Tag Archives: politics

Two girls kissing with a placard telling a story about gay acceptance.

“But What Will I Tell My Kids?”: Sexuality and Authoritarianism

One question often asked when issues of gay marriage and transexuality come up is “What will I tell my kids when they see ___________?” The story in the picture shown above is a response to that, sometimes sincere, concern. It also reflects my own experience over a lifetime of being bisexual and polyamorous; kids are surprised and interested in novelties, but beyond that, they integrate the new knowledge with the rest of their worldview just fine.

Kids never seem to be the ones with the expectations regarding this. They seem to have very few or no moral intuitions on the issues of gender, romance, and sexuality at all. Their parents, when this is a legitimate concern, should be reassured; your child will simply accept and integrate the truth: “some people are homosexual/transexual/whatever”. But what else can we learn from this lack of moral intuitions on this issue?

Especially compared with their other moral intuitions, such as “no fair” and “don’t hit me” and “be nice to me” taken together with their abilities to empathize (the studies on this have been fascinating…babies care about the shape trying to climb the hill and get upset at the other shape trying to stop it) developing as a function of brain development, it seems unlikely and remains to be shown that there are any prescriptive moral intuitions about romantic and sexual relationships. In the absence of active teaching about such norms, they simply aren’t established nor seen as necessarily requiring norms in the same way as other behaviors. Not only are there no apparent moral intuitions, it seems that we don’t really have moral intuitions about the category as a whole.

This could be due to romance being a human creation, but pair bonding is present in many other species and there are too many brain structures that seem to be devoted to it for me to be convinced that romantic relationships are invented by humanity.

However, all available data does suggest that there is an authoritarian impulse to control other people, and that one of the best methods–used in everything from religious monasteries and the Manson cult to most militaries and the Patty Hearst kidnappers–is forcing sexual behaviors, such as celibacy or promiscuity, and generally taking sexual/romantic agency away from the people you want to control.

Taken in this context, it seems more likely that such sexual and romantic norms have historically arisen due, not to any ethical principles or moral intuitions, but due to authoritarians wishing to control populations.

So ask yourself…are you the authoritarian benefiting from the power over others granted through such social control over sexual behaviors? Most likely the answer to this is “no”. You are most likely part of the population that the authoritarians want to control using this technique. Since this is the case, why should you help reinforce or reify ANY PART of these norms? Why help those who want to control and manipulate you? If you aren’t merely an opportunist about these things and if you value freedom, then you should oppose any such attempts to control and manipulate anyone, and since it is clear that these sexual/romantic norms are about control, you should oppose them on those grounds.

So don’t worry about your kids; their moral development isn’t going to be stunted by seeing people demonstrate their romantic connections in public. They will simply update their worldview to include a new set of facts.

What you might want to worry about, however, is how many beliefs like this–alleged issues of morality and ethics–will turn out, upon inspection, to be the manipulations of authoritarians trying to use certain tendencies of humanity to control people. I know I have spent most of my adult life dismantling the mass of ideas handed to me by my culture and family, and thanks to the prevalence of these false, controlling ideas in our era, I will never really be able to stop actively working to keep them from governing my mind. This is one of the reasons I have dedicated myself so intensely to philosophy, rationality, logic, and–above all–truth; without such a commitment, false and destructive beliefs would have destroyed me, on just about every level you can imagine. I truly believe that a similar commitment by the majority of the population is necessary before any real reform or politically just world exist. We must care more about truth and freedom–all truth and everyone’s freedom–than power over others.

How many false or destructive beliefs do you have that were put there by other people trying to control and exploit you? How many false or destructive beliefs ideas are you basing your life on that only benefit political, religious, economic, and social “leaders” trying to maintain their control? How many false or destructive beliefs beliefs have you passed on to others in an attempt to control them? Be honest with yourself, if not me…how many things that you know the evidence or reasoning behind are a little–ahem–shaky–have you passed on, retweeted, or taught to others? How much evidence have you ignored because it didn’t fit your agendas? How much evidence have you been convinced to ignore because it fit the agendas of others for you to do so?

