Tuesday, December 26, 2006

disinterested state -- Rudolf Rocker


By: David Edwards

"Our complex global economy is built upon millions of small, private acts
of psychological surrender, the willingness of people to acquiesce in
playing their assigned parts as cogs in the great social machine that
encompasses all other machines. They must shape themselves to the
prefabricated identities that make efficient coordination possible... that
capacity for self-enslavement must be broken.” (Theodore Roszak - The
Voice Of The Earth)

Heart Murmurs

Few tasks are more challenging than that of attending to our subtle,
internal responses to the world against the deafening roar of what is
deemed ‘obviously true‘. Writing in the 1930s, the anarchist Rudolf Rocker
made the point that the state is not a disinterested spectator on the
issue of freedom of thought. In his classic work, Culture And Nationalism,
Rocker wrote:

"The state welcomes only those forms of cultural activity which help it to
maintain its power. It persecutes with implacable hatred any activity
which oversteps the limits set by it and calls its existence into
question. It is, therefore, as senseless as it is mendacious to speak of a
‘state culture‘; for it is precisely the state which lives in constant
warfare with all higher forms of intellectual culture and always tries to
avoid the creative will of culture." (Rocker, Culture and Nationalism,
Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.85)

The stakes, Rocker noted, are high:

"If the state does not succeed in guiding the cultural forces within its
sphere of power into courses favourable to its ends, and thus inhibit the
growth of higher forms, these very higher forms will sooner or later
destroy the political frame which they rightly regard as a hindrance."
(Rocker, p.83)

If this strikes us as implausible (as it should), it is for a very good
reason. It seems incredible to us that individuals working for the state -
in government, education, local government - could be eagerly working to
“reduce all human activity to a single pattern”. Are they not human beings
like us? Do they not seek freedom of thought, independence of mind, for
their own children?

It is a very reasonable argument and applies equally to the media.
Dissident analysts claim, and in fact demonstrate, that truth is filtered,
depleted to a dramatic degree by the corporate media. But surely the men
and women of the press - again, human beings like us - are not eagerly
striving to oppress humanity.

The answer is found in the way the performance of an organisation is
shaped by its primary, bottom line goals. As I have discussed elsewhere,
the process is similar to the mechanisms underlying crystal formation. The
near-perfect, symmetrical shapes of snowflakes and other crystalline
structures are no accident but flow from the founding conditions around
which the crystals form.

If we pour a stream of marbles into a square framework, they will
inevitably form a pyramid. In accounting for the perfect conformity on
every side of the structure no one need propose eager participation on the
part of the marbles. In organisations for which profit-seeking, say, is
the bottom line - the equivalent of the wooden framework - facts, ideas,
values, policies and individuals are naturally selected that fit the
structure, that act in structure-supportive ways, and that do not
challenge the founding framework.

In the absence of the overt, big Brother-style control of past history, we
imagine we are at last free. Erich Fromm thought otherwise:

“Anonymous authority is more effective than overt authority, since one
never suspects that there is any order which one is expected to follow. In
external authority it is clear that there is an order and who gives it;
one can fight against the authority, and in this fight personal
independence and moral courage can develop... It is like being fired at by
an invisible enemy. There is nobody and nothing to fight back against.”
(Erich Fromm - The Fear Of Freedom)

In our society, education policy, schools, curricula, professional
training, cultural presumptions, media output, our deepest notions of what
is true and important in life, are all filtered by the founding frameworks
of profit and power.

Where does the capacity to think for ourselves, to take ourselves
seriously, fit into this framework? Rocker explains:

“Education is character development, harmonious completion of human
personality. But what the state accomplishes in this field is dull drill,
extinction of natural feeling, narrowing of the spiritual field of vision,
destruction of all the deeper elements of character in man. The state can
train subjects... but it can never develop free men who take their affairs
into their own hands; for independent thought is the greatest danger that
it has to fear.” (Rocker, p.190)

And what a price we pay for the averting of this human threat! As
children, it means we must be persuaded to defer to external judgements -
to feel sure they must be superior to our own; for then we will learn to
disregard our internal disagreements. We must be made to mouth prayers
that mean nothing, to wave meaningless flags at meaningless ceremonies; to
bow low to people born into a particular family - for then we will learn
to accept confusion as our lot, to accept unreason with a shrug.

