Your Social Needs Determine Where You Are on the Pyramid

Abraham Maslow (1902-1970) was an American psychologist who was best known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority. Maslow’s original basic needs are all related to things we can’t control but are essential for living. This hierarchy ranges from more concrete needs such as food and water to abstract concepts such as self-fulfillment. Social need is any essential need for the survival and the progress of the individuals (or the society as a whole) and its derivatives. Examples of social needs include: food and water, energy, health protection and medication, education, transportation, employment, safety and security etc. Social challenges refer to problems that people in a particular social group may face. Examples of social challenges include unemployment, lack of education, integration of disadvantaged or disabled members into the society etc. These social challenges can be local, regional, national or global.

Instead of focusing on psychopathology and what goes wrong with people, Maslow (1943) formulated a more positive account of human behavior which focused on what goes right. He was interested in human potential, and how we fulfill that potential. In Canada and the US, the vast majority of the population are living in urban cities having easy access to most of these physiological needs without even noticing that. We don’t worry about how we get those things. It is not until you are in a situation where you are unable to do things that you really realise how many daily things in life you do take for granted. The rate of consumption skyrocketed in the last 50 years, being quite clear that part of the population consumes more than they need while another part is lacking resources and access to the basics. We are also creating new needs and products every day, not really considering which impacts these activities have on earth equilibrium.

Humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, whether it comes from a large social group or a small network of family and friends. Other sources of social connection may be professional organizations, clubs, religious groups, social media sites, and so forth. The third level of need is love and belonging, which are psycho-social needs. When individuals have taken care of themselves physically, they can address their need to share and connect with others. Deficiencies at this level, on account of neglect, shunning, ostracism, etc., can impact an individual’s ability to form and maintain emotionally significant relationships. For example, applying Maslow’s hierarchy helps to explain why so many people feel the urge to use Twitter and Facebook in times of crisis when they feel their own security is threatened. These social communities provide a pathway for potentially satisfying the need to be safe.

Social media is simply a (relatively) new tool to meet our innate need for human connection. Human behaviours adapt to the environment to support our psychological needs. We strive to achieve those needs within the technological constraints of our environment. Social connections and collaboration are at the center of human motivation. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that if a lower need is not met, then the higher ones will be ignored. For example, if employees lack job security and are worried that they will be fired, they will be far more concerned about their financial well-being and meeting lower needs (paying rent, bills, etc.) than about friendships and respect at work. However, if employees receive adequate financial compensation (and have job security), meaningful group relationships and praise for good work may be more important motivators.

Self-actualization needs are the highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy, and refer to the realization of a person’s potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. It is important to note that self-actualization is a continual process of becoming rather than a perfect state one reaches of a ‘happy ever after’ (Hoffman, 1988). During this pandemic, families who are in different situations are going to have different worries and concerns. Some families are struggling just to meet basic needs like food, health care and maybe even shelter. These families are really struggling financially. Maybe the sole breadwinner lost a job during the pandemic, and rent is coming due. These families are going to be focused on keeping everybody safe and fed. During this time governments must consider the social and economic dimensions of this crisis and focus on the most vulnerable. This can only be achieved by designing policies that support the provision of health, unemployment insurance and social protection while bolstering business to prevent bankruptcy and job loss.1

According to Maslow (1970), certain needs of security and stability (that ranged from the mere physiological to more emotional and interpersonal ones) must be satisfied before the individual could consider developing higher personal tasks such as self-realization. In other words, it was assumed that the individual required a secured economic basis from which to start “growing as a person”. According to Aubrey’s perspective, one of the most characteristic changes brought by the emergent neoliberal working ethics is the exceptional stress on personal responsibility. Neoliberalism has brought a highly fluid, risky, deregulated, individualized, and consumption-centered economic setting. The “new spirit of capitalism” – small government and minimal regulations – created a new working ethics as consequence of the continuous change in the nature of organizational life. This lead to the progressive dissolution along the past decades of the ideas of job security and stability.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) developed the concept of cultural hegemony: the dominant ideology of society reflects the beliefs and interests of the ruling class. Cultural hegemony locks up a society even more tightly because of the way ideas are transmitted by language. The words we use to speak and write have been constructed by social interactions through history and shaped by the dominant ideology of the times. Thus, they are loaded with cultural meanings that condition us to think in particular ways, and to not be able to think very well in other ways. Gramsci suggested that power also rested in the institutions of ‘civil society’ or the structures and organization of everyday life. The revolution or change would therefore have to aim not only at conquering state power, but much more importantly, to create an alternative civil society, which would have to be able to attract the majority of people by convincing them of the validity of the project, which was in turn premised on its ability to perform.

A system of minimal regulations and small government did not come about naturally. Laissez-faire liberalism is a political program, designed to change – in so far as it is victorious – political policies, and to change the economic program of the state itself, in other words, the distribution of the national income. Laissez-faire is supported by an economic elite which wishes to modify not the structure of the state, but merely government policy – to reform the laws controlling commerce, but only indirectly those controlling industry. Today neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning. Inequality is recast as virtuous. With respect to social needs, their belief is the market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

In a regime faithful to neoliberal policies, governance must be carried out within the constraints of the doctrine of limited government and self-regulating markets. This type of management shifts the locus of power away from citizens and their representatives towards those with capital. Governments adopt the neoliberal governance model creating the mechanism of a free market for decision making-processes. Today neoliberal proxies make it possible to hear distant echoes of motivation theory and self-realization. It is not that neoliberal enterprise aspires to deliver the sustainable material security that Maslow regarded as a baseline accomplishment, but that these needs could not, indeed should not, be met by corporate employment. Rather the reverse: employment security was produced by enhanced corporate competitiveness that is, in turn, dependent on the depth of emotional commitment of individuals. In other words, Maslow’s iconic hierarchy of need is turned upside down.

The needs lower on the hierarchy which have to do with survival have to be satisfied before reaching the one at the top which is self-actualization. In addition to these needs, Maslow also believed that we have a need to learn new information and to better understand the world around us. The COVID crisis has pushed millions down the pyramid of needs to survival. Now where does this leave the worries about the important but less critical to immediate survival needs – such as sustainability, climate change even gender balance in the workplace? When survival needs are met, which an evolved society which is economically stable can do, the other issues on which many of us were focused before the pandemic, can be addressed. It’s high time to re-evaluate what we really need and be aware that our habits are completely related to the major problems of our society. Where are the policies to address our community’s social needs ensuring everyone has a chance to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be?

1 Saul McCleod (29 Dec 2020) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology

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Conspiracy Theories, the Occult and the Neoliberal Phoenix

Newspeak is a fictional language created to limit free expression and maintain the Party orthodoxy. Orwell explains that Newspeak follows most of the rules of English grammar, yet is a language characterized by a continually diminishing vocabulary; complete thoughts reduced to simple terms of simplistic meaning. Doublethink is a process of indoctrination whereby the subject is expected to accept as true that which is clearly false, or to simultaneously accept two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in contravention to one’s own memories or sense of reality. Doublespeak is language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. A symbol of the occult, the phoenix, is a mythical bird with fiery plumage that lives up to 100 years. Near the end of its life, it settles in to its nest of twigs which then burns ferociously, reducing bird and nest to ashes. And from those ashes, a fledgling phoenix rises – renewed and reborn. From the coronavirus crisis many believe a new system will arise.

Occult qualities are properties that have no known rational explanation. In the Middle Ages, for example, magnetism was considered an occult quality. Newton’s contemporaries severely criticized his theory that gravity (published in 1687) was effected through “action at a distance”, as occult.  The term occultism was introduced into the English language in 1875 by the esotericist, Helena Blavatsky. Lucifer was a journal published by Blavatsky. The first edition was issued in September 1887 in London. The journal published articles on philosophical, theosophical, scientific and religious topics. It also contained book reviews, for example of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Her Theosophical doctrines influenced the spread of Hindu and Buddhist ideas in the West as well as the development of the New Age Movement. Occultism is nothing more and nothing less than the manipulation of whatever forms and forces are at the practitioner’s disposal in order to achieve that which the practitioner desires.

Occult can mean: hidden from view. It has been said ‘occult’ or secret knowledge is the basis of all power in human society. Throughout history secure ruling elites arise through secret, or occult knowledge which they carefully guard and withhold from outsiders. Satanism has secrets and symbols associated with the occult. Anton Szandor LaVey wrote in 1975: Man is a selfish creature. Everything in life is a selfish act. Man is not concerned with helping others, yet he wants others to believe he is …[I]t is a truism that every act is a selfish act…Rational self-interest is a virtue, but should be seen for what it is: self-interest. That is the prominent theme of Satanism. “Rational self-interest” is also part of the core terminology of Objectivism, and the language here so clearly mimics Rand’s that it could be taken directly from Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged. Both LaVey’s Satanism and Rand draw on ideas of social Darwinism.1

Freemasonry is one of the world’s oldest secular fraternal organizations and arose during late 16th – early 17th century Britain.  The “Masonic Edition” of the Bible says, “Masonry is descended from the ancient mysteries.” Masonry requires belief in a Supreme Being and treats all religions as though they believe in the same God, whom Masons call by such titles as “Great Architect of the Universe” and “Jah-Bul-On” (supposedly His “secret name”). When the Bible is quoted, references to Jesus are omitted; public prayers must not use Jesus’ name. In several rituals Jesus is made equal to Zoroaster, Buddha, or Muhammad. Salvation to the “Grand Lodge above” is achieved by living an upright life, without explicit faith in Christ. Loyalty binds Masons to one another, and Masons promise by oath of gory death never to reveal their secret rituals to outsiders (curses that are symbolic today). Masonic vows include protection to fellow Masons, even in cases of crime.

