The Deep State

Deep State.jpg

The “Deep State” has been a popular buzzword in the media lately. But what is it, exactly? As always, beginning with definitions is often illuminating. Unfortunately, the OED does not have a definition for this word, so we must approach the definition in a different way.

As is typical, reading and listening to the media is largely uninformative. The most gleaned from the media is that a “deep state” exists, but it does not clarify what this phenomenon is in any meaningful sense. Wikipedia gives a definition: a coordinated effort by career government employees and others to influence state policy without regard for democratically elected government; also, entrenched government institutions wielding power. But this definition is weak in that it doesn’t really explain what it is to the extent that one could clearly identify it. A previous post on conspiracies lays out two different types of what could easily be considered the “deep state,” but neither fully captures the meaning of the phrase.

A portion of the Farewell Address of President Dwight Eisenhower gets closer to a proper definition:

This segment contains the notorious phrase, the “military-industrial complex,” but this does not exemplify the phenomenon because it leaves out a core component. This component was originally included in the Address but was removed for fear of alienating his friends in Congress. In the original version of the speech, the term was “Military-Industrial-Congressional” complex. This omission may seem trivial but it is not because it underlies how the military-industrial complex is most able to get its way to that “unwarranted influence” and “misplaced power” against which Eisenhower warned. However, in reality, it is not just the Congressional branch but also the Executive and Judicial branches as well. Furthermore, “think tanks,” too, have come to take an increasing role in this dynamic.

In this way, the deep state is the sum of those actors from the military, the financial, the political, and epipolitical spheres that entrench themselves behind the levers of government powers to pursue aims that benefit themselves (often at the expense of the public). Sociologist, C. Wright Mills, wrote a fascinating book highlighting the actors of this deep state (and their operational dynamic), referring to them as the “power elite.” It is an insightful book that should be mandatory reading for any High School but, unfortunately, goes unread even in today’s higher institutions of learning.

Mills’ definition is the core of the meaning but it is simultaneously anachronistic and outdated in many respects. For the complex he describes is but a new iteration of the one that had existed well before his exposé and an outdated model given its recent evolution. As a result of this shifting of Deep State in practice, it is worth informing and updating our understanding. Veteran reporter and author, David Talbot, recently published a significant book that traces the development of this new deep state.

Talbot defines the deep state as, “the subterranean network of financial, intelligence, and military interests that guide national policy regardless of president.” The key components of this definition are 1) an unseen network of interests that, 2) guide national policy (despite President [or resistance therefrom]).

But even Talbot’s precision seems to miss the mark in some important ways. What Talbot describes – and what others reference when invoking the “deep state” – is nothing short of a denotative conspiracy. As mentioned previously, this author wrote a post on conspiracy, and the “deep state” that easily qualifies as either a fantasy of nightmarish proportions or a matter of fact when it comes to power politics. This author does not view the deep state as a paranoid delusion but a real phenomenon with very real consequences. But then how does the deep state as an entity unto its own differ from the real conspiratorial politics that occur every day?

For example, interest groups (financial, national security, political, military, etc.) are by nature conspiratorial, especially when they seek to remain anonymous. And many succeed in determining policy even when a President resists, as was the case with the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era. But do interest groups like these constitute the “deep state?” The answer is no – at least, not necessarily. Then what is the difference between powerful interest groups and the deep state proper?

For one, it is the duration of pursuit of the interest group’s policy objectives. An interest group is one where there is a limited interest/goal, like banning the teaching of evolution in public schools, the legalization of marijuana, or, banning gay marriage. Once the goal is achieved, the interest group no longer has a reason to exist. A deep-state “interest group,” however, has a more broad and perpetual goal, like anti-communism, the “war on drugs,” or even the “war on terror.” The former has goals that once reached removes the impetus from the interest group; the latter is a continual campaign with almost no end in sight.

Secondly, and in the same vein, is the broad scope of the interest group. So, for example, the movement to legalize marijuana wants just, and only, that. The deep-state interest groups, conversely, want much more. During – an in the name of – the Cold War, for example, much was done to out communist sympathizers, quash labor unions, embargo certain countries from the world economy, set up military installations around the world, develop propaganda campaigns against enemies and allies alike to demonize communism, and even start wars and coups to counter perceived communist threats, even if it meant overthrowing democratically elected governments.

The third defining feature is the power of those groups. There is a significant difference between a marijuana-legalization advocacy group and the bureaucracy of either the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and its principal: the Department of Justice (DOJ). But there is another important distinction worth mentioning here – one that Mills insightfully made: that between all individuals within powerful bureaucracies and those within the inner circles of those powerful institutions. Not all employees of the DEA or the DOJ think that marijuana is the threat it is deemed to be, but unfortunately, those voices rarely – if ever – make it to key positions like Secretary, Director, or Chairman. Those positions are held by individuals who have demonstrated their loyalty to an interest or ideology, which, in this particular instance, serve to guarantee the perpetuation of a particular type of bureaucracy. It should be noted that institutional survival is not the only reason that an inner circle selects its heirs. Often times it is purely ideological, like defeating communism. But the mechanism is the same: powerful figures choose like-minded, high-powered successors in order to ensure the continuation of their life’s work or philosophy. Again, this selective and self-perpetuating class in the upper echelons of power (politically, financially, militarily) is what Mills calls the “power elite.”

Lastly, and probably most importantly, as Talbot points out: that these individuals, groups, and institutions are part of a larger network. Interests groups often act alone but they can form alliances, but these alliances pale in comparison to those constituting the deep state. Coordination between power elites within the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of State (DoS), the Executive, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, CEOs and other executives of various economic summits, and high-powered lobbying groups – not to mention the interchangeability of their officers – constitute a force truly terrifying in scope and breadth.

What emerges from this line of inquiry is a more complete definition of the term “deep state.” To use Tablot’s framework, a revised and more accurate definition then becomes: a deeply entrenched, wide-ranging, and powerful subterranean network of financial, intelligence, and military interests that guide national policy regardless of President. These additions may seem redundant or minor but they are not. To demonstrate the accuracy and significance of this definition, this essay will now give an example of how the deep state works.

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Let us begin near the end of World War II. At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, President Roosevelt stated that the objective of the war was the “unconditional surrender of the axis powers [Germany, Italy, and Japan].” But before this time, Allen Dulles, then an officer of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the precursor agency to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, which Dulles would come to direct for decades) – had been fraternizing with Nazi leadership. This was so because the Dulles brothers’ Wall Street law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, and their network of clients – which included banks, investment firms, and industrial conglomerates – had helped rebuild Germany after World War I, and in the process befriending many high-powered German/Nazi and Fascist leadership. In fact, many of those same interests, including Sullivan and Cromwell itself, were doing business with the Nazis during WWII, all of which were illegal.

After the Casablanca Conference, Dulles began negotiating (an alternative peace process) with Nazi leadership, ensuring them safe transportation out of Italy and Germany and immunity from substantive prosecution under the future Nuremberg Trials. In effect, Dulles was collaborating with Nazi war criminals, and all this went against the policy of unconditional surrender laid out by President Roosevelt. Notorious operations like Operation: SunriseOperation: Paperclip and Operation: Overcast, which protected and placed Nazi officers and scientists – some of whom conducted horrific human experiments on concentration camp prisoners, and some who oversaw the concentration camps themselves – in various communities within the United States as well as other countries. (And this is to say nothing of the Catholic Church’s successful efforts to protect Fascist military officers by securing their escape out of Europe and from prosecution).

That Dulles was a staunch opponent of Roosevelt and his policies had little to do with this treasonous insubordination. Instead it had to do with, first, an old-world paradigm, of which the Dulles – and even the Roosevelt – family were part, a paradigm which lays the foundation for the modern deep state. Regardless of this paradigm, we see Talbot’s definition begin to take shape: an entrenched intelligence figure (an agent of the Executive branch) dictating policy and directing agencies regardless of Presidential policy.

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To demonstrate this first paradigm, let us return to the founding of the United States (which will also reveal the first deep state of this country). At its inception, the political power delegated to “We the people” was, in fact, relegated to a small minority of individuals, namely: white, male, landowners. The thinking was that: those who owned the country – because they have a vested interest in it – ought to govern it. And, indeed, there is no shortage of historical data confirming this philosophy and socio-political arrangement. Despite the eventual freedoms and rights granted to slaves, immigrants, and ultimately women, this perspective has never faded from (those who own) the country. And it shouldn’t entirely, and this author has written a previous post demonstrating why this is.

From this time on, the elites – those who owned the country and dictated its policy and course  – came from the same backgrounds, went to the same elite schools, socialized in the same social circles, and worked together, ultimately assuming leadership of the governing agencies that oversaw the great American experiment. In short, this privileged elite formed its own self-perpetuating class and network of like-minded individuals that governed the country (with few exceptions), similar to feudalistic, aristocratic, and monarchic dynasties of the past: this is the power elite.

This was especially pronounced in the early to mid twentieth century. In fact, most high-office individuals came from this (upper/capitalist) class, including both Roosevelt and Dulles (the “good old boys” or the “boys club” phrases are a reflection and epitome of this state of affairs). While the rest of the century saw a more “democratized” opportunity of power, the most powerful agents came from this privileged class, like Roosevelt and Dulles. And during that first half, the privileged elites cemented their positions.

Let us return to WWII…

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President Roosevelt saw the Soviet Union as an integral component to the post-war New World Order. For they were the decisive sword that cut down the axis powers, and he thought, rightly, that they would be a key figure in shaping that new world (this is why Russia today still has permanent member status at the U.N.). Unfortunately, Dulles – and this was the second paradigm that motivated his treason – saw the world and the Soviets differently. Dulles was a staunch ideologue who was even more against the “communist threat” than he was of Roosevelt. For that reason, he antagonized the U.S.S.R., especially after Roosevelt died in April of 1945 (and Dulles was hardly the only US official to do so). His Operation: Sunrise, for example, was a betrayal of the alliance between the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R. – and the Soviets, in particular: a paranoid Stalin, did not take this as a reassuring sign of post-war relations.

In fact, it was under the influence of Dulles’ that the U.S., under President Harry Truman (though, Truman needed little nudging from Dulles given his own anti-Soviet ideology and racism towards the Japanese), bombed the Japanese despite their several attempts to surrender earlier that year. Moreover, many Nazi intelligence officers that Dulles spared from Nuremberg came to constitute the West German intelligence agencies fighting against the U.S.S.R. after the end of WWII. Dulles, and other powerful figures like him, wanted to send a message to the Soviets — and that message was received. The ultimate result was the Cold War.

