Thursday, 16 August 2012

Who Are They?

Ever since humans first created societies involving hierarchy and governed by rules, there has been an unspoken "social contract" binding them together - sometimes voluntarily, even democratically, sometimes by physical force. But underpinning each have been other factors which have governed the acceptance of rulers by the ruled which, if sufficiently out of kilter, have led ultimately to social revolt - whether by the Bolsheviks against the "former people" of the Russian bourgeoisie, or by the anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square.

What are these rules and conventions? They may be explicitly set out in religious tracts or political ideology, or they may be much subtler, never set out clearly yet somehow understood and accepted (willingly or unwillingly). Social convention may govern how we behave sexually or in our relations with people from different races or faiths; it may silently set the rules of acceptance about property ownership or appropriate behaviour in public - and in private; determine the role of gender and the contribution due from and respect to different age groups, and so on.

In contemporary society, it is generally accepted that millions of ordinary people feel powerless to change society or even have much control over their lives. Unlike at least some previous generations, however, the will to fight for change seems muted even although, superficially at least, there are greater freedoms in terms of speech and more ability to transmit ideas than ever before. And yet, whether bought off by the bread and circuses of mass media and home entertainment or isolated and disempowered by job insecurity and a decline in community cohesion, many are deeply accepting of the status quo - the Queen shall reign forevermore, while Capitalism is the inevitable, irreplaceable climax of history. "They" will always rule "us" and there is nothing we can do - nothing indeed we should even wish to do - to change this.

Engels identified this mindset as one of "false consciousness":
Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker. Consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. ...It is above all this appearance of an independent history of state constitutions, of systems of law, of ideological conceptions in every separate domain, which dazzles most people.

On this basis, the rulers maintain their authority: there is often an implicit threat of violence if there is a real challenge, but more often than not does not require deployment, because people succumb to conventions and myths that subconsciously compel them to comply whilst consciously believing they are in fact making an informed choice. So in a capitalist society the unhealthy concept of endless competition with others being at the root of all social interaction becomes accepted as a fundamental and inevitable component of human nature. It could be typified as almost the Stockholm Syndrome of the masses.

But history shows how this can unravel - in pain and tears as in the Russian Revolution and civil war, followed by the new oppression of Stalinism; or more hopefully in the rise of Chavez in Venezuela and Correa in Ecuador. A new consciousness can be born, usually, perhaps sadly, from adversity. The old decays and eventually a new paradigm arises, but how that is shaped is critical to the new order - whether mass consciousness awakens to shape change deliberately and equitably, or whether one set of "They" is replaced by another. Do we have an elite revolutionary vanguard, which history shows can be readily corrupted by the power it seeks to acquire in order to disperse (never quite getting round to the latter)? Or can change genuinely come from mass bodies, decentralised, open, democratic - as the original Soviets briefly were in the heady days of 1917?

It is more than a historical hypothetical - for never more in human history has there been a greater degree of false consciousness around acceptance of the free market and capitalism; yet never have there been greater dangers if this destructive force is not stopped, tamed and destroyed. For capitalism in its ever onward drive to commodify and consume is driving our world to exhaustion and our species to extinction.

Since 2008 the banking crisis has for the first time in maybe twenty years or more led to people questioning the effectiveness and equity of the market system. The coming food crisis may propel this forward as the corporate grip on global food supply and the speculation in hunger that is manifest in the obscene trading of "food futures" in stock markets are revealed as the drivers of inflation and starvation. The 1% concept favoured by the Occupy Movement is technically wide of the mark as there is a substantial degree of unjust inequality among the remaining 99% as well. Yet it powerfully portrays the sequestering of wealth by a tiny elite - "them" - and could, finally and very consciously give the Left both the platform and the audience to show that in a socially just society, "They" can finally and irrevocably be replaced by "Us" - all of us.

Below: Welsh singer Jem released this understated and surprisingly dark song some years ago; its theme of compliance with  the rules set by "them" and how we make our own prisons has never been so pertinent.

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