Seeking the Road to Social Change

When Servius Tullius, king from 578 to 535 BC, reformed the tribal system of Rome, giving the vote to men who had not been members of the three original tribes, he increased the number of tribes and assigned people to them on the basis of geographic location rather than kinship ties. Two main reasons for the extension of the suffrage, to increase the tax body and to add to the rolls of young men suitable for the military. Roman politicians passed laws in 140 CE to keep the votes of poorer citizens by introducing a grain dole: giving out cheap food and entertainment – “bread and circuses”, became the most effective way to rise to power. What motive did the Roman government have for providing food and entertainment for the poor? The Roman government knew that a large group of poor citizens would be a threat or attempt to overthrow the rich or start a revolution, so they provided food and entertainment for the poor.

During the late 18th century and the early 19th century, pressure for parliamentary reform and social change in Britain grew rapidly. Some of it came from men who already had a large say in how Britain was run: country gentlemen angry about the use of patronage at Westminster, or manufacturers and businessmen keen to win political influence to match their economic power. Influenced by works such as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791-2), radical reformers demanded that all men be given the right to vote. The changes made in the British political system between 1832 and 1884 were nevertheless important. The electorate increased substantially in size from approximately 366,000 in England and Wales in 1831 to slightly fewer than 8 million in 1885. Parliamentary seats were redistributed to give greater weight to larger towns and cities. Also, the Ballot Act of 1872, which introduced secret ballots, made it far more difficult for voters to be bribed or intimidated.

Presidential candidates initially did not travel to campaign: they were called to be the nominees but it was considered inappropriate to ask voters directly to vote for them. Thus, it was up to local supporters to organize campaign events and speak on their behalf. Parades, rallies, and stump speeches by surrogates were followed on Election Day by voter drives in taverns and on the streets. Partisan newspapers were another part of the mix aligning themselves with a particular party and openly slanting news coverage to favor allies and excoriate enemies. Commercial publishers quickly realized they could make money by printing and selling broadsides, cards, and prints depicting the candidates of all parties. As one of Lincoln’s supporters noted, “I am coming to believe that likenesses broad cast, are excellent means of electioneering.” And an opponent complained, “the country is flooded with pictures of Lincoln, in all conceivable shapes and sizes, and cheap.”

In successive phases in the 1990s, the Kochs’ Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), mobilized a front group for corporate lobbying, in which the themes of a Tea Party anti-tax, anti-regulation, and antigovernment revolt, were developed together almost simultaneously by two of the largest tobacco companies – Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds – under the guise of political and business coalitions to fight excise taxes of all sorts, including cigarette taxes. It made good business sense – and good political sense as well. You could relabel just about anything as a tax, and heaven knows the American public hates taxes. This, at its core, was the beginning of the American Tea Party revolt against the power of the government to pay for its programs. They could recruit average citizens from a variety of ideological groups to their cause. Basically, Big Oil and Big Tobacco partnered to take over the GOP.1

Citizens for Sound Economy’s successor – Americans for Prosperity (AFP) – was built to coordinate the effort nationally. Within months of the 2018 midterm elections, “the sprawling Koch political network” known as AFP announced “a new tool to build broad policy coalitions in Congress to help advance AFP’s vision,” which “will advocate for candidates who share our commitment to breaking internal and external barriers that prevent people from realizing their full potential” according to CNN. AFP spent more than $1 million on campaigns to get Trump’s federal judicial nominations confirmed. AFP hired Sarah Field to the newly-created post of Vice President of Judicial Strategy to lead this effort. AFP states on its website, “President Trump has nominated more fair and qualified lower courts nominees than any other president in American history.” With the fall of Roe vs Wade, abortion has been returned to the states for regulation.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly Alliance Defense Fund) is an American conservative Christian legal advocacy group focused on blocking rights and protections for LGBTQ people; expanding Christian practices within public schools and in government; and preventing access to abortion and contraception. The ADF garnered national attention in its 2014 challenge to the Affordable Care Act. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Court ruled that the birth control mandate in employee funded health plans was unconstitutional. One of ADF’s goals is for Christianity to be reflected in the US legal system, based on their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. In materials they share with donors, ADF says that they seek to spread a belief in “the framers’ original intent for the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights as it reflects God’s natural law and God’s higher law.” Christian nationalism has built a base that is ready and willing to subvert the will of the American people.

Populists propose economic and social change as dividers, not uniters. They split society into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other,” and say they’re guided by the “will of the people.” Populist economic policy claims to design policies for people who fear losing status in society, and those who believe they have been abandoned by the political establishment. The populist economic agenda focuses on single and salient political issues, over emphasizes negative aspects of international economic exchange and immigration, and/or blames foreigners or international institutions for economic difficulties. Much like other populist plutocrats who have come to power around the world, Donald Trump used anti-elite rhetoric to gain office, then performed an about-face to govern for the benefit of the very economic elites he derided as a candidate. He ran as a populist; but governed as a plutocrat.

Ayn Rand was defined by her rage, not her advocacy of a fantasy version of capitalism. Her message of creative aspiration laced with anger and cruelty, and endowed with the resulting selfishness and greed, is just the price of changing the norms of society. The individuals that Trump surrounds himself with is a collection of power- and wealth-obsessed closet Objectivists. Trump’s culture of cruelty views violence as a sacred means for addressing social problems and organizing society. His cabinet and donor lists are full of Rand fans who support neoliberal cruelty. Their cure for economic crisis is more cruelty, through which feelings of resentment, fear, anger, and loathing are enacted against the weak, who are considered a drain on the worthy. Trump calls for homeless to be put into encampments. The most consistent threat to democracy in the US has always been the drive of some leaders to restrict its blessings to a select few.

Are Republicans afraid of Trump? Actually, no – he’s destroying democracy and they love it. But these actions of the former president are possible only with the craven acquiescence of congressional Republicans. As a group, they are pushing towards replacing democracy with a system where a powerful minority holds disproportionate and borderline tyrannical control over government and blocks the majority of Americans from having meaningful say over the direction of the country. No, many Republicans clearly feel empowered by Trump. He frees them to reveal their darkest desire – which is to end democracy as we know it, and to cut any corners or break any laws necessary to get the job done. The conservative chief justices are part of the plan. Trump’s populism of the right created a culture of victimhood to use as a tool to sustain conservative politics. Limiting the public’s knowledge now becomes a precondition for cruelty.

Military spending on defense accounts for more than 10 percent of the US federal budget and nearly half of the discretionary spending. It is second-largest expense category is the military, after Social Security. The military offers a large scope of education opportunities that provides significant social advancement for many. Not only is income inequality rising in the U.S., it is higher than in other advanced economies. Only college graduates have experienced growth in median weekly earnings since 1979 (in real terms). In the United States, 21 percent of all children are in poverty, a poverty rate higher than what prevails in virtually all other rich nations. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world – 37% of those who are both young black males and high school dropouts are now in prison or jail, a rate that’s more than three times higher than what prevailed in 1980. The top 10% of households controlled 68.2% of the total wealth in 1983 and 73.1% of the total wealth in 2007.

Where is the main resistance to change? There is a small group who have been made very wealthy by the existing system. Change is a threat to them. It is this group that loves its status quo so much that it sees its own change as an underhanded attack on its way of life. The debate is no longer how fast the ocean is rising, rather how fast will we rise to the occasion to introduce change. This is about introducing equality, justice and fairness so that it not just a perception, but a reality, that the system is no longer gamed for those at the top. Public policy analyst Robert Reich argues that “the theme that unites all of Trump’s [budget] initiatives (was) their unnecessary cruelty.” The culture of cruelty has become a primary register of the loss of democracy in the United States. There is more to introducing social change than getting rid of Trump, there is a need to change beliefs to eliminate this pervasive irrationality in which democracy is equated to unbridled capitalism.

It’s important to realize that we are not being manipulated by a clever group of powerful people who benefit from manipulating us. Rather, we are being manipulated by a deluded group of powerful people who think they benefit from it – because they buy into the basic illusion that their own well-being is separate from that of other people. They too are victims of their own propaganda, caught up in the webs of collective delusion that include virtually all of us, acting out of ignorance. Interrogating a culture of cruelty offers critics a political and moral lens for thinking through the convergence of power, politics and everyday life – to seek social change. In 2009, the President of the UN Assembly argued, “The anti-values of greed, individualism and exclusion should be replaced by solidarity, common good and inclusion. The objective of our economic and social activity …  should be universal values that underpin our ethical and moral responsibility.”

1 The Secret Origins of the Tea Party (2016) Jeff Nesbitt  https://time.com/secret-origins-of-the-tea-party/

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A Response to the Oppression of Top-Down Systems

The Roman Empire came into contact with cultures and religious beliefs of major cultures, and was happy to assimilate any deities they encountered. Rome passed from a Republic to Imperial System when Julius Caesar declared himself Emperor. The Senate disapproved, and Caesar was assassinated. It was a stroke of good fortune for Octavian (Caesar’s heir apparent) that after Caesar’s death, a comet appeared in the sky above Rome and shone for seven straight days during funeral games held in Caesar’s honor. It was immediately believed that Caesar must have truly been descended from Venus, and the comet was Caesar’s soul returning to the heavens to join the gods. Octavian used the cause of deification to quickly build a base of political support that his rivals soon could not match. In ancient Rome the emperor as a god removed and superior supports the make up of the empire – a hierarchical society of control and order, unchanging, lasting eternally.

Octavian adopted the name Augustus Caesar and had coins minted with the comet with eight beams of light on one side. Over time, other coins were minted with the words “Devine Julius” and “sun of god” inscribed on them. Jesus was born during Augustus Caesar’s reign. According to the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth preached and was executed during the reign of Tiberius, by the authority of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea province. The early followers of Jesus tried to explain to one another the events of the tomb. They adopted the imagery of the Roman imperial system that was significant in their lives. Their approach was framed deliberately to reject the story of the emperor(s), and by extension their claim to power. In their story, instead of Caesar at the centre, it is now Jesus, who ascends to heaven, as the Son of God, creating a God who always stands with the oppressed.

