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Seeing sense in the age of stupid: Alienation, power and the case for social transformation

In virtually every sphere of our modern lives, we are systematically alienated, or separated, from each other by powerful forces. These forces pervade our work, leisure, cultural and social relationships. On a micro level, the prevalence of problems such as crime, anti-social behaviour and the breakdown of community are all symptomatic of this. On the macro level, this alienation manifests itself in acts of war, poverty, imperialism and environmental decimation. Although mainstream opinion usually paints all these problems as separate and distinct, they are all inextricably linked to capitalism and hierarchical power. Throughout the course of history, these mutually dependent entities have reinforced each other in the interests of powerful elites. By doing so, they have cynically negated our collective intellectual, moral and human qualities.

In a world so divided by overbearing nation states, monolithic corporations and religious sectarianism, there’s a pressing question that begs to be asked: what’s to be done?

power = alienation = abuse

In the wake of the Holocaust and the Vietnam war, the driving forces behind acts of mass social barbarism became the subject of intense scrutiny for psychologists. Two groundbreaking studies from that period, Zimbardo’s prison experiment and Milgram’s study into obedience, confirmed the alienating effects of power, on both those exercising it and those subjugated by it.

In the Stanford prison experiment, researcher Philip Zimbardo randomly divided a group of student volunteers into prisoners and prison guards, roles which were fulfilled in a makeshift prison. The volunteers fell quickly into role and their behaviour became so seriously distorted that it was necessary to terminate the experiment prematurely.

A shocked Zimbardo observed:

Within what was a surprisingly short period of time, we witnessed ... normal, healthy American college students fractionate into a group of prison guards who seemed to derive pleasure from insulting, threatening, humiliating and dehumanising …. Prison-er participation in the social reality which the guards had structured for them lent increasing validity to it and, as the prisoners became resign-ed to their treatment ... many acted in ways to justify their fate ..., adopting attitudes and behaviour which helped to sanction their victimisation. Most dramatic and distressing ... was the ease with which sadistic behaviour could be elicited in individuals who were not sadistic types …. The inherently pathological characteristics of the prison situation … were a sufficient condition to produce aberrant, anti-social behaviour. The use of power was self-aggrandising and self-perpetuating.

Stanley Milgram’s examination of the role of obedience as “the dispositional cement that binds men to systems of authority” was perhaps even more controversial than Zimbardo’s. The study, conducted at Yale University, revealed that some 65% of volunteers recruited for a learning experiment (so they believed), were prepared to administer a fatal electrical shock to punish a victim on instruction from a white coated experimenter. When confronted by the severity of their actions afterwards, many of those who had administered an apparently fatal shock resorted to blaming the victim for their stupidity.

As Milgram noted:

The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions …. Unable to defy the authority of the experimenter, they attribute all re-sponsibility to him. It is the old story of “just doing one’s duty” that was heard countless times at Nuremburg. But it would be wrong to think of this as a thin alibi concocted for the occasion. Rather it is a fundamental mode of thinking for a great many people once they are locked into a subordinate position in a structure of authority.

These experiments, both of them successfully replicated with almost identical outcomes, provide a snapshot of how power predisposes humans to behave in ways that are malevolent, degrading and cruel towards others. Little surprise then, that abuse is endemic in a world where unequal relationships and structures are the norm. Over the centuries, dictators, warlords and religious zealots have all used the “dehumanisation of power” to their bloodthirsty advantage. But behind their megalomania lies another sinister motivating force. This force is material greed, a force that underpins capitalist society.

the big corporate takeover

In 1984 the release of methyl isocyanate at (US corporation) Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant in India resulted in the deaths of 18,000 locals and workers in the worst disaster of its kind. However, any corporate admission of liability for the disaster was doggedly sidestepped at all costs in spite of repeated warnings of an impending catastrophe beforehand. To this day, many of the disaster’s surviving victims remain uncompensated. Dow Chemical, who bought up Union Carbide in 2001, also refuse to accept any responsibility for cleaning up the 5,000 tons of toxic waste left behind by the leak.

