A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Creeping Encroachment

As I look around both the physical and the social space in which I live, I sense an encroachment, a creeping (and sometimes more than a creeping) in on the limits of those spaces.  My physical space has long felt invaded: my growing up began on a farm in east central Ohio as a limestone strip-mine nibbled away at the corn fields, eventually coming hard against the barn and other outbuildings, finally driving us out.  We moved to a tiny farming/fishing village on the Florida west coast: tomato fields cut into the sandy soil, surrounded by the river fed swamps, bayous and salt flats of south Tampa Bay.

Serious land development began in my early teens.  The draglines, dredges, bulldozers and other movers of the earth and reshapers of the waters cut roads, drained and filled land, dug canals and estuaries and generally remade miles of wild riverine and ocean coastline into marketable chunks of reclaimed (sic) land.  Locked gates blocked long used paths; river access points were closed. A hiking slog through pine barrens, river swamp and deep wading in the river itself, rather than taking one into the prehistoric convolutions of the mind, would more and more often end at a construction site for a new housing development or apartment complex: great piles of muddy sand with the dead bodies of trees strewn about; the wild smell of the swamp replaced by the concentrated smell of swampy rot as though a natural body had been opened up into its bowels.

Perhaps from this experience in some of my most formative years, I am particularly sensitive to the forces of encroachment.  I don’t know, but I do know that while the form has changed, the feelings that I have are well known to me and just as distressing as ever. 

What is different now, however, is the lack of clarity of motive.  The land developers in Florida were after the money.  They might have talked about public good, recreational opportunities, growth of the area, employment and all the rest, but their tongue was obviously in their check: only those who chose to be fooled were fooled.  The developers were tight with the county commissioners, and often were the county commissioners.  Deals were made in the proverbial backrooms, zoning and permitting were fixed; there was all the normal graft that goes with small time money rubbing elbows with bigger time money and power.

The encroachments I am feeling today are not so straight forward; perhaps it’s just that there are so many more of us to get in the way, but it also seems that what is attempted is being done for more obscure or carefully hidden reasons.  That there is money and the impunity of power at the end of the several chains of actions I have no doubt, though the machinations are more complex than ‘dig it up, level it out and sell it.’  And it is these machinations that we must better understand – just as in a war, which this increasingly is, the strength, deployment and intentions of the opposing force must be known or well guessed at.
* * * 
Here is a model that may help with understanding why the sense of encroachment is less clear today: imagine a small town that a bandit band wishes to control, not just raid and steal from episodically, but to have a means of dominating most, if not all, of the town’s political, commercial and social activities.  The bandits know their own interests and plans; it is important to the bandits that the town’s people not know until the bandits have so organized and fortified their position that little can be done to stop them – or so it is their desire.

If you were advising the bandits, what would you suggest? Here are some possibilities:

1) Avoid being recognized as bandits

a) Steal from other towns to gain operating funds, especially those that either have or can be made to have an antagonistic relationship with the town you want to control. 

b) Blame any local raids on the other towns: enemies (supports #1a and is aided by #1c)

c) Bribe influential people in the town beginning in small ways and eventually compromise them in larger ways; especially try to have leverage with opinion makers and media.

2) Take over the functions of law enforcement

a) This would be a natural for bandits and would also put the physical tools of repression in bandit hands.

b) People who might begin to recognize the creeping encroachment of control could be more easily criminalized, especially by doing a “J. Edgar Hoover” and actively seeking ‘dirt’ on as many people as possible.

c) Have opinion makers promote the argument that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” from institutional powers.

3) Place members of the bandit gang in commercial, social and institutional organizations

a) Bandit members could report on attitudes and individuals, as well as guide discussions in directions useful to the bandit’s narrative.

b) Either so thoroughly co-opt existing civic leaders that they become bandits or place appropriately groomed bandit members in positions of leadership.

c) This is not nearly as difficult as it seems in the telling since the natural cynicism of leadership lends itself to dishonesty by stages from misrepresentation to all forms of lying and corruption (see also #2b).

