Imminent economic and ecological collapse can only be averted by spiritual revolution- thereby also ending war, poverty etc.
Version 6.75
by Eric Schechter, 14 Feb 2012. Watch the 2½ hour VIDEO , or jump to chapters in this transcript:

0. Introduction: Things will soon get much better or much worse, depending on what you and I do. (incl. Dürer and Jesus)
1. Subjectivity: Politics is not like 18th century physics. And no one (not even me) sees the whole picture. (incl. the shooting example)
2. Delusion: We are hypnotized and misled; it’s difficult to break away from the herd.
3. Ecocide: Our life-support system is being poisoned ever faster, and may collapse at any moment. (incl. ecomath)
4. War
: Lies and murder for profit. But security can only be achieved through friendship, not bombs.
5. Robots: In the long run, our present economic system will crush nearly everyone.
6. Plutocracy: Wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few.
7. Elitism: Speculation about the psychology of the plutocrats and of their supporters.
8. Alienation: Why many of us hate our jobs and each other.
9. Awakening: People are realizing that a better world is possible.

Chapter 0: INTRODUCTION. (

Hello, my name is Eric Schechter. I’ll take a minute to introduce myself. I’m an eco-anarcho-socialist, but that term does not mean violence or dictatorship — it means sustainability and sharing and caring without coercion. It means there are seven billion people in my family, and someday I hope to have dinner with them all. I’m a dreamer, trying to be something like a poet.

I’m a retired professor of mathematics. There’s very little mathematics in this essay, but some of my students said I’m good at explaining abstract ideas; I hope this essay will live up to that praise. The presentation is my own, but none of the ideas in it originated with me. You can see many of the sources and related ideas, if you follow the web links in the transcript of this video. The transcript is at Lefty Math Prof dot WordPress dot com.

I was making fun of myself when I said I’d explain everything — but I’ll explain the things that I see as crucial to our survival, in politics, psychology, linguistics, and epistemology. Epistemology?? Yeah, who would have thought that epistemology could be crucial to our survival? That surprised me too. It means that, for the most part, I won’t be asking you to accept new assertions as facts. I’ll be asking you to consider a new way of seeing the facts you already have.

And I know I don’t have all the answers, but no one does, and I’ll prove that at the beginning of the next chapter.

Here is a one-sentence summary of where I’m going in this essay:

Our world is dying from a doctrine of separateness; we need to rediscover our connectedness.

Perhaps you’ve heard those words like those before, in some New-Age-y religious context, but I’ll try to make them concrete, and I’ll connect them to our political problems. We have a lot of big problems, and that’s why this essay is so long. But I’ll also show that they are really just one problem — I feel it’s important to see them that way.

We’re on a road to destruction, and too many people are asleep — too many people who think they are living normal lives in a normal world. Too many people still don’t see what is really going on, and how urgent it is — too many people don’t know or don’t care. We must try to wake them — we need everyone we can get, to spread the word and to plan the future together.

Things are changing faster and faster. Anyone who begins a prediction with the words “at the current rate” just doesn’t get it. Ray Kurzweil has explained that knowledge, and everything affected by it, is growing at an exponentially increasing rate, on account of feedback loops. So our problems are growing faster, but so is our knowledge, and maybe our wisdom too — so maybe there is hope for us.

In 1498, Albrecht Dürer made some illustrations of the Book of Revelation. Here are The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — that’s Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. I would choose different horsemen, but in other respects the metaphor seems appropriate for our time: Muddling along on a middle path is no longer possible — the world as we know it cannot continue much longer. Soon it will either

  • heal, change entirely, and grow beautiful, if we find wisdom, or
  • collapse and kill us all, if we continue in our present blindness.

The demons facing us are legion:

alienation, apathy, authoritarianism, bullying, censorship, child abuse, corruption, cruelty, disinformation, excessive incarceration, exploitation, foreclosures, greed, homelessness, homophobia, hunger, inadequate healthcare, Islamophobia, lies, loneliness, media consolidation, money in politics, neglect of the elderly, nuclear meltdowns, oil spills, pederasty, plutocracy, racism, rape, sexism, spousal abuse, the Federal Reserve, the military-industrial complex, theft, unemployment, unverifiable ballots, war, …

— and those could go on forever. But we’re also heading into

economic and ecological COLLAPSE,

both of which add a time limit to our torment. (I realize that half the people in the USA do not believe in ecological collapse; I’ll come back to that point later.)

But this apocalypse does have a silver lining: As our situation grows worse, and people become more desperate, they will also become more willing to listen to new and different ideas. What kind they will hear — good ones or bad ones — depends on what you and I do right now. Will we spread enough good ideas so that people will awaken before it’s too late? I don’t know, but I’m certainly going to try, and I hope to persuade you to join that effort.

To halt the destruction will require an enormous change in our political, economic, technological, and communication systems. But those systems are firmly in the mindless grip of the plutocracy, which does nothing to halt the decay. The plutocracy permits only minor and superficial reforms — it prohibits any change in our fundamental principles. As long as that continues, things will get worse for most of us:

Unemployment, sweatshop exploitation, and poverty will grow, as privately owned mechanization continues. Wars will worsen, as people learn more ways to make weapons. The oil-based economy cannot outlast the oil. And if ecocide continues much longer, we’ll all starve — even the plutocracy can’t eat money.

People everywhere, especially young people, are growing aware that they’ll only have a future if society makes huge changes very soon. But the ruling elites, driven by the market, are unable to even consider change, despite promising it in all their speeches. Idealism has always been risky, but so-called “pragmatism” has become suicidal.

Thus, a revolution is coming soon; that has become inevitable. But what kind will it be? That depends on what ideas you and I can spread.

I hope it won’t be just a change of leaders and a few reforms. Our problems are much deeper than that. And we no longer have time for another cycle of confusion and promises. We finally have to get it right this time.

Some people think that we can solve our problems by passing a few laws, maybe a constitutional amendment banning corporate personhood. But the so-called “rule of law” is insufficient, in at least three ways:

First, laws can be evil in their own right. For instance, slavery used to be legal, and the so-called “Patriot Act” still is.

Second, laws can be distorted into something entirely different from their original intent. For instance, the 14th Amendment to the constitution was originally intended to protect the rights of freed slaves, but it has been twisted into a justification for corporate personhood. Why should a new amendment banning corporate personhood fare any better?

And third, laws can be disregarded altogether. For instance, recent presidents in both major parties have waged illegal wars while stripping away our bill of rights.

And some people think the solution lies in small, localized government, since only big governments can make wars. But the Jim Crow laws of the southern USA showed that local government, too, can oppress people, and might be stopped from doing so only by big government. I think that we may be able to get the best of both worlds, by decentralizing power but networking to voluntarily coordinate efforts.

At any rate, I am convinced that the crucial thing we need is a big change in our culture.

Greedy individuals are a problem, but I wouldn’t focus solely on them. Doing so would distract us from analyzing our own culture, which is the source of the greed.

I believe we’ll make progress on all our separate problems when, and only when, we see their common root — but presently it’s as unnoticed as the air we breathe. It’s philosophical, for our individual actions are shaped by our common beliefs. Bullies, liars, thieves, and murderers — in market and in government — are merely agents of the problem. They believe we’re all separate, motivated only by greed and selfishness. They might say something like this:

“Your bank account is not my bank account; your loss is not my loss, and might even be my gain. Those people are different from us. Put the homeless where I won’t have to see them.”

And so on. Their doctrine of separateness is manifested as private wealth — but wealth coalesces into ever fewer hands, wealth is power, and power corrupts.

Our rulers have legitimized their doctrine of separateness, as though it were respectable. They want us to share it — they use it to justify themselves and their rigged economic system, to keep us apart, to control all. They rule not by hidden cabals, but by owning the media and framing the issues. They seek to persuade us that a better world is not possible, that we are too weak, that human nature is too base.

But they’re mistaken about our motives. You and I have found something better inside ourselves and our friends. We’ve found solidarity, empathy, love, a concern for the commons. It’s in everyone, if only we can reach them, for we’re all one flesh and blood. Let’s spread that truth and delegitimize the doctrine of separateness, for until we do our other advances will be minor and temporary.

Human nature is far more noble than the mainstream propaganda has led us to believe. At this point in the transcript, I’m including links to some material by Jeremy Rifkin about recent developments in sociology, Rebecca Solnit on how people have behaved in times of difficulty, and Paul Hawken on how large the movement to heal the world has already become.

There are excellent selfish reasons for becoming unselfish: Once people have the basic necessities of life, additional private wealth doesn’t increase their happiness, but additional connection with other people does. Instead of talking about how we can compete more effectively, let’s talk about how to cooperate.

Sharing does work. The so-called “socialized” medicine in Europe, Japan, and Canada delivers far better healthcare for far less money than does our own pills-for-profit system here in the USA.

And not sharing does not work — the commons has been privatized, plundered, and poisoned, and so the ecosystem is dying.

We need a spiritual revolution. Really, we need something much bigger than what the word “revolution” usually has meant. Far more than just a change of government, we must change everything about our way of life; we must change human nature itself. As John Lennon sang, instant karma will knock us off our feet. This change will be greater than any since our shift from hunter-gatherers to farmer-owners ten thousand years ago. Nothing less will save us from extinction, but nothing more is needed to guide us to utopia. We will remake the world entirely.

Another John Lennon song describes the enormity of the change:

[At this point in the video, originally I had included John Lennon singing a couple of verses. I thought it was what the copyright laws call “fair use.” But Electric and Musical Industries “owns” that song about sharing, and apparently they didn’t want me sharing it. I hope they won’t block this reduced quality version. I highly recommend Lennon’s version.]

Imagine no possessions
— I wonder if you can.
No need for greed or hunger
— a brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people
sharing all the world.

You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

To most people today, the word “apocalypse” means the end of the world. But if you look at the roots of the word, it originally meant “from concealment” — that is, a revealing — or “revelation.”

The word revolution sounds similar, but it comes from a different root. “Revolve” comes from a word meaning “to turn over.”

To most people today, those three ideas seem very different — an ending, a revealing, and a turning over. But I’ll show you how they’re connected.

In this essay, I’m attempting to reveal a view of the world that many people have not seen. I believe that if everyone will see it, it will transform and turn over our lives completely — ending our present way of life and beginning a new way for all of us. The revelation will be a revolution.

My vision differs only slightly from what Jesus and Marx had in mind. As I see it, their message was in three main parts:

First, that love can transform the world, remaking it entirely. And with this I agree entirely. Admittedly, “love” is not a word commonly associated with Karl Marx, but he was motivated by compassion for the great masses of people trapped in sweatshops. He wanted to free them from that.

Second, that the time of great change was imminent. It seems to me that both men got this wrong, for the great change has not yet arrived. And yet, here I am, making the same prediction again. Perhaps I’ll turn out to be wrong too. I guess we’ll see.

