Friday, April 03, 2009

Survival+ 6: The Politics of Experience
April 2, 2009

What Is "The Politics of Experience"?

The human mind makes sense of the chaotic jumble of sensory experiences and internal mental states by assembling explanatory narratives—what we also call "stories." To the believer, the "story" "explains" how things work. In pre-scientific cultures, many such stories were not simply wrong but injurious. Thus we have cultures in which it is believed that pregnant women shouldn't eat much. While we in advanced economies like to think of ourselves as above this sort of "superstition-passing-as-causal explanation," we also have cultures today in which living animals are considered "things" more or less equivalent to inanimate rocks and economies which believe "the market" is always efficient and rational.

What if those narratives also contain hefty doses of injurious superstition? To those who see living animals as commodities, then extirpating them for financial gain is "obvious" and indeed "natural." To those who believe in the ontological (i.e. inherent or a priori) efficacy and rationality of "the market," then the pricing of the last ten wild tuna on Earth via the auction block is entirely "obvious" and "natural." The notion that the eradication of a species might have some value not calculated by "the market" is sacrilege and suppressed with the same fanatic fervor as any interfaith challenge to religious authority.

Politics is consent, persuasion and power.

Humans are social animals because banding together by consent and bloodlines provides significant survival benefits over "going it alone." In its essence, politics is the granting of power to leaders for some benefit to those consenting to be led. The leaders must persuade consent or compliance, either by touting a persuasive narrative or creating a coercive system of punishment/terror.

The ultimate summary of politics is power. In lower animals, this boils down to power over reproduction (i.e. being able to improve one's chances of passing along one's genes via choice or coercion) and food. In humans, reproduction remains key (hence every despot acquires a harem and every official a mistress) but power also includes the various fruits of civilization such as wealth and wide-ranging political powers expressed through institutions such as religion, the state, etc.

Just as matter of economics, imposing one's will via coercion/terror is a costly affair. Maintaining a vast gulag of prisons, secret police, domestic armies, etc. drains off a tremendous share of the national wealth, and the coercive state/Empire has a nasty habit of destroying or driving away many if not most of its most productive citizenry.

Thus the "natural selection" process of the coercive state (be it monarchy, oligarchy, state or Empire) weeds out the rebellious, the skeptical and the most productive, leaving the cowed unproductive or the sullenly, consciously unproductive and a huge class of dependent drones ruled by a class of overlords with few limits on what they can skim from what remains of their economy.

The better choice is to persuade the people you wish to skim from to freely offer their consent and their compliance. This is best accomplished by creating a series of narratives in which your power (and the power of your class) is "obvious," "natural" and "beneficial." Thus we have cultures of caste in which the "high-borns'" privileges and power have been accepted as the "natural order of things." All the Powers That Be need do is maintain this narrative via whatever mediums are available (the pulpit, the media, etc.) and suppress or marginalize any challenging narratives as irrational, unnatural, representing the forces of Evil, counter to our sacred way of life, etc.

As an example in the U.S., we might consider the entire narrative of debt/credit. The idea of credit has been sold as a "benefit" for the average citizen; with credit, one needn't save up for five years to buy an auto, one can drive a new car out of the lot today and enjoy it for the five years it takes to pay it off in installments (debt/credit).

All narratives with political and thus economic consequences can be best untangled by this simple question: cui bono, to whose benefit? While credit "obviously" has some visible benefits to the borrower, the line between a borrower and a debt-serf can be thin indeed.

If we examine the profits generated by auto sales, we find that the profits generated by the credit/debt used to purchase the vehicle far exceed the profits made by manufacturing the vehicle. The same is true of housing and virtually all other goods.

So who benefits from an economy based on credit? Everyone, we are told; but it seems some benefit more than others.

Is there any more ideal system than one in which the vast majority of citizens are so heavily indebted that they have little time or energy left to question the system that has essentially enslaved them? Their high indebtedness generates a constant stream of heavy profits while their overworked, anxiety-ridden lifestyle ensures that political challenges to the Powers That Be will be stillborn or easily shunted aside as the ravings of cranks and doomsayers.

For one of the most powerful narratives in America is that we must always be positive and upbeat. One of the easiest ways to dismiss a critic in any setting is to label him or her a "doomsayer." "Just get with the program": that is, put your nose to the grindstone, make your debt payments and shut up.

Another powerful narrative with immense political consequences is the casting of 24/7 "entertainment" as a positive benefit to the masses. To be offered a cornucopia of distraction at any hour—what could be better? What could be better, indeed, for keeping a populace too distracted to question the "obvious" narratives which shape their compliance to debt-serf servitude?

