"We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men." -George Orwell
Note: A month ago I wrote a long post on the psychological phenomenon of 'system justification'. I recommend reading it before beginning this.
Throughout history as well as in ordinary everyday life there is plenty of evidence that humans are irrational creatures. Everyone has rolled their eyes at the television on seeing someone having behaved in a way that seems beyond comprehension to 'normal' people. We even celebrate it with movies and comedy, or with related concepts like the Darwin Awards.
One particularly fascinating, not to mention tragic, aspect of human irrationality can be found in the tendency for those in a position of submission to learn to accept their lot, even when in possession of incontrovertible evidence that it is unfair, and despite the fact that many live in 'democracies' where all are supposedly equal under the law. One famous and interesting direct example of this tendency is the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971.
To summarize, (from the link above):
Twenty-four male students out of 75 were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo's expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners quit the experiment early and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days. Certain portions of the experiment were filmed and excerpts of footage are publicly available.
After a relatively uneventful first day, on the second day the prisoners in Cell 1 blockaded their cell door with their beds and took off their stocking caps, refusing to come out or follow the guards' instructions. Guards from other shifts volunteered to work extra hours in order to assist in subduing the revolt, and subsequently attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers without being supervised by the research staff. Finding that handling nine cell mates with only three guards per shift was challenging, one of the guards suggested that they use psychological tactics to control them. They set up a 'privilege cell' in which prisoners who were not involved in the riot were treated with special rewards, such as higher quality meals. The 'privileged' inmates chose not to eat the meal in order to stay uniform with their fellow prisoners.
After only 36 hours, one prisoner began to act 'crazy', as Zimbardo described: "#8612 then began to act crazy, to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control. It took quite a while before we became convinced that he was really suffering and that we had to release him."
Guards forced the prisoners to repeat their assigned numbers in order to reinforce the idea that this was their new identity. Guards soon used these prisoner counts to harass the prisoners, using physical punishment such as protracted exercise for errors in the prisoner count. Sanitary conditions declined rapidly, exacerbated by the guards' refusal to allow some prisoners to urinate or defecate anywhere but in a bucket placed in their cell. As punishment, the guards would not let the prisoners empty the sanitation bucket. Mattresses were a valued item in the prison, so the guards would punish prisoners by removing their mattresses, leaving them to sleep on concrete. Some prisoners were forced to be naked as a method of degradation. Several guards became increasingly cruel as the experiment continued; experimenters reported that approximately one-third of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies. Most of the guards were upset when the experiment concluded after only 6 days.
There is plenty of criticism surrounding the study, not least the ethical concerns, the difficulty in replicating the results, and also selection bias. Nevertheless, it caught the imagination, partly because while the results may have surprised many, deep down we can all on some level appreciate that we are indeed not rational beings, and that some of us can be pretty damned evil when we are given the chance. The Abu Ghraib prisoner torture and abuse scandal serves well as a real-world example.
I was reminded of the experiment today on reading this horror story in The Guardian. In brief, up to 30 long-term unemployed people and another 50 on 'apprentice wages' were bussed to London to work as stewards for the jubilee celebrations. According to two of them, they had to sleep under London Bridge the night before, had no access to toilets for 24 hours, were forced to change into their gear in public, and were then taken to a 'swampy' campsite outside London after working unpaid for 14 hours in the pouring rain.
First, paid workers would never be treated like this - not out of any kind of altruism, but because those in charge would not want to fall foul of any labor laws. In other words, they were treated like shit because, in the eyes of the people behind this, they are shit. There's human nature right there. Second, a glance through the reader comments beneath the article unearths more than a few people who see nothing wrong with this. A standard such comment goes along these lines: I have a job and pay their benefits so they actually ought to be doing this kind of thing instead of sitting around doing nothing all day.
This lack of compassion should not come as a shock. In an age where materialism rules, and the going mantra for 'success' is: look out for number one, it is not in any way surprising.
What is sad, however, is the fact that these unemployed people did not complain about these conditions at all, and neither did they refuse to comply. Obviously, they would fear losing their benefits, but that is just the point: it is so easy for the state to make the downtrodden, the poor, the helpless and the weak do what it wants. All it has to do is hold power over them, even a short-term power like cutting off benefits, to ensure obedience and compliance every time. Just as with the Stanford Prison Experiment, the weak come to expect bad treatment, and even disapprove of others in the same position stepping out of line, causing 'trouble'.