And third, both men apparently thought that the outcome of history is inevitable. But inevitability was common in the belief system of their times, and it is not in ours. My own feeling is that the future is not yet written; it depends on what you and I choose to do. Either side — love or fear — may still win the struggle. And there is no way to know how much help we’ll need, so no one can afford to just be a spectator.

There are lots of issues here — peace, love, sustainability, justice, and so on. Personally, I see them all as one big issue, and I feel it’s important to try to explain it that way.

But I must accept that the awakening process is in stages. Most people become aware and involved first regarding one issue, then perhaps another. Only later might they start to see how all the issues are connected. To reach beyond the choir, we must accommodate beginners, by encouraging their participation in single-issue organizations — but we can try to connect those organizations in one unifying network.

The great change begins with you joining the discussion. We all need to understand each other’s views of the world better; we need to understand each other better. In fact, many of us probably need to understand ourselves better.

Join (or start) a local political organization, one small enough so that everyone gets a turn to speak. You’ll find it tremendously empowering to be part of a community, and part of the conversation steering the community. With that community networked to other communities, you’ll be part of the global conversation.



Most of us have very strong opinions about political matters. But I’ll now explain that no one sees things as they really are, and no one has all the answers. (Not even me.)

For example, the question that matters the most to me is

How can we all learn to live together in peace?

If anyone had a complete answer to that question, then we’d already have peace. Clearly, we’re not there yet. But “wait!” you say,

“if only everyone would listen to my answer, we’d have peace!”

Well, you might be right about that. But how will you get everyone to listen to your answer? Knowing how to do that is a crucial part of the answer, and none of us has found that part yet. It can’t be separated from the rest of the answer, because peace requires consensus — it can’t be forced on people.

It would be nice to find a magic phrase that would switch on a light in people’s heads, and then they’d tell their friends, who would then tell their friends, and so on, like some sort of chain reaction, and by next morning the whole world would be enlightened.

But none of us has found that holy grail of political understanding yet. Even Buddha and Jesus never found a way to spread their teachings to everyone. (And by the way, I haven’t found a way to get everyone to read this essay or watch this video — but if you like it, please recommend it to other people!)

We don’t all agree on what the solutions are. In fact, we haven’t even agreed on what the problems are. Why do we have so many different opinions about that? And why do we feel so certain in our opinions?

Among other things, certainty feels good. Most of our society is uncomfortable with uncertainty, and so we seek reassurance from dogma. Buddha recommended accepting some uncertainty in our lives, just as a surfer accepts the uncertainty of the waves. (I like to imagine Buddha as a surfer — he’d have been totally rad, dude!)

But another ingredient in our excessive certainty is the notion of objective reality, which has been a basic part of our culture ever since the 18th century, when Isaac Newton explained the trajectories of the heavenly bodies. Physics has made great breakthroughs in recent centuries — we had people walking on the moon, and our cell phones are really cool gadgets — and so we’ve gotten used to the idea that we should try to understand all of reality the way that we understand physics. Physics has moved on since the 18th century, but only in ways that are difficult to apply to everything else, and so politics and economics are still very much based on Newton’s 18th century attitudes about objective reality. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick said,

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

But I’ll show you that objectivity is overrated. I think this is part of what linguist George Lakoff was trying to say, when he said that “you can’t understand 21st century politics with an 18th century brain.”

Here’s an example: Consider a shooting. On the surface, it appears to be an objective, concrete fact of physics: a bullet from one man’s gun enters the other man’s body. But how we feel about the event, how we react to it, depends on how we interpret its significance:

Was it self-defense? murder? part of a justified war? part of an unjustified war? and what about the man’s family and friends? and so on.

For questions of that sort, answers can’t be objective and absolute. Any answers can only be formulated in terms of the models and frames and vocabulary through which we interpret the world.

It turns out that the methods of physics can only be applied to the objects of physics— that is, simple, dead, concrete objects. And why do these objects seem “concrete” to us, rather than abstract?

Maybe it’s because we all experience these objects in the same way — that is, because we have found a vocabulary in which we can describe a common experience. Politics is not “concrete,” perhaps just because we haven’t yet figured out what is our common experience in politics, and how to describe it.

We humans can only understand reality through models — but any model of reality is simpler than reality itself, and therefore must be somewhat unrealistic.

A naïve version of Buddhism would urge us to try to see the world directly, “as it is,” without the interposition of any models and interpretations; but that would leave us as helpless as a newborn babe. And models are useful — without their filtering, we would be swamped with excessive data. For instance, when I’m trying to drive somewhere, I’d rather have a road map than an aerial photograph, just because the map contains less data.

Rather than see without models, I think a wiser goal is just the opposite: to try to become familiar with many models, to apply each as appropriate, and in this fashion to avoid being dependent upon and misled by any one of them.

But most of us have just a few models for politics, and it’s not always the same few — we’re in disagreement about them. For instance, people may have different notions about what constitutes a war, or about which wars are justified.

The people who see things differently from us may appear to us to be evil, stupid, or crazy — we might say “you can’t reason with those people.” And they may see us that way too. But those people are too numerous to ignore, and they aren’t going away, so we’d better keep trying to understand them, to understand how to heal our culture.

Our understanding is shaped by our language, among other things. A word in one language may be considered a translation of a word in another language, but the translation is never perfect — there are always slight differences in the meanings.

In fact, even if you and I ostensibly speak the same language, we’ll still have slightly different meanings for a word. That’s inevitable, because we learned the word in different contexts, with different associations, in different childhoods. Words carry with them our different assumptions about how the world works. And in some cases the differences are quite large — for instance, one of Lakoff’s books is devoted to how liberals and conservatives have very different meanings for the word “freedom.”

And which model is best? For instance, which meaning for the word “war” yields the most helpful understanding of wars? Perhaps it’s really none of them that we’ve found yet — perhaps we would get a better understanding of wars from some other, slightly different definition that no one has devised yet.

Words and phrases are not neutral carriers of information. Whoever chooses the language will win the debate. George Orwell dramatized that in several ways in his novel 1984. For instance, the Ministry of Peace was the branch of government that concerned itself with war. Coincidentally, just a few weeks after Orwell’s novel was published, the United States Department of War was renamed as the Department of Defense, thereby making it easier for people of the USA to believe that all US wars are good wars.


By itself, a euphemism is a blunt instrument. But euphemisms are very effective when used as part of a broader propaganda system. Here are a few euphemisms to watch out for —

Terrorist” generally means a poor person who is fighting in self-defense. I’ll talk more about that one in a later chapter.

Enhanced interrogation” means torture;

rendition” means kidnapping;

detention” means imprisonment without trial;

defense” usually means war;

our war” usually means “our government’s war.”

A “national border” is an imaginary line drawn on a map by a politician who wants to say “those people are not like us”;

and really, a “foreigner” is just a cousin.

The words “settler” and “settlement” give the impression of building on land that was uninhabited, but generally it’s only uninhabited because you’ve removed the previous inhabitants.

And the place you put those previous inhabitants might be called a “reservation,” but that’s just a nice word for “concentration camp.”

And that removal process is sometimes called “ethnic cleansing,” which used to be a euphemism for genocide, but it’s no longer much of a euphemism — the disguise has worn through.

National interests” usually means the interests of the several multinational corporations that own our government.

Free trade” really means “exploit the hell out of anyone who is desperate,” a system that increases the gap between rich and poor, and consequently

free enterprise” really means plutocracy.

Concessions” means cuts in wages and benefits.

Property rights” are always selectively enforced, and so the phrase really means “property rights for the rich.” For instance, do you see anyone protecting your water or your chromosomes from the poisonous runoff of strip-mining?

And here’s the really big one: God really means “whatever you’ve been told to believe about God.”

These euphemisms remind me of how Morpheus described the Matrix to Neo — “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

A euphemism generally is just a word or phrase, but framing or models may be much broader and deeper — they give us an entire worldview. When we change how we see the world, it changes everything we do. Frances Moore Lappé has explained how we need to go from looking at the world as a “spiral of powerlessness,” to looking at the possibilities of a “spiral of empowerment.” I’ll say more about that later in this essay.

We humans are not very imaginative, and it’s seldom that any of us discovers or invents a new way of seeing things, a new word or concept, a new model or part of a model. There are few Einsteins in physics, where precision is possible, and even fewer in sociology, where precision is not possible.

Einstein’s research papers were not thick reams of long computations, working out new consequences of well known ideas. In fact, his research papers were fairly short, and included only a few computations. His brilliance was mostly in his nonconformity, his extraordinary ability to think outside the box. Our Indo-European languages prejudice us to think about time and space in certain ways, but Einstein got outside those ways, and thought in directions that had never occurred to his predecessors.

The models presented in a college course in philosophy may not be sufficient for the needs of our present world, and at any rate most of us have never taken such a course. And our corporate communications media offer us only a very narrow range of interpretations of events. Because we humans can only see reality through our unrealistic models, we can be sure that none of us is seeing things exactly as they really are. (Not even me.)

But it is easy for us to forget that, because our modern way of life is making it increasingly easy for us to live “in an echo chamber,” to mainly have conversations with people whose views are much like our own. (At this point in the transcript I’m including links to some material about that by Bill Bishop and Eli Pariser.) That echo chamber phenomenon is rather unfortunate because, as I mentioned earlier, one of the main things we need is consensus — we all have to understand one another better.

To get other people to listen to you more, you’re going to have to understand those people a lot better; perhaps you’ll achieve that by listening to them more. The knowledge that we’re all seeking includes an understanding of each other, and that can only be found in conversation. We need to dig deeper than just issues and policies — we need to become articulate about our own values and feelings, and the values and feelings of those around us. So I disagree with the people who say “we’ve had enough talk — it’s time for action!” Talk, if it is productive, is the most important kind of action.

Be patient in conversation — after all,

what is obvious to one person is not obvious to another,

and even that fact is not obvious to some people! In most conversations, if other people don’t understand you, it’s probably not for lack of trying; and if you don’t understand them, probably that’s not their intention either. And even if the person you’re talking with is stupid, saying so won’t help.

Though our knowledge and understanding may grow, they will never be complete. Nevertheless, we have a duty to act upon whatever we have become reasonably certain about. And yet, the more we act on our beliefs, the more we feel committed to them, because we don’t want to believe we’ve made a mistake — thus, the more readily we blind ourselves to other views. We are less objective than most of us realize; psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote that

when we think we’re being scientists, quite often we’re actually acting like lawyers

— that is, we’re not trying to discover the truth, but trying to prove our case. So another of our duties is to constantly struggle for self-awareness, to be aware of our feeling of commitment and how it may be biasing us.

How clearly do we see ourselves, or see others? We almost always see good motives for our own actions, but we may imagine bad motives when other people carry out the same actions. That’s the basis of American exceptionalism — the belief that the U$A can do no wrong.

