Archive for social theory

Reflections on Chartres Cathedral, the death of civilization and the deification of the banal

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by jtoddring

 

Thinking of Chartres Cathedral, I ask myself, what, if anything, have we built in the past eight centuries, that compares to this? The iPad, computers, cell phones, the internet? Are you kidding me? You must be joking. We have more ways to amuse ourselves, yes, but when has our capacity for entertainment, amusement and distraction ever been a sensible or even a sane measure of a society? And what good is an ocean of information if we have no context for it, no perspective on it, and no wisdom with which to make sense of it? It is lost on us. It may as well be the most indecipherable of hieroglyphs to us. Such an ocean of information is of no value to the deaf and the blind. It is all white noise, or dark noise, more commonly. And, to paraphrase Thoreau – and his remarks are as relevant and as piercing to our illusions today as they were one hundred and fifty years ago – what good is it that we can talk with someone on the other side of the planet if we have nothing of significance to say to one another? We are highly connected, so to speak, in digital, electronic ways, but highly alienated and divided in almost every way that matters, so even our presumed connectedness is more of a fiction than a reality.

We are hyper-connected and increasingly alienated. We are plugged in a tuned out. We are awash in an information overload – and are in fact drowning in it – yet we have lost all our wisdom, and even our common sense. We can speak to one another across the globe, in an instant, yet have nothing worth while to say, and neither any ears with which to hear. We have copious quantities of toys, and reams and volumes of data, but we have lost sight of what is most valuable, and what is most precious, and cannot see the forest for the trees. We are richer than any generation or civilization which has ever come before, yet we live as beggars, and blind beggars at that, obsessed and consumed with our mountains of dust.

We have the perspective of a gnat, and yet, we foolishly believe ourselves to be the culmination and pinnacle of human history and all evolution: as if nature delighted to reach a point where the trivial would be deified, and turned into yet another golden calf – a golden calf made of dust — as we worship at the feet of banality, and serve the idiocy of our time as smiling choir boys and giddy, unthinking, loyal servants.

No, we are not the culmination of natural evolution or of history. There is more day yet to dawn, to say the least. And if this wake up call be disturbing to some, we should remember that is is less disturbing to be awakened before the house burns down, than after. Be glad for the alarm bell. It is far better than the alternative.

We have electric light and indoor plumbing, yes, but all that says is that we can read more easily – if anyone still cared to do such an out-dated and archaic thing, which, it seems, fewer and fewer people are willing or wanting to do – and we can wipe our asses more easily and with a greater convenience. Hardly what we would call a measure of progress, by any sane or reasonable standard, I would suggest.

And that aside, are our lives really the richer and more noble because our powder rooms are more advanced in their puffery and comforts, or because we have a thousand and one electronic gadgets, with which to forget about the classics, the great works of literature, the greatest thoughts of the greatest minds and souls of all time – which require no such baubles or technological trinkets and toys, of course; that we can forget about the study of philosophy, the humanities or spirituality, the life of the larger community and the polis, the arts, or the deeper questions and realms of life and human existence? Were we not distracted enough, two thousand years ago? Few had ears to hear then. Fewer still now, or so it seems. Distraction is not progress – it is just distraction.

Yes, our personal hygiene is advanced in levels of convenience that would make our ancestors green with envy, should they ever place such a high stake on such minor concerns, or elevate them to such absurd heights; and moreover, our ability to distract ourselves from what is most important has soared, and absolutely skyrocketed. Some progress, that is, I would say. I stand in awe at the stunning sophistication and grandeur of the modern world. Let us bow down before the sublime majesty of it all.

When we measure a society or our path through history with a sense of perspective and depth, all that ultimately matters is whether we have learned to live with a greater wisdom or a greater love, or ideally, an increase in both; and from what I have seen, there is no reason to believe that we have made any great strides in either, since the Medieval era, and well before. We are lost in trivia and distractions, superfluities and superficialities, and the grand and glorious, all-pervasive worship of the mundane and the banal. Our society is obsessed with the mere surface of things: an appreciation of our depths has all but completely vanished from sight; and wisdom is a word we no longer even recognize, while the love of our fellow human beings is increasingly lost in a sea of alienation, narcissism, paranoia and fear.

