All posts by William Manson

Class Warfare 101

Starting around 1848, socialists flooded the world with pamphlets and manifestos explaining the basics of “wage-labor” vs. “capital.” Yet here we are in the 21st century, having to go back to basics–even though one would think that the dire economic situation for most people today “speaks for itself.” However, given the recent misguided detour into side-issues–notably, police-style racism vs. “anti-fascism” (whatever happened to “anti-globalization”?)–a basic reminder about the primacy of “class” seems to be in order.

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, beginning over 30 years ago, socialism was peremptorily consigned to the proverbial “dustbin of history.” Marxism, we were told by innumerable think-tank “intellectuals,” was a failed experiment. Maybe a handful of the intellectually curious still go back and look at socialist-Marxist literature–a body of writings once pored over by countless millions committed to “world revolution.”

With the exception of students of Russian history, few will remember how, as the Czar abdicated in March of 1917, a democratic, multi-party Constituent Assembly was established. By November, the Bolshevik power-seizure, engineered by Lenin and Trotsky with the substantial assistance of the German high command, dismantled the Assembly, banned the other (mostly socialst-democratic) parties, and jailed without trial many dedicated socialists whose positions displeased the dictator Lenin. Freedom-of-the-press was immediately drastically curtailed–the one notable exception being Novy Mir, the popular paper edited by famed novelist and humanistic socialist Maxim Gorky. Before his paper was eventually banned, Gorky wrote innumerable articles blasting the anti-democratic, thuggish totalitarianism imposed by Lenin. Yet in Russia, the Warsaw Bloc, and many African dictatorships, this Bolshevik-style of elite-bureaucratic, single-party and totalitarian “socialism” was imposed–only to eventually fail. The bogus valorization of “the people,” an abstraction, contrasted with the subjugation (and sometimes murder) of very real, if intractable, individuals. Nineteenth-century Marxists, responding to the vestiges of serfdom (and its transformation into a proletariat), were generally less concerned about civil liberties per se.

In this brief article, I merely want to remind readers of a few precepts of Marxism which remain as relevant as ever. (Lenin also admittedly offered useful ideas about “monopoly capitalism”–ideas later developed by Baran and Sweezy (1960s) and the editors of the Monthly Review.) In reality, as economic conditions for at least 80% of the world’s population have worsened in recent decades, Marxist explanations seem especially compelling once again.

To begin at the beginning–the raison-d-etre of capitalist enterprises. How do the big shareholders of major corporations maximize profits? By the 20th century, relentless marketing of their “products”–with its penultimate perfection in the all-pervasive conditioning of everyone with multi-media exposure. As the passive, beleaguered individual increasingly feels insignificant, she correspondingly idolizes prestigious consumer-goods (Marx’s “commodity-fetishism”). But in every industry, rival corporations are forced to engage relentlessly in “discounts”) and price-cutting–in the never-ending effort to grab more customers. The age-old solution (escalated in the Clinton administration): mergers, acquisitions–and eventual “oligopoly.” A major corporation, by eliminating and/or swallowing almost all its primary competitors, can then of course raise prices back up. The result?: more customers, better profit-margin, reduced advertising costs, and so on.

The next step: break unions. Claim that minority workers, whether immigrants or not, are stealing jobs from the dominant ethnic group. Nip in the bud any emerging sense of shared “class solidarity.” Invest heavily, along with other industries, in a relentless campaign of anti-union propaganda; confused employees, even overtly threatened with reprisals, will then typically reject union organizing. But with such low, stagnant wages, offer employees various schemes for “low-interest, easy credit”–allowing them the illusion of such things as home “ownership.” ( Such illusions are often quickly shattered.) Of course, by the late 20th century, corporations “racing-to-the bottom,” scouring the globe in the search of the cheapest possible labor-force (i.e., poor, economically desperate people).

Back in the U.S. and EU, superannuated workers suddenly realized that they actually “owned” very little. With higher unemployment, tens-of-millions of the desperate were of course forced to accept whatever low-wage job appeared on the horizon. Part-time, contingent labor verged on becoming the norm, as corporations temporarily “used-then-discarded” employees in order to maximize even more the omnipotent “bottom-line.” By the early 21th century, even workers in the Tech sector–the one dramatically expanding, relatively new industry–were reeling from one such setback after another.

These days, Silicon chieftains are finding this COVID crisis of 2020-21 to be yet another “golden opportunity” to reduce the labor-force of actual human beings. Even before the “Luddite” rebellion by weavers (ca. 1811), every step in automation has deskilled legions of workers, depriving them of the income needed for survival. In our time, with frequent saturation-points of consumer “demand,” big corporations have focused even more on “reducing labor costs” as a major, if not the major, source of increased profits. Today’s Tech giants, as arrogant as the steel-and-oil barons of yore, are in the business of promoting all kinds of “labor-saving” products, from online “education” (goodbye teachers) to robotics (goodbye everyone?). Marx of course described all these trends in detail, noting the inevitability of downward mobility into poverty for such deskilled and displaced millions of persons. But one doubts whether even Marx could ever have envisaged a world “owned” by 1000-or-so billionaires?

