Hillsdale’s Imprimis: Neocon Propaganda

“Chief among the common misconceptions about the way official propaganda works is the notion that its goal is to deceive the public into believing things that are not “the truth” (that Trump is a Russian agent, for example, or that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, or that the terrorists hate us for our freedom, et cetera). However, while official propagandists are definitely pleased if anyone actually believes whatever lies they are selling, deception is not their primary aim.

“The primary aim of official propaganda is to generate an “official narrative” that can be mindlessly repeated by the ruling classes and those who support and identify with them. This official narrative does not have to make sense, or to stand up to any sort of serious scrutiny. Its factualness is not the point. The point is to draw a Maginot line, a defensive ideological boundary, between “the truth” as defined by the ruling classes and any other “truth” that contradicts their narrative.”
C.J. Hopkins

I came across an article from Hillsdale, a right-wing college that has come under the influence of neoconservatives. It is How Intelligence Works, in which Herbert Meyer asks and answers:

“So why has our intelligence service suffered so many failures during the last decade or so, losing the trust of so many? Because it’s been run by career bureaucrats and administrators who rose to the top by managing intelligence rather than actually doing it.”

Neocons aren’t actually against bureaucracy, obviously. They just want the right kind of bureaucracy. If anything, they want to turn everything into bureaucracy, an entire society bureaucratized, both public and private sectors.

When I read something like this, it comes off sounding like propaganda to me. It’s what the ruling elite put out to influence opinion. But it’s too simpleminded to be the actual opinion of the ruling elite. The Imprimis publication is respected on the political right. It is one of the sources that helps set the agenda across the Republican Party, right-wing think tanks, and right-wing media.

Read as propaganda, it is fascinating, partly because it is propaganda directed at the well educated upper classes. It makes you wonder what is the goal of their agenda. It seems to be neoconservatism of an extremely aggressive variety. Trump’s placing military figures in political positions is the kind of thing that is probably the hoped for end result. It is the militarization of all aspects of society, from federal agencies to the local police, since the military like the CIA is the bureaucratic to the core, one of the least democratically accountable parts of government.

This piece isn’t just about the CIA. It is creating a vision for how the entire deep state should operate. The purpose is to eliminate the bureaucracy which really means eliminating what little democratic proceduralism might exist. In its place, powerful leaders are to be made decision-makers, a concentrating of authority and control. It is a top-down model of command and control.

Interestingly, there is a critical piece from the Lew Rockwell site, A Warmonger’s Guide to Militarism and Imperialism. It is also right-wing, although of a more radical fringe variety. It is written by Thomas DiLorenzo, a bit of a kook, but he offers maybe useful perspective. What stood out to me is that apparently Imprimis was started by Lew Rockwell, an anti-statist, which makes it interesting that it has become a mouthpiece of statism.

“The Claremont Institute neocons claim to be “the” experts on the U.S. Constitution, with their educational arm now being Hillsdale College, run by former Claremont Institute president Larry Arnn. They hold an annual “Constitution Day” event in Washington, D.C., with this year’s featured speaker being Senator Cotton, who spoke on the subject of foreign policy and the Constitution. The senator’s speech is published in the recent issue of Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College (a publication started by Lew Rockwell when he worked at Hillsdale, long before the neocon takeover). The speech is a textbook example of how the “Straussians,” who claim to have special knowledge of “the real meaning” of America’s historical documents (which is often dramatically different from the literal and historical meaning) distort history in the service of statism and militarism.”

Game Theory and the Truce of the Ruling Elites

If you’re in the mood for a dark view of the world and of humanity, then boy oh boy I have the article for you: The Clash of the Civilizations. Some are content with mere pessimism. That isn’t enough for the author, W. Ben Hunt. He aims for the apogee of cynicism.

“Lots of quotes this week, particularly from my two favorite war criminals – Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger.”

Such casual disregard about war crime and those who commit it. I’m impressed right from the start.

I’m not a Christian, but I find myself automatically putting something like this into a Christian context. I don’t just mean the mention of war crime. I’m talking about the entire article that follows it. The war crime comment just sets the tone. There are a number of reasons for my thinking of Christianity, both in terms of morality and history.

First and foremost, what brought Christianity to mind was the simple fact that the person who recommended the article to me is a practicing Christian. That person isn’t just any Christian. He is my father who not only raised me in Christianity but raised me to take Christian values seriously. I don’t know how my father would square Hunt’s views with Jesus’ teachings, assuming he would even want to try. I do know my father deeply struggles with his faith and how it applies to the larger world, but in the end my father is in the impossible position of any other conservative Christian. Simply put, Jesus wasn’t a conservative, not to say Jesus was a liberal, but he certainly wasn’t conservative in any sense of the word (politically, socially, or attitudinally).

My own values have a Christian tinge. I don’t care one way or another if Jesus ever actually existed, but the radicalism of the message itself has stood out to me for a long time (far more radical than can be allowed for by either mainstream conservatism or liberalism). Jesus was always on the side of the powerless, not the powerful (on side of the victims of such things as war crimes, not the purveyors of it). I was thinking about this lately in context of the Ferguson protests and, more importantly, in the context of the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

You can agree or disagree with someone like MLK, but what is clear is that his view is in line with a Christian worldview. He was a Christian preacher, after all. Hunt’s philosophy, on the other hand, is just as clearly not in line with a Christian worldview. Hunt is advocating for something that is un-Christian or even anti-Christian.

I wanted to note that upfront. Hunt, as with those he quotes, seeks to defend Western society. But his interest seems to be more a desire to protect a particular power structure and social order, rather than any substance of the culture itself. Huntington and Kissinger were both advocates of American imperialism where mass violence was used to enforce the will of the American ruling elite (e.g., the Vietnam War). He is invoking American imperialism by relying on two major figures who have been the focus of serious accusations of war crimes, as he acknowledges.

Hunt shows no concern for Christian values, except maybe as they offer a contrast with non-Christian societies. He is not making a moral argument, at least not in the straightforward sense, or rather the morality he is proposing not of an inspiring variety. It’s more in line with might makes right, rather than love thy neighbor.

“Everyone has heard of Kissinger, fewer of Huntington, who may have been even more of a hawk and law-and-order fetishist than Kissinger”

I might point out that the Pharisees and Pontius Pilate were also law-and-order fetishists. They were likely hawks as well.

“But Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” argument is not just provocative, curmudgeonly, and hawkish. It is, I think, demonstrably more useful in making sense of the world than any competing theory, which is the highest praise any academic work can receive. Supplement Huntington’s work with a healthy dose of Kissinger’s writings on “the character of nations” and you’ve got a cogent and predictive intellectual framework for understanding the Big Picture of international politics.”

Basically, the author is arguing that the best way to understand the world is by listening to those who advocate for cynical realpolitik. Huntington and Kissinger are favorite thinkers of those in power. They speak for power and justify power. They are giving voice to those who rule the world. So, of course, they best explain the actual way the world is being presently ruled or at least how that rule is being rationalized in the minds of the ruling elite, whether or not the rationalization explains much of anything.

Hunt is going even further, though. He thinks that Huntington and Kissinger were speaking for reality itself. It is a cynicism so deep that it blinds him to genuine alternatives. It isn’t just the way the world is because how those in power have made it to be. He is going far beyond that. The claim is that it could be no other way.

“Huntington and Kissinger were both realists (in the Thucydides and Bismarck sense of the word), as opposed to liberals (in the John Stuart Mill and Woodrow Wilson sense of the word),”

By admiring them as realists, he is advocating realism. There is capitalist realism that has been dissected by others (e.g., Mark Fisher). The criticisms of capitalist realism parallel the criticisms of communist realism. But the view here isn’t using the Cold War rhetoric of either the freedom of markets or the freedom of workers. And it denies liberalism as being valid, liberalism both as progressivism and neo-liberalism. This is pure neo-conservatism. Ruthless power as its own justification.

That is the ‘reality’ Hunt lives in, and so it is the ‘reality’ he would like to enforce on all of the world. He can’t imagine the world any other way.

At the beginning of the article, the author included this quote:

“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”
– Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)

Many people would interpret a statement like that as an admonishment of Western imperialism. But one gets the sense that Huntington and Hunt takes that as a point of pride. We are the winners! Bow down and submit!

The above was the second quote. It immediately followed this:

“In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.”
– Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1996)

Combining those two quotes, what is implied is twofold.