4) Be ruthless in the prosecution of essential goals

a) Any town’s people who find out about, seriously speculate about or stand in the way of
the bandits and their plans would be eliminated by any means necessary.

b) Self-serving opposition to bandit actions, even though unaware of the bandits and their plans, would be co-opted or eliminated.

c) All such actions would be blamed on others (“outsiders” and enemies) or made “legal” (see #3b).

5) Create a connection between bandit goals and community goals

a) Support and magnify any distrust and fear of outsiders natural to humans and suggest that enforced community interests (actions that support bandit goals: surveillance, enforced class stratification, institutional secrecy, speech limitations, etc.) will be protective.

b) Equate increased bandit control of economic interests with the economic wellbeing and safety of especially the average to better off members of the community.  And, if necessary, actually increase the economic security of those people for a time (see #4b).

c) Create a rhetorical scapegoat class to be blamed for those times when manifested bandit goals conflict with community expectations.  This can be both outsiders and the least powerful town’s people.
* * * 
If the bandits were to follow such a plan, not get impatient or revert to older patterns of direct raiding, then the consequences would look much like what I seem to be seeing and feeling about today’s politics and economy.  The bandit’s underlying goals are simple: steal what can be stolen, especially the good stuff; take as much as possible and live with impunity – these are the same goals as the highwayman, the pirate or the jewel thief.  It is the more resolute method that leads to so much confusion from the “town’s people.”

We are dealing with a new kind of bandit today; smarter, more patient, more psychopathic and more ruthless… and not to forget more organized and institutional in planning.  No more Valentine’s Day Massacres with .45 caliber cartridge casings littering the floor.  Today it is the lone gunman, a crazy loner bent on some unfathomable twisted notion of revenge, that removes an impediment.  My neighbor’s economic failure is not to be seen as the crime of a CEO sending factories to another country, but as the result of immigrants taking American jobs.  A hundred questions and concerns are hidden in a thousand prepared, often intentionally contradictory and focus-group-tested answers, all misdirecting, all lies.

The result is a creeping encroachment on every aspect of our lives.  We must be weakened in every way possible so that we can be stolen from in every way possible.  Just imagine what the bandit gang might consider a danger to their goals.  Here is a partial list:

• direct, unafraid communication between people;
• the expectation that a sound basis in knowledge informs actions;
• an unbiased, data driven and systematically challenged source of knowledge;
• critical thought applied to political, economic, social and martial events;
• the expectation for clear and honest public statements of political intent;
• social mores, principles and laws that protect community interests and the Commons;
• the expectation for in-depth investigation of wrong doing by public officials;
• the right to gather in public spaces, to speak and to protest;
• a political design that ultimately vests power in the people;
• the social value that privacy resides in the people and not in institutions.

There are more, the reader can add their own at their leisure, but it is easy to see that the bandit gang would benefit by negating all of these if the people are to be stolen from without their direct knowledge or by so confusing and frightening them that they accept being stolen from as being protected from even greater dangers.  It takes very little critical thought, only a small amount of knowledge and a modicum of expectation for honesty to realize that every item on this list is being weakened, even destroyed, by today’s dominate political and economic classes. 

What the model of the bandit gang points out is just how far along the real bandits have gotten in taking over our political and economic structures.  We are literally being (or have been) taken over by organized criminal gangs at the highest levels – this is what kings and barons actually were; this is what warlords are.  And this is what corporate conspiracies and political conspiracies are; they are criminal gangs that have worked their way into the positions of power, and so control the laws that make their stealing legal.

When the general public tries to make sense of their behavior, confusion and cognitive dissonance withers the efforts.  We try to see our leaders as extensions of our own habits, beliefs and needs – and the leaders often try to appear so, but ultimately their actions harm us, stealing our wealth and our dignity.  The confusion is ended, however, when we realize that these are bandit gangs that have worked out ways of stealing without our being clearly aware of how, or even if, it is being done.

It is possible to get the impression that I am suggesting that all the people involved in destructive corporate and governmental activities – sophisticated bandit activities – are equally aware and equally conspiratorial.  I am not so suggesting.  Again, the completely understood nature of bandit bands is a useful model: psychopathic group leaders create the psychological standards for sociopathology so that otherwise normal people act in accordance with the gangs ‘local’ expectations, as well as drawing in compatible personality types for the specific behaviors useful to criminal enterprises.

