JR'S Free Thought Pages
Welcome to the Neo-Conservative Dystopia
Education, Anti-Intellectualism, Religion and the Conservative Corporate Welfare State
by Johnny Reb [June, 2009]
Thanks to the economic policies of neo-conservatives from Ronald Reagan onwards, the world is experiencing a global economic calamity the magnitude of which we have not seen since the Great Depression. Are we therefore now witnessing the end of neo-conservatism or are we on the threshold of even more consolidation of class power, propelling us into a new Feudalism?
As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned with a downright moron. – H. L. Mencken, 1920
Note: The passages that include references to John Dewey are lifted from my MA thesis in philosophy titled Skepticism, Critical Thinking and the Ethics of Belief. For the sake of brevity I’ve omitted the footnotes but if anyone is interested I can provide them for you - or the entire thesis if you like.
Capitalists, militarists and ecclesiastics co-operate in education because all depend for their power on the prevalence of emotionalism and the rarity of critical judgement. - Bertrand Russell
If you think your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument, rather than by persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based on faith, you will realize that argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force either in the form of persecution or by stunting and distorting the minds of the young in what is called “education.” - Bertrand Russell
In the 1960s Richard Hofstadter wrote an insightful social critique called “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”, tracing the social movements that altered the role of intellect in US society from a virtue to a vice. Americans have now achieved the nadir of Hofstadter’s prescient analysis of anti-intellectualism with the presidency of the feather-brained philistine George W. Bush, who prides himself in never having read a book. H. L Mencken’s alarming quote from 1920 at the beginning of this paper was an ominous prediction that has become all too shamefully true.
The philosophy of education as a democratic public sphere committed to producing knowledge, reason, scientific understanding, social practices, skepticism and critical thinking skills that enable young people to expand and deepen their sense of themselves, their moral imaginations, the public good, and the imperatives of a substantive democracy has been in a state of acute crisis for at least the last thirty years. Channeled to the needs and demands of corporate and state military imperialistic interests, education has increasingly abandoned even the pretense of promoting democratic ideals. The needs of corporations and the conservative corporate warfare and welfare state now define the curriculum choices, pedagogy, nature of research, the role of faculty, the structure of public school and university governance, and the quality of education offered to students. As federal and state funding for education is cut, schools and universities are under more pressure to privatize or turn to business and military resources to keep them afloat. Such partnerships betray a more instrumental and mercenary assignment for higher education, a role that undermines the free flow of information, dialogue, and dissent.
Welcome Back to the Dark Ages
We are now experiencing a New Dark Age, reminiscent of the obvious characteristics of the West after the fall of the Greek and Roman Empires; the triumph of religious faith over reason and science, superstition over evidentially based justified belief, the atrophy of the intellectual life, public education and critical thinking that has been replaced by the dominance of training for the corporate world, marketing and consumerism and the infusion of religion into politics at the expense of freedom and democracy – a set of circumstances that was for Voltaire the central abomination and revulsion of the pre-Enlightenment world. Historians referred to this European era when Christianity and Monarchical tyrants ruled, the Dark Ages.
As we progress through history throughout the centuries, the parallels between contemporary America and late-empire Rome, and the subsequent slide into the Dark Ages, become increasingly evocative. All Great Empires collapse from a rot of decadence and corruption from within. The third century AD was characterized by near continuous warfare and imperial expansion, combined with a collapse of the currency and the rise of a military monarchy. Some historians argue that the fourth century was a repressive reaction to the chaos of the third century, leading to the collapse of the empire in the fifth century. Thus by the time of Constantine's death in 337, according to the British historian and archaeologist Chris Scarre, "Rome had lost its pre-eminence, the old gods had gone, civic values and political life had been transformed.” The whimsical Constantine had a vision in a dream that Christianity must be elevated from arcane cult to state religion of the Roman Empire and what we now call the Dark Ages began. “There [were] . . . new policies and strategies of power", Scarre tells us and what Constantine left behind him was a "theocratic-autocratic state." Writing in the early fourth century, the Christian author Lactantius asked: "What purpose does knowledge serve... what blessing is there for me if I should know where the Nile rises, or whatever else under the heavens the 'scientists' rave about?" A hundred years later, St. Augustine spoke contemptuously of "the disease of curiosity ... which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature." And commenting on the centuries that followed, Anthony Gottlieb, an editor for the Economist, reminds us of the colossal ignorance of the Christian West in the second half of the first millennium. By the year 1000," says Gottlieb, "all branches of science, and indeed all kinds of theoretical knowledge except theology, had pretty much disintegrated. Most classical literature was largely unknown. The best educated people ... knew strikingly less than many Greeks 800 years earlier.
