Something’s been bothering me, and only a rant from the soapbox will scratch the itch.
“News” programs, no longer interested in paying for a fact-checking department, now prefer to pit pundits against one another as a form of entertainment. One of their favorite tactics is to pit an educated “expert” against an opinionated “activist.” The activist may be highly educated, highly opinionated, or simply a nutcase singled out to make all activists look bad.
What’s bothering me specifically is a moment that almost always occurs during this exchange. The expert, nose held high in the air, will inevitably say something that triggers a knee-jerk, “That’s what they want you to do/think/say,” from the activist.
This is when the expert moves in for the kill. Grinning sadistically, he or she jumps on the activist like a predator. “There is no Big Brother orchestrating world events,” they proclaim triumphantly, and reveal the activist to be nothing more than a single-minded, paranoid, delusional conspiracy theorist.
Perhaps it’s unfair of me to demand that people shouldn’t use the phrase “Big Brother” without reading the book that the phrase came from: George Orwell’s 1984. But I feel the need to point out that Big Brother most likely didn’t exist in the novel’s famous fictitious dictatorship either. One of the things that made the system so stable and so oppressive was the fact that “Who wield[ed] power [was] not important, provided that the hierarchical structure remain[ed] always the same.”
One of the main points of the novel was that a system can be incredibly oppressive even if authority isn’t strictly hereditary. A royal bloodline certainly isn’t necessasary.
The “expert” may be correct in pointing out that things aren’t nearly as bad as they are in 1984, but this amounts to little more than attacking a straw man.
So what is the “they” that the activist is speaking out against? This of course depends on the activist’s beliefs, but there are typically two categories they fall into.
We can point to two movements that are currently making a lot of noise for our examples: the “occupy” movement and the tea party. “Occupy” protesters believe that “they” are the 1% of the population who earns more money than 95% of the population combined. Tea party protesters believe that “they” are the giant bureaucracy that empowers government and reduces efficiency.
It seems fairly obvious to me how a bureaucracy can continue to grow larger, more powerful, and less efficient even if all the individual people who work for that bureaucracy are replaced. All that is required is for people in power to want more power. They will pass laws and set precedents that give them more power. Those laws and precedents can be more easily incorporated into the system than removed from it, and so the bureaucracy inexorably becomes larger, more powerful, and less efficient. This process requires no central planning to occur.
Activists may say that the system “wants” to grow more powerful, but this is just shorthand. It may sound conspiratorial to proclaim that “they” want take away your rights and become more powerful, but a formal conspiracy isn’t necessary.
What about the 1 percent the “occupy” movement is speaking out against? There are plenty of examples to point toward. There is the Bilderberg Group, which holds private meetings each year and includes between 120 and 140 individuals. About a third come from government, and two thirds from wealthy institutions.
Organizations such as NAFTA, the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization also seek to “liberalize trade,” which is another way of saying that a “free” economy trumps a “fair” one.
Attempting to stitch all these organizations together as different parts of the same many-headed hydra usually results in some fairly convoluted conspiracy theories, and yet they are referred to collectively as “they” by thinkers of the “occupy” mindset. Does this make them all nutcases?
Not even close.
Forget about these organizations. Forget about corporate lobbyists. Forget about Blackwater and other privately owned military and police forces across the globe. Forget about Lockheed Martin and the privately owned military industrial complex that earns the vast majority of its income from the US government. These are all striking examples of the growing alliance between government and corporate bureaucracy, but I want you to forget about all of it for a second.
I’m taking this argument back to basics.
Ask yourself a simple question. Is there a single politician who doesn’t ask themselves, “How will this affect the economy?” before they sign something into law, start a war, or make any important decision? I doubt it.
No politician wants to be held responsible for doing harm to the economy, and this places some strict limits on what they will be willing to do with their power. The state of the economy is usually assessed based on three numbers: the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the NASDAQ Composite.
When the stock market crashes, so does the economy. It should be fairly obvious that people with more money tend to have more influence over the stock market. When 1% of the population controls more money than 95% of the population, it stands to reason that this 1% has more influence over the behavior of the stock market than 95% of the population. In other words, 1% of the population has the power to crash the economy.