We need to realize that it is in the interests of such gangs, as listed in the suggested behaviors above, to confuse and overwhelm the populations that are being stolen from.  Not only did the Industrial Revolution produce a great deal more wealth from which to steal, it also produced revolutionary sources of power and reach of power with which to do the confusing and the stealing; and an industrial level of destruction to the lives impacted by the theft.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Real Austerity and the Austerity of Theft

The two pervious essays discuss the ‘real austerity’ that the human animal must begin to accept and adapt to: the austerity of living within the limits of ecological reality.  These limits are composed, broadly, of two parts: the productive capacity of the earth and the absolute requirement that all living things be integrated into the ecological economy (see the essay ‘Taking Without Compensation’). 

The austerity being argued over in today’s quarrelsome politics is not austerity at all, but the more tiresome concern of who can steal from whom with the sanction of society.   It has become standard that when a poor person takes from a wealthy person – almost always such stealing is limited to some direct method – that the act is defined in law as theft.  However, when a wealthy person takes from one person, or many persons, the method has usually been sanctioned in law as proper.

The present attempts to impose “austerity” on society at large is, of course, not really “on society at large”; it is the imposition of austerity on the weakest members of society (or those who can be made weak) so that more of society’s production can be collected into a few very wealthy hands.  In the present Story that we tell ourselves it is the ‘natural’ right, even the obligation of an “owner” of a business to take as much of an “employee’s” labor as possible giving as little of the employee’s productive contribution to the employee as possible.  If the employee’s contribution is twice his or her compensation, or three times, the owner gets the benefit.  The employee is not even supposed to know the value of his or her contribution.  If the employee can be made to believe that there is just not enough wealth created by his or her activity to warrant compensation, then the employee can be made to agree to be stolen from.

The argument is not especially ingenious, but is effective: there is not enough to go around (which is true in the ecological sense).  So, everyone (meaning everyone but the rich) must do with less….  And then the real slight of hand: since government is taking, with taxes, from everyone and spending the accumulated wealth on services for everyone, then ‘you’ are paying out of your tiny incomes for everyone when ‘you’ should keep ‘your money’ for your own uses – the government is stealing from you and giving your money to other people.  Ergo, no one should have to pay very much in taxes, including the rich.

I take it back; it is a pretty ingenious argument.

Of course, it is a complete fabrication.  The very essence of human success as an animal and as a force of nature is the economies of scale that banding together in collective action have provided us (and of course the rich band together to act as predatory communities).  When a society pools its resources it can provide for the needs of its members with far greater efficacy at far lower cost than “every man for himself.”  It is, however, when the distribution of wealth becomes distorted that the human mind becomes distorted in relative proportion.

The reality is that a certain percentage of each individual human production needs to be collected into the community pot for economies of scale in the building of infrastructure, education, healthcare, energy, basic biological needs and other natural monopoly functions.  If one person’s production is 100 units and they are expected to provide the community with 20 of those units, but they are only compensated 50 units, and if laws are created to protect from taxation the 50 units collected by “owners”, then the worker is being stolen from.  The owner gets to amass the productive labor of the worker without contributing to the community wealth intended for community needs.

If there are 100 workers being compensated at 50 units, being taxed 20 units and supplying 50 units each to the owner, the owner is receiving 5000 units.  Assume the owner takes a reported income of 500 units (without ever being required to demonstrate that the amount is appropriate to his or her productive contribution) and then pays 100 units in taxes.  This means that 4500 units of production have not been taxed for the community services.  The true tax bill should be, at a minimum, 1000 units with an additional 20 percent for the owner’s legitimate productive addition to the total activity.  The worker’s tax contribution should be 10 units on their 50 unit compensation (progressive taxation is easily derived from this simple model, but that will have to be for another time).

But, owners have accumulated access to wealth at such levels that politicians and other community service people can be bribed to protect both the owner’s wealth and methods of stealing from workers.  The rentiers, the nature of many ‘owners’ today, have little need for the community services – actually seeing such services as competition in their efforts to extract more wealth from the exchange transactions of the populace.  The power of wealth constructs the laws as well as having outsized influence on population attitudes through the control of the society’s Stories about itself: the impunity of wealth requires that wealth be increased without limit.

