The Real Villains

Bernie Sanders knew who the real enemy is — and it isn’t the Republican Party or our clown President. They are a mere diversion. The real villains in the political drama that is playing out before our eyes are the corporations. And because Sanders was becoming too loud he had to be silenced. The Democratic Party, which is funded by the corporations in large measure (as, of course, is the Republican Party) saw to it that his candidacy came to an end. He has been set aside and is now no more than a whimper, something the corporations can ignore because the rest of us can’t hear him, or refuse to listen.

The corporations are the modern face of capitalism and many of the criticisms by people like Mark Fisher (author of Capitalist Realism) are more properly directed at the corporations than they are at capitalism, per se. The corporations were recently allowed to come from behind the political curtain and declare themselves openly when, in “Citizens United,” the Supreme Court determined that corporations are persons and entitled to make huge donations to the political parties without having to do so under the table. As a result their cover is blown, but they are now beyond our reach because we do not know who the hell they are! That’s the problem, and that’s precisely why they are NOT persons: they are insubstantial and they cannot be found responsible for their misdeeds because they are like a shadow that suddenly is no longer there. Assigning responsibility to the corporations is like nailing Jello to the wall:  it cannot be done. They will be bailed out when in financial difficulty by the government, which they own, and if they should be discovered doing the dirty they will throw one of their own under the bus — or cover over the mess like the Valdez oil spill, with clever P.R. They are insidious because they are essentially vaporous and operate in secret.

Mark Fisher paints a vivid picture the Kafkaesque world of the corporations which is now our world. And toward the end of his book he outlines for us the effects of capitalism on the family and education — two of the pillars of our civilization — and the sorry state to which each has been brought mainly because of corporate influence. I quote him at some length because his message is worth pondering:

“It is the parents’ following of the trajectory of the pleasure principle, the path of least resistance, that causes most of the miseries in the families. In a pattern that quickly becomes familiar, the parents’ pursuit of the easy life leads them to accede to their children’s every demand, which becomes increasingly tyrannical.. . .

“The problem is that late capitalism insists and relies upon the very equation of desire with interests that parenting used to be based on rejecting. In a culture in which the ‘paternal’ concept of duty has been replaced by the ‘maternal’ imperative to enjoy, it can seem that the parent is failing in their duty if they in any way impede their children’s absolute right to enjoyment. Partly this is an effect of the increasing requirement that both parents work; in these conditions, when the parent sees the child very little, the tendency will often be to refuse to occupy the ‘oppressive’ function of telling the child what to do. The parental disavowal of this role is doubled at the level of cultural production by the refusal of the [corporations] to do anything but give audiences what they already (appear) to want. The concrete question is: if a return to the paternal superego — the stern father in the home — is neither possible nor desirable, then how are we to move beyond the culture of monotonous moribund conformity that results in a refusal to challenge or educate?”

Corporations remain out of focus in our world of constant entertainment and diversion — provided, of course, by the corporations (who also see to it that both parents must work in order to “provide for their families”). Thus the corporations are able to determine not only political but cultural outcomes while remaining  anonymous. And those outcomes are always about the same thing: profits for their shareholders and C.E.O.s. The shareholders themselves feel they are benefitting because they enjoy a higher standard of living and are able to take advantage of the diversions provided for them by  — wait for it — the corporations! It is a circle, and it is a vicious circle. Bernie Sanders saw this clearly. But his voice has been silenced. Will anyone have the courage to speak up — say, Elizabeth Warren? Or will her voice also be silenced as well before she can shout “wolf” loud enough to be heard by those who really don’t want to listen.

In any event, the notion that we live in a “democracy” is no longer tenable. In fact, we live in a tyrannical bureaucracy run by numerous powerful corporations that are above the law because they determine what the laws will allow or disallow. The founders worried about the influence of money on the tenuous threads that hold a Republic together, but they never, in their worse nightmares, imagined the power that could be wielded by giant multinational corporations. The Republic they envisioned, resting as it  precariously did on the balance of powers, has been replaced by the all-powerful corporations and the unimaginably wealthy few who run the show.

 

 

 

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Worth the Price?

I have spent the better part of my adult life defending Western Civilization against the postmodern attacks from within the Academy (especially) that would bring it down about our ears. Those attacks, I have been informed, began in the Modern era with writers such as Nietzsche, Sir. James Frazer, Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and Freud — among others. The “revolution” in the 1960s was just an outward expression of the revolt that had already begun. Indeed, an essay written by Lionel Trilling in 1961 that focuses attention on modern literature asks us to question whether or not it would be better if civilization as we know it were to succumb to the attacks of those who find it a painful burden. Trilling makes his point at some length and asks us to ponder the imponderable:

“. . .the historic sense of our literature has in mind a long excess of civilization to which may be ascribed the bitterness and bloodiness both of the past and of the present and of which the peaceful aspects are to be thought of as mainly contemptible — its order achieved at the cost of extravagant personal repression, either that of coercion or that of acquiescence; its repose otiose; its tolerance either flaccid or capricious; its material comfort corrupt and corrupting; its taste a manifestation either of timidity or of pride; its rationality attained only at the price of energy and passion.”

This is one of the most powerful passages I have read in many years and it demands that those of us who would defend civilization against various attacks from within and without search our souls for an answer. It would appear that the postmodern attack, so-called, is merely the latest version of an attack that has been going on since the latter part of the nineteenth century. And that attack has been increasingly effective, as I have noted on numerous occasions.

