Notes to Myself from the Bottom of the World

Part 2: The Human Circus

(c) Thorold (Thor) May 1997


Notes to Myself - Part 2 The Human Circus

Table of Contents 

Introduction // Progress // Bubbles // The Social Contract and Urbanization // A Conspiracy Against The People // Post-Fashionable Man // re: Voltaire's Bastards // Vision Makes a Future // Myth in Literate & Pre-Literate Societies // The Honest Primitive // The Communities of Intelligence // The Manager's Burden // Power Lust // Power Play // Licence to Kill // Licence to Swagger // Innocence and Government // Hypocrisy in a Culture // The Criminal State // Class Warfare // Fascism by Any Other Name // Upside Downside: Armies and Other Lethal Illusions // Instant Distrust // History and Civilization // Fragile Absurdities: Satire on Satire // Small "c" Cowardice // The Culture of Cowardice // Why Democracy? // A Sense of Justice // Island of Friendly Departures // Value-Based Civilization? 



The trouble with loving mankind (OK, personkind if you insist) is that it is damned hard to love people at the same time. (Hardly an original observation). In fact, it is no contest. Most folk are too busy loving themselves, or one or two members of a family to worry too much about mankind at all. Of that small collection who do think on a larger canvas, a disheartening proportion have some pathology of power craving, wish to project their own flickering identity like a grass fire across the ruffled haircuts of the masses. Luckily most of the haircut fires snuff out pretty quickly. 

Given the human obsession, or rather the general biological obsession with self-propagation, what follows is strangely neutered. Here is no Mein Kampf or Communist Manifesto, but rather a smallish, fairly disordered, often contradictory collection of Saturday-morning observations that have bubbled up between the muesli and the daily newspapers. A desultory attempt to make sense of some elements of the human world, which might or might not find echoes in other minds. Taste what is tasteful, spit out the rest. 


"We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and a wonderful method it can be for creating an illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization." 

- Gaius Petronius, A.D.66 



Childhood is a caravanserai of stories, larger than life characters, demons and angels. Later, growing up seems to be a process of making the extraordinary ordinary. It should be called dumbing down: to the prosaic world of daily labour we call reality. And what a spindly, pruned-backed reality tree most folk choose to perch in. I've climbed up and fallen out of half a hundred of these reality trees over fifty years, wholly at home in none of them. I've come to understand that we all travel in psychic bubbles which seem to their owners to span the Milky Way. They are dew drops on a misty plain of reality trees. 

How fragile these personal bubbles are, even injected with the opaque colours of some national flag or culture or religion. The very concept of, say, Australia is a just wisp of colour on the edge of a whirly-whirly in hyperspace. Go up thirty thousand feet in an aeroplane, look out the window at that moonscape on the way to Darwin, and ask yourself if this is really the territory of your spirit's possession.. Ah, and then we have the World, that phantasma of radio and newspaper stories, edited television pictures. Enough noise to fill any busy mind with an illusion of being there. But being where? 


The Social Contract and Urbanization

Two hundred years ago something about the organisation of some human populations began to change in a fundamental way. This was the beginnings of a shift from extended family and village units to the amorphous anonymity of urban conglomerations. 

There had been precursors to this urbanization in a handful of ancient cities which nowadays would qualify only as large towns. Perhaps because they were a minority phenomena in a sea of rural communities, their social psychologies remained rooted in rural values. This was especially true of religions, which even today in mass urban societies are sustained by pastoral fantasies. 

What changed two centuries ago was the emergence of mechanized production. It was a mechanization that required concentrated labour on the one hand, and a cash economy to absorb the output of mass production on the other. An immediate consequence was a kind of social contract between entrepreneurs who needed labour, and labourers who needed cash. The social contract was quickly recognized by European intellectuals, and institutionalized in the welfare state within less than a century. In spite of efforts by Karl Marx, Engels and subsequent radical socialists, the contract between Labour and Capital largely held. 

Now there has been another, fundamental change. Mass production still requires a population with high disposable income to absorb its output. However, much of the production can be achieved by a relatively small, specialized workforce. Such a workforce is an elite group of the general population, highly educated, cooperative, generally with initiative and intelligence well above the norm. The general population has become redundant as a source of labour, but remains needed as a destination for consumption. 

No satisfactory solution has been found to the violation of the social contract between Labour and Capital. Politics in the late twentieth century is really a history of attempts to temporarize from a hopelessly compromised paradigm. The burden of excess labour is being shifted wherever possible by encouraging the growth of service industries. Since the whole economic cycle is a man-made phenomenon, the argument goes that there is nothing inherently contradictory in generating economic surplus from newly invented needs (psychologists, child care workers, poodle hairdressers) rather than older categories of labour (farmers, carpenters, foundry workers). There is some truth in this, although tertiary industries tend to be inherently more fragile than, say, primary production. When things spin out of control, we can dispense with the poodle hairdressers but not the farmers. 

