Showing posts with label Foucault. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Foucault. Show all posts

21 October 2016

Power: Social Reality (IV)

This is part IV of a V part essay. Click here for Part I

"The structure of institutional facts is the structure of power relations" (Searle 1995: 94)

I've been working through John Searle's philosophy of social reality. Searle is concerned with the question of how we get from physics to society, and his book The Construction of Social Reality focusses on the last step, from conscious organisms to society. I have been reviewing Searle and commenting on his ideas, comparing Searle with Lakoff and with ideas from primatology and anthropology. In the last essay got to the point where Searle points out that power pervades social realities. Power in this context is conventional, i.e. it arises from collective intentionality of social animals; and it is deontological, i.e. it is expressed as rights, duties, obligations etc, and in the way a social group monitors and enforces them. 
"Everything we value in civilisation requires the creation and maintenance of institutional power relations through collectively imposed status functions." (Searle 1995: 94)
Effectively, society is a set of deontological power relations expressed in status-functions, where a status-function is defined as an ontologically subjective function imposed on a person or object by collective intentionality, which grants them/it a status within the social hierarchy, and empowers or prohibits actions related to that function. Such functions require constant monitoring and adjustment to ensure that they do express our values. Equally, what we value will largely depend on the rights, duties, and obligations impressed on us from birth. Hence social groups are inherently socially conservative.

Whether there are universal human values or not is a vexed question that divides philosophers. See, for example, articles on Moral Relativism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and/or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Whether or not the values expressed in the deontic features of any social hierarchy are universal, we can say that there are common mechanisms for enacting values, by which I mean the imposition of status-functions and the fact that these are associated with rights, duties and obligations. I plan to return to the theme of universal values in a future essay on the evolution of morality (in development).

There are important differences in how societies handle conventional power related to the scale and technological sophistication. Amongst hunter gatherers, such as those studied by Jared Diamond in the highlands of New Guinea (2012), who live in societies with populations around Dunbar number of 150, there are no specialised roles with relation to moral governance. Everyone is in everyone else's business, hierarchy is fairly flat, and status is largely informal. By contrast in a large society like the UK, population 65 million, we have legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government, divided into many areas of responsibility, as well as a civil service providing policy advice and administrative support; we have multiple security agencies, police forces as well as tax collectors, customs and excise agents, and immigration officers; and we have highly trained specialists in law and advocacy. The UK is not just a federation of four different countries, but contains a number of sub-societies with their own values (e.g. there are regional divisions within each of the federal states).

In each case, the underlying structure of the constitutive rules is the same, i.e. X counts as Y in C. A person counts as royal, an official, an officer of the law, or a citizen because collectively we agree that they do. We may require the display of status-indicators, such as special hats, uniforms, titles, or forms of address, but just as often the status is simply widely acknowledged. My status of "foreigner" is evident every time I open my mouth in England, though the fact is that all of my ancestors going back several centuries were English. I often find my ancestry is more English than locals because they have admixtures from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, or even France and I do not. But when I was born, the land on which I was born, formerly claimed by the British Crown, was a separate nation state. So I am arbitrarily a foreigner. And treated as such. 

In the New Guinea highlands everyone one knows what everyone else is doing. Despite the dense rain forest, activities are mostly group oriented and privacy is rare. Under these circumstances, selfishness is extremely obvious, so most people are constrained by group norms to be prosocial most of the time. As mentioned previously norms are reasons for acting that are independent of our immediate inclinations. In the UK privacy is valued and widely experienced, but we also have almost ubiquitous CCTV surveillance of our public places, as well as routine government surveillance of all electronic communications (thanks to Edward Snowden for making this illegal practice public). Selfishness or clique-orientation is evident most of the time and in many modern ways of thinking about human beings, selfishness dominates (e.g. game theory, economics, behaviourist psychology).

In a small scale society people do not have identity crises because they are told who they are, and it is enacted in everyday life by their whole village. By contrast, there is considerable confusion and public debate as to what, if any, values are at the core of being British, especially when and identity is often rooted in smaller, regional, class, or ethnic units. For a large number of Brits the football team they support plays an important part of their identity. Being a "supporter" comes with its own rights, duties, and obligations. 

Societies don't just impose status-functions on members, they police and enforce them. Members of the group are raised from infancy to be good members of society, i.e. to follow behavioural norms and respect hierarchies, though this observation is complicated in large, divided societies, especially if one is a member of a minority community that is discriminated against. The important point here is that the individual is trained to hold themselves to account for the rights, duties, and obligations that society places on them. But the society, the state, also has duties and obligations in addition to rights. The role of the state and the acceptable methods it may use in pursuit of that role is a complex and hotly disputed topic, but broadly speaking we expect the state to work for the benefit and prosperity of its constituent citizens. And this is what all states say they are doing, whether they are in fact doing it or not.

Discussion of power, surveillance, and the state leads us to Michel Foucault and his investigations into the subject, into what it means to be a subject, and the processes of subjection.

~ The Subject ~

Of the three main philosophers I've referenced in this series of essays, i.e. John Searle, George Lakoff, and Michel Foucault, I know Foucault least well. This is partly because he is the least accessible by a considerable margin. Though he apparently spoke clearly in conversation, he wrote in the French obscurantist style, which was not improved by being translated into obscurantist English. So I hope any Foucault experts who happen to read my rather impressionistic take on the philosopher will indulge me. Perhaps I'm vague or even inaccurate about the details of Foucault's thought, but I hope that the intuition of a relation between Searlean and Foucauldian philosophy is at least valid. Foucault seems to me to have said important things, and to be perhaps the only 20th Century French philosopher who did. Searle grounds Foucault in a more realistic, pragmatic, and above all clear exposition of how society functions. Foucault never made so much sense to me as when I was reading The Construction of Social Reality.

In the section of my essay Spiritual III: Demenses of Power (20 Jun 2014) in which I explored some of Foucault's ideas, I wrote:
"The self we identify with is, in fact, mostly shaped by external forces... Virtually everything I feel myself to be is inherited or imposed on me rather than emerging out of my being."
This is consistent with the social philosophy outlined by Searle. In this view, "self" can be considered either as an aggregate of the status-functions imposed on the individual by society, or as emerging out of them. As Foucault observes, this happens with the willing participation of the individual. In Searle's terms "I" is the X term in the relation X counts as Y in C, and Y is the various roles we play in our lives; or in other words "I count as a son", "I count as a Buddhist", and so on, in all the innumerable relations I have to society, where society is the context in which I have these status-functions imposed by collective intentionality. In Foucault's (1983) words,
"This form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects."
Again, from commentary in Demenses of Power
Almost all of these institutions aim to subject, to subjugate, me through shaping my subjectivity so that I subjugate myself. That is, for me to see myself as naturally subject to the limits, controls and definitions of society. For me to unthinkingly obey prohibitions and taboos. The constant threat is that failure to conform redefines the transgressor as other. And for the other the rules are different, less optimal, less conducive to well being, often harsh. To be other is to be sanctioned and excluded. 
We can see that even before reading Searle I was seeing social life through a deontological lens under the influence of Foucault (perhaps Searle was also influenced by Foucault?). Social norms take the form of authorisations and prohibitions, but they are ultimately a product of collective intentionality. What Searle does is show why this is so and how it works in more detail. I stand in a relation to society where my (hierarchical) status and function within society is defined by the collective intentionality of society. By collective agreement, I count as various categories of member of various groups. There are kin status-functions: sibling, parent, extended family, etc.; age related status-functions: infant, child, teenager, adult, elder; occupational status-functions: student, manufacturer, CEO, manager, etc; class status-functions: proletarian and bourgeoisie, or  worker, capitalist, and land-owner; marital status-functions: single, married, divorced. And so on. There are racial, national, ethnic, religious, governmental, and ecclesiastical status-functions. Sex, gender, and sexual orientation are all governed by status functions.

