|Number 490||October 13, 2011|
This Week: Imagination and Occupation
I've been planning all fall to write about imagination. Specifically I've been planning to write about the ability to imagine big solutions to big problems. Then the Occupy Wall Street protests began, and as it happens I think the key to the whole movement—if it becomes a movement, which I hope it does—is imagination. So this whole issue of the Notes is about imagination, and I offer it in the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
The people sitting in and camping out in public spaces all over the nation and the world have allowed themselves not only to see the same big, huge problems that we all see (for details, check out the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City )but to imagine that there are solutions big and huge enough to address them.
Most of us are unable most of the time to imagine big solutions, unable to imagine solutions big enough to include us. For whatever reason, these people who have taken it upon themselves to put their bodies on the line, these occupiers, are daring us to imagine a different world, one in which there is a place for everyone. Everyone, that is, who wants nothing more than his or her fair share. Maybe these protests will have an impact far beyond what their numbers so far would indicate. Maybe this is the spark that the disappearing middle class needs in order to shake its complacency. Maybe not.
Maybe I'm reading too much into it. Maybe not. After you read this issue of the Notes, let me know if you think I'm onto something. Or not.
There's a lot to think about here, that's why it's a double issue.
The website "Occupy Together" has been established to function as "an unofficial hub for all of the events springing up across the country in solidarity with Occupy Wall St." The folks at Occupy Together "hope to provide people with information about events that are organizing, ongoing, and building across the U.S. as we, the 99%, take action against the greed and corruption of the 1%."
Recently these folks made a decision to "implement MeetUp.com as a tool to organize all of the solidarity actions that are spreading around the world." This week's "Quote" of the Week could be taken from any day, but as of October 13, 2011, there are:
"Occupy Together Meetups in 1,464 cities."
Go see for yourself what's happening around the country, around the world, and in YOUR town, look HERE.
"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds."
In the last couple of issues of Nygaard Notes I've been writing about the horrifying shortages of prescription drugs in the United States. A reader wrote to me after the first article, asking, "Why doesn't the government take over manufacturing the generic brands?" She almost apologized for the question, saying that "My mind works a bit simplistically..." I think it's the opposite: Reader Darlene thinks quite deeply, and it's the great majority of people living in the U.S. who have been conditioned to think simplistically. That's because there is a wide acceptance of a set of ideas—that is, an ideology—that has the effect of limiting our imaginations. Whether it's intended to do so or not is irrelevant; it does limit our ability to imagine a different way of doing things, and this lack of imagination is quite useful to the tiny minority who reside at the top of the heap. So it's going to take a lot of work to break it up. But I think it's already happening,
One clue that we suffer from a serious lack of imagination is the common failure of our leaders and media people to mention what seem like some obvious solutions to major problems. For example, in the process of researching my recent articles about prescription drug shortages, I plowed through numerous newspaper articles on the subject, and I was struck by the complete failure to mention the seemingly-obvious solution of nationalizing the drug industry. That is, taking the responsibility for producing life-saving drugs away from the market and placing it in the hands of the public. It was never mentioned—no wonder Darlene questions herself!
"I Must Be Missing Something"
Many of us have had the experience of confronting a political problem and having a solution occur to us that seems obvious. But we've also had the experience of finding almost nothing in the dominant culture to support it, or to even acknowledge that such a solution exists. So it's not surprising that many of us begin to question ourselves. "If this seems obvious to me," we think, "but nobody else ever even mentions it, there must be something wrong with me. I must be missing something." But we're not missing something. Again, I think it's just the opposite.
Back in Nygaard Notes Number 312 (December 3, 2005), I spoke briefly of the concept of "cultural hegemony," which is achieved when certain attitudes, beliefs and conceptions about the world become so widely accepted in a society as to function essentially as the "organizing principles" of that society. One way they organize the society is to limit the public discussion to debates among solutions that will not disrupt business as usual. This limiting of discussion can be imposed with force, as in a totalitarian system, or through Propaganda, as is common in the formal democracies.
Totalitarian societies employ heavy-handed things like incarceration, exile, or even assassination of anyone who is perceived as being able and/or willing to effectively advocate for solutions that would seriously threaten the power of those who dominate the society.
