Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Retrospective: Benjamin, Dewey, Marcuse, Mills, Polanyi

(Extended version)
Had trouble making this short, so much in common between all of them, and so many different approaches at looking at things. In bringing together these different views, it provides us, the readers, with the tools to have a broad view at what's going on now and how we got there. - N 

Overlaps: I find a common thread of between them all, a shared sense of empathy and concern for the plight of humanity. Although they may all offer slightly different names, each one delves into the causes behind modern society’s dehumanizing effects – the people are oppressed and freedoms and individuality lost. Dewey felt that “the society itself has been pulverized into an aggregate of unrelated wants and wills.” (21) He continues, “The creation of political unity has also promoted social and intellectual uniformity, a standardization favorable to mediocrity.” (115) This is society flattened out, rendered into tasteless mush, rather than a rich dish of distinct flavors. Finally, Dewey discussed loss of humanity, as men were becoming machines to tend inanimate machines. (175) Along these lines, Polanyi said that under production, man and nature must be transformed into commodities, “as goods produced for sale.” (136) This, he said, “would be tantamount to annihilating them” (137), and he detailed this “economic earthquake” and “destructive landslide” (164) produced by the Industrial Revolution where “under the rule of the market the people could not be prevented from starving according to the rules of the game.” (168) Furthermore, the destitution and loss of rights and liberties “were judged a fair price to pay for the fulfillment of the requirement of sound budgets and sound currencies, these a priori of economic liberalism.”  (148) Benjamin is concerned with “mechanical reproduction,” and what’s been lost in it – the “aura,” a thing’s uniqueness or individuality destroyed by reproduction. (223) We might also think of him having to speak, as Kafka put it, the “Language of the Oppressor,” and how mechanical reproduction became the tool of Fascism. The cornerstone of Mills’s work deals with the ability to make decisions that affect people’s lives taken out of their hands (13) and made only to serve instead. (6) Subsequently, this led to the “transformation of the publics of America into a mass society.” (297) Marcuse describes “advanced industrial civilization” as leading to a “”comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” and “the suppression of individuality in the mechanization” of society. (1) He describes “mechanized work” as “exhausting, stupefying, inhuman slavery” (25) a “pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, as a thing.” (33) This “mechanized enslavement” of people is total, “not only its body but also its mind and even its soul.” (26) Their insights into the core and causes of the troubles faced when they were writing remain painfully relevant today.

Particular Similarities: I tend to see the most overlap between Dewey’s work and the others – the broad philosophical nature of his text touches on something present in all the others. The specificity of Benjamin’s piece makes it perhaps the most difficult to reconcile with the others, though he’s as concerned with all he sees as being lost to modern life. Between them, we might connect Dewey’s idea of an “aesthetic experience” to Benjamin’s concept of the “aura.” Dewey makes the distinction “between democracy as a social idea and political democracy as a system of government,” (143) which echoes what Marcuse says: “Democracy would appear to be the most efficient system of domination.” (52) An oppression via the appearance of freedom. As Mills put it, “We do not all have equal access to the means of power that now exist, nor equal influence over their use.” (22) On another note, Marcuse (33) connects the productive establishments and military for mutual growth much as Mills defines the Big 3. Dewey sees the key to breaking the power structure through education: “Every care would be taken to surround the young with the physical and social conditions which best conduce, as far as freed knowledge extends, to release of personal potentialities.” (200-1) In treating people with care – we can release their possibilities, not probabilities. This resonates with Marcuse who wrote that in order to create a free society “it must first enable its slaves to learn and see and think before they know what is going on and what they themselves can do to change it.” (40)  

Divergences: At least for me, it’s hard to see much divergence between them in terms of contradictions or disagreements. But I do see them as looking at the same thing from different vantage points. Taken together, like the coming together of two (in this case more) eyes, allows for the possibility of perspective. We might also see this as overlapping pieces, building a more complete picture. To pick one area of possible divergence of the other sort, Dewey wrote, that “The formation of states must be an experimental process. … the experiment must always be retried; the State must always be rediscovered.” (33-4) I love this sense of continual discovery he expresses, and worry when “correct” solutions are proposed, that even though I agree with much of what’s said, that in setting it in stone, we haven’t created the same sorts of problems we’re trying to break free of (revolutions eating their children and all that…) In this vein of always rediscovering – Dewey identifies not just the problem or a, “how things could be different,” but the means, a process to get to a better place – Education. Of course this raises questions, as Marcuse asked, “Who educates the educators, and where is the proof that they are in possession of ‘the good?’” (41) Each thinker raises the idea that we need to question, question, question. Why are things the way they are and do they have to stay that way? We must always keep asking. – Nick 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Comments from Last Class: Necessity/Language

