Recently, I stumbled upon a lecture given by cultural historian Roman Krznaric — whose link can be found here — arguing for an new approach to individual empowerment. Rather than cater to the old psychiatric methodologies (i.e. introspective therapy), the 21st century should adopt a new, more radical, approach in solving individual crises. He calls this new approach “outrospection” and it rests wholly on empathy and in discovering oneself through the shoes of others. As fascinating as this is, I was particularly struck by his categorization of a different kind of empathy I had not fully considered — collective empathy and how historical tragedies can be explained by its lack thereof.

The Nazi establishment enjoying a performance by the the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Whenever we think of the man’s greatest evil, a time when the moral compass was shattered, we immediately point to the atrocities of Nazism and all its collaborators; how were so many individuals persuaded to commit horrors without regard for life? It appears that the proper diagnosis would be a deficiency of empathy — in particular, a deficiency of collective empathy. Despite the fact that mass killings were structurally instituted as policy, what makes the tragedy all the more frightening is that they were done, and popularly supported, by seemingly ‘average’ people. While people were being tortured, others in the German establishment were enjoying themselves.  The disconnect between the excruciating torture perpetrated and the indulgences of the Nazi personnel blatantly points toward a lack of empathy. They outright became numb to the cries of broken families and killed innocence.

The Cathedral of Light, which was the main aesthetic feature of the Nuremberg Rallies.

And so they occupied themselves with aesthetics, gluttony, and all kinds of excess. To think that Heinrich Himmler would go to work daily, nonchalantly sign degrees instituting murder, and then return from work to sweet orchestrated music by Richard Wagner at the Berlin State Opera House is unthinkable. To them, this was routine. And they were also suffering from a grave deficiency of empathy. The German experience during the Third Reich was based on that idea that this was all historical necessity — that any perceived ‘injustice’ (which was oftentimes well-hidden from public view) is inevitable and crucial in maintaining German hegemony and power.  To further solidify this point, giant structures were constructed to show the awe and might of Nazi rule. This became especially prevalent during the Nuremberg Rallies. All of this was tied together delicately by the feeling of German community — a type of pseudo-empathy that only extended as far as the Germans themselves. For blood and soil only, Blut und Boden, as it was called; this is the perverted empathy they were attempting to facilitate, one based solely on ultra-nationalistic pride and collective narcissism.

Likewise, it can be said that every great historical tragedy involved a deprivation of genuine empathy. When the public becomes so alienated from suffering, suffering is allowed to occur forthright. Popular silence becomes a catalyst for horrors, sadly. Although, conversely, empathy itself is responsible for bringing human betterment with each progressive epoch of development. Human rights was built on abolitionism, by bringing slaves’ suffering in full view of the English commoner. Deeply troubled, this consequently lead to the banning of the Slave Trade in 1807 and of slavery in 1833. Similarly, during the height of early industrialization, abusive child labor and horrible working conditions became so horrifying that the public could ignore it no longer. The acted on their empathy, thus proving it had the power to stimulate social, economic, and political change.

However, the 21st century has seemingly been plagued by an absence of empathy. Individuals repeat the same demeaning lines when asked about deplorable sweatshop labor — “it is necessary” or, more ridiculously, “it’s better than them having no job at all.” Individuals experience poverty as a commodified phenomenon, as token commercials begging for donations, rather than as a real perceivable horror. What if individuals were placed in these conditions? What if they were made to experience the toil of Third World production, the losing of limbs just for an article of cheap clothing? Ironically, in a world so interconnected with technology, empathy is fleeting. Perhaps the only proper remedy is to evoke and cultivate, what Roman Krznaric calls, a culture of outrospection.

“The Pinch of Poverty” by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Altruism — the most charitable, the most genial, the most endearing ethic — is promoted in Western society as the pinnacle of what is ‘good.’ Helping others before helping oneself is the crux of the democratic ideology, one that guides us and facilitates a feeling of social and cultural unity that strengthens human relations. It has become so inherent that it lay outside our mere conscious ideology. It has developed to be central to our being, and has thus become an obligatory act in order for one to be seen as a ‘good person.’

I take the golden rule in stride and I cherish it as a moral maxim for proper human relations. However, the Western conception of altruism has reached a disingenuous aura about it that cheapens the whole character of giving. In the First World, and other nations of Christendom, conceptions of ‘proper’ morality are derived from the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. The mantra is one of universal pity and, most importantly, universal love. Friedrich Nietzsche, quite famously, criticized such conceptions of morality in many of his texts for watering down their true meaning. A vindication of the ‘slave morality,’ Nietzsche vehemently opposed the undermining of the strong by the Judeo-Christian tradition of universality, which made man into a flock rather than an independent being. His gripe was, in essence, that if love is universal, one truly loves no one; if pity is universal, it is cheapened and means little. It becomes an obligation, done without question, rather than an honest moral calling.

When child labor was on our own American soil, the suffering was closer to home and easier to empathize with.

Such is the caricature of modern Western ethics, which is well-grounded in this Judeo-Christian moral responsibility. It corresponds love with selflessness, when in retrospect, love is perhaps the most selfish virtue of them all — the longing to deviate attention towards one individual despite all others. Most crucial, however, is the Christian caricature of pity which has ramifications in contemporary ideology most concretely. Take it, for example, the bleeding-heart liberal that so desperately desires to help others — he wishes to help everyone. Moved by the conditions around him, he feels compelled to do something. A noble endeavor, but to what end? Current conceptions of pity, especially towards poverty, tend to take the form of dissociating abstractions rather than a real phenomenon we can touch and feel. The West has done, for the most part, a proper job of exporting poverty to mainly areas outside of their bounds (i.e. the Third World) where production is brutal and dangerous, but is well beyond the public’s immediate consciousness. Perhaps most of us know of the tragedy that is Third World production, but we do truly Know? Can we truly empathize with the unnecessary pain and toil that goes into commodity creation, or do we just accept it while superficially denouncing it? When properly examined, Western pity may, ironically, be a subtle concession to the status quo. In this twisted moral code, poverty can be mitigated by buying a new pair of Toms, ghastly pollution can be solved with a few less plastic bags, and water deprivation can be cured by a conspicuous purchasing of Ethos water. Such is the eternal bliss of the modern consumer — capitalism with a human face, as its called. Sprinkle a little welfare, a friendly face, and a commodity with an ethical cause and you’ve solved the moral crises of production.