For the past 30 years we have also seen the gradual political and economic marginalization of our secular ethos and culture whereby everything is up for sale and at the merciless contingency of the predatory profit system and global marketplace, a breakdown of our sense of altruism and feeling for the common good and where basic civilities and the social decencies are being seriously eroded. Consider s simple example that occurs with annoying regularity: people with cell phones now regularly invade the tranquility of public places as though it’s an extension of their office or living room. Restaurants, bookstores, libraries, museums and even churches, theatres and classrooms are violated by these boorish narcissistic self-absorbed dolts who think the world revolves around only them. The entire system radiates indifference, a regime that provides no heartfelt reason to care about our fellow human being other than what that other person can do enhance or promote our own personal agenda. The motto of Americans is not “God Bless America” but “What’s in it for Me.” – if you take the time to closely examine US history, it really always has been. It’s a morally bankrupt capitalist culture of competitive rude belligerent behavior that have become social norms and where greed, acquisitiveness and self-absorption have become virtues. With no sense of community or caring a society cannot long preserve its legitimacy. The most popular shows on television these days are ones like Survivor, in which screwing your neighbor is the name of the game. It’s my view that boxing is barbaric - but the latest entry in pugilism is called “Extreme Fighting” in which two men are put in a cage like a Roman lion’s den to engage in a no holds barred free for all. It’s a fight to the finish seemingly with no rules of conduct where men are allowed to kick, punch, claw and scratch their way to annihilating their opponent. I honestly can’t bear to watch these sickening pornographic barbaric displays of savagery that passes for sport. When I first had the misfortune of seeing “Jerry Springer” and “Survivor” I was appalled. “We’ve reached a new low point in our culture,” I thought “Are there people on earth that are really this stupid?”But “Extreme Fighting” informed me that we’ve hit rock bottom, amoral void. These disturbing trends will, as history has taught us, ultimately end in total social and economic collapse.
Several years ago I tried to argue in my MA thesis in philosophy titled “Skepticism, Critical Thinking and the Ethics of Belief” that not caring and not knowing are hand maidens in immoral behavior. In other words, I contend that willed ignorance or belief without evidence or sound argument is unethical. Credulity and serious deficiencies in even the most basic knowledge of science, mathematics and history are so extreme and pervasive in the United States that one wonders whether it’s a problem of ignorance or just plain stupidity. On a television program several years ago an interviewer was posing historical questions to young high school graduates. The answers and lack thereof were shocking. One young man was asked “Who won the American Civil War?” “I don’t know and I don’t give a damn,” he smugly responded. Clearly this man is a prime future candidate for the American Presidency. After all we’re frequently told that the United States is a country where “anyone can be president.” The world leader in boorishness and ignorance, George W. Bush has surely proven that assertion.
As for the grim statistics regarding American intellectual life, read and weep: Most Americans, including their political leaders, believe in propositions that should not survive an elementary school education. The U.S. ranks 49th among 156 countries in literacy and its functional illiteracy rate is five times that of Cuba. More Americans believe in horoscopes, the “devil” and ghosts than they do the Theory of Evolution, the cornerstone of modern biology. This includes their imbecilic President George W. Bush who informed us that “God told me to attack Iraq” and insisted ‘the jury is still out on how God created life”, promoting the idea that we “teach the controversy” by teaching “Intelligent Design”, a reformulation of Creationism that has no scientific basis whatsoever. The jury may still be out on whether George W. Bush is capable of rational thought but that is not the issue with his promotion of obscurantism and superstitious nonsense. Among those in the scientific community and other educated intelligent people, there is no controversy about Evolution.* It gets worse: Twenty per cent of Americans think the sun orbits the earth and 17 per cent believe the earth revolves around the sun once a day. Twenty per cent can't find the U.S. on a world map. And according to the New York Times, U.S. workers are so badly educated and lack so many basic skills that American business spends $30 billion a year on remedial training. Seventy percent of American adults cannot name their senators or congressmen; more than half don't know the actual number of senators, and nearly a quarter cannot name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Sixty-three percent cannot name the three branches of government. Other studies reveal that uninformed or undecided voters often vote for the candidate whose name and packaging logo are the most forceful with color apparently a major factor in their decision. Only 21 percent of college-age Americans today read a daily newspaper, as compared with 46 percent in 1972. A 2002 study of college students in California found that most freshmen were not able to follow or analyze arguments, distinguish fallacious from sound ones, synthesize information, conduct research or write papers that were free of major language errors such as syntax, grammar and spelling. Over the past twenty years, the fraction of Americans age eighteen to twenty-four engaged in literary reading dropped 28 percent, and in general non-readers now constitute more than half of the American population. And what they do read is usually inane rubbish such as New Age self-help books like the best selling “The Secret” or third rate pot boilers. All in all, the great mass of Americans speak, act, and "reason" as though their brains consisted of shredded chicken livers rather than gray matter. Cicero wrote that "Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child" and most Americans don't seem to know what has happened even during their own lifetimes. But when the president of the United States George W. Bush is semi-literate at best, can barely utter a coherent sentence and prides himself in not reading books, these disturbing statistics ought not to be surprising. Several decades ago the brilliant playwright Arthur Miller remarked that “Richard Nixon’s character is our history,” which was true when he said it. Now it is the simpleton “dry drunk born again” President George W. Bush who holds that distinction and it will remain true long after his corrupt, bungling tragedy as president is over. Moral philosopher Peter Singer has outlined his facile Manichaean worldview and psychiatrist Justin Frank has shown how his early damage as alcoholic and juvenile delinquent left the man-boy unable to empathize or feel the pain of other human beings not fortunate enough to have been born with the silver spoon. It has, said Frank, left him with “a life-long streak of sadism” – and Christian fundamentalist sadism lifted from the pages of the Old Testament.
