A Message to The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County, Wisconsin, June 14, 2015
I must confess to being a bit of a news junky. I start the day looking at a variety of news sources on TV, read various accounts during the day, more TV news in the evening…to the point where my grand daughter once said to me: “Grandpa, why do you keep watching all this depressing stuff.”
It’s a fair question. All that stuff is, on the surface, depressing. There are hot wars all over the world. The rate of displacement due to war or persecution is now nearly 150,000 people every day, the highest rate in recorded history. That rate is even higher if one includes economic dislocation. Refugee camps in many nations are packed with those who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, and more often than not, loved members of their families. “Human traffickers” take advantage of the situation and move people across dangerous border areas or abandon them in overcrowded ships in perilous waters. Entire nations have gone bankrupt and citizens face severe deprivation without prospects of employment or a decent life.
Meanwhile in the U.S. there are great inequalities, poverty and homelessness. Citizens face crushing student and household debt. Governments are in serious fiscal crises resulting in the slashing of vital services. And there is growing violence in the streets, and police violence against citizens.
It is my view that all of these things are connected and I have been writing about this for the last decade. My analysis of this is summarized in my 2014 book, New World Disorder, and a number of my essays and talks that are based on the book. Briefly we are about 10 years into a global structural crisis that I have termed a “crisis of value.” That is a period where the entire global political/economic system is incapable of meeting basic human needs for the people on the planet.
Since the very beginnings of capitalism there have been crises of value when the claims on the value that the entire system produces are greater than the system is capable of producing. Claims on value include legal claims like bonds and other loans. But there are also claims generated by basic human needs – food, clothing, shelter, education and health care. Even if people are unemployed or earning less than a living wage their basic needs remain and constitute a claim on value.
Historically when we have had a crisis of value, it has begun with a very nasty period that I call “churning and flailing.” Such a period is marked by conflict as well as political and economic chaos as various forces contend for power and generally seek a way out of the mess. This time around we are apt to see a decade or more of churning and flailing that will include– unless people intervene and resolve the crisis–- ongoing global uprisings and instability, more recessions, permanent fiscal crisis, further environmental degradation, permanent war and greater state surveillance and oppression to control ordinary people.
Periods of churning and flailing are always times of great peril and great hope. The peril lies in the very real misery people suffer as millions lose their livelihoods, homes and their lives. In addition there is a peril that the resolution found can be something worse than what we had before.
The hope lies in the fact that in every past crisis of value there is an opening to drastically change what is and that could be a change for the better.
The question for us today is where do we start in addressing the many problems we face in a period of churning and flailing? My message today is a contribution to addressing this question.
Some Philosophic Points Regarding how things can Change
What we decide to do about any of the many aspects of today’s global crisis needs to be first and foremost guided by a vision of the sort of society we want to live in. As we consider our analysis of the present and seek a vision of a new kind of society, there is a natural tendency to be immediately hemmed in by a view of what is possible. We look at the present and consciously or not believe many features of today’s reality are permanent and can’t really be changed. So we limit our vision to, for example, what will get this candidate or another elected? What can be put into a bill and passed in Congress? How much will what we want cost and can we afford it?
These considerations limit the possible and become what the British poet, William Blake termed our “mind forged manacles.” He articulated that in a poem, written in 1794.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
One element of “mind forg’d manacles” has appeared in every crisis of value in the past. It became evident to me one time as I was watching one of those horrible talking head shows where everyone yells at each other. And in the heat of the exchange of verbal insults one participant tried to bolster his position by shouting: “THAT’S JUST COMMON SENSE!”
That got my attention and caused me to read another piece written in the late 1700’s by American revolutionary Thomas Payne in his famous pamphlet called Common Sense. Payne attacked the wide spread notion that the peoples of the American colonies needed the British Monarchy in order to improve themselves and prosper. He said:
“A long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”
He went on to demonstrate in his famous pamphlet the contradictory aspects of the notion of monarchy and reconciliation with England on the one hand, and the hunger of many British subjects for a different kind of society on the other. That contradiction was later articulated in the Declaration of Independence as the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And this contradiction fueled the impulses that led to the American Revolution.
