We’ve lived so long under the spell of hierarchy—from god-kings to feudal lords to party bosses—that only recently have we awakened to see not only that “regular” citizens have the capacity for self-governance, but that without their engagement our huge global crises cannot be addressed. The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high.
—Frances Moore Lappé, excerpt from Time for Progressives to Grow Up

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Lure of Obedience

Click here to access article by Mat Little from New Compass.

There are so many insights offered and inspired by this article which re-examines the classic Milgram experiment of 1961. It is well worth reading all the way to the end. 

It appears that nowadays, people are more obedient than ever. Some critics have referred to America as a nation of sheep or American people as "sheeples" (see this and this).

Although I might argue with his reading of labor history (my view is that workers' attitudes started to change toward conformity after WWII), it generally seems to confirm what this author argues: this inclination on the part of Americans to be obedient to authority has markedly increased over time.
Liberal capitalism was under greatest threat in the nineteenth century when the Left espoused the concept of “wage-slavery”, the idea that when a person is compelled under pressure of need, to rent themselves to a company and give away all control over what they do, their position was similar to that of a chattel slave. Then working people powerfully contested obedience and employers had to enforce it. Today obedience is, to a large extent, voluntary and the values of liberal capitalism are internalised. We are bound, by ideological bonds that can be broken, to our roles.  We are, as the title of a recent book put it, “willing slaves.”
How can this be explained? Well, I certainly don't feel capable of offering a definitive answer, except to say that this entire blog has been trying to offer explanations for this phenomenon for the past two and one-half years. Postings I've submitted have emphasized the growing control of ideological institutions--education and media--to dumb down citizens, to weaken critical thinking skills. (See this, this, and this.)

I was particularly inspired by an idea after reading this author's observation:
Noam Chomsky has distinguished between people who, for good or ill, are moral agents and institutions, “structures of power” that are basically amoral. But this distinction between people and institutions is hard to accept because, as Milgram says, society promotes the ideology that a person’s actions stem from their character. Bad outcomes are the result of bad people. [my emphasis]
One weakness in any critical thinking about political topics is to use abstractions like "society" or "nation" when attributing actions or causes in relation to political events. This is a favorite method used by indoctrinated academics who are encouraged to obscure social-political issues so that a penetrating class analysis is prevented. This diverts attention away from looking at society realistically as riven by conflict due to the class structure. Class interests are often not the same--frequently they are in conflict. Only by looking at the above apparent contradiction, pointed out by Chomsky, from a class perspective can one arrive at a realistic understanding.

One thing I've noticed about mainstream media news reporting is the huge focus on deviant behavior, the more deviant the better. They want the public to feel that there are many among us who are inherently evil, that human nature is defective. Thus, it follows that force and discipline are often required to keep people civilized and well behaved. Hence, the need for powerful police forces to protect "decent" citizens, and the need for a huge prison system and onerous punishments. Also, such reporting keeps people suspicious and distrustful of each other which works against cooperative and organizing efforts.

Moreover, this view of deviant behavior diverts attention away from social factors that support deviant behavior: social injustice, poverty, strong materialist values propagated by media, police brutality, poor educational opportunities, etc., all of which are promoted by the capitalist ruling class. Hence, it is not "society [that] promotes the ideology that a person’s actions stem from their character", it is the ruling One Percent.