A Chest of Tools
for Intellectual Self-Defence
excerpted from the book
Burning All Illusions
by David Edwards
South End Press, 1996
'This is a society which needs to make man fit in a complicated
and hierarchically organised system of production with a minimum
of friction. It creates the organisation man, a man without conscience
or conviction, but one who is proud of being a cog, even if it
is only a small one, in a big and imposing organisation. He is
not to ask questions, not to think critically, not to have any
passionate interests, for this would impede the smooth functioning
of the organisation. But man is not made to be a thing, he is
not made to shun asking questions. Hence, in spite of 'job security,'
'old-age pensions,' and the satisfaction of belonging to a large
and 'nationally known' outfit, man is disquieted and not happy.
'Governments, whatever their pretensions otherwise, try to
preserve themselves by holding the individual down... Government
itself, indeed, may be reasonably defined as a conspiracy against
him. Its one permanent aim, whatever its form, is to hobble him
sufficiently to maintain itself:
When even a few people gain sufficient information and motivation
to organize and protest, the illusion of popular impotence begins
to be eroded. The economic costs of controlling protests are high,
whilst the very act of confrontation threatens to dissolve the
illusions of freedom and democracy on which the system depends.
Protests of this type can lead to the identification of a 'crisis
of democracy', as occurred during the 1970s when anti-war and
civil rights protesters threatened to become involved in the political
arena. Now, as then, politicians insist that peaceful protest
is a threat to democracy. This is certainly true if by democracy
we mean government by the few, for the few. Genuine freedom and
democracy, however, have only ever been won by this type of collective
action and protest. This is why it has always been important for
those who govern us to keep us as isolated as possible, to ensure
that we are imbued with a sense of impotence before our 'superiors'
and 'betters' (the British class system functions as a non-stop
illusion factory in this respect, spinning all manner of fictions
regarding the innate superiority of the wealthiest sections of
The widespread sense of apathy, hopelessness and even despair
among many (particularly young) people today is not at all a reflection
of the realities of what is possible, but rather of the sophistication
of the system of thought control by which those possibilities
have been obscured.
'Although AIDS can be discussed as a means of hitting out
at unpopular minorities, the true epidemic can never be discussed:
the fact that every fourth American now alive will die of cancer.
This catastrophe is well kept from the public by the tobacco companies,
the nuclear power companies and other industries that poison the
earth so that corporate America may enjoy the freedom to make
money without the slightest accountability to those they are killing.'
Blaming the Victim
Because we have been persuaded to believe that we are not
controlled, that our way of living is the best alternative we
have, when we find our lives in crisis we usually assume there
must be something wrong with us as individuals. At the other end
of the scale, it is perfectly acceptable for us to become disillusioned
with some abstract concept called 'life', for then 'life' can
bear the sins that properly belong to corporate capitalism. Similarly,
it is preferable that disasters in the Third World be attributed
to terrible Acts of God, to the innately sorrowful nature of life,
or to unfortunate mistakes, than that they be blamed on institutionalized
systems of exploitation. In reviewing the holocaust inflicted
on Indochina by the United States-with Laos alone receiving one
ton of bombs for every head of its three million population-many
American commentators described the US assault with such phrases
as 'blundering efforts to do good'.
In more general vein, it is infinitely preferable that we
believe that 'Life is a tragedy wherein we sit as spectators for
a while and then act out our part in it', than that we perceive
the less abstract truth about much of the tragedy in our world:
'The numerous horror stories of corporate behaviour in the
Third World which have emerged in recent years show convincingly
that respect for people, for nature, and for life are not part
of the corporate mentality. On the contrary, large-scale corporate
crime is today the most widespread and least prosecuted criminal
activity.' Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point
Given that we are living in a moral society governed by leaders
passionately devoted to human rights, the people we kill in pursuit
of those lofty aims must be to blame, as a matter of logical necessity.
Hence Hegel's displeasure at:
'the contempt of humanity displayed by the Negroes [of Africa]
who allow themselves to be shot down by thousands in war with
Europeans. Life has a value only when it has something valuable
as its object.'
