Saving a Dying Corpse
Butler Shaffer | July 14 2005
An Associated Press news report told of 1,900 sheep following one another over a cliff in Turkey, resulting in the deaths of 450. The sheep had been grazing when, without explanation, some members of the herd began leaping from the cliff. The others followed the lead, providing an example of “sheepish” behavior.
What a fitting metaphor for the herd-oriented behavior of humans. Political systems – along with various corporate interests that have produced the homogeneous corporate-state – have succeeded in getting people to organize themselves into opposing herds. These multitudes are placed under the leadership of persons who function like “Judas goats,” a term derived from the meat-packing industry. Judas goats are trained to lead sheep to the slaughterhouse, slipping safely away as the others are led to the butcher. Political leaders take their flocks to the deadly precipice, depart to the safety of their bunkers, and allow herd instincts to play out their deadly course. With the help of the media, Bush, Blair, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Rice, et al., perform the Judas goat function quite well, rousing the herds into a “let’s you and him fight” mindset without occasioning the loss of their own blood. You will not see any of these smug, arrogant creatures in the front lines of battle: that is the purpose served by the “masses” (i.e., the “herds”).
But what happens when this herd-hustling game begins to break down; when the consequences become so destructive as to threaten the herd itself? What happens when the sheep begin to suspect that there are alternatives to their present condition; that their lives might have a greater purpose than to be part of a pile of corpses? What if they should learn of greener pastures elsewhere, entry to which is not restricted to a privileged few, the enjoyment of which requires only a breaking away from the restraints of the herd? What if word of such life-fulfilling options begins to spread among herd members?
This allegorical reference seems apropos to modern society, whose vertical structures continue their collapse into more horizontal networks. One cannot grasp the meaning of the established order’s admittedly endless war on “terrorism” without understanding the much deeper question: how is a free and creative society to be organized? Under what sorts of systems will men and women live, work, play, cooperate, and raise children? The institutionally-centered forms with their command-and-control mechanisms that have long represented Western societies are eroding; and the established interests that have benefited from such systems are in a life-and-death struggle to resist their demise.
Institutions – particularly political systems – depend upon people developing a collective identity for themselves; associating their very being with the herd of which they are part and to which they are subservient. While organized behavior is both natural and beneficial to us as social beings, institutions invert the role of social systems: organizations that began as cooperative tools to foster the interests of individuals, get twisted into organizations that become their own reasons for being (i.e., an institution).
Having become ends in themselves, institutions must resist behavior that threatens their interests. Once men and women have been conditioned to accept the supremacy of institutional interests over their own, it is an easy matter to get them to sanction the use of state power to protect and promote established interests. Corporate interests become synonymous with societal interests; concerns for “security” – whether “national,” “homeland,” “job,” “social,” or “airport” – justify governmental restrictions on individual liberty and other processes of change that threaten the status quo.
Business firms have been the principal forces behind the promotion of governmental regulation of the economic life of the country. Through competitive and trade practice standards; licensing and other limitations on entry into the marketplace; tariffs and taxation policies; government research subsidies and defense contracting; and various other uses of the coercive powers of the state to advance private interests, the business community has fostered rigidities that help to insulate firms from the need to remain creatively resilient and adaptive to change. My book, In Restraint of Trade, documents the development of such behavior between 1918–1938.
As I have previously observed, a number of historians have shown how such institutionalizing practices contribute to the decline of civilizations. If a society is to remain creative and viable, it must encourage – not simply tolerate – the processes of change. At this point, the creative interests of society (as people) come into conflict with the structuring interests of institutions (as organizational systems). Whether the autonomous and spontaneous processes of change will prevail over the preservation of established institutional interests, may well determine the fate of the American civilization!
The forces of institutional dominance – with their centralized, vertically-structured, coercive systems of control – have encountered the decentralized, horizontally-connected, voluntary methods of cooperation. Mankind is in a life-and-death struggle not simply for its physical survival, but for its very soul. The contest centers on the question of whether human beings shall continue to be servo-mechanistic resources for the use and consumption of institutional interests, or whether they shall be their own reasons for being. Will institutional or individual interests be regarded as the organizing principal of society?
It is this confrontation that underlies the so-called “war on terror.” “Terrorism” – like “international communism” that preceded it – is but another specter held up to a gullible public to enlist their continuing support for institutional hegemony. “Terrorism” is a tactic, not a competing political institution; a tactic that reflects the inability of the state to predict and control events. Even the British home secretary, Charles Clarke, admitted that there was no governmental measure that could have prevented the subway bombings. One former CIA analyst has asserted that unpublicized US government figures show an increase in terrorist acts in the world from 175 in 2003 to 625 in 2004, hardly a ringing endorsement of the efficacy of the “war on terror.”