*A Gallup poll in June 1993 found that only 11 percent of Americans accepted the standard secular account of evolution, that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process"; 35 percent thought that humans evolved over millions of years, but with divine guidance; and 47 percent maintained that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so"—the creation story as told in the Book of Genesis. Other polls at about the same time discovered that 49 percent of Americans believed in demonic possession, 36 percent in telepathy, and 25 percent in astrology; and that no fewer than 68 percent approved of creationism being taught in biology classes. By then, however, few of creationism's advocates actually used the word any more. "Religious America is awakening," Ronald Reagan had announced jubilantly in 1980, shortly before the states of Arkansas and Louisiana passed bills obliging public schools to teach creationism in science lessons. But the laws were struck down by higher courts, which ruled that because creationism was indeed a religious belief it could not be added to the biology curriculum without infringing the constitutional ban on promoting religion, and thereafter the fundamentalists adopted a more scientific-sounding phraseology—"abrupt appearance theory," "intelligent-design theory"—to disguise the fact that their only textbook was the Old Testament.
Political Discourse in America is a Disneyland Fantasy
I never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are. – George H. W. Bush (regarding the shooting down of an Iranian Airbus in 1988 by a US warship, killing all 290 on board)
When John Kerry made Bush look like a bumbling idiot in the presidential debates in 2004, the image of Bush among most Americans was elevated, not in spite of, but because he is a disingenuous crude semi-literate bungler, relieving their anxieties about their own failures and shortcomings. But the debate was basically a sham in which no question of real relevance to the population at large was entertained. It was for example perfectly acceptable to say that the War in Iraq was a strategic error or mismanaged, but under no circumstances could either candidate point out the truth that it was an illegal and immoral neocolonial adventure designed to enhance US power in the Middle East and control Iraq’s huge oil reserves. And of course it was anathema to mention the obvious about 9-11 and what everyone in the world but Americans would admit, that it was blowback from the US interventionist imperialistic policies at least since the Second World War. Ninety-five percent of the issues that represent political reality for 95% of the population were screened out well in advance. Kerry was in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, espousing views on the War during the debate that were just “softer” versions of Bush, promising to send more troops to Iraq to “get the job done,” Now precisely what “job” was that Mr. Kerry? In 1951 Second World War hero General Douglas MacArthur described an America that has not changed since he spoke these words, “Our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear.”
Politically speaking Americans are captivated by a fantasy world that has been deliberately and successfully promoted by the Bush administration and the sycophantic right wing corporate media. This is why that it is not likely that the United States will be able to recover from eight years of a Christian fundamentalist boy monarch and a cynical sociopathic, Dr. Strangelove vice president who have successfully persuaded the majority of the American people that 2 + 2 = 5; and who, in a country in which an elementary understanding of hypothesis and proof, evidence and logical argumentation, are no longer part of the culture, have been able to get away with it. The end game now and has been since 2007 a global economic depression in which there is no end in sight and in which the United States is effectively bankrupt from a massive $13 trillion taxpayer bailout of criminal financial institutions, the wealthy investor class and antiquated anachronistic corporations such as General Motors. The loss of such discernment, however, certainly precedes the inept and deceitful George W. Bush administration: Todd Gitlin, in his memoir The Twilight of Common Dreams, notes that in twenty-five years of teaching the upper stratum of University of California students at Berkeley, he found that a large percentage of them didn't know the difference between an argument and an assertion, a hypothesis and theory and were unable to make a case for or against a historical, philosophical, or sociological proposition. When comedian and social critic Bill Maher remarked of George W. Bush that no other president had relied so heavily on the "intellectual sluggishness of the American people," he may have been unaware of the long-term collapse of American critical faculties that made Bush Jr. possible. Given the reality of this, the administration was free to engage in what Orwell called "reality control" and "newspeak," according to which, if the facts don’t fit the preconception or mythology, you simply deny the facts.
