December 28, 2010
They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all remaining respect for it, and pitied it.
~ Henry David Thoreau
|We ought to have learned how viciousness is necessary to the exercise of state power from the vivid revelations of Abu Ghraib atrocities.|
For decades, I have maintained that the entire institutional order is in a state of entropic collapse, and that Western civilization, itself, is in its final days. I have gone on to suggest that, depending upon how we respond to all of this, our future may become far more free, peaceful, and productive than what we have known. Events of recent weeks reinforce my opinion that Western society is in the process of a major transformation in how it is to be organized; changes that portend something far more dynamic than what the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions combined to produce.
The words of Thoreau keep coming back to me as I watch the fallout, first from the TSA buffooneries, followed by the second feature: the arrest of Julian Assange for having dared to reveal the underbelly of the state’s dark side. Though I am close to illiterate when it comes to computers, even I could see how far out of touch the established order is from grasping what it is up against. Some have suggested that the Assange episode is the opening round in “Cyberwars,” an assessment that only touches the surface in trying to understand the continuing metamorphosis. Unlike Thoreau, however, I am unable to engender any sense of pity for the state as it counts its silver spoons and plots to get more of your silver to redistribute to its corporate co-schemers.
The political establishment tells us that we are caught up in a “war on terror” which, unlike previous wars, is destined to continue forever. As with all other pronouncements from the state, this characterization of events is grounded in lies. It is not “terrorism” – whatever that word may mean – that threatens the existing power structure, but the collapse of the institutional hierarchies that have ruled mankind for so many years. The struggles that now consume the energies, lives, and material resources of the nation can more accurately be considered as a “war to preserve the institutional order.”
As I developed in my book, Calculated Chaos, the greatest threat to the survival of mankind comes not just from the political systems that plague us – although they have provided the mechanisms of destruction – but from that alliance of institutional interests that invariably finds expression in collective rather than individualized purposes. We have long been conditioned to subjugate our lives to institutionalized systems (i.e., organizations that have ceased being tools for our mutual interests, but have become ends in themselves). Our acceptance of the phrase “too big to fail” expresses this premise quite well.
The more we allow institutional purposes to preempt our own, the more detrimental our organized behavior becomes to the processes that sustain us. There is nothing quite so characteristic of life, itself, as resiliency, the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. The maxim expressed by geneticists – “cherish your mutations” – applies to social systems as well. It is the changefulness of life – not the permanency demanded by institutions – that is central to our survival, both as individuals and a species. But institutionalism makes too many life-threatening demands upon the life processes. We have learned to absorb costs – whether in the form of taxation, regulatory intrusions, wars and other physical aggression – that interfere with our self-interested pursuits. But as such costs continue to escalate, a breaking point is reached; and pressures for fundamental change begin to outpace institutional demands for life to submit itself to their organizational purposes.
An enhanced understanding of the dynamics of chaos, coupled with the emergence of sophisticated technologies that allow for more individualized methods of research and communication, combine to generate environments in which the inherent uncertainty of what we “know” confronts exponential increases in information. The emerging synthesis of such factors has made our world both unstable and resurgent; a vivid example of Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.”
The changes occurring in our world are not simply marginaladjustments in the arrangements we have with others, nor superficialamendments to existing rules or organizational forms. They are, instead, transformations that go to the essence of how people are to associate and cooperate with one another. We are in the midst of a major paradigm shift that is redefining the meaning of society! It is the kind of metamorphosis that is incompatible with the repressive and unalterable nature of institutions.
Our world is moving rapidly from vertically-structured power systems to horizontally-networked, informal systems of cooperation. The centralized authority institutions have long exercised over people, is giving way to decentralized relationships among autonomous individuals. The ongoing struggle between the forces of institutionalism whose methods are grounded in fear, violence, and the quest for security, and the creative processes of social individualism premised upon personal liberty and the inviolability of private property interests, will doubtless prove ugly in the short run; but will soon bring about the total collapse of institutionalized systems grounded in a war against life itself. Those who doubt that members of the institutional order share a common interest in fighting the human energies that are demanding major transformations in how society is to be organized, need look no further than the treatment accorded Julian Assange by various banks, credit card companies, online retailers, politicians, and other established interests for his ill-defined “crime” of truthfully reporting the dark side of institutionalism.
