Defining a Social Vision

Society has no physical existence. There is nothing tangible to distinguish a group of a hundred human beings standing around the same general area, from a herd of a hundred cattle doing the same thing. The difference is between our ears. Each of us has a huge collection of ideas – some of them so fundamental we are scarcely aware of them – that defines our relationships with each other. It is these concepts that allow human beings to work together as a unit. Teamwork is the difference between human beings and cows, fish and lizards. The sophistication of our social organization is what distinguishes us from monkeys and wolves. That sophistication is incredibly complex. It allows us to work together to do things like send spacecraft to the moon.

It is that set of social concepts that tell us who we are. For many of us – if not for all of us – who we are means who relative to other people. That set of social concepts is not constant for all people at all times. It changes from place and place and through history. It changes within particular people from place to place and through history. The set of concepts that define a particular society, including the origin of that society, the cosmology of that society, the structure of that society, the place of individuals within that society are that phenomenon we call culture.

Power within a society is determined by culture where power is understood to be the ability of an individual to command coordinated effort by other members of society, or by society at large. Some individuals command armies and industries. Others are doing well if they can get help taking out the garbage. Occasionally, the entire cultural definition of society – and its relationships and power structure – changes. This can happen for any number of reasons. Invasion of other cultures has historically been a major reason for such upheaval. The Aztecs are still in Mexico – pretty much right where they were living. But their language, their religion, their political leadership, in short all of the things that identify them as “Aztecs” are all gone. The genetic descendants of the Aztecs are now all citizens of the Republic of Mexico, and organize themselves in ways that are completely alien to anything the Aztecs would have ever recognized. The reason for this complete change in their very self-definition is very simply the invasion of Spaniards.

The nastiest power struggles are cultural struggles. The ruthlessness of religious wars and conflicts has become a cliché. Equally ruthless are civil wars. They are ruthless struggles because the very definition of power is at stake – and with it a fundamental definition of who has power and who doesn’t.

By now you should begin to understand that unique phenomenon of our own time, occasionally referred to a “conservative culture wars”. This is what is behind Pat Buchanan’s call to arms, when he bellowed about a “holy war for the soul of America”. Indeed, you can take a walk through conservative rhetoric all the way back to the 1930”s, and here one conservative or another fret about the cultural slide of America toward “anarchy”. “At the end, it isn’t about left or right, but up or down.” Those were the words of Ronald Reagan at the Republican convention in 1964.

That is how the conservatives perceive the political environment. It is not merely a contest between different policy approaches to this or that social problem. It is a cultural contest between world-views. Interestingly, it is a contest that right-wingers think they are losing. You heard it here, first. The political contest between left and right is indeed a cultural contest between world-views, and conservatives are indeed losing it. To understand why, we must take a few minutes to clarify our own social vision.

This e-pamphlet is a discussion of strategy and tactics. More specifically, it is a discussion of the means to organize a unified leftist coalition against the conservative’s reactionary social agenda. It is about organizing for positive change to addressing social problems that have languished for a generation. The first step in that process is to identify a social vision common to everyone on the left. The beginning of organization is social identity. If the conservatives have been able to coordinate their message and their tactics, it is because they are united by a central and simple social vision. Finding our own unifying social vision may seem like a big job. It really isn’t. It isn’t a matter of inventing it. It is already there. In fact, the social vision of the left has been around for 300 years.

You see, you don’t choose your social or cultural identity. You discover it. I did not decide to become a leftist. That’s just how I see things. Conservatives are no different, which is why they believe that their world-view is self-evident – and anyone who disagrees must be motivated by some sinister [which derives from the Latin word for “left”] design. I recall a column by William Safire recounting a conversation he had with an official of the old Soviet Union. Suddenly, it dawned on him. “These guys really believe this stuff” – “this stuff” being Soviet propaganda. It was a revelation to him to find out that another world-view existed that was just as “self-evident” to its believers as his world-view was to him.

As for the political spectrum, it has exactly two sides. It is not three dimensional. Not only that, there is no “middle of the road”. The middle of the road is a canyon two inches wide and ten miles deep. You may be able to see the other side. You may have friends over there – I do. You may be able to straddle that deep canyon for a while – even cross over and spend some time over there. But in the end, no matter how close to the middle you are, you are one side of that canyon or you are on the other side. The question is what defines which side of that narrow but deep canyon you are on. The answer is found in history. It is same answer that explains why the right is losing a fundamental struggle for “the soul” of industrial society. The conservatives are believers in a social and political world-view that is obsolete.

How’s that for a slogan suitable for bumper stickers. “The Conservative world-view is Obsolete”.

Conservatives believe in social hierarchy. That is what defines them. Once you understand that, some of the apparent contradictions in their rhetoric begin to make sense. In fact, social-Darwinism is the last gasp of a social order that is thousands of years old. The leading theorist for capitalist social-Darwinism is Ayn Rand, the writer who has become “the fountainhead” of neo-conservative thinking. She didn’t invent the philosophy, she dressed it up and made it look respectable. Her philosophy amounts to applied Friedrich Nietzsche.

