The Myth Of Personal Choice & Individual Responsibility In America Today was originally written by David Van and published on his blog, QCMississippiMud.com, Se
Guys like Iowa Representative Steve King who like to trot out the idea of “individual responsibility” and suggesting that minority students “feel sorry for themselves” and that people should just stop whining… Or more recently, Mitt Romney suggesting that a whole 47% of Americans just don’t take responsibility for themselves, Really don’t get it at all. I don’t know how they remain so insulated or have such hefty denial programs but reality and these socially insulated idiots rarely cross paths. Kind of like matter and anti-matter… total plutonic reversal if they touch.
Here is my response to that old idea that personal choice and responsibility is all that matters…
Let’s start with this little tidbit from Michael Corcoran which I think illustrates my point pretty well:
As entertaining as the show [Breaking Bad] is, it is important to understand what it is not: a serious analysis of the drug war, the health system, middle-class drug culture or the American experience at all. In fact, the show is very much a demonstration of a very conservative worldview that posits that life is but a series of individual choices. The show, rather simply, attributes the consequences of these choices squarely on the women and (mostly) men who make them. As Chuck Klosterman wrote for Grantland, in a 2011 essay praising “Breaking Bad” as the greatest show of the modern era, the show presents a world where “goodness and badness are simply complicated choices, no different than anything else.” This, he adds, is in contrast to “The Wire,” where (emphasis in original) “everyone is simultaneously good and bad” and “[t]he conditions matter more than the participants.”
Klosterman, in trying to explain why “Breaking Bad” is the best of the great shows of the modern era, is actually, and unwittingly, pointing out its most glaring weakness. “Breaking Bad’s” biggest shortcoming is its lack of systemic analysis of the American experiment, which also happened to be the “Wire’s” greatest asset. In fact, “Breaking Bad” does the exact opposite of systemic analysis; rather than focus on society’s problems from a macro level, it has a laser-like focus on the micro – into the world of one unique man, with unique ambitions and morals. As a result, “Breaking Bad” teaches us a lot about one fascinating man, and almost nothing about the American experience.
Impossible Choices? The Conservatism of “Breaking Bad” By Michael Corcoran
Lets talk about the power of knowing you’re just bits of meat in the machine and of knowing you are a slave to a doomed system.
Hope in this machine destroying our planet is misplaced. If you think someone is coming to save you and your family from ourselves, look in the mirror. This is all you. And let’s be clear here; your kids are depending upon you to fix this broken system. But you won’t really be able to start monkey-wrenching in earnest until you are free of ideas that imprison, confuse and pollute your naturally creative human spirit. And by monkey-wrenching, I mean to point out that the new world we are building must be light on carbon, run on renewable energy, and I like to say that in order to have a future at all some dis-assembly will be required. Unlearning things is so hard, but as long as you’re really married to the present system you will lose your way and become either a reformer, or outright entrenched defenders of the oil powered machine that is killing us all. As Mark Twain said; “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble but what you know, that ain’t so.”
People often mistake my perspective as one of defeatism or victimhood but they’re just caught up in the positive thinking bubble. I say they’re too attached to the idea of happiness. Whatever that is. Instead I suggest we, like Rumi, treat each feeling, situation, all of it like any guest. Offer it your best, and think of this “being human” like a guest house. Entertain all these states of being. I’m just a realist. I like reality. I arrive there via total skepticism with a healthy dose of cynicism. I used to say that “no cynic ever changed the world”. I’ve since revised my thinking on this and believe pointing and laughing is probably the best defense ever invented and that at the root of every joke is a seed of cynicism. Never doubt the power of over thinking an ideological travesty into the realm of the absurd.
As disgusting (and debilitating) as it may seem to be, in light of truly honest comparisons between GWB and BO (not a real big difference), or the more recent comparison of BO to MR by the political compass (showing both president Obama and Mitt Romney are both right wing authoritarians) our electoral system is reduced to voting for mostly rhetorical differences. Never have we seen such a razor thin difference between the lesser of evils, neither of which has a chance to save us from our own ravenous appetites and the resulting climate destruction about to befall the entire earth. As evidence for that: In the ninety two years women have been able to vote, and voting at a rate 12% to 13% higher than men, they have not been able to gain equal rights on employment and wages. That’s because voting doesn’t actually change anything. Voting has never been and will never be enough. No one is coming to save us from ourselves. So there is some necessary sobriety here in contemplating our seeming powerlessness, out of which might be born (or so I hope), a pragmatic way forward unpoisoned by the toxicity of the American theatre of the Absurd we call electoral politics.
