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Political Power and How People Tend to Misunderstand It

Political Power and How People Tend to Misunderstand It

By Dennis Loo (5/1/17)

Author’s note: If you are or were an activist, many of the terms used in this essay are going to be familiar to you. It is worth your while, however, as a non- or not-yet activist, to read this essay because the issues I am addressing are universal and we need a lot more of you to join the ranks of those who are consciously trying to change the world. However, this probably will need multiple readings and a lot of thought put in over time. This is not because I am being unclear or deliberately obscure, in fact I have done my best to make this accessible even though the subjects I’m tackling are complex. Please read the articles linked to because they help fill in the picture and are not meant as fluff or to merely repeat what the essay goes into.

Conventional and even academic wisdom about these matters is usually wrong. This article was written in the hopes of settling some questions that have been debated for a long time. Naturally, some people are more scientific than others whereas some adopt stances against this because it is frankly more comfortable for them. If you, however, care enough about those near and far from you the same, have a thoroughgoing scientific spirit and go where the evidence and logic take you, then certain of these questions WILL be settled for you.

As both a professor who has taught a long time and as an activist, I have talked to thousands upon thousands of people about how they view political power. It’s a question that people tend to deviate in one or another direction on and bears directly on the reason why more people are not politically involved.

If you think about it, this situation stands to reason: one’s understanding of political power has to be involved at the core of if, how, and the extent you are involved. This is somewhat at odds with what my RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party, USA) friends are doing now: trying to win over tens of millions to drive out Trump and Pence because of their fascism.

In order to get into this properly, I need to first of all establish some things.

Politics as Everything

What is really at stake with one’s view of political power is what you think humanity’s capable of – are they just consumers (the vast majority of people are to be fooled or misled) or are they capable of eventually running all of society? What I am speaking of goes far beyond the realm of voting every few years and the political institutions themselves and I am therefore making a very different argument from the usual understanding of politics. This is how I define politics: how you decide what you do and what others are doing is political because it involves choice and use of limited resources in all things personal and public. Anyone who tells you that resources are not finite is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. What I am getting at and how different from what you are accustomed to will become clearer as you read this further.

I don’t see the RCP’s attempt to mobilize tens of millions or their ultimate goal of revolution as foolhardy. They share with me a view that politics should be an all-encompassing definition. But does mobilizing around Trump and Pence’s fascism consist of part of that view and strategy? The RCP is certainly open to scrutinizing what they are doing to see if it matches up well with their goals. In fact, it was a party supporter who solicited my views in the first place. This is in part my response to that question.

Many others look at what they see on the surface and see a convulsive political crisis suddenly appearing out of that, leading to possibly a revolution, as crazy … but they also thought the idea of Trump as POTUS was unimaginable too! Rather than doing violence as is now the case under the present system to our social nature, we are talking about organizing society in line with that nature. Instead of rewarding the worst tendencies among us, I am talking about bringing to the fore the best, without having to depend on the best within us always prevailing. The planet, to take one salient example, is being destroyed and you can be in denial like Trump or you can do the things that will save it. What risk would you undertake to wrest the Earth – the only planet we know for sure that houses sentient life - from certainly being destroyed by those in charge now if you and others could save it? You would take any odds, wouldn’t you, because the result otherwise is certain? This system is the cause and this system must be replaced by a system where social needs take the fore and profit no longer is in command.

***

The two deviations about political power actually act as a significant barrier to people’s greater involvement. It constitutes a core question that a political vanguard needs to resolve - or else they break their backs on it.

My reference to a political vanguard, that is, a political leadership, is at odds with the notion that no leadership is necessary. Certainly libertarians and anarchists expressly disagree with me. And those who actually run things behind the cover of this being a democracy would and are taking society in a radically different direction under the mask of a “democracy.” Yet if you look around you, you see that leadership is a necessary part of group existence itself. When a team is in a playoff game, for example, it looks for a player to put the team on their shoulders to lead them. Although that person plays an indispensable role, they cannot do this alone. The Detroit Pistons defeated the Chicago Bulls in the 1980s during the NBA Eastern Conference finals repeatedly until Michael Jordan got help from others, especially Scottie Pippin. So in what follows I am assuming the reader understands or is at least open to the idea of political leadership, except I am speaking of a very special kind of leadership.

The main tendency by far historically for political vanguards’ error about this has been to tail behind people – that is, to worship at the feet of or to be afraid of getting too far out in front of where the active elements are (i.e., the most active and politically advanced masses), and thus failing to lead. Instead, they resort to becoming the most active organizers and activists at protests, but fail miserably in their principal role to politically and ideologically lead others. As a result, the people’s role then becomes no better than glorified spectators or cheerleaders rather than taking up the mantle of changing themselves and society. Refreshingly, the 1960’s Black Panther Party dealt with this under the slogan “Relate to the Vanguard, Motherfucker!”

From Without

This question of a political vanguard has been and is the subject of considerable controversy in the Left, dating back at least to Lenin’s writing his 1902 What Is To Be Done? In that work he argues in essence two things. First, because of the bourgeoisie’s dominance over the working classes’ access to familiar (including taken-for-granted or “naturalized”) ideas, their and others’ exposure to and the study of truly alternative and revolutionary ways of organizing society can only be brought to the proletariat “from without.”

That is, within the normal life and work experience for the working class and other strata, “trade union consciousness” is the best one can hope for, where the proletariat faces off against the bourgeoisie, but is by itself only bargaining for better terms within existing conditions rather than even imagining, let alone working towards, a radically entirely different social arrangement.

If you are at least of college age, then you are no doubt aware that everybody exists on a spectrum, including their level of caring about others and their concern about how society is structured. I am mainly addressing those whose level of concern for others and the planet is high, for they are the ones who can lead others to do what must be done. There are, because of Trump and Pence, no shortages of people who are acting politically. The question, however, is whether what we are doing matches up to what we confront. And there’s the rub…

A Vanguard

Second, Lenin argues in WITBD? that the process of “bringing from without” requires a political vanguard to act as the group bringing Marxism to its natural home, the working class, by those who are in the process themselves of training themselves in revolutionary work (importantly including the study of Marxism, since ideas contrary to the bourgeoisie and ideas in general must be studied). The problem of raising the masses’ activity and consciousness then becomes that of first of all raising the activity and consciousness of those who would lead them, their vanguard, not the masses per se.

It is particularly here that radical democrats (small “d”) differ from Leninists, claiming either or both of the following: that within the shell of capitalist society the masses already know basically all they need to know and/or the self-appointed vanguard is substituting itself for the masses and therefore acting undemocratically.

Democratic Theory’s Base Assumption

Where radical democrats are coming from is one of democratic theory’s key assumptions: that political rule originates from and fundamentally reflects public opinion and the nature of humans. Except that this assumption of theirs isn’t true. Let’s start with this: how many social issues do you feel comfortable with and experienced in well enough so that you could explain it to someone else? Take the issue of climate change, for instance. Do you have the expertise necessary to give a talk to others at the end of which they now know what they need to know and what to do about climate change? Yet we are asked every few years to vote on a slate of candidates and/or propositions designed to elicit our opinions about such matters. How many people know enough about any single issue, let alone a host of issues? Yet we the people are supposedly in charge. Does this make sense to you? Would you agree that what we need to know and the means by which we seek answers to these questions is largely unknown and unfamiliar to the public, even many of its best educated ones?

Some will say: that’s why we defer to the experts. But even if we had a situation where we made our decisions based on experts, which we don’t (look at Trump and who he appointed to his cabinet – many of them want to dismantle the agency they head), who is to decide whether we are being guided by the wisest and when the weight of experts is divided deeply, how do you decide then? Those who say they vote on the person or party or platform must know that office holders often do the reverse of what they say. But that is what voting etc. is for: to turn this over to whom you trust most. But those who have paid close attention to this process come to realize that hearings and voting don’t mean much or anything at all.

Democracy as a Means to An End versus as An End in Itself?

Let me introduce you to a different way of seeing this. I owe this distinction to Bob Avakian where he says that there is a difference between democracy as an end in itself (“the people have spoken” – they voted) as it is normally understood, and democracy as a means to an end. The former is really a mask for oligarchy. Democracy as a means to an end is where the masses would participate in where they choose to and the aim would be two-fold. First, people would participate in a-hands-on way because there is no other way that you can determine what’s true except through actually doing it, together with study.

Second, because we are trying to bridge differences that exist in society between mental and manual labor, between genders, between different races and ethnicities, between town and country, between one region and another, and so on, there is no other way to do it. Again, not everyone wants this because some do benefit from inequality of various kinds. For example, some like white skin privilege because it benefits them, even if it in some ways invisible to them. I am assuming that if you are reading this you would like to see these forms of inequalities bridged and that most people would too. Some people right now are drawn to identity politics and believe experience and insight are confined to certain groups alone. In part this is a reaction to the so-called failures of socialism (the first stage from the mid-1800s to Mao’s death in 1976) and a disbelief in any “grand narrative.” But this is incorrect epistemologically and is ultimately a recipe for divisions that can never be bridged.

Let me elaborate on why identity politics is epistemologically wrong. Certainly white racism and hate crimes are still problems and must be fought against. Bigotry now comes at us from the highest office in the land. People are right to want to fight this. But identity politics make impossible finding out what is true that diverse people can agree upon because it renders “truth” broken up depending upon one’s background rather than what we can collectively share. If something is true, then it’s true, regardless of who is saying it. Otherwise truth is mistakenly made into an ad hominem argument: it’s true or false depending on who is saying it rather than what they are saying. Ad hominem styles of argumentation also characterize the political Right, and it is just as wrong there as it is in its Left version.

Remember that certain choices must be made. A man’s ability to rape a woman is precluded by her and other women’s right to not be molested.

Let me give you another example. Suppose we were to do this at my school. Instead of a single president who really runs the show, you had a faculty member, a student, and an administrative representative to replace that president? Input from students would constantly be part of instruction and students would actively and genuinely take part in determining what and how it was taught along with faculty. Many make-work administrative VPs would be abolished and faculty and students would overall be in charge. We would keep the registrar’s office and a few other administrative functions but that is all. Pizza with the Presidents would be open mike and not a dog and pony show but part of real governance. Would you want that kind of school? Imagine every other sector of society being like that. Wouldn’t that kind of society be bristling with creative energy?

There is no question in my mind that Lenin was right about this: if there is to be a revolution, there must be revolutionary theory and it must be brought to people from “without” their day-to-day existence. If you don’t train people in how to seek the truth in the face of all those who are trying to mislead you, what can you expect of the public?

Is Truth Determinable and Does It Matter?

The second criticism above about Leninists deserves some elaboration. It relates to the question of whether truth a) can be determined, and b) if it matters. I am going to argue yes to both questions. A distinction that should made here (and Engels does a good job of this in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) between absolute truths and relative truth. An example of absolute truth is that the War of 1812 happened in 1812. That is not subject to dispute and one can determine this absolutely. Another example is that we need air to breathe. Of course, one can hold your breath for a time, or train yourself to go longer without air, but there are certain limits that one cannot exceed or you will die.

