The Other Side of Despair’s Abyss
[The scene, an almost vacant lecture hall in a still functioning university; not that there aren’t a lot of universities, just that most are dysfunctional. The lights are a bit dim, some of the bulbs are out and have not been replaced, … budget cuts are being made.
An earnest professor is lecturing, apparently oblivious to the apathy of most of his audience, not an unusual quality in current academia. His somewhat unruly hair is streaked with silver but still dark, his eyes a hazel shade of green but tinged with a bit of red where they ought to be white, his frame a bit stockier than he’d like. He’s dressed in jeans and loafers, a dress shirt and a blazer; professorial as though perhaps that might help get his message across.
He continues a discourse he appears to have started earlier:]
Rouse the rabble is fast becoming the rallying cry of the losers in purportedly democratic contests, depriving the winners of legitimacy; now not only a favored tactic but one tried and true, grown from a political hypothesis to a theory of governance. Tried often enough and effectively enough to become, in relativist terms, a new flavor of relativist truth. Ecuador most recently, the United States a bit earlier, Venezuela, almost permanently throughout this new millennia. The temporal frontiers once provided by the verisimilitude of purportedly democratic elections now just an inconvenience, witness Paraguay and Honduras and the Ukraine and Brazil.
What an inconvenience to have to honor the ruse of popular elections when, as the newly minted American president recently discovered, most of us know that political elections change very little in the era of the state as a tool rather than as a primary actor, although when that era started we really don’t know, perhaps it’s coexistent with republican forms of government, or perhaps even older, perhaps much older.
The world seems in a sorry state as the second decade of the third millennium of the modern era starts to wind down. But then again, it seems as if it’s been on the brink of the apocalypse all of our lives. Today, the Middle East lies in ruins but not nearly as destroyed as Israel and the United States would rend it; the Far East seems next on the planning boards, unless something more promising crops up on Russia’s borders again, the Ukraine was fun but there’s more to be squeezed there.
[In the audience a young man stands, very well dressed, a mocking smile on his face, he has a pad in one hand and a recorder in the other, a press card is pinned to his lapel. The professor motions for him to speak:]
Truth is relative professor, more so now than ever, and it’s not a bad thing, not for everyone, relativity is liberating. For example, we journalists used to be a bit envious of our brethren in fiction as a genre, their conclusions needn’t have anything to do with logic, endings could always be changed, … But we need no longer be envious. That strategy is now most satisfactorily imbedded in our own quotidian “journalism”, and it needn’t even involve the tedium writing one’s own stories used to involve; pretty good drafts are now available from political proxies and unnamable government sources.
The public just eats it up and doesn’t even care when both premises and facts are changed at dizzying paces. Can you imagine what a peaceful world would do to profits, and not just in the military-industrial-intelligence complex? Ike forgot that latter part even if he was responsible in large part for giving it birth)? For us in the media, this is another golden age, like the era when Pulitzer and Hearst ran the country.
[The professor responds, sardonically]
Heady days! Politicians are now wondering if they can follow suit without getting sued. If relativity were as you believe it to be, they could just legislate away problems like environmental threats and even just inconveniently rainy days, telling the incredibly but wonderfully gullible public they just don’t exist anymore. Unless, of course, they can be blamed on the opposition, and that’s easy when you’re comfortably ensconced in the “big boys” pockets.
“Oh oh” whispers the event moderator, hidden till now, to a companion on his left, both seated on a table at the extreme right of the stage! “Damn it!!! That won’t help our funding. Won’t help at all. But hopefully no one will listen to it, and if they do, they won’t believe it, and if they believe it, well, hopefully they won’t pay attention”.
[Now for a boring interlude; fade to black and white, a kind of reversal of the classical Wizard of Oz film. The dialogue or lecture, or whatever it is continues]:
Anyway, back to the topic at hand, our current state of incoherent dysfunctionality, its causes and likely consequences.
There appear to be natural laws governing societal relations that we grasp but insist on ignoring, like the tendency of “means” to evolve into dysfunctional ends. Means ought to be like hypotheses, rejected when they prove inadequate in favor of improved variants while ends ought to involve goals with a sense of permanence, thus when means move into the realm of ends but without independent goals, the result tends to be perpetuation of something that ought to be evolutive. As a consequence, ineffective “means” attain the permanence of ends but without goals.
The most obvious current example, at least to me, at least this morning, involves the common welfare which ought to be an end-goal, and democracy, which ought to be a means. Democracy, as a concept, has been so stuffed with antagonic but desirable components as to render it impossible as a means, but rather than have it undergo an evolutive process in order to arrive at an improved synthesis, it has been transformed into an end without a goal, and of course, that end is utterly dysfunctional. Rather than assist in attaining common welfare it now divides us into warring factions dedicated to assuring failure by our opponents rather than the justice, equity and wellbeing for all, or at least, for the vast majority, that ought to be implicit in the end-goal it ought to assist in attaining.
The failure starts with merging the concept of democracy into a polyglot of goals, many of which are ends-goals. As a pure means, democracy is merely participatory government with decisions based on the will of the majority. Efficient results from this means mechanism require motivated and active electors with access to complete and accurate information and, of course, with adequate mental capabilities; however, efficient is not synonymous with beneficent and thus, in and of itself, democracy is not sufficient to attain the end-goal of common welfare, it must be reconciled with liberty and pluralism, and tempered by justice and equity and equality. That combination, much too frequently encapsulated under the banner of democracy, needs its own composite name and for a while, the term “liberal government” proved adequate. Unfortunately, liberal government never really evolved, perverted through perversion of the “means” for mass communication and the development of behavioral psychology as an effective and efficient, albeit somewhat malevolent discipline.
[A student raises his hand and the professor acknowledges him: “Yes, do you have an observation?” The student rises and, a bit embarrassed, asks:]
“Professor, are we planning to take a break soon, and will there be any coffee?”
[The professor responds, surprisingly unsurprised:]
“No, we won’t be here much longer and I apologize about the coffee, but you know, are budget has been cut for all non-essentials, and apparently, there are those who no longer consider coffee essential. So, if there are no further comments, we’ll continue.”
As I said before our brief, err, break, as used in occidental culture, democracy is not limited to participatory governance but merges with the ends–goals of liberty and pluralism, each of which is antagonic to the other, as well as with evolving means grouped together in the evolving concept of rights. The concept of rights has in turn been merged with the very different but also very similar concept of public grants. Both share common ends-goals but vary sharply as to means.
Rights are inherent, inalienable, permanent and unconditional (and thus mythic), while grants of privileges are essentially gifts from higher authorities (e.g., the state) and can thus be conditioned in any manner that the grantor desires. The confusion of the two concepts erroneously presented as one under the nomenclature of rights is, of course, dysfunctional as the owners in the case of rights and beneficiaries in the case of privileges, consider them synonymous, but have very different expectations, especially as to their attainment. The unfortunate truth is that while we are promised rights, none currently exist, everything we think of as rights being merely grants, which explains why they can be so easily withheld and denied. Governments clearly understand that what they offer as rights are merely grants, not so those who expect to benefit from them and our outraged when perceived promises fail to materialize.
The utter and unavoidable confusion resulting from these shifts from means to ends and related mergers creates a profound dissatisfaction among the vast majority of the governed since none of the related concepts work and the forgotten end-goal, the common welfare, becomes no more than a mirage, unattainable across a vast gulf with all the bridges twisted in among themselves, leading nowhere. If something like this happened to our computers, a competent (albeit perhaps not brilliant) technician would advise us to reboot. But how do we do this with respect to our society?
The first step would seem to be an analytical reevaluation whose goal would be primordial: trying to disentangle the components and accurately identify them and their functions, something we might (but in light of relativist hypothesis perhaps ought not) describe as a quest for truths. If we can accurately determine where we are as well as where we would rather be, we can start to work on the means and tools we require to get there, there being our ends-goals.
Of course, the main obstacle to that today is that there really is no workable “we” hypothesis, although perhaps in a very generalized fashion, we can be divided into three working groups. The smallest and vastly most powerful group is comprised of the tiny fraction for whom the current dysfunctional system functions just fine, and who control all the available means including those necessary to keep the ends-goals obfuscated. This group is centered on the present, utterly short sighted and almost completely resistant to change in the overall structure of governance and wealth allocation. A second group, a large group, is comprised of those who might best be analogized to the victims of prudent vampires. They are maintained relatively healthy so that they can keep catering to the needs of the first group and through behavioral techniques are led to believe that they have a capacity to attain change and to better their lives, even to ascend to the first group. While they are provided the illusion of power, they are manipulated so that they become willing tools in an exclusionary decision making process, willingly making decisions against their own best interests. Finally, there exists a very large group comprised of those for whom neither the first nor most of the second group has any real use and who are consequently much less than merely expendable. Interestingly, the foregoing characterization works as well for states as it does for individuals.
Since the initial, smallest but most favored group controls almost all the means required for change, meaningful change, the kind of change required to attain the common welfare, attainment of such change is at best extremely improbable, short of nonconsensual revolution. And as the initial group develops more and more effective violent means of control and more strongly enthralls the second group, the possibility for nonconsensual revolution becomes less and less likely.
Perceiving the foregoing, the least well off group evolves within its midst individuals and subgroups disinclined to accept the status quo, who, realizing that many of the societally imposed restraints are merely psychological, feel free to reject such restraints. We should note that nonconsensual revolution is a means rather than an end, but that in the midst of its execution, the roles all too frequently reverse as survival morphs into the end-goal and the original end-goal of equality, equity and justice fades more and more, until it is no longer remembered.
Having nothing to lose leaders within the third group become more and more receptive to risking everything as everything becomes more and more synonymous with nothing, using any means to attain the original end-goal of common welfare, but which almost always becomes perverted into a necessary but almost always unsuccessful precursor, a dysfunctional synthesis of anarchy and authoritarianism designed to create chaos and from chaos, a reinitiation of the social process. Their principal means thus becomes what the first two groups refer to as terrorism.
Perhaps, in the long term, that may lead to progress but it seems just as likely to lead to common annihilation, although as far as the multiverse is concerned, perhaps our annihilation and progress are synonymous.
While the foregoing is not inevitable, it seems more probable than not. If we look in a mirror reflecting the state of our western democracy, assuming our eyes are open and our minds clear (not all that likely for most of us), we would see that polarization has become the common theme, virulent polarization without ends-goals but rather, only means designed to assure the failure of our opponents, and damn the costs. That does not seem promising. In too many cases our perverted versions of democracy result in inept, ineffective and corrupt governments and destructive oppositions. Venezuela today is an example, but more and more so, so is the United States, inept internally and destructive externally. And the world community? Not better at all.
Of course, if we somehow reoriented our ends-goals and means, recalling that it is the common welfare that matters and were willing to reevaluate the means necessary to attain it; if the more powerful among us became less myopic and realized that their own long term welfare, perhaps even survival, is tied to everyone else’s welfare, even with just our current technology and resources we could attain a virtual paradise.
Democracy might work if we took our responsibility for governance seriously and if the institutions responsible for educating us and keeping us accurately informed could be adequately reformed. But if not, there may be hybrids of democracy, oligarchy and even autocracy that might attain common welfare. Perhaps one where citizens willing to legally bind themselves to political obligations would govern and the rest just enjoy the fruits of their labor, until they too were willing to play a role. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
So, any questions, comments, observations, complaints? If not, then I would like to thank all of you very much for participating, or at least, for attending. If any of you would like to discuss this further, you can contact me at ….
[Fade to very dark with a spotlight on the professor, who looks up at his audience, noticing many had already left (including the young journalist who had made some comments at the beginning), a few are fast asleep, but one very beautiful young lady has been listening attentively. She has long dark hair and very large, very dark eyes, a single tear coursing down her cheek. She raises her hand and the professor acknowledges her. She stands tall, she is tall and willowy with very long legs, she is wearing a short denim skirt, an off-white Irish knit sweater, and penny loafers. Looking at him, in a soft, sad voice, she says:]
“Hope springs eternal but right now, it seems to be on the other side of despair’s abyss”.
[The professor smiles albeit sadly, packs his books and leaves his podium. A twin tear gleams in his eye. He shakes her hand and they leave chatting quietly.]
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved