The Party of Selfishness and Destruction
This time, February of the 2015 Christian calendar, is a very, very dangerous time in the long, on-going story of human beings on earth.
A political party which is devoted to the promotion and expansion of the political and economic privileges of the most wealthy corporations and persons, and to the promotion of the fairly-demonstrably-false ideologies of its supporters, has taken control of the American Congress, which of course controls the law-making and budgeting functions of the American government. This American Republican party does appear to enjoy the strong support of some proportion up to one-fourth to one-third, and to enjoy the votes of up to one-half of the voting public, and this party seems to be so attached to their privileges and their political narratives, that they will indeed drive their preferred measures forward, even if it leads to the destruction of any notion of the “social contract” in America, and to the use of the American military to physically destroy any number of other countries around the world.
What is even worse, this is NOT an isolated development in the story of groups and parties that control the nation-states of the modern world. In far too many of the national-governmental structures that make up our global political environment, control is firmly held by groups which are also devoted to maintaining their own particular privileges in their society at almost any cost, even if that cost leads to a destruction of the modern civilization and the modern technological economy that allows people around the world to live in some level of comfort. These politically-controlling groups vary widely from country to country, they may be highly organized political parties, loose coalitions of national elite classes, traditional Arab monarchies thrust into a fearful new world, or relatively small, military-based and/or ideologically-based structures of fierce dictatorship.
While America remains a very important actor on the world political and economic stage, unfortunately the American government has not generally been a strong force for worldwide “good” or “progress” – either at home, or in the world – in recent decades. (Of course I’m speaking to Americans with this sentence, everyone else already knows this). There have been some examples of the American government actually helping people, such as tackling the problem of Americans who can’t afford health care, disaster relief in the Philippines and Haiti, support for African nations facing the Ebola epidemic. It is even possible that American military & diplomatic responses in support of Kurdish and Yazidi minorities in Syria and Iraq, in response to 2014’s crisis of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” of military Sunni fundamentalism in those two countries, may eventually be counted as a “positive” development in world affairs.
Yet overall our modern civilization, including the American government/state structure and all other global government/state structures, does face many serious threats to its very existence. Our modern technological “economic miracle” has always depended on businesses and individuals being able to dump their waste products into any available land, water or air, without incurring any significant cost that causes them to question the wisdom of this pollution. Yet the bill to be paid continues to grow, with the inevitable forces of physics, chemistry and biology looming as implacable bill-collectors. We must now face the facts that the oceans and the atmosphere cannot hold much more of our pollution without changing in significant ways that will be largely negative for many forms of life in all environments, including our own lives, our pollution of our land areas has also been significant and raises many costs while denying us many options, and that dealing with the consequences of our past pollution of all the major physical systems of our dear mother earth is going to become a very significant cost to all governments, industries and businesses, and all individuals on earth.
The burning of fossil fuels to power our economic miracles is absolutely at the root of the incredible rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide (and other heat-trapping gases) in the last 100 years, and the global warming that is resulting from this pollution. This development of “climate change” alone may cause future social/civilization disasters in any number of ways: food production failures, droughts, diseases, rising sea levels battering coastal cities, population migrations, and other foreseeable problems are just the beginning, the scariest danger is some unknown future tangle of several problems occurring simultaneously, entangling the emotions of differing suffering nations in such a way as to prevent positive cooperation, and overwhelming the resources of governments, societies and individuals to cope with the problems. How will societies, governments and individuals react if the world’s wheat crop is reduced by 90%? Or if the world’s rice crop is suddenly 90% lower, or if our pollution prevents ocean fisheries from being a major food source? I don’t think it will be pretty to watch, or fun to try to live through. And through the selfishness and ignorance of many governing elites and billions of disorganized, panicked individuals, it may well entail the end of what we now call “civilization.”
No government on earth is doing enough to reduce the risk of severe climate change arising from our economic system’s dependence on the free dumping of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere, indeed it seems that worldwide levels of carbon dioxide emission by human activity are growing and peaking, and of course the economic and political elites and interest groups that depend on this dumping are trying to deny that there is any problem at all, or to argue that the costs of attempting to curb emissions will be greater than any benefits. Whether it is low-level bloggers spreading false information to earn their pay, Nigerian elites benefiting from corruption, Arab princes, jet-setting American/European business leaders, or the American politicians getting big contributions from oil companies, there is indeed a worldwide Party of Selfishness and Destruction — based largely on the fossil fuels industries !!! — which doesn’t care what happens to the world’s 7 billion people the day after tomorrow, as long as the money, the political power, and their other social privileges deriving from the fossil fuel and other basic industries are kept safe from any challenges today.
