Wednesday, 19 April 2017

A Shareable Explainer: What are the Commons?

Outline
  • What are the commons?
  • Is there an example of a commons business model?
  • In what areas are commons active?
  • Is commons a new idea or are there examples from the past?
  • How do privatization and enclosure affect the commons?
  • What is the importance of digital commons?
  • What role can commons play in the actual economic and institutional crisis?
  • What are briefly the differences between commons and markets?
  • Further reading
What are the commons?

Commons should be understood as a dynamic, living social system - any resource that can be used by many could inspire people to organize as a commons. The key questions are whether a particular community is motivated to manage a resource as a commons, and if it can come up with the rules, norms, and sanctions to make the system work. 

Is there a clear example of a commons-based business?

The internet provider Guifi.net in Catalonia shows how commons can create a new paradigm of organizing and producing. This bottom-up, citizen-driven project has created a free, open, and neutral telecommunications network based on a commons model. This is how it works: People put Wi-Fi nodes on their rooftops, which is extended and strengthened each time a new user adds a node to the network.

Currently, Guifi.net's broadband network has more than 30,000 active nodes and provides internet access to more than 50,000 people. The project started in 2004 when residents of a rural area weren't able to get broadband internet access due to a lack of private operators. The network grew quickly over the whole region, while the Guifi.net Foundation developed governance rules that define the terms and conditions for all users of the network.


Installation of a "supernode" of Guifi.net's network in the neighbourhood of Sant Pere i Sant Pau in Tarragona. Photo by Lluis tgn via Wikimedia Commons

The example shows that in creating any commons, it is critical that the community decides that it wants to engage in the social practices of managing a resource for everyone's benefit. In this sense "there is no commons without commoning." This underscores that commons is not only about shared resources - it is mostly about the social practices and values that we devise to manage them. 

In what areas are commons active?

Examples of commons can be found today in different areas:

1. Local food sovereignty
2. City commons
3. Alternative currencies
4. Web-hosting infrastructure for commons
5. Creative Commons license
6. Open-source software
7. Open-source design/cosmo-local production
8. Academic research/open education resources

It is interesting to consider the improbable types of common-pool resources that can be governed as commons. Surfers in Hawaii, catching the big waves at Pipeline Beach have organized themselves in a collective to manage how people use a scarce resource: the massive waves. In this sense, they can be considered a commons: they have developed a shared understanding about the allocation of scarce use of rights.


Wolfpak of Oahu manages access to the biggest waves in the world. Photo via onthecommons.org

Is commons a new idea or are there examples from the past?

From a historical perspective, commons were an essential part of the economical and social system of rural societies before modernization took place. People in rural areas depended upon open access to the commons (forests, fields, meadows), using economic principles of reciprocity and redistribution.

When common grounds were enclosed and privatized, many migrated to cities, becoming employees in factories and individual consumers, and lost the common identity and ability of self-governance. The modern liberal state separated production (companies) from governance (politics), while in the commons system these were an inseparable entity. In industrial capitalist societies, the market with its price mechanism became the new central organizing principle of society. 

How do privatization and enclosure affect the commons?

Nowadays massive land grabs are going on in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Investors and national governments are snapping up land that people have used for generations. All over the world, all aspects of life are being monetized with the expansion of private property rights: water, seeds, biodiversity, the human genome, public infrastructures, public spaces in cities, culture, and knowledge. 

What is the importance of digital commons?

The internet has been an arena for experimentation and innovation, precisely because there is no legacy of conventional institutions to displace. Entire new modes of creative production have arisen on the internet that are neither market-based nor state-controlled. Open-source software, Wikipedia, and Creative Commons licenses have emerged as a new way of production that is non-proprietary and based on the collaboration of widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other.

Prior to the rise of the web, commons were usually regarded as little more than a curiosity of medieval history or a backwater of social science research. Now that so many people have tasted freedom, innovation, and accountability of open networks and digital commons, there is no going back to the command-and-control business model of the 20th century. The full disruptive potential of this profound global cultural revolution is still ahead. 

What role can commons play in the actual economic and institutional crises?

The commons offers a powerful way to re-conceptualize governments, economics, and global policies at a time when the existing order is incapable of reforming itself. The most urgent task is to expand the conversation about the commons and to ground it in actual practice.

The more that people have personal, lived experiences with commoning of any sort, the greater the public understanding will be. In a quiet and evident way, the commons can disclose more and more spaces in our everyday life in which we can create, shape, and negotiate our lives. 

What are the differences between commons and markets?

Commons: Rely on people's altruism and cooperation
Markets: Believe humans are selfish individuals whose wants are unlimited
Commons: Stewardship of resources
Markets: Ownership of resources
Commons: Individuals and collectives mutually reinforce each other
Markets: Separation of individual and collectives
Commons: Shared, long-term, non-market interests
Markets: individual consumers, short-term market relationships

Further Reading:
  • Benkler, Yochai, The Penguin and the Leviathan: The Triumph of Cooperation Over Self-Interest (Crown Business, 2010).
  • Bollier, David, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (New Society Publishers, 2014).
  • Bollier, David & Silke Helfrich, editors, The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State (Levellers Press, 2012).
  • Capra, Fritjof & Mattei, Ugo, The Ecology of Law: Toward a Legal System in Tune with Nature and Community (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015).
  • Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio, Commonwealth (Harvard University Press, 2011).
  • Sennett, Richard, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (Yale University Press, 2012).
This piece was written by Bart Grugeon Plana, a journalist and contributor of the New Economy and Social Innovation Forum (NESI Forum). It is based on the book "Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons," by David Bollier.

Shareable is media partner of the NESI Forum, a nonprofit initiative that will bring together change-makers and thought leaders to conceptualize, discuss, and lay the foundations of a new economy, in Malaga, Spain, from April 19-22, 2017.

Header photo of Ballard Sunday Farmers' Market in Seattle, Washington, by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

What is Good Rhetoric? Plato Said We Ought to be Suspicious of Persuasive Speakers and the Appeal to Emotions, but Rhetoric Can be a Civic Good

Plato in his academy, painting by Swedish pain...
Plato in his Academy by Carl Johan Wahlbom (Wikipedia)
by Tushar Irani, Aeon: https://aeon.co/essays/what-is-the-difference-between-good-and-bad-political-rhetoric

Tushar holds a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and the College of Letters at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He is the author of Plato on the Value of Philosophy: The Art of Argument in the Gorgias and Phaedrus (forthcoming, 2017).

Philosophers have had a longstanding problem with rhetoric. The standard view of the quarrel is well-known: philosophy is a truth-directed activity concerned with reasoned argument, while rhetoric is uninterested in truth and concerned merely with persuasion. This view is often traced to Plato, but it is too crude.