Then there is the matter of relative truths. An example of this is allopathic medicine, which is what most people earn with an M.D. We know, for example, that pneumonia can be cured through penicillin or other antibiotic. We know a lot more about how the body works then when Washington was president (in his time they thought mercury was good for you), but there is a great deal that we don’t yet know. What we know about the body is greater than before, so relative knowledge approaches but only in certain cases equals absolute truth. Science has made great strides and we know, for example, how to orbit satellites around the globe. Most of us accept evolution as fact although certain exact mechanisms of it continue to be subjects of debate. Ask someone who doesn’t accept evolution why the flu changes – mutates – each year.

“Truth is Whatever You Think”

Can truth be determined? The answer to that question is in some ways very simple. Do the people who argue that objective reality is non-existent actually live their philosophy in daily life? Do those who put in a location on a GPS act as if the time difference found out by Einstein’s Relativity Theory that exists between the orbiting satellite and the GPS does not exist? Or do they depend on physical laws discovered by science working, such as flying a plane or having their eyes corrected through lasers?

Does the truth matter? The answer depends some on whom you ask. Some don’t care about the truth and some people actually benefit from certain lies, such as products selling for a lot because of being “brand name” goods, not because they are a better deal. Some politicians depend a great deal on lying to succeed. So if you ask them they will likely act as if truth does not matter.

Here, for example, are the words of Jeb Bush, speaking to Naval Intelligence Officer Al Martin: 

“The truth is useless. You have to understand this right now. You can't deposit the truth in a bank. You can't buy groceries with the truth. You can't pay rent with the truth. The truth is a useless commodity that will hang around your neck like an albatross -- all the way to the homeless shelter. And if you think that the million or so people in this country that are really interested in the truth about their government can support people who would tell them the truth, you got another think coming. Because the million or so people in this country that are truly interested in the truth don't have any money.” - (cited by Uri Dowbenko in Bushwhacked, Sept. 2002). 

In other words, what matters to Jeb Bush is if it sells, not whether it is true. But politicians and government officials make decisions all the time where resources have a finite limit and there are more things to fund then they have resources, so they are forced to make choices and decide priorities. That is their job! Whether they are doing a good job of that or not is a separate question. If you are addressing a social problem but with an incorrect understanding of that problem, then you are going to make a mess, aren’t you? Resources will be wasted at best or the problem will get worse.

Whether your decisions are based on objective reality or not then matters a great deal because decisions are deeply consequential.

Another position that those in authority believe in firmly and is at the core of this system’s legitimacy doctrine (its right to exist and the widespread belief that is just) is that those with more merit are on top and those down below have less or none at all. Their justification for such a highly stratified system with such a large and widening gap is that the people on top are entitled to where they are and others are not. The rationale for the American Dream, for example, rests upon two assumptions. First, that material and not non-material motivations drive people. Second, greater material rewards for those who get more are earned. The first assumption is wrong (see page 8 under Incentives). The second assumption means, as I wrote in another article:

Is that any way to organize society – to make it a game of winners and losers and where the winners think they are just so much better than all of those losers out there? There is a huge difference between applauding those who push the limits of human capacity because this is something that all of us can derive inspiration and satisfaction from, and organizing one’s society along lines that celebrate individualism as if individuals are not part and parcel of groups and lauding the desirability of the “winners” having no obligations to others. It is precisely this stance of ruthless egotism and narcissism that is destroying the planet and tearing the social fabric asunder.

The obvious differences that now exist between classes, race/ethnicity, and gender must be justified to both sides of these divides or they could not persist. For those who benefit the most from these divides, a sense of entitlement is nearly inevitable: I/we deserve to eat better because others are not as good as I/we am/are. The natural outcome of this is to divide people against each other rather than to promote social solidarity. Is that the way you want to organize society and pick leaders: that they are so much better than others? Instead of this destructive zero-sum game you could recruit leaders on the basis that they are doing important work and serving the people. You don’t necessarily have to embellish that with greater material rewards.

Cooperation and Competition Exist Together and Always Will

This is a very different perspective from capitalist ideology. It’s so different that a lot of people have a hard time wrapping their minds around it. Yet if you are paying attention to the way to world actually works, beneath the official and dominant discourse, lies the truth that we must cooperate before we compete and society itself would be impossible without it. Even the most individualistic and competitive of societies - capitalist society - despite its rhetoric to the contrary, must be and can only be resting on a foundation of cooperation despite the cooperation under capitalism existing under conditions of domination.

This is not to say that capitalism isn’t exploitive and damaging. Nor is it to say that the defeat of capitalist ideology and its structures would not result in a truly dramatic and radically improved system and set of values made foremost and real. What is real and beneficial will take the lead and that will make a gigantic difference.

Let’s begin with some examples. Take sports, which is really stylized warfare: for a contest to start there must first be agreed upon rules - what are the boundaries, what counts, what doesn’t, how many players match up and constitute a team, the referees’ decision is final and we will abide by their ruling, the winner is celebrated and the losers wait until next time, even if the winners only win by one point and even if they were dominated the whole time save for one last second lucky shot.

No matter how you do it and how it went, the winner(s) celebrate(s) like crazy and the loser(s) hang their/his/her head(s). If we were only or mainly about winning, then we don’t have to settle on rules first, we can simply go around declaring our side winning, and not playing by any mutually agreed upon rules. But that would be stupid because everyone knows that there must be rules in place first. No one else would recognize you as winner because you didn’t beat anyone and there were no rules. We take those rules for granted and talk about competition only, not recognizing that the foundation for all that is cooperation.