This is what leads me to believe that modern pity is, for the most part, one mostly of dissociation and perhaps even utter disillusionment. You donate a few dollars to a charity, to a decent cause, but have you truly alleviated the positions which created the suffering to begin with? Surely, it makes one feel warm, but does it not exasperate the issue rather than cure it? Modern morality should be about bringing to fruit a real call to action rather than a few token good works. I would categorize charitable giving as, fundamentally, such a token good work, one that gives the illusion of actual action. Surely, it is better than no action at all, but it, in essence, creates a temporary solution rather than a concrete one. And so the cyclical nature continues, with the Third World still dependent and the West still ubiquitously benevolent and longing to help. And no progress is made, except for a few dollars being thrown at poverty-stricken families in hopes helping them.

The abstraction of poverty, grief, and suffering is mostly a recent phenomenon and it corresponds with the rise of mass marketing and, more generally, the Internet. The human condition is expected to be moved by a starving African child, but when it presents itself as a commercial while sitting on a couch patiently waiting for the next programming, it comes off as less-then-urgent. It becomes a nonchalant mentioning of a real struggle, to which the American consumer responds likewise — I’ll donate a few dollars here, I’ll do what I can, but I have a family to take care of myself. The issue is that individuals cannot place themselves in that suffering, in that pain, since they are so distanced from it. And here lies the moral dilemma and the reason for the lethargy in modern activism. We see the suffering, but we don’t truly feel it; We see it as an image rather than as a condition. 

More generally, such dissociation is present in other aspects of social justice beside the fight to end world poverty. With the creation of the Internet, although possessing the ability to stimulate politically-charged movements, it has sadly lead to the creation of supposed ‘slactivists’ that lack the vigor to pursue any true cause outside of their immediate bedrooms. These self-congratulatory armchair activists pride themselves on fighting a grave injustice. Signing internet pleas, changing their Facebook profiles to lighten an alleged injustice (as in the Kony 2012 sham), or wearing certain clothing to support something or another — the illusion of actual action is watered down to petty online signatures and nicely-packed slogans that make nifty bumper stickers. If only we had sent Adolf Hitler a few more petitions during the height of Nazi rule he would have relinquished power– what were we thinking?

Rather than abstractions, let us feel real sympathy. Rather than token givings, let us fix the conditions which created the need.  In order to pinpoint true suffering, to actually Know the true hollowness of poverty, we must be fully attuned to all its horror. Oscar Wilde captures this sentiment most eloquently in his beautiful essay, The Soul of a Man under Socialism:

[The majority of people] try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

And thus is the crux of the issue — let us question the basis of poverty we see, the ugliness we encounter, and the horror we experience.  Pity is not a cheap spontaneous ordeal; Pity is genuine expression of empathy, one which must precede the drive to solve the impoverished environment that evoked it.

The merging of state and corporate power, commonly called “state monopoly capitalism” by those of us on the Left, has molded itself into creating a complex system of corporate structures. Interconnected in a globalized marketplace, they have set forth a new economic paradigm that infringes on the very liberty of peoples. Domineering and implicitly bureaucratic in its handlings, these international giants, in all their lucrative prowess, very much resemble what I would call ‘miniature states.’ Contextually, I use miniature very sparingly; only in their appearance they are not truly states, but in their real socio-political power they are on par with actual state apparatuses.

The network of corporate structures have become infused into the superstructure of the social strata. Culture, relations, political power, and institutional power have all been influenced by its overreaching grasps.  And at its very heart lies the base, the means of production, which bring mechanization, blandness, and uniformity in its wake which is the staple of corporate development. Now, given all these attributes, can we compare the corporate model to an authentic state one? Statistics reveal a stark parallel.

In 2011, according to Fortune 500, Walmart reported its earnings:

  • Revenue: $421,849,000,000 – 3.3% change from 2009
  • Profits: $16,389,000,000 – 14.3% change from 2009

Exxon Mobil, ranked number two:

  • Revenue: $354,674,000,000 – 24.6% change from 2009
  • Profits: $30,460,000,000 – 58.0% change from 2009

Now, as large as these numbers are, let’s look at nominal GDP numbers gathered from the United Nations (2010) in comparison to these revenue numbers [2]. Bear in mind, GDP is the market value of all the final goods and services from a nation for a given year.

  • If we place Walmart’s revenue in comparison to GDP, it would rank above Norway’s GDP which is $413,056,000,000 and ranked 24th in the world.
  • If we place Exxon Mobil’s revenue in comparison to GDP, it would rank above Thailand’s GDP which is $318,850,000,000 and ranked 30th in the world.

In essence, Walmart would be the 23rd largest economy in the world, and Exxon Mobil would be 29th, if they were countries.

The fact that corporations possess more moneyed power than most nations is daunting, however we can break it down even further in resemblance to modern countries. Let’s take it, for the time being, that number of individuals employed by a corporation is its supposed “population.”

In 2011, according to Fortune 500, Walmart employed 2,100,000 individuals [3]. Thereby, if we were to make Walmart a sovereign entity, it would have a population of over 2 million people and a GDP ranked 23rd in the world. The income inequality in this ‘state?’ — in comparison to its CEO, Mike Duke, to his workers, it’s 1,167 times greater [4]. 