Similarly, the New York Times financial correspondent Paul
R. Strauss assures us:
'What we fail to realize is that corruption is a way of life
What we also choose to fail to recognize is that very often
Asian corruption is a way of life imposed by the Western requirement
that the needs of the domestic population be suppressed by necessarily
corrupt and vicious individuals, in deference to Western interests;
this is indicated even by secret high-level planning documents:
'.. .we have 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its
population... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object
of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is
to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain
this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national
security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality
and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated
everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive
ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and
world-benefaction... We should cease to talk about vague and-for
the Far East-unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising
of the living standards, and democratisation.' George Kennan,
Head of US State Department Planning Staff, 1948
As Michael Parenti has said in response to this brutal truth:
'My goal is to try to get people away from saying, 'Isn't
it terrible how this goes on, what a strange foolish creature
man is?' and point out to them that most of us aren't strange
or foolish. We don't want these kinds of things to go on. These
things are the product of a particular kind of social organisation
and a particular use of class power.'
We can take our pick between life as tragic accident and life
as tragic design. The institutions responsible for much of that
tragedy have an obvious preference: blame innate human aggressiveness,
male hormones, Asian inscrutability, religious intractability,
over-population, a flawed creator, blame anything you like; but
do not seriously suggest that the real problems might lie with
the institutionalisation of violence against people and planet
in the economic and political systems of the West.
Opposition as Vaccine: Inoculating the Body Politic
One of the key messages of this book has been that many of
the people, ideas and institutions that we imagine are on the
side of humanity and freedom are false friends. Of course, if
we like we can dismiss this idea as mere paranoia. Indeed, criticism
of the status quo is often explained in terms of the individual
psychoses of the proponents (as are obstacles to the status quo-Aristide
'the psychopath', the 'Mad Mullahs', the 'wild men on the wings'
and Chomsky 'the great American crackpot'). Rarely, of course,
is mental illness used to account for the arguments of those who
support the status quo. No straitjacket was requested for Lloyd
George, who, when noting with approval that the British regime
had ensured the 1932 disarmament convention did not forbid the
bombing of civilian populations, declared:
'We insisted on reserving the right to bomb niggers.'
Walt Whitman was not said to be 'beyond the pale of intellectual
responsibility' for the direction of his questioning:
'What has miserable, inefficient Mexico... to do with the
great mission of peopling the New World with a noble race?"
No impromptu holiday was advised for Charles Darwin who, while
discussing the genocide of the American Indians, suggested:
'There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful
progress of the United States, as well as the character of the
people, are the results of natural selection.'
Winston Churchill continued to be let loose amongst an unsuspecting
public after declaring:
'I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.
. . I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized
tribes... It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses;
gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread
a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects
on most of those affected.'
On the other hand, the idea that profound criticism of power
must be rooted in some sort of mental illness is common to all
In church-based societies the disturbance was of course seen
as a symptom of demonic possession. Dissenters were hauled away
by Soviet totalitarians for psychiatric 'treatment'. In our own
society, the 'loony left' has long been dangerously 'infected'
by the psychic 'virus' of communism. More recently, the madness
of 'psycho-babble' has mutated into 'Political Correctness', manifested
as an almost insane obsession with harassing our Free Press and
education systems into rooting out even the hint of a suggestion
of racial and sexual bias (the political manifestation of a washing
Today, possession by devils is indicated by our failure to
adequately worship the God of consumption; by a weird tendency
to 'deep conversations' and serious thought. It can be seen in
a bizarre concern for issues which are not the concern of the
normal, fun-loving' average man in the street'-redundant issues
like politics, philosophy, and religion.
Either we are expected to discuss such matters as academic,
side issues to life, as worthy of occasional comment, or we are
expected to express our cynicism about all politics, all religion,
all searching for truth-this is acceptable and even applauded
(as hard-nosed realism-of all things!). But if we discuss these
issues in public as if they are of real concern to us, as if we
feel we have an interest in doing something about them, as though
we feel we can be part of a process of finding, or rediscovering,
better answers to the problems of life, then we move out of bounds,
'beyond the pale' and are often met with hostile, embarrassed
silence. To formulate our own arguments rather than those of the
mass media, to quote ideas and statistics, to argue in an informed
way about actual facts rather than loose generalizations, is to
indicate our arrogance, our vanity ('Who do you think you are?'),
is to manifest symptoms of neurosis. For we are challenging the
religion of modern life having fun; we are suggesting that there
might be something more, something to question and perhaps resist,
and this is understood to be absurd.