Zoological Lexicon

biden (n.)– an Aristotelian zoon politikon, subsisting exclusively on the decaying remnants of political “spoils”

blair (n.)– a small parasite, which rides on, and feeds off of, the posteriors of its hosts

bush (n.)– a vicious bird-of-prey, especially dangerous for its sudden attacks and wanton cruelty

cheney (n.)– a secretive, subterranean creature which burrows into, and gradually destroys, all living things

clintonb (n.)– a spineless invertebrate: has wide-ranging nocturnal habits; classified as an “opportunistic omnivore”

obama (n.)– a species of “cyborg,” characterized by a human larynx connected to speech-writing machine

pence (n.)– a newly discovered creature: apparently lacks any distinctive characteristics or intelligent behaviors

trump (n.)– in Freudian/Haeckelian evolutionary theory, an archaic “survival” of indeterminate anthropoid origin; exclusively motivated by a conspicuously “primitive” and undifferentiated Id

“De-Socialized” Self-Identity and Liberating Self-Awareness

The unexamined life is not worth living.

— Socrates

From our earliest years, we are over-socialized.  An organized regimen of daily activity, we are taught, is the basis for a “productive” life.  Such “productivity” — unlike immeasurables such as deepening self-awareness — is later concretely identifiable in such acquisitions as university degrees, “positions,” “achievements,” and so on.  Of course, Calvinist-Puritan Europeans feared that “idle hands did the devil’s work” (sensuality, adultery, drunkenness, etc.).  To “keep busy,” by contrast, was to produce tangible results often beneficial both to self and community.

But what of our highly active, even frenetic, daily lives in the early 21st century?  Of course, substantial effort is expended to develop “marketable skills” — in order to “earn money” and survive. Yet, within the oppressive constraints imposed on us every day, each person may nonetheless nurture an inner, contemplative space — perhaps ultimately unshareable but all-the-more uniquely individual for that.  In fact, as mega-corporate structures have tightened their control of people’s daily habits and inclinations (as in “algorithms,” “nudges,” surveillance, etc.), it becomes all the more imperative that each individual not only “choose-to-refuse” but also steadfastly cultivate an integrated self-identity (cf. my article, “The Sanctum of Self-Identity.”) Notwithstanding the prevailing ideology of “identity-politics” — in which unique individuals are reduced to mere social roles (of “race” and “gender”) — self-identity consists of one’s carefully-shaped values, ideals, critical intellect, and developing emotional/aesthetic temperaments.  In my earlier article “Marcuse: Art and Liberation,” I also insisted that the experience of humanistic art broadens and enriches individual awareness beyond the degrading limits of current social-economic status.

De-socialization — the replacement of externally-imposed behaviors with radical non-compliance and carefully chosen goals of enlightenment and social-political activism — is facilitated by frequent moments of self-observation.  Some quick examples:

  1. Why am I anxious?  Was it something in ‘the news’?  Is it really necessary to follow the daily regurgitation of the ‘media’?”
  2. Why do I feel the insistent need to do something?  Is it fear that global crises are accelerating to the point-of-no-return?  Is this entirely true — or does fear-mongering by the media keep us glued to commercial-driven screens (and various forms of chemical and/or entertainment ‘escapes’)?”
  3. “Is my constant anger and resentment being manipulated and misdirected?  Am I becoming poisoned with hate — and toward group-label abstractions (“fascists,” “liberals,” etc.)?  How else might I confront human ignorance and bigotry?”

Such observations may lead to the recognition of possibly self-destructive and/or anxiety-driven patterns.  (And, as well, the recognition that much of one’s daily activities are unnecessary.)

Notwithstanding our ongoing historical struggle for an egalitarian-communitarian social order, each of us will remain substantially alone.  Indeed, this feeling of inner “privacy” — and thus, a modicum of “alienation” from others — is the price of self-directed autonomy and critical-thinking perceptions of others.  And with it, the enlightened self-realization which constitutes the most intimate form of liberation.

The Moralistic Mauvaise Foi of “Planet of the Humans”

Yes, the overall message of the film can hardly be faulted.  The anthropocentric world-view — which for millennia has justified human “dominion” over, and exploitation of, all other life-forms — has been disastrously hubristic.  But the Deep Ecology paradigm, initially developed by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, has articulated this viewpoint for several decades (and in a far more coherent and constructive manner).  Even convicted serial killer Ted Kaczynski, in his Social-Darwinist-tainted Industrial Society and Its Future (1995), presented some valid points along these lines.  And for several decades, almost all major eco-groups, from Greenpeace to Friends of the Earth, have consistently campaigned for dramatically reduced consumption — not only of “energy” but of material goods in general.