This is progress? If so, you can keep it. It does not appeal to me. It is a bog, and we are lost, sunk to our knees, if not our necks, in quicksand, and sinking fast. And what or who do we reach out to in our desperate anxiety and bewilderment? Facebook and “social media?” Cell phone video games? Dial-up psychics or dial-up porn? Or Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer and “reality tv,” media presstitutes and talking heads on network TV, who are almost without exception either completely corrupt or completely inane.

(I like Oprah, by the way – don’t get me wrong. She seems to have a good soul and a good heart. But I don’t think she is necessarily qualified to tell us how and where our civilization went off the rails, or what we must do to get it back on track. And the rest of the mire, which the people routinely turn to for guidance, is not remotely as sensible as Oprah.)

We know not even where to turn to get ourselves out of this quicksand into which we have blindly stumbled. We are in a bad place, to say it mildly, and the ship of our “civilization” is sinking. All is not lost, but all is most certainly in danger. And it would be both foolish and irresponsible, as well as cowardly and unconscionable, to speak about the realities we are now facing, in less than fully frank and honest terms.

Ancient societies brought us Socrates, Plato, Jesus, the Buddha, Shankara and Lao Tzu, agriculture, the calendar, mathematics and written language, tools and aqueducts, sanitation, beautiful architecture, art and literature, the idea of democracy and freedom, great cities and hanging gardens, as well as wisdom. The medieval world brought us Da Vinci, Michelangelo, the Renaissance, flourishing democratic city-states, and the glory of the Alhambra, Mont St. Michel, Chartres Cathedral and the Magna Charta. Modern society has brought us prozac, porn, iPads and “social networking,” Donald Trump, Exxon, Monsanto, Walmart and Goldman Sachs – along with alienation, voyeurism, vicarious living, the cult of celebrity worship and reality TV. As E.F. Schumacher said, “We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam shovel, and are impressed by our yardage.” We have arguably regressed more than we have advanced, or have regressed at least as much as we have advanced. Our smugness is misplaced – and more to the point, it is simply dangerous.

We could speak of the glories and the triumphs of modern industrial civilization, and there are, and have been many, and there is a time and a place for such mutual congratulations – but that is not what we need most right now. What we need is a wake-up call. We have hit the snooze button too many times. Our world is burning, and the people remain asleep to the peril. We need a bucket of icy water over the head, or a stiff slap in the face, to bring us to our senses. Whatever it takes, humanity must be roused from what has become, by now, extremely perilous slumber. There is no time remaining for the mincing of words, or for pleasant euphemisms and niceties. Frankness is now a matter of survival.

*

Our progress has spotty and highly questionable at best, to say the least – not to mention the fact that we have not yet found the wisdom or the common sense, to refrain from systematically destroying ourselves and the planet on which we live. In such a context, reflections on the significance of Chartres, may be of some small help. Maybe it can bring some much needed perspective: it is certain that we are in a dread dearth and poverty of that most precious commodity, even while we are up to the gills in consumer goods and trinkets and other assorted trivia and trash – and so much so, that it covers over our eyes and obstructs our sight, so that we cannot even see what is before our very nose.

Joseph Campbell, one of history’s greatest scholars of mythology, world religions and human culture, speaks of his experience of Chartres:

“I’m back in the Middle Ages. I’m back in the world that I was brought up in as a child, the Roman Catholic spiritual-image world, and it is magnificent … That cathedral talks to me about the spiritual information of the world. It’s a place for meditation, just walking around, just sitting, just looking at those beautiful things.”

Orson Wells speaks of Chartres:

“Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world, and it’s without a signature: Chartres. A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked, radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us, to accomplish.”

