Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ideological orphans

A lot of noise has been made by the chattering class of the Oligarchy's PR machine (AKA the mass media) about the lack of coherent message coming from the Occupy movement.  The issue in my opinion is that thanks to the success of the said PR machine in suppression and misrepresenting leftist ideology in the United States most Liberals in American's lack a historical awareness of their ideological heritage.

In fact it's not just liberal American's who lack this awareness the ignorance extends to the vast majority of the American population up to and including most politicians and media personalities.

Thanks to this ignorance we as a nation quite literally lack the language to have the relevant discussions and as a result the 99% is having to rediscover and reinvent and reestablish a common set of terms and definitions to articulate it's concerns.

As far as most American's are concerned Marxism was the totality of leftist ideology, even worse most of these people don't actually know what Marxism or Communism even is. That the constant accusations directed at our President accusing him of being a socialist is actually given the time of day is a clear indication of this.

Anyone with the slightest actual understanding of socialism would see the absurdity in this accusation. We're talking about the guy who bailed out the Private banks, saved GMC and signed a healthcare bill that provides guaranteed income to Health Insurance companies. That is not socialism.

This has created a barrier to formulating, much less communicating specific policy positions by the Occupy movement. The common language quite simply does not exist anymore for them to use.

Now this brings up the subject of ideology. In my experience most people do not spend much time considering their ideology or as Zizek put it their unknown knowns. It's not that they don't have an ideology, everyone has an ideology as the example about toilet designs shows, it's simply that they haven't taken the time to figure out what their own personal ideology is.

What is an ideology? An ideology is the set of values, beliefs, tendencies, prejudices and preconceived notions that dictate your reaction to the ideas and circumstances you are exposed to. Sure it can also refer to a specific defined Ideology, such as Marxism or Fascism but very few people's actual views will ever exactly match those definitions.

Instead our personal ideologies tend to be much more of a hodgepodge of individual views that coalesce into an overall world view.

Since very few of us ever spend the time to examine the underlying assumptions for our personal ideologies we are often left with a self contradictory, inconsistent, and hypocritical belief system.

In fact most of us end up with more or less the same ideological framework that we are raised into, mostly formed by exposure to whatever beliefs our parents had. This lack of inner examination is what leaves people vulnerable to manipulation by those who have taken control of our economic and political systems. The wordsmiths and RP hacks employed by the powerful to can do their work because of this lack of realized ideological framework.

They can pull off their false equivalency and push their strawmen constructs and convince people that utterly empirically wrong things are true.

This is the problem with "moderates", Moderates are people who do not have fully realized ideological frameworks, They are the ones operating on that ad-hoc mishmash of inconsistent contradictory beliefs as a result they are easily manipulated.

Ones ideological framework functions as a kind of bullshit detector. It's that bit of thought that makes you go "wait a cotton picking minute there that makes no sense!" when someone asserts something that doesn't fit. It also plays a large part in determining the outcome of your cognitive biases.

So it's important to understand your ideological framework not simply to have an consistent philosophy but to be able to identify when you may be falling victim to confirmation bias or some other cognitive bias.

Since your ideology is the filter through which you process information it affects how you process evidence and ideas. It influences which evidence you grant greater weight and which you dismiss as nonsense. Being aware of your ideology will help you to identify those times when when you are dismissing a piece for evidence based on the confirmation bias of reinforcing your own ideological framework rather than on it's merit or lack there of. It also provides a degree of protection against the propagandist who will exploit your filters to misinform you.

As I said in my opening post I think believing things that are true is far more important than believing things that are emotionally satisfying. Understanding ones own ideological framework is a critical part of doing this.

Now how does all this apply to the Occupy Movement and the American Left in general?

Sadly what I said about moderates also applies to most of the "leftists", "liberals" and "progressives" in America. Many on the "left" are there not so much because of logical well considered fully realized ideology but rather because it appeals to them emotionally. Liberals and Progressives are scared of being labeled Leftists because they've accepted the Right wing frame that the political left is synonymous with socialism.

This tends to result in an American Left that is fragmented to the point of ineptitude, with lots of in fighting that shouldn't really exist that serve to undermine the solidarity needed to actually effect political change.

This has been capitalized on by the elites, to paint the left as wishy, washy, unrealistic, emotional, irrational children who don't understand the "real world". The lack of solidarity is exploited with identity politics and other divisive practices.

Look at how the media has presented the Occupy movement. As a bunch of dirty hippy (they aren't like you in middle america) white (they aren't fighting for you minorities) privileged college kids (see poor people these are just little spoiled brats crying because they think they are entitled something).

The Right has usurped the ideological heritage of the Left by claiming Liberals of the past such as Thomas Jefferson, and Adam Smith as their own.  It's erased by omission much of our history painting past struggles in a distorted light. Glossing over some important details and amplifying other less important ones.