A Manichean (“good” vs. evil”) moralism is adopted by narrator Jeff Gibbs (and is certainly nothing new for Michael Moore, his friend and executive producer).  Yes, terribly shortsighted compromises by certain enviro-orgs — most conspicuously the Sierra Club’s acceptance of massive sums from natural-gas and timber interests! — are important to know.  But to implicitly smear all enviro-orgs (“guilt-by-association”) is little better than an “eco-McCarthyism.”  What is Gibbs’ motive here?  To claim that all enviro-NGOs have “sold out” to Big Business?  Inevitably, along predictable Mephistophelian lines, fossil-fuel corporations will dangle huge sums in front of such groups, promising in the bargain to “green” some of their destructive activities (in reality, to “green-wash” them).  But the vast majority of such NGOs have avoided these lures.  One merely has to read their annual reports and 990 tax statements, all made available.  In addition, respected philanthropy watchdogs such as Charity Watch and Charity Navigator provide financial evaluations of effectiveness and transparency.

Director Gibbs, like his pal Moore, continues to use the very questionable tactic of on-camera encounters at informal settings, wherein the hapless respondents inevitably appear awkward, uninformed, even evasive.  I consider this mean-spirited (“bad faith”): given the egregious omnipresence of video-recorders of all types (even in phones), how many of us, when confronted at any given moment, will be articulate and convincingly honest?  Despite Al Gore’s reprehensible and opportunistic political positions over his career, Earth in the Balance (1992) and An Inconvenient Truth  (2006) surely raised public awareness and understanding about the threat of global warming?  And one cannot justifiably conclude, as Gibbs insinuates, that Gore’s main purpose in making the documentary was to promote capital-investment in the “renewable”-energy companies he may be financially connected with.  To claim, as Gibbs does, that all major enviro-groups have been “taken over by capitalism” is silly, if not mendacious.  The world-economy, quite obviously, is capitalist; the relevant question is whether such groups in general receive funding from the very industries they claim to be fighting against.  The answer is: no.  For that matter, the producer Michael Moore is himself a 1% “capitalist.”  Last I read, his net worth was around $50 million!  Is he donating most of it to Doctors Without Borders or Oxfam (refugees, famine, cholera in Yemen) — and/or to Greenpeace et al??  Brazen hypocrisy should not be exhibited by outspoken critics of hypocrisy.

Yes, Bill McKibben does not “present well” on camera: in the clips presented, McKibben appears awkward, even evasive.  But, despite the film’s insinuation of secret corporate backers, the website does list the names of its foundation donors.  (One may indeed question, as I do, the organization’s single-minded focus on CO-2 — which ignores methane, 85X more potent as a greenhouse gas.)  A dozen years ago, McKibben did appear incredibly foolish when he enthusiastically advocated “bio-mass” burning (“renewable!”), but he soon repudiated this whole notion as “a bad idea.”  But Gibbs and Moore employ their very questionable technique of browsing through abundantly available, and often outdated, video-materials — to find conspicuously embarrassing and even “suspect” moments.  Gibbs, of course, doesn’t bother to set up serious interviews, in which Gore, McKibben, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and the others would be allowed to respond (not necessarily forthrightly, of course).

How does the major thrust of the movie, that “clean” energy is a pipe-dream, stand up to serious analysis?  First, the fact that certain concert emcees falsely claimed that the events were “100% solar-powered” means nothing — so what?  Foolish hyperbole?  Of course.  Throughout the movie, Gibbs, the purist, remains fixated on “either/or.”  Either an energy-source is entirely “off-the-grid” or, it’s still dependent on fossil fuels.  Many critics of the film have noted that Gibbs didn’t bother to present the current efficiency of solar-and-wind energy technologies, which have indeed been infused with a lot of R & D investment in recent years.  In sun-drenched sub-tropical regions, off-the-grid solar panels, with adequate hydrogen storage batteries, may soon be feasible.  But Gibbs is perplexed that the hydrogen itself comes from fossil fuels.  So what?  On balance, wouldn’t such off-the-grid solar still be a huge energy-saving advantage — compared with the vast network of “natural” gas pipelines?  Gibbs, who certainly makes the GM executive he encounters look foolish, dismisses the electric Chevy Volt as hopelessly misguided — it requires charging from the mainstream power-grid (fossil-fuel based)!  Again, so what?  Isn’t the vehicle still possibly preferable to a gas-guzzling SUV (or even a Prius)?

The points about the fallacies of “bio-fuels” are valid but have been widely known for over 10 years.  This exemplifies perhaps the major shortcoming of the movie: sketchy and often-outdated information, with a conspicuous absence of any current scientific testimony on the issues. On the other hand, the film does a good job in revealing the fraud of “bio-mass” as a “renewable” energy-source.  Timber companies, responding to the reduced demand for paper, re-marketed wood as a “natural, renewable” alternate-energy source.  Vast, rapid-growth “tree plantations” are now scattered through much of the U.S. South.