'All that matters is that nothing is too serious, that one
exchanges views, and that one is ready to accept any opinion or
conviction (if there is such a thing) as being as good as the
other. On the market of opinions everybody is supposed to have
a commodity of the same value, and it is indecent and not fair
to doubt it.' Erich Fromm, The Sane Society
But even this peer censorship by disapproval is less powerful
than the self-censorship discussed earlier-we also know when we
step over the line, and the tragic fact is that we also have been
persuaded to judge ourselves as neurotic, as ill, when we doubt
society (or as suffering from 'hormonal changes', as is the case
with understandably discontented adolescents as their youthful
individuality begins to feel the full weight of the propaganda
The superficiality of modern culture and the profound confusion
of the majority of people can be understood in essentially similar
terms. When the ruling institutions of society depend for their
very survival on the maintenance of a lie (in our case the lie
that profit is subordinated to people and not the other way around),
truth and understanding must be buried in a smothering blanket
of half-truths, triviality and confusion. How else could the lie
Consequently, we may well find ourselves shocked in disbelief
at the endless parade of quiz shows, sports shows, soap operas,
sitcoms, holiday programmes, cookery prograrnmes, wildlife documentaries
(the perennial lioness chasing the perennial zebra), car adverts
and business-biased news on the television. Even worse, when we
visit our news agents, we find hundreds of magazines all serving
the needs of their all-important advertisers and literally only
one or maybe two serving other ends. But even these essentially
serve the unions, or the political left generally, who are also
working for, and are supportive of, the mainstream industrial
programme; whose primary concern is not at all to rid the world
of this economic monster but to hang on to its tail and squeeze
it that they might get a bigger share of the spoils. The problem
today for the mildly reformist British Labour party is that its
traditional supporters have been persuaded to believe that they
can do better by voting for a party that does not restrain the
beast at all but permits it to grow as fast as possible. Labour's
response has been to embrace the deception and abandon any pretense
of providing genuine opposition to the rule of profit. As John
'Labour has proved itself to be an enfeebled component of
a rotting system, further disenfranchising those millions of people
who still look to it as the constituted opposition.'
And in the same way that Herman, Chomsky and Zinn insist that
the US political system consists of two wings of the same business
party, Pilger reports:
'During the election campaign, it was widely agreed that "convergence"
had taken place between the principal policies of the parties.
These policies reaffirmed the elevation of profit above people
in almost all areas of life and derided the notion of common obligation
This is a truth that is generally considered unfit for public
consumption in Britain, as has long been the case in the United
States. Gore Vidal has described the result of his attempts to
transcend the confines of this type of 'convergence' in political
'I was made aware of the iron rules in 1968, when William
F. Buckley, Jr., and I had our first live chat on ABC at the Republican
convention in Miami Beach. .. Buckley Junior's idea of a truly
in-depth political discussion is precisely that of corporate America's.
First, the Democrat must say that the election of a Republican
will lead to a depression. Then the Republican will joyously say,
Ah Hah, but the Democrats always lead us into war! After a few
minutes of this, my attention span snapped. I said that there
was no difference at all between the two parties because the same
corporations paid for both, usually with taxpayers' money, tithed,
as it were, from the faithful and then given to "defense,"
which in turn passes it on to those candidates who will defend
the faith. . . Although my encounters with Buckley Junior got
ABC its highest ratings, I was seen no more at election times.
Last year, Peter Jennings proposed to ABC that, for old times'
sake, it might be a good idea to have me on. "No," he
was told. "He'll just be outrageous."
Vidal's explanation for these events?
'The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one
of the wonders of the Western world. No First World country has
ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity-
much less dissent.'
Shame Shifting-Riding the Scapegoat
Human beings are innately prone to feelings of guilt and shame.
The human condition is such that we always feel we could be better
able to deal with the world-we could always have tried harder,
we could always be more intelligent, quicker-witted than we are.
The human capacity to choose implies the capacity to fail, which
implies the capacity to feel ashamed at our failure. Although
we may feel keenly the pain of this shame, we will often not consciously
identify the feeling as shame; we will just be angry. We will,
in other words, try to avoid facing the pain of our shame.
