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

Until 2008, I'd mostly been ignoring political economy as an area of study, as the subject bored me, and I found the mindset too unpleasant. The financial crisis changed this, and alerted me to the fact it wasn't wise to leave this to the 'experts' (who hadn't seen the crisis coming).

I started out doing the responsible thing, and informing myself by reading the serious media, paying special interest to those who were critics, to see how they explained things. Most of what I read there didn't really explain much, however, as the crisis tended to be presented as a fluke or a "natural disaster", while the "f word" was barely even mentioned. This suggested collective blindness to me, given how beneficial the run-up had been to some, and given what I already knew about (the lies leading up to) the invasion of Iraq, and the Dot-Com bubble. So I started looking for alternative sources, moving around until I encountered Naked Capitalism, and David Harvey's work. Since then, I've slowly been (re-)educating myself, and unlearning to accept the status quo as normal.

But even though it's been a decade, very little has changed with respect to how the 2008 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 entertain healthy skepticism when it comes to mainstream accounts of what happened, has puzzled and worried me. Because at the same time many people seem frustrated with the status quo, very few, but especially few educated people -- i.e., very few of my peers -- seem willing or interested in thinking about these issues, let alone organizing against them. Of course, the educated have never been as radical as we like to portray ourselves. But it made little sense to me that so many of my peers, most of whom see themselves as progressive and critical thinkers, are so uninterested in the topic, when more people have university degrees than ever, when back in the 1970s everyone on the right was worrying about 'student radicals'.

This led me to wonder what gets in the way of the belief in solidarity on the one hand, and of being willing to challenge establishment thinking and institutional power on the other.

There obviously is no simple answer to this. But thanks to Tom Frank's Listen, Liberal, Marshall Rosenberg's NVC, David Harvey's and Noam Chomsky's work, I do think that I've identified the most important elements, why it is that these most educated generations (and the political parties they people) are so very silent and apathetic, especially when it comes to issues of economic justice, institutionalized inequality, and public and private -- corporate -- abuse of power. And although I only recently discovered that Chomsky has been talking about the symptoms (obedience, apathy, unwillingness to question mainstream narratives) for decades, his remarks don't seem to have received much uptake, nor does he have seemed to done so himself. As such, I'd like to say a little bit about this here, because it seems to me that this is a pretty fundamental issue, deserving of much more attention than it's currently getting (for more detailed discussions of the same patterns, I'd refer you here and here).

As Chomsky has noted, and Rosenberg has explained, one problem we face is that 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. Briefly put, it (implicitly) promotes meritocracy as an 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 let me summarize them here: cultivating 'respect' for institutional power and those who wield it (who get to dole out rewards and punishments, promotions and demotions, passes and fails); obedience (because those with institutional power determine what is 'right', desirable and permissible, and they decide what you must do to prove yourself and get ahead, no matter how pointless or boring the tasks are to you); hierarchical thinking and shaming (via rank ordering students, grading, awards); and a very 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); and lastly, a focus on 'approved' subjects (to the detriment of others), irrespective of what your own interests are.

Given that nearly everyone -- but necessarily those with credentials like college degrees, who are most likely to end up in influential positions -- is exposed to this moral logic for up to two decades, by the time we're adults, we've been well-trained 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), and to regard their opinions as 'facts' (because they determine what's right); and 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 led -- and has in fact forced -- many more people to expose themselves to this mindset for far longer than used to be the case. (While those who rebel against this system, and 'against authority' mostly disqualify themselves through their inappropriate behavior, including anger.) Which meant this mindset could spread far wider, and to take far deeper root, than it used to.

And thanks to the tuition price hikes that started in the mid-1970s, anyone who now wants a degree must agree to become a debt peon if they want to gain those credentials, which creates a further barrier to having and sticking to one's principles, as it also means you must find well-paying jobs after graduation if you want to have any hope of 'freeing' yourself from that debt burden (by becoming a wage slave). Similarly, while housing used to cost about 30% of a single income, it's now up to 40% of a dual income family, with people needing to work way longer hours to make a living. This obviously also strongly affects how much time and energy people have available for self-education and organizing, and that's another big problem.

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 and every war) receives, and 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 oppressing the middle class (though not members of marginalized groups, including the poor). And note that the fewer alternative news platforms and networks (including unions, church groups) there are, the greater the reach of the opinions of the corporate (and thanks to the internet, especially the elite) media becomes.

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 I hope it clarifies why so many socially important topics get so little airtime, even as we are constantly bombarded with trivia.

To name just a few topics that I think deserve to be talked about more than they currently are: the growth crisis we're experiencing (and how it relates to the lack of affordable housing; the ongoing environmental catastrophe; mass incarceration of (poor) people of color in the US; and the ongoing, slow-motion genocide of human beings who live on or near resources that we feel are ours to use -- actions we "justify" by pointing to the fact that some of the people who live there (who often receive western training) use violence in response to violence we inflict on them, or on people they care about (that is, aggression we largely justify using the logic of the bully: provoking someone until they retaliate, and then ramping up the violence because 'they attacked us').

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