The trouble with individuals and with societies


It’s been a tough week. The kids brought home another gift from school—this time stomach flu—which kept me pretty much bed-ridden for days. At the same time I developed a toothache that spread across my face and had me chewing Advils like candy.

“Personal troubles” of this sort have nothing to do with sociology, at least according to the textbooks, so I suppose from a societal view I have little to complain about. But the individual is the smallest unit of any society of course. Sociology textbooks point out three different views: the individual view, the micro-sociological view and the macro-sociological view.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about how our society is functioning—especially with respect to the social commonwealth. By commonwealth I mean the way we establish our common principals for interacting, and how we commit to sharing with and protecting our neighbours. So the question becomes, does the individual shape the society? Or does the society shape the individual?

Interestingly, the sociology textbooks address these questions in a different way. These texts propose that societies function as independent organisms, not as rational collections of individual thoughts. In other words, societies can be something far beyond the sum of the individual parts. This would explain, for example, the irrational genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, as well as irrational outcome of fascism in Europe resulting in the Second World War. When society goes awry, individual sanity seems to fall off the tracks along with it.

This isn’t something recent or new. Human societies over the past 4000 years have consistently and periodically behaved in a manner that we might define as rationally insane—or at the very least, rationally warlike. For example, some 2400 years ago during the Peloponnesian War the Athenians invaded the neutral island state of Melos and exterminated every male on the island, keeping the women and children as the resource material to help them repopulate the island as Athenian.

The ancient Jews exterminated the Amalekite and Midianite peoples in two separate acts of genocide recorded in and sanctioned by the Old Testament.

The systematic and continuous mass extermination of the North American aboriginals from the arrival of Columbus on into the 20th Century is perhaps the best known, unwarranted and most egregious practice of genocide in history, with up to 10 million individuals wiped out, along with their culture which was at least as advanced as the European civilization of the time.

Rationally insane might seem to be an oxymoron. But how could otherwise rational individuals perform acts, which, under normal circumstances, appear to be insane? How could (and can) trained soldiers continue to slaughter defenceless women, children and babies? One need not dwell on specific and all too numerous instances to acknowledge the extent of such atrocities over the course of our history. And it’s a practice that knows no exemption on any continent or among any peoples. We all seem to be infected.

We, the People…

War does not exist in the animal world. Recent studies suggest that chimpanzees and other great apes do practice some type of gang aggression and group murder, including infanticide. However, among all other animal species on the entire planet, organized group warfare is unknown.

Humans are the only species that truly makes war. In terms of mental images, simply picture the African savannah where the lions, rhinos and elephants are naturally regal, and where we humans, even in full regalia dressed for war seem pathetically incidental—until we mount a horse or a tank or an SUV.

And perhaps, therein, lies the origin of our warfare. Not blessed with large size, armoured bodies, long teeth or claws, or even excessive speed, we human beings had to work with their advantages: the ability to create tools and to dress up and work together to defend ourselves in a hostile world filled with highly specialized predators. It became “we, the people” versus everything else.

At some point, groups of our ancestors became so successful at grouping together to defeat animal predators that they encountered other groups of successful humans. Before long the groups, forced to share the same territory, came into some kind of dispute. For the first time, “we, the people” faced off against “they, the outsiders.”

Anthropologists, in their study of cultures from around the world, have found that the dominant culture often describes itself as “the people.” That is the meaning of the word “Inuit,” for example. This distinguishes one group as real, and the other as beneficial, irrelevant or expendable, depending on the circumstance.

So, what binds a people together is a common view of belonging, and some form of belief system to sustain that view over the long haul and in effect to ensure the active exclusion of outsiders.

In mature or culturally stagnant communities, such as the 200-year-old one in which I currently live, this is a clear pattern. Those who “come from away” will never be fully integrated into the old guard community, and this is publicly acknowledged both jokingly or seriously. Those outsiders who challenge the status quo are ostracized, at least to the full extent that the locals can manage.

This common view of belonging and the belief system supporting it over generations is founded in ideology. Ideology is a powerful thing, whether it’s Confucianism, Christian-ism, Islamism, Satanism, communism, fascism, capitalism, mercantilism, corporatism, environmentalism, naturalism or any other ideological “ism.” At the core, all of these share a common plank, a belief in a “right” path.

What should be abundantly clear over human history is that no ideology is universal and eternal. The workings of human societies are still mysterious and require ongoing flexible readjustment, retooling and care. If there is any universal standard, it is that a concerted and vigorous ongoing effort to retain equality among people—all people—is the only practice that will allow multi-inter-societal cooperation and harmony.

To do otherwise is to invite the inevitable coalescing of reactive group behaviour, and ultimately conflict—as two irrationally polarized group organisms collide. Then “we, the people” may dispose of “they, the alien outsiders” in whatever manner deemed necessary at the time, without regard to ethics, morals or so-called “human rights.”

Following the herd

Herd behaviour among human societies has also been well documented, and war is its most dramatic example. America’s rush to the Iraq War is a good example of this, and, as it’s often cited to the point of cliché, the fact Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center, nor was he in possession of any so-called weapons of mass destruction.

The interesting thing is the evolution of the call to herd behaviour. Simple love of the land was initially enough to get groups of people to herd together to protect their territory. That was reshaped into patriotism, then distorted into propaganda and finally reengineered into mass marketing and public relations, which now infiltrate and affect every aspect of our lives—including the rush to war.

The wonderful thing that leaders discover, is when herd behaviour kicks in, rational independent logical thought disappears or is repressed, giving the leader full control and ultimate power over life and death and even over the rule of constitutional law, which may be revoked at the stroke of a pen if it doesn’t serve the immediate goal of the leader and his herd. The elegantly misnamed “Patriot Act” is a good example of a retrograde constitutional track, and one that sets an ominous and possibly irreversible legislative drift toward reducing hard-won civil rights and freedoms.

This herd behaviour, of course, can only be justified using an overriding ideological screen accepted by all parties, including government, the media and corporate interests. Public terms for such ideological nonsense include “freeing the Iraqi people,” or “bringing democracy to the Middle East.”

Herding a nation to war involves invoking the exclusive, territorial, ideological and totalitarian. The nation herds itself to give all to take all. At this point, independent individual logic disappears.

Herd behaviour and war are not restricted to nations. Class war is international or trans-national. Civil war and class war can be combined into an intra-national context in which one national group seeks to dominate or subordinate another national group. Again, the same ideological forces are at work.

The recent financial meltdown in the U.S., Iceland, Greece, Spain and the U.K. is an example of rigging national financial systems to the benefit of the few at the expense of entire populations. Deregulation of the financial services industry, the creation of complex casino-style investment instruments and the detachment of cash from actual property, the theorization of money, has created a mandarin class which has proven it can hold powerful nations to ransom as it ransacks their economies for unparalleled financial gain for the few at the top.

Ironically, one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenals of those financial elites is the fear of herd behaviour in the marketplace. One the one hand their ideology espouses the virtues of the Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the free market, and on the other hand their control-extortion practices extol the dangers of rampant herd behaviour in the marketplace if governments don’t comply with their demands—for public bailout money, supervision of said bailout money or limits to the imposition of new protective regulations that might be placed on their industry.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” has become a vicious but useful threat-cycle for these highly influential and predatory insider groups.

The incorporation of brand Earth

With globalization the concept of a “nation” paradigm has been irrevocably altered. What has been inserted into the dynamic is the unregulated multi-national corporation, a relatively new phenomenon. This entity has sprung, fully realized, from the body of the old East India Company of Great Britain, the original corporate face of British military colonialism and planned exploitation of subordinated nations.