How can we know if our beliefs are of this suspicious type? One way is to use our emotions as a guide. Simple matters of fact (i.e. 3 squared is 9) have no emotions attached and are generally taken for granted and uncontested. While this isn’t a sure test, it’s a good place to start: if a belief has a lot of emotion attached and is contested in the public sphere, it is probably a good idea to be skeptical about it and start looking for evidence and arguments before forming a belief. If the issue is one that is immune to such inquiries, such as self-report (i.e. “I feel a pain in my toe”), is by its nature anecdotal (i.e. “I ate lunch with an alien yesterday”), or metaphysical (i.e. “Realism about numbers is true”), then you are left with reason alone as your guide, so you need to be extra careful about accepting false premises and should learn about the various cognitive and logical fallacies that may mislead you.

And finally, if all of these things still leave you undecided, ask yourself this simple question: “Who benefits from me believing this claim?”. Try to look at the question in as many contexts as possible and in both the large and the small, the political and the personal. If the person or group that benefits the most from you believing a questionable claim is the same person or group who told you about the questionable claim in the first place, then you should be very suspicious of that claim.

Such honesty can be a burden. Attempting to ferret out all the false, manipulative, and often dangerous beliefs in ourselves and the messages we receive from the world around us can become overwhelming. But I believe it is absolutely necessary. Not only must we place guards between our senses and our minds, testing every single idea before accepting it, we must resolutely rip out the traitorous ideas we find already established. If we want a free world where each and every one of can both be moral and demand morality in return, then we cannot allow such beliefs in ourselves, nor can we indulge the temptation to instill those beliefs in others, no matter how good the “cause” may seem. There are “bad tactics”, no matter how good the “target”; our allegiance to each other and ourselves must begin with an allegiance to truth.

I know, I know, those of you with teenage daughters out there might be pained, but just explain the real consequences of irresponsible sex and leave out the lies (no one needs a Pillow Pants in their lives). Statistics show that the best outcomes arise from actual education about sex, relationships, sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, and pregnancy. Some very limited discomfort now can save a lifetime of suffering later for everyone involved.

I also realize that the religious people out there may believe that my ethical arguments are meaningless because their theology dictates their ethics. To the theist, moral intuitions, facts about the world, and logic are not up to the task of answering the questions of ethics, and are either supplemented or replaced entirely by an entire framework of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics provided by their religion. To the theist, I ask the same question: “who benefits from you believing these things?” So long as it is you and those you share that belief with, that’s wonderful; enjoy your religion. But if it’s a pope living in his own country, a pastor buying himself jets, an imam who wants to make a political point out of the deaths of his followers or a secretive leadership following in the footsteps of a science fiction writer of questionable ethical history, I think you might want to reconsider those beliefs.

 

Why Is Philosophy–and Reason As A Whole–So Often Ignored?

This is a reply to an article recently published on the Huffington Post Keith M. Parsons, called “What Is the Public Value of Philosophy?” Go read it.
I'll Wait
In this article, Dr. Parsons defends the public value–that is the value to the taxpayer–of teaching philosophy. He appears to believe that the primary reason people ignore or question the value of philosophy is its obscurity of chosen topics and methodology. I will attempt an alternative explanation of the criticisms and general disregard for philosophy as a field.

I don’t agree that it is obscurity that makes philosophy unpopular (have you ever played Pokemon? Learned the details of the DC Comics universe? Now THAT’S obscure). It’s not the jargon, either; every profession and subculture at this point uses some jargon and it has become normal to include little dictionaries in one’s FAQs. Hyperlinking and hypertext, in general, makes such terms of art more easily accessible than ever before, and such use of language does not create a similar barrier to similarly jargon-filled fields like computer science and law. No one questions/ignores the usefulness of combinatorics or contract law because it requires specialized language to engage in a specialized task, or regularly implies that stoned teenagers are the equivalent to people with multiple specialized degrees in the field…that is uniquely a charge leveled against philosophy.

Instead, I would argue that it is precisely what philosophy and reason qua reason wants to do, and always has, that makes it unpopular with everyone from the teen rationalizing why she “deserves” to borrow the car to those attempting to start religious wars: to understand the truth. It is the same reason science has been attacked since its inception. Philosophy is unpopular and anti-intellectualism to the point of misology is the norm throughout much of history for the simple reason that it serves the perceived interests of many, many people to believe–and persuade others to believe–untrue things.

I would further argue that this desire for limited applications of reason is present within most of us to some degree. Philosophy tends not to allow the many accommodations and compromises any given society must make with its collective conscience. Ethics, properly argued, tends to attempt to justify various obligations, and much of human behavior is attempting to rebuke and ignore such obligations…and their consequences for the moral status of the average participant. When someone, looking at my iPhone, informs me of the problematic ethics of the practices that led to its manufacture and low price, they are implicitly making a normative ethical claim along the lines of

“In order to be a good person, you are obligated not to participate in evil acts willingly and willfully. Since a purchase of an iPhone is a willful act, and I have made you aware of the evils committed in its manufacture and pricing, you are thus obligated to refuse to further participate in those evils.”

These sorts of claims make us uncomfortable for various reasons, and there are all sorts of ways to pick at them, but the argument is there and people make it. Similar arguments are made involving eating meat, ethical treatment of test animals and pets, etc. We don’t want to really give up our lives, but it’s also clear that a consistent ethical examination argues that much of our lives come about through blameworthy and unnecessary actions on the parts of various people very carefully not considering the moral salience of their actions. Since we neither wish to feel like we are bad people nor wish to give up our lives, we–often tacitly–reject the easily ignored and immaterial concept that forces us to do one or the other: reason.

Shall we ask ourselves the moral status of turning ones ethical agency over to the proxy agent of the “superior officer” or “chain of command” when one cannot ascertain the ethical status of that proxy or when the ethical status of that proxy is known to be untrustworthy (at best) or blameworthy (at worst)? It is very important to almost all current cultures that enlistment in military and civil service is considered morally praiseworthy…and that importance, both militarily and as an issue of morale and narrative consistency, eclipses many people’s general desire to think clearly or believe true things.

I’m not claiming we are willing to abandon reason and ethics entirely…the teen still argues in terms of “fair” and “desert”, for example. But we, like the toddler who cries “no fair” whenever he loses at a game, regardless of how he lost, want reason and ethics to serve us while being off-limits for others. The boss wants his employee to believe in loyalty when offered a better job, and will attempt to rebuke him for considering the position, while demanding the right for himself to fire and hire as the pragmatic needs of profit-seeking dictate. The government wants its populace to believe in the legitimacy of contracts and laws, while considering those same contracts and laws as mutable tools to accomplish whatever goals are necessary at the moment. All states want their subjects to believe in the legitimacy of political authority, while themselves being able to ignore the contractual nature of the theory behind that authority.

This suggests a sort of non-religious interpretation of Nietzsche’s argument from Genealogy of Ethics. As a tool of power, reason can be like Christianity/ressentiment: it convinces those that would fight the strong to weaken themselves through being tricked into agreeing to its asymmetric application.

The only solution, of course, is to commit ourselves even further to our enterprise. The worth of philosophy, reason, and the “life of the mind” are difficult to show in themselves…but their worth are shown in the manifest wonders that thought–guided by reason–have produced in the world. The device I am typing this upon came about as the result of engineers and physicists, surely…but the principles those physicists and engineers used came from logic and the philosophical foundations of mathematics just as surely.

So let us hear three cheers for the thinkers, the philosophers, and especially the “Centaurs”, those philosopher-mathematicians, who gave birth to our world. Hopefully the next “new world” will be as wonderfully informed.