In his book “Debt: The First 5000 Years” David Graeber, makes an argument in favor of the “non-industrious” poor. I want to go further with the defense of not-doing as opposed to the “mindless doing” we worship in America. Because of the smaller carbon footprint of the poor upon the environment, they are in my opinion already the greenest of American citizens. Certainly they’re way down the scale from Hummer driving soccer moms. But then even heroin junkies are lighter on the earth than people might understand them to be. You really can’t legitimately blame drug users for the bloody war being fought out between “drug lords” and the inevitably corrupt police after all. That blame lies entirely upon the shoulders of the puritanical prohibitionists who misguidedly or otherwise profit from the war on drugs and the laws which prop up the prices of drugs making them attractive to criminal enterprises to invest their money in the first place. Actually, the war on (some) drugs is a war on people, and on the right to choose your own drug. Marijuana is (technically, at least according to the constitution) unpatentable and is by far the safer drug with many more and well known medically therapeutic uses than alcohol (has ever dreamed of) or any drug ever made or discovered by big pharma for that matter. In fact Marijuana hasn’t killed a single person in 10,000 years. Alcohol on the other hand is the most deadly drug known to man killing more people in a year than illegal drugs kill in three or four decades and we tax and regulate that because prohibition really didn’t work. It doesn’t work for any drug, but the current list of illegal drugs largely impacts communities of color and with marijuana, which had been those communities traditionally preferred intoxicant, the drug laws represent the modern version of Jim Crow keeping blacks and latinos poor and marginalized and paying a disproportionate price in incarceration. Black jazz musicians and migrant Mexican farm workers were both vilified in order to pass anti marijuana laws early in the 20th century. Bottom line; the drug war is a way to harvest people (like cattle) that are no longer needed by the capitalist system. Re-making these un-needed people into criminals also makes a few wealthy investors a massive profit.
So in this world were we are judged as bad people for having failed the capitalist grade and are now doomed to permanent unemployment supposedly through “our own choices”. We who have been utterly failed by capitalism, in fact its victims, are blamed for our “poor choices” and our obvious lack of “good work ethic”. We have become “deadbeats”. Many people believe this to be a sign that you’re lazy and deserving of god’s (the market’s) punishment of poverty. These people are regarded as the “undeserving poor”. In reality there is very little choice involved in the cycle of poverty and it is unregulated capitalism itself which inevitably produces this poverty. Vulture economics is a zero sum game, there are always losers. It’s just an artifact of the (flawed at the root) architecture of the market. Without the debt jubilee, this system of wealth extraction for the few, is inevitable and eventually leads to rebellion, revolution, collapse. It doesn’t help that the very wealthy are able to insulate their minds (if not completely their actual bodies, think Marie Antoinette) from the effects of capitalism (because those are normally externalized to the poor to experience) and the cyclical impoverishment caused by the financial bubbles it continuously creates. Without a biblical style debt “jubilee” to correct the flaw at the heart of capitalism it just inevitably concentrates most of the wealth into just a few powerful hands time and time again. Copyrights, ditto except for all of humanity’s ideas, all are eventually controlled by the few powerful oligarchs or in our case pluto-technocrats. In fact an argument can be made that because of the genetic colonialism practiced by Monsanto (destroying organic seed networks, etc.) that intellectual property rights are actually murder. That’s why open source methodologies and decentralization matters. Too much centralization of control ultimately leads to fascism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, etc. and the inevitable failures of the top down “command” economy. Death, destruction, famine.