So now we see that a powerful intelligence figure, defying the policies and intents of a U.S. President, to carry out policy objectives that he saw more fit, and in the process altering the course of history. And this influence succeeds Presidents, (from even before) Roosevelt up until Kennedy (and beyond). And it hardly ends here. But before going on, let us spend some time understanding Operation: Sunrise and the networks that made it possible.

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Allen Dulles had been in contact with SS General, Karl Wolff, a/k/a the “bureacrat of death” (chief of all SS and Gestapo units in Italy), negotiating the surrender of Nazis in Italy that protected the lives of the several high-ranking Nazi officers. This action was undertaken by Dulles despite express instructions to the contrary by both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. In order to distance himself from any implication, Dulles employed an intermediary and upper-class German counterpart, Gero von Schultz-Gaevernitz, to carry the terms of this new surrender and to facilitate Wolff’s escape from Northern Italy at the war’s end.

Gero, a German economist and a Weimar minister, was also a scion of a wealthy European family that had at one time supported the Nazis, and was a relative of the Stinnes family, who were responsible for financially supporting Hitler’s rise to power. He and Dulles held the view that “moderate” members of the Nazi party must be salvaged and incorporated into “post-war plans for Germany.” Dulles also employed his top agent, Don Jones, within the OSS to lead the rescue mission of Wolff.

In addition to these contacts, Dulles was still a board member at Sullivan and Cromwell, and as such sought to protect his clients’ interests in Italy and Germany. For example, part of the terms negotiated were that Wolff and his soldiers not destroy any of the manufacturing and power plants owned by the multinational holding company, the Italian Superpower Corporation (incorporated in Delaware in 1928, whose executive board were made up of Italians and Americans, 50/50). Incidentally, one of these executives, James Russel Fogan, took over as the London chief for the OSS at the end of the war, professedly making him Dulles’ “boss.”

Dulles’ efforts weren’t entirely successful, though. For Wolff was “prosecuted” but not at Nuremberg – there he was only called on as a witness, not a criminal – but at a de-Nazification court. A major reason Wolff was never prosecuted at Nuremberg initially is that Dulles suppressed an OSS report detailing the horrific crimes Wolff had committed under the Third Reich. Instead, what the Nuremberg prosecutors received were reports from Dulles himself painting a picture of a neutral and moderate officer who was just following orders and knew nothing about the horrors of the “final solution.” Furthermore, at his trial at the de-Nazification court, Gero von Shultz-Gaevernitz testified on his behalf, lauding his character and stressing that he had made no deal with the Americans to save his own skin (which was false).

Despite all these mitigating efforts, Wolff was still jailed – but not for long. For Dulles had arranged that Wolff be diagnosed with a nervous disorder and had him transferred to a more comfortable psychiatric institution. But Wolff grew impatient and began to speak of Operation: Sunrise, even writing letters to Dulles and Major General Lyman Lemnitzer threatening to expose the embarrassing and treasonous truth of that alternative peace agreement. Major General Lemnitzer also shared with Dulles a deep anti-Soviet ideology and, since he too, had helped coordinate the operation, urged Dulles to do what they could to get Wolff total freedom. And this is ultimately what happened. Incidentally, this General went on to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and eventually the Army Chief of Staff under President Kennedy.

Wolff went on to live a fairly innocuous life, even selling information to US intelligence agencies at one point. He was prosecuted a number of times, jailed only a minimal amount of time (5 years), and despite finally being convicted of war crimes in 1964, he lived out his days as a lecturer and minor public figure that one would think a Nazi War criminal ought never to have – and all thanks to Allen Dulles and his deep-state networks.

In sum, we see the workings of the deep state here on a minor scale. A powerful intelligence figure, who himself was already a powerful financial and legal broker, who protected his company’s clients (often illegally); tapping others within the intelligence community, the military, and the financial sectors of the United States, as well as other foreign agents to carry out his own operations; who made treasonous deals with war criminals against the behest of presidents due to his class affiliations with those war criminals, and his ultimate geopolitical, anti-communist ambitions. What we have here is a power player within the intelligence community, coordinating with other sympathetic power players in the military and financial sectors in order to affect policy against both a democratic functioning and the President of the United States: this dynamic is the deep state.

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So, what does the deep state want? What is its raison d’être? In short: to survive and pursue its objectives. The specific goals and the operations it undertakes to attain those goals differs from state to state. But there are some similarities between different regimes.

First, the deep state is almost always made up of individuals from the upper class (of wealth and power), particularly the ones who own (the means of production of a) society, and those goals sought are those of that upper class, i.e. the power elite. Often, however, individuals from the upper-middle classes – usually certain intellectuals and politicians – are recruited to serve on behalf of that power elite.

Second, are the goals of the deep state – the primary one being the protection of this wealth and power; the secondary goal is the accumulation of more power and wealth. This happens primarily through the exploitation of others, usually against the lower classes, occasionally against other upper/capitalist class members. Again, how these goals and operations play out depends upon the nation-state and the restrictive/protective (i.e. regulatory) nature of its laws.

Given this example of Dulles as well as other features of the phrase, “deep state,” one is inclined to think that this phenomena is much more sinister or cloak-and-dagger that it typically is. To disabuse this perspective, another more-recent, example will help to further clarify the influential and mundane extent of this opaque dynamic (at least within the United States): the financial crisis of 2007-2008.

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To put it in simplistic, yet clear, terms:

In September of 2008, investment banks in the U.S. became illiquid. This means that these banks no longer had any money with which to do anything banks normally do, i.e. to invest and pay share- and stockholders (particularly those who had put their retirement funds into mutual funds managed by these banks). Anyone who wanted to withdraw money from their investments or savings (since these banks also operate as commercial banks) could no longer get this money because these banks simply did not have the cash. This is what is known as a “run on the bank.” This is what happened to the banking system that led to the Great Depression: banks no longer had the money to give back to those who put money into them. In other words: there was no more money: no savings, no payrolls to pay to workers, no funds for investors to invest, and no returns to give to investors.

This affected local commercial banks because they, too, had assets in investment banks. So, this means that banks on city and state levels also didn’t have money because they couldn’t withdraw their money from the investment banks – that had no money – into which they were invested, to repay those who (on local and state levels) wanted to withdraw the money they put into these banks. In essence, there was no more money in the financial economy to pay debts/make good on assets held.

However, this was plain and simple: a HUGE lie. The reason for this is the simple reason of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or more simply: the FDIC.

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The FDIC is an agency of the U.S. government that insures/guarantees that commercial banking deposits will always be available. Those funds are ensured by the United States government. This is in order to prevent another run on banks. That said, the FDIC does not insure the deposits of investment banks, because investing is a risky behavior; putting money into a commercial bank is not. What this means is that during that crisis, many investment banks would have gone bankrupt, would have been purchased by other banks at discount prices, what good stocks remained would have been salvaged, and no doubt, new investment banks would have sprout up in their stead. All commercial banks – and their deposits – would have remained solvent because they are insured by the federal government (just like the bailouts [as well as U.S. debt in general] that were ultimately given to those investment banks).

What happened was one of the greatest scams of the 21st century (yes, there were others). The American public was plundered, and then when their plunderers got in trouble, they – in conjunction with their friends in the government – bailed most of them out, all at the extra expense of the American public.

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So, the U.S. government (beginning under President Bush but continuing under President Obama) began to pour – initially $700 billion, but ultimately $16.7 trillion – dollars into the financial banking system by purchasing those banks’ “toxic assets” {i.e. worthless loans/investments (mostly the bundled mortgages, called collateralized debt obligations [CDOs]) that could never be repaid}. In effect, the U.S. government bought the bad assets (loans) of these banks in order to ensure the survival of those investment banks, ostensibly. And these banks, then, could pay the other state and local banks, their commercial clients, as well as lend in general in order to keep the banking system solvent, i.e. functioning as banks in which people have faith.

It should be noted that these toxic assets are still on the accounting books of the U.S. government. They didn’t just disappear, and more importantly: they will never have any value because they will never be repaid. What this means is that the United States government didn’t just “bail out” the banks, but bought an expensive piece of junk. In other words, the U.S. government bought a worthless multitrillion dollar investment at the taxpayers’ expense. And how did these investment bank respond to such a generous public gesture? By giving their officers – the same ones that created the crises – raises, generous severance packages, and foreclosing (often illegally) on homebuyers.

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So, what does this have to do with the deep state? First, remember the power paradigm mentioned earlier: all of domestic political history has been a struggle between the rich and powerful (the power elite) versus the poor and powerless (i.e., everyone else). This isn’t a bad thing necessarily; fundamentally, it is the strife endemic to the human condition. A good government balances the interests of these two groups, while these two groups seek to have the government rule in their favor as much as possible.

Using this framework: what happened with the bailout? Obviously, the power elite had a policy passed that directly benefited them at the expense – literally – of everyone else (remember the government’s money is the people’s [tax] money). The bailout begs the question: was this transfer of wealth just(ified)? In order to answer this question, let us first look at those who proposed the bank bailout. Addressing this component will give us the second indicator of the deep state at work.

In the middle of September 2008, Secretary of Treasury, Henry Paulson, announced a bank bailout under the program called the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). Initially, $700-800 billion was to be spent purchasing banks’ toxic assets in order to keep financial markets liquid, banks solvent, and the economy operating. This program was endorsed by both then-Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, and then-Chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (the S.E.C.), Christopher Cox. Then-President, George W. Bush, seeing TARP as necessary backed the program and helped sign it into law. Who are these people, and why does it matter? In a few words: powerful deep state actors; and, because these individuals oversaw the networks that allowed the bailout to happen in the first place).

First on the list is Henry Paulson, a Dartmouth and Harvard graduate. In addition to being Treasury Secretary starting in 2006, he previously worked for Goldman Sachs for 20 years before becoming Chairman and CEO of the corporation in 1999. It is little wonder that the former Chairman and CEO endorsed a $10 billion package in aid to Goldman Sachs from the U.S. Treasury, despite the fact that this same bank short-sold these CDOs – betting that they would fail – and making $4 billion dollars in profit in the process (off the bad debts they helped to create and knew were bad) before being given this $10 billion.