We don’t know when these effects of climate change will seriously impact our daily lives; it may be as little as 2 or 10 years from now, or perhaps it may be as long as 25 or even 40 years in the future, if we are very lucky. But for the selfish economic interests and the unsociable political ideologies that animate the American Republican Party, these relatively vague threats to the well-being of our children are not enough. Their very first action upon taking the majority in the American Congress, was to pass a measure that seriously threatens the “social contract” in America by threatening the American old age and disability pension system, the Social Security program.
Despite the fact that the beneficiaries of Social Security paid into the program in their working lives, and despite the fact that many beneficiaries of the program regularly vote Republican (while thinking and saying things like “keep the government out of my Medicare”), the extreme conservatives of the Republican Party have always hated the idea of people “getting something for nothing” (and again, it doesn’t matter that this is not the case with Social Security, in which only people who have worked and paid in get any benefits. Extreme conservative Republicans hate it anyway.) Nevertheless, overall the Social Security program has been a huge success in maintaining America’s ability to enjoy a fairly widespread level of prosperity (at least compared to most other nations), which helps the rich and powerful in America directly by supporting consumer demand for their interests in major manufacturing and service industries, and indirectly, by maintaining a certain basic level of “social contract,” a sense of social and political contentment, which helps prevent more social and political threats to the power of the rich and powerful. Social Security of course also helps the rich very directly to the extent that they paid maximum taxes on wages or reported business income in their lives, and thus these people get pretty nice checks, equal to a middle-class wage, when they reach old age.
Since overall the Social Security program does help millions achieve a better life, Republicans and conservatives have learned that it can’t be directly criticized by anyone seeking to win an election. Instead, for some decades now they have tried to undermine Social Security by raising doubts about the future stability of the program – doubts which only exist because richer Americans pay a lower percentage of Social Security taxes on their total income than middle-class and lower-class Americans. To understand the current new line of attack by Congressional Republicans on the Social Security program, it’s necessary to dive into the details of the program’s funding and spending.
In addition to the major old age pension insurance portion of the Social Security program, since it was created in the 1930’s it has also provided support for children under 18 whose parents have died – a good friend of mine in childhood benefited from this in his youth – and disability insurance, for adults who lose their ability to work. The crucial detail is that when Social Security was set up in the 1930’s, the trust fund for old age and orphans benefits was made legally separate from the trust fund for disability benefits. And over the years, people have noticed that the privilege of being declared officially “disabled” by the Social Security bureaucracy provided a livable social niche for those who qualified. (The payments were based on previous contributions, so those who had higher-paying jobs when they did work got higher benefits than the lesser-paid; at the top levels it could compare to middle-class worker incomes, at the lower levels it could mean a poverty stipend less than even poorly-paying jobs.) Once you were qualified, you got your monthly checks; unlike unemployment benefits, you didn’t have to show you were looking for a job, and unlike state & local welfare programs, there was less regulation and less questioning & investigating by officials who might want to deny your benefits.
And so, over the decades, a lot of people wanted to get Social Security disability status, and a lot of people succeeded – about 10 million of them in 2013. And so the Disability trust fund has paid out more money than prudent insurance administrators would like, and over the decades Congress has chosen to make transfers – 11 times – from the larger Old Age trust find to the Disability trust fund. This situation, then, creates an opening for the conservatives who wish to attack Social Security but to do so indirectly. With the start of a new Congress with increased Republican majorities in 2015, their first action was to vote that there will be no transfers of funds (to continue 100% level payments to disability recipients), unless the funding of the whole Social Security system was reformed (which presumably would be under Republican principles of always cutting government budgets, except increasing government military budgets).
This little-noticed action in halls of government gives the Republicans two advantages in the rhetorical battles of modern commercial media: it allows them to claim a pure desire to cut government budgets, and thus relieve taxpayers; and it allows them to demonize and insult the Disability program with hate-mongering, exaggerated claims. Republican Senator (and likely Presidential candidate) Rand Paul was the first to jump in with the demonizing falsehoods, telling an audience on Jan. 14, 2015 that “over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts …”. (A later attempt at clarification by a Paul spokesman made it clear that the Senator was completely exaggerating and/or misunderstanding Social Security statistics.)