Trilling suggests that in Civilization and Its Discontents Freud is one of those, following Nietzsche closely, who raises deep questions about whether the price we have paid for what we call “civilization” is worth it. To be sure, that price is suggested in the words I have quoted above, and we must ask whether the “contemptible,” middle class existence that we have all grown comfortable with is indeed the highest expression of the struggles of humankind with its baser instincts. In Freud’s view, civilization demands restraint, the repression of our baser instincts, sublimating them into creative and imaginative outlets that we label “art,” “philosophy” and “science.” Has the “cost of extravagant personal repression” been too great?

On the face of it, the cost is minimal. After all look where science has brought us, along with an economic system that promises the average person a higher standard of living than the kings enjoyed during ages past. But that is precisely the question: has the repression of our baser instincts been worth the prize? And, more to the point, what effects might there be if we decide all of a sudden that the cost is too great and it is time to turn loose the demons that reside within each of us?

It is the fear of those demons that has triggered my defense for so many years in the things I have thought, taught, and written. But I must now ask whether the demons are indeed more frightful than the effects of those restraints that civilization demands that we place upon them, including the worst features of a greedy capitalism and such things as slavery, deprivation, and colonization. Is Trilling correct in insisting that the complacent middle class life we have come to embrace in the name of Western Civilization can be described as “contemptible,” “otiose,” “flaccid,” “capricious,” “corrupt and corrupting,” “its rationality attained at the price of energy and passion”? Are we to prefer instead a world in which the depraved Kurtz, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is a prototype of what we might hope to become?

I suggest that there is considerable truth in what Trilling says. And that’s deeply disturbing. But it is perhaps only a half-truth. Because, as noted, civilization has also brought about the highest expression of the human spirit in the form of its art, philosophy, literature, and science. If we have allowed our civilization to reduce itself, as Trilling suggests, to “bitterness and bloodiness,” it may not be the result of repression and the restraint that civilization and high culture have demanded. It may be the fault of people who have allowed themselves to become lulled into a false sense of their own superiority and a dulled sensibility to human suffering, those who have enjoyed the fruits of civilization without understanding what the cost has been and what debt we owe to those who have gone before us.

Civilization demands restraint. What is not clear is that this restraint has brought about repressions that have diminished the human soul or whether those restraints have, rather, made possible the “best that has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold would have it. I prefer to think the latter, and as I look about and see what seems to be happening as civilization comes unraveled and a new age of barbarism dawns, how humans behave to one another when given free rein, I worry that we have decided as a race that the cost has been too great and it is time to let go completely. Heaven knows ours in not a society known for its restraint! Great minds have suggested it is time, perhaps they even pointed the way, and many within the academy today are teaching their charges that change is long overdue. And the young listen eagerly as they hear the siren sounds of a call to release the demons so long locked up.

But I find this worrisome, to say the least — and certainly food for further thought.

Revisiting the Crystal Palace

Once again, dear readers, I must recall the past as I am busy as a bee editing my best posts for the upcoming book!

UNDERGROUND MAN
(6/16/12)
I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”
It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.
Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical. Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.
For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.
But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?

Powerful Toys

Ever since I went back and read Hannah Arendt’s exceptional study of violence, written in the late 1960s, I have been pondering the possible reasons for this country’s fascination with things violent. You may recall that she argued that violence is the result of a sense of powerlessness and it is when we begin to feel the frustration that arises from a sense that we have little control over our lives that we begin to gravitate toward violence. I have always thought this was the allure of an entire series of movies like “Dirty Harry” — an angry cop who has little patience with procedure and simply goes straight for the bad guy and shoots him dead with his huge Magnum hand gun (Freud take note). “Make my day!” It’s a quick and gratifying “solution” in a Kafkaesque world where molasses-slow procedures often allow the criminal to go free and tie up the police in yards and yards of red tape.

And as I noted in my earlier blog, we have a growing number of reasons to feel powerless as our world becomes increasingly crowded and angry, bills keep piling up, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, the government is clearly composed of ambitious idiots without a brain among them, and nothing seems to get done. So if Arendt is correct in her analysis, and it seems likely, we shouldn’t be surprised by the increase in violence in this country and around the world. The fact that violence is more prevalent in this country may simply come down to the fact that we have access to more lethal weapons with very few enforceable restrictions and those who use them to kill people always make the headlines. The rest of the world may eventually catch up with us.

But related to our growing sense of powerlessness is our expanding fascination with electronic toys, especially the hand-held devices that give us the illusion of power in an age when we have very little to say about the events that surround us. What is especially interesting in this regard are the XBoxes with their incredibly violent programs that allow the user to take charge of a situation and repeatedly wipe out the “enemy” with a push of the button — not unlike the maniac who walks into a school with an assault rifle and proceeds to shoot real children. If one is in the XBox world long enough it makes sense that he might well lose his bearings and forget where the fantasy world leaves off and the real world begins. And given the ready accessibility of weapons and ammunition….

In a word, electronic devices — and I speak of all electronic devices, not just the violent ones — give us the illusion of power at a time when we sense we are losing power in the real world where problems keep mounting up and solutions seem farther and farther away. For most of us this is simply some sort of compensation for our inability to make changes in the real world. But, coupled with our growing cultural narcissism, for others it may translate into violent actions.

Nietzsche thought that the fundamental urge in all human action was the love of power. I suspect that’s where Hannah Arendt got her clue to our present malaise. We crave power and as we sense that we are losing it we seek alternatives that will restore that sense of power. Electronic devices, even cell phones, do precisely that. The awesome weapons that those who commit violent acts wield are quite possibly an extension of this same urge; the few who take those weapons into crowded places and start shooting people may have lost their sense of where they are, wandering in the real world they can no longer distinguish from the fantasy world where they are indeed all-powerful.

Underground Man

I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”

It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay, and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.

Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical.  Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.

For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.

But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?