hope that it might inspire someone else to do something further with the story of Paine’s life. He wasn’t just the most radical of the founders, as he also led the most interesting life. If the life of the excruciatingly boring John Adams can be made into a successful HBO series, then an HBO series about the adventurous, rabble-rousing and wide-traveling Paine would be pure entertainment.

I watched Ruskin’s portrayal with my father. He enjoyed it, I suppose. He had a hard time understanding my prediction, why more Americans learning about the radicalism at the heart of American history would in any way inspire change or indicate change already under way, something that seems obvious to me. From a conservative perspective, Paine came off as a bit socialist to my father, which misses the context of that era of feudalism ending while colonial corporatism and plantation slavery took its place. And he thought Paine had a bit of a bad attitude, constantly complaining.

But I noted that Paine didn’t make it a practice of personally attacking others, particularly not others who didn’t first personally attack him or betray him, as he perceived having been done by George Washington in abandoning Paine for political convenience. Besides, how does one have a positive attitude about a world full of suffering? And how does one relate well to those benefiting from that suffering? It’s specifically Paine’s bad attitude that I respect to such a degree, as it was a moral righteousness fueled by compassion. I will never judge anyone for hating oppressive power with all their heart and soul. If that is a bad attitude, then I too have a bad attitude.

Washington was a man of respectability who dedicated his entire life to playing the role of enlightened aristocrat, even when that meant suppressing his own beliefs such as deism and sacrificing personal relationships such as with Paine. That is something Paine couldn’t understand for all the suffering, oppression, and injustice in the world was extremely personal for those who were its victims and for those who put their lives on the line. Paine identified with the downtrodden, as he didn’t have the privilege of an aristocrat to stand above it all. Paine knew poverty and struggle on a concrete level of life experience, in a way that was simply incomprehensible to someone like Washington who existed in a world of wealth, luxury, pleasure, and slaves serving his every need and want.

Obviously, ‘revolution’ meant very different things to these men. The Federalists like Washington simply wanted to reestablish centralized power as quickly as possible in order to put the people back in their place and once again enforce a social order ruled by an elite. There was no question that the same Americans who fought British oppression should be oppressed by Washington when they kept on demanding their rights, as happened in the violent attack on Shay’s Rebellion. The revolution was over when the elite said it was over. Washington had no intention in allowing a democracy to form. Neither did John Adams, who as president passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a pure expression of anti-democratic authoritarianism that demonstrated the true intentions of the (pseudo-)Federalists and proved right the Anti-Federalists (i.e., true Federalists advocating the democratic republicanism of decentralized Confederation). Those like Paine understood all too well the game being played and they had no interest in trading one oppressive rule for another.

Thomas Paine represents the radicalism that many Americans have forgotten, not unlike how many British had forgotten the radicalism of the English Civil War. Anything that would cause the scales of historical amnesia to fall away from the public’s eyes would be a radical act. Radicalism always begins in small ways, often by a few people standing up and speaking out. From there, no one knows what will follow. In a recent post, S.C. Hickman described Paine’s left-wing politics and asked, “Where is the Thomas Paine for our time?” Well, centuries ago, those like Paine asked similar questions. The simple truth is that no one is born a radical. There are potential revolutionaries among us at this very moment. The question is how do the rabble-rousers get noticed and get heard in a political and media system more tightly controlled than the pre-revolutionary British Empire. Radicalism is already in the air. It’s just a matter of what will follow.

 

To Be Perceived As Low Class Or Not

In my mother’s family, hers was the first generation to attend college. She went to and graduated from Purdue University, a state college. Before that, her own mother and my grandmother was the first in her family to get a high school diploma.

I never thought of my grandmother as an overly smart person, not that I ever knew her IQ. She never seemed like an intellectually stimulating person, but apparently she was a good student. She always liked to read. I doubt she read too many classics that weren’t Reader’s Digest abridge books. Still, she read a lot and had a large vocabulary. She regularly did crossword puzzles and never used a dictionary to look up a word. For a woman of her age, graduating high school was a major accomplishment. Most people she grew up probably didn’t graduate, including the man she married. She became a secretary and such office work required a fair amount of intellectual ability. Specifically, my grandmother was a secretary at Purdue, when my mother was in high school and later attending Purdue. My grandfather was jealous of his wife spending so much time with professors, as he had an inferiority complex and was highly class conscious, a typical working class guy of the time.