Spirited discussion this past week. Encouraging to be with a group of people both passionate and thoughtful on such things. A few comments: 

NECESSITY: Azi spoke of being an engineering student and told to "create needs for people" in the form of products that they could then build. This reminded me of some past writing and the words of George Basalla. In his book, "The Evolution of Technology," he wrote how the invention of an idea gives birth to the necessity to make use of it. In other words, it's not that necessity is the mother of invention - it's the other way around. Most inventions serve no obvious purpose when invented - afterwards, however, a need is created to ensure that invention's survival. 

On that note - from a headline in The Onion from way back: "Consumer-product diversity now exceeds biodiversity." 

LANGUAGE: Also in class, we talked about systems that we are a part of, systems that have been with us for so long, they seem as if natural, it's impossible to imagine being outside of them. (I go into this with my Metropolis essay on Time.) I suggested language as a trap. We'll stay clear of memetics this time around, but we can think of language as abstraction of reality, as distancing us from our reality. Magritte presented it best with his image of a pipe and the caption "this is not a pipe.  (Well, actually it was in French, which is a whole other issue.) Steven Pinker states that through the use of language, "we can shape events in each other's brains with exquisite precision." This speaks to being forced to use the language of the oppressor - what if language itself is the oppressor? One more quote, Rollo May wrote, "It is not that language is merely a tool of communication, or that we only use language to express our ideas; it is just as true that language uses us." (The Courage to Create, 85.) 

I'll round out the Language thoughts with two passages from Alan Moore. In "Big Numbers", after an episode of swearing by one passenger on a train, an elderly man across the cabin says, "There's no need for language." A slip of the tongue? Or pointing to something deeper perhaps? 

In "The Birth Caul," Moore takes us back in time with his character, slowly spiralling towards childhood, and as he goes, language devolves and we get to an attempt at presenting consciousness before language. Actually, as I start recalling more, this was all presented in a book called "The Disease of Language" which is a phrase from Aleister Crowley concerning magic, which Moore explains is mostly a linguistic phenomenon and “was therefore what had been lying at the end of the path beyond mere craft all along…” The coincide-ence of the word spell – as in to spell a word and to cast a spell – language and magic – speaks to the power of language. The book is on many levels a summation of the history of Britain as leading to an age where people are fit into the assembly line of progress. The focus shifts to the individual – “How did we come to be these wraiths in treadmill corridors,” who “work and sleep, work and sleep.” The Birth Caul was an effort to as Marc Singer describes it, “use language to erase language.” (Portrait 41) Words allow us to make meaning of the world, but also lead to a loss of direct experience. 

And that ties back into the piece by Magritte. All for now. - N 

Class Connections

From this week's issue of the Nation, an article on the Half-Forgotten Prophet, C. Wright Mills. Timely for today and our ongoing class discussion: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090330/birnbaum

And from a very different source, but equally relevant, at least to my essay on the mechanization of time, a line from Grant Morrison's "Doom Patrol" (1991) spoken by the "New, New, New Brotherhood of Dada." It reads: "It's time to stop defending a world sick with reason! Aristotle and Newton were useless farts who made a machine of this whirling, wonderful world. Let's stop all the clocks and kiss the walls goodbye!" - In the end, the Dadaists (the villains) fail, shot down by the government, as the heroes, at first resistant, try to save them. Absurd, and absurdly relevant. - N 

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Rage is Good?