When do people start selling their stocks? When they are scared. When do rich people get scared? Whenever they think something will happen to their wealth. This is why universal health care was never even on the map during the health care debate after the Democrats took office. This is why politicians will never try something truly revolutionary when it comes to the economy. This is why they pass laws and set precedents that benefit the richest 1% far more easily than the other 95%.
No conspiracy necessary.
So who do I think “they” are? To me, “they” are the growing alliance between big business and big government. They will be far more willing to do things that benefit themselves than things that benefit us, because that is human nature. Government bureaucracies will grow because politicians will pass laws that give themselves more power whenever they feel it won’t hurt their chances for reelection. Politicians will also prefer to pass laws that benefit the richest 1% over laws that benefit 95% of Americans, because they don’t want to be blamed for hurting the economy.
So where are the activists getting things wrong?
To start with, they go around calling each other “socialists” and “corporate puppets.” By and large, most people think that government and business shouldn’t be influencing each other, but they are starkly divided when it comes to how. Tea partiers think that government is taking over the economy. Occupiers think that big business is taking over government. The truth is that both entities are benefiting.
What happens when you combine a group of profiteers with an organization that has the legal authority to take your money at gunpoint? I’d like to think I don’t have to answer that question.
Let me start with people who cry “socialist!” whenever somebody thinks big business has too much influence. The truth is, socialism and capitalism are not opposites. They are both utopian ideologies that were invented centuries ago during the enlightenment period. Both have since been modified by people with such different motives and goals that no clear definition for either exists.
Many socialists define capitalism as the concentration of wealth and power, which would make the former Soviet Union one of the most capitalist nations ever created. Many capitalists define socialism as government intervention in the economy, which would make corporate bailouts and the military industrial complex as socialist as things get.
Depending on your definitions, there is nothing inherently socialist about desiring fewer monopolies, wanting more job opportunities, asking for better wages, or trying to find ways toward a more democratic economy. Insulting people who want to feel more secure about their economic future isn’t exactly productive.
But occupy-style activists make a similar mistake when they say the masses have been brainwashed to become mindless consumers. The truth is, people buy consumer products because they want them, not because they are brainwashed. It doesn’t mean they think it’s all that matters. Furthermore, they are only shooting themselves in the foot by making such claims. Critics inevitably sift through protest photos and snicker when they discover that the activists are listening to iPods, wearing Nike shoes, and snapping photos with Canons.
These critics are of course only shooting themselves in the foot as well. Anti-tax activists inevitably drive on roads, rely on social security for their retirement, and call the police when somebody breaks into their home. I don’t feel there is anything inherently hypocritical about that.
Calling for systemic changes while relying on the existing system is the only real option. Boycotts might make you feel better about yourself, but they don’t lead to real change. Putting WalMart out of business won’t help the economy. It will just put sweatshop laborers out of a job.
The truth is, nearly everybody wants to pay fewer taxes, and nearly everybody wants a safety net to stay financially secure. The great lie of our time is that both can’t be accomplished at the same time. In reality, so many taxes are being absorbed by the military industrial complex and other forms of corporate favoritism that simply redistributing the funds could easily resolve the safety net problems.
Or it would be easy, if the people who didn’t want that to happen didn’t have their finger on the economic killswitch.
As long as politicians are the ones passing the laws, their bureaucracy will only continue to become more top heavy and dangerous. So long as the richest 1% can crash the economy, politicians will never pass a law that truly limits their capabilities. And no activist movement will fix these problems by trying to tear down either of these systems, because we rely on them to survive. There really is only one way to orchestrate real change.
That’s how I see it. I’d appreciate any input on the matter.
(For the record, I don’t buy into the notion that Big Brother is becoming inexorably more powerful. I think the reality is that we are more free now than ever before, for a few reasons. Part of it is the democratizing power of technology, which increases transparency and gives “the people” more power over powerful institutions. I also believe that institutions are evolving to become less oppressive, because oppressive institutions are actually inherently inefficient and fundamentally weak.)