A major reason my grandmother didn’t come across as intellectual was simply the way she spoke. She had a Hoosier accent, such as pronouncing fish as feesh, cushion as cooshion, and sink as zink (the latter known as the Hoosier apex); along with adding an extra ‘s’ to words as in “How’s come?”. It was the accent of poor whites, indicating that your family likely came from the South at some point. Like in the Ozarks, it seems to be a variant of the Appalachian accent where many Hoosiers came from. But there is maybe an old German influence mixed in because so much of my Upper Southern ancestry were early German immigrants. Even in Indiana, having a Hoosier accent marks you as ‘Southern’ and, for many Northerners, it sounds Southern. When my family moved to a Chicago suburb, my mother was often asked if she was Southern. At Purdue, her speech pathology professors would correct her because of  her slurring the ‘s’ sound (partly because of an overbite) and because of her saying bofe instead of both (common among Hoosiers, Southerners, and some black populations).

The point is that speaking with such an accent is not correct, according to Standard English. It is stereotyped as unsophisticated or even unintelligent. My grandmother sounded like this to a strong degree. But she knew proper English. Part of her job as a secretary at Purdue was to rewrite and revise official documents, including research papers and dissertations. It was my not-so-smart-sounding grandmother whose job it was to correct and polish the writing of professors and others who sought her out. She helped make them sound smart, on paper. And she helped two of her children graduate college. Apparently, she ended up writing many of my uncle’s papers for his classes.

One of my grandmother’s bosses was Earl L. Butz. He was the head of the agricultural economics department. After a stint under president Eisenhower, Butz returned to Purdue and became the dean of the college of agriculture. He later returned to politics under the Nixon and Ford administrations. After destroying his career because of Hoosier-style racism, he headed back to Purdue again — it might be noted that Butz’s hometown, Albion (1, 2), and the location of Purdue, West Lafayette (3), had a history of racism; and the FBI in recent years has listed Purdue as having one of the highest hate crime rates among colleges and universities in the US (4). This downturn didn’t stop his legacy of government-subsidized big ag that destroyed the small family farm and created a glut of corn products found in almost everything Americans eat.

Butz died in West Lafayette where my mother was born and grew up. Like my maternal family, Butz came from poor Hoosier stock. If my grandmother had been a man, instead of a woman, or if she had been born later, she surely could have gotten a college education. Butz apparently was ambitious, but I don’t know that his career indicates he was smarter than average. Maybe my grandmother was far smarter than she appeared, even if the world she lived in didn’t give her much opportunity. She would have spent years reading highly academic writing and likely at one point could have had an intelligent discussion about agricultural economics. Being a poor Hoosier woman, she didn’t have many choices other than marrying young. She did what was expected of her. Most people do what is expected of them. It’s just that some people have greater expectations placed upon them, along with greater privileges and resources made available to them. A poor woman, like minorities, in the past had very little chance to go from working poverty to a major political figure determining national agricultural policy.

It’s so easy to judge people by how they appear or how they sound. My mother, unlike my grandmother, came of age at a time when women were finally given a better chance in life. Still, my mother was directed into what was considered women’s work, a low-paying career as a speech pathologist in public schools. Yet this did give my mother the opportunity to escape her working class upbringing and to eventually lose her Hoosier accent. My mother who is no smarter than my grandmother can now speak in a Standard American non-accent accent that sounds intelligent according to mainstream society, but that wouldn’t have been the case back when my mother had an overbite because of lack of dental work and spoke like a poor white. What changed was society, the conditions under which human potential is either developed or suppressed.