*As already pointed out, these ontologically subjective status-functions are structured in the same way in which George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (2003) have showed that metaphors are structured. A suitable source domain is mapped onto a target domain so that the target can be discussed as if it is the source. This is to say that target counts as source for the purposes of abstraction (this is to the best of my knowledge an observation not made before). Such metaphors are what enable and structure abstract thought. Arguably social relations are abstractions from social interactions, and this means we only understand them using metaphors. Thus the imposed status-function seems to be metaphorical in structure. Again, status-functions are ontologically subjective and thus we cannot reference objective reality to ground them as truth. Social status is true, to the extent that truth is relevant here, only because it is agreed to be true. Society is an ontologically subjective phenomenon.
* A reader has pointed out a conceptual problem with this paragraph that I have yet to resolve and need to think about. Take it with a grain of salt in the meantime.  J. 25.11.2016

Some of statuses are accompanied by formal status indicators like special hats, wedding rings, passports, or uniforms; some more informally by clothing or hair cut (compare how we identify a hippy, a football supporter, a punk-rocker, or a Buddhist monk). Some statuses are indicated by our accent, pronunciation, or word choices. In the absence of status indicators, we take our social cues from behaviour, mannerisms, etc. If people think of me as a writer, then for the purposes of society I am a writer and can be discussed with respect to that category. But if I am a writer then society expects me to behave in the manner which they consider a writer should behave. Even new acquaintances subtly coerce me into adopting a stance appropriate to the status they are granting me. I am a writer, then where is my writing published (in academic journals and in self-published books). Why is my spelling so bad (which is easy I have mild dyslexia). Searle has a lot more to say about status-indicators, but I'm going to gloss over them for the sake of brevity.

Each of us is deeply embedded in a network of status-functions, all of which require collective-intentionality, that collective includes the individual qua subject. We expect people to be subjects to the collective will and we take either evasive or hostile action against non-formists - freeze, flight, or fight are our basic stances with respect to any threat, and non-conformity is often a threat. Collective intentionality, then, imposes status functions on us; it shapes us as a subject. By the time we reach an age at which we might think of defining ourselves, we are already completely defined. The idea that we can define ourselves is also something inculcated into us by our society. A typical result is the group of rebellious teenagers who signal their rebellion by wearing identical, branded, clothing. Rebellion is really only conforming to some other norm. Often the only way to really redefine ourselves is to severe links with our community of origin and move away. Even so we take our self-beliefs with us and when we arrive we meet a wall of expectations from any new community we might join. And without community we die slowly or go mad, or both.

As a member of a group, I cannot simply take on any role. I must get people to agree to accept me in that role, often by undergoing a defined process of education, preparation, and testing. On the other hand one can become the class clown or the village idiot, merely through persistent repeated behaviour that is consistent with that role. A wily South African project manager once told me that if a team he was managing was under performing he would call a meeting and deliberately start an argument with one of them and then escalate it until things got quite heated. In the aftermath the team would typically start working together much better: nowadays I would say that this is because conflict engages our emotions. In the aftermath of the conflict, hierarchies and social roles like leader, peace-maker, etc are established. In other words the after the shake up the groups becomes a normal human social group with defined roles. We know were we stand and can work well together. The slogan at the time for the phases of group formation was "forming, storming, norming, and performing". I'll have a lot more to say on this subject in coming essays. But most of this social jockeying takes place below the waterline of consciousness. We cannot help ourselves because at heart we are social primates.

Most roles that we serve in are ones that are chosen for us, before we ever think about what role we might want to play. The choices we do make are made within a context that is internalised very early on and reinforced every waking minute of our lives. And the point is not to say this is good or bad. This is simply the way primate groups work. There is some influence on temperament from genetic inheritance, the quality of parenting we receive, and our early education. Experience does contribute. But who we are is as much to do with how other people see us, as with how we see ourselves. This is why it can be hard to get society to changes its views about people. Type casting is not only a problem for actors. But it also means that most psychotherapeutic models are completely wrong. 

~ Conclusion ~

What follows is a conclusion and summary, but is not the last word on the subject. There's an obvious flaw in the theory as presented that Searle tackles towards the end of his book and which I will outline in the next essay. Still, now is the time to pull everything together and see what conclusions we can draw so far. Searle concludes his 2012 lecture on social reality with a hierarchical list. What follows is my adaptation of that list. What we have here is a powerful explanation of how social groups exist based on just three concepts: observer relative functions, collective intentionality, and deontic powers:
  • Consciousness is a high level, neurobiological state, wholly caused by neurons, but none-the-less irreducibly subjective. 
  • Conscious states enable human beings to imagine functions for objects or people that are not intrinsic to them, and to impose those functions on them.
  • All such functions are observer relative, ontologically subjective, epistemically objective and can become institutional facts.
  • All institutional facts are, via collective intentionality, status-functions.
  • All status-functions are created and maintained by applications of status-function declarations (i.e. by language or something which approximates it).
  • Some status function declarations require status-indicators.
  • All status-function declarations create deontic powers.
  • All deontic powers give people reasons for acting that are independent of their immediate inclinations.
  • Deontic powers hold societies together.
Human societies only exist because of status-functions. We reach the level of complexity we do because our status-functions are represented linguistically. Non-human animals also have societies, but they are very much simpler in structure and functions. They are more like proto-societies because the roles and hierarchies have to be communicated through physical interactions, though arguably these still have a propositional, language-like, structure.

In science the vocabulary is created by observing reality. Social reality, by contrast, is created by the vocabulary. As Searle says, language is constitutive of human society. And here we see why a constructivist approach to development and ethics, a la Kegan and Chapman. All social norms, including moral rules, are constructed, collectively by the society in which they function. Rules find their value in being declared by someone higher up the hierarchy and agreed to by everyone. being a member of any group means subjecting oneself to the norms of the group. If those norms are not established, then the group will fail. All social institutions like moral rules are constructed within the context of social reality, which means that they are observer relative, ontologically subjective,  and epistemically objective. There is no recourse to reality to justify moral rules, which is why some people say that science cannot tell us how to live. Social reality is itself a construct, it also  observer relative, ontologically subjective, and epistemically objective. On the other hand I will argue in a forthcoming essay that evolution highlights the basic capacities that animals have evolved to enable social living and that these form the basis for the ethical principles that inform moral rules. Science can tell us how we do live, help us to make that conscious, and help us to see what is consistent or inconsistent with our being a social primate; where consistency approximates well-being and inconsistency approximates ill-being. 

Searle's outline of how social reality comes about relates to Foucault's study of the subject. Our sense of self and all our social relations are status-functions imposed by collective intentionality. The sequence here is important. We tend to think the sequence, beginning with the brain, goes like this

brain - conscious states - subjectivity - social reality

But in fact it goes more like this:

brain - conscious states - social reality - subjectivity

In other words social reality precedes and shapes subjectivity. Under the influence of Romanticism, Victorian philosophy, and psycho-analysis we've had this the wrong way around for almost 200 years. The emphasis on individuals over society is counter-productive at best and catastrophic at worst. Individuals only exist in a social reality. Outsiders tend not to prosper. On the other hand a degree of eccentricity can be beneficial in societies. Nowadays I would balance this with the need for a science of Amistics - the study of the impact of technology on society. 

So presuming that we can get from physics to consciousness states, we can get from consciousness states to social reality and out of social reality comes subjectivity. As a philosophical framework this seems clear enough. However, in terms of the science, we still don't have a clear route from physics to conscious states. We can get from fundamental physics to brains, but while it's beyond reasonable doubt that the brain is responsible for conscious states, we don't know exactly how this works. And many of the best researchers are chasing down dead-end leads. I've become very wary of the abstraction "consciousness". Abstractions are governed by metaphor, so in discussing consciousness we can only ever do so as if it were something more fundamental. Conscious states, though subjective, are less problematic.

In the last essay in this series I will look at the proposition, implied so far, that human behaviour is a matter of rule following. The short answer is that it is not, though rules are clearly discernible and we are quite capable of following rules when we need to. This requires the introduction of the fourth major concept in Searle's philosophy of social reality after functions, collective intentionality, and deontic power, which is the background.


~ Bibliography ~

Covers all parts of this essay

Diamond, Jared. (2012) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Penguin.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Foucault, Michel. (1983) The Subject and Power, in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (2nd ed.) edited by H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 208-226.  Original Publication: Le sujet et le pouvoir (Gallimard, D&E Vol.4 1982). Online:

Fox, Kate. (2005) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Hodder & Stoughton.

Goodall, Jane. (1971). In the Shadow of Man. London: Collins.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Kolb, B., Gibb, R. & Robinson, T. (2003) Brain Plasticity and Behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 12(1) 1-5.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. [Originally published 1981]. University of Chicago Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press. Originally published as La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le Savoir, 1979

MedicalXpress. (2016) Children overeagerly seek social rules. September 27, 2016 [Commenting on Schmidt M. F. H (2016)]

Medical Xpress. (2012) Toddlers object when people break the rules. July 26, 2012 [commenting on Schmidt 2012)

Schmidt, M. F. H. & Tomasello, M. (2012) Young Children Enforce Social Norms. Psychological Science. 21(4), 232-236. doi: 10.1177/0963721412448659

Schmidt, M. F. H. et al. (2016) Young Children See a Single Action and Infer a Social Norm: Promiscuous Normativity in 3-Year-Olds, Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616661182

Searle, John R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Searle, John R. (2012). The Normative Structure of Human Civilization [lecture]. Max-Weber-Vortragsraum des Käte Hamburger Kollegs „Recht als Kultur".

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.

20 June 2014

Spiritual III: Demesnes of Power

Caged or Fleeced?
from right-wing journal The Spectator
arguing for more individualism. 
So far we've looked only at what the word spiritual means and what frames it is associated with. In other words we've been focussed on the conceptual space delimited by attaching the adjective spiritual to various nouns and verbs. Now we need to think about who is using the adjective to make their nouns and verbs special. And how those people operate within the conceptual space. In other words we need to look at the politics of spiritual. As a first step this essay will outline a view of contemporary Western politics in which modern ideas of identity play an active role in shaping individuals into subjects. This leads into a consideration of the impact of Romanticism on the political landscape and Foucault's view of the subject as a construct whose purpose is subjugation.

Politically spiritual is tied up with notions of authority, and authority is an expression of power. The essay will argue that spirituality is concerned with channelling power in religious communities. In the Buddhist context we take on to surveil and police our own inner life as a service to the community, and as long as we are seen to be doing so, the community repays us in belonging.

Apologies, but this essay is long. I hope not too long that people won't read it, but I can't see how to split my treatment of spritual into any more parts. And in any case I want to move on to other subjects. So to begin with we need to look at the modern idea of selfhood and identity and to see how it is shaped by the discourses of power which have dominated the Western World for some centuries now.

The Modern Self.

"... history is read narcissistically to reconfirm one's present sense of identity and any potentially disruptive awareness of alterity is suppressed." - Lois McNay. Foucault: A Critical Introduction. (p89)

Individualism is one of the guiding lights of modern Western Society. Philosophically it seems to stem from 18th century Utilitarianism and the associated attitudes of Mercantilism. It is epitomised in the trade-fuelled Libertarian governments of the 18th and 19th centuries and more recently in the Neolibertarian governments (conservative and progressive) that have dominated the Western world since at least the 1970s. It's the mentality that, for example, enslaved Indian peasants to grow opium and then went to war with China to make certain of continued profits by ensuring that Chinese peasants consumed the dangerous drug. These days the East India Company has been replaced by the IMF and World Bank, but the bottom line is still profit.

Present-day individualism benefits the rich and powerful in two main ways. Firstly by telling everyone to pursue their own good (their own desires) it divides the population and prevents effective opposition to Neolibertarian aims of creating the perfect conditions for businessmen to become rich and powerful. Secondly it justifies the means used by businessmen to become more rich and more powerful (e.g. political economies based on mythological "market forces"; use of ultra-cheap labour abroad; evasion of taxes; etc.). Individualism gives the illusion of freedom. We are more free to choose our religion in the West than at perhaps any time in history. We have greater choice of breakfast cereals or TV channels too. But we are enslaved to an economic system that regards us as units of production, that characterises every human being as perfectly self-centred, manipulative and ruthless in pursuit of their own best interests. From the point of view of those in power, the religion of the masses and their breakfast cereal have the same value, or at least the same kind of value.

The more we exercise our individual choice, the more society fragments. And the more society fragments the less effective we are as a collective. We out-number the rich and powerful by at least 100 to 1. So we could stop them if we wanted to, just by acting in concert. We've seen a number of successful revolutions in the last few decades where the people simply gathered and demanded change in sufficient numbers that they could not be ignored. Former Soviet Eastern Europe went this way. But because we feel free we don't resist our slavery. "Spiritual but not religious" is one of the most exquisite examples of this pseudo-freedom. We have complete freedom of religious belief because it has no longer has any economic implications. We are encouraged to have our own individualised religion, partly because organised religion is what bound communities together for centuries (perhaps forever). If being spiritual was a real threat to profits, it would be illegal. Where collective action is perceived as a threat, as ironically it is in communist China, then religion is tightly controlled and rouge groups persecuted.

© Tom Toles
Meanwhile we work hard for minimum wage and 2 or 3 weeks of holiday a year, in a world of absolutely astounding productivity and unimaginable wealth. And yet we never have enough. This is a deeply rooted feature of Merchantilism: the poor only work hard enough to meet their needs, so the rich make it almost impossible for them to meet their needs, despite vast surpluses and enormous waste. Think, for example, of all the food going to waste! Estimates in the UK are that 30% of food produced is wasted. All that wasted food helps to keep food prices high, while those who grow it over-supply and cannot earn a living on the prices they get. House prices (in the UK at least) are kept artificially high to hoover up any extra wealth we might accrue. The point at which we might feel we have enough, and might thus stop working so hard, is kept out of our reach.

Merchantilism is predicated on everyone working as hard as they can all the time in the knowledge that worn out workers can easily be replaced. When you accept payment for work, you are expected to give everything you have in return, however low the wage. Of course the system is imperfect, but measurement techniques have become ever more intrusive in recent decades. In addition one of the main messages of the school system is conformity: "do as authority tells you". Schools are able to enact and enforce arbitrary rules such as dress codes and to exclude pupils from eduction is they refuse to conform. In Britain school children routinely wear ties (I still find this shocking). University education is gradually changing for the worst as well, becoming more and more oriented to the demands of Merchantilism.

In addition, government policy consistently encourages high unemployment levels (unemployment is an invention of the Merchantilist system) in order to keep wages down. And while real wages continue to fall, executive salaries rise exponentially. An executive may earn more in a single year than the average employee earns in a lifetime. Of course governments regularly promise full-employment, but they simply cannot afford anything like it. Without high unemployment wages would sky-rocket and severely impact profit. In addition we are constantly encouraged to want more, to buy more by the representatives of companies than make things we don't even need. Thus the goal is always moving, and the game is rigged so that we could never reach it if it was. And yet few of us consider quitting the game. Most of us are not equipped to function outside of society, even the outcasts depend on society.

Many of the gains won by a century of concerted action by labour unions have been eroded or completely lost. The adversarial relationship between labour and capital led to excesses where labour was able to seize power. The UK seems to be firmly on the road back to Dickensian relationship between capital and labour in which all power in the relationship is held by capitalists. Only this time the capitalists are vastly more wealthy than they were in Dickens's time. Wealth has certainly been destroyed by the repeated economic crises since 1973, but the 1% are wealthier than ever.

Most Western states have implemented some kind of "safety net" that were initially conceived of as offsetting the damaging social effects of Merchantilism. The impulse behind the welfare state grew out of humanitarian urges of the late Victorian period and a recognition of the hardship caused by industrialisation and the unemployment that was built into the economy to keep wages low. But in the UK it has grown into a vast control mechanism. The economy is structured so that whole sections of society must rely on welfare payments - which are called benefits. The benefit being the up side of an economy which can simply shut down the industries that provided employment for whole towns and industries, creating long-term, generational unemployment for which the poor are blamed. To take the state pound nowadays is to invite the state to surveil and scrutinise one's life to a degree that would make Catholic priests envious. The state can for example, examine one's bank accounts and engages in regular interrogation of recipients and draconian examinations of "fitness". Despite endemic unemployment the unemployed are seen as morally reprehensible. Taking money from the state is seen in moral terms as incurring a debt, especially by conservatives (the reasoning behind the "moral accounting" metaphor is explored by George Lakoff in Metaphor, Morality, and Politics).

For an alternate view on the modern self see Adam Curtis's documentary The Century of the Self. Curtis explores Freudianism in relation to the rise of democracy. Democracy is seen as releasing the primitive Id of the masses producing the horrors of WWI. The irrational masses required control via the manipulation of their unconscious via propaganda (rebranded as "public relations").
But it's not only the unemployed who are tempted with "benefits". Housing is now so expensive in the UK that a clear majority of new claimants of Housing Benefit (a welfare payment provided specifically for housing costs) are in work. Housing Benefit is a £17 billion annual subsidy to landlords to allow them continue to gouge unreasonable profits from the market and to restrict the supply of housing to keep prices high. At the same time British society promotes the ideal of home-ownership as the acme of individual identity. The agony the average British wage earner is going through is exquisite, and many of them are convinced it is because of bogus reasons such as immigration.

Meanwhile the media don't just sell us things we don't need. Apart tax payer funded broadcasting, all media is paid for by advertising, including most internet content. The media has a vested interest in shaping our behaviour towards consumerism, towards views which promote the goals of Merchantilism. The media began employing psychologists to make their presentations more effective back in the 1920s. (See the Adam Curtis documentary for an account of this). They use subtle techniques to "nudge" our behaviour in a direction that is good for business. For them it was a problem that social conventions were against women smoking for example. So Edward Bernays cooked up a publicity stunt which linked smoking to the suffragette movement and painted cigarettes as "torches of freedom". Great result. Women felt more free by becoming addicted to a harmful poison, and began to die in their millions from tobacco related illnesses. Again the illusion of freedom disguises the reality of bondage.

This is not a conspiracy theory. I don't think that dark cabals are meeting behind closed doors to arrange it. I think its a dynamic of civilisation, an emergent property of the kind of social system we have based on a huge number of factors. And for the most part it's happening in the open. Governments are open about their beliefs and about their methods. The media are less open, but investigations like Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent (a book and a film) have left us in no doubt about how they operate.

So individual identity in modern times is shaped to fit into this worldview, not simply Vitalist and Dualist, but Utilitarian, Merchantilist and (pseudo) Libertarian. Spirituality is no threat to this because it is focussed on the spirit and the immaterial  and leaves the body emeshed in the world and subject to market forces.

The Curse of Romanticism

If we look more closely at the referrants of "spiritual" we see a considerable overlap with the concerns of Romanticism. A concern with the immaterial over the material; with the unseen over the seen; with nature over culture; with experience over reason; with eternal life, even eternal childhood conceived of terms of in spontaneity and innocence, over death and the loss of naivete. The material world is less interesting than the afterlife; human beings less interesting than spirits (the higher and less material the better). According to French mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
The goal of the spiritual is escape from the material world where we inevitably die and, in the Indian worldview, die repeatedly. We escape (even if only in imagination) the material, relative, contingent world—i.e. saṃsāra—for an immaterial (outside space and time), absolute, eternal world—i.e. nirvāṇa. And when someone like Nāgārjuna tries to point out that the dichotomy is meaningless, we simply invent some new transcendental escape route: e.g. the dharmakāya.

By the beginning of the 20th century most Westerners were politically aware enough to have good reason to distrust authority figures, both spiritual and secular. The wealthy and powerful collude against the poor and oppressed to keep them divided, poor and oppressed. This was made easier by the rise of the middle-class, the administrators and facilitators of the rich and powerful, aspirational with respect to security and comfort and instilled with aristocratic contempt for working people. The popularity of Romanticism also worked to the advantage of business people. A few drug-addled, spoiled brats from the upper-classes who wrote sentimental poetry that made individualism seem desirable for the masses. The kind of freedom from responsibility or the need to work for a living, the kind of freedom that only comes with inherited wealth and privilege, became a thing for everyone to aspire to. Partly as a result of this, people have drowned their awareness in intoxicants and particularly the middle-classes have Romanticised this as a kind of freedom, though as before it leaves their bodies in bondage to profit. After a weekend "on the lash" as the Brits so eloquently call it, Monday morning means a return to bondage. Or after a lifetime of bondage we retire to freedom in old age. Except old age has been consistently redefined to make it less accessible.

At it's worst the hippy movement encouraged everyone, though in effect mainly the newly wealthy middle-class progeny of the post-war baby-boom, to disengage from politics and society. Like their Romantic heroes, the baby-boomers were sexually promiscuous, leading to a huge upsurge in sexually transmitted diseases. They were intoxicated, leading to drug and alcohol addiction with massive impact on families and society, and many new cases of psychosis and early death. And they were free of social conventions which boiled down to political disengagement, allowing conservatives to set the social and political agenda by exploiting the subsequent breakdown in the value of collectivity. Conservatives simply acted in concert and over-whelmed the divided progressives.

After decades of letting conservative business interests set the public agenda, we've got to the point where even the Left implement Neolibertarian economic policies. Sometimes the Left are even more assiduous in pursuing these policies, because they are trying to prove themselves on terms set by conservatives.

Romanticism might have started off as a necessary correction to the mechanistic views of scientists flushed with success as the beginning of the Victorian Era. But it has simply become another way in which we play into the hands of those who would economically enslave us. SBNR is the perfect religious view for a Neoliberal ideology. The political disengagement that typically goes along with individualistic spirituality is perfect for the powerful. Escapism relieves the frustration and tedium of modern work, leaving us resigned to wasting our best years for men who earn more in a year than we will in a lifetime. Contemporary spirituality is escapism. By focussing on the immaterial it denies the value of the material, and this plays into the hands of those who control the material world. We end up fighting Māra's battle for him.


Michel Foucault argued that to be a subject is to be subjected - thus providing an important counter-weight to Romanticism. The self we identify with is, in fact, mostly shaped by external forces. Reflecting on my own life I see that my self-view has been shaped by many institutions: schools, church, medical clinics, hospitals, government departments, workplaces, unions, clubs, secret societies, professional associations, the news/entertainment media; by people playing their own social roles: family, in-laws, friends, peers, colleagues, romantic and sexual partners; by people playing various official roles such as doctor, psychiatrist, teacher, priest, politician, police, lawyer, accountant, psychologist, guru; by abstract institutions such as time, wealth, money, wages, taxes, property; by abstract issues such as gender politics, sexual politics, national and international politics, national identity, post-colonialism, multiculturalism; by the fact that I emigrated twelve years ago and had to retrain in many of these areas and add class awareness. The list goes on and on. My personal input into who I am is rather minimal. Virtually every I feel myself to be is inherited or imposed on me rather than emerging out of my being. Sure, my basic psychology is broadly speaking nature; but my identity is almost pure nurture.

Almost all of these institutions aim to subject, to subjugate, me through shaping my subjectivity so that I subjugate myself. That is, for me to see myself as naturally subject to the limits, controls and definitions of society. For me to unthinkingly obey prohibitions and taboos. The constant threat is that failure to conform redefines the transgressor as other. And for the other the rules are different, less optimal, less conducive to well being, often harsh. To be other is to be sanctioned and excluded. The veneer of civilisation on how we treat others is very thin indeed. One sees all this play out in simpler forms in primate societies. It's well worth reading Jane Goodall's book In the Shadow of Man, in order to get a sense of how human society is an extension of basic primate society. The fundamentals are all similar.

Our very subjectivity is a construct which we have built in concert with society from birth. Forget the metaphysics of self, we don't even understand the politics of self. And Buddhism also plays it part in creating an acceptable subjectivity. We use "precepts" as a way of reminding other Buddhists about what is acceptable behaviour: we surveil and police each other. We emphasise that a Buddhist must take on to be ethical, rather than allow ethics to be imposed on us (with explicit comparisons to other ethical systems). When we criticise each other, it is often not for the act itself, but for the failure of self-control, the failure to conform. We explicitly invite others to subject themselves to Buddhist values which we extol as the most sublime set of moral values ever enunciated. Who would not want to subject themselves to sublime taboos, especially when part of the narrative is that no evil thought goes unpunished? Buddhism channels the power inherent in social groups in a particular kind of way, with particular kinds of narratives. It is not exempt or outside this social dynamic, despite all the transcendental narratives, Buddhist humans and still just humans.

Buddhism uses carrots to make obedience seem attractive, and sticks to make disobedience seem frightful. Just like every other primate group. This is how primate groups ensure collective survival. But it is open to exploitation. Even amongst chimps, as the story of monstrous Frodo of Gombe Stream suggests. Frodo used his size and aggression to cow the Gombe stream group and to terrorise neighbouring groups. The usual social controls, often operating through the "person" of the alpha-female, failed with Frodo.

Along with conceptions of subjectivity which are aimed at controlling individuals, Foucault points out the role of institutions which institutionalise social forms of control. We are shaped, but imperfectly and so society creates conditions in which it can exert control over any stray desires and urges that pop up. Religion is a partly a formalisation of certain social controls, aimed at subjecting and controlling the tribe. This has clear survival value. For Buddhists this manifests as belief in karma and enforcing of precepts. Karma is, like God Almighty, a supernatural surveillance agency that knows whether you've been bad or good. Karma makes the Panopticon seem an amateurish fumble. Be good or go to hell, has always been religion's trump card.

Today we don't see ourselves as dependent on friends and neighbours. We see them as accessories, as optional. The average person has just enough individual wealth, and is so steeped in the rhetoric of individualism that they are convinced they can go it alone, or at least with their mate and children in tow. Communities are bound by mutual need. If we assume that we don't need anyone, then we are not part of the community. And divided we are conquered by the more powerful. These days they make our captivity pretty comfortable, and a lot of the time we can forget we live in bondage. We lap up the narratives of virtuality—virtual friends, virtual pets, virtual communities—without seeming to notice that they are virtually useless compared to the real thing.

Authorities and Adepts

Despite rampant individualism, we cannot override the fact that we are a social species. We arrange our society in a uniquely human way, but still retain some features in common with other primates. And I think this insight may point to a weakness in Foucault's attempts to problematise society. We can't really live without it. Which is why we accept virtuality as ersatz society.

Many of us accept authority figures (alpha-individuals) and feel more secure having one around. In effect we like someone to tell us how to be individualistic, like teenagers who dress alike to symbolise their rebellion against conformity. Some of us prefer to try to unseat authority figures whether in an attempt at wresting actual power from them (pretty rare) or in a kind of impotent passive rage against authority generally (pretty common). Some of us have an ideology which is against authority figures on principle, like eternal teenagers. There's a lot of pressure on us to be neotonous, to remain childish because, like children, people with childish ideologies are easy to manipulate. A surprising number of Buddhists seem to be against any authority figure and any form of collectivity.

Every domain has it's authorities and adepts. And the spiritual domain is no exception. Spiritual long referred to that which pertained to the church. 200 years ago adding the adjective spiritual to nouns and verbs was how the Church marked out its demesne. In that tradition becoming an authority in the church was relatively arduous. Priests were often the only educated people in their milieu. The great universities were founded to educate priests during the so-called Dark Ages. However with the modern decline of the power of the church to impose standards and the rise of religious alternatives (particularly the freelance gurus of India), the adjective spiritual has been co-opted by non-church groups. The demesne of spiritual and all it's power and resources is now hotly contested. Anyone can become a spiritual authority or a spiritual adept with no effort or qualification. The demesne is haunted by frauds and hoaxes, but this seems not to slow down the commerce in all things spiritual.

In Buddhism we have a great deal of anxiety over authenticity and authority. We see a lot of ink spilt over whether our scriptures are authentic while modern scholarship, including my own, is constantly casting doubts. If the texts are authentic, then just what authentically are they? Similarly Buddhists enunciate lineages at great length in the hope that this guarantees the authoritativeness of authorities. However, Sangharakshita has shown that lineage is no guarantee of anything: see Forty-Three Years Ago.

This is not a new priority, but visible at all stages of Buddhist literature. The question of who is a spiritual authority and who is a spiritual adept, and just what that entitles them to say and do are constantly under review. It's always difficult to tell. (See How To Spot an Arahant). And of course Western Buddhism has been more or less constantly dealing with the problem of authority figures who defy norms and break rules. It is notable that commentators seem to fall back on Judeo-Christian notions of justice when this happens. A crisis of behaviour almost always becomes a crisis of faith and the faith we grew up with very often shapes our opinions more than our convert beliefs. 

Even the individualist tends to have a "spiritual teacher" someone who is both spiritual themselves in some exemplary fashion and who who is an expert in spiritual practice and thus able to oversee the practice of others. This relationship may be personal or be at arm's length through books and videos. And we may hedge our bets by picking and choosing from spiritual teachers of various kinds. But we still look to someone to define what is spiritual: what we should believe, and what we should do about it. And this gives those who play the role of teacher considerable power. Indeed with direct disciples who abdicate personal authority and decision making to a guru, the problem is even more acute. It's interested that despite early flirtations with spiritual masters, we now tend to follow teachers instead. The obedience implicit in the disciple/master relationship doesn't sit well with individualism and has been famously disastrous on a number of occasions. Being a celibate teacher in a sexually promiscuous society seems to be an especially fraught situation.

I've already touched on the Foucaldian critique of the inner self as envisaged by the Enlightenment. My take on this is that the Enlightenment self, characterised especially by rationality, is a feature of Neolibertarianism via its Utilitarian roots. Utilitarianism is caught up in the Victorian over-emphasis on a particular kind of rationality. We see it in the "rational choice" models of economics, which let the developed world's economies fall into a major recession with (almost) no warning in 2008. I've been critical of this view of rationality in my writing e.g. Reasoning and Beliefs; or Facts and Feelings. Foucault's study of the fate of the irrational person in post-Enlightenment society traces the ascendency of this view. and particularly examines the power exercised over those who seem to be unreasonable or irrational. We can contrast this with the Romanticisation of spirit and the self in reaction to an overly mechanical view of the universe.

The political side of spiritual can be seen in this light: that it represents an exertion of power to control the individual, and that individual consents to be controlled. By obeying norms we find belonging. Belonging is essential to the well-being of human beings, and has always provided one of the strongest levers against the individual: conform or be excluded. In a hunter-gatherer society conformity conveys benefits that outweigh the costs, but in a settled society (with cities etc) the dynamic is far more complex.

In Libertarian ideology this is turned on it's head. In the Libertarian view no benefit can outweigh the cost of conformity. The Neolibertarian ideology is one adopted by the 1% of rich and powerful. It says that everyone is free to make a profit. The fine print however is pure Mercantilism: the person only has value to the extent that they contribute to profit making. Self-employment is fine, even admirable, but unemployment is immoral. In this ideology arguing for more taxation on profit is irrational since it interferes with profit making; in the jargon it's anti-business. The purest form of profit making is the effortless increase in wealth obtained from owning land that goes up in value due to external factors. Profit without effort. It's almost a religion in the UK and almost completely exempt from taxation (compared to wages and profits). To some extent the individualism of SBNR partakes of this ideology. Let no one interfere with my spirituality. Magazines are full of ads promising spiritual attainment with no effort. And there is a spiritual 1% living in relative luxury on the proceeds of this economy.

Attempts to break out of this thought control often take the form of what we in the Triratna Order call therapeutic blasphemy, where one deliberately breaks taboos, such as prohibitions against blasphemy, in order to loosen the grip of a lifetime of conditioning in Christian values. Sangharakshita used this example of positive blasphemy in his 1978 essay Buddhism and Blasphemy (Reprinted in The Priceless Jewel [pdf], 1978), written in response to conviction of the editor and publishers of the Gay News for "blasphemous libel" in 1977 (see BBC summary of the case). The use of antinomian and transgressive practices in Buddhist tantra dating from perhaps the 8th century onwards appears to have a similar purpose.

One might think that Buddhism at least would inform a better kind of government, that countries where Buddhism is the state religion would tend to exemplify Buddhist values. However, the opposite is more often true.

Buddhist Politics

Think for a moment about the forms of government associated with nominally Buddhist countries. Traditional Asian Kingdoms and Empires have been, like their Occidental counterparts, harshly repressive, imperialistic, racist and rigidly hierarchical. There is nothing particularly attractive about the forms of government that have developed in the Buddhist world.

Today the three main Theravāda countries, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, are all run by authoritarian, repressive governments. Either military governments as in Burma, or militaristic. Thailand declared martial law last month.

Mahāyāna countries have not produced more compassionate forms of government on the whole: China, North Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet. Bhutan might be the only exception, but the peasants there really are brainwashed into seeing their royal family as deities to whom they owe fealty, obedience and obeisance. A form of political control once employed by the Tibetans as well. There's nothing particularly admirable about virtually enslaving the peasant population in order to support a huge number of unproductive men. A system that produced a major shortage of marriageable men, and yet such poverty than brothers often clubbed together to share one wife. Of course one cannot condone the Chinese invasion of Tibet on those grounds. The brutal repression of the Tibetans and the widespread destruction of their culture has been heartbreaking. But pre-invasion Tibet is Romanticised by Westerners (this is the theme of Don Lopez's Prisoners of Shangrila which is worth reading).

For those who hope to implement Buddhist control of Western countries the question is this: based on which historical precedent do you see religious government of our countries as a good thing? Churchill did say:
"Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
The governments of nominally Buddhist countries are amongst the most repressive in the world, no matter what period in history we look at. In fact Buddhism makes for poor politics precisely because it is traditionally disengaged. And the engaged part of engaged-Buddhism is coming from external sources. A Green government might be a good thing, but one that values the natural world would mostly likely be better than any form of Buddhist government. No one who denies the reality of people or suffering should have access to power over people.


We'll probably never get rid of spiritual in Buddhist circles, certainly not on my say so. Religious people use the religious jargon of the day, just as the authors of the early Buddhist texts used Brahmanical and Jain jargon. Some times the re-purposing of a word works out, sometimes not. Brāhmaṇa retained its Vedic meaning and caste associations despite attempts to assimilate it, while karman or dharman became naturalised and have now even been Anglicised. The argument over whether or not Buddhism is a religion, or a philosophy, or a spiritual tradition, or whatever, goes on.

And old habits die hard. Spiritual is a word we use partly as a lure, a familiar term for those who are dissatisfied with ordinary life. "Mundane life sucks? Try our all new/old spiritual life, guaranteed 25% more satisfying! We're so confident that you don't get your money back." Spiritual is a handle on what we do that outsiders can grasp and given the jargon laden claptrap some of us come out with, something familiar comes as a relief. It provides what Frank Zappa used to call Conceptual Continuity.

But all of this goes on in an economy of power. Spiritual discourses aim to shape a particular kind of subject for a particular kind of purpose. And the explicit purpose, spiritual liberation, may mislead us into thinking that by taking on the discourses of spirituality we are becoming more free. In fact very few people achieve liberation and most of us are in bondage. Unfortunately the politics of the day is easily able to exploit the myth of liberation to better enslave us. Power exploits our naive dualism and over-concern with the mental or immaterial, to enslave our bodies.

To some extent we suffer from "the world that has been pulled over our eyes to distract us from the truth." This line from The Matrix draws on Gnostic ideas about the world. In fact the rampant escapism of spirituality does make it easier to create compliant, obedient subjects who work hard to create obscene profits for the 1%. Like the middle-classes who facilitated Merchantilism, the cadre of disciples channel power within communities.

But it's not the end of the world. There are benefits to being religious and a member of a religious organisation. Buddhism's lessons on life are actually pretty helpful a lot of the time. The practices are worth pursuing in their own right. It's just that ideally we'd all think about our lives a bit more. And especially reflect on where our views come from.


28 June 2013

Surveillance Society

From Spero News
One of the few philosophers I have any time for is Michel Foucault (probably because he's mainly an historian). He is more relevant than ever in the light of revelations by whistle blower, Edward Snowden. Snowden has revealed that, surprise, surprise, the powers that be are using that supposed tool of freedom, the Internet, to spy on citizens not only abroad, but at home too. One of Foucault's main contributions to the study of history was to show how hegemonic powers use surveillance to exert control and have done throughout history. He has also highlighted the methods and dynamics of this process of keeping tabs and showed how the power to over-see has shifted around to different parts of Western society over time.

I've already written quite a lot about how I see karma in this light. My thesis is that surveillance is a preoccupation for social primates, especially humans. Surveillance involves keeping tabs on who is contributing to the group and who is not. In human society it also keeps tabs on who is obeying the norms of the group and who is not. The actual content of the norms is largely irrelevant to my thesis - the medium is the message. The reasons behind this dynamic are not rocket science - the two main factors contribute to the smooth functioning of the group, and the long term evolutionary fitness and survival of the group. A third factor is the privilege of the alpha male and female (chimps have both). With more complex organisation the alpha human relies on a small cadre of intimates to hold power, and this is the origin of the aristocracy. Alphas have historically used this power to seize control of resources (for the greater good no doubt) and dole out rewards to underlings who are grateful to be alive. Owning resources allows for the creation of standing armies and such like. Such despots and their armies also provide a modicum of security to the group as neighbouring groups are similarly organised and busy trying to grab resources too.

However once societies get beyond a certain size, which is likely to be predicted by the so-called Dunbar Numbers, keeping tabs on who is doing and saying what becomes difficult. Robin Dunbar's breakthrough paper compared neo-cortex size in social animals with group size and found a positive correlation, now widely believed to be causal. Humans have an upper limit to the number of close relationships they can keep in memory. The average ought to be about 150 - known as the Dunbar Number despite the fact that Dunbar proposed a series limits at varying distance from the individual. Beyond the critical number we cannot know who is doing what with whom. Private actions and words become a feature of social life. And with private actions comes the possibility of blatant and large scale breaches of group norms. Testimony as a source of knowledge starts to become valuable, though the collective knowledge of old people was also a form of testimony. I'm thinking here of witness statements in trials.

And so some solution to the privacy problem must be sought. Many societies invented gods who live in the sky and look down on everything the individual does - and they take on the role of the alpha in dishing out rewards and punishments. This helps to give rise to a new kind of cadre who are expert at communicating with the gods, divining and carrying out their wishes. So we have kings, nobles and now priests - all justifying the subjugation of the peasants because it's for the greater good. We know that in India, for example, the overseer function was initially carried out by a pair of gods, Varuṇa and Mitra, but that sometime after about 1000 BCE this gave way to an impersonal arbiter: karma. I've argued that this was a result of interaction with and influence from Zoroastrianism via smalls bands of immigrants amongst which the Śākya tribe subsequently became prominent. But whatever else is true, it is true that there is no functional difference between impersonal karma and anthropomorphisized over-seer gods. Karma does not even quite manage to do away with priests, though their role was drastically attenuated for a short period and then clawed back rather vigorously (which is why the Buddhist world these days "takes" precepts from a bhikṣu/bhikṣuṇī). From an historical point of view bhikṣus are usurpers, having edged lay people and women out of any positive role in Buddhism for almost 2000 years - something which is slowly changing in the last 50 or so years. 

Foucault, for obvious reasons, dwells on the role of the Roman Catholic Church in subjugating the masses. The RCC emphasised the monitoring of private thoughts through confession particular thoughts about sex. They made pronouncements on what constitutes officially sanctioned sexuality. We are still in the process of wresting the control of sex from their cold dead hand, but part of the power has fallen to the state (which is currently wondering what it might do about all the unsanctioned sexuality of pornography). Buddhist's thoughts are also monitored by karma, and confession has been an important Buddhist practice for avoiding the negative effects of karma for many centuries. Indeed the Buddha himself focussed on thought and especially exercises of will in his teaching. Buddhists these days are (or feel) free to interrogate each other and pronounce judgements on each others' intentions or motivations. And many Buddhists believe themselves to be experts at divining the motivations of others from the flimsiest of clues. Buddhism, like the RCC, enjoined a strict abstinence from sexual activity on it's clergy - guaranteeing a powerful control over priests, and constant occasions for punishment, since most people are incapable of sustaining long periods of celibacy without breaches. There is a massive distinction between transcending desire and suppressing it. And in Buddhism such punishments as are meted out, are done in public, something the RCC could learn from. A celibate clergy also allows the institutions of the church/vihāra to become incredibly wealthy because property is not inherited by any family they might have (though Protestants and some Buddhist clergy have circumvented this by marrying).

Foucault spent a whole book, Madness and Civilization, outlining the way attitudes to madness have changed. It is definitely worth reading. For example, the new idea of locking mad people up only occurred to the powers at be after the decline of leprosy in Europe left the lazar houses standing empty. The example of our treatment of the insane also provides a clear example of how control over the minds and bodies of followers slipped from the grasp of the Church following the Reformation and the Enlightenment. But society did not simply stop overseeing it citizens, it allowed that power, in the case of madness, to drift into the hands of the medical profession. Madness, once a moral issue, is now a medical problem; where once it as the domain of priests it is now dealt with by doctors. We now all accept the metaphor that the mind has mental symptoms that respond to drugs just as the body has somatic symptoms. But it was not always so, and there have been notable rebellions against this doctrine (notably by R.D. Laing). 

If not before, then certainly in the days following the end of World War II, the various governments of the world extended their spying activities to include the lives of their own citizens. Governments developed paranoia, and it was true in some cases that people, there own people, were out to get them. Every spying government has had it's share of high profile double agents. Paranoia lead governments to cast their nets ever wider. Corruption meant that powerful individuals and agencies have regularly exceeded the powers allowed them by law. This paranoia was greater in totalitarian Soviet Russia and it's satellite states, but not confined to them. Also, with the war over, the grievances of the colonial period began to boil over again. Terrorist became a household word. Terrorism is a paranoid's wet dream because it proves that people are out to get them. Since terrorism threatens security, freedom must apparently be sacrificed to keep us safe and the government must judiciously spy one everyone. But not content to deal with the legacies of imperialism, the imperial powers of Europe and the USA set out to antagonise the weaker nations of the world by arming rebels and toppling governments. Small countries frequently became proxies for conflicts between totalitarian Soviet Russia (which was in fact not so different from Tsarist Russia and still is not) and China, and democratic Western Powers. 

If we take the case of Iran (outlined in How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World) there were a whole series of interventions through the 19th and 20th centuries, including the installation of an anti-democratic autocratic king (or Shah) who lasted for 25 years before being brought down. Then later the West encouraged Sadam Hussein (then a "good guy") to attack post-revolutionary Iran and sold arms to both sides. As a result Iran now sponsor groups who carry out attacks on those interfering powers and are keenly pursuing the acquisition of the one weapon that will guarantee no further interference by foreign powers in their country: Iran want a nuclear deterrent. It is demonstrably the lesson of history that Iran has more to fear from us, than we do from them. They have been constantly bullied  for a good couple of centuries and thus my sympathies cannot help but be partly with them despite my abhorrence of oppressive religious fundamentalism. The West has promoted conflict and discord throughout the Middle East in order to divide and conquer. I simply do not believe the protests of Western governments that they are only want to bring peace, stability and democracy to the world. I'm more inclined to believe people like Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. Though it gives me no peace of mind to do so. 

In any case during the late 20th century surveillance of citizens became ubiquitous. From time to time scandal would erupt as corruption was exposed, but on the whole operations to spy on citizens were secret and stayed that way. Whether this meant they were largely legal is something that we cannot know because the information we would need to answer that question is invariably classified. 

What Edward Snowden has done is remind us that this is all going on and that the scale of it has increased as technology has improved. It's long been a banal fact that the UK has more CCTV cameras per population than any other country including the oppressive dictatorships of the world. We are constantly under surveillance. And increasingly we the people are participating in this via phone cameras and YouTube. The more stupid amongst us even film our own criminal activities and get caught because of it. Kind of a benign version of the Darwin Awards. 

A lot of Romantic people still believe that the internet will set people free. I stopped believing this years ago. It certainly had the potential. And I am still actively uploading original content with a view to participating in the information revolution. But most people I know only download and contribute nothing, except a modicum of self commodification for other consumers. And they mainly download entertainment. Rather than setting people free the vast amount of entertainment and distraction on the internet has enslaved more people than ever to the ersatz vicarious thrills to be had on a small screen (see also my essay on pornography). The internet has become the opiate of the people in most cases. Not in all cases. No doubt the potential for internet fuelled revolution still exists - especially where revolution exists in any case - but in the last 15 years couch potatoes have expanded in both number and size. 

And most of these lazy people have little to hide from the government and aren't bothered enough by the intrusion to protest. Many of my friends simply shrug when learning that their emails are being read because the content is so banal that even they are bored by it. I live in the UK and despite obvious corruption amongst our leaders there's no chance of revolution here. Most people are too comfortable to consider risking their lives. They're confused about the issues (a situation promoted by media and politicians alike) and just adopt pre-packaged opinions without thinking very hard about why (something the present Education Secretary seems keen to encourage through his curriculum reforms). We may have the occasional riot, the occasional home-grown terrorist, but we're not looking for change. Oddly our so-called Conservative party are radically reformist liberals these days and people still vote for them. The spectacle presented in the media--the daily diet of vicarious scandal, crime, war, disaster, crisis--has people enthralled in a way that discourages them from really thinking about what is going on. And the internet is just an extension of this entertaining spectacle. 

It's too hard for most people to imagine what the government might do with this information beyond stopping terrorists. Recently I read one pessimistic view on where it might lead in Ken McLeod's Intrusion. In the near future all women of child bearing age will have their health constantly monitored - if they endanger their health, through exposure to drugs or alcohol for instance, the authorities will know. The surveillance is carried out by rings with are worn "voluntarily". Equally health and safety concerns mean that most work places are unsuitable for women of child bearing age because they are exposed to dangerous situations. Women can very easily become unfit mothers and their children can be taken from them. The concern for terrorism means that police routinely grab people off the street and question them under torture. This practice is illegal and is occasionally taken to court, but most people never report it - from shock and fear of the consequences of failure to cooperate. Victims are given leaflets on trauma counselling as they leave - so the police can show that they do care and are only doing what needs to be done. "People with nothing to hide, have nothing to fear", as our present Foreign Secretary said recently (though presumably this does not apply to foreigners). All of these scenarios are relatively easy to extrapolate from the present situation. And there are other ways it might play out as well. 

If you follow the BoingBoing blog you'll know that personal freedom in the USA is under sustained attack from law enforcement agencies at present - be it spraying non-violent protesters in the face with pepper spray from an industrial sprayer, or illegal 'nationality' checks by Homeland Security officers. Indeed the USA seems quite a lot more paranoid that Britain (e.g. see Obama’s crackdown views leaks as aiding enemies of U.S.)

We probably should be concerned that the government is spying on us. History suggests that our governments are not to be trusted. Given an inch they will take a mile and retrospectively redefine the inch if necessary. It's apparent in the UK that government ministers routinely lie and manipulate information to their own benefit. They don't get caught very often, but often enough to be alarming. Lying about employment figures for example is de rigueur, though not a major scandal it seems. Professional politicians are concerned with being in power, and staying in power and not much else. They may want to make the world a better place, but only for themselves and their wealthy peers.

The oppression of state scrutiny of our lives, however, is just a continuation of the scrutiny all of our ancestors were under. Since the dawn of civilisation ruling elites have always used surveillance in one form or another to help control their citizens. There is at least one episode of espionage in the Pāli Canon, though it was directed against neighbouring states (I wrote about it in How to Spot and Arahant). We, the people, put up with the seizure of resources and wealth, and the surveillance, for the same reason that lesser members of chimpanzee troops put up with the tyranny of an alpha male. We know there is safety in numbers and that group membership equals survival. And a strong leader helps to organise and focus the group for collective survival. Which is not to say that we do not kick against authority, we do. But usually only because we fancy that we could do a better job. There's an interesting discussion of this with respect to Australian politics in Chimpanzee Politics.

"People with nothing to hide have nothing to fear." This has never been true at any point in the history of civilisation. Because it assumes that the one's doing the looking are benevolent, rational beings with pure motives. And they never are. And in the age of professional politicians, whose only ambition is to rule, it simply cannot be true. Governments themselves never operate on the this principle - they can always justify having secrets: people with something to fear, always have something to hide. It's only people with nothing to fear that have nothing to hide. We'd be foolish not to at least be suspicious of our government.

Our thoughts have been scrutinised for a long time now. Often what holds the alphas and their cadres of aristocrats and priests at bay is the sheer numbers of the masses. They can't fight us all at once. They can't control us if we are united against them. This is lesson one of revolutions (lesson two is that we inevitably replace one tyranny with another). Which is why the present splintered and alienated society is a gift to peeping Toms, snoops and sneaks. I doubt we'll get to the level of surveillance of Stalinist Russia here in the UK. But Big Brother is in fact watching us and in most cases it's only the fact that we are mind boggling boring that saves us, not the benevolence of the powers that be. Unfortunately Al Qaeda and groups like them succeed in making everyone a little more paranoid and this has lead to the erosion of freedom in the West generally. When we compare the goals of the sides in the so-called "War on Terror" it's not at all clear who is doing better. Certainly calling our side "the free world" is starting to sound a little optimistic.

I think it's worthwhile trying to become informed and to reflect on what kind of society you want to live and to make common cause with people who share your values. Us peasants only ever have numbers going for us. United we stand, divided we fall. And we have so much in common. We could probably do with a little more enlightened other-interest right now, rather than this bullshit, but pervasive notion of enlightened self-interest. Enlightenment and self-interest are inversely correlated. We also might want to reflect on who we share our private thoughts with and how. In this age of the commodification of the self someone is monetising those thoughts and you aren't getting any benefit from it. And they are also allowing the government easy access. Log off and hang out with your friends. You'll feel better for it.


24 February 2012

Accountability and Ethics

THE SUBJECT OF ACCOUNTABILITY has come up quite a lot lately. I've come to see gods that oversee our behaviour and karma as part of the same complex of ideas stemming from changes that civilisation brought to human culture. I outlined this view earlier when discussing the plausibility and salience of rebirth, and here I'll expand on it.

My thought is that we evolved to live in small bands of several families all working closely together to ensure our survival. These bands were probably part of larger groupings, but on the whole most of the time was spent in relatively small groups of say 30-50. In contemporary hunter gatherer societies there is typically a division of labour with women gathering food and men hunting. Women stay together as a group while working which takes up a good part of their day. Men tend to hunt alone or in small groups, but spend a lot of time together as well. In a group of 30-50 which is highly dependent on each of its members, there is not much in the way of privacy. We would all know what everyone is doing, and especially we would know if they were following group etiquette and rules. Going against the norm, and keeping it secret, often causes an internal tension that would have observable consequences. If you know someone well and over a long period of time, you know when something is wrong. Infractions are dealt with socially - with shame being an important factor in maintaining cohesion. And cohesion is not just arbitrary it is what helps the group survive in what is probably quite a hostile environment.

We share these patterns with our social primate cousins - especially the apes. Chimpanzee society has many of the same features for instance, and I think provides us some insights into our own distant past. They work together foraging as a group, and rely on each member to contribute and not to deceive. And individuals do on occasions deceive the group over food and sex. We don't just share a common genetic ancestry, I think we probably share a common social ancestry. In any case I think one can learn a lot about basic human drives and behaviours from Jane Goodall's observations on the Chimps of Gombe stream in her book In the Shadow of Man.

Civilisation changed this pattern, and made us different from any of our ancestors or cousins. Civilisation gave us the means to live together in much greater numbers. We were no longer dependent on passing game, or the random distribution of food crops. We domesticated our food - both animal and plant. This allowed for an expansion of group sizes beyond the magic Dunbar number of 150 - the number of relationships we can keep close track of. In a large village we do not know what everyone is up to because we do not observe it for ourselves. We do still keep track using informal information sharing (aka gossip, but this word has far too many negative connotations). It is not less important that everyone consents to live in the same way and follows the same rules, but it is much harder to know. And within any group there are always those who can profit by deception. Civilisation brings with the it a new problem of how to limit the dishonesty of susceptible individuals when personal observation is not sufficient to detect breaches.

Many societies developed a kind of cosmic police force and judiciary. In Indo-Iranian myth for instance it was the function of Mitra/Mithra. The people who propagated the myths of Mitra and preserved it through many centuries believed that the universe itself was ordered and that this macro-cosmic order was reflected in the microcosm of human society and human relationships. By sacrificing to Mitra the Indo-Iranians and their descendants were trying to ensure that Mitra had enough sustenance to do his job. And one of his jobs was to oversee the contracts and bonds that held society together. In fact his name probably originally meant 'contract' (from PIE *√mei 'to tie' + the instrumental suffix -tra: 'the one who ties', or 'that which ties'). I suspect that if you search the myths of all people's you will find this judicial function being carried out. It is possible that the role of enforcing the laws will be separate, but I think they are often combined.

The next step in the development of this idea was its further abstraction. In societies which followed the lead of Zoroaster and adopted monotheistic gods (such as the Abrahamic religions) the functions of overseer and enforcer were combined with other roles into a single "swiss-army-knife" or über god. In the Old testament god these two functions are much more prominent than in the new. In India a curious abstraction took place. Rather than combine all the functions of regulating society into a swiss-army-knife god that could do everything, they went another route altogether. In India the role of overseer became entirely abstract; it simply was part of the fabric of the universe that your actions would have inescapable consequences which were suitable to the action: we usually refer to this role as karma (though of course karma just means 'work or action'). Note that though the mechanism is different the function is identical. This suggests that the problem it was intended to solve was the same.

The development of this idea then stagnated for many centuries amongst our ancestors - and indeed has not changed at all in some sections of the Western world. One minor development was the contracting out of the overseer role to priests. The priest stands between the people and their god. There is no doubt that some people are more apt than others to have the kinds of experiences that can be interpreted as 'divine'. Most of us are rather untalented in the business of visions and mystical attainments, even with the boost of psychedelics. Perhaps it was inevitable that some people who had easier access to such states would act as intermediaries, and be valued as such by their fellows in this role. Somewhere along the way the job ceased to be awarded on the basis of merit and typically became the preserve of a clan - the vast majority of whom had to fake their contact with god which they did by aping their more inspired elders. In Judaism it was the Cohen clan, in North-West India the Brāhmaṇas. With the advent of a celibate clergy other arrangements were made to keep control of this social function in the form of large institutions such as The Church or The Saṅgha. Religion so captured by hereditary groups or hegemonic institutions quickly descends into formalism and empty rituals, and this is more or less the situation with most religions most of the time.

So for most of the Christian era in Europe the church has been a sham. However it did continue to provide oversight of the people. It did this through confession particularly. This is an observation made by Michel Foucault (e.g. in Madness and Civilization). Although God was invoked, it was in fact the clergy who had taken over his role as overseer. Since the role needed doing this was not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact is that it was mostly done under false pretences. Much the same kind of thing happened in India. In both places genuine visionaries would crop up from time to time, though in Europe we would generally torture them and then burn them alive; and in Indian they would set them up as local deities. Now at the same time kings were also still seen as divinely appointed rulers (several kings had wars with popes over this issue). Kings began to make and enforce laws too.

It was not until the Enlightenment that things began to really change however. The European Enlightenment shifted the focus from religion and superstition to the possibilities of reason. The idea of being ruled by reason was pretty attractive after several centuries of dark age - hence the term Enlightenment, and hence also Mr and Mrs Rhys Davids's deliberate identification of the Buddha with the European Enlightenment via the translation of bodhi as Enlightenment (complete with upper-case E). Michel Foucault notes that one consequence was that the oversight of those who simply could not follow any rules (the mad) moved from the church, to the burgeoning medical profession. But in the meantime the mad were locked away in asylums, which were originally lazar houses, because in a society which was beginning to see reason as defining humanity, losing your reason became a crime.

As Europe developed and spread outwards in an orgy of imperialism and colonisation it exported these values around the world. Only Asia proved able to resist, but only temporarily. The power to make laws, to oversee them, and to punish wrong doers moved decisively away from religious and towards secular administrations. This was one of the principles of the French and American Revolutions, though it was no so clear cut in England, so that the United Kingdom does not separate church and state - my Sovereign is also the head of the Church of England. The power to keep tabs on people was abrogated to the government on the one hand, and to the medical profession on the other. But in many places the medical profession became a subsidiary of the government, or at least was governed by government rules and regulations. Confessions continued to be a crucial part of the way the secular judiciary operated. And in some places the name of the judicial god was sometimes still invoked (the power vested in me by almighty God...). Medical priests used our confessions to regulate our bodies and sexuality, and assumed vast authority over us. Government took on a much greater role in attempting to regulate the morals of society. The UK's present Prime Minister for instance understands without question that part of his role is to set and enforce moral guidelines for the people of Britain (See this assessment in the China Post 22 Aug 2011). The medical profession meanwhile has totally taken over the regulating the lives of the mad, and madness is now a disease of the mind, a chemical imbalance, or a genetic defect.

Presently we seem to be in another transition. Surveillance of individuals by government agencies has never been more comprehensive. Our every movement is monitored by video cameras (the UK has more per population than any country in the world!). In fascist states surveillance intruded more deeply and with more devastating effect than peacetime democracies. We cannot cross a national border (most of which are entirely arbitrary) without our finger prints being taken and our movements entered into computers. Yes, some of this is for our own protection because people from countries which our governments (extending their godlike powers to the nations around us) have routinely oppressed and exploited for the last two centuries are now attacking us in very personal ways, exploding bombs on trains and buses for example. But still, we are being watched, have no fear. Elsewhere in the world Muslims, given the chance to vote, are voting for religious governments of the type that have a track record of imposing restrictive laws on their people.

All of this began as a way to ensure the cohesion and therefore survival of small bands of people eking a living out of the environment as best they could. In Buddhist ethics we are enjoined to surveil ourselves, to vigilantly watch our own minds, and not to act on any unskilful impulse. We're not asked to keep track of others, though we might help a friend out of compassion. This is quite an unusual idea in a society with 2000 years of being taught that someone else does the watching for us. We're not really used to taking responsibility for this role. We become our own judiciary. We pre-emptively confess our transgressions not in a context of fear and punishment, but to friends and mentors who wish us well, and help us to make amends (if necessary) and get back on track. This way we attain to the state of avippaṭisāro 'not feeling remorseful' (i.e. having a clear conscience) which feeds into the natural progress of the Spiral Path (e.g. AN 10.1-5).


Note 13-5-12

 Does Thinking About God Improve Our Self-Control? Wired Science.
Yes. It does. 
"The scientists think that faith-based thoughts may increase “self-monitoring” by evoking the idea of an all-knowing, omnipresent God. Previous research, which showed that priming people to think of a vengeful, angry God reduces the likelihood of dishonesty, supports this view. If God is always watching, we better not misbehave—he knows..."