As Plato himself recognised, philosophers need to present their ideas in persuasive form if they are to gain acceptance, and there are uses of rhetoric that can further our commitment to truth rather than frustrate it. The power of an effective speaker to captivate an audience is apt to arouse our suspicion in democratic politics, yet we should also acknowledge that the practice of rhetoric can serve a civic purpose. The real question here is what distinguishes good rhetoric from bad rhetoric.

Plato was deeply interested in this question. Although a concern for truth pervades his thought, this is not the main or the most important problem he has with rhetoric in his dialogues. To understand Plato’s critique, we need to read it against the backdrop of a deep mistrust of persuasive speaking that he shared with his contemporaries following Athens’ loss of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta in the late fifth century BCE. Apart from the huge death toll and casualties suffered by the city, the loss had a monumental impact on the Athenian psyche. In the Laws, usually regarded as Plato’s last work, he has his Athenian Visitor state that ‘[E]very Greek takes it for granted that my city loves talk and does a great deal of it, whereas Sparta is a city of few words, and Crete practices cunning more than talk.’

No doubt there were many factors that contributed to Athens’ loss of the war, but if there is one thing we can point to above all, it is the fact that the Athenian people themselves were persuaded by charismatic statesmen and generals of the period to undertake a series of disastrous military campaigns. As many writers - historians, tragedians and comedians alike - would lament during and after the war, it was in large part the Athenians’ ‘love of talk’ that led to their defeat.

Athens’ downfall provides us with a cautionary tale in our own era. While it would be wrong to reject a persuasive speech simply because the speaker fails to belong to our preferred political party, it would be equally wrong to think that we should accept every speech that strikes us as persuasive.

Adolf Hitler’s Nuremberg Rallies of the 1920s and ’30s were highly effective propaganda tools in consolidating power for the Nazi Party and influencing the views of the German people, but the wider effects of his ability to fabricate a redeemed Germany were devastating for the country. The principle here is simple: good rhetoric is not reducible to persuasive rhetoric. Persuasion might often be the goal of the rhetorician, but if rhetoric is to serve some civic good, it must serve the people on whom it operates. Plato was the first to observe that persuasion cannot in fact be the proper end of rhetoric, since it is an open question how it serves the interests of an audience to have their views influenced by a persuasive speech.

In his Gorgias and the Phaedrus, Plato therefore takes a different approach to the value of rhetoric. Together, these two works put forward a comprehensive theory of when and how a persuasive speech qualifies as good rhetoric. The Gorgias is best interpreted as a critique of the conventional practice of rhetoric. In this dialogue, Socrates argues that the chief purpose of conventional rhetoric is not (properly speaking) persuasion, but flattery. His point is that the practice of persuasive speaking typically achieves its effects by satisfying the pleasures and desires of an audience.

Notice that by moving here to the psychology of an audience, the rhetorician can now say something about how rhetoric serves the people on whom it operates. According to this view, the value of rhetoric lies in its ability to gratify and enlarge human appetites and impulses. Plato himself does not believe rhetoric functions best as a form of flattery, though he is correct that this is how the practice conventionally works. In addition to making direct appeals to people’s desires, a speaker can most effectively win acceptance for a particular policy or point of view by bolstering the entrenched beliefs of an audience and voicing their unspoken fears. Even if it is feigned, the reinforcement of these beliefs and fears can be thrilling for an audience.

Now, Plato knew well of the frenzy that such flattering rhetoric can provoke in others. Thrasymachus, for instance, while famous as Socrates’ main antagonist in the Republic, was historically one of the leading rhetoricians of his day. His ability to use speech to influence an audience was so remarkable that Socrates refers to him in the Phaedrus as ‘clever at inflaming the many and, once they are inflamed, at hushing them again with his words’ magic spell’.

So what is the problem with such flattery? Suppose a politician delivers an effective speech by gratifying the desires of his or her constituency. No-one can deny the sense of empowerment we experience when our feelings are confirmed and validated in this way. Why should such a speech not qualify as good rhetoric? Plato’s answer focuses on the object the rhetorician seeks to affect: human psychology. His problem with conventional rhetoric is that, by adopting flattery as its end, it assumes an utterly impoverished conception of human motivation - namely, that all we are essentially are pleasure-seekers.

Plato’s own account of human psychology is often misunderstood. On a common misreading, reason and passion are taken to be in conflict. In fact, as he stresses in the Phaedrus, the best life for a human being is one in which reason and the passions work together as a team. In this dialogue, Socrates turns his attention to how the practice of rhetoric might function productively as an art, but he also develops one of his most detailed portraits of the human soul in the Platonic corpus.

The pairing of themes is deliberate. For if the conventional use of rhetoric is no art because it assumes a poor view of human psychology, as Socrates claims in the Gorgias, then an artful use of rhetoric must operate on the basis of a good view of human psychology. In examining the nature of rhetoric, what we are really concerned with, according to Plato, is the nature of the human soul.

So what is the nature of the human soul? In the Phaedrus, Socrates defines the soul in general as a principle of self-motion in living things. He then proceeds, in his celebrated chariot allegory, to divide the human soul into different parts: a charioteer, representing the human intellect, trying to steer two horses, one of noble breed, the other wild (representing the rational and irrational passions). Plato does not deny our nature as pleasure-seekers in this allegory. But if we are to move ourselves as human beings, he believes it is crucial that we develop our nature as reason-seekers. Why exactly?

His main answer in the Phaedrus is that the reason-seeking part of us represents the power each of us has as a human being to engage in independent thought: to understand and appreciate for ourselves a set of ideals and aspirations we wish to live by. Indeed, he depicts our desire to develop this understanding as a force so compelling that it is best classified under the category of erotic love. 

Plato’s views on persuasive speech offer us a helpful set of tools in assessing the value of rhetoric in modern civic life. His critique explains, first of all, our tendency in democratic politics to respond suspiciously to the skills of a persuasive speaker. The problem here lies not in the use of persuasive speech as such, but in the aim of many effective rhetoricians to subvert or short-circuit an audience’s power of independent thought.

In Mein Kampf (1925), Hitler is startlingly open about this aim in expounding his views about the correct use of propaganda: ‘The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses.’ This is fundamentally a form of what Plato terms flattering rhetoric.

In addition to explaining the nature of bad rhetoric, however, Plato’s critique also helps illuminate for us the nature of good rhetoric. If to have a soul is to be a self-moving thing, and what is essential to the self-motion of the human soul is our ability to think for ourselves, then an artful use of rhetoric should cultivate that ability in particular. When we encounter persuasive speakers of this sort in the political sphere, we should not respond cynically. Instead, we should welcome such encounters, because they are opportunities to have our desire to understand enlisted, at the same time as - and even through - our passions.

Is rhetoric of this sort possible in civic life today? We are inclined to believe that the end of all rhetoric is persuasion or conviction alone, and that such a goal is ill-suited to the promotion of independent thought in an audience. Yet this is a mistake. An artful rhetorician might need to strike a balance between these two goals, but they are not incompatible. The danger to be avoided always is the kind of rhetoric that carries the authority of conviction at the expense of an audience’s independent thought. There have been speeches in the modern era that have moved their listeners profoundly while retaining this basic respect for the sovereignty of the human soul.