It might help if more of us studied psychology. People who understand their own nature are more likely to choose its better parts. For instance, at this point in the transcript, I’m inserting links to information about Milgram’s obedience experiment and Zimbardo’s prison experiment and Ron Jones’s Third Wave experiment. People who read about those experiments are then less likely to succumb to the moral pitfalls those revealed. We’re not very bright, so we rarely learn the basic truths of our own nature — but we unlearn them even more rarely, so the long-term trend is in the right direction.

Few of us can become experts on something, and none of us can become experts on everything. So we all must rely on others for their expertise. But the experts disagree with each other. How do we choose among them? I think mostly we choose those whose views and alliances are consistent with the views and alliances we already have.

We all have different trusted sources for what we believe to be factual information and meaningful models, and trust can’t be won through debate. But sometimes it can be achieved through dialogue. We must strive to at least hear the people with whom we disagree, just in case we hear something unexpected. By the way, here in the transcript are links to my own favorite trusted sources — Alternet, Common Dreams, Democracy Now!, and the Greanville Post.

Chapter 2: DELUSION (everything you know is wrong). (

The science fiction film THE MATRIX is primarily entertainment, but the premise with which it begins is a great metaphor for our era. In the world depicted by the film, nearly all of humanity is asleep, and plugged into a great computer that — for reasons of its own — manufactures a shared dreamed reality for the humans, a reality that is quite similar to the reality in which you and I live. That dream is called “The Matrix” by the few people who are awake and rebelling against the computer. Early in the film, a young sleeper called “Neo” takes the red pill and is thereby awakened, and it’s a tremendously wrenching experience: the real world turns out to be vastly different from the dream.

Neo’s world   our world
seeing begins with a pill   seeing begins with a jolting event, or with someone telling you where to look
dream is involuntary   consensus trance
fully awake or fully asleep   awaken topic by topic
dreamed: physical reality   twisted: (a) history, and (b) the inter­pre­tation of the significance of events

Of course, THE MATRIX is only a metaphor. Here are four important differences between Neo’s world and ours:

  1. In the film, Morpheus says to Neo, “unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” And he gives Neo a pill that begins the awakening. Here in our world, the awakening may begin with some shocking event that jolts you out of your complacency — perhaps in the world news, or perhaps something purely personal. Or it may begin with someone gently telling you where to look, as I’m attempting to do now. But that telling only begins the process. Ultimately you do have to see for yourself that reality is vastly different from what you thought it was.
  2. In Neo’s world, the dreaming is altogether involuntary. But in our own world, to varying degrees, the sleepers are collaborators in perpetuating the delusion, and so it has been called the consensus trance by some activists. Many of our sleepers are in denial, and do not want to be awakened — they would rather believe that “everything is fine.” One reason for that is because awakening would set them apart from their friends. Another reason is that awakening would confront them with problems that are too great and terrifying. They would prefer to not be aware that they are being screwed, since they feel they can’t do anything about it anyway. At this point in my transcript, I’m including a link to Susan Rosenthal’s book Power and Powerlessness; she describes this denial as an instance of the Stockholm syndrome.
  3. In Neo’s world, the awakening is all-or-nothing. Here in our own world the awakening may be in stages, because one may be deluded separately about several different topics, such as war, climate change, the economy, or the possibilities in human nature. My own awakening, my own departure from “common knowledge,” began in early 2006; this essay covers some of what I’ve learned since then.

    Admittedly, there are some people who believe all the ills of the world come from just one evil conspiracy, and thus only one all-or-nothing awakening is required — but personally I think they’re mistaken. If one small group really was in charge, they’d be doing a better job of it, instead of destroying the planet they own. But I could be wrong about that.

  4. In the world of THE MATRIX, all of physical reality is dreamed — clothing, cars, buildings, and so on. In our own world, physical reality in the present time is real — a car is actually a car, and so on — but our world’s consensus trance alters a couple of things other than our physical reality. Those things can’t be depicted visually, so perhaps a cinematic metaphor closer than the film “THE MATRIX” is not possible. Here are the two things, or kinds of things, that I see altered by our consensus trance:
    1. First, our trance alters history. For instance, many people in our society still believe that nuking Japan expedited the end of World War II, or that the Gulf of Tonkin Incident actually happened, or that Iraq really did have weapons of mass destruction in 2003.
    2. Second, and more subtly but perhaps more importantly, our consensus trance misdirects our interpretation of the significance of events — that is, the models through which we interpret the subjective parts of reality, as I discussed in the previous chapter. I’ll discuss that in more detail now:

Our corporate communications media are consolidated into ever fewer hands, particularly ever since the Powell Memorandum of 1971. Thus the media offer us only a very narrow range of interpretations of events, and only a very narrow range of models of how we might understand our lives, how we might relate to each other, and how we might choose to live. For instance, the following assumptions are often implicit in the way that both news stories and entertainment stories are presented to us:

  • our economic system is fair, and furthermore it’s the only system possible;
  • sane people are “moderates” who would make only tiny modifications to the status quo; anyone else is a crazy “extremist”;
  • global warming might be a problem, but not an urgent one, so don’t panic;
  • periods of high unemployment and low wages are inevitable and temporary, like rain; there’s nothing you can do about it but wait;
  • “terrorists” are a grave danger to us, and so the “war on terror” makes sense; and
  • our soldiers have only fought in wars that were unavoidable and noble.

Have you accepted those assumptions, perhaps without even being consciously aware of them? They are invisible, unnoticed, and unquestioned as the air we breathe.

We are surrounded by deceptions.

Some are entirely conscious and intentional — for instance, for many years the tobacco companies knew quite well that cigarettes caused cancer, but they denied and concealed that information, because it would have cut into their profits.

Other deceptions may be much less conscious and intentional. Newscasters and other public figures simply repeat falsehoods that they have been led to believe true, or omit truths that they have been led to believe are nonsense.

The corporate news media, to save time and money, have cut down on fact-checking, and they simply present any controversy in a “she said / he said” fashion, as though all opinions deserve equal respect and legitimacy, without any concern about whether one of them might be a lie. These news media are easy prey for Situational Science Man, depicted here in the Doonesbury cartoon.

Some politicians don’t even attach much importance to truth. When Senator Jon Kyl recently was caught lying about Planned Parenthood, his office said that his remark “was not intended to be a factual statement.” In Orwell’s novel 1984, loyal members of the party would echo the party line even when it changed, and train themselves to not consciously notice that their own beliefs had just changed.

Some lies have very serious consequences. Millions of people have died, and many millions more have had their lives utterly wrecked, by wars started with lies. And lying about the destruction of the ecosystem may eventually lead to the extinction of the entire human race.

It’s difficult for most of us to think about these things. We don’t want to believe that anyone could do such monstrous things and tell such monstrous lies. But that’s what the monsters are counting on; that’s why the biggest lies sometimes are the most convincing ones. Hitler himself explained that — he called it the big lie. Of course, he wasn’t describing himself at the time — he was describing the Jews — he was telling a big lie about the big lie.

Keep in mind that Hitler was the same species as you and me; some of our own political leaders might lie in a similar fashion. Are we doing anything to prevent that? Politicians promise transparency in government, but those same politicians increase government secrecy — supposedly for reasons of national security.

I think that the people in power who are willing to commit such atrocities are psychopaths — they are very sick — we need to get them out of power, and into mental hospitals. Later, I’ll say a little more about what might be motivating them. But what about the rest of us? Some of my fellow activists complain angrily and bitterly about a nation of sheep.

But I think their anger is not productive, nor is their sheep metaphor. Let me suggest a different metaphor. The propaganda all around us is like a sleeping potion that has been slipped into our food, without most people being aware of it. And so they’re difficult to awaken, but we should not be angry at them for that. We simply have to keep trying to wake them. And here is a picture of Dorothy, who fell asleep in a field of poppies en route to the Wizard of Oz.

How is our Matrix structured? Here’s a diagram from Daniel C. Hallin’s 1986 book, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. Hallin described three categories of concepts:

  • “consensus,” the innermost zone, contains those concepts that everyone in the news media would accept without question and would assume implicitly without even mentioning;
  • “deviance,” the outermost zone, contains those concepts that the news media would either ignore entirely or ridicule as crackpot notions; and
  • the intermediate zone of “legitimate controversy” contains those issues that the newscasters actually consider to be worth discussing.

The boundaries set by the news people generally have been accepted by the public, since the public has had no other sources of information. Lately the internet has begun to change that. Ironically, most of the press is unaware of their role as gatekeepers, and so the Hallin diagram itself is actually a “deviance” concept.

Noam Chomsky was talking about the sphere of legitimate controversy when he said that

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”

He has also said that the corporate media rarely offer him a speaking platform, and they justify this by accusing him of a lack of “concision” — that is, by claiming that he can’t make his points briefly enough. And they’re factually correct in that assertion, though they attach the wrong significance to it. To express any unconventional idea, we must struggle to find the words, and it takes more time than conventional ideas do, so it won’t fit between two commercials.

Most people in our society are largely unaware of any ideas in the “sphere of deviance,” even though that might be where the truth is. As Thomas Pynchon said,

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.

The positioning of topics can occasionally change, generally either through the efforts of many ordinary individuals, or through the efforts of one or a few celebrities. For instance, almost single-handedly, the celebrity Al Gore moved global warming nearly all the way from deviance to consensus, through the stages that Gandhi listed — we climate activists have been ignored, then laughed at, then fought with, and now we’ve almost won.

But politicians rarely exhibit such leadership; more often they stick to “safe” positions. And so, we activists must struggle to bring to light many taboo subjects that have been relegated to the “sphere of deviance.” We must have the courage to say things that no one else is talking about, things that get us labeled as crackpots.

Addendum 2014 November 14. (These additional paragraphs are not in the video.) I want to contrast my own views with those you will find in “conspiracy theories.”

Usually, a “conspiracy theory” points to a small group of evil people. It gives the impression that, if only we could rid ourselves of that small group of evil people — by locking them up, or perhaps guillotining them — our problems would be solved.

But my own view is that our problems are in the culture around us. If we rid ourselves of the “criminals” without changing the culture, then the culture will simply produce a new batch of criminals. I’ll be more specific: I think the root problem is our culture of separateness, which has us living separately from one another; the current manifestation of the institution of separate property is capitalism. But I see the problem in capitalism, not in capitalists. Yes, capitalists are willing agents of the problem, but they are not its source.

This addendum was inspired by this excellent article by Tim Hjersted.

Chapter 3: RESOURCE EXHAUSTION and ECOCIDE (we’re voting ourselves off the planet). (

Our way of life is dependent on resources that are disappearing, much faster than most people realize. They’re disappearing because capitalism prices natural resources at their extraction cost, rather than their replacement cost. The commons has been privatized, plundered, and poisoned, an inevitable consequence of our no-commons-allowed economic system. We’re running out of easy-to-get oil, and so lately we’ve been turning to hard-to-get oil and other energy sources that are dirty, expensive, and hazardous — recent disasters include the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and BP’s poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico. And soon we’ll also be running out of other crucial resources — arable land, drinkable water, breathable air, and the rare metals that come from genocidal wars to make our computers and cellphones.