Yes, 14% of the approximately 10 million people on Social Security, about 1.4 million Americans, are getting welfare checks from the federal government because of their mental problems. Yet one has to have pretty serious mental problems, with letters from doctors attesting to one’s inability to work, in order to qualify for this benefit – mere “anxiety” isn’t going to be enough. Indeed, while 10 million Americans are found qualified for disability, there are at least another 5 to 10 million Americans who are trying to be found qualified for Disability, there is a small industry of lawyers specializing in Social Security Disability cases who are trying to get their clients qualified, and who are advertising that “I can help you with your Social Security disability claim.” (One of my best friends in college, who was born blind himself, became one of these lawyers.) So it is not easy to get on Social Security Disability; I am very sure that those who are getting qualified for disability tend to be those who have better doctors and better lawyers, who can write up the case papers in ways that please the Social Security clerks, than those whose cases are not being found to qualify.
Are there some people who are exaggerating their disability, who are committing fraud on the government? Yes, certainly there are some … but whether it’s 1% of Disability recipients or 5% or 10%, no one knows, and we will never be able to know without a complete case-by-case review of all 10 million Disability recipients, and even then there will surely be “gray areas” and “subjective judgments” that leave many cases in dispute. The Social Security system is rejecting enough claims that I feel pretty confident that the fraud rate would be found to be under 2%, and again those people will have very-well-written doctor’s letters in their files justifying their claims of inability to work. Furthermore, these folks who may be committing fraud against the system, and against the taxpayers, are just as likely to be conservative, Republican-leaning people as they are to be liberal, Democratic-leaning people.
Furthermore, there is a strong case to be made that many more Americans should be qualified for Social Security Disability, not fewer. Basically, the worker-hating heartlessness of late-stage capitalism and the current, advanced wealth-corruption of the Congress tend to create new classes of persons who are unqualified and essentially psychologically and/or philosophically unable to function in the workplace, while constantly creating opportunities for those who can manipulate millions of dollars at a time to hold down the wages of the middle and working classes. Major corporations are making huge profits over video-games that hypnotize able-bodied teens and 20-year-olds in their rooms, unwilling to emerge or exert themselves in any other type of activity. America’s oxycontin drug epidemic of the last 15 or so years is supported indirectly by the drug manufacturers, and more directly by third-rate doctors running “pain clinics,” it has largely occurred in the socially-conservative small cities and rural areas of states or regions that tend to vote Republican. Major corporations are making huge profits from supplying food products of dubious nutritional quality, while also creating huge pollution problems, and they have effectively “captured” the federal Department of Agriculture to prevent any regulations that might promote better food quality or environmental quality. With the average inflation-adjusted wages of average workers stagnating since the 1980’s, the slow breakdown of the traditional family structure, and the increase in the long-term unemployed, many more individuals are developing “specialized” strange ideas in their own particular psychology and/or philosophies, which may transform into socially-disabling conditions of overall personality.
Do all these persons “deserve” permanent pensions at taxpayer expense? Probably not, yet overall economic demand will certainly be increased, and an interesting portion of social ills and individual hardships might be lessened, if we increased Social Security Disability recipients from 10 million now, up to 12 or 18 million Americans who do have real problems holding a job. What seems to be the preferred Republican alternative, reducing the number of recipients to 6 or 8 million, or slashing the current payments by 20% to 40%, would certainly hurt the overall economy by reducing economic demand, and would certainly bring great frustration, hardship, increased homelessness and crime for those directly affected, and increase the less-direct burdens on families, relatives and friends of those who lost their Disability income.
When we consider that this Republican attack on Social Security Disability payments is just a tactic in their long-term attack on the Social Security system as a whole, and the approximately 47 million old-age pensioners, widows and orphans it supports (at the end of 2013) – and we remember that about half of these millions are socially conservative and likely Republican voters – the cynicism, the selfishness and the ultimate destructiveness of these Republican policies should be like red-flashing alarm lights with bells ringing, warning us that any perceived time of American “greatness” has long since been left behind.
Unfortunately, it is just this widespread belief in America in our own “greatness” and the correctness of our own institutions and values, that provides large numbers of voters and citizens who blindly support America’s huge military machinery, and the conviction – especially strong among conservative “strategists” — that the American military can and must act anywhere in the world where American “interests” may be threatened. Depending on how things are counted, American military spending is about 40% to 50% of the world’s total military spending, far higher than any potential coalition of “enemies” we might face; and while Republicans hate, demonize and wish to cut all forms of domestic spending, they are more likely to give the armed forces MORE money than is officially requested, than to ever question, criticize or reduce military spending (despite the overwhelming evidence that programs like the F-35 are financially disastrous and militarily ineffective). Any possible plans to reduce American troop commitments overseas, to reduce drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen or elsewhere that inevitably kill unthreatening civilians, or to negotiate agreements with difficult regimes are denounced by Republicans as “weakness,” while these same Republicans applaud and support the effort — ongoing for over ten years now — of Israel’s nuclear-armed government to foment a war against Iran because Iran might someday achieve a capability to make its own nuclear weapons.
