(my wife wrote this a few weeks back…)
Taking Back the Reigns
“We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.” –George Orwell
I have long been a political junkie. It’s fair to say that in the absence of any interest in hockey, or soccer, or football- politics is my sport. Through the years I’ve enjoyed the complex maneuvering and attempts to manipulate, the gleeful shock of the media and public alike when a politician slips and falls, the ensuing excitement when his comrades in power swiftly kick him or her over the cliff rather than risk contamination. It’s all very titillating, as blood sports are apt to be. What I’ve come to resent is that I’m not merely a spectator but a participant, or more accurately a benefactor, without my express consent. I cannot choose not to attend a game, or the game, because the arena has grown and grown so that it now encompasses every facet of life, every inch of the planet.
In everything else, if I grow bored or disinterested, decide that it’s not a worthy expense in terms of money, energy, or time- I can opt out. I’ve divorced, changed careers, moved, I’ve altered my lifestyle- but I cannot of my own free will make the decision not to fund the government and the innumerable mandatory schemes it sees fit to impose. I have accepted this fact over the years as necessary for the greater good. Unhappy with this government, I’ll vote for that one next time, and then another the time after that. My allegiance is to values, not a particular team. The disturbing fact that I’ve had to come to terms with though is that my sport is about as relevant as synchronized swimming. It has not been an easy transition for me, and I have fought just as hard with my own conscience as I have with friends and acquaintances in an attempt to justify the necessity of good government, to defend the notion that those equipped to pull off this feat simply aren’t in play yet. “The game’s going to pick up, I promise you. The next one will be better.” The problem being- while a proponent of good government, I’ve never actually seen one in practice.
Award winning journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger offers, “This is not to say parliamentary politics is meaningless. It has one meaning now: the replacement of democracy with a business plan for every human activity, every dream, every decency, every hope, every child born.” While this may sound extreme, I would go one further to propose that democracy has existed more within a dreamy mindscape than any realized reality. Take the Canadian example- in the last election the Conservatives won a majority government based on the confidence of 1 in 4 eligible voters. You would be hard pressed to explain just how this math works out to any school age child, but so it is. The Conservatives now run the House with an iron fist, shushing not only opposition members but members of their own party who dare to disagree. Hardly in keeping with Harper’s victory speech in which he said that, “We are intensely aware that we are and we must be the government of all Canadians, including those who did not vote for us,” but no less than we’ve come to expect from this, one of the world’s leading democracies. (something about fact that they don’t represent even those who did vote for them)
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges points out that, “There is no way to vote against corporate power. Citizens have no way to bring about the prosecution of Wall Street bankers and financiers for fraud, military and intelligence officials for torture and war crimes, or security and surveillance officers for human rights abuses.” Still, we trust in democratic government to the extent that we continue to participate, to finance it, and to herald its virtues. Our politicians understand our fanatical attachment and use it to garner public support for war mongering that might otherwise be unpalatable “just spreading democracy folks, don’t worry- we’ll be out as soon as we secure their resources, er, freedom.” We believe in the principles of democracy for good reason though- the premise that citizens, given a voice, will act in the public’s best interests is a noble one and, I believe, in essence true. It is in believing that a hierarchal, authoritarian power structure will ever represent the truest values of democracy that we err, where we enter into Orwell’s doublethink.
Let’s examine the global economic crisis briefly, or as I prefer to call it: the failure of a human construct based on nonsensical models in the netherworld. Firstly, I would like to express my undying admiration for the people who managed to anthropomorphize the economy to such an extent that mere mention that it is “in crisis” sends even the most pragmatic of persons into a tailspin- brilliantly done old chaps! It doesn’t matter that the average person can’t explain why or how things took such a drastic turn for the worse, never mind the basic mechanics of “the economy,” we are willing to do whatever we can to save it. We will work harder and longer, do with less, sacrifice our neighbours- whatever it takes. There is a definite Twilight Zone element to the whole thing but you’d be wrong to deny the spin doctors credit on this one. Hedges observes, “There is nothing in 5,000 years of economic history to justify the belief that human societies should structure their behavior around the demands of the marketplace. This is an absurd, utopian ideology. The airy promises of the market economy have, by now, all been exposed as lies.” Yet we continue to structure our lives around those lies.
Now let’s look at the crisis in real terms. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine reports that the suicide rate in Greece rose 40% in 2011- a complete reversal of the pre-2007 trend which saw rates steadily declining. There has been an exponential rise in HIV, as well as outbreaks of malaria, West Nile virus, and dengue fever directly related to cuts in preventative programs. Likewise, Mental Health Europe estimates that requests for antidepressants have risen by 28% between 2007 and 2011, while European countries deepen cuts to healthcare by up to 50%. The European Parliament warns, “that the economic and financial crisis is a threat to human rights as a whole, including civil and political rights… in particular that it has had detrimental effects on access to food, health care and education for the most vulnerable groups in society, in both urban and rural areas, and has resulted in dramatically increased poverty levels globally” among other dire observations and predictions.