Consider Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863), regarded even today as a model of American oratory. In three compact paragraphs, the speech gives expression to a past, a present and a future United States. Lincoln delivered the speech on a formal occasion, at the dedication of a cemetery for those who fought and died at a key turning point in the American Civil War, but from the opening sentence he makes clear how he will use the moment to reflect on the theme of dedication more generally:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The rest of the speech deftly juxtaposes the dedication of the physical space in which the audience stands with the dedication of all Americans to this abstract proposition, expressed in the Declaration of Independence (1776): the ideal of liberty for all.

‘It is altogether fitting and proper,’ Lincoln affirms, to commemorate the dead, but in the pivot that gives the speech its rhetorical force, he states that ‘in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground.’ Those who fought on the battlefield had already accomplished that. For those looking to the future, for the living, Lincoln asks instead that they rededicate themselves to the cause of human equality and freedom:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The great power of the Gettysburg Address, full as it is with feeling and urgency, comes from its invitation to the listener to consider the basis on which the US was founded. The persuasiveness of the speech consists not just in its ability to stir the passions of an audience and instil conviction, but also in its ability to get ordinary Americans to think more conscientiously than they had previously about the coherence of their own ideals and the application of those ideals in practice. The audience is moved, but also (in Plato’s sense) self-moved, to the extent that they are led to think for themselves.

If this is right, we can see why the assumption that rhetoric serves as a pale substitute for reason and argument is too simplistic. Good rhetoric also does the work of reason, though in a different form than philosophical argument.

Plato came to be pessimistic about the rhetoric of his contemporaries in democratic Athens, which might be why he set up his Academy as a place where the practice of independent thinking could flourish. Yet there have been moments in history since then that should leave us more hopeful about the prospects for good rhetoric - or at least less doubtful.

The important question for us today is: ‘Can we conceive of a piece of political rhetoric that is both highly persuasive and at the same time spurs independent thought?’ That is not a rhetorical question. If we can’t, we might be in trouble.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

A Dire Collapse of Hope

To be more exact, Case and Deaton found that middle-aged, non-Hispanic Americans without a college degree experience a significantly higher mortality rate than those in advanced countries like the United Kingdom or Germany. While everyone else in the United States is getting healthier and living longer, it’s that segment of whites who accounted for “half a million deaths” between 1999 and 2013. To scientists, the sudden die-off in middle-of-the-road white Americans constitutes a phenomenon “unprecedented in the annals of public health among developed nations” with the exception of the post-U.S.S.R. deaths of Russian males and, in some ways, the first shock waves of the AIDs crisis in the early 1980s.
The causes of the increase in mortality and morbidity among white, non-Hispanics (WNH) seem to be equal parts economic inequality, with its accompanying lack of economic progress among WNH, and the opiod epidemic that has spread across the nation. The increase in mortality among WNH is centered mostly among those lacking higher education and appears to have few geographical restrictions. The increase in morbidity has not only increased the number of people on Social Security, but will also impact Medicare as this cohort ages into retirement.

Joseph Stiglitz lays much of the blame for the increase in deaths from suicide, drugs, and alcoholism on our growing economic inequality, and on the high price we, as a nation, pay for medical care which, for too long, has put it out of the reach of those who need it most. Stiglitz also mentions the increase in mortality that occurred in Russia after the dissolution of the USSR.

During the early 1990s, Russia saw an alarming increase in the mortality of its men as their life expectancy fell by six years, while that of women fell by three. By 2006, Russia’s mortality rate, which had been 38 percent higher than that of Western Europe in 1980, increased to a level of 135 percent.

Granted, they have been dealing with their own AIDS epidemic as well as a large jump in tuberculosis infections, many of which appear to be antibiotic resistant. But most of the increase comes from mortalities due to cardiovascular diseases (CVD) which are currently 3.8 times greater than the rate of CVD mortality in Western Europe. Deaths from external events (injuries, accidents, poisonings) increased from 2.5 times more than Western Europe in 1980 to 5.3 times greater in 2006. From a spring 2009, World Affairs Journal article by Nicholas Eberstadt:
Taken together, then, deaths from cardiovascular disease and from injuries and poisoning have evidently been the main drivers of modern Russia’s strange upsurge in premature mortality and its broad, prolonged retrogression in public health conditions. One final factor that is intimately associated with both of these causes of mortality is alcohol abuse.
The damage done by alcohol in Russia is much worse than here in the U.S. due to the popularity of home brews known as samogon. Often filled with impurities, these home brews have contributed to the death rate due to alcohol poisoning. Local studies have shown that alcohol is “a direct factor in premature death,” including one in a city in the Urals that ...
indicated that over 40 percent of the younger male decedents evaluated had probably been alcohol-impaired or severely intoxicated at the time of death - including one quarter of the deaths from heart disease and over half of those from accidents or injuries.
So, when looking at a chart like the one below that was part of the original study done by Case and Denton, notice that the other nations all have decent health care available to all citizens. The Russian health care safety net is not unlike the one that exists in too many parts of the United States today - somewhere between very weak and nonexistent. It would be interesting to see how a chart that included Russia would look.
All-cause mortality, ages 45–54 for US White non-Hispanics (USW), US Hispanics (USH), and six comparison countries: France (FRA), Germany (GER), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada (CAN), Australia (AUS), and Sweden (SWE).
All-cause mortality, ages 45–54 for US White non-Hispanics (USW), US Hispanics (USH), and six comparison countries: France (FRA), Germany (GER), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada (CAN), Australia (AUS), and Sweden (SWE).
Michelle A. Parsons published Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis in 2014. A sociocultural anthropologist with a background in global health, Parsons interviewed Muscovites in an attempt to find the cultural causes of the increase in mortality.

She found that after the collapse of the USSR, middle-aged Russians were faced with an economy that no longer provided stable, secure employment, and that the retirement system had collapsed, leaving the future uncertain with few prospects for improvement. They no longer felt needed, by their society or by their families. Parsons looks at the involvement of alcohol in the increased mortality rate and:
theorizes that drinking is, for what its worth, an instrument of adapting to the harsh reality and sense of worthlessness that would otherwise make one want to curl up and die.
One wonders how much of that attitude is shared by the middle-aged Americans that Case and Deaton have examined. In discussing their original paper, Paul Starr of the American Prospect wrote:
The declining health of middle-aged white Americans may also shed light on the intensity of the political reaction taking place on the right today. The role of suicide, drugs, and alcohol in the white midlife mortality reversal is a signal of heightened desperation among a population in measurable decline. We are not talking merely about “status anxiety” due to rising immigrant populations and changing racial and gender relations. Nor are we talking only about stagnation in wages as if the problem were merely one of take-home pay. The phenomenon Case and Deaton have identified suggests a dire collapse of hope, and that same collapse may be propelling support for more radical political change. Much of that support is now going to Republican candidates, notably Donald Trump. Whether Democrats can compete effectively for that support on the basis of substantive economic and social policies will crucially affect the country’s political future.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Sane Society: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on How to Save Us From Ourselves

The Sane Society: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on How to Save Us From Ourselvesby Maria Popova, Brain Picking: https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/03/23/the-sane-society-erich-fromm/
 
“Every advance of intellect beyond the ordinary measure,” Schopenhauer wrote in examining the relationship between genius and insanity, “disposes to madness.” 
 