Another, far more intractable problem is that automated processes, in their nature, have greater and greater potential to substitute for the less skilled categories of human labour, whether these be in primary, secondary or tertiary spheres. It is precisely these less skilled areas which absorb the largest number of people, people who by talent or temperament will always be incapable of joining the skilled elite. 

Societies are splitting between small technological elites with a surface crust of managerial parasites, an underclass of disposable servants, now known as service workers, and a subclass of largely unemployable proletariat who were previously the labourers and semi-skilled factory fodder of the first industrial age. In polities with a tradition of civic conscience the whole gimcrack machine is held together for the time being by the redistribution of income through high taxation, and a welfare safety net. It is difficult to see that such a solution can be sustained over the longer term as the new social classes become institutionalized and moralities are reshaped (as they always have been) to justify existing social "realities". 

If we were dealing with a single political entity, the management of social contracts would be difficult enough. A characteristic of the present age is that societies in every stage of social and economic development have been thrown into violent competition by the internationalization of markets. Entrepreneurs exploit the mobility of their capital to hire factory labourers for a dollar a day in China and computer analysts for a dollar a minute in Australia. The moral framework of, say, Chinese society is under pressure to "modernize" like English society did two centuries ago, while the moral framework of Australians in the same enterprise is derided as self-indulgent and undisciplined alongside the sturdy Confucian values of post-Maoist competitors. These are transitional contrasts, and should not be confused with the greater historical trend, although on a shorter time scale they might well generate tensions as dramatic as war or revolution. 

A greater tragedy, a greater irony, is the headlong rush to urbanization in all the major population regions of the world, again in imitation of the European industrial revolution. European societies have enjoyed fifty years of post-industrialization peace, more or less, after almost destroying themselves in the shift from feudal morality. The pan-Asian experience could easily be as traumatic, but the fruits are likely to be more bitter. Those peasants, drifting in their millions to the perimeters of newly industrialized cities, know nothing of the historical experience which has preceded them in other continents. They cannot know, though they will surely learn, that the nexus between Labour and Capital has been broken. Their masters have no incentive, short of revolutionary fear, to lay down the great social contract of liberty, equality and fraternity which (despite many betrayals) has sustained the liberal-industrial democracies of the West. 

A Conspiracy Against The People

"One is led to the anarchist's conclusion that government is a conspiracy against the people". 

Henry Rosenbloom in The Australian, 28/8/93 

..reviewing The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer by Paul Barry: 

"In the year 1991-92 Packer's Consolidated Press Group provided for income tax against a before tax profit of $623 million. In the six years from 1987 to 1992, "the Packer empire earned $1445 million in profits and paid $91 million in tax, which worked out at exactly 7% of its profits." This was a direct consequence of the government's deregulation of the financial system. While all this was happening, Prime Minister Hawke was calling Kerry "a close personal friend and .. a very great Australian"". 

Post-Fashionable Man

Most people, being programmed and naturally inclined to a high degree of conformism, are locked into the behavioural bandwidth of a particular sub-culture, and must follow its collective fashions. In earlier times when populations had little mobility, were relatively homogeneous and sustained a fairly stable agricultural or craft lifestyle, it was natural to develop a strong sense of self and other. Self, that is, which embodied civilized values, had God's blessing, and could arbitrate rightness or wrongness with some confidence. 

In the late 20th Century many of us are aware of enormous cultural instability. There is an exponential compression of innovation cycles, production cycles, consumer cycles, economic cycles and historical cycles. We observe the fragmentation of geographic cultures, the internationalization of business cultures, political cultures, age or income based cultures, and cult sub-cultures. This turbulence shapes my own psyche. As a 52 year old, supposedly white anglo-celtic male, I feel no special need to conform to narrow stereotypes of dress, behaviour or attitudes. 

I am in daily near-collision with psyches from another, more superstitious age. We coexist in parallel universes. Consider the monotheist souls who flit past the windows of my mind. Judeo-Christian-Islamic versions of traditional cultural orthodoxy have the worship of death at their centre. The Christian baseline of moral values is supposed to be the vicarious pain of one poor idealist who got himself nailed to a piece of wood. This barbarism is glorified in the name of its antithesis - charity, mercy, compassion - but human inference is a cussed device. It is hardly surprising that practitioners of the religion have found legitimacy for their own behaviour more often by a stake through the heart than in charity to their rivals. And they remain inordinately afraid of death themselves. 