First, the West is intrinsically unique and fundamentally different from all the rest of humanity. We are the pinnacle of civilization, at least for now (and, for many hereditarian reactionaries, we are also the pinnacle of human evolution).

Second, what keeps us at the pinnacle is nothing more than being better at maintaining power through “organized violence” (i.e., brute oppression and military imperialism). This is to say we are better at keeping everyone else down and in their place where they can’t challenge us. And by saying ‘we’ and ‘us’, I mean the Western ruling elite, specifically those who aspire toward an authoritarian oligarchy or paternalistic plutocracy. Actually, their aspiration is greater still, as is made clear in this article. They want to be part of a transnational ruling elite, not just in the US or even the West but across the entire globe.

To continue with what the author was saying about Huntington and Kissinger, he stated this,

“basically just means that they saw human political history as essentially cyclical and the human experience as essentially constant.”

Right there, that is what I zeroed in on. I just happened to be reading a book that I’ve had for some years, but only now got around to looking at in detail. It is Circle and Lines by John Demos. The subtitle is “The Shape of Life in Early America”.

There was a cultural transition and psychological transformation that had been going on. Demos sees it as a centuries-long shift, but I would identify it’s having begun much earlier with the breakdown of the bicameral mind and the ensuing developments during the Axial Age, during which linear theologies came to dominance (temporal existence as a one-way trip, a cosmic narrative with a conclusive and final ending; the prime example in the West being Christianity which is from the late Axial Age, having been built on preceding expressions and influenced by concurrent expressions of the Axial Age such as Alexandrian Judaism, neo-Pythagoreanismm, Greco-Roman Mystery Schools, Egyptian Isis worship, etc).

One might point out as an example, specifically a Christian example, MLK’s preaching that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This arc extends from the past into the future, as progress toward something. It is not a pagan cycle of return that repeats endlessly, ever coming back to what is, has been, and always will be.

The linear style of thinking had particularly taken hold in the West because of the Hellenistic tradition that was spread through the joint effort of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. It was reintroduced during the Renaissance, became a real force during the Enlightenment, and then violently disrupted the social order during the early modern revolutionary era. It was a slow process over millennia for it to take hold. It still hasn’t fully taken hold, as is shown by the ease of Hunt’s dismissing it out of hand. Hunt, instead, harkens back to an ancient cyclical view of humanity and the world, not only still fightng againt the Enlightenment Age thinkers but also the Axial Age prophets.

“Life is fundamentally “nasty, brutish, and short”, to quote Thomas Hobbes, and people band together in tribes, societies, and nation-states to do something about that.”

It is unsurprising that the author seeks support from a pre-Enlightenment thinker. But I doubt Hunt would accept Hobbes’ belief that all humans are equal, for the very reason that death makes life “nasty, brutish, and short” (any person could kill any other person). I’m also not sure how the cyclical view could be fit into Hobbes’ ideas about society (in Hobbes and Human Nature, Arnold Green argues that, “In short, stasis was the goal. Cyclical theories do not deny development, as Hobbes essentially did.”), since Hunt doesn’t seem to be denying development in his own cyclical theorizing, just denying progress as a fundamental force of transformation and improvement. Anyway, Hobbes is a weak foundation upon which to base a post-Enlightenment modern view of global society and cross-cultural social order (see Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz).

“As such, we are constantly competing with other tribes, societies, and nation-states, and the patterns of that competition – patterns with names like “balance of power” and “empire” and “hegemony” – never really change across the centuries or from one continent to another. Sure, technology might provide some “progress” in creature comforts and quality of life (thank goodness for modern dentistry!), but basically technology just provides mechanisms for these political patterns to occur faster and with more devastating effect than before.”

In a nutshell: Competition between powers is the only constant. Nothing fundamentally ever changes or can change. There is no such thing as improvement. That is a stark worldview.

Besides moral criticisms, a main problem I have with it is that it doesn’t fit the evidence. Humanity has vastly changed over the centuries and millennia. The neighboring towns around where I live are not separate competing tribes or city-states that are in constant battle with my town. I can travel in most places in the world with relative ease and relatively little fear. For an increasing number of people, life no longer is “nasty, brutish, and short”.

These changes aren’t superficial, but have fundamentally altered how human nature has been expressed (possibly even at a genetic level to some degree, as research shows evolutionary changes can happen over shorter periods of time). John Demos speaks of this psychological level of change at the heart of social change, but even more profoundly it has been analyzed by the likes of Julian Jaynes and the Jaynesian theorists.

“The central point of “Clash of Civilizations” is that it’s far more useful to think of the human world as divided into 9 great cultures (Huntington calls them civilizations, but I’ll use the words interchangeably here) rather than as 200 or so sovereign nations.”

I agree that cultures are important, but this view lacks much depth. If you look very far into this topic, you quickly realize that dividing populations up into clearly delineated and broadly sweeping ethno-cultural categories is about as meaningful as doing the same with races, which is to say not particularly meaningful. These cultures are fluid and constantly shifting. They have porous borders and syncretistic pasts.

Democracy has become associated with the West, but it originated at a time when Greeks had more culturally in common with other Mediterranean people (including Near Easterners and North Africans) than with what we today think of as Westerners. Many of the major building blocks of Western Civilization originated from elsewhere. There was nothing inherently democratic, imperialistic, and colonial about Western cultures prior to these ideological systems having been introduced into the West. The West was utterly and quickly transformed in its process of becoming what it is today. Hunt is being plain ignorant in ignoring this fact.

“Marxism and liberalism are inherently optimistic visions of human society. Things are always getting better … or they will be better just as soon as people wake up and recognize their enlightened self-interest … as ideas of proletariat empowerment (Marxism) or individual rights as instantiated by free markets and free elections (liberalism) inexorably spread throughout the world.”

My sense is that Hunt is missing something centrally important. I’ve wondered if optimism isn’t actually the defining feature of liberalism and leftism. Maybe optimism at best is just a side result of a particular worldview. Liberals and leftists don’t necessarily see everything as progress. Rather, they primarily see it as irreversible, both the good and the bad. Not just irreversible, but also unstoppable. Hunt wants the world to stop so that he can get off. That just isn’t possible.

“For realists like Huntington and Kissinger, on the other hand, this is nonsense. Free markets and free elections are good things (as is proletariat empowerment, frankly), but these central concepts of liberalism only mean what we Westerners think they mean if they exist within the entire context of Western culture.”

These aren’t Western ideas in the first place. They evolved over a complex history that extends way beyond the West. The narrowness and superficiality of Hunt’s view is staggering.

“The West may very well want to impose the practices and institutions of free markets and free elections for its own self-interest, and China may want to adopt the practices and institutions of free markets (but not free elections) for its own self-interest, but the logic of self-interest is a VERY different thing than the triumphalist claim that the liberal ideas of Western free markets and free elections are “naturally” spreading throughout the world.”

I have no desire to impose anything on anyone. But if I did want to impose my own version of Western values on particular people, I’d begin with those who agree with Huntington and Kissinger. I would argue that it is Hunt who is dismissing Western tradition, not just as it might apply to non-Western societies but more importantly as it applies to the West. A linear view of change has become a central tenet of Western thought at this point. He wants to defend some abstract notion of the West by cutting out its beating heart.

Many liberals and leftists are the opposite of triumphalist about Western cultural imperialism. In fact, it is Hunt and those like him who are trying to create a new kind of Western cultural imperialism. He doesn’t actually mind imposing his ideas onto the rest of the world. What he fears is that the influence might be two-way. He wants near total Western dominance where we can protect the West with some utopian hope of cultural isolation.

Even his understanding of game theory is Western. He never explains why non-Westerners would want to submit to his game theory model of a truce among ruling elites. If non-Westerners refuse his desire that they play by Western rules as they inevitably would, what does he advise? No doubt, he would agree with Huntington and Kissinger in their advocacy of military force. Despite the rhetoric, it will always come back to violent power.

“A brief aside here on the distinction between personal beliefs and useful models. I’m not saying that I believe that authoritarian regimes and jihadist despots have some sort of moral equivalence to liberal governments, or that human rights don’t matter, or any of the other tired bromides used to tar realists. On the contrary, I personally believe that everyone in the non-Western world would be better off … MUCH better off … if their governing regimes gave a damn about individual rights and liberties in the same way that ANY governing regime in the West does.”

If that were true, Hunt better get up to speed. His ignorance of world history and world events is massive. The non-Western world is the way it is largely because of Western actions: wars, invasions, occupations, assassinations, coup d’etats, arming and training militant groups, alliances with authoritarian regimes (dictatorships, theocracies, etc), promoting fascism, military-imposed resource extraction, total control of trade routes, and on and on. If we don’t like the world we have helped to create, maybe Western governments need to start acting differently.

“But what a realist recognizes is that our personal vision of how we would like the world to be is not an accurate representation of The World As It Is, and – as Huntington wrote – it’s false, immoral, and dangerous to pretend otherwise.”

A genuine realist would acknowledge our social and moral responsibility for the world we helped create. Hunt is arguing for a vision of a Western society that doesn’t exist, except in his mind and in the propaganda of imperialists.

“Is a realist happy about any of this? Is a realist satisfied to shrug his shoulders and retreat into some isolationist shell? No, of course not. But a realist does not assume that there are solutions to these problems. Certainly a realist does not assume that there are universal principles like “free and fair elections” that can or should be applied as solutions to these problems. Some problems are intractable because they have been around for hundreds or thousands of years and are part and parcel of the Clash of Civilizations.”

Does this guy know anything about history?

The original Clash of Civilizations in Europe was between Greco-Roman culture and the tribal indigenous cultures. The memory of that clash was still so fresh that Thomas Jefferson could cite the pre-Norman English as an inspiration for American liberty (Normans having been the first serious introduction of Roman culture into Enlgand). Jefferson saw a free American society having its roots in the Germanic-Celtic people, not the imperial Roman tradition. There is no and never has been a singular unified Western culture.

“I think the crucial issue here (as it is with so many things in life) is to call things by their proper name.We’ve mistaken the self-interested imposition and adoption of so many Western artifices – the borders between Syria and Iraq are a perfect example, but you can substitute “democracy in Afghanistan” if you like, or “capital markets in China” if you want something a bit more contentious – for the inevitable and righteous spread of Western ideals on their own merits. This is a problem for one simple reason: if you think Something happened because of Reason A (ideals spreading “naturally” and “inevitably” within an environment of growing global cooperation), but it really happened because of Reason B (practices imposed or adopted out of regime self-interest within an environment of constant global competition), then you will fail to anticipate or react appropriately when that Something changes.”

I would agree with one basic component of that assessment. We should be clear in what we speak about. The failure of Hunt is that he lacks genuine understanding. Someone like Noam Chomsky would make mincemeat of his pathetic attempt at international analysis.

“And here’s the kicker: change is coming… It’s going to get worse.”

Sure. Liberals and leftists would be the first to say that. The difference is whether one accepts change or fights against it and tries to deny it. Hunt wants to defend the West against all change, to make sure all change is externalized along with all the costs.

Following that, Hunt goes on for quite a while about economics. That demonstrates the superficiality of his understanding.

There is a certain kind of person that sees everything as economics. To this thinking, all of the social order, all power, all culture comes down to economics. This is unsurprising for someone like Hunt. His career is in finance. That is his hammer by which all the world looks like a bunch of nails. Because of this, he is unable to look deeper into the historical and social forces that have made and are still making the world we live in.

This is an inevitable outcome of his worldview. He sees all change as superficial, which is to say nothing fundamentally changes. His attempt is to understand the change going on in the world. But since all change to his mind is superficial, it forces him to offer a surface level analysis. Economics are just the chips in the poker game, to be won or lost, but the players play on. There is only one game in town and that is the game of power.

The following is part of what interested my father:

“No, the existential risk is that the great civilizations of the world will be “hollowed out” internally, so that the process of managing the ten thousand year old competition between civilizations devolves into an unstable game of pandering to domestic crowds rather than a stable equilibrium of balance of power.”

Hunt supports his view with a quote from Kissinger. In that quote,

“Side by side with the limitless possibilities opened up by the new technologies, reflection about international order must include the internal dangers of societies driven by mass consensus, deprived of the context and foresight needed on terms compatible with their historical character. As diplomacy is transformed into gestures geared toward passions, the search for equilibrium risks giving way to a testing of limits. …

“Because information is so accessible and communication instantaneous, there is a diminution of focus on its significance, or even on the definition of what is significant. This dynamic may encourage policymakers to wait for an issue to arise rather than anticipate it, and to regard moments of decision as a series of isolated events rather than part of a historical continuum. When this happens, manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool.”
– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)

Hunt wants a ruling elite who will paternalisticaly manage Western civilization and will manage the balance of power with the ruling elites of non-Western civilizations. This is a natural worldview for Hunt, as he manages a financial company.

He wants the world managed in the way a transnational corporation is managed. This relates to why he doesn’t think the center of power should be in nation-states. He envisions a transnational ruling elite that would somehow have greater power and influence than even the elected officials of governments.

This would also be an element that resonates with my father. He was a business manager for many years and then taught business management. My father’s entire worldview is steeped in the experience and attitude of the management model of solving problems.

Unlike Hunt and my father, I actually want a functioning democracy, not just in form but also in substance, a culture of democracy and an entire democratization of every aspect of life and governance. What they want is in reality an increasingly privatized technocracy, with maybe some outward forms of democracy by way of a paternalistic ruling elite that would use superficial rhetoric to make claims of representing the people (no different than any other ruling elite in all of history, as even kings claimed to represent the people). Hunt would also want that technocracy to be transnationalized. My father has a slight libertarian tendency and would be more wary of such transnationalization, but still not wary enough for my taste.

Here is where the author goes into detail about game theory.

“I’ll just introduce two key game theoretic concepts at the core of Kissinger’s warning.

“First, the proliferation of the most dangerous game of all – Chicken. […] Chicken is such a dangerous game because it has no equilibrium, no outcome where all parties prefer where they are to where they might be. […]

“Second, the dumbing-down of all political games into their most unstable form – the single-play game.When Kissinger writes about how political leaders come to see “moments of decision as a series of isolated events”, he’s talking about the elimination of repeated-play games and shrinking the shadow of the future. Most games seem really daunting at first glance. For example, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is famous for having a very stable equilibrium where everyone is worse off than they easily could have been with some very basic cooperation. But there’s a secret to solving the Prisoner’s Dilemma – play it lots of times with the same players. Cooperation and mutually advantageous equilibria are far easier to achieve within a repeated-play game because reputation matters. The shadow of the future looms large if you’re thinking not only about this iteration of the game and the moves ahead, but also about the next time you have to play the game, perhaps for larger stakes, and the next, and the next.”

The author is seeking a stable and unchanging balance of power. He doesn’t want a shared human society nor does he want progress, for free democratic societies are inherently unstable and constantly changing. He wants to create or return the world to some ideal holding pattern between superpowers. The game he speaks of is between elites. He doesn’t care about the rest of us. Democracy and freedom are of secondary concern to him, at best. What he is focused on is stability at all costs, a repeating game between the same players with the same results, an agreement among the powerful to keep the game of power going, a mutual understanding and respect among the world’s ruling elites.

I want to end by noting that, while in the middle of writing this piece, I did talk to my father about the article. He, of course, saw it through a different lens. All that I noticed didn’t occur to him.

He focused on the game theory aspect, apparently to the exclusion of all else (I doubt Hunt’s war crime comment even registered in his awareness to any great extent or, if it did, he probably just took it as humor). The likely reason for this is that my father shares many of the same assumptions and biases as Hunt, specifically the right-wing reactionary mistrust of “the people” along with a desire for an enlightened, meritocratic, and paternalistic ruling elite. The premises of Hunt’s argument didn’t stand out to my father as something to question and doubt. His offering the article to me was just a passing thought, just an expression of mild curiosity about how game theory might apply to international politics. The worldview itself was just background.

For me, game theory seemed like a small part of the argument, and the argument seemed like a small part of a larger worldview. Game theory was more just supporting evidence than the heart of the matter. My attention was caught by how it was being framed.

What to my father just seemed a bit pessimistic to me felt outright cynical. That is because Hunt and my father are conservatives, as contrasted with the liberalism that I espouse and they criticize. Much of conservatism, to my mind, has a disturbingly cynical bent and a fatalistic tendency, but to conservatives it is just being ‘realistic’. That is a ‘reality’ I’d rather avoid.

Let me wrap up with a couple of things about Hunt’s use of game theory.

First, game theory is inherently amoral. What I mean is that it can be applied to and used to justify various moral and immoral purposes. I’m not entirely sure about the universal applicability of game theory. To return to Christianity, I don’t see Jesus as advocating a game theory worldview. I’m thinking that game theory leaves a lot out, at least in a simplistic interpretation as Hunt is using it. However, if we weren’t to interpret it simplistically, how might game theory apply toward morality, rather than just toward self-interest of power and profit?