But could what is true of the individual also be true of society - could it be that the more so-called progress polishes our collective pride and the more intellectually advanced human civilization becomes, the more it risks madness? 
 
And, if so, what is the proper corrective to restore our collective sanity?
 
That’s what the great German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900 - March 18, 1980) explores in his timely 1956 treatise The Sane Society (public library).
 
Fifteen years after his inquiry into why totalitarian regimes rise in Escape from Freedom, Fromm examines the promise and foibles of modern democracy, focusing on its central pitfall of alienation and the means to attaining its full potential - the idea that “progress can only occur when changes are made simultaneously in the economic, socio-political and cultural spheres; that any progress restricted to one sphere is destructive to progress in all spheres.”
 
Erich Fromm
Two decades before his elegant case for setting ourselves free from the chains of our culture, Fromm weighs the validity of our core assumption about our collective state:
Nothing is more common than the idea that we, the people living in the Western world of the twentieth century, are eminently sane. Even the fact that a great number of individuals in our midst suffer from more or less severe forms of mental illness produces little doubt with respect to the general standard of our mental health. We are sure that by introducing better methods of mental hygiene we shall improve still further the state of our mental health, and as far as individual mental disturbances are concerned, we look at them as strictly individual incidents, perhaps with some amazement that so many of these incidents should occur in a culture which is supposedly so sane.

Can we be so sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself.
Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
Fromm notes that while modernity has increased the material wealth and comfort of the human race, it has also wrought major wars that killed millions, during which “every participant firmly believed that he was fighting in his self-defense, for his honor, or that he was backed up by God.”

In a sentiment of chilling pertinence today, after more than half a century of alleged progress has drowned us in mind-numbing commercial media and left us to helplessly watch military budgets swell at the expense of funding for the arts and humanities, Fromm writes:
We have a literacy above 90 per cent of the population. We have radio, television, movies, a newspaper a day for everybody. But instead of giving us the best of past and present literature and music, these media of communication, supplemented by advertising, fill the minds of men with the cheapest trash, lacking in any sense of reality, with sadistic phantasies which a halfway cultured person would be embarrassed to entertain even once in a while. But while the mind of everybody, young and old, is thus poisoned, we go on blissfully to see to it that no “immorality” occurs on the screen. Any suggestion that the government should finance the production of movies and radio programs which would enlighten and improve the minds of our people would be met again with indignation and accusations in the name of freedom and idealism.
Art by Edward Gorey from The Shrinking of Treehorn
Less than a decade after the German philosopher Josef Pieper made his beautiful case for why leisure is the basis of culture, Fromm adds:
We have reduced the average working hours to about half what they were one hundred years ago. We today have more free time available than our forefathers dared to dream of. But what has happened? We do not know how to use the newly gained free time; we try to kill the time we have saved, and are glad when another day is over … society as a whole may be lacking in sanity.
Fromm points out that we can only speak of a “sane” society if we acknowledge that a society can be not sane, which in turn requires a departure from previous theories of sociological relativism postulating that “each society is normal inasmuch as it functions, and that pathology can be defined only in terms of the individual’s lack of adjustment to the ways of life in his society.”

Instead, Fromm proposes a model of normative humanism - a redemptive notion that relieves some of our self-blame for feeling like we are going crazy, by acknowledging that society itself, when bedeviled by certain pathologies, can be crazy-making for the individual.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Bearskin from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
One key source of that tension between sanity and insanity, Fromm argues, is our misconception of “human nature” as a single, static monolith, when in fact the nature of the human experience is varied and dynamic. In a sentiment which Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert would echo half a century later in his famous aphorism that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Fromm writes:
Just as man* transforms the world around him, so he transforms himself in the process of history. He is his own creation, as it were. But just as he can only transform and modify the natural materials around him according to their nature, so he can only transform and modify himself according to his own nature. What man does in the process of history is to develop this potential, and to transform it according to its own possibilities. The point of view taken here is neither a “biological” nor a “sociological” one if that would mean separating these two aspects from each other. It is rather one transcending such dichotomy by the assumption that the main passions and drives in man result from the total existence of man, that they are definite and ascertainable, some of them conducive to health and happiness, others to sickness and unhappiness. Any given social order does not create these fundamental strivings but it determines which of the limited number of potential passions are to become manifest or dominant. Man as he appears in any given culture is always a manifestation of human nature, a manifestation, however, which in its specific outcome is determined by the social arrangements under which he lives. Just as the infant is born with all human potentialities which are to develop under favorable social and cultural conditions, so the human race, in the process of history, develops into what it potentially is.
The most pernicious effect of any given social order, Fromm suggests, is that it breeds a culture of truth by consensus rather than truth by evidence, truth relative to collective opinion rather than absolute truth - the sort of relativism which Karl Popper memorably admonished is “a betrayal of reason and of humanity.”