A large part of this is because of the way political ideology is currently categorized and described. That it is based on the assumption that a political ideology is static. That an idea that is considered Conservative today was conservative 200 years ago in fact it's even less consistent than that in that certain idea's that were left 100 years ago remain the sum total of leftist thought today (EG socialism/marxism).

This is the real false left/right paradigm, this idea that political ideology is a function of specific policy positions rather than a more fundamental vision of what we want the world to look like.

Consider the scale the libertarians like to use where personal liberty is on one axis and business liberty on other.

It tries to categorize ideology based on policy alone, so it considers someone who supports a strong government carefully regulating business to encourage responsible behavior to be the same as one who supports a strong government regulating business in a way that creates barriers to entry and limits competition while subsidizing existing businesses.

Consider gun control and abortion on these two issues the Libertarian scale would put Pro-gun conservatives at the same spot on the scale as Pro-choice liberals.

This is ridiculous on it's face or least it should be.

Because ideology is primarily results driven.

Meaning that specific policy choices are made not because of support or lack there of for business or personal freedom but rather to achieve a desired outcome. Gun control advocates aren't asking for gun control because they hate personal freedom they're doing so because they believe that the harm caused is greater than the benefit said freedom grants. Anti-abortion activists aren't trying to limit the practice because they hate personal freedom but because they think the practice is immoral and encourages irresponsible behavior. While either of these are debatable on their merits the activists in question aren't generally motivated by high minded principles so much as gut reactions to situations they find problematic.

So what we're talking about is outcome driven policy choices. Now despite all this evidence that the existing characterizations of ideological frameworks is flawed these ideas are still the defacto standards.

Personally I think that the left needs to start challenging this way of describing ideology. We need to push the idea that ideology is and always has been results oriented that specific policies choices are not automatically the domain of one side of the ideological spectrum or the other. That things change and that policies that were liberal in one circumstance are conservative in another.

When Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations the economies of the world were still largely dominated by the aristocracy who had a long history of manipulating the economy to reinforce their power. The system of capitalism as he envisioned it directly challenged the existing status quo of his time.  It rejected the principle of divine providence upon with the aristocracy based the legitimacy and privilege of their station, proposing instead a system based not on accident of birth but on merit and ingenuity.

That was not a conservative idea at the time it was written it was in fact quite radical and very much liberal when he penned it back in 1776 you know around the same time a spunky little group of colonies decided to tell the nobility in England to stuff it when said nobility tried to manipulate the tea market to the benefit of one favored company by granting it an exemption to a tax all it's competitors had to pay (oh yeah there were conservatives in those days too, they were called Tories).

What Smith found wondrous about capitalism was how much efficiency it created, the idea that specialization could leverage peoples productivity in a way that spread prosperity widely around. That specialization created skill and spurred innovation. That items that had at one time been rare and thus expensive and out of reach of the common man could be made en-mass in sufficient quantities to bring products that had previously been the domain of the rich and royal to the hands of the poor and common.

That instead of a person toiling constantly to create all the various things they required for subsistence and survival they could specialize each making one item or even one part of an item and trading it for the other things they required.

Capitalism as Smith envisioned it was a wondrous engine of prosperity that could improve the lives of all people, and the fact that his ideas have been co-opted, distorted and perverted to maintain a new aristocracy is a travesty of justice that I believe would have the man spinning in his grave that is if I believed in an afterlife.

Remember Smith was not anti-labor in fact he quite clearly stated that a worker should not only be compensated sufficiently to support himself and his progeny (yeah it was gender biased but we're talking 1776 here) but to support some leisure as well.

Once again desired outcome, Smith wanted to see capitalism harnessed to the benefit of all not just the business owners.

Contrast that with the current advocates of crony capitalism on the Right who have hijacked Smiths idea's to justify the obscene concentrations of wealth and power that we see today.

So if specific policy positions can't be categorized based on such silly limited scales as personal and business freedom or the equally preposterous big vs small government alternative how should we classify them?

George Lackoff wrote and excellent book called Moral Politics where he proposed an answer to the seemingly contradictory positions of the left and right. He described the Right's philosophy using a strict father metaphor of top down hierarchical vs the Left's nurturing parent metaphor.

While I don't quite agree completely with his metaphors of choice particularly in the case of the left because I think he remains overly focused on specific current policy positions, he's definitely came closer to how I think things break down than anyone else.

Because while he doesn't actually articulate it in these terms, he does demonstrate that ideology is results driven. That ideology is the vision of how we see the world versus how we think it should be, rather than some dry theory that only a very small minority have ever read anyway.

So after all that what is the defining difference between the Left and Right?  What is the ideological heritage of the Left?

One constant throughout all history and across all specific policy positions is whether one is backwards or forward looking.

The Left has always maintained that our best days are ahead of us, that we can and should improve our lot in life, that new knowledge will unlock new opportunities and potentials.