It is this connection between being the top executive of a major investment bank and being Secretary of Treasury – the agency entrusted with managing government revenue – that is telling here. How else would a former investment banker rule, especially given his long history with that investment bank? It really is no surprise that such a powerful figure in both the economic and political spheres would push a policy to protect large investment banks like his former employer. But what really happened was that this former Investment Banker, using his position as leader of the Government’s bank account, transferred public wealth (tax revenue) to private banks!

Second, is then-Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke. Bernanke was an academic (a Harvard and MIT graduate) in his professional life before becoming Fed Chairman. He taught at Standford Graduate School of Business for six years before becoming a professor at Princeton University Department of Economics from 1996 until 2005 when he was named Chairman of the Federal Reserve (though, he previously served for three years on its governing board) by President George W. Bush. This affiliation is not insignificant, and serves as an example of an “ideological soldier” who becomes a representative for the regime in power.

Bernanke was able to obtain his position as Fed Chairman because he holds a certain ideological position. Namely, that powerful economic actors, such as investment banks, can do no-to-little harm (despite the vast, ample evidence) while the government and regulatory measures do moderate-to-great harm (while not without some element of truth to validate) to economies, a position he was able to solidify both as a mainstream, fundamentalist-“capitalist” economist and as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.

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At the risk of another aside section, it is important to note that the American/Western view of economics operates much like a religion. Notions such as “free markets,” “laissez-faire,” “deregulation,” and “privatization” are taken as commandments – often without context, and more often wilfully blind to the caveats and negative effects of those commandments. Most economics classes in this country instill the virtues of “free enterprise” in their “students” but are silent on the excesses and evils of these so-called virtues. Furthermore, the history of capitalism as it is primarily understood is ignored altogether, and for this reason it is a flawed guide to sound economic and social policy. It is a profound problem, not only in the curriculum but in the American/Western mind when it comes to creating informed and fair economic policy. Ben Bernanke is a priest of this skewed curriculum, which is itself a reaction against the communism/socialism of the Cold War, but has its roots in feudalism.

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The third major player here is the then-Chairman of the S.E.C., Christopher Cox. Cox has an impressive resume but some of the highlights of his career will demonstrate both that he is a deep-state figure and why this is so. First, he is a graduate of Harvard, receiving his M.B.A. and J.D. in 1977. He worked for the prestigious law firm, Latham & Watkins for 9 years, eventually becoming partner. In 1988 he began his political career, being elected Representative to the 40th district in California. He has worked on several commissions, most notably Clinton’s Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform where he helped publish a recommendation that entitlements (like Medicare) should not continue to be an increasing share of the federal budget. He also helped to enact the Private Securities and Litigation Reform Act which helped to protect investors (like investment banks) from “frivolous” lawsuits. He also coauthored legislation that privatized the National Helium Reserve. In short, what these key details demonstrate is that Cox is also a free-market fundamentalist who has worked in the government with much success and in various roles — a veritable career, neoliberal politician.

Unfortunately, his role as S.E.C. chairman, before and during, the financial crisis is not as impressive as the rest of his C.V., and it is telling of whose interests he was protecting. For example, during the lead-up to the crisis the S.E.C. had been working to deregulate markets, and downsizing the S.E.C. itself. Enforcement, too, was hamstrung in numerous ways by Cox; for example, he repeatedly urged regulators not to be so adversarial/aggressive with the banks. And this is to say nothing of the fact that the S.E.C. didn’t see the crisis until it happened, which is, in part, what it is supposed to do. During and after the crisis, the S.E.C. played little role in pursuing and prosecuting the banks that were criminally responsible for the crisis. Cox’s role at the S.E.C. was part of the well-known problem of financial regulators not doing their jobs like they should because of the type of relationships developed and maintained with those investment banks, i.e. behaving more as friends than watchmen. It is little wonder that he supported the bailout, or that the S.E.C. never saw the crisis coming.

While playing a minor role respective to the others in the bailout, it is worth noting that then-President Bush himself (also a Yale and Harvard graduate) is a former C.E.O. of his own oil exploration company, and then board member of the firm that took over his business. He also served as the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. In short, the President is pro-business, and did not ultimately object to bailing out the investment banks (for obvious reasons).

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Those were the major architects and proponents of the bank bailout. But why did they advocate for this policy? So-called free-market proponents argued that without the bailout, the U.S. (and global) economy would see a downturn that would rival the Great Depression. There is some truth to this fear because financial runs on investment banks would have a systemic effect nationwide similar to what happened just before the Great Depression. The bailout was touted as the only solution to avoid an even worse catastrophe. However, and this is the crucial point: it was not the only solution, just the only one presented to the American people.

For example, Sal Khan (an academic polymath and MIT & Harvard graduate) presented an incredible option that a hedge fund manager and friend of his outlined. This option allowed these bad banks to fail but ensured that money would still be available for lending in the U.S. (and global) economy. In effect, capitalism takes effect – failed investment banks are free to fail – yet, the economy is protected from systemic failure, all the while minimizing moral hazard by setting an example. It is not a novel idea but it is one that was not presented by Paulson, Bernanke, Cox, Bush, or any others in the centers of power. Why is this so?

Sal and Todd makes the reason very clear: “it would be political suicide with key financial donations to political campaigns.” Banking lobbyists do have a strong hold on the government and an unwarranted influence on the types of policies that are passed — this comes as no great shock. However, the issue is more than just lobbying and campaign donations. Remember, these 4 powerful politicians described previously all came from the financial sector. The don’t just take directions from lobbyists, they think like those whom employ lobbyists in the first place (a process known as indoctrination). As former bankers, CEOs, and graduates of elite universities responsible for dictating “sound” economic policy, there really was no need for the lobbyists to exert this influence [lobbyists work mostly on the uninitiated, undecided, and ambitious/opportunistic/greedy]; for the influence had been instilled in their schooling and experience in the private sectors. These individuals then go into economic and political spheres where they occupy high-ranking positions, and then act on behalf of the institutions that molded their minds. This is the deep state at work on an economic/financial level. And this deep state benefits, again, the power elite.

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A quick point of consideration. When outlined in this way, the Deep State seems intimately tied to ideology. In this, and the Dulles, instances: that ideology serves the perpetuation of the power elite, but also (in the U.S.) so-called capitalism (as the means to ensure that perpetuation). Other power elites in different countries will uphold different ideologies but the end is the same: self-preservation of the power elite and its privileges. In this way, we must be vigilant not only against the power elite but also of ideology itself, especially when it is propounded by the power elite. This is why a vigilant and thorough epistemology is necessary (on a socio-political level): to protect and make prosperous all those within a society and not just certain segments within it, as well as society as a whole.

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In closing, this author hopes that a few things have become more clear. First, is the definition of the deep state: a deeply entrenched, wide-ranging, and powerful subterranean network of financial, intelligence, and military interests that guide national policy regardless of President. Second, is how this dynamic plays out, and what makes it different from other interest groups and factions within any given socio-political system. Namely, that certain powerful actors within these spheres of influence uphold the power elites’ will, and that they do this by being an interchangeable class of people who move from one sector to another.

Third, that the deep state doesn’t necessarly involve cloak-and-dagger operations, though when it comes to the Executive office, particularly when it involves intelligence agencies, the military, and financial sectors, this is often the case; however, more often than not, the deep state is a mundane force hiding in plain sight. Lastly, that to understand the totality of the deep state, one must understand the history of a nation-state, its institutions, the figures leading these institutions, and how they all interact with one another. It is no easy task, but it is one most imperative to the proper functioning of a good government (regardless of size).

There is still much to be explored concerning the deep state but this will serve as a proper introduction to this fascinating phenomenon.

Epistemology: What it is and Why it is Important.

This post has been a long time brewing. It is essentially a summarized primer on knowing, and knowing how one knows. It is foundational to the perspective arching throughout the various posts of this blog, but the same may be said for its relevance for individual point-of-view and socially-constructed realities.

First things first: definitions. “Epistemology” derives from the Greek, “episteme” and “logos” which translates as “knowledge” + “discourse.” The OED defines it as, “the theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge.” Put in other words: “Epistemology” is the study of how (human) conscious beings know, properly speaking. But “epistemology” can also mean the specific method chosen to know, essentially a chosen framework for a point-of-view. To differentiate between these two definitions the former will be spelled with an “E” and the latter with an “e.”

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There are essentially five types of epistemologies, and each (often a combination of) type is taken as a practical system of knowledge.

  1. Experience: what an individual lives on a daily basis, informing their knowledge of what is known and real. Specifically, what an individual, or group, experiences.
  2. Folk Wisdom and Superstition: a “loose” collection of knowledge passed down through culture.
  3. Faith/Religion: a lot like folk wisdom and superstition except that this epistemology constitutes a more established doctrine and as such more pervasive, influential, and accepted.
  4. Empiricism/Science: a systematized body of laws, truths, and rules for understanding the world in a specific way.
  5. Reason, Logic, and Mathematics: like empiricism and science, these epistemologies are systematized but unlike the former, the latter uses solely thought to determine knowledge and each has its own variable effect upon reality.

There are strengths and weaknesses to each type of epistemology. What follows is a very brief summary:

Experience, for example, is often limited by the person who experiences their own personal reality. So a person who’s had bad experiences with a business, institution, etc will tend to generalize; while another person who has positive experiences will do the same. Who is right, who is wrong? Both and neither. But without some sort of system to investigate the phenomenon at large, and in more objective ways, it becomes difficult to make definitive conclusions about a particular phenomenon. Its simultaneous strength and weakness is that it is personal, and that it informs an individual on a visceral level, thus making it profoundly strong.

Folk Wisdom and Superstition incorporates the personal and turns it into the social. What has happened to an individual, a tribe, or even a (segment of) society becomes a generally accepted truth, .e.g. black cats are bad luck, mirrors on window-sills scare away demons, opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck, etc. Like personal experience, these epistemologies exert a strong influence, and similarly they are often limited in terms of being true.

