The System And Personal Responsibility

Over on another thread, Bionic Cowlick wrote this:

Singling out a specific institution (banking), functioning in a particular economic system (capitalism), while leaving out the system, itself, gives the system (capitalism) a free ride, while the particular institution (banking) acts as the fall guy.

You can’t hold a particular institution responsible for the entire system.

This comment exposes a set of questions that are right at the heart of whole question of not only what the problem is, but how to go about organizing to solve it. What is the purpose of "activism," and what kind of "activism" will be effective. To facilitate understanding these questions, I put up in very brief form the following specific considerations.

First, suppose I were to say that "you can’t hold the SS responsible for the entire system of Nazism." You might be tempted to agree with me, when I say, "bullshit." I absolutely can hold — and do hold — members of the SS responsible for the crimes they committed.

Am I giving "Nazism" a "free ride?" I don’t know where "Nazism" has taken refuge. So I don’t know how to apprehend it, and put it on trial. The only people we could collar, try, and punish were the people who did the things that the "Nazi system" told them to do. Systems don’t act, people act, All there is in the physical world are individual people doing things based on some BELIEF SYSTEM that justifies the things that they do.

Consider the punishment of Nazi war criminals — since we’ve already brought them up. What is the physical difference between the thirty years Nelson Mandela spent in prison in South Africa, and the lifetime Rudolf Hess spent in Spandau? What is the difference between a black man in the south who is lynched for looking at white woman, and Adolph Eichmann who was hanged for organizing the holocaust? There is no physical difference. Okay, the lynch mob used an oak tree, whereas the Israeli’s had a proper gallows — a distinction without a difference.

The point is that the justice or injustice, as the case may be, derives from our beliefs and conceptions of justice. In fact, at the time that Eichmann or our southern lynch mob were doing their work, they thought they were on the side of justice. When we talk about "blaming the system," we are talking about the sets of ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and conceptions that justify people’s conduct.

It is not an idle point, either. Many of these people really believe — honest Injun — that they are "doing good." There is a legitimate moral question of just exactly how culpable Adolph Eichmann was, if we assume that he really honestly believed that he was doing his duty as he understood it. More to the point, there is a practical question of how to go about attacking Nazism, given that the Nazi’s thought they were "right" — and would respond to violent opposition with a sense of outrage, if you can believe that. But of course, you can believe it, because there are so many examples of assholes who get indignant when they are called on their bullshit. They don’t see it that way — and appear to be incapable of seeing it that way.

Now, do I believe that the holocaust had ANY justification? Oh, hell no. Adolph Eichmann got what was coming to him, as far as I’m concerned — unless we are prepared to say that he was incapable of appreciating the criminality of his conduct. Which is to say, unless he was insane, and maybe he was. Maybe an entire nation was insane.

Here’s what we do know. Many Germans didn’t buy into "the system." Many Germans didn’t join the Nazi Party, hid Jews, worked in the underground, and otherwise resisted the insanity. A handful of generals on the Eastern Front, figured out ways to NOT participate in massacres in territory they controlled. Another group, as we famously know, conspired to assassinate Hitler, and would have succeeded but for some clumsy oaf who kicked the briefcase up under a heavy oak table. In short, plenty of people could see and appreciate the monstrous crime being done. Eichmann could have seen it, too, if he had been looking. If some part of him looked at the genocide system he was charged with setting up, and simply asked, "am I really sure this is ‘necessary?’" history might have gone a little differently.

Because that’s all he had to say. That’s all it took — and here’s the thing that will make you tear your hair out. The world is jammed full of people who appear to be simply incapable of asking such a simple, basic question like, "gee, it was really necessary to gas 10,000,000 people?"

Just like investment bankers don’t seem to be able to ask whether seeking out third world coulee labor, at the expense of American workers, is really necessary. Just like ordinary Americans don’t seem to be able to ask whether their "way of life" really depends on the slaughter of brown people in the third world. Neither can they ask whether cheap gas for the SUV they drive in — alone — is really worth the lives of 3000 American soldiers killed, thousands more wounded, not to mention the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. But brother, will they get pissed off if you ask that simple question.

So do we hold Eichmann responsible for his crimes under the "Nazi system?" And while we’re at it, do we hold investment bankers, and arms merchants, and neocon "philosophers," such as they are, for the crimes of global corporate capitalism, as presently organized? I do. But let me elaborate on what exactly it is they are responsible for. They are responsible for a simple failure to look at what their actions have created, and failing to question the assumptions and beliefs that appeared to make it "necessary." They are guilty of failing to consider the simple possibility that maybe they are simply mistaken.

Which brings us around to the simple "mental software" we need to be installing between people’s ears.

1. Our political, social, and economic reality rests on a belief system. That’s what "the system" is. It is a set of assumptions and ideas. It is not to be confused with "reality." Or more accurately, we should not be so arrogant as to believe that any belief system we come up with is so self-evident and infallible as to be beyond question.

2. We are absolutely capable of discovering and evaluating the assumptions on which that system is based — and indeed, we have a duty to do so.

3. We are responsible for the decisions we make. Why? Because we are responsible for which systemic beliefs we decide are valid, or decide to question. More importantly, we are responsible when we fail to evaluate those systemic beliefs.

4. The only thing that stands between a fully responsible human being, and one who’s decisions and actions are dictated to him by "the system," is the simple insight that such a "system" exists, and that he has the power to question its fundamental assumptions.

5. Failing to have that basic insight is no excuse.

6. Causing people to understand this is the first task for progressive activists. It is what the "truth force" seeks to illuminate.

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