In a democratic society cultural hegemony is imposed via different means. Although incarceration, exile and assassination certainly have been used, and are still used, in the United States to quash dissent, it's a lot of work to cover up and/or justify such practices, so leaders prefer a preventive approach. A far more common and, I think, more effective method is to limit the imagination of the population to the extent that serious, radical solutions to major problems simply do not occur to anyone. Or, if they do occur to some people, they never are allowed to reach a mass audience. (A list of such problems and seemingly-obvious solutions appears elsewhere in this issue of the Notes.)
I'm not talking about some sort of thought police, a 1984-like world in which Big Brother re-writes the history books and labels the holding of certain ideas as "thought crimes." I'm talking about a cultural hegemony like the one in the United States, one that was born of a complex set of many factors and that is now self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating.
Radical and Realistic?
My name for this systematic, self-perpetuating system of cultural hegemony is 21st-Century Propaganda. It's certainly been in place longer than 11 years, but as the historical period that some have called the "American Century" winds down here in the new century, voices advocating for systemic change threaten to become more prominent. This in turn forces the Propaganda system to evolve in response, making its workings a little easier to see.
There is a wide range of problems of tremendous importance to the public, the solutions to which have remained almost entirely out of the public discourse. That is, they are rarely seen in the media, rarely spoken of by political leaders, and if any reports or studies mention them, they are met with silence and/or ridicule. This has serious effects on two groups of people. The first group is those people who can imagine real solutions (radical or "impractical" though they may be), who begin to question themselves, maybe feeling a little crazy or "on the fringes" for thinking such thoughts. Leaders and potential leaders are thus weakened or neutralized by psychological means.
The second group whose imaginations are limited by the Propaganda system is the large mass of people who are never allowed to hear serious analysis of our biggest problems, nor serious solutions. These are not the leaders mentioned above, but the followers, the great mass of people whose support those leaders would like to have. The effect of Propaganda on these people is to construct a deep cynicism or apathy, as they are increasingly unable to imagine that our biggest problems even have solutions or, if they can imagine some solutions, they can't believe that anybody in power will seriously engage with them. There may be people—potential leaders—who are willing to engage, but in an effective Propaganda system they will be marginalized and remain mostly invisible, which is largely what we see in the 21st-Century United States.
Listening to the radio last week I heard a protester speaking about the relationship between the actions of the powerful—the President, Congress, lobbyists—and the actions of the not-so-powerful—the Occupy Wall Street protesters, the October 2011 protesters, and the 99 percent of the U.S. public that they represent. I can't recall the exact words, but it was along these lines:
"With all the pressure on the President and Congress coming from the Tea Party and other reactionary sources, whatever eventual compromise is reached to deal with the unemployment crisis will be somewhere between the center and the far-right. We are here trying to create pressure from the progressive or left side, so the eventual compromise will be more balanced."
That is, if we can imagine a real solution, and build a constituency for it, will it not excite people and possibly become reality down the road? I think it will, but that's not all. It could have a real effect in the short term by changing the public perception of what is "realistic" or "politically possible." Could it be that real solutions—solutions that reflect the needs of the 99 percent of us who are not thriving in the current economy—may come to be perceived as both radical and realistic?
This is the exciting thing about the Occupy Wall Street protests. Even if nothing more happens than is happening already, the political discussion in this moment has been shifted. Whether this moment can grow into a movement is up to us.
I often speak in these pages about what I call our Propaganda ABCs. The letters ABC stand for our Attitudes, Beliefs, and Conceptions about the world in which we live. (I first discussed this in NN #199, April 4, 2003, "Know Your Propaganda ABCs".)
Our ABCs can be described as our "internalized ideology," the set of ideas that we rarely think about but that provides the framework that gives meaning to the facts and ideas we come across every day. Ideology affects our thinking in numerous ways. It affects our ideas about good and bad, dictates what we consider realistic and unrealistic, and tells us what to believe and what not to believe. One of the most important ways that the ideology dwelling within us affects us is by placing limits on our imaginations. When confronted with a problem, for example, our ABCs make certain solutions easy to imagine, while others literally never occur to us. Or, if a solution is suggested to us, our Propaganda ABCs tell us that it's "common sense" or that it's crazy or hopelessly naive.