So granted that corporations maintain political power, market power, cultural holds, and employ a sizable amount of individuals to constitute, essentially, a ‘nation’ — would be be appropriate to call these institution under the category of states? States generally function under the guise of expansion, it caters to its interests, and it wishes to expand its influence over its contemporaries. Modern corporate institutions, generally speaking, do the same thing although in the marketplace. They expand their market share, they compete with other firms, and they engage in associations (i.e. “diplomacy”) with other institutions.

Why do we reject government tyranny, but we condone corporate tyranny? Arguably, both are shades of the same tint and both contain hierarchical and bureaucratic structures of organization. The cognitive dissonance of supporting one, while turning a blind eye to the other, is a form of confirmation bias at its very worse — and it only serves to facilitate the bullying institutions that control the all of our relations.

Sigmund Freud, upon publishing his seminal work The Interpretations of Dreams, postulated that dreams aim to fulfill two main functions. For one, they work to at preserve the individual in slumber. And secondly, dreams function as a means of ‘wish fulfillment’ in which we involuntarily attempt to solve conflicts of the Self.

Now, with the help of technology that peer deep into the mechanisms of our consciousness, Freud’s initial theories — that dreams function as a mental relaxer that allows us to sleep — has been largely put aside. It is now known that during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, dreams can happen five to six times a night [1]. Despite these findings however, dreams can still function as intermediaries between our subconscious and reality. This is perhaps best captured by the chilling story of the ‘Burning Child’ which can found in the aforementioned work by Freud, chapter 7.

“A father had been watching day and night beside the sick-bed of his child. After the child died, he retired to rest in an adjoining room, but left the door ajar so that he could look from his room into the next, where the child’s body lay surrounded by tall candles. An old man, who had been installed as a watcher, sat beside the body, murmuring prayers. After sleeping for a few hours the father dreamed that the child was standing by his bed, clasping his arm and crying reproachfully: “Father, don’t you see that I am burning?” The father woke up and noticed a bright light coming from the adjoining room. Rushing in, he found that the old man had fallen asleep, and the sheets and one arm of the beloved body were burnt by a fallen candle” [2].

What do we make of this? The orthodox interpretation would theorize that the real, the external forces (i.e the bright light from the fire), became too great to ignore and awoke the father from his slumber. Remarkably, however, in this scenario the dream initially functioned as a way to preserve sleep; the father incorporated the burning light  into his subconscious psyche. He prolonged his sleep, by absorbing his external environment, and thus crafted it delicately into the timetable of his dream — represented by the visual of the burning child and his subsequent dark question, “father, don’t you see that I am burning?” Such ways to prolong sleep are relatively ordinary to the average individual; when awoken by a ringing phone or an abrupt sound outside our window, we quickly wish to fall back into slumber, and our quick perception in our momentary awakening is likely to follow us. Likewise, we bring this external disturbance with us and make it one with our dreams. In lay terms, we incorporate the ringing phone or abrupt noise into our dream, and continue to sleep.

However, the story of the burning child is much more radical than Freud’s initial interpretation. Adherent of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, in his essay Freud Lives! gives us quite a different analysis.

Had the father woken up because the external stimulus became too strong to be contained within the dream-scenario? Or was it the obverse, that the father constructed the dream in order to prolong his sleep, but what he encountered in the dream was much more unbearable even than external reality, so that he woke up to escape into that reality [3].

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

This, I feel, is precisely the essence of Freud’s dream scenario. The Real, the psychic dream reality (with a capital ‘r’), usually functions as an escape for the father and as a method to prolong sleep — but, in it, he finds something much more frightening than anything in the material. In it, he finds his son, burning, and the father begins to relive the dark tragedy he had experienced before with his son’s death. Thereby, he awakens to escape into the material reality, in a twist of irony, to run from the nightmare he was experiencing. I would go as far as making the claim that all nightmares, in general, function in such a fashion. Although dreams should function as a means of resolving mental disturbance, nightmares are a common deviation, when the Real becomes unbearably worse than reality. It is in this instance we awake, to escape such terror, to find condolence in reality. The climax of such terror, such as death or immense pain in the Real, results in our awakening, because, comparatively speaking, the dream realm has lost all its luster of escape and has become too frightening.

It in this stripe, we can interpret modern trauma. Trauma has two components: a horrifying external experience and its permanent effect on the Real. This dualism is required in order for real trauma, manifested in post-traumatic stress disorder, to become a psychic issue. An external horror, without effects on the psyche, alters little to noting (aside from perhaps bodily wounds) since it leaves no problematic vestiges on the human psychic condition. Likewise, the hallucinations and squeamish experiences in the Real are a result of the external trauma being relived in the individual’s psyche. This is the case with many suffers of wartime conflict; they experience nightmares since, once they enter the Real, they immediately want to exit it since they begin to relive the horror they witnessed in war. The root of this trauma is parallel to the father’s dream of the burning child — in both, the worst elements of their experiences are being relived, which then results in an inherent desire to escape into the material. Such is the denigrating aspect of trauma which can ultimately result in psychosis, where the individual becomes completely ingrained in the horrific Real and loses touch with the material (i.e he fully succumbs to his hallucinations). We must realize, then, that the issue is not that the horrifying experience occurred  — the issue is that experience follows the individual into the psyche, into his involuntary thoughts, which haunts him beyond his volition. This is what separates real trauma from mere external experience.

The frightening aspect of all of this is that there are key events which precede any trauma, or any form of neurosis and psychosis. From a psychoanalytic standpoint, many events happen well in our crucial youth, and become grained in our consciousness, without our knowing. Manifested in fears and interpretation, they find their beginnings in key times of our development: specifically, early childhood. This is why Freud, and later Lacan, find sexuality to be the root of human development since it is the uniform building block from which human relations stem even in our early beginnings as children. Thereby, trauma requires an extra component before it can truly latch onto the victim and haunt him — it must relate to a fear placed in him prior. Perhaps this is what differentiates between suffers of trauma and those that lie unaffected by horrors; the solution can be found in their upbringing, in their relation to key developmental periods of their lives, and ultimately, to Freud, this finds its natural roots in sexuality.