Frege Calling Russell a Centaur from Logicomix

From Logicomix (a graphic novel about logic & logicians)

Be Excellent To Each Other

The “Injustice-Hack”, and How It Will Destroy Us If We Let It

Humans will kill people for anything, once they can come up with a justification for adopting a dehumanizing out-group dynamic about it. Dr. Seuss was right…it’s Butter-Battles and Sneetches (with star-bellies and without) all the way down.

And that dehumanizing trick is almost always some variation of the “injustice-hack”, a social and psychological manipulation that invites both designated victim and interested onlookers to believe that an injustice is being committed, thus hijacking our empathy and getting us to adopt the one mode of thinking that, to humans, justifies any obvious atrocity: “doing the right thing”, “righting a wrong”, “fighting the good fight”, “being a hero”.

And we LOVE those situations. Shows like 24 are all about getting us high on “hard choices”, where we are invited to be monstrous and indulge all of our cruelty, but it’s really “good”, and instead of being bullies, we feel like heroes for doing the horrible thing our monstrous little ids wanted us to do anyway.

Think about the entirety of the SJW trip and methodology, consider both sides of GamerGate doxxing and swatting each other, etc…both are firmly convinced they are the victims and that their own victimizing actions are therefore justified. And people are getting high off of it…the joy of “justified” cruelty and battle is what has driven much of the culture of the online world, and the only thing that can explain that is that people get off on it. Even without governments, we’ll “go to war” at the drop of a hat…just convince us that someone kicked a puppy, and we will cook a million puppies alive to “right the wrong”.

We are invited to ignore every normal ethical boundary we observe the minute the injustice-signal is sent up. As long as we can convince ourselves that we’ve–or the object of our “support”–has been “hard done by”, ANYTHING, up to and include massive wars and the murder and torture of innocents, can and has been justifiable to most people’s minds.

Right now, ISIS/ISIL are using the inujustice-hack to gain support all over the Middle East, as did their forebears, while the US government and that of ally nations post-9/11 did the exact same thing, using the injustice-hack to get most of the country–and several other countries–to finally sign off on things they had wanted to do anyway for decades. Neither side are good, and in fact have committed most of the injustices in the situations they have been involved in…but goddamn, that injustice-hack just seems to make it all go away, doesn’t it? All those facts just disappear in the warm glow of feeling like a hero.

IRL, almost nothing is ever so simple. Almost no situations that ever exist have heroes and villains, victims and victimizers. Most stuff is just people doing their own things, and most of that consists of behaviors that are orthogonal to the entire paradigm of victims, heroes, and villains. Worldviews–and they are many–that attempt to break down all of history and human life to exploitation, war, and struggle are being disingenuous in an effort to use the injustice-hack for themselves.

It will win few friends and lose many to refuse the tribalism implicit in adopting one victim group or another, but if we are interested in stopping the damage caused by these sorts of conflicts, we must forgo the natural highs of responding to an injustice with more injustice. We must maintain that the same ethics apply to defense as offense, because as long as we let them differ in practice, we will just keep up the constant wars, cultural and physical, until that really is all we do…commit new injustices as get-backs for old injustices.

Book Review: The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage: Queen of Pulp Pin-Up Art

English: Cover of the pulp magazine Weird Tale...

English: Cover of the pulp magazine Weird Tales (March 1938, vol. 31, no. 3) featuring Incense of Abomination by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disclosure: As you might guess from the last name, J. David Spurlock is my uncle. While I love him dearly, we try to maintain a family value of honesty and we all share a respect for literature and art, so read this review with no worries: I’m being honest, honest!

She was something special, something different. In the early days of Weird Tales magazine, the art featured was often lush, lurid, and deliciously effective, and none more so than that of Margaret Brundage. In an era when women were often forced into restrictive social roles, she defied expectations on multiple levels.

