“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas…” Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1945)
Jack is a 25 year old serf in England in the 13th century. Recently, he has been feeling very tired, and has trouble getting up at sunrise to plough his master’s crop. Ever since his thrashing for slipping behind in his work he has been hitting the ale a bit hard which hasn’t improved his situation. It’s been a bit tough since his wife died because now he has to drag the smallest kids to the fields every day and they get into all sorts of mischief. One of them was nearly trodden on by a mule yesterday. Jack feels his burdens are great and he can barely cope.
What do you think might be the main cause of Jack’s problems? Could it be his lack of motivation? A lazy streak is definitely not a sign of good character. Granted he’s had some bad luck with the death of his wife, but he can’t keep using this as an excuse. He was warned that Mary wasn’t strong enough for hard labour so he knew what he was getting into. Perhaps he is lacking in innate resilience. Six months after Mary’s death, he really should be starting to bounce back by now. Maybe self-control is an issue. How many hangovers does he have to suffer before he learns to stop at one or two? Negativity about his situation isn’t helping either. Parenting skills are a bit of a worry too; a peasant kid should really know about the dangers of large farm animals.
Or could his problems all come back to - feudalism?
Although Jack thinks that the system is normal and natural, there’s a fair chance that a life of bonded servitude enforced by a small hereditary ruling class might be the main obstacle standing between Jack and a fabulous life. Jack is not in physical chains and he has some small moments of freedom and independence; he can down a few ales at the tavern sometimes, dance around the maypole at Midsummer and go to church on Sunday, where he is reassured that his station in life is ordained by God. Knowing that his place in the hierarchy between his master above and the mule below is part of the natural order of things helps him to cope with any nagging sense of unfairness. He thanks God he isn’t a beast of burden.
The ideas of the nobility are the dominant ideas of feudalism. They represent the interest of the nobility and they must be accepted as universal, rational and normal.
Luckily for us, when that nasty economic system was smashed by plagues, revolutions and changes to the law, humans were freed forever. After feudalism we were no longer subjected to systemic oppression. Our suffering became private, individual and untouched by the economic system of our time. The ruling class disappeared and didn’t bother us again. Propaganda to persuade us to accept our suffering as normal vanished. Capitalism ended all of that, right?
So around 500 years after Jack’s short and brutal life, capitalism is in full swing and has become so rapacious, capitalist countries have expanded, invading and establishing colonies all over the globe. Slavery has been chosen as the best means of capitalist expansionists to make a pile of money in the New World. The problem is the New World was founded on principles of equality and liberty. How do they find a way to exempt African people from the liberty and equality principle?
Scientists eager to please their benefactors begin to find “proof” of the inherent inferiority of other “races” – a concept they also invent to justify slavery. They further oblige the capitalist by finding smaller brains in people in any part of the globe they invade, eventually coming to the convenient conclusion that the various hues of the humans signify separate species. The lower species, luckily for capitalistic expansionists, do not need to be treated like actual humans.
Later, the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” principle of biological evolution is applied to human societies to justify the theft of land of indigenous people by powerful capitalist empires. The genocide of Indigenous Australians might look cruel and mean but, according to socio-biologists they are a dying race anyway. The stealing of their “half caste” children and adopting them out to white families is just aiding in the inevitable.
Respectable science frames genocide as part of the natural order of things. Kind missionaries aid and abet the destruction of culture by civilising the stolen children. Two powerful institutions – religion and science – work hand in hand to help the ruling class achieve its aims. Racism becomes part of the “common sense” of white ruled nations.
The ideas of the capitalists are the dominant ideas of colonialism. They represent the interest of the capitalists and they must be accepted as universal, rational and normal.
That women merit different treatment from men was also a dominant idea backed up by a rich literature of dodgy science of gender difference. Capitalism exploited that even older system of tyranny, the patriarchy, to manage the entire workforce in their interests. Undertaking billions of dollars of unpaid work, the housewife took care of all the man’s domestic needs which freed him to work longer hours. The women also acted as a reserve workforce that could be dragged in for emergencies like wars and paid half the wage due to their “weaknesses”. There were trade-offs for the blokes in that dad might be oppressed in the factory but at least he was king of his own castle. Where’s my dinner, woman?
Throughout our history, people generally took for granted the system they lived in, assuming it was natural and normal. The subjects of feudalistic and colonial societies were generally blind to the fact that their pain was inflicted by a small powerful elite who used whatever heavy artillery they could to keep them from questioning their situation. For feudalism, this was mainly religion. For post-enlightenment societies, science was added. Both of these institutions were exploited to become mouth pieces for the ruling class.
So assuming that everything is not perfect now, and we can see that it isn’t, how are we blind to the suffering caused by our economic system? How are we encouraged to accept this suffering as normal and natural?
The current economic system in which most of us live is the free market, or capitalism. In its current form, neo-liberalism, – a more fundamental free market ideology that emphasises privatisation, deregulation, cuts in welfare spending and free trade – it has been the ruling economic ideology since the mid the late 70s. While the neo suggests it’s new, it’s really more like the old capitalism before it was softened by unionism, the safety net, and other gains made between the second world war and the late 70s. Its belief can be boiled down to “let the market decide”.
There are a multitude of stories about the destruction that this ideology has wreaked on the globe, including those of the many individuals who suffered in the global financial crisis of 2008. But let’s just concentrate on one tiny aspect just for now: Outsourcing and its effect on rich countries.
Outsourcing jobs to poorer countries to cut wage costs has increased the vulnerability of workers in richer countries who are now willing to accept lower wages to keep their jobs. The loss of safety net policies to protect working people and the poor from the fluctuations of the free market means they have little bargaining power.
This has resulted in low wages and a huge growth in inequality.
Thirty million low wage workers are making less today, adjusted for inflation, than they did 45 years ago in 1968. Million of Americans are working for a minimum wage that does not even reach the federal poverty line and they cannot afford basic necessities like food, housing, transportation, and health care.
The lowering of wages in the US and the huge growth in inequality has had an enormous impact on millions of American people.
What heavy artillery is being used to persuade Americans of the naturalness and normalcy of this state of events where people who work several jobs are sleeping in tents with their children?
One of the ways this is done is by huge international network of institutes, research centres, and public-relations “scholars” pushing the neo-liberal doctrine relentlessly (in Australia, Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) is one of the oldest; in the US one of the many is The Heritage Foundation). Funded by private donors, they have become a powerful influence on government policy on a range of areas including climate change and industrial relations.
The first idea they sell is inevitability. That, like the serf’s life, everything is as it should be. That the system we live in is natural and those who question it are fringe lunatics to be ridiculed or destroyed.
According to Susan George, no matter how many disasters of all kinds the neo-liberal system has visibly created, no matter what financial crises it may engender, no matter how many losers and outcasts it may create, it is still made to seem inevitable, like an act of God, the only possible economic and social order available to us.
Then there is the tried and true method of blaming the poor.
The modern methods for blaming the poor for their own situation have been fine-tuned over centuries from the 19th century eugenicists who provided the evidence to encourage forced sterilisation of the poor, to socio-biologists revising the theory of natural selection to fit in with laissez faire capitalism.
Now the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and human suffering are explained not by smaller brains, over which you have no power, but on individual problems or issues of character, which is your responsibility to change. Motivation, perseverance, persistence and conscientiousness are stressed as important factors to change your life.
Behavioural psychology is deployed to focus the cause of our problems on the individual.
In the face of widespread depression, the happiness industry flourishes with self-help books making up nearly 6 percent of the entire book market in the US. Its dominant theme is: to be happy you need to change the way you see the world. That mental health is improved by positive thinking. That the only limitations to your happiness can be found inside you. According to this view, complaining about the system is negative and bad for your mental health. The cause of our unhappiness could not be low wages or unemployment as “happiness is an inside job”.
Photo credit: Rita K.
The New Age self-help philosophies are awash with self-empowerment and mystical self-efficacy ideas that completely support the individualism of neo-liberal ideology. Their emphasis on internal feelings as opposed to external influences suggests that it is the individual’s responsibility to buffer themselves against the feelings of hopelessness caused by capitalism. By practicing meditation we don’t need to change the world, just our reaction to it.
Poverty is rarely mentioned in the happiness literature even though the link between class, poverty and every form of mental ill health is very well established. Also, not popular in self-help books is that the level of trust in fellow citizens, a key predictor of happiness, is inversely related to the degree of inequality in any society.
The finding of researchers that inequality impacts on every aspect of our health, well-being and relationships, and that “richer people are, on average, more satisfied with their lives than their poorer people” are squashed out by a sea of internal attribution articles.
The ideas of the capitalists are the dominant ideas of neo-liberalism. They represent the interest of the capitalists and they must be accepted as universal, rational and normal.
Objections to changing the system to a fairer one usually consist of claims about human nature not allowing it because people are lazy, or greedy, or selfish or violent, or passive or competitive or racist, or sexist. From the time we climbed down from the trees we are always trying to kill each other. In other words, we are naturally arseholes. Human nature is thought to be not only negative, but permanently fixed.
If human nature is so fixed and a competitive exploitative system so natural, why have the heaviest artillery of the times been massively mobilised to blind us to injustice? Humans are flexible; our innate capacity to create our environment and to respond to it in multiple ways is the strongest element of our human nature. Humans are also one of most social creatures, and even the most exploitative competitive systems have not destroyed that. Imagine how a fairer society might harness that capacity.
Our cooperative natures and the fact the we greatly outnumber them are what the ruling elite fear most. It is why their greatest weapons against us has been the propagation of divisive ideas such as racism, sexism and classism, and the indoctrination that such divisions are normal.
Yesterday one of the current ruling elite, Rupert Murdoch, slammed public servants for their laziness and criticised “welfare scroungers”. A man who inherited his wealth attacks the poor. A man whose sole aims are profit and power criticises teachers, nurses, police, and firefighters, people whose jobs make the world a better place.
We are not the arseholes.
And many of us aren’t blind anymore either.
“Indignant Citizens” of Greece protest on June 5, 2011 about bank bailouts and austerity measures.