*

When this present civilization is no more, when it has been buried under the rubble and ashes of its own short-sighted vanity, hubris and illusions, when our cities are abandoned and fall to dust and ruin, certain works of literature, certain pieces of music, art and architecture, certain memories and stories and timeless truths, will be what we hold dear – the rest, will be forgotten, and will disappear like a puff of smoke on the wind, and will vanish like a passing dream.

(And yes, that means your X-Box, your PlayStation, your smart phone, your American Express card and your MTV as well, of course – and all of the corporate dinosaurs and juggernauts and behemoths who provide these trifles and feed upon our addiction to them, as they feed upon us.)

It would seem to make sense for us to re-evaluate our habits, our assumptions and our priorities now, before nature forces us to do so – as she soon will, we can be assured. Making changes freely and in relative peace, is always preferable to making changes in haste and under duress, to put it in the mildest and most understated terms possible. We need to make changes now. It is in our interest not to delay.

Let those who have ears hear.

(Ronald Wright’s, A Brief History of Progress, Jared Diamond’s, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed, and Mathew Stein’s, When Technology Fails, should be required reading for every thoughtful person over the age of twelve – along with Shelly’s Ozymandias, Yeats’, The Second Coming, and T.S. Elliot’s The Hollow Men. Let those who have ears hear.)

Civilizations have fallen and collapsed many times before: the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Roman and the Mayan, to name but a few. We are not immune to such a fate, and we are desperately racing ahead with all haste, and are on track and on schedule, for just such a fall. If our civilization does collapse, it will be because we have allowed ourselves to create an ecological cataclysm of our own making; because we stubbornly refused to question our unquestionable, long-standing assumptions and cherished beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence; because we refused to adapt or to make the changes necessary to survive – and above all, it will be because the people did not embrace their power soon enough to throw the money changers to the street, and to reclaim their future. We cannot let this happen. The people must stand now.

We do not have to go out with either a bang or a whimper. The future is ours to create. Stand now.

There are times for shouting from the rooftops. There are times for sounding the trumpets or sounding the alarm. And there are times for a quiet determination. Choose your mood, choose your tone, choose your approach, but whatever you do, choose to act, and act now. The hour is late, and there is no more time for delay, or for floundering in hesitation. Act now, and stand.

The world, as with our lives, is what we make of it. We can live in paradise, or the nearest thing to it – at the least, we can live in a just, free and peaceful world, a beautiful world reigned by ecological sanity and love of one’s neighbour. Or we can live in a hell of our own making, and race feverishly towards our own self-annihilation and early demise, and into a dark age which has no exit, save for the tomb. The choice is entirely in our hands, and there is no use in our whimpering about our wish that someone would come along and fix things for us, and make everything nice. It is our future to create, or to destroy. The power is in our hands.

It is our choice what we make of our world and our future. Let us choose wisely, and choose now. Act now, and stand. It is within our power to heal this troubled world, and to restore a bright future for all human beings, and all living creatures on this Earth. It is within our power to create the world anew.

The hour of our choosing is here. The fork in the road has arrived. We must have bold action now, or human beings will simply perish from the Earth.

Stand now. We need you now. Not in fifty years, or ten years, or five, but now. Stand, and let us heal this troubled, beautiful world which is our home.

Stand now. It is time.

J. Todd Ring,
March 26, 2014

New studies show generosity and cooperation are both natural and intelligent

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2013 by jtoddring

A new study shows a mathematical proof that generosity leads to evolutionary success.

Generosity leads to evolutionary success

Biologists offer a mathematically based explanation for why cooperation and generosity have evolved in nature [Credit: Web]

“Ever since Darwin,” Plotkin said, “biologists have been puzzled about why there is so much apparent cooperation, and even flat-out generosity and altruism, in nature.”