Masonry claims to transmit secret teachings from ancient times. Evangelical researchers John Ankerberg and John Weldon state that Masonry serves as an introduction to the occult because, among other reasons, “in symbolism and philosophy it is similar to many occult practices,” and because it is “a system of mysticism which accepts the development of altered states of consciousness.” The 1920s marked the height of popularity of secret societies like the Freemasons. Though most American Masons did not necessarily have any psychic or occult interests, the prevalence of Masonic ideas and rituals provided a fund of commonplaces from which other groups could draw. Moreover, any serious investigation of the Masonic tradition would soon lead the curious to the extensive and often-reprinted works of Albert Pike from the 1870s, with his esoteric and Gnostic interpretations of Freemasonry. Freemasonry opened an enticing door to the wider occult world.

The neo-liberal thought collective was structured very differently from the other ‘invisible colleges’ that sought to change people’s minds in the second half of the twentieth century. Unlike most intellectuals in the 1950s, the early protagonists of the Mont Pelerin Society did not look to the universities or the academic ‘professions’ or to specific interest group mobilisations as the appropriate primary vehicles to achieve their goals. Hence the Mont Pelerin Society was constituted as a private members-only debating society whose participants were hand-picked (originally primarily by Friedrich Hayek, but later through a closed nomination procedure) and which consciously sought to remain out of the public eye. The purpose was to create a special space where people of like-minded political ideals could gather to debate the outlines of a future movement, without having to suffer the indignities of ridicule for their often blue-sky proposals. This supports Orwell’s double think. Its purpose is to help the power elite because they can use both honesty and their own deception.

The neoliberals have been so good at covering their tracks, obscuring what they stand for, and denying the level of coherence which they have achieved in their long march to legitimacy. Back when they were just a gleam in Hayek’s eye, they did explicitly use the term “Neoliberalism” when discussing the project that, back then, did not yet exist – even Milton Friedman used it in print! But once their program looked like it would start to gel, and subsequently start reshaping both the state and the market more to their liking, they abruptly abjured any reference to that label, and sometime in the later 1950s, following the lead of Hayek, they began to call themselves “classical liberals.” Then, they define corporations as legal persons in order to facilitate the buying of elections. This allows them to repurpose the strong state to impose their vision of a society properly open to the dominance of the market as they conceive it. 

Laissez-faire promoted the notion of market and state operating according to different logics – the heart of the liberal version of freedom. On the other hand, the neoliberal thought collective abandons the vision of market and state as independent and ontologically distinct entities. A thought collective is defined by Fleck as a community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction. Members of that collective not only adopt certain ways of perceiving and thinking, but they continually transform it – and this transformation does not occur so much “in their heads” as in their interpersonal space. Rose observes: neoliberalism is used as a constant master category that can be used both to understand and to explain all manner of political programs across a wide variety of settings. With respect to China, neoliberalism appears not to have led to contraction of the state vis-à-vis the market, rather just a different kind of state that promotes and works at the behest of markets.

George Orwell’s novel, 1984, written after the Second World War, introduced a concept of reality control that the population could be controlled and manipulated merely through the alteration of everyday language and thought. Orwell’s prophesy in his novel was the appearance of a state in which the truth does not exist; it is merely what ‘big brother’ says it is. Manipulation is a key trait of individuals with controlling personalities. Governments have absorbed neoliberal operational templates and the Orwellian language that naturally accompanies this. More and more people live with the poverty and job insecurity that flows directly from inequities exacerbated by neoliberal welfare and austerity policies. Neoliberalism creates insecurity through the use of indicators and measures to assess the performance of an individual. In turn, alternative media maintain the illusion that merely hides crime, hypocrisy, and moral bankruptcy, that is threatened by truth and honesty.

The world is awash in the occult and conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, they deflect attention from the two main ones: Neoliberal newspeak claims the free market should dominate virtually all aspects of society, that regulations should be dismantled, and that individual liberty should eclipse all other considerations of fairness, equity, or community welfare.  Secondly, fossil fuel executives received reports about of human-induced climate change in 1968, yet they spent subsequent 50 years deliberately concealing their knowledge and obfuscating public discussion on the topic to protect profit.2 Neoliberalism is the political movement that dares not speak its name, and has intellectual contradictions that it dares not air openly. The ideas of the neoliberal thought collective led to a neglect of social goods not captured by economic indicators, an erosion of democracy, an unhealthy promotion of unbridled individualism and social Darwinism, along with economic inefficiency. A crisis on this scale of the coronavirus disaster can reorder society in dramatic ways, for better or worse. Beware of doublespeak. It’s the language of conspiracy theories and those seeking nothing more than control or obfuscation of thought.

1 The Occult Technology of Power (10July 2011)                                   

2 Jeremy Lent  (2 Oct 2020) ) The five real conspiracies you need to know about                   The five real conspiracies you need to know about – Resilience

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Responding to the Crumbling Façade of Democracy in America

The Glorious Revolution in 1688-1689 marked the beginning of modern English parliamentary democracy. It was called glorious because it achieved its goals without bloodshed in England. This struggle between the king and parliament ended in victory for the people. The new parliament separated the dominant institution of the day, the church, further from the process of government to reduce the church interference in government. A democracy relies on power-sharing arrangements, courts, legislatures and a free and independent media to check executive power. Since these institutions obstruct the free reign of populists, they are often subjected to blistering attack. This is especially the case with the right-wing variety of populism that is spreading across the U.S. and Western and Eastern Europe. Populism calls for kicking out the political establishment, but it doesn’t specify what should replace it. Some describe the Enlightenment as beginning with England’s Glorious Revolution.

The Enlightenment writers were concerned about the inequality of the existing system and introduced questioning and critical thinking to replace the dead weight of tradition, and challenge the blind faith in institutions. The philosophers wanted to understand the rationale behind inequality, were particularly interested if there were natural reasons for it, or if inequality came wholly from social conventions. The process of corporate expansion across borders creates rapid change in many communities with subsequent negative consequences for workers. The fact that there is little international regulation has dire consequences for the safety of the people and the environment. Multinational corporations are responsible for the removal of traditional government accountability to a fixed population for much of politics. This creates a lack of ability of those affected by decisions to protect their legitimate rights and interests. The new corporate values of globalization normalize through a doublespeak, selling commercialization and free market choices as democracy.

During the first 20 years of this century, the political, economic and financial elites who brought you the euro crisis, the war in Iraq, the Great Recession of 2008, growing inequality and middle-class income stagnation have made some very serious mistakes, of very enduring consequences, with very startling impunity. Trump perfected the ‘know nothing’ façade of the Republican party to directly appeal to white working-class communities that have a ‘long tradition of hostility towards knowledge.’ Have no doubt neoliberalism serves the interest of financial capital and globalized elites in the redistribution of wealth upwards. The popular lexicon has adopted the term of ‘fake news’ and attributed it to Trump, yet it should be attributed to neoliberalism. Trump supporters now live in a media bubble, getting their news from sources that play to their identity-politics desires, which means that even if you offer them a better deal, they won’t hear about it, or believe it if told.

In the 1980s, school systems lowered educational standards to protect children from failure. The world would be saved from crime, drug abuse and under-achieving through bolstering self-esteem. This self-esteem movement has had a significant impact – in order to ensure positive self-esteem education standards were significantly lowered, creating a milieu for extreme individualism. When there is too much self-esteem there are problems of self-tolerance, entitlement and narcissism. This person demands automatic and full compliance with his/her expectations. The cult of self-esteem that was created in schools provides a pool of individuals in the 21st century who view the world from an emotional rather than a rational perspective, supporting extreme individualism and allowing personal feelings to overcome the distinction between right and wrong. This person is addicted to the attention of others for admiration, applause and admiration. Behind this façade they only care about appearances.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder that cuts off those who are affected by it from the emotional reality of others. The core of this pathology is the inability to put oneself into someone’s shoes. Empathy is the seat of conscience, and without it comes an incapacity for love. These candidates are just symptoms of a system run by corporations, which is now revealing the full fledge of pathology incorporated in the United States. When a society lacks understanding of the depth of its darkness, this unaccounted power sees no bounds for its pursuit of a single vision. Those who are devoid of empathy hide their lack of internal structure in a façade of normalcy. By emulating good human attributes, these unknown members of society prey on the rest. They have found the best way to mask their vice by infiltrating governments and directly altering the definition of the norm.