According to Constantine’s biographer Eusebius, Constantine and his forces saw a cross of light in the sky, along with the Greek words for “In this sign conquer.” That night, Constantine had a dream in which Christ reinforced the message. The emperor marked the Christian symbol of the cross on his soldiers’ shields. When he triumphed at Milvian Bridge (taking control of the Western Empire), he attributed the victory to the god of the Christians. Modern scholars still debate the tale and whether Constantine’s conversion was sincere or a political maneuver. Regardless, in A.D. 313 Constantine met with Licinius, the eastern emperor, and together they issued the Edict of Milan. The edict granted “to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred.” In 380 CE Emperor Theodosius declared himself a Christian of the Nicene creed. He outlawed pagan religions and closed pagan temples.

With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Catholic Church was the only organized force in western Europe. The church took on the top-down power structure of the empire. Richard Tarnas explains: “As the Christian religion evolved in the West, its Judaic foundation readily assimilated the judicial and authoritarian qualities of the Roman imperial culture…” The Medieval Church was the most dominant institution in western Europe; it was one of the largest landowners of the time and collected rent and fees for offices and services. Its top-down structure facilitated control of information and creation of wealth. People living in towns began to buy their freedom during the feudal system. During the 13th and 14th centuries the autonomous city states in northern Italy were able to thrive, while the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor maneuvered for influence. They developed a monopoly on the trade of spices to the rest of the world.

The trading systems in the West became a succession of monopolies. The next most urban area after Italy was the Low Countries. In Flanders, Bruges became an important centre as part of the Hanseatic League, what had a monopoly on the trade around the Baltic. The Portuguese gained control of the spice trade by aggressively displacing the Muslim middlemen from the markets of India and the Far East. In the 17th century the Dutch wrestled the spice trade from the Portuguese and forced the British to focus on India. Control of the Moluccas assured them monopoly of nutmeg, cloves and mace; and control of the cinnamon trade when they ousted the Portuguese from Ceylon. The Dutch monopoly was organized under the control of Dutch East Indies Company. The British East India Company had monopoly on the trade to India – once had one of the largest armies in the world – used its power to take over the sub-continent.

By the end of the 18th century, the Industrial age in Britain was heralded with mechanization of the weaving industry and the invention of the steam engine that allowed more effective pumping of water in coal mines to increase the supplies. More efficient, mechanized production meant Britain’s new textile factories could meet the growing demand for cloth both at home and abroad, where the nation’s many overseas colonies provided a captive market for its goods. On the social scene Herbert Spencer, who promoted Lamarckism, coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest”, and concluded that social evolution would eliminate the less fit or weaker individuals. In 1884 [Spencer] argued, for instance, that people who were unemployable or burdens on society should be allowed to die rather than be made objects of help and charity. To do this, apparently, would weed out unfit individuals and strengthen the race.

The wealthy elite of the late 19th century included the robber baron, a term for many of the powerful 19th-century American industrialists and financiers who made fortunes by monopolizing huge industries through the formation of trusts. The term “robber baron” dates back to the Middle Ages and carries a negative connotation. Robber barons typically employed ethically questionable methods to eliminate their competition and develop a monopoly in their industry. Often, they had little empathy for workers. The robber barons’ lack of concern for the social welfare of the community, and even their companies’ own workers, ruined millions of lives. Injuries on the job due to unsafe working conditions were a major cause of death and permanent injury for decades during this period. The yearly total of such deaths, injury and illness in the USA around 1900 has been estimated at around a million workers.

When the Mont Pelerin Society first met, in 1947, its political project did not have a name. But it knew where it was going. The society’s founder, Friedrich von Hayek, remarked that the battle for ideas would take at least a generation to win, but he knew that his intellectual army would attract powerful backers. Its philosophy, which later came to be known as neoliberalism, accorded with the interests of the ultra-rich, so the ultra-rich would pay for it. Hayek claims social evolution rests upon the transmission of acquired characteristics tending towards equilibrium, that is, a theory of cultural evolution consistent with Lamarckian tradition. Hayek maintains that with social evolution “the decisive factor is not the selection of physical and inheritable properties of individuals but the selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits…the whole cultural inheritance which is passed by learning and imitation.”

Americans for Prosperity, founded in 2004, is a libertarian conservative political advocacy group in the US funded by David and Charles Koch. The AFP Foundation describes its mission as “educating and training citizens to be courageous advocates for the ideas, principles, and policies of a free society — knowing that leads to the greatest prosperity and wellbeing for all – especially the least fortunate.” In reality, it is part of a network that uses dark money to fund an interlocking array of organizations that can work in tandem to influence and ultimately control academic institutions, think tanks, the courts, statehouses and Congress. This system eliminates the need to debate libertarian ideas in elections; but ensures that libertarian views on regulation and taxes are ascendant in majority of state governments, the Supreme Court and Congress. Their “social welfare” programs, for the most part, consist of promoting individual freedom.

C S Lewis observes, “My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position [imposing “the good”] would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse.” Top-down systems tend to deal with the abstract while bottom-up systems deal with ‘facts on the ground’. When something is designed and pushed down from the top there is an underlying belief that the few know better than the masses. We need to reject making public policy decisions through the lens of the market (complex and multi-faceted issues are oversimplified allowing self-responsibility to become the dominant issues, and life-style change the response) as determined by the few and switch to filter social and economic policies through a bottom-up system like the lens of the social determinants of health before they are implemented to ensure they support actions that reduce inequities in the system.

Hayek underestimates the contribution to evolutionary economics that is made by the bottom-up system of Charles Darwin.  Robert Frank argues that Darwin’s understanding of competition describes economic reality far more accurately than Adam Smith’s. And the consequences of this fact are profound. Indeed, the failure to recognize that we live in Darwin’s world rather than Smith’s is putting us all at risk by preventing us from seeing that competition alone will not solve our problems. Darwin’s insight that individual and group interests often diverge sharply – suggests Smith’s idea was almost an exception to the general rule of competition. The themes of inequality and competition are driving today’s public debate on how much government we need. The reason Frank gives is “Darwin’s wedge” – a term he coins to emphasize a divergence between individual and group interests which in turn causes wasteful competition and collective loss.1

A bottom-up system is data driven, focuses on incoming sensory data, and takes place in real time. The social determinants of health include factors such as income data, social support, early childhood development, education, employment, housing and gender. They include the factors that affect health outside of the four walls of the hospital. Governmental social policies have a direct impact on the social determinants of health. Research shows that the social determinants of health can be more important than health care or lifestyle choices in influencing health. The inequities in the conditions in which people are born, live and work are driven by inequities in power, money, and resources. Political, economic, and resource distribution decisions made outside the health sector need to focus on health as an outcome across the social distribution (as opposed to focus solely on increasing productivity of a top-down system), and include direct involvement with communities facing oppression and injustices.

1Darwin’s Invisible Hand Narrative (April 10, 2015) https://questioningandskepticism.com/darwins-invisible-hand-narrative-new-paradigm/

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Misinformation: A Tool Used by Cults (and Anti-vaxxers) to Control People

A cult is a group of people who organize around a strong authority figure. Cults, like many other groups, attempt to expand their influence for the purposes of power or money. No one joins a cult; they are recruited by systematic social influence processes. However, to achieve these ends, destructive cults employ a potent mixture of influence techniques and deception to attain psychological control over members and new recruits. This fundamental level of control is known alternatively as ‘brainwashing,’ ‘thought reform,’ or ‘mind control.’ A successful induction by a destructive cult displaces a person’s former identity and replaces it with a new one. That new identity may not be one that the person would have freely chosen under her own volition. Cult leaders are typically malignant narcissists and want people who will be obedient to them.

For the most part, normal, average people join cults – people like you and me. Research indicates that approximately two-thirds of cult members are psychologically healthy people that come from normal families. The remaining third are likely to have depressive symptoms, usually related to a personal loss–perhaps a death in the family, a failed romantic relationship, or career troubles. Only 5 to 6 percent of cult members demonstrate major psychological problems prior to joining a cult. When approaching new recruits, members pique interest by starting innocuous conversations that make it seem like they are concerned members of society, such as “We’re here today to talk to you about the recent issue of (fill in the blank of a legitimate current community event or tragedy.)” The next step in recruitment is to instill in the new recruit an early sense of fear and paranoia.

No one joins a cult voluntarily; they are recruited into it. There is lack of informed consent. Everyone has vulnerabilities. Possible situational vulnerabilities include illness, the death of a loved one, breakup of an important relationship, loss of a job, or moving to another city, state or country. Cults maintain their power by promoting an “us vs. them” mentality. Cults prove powerful because they are able to successfully isolate members from their former, non-cult lives. One of the ways cult leaders achieve this is to convince their followers that they are superior to those not in the cult. Cults isolate followers by controlling their personal relationships and by restricting information sources to the cult. The lack of alternate information and true havens undermine a follower’s cognitive processes on matters regarding the group. The cult can now do the thinking for them – the essence of brainwashing.

With the rise of social media and the Internet, vaccine hesitancy and vaccine denial may seem to be new phenomena. However, since the first vaccine was administered over 200 years ago, some form of vaccine hesitancy has existed. According to psychologist and cult expert Margaret Thaler Singer, cults flourish during periods of social and political turbulence and “during breakdowns in the structure and rules of the prevailing society.” Cults were prevalent after the fall of Rome, during the French Revolution, and in England during the Industrial Revolution. Since the popularization of cults in the mid-20th century, the intrigue surrounding these organizations and how they attract their members has grown. Despite the typical negative connotation, the controversial nature of cults is what some say makes them so appealing. Anti-vaxxers are using the same tactics as cults do to attract followers on social media.