I live in a world where people still practice the collective murder of outsiders, and the persecution of heretics who violate insider beliefs. The psychological engine underlying this is what it has always been, but the techno-social context renders it absurd. The members of each religion and schismatic sect live in intensive daily interdependence with a world community of thousands of sects. For any of them to have a mortgage on "the truth" in this world or the supernatural defies logic or commonsense. What we have is really just one football team barracking against another. The wonder is that they keep it up. The answer to that wonder probably rests in a primodorial search for easy answers (by the individual), and ruthless exploitation by those who seek power or advantage. 

Nowadays it is the Californian practice of opposing ideological groups to have their dogma and propaganda generated by the same advertising agency. The ad' men do the same of course for rival washing powders, fund-raising agencies, politicians, and children's television series. Increasingly the ad' men decide the marketable life-cycle of each. We used to think that ideologies didn't have a use-by date, but with the death of communism, the daily fissures in religion and the chameleon belief systems of democratic politicians, it is clear that they are as open to a world pay-TV bid by News Ltd as anybody else. 

Enter the post-fashionable man. You want me to wear your insignia, imitate your image spin, buy your version of career rationalism and life in the suburbs? You and a dozen other ad' agencies/ consultants/ gurus / multinational companies/ churches/ political parties ... all in the name of a dollar in your pocket? Sorry comrades. You've gotten yourself an urban guerilla. I'll build my own comfort zone, thanks very much. 

You Masters of the Universe make your bucks by creating and taxing a leading edge of fashion in each fragmentary sub-culture. I make my civilization by picking the eyes out of the last decade's discarded baubles. I watch with interest the upcoming selection of eight year-old cars, calculate the profit and fascination to be had from a newly discarded generation of computers, select a practical wardrobe from the endless clothing racks in charity stores. While the chic and the sexy trawl news stand magazines for the latest hints on hair styles, market futures or mag wheels, I trawl more widely for fragments and streams of information that I can fashion to my own eccentric fancy. 

As for the big obsessions? Can't be bothered with television, loath church music and have only been to one football match in my life (boring). I am absorbed by complexity at the edge of chaos, too easily enticed down bye-ways of ingenious ideas, occasionally alarmed by more visceral appetites, but generally get by on a modicum of challenge. Death? Well that's the end of the party. The noun of it is a yawn, the verb a messy business that I comptemplate with some distaste. Life is not over yet though, and like many another man, I struggle to find a balance between humour and dedication, self-defined achievement and a certain pleasure in pockets of anarchy. 

I dislike pain more than death, and debility more than pain, and value life above them all. Yet there will come a time in the balance of survival, in the late hours of physical decline, when I will simply call it quits. That is, I will probably suicide with some regret that healthy immortality is not yet on sale in the supermarket, but little doubt about pulling the plug on a low grade condition. At that moment, the greatest gift would be a freedom to choose the manner of dying, instantly, without fuss. Until the crunch comes, there is no point in wasting precious life spirit on morbid worry. Every day is a turning point to new possibilities. Let the good times roll! 

re: Voltaire's Bastards

Mr. John Ralston Saul 
c/- Penguin Books 
Dear Mr. Saul, 

I have read a quarter of Voltaire's Bastards, and am debating with myself whether to read the remainder. On the one hand I am being entertained by a refreshing view of some historical events and contemporary developments. I find myself in broad agreement with much of this interpretation. On the other I am exasperated by you use of the token about which the whole edifice of the volume is built. Reason is the villain of your piece. Since you prefer tone to argument, the coloration of meaning we get from Voltaire's Bastards is that Reason is a deadly instrument invented by a handful of medieval Europeans and spread like a disease from the period of so-called European Enlightenment. 

In my lexicon Reason is a cognitive function possessed by all living human beings, and probably in some degree by a number of other species. The development of fire, the wheel, purpose built shelter, writing, mathematics and any number of other characteristically human achievements was surely predicated upon a faculty of reason. Certainly all known religions have their genesis in a need to "explain rationally" life itself. The evil that you identify does not really turn upon some generic disease called Reason. Rather it comes from the systematic misuse of premises and the misinterpretation of conclusions based upon inadequate premises. 

The achievement of European Enlightenment civilization and succeeding epochs has been for at least an educated elite to make use of increasingly sophisticated chains of premises and conclusions to arrive at answers which no preceding community had been able to approach. The successes of this process are all around us. They have transformed the planet. The failures of the process are the stuff of Voltaire's Bastards, and it is your failure to use sophisticated reasoning to find causes and cures which is so disappointing. 