“When people act generously they feel it is almost instinctual, and indeed a large literature in evolutionary psychology shows that people derive happiness from being generous,” Plotkin said. “It’s not just in humans. Of course social insects behave this way, but even bacteria and viruses share gene products and behave in ways that can’t be described as anything but generous.”

“We find that in evolution, a population that encourages cooperation does well,” Stewart said. “To maintain cooperation over the long term, it is best to be generous.”

The old notion of “survival of the fittest” – which was not an idea put forth by Darwin by the way, but was the work of Herbert Spencer, who distorted Darwin’s ideas to create the ideology of social Darwnism – has now been shown to be wrong.

The great Russian biologist Peter Kropotkin amassed a mountain of evidence to show that cooperation and mutual aid are every bit as normal, natural and common in nature as competition and aggression, in his monumental work, Mutual Aid – the most important work in biology since Darwin. Since then, the evidence has only grown more conclusive that cooperation, empathy, generosity, reciprocity and mutual aid are natural, and common in nature and in human nature. (See also, Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization; Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom; and Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self.)

 
In short, to love thy neighbour is not just virtuous and kind, it is the most intelligent thing to do. And what’s more, it is not at all utopian or wishful thinking to believe that a better world is possible.
 
The fact that a handful of egomaniacs and sociopaths have taken control of the world and are sowing extreme injustice, war, poverty, misery and ecological destruction, does not mean that this is the inevitable course for human beings or human society. We can and must change this. And the scientific evidence is showing that change – real change – is entirely in our power to create.
 
In fact, to overcome the worst aspects of human nature and create a society that is more just and more caring, would be to return more to our own true nature. Certainly greed, egotism, hatred and violence are no more natural than love, compassion, empathy and cooperation; and the science is showing that the latter are much more natural, and more pervasive in nature, as well as more evolutionarily intelligent and successful in the long run.
 
So yes, we can do better, and we can hope for better. And, as Arundhati Roy said, “A better world is not only possible – she is already being born.”
 
J. Todd Ring,
October 9, 2013

Love, sympathy and mutual aid are natural – we have to be taught to be greedy little narcissists

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2013 by jtoddring
 
Photo: During a California wildfire rescue workers ran out of crates to place rescued animals, forcing them to put a fawn and a bobcat kitten in an office together. When they got back they found that fawn and the bobcat cuddling and the pair became inseparable.
 
During a California wildfire rescue workers ran out of crates to place rescued animals, forcing them to put a fawn and a bobcat kitten in an office together. When they got back they found that fawn and the bobcat cuddling and the pair became inseparable.
 
Yes, compassion, love and solidarity are natural.
 
Or as the great Russian evolutionary biologist, Peter Kropotkin called it: mutual aid – the title of his magnum opus, which should be required reading for all high school students, not to mention all well-informed adults. That, and The Ecology of Freedom, by Murray Bookchin, and Escape From Freedom, by Erich Fromm.
 
J. Todd Ring,
October 8, 2013

On Libertarianism: Right & Left

Posted in anarchism, Bakunin, Bertrand Russell, capitalism, Chomsky, communism, conservative, corporate rule, corporatism, crisis of democracy, democratic deficit, Eric Fromm, fascism, globalization, Hobbes, Jefferson, Kropotkin, left, Lenin, libertarianism, Marx, neoliberalism, philosophy, Plato, political theory, politics, right, social theory, socialism, Thoreau, war on democracy, World Economic Forum with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2007 by jtoddring

“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

~Albert Einstein

Libertarianism is a term that has come to be identified with the right, with limited government, ideals of freedom, free market capitalism and laissez fair economics, however, the term originally meant libertarian socialism, a libertarianism of the left. The distinction of two kinds of libertarianism, or more appropriately, a spectrum of views within what is called libertarianism, is important. Both right and left libertarianism have a deep skepticism about excessive concentrations of state power, encroachments of government power in the lives of individuals and communities, and a belief that ultimately, “That government is best which governs the least.” Beyond this agreement, there are considerable differences between libertarianism of the right and that of the left. But before the distinctions between left and right libertarianism can be discussed, we need to clarify just what is essential to a libertarian perspective, and also, to distinguish between the ideal and the immediate in terms of advocating or working towards specific goals for human society.

Thoreau expresses a very clear and lucid view of the subject, recognizing the ideal, yet also the immediate reality: ideally, and “when men are ready for it,” no government, which we shall have, and which shall be a degree of liberation not yet seen or imagined; but in the immediate sense, not “no government, but at once, a better government.” In other words, work toward and keep in mind the ideal – freedom from state power messing up and intruding on the peoples’ lives, liberty and communities, but also seek more limited victories in the short term: a better government.

I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have…..But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

– Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience

Bertrand Russell also came to the same conclusion. His cool, rational conclusion, after a very fair-minded and objective analysis, was that anarchism – from the Latin, an-archos, meaning absence of an over-arching power, not chaos – is likely the best form of human society (as well as the full and self-consistent application of libertarian values), but we are not likely ready for it; in the short term, what he called libertarian socialism is the best order for society to which we can aspire. By that he meant limited government, with all government power kept as close to the community as possible, and as close the hands of the people as possible – as Jefferson urged – but also with strong values of voluntary free association and human cooperation for mutual aid and benefit (a la Kropotkin). Ideally, and in the short term, he recommended we work toward a society where power lies primarily, not in the hands of a few bureaucrats and lobbyists in a far away capital where power is centralized, but in the hands of the people at the level of community, with federations or networks of human cooperation and solidarity, trade and communication between and among communities and individuals for their mutual benefit and protection. Jefferson would certainly agree in spirit if not in all details.

Chomsky clarifies the distinction between long-term ideals and short-term goals within a reasonable and clear-headed perspective which is skeptical of concentrated political power, or any form of social power for that matter:

“Classical anarchist thought would have been more opposed to slavery, feudalism, fascism, and so on, than it would have been to parliamentary government. There was a good reason. Classical liberal thought, and anarchism coming out of it, were opposed to any concentration of power, that is, unaccountable concentration of power. It is reasonable to make a distinction between the more accountable and less accountable. Corporations are the least accountable. So, against the corporate assault on freedom and independence, one can quickly turn to the one form of social organization that offers … public participation and … that happens to be parliamentary government. That has nothing to do with being opposed to the State. In fact, it’s a sensible support for the State.” – Noam Chomsky

This is precisely why I can admire a democratic socialist like Hugo Chavez, who was democratically elected in closely monitored free and fair elections, who has introduced and held public referenda on every major decision faced by the people of Venezuela – a thought inconceivable to the elitist politicians of Washington, Ottawa, London, Paris or Berlin – and who is presently utilizing, with great popular democratic support, the institution of constitutional parliamentary democracy to protect the people of Venezuela from the greatest threat to human freedom and well-being on the planet today: the tyranny of unaccountable private empires – the global corporate raiders. It is no contradiction, therefore, to support libertarian socialism, or left libertarianism, while admiring a social democrat like Chavez. As Chomsky put it, it’s sensible support for the state – under certain limited conditions.

Chomsky as well expresses a view of libertarian socialism, and advocates for a society based on libertarian socialist principles of freedom along with voluntary cooperation and mutual aid. And Chomsky, as well or better than any other, clarifies the distinction of right and left libertarianism. Libertarians across the spectrum are opposed to excessive concentrations of political power, as it is viewed that such high degrees of concentrated political power in society have more often than not created more harm than good – a view that is shared among Jefferson, Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Kropotkin, Chomsky and many others.

The history of the world shows that this view is the most realistic perspective on government and political power. The opposing view, that government is the saviour and redeemer of humanity, has brought about Stalinism, Nazism, fascism, Maoism, and lately, neoconservatism, among other evils. The view that is opposed to the libertarian desire to keep political power firmly in check, sees government as a kind of benign big brother, a paternal or maternal figure, a parent that treats citizens like children, who need to be coddled and scolded, controlled for their own good. It is a dangerous elitism, breeding naturally authoritarianism. It comes from a fear of freedom, as social psychologist Eric Fromm correctly pointed out, and not just megalomaniacal dreams of power.