There are conservatives in the United States who are now calling Barrack Obama a Communist and a Fascist. That’s not only a demonstration of extreme ignorance of political philosophy, but a cute trick of Orwellian doublespeak and perversion of logic, especially when one considers that any Junior High School student ought to know that these political classifications belong on opposite ends of the political continuum. But in America uttering absurdities such as this is standard practice, not only from the ignorant hoi polloi, but from the mainstream corporate media. Many in my age bracket likely remember Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant satirical dark comedy of the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. People outside America who saw the film may have thought the script ridiculous. Who, after all, could conceive of a rogue U.S. general setting off World War III because he believes that adding fluoride to drinking water is an International Communist conspiracy to deplete and contaminate all our vital bodily fluids? But in truth, many American extremist right wing groups of the time did believe exactly that, as Richard Hofstadter explained in his 1963 book The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Among similar ideas peddled by the likes of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society were these: that the Marshall Plan had served "the world policy of the Kremlin"; that the Supreme Court was "one of the most important agencies of Communism"; that President Eisenhower (a Republican and war hero) was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy"; and that a gun-control measure proposed after the shooting of President Kennedy was a plot to make the United States "part of one world socialist government.”
Civilization in a narcissistic self-serving cul-de-sac
Many years ago while still a University student it was recommended that I read Arthur Koestler, specifically “The Ghost in the Machine” and “Darkness at Noon.” Koestler was once a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, but eventually became one of the most vociferous anti-communists of his generation. His social critique, however, was not restricted to Communism and the USSR. He didn’t pull any punches when it came to writing about and expressing contempt for the politics and culture of the United States any more than he did vis-à-vis the USSR: a "civilization in a cul-de-sac," he wrote, also referring to America as a "contactless society" populated by automatons. The United States, he continued, is like Rome in the later stages of the Empire: "a similarly soulless, politically corrupt, everybody-for-himself civilization." Perhaps the American psyche has evolved to this soulless stage by its quasi-religious belief in individualism, acquisitiveness and self-promotion often at the expense of democracy, empathy and community. Consequently, perhaps Americans deserve the governments they have endured in the past two hundred or so years because the scenario described is far worse today than when Koestler described it over 50 years ago. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to any society that has lost its moral compass, its sense of mutual aid and community by replacing it with a philosophy of the pure pursuit of self-interest as one that would descend into a chaotic state of nature in which it’s every man against every other. But this is not likely to change because Americans have never been known for their qualities of introspection, self-criticism or capacity to look through the eyes of those they systematically attack, exploit and plunder, instead content to arrogantly believe in mindless delusionary mantras such as “We’re number One”, “America, Love it or Leave it”, “God Bless America” and “Support Our Troops.” It’s important tom point out that even before the genocidal Wars against Native Americans ended in 1890 at Wounded Knee the United States had begun projecting its power across the Pacific and into Latin America. They fabricated an international incident with Mexico in the 1840s, declared War and their troops were in Mexico City within a year, forcing Mexico to relinquish the top 40% of their territory that included California, Arizona and much of what is now Texas and New Mexico. They did the same thing 50 years later with Spain, stealing Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, continuing to oppress the natives and exploit the natural resources with the help of puppet autocratic regimes as had Spain for centuries before. Since 1950 some thirty countries have been invaded and bombed by the United States, the worst being Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos where they indiscriminately massacred 3.5 million peasants. Black American Dick Gregory summed it up like this: “What we’re doing in Vietnam is using the black man to kill the yellow man so that the white man can keep the bland he stole from the red man.”
What is Enlightenment?
In “What is Enlightenment”, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage,” which he defined as his “ability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.” Sapere aude!, exclaimed Kant, “have the courage to use your own reason! – that is the motto of the Enlightenment.” In other words, learning to think for yourself and challenging cultural norms and presuppositions is the essence of a genuine education. The purpose of an education is to be skeptical, to question everything especially all existing authority and power structures. Without this skepticism and ongoing inquiry, no society can remain free. It seems as though the life of the mind has been overwhelmed and suffocated by a huge consumer fantasy world in which everything and everyone is a commodity and has a price tag affixed to it. Our schools have become factories for churning out robotic consumers and docile drones for the business world and happiness is achieved through shopping and accumulation of “stuff”, most of it totally useless. We’re taught that happiness and the solution to life’s problems are not solved by prudence, patience, hard work, public virtue, a sense of community and citizenship and valuing our fellow traveler through life but through materialism, looking out for number one and a vulgar narcissistic self-promotion and bankrupt “me first” morality in which other people simply do not exist save for what they can do for me. Just take a random sample of what people are doing in public places. Most are wired to an Ipod, on their cell phones continually yammering over what I have no idea or mesmerized by their Blackberry. To me it’s an explicit message to the rest of the world to “bugger off; you don’t exist.”The basic civilities and social graces for many people have been replaced by a pervasive indifference and disrespect for their contiguous environment.