Her work was frankly sexual and sensational, with most covers featuring deep colors and sharply outlined figures of naked–or mostly naked–women, usually in danger and–perhaps counter-intuitively–posing sexily while coping with that danger.

Weird Tales, May 1934

Weird Tales, May 1934; Cover by Margaret Brundage.

Sometimes there were also scantily-clad men, though it was sometimes unclear who was supposed to be protecting whom.

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage: Queen of Pulp Pin-Up Art
functions as a combination of biographical essays and art collection, combining notes, bits of detail, full essays, and gorgeous, full-color illustrations of all of her Weird Tales covers, along with various other, lesser known, pieces.

English: Cover of the pulp magazine Weird Tale...

English: Cover of the pulp magazine Weird Tales (November 1936, vol. 28, no. 4) featuring Witch-House by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My favorite section, “The Secret Life of Margaret Brundage”, gives us a snapshot of early 20th Century politics and what it was like for Margaret and her husband, Slim (who shared her political and social interests). Here you can find details on their involvement with labor activism and the Wobblies (The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW), the Chicago activist scene, the Free Speech movement, and the civil rights movement. Some of the issues and views detailed show that while, in many ways, the issues remain the same, the movements themselves have changed a great deal, with the IWW all but extinct and the labor movement demonized by many.

While I don’t want to recount too many details (yes, even historical books can have spoilers!), I do want to say that as an author who owes a great deal to Weird Tales AND as a person who has spent a good part of his own life devoted to progressive and labor activism, the book taught me a lot, as well as collecting some truly beautiful and historically important works of art.

Highly recommended.

Politics in Speculative Fiction

Over at SF Signal, a blog I think every fan of speculative fiction should read, they have an interesting round table on politics in science fiction. The question is:

Q: How should SF writers respond to the politics of their time, if at all?

The various authors responded in various ways, as one would expect. The industry is such that if you ask five writers one question you’ll get seven answers; it’s just the way we roll. However, the question led me to consider how I have dealt with politics in my work in the past, and how I intend to deal with it in the future.

Many of you might know that I have a history of political activism. I was involved with Free Radio Santa Cruz in the late nineties and did labor organizing, helped feed the homeless, and helped organize and run an infoshop, which is a combination library and event/organizing center for activists. Politics have been an ongoing issue for me…growing up poor, several years of homelessness, and generally being a weirdo have led to an acute awareness of how American culture, with its mythology of freedom and individuality, often acts to persecute and punish people for using their freedoms and acting as individuals.

However, in my fiction and poetry, I have always placed emphasis on the experiences of individuals and small groups. When politics and power dynamics are explored, it happens in extremely situated ways that do little to point out any specific, larger political or historical issues. The reasons for this tendency has varied throughout my writing life. When I was younger it was because I hated the way my fellow activists would use poetry and fiction (especially poetry) as an excuse to rant about politics and spew catchphrases. I feel that the art of poetry and prose shouldn’t be whored out to politics and movements; it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda.

As I got older, I also began to feel that the locus of political discussions, which always end up being about politicians, national policies, and ideological movements, is missing the point. People don’t live their lives on a national or international level, or over decades of historical and sociopolitical trends. They live one a day to day basis in small communities of affinity and care. I came to believe that the “big picture” is a symptom, but our true illness lives in our day-to-day lives…how we treat our families, spouses, parents, best friends, and neighbors. When I want to address peace I don’t want to talk about war, because war is too big, it’s too many people doing too many things. The “big picture” obscures the moments, the little bits of narcissism, greed, cruelty, and pain that, when added up, equal the wars and political issues. I don’t want to write about nations, I want to write about people, because people are what really exist; nations are a fantasy.

So when some poetry-slam-happy-hippie spends fifteen minutes “performing” their most recent poem about how awful capitalism is, it makes me want to retch…not because I am a big fan of capitalism (I’m not…taken to its logical conclusion it glorifies and rewards the worst behaviors humanity is capable of; the biggest winner is the biggest sociopath), but because talking about capitalism as a whole, whether in favor or against, is ignoring the real issues of empathy vs. self-involvement, greed vs. generosity, and the personal connections between people that can either damn or redeem us, here and now, with no Heaven or Hell necessary.