In another passage of astounding pertinence today, as we witness a global groupthink elect destructive ideas to the status of truth and therefore power, Fromm observes something as true of religious delusions as it is of ruinous political ideologies:
What is so deceptive about the state of mind of the members of a society is the “consensual validation” of their concepts. It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth. Consensual validation as such has no bearing whatsoever on reason or mental health … the fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.
Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity
More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the individual vs. society, why we conform, and the power of the minority, Fromm writes:
For a minority, the pattern provided by the culture does not work … there are also those whose character structure, and hence whose conflicts, differ from those of the majority, so that the remedies which are effective for most of their fellow men are of no help to them. Among this group we sometimes find people of greater integrity and sensitivity than the majority, who for this very reason are incapable of accepting the cultural opiate, while at the same time they are not strong and healthy enough to live soundly “against the stream.”
He considers what a sane society actually means:
A sane society is that which corresponds to the needs of man - not necessarily to what he feels to be his needs, because even the most pathological aims can be felt subjectively as that which the person wants most; but to what his needs are objectively, as they can be ascertained by the study of man. It is our first task then, to ascertain what is the nature of man, and what are the needs which stem from this nature.
A decade after Abraham Maslow placed self-actualization atop his foundational hierarchy of needs, Fromm illustrates our ultimate need as analogous to the development of children:
Physical birth, if we think of the individual, is by no means as decisive and singular an act as it appears to be … in many respects the infant after birth is not different from the infant before birth; it cannot perceive things outside, cannot feed itself; it is completely dependent on the mother, and would perish without her help. Actually, the process of birth continues. The child begins to recognize outside objects, to react affectively, to grasp things and to co-ordinate his movements, to walk. But birth continues. The child learns to speak, it learns to know the use and function of things, it learns to relate itself to others, to avoid punishment and gain praise and liking. Slowly, the growing person learns to love, to develop reason, to look at the world objectively. He begins to develop his powers; to acquire a sense of identity, to overcome the seduction of his senses for the sake of an integrated life. Birth then, in the conventional meaning of the word, is only the beginning of birth in the broader sense. The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to himself; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die - although it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are born.
Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being
A sane society, Fromm suggests, is one which helps the individual continually give birth to herself, whereas a society which is not sane stymies that ongoing rebirth and renders the individual in a state of alienation. He outlines the consequences:
The psychological results of alienation are [that] man regresses to a receptive and marketing orientation and ceases to be productive; that he loses his sense of self, becomes dependent on approval, hence tends to conform and yet to feel insecure; he is dissatisfied, bored, and anxious, and spends most of his energy in the attempt to compensate for or just to cover up this anxiety. His intelligence is excellent, his reason deteriorates and in view of his technical powers he is seriously endangering the existence of civilization, and even of the human race.
[…]
Reason deteriorates while their intelligence rises, thus creating the dangerous situation of equipping man with the greatest material power without the wisdom to use it. This alienation and automatization leads to an ever-increasing insanity. Life has no meaning, there is no joy, no faith, no reality.
Throughout history, Fromm observes, various thinkers have attempted to identify the root of alienation and to propose alternatives - while Marxists pointed to economic factors, thinkers like Tolstoy pointed to the spiritual and moral impoverishment of humanity. Fromm himself points to “robotism” - the mindless automation of our lives - as the seedbed of modern alienation, and proposes what he calls “humanistic democratic socialism” as the antidote. He writes:
The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.
Art by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes
Noting that the gravest dangers of his time - which are equally the dangers of our time - are war and robotism, Fromm offers his best recipe for a sane society:
[The alternative is] to get out of the rut in which we are moving, and to take the next step in the birth and self-realization of humanity. The first condition is the abolishment of the war threat hanging over all of us now and paralyzing faith and initiative. We must take the responsibility for the life of all men, and develop on an international scale what all great countries have developed internally, a relative sharing of wealth and a new and more just division of economic resources. This must lead eventually to forms of international economic co-operation and planning, to forms of world government and to complete disarmament. We must retain the industrial method. But we must decentralize work and state so as to give it human proportions, and permit centralization only to an optimal point which is necessary because of the requirements of industry. In the economic sphere we need co-management of all who work in an enterprise, to permit their active and responsible participation. The new forms for such participation can be found. In the political sphere, return to the town meetings, by creating thousands of small face-to-face groups, which are well informed, which discuss, and whose decisions are integrated in a new “lower house.” A cultural renaissance must combine work education for the young, adult education and a new system of popular art and secular ritual…
Holding up what he calls “humanistic communitarianism” as our only hope for protecting ourselves from the alienation of robotism, Fromm writes:
Man can protect himself from the consequences of his own madness only by creating a sane society which conforms with the needs of man, needs which are rooted in the very conditions of his existence. A society in which man relates to man lovingly, in which he is rooted in bonds of brotherliness and solidarity, rather than in the ties of blood and soil; a society which gives him the possibility of transcending nature by creating rather than by destroying, in which everyone gains a sense of self by experiencing himself as the subject of his powers rather than by conformity, in which a system of orientation and devotion exists without man’s needing to distort reality and to worship idols.
[…]
Man today is confronted with the most fundamental choice; not that between Capitalism or Communism, but that between robotism (of both the capitalist and the communist variety), or Humanistic Communitarian Socialism. Most facts seem to indicate that he is choosing robotism, and that means, in the long run, insanity and destruction. But all these facts are not strong enough to destroy faith in man’s reason, good will and sanity. As long as we can think of other alternatives, we are not lost; as long as we can consult together and plan together, we can hope. But, indeed, the shadows are lengthening; the voices of insanity are becoming louder. We are in reach of achieving a state of humanity which corresponds to the vision of our great teachers; yet we are in danger of the destruction of all civilization, or of robotization. A small tribe was told thousands of years ago: “I put before you life and death, blessing and curse - and you chose life.” This is our choice too.
Complement Fromm’s stimulatingly sane-making The Sane Society with H.L. Mencken on reclaiming democracy from the mob mentality that masquerades for it and Hannah Arendt on our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil, then revisit Fromm on the art of living, the art of loving, and how to transcend the common laziness of optimism and pessimism.

Friday, 3 March 2017

TimeBanking: A Revolutionary Model for Building Community Resilience

smh.com.au
by Bailey Mead, Praxis Managing Editor: http://www.kzoo.edu/praxis/timebanking/

In this new political climate which brings daily assaults to the vitality of our communities and the safety and well-being of ourselves and our neighbors, knowing who you can trust and who you can call on feels more important than ever before.

We’ve seen our neighbors terrorized in recent weeks by ICE raids and the Muslim Ban during just the first month of the Trump administration. In this time when many may be afraid to take bold actions to protect their neighbors, it is imperative to build solidarity between communities, and especially with immigrant communities.

We need each other, but what if we don’t know each other? Or maybe we know each other, but how do we begin to work together?

Our survival requires active resistance, but our future requires us to simultaneously build resilience and create sustainable new ways of being that allow all of us to live and thrive. We know that effective resistance requires connection, and connection helps build resilience. So how do we truly connect?

TimeBanks, an alternative currency model that helps create strong community relationships, are active in at least 34 countries throughout the world. TimeBanking reinforces the inherent and equal value of every person and allows people to access services they might not otherwise afford. It is not bartering, which is subject to income tax, but rather a circle of giving or a skill exchange.

A TimeBank consists of members who agree to exchange services - individuals, organizations and businesses can all be members. You do something for someone else for an hour and you earn an hour time credit to spend later on a service from anyone in the TimeBank.

For example, if you drive someone to the airport, you earn an hour of credit, which you can then spend by having someone mow your lawn. That person who mowed your lawn will also earn an hour credit and can spend it getting their computer fixed. TimeBanks foster a culture and cycle of ongoing reciprocity; the concept is simple but the implications are huge.

Circles of Giving Image courtesy of Timebanks USA

Our ancestors knew that cooperation and exchange were essential to health and survival, but the legacy of colonialism, capitalism and racism has left us so isolated from each that we often don’t even know our neighbors.

Building on this ancestral knowledge about the strength of community and the work of 19th century socialists who introduced time-based currencies, Edgar Cahn, former legal counsel and speechwriter to Robert F. Kennedy, formalized the idea of TimeBanking in his book, Time Dollars: The New Currency That Enables Americans to Turn Their Hidden Resource-Time-Into Personal Security & Community Renewal, a book co-authored with Jonathan Rowe in 1992.