In numerous ways, humanity is slipping out of the grasping hands of the state, a prospect that does, indeed, “terrorize” institutional interests. Parents are increasingly turning to home-schooling and other forms of private education as alternatives to government schools; alternative medicine and health-care systems continue to prosper; the Internet – with its myriad and interconnected web and blog sites – is increasingly relied upon by men and women for all kinds of information, with a corresponding decline in newspaper readership and network television news viewing. These are just a few of the more prominent examples of a world that is becoming increasingly decentralized, spontaneous, and individualized.
The difficulties we face often arise from our failure to ask relevant questions. This may help explain the institutional establishment’s apparent lack of awareness of its apparent fate. A CNN news show the other day reported on the increased popularity of Internet blogsites, explaining their growth as a public demand for getting news out more “quickly,” – then urging viewers to continue watching CNN for the fastest reports. However, it is not information speed that attracts people to the Internet, but increased options in what is reported. When the Iraqi war was on center stage, television networks trotted out the General Plotnicks or the Admiral Updikes or the Col. Bogeys (ret.) to explain – and favorably comment upon – the government’s war strategies. If one wanted to find thoughtful criticism of the war – such as provided by Bob Higgs, Lewis Lapham, Justin Raimondo, Lew Rockwell, Alexander Cockburn, John Pilger, Alan Bock, or numerous other thinkers – one had to go to the Internet.
The latent forces of complexity and chaos, coupled with the adverse consequences of increased organizational size, will doubtless continue these decentralizing trends. Secession movements, along with an increased willingness of state and local governments to openly challenge federal government policies, reflect a growing interest in decentralizing political power. Even the Iraqi insurgency forces and various “terrorist” attacks attest to war itself becoming decentralized.
The institutional order could, of course, try to adapt to such changes. Many business organizations have, in fact, discovered the enhanced productivity to be found in the adoption of more decentralized managerial policies in which day-to-day decision-making is more widely distributed throughout the work force. But few have been willing to extend the logic of centrifugence to broader social environments such as the marketplace. They – and most of the rest of us – fail to understand that the spontaneous and autonomous processes that enhance the creativity and profitability of a firm, also foster the viability of society itself.
Creativity has always posed a threat to those who refuse to adapt themselves to more productive alternatives. Because we have learned to regard institutions as ends to be preserved, rather than tools to be utilized, fundamental changes that threaten the institutional order must be resisted. Such is the case with the worldwide shift from vertically-designed and hierarchically-structured systems of centralized control, toward more decentralized, horizontally-networked social systems. Feudalism – grounded in politically-defined privileges, rights, and status – was unable to sustain itself in the face of an industrial revolution that rewarded people on the basis of exhibited merit in a free marketplace. So, too, the neo-feudal, politically-structured institutionalized order will be unable to resist the oncoming liberalizing trends.
Like the Luddites who fought the industrial revolution, the established order will not give up its privileges without a fight. Efforts to revive the dying corpse of centralized power structures have taken on paramount importance. With the demise of the Soviet Union as its symbiotic partner for the rationalization of state power – itself the victim of decentralist forces – the United States has had to find a new threat with which to keep Americans as a fear-ridden herd. The statists believe they have found this eternal danger in the specter of “terrorism,” which they hope can be manipulated to justify endless wars and unrestrained police powers.
But if you can cut through the veneer of propaganda as “news,” and begin to ask such questions as how US-supported persons and organizations (e.g., Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban) could suddenly became threats to America, you will begin to understand the nature of the herding game being played at your expense.
What government officials and the media have labeled the “war on terror” has, I believe, a more encompassing target: the decentralizing processes that are eroding institutionally-controlled social behavior. “Terrorism” is the state’s new scarecrow, erected to ward off the changes that threaten the interests of the rigidly-structured political establishment. What is now drifting away into diffused networks of freely developed, alternative forms and practices, must be resisted by a state system that insists upon its central control of the lives of us all. As has always been the case, the life-sustaining processes of spontaneity and autonomy are being opposed by the life-destroying forces of coercive restraint.
With its newly-concocted perpetual war upon an unseen enemy – combined with greatly expanded police powers – the established order seeks to force free men and women back into the herd upon which its violent control over life depends. That we may take our places in the serried ranks set out for us by the state so that we remain subservient to the state, is the purpose underlying the present “war on terror.” As with the sheep in Turkey, the consequence will be that we will follow one another over cliffs leading to our mutual destruction. In the tapestry of human history, it is but the latest expression of the state’s continuing war against life.