Widespread smallpox vaccination began in the early 1800s, following Edward Jenner’s cowpox experiments, in which he showed that he could protect a child from smallpox if he infected him or her with lymph from a cowpox blister. Jenner’s ideas were novel for his time, however, and they were met with immediate public criticism. The rationale for this criticism varied, and included sanitary, religious, scientific, and political objections. For some parents, the smallpox vaccination itself induced fear and protest. Some objectors, including the local clergy, believed that the vaccine was “unchristian” because it came from an animal. For other anti-vaccinators, their discontent with the smallpox vaccine reflected their general distrust in medicine and in Jenner’s ideas about disease spread. Suspicious of the vaccine’s efficacy, some skeptics alleged that smallpox resulted from decaying matter in the atmosphere.

Many people objected to vaccination because they believed it violated their personal liberty, a tension that worsened as the government developed mandatory vaccine policies. The town of Leicester was a particular hotbed of anti-vaccine activity and the site of many anti-vaccine rallies. The local paper described the details of a rally: “An escort was formed, preceded by a banner, to escort a young mother and two men, all of whom had resolved to give themselves up to the police and undergo imprisonment in preference to having their children vaccinated. The three were attended by a numerous crowd – three hearty cheers were given for them, which were renewed with increased vigor as they entered the doors of the police cells.” The Leicester Demonstration March of 1885 was one of the most notorious anti-vaccination demonstrations. There, 80,000-100,000 anti-vaccinators led an elaborate march, complete with banners, a child’s coffin, and an effigy of Jenner.

Social media use has become a mainstay of communication and with that comes the exchange of factual and non-factual information.  The Internet has become a huge influence on vaccine knowledge and the emergence of social media has created a vast community that allows multi-person discussion to happen instantaneously and with little supervision. A handful of misguided influencers on social media – employing visuals on social media like memes, videos, photos, posters and emojis are processed faster, accepted without being questioned, and remembered for a longer period than text posts. These anti-vaccination groups use all the four propaganda techniques known to be effective in political campaigns. They define the pressing issue as vaccine safety/injuries and inefficacy and blame pharmaceutical companies for “cutting corners” to rapidly produce vaccines. They also make moral judgements by suggesting a coalition between corrupted politicians and profit-driven health care industries and recommend rejecting vaccines as a remedy to this problem.

Discerning accurate information from misinformation is a challenge that individuals may not be able to completely resolve. Social media puts us in a bubble called, “Echo chambers” where we are surrounded by like-minded individuals who reinforce our own existing views rather than being challenged by different views. Studies have shown that debiasing individuals especially from anti-vaccine beliefs is an extremely challenging task because health beliefs are deeply ingrained in our cultural backgrounds, political/religious beliefs and lifestyle choices. Thus, it is recommended to prevent populations that are especially vulnerable and susceptible to health misinformation from being exposed to it in the first place. It is essential to suppress the propagation of vaccine misinformation via social media. We should consider solutions that can be embedded in tools like fact-checkers installed in our web browsers that warn readers if the information to be presented is likely to be false.

A study showed that the anti-vaccine community is made up of many profiles that share content produced by a few influencers with large numbers of followers. Results show that, before his Twitter profile was suspended, former US President Donald Trump was the main anti-vaccine influencer: while he did not share anti-vaccine content himself, his tweets were widely shared by the anti-vaccine community. The tendency to believe in several conspiracy theories is likely due to how people come across various types of information on social media. For instance, if a person believes the 2020 US presidential election was rigged and is lingering or clicking on posts supporting this belief, then they will likely be exposed to anti-vaccine views, thanks to social media platforms’ polarization-reinforcing algorithms. This creates two diametrically opposed communities – one supportive of vaccines and one opposing their use – with little in common, and therefore no room for discussion.

The anti-vax movement has been radicalized by the far-right political extremism. Misinformation cannot be left unchallenged. Misinformation can exacerbate the gap between attitudes in society (i.e., issue polarization) and hostility among different-minded groups. Research on vaccine hesitancy around the world has demonstrated that a number of contributing factors to vaccine hesitation are directly linked to a persistent decline in public trust in institutions and government policy. In recent years, this trend, along with escalating political polarization, has shaped the anti-vaccine movement into its current form. Reconciling the divided public opinions on COVID-19 vaccination policies is not a simple task. As long as social media platforms continue to not bat an eye at misinformation out of concern for their click-through rates, and governments continue to ignore structural injustices driving political radicalization, it is unlikely that vaccine resistance will be reduced without increasing polarization.

History of Anti-Vaccination Movements https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/history-anti-vaccination-movements

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Interpreting Darwin’s Work Today

The Enlightenment era ushered in revolutionary ways of thinking. Following Issacc Newton’s discovery of universal gravitation, many believed that by applying reason it would be possible to unlock the laws of the universe. Eighteenth century philosophers believed they had discovered the formula for perpetual happiness; on one hand, the pursuit of self-interest would benefit society, while on the other hand, a free human reason would produce sound moral judgment – individual freedom allowed the operation of natural laws. There was a belief that general models of human behaviour could be derived from rational thought. Adam Smith set forth a number of invariable principles of economic behaviour, based on the belief that people act according to their self-interest, but through competition work to promote general economic advance. In this system government should avoid regulation, in favour of the operation of individual initiative and market forces – so-called laissez-faire.

Charles Darwin published his theory on natural selection in 1859, and it took two decades before it was generally accepted because of resistance from the established church. Established elites, slow to accept radical changes, were wary of new ideas that challenged traditional views of the “natural order” and mankind’s place in it. Darwin’s theory was responsible for the transformation of the Western world view and provided fact-based scientific framework within which to understand life. The Copernican worldview that the earth evolves around the sun allowed humans to think they were the centre of the universe, was replaced with the view that humans were no longer at the centre of the universe, as Darwin’s theory applied just as much to humans as to animals. He achieved a radical revolution in modern thought, that history was important in understanding science.  Others used Darwin’s theories to support their own causes, and in particular, applied it to social issues.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) believed that human society reflects the same evolutionary principles as biological organism do in their development. Natural growth of the organism, Spencer believed, requires liberty, which justifies individualism, hence the need to defend the existence of individual rights. This thinking, social Darwinism, supports laissez-faire capitalism. For Spencer, “liberty is to be measured not by the nature of the government machinery he lives under …but by the relative paucity of restraints it imposes upon him.” This left the only function of government to be policing and protecting of individual rights. The belief was what was natural was morally correct, was used by Spencer’s followers to justify opposition of support for the poor, as it was believed that welfare programs corrupt morals, as well as fitness. Spencer’s skepticism about the ability of government to do more good than harm, made him an important inspiration to many libertarians.

Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton (1822-1911), an explorer and anthropologist with an interest in mathematics and techniques of measurement, used Darwin’s theories to support his own cause and, in particular, applied it to social issues. From Darwin’s description of the selection of physical characteristics, Galton set about developing the idea of the ideal man. He became known for his precise quantitative measurements that led him to develop statistical measurement of hereditary predisposition as a way of predicting and improving the population. His work led to the ‘bell curve’ being the starting point for modeling many natural processes. Charles Murray, FA Hayek Chair in Cultural Studies, co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America (1994) which is not a work of scientific research but rather a political book, concluded America should stop trying to improve poor kids’ material living standards because doing so encourages poor, low-IQ women to have more children.

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) applied the Darwinian evolutionary theory to societal changes that he called “institutions” and found that laissez-faire capitalism created two groups, with the rich getting richer and the income gap between the rich and the poor widening. Veblen pointed out that that Darwinian evolution did not guarantee progress; the leisure class reacted differently than the middle class from the environmental stimuli in a system in which each individual looks after his own interests. Veblen described the rich or leisure class as sheltered from economic pressures that prevailed. From this privileged position, as a class, they were less responsive to the demands required to change society. The pressures of the downturn in the economy do not directly impact the wealthy. There is no penalty for not changing, hence no uneasiness with the existing order of things or pressure to change their worldview.1

Floyd Arthur Harper (1905–1973), a member of the Mont Pèlerin Society, was present at the group’s first meeting in 1947 along with Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Karl Poppe. He helped start up the Foundation for Economic Education, and founded the Institute for Humane Studies. The unique thing that Harper brought to the table was a social Darwinian account of human progress. Harper believed that progress was generated by the “variation,” i.e. the bell curve distribution, which “seems to pervade the universe”. Mentoring a network of classical liberal scholars, building institutions, encouraging scholarship, and laying out strategy and practice for the libertarian movement is where Harper’s influence is visible today. However, 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.

The polarizing of American politics has its strongest roots in Rand’s classic, Atlas Shrugged, where a capitalist elite engage in a perpetual cultural warfare for the soul of America, fighting society’s “moochers, looters and parasites,” anyone and everyone demanding government money to solve their problems. Ayn Rand was defined by her rage, not her advocacy of a fantasy version of capitalism. By choosing Rand’s theory of objectivism, which turns selfishness into virtue, libertarians get around the need to explain social Darwinism. Trump’s culture of cruelty views violence as a sacred means for addressing social problems and organizing society. His cabinet and donor lists are full of Rand fans who support neoliberal cruelty. The cure for economic crisis is more cruelty, through which feelings of resentment, fear, anger, and loathing are enacted against the weak, who are considered a drain on the worthy.