Belief systems like Faith and Religion are also particularly susceptible to fault since what is often believed has no verifiable basis in reality. For example, the belief that there is life after death has no verifiable justification for that belief. It is simply something we cannot know since it involves an experience after life that cannot be neither confirmed nor denied. Despite the several accounts of life after death, the entire near-death experience can be explained in other ways, i.e. the experience of death itself as a common neurobiological process, like love. In other words: it amounts to a personal conviction – at best – and wishful thinking – at worst – much like the belief in Santa Claus, omens, or any other such phenomenon. Its strength is that beliefs are commonly shared and exert a strong influence, thus informing personal actions – in other words: they are powerful social guides.

Science and – the philosophy on which it is based – Empiricism have their shortcomings, too. They assume, for example, – because it cannot be proved; in other words, it believes – that the observable and testable world is an accurate representation of reality. It is also a fairly specialized epistemological system (despite its simplicity), requiring education to how the process by which it explains the world works. It is for this reason that science is often misunderstood (even by those who “believe” in it), and being fairly new in human history makes it weak to assault by other established epistemological systems, propaganda, and junk science. Despite these shortcomings, Empiricism/Science provide tangible results that we all enjoy today, like skyscrapers, cell phones, modern medicine and agriculture, space exploration… the list goes on. And this bountiful effect of its system demonstrates its practical value and its value as true.

The more ephemeral epistemologies of Reason, Logic, and Math, too, share similarities to all the others. For example, Reason, is a process by which truths are arrived at by (oft, individually) thinking about a particular phenomenon, like reality, human nature, society, etc. Almost all the systems presented here involve a reasoning that justify their validity. But herein lies its weakness: not all reasoning is created equal, and the quality of the conclusion(s) reached depends in large part on the quality of the reasoning. Logic is an outgrowth of the reasoning process and was invented to limit the shortcomings of the process of undisciplined reasoning. By laying out concepts like premises and conclusions, Logic specialized reasoning in a strict way. In so doing, Logic has become a difficult system to learn and apply correctly, and it also suffers the shortcomings of such a closed system. Despite this shortcoming, it is still a very effective tool to knowing. Mathematics is an extension of reason and logic but utilizes a different set of symbols entirely: numbers. The effects of mathematics cannot be denied – it explains the physical world in ways that seem to make it the preeminent epistemology of all those that have been explored previously. However, it has a serious flaw. For example, there is an earnest debate as to whether or not Mathematics is a phenomenon intrinsically tied to the nature of realty or whether it is an invention of the human mind. In other words, mathematics may not reflect the nature of reality, but it can explain, in the greatest detail , the world by which human minds can conceive in ways only the human mind can conceive. To use a corollary: dogs sense the world primarily through their noses; humans through the eyes, and, especially, through their languages as a conscious function. Perhaps, this world that humans perceive to be true are as limited as the dogs’ sophisticated and sensitive understanding of the olfactory world. In fact, Emmanuel Kant argued just this: that the reality humans perceive is a function of the brain by which human consciousness is bound – to extrapolate that ultimate reality conforms to this perspective beyond human understanding is fallacious. Just as dogs are limited by their exquisite senses, so, too are humans, limited by theirs – and cannot be taken as a totality.

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KnowledgeVenn.jpg

Epistemology is a subject in which it is easy to get lost, and that is why I include this (Gettier) diagram: to ground the discussion as much as possible. As such, I think it important to the discussion to include some more definitions (as always, according to the OED).

Proposition – 3.a) the action of propounding something, or that which is propounded; the setting forth of something as a subject of discourse; something proposed for discussion, or as a basis of argument.

Belief – 3) the thing believed; the proposition or set of propositions held true.

Knowledge – 11) the fact of condition of being instructed, or having information acquired by study or research; acquaintance with ascertained truths, facts, or principles; information acquired by study; learning; erudition.

Truth – II.5.a) conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity; 7) genuineness, reality, actual existence; III) something that is true; 9.a) true statement or account; that which is in accordance with the fact; 12.a) the fact or facts; the actual state of the case; the matter or circumstances as it really is.

It is easy to get lost in definitions when discussing E(e)pistemology, so I will untangle this web in a more straightforward manner, one that accords with Gettier’s diagram.

First, a Proposition is simply an assertion – one that is subject to investigation and debate. Second, Belief is a simple acceptance of a proposition (or a set of propositions). Third, Poorly Justified Beliefs are those that can be justified in some sort of way, i.e. personal experiences, an ideology, or a methodological system that justifies those beliefs – they are true to an extent but aren’t necessarily (or precisely) a reflection of reality. Lastly, Truth represents those propositions, beliefs, and poorly justified beliefs that have stood the test of verification, and, thus, deserve not only human credulity but the esteemed category of that which is, in fact, true.

In this way, Gettier’s diagram demonstrates that not every proposition is true, not every belief is true, not every poorly justified belief is true, and that what is considered is “true” is actually true without some sort of methodology that can actually determine truth. Moreover – and most importantly – that to be able to determine truth depends on some other process, one that can sift through the data, and make a more accurate assessment of what the data means in accordance with reality. That process is a systemic and intense scrutinization of the experience, ideologies, and the presented/accepted account of things. In other words: despite the innumerable assertions regarding fact or fiction, true or untrue, reality or unreality, that those propositions that can withstand the tests of verification and justification are those that deserve an individual’s abeyance; everything else is hopeful fiction or worse.

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Why do these technicalities matter? For one: that to know truth is no easy task. Discerning truth from fiction is a much more complicated task than is led to believe. Second, that truth itself matters – not just from a philosophical perspective but from a profoundly practical one as well. And, third, in a “post-truth” society – one in which facts without context, propaganda posing as facts, and outright lies and mis/dis-communication are the norm – understanding what is true and what is not, is imperative, not only to informed human being but to the survival of the human species itself.

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To demonstrate this point I will give an example: Global Climate Change/Global Warming. So the epistemological question is: Is it a real/true phenomenon? and, how do we know?

Let us look at the question through the afore-mentioned epistemologies. First: Experience. While the experience of hotter temperatures everywhere globally may confirm to a person uncritical of the proposition would accept without verification of this phenomenon; an individual who is inclined to believe the opposite – that it is a hoax, or at least, not a result or man-made activities (because of snow in winter or severe winter-storms) – would be as justified in denying it. Partly, the confusion is based on the ignorance of the difference between weather and climate. Without a deeper level of understanding or investigation, it is impossible to justify one proposition or the other.

Second: Folk Wisdom/Superstition: fairly limited in areas that aren’t immediately affected by the effects of these phenomenon, since this epistemology is also mediated by experience.

Third: Faith/Religion: also fairly limited since, in this example at least, global climate change/global warming is not mentioned in scripture or doctrine (unless one considers related scriptural passages like Genesis 2:15, Proverbs 12:10, Revelations 11:18, Numbers 35:33, and Leviticus 25:23, to name a few).

A necessary caveat here would be ideology. Specifically, there are political ideologies, i.e. Republican and Democrat, that make supportive pronouncements about the verity of Global Climate Change. These caveats are important because political ideology now function in ways similar to religion/faith.

The Republican platform, for example, is one that believes that Global Warming is a hoax (at worst) or not caused by human activity (at best). The Democratic platform takes the opposite position, namely: that global warming is real, and that it is caused by human activity. As such, these parties advocate for policies based on those propositions. But why do they believe those propositions? What methodology/epistemology are they using to inform their beliefs? In a word: Science… which leads us to our fourth epistemology.

Science/Empiricism: the single most important epistemology that can answer this question. For it is this epistemology that has even brought the subject to the attention of humans world-wide. So, let’s briefly discuss how science works. First, Science observes the physical world. Next, it makes a hypothesis about what is happening, i.e., that the Earth, as a whole, is warming and that this warming has an impact on climates globally. Then, Science seeks to test that hypothesis by collecting data and subjecting it through rigorous experimentation. So, for example, scientists will look at the amount of CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) in the atmosphere, land temperatures, sea temperatures, extreme weather fluctuations and natural disasters, sea-land level rises, and glacial melting (to name only a few) relative to past levels. The data of these examples is fairly conclusive – if one were so inclined to research/look – but suffice it to say: the levels of these indicators is on the rise, and has been since the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

The other half of the hypothesis is: what is causing these conditions? Again, investigators/scientists looking into the phenomena have determined that fossil-fuel use is the culprit. The data show that CO2, the by-product of burning – literally burning – fossils fuels releases the by-product, CO2, into the atmosphere which traps the solar energy from our sun in our biosphere, which in turn keeps the planet warmer than it should be. It’s exactly like wearing a coat in summer. In order to cool off, one needs to remove the coat. The CO2 acts as that coat of human activity; and the human activity (of burning fossil fuels) not only prevents the removal of that coat but raises the temperature that the jacketed individual experiences by adding layers to that jacket.

Does the warming phenomenon negate weather like snow or winter storms? The answer is “No.” What Global Warming argues is that there is a change in the climates themselves, the patterns of weather any region may experience. And this says nothing of the average-breaking heat-waves, temperatures, and increase in natural disasters like floods, droughts, and fires that go on recorded continuously.

What part is left of Reason/Logic/Mathematics to play in this debate? Quite frankly: it depends. As mentioned previously: the quality of the conclusion depends on the quality of the reasoning. If the reasoning is tethered to a particular ideology, then it is highly suspect. If, however, the reasoning is based on a systematic approach to understanding the world, then it is more credible.

Logic would dictate that if global climate change is real – and, that if it is a result of human activity – and that the goal of human activity is to enhance human survival, then something must be done to counteract the effects of man-made climate change. Mathematically: the data must be evaluated and decisions must be based on the data.

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So… how does an individual know whether or not Global Climate Change is a real phenomenon – that it is occurring? and that whether or not is the result of human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels?

The short answer is epistemology. How does an individual ascertain truth? The basic methods have been presented and all have their strengths and weakness, but in matters of the physical world the best epistemologies use some strict method of investigation – in other words: Science. Science is the best method to answer this question since it is intended to investigate and answer questions such as these. But another caveat is warranted: what “Science?”

There are, now, effectively two types of science. The former is a method of investigation and the body of knowledge resulting from that method described above. In science, there are necessarily debates, uncertainty, and the application of different methods of measurement. This is natural and embodies the spirit of science. An idea – a description and explanation of (Newtonian) gravity, for example – is discovered and evidence looks to disprove it (the principal of falsifiability); if it is unable to, then that idea is held on to as a functional truth. Then, eventually, a new description and explanation – Einstein’s gravity, for example – is developed (based on data) and does a better job than the previous idea at explaining the phenomenon. This is the natural progression of the body of knowledge based on science, and the falsifiability of ideas is not only legitimate to progress of knowledge, but absolutely necessitates it.