Plato was the most famous and influential of the “government as saviour” camp. The philosopher kings, the wise few, would rule with benign despotism over the hapless and ignorant many. Sounds desirable, maybe, until you reflect that if you do not trust people to govern themselves, how can you possibly trust them to govern others? (A flaw of basic logic which was not missed by Jefferson.)

Hobbes furthered the view, presenting the anthropologically ignorant and incorrect view that life before civilization, by which he meant life before centralized government, was “evil, nasty, brutish and short.” The revolution in anthropology that occurred in the 1970’s with the discovery of new and conclusive evidence about our human history prior to the age of empires, refutes Hobbes unequivocally. Hobbes knew nothing of anthropology, of course, and the data would not be revealed for another few centuries, but he was wrong, and we know that now – or at least, we can know that now, although almost no-one is aware that such a revolution has occurred in anthropology and our knowledge of human history: we live in a pre-Copernican time with regard to the general culture’s understanding of anthropology and human history; most still believe the sun revolves `round the earth, though the evidence to refute this fallacy has been made clear.

In any case, Hobbes was engaging in a kind of rational self-deceit. Hobbes view of human beings was jaundiced and pessimistic in the extreme. He felt, as many do, that if there was no powerful over-arching force to restrain human beings, they would instantly rip each other’s throats out, and everything would descend into a war of “all against all.” Again, the anthropological data refutes this terrified view, but even if one were to accept it for sake of argument, it simply begs the question. If you do not trust people, then why would you give a few people extraordinary power? Would this not seem even more dangerous? Who did Hobbes expect to govern us, aliens? Hobbes did not trust people, so he argued that some people have an all-powerful position in order that these people protect people from people. This should strike us as immediately self-contradictory, ridiculous and absurd.

As Jefferson said, “If you do not trust people to govern themselves, how can you trust them to govern others?” It is therefore not idealistic and utopian to think that government should be kept to a minimum of centralized, concentrated power, but on the contrary, it is a healthy and prudent skepticism that informs such a view.

(When you combine Plato, Hobbes and Machiavelli, you get the neoconservatives – or their mirror image, neoliberalism. You get wildy elitist, authoritarian, ruthless, predatory, self-delusional, megalomaniacal empire fetish. That is what we are experiencing now.)

Thoreau demolishes Hobbes’ fantasy-scape with a few strokes on the pen:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

Libertarianism: Right and Left

The libertarianism of the right has a view of power that does not keep to its own self-consistency. It views political power as potentially dangerous, having the great potential to be abused, and therefore needing to be kept in close check. But it does not recognize economic power as a power in society, which is an oversight that is hard to fathom, such power being so plainly obvious. Because libertarians of the right tend not to recognize economic power as a form of power in society, they are unconcerned with its concentrations – even when concentrations of economic power become staggeringly large, as they have over the past twenty or thirty years. This is an oversight that is frankly dangerous, if not delusional.

Libertarians of the left share the skepticism of highly concentrated political power, but, naturally, recognize the potential for harm and abuse from excessive concentrations of economic power. Thus, in the present order of things, corporate power is to be addressed equally, along side state or governmental power. To do otherwise is to contradict oneself, and worse, to leave the door open to serious and extreme abuses of power, and also, to fascism, which, as Mussolini said, is rightly called corporatism, since it is the merger of business and the state (and that is exactly what is happening now, and on a global scale) due to the lack of foresight to correct and put in check all forms of great concentrations of power in society.

Right libertarianism questions, challenges, and repudiates high levels of concentration of political power in society – and rightfully so, I believe – yet it is, or at least has been until recently, unwilling to question the role and nature of high levels of concentrations of economic power.