This is the Politics of Experience: the presentation of a narrative, a context and a set of "problems" which require a "solution" which just so happens to richly benefit an Elite.
For instance: as public transit agencies and school districts face insolvency, the "problem" as presented by the public employee unions is that the stingy taxpayers are not providing these essential public services with sufficient funds to operate. The "solution" is "we need more money."

If this is the only "problem," then why are requests for overtime pay, directors' salaries, the average monthly pensions of retirees, the length of service required to retire, etc, met with stony silence or angry resistance? Why are analyses comparing the labor costs of operating the systems today and 30 years ago suppressed or dismissed? Because the labor costs have shot up far faster than ridership, number of students, or the underlying economy; the Elite, in this case, the "caste" of public employees, has enriched themselves at the expense of the no-real-wage-increase-in-30-years public.

Any and all attempts to question the "obvious solution is we need more money" are suppressed, marginalized, denigrated or attacked because revealing the actual causes of the insolvency would topple the narrative which supports the Elites' control and power.

In a similar way, "the market" has achieved a quasi-religious status as the perfect arbiter of efficiency and rationality. Thus the last ten wild tuna on the planet will be priced on the auction block based on their scarcity. The value of that species to humanity as a whole and the ecology of the seas is not factored by "the market's" flawless efficiency and rationality.

Or consider a small tree frog that will be extirpated by the logging of its habitat. The small frog has zero market value; as a commodity, it has no value since nobody wants to eat it or turn it into a marketable product.

But what if the skin of this frog produces a film with anti-bacteriological characteristics that might be highly valuable to humanity? "The market" has no mechanism to assess this potential or future value.

Rather than being an "efficient" or "rational" machine, the market in these cases is a blind, irrational machine that reduces all planetary inputs to a type of "scarcity-value" gravel. If you happen to profit from the trade in that gravel, it's may well appear rational and efficient. But if you recognize all that the market failed to value, not just rationally, but in any way at all, then you might see "the market" as not just irrational but so out of touch with reality as to be psychotic.

Try getting that perspective into the Mainstream Media, and you'll discover that you're the one considered psychotic and out of touch with reality. That's "the politics of experience:" narratives which support Elites' power and privileges as "obvious" and "natural" are sustained, as are "entertainments" which distract and dilute questions like cui bono; all else is marginalized, dismissed, refused or rejected as a form of sacrilege.

R.D. Laing was a psychiatrist by training, and his understanding of the politics of experience flowed from his analysis of troubled families with "psychotic" or "insane" members. He found that in some cases, the family's "leaders" (the adults) had subconsciously selected one member of the family to bear the blame for the family's troubles and conflicts. This child was then labeled "rebellious," "uncooperative," "a troublemaker," etc., and as the child's resistance grew then they were viewed as a psychiatric case.

Laing found (along with Gregory Bateson) that when humans are given a narrative which runs counter to their own experience this disconnect forms a double-bind—an internal state of "no way out." At this point the human can slip into passivity or other states which are categorized as psychiatric "problems" to be treated by drugs.

This is not to say that all madness is essentially political, only that the resistance to irrational narratives is easily cast by those intent on preserving their own power as some sort of psychiatric "illness." The dominant narrative which supports the power structure cannot be allowed to be recognized as the "problem;" thus the beauty of a system in which rebellion, resistance or cui bono questioning can be cast as "obviously" psychiatric "problems" to be "treated."

Those unable to be "processed" medically can be dismissed as "fringe" people unworthy of comment or even dismissal. Those who experience a double-bind between the supposedly "obvious" narratives they're expected to accept and their own internal experiences are given prescription drugs to ease their anxiety and depression.

Again, this is not to say that some of us do not suffer from chemical imbalances in the brain; many of us do, and for those, these psychiatric drugs are a godsend. But we must also be careful about what "problems" end up being "treated" by "solutions" which happen to be drug-based.
Thus we have evidence that children prescribed powerful drugs for hyperactivity responded positively to a lifestyle stripped of sugar, junk food, TV and video games. Imagine the immense reduction in profits if drugs, sugary snacks, junk food, TV and video games were no longer "consumed" by American children. Cui bono indeed.

The narratives that operate beneath the surface compress all of experience into a limited number of hammers; so when a nail resists, guess what happens? It gets pounded down. When you hold the hammer, that "solution" is "obvious."

NOTE: My computer/web time continues to be extremely limited; my apologies for the inability to respond to emails for the next few weeks.

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