Despite its alleged commitment to market competition, the neoliberal economic agenda instead brought the decline of competition and the rise of close to monopoly power in vast swaths of the economy: pharmaceuticals, telecom, airlines, agriculture, banking, industrials, retail, utilities, and even beer. The U.S. government is highly responsive to the policy preferences of the wealthiest people, corporations, and trade associations – and that it is largely unresponsive to the views of ordinary people. But neoliberalism rejects both the medieval approach of having fixed social classes based on wealth and power and the modern approach of having a single, shared civic identity based on participation in a democratic community. Neoliberalism is the dominant ideology that supports the economic elite. As an answer to the problems of deregulation, privatization, liberalization, and austerity, it offers more of the same or, at best, incremental and technocratic “nudges.”

“Happiness is the feeling that power increases – that resistance is being overcome”, says Nietzsche, and moral concepts are merely façades of the power elite, while happiness is a kind of control one has over their surroundings. In a democracy every citizen has certain basic rights that the state cannot take away from them. People should question the decisions of the government, but not reject government authority. The measure of a successful society is the happiness of its people. Once the voters understand the extent of economic inequality in today’s system, they will possess the knowledge to recognize the need for change. However, democracy remains the best human weapon so far invented for guarding against the ‘illusion of certainty’ and breaking up truth-camouflaged monopolies of power, and create a successful society. It is necessary to return to laws based on equality of persons rather than laws of the market.

Mishra observes, “The new horizons of individual desire and fear opened up by the neoliberal economy do not favor democracy or human rights.” Laissez-faire capitalism Ayn Rand argues, is the only system that protects individual rights. Freedom has nothing to do with democracy or speech or individual rights. Today, for neoliberals in general, and Republicans in particular it is about the freedom of the markets and the elites who control those markets. Republican social policies tend to oppose extensive government regulations, government-funded social programs, affirmative action, and policies aimed at strengthening the power of workers. As the pandemic has demonstrated, however, it is not the existential dangers, but rather everyday economic activities that reveal the collective, connected character of modern life beneath the individualist façade of rights and contracts. Carl Jung says, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”

In America the crumbling façade of democracy has laid bare the weakness of the Republican Party with its full-throated support of small government and minimal regulations of neoliberalism. To distract voters, they embrace the uncertain populist policies of division and misinformation. Fox News tells viewers they are the only reliable source of political information – re-enforcing the alt-right propaganda in social media. At CPAC they do not debate policy, rather embrace a symbol – Donald Trump as the force to move forward with. Trump in true populist form, sans policies, attacks the “Washington elites” as the problem. On the other hand, the Democratic party is still able to maintain the façade of democracy and hide their neoliberal tendencies from the majority of their supporters. However, there are cracks in this façade as progressives press the so-called Democratic establishment to separate the neoliberal institution from the process of government.

The Enlightenment brought political modernization to the West, in terms of introducing democratic values and institutions and the creation of modern, liberal democracies. In America the Republican Party is no longer a viable choice for democracy. It remains in the hands of the 1% and their proxies and refuses to budge from neoliberal policies. It must be allowed to fail. During the Reagan era the wealthy were mostly funding Republicans. The Democrats needed to move to the right to secure funding from the wealthy, to start winning again. However, in order to restore democracy in America it will be necessary to throw off neoliberal policies of wage suppression, deregulation, and tax cuts; and once again put political power in the hands of the American working class. It is necessary to wipe out the last vestiges of Trumpism, as well as neoliberalism in the Democratic Party to restore democracy in America. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the façade of pretense.

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What We Must Change to Counter our Anxiety

When you have to compete in a world that is structurally unfair and where the game is so often loaded against the little guy, stress and anxiety result. A society of individuals frequently switching jobs, relocating, and preoccupied with personal risk and self-interest is conducive to neither stable families nor cohesive communities. Where career is no longer a meaningful concept, it is no longer possible for one to make and maintain the long-term commitments required of people to form their characters into sustained narratives. Instability and insecurity of the COVID pandemic is also hugely damaging to well-being. Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Public health actions, such as social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety.

Neoliberalism should be interpreted as an anxiety-ridden form of crisis management that is constantly attempting to cover over the gaps and ruptures in its own ideological fabric caused by the contradictions that it is structured to conceal. Moreover, creating anxiety and uncertainty among employees, even ones at the highest level, is actually the point. Such anxiety and uncertainty hinder them from taking risks in participating fully in society as political actors. The same logic would apply to environmental, health and safety regulations designed to protect workers, consumers and the population at large. If you want your country to be competitive, it is best to keep such regulations to a minimum. The power of debt in neoliberalism represents a highly efficient mechanism of control and capture, and much more efficient than the modes of resistance put in place by the workers’ movement.

Metaphors can create anxiety: Donald Trump launched his political career by embracing a brand-new conspiracy theory twisted around two American taproots – fear and loathing of foreigners and of nonwhites. The commodification of politics and social services has stoked mass cynicism towards reigning neoliberal elites, creating receptive audiences for populist slogans to ‘drain the swamp’ at the heart of governments. Populists classically claim to speak for, and personify the interests of, ‘ordinary people’ against established elites (even when these leaders often emerge from elites themselves), and they condemn those who disagree as somehow not genuinely ‘of the people’. In particular, they tell people what they want to hear, often appealing to popular beliefs, prejudices, anxieties and fears, without the need to anchor their programs or policies in scientific or expert knowledge.

One reason for the pervasiveness of conspiracy theories is that they serve an important psychological function for people trying to cope with large, stressful events like a terrorist attack. People “need to blame the anxiety that they feel on different groups and the result is frequently conspiracy theories,” Jan-Willem van Prooijen said, defining the term as a belief that “a group of actors is colluding in secret in order to reach goals that are considered evil or malevolent. People don’t like it when things are really random. Randomness is more threatening than having an enemy. You can prepare for an enemy; you can’t prepare for coincidences.” Conspiracy theories also appeal to people’s need to feel special and unique (a form of agency detection) because it gives them a sense of possessing secret knowledge. These people need an explanation for why society is so awful.

The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. In the moment, cognitive dissonance can cause discomfort, stress, and anxiety. And the degree of these effects often depends on how much disparity there is between the conflicting beliefs, how much the beliefs mean to that person, as well as with how well the person copes with self-contradiction. This cognitive dissonance can be seen particularly in economists – scholars, politicians, media commentators. Paul Murawski notes: Neoliberal theories are unable to explain the financial crisis, there is a gap between the accepted theory and reality. Instead of recognizing that a paradigmatic change is necessary in mainstream economics, the economic profession stubbornly sticks to their mathematical models. On the other hand, the general public believes that this ideology supporting individualism, less government and regulations can no longer be falsified by anything as trifling as data from the “real” economy.

The media also creates cognitive dissonance, this feeling of uncomfortable tension, in many individuals in other areas. The cult of individualism makes us particularly prone to cognitive dissonance because our personal identity is very important. We see ourselves as stable self-contained beings. However, advertising that we may be missing something, or not fitting in creates anxiety. Television tends to feed an information diet (of self-approval) similar to consuming too much sugar inducing short-term euphoria and happiness while distracting from reality. The weakness of the mass media remains an inability to transmit tacit knowledge and an inability to deal with complex issues, so they tend to focus on the unusual or sensational, and the promotion of anxiety and fear. Confirmation-bias draws us into the one-sided outlets, and the cognitive dissonance pushes us away from conflicting ideas. Cognitive dissonance stops us from hearing other opinions that conflict.

Now many workers find themselves stressed working 60-70 hours a week as the only way to survive. These long hours are mentally and physically exhausting and lead to stress at work and at home. Long-term stress can result in anxiety, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. It also contributes to depression, obesity and heart disease. People who experience excessive stress often deal with it in unhealthy ways such as overeating, eating unhealthy foods, smoking cigarettes or abusing drugs and alcohol. The New Economics Foundation’s analysis of European data found that the difference in well-being between temporary and permanent workers was actually greater than that between temporary workers and the unemployed. If this seems surprising, that’s perhaps because we so drastically underestimate the anxiety and stress caused by insecurity. The promotion of ‘flexible labor markets’ in the name of growth and competitiveness may therefore not make us better off if it leads to the proliferation of insecure work.

The diagnosis of social anxiety is now commonplace – you become very anxious about what other people may think of you, or how they may judge you. Social anxiety is now the third most common psychological disorder after depression and alcoholism. SmithKline Beecham, makers of Paxil decided to promote it as treatment for social anxiety – bringing social anxiety into focus in the community. A multibillion-dollar marketing campaign linked the disorder to all manner of interpersonal and job-related problems in a way that fashioned all social discomfort as disease. However, success in the competitive marketplace emphasizes the importance of networking, self-presentation and the belief in the ever-present potential for opportunities; the required vigilance maintaining the kind of personal image that attracts them demands relentless self-monitoring. The problem is in the workplace of enterprise culture: anxious self-surveillance is both pathological and prescribed. We need to stop overthinking.

