A Capital Idea Part 59: Is Our Government an Open or Closed System?
As a trained scientist, I have a pretty good understanding of how science works, how it can only move forward to create more knowledge, never backwards, and how within the scientific method is nested a self-correcting process. That is, when theories or ideas prove to be incorrect, they are discarded and replaced by better ones. This is what I call an open system -- that is, a system which is open to outside influence, and therefore can grow and evolve as a self-impoving system rather than be stuck in a small, decaying mental box, unable to make changes to fix its problems due to its inability to account for new information. The only way to fix what's wrong in the stinking, decaying box is to throw it away and start over.
My understanding of democracy is that it is designed to be an open system, whether we are talking about the democracy that florished in Greek city states, or the democracy which more recently grew out of the period of intellectual enlightenment, which was scientifically driven. Thus, if we truly have a democracy, even a bit of of it, we have an open system, a system with self-correcting mechanisms built into it. Thus, the corrollary question to this post is: Do we truly have a democracy, and if so, how much democracy do we have?
The question of whether we have an open or closed system is an extremely important one, and one of increasing relevance, since the issue of how to change our corrupt political system hinges upon the answer. If the system remains open, it can be fixed by working within the system, but if it is closed, only a revolution overthrowing the government can fix these problems which result from the influence of money on the political system. Make no doubt about it, this is an economic issue and a matter of how we consider "capital," that is, resources. The political system in which we exist, creates the rules and parameters which define capital and regulate its use and distribution.
Evidence of a Closed System
It doesn't take any special powers of observation to discover that certain forces including financial and psychological ones, work to make our political system less amenable to change. Actually, any sentient person who halfway pays attention to what is going on can see what has been happening. Globalized corporatism has created a monster the likes of which the world has never seen before. The economic and political system in which we live seems like something that the rich have created exclusively for themselves, and surely there is much truth in that sentiment. Disparities of wealth are as huge as they have ever been, and continue to increase. Furthermore, people with tremendous amounts of money have become more sophisticated in using it to enhance their wealth, power and prestige. The wealthy have always gamed the rest of society, but now, they have gamed society in ways they never have before. They have learned how to influence public opinion through control of propaganda-spreading media, using means which were not available until the mid-1900s and which were not used in this way until recent years. They have learned to influence politics through lobbying, propaganda, dirty political tricks, and now, with the Citizens United decision here in the United States, through direct spending. They have tapped into socially conservative sentiments to help their cause largely through the use of religious organizations, thus reversing the historic trend of religious professionals supporting progressive causes. Of course, religions themselves tend to be closed systems, although with the mixture of messages seen in religious texts, and the variety of interpretations of religious texts, there is room for either progressive or conservative emphases among religions.
I have encountered many people, including posters, bloggers and professional journalists, who appear to have given up hope that our system remains open. At the same time, ironically, I have noticed that these same people tend to blame individuals within the system, such as the President or Congresspeople, for its problems. Perhaps they do hold hope after all, that if we just elect the "right people" or the left people, the system will be fixed, or at least we will start to fix it. If the system is truly closed, it doesn't matter who is elected or who runs our nation, because the system which the rich have created for themselves is the true problem. I do know some people who hold to that view as well, to be perfectly fair, and although I don't totally agree with that notion, I do agree in part.
An example of a famous journalist of gloom and doom (at least as I see it) who has argued that our system is closed, is Chris Hedges. I reviewed some of his work through the use of the internet over the past few days, as well as what some people had to say about it. Basically, Hedges argues that while liberals have been suckered into consent in order to look after their own personal interests, wealthy conservatives have created a totalitarian society run by big money, and thus are able to pull whichever political strings they wish to. Hedges latest book is called "Death of the Liberal Class," and it blames educators, religious professionals, media, unions, and of course politicians for this situation. I find Hedges to be a very skillful writer and an expert at engaging in hyperbole, consistent with his background as a minister's son and person who abandoned a potential career of following in his father's footsteps after abandoning his faith. There are parts of his argument that I agree with, but other parts that I do not. In general, his assertions that the large majority of religious professionals, media and politicians have forsaken their obligations to the public are true. However his nasty notions that unions and educators have done the same, are utter nonsense and needlessly insulting, I can say as an educator! As a psychologist, I don't believe I have ever personally met another psychologist who is a conservative, or who does not support progressive causes, at least in principle. My advisor at U.C. Riverside, Carolyn Murray, was very active in supporting progressive causes, and so radically progressive that she made me seem like a politically bland, noncommittal young man even though I was fomenting very progressive ideas and sentiments at that time. Another highly politically active progressive professor I worked with was Dr. Geraldine Stahly, who was a champion of women's issues. Not all professors are so politically aware or active, especially since most of them are too busy to pay much attention to politics, but as a whole, they tend to be very progressive. I wrote a post about this very topic a year or so ago, and found this to be the case, although economics and business professors tended to be less progressive than other disciplines, as a whole being rather neutral politically, with a mix of conservatives (who are often tapped as political advisors or commentators) and progressives (who are rarely used as political advisors or commentators). Social scientists tend to be the most progressive, although Dr. Phil is a Texas Republican, a rarity among psychologists. Regarding unions, the protests taking place in Wisconsin and other states speak for themselves. It seems to me that unions, and labor interests in general, have always been supportive of the public good, and now, they are finding issues which resonate with the broader public, as conservative Republicans escalate their assault on unions. Hedges wrote his most recent book prior to the eruption of these union-led protests, although his closed-minded approach, consistent with his religious upbringing would probably prevent him from admitting he was wrong about either the unions or educators being sell-outs.
Moreover, the idea of their even being a "liberal class" is a work of artifice. There can be a rich class, a middle class, and an impoverished class, because wealth or lack thereof is generally passed on to one's offspring, but there is no "liberal class" or "conservative class." To me this notion implies that political views are passed onto one's children, which is clearly not true. I think the great majority of us can look at our own families and see how there are widely varying views on politics. If not, just look at the Reagan family, or progressive talk show hosts such as Stephanie Miller or Thom Hartmann, who were raised by conservatives, or my brothers and myself, progressives who were raised by Eisenhower-type, pacifist, and now disaffected, Republicans, but Republicans nonetheless. There are liberal people (which I prefer to call "progressive"), conservative people, and people who are in-between; there are people with committed political views, and people whose political views are still evolving; there are high information voters who are very politically involved, and low information voters who don't pay much attention to politics; but there is no "liberal class" or "conservative class."
Nonetheless, there is a compelling case to be made that, metaphorically speaking, the edifice of our democratic society, which was built with a copious supply of windows in order to let the light in, has gradually seen more and more of its windows shuttered over the past few decades, by people with the money, motives and political means to shut out the light of day from the public, that we would not see the beauty outside and wish to be a part of it.
Regarding the politics of a closed system, I think the concept of "groupthink" applies rather well. Groupthink is a term for the leadership of organizations, when there is a lack of critical thinking and a denial of evidence which contradicts the prevailing group view. Additionally, when groupthink occurs, there is inevitably a sense of moral righteousness and entitlement among the leaders and consultants who make policy. Actually, this groupthink concept can apply both to government, and corporations -- anyplace where policies are made. Groupthink basically creates a closed system. Thus, the antidote for groupthink, is to open the system to new information, bringing in outside experts, or even ordinary citizens, for instance, and honestly and carefully listening to them, taking their suggestions and information seriously. Also, building in safeguards against groupthink help, such as requirements to have people from a variety of backgrounds or viewpoints be members of the policy making group.
Evidence of an Open System
Despite the evidence that our system is far less democratic or open than it was intended to be, I consider our system still open to a degree. No matter how the forces of plutocracy try to create a permanent state of power for themselves, as long as we maintain a semblance of democracy, as long as we continue to have elections, and open communications through means such as the internet, telephones or even letters, as long as peaceful assembly and protest is asserted as a right, the light of day will always find a way to enter the edifice of our society. It means asserting our rights, educating ourselves politically and civically, and making government our own, but the reality is that change is inevitable, and we collectively are the greatest agents of change. Perhaps many of us have fallen asleep at the wheel, so to speak, while rich conservatives reshaped society for their own purposes, and perhaps much of this happened before many of us were old enough to have much of an effect, or realize what was going on, but the collective "we" remains the primary mover and shaker of societal evolution. Even the plutocrats at Citibank, as revealed in their famous memo from a few years ago, acknowledged that. As one as each person has an equal vote, we have the ultimate power. Money doesn't vote, or protest, or write blog posts; people do.
The system that the founders of our nation set up was an open one, based upon the rationality and scientific approach of the Enlightenment. The only thing which can fundamentally negate that would be an anti-revolution, an overthrow of our government by corrupt, closed-system forces. However, this will never happen as long as we maintain our fundamental identity as a democratic nation. Plutocrats will use subterfuge and sophisticated propaganda techniques to deceive as many of the public as possible, but their deception becomes evident upon any intelligent inspection.
At this point, I think it may require a second blog post to describe my ideas for opening up our political system and encoding openess into law in such a way that the corporatocracy can never get a stranglehold over our, or hopefully any nation in the world's, political system. This may seem a bit trite, but it is up to us to retake our democracy from the forces which would deny it to us.
I am sure we will continue to have differing opinions regarding the state, and even the nature of, our political system. I do know that this world is changing as we speak. Will we need a revolution to "Fire the rich" (as one recent cleverly entitled blog post on the Hartmann site was entitled), or can we, the people, assert ourselves as the bosses, and "lower their salary," "put them in jail" (where some of the rich surely belong), and/or "demote them?" I think it is possible for the public to assert itself as "the boss," though it will take lots of work. What do you think? What are your ideas for opening up our system?