The theft of worker’s labor is not allowed to be a prominent or even acceptable Story theme.  The old fairy tales about the dangers and evils of greed have been largely disappeared or are considered quaint vestiges of an unenlightened past.  The new Story is that the rich are smart and deserving – that proof of virtue is found in the wealth accumulated.

There are really only a few ways to accumulate wealth above one’s actual productive contribution and they almost all involve taking more from transactions than one’s contribution by using some form of power to reduce the legitimate compensation for contribution of the less powerful.  The present drive to enforce so-called austerity on the non-wealthy is really just the same old game: create a Story to support an asymmetry of power, hide those actions that would violate the population’s expectations and use power to generate laws and governing authorities that will allow theft.  And if the non-wealthy can be convinced by the Story that they are somehow “enriched” through some contrived association with the truly wealthy, so much the better.
* * * 
I am not suggesting that every person contributes the same productive effort or result or that everyone should be compensated the same.  I am saying that just as the production of the worker is measured, that the productive contribution of all contributors should be measured and compensation made contingent on objective contribution.  This would require that power imbalances be corrected and that the present inequity in our economic design be reduced to the point that one group could not so overpower another that theft can be carried out with impunity; people will still steal, but it should be called theft and not earnings.

The first step is to challenge the present Story and to spread a new Story that supports the form of society that we want and must have if we are to survive.  Revolution without a new Story would only change the players, not the play.  And it is unlikely to lead to anything reconstructable into a society we would want to live in. Large scale violent class warfare that would almost certainly spiral into an economic and ecological conflagration of unimaginable horror, depth and longevity involving the very capacity of the life sustaining space to support complex life forms.

As it becomes clearer that destruction of almost unprecedented proportions is the likely endgame for failure to come to grips with the kind of animal we are; if we can begin to realize both the dangerous capacities we have for illusion and the constructive capacities that we have for communities of biological integration, then just maybe we can, under the pressure of literally undeniable biophysical forces, awaken to the Story that tells of our sense of fairness, our desire to see worth in others, our rejection of thievery and our reverence for the living world.

It is no coincidence that the world’s mystics, prophets and enlightened thinkers have lived austere lives.  It will be from living with the real austerity of ecological integration that the Story of our successful adaptation to biophysical reality will form.  Otherwise the story telling species will cease to tell Stories.

Of course, there are monumental difficulties, obstructions to our needed travels greater than the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China or the expanse of oceans – all of which, I will remind, have been crossed.  The breaching ladders are there: the Internet and its kin, as well as the more traditional devices of the printed page and word of mouth.  The elements of the needed Story-of-Ourselves are there in the best of our moral Stories and in the growing science of our nature.  The world to which we must adapt our aspirations has been clear to many thinkers for centuries, but is now becoming clear to scientists and more and more of the general population.

But, there is also the terror of an uncertain future and the human capacity for denial, distortion and illusion in the face of danger: even though humans can organize experience into vast landscapes of time and space, troubles narrow the focus.  This narrowing is an effective way to survive in a savanna landscape as a gatherer/scavenger when the focusing is on the moment of danger, but not when the comprehension of big-picture reality is needed, when restraint and organized action are required.

The Stories that we must tell are of how we live together with each other and with the other life on the earth, no matter how seemingly insignificant or even annoying.  Our Stories must see us as participants, not as possessors; and contributors, not as takers.  We must tell that ‘property’ is not a right, but a responsibility; that wealth beyond one’s contribution to community success is theft; and success must be defined as integration into the sustaining flows of environment.  We must clarify in our Stories that making the most enjoyment of life, with the least extraction from the ecosystems in which we live, is life’s best goal.  Our Stories must celebrate the reward of living with material simplicity and with emotional and intellectual opulence and depth.

With such a Story or Stories as our underpinning and using sound ecological economics and science, choices could be made to develop technologies that support our Stories and to reject both the technologies and behaviors that violate the Stories… just as we do now for the present destructive Stories we are telling.