One effective way of hiding from our shame is to secretly
blame our failure on someone else. By blaming our failure on a
scapegoat, we can succeed in avoiding our shame by refusing to
accept responsibility for our problems-it is 'their 'fault! In
a sense, we deflect the shame away from our own consciousness,
'projecting it' (as psychologists say) onto someone else.
Throughout history, we find the defeated, disadvantaged and
downtrodden (all of whom, perhaps unconsciously, blame themselves
for being inadequate in the face of their problems), all too likely
to blame a scapegoat. Thus the down-trodden Germans of the inter-war
depression directed their anger at their condition onto the Jews;
... it is often a relatively simple matter to turn poor whites
against poor blacks, and so on. Always these scapegoats act as
safe containers for the shame and guilt of other people. The ashamed
may then unleash their self-hatred and anger against their projected
If it is true that the only answer to hate is understanding,
it is also true that a significant obstacle to understanding is
the presence of anger and hate. [Noam] Chomsky ... uses his skill
in applied wonder to prove the pervasive existence of the abuse
of power, but it seems to me that even he stops short of seeking
to understand why it is that politicians, industrialists and the
like are so able to dismiss the sufferings of their Third World
victims for the sake of profit. In his book Deterring Democracy,
'The problem of indoctrination is a bit different for those
expected to take part in serious decision-making and control:
the business, state, and cultural managers, and articulate sectors
generally. They must internalize the values of the system and
share the necessary illusions that permit it to function in the
interests of concentrated power and privilege-or at least to be
cynical enough to pretend they do, an art that not many can master.
But they must also have a certain grasp of the realities of the
world, or they will be unable to perform their tasks effectively.
The elite media and educational systems must steer a course through
these dilemmas-not an easy task, one plagued by internal contradictions.
But surely such an analysis should be within the scope of
the discussion. Understanding mindless modern conformity, obedience,
and human destructiveness more generally-how it is that people
can be aware of the often appalling truth and yet lie and even
believe the lie is vital. Chomsky's reluctance to make such an
attempt may have to do with his own personal anger (which he openly
admits) at the consequences of greed and conformity. We are, after
all, talking about the torture, mutilation and genocide of hundreds
of thousands, even millions of innocent people as the result of
the actions of individuals hell-bent on personal gain. How could
we not be angry?
Agreed-and we might add that anyone who does not experience
some anger at the tragedy of what is happening today is simply
not able to perceive the truth of what is happening. But when
we consider the scale of the problem, surely it is clear that
our anger is inappropriate. We are obviously not dealing with
one or two 'bad guys' who happen to have got in charge and decided
to wreck the world for their own gain. We are dealing with a destructive
tendency in human beings that has continuously afflicted one or
other part of the human race for millennia (although admittedly
not on today's scale). In other words, we are dealing with fundamental
tendencies deeply embedded in the psyche of the human species
and in the institutions of power. This in turn suggests that we
are in a sense addressing an extraordinarily destructive natural
phenomenon; less destructive than the occasional crashing asteroid
and ice-age, no doubt, but immensely destructive none the less.
Why then do we feel so angry about human destructiveness compared
to these other disasters? Because, of course, we believe that
human behaviour is se]f-generated, that we have the power to direct
ourselves, that we are responsible. This may be true, yet if this
really is the basis of our anger, then Chomsky's argument makes
a nonsense of it.
As Chomsky, Fromm and others have so convincingly shown, people
today are subject to massive propaganda and thought control from
the day they are born. It follows that we are not completely to
blame for our actions. But this does not mean that we should not
or cannot change; it means we must seek answers, not scapegoats.
Our response, therefore, should be not to feel anger or hate
towards other people, but to attempt to understand them. Many
might argue that to deny personal responsibility in this way encourages
people to sit back and continue acting irresponsibly. ... the
argument here is not based on the notion that people should be
more responsible, or nice, or act out of a sense of 'moral duty',
it is based on the idea that we should fight for our own reality,
for our own freedom from delusion, not because this will make
us good people who will be rewarded in some heaven, or so that
we will be able to look at ourselves in the mirror, but because
it is in all our interests to live lives free from delusions;
and human beings free from delusions tend to be far more sane,
healthy, happy and peaceful, than human beings lost in fantasy.
Our urgent task, then, is to understand why people conform, why
they so readily bow to irrational authority, why they pursue greed
and status-no matter what the cost to themselves or others.
Obedience and Conformity
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted
a series of experiments to measure the social distribution of
what he termed 'independence'-the capacity for independent judgment.
In his experiments, Asch brought an unsuspecting subject into
a room containing a group of people instructed to falsify their
answers in response to a simple perceptual test. In this test,
the group was asked to assert which of three lines of varying
lengths on one graph most closely corresponded in length to a
single line on an adjacent graph. Unknown to the subjects of the
experiments, Asch was pitting them against a pre-arranged, unanimous,
yet entirely irrational, consensus.
Initially, the rigged group matched lines which were reasonably
similar. Gradually, however, Asch introduced widening discrepancies
so that, eventually, the group consensus matched lines of extremely
different lengths, also mixing in a few disagreements amongst
the group for the sake of realism. The results were extraordinary:
only 20 percent of Asch's subjects proved capable of independent
judgment in the face of an absurd consensus. Of these, many found
the experience highly stressful. Asch concluded that:
'...social life makes a double demand on us: to rely upon
others with trust and to become individuals who can assert our
own reality... We may suppose that this aim can be achieved under
favourable circumstances, but even then not without struggle...
But there are conditions less favourable for development which,
while encouraging the individual to live in a wider and richer
world than the individual can encompass alone, also injure and
undermine him. This happens when social circumstances stifle the
individual's impulses and deny them expression.'
In another (infamous) research programme, Stanley Milgram
was concerned not with conformity but with obedience. Milgram's
subjects were told that they were to take part in a learning experiment.
When the learner (an actor hidden behind a screen) gave an incorrect
response to the subject's questions, the subject was instructed
to administer an electric shock of increasing intensity to the
learner who, though not actually shocked, reacted as though he
was- protesting, shouting and even screaming before lapsing into
feigned unconsciousness. Once again, the results were extraordinary.
Only a minority of subjects refused to participate when the learner
feigned protest and pain, while a considerable number were prepared
to shock the learner all the way to unconsciousness at the behest
of authority embodied by the white-coated 'scientist'.
The implications of these experiments are dear. Faced with
a consensus especially one endorsed by authority-modern individuals
show an extreme tendency to conform; that is, to think and do
as others do, or as others tell them to do, without question.
It seems that the majority of people today are incapable of challenging
even self-evident nonsense, while others defer to authority to
the point of barbarism.
This modern susceptibility to conformity and obedience to
authority indicates that the truth endorsed by authority is likely
to be accepted as such by a majority of people, who are innately
obedient to authority. This obedience-truth will then become a
consensus truth accepted by many individuals unable to stand alone
against the majority. In this way, the truth promulgated by the
propaganda system-however irrational-stands a good chance of becoming
the consensus, and may come to seem self-evident common sense.
History suggests that there are few, if any, limits to the level
of absurdity that can be reached by such a consensus-belief in
an underground cave full of sadistic devils, in the benevolence
of plainly psychotic dictators, in the passionate devotion of
modern states to freedom and democracy when the entire world is
run (and put at risk) by the profit motive, and so on.
Even Gengis Khan thought he was the Good Guy! Rationalization
as an Obstacle to Truth
As we tackle the unavoidable human problem of trying to make
sense of the world, we are required to constantly select or reject
facts and ideas as important or irrelevant to the attainment of
such an understanding. One of the human tendencies that makes
this task so difficult is rationalization, the phenomenon whereby
we believe something, not as a result of a rational consideration
of the facts, but because we want to believe it, because it serves
some pre-determined purpose...
Rationalization appears to be a significant factor which supports
the operation of the propaganda system. This is because one of
the major sources of rationalization derives from the human need
to feel part of the human herd. To understand this, we need to
consider the dual nature of the human being.
Herd and Individual
The human being, as we have discussed, is the great isolated
animal of nature. Our relative freedom from instinct, combined
with our self-awareness, make us acutely aware of ourselves as
separate individuals. This gives rise to feelings of isolation
and loneliness which must be resolved. For this reason, the human
being is very much a herd animal. We have a powerful need to belong
with, and be accepted by, other people: first by our mother and
father, and later by friends and loved ones. Our worst fear from
this point of view would be to be pushed away, rejected, abandoned,
outcast, isolated from other people, from the herd; we must not
let it happen.
But as self-aware human beings, we are also very much individuals
with an urgent need to be independent and rational, so that we
may solve the problems posed us by life. Simply belonging to the
herd, doing as everyone else does, without developing our own
ability to solve our own problems, will not be enough; there are
many lessons we can only learn for ourselves. To find answers,
we can only rely on our reason, on our individual ability to understand
the way we, ourselves, and the world more generally, work. Only
then can we hope to understand what does or does not promote-or
cripple our happiness.
Clearly these two fundamental human needs are liable to conflict
with each other. It is rationalization that often intervenes to
compromise our desire to be rational individuals with our desire
to fit into the society around us. It is painful for us to be
aware that some of our actions, which may be required if we are
to 'fit in' with others, are irrational or monstrous, but it is
also painful for us to feel an outsider from the herd. Because
we are eager to belong, irrational or immoral aspects of herd-life
will tend to be overlooked and ignored through what the psychologist
H.S. Sullivan called 'selective inattention'-we prefer not to
recognize truths that would make it difficult for us to accept
the society to which we are eager to belong.
If the propaganda system (giving the impression that it represents
the majority view) assures us that our country is peace-loving,
democratic and moral, we will have powerful reasons for wanting
to concur with these views, and will probably rationalize away
any doubts (perhaps assuring ourselves that any violence committed
by our nation has been solely in self-defence), rather than become
an outsider. Sometimes this type of abuse of language by the mass
media is simply a conscious lie but, equally as often, it is itself
a product of rationalization-an unconscious compromise between
a journalist's desire to live a rational life in touch with the
real world and his or her fear of being ejected from the herd
(and, indeed, from his or her job and career).To preserve our
place in the herd, our job, our social hierarchy, we will invent
any amount of nonsensical rationalizations for what is happening,
and will often come to really believe them.
This phenomenon partly accounts for the high degree of control
in the mass media, although there is no conscious conspiracy.
As Thoreau said:
'There is no need of a law to check the license of the press.
It is law enough, and more than enough, to itself. Virtually,
the community have come together and agreed what things shall
be uttered, have agreed on a platform to excommunicate him who
departs from it, and not one in a thousand dares utter [or even
think] anything else.'...
People often claim to be socialists, democrats, environmentalists
and Christians ...without these beliefs playing any significant
role in their lives. Notoriously, many people who believe
in God as a supreme overlord are religious in this way; hence
the marked capacity of the 'religious' to commit atrocities in
direct contradiction to their espoused beliefs. A supreme exponent
of this type of rationalization was Columbus.
Columbus declared himself to be exceedingly religious, and
to have an ardent desire to convert the American Indians to Christianity.
Yet one word recurs 75 times in the first two weeks of Columbus's
journal subsequent to his arrival in the New World - gold. The
extra consonant tells us all we need to know about Columbus's
concern for the spiritual welfare of the Indians. Thus he wrote:
'They [the Indians] are the best people in the world and above
all the gentlest-without knowledge of what is evil-nor do they
murder or steal...'
An observation immediately followed by:
'. . .They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could
subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.'
Columbus's real motivation is confirmed by Las Casas, the
leading Spanish chronicler of the day, who reported that the Spanish
fell upon the Indians 'like ravening wild beasts. . . killing,
terrorizing, afficting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples'
with 'the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never
seen or heard of before,...' 'Their reason for killing and destroying...
is that the Christians have an ultimate aim which is to acquire
In the same way, many politicians and captains of industry
today declare that they are serving the cause of humanity, in
the 'developing world' perhaps, arguing that profit maximisation
will lead to a golden technological age for all. In a superficial
way they may even believe such nonsense. The point is that no
one likes to see their own actions as monstrous or destructive,
we all want to believe we are 'good guys' and so we all tend to
rationalize what we do in terms of grand ideals- we are doing
our duty, controlling the 'bewildered herd' for their own good,
bringing God to the backward races, fulfilling our 'manifest destiny',
building a great benevolent empire, administering economic medicine
that will lead to a bright future for all, only doing what someone
else would have done anyway so it doesn't matter, or whatever
else happens to fit the bill. The important thing is to declare
these things, but not look too closely at the actual facts of
destruction and the real motivation behind it. (Much philosophy
serves the task by allowing those who exploit others to sit back
and sigh in melancholy at the inevitability of human greed and
the innately tragic aspects of life. The 'hard facts of life'
are often the fantasies of rationalization.)