A neat picture of the natural hierarchy of the conservative’s imagination can be found by reading Atlas Shrugged. The premise of the story is that a number of industrialist tycoons grow tired of living in a society that places any demands on them. They are “ubermenschen”, you see, whose great intelligence and vision has built society. They are the natural leaders, put upon by a society that doesn’t appreciate them. So they all go off to some valley in Colorado. Of course these capitalist “supermen” can’t do anything for themselves, so they take with them a workforce who understand their place in the natural order. On this island, they reestablish an industrial paradise, while the rest of the world devolves into neo-stone age barbarism. These industrial leaders of course, are the only one’s capable of furnishing any industrial leadership. The wage earners – who labor in their vineyards – are morons incapable of self-government. Apparently, no one has the brains or the initiative, to assume leadership of their abandoned enterprises.

This theory of elites is nothing new. The story is nothing but an imaginative answer to the question the likes of Marie Antoinette asked when confronted with the demands for social equality. “What would they do without us?” Interestingly, a placed called the United States serves as a pretty good answer to that question. This country was not founded by the economic elite of Europe. It was built by peasants getting away from them. In fact, Atlas Shrugged is the story of America, stood on its head. It was wholesale members of the landless proletariat who fled England, then Ireland, then Germany, then Italy, then Eastern Europe and now Southeast Asia and Mexico. These are the people – freed from an oppressive social hierarchy – who built a democratic and prosperous nation out of the wilderness. Anytime our corrupt corporate elite wants to move to a desert island, I’ll help them pack. They don’t even have to pay me.

In fact, the notion that society’s elites are naturally superior to everyone else has been the justification for them going all the way back to the Pharoahs. According to them, these people are the creators of culture, they are the great builders. So naturally, society exists to help them with their mighty enterprises. They owe the people under them nothing. When every bit of work in society was done by human labor, unassisted by machines that hadn’t been invented yet, such an hierarchical vision of society was colorable. Whether you are talking about infrastructure like ships and the famous Roman roads, or monuments like the pyramids, a huge workforce is necessary to build those things. Just feeding the non-agricultural workforce and their masters requires a huge portion of the population engaged in agriculture. Relative scarcity means that you can’t offer incentives to the labor force. They have to be driven to work at the end of a whip.

Industrialization changed that. Eighty percent of the workforce was engaged in agriculture in medieval Europe. Today, in the United States that number is just four percent. Industrial production has created the possibility of surplus sufficient to feed, clothe and house every person on earth – with a substantial share of the surplus the workforce generates. At the same time, industrialization has created a technologically sophisticated workforce. How many of Ayn Rand’s tycoon heroes knew how the machines in their enterprises were built. Or how to keep them running. Or how to maximize their output. That is the work of today’s wage earner. He is the one who designs the machines, builds the machines, operates the machines and repairs the machines. He is the one the tycoon can’t do without

Industrialization – for first time in 6000 years of recorded history – created the real possibility of social equality, and with it liberty and self-government. So we are not surprised to learn that at the same time that industrialization was beginning, new political philosophers like Rousseau, Voltaire, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson were starting to write about democracy and equality. We are not surprised that slavery, which had existed for 6000 years with no real opposition, suddenly was perceived as immoral. In fact, slavery was illegal everywhere less than 200 years after the first organized opposition to it appeared.

Equality – and with it freedom and democracy – is the social vision of the industrial revolution. That is why the leftist – no matter the particulars of his philosophy, or how moderate he may be – sooner or later looks at the prodigious output of industrial society and asks why we have hungry, poor, illiterate and powerless people languishing in ghettoes. The conservative doesn’t ask that question, because hungry, poor, illiterate and powerless people were the order of the day in the pre-industrial world of social hierarchy.

Social hierarchy is obsolete. Maybe we needed masses of human beings chained to the oars of production before industrialization. But we don’t need them, now. Civilized human beings – however they might justify serfdom when it is at least arguably necessary – will not justify it when it is clearly unnecessary. In short, we aren’t going to enslave people if we don’t have to, and we don’t have to. To the extent that Ayn Rand and her intellectual fellows cling to hierarchical society of haves and have-nots, they are clinging to an ancient social vision that has become less defensible with every improvement in the technology of industrial production.

That is the divide between left and right. The left was born of those people in the eighteenth century who recognized the possibility for a new culture and social order based on equality and democracy. That new social vision has been resisted by the conservatives. They are on their last legs – which is why they are so fiercely ruthless. Today, technological improvements in computer driven industry, communications, and renewable energy threaten to drive the last nail in the coffin of the pre-industrial overlord

He wears a suit today, and sits in a glass tower. But he is a throwback to the days of knights and armor. And his days are numbered.

Equality, liberty for the wage earner, democracy, and social justice. This is the new social vision. I didn’t invent it. Jean Jacques Rousseau recognized it 300 years ago. But it is more vital and more attainable today, than it was when he first recognized its possibility. It is the golden thread that connects labor, with women’s groups, with ethnic minorities, with environmental advocates, with peace groups. Slavery, oppression, exploitation of both people and resources, conquest and war are the way of the old social elites. That is the “civilization” the conservatives defend, and they are right. That civilization – such as it is – is dying out.

I say, good riddance. I say lets drive a stake through its heart, and be through with it once and for all.

To do that, we will need to develop some concrete strategies and tactics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>