“Proportionate Risk”: COVID or PAE?

As Ivan Illich pointed out in Medical Nemesis (1976), the reigning medical industry enjoys a virtual monopoly on defining “disease,” as well as on the endless production of lucratively patented new drugs ostensibly effective as treatments.  “Public awareness” campaigns are highly selective: one situation is a world emergency, another is simply an ongoing “problem.” As to the latter, I am referring here to what are euphemistically designated as “preventable adverse events” (PAEs). This is used as a mortality-rate category: “medical errors” directly leading to the deaths of patients.

In our current state of widespread alarm, we hear from medical authorities that this COVID pandemic could kill as many as 200,000 Americans. (We hear much less about the usually advanced age, as well as usual “co-morbidities,” of such persons — nor of the secondary (bacterial) pneumonia, hardly unusual in the hospital setting, which finishes so many of them off.) So a bit of skepticism, perhaps not too much, is still warranted in the current situation.  How many elderly victims, in heavily polluted northern Italy, were also smokers? How many Chinese victims, in industrial (polluted) regions, were smokers?  (Hint: almost half of Chinese men smoke, but smoking is becoming less prevalent in China.)

In such a rapidly growing crisis, the U.S. Congress comes to the rescue — with multi-trillion-dollar appropriations, much of it public-financed subsidy/investments in privately owned medical research initiatives (e.g., the usual “race for a vaccine”). Sound familiar? (Read: “corporate socialism — as in, “The “War” — on something hard to measure but nonetheless looming menacingly — “Terror.”) In that particular case, of course, the rapid result was the doubling of the Pentagon/”national security” budgets, as well as the creation of yet another federal department, “Homeland Security.”

But to return to those PAEs. Is it not a widespread medical emergency when such PAEs are directly causing up to 400,000 deaths in the U.S. every year??1 Another published study only estimates a (minimum) figure of 250,0002 — which still would make PAEs “the third leading cause of U.S. deaths annually.”  Moreover, unlike epidemics, such deaths are, by definition, preventable — should hospitals invest sufficient budget in more safety-measures and correctives (as well as avoiding the cash-cow of largely unnecessary, and potentially complicated, coronary surgeries3 ). By the way, the PAE estimates reported in these studies generally do not include the hard-to-measure but nonetheless clearly tens-of-thousands of annual U.S. fatalities due to “used-as-directed” prescription-drugs (most lethally, such notorious “medications” as Vioxx and Oxycontin).

To sum up: using a crude estimate — after all, why be too precise when only millions of lives are being terminated? — one can reasonably suppose that as many as 500,000 Americans, per year, are being killed — due to such PAEs and unsafe drugs — by their profit-driven, cost-cutting “health care system.” Need I say more?

  1. John James, Ph.D., “A New Evidence Based Estimate of Patient Harms Associated with Hospital Care,” Journal of Patient Safety, September 2013.
  2. Study Suggests Medical Errors Now Third Leading Cause of Death in U.S.John Hopkins Medicine (report), May 3, 2016.
  3. Nortin Hadler, M.D. Worried Sick: Overmedicated America (chapter 2), University of North Press, 2012.

“Artistic-Humanistic” Creativity (1960-65)

Lately, in my ongoing exploration of the artistic movements of the American past, I’ve noticed that, in a mere half-decade (1960-65), creative achievements in the performing arts — music, drama, film — were so outstanding as to never to be equaled again (in my opinion).  What are my criteria for such “greatness” in these art-forms?  Basically, powerfully humanistic and vigorously executed creations, works that express — often subtly and with considerable nuance — ultimate human values.  Both rational and emotional, such a work must exhibit coherent, unified structure, as well as an authenticity of insight which transcends stale platitudes and hackneyed sentiments.  The viewer/listener is not only genuinely moved but also energized by the vigor and creative originality of the work.

If my thesis is justified, why did this short period exhibit such a creative-artistic efflorescence?  My impression is that, starting around 1960, a subjective feeling of a gradually expanding “liberation” was occurring.  As someone who still acknowledges the importance of such post-Freudians as Wilhelm Reich, I would insist that improved contraceptives (notably, “the pill”) was a key factor, as well as the gradually liberalizing norms regarding sexual behavior, divorce, and (a few years later) abortion.  But this feeling — a sense of a more humane, livable Zeitgeist emerging — was also mostly dramatically evidenced by the victories of the Civil Rights movement, victories which catalyzed a hopeful, guardedly optimistic vision of a freer-world-to-come.