A Culture of Superfluous Noise
Research now tells us that the primary cause of stress in today’s over-populated and urban world is noise, much of which is subtle and becoming unnoticeable to many. But anyone who has taken a hike to a tranquil mountaintop will understand this. But we insist on contributing to the noise by living inside a self-inflicted cacophonic cocoon of continual stimulation by gadgets, gizmos and superfluous technological noise makers that invade any possibility of peace and serenity. When I arrive for my morning workout at the YMCA the change room invariably has a television blaring (usually the boring stock market channel or a mindless 24-7 Prayer line) and when I arrive to the exercise area there is music playing that I can only detect as fatuous noise (usually directed at those in the 12-15 year age group in spite of the fact hardly anyone under forty is present) and every elliptical machine has a television screen staring you in the face that fortunately has the option of turning off. Most people at the YMCA, as other public places, are constantly tinkering with their mp3 players or Blackberries, talking on their cell phones and have a psychological need to be wired into something as they ineffectively attempt to focus on their exercise programs. I suppose silence would force them into self-reflection, introspection and contemplation, something many these days seem to fear. Does anyone just daydream anymore? I’d certainly hate to be a kid today in our structured, obsessive and hyper-competitive driven world.
Do Americans really value Freedom?
In a disturbing "State of the First Amendment Survey" conducted by the University of Connecticut in 2003, 34 percent of Americans polled said the First Amendment "goes too far"; 46 percent said there was too much freedom of the press; 28 percent felt that newspapers should not be able to publish articles without prior approval of the government; 31 percent wanted public protest of a war to be outlawed during that war; and 50 percent thought the government should have the right to infringe on the religious freedom of "certain religious groups" in the name of the war on terror. It would seem that by the disturbing disdain for democracy and freedom implicit in this poll, we are only one step away from a fascist police state. The contempt for democracy that has always been a dominant characteristic of conservative elites, and as disturbing as this seems, has ironically spilled over to the working classes. As the insightful Italian Marxist political theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937)* pointed out, that if you capture people’s minds through indoctrination and the continual repetition of alleged truisms long enough, you will have manufactured consent and the masses like docile robots will obsequiously follow you anywhere. Gramsci called this “hegemony”, the symbolic level of the dominant culture that convinces people, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, that this is the best of possible worlds. In other words by hegemony, Gramsci means the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and ethical norms that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an “organizing principle” that is diffused by the process of socialization into every area of daily life. To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalized by the population it becomes part of what is generally called 'common sense' so that the philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the natural order of things.
*Gramsci suffered from a variety of serious health problems and was imprisoned under abysmal conditions in the 1920s for 11 years by Mussolini for his socialist political views. He died shortly after his release.
As Mussolini tells us, “The crowd doesn’t have to know”. “It must believe…If only we can give them faith that mountains can be moved then they will accept the illusion that mountains are moveable, and thus an illusion may become reality.” Always, he said, be “electric and explosive.” It’s the conquest of belief over knowledge and emotion over thought. One of the characteristics of propaganda is that, wherever possible, music and images replace words. People become so obsessed at hating government that they forget it is meant to be their government and is the only powerful public force on which they can rely for both accountability and any semblance of social justice. This is what makes the neo-conservative and market force arguments so disingenuous. Their remarkably successful demonization of the public sector has turned much of the citizenry against their own mechanism. God has been replaced today by another ideology called the marketplace. As Thomas Frank argued in his book by the same name, we live in “One market Under God.” No less an authority than Mussolini stated that "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of State and corporate power."
Globalization replaces God
As a result of war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working with the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hand and the Republic is destroyed. – Abraham Lincoln, 1864
Abraham Lincoln’s words of wisdom from over 150 years ago were ominous and what he had forecast then about the ideological phenomenon we now call “corporatism” and its offshoot “globalization” and its culture of exploitation and greed, has now become well-established, leading us into a socio-economic abyss from which may never recover. Even China and Russia has morphed into an unsavory surreal hybrid of totalitarianism, state corporatism and frenzied laissez-faire capitalism. Of course the pursuit of easy money is as old as greed itself. But it is hardly surprising that the delusion of infinite growth and the denial of natural limits have taken their most venomous form in the United States, in an acquisitive racist culture forged by exploitation of the natural environment and native peoples, slavery, and a frontier mentality. "The very essence of the frontier experience," writes the naturalist Tim Flannery, "is to exploit [resources] as quickly as possible, then move on.” The more recent worldwide spread of free-trade agreements, known as globalization, is the modern version of the nineteenth-century World Market dominated by the British colonial system. Yet when Queen Victoria died in 1901, the world economy - a rough index of the human load on natural systems, on earth, air, water, fisheries, forests and minerals—was only two percent of what it is today. Monetarism's great fallacy is to assume that the world is boundless and growth cannot therefore be finite. It takes no account of human and environmental costs or of long-term limits. Deregulation is just what it says it is: a free-for-all to exploit and seize the most in the shortest time for maximum profit. In short, globalization is a feeding frenzy. Its "efficiency" is measured only in the short term and by criteria that ignore depletion, pollution and waste disposal, social harmony, working conditions, decent wages, sense of community or fellow feeling and public health. The supposed "rights" of capital trump those of state sovereignty, government regulations and laws, ecology, labor and posterity. The economy has become a tyranny and unless trade agreements include tough environmental and labor standards, as they do to a limited extent within the European Union, capital will always seek out the path of least resistance - dirtiest river, the jurisdiction with the fewest constraints and the most exploitable human being.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman praised globalization as an agent of freedom, citing things such as the availability of more mindless TV channels as evidence. His motto for this version of democracy was "one dollar, one vote," which is actually an accurate definition of a plutocracy. In the wake of the Seattle protests of 1999, newspapers across the country treated free trade as something akin to humanitarian work. A huge army of pundits called the nineties a glorious age of humanity, an age of "rebellion." All of this spin on how hip business was had a great cultural impact, really dating from the beginning of the Reagan presidency. The equation of the market with democracy and freedom got enacted into public policy and permitted a huge upward transfer of wealth, which was somehow regarded as an expression of popular will. All of this was a fraudulent populism - in Thomas Frank's words from One Market under God, "rosy fantasies of the People and their Dow." Not surprisingly however, 86 percent of the market advances of 1995 to 1999 went to the wealthiest 10 percent of the population. Much of this was given a religious validation and “spiritual spin”, revealing what the state religion of Jesus Land (aka The United States of America) really is. Books such as God Wants You to Be Rich and Jesus, CEO became best sellers. Thomas Friedman claimed that the things celebrated by management theory were the very things that pleased the Almighty.