‘No bourgeois, no democracy’ is the racy formulation penned half a century ago by the American historian Barrington Moore Jr. It’s a well-known political maxim, one that’s often used in support of the view that to be middle class is to be solidly, instinctively on the side of parliamentary democracy. As the middle class shrinks in size, it loses its bearings, or suffers potential outright social disintegration. Fukuyama observes ‘globalized capitalism’ is today eroding the middle-class social base on which ‘liberal democracy’ rests. We’re moving, he said, back into societies where extremes of wealth and poverty are fueling ‘oligarchic domination’ and nasty forms of populism. Middle class earnings are declining, despite longer working hours and rocketing numbers of two-income households. Middle class optimism has waned. Few of its members now believe the old precept that rising tides raise all boats. Saving for a rainy day belongs to a past gilded age. Today, the middle class owes more than its disposable income.

Americans for Prosperity, founded in 2004, is a libertarian conservative political advocacy group in the US funded by David and Charles Koch. The AFP Foundation describes its mission as “educating and training citizens to be courageous advocates for the ideas, principles, and policies of a free society — knowing that leads to the greatest prosperity and wellbeing for all – especially the least fortunate.” In reality, it is part of a network that uses dark money to fund an interlocking array of organizations that can work in tandem to influence and ultimately control academic institutions, think tanks, the courts, statehouses and Congress. This system eliminates the need to debate libertarian ideas in elections; but ensures that libertarian views on regulation and taxes are ascendant in majority of state governments, the Supreme Court and Congress. These activities account for the fact protections for employees have been decimated, and hedge fund billionaires pay a far lower tax rate than middle class workers.2

The idea that every American has an equal opportunity to move up in life today, is false. Social mobility has declined over the past decades, median wages have stagnated and today’s young generation is the first in modern history expected to be poorer than their parents. The lottery of life – the zip or postal code where you were born – can account for up to two thirds of the wealth an individual generates. The growing gap between the rich and the poor, the old and the young has been largely ignored by policymakers and investors. The risk is that rising inequality, lower social mobility and the disenfranchisement of younger generations could result into even more polarized and short-sighted politics, creating a populist trap. Capitalism has been incredibly successful at boosting wealth, but it has failed at redistributing it. Today, without a push to redistribute wealth and opportunity, the present model of capitalism and democracy may face self-destruction.

Conservatives focus on supply-side measures, favoring economic growth by reforming and lowering taxes, lighter and smarter regulations, and a business-friendly environment. Present patterns and trends are not unalterable – it is necessary to shift the balance of power: reform labour laws to make unionization easier; strengthen and enforce employment standards so that vulnerable workers are paid that they are owed; stem the use of temporary foreign workers; and ensure workers have access to employment insurance and welfare when in need, so that they are free to push for better pay and working conditions. In addition, tax more from all the folks at the top to spend money making investments in the people who are being left behind – a more progressive tax system. This includes access to affordable health care, job training, apprenticeships and vocational education. Most important is improved basic education, beginning with prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Economic elites and their proxies practice social Darwinism in all but name – the poor and the lower middle class are expected to live within their dwindling incomes, even as the gap between the rich and poor widens. Thorstein Veblen repeatedly proclaimed the need for a “post-Darwinism” economics – to apply evolution of social phenomena. This means applying the evolutionary approach – Darwinian principles to socio-economic evolution – to the study of economic institutions. We need a mechanism that will raise the wages of the lower-paid, and also narrow the large and growing income gap between ordinary workers and the top 1% made up of the corporate and financial elites. That mechanism is called stronger unions … especially if the labour movement fights for greater equality, not just in the workplace, but in the wider society by advancing a progressive political agenda of fair taxes, income security, and quality public services for all citizens.

Ronald Reagan’s policies called for widespread tax cuts, decreased social spending, increased military spending, and the deregulation of domestic markets. After following this path, a Darwinian world emerges – it is the struggle of all against all at all levels of the hierarchy, which finds support through everyone clinging to their job and organisation under conditions of insecurity, suffering, and stress. Meanwhile, the economic elite use a purely scientific theory for a completely unscientific purpose. In doing so they misrepresent and misappropriate Darwin’s original ideas. Social Darwinism has been heavily criticized and widely rejected by the scientific community for its lack of adherence to Darwinism, as well as in its use in justifying social inequality, imperialism, and eugenics. Nonetheless, social Darwinist beliefs still persist in public conscience. We must recognize that the pseudo-science of social Darwinism as a significant force in political decision making today.

1 Horsman, Greg. (2013) Evolutionary Economics and Equality: An Age of Enlightenment

2 Mayer, Jane. (2016) Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

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The Need to Rebalance Corporate Power in Today’s Democracies

Democracy is a political system of competition for power. Functional democracy is a form of democracy that functions in the interest of the people. Democracy requires the participation of citizens in public life. Citizens have an obligation to become informed about public issues, to watch carefully how their political leaders and representatives use their powers, and to express their own opinions and interests. Voting in elections is a civic duty of all citizens. 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. Today it is the rule of the minority elite. A dysfunctional democracy triggers trust crisis. Once the voters understand the extent of structural inequality in the system, they will possess the knowledge to recognize the need for change.

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.

In a 1900 article Alfredo Pareto commented on the radical movements at the turn of the century, warned that rather than restoring democracy and promoting social welfare, they were just seeking to replace one elite with another elite, the privileges and structures of power remaining intact. From Pareto’s point of view – socialism, libertarianism – all ideologies are smoke screens foisted by ‘leaders’ who really only aspire to enjoy the privilege and power of governing. He suggested class struggle is eternal, and recognized the predictions of economics fail to correspond to reality. A common complaint against twenty-first century democracy is that it has lost control of corporate power. Big companies hoard wealth and influence. They fuel inequality. They despoil the planet. They don’t pay their taxes. 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.

Republicans are using the same baseless lies about voting fraud to push a staggering number of laws to scale back voting rights. The reason they’re willing to weaken American democracy is very simple: it’s all about retaining power. It is about a system corrupted by the influence of big donors and powerful interests, that makes voting more difficult than necessary, particularly for historically disadvantaged groups. The rules being put into place will make it more difficult, if not impossible, for many minority voters to participate in elections. In addition, these states are allowing partisan groups to take over running elections. As a group, Republicans are pushing towards replacing democracy with a system where a powerful minority holds disproportionate and borderline tyrannical control over government and blocks the majority of Americans from having meaningful say over the direction of the country. There is a need for federal legislation to prevent partisan bias from determining whether elections were conducted properly.

Pete Buttigieg notes, “the cornerstone of American identity is democracy, the cornerstone of democracy is trust.” Social media was expected to result in greater transparency, higher accountability and hence, more trust in the political realm. In fact, engagement, a crucial feature of the social media era, magnifies the declines in trust. “Democracies fall apart from within,” Justice Gorsuch warned with Sotomayor: the spread of misinformation on social media is an urgent threat to national security. On the other hand, concepts within the justice system are an issue. Gorsuch has consistently been the friend of big business and monopolies at the expense of competition and open markets, and the friend of big donors at the expense of small donors. In disputes between the employee and employer, he sides with the boss. This is consistent with the fact the Supreme Court is facing a legitimacy crisis and is in desperate need of reform.

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. By linking the welfare of working-class Americans directly to the prosperity of the rich, the neoliberals protect the insulated interests of corporations and the wealthy without the fear of backlash. Neoliberal capitalism has nothing to do with democracy as justice is now linked to a market logic that divorces itself from social cost.

Cognitive dissonance is the brain’s inability to handle two conflicting realities, so it creates an alternate one, which often defies actual reality. 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 pre-existing beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. Segregation across the American electorate along economic, political, and social lines contributes to the development of insular and isolated communities, each with its own narrative, worldview, and, increasingly, even “facts.” The growth in the volume of subjective content relative to factual information increases the likelihood that audiences will encounter speculation or downright falsehoods. That makes it more difficult to identify key pieces of factual information. This makes it important that individual citizens understand the debacle around policy or even a good grasp of all the facts.

After the election of Donald Trump, Facebook’s initial attitude was to bluntly deny any involvement in the torrent of misinformation that contributed to the Trump victory. Now it is certain that Facebook, for the sake of short-term profit, turned a blind eye to what was unfolding. Like the approach to Big Tobacco, it is necessary to have as many agencies as possible participate with respect to cross-cutting issues. For example, effective tobacco control required the use of fiscal policies to reduce tobacco consumption, allied with labor and environmental laws to reduce exposure to smoke, and regulation of marketing practice. With respect to the addiction promoted by companies like Facebook it will not be enough to just raise public awareness, rather the response will require a series of regulations and taxes to address the power exploitation of devices. These are important necessary steps to restore the health of democracy.

The trickle-down economics narrative is a grand illusion for those in power to promote to justify dominance over those who are less privileged. Of course, it is based on greed being a virtue, relying on a system to harness the selfishness of people and direct it to public good, thus freeing itself from the need to depend unrealistically upon the uncertain moral virtues of its participants.  Several years ago, a research study published by the IMF provided data that debunked the theory of trickle-down economics. Not only did it find that the benefits of growth within an economy are rarely spread evenly, but also that an unequal rise in incomes can actually slow the rate of economic growth altogether. According to the report, a 1% rise in income for the wealthiest 20% of a society alone is likely to shrink annual growth by 0.1% within five years. By contrast, raising the income of the poorest 20% by a single percentage point increases annual growth by 0.4% over the same time frame.

Since the 2016 presidential race, the Claremont Institute tried to give an intellectual veneer to the frothy mix of nativism and isolationism represented by Donald Trump. Most infamously, one of the group’s legal scholars crafted memos outlining a plan for how then-Vice President Mike Pence could potentially overturn the last election. The donations flowing into Claremont illustrate that although the group’s full-throated support for Trump and fixation on election crimes may be extreme, they’re not fringe views when they have the backing of influential conservative funders. Claremont continues to push the stolen-election myth and has apparently helped state lawmakers draft legislation to make election laws more favorable to the Republican Party. Rather than concentrate on policy like many other think tanks, the Claremont Institute teaches the principles and ideas that shape policy over time to the few that will go on to positions of leadership in media, politics, law, speechwriting, and academia.

