Reading Notes for Globalization and the Demolition of Society
Preface and Introduction
These reading notes are not intended as a substitute for reading the actual chapters. If you read only the reading notes and not the book then you will miss a great deal. These notes are meant to assist those who are reading the book in better understanding the points being made by approaching the material from slightly different angles of approach. The book is written in a highly accessible manner so that anyone can read it and learn a great deal, but the content is quite complex and very sophisticated. A lot is going on within any given sentence and paragraph and there are many layers of meanings and inter-connections being made, so readers will find it helpful to use these notes in getting more from the book. Check back for more notes as we complete the different chapters' annotations and post them here.
The Preface contains a highly concentrated overview of the book’s central themes.
The book takes the position that the neoliberal agenda of “free markets” and unfettered individualism as the solutions for all things personal and public are a disaster for the planet and humanity. The neoliberals’ dominance cannot be countered effectively unless we understand that neoliberalism represents a whole philosophy, value system, and political program. To refuse and refute their approach requires that we not only understand clearly what holds their philosophy, values, and programs together - what makes it, in other words, coherent as an ideology - but we must provide an equally comprehensive alternative vision and program to the neoliberals’ exceedingly dangerous movement and ideology. To counter a problematic ideology you have to offer an alternative ideology. If you don't and instead accept to a greater or lesser degree the premises of your adversaries, then you have lost the battle from the very start. The neoliberal movement represents the concentrated and particular expression of capitalist ideology as it is being put forth over the last few decades in the context of the present alignment of political forces in the world. The book seeks to identify and analyze neoliberalism, the nature and history to the present alignment of political forces, and to provide a map in broad strokes as to how that alignment can be radically altered.
A month after the publication of the book, the Occupy Movement appeared. Occupy was inspired and is inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Those uprisings and the Occupy Movement provide living examples of the kind of mass, grassroots action independent of the major political parties and the electoral process that can profoundly alter - and are altering - the overall political atmosphere. At the same time, the repression of Occupy by the government also underscores the fact, discussed in great detail especially in Chapter 3 and 5, that state power and its monopoly on the legitimate means of violence is something that cannot be overlooked and stands as an obstacle that must be overthrown for any movements that seek to rectify the extraordinary inequalities that capitalism and imperialism present to succeed.
As Loo states in summarizing key themes in his book:
Humans are not first and foremost individuals. Everyone and everything that exists does so only in relationship to other beings and to other things. Individuals and groups, in particular, are not separate from and opposed to each other but in fact different expressions of a single integrated process. Individuals cannot accomplish what they do without group support and group sustenance; groups, in turn, rely upon individual leaders to organize the group and thereby advance the groups’ interests. (p. xii)
Neoliberals elevate individualism and personal autonomy above all other values. They do so, however, in contradiction to what the disciplines that are devoted to studying humans and human societies such as anthropology and sociology have learned through painstaking historical research and observation. Neoliberals’ declaration of the independence of individuals from any group obligations and objective necessities stands in direct conflict with what history and the social sciences tell us. Neoliberals have been largely successful in making these erroneous claims because they possess tremendously deep pockets (tons of money) and hold political and economic power in their hands. Thus their ideology that celebrates the individual and negates the importance of community and the group permeate the entire society, even as a closer examination of how society actually operates shows how wrong their views are. Loo’s book starts by highlighting the neoliberal philosophy and establishing a solid philosophical foundation for charting an alternative path to that of the neoliberals.
Loo states that we "are not first and foremost individuals." While we are obviously individuals with our separate bodies, we are not who we are primarily because we are solitary individuals. As infants, for example, we did not create language on our own. Our native tongue (e.g., English or Spanish) is something that existed before we came into being, will exist after we are gone, and is something that we inherit and had to learn in order to communicate with others. In order to be understood by others, we have to adopt certain common understandings for how one is supposed to communicate. If we do not adopt these conventions and decide, for instance, that we choose to use a word in an entirely unique way, then we are free to do so, but we will find ourselves misunderstood by others unless we make a special effort to explain what we mean and why we are using a different meaning than everyone else. Abiding by social rules is a pre-requisite to being a member of society. And being a member of society is a pre-requisite to surviving at all. We did not come into the world knowing how to be human, with language (whether oral or signing) being a key part of being human. Being human is something that we have to learn and it is a learning process that takes a long time - many, many years.