Individual efforts can’t save us. We need to retool all our industries to technologies that are appropriate for what we have recently learned about sustainability. That will require public policy on a global scale. But so far our governments are doing little or nothing about this problem, and the mainstream news media are saying little or nothing about it, because the government and the media are owned by big corporations who don’t want any changes in their present methods of reaping big profits.

They’re also doing little or nothing about global warming, and that’s more controversial. It’s controversial for political reasons, not scientific reasons, but that doesn’t make the controversy any less real or important. I’ll explain that now. During my explanation, if you start to find this chapter too offensive, too much in disagreement with things that you’re sure are true, then I urge you to skip to the next chapter, and maybe you’ll want to come back later to this one.

Here I’m mostly echoing the observations of Naomi Klein, and I’ll even include some clips from an interview she had on Democracy Now. But I’ll put my own spin on things, so don’t assume that I’m representing her views precisely.

Countries like the USA, that are politically polarized, are also polarized on the issue of global warming. In such countries, overwhelmingly, people with an egalitarian and communitarian worldview believe that global warming is real, and is caused by human activity. People who have a hierarchical and individualistic worldview, and who support unregulated markets, believe that global warming is not real, or at any rate they believe it is not affected significantly by human activity. And Naomi Klein says

it’s remarkable, because what it means is that it no longer really has anything to do with the science.

This is because, as I mentioned in an earlier chapter, we all have different trusted sources for what we believe to be facts. Personally, I think that most people on both the left and the right are wrong about global warming, though in different ways and for different reasons. I’ll explain why. First, I’ll explain my own view, which I happen to believe is the correct one.

I’m a mathematician, so I’ll describe this as a logical implication. Global warming is real, and human-made, and it’s a terrible problem. And it necessitates enormous changes in our economic and political system, on a global scale. And people in our society, both liberals and conservatives, are in denial about this, in different ways and for different reasons.

Most liberals are in agreement with hypothesis [a] in the diagram, but they don’t see the necessity of conclusion [b]. They seem to think that we can fix things with just a few reforms. As Naomi Klein says,

most of the big green groups are loath to talk about economics and often don’t want to see themselves as being part of a left at all, see climate change as an issue that transcends politics entirely.


the green groups, a lot of the big green groups, are also in a kind of denial, because they want to pretend that this isn’t about politics and economics, and say, “Well, you can just change your light bulb. And no, it won’t really disrupt. You can have green capitalism.” And they’re not really wrestling with the fact that this is about economic growth.

But the changes required really are huge. If global warming is accepted as real, then we’ll have to localize our economies, regulate global trade, regulate corporations, tax and fine polluters much more heavily, subsidize the development of renewable energy, increase international cooperation, and so on. In effect, conclusion [b] would be a lot like worldwide socialism.

And of course, that’s unacceptable to the political conservatives. It’s contrary to everything they’ve ever believed in, about a human’s proper role in God’s universe. They even think socialism has something to do with dictatorship. But the conservatives can see the implication from [a] to [b]. So they have no choice but to deny hypothesis [a]. They don’t believe global warming is real, and in fact they think it’s a hoax —

they think it’s a socialist plot to redistribute wealth.

And that’s funny, because most of the environmentalists on the other side of the issue have no idea where that accusation is coming from. They’ve never thought about the deeper economic implications of global warming. They’ve hardly ever thought about economics at all. They don’t think of themselves as socialists. Most of them don’t even know what a socialist is, except that they’ve been told it’s something bad.

Of course, the discussion is further complicated by the fact that the big fossil fuel companies are making big profits right now, and they don’t want to change that. So they’ve hired a few actual scientists who are willing to deny global warming. When the experts don’t all agree with each other, which experts are you going to trust?

I don’t know how we’re going to resolve this. As I’ve mentioned earlier, we all have different trusted sources for what we believe to be facts, and trust can’t be won through debate.

So next I’ll tell you what I believe. I am a socialist, as well as a scientist and mathematician. I trust the scientific establishment, because I know how science works — it’s fallible, but it’s more reliable than anything else we’ve got.

Nearly all climate scientists believe global warming is real, and human-made, and an urgent problem. But I see it as even more urgent than most of them have wanted to say publicly. Maybe that’s just because they don’t want to sound like alarmists. They keep warning us that we must take steps before runaway warming begins, but it’s already begun. Stopping it is going to be difficult, and more so with every day of further delay, but somehow we must stop it. The lives of our grandchildren depend on it, and perhaps even the lives of our children.

My position is a lot like the one that environmentalist Ken Ward expressed after attending a world conference:

Two weeks ago, in Copenhagen, the climate scientists of the world gathered to assess the state of data in the two years since the UN IPCC 4th Report, and they issued the kinds of things we’ve been saying for a long time now. “It’s worse than we thought, we really need to do something NOW, but — we can do it.” Basically, that’s the story. That’s what they said in public two weeks ago. What they were saying in the Belgian bars, drinking beer at night, however, was “We’re f*cked.

He went on to say

My feeling is that the kind of thing we need to do at this point is impossible to do in current politics.

And so he’s looking for revolution, and I am too. He didn’t mention Jesus or Marx, but his video is only 10 minutes long. I’m including a link to it in my transcript.

But there’s something else going on, too. Every year another news article tells us that the world is warming even faster than the climate experts expected. They keep revising their models upward, and yet they still keep getting surprised by changes outpacing their models. Non-mathematicians are likely to overlook certain kinds of models. I’ll you about those, but don’t worry, I won’t ask you to look at any computations.

Most changes that we’ve experienced in our lives have been gradual, at fairly constant rates. Any changes this year are similar to the changes last year. If you put together lots of years like that, the graph is a straight line, and so the growth is called linear. That’s the red line in this illustration. That’s what we’re used to, and what we expect. That’s the only kind of change we really understand on a gut level.

But anyone whose prediction begins with the words “at the present rate” doesn’t see what is really going on. Global warming is nonlinear — the increase this year may be of a very different sort than last year. That’s counter-intuitive, and we don’t understand it on a gut level, so we don’t plan for it very well, and it catches us by surprise.

Here are four kinds of non-linearities in global warming:

  • Feedback loops: That’s where the consequences of the change add to the causes of the change, and so the change accelerates; the acceleration may even be exponential. That’s the green curve, in this illustration. You can see that exponential growth starts off very slow — almost horizontal, almost linear — but after a while it speeds up and becomes very steep. Actually, many people in our society are familiar with the idea of exponential growth of money; I don’t know why they can’t imagine exponential growth of heat.

    (Here are a few examples of feedback in global warming: Polar ice melts and is replaced by dark water, so less sunlight is reflected back into outer space. As the oceans and the permafrost warm up, they are both releasing great amounts of stored methane, a greenhouse gas. And warming causes drought, which kills forests, releasing the carbon stored in them.)

    Addendum (not in the video) — it occurs to me that newcomers to the concept of exponential growth would gain a great deal from the story of the lily pads, which I’ll copy here from Wikipedia:

    “French children are told a story in which they imagine having a pond with water lily leaves floating on the surface. The lily population doubles in size every day and if left unchecked will smother the pond in 30 days, killing all the other living things in the water. Day after day the plant seems small and so it is decided to leave it to grow until it half-covers the pond, before cutting it back. They are then asked, on what day that will occur. This is revealed to be the 29th day, and then there will be just one day to save the pond.”

  • Tipping points — that’s abrupt change after passing a threshold level. (If a canoe is tipped sideways just a little, it will tip right back to an upright position; but if it’s tipped sideways too far, it will fill with water and sink.) A tipping point in climate change was dramatized in the film The Day After Tomorrow — it went from familiar weather into an ice age in just a week. And we don’t know when it will happen, or how big it will be.
  • Delay effects: When you flip a light switch, you don’t have to wait half a century for the light to go out. It happens pretty quickly. So we might expect global warming to work like that, but it doesn’t. The warming that is currently going on is not the result of the carbon gases that we’re currently emitting. Rather, the current warming is the result of all the carbon that is currently in the atmosphere — that is, all the carbon that has accumulated there from our past emissions. Those gases break down very slowly, so they’re going to be there a long time. So even if we drastically cut our carbon emissions right away, the temperature is going to keep going up for a long time.
  • Inhomogeneity, or unevenness: Most places are getting warmer, but a few locations may get colder for a while. Climatologists, exasperated at trying to explain this, have accepted the euphemism of climate change instead of calling it “warming.” And that gives some people the idea that we can just relocate everything. But it doesn’t work that way. The overall trend is not good. We may gain some new arable land and some new drinkable water in some places, but far less than the arable land and drinkable water we’re losing in other places. Let’s be honest about it: on the average, the planet is heating up.

In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts, floods, hurricanes, and other kinds of extreme weather. Soon the warming will be so blatant that it will be undeniable, but by then it may be too late for us to do much about it. Unfortunately, many people in our society are waiting until then to take it seriously. They are like the man who fell off the top of a 100-story building, and who said, as he passed the 50th floor, “hmm, no serious problem so far.” We need to start improvising a parachute from the materials we have at hand, and there isn’t much time left in which to do it.

Global warming is not just a day at the beach. As the resources diminish, resource wars may kill most of us. And then, finally, when the warm oceans burp out all their methane, fire and asphyxiation will kill the rest of us.

But pollution may kill us sooner. The viability of the ecosystem depends on its diversity, but we’re losing species rapidly; we’re in the midst of the greatest mass extinction in millions of years.

Already, large regions in the oceans are dead, and our bees are dying out — are you aware that many of our crops depend on bees for pollination? Each species depends on other species, and so each extinction contributes to other extinctions. Long before the temperature of the world passes a tipping point, the viability of the ecosystem may pass a tipping point — the ecosystem may just plain collapse, leaving only cockroaches and bacteria.

Unlike most of my fellow eco-activists, I don’t believe that the answer is simply for us to get ourselves back to the garden. I think it’s already too late for that — the damage that has already been done is so great that, left to itself, it will kill us all through the delay effects. Before we get back to the garden, we must use technology to help us rebuild the garden. In addition to going green, we’ll need science-fictionish geo-engineering to make further artificial changes in the climate and the ecosystem, but this time to help Gaia — for instance, float trillions of tiny mirrors in the sky, or design a new microbe to transform the ocean, or something like that. Or maybe we just have to persuade farmers everywhere to use organic fertilizer with a large component of biochar. But, whatever we do,

  • it must be planned carefully — as we’ve heard in so many apocalyptic science fiction films, “we’ll only get one shot at this.” And
  • it must be done soon, for with each passing day the problem becomes worse while the resources available for dealing with it become fewer. And
  • it must be planned and carried out by a worldwide consortium of scientists who are not in the employ of for-profit contractors — we’ve already seen that “the market” cannot be entrusted with the health of the planet.

It will require cooperation on a scale far greater than any the world has ever seen before, and that will only happen if we have revolutionary change in our world’s culture.