Competition is a good thing because it causes you to excel beyond what you think you are able. The bar for humanity is hereby moved. So that is why it will not disappear. But competition exists in relation to cooperation; you cannot have one without the other. Try to imagine competition absent agreed upon rules - which is turn is the result of cooperation. You cannot, can you? That would be like imagining sound without silence, or rotating left without a corresponding right, or zigging without zagging.

In every endeavor there are rules. Children know this instinctively and know that any groups they start have to have rules, even if they’re entirely arbitrary. Another term for rules is mutually agreed upon norms and they only work if both sides abide by them. In the most solitary game of chess to become a chess grandmaster is not a single person’s accomplishment but constantly studying past games of great players, a mentor and a support team. In other words, a social support network is needed for any chance to make a life, let alone to distinguish yourself, or make a breakthrough.

This universally applies, no matter what endeavor we talk about. Let’s take, as another example, a place where capitalism is fierce: the trading floor of the commodities stock market. Picture the scene by the color of the outfits people wear as a smock. Suppose they were to not agree on a color scheme and people didn’t wear distinct and recognizable colors. How would you put in an order to buy or sell? How would you communicate this to anyone? The answer is you couldn’t except on the basis of cooperation.

Leaders and the groups that they lead are also in a relationship to each other, as is cooperation and competition. Try as some people do to get rid of leaders, leaders are groups’ way of organizing themselves; you can no more get rid of leaders than you can get rid of sound without silence. But there are different kinds of leaders: there are those who try to retain or expand the inequalities – either by design or inadvertently - I referred to them before, and there are those leaders that try to narrow those differences. The latter kind is what we need many more of to lead others forward.

This raises the question of what end is meant by democracy used as a means to an end. The goal here is to get rid eventually of classes as a way to allot people to the workforce and in other ways, and to bridge the inequalities that class society and capitalism feed, such as racism and sexism.

***

You already do many of the things that a radically different kind of society and economy requires. But what we have that now stands in our way of protecting the earth we live on and treating each other and others of earth’s occupants – plants and animals – properly, is that the value system in charge and the system logic is at odds with this. Instead of profit being charge as it is now, we could put social need in the dominant position.

Incentives

Some people are afraid, however, that they will thus lose the incentive to work or to invent if the system is driven by social need overall rather than profit. But what drives people mainly even now in this capitalist system is not material incentives. Rather, people are mainly driven by engagement, autonomy, purpose and contributing to something larger than themselves. That is not to say we would abolish material incentives but we would make the leading edge of incentives non-material more and more as time goes on and as circumstances permit.

But accomplishing this requires a revolution. We cannot achieve any of this absent a revolution. And in order to achieve that, a shift in people’s consciousness must occur as a necessary ingredient.

***

I had a student once who insisted that humans were naturally violent. I pointed out to him that warfare needs cooperation among the combatants. Social rules still apply.

Trump is as individualistic and narcissistic as possible and he makes a fetish out of breaking social norms and getting away with it. Yet look at who he surrounds himself with – family and loyal no-matter-what friends. He could not accomplish anything without their help.

If you are reading this, you are probably not typical yourself. You at least have significant disagreements with mainstream discourse, if not outright contempt for those who rule and their system. So we are obviously not addressing questions that most, even Left, people usually talk about. But, to use a physical science analogy, how many people can describe accurately, let alone lead others, to make breakthroughs in the hard sciences? Precious few at the start of something new and important. Lasers, for example, have become very widespread in their use, but how many people were working on lasers ‘ development before a laser was even considered as useful?

This came to mind by someone telling me a short anecdote about how she and two other students addressed that question when another professor asked the class “What is political power?” The first person said it meant you complete control. No, he said, that’s not quite right. The second student said it means you have others that you influence. No, that’s not quite it either. The third person, remembering what I said in lecture, “It’s getting your way, even against resistance.” The professor said, “That is exactly it.”

Let’s look, however, at the ways that most look at political power. The most common version I see is that of the first kind (PP 1) where political power is equated with complete control. “You may as well not try,” it is regularly said, “because authorities will just crush you. The system is self-perpetuating.” In this variant, people don't realize that political power consists of two invariant aspects: persuasion and coercion. They are likely instead accepting without question the bourgeois nostrum that political power reflects “human nature” (by which they mean we are “naturally” selfish, greedy and violent).

If a governing body had to rely on force exclusively to get its way and didn't most of the time rely upon persuasion, then there are just not enough police to keep things going. Even the Nazis needed mainly cooperation and not force to rule. No one would argue that the Nazis used violence unsparingly. But even they needed people to cooperate mainly, even with the very generous use of force.

While coercion is the hard shell of political power and brought out against dissidents or even in extreme cases the tanks roll against millions of people when there is a crisis, during and especially in the aftermath of such an event, public opinion governmental organs go into overtime to justify the government's actions. If it is not successful in legitimizing its use of force, the government is doomed and will be overthrown because it has lost and not regained the people’s trust. Egypt 2011 when Mubarak was overthrown is an example. So is China in 1989 (centered in Tiananmen Square but in many cities) where the government was widely despised but was able to get its version of events eventually to prevail.

The idea that the PTB cannot be fought and you are foolish to try is nonsense. But it has become naturalized as what most people “know” mainly because it benefits those in charge that you believe it. It is an example of the ruling class’ dominance that their version of ideas is paramount. The PTB’s ability and right to rule rests upon a much more delicate balance than is usually understood.