He also introduced five core values of TimeBanking in his book, No More Throwaway People:
  • Asset: Every one of us has something of value to share with someone else.
  • Redefining Work: There are some forms of work that money will not easily pay for, like building strong families, revitalizing neighborhoods, making democracy work, advancing social justice. Time credits were designed to reward, recognize and honor that work.
  • Reciprocity: Helping that works as a two-way street empowers everyone involved - the receiver as well as the giver. The question: “How can I help you?” needs to change so we ask: “Will you help someone too?”  Paying it forward ensures that, together, we help each other build the world we all will live in.
  • Social Networks: Helping each other, we reweave communities of support, strength and trust. Community is built by sinking roots, building trust, creating networks. By using timebanking, we can strengthen and support these activities.
  • Respect: Respect underlies freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and everything we value. Respect supplies the heart and soul of democracy. We strive to respect where people are in the moment, not where we hope they will be at some future point.
I first learned about TimeBanking almost a decade ago when I met Kim Hodge, former labor organizer and Executive Director of the MI Alliance of TimeBanks. I worked at the Area Agency on Aging and she wanted to explore the possibility of integrating a TimeBank into the aging services network in southeast Michigan.

While that particular TimeBank never got any traction, I was intrigued by the concept and the possibilities for my own Southwest Detroit neighborhood, home to a large immigrant population where the average household income is lower than the rest of Detroit.

I was involved in our community garden and knew many of the neighbors on my own block, but didn’t know many of them well. Our Hubbard Farms neighborhood had an email listserv where we shared information about everything from local crime and negligent suburban landlords to cultural events, politics, and annual strolling dinners. We were connected, but at least in my case, I didn’t feel like we had meaningful relationships.

Kim knew another woman in my neighborhood who was interested in starting a TimeBank. The three of us met and very slowly began to organize the Southwest Detroit TimeBank in 2009, which is now called Unity in Our Community and has grown to 690 members.

The beginning was slow, full of stops and starts, but it wasn’t long before we assembled a “Kitchen Cabinet” to lead the TimeBank. We elected a treasurer and a secretary, collected $20 from each person to print business cards, put up a website, and subscribed to hOurworld, software specifically designed to track TimeBank hours.

In hOurworld, members can set up profile pages and list offers and requests, which can be scrolled through by other members. When someone offers to perform a service, the two members negotiate how it will be done and how much time it is likely to take. In order to assure accountability, the member performing the service logs the time, and the member receiving the service has to approve it before the time credit is transferred from one account to the other. If the service has not been performed as expected or did not take as much time as the giver indicated, they can negotiate how to make it right.

However, because the nature of TimeBank transactions are relational rather than consumerist, problems like this rarely arise. When they do, the TimeBank leadership is there to help mediate the situation.

Lathrup Village TimeBank members working in the Lathrup Village Children’s Garden. Image courtesy of MI Alliance of TimeBanks

Instead, when starting the Southwest Detroit TimeBank, we found ourselves faced with other challenges. It turns out that people have a really hard time asking for and accepting help. While we had many offers, we had very few takers.

On top of that, when a TimeBank first begins, there are typically only a handful of members so the offers are not very diverse. In our case, all of our original members had to commit to taking each other up on one or two offers every week so that we could begin to earn time credits and get experience TimeBanking.

To help us grow, we also employed another common practice in TimeBanking, allowing members to earn credit for attending meetings, handing out flyers or recruiting new members. We began holding group events and inviting neighbors.

We held a BBQ at the park and a group painting party at the home of two retired nuns, both Kitchen Cabinet members, and together painted the walls of their entryway and front room. Another member offered Mexican cooking classes. These kinds of group projects gave us opportunities to introduce new people to our TimeBank and we slowly began to grow.

Within a few years, the TimeBank had grown to 150 members, which is the number recommended for a group with enough diversity in skills to keep people engaged. Bridging Communities, a nonprofit serving seniors in Southwest Detroit, agreed to host the TimeBank and dedicate staff time to it. This made all the difference for our future.

Finding a host organization is an important step for sustainability with any TimeBank. It not only makes it possible to seek grant funding, but because volunteer leaders eventually tire out or move on, a paid staff position insures consistency and stability.

In 2012, when I moved across the state to Kalamazoo, I sought out the small local TimeBank, but it ceased to operate soon after I arrived. Like many volunteer-run start-ups, a short life span is common, and it is the reason that the MI Alliance of Timebanks exists: to offer support, training and connection to TimeBanks and to share best practices for start-ups.

Fortunately, the Unity in Our Community TimeBank has continued to grow and make a tangible difference in members’ lives. For example, a mechanic joined the time bank, making car repairs accessible to those who might otherwise be stranded in a city with unreliable public transportation.

Members also recently helped Musid Ali rebuild his house after his family of twelve survived a house fire as a result of arson. These are just a couple examples of the more than 25,000 hours members have exchanged with each other since the TimeBank began. Early on, the neighborhood health clinic joined, creating the possibility for uninsured and/or undocumented members to access health care using time credits, but I was disappointed to learn that they never became a fully active member in the TimeBank.

Pontiac SUN TimeBank members removing old carpeting from a member’s home. Image courtesy of the MI Alliance of TimeBanks

TimeBanks can be a way of meeting basic needs, but they can also be a way of building skills. Say you have always wanted to start a catering service, but you want to give it a try before launching a business. You could offer to cater a party or teach a cooking class and see how you like it. Or maybe you have always wanted to learn Spanish. You can spend your time credits taking classes or being tutored by another member.

An especially humanizing aspect of TimeBanking is the common agreement that everyone’s hour has the same value, and that people of all ages and abilities are valued equally. A physician’s hour spent performing a physical exam is worth the same as a child’s hour spent pulling dandelions from someone’s lawn. An accountant’s time spent preparing taxes is worth the same as someone’s time spent returning bottles for refunds. All work is valued equally, based on a negotiation between giver and receiver. This redefinition of work breaks down class constructs and turns the capitalist idea of work on its head.

Another benefit is that TimeBanks value the contributions of senior citizens. In a society that assigns human value to a person’s ability to produce, older adults are burdened with a diminished perception of their worth. When this is internalized in combination with social isolation, and a decreased physical ability to perform household work, many elders succumb to depression and illness.

In a TimeBank, the inherent value and wisdom of our elders can be received and valued while allowing them to access necessary services they can no longer physically perform themselves. For example, they can teach skills like knitting or reading in exchange for window washing, oven cleaning, or home repairs. It may even be possible to earn and save time credits as a way of preparing for retirement.

Beyond members exchanging services with each other, TimeBanks are responding in creative ways to local needs and connecting members in personal ways to global issues. The Pontiac Sun TimeBank in Pontiac, Michigan is working on an innovative project with the local hospital.