So, to my mind, the proper object of art is never going to be the “big picture”, but the little pictures that together make up the big picture. None of us can force our politicians to be honest, kind, or empathetic to whatever “other” or “enemy” has been picked out this week. But we can choose to be honest or lie, to be kind or cruel, and to try to see the world through the eyes of the “other” that the “big picture” is always striving to tell us we are to despise. The true object of art is people, not nations, because nations don’t exist, not really. They are an abstraction at best, a lie at worst. The worst moments of history have come about when people have forgotten they were people and given into the phantasm of the citizen. To whatever degree literature can be healing or constructive to our species, I believe that it is in pointing out the people and their real, lived connections; the abstraction of nations, races, and ideologies hides those connections or redefines them in terms of what benefits or harms the nation, race, or ideology. There will be an end to war when people refuse to be defined as citizens and refuse to see the “other” as citizens, as well. Our nations will become healthy when we, as individuals connected to other individuals, become healthy.

But at the same time, I am an embodied being, the product of my culture and the social and historical context within which I have lived. There is no way to avoid some political cast to my work, especially in light of how stringent modern ideologies have become. Simply by emphasizing empathy and relationships rather than power and wealth, I am declaring a political stance. By challenging the very notion of national identity, I am “unpatriotic” and by denying the existence of the “other”, the “enemy”, I am a traitor. So much of the identity of my country is based on who we hate, rather than who we love, that by refusing to hate I am excluded from what some would say is an important part of being an American. By refusing to turn life and death into a game, I no longer have a “team”.

This recently came out in my exchanges regarding the scandalous (or rather, they should be scandalous, but they aren’t) revelation of a picture of our soldiers urinating on the corpses of the “enemy”. To my mind, the dehumanizing of other people is unacceptable, regardless of circumstance, and desecration of the dead is one of the most dehumanizing and offensive things I can imagine. But apparently, to many people, this is a debatable issue. When our “team” does it, it’s different. Just like when we torture, or detain people without trial, or use secret evidence, or assassinate people. All of these things are horrible inhumanities when other people do it to us, but when we do it, somehow they become okay. By choosing empathy over nationalism, I have excluded myself from the “team”. And because of that choice, I also lost one of my oldest friends. She’s one of those that just can’t bring herself to judge the morality of soldiers…no matter what they do, she “supports the troops”. But armies, like nations, are abstractions; all that exists are people and what they do to each other, and these people who urinated on the corpses of their fallen fellow humans, are monsters and deserve to be called out as such.

In my stories it could be argued that everyone is a monster, or at least has the potential to be. Again and again, I return to the simple theme of empathy and the lack of it, again and again I return to the simple act of choosing to care…even when it makes no sense, even when the object of that caring doesn’t deserve it (whatever that means). In my world, the world inside my head and heart that I try to express in my work, everyone has the choice, every moment, to be a monster or a human, a demon or an angel. So in that sense, I feel that all of my work is political, while at the same time avoiding the language of political thought and philosophy. I am more interested in how one person treats another person than how a given nation treats another nation…but all those little choices, all those people, add up to The People.

Well, enough pontification. What are your thoughts, Faithful Reader, on the role of politics in science fiction, and indeed, speculative fiction as a whole? I’m eager to hear from you.

The Problem With “The Way Things Are”

We shoot at you

Image via Wikipedia

It’s amazing how many people seem to have some sick form of Stockholm Syndrome for the system as it currently stands. People talk about government and economy like it has a defined role and characteristics, even though government is an abstraction we made up, and we can make up different roles and characteristics anytime we want. People talk about “the economy” the same way…as if it were a type of rock that just has certain features and that’s the way it is, as opposed to an abstraction we made up to systematize our exchanges of goods and services. This is a severe problem.