Chapter 4: PERPETUAL WAR. (It IS being televised, if you know where to look.) (

Ever since its founding on genocidal theft, the USA has been involved in one dirty little war after another, all justified with bipartisan lies, the biggest being “those people are not like us.” Actually, you and I have in more in common with the peasants that the USA has been casually bombing than with the fat cats in Washington and Wall Street who profit from the wars.

Citizens of the USA would like to believe that our nation can do no wrong, but we’d be better served by facing the truth: we’re of the same species as Gandhi, but also the same species as Hitler and Stalin. And all our wars are far away, so it’s easy to forget what a hell we’re making of other people’s lives. Many injustices and atrocities have been carried out in our name, while we weren’t looking, while we didn’t care. Our self-absorption and the banality of our evil have reached monstrous proportions. As a nation, we have much to atone for — and it’s still going on. But I truly believe that the wars will end when more people know the truth. Here is a half minute clip of me talking about that at the 2008 protest at the School of the Americas.

Our wars are bankrupting us, too. In the USA, over half of every tax dollar goes to the military. We’d solve our economic problems overnight if we stopped fighting so many stupid, pointless wars. President Eisenhower warned us, half a century ago, of the military-industrial complex, which profits from all the wars, win or lose, justified or unjustified, and somehow always manages to give us reasons that we need another war.

Hermann Göring, one of Hitler’s henchmen, explained how easy it is to give reasons for war, when he was on trial for war crimes:

Naturally the common people don't want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, IT IS THE LEADERS of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is TELL THEM THEY ARE BEING ATTACKED, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. IT WORKS THE SAME IN ANY COUNTRY.

At this point I need to talk briefly about the so-called “war on terror.” What is a “terrorist,” really? Usually it’s some poor person who lives in a country that contains some natural resources, such as oil, that rich people in the U$A want for themselves, generally for free or at an absurdly low price. And so the poor people in that country have been attacked, in some way that you never hear about on corporate television. And in some cases the poor people have retaliated, in self-defense. But they don’t have big expensive bombs — all they have is very cheap weapons and desperate tactics. And somehow their use of those weapons and tactics gets them branded as “terrorists,” by our corporate television, as though this were somehow much worse than other kinds of soldiers.

And what about the events of 9/11/2001 ? Those events are used as a justification for our many recent wars and for the loss of our civil liberties. Some people say that history began anew on that day — that all of previous history has become irrelevant. What a load of bullsh*t. (Excuse my language.)

Let’s first take the question of whether 9/11 was an inside job. Many people see that as an important question, and they have strong opinions on one side or the other. I don’t have a strong opinion, and I don’t see it as important question. Here’s why. There are two possibilities:

  • On the one hand, if 9/11 was an inside job, then the culprits are our own military-industrial complex.
  • On the other hand, if 9/11 was an attack by outsiders, then it was retaliation for past crimes carried out by our own military-industrial complex — crimes that many people of the U$A have managed to not see. And so previous history is relevant.

But either way, what we really need to do is expose the machinations of our own military-industrial complex.

And even if all the fault did lie with the foreigners, our wars are still making us less safe. Here’s why. Supposedly the 19 Saudi hijackers were armed only with cheap box-cutters, determination, and ingenuity — no nukes, no AK-47s, etc. Well, even if we bomb their country and several neighboring countries back to the stone age, they’ll still be able to get their hands on box-cutters or other cheap, low-tech weapons. So our bombing does nothing to prevent future 9/11s.

In fact, our bombing makes future 9/11s more likely. Every innocent bystander who we deprive of a home, a limb, or a loved one, or who hears about our tortures, thereby gains a reason to pick up a box-cutter. Our government’s wars are making new “enemies” faster than they kill old ones.

And our government has become so arrogant that they don’t even bother with plausible lies for some of their crimes. Here are two examples of that.

  • First, Bradley Manning was a soldier in the US Army who allegedly passed a mass of classified documents to Wikileaks, exposing war crimes of the US Army in the middle east. In some ways this is very similar to Daniel Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. If the allegations are true, Manning should receive a medal for them — the law instructs soldiers to expose war crimes, not become complicit in them. But instead he has been imprisoned since May 2010, and subjected to lengthy illegal pre-trial torture, and is facing a court martial, possibly with the penalty of life in prison. This appears to have as its real purpose the intimidation of other soldiers, so that they will not also become whistle-blowers. By the way, at the time that I’m writing this, Bradley Manning has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, by some members of the parliament of Iceland. I’m inserting into the transcript of this video, a link to a petition you can sign, supporting that nomination.
  • And second, in recent wars, the US military has used depleted uranium in weapons, in countries that they are supposedly “liberating.” The residue from those weapons is causing genetic alteration in the local population, permanently raising the frequency of birth defects. And it’s causing similar damage in the USA’s own soldiers. This shows a psychopathic lack of concern about the well being of others. But it’s nothing new — the chemical “Agent Orange” had a similar effect in the Vietnam War.

Is it psychopathy? Or just stupidity? In either case, through such actions and others the government of the U$A forfeits any claim to legitimacy.

scene from the film 'Dr. Strangelove'Of all the nations that have ever had nuclear weapons, fortunately, so far only one has ever been insane enough to use them against humans — but we have no guarantee that that good record will continue. A moment of madness or error could produce a nuclear war that would end all life on earth, as in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, from which this illustration is taken.

In fact, that would have already happened, on September 26, 1983, except that fortunately Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, in the Soviet Air Force, refused to follow his orders! Subsequently he was mildly reprimanded for saving the world.

Nuclear materials require exotic atoms, and so they can be detected with Geiger counters. Some of our greatest warmongers — including Nobel War Prize winners Henry Kissinger and Barack Obama — have been talking lately about how they’d like to make the world safe from nuclear weapons, through worldwide surveillance. They claim that if they spy on everyone, they can keep nuclear materials out of the hands of so-called “terrorists.” There might be a small grain of truth in this claim, but I see many other things in it as well. It’s partly a ploy to demonize whichever countries they’re calling “terrorists” — currently Iran and North Korea. It’s also a ploy to increase business for their friends who sell surveillance equipment and services. It’s also a justification for spying on us while keeping secrets from us, which is just the reverse of how Thomas Jefferson said things should be — he was later quoted by the main character in the film V for Vendetta

“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

But mostly, this whole no-nukes campaign is a distraction from the more important issue of what creates so-called “terrorism.” A no-nukes campaign cannot take the teeth out of so-called “terrorism.” Making terrible weapons becomes ever easier, as knowledge continues to grow and spread. For instance, germ warfare does not require any exotic atoms, and it cannot be detected with Geiger counters or other kinds of surveillance, and soon it will be cheap and easy; soon every two-bit lunatic will have his own germ warfare lab. Thus whether the so-called “terrorists” can get their hands on nukes hardly matters. As I mentioned earlier, even if we bomb their country and several neighboring countries back to the stone age, people can still get their hands on boxcutters and other cheap weapons. As long as a few people still hate us, they will find ways to hurt us.

Evidently, we must stop giving other people reasons to hate us. Bush’s claim that “they hate us for our freedoms” was a lot of nonsense. For many years, while most Americans weren’t paying attention, we’ve permitted our government to prop up dictators and overthrow democracies whenever that served the interests of the few multinational corporations that own our government. We need to stop that sh*t.

The USA has claimed to be a protector of freedom and democracy, but it has a greater track record of protecting “stability,” which is a euphemism for predictability through control — that is, the opposite of freedom.

Our military has followed the example of Arnaud Amalric, the Abbot of Cîteaux, in the 13th century crusades: When he was sacking the town of Béziers, and could not distinguish friend from foe, he casually and indifferently said

Kill them all. God will know which ones are his.”

We’re not making any friends this way. You can’t bomb your way to friendship.

I want people to be free, but that means I accept the possibility that they may do something I don’t like. I hope to reduce the likelihood of that, not through control — which is both unethical and unreliable — but through friendship. Only friendship can make us safe. If you attack everyone who you fear, soon you will fear everyone.

I wear a big conspicuous peace symbol, everywhere I go. I keep hoping that it will become a fad, a fashion, that everyone will start wearing one. That hasn’t happened yet, but I’ll continue wearing it and hoping. For me the symbol has come to represent far more than just the ending of bombs and bullets. Wars will continue as long as a few people can profit from them, and as long as people see their own interests as separate from the interests of other people. The ending of that attitude, and the spread of a worldwide caring community, is what I now see in the symbol.


Next I’ll talk about economics. At this point in the essay, I used to have a chapter about why liberal capitalism was better than conservative capitalism. It explained why, during a time of high unemployment, stimulus spending was a better idea than so-called “austerity measures.” But I’ve taken that chapter out, because after a while I realized that’s like explaining why slow poisoning is preferable to a quick hanging — actually, I don’t care for either fate, but thank you very much just the same.

Let’s start with the fact that the future isn’t what it used to be. Say hello to Rosey the Robot, sitting in the back seat of the Jetsons’ flying car. Now say goodbye to Rosey the Robot.

Decades ago, when I was young, futurists predicted that we’d soon have flying cars. That didn’t come true, and it was a little disappointing — flying cars would have been cool — but quite honestly, the flying cars didn’t really matter that much. But the futurists also made a much more important prediction, which is in two parts, and the first part did come true:

  1. The first part would come true under any economic system. People are always thinking up better ways to do things — better information, better organization, better equipment, and so on — and so productivity goes up. That is, more and better commodities and services are produced through fewer hours of labor.

That part came true. And in a sane world, increasing productivity would be a good thing, because its consequences would be that

  1. after a while we would all have lives of affluence and leisure — we’d have comfortable material possessions, while working only a few hours per week.

But part (b) didn’t come true. In fact, we’ve ended up with essentially the opposite of part (b):

we got sweatshops, high unemployment, and widespread poverty. That took us by surprise, because we hadn’t really thought things through. But with 20/20 hindsight we can see that it was an inevitable consequence of our economic system. It’s not just because some people are breaking the rules — in fact, it’s because people are following the rules, but the rules don’t work as advertised.

Prediction (b) would have come true, if the gains of increased productivity were shared — that is, if we were all treated as valued members of the team. But that didn’t happen. In the real world, the owners and managers of the workplace keep all the increases in productivity for themselves — perhaps partly because of greed, but mostly just because that’s the way our economic system is set up. We workers are treated, not as valued members of a team, but as disposable equipment.

As fewer person-hours of labor were needed, many of us were fired. The unemployed, now more numerous, were forced to compete against each other for fewer jobs. This also put pressure on the people who remained employed — they faced lowered wages and benefits (known euphemistically as “concessions”). The bosses could say

look, if you don’t want to work here any longer under these new arrangements, there are plenty of unemployed people who would be glad to take your place.

Corporations race to the bottom of the wage scale. They export jobs to countries where regulations are lax and wages are low. For jobs that can’t be exported, such as construction and sales, corporations hire people for 39 hours per week instead of 40, thus making them “temp” workers with low salaries and no benefits.