Another factor was demographic: in 1960, 50% of Americans were under 18.  Such sheer numbers of young people, often disaffected and dissatisfied with the racist and blandly consumeristic status quo, pressed — with youthful vigor and idealistic enthusiasm — against the reactionary stagnation of their elders.  However, I’m more inclined to look to the 30-somethings of 1960-65: people already inclined to a more progressive-humanistic vision because of some first-hand experience of the Depression–or, at least, of its humane, artistic depiction (cf. Steinbeck, Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” etc.).

Who were these creators — to name a few, representative examples — and what did they create?  In drama, I’m thinking of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, a powerfully moving, convincing drama of one black family’s pain-and-struggle against segregation (far superior as drama, in my opinion, to the relentlessly over-hyped Death of a Salesman and adapted into a fine 1961 film).  In music: not only the boldly raw, vigorously impassioned hard bop jazz created by inner-city black musicians such as Lee Morgan and Miles Davis, but also the genre-transcending, freshly challenging jazz experiments of Dave Brubeck and others.  A key facilitating factor here was the existence of independent record companies and producers with a genuine interest in artistic innovation (Blue Note records, Columbia Records producer Teo Macero, etc.).  Even book publishers were, at that time, mostly small, independent firms (e.g., Knopf), still more interested in real quality than in maximizing sales (i.e., “the profit-margin”).

The film industry in the early Sixties?  Many talented writers — some newly-emerged from the HUAC blacklist — were unapologetically committed to some form of socialism or “social democracy,” a conviction which embraced human equality and dignity, and condemned exploitation of wage-laborers and racial/ethnic minorities.  I’m thinking in particular of the epic drama Spartacus (1960) — based on a novel by the Communist Howard Fast and scripted by ex-listed Dalton Trumbo — which earnestly and powerfully depicted the Roman Slave Revolt, ca. 71 B.C.  The synergy of talents exhibited in the film — writing, directing, acting, music — is probably unparalleled in the history of American film.  But, most importantly, the film was a powerfully dramatized treatment of an ultimate theme of human consequence: the value of the individual, free and undominated, as against the changing forms of historical tyranny and subjection.

The early Sixties also saw a burgeoning awareness of Freud’s often-disturbing insights into irrational, malignant human motivations.  Thus, for instance, the film adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd (1962) unflinchingly probed the repressed Claggart’s sadistic intentions toward Billy.  In black-comedy — a subversive genre which came-of-age in this period — we see the paralyzed, impotent Dr. Strangelove rejoicing in a “cosmic orgasm” of global, nuclear armageddon (Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 film).

Nowadays, unfortunately, the enlightening perspectives of both Marxist and Freudian explanations have almost entirely disappeared — as what remains of an intelligent, searching public understanding is submerged ever-further into the confused blind-alley of “identity-politics.”  And, as for the often malignant motivations of many present-day filmmakers, I refer you to an earlier article, “Reviving Radical Populism in Films.”

Homo App-iens: Robot’s “Best Friend”?

Can you spare a moment?  (Me? I’ve got nothing but time, “free” time — and that’s the whole point, isn’t it?).  It’s just that I’m really excited: I’m now the first on the block to be living in a “Fully-Automated Home” (FAH)!  I’ll bet my neighbors are green with envy (though I’ve never actually seen them — they rarely come “outside”).  Just lately, most everyone has been thinking of making the final conversion, haven’t they — if they can afford it!  Sure, there are still a few “relics” around here, lumbering about with silly, “labor-saving” contraptions like leaf-blowers.  (Primitives, I’m told, even used a crude implement called a “rake”!).  Old geezers who are stuck in the past, like fossils-in-amber-reminiscing about pushing self-propelled lawn mowers, sweat dripping from their brows and all!  Can you imagine that?  Just yesterday I said, “Peona, cut the grass!” — and, presto! that was that.  Labor-saving, time-saving, allowing us to live the leisure-class lifestyle we deserve!  But you know all this.  What was it I wanted to mention…?

Oh yeah.  Remember the old days, when all this was a real novelty, exciting — remember that shivery thrill (frisson?) of empowerment?  It was a real “high” (at first): “Alexa, I feel like hearing some Muzak!”  I’d stretch out, lean back and relax, sipping my tasty “meal substitute” drink!  And most nights, if I’d been especially “good,” I’d treat myself to a deliciously munchable treat!

It was a soothing, soporific, halcyon time!  But that was just the beginning, wasn’t it, of this whole new age of domestic “restivity”!  You know, just this morning, lounging about on my lounger, I was wondering about ancient Rome — such as what “leisure services” the patrician-class might have enjoyed in those distant days.  “Biblia,” I commanded, “read something about ancient Rome — subtopic: services for the patrician-class.”  “Affluent people,” she promptly intoned, “were carried in a litter or a chair”.1  She started to read more — about banquets, the arena, chariot-racing — but I asked her to stop.  Not a bad life-style, no doubt, but, of course, primitive compared to ours!

