Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Conservatives & Totalitarians

1. The United States & Totalitarianism

- A totalitarian nation controls all of individual life in the name of perfecting social arrangements.
- Doesn't sound much like the United States.
- Another way to define totalitarianism is by the practice of continuous, unending ritual*. We are threatened by the communists, the Jews, the capitalists, we must be vigilant in eradicating these threats. We see ourselves as weak, we perform a ritual according to the known procedures, and come out feeling stronger.
- What are the known procedures?
- Depends on the country. War making, conceived as response to threat to security. Or exchange of goods and services between parties defined as adversaries in an economic transaction. Ritual in its basic form is an occasional means of recovery. Practiced too often, like a drug too often had recourse to, ritual becomes addictive**, for the same reason: our ability to lead ordinary lives is lessoned when not practiced, and with less ability the world become more inhospitable, making the security delivered by ritual more attractive.
- So countries limitlessly make wars, expand the realm of trade.
- Yes. Doing for the sake of doing***. The state institutions, originally the servant of individuals, become an end in themselves, administrators of the settled, unvarying practice of continuous ritual.
- Money making, war making.
- When this continuous ritual is turned away from foreign practice and turned inward to the state itself we have totalitarianism. The elements within us opposing the trade of goods and services, or opposing the ideal society of sharing we are in the way of perfecting, have to be eradicated.
- The actual achievement of the society of sharing, communism, or the actual achievement of free markets, capitalism, isn't important then, only the application of ritual to assigned obstacles?
- The United States is no more a country of free trade**** than the Soviet Union was a country of sharing.
- Still private life is very free in the United States. It is nothing like totalitarian countries in that respect. But maybe you'll say we're on the way there, with increasing inequality of wealth, monopoly ownership of means of communication and natural resources.
- Monopoly serves expansion by controlling markets. The danger is that the monopolists, with political power bought with their economic power, will not be satisfied only with economic ritual turned within, satisfied with the power to force everyone, like it or not, into transactions with them; that labeling holdouts threats to the nation, as truly they are obstacles to continuous practice of economic ritual, they begin to perform continuous rituals of war against them, step up practice within the country of what they have long been practicing outside. That economic and war expansion share the same form of continuous ritual encourages the transition from one to another, and this is true of all relations internal and external, economic and war making: between external war, internal terror, economic empire and internal monopoly.

2. Conservatives & Totalitarians

- We said that we don't see any reason to think there is a direction to history*, of one form of government inevitably following another; that trying to institute any form of government as an end leads to treating individual lives as means to that end, leads to the idea of efficiency of means to the end and so leads to individuals being sacrificed to the idea of efficiency.
- I remember.
- If we concentrate our efforts on building the state, we end up crushing the individual. What if we start from the individual? Can we build up to an idea of the state that won't be destructive of individuality?
- We tried something like that already when we argued that rather than describing the mental world in the terminology of the physical we should do it the other way around, describe the physical world in terms of the mental.**
- A government is a thing like a body is a thing, a thing that moves, whose moves are repetitive, repetition that maintains, in response to a changing world, the thing in the same shape. A government is a sort of artificial body.
- Yes. So let's see how far we can take this, starting from the state and working back to the individual. We see an approach of totalitarianism in our country with its new president. Russia and East European countries are already half way there. We know that totalitarianism is maintained by isolating individuals from each other. Isolated individuals can't easily organize a resistance. But we don't see how totalitarianism actually produces that isolation. We can follow how shared support of totalitarianism produces a crowd through shared passions, but how the non-adherents end up isolated from each other, end up a set of isolated individuals, we have no explanation for. Whereas we can see how changes in the status of individual conduct can produce totalitarianism.
- We can? I know your definition of totalitarianism: acting out on the national stage a ritual of collective rebirth. Our country is weak where it once was strong. There is an enemy within, allied with external enemies. With violence we will drive them out and bring on a national revival of our greatness. Where does individuality, the mental explaining the physical, come in?
- One of the myths about capitalism is that it is about work; hard, selfless work. It absolutely is not. Or not for the capitalists. Selfish work is for the employees, who literally lose sense of themselves as they slave for the sake of their employers. Who, far from having a will to selfless work in what they do, begin with a sense that they institute, they force their choice upon the world how to invest their money for the sake of making profit. They feel a need to continually set out on a risk-taking activity, to set out from a state of wealth and security to a state of insecurity, relying on a mysterious process called the free market economy not directly in their control. They know some rules which in the past have worked to achieve profit. Some of these rules are ways of working, techniques of production for example. But it can be the case, as it is in our times, that the rules for market behavior can direct lying and cheating aimed at achieving the same goal, profit. The capitalist has no preference how the dangerous ocean of the economy is navigated across; the period of risk passes in a sort of gambler's trance, and what occurs, whether careful management or fraud, monopoly, collusion with and bribery of the government, or simply lucky choices, is left behind and forgotten as a renewed state of security is achieved.
- OK, we have talked about this too. The capitalist approaches his money making as self-instituted ritual. The more he practices his ritual of rebirth in renewed profit, the more quickly insecurity returns: this comes of living in a controlled, artificial world, knowing only how to make money and knowing nothing about how to live in the world outside that ritual activity; only in the renewed practice of money making does the capitalist feel he has a grip on life. The economy is a mystery having the power to constantly generate profit for anyone willing the play the role of capitalist and submit himself to it.
- In the case of the United States the individual changes himself deliberately through ritual in three ways: politically, in threats or actual violence against internal enemies and external allies; economically, in the capitalist's submitting himself to the mystery of the free market; and to this list we add spiritually: we have sinned but we can be reborn passing through a trance state of religious ecstasy where god's work is being done on us, reborn into strength leaving our old weak selves behind.
- So then we're saying now that the capitalist and the born-again religious are attracted to the totalitarian form of government as politics, public life sharing a form with what they are doing in their private lives?
- Exactly. It calls upon a fundamental behavior already being successfully practiced. So does conservative politics, the government interfering with the individual as little as possible for the sake of allowing room for individual responsibility in the inception of ritual, taking the business risk or baptismal plunge.
- Which explains the otherwise strange alliance of conservatives, who demand least possible government interference in private life with totalitarians, who submit to total government interference in private life.
- Now all these formally identical ritual behaviors isolate each individual from all other individuals who do not take part in their particular rituals. A stranger at a cafe does not have the script to your personal spiritual revival and will definitely not be happy being the victim of your lying and cheating economic rebirth in profit taking.
- Before totalitarian politics locks individuals away from each other individuals already already are leaving each other alone.
- Yes. I think if we want to see totalitarianism coming we should look for rapid increase in the isolation of individuals. I see it already in Los Angeles. Waiting in line at the market the cashiers tell me not to talk to the other customers as it slows down the line. At Starbucks, for a change getting into a heated discussion - well, actually, one customer is trying to stop another from talking to me! - the manager steps in with, 'break it up or you all have to leave.' You know, I help kids from a couple of families with their reading and writing English. One of them is a little boy. Here's how our last conversation ended:

- Rex?
- Yes.
- You're ugly.
- Not too much.
- You have grey hair.
- What's wrong with that?
- You're old.
- What's wrong with that?
- You're going to die.
- And you being 9 years old think death is for other people. What else?
- You have fur on your hands.
- Monstrous. What else?
- You have a big nose.
- True. What else?
- You have pointy teeth.
- Like a vampire. So. You've been studying me. Any other discoveries?
- You are a bad influence.
- Who told you that? 
- No one.
- Someone. It's not a word you use.
- What happened to your wife? Why don't you get back together?
- I don't know where she is.
- Why don't you look for her?
- She doesn't want me to.
- Why not?
- She moved on.

- What's with the boy?
- He already speaks two other languages with his parents. English practice seems unnecessary to him. I was hired to help him with his reading: he would guess the words from the general shape of the letters rather than sound them out completely. For him that was all the attention reading deserved. He confided in me that our twice a week one hour sessions were the worst part of his life.
- He was trying to get you to quit.
- Or trying to take revenge. He saw my failure in ritual performance: I don't take the initiative with my appearance or my marriage. I got old and am going to die without getting anywhere. But despite these failures, he finds that he himself fails to pin me down. I pay a great deal of questioning attention to his attack of words, but let pass over my head his attempt to construct his own little totalitarian state with me, he taking the role of the employer with initiative, I forced into the role of the irritant outsider, an employee forced into the role of worker without initiative. My flourishing in the forgotten regions of ritual transition where operate the spiritual, economic, national mechanisms of rebirth fascinates him. Before he knows it he has completed his days reading aloud.
- Do you enjoy teaching under those circumstances? If I taught I wouldn't let my students disrespect me.
- And if you enjoyed it?
- The disrespect?
- The teaching despite disrespect. The pleasure derived from rituals of rebirth is what Plato called pleasure in the relief of pain. Only the pleasure of knowledge doesn't require prior pain. Ritual requires forgetting, acquisition of knowledge requires remembering, collecting together all that has been experienced seen differently now something is known of it. Individuals isolated from each other in their self instituting political, economic, and spiritual rituals become, as we said, the more ritual is practiced, the more removed from the world outside of ritual. They can make other people the objects of their rituals, they can take pleasure in subjecting other people to their violence, but can never get to know them, never have a story to tell about what happens when lives come in contact with each other.

Further Reading:
Compassion & The Story
* Lesser Evil Voting
** See: Noam Chomsky & Mental Things