The Head of Capital and the Body Politic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

A System of Unhappiness

The unhappiness, frustration, outrage, and whatever else many Americans are experiencing is hardly new. It has been around for as long I can remember.

Even back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growing sense of unease and a sense that something had gone askew, as wages stagnated and inequality grew while the lower classes waited for the promises of trickle-down. Long before the 2008 recession and Trump’s economic populism, there were the WTO protests in 1999. The failures have been apparent for at least decades, failures of American-style globalization and neoliberal corporatism (inverted totalitarianism?) along with the political elite, lobbyists, and think tanks that serve it.

The sense of tension and conflict has only grown worse, as the economic situation for most Americans has deterioriated. For this past decade or so: Large parts of our government, such as Congress, have had microscopic levels in the general public’s approval ratings. In polls, large percentages (often a majority) of Americans regularly say that they don’t think the government represents them and that we don’t have a functioning democracy. Also, accusations of political manipulation, vote rigging, and media bias/collusion have been regularly heard all across the political spectrum.

With this past campaign season and the presidential election, all of this has been magnified to the point it can no longer be ignored or dismissed by the political and media elite. It seems to have hit a tipping point. But the culmination of it all is still unclear. Sanders voters accused Clinton and the DNC in rigging the primary. Trump accused Democrats of rigging the election. And then Democrats returned the favor by accusing Trump and now the Russians. It seems almost everyone now agrees our system is dysfunctional and being rigged somehow by someone. Whatever it is, it ain’t democracy.

Yet, at the same time, the American public (myself included, sadly) has grown so cynical and apathetic that few can be bothered to start protests and riots in the street to demand democracy. If people are so unhappy, where is the march on Washington or the occupation of statehouses? It feels like most Americans have given up on the system, which is dangerous for that is when the system is most vulnerable to authoritarianism, demagoguery, and dictatorship. When a society gets to that point, the best that can be hoped for is all-out revolution that overthrows the entire system and starts from scratch.

It’s highly probable that the Russians were meddling in American politics. It would be shocking if they weren’t. Russians and Americans have been meddling with each other’s countries since the beginning of the Cold War. The CIA is infamous for its covert activities in fucking around with other countries. You’d have to be naive to the point of idiocy to think that every major government isn’t constantly meddling in the affairs of other countries. We might as well have an open system of international spy exchange, just to simplify things. And it isn’t even just government. Do you really think the Chinese government doesn’t have spies in Western technology companies? Do you really think the Russian government doesn’t have spies in American companies manufacturing and operating voting machines? Come on! Don’t be stupid. In our heart of hearts, we already know this.

As for a functioning democracy, our government was from the beginning designed to not be a functioning democracy. That is what happened when the Federalists won. It’s true the Anti-Federalists got some semi-democratic concessions in trying to protect against the worst aspects of the Federalist aspirations of monarchy, aristocracy, and imperialism. But those concessions have turned out to be impotent.

Consider the electoral college. It was a compromise in the hope of balancing power. The reality of it, however, was that it gave power to the elite. It ultimately wasn’t a compromise between the public and the powerful nor between large and small states. Rather it ended up being an agreement between elites and other elites, in the struggle over which elites would rule and how they would rule.

Electors are part of the political elite, first and foremost. Their purpose is to represent state governments (i.e., local political elite) more than it is to represent local voters. This is why electors have always had the freedom to elect anyone they want. The idea was that, if the public voted incorrectly, the political elite by way of the electors could ensure the correct candidate was elected president. So, if the electors in this election did choose Clinton over Trump, they would simply be doing what is in their job description. Clinton is part of the political establishment and Trump isn’t. The electors purpose is to protect the political establishment, and the party-affiliation of the electors guarantees the state political establishments remains aligned with the federal political establishment.

From this perspective, nothing is exactly malfunctioning.

It’s sort of like modern warfare. The United States didn’t lose the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. They achieved their purpose in destabilizing these countries to keep other global powers from establishing control. It’s how geopolitics is played. The United States could have simply blown any of those countries off the map or turned any of them into permanent colonies, but that isn’t how the modern geopolitical game is played and won. Plus, it is effective as spectacle and entertainment to distract the masses, by playing out scapegoating rituals and propaganda narratives on the global stage. This redirects the public’s unhappiness and anger toward state-approved targets, allowing for emotional catharsis and temporary appeasement of collective anxiety.