“Many patients need follow-up care after being discharged from the hospital,” Kim Hodge explained. “Whether this is a ride home, shopping and cooking, or friendly calls to check on them, TimeBank members can provide those services.” She also said, “A member of the Lathrup Village TimeBank whose relatives were being killed in Syria offered a class to educate other members about what was happening there.”

Unity in Our Community TimeBank members teaching a Yemeni 
breadmaking class. Image courtesy of MI Alliance of TimeBanks

Perhaps the most powerful reason for TimeBanking is the real strength and safety in knowing and trusting your neighbors. It takes vulnerability and openness to let someone help you, and the reward is getting to really know and trust each other. In my case, I was reluctant to let strangers into my home. So, if I didn’t know someone, I began by asking for help with things like mowing the lawn or teaching me something at the local coffeehouse. Also, as an introvert, I found that it took real effort to interact with new people, but it was well worth it. At the very least, people who know each other are less afraid of each other, less likely to call the police on each other, and less likely to vote and act against each other’s interests.

On a practical level, you know who to call when your car battery is dead or you want to borrow a tool. At best, you build nurturing relationships and begin to work together to make your neighborhood and your community becomes a better place. For instance, in the Unity in Our Community TimeBank, members can earn time credits for working with Welcoming Michigan, an immigrant rights organization.

For every benefit of TimeBanking, there are questions about things like liability, reliability, and trustworthiness. Hodge says, “TimeBanks just don’t attract the kinds of people that are looking to pull one over on anyone. You have to do your own gut-check, just like you would if you were hiring anyone to come into your home and perform a service. In the years that the MI Alliance of TimeBanks has been in operation, we have not heard of a single issue with liability.”

She said, “the single biggest challenge is keeping people engaged and in the habit of asking each other for help. Most successful TimeBanks have a dedicated organizer who knows the members and reaches out to make matches between people’s offers and requests.”

These are just a few of the possibilities and examples of TimeBanking, but communities across the globe are creating new ways to use this model every day. The time is ripe for finding ways to lessen our dependence on consumerism and strengthen our connection to each other. 

For more information on starting a TimeBank or to connect with an existing one in your area, visit hOurworld and TimeBanks USA.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Brave New World: The Pill-Popping, Social Media Obsessed Dystopia We Live In

Image 20170222 6409 1189121by Tony D Sampson, University of East London, The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/brave-new-world-the-pill-popping-social-media-obsessed-dystopia-we-live-in-72511

The Orwellian dystopia of Doublespeak is very much in vogue right now thanks to concerns over Trump’s use of “alternative facts”.

But alternative facts are just the tip of a dystopian iceberg that owes more to the soft brainwashing technologies of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than it does to 1984’s harsh Stalinist oppressions and propagandist trickery.

To grasp the Huxleyesque nature of current events we need see them as part of a culture increasingly pervaded by the ideas of neuroscience - what I have termed neuroculture.

The origins of neuroculture begin in early anatomical drawings and subsequent neuron doctrine in the late 1800s. This was the first time that the brain was understood as a discontinuous network of cells connected by what became known as synaptic gaps.

Initially, scientists assumed these gaps were connected by electrical charges, but later revealed the existence of neurochemical transmissions. Brain researchers went on to discover more about brain functionality and subsequently started to intervene in underlying chemical processes.

Interpretation of Cajal’s anatomy of a Purkinje neuron, by Dorota Piekorz.

On one hand, these chemical interventions point to possible inroads to understanding some crucial issues, relating to mental health, for example. But on the other, they warn of the potential of a looming dystopian future. Not, as we may think, defined by the forceful invasive probing of the brain in Room 101, but via much more subtle intermediations.

Soma

Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) is about a dystopian society that is not controlled by fear, but rendered docile by happiness. The mantra of this society is “everybody’s happy now”. As Alex Hern argues in The Guardian, Huxley presents a more relevant authoritarian dystopia to that of 1984, one that can still be “pleasant to live in for the vast majority, sparking little mass resistance”. The best dystopias are often dressed up as utopias.

Aldous Huxley in 1954. Wikimedia Commons

It is Huxley’s appeal to emotional conditioning that most significantly resonates with today’s dystopian neurocultures. He noted the clear advantages of sidestepping intellectual engagement and instead appealing to emotional suggestibility to guide intentions and subdue nonconformity.

As such, to achieve its goal, the society of Brave New World combines two central modes of control. First, the widespread use of the joy-inducing pharmaceutical, Soma, and second, a hypnotic media propaganda machine that works less on reason than it does through “feely” encounters.

Today’s neurocultures correspond to these technologies in conspicuous ways. To begin with, the rise of neuro-pharmaceuticals, like Prozac, have drawn attention to a growing societal need for self-medicated happiness. But equally alarming is the rise in prescriptions for ADHD treatments, like Ritalin, which control attention while simultaneously subduing difficult behaviour. The ADHD child’s mental state is a kind of paradoxical docile attentiveness.

The College of Emotional Engineering

Comparisons can also be made between Huxley’s College of Emotional Engineering and contemporary social media. In his book, the college is an important academic institution found in the same building as the Bureaux of Propaganda, with a unique focus on emotional suggestibility. This is where the feely scenarios, emotional slogans and hypnopedic rhymes are written. This kind of propaganda is for mass media consumption, but today’s emotional engineering takes place in far more intimate and contagious arenas of social media.

For example, in 2014, Facebook took part in an experiment designed to make positive and negative emotions go viral. Researchers manipulated the news feeds of over 600,000 users in an attempt to make them pass on positive and negative emotions to others in their network.

Streamlining emotions. rvlsoft / Shutterstock.com

The idea that social media acts as a vector for both positive and negative emotional contagions might help us to rethink Trump’s ability to seemingly tap into certain negative feelings of disillusioned US voters. Certainly, the contagion of fake news is typically a poisonous concoction of fear and hate. But much of the populist appeal of Trump (and Brexit) has perhaps played on more joyful encounters with celebrity politicians than those experienced with the dry intellectual elites of conventional politics.

Roses or orchids?

The pervasiveness of today’s neuroculture started with the neuroscientific emotional turn in the 1990s. Scientists realised that emotions are not distinct from pure reason, but enmeshed in the very networks of cognition. The way we think and behave is now assumed to be greatly determined by how we feel.

The seismic influence of this profound shift has extended beyond science to economic theories concerned with the neurochemicals that are supposed to affect decision making processes. It also underpins new models of consumer choice focused on the “buying brain”.

The advent of neuroeconomics, followed by neuromarketing, has resulted in further spin-offs in product design and branding informed by emotional brain processing. The consumer experience of a brand is now measured according to the frequency of brainwaves correlated with certain attentive and emotional states.

Perhaps there’s nothing new in neuroculture. Advertisers have been trying to infect feelings since the advent of advertisements. Similarly, politicians have been kissing babies for affect since the age of the crowd. Maybe my idea of neuroculture is an example of what has been cynically termed neuro-speculation. But in an age hastened by social media and self-medication, there is a dystopic intensification of infected and manipulated feelings that cannot be ignored.