Alternatively the Right has always looked back, the better days were yesterday, civilization is in decline "the youth today are irresponsible and unlike when I was young".

Optimism vs nostalgia, new vs old, progressive vs regressive, novelty vs tradition.

Liberalism, leftism, progressiveness what ever you want to call it has consistently and historically pushed the concept that we can and should make the world a better place.

Alternatively the right has always looked to the past, revered tradition and maintained that all that we really need to know is already known.

The specifics on how to achieve those ends change from era to era but the basic visions have not.

This is an important thing for those of us on the left to remember and explain.

That fundamentally being a liberal means that we think that the world and more specifically the state of human lives in it can and should be improved. That some bye-gone era was not a golden age and the best days are ahead of rather than behind us.

We need to remind people when they start to wax nostalgic of some earlier time what it was like for those who were not a part of the privileged class. Point out that while G Gordon Liddy might remember this being a free country when he was a kid, Emmett Till would beg differ, that is if he hadn't been murdered by racists. Or perhaps Liddy meant this was a country where he was free to murder black people.

When they complain about OSHA and government regulation of business tell them about the Triangle fire and how young women who couldn't escape because the bosses had chained the fire exits, threw themselves out of windows not to save their lives to but keep their bodies from burning so their families could identify them.

When they talk about the corruption of Labor Unions tell them about the company towns where the business owners would pay their workers not quite enough for them to afford to feed and house themselves at the companies stores and company housing and how those companies would advance them money in advance to cover the difference, money that had to be repaid some way effectively locking them into a state little better than slavery.

When they complain about financial regulation remind them of why those regulations were put in place to begin with.

When the complain about illegal immigrants remind them of the CONSERVATIVES hiring those immigrants in order to avoid paying a market rate wage. Ask why it's OK for capital to freely travel to other countries to access cheap labor but not ok for labor to freely travel for better wages.

Liberalism has been the driving force for every advancement of the human species from the moment the first early hominids climbed down from the trees to the kids facing down riot geared cops in America's Parks today, while conservatism has consistently tried to hold back progress and turn back the clock.

The left has never been about big government for the sake of big government those on the left who've pushed for big government have always had specific roles for that big government in mind.

Sure socialism was a leftist idea, so was every other forward thinking idea ever proposed. Capitalism, check; Democracy, Check; Indoor plumbing, check, Rural electricity,,  I can do this all day. Dreaming up new ideas is what we liberals do. We dream them up try them, if they work we keep them if they don't we go back to the drawing board.

So communism turned out to be a failure, yes a massively horrendous failure, so what? Not every new idea is a good idea but nothing ventured nothing gained. Some idea's sound really good in theory and fall apart in practice. It's a part of the learning experience, you just have to be sure to incorporate the lessons that have been learned.

Which brings us to the final distinction between the left and right, Fear.

While the left is primarily motivated by hope for tomorrow the Right is driven primarily by fear, fear of the other, fear of change, fear of loss, fear of failure. Fear fear fear and more fear. Scientist have actually done brain scans and found that conservatives have larger amygdalas (the part of the brain responsible for fear and other primitive emotions)  than liberals and smaller anterior cingulates (the area responsible for courage and optimism).

Which makes sense. If your primary motivator is fear, of course you're going to resist change, you're going to be fearful of strangers and aliens (the human kind though I doubt they'd deal much better with the extra-terrestrial variety) new ideas would be intimidating tomorrow is a mystery where anything can happen while yesterday despite any flaws is known. Heck just keeping this in mind explains about 90% of conservative thought.

Honestly based on the science I'm not sure it's even possible to convert a conservative to a liberal or vice versa, while science may have determined a relationship between brain structure and political persuasion it doesn't yet know if it's genetically hardwired or a result of experience. And even if it's the later it's unlikely that just words will cause a restructuring of the brain.

By now you have probably noticed that I use the terms liberal and left interchangeably, I've been criticized by this in the past because people insist that there is actually a difference. There isn't. Whether a person calls themselves leftists, liberals or progressives they all share a common ideological foundation. 

Hope for a better tomorrow and the courage to try and create it.

Now I said earlier that I'm not sure one can convert a conservative to liberalism so honestly I think any efforts to try and do so are a waste of time. What I do think is that a lot of those "moderates" are really liberals at heart they've just been deceived into believing there is something wrong with being on the left. They just need a reality check, they need to be educated on the true meaning and motivation of liberalism. 

That liberalism is about looking forward to a brighter tomorrow, it's about using courage to convert hope into positive change.

The left is the ideological progeny of all the men and women who came before us and said "there has to be more to life than this" and then rolled up their sleeves and got to work to create the better tomorrow that we live in today. It's now our turn to work to create an even better tomorrow for our descendants.

No comments:

Post a Comment