So you hear people endlessly go on and on about how people make their choices and the world should punish those that make poor choices. I’m talking about people who practically require these “lazy no good people” to be punished almost like they’ve got a major cash investment in an ideology which without the poor being punished for the market’s inability to dynamically respond to real human needs, we would turn inevitably towards ideas which could actually solve these problems. So victim blaming is their best defense against compassionate policies being enacted that might protect citizens from the abuse of financial markets by the mega-ultra-god-like rich. Instead of allowing a cultural discussion on the merits of capitalism as it is archaically (and in actuality precariously) practiced today as if we exist in the age of empires with endless resources instead of allowing the decentralized, lean, green and meaningful future communities to happen, we’ve been locked in a cycle of virtual slavery and have internalized the horrible philosophic tenets that our minds are the masters of our bodies the slaves to our desires and fleshy prisons of our “pure spirits”. This amounts to our adoption of the language of the masters as our own, protective of the masters property instead of recognizing that property is theft and that markets and capitalism inevitably pilfer the poor and now have virtually doomed our planet and probably 95% of humanity. John Steinbeck put it like this: “Workers in the United States rather than seeing themselves as oppressed, see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
We talk about “economic empowerment” when we should be thinking of it in terms of “economic enslavement”. That is, if you really want to save this place from the ravages of the machine. It’s akin to, instead of thinking in reductionist terms about “things”, talking about the relationships and the emergent qualities that result from the layering of complexities of networks of nested networks. The concept of full economic empowerment requires full participation (impossible unless we include communication and access to credit as a right) and assumes the system will right itself and become equitable (and presumably green as well) through enfranchisement of all. Nice theory but in practice it is mythical. The markets as currently practiced naturally produce losers and lots of them, in fact most of us end up paying the costs as most damage is externalized to the public. The real demon here is actually centralization of power and the manufactured scarcity that is required for “full economic enslavement” (as I like to call it) to what David Graeber likes to call the “Military-Coinage-Slavery-Complex”. The idea I’m presenting, that the more money you have, the more responsibility you have is (IMHO) falsely thought to be directly and inversely proportional to your exposure to the externalities of corporate profit. In other words, the insulation you thought you had because you made all the money is somewhat degraded by several factors including social unrest, and the inability to truly predict accurately what expenditures are most likely to protect you from the “future”, a slippery fish (that we’ve never caught) indeed. In other words, it may be that the level of insulation at the upper income brackets are such that you are unable to make accurate or valuable predictions and instead are suffering fromcognitive capture and are unable to think outside your favorite box. So that’s a BIG fail there likely to happen. The rich are not coming to save us, they probably can’t even save themselves.
Try waking up one morning and deciding that things need to change, and you’ll find out pretty quickly, things aren’t changing for you “empowered folk” either.
So, for a person at the very bottom of the socio-economic spectrum, the idea that personal choice is everything, is to me, a sort of pervasive, nationalistic, workers, neo-lib mantra for avoiding the realization most of us (if not nearly all of us) are total slaves to a monstrously wasteful and seemingly unstoppable war machine bent on complete domination of all life on earth down to its very genetic roots and beyond. For a billionaire, I might argue, they are certainly culpable if not 100% enfranchised. People that live in poverty, are arguably completely innocent and bear very little responsibility for the current environmental degradation here on earth. The poor are doing it as right as it can be done in this world in my estimation and have very little choice regarding how they live. Perhaps they even clock in at 3% responsibility while living in abject poverty, but still, it is very very low. They live in the true reality (not really, the current scarcity is after all, completely manufactured), where we “understand” the world is a dangerous, unforgiving and unfair place where only the fittest survive. Most homeless people exist in a world barely even imagined by most people in our society. Most Americans believe that this could never happen to them. In truth, most of us are only several paychecks away, or a single catastrophic illness away from total poverty and homelessness. Those of us caught in between have varying degrees of “freedom” depending upon our productivity / enslavement to the system. If you’ve got some buy in, and believe things are the best they can be, you may have the perception that you’re actually empowered. Try waking up one morning and deciding that things need to change, and you’ll find out pretty quickly, things aren’t changing for you “empowered folk” either. So, it’s mostly a perception of power which doesn’t exist, at least not as long as you’re “married” to the system and see it as empowerment. As soon as you begin to see your real status in it, knowing you’re a slave, you can begin to see the chinks in this beasts armor and find a way through it, that is real, then you find your true power as a living being with autonomy, mastery and purpose. As Von Goethe said; “No one is more hopelessly enslaved than those that believe falsely they are free.”