This ability to hold a view with apparent sincerity, but to
actually believe it simply because it is convenient to do so and
not on the basis of a reasoned consideration of the facts, is
the reason psychologists are able to argue that someone is unhappy
despite the fact that they claim to be happy-a counter-claim that
some people find shocking. It is quite possible for us to declare
that we love our jobs, our work, our country, or that we are happy,
not because it is true (free association and analysis of our dreams
may reveal that we hate our jobs and are deeply unhappy) but because
it is 'normal', what people expect from us, and so we say these
things in order to belong. (Jung suggested that most people claim
to be happy today simply because to not be happy is seen as a
kind of failure).
Clearly, those in a position to determine what is normal in
society can use the innate human desire to belong to their advantage,
and this is one of the great supports of the propaganda system
as a weapon of thought control. Through endless repetition the
mass media determine what is normal, and rapidly manipulate the
views of the populace towards the 'accepted' goal...
... independently minded, critically thinking, self-confident
individuals are in fact a threat to the corporate monoculture
(just as independently minded governments like the Nicaraguan
Sandinistas were a threat to the global economic monoculture).
Critical thought threatens to raise the spectre of more sane ways
of living. On the basis of this awareness, our task is surely
to seek to understand, and thereby extricate ourselves from the
mechanisms that prevent us from developing the capacity for critical
thought. Above all, we need to keep asking questions.
Why does the US President talk of his hope that the 'peace
process' in the Middle East will be guided by the 'wisdom and
compassion of the Almighty', when few people believe in this type
of God any more, when the system he fronts has no regard whatsoever
for Christian ideals, when those managing that system would advise
psychiatric help for anyone who actually believed the observance
of such ideals was a guiding principle of policy? Why are leaders
who speak in this way not roundly denounced for attempting to
deceive the public? Why is the historical and documentary record
not raised to demonstrate the deceit? Why are such banal lies
allowed to become axiomatic truths through the silence of journalists,
religious leaders, teachers and the rest? Why do intellectuals
merely sit and laugh cynically at such lies when they are not
irrelevant, not a joke, when they have a powerful effect on what
people come to believe, when history shows that such deceptions
are a cornerstone of exploitative power?
Why do we never discuss or understand anything in depth? Why
does nobody understand why the United States, rather than the
United Nations, is 'mediating' in the Middle East and Haiti? Why
the West furiously railed against 'the New Hitler' Saddam Hussein's
destruction of the Iraqi Kurds (although only when it served our
purpose), while Yeltsin's assault on the people of Chechnya, with
the barbaric cluster-bombing of civilian populations, is met with
barely a murmur of disapproval, with US Secretary of State Warren
Christopher describing the Russian assault as merely 'ill-conceived
and ill-executed' ? When UN condemnation of Indonesia's invasion
of East Timor was vetoed by the West? When the United States itself
invaded Panama, killing 3,000 civilians to arrest one man?
Why are we so obsessed with keeping up with current events
but not with understanding those events? Why does no one discuss
the fact that it is often literally impossible to make sense of
what is happening on the basis of the reports we see on the news
(certainly the case with regards to Haiti)? Why is this not a
source of outrage in democracies whose life-blood is supposed
to be the free flow of information, when our representatives are
acting and even killing other human beings in our name, but we
have no understanding of what they are doing or why? Is this all
a way of making us feel we are seeing the truth, when all we are
seeing is a stream of useless, meaningless facts?
Why can we not vote on the issues we want to see investigated
in the news, when the fate of places like Haiti, Iraq, Panama,
Grenada and Chechnya show such a marked tendency to be 'disappeared'
from the news? Why can we not vote for the commentators we would
like to see giving their perspective on the news, when Fairness
In Accuracy And Reporting found that of 1,530 guests interviewed
on the prestigious US Nightline public affairs programme, 92%
were white, 89% were male and 80% were professionals, government
officials, or corporate representatives, with the issues covered
'closely aligned with the agenda of the US government'?