Neoliberalism in terms of its practical effects on people working in areas subject to its power creates a climate of fear and marginalization which expresses itself in the form of cultural anxiety and doubt. Søren Kierkegaard (1815-1855) claims everyone harbors a fear of being alone, forgotten by God, overlooked by his friends and relatives. He concluded that it was in our anxiety that we come to understand feeling that we are free, that the possibilities are endless. Even though anxiety can ignite all kinds of transgressions and maladaptive behavior, we should recognize it as a dual force that can be both destructive and generative, depending upon how we approach it. Kierkegaard argues, without anxiety there would be no possibility and therefore no capacity to grow and develop as a human being. Kierkegaard concludes, “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate… Anxiety can be replaced only by the freedom whose harsh requirements are its cause.”

Neoliberalism must be replaced by a social movement pressing for support of the working classes. We must counter the structural domination of capital – of alienation, loneliness, anxiety and isolation. Johann Hari observes, “Depression and anxiety are signals telling us that our needs are not being met, and I would say the single most helpful thing we can do going forward is to allow ourselves to hear the signal.”  We can learn positive lessons about how to redesign our society to reduce depression and anxiety going forward if we allow ourselves to hear this signal. The single most important thing that has to be done to deal with people’s depression and anxiety is to deal with the financial insecurity they’re facing.1 It is necessary to limit this powerlessness by acting in solidarity through unions, social movements and election campaigns. The way we negotiate anxiety plays no small part in shaping our lives and character.

1 Roge Karma (28 March 2020) Coronavirus, anxiety, and the profound failure of rugged individualism

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On Seeking Information to Support Your Convictions

Francis Bacon (1551-1626) was concerned with the superficiality of distinctions drawn in everyday language, and consequently the problems of misinformation to embroil men in the discussion of the meaningless. Because these errors are innate, they cannot be completely eliminated, but only recognized and compensated for. Some of Bacon’s examples are: Recognize our senses are inherently dull and easily deceivable. (Which is why Bacon prescribes instruments and strict investigative methods to correct them.) Our tendency to discern (or even impose) more order in phenomena than is actually there. As Bacon points out, we are apt to find similitude where there is actually singularity, regularity where there is actually randomness, etc. Our tendency is towards “wishful thinking.” According to Bacon, we have a natural inclination to accept, believe, and even prove what we would prefer to be true. Our tendency is to rush to conclusions and make premature judgments that support our convictions, instead of gradually and painstakingly accumulating evidence.

The very first ‘learned society’ meeting on 28 November 1660 followed a lecture at Gresham College by Christopher Wren. Joined by other leading polymaths including Robert Boyle and John Wilkins, the group soon received royal approval, and from 1663 it would be known as ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’. The Royal Society’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’ is taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment. Wren designed 53 London churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, as well as many secular buildings of note. He was a founder of the Royal Society (president 1680–82), and his scientific work was highly regarded by Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal. He was knighted in 1673.

Every general-chemistry student learns of Robert Boyle (1627–1691) as the person who discovered that the volume of a gas decreases with increasing pressure and vice versa – the famous Boyle’s law. John Wilkins, a founder of the Royal Society, is one of the few persons to have headed a college at both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Charles II requested an illustrated book of microscopy, initially from Christopher Wren, who had begun making such drawings at Oxford. He had presented some to Charles, who liked them so much he asked the Royal Society for more. Wren was busy with other projects and the job fell to Robert Hooke to complete. One of the reasons Micrographia was so influential was that Hooke wasn’t content just to look at the forms of natural objects and draw them; he wanted to understand their ‘design’d business’ – that is, why they were formed in that way, and what effect it had.

George Orwell’s novel, 1984, written after the Second World War, introduced a concept of reality control that the population could be controlled and manipulated merely through the alteration of everyday language and thought. Orwell’s prophesy in his novel was the appearance of a state in which the truth does not exist; it is merely what ‘big brother’ says it is. Manipulation is a key trait of individuals with controlling personalities. Call it gaslighting, whitewashing, or rewriting the script: The crux of the matter is the manipulator’s desire to control the narrative and either be the hero or the victim. Gaslighting goes a step further and convinces the other party that they are truly “crazy,” “out of control,” or “not remembering correctly.” Gaslighting gives the manipulator the ability to not only control the victim but also to convince the victim that they are wrong.

Rather than Big Brother watching, today we have multiple big brothers in the form of huge Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, which log every keystroke. Hossein Derakhshan, observes, the “diversity that the World Wide Web had originally envisioned” has given way to “the centralization of information” inside a select few social networks – and the end result is “making us all less powerful in relation to government and corporations”. Facebook reportedly had evidence that its algorithms were dividing people – “exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness” – but top executives killed or weakened proposed solutions. Google has intervened in its algorithm to demote spam sites and maintain blacklists as well as make changes to its algorithm that favored the search ranking of a major advertiser, eBay. Older jobseekers today especially feel that bias has been magnified by online career services and right at the top of that list is LinkedIn.

When it comes to the Internet, Amazon, Netflix and Pandora use complex algorithms to make recommendations based on what similar people like, and Facebook and Google use them to cull pertinent information from personal emails and Internet searches in order to provide unsolicited user-specific advertising. Google ranking systems sort through hundreds of billions of webpages in our Search index to find the most relevant, useful results in a fraction of a second, and present them in a way that helps you find what you’re looking for. These ranking systems are made up of not one, but a whole series of algorithms. Search algorithms look at many factors, including the words of your query, relevance and usability of pages, expertise of sources, and your location and settings. Every time you press play and spend some time watching a TV show or a movie, Netflix is collecting data that informs the algorithm and refreshes it. The more you watch the more up to date the algorithm is.

Social media is an undeniable force in today’s world. What makes social media spread faster? The “power-law” of social media, a well-documented pattern in social networks, holds that messages replicate most rapidly if they are targeted at relatively small numbers of influential people with large followings. In post-truth politics social media assists political actors who mobilize voters through a crude blend of outlandish conspiracy theories and suggestive half-truths, barely concealed hate-speech, as well as outright lies.  The elderly, the young, and the lesser educated are particularly susceptible to fake news. It is the partisan at the political extremes whether, liberal or conservative, who are most likely to believe a false story, in part, because of confirmation bias. This bias is the tendency in all of us to believe stories that reinforce our convictions – and the stronger the convictions, the more powerfully the person feels the pull of the confirmation bias.

Just as the early Internet fostered the illusion that it was inherently supportive of competition, so it fostered the illusion that it was inherently protective of personal autonomy. After all, no one compelled you to disclose your true identity online. Yet the digital world today has made possible the most comprehensive system of surveillance ever created; networked devices track our every movement and communication. The online economy has destroyed the traditional business model of journalism, resulting in a dramatic decline in professional reporting. And because Google and Facebook dominate digital advertising, no alternative online model has emerged capable of financing the same reporting capacities, particularly at the regional and local level. Their algorithms now influence which content and viewpoints gain visibility among users. Instead of promoting better-informed public debate, however, social media have become powerful vectors of disinformation, polarization, and hatred.

Francis Bacon stated that the destiny of science was not only to enlarge human beings’ knowledge but also to improve human beings’ life on earth. For Bacon skepticism as a method is not just a resolve to disagree. It is the presumption of error and fallibility on which our science is based. Skepticism is an approach to strange or unusual claims where doubt is preferred to belief, given a lack of conclusive evidence. “Skepticism is thus a resting-place for human reason, where it can reflect upon its dogmatic wanderings and make survey of the region in which it finds itself, so that for the future it may be able to choose its path with more certainty. But it is no dwelling-place for permanent settlement. Such can be obtained only through perfect certainty in our knowledge, alike of the objects themselves and of the limits within which all our knowledge of objects is enclosed”, observes Immanuel Kant.

Misinformation is not like a plumbing problem you fix. It is a social condition, like crime, that you must constantly monitor and adjust to, observes Tom Rosenstiel. Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. For instance, people tend to seek out information that confirms preexisting beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. This bias is the tendency in all of us to believe stories that reinforce our convictions – and the stronger the convictions, the more powerfully the person feels the pull of the confirmation bias. But scientists can never prove a theory to be true, Popper insisted, because the next test might contradict all that preceded it. Observations can only disprove a theory, or falsify it. On a personal level, making it a habit to question evidence that you believe supports your opinions is a direct way to counter confirmation bias.

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On Understanding Identity Politics and Exploitation

The concept of identity politics was originally coined in 1977 by the Combahee River Collective, a group of black lesbian socialist feminists who recognized the need for their own autonomous politics as they confronted racism in the women’s movement, sexism in the black liberation movement, exploitation and class reductionism. Centering how economic, gender, and racial oppression materialized simultaneously in their lives was the key to their emancipatory politics. But their political work didn’t end there. The women of Combahee advocated for building coalitions in solidarity with other progressive groups in order to eradicate all oppression, while foregrounding their own. But identity politics is something we tend to see others doing while failing to recognize that we are doing it ourselves. And because we tend to miss the breadth of its scope and reach, we fail to see not only how central it is to the trouble with our politics but also how it might be overcome.

