Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bureaucrats are not people

I know that lurking somewhere deep beneath the bureaucratic veneer there’s a human being. But that’s not who I am confronted with here. It’s the machine, the institutional servomechanism that I am engaged with right now. There is nothing human about the interaction between us. There can be no communication, only instructions and directives, manipulation and coercion overt or subtle.

The bureaucrat is a scarecrow, a finely crafted ventriloquist’s dummy with a badge, a mere projection of the human form, an exploitation of appearances. There is a human voice but it is not human speech. Words fall from the lips, but they are formed someplace else. 
If I could I would rip away the institutional skin, kill the instrument while preserving the human being. But the machine’s tendrils run to the core, and it is impossible to separate the person from the tool.  

So instead I build protective psychological fortifications. I remind myself that although it looks human, it is in reality something else entirely and I should not allow myself to be deceived. I am making the bureaucrat’s life difficult if I refuse to comply, if I refuse to submit to the process, if I refuse to acknowledge the validity of restrictions placed on my freedom to choose—on my freedom to refuse. But bureaucrats are not really people, and any difficulties they may or may not experience are not my concern. 

And as I am tasered or pepper-sprayed or zip-tied or forcibly removed from the premises for not displaying the appropriate respect for corporate policy, the rule of law, or some other fictional authority, I draw strength from the thought that, just perhaps, somewhere in a still-human corner of the dark cold recesses of the bureaucrat’s brain, the memory of my simple act of resistance will sit and smolder like a tiny spark of hope.

Friday, December 6, 2013

If men were angels

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary” –James Madison

Madison’s statement seems intuitive and hard to dispute. It is a simple conditional statement that uses the logical form philosophers call modus ponens to justify the existence of the state in a rather dismissive, hand-waving way. If men (and women too, of course) were angels, we would not need to impose coercive social arrangements underwritten by the power to exercise overwhelming deadly force, a.k.a. government. Because men (and women) are seldom even remotely angelic, these oppressive social arrangements are obviously essential.

There is a problem with Madison’s claim, however, and maybe two problems depending on how you parse the question. First, men have not been angels for at least two million years. And during the vast majority of that unimaginable expanse of time, there were no official governments. Not a one. And yet humans flourished at least enough to reproduce themselves into the present day. So when he implies that government is necessary, the unanswered because unasked question is for what, or for whom? Government is demonstrably not necessary for the survival of the species. So why exactly is it necessary? And to say that government is necessary to support a civilized way of life, or some such, is to talk in circles. It is to say that we need government so that we can have the kinds of social organization that result from having government: if it weren’t for government, then people’s lives wouldn’t be externally governed. True enough, but it in no way answers the question. Why do people’s lives need to be governed?

The fact that angels were chosen as the comparison group might offer some direction here. Men (and women too, as previously indicated) are decidedly not angels. They can in point of fact act in devilish ways, ways that can cause harm to themselves and to others. So it is necessary for some external force to be recruited to reduce, restrict, limit, and reign in our evil impulses. Without government, we live in perennial fear of our neighbors’ covetousness and murderous pathology. With government, we are free to go about our business without this fear, or with this fear greatly reduced. The only downside to this is that with government we are no longer free to go about our business. Again, two million years of prehistory, along with present-day realities of life in traditional societies with little or nothing in the way of formal government, show Madison’s claim is simply not true even when the emphasis is on the lack of angels.

I expect that I will be tossing Madison’s dusty wig around some more later on. He had some very specific “for what’s” and “for whom’s” in mind when he penned the word necessary. But for now I want to focus on the political targets of his statement, or rather the modern-day targets of those who employ his statement or variations on its theme: those maligned creatures (real or imagined) who would feign to question the legitimacy of government at all. Of course I’m talking about anarchists.

Anarchism, reduced to its most simple and most direct form, is the idea that relations among people should be non-coercive and that all forms of community participation should be voluntary. Taken at face value, there should be nothing radical about this idea. There is nothing inherently repulsive or controversial about the idea that individuals should be able to go about their lives free from the coercive control of other people. Quite to the contrary, coercion is largely and perhaps universally considered a social evil. And humans, like most other creatures, despise externally imposed restriction and respond negatively when they are forced against their will.

Despite this, anarchism is frequently dismissed as an irrational and impractical utopian ideal sponsored by potentially violent nonconformists who are muddleheaded and naïve. And it is true that there are a few violent, muddleheaded, and naïve nonconformists out there who call themselves anarchists, whose YouTube quasi-protest antics invariably trend viral. But even if it were the case that all anarchists shared this flawed personality profile, it would not then follow that anarchism itself is therefore either irrational or impractical or utopian or anything else. The ideas and ideals of anarchism need to be kept separate from media-cultivated anarchist stereotypes—although the stereotypes themselves can be informative.