We should not be surprised. The paramountcy of shareholder authority and market survival compel corporations to single mindedly pursue profit above all else. The “externalisation” of the human and environmental costs of business activity are forever rationalised on this basis and the diffusion of any sense of individual responsibility is effortlessly ingrained in the corporate mindset. (See J. Balkan, The Corporation, 2004.)

Under corporate authoritarianism, the psychological traits deemed most desirable for average citizens to possess are efficiency, conformity, emotional detachment, insensitivity, and unquestioning obedience to authority – traits that allow people to survive and even prosper in the company hierarchy. And of course, for non-average citizens (i.e. bosses) authoritarian traits are needed, the most impor-tant being the ability and willingness to dominate others. (An Anarchist FAQ, www.anarchistfaq.org )

As corporate capitalism has metastasised globally – 1,000 corporations now account for some 80% of world trade – trends reveal growing levels of inequality, resource wars, pollution and the surging rape of the natural world. While a handful of billionaires bask in untold riches, millions go hungry. This isn’t due to lack of resources – there’s more than enough food to go round. Global arms expenditure eclipses aid budgets. The polar ice caps melt and still governments fail to act decisively to combat climate change. These are no chance or random occurrences; they are all the direct result of the corporate capitalist takeover – power, profit and market forces conjoined in perfect (dis)harmony.

Today, the corporation is the primary form of economic life. Some transnational corporations are now larger and more powerful than many nation states. As a matter of course they pursue their expansionist inter-ests by funding political campaigns and aggressively lobbying politicians, politicians who, it seems, all too readily exchange a seat in parliament for a seat in the corporate boardroom. With the securing of political support, the corporate agenda is thus given an appearance of legitimacy and consent.

So why do so many people passively accept the creeping corporate takeover? Why do they fail to see the interconnection between the many crises which afflict us? Brute force alone is evidently not a sufficient explanation for our compliance. One more credible theory is that we are calculatingly manipulated into what Marx described as a state of “false consciousness”.

Most people are half awake, half dreaming, and are unaware that most of what they hold to be true and self evident is illusion produced by the suggestive influence of the social world in which they live. (Erich Fromm)

Powerful forces – family, school, TV, advertising, parliament, the military – fulfil a role which was once the preserve of organised religion; i.e. they construct a reality that protects and furthers our rulers’ interests. Unwitting slaves to work and to the consumer dream, we are carefully conditioned to accept our (subordinate) place in the grand social factory of profit. Ultimately, we are taught to accept society, values and behaviour as they are, not as they could or should be.

This is achieved by replicating the capitalist power infrastructure of society through the dominant superstructure of relationships, ideas and beliefs. The experimental psychologist, Charles T. Tart, even goes so far as to argue that this conditioning renders us in a state of hypnosis or “consensus trance”.

Consensus trance is internalised by us all to such a degree that we also unconsciously become its agents. Parents, for example, initiate their offspring into the rules and taboos of dominant culture, according to the instructions impressed upon them by their parents, teachers and the mass media.

… it is difficult to protect oneself from the slow death caused by consumer culture. Human beings are every day and in numerous ways psychologically, socially, and spiritually assaulted by a culture which creates increasing material expectations; devalues human connectedness; socialises people to be self-absorbed; obliterates self-reliance; alienates people from normal human emotions; and sells false hope that creates more pain. (B. E. Levine, Fundamentalist Consumerism and an Insane Society)

One aspect of today’s consensus trance is consumer culture, a culture wherein the trivial and banal take on profound importance. We are daily bombarded and seduced by the artifice of celebrity, designer label fashion, soap operas, commercialised entertainment and the belief that if we don’t own the latest “must have” gizmo, or our football team doesn’t win, our week will be ruined.