All the social issues you may have heard of in the past several years – same-sex marriage, police shootings of unarmed black men, trans people in bathrooms, the fluidity of gender, discussions about rape culture, campus battles about safe spaces and trigger warnings – are typically the kinds of issues people mean when they refer to identity politics. Identity politics is an ideology that convinces people to band together in society and agree to a common project. There is now concern identity politics is hampering empathy and communication. Identity politics seeks to unite groups of traditionally-powerless people who share common characteristics – such as race and gender – into aggrieved collectives. The source of grievance is oppression by powerful groups in society, often associated with the white race and male gender. Identity politics highlights the social inequities that reflect this oppression.

Mark Lilla recognized that identity politics has become a tag of derision for a large slice of the population, and that their scorn has been particularly targeted toward college students at some of the country’s most selective schools. From Princeton to Oberlin, undergraduates have protested to change the names of buildings, disinvite disfavored speakers, and redistribute more funds toward their cherished causes and favored departments. These demands are also threaded with a common language; phrases like “safe spaces,” “microaggressions,” and “structural racism” are often invoked when administrators weigh the tradeoffs between free speech and censorship. By focusing so much on issues of identity, the argument goes, Democrats and liberals surrendered all of these issues to Trump, letting him tap into an economically populist message that drew in enough of white rural and working-class America to seal his 2016 victory. Bernie Sanders was correct to focus on economic issues.

The students’ demands and occasionally obnoxious actions are not the story in themselves, but merely the outlines of a more developed ideology. It is one that reflects a particular attitude toward identity that deserves to be taken seriously, even if it is ultimately dismissed. Safe spaces are premised on the idea that marginalized groups are safest, at least in some respects, among their own. Concerns about microaggressions flow from a belief that a minority’s identity is constantly under attack. The phrase “structural racism” captures the idea that racism is embedded in the foundations of American society. On the other hand, some people, particularly on the left and a few on the right (including Steve Bannon) argue that identity politics have served as a distraction from issues they view as more important and politically palatable – the growing income gap between the rich and everyone else, the shipping of jobs overseas, and the abuse and corruption in America’s financial system.1

Right-wing populists falsely identify their particular program with universal values and human interests – by telling “the people” that after years of neglect by “the elite,” their interests are going to be recognized. While it is true that there is a hard racist core to contemporary right-wing populist movements, they have won because they appeal – beyond the ruling-class interests that they serve – to marginalized and dis-empowered elements of the working class. Populists turn to identity politics, and in the process, become a new elite. But as Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde observes, populists, the self-appointed vox populi (voice of all the people), are intolerant and will attack those with a different view, claiming such as person represents “special interests,” and is therefore part of what they consider to be the elite. The result: The end-of-history assumption that liberal democracy was the final point of progress has been disrupted as religious and other identities stubbornly persist, and continue to drive events.

Francis Fukuyama notes that polarization is the result of identity politics, which is undermining democracy. For the most part, economic issues defined twentieth-century politics. On the left, politics is centered on workers, trade unions, social welfare programs, and redistributive policies. The right, by contrast, was primarily interested in reducing the size of government and promoting the private sector. Politics today, however, is defined less by economic or ideological concerns than by questions of identity. The right, meanwhile, has redefined its core mission as the patriotic protection of traditional national identity, which is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity, or religion. The Internet is responsible for the global rise of identity politics. Fukuyama and friends claim it is necessary to end Big Tech’s information monopoly to save democracy. The giant Internet platforms not only hold so much power, they wield so much control over political communication.

Individuals and corporations can become rich by relying on market power, price discrimination, and other forms of exploitation. But that does not mean they have made any contribution to the wealth of society. On the contrary, such behavior often leaves everyone else worse off overall. Economists refer to these wealth snatchers, who seek to grab a larger share of the economic pie than they create, as rent-seekers. The term originated from land rents: those who received them did so not as a result of their own efforts, but simply as a consequence of ownership, often inherited. With the help of new technologies, they can – and do – engage in mass discrimination, such that prices are set not by the market (finding the single price that equates demand and supply), but by algorithmic determinations of the maximum each customer is willing to pay.

And, because the burden of exploitation tends to weigh most heavily on those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, by reducing inequality one would strengthen the fabric of American society. Through progressive-capitalist reforms, it is possible to restore economic dynamism and ensure equality and opportunity for all. The top priority should be to curb exploitation and focus on wealth creation, and this can best – or only – be done by people working together, especially through government. Bernie Sanders understood the challenge of identity politics. In 2016 Sanders argued that while fighting to advance the rights of African-Americans, women, LGBT individuals, immigrants, and other marginalized groups, that those fights cannot be won without advancing the material interests of the working class, because “our rights and economic lives are intertwined.” The Democratic movers and shakers did not hear him warn of the need for economic populism in tandem with identity politics.

Facebook notes, “By monitoring posts, pictures, interactions, and Internet activity, Facebook can work out when young people feel ‘stressed,’ ‘defeated,’ ‘overwhelmed,’ ‘anxious,’ ‘nervous,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘silly,’ ‘useless,’ and a ‘failure’” – in short, the moments when they are “most vulnerable to a specific configuration of advertising cues and nudges.” Moreover, surveillance capitalism – defined as the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data – has now moved from the virtual world into the physical one as our phones, apps, and networked devices in the “internet of things” report back to the data companies where we are and what we are doing. This economic logic has now spread beyond the tech companies to new surveillance-based ecosystems in virtually every economic sector, from insurance to automobiles to health, education, finance, to every product described as “smart” and every service described as “personalized.”

The companies, Shoshana Zuboff writes, want to “nudge, tune, herd, manipulate, and modify behavior in specific directions by executing actions as subtle as inserting a specific phrase into your Facebook news feed, timing the appearance of a BUY button on your phone, or shutting down your car engine when an insurance payment is late.” If unregulated, the new technology has an awesome potential for a new social regime, operated in the interests of the dominant companies. Behavioral advertising may seem harmless, and some people may even like getting “personalized” ads. But it has rich possibilities for exploitation. Your news feed is being altered by changes in a platform’s algorithm; the tech giants driving it are more interested in exploiting you than serving you.2

In today’s identity version, the epic struggle between capitalist and proletariat has been replaced by a new struggle between oppressed and oppressor. Remember John Stuart Mill claimed there should be opportunities for individual fulfillment for all members of society. It is not racism that creates differences between classes; it is neoliberal capitalism. On Roemer’s analysis, capitalist exploitation is essentially a form of social parasitism. One group (the capitalists) are made better off by the existence of a second group (workers), but that second group is made worse off by the existence of the first. Precisely because Roemer’s account is focused on “macro” issues pertaining to the distribution of property in society, it has little to say about “micro” issues regarding how individuals treat each other within the framework created by that distribution. We must debate both issues. Instead of a more complicated understanding of identity (race, sex), we need a more profound understanding of exploitation.

1 German Lopez. (27 Aug 2017) The battle over identity politics, explained.

2 Paul Starr (2 Oct 2019) How Neoliberal Policy Shaped the Internet – and What to Do About It Now.

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Society Needs to Improve the Chances of Equality of Opportunity

As we live in a society that emphasizes the individual, that is, individual effort, individual morality, individual choice, individual responsibility, individual talent, often makes it difficult to see the way in which life chances are socially structured. The dominant ideological presumption about social inequality is that everyone has an equal chance of success. However, systemic inequalities based on group membership, class, gender, ethnicity, and other variables that structure access to rewards and status determine who gets the opportunities to develop their abilities and their talents. Neoliberals believe individual effort, responsibility and talent determine how life chances are socially structured. The fundamental dogmatism of this economic system of minimal government and regulation is codification of a political ideology defended by proxies. The level of equality of opportunity determines how people perceive inequality. Societies in which individuals have the same chances to obtain valuable outcomes such as income, education, and health, have a higher tolerance to inequality.

According to Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution, rules, norms and practices evolve in a process of natural selection operating at the level of the group. Today the term “cultural evolution” refers to the evolution of a tradition of learnt rules, norms, ethical precepts, and practices, “especially those dealing with inherited property, honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain, and privacy”. Hayek’s main argument on group selection is that by choosing rules individuals change their group and become a member of the group from which they adopt the rules. To empower these ideas corporate money supported think-tanks along with scholarship and intensive use of media. This think-tank network wasn’t for creating new ideas, but for being a gate keeper and disseminating the existing set of ideas around individual freedom and minimal government in support of Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution.

