Making a Radical Rupture with Conventional Thinking Part I
By Dennis Loo (10/4/13)
If you want to actually have an impact on a societal level—a complicated endeavor—then you need analytical tools that are up to the task. You cannot possibly get such sophisticated tools by relying on the conventional wisdom dispensed via the ordinary organs of media and public officialdom. Does the advice we get on health care over the mainstream media give us enough scope, depth and detail to allow us to treat ourselves and be our own physicians? Certainly not. Why would political advice dispensed via mainstream media and existing governmental institutions be any better? Is it reasonable to expect that reliance upon the major parties’ campaign pitches and the injunction “just vote” could possibly be all you need to know to change society? The richest 85 individuals in the world have more wealth than the bottom fifty percent of the world’s population. If you had such extreme wealth and power and enjoyed your luxuries more than justice, would you let your possessions be subject to the whims of the principle of “one person, one vote?” Would you let your extraordinary wealth be outvoted? You would be crazy to do so. – Globalization and the Demolition of Society, (Pp. 23-24)
Even the most highly trained and experienced physicians will consult with other physicians on matters that involve their own health or that of others whose conditions have not improved based on the existing diagnosis and treatments. Even world-class experts would not attempt to treat cases that are not improving without such additional expert consultation.
Yet in so-called democracies, by contrast, we are told practically every day that the workings of our society as a whole and our political institutions in particular, are really very simple: everybody of voting age already knows what they need to know (i.e., they have the right and power of the vote) and have at their disposal the means – voting and contacting your political representatives - to fix what ails society.
How is it that in any every other human endeavor, people see the need for and routinely consult with experts – e.g., those wanting to become professional athletes or to win championships seek the guidance of the best coaches they can afford – yet when it comes to public policy and the allocation of resources for social needs and problems, the consequences of which spell life and death for millions, expertise is regarded as unnecessary? How is it that the inner workings and subtleties of every other activity except politics is something that is considered hard to discover, tough to learn, and exceedingly difficult to master? If Tiger Woods relied for his game wholly on what Golf Magazine’s monthly issues made available, would he be a multiple majors’ champion?
Yet we are told, and most people believe, that they can rely for making good decisions about politics on what is said by the news media, their friends and associates, and by the major political parties’ candidates and officeholders themselves. In virtually any other activity, people who are training you in their fields aren’t trying to deceive you and people nonetheless recognize that they have to get the best guidance they can find and then they have to practice relentlessly to have any hope of getting any good at it. In politics the so-called experts – office holders and office seekers - that most people rely upon are actively trying to deceive those they talk to. Yet the average person and even nearly all of those who closely follow politics think that they can make political decisions based upon taking at face value or close to face value what those who are trying to fool them are saying!
This is like trying to learn how something really works by going to the nearby newsstand and spending a few hours every week reading the newspapers and magazines on display. This is in fact what most people actually do the equivalent of to make their political decisions. “Sure, I’m a brain surgeon. I’ve spent many hours on my own at the magazine stands and watching videos about how to operate on people’s brains. Have I had specialized training and where did I get my medical degree? I don’t need those things, silly. I know everything I need to know from the books I read and the videos I watched.” Would you put your brain in that person’s hands? Why would you do the equivalent to that when deciding who is going to make public policy that affects everyone’s lives and fates?
The Conventional Wisdom About Politics
The conventional argument about politics has two main variants.
A) Society is the way that it is because of “human nature” – humans are basically selfish and/or fatally flawed – and therefore nothing sweeping and fundamental can ever be done to change things; and/or
B) Things operate the way that they do because people vote for the wrong people/parties and it would all work qualitatively differently if people who aren’t voting did vote and if enough people voted for the right individuals/parties to assume power. Even most people on the political Left are prone to a version of this simplistic reasoning: if we could just get enough of the right people into political power, then things would be different. Even those who might not think that voting is the solution still believe that putting the right people into power (e.g., through a mass uprising) will do the trick.
You can see version B of this operating both in this country and around the world: millions of people act based upon the collective mistaken belief that if they could just get the right people into office then all will be well. If you can’t vote in your first choice, then at least you can vote for the “lesser evil” and the greater evil will be forestalled, at least for a time. Outside of the U.S., where left wing and anti-capitalist sentiments are much stronger, the political parties generally have to sound and appear to be more left wing to be accepted by the masses. Thus, you have in England the “Labor Party,” in France the “Socialist Party,” in Germany you have the Greens, and in Sweden and so on, you have ruling parties calling themselves Social Democrats. And yet, even with electorates that are much more politically sophisticated than the average American is, you still have the majority participating in the losing game of elections and choosing the “lesser evil” or choosing the “party of change” that really doesn’t bring about the promised change.
Millions have risen up in the Arab Spring, risking and some laying down their lives for real change, and yet they are constantly frustrated by their inability to secure such fundamental change.