As a high school student I got "A" passes in economics to the undisguised dismay of my economics teacher who found my disbelief of his theology disturbing. It wasn't that I objected to market theory as a caricature to begin thinking about the factors involved in the operation of an economy. The problem was my vociferous rejection that the outcomes of the model could be applied sensibly to the corner fruit shop, let alone the nation. I had worked in the fruit shop and knew damn well that the elasticities of supply and demand (for example) had more to do with human cussedness and a myriad of intervening accidents than some mythical perfect knowledge by players in the market. Note that I was not rejecting reason. I was objecting to the castration of premises that might have given a rational outcome. 

As you correctly observe when discussing people like Robert MacNamara, the forms of reasonable argument when delivered with clarity and style are difficult for an average person to resist. The attraction is doubly increased to bureaucrats who can adopt such armour as a shell for their own backs. The defence of common sense which you refer to is, really, no more than an incoherent recognition that the premises of argumentation which have been used have precluded essential (and often unpredictable) elements to such an extent that the resulting conclusions are inherently absurd. 

If our Age has a disease, it is not Reason but Hubris. Having learned to put a few play blocks together and called it Knowledge, we (as a civilization) persuade ourselves that any event can be predicted and controlled by a simple causal chain of primary elements. The citizens who drive cars, watch television and hear of trillion dollar currency markets have no sensible idea of how to make a car, or why a television works, and certainly cannot count to a trillion. As an act of faith they believe that each of these things is fundamentally amenable to simple explanation, and will believe any politician who tells them so. 

Many politicians and the managerial classes themselves are equally persuaded that their slogans masquerading as arguments actually control outcomes. We can blame the odd clear-eyed cynic like Henry Kissinger who wears the cloak of sophistry without shame. Yet if we are to fear, and hope to remedy, it is our ignorance of Complexity and how to manage it which should be the stuff of nightmares. To slay that dragon we have to grasp the two edged sword of Reason. 

Vision Makes a Future

Societies which lack a vision of the kind of world they want invariably decay and fall away. 

Prof. Elise Bowlding 

Colorado [ref. "The Search for Meaning", ABC radio, 17 June 1994] 

TM: There is a powerful truth in this. There could be no better explanation for the decay of indigenous societies in the new world. Its inverse also says much about the vigour of Arabia in the first century of Islam, and the flowering of reformation European cultures as they cast off the dead hand of religious dogma. The ersatz vision of neo-fundamentalist Islam on the other hand must surely sew the seeds of its own destruction: the revisionist dream of a lost golden age is the last gasp of an ancien regime, not the first day of redemption. 


Myth in Literate & Pre-Literate Societies

Myth is a culture's claim to collective memory, the canon that encapsulates its past and shapes its future. Social anthropology, at least when I studied it in the early 1970s tended to take the cannons of myth as the ethnic soul of each group, upon which the institutions and artefacts of a culture depended for unique meaning. 

In one way the anthropologists were right. The main body of people in any ethnic group will indeed see its own mythology as something immutable, precious and preserved over time. All societies have special institutions devoted to the transmission of this heritage of myth across the generations. 

Anthropologists and the common people have been too naive to perceive the other dimension of myth. Any body of knowledge of such potency is going to attract those who lust for power like bees to a honey pot. In pre-literate societies, those entrusted with the authority to transmit myth would inevitably have been seduced by the power to reshape such a canon to sanctify their own ambitions and values. 

I clearly recall the typical example of an origin myth from Irian Jaya. The first version, collected around the turn of the century, told of an old woman, a female creator figure who came down the river, and the bones of a magical osprey bird. In the second version, collected a generation later, it was Jesus Christ who came down the river. 

Literate societies are qualitatively different from pre-literate societies. It remains true that each rewrites history and religion in its own image. Australian Aboriginal mythology is being urgently codified to establish land rights and Aboriginal identity with forms of invention and interpretation which would have utterly bemused the present authors' ancestors. Recall also the strategic marriage the Japanese Yamoto clan to the Shinto sun deity in Japanese mythology. Or the predilection of successive Chinese dynasties to rewrite the histories in each dynasty as a way to sanctify prevailing political and social practice. It was a custom adopted with enthusiasm by imperial Britain (look at Winston Churchill's history of the English speaking peoples), and by the communists of Russia and her satellites. Behold the spin doctors of contemporary politics, and the frenetic rewriting of history and culture day by day in the printed and electronic media. 

Yet the difference between literate and preliterate societies is still critical. The written code, once made public, is hard to absolutely erase. Though the image makers flood us with re-coding, utterly confusing the popular imagination, it is always possible to confront the present with firm evidence from the past, and in highly literate societies, important institutions such as the universities are dedicated to this task. Literacy confers an infinite cultural memory. Without that, our post-industrial society would be unthinkable. As for myth, well it has publicly assumed the role that the shamans always held for it covertly : it is now the province of advertising moguls and politicians, and thus is its meaning held in popular contempt. 