In the past, the main criticism of Darwin’s natural selection was the requirement of multiple generations before change occurred, which did not fit with the business model. With the discovery of epigenetics, this thinking has changed. It is now known that genetic change can occur much more quickly than previously thought, responding from messages coming from other genes, hormones, and from nutritional cues and learning. The reactive oxygen radicals can modify, or turn off and on, genes that effect events further downstream. This can cause chronic diseases within a few decades. The great recession has created a perfect storm for poor health. The realization that the epigenome is highly sensitive and responsive to environmental influences, including toxic exposures, dietary factors, and behavioral impacts, serves to focus future state priorities. How we develop mentally and physically have a tremendous impact upon our inherent capabilities and our set of life options.

How does inequality becomes systematically structured in economic, social, and political life? Laissez-faire supported by Hayek’s cultural evolution has no vision of the good society or the public good and no mechanism for addressing society’s major economic, political and social problems. Under the cultural trope of ‘individual responsibility’ welfare for the poor is cut and restructured to make welfare recipients more responsible for their economic status. This takes the focus from the inherit inequality in the system and focuses on the distribution, specifically its disproportionate effect on the excluded – such as the unemployed, minorities and immigrants. A consequence of this ideology is the reconfiguration of class relations in a society where the explosion of inequality and economic instability has profoundly dismantled the working class. Social inequality describes the unequal distribution of valued resources, rewards, and positions in society. The privileged position of the middle class has steadily been eroded by growing inequalities of wealth and income.

Influenza vaccine is not a magic bullet, it only augments the efficiency of an individual’s immune system. During seasons when the flu vaccines are similar to circulating flu viruses, flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the chance of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 percent to 60 percent. The best chances of not getting flu occurs in vaccinated individuals under age 65. People aged 65 and older have weaker immune responses and are at increased risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death from influenza infection. Thus, a seventy-year-old gets the flu vaccine because in a typical influenza season, it reduces his or her chances of being hospitalized by one third and chances of dying by 50%. Similarly, older people getting the COVID vaccine won’t necessarily get 100% protection, but vaccination will reduce the severity of the disease, including significantly reducing the chance one would die.

The meaning of chance is supposed to be apparent only at a level of abstraction afforded by large sets of data to the cool eye of a scientific observer or the indifferent machinations of an algorithm. But markets, for Hayek are held to be the only social form that properly accounts for the chance or randomness that is by nature a part of the spontaneous development of order within complex – that is to say partly chaotic – systems. Klein observes that the neoliberal system of laissez-faire is the obscure, disavowed public face anonymous, implacable, inscrutable – of an authoritarian scheme to restrict chance to fate. In summary, they use a heady brew of chaos and market (dis)order to protect the largest and most powerful interests – the 1% – at any cost. Thus, neoliberalism seems to have it both ways: to both restrict the meaning of chance in advance, and to reproduce randomness, risk and disorder that is susceptible only of market “solutions.”1

Nietzsche claims, “No victor believes in chance.” Many of the individuals that Trump has pardoned do not leave things to chance: Michael Milliken rose to prominence the 1980s as the head of the high-yield bond department, also known as junk bonds, at the now defunct firm Drexel Burnham Lambert. Milken was accused of taking part in an insider trading scheme and eventually pleaded guilty to several counts of securities violations. John Boultbee, Peter Atkinson and Conrad Black were convicted of fraud in connection to a scheme involving paying themselves bonuses from Hollinger International earnings, cheating shareholders and American and Canadian tax authorities. Former Rep. Chris Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, is sentenced to 26 months in prison in insider trading case. “I am not upset that you lied to me. I am upset that from now on I can’t believe you,” concludes Nietzsche.

Foucault’s theories primarily address the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. Power is all the more cunning because its basic forms can change in response to our efforts to free ourselves from its grip. The contemporary neoliberal “regime of truth,” to use a term from Michel Foucault, greatly influences the ways in which knowledge is being interpreted and implemented. Recognizing that reason has been one of the disciplinary technologies of modern societies, Foucault repeats, reminds us that much of history cannot be explained by anything other than ‘the iron hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance’ (quoted from Nietzsche’s Dawn). Foucault celebrated the role of chance in history because chance makes change easier to imagine. If we do not think of history as proceeding in some inevitable or predictable manner, then history is not so deterministic, and it is easier for us to imagine that things might be different in the future.

Epigenetic risk is not merely a medical risk, but implicates the fundamental principles of fairness and justice underlying the present social contract. The role of epigenetics provides high quality evidence supporting the importance of DNA in shaping people’s lives. While epigenetic changes can be passed on from parents to children, they can also be altered by stress, diet, environment and behavior. Early life stress alters how DNA is packaged, which makes cells function differently than their original mandate. These epigenetic switches are triggered by many factors such as our lifestyle, environment, diet, stress, emotional deprivation or hormones and our age, and as the development of a growing fetus in the womb is totally dependent on these signals, it can alter the function of its cells. Epigenetics explains how environmental factors can switch genes on and off, based on choices we make. Early studies show an association between epigenetic marks (in the human genome) and socio-economic status.

The emerging field of epigenetics provides a chain of connections between what used to be qualified as social and natural inequality, leading to a reformulation of these contested boundaries. This also leads to a rethinking of the time-frame and scope of equality of opportunity. Epigenetic risks explain how environmental factors can switch genes on and off, based on choices we make. We now realize we can change gene expression by the way we think about our lives and ourselves – epigenetic marks are reversible. Controlling epigenetic harms, or environmental harms, is about treating an individual’s potential as a freedom. It is necessary to challenge the status quo of neoliberalism with its causal determinism, and create conditions where individuals can incorporate epigenetic risk into a new social contract. The relevant consequence of this approach should be a society that increases the chances or opportunities for individual fulfillment for all members of society.

1 Joshua Ramey (Dec 2015) Neoliberalism as a political theology of chance: the politics of divination

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People Continue to Profit Off the Spread of Conspiracy Theories

Climate change denial, laissez-faire economics, conspiracy theorizing – a study suggests that these rather diverse belief systems may lie on a continuum. That climate change denialists don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming is a given, but are there other more general indicators of their belief system that include climate change denial as a subset? Endorsing conspiracy theories is a form of “motivated reasoning” – an effort to gather facts and construct frameworks that “protect or bolster one’s political worldview.” Individuals engage in motivated reasoning as a way to avoid or lessen cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort people experience when confronted by contradictory information, especially on matters that directly relate to their comfort, happiness, and mental health. The conspiracy theory they believe in provides a framework for understanding the world and bringing order to random events, and provides them with a community of similarly disaffected thinkers who can validate one another’s anxieties and shared worldview.

Why do so many Americans deny anthropologic climate change? Of the many factors identified in a 2017 study, partisanship came out as the most consistent predictor. In general, Democrats accept scientific consensus and Republicans reject it. Party elite are largely responsible for this polarization.  Trust in the political system will tend to mitigate this effect; those with high levels of trust will be less prone to accept conspiracy theories. First, it’s pretty obvious that conservatives are less likely than liberals to trust the political system. It’s built into the ideology. What’s more, conservative anti-government, anti-establishment sentiment has become more and more virulent over the past several decades. But this result can be the consequence of deeper, longer-term social and demographic trends. Low-trust, high-knowledge conservatives are a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, and more and more conservatives are low trust and high knowledge.

Conservative media, activists, and politicians have every reason to convince their most engaged supporters that the whole system is rotten and can’t be trusted – it makes it easier to fill their heads with nonsense about Sharia law, Agenda 21, and all the rest, which in turn increases their intensity and engagement. Conservative politicians and pundits can more readily rely on conspiracies as an effective means to activate their base than liberals. And to the extent that ideologically motivated endorsement is most evident among the least trusting of the knowledgeable conservatives, there is all the more incentive for conservative elites to stoke the fires of distrust. What the study found is the very modest but positive correlation between rejection of climate change and the presence of a general conspiratorial ideology. People who reject climate change don’t believe equally in all the conspiracy theories listed in the questionnaire, but the general trend seems to hold.

Psychologists found that climate change denialists seem to display two other characteristics; a belief in laissez-faire capitalism and more troublingly, a tendency to espouse conspiracy theories. The correlation of climate change denial with free market capitalism was stronger and not completely unsurprising but the correlation with a conspiratorial mindset is more unexpected and intriguing. The results indicated that there is an inverse correlation between espousal of free markets and belief in the scientific consensus on climate change. This free market-dominated rejection of scientific evidence is consistent with denial of important environmental and public health concerns in the past, most notably the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer and the effects of acid rain on the environment. Once free-market ideologues make up their mind that complete government withdrawal from markets is the only way to ensure prosperity, then it’s not surprising to find them inclined to disbelieve even rigorous scientific evidence that would somehow point to more increased government regulation as a solution.

Rather it draws our attention to the fact that the psychology of climate change denial presents some features that are likely to be shared by conspiracy theorists. The rejection of established science because of its perceived failure to conform to preconceived beliefs is a classic case of motivated reasoning. This would be consistent with the incompatibility of an extreme free-market viewpoint with denial of climate change. Since free-market ideology also usually tracks well with conservative politics, it is not surprising to find most denials of climate change coming from the right. FreedomWorks is a conservative libertarian advocacy group that trains volunteers, assists in campaigns and encourages them to mobilize, interacting with both fellow citizens and their political representatives. In 2009 Mother Jones listed FreedomWorks as a significant climate denier. Ten years after, they are aligned with causes central to President Trump’s re-election, promoting the website behind Protect My Vote.