The internet was a great idea initially. However, in recent years privacy concerns, data misuse, and more trolls than the underside of a fairy tale bridge have turned the world’s digital community into a bit of a mess. Ideas on the web tend to be about problem solving, while opinions on the web are mostly theatre, in which emotions drive decision-making. The advent of the information age seems to have created individuals who feel they know more than ever before – when their reliance on the internet means they may know ever less about the world around them. Social media has created a movement of validation-hungry users, while shady data practices have opened up pretty much every person on the planet to potential identity theft, and the tech companies in charge of it all are too busy trading caches of personal data like trading cards to do anything about it.

We need to get big business and lobbyists out of our politics. Today they are making voting more difficult than necessary, particularly for historically disadvantaged groups. Republicans are using the same baseless lies about voting fraud to push a staggering number of laws to scale back voting rights. The reason they’re willing to weaken American democracy is very simple: it’s all about retaining power. There is a need for federal legislation to prevent partisan bias from determining whether elections were conducted properly. There is a need for a new model of democratic governance to address the violence of neoliberalism and the happiness gap. It is necessary to rebalance the power of corporations supported by an ideology serving the interest of financial capital and globalized elites – in order to create a successful society. It is necessary to return to laws based on equality of persons rather than laws of the market.

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How the Rich Tap Anarchy and Anger to Manipulate Us

According to Peter Kropotkin, anarchism: “is a name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by the submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilised being.” Anarchism is a process whereby authority and domination is being replaced with non-hierarchical, horizontal structures, with voluntary associations between human beings. Anarchists subscribe to a cluster of doctrines and attitudes centred on the belief that government is both harmful and unnecessary. The term today is now applied to any situation where there is chaos and disorder and nobody seems to be paying any attention to rules or laws.

Many people are finding that they are dealing with more anger than usual as a result of COVID-19, and that is understandable. Everyone is experiencing a huge amount of loss. People are losing those that they care about, and many have lost a sense of normality, routine and contact with their family and friends. Anger is a vital emotion. It lets us know where our boundaries are and what we stand for. Without anger, we would be passive and overly accommodating, so it’s really important to listen to the emotion. Ignoring it will not make it go away. Anger is like a spring inside our body. If we push it down and try to squash or suppress it, all that happens is that we become even tenser. Instead, it is important for us to learn ways to recognise and manage our anger so that it can be transformed into something useful. Today more and more protests have sprung up.

 During the COVID pandemic, movements have used the language of democracy to critique our most basic institutions – both political and economic – and have changed the way many people think about politics, arguably leading to a spread of anarchist tactics of direct action and prefiguration along with the re-emergence of left populism. One of Occupy Wall Street’s more enduring consequences – in addition to helping spread anarchist and ‘anarchistic’ ideas, tactics, and strategy – may be its contribution to the slow rebirth of a radical labour movement, particularly in the United States. More recently news coverage associated “anarchy” with the violence and lawlessness that characterised the January 6th Capitol riots, as a direct result of which five people died, including one Capitol Police officer. Incidentally, an anarchist can also be used to describe an officeholder who undermines the constitutional order on which their own office, and the rule of law, depends. 

President Donald Trump, and his administration in particular, were preoccupied with labeling protesters as ‘anarchists.’ “These are anarchists. These are not protesters,” Trump said in July 2020 amid the ongoing protests in Portland. During a June 29, 2020 press conference, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany proclaimed, “Law and order are the building blocks to the American Dream, but if anarchy prevails, this dream comes crumbling down,” before proudly announcing that the administration had arrested “over 100 anarchists for rioting and destruction of federal property.” “On the national scale, anarchism has become this scapegoat for a way to talk about violence in a way that obscures the violence of the state,” notes Theresa Warburton, associate professor of English and affiliate faculty of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Western Washington University. Trump & co.’s vilification of anarchists also completely missed the point of what anarchism actually is: a philosophy that is deeply concerned with oppression, its origins, and how to best achieve liberation, and that envisions a society based on cooperation as opposed to competition.

Humiliation involves an event that demonstrates unequal power in a relationship where you are in the inferior position and unjustly diminished. Often the painful experience is vividly remembered for a long time. Your vindictive passions are aroused and a humiliated fury may result. There are three involved parties: 1) the perpetrator exercising power, 2) the victim who is shown powerless and therefore humiliated, and 3) the witness or observers to the event. Anger is part of everyone’s emotional compass, helping us navigate the contingencies of life. Anger signals that we are being threatened, injured, deprived, robbed of rewards and expectancies. We must stand up and take care of ourselves and those we love. The Coronavirus pandemic with its extreme disruption of normal daily life and uncertainty for the future, compounded by several other crises (economic distress, racial tension, social inequities, political and ideological conflicts) puts us all to the test: we find ourselves immersed in a pool of negative emotions: fear, sadness, contempt, and yes, anger.

Godwin (1756-1836) argued government was a corrupting force in society. His writings are a profound critique of the state and its structural violence, arguing that the state and its government has a bad influence on society in that it produces unwanted dependency. He has also pointed out that law and legislation is created by the rich and powerful. On a more political level, during the pandemic we are seeing more and more individuals who are shut out of the American dream. They are angry about it and frustrated about it. George Carlin joked that, “the reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.” The dyadic ability of humiliation narratives to affectively anchor populist messaging in feelings of pride and hope on the one hand and anxiety and anger on the other hand underscores the argument that, while emotions shape politics, politics also shapes and channels emotions.

The political significance of shared humiliation as a narrative device, then, is that inward feelings of shame, provoked through the demeaning experience, are directed outward, away from the individual and collective weakened self via blame attribution (Hejdenberg and Andrews 2011, 1278). Indeed, when vulnerable, weak, despised, and helpless parts of the Self are projected upon the external, ideologically distorted member of the out-group, this fosters both aggression and violence (Bohleber 2003). From a psychological perspective, such cruelty directed at members of the out-group will not come as a surprise. Individuals who experience anger in the form of narcissistic rage after encountering humiliation tend to “show total lack of empathy towards the defender”. Within a humiliation-centric discourse, sentiments of sameness and togetherness are intertwined with narcissistic injury, turning perceptions of loss and defeat into shared prejudice that is directed against those who are seen as not belonging to the “true” people.

The latest article of impeachment charges Trump with having acted “in a manner grossly incompatible with self-governance and the rule of law”. Following the ancient Greeks, the underlying idea can be taken further. By “betray[ing] his trust as president” as flagrantly as he did, Trump should be counted as an anarchist: ie, as having been no real officeholder at all. The January 6th committee is now investigating a string of recent media reports that detailed how Trump “repeatedly attempted to destroy presidential records, which could constitute additional serious violations” of the law. Meanwhile, New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman, recently reported that staffers regularly found wads of printed paper clogging a toilet in the White House. Trump weaponized mistruths during his presidency – riddled his presidency with false and misleading statements. One of the most dangerous lies of Trump’s involved the most serious threat to his presidency: his downplaying of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump’s 2016 campaign was anarchy – it longed for a distant past outside of the current system. Trump argued repeatedly that the current American political system had to be destroyed because it had been corrupted by weak and ineffective politicians. He asked Americans to return to a simpler time when the federal government wasn’t so big, regulations weren’t so tough, and capitalists and capitalism were free. So doing, he promised, would restore American greatness. During his presidency, Trump wants promoted anarchists as being responsible for the nation’s sorry state. “Our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists,” he declared. Those anarchists have, he said, joined with “violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, antifa and others” to bring mayhem to the United States. In the guise of promoting what he calls “law and order,” Trump instead promotes violence, chaos and anarchy. Many of Trump’s critics have suggested that with his disregard for the norms and institutions of American politics, he’s the real anarchist.

From nineteenth-century newspaper publishers to the participants in the “battle of Seattle” and the recent Greek uprising, anarchists have been inspired by the ideal of a free society of free individuals – a world without hierarchy or domination. By overemphasizing individual mobility, we ignore important social determinants of success like family inheritance, social connections, and structural discrimination. Emma Goldman, the great American anarchist, defined it in 1910 as “the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law.” Anarchists believe that all forms of government – be it a liberal democracy or a socialist state – are based on violence and coercion. To sum it up: government equals tyranny. Today anarchist has just become a synonym for violence and chaos and the absence of order. It’s a product, if you like, of a kind of a capitalist mindset, especially when it comes to the destruction of property.

Oscar Wilde, a libertarian anarchist, is widely associated with the following bon mot: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings. ”Young people in particular used to be attracted to the anarchist priorities of creativity and spontaneity – the importance of living the “new society” here and now rather than postponing it indefinitely until “after the Revolution.” Trump’s victim politics is a complete fraud, an old trick used by economic elite to keep working-class Americans fighting each other rather than focusing on processes to counter the plutocrats who are ripping them off. Victim politics is cultivated for a reason – to keep workers distracted from the real causes of economic inequality. Populism is the new victimhood – now propelled by the digital revolution and the threatened insecurity. Trump promoted himself as the outsider while Biden is under the influence of globalist interests and “deep state radicals”. The goal is to distract attention from the widening imbalance of wealth and power between the vast majority and a tiny minority at the top who are accumulating just about all.

The essential difference between populism and democracy is that democracy entails more than majority rule. Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning of the “tyranny of the majority” remains relevant today. The protection of political freedoms and minority rights is an essential test of democracy. Populist leaders not only attack the institutions of global capital, they also disregard the checks and balances of institutional democracy. This creates a dichotomy between “the people” and the (largely unspecified) “ruling elites”, despite the reality that populist leaders themselves are clearly part of the latter. No matter. Their ability to channel anger and frustration at the status quo, and to promise easy solutions, seemingly grants them immunity from being attacked for their own exploitation of the system. We need to understand how politicians, propped up by the rich, use our anger to manipulate us.