According to an economic report at “Money Morning” the real unemployment rate as of April 2013 in the United States is 13.9% (AEIdeas reports 11.3% for the same period, CNBC 13.8%); this without the sunshiney outlook presented by the government and related institutions that bring the percentage as low as 7.5% by discounting the existence of large segments of the population. 633,782 people in the United States are homeless and this number is expected to increase as 85 billion in sequestration cuts take effect. In Canada the government spent a large part of 2012 slashing environmental programs and legislation in hopes of stimulating the economy, whilst encouraging (read: legislating) people to work more, retire later. One step further, the Canadian government is hard at work preventing people from collecting unemployment insurance (a program citizens are forced to pay into, and is sold as “insurance”), and making cuts to the Canada Revenue Agency at the same time that the Auditor General reports that the CRAs uncollected tax (expected to be hidden in offshore tax havens) has risen to roughly 29 billion in the last seven years. But regardless of the toll of the financial crisis on people in developed countries, there is no argument that those in developing countries have been impacted more drastically and in greater numbers.
Author Derrick Jensen’s premise that, “The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below. It is acceptable for those above to increase the amount of property they control—in everyday language, to make money—by destroying or taking the lives of those below,” is evident throughout history, but perhaps particularly so in today’s “financial crisis”. From American taxpayer money being used to bail out financial institutions even while many taxpayers found themselves without employment and forced out of their homes, to the Cypriot banking crisis which saw account holders locked out of their accounts or allowed to withdraw only small amounts of money in increments with unemployment over 14%, all the while the ruling elite discussed what portion of public money could be seized to secure more loans. As Jensen elaborates in his book Endgame, “Within this culture, economics—not community well-being, not morals, not ethics, not justice, not life itself—drives social decisions.”
The economy is a failed experiment no more or less utopian than the belief that authoritarian rule is required to manage communities in a sustainable and egalitarian way but we cannot see clear to challenge the status quo in a meaningful way. We embrace the evil we know for fear of the unknown, which might be understandable but for the fact that history and current events should be enough to demonstrate that we ought to at least to consider the alternatives. The semi-popular notion that collecting more money through taxes may help to fund ailing social programs neglects the fact that we are funding a dysfunctional machine, or a well-oiled perfectly functioning machine dependent on your perspective. If government’s priority was to fund social programming- it would, but where do the cuts happen first in so-called hard times?
Hardly anyone would disagree that these are desperate times. What is stunning is how easily the public is persuaded by government and mainstream media claims that ‘we’ve turned a corner’, or are about to, and continue to be willing to put all of our money and faith into an inherently corrupt and irreparably broken system. It’s a mark of desperation but also willful ignorance that can only be explained by cognitive dissonance. Faced with the reality that our governments have prioritized corporate and banking interests over public interests, but that a democratic government is the best form of representative government, we must pin all of our hopes on the next political candidate or party to put the public interests first. In the words of George Orwell, “if you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself,” so I am going to say out loud what so many of us know to be true but are afraid to acknowledge- we cannot trust government to fix the situation. In fact, the only thing that we can trust is that our governments will do whatever it takes to preserve their power and that does not involve engaging in meaningful dialogue with the public, let alone direct action as a result of such a conversation. It’s not personal; it’s how the system works.
You may have cottoned on to the fact that what I am suggesting as our only real alternative is anarchism, and some of you may be starting to squirm in your chairs. Please, bear with me- anarchism is not what you’ve been led to believe anymore than you can believe government when it tells you that the problem is the solution. But there has been a remarkable and sustained public relations campaign that has even anarchists refusing to identify themselves as such. In an interview with Ziga Vodovnik, renowned historian Howard Zinn observed that, “The term anarchism has become associated with two phenomena with which real anarchists don’t want to associate themselves with. One is violence, and the other is disorder or chaos. The popular conception of anarchism is on the one hand bomb-throwing and terrorism, and on the other hand no rules, no regulations, no discipline, everybody does what they want, confusion, etc. That is why there is a reluctance to use the term anarchism.”
I would be hard-pressed to disagree that public opinion favours the notion that anarchism is a destructive, violent, and chaotic movement. It’s quite simply wrong though, no matter how widespread the belief, as many of our collective thoughts have proven to be. In uncharacteristically simple terms, Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor & Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at MIT describes anarchism as, “… a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy. It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and it asks whether those systems are justified. It assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just.”