The issue of prescription drug shortages I discussed last week provides a good illustration of this dynamic. But the idea of having the government, or some other public entity, take over the manufacture of life-saving drugs is only one example of an idea that violates the intellectual norms of our society to the extent that it has become essentially unthinkable in the general public discourse. Here's a list of a few other major public problems, some obvious but unthinkable solutions, and how our ABCs come into it:
Higher Education: Everyone says we need an educated workforce, and there's an obvious way to get it: free and universal access to higher education. But that idea is unthinkable in the Propaganda system because the principle that makes it seem reasonable—that education is a right or a human need—contradicts the our ABCs, which tell us that education is, like everything else, a commodity for purchase in the marketplace by those deemed worthy.
Inequality: It's often reported that the level of income and wealth inequality in the United States is alarmingly large and growing, yet the idea of a dramatic redistribution of wealth—perhaps along the lines of a guaranteed national income as advocated by Martin Luther King Jr.—remains unheard of. Based on the principles of equity and fairness, such an idea directly conflicts with our ABCs, central to which are the principles of individualism and competitiveness. Our ABCs say that the size and origins of one's wealth and income are up to the individual, who will be a winner or a loser depending on his/her own efforts and talents, nothing more.
Safety Net/Economic Security: Every society has a significant number of people—old people, young people, sick people, disabled people—who are not economically productive in the strict sense. Yet a serious questioning of the basic processes of an economic system that fails to provide for these people is consistently off the agenda. The best we seem to be able to do is to tinker around with tax rates or quibble about exactly how low our benefits must be. Surely we could figure out an efficient way to allocate our immense wealth so as to protect the most vulnerable among us, if only we were encouraged to question our ABCs, including the principle of Economic Darwinism that says that only the "fit" shall survive.
Housing/homelessness: Discussions of interest rates, debt forgiveness, and so forth all fail to address the built-in incentives that go with the principle of individual self-enrichment. This principle is a part of our ABCs, lying as it does at the heart of a "housing as investment" ideology which sees people's homes as nothing more than commodities in the marketplace. The principle of solidarity tells us that all people have a right to decent shelter, and any "market" must make it possible for all to have a home.
Health Care: The United States health care "system" is a total wreck—ranking first among wealthy nations in health care spending while only 36th in life expectancy and 34th in infant mortality—yet the idea of a single-payer system is not discussed because it isn't a part of our ABCs; it's "unrealistic" or "unAmerican." Were some more-radical ideas to be fully exposed and discussed, perhaps the perception of what is realistic would change. For instance, had the idea of a fully-socialized health system been exposed to the public and realistically discussed, perhaps the idea of a single-payer system would have been transformed from an impossibly unrealistic option into a reasonable compromise. Health as a human right is the principle on one hand, while our ABCs hold the principle of health care as a saleable commodity in the other hand.
Unemployment: While the lack of jobs is consistently rated the nation's Number One issue, there is an idea that remains almost impossible to broach, and that is the idea that the failure to connect people who want to work with the pressing work that needs doing is unavoidable in a capitalist system. Labor as an expression of our humanity is one principle, but our ABCs insist that labor is nothing but a "human resource" in the service of accumulating wealth. In short, it's people vs profit.
War/Terrorism: Despite a few lonely voices suggesting that the best response to terror might be something other than a military response, the ABCs of National Security assure that the prevailing theory and practice of a "War on Terror" remains the only game in town. So, rather than a discussion of a unilateral dismantling of the U.S. empire—based on all kinds of principles, including non-intervention and anti-imperialism itself—we get debates about how many U.S. forces should permanently remain in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anyone well-versed in their Propaganda ABCs will be happy to debate the best ways to protect U.S. "interests," but not that other stuff.
Global warming: Responses that are considered politically realistic in the United States to this most pressing of problems remain firmly in the realm of tinkering around the edges. Hopelessly inadequate approaches like "cap and trade," better fuel efficiency in our autos, recycling, etc. fit well with our ABCs and completely drown out more far-reaching solutions that would involve reducing our consumption, re-working our transportation system, and building a post-fossil fuels economy. All serious solutions would involve a radically-democratic system that would place the welfare of the planet above the accumulation of short-term profit. Democratic process vs the ABCs of the Market are the conflicting principles here.