The Protect My Vote campaign shows how online outfits are at work creating the appearance of evidence for assertions of rampant fraud, promoting “mail balloting results in lost votes and lost rights.” This group purchased over 150 adds on their associated page on Facebook which was viewed over 100 thousand times in a month. They were designed to tap existing anxiety about the integrity of the voting system to convince voters in swing states where minority turnout could be decisive that mail in votes is not reliable amid the uncontained pandemic leading many Americans to alternative ways to be heard on Election Day. During the spring of 2020, mostly conservative activists held protests in at least a dozen states to protest ongoing state stay-at-home orders – FreedomWorks helped with promotion and logistics. While most of the protests have taken place in states with Republican governors, they highlighted only those in states with Democratic governors.

Lacking the language or institutional means to dismiss popular conspiracy theories for what they are, feckless US political and media elites are instead normalizing them, “defining deviancy down” as the old phrase goes. A patchwork of conservative groups funded efforts organized by groups in Facebook for demonstrations calling for a swift end to the government-imposed closures of regular business and for America to “open up.” FreedomWorks portrays itself as a “grassroots” organization that fights for small government and lower taxes. Since January 20, 2021 FreedomWorks started running four different ads on Hulu targeting Republicans and independents across America. Basically, the ads argue that mortality rates for COVID-19 infections is significantly lower for those under the age of 65 and without pre-existing conditions, issue a call to action for the young and healthy to push for a reopening. The message: “tell your Governor to liberate your state and reopen society.

The phrase, “stop the steal,” refers to the president’s baseless charges that the presidential election that he decisively lost was rigged. His supporters proclaimed Jan. 6 – the day Congress accepted the Electoral College votes – as the day to convene in Washington to “save America” and “stop the steal” of the election. In his speech before the riot, Trump praised supporters for showing up to “save our democracy.” He told supporters “we’re going to walk down to the Capitol … You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.” On Jan. 6, pro-Trump rioters overtook the U.S. Capitol by force, smashing windows and forcing lawmakers into hiding in a violent insurrection that resulted in the death of five people, including a Capitol Hill police officer. In the aftermath of the violence, Republicans have scrambled to distance themselves from the mob. Facebook bans ‘stop the steal’ content, 69 days after the election.

It’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories.  It’s a defense mechanism: we’re primed to be suspicious and afraid of things that can’t be explained. However, belief in one often serves as evidence for belief in others, and this quickly turns into a worldview, i.e., a lens through which we view the world, with new information about world events processed not according to the weight of the evidence but rather in terms of how consistent it is with one’s prior convictions. The spread of influential conspiracy propaganda can have serious societal consequences. For example, belief in some conspiracy theories has been associated with aggression, right-wing extremism, racist attitudes against minority groups (e.g., anti-Semitism) and even political violence. The serious societal consequences of conspiracy theories are on full display: the poor response to the coronavirus, and five deaths following the election of Joe Biden.

In 2021 we have ample proof conspiracy theory beliefs can be harmful. The far right has learned to use conspiracy theories effectively. Conspiracy narratives claim that powerful people or organizations cooperate in secret, to achieve sullen objectives by deceiving the public. Conspiracy theories are relevant for social interaction and democracy as they can induce anger, lead to low political participation, and to learned helplessness. Based on attitudinal variables, beliefs in conspiracy theories are positively related to such issues as feelings of powerlessness, to perceived lack of control, to mistrust of other people and authorities. One of the reasons why conspiracy theories spring up with such regularity is due to our desire to impose structure on the world, and incredible ability to recognize patterns. It’s not just social media that contributes to fearmongering and the spread of misinformation: Certain advocacy groups spread conspiracy theories not because they believe in them and want to warn the public, but because they may have other agendas.

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We Need to Ensure Political Accountability of Elected Officials

Machiavelli placed a large amount of emphasis on the fact that a prince must be seen to be a moral – but he is able act un-morally if it contributes to the good of the state or provides him with more power. He must be loved by the people and he must also be feared in order to maintain his role as a ruler of a state. Machiavelli argued that if a prince cannot be both loved and feared – it is better for him to be feared as more people would be scared to question him and afraid of the consequences that may follow. This results in more power and authority for the prince but at the same time it means that the prince is less accountable. Political accountability is when a politician makes choices on behalf of the people and the people have the ability to reward or sanction the politician through periodic elections in order to represent or act in their interest.

For the past 10,000 years or so, human society has been divided into antagonistic classes, and that has meant that morality has developed not as a general theory of human emancipation, but as a set of rules by which each class attempts to further its own interests. The most influential moral theories since the eighteenth century have tended to see morality as a necessary way of holding human impulses in check.  The thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that ‘truth’ discovered through reason would free people from the shackles of corrupt institutions, such as the church and the aristocracy, whose misguided traditional thinking had kept people subjected in ignorance and superstition. Immanuel Kant held that every rational being had both an innate right to freedom and a duty to enter into a civil condition governed by a social contract in order to realize and preserve that freedom. To Kant, combining free will and reason creates the capacity for free choice.

The idea that the mind plays an active role in structuring reality is called Kant’s Copernican revolution, because like Copernicus who turned astronomy inside-out by claiming the Earth moved around the sun (instead of the other way), Kant argues we must reformulate the way we think – theorizing that objective reality depends on the mind rather than the other way round (compared to Empiricists who held that all ideas, hence the entire mind comes from experience). Kant claims the structure of the mind shapes all sensory experience and thought. The mind has an active role in producing our conception of reality by acting as a filter, an organizer, an enhancer. A central component of Kant’s theory, for instance, is that morality has to control human desires in order to prevent social conflict. Underlying these views is the assumption that human beings are competitive individuals who seek their own self-interest and who will engage in a war of all against all if left to their own devices.

Kant observes that man’s capacity to reason was not his most important quality. Rather, it is the capacity of free choice which all men share, no matter how refined their reason. Kant’s democratic sensibility, however, is not based on the interests of the common man, but on the common man’s moral worth and moral dignity. Democracy can be defined as the free and equal right of every person to participate in a form of government. However, when it comes to actual choice there are a limited number of candidates, hence only certain choices. Karl Popper claims democracy is representative and not directly participatory. One’s only role is to judge and dismiss the government, a device to protect ourselves against the misuse of power. People never have any real power over politics. The best one can achieve is to determine which of a few candidates will exercise political rule over them. Democracy masks the true source of power in the hands of the few.

Nietzsche claims there are no moral facts, and there is nothing in nature that has value in itself. Rather, to speak of good or evil is to speak of human illusions, of lies according to which we find it necessary to live. He tells us “man needs to supplement reality by an ideal world of his own creation.” Knobe and Leiter take the unusual step of seeing to what degree recent experimental findings in psychology support either Nietzsche or Kant. They have little difficulty in showing that Nietzsche is largely vindicated. For the most part we are not rational doers: the view that we choose our actions from a standpoint of deliberative detachment seems to be a Kantian myth. There appears to be no general accordance between our attitudes and beliefs, and our actions – in effect, we say one thing, but do another. Rather than acting for reasons, we tend to act, and invent reasons afterwards.

The elite manipulate overtly or covertly the political power. Donald Trump’s election is an illustration. Following Machiavellian formula of power, Pareto observes elites are able to manipulate and control the masses by resorting to two methods. First, elites adopt flexibility to environmental and situational exigencies. This group prefers materialistic to idealistic goals, but lack fidelity and principles, and use strategies that vary from emotional appeal to unadulterated fraud. The second method encompasses the conservative elite, bound by faith and ideology, who display group loyalty and class solidarity. Today’s Republican Party is an amalgamation of both methods of manipulation and control. Donald Trump knows how to use emotional panic to shut down the rational thinking part of our brains. In other words, when we are consumed by fear, we stop thinking. A populace that stops thinking for itself is a populace that is easily led, easily manipulated and easily controlled.

The Trump administration has engaged in a wide-ranging pattern of actions that violate laws, agency regulations, and ethical requirements, repeatedly putting its own interests before the public interest. Trump administration officials and their allies have lied to federal investigators, lied to Congress, and sought to obstruct federal investigations. These efforts constitute a direct and sustained attack on the rule of law that effectively creates two justice systems – one for the Trump administration and its allies and one for everyone else. As part of its attack on the rule of law, the administration has worked to subvert the very institutions that might hold it accountable – including the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), inspectors general, and Congress – to eliminate even the possibility of oversight. Moderate Republicans who are concerned about being outflanked by a challenger on the right may therefore fall in line with more outspoken and extreme Congress members to save their own skin.

