Beta Culture: Blowing in the Wind … Ordinary People.

dust bowlI’m thinking all at once about government and royalty, churches and corporations, unions and cultures. And us.

Some of what I try to do in attempting to understand the world around me is to take a distant look at what’s going on, rather than a close-up look, searching for broad patterns and underlying motivations. I sometimes even joke that I’m an alien just visiting here to study Earth humans, expecting that eventually my real people will show up and take me back home.

I’ll tell you something of what I think I see:

Much as we’re hatin’ on government these days, the IDEA of democratic government is a really good one. The top-down chief/royalty/big-muckamuck model works very well in enforcing obedience and tribal solidarity, but not so well in encouraging independent thought and creative innovation.

Democracy is actually a rather inspired invention, when you think about it in evolutionary terms, bringing with it all sorts of advances. Coupled with freely-available education, a natural adjunct to democracy, it freed the inventive power of the individual in a way that produced leaps in progress rather than plodding sameness.

The royalty model is democracy’s natural enemy, seeking as it does to concentrate power in the hands of a fortunate few. Traditionally, these fortunate few were kings, emperors, etc., rising to the top (being born into it, actually, most of them) with just about zero input from the public they came to rule, and remaining there with just about zero broad concern for that public.

Something interesting I’ve noted in the past was the power of churches as it related to government. Though a king might rule his subjects through fear, with the open threat of murder or violence, of military might, there was a social power that could nevertheless threaten the rule of the king. That power was religion. The king who defied the dictates of a religion deeply held by his subjects, was potentially subject to overthrow.

And yet the model of religion was itself based on royalty – an unelected, somewhat mysterious priesthood that answered to a single supreme authority. As to the supreme authority, the window-dressing of a central divine personage served only to hide the real power, the pope or other leader who could wield the power of life and death over his subjects.

This power that could challenge kings coincidentally relied on the exact same motivation, fear, for control of its subjects.

In a way religion and royalty were natural allies. Each used the other as a prime tool of control. It was historically rare that one openly warred with the other, but their relationship was probably always a tense one, due to the fact that they were different forces, each with their own goals and values.

So: Democracy came along, creating something new.

The previous idea was that power originated in the king, but could be lent out to deserving subjects or officials. For any herd animal with a dominance hierarchy, this was a natural idea to have, as it tied in well with the reality of our natures.

The new idea was that power originated in the individual, and could be lent out – temporarily, and in small amounts – to people who were not leaders but, theoretically at least, servants of their tribe. This was a pretty radical idea in some ways, as it seems to overturn a basic aspect of our natures. Some part of us very much likes standing subordinate to a chieftain. In practice, those “servants” have typically acted as leaders, meaning the new idea keeps the hierarchy intact, but arrives at it, through voting, in a more cerebral, less violent way. It also provides for the periodic replacement of current leaders with fresh ones, mostly preventing generational dynasties.

Even better under this new model, rather than frightening your subjects you had to gain their trust, promise them something for the loan of their power, and at least nominally adhere to that promise.

Too, the amount of power lent was that minimal amount necessary to do the job of serving public needs, and nothing more. All of us clearly recognize when public servants are stepping beyond the bounds of their lent power; using public offices for personal aggrandizement or wealth-gathering is offensive to the nature of this unspoken agreement of borrowed power.

(On the other hand, the Catholic Church — though dramatically lessened in relation to its historic peak — still exists, and enjoys a fairly royal approach to leadership. Though popes are “elected,” they are elected by an cadre of insiders, they serve for life, and they enjoy power over the whole of the Catholic “kingdom.”)

Meanwhile, in a reverse of the royalty-to-democracy trend, yet another somewhat royal power has entered the stage – corporations.

Though initially dependent on government for their existence, and very much subject to the laws and regulations of the countries and states in which they resided, they’ve gotten to a point of wealth and power that rivals, and surpasses in some cases, nations. Certainly they have little to fear from governments in the sense of penalties beyond the monetary. The people who make up corporations are shielded from punishment for crimes committed by the corporation. Though those acts are in reality ordered or allowed by the leaders of the corporation, rather than the corporation itself (which has no real existence), they are shielded from arrest or penalty in the same way royalty would be shielded from arrest or punishment for acts that, by ordinary citizens, would be considered crimes (or criminal negligence).