Ref: Melissa Lane (08/02/2021) New Statesman Why Donald Trump was the Ultimate Anarchist

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Beware of the Self-deception and Lies of Today’s Narcissists

Skepticism is a critical attitude that treats every claim to truth as up for debate. A skeptical attitude is doubt as to the truth of something. It’s an approach that goes beyond just demanding evidence and, instead, questions the evidence itself. Lies are always coercive for the one being lied to: Lies seek to persuade not by appealing to our freedom to choose but by compelling us via deception to narrow our field of choice. As such, lies give power to the liar and take power away from the persons being lied to. In turn, this shift in power accumulates over the course of repeated lies. Nietzsche believed, one should be conscious of the illusory nature of what is considered truth, thus opening up the possibility of the creation of new values. There is no difference between the fake news, misinformation, disinformation of today – such lies have been churned out for years, but today it is designed to support the plutocracy.

One of the most common types of self-deceptions are self-enhancement. Psychologists have traditionally argued we evolved to overestimate our good qualities because it makes us feel good. But even if individuals don’t bear specific responsibility for their being in that state, self-deception may nevertheless be morally objectionable, destructive and dangerous. Some argue that self-deception evolved to facilitate interpersonal deception by eliminating the cues and cognitive load that consciously lying produces and by mitigating retaliation should the deceit become evident. On this view, the real gains associated with ‘positive illusions’ and other self-deceptions are by-products that serve this greater evolutionary end by enhancing self-deceiver’s ability to deceive. Von Hippel and Trivers contend that “by deceiving themselves about their own positive qualities and the negative qualities of others, people are able to display greater confidence than they might otherwise feel, thereby enabling them to advance socially and materially.”

Jean Paul Sartre notes, when we attempt to achieve a false self-identity by disowning one or more aspect of ourselves, or by falsely identifying with just one aspect of our self, that we engage in self-deception. Such self-deception is a threat to ‘authenticity’ insofar as self-deceivers fail to take responsibility for themselves and their engagements past, present and future. By alienating us from our own principles, self-deception may also threaten moral integrity. Furthermore, self-deception also manifests certain weakness of character that dispose us to react to fear, anxiety, or the desire for pleasure in ways that bias our belief acquisition and retention in ways that serve these emotions and desires rather than accuracy. For Sartre, for any individual to claim “that’s just the way I am” would be a statement of self-deception. Whenever people tell themselves that their nature or views are unchangeable, or that their social position entirely determines their sense of self, they are deceiving themselves.

Individuals high in narcissism, like cult leaders, often inflate their own sense of importance and behave in ways that are destructive to others. Cunning manipulators of others, grandiose, envious, aggressive, exploiting, and controlling, these narcissists are users who can be charismatic, seductive, and intensely attentive. Yet they ultimately prove to be concerned only with their own needs, feelings, and desires. Similarities between narcissists and cult leaders include a tendency to lie and turn others against each other for their own ends, along with little tolerance for dissent. Although the similarities between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Rodrigo Duterte are often overstated, all these leaders are united by their cultivation of personality cults. Death threats, gerrymandering and voter suppression are being normalised by America’s right to keep Trumpism alive. Trump is very attentive to a Republican party no longer committed to democracy.

While some instances of self-deception seem morally innocuous and others may even be thought salutary in various ways (Rorty 1994), many have thought there to be something morally objectionable about self-deception or its consequences in many cases. Self-deception has been considered objectionable because it facilitates harm to others and to oneself, undermines autonomy, corrupts conscience. In addition, it manifests a vicious lack of courage and self-control that undermine the capacity for compassionate action or violates a general duty to form beliefs that “conform to the available evidence”. Linehan (1982) argues that we have an obligation to scrutinize the beliefs that guide our actions that is proportionate to the harm to others such actions might involve. When self-deceivers induce ignorance of moral obligations, of the particular circumstances, of likely consequences of actions, or of their own engagements, by means of their self-deceptive beliefs, they may be culpable.

Populism is above all a political style or strategy rather than an ideology. It consists in accusing elites of corruption while praising the moral virtues of the people. The former steal, lie, and cheat. The latter are honest, hardworking, and committed to their country. Herein, then, is the first sort of truth: elites are indeed, on the whole, distant and quite corrupt. This may sound offensive to many (especially those belonging to the elites!), but it is really rather obvious. Who can honestly argue against the claim that the political establishment in many countries has proven itself, over and over, to be dishonest, self-serving, and aligned primarily with special interests? Populists are good at exploiting our cognitive biases. The route of the appeal of a populist political like Trump – lies in their freedom to pit the simplicity we all crave, against a ‘political establishment’ entangled in the complexity of actually doing the job.

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 pre-existing beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. Cognitive dissonance, on the other hand, doesn’t totally deny disconfirming evidence. It merely bends the evidence to feel more psychologically palatable: “I was never totally convinced the election was stolen, but I have no doubt that there was fraud.” “Trump was just using political language in telling his supporters to fight.” Such interpretations don’t deny that the election was lost or that the rioter’s behavior was unlawful, but they shield Trump loyalists from acknowledging that their beliefs could be wrong. Confirmation-bias draws us in to the one-sided outlets, and the cognitive dissonance pushes us away from conflicting ideas. Cognitive dissonance stops us from hearing other opinions that conflict.

Virtually all self-deception has a social component, being wittingly or unwittingly supported by one’s associates (Ruddick 1988). In the case of collective self-deception, however, the social dimension comes to the fore, since each member of the collective unwittingly helps to sustain the self-deceptive belief of the others in the group. The collective entrenches self-deceptive beliefs by providing positive reinforcement by others sharing the same false belief, as well as protection from evidence that would destabilize the target belief. There are, however, limits to how entrenched such beliefs can become and remain self-deceptive. The social support cannot be the sole or primary cause of the self-deceptive belief, for then the belief would simply be the result of unwitting interpersonal deception and not the deviant belief formation process that characterizes self-deception. If the environment becomes so epistemically contaminated as to make counter-evidence inaccessible to the agent, then we have a case of false belief, not self-deception.

Narcissistic individuals are marked by unrealistic and exaggerated beliefs about their abilities and achievements. It seems that narcissistic individuals also believe themselves to be better liars than the average person when asked. Such self-report measures of dishonesty and lying may be biased by various internal and external factors, as human perception is inherently biased. Narcissists tend to be shallow and unevolved, with a limited grasp of most topics. This results from their unwillingness to ask sincere questions and change their views in response to new sources of information. There is an old saying about education – “The greatest obstacle to learning is the fear of appearing stupid.” For a normal person, the discomfort of appearing stupid is more than made up for by the pleasure of learning something new. To a narcissist, mired in self-deception, there’s nothing they need to learn, they already know everything, so the discomfort issue doesn’t come up.

Studies by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell found that narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present. The problem with narcissistic traits is that they’re unrealistic; the belief in one’s own extraordinariness will sooner or later abut the world, and the result will be disillusionment in the best-case scenario or ever-greater fake grandeur in the worst. While most people tend to overestimate their abilities, narcissists tend to overestimate their abilities more than others, and report being far more competent than others at tasks. The goal of this self-deception is to be impervious to greatly feared external criticism and to their own rolling sea of doubts. In the most fundamental way, narcissists are parasites, and like successful parasites in nature, they locate victims who are unable to either identify them or defend against them. In this way, the individual narcissist acquires a malignant social form.

Social narcissism represents the dark side of intelligence and communication skills. As humans become more intelligent, as we improve our ability to communicate with others, our prospect for understanding reality increases, but our prospect for massive self-deception increases to the same degree. The game plans of social narcissists are trivial but effective. At the social level, narcissists tend to be skilled manipulators who trigger and exploit narcissistic impulses in the people around them. Narcissists tend to be ruthless and lacking in empathy, and their dialogue with the rest of the world consists of endless, persuasive rationalizations for their belief system. Based on this game plan and over time, narcissists like Donald Trump make their way into positions of conventional (political) authority. They prefer positions where they can impose simple, inflexible systems of rules on others, and they avoid circumstances where accomplishments matter more than claims.

The challenge: false news tends to be more novel than true news, which suggests that people are more likely to share novel information. Six “degrees of manipulation” – impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, polarization, discrediting, and trolling – are used to spread misinformation and disinformation, according to Sander van der Linden, PhD, a professor of social psychology in society at the University of Cambridge, who works on a psychological vaccine for fake news. For instance, a false news story may quote a fake expert, use emotional language, or propose a conspiracy theory in order to manipulate readers. Though research directly tying misinformation to behavior is still limited, exposure to fake news does have real-world consequences. In the political domain, it is correlated with declining trust in mainstream media organizations. This is countered by vaccination – warning people that a specific piece of information is false and explaining why a source might lie or be misinformed about it before they encounter the information organically.

Skepticism, in its best form, has opened up mind-boggling ways of thinking about ourselves and the world around us.  Technology has given people more ways to connect, but it has also given them more opportunities to lie. The term “fake news” has taken on its own life, referring not only to untrue reports but being increasingly used to dismiss reports that the user does not wish to agree with. The cure for the present epidemic of narcissism and lies is for us to stop lying to ourselves about what we think we know. Stop retweeting posts before you know whether they are true. Nietzsche claimed there are no facts only interpretations. In his view there was no objective fact about what has value in itself – culture consists of beliefs developed to perpetuate a particular power structure. Truth, much like knowledge, is bound to power and similarly operates amidst the individuals and institutions that generate and sustain it.