Budget Deficits: Based on the idea that there is "not enough" money to do what we easily used to do—let alone what we should do—the focus on budget deficits is a grand distraction from the real issues of real wealth versus false wealth and the elites who manipulate the confusion between the two. Our ABCs tell us that wealth is wealth, and don't let the government have it!
The Occupy Wall Street movement utilizes a slogan of "We are the 99 Percent" to reflect a basic commitment to the principles of democracy, in which the interests of the overwhelming majority take precedence over the interests of the tiny minority, and solidarity, in which the welfare of each individual is seen as being inseparable from the welfare of all. Whatever "program" or demands eventually emerge from the Occupy Wall Street movement, the promotion of such humane principles deserves the support of all who wish to avoid falling into the trap of cynicism and despair.
Elsewhere in this issue of the Notes I paraphrase a comment by an Occupy Wall Street protester to the effect that one goal of the protests is to broaden the public discussion in order to create pressure for legislators and the President to come to some compromises that are more balanced than the recent capitulations to the far-right that have been reported as "compromises." There's some historical evidence that indicates that this does indeed happen, when populist pressure is strong enough and organized enough. In an article I published in Z Magazine back in 1999 (a version of which appeared in these pages as well) I summarized one historical process that I think gives hope for the current movement that is still in its early stages. The next ten paragraphs are excerpted from the original article, and I think the lesson is sufficiently obvious that no further comment is needed.
[OK, I will make one comment, as it cannot be repeated often enough: Social Security is not broken, and can be fully funded with relatively minor adjustments. Despite what you constantly hear.]
The Social Security program that we currently have in the United States came about as an alternative to several more progressive proposals being debated in the 1930s. Unlike the current corporate-led debate about Social Security, the original campaign for social insurance was led by poor people and workers. As early as 1931, the National Hunger March on Washington climaxed with the presentation to Congress of a Workers' Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill. University of Miami law professor Kenneth Casebeer has summarized that 'bill' as a series of five demands:
1. Immediate adoption of a federal system of unemployment insurance, guaranteeing full wages for full or part involuntary unemployment;
2. This to be available to all categories of wage labor without discrimination by race, sex, age, origin, or political opinion; no person to be deprived of benefits for refusing to take the place of a striker or to work for less than union rates;
3. Full funding from war preparation appropriations combined with sharply progressive taxation on all incomes above $5,000 [$60,000 in 1998 dollars] with no levies on workers;
4. Administration by elected worker committees; and
5. Social insurance for loss of wages through sickness, accident, old age, or maternity.
On February 2, 1934, legislation including their five demands was introduced into the House of Representatives by Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party Congressman Ernest Lundeen. The official "Workers' Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill" (HR 7598 and subsequent versions) was the most popular, and came the closest to becoming law, among several progressive predecessors to Roosevelt's Social Security. Over its Congressional lifetime from 1934 through 1937, more than 70 municipal governments around the country endorsed the Workers' Bill, as did innumerable ethnic and mutual aid societies and organizations of the unemployed. Many African-Americans and women supported it, as it was the only bill that treated all citizens equally.
There was intense opposition from the private insurance industry (in which Roosevelt had worked before becoming president) and the American Medical Association. In addition, a powerful group of Southern Democrats in Congress in the 1930s was opposed to any federal mandate that would require that benefits be paid to African-American tenant farmers and domestic workers; these workers were thus excluded from the system until the 1950s. Similar racist desires to keep state-based "separate and unequal" systems in place resulted in the failure to establish national systems of unemployment insurance benefits and workers compensation as part of the New Deal; that legacy survives to this day in our inequitable state-based programs.
Despite its ultimate defeat, the existence of a radical alternative like the Workers' Bill shaped the discussion of Social Security and forced President Roosevelt to put forth his limited but still essential Social Security Act of 1935. Despite its limitations, the current system does in fact provide some very real protection from market forces, and thus has remained Roosevelt's, and the nation's, most popular social program.
It should be no surprise that most people born and raised in the United States think about Social Security in very narrow and limited terms. This is because the American system of Social Security is narrow and limited. A look at a few other wealthy countries confirms this. Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all have national systems of universal health care and maternity leave; the U.S. does not. Each of these countries has a national program of income assistance for families with children; the U.S. does not. The U.S. alone lacks a national system of insurance against unemployment and workplace injury (our state-run systems provide widely varying degrees of protection from state to state).