I’ll be your mirror

Interesting how the trajectory of politics in recent decades reflects the path of technological innovation. The former is characterized by polarization, gridlock, and cultural civil war, and the latter by innovation, connectivity, and convenience. One occurs to us as devolution, the other as evolution. But perhaps they are inextricably linked like an object and its reflection in a mirror. Are these seemingly opposite trajectories really so different? The transition from TVs, landlines, and print to networked mobile supercomputers has given us more information, connectivity, and convenience — but less wisdom, communication, and efficacy.  Not to say that one causes the other, but perhaps they are both expressions of the same underlying direction in the development of the human species. Where is this trajectory taking us? A hive mind cleft in two? Self-destruction? Subjugation to an all-powerful network?

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Critique of capitalism is not enough

To blame capitalism itself for injustice is insufficient and imbues capitalism with more power than it deserves. Capitalism is just a historically contingent form of a wider, deeper phenomenon: hierarchy. And hierarchy is not only a social structure in a particular context, but also an underlying way of thinking in terms of superiority and inferiority. Such thinking is premised on conceiving of difference between self and other, both within the human species and between humans and nature.

How is capitalism a form of hierarchy? Isn’t the market a great equalizer? The reason requires one to understand the myth of a free market. Every market is based on laws, whether formal or informal, usually both, and those laws are developed and enforced by and for those with more power and wealth in order to secure and grow their power and wealth. One such law is that of property, which is premised on a claim of superior right to use something over others, and that something at root is always nature, which means that the law of property underlying the market is based in the conception of superiority not only of one person over others but also of one person over nature.

But the more salient point here is that critique of capitalism is not enough. To challenge the injustice perpetrated by some over others requires a critique of hierarchy itself, not only in its various historical forms but more fundamentally in its origins in thought.

It’s not about you

It must be frustrating to sit atop the hierarchy and realize that you still lack power. Although it is a hierarchy of power, and those at the top leverage their position to exploit other people, there must be so much more that they want to do with their power than they really can, because in truth the power does not belong to them or to any individuals in themselves. Rather, it is the system itself that has power, and the ideology underlying it, which are so much bigger than any one individual, hence the desperation with which the powerful toil always to secure and grow their power further through corporations, lobbying, disinformation campaigns, disasters, and violence.

The center is not enough

If the discourse of disguise takes us two steps backward for every step forward, then we must leap three steps ahead. We must meet efforts to dismantle Obamacare with calls for universal health care. We must meet efforts to ramp up incarceration and police impunity with calls for abolishing prisons and police. And we must meet efforts to cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations with calls to dramatically raise their taxes. Why? Why should we not focus all our energy on “holding the center”? Because the “center” was not good enough in the first place, and attempting to hold it will likely result in losing it little by little in one compromise after another in the process of norm erosion.

Recall that Obamacare was a tortured, market-based compromise with the health care and pharmaceutical industries rather than a shining progressive breakthrough, and furthermore it was hamstrung by the Supreme Court decision to invalidate its mechanism for expanding Medicaid. Similarly, the degree of incarceration and police misconduct remained abominable even during the Obama years despite his administration’s efforts to reform; America continued to incarcerate 20% of the world’s prisoners despite having only 5% of the world’s population, and repeated police shootings of unarmed persons of color were perpetrated with little accountability. And tax rates on the wealthiest individuals and corporations remained historically low at 39.6 and 35% respectively (whereas from 1932 to 1981 individual rates never fell below 63% and rose as high as 94%, while corporate tax rates have historically hovered around 50%). The list could go on and on to include, for example, the fact that the Paris climate accord was non-binding and that we committed to take a paltry 10,000 of the millions of Syrian refugees.

In summary, as good as the Obama years look to us now under the Trump administration, the policies that prevailed were woefully inadequate. Thus, if we hold out Obama-era norms as the goal to return to, we will lose even if we win. And we probably would not win, because the political process does not result in clear-cut victories but in compromises. Rather than accepting 10,000 refugees, we will settle for blocking the Muslim ban. Rather than maintaining tax rates at 39.6 and 35%, we will settle for 35 and 25%. Rather than restoring our participation in the Paris agreement, we will settle for not completing defunding the EPA. Rather than resuming DOJ investigations of police brutality and treating non-violent crimes leniently, we will settle for not prosecuting marijuana use in states where it has been legalized. Rather than leaving Obamacare in tact, we will settle for some compromise that makes Obamacare and Medicaid less adequate than they already were.

Instead, we must follow the example Bernie Sanders has set in the health care debate. In responding to Obamacare repeal efforts by championing Medicare for All, he has expanded the discourse to include a third option beyond the lesser of two evils. No longer does Obamacare appear to be the best we can do, and therefore compromising for something between Obamacare and Trumpcare does not appear reasonable. But even if we end up with such a compromise, the normative foundation has been laid for continuing the struggle for real progress.

Critique of individuality

Consider how much about you was determined for you. Consider, for example:

Your genes.

How you were raised.

The country into which you were born.

Where you were raised; whether where you were raised was urban, suburban, or rural.

The period of time when you grew up; the politics, economics, technology, and culture of the period.

The historical events preceding the moment you were born.

The historical events coinciding with your childhood.

Your schools, your teachers, your peers.

All the decisions made for you by others.

All the accidents and twists of fate that constrained what decisions were available for you.

The instincts, impulses, predispositions that have driven your actions.

The moral and social pressures that have constrained your choices.

The mountain of assumptions and prejudices below the tip of the iceberg that is your conscious thinking.

How the reactions of others to your words or acts have led you to avoid or repeat similar words or acts.

The influence of books you happened to open, friends you happened to meet, schools you happened to attend.

The aspirations your parents had for themselves.

The traumas experienced by your grandparents.

The vagaries of immigration policies.

The fortunes and misfortunes of unknown ancestors.

Consider that most of who you are has been determined by other people and circumstances outside your or their control, mostly before you or even your parents or grandparents were born.