Version A of the conventional wisdom is very widespread but it reflects a failure to really grasp how societies operate. To begin with, there is no such thing as "human nature." Anthropology and sociology both involve the study of human societies over time and place. That is precisely what they specialize in: how social groupings and the largest social grouping, society, actually operate. The fundamental finding of both of these disciplines, the premise upon which they both rest, is that humans are first and foremost social beings, not first and foremost autonomous individuals, and that society exists separate and apart from any of its individual occupants. Society and groups exist because they formally and informally rest upon and rely upon social norms (rules) that most people abide by, both consciously and mostly unconsciously. Those social norms make social life probabilistically predictable. That is, we can predict how most people are going to behave under a given set of circumstances. What characterizes a prison environment, for example, is not principally a result of the attitudes and values of prisoners and prison guards and administrators. What makes prisons prisons is not because they're filled with criminals and sadists. What makes prisons prisons is the social roles that individuals are forced to adopt within the joint. This force, which sociologist Emile Durkheim called "social facts" that leads them to take on these roles - broadly speaking, prisoners and prison guards and the sub-types with each of those - exists above and behind individuals, so to speak.
Stanford undergraduates became indistinquishable from real prisoners and prison guards in the famous Stanford Prison Experiment even though Stanford students are as far removed from real prisoners and prison guards as one can imagine. They became their roles as prisoners and prison guards, nonetheless, extremely quickly because social facts and social norms overall determine human behavior. Those who choose to depart from those roles are subject to punishment, ranging from social ridicule or isolation to violent repression. Systems, to put this simply, operate the way that they do not because people in them have certain immutable traits - sociology and anthropology tell us that there is no such thing as immutable human behaviors and traits and that individuals overwhelming tend to behave the way that systems' paths of least resistance dictate. To change systems then principally requires changing the system, not the individuals themselves. Individuals don't create the systems that they live in. It's more the other way around: systems have their internal logic and character and individuals accommodate themselves to those systems. This isn't a one-way street entirely but it is mainly in that direction: systems > individuals. (I will have go into these matters more in depth later in this series).
While sociology and anthropology rest upon this fundamental insight, in the same way that say, Darwin's Evolutionary Theory provides the foundation for biology and the square root of a negative number and division by zero (!) are fundamental to calculus, this does not mean that every sociologist and every anthropologist understands fully how political systems work. Indeed, most sociologists and anthropologists, even though they may be good at their disciplines, still have trouble fully applying this fundamental principle of our disciplines to their own political systems. I was severely scolded, for example, by Frances Fox Piven (a famous sociologist known for her work extolling people’s movements) at a sociological meeting several years ago for saying that we (sociologists) ought to “sharpen up our criticism of Obama.” Dr. Piven, who has come under sharp fire and had her life threatened by the right-wing for her leftish views, was scandalized by my remarks and said in vigorous and outraged retort to my comments that she was sick of people criticizing Obama and that “Obama is much better than Bush.”
In other words, many sociologists and anthropologists still wrongly think that it matters greatly which party and which individual holds office in a capitalist/imperialist country like the U.S.
How can change really then be accomplished?
The model for understanding how political power actually operates that most people are using is fatally flawed. Actions - even heroic actions involving tremendous sacrifice - that are based on an erroneous model cannot lead you to accomplishing your goal. Having a literal majority of the population on your side will not help you win if your strategy and tactics are based upon a wrong assessment of the situation, its nature, and how to bring about fundamental change.
The analytical tools that most people use to understand and act within the political realm are unfortunately wrong. Elections don’t determine public policy. Systems don’t change through elections. The stakes involved in the outcome of elections are so immense that those who control the levers of power would be foolish to provide a legal, secure, simple and official means by which their power could actually be completely broken. They make sure that those who are on the final slate of candidates, no matter which one of them ends up winning, will be acceptable to the PTB. And if one or more of those elected are still unwilling to play ball with them, then they will make sure that those individuals are either bought off or stymied at every turn. If those efforts still prove unsuccessful, then the troublemakers will be eliminated through any number of ways such as a scandal, a sudden discovery of their adulterous behavior, or an unexpected heart attack or fatal car accident.
Change cannot be accomplished using conventional thinking or even through some seemingly radicalized variant of conventional modes of thinking (e.g., conspiracy theories or a left-wing version of individualism). Why would you expect that you could take the theory and playbook of those who now hold power and use their theory and their playbook against them? Their theory and their playbook are based upon their values and their world outlook. If what is wrong with society is that very value system, how can their institutions and their procedures that reflect that value system, contain all you need to undo these very problems? The problems we face rest upon the foundation of their theories. What is amiss is not that their theories and rhetoric are fine and we just need to get them to live up to those theories and rhetoric. The problem grows out of and is directly related to their value system and theory.
Going through the existing channels of the system in place is a recipe for frustration and failure. Revolutionary changes are necessary and possible but to accomplish that you must have a revolutionary theory that can illuminate the underlying systems’ level logic in play and how a path can be taken that will in fact lead you towards and eventually to your goal. That requires and demands a radical rupture with conventional thinking. There is a rich historical record to draw upon that furnishes a wealth of lessons to help forge such a theory and path. More on this and related questions in the next segment of this series.