Adam Smith wasn’t a scientist, he was an economist and philosopher, and guess what? His philosophy, that has had us chasing equilibriums the way former eras chased the favor of gods for centuries, is full of holes. It assumes the “Enlightenment” model of the human mind and decision-making process, which means it says that we are all little calculators doing min/max calculations about everything and making our economic decisions rationally. But this is known now, through actual scientific research, to be false…we are very seldom rational, and make economic decisions rather badly, even when we do have all the facts (which we almost never do).

In addition to this, Smith’s system is rigged to favor capital. Capital can always decide, with impunity, to lower wages and make worker conditions poorer. The reason for this is because, as an artificial entity with the hiring privilege, they essentially have a monopoly on work. They can choose not to hire at a given wage, but the worker who has a family to support and has to eat generally can’t choose not to work at the wage offered. Since labor can’t actually force the “price” of their labor to rise to the value they put on it under pain of death and failure in personal responsibilities (in addition to the social stigma we attach to people unwilling to work at unfair wages as being “lazy” and “entitled”), then there is always an unequal power dynamic…the only equilibriums that form are those that benefit capital, not labor. Unionism was an attempt to balance this dynamic, as were labor laws, but the same people it benefits to have the rigged system have generally convinced everyone else that unions are bad, evil, and, of course, socialism, and the moment labor lost all power to demand labor laws to protect them, the NLRB was gutted and labor laws castrated.

Capitalism also assumes a scarcity of labor which will help balance the imbalanced power dynamic of capital vs. labor, which I suppose made sense back in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. It made sense that there was a lot of work to do, just to survive. But thanks to the technological and scientific breakthroughs of the last century, that’s just no longer the case. Now we have a surplus of labor, and a surplus of the main resources necessary to human survival…food, clean water, clothing, and shelter. In order to preserve the profitability of food markets, we have subsidized some foods and also actually destroyed surpluses that would have lowered prices past profitability. That’s right, people are starving all over the world, and we have more than enough food to feed everyone and the technology to do it cheaply, but we destroy the extra, or subsidize it to be used in other ways (high fructose corn syrup, anyone?) rather than feed people, all to keep profits up.

It used to be the reason why humanity had to toil was because toil was required to survive, but that isn’t true at all anymore. Now we toil to create profits for capital, but have been convinced that this is somehow the same noble labor that once put food on our table. It is not. There is nothing noble about working hard to put money in someone else’s pocket.

So why do we accept a system that is designed in such a way that the majority of people are inevitably going to be screwed? Labor is the majority, capital is the minority, and always has been, including back when they were called the aristocracy, the crown, or whatever. They have to convince us to accept these systems. Our ancestors were convinced by a combination of religion and force, but our aristocracy has been more subtle, adopting rhetoric that it is hard to argue with and a system that requires a good deal of expertise to see the “rigged” part of the game clearly, and generally the only way to gain that expertise is to already be one of the people who benefit from how the system is rigged.

We have been convinced through centuries of propaganda that this is “just the way things are”, but that’s not true. “Things” have been very different in different cultures and different eras. Consider that peasants and serfs were once convinced the same thing about feudalism through the notion of “divine right to rule”. The “way things are” was different then…it could be different in the future. We just have to actually reject a system that from its conception was meant to exploit and oppress the majority to favor the minority.

Consider that the two forms of secular economic organization, capitalism and communism, were both put forth at the same time “God” was being declared dead. The worry of the day was that without some governing principle, humanity would fall to chaos and barbarism. To that end, Smith and Marx both presented new systems…but they are both just as “religious” as the system of thought they were replacing.

In the past religions, it was “God’s judgment and providence”, a supernatural guiding force, which gave structure to the system by which people lived and organized their lives. There was no evidence for this invisible guiding force, but it was accepted anyway. Similarly, capitalism has the “Invisible Hand” of the “market”, another invisible guiding force that also has no evidence for its existence, but was accepted anyway. Communism has the notion of a “historical dialectic”, which Marx took from his mentor Hegel…again, an invisible, guiding force that also has no evidence for its existence, but was accepted anyway.