And it can only get worse, as mechanization continues. More and more people are being replaced by robots, even in jobs that were formerly believed safe. Perhaps the owners plan to eventually replace all of us workers with robots, but I find it more plausible that they have no particular plan at all; they are simply driven from day to day by market forces. Indeed, I don’t think any long-range plan is possible for them; in a game of musical chairs, no one can feel secure. Even the managers may eventually be replaced by robots.

So, sweatshops and exploitation are not aberrations; rather, they are inevitable consequences of our current economic system. But many people don’t seem to understand that — they speak of our current “hard times” as though it were an uncontrollable natural event, like the rain. But

if productivity has been rising steadily for decades, why the f*ck should we be experiencing hard times??

Does this make any sense to you? Can’t we find a better way to live? It’s not too late — we can still make prediction (b) come true — but that will require drastic changes in the way we view both the ownership of property and the relation between the individual and society. I’ll say more about that later.

We need to look at, and dispel, some of the myths of the market. Market fundamentalists claim that the market is a wise mechanism facilitating

innovation, efficiency, productivity, wealth-creation, fairness, democracy, and personal responsibility.

Actually it does none of those things, but the people who love this theory manage to avert their eyes from the contrary evidence all around us. They have made their ideology predominant in our public discourse, so that any alternatives are difficult to learn about. Their theory is appealing, not only for its simplicity, but also for its not requiring any effort on our part — supposedly the “invisible hand of the market” accomplishes all these wonderful things by some magic, just through each of us pursuing our own self-interest.

The market is not wise; it is the cause of all the calamities around us. It does not reward the industrious and punish the lazy — rather, it rewards the wealthy few who control it, and it screws everyone else. It is efficient with regard to the costs and benefits that it measures, but it doesn’t measure externalized costs, and they’re enormous.

And you can’t make yourself affluent just from making a better product, but you can make yourself affluent through advertising that persuades people you’ve made a better product. Thus, money is an unreliable incentive. The only reliable incentive is a culture in which you want to make a better product, because you want to make the whole community affluent.

Furthermore, governments are prevented from taking any action regarding ecocide and other big problems, because the market fundamentalists assure us that more effective and efficient solutions will be developed by private enterprise — all our problems should be “left to the market.” But some of our big problems aren’t being addressed that way, because the only possible solutions to those problems would not make the rich richer.

Is our current economic system making us more prosperous, on the average? That depends on which “us” you’re talking about, and also depends on what kind of “average” you’re talking about. The two kinds of averages most commonly used in statistics are the mean and the median, and they’re quite different.

  • The total monetary wealth of our society is increasing, and therefore so is the mean wealth — that is, the total wealth divided by how many people there are. But that kind of average is misleading. Actually, all that new wealth is going to just a handful of people at the top, who are becoming fabulously wealthy. Meanwhile, on the other hand,
  • most people are becoming poorer: longer hours, lower pay, lower benefits, more people in the family working outside the home, more people working more than one job. The median wealth is sinking — that’s the level where half the people are below it. That type of average is hardly affected at all by the wealthy people, because there are so few wealthy people. The median wealth is sinking because most people are sinking. To me this seems unfair.

But what is fair? Different people have different notions of fairness — Lakoff’s book MORAL POLITICS lists ten of them, and I can think of a few more.

Free trade is not necessarily fair trade, particularly when one party is desperate (for instance, starving), and the other party, being in a less urgent situation, has a much stronger bargaining position and can dictate prices. Such a disparity results in the stronger party reaping great profits while the weaker party makes just barely enough to survive. Consequently, so-called “free trade” ends up transferring wealth from the weaker to the stronger, and further increasing the inequality.

That also applies to contract labor, which too often is wage-slavery: People who have no other options will sell their labor for whatever price they can get, and will work under whatever conditions are dictated by the so-called “owners” of the workplace. An extreme case is the poverty draft — that is, the easy military recruitment of people who can find no other jobs.

In some people’s minds, separateness is fairness. I saw this in stark relief at a healthcare rally in 2009. People carried signs like “healthcare is a human right.” My own sign said “we’re all in this together.” But across the street, a much smaller group of people expressed the opposite view in their signs and chants. At one point they chanted “I’ll buy mine, you buy yours.” That’s not a chant of greed, but of separateness, and of what the chanters perceived as fairness. I can’t really argue against their perception of fairness, except to tell them that it’s inefficient and has disastrous side-effects.

The owners and managers of the workplace get paid a thousand times as much as their employees — not by being a thousand times more talented or working a thousand times harder, but simply by their good fortune of being the owners or managers of the workplace. The rich convince themselves that they are “self-made,” that they have earned their wealth, and that they should not have to share it.

But it would be more accurate to say that they captured their wealth. They are forgetting how much their accumulation of wealth depended on other people as laborers and as consumers, and as providers of the civilization on which that workplace was based. No man or woman is an island. And no hermit living in solitude on an island ever got rich.

That ideology of self-reliance is shared by many people who are not rich. This farmer in the picture, working hard at plowing his field, may feel that he is producing his livelihood entirely on his own. But the farmer depends on animals and seeds that were developed through thousands of years of domestication and breeding. That house in the background was built by other people — or even if the farmer built it himself, he built it with tools and skills that other people had developed. That’s also true of the clothes he is wearing. And if he is growing crops, not just for his family, but for market, then he is depending on his interaction with other people at the market. He’s no island.

Advocates of separateness believe that people should “take personal responsibility” for their own lives, and thus they should not be legally or morally obligated to help anyone else. These advocates of separateness ignore the vast inequality in the distribution of opportunities and obstacles, which we all share the responsibility for leveling.

Advocates of separateness see our government’s social programs as handouts which will teach laziness, and which therefore are immoral; they’d like to cut those programs. Even if you persuade some of them that their culture is causing poverty, war, and ecocide, some of them might stoically reply,

well, we still must do what we believe is moral, even if it does have the unfortunate side effect of destroying the world.

What can you say to such people? As I’ve mentioned earlier, we can’t win trust through debate, but I’m hoping that someday we will achieve some understanding through dialogue.

Chapter 6: PLUTOCRACY. (

The transfer of wealth from the working classes to the upper class has been going on for many years, by a number of tactics.

  • The rich “own” the workplaces, as I discussed earlier. They also own all the financial institutions. For instance, the Federal Reserve is a consortium of private banks that collects interest on all of our money.
  • The rich pay lower tax rates than the rest of us. Many of them find ways to evade taxes altogether. Yet they reap many benefits from government services that we taxpayers support.
  • Some corporations manage to get authorization of limited liability: the nuclear power plants and the largest banks and the largest oil companies are “too big to fail.” These corporations don’t have to pay for their mistakes, so they have little incentive for avoiding mistakes, and some of their mistakes are HUGE. This arrangement is known as “socializing the risks and costs while privatizing the profits,” or more briefly as “socialism for the rich.”
  • Also, the recent epidemic of foreclosures stems mostly from fraud, most of which is not being prosecuted.

By all of these means and others, wealth is being concentrated into ever fewer hands, to a much greater degree than most people in our society realize. The USA has become one of the world’s leaders in economic inequality. We are moving into a plantation economy and feudalism.

The middle class is being erased — and with it, democracy. The wealthy few have much greater influence than the rest of us, and they use that influence to make themselves still wealthier and more influential, by subsidizing politicians and media that support their interests.

Political candidates who have little money are described by the corporate press as “not serious candidates,” if the press mentions them at all. It never mentioned my own 2010 run for congress, nor did it give congressman Dennis Kucinich his fair turn in the presidential candidates’ debates in 2007 and 2008. Nowadays it’s nearly impossible to get elected to public office without expensive advertisements, which require large campaign donations from the wealthy. Fans of Obama boasted that he collected more small donations than any other candidate in history; many of them are unaware that he also collected more large donations than any other candidate in history.

Thus, public officials end up serving the interests of the wealthy, as lackeys or dupes, or as members of the wealthy class themselves. Most members of congress are far wealthier than the ordinary folks they purport to represent. As a result, many members of congress have little understanding of — or interest in — the lives of ordinary people. Our government has become a tool of the plutocracy — that is, we have rule by the wealthy few, for the benefit of the wealthy few. The winner-take-all board game of Monopoly would already be a stupid model for a national economy, even if the rules were constant; but it’s even worse if one of the rules is that the wealthiest players get to rewrite the rules whenever they like. And the laws may appear to apply equally to all, but it is as Anatole France said:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

We call ourselves a democracy, but few of us get to vote in our workplace about how the workplace is run, even though that’s where we spend most of our time; and none of us get to vote in our shopping mall about how the economy is run.

Although I could be mistaken about this, I believe the plutocracy is not a tightly-knit hierarchical conspiracy, like Hitler’s inner circle or the fabled Illuminati. Indeed, if it were, its few members would be taking better care of this planet that they own and control, not rushing it toward ecocide!

I think that a more accurate picture of the plutocracy was painted by Jeff Faux, in his 2006 book, The Global Class War. He showed the plutocracy more like a fraternity or a country club. Its members form a loose network with a shared philosophy and an internal spirit of camaraderie, but no more than that. They may sometimes work together or help each other out, but they may just as often compete against each other, like different mafia families fighting for control of a city.

The members of the plutocracy are not all-powerful. They are themselves driven by market forces, and they see themselves as separate from each other — recall the philosophy of separateness I discussed earlier. Each is chiefly concerned with this question,

“what can I do to protect and improve my own financial position?”

And so they are plundering what remains of the commons. They are destroying it, not as a conscious intention, but as a side effect of their lack of concern, as they attempt to make a quick buck for themselves.

Corporations are designed, not to benefit the public, but to maximize profits by any methods available, ignoring or even concealing adverse effects to workers, consumers, the general public, and the ecosystem. The film The Corporation explained that if corporations are persons, then those persons are psychopaths, indifferent to the fate of others. That film compared a corporation to a shark — it’s an efficient externalizing machine, but that is simply its nature — it is not consciously malevolent.

Another useful metaphor was given by Annie Leonard in her film about the Citizens United court decision. She depicts a corporation as a mindless robot that simply follows its programming. There are people inside the robot — they are like gears and cogs in the machine — but that robot will quickly fire and replace anyone who starts to put people above profit.

John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, tells an anecdote about his encounter with a corporate executive who had lost a battle to Perkins’s environmentalist group. The executive, who was also a father, subsequently thanked the environmentalists for giving him cover to make changes without getting fired.

The wealthy class’s looting of the working classes can be described as class war. Sometimes the war is overtly violent — for instance, when corporate thugs murder labor organizers. At other times the violence is merely implied: The ill-gotten gains of the rich are “legally” protected by police who carry handcuffs, pepper spray, tasers, and guns. Financiers who destroy the economy are more likely to be bailed out than prosecuted.