As a crucial part of the correct definition of political power, best articulated by sociologist Max Weber, the state exercises the power to use violence because it enjoys a “monopoly over the legitimate means of violence.” What Weber never spoke about, however, was the circumstances when that the government’s monopoly over the legitimate means of violence is challenged by large numbers of people. This can happen different ways and has happened many, many times throughout history, including within some current conflicts. The Syrian government, for example, has been under challenge for its use of state violence for some time.

This is when a social scientist actually looked at the data:

A political scientist named Ivan Arreguin-Toft compiled the data a few years ago by looking at lopsided wars over the last two hundred years. Malcolm Gladwell in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants cites Arreguin-Toft’s data.

When the underdog uses conventional warfare against his/her vastly superior rival, the underdog wins almost a third of the time: 28.5% to be precise. Hardly a recipe that conforms to what the majority of people believe so emphatically that they would call the victory of a superior force a slam dunk.

Here’s where the data get much more interesting: when the underdog uses unconventional warfare to fight against their vastly superior enemy, the underdog’s winning rate goes from about a third of the time to 63.6% of the time.[1]

I’ll repeat that: if they don’t use the superior forces’ methods, the weaker forces win 63.6% of the time.

This is hardly the conclusion that you hear from just about nearly everyone!

See importantly this too:

There is a sports adage that the winner in a game is the one who sets the tempo and style of the contest. If the other person or other team sets the pace, they have the initiative, and if you adopt the pace that most suits your opponent’s strengths, you will almost certainly lose.

This applies to political contests and wars as well: framing the terms of the contest and choosing the terrain on which the battle is fought essentially determines the outcome from the very start, unless the contest is reframed during the course of the fight. This is what Mao meant when he said in reference to guerrilla war, “They fight their way, we fight our way.” Revolutionary armies that seek to defeat a larger and better-equipped army by engaging in the style of battle that favors their opponent will be crushed.

As an illustration of what this means, in a 2002 military exercise, the largest war game ever conducted, the US simulated an invasion of Iraq. Retired Marine Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper played “Saddam Hussein” in the exercise. Employing unorthodox techniques, Van Riper ripped apart the US forces at the very start of the game. Embarrassed by their devastating “defeat,” the brass overruled Riper’s “victory,” ordered their “sunken” ships and “killed” soldiers resurrected, and demanded that Van Riper ignore the brass’s amphibious landings and behave like the US military would in order to ensure a US victory.

Van Riper had at his disposal a computer-generated flotilla of small boats and planes, many of them civilian, which he kept buzzing around the virtual Persian Gulf in circles as the game was about to get under way. As the U.S. fleet entered the Gulf, Van Riper gave a signal—not in a radio transmission that might have been intercepted, but in a coded message broadcast from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer. The seemingly harmless pleasure craft and propeller planes suddenly turned deadly, ramming into Blue boats and airfields along the Gulf in scores of al-Qaida-style suicide attacks.

Meanwhile, Chinese Silkworm-type cruise missiles fired from some of the small boats sank the U.S. fleet’s only aircraft carrier and two marine helicopter carriers. The tactics were reminiscent of the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in Yemen two years ago, but the Blue fleet did not seem prepared. Sixteen ships were sunk altogether, along with thousands of marines. If it had really happened, it would have been the worst naval disaster since Pearl Harbor.

It was at this point that the generals and admirals monitoring the war game called time out.

“A phrase I heard over and over was: ‘That would never have happened,’” Van Riper recalls. “And I said: ‘nobody would have thought that anyone would fly an airliner into the World Trade Centre. . .’ but nobody seemed interested.”

In the end, it was ruled that the Blue forces had had the $250m equivalent of their fingers crossed and were not really dead, while the ships were similarly raised from watery graves. . .

“You are going to have to use cellphones and satellite phones now, they told me. I said no, no, no—we’re going to use motorcycle messengers and make announcements from the mosques,” he says.

“But they refused to accept that we’d do anything they wouldn’t do in the west. ”

Then Van Riper was told to turn his air defences off at certain times and places where Blue forces were about to stage an attack, and to move his forces away from beaches where the marines were scheduled to land. “The whole thing was being scripted,” he says. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 323-324. The excerpted portion is from Julian Borger, “Wake-up Call,” The Guardian online, September 6, 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/sep/06/usa.iraq, accessed September 2, 2010.)

Another way of saying this is that the much vaunted US military, though it has terrible teeth and bares its fangs often, cannot win in Iraq, is unable to subdue Afghanistan, even though we are two to three generations ahead of most other military foes and spend more money – before Trump – on our military than all of the other countries combined!

One of the benefits of living through a time like the 1960s is not only seeing governments topple or perched precariously near the edge (e.g., Vietnam first defeating France and then the US; LBJ going from just four years earlier with a true landslide win over Goldwater in 1964 to announcing that he would not run for another term; Nixon being then forced to resign) but also seeing how shallow and bankrupt the rulers’ rationale for their system’s rule was and is when directly counter-posed to an anti-war person’s arguments. It was not even a fair contest! Here is a part I wrote about that:

Many, many years later I heard a speech by Bob Avakian in which he said that on the rare occasion that a student movement representative got a chance to actually debate a government or university spokesman on an issue like the Vietnam War, that the student activist would invariably "wipe the floor" with the authorities' spokesman. This was because the student activist knew what s/he was talking about, had the facts, took the moral high ground, and could expose the lies and half-truths that the "authority" was purveying. This is why it was so hard and is so hard to get authorities to engage in a fair debate: they know that their positions cannot stand up to close scrutiny so they avoid such forums. This contrast between what those who wield authority over not just our lives but the fate of the planet and the utter bankruptcy of their policies and philosophy is sharper today than it has ever been. The stakes are as high as they can be: the viability of the planet itself. Puncturing authorities' veil of legitimacy with sharp exposures and deep and searching analyses, creatively done and compellingly presented, in articles, cartoons, music, art, humor, theatre, etc. can alter the situation dramatically and open up the way to what so many people now think is unthinkable or cannot even now imagine but who would greet the prospects of an entirely different world with tears and with joy.