I suspect that the aversion to anarchism can be attributed not to a single lie though, but to a series of them that we have been conditioned to believe, ironically while holding the dissonant view that democracy is the hallmark of an evolved society: people can’t be trusted, people can’t organize without a leader, people are inherently selfish, violent, and unable to reach the consensus required to accomplish large goals. These truisms don’t apply to you, of course, but to your neighbour, or those persons of a different race, economic status, educational background, sexual identity, religion, political affiliation- whatever difference is easiest for you to distrust. Sure we think it best for everyone to have a voice, but…
The fact is that people organize selflessly without authoritarian intervention all the time. We see this in everything from people organizing to clean up trash in their communities and on the side of the highway, local fundraising activities to improve community infrastructure, community building efforts, financial support of a local family in crisis, and much more. Perhaps nowhere is it more obvious than in times of emergency though. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane in history, Occupy Sandy volunteers (an off-shoot of the wider Occupy movement) were not only some of the first on the scene but also the most effective organizers as reported by the New York Times (and multiple other media outlets) in their article, “Where FEMA Fell Short, Occupy Sandy was There”. Indeed while critics of the Occupy movement described it as “unorganized” and “ineffective”, the Occupy movement has continued to mobilize volunteers, raise funds, and distribute donations across a multitude of communities in crisis.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is a nongovernmental organization that sees doctors travel all over the world, frequently into dangerous conflict zones, risking their lives to save others. Why would doctors of all people, who earn a considerable wage working in hospitals and private practice, leave the comfort and safety of their homes to help strangers- sometimes strangers with whom they disagree with completely on ideological grounds- potentially never to return? Although government and media would have us believe that it is the few, those exceptional human beings who warrant special interest stories, who are willing to go to great lengths to help another almost any of us would answer a direct call to assist.
Would there be crime in an anarchist society? No doubt. There is crime now, in an authoritarian society. Funnily enough, declaring something illegal and setting punishments ranging from incarceration to murder (or as the Americans prefer to call it, “capital punishment”) has not deterred criminals. But the notion that more people would steal or commit murder if it wasn’t illegal is nonsensical. I haven’t personally killed anyone not because I’m not allowed to or fear punishment so much as that it would be wrong. I don’t operate on the assumption that this makes me exceptional- I suspect that my neighbour, and yours, and the person without neighbours, have the same moral compass. If we were to use the case of murder as an example, governments are responsible for more deaths worldwide (generally in pursuit of resources acquisition, or power) than all individual cases taken together. Yet governments remain immune to prosecution, even when evidence exists that those acts were committed in contravention of international law. Not only that, regardless of your own personal values, you are required to finance these actions with a portion of your daily wage.
“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume,” says Chomsky of our modern world. Key in this statement is the silent pact between government and people. Their job is to tell us why we need them and ours is to believe them, no matter the incongruence. But from the Arab Spring, to the Occupy and Idle No More movements, to the current protests in Turkey and Brazil (and too many others to list here) people are waking up to the realization that governments cannot be trusted, and that representative democracy exists more in the streets than in boardrooms and back rooms. The violent backlash against these movements is evidence that governments are concerned but not to the degree that they won’t continue to favour private interests, from opening the public purse for private consumption to loosening regulations that would make corporations accountable, all the while tightening control of individual liberties. They are not truly frightened because they know we won’t dismantle the system, we’ll just elect new players to the game.
While the problem of government may seem insurmountable and we will undoubtedly have to exist alongside it for some time to come, there are definite steps that we can take towards freedom, perhaps none more important than to credit ourselves with the power imbued in us. We can think for ourselves- start questioning authority, require reasoning over dictates. Of media reports, we can ask ourselves “who are the stakeholders in this story?” Challenge authority when it doesn’t make sense, even if it involves breaking the rules. Support other rule breakers- divide and conquer remains one of the surest ways to victory and our governments make frequent use of this tool. Especially support the rule-breakers when they flout absurd regulations- like offering you farm fresh eggs in an area that doesn’t approve of farm fresh eggs, or harvesting rainwater, or not asking permission to build a deck in their backyard, or building that deck out of milk cartons if they so choose.
Determine what it is that you really need, and then see if you (or a neighbour) can’t supply that need. If you can afford to invest in alternative energy- do it, build a greenhouse or garden to provide your own produce, support a local farmer by buying direct, pay someone local- better yet, trade services or goods. The less money you need to support yourself, the less involved you will need to be in the cash economy, and the less money you will pay in taxes. Form or support community cooperatives. Again- especially support those community cooperatives if government shows up with a stick because those organizations haven’t met all of the guidelines. Protest, loudly and often, where abuses occur. Protest not just the irreparable damage to our planet but every abuse that occurs in your name as though someone had attached a banner bearing your personal endorsement- because it is no less than that. There are considerably more ways to reclaim our power than there are ways to subjugate us.