Second, Hunt is applying game theory only to the ruling elite. He is assuming that the ‘masses’ of the general public won’t be allowed to play, as long as people like him can control the playing field and the rules of play. But if Hunt were to be honest, he would have to confront this inconsistency. He claims that game theory fits human nature the best. In that case, why doesn’t it also apply to all humans, not just the ruling elite? Why not apply game theory to democracy, to freedom and liberty, to social responsibility and public accountability, to moral hazard and externalizations?

Hunt assumes that he is writing to an audience that either is part of the ruling elite, who aspires to be part of the ruling elite, or who sees their interests in line with the ruling elite. The related assumption he is making is that the rest of the population is too stupid, too indifferent, and too powerless to care or be able to do anything about it. Why does he make these assumptions? What if the average person refuses to play by the rules of the ruling elite? Should we expect that the violence committed against foreigners, as neocons recommend, will also be turned against us, the local citizenry?

What does game theory tell us will happen when the ruling elite gets too oppressive?

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

Corey Robin, as usual, writes an insightful post. He explores neoliberalism, the dream and the reality:

“In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it. Of course, rich people have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, and others to do this for them, so the argument doesn’t apply to them, but that’s another story for another day.

“The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts—one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government)—and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.”

The complexity of modern life, especially modern American life, is no accident. It is an intentional component, maybe even a cornerstone to the entire project that we are all living in. It is the dream of capitalists and plutocrats, of libertarians and conservatives, of Republicans and more than a few of Democrats. But I would point out that this neoliberal vision is a liberal scheme (a distorted and depraved liberalism, but liberalism nonetheless) and some self-identified liberals are on board with it or have submitted to it in compromise of dreaming small dreams. Many liberals, however, are increasingly waking up from the dream, some conservatives as well. But radical liberals and left-wingers have been awake for quite a while now.

I maybe first came across a good explanation of this issue in the book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher (p. 20):

“The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.”

But it isn’t just neoliberalism for the monster has another head, neoconservatism (Fisher, pp. 60-1):

“In her essay ‘American Nightmare: Neoconservatism, Neoliberalism, and De-democratization’, Brown unpicked the alliance between neoconservatism and neoliberalism which constituted the American version of capitalist realism up until 2008. Brown shows that neoliberalism and neoconservatism operated from premises which are not only inconsistent, but directly contradictory. ‘How’, Brown asks,

“does a rationality that is expressly amoral at the level of both ends and means (neoliberalism) intersect with one that is expressly moral and regulatory (neoconservatism)? How does a project that empties the world of meaning, that cheapens and deracinates life and openly exploits desire, intersect one centered on fixing and enforcing meanings, conserving certain ways of life, and repressing and regulating desire? How does support for governance modeled on the firm and a normative social fabric of self-interest marry or jostle against support for governance modeled on church authority and a normative social fabric of self-sacrifice and long-term filial loyalty, the very fabric shredded by unbridled capitalism?”

“But incoherence at the level of what Brown calls ‘political rationality’ does nothing to prevent symbiosis at the level of political subjectivity, and, although they proceeded from very different guiding assumptions, Brown argues that neoliberalism and neoconservatism worked together to undermine the public sphere and democracy, producing a governed citizen who looks to find solutions in products, not political processes. As Brown claims,

“the choosing subject and the governed subject are far from opposites … Frankfurt school intellectuals and, before them, Plato theorized the open compatibility between individual choice and political domination, and depicted democratic subjects who are available to political tyranny or authoritarianism precisely because they are absorbed in a province of choice and need-satisfaction that they mistake for freedom.”

“Extrapolating a little from Brown’s arguments, we might hypothesize that what held the bizarre synthesis of neoconservatism and neoliberalism together was their shared objects of abomination: the so called Nanny State and its dependents. Despite evincing an anti-statist rhetoric, neoliberalism is in practice not opposed to the state per se – as the bank bail-outs of 2008 demonstrated – but rather to particular uses of state funds; meanwhile, neoconservatism’s strong state was confined to military and police functions, and defined itself against a welfare state held to undermine individual moral responsibility.”

Between neoliberalism and neoconservatism, the dominant worldview becomes an all-consuming vision. It preoccupies our media and our politics, our minds and our time. It defines our possibilites and choices, often giving us a forced choice and denying all else. As long as one thinks within the rules of this game, one can’t win for the entire worldview is a trap and its only purpose is to perpetuate its own social order, its own power and authority, to subsume all of reality into its narrative (Fisher, pp. 16-17):

“Needless to say, what counts as ‘realistic’, what seems possible at any point in the social field, is defined by a series of political determinations. An ideological position can never be really successful until it is naturalized, and it cannot be naturalized while it is still thought of as a value rather than a fact. Accordingly , neoliberalism has sought to eliminate the very category of value in the ethical sense. Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business. As any number of radical theorists from Brecht through to Foucault and Badiou have maintained, emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’: the slew of privatizations that took place since the 1980s would have been unthinkable only a decade earlier, and the current political-economic landscape (with unions in abeyance, utilities and railways denationalized) could scarcely have been imagined in 1975. Conversely, what was once eminently possible is now deemed unrealistic. ‘Modernization’, Badiou bitterly observes, ‘is the name for a strict and servile definition of the possible. These ‘reforms’ invariably aim at making impossible what used to be practicable (for the largest number), and making profitable (for the dominant oligarchy) what did not used to be so’.”

Corey Robin, from the same post linked above, offers a common critique from the left which brings the issue down to the human level:

“In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do. We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.

“What’s so astounding about Romney’s proposal—and the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.”

This reminds me of two things.

First, I’ve often doubted the claim that the free market just gives people what they want. With PR, as with propaganda, the so-called ‘free’ market more often tells people what they want (and I would add punishes those who would seek something else). Actually, it goes further still. Through commercialized indoctrination of a corporate media that is society-wide infiltrates every nook and cranny of our lives, the capitalist worldview shapes our desires and fears from a very young age. The more fundamental wants and needs that are inherent to human nature continue to exist. No amount of PR can destroy that fundamental level of reality, but it can obscure it and misdirect our attention.

Second, what Robin describes touches upon my recent post about the morality-punishment link. As I pointed out, the world of Star Trek: Next Generation imagines the possibility of a social order that serves humans, instead of the other way around. I concluded that, “Liberals seek to promote freedom, not just freedom to act but freedom from being punished for acting freely. Without punishment, though, the conservative sees the world lose all meaning and society to lose all order.” The neoliberal vision subordinates the individual to the moral order. The purpose of forcing the individual into a permanent state of anxiety and fear is to preoccupy their minds and their time, to redirect all the resources of the individual back into the system itself. The emphasis on the individual isn’t because individualism is important as a central ideal but because the individual is the weak point that must be carefully managed. Also, focusing on the individual deflects our gaze from the structure and its attendant problems.

This brings me to how this relates to corporations in neoliberalism (Fisher, pp. 69-70):

“For this reason, it is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Žižek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself. But the evasion is actually a two step procedure – since structure will often be invoked (either implicitly or openly) precisely at the point when there is the possibility of individuals who belong to the corporate structure being punished. At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse – it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic – is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals – but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor. And it is not as if corporations are the deep-level agents behind everything; they are themselves constrained by/ expressions of the ultimate cause-that-is-not-a-subject: Capital.”

Corporations are part of the structure of capitalism, but they are merely the outward form of the deeper social order. They express that deeper order. They are the results of it, not the cause.

This directly relates to issues of structural racism, specifically in terms of the New Jim Crow. Our prison-industrial complex isn’t just a system of social control. It is also a system of privatized for-profit companies. The connection of those two isn’t accidental, no more accidental than the disproportionate imprisonment of minorities. It is a system designed to be unequal and to continually reinforce that inequality. It isn’t a byproduct of the system. It is the modus operandi.

Neoliberalism and neoconservatism each form a bar of the Iron Cage. Together, they imprison our minds and bodies, our individualities, our families, our communities. But it is a prison of our own making. It exists because we believe in it. It demands our belief and we acquiesce. But what if we lost our faith in this system, not just partly or temporarily? What if looked beyond the bars and saw that a whole other world existed, a better world full of promise?

Since Nelson Mandela is on everyone’s mind, I’ll end with words by him that contain a moral force that is the antidote we need. There is no quibbling in his naked demand for justice:

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.