The same pedagogy dupes us into thinking that at election time we have real choice and that politicians who, of course, have our best interests at heart, aren’t really lying, conniving slime balls, pandering to the whims of big business. Amongst other lies in the fabricated patchwork of untruths we are subjected to, consensus trance told us there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that we are all middle class now.

On an interpersonal basis, capitalist consensus trance brings out the worst in us. A paradigmatic obsession with power, wealth and status is relentlessly drilled into us to legitimise the privileges of those on top. Aggressive dog-eat-dog individualism is all pervasive. Community breakdown and a whole host of problems, from gang violence to alcoholism, are all symptomatic of this. Growing emotional problems and social dislocation directly correlate with the ethos of consumerism. (see O. James, Affluenza, 2006 and The Selfish Capitalist, 2007.)

This is what the situationists described as the “poverty of everyday life”, a poverty that goes way beyond the mere material.

religious terror

As western corporate coca-colonisation has stamped its uniform brand across the globe, some marginalised populations have sought refuge in another form of trance reality – religious fundamentalism. But religious fundamentalism, whether of the Zionist, Christian or Islamic variety, has proved to be just as divisive and intolerant as capitalism of those who are unwilling to submit to its doctrines. The legacies of the most resurgent form of fundamentalism, Islamism, are the terrorist abominations of 9/11 and 7/7, the execution of homosexuals, honour killings, the flogging of rape victims, the persecution of non-believers and so on.

For some people, the predatory instincts of corporate capitalism and its imperialist incursions are erroneously explained away, not in economic or political terms, but in religious or racial ones. Nonethe-less, as many critics have noted, the rulers of many Islamic states enjoy decadent riches and fruitful business relations with western rulers, obliterating dissent and holding their repressed populations in dire poverty as they do so. Economic power interests evidently transcend national and religious boundaries.

The mind control of organised religion and corporate capitalism are different means of achieving the same objective – keeping the “haves” in power over the “have nots”. Needless to say, when this mind control breaks down and the masses rebel, the full force of the state kicks in to restore “order”.

destroy power, not people

Fifty four years ago, Erich Fromm‘s prescient musings on the state of humanity went like this:

Man (sic) today is confronted with the most fundamental choice; not between capitalism and communism, but that between robotism (of both capitalist and communist variety), or humanistic communitarian socialism. Most facts seem to indicate he is choosing robotism and that means in the long run insanity and destruction. But all these facts are not strong enough to destroy faith in man’s reason, good will and sanity. As long as we can think of other alternatives we are not lost.

A unified and coherent explanation of the material, ecological and social crises facing us today, traces them all back to common sources. These sources are market forces, organised religion and hierarchical power. For us, the only logical solution therefore, lies in their complete removal through progressive social revolution.

Revolution is a process, a process that can be started now by our conscious intervention in every aspect of social life that has been colonis-ed by profit and power. By our every-day defiance, thinking and experiencing life beyond the false consciousness imprinted by religion, patriarchy and corporate trance “reality”, we can truly begin to rediscover ourselves and reaffirm our sense of interconnectedness.

The logical realisation of our collective individuation is not some cheap self-indulgent mystical escapism, but a real, profound and lasting social transformation. This transformation will ultimately pave the way for a new social order, a social order that relies not on robotism, force or mass deception for its survival, but one founded on genuine liberty, equality and unity. This change is only achievable with strong collective organisation, international solidarity and positive grassroots social action.

Our goal, to save ourselves and our planet, is to create an ecologically sustainable global society organised without hierarchical power, based on mutual aid and voluntary cooperation – from each according to ability to each according to need.

In a world that is crying out for change, we simply cannot afford to accept anything less.

No change of government or system of government, no programme of reforms however “radical” can significantly better our situation. Only the overthrow of capitalism – the system of state and exchange economy which exists in every country in the world – will end the social division and alienation, the exploitation and oppression that make up our lives. Only then will it be possible to achieve a genuine community, without racial, sexual or class division or exploitation. (Workers Playtime)

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