As explained by Diana Johnstone, in Queen of Chaos:

For most Americans, U.S. wars are simply a branch of the entertainment industry, something to hear about on television but rarely seen. These wars give you a bit of serious entertainment in return for your tax dollars. But they are not really a matter of life and death…

In fact, it hardly seems to matter what happens in these wars. The United States no longer even makes war in order to win, but rather to make sure that the other side loses. Hillary Clinton accused Vladimir Putin, quite falsely, of adhering to a “zero-sum game in which, if someone is winning, then someone else has to be losing”. The United States is playing something even worse: a “no win”, or a “lose-lose”, game in which the other side may lose, yet the United States cannot be called the winner. These are essentially spoiler wars, fought to get rid of real or imagined rivals; everyone is poorer as a result. Americans are being taught to grow accustomed to these negative wars, whose declared purpose is to get rid of something – a dictator, or terrorism, or human rights violations.

The United States is out to dominate the world by knocking out the other players.

“Our ideals” are part of the collateral damage.

If you don’t understand the purpose and agenda behind a system, you can’t judge how effective it is in achieving those ends. Maybe that is what is happening with the American public right now. They are waking up to the reality that the world isn’t as they thought it was, that their country isn’t the kind they had been sold.

So, by what right do the elite rule over us? The social contract is being questioned, the legitimacy of the government challenged. Then what?

Brazil’s Hayekian Neo-Serfdom

Neoliberalism is a disease, a force of destruction. And Latin America has been one of the main workshops of the neoliberal ruling elite, a site of experimentation.

They first implement their agendas in weaker countries before trying them out in the West. Countries like Brazil are the canary in the coal mine. This will be soon coming to a country near you.

We are seeing the future form before our very eyes. Or as William Gibson put it, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Don’t worry. The distribution will come our way.

They promised you trickle down. What they didn’t tell you was what exactly would be trickling down on your head. I can tell you this much. It won’t be manna from heaven.

* * *

Is the US Behind the Brazilian Coup?
by Ted Snider, Antiwar.com

There can no longer be a defense of the removal of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff from office. The political maneuvering by the opposition PSDB has been uncloaked and revealed for what it clearly was all along: a quiet coup dressed in the disguise of democracy.

The recent release of a recording of a phone call has done for Brazil what Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland’s phone call to American ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt did for Ukraine: it has provided incontrovertible proof that the removal of the elected President was a coup.

The published transcript of the call between Romero Jucá, who was a senator at the time of the call and is currently the planning minister in the new Michael Temer government, and former oil executive, Sergio Machado, lays bare “a national pact” to remove Dilma and install Temer as President. Jucá reveals that, not only opposition politicians, but also the military and the Supreme Court are conspirators in the coup. Regarding the military’s role, Jucá says, “I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they said they will guarantee it.” And, as for the Supreme Court, Glenn Greenwald reports that Jucá admits that he “spoke with and secured the involvement of numerous justices on Brazil’s Supreme Court.” Jucá further boasted that “there are only a small number” of Supreme Court justices that he had not spoken to.

Safe with ‘Oligarchs and Imperialists’ in US, Brazil’s New President Admits Coup Plot
by Andrea Germanos, Common Dreams

Proponents of her ouster argued that former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was targeted and ultimately booted from office for budgetary wrongdoing or, ironically, corruption.

But fresh comments by new, unelected president Michel Temer himself back up claims that her impeachment was politically motivated, specifically, that Rousseff wouldn’t enact the austerity-promoting, welfare-slashing economic platform Temer unveiled from his party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), in October when he was vice president. […]

Vieira concludes that the impeachment “was for an agenda of impunity, profit, and power that would never be ratified democratically by the Brazilian voting population at the ballot box, and was thus imposed on them under the guise of upholding the law.”

Public Radio International also reported this week: “A mere two days after impeaching Rousseff, the same senators voted to legalize the very budget tricks they accused her of playing.”

In his speech Wednesday, Fox News Latino adds, “Temer made a pointed appeal to United States investors that his country is open for business.”

Brazil’s President Michel Temer Says Rousseff Was Impeached For Refusing His Economic Agenda
by Inacio Vieira, Intercept

In his remarks, Temer clearly stated what impeachment opponents have long maintained: that he and his party began to agitate for Rousseff’s impeachment when she refused to implement the pro-business economic plan of Temer’s party. That economic plan which Rousseff refused to implement called for widespread cuts to social programs and privatization, an agenda radically different from the one approved by Brazilians through the ballot box in 2014, when Dilma’s Workers’ Party won its fourth straight presidential election. The comments were delivered on Wednesday to an audience at the New York headquarters of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA). […]

The program “Bridge to the Future” – proposed by Temer’s party – prescribes cuts to health and education spending, reduced welfare benefits, a raised retirement age, new private sector partnerships and decreased market regulations. These ideas were the ones Temer advocated in his speech yesterday at AS/COA, which emphasized his government’s push for privatization and foreign investment. The newly installed President listed the multiple benefits and guarantees that his government intends to offer foreign investors. Those benefits including guaranteeing the profit margins of the business leaders who watched him speak while consuming their meals.

