Monday, December 12, 2011

Confronting Tyranny and Stupidity -- recent updates

It's been a little over four years since I delivered a brief talk -- "Confronting Tyranny and Stupidity: What Works?" -- for a teach-in on democracy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  The occasion was the abolition of the Faculty Senate at the university.  Much has happened since then, including this, this, and this from recent days. The natives are restless.  My talk was basically about the varieties of oligarchy that have afflicted many world societies and, alas, some contemporary American institutions as well.  (The YouTube video of the first part of the talk streams above.  Part II and Part III can be found here.) 

Dan Froomkin's essay in Nieman Watchdog describes the some of the broader patterns of oligarchy in the country right now, noting the forces now arrayed against the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Quoting political scientist Stanley Winters, he comments:

What this means, Winters says, "is that although U.S. democracy is founded on one-person-one-vote, each oligarch can bring to the political table the dollar impact of 20,000 Americans.  Decisions like Citizens United open the flood gate for oligarchs and their minions in the wealth defense industry to flex the maximum political muscle money can buy.  And that's just in the context of electoral campaigns.  No one is even talking about how the wealth defense industry silently and invisibly benefits American oligarchs every day, year-round."

By contrast, he says: "Anybody who wants to challenge the wealthy, they've got to get rained on, and eventually snowed on, and it means they have to stop whatever they're doing. Ordinary citizens actually have to join organizations and physically be there and participate, to the exclusion of anything else they might do. And that is at tremendous burden."

His conclusion: "This is one of the reasons a very small number of ultra-wealthy Americans can distort democracy in their favor against tens of millions of ordinary citizens."

My talk concludes with some reflections on Barbara Tuchman's wonderful book, The March of Folly, a work that grows in relevance each day.  Here is her optimistic vision of how citizens, leaders and whole societies might begin to dissolve the follies in which they are enmeshed:

"If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is the summit of the art of government."  


  1. Dear Professor Winner,

    I really enjoyed your talk on Tyranny and Stupidity. The idea of "unprofessional conduct" struck home in a personal way because I recently started looking for jobs in journalism, soon after having started a blog that occasionally expresses in a rather frank way my political beliefs.

    (An example is this commentary posted on the tech blog Cyborgology, on Occupy Wall Street as seen from the perspective of Jacques Ellul. )

    My fear is that some of those beliefs may not sit well with companies who might otherwise be inclined to hire me, given that most of the jobs my experience qualifies me for are with large corporations in the health field.

    Thanks to the Internet, it is now easier than ever to become stool pigeons on ourselves!

    (There's an irony here, because I've warned my children several times to be careful what they post on Facebook, etc., since this stuff stays available in cyberspace forever.)

    Your quotes from Froomkin and Winters articulate what seems to me to be the most important fact of political life in America today. (Presumably you're aware of Jane Mayer's recent piece in the New Yorker on the right-wing oligarchy's campaign to buy up state legislatures?)

    This is a fact I leaned all too well from personal experience about fifteen years ago when I joined a citizen's group that was working to reduce the amount of aircraft noise in New Jersey. It quickly became apparent to me that the voices of this disparate and somewhat ragtag group of individuals, which was actually pretty well organized and intelligently focused, stood not the slightest chance of standing up against the financial and political clout of the airline industry, which had dozens of hired guns to do its bidding on a full-time basis (not to mention hired politicians who could turn the industry's wishes into policy, or non-policy, and FAA bureaucrats who would soon retire and be hired as consultants for the industry they were ostensibly regulating).

    (It was, incidentally, at this point in my life that I stumbled upon Ellul's The Technological Society, and from there found my way to your Autonomous Technology. Because of this history I found a passage from Chapter 1 of your book especially relevant:

    "My hope is that there will be at least a few to whom the [autonomy and the loss of mastery] theme makes sense and who will want to consider it further. These, I suspect will be persons who have already in some way experienced frustration in their attempts to make modern technics intelligible or accessible in their own lives."

    I've been a passionate student of the philosophy and history of technology ever since -- a more amenable form of activism for someone of my temperament.)

    Regarding your quote from Tuchman, it's been a long time since I read The March of Folly, but I would guess the operative phrase there is "If the mind is open enough to perceive." As you know, Ellul's work on propaganda demonstrated how actively and effectively the forces of technique are at work to make sure minds aren't open, a situation that also reminds me of a concept you may recognize: "technological somnambulism."

  2. Doug Hill2:32 PM

    PS: Have been reading commentaries on Jose Ortega y Gasset's "The Revolt of the Masses" and came across mentions of a school of thought that you, as a political scientist, probably know all about, but I did not: the anti-democratic or Elite school. This quote in particular struck me as relevant to your comments above:

    "[The premises of democracy] are not in the slightest degree, justified by the facts. Absolute equality has never existed in human societies. Political power never has been, and never will be, founded upon the explicit consent of majorities. It always has been, and it always will be, exercised by organized minorities which have had, and will have, the means, varying as times vary, to impose their supremacy on the multitude."

    From: Gaetano Mosca, The Ruling Class (New York: McGraw Hill, 1939), p. 326.