However, there is another “science” – one that uses the poor understanding of the scientific method, particularly falsifiability, as a propaganda weapon to manipulate people’s knowledge, often at their expense. This is commonly referred to as “junk science” and it takes many shapes and forms. Some major examples of junk science are the “data” presented in public and political discourse arguing that leaded gasoline is not poisonous to people; that cigarette smoking has no relation to cancer and is safe for consumption; and, that global climate change is not real, and that it is not caused by human activity. All these examples include the testimony and evidence of “experts” to make their claim, sometimes convincingly – almost all hired by interest groups to advocate for the cause of those interest groups. However, it is only convincing to a point, namely when it comes into contact with reality. Eventually, the truth does emerge but the time it takes depends on the quality of epistemologies, epistemologists, and the efficacy of those experts who fight for the truth and the good; and, in many cases, the time that goes by has a deleterious effect on people and the planet – and this is certainly the case with the current “debate” surrounding Global Climate Change.

And, yet, this is just one example of a subject that requires people’s critical attention. Mis- and disinformation are occurring on a sweeping scale in areas as diverse as economics, politics, international relations, intelligence, and culture. And they deserve both intense scrutinization and a disciplined epistemology.

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In closing, this author hopes that the meaning and importance of epistemology has been communicated. For it is not an easy subject, and proper knowing is no easy task. But it is an important subject and practice because living well requires knowing how to, and this requires knowing our world and the phenomena in it. Otherwise, we run the risk of unhappiness, or worse: death.

Literally, Socialism, and the Need for a Dictionary in American Discourse

Oxford-English-Dictionary-001

A recent article by the Economist magazine has exposed Bernie Sanders for what any of us familiar with the meanings of words is: NOT a socialist. Despite the obvious reasons why Sanders is not a socialist, there are many who – despite the clarification in the article – still insist that Sanders is, indeed, a socialist in the proper sense of the word. What follows is a delineation of terms (including “socialism”), a look at this phenomenon of semantic confusion, and a prescription for correcting it and, ultimately, improving not only linguistic precision but political discourse.

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A few years ago, I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the word “literally,” defined as, “in the literal or strict sense,” has come to mean its exact opposite: “in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.” This means that the word “literally” now literally means “figuratively!” Why? No doubt it is because it has been largely and continuously misused over time as a filler word in the conversations of most people. If it is in the nature of language to change, why is a semantic shift (a reversal) like this so irksome – and dangerous?

The most obvious problem with a reversal like this the confusion it creates. What does a person mean when they use a word like “literally” in a conversation? While context and common sense can go a long way in determining which meaning is intended, there are other instances where this is not so. The most recent example is the use of the word “socialism” vis-a-vis Bernie Sanders’ political stance.

Socialism is defined as, “a theory or system of social organism that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.” The key feature of economic -isms is who controls the means of production: in socialism, it is society as a whole; in capitalism, it is private individuals/corporations. While it is difficult to distill comprehensive and variable economic systems in a sentence, these are the essential features of those words and so anyone who claims to endorse the philosophies which those words represent must, at least, meet such basic criteria.

So, do the policies Sanders’ propose meet these basic criteria? The answer is a resounding “no,” even according to Sanders himself. In an interview with Amy Goodman, Sanders was asked to define what he meant by “socialism.” Sanders replied,

Well, I think it [socialism] means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. And we are living in an increasingly undemocratic society in which decisions are made by people who have huge sums of money. And that’s the goal that we have to achieve.

What Sanders describes is not socialism, proper – where society controls the means of production – but a more fair and equitable form of democratic capitalism. In fact, he has said outright that, “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street, or own the means of production.” So, Sanders is not a socialist according to the original meaning of the word; he is, in fact, a capitalist. The problem, though, is that he gives his own definition of the word, “socialism,” and if we accept and use it the way he does then, technically, Sanders is a “socialist,” but only according to this new definition.

Back to the confusion of contradictory definitions: is Sanders a socialist or not? According to traditional socialist philosophy in which society owns the means of production, “no, Sanders is not a socialist.” However, if we take his Jeffersonian-esque interpretation of democracy as a definition, then, “yes, he is.” But are the electorate making this significant distinction between socialism proper and Sanders’ version of it when “debating” his presidential bid and the policies he advocates? There are plenty of indications that the vast majority of Americans are not. But, ultimately, does this matter?

In short, yes. First, words have meaning, and when those meanings change so much that they no longer mean what they originally did, or worse: the exact opposite, then effective communication becomes all but impossible. Second, semantic shifts of the type that have occurred to “literally” and “socialism,” can be used in ways that can confuse, mislead, and deceive. A perfect example is the negative labelling of Sanders as a “socialist.” Such a label turns off many potential supporters because of the connotation the word has received due to the history of the Cold War. That said, the word “socialism” underscores the major political shift Sanders does endorse, so it does indicates a “revolution” in political goings-on that Sanders’ promises if elected. In this way, the obfuscation is strategic, even if somewhat disingenuous. In these ways, political discourse becomes double speak and there is a real danger that, if we’re not vigilant, it devolves into duckspeak.

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In conclusion: Sanders is not a socialist in any meaningful sense; he is a democrat and a capitalist, by his own admissions. Furthermore, words have meaning and we who use language have the responsibility to protect the integrity of those meanings. Though, we must allow for – and adapt to – the inevitable evolution of language when those changes do not degrade communication. The best way to do this is to know the meanings of words and to insist upon clarification and discipline when using language. And the best way to know these meanings is to read the dictionary, regularly. Look up words not known; refresh understanding of words that are known; and build vocabularies on a daily basis (David Foster Wallace went so far as to call the dictionary one of the, “great bathroom books of all times”). In this way, human communication, thought, and socio-political processes can improve in ways that will benefit us all.

The (Aristotelian) Art of Democracy

justice-is-blind

Aristotle is an incredibly important democratic thinker, and probably the very first. Much of Western political tradition is owed to him, and there is great value in re-examining his ideas in order to better inform our present. There is a great deal to cover so this author will briefly outline Aristotle’s theory on democratic rule in order to provide the foundation necessary for the main argument of this post.

First, Aristotle asserts that man is a “political animal” (Book I, chapter 2). By this he means that humans have a natural tendency for society. Individual man and woman come together, they form a household; several households come together to form a village; and these several villages come together to form a city, all for the sake of self-sufficiency. (For ancient societies, the city was the equivalent of the state or nation, and so the reader should not limit the city to what is typically thought of as a city but should include nation-states). But, as Aristotle admits, other animals do this, too. So what makes man unique? What separates the human animal from the other social animals? He argues that it is humankind’s perception of, “good and bad and just and unjust and other things [of this sort].” It is these perceptions that give humankind the ability to live well, not merely survive. And it is to this end: to live well, that humankind should and must strive in order to maintain its unique ontological position. He goes so far to say that an individual who, “is incapable of participating or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of a city and so is either a beast or a god.”

The next few books of his Politics investigate the proper functioning of the household and its parallels to the proper functioning of government, i.e. the management of the city. He also outlines three basic forms of good government: kingship, aristocracy, and polity; and their corrupt counterparts: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy, respectively. Without getting bogged down in theory, suffice it to say that the first three are just and good because the government rules for the benefit of all*; the last three governments rule for the advantage of those who rule and so are unjust and bad. It is worth noting that Aristotle’s conception of democracy is different from our contemporary conception. By democracy, Aristotle meant mob rule of the generally poor masses. Our contemporary conception of democracy – that form of government by citizens who have the ability-potential to rule collectively for the benefit of society – is what Aristotle calls polity. In this essay, I will use democracy in our contemporary conception of the word (what Aristotle refers to as polity); and when Aristotle uses the word, the reader must remember that he speaks of mob rule.

Though Aristotle was very distrustful of mass rule, he reluctantly concluded that the polity would best be able to inculcate justice and humanity and thus preserve the city and mankind because it is the most moderate form of government (Chapter IV, chapter 2, section 2). But it wasn’t polity alone that ensured and protected the justice of the city and its inhabitants. For it is possible that a polity could easily become corrupt and devolve into one of the perverted forms of the government. In all of the good forms of government there is a foundation and guide, and justice is this guide. For Aristotle, the “political good is justice,” what he calls the, “common advantage,” or the well-being of the whole society (Book III, chapter 12, section 1). Aristotle continues, stating that laws are the operational manifestations of that justice. If justice is maintained, then good laws will follow and a king, an aristocracy, or a polity could properly rule according to the laws derived from it; if justice was absent, then the laws would also be unjust, and government would misrule, becoming corrupt, and the people with it.

Aristotle writes:

One who asks law to rule, therefore, is held to be asking god and intellect alone to rule, while one who asks man adds the beast. Desire is a thing of this sort; and spiritedness perverts rulers and the best men. Hence law is intellect without appetite (Book III, chapter 16, section 5).

For Aristotle – as most of Western philosophical tradition – Reason is the domain of Justice and as such is best able to identify and articulate it. The laws that govern both the government and the city it manages are to be derived through Reason. It needs to be stated that both Justice and Reason are thought to emanate from some source, what Aristotle called the Prime Mover, or what has been traditionally – and problematically – referred to as god. This premise (or conclusion, depending on the direction in which it is argued) is not without its problems and is in need of reconsideration for a variety of reasons, but that is another subject altogether. For now, it is enough to say that the laws of a (just) city derive from a higher source and that Reason is the means to access this source. And to reiterate: accessing this higher source through Reason is what makes us uniquely human.

Now that I’ve outlined a very truncated primer to Aristotle’s democratic theory, I can proceed to the main argument. But, again, some context is necessary, first.

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There has been much talk in that past few years of economic inequality, prosperity, the proper role of government, and who is best to lead the U.S. starting in 2016. But this author asserts that these issues are ancillary to the true issue: is the U.S. just? – is it being ruled justly? – how can we know for sure? – and, what can be done about it? There are a myriad of ways to address these questions – and that need to be – in order to fully answer and resolve them; however, for the sake of concision, this essay will focus on the economic aspect given its salience and relevance in contemporary times. Focused in this way, the questions become: is the U.S. just in domestic economic matters (production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services)? Is the social economy being governed justly? How can we know? If so, how do we continue such rule? And if not, then what can be done about it?