Our DNA does not automatically makes us human. Human DNA makes it possible for someone to become a human, but if you are not raised by other human beings but by wolves, then you will not grow up to become a recognizable human being. Your physical features will make you look human, but your speech (such as it exists), your physical mannerisms, and your interactions with other beings will mimic those of a wolf, not a human being who has been raised and socialized by other human beings in a society. So-called feral children, children that have been raised by animals or been treated as if they were not human but caged or chained up animals, have demonstrated this fact repeatedly.
Loo goes on to say:
We are not fundamentally solitary, autonomous, and exclusively self-interested individuals driven to maximize personal material rewards; we are beings who are primarily shaped by our relationships, especially those generated by our society’s political and economic structures. Individuals do not principally give systems the character that those systems possess; systems and structures principally shape individuals’ behavior. (p. xii)
The distinction that he makes here between a factor that is fundamental (or primary) and secondary is vital to understanding the book. One way of putting this would be to point out that in all things (animate or inanimate) and all processes in the universe, there is unevenness. A state of true equilibrium where all things are equal and opposing forces are of equal strength is very rare. The two sides of our face, for example, are not identical and the length of our two legs are not precisely the same. No two plants grow at exactly the same rate. Identical twins growing up in the same family share the same DNA, but they are not wholly identical either physically or in their personalities.
If we want to understand why people act and think the way that they do we have to also understand that what makes an individual who they are and how they see things is not principally due to the specific features of that individual or even of the particular family that they grew up in. Rather, what makes us who we are is primarily a product of the groups we are a part of and the logic guiding that group (and the institutions that the group is a part of). While we each represent different and specific expressions of physical and psychic traits, we are mainly social beings who are shaped mainly by the social structures and social contexts of our present and past.
Having said this does not mean, however, that we have no ability to resist or alter the patterns of social expectations that are imposed upon us from without. As social creatures, however, what we can do and what we are capable even of imagining are linked inextricably to the social forces that have been and we are shaped by. These themes are all pursued in depth later on in the book, including how social change can actually be facilitated on the basis of these truths.
Loo uses dialectics to analyze what he examines in the book. Dialectics is a philosophy based on the premise that all things and all processes can be divided into two and that the dynamism of life and the universe grow out of the fact that all that exists does so because it is a product of opposites. For example, “up” has its corresponding opposite in “down,” “in” has its opposite in “out,” “object” has its opposite in “space,” and “sound” is the opposite of “silence.” “In” would have no meaning if there weren’t a corresponding “out.” “Plus” in math is the opposite of “minus,” just as “multiply” is the opposite of “divide.” You cannot have one without the other. The words on this page would not be comprehensible if there were no white spaces in between the words; it would be pure black and illegible. If you were reading these words aloud they could not be understood and would not have any meaning if there were not silences in between the sounds that you make when articulating these words. Without dialectics, in other words, there would be no world and no universe because the only way that anything can exist is because the opposite of it also exists. Try to imagine infinite space without any objects within the infinite empty space. You cannot because the very fact of your existence as a thinking being means that you have to exist as something separate from and definitely substantive in contrast to the infinite empty space you’re imagining.
Hence, when he says, "Everyone and everything that exists does so only in relationship to other beings and to other things" he means this literally: existence itself can occur at all only in relationship to other things and processes. All things that exist do so not as solitary, stand alone entities but in a relationship with what it is in contrast to and therefore dependent upon in a fundamental sense. To separate out individuals from groups, for instance, and act as if individuals are really separate from groups is not only false but leads to damaging consequences when it forms the philosophical basis for individual actions and/or societal policies.
It is in the light of dialectics and reality that one can fully appreciate the importance of these lines:
Genuine freedom does not and cannot come from ignoring one’s obligations to other people and by spurning necessity and material reality. Freedom can only exist on the basis of first recognizing and coping with necessity and then acting to transform it. Moreover, material wealth is not the proper measure of the worth of a person or a society. The pursuit of individual and corporate opulence and the downgrading or outright dismissal of the intimate and indispensible connection we have to each other and to the earth are the road to catastrophe for the people and for our planet. (p. xii)
GLOBALIZATION AND THE DESTRUCTION OF REALITY
Globalization and its political expression, neoliberalism, could not continue to exist and prevail without the degradation of the meaning of truth. (p. 2)
Loo begins his book arguing that what is most problematic about globalization isn’t that it widens the gap between those with wealth and those with far less, leaving people in want and creating unnecessary suffering and deaths, or that it rips up the social fabric, or that it is precipitating and accelerating environmental degradation and disasters, endangering the very planet that we live on, or any of the other profound troubles that the book chronicles and analyzes.