The Head of Capital and the Body Politic

What is capitalism? The term is etymologically related to cattle (and chattel). The basic notion of capitalism is fungible wealth. That is property that can be moved around, like cattle (or else what can be moved by cattle, such as being put in a wagon pulled by cattle or some other beast of burden). It relates to a head of cattle. The term capitalism is derived from capital or rather capitale, a late Latin word based on caput, meaning of the head.

A capital is the head of a society and the capitol is where the head of power resides — Capital vs. Capitol:

Both capital and capitol are derived from the Latin root caput, meaning “head.” Capital evolved from the words capitālis, “of the head,” and capitāle, “wealth.” Capitol comes from Capitōlium, the name of a temple (dedicated to Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Zeus) that once sat on the smallest of Rome’s seven hills, Capitoline Hill.

But there is also the body politic or the body of Christ. The head has become the symbolic representation of the body, but the head is just one part of the body. It is the body that is the organic whole, with the people as demos: national citizenry, community members, church congregants, etc. This is the corporeal existence of the social order. And it is the traditional basis of a corporation, specifically as representing some kind of personhood. At one time, objects and organizations were treated as having actual, not just legal, personhood. The body of Christ was perceived as a living reality, not just a convenient way for the powerful to wield their power.

If you go back far enough, the head of a society was apparently quite literal. In the ancient world, when a leader died, they often lopped off his head because that was the source of the voice of authority. Supposedly, bicameral societies involved an experience where people continued hearing voices of dead kings and godmen, presumably why they kept the skull around. The earliest known permanent structures were temples of death cults with headless imagery, and these temples were built prior to humans settling down — prior to agriculture, pottery, and domesticating cattle. They built houses to their gods before they built houses for themselves. The capital of these societies were temples and that was the convenient location for storing their holy skulls.

Gobekli Tepe, like many other similar sites, was located on a hill. That has long been symbolic of power. After bicameral societies developed, they built artificial hills such as mounding up dirt or stacking large stones as pyramids. The head is at the top of the body and it is from that vantage point that all of the world can be seen. It was natural to associate the panoramic view of a hill or mountain with power and authority, to associate vision with visionary experience. Therefore, it made sense to locate a god’s house in such a high place. Temples and churches, until recent history, were typically the tallest structures in any town or city. In this age of capitalism, it is unsurprising that buildings of business now serve that symbolic role of what is held highest in esteem and so housed in the tallest buildings. The CEO is the head of our society, quite literally at the moment with a businessman as president, a new plutocratic aristocracy forming.

What we’ve forgotten is that the head is part of a body. As a mere part of the body, the head should serve the body in that the part should serve the whole and not the other way around. In tribal societies, there is the big man who represents the tribe. He is the head of the community, but his ability to command submission was severely limited. In Native American tribes, it was common for clans to make their own decisions, whether to follow the tribal leader or not. The real power was in the community, in the social order. The Amazonian Piraha go so far as to have no permanent leadership roles at all.

Even in the more complex Western social order before capitalism took hold, feudal lords were constricted by social responsibilities and obligations to their communities. These feudal lords originated from a tradition where kings were beholden to and originally chosen by the community. Their power wasn’t separate from the community, although feudalism slowly developed in that direction which made possible for the takeover of privatized capitalism. But even in early capitalism, plantation owners were still acting as the big men of their communities where they took care of trade with the external word and took care of problems within the local population. Store owners began taking over this role. Joe Bageant described the West Virginian town he grew up in during the early 20th century and it was still operating according to a barter economy where all outside trade flowed through the store owner with no monetary system being required within the community.

A major difference of the early societies is how important was social order. It was taken as reality, in the way we today take individuality as reality. For most of human existence, most humans would never have been able to comprehend our modern notion of individuality. Primary value was not placed on the individual, not even the individual leader who represented something greater than himself. Even the Roosevelts as presidents still carried a notion of noblesse oblige which signified that there was something more important than their own individuality, one of the most ancient ideas that has almost entirely disappeared.