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
Institutional systems tend to resist these dynamic processes of change, particularly those to which their rigid foundations lack resiliency to make creative responses. The established order insists on maintaining the status quo because it is the status quo. When cultural, economic, or political constancies are suddenly disrupted by novel forces, the institutional hierarchy is quick to react. Wars, the burning and hanging of witches and heretics, political purges, the persecution of minorities, torture, the execution of men and women charged with treason, concentration camps, genocides, police states, and other institutionalized forms of terror and violence, are among the better-known examples of existing power structures insulating themselves from energized influences they have been unable to co-opt to their purposes. When so confronted, established authorities become desperate, and resort to any means they deem necessary to reinforce their foundations of power. The purpose underlying such tactics has been to counter destabilizing influences by instilling a sense of fear among those they rule. The subject classes learn to fear not only the externalforces purported to be threats to their well-being, but the established authorities who demand their obedience.
We ought to have learned how viciousness is necessary to the exercise of state power from the vivid revelations of Abu Ghraib atrocities, or the use of “waterboarding” and other forms of torture used by American forces in Iraq. As with TSA behavior, these post-9/11 intrusions by the military were also rationalized in the name of preventing suicide bombings and other terrorist acts. Such, alas, has been the purpose of none of these indignities and cruelties. Their underlying purpose has been that of every bully: to reinforce the power they exercise over their weaker victims through humiliating and dehumanizing them. Though political systems are often able to secure compliance through less-threatening means, it is their capacities to inflict widespread terror amongst a population upon which their authority ultimately depends. Lest you are still burdened by the FOX-News, neo-con mindset that “terror” is something practiced only by others, speak to the survivors of American “shock and awe” bombing attacks on Baghdad.
Regardless of the dehumanizing tools made available to government operatives, both the purpose and the effect of their trespasses upon us is to reinforce public subservience to the state by demeaning the inviolability of our sense of individuality. As Nazi concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, tells us, “under the influence of a world which no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity,” people “lost the feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom and personal value.” Those who survived the camps tended to be those whose “spiritual freedom” was what made life “meaningful and purposeful.”
It is just such individual centeredness and dignity with which political systems are constantly at war, and which the state must suppress if it is to subject people to its arbitrary control. Like the military practice of shaving the heads of new recruits, the state must strip people of any sense of individuality and personality if it is to maintain its monopolistic power over them. This, not the bogeyman of the “terrorist,” is the purpose behind the very existence – as well as the current practices – of the TSA and other police-state atrocities. As the Nazis and Soviets made known to the world, totalitarian power is achieved only by forcefully subduing individual claims to self-ownership!
The state is able to get away with its indecencies because most of us are ignorant of the fundamental nature of all political systems. The state is an entity that enjoys a monopoly on the use of violence within a given territory. Because of this generally accepted definition, the idea that individuals have any rightful claim to immunity from state violence would, of necessity, be regarded as a limitation on such monopoly power. It borders on sedition to suggest that there are any restraints on the arbitrariness of governmental force. This is why those who engage in unprovoked wars, police brutalities, unlawful searches and seizures of property, the tasering of harmless individuals, and numerous other offenses, are almost never held to account for their wrongs. In the eyes of state officials – be they prosecuting attorneys, judges, or elected politicians – such acts cannot be thought of as “wrongs,” lest the state be deprived of its essence as a “violence monopolist.” The state and the playground bully operate from the same modus operandi: the capacity to enforce obedience to its inconstant temperaments through violence. Regardless of the venue, the state continues to escalate its indecencies to ordinary men, women, and children in order to forcefully remind us of our subservience to its arbitrariness; to refresh our memory that the state is entitled to do to us anything that it chooses. This same principle was carried out in Nazi concentration camps, in which prisoners were stripped naked, shorn of their hair and personal clothing, and in so many other ways depersonalized and dehumanized. I recall seeing a photograph of a group of leering German army officers watching a group of naked women concentration camp prisoners running past them. These TSA ancestors did not have modern technology to assist them, but had to rely on their eyesight, alone, to perform their “full-body scanning.”
We would not regard as wholesome a family forcibly held together by an abusive parent who used fear, threats, and violence to enforce his or her arbitrary expectations upon the rest of the family; a parent who listened in on the phone calls, or who regularly went through the clothing or personal belongings of his or her children, or followed them around on their dates, or subjected them to periodic urine tests; a parent who felt justified in employing torture as a form of “tough love” in getting answers to their questions, or who resorted to the use of electric prods to overcome their children’s resistance to their arbitrary authority. How might we regard the psychological health and social futures of children raised in such a brutish environment? How even more despairing the outcome of such methods directed against a society of 300,000,000 people?
Butler Shaffer teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.
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