Why, these days, if I feel like going out, I just say, “Mobilia, turn on, unlock” — and, in the-blink-of-an-eye (so to speak), off I go!  (“Not NOW, Mobilia; turn OFF; re-lock; CANCEL!”).  Sorry, I sometimes forget to de-activate, before I… oh, well, no sweat!  Now where was I?  Oh yeah, well, we’ll take a spin around Central Park — though, what with those “needle-skyscrapers” they put up years ago, it’s not much of a park anymore.  And then, well…we come back Home.  (I know, not much of an “excursion.”  But why go out anyway when I have everything I could want right here!)

Believe me, now that my FAH is up and running, I feel so liberated that I could just take a nap…right here on the sofa (…zzzz…).  What?  What’s that you said?  Sorry, I must have dozed off.  Anyway, I’m getting hungry: “Servilia, make me a bologna sandwich.”  You know, it’s almost like being a king, reclining here on my (well-padded) throne or, something.  A master-of-the-realm: I wish, I command, and then… (“NO mustard, Servilia!  How many times have I…!”).  Sorry.  Bit annoying how she sometimes does that, even though I’ve told her a thousand times… Oh, well, nothing’s perfect, and sorry for the distraction.  Where was I?

Of course, like everybody, I do get a little bored sometimes — that’s only “natural”!  Say I feel like some stimuli.  I just say, “Aphroditea!  Soft-porn — exotic setting!” (“No, not NOW, Aphroditea! De-activate, cancel!”). Sorry, again!  You can see that I haven’t, quite adjusted to the all-round, labor-saving convenience of a Fully-Automated-Home (FAH).  It takes time: you have to pay attention and exert effort, yes, and like any set of skills, practice!  Specific on-and-off commands, and also different vocalizationsm, for instance, (with deep intonation!): “Epsilonia, vacuum living room!” (“No, no — not NOW!  De-activate — Cancel!”).  What the FAH?!

Okay, okay.  I just haven’t yet mastered all the “whens-and-the-hows”!  But YOU try to deal with all these devices and commands!  You think it’s easy — try it!  Takes a lot of concentration, even alertness!  So don’t tell me that…!  Geez, what’s got into me? Sorry for “flying-off-the-handle” like that! (Is that what they used to call it?).  Guess I’ve been a little on-edge lately.  Odd, because my life these days couldn’t be better!

Anyway, you know, it’s getting late…I’m feeling a bit drowsy…time to stretch out on the sofa here.  So I’ll have to say so long, for now.  Oh yeah, almost forgot — tomorrow’s the scheduled pick-up day.  “Dronea!  Take out the garbage — now!”

  1. J. Balsdon, Life & Leisure in Ancient Rome, October 1969, p. 51.

“Triumphant War Hero” Gets Re-elected?

A bit splattered by the blood of thousands of its “collateral” victims, the old, tattered “Re-election Playbook” is being actively consulted once again.  Back in 1787, Thomas Jefferson had adamantly insisted that the new U.S. Constitution stipulate only one presidential term, but his prescient warning was ignored.  (Fortunately his other requirement, that a Bill of Rights be appended, was approved.)  Like so many well-read 18th century politicians (including the young Napoleon), Jefferson looked to the history of the Roman Republic for cautionary precedents.  He knew well that political opportunists like Julius Caesar had won their early mass popularity through their exploits as military conquerors.  In the early stages of his political career, victorious general Caesar would march into Rome, leading a “Triumph” — an endless procession of chained war-captives and cartloads of plunder – before the admiring crowds of plebeians.  His renown was such that, when he was off on his Gallic campaign, he convinced the Senate to pass a special edict allowing him to run for election as Consul in absentia (successful).  His older rival Crassus, financier and slumlord (“the richest man in Rome”), even re-invented himself as a conquering general for political advantage (but he was fortunately, as Plutarch relates, led to his own destruction in Parthia–now Iraq).

Turning to U.S. political history, one could draw up quite a list of military generals who, celebrated by the public as heroes, sought greater political power by running for president (often successfully).  And, of course, such cynical manipulation of the electorate continues up to the recent present.  One major, if not the major, objective for waging war against non-threatening Iraq was to secure this, almost invariable, political advantage as the election year 2004 loomed ahead.  As far as the timing of the attack was concerned (March 19, 2003), the self-impressed Rumsfeld had assumed that “victory” would be attained in a matter of weeks. And such “victory,” in the aftermath of the vicious “Shock-and-Awe” bombing campaign, was indeed soon proclaimed, thus enabling Rove and his ilk to plan a gala, Roman-style “Triumph,” with the military-attired and swaggering Bush landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, to a national frenzy of celebration and under a presumptuously boasting “Mission Accomplished” banner (May 1).  Allowing for such a hugely popular, “patriotic” kick-off for an 18-month re-election campaign, the timing of May 1 seemed advantageous. (That Iraq had never been a threat, and that the alleged WMDs were never found, barely moderated this wellspring of popular acclaim for the “war hero” — at least for some months.)