Disinformation can be dangerous on social media because, the sheer amount of information there and the length of readers’ attention spans can allow it to go unchecked. Social media platform algorithms are designed for optimized user retention and engagement, and are not looking for misinformation or disinformation. Skepticism and critical thinking is not a panacea, but can help to understand the world better. When you develop a healthy skepticism, you train your mind to doubt other people’s claims by using logic and intuition. This not only makes you a better thinker, but it also helps you learn to rely on logic as well as intuition at the same time instead of employing one over the other. To counter the lies of narcissists, do not trust one source for social media information – review multiple sources for the same information. 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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Deception in Social Media Freedom Undermines Our Freedom

Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who saw a world governed by individual self-interest believed that we are controlled by external forces, and are nothing but pawns in the game. Hegel believed that we do not perceive the world or anything in it directly and all that our minds have access to is the ideas of the world – images, perceptions, and concepts. For Hegel, the only real reality we know is virtual reality. Hegel believed that the ideas we have of the world are social, which is to say, the ideas that we possess individually are for the most part shaped by the ideas that other people possess. Our minds have been shaped by the thoughts of other people through the language we speak, the traditions and mores of our society, and the cultural and religious institutions of which we are a part. Hegel notes, “When liberty is mentioned, we must always be careful to observe whether it is not really the assertion of private interests which is thereby designated.”

The media creates cognitive dissonance, the feeling of uncomfortable tension, which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time. 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 in to the one-sided outlets, and the cognitive dissonance pushes us away from conflicting ideas. Cognitive dissonance stops us from hearing other opinions that conflict.

Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) developed a theory of cultural evolution intended to account for the development of free-market capitalism, and explained why it works so well. He believed that it had allowed him to achieve what no earlier economist had – to paint “what now seems to me a tolerably clear picture of the nature of the spontaneous order.” Hayek was closely exposed to ideas of colleagues that had allowed him to achieve understanding with respect to evolutionary theories, during his 12 years at the London School of Economics. One of these colleagues, Alexander Carr-Saunders (1886-1966), was an adherent of neo-Malthusian ideas and Galton’s eugenics. He was concerned about all kinds of social ills and problems – he saw a solution in eugenics for the engineering of society into a better condition. Another colleague with influence was Julian Huxley (1887-1975), an Oxford zoologist who wrote books, including The Vital Importance of Eugenics in 1933 which basically advocated a long-term goal that degenerate individuals were stopped from reproduction as quickly as possible.

Hayek explains to his enthusiastic supporter Antony Fisher: “Society’s course will be changed only by a change of ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and the writers, with reasoned arguments. It will be their influence on society that will prevail and the politicians will follow.” 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 “the philosophy of freedom.” The conscious strategy of this global think-tank network was to take the idea of individual freedom and minimal government mainstream. The message: Freedom has nothing to do with democracy or speech or individual rights; for the economic elite it is about the freedom of the market and their proxies who control those markets. Today we now realize how much laissez-fare manipulates you.

Floyd Arthur Harper (1905–1973), a member of the Mont Pèlerin Society, was present at the group’s first meeting in 1947 along with Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Karl Poppe. He helped start up the Foundation for Economic Education, and founded the Institute for Humane Studies. The unique thing that Harper brought to the table was a social Darwinian account of human progress. Harper believed that progress was generated by the “variation,” i.e. the bell curve distribution, which “seems to pervade the universe”. 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. Forces stimulating social change are stronger over time than barriers. So, change is inevitable in the long term. But most people resist change in the short term.

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. 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. Social inequality actually describes the unequal distribution of valued resources, rewards, and positions in society.

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 pre-existing 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. The FTC has accused Facebook of breaking antitrust law by gobbling up many smaller social media start-ups and acquiring several large, well-established competitors, in what amounts to a concerted effort to build a social media monopoly.

Truth, much like knowledge, is bound to power and similarly operates amidst the individuals and institutions that generate and sustain it. The economic elite do not hesitate to present their ideology as interpretation of truth. The “truth” the market reveals is never in actuality some eternal, given fact. The market is never a neutral arbiter of truth, so the “truth” it reveals about government practice has always required interpretation. Nietzsche believed, one should be conscious of the illusory nature of what is considered truth, thus opening up the possibility of the creation of new values. It is necessary to create the social environment or milieu to support good governance to control cognitive dissonance and the consequent balancing of perception that leads to misperception. The truth is that capitalism creates enormous wealth, but it concentrates into oligopolies and monopolies, to the extent the economic elite creates and normalizes a culture of lying to itself leading to its inherent instability.

The power elite control what you think through proxies who control information and communication, and through their lobbyists who influence what most of your politicians believe. Social computing shows that you don’t necessarily have to read people’s brains to influence their choices. It is sufficient to collect and mine the data they regularly – and often unwittingly – share online. Therefore, we need to consider setting for the digital space a firm threshold for cognitive liberty. Cognitive liberty highlights the freedom to control one’s own cognitive dimension (including preferences, choices and beliefs) and to be protected from manipulative strategies that are designed to bypass one’s cognitive defenses. The EU data protection authority has underscored if recklessly applied to the electoral domain, these activities could even change or reduce “the space for debate and interchange of ideas,” a risk which urgently requires a democratic debate on the use and exploitation of data for political campaign and decision-making.

The concept of information manipulation has largely remained the same through time; however, the speed at which it spreads and the magnitude of influence it holds today makes it very different from its historical counterpart. Today established political parties are using social media to spread disinformation, suppress political participation, and undermine oppositional parties. With every click, like and follow, we leave our digital footprints all across social media and the web. This is a fertile ground for deception – technology that leverages your online activities combined with the power of big data, supercomputing and artificial intelligence. Lies are always coercive for the one being lied to: Lies seek to persuade not by appealing to our freedom to choose but by compelling us via deception to narrow our field of choice. As such, lies give power to the liar and take power away from the persons being lied to. In turn, this shift in power accumulates over the course of repeated lies.

Social media presents a number of dangers that require urgent and immediate regulation: While the online environment in the US remains generally free, it is troubled by a proliferation of fabricated news articles, divisive partisan vitriol, and aggressive harassment of many journalists, both during and after the presidential election campaign. What was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and political advertising by foreign and domestic actors. Emerging technologies such as advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence, and fifth-generation mobile networks will provide new opportunities for human development, but they will also undoubtedly present a new array of human rights challenges. Strong protections for democratic freedoms are necessary to ensure that the internet does not become a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression. Today we realize the inadequacies of social media and its negative effect on democratic governance. The level of deception and (internet) freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.

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On the Limitations of Motivational Interviewing for Jobseekers

Motivational Interviewing (MI) is a style of working with a client that focuses on allowing the client to direct the change rather than telling the client what they need to do. It is about having a conversation about change. It is an empathic, person-centered counseling approach that prepares people for change by helping them resolve ambivalence, enhance intrinsic motivation, and build confidence to change. MI is grounded in mutual trust, and an emphasis on the client’s personal choice and autonomy. MI works not only with homeless individuals, but also with those who may be concurrently suffering from alcohol or other substance abuse, mental disorder, and disabilities. Today people are more open about discussing their anxieties. For Kierkegaard, the present age is a reflective age – one that values objectivity and thought over action, lip-service to ideals rather than action, discussion over action, publicity and advertising over reality, and fantasy over the real world.

In the 19th century two philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, stood out with their reaction against the ‘impersonal’ rationalism of the Enlightenment, and stressed the importance of the individual. Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the ‘father of existentialism,’ believed that one must choose one’s own way without the aid of universal objective standards. Against the traditional view that moral choice involves an objective judgment of right and wrong, existentialists have argued that no objective, rational basis can be found for moral decisions. It was necessary to create one’s own values in a world in which traditional values no longer governed. Kierkegaard argues that the falsehood of objectivity may be revealed by a lack of need for personal commitment, and by lack of need for decision-making, while the truth of subjectivity may be revealed by a need for personal commitment, and by a need for decision-making.

Kierkegaard observes, “Everyone one wants progress, no one wants change.” Today individuals are faced with an existential challenge in redefining their self-image and the mind-set with which they respond to the world. 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. Kierkegaard claims the type of objectivity that a scientist or historian might use misses the point – humans are not motivated and do not find meaning in life through pure objectivity. Instead, they find it through passion, desire, and moral and religious commitment.

Kierkegaard produced a series of powerful essays that explored the territory of conscious experience, suffering and despair. Of the latter, he considered it in rather modern terms, as a common aspect of everyday life: “Just as a physician might say that there very likely is not one single living human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows mankind might say that there is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare try to know.” This observation prepares the great theme of existentialism, that the human condition is a forlorn and anxious place. We are faced with pathways all around us, but to know which pathway is best for us, this is more frightening.

“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin,” claims Kierkegaard, inFear and Trembling. The struggle that Hegel envisioned is the great tension between ‘is’ and ‘ought,’ between the way things are and the way they ought to be. The world of fact was chaotic and evil – an affront to man’s senses of order and good. The necessary ingredient for Hegel’s philosophy was freedom of action, not just freedom of thought. Kierkegaard believed that a human being’s relationship with God must be hard-won, a matter of devotion and suffering. According to Kierkegaard, a person becomes a committed, responsible human being by making difficult decisions and sacrifices. Kierkegaard rejects naturalism. It isn’t the idea that there are laws of nature that Kierkegaard rejects, but the idea that these laws necessarily determine human behavior.

Kierkegaard 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 argues anxiety is essential for creativity – if there were no possibilities there would be no anxiety. The way we negotiate anxiety plays no small part in shaping our lives and character. “Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.”