Not everyone agreed with Huxley’s predictions of a neuroscientific dictatorship. One literary critic once compared him to a rabbit going down a hole only to think all the world was dark.

But it was the attention he received from scientists that should alert us to the profundity of his dystopia. In particular, the 20th century scientist Joseph Needham argued that scientific knowledge is not immune to political interferences. Needham called Huxley’s Brave New World an “orchid garden” - a demonstration that scientific knowledge does not always lead to a bed of roses. Huxley, he noted, helps us to “see clearly what lies at the far end of certain inviting paths”.

Tony D Sampson, Reader in Digital Culture and Communication, University of East London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

How a Ruthless Network of Super-Rich Ideologues Killed Choice and Destroyed People’s Faith in Politics: Neoliberalism - The Deep Story That Lies Beneath Donald Trump’s Triumph

English: GFDL picture of F.A. Hayek to replace...
F.A. Hayek, Mises Institute (Wikipedia)
by George Monbiot, Evonomics: http://evonomics.com/ruthless-network-super-rich-ideologues-killed-choice-destroyed-peoples-faith-politics/

The events that led to Donald Trump’s election started in England in 1975.

At a meeting a few months after Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party, one of her colleagues, or so the story goes, was explaining what he saw as the core beliefs of conservatism. She snapped open her handbag, pulled out a dog-eared book, and slammed it on the table. “This is what we believe,” she said. A political revolution that would sweep the world had begun.

The book was The Constitution of Liberty by Frederick Hayek. Its publication, in 1960, marked the transition from an honest, if extreme, philosophy to an outright racket.

The philosophy was called neoliberalism. It saw competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. The market would discover a natural hierarchy of winners and losers, creating a more efficient system than could ever be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impeded this process, such as significant tax, regulation, trade union activity or state provision, was counter-productive. Unrestricted entrepreneurs would create the wealth that would trickle down to everyone.

This, at any rate, is how it was originally conceived. But by the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, the network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly funded by multimillionaires who saw the doctrine as a means of defending themselves against democracy. Not every aspect of the neoliberal programme advanced their interests. Hayek, it seems, set out to close the gap.

He begins the book by advancing the narrowest possible conception of liberty: an absence of coercion. He rejects such notions as political freedom, universal rights, human equality and the distribution of wealth, all of which, by restricting the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful, intrude on the absolute freedom from coercion he demands.

Democracy, by contrast, “is not an ultimate or absolute value”. In fact, liberty depends on preventing the majority from exercising choice over the direction that politics and society might take.

He justifies this position by creating a heroic narrative of extreme wealth. He conflates the economic elite, spending their money in new ways, with philosophical and scientific pioneers. Just as the political philosopher should be free to think the unthinkable, so the very rich should be free to do the undoable, without constraint by public interest or public opinion.

The ultra rich are “scouts”, “experimenting with new styles of living”, who blaze the trails that the rest of society will follow. The progress of society depends on the liberty of these “independents” to gain as much money as they want and spend it how they wish. All that is good and useful, therefore, arises from inequality. There should be no connection between merit and reward, no distinction made between earned and unearned income, and no limit to the rents they can charge.

Inherited wealth is more socially useful than earned wealth: “the idle rich”, who don’t have to work for their money, can devote themselves to influencing “fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs”. Even when they seem to be spending money on nothing but “aimless display”, they are in fact acting as society’s vanguard.

Hayek softened his opposition to monopolies and hardened his opposition to trade unions. He lambasted progressive taxation and attempts by the state to raise the general welfare of citizens. He insisted that there is “an overwhelming case against a free health service for all” and dismissed the conservation of natural resources. It should come as no surprise to those who follow such matters that he was awarded the Nobel prize for economics.

By the time Thatcher slammed his book on the table, a lively network of thinktanks, lobbyists and academics promoting Hayek’s doctrines had been established on both sides of the Atlantic, abundantly financed by some of the world’s richest people and businesses, including DuPont, General Electric, the Coors brewing company, Charles Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, Lawrence Fertig, the William Volker Fund and the Earhart Foundation. Using psychology and linguistics to brilliant effect, the thinkers these people sponsored found the words and arguments required to turn Hayek’s anthem to the elite into a plausible political programme.

Thatcherism and Reaganism were not ideologies in their own right: they were just two faces of neoliberalism. Their massive tax cuts for the rich, crushing of trade unions, reduction in public housing, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services were all proposed by Hayek and his disciples. But the real triumph of this network was not its capture of the right, but its colonisation of parties that once stood for everything Hayek detested.

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did not possess a narrative of their own. Rather than develop a new political story, they thought it was sufficient to triangulate. In other words, they extracted a few elements of what their parties had once believed, mixed them with elements of what their opponents believed, and developed from this unlikely combination a “third way”.

It was inevitable that the blazing, insurrectionary confidence of neoliberalism would exert a stronger gravitational pull than the dying star of social democracy. Hayek’s triumph could be witnessed everywhere from Blair’s expansion of the private finance initiative to Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, which had regulated the financial sector. For all his grace and touch, Barack Obama, who didn’t possess a narrative either (except “hope”), was slowly reeled in by those who owned the means of persuasion.

As I warned in April, the result is first disempowerment then disenfranchisement. If the dominant ideology stops governments from changing social outcomes, they can no longer respond to the needs of the electorate. Politics becomes irrelevant to people’s lives; debate is reduced to the jabber of a remote elite. The disenfranchised turn instead to a virulent anti-politics in which facts and arguments are replaced by slogans, symbols and sensation. The man who sank Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency was not Donald Trump. It was her husband.

The paradoxical result is that the backlash against neoliberalism’s crushing of political choice has elevated just the kind of man that Hayek worshipped. Trump, who has no coherent politics, is not a classic neoliberal. But he is the perfect representation of Hayek’s “independent”; the beneficiary of inherited wealth, unconstrained by common morality, whose gross predilections strike a new path that others may follow.

The neoliberal thinktankers are now swarming round this hollow man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled by those who know what they want. The likely result is the demolition of our remaining decencies, beginning with the agreement to limit global warming.

Those who tell the stories run the world. Politics has failed through a lack of competing narratives. The key task now is to tell a new story of what it is to be a human in the 21st century. It must be as appealing to some who have voted for Trump and Ukip as it is to the supporters of Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn.

A few of us have been working on this, and can discern what may be the beginning of a story. It’s too early to say much yet, but at its core is the recognition that - as modern psychology and neuroscience make abundantly clear - human beings, by comparison with any other animals, are both remarkably social and remarkably unselfish. The atomisation and self-interested behaviour neoliberalism promotes run counter to much of what comprises human nature.

Hayek told us who we are, and he was wrong. Our first step is to reclaim our humanity.

Originally published here at the Guardian.