Which brings us to the central problem of politics and government in this modern world of 2015. It is true that there are great variations in political systems among the world’s 200 or so separate nation-state structures. Something like 60 nations, from America through Europe, Japan and India and nearly all of Latin America, on to places like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand and even Iran, can claim to have significant amounts of democracy, in which citizens can theoretically organize peacefully for change and could conceivably produce serious institutional changes, working through constitutional structures over a period of years (yet of course it’s probably much easier to imagine this in Canada or Sweden, than in Iran, Thailand or Malaysia). In many other nations, such as Russia, China, and too much of the Arab world and the African continent, military, ideological and/or monarchical structures may try to show off democratic trappings, yet it is clear to all observers that the ruling elites were not consciously selected by their people, and that the ruling elites have no intention of being open to any serious changes suggested by their ordinary citizens. Yet whether they inhabit either the decidedly-more-democratic nations, or the determinedly-more-dictatorial nations, ordinary citizens everywhere find it very difficult to believe that their day-to-day thoughts and actions will have any effect on their political structures. In all nations, political elites tend to have significantly different psychological experiences than average citizens, and these political elites also make decisions based on very different philosophies than you or I probably use, or any average worker and citizen we may know.
I remain very firm in maintaining my overall thesis, that human history is made by the individual thoughts and actions of every single living human being, and that the “political” sphere of action – which derives from our human habit of making judgments on the honor, status and rank on other persons in our environment – is an inseparable part of our basic humanity. Nevertheless, it remains true that centuries of specific historical actions, creating and evolving monarchies and empires and eventually modern states, which now cover all the world with their ‘monopoly on violence” in their particular societies, has definitely caused this sphere of “politics” and government to become “crystallized,” to become “reified,” rocklike and apparently permanent.
Our own personal judgments of honor and status cannot change the governmental institutions that hold vast power over the outcomes of our lives; and if the curious psychologies and philosophies of our rulers thrust us into violent situations, on either a local level or on a global stage of massive high-tech warfare, our options are very limited. In the more democratic nations we can try to organize and vote for different leaders who will implement significantly different policies (and see here for my discussion of some of the practical problems preventing this, and suggestions for how to overcome them, in my own nation the USA).
If you are not lucky to live in such relatively-democratic places your options for dealing with outbreaks of political/military violence shrink even more: the first priority of citizens of a dictatorship is to themselves, to remain alive and safe, and keep family members alive and safe. (Those of us in happier lands cannot usefully judge your choices in this respect.) Otherwise, the options for inhabitants of un-democratic lands are few: one can join in with and accept the actions of your rulers (or pretend to join in and accept), one can try to lie low and evade their structures, one can try to run away, or one can attempt either violent or non-violent actions of resistance and protest.
Attempting any type of serious change in our lives is always a difficult and uncertain proposition: yet attempting changes in our own psychologies, attempting changes in our own systems of beliefs and explanations, and attempting changes in what we value economically – while still usually long-term affairs – seem more likely to result in changes that are historically significant, at least at the individual, family and cultural levels, than attempting serious changes in the current institutions, the current power structures, of our native countries.
Changes in how you see other people in society, changes in whom you give your own measures of honor and status to, will occur if you attempt to change in other respects. Yet for an ordinary person, to try for serious changes to established political power structures (including the national myths, convenient media lies, and ideological rigidities that typically surround our national government power structures), such a path seems to inevitably bring disappointment and disillusionment, if not prison and death. Such changes are simply illegal in most nations of the world, and seriously discouraged even in the most progressive outposts of democracy and citizen rights. It is precisely to prevent serious changes to established political power structures, that these structures insist on a monopoly over violence in their societies. Our natural human practice of “politics,” making judgments on the honor, status and rank of others in our society, is not allowed to have any effect on the government structures that have defined specific ways of attaining rank and office within their structures: the basic, unquenchable human urge to judge and sort, at the level of individuals and families, has become completely divorced from the official “politics” of gaining power in a particular system.