The AS/COA groups which Temer addressed is composed of members of multinational corporations and the U.S. foreign policy establishment focused on Latin America. Both were founded by the American industrialist David Rockefeller and have as its President Emeritus John Negroponte: the former Reagan and Bush administration ambassador and neoconservative hawk influential in the CIA’s dirty war in Honduras and the 2003 invasion of Iraq who is now a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton. On its website, the Council of the Americas describes itself as an “international business organization whose members share a common commitment to economic and social development, open markets, the rule of law, and democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere.”

Temer’s sales pitch was chock full of standard neoliberal euphemisms and buzzwords, including the “universalization of the Brazilian market,” “reestablishing trust,” “extraordinary political stability,” public-private partnerships, and the implementation of “fundamental reforms” in areas like labor law, social security and public spending. “I come here to invite you to take part in the country’s new phase of growth,” he proclaimed.

Temer’s comments are yet more confirmation that Rousseff’s impeachment did not occur due to alleged budget tricks, as the Brazilian media and the country’s now-ruling faction regularly claims. Nor was it for the traditional Brazilian family, nor for God, or against corruption, as congresspeople claimed during their “yes” votes. It was conducted on behalf of the interests of business owners and to the detriment of workers. It was for an agenda of impunity, profit, and power that would never be ratified democratically by the Brazilian voting population at the ballot box, and was thus imposed on them under the guise of upholding the law. Anyone still doubting that should simply listen to what the prime beneficiary of impeachment, Michel Temer, just said to his most important constituency.

As Brazil’s New Ruler Admits Lie Behind Impeachment, US Press Closes Eyes
by Janine Jackson, FAIR

But Temer’s remarkable confession was not seen as newsworthy by virtually anyone in US corporate media—though the New York Times (9/19/16) did report on the speech by Temer to the United Nations a few days earlier in which he insisted in reference to the impeachment, “Everything happened with absolute respect for the constitutional order.”

A search of the Nexis news database turns up no stories that mention his more forthright AS/COA speech in any US newspaper, magazine, broadcast or cable outlet. The story was covered in alternative outlets like The Intercept (9/23/16, 9/23/16, 9/28/16), Common Dreams (9/23/16) and Mintpress (9/26/16).

The media silence on Temer’s admission is striking, especially considering that the Council of the Americas’ members include some of the biggest names in corporate media, including News Corp, Time Warner, Bloomberg and the Financial Times.

But as signaled by Vice President Joe Biden’s recent praise for Temer’s “commitment to maintaining Brazil’s regional and global leadership role during the recent period of political change,” the US government is quite pleased with the new pro-austerity regime in Brazil (for as long as it lasts; Temer has already been barred by an electoral court from political campaigning for eight years for violating campaign spending limits). Given this official friendliness, then, it’s not surprising that elite media are not eager to expose the shady origins of Washington’s new friends.

Still Selling Neoliberal Unicorns: The US Applauds the Coup in Brazil, Calls It Democracy
by Greg Grandin, The Nation

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s recently deposed president, calls it a coup. Many, perhaps most, of the countries in the Organization of American States call it is a coup. Even the men who helped carry out the coup admit, in a secretly recorded conversation, that what they were doing was effectively a coup, staged to provide them immunity from a corruption investigation.

But the United States doesn’t think that the blatantly naked power grab that just took place in Brazil—which ended the Workers’ Party’s 13-year control of the presidency, installed an all-white, all-male cabinet, diluted the definition of slavery, lest it tarnish the image of Brazil’s plantation sector (which relies on coerced, unfree labor), and began a draconian austerity program—is a coup.

It’s democracy at work, according to various Obama officials. […]

Still trying to sell neoliberal unicorns. Nothing of the sort is going to happen, now that the United States has compliant compradores in power in Argentina and Brazil, and perhaps soon in Venezuela.

Colombia’s “security turnaround” is built on a mountain of corpses, on paramilitary terror and massive land dispossession. Until recently, the military was killing civilians, dressing them as FARC guerrillas, and claiming these “false positives” as victories in its fight against the FARC. Colombia boasts one of the largest internal refugee populations in the world—about 4 million people, a large number of them Afro- and indigenous Colombians. That’s what the Times is prescribing for the rest of the region now that the “left” is “on the run.”

The United States isn’t going to “help its neighbors become more competitive and stable by promoting investment in technology, innovation and high-quality education.” Over the past 13 years, Brazil, more than any other country, has stood in the way of Washington-backed efforts to impose a punishing intellectual and corporate property-rights regime on Latin America. That, in effect, is one of the objectives of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty, which was offered as a successor to the failed FTAA and meant to work around Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela.

But now that friendly faces are installed in Brasília and Buenos Aires, the path is clearer. Monsanto and other agri-behemoths will be able to impose their seed monopoly on the regime (as the United States now does in Central America, to devastating effect); energy resources will once again be privatized (as Hillary, as secretary of state, pushed to do in Mexico).

If you want a more realistic view of what Washington might accomplish now that the “left” is “on the run” in Latin America, look beyond the Times opinion pages to its reporting, where just yesterday it was revealed that US military aid had turned the Mexican army into the most unaccountable killing machine operating in the Western Hemisphere. Look to Argentina in 2001–02, where strict adherence to the Washington Consensus led to one of the worst economic crises in recorded history. Look to El Salvador today, where the Obama administration is using the terms of a free-trade agreement to force the government to shut down a local seed-distribution project, since it violates corporate interests. Look to Ecuador, where Chevron has turned a good stretch of the Amazon into a toxic tar pit. Or Paraguay, which after its 2012 coup was taken over by an agro-gangster government.

Or look to the US-Mexican border, where refugees from US “security partnership” risk death in the desert for the privilege of living their lives in the shadows.

Wall Street’s New Man in Brazil: The Forces Behind Dilma Rousseff’s Impeachment
by José L. Flores

The manipulation of the national budget could be considered unorthodox; however, the funds were mostly used on covering the costs of popular social programs. Acting President Michel Temer is simultaneously being investigated for bribery and corruption; however, he is a great friend to Wall Street and is a U.S. intelligence informant, which arguably puts him beyond reproach when considering impeachment or indictment.

Due to huge protests and the highly corrupt culture in Brazilian government, it has been argued that these impeachment proceedings are well overdue. However, when one studies Michel Temer and his political apparatus, it has become apparent that a return to neoliberal economic policies, diverging from Rousseff’s center-left Workers Party, is the actual goal. Furthermore, these impeachment proceedings seem to have pernicious despots secretly guided by the U.S. State Department, Defense Department and U.S. business interests, all of which have been operating in the shadows of Brazilian politics since 1962.

According to recent internal documents, provided by WikiLeaks, on several occasions Michel Temer was an embassy informant for U.S. intelligence. Temer secretly shared information to the U.S. Southern Command concerning the 2006 election of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and the vitality of his center-left Workers’ Party. Temer assured the Defense Department that despite Lula’s clear path to reelection the president would have to negotiate with the opposition, the Brazilian Democratic Workers Party (PMDB), who had just won most governorships and the Senate. He also assured the U.S. that the PMDB would soon coalesce with Brazil’s right wing parties, therefore greatly minimizing the Workers’ Party platform. Additionally, Temer also criticized the social programs being implemented by Lula and the Workers’ Party, claiming Lula was too concerned the poor and not concerned enough about “economic growth.” In these communications a thin line was drawn between espionage and informant. Temer’s loyalty seemed to be with the United States and capital and not to Brazil and democracy.

For over a decade the Workers Party has implementing social programs in order to help the poor and disenfranchised. Discontented with this progress groups like the Free Brazil Movement and Students of Liberty were mobilizing in major Brazilian cities to demonstrate. It was revealed that these young Brazilians, mostly white and over-privileged college students, were being financed by the Koch brothers through the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.

The Road to Neoliberalism

It is strange to continually see references to Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Hayek’s support of a brutal dictator like Augusto Pinochet shows that, in practice, he had nothing against going down the road to serfdom, in terms of his own confused use of that word. Such support demonstrates that he was morally insane and politically evil, and yet right-wingers continue to use that book like a magical talisman to wave away all alternative leftist possibilities.

Even ignoring the real world context of Hayek’s life, the title of his book is plain bizarre. He is arguing against oppressive centralization of power in large governments. But historically speaking, serfdom was part of feudalism. The one thing feudalism wasn’t is a national dictatorship like that of Pinochet’s Chile. Feudal lords were violently oppressive authoritarians that operated locally and on the small scale. Most of their power came from tradition and brute force at their command, not government and official laws. Feudal lords often fought against the centralized power of kings.