Quick post: An article from the online version of The Nation hitting on a number of issues from class - laissez faire, interconnectedness of the power elite, socialism, people being crushed by the market - and so on. Talks of the opportunity to make voices heard in this moment. Time to wake up and show our rage: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090323/hayden?rel=hp_currently

Written by long-time activist Tom Hayden. (my dad knew him well back in school at UM - which makes me want to ask him more questions about those times) - N 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Marcuse Comments

I delved into this after I’d pretty much structured my Metropolis essay. Marcuse’s thoughts hit the heart of what I was after, at least on my reading of it, and for me, tied together a lot of the things we’ve been looking at. (It is, perhaps, the “heart” connecting head and hands…)

Marcuse starts out strong right out of the gate in the opening line: “A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technological process. (1) Also on that page, he writes: “The rights and liberties which were such vital factors in the origins and earlier stages of industrial society yield to a higher stage of this society: they are losing their traditional rationale and content. … Once institutionalized, these rights and liberties shared the fate of the society of which they become an integral part. The achievement cancels the premises.” I can’t help but connect this to the “peril of perfection” and the need, as Dewey said, to constantly challenge, to keep reaching. If we think we’ve got it already, we’ve lost it.

I think he beautifully and humanely sets up how we’ve lost our freedoms, and how subtle this is, how it comes, in fact, under the guise of freedom. For “Democracy would appear to be the most efficient system of domination.” People think they’ve got what they want, we have stuff, we can vote for someone. “Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. … Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.”  (7) on 4 he sets up the idea of needs as distraction: “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” Contrasts “true and false needs” (4-5), false being those which we’re told we need – material stuff, and true ones, being means for survival. (5) It’s pursuit of false needs, he says, that stands in the way of our true freedom: “All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own.” (7) We need to wake up…

Loss of Freedom

Idea of introjections (10), and whether we still maintain “inner freedom.” I used the example of Daylight Savings Time to show how deeply ingrained ideas are that we accept as just the way things are. Marcuse writes, “Today this private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality. Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual.” … “The result is not adjustment, but mimesis: an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with the society as a whole.” (10) We accept things as they are. Why do we get up and go to work, to school? Because that’s how it is. The “apparatus imposes” its will on our “labor time and free time, on the material and intellectual culture.” (3) We are less than free in all ways. But this unfreedom is not brought upon us by force. No, he claims, “If the individuals find themselves in the things which shape their life, they do so, not by giving, but by accepting the law of things – not the law of physics but the law of their society.” (11) Echoing Polany, Marcuse (2) talks of “freedom of enterprise” as also allowing us the freedom to starve – in his words “not altogether an blessing.”

As Marcuse writes on (16), “‘Progress’ is not a neutral term.” Indeed, it’s not. We tend to see it in terms of technology, not betterment of the human condition. However, these need not be mutually exclusive, which is where Marcuse takes his argument.


Talked about this a lot in my Metropolis essay, I’ll leave it to that. Except to include this quote, as it’s so strong: “This is the pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, as a thing.” (33)


In his discussion of ‘one dimensionality” (11) I’m finding resonance with the idea I’ve been playing with of “unflattening” – in terms of presenting information in a dimensional way (not necessarily literally). Also am connecting this to thoughts of multi-discilplinarity, and the troubles of specialization – no one can talk to one another. Realize I’m giving a flat perspective on this at this point.


Moved throughout by Marcuse’s humanity. This idea that “The individual would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own.” (2) He defines what these new forms of freedom would mean in multiple realms: “Thus economic freedom would mean freedom from the economy – from being controlled by economic forces and relationships; freedom from the daily struggle for existence, from earning a living.” Continues to explain what political and intellectual freedom would mean. (4) He sets up the terms on how freedom could happen, “Indeed, society must first create the material prerequisites of freedom for all its members before it can be a free society; it must first create the wealth before being able to distribute it according to the freely developing needs of the individual;” AND the KEY here: “it must first enable its slaves to learn and see and think before they know what is going on and what they themselves can do to change it.” (40) He continues, 42) “slaves must be free for their liberation before they can become free…” A hope filled premise: “This is a society in which the former objects of productivity first become the human individuals who plan and use the instruments of their labor for the realization of their own humane needs and faculties. For the first time in history, men would act freely and collectively under and against the necessity which limits their freedom and their humanity.” (42-3) And finally, “If it could lead to self-determination at the very base of human existence, namely in the dimension of necessary labor, it would be the most radical and most complete revolution in history.” (44) And now I’m cheering, let’s do this.