*** 

Trauma in Freud and Lacan

Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as the New Opium of the Masses where Zizek discusses psychoanalysis. 

The Burning Child

Anti-austerity protests in Spain.

Since the initial days of the Obama administration, pundits and politicians alike have been predicting what, they call, “a complete government shutdown.” Fix the deficit, we need a balanced budget, cut spending; such is the rhetoric coming out of the Republican establishment that has deluded the political mainstream. As the federal public debt now approaches $16 trillion, it begs the question — when can we expect this doomsday scenario? When can we expect this assumed government collapse? And then there’s the endless threats of future hyperinflation — by the same crowd that has been making such silly “predictions” for over a century.

With all these individuals expecting a inflationary Armageddon and looming debt crisis, you would expect the argument to hold some water. To understand why such fears are unfounded, the nature of money has to first be properly understood in modern context. Its techicalities can be explained with an economic theory I find particularly fascinating; Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).

To start, we must realize that money is no longer pinned to gold. Its subsequent value is backed by the state (i.e. fiat money). This has profound implications in economic theory. For one, it means that the validity of the currency itself is based on the government maintaining a monopoly in controlling it. The government asserts this value through taxation. Thus, private confidence and taxation establish the basis of exchange value in a national economy; fiat value has no intrinsic value on its own. From this basis, can government truly “run out” of money, if it is its sole provider? Before the end of the Bretton Woods System in 1971, when currency was still pinned to gold, it most definitely could. Since moneyed printing was linked to gold in ratio, states were forced to limit their spending in accordance to revenue or be forced to promptly borrow from other governments. Now, the monetary system has been changed. Government is no longer like a a “credit card,” as its so absurdly claimed, that we just add our expenses to and pay for it a later. It is the issuer of currency, not a receiver of it as households in the United States are.

The economic flow can be broken down into two main spheres — the private sector and the public sector. The private sector accumulates assets by spending less than its income, resulting in savings. In retrospect, this savings increase is an accumulation of government-backed currency and bonds. Therefore, in order for private wealth to accumulate, government liabilities must rise parallel to it. In order for this to be done, government must spend more than it receives from taxation to create more IOUs (fiat money).  This is what is commonly as known as “the deficit,” which is the stock of government debt minus its tax revenue. Therefore, government’s financial liabilities are equal to the private sector’s net private financial assets, since a creation of private financial wealth demands a greater circulation of fiat money, which is created through printing currency. Interestingly enough, this means that when the budget is fully balanced, the net private financial wealth is at zero. And if a government enters a surplus, net financial falls into the negatives, since the private industry is now indebted to the public. Likewise, it is impossible for both the public and private sector to simultaneous experience surpluses since one’s ‘debt’ is the others surplus [1].

The above graph shows the aforementioned relationship. It can be represented by the following formula:

G – T = (S – I) + (M – X)

In which, government spending (G) minus taxation revenue (T) gives the fiscal situation, either deficit or surplus, represented by the blue line on the graph; this equals savings (S) minus investment (I) added to balance of payments (i.e imports minus exports) represented by the red line. The relationship is demonstrated quite clearly; in order for financial assets to rise, financial liabilities in the form of government deficits must rise as well. The correlation is especially strong in the dates after the dismantling of the Bretton Woods agreement, after which the United States become fully based on fiat currency rather than be linked to gold. Ever since, the values of deficit to private wealth has been relatively equal in their absolute values.

This, in itself, has profound implications. For one, now we understand the link between government deficits and accumulations of private financial assets. But now, ever more, we can now use taxation to curb negative externalities and to regulate key industries rather than to simply gather revenue since we now understand government’s monetary role. The function of government, in essence, changes and allows for it to further alleviate unemployment woes & elements of poverty. However, keeping economic oversight is crucial, since if deficit spending exceeds full employment, inflationary pressures can ensue because accumulation of financial assets, for the moment, would stagnate.

Now, the inevitable questionwhat about Greece? 

Greece is in a complex situation, much different than that of the United States. Greece uses the Euro, which is controlled by the European Central Bank of the Eurosystem,  the monetary central authority of the European Union. Since Greece lacks control over its own currency, it has been brought into complete chaos with forced austerity cuts, bailouts with strings attached, and violent public unrest. Since it lacks monetary sovereignty, being restrained to reserves beyond its grasp, it is unable to control its debt crisis. The same situation plagues the rest of Europe. The Euro states are unable to print their own currency, and are thus forced to succumb to the bullying of Germany to balance their budgets, which has left countries like Spain in disastrous economic conditions.

Oftentimes, the issue of Germany or even Zimbabwe is also brought up as a counter-argument to the validity of modern monetary theory to showcase hyperinflation caused by fiat currency. Economist Randal Wray addresses this issue in his writing, talking about Germany after WW1:

Yes, once the economy gets to full employment, then extra government deficit spending can start driving up prices. But what happened in Weimar Germany was very different. During that time, the government was forced to pay extremely large war reparations in foreign currencies which it didn’t have. So it had to aggressively sell its own currency and buy the foreign currency in the financial markets. This relentless selling continuously drove down the value of its currency, causing prices of goods and services to go ever higher in what became one of the most famous inflations of all time. By 1919, the German budget deficit was equal to half of GDP, and by 1921, war reparation payments represented one third of government spending. And guess what? On the very day that government stopped paying the war reparations and selling its own currency to buy foreign currency, the hyperinflation stopped [2].