In any event, we may now jump exactly eight years hence — to on or about May 1, 2011.  Now it was Obama’s turn to play military hero — in his own kick-off for re-election!  So far, despite his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, as well as his well-publicized “kill list” (drones), he hadn’t yet demonstrated the kind of ruthlessly unprincipled crushing of a “foreign” people which the majority of potential voters seem to relish.  But he had a perfect, quicker, and far less expensive alternative: “take out” Osama bin Laden!  Although the majority of Americans passively or willingly understood little or nothing about the geopolitical distinctions between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, they had been certain that “Saddam Hussein” — this moniker repeated over and over by Bush! — was the personification of all-that-is-evil.  But by 2011 Saddam was dead — having been hanged after a kangaroo-court conviction — and Americans could once again redirect their hate toward an alternative Satan (“Goldstein” of Orwell’s 1984 being unavailable).  Obama’s political handlers, like Bush’s, agreed that an 18-month halo of heroic triumph would help considerably in the long march toward re-election–and they were right.  Of course, Obama, in announcing “the killing of Osama bin Laden” to an awestruck citizenry (May 1, 2011), lied about the actual circumstances, as Seymour Hersh and others have noted.  (E.g., the non-existent “fire-fight” which was claimed in order to re-sell the assassination team as heroic commandos.)  And, of course, with the universally impressed and fawning media adding to the “Triumph,” Obama virtually coasted, with only a few bumps, to re-election in November 2012.

As aforementioned, this “Re-election Playbook,” however old and frayed, has nonetheless proven its ongoing usefulness to the recent crop of lying, opportunistic and murderous presidents.  For Trump — as for virtually all insatiably ambitious presidents — political advantage will always trump any practical strategic (or even economic) considerations.  Thus, deceptively cooking up the usual “justifications” for imminent war, this time with Iran, a nation which, as attested by the EU and other agencies had abided by the signed agreement only to see the U.S. under Trump unilaterally withdraw.  Trump’s hand-picked “national security” advisers are offering him huge political dividends: immense re-election financing from the likes of billionaire casino-mogul Sheldon Adelson (AIPAC), as well as the usual Big Oil industry funders (such as the Kochs, conspicuously represented in policy by their protege Pompeo).

If May 1, 2019 has come and gone, Trump may still have ample time — with the enthusiastic support of his flag-waving base (and the reliably acquiescent media) — to ride the crest of a trumped-up Iranian war, into re-election in November of next year.  But if that scenario doesn’t quite materialize, there is always the tried-and-true fallback: the venerable “October Surprise”!

Reclaiming Autonomy = Rejecting Bureaucracy

In the 20th century, several radical thinkers of considerable stature aimed to rethink, and possibly transcend, the premises of State-oriented, progressive-political ideology.  Pioneering sociologist Max Weber critiqued the massively-encroaching “bureaucratization” of all aspects of everyday life — the diminishment of the unique individual into a “calculable person” (to use Foucault’s phrase).  Like Weber, Michel Foucault valued the rational/scientific legacy of the Enlightenment, but deplored the “management” of “employees/citizens” that came in its wake.  Similarly, Lewis Mumford — another major, post-Marxist revisionist now (almost) entirely forgotten — offered a “libertarian” and de-centralized vision of vibrant social communities, as an alternative to the bureaucratized “total society” (which he termed “the Megamachine”).

In this essay, I’m turning to a brief re-examination of the unorthodox ideas of Ivan Illich, whose best writings — notably Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis — aimed to question the entire edifice of the “managed society.”  Certainly, we’re well aware that, with the imposition of colonialism, a vast and varied multitude of localized folk-knowledge and ways of living were destroyed. In the aftermath — and this historical process is still ongoing! — individuals were deprived of their land and modes of adapting, and forcibly transformed into subjects of State and Capital.  Reciprocal sharing and learning of traditional life-skills were replaced by “managers” and “experts,” who dictated new definitions of “needs” — now to be fulfilled primarily through market-based consumption of their goods-and-services.  Informal learning was replaced by “education,” subsistence techniques by mechanized/chemical “agriculture.”  Traditional practical knowledge, as well as folk-wisdom, were soon lost as was “the pleasure derived from personal autonomous action.”  Formerly self-regulating individuals became “consumers” of newly-imposed “commodities,” such as seeds, tractors, “infant formula,” and so forth.  Moreover, the expanded definition of “needs” — consumption of which now required imposed wage-labor and acquisition of debt — transformed formerly independent, adaptive persons into bondage to the State and its corporate masters.  In short, as Illich put it, people were “dis-abled” from their former competences, becoming “clients” of varied “experts” and “managers.”