Today, anybody with a “real job” works for a corporation. The rest of us are government employees, some form of entrepreneurs, serfs to entrepreneurs or simply unemployed. The best jobs require résumés featuring a string of former positions, all neatly incrementalized up the corporate ladder, with brand name employers. And the bigger the brands, such as Google, Coca-Cola or General Electric, the more effective on the résumé.

The branding occurs well before the first job posting. Big branding for résumés is the backbone of the new credentializing industry that has taken off over the past 40 years. A Harvard education is worth more than an NYU degree. An NYU degree is worth more than a Bemidji State University degree simply by virtue of brand recognition and geographic proximity to power.

The ideological context could not be clearer. Capitalism and its branding features are now the dominant driving social forces in the modern world. This, of course, is plutocracy, but practiced on a scale never before seen. Unlike social entities that might strive for individual equality, this new corporate social force is directed toward only one thing—the survival of the corporation and the maximum return in profits on the least amount of investment. In short, plunder.

The late Buckminster Fuller, as a friend of mine often points out, was an early warning prophet about corporations. He saw them as armies of giants. Specifically, here’s what he wrote in the late 1970s and early 1980s:

“Since there exists just such an invisible, abstract, legal-contrivance army of giants, we have invented the word GRUNCH as the group designation—"a grunch of giants." GR-UN-C-H, which stands for annual Gross Universe Cash Heist, pays annual dividends of over one trillion U.S. dollars.

“GRUNCH is engaged in the only-by-instruments-reached-and-operated, entirely invisible chemical, metallurgical, electronic, and cybernetic realms of reality… The grunch of giants consists of the corporately interlocked owners of a vast invisible empire, which includes airwaves and satellites; plus a vast visible empire… It controls the financial credit system of the noncommunist [and now most of the communist] world together with all the financial means of initiating any world-magnitude mass-production and -distribution ventures. By making pre-graduation employment contracts with almost all promising university science students, it monopolizes all the special theoretical know-how to exploit its vast inventory of already acquired invisible know-how technology.”

Fuller goes on to say…

“It would cost only 3 percent of GRUNCH’s annual dividend earnings to not only feed all those now starving to death [1981] but also to alleviate the dire poverty around the entire planet, since the population explosion is occurring strictly amongst impoverished people. Such a world initiative on the part of GRUNCH would eliminate one of the two great threats to humanity's continuance on planet Earth: nuclear bombing and overpopulation.

“The great communism vs. capitalism, politico-economic world stand-off assumes a fundamental inadequacy of life support to exist on our planet. So too do the four major religions assume that it must be you or us, never enough for both. Jointly the two political camps have spent $6.5 trillion in the last thirty-three years to buy the capability to kill all humanity in one hour.”

And on the nature of corporations he says…

“Man-made laws, legal agreements, royal fiats are not tools. Man-made laws and customs are not technology. They are political power ploys, originally instituted only by-physical-might-asserted and -sustained "rights." Corporations are not tools. They are conventionally accepted power-proclaimed legal contrivances.

“The supranationals have now completely forsaken their leadership in the once-upon-a-long-ago-time, prohumanity, industrial mass-production, gained exclusively through individual inventive ingenuity, integrity, and local community pride in producing only the best possible products…

“It is the strategic prerogative of the invisible corporate giant to unilaterally and arbitrarily alter the scoring values in the economic game of "earning a living" vs. either "winning a living" or "tricking a living." The corporate colossus alters the scoring values by increasing prices to ensure that the industrial game will always be won only by the “richest”…

“Each of the giants of today’s great GRUNCH is a quadrillionfold more formidable than was Goliath. Each is entirely invisible, abstract, and completely ruthless—not because those who run the show are malevolent but because the giant is a non-human corporation, a many-centuries-old, royal-legal-advisor-invented institution. The giant is a so one-sidedly biased abstract legal invention that its exploitation by the power structures of thirty generations have made the XYZ corporations and companies seemingly as much a part of nature as the phases of the Moon and clouds of the sky. Corporations operate on an unnatural economic basis that makes a successful Las Vegas roulette bet a trifling success…”

And of the new global political reality, Fuller states…

“The now-predominantly-literate world population of 1981 has developed an intuitive awareness of the illogicality and even madness of all political systems.”