The Liberal Media Myth
There is a myth perpetuated by our distinctly right wing conservative mass media, now controlled by a half dozen corporate conglomerates, that it dominated by liberal or left wing bias. That must be attributable to the fact these massive corporations are socialist – yeah sure! On the face of it the claim to leftist or liberal bias by Big Business is ludicrous and about as preposterous as the ranting and ravings of television evangelists claiming the primacy of secular humanism in American culture. Regarding both of these claims, nothing could be further from the truth. The United States is and always has been a manifestly religious conservative country. For example, Rumsfeld, Cheney and other key members of the Bush administration relied in the 1990s on a number of think tanks and front groups that have interlocking directorates and shared origins in those earlier organizations: the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Security Policy, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, among others. They provided the George W. Bush administration with policy advice and personnel. They also relied on right-wing media empires to blanket the public space with their message, in much the same way - if more powerfully - that the yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer did during the Spanish-American War. Thus Rupert Murdoch disseminates propaganda via Fox News, and the Weekly Standard is a mouthpiece for defense establishment intellectuals such as Richard Perle who is also a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. There is also the National Interest and the Washington Times (the latter owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon), which also owns the UPI newswire. The result is a "seamless propaganda machine" that has effectively destroyed public discourse in the United States, to the point that we now dwell in a kind of right-wing propagandistic fog. Research into the tax records of right-wing groups has revealed that since the 1970s, conservative backers - basically, nine immensely wealthy families (Olin, Coors, Mellon Scaife, etc. - have poured upward of $3 billion into financing a war of ideas that has managed to move mainstream thinking in America toward the far right. The money has gone into a whole host of institutions that market the conservative message to American citizens, and the investment has clearly paid off. Add to this the link to the military-industrial complex, exemplified by Lockheed Martin, whose employees sit on the boards of right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Policy Studies. Meanwhile, Cheney was formerly the CEO of Halliburton Oil; Andrew Card (White House chief of staff) a vice president of General Motors; Donald Rumsfeld the CEO of G.W Searle and later of General Instrument; Condoleezza Rice on the board of directors of Chevron - the list goes on and on. If you doubt for a moment that there is a vast, right-wing conspiracy in North America, you must be living on another planet.
The One Party System in the United States: “Republicrats”
Many left-leaning Liberals in the United States believe there is a genuine choice during elections every four years. They presently are rejoicing in the fact that a working class party called the Democratic Party has been re-installed and the nasty right wing ideologues called the Republican Party have been banished for at least four more years. We’ve had right wing setbacks before and we have recovered from them. This perception is nothing short of delusionary because the Democratic Party has never been a party of the working classes or left liberals, and certainly never socialist. Even the New Deal of FDR was a series of desperate measures during the Great Depression to save American capitalism from the growing civil dissent and growth of left wing parties including communism. Repression by Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic Party during World War I, as historian Eric Foner observes, destroyed the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist party, and much of the labor movement. Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, following a speech he made in Canton, Ohio on the 16th of June, 1918 criticizing the Espionage Act and the War in Europe as a direct result of colonialism and the capitalist system, was arrested and sentenced to ten years in Atlanta Penitentiary. He was still in prison when as the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party he received almost one million votes in the 1920 election. His program included proposals for improved labor conditions, housing and welfare legislation and an increase in the number of citizens who could vote in elections. Personally, I don't believe this country ever really recovered from the Red Scare of the post War 1920s and McCarthyism, which dealt a severe blow to movements for social change, or from Ronald Reagan, whose policies strongly propelled the forces that began the dismantling and killing what was left of the of the New Deal. Bush I and Bush II simply put the nails in the coffin. We didn't survive Vietnam; we didn't survive the repeal of the Keynsian model of the Bretton Woods Agreement, initiated by Nixon in 1971. The point is that when you look at the larger picture or the long waves, the short-term cycles seem far less impressive. Thus Arnold Toynbee noted that in the process of decline a civilization may, from time to time, rally for a while; but it is the overall trajectory, the structural properties of the situation, that ultimately determine the outcome. The eight years of devastation and disaster of George W. Bush have now sent the United States into an economic and moral abyss from which it will not recover.