Interestingly, pre-modern people as with tribal people in some ways had greater freedom in their identity for the very reason their identity was social, rather than individual. The Piraha can change their name and become a new person, as far as other Piraha are concerned. In Feudalism, carnival allowed people to regularly lose their sense of identity and become something else. We modern people are so attached to our individuality that losing our self seems like madness. Our modern social order is built on the rhetoric of individuality and this puts immense weight on individuals, possibly explaining the high rates of mental illness and suicide in modern society. Madness and death is our only escape from the ego.

Capitalism, as globalized neoliberalism, is a high pressure system. Instead of the head of society serving the body politic, we worship the detached head as if a new death cult has taken hold. A corporation is the zombie body without a soul, the preeminent form of our corporatist society with the transnational CEO as the god king standing upon his temple hill. We worship individuality to such a degree that only a few at the top are allowed to be genuine individuals, a cult of death by way of a cult of personality, power detached from the demos like a plant uprooted. The ruling elite are the privileged individuals who tell the dirty masses what to do, the voices we hear on the all-pervasive media. The poor are just bodies to be sacrificed on the altar of desperation, homelessness, prison, and war. As Margaret Thatcher stated in no uncertain terms, there is no society. That is to say there is no body politic, just a mass of bodies as food for the gods.

The head of power, like a cancerous tumor, has grown larger than the body politic. The fungible wealth of capitalism can be moved, but where is it to move. The head can’t move without the body. Wealth can’t be separated from what the world that creates it. Do the plutocrats plan on herding their wealth across the starry heavens in the hope of escaping gravity of the corporeal earth? If we take the plutocrats hallowed skull and trap the plutocrat’s divine being in a temple hill, what would the voice tell us?

At the end of the Bronze Age, a major factor of the mass collapse of civilizations was the horse-drawn chariot. Horses were an early domesticated animal, a major form of fungible wealth. Horses and chariots made new forms of warfare possible, involving large standing armies that could be quickly moved across vast distances with supply chains to keep them fed and armed. Along with other factors, this was a game-changer and the once stable bicameral societies fell one after another. Bicameral societies were non-capitalistic, but the following Axial Age would set the foundations for what would eventually become modern capitalism. Bicameral civilization remained stable for millennia. The civilization formed from the Axial Age has maintained itself and we are the inheritors of its traditions. The danger is that, like bicameral societies, we might become the victims of our own success in growing so large. Our situation is precarious. A single unforeseen factor could send it all tumbling down. Maybe globalized neoliberalism is our horse-drawn chariot.

A head detached from its body is the symbol of modernity, grotesquely demonstrated by the guillotine of the French Revolution, the horror of horrors to the defenders of the ancien regime. Abstract ideas have taken on a life of their own with ideological systems far outreaching what supports them. It’s like a tree clinging to a crumbling cliffside, as if it were hoping to spread its limbs like wings to take flight out across the chasm below. In forgetting the ground of our being, what has been lost and what even greater loss threatens? Before revolution had begun but with revolution in the air, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in 1750 (Discourse on the Arts and Sciences), “What will become of virtue if riches are to be acquired at any cost? The politicians of the ancient world spoke constantly of morals and virtue; ours speak of nothing but commerce and money.” That question is now being answered.

* * *

There was one detail I forgot to work into this piece. Feudalism was on my mind. The end of feudalism was the final nail in the coffin for the societal transformation that began during the Axial Age. What finally forced the feudal order, upon which the ancien regime was dependent, to fall apart or rather be dismantled was sheep, another domesticated animal.

Feudalism was dependent on labor-intensive agriculture that required a large local peasant population. With sheep herding, fewer people were required. The feudal commons were privatized, the peasants kicked off the land, entire villages were razed to the ground, and probably millions of people over several centuries were made destitute, homeless, and starving.

Vast wealth was transferred into private hands. This created a new plutocratic class within a new capitalist order. There is an interesting relationship between domesticated animals and social change. Another example of this is how free-ranging pigs in the American colonies wreaked havoc on Native American villages and gardens, making impossible their way of life.

This process of destruction is how civilization as we know it was built. Some call this creative destruction. For others, it has been plain destruction.