These problems are catastrophic on an epic scale – the demolition of society. But to get a handle on what has been happening to us collectively, we have to first be clear about why it is happening and what it is in its totality because if we don’t, we won’t be able to change course. We need to know where we are, how we got here, and why it continues to be so difficult to change course, before we can have a chance to actually change course. (Do you get frustrated by your GPS when it can’t figure out where you are? The same is true when you try to understand society and want to promote social change.)
Globalization’s most troublesome dimension is that it is first and foremost based upon a philosophy (or theory) that distorts the very meaning of truth. Globalization and neoliberalism represent a fundamental attack on humanity’s historic pursuit of truth.
Neoliberals scoff at the notion that there is such a thing as objective reality and objective truth. They believe that through their economic and political power that they can simply make what is true and erase that which they don’t like. Put another way, in their view, might makes right and lack of might means you have no say about what is true and what is right. Might is so mighty, in fact, that it can ignore objective realities and necessities and simply by virtue of might’s strength, dictate what will be true and what people will believe to be true.
As a Bush senior aide put it to Ron Suskind in 2002, explaining that the people in the White House and their supporters were all members of the “faith-based community” rather than the “reality-based community”: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” (p. 4)
Some people might wonder if the neoliberals are just pretending to be proponents of the idea that power means that you get to decide what is true. Their rupture with objective reality in their philosophy is profound. They have company in this in two movements that on the surface appear to be oppositional to the neoliberals: Islamic fundamentalism and postmodernism.
The fact that al-Qaeda and its ilk are opposed to U.S. imperialism is well known (although Loo argues that in fact, this opposition is like that of professional wrestlers in the ring: they bluster and fight, but they really require each other). What might be surprising to some is the idea that postmodernism shares with the neoliberals anything at all since postmodernists don’t like and are critical of neoliberals’ policies. What religious fundamentalism (of all varieties, including Christian fundamentalism) and postmodernism share with neoliberalism is their common hostility to science and reason and the foundation upon which science and reason rest upon: the existence of an objective world outside of human consciousness.
[I]f you were to die this instant, would this book you are reading disappear and the world and all of its creatures cease to exist because you were no longer there to witness it and call it all into existence? (p. 6)
If an objective world does not exist outside of our consciousness of it, then science is a waste of time in its pursuit of identifying the laws of physics when such a world doesn’t in fact exist outside of our fabrication of it. Postmodernists, like religious faith believers, think that truth and facts are created by people and that one can choose to believe what one wishes. They believe that power consists of the ability to dictate what others believe to be true. This is in stark contrast to the philosophy and theory that drives science – that the more that we understand about the material world outside of our perception of it, the more freedom we can create out of the necessity that we discover. Humankind has learned how to fly, for example, but we did so by learning about the realities of gravity, studying aerodynamics and thrust, and by designing and manufacturing materials strong and light enough to fly, not by convincing ourselves that we can keep ourselves in the air if we just believe it strongly enough.
Neoliberals, religious fundamentalists, and postmodernists share a similar theory about reality. They believe that if enough people believe something to be true, it makes it true. This, of course, is nonsense. Did the fact that nearly everyone in Europe during the Middle Ages believed that the sun revolved around the earth make it true? Does not knowing that you have AIDS make you safe from dying from AIDS? Does not accepting the necessities attached to the fact that the U.S. is holding you prisoner in a torture facility make you immune to being waterboarded to death? These literal textualists (those who believe that truth resides entirely in words such as the Bible or the Koran and contain the literal word/truth as spoken by God or Allah) do not believe in necessity. Instead, they are proponents of a version of “freedom” that is separated from having to recognize necessity’s existence.
One of the consequences of that theory/philosophy is the view that if you wish to change society, you believe that you must put all of your energies into changing the way people see the world. What is true is true because too many people see it that way. So the solution is to get more people to see it the way that you do and once they do, “reality” has been changed.
If we are to understand what globalization is, and what the philosophy, politics, and policies are that represent and advocate for globalization, then we have to get clear on what truth is.
Globalization has been defined in a number of different ways and it exhibits a number of different facets, but at bottom it can be summarized as the knocking down of trade and tariff barriers, the internationalization of production, the interknitting of national economies in a global economy, the triumph of the ‘free market’ on a world scale, and the emergence of transnational corporations (superseding multinational corporations) that straddle nation-states and exceed the power of all but the nine most powerful and prosperous nations. (p. 32)
Neoliberalism is a philosophy - and the politics and policies based on that philosophy - that advocates for and defends the interests of globalization. Those who want to further the process of globalization adopt neoliberalism as their credo.