How many of us recognise the appalling oppression implicit in the simple
fact that schools are named according to this or that religious tradition?
What does this tell us about our commitment to protecting, rather than
defeating, the precious independence of mind that exists in the new minds
that we welcome into our society?

I am always startled by the gleaming intelligence, sincerity and openness
of young children. As Freud commented, they are intellectually far
superior to us adults. It is vital that young human beings quickly learn
to understand, realistically, the nature of the world around them with all
its demands and dangers. Children seem superbly evolved to discover the
truth, to think for themselves, to work things out. No wonder societies
have to work so hard to mould these dangerous minds into workable

School - Sculpting The Pyramid

In his book, Dumbing Us Down, teacher John Taylor Gatto described the
seven real lessons taught by modern schooling.

The first lesson is confusion - the child is presented with a multitude of
unrelated facts; meaning is not sought and so presumed not to exist. We
know that there was a war in Vietnam, but we don’t really know why. We
know people are starving, but we don’t know why. Failure to understand
deeply is presented as an irrelevance - the key is to memorise facts and
reproduce them on demand. This obsessive focus on retention of information
is a monstrous trivialisation and betrayal of the human need to understand.

The second lesson is class position - the child is told his or her place
in the hierarchy. We are taught to envy the ‘brighter’ and revile the
‘slower’. Offered a choice between ‘success’ on the terms of authority, or
‘failure’, we naturally choose ‘success’. The A-level students shown
leaping in delight at their results on the news every year are celebrating
their submission to conformity. They have been judged a ‘success’ by
authority and have accepted that judgement as real. By inevitable
implication, they have accepted that authority as legitimate. They are now
surrounded by an electric fence of conformity - to later ‘fail’ by
society’s standards will be exquisitely painful.

After joining a new primary school as a child, I came 14th out of 18 in my
end of year exams. Some of my best friends came second and third. I felt
keenly that I was an imposter, that I didn’t belong in their company -
they were ‘up there’, exalted; I was a failure. The shame was intense.

Later in my academic experience, I was labelled “lazy”, then “average”,
then “above average”, then “not academic”, and then “bright“. My
’brightness’ appeared to be on a dimmer switch dependent on where I was
and what I was studying. I cringe when I hear a child labelled ‘bright‘ or
‘dim‘. It seems to me that a lot of ’dim’ children are too ’bright’, or at
least too true to themselves, to tolerate the trivia imposed on them as
’education’. To be indifferent to what is of minimal human significance is
not a sign of stupidity.

The point is that a child who accepts the label ‘not very bright’ will, in
his or her own mind, deem risible the notion that he or she might seek to
understand the world, much less to challenge the assumptions accepted by
the society by which he or she has been labelled. For a ’failure’ who has
been successfully undermined in this way, to reject the labelling system
itself will seem like the most obvious and wretched sour grapes. How can
this one individual be right against a whole world of opinion? And from
where can we gain the confidence that has been stripped away from us by
the very system we are presuming to challenge?

On the other hand, the ‘bright’ child will feel a sense of affirmation and
belonging that will make him or her disinclined to challenge the
fundamental legitimacy and wisdom of the source of his or her own
self-esteem. These are the ’winners’ who populate our public schools,
Oxbridge universities and corporate media offices.

The third lesson, Gatto tells us, is indifference - the child is taught to
care, but not too much. When the bell rings, enthusiasm makes way for
timetables - learning and passion are subordinated to strict routine. This
makes understanding the world a kind of hobby or game - it is important
and interesting but it shouldn’t get in the way of ‘real life’.