John Dewey and Education
For education to be civic, critical, and democratic rather than career oriented, privatized, militarized, and consumerized, the work that academics do cannot be defended exclusively within the discourse of specialization, technological mastery, or a market-driven rationality concerned about profit margins. On the contrary, academic labor is distinctive by virtue of its commitment to modes of education that take seriously the great American pragmatist philosopher and educator John Dewey’s notion that democracy is a “way of life” that must be constantly nurtured and defended. For Dewey, democracy is a mode of existence, an ethical ideal that demands active and constant attention. Dewey, in The Quest for Certainty, railed against our human longing for immutable truth and certainty which to him only led to rigidity of thought and dogmatism. Life is rather a work in progress whereby we cannot avoid looking at ends that ultimately become means to further ends, and we are continuously dealing with unfinished business. There are no salvation plans or all-encompassing world views that will save us. Problems never have only one solution, and one who gives only one solution to a problem and who thinks he has solved the problem easily or absolutely falls prey to self-satisfied dogmatism like a Margaret Thatcher with her “TINA Principle”: “There Is No Alternative” (to laissez-faire capitalism and privatization of everything in the Universe). Not unlike his contemporary Bertrand Russell, Dewey argued that questions of method were paramount and insisted that all beliefs be subject to scepticism and critical inquiry, employing “the best available methods...and testing as to matters of fact; methods, which are, when collected under a single name, science. As Bertrand Russell once said, “It is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it” and added that “Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the Churches in all these centuries have made it.” Dogmatisms and closed systems of thought are endemic to politics but can emerge in many contexts, the most notorious example, as Russell has rightly pointed out, is religion.
John Dewey was highly critical of the religions of his day, claiming that religion has "lost itself in cults, dogmas and myths," has become "perverted into something uniform and immutable" and has been "formulated into fixed and defined beliefs expressed in required acts and ceremonies." If only Dewey were alive today to witness the breakdown of the barrier between Church and State guaranteed in the US Constitution. Dewey goes on to say:
“Instead of marking the freedom and peace of the individual as a member of an infinite whole, it [religion] has been petrified into a slavery of thought and sentiment, an intolerant superiority on the part of the few and an intolerable burden on the part of the many.”
Dewey argues that supernaturalism and transcendentalism have historically identified themselves with belief in ultimate and immutable truths which are viewed as the only sure foundation for the moral life and social order, and insofar as they have been characterized by such moral absolutism they have involved an undemocratic tendency toward dogmatism, authoritarianism and fanaticism. He notes that "conflict between truths claiming ultimate and complete authority is the most fundamental kind of discord that can exist" and that "religions in the degree in which they have depended upon the supernatural have been, so history demonstrates, the source of violent conflict and destructive of human values. The neo-conservative ideologies that began with the Thatcher and Reagan era solidified into a ruthless dogma that became entangled with religious fundamentalism and have propelled us into the global economic quicksand in which we now find ourselves. How it was tolerated by the working classes who have suffered greatly under it and took so long to unravel remains a mystery.
Neo-conservative market fundamentalism has fostered a destructive alignment among the state, corporate capital, and transnational corporations and there is little understanding that such an alignment has been constructed and solidified through a neo-conservative disciplinary apparatus and corporate pedagogy mostly produced in the halls of our educational institutions and reinforced through the educational force of the larger media culture. One can now earn a PhD in such banalities as “marketing” and “business administration.” The doctrinaire economic Darwinism of the last thirty years has done more than throw the financial and credit system into crisis; it has also waged an attack on the working classes, the poor and all those social institutions that support critical modes of agency, reason, and meaningful dissent. And yet, the financial Tsunami we are now experiencing is rarely seen as part of an educational crisis in which the institutions of public and higher education have been conscripted into a war on democratic values through the endless reproduction of neo-conservative beliefs, social relations, identities, and modes of understanding that legitimate the institutional arrangements of a cut-throat capitalism that has spawned rapacious greed, grotesque levels of inequality, the devaluation of any viable notion of the public good, and far-reaching levels of human suffering. There seems to be an enormous disconnect between the economic conditions that led to the current financial meltdown and the current call to action of a generation of young people and adults who have been educated for the last several decades in the knowledge, values, and identities of a narcissistic market-driven consumer society. Clearly, this generation of young people and adults will not solve this crisis if they do not connect it to the assault on an educational system that has been de-intellectualized and reduced to a lowly adjunct of corporate interests and the bidding of the conservative corporate welfare and warfare state.