“The most common form of despair is not being who you are,” Kierkegaard observes, it is in our anxiety that we come to understand feeling that we are free, that the possibilities are endless. Further, anxiety is an explanation of choice only in the sense that it explains the possibility of choice; it does not and can not explain the cause of this or that particular choice. The important point is that to exist, the individual must make choices –the individual must decide what to do the next moment and on into the future. A person becomes a committed, responsible human being by making difficult decisions and sacrifices. The force of Kierkegaard’s philosophy rests in the notion that human life is paradoxical and absurd and that to confront this absurdity is to become truly human. Kierkegaard observes, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

Motivational interviewing recognizes that everyone is anxious about something. Today anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States and Canada. Combining motivational interviewing (MI) with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may lead to greater improvement in long-term treatment outcomes for patients with generalized anxiety disorder compared with CBT alone, according to research published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. The early stages of change are characterized by alternating movement toward and away from the contemplated change. Such a “two-steps-forward-one-step-back” journey is a normal response to change, because, while people desire change, they also fear it. Continuing to do things “the way I’ve always done it” is seductive; it is familiar and sometimes rewarding, as the client sees that maintaining the status quo “sort of” or “almost” or “sometimes” works and changing has big costs. MI is a tool for helping people to change.

Motivational interviewing (MI) is an effective counselling method that enhances motivation through the resolution of ambivalence. With cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), what clinicians tend to see as resistance is actually clients dealing with ambivalence. A client requires a fairly high level of motivation in order to be able to implement treatment actions toward change. Limited engagement with treatment tends to be responsible for limited response rates to treatments. Even though CBT has well-established efficacy for the treatment of anxiety and depression, there is still a sizable minority of clients for whom treatment is ineffective. The core value of MI is that, by working with client ambivalence – as demonstrated in the person’s resistance – and respecting the person’s autonomy and capacity to choose change if and when it feels right. MI achieves high levels of client engagement, which creates high levels of outcomes.

Empowerment is a broad concept. Individual empowerment is centered on the belief that individuals should be in control of their own care and that behavioral changes and adherence to change cannot be achieved unless they internalize the need for self-change. Motivational interviewing encourages engagement by eliciting person’s reasons for change, encouraging them to develop ideas on how to make changes in their own behaviors, and helping them make informed choices. MI is especially useful for empowering individuals to set self-determined, or autonomous, goals for behavior change. This is important because autonomously motivated behavioral change is more sustainable. In the psychological field, empowerment is broadly described as the process of gaining power or control over one’s life, believing in one’s abilities, and having a proactive approach to life. In poverty research empowerment has been primarily studied from an economics perspective, focusing mainly on the recipients’ ability to take decisions and make strategic choices.

The first step in empowering the poor is to realize poverty is a condition, not an identity. The key to ending poverty is realizing that development isn’t about charity or top-down interventions. It’s about empowering people and ensuring they have access to the tools to build their own better future. MI to jobseekers with barriers to employment who might be thinking about employment helps overcome the self-doubts and hesitations holding them back from actively committing to seeking a job. MI for job readiness – can improve job searching skills – has been demonstrated to boost general feelings of self-efficacy. However, what is missing is how many jobs are available for a 60-year-old with a chronic physical illness, and is slowing down with some bothersome symptoms. In addition, substance abuse and mental health challenges get in the way of ability to function at work or school, maintain a stable home life, handle life’s difficulties, and relate to others. These factors help us understand the limitations of MI.

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How Empowerment Can Drive Real Change

Empowerment has been defined as an intentional ongoing process centered in the local community, involving mutual respect, critical reflection, caring, and group participation, through which people lacking an equal share of valued resources gain greater access to and control over those resources. This is a process by which people gain control over their lives, democratic participation in the life of their community, and a critical understanding of their environment. Empowerment is a collective rather than just an individual process. It is no doubt important for individuals to take control over their fears, addictions, and other self-destructive or socially disruptive thoughts and behaviors. Empowerment through participatory action with others is, in fact, one of the most effective ways to master one’s fears, obsessions, or disdain for self or others. It has many important individual benefits, including greater health, wellbeing, life satisfaction, and happiness. A possible outcome of feeling empowered is the belief that a positive change to one’s life is actually possible.

Kierkegaard, born in 1813, is widely regarded as the father of existentialism. He produced a series of powerful essays that explored the territory of conscious experience, suffering and despair. Of the latter, he considered it in rather modern terms, as a common aspect of everyday life: “Just as a physician might say that there very likely is not one single living human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows mankind might say that there is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare try to know.” This observation prepares the great theme of existentialism, that the human condition is a forlorn and anxious place. We are faced with pathways all around us, but to know which pathway is best for us, this is more frightening.

Existentialism achieves the distinction of placing the individual at the very center of the possibility of change. The freedom it emphasizes is above all a freedom to create values for oneself. “Nobody can do this for you,” might be the rally cry. Jean Paul Sartre emphasized that existentialism is a philosophy of action – and the individual is the key actor. The contention of existentialism is that we are never trapped by our conditions. Think about how a set of properties might be applied to you: your class, your race, your social status, your job, and so on. The description might be objectively accurate, but exactly how these properties actually affect you and your sense of self will also depend on how you interpret them. And this interpretation is yours to make. In other words, whatever your circumstances, you are still free to decide what meaning you attach to them.

One of the criticisms that postmodernists direct at modernism is its reliance on the development and maintenance of hierarchies. Hierarchical institutions are valuable if we believe that what the hierarchy perpetuates is more important to the well-being of society than what individuals might want. We might not have the ability to recognize what is important to the well-being of the greater society, this argument goes, but the hierarchy keeps the society’s needs in balance. If the postmodern spirit were to be summed up in simple terms, it might lie in this inherent struggle to avoid hierarchy in any way it manifests itself. Postmodernism has reacted to the authoritarian hierarchization of culture by subverting conventions blurring previously distinct boundaries and rejecting traditional aesthetic values. Lyotard believes: knowledge has become a commodity and consequently a means of empowerment; grand narratives are authoritative, establishing their political and cultural views as absolute truths beyond any criticism.

The invisible-hand metanarrative is more like a thumb on the scale for the world’s elites. That’s why neoliberal globalization has been unmasked as bogus economics but keeps winning politically. The existential threat of global climate change reflects the incompetence of markets to accurately price carbon and the escalating costs of pollution. Neoliberal ideology is so useful to society’s most powerful people – as a scholarly veneer to what would otherwise be a raw power grab. Democracy funded and fueled by corporate power disenfranchises the individual, provoking some to search for empowerment through identity politics. Within neoliberalism a person’s identity becomes so undermined by the system that he/she must adopt a social identity in order to create a sense of personal identity and connection with others. The power elites presently manipulating the system claim that inequality is a key part of the economic system, and rely on doublespeak to explain it.

Are Republicans afraid of Trump? Actually, no – he’s destroying democracy and they love it. But these actions of the former president are possible only with the craven acquiescence of congressional Republicans. As a group, they are pushing towards replacing democracy with a system where a powerful minority holds disproportionate and borderline tyrannical control over government and blocks the majority of Americans from having meaningful say over the direction of the country. No, many Republicans clearly feel empowered by Trump. He frees them to reveal their darkest desire – which is to end democracy as we know it, and to cut any corners or break any laws necessary to get the job done. In contemporary usage, “populism” is generally understood to mean political movements and individuals who channel widespread alienation and frustration by claiming to speak for “the people” against forces that are said to be destroying cherished ways of life. Beware that populism of the right creates a culture of victimhood to use as a tool to sustain conservative politics.

The perception we have of our own ability to change – to find an inner means of repair and strength – is instrumental in the pathways of mental wellness. Often we have to acknowledge that change is sometimes difficult or close to impossible. Empowerment happens when individuals and organized groups are able to imagine their world differently and to realize that vision by changing the relations of power that have kept them in poverty, restricted their voice and deprived them of their autonomy. Let us focus on empowerment that focuses on increasing poor people’s freedom of choice, and action to shape their own lives. Where is the main resistance to change? There is a small group who have been made very wealthy by the existing system. Change is a threat to them. It is this group that loves its status quo so much that it sees its own change as an underhanded attack on its way of life.

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. Jürgen Habermas warns of the crisis around the demise of ideals from inept politicians and the dark forces of the market. With respect to postmodernism, it implies re-inventing modernity, believing in the possibility and the necessity of social progress. This includes the need to steer social development and to think about the Good Society. As Habermas noticed, the Enlightenment is an unfinished project – we must aspire to a public sphere that serves to make things better.

Power is best seen as an invisible force linking individuals and actors, in a state of constant flux and renegotiation. Empowerment of excluded groups and individuals involves the redistribution of that power, so that it accumulates in the hands of women and men living in poverty. Power for excluded groups and individuals can be disaggregated into three basic forms, each of which can be promoted by state action: Power within – a sense of rights, dignity and voice, along with basic capabilities. This individual level of empowerment is an essential precondition for collective action. Power with – ability to organize, express views. People living in poverty come together to express their views and demand their rights. Power to – ability to influence decision makers, whether the State, economic power holders or others. Thus, poor people’s voices become effective in influencing those in power. Empowerment can be thought of as the life and outlook-changing outcome of such a process for individuals, organizations, and whole communities.

Empowerment should be driven primarily by those whom it is intended to benefit – poor and excluded groups. Marginalized people and their organizations need to be in the driving seat, whether leading on their own, with allies, or exploring and co-creating solutions with government. The role of government in promoting such power is subtle, but important. On their own, policies and laws are seldom sufficient to achieve tangible social change. The underlying challenge is often the existence of enduring social and cultural norms that create relations of power and disadvantage between different social groups based on gender, class, disability, age, caste or ethnicity. More broadly, governments can help create an “enabling environment” that makes it easier for marginalized groups to empower themselves. Empowerment is not a goal or outcome of participation or leadership, but rather as a key part of the process of both developing and applying political and civic leadership.

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