In the second term of my third year at university, a lot of my fellow
students quickly turned their attention away from their studies towards
organising career jobs for the following autumn. Where once the concern
had been Rousseau‘s description of the social chasm separating human
beings from their real needs, now it was selling chocolate for Cadburys
and biscuits for McVitees. The irony and absurdity, the casual betrayal of
what was supposed to be important, were painful for me to witness.

I was not a fanatical bookworm, but I felt deeply that the issues I was
studying - the nature of human happiness and the implications for
political theory - really did matter. And yet it was clear that these
subjects were not deemed of any great merit in themselves, but were merely
a means to an end, a resource to be crammed for exam passes into high-paid
conformity. It seemed that this game was somehow psychologically and
ethically walled off from reality. So, for example, we read J.S. Mill’s

“Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions or customs of
other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the
principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient
of individual and social progress.” (J.S. Mill - On Individuality).

This was quoted in exams, but was not deemed remotely relevant in
considering the value of the exams themselves, or of the corporate work so
eagerly being sought.

This was one of my first experiences of a phenomenon I have encountered
very often in my work with Media Lens. Erich Fromm explained:

“Modern man exhibits an amazing lack of realism for all that matters. For
the meaning of life and death, for happiness and suffering, for feeling
and serious thought. He has covered up the whole reality of human
existence and replaced it with his artificial, prettified picture of
pseudo-reality, not too different from the savages [sic] who lost their
land and freedom for glittering glass beads.” (Erich Fromm - The Sane

This, actually, is where the Media Lens project might be said to have
started for me. Even before I read the likes of Fromm, Chomsky and Rocker,
I was already astonished, and fascinated, that so much that so clearly
matters could be suppressed in so many people.

Eight years later, I read this description of Glaxo chairman, Paul
Girolami, by David Jack, Ex-Head of Research at the same company:

“I can tell you quite frankly he doesn't have any great regard for
scientists, or for science as a way of living. His whole purpose is to
make money. I don't think there is much folly in his mind about doing
good.” (Quoted, Matthew Lynn, ‘Prudence and the pill pusher,’ Independent
on Sunday, November 3, 1991)

This, again, contained a sense that all of life - compassion, suffering,
moral responsibility, life and death - was a kind of game to be
subordinated to some higher reality. But what was that ‘higher reality’
exactly? Career success? Wealth? Corporate greed?

When I started trying to make sense of the world, I noticed that both I,
and the people around me, found it strange that anyone would seriously
make the attempt: ‘If there were answers to be found,’ I was repeatedly
told, ‘they would have been discovered years ago and we would all know
about them.’ What I didn’t realise then was that many answers +had+ been
found but that they conflicted with the interests and goals of people who
control what we come to know about the world. One of the most important
and liberating realisations I gained was the awareness that even our most
painful certainties rooted in a sense of meaningless, alienation and
despair, were actually favoured by a system that profits from the absence
of sanity and hope.

Taylor Gatto’s fourth lesson is emotional dependency - stars, ticks,
frowns, prizes and honours manipulate children into judging themselves as
they are judged by authority. When I began writing political and
philosophical articles, a constant question running through my mind was:
‘Who on earth do I think I am to be writing this stuff?’ My own question
was reflected in the nonplussed, embarrassed looks of friends and family.
(Mouth agape, I once made the mistake of telling my dentist what I was
doing: “I’m writing a book about thought control in modern society.”) Who
was I - mere me - to be doing that? The answer is I am no more nor less
qualified than anyone else in asking questions and seeking answers to
these questions.

Society had persuaded me that there was something deluded, absurd about
creatures called ’ordinary people’ presuming to comment on the world. We
are here to be judged - selected or rejected, rewarded or punished - by
the institutions of society, are we not? Who are we to judge the judges?