Political accountability includes the accountability of the government, civil servants and politicians to the public and to legislative bodies such as a congress or a parliament. This is the heart of democracy, and without political accountability, the system may reduce to autocracy. The Lincoln Project is an American political action committee formed in late 2019 by a number of Republicans and former Republicans that aimed to prevent the re-election of Donald Trump, and defeat all Republicans in close races running for re-election in the United States Senate. Today the focus is on efforts to hold Trump’s enablers accountable and not allow them to pretend they were not involved. Post-Trump the Lincoln Project will likely focus on the rot at the core of the Republican Party short-term; while long-term, stake out a position as a fighting institution for the status quo, beating back the liberal left with one fist and right-wingers with the other.

The most important feature of the public sphere as it existed in the eighteenth century was the public use of reason in rational-critical debate. This checked domination by the state, or the illegitimate use of power. Rational-critical debate occurred within the bourgeois reading public, in response to literature, and in institutions such as salons and coffee-houses. The public sphere was by definition inclusive, but entry depended on one’s education and qualification as a property owner. Advertising and internet have invaded and corrupted the private sphere. The public sphere takes on a feudal aspect again, as politicians and organizations represent themselves before the voters. There had to be an option of last resort for holding a President who is off the rails accountable. The Founding Fathers placed that responsibility with the Senate. The Senate now has a moment where it can hold the President accountable and, in doing so, create accountability for presidencies beyond this one.

Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting efforts, at home and abroad, to undermine the right of Americans to free, fair, and fully informed self-government. Together, armed with the Constitution and the rule of law, they can renew democracy and protect it from those who would do it harm; have an ongoing role. The troubling growth in the dissemination of disinformation and hatred emanates from and exists within a digital sphere that has increasingly displaced the media systems of the past century, in which journalism organizations served as primary gatekeepers. Today, this mediation role has been largely filled by even more opaque algorithmic systems operated by global technology platform companies. There is a need to rebuild informational trust and integrity. There is a need for a special panel to examine disinformation, hate and free speech issues within the new digital public sphere to ensure political accountability.

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How Political Nihilism Affects Your Freedom

Political nihilism is the belief that no government is really needed, it believes that individuals can get by without any social institutions – consistent with a minimal government that never gets too bad – in that there is not much difference who wins or loses. It is a belief that one can just drop out and be an observer and be fine – like the way most of our youth are already doing this. For the political nihilist it didn’t matter whether Trump or Hillary wins because politics plays an insignificant role in his or her life, as fringe groups are always complaining and exaggerating. This thinking took an abrupt change in 2020. The COVID pandemic exposes the ugly underbelly of the political nihilism of the Trump administration. They possessed information that pointed to an impending crisis and chose to do nothing with respect to planning and communications – significantly increasing suffering and death across the country. Consequently, in the 2020 election more people than ever got involved and voted.

In the 1980s Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) started to consider and discuss the nature of reality and the effect of technology on social life. He claims political resistance is getting harder and harder. Citizens are shape-shifting into consumers and actively participating in their own marginalization. For postmoderns like Baudrillard, television and now social media immerse people in their own private realities. The constant battle for our attention means that we can experience whatever version of reality we prefer, whenever we prefer. Even worse, because media platforms are competing to win audiences, the incentives will always push them in the direction of catering to our worst impulses. After a while, we’re just awash in self-curated content. They could see how innovations in technology, capitalism, and media were distorting our shared sense of truth. And none of them – not even the most pessimistic – could’ve imagined the epistemic anarchy unleashed by Facebook or YouTube algorithms.

The nihilist wants to destroy the existing social order for no valid reason, and the narcissist strives to feed from others even if it destroys them. While these are not the same, there are some overlapping ego-centric ideologies. Trump is not a nihilist; he is a narcissist. The narcissist is infatuated with his own opinion, while the relative values of everyone else’s opinion approaches zero. At its greatest limit nihilism and extreme narcissism are equivalent. Where did people turn in 2020. For the first time in forty years, we heard the term “existential threat.” Existentialism – a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more defining qualities of one’s self or identity – is the attempt to confront and deal with meaninglessness… to not succumb to nihilism, to not give up or avoid responsibility. Trump is associated with “existential threat” because many perceived his actions threaten American democratic values and believed America is being governed against their will.

Trump politics is one of nihilism. It is one of rejection of existing systems of meaning – things like political correctness, non-racism, cordiality, cooperation – and offers nothing but the absence of these structures in their place. Ordinary life would go on all around this cultural elite, proceeding much as before: an endless cycle of creation and destruction, violence, oppression and exploitation, as those who failed to keep their destructive urges under control unleashed their nihilism on the world. So even the ideal political arrangement designed to serve the interests of the cultural elite would essentially be an exercise in nihilism by all except the elite who would benefit from it. Essentially, the Trump administration encouraged increased polarization with both sides accusing the other side of destroying ‘the system’, while failing to offer a constructive positive alternative to the status quo – for over four years.

Behind postmodernism’s “incredulity towards metanarratives” is a belief – promoted by Michel Foucault and others – that the influence of the oligarchy is primarily connected with power and oppression. After three decades of globalization the neoliberal version has become the dominate economic ideology or metanarrative, rationalizing a system of minimal government and taxation, and individualism. This heralds the return of predatory capitalism that classical liberalism backstopped in the 19th century. Neoliberals are part of a long, intellectual, (or anti-intellectual) tradition which seeks to deny the importance of meaning (or belonging that get in its way), and even destroy its relevance. Why would anyone want to do that? Because, as history shows, destroying meaning is the key to gaining, at least temporarily, power and control, whether it be over other human beings or natural processes in general. One of Jean Francois Lyotard’s primary concerns was how metanarratives are often used toward “the goal of legitimizing social and political institutions and practices, laws, ethics, ways of thinking.”

Nihilism’s impact on recent culture and values has been pervasive and profound. The seeds of identity politics were further sown in the philosophical writings of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Pluckrose explains that, for Derrida, “the author of a test is not the authority on its meaning… the reader or listener makes their own equally valid meaning.” Thus, if a speaker says something that a listener interprets as “offensive,” that “offensive” feeling is considered valid, even if it misconstrues what the speaker intended to communicate. For Derrida, modern men and women have a duty “to deconstruct the opposition… to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.” One can find support for cancel culture and identity politics within such postmodern interpretations. Political nihilism has unleashed the menace of identity politics and placed race and identity at the center of the struggle for power.1

We are in the middle of a transition and transformation that will determine if we can move forward as a democratic society or slip into eventual dictatorship because of our unwillingness to become aware or awakened, act upon that awareness, adapt to a changing landscape, and successfully manage the challenges placed on our 21st century doorstep. The old systems are dead and dying, we now all know that to be true. But we must find something to put in their place. Without meaning, all things become justifiable, all thoughts and actions morally acceptable. Somehow, we need to find the next step. We need to begin creating a new meaning. We need to consider existentialism. Both existentialism and nihilism begin by suggesting that the world, and life, is inherently meaningless. For Nihilism, that’s where things end. There is no positive assertion as a result. Life is meaningless. Politics is meaningless. Ethics are meaningless. For Existentialism, there is an extra step. Life is meaningless, therefore we can and should create our own meaning.

Presently we exist in a hierarchical system in which elites are superior, have no empathy for the middle class, in fact, express distain for those who they consider inferior. For example, it is the middle class who were caught off guard with the 2008 economic crisis, and in fact, the plutocrats ensure they are blamed for the economic problems. The level of equality of opportunity determines how people perceive inequality. Societies in which individuals have the same chances to obtain valuable outcomes such as income, education and health, have a higher tolerance to inequality. The answer must address the growing concentration of wealth, the costs of climate change, the concentration of important markets, the stagnation of income for the working class, and the changing patterns in social mobility. Existentialist thought concerns itself with trying to understand fundamentals of the human condition and its relation to the world around us.

Existentialism puts special emphasis on personal choices and on the problems and peculiarities that face individual human beings. As a result, meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by human beings, actions and interpretations. It is necessary to resist this regression into a petty, fragmented brand of polarized politics rooted in resentment and fear. As the pandemic has demonstrated, however, it is not the existential dangers, but rather everyday economic activities, that reveal the collective, connected character of modern life beneath the individualist façade of rights and contracts. While cell phones have enabled citizens to document how the cult of individualism supports the use of police brutality to control minorities, concerned citizens now see how political nihilism creates something that is seriously wrong with the underlying structure of the current social and political system.

Any ideological response to neoliberalism must not only advance institutional alternatives to bring us back from the brink of neoliberal nihilism, but basic decency. For Kierkegaard, the real problem of life was to discover one’s true talent, secret gift, authentic vocation. So, freedom acts as a universal value. People are striving for freedom, for only in it and through it can the creative human potential be realized. The lack of freedom to make choices creates a group working below their capabilities precisely because they have no other option, thus they become susceptible to rhetoric from populist politicians with simplistic solutions. After four years of a populist president, more and more Americans realize the need for transparency, honesty, and the need to move towards achieving a more equitable balance between the interests of labor rights and economic competitiveness – to restore freedom.

1 Helen Pluckrose (27 May 2017) How French “Intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained.

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