Now, there is one particular example we can point to to show the prowess of MMT. Currently, Japan’s debt to GDP ratio is over 200% and growing:

And yet they experience no instances of “government shutdown.” Perhaps even more interestingly, they are the largest single non-eurozone contributor to the rescue projects that have been instated to ‘save’ the European Union — a total of $60 billion in March of 2012. Japan is even responsible for pumping in $100 billion dollars into the IMF during the height of the crisis in 2009, all whilst its adversaries deemed it to be “bankrupt” [3]. How is this possible? Why is Japan not defaulting? The key is in its monetary system and its handling of deficits. Most importantly, Japan controls its own debt; 95% of it is held domestically by the Japanese themselves, the rest being foreign owned by other central banks [4]. Since the debt is largely owned by the Japanese themselves, they are able to collectively maintain their deficits whilst also keeping an impressive social program system.

Although I elaborated on a really rudimentary view of Modern Monetary Theory, this should suffice as to how misguided the current discussions in the political realm are. Rather than discuss the structural issues of the American economic system, we’re bickering over the technicalities of a budget whilst standards of livings drop and income inequality rises. To make matter worse, a crucial aspect of debt is consciously ignored — the issue of private debt. Households are crippled by personal debt to make up for stagnant wages, an issue I actually discussed in detail in my piece on debt deflation and crisis. The situation is dire and the proposals to cut necessary programs for already-struggling families to “balance the budget” is laughable at best, and downright frightening at its very worst.

***

The Deficit: Nine Myths We Can’t Afford 

Deficits Do Matter, But Not the Way You Think

Marxism and Monetary Theory: A Bibliography 

Understanding the Modern Monetary System

Debt, Deficits, and Modern Monetary Theory

.. hidden from me in my miscellaneous assortment of unfinished notes from last summer.

I. THE NECESSITIES IN FREEDOM  

The prerequisites of liberty are simple and natural. They correspond with one’s aspirations, the triumph of human will, and the realization that man’s mind is his greatest tool. It is thus omnipresent in the human imagination and it has been made conscious ever since man’s first walk out of the swamps of his ignorance. The application of this ideal, however, is fairly recent and symbolically represents a shift in the human mind; from one of negative dogmatism and intellectual chains to one of free-thought and beauty. It is in man’s liberation, emancipating him from the shackles of mental slavery, he will find his place in the natural order – one that maximizes the potentiality of his rational mind, humanizes his labour, and eliminates his alienation from the fruits he creates.

The intellectual origins of freedom date back to Enlightenment thought and the beginnings of modern scientific inquiry. It is of the Lockean concept that man in nature is in perfect freedom, and it is only when he accepts the social contract with the state he relinquishes such freedom. Therefore, we are bestowed certain self-evident inalienable rights that are given to us for simply being individuals and such that cannot be usurped by any sovereignty. These positive natural laws serve as a humanizing factor and divides humanity, philosophically, from being a mere lowly creature; that man is much more than simply some “object.” He is to be free from coercion, his life cherished, and his freedom preserved – for his mind is ever-growing, and that is must be protected for it exists and it is invaluable. It is from this axiom we postulate a corresponding society; a society that values such pure absolute liberty as static, never-changing, and unable to be forsaken – one that realizes that free association is the only proper mechanism in determining ethical relations in reaching a supposed outcome since it is the only such system that fosters a free society of independent peoples. It is from this our true emancipatory potential is reached, to its utmost extreme.

Paris Commune, 1871.

I. The First Big Leap

The transition to a new communicative medium has never been easy for any society. From our lofty origins in oral tradition to the new techie substitutes, such a dynamic has never been without consequences. With the advent of a new methodology, comes a losing of the elements of the old. And with it, also comes those that oppose the change — those that regard it as vile and damaging to order and stability. Socrates, for one, was skeptical of the early transition to written word. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato captures Socrates’s words (perhaps ironically) in a story about the Egyptians:

Socrates: But when they came to letters, this, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality [1].

Using this tale, Socrates tells us what is lost with the written word: the passion of speaking, the revelation of dialogue, the bearing of truth. He postulates that writing not only degrades truth, it only works to reciprocate it rather than expound it authentically. To Socrates, it denigrates memory by promoting record-keeping rather than mental recollection and contemplation. In essence, it introduces forgetfulness and keeps man from bearing the responsibility of remembering for himself. It is also constant; it bears no substantive change over time, other than, perhaps, its interpretation. And finally, it does not discriminate its audiences — making it accessible even to those that do not understand it. A speaker can change his tone and message depending on the audience. A work of writing can not.

Through this dialogue, Plato captures Socrates’s main concern, which was sustaining the art of rhetoric and fruitful dialogue. Was Socrates right; were some of his ‘predictions’ fulfilled? Absolutely, we certainly did lose something when oral tradition lost prominence. We lost the art of “story-telling,” and perhaps also some of the values of tribal kinship, but we remarkably gained much more. We attained the ability to spread ideas quicker and keep thoughts well-preserved for future generations to enjoy. Satirically, it was because of writing that Socrates is so revered today, despite the criticisms he had of it.

Not surprisingly, however, much of the initial mistrust that was said of the development from oral tradition to written word has been lost. Without a written account of these criticisms, such accusations have failed the test of time — Socrates is the only ones that remains, due to Plato’s writings, but we can only assume similar criticisms were being thrown around at the time. It is very unlikely that Socrates was the only individual making such claims in his day and age.

II. Suppression and Turmoil

“The printing press is either the greatest blessing or the greatest curse of modern times, one sometimes forgets which” – James Matthew Barrie 

“The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre” by François Dubois.

