Archives for category: Social Criticism

Institutions get a bit of a raw deal. To be sent to an “institution” generally is interpreted as either going to prison or a mental hospital. To become “institutionalized” is to lose one’s personality and become slavishly indoctrinated to the regulations of whatever authority you’re living under. We associate the term with fear, omniscient control, and zealotry. The church is the perfect example. We are seeing a surge of people willing to define themselves as spiritual, never giving an account as to what that actually means, but embracing it nonetheless because it allows them to distance themselves from the institution of organized religion. Yet institutions make up a greater portion of our society than just our prisons, churches, and hospitals. Marriage is an institution. The law courts are an institution. Democracy is an institution. An institution is not an object, but the social implementation of an idea.

Religion is a well known institution, so let’s observe how those institutions were formed. Judaism is a religion built on laws. The Torah is an inherent institution because it takes an ideology and literally spells out behaviours and regulations one ought to follow. With Islam, Sharia Law similarly dictates behaviour among Muslims. Both of these religions have survived for millennia with little change in structure. Islam’s split into Sunni and Shia was due to Muhammad not naming a successor before he died, and each sect chose to follow a different path of leadership. There is no difference in doctrinal interpretations because everything was already laid out… except of course for managerial disputes.

Let’s contrast to Christianity. Jesus Christ did not stipulate strict laws to be followed, but offered guidelines in their stead. “Love thy neighbour” is a nice platitude that offers a pleasant way of being, but it’s not so rigid as “Don’t eat pork.” The institution of Christianity was not the result of Christ’s handiwork, but of Peter’s. Peter is the one who built up the church into an institution, and as there was no solid bond between the doctrine and the church, it was slow going. The canonical relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father was not officially decided until the First Council of Nicaea, 300 years after Jesus was crucified. The development of the church was done by individual popes, often on a whim, which set about the doctrinal revolution of the Reformation. The Laws of God were deemed greater than any papal decrees, and so rebelled the Protestants.

An important thing to remember is that Jesus Christ was not the only Jewish messiah. There was what is referred to as a “Messianic Fervor” during that time period where Jewish messiahs were popping up left and right. Even in the centuries after Christ, Jewish messiahs would crop up every now and then to develop one cult or another, and then fizzle out soon after the death of their leader. Jesus is the messiah we remember because he had a Peter.

My favourite forgotten saviour is Sabbatai Zevi. Zevi was a messiah who actually got quite popular during the 17th century in the heart of the Ottoman empire. I suppose they must have learned from Roman mistakes, since rather than martyr him, the Muslim rulers of the time forced him to convert to Islam. This lead to large swathes of people converting in his wake, and others holding out that Zevi was still secretly Jewish and converted because he was super cunning and sly, rather than fearful for his life. Whatever the case, there are very few people who now care about Sabbatai Zevi (to his credit, they do still exist).

The non-Jesus Jewish messiahs failed, not because they weren’t charismatic enough or weren’t putting forward ideas that the population could rally around, but because they focused on the feeling of Jew-ness, rather than any direct social implementation of their doctrine. They had no staying power.

Machiavelli spoke of a need for institutions to provide stability in any country. An institution by definition is something bigger than any one individual because it is a representation of the ideals of the whole. Machiavelli constantly referred to the Romans, and compared the two methods of government under which Rome was ruled: the Senate and the Emperors. The senate relied on codes of conduct, votes, and the voices of the (landowning, male) people by definition. The emperors relied on the temperament of individual. Certainly Caesar and Augustus were competent enough rulers, but the institution of Emperor was built on shaky foundations, and Rome was quickly under the sway of rulers like Commodus, Nero, and Caligula.

Compare this to current Western democracy. Though everything is now glaringly relative, George W. Bush was a terrible president. His term limit came to a close, and he was not so terrible that he left without a fuss. Stephen Harper won his seat in the last Canadian federal election, but by our own parliamentary method of government, he lost all his real power. Our institutions of democracy are bigger than the individuals within them, so we can transition between rulers without any coups or arbitrary lineage.

Our court system is the institution of justice. If one person feels wronged by another, they can sue or prosecute, and regardless of the result, will generally accept justice as having been meted out. There is little risk of personal vendettas escalating out of control because justice is seen to be represented by the institution.

Institutions, regardless of their bad rap, are what keep societies stable over the long term. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, communism didn’t fail because communism is a bad method of governance, it failed because Napoleon was able to stage his coup over Snowball with no repercussions. No institutions were in place to prevent such a thing, and the individual was allowed to become greater than the ideals of the whole.

Institutions need sacredness in order to preserve the representation of being greater than an individual, but they also need adaptability in order to survive. Just as the Jews developed the Talmud to address some of the growing concerns against the Torah and the old ways, so too have Americans amended their constitution. Laws frequently are changed, as are the ways of implementing them. The court system, as well as our current method of democracy, are in definite need of reformation. Modern contexts must continuously be applied to the “holy” laws of institutions in order to keep them relevant.