In past religions, just reward or punishment was claimed to come in the afterlife, something for which there is no evidence, through being consigned to Heaven or Hell, two places (or states of being) for which there is also no evidence, but it was accepted anyway. In capitalism, just reward and punishment is to come through the establishment of equilibriums, where all things, including labor, will cost what they are worth. These equilibriums, however, have no evidence for their existence except in mathematical models which assume Smith’s system axiomatically, but they are accepted anyway. Communism has the “communist utopia”, the state of society after the transitional period of a capitalist society to communism, where the state dissolves itself and all authority, wealth, means of production, and resources are held in common. This, obviously, has never happened and there was/is no evidence that it could ever happen. It’s almost impossible to even imagine…how, exactly, could a free populace manage the distribution of goods held in common without some rule-set to define a just distribution? “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” sounds well and good until you ask the question of who is defining my abilities and needs.

The main thrust of my argument is this: we have generally been tricked into accepting systems of living that are:

1. Contrary to our current knowledge of the human psyche and decision-making processes.
2. Intentionally creating an imbalance in the power dynamic between the minority of our population (capital) and the majority of our population (labor) that favors the minority.
3. Based upon ideas with no evidence confirming their existence.

In addition to this, I’m saying that we have fallen into a cognitive trap that causes us to reify abstractions as if they were actual things with actual properties. It happens all the time…we talk about “government”, and especially the flaws of “big government”, as if it were a bear or a tree or a rock, taking for granted a set of properties and relations that are considered “facts”, as immutable as the laws of physics. But this is fuzzy thinking…government is simply an idea, and there have been many such ideas. All it takes is deciding to change things and acting on that decision. The same is true of “the economy”, “the law”, etc. These things exist in our heads, but we act like they exist in the world, and behave as if there were “matters of fact” about what they are and how they behave. This is folly.

Our world has changed a great deal in the last couple of centuries, and no amount of denial will change that. We can’t keep pretending there is a significant scarcity of most resources (food, shelter, clothing, water) that justifies the continued attempt to make profit from them without creating absurdities and inhumanities like burning crops to keep the market from crashing while people are starving in other countries, or having people homeless and in the streets while homes and apartments sit empty. We can’t keep pretending that there is a scarcity of labor that will keep capital honest in its hiring practices…there are more people than jobs, everyone knows it, and capital knows that it can offer unfair and inadequate compensation to their employees with impunity because those employees have to eat, feed their families, etc.

And most of all, we can’t keep making things up and then forgetting they are made up. Government is a technology, a category of answers to the problem of “how shall we live?” The economy is similarly a technology, a category of answers to the question “how do we divide our stuff?” As technologies, it should be expected that we will fix them when broken, innovate upon them where better things are possible, and make them efficient when they are shown to be wasteful. But if we reify these abstractions, if we fall under the spell of thinking these collections of ideas and methodologies are somehow “real” and “binding”, we can’t improve upon them, we can’t fix them when broken, and we can’t remove inefficiencies and inconsistencies. We’re stuck.

We live in a story, and its not a very good one right now. It’s a story that was written back when “all men are created equal” was assumed to exclude anyone who wasn’t white and male…that is, the majority of people in the world. A story that assumed that the right to own deadly weapons was important enough to put in, but the right to not be oppressed simply because of the color of your skin wasn’t. Looking back over the history of humanity, it’s easy to look at the eternal exploitation of the poor and weak by the rich and powerful and judge our species to be monsters. And it would be true. But we have been monsters because we have written ourselves that way, because we have woven a story of monsters ruling over and exploiting others.

It’s just a story, and there is nothing stopping us from imagining a new one, if we can only remember that we are the ones who made up the tale, not simply characters within it.