However, that he states this can come through advanced industrialization, not so sure. Yes, I agree we have the means (power) to feed, shelter everyone and hence the responsibility to do so. But this passage on 36, “Complete automation in the realm of necessity would open the dimension of free time as the one in which man’s private and societal existence would constitute itself. This would be the historical transcendence towards a new civilization.” --- Would it really? I can’t help but think of the free people in Wall-E – are they really free? It seems to me (and I realize I need to read this more) that the humanity he sees so well, is suggesting can be restored through better technology. Something about the “pacification of existence” (16) doesn’t sit quite right.

That little bit said, Marcuse lays out the problem well, he pulls back the wool on the system we’ve been brought into, bought into, and it’s a powerful, indispensable work at making sense of what’s happened, and thinking about what might be. – Nick  

Thought about including “who watches the watchmen” in my Time essay, and using this passage from 41, “Who educates the educators, and where is the proof that they are in possession of ‘the good?’” If, as I agree with, education is the key to liberation, how do we ensure it’s good stuff? Back to Dewey, this is the point, we always have to keep asking such questions, always being critical, never thinking we’ve got it all right. – N  


Friedman's article

It's scary how often the Onion has it more right than the "real" news media. 

I particularly appreciated this passage from Friedman's article: 

One of those who has been warning me of this for a long time is Paul Gilding, the Australian environmental business expert. He has a name for this moment — when both Mother Nature and Father Greed have hit the wall at once — “The Great Disruption.”

“We are taking a system operating past its capacity and driving it faster and harder,” he wrote me. “No matter how wonderful the system is, the laws of physics and biology still apply.” We must have growth, but we must grow in a different way. For starters, economies need to transition to the concept of net-zero, whereby buildings, cars, factories and homes are designed not only to generate as much energy as they use but to be infinitely recyclable in as many parts as possible. Let’s grow by creating flows rather than plundering more stocks.

Need more people to start listening to the world around them... 


Metropolis the Assignment - comments

On the one hand, I think this is pretty cool. 


I’ve written my paper, I found my clips some days ago, and now it’s time to integrate them. It’s not shaping up satisfactorily (more on this later.) Worse than that, I want to confirm my clips to make sure I use exactly the right one (admittedly, I clipped more than I knew I’d need), and now I’m staring at the screen waiting for the buffer to finish. Somewhere Moloch is laughing at the irony of me writing an essay about the loss of our time to mechanized culture – losing my time to an aspect of mechanized culture. I’m not laughing.

Ok, having gotten the clips all in, I was able to watch it, and it is pretty cool after all. Clips act like punctuation marks – peppering the words with a bit of extra emphasis. As I tend to write as if with a soundtrack, the inclusion of a video track as well brings something new to it. 

I wonder though, about the integration of them. We read, and then have to leave the words, and pause to see the images. That back and forth is somewhat stilting in my view. I love being able to use the clips, but I’d like to see greater synergy between them and the text. This is where I’m thinking like a comic book maker. Image and text juxtaposed together – an act of simultaneity. And I’m thinking how much fun this project could be in comic form. Easy to say for someone who makes them, but the little bit I’ve seen of Comic Life (http://plasq.com/comiclife-win) would make it an easy, fun tool, perhaps for non-comics folks to present their information. (To this end, I did a lot of research and writing last semester on comics as a means of presenting research.) Of course, the other alternative is to go all video – string together clips from various sources, webcam our own narration.

Metropolis as source material is ultimately a blast. Running through clips in my head, I think of other directions I could go with scenes and things we’ve read. The possibilities are pretty wide open – and I wonder about someone identifying a theme and passing it to another classmate to turn into an essay. Might produce interesting results. (On the note of possibilities not-traveled, I’d intended to connect Captain Hook’s replacement hand to Rotwang’s, and the crocodile who swallowed time constantly on his tracks. Seems like it should’ve worked in somewhere.) That’s it. (I decide to look over VITAL one last time, and am stuck waiting for endless buffering. Trying not to succumb to rage against the machine – that in itself is another essay…) – N 

Metropolis Essay

(This is posted here as well as VITAL as a means of reference for future purposes.)

Assignment: Discuss forms of control in human society using images and themes from the film “Metropolis” in conjunction with ideas from 20th century social theory.

“It’s only 60 minutes, just one hour. It’s no big deal, right?”