The Honest Primitive

If we conceive of our pre-historical past as a primitive period, and if this early era has close material and philosophical equivalences in contemporary "traditional societies", then in all honesty we have to call these primitive too. The squishy moral relativism of coffee shop liberals with their politically correct language is as heartless as the 19th century bourgeoisie giving pennies to the poor house. What most "traditional indigenes" finally want in a television age is empowerment to build a new cultural home. Their vision of that home will change even as they build it, just as ours did. 


The Communities of Intelligence 

I had a friend who used to say with disgust, "Just look at the people in the street here. They're stunted, twisted, like goblins." He was talking about a provincial city, and more of minds than bodies. It was cruel; it came from a man with his own special handicaps of the spirit; but there was a sort of terrible truth about it. His words came back to me this Saturday morning on the crowded pavements in a working class Melbourne suburb. I shouted myself a coffee scroll, and looked into the eyes of passers-bye. Looked in vain for that glint of intelligence which a searching glance betrays, the humour, malevolence or naked awareness, or sometimes the fathomless preoccupation of an active mind. 

In the moving mass of bodies, among the individuals buying this or that in shops, in the snatches of conversation, I could detect only a kind of surface glaze on the human potential. It was as if the whole area had been lightly infused with a narcotic gas, so that minds functioned mechanically, and serendipity was forever just beyond reach. Most of these people love their children, are loyal to their friends, and not above kindness to strangers. I can serve them as a teacher, but I can never be entirely one of them. They recognized that separation from my earliest age. I chastized myself, confusing difference with arrogance, but there comes a time when you stop apologizing for whoever you happen to be. 

This evening for the first time on a Saturday I went to a little suburban cinema. Goblins again, a theatre full of them. Girls with vacant stares under the mascara, and young toughs with stylised swaggers. Their fathers had that beaten stoop which comes from years of dull work and the betrayal of dreams. The cinema owner, who runs this place to make a quid on weekends, accidentally caught my glance, recoiled as if a stun gun had hit him, then smiled conspirationally. "Enjoy the show", he said. 

The show was called "Speed", an emotional confectionary of non-stop bombs, guns, car chases, indestructible cardboard-cutout characters... in short the ultimate Hollywood exploitation movie. This celluloid junk culture services the same kind of ritual needs that oral epics like the Iliad or the Ramayana once met; everyone knows the rules. The brave goodie won and got the girl; the baddie had his head knocked off. The goblins clapped and bought more popcorn. 

If I go to another part of town the miasma of incoherence lifts, at least at corners, and in different ways in different locales. They might be self-obsessed bohemians, or brushed-down yuppies, or real estate agents, or businessmen with ulcers, but their houses and shops and the air that they breathe are all resonant with the possibilities of thinking beings. Somewhere deep in their heart of hearts they all know about the goblins, govern their lives by the knowledge. The quality of our civilization finally derives from their varied reactions. Some will wall out the masses with money and a safe postcode, some will arm themselves with political deceptions, some will exploit the vulnerable, and some, eternally optimistic, will strive to raise all men and women to economic or social equality. 

Thank god for the optimists: my father was a carpenter, confused by the secret knowledge of elites, glowing with dull red anger in the suburban wastelands. His anger was my rocket fuel, but it was the social optimists with their noblesse oblige who offered a vehicle of escape, even if it never really came to rest at their address. 

The Manager's Burden

Why do generals want their tinsel insignias of office? Is it really the limos with tinted windows and their silly penguin suits that draw grown men into the scramble for executive so-called authority? Or could it be that power lust is the narcotic that nature provides to prettify burdens of office which none would otherwise aspire to? 

The idle rich are traditionally considered to have the luxury of freedom -- freedom, that is, to choose, to spend and to fritter time. Then there are the working poor with families to feed, clinging to unpleasant jobs by their fingernails. They have little freedom of choice. Yet those who exercise "power" on a day to day basis: the line managers, departmental heads and so on are certainly not idle, and not often genuinely rich. 

This managerial class may have some perks of status, but they are utterly unfree in many of the ways that matter. Time is their master, their opinions are not their own, and their choices are forever framed by an organizational policy. They have to walk a fine line between management boards and the vagaries of individual employees or groups of employees. They are expected to be there, and be sure that the job is done, long after others have gone home to their television sets. Whatever goes wrong, they are ultimately to blame. 

The fact that they often fail in these responsibilities, abuse their trust, persecute employees, or confuse when they should clarify, does not lessen the burden of responsibility which they wear at all times. Arrogance may be a natural defence to such hostile possibilities, and a hunger for more power the natural appetite they must satisfy to replenish a void where camaraderie once dwelt. 


