Tuesday, February 9, 2010


"It seems that every group attracts potential politicians and that the trick is to keep these people under control: Unions, political parties, conservation groups, churches, media networks, corporations ...
Once you have given years of your life to a group, having chosen to associate with them because you think they are worthwhile, they become like your tribe. It is then very difficult for you to leave, if you find that the tribal spokesperson is not really singing the tune you joined to hear. Leaving means going out into the social wilderness and starting all over again, which is a big thing in our adult lives.
So many people stick with their tribes and try to rationalise what their rogue leaders are saying, or to influence the politics, only to discover that the power bases have been rigged". Sheila Newman

Sheila Newman's profound insight regarding our emotional incarceration through tribal bonds articulates a thought that I have had since I studied the history of the German Social Democratic Party in college. The SPD was almost like the Jehovah's Witnesses. It was not a political party so much as a subculture of German society. Leaving it or being expelled by it was a trauma of incomprehensible magnitude for its devotees. The SPD was their extended family. Members had their own theatrical and reading groups, their picnics, their dances, their sporting activities, and with this involvement, the party became their self-contained society. It monopolized friendships as well leisure time. Interaction with the "worldly" or bourgeois society became limited. But like the JWs, the SPD was at one time persecuted, even banned. This increased mutual dependence and cohesion. And the SPD was like the JWs in another respect. They spoke of a radically different society, but were anything but revolutionary in their behaviour. The SPD would not risk the loss of their treasury or their bureaucracy to challenge the state, preferring to focus on winning electoral victories to a parliament that did not even have the power to elect the executive. Their accommodation to the state was best exemplified at the outbreak of the First World War when they joined forces with their right wing parliamentary foes and voted for war credits to fund the Prussian war machine. Essentially then, what was the role of the SPD? Was it not to tame and channel revolutionary sentiments along harmless lines? To give dissension a safety-valve, and thereby contain it? Is that not the role of nearly every institution--- to "manage" people?

Is that not what environmental NGO's do? Decoy people toward fighting relatively inconsequential symptoms rather than challenge root causes? Why would they want to solve the root problems? If they did, their bureaucracy would be out of a job. By trying to "manage" growth rather than stop it, they keep the game going. Environmental degradation continues while pyrrhic victories like the designation of this or that land as natural reserve are tossed out like sops to vindicate their campaigning. But whenever land is "saved" for nature, the land outside park boundaries, where most of the endangered species live, is more intensively exploited, until one day, development knocks on the door of sacred parks until government opens it. In the context of a growth-economy, there is no durable sanctuary for wildlife, farmland, greenbelts, nor is there any virtue in per capita reductions in consumption or waste. So the never-ending cycle of growth and conservation continues, and the environmental NGOs can present themselves as saviours when in fact they are facilitators. The battle to save this river or that forest or that species yields more recruits and more donations. The green orgs gain financial sustenance and their supporters get to feel good about themselves. And do not most immigration reform organizations do the same thing? They offer people a vehicle for their frustrations, but make sure that those frustrations continue by "managing" immigration with zero-net-migration nostrums? An immigration moratorium would put them out of business.

If putatively radical or oppositional organizations "manage" people rather than mobilize and empower them, then are they not a force for the status quo? If that is true, then would it be paranoid to suspect that the status quo is feeding them? Setting them up as harmless lightening rods? Hasn't that been done before? Did not the Stalinists in the Soviet Bloc often set up political parties like the "Peasants Party" in fake opposition to the de-facto monopoly of the Communist Party? Did not Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of Lenin's secret police and intelligence agency, the Cheka, organize and fund a phony counter-revolutionary organization for White Russians to draw out those who opposed the revolution? Was it not so convincing that the British government even contributed money to it? It is much easier to control your enemies by bringing them to the surface and letting them spin their wheels uselessly within an organization whose bark is far worse than its bite. Let's take a look at the organizations we support. Are they really not doing just what the doctor ordered? That is, essentially nothing? They suck in our time and our money and have us believe that they are making a difference, when in fact they are only offering a venue for our self-indulgent exercise in ineffective venting. Have any of these population or immigration organizations been able to stop growth? Have I been able to stop a single immigrant from entering the country, or single baby from being born, or a single building permit from being issued? As the forces opposing growth seem to be gathering strength, growth continues at an even more frenetic pace. Dogs bark but the caravan moves on.

The practice of "managing" dissent is now down to a fine art. Corporations and media outlets have it down pat. What they do for angry customers, viewers or listeners is to offer a resolution "process". A process that is a long and winding road through interminable steps. When the first line of defence does not give you a satisfactory answer, you are advised to appeal to the flak above him, and then to the managing director of consumer affairs, or in the case of the CBC, "the ombudsman", whose verdict is typically unsatisfactory or evasive ("This matter is outside my province, you are best advised to refer it to the Minister"). The point of the exercise is to render the complainant frustrated, defeated, and exhausted to the point that further complaints will be deemed futile. The "managers" have achieved their goal. They bought time and ate up the clock by sending their opponents down a long detour. This is really what our famous "EARP" (Environmental Assessment Review Panels) are all about. It is Muhammed Ali's "rope-a-dope" strategy. Siphon off the energy of the opposition by encouraging them to throw all their punches in a constrained arena until they are spent. Let the environmentalists compose their reports and present their briefs and after a year of hearings, adjourn. Then later, their findings can be dismissed. Duty has been discharged. The opposition has had their day in court. But before it went to court, public rage was first corralled into an environmental organization that posed as its champion. Public rage was filtered and processed before it went through "the process". It was managed and we were humoured.

Once we recognize that we are being manipulated and used to build careers and feather bureaucratic nests, once we decide that we are not in business to promote the job security of those who talk a good game but are too heavily invested in the perks of pseudo-importance or in the illusory rapport they have established with the establishment---how do we make a break? What are the alternatives? Can we act as lone wolves or don't we need a political medium of some kind? The answer is that we can go it alone, but we don't. We don't for the reasons Sheila Newman expressed. We are pack animals and have been hard-wired with a pack mentality. Ostracism either self-imposed or inflicted is a very painful predicament. The experiments of Solomon Asch documented how very powerful peer pressure can be. If we are one of a closely knit group of ten people, and nine of them say that two plus two equals five, the inclination to agree with them is in most cases, too overwhelming to resist. Best to hang with the tribe and support the leader to the bitter end.

I have been told enumerable times to "soften" my message, to "tone it down", or stick with the points that I can "sell". But I have been inhibited by one observation. Those who compromise what they know to be true in order to pander to the sensibilities of a wider audience, over time, come to believe in their own half-truths and half-measures. A leader who once knew that only an immigration moratorium would provide enough respite for the environment, or ease unemployment or heal cultural fragmentation, comes to believe that "zero-net migration" will accomplish the same goals. Or he eventually believes that a "two-child per family" law would suffice to stabilize and reduce the population when he formerly was committed to a One-Child-Per-Family policy. Or a leader who once believed in socialism becomes, in his quest for power, a social democrat, and eventually a supporter of privatization. And with each permutation or compromise, incredibly, the membership follows in loyal lock-step.

We need to cut loose and become free agents. To stop working as foot soldiers for fossilized organizations but instead form provisional coalitions with people, groups or causes that serve as allies and vehicles of convenience Dump the tribe, grow up and go free-lance.

Tim Murray
December 28/09

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