Fear of Being an Individual
by David Cromwell and Media Lens
November 1, 2003
Why do activists so often focus on hard facts, reams of figures and dry arguments, while neglecting to deal with the intensely human issues of motivation, loneliness, burnout, selfishness and suffering? Why do we so often respond to elite power with anger, disgust and, possibly, violence? How do we overcome illegitimate authority while retaining our humanity?
Karl Marx once noted that: "To be radical means to go to the root, and the root -- is man himself." While Pierre Joseph Proudhon, who wrote that "property is theft", exhorted: "The Old World is in a process of dissolution. One can change it only by the integral revolution in the ideas and in the hearts."
It's worth mulling over those wise words from Marx and Proudhon. An integral revolution requires both political ideas and an honest examination of our own hearts. To be radical is to go to the root of what it is to be human. And yet such views are all too readily dismissed in left-green circles as 'irrelevant', 'emotional' or simply left unaddressed.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the Brazilian activist-educator Paolo Freire wrote with insight that: "the situation of oppression is a dehumanized and dehumanizing totality affecting both the oppressors and those whom they oppress." Note that crucial word "both" - oppressed and oppressors are dehumanized. Freire added:
"One of the gravest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings' consciousness."
The struggle for freedom is always at risk, because those who are oppressed may lose their own humanity in the struggle. On the other hand, whenever oppressive forces are overthrown, the humanist and libertarian vision of the formerly oppressed then belongs to everyone. Every individual, ideally, experiences a process of "permanent liberation."
Such liberation requires constant self-awareness and examination of our assumptions, decisions and actions in specific situations. This is tough; very tough. There is an all too-human tendency to rationalize our own behavior, especially when we act irresponsibly or cruelly. As the psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in Fear of Freedom:
"However unreasonable or immoral an action may be, man has an insuperable urge to rationalize it, that is, to prove to himself and to others that his action is determined by reason, common sense, or at least conventional morality. He has little difficulty in acting irrationally, but it is almost impossible for him not to give his action the appearance of reasonable motivation."
Such rationalization may occur when we are 'under orders' from 'superiors', whether our boss at work, a military commander, or our political leaders. In such cases, there can be a strong, even overwhelming, demand to subjugate one's individuality to some higher 'good'. There can also be a strong element of willing submission, however, as Fromm explains:
"In our effort to escape from aloneness and powerlessness, we are ready to get rid of our individual self either by submission to new forms of authority or by a compulsive conforming to accepted patterns."
These "accepted patterns" tend to follow destructive contours shaped by state-corporate power. Positive -- and not so positive - human qualities are deployed to serve destructive ends, as we see today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Love, freedom, duty, conscience have all been called upon by leaders to support destructive impulses. These impulses are rationalized, or even unthinkingly assimilated, by powerful social groups including leading politicians, corporate chiefs, and influential media commentators. As Edward Herman noted recently, "It is the function of the experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public." Thus, it becomes 'acceptable' and 'realistic' to invade poor and weakened nations in order to introduce what elite power calls 'democracy'.
Meanwhile, according to established wisdom, it is 'unthinkable' to replace capitalist institutions with eco/social-friendly networks and practices to help save the rapidly deteriorating global commons. Instead, 'we' must adopt a 'pragmatic' approach and make trade and investment 'more efficient'. These notions are what constitute 'common sense' and 'informed public opinion'.
Welfare cutbacks, belt-tightening and 'rigor' may be required in the short term. However, these painful but necessary measures will ensure a better future for all, so we are told.
Challenging received truths can be a painful experience, perhaps leading to ridicule, imprisonment, torture or worse. For those inside influential circles, there is the risk of losing membership of 'the group', thus losing a crucial sense of 'belonging', even if that sense has been obtained at the cost of losing the ability to develop one's own potential and one's individuality. Thus the social demands of state-corporate power are elevated to the level of individual ethical norms.
I remember when I applied for a job as a geophysicist with Shell, sixteen years ago. I flew out to the Netherlands to attend a grueling day of interviews at Shell's head office in The Hague. There were eight different senior managers from various departments who grilled me in separate sessions. One, in particular, was deliberately provocative. He asked me: "So, why do you want to come and work for a company that is destroying the environment and screwing the Third World?"
Why indeed! The 'correct' answer, of course, was that Shell was 'investing' in the 'Third World', thus promoting development there, and also developing new technologies - cleaner fuels, reduced-impact chemicals, renewable energy projects -- that would protect the environment. That was the answer he got, which I really did believe -- well, half-believe -- at the time. And, yes, I got the job. But by the time I had left Shell, nearly five years later, I had lost my belief in that doctrine. I am sure that many individuals within corporations and state institutions do believe the capitalist myth of benign intent and fruitful outcomes. How could they do their job conscientiously and diligently if they thought otherwise?
The maintenance of state-corporate power - and its continuing concentration - actually requires that we absorb elite demands and raise them to the level of individual ethics. Or, as employees, we simply try to ignore the fact that the bottom line is profit, profit and profit, even when it means - as it invariably does - that people and planet are despoilt. State-corporate power requires that the social bonds between people be weakened; that we feel isolated, abandoned and ultimately demoralized. Society then becomes, as Emil Durkeheim warned: "a disorganized dust of individuals".
But the incredibly strong urge to make connections, to avoid being alone, is difficult to extinguish. Clearly, this can lead to much that is good. But there is also the risk that, if pursued without wisdom, such an urge can actually lead to a downward spiral of self-deception. Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness explains:
"We may sacrifice the truth in order to secure our identity, or preserve a sense of belonging. Anything that threatens this gives rise to fear and anxiety, so we deny, cut off our feelings. The end result of this pattern is dehumanization. We become split from our own lives and feel great distance from other living beings as well. As we lose touch with our inner life, we become dependent on the shifting winds of external change for a sense of who we are, what we care about, and what we value. The fear of pain that we tried to escape becomes, in fact, our constant companion."
Where then to turn? Carl Jung offers solace, while making an astute observation about the relationship between love and power: "Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other." Genuine love is based on equality, mutual respect and sharing; there is no room here for towering, crushing power. This is as true of love and power in society, as it is between individuals. Serving the interests of those who lust for power, or those who wish to retain their power, is inherently destructive of loving forces in society, and of humanity, solidarity, peace and compassion.
But Salzberg, too, offers plenty of reason to hope. First, she notes that: "One of the most powerful aspects of delusion, or ignorance, is the belief that what we do does not really matter."
And, indeed, it is a sign of the success of massive and continuous campaigns of business and government propaganda that current systems of state-corporate control are generally thought to be essentially benign and, in any case, irreversible. In order for the status quo to be maintained, it is necessary for elite power to promote constantly the myth that what we do does not really matter, as long as we continue to consume capitalist goods and services, and toe the official line. Salzberg counters as follows:
"We have the power to align ourselves with certain values and to create the life we want by making wholesome choices. When we are generous, life is tangibly and qualitatively different."
Albert Einstein would have agreed: "Man [and, presumably, woman!] can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself [or herself] to society."
Such devotion, when applied wisely, helps others as well as ourselves. The practice of generosity has a remarkable renewable quality; it replenishes and reinforces our inherent human ability to alleviate suffering, wherever we encounter it. The motivation to reduce suffering marks the fault line between the expression of love and the expression of unwholesome power.
Salzberg puts it like this: "Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal."
Therein lies the root of what it is to be radical.
David Cromwell is an oceanographer and writer whose work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Financial Times, The Scotsman, The Herald and several magazines. He is author of Private Planet (Jon Carpenter Publishing, 2001). He is a co-editor of Media Lens, a British media watchdog group. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.