It’s the start of Daylight Savings Time as I’m pulling the strands of this essay together. As innocuous as this change in time seems, it points, albeit subtly, to more insidious ways in which our lives are perhaps not entirely our own. The tendency is to attribute this sense of being less than free exclusively to technology. From Frankenstein to the Matrix, technology’s dark grip on humanity has long been the stuff of science fiction, whose stories have served as commentary, caution, and forecast. As the Borg repeat on Star Trek, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.” However, by focusing on technology as the sole bogeyman haunting us, we fail to see the deeper roots of what’s going on. In his 1927 text “The Eclipse of the Public,” John Dewey defined the complex nature of this problem: “It is always convenient to have a devil as well as a savior to bear the responsibilities of humanity. In reality, the trouble springs rather from the ideas and absence of ideas in connection with which technological factors operate.” (141) (Had Dewey been writing a generation or so later, he might have used the term “memes,” where according to Aaron Lynch, we no longer look at “how people acquire ideas, but how ideas acquire people.” (17)) Dewey’s words are as relevant now as they were then. It’s not so much that machines are attempting a hostile takeover, but that we have already willingly and complicitly surrendered to the idea of mechanization and allowed it influence over every aspect of our lives.

This mechanization of our mindset, of our very lives has been with us so long, it’s hard to imagine things being different from the way they are. In an attempt to challenge this notion and understand the pervasiveness of machines on our mindset, the following will draw together 20th century social theory in conjunction with scenes from the grandfather of science fiction cinema, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (which like Dewey’s book was also released in 1927.) Long before Steve Austin was rebuilt and Darth Vader’s cybernetic helm swallowed the last of his humanity, Metropolis’s mad scientist Rotwang created a mechanical hand to replace the hand he lost in the process of building his Machine-Man. Themes in the film echo the philosophical discourse presented.

“Where did the time go? Can you tell me where did my life go?” – Johnny Clegg

As alluded to in opening with Daylight Savings Time, the mechanical ordering of society has its origins in the mechanization of time. The mechanical clock was first put to use in China as a means of calculating the movements of the Chinese Emperor and served as a tool for navigation as it made its way to the west. A life once based on natural cycles within our bodies, the rhythm between day and night, and the change in seasons, was uprooted when the mechanical clock was married to industrialization. [Free running about at Club of Sons segues to clockwork life of workers.] Time was now thought of in terms of the movement of a wheeled gear. [Gear imagery] Lewis Mumford noted that “Abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions themselves were regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it.” (63) In this regard, Mumford claimed the clock was even more important to the industrial age than the steam engine, because it was “not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.” (60) [Synchronized worker movements.] Herbert Marcuse cites Daniel Bell who wrote that the meaning of “industrialization did not arise with the introduction of factories, it ‘arose out of the measurement of work…’” (29) The mechanical clock thus gave rise to the idea of a mechanized society.

“Workin’ 9 to 5” may be a fine way to make a living, but it represents a major change in how we live removed from things like biology, light, or seasons. With the advent of artificial lights, natural time had even less meaning. This is powerfully demonstrated in the workers’ society located entirely underground – no sun at all. In their world, they day is entirely based on the mechanical concept of “shifts.” (Commenting on the information age, Manuel Castells suggests that today the sequence of time is eliminated altogether and we live in what he calls “timeless time.”) The fitting of a life into a slot of time, extends to fitting that life into a box of space as our environment becomes increasingly mechanized as well. The workers live in a grid of “little boxes” in stark contrast to the organic world above. Our bodies aren’t a safe haven from mechanization either. As time and landscape go, bodies become objects – a sum of our parts and functions. This is demonstrated in the erotic gyrations of the mechanical Maria. Her movements and objectification are hypnotic to men who fall under the spell of the machine. This loss of time, place, and body, speaks to the dismantling of individual identity and “inner freedom” – as Marcuse wrote, “this private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality.” (10)


In this fashion, the complexity of being human is reduced to an object and assigned a number signifying interchangeability. We witness Freder trading places with the worker known only as “11811.” People serve as parts, cogs in the wheel of a great machine. Watching the workers operate in unison like the gears of the clock connects to Marcuse’s description of “mechanized work” as being “exhausting, stupefying, inhuman slavery…” (25) He goes on to characterize their state: “This is the pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, as a thing.” (33) The workers’ lives are given up quite literally to feed the machines as is witnessed in Freder’s vision, wherein the machine transforms into the sacrifice-requiring god Moloch. An accident on the line warrants little reaction. Workers pause only to pick up the pieces (the people) and keep on working. Replacement workers fill in the gaps.