Turmoil ensued after the creation of a new technology that would radically alter communication. The printing press was invented in the 1440s by Johannes Gutenberg, and with it came violent social upheaval and a loss of Church dominance. With Protestantism on the rise, catalyzed by Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and spread through mass-printing, the Catholic Church finally saw a threat to its power. They soon scrambled in fear; Pope Innocent VIII introduced censorship in 1487, requiring that the Church approve of all books before publication [2]. The Bible was prohibited to be printed in any language except Latin. Violence erupted in Western Europe as sectarian religious conflict escalated. Huguenots were slaughtered in France by Catholic mobs during the later half of the 16th century, supposed heretics were burned at the stake during the Inquisition of Spain, and the Thirty Years’ War, which was rooted in religious territorial disputes, became a full-scale European conflict by the first quarter of the 17th century.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the bloodshed Europe experienced after the introduction of the printing press tells us of the power of ideas. The Catholic Church was relatively left unchecked in its power and prestige before Gutenburg’s revolutionary invention. Now that ideas could spread more efficiently, dissent was brewing within Church dominion. In retrospect, the persistent efforts of the Catholic Church extend far beyond the religiosity they were attempting to control; they were the representatives of state power during the Middle Ages. During the height of Catholic rule, individual nations were fragmented and lacked governmental oversight in any meaningful degree. Domestic policy was open, and governance was mostly left to Catholic elites within the appointed hierarchy. The spread of a new communicative medium, the printing press, threatened the Church in its power. Its efforts to preserve its authoritarian hold was under the guise of preserving Catholicism, but that was the populist sentiment to stir peasantry support rather than the actual motivation. The Church still functioned as any other state apparatus; As a rule, the free flow of ideas is always antithetical to centralized power. The Catholic Church was no exception in this regard. It scrambled to secure its power just as any other power structure ultimately does when it feels threatened.

The Original Printing Press.

Catholic control would continue to diminish as the decades went on. The Enlightenment questioned the very nature of divine rule, and nationalism began to fully flourish after the Greek War for Independence, eventually replacing Christian “unity” with nationalist fervor. The printing press, and its quick dissemination, would consequently spark national, linguistic, and cultural unity amongst regional peoples which would form the basis for nationhood. Professor Benedict Anderson analyzes this phenomenon in his book, “Imagined Communities,” in which he cites the spread of nationalism to, what he calls, print-capitalism. The profit incentive to increase circulation by print-masters was so strong that they soon abandoned Latin as the standard, and adopted regional languages to facilitate sales [3]. Soon, regional ties began to emerge as individuals began to relate to one another by their language and dialects, which soon evolved into nationalism and the modern nation-state. More generally, this spurred the beginnings of the modern market and facilitated trade amongst commoners. The Catholic Church now found the land it once controlled severely cut, as regions began forming their own respective governmental structures based on linguo-ethnic commonalities, eventually replacing Catholic dominion by state control in their respective regions. It was over, the Catholic Church finally lost its iron grip. A new epoch had emerged.

III. Reaching Modernity

“Modernity” is characterized by all the gadgetry we enjoy today. Television, radios, and telephones have all advanced our communicative capabilities and have allowed us to be in tune with each other and issues beyond our immediate setting. Recent developments, however, have transcended these inventions and have surpassed them in capacity. The Internet just could be the most remarkable and revolutionary creation of the modern era. Characterized by globalized communication, easy access, and plentiful information — the Internet has created an aura of data that has perhaps exceeded the human ability to indulge in it all. The social impact has been unequivocally exceptional. Spurring social movements in the Middle East, facilitating transparency in governance, and instigating awareness and understanding of worldly phenomena, the Internet has created an atmosphere rich of progressive potentiality and knowledge. It has brought an entirely new dimension to the validity of “spontaneous order.” The Internet, it seems, was created out of pure spontaneity; its branches being a natural development when left to its own means.

The Icon of the Declaration of Internet Freedom.

One of the largest problems in any society is the distribution of information. Generally speaking, whoever controls the influx of academic instruction ultimately holds the populace by the handles. Slowly, as humanity has progressed from each new communicative development, this centralization of information has drastically decreased. The commoners were now able to read, to write, and to engage in discourse — to a limited degree. With the advent of the Internet, this entire dynamic has been turned on its head. In its purest form, the Internet is the democratization of information. Relatively, anyone can comment and discuss issues if they have access. Rather than being restricted to academic elites, such topics have been moved from the institutional setting to the populist pool of discussion. Credentials, at least on the Internet, have become largely defunct.

In its current form, Internet discussion is in its infancy. With the fallacious claims and unsubstantiated arguments that frequent comment threads, we must realize that recent developments are still fundamentally in its early stages. The discussion has been handed to the people, for all the delve into, and it now must be absorbed likewise. Never before has there been such an explosion of knowledge given to the masses, and it can only be expected that its dealings will take several decades to fully take root. The so-called “Internet Generation” will, predictably, adapt to such changes and become used to its functions once they come of age.

Of course, as such changes begin to surface, questions begin to arise. Speculations have been made that the Internet has made us supposedly “dumber” [4]. These Neo-Luddite criticisms bear resemblance to Socrates’s hesitations during the transition to the written word — we are losing a crucial component of our memory, we will only realize superficiality, and our attention will be deluded, it is said. The same archaic arguments are resurfacing, unsurprisingly. In another interesting parallel, the governmental organizations of the modern world are in a frenzy over the Internet’s potential for conflict, just as the Church was when it was threatened. In an effort to curb imaginary terrorism, legislation such as ACTA has been constantly brought to the table to address the issues of the cyber-terrorism, patent law, and threats to domestic tranquility [5]. These resolutions have always come with a human face, promising safety and making clear its supposed necessity. Underneath this persona is the real intention; the facilitation of information is a threat to corporate and state power. Monopolization of power is in the interest of those within the dominion structure, and any clash of opinion is seen at ends with normalcy. The Internet has brought this conflict to the forefront. The struggle between those that wish to constrain information and those that hope to free it has become an acute contention in the modern world. We can only hope the institutions that wish to exhibit this control crumble before the conflict escalates. Freedom comes at a price; and it must be defended likewise.

***

“The Critics Need  a Reboot. The Internet Hasn’t Led Us Into a New Dark Age.”

“The Impact of Print” 

Some more information on Professor Benedict Anderson and his work, “Imagined Communities.”