Power Lust

Power is a clammy verb in noun's clothing, a debilitating state of delusion, a wraith with many eager servants but no master 

Power Play

Power play is about the predatory manipulation of rituals to which a significant number of people are addicted. 


Licence to Kill

Political aspirants are disproportionately a class of people who crave the right to kill 


Licence to Swagger

Once a small number of muscle-bound thugs would try to dominate their village with their fists. Now an infinitely larger number of moral and physical weaklings seek to dominate their village and the world with guns. Guns have equalized the opportunity for every mean spirit to wreak havoc or paralyse warm hearts with fear. They are the coward's revenge, and in this epoch are raised to an icon through perverse glorification of the culture of instant gratification.


Innocence and Government

All governments without exception are, were and forever will be criminal organizations in some degree. It cannot be otherwise since a government is a mighty enterprise, carrying the hopes, dreams, illusions, ambitions and values of countless individuals. 

The danger of criminality in government is that the power of the organization by its very ambience can create a culture of acceptance, or even a requirement, for forms of behaviour which taken at face value might be considered anti-social at best, or in the worst instances, pathological. 

Given the prevalence of institutional criminality then, and its sanction by governments, it follows that in all societies there will be individuals, of greater worth and moral strength than their contemporaries, who are forced to survive beyond the bounds of what passes for normal behaviour. Such individuals have to exercise critical self-judgement of a high order, so that their initial rejection of natural injustice does note become a blanket code for rejecting all that is customary within the community where they happen to reside. There continue to be men and women of courage who decide that the moral purity of a Kalashnikov rifle in the hills is no substitute for the small acts of civil decency which can ameliorate an imperfect world. 

Hypocrisy in a Culture

The level of hypocrisy endemic in a culture is always directly proportional to the level of religious or ideological fervour expected of the public. 

The Criminal State

Definition: A criminal state is one in which the resources of the state are used to attack the interests, rights or welfare of private individuals in order to advance the personal interests of agents acting for that state. The criminality of personal advancement by an agent is sustained wherever it can be shown that benefit accruing to the agent exceeded benefit accruing to the community from his actions. "Benefit" is a matter for judgement by all affected parties, and might include, for example, the indulgence of personal revenge or sadism, as well as more conventional material advantage. 

Proposition: By the defined criterion, all nation states are in some degree criminal organizations. 


a) It is a natural right of any individual to oppose and evade the criminal elements of a nation state, however they are manifested. 

b) It is a natural tendency of human populations to seek domicile in those states which offer the least degree of criminal interference in their lives. 

c) As a geopolitical consequence of a) and b), is in the strong national interest of relatively honest states to seek the reform of relatively criminalized states. 

Class Warfare

A chap has just knocked on my door flogging copies of the Socialist Worker. He wasn't amused when I offered to buy one for entertainment, and less amused when I suggested that class warfare was a disingenuous slogan. 

Dr Johnston noted that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Well, it seems to me that the cry of class warfare is the last refuge of a crypto-fascist. Are we talking about social class, racial class, gender class, ageist class, political class, ideological class, religious class? In the end "class warfare" is a glorification of all that divides one human being from another, an instrument of leverage in the struggle for power. There is nothing for which I reserve more contempt than the pursuit of power over other people. 

Fascism by Any Other Name

A fascist state is a communist state that has privatized some of the crime. 

Upside Downside: Armies and Other Lethal Illusions

Armies are justified by other armies. There are indeed other armies ready to be misdirected by evil or foolish people, or just people who are sure they are right, and certain of them respect nothing but greater force. The trouble with armies, necessary or unnecessary, is that they see themselves as the core element of society around which all others must revolve. When someone is holding a gun to your head it is hard to persuade him that his proper role is to serve and obey you. The net result of course is that large parts of the earth's surface are and always have been oppressed by military forces gone feral. 

Armies have no monopoly on the conviction that they are the centre of the universe. My father, a carpenter, was certain that everyone who worked in an office was a parasite. Supermarket owners are sure that the nation must be governed to optimise their distribution networks. I work in an educational institution whose leaders are convinced, not that education is pre-eminent, but that everything must be subordinated to "the bottom line", which for them is making a profit. Here we come to the ascendant challenger to the dominance of armies. That is, the economists and their officer class, the accountants. 