Like Mumford, Illich condemned the crushing of individual creative adaptation, and with it the person’s “confidence in his own unaided capacities.”  Instead of enhancing the self-awareness and habits of good health, people — as we see all around us today! — were soon rushing to “the doctor” at the first sign of an ailment (usually self-correcting).  The burgeoning medical industry, imposing a monopoly on the definition of “health,” claimed the exclusive power to define “sickness” and its appropriate “treatment” (all at substantial cost, of course, to the hapless “patient”!).  (Parenthetically, one might insert a word of skepticism regarding proposed U.S. “Medicare-for-All” — given this well-documented study by James Leiber: Killer Care: How Medical Errors Have Become the Third Leading Cause of Death.)  As the individual felt increasingly unable to cope with the difficulties of family and social life, he increasingly turned to “family counselors,” “financial advisors,” “personal coaches” — even “sex therapists” (cf. Thomas Szasz, Sex by Prescription).

Thus, the inexorable historic shift, from prideful autonomy (and dignity) to what Illich termed “heteronomy” — i.e., total dependence on, and control by, “managerial-elites” and the commodities they now insist are “needs.”  Certainly, given the labyrinthine web of “services” in which most of us find ourselves enmeshed, Illich’s ideas today, if anything, constitute an increasingly urgent wake-up call.  Totally rejecting the dependence imposed in consumer-society, Illich to the end celebrated “the advantages of self-chosen joyful austerity!”

“Luddite” Humanist?

I’ll admit it: I haven’t kept up with all this “new-ness” that just seems to have come out of nowhere!  Give you a quick example.  Seems there’s a “Cloud” out there somewhere, a sort-of-menacing Cloud but one you can never see, not even on the edge of the horizon.  And get this. It’s a cloud-to-beat-all-clouds, filled with “Information,” they say — maybe all the Information in the World!  Instead of good old H-2-0!  I don’t know if I can give much credence to such talk — sounds plain nuts to me! — but that’s what a lot of folks have been saying.  Can you beat that?  I didn’t know that.

But there’s more: the word on the grapevine is that all-of-a-sudden people have gotten super-friendly. Seems they’re making new “friends” left and right, by the dozen or even a hundred!  But it’s on their computer, see.  Can you beat that?  So they connect up, they’re “in touch,” with this whole carload of new friends, but they never laugh together or sing-a-long or, get this, even touch one another!  But I suppose these young folks have invented all new kinds of ways of getting acquainted.  I didn’t know that.

For instance, another rumor — even stranger if you ask me! — is that these strangers, I mean, friends, can even fall-for-each-other and start carrying on a secret liaison but all on a computer!  Doesn’t sound so alluring, does it? No hugs and “intimacies” but plenty of “texting” and all!  But maybe they do come down to Earth, eventually, and actually meet “in the flesh” — if their heads-are not-still in-the-Clouds!  (My little joke, get it?)  Me, I’m kind of “demonstrative,” affectionate, even if it’s just a pat-on-the-back.  But lately I see folks — seems like everybody in the town has gone mad! — jabbering away, day and night, on their “smartphones.”   Checking and checking things — in between their talktalktalk!  (But look at me, I should talk — talking you into an early grave!)

But I guess what perplexes me the most is that people have latched on to the idea that being an ordinary human being just doesn’t cut it anymore!  People are restless, dissatisfied, tinkering around — not content with what Nature gave them.  They’ve gotta have a new nose or maybe a more “buxom” look, or something, or maybe no wrinkles at age 70!  Then there’s all this talk of “Intelligence”–how artificial is better than the brains we’ve been born with — and how, wouldn’t it be great (“awesome”?) to “upload” their whole brains into a computer!  Or something.  That, to me, just doesn’t “compute” (get it?).  Then some nutcase got the bright idea that everybody should get a microchip implanted — you heard me — implanted in their brains [NY Times, 6/10/19]!  I wouldn’t even put one in my poor cocker-spaniel — offense to his dignity!

Well, I guess you can see that I just haven’t kept up with all the “latest.”  And I’m sure these folks know best, and have found new-and-better ways to enjoy being a human being!  Me, if I stay inside for more than a few hours, I feel pretty low so don’t expect to find me sitting staring at a computer all day any time soon!  It’s just that the beauties of life, and life itself, are very fleeting.  For instance, as I sat out back early the other morning, the dew still glistening as the sun poked through the mist, a baby deer took its first, awkward steps.  Mighty precious to see that, all that delicacy and innocence rising up in confidence to view the world for the first time.  But the best thing is the birds.  They swoop down to my feeders, reckless and unafraid, dressed in their bright plumage–and then just as quickly soar aloft, and with a kind of “nonchalant” poise (I can get a bit poetic!).  It’s just that — it’s hard to explain — they’re absolutely ”free,” carefree, you know — “free as a bird”!

But I’m sure, when all is said and done, that all these people everywhere, billions of human beings, can’t be wrong–how could they? — and that this overwhelming avalanche of computers and screens and gadgets invading the world will, in the end, make our lives more gracious, kindly, and dignified.  It’s just that I didn’t know that.