“The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David.

Art is a complex phenomenon that has frequented philosophic circles since the days of Socrates. Scrambling to pinpoint a concise definition, thinkers have attempted to encapsulate objective meanings of aesthetics in an effort to fully understand what constitutes ‘beauty.’

The issue is that art has no distinguishable intrinsic value of its own; it as good as the audience deems it to be. Whether the audience is a group of commoners or a collection of art critics, works of artistic value have to substantiate their worth through harsh criticism — only thereafter falling into the category of real praiseworthy ‘art.’ This interpretation of art is valid in many respects, but it must also be realized that art must serve a function. It is certainly not purely subjective, since it derives its status from collective admiration, and it must portray an universally relevant idea, to capture the audience.

My goal here is not to differentiate between what is ‘art,’ and what is not, as that is an exercise in futility, and entertaining that point is relatively useless. Rather, the question should be phrased: “What constitutes good or proper works of art?”

“Want it? Enter” by Vladimir Mayakovsky.

The struggle for humanization involves articulating our consciousness, our fears and dispositions, into a medium that is accessible and unifying. This medium is art. Art should portray an ecumenical sentiment and should be a statement on the environment we inhabit. Rather than uselessly capture the banality of alienated industrial life, its function is to distance ourselves from mechanization and uniformity. It should introduce spontaneity, commentary, and subtle discontent where our own lives do not. Art should function as a medium in which we use to escape alienation. By association, this means that art is, by definition, antithetical to restraint and modern conditioning. It seeks to escape it, to realize human potentiality outside the bounds of current mechanisms. By need rather than choice, it must function outside these bounds because it expresses, by its very nature, an ideal. A work that is produced within the confines of modern production would hardly be revealing, since it would be restricted to only portraying feelings that are already realized. The struggle is to bring out conditions that elevate these sentiments, which requires working outside the confines of modern alienated labor and life, to highlight the potential of bettering our current condition and status. It is by this token, true ‘art’ is not conservative — it is, by necessity, progressive in its idealism and commentary. The Greeks, perhaps the first real admirers of beauty, understood this quite well, creating sculptures and paintings of the ‘perfect’ form and physique. They were attempting to capture an ideal distant of their own lives, and thus were in the tradition of real artistry.

However, there are social means that pervert and downgrade art and bring it back into the restrictive confines of bourgeois industrial life. Profit, as a general rule, distorts its true function. Art cannot act as an escape if it crafted within the model of mass-production. It loses its individuality, the heart of its meaning, if it is created in bulk by groups driven by monetary gain. It also loses its ability to depict anything outside the contemporary, becoming a self-congratulatory trivial blanket statement that praises the lifestyle it is a part of, rather than criticizing and dissociating itself from it. The problems of artistry is heavily intertwined with the general struggle of humanization. It is a core component of reflection. The function it assumes, and how well it communicates it, is what differentiates the good from the bad, the masterworks from the mediocre.  Serving as an escape from alienation, art takes on a crucial form in human development. Without it, out inner emotions would be bound to the present, with no way of articulating what we wish to become. It is in this way art is an important realization of what it means to be “human,” and a stimulus for progressive insight and change — be it in the mind or in action.

The beliefs of Western liberal society are at a fundamental crossroads. In one direction, lies secular humanism — at the other, lies ancient Judeo-Christian heritage and its supposed claim of relevance. Most individuals walk a very fine line between the two; holding onto the cultural implications of religion, while also not minding its declining involvement in government. Belief acts as a mediator which holds this delicate balance together.

Belief, in and of itself, is a obligatory view. It is a tenet you live your life by, and it has profound implications on your social psychology and the general organization of a civilization. It would be foolish to discredit the influence of religiosity in the West, in spirit and in practice. However, belief can function as a sort of ideological trapSimply put, acting on a belief is not equivalent to actually believing it. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek provides us with a story to illustrate this point, in which he tells us the tale of physicist Niels Bohr.

“A well-known anecdote about Niels Bohr illustrates the same idea. Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn’t believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn’t believe in it!” [1] 

In an excellent passage, Zizek essentially explains the function of belief in modern society. Although individuals may personally not believe an ideology, they act as if they do because they take it others believe. In fear of reprisals, they then live as if the belief is theirs. But there is a twist: what if the other individuals do not believe it either? With this, an entire belief system is build upon the existence of non-belief among individuals. I take religion to be in this same stride, functioning as a belief in a sea of disillusioned disciples.

Such a statement is hardly revealing to the standard American Christian household. The father takes his son to Church, to educate his child on Christian values. The father, himself, was pressured to do so by his own parents. They would be disappointed if he raised his children without such a pretense. The father, himself, does not believe, but acts as if he believes to give a proper impression on his parents. The child lacks the belief also, but to not disappoint his father, he refuses to tell him. Instead, he acts as if he believes. Here, we have a situation of two non-believers, paradoxically imposing a belief on one another. Would it not be another twist of irony to say the father’s parents do not believe, just as the father and the son do not? This belief is likewise solidified, passed through familial relationships, and built upon a structure of non-belief — giving those trapped within this dilemma the illusion of a belief that is absent from the individual’s own choosing, being imposed on them by the technicalities of human relationships.

This is the death of God. The death of God is not external invasion unto the Christian church hierarchy. It is not an attack from outside the prayer circles — it is within them. It is when God as an entity becomes irrelevant to the actual substance of belief, being replaced by a complex foundation of non-belief. In Europe, trends of non-belief are stronger than in the United States. According to surveys by the Financial Times/Harris Poll, only 27% of individuals living in France truthfully believe in a Christian God or Supreme deity. This is contrasted with 73% of those in the United States [2]. Bearing in mind the different histories of European and American ancestry, I take it that such a large disparity between religiosity is largely due to the culture of the United States. Religious disbelief is looked down upon, even persecuted, in American media and society — denigrated in excessively negative terms. The question is, how many of the religious belief structures in the United States are founded on fear of consequences? Potentially, very many, I would say.