Socialism for the Rich: The Conservative Corporate Welfare State
As soon as he was inaugurated in 2001, George W. Bush began pushing for a tax cut that would give 40 percent of the benefits to the richest 1 percent of the taxpayers, and less than 1 percent of the benefits to the bottom 20 percent. Passed that May, the tax bill created an even greater upward redistribution of wealth and income than was already in place. It conferred a monthly stipend of at least $50,000 on the four hundred richest Americans, while the bottom 20 percent got, on average, $5.40.The poorest 10 percent got less than nothing, because the meager public services on which they relied were going to be cut or reduced. Finally, in the wake of September 11, the "economic stimulus package" passed in the House of Representatives on October 24 earmarked more than $140 billion in tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations, in addition to retroactive benefits that would pay back some of the taxes levied on corporations over the previous fifteen years. The Senate, for its part, suggested a tax-cut package that would cost $220 billion over three years, more than half of which would go to the top 1 percent of the population, and 6 percent of which would go to the bottom 60 percent. Political columnist Mark Shields commented that he had never before heard of "going into a war cutting taxes [and] rewarding the richest in society at a time of sacrifice. Over one hundred years ago Louis Brandeis remarked that “We can have a democratic society or we can have a concentration of great wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both. ”The American Dream” for many (like native Americans) has always been a delusion, but has now become a nightmare, a bad dream that started over thirty-five years ago when Richard Nixon decided to dismantle the Keynsian model of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement and the world casino of globalized unfettered capitalism was unleashed. Since America treats its underclass and worst off so abysmally, it’s not surprising how we in the West treat the Third World as primarily target of exploitation, hegemony and economic expansion. It’s far worse now but in 1998 the richest 400 people in the world owned more than the bottom half the population of the planet and 3 billion people were subsisting on less than $2 per day.
An austere free-market free for all has undermined, if not ruined, so many basic democratic institutions in North American and European society and needs to be abandoned outright. But the same old failed policies and neo-conservative ideologues are being pressed into service to repair the damage done in the economic Armageddon that is presently devouring us. And no one seems to be questioning why we are empowering the financial predators that got us in this mess in the first place. But there’s a great line from former US banker and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon (1921-32), who said that in an economic crisis, assets are returned to their rightful owners, a restoration and consolidation of class power. When the Conservative Corporate Welfare State looks for people who can understand what has gone wrong on Wall Street, they can think only of insiders. For decades now capitalism has been running into a brick wall of environmental, market and profitability constraints. Sub-prime mortgages were just another mechanism to keep the party going and an opportunity to later blame the victim. There are right wing Republican politicians who are invoking the blame game for the crisis, directed at victims of foreclosure as I write.
The term “national bailout” used by hatchet men like Hank Paulsen and Ben Bernanke is a misnomer because it’s only the banks and capitalist investor classes that are being salvaged, their transgressions and debts forgiven – at the expense of working taxpayers. Banks should serve people, not live off the people like vultures, which is why they ought to be nationalized. The banks are not using the hundreds of billions from the Public Treasury to lend it to anyone, but to buy other banks and financial institutions in order to consolidate their power. A repressive structure of exploitation has broken down and is now being replaced by an even deeper structure of exploitation. George W. Bush has repeated Reagan’s militarism, tax cuts for the wealthy and profligacy of the public treasury even more recklessly. The Obama administration has continued on the same destructive path, recruiting Wall Street villains from former inept administrations to call the shots. On the management of US fiscal policy, the lunatics are now in charge of the asylum.
Echoing the quote by H. L. Mencken at the beginning of this paper, here is what Chris Hedges from his essay “The Idiots who Rule America,” has to say about the state of U.S. democracy. This was written during the 2008 US election campaign.
Our oligarchic class is incompetent at governing, managing the economy, coping with natural disasters, educating our young, handling foreign affairs, providing basic services like health care and safeguarding individual rights. That it is still in power, and will remain in power after this election, is a testament to our inability to separate illusion from reality. We still believe in "the experts." They still believe in themselves. They are clustered like flies swarming around John McCain and Barack Obama. It is only when these elites are exposed as incompetent parasites and dethroned that we will have any hope of restoring social, economic and political order.
"Their inability to see the human as anything more than interest driven made it impossible for them to imagine an actively organized pool of disinterest called the public good," said the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul, whose books "The Unconscious Civilization" and "Voltaire's Bastards" excoriates our oligarchic elites. "It is as if the Industrial Revolution had caused a severe mental trauma, one that still reaches out and extinguishes the memory of certain people. For them, modern history begins from a big explosion--the Industrial Revolution. This is a standard ideological approach: a star crosses the sky, a meteor explodes, and history begins anew."
Our elites - the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools - do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of the common good. They are stunted, timid and uncreative bureaucrats who are trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions which will satisfy the corporate structure. They are about numbers, profits and personal advancement. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are able to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships. The human consequences never figure into their balance sheets. The democratic system, they think, is a secondary product of the free market. And they slavishly serve the market.
For my analysis on the attack on the working classes and the disempowerment of labor under the Conservative Corporate Welfare State, click here.