Metropolis offers multiple versions of how the human is subsumed by the machine – Maria is replaced by the machine entirely, as it takes over her life, while the workers’ lives are given up to serve the machine. In both cases subjugation to the mechanized mindset is total. As Marcuse wrote, “The slaves of developed industrial civilization are sublimated slaves, but they are slaves, for slavery is determined.” (32)

Clockwork God

The “meta-machine” that makes possible the mechanical ordering of society and the governing of human life has a name – it’s the free, self-regulating market. Instead of it operating to accommodate human lives, humans have to fit into it and serve its perpetuation. Within the market, humans are reduced to commodities or parts. Karl Polanyi defines production as the “interaction of man and nature; if this process is to be organized through a self-regulating mechanism of barter and exchange, then man and nature must be brought into its orbit; they must be subject to supply and demand, that is be dealt with as commodities, as goods produced for sale.” (136) Under this system, the human becomes less than human.

Given the “great and permanent evils” (Polanyi 136) that men are subjected to in the market system, from where does this mechanical ordering of things still derive justification? It’s due to what Polanyi describes as an almost a religious faith in its perceived perfection of Platonic mathematical order. It’s something “sacred and holy.” (139) The market, like the mechanical man and the Heart Machine, surpasses the human. Thus from this perspective, humans function only to serve the system. Marcuse called this “Technological rationality” and said that it “reveals its political character as it becomes the great vehicle of better domination, creating a truly totalitarian universe in which society and nature, mind and body are kept in a state of permanent mobilization for the defense of this universe.” (18) This “mechanized enslavement” as Marcuse put it, of “the human instrument” is total, “not only its body but also its mind and even its soul.” (26)

Time Keepers

Despite its name, the self-regulating market is anything but. It needs people to maintain it, to wind the watch, so to speak. (Polanyi 147) Hence the emergence of what C. Wright Mills describes as the “Power Elite,” people who make decisions “that mightily affect, the everyday worlds of men and women.” (3) The elite “are able to realize their will, even if others resist it.” And do so through “access to the command of major institutions.” (9) Even living in a “free,” democratic society, Mills states that the major decisions – the pulling of the levers and pressing of the buttons – are made for us by those in the Power Elite. Fewer people thus make the decisions affecting the lives of many. (7) In Dewey’s words, the machine age made for a “Great Society” but not a “Great Community,” where the freedoms promised by democracy are bestowed upon but a minority. (126-7)

As Mills stated, the elite express the attitude that control of society needs to be “in the hands of experts. It is just that everyone knows somebody has got to run the show, and that somebody usually does. Others do not really care anyway, and besides, they do not know how. So the gap between the two types gets wider.” (294) Hence they perpetuate the myth that this is the natural order of things. They consider themselves to be “elite because of the kind of individuals they are. The rest of the population is mass, which, according to this conception, sluggishly relaxes into uncomfortable mediocrity.” (Mills 13) According to James J. Flink, Henry Ford said of his workers, “They want to be led. They want to have everything done for them and have no responsibility.” (80) Along these lines, Ford’s screen analog Joh Fredersen wants to keep the workers in their place: “Where they belong.” That there is anything natural about this is wrong, as Mills countered: “Such ideas, in fact, always arise in a society in which some people possess more than do others of what there is to possess. People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be the people with advantages.” (14) But still, such notions persist.

