Revisioning the Body Politic


originally appeared in The Indie, November, 2011

Progressives around the globe watched with dismay as dream presidential candidate Barack Obama veered to the right within weeks of taking office. In his eagerness to appease corporate interests and political enemies he ignored those who worked hardest for his election. With Congress now in a state resembling catatonic rigidity, corporate interests running amok in the halls of power and the presidency up for sale again in 2012, it’s little wonder that people are concerned about what comes next.

The Wizards of Oz
LeviathanThomas Hobbes has held a virtual monopoly on the popular conception of massive human organizations for more than 350 years. In Leviathan, Hobbes describes the State or Commonwealth as an “artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural.” Leviathan’s frontispiece depicts the Commonwealth as an anthropomorphic conglomerate of anonymous citizens with a head wearing the face of the king, or as a certain Texan ex-president would have it, “the decider.” In him, Hobbes invests unlimited power to direct the body politic. The duty of that body is unquestioning obedience. Dissent is out of bounds.

Not surprisingly, the Leviathan model has been popular with leaders. Louis XIV was a believer, “L’etat c’est moi.” (I am the state.) Former House Speaker Tom DeLay famously snapped, “I am the federal government.” Or, as George W. Bush put it to Bob Woodard, “I do not need to explain why I say things. — That’s the interesting thing about being the President. — Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

Organizations, large and small, do often reflect the wishes and style of their leader(s). But not always. Hobbes’s model, no doubt unintentionally, lent credence to a then popular method for resolving disputes between the political head and body: decapitation. Whether literally or metaphorically performed, that operation ensures a change of face at the top.

It’s less certain what other change will ensue. We forget the extent to which organizations control their leaders. President Obama retained several key staff from the former administration. Should we be surprised that his national security, corporate relations and economic recovery policies carried on the Bush tradition?

This disappointment of expectations isn’t unique. Richard Nixon ran for president promising to end the war in Vietnam. Well, sort of. Twenty-five years later, the transfer of freedom from US citizens to corporations hardly slowed when Bill Clinton won the White House from George H. W. Bush. Bush the Younger vowed an end to the Clinton policy of nation-building, then attempted precisely that in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Leviathan, you social animal
Since the days of Hobbes and Oliver Cromwell, we’ve learned a few things about the inner workings of life on Earth.

For instance, I experience myself as a unitary being, capable of self-determination. Medical science assures me that I’m also a dazzling construction of semi-autonomous cells, tissues, organs, etc. My cells maintain themselves and reproduce if and when it suits them, not me. Some are mobile. In special circumstances they may carry on without me. Brain cells act on the basis of what they perceive as local conditions. They fire or don’t, totally ignorant of the neural activity they’re participating in on my behalf. If they complain about the workload, I have a hard time hearing it. A rogue neuron might disrupt my brain function but can’t otherwise pretend to the throne of my self. (Neuroscientists assure us that throne is unoccupied. There is no little person in there at the control panel.)

As it turns out, living things are hierarchically arranged structures, enacted by nested stacks of categorically distinct but interdependent sub-levels of organization. The behavior of units at each level, from lowly cell to Sun King, depends to a great extent on what it recognizes as its local environment. But each is also capable of certain independent actions. The higher a unit is on the organizational chart, the greater the complexity of perceptual abilities, processing, and behaviors it may display.

But the individual isn’t Nature’s only life-form template. She also works in conglomerates. Lichens are interspecies collaborations between algae and fungi. Termites can digest wood because their guts contain beasties called Mixotricha paradoxa.  Mixotricha is a conglomerate organism made up of  four different bacteria, arranged just so. Plant and animal cells are powered by chloroplasts and mitochondria respectively. These were apparently once free-living organisms

Bumping up a few levels, the survival of social insects, such as ants and bees, depends more in the colony than individual bugs. Colony behavior is contingent on its members but doesn’t flow from the queen or any other individual “leader.” The colony is self-generating and actively maintains itself as an entity separate from its environment. As such it performs the essential functions of a living thing in its own right. I just wish its speedy little “cells” would stay off my kitchen counter.

It isn’t flattering to suggest that human families, tribes, corporations, societies and nations are somehow akin to bee hives, but these follow the pattern. Durable social organizations based on humans maintain distinct boundaries between what’s in and what’s out. They generate and regenerate themselves, taking what they need from the environment and expelling waste products to it. When they stop performing these processes they usually disintegrate in short order.

As with ant colonies, human organizational “beings” exist in nested hierarchies at higher categorical levels than their human constituents. And these organizations, from family to church to nation, act according to their own nature, which isn’t necessarily the same as that of the individuals enacting them. Microsoft’s activity reflects its perceived needs, not necessarily those of its work teams or employees. The same is true of governments.

No human being can jump categories and legitimately equate herself with an organizational being she helps to enact. Critics scoffed at Ronald Reagan’s belated acceptance of responsibility for the Iran-Contra affair, but it’s possible he was telling the truth when he said, “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”
His decisions were based on information fed to him by subordinates free to spin that input to their own advantage. Reagan couldn’t directly implement decisions based on that information. They filtered down through layer upon layer of bureaucracy, each bound to interpret the instructions to its best advantage. Reagan might honestly have been none the wiser until feedback that circumvented his handlers reached him. He was not the state, only another actor in it.

The social beings we enact are what they are because we enact them as we do. They even display personality quirks. An oddly persistent trait of the United States, still the most powerful beast on Earth, is fear. Since Jamestown, somebody has been out to get US.

First it was the Indians, then the French and the King of England. Mexicans have been pressed into service on multiple occasions. So have African-Americans, immigrants, and labor unions, not to mention Imperial Japan and al Qaeda. The conservative coalition of the 1960s and ‘70s hitched fear of communism, Arabs, the federal government, and cultural disorder into a mule team that Ronald Reagan drove into the White House. Fundamentalist Christians are now up in arms at Planned Parenthood, gays, rap music and The Daily Show—seriously. The paranoia of the United States is partly provoked, partly self-inflicted. Her recent curtailment of domestic civil liberties seems analogous to an autoimmune disease. But whatever the diagnosis, the old girl is plainly miserable and tempted to take it out on all and sundry.

Progressive activists learned from the experience of the Vietnam era counterculture. Today’s organizers work hard to ensure that police are shown to be responsible for any violent chaos associated with protest actions. If the United States must be fearful about internal matters, let it be fearful of its own institutional excess. 

Other strategies and tactics are available to those seeking to modify the behavior of a social being. Termination is occasionally possible. War and revolution can kill national organisms. Nazi Germany and Kaddafi’s Libya come to mind. Enron was eviscerated and consigned to indefinite suspended animation. The Soviet Union voluntarily disassembled itself.

Less extreme interventions may also be potent agents of change. In The Corporation, Joel Bakan looks beyond corrupt CEOs to identify the forces that repeatedly produce them and enshrine pillage as a business virtue. Corporations, he says, behave like psychopaths because business law says they must. Shareholder return on investment subordinates all other goals. Boardroom decisions violating that prime directive are grounds for legal action. Non-stockholders and the environment are directly relevant only when they impact profits. In a milieu organized around unapologetic self-interest, conniving business practices are to be expected. Human psychopaths are regulated by police. Bakan suggests beefing up the policing of corporations. Regulatory cops should be put back on the beat and insulated from industry payoffs. The revolving door between public service and industry must be better controlled.

In the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, money invested by corporations and other giant social entities can see to it that government preferentially serves those interests. If humans are to regain their former standing with government, it may be necessary to decertify organizations as legal persons.

Sabotage from within a social organism is another tried and true change strategy. In government, the George W. Bush administration raised monkeywrenching to an art form. Bureaucracies it didn’t like were handed over to managers hostile to the departmental mission or simply incompetent. Michael Brown at FEMA, Kenneth Tomlinson at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and veterinarian Lester Crawford at the Food and Drug Administration are notorious but by no means isolated cases.

Finally, problematic social organisms can be neutralized through irrelevance. Open source software seeks to reduce the power of Microsoft and other proprietary venders. The alternative media seeks to break the corporate stranglehold on information. “Buy Local” movements undermine corporate globalization. Small energy technology companies are stepping into the market to create decentralized power generation alternatives.

Moloch, my Moloch
A world dominated by giant social beings brings the question of personal human dignity front and center. Are we, as Allen Ginsberg feared, fodder for Moloch, the “cannibal dynamo?” Worker bees in a Brave New World?Borg? Copper tops in the Matrix? Repugnant as it may first appear, the honest answer is perilously close to yes.

We want our mail delivered on time and have little interest in how that’s accomplished. We support the idea of law as a social constraint. We don’t want to have to build our own computers out of piles of sand, rare earth ores and beakers of oil. We agree to the strictures imposed by a common language.

Even the most radical among us object only to limited aspects of the status quo. Orderliness and dependability, conservative values, are important to the survival of all classes of living beings. When a social organism treats us well, support for its innate conservatism is in our human interest.

But life is change. Unchecked, conservative instincts lead to calcification. Beings that don’t adapt to changing circumstances are liable to fail under stress. Rigidity in a social animal is liable to amount to tyranny for its constituent humans as well.

In healthy social organisms the conservative tendency is counterbalanced by a force arising naturally from its people—the power of dissent. Here, in the sociopolitical sense, lies the irreducible value of individual men and women. When a woman says no, she steps out of the collective consciousness and assumes a personal identity in relation to it. Rosa Parks said no by not relinquishing her seat on the bus. Albert Einstein insisted that the universe has elasticities undreamt of by Sir Isaac Newton. Vincent van Gogh painted pictures lacking conventional gracefulness of form or technique. Jesus had a problem with Jewish orthodoxy.

It’s easy to criticize the groupthink that resisted these dissidents, but chaos threatens the continuity of living systems as much as calcification. Growth is fine, but cancer kills. The Weather Underground bombed itself into becoming the FBI poster child for the necessity of COINTELPRO dirty tricks. Mark Rudd, an early leader of the Weather group, later lamented, “the consequences of our revolutionary violence line were terrible.” He accused himself of being an unwitting government agent. Timothy McVeigh convinced himself it was a good idea to bomb a Federal Building and commit mass murder. Eric Rudolph and Scott Roeder killed for Christ.
The winnowing process societies use to evaluate the virtue of particular changes is largely ad hoc and unreliable. Some great ideas have shriveled on the vine. The electric battery was invented 2-3000 years ago, possibly in what is now Iraq. Then, for lack of a flashlight to put it in, batteries disappeared from human consciousness for the better part of two millennia. Horrid ideas sometimes slip through and catch on: the KKK, Pol Pot’s experiment in social engineering via the wholesale slaughter of Cambodians, gas-guzzling automobiles, skanky celebutantes.

The chronic friction between dissent and conservatism has produced one of humanity’s great mythic traditions. The story of the hero is at least as old as written language. In the classic telling, a future hero is chosen for greatness by the gods. He or she somehow becomes separated from society and undergoes a series of formative trials before returning to the community in triumph, bearing gifts of leadership or wisdom. Everybody wins.

In the real world, such stories are easier to appreciate in retrospect than as they unfold. Actual heroes often begin their journeys as victims of chance. The trials that separate them from crackpots and villains can be capricious. Selfish interests on either side may overwhelm altruistic motivations. Sometimes villains win and rewrite history in their favor. Society may kill a hero and then adopt his program. Or the hero’s victory may come at society’s expense. Sometimes the winner is none of the above: not Joan of Arc, not Julian Assange, not the system. Just nobody.

Although both sides in these contests prefer to view mavericks as outsiders, at a deep level it isn’t so. Individuals who jump fences are exploratory tendrils of the social beings they help enact, growing tips of what those organisms might become. Persons and social beings forget at their mutual peril that folks who wander from the designated trails and those who yell at them to get back on the trail right now both perform vital functions.

I can’t do justice to my dual roles as man and enactor of various social organisms without respecting the complexity of the positions I and we are in. I have to be primarily responsible for holding up my personal side of the equation. I must insist upon my own dignity and freedom, including the occasional duty to take a stand and disagree. Moloch is the poorer if I don’t, though it’s likely to slap me down for my efforts. Alternatively, when I’m a contented bee in the hive, I ought to consider the possibility that that lunatic outside the window might be howling about something we ought to hear.
I think I’ll invite him in for coffee. ♦

Sidebar 1
Who Do I Think I Am?
Nested hierarchies of quasi-independent units exist psychologically as well. The I that I feel myself to be is not the stable unit I often imagine. “I” am the moment-to-moment summation of myriad memories, emotions, rational thoughts and lower level subcomponents that happen to be active and interacting right now. Because these change as the day progresses, “my” capacities vary as well. It’s amazing how awkward I become when walking across a creek on a log. At other times, I don’t stagger much for an old codger.

Sidebar 2
The arts have been working with ideas of social organism as Other for the better part of a hundred years. Fritz Lange’s 1927 silent movie classic, Metropolis, depicts the societal collective as a merciless mechanized city controlled by a man.In Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp is mechanically force-fed and dragged through the gears of a giant industrial machine. George Orwell hid the mechanisms and gave the oppressive Other a human face: Big Brother. Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” wailed against the devouring machine of civilization. The passage of fifty years has not diminished its urgency. Ginsberg named the beast Moloch, a name with a lineage stretching back through Metropolis and radical Jewry to the Old Testament. The domineering, monolithic Otherhas become standard fare in blockbuster science fiction. The Terminator imagines a post-apocalyptic culture dominated and terrorized by centrally-directed humanoid robots. Star Trek prefers cyborgs. The Matrix offers us life in the, uh, Matrix.

But these metaphors oversimplify. Molochs, social beings, come in all sizes and display wide behavioral variety. We are each enmeshed in several of them. Families, governments, corporations and religious institutions collude and collide, dragging us willy-nilly to the aid of tsunami victims, the ravishing of ecosystems, the wonders of the Internet, and the slaughter of innocents by bombs directed to their targets by cubicle dwellers half a world away. It’s hard to watch news programs without hearing the voice of Star Trek’s Borg in the background, “Prepare to be assimilated . . . You will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”

The cold fact is that we’ve already been assimilated, have always been. The Terror Ginsberg only heard through the wall is inseparable from us. Collectively, we are Moloch and cannot be otherwise on Earth. Regardless of the roles we choose, partisan, abstainer, worker, sycophant or rebel, we participate.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2011 all rights reserved



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