Before he got elected, Obama stated that he had studied the Constitution and that his faith in it had prompted him to do the right thing about the treatment of those prisoners, i.e. reinstate habeas corpus, ban torture, and close Guantanamo. To this day, none of these promises have become reality. This illustrates perfectly that just because a person says that something is does not make it so.
Individuals are often deceived about reality, and more so today than a few decades ago, because of the rise of an extremely influential right-wing media empire that sets the terms overall that other corporate media to a large extent operate within, because neoliberalism’s doctrine is the dominant orthodoxy and because neoliberalism cannot continue to be dominant without the distortion of truth. As a result, all too many people lack the theoretical and conceptual tools that would allow them to distinguish between falsehoods and truths. That is one of the purposes of this book: to give people the tools they need to respond appropriately and effectively to what is going on.
Besides the fact, as Marx put it, that the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class, one’s interpretation of the world is largely influenced by the paradigm(s) he/she adheres to and one’s paradigm is also strongly influenced by one’s material status. A paradigm can be defined as a lens through which one perceives the world/reality. Or as Loo puts it, citing a saying: “where you stand depends on where you sit.” For instance, a prosperous white male in America will not perceive reality the same way a minority working class female does. A person who cannot find regular gainful employment is more likely to perceive himself/herself as a victim of the system, whereas a banker is more likely to perceive himself/herself as a deserving and proud product of the system. The state of mind and conditions of each of these individuals will influence their interpretation of reality; it will lead them to certain conclusions in terms of what they think needs to be done, or not. For instance, the chronically unemployed or underemployed person is more likely to be unsatisfied with his/her condition and will therefore be more inclined to seek change because s/he has more to win than lose; on the other hand, the successful banker who is probably content with his/her situation generally does not favor change because, contrary to the unemployed person, he/she feels that the present situation is fine.
For the most part, people are not aware that the paradigms they embrace contain assumptions and value judgments that often misrepresent what is really going in the empirical world. This is why Loo argues that “coming to grips with what is going on involves facts, but it also involves understanding what different paradigms are based on and the difference it makes which paradigm is used.” (p. 21)
There are two predominant paradigms in the U.S.: the functionalist paradigm and the conflict paradigm. These two paradigms present a fundamentally different picture of the world. Functionalists posit that not everybody was born equal in their abilities but that nonetheless each individual has a role to play in society. The role that each individual is expected to play in society is contingent upon each individual’s natural abilities. Functionalists believe that as long as individuals know and stay where they inherently belong to in society, society will remain cohesive and functional. The cohesion of society is paramount to them and social inequalities are a natural and necessary ill.
Conflict theorists reject the premise that inequalities are a necessary ill for the proper functioning of society. They believe that social inequalities are the expression of conflicts of interests between social classes over resources, and that social inequalities only serve the interests of the dominant group, i.e. the elite/neoliberals. While individual differences obviously exist, class and other invidious distinctions do not largely reflect actual differences in merit among the people. The fact that someone is doing a job that does not require a higher education (e.g., picking fruit in the fields) does not also mean that the work that they do is worth only the most paltry of wages, that their working conditions should be hazardous to their welfare, that they and their children should have to worry everyday about whether they have enough to eat and can afford health care, and that they should be treated as undeserving of respect. Indeed, in terms of social importance, what people who pick fruit in the fields do for the society do is critical to the society’s survival and the work that an advertising executive does is not. Yet the two groups have vastly different incomes and social status. Why should this be? (In Chapter Seven these questions are addressed in much greater detail.)
The predominant paradigm in the U.S., and in most of the western world, is the functionalist paradigm. Loo argues that a small group of people has a huge stake in defending and promoting the functionalist paradigm because it protects them and maintains their privileges. The stakes are in the trillions of dollars. They therefore put a lot of their resources into propagating ideas that will maintain their dominance.Through media ownership, they control the dissemination of ideas, i.e. ideas that reflect their worldview. As Loo writes:
The more inequitable things are and become, the more important it is for those on top to promote their worldviews and protect what they have. […] Reality must be distorted to bolster the growing inequity. Those who exercise power can only continue to enjoy their status if reality […] is altered through the presentation, advocacy, and dominance of ideas that favor the interests of the rich and powerful. (p. 16)
Becoming more aware and critical about the ideas that are being propagated and their source will allow people to acquire a more objective understanding of reality, Loo argues. This in turn, can elicit a shift of paradigm and kindle momentum to bring about change for a more equitable world.