The plutocracy’s biggest advantage in the class war is in the fact that most working people don’t even know there IS a class war. The existence of the class war is denied by the plutocracy, which would rather the public not notice how it is being screwed. That denial is also assisted by some members of the public, who would prefer not to be aware that they’re being screwed, since they can’t do anything about it anyway.

But lately some parts of the class war have become more visible. In early 2011, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and several other political officials declared war very openly on labor unions. This led to massive protests in Wisconsin, and was one of the inspirations for the subsequent Occupy Wall Street movement.

The class war has recently changed its nature in other ways as well. The plutocracy has long been a parasite on the working classes, but it was a biotrophic parasite — that’s the kind that permits the host to live. Recently the plutocracy has stepped up its rate of exploitation, and can now be classified as a necrotrophic parasite — that’s the kind that eventually kills its host. Clearly, this situation can’t continue much longer.

Part of the reason that so few Americans have been aware of the class war is because — as I mentioned earlier — the plutocracy controls the mass media, and they only promote the worldview that they want to believe. Most think tanks work to further develop that view, particularly ever since the Powell Memorandum of 1971. But I take some encouragement from what Naomi Klein said about this:

It’s easy to be discouraged by how much more funding the right-wing think tanks have. But … they need that money, because they have a really tough intellectual job: Their job is to convince people that [altruism is bad and selfishness is good]. Crazy talk. Very expensive to convince people of something so deeply counter-intuitive. It is much cheaper to convince people that to do good is good; bad, bad.


(I need to make a disclaimer for this chapter: We can’t know for certain what goes on inside the minds of the plutocracy. However, to avoid despair, it is best to have some models, even speculative ones.)

The plutocracy does not consist of robots — at least, not yet. They are humans, and capable of change, and on that account we can be hopeful. They are not all alike. Some of them may believe themselves to be altruistic, because they really believe that greed is good, and they really believe that the so-called “invisible hand of the market” works for the benefit of all. (In which case they are mistaken, as I’ve explained earlier.) On the other hand, I don’t think Gordon Gecko was being sincere in his greed is good speech.

A few of the wealthy clearly are generous, for they have given away large portions of their fortune; Ted Turner gave away nearly all of his. Still, even the phil­an­thro­pists generally cannot see what would be the best use of their donations — I would urge them to look at Ralph Nader’s novel about that. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to understand the flaws inherent in our economic system.

Money and power are not quite the same, though each makes the other more accessible.

  • An overgrown child might love money for the fast cars, private jets, huge houses, and pretty companions.
  • But the love of money can turn into greed, and, as Raggedy Ann and Andy learned, the greedy can never get enough.
  • And greed can turn into a lust for power, and that can be far more destructive. As the villain in Orwell’s novel 1984 explained, the only true proof of power is the ability to make other people suffer. Mere obedience is not proof because those people might choose to obey for reasons of their own.

The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated clearly that power corrupts. In that experiment, a bunch of normal students at Stanford University were divided into two groups, to act as prisoners and jailers. Within a few days, the jailers began mistreating the prisoners.

A few of the powerful may manage to avoid corruption, but that’s in spite of their power, not because of it. In most cases, the powerful become indifferent, callous, or even abusive toward everyone else.

Justifications for power:
Social Darwinism
Unabashed psychopathy

I can imagine why power might corrupt. The powerful must justify their power to themselves. They do so by convincing themselves that they deserve that power — that they have “earned” it, or that the less powerful people are somehow less deserving, even “inferior” or “bad.” Here are some of the arguments they might use:

  • Calvinism: God has chosen who should be rich and powerful.
  • Social Darwinism: I am a higher species; those poor people are just vermin.
  • What I would call Greedism: the philosophy that selfishness is good. That idea was promoted by Ayn Rand and Gordon Gecko. Rand described selfishness as a heroic personal strength. She made this doctrine more palatable by covering it with a thin veneer of what looked like logic. (It’s actually not logic — the followers of Rand are making assumptions that they’re not consciously aware of. This is an area where I have some certified expertise — I am the author of a textbook on mathematical logic.) And finally,
  • Unabashed psychopathy: This was the attitude of the villain in the novel 1984. He said, essentially, “I lust for power, and I don’t care about justifying it.”

Unless ordinary people band together to protect themselves, power will coalesce into the hands of the few sociopaths who truly lust for it. That power will corrupt them further, and they will use it to strengthen and extend their grip on concentrated power. It matters not whether that concentrated power calls itself capitalism, communism, fascism, or theocracy. Those become different names for the same thing, once power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few.

Regulations will only keep money out of politics temporarily; money will erode its way through any such barriers. Franklin Roosevelt dethroned the so-called “economic royalists,” but he did not end their existence, and they eventually clawed their way back into power and unraveled his New Deal. As Glen Ford said in the Black Agenda Report,

“The idea that the plutocrats can be quarantined from power, while remaining plutocrats, is absurd.”

In the long run, the only way to avoid rule by the wealthy class is to not have a wealthy class. Wars, sweatshops, ecocide, and the building of bombs and prisons will continue, with occasional rebranding, as long as a few people thereby profit.

Libertarians — with the U.S. meaning of that term — fantasize about a nation of honorable small businessmen, politely competing against one another’s separate self-interests, concerning themselves only with profit — they imagine that the market can replace empathy. But market prices do not reflect externalized costs, and so fraud, theft, and murder would be thriving service industries in such a system. And the system would be callous and indifferent to those who have had bad luck — are they really any less deserving than the rest of us?

Many in the plutocracy are elitists: they do not believe in democracy (though they claim to believe in it, and some of them may even believe that they believe in it). Elitism is nothing new — it was shared by some of our nation’s so-called “founding fathers.” James Madison, the chief author of our constitution, wrote (though not IN the constitution) that it was important

to keep the spirit and form of popular government with only a minimum of the substance,

and he wrote that the primary goal of government is

to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

That sentiment was shared by John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who said

the people who own the country ought to govern it.

Many of the non-wealthy have been duped into voting for the economic interests of the wealthy. In some cases it is due to brand loyalty, like rooting for a favorite football team. Funding the Tea Party may be the most lucrative investment that the Koch brothers ever made.

In some other cases it’s due to greed. Many a working man, lacking any understanding of probability, has become convinced that soon he will be one of the few in the exploited class to strike it rich and join the exploiters. That fantasy is the topic of a Ted Rall video from which this illustration is taken.)

But another major reason for non-wealthy support of the wealthy is authoritarianism, the belief that “someone ought to be in charge,” just like a ship ought to have a steersman so that it won’t crash. (You know, if three authoritarians are shipwrecked on an island, the first thing they’ll do is elect a president.)

Authoritarianism stems in part from a belief in hierarchy as a natural order. Most leftists find this notion to be rather foreign to them, but they may understand it a bit better by thinking of some authority figure that they respect greatly — for instance, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise. Most of us would follow his commands with question, without hesitation. But before you give your allegiance to some dynamic, charismatic, authoritative leader who seems to be wise and benevolent, I would caution you to remember that, of these two men, the one on the left is fictional; the one on the right is historical.

Most of all, though, I think authoritarianism stems from fear of uncertainty, and from pessimism about human nature — both of which, in turn, stem from a belief in the separateness of our interests. Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 book Leviathan, wrote that people are basically greedy and selfish, and so they will degenerate into chaos and a “war of all against all” unless they are prevented by a strong central authority, such as a king, and reassured by dogma. But dogma, being inflexible, can’t keep up with reality, and so those who rule through dogma eventually must impose it by force.

Authoritarians fear uncertainty, “impurity,” the unfamiliar, and the possibility of disorder. Scientific research has measured this fear in blink rates and galvanic skin response, in expressions on faces, and even in the shape of the brain. Politicians encourage this fear, and use it to manipulate voters.

Authoritarians believe we should pursue security, stability, predictability, through strength, rigidity, control. But perfect rigidity is death. The fortress the authoritarians build would become an island prison, surrounded by enemies of their own making.

I suspect that many of the cops who have been brutally beating peaceful dissenters share Hobbes’s pessimism, and believe they are courageously defending an orderly society from anti-authoritarian uncertainty and chaos. But Lieutenant John Pike’s casual application of extremely painful pepper spray (yes, this is an actual photo) shows something more than that. It shows separateness and alienation carried to an extreme. Apparently Pike sees the dissenters, not as human beings, but as some sort of insects, to be treated with insecticide.

An even more severe alienation is shown by companies like Corrections Corporation of America, which lobbies legislators to criminalize more activities, so that more people will be locked up, so that CCA can be paid to build and operate more prisons. By the way, did you know that the so-called “land of the free” has more people in prison than any other nation?

Chapter 8: ALIENATION. (

We are alienated in many ways — from our jobs, our democracy, our emotions, and each other. Alienation is the cause of the widespread malaise that has so many people taking tranquilizers, antidepressants, and other mood-altering substances. Most see their malaise as personal, and do not realize that it is a shared problem.

The feminists of the 1970s saw how the different kinds of alienation were interconnected. They called for an end, not just to sexism, but to patriarchy, authoritarianism, militarism, capitalism, and other ills in our society; they saw all of those tied together. They sought an end to alienation.

I’m sorry to say that feminism has lost much of that vision. Today feminism usually just means giving women an opportunity to participate equally in the alienation — in illegal wars and in the corporatist plundering of the commons and the middle class. Today hardly anyone is talking about the broader vision.

More than its inefficiencies, injustices, and inconsistencies, the most fundamental drawback of our market-based culture is its teaching us to suppress and disregard our empathy, and to see other people solely in terms of what use they will be to us. We are alienated from each other: our economic system teaches us separateness:

Our dwellings are arranged as separate economic units: you keep your stuff in your house, I keep my stuff in my house. Your loss is not necessarily my loss, and might even be my gain. Keep the homeless where I won’t have to see them. The little that remains of the commons is not being protected; instead it is being neglected into disrepair, or privatized and plundered into ecocide. We are seldom reminded of any shared purpose that might unite us. We come to see ourselves and others merely as shoppers and commodities. Lacking any meaning in our lives, we are hypnotized by consumerism, which can’t fulfill us.

Our lack of concern for others goes further, to a “blame the victim” attitude that has become commonplace in our society. It’s a form of denial. It may be easier to say that someone deserves the ill treatment they are getting, than to admit to yourself that their treatment is unjust, that you are powerless to do anything about it, and that you yourself may soon share the same fate.

Our enormous economic inequality contributes greatly to our alienation. We are taught to compete against each other, and to value ourselves according to our salaries, and so we are stratified into ranks. This erases any notion of shared goals, destroys trust and solidarity, and creates psychological stress that is medically harmful — even for the wealthy, for they can only become and remain wealthy by being obsessed with wealth and cutting themselves off from empathy.

It’s a vicious circle: Our ideological system and our economic system are both alienated, and each perpetuates the other. If you’re watching my video, you may want to pause on this slide and the next one, to look at them carefully. Frances Moore Lappé has explained in more detail how the different parts of our alienation perpetuate each other; she calls it a “spiral of powerlessness.” She urges us to replace it with a “spiral of empowerment.” If you’re reading the transcript page, at this point you’ll find a link to a lecture by Frances Moore Lappé.