Let me put that in a modern context. There are two examples that come to mind that most closely approximate feudalism and serfdom.

The most obvious example was the plantation slave system, the aristocratic slaveholders having been the direct inheritors of the aristocratic feudal lords. I mean that literally and directly. Feudalism morphed into slavery with the one constant being the aristocracy, with a couple of centuries of overlap between the two systems. Interestingly, in the colonies, many of those slaveholding aristocrats fought against the British Empire in the American Revolution because they didn’t like a distant large centralized authoritarian government usurping their despotic power and overruling their own authoritarian aspirations within their local fiefdoms.

A more recent example is that of company towns. They aren’t as common these days, at least not in the Western countries, but from the 1800s to the early 1900s many of them were built in the United States. Before labor laws and protections, which is to say before much labor organizing, company towns were sometimes very much neo-feudalism with the ownership class having near total power over their workers. In company towns, workers were often in debt peonage/slavery and this was used as a form of rigid social control. Their entire lives were dominated by the company. They were required by the company to live in company housing, buy from the company store, go to the company doctor, send their kids to the company school, etc.

All of this relates to what is called corporatism (Southern Californian Birth of Salvific Corporatism; & Fascism, Corporatism, and Big Ag). It was a key pillar of fascism. And of course mass slavery was brought back under fascist states. One might note the growing role of prison labor in the US economy, a tradition that followed directly from slavery (From Slavery to Mass Incarceration).

Both of those examples came at a time when government was immensely smaller and less centralized. Feudalism and neo-feudalism is the very vision of authoritarian libertarianism, if we are to coin such a misnomer. This is is also the era that neoliberals love to fantasize about. It’s unsurprising that neoliberal superstars like Friedman, Reagan, and Thatcher loved Pinochet and any other right-wing authoritarian who came along. Neoliberalism has always depended on the alliance of fascist and theocratic states.

The first and only necessary principle of corporatist neoliberalism (or rather soft fascism) is the plutocratic privilege to deny everyone else’s rights and freedoms. Hayek didn’t care about civil rights and democratic systems of any sort and saw them as potentially dangerous. His so-called liberalism was (and still is) defined by one ideal, that of supposedly freedom of action in terms of unmeritocratic capitalism, but it didn’t apply to the freedom of action of anyone who disagreed with him, especially those not part of the oligarchy (the Golden Rule, those with the gold make and enforce the rules). So, he only believed in freedom of others to do what he thought they should do. Otherwise, they must be stopped from acting freely, even if it involved violent oppression, from mass killings to torture (thousands died, were harmed, went missing, and were made into refugees under Pinochet’s regime).

Of course, this oppressive unfreedom was supposedly only a temporary situation, until the malcontents were taken care of, the anti-capitalist obstacles removed, and the new social order was put in place. Then and only then would freedom reign. That was the dogmatic ideology of laissez-faire capitalism that captured power in Western countries and was violently enforced around the world. It was a serfdom made global, not limited to mere local authoritarianism and a quaint aristocracy. This is why spreading Western freedom around the world has required trillions of dollars of military force and millions killed — bombs and blood. It was Manifest Destiny at a larger scale, with even better rhetoric.

Some call this liberty.

* * *

Nietzsche, Hayek, and the Meaning of Conservatism
by Corey Robin

Hayek von Pinochet
by Corey Robin

Hayek’s Super-Highway
by John Médaille

The road to serfdom and taking the country back
by citizen k

Hayek and Pinochet
by John Quiggin

Capitalism is Not Meritocracy
by Frank Moraes

Bill Black: How Hayek Helped the Worst Get to the Top in Economics and as CEOs
by Yves Smith

The New Road to Serfdom
by Christopher Hayes

The Road from Serfdom
by Greg Grandin

Why libertarians apologize for autocracy
by Michael Lind

Friedrich Hayek: in defence of dictatorship
by Benjamin Selwyn

The Mad Dream of a Libertarian Dictatorship
by Jesse Walker

Money won’t compensate for my torture in Chile
by Leopoldo García Lucero

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.

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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.

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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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Noam Chomsky: An Interview with Barry Pateman

 I always enjoy hearing Chomsky talk on almost any issue. In this interview, Chomsky discusses: anarchism, community, technology, class warfare, wealth transferral, taxation, free market, outsourcing, command economy, totalitarianism, Marxism, neoliberalism, and globalization.