Why do governments and companies justify their actions on
the basis of the need to 'create jobs', as if profit was a secondary
issue, as if everyone gained equally, as if the quantity and not
the quality of jobs was the only issue? Why does not everyone
who has ever worked for a corporation, who knows the truth, not
expose such nonsense, such complete reversals of the truth, for
the transparent deceptions they are? Why are jobs 'created' but
never 'destroyed'-only 'lost'? Why are politicians protected from
the public, from all genuinely awkward questions, when it is we
who are their leaders? Why are our political representatives treated
with such reverence and awe in a democracy that is supposed to
place 'the people' in highest regard? Why can we not see that
people like John Major, Bill Clinton and George Bush are just
men, just individual people like you and I (regardless of the
podium they stand on and the cut of their suits) who need to give
account of themselves, who need to convince us that they are worthy
of our attention, let alone our respect?
Why are so many of our artists so bleakly world-weary, so
convinced of the hopelessness and tragedy of life when, each and
every night, we look up to behold a self-evident mystery that
is your mystery, my mystery? Why is the search for truth deemed
neurotic, but the acceptance of superficial platitudes deemed
practical? Why is it considered realistic to dismiss human life
as absurd, but naive to dismiss our social system as absurd? Why
is it considered realistic to deem people innately wicked, but
simple-minded to deem our political and economic system innately
wicked? Is realism what is real, or what is required to be real?
Why is our society still not in love with (or even tolerant
of) that wonderful menagerie of 'asses', 'Neptunians' and assorted
'wild men [and women] on the wings 'who, over the years, have
sought the truth motivated, not by financial or political power,
but by a sincere desire to understand the world? Why can we not
see the obvious parallels between the burning of Giordano Bruno
at the stake, the denouncement of the writings of the great humanist
Spinoza as monstrosities 'forged in hell by a renegade Jew and
the Devil', the dismissal of that braying 'ass' Copernicus before
Luther, and the abuse meted out to Chomsky-that 'liar', 'crackpot',
purveyor of 'absolute rubbish', that 'self-hating Jew'? Why, with
the spectacle of all history before us, do we not automatically
suspect absolutely everyone declared respectable, unbiased and
praiseworthy by those who have power over us?
Why does our society find it unworthy of discussion that we
and our precious, impressionable children are continuously hounded
by advertisers with the same set of interests (profit from mass
consumption) propounding the same essential view of the world
(happiness and status through unrestrained consumption) ? Why
does it not occur to us that this continuous flood of propaganda
might be a threat to our view of reality, might be a threat to
our independence and sanity? Why does that not send even the tiniest
chill up our spines?
Is it because our political and economic systems are rooted
in a great system of necessary lies? And when we find ourselves
so convinced by those lies that our hearts sink to see how irrelevant
our search for truth suddenly seems, then what damage must that
system of lies be doing inside us?
How could we ever hope to find contentment when we are required
to live lives based on profitable illusions? When the most important
issues to which we devote ourselves have become getting that new
car, moving to that new house, getting that extra promotion for
the extra money; when these really have become the central concerns
in our lives, though we don't really know why, or what anything
is really all about-how can we hope to be happy, or sane? How
can we hope to build relationships, to find love, on these foundations?
People talk of the emptiness of life, which may sound nebulous
and other-worldly. But let us put it another way: how can we be
happy when we have a complete lack of understanding as to why
we are doing what we are doing? How can we feel good about life
when it makes no sense to us? Is that what we mean when we call
life meaningless? And if we are not able to interpret that sense
of meaninglessness in terms of failure to understand, because
the system has trained us not to think that way, then is that
why we interpret our sense of meaninglessness in terms of life
not leading to some goal?
We are required to misinterpret our own problems because,
like this book, the alternatives seem to make no sense in the
'real' world that continuously assaults our senses. The world
tells us that 'of course this is the right way to live - there
is no other way', so the problem must lie outside the political
and economic system.
Everyone wants to find answers to life. Everyone needs genuine
relationship with other people, peace of mind, fulfillment, a
sense of community and belonging. Everyone wants to be free from
crippling stress and dullness and boredom. Everyone wants life
to continue on this planet.
Let us, then, put a last question as simply as possible -
how on earth can we ever hope to answer these questions adequately,
if we are not free to consider or answer them in ways that do
not suit the requirements of corporate consumerism?