A Useful Guide to Freeing Your Mind

“The most powerful weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
—Steven Biko

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our mind.”
—Bob Marley

A few years ago the Springdale, Arkansas school system constructed a second high school.  The first week it was open for classes in the fall, I saw the first “spirit” stickers with the team mascot.  Here was a school created entirely from scratch, and the team’s name and mascot similarly created by a committee of middle aged white men in suits—and a bunch of teenagers were already demonstrating their “loyalty” to it in only a week’s time.  It’s about like that team of TV execs on The Simpsons creating the “Poochie” character.  “Wow, he’s got attitude–just look at those sunglasses!”

This is typical.  From our early childhood, most of us are taught to feel loyalty to institutions in whose agendas we have no say and whose leaders are utterly unaccountable to us.

Our lives are almost completely governed by a cluster of large, centralized, hierarchical, bureaucratic institutions, with the state at their center, over which we have almost no control.  Even the ones that are formally democratic, like governments, are in fact run mostly for the benefit of connected insiders.

Butler Shaffer’s distinction between “organizations” and “institutions” is useful here.  It’s possible to be the former without being the latter, if an organization is an instrument by which its members pursue their own purposes.  An organization becomes an institution when it exists primarily for its own ends, or rather the ends of those running it, and treats its members and clients as means to those ends.

The management of large institutions, thanks to being directly a part of the state system of power, or indirectly a part of it by being in an industry which is to some extent cartelized by the state, is insulated both from accountability and from the consequences of its own decisions.  Hierarchy is a tool for shifting effort and consequences downward, and benefits upward, and getting powerless people to do things that they have no rational interest in doing for its own sake.

From this follow several general principles, which it’s useful to keep in mind in your dealings with institutions:

1)  The real purpose of any large bureaucratic organization—as opposed to its publicly avowed mission—reflects the interests of those running it.  For example, schooling bears the same relation to learning that the “job” bears to productive work.  Some learning may take place in a school, and some productive work at the job—but they’re only an incidental side-effect of the primary function of the institution, which is to serve the interests of those who control the circumstances under which learning and work are permitted to take place.

2) “The rules” mainly serve the interests of those who make the rules.  The cultural apparatus (the mainstream press, the schools, etc.) treats “the rules” as some neutral framework for promoting the general welfare, with government officials and the management of large organizations functioning as overgrown parent-figures making sure everyone shares their toys, plays nice and gets along.  This assumption is reflected in goo-goo material like “Why Mommy is a Democrat,” and the soccer mom politicians’ fondness for the phrase “work hard and play by the rules.”

3)  Even when institutional management means well, the rules are still likely to be almost entirely counter-productive, simply because those making them are so out of touch with reality.  The main people who understand the real effect of the rules are those doing the actual work, who experience them in operation.  But hierarchies are very bad at transmitting accurate information upward; as R.A. Wilson put it, nobody tells the truth to a man with a gun.  In the old USSR, there were rules everywhere—and the system survived as long as it did because everybody ignored them.  The same is true of the typical government agency or large corporation.  The system in “Brazil” couldn’t have survived without people like Harry Tuttle.

Get over the assumption that the real purpose of an organization has anything to do with what its Mission Statement says, or that there is any virtue in “obeying the rules” when the rules are not made by freely cooperating equals based on their own free judgment.

Free your mind.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory