On Manufactured Loyalties: My Experience

My radio alarm woke me with a perky voice announcing “Northwest Arkansas! We’re all growing together as a region — and so is our newspaper!” I hear that tone of breathless enthusiasm a lot from local elites trying to secure public buy-in on actions they were never consulted on to begin with.

By way of background, there was never any “we” involved in the way Northwest Arkansas grew over the past twenty years. The internal policies of local governments are determined almost entirely by the chambers of commerce — by Jim Lindsey’s billion-dollar real estate empire, in particular. Virtually all decisions are rubber-stamped by local goverments and presented to the public afterwards. Take, for example, the decision to raise the sewer rates of existing residents to cover the increased costs for hooking up Jim Lindsey’s new housing additions, or to close old neighborhood schools and build new ones near said new subdivisions.

On a regional level, most policy initiatives originate in a nominally private body called the Northwest Arkansas Council, made up of civic minded folks like representatives from Walmart, Tyson, the Lindsey real estate empire, and ex officio representatives of city governments, the University and the main newspaper. The Northwest Arkansas Council’s policy proposals, purely by coincidence, tend to be major infrastructure projects like a regional airport and highway bypasses that mainly benefit the Council’s civic-minded members. The Council quietly lobbied for the airport, after which seven local governments quietly voted to create a Regional Airport Authority as an emergency measure without any public discussion.

As for “our newspaper,” the story goes back to the Arkansas Democrat (a second-rate paper run by cranky right-winger John Robert Starr) winning the Little Rock newspaper war and buying out the Arkansas Gazette (the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi). The newly christened “Arkansas Democrat-Gazette” started a special Northwest Arkansas edition. And after two decades of local newspaper wars and the disappearance/consolidation of local newspapers in seven Northwest Arkansas communities into one regional newspaper (the Morning News), the Demozette bought out the Morning News and brought the entire region under one big newspaper.

Note that all this was done without the slightest peep of actual input from the public — but the radio commercial described the process in language suggesting we’d all just raised a barn together or something.

This commercial, trivial as it may seem, is just one example of a much larger phenomenon: the manufacture of artificial loyalties to secure not only compliance with, but actual support for and identification with, institutions that are utterly unaccountable to us. Erich Fromm, in his Afterword to 1984, referred to such identification as “mobile truth.” Our culture inculcates identification with, and endorsement of the policies of, any organization to which we find ourselves subordinated at any particular time. Starting with “school spirit” in the elementary grades, we’re expected to support the local team, be “community spirited,” identify with the interests of the corporation that employs us — all the way up to supporting “our” government in whatever war “we” get into.

For its entire history until 2005, my town of Springdale had one high school. A week before classes started in the newly opened second school, I saw a car with a sticker celebrating its sports team. Think about it. This school hadn’t even held classes yet. It was just a newly constructed building. A bunch of middle-aged men in suits sat around a conference table deciding what to name it, what to call the sports team, what its mascot would be, what the slogans and cheers would be — and here was a family, presumably with a teenager already thinking of it as “our” school and “our” team.

I’ve hated the local university teams wherever I live — particularly the Arkansas Razorbacks, for whom I have a special hatred — precisely because their biggest boosters are the local Rotary Club yahoos who make all these decisions affecting my life. To me, the Razorbacks represent every institution for which I am expected to feel loyalty, despite its leadership being unaccountable to me and not giving a damn about my interests.

I experienced the same thing in every large institutional workplace where I ever punched a clock. I used to work at a VA hospital in Fayetteville. One spring the VA system was conducting an employee satisfaction survey. The management of the local hospital decided that “we” were in a friendly rivalry with Shreveport, along with us one of the two leading hospitals in the federal region with the highest completion rate. The director exhorted us on the intercom to take the survey ASAP so that “we” could beat Shreveport. I asked a coworker why the director thought I would remotely give a crap about the outcome of a rivalry between “our” management and that of another hospital, both of which were equally unaccountable to me. Her response: “Well, if you work for them you should care.” I think I can intellectually grasp her identification, but emotionally it was beyond my comprehension then and still is now.

As a species we spend most of our history until the Agricultural Revolution living in hunter-gatherer groups of a few dozen at most, and most of the time since then in villages ranging from that size up to a few hundred. That means, arguably, that we’re biologically wired to form loyalties to primary social groupings of that size, made up of people we regularly encounter in person, and governed by face-to-face decision-making on a comparatively egalitarian basis. We survived by cooperating with our neighbors in such social groupings on a day-to-day basis. Our loyalties to family, friends, neighbors, clan and village, and our affection for the land in which our dead are buried, are accordingly natural and healthy for the most part.

The rise of the first hierarchical state apparatuses, basically extractive machineries for enabling a superimposed ruling class to skim off the surplus from the villages, dates back maybe five thousand years. Large bureaucratic nation-states engaged in perpetual war are more recent still. The rise of a few hundred global corporations controlling an entire planetary economy dates back little more than a century.

In most of the developed world today, we’re born into class societies dominated by hierarchical institutions that exist for their own ends and use us as means to those ends. And one of the central functions in societies so organized is the cultural reproduction apparatus, which processes a population into human resources that view such institutions as natural, normal and inevitable, and the only viable way of doing things. This cultural reproduction apparatus takes our wired-in tendency to form loyalties to extended kindship groups and villages, and redirects them to identifying with institutions that are unaccountable to us and view us only as raw material.

In the most extreme form, this includes identifying with “our” nation-state and the claimed “national security” purposes of its military establishment, overseas empire and wars. But as Howard Zinn said, one of the most pernicious lies taught by the American establishment is the existence of some common “national interest” that unites everyone from the billionaire down to the homeless vagrant. The reproduction apparatus resorts to “enveloping phrases like ‘the national interest,’ ‘national security,’ ‘national defense,’ as if we’re all in the same boat.” “No, the soldier who is sent to Iraq does not have the same interests as the president who sends him to Iraq. The person who works on the assembly line at General Motors does not have the same interest as the CEO of General Motors.”

We’re sold lies about “our country” fighting wars to “defend our freedoms” or “defend the country,” when they’re really fought for things like keeping Guatemala safe for United Fruit Company, or auctioning off the Iraqi economy to global corporations. We’re given feelgood rhetoric by our employers about how we’re all just “one big team” — until the boys in the C-suite decide it’s time to downsize some of us and make the rest work harder, in order to give themselves a bonus.

It’s time to take back our loyalties from states, corporations, and all other unaccountable institutions that use us as raw material and cannon fodder, and take back control over our own lives as well. And it’s time to form real loyalties with our friends and neighbors, the people we voluntarily cooperate with as equals in building the kinds of lives and society we want for ourselves.

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