submitted with apologies to george orwell and jonathan heidt, whose book “the righteous mind” should be required reading and whose insights are paraphrased below even as i have struggled to articulate my own.
“The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance…in principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory…but to keep the very structure of society intact.”
- George Orwell, 1984
“We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to…become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.”
- Jonathan Heidt, “The Righteous Mind”
Sparring with friends and enemies on social networks over several years has taught me that our political ideologies, party affiliations, and tribal loyalties are a distraction. I now believe that the two polarities in our world are power and poverty.
Power - as embodied by wealth, celebrity, and influence - seeks one goal: to extend its tenure. Poverty is the state power must foster in individuals to succeed. Poverty of intellect. Poverty of spirit. Poverty of means.
The United States may be the most materially wealthy nation in the world, but when the prosperity and privilege of its citizens is taken into account, it may also be the most intellectually and spiritually impoverished.
This is not a coincidence.
Freedom from poverty in a society where the tools of liberation are openly available doesn’t demand armed revolt, open warfare, or even the threat of violence. Freedom only demands that we use something from which power cannot profit - our individual intellect and compassion - and do with it something from which no one can gain power: organize respectfully around temporary consensus.
Power wants individuals to believe that the enemy of freedom is the other. The liberal next door, the conservative in the other voting booth - even the abstract notion of the individual and the collective - are soldiers to be demonized, marginalized and ultimately defeated on an intimate level.
Power wants us to believe that to agree and take action, we must agree on everything. Power wants you to think that an individual who believes in one thing in which you do not is unfit to stand with you on another.
Power - in collusion with the reptile brain bent on survival - wants perennial conflict based on difference because opposition based on consensus is lethal to power.
Power thrives on perpetuating within the individual psyche the idea of monolithic, conspiratorial opposition. This is not a monolithic conspiracy but a freely obtainable mechanism to increase poverty.
From the slogan that insists on the superiority of users of one product over those of another identical commodity, to the religious sect that insists its primacy even over who study the same scripture, and the political parties who divide those whose common goals by far outnumber their differences, power uses the Darwinian impulse to retard the evolutionary need.
Power needs the individual to believe that survival depends on obliterating the competition. Power requires individuals to believe that resources are limited, the crisis is at hand, and the only way to survive is by increasing the poverty of another. Power seeks to destroy the individual, preferably by getting other individuals to do the work for them.
Power’s main weapon against the individual is the illusion that by aligning with power, the individual will possess power. Power seduces with aspirational ideals: this party represents prosperity, that product represents intellectual superiority, this religion represents spiritual supremacy.
Power increases poverty of diversity with promises of individual dominion but never addresses the contradiction that power is reserved for an elite few. The seduced mind assumes it is chosen.
We are victims of power, but the seduction of power prevents the individual from acceptance. Power obfuscates its influence by teaching that victimization equals weakness. Power is desirable, poverty is not. An admission of poverty is a sign of personal failure, not systemic deprivation.
The individual sanctions the depredations of power through denial. Power has no use for the individual who recognizes that it casts leaders and foot soldiers into poverty with equal disdain, power needs individuals to believe that they will be immune - even though death is the ultimate end to all personal power.
The polarized, polarizing political climate of the United States in 2013 is part of a vast, unorganized, non-conspiratorial order that has evolved around the protection of power.
Corporations have the rights of individuals though their behavior would cause an individual to be jailed. Governments command carnage on easily disproved premises because individuals are too divided by the comfort of partisan conflict to evaluate facts on their merits and organize accordingly.
Power induces poverty of empathy: reducing individuals to abstractions and tragedy to statistics. The citizenry permits this because where politics are sport, someone must belong to the losing team, and consensus - even short-term consensus around issues of pressing moral import - has been marketed as moral weakness.
We thus forgive the crimes of ideological fellow-travelers as the necessary sacrifices of “the real world,” identify the crimes of antagonists as proof of their moral failing and ignore points of common benefit around which individuals can collude to undo the influence of power without compromising their integrity.
Conciliation, compromise - and the ability to identify and achieve common goals in spite of difference - are the only assets individuals can leverage to mitigate poverty.
An acceptance that an individual can only wield power temporarily - that wealth is transitory, influence is fluid and that the only benefit to having power is to freely prepare to hand over that power to as many others as possible - is the only guarantee of an ongoing check on power.
No one can lead without falling prey to the corrupting influence of power who does not accept power with the concomitant understanding that the individual, while essential, has an expiration date. Power must be shared and many must be groomed to lead.
The individual and the collective must coexist - though individual pride chafes at the notion of alliance with the other and collectives by nature demand homogeneity. Groups collude around individual visions, visions can only survive the transfer when given freely and with trust, the group can only survive if the individuals within preserve and act according to their own integrity.
As it is with the collective and the individual, so it goes with power and poverty. One causes the other. One needs the other. One can ameliorate the other. There are no pure forms of either and neither is going to disappear: not because of some ideal of perpetual war between good and evil, but because we are born into poverty, mature into insight and exit into the ultimate poverty of existence.
Poverty flourishes where individuals and collectives favor one over the other. The balance is where we must choose to live. Though our world is increasingly linked, power knows that these avenues of communication can easily be transformed into roadblocks: power knows that to flourish unchecked it need not be totalitarian but merely distracting - it is our work to see the distractions and settle for something more difficult than the comfort they provide.