However, the implications extend further than Zizek’s story on ideology. Equally important are those that believe (for cultural reasons generally), but live their lives as if they do not. Done through ritualistic ends, their religious ideology becomes a routine rather than a philosophy of action. For many Western Christians, this is the reality. They find themselves lofting to church on some Sundays, and then vehemently arguing over whether we should say “Merry Christmas” during the holidays, and fighting to preserve prayer before football games [3]. The extent of Christian ideology in American culture has largely become a gimmick of cultural preservation more than anything else, serving as the last backlash of a decaying social phenomenon.

Christian ideology makes many universal claims. It promotes objective truth and meaning, a belief system that is dogmatic and said to be true by its disciples. They have this bastion of knowledge, the key to God’s judgement and mercy, that is said to be the absolute truth. And yet they live their lives as if this is hidden, only resurrecting (excuse the pun) it when socially beneficial. If an individual held such truth of the universe, would they not devote their entire lives if they believed so strongly it was true, rather than bickering over trivialities on cable television? The charade of these religious charlatans defending “Judeo-Christian America” is a testament to the hypocrisy of the ideology in the hearts of those that follow it. True belief would not frequent itself in discussions on media sensationalism, in an attempt to keep what always has been in American society; it would prepare, and act, in the interests of God and rely on his judgements. Perhaps if they took God’s objective truth to its fullest conclusion, they would sit and pray rather than rely on themselves. If they are so convinced of their beliefs, they would be equally be convinced God would give them a hand.

The death of God does not involve the elimination of religion, nor does it involve the tearing down of religious institutions. It involves the hollowing out of religion by its believers. It makes God into a centerpiece of disbelief, propped by complex interlocked relationships and cultural enforcement. A belief propped by non-belief, it finds itself as the comfort to those that fear the destruction of their religious and cultural identity. It finds itself as the poster-child of reactionary backlash, the broken center of the exaggerated dichotomy of secularism and religiosity, and the illusionary opponent of civil institutions by religious disciples that lack the belief themselves. During the height of Catholic ascendancy, the belief was not so fractured. Prayer was seen as a powerful tool; the Devil was a real distinguishable threat. We have long abandoned such views, despite what is heard in Evangelical circles (I can assure you there would be little hesitation for them to take human action over prayer if their own lives were in peril). Let’s be frank, God is dead –The emperor has no clothes on, we are looking straight at him, but we are too naive to admit it.

Bernie Madoff — the con, the criminal, the fraud, and the scum of the corporate establishment. These were the titles given to this corrupt financier, but above all, he was said to simply be a “bad egg” in a basket of well-intentioned entrepreneurs and “job creators.”

However, despite these claims, Madoff’s case is not unique. Madoff’s real crime was that he stepped outside the circle of appropriate corporate conduct, whose edge tends to gravitate farther and farther away from lawfulness as income rises. The reality of wealth privilege within the institutions that are publicly seen as ‘just’ is a causality of a system that rewards excess. Most shocking, however, is how the personal endeavors of these individuals clash with their fraudulent actions. Madoff, perhaps, is the epitome of such a phenomenon. Although stealing billions of dollars, he was also a devoted philanthropist. His largest beneficiary was the Picower Foundation, which allocated the funds to organizations such the Boy Scouts of America and the Children’s Aid Society. NY Times reports the funds as:

* 2007 — $23,424,401 (See the 2007 Form 990 filed by the Foundation with the Internal Revenue Service.)
* 2006 — $20,184,183 (See the Form 990.)
* 2005 — $27,662,893 (See the Form 990.)

In total, $958 million was donated to the Picower Foundation.

Other charities were involved, and were almost entirely dependent on Madofff’s funds. As reported by the NY Times, some of them included:

  • $145 million to the Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation
  • $20 million to Tufts University
  • $18 million to the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles
  • $19 million to the Madoff Family Foundation
  • $90 million to the Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization
  • $100 – $125 million to Yeshiva University

These are incredible amounts of money, so abuse comes to no surprise; but is it not an anomaly that the worst white-collar criminal in history was also one of the ‘greatest’ philanthropists, by modern standards? Acting as a perverse indulgence, charity might not be as chivalrous of an act as socially understood. Seen as a mechanism of redemption, this behavior is typical in this category of criminal activity. Bernard Ebbers, convicted in 2005 of similar crimes, showed the same phenomenon, having donated over $100 million dollars to charity over the course of ten years. Corporations are no exception; Enron was also a known giver to charity,

Enron CEO Kenneth Lay exemplified the company’s philanthropy, endowing several professorships at the University of Houston and Rice University, while the company itself was known for its generous gifts to arts groups, scholarship funds, and the Texas Medical Center.

Such behavior, interestingly enough, correlates with the religious attitude seen when the Catholic Church held immense power in Europe during the Middle Ages. In an effort to ‘save’ those in Purgatory, having commited sins on Earth, priests charged individuals sums of money for indulgences, or remissions, to free or limit the time their loved ones would be trapped in this supernatural lingo. Priests, making huge individual profits, attempted to justify their accumulations through Church-sanctioned actions. In effect, they stole with one hand and ‘saved’ with the other.

In a modern twist, corporate crime is looking  for that same metaphysical ‘salvation,’ and they certainly found it in charity. Functioning as an egoist drive, this behavior only highlights the disparity of behavior within certain classes of the social strata. Little rationality can be viewed amongst those that accumulate such large reserves of finance power, as they scramble to find redemption in a sea of fraud and narcissism. It is this crude revelation that illustrates the paradox of corporate conduct — as long as you appear charitable, what is done behind closed doors is forgivable. Or so the twisted mindset goes.

***

More info on the “Paradox of Fraud and Philanthropy” 

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