The need to reconstruct prevailing conceptions of common sense was also addressed by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci while he was imprisoned by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1932. Gramsci argued that common sense is a prevailing world view that consists of a number of diffuse, uncoordinated and often contradictory features that include aspects of language, religion, superstitions, opinions, and ways of seeing things and living our lives. He went on to argue that a reconstruction of common sense is always needed as a basis for major systemic change. And such a reconstruction needs to highlight contradictory elements within prevailing common sense, using the resolution of contradictions in thought to create something new.
Every time there has been a crisis of value and a period of churning and flailing, the result has been a radical change in the way capitalism operates. But that change has also included a major reconstruction of common sense to support the reorganization of capitalism. One implication of this historical point is that we should not limit our activities in search of a better society to policies, programs, laws and technological changes or practicality dictated by electoral politics. Rather we need also to challenge what is included in “common sense.” Because: if we don’t do it, others will do it for us.
War, Violence, and Human Nature
One challenge to our efforts to break the mind forged manacles of common sense is the notion that “human nature” means that today’s common sense is permanent.
In the course of discussing my own ideas about the reconstruction of common sense, I have been told over and over again that what I want is impractical because it is contrary to “human nature.” Yet, what we consider to be “human nature” is in reality a part of today’s prevailing common sense. So “human nature” contains a number of contradictory elements just as it did in Thomas Payne’s time or that of Antonio Gramsci.
Take war, as an example. We have been in a state of seemingly “permanent” war that has become a world-wide conflagration since 2001. And I have heard it said that it is in our nature to be at war.
Let’s turn to the poet Carl Sandburg for some insights on this.
In his book length poem, The People, Yes!, published initially in 1936, he ponders the senselessness of World War I, the rise of Fascism in Europe and the threat of a second world war. Here is a segment of his poem.
As on the plain of Howdeehow they listen.
They want to hear.
They will be told when the next war is ready.
The long wars and the short wars will come on the air,
How many got killed and how the war ended
And who got what and the price paid
And how there were tombs for the Unknown Soldier,
The boy nobody knows the name of,
The boy whose great fame is that of the masses,
The millions of names too many to write on a tomb,
The heroes, the cannon fodder, the living targets,
The mutilated and sacred dead,
The people, yes.
Two countries with two flags
Are nevertheless one land, one blood, one people—
Can this be so?
And the earth belongs to the family of man?
Can this be so?
The first world war came and its cost was laid on the people.
The second world war—the third—what will be the cost?
And will it repay the people for what they pay?
The great poet is showing the contradictory features of the common sense prevailing in the early 1930s that prevails yet today. We who are so fixed on the cost of things are asked the question: will the wars we see all around us repay the people for what they pay?
But the question remains how can we achieve a break through where the contradictions in our common sense come to light and we shed these particular mind forged manacles.
Here I want to especially address the children who are here and the children and grandchildren of those who are here.
As I observe the mayhem around the world including the violence in our own streets (how many were shot on the streets of Chicago last month, last week or last night?) I have become fixed on the fact that my two grand daughters, aged 17 and 11, have never known a moment of relative peace in their young lives. In the case of the 11 year old, her own country has been at war her entire life – either actively with boots on the ground or bombing various peoples from the air.
And as I wonder how in the world we can ever break out of this cycle, I am again inspired by the poet Carl Sandburg.
The little girl saw her first troop parade and asked,
“What are those?”
“What are soldiers?”
“They are for war. They fight and each tries to kill
As many of the other side as he can
The girl held still and studied.
“Do you know…I know something?”
“Yes, what is it you know?”
“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”
The little girl, in this poem, sees instinctively the utter stupidity of the adult’s explanation of the troop parade. She is unburdened by the mind forged manacles of the adult’s notion of a common sense explanation. And so, she makes a breakthrough with a vision of a war that nobody comes to.
We can all make such breakthroughs. But to do so, we need to see thinking without the limits of today’s common sense as a task to be done – an integral part of our activism.
The Importance of Looking Forward and the Danger of Looking Backward
In the midst of a crisis of value it is important to consider the possibilities of all sorts of radical changes in the system – both those that constitute a peril and those that offer hope. The most dangerous possibility is a form of 21st Century fascism.
While there have historically been different types of fascism, they share a number of characteristics. Fascism is first and foremost based on a popular mass movement that mobilizes around the alienation of people by giving to them the status of a “special people.” Their present circumstances are attributed to “other inferior people” whose presence degrades the special people. These special people usually have a narrative that constructs a glorious and often mythical past. And they are willing to turn to strong authority to gain back what they thought they had in the past. They do this by oppressing “non-special inferior” people.
There are many examples of fascism-in-the-making around the world today. The various Al Qaeda groupings and ISIL are certainly prominent examples. But in the U.S., the common sense U.S. ideological proposition referred to as “American Exceptionalism,” could be a dangerous building block, capable of uniting a growing number of hate groups into a single bloc. The U.S. President and many politicians, writers and self proclaimed pundits including both conservatives and liberals consider American Exceptionalism to be a part of the common sense of today.
“American Exceptionalism” declares that Americans (who is included as an American and who is not is hotly contested these days) are a special people who have historically done things for the greater good. The use of American Exceptionalism looks backward by elevating myths about the history of this nation. And that carries with it a real peril.
Looking backward to a mythical past becomes a mind forged manacle because it focuses our attention to a time that never was and can foster hate toward those perceived as taking us in a wrong direction. Former South African President Nelson Mandela who had been imprisoned for his opposition to the apartheid system for 27 years said of his imprisonment and liberation:
“ As I walked out the door toward the gate to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
And here is more wisdom from Carl Sandburg:
Monte Cristo had a list, a little role call.
And one by one he took each of them for a ride
Saying One and Two and Three and so on
Till the names were all crossed off
And he had cleansed the world of a given number
Of betrayers who had personally wronged him.
He was judge, jury and executioner.
“Revenge takes time and is a lot of bother,”
said a released convict who by the code
of Monte Cristo should have shot twelve
jurymen and hanged one judge and cruci-
fied one prosecuting attorney and hung by
thumbs two police officers and four prom-
“In my case,” he added, “it pays to have a
The point is that to combat these building blocs of a fascist movement it is critical to see history and its lessons as a way to move forward, but not encumbered by, the past. And today the best way to do that is to counter-pose the elements of fascism-in-the-making with an alternative vision of what we are for. What sort of world do we want to live in? What should be the point of organizing ourselves into any sort of society?
Discussing such things is an integral part of any activist tasks we set for ourselves.
So, as a contribution to such a discussion, I will close with some thoughts of my own.
Today’s political arena is structured to protect what is. So practicality is ultimately unpractical. Before we start hatching the next project or the next demonstration in order to unite around what we are against– we need to give careful thought to what sort of society we want, throwing caution and practicality to the wind so to speak.
We definitely need demonstrations, we need tax reform, we need environmental regulations etc. But that is simply not enough in the face of the deep crisis that is well under way.We need to discuss alternative visions of society without the constraints of our mind forged manacles in the form of common sense
It is not useful today to simply label and package ideas of the past. Words like socialism have lost much meaning for me. But Marx’s vision of a society in which the full and free development of every human being is its ruling principle and the very point of society itself has a great deal of meaning to me. Marx’s vision is also of a society in which the needs, capacity, and enjoyment of life is the true definition of value. It is a society that has as its highest priority the provision: “to each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities.”
These formulations have within them a basic sense of both equality and what constitutes fairness. It is a direct challenge to the fascist notion that this or that group constitutes a special/superior people. But it is also a challenge to the present system where the point of society is production for the sake of production; and where the point of society is economic growth for its own sake that is presently destroying people’s lives and destroying the planet.
A full expression of this vision in practice means there is no such thing as it being too costly to feed, cloth, house, educate, and offer health care to everyone, everywhere. This should not only be the point of our activism but the point of society itself. If we can’t meet basic human needs around the world we need to reorganize ourselves so that we can.
There is no room in this vision for human activity that degrades the planet. There is no room in this vision for “collateral damage” in the course of killing those defined by politicians and social elites as our enemies. There is no room in this vision to declare that it costs too much to keep people from going hungry and to end homelessness. There is no room in this vision to declare that it is too costly to educate our children and to heal the sick.
And stemming from this vision there is indeed the possibility that ultimately they will give a war and no one will come.