“While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

The Iron Lady: The View of a Bleeding Heart

“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.”
 ~ Margaret Thatcher

* * *

I watched Iron Lady, the biographical movie of Margaret Thatcher.

My following thoughts are mostly a response to the portrayal of Thatcher in this movie. Besides some limited websearches done in the process of writing, my analysis is intentionally limited in scope for I have no desire to spend the time that would be necessary to provide a more complex and thorough analysis. Instead, I’m using the movie as a jumping off point for my thoughts on a particular variety of conservatism that has dominated politics for decades.

* * *

I can’t say I ever had much curiosity about Thatcher. I’m not a conservative and I’m not British. Still, her impact on the world (along with that of Reagan) continues to be felt by people far and wide… and so it is hard to be indifferent about her or about what she represents. We are still living in the world of Thatcher and Reagan. The recent worldwide economic problems are the culmination of the neoliberal era. Deregulation, privatization and globalization has finally come to its inevitable conclusion. Maybe that is why a movie about Thatcher is so relevant right now.

To balance my liberal bias, it was helpful to have watched the movie with my conservative parents. As members of an older generation now retired, they have more of a memory of Thatcher. And as strong supporters of Reagan, they are sympathetic to Thatcher’s politics and worldview. My parents, of course, would disagree with my assessment and considering their perspective makes me think more deeply about that era of politics during my childhood.

I asked my parents if they thought the movie was fair. They considered it to be a fair portrayal, although my dad thought her ideas were given short shrift. My dad probably would have preferred a more straightforward political biography. I liked the focus on the personal as it helped me to understand the motivation behind the politics, but like my dad I would have appreciated more focus on ideas or else on the real world consequences of her policies.

Actually, I would like to have seen those two aspects combined (along with the personal). What came across to me in this portrayal is the sense of psychological division, maybe even dissociation. Thatcher had sacrificed so much that it felt to me like she may have sacrificed something of herself, that some aspect of her humanity was lost or blurred or somehow not fully present in her politics, in her professional persona. Showing her as an old lady dealing with the onset of dementia seemed to get at this division… between the personal and the political, between ideas and consequences. She was ‘principled’ and everything else was sacrificed for her principles. The movie seemed to be largely about how much that sacrifice cost on the personal level.

* * *

There was a scene where she recalled her now dead husband proposing marriage to her. She explained to him that she would refuse to be a simple housewife who dies cleaning the tea cups, an apparent reference to her own mother. She told him that she wanted her life to matter.

This could be taken as how even women on the right were beginning to make feminist demands by refusing to be limited to traditional family roles, but it also could be taken as a revelation of how much she hated manual labor and those who make their living by doing it, i.e., the working class. She knew she was better than that, better than the kind of person who lived their life that way. She had more important things to do, more important than simply raising a family as most humans have done since humans have existed. Her hatred or else lack of compassion for the lower classes seemed obvious to me, although she didn’t see herself that way (nor, of course, would conservatives such as my parents see her that way).

She spoke of not being disconnected from average people and she attempted to prove this by demonstrating she knew the price of basic food items that people depended upon such as milk and butter (prices she was aware of because of her having grown up as the daughter of a grocery store owner). To me, this just further demonstrated how disconnected she was. The price of milk and butter is one of the lesser worries of the poor, especially the poorest of the poor who might choose to spend their meager money on more basic necessities than relatively expensive dairy products. There was irony in her self-defense also in that she was responsible for cutting the milk program for public schools.

Anyway, the marriage proposal scene was centrally important to the movie. It was subtly referenced again at the end of the movie. She is an old lady, her husband now dead and her kids grown up, her mind and her self-independence is slowly disappearing. In a sense, she ends up in the place that she thought she was hoping to escape, essentially no better off than her own mother who apparently was a housewife and no better than all the working class housewives, aging as the great equalizer. All the meaning her life might have had is now just a fading memory. The reality of her life is portrayed by the very last scene: standing at the sink washing a tea cup.

* * *

Thatcher said what she cared about was ideas, not emotions; but emotions are what makes us human, what separates mammals from lizards. She saw emotions as weakness. Human life consisting of body and heart, manual labor and emotion, that was weakness, moral weakness. She wanted a life of the mind where thought and principle ruled, the mind relating to the body as God relates to the fallen world.

In another scene, she shared her philosophy with her doctor. It was in response, as I recall, to his asking her how she was feeling. She told him that people were too obsessed with emotions these days, that it is thoughts that matter. Thoughts lead to words, words lead to actions… and then eventually to character. There was also irony in this scene. The doctor was asking if she was experiencing any problems, any halluncinations, etc. She lied to the doctor in saying she was fine. She seemed to believe that by thinking she was fine and saying she was fine that therefore she was fine. Thought trumps reality, at least in her mind.

The way her logic was portrayed in that scene reminds me of something reportedly said by Karl Rove while in the Bush Administration (the aide spoken of is Karl Rove):

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This emphasis on thought and ideas over everything else directly relates to the perception of someone like Thatcher being ‘principled’. To my parents, this is admirable. To me, less so. I can admire principles and those who hold to them… when those principles are worthy… but ideological beliefs detached from or forced onto reality doesn’t appeal to me. Principles that have such a relationship to reality easily become talking points, rhetorical devices that close down the mind and close down all possible debate.

How my parents see it is that conservative politicians are no longer principled. I sort of understand what they mean, but I also think they are romanticizing the past. Yes, many politicians these days are without principles. However, was Thatcher really all that different?

For example, she supported terrorists in Afghanistan because they fit her agenda, despite her claim of being principled in not bowing down to terrorists. Principles are tricky things when applied to reality for we inevitably interpret our principles to rationalize our actions. Using the Afghanistan example, to remain true to her principles all Thatcher had to do was call the Afghanistan fighters something other than terrorists which is what she did and so they were no longer terrorists, at least in her mind (assuming she was deceiving herself instead of just deceiving others).

* * *

In speaking about another area of fighting, she had to deal with the Falklands conflict. I don’t know if her actions were morally justified or if it was merely the British government defending its colonial empire, but what interested me was the portrayal of her response in the movie.

Thatcher explained in one scene (speaking to other politicians questioning the war) that she knew what the soldiers experienced because she too had to fight hard as a politician and in another scene (writing to the parents of deceased soldiers) that she too was a mother with a son. This further demonstrated how disconnected she was. Her metaphorical fighting in politics is no where near the same as soldiers fighting where they are forced to kill and to risk their own death. Also, just because she was a mother doesn’t mean that she had any possible hope of understanding the experience of the actual mothers of those soldiers. Her political persona was that she was a normal Britain and that she shared in the suffering the country was undergoing, but that is obvious bullshit whether it was a lie told to others or a rationalization told to herself.

This reminds me of what could be called empathetic imagination. Research shows that liberals test higher on the measurment of ‘thin boundaries’. One attribute of ‘thin boundaries’ is empathy. Other research shows that liberals are more distracted because they are constantly paying attention to other people such as watching eye cues. In this way, liberals are more tangibly aware of the people around them. This makes sense when one considers liberal philosophy which focuses on empathy and compassion, on considering the larger collective of humanity rather than just the individual or the group the individual belongs to. For liberals, this isn’t just a set of beliefs but an actual experience of reality.

There is an example of this.

Stem cell research is supported by liberals because, whether or not they have personal experience related to the issue, they can imagine and empathize with the suffering of those who could be helped by medical procedures developed through stem cell research. On the other hand, conservatives on average don’t support stem cell research, but conservatives who have a loved one who could be helped because of stem cell research show a majority support for it. The key difference between the two categories of conservatives is personal experience. Conservatives depend on personal experience more than liberals when it comes to empathizing with others and treating them compassionately.

Everyone, whether liberal or conservative, can understand the suffering of others more easily if the person suffering is a loved one or if the suffering touches upon some other personal experience. However, only liberals show the propensity to care about suffering to which they have no personal connection. It is easier for someone with a liberal predisposition to imagine how others experience the world (empathy, imagination and liberalism are found to be correlated in the research done on MBTI ‘intuition’, FFM ‘openness to experience’ and Hartmann’s ‘thin boundary type’). This is why conservatives perceive liberals as moral relativists for the liberal mindset is more open to considering such subjective and intersubjective factors, rather than narrowly focused on emotionally-detached principles.

From my liberal perspective, someone like Margaret Thatcher seemed to lack empathetic imagination. She could privatize public property and public investments because of her lack of a personal connection to the average working person who was negatively impacted by unemployment and because of her personal connection to her crony friends who profited from the deal. The inability or unwillingness to see outside of one’s personal experience is something all humans struggle with to some degree, but obviously not everyone feels the need to struggle with it for it simply isn’t as much of a priority for some people (not as much of an emotionally pressing issue, just an abstract set of data to be unemotionally analyzed or else ideologically dismissed). In fact, such empathy is often seen as moral weakness by those on the right and so liberals are perceived as ‘bleeding hearts’.

This saddens me. There is so much heartlessness in the world, so much lack of genuine understanding. It seems that, if we have to wait for conservatives to have personal experience to actually care about the worlds’ problems, then we will be waiting a long time.

* * *

Let me return to my parents.

They aren’t heartless as conservatives, but it seems clear to me that neither do they have an overabundance of what I personally experience as empathetic imagination, not to say that they are entirely lacking in this. They care and they are good people, something I want to strongly emphasize as they are some of the most morally principled people I personally know. It’s just that they don’t seem to have a tangible sense of concern about the poor and disadvantaged, not in the bleeding heart liberal sense. They feel bad about the suffering and struggle of others, but they see it as being to some extent separate from their personal lives (by which I don’t mean to imply that we don’t all to varying degrees feel this constraint of separation between our experience and the experience of others, but the difference in degree of this emotional disconnection is very important).

I sense this fundamental difference, although it is hard to explain for I can’t claim to know my parents’ actual experience. However, I do know my own experience and I can sense the difference. For me, the suffering in the world is tangibly part of my sense of self as if an extension of my own body. I intentionally worded it that way. My dad likes to share an example from Adam Smith where the body is used as a way of arguing for the limits of empathy:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with  all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an  earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had  no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected  upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I  imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the  misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy  reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all  the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment…And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these  humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his  business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the  same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The  most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more  real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he  would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore  with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of  his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems  plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune  of his own.

The argument is that empathy is limited to proximity, that we are more likely to identify with the suffering of our own potentially lost finger than the suffering of massive numbers of strangers. This is true, but research shows it isn’t equally true in all ways for all people, for example:

“We see that liberals and progressives are more sympathetic toward animals and foreigners than are conservatives and libertarians.”

So, it may be true that all humans will care more about their own finger for fear of physical pain and the related potential of death is a strong instinct, although I would argue that if empathy for strangers wasn’t also a strong instinct then large-scale civilization as we have wouldn’t be possible. The difference isn’t that liberals care less about their own finger but that they care more about strangers. Unlike the implications of Smith’s argument, caring about one doesn’t inevitably limit the caring about the other. For conservatives’ relationship to strangers, though, there would seem to be a perceived conflict between the two for conservatives have more of an instinct of fear and mistrust toward strangers. What conservatives don’t understand is that liberals don’t share this strong instinct which isn’t to say liberals entirely lack it.

In speaking to my dad, he didn’t understand this view. I can, as a liberal, accept that there are differences between types of people and that some differences are just differences with no inherent moral superiority for one or the other. Sometimes fearing strangers is evolutionarily advantageous and at other times empathy is the better option. Conservatives, especially social conservatives, tend to see this as moral relativism whereas liberals are more likely to just see it as reality (or what science has so far been able to discover about the reality of human nature).

Part of the reason liberals are better at empathizing with others, especially others who are different, is that liberals don’t require one side to be entirely right and the other side to be entirely wrong. Data shows that liberals are the only American demographic to have majority support for compromise (i.e., making personal sacrifices in order to avoid unnecessary conflict, in order to find a middle ground of agreement or possibly just a good enough solution).

One of the problems I see as a liberal is that the more that empathy is limited the more projection becomes inevitable. Conservatives genuinely believe that their view of human nature is simply right and so they tend to project their own conservative predisposition onto everyone else. Liberal’s higher propensity for empathy offers more protection against this kind of projection, but there is another kind of weakness to the liberal position. Liberals have a hard time understanding and accepting that conservatives either don’t have as strong of an ability to empathize or else don’t have as strong of a desire for it. Empathy is the very foundation of the liberals experience of reality. It’s mind-blowing to the liberal to consider someone who puts principles over empathetic compassion. To a liberal, the only principles that would be morally worthy are those that originate from empathetic compassion. Conservatives just see this as moral weakness, moral relativism.

So, even my desire for compromise between conservative principle and liberal empathy is just another liberal bias.

* * *

My parents are very principled, more principled than I am in terms of acting on what they believe (although that may have more to do with my severe depression than with my morally relativistic liberalism). Even if they don’t have a strong liberal response of empathetic imagination, they do respond compassionately based on their principles and act accordingly.

It isn’t that conservatives lack the ability to be compassionate. It’s just that they would experience it differently and act on it differently, constrained as it is to conservative biases and predispositions. For my parents and many other conservatives, compassionate action is seen as part of their religious duty, organized religion representing their ultimate sense of moral order. Religion is one of the greatest forces humans have for mobilizing individual and collective action, both for good and evil as history shows. I have tons of respect for the ability conservatives have in getting things done through organizing around religious authority, even if I don’t always respect the purposes to which this is used.

I’m not exactly criticizing conservatives. Many conservatives do a lot of good in the world. There are some clear advantages to the principled way of relating to other people, assuming that the principles are worthy. However, according to my liberal bleeding heart, naive as it may seem to conservatives, I feel the world would be a better place if conservative principledness was combined with liberal empathy… or at least if the two could work together instead of being in conflict.

* * *

Let me end with some commentary on the quote I began with. Margaret Thatcher said:

“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.”

When I first heard that, I was utterly amazed, baffled even. There was no way, it seemed to me, that someone could honestly believe such a declaration, especially not a political leader of society. It had to be political rhetoric. Of course, society exists for civilization couldn’t exist without the social quality of humans, that tricky element that differentiates once again between mammals and lizards… and, I’d add, between higher primates and most other species. I understand the modern focus on the individual, but one would have to be detached from reality to deny the inherently social nature of the human species.

There goes my liberal bias again, rearing its ugly head.

This issue of ‘society’ came up last night while I was perusing some books about liberalism. In The Future of Liberalism by Alan Wolfe, he quoted James Oakes (p. 12):

“Society was the great discovery of enlightened liberals. They felt liberated by their conviction that most of the things that previous generations had taken to be “natural” or “divinely ordained” were, in fact, the products of human history. Families, political systems, even economies were, as liberals realized (and as we would put it), “socially constructed.” For liberals, humans were above all social beings. They were born tabula rasa and were thus the products of their upbringing, their environment. To function freely as a flourishing human being, everyone had to be, well, socialized. And if humans are the products of society, then the social institutions that shape them must be constructed so as to produce the kind of individuals each society wants.”

It is ‘society’ that is the key element that many conservatives don’t understand, even when they acknowledge it. This connects back to Adam Smith.

It wasn’t just about a person’s finger vs the faceless masses in a distant country. No, more fundamentally it was about the individual vs the group (i.e., society), in particular the individual vs someone else’s group. In saying there is no society, Thatcher was saying that this ‘society’ proposed by liberals isn’t my society (isn’t the group I belong to as a wealthy person, as a political elite, as a conservative Christian, or whatever else). Liberals like to see humanity as a whole (as seen with their tendency to care about strangers) whereas conservatives see humanity divided up into separate, competing groups. Thatcher was willing to admit that humans exist in basic social groups such as families, but she refused to admit that her family had anything directly to do with the families of the working class or the families in a poor country (earthquake or not). It’s an individual attitude of me and mine. It is groupthink combined with a sometimes implicit but often explicit xenophobia.

Conservatives see the idea of a greater society as a threat. Liberals, however, see it as a reason for hope, a potential for progress. Instead of being isolated in a world of fear and violence, liberals want to live in a world of shared humanity with a shared destiny, shared sacrifice and shared benefit. Progress is the central part in this different response. As Mike Kane explained it:

“Might it be that the whole of my disagreement with Smith lies in this: that an event in China was so remote to the European “man of humanity” in 1759 as to be near negligible? If so, then the greater proximity, the so-called global village, that technology enables, does serve to broader both the depth and scope of empathy. It seems to me that distance in the 18th century created the same remove that time continues to do for us. I feel more empathy for, which is another way of saying I feel more in common with, the victims of the Japanese disaster, than I do with the victims of the Irish potato famine, who are some of my ancestors, or more than I do with the millions of victims of the “Spanish flu”, with most of whom I have a greater cultural, religious, and linguistic fit than I do with the Japanese.

“The theory I am testing is that technology exponentially increases the proximity by which people can feel empathy and obliterates cultural differences and geographic distance. The only distance that exempts itself from the compassion-broadening effect of technology is the distant past. The fact that the past is so exempt only goes to show in a new instance the inherent difference between the space and time of human experience.”

Mike’s above response seems like a typical liberal response. Unlike the conservative view, humanity isn’t forever constrained by the seeming limits of human nature for human nature isn’t singular and unchanging, rather human nature contains infinite potential and so is malleable to the degree that potential is tapped. Change the conditions and the human response will change. This is the power of ‘society’, a power that scares shitless many a conservative. A conservative like Thatcher denies ‘society’ not because she doesn’t believe in its power but because she does believe in it and so perceives it as a threat that must be disempowered. Society is to liberals what religion is to conservatives, both forces to be reckoned with.

* * *

I don’t see this difference ever being resolved through discussion. Individual people don’t change for the most part. Change happens over generations as society itself changes. My only hope, as a liberal, is that society has across the centuries become ever increasingly liberal. Even conservatives like my parents, fairly typical conservatives, are ideologically more liberal than conservatives were a century ago. My dad has admitted to me that conservatism needs to change with the times, a very liberal attitude for a conservative to hold.

However, just because society becomes more liberal it doesn’t follow that the conservative predisposition is going away, unless some major genetic engineering project is implemented in a dystopian future of totalitarianism (in which case it would no longer be a liberal society). More reasonably, I suspect that as long as civilization as we know it doesn’t collapse the trend toward a liberal society will continue, however slowly and imperfectly.

Such a liberal society will be forced to find a compromise between the two predispositions, even though conservatives may not appreciate being made to play as equal partners with liberals. That is the only good possibility that I see. A conservative society, almost by definition, can’t allow freedom for the liberal predisposition. A liberal society, on the other hand, necessitates allowing freedom for the conservative predisposition… for that is the nature of the liberal predisposition.

Only liberals care about compromise and so only liberals will be able to find a solution of compromise… or else, in failing, give conservatives the opportunity to create a society of anti-liberalism. I’m not sure that even most conservatives would be happy if conservatives were victorious in creating such a society.

* * *

As a note, I wanted to point out that I’m speaking very broadly here, and so there is plenty of room for pointing out exceptions and criticizing about overgeneralization. Still, I think my speaking in such broad terms is useful for delineating the general meanings of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’.

I have for the most part stopped identifying myself as a ‘liberal’. Mostly what I mean here by ‘liberal’ is liberal-minded in the psychological sense, although there is obvious correlation to various political ideologies. I, however, am not advocating a specific ideology here, especially not the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party. The liberal predisposition has led to minds as diverse as Locke and Paine, has led to ideals as diverse as individualism and progressivism. What form liberalism may take in the future is probably beyond my imagination.

As for specific ideologies of my own preference, I’m less of a liberal and more of a weird combination of socialist and libertarian. So, in reference to a ‘liberal’ society, I’m speaking about an open society of multiculturalism and social democracy. This wouldn’t necessarily require a welfare state or even a strong, central state government at all.

I should also point out that, even though my parents may not be atypical as American conservatives, I’m not sure that they are the best representatives of the conservative predisposition. On the spectrum of predispositions, my parents are nowhere near being far right-wingers (such as, for example, measured by tests for Right-Wing Authoritarianism). I’m not sure that genetically my predisposition is all that different from my parents, but different social environments and life experiences have brought out the liberal potential within my genetics.

Research and basic observation shows that people also can switch predispositions for short periods of time such as during stress or permanently because of trauma. Predisposition is just a tendency, a potential. However, once manifest, most people tend to maintain a particular predisposition as the resting point of their personality.

* * *

In case anyone is interested, I came across an interesting review of the movie in question and a couple of interesting videos about Margaret Thatcher:

The Iron Lady: The Margaret Thatcher Movie We Don’t Need
By Laura Flanders
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Reagan: From Liberal to Neocon

Here is an early speech given when Ronald Reagan was still a liberal Democrat.

What he says in this speech still applies today. The odd part is that the gist of his criticisms apply equally to the results of his own trickle-down economics and union-busting. How did Reagan go from being a union leader who fought for average Americans to becoming a cynical neocon who undermined the ability of the working class to have a voice in politics? Working class people are worse off in that their manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas and their wages have decreased. Did Reagan ever care about helping people or was he always in it just for the power?

This isn’t a partisan criticism. I’m genuinely bewildered by Reagan’s motives. He is the only union leader to be elected as president, but he wasn’t even your average union leader. He was elected 7 times as a union leader. He originally defended the New Deal reforms. How does someone like that become a corporate spokesperson?

Chomsky has commented about this quite often.

http://www.chomsky.info/articles/199407–.htm

There was an article in Business Week last week describing some of the consequences of the American state’s vicious anti-labor activities. Illegal firings for union organizing have gone up sixfold, it reckoned, in the past 25 years. In particular, thousands of union organizers have been illegally fired since the start of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981.

According to the US Labor Department, the destruction of the unions as been the main factor in the decline of real wages that has continued since the Reagan era. Health and safety standards in the workplace have also deteriorated: there are laws, but they’re simply not enforced, so the number of industrial accidents has risen sharply in the past ten years. Then there is the effect of the decline of unions on democracy: the unions are one of the few means by which ordinary people can enter the political arena. Finally, there’s a psychological effect. The destruction of the unions is part of a much more general effort to privatize aspirations, to eliminate solidarity, the sense that we’re all in it together, that we care for one another.

But why did Reagan turn against working class people and become a corporate spokesperson? Why did he, as a union leader, turn against his own union members? Why did he become involve in the commie withchunt which was one of the darkest periods of American history?

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001654/bio

The young Reagan was a staunch admirer of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (even after he evolved into a Republican) and was a Democrat in the 1940s, a self-described ‘hemophilliac’ liberal. He was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947 and served five years during the most tumultuous times to ever hit Hollywood. A committed anti-communist, Reagan not only fought more-militantly activist movie industry unions that he and others felt had been infiltrated by communists, but had to deal with the investigation into Hollywood’s politics launched by the House Un-Amercan Activities Committee in 1947, an inquisition that lasted through the 1950s. The House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of Hollywood (which led to the jailing of the “Hollywood Ten” in the late ’40s) sowed the seeds of the McCarthyism that racked Hollywood and America in the 1950s.

In 1950, U.S. Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas (D-CA), the wife of “Dutch” Reagan’s friend Melvyn Douglas, ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate and was opposed by the Republican nominee, the Red-bating Congresman from Whittier, Richard Nixon. While Nixon did not go so far as to accuse Gahagan Douglas of being a communist herself, he did charge her with being soft on communism due to her opposition to the House Un-Amercan Activities Committee. Nixon tarred her as a “fellow traveler” of communists, a “pinko” who was “pink right down to her underwear.” Gahagan Douglas was defeated by the man she was the first to call “Tricky Dicky” because of his unethical behavior and dirty campaign tactics. Reagan was on the Douglases’ side during that campaign.

The Douglases, like Reagan and such other prominent actors as Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, were liberal Democrats, supporters of the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal, a legacy that increasingly was under attack by the right after World War II. They were NOT fellow-travelers; Melyvn Douglas had actually been an active anti-communist and was someone the communists despised. Melvyn Douglas, Robinson and Henry Fonda – a regist

The world we live in today is the vision of Reagan. The administration of George W. Bush and the downfall of the economy was the final culmination of the policies of Reagan. We now have a country with 1 in 200 citizens in prison and a wealth disparity comparable to developing nations. The permanent deficit we now have was created by Reagan. Fiscal conservative? Small government?

What exactly is this vision that Reagan helped to create and promote?

http://www.thewe.cc/weplanet/news/americas/us/ronald_reagan.html

The United States, said Ronald Reagan, “is engaged in a war on terrorism, a war for freedom”

How familiar it all sounds.

Merely replace Soviet Union and communism with al-Qaeda, and you are up to date.

And it was all a fantasy.

The Soviet Union had no bases in or designs on Central America; on the contrary, the Soviets were adamant in turning down appeals for their aid.

The comic strips of “missile storage depots” that American officials presented to the United Nations were precursors to the lies told by Colin Powell in his infamous promotion of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction at the Security Council in 2003.

Whereas Powell’s lies paved the way for the invasion of Iraq and the violent death of at least 100,000 people, Reagan’s lies disguised his onslaught on Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

By the end of his two terms, 300,000 people were dead.