Further, the poor who endure such treatment at the hands of the state will avoid seriously questioning the status quo as that would necessarily require them to examine their own beliefs. As stated in my main post on this topic, no one likes to admit they were wrong or stupid, and no one can easily stand up and say that the way they have lived for years, all their life in many cases, was a sham. This unfortunate aspect of human nature also explains the pathetic Obama supporters who refuse to condemn his murderous drone program and kill list, the very same supporters who would have screamed for the impeachment of George W Bush if he had done such a thing on the scale we see today.
What to do. There used to be a time, back in the day, when one could take one's grievances to the man in charge. I remember a scene from the Sopranos where the local wise guys approach the manager a new restaurant, telling him that he needs to pay protection money. The manager refuses, and when the mafia guys start talking tough, he reasons with them, saying that he has no control over the money, and that every dollar has to be accounted for, and that if it isn't or if anything happens to him, he will simply be replaced so there is nothing he can do.
Bemused, the gangsters walk away empty-handed. A different world.
We are faced with the same issue. No doubt an inquiry into this debacle with the unemployed will be demanded and David Cameron will have to sweat a bit for the cameras, but when the dust settles, and it will, the same old dysfunctional systems will still be in place. Heads might roll, but they'll be replaced by equally rotten heads. The outrage will last until the next scandal, and then it will be forgotten. The inquiry will announce its findings in a few months, but with the passion of the moment gone, most will not care. Some changes might even be made, but as they will be rooted in the same fundamentally broken system, they will not necessarily be effective.
Our elected leaders are now simply fronts for those who really call the shots: the super rich, the corporations and the banks. These people do not care about societal issues in the slightest - they are insulated from them in every way. They do not need infrastructure because they can simply buy it. They have private security, we need the police. They have private tutors for their kids, we need a national education system. They have private jets, we queue up at the airport. When they get sick, they have private doctors; when we do, unless we have ready cash, we need a national health infrastructure.
So you see, they don't give a flying damn about society because they are beyond it, living in gated mansions on islands and the like. All they care about is keeping the citizenry under control as it feeds them steady waves of cash, the green blood that sustains them. They even make dodgy deals and bet against them succeeding (watch the award-winning documentary, Inside Job for details), knowing full well that they will fail because they have lied to the investors. And yes, they even help to destroy entire nations.
Who do we have to fight these forces? Not our governments - they are in their pockets. Not the media: there are 1500 newspapers, 1100 magazines, 9000 radio stations, 1500 TV stations, 2400 publishers owned by only 3 corporations. All we have is little old us.
This is why it is so tragic and dangerous that the sense of community is falling apart in certain countries. Every time someone complains about paying some unfortunate's benefits, attacking the weak, it makes the fabric of a society weaker. A strong society looks out for its own, helping those down on their luck, while celebrating and lauding those who do well, in whatever way that might be, partly because one day, should bad luck strike, Mr Proud Wage-Earner may fall down some stairs and do his back in, and may be severely handicapped for the rest of his life, and therefore may need to depend on those maligned benefits himself.
I have demonstrated many times on this blog over the last three or four months that we live in broken societies. Demonstrably flawed elections serve to keep elites who do not represent the true wishes of the people in power. These elites in turn serve those who bankroll their campaigns and who keep the corporate media off their backs as long as they dance to their tune.
These systems, rotten to the very core, have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Direct democracy is the only viable way to remove the corporate lobbyists and the elites out of the equation, but even that is not enough. Simply introducing direct democracy into a flawed infrastructure would not necessarily work; it would only paper over the cracks. A media that actually does its job is vital. An education system that actually prepares people to be active, productive and happy members of their societies instead of simply grooming them for a life of miserable drudgery in some bland office somewhere is also a prerequisite.
There is a lot of work to do to attain such a goal. You can start by helping bring about a grassroots movement towards direct democracy. My free book (see postscript below) tells all.
The alternative is not something you want your children to experience. It is tempting to use apocalyptic language to describe what awaits us if we keep allowing the sociopathic financial elites to do what they want. Accelerating change means that very soon the power to do anything about it will be gone...all avenues of possible change will be closed off, including the last bastion of freedom: the internet, as the people with all the power and money will ensure it is heavily censored and controlled. Protest? Have a look at Egypt to see where protest gets you these days: the same old scoundrels still in key positions of power. Or ask the Occupy Wall Street protesters how they have changed society beyond raising inequality to the global debate; important in itself, but simply not enough.
These are tumultuous times. Nation states are becoming debt slaves to the banks. The trans-national corporations are running riot. Millions are in slavery, billions in abject poverty. It is obvious to state this, but it must be said nonetheless: things are only going to get worse. Unless.
'The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy’ by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a simple method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood on twitter (simonwood11) and Facebook or at his blog.