This essay attempts to answer the easiest of these questions through the lens of Aristotle’s democratic philosophy. These questions then become: “Is the U.S. economically just?” and “How do we know?” Let us begin with Aristotle, who writes of material/economic justice and how it does not work:

What, then, ought one to say is the extreme of injustice? Again, taking all [the citizens] into consideration, if the majority distributes among itself the things of a minority, it is evident that it will destroy the city. Yet it is certainly not virtue that destroys the element possessing it, nor is justice destructive of a city; so it is clear that this law cannot be just… But is it just, therefore, for the minority and the wealthy to rule? If they act in the same way and rob and plunder the possessions of the multitude, is this just? If so, then the other is as well (Book III, chapter 10, sections 2-3).

What Aristotle describes here are two (of the three) corrupt forms of government: oligarchy (the rule by the rich) and democracy (the rule of the masses/mob). He concludes that it is as unjust for the masses to plunder the possessions of the rich as it is for the rich to plunder the possessions of the masses. He concludes that if one is just, then so is the other; in other words: neither is just. In fact, both are extremes of economic (re)distribution and as such necessarily unjust. And the discussion of the extremes bring into the discussion of the mean, or moderation.

The “mean” is an important concept for Aristotle. He argues that moderation is virtue, and that extremes are vices. He writes:

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); exercise either excessive or defective destroys the strength and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate to both produces and increases and preserves it. So too it is, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, become in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean (Nichomachean Ethics Book II, chapter 2).

Similarly: for Aristotle, excessive wealth or poverty destroys virtue and ultimately the citizen and the city. The cardinal virtue at threat here is Justice, which – defined by Aristotle as the “virtue characteristic of partnerships” (Book III, chapter 13, sec 3) – is the proper governing-goal of a city. And as mentioned earlier, neither too much can be allowed to the wealthy elites or too little to the masses – and they are not allowed to plunder one another. Both are destructive of virtue and ultimately justice. This is easier to understand when one considers that being just individually means participating in Reason so as to develop individual virtue. If one hasn’t the means even to eat, or has to endure excessive hardship to merely survive then it is difficult, if not impossible, to allot time to such lofty activities [Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is most instructive here] – such a restriction is to deny the individual of what makes one human.

For Aristotle, the concerns of both classes – the wealthy elites and the un-wealthy masses – must be taken into consideration and managed appropriately. In other words, proper government must balance both the needs of the masses and the needs of the wealthy. For Aristotle, this is the art of democratic rule: moderation.

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This analysis begs several questions. Is the U.S. moderate in its economic distribution? Is the U.S. ruled moderately with the interests of the wealthy elites and the masses appropriately balanced? What is the appropriate balance and distribution of wealth, exactly? Here, Aristotle gives few specific instructions. For each city/nation is different and its laws will necessarily reflect these differences; although, their pursuits of justice will/should remain identical. Given this lack of specificity on Aristotle’s part, however, it is still possible to answer such questions.

Of all the data and the methods available to us for answering these questions, the first this essay will focus on is that of economic productivity relative to income. The rationale is as follows: as a nation gets richer, those who work more often or harder to increase national wealth should see concomitant raises in personal income. It should be noted that these 2 indicators are but one way of measuring this question and in no way should be construed as being complete or total, but it will shed some light on the matter.

The Economic Policy Institute published a study in 2012 that looked at, among other things, these data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They found that from the year 1979-2007, income gains from the increase in productivity and GDP have gone primarily to the top 1% of families. In fact, 59.9% of the gains went to the top 1%, with 36.6% going to the top 0.1%, and a mere 8.6% of these gains to the bottom 90%. In this same time frame, total productivity has increased by roughly 70%. However, the average hourly compensation has only increased by about 34%. Keep in mind that increases in productivity prior to the early 70s rose commensurately as hourly compensation in the previous decades. Since 1973, however, hourly compensation has stagnated while productivity has increased. What happened to all the ever-increasing income (roughly a difference of 35% of output/income that hasn’t been given in terms of wages to the workers who are actually producing goods and services)? In short, the owners of the capital – the 1%, but really the 0.1% – have been collecting it all for themselves. So the question: is this fair? Or rather: is this just? Does this distribution take care of both the wealthy elites and the masses of workers in ways proper for each?

The other metric this essay will use to help answer this question is inflation – the rising cost of goods and services over time – relative to income earned. Using data from the Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics the inflation rate from 1979 to 2007 is 196.34%. (This means that over an almost 30-year period, something that cost $5 in 1979 cost $9.82 in 2007.) Similarly, median household income in 1979 was $50,342 and in 2007 it was $57,717 (both figures are measured in 2015 dollars). This is a median household income increase of 13.65%. Compare this to the 196.34% increase in the cost of living – a difference of 182.69%! It is difficult to imagine that such a difference is just in any meaningful sense, let alone allows for the masses to maintain a standard of living reflective of the wealthiest nation on Earth (without going into debt, that is).

Granted, this is only one way of looking at the question, and any single analysis cannot provide a final determination for a question this complex. That said, there are other similar trends that underscore systemic disequilibrium: decreasing employment and social benefits; weakening of labor unions; increased prevalence of lobbying for rich corporations; increased prevalence of legislation benefitting the very wealthy; increase CEO pay relative to average workers (which increased almost 800% from 1980-2010 while the typical worker only saw a 5.7% increase over the same time); an effective corporate tax rate in the teens, and sometimes zero or even negative; subsidies for wealthy corporations, the most recent being the bank bailouts which highlight an exceptionally hypocritical – if not a contradictory and simultaneously self-destructive – “capitalist” ethos that governs those “too big to fail;” as well as a continued lack of meaningful and aggressive oversight of financial institutions and processes, to name but a few.

* * * * *

So what does all this mean? First, that it is important to always define terms and concepts. Aristotle’s conceptions of “democracy,” “justice,” and the “mean” aren’t typically what come to mind when one comes across these words. Despite the non-association, most people would probably agree that an important element of democracy is balancing the various interests of a nation, particularly the wealthy and the masses; that justice is – or at least should be – a concern of the state; and that moderation, or the mean between excesses, is an ideal to which an individual and nation-state should strive.

Second, that the analysis presented in this essay illuminates some disturbing trends. One, that despite an ever-increasing level of productivity, wages and income for the vast majority of workers in the US have effectively remained the same for the last 40 years. Two, that until the early ‘70s, productivity and worker compensation rose together; after that, productivity rose and compensation leveled off. Three, inflation, too, has increased non-stop. Four, that inflation has vastly outpaced what little increases to income there has been since the ‘70s. All together, what emerges is a picture of a socio-economic system that since the 1970s has rewarded the wealthy disproportionately more than the masses despite an ever-increasing level of productivity.

If Aristotle’s notion of balancing the interests of the wealthy against those of the masses is sound policy, then what is clear is that the U.S. socio-political system is out of balance, in favor of the wealthy. The conclusion implied here is that a re-redistribution is necessary in order to bring the system back in to balance. As mentioned earlier, this is but one analysis, and that many more are required to verify this phenomenon and conclusion. Also, mentioned, however, is that there are a myriad of social, political, and economic phenomena that have been taking place that, collectively, support this analysis and conclusion. There is, also, no shortage of data and studies confirming what has been concluded in this essay so verification will not be a difficult task. What is difficult is deciding how to rectify the problem. But the political solutions tend to fall into one of two camps: policies that directly benefit the wealthy (with the hope/assumption that those benefits will “trickle down” to the masses), or those that directly benefit the masses (which are often qualified in ways that show deleterious effects upon the wealthy’s ability to benefit the whole [economy], usually by not being able to create jobs): the qualifications for both solutions – that is, the way they are framed – are indicative of a power-structure at play that goes a long way in explaining why conditions have gotten to the point at which the U.S. finds itself currently.

Third, it should be clarified that while a re-redistribution – or a rebalancing, to use Aristotle’s language – does entail an equalizing it does not entail and equalization. In other words, a re-redistribution does not mean that all are now millionaires or that everyone has the same amount of income and/or wealth; instead, it means that, for the vast majority of people, their compensation in income is brought up to levels commensurate with current levels of productivity, national wealth, and standards of living – in other words: what they have earned through their collective work over the last four decades. As Aristotle maintains: for the sake of civil society, the property of the wealthy must be maintained and not pillaged, but so, too, must be that of the masses. It follows that if the masses have been plundered – as the data suggest – then their property is to be confiscated and returned.

In conclusion, the answer to the question – “Is the U.S. economically just?” – is “No.” Increases in productivity and inflation have outpaced income for the vast majority of U.S. citizens and both domestic and global trends do not support the interpretation that this is some unfortunate accident. (And the means by which this redirection of wealth has occurred would be an interesting topic for another essay…) For the sake of good empirical procedure, this essay encourages further analysis, but this author is certain these conclusions are easy to verify given the decades of previous research, analysis, and policy recommendations.

The U.S. is at the tipping-point of a phenomenon 40 years in the making – 20 of which has been spent forewarning the arrival of this point. Will its democratic government rule justly, bringing the nation back into balance? Or will it continue to unevenly stack the scales, threatening the foundation of its polity?

Liberty’s Folly, Part I

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Now it must be granted that folly is a disease of the soul, and of folly there are two kinds: one is madness, the other stupidity. So when anyone suffers at all from either of these, it must be termed disease; and pleasure and pains that are excessive must be set down as the greatest of diseases of the soul. For when a human is overjoyed or suffers in a contrary way from pain, and hastens inappropriately to seize the one while fleeing the other, he can neither see nor hear anything correctly, and he goes crazy and at those times is least able to partake in reason. – Timaeus (86B-C)

This post is the continuation of the previous “What is Liberty Without Duty?” post. It begins from the conception of liberty as civil liberty, also articulated in the previous post. For sake of clarity, the definition of liberty is reasserted here, quoting John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government:

“…freedom is not, as we are told, liberty for every man to do what he lists: but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowances of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.

Liberty, then, is the ability to do what one wishes within and according to the laws established by society, and applicable to all within it. For freedom from the arbitrary will of others necessarily entails the establishment of civil society which itself entails collective subjection to the rule of law. Natural liberty – the freedom to do whatever one will – is appropriate in the lawless state of nature, what Locke also calls the state of war; in society, then, natural liberty is exchanged for civil liberty and the rule of law. Where in the former, men were subjected to a chaotic state of nature, men in the latter condition are subjected to lawful government. It is ironic in a sense that men are always subject to some necessity “higher” than himself – so be it – but man is able to choose under which he will live. Man’s nature is such that civil society is best for him.