Somehow, separateness has become our only acceptable religion, despite our society’s claim of ecumenicism. Separateness even has its own prophet, the sociopath Ayn Rand, who preached that selfishness is good. Political debates on television are only between different versions of separateness. Any other view is dismissed as dictatorship.

Do you see this glass as half full, or half empty? And concerning human nature, which is more realistic:

  • optimism (build more schools)? or
  • pessimism (build more prisons)?

For a glass, “half full” and “half empty” are equally accurate observations. But for human nature, it’s not a matter of observation. It’s a matter of what we choose to be, what we aspire to become. Sometimes culture has changed, and with conscious effort we can change it further. If we put our minds to it, surely we can find a better way to live.

The pessimistic worldview does contain a small grain of truth: None of us want to be taken advantage of, and a few of Reagan’s mythical “welfare queens” really do exist (though the free riders on Wall Street are a far greater burden on society).

The most frequent criticism of socialism that I’ve heard is that if all people were guaranteed an income, they’d immediately stop working, and the economy would collapse. And I’ll grant that the economy would In fact collapse, if nothing else were changed aside from the distribution of money. To make any kind of socialism work, we’d also have to make other changes that are much bigger, and much harder to visualize: We’d have to change our notion of community so that people felt they belonged to it and wanted to contribute to it, and could depend on it to take care of them in turn. And we’d have to change our jobs so that they were meaningful.

A few of us do have meaningful jobs. The teacher, nurse, and firefighter might feel appreciated for their work; it gives them a feeling of connection to the community. They take home from their workplace more than just a paycheck. But most of our jobs are more like that of the assembly line worker portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in his film Modern Times. They are repetitive, mechanical, anonymous, easily replaced, and without any purpose that is experienced by the worker.

But a different and better world is possible.


Our planet’s illness is severe — it can only be healed through fundamental change. We must change not just our government and our technology, but our culture, our way of relating to one another, human nature itself. Our goal is not simply to “recover,” or to “repair the system” — it never really was working well anyway. Its inherent flaws led to the current crises, and even before these crises it was hurting many people. As Stephen Dedalus said, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.

Our goal must be to build a new world, better than any that we can remember, better than any that we have yet imagined. Knowledge grows exponentially, so things are changing faster and faster. It’s up to us to steer the direction of that change. It may be helpful to study and discuss the few bits of old maps that we have, but even together they don’t reveal our road or our destination. We must find the courage to follow our hearts — they are all we have for a compass.

We are engaged in a race between worldwide enlightenment and the consolidation of ancient greed. The outcome is not yet determined, and so no one can afford to just sit on the sidelines and watch. We will survive this metamorphosis, and we will remake this planet into a kinder, gentler place, if we work together. But many are not working with us, for a variety of reasons:

  • they feel it’s not urgent — but this essay says otherwise
  • they’re spectators — but they’re needed on the field
  • they have little time — but soon they’ll have less
  • they’re distracted by consumerism — hey! wake up!!
  • they feel powerless — but together we are strong
  • they feel hopeless — but the future is not yet written
  • they are confused — well, start learning!

You and I must wake those people and recruit them.

For those who despair, we must offer hope; here are a few pointers in that direction:

Culture has changed before, and with it, human nature; therefore it can change again. Already the movement for change is enormous, bigger than any previous movement in history. And if progress currently is not visible, don’t let that discourage you: Consciousness grows beneath the surface, until finally it passes a threshold level and bursts forth into view at a moment no one can accurately predict. (For instance, no one foresaw the timing of the Freedom Riders in 1961, nor the timing of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.)

Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud were pessimistic about human nature, but they were mistaken. There is growing evidence that humans are basically empathic and cooperative. Jon Stewart has pointed out that we routinely cooperate with one another in every aspect of our lives except politics. If you’re looking at the transcript page, at this point you’ll also find links to some uplifting works of Rifkin and Solnit.

We are smarter together than separately, and perhaps we will be wiser too. The internet has given Gaia a consciousness like never before. The human brain is 100 billion neurons networked in parallel, Facebook is almost one billion human brains networked in parallel, and Facebook is not the final word in networking.

Look inside yourself and your friends to see love and the capacity for change. Then remember that everyone else is like that too, for all humans are your cousins, your flesh and blood.

Admittedly, uprising involves risk; revolution is no picnic. Four students were killed by National Guardsmen in the uprising at Kent State University in 1970. Far greater numbers of dissidents have been killed or imprisoned in other countries where the rulers are more brutal. And the USA may be heading toward that kind of brutality, if the justifying myths of our rulers continue to decline in credibility.

But silence is complicity, and an increasing number of USers can no longer bear to be complicit in our nation’s crimes against humanity and against the ecosystem. Some are as willing to risk their lives for the truths of peace as ordinary soldiers do when persuaded by the lies of war. More USers are growing aware of how we have been exploited and sucked dry by the wealthy. They are recognizing that it’s time to fight back, that we have little left to lose.

And even if an uprising is crushed, it’s not a complete loss — it still changes the consciousness of society. As some Egyptians said after their partially successful uprising in Tahrir Square, “if things don’t work out the way we want them, we know the way back to Tahrir Square.”

Some believe that violence is never a wise tactic, and others believe that sometimes violence is necessary. But regardless of the broader theory, I believe that right now, here in the USA, violence is not a helpful tactic. We are still in protest, not in civil war. At present, we do still have some freedom of speech and of the press, and we need to use it to increase our numbers.

And ultimately we may not need to use any violence at all. The bureaucracy of brutality cannot persist without the acquiescence of the public, and so that bureaucracy may fall without our firing a shot when its workers awaken and walk out, when the cops see the light and join our side.

But until that time comes, we must recognize that our opponents will use force, as they see the crumbling of the only world they have ever known. The cops will believe they are defending society from chaos, and some of them will use violence to suppress our message, and we’d better be psychologically prepared for that. Try to run away from the batons and rubber bullets — but if you must get assaulted, try to get it on camera. Our opponents’ violence will expose the emptiness of their principles — as long as we don’t respond with violence.

Of course, it is possible that at some point our last vestiges of speech and press will be ripped away from us, and our opponents’ violence will no longer be exposed. Perhaps that is the point at which we are forced from protest into war, and our analysis of violence becomes more complicated then. I don’t have that part figured out yet.

But even if we do come to violence, that must be only a temporary tactic. We must strive to avoid becoming like our opponents, who use force to impose their dogma; we must not replace the old oligarchy with a new one. Our primary goal is not to seize physical power — in fact, we seek a world in which physical power doesn’t play a role. Our goal is to spread ideas, raise awareness, overcome the consensus trance, and build love. If we do seize the armory, it must be only to enable us to liberate the television station.

Organizing and planning are major parts of revolution. The spontaneity of revolution is mostly just a myth. For instance, when Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, it wasn’t simply because one day she got fed up. In fact, it was after much training and planning, particularly at the Highlander Center in Tennessee.

But personally, I’m more a poet than a general, and I don’t know much about organizing and planning. I’m not a leader, and I don’t want to be one. Whenever leaders get a big following, they tend to either get corrupted or assassinated. But Victor Hugo said, no army is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. I’m hoping that we’ll have good ideas spreading through a peer-to-peer network that doesn’t depend on leaders.

Organizing and planning requires a lot of communication, which will be difficult if the authoritarian hierarchy is spying on you and censoring your communications, and locking you up when they don’t like some of your communications.

Still, it’s my hope that our message of empathy and solidarity will “fly beneath their radar.” In Tolkien’s novel THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the evil lord Sauron was defeated partly because he could not imagine that little Frodo, having acquired the ring of power, would seek to destroy it rather than wield it, and so Sauron took little precaution against that possibility. I think that people can’t really see enlightenment without becoming enlightened. I’ve set my email program’s options so that at the bottom of every message I send out, this line is added:

I hope they will tap my phone and email — when they understand what we’re saying, they’ll join us.

Join the struggle, join the network, join the movement, in whatever way feels right for you — that’s going to be something different for everyone. Put peace symbols on your clothing and on your coins, and put longer peace messages on your paper money. Host screenings of films. If you have the tools and skills, make some films yourself. (And by the way, this slide show of mine is essentially a zero-budget production — I didn’t use a video camera — I don’t even have one.)

Join a national organization if you can find one you believe in. More importantly, join a local organization, one small enough that everyone gets a turn to speak — you’ll feel greatly empowered once you become part of a community, and part of the conversation steering that community. Or just talk with people, online or off. Our basic problem is a lack of understanding, and so the solution must be in the global conversation.

And action doesn’t even depend on being part of an organization. You can act in concert with just a few friends, or even alone.

For instance, sometimes I stand alone by a roadside during rush hour, holding up a big sign. Thousands of people see it, even if the corporate news media never acknowledge it at all. Many people have spoken of the usefulness of protest demonstrations, but I think I’ve heard it put most eloquently by Richard Wolff:

Never underestimate the impact of even a small number of people doing something. It means thousands of others who see it, who hear about it, now have a more realistic feeling about such a thing. It may take them several more months or years before they ever go [i.e., join in]. But the possibility of their going just got a little more real when they see you standing there doing it. It’s not as strange, it’s not as hopeless, it’s not as impossible, because it’s been realized by another person who’s not so different from them.

And if you are more into the stealth-by-night variety of tactics, the Freeway Blogger website has great instructions. As the Freeway Blogger has stated, when you put a sign up on the freeway, people will read it until someone takes it down.

Perhaps what we need most of all is inspiration. Logical reasoning might win people’s passive consent, but it won’t get them moving. If you can articulate more clearly what is happening in all our lives, so that we understand our own experience better, you will empower us all. As John Lennon and Harvey Milk both said, “tell them what they are feeling.”

We must dream big, and see with new eyes. It’s true that the anti-authoritarian revolution of the 1960s failed, because we didn’t know what we were doing. But at least, for a little while, we shed the cynicism and weariness that now pervades so much of our society. The stage/screen musical Hair was full of anthems for us. The hippies, yippies, and zippies were not peripheral to the movement; they were at its heart. A large group accompanied Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg when they tried to levitate the Pentagon. And ultimately we did help to end a war.

Today we’re led by creaky old men. I treasure the wisdom and pragmatism of Chomsky and Nader, but they are not enough. Emma Goldman said “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” and I think I’m beginning to understand what she meant: Building the movement is hard work, and we won’t keep doing it for long unless we’re enjoying it. We must remember how to moon the man, how to thumb our noses at our jailers, how to be joyfully free in our spirit regardless of our physical chains. That spirit is not dead — look at the Yes Men and the flashmob singing protesters — but it has become all too rare. Search for it in yourself.

Each of us knows only part of the song. Keep listening, and keep singing.

[end video with brief clip of flashmob singers]

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