This divide, this separation, this huge chasm between the reality of millions of individuals
in all lands who feel alien and estranged from the government of their nation-state, who long vaguely for a different type of political behavior even as they struggle with challenges of living in the midst of vast social and technological change, and the government elites who apparently never question either their legitimacy or their policies, or the obedience of the various “servant” classes (including police forces) who do the hard work of maintaining the privileges of these elites, is a major problem as we move forward and try to think about improving our lives and our societies. Modern urban societies rely heavily on basic agricultural production being reliably harvested & processed and transported to outlets in the cities; any weather-related, ecological, military, or social-unrest-related factors which might break any link in the chain threaten disaster for millions. Ordinary factory workers and truck drivers and retail workers must be able to do their jobs for all to live and survive: yet in times of crisis it is precisely the errors of political elites in dealing with such problems that creates the chaos that will equal disaster in the cities. Every small failure to maintain food supplies and keep civic order will increase popular suspicion of elites and institutions, while increasing the determination of elites and institutions to “do something, do anything” to counteract the crisis – and this is how a mutual feedback loop of distrust and uncertainty can grow to replace whatever social goodwill and political legitimacy a particular society may have once enjoyed.
Overall, this divide between rulers and ruled in all the nations on earth is absolutely the most dangerous aspect of a very dangerous future. It is not just that our global climate is changing in unforeseeable ways, it is not just that our oceans are becoming increasingly polluted with fragments of trash and absorbed carbon dioxide: it is the fact that no governments on earth, even in the most enlightened nations, can bring themselves to take serious measures against these threats, for fear of upsetting major economic interests (which depend in one way or another on continued pollution and waste). And with major political parties (and/or public opinion) in too many nations actively opposed to science, reason and cooperation, and openly preaching hate, violence and war, well-meaning citizens who desire a better world for their children cannot even begin to make progress against such strong political forces in their societies. Our problem is not just that our “advanced civilization” is close to suffocating in our own waste products; our problem is that too many political forces in too many nations insist on ignoring or even aggravating such problems, as long as their selfish interests can remain undisturbed today and tomorrow. And in their selfishness, these retrograde political forces assist the possible destruction of “civilization” by helping prevent ordinary citizens from forming and establishing those smaller, more local relationships of cooperation that might help keep individuals and families alive in times of crisis.
Overcoming and ameliorating the various selfishness behaviors of our political elites, persuading these elites and/or replacing them in search of political persons and structures more inclined towards cooperation and the sustainability of all human beings in our environment, thus becomes a central goal for those who seek to change the world for the better. Developing local citizen networks of information and cooperation, consciously seeking to build a “survivalism” of mutual help and mutual care, must become part of the political goals of all concerned global citizens anxious to see their children live and prosper.
Despite these huge threats to our future happiness, for the time being everyday life will go on in all countries on earth, we will continue to act and think in our ordinary everyday ways, mostly focused on feeding our bellies and nurturing our families, and other “ordinary” activities. In the course of this everyday life, we will inevitably continue to change our psychological structures and personalities in small daily ways (and perhaps in large ways over time), we will continue to evolve and elaborate our explanations and philosophies as we are forced to confront new data, we will continue to adjust our ideas of which persons in our environment deserve honor, status and rank, and we will be constantly adjusting our ideas of economic value, and adjusting our relationships with persons, goods and institutions as we adjust our production and consumption of various economic goods and services. We can’t stop these changes, we can’t determine in advance if these changes will be “beneficial” and “progressive,” or if they will be “harmful” and “regressive” – and of course in the constant chaos of daily life, it is always impossible to know for sure if any particular thought or action will be “beneficial” or “harmful” over time, and such things are always subject to our diverse and changing ideas on what “good” or “bad” may mean in our human stories.
Despite all these obstacles, despite all the pessimism and hopelessness that the parties of selfishness and destruction may be able to “infect” into ordinary citizens who hope for something better, it is necessary for us to continue to try. We must continually and constantly try to improve our governmental structures, no matter how hopeless it may appear. We must continually and constantly try to improve our individual abilities to understand who we wish to respect and honor within our own societies, and we must continually try to improve our abilities to make such choices meaningful within our official governmental structures. It won’t be easy; indeed it will be very difficult to carry out the ideals I voice here. The actual, living, gun-toting parties of selfishness and destruction that do live in each of our lands will be trying to do everything they think they can get away with, in the name of preserving their power, and preventing us silly ordinary people from having any actual voice or choice in our governmental structures.
The prospects for success in improving our governmental structures are preponderantly pessimistic – and that is precisely why we must insist on optimism, despite the odds, defying the structures of selfishness that have captured our politics and government. We do have the power to take new actions, to hold new thoughts, in every moment of our lives. We must make use of these powers, as intelligently and nurturingly and sustainably as possible, to ensure that our children and grandchildren will have a world worth living on.