Locke also says, “We are born free, as we are born rational;” however, this freedom is conditional – for he continues, “not that we have actually the exercise of either: age, that brings one, brings with it the other too.” Locke goes on to describe childhood and the inappropriateness of giving children the freedom that is proper to adults. He states:

The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will. To turn him loose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not the allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free; but to thrust him out amongst the brutes, and abandon him to a state as wretched and as much beneath that of man, as theirs.

Locke is in agreement with Plato. There is a necessary precondition that must be met before an individual can become free. For both philosophers, exercising reason (in the philosophical sense: Reason) is this requisite. Locke thinks that childhood (and madness) disqualifies one from properly exercising reason and freedom; Plato thinks it is folly (madness or stupidity) and excesses (of pleasure and pain).

It is easy to understand why children cannot exercise reason and, thus, cannot be considered at liberty. Madness, too, people understand – and in a court of law, those who are insane are not responsible for their actions and are dealt with accordingly. However, “excesses” are much more difficult to understand, at first.

Plato, in the quote earlier from Timaeus, states that the excesses of pleasure and pain reduce one’s ability to be reasonable; and without reason, one cannot be free. That said, is it enough to simply be able to reason that makes one free? Can not a reasonable man justify immoral actions? Can the selfsame man not make immoral laws? – laws which do not infringe upon the liberty and property of others directly, but which reduce over time (or even immediately) in a justifiable manner one or all of the assets of a civil society, as Locke describes it: “comfort, safety, peaceable living one against another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it?”

*  *  *  *  *  *

As mentioned in the previous post, Jean-Jacques Rosseau, in his Social Contract added another element to the social contract and the civil liberties that derive from it. Namely, moral liberty. For him, the state of nature, where man is free to indulge in any action, no matter how obscene, is comparable to indulgence – doing whatever one feels, submitting to appetite and desire at the expense of restraint and virtue. He writes, “the mere impulse of appetite is slavery; while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.” Again, restraint – for the common good (and in this instance the individual good) – is liberty; yes, it is a restraint, but liberty is an ironic restraint: an exchange of total freedom and chaotic-anarchy for civil liberty and legal order. So the same for moral liberty, which Rosseau, and many other prominent philosophers would argue, is the real foundation for meaningful liberty, and a liberty that ultimately protects civil liberties and social order.

Aristotle, too, talks of excess and virtue. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that virtue is, like reason and liberty: “… by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity.” For Aristotle the mean is virtue; and excess (or deficiency) is vice. So, for example, courage is a virtue – the mean between the vices of cowardice and rashness. Cowardice was a defect of courage and rashness was an excess – either extreme negates the virtue courage. He writes:

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); exercise either excessive or defective destroys the strength and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate to both produces and increases and preserves it. So too it is, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, become in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

While the excesses of pain and pleasure make one unreasonable because Reason is overwhelmed by either emotion, the excesses (or defects) of virtue, i.e. moral liberty, make one incapable of exercising that liberty because moderation, which is the means to virtue, is “destroyed.” This ethical failure, as a result, disqualifies one from moral freedom and liberty – the true foundation of a civil society.

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Part II of this post will give some examples of using reason to infringe upon liberty according to an a-ethical conception of the social contract so as to illustrate the necessity of ethics as part of the social contract and civil liberties. Further, it will give some of the problems of excess and how they negatively impact civil society, and will ask some difficult questions. Lastly, it will address potential remedies for the excesses of and deficits of Western civil society.

Link

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This post is a long time coming, and a desideratum in today’s political dialogue. As usual, we begin with (OED) definitions.

First, Liberty:

  1. exemption or release from captivity, bondage, or slavery
  2. exemption or freedom from arbitrary, despotic or autocratic rule
  3. natural liberty: the state in which everyone is free to act as he thinks fit, subject only to the laws of nature. civil liberty: natural liberty so far restricted by established law as is expedient or necessary for the good of the community
  4. the condition of being able to act in any desired way without hinderance or restraint; faculty or power to do as one likes
  5. (philosophical) the condition of being free from the control of fate or necessity
  6. unrestrained action, conduct, or expression; freedom of behaviour or speech, beyond what is granted or recognized as proper; license
  7. privileges, immunities, or rights enjoyed by prescription or by grant

As is evident, liberty is varied in meaning. I think it safe to say, however, that most understand liberty according to the first definition – the most basic form of liberty: freedom from objectification, the reduction of a rational subject to an thing of ownership.

The second definition, too, is well understood; however, this definition poses problems for a few reasons. First, the key words, arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic – these words indicate that not all rule denies people their liberty, or at least a specific kind of it. Only arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic governments can be considered liberty-denying. Other forms of government, as definition three infers, can restrict some liberty without being guilty of any of these three qualities.

The second problem stems from the first in that – human perception being subjective – some people will contend that government, despite its legitimacy – especially the form(s) with which they do not agree or like – is arbitrary, despotic, and/or autocratic. This is most evident in some forms of anarchism, in which all government, no matter how well-regulated by the rule of law and the people it can be, will always be: despotic (perhaps the phrase, tyranny of the majority encapsulates these extreme anarchist views). However, there are many political factions within the U.S. political system today that seem to stretch this conception of “despotic” and promise greater liberty in order to curry support for their agendas.

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The third definition is based on much enlightenment political theory. In fact, these definitions can almost be taken verbatim out of Rousseau’s Social Contract:

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man.

Let us draw up the whole account in terms easily commensurable. What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. If we are to avoid mistake in weighing one against the other, we must clearly distinguish natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual, from civil liberty, which is limited by the general will; and possession, which is merely the effect of force or the right of the first occupier, from property, which can be founded only on a positive title.

We might, over and above all this, add, to what man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty. (Book I, chapter viii)

According to this, man, in the state of nature is free to do what he wills, whenever he wills it, however he wills it because there is no legitimate restrictions upon his liberty. However, when man enters society, he forfeits some of his liberty to a legitimate government in exchange for safety, social well-being, and civil liberties; he concedes that he has bears responsibility for his actions and society – this is what is known as the social contract.

However, there is another element to liberty that Rosseau articulates that often goes unmentioned, and that takes precedence over political/civil liberty: moral liberty. For Rosseau, and many pre-enlightenment thinkers, too, it is moral liberty that made one a free, enlightened individual. Indeed, very few today would consider an addict to be free in any meaningful sense (although, and strangely enough, [s]he may have been free to choose to try the drug the first few instances – which calls attention to the process of moving from liberty to servitude); and indeed an addict is not free because the addict is at the mercy of his/her addiction, incapable of choosing not to use – they are in bondage to the drug, a slave to it. And the same can be said of addictions beyond the realm of illegal drugs – think: food, alcohol, cigarettes, etc; compulsions, obsessions, and impulses, too, rob an individual of his/her agency. This is why many holy men, monks, priests, etc practiced lives of self-denial. And it is no wonder that this hard-earned liberty is attained by so few – usually the spiritual leaders of great renown.

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The fourth definition begins from the natural liberty of the third definition and leads into the sixth. Simply put, according to this meaning: liberty is acting in an way one chooses for their self.

The fifth definition shares some of the same meaning as the previous discussion on moral liberty.

The sixth definition is probably the second-most important definition (behind the third) in terms of political implications. For it lays out that – and we must deduce that this is the case only in a civil society where civil liberties are granted in exchange for natural liberties – that there is such a thing as too much libertytoo much freedom. In the state of nature, theft is acceptable (in fact, it doesn’t even exist because “theft” is a moral, civil liberty construction) because there was no legitimate authority to reasonably stop it; however, in society, as a result of the social contract, theft is against the law because it violates the liberty (specifically the property rights) of another. The freedom that is acceptable in a state of nature is no longer acceptable in the civil state, and exercising this former-natural liberty is an excess within the legitimate confines of civil liberty. This excess of freedom is known as license.

A prime example of the seventh definition (as well as the first, second, third, and sixth) is most-easily identified in arguments laid out in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution of the United States. Unalienable rights which are self-evidently true are granted to us as rational, civil agents – and these documents confirm these privileges.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Second, Freedom:

  1. exemption or release from slavery or imprisonment; personal liberty
  2. exemption from arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic control; independence; civil liberty

The rest of the definitions of freedom are almost as exactly as identical to those as liberty. I think it fair to say that freedom, for the political-theoretical purposes of this post, is synonymous with liberty. And enough has already been said about liberty.

Third, License:

  1. excessive liberty; abuse of freedom; disregard of law and propriety

There are other definitions of the word license; however, they are of little use to this discussion. This one definition here gets to the heart of the matter concerning this discussion: that liberty exists, that it is legitimate, but that it also, in a civil society, needs limitations to protect the individual (in more or less ways, depending) but, especially, the rest of society, of which the individual is a part. Embedded within the social contract, within civil liberties, is the stipulation – an obligation – that an individual be responsible with their freedom.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The foundations for liberty are well established, and now clarified; what is left to do is debate and engage in order to create the kind of civil society we as a people want to have. What remains are a few thoughts for consideration.

First, whenever someone talks about “liberty” in a political, economic, or social sense, it is imperative to ask, “Which do you mean?” The necessity for this is obvious now: for there are so many conceptions, and they’re not always mutual exclusive or inclusive; and this is to say nothing of the new meanings being created by modern context. Furthermore, it is standard operating procedure for politicians, pundits, and other opinion makers to double speak and otherwise confuse the meaning of their words so as to fool people into agreeing with them. We must be very wary of this practice, especially today.

Second, the conception of civil liberty – those which contemporary societies laud – emphasize the community over the individual by nature and definition. Being part of society and community is so good (and some say: inherent to our natures) that the individual is subservient to it. Indeed, the social contract is nothing but an articulation of this dynamic. Yes, the individual is important (to varying degrees, depending) but not so much more important that one can benefit at the expense of the whole. In fact, the individual has a duty to society: not to harm but protect it. Crime is a violation of this contract; although, it is important to remember that laws don’t always suffice in articulating moral or civil transgressions or enforcing the individual’s obligation to the group.

