Reflection 67: Coma

February 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)


Trust Jonathan Schell to speak the truth. His “Obama and the Return of the Real” (The Nation, February 9, 2009, pages 18-22) spells out the commonality between five current crises—economic, ecological, energy/natural resources, military/nuclear armaments, and American colonialism. “All the crises,” says Schell, “display one more common feature: all have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions.” He calls this endemic spread of delusion, “a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life.” He sketches details of the story yet to be told:


of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters.


I call this collapse of trusted institutions a massive failure of consciousness. It’s not so much that regulators have failed to impose standards from the outside as that individuals have failed to exercise judgment in consciously and deliberately regulating their own behavior from the inside. The attitude has been to do what you can get away with when no one is watching. Hence the urge to privatize and deal secretly with matters which rightfully should be conducted in the open as public affairs.


Through the deeds of its most powerful leaders and institutions, influential Americans have worked their way into a frame of mind where short-term, personal self-interest has been designated the highest priority. This is cited as a basic economic principle put forward by no less a figure than Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations (1776). But the context for that notion was Smith’s earlier The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), in which he wrote:


The wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order or society. He is at all times willing, too, that the interest of this order or society should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the state or sovereignty of which it is only a subordinate part: he should, therefore, be equally willing that all those inferior interests should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the universe, to the interest of that great society of all sensible and intelligent beings, of which God himself is the immediate administrator and director (Prometheus Books, page 346).


Where have you ever seen that idea cited as the true foundation on which he built the liberal national capitalism put forward in the later book? Yet in Wealth of Nations itself he wrote this:


Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society (Modern Library, page 482, italics added).


Without placing that quotation in the context of the prior one, it reads as if Smith is advancing the notion that self-interest determines what is advantageous to society, whereas he is saying just the opposite, that what is beneficial to society determines what is to each individual’s advantage and governs how he should exert himself. The image of the invisible hand that Smith introduces three pages later is not the hand of self-interest but that of an implicit, moral and social influence transcending self-interest.


The perpetrators (who wove the five crises into what Schell calls “a kind of Gordian knot”) all operated within the same frame of mind which regards personal judgment as superfluous, whereas it is truly at the core of the moral dimension of consciousness and human action. Lack of oversight is secondary when lack of personal judgment is the problem precisely.


Where leaders are corrupt, they corrupt the system all the way down. Where leaders are not fully conscious or responsible, the institutions they head become brain dead and operate in a coma.


Waving the banner “Make Obama Fail,” the coma-stricken Republicans are gleefully stonewalling Obama’s efforts at recovery, taking joy in balking his efforts however they can. Rather than solving the nation’s problems, they are compounding them. In lockstep frame of mind, they take pride in putting their judgment to sleep, which is exactly what their leaders tell them to do. They think they are playing a game when the global situation calls for hard labor.


That is the cause of the five crises: playing games to score the most points. As if life were a game. Bush-Cheney did it for the sake of personal power. What they did was turn our democracy into a dictatorship for the duration of their reign. Enron tried it. Wall Street got good at it. The mortgage industry did its best. Energy and transportation industries play their parts. Backed by the pentagon, the arms industry kills people—foreigners and Americans alike—as if they were so many pawns in a game of chess.


This is worse than a delusion. It is a crime against the Earth and all life.


As for the rest of us, we take the Do Not Disturb sign on the doors of our great institutions quite literally. Don’t make waves. It isn’t patriotic. So we don’t. Which is how we put ourselves into a stupor all by ourselves. As if it were our duty to self-administer drugs to dull our senses. We are in this together because we are all half-asleep.


Failures of consciousness all round! Until we come to grips with that one, the situation isn’t going to get any better. Who’s to revive us? There’s nobody here but us chickens.





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