In theory, corporations are subject to the will of their customers but other than committing blatant, egregious human rights violations, they have a fairly free hand to do whatever they want. (Including, in at least one noteworthy case, maintaining a private security force that amounts to a standing army, complete with military-grade weapons.)

Here’s the thing that worries me: Corporations these days, and the fantastically wealthy people who run them – in the body of Fox News, the Koch Brothers, etc. – in many ways enjoy power OVER the U.S. government.

From TPM:

Asking “[w]ho really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters

Quoting Noam Chomsky:

In the work that’s essentially the gold standard in the field, it’s concluded that for roughly 70% of the population – the lower 70% on the wealth/income scale – they have no influence on policy whatsoever. They’re effectively disenfranchised. As you move up the wealth/income ladder, you get a little bit more influence on policy. When you get to the top, which is maybe a tenth of one percent, people essentially get what they want, i.e. they determine the policy. So the proper term for that is not democracy; it’s plutocracy.

Where once government was an arm of public service, it is now very much a tool of wealth and corporate power. The rich warred against the power of government in subtle ways, co-opting elected officials, judges and laws. Even the public dialog upon which our understanding of the rights of individuals and the duties of government was based, is now so tweaked that plenty of people have little or no understanding of what’s going on. The people government once served can now be persuaded to vote against their own well-being. To whatever extent government can still be said to serve at the will of the public, it nevertheless acts in opposition to that same public’s interests.

As a for-instance, an overwhelming majority of voters in the U.S. oppose the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, in which corporations were ruled to possess “free speech” rights allowing them unlimited contribution to political campaigns. Yet, four years later, that ruling is still comfortably embedded in U.S. law, and has received only tepid opposition from elected officials.

Let me talk about another non-royal organization — unions — for a second. A union is organized by people, for people, and is neither government nor corporation. Further, the stated goal of a union is to fight for the rights of its members, AGAINST corporations and even governments. If I was trying to pick out any organization that was the fullest expression of democratic, non-royal principles, I’d have to say it was the union.

But unions too were warred upon by corporations, and with government help during and after the Reagan years, became critically weakened shells of their former selves. Meant to be defenders of citizen-workers, they are now almost powerless in any large sense.

So, here’s one side with multinational corporations which in many ways enjoy the equivalent of royal power, largely free of government interference and serving our interests only as it coincides with their own profit motive. Here are churches which are autocratically ruled profit-making bodies that rarely take stands in favor of ordinary people against either corporations or government. And here is government itself, co-opted to serve as a funding source, protector, lawmaking body and close ally of corporations.

And on the other side, our side, the side of ordinary people, we have unions, created to serve and defend the interests of their members, but drastically weakened for actually doing it.

And damned little else.

There are plenty of narrowly-focused online organizations which fight for fairness and right action by government and corporations, but the power they generally wield is persuasive or revelatory power only. A corporation or a government official might be embarrassed into right action, but as far as compelling the target to act fairly, these organizations are toothless.

In light of all this, I again see a place in our lives for Beta Culture.

I imagine Beta Culture as a place of ease and familiarity for people like us – metaphorically a sort of big friendly dog that can wag and comfort – but also, once it progresses past puppyhood, a creature with the teeth and strength to fiercely defend us when the occasion arises.

And yet again, that’s something I really want.

Corporations have the wealth and power to look out for themselves. They also, frequently, have government and the legal system looking out for them. Government has a multimillion-person force of career employees and elected officials, as well as its own army and police forces, to look out for itself.

Ordinary people have little or nothing to fight for them. The happy fiction is that the corporations, government, and all the aforementioned uniformed might are on our side, but to me that appears to be true only as long as we are rich, secure, and don’t actually disagree with them.

Hopefully someday we will have this other thing.

  • Funny timing…I just re-read my college Poli-Sci text, “The Irony of Democracy”. The main theme is the idea that ALL societies (especially the larger they get) are ruled by a tiny group of elites, and that democracy is mostly made up of symbolic actions to help tie the masses to the system and make elite decisions appear more legitimate.

    It seems cynical, but outside of tiny tribal/family societies, I have yet to see any large modern culture that doesn’t essentially work this way, no matter what superficial political label it goes under.