In Guatemala, his proxies – armed and tutored in torture by the CIA – were described by the UN as perpetrators of genocide.

There is one major difference today.

That is the level of awareness among people everywhere of the true purpose of Bush and Blair’s “war on terror” and the scale and diversity of the popular resistance to it.

In Reagan’s day, the notion that presidents and prime ministers lied as deliberate, calculated acts was considered exotic.

http://newliteraryhistory.com/ronaldreagan.html

Reagan displays none of his storied optimism here. There’s no “Morning in America,” no soaring talk about making “a new beginning.” Instead, he warns that America is on the verge of an apocalyptic doom. It is a bleak speech, verging on despair, that unabashedly employs the most extravagant historical and philosophical comparisons—“Should Christ have refused the cross?”—to denounce our moral weakness and warn of our imminent demise. It is one of the great role player’s darkest roles.

The Speech is disturbing because it shows the paranoid, millenarian side of American conservatism, unleavened by Reagan’s Main Street sunniness. But it is also disturbing because it presents that right-wing vision in its pure form, unsullied by history. The Speech predates Reagan’s entry into the world of politics, with its compromises and accommodations. As president, Reagan ended up backing away from some of his most cherished ideals. He raised taxes, reached agreement with the Communists, folded his cards in the face of terrorism, increased the federal deficit, and expanded the federal government. Reagan never abandoned his rhetoric of good versus evil, but it turned out not to apply to the real world. The Speech allows us to imagine an alternative Reaganist future, in which he lives up to his words—a world where he really does bomb the Soviet Union, get rid of Social Security, and end the progressive income tax. The Speech is a kind of distillation of Reagan’s Platonic right-wing essence. Like Keats’s Grecian Urn, it freezes him, an immortal figure from a strange, lost part of the American id, eternally raging against communism, big government, and liberal traitors.

That future never happened, but Americans think it did. That’s one reason that New Right conservatism continues to wield a disproportionate influence in American life. But the other reason has to do with the inchoate anxieties, wishes, and fears to which The Speech appealed then, and to which the dream it spoke for appeals today.

The Speech tapped into the primordial American myth: untrammeled individuality. There must be a territory for Huck Finn to light out to, a promised land where authority—or government—does not reach. In this always-beckoning frontier, all the hindrances that drag Americans down are left behind. Businessmen can run their businesses as they like, free from the plague of do-gooder bureaucrats. White people need not carry the spurious cross of racial guilt. Unruly and ungrateful minorities—pinkos and softies and degenerates and pointy-heads and uppity women— are shown their place. Above all, the profoundly destabilizing specter of relativism, of compromise, of moral ambiguity, is banished. No longer need Americans accommodate themselves to evil. A divine certainty stretches from sea to shining sea.

This is as much a metaphysical wish as it is a political platform. It is a sermon as much as a speech. And it is in the gap between those two things—the space between the dream of absolute freedom and the reality of a fallen world—that America forever stumbles

What happened around the middle of last century that caused such insanity? How did the entire political system get flipped on it’s head?

Reagan was the first great neocon. The necons were the progressive liberals who became disenchanted with the New Deal and so became cynical-minded progressive conservatives. Looking back, it all seems very strange. The working class was smashed under the heel of corporate power and corporations gained a stranglehold on Washington politics. The American idealism was turned into a dark dream of power for the ruling elite. A movie actor and corporate spokesperson was elected president and he spun inspiring propaganda.

Sadly, there was disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Reagan preached values ideology and free market rhetoric. Government was part of the problem, Reagan told Americans. What Reagan gave Americans was a permanent deficit, an even stronger military-industrial complex, decreasing wages, shrinking middle class, outsourcing of good manufacturing jobs, and a growing wealth disparity.

Eventually, Americans elect George W. Bush who campaigned on the same Reagan neocon vision and gave America the same failures. After Bush is out of office, the Tea Party is taken over by people once again selling the same message of values ideology and fiscal responsibility. More of the same. Endlessly, more of the same. Libertarian Goldwater led to neocon Reagan. Ron Paul libertarians led to the Tea Party. It’s the same pattern repeating. Why? What does it all mean? And why don’t the American people see through the charade?

Glenn Beck Conservatism: an example

I’ve been dissing Fox news and by default dissing those who take Fox news seriously.

However, I happen to know some people who take Fox news seriously and so let me try to explain the views of one particular person who I think may be representative.  First off, this person is highly intelligent and highly educated.  He has been in positions of authority where he has had influence on the community, on the youth, and on private businesses.  He is a respectable upper class American who is fairly well off even during this economic downturn, but he is retired and worries about his future.  And he is a fan of Beck and O’Reilly.  My point being that these bombastic pundits have great influence, and this influence has real-world consequences.  Ignoring the lunatic fringe, there are wealthy and powerful people who listen to these conservative commentors, and such people to varying degrees base their opinions and actions on what they hear from these sources.  Let me now describe in detail the beliefs of the specific person I have in mind, and as far as I know this is an accurate portrayal.

He doesn’t believe that the US system of capitalism/democracy is perfect but that it’s better than any other system. He believes the governmnet should play a minimal role as a referee for markets, but otherwise should let “free” markets solve the world’s problems. He believes that with the correct rules and incentives set up, capitalists will act towards the greater good of all. He believes in Rand’s ideal of enlightened selfishness and interestingly this fits into his Christian view of fallen human nature. Capitalism translates selfish nature into moral outcomes. In personal terms, he believes that capitalism supports people like him and so he sees his comfortable lifestyle as the direct result of capitalism (and of his own hard work rather than privilege).

He believes that the wealthy deserve their wealth because (in most cases) they’ve earned it. He believes in the American dream that almost anyone can work their way up into wealth and power. And he believes that the success of the wealthy upper class does genuinely lead to overall improvement in society. For this reason, he is against laws that help the minorities and poor. He believes our society is mostly free from racism except for the liberal “reverse racism” which he sees as a serious threat. He believes that if a poor minority living homeless in a ghetto really desired wealth and power (or simply a secure job with decent pay and benefits), then that person just has to work hard and they’ll be rewarded.

He also believes the powerful elite are that way because their culture and/or genetics are superior. His view partly comes from the book the Bell Curve which was criticized for arguing that blacks are inherently inferior on the level of IQ. He believes in social darwinism and believes it probably has led to real evolutionary genetic changes. Besides all of that he believes “white culture” is superior simply because Western civilization has been the most brutally effective imperialism in history. He believes “white culture” should be forced onto other groups. He believes everyone in America should be taught in only English even in areas that are and have always been predominantly non-white and non-English speaking.  He is strongly against multi-culturalism which he sees as a destructive force of the “white culture” that our country was founded on and which holds our country together.

Like Beck, he is a bit split between his libertarianism and his Christianity. He believes that morals need to be forced onto people and that with moral issues people shouldn’t be free to do what they choose. He is against gay marriage, sex education, pre-marital sex, abortions, legalization of drugs, etc. He beilieves that homosexuality is either a disease or a moral failing, and that homosexuality is a sign of a decaying society. He is for the government institutionalization of family values and heterosexual marriage, and he would like Christian beliefs and values to be more prominent in society such as prayer in public places and the 10 commandments posted in public buildings. But his libertarian-leanings makes him prefer states rights. He would, in theory, be open to these decisions being made on the local level… but probably not if it didn’t lead to the outcome he’d prefer.

He is very patriotic and used to be in the military.  His patriotism is mixed with his Christian identity.  He believes that America is a Christian nation and should embrace this identity and embrace it as a role in the international world. I get the sense that he sees America as the shining beacon and big brother of the world, and that Americans shouldn’t apologize for their superior power. He is a Neocon in supporting America’s constantly fighting other countries and toppling governments. I don’t think he sees anything wrong with torture and extraordinary rendition as long as they’re effective and I think he believes they’re effective. In the past, he has been against protesters who question and criticize the government.

Like Beck, his libertarianism comes out in response to perceived “socialism”. He believes liberals control the media and the education system. He sees it as a culture war with a clear us vs them. If “socialism” became a big enough threat (in that he feared possible loss of his prestige, wealth, and comfortable lifestyle), he would be willing to join a revolution. Basically, he is for the status quo as long as it fits his vision of America’s past which is seen through the Neocon lense of the utopian 1950s when industry was booming and when the socialist civil rights movment hadn’t yet torn this vision asunder.

Or something like that.