Continued from last post . . . What would it be to build a better society than the mess of exploitation we can muster today?
It seems so hard to change society because society isn’t just one unified thing, no matter what the political concept of nation and nationhood would have us believe. Society is an aggregate of individuals.
Large movements can determine individuals, but those large movements are constituted of the actions of many individuals already. So changing the heart of human society means changing the human heart, one person at a time.
Modern society makes exploitation a virtue. However much we may decry the behaviour of people like Martin Shkreli, Bernie Madoff, Donald Trump, and Travis Kalanick, we're hypocrites about it. We only get upset when the cruelty of their exploitation becomes explicit:
1) When the exploitation is so obvious that it can’t be ignored, as in the employment conditions of Uber and other sharing economy companies.
|Martin Shkreli is actually facing criminal charges not
because of his unethical profiteering from manipulating
the prices of drugs, but from securities fraud. Basically,
he started his current company Turing Pharma to fleece
the startup capital to pay off investors from his previous
company. That previous company was itself started to
fleece those investors to pay off the clients who lost
billions from his incompetently managed hedge fund.
2) When they get caught.
Too often, when we praise the entrepreneurial spirit, we concentrate on the achievement of personal success and wealth. We concentrate on people's right to accumulate a fortune and expect that a few people's achievement of massive wealth will have enough ancillary benefits to uplift a whole community.
But it doesn’t. Praising the mercenary values of entrepreneurship as we too often do simply creates mercenary businessmen for whom personal enrichment is the only virtue. So anything that prevents such a man (and they are so often men) from pursuing this enrichment is, in the values of mercenary entrepreneurship, a form of oppression.
Obviously, this makes a mockery of actual oppression, the systematic articulation of moralities like sexism, which we usually call patriarchy, and racism, which we usually call straight-up racism.
We treat scoundrels like heroes, but we're still enraged when a scoundrel lies to hundreds of people in a pyramid scheme to enrich himself by the billions, or laughs in the face of AIDS victims who can no longer afford the drugs his company owns.
Yet when our culture values getting rich without any corresponding obligations to use your wealth for any common good, Shkreli and Madoff are where you end up.
So we have to change people’s minds to keep them from praising the values that lead people to exploit others. The 20th century saw quite a few attempts to use the state to change people’s values.
Whether through formal school education or the oppression of a security apparatus, it didn't work. When an authoritarian structure like a government orders you to do something, the human spirit chafes against it. When chains are as obvious as the ones in a state, we can all see it and we all fight it.
|#BlackLivesMatter leader Deray McKesson. Changing
minds and building empathy (or as the terminology
goes, getting people woke) one tweet at a time. It works.
Social movements, organized by the members themselves and publicizing their messages in as many popular media as possible, seems to be an effective way to change minds.
Because a person’s primary encounter with a social movement is in the visceral image of people who are incredibly upset. The goal is to elicit an an empathetic response: you wonder what could make a person feel this way. You're invited into their experience, their history. You imagine their character as an inner performance.
Once this happens, you join hands. The horizon of your own possibilities has grown and includes fields of human potential that it never has before. This is proper solidarity.
Once we've changed enough minds, we've changed society, because society is the collection of millions and billions of individual people networked together. As I've written before, this is the only way social change can work.
Once you've changed society, you've changed the conditions in which people live. A society with dominant values about empathy and the social obligation of the fortunate to join hands with the less fortunate will have a lower likelihood of producing and promoting people like Shkreli, and similar violent undesirables.
I didn’t always understand this about humanity. It's taken me a long time to figure it out. Maybe over a decade. Some people never do. I consider myself both lucky, and a little happy with myself, for figuring out this process.
It's not exactly hard. But a lot of people just can’t get past their own stereotypes. I've thought about different people in terms of stereotypes before, I've failed to empathize with people, dismissing them and analyzing them without regard to their own experiences and situations. But I know enough now to try to stop myself from doing that.
It's farther than a lot of people get in that process. But it's the only way to accomplish legitimate social change.
I didn't realize it when I first read Empire a decade ago, but Negri’s book was part of what primed me to be more receptive to this way of thinking. And there's even more to his complex analysis of modern oppression. . . . To be continued