In the social sciences, at least, it turns out that ‘expertise’ is very
often a label bestowed by people with power. Similarly, to be a
‘professional journalist’ - someone declared a competent commentator on
current affairs - is merely the result of some corporate editor awarding a
contract. But the title ’journalist’ - a media version of the famous white
coat worn by doctors - is used to suggest profound specialist knowledge
where, often, very little exists.

In an article on Media Lens earlier this year, Peter Beaumont of the
Observer asked:

“... what is the aim of these self-appointed media watchdogs?” (Beaumont,
‘Microscope on Medialens,’ The Observer, June 18, 2006)

This was interesting because Beaumont had thereby unwittingly revealed
that he considers us lacking in credibility because we are +not+ appointed
by authority. But one might ask where exactly the authority resides that
is qualified to confer respectability on individuals evaluating media
honesty? Are we, as individuals, not able to judge the rationality of the
evidence, of the arguments, for ourselves without appealing to external
authority? Compare the gulf separating Beaumont’s worldview from that
described by Rocker:

"Only when man shall have overcome the belief in his dependence on a
higher power will the chains fall away that up to now have bowed the
people beneath the yoke of spiritual and social slavery. Guardianship and
authority are the death of all intellectual effort, and for just that
reason the greatest hindrance to any close social union, which can arise
only from free discussion of matters and can prosper only in a community
not hindered in its original course by external compulsion, belief in a
supernatural dogma or economic oppression." (Rocker, p.143)

The fifth lesson is intellectual dependency - good people wait for teacher
to tell them what to do. Successful children are those who accept and
reproduce what they are told with a minimum of resistance. A stubbornly
questioning child will be met with exasperation and told that, in the end,
the course is about preparing to take and pass exams, not about endless
debate. Later, at work, the employee will be met with the same sighs and
told that the project is about making money, not about discussing the
rights and wrongs of business.

In an interview, Harold Pinter told me about two American journalists who
insisted to their editor that it was the moral responsibility of their TV
station to cover a story on GM food. The editor’s response?:

“‘Listen, what is news is what we say it is! That’s it! And for us that’s
not news, right!’”

Pinter paused:

“And then they were fired.”

The deeper lesson is that intellectual and ethical freedoms are allowed,
but only within certain parameters - the parameters themselves are
+not+ up for discussion. We are trained, in other words, to accept our lot
as intellectual and ethical jailbirds. To seek to be anything more is to
be dismissed as ‘a troublemaker’. To challenge the whole version of
‘success’ and ‘failure’ is not even to be a failure - it is to be, by the
standards of the accepted framework, mad.

The sixth lesson is provisional self-esteem. Self-respect is taught to be
dependent on ‘expert’ opinion.

Finally, the seventh lesson is that we cannot hide: we are always being
watched. There is no private space or time in which non-conformity can
flourish. This is a useful preparation for work where our every move is
often monitored to see that we are not wasting company time.

Conclusion - Three Small Points

The real point of Rocker’s analysis was to suggest that only when we break
free from the chains of anonymous external authority - from the sense that
we need to defer to and seek approval from, such authority - can we learn
to take seriously and develop our own powers of reason, our own critical
thinking and compassion for others:

"Only in freedom does there arise in man the consciousness of
responsibility for his acts and regard for the rights of others; only in
freedom can there unfold in its full strength that most precious social
instinct: man's sympathy for the joys and sorrows of his fellow men and
the resultant impulse toward mutual aid in which are rooted all social
ethics, all ideas of social justice." (Rocker, p.148)

A few hundred years earlier, the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna said much
the same thing:

“Not doing harm to others,

Not bowing down to the ignoble,

Not abandoning the path of virtue –

These are small points, but of great

Importance.” (Nagarjuna and Sakya Pandit, Elegant Sayings, Dharma
Publishing, 1977, p.12)

In the modern age, with the greed-driven state-corporate system all but
unavoidable, these three points present the supreme challenge to all who
would live as fully human beings.


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posted by u2r2h at 4:28 PM


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