Interestingly, Fuller comes to these conclusions—that corporations are innately non-human and completely ruthless, and that the public already intuitively understands that opposing political ideologies are irrelevant, and in fact quite literally mad—from his point of view as an engineer and fellow Earthling.

We might dismiss Fuller’s views on the corporate collective as overly pessimistic or even paranoid. After all, in the real world corporations have to compete to exist, and many fail or are absorbed by other corporations within a few short years or decades. Yahoo competes with Google for browser dominance, Research In Motion competes with Apple for the mobile phone market. Winners and losers are determined by which one can better play the game.

The very idea, however, of individual corporations competing for survival and dominance anthropomorphizes them. And that very notion conveys a transference of meaning. Are corporations sentient beings? Do corporations have survival instincts? Do corporations fear death? In my own limited experience, and as the owner of a small, dormant corporation, I have learned that it is more difficult to take a corporation out of existence than it is to bring it into being. Governments have stringent policies about the extinction of any legal corporation due to the potential responsibilities and liabilities that corporation accrued over its “lifetime.” So, unless old corporations are vigorously put to death or merged with other corporate entities, they usually descend into a legal limbo for an unlimited period of time until they finally fade away.

And all corporations have the built-in ability to outlive their founders and all of their employees, possessing the theoretical equivalent of eternal life.

Looking left, right and centre

What Buckminster Fuller mentioned but did not entirely address is the fact that new human systems are additive rather than alternative. New systems, for the most part, leave old systems in place. Corporations are just more recent power structures applied to the older, existing power structures, which provide the legacy foundations for the new entities. Therefore, the leaders of corporations acknowledge the reality of dealing with governments of all kinds, in some kind of ritual power dance. They find this dance much easier in post-industrial democratic consumer societies in which lobbying, relatively passive voters and wads of financial funding can warp the political systems to corporate advantage. This, however, is not possible in more totalitarian regimes, such as that in China, so corporate concessions must be made to the ruling political classes in those nations.

One would expect, correctly, that this corporate approach to totalitarian regimes results in corruption in high places, and indeed throughout those government bureaucracies. And indeed the corporately-fuelled corruption seems to be as widespread in totalitarian communist states as in democratic states.

The key to corporate power in politics, of course, is always having a ready supply of morally compromised candidates in the stable to ensure a controllable public sector leadership. Alternatively, the threat of Kennedy-style assassinations likely still has some resonance, depending on the geographic location and local culture.

Further, the conservative right has a strong ideological affinity with the corporation, though to be fair not always with the trans-national corporation. This interconnection—along with frustrated, anti-intellectual working class strike-it-rich dreamers—of big business with religious fundamentalism and the conservative political right under a single ideology, admittedly with differing shades and colorations, has created a clearly articulated, unified and strident corporate voice in North American politics, and has been especially successful in controlling the legislation agenda for the past 30 years.

Simply put, the right has a sustaining view, the left does not. The left continues to practice, and is compromised by, its willingness to be fair, tolerant and egalitarian. But clearly, human societies don’t work that way when only one side plays by the rules.

The left has moved to a weakened centre position, especially in the English-speaking world, but also across Europe and Asia as well. The left pales when accused of being “liberal” and positively quakes in fear at the “C-word”, communism, which has taken on all the pejorative meaning of words such as “pornographer” or “pederast.”

While the left has made recent attempts—and gains—to bring hope back to the people, their efforts have been lacklustre at best. The public at large remains cynical, confused and disenfranchised, disillusioned with the political process.

Slavoj Zizek in his book, Living in the End Times, addresses this point and offers the left a way to add spine to its ideology by inviting the radical left back into the centre-leftist dialogue to provide a driving moral force that has been missing in action on the left for half a century or more. As interesting as that idea may be, the current lack of will among the members of the left to actively engage in the battle against the well-financed corporate right tends to put a fork in it.