Like generals, economists and their lackeys are convinced of the religious rectitude of their cause. This is because they wield lethal weapons of force (which is, in the accountants' case, the medium of exchange). Economists minds are no clearer than anybody else's. In fact they are severely handicapped by the illusion that their profession is based on science rather than superstition and prejudice. As a minor religious sect that wouldn't matter much, but as claimants to the national estate it can be pretty catastrophic. I was fortunate to learn enough economic theory in senior high school to understand the fragility of its models. In my lifetime the vacillation of economic orthodoxies has done nothing to curb the zealotry of politicians and CEOs as each claims that to question their economic priorities of the moment is disloyal, stupid or wantonly destructive. Even a schizophrenic is rational within the context of his own premises. Lacking hostile armies on our borders, and not wanting to rouse the dogs of war, generals have a wimpish time of it in Australia. But the economists are rampant. In the name of quadriplegic economic rationality Australian civil society is having its limbs broken. 

Rather than rotating power between murderous generals, disputatious lawyers and fundamentalist economists, maybe we need to insert a rollicking cavalcade of other world views into the governance of peoples. 

Instant Distrust

I have a wonderful talent for inspiring instant distrust in anyone who is seriously ambitious. They know impiety when they meet it, and lacking the grounds for blackmail or temptation, want to be gone from a dispassionate eye. 


History and Civilization

History for the history books is brewed from a toxic addiction to power. This poison is always newsworthy to the chaps and sexy for the ladies. Civilization, on the other hand, is made by those who are actually competent, compassionate and courageous.

Fragile Absurdities: Satire on Satire

People will kill for their absurdities. As an innocent youth I mistook satire as a comment on things past. Surely a vainglorious politician would be laughed out of office, then Bob Hawke got a record vote; surely victimization by apparatchiks was a Stalinist oddity, yet it turns out to permeate almost every Australian workplace and government department; surely those vapid VIPs of the women's magazines could not be serious contenders in a culture, yet they turn out to be role models for the feminine masses. Surely religion was superstition by any other name, yet serious sleepwalkers by the million claim it as a special category of truth. Surely the inane questions of model job interview formats could not be a serious attempt to find the best person for a job, yet I have been subject to that idiocy again and again.... Life always exaggerates the worst leftovers of art. 

Small "c" Cowardice

All individuals and institutions are eventually corrupted by small daily acts of cowardice. These are the compromises, as we see them, between ends and means. The large evil of leaders comes from their manipulation of ideas about what is possible or "realistic". But it is the small evil of working within these "realistic" parameters which does the damage. The whore trapped within a prostitution racket is no more corrupted than the civil servant trapped within a net of bad regulations. The moral health of an individual, or a community, can be expressed as a kind of vector. That is, there is an intersection somewhere on the moral map between the cost to an individual of acting decently (as he sees it) and the price that individual is prepared to pay for acting decently. There are many, many communities where the cost of decency is simply too high. 

The Culture of Cowardice

It has been a truism that art imitates life, and a phenomenon of the mass communication age that life has appeared to imitate art. However, a close examination shows that both equations are more subtle than that. 

The testosterone charged fantasies of violent cinema, the sexual gymnastics of best selling novels, the vain-glorious self-congratulation of public figures .. are toxic extremes of art, that is, of imagined human achievement. The dream. While the fringe role-plays of courtship and drug-licensed excess may palely imitate such art, daily life shows a scant taste for glory. 

Most Australians are urban, institutionalized creatures. Their milieu has many local variations. The prevailing ethos wherever they are collected in significant numbers however, is one of institutional cowardice. Managements have three guiding principles: a) avoid any decision whatsoever for which blame can be attributed, b) loudly claim personal credit for whatever happens to succeed, and c) never challenge higher authority. The policies of selecting all personnel, and of promoting them, runs on a mantra of "team spirit", which translates as a limp compliance with all the bastardry and stupidity of those on a step further up the ladder. In fact, "higher" policy must be rationalized, praised and defended, not merely complied with. Whatever the management slogan of the week - TQM, flat-management structures, open door consultation etc. etc. - the behavioural expression required is intensely hierarchical. 

The daily acts of cowardice, betrayal and grovelling to which Australians submit themselves would be hard to live with if entirely naked. Oblivion, through drugs or wilful ignorance, is one solution. Where clarity threatens to intrude, it is an act of survival, human nature as we say, to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. People lie to themselves, to their family, to their children. The whole society lies to itself. And it weaves a mind web of stories to clothe the ugliness of living. Rambo is not about a hero in the sun, but a desperate projection for grovelling shoals of "team-spirited" employees and their mediocre managers who have never made a principled, independent decision in their lives. For two thousand European years, Rambo was a biblical David who fought a Goliath, and the snivelling mortals went once a week to refresh their fantasy world and fragile self-respect at a little church on the hill. Now they have video. It comes to the same thing. 


Why Democracy?

Democracy is not really most useful for plumbing the wisdom of the masses. Rather, democracy is the best known tool for bridling the inhumanity and arrogance, the hubris, the sheer ignorance of leaders. 

The masses have no wisdom. The mass is a mob that will ebb and flow murderously with the siren song of the moment. However, separated from the mind-blocks on their brain of ideology, religion, cultural prejudice and fear, men and women have much wisdom. It takes skill to draw this understanding to the surface on big issues of life and death, but on matters of daily living ordinary people are intensely practical. They will often see the simple stupidity of a proposal whose logic of glory has seduced the politician. 

Good government is largely a matter of empowering the commonsense of ordinary people, and keeping their judgement unclouded by cant. At the same time, there are layers of complexity which can only be dealt with by those with special knowledge and the intellectual capacity to deal with complexity. Those privileged with such ability must show all others that they deserve trust, notably by the quality of outcomes which they produce. 

Democratic election is one form of review on the trust which has been yielded up to sometime leaders by busy folk who have dinner to cook and the cricket to watch. Democracy's main competition is not autocracy as such. The ungoverned tyrant is merely a criminal with more guns than anyone else. Rather, democracy's contest is with the ethereal authority of dogma: the omnipresent spectre of some god and its agents, the overriding dictum of a political tract like communism, national socialism, environmentalism, and so on. This enemy, this dogma, is a shape-changer and parasite, apt to infect the most genial of hosts for the worthiest of reasons. 

A few free spirits choose to judge each issue on its merits. A merit governed by their own inner laws. They will always be attacked from every camp as opportunist. If you tread that path, the corporate prisoners will revile you as a loose cannon. Wear that reputation as a badge of honour. A whiff of courage from the lower decks may be just what is needed. Small provinces of civilization have survived before by seizing initiative from the dead hand of dogma or the zombies of institutional culture. 

A Sense of Justice

What we call a sense of justice seems very like an instinct in that all people seem to have it, no matter how perverted from its origins. The genetic advantage of any such instinct is not transparent at first blush, but there is no doubt about its presence. 

It may be this sense of justice which has saved humanity time and again from the worst excesses of evil environments. I never cease to be amazed that the bulk of students whom I teach, most refugees from the most barbarous regimes, are on the whole thoroughly decent people. Certainly, evil agents are becoming more and more sophisticated in their propaganda, but the very fact that they have to demonize the forces of good is a kind of testimony to the power of people's need to feel sanctified and decent. To this extent, the spread of mass media is a reason for optimism, particularly international satellite access and the Internet. We are facing titanic struggles for hearts and minds on this front, but it is difficult in the long term for bastardry to look like anything but bastardry (thank god). In the short term, the intellectual processes of reason which balance the scales of justice are often weak and easily misled. 

Island of Friendly Departures

Suggestion: approach a poor Island State with a proposal to develop one island as a "dying haven", as opposed to a "financial haven". Depending on customer preference, it might work best in a temperate, rather than tropical zone. 

The idea would be to create an environment where euthanasia was available in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, far from the clinical horrors of hospitals. Of course unobtrusive medical assistance and hospice care would be on call. The terminally ill could choose to exit painlessly at a time of their choosing. 

"Departure packages" could be sold from major world capitals. They might include an option on return fares for the undecided. Perhaps a special return rate for the coffin, if cremation was not desired. 

The islanders could develop special cultural skills to ease the departure of the dying. This would notably include a knack of keeping the atmosphere light, whimsical and untainted with religious or other moralizing. 

Value-Based Civilization?

* The goal of every individual is to maximize their perceived value. 

* Value can be ascribed to any chosen attribute; (e.g. popularity, wealth, courage, virility, knowledge of     cigarette cards etc.). 

* Value diminishes with a loss of uniqueness. The lasts survivors of a tribe may have greater perceived value     within their group than, say, a citizen of the Peoples Republic of China. 

* Individuals and groups will strive to preserve or generate uniqueness, and hence value. This effort may be    strong enough to become homicidal. 

* The urge to uniqueness is tempered by many kinds of fear: of isolation, ridicule, persecution etc. The normal     outcome is a balkanized personality. The mass of individuals conform in those arenas where power impinges,     but try to cultivate a safe corner of uniqueness -- anything from hairstyle to collectables. 

* Mirroring: There are those who listen alertly, feeling that civilization requires them to act in an approved    manner, and those who compulsively force others to match the appearance of their own values. A free spirit    must somehow survive the pressure of both conspiracies 

Key Questions: 

* Should it be a goal of civilized governments to afford each individual chances to optimize a channel of value,    and if so, does this imply maximizing opportunities for uniqueness? 

* What kind of political configuration best generates channels of personal uniqueness while strengthening the     cohesion of the state? 

Notes to Myself from the Bottom of the World 
Part 2: The Human Circus
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1st Draft
(c) Thorold (Thor) May
30 August 1997 
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published by The Plain & Fancy Language Company 
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