“The world is facing terrible problems, but it’s not too late for us to solve them if we work together.”
That’s what a lot of political activists are saying. I agree with that statement, but I have a very different view of what the problems and solutions are. (I have many sources, but I call this “my” vision because we must each tell our own story in our own way.) Most activists will point to war, ecocide, climate change, unemployment, poverty, racism, sexism, corruption, fascism, etc., as the problems, but I will explain below that those are just symptoms of deeper problems, the root problems, hierarchy and property, two institutions that most activists don’t see as problematical at all.
Some will think that I’m just being intellectual, idealistic, and unrealistic. They’ll say something like,
“We need to deal with climate change right now; we can worry later about whether to try to end private property. It’s not necessary or possible to deal with that now. People don’t want that kind of change right now.”
But in this essay I’m going to explain why it is both possible and necessary, and why we won’t make any progress on symptoms like climate change until we address the root problems of hierarchy and property, and why people will want this change when they understand it a bit better.
And most activists will turn to demonstrations, petitions, organizations, recruitment, fundraising, elections, and maybe revolution as tactics for solving the problems, but I see all of these as secondary, as later steps. What is really crucial now is discussion, consciousness-raising, getting people to awaken, to understand and start discussing how hierarchy and property are causing all our other problems and blocking all our other solutions. We may not be able to end hierarchy and property immediately, but we need to immediately begin thinking and talking about these ideas. That must be our central tactic. For instance, if you like this essay, recommend it to your friends.
My vision is simple in the sense that it has few moving parts. But it is difficult to discuss because it is unfamiliar. It is far outside what most people have been thinking about; it contradicts assumptions that have been deeply embedded in our culture for 10,000 years. How we see the world and our relationships determines what kind of people we become. I am calling for a new kind of people, a new way of life – and we really have no choice, for our old way of life is becoming untenable. Sapolsky has shown that even baboons can change their culture accidentally; surely we humans can change ours intentionally. [see video below]
Hierarchy concentrates power, and power corrupts. We see that all around us: Authoritarians beat their wives and children, bosses bully workers, guards torture inmates, police shoot the poor, tyrants hang their opponents, and the rich start wars to make themselves richer. Our politicians are liars, thieves, and mass murderers, yet we treat them with honor; we are caught up in a global version of Stockholm Syndrome (a psychological bond between hostages and captor).
The Stanford Prison Experiment proved that power corrupts: Student volunteers were tested for normalcy, then divided randomly into guards and inmates for a two week mock prison. The experiment was halted after six days because the guards began abusing the inmates.
The alternative to hierarchy is horizontal networking, otherwise known as anarchy or anarchism. The corporate news media equate anarchy with chaos, like a boat without a steersman, but they are lying: Society is not a boat. We have few historical examples of anarchism because it is usually stamped out by nearby authoritarians. For instance, in 1939 Franco’s fascists crushed the anarcho-socialist democracy of Catalonia.
When disaster wipes away our everyday routines, our true human nature is revealed. Hollywood shows people fighting each other for a scrap of food, but that’s a lie. Rachel Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell studied the aftermaths of several great disasters – the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco, the bombings of 11 September 2001, and so on. In each case people came together to help one another in any way they could. Despite the pains of the disaster, survivors later had fond memories of community. We can create that community without that disaster.
Property looks complicated because our culture has lied in so many different ways about it. Economics is the comparison of different methods of being selfish. But selfishness has been disastrous. We need to learn how to share; ultimately that will be much simpler.
Capitalism tries to claim credit for all innovations (e.g., cellphones), but that’s a lie. Give the credit for science to science, not to competition. Nearly all scientific innovation occurs in university and military laboratories where the scientists are paid in a fashion much more like socialism than like business. We’d probably have cheaper and better cellphones, and sooner, if they were developed cooperatively.
Keynes described capitalism as the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow work to create the best of all possible worlds. Advocates of the market claim that it promotes the industrious and punishes the lazy. They claim that we can all be good little businessmen, honest and respectful to each other while pursuing our own separate interests and separate lives. But the truth is that the market rewards the few who control it and punishes everyone else, and replaces honesty and respect with abuse because that’s where the incentives are.
Even in a voluntary trade where both traders benefit, the one who was already in a stronger bargaining position benefits more, becoming stronger still. Thus inequality increases and wealth is concentrated into fewer hands. And wealth is power and influence, so the market creates plutocracy, which means rule by the rich. And power corrupts, as discussed earlier.
We’ve been told that markets are efficient, but that’s a lie. Market prices are far from true costs. The market pays only for extraction, not for replacement or cleanup. Market transactions always externalize some costs – that is, harmful side effects are paid for by neither the buyer nor the seller, but some third party who was never consulted. Conventional economics textbooks gloss over these externalities as though they were minor, but in fact they are enormous; they include war, poverty, and ecocide.
Some people blame modern technology, but technology can be used for good or ill. It’s largely ill, in a society based on selfishness and externalized costs. Over time exploitation becomes more efficient; for instance, slumlords now have computers. Oil spills poison our water, and fracking causes earthquakes.
To maintain short-term profits, fossil fuel companies have lied for decades about global warming. It is now accelerating faster than most people realize; we’re about to go over a climate cliff. Our crops will die. The rich will discover too late that they can’t eat money and that there are no profits on a dead planet.
We’ve been told that we are greedy and are motivated only by selfishness. And that’s probably true of a few humans who don’t understand themselves very well. But sociologists have found that, once your basic material needs are met, more material goods will not increase your happiness. In fact, more material goods will separate you from other humans and thereby decrease your happiness.
A few of us – teachers, nurses, firefighters – have jobs that feel meaningful. But most of us in a capitalist economy are only coming to work for the paycheck, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. That lack of meaning, and not laziness, is why we hate Mondays. Privately owned workplaces are little dictatorships. But the present economic system can’t last much longer: Robots are displacing humans faster and faster. It’s not yet clear what system will replace the present one. In any case, the transition will be painful if we don’t plan for it in advance.
In the meantime, one person’s loss is another person’s gain, and we cannot care about each other while competing against each other. In the market, we are all commodities to be used or discarded. And that callousness spills out of the market into the rest of our lives. It kills empathy, making possible racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. Look at the many homeless in our streets; evidently we are not acting as our brother’s keeper. Someday soon this indifference may catch up with the rest of us: Some suicidal madman may build a germ warfare lab in his basement and kill us all.
The only thing that can make us safe is a culture of caring and sharing that leaves no one behind, so that no one wants to hurt us. That is becoming necessary just for us to survive, but that change will also make our lives better in every way. We can have safe food, safe water, adequate housing, and meaningful jobs. We can be friends instead of rivals. We can create a new and better world.
Why hierarchy creates a destructive force within the human psyche (by Dr. Robert Sapolsky)
TheSymposionNights on Oct 28, 2012
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