This is, once again, frankly, a gross oversight, and one that makes right libertarianism a contradiction in terms: you cannot advocate limitations on powers that unduly constrict human freedom and pose threats of tyranny in a self-consistent, coherent, or even rational manner, if you are only willing to look at one form of power in society, and remain blind to others. Economic power is every bit as real as political power – some would say more so.

The 500 biggest corporations on earth now have combined revenues that total three times the GDP of the world’s biggest national economy – that of the United States. If this does not constitute power in society, I’m not sure what would.

OK, well, corporations have immense power, but that does not mean it translates into political power – does it? They are competing with one another. Yes, they are competing with one another, and they also share common interests: drive labour costs and wages down, eliminate or circumvent labour and environmental standards, find the cheapest source of labour and resources and move there, then dominate them, open borders to free flow of capital, but not to labour…..The commonalities are pretty clear.

And do they meet, discuss common interests, work together cooperatively? Of course. Wouldn’t you if you were in their position?

Do teachers join together to pursue common interests, such as decent pay, pension plans, etc.? Do janitors get together to pursue common goals of better pay and working conditions?

It is obvious, or should be, that there are common group interests – or, heaven forbid we use the term, class interests – that bring otherwise competing parties together to pursue common goals. The corporate elite are no different. This is not a conspiracy, but simply common sense.

The world’s corporate elite gather, among other places, at Davos Switzerland, every year for the World Economic Forum, and there seek to push governments to their will, to advance common interests among the elite global investment class, the billionaire class, or the class of ruling oligarchs, to every extent that they are able to do so – and that is a considerable length.

The billionaires, and the large corporations they control, do not control the world – but they certainly dominate it, and they dominate virtually every nation and government on earth, as well as dominating the global economy, the financial system and most of the media. This is, by any sane or reasonable definition, hegemonic power: corporations and the billionaires who control them, now effectively rule the world. The only way to properly define such a system or order of things, is not democracy, certainly, but oligarchy – or plutocracy, or neo-feudalism, or most starkly, and what we are fast approaching in its full, ugly form: global, neo-feudal, corporate fascism.

It is impossible to deny the very real power of corporations in society without digressing into ideological fundamentalism and willful blindness. Refusing to challenge economic concentrations of power while espousing a libertarian philosophy is self-contradictory: right libertarianism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

Would a laissez-fair, free-market capitalist, who supports only limited government – a libertarian as it is known on the right – be considered an oxymoron or a self-contradiction if he was also a slave owner? Of course. But it is not very different if a libertarian advocates checks and balances on political power, yet does not question the giant corporate monopolies and oligopolies that now wield more power than democratically elected governments.

Right libertarianism is truly a contradiction in terms, unless by that you mean a conservative libertarian, who also questions and challenges excessive concentrations of corporate, economic and financial power, and not only state or governmental power. U.S. Congressman and 2008 Presidential candidate Ron Paul, for example, I would describe as a conservative libertarian in this sense. He has his head on his shoulders when it comes to corporate powers, as far as I can tell. He is not stuck in ideological dogmatisms.

The left is equated – wrongly – with heavy-handed, bureaucratic, if not totalitarian government – or at least this is the view of the left that we get from the right wing; however, there are, broadly speaking, two wings or schools of thought within what has been called the left, and only one of the two fits the above description.

In the socialist movement of the 1800’s there was a definite rift, and a fierce debate, between the two very different currents of thought within what is loosely described as the political left. Marx led the wing we are most familiar with, Bakunin the other. Bakunin and the libertarian socialists were ousted, lost the battle, and were to some considerable degree eclipsed from history – at least until very recently. Bakunin warned that Marxist ideas would lead to a new form of tyranny – and of course he was right. The Soviet Union was the prime example, and Bakunin predicted the tyranny long in advance.

Now, with the Marxist-Leninist school of thought being in full disgrace within the left, as well as within the broader community of humanity world-wide, and with global neoliberal corporate capitalism experiencing a deep and profound, and rapidly growing crisis of legitimacy world-wide, with rapidly rising popular discontent, people are beginning to look for alternatives – and the alternative is becoming clear to many. That is, in the short term: a freedom-loving and anti-authoritarian, democratic socialism in the short term; and libertarian socialism in the longer term. I would say they deserve our thoughtful attention, and merit respectful consideration, at the very least, and to put it most mildly.

The War on Democracy: Unchecked Power Out of Control

Under what we should more honestly call monopoly capitalism, the era of the small shop owner being the primary economic player having long ago vanished, corporate power has become so concentrated – that is, economic power has become so enormously concentrated – that it now threatens to engulf and eviscerate all remaining democratic power of societies world wide. We should be concerned. Jefferson warned of this 200 years ago. We did not listen. We are now facing the results of our lack of foresight.

Those on the right and the left with a libertarian perspective would do well to communicate. There is a natural alliance here, if we can learn to speak in ways that are mutually understandable. There is no time for bickering or ideological warfare. We need to get together to protect the basics: decent, although flawed, human, imperfect limited government, within the framework of constitutional democracy and basic human rights and freedom.

If we do not come together, and not just right and left libertarians, but more traditional liberals, conservatives, social democrats, greens and progressives, and all who oppose the, by now undeniable, drift into oligarchy and corporate fascism, and stand together for constitutional democracy, civil liberties, human rights and freedom, all other considerations will become merely abstract, and we will find ourselves living in a brave new world, and a very dark age,  leading rapidly to ecological collapse and the end of human life on earth.

Jamie Brownlee sums up the current, central challenge to humanity at this time, in one brief and extremely lucid passage:

“At present, the state is the only institution large enough to act as a counterweight to corporate power; therefore, short-term goals should involve defending, even strengthening, those elements of the state that are accountable to public input (which are the ones constantly under attack by private power.) Opening up the state to democratic participation and improving the effectiveness and accountability of state regulation are the most realistic interim strategies for dealing with the corporate threat and the practical problems of tomorrow—problems on which people’s lives depend. In the short-term, then, political activism that directly targets corporate power should be complimented by efforts to re-democratize the state and government.”

– Jamie Brownlee, Ruling Canada, Corporate Cohesion and Democracy, 2005

As constitutional lawyer Joel Bakan, author of, The Corporation, has said, if the typical corporation really was a person, then by an exact psychological definition, it would have to be labelled as a sociopath. Even if we did not have grave misgivings about excessive concentrations of power in human society, as we should, these are not the kind of powers which we should wish to govern and rule our nations or the world. Clearly, it is time for a change – a real change, and now. The urgency cannot be overstated, or emphasized enough.

First things first – let us recapture, reclaim and renew our democracy, and “crush in its infancy”, as Thomas Jefferson said, the oligarchy, the new empire, and the excessive powers of “the new moneyed aristocracy,” which now threaten, not only democracy and freedom, but all life on earth. Then we can decide where to go from there. On this point, we must be clear.

We must gain the clarity that is urgently needed at this time, and unite and inspire, and empower the people. And we must act decisively, and now.

J. Todd Ring

April 15, 2007

Further reading:

Writings of J. Todd Ring

Amazon.com: Civil Disobedience and Other Essays (Dover Thrift Editions): Books: Henry David Thoreau

Amazon.com: Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism & Syndication: Books: Bertrand Russell

Amazon.com: The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future: Books: Riane Eisler

Amazon.com: The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy: Books: Murray Bookchin

Amazon.com: Escape from Freedom: Books: Erich Fromm

Amazon.com: The Power Elite: Books: C. Wright Mills,Alan Wolfe

Amazon.com: The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power: Books: Joel Bakan

Economist’s View: You’ll Miss Us When We’re Gone

Economist’s View: Can Democrats and Libertarians Find Common Ground?

“Their Libertarianism and Ours” – from:

Amazon.com: Don’t Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial: Books: Ellen Willis

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