There are lots of people that really believe that helping people hurts them. Because they’ll become addicted I guess to human kindness or something. Love must be powerful stuff, for people to be so afraid that our world will be ruined by human’s being kind or god forbid, our collective power (mobocracy the 1% like to call it) as a nation be focused upon eliminating poverty at the root and guaranteeing the basic human rights of access to food, shelter, medicine, education, communication, credit and most importantly land that all living organisms have a clear and inalienable right to. Self evidently even.
So, since the “job creators” have structurally eliminated millions of jobs systematically through automation and outsourcing to cheaper labor pools, all with the mantra of the “toil free future” on their lips while in reality, the robbery of our time proceeds at the hands of the neoliberal time thieves. I am now officially demanding my 6 hour work week and the living wage that should go with that. I also demand my few square feet of land that is already mine by the fact of my being here and alive. I’ve been calling it the five fingers of freedom for the last twenty years. You’ve got to be the change. If you want people to live free, you have to do it yourself and visibly. A risky business to be sure.
There are over 13 million people-less homes and I demand my space. Yes, I will go out and get it, squat it if I have to, grow food, and make music that questions the authority of a system which is serving only a tiny fraction of us while the rest of us must live in precarity instead of having what little security and prosperity would normally be available to a truly free people in an increasingly precarious world.
This precarity, both manufactured and real, are rooted (I believe) in the pathology of hoarding. The resulting scarcity while mostly a lack of proper distribution through a misguided sense of morality and the “othering” of those less able, or the sick, or those that the market directly failed and is now “punishing” are quickly manifesting themselves as very real limits of a poisoned and devastated ecosphere. We are at the design limits of a system which assumes endless resources exist while pretending they are scarce. It is soon to cause actual scarcity in the ocean and on the land as man-made global heating irrevocably changes our climate to one that may be more favorable to the hunter-gatherer rather than the farmer. Looks like the city sacked itself. You might want to take a look at Detroit and the idea of Urban Farming or even vertical farming
So scarcity has been the norm, with a momentary abundance most of which just ends up in our landfills or floating in the ocean rather than actually ending scarcity. It seems we’d rather throw nearly 50% of our food away than make sure everyone has their rightful portion of the world and the stewardship as well as the education to understand and be capable of the responsibility that goes with that. Perhaps it is just this very belief in the concept of “away”, that destroys our world; there is no such place. We must destroy it or cheapen it or assassinate its character until we see that which really makes us free and connected (nature) as the very prison that binds us with capitalism the savior of the day. Our rebellion then serves the masters.
It wasn’t the lovers of order that made us free.
Most corporate work environments aren’t like Valve Software where you are self directed 100% of the time. Though even this model is corrupted, Valve being owned by Oligarchs it ends up as capitalisms last great hope and thoroughly in the spirit of Henry Ford’s insistance that workers be paid enough to afford the products they made thereby “enfranchising” them. Most places of employment / enslavement are nearly 100% authoritarian. The nuclear family where most of us begin our lives are examples of authoritarianism essentially, and school uses authoritarian and draconian methods in nearly all cases, preparatory to your being assimilated into a somewhat neo-feudal arrangement we know as the corporation, generally more of the same sort of authoritarian environment we’ve all gotten so used to. Kind of freaky really to have lived most of my life as a completely self directed autonomously operating free agent. My problem these days is the economic crunch hasn’t let up on the developers and the cool people for whom I’d like to work so I’m faced with a complete re-invention of everything I do. There is no money even for someone with a very good idea in the current economy. Because of this, maybe we’re turning our backs on that old capitalistic way of doing things creating the Worker Self Directed Enterprise. Maybe we’ll be moving into micro-banking and peer to peer credit and instead of creating money for the banks, we the people will become the banks decentralized and distributed.
Wherever we go with this, it needs to be with the understanding that we’re all in this together and we need to stand up for each other instead of finger pointing at the victims of capitalism and speaking the language of the masters and marginalizing the impoverished as the “undeserving poor” to whom we owe nothing but scorn for their lazy no good, dead beat ways. Instead, we should all recognize this for the propaganda of the 1% and reject the premise and learn the language of liberation which says clearly that we all have a right to access to food, housing, medicine, education, communication, credit, and land.
All I know is that as long as one of us is chained, then none of us are free – Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Brenda Russell.