Here is another relevant piece from that same article:

One of the distinct virtues of going to an Ivy League School like Harvard was that you got to meet and talk to many of the people who actually run the society. These were not distantly seen or briefly encountered movers and shakers. These were sit down and talk directly to sessions with the society's elites. To give you a taste of this, one of my professors joked one day that D.C. was an "annex to Harvard." The aura that surrounds these people, which is all that the vast majority of people ever get to see, is shed by the opportunity to see them up close, engage in conversations with them, and hear them speak before groups where they had to answer questions, sometimes very pointed questions, and were expected in many instances to actually come up with a real answer or were called to task when they didn't. Herman Kahn, for example, the Hoover Institute's founder whose "thinking the unthinkable" about nuclear deterrence (MADD - Mutually Assured Destruction Doctrine) earned him the dubious distinction of being the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (memorably played by Peter Sellers), spoke at Harvard and got called on the carpet for lying about what he said during his talk.

As I also say in that article, I compared notes with someone I briefly got to know who went to Yale and despite our political differences (he at least at the time was a Zionist I think), he had an identical reaction as I did to meeting and interacting directly with the nation’s leaders: contempt and disagreement.

Ordinarily, however, the perks of going to Harvard or Yale et al outweigh the moral issues and the vast majority from elite schools go along and enjoy the ride. This does not change the fact, however, that under the right circumstances, a relatively small number of people holding the moral high ground and knowing what they are doing, can influence millions. For we are facing an adversary whose system and whose methods are intimidating but very beatable.

When you look closely at the keystones of the legitimating rationales for their rule – the heart of their persuasion in the persuasion-coercion dynamic – you see the flawed assumptions of democratic theory and the flawed American Dream. I am not using the word “flawed” here in the sense that some mean by “corrupted.” I mean flawed in the sense that these legitimating rationales are wrong and the more people who come to see that they are wrong and destructive, the better. Authorities don’t stand on a strong set of reasons as their defense but a thin tissue of lies. What matters most to government is its persuading people of their legitimacy, not their coercive powers. If they lose the battle for persuasion, they will eventually lose everything.

***

The reason why so many Americans can’t think straight and voted for Trump isn’t mainly their fault. What most people are taught and exposed to are a) lies and b) shallow lies. A large number of people live in an echo chamber of all right-wing news. It is all they hear every day. They and others are not taught that they should be skeptical and people are mostly taught that they can believe what authorities tell them. The fact that so many cannot think their way out of a box is an indictment of our educational system in part and the fact primarily that the major institutions and companies of our society depend upon credulousness to survive.[1] What then does it say about such a system that it must lie to most people to survive as a system? What an absurd way to organize society, basing it on a lie about human’s basic character. No wonder so much damage is unnecessarily done.

The constant presence of many TV cop shows where we are meant to conclude that the cops are essentially good people and crime the result of bad choices is yet another example. The reality of routine police brutality and police departments’ subculture of racism and sexism especially against minorities is far better understood in minority communities than by Middle America. That is why the famous Rodney King video elicited a radically different response from most blacks – “Finally, they got it on tape!” - from that of whites who were mostly shocked to see a defenseless black man being beaten again and again and again.

It is in fact a feature of group existence itself that if the group is stay a group that all, the ideas of some people about what everyone should do will inevitably be cast aside, even if thoroughly considered, and even if one or several of those ideas were better than the one that is adopted. The preservation of group coherence is paramount. This is even true of groups as small as two people. If your friend wants to go to the movies but you want to go to the club, if you’re to stay together, then you'll do one or the other or something else all altogether.

When it comes to other groups, especially where unanimity is impossible, then how do you act in the face of disagreements? You have no choice but to use coercion against those who cannot be persuaded, even if that force is subtle or even just a hearty version of social pressure such as “come on, get with the program!” if you will not be satisfied with a stalemate and are to remain a group in the first place. This is a hard but an inescapable fact. Anyone who has been in a strike knows that not all workers are going to want to strike and have to be persuaded somehow to acknowledge the picket line or the strike is lost. Society in all of its dimensions works the same way. In families when the parents insist that the kids go to bed by a certain time, we don’t call it parental abuse but love.

Governments

In contrast to this experience, we are taught constantly that democracy means consent of the governed. Most of the Left even think this way, believing that if you just get the system to live up to its promises, then consent of the governed would truly operate and everything would be fine.

But millions can be wrong! Tens of millions of people voted for Trump. He didn't get most of the votes, but he nearly got half of those who voted. So if you accept the Electoral College as valid, then you have to argue on some level at least that the governed legitimately made Trump president! People widely throughout society do not accept Trump, including at this point losing 6-7% of those who originally voted for him (not as large an erosion in his supporters as we would expect, but erosion nonetheless), and this is a good thing, but it does not change the fact that very many people voted for him, enough for him to be elected, according to the rules that both Democrats and Republicans observe. The fact that someone who has the mentality of a child can get elected president does not speak well for all too many people in this country, but it does point to a glaring fault in carrying out the logic of consent of the governed alone as a concept.

What is wrong with that concept? It leaves out of the picture the question of whether or not a good decision is being made. It leaves out of the picture the question of objective reality and truth. For good decisions to be made, both full political engagement should be involved, and also relative and absolute truth must be part of that process too.

Now here’s the rub: these two factors are in some conflict with each other but they are both necessary. This requires some elaboration. Some will argue, for example, that we can ignore the first factor – political engagement by the masses – and have the experts decide. The most virulent version of this argument is when elites decide policy and the public acts as mere window-dressing. This is what we have now – an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy. The tamer version of this would have expertise matter – a kind of benevolent dictatorship – and again mass political engagement is eschewed and the people merely act as spectators.

But if your goal is to bridge the differences between people – between town and country, between mental and manual labor, between genders, between classes, between races and regional differences and so on – then raising rather than depressing people’s consciousness becomes what society is about. Instead of consumerism and credulousness being what you want and what the society is largely devoted to now, your aim is to train people to see the real class interests behind statements and actions and to take part in all arenas of society.

As I wrote previously:

To really get how political power, for example, is exercised, you need to not only be told the truth and provided useful facts but you need to be trained in how things work. Part of that training involves your direct participation in trying to do things politically because you will otherwise only be getting someone else's say so and that can only go so far in training/educating you. You need to be trained and gain a lot of experience in how to critically evaluate things and use critical thinking skills. And doing things politically encompasses far more than voting itself. 

Critical thinking has a core to it that is often overlooked when it relates to politics. Here is part of that:

It’s not that the average person isn’t smart enough. It’s that they don’t know and they have not been informed as to how political power is actually exercised. Even those who sincerely and diligently try to inform themselves about politics by daily keeping up with the news and reading in-depth analyses in the magazines, listening to news analysts on TV and radio, reading political analyses online, etc., and even most of those who make their careers as scholars about politics do not know anywhere nearly enough to make sound decisions about politics.

This is a situation that can be fixed.

But it cannot be fixed as long as people adhere to the assumptions present in democratic theory that hold that you have a democracy as long as the people have a right to vote and “express their choices” through their votes and through contact with their political representatives.

Then there is this:

Systems are qualitatively different from the individuals who occupy those systems. Systems operate according to system logic, not because of the choices and values of the individuals in those systems. One of the ways that people express differences with this fundamental truth is by saying things like “things are messed up because the people are messed up. If they weren’t so self-centered, stupid, and/or lazy, they’d put some energy into finding out what the truth is and they’d do something about injustice and unfairness. Injustice and unfairness persist because the public is to blame for being in denial and being more interested in their own personal concerns or distracted by their technological toys.”

This all too common view grows out of the assumptions inherent in democratic theory. Democratic theory asserts that the public is the one in charge. The public elects those in public office to represent them and the public by its buying habits and by its viewing, reading, and listening habits determines what is in the media and what policies come about.

Thus, if things are messed up, blame the people.

One of the central problems with democratic theory is this assertion: it takes the entire onus of blame off the shoulders of elites in public office, media, and business more generally who are the authorities of these systems.

Democratic theory says that it’s all the doing of the public because the public supports those in leading positions by voting for them or buying their products, whether those products are tangible objects such as TV shows, movies, music or other commodities, or non-material products such as ideas.

Why do people who might otherwise know better tend to think this way? They do this because they have unconsciously adopted the assumptions of democratic theory: society and systems are the way they are because the majority of people in those societies and systems choose to make them that way. If members of the public weren’t choosing the way they’re choosing then things wouldn’t be the way that they are. This is what democratic theory preaches.

This is not, however, how systems come to be what they are. Systems shape the individuals in them more than the individuals in systems shape the systems.

Everyone knows this in other areas such as when they are at their place of work. There are unwritten and unspoken rules for how to behave there (as with the rest of social life) and if you contradict through your words and/or actions in the workplace culture, you are going to be in trouble.

People generally know the dynamics of everyday life and in their everyday life, if you tell towering lies you will eventually get caught and be shunned. People take that truth and mistakenly apply that to politics and other systems. But everyday life and systems are very different. Authorities take advantage of this difference when lying to and misleading the public. Even highly educated people usually make this mistake. But again, people can be disabused of this if those who would lead help them learn this crucial lesson.

Consider what those in charge tell us in order to mask what they are actually doing. Notice that they tell people particular kind of lies and not just any lies. There is a reason for this and its meaning will shortly become apparent. Invariably they say for public consumption that they are acting to uphold the rule of law and being transparent and above-board. If most people were indeed selfish et al then authorities wouldn’t say these things. Instead, authorities would tell us what we really want and what reflects our truest nature – our self-interest is being pursued, forget any talk of the public welfare and protecting the innocent and abiding by what others in other countries want (e.g., self-rule, protection of their own resources).

Authorities tell us that they are doing what they do because they want to serve the public interest but they also argue at other times that there is no such thing as the public interest. So many of those who seek high office claim that they are suited for public service because they have been successful in the private sector. But personal success isn’t the same thing as being dedicated to the public interest. We are told that we have to offer the largesse of material incentives to attract the best talent but what we doing by that is finding those who are attracted to private material things and personal enrichment, not love for others in the public. Margaret Thatcher famously declared that society does not exist and there are only families and individuals, following neoliberalism’s father Frederick Hayek.

Consider what those whose system is in charge tell us is true and inescapable: selfishness is the essence of human beings. If that were true then society itself, which depends, first and foremost on cooperation, secondarily on competition, would be impossible. We ought to take those kind of authorities at their word and ask: well then, why should we put you in charge of the public good when you have already made it clear that you don’t believe in the public good?

The other versions of political power that I often hear (PP 2) is that you have political power when you have other’s respect and you have influence over them. This version is meant to refer to people like Martin Luther King, Jr. But if you don’t have the ability to make those who don’t agree with you and can’t be persuaded to go along, what do you do then?

You’re not a governmental power then and you can only get those who disagree with you and who actively resist, to go along if you have some kind of coercive apparatus. This is what distinguishes political power from other forms of influence. Without coercion as part of its arsenal, a government would not be a government. It would lack the ability to compel some who resist to go along. You will be disarmed ahead of time when what you are trying to accomplish faces the force of the state’s use of violence. You can either then fold up your tent and go home, as Occupy was forced to do, or you can politically and ideologically prepare people for the time when tens of millions are ready for something else and ready to fight the power in all respects.

One of the necessary ingredients of such a situation is that the society must be in the throes of a convulsive crisis, not anything less. But just waiting for such a moment will leave you unprepared when it does come. A legitimacy crisis for this system we can help bring about and hasten along. If the planet being imperiled isn’t ripe for it I don’t know what is. Which brings me back to this long essay’s original question: do the RCP’s efforts to mobilize tens of millions to drive Trump and Pence from power because Trump and Pence are fascists make sense? Let me ask this: Trump and Pence are unprecedented threats to the whole world, but is that because of their fascism or does their fascism merely make up a part of why they are such a threat?

While it is true that one needs to be politically active in some ways at least to tell the political and ideological difference between different positions, and while it is also true that the RCP is surely mobilizing people, I wonder about the choice to put Trump and Pence’s fascism as front and center.

To summarize this article in brief:

Solutions to problems that are systemic in nature need to be attacked on a systemic-level and not seen first and foremost - or exclusively - on the individual level. Institutions have a bureaucratic nature to them and the individuals within them adapt to fit more or less within that culture, not vice-versa. For example, police in their majority are racist in their actions not because they are not following the rules but because they are mostly being influenced by the actual rules (e.g., treating black and brown people differently). That is not written down usually as a rule anywhere but they are surrounded by it in police sub-culture.

So too if you are in your family which is a system in which people have certain roles in that system such as mother and father, child, etc. and they individually occupy their roles with individual difference depending on who it is (e.g., not all grandmothers are exactly alike) but all grandmothers are more like each other than different, etc. We all abide by systems' influence to varying degrees. But systems’ rules do matter more than the individuals who make up those systems.

That does not mean that police or anyone else within systems are just blindly following rules but they are heavily influenced by system logic and the logic that applies to cops in particular is that police in this system exist to maintain class divisions and other forms of separation such as race and sex. Under a different system this would be very different. People's behavior would be different and the dominant ideas would be very different. This is also true of politicians and CEOs etc.

The system we live in cannot be “changed from within” or reformed to be something else than it is. It must be replaced by a radically different system and logic and the structures such a system and the people within it create must also be and look different because the processes and the end differ.

Contrary to what you have probably been taught, the system of capitalism-imperialism is not a result of “human nature” (greed, selfishness or narrowness) but the prevailing system kept in place through daily great violence for the last few hundred years out of a much longer history of human society of around 200,000 years. Throughout the vast majority of time humanity lived in comparatively egalitarian societies. That does not mean, by the same token, that they were necessarily peaceful at all times. But violence is a social phenomenon too.

Competition even in the fiercest competitive society of capitalism exists on the basis of cooperation. Leaders and those they lead also co-exist with each other. The nature of that leadership matters, nonetheless, and leadership can appeal to our baser or our higher values. If we are to save ourselves and the planet then identifying the problem correctly matters as well as the type of leaders who step forward now. As I wrote in Globalization and the Demolition of Society and what could serve as a credo:

Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. (Pp. 326-7)

Without going into the preceding quote in its entirety, it is probably useful to elaborate on a few items to give you an idea. For example, having respect for the truth, whether what is true is personally convenient or not, is a proper attitude to always take. Even if it’s a criticism of you, you should hear it out because you might learn from it and improve what you are doing, even if the person(s) making the criticism(s) does not wish you well, they may have a point. If it’s someone else’s idea or if it comes from a source you weren’t expecting, our goal should not be to foster privilege and ego is a form of privilege. We should give people a fair hearing and perhaps everyone can learn something from them. One of the ways that you tell whether someone is really hearing you is if they can give an accurate version of what you said, regardless of whether they agree with it in whole, in part, or not at all. If you are wrong or you did something wrong, then freely and completely admit it. If truth is what you are after, then a free admission of an error can only be a good thing and part of the process.

Democratic theory’s assumptions lead to bad results and people tend to take its ideas for granted. But a close examination of them reveals them to be at odds with human character. The nature of group life creates certain necessities and tendencies, but once you understand that you are no longer enslaved by it and can move others knowing that.

Decisions are consequential and good decisions require both people’s active hands on participation and insight, experience, and expertise. This is a process rather than an outcome reached on one day of voting every few years.

For us to defeat the empire requires that we thoroughly critique their legitimating rationales and that we do so across the board in everything we do and stand for. The PTB spread the idea so widely and thoroughly that they are invincible and cannot be beaten. But the truth is they can be beaten, more often than not are defeated, and their system and behavior is based on lies that can be exposed. We need a political vanguard and we need to bring this knowledge and method “from without.” Otherwise we have lost before we have started, accepting bourgeois values uncritically. You cannot defeat an adversary using its own intellectual tools and values. This is something that requires a protracted process, one which is hard, but the only realistic path to take.

 


[1]As of 2009 about 30% of adults had a college degree, according to the US Census Bureau. Having a college degree does not, however, guarantee that you can critically think. Not all of the 70% of all adults who don’t have a college degree are credulous, but most have not received even basic training in critical thinking.

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