And much of the influential centre-left has already been absorbed anyway, Tony Blair-style, by the neo-corporatist capitalist agenda. Today’s liberal and neo-liberal elites are as equal-opportunity-plutocratic as any of yesterday’s conservatives and neo-conservatives.

Playing by the rules of the game

With a rapidly globalising world society, more new dependents are being added to the one third of the global population already entirely dependent on the corporate movement of goods and services. As China and India grown toward modernization, as they have been doing exponentially at a double digit rate, the other two thirds of the world’s population will become dependent on the corporate lifeline.

Corporate globalization demands strict adherence to management systems and timelines in order to keep the world fed, clothed and paid. This is a complex, linear, multi-streamed arrangement of cooperative contracts and agreements, and the willing participation of all who serve the system.

That means personal advancement depends on following linear tracks. These include sanctioned or preferred types and levels of education, as well as proof of compliance on résumés in order to establish a personal brand that fits the corporate brand, as mentioned earlier. This is supported by an educational system designed to stream the candidates toward the most appropriate linear track in the system, based on their ability (or their parent’s ability) to pay and their ability to commit to the game.

The ability to pay also suggests that there’s an underlying elitist system infused into the corporate matrix. And this is so. Trades people are streamed, as are artisans and designers, clerks and marketers, educators and scientists, researchers and sub-professionals and then the full professionals (the insiders) and the shareholding management elite at the top. All of these lines have parallel lines through the educational system. And as time goes by and the capitalist society matures, it is becoming harder for those born into the bottom to reach the higher rungs of the corporate ladder.

So, as individuals and parents, we are forced to make some choices. Do we stick to the straight and narrow and play the game? Do we cheat and break the law? Or do we simply opt out and hope for the best? It’s clear now that playing the game straight is a breakeven position. One works, one buys necessities and toys, one pays off debt, and then one dies. Cheaters risk more and often fail. And those who opt out are marginalized, and even if bright and creative are unlikely to see the fruits of their labour published or rewarded, as those rewards come from the insider-driven corporate economy.

The only way to beat the game is to become one of those who continually reinvents the game for its winning players. Instead of beating the game, one redesigns the entire field of play. The corporation (and all its resources) is simply a piece on the playing field. Wise players routinely skip from piece to piece while redesigning their portions of the field. The loyalty is to the field, not the corporation.

And that field is the ideology of capitalism in its many forms, whether in business, research, academia, government or so-called social services such as philanthropy—which is simply redistribution of wealth operating under personal and elite agendas rather than by the democratic will of the people. This is a dramatic shift from the political left of the 1930s to the conservative right.

Conclusions and ramifications

The de facto abdication of the left guarantees corporate-elite control at all levels. Further, corporate interests have become so powerful and their influence so far reaching that almost all of us are beholden to them in some form, and are unwilling to confront the corporation directly for fear of risking our jobs, our place in line or even the future of our children.

The corporation with its conservative political apparatus is truly an irrational and to-be-feared entity. With the left and centre neutralized, the public interest is left defenceless.

In this new reality human rights becomes a chimera. We have moved from macro-sociology to mega-sociology, in which we have invented a much bigger social organism with even more unpredictable characteristics—as can be seen from our global impacts on the planet itself.

It’s time we understood that humanity at this scale is a single, semi-conscious and sometimes wildly irrational organism, especially when fuelled on a constant diet of unfettered capitalism. And we’re rapidly running out of time to understand that interlinked individual efforts to restrain this beast may still be possible. Or at least that’s the faint hope in the face of a collective global corporate-bureaucratic entity dedicated to subordinating and suppressing the individual.

As for me, my head hurts from thinking about all of this—and from my still-aching tooth. I’m going to down another Advil, and in the morning book an emergency appointment with my dentist. In most respects life just isn’t that bad. But we might do a bit more than simply “hope” that it stays that way.


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