Reform is a difficult process because traditionalists hold on to the divine nature of institutions, and rightly they should, just as progressives rightly need to push for continuous adaptations. It is of very serious consequence to disregard the institutionalization of ideals because the result otherwise is generation-dependent chaos as each group, for good or ill, implements the whims of whoever holds the most power. If power is in the hands of something abstract and timeless, no one person can fuck it up. It would take a whole lot of people to fuck it up, and if it gets to that point, that institution probably needed a good fucking up anyway.

Institutions can of course be corrupted, or killed by a thousand cuts. Starve The Beast politics is certainly one way to destroy public institutions without overtly stating that that is your aim. Democracy too could be said to be an illusion, as partisan politics, voter suppression, lies, lobbying, special interests, and propaganda essentially eliminate any genuine democracy taking place in so-called “democratic” nations. I think if progressive individuals wanted to make headway in solidarity with conservative peers, touching on the traditional sacredness of the institutions being condemned and mutilated by Conservative politicians might be a good place to start.

Are there modern institutions that I believe should be abolished, rather than reformed? Certainly. Do I know how to do that without succumbing to chaos? Not really. Those who denounce reform in favour of revolution must ask themselves how they plan on cementing their ideology in place, and what might their society look like in 200 years, and how might future changes to their society take place. Lenin was very clear on the need for authoritarianism in revolution, and he was right. To overthrow an institution is a huge risk, and it would need to be replaced by another in order for society to maintain stability. How that stability is implemented is the difference between a fascist state and a democratic one.

To decry institutions is fallacious. To call for revolution without something solid to replace it is to place your hopes in a dead phoenix. Each perspective, conservative and progressive, need to coexist so each can maintain their proper function. Our goals cannot be to “win” over the other, but to maintain social institutions as best we can, and help them grow alongside the rest of us. To fear and malign them is just as much a failure as it is to believe them to be impervious to change. And when we each fail, we fail as a whole.

Competition is supposed to be the whetstone with which society continually betters itself. Society will flourishes when companies go head to head, as the free market will determine, based on what each of them offers against the other, which will succeed and which will flounder. We revel in the competitive, with combative (both figuratively and literally) sporting events being subscribed to with almost religious dogmatism. Competition appears to be the foundation of Western civilization, supporting the capitalist doctrine of invisible-hand economics.

In Ancient Greek philosophy, the competitive ideologues were called Sophists. The Sophists sought not to reach any kind of philosophical epiphany, but rather only to use language and rhetoric to convince their audience of their deliberative victory, regardless of the weakness of their arguments. The Sophists were derided by the classical philosophers whose names everyone knows, and now sophistry is used in common language to mean “the use of fallacious arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.” History has already shown its preference.

Certainly the classical philosophers sparred over ideas. Aristotle is quoted as saying, “Piety requires us to honour truth above our friends” in regards to his philosophical criticisms of his tutor and friend, Plato. The difference however is this: the goal of Plato and Aristotle was never to be “right,” their goal was the truth. The Sophists had no goal other than to win, competition being their only motivation.

Competitivism as an ideology prefers to focus on winners, but by its very nature necessarily requires losers. The selfish could theoretically hoard to their heart’s content without impacting anyone else; the competitive need someone else to lose. Consider the outcome of the Sears corporation attempting to promote company profits by splitting everyone up into units and pitting them against each other. Unsurprisingly, they collapsed into chaos. The groups spent more time sabotaging each other than actually contributing anything toward the company’s well-being. Though in theory there could be Pyrrhic winners within the Sears organization, the main takeaway is that regardless of how the individual units did on their own, Sears as a whole failed catastrophically. The only thing stopping the Sears model and its consequences being a symbolic microcosm of society as a whole are the government regulations stopping competing corporations from burning the whole country to the ground. Competition is not a whetstone, but rather the motivation to slice the Achilles tendon of your opponent.

Unfortunately, those likely to win in a libertarian battle-royale, based on their already accumulated wealth and status, seek to drive us toward its unforgiving hellscape: the celebration of competition and the illusion of meritocracy allows them to exude the moral nobility of a cultural hero, no matter how many dead they’ve left in their wake. Who doesn’t love being a hero? From here, competitivism becomes a means of control. The winners have already won a game rigged in their favour, so they have nothing to fear, while the losers fight for scraps. Those who have noticed the problem can do nothing; to stop competing means to starve. We cannot stand with our neighbours because our neighbours are after the same scraps we need to feed our family.

In my own personal experience, I had a practicum at a Senior’s Resource Centre that provided information and other resources to those over the age of 65. All of the Senior’s Activity Centres in town got their funding from the same government grant, which means helping senior citizens is a zero-sum game. Some Activity Centres would come to the Resource Centre for a letter of commendation, little realizing that the Resource Centre too was seeking the same funds. If the goal was the improvement of the lives of seniors, then there would be an emphasis on dialogue and collaboration. Even if there were disagreements over the best methods, the goal would drive the collective forward. But because competitivism forced them against each other, they each now only have the goal to keep their own heads above the water, senior citizens be damned. The heads of the Activity Centres could not be in the same room together. It is my very own Sears Corporation anecdote. However, this is slightly different. Whereas the failure of one company might not have a huge impact on society overall, the collapse of the care for seniors in this city would devastate the local population. And due to the incumbent cutthroat competitivism, there is no possibility of political solidarity to stand against it.

The same applies to the private sector. I’m sure anyone with half a brain and half a heart has asked themselves why corporate executives seem to disregard the future of the human species for the sake of a short-term profit. Surely they must have grandchildren? The same systemic ideology that applies to Senior Activity Centres applies to corporations. A CEO that cannot provide immediate gains will simply be replaced by one who can; the corporation must remain competitive or it will sink. Though I’m sure greed certainly plays a part, it is the rules of competitivism that create the destructive myopia. “Winning” triumphs over common sense.

Competitivism: Where the means justify the end

What’s the point of being better than someone else? An evolutionary psychologist might make an argument for a biological mating drive, comparing us to male birds who advertise their virility with flamboyant plumage in competition with the other males. Hobbes’ state of nature paints humanity as brutal and selfish at our core, and he argues that for civilization to work we must be stringently regulated by a governing body. Though perhaps, just as libertarian goddess Ayn Rand suggests we condition altruism out of our social psyche, we could condition out competitiveness instead, which would reduce the need for oversight.

Alternatively, an anthropologist might argue that our natural state is far more collaborative, and that competitivism is what is conditioned into us rather than its opposite. Things like sporting events would be less like cultural memes indicative of our biological impulses, and more like propaganda for a systemic imbalance alien to our intrinsic nature. The only reason our society functions the way it does would be because the winners have told us this is the way it must be. In either case, be it our natural state or not, competitivism needs to be wrested from our civilization, lest it turn it into ash.

Post-script: I am directly related to athletes, so I’m going to answer the question about whether the elimination of competition would eliminate sport altogether. It is a question of goals. Is testing the human capacity for speed and endurance a reasonable goal? Sure. Why not test our limits. Is putting a ball in a net a reasonable goal? No. That’s entirely arbitrary and pointless. Sports entertainment is sophistry in its original sense. If it is something worthwhile, then it ought to be worked towards collectively and collaboratively. Can you imagine what a collaborative hockey match would look like? It would be a bunch of players standing in front of an empty net trying to see how many pucks they could put in during the span of three 20 minute periods.

What does it mean to be a patriot? Obviously loving your country is the baseline from which we must work, but what form ought that love need embody? Frequently this love is merely blind obedience. For instance, while disastrous foreign intervention is often portrayed as bumbling or ridden with mistakes, and the methods may be challenged, the actual right to intervene is never questioned. The patriotic state is morally infallible, even if its arbiters are only human in their expression of that impossibly righteous doctrine. Those who claim the highest degree of patriotism often have the strongest distaste for the elites of their country, despite them representing the very mechanisms for how that country operates. This contradiction illuminates that patriotism can represent a disturbing level of authoritarianism, as even if the masters of society are held in contempt, their deeds and motivations at their core are ultimately indisputable. Patriotism as a guise for authoritarianism is not built on a foundation of love but one of control, so clearly that option must be discarded.

If not obedience, why not disobedience? John Stuart Mill said, “Laws never would be improved, if there were not numerous persons whose moral sentiments are better than the existing laws.” Moral infallibility is certainly not the property of any state, which means that the people are the ones responsible to hold it to account. Participating in the system is quite often nothing more than a concession to the very nature of that system, which means that disobedience is possibly one of the few ways to hold those in power to account, as is our responsibility. Consider these quotations from anti-suffragettes. Emma Goldman, the radical feminist and anarchist, said:

The history of the political activities of man proves that they have given him absolutely nothing that he could not have achieved in a more direct, less costly, and more lasting manner. As a matter of fact, every inch of ground he has gained has been through a constant fight, a ceaseless struggle for self-assertion, and not through suffrage. There is no reason whatever to assume that woman, in her climb to emancipation, has been, or will be, helped by the ballot.

Helen Keller, yes, that Helen Keller, was a socialist dissident who also believed that enfranchisement was the wrong direction to take:

Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee . . . You ask for votes for women. What good can votes do when ten-elevenths of the land of Great Britain belongs to 200,000 and only one-eleventh to the rest of the 40,000,000? Have your men with their millions of votes freed themselves from this injustice?

These women were not creating objections based on misogynistic ideas of a woman’s place in society, but were objecting based on the principle that the country belongs to its citizens rather than the ruling class. The idea of political disobedience is never disobedience for disobedience sake, but rather to improve the state of the world so that the lives of the people are improved along with it. It is an ideology of communal unity, where the bond of the people is driving forward the mechanisms of change. This is a patriotism of love. This is a patriotism that believes the state can be improved because the people within it deserve the best of all possible worlds. Dissent is not a rejection of the nation; it is its embrace, believing it can do better because it deserves to be the best. We are our nation. We deserve the best.