Today, the conception of “liberty” and “freedom” inverts the social contract; it raises the individual above the whole, glorifies him/her, deifies him/her; it seems to dismiss that the individual is but a part of the whole, is molded by it, and benefits greatly from it (with its public schools, infrastructure, legal and penal systems, etc, etc). Perhaps this is part of why society is “breaking down:” too many people are more concerned with themselves than they are the communities which raised them like their own parents, allowing them to survive and flourish.

Third, what do we do about the excess? the too much freedom/liberty: the license? and what about, as contemporary thinkers are wont to describe it, the negative externalities? What do we do with individuals, as a society, who cannot or will not restrain their destructive, often immoral, yet perfectly legal, behaviors? This important and controversial question will be the subject of a subsequent post, as this one is already too long. Instead, I leave off with the apropos musings of John Milton; a few lines from his sonnet, On the Same:

That bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,

And still revolt when truth would set them free.

Licence they mean when they cry liberty;

For who loves that must first be wise and good;

But from that mark how far they rove we see

For all this waste of wealth, and loss of blood.

Slavery, Wage Labor, and the Inversion of Work

This scene from the 1969 film, Burn! is certainly thought-provoking. However, it operates under – as this blog will argue – a defunct paradigm. It has been replaced by one more ruthlessly efficient and fantastical! It is they hyperreal component of our contemporary society-economy. This is the third blog in a row on the topic of hyperreality – and it will be the last (for a while, at least) – but this particular situation is not only fascinating but relevant for us all.

But first things first: definitions.

Work. Work, in economic-productive terms (i.e., what you do at a job), is defined by the OED as a particular act or piece of labour; a task, job.

Labour, by the same meaning, is similarly defined as physical exertion [can be and often is mental in contemporary society] directed to the supply of the material wants of the community; the specific service rendered to production by the labourer or artisan.

Job is defined as a piece of work; especially a small definite piece of work done in the way of one’s special occupation or profession.

But work, in this context, and in the context of our contemporary society – one in which mass material production as the basis of the economy is largely obsolete, replaced  by services and other intangibles as the new consumables, and all this being facilitated by a global network of mass communications systems – takes on a new and terrifying meaning. Crimethinc’s most recent publication, Work, gets into the specifics of what work used to be, what it has become, and what we can do about it. For them, work is the leasing of one’s creative powers to others. They continue:

Selling our time rather than doing things for their own sake, we come to evaluate our lives on the basis of how much we can get in exchange for them, not what we get out of them. As freelance slaves hawking our lives hour by hour, we think of ourselves as each having a price; the amount of the price becomes our measure of value. In that sense, we become commodities, just like toothpaste and toilet paper. What once was a human being is now an employee, in the same way that what once was a pig is now a pork chop. Our lives disappear, spent like the money for which we trade them.

But it isn’t just the person that is transformed from human into commodity, but the socioeconomic system as well. Guy Debord wrote, in Society of the Spectacle, of what likely preceded such a personal transmutation:

When economic necessity is replaced by the necessity for boundless economic development, the satisfaction of primary human needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of psuedo-needs which are reduced to the single psuedo-need of maintaining the reign of the autonomous economy.

We, especially as Westerners see this all around us, every day. The sacred importance of the economy is as ubiquitous as the priests of the economy – CEOs, economists, politicians, and laymen alike – seeking to construct endless GDP as surely as the Babylonians sought the heights of omnipotence. These caste-members give pronouncements as if they were oracles: lower interest rates!reduces taxes on the most profitable!; disempower labor unions!; cut domestic aid programs!open up foreign markets!privatize!!: as if the economy were a fickle god, whimsically bestowing upon its subjects profit or poverty depending on the value of their prostrations. The economy has become the God of the West (and Jesus admonished us: Matthew 6:24), and we serve it now (not the other way around).

But this is not the end of the analysis. For Baudrillard infuses the chimerical into work:

The whole world still produces, and increasingly, but subtly work has become something else: a need (as Marx ideally envisioned it but not in the same sense), the object of the social “demand,” like leisure, to which it is equivalent in the course of everyday life. A demand exactly proportional to the loss of a stake in the work process… :the scenario for work is there to conceal that the real of work, the real of production, has disappeared. And the real of strike as well…

So… Our work is not really our own; it is not even meaningful in a social sense since it no longer truly serves us; and as a result, the work we do has become a farce of the process of human being. But what if one of us were to find happiness and meaning in our work – could we somehow contradict this conclusion? It doesn’t seem likely. For it amounts to a Sisyphean feat: eternally pushing the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down again and again (And Camus argued that we can – we must! – find happiness in this).

I think he’s right: it is possible for a slave to love his condition, but then again: a slave isn’t a subject, but an object; not a person, but a commodity.

Revolution as Meaningless Simulation

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Power floats like money, like language, like theory. Criticism and negativity alone still secrete a phantom of the reality of power. If they become weak for some reason or another, power has no other recourse but to artificially revive and hallucinate them… The deterioration of power is irresistibly pursued: it is not so much the “revolutionary forces” that accelerate this process (often it is quite the opposite), it is the system itself that deploys against its own structures this violence that annuls all substance and all finality. One must not resist this process by trying to confront the system and destroy it, because the system that is dying from being dispossessed of its death expects nothing but that from us: that we give the system back its death, that we revive it through the negative. End of revolutionary praxis, end of the dialectic. (24)

Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation is an experience, to say the least. I don’t think I’ve read a book that has so radically challenged my perspective since Richard Rorty’s Contingency, irony, and solidarity. In short, it is a semiotic work concerning the applicability of (and even the possibility of) meaning in the postmodern world of electronic mass media. It centers around the two concepts eponymously referred to in the title. Simulacra, in brief, is a copy (of a model/image/abstraction) that has no original. Simulation, similarly, is the generation of these copies/models without origin or reality. The result of this product and process, respectively, is the creation of what Baudrillard terms, hyperreality; and it is in this space, he contends, that our social “realities” takes place. I think I’ll write a shorthand primer concerning these concepts since they’re difficult to explain and understand without greater explication. Here, I am concerned with the application of these concepts to political revolution and the implications that seem to follow.

From the quote above, it seems Baudrillard is saying that revolution has become a part of the system which the revolution seeks to dismantle. Furthermore, that the system itself fosters this revolution in order to justify itself to those whom are subject to it (almost like the false flag operations of the Italian government post-World War II), to reinvigorate it, and establish itself more firmly. In this way, the revolution is meaningless – worse: it is an illusion, or as Baudrillard is wont to describe it: a simulation of revolution. Even if the revolution is successful in achieving its end, the political-ideological/linguistic/communications framework that makes the system (and the revolution) possible still exists intact, and ultimately subsumes the revolution into the “original” system. This reminds me of the Arab Spring movement in Egypt in which a dictator is overthrown only to be replaced by a new dictator, and now it seems as if this event is repeating itself once again.

Baudrillard goes into greater detail about how this similar situation plays out in Western, especially American, society – and it is truly disturbing. For the details I would recommend the book; although, I think I will cover some more of these topics in later posts. For now, I focus on revolution.

If the illusion of revolution was not disheartening enough, Baudrillard says that now, in this hyperreality of which we are all a part, there is no longer the possibility of revolution. The hyperreality subsumes all into meaninglessness, without true referents – only the images and appearances of things. And the hyperreal would subsume any antithesis to the hyperreal. Thus, resistance truly is futile. Even death is rendered meaningless and thus ineffective. The dialectic is over.

Was Fukiyama wrong – did he miss it entirely? Is it not liberal democratic ideals and societies that will “conquer” the world, bringing to historical conclusion the dialectical opposition between capitalism and communism; but instead, a (now-global) mass communications superstructure – disseminating ideals and ideas that are misconstrued, misunderstood, and dispossessed of meaning – that spreads like a psychic cancer, ultimately imprisoning us all in the hyperreal? Are we truly lost in the desert of the real?

Why Am I Writing This?

The answer to the title question is multifaceted. I write this post because I am concerned with truth and I feel compelled to argue for its behalf. I also write because I can’t stop thinking about the topic of motivation(s). But mostly, I write this because I had an incredulous experience yesterday that has left me perplexed and I want to address it as well as the source of that incredulity.

My first day at a think tank internship was yesterday. During the course of editing a critique on new counterterrorism training guidelines it became evident that people still see this “War on Terror” as solely religiously motivated. There are still intelligent, American policy makers who completely discount the stated political motivations by Osama bin Laden (OBL) for 9/11. These individuals attribute the attack to a fundamental antagonism towards the West within Islam itself, and not as the complicated, multifaceted conflict that it is.

The objection I read in this report was that the so-called political motivations stated by OBL and his affiliates, and those Americans who cite them as the former’s rationale, are examples of flawed argumentation. It couldn’t possibly be because the U.S. has troops in Saudi Arabia; the million civilian deaths caused by the U.S. during the first Gulf War (most of them the result of economic sanctions after the war); and the one-sided U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In short, U.S. foreign policy cannot be the reason we were attacked. The rationale behind this line of reasoning, I have often heard, is that, “we have engaged in unpopular foreign policy in other countries and they don’t respond this way.” But is this line of reasoning really any less flawed?

Let’s imagine a playground. During recess, a bully goes around beating up kids and taking their lunch money. The first nine children take the beating and lose their money. However, the tenth child refuses to be pushed around and fights back, blackening the eye of the bully. The fight is interrupted and both children are sent to the principal’s office. This principal naturally asks the second child, “Why did you blacken the eye of your classmate?” To which, he responds, “Because he was trying to bully me and take my lunch money, like he did the other kids.”

This isn’t a difficult situation to understand; it makes sense and there’s a part of us that not only understands the second child’s motivations but also are proud of him for standing up for himself. Regardless, various U.S. officials discount this simple logic. For them, the second child couldn’t have beaten up the bully because none of the other nine children responded that way. No, instead it must be something else… and they conclude it must be this child’s religious background. Now, the geopolitical reality in which the world finds itself is infinitely more complex than the described scenario; however, the stated cause and effect of the aggressor in the scenario and of OBL and AQ are identical, and the U.S. ignores this at its own peril. Attributing speculative causes to the “real” motivation not only commits a number of formal logical fallacies but it commits another irresponsible and unreasonable action, one that will cost the U.S. in many ways. And it is simply disheartening that policy makers and other intelligent people still think this way.