Stereotypes are useful mental shortcuts, and while they can lead to bias and encourage discrimination and prejudice, they are, like myths, frequently constructed around kernels of fact. The classic stereotype of the anarchist as a violent and destructive nonconformist—terrorist, even—can be traced ultimately to the incompatibility of anarchist ideals with the presumed imperative of governmental power. Civilized society is built upon layers and layers of coercion, all of which rests on a bedrock of irresistible deadly force. Anarchism, specifically the suggestion that we need to remove force and coercion from our social world, implies that civilized society itself needs to be removed, or at least changed in fundamental ways. The mere thought of anarchism is dangerous and does violence to the status quo if it is granted even passing validity. Anarchists, then, are seen as dangerous and violent not only because they have a tendency as individuals to refuse wholesale acquiescence to the rule of law, but because their very existence raises the question and threatens the house-of-cards foundation upon which coercive civilized order is built.

But the happily governed denizens of civilization have an additional motivation to dismiss anarchism, a deeply personal one that results from the ease with which it can trigger an uncomfortable psychological state known as cognitive dissonance. When we are made aware of a contradiction between our actions and our values or beliefs, we are motivated to resolve the inconsistencies. We can live with a certain amount of ambiguity in our lives, but internal incongruity within our core values, or inconsistencies between these values and our actions, is psychologically painful. Among other things, cognitive dissonance is what gives accusations of hypocrisy their bite.

We have several tools at our disposal for resolving dissonance when it emerges. Perhaps the simplest is rationalization. If we can justify the apparent disconnect, find a reason why we acted counter to our values, for example, the internal contradiction vanishes. Suppose that I call myself an environmentalist, and I espouse energy conservation, and someone points out that although I live within easy walking distance of my job, I nonetheless drive my car to work every morning. I experience a brief pang of dissonance when confronted with the contradiction between my beliefs and my actions. But it is short-lived because I immediately respond by pointing out that the distance is so small that it really doesn’t matter. Or maybe I focus on a knee injury that would surely flair up if I walked each day. Or maybe I point out that my wife also works where I do, and she would drive even if I walked, so whether I ride or walk comes to the same thing. In situations where simple rationalization isn’t feasible, when the contradiction seems unresolvable by simple justification, something more profound can happen: the values and beliefs themselves can be altered or distorted in order to resolve the inconsistency.

It can go the other way, of course. It is sometimes possible to change our actions. But our actions are not always under our control. Much of our behavior is being channeled and directed externally. We are living under the coercive control of “government,” after all. I believe it is wrong to support sweatshop labor, but I am economically coerced to sell my time and labor, and my job requires that I wear nice clothes and at the same time doesn’t pay enough to buy clothes that aren’t manufactured in a sweatshop. So, my anti-sweatshop attitudes are modified: “Yeah, the sweatshop issue is a problem, but there are more important things to worry about.”

Back to anarchism. The anarchist ideals of voluntary community action and power-equality in social relationships should be consonant with everyone’s personal core values on some level. Every creature on the planet wants to preserve and maintain its own freedom. Yet these ideals are in direct opposition to every oppressive and coercive fiber of civilization. The potential for cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. We are all being forced daily to relinquish our freedom in countless ways, and this should be a serious problem for each of us. But our tools for reducing cognitive dissonance work their magic, and we come to believe that it is our free choice to surrender our freedom, and besides it is for our own good. The powerful dissonance produced by the contradiction between our principles relating to personal autonomy and our own docility triggers equally powerful defensive reactions. Our individual acquiescence to civilized order requires immense justification, and anarchist ideals—and the anarchists who espouse them—need to be rationalized away.

Justification of the oppressive status quo has become a culture-wide obsession of modernity, and has led to the construction of an elaborate fairytale worldview in which global civilization is the expression of the very soul and essence of humanity. This fairytale, as it turns out, is just another attempt to defend against cognitive dissonance, and reflexive anti-anarchist (or pro-civilization) rhetoric is just that, allegations that turn out to be flimsy and insupportable rationalizations logically on par with those used in the antebellum south to justify black slavery.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why the Warsaw climate change conference is a waste of time

See if you can identify what’s wrong with the following sentence:

If we don’t take decisive action on climate change soon, melting polar ice will raise sea level and destroy our coastal cities.

There is nothing physically wrong with this sentence. There are no misspellings or missing punctuation marks. There are no syntactical problems either. The tense is consistent, and although it is a bit clunky, there are no grammatical mistakes. The problem is at the meaning level. The sentence is in fact meaningless, or, more precisely, its meaning does not correspond to anything real about the world.

No, I am not a climate-change denier. The earth is obviously becoming a hotter place, and it is pretty clear that the change in temperature is largely due to the buildup of greenhouse gas generated by industrial activity and automobiles. And it logically follows that as the temperature increases and the polar ice caps melt, sea levels will rise; and as sea levels rise, coastal cities will eventually be flooded out of existence. And, although I might quibble that it is already far too late, that the drowning of coastal cities is inevitable at this point, I am willing to offer the benefit of the doubt and accept the if-then conditional as logically sound. 
The problem with the sentence is in the pronouns. Neither the “we” who is supposed to take some kind of action nor the “our” who is in possession of coastal cities refer to any group of people that could possibly exist.

Who, exactly, is this mysterious “we” that bears the onerous responsibility for global warming? Is it you?  Are you responsible for the industrial revolution? Did you invent mountain-removal strip mining and orchestrate the planet-wide proliferation of coal-fired power plants? Is it me? Did I build massive highway systems and populate them with carbon-belching vehicles? Did you and I, alone or together or in conjunction with any number of other folks intentionally craft a global economic system based on international trade and industrial mass consumption? Of course not, that’s absurd.Yet that is exactly what the use of “we” in the above sentence implies. 

“We” are responsible for global warming, and “we” are also somehow capable of acting to change things before it is too late for cities that, by the way, are somehow “our” doing as well. I don’t know about you, but I don’t own any cities. The one I was born in was in existence long before I could provide any input and would be indistinguishable from what it is today if I never existed. 
“We” and “us” and “our” are abstractions that obscure the true nature of the situation—and conceal the true cause of the emerging and inevitable climate catastrophe. Global climate change is real. And its proximal source is human activity. But there is nothing human about its cause.  

Mass pronouns are comforting in times of crisis. They divert attention from the individual and dissolve the weight of individual obligation. But they can also serve as camouflage for the actual problem. We should do something about global warming.  However, the “we” who are being called upon to act are not the same “we” who created global warming in the first place—and definitely not a “we” who have any power to affect meaningful change even if this “we” were somehow able to act as a singular organism. 

The only "we" who has the power is entirely powerless to overcome its own inertia. Neither a super-typhoon nor a panel of corporate/government bureaucrats can alter its relentless and inevitable course.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Brain damage as a guide

When brain tissue is damaged, whether through infection or trauma, cells that are still capable of some modicum amount of metabolic function will commit slow suicide. This process is called apoptosis.

Apoptosis is a kind of active neuron death in which the neuron, once damaged, shrinks and packages the debris into vesicles where it can be safely removed and redistributed, thus avoiding inflammation and damage to nearby neurons. 

Neurons that are too far gone for apoptosis have no choice but to undergo necrosis instead. Necrosis is a passive process in which the damaged cell swells and disintegrates through fragmentation, leading to inflammation that can spread the damage to other healthy neurons in the vicinity. Necrosis happens rapidly whereas apoptosis takes more time.

Most visions of the end of civilization are necrotic ones, outlooks that envision massive destruction, widespread ecological devastation, and immense pain and suffering. But the very tissues of our brains tell us that we have other options.

Monday, September 16, 2013


Occasionally I will come across a common word that I have used all my life and suddenly understand it for the first time.  

The other day, while I was skimming through an excerpt from a treatise written in the early 1950s I stumbled upon the word “co-operate.” I’m sure I have run across the hyphenated form of this word before, but the mechanical entailments and the industrial factory nuance had entirely passed me by.

The word itself emerged in the late 1600s as a combination of the Latin for “together” and “work.” But it didn’t find its way into common vernacular until the end of the 19th century, riding on the back of the industrial revolution, as society began its mechanical transformation and human relationships began to align themselves in conformity with the factory production metaphor.

People working together are co-operating. Synchronized cogs in the production-consumption machine.  

Children are taught from an early age that cooperation is an important requirement for civil society. What the Sesame Street Muppets don’t sing about is how all of the most horrendous events in the history of civilization were possible only because of vast networks of complacent individuals engaged in uncountable acts of willing cooperation: every war, every atrocity, every genocide.

There is power in co-action. And the increased power associated with mutual action is seductive. Together you and I can move a much larger stone than either of us could budge separately. But before either of us lowers our back to the rock, we need to look to see who we will be crushing on the other side.