On the need for ideological control (and debt peonage) in democratic societies

Until 2008, I mostly ignored 'economics' as an area of study, as the subject bored me, and I found the mindset too unpleasant. I changed my mind because of the financial crisis, as it made me realize we can't leave economic policy to 'experts.'

I started out responsibly, by reading the serious media, paying special attention to those who were framed as critics, to see how they explained things. Most of what I read there didn't really explain much, though, as they tended to present the crisis as a fluke or a "natural disaster", and the "f word" was hardly ever mentioned. This struck me as suspect, given how beneficial the run-up had been to some, and given the lies we'd been fed during the lead-up the invasion of Iraq and the Dot-com bubble. So I started searching for other sources, until I ran across Naked Capitalism, and shortly after David Harvey's work. Since then, I've slowly been (re-)educating myself.

It's been over a decade, now. Yet very little has changed with respect to how the crisis is popularly understood, even in alternative circles. And although I wasn't expecting many to make the same journey I made -- what with my having much more time, interest and energy to engage with this stuff than most --, the lack of fellow travelers, and willingness to maintain skepticism when faced with unanimous opposition, has puzzled and worried me. Because while many seem frustrated with the status quo, very few, but especially few educated people -- i.e., very few of my peers -- seem interested in these issues, let alone in developing alternatives.

Of course, the educated have never been as radical as they like to portray ourselves in the history books they get to write. But it made little sense to me that most of my peers are uninterested in the topic, when more people have university degrees than ever, and when back in the 1960s and 70s everyone on the right was worrying about 'student radicalism' -- something which is just about wholly absent today. This led me to wonder what gets in the way of the belief in solidarity on the one hand, and willingness to challenge establishment thinking and institutional power on the other.

There obviously is no simple answer to this question. But thanks to Tom Frank's Listen, Liberal, Rosenberg's, Harvey's, Parenti's and Chomsky's work, I do think that I've identified the most important elements of the answer as to why these most educated generations (and the political parties they people) are so silent and apathetic, especially when it comes to issues of economic justice, institutionalized inequality, and public and private -- corporate -- abuse of power. I'd like to discuss a few reasons that I think deserve more attention that they're currently getting here, starting with the least discussed.

As Chomsky has noted, and Rosenberg has explained, the structure of the institutions responsible for the "indoctrination of the young" -- and here I'll mainly be talking about the school system -- is deliberately anti-egalitarian. This because they (implicitly) promote meritocracy as the organizing principle and ideal (which Lockean liberalism, and theories founded on that, can then build on). Rosenberg discusses the mechanisms in much more  detail here, but to summarize them, what they try to inculcate is:

  • 'respect' for institutional power and those who wield it; 
  • obedience towards those with institutional power, who determine what is 'right', desirable and permissible, and who decide what you must do to prove yourself and get ahead, no matter how pointless or boring the tasks are to you, doling out rewards and punishments in order to motivate you;
  • hierarchical thinking and experiencing shame (via rank ordering students, grading, awards);
  • a strong sensitivity to 'individually earned' -- extrinsic -- rewards (such as fame, status, high income, opportunities for advancement, via the rewards & punishments they dole out depending on how they value your actions, rather than a focus on intrinsic enjoyment of the activity, a desire to contribute to other's well-being); and lastly,
  • a focus on 'approved' subjects (to the detriment of others), irrespective of your own interests.

Given that today, all westerners -- but necessarily people with credentials (esp. college degrees), who are most likely to end up in influential positions -- are exposed to this moral logic for up to two decades, by the time we're adults, we have been well-trained:

  1. to instinctively accept and value the opinions of authority figures (i.e., those with credentials or titles in an area of 'expertise', and institutional power), 
  2. to regard their opinions as 'facts' (because they determine what's right); 
  3. to ignore people who lack said credentials or institutional access, and who aren't platformed by the establishment structures (i.e., the corporate and state media).

In this way, the democratization of access to tertiary education has exposed many more people to this mindset for far longer than used to be the case. (While those who rebel against it, and 'against authority' generally, are usually 'disqualified' through their 'inappropriate' behavior, such as anger, 'hyperactivity,' and so on.) Which means this mindset could spread far more widely, and take far deeper root, than before, when university attendance was the prerogative of the affluent.

And thanks to the tuition price hikes that started in the mid-1970s, anyone who now wants a degree must agree to heavily indebt themselves to gain those credentials, which creates a further barrier to having and sticking to one's principles, as it also means you must find a well-paying job post-graduation if you want to have any hope of 'freeing' yourself from that debt burden (by becoming a wage slave). Similarly, while housing costs used to take up about 30% of a single (white male's) income, it's now up to 40% of a dual income family, so that people need to work way longer hours to make a living. (An issue that's exacerbated further by cost increases in other areas, decreasing job security, wage cuts, and so on.) Which is something that obviously strongly affects how much time and energy people have available for self-education and organizing.

In the talk I've embedded at the top, Chomsky provides a very good high-level explanation and summary of both the importance and the mechanics of the creation and maintenance of 'public opinion' by elites to shape the public sphere. He explains how topics and opinions are kept in and out of public view, by controlling how much airtime any given issue (including global warming, the financial "crisis", and any given war) receives, as well as who gets to speak on it. He explains why this kind of cultural control is of particular importance in 'free' societies, where you can't get away with violently repressing the (upper) middle class. And note that the fewer alternative news platforms and networks (including unions, church groups, political parties) there are, the greater the reach of the opinions of the corporate media becomes (and thanks to the internet, the elite media are ever more available, since literally everyone can now freely reference the NYT, WaPo, LATimes, Guardian, and so on).

I hope this talk plus my comments help folks to better understand why these most educated cohorts in history are so docile, and why even most self-identified progressives and critics largely stick to the boundaries established by the elite media, and suggest a few ways of pushing back against this when you run across (or up against) it. And why so many socially important topics get so little airtime, even as we are constantly bombarded with trivia, without 'critical' people really picking up on or objecting to this.

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