“We are born in captivity” – T-Bone Burnett

The plight of the workers in Metropolis both on the line and flooded out of their homes parallels the annihilation of people (Polanyi 137) exploited in the name of the free market. Polanyi writes that people being made unemployed, destitute, and their constitutional liberties all lost, are “judged a fair price to pay for the fulfillment of the requirement of sound budgets and sound currencies, these a priori of economic liberalism.” (148) The elites aren’t spared either, as even the higher ups end up being subsumed by the needs of the system. As Marcuse wrote, “The capitalist bosses and owners are losing their identity as responsible agents; they are assuming the function of bureaucrats in a corporate machine.” (32)

So why do people buy into this system, sleepwalk through their lives even when it means their own destruction and enslavement? Dewey wrote that “The instrumentality becomes a master and works fatally as if possessed of a will of its own – not because it has a will but because man has not.” (175) The machines don’t subjugate us by force, we let it happen. This resonates with Marcuse: “If the individuals find themselves in the things which shape their life, they do so, not by giving, but by accepting the law of things – not the law of physics but the law of their society.” (11) In “The Dialectic of Freedom” Maxine Greene discusses the source of this acceptance: “The persuasion is often so quiet, so seductive, so disguised that it renders young people acquiescent to power without their realizing it. The persuasion becomes most effective when the method used obscures what is happening in the learners’ minds.” (133) To that effect, Alan Moore wrote, “You’re in a prison… You were born in a prison. You’ve been in a prison so long, you no longer believe there’s a world outside.” Born behind bars, we only know them as our reality. The clock has been ticking for so long in the background, we assume it’s as natural as the sun rising.

“Sleepwalker, open your eyes. Sleepwalker, rise.” – Blue Nation

Winning freedom is not achieved by simply smashing the machines to bits. We have to get beyond “too much technology” and critically examine where we are. Dewey would remind us that the State isn’t “sacred,” (170) and that in fact, the author of the State is “nothing but singular persons, you, they, me.” (P37) If we’re submitting to it, it’s only because we all sign off on it, we all allow it. (Dewey 53) What we’ve invented, we can also dismantle and reinvent as well. But in order to do so, society, as Marcuse wrote, “must first enable its slaves to learn and see and think before they know what is going on and what they themselves can do to change it.” (40)

What’s ingrained in us from birth, can only be lifted off by means of education – empowering individuals to imagine life as something other than “as it is.” As Dewey wrote, “Every care would be taken to surround the young with the physical and social conditions which best conduce, as far as freed knowledge extends, to release of personal potentialities.” (200-1) By treating people with care – the heart uniting head and hand – we can release their possibilities, rather than the probabilities that mark a person’s life from the day they’re born. Education is the promise to see differently, to imagine in Greene’s terms “what is not and yet might be.” From such a perspective, according to Marcuse, “The individual would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own.” (2) In seeing the mechanisms at work, we find the means to make our time and our lives are own.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1935.
Castells, Manuel. “An Introduction to the Information Age.” 1997.
Dewey, John. “The Public and Its Problems.” 1927.
Flink, James J. “The Car Culture.” 1975.
Greene, Maxine. “The Dialectic of Freedom.” 1988.
Lang, Fritz. “Metropolis.” 1927.
Lynch, Aaron. “Thought Contagion.” 1996.
Marcuse, Herbert. “One Dimensional Man.” 1964.
Mills, C. Wright. “The Power Elite.” 1956.
Moore, Alan and David Lloyd. “V for Vendetta.” 1988.
Mumford, Lewis in Arthur O. Lewis, Jr., ed., “Of Men and Machines.” 1963.
Polanyi, Karl. “The Great Transformation.” 1944.

Addendum: While Walter Benjamin is not directly cited, this piece does I hope honor a part of his spirit in making use of diverse quotations throughout – what Hannah Arendt described as “thought fragments” or “pearls,” and the writer as “pearl diver” excavating “rich and strange” fragments from the depths.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Been thinking about Frank’s story about his son Niko, and his never wanting or needing.

Makes me think of my own growing up, and never asking for anything. Pleased to be able to have hand-me-downs from my much older brothers. Is it perhaps that I appreciated having the connection to them with things they’d worn? That I was indecisive about what I might want, so it was easier to just have something just show up? Don’t know. Is it perhaps the influence of my mom, a naturalist/environmental studies teacher – and the fact that we were recycling everything from my earliest memories? (Not that I remember recycling then – just that I don’t remember ever not doing so…) Really can’t say. But I appreciated the story, and it makes me think. - Nick 

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Notes on C. Wright Mills “The Power Elite”

As with all the readings thus far, despite how long ago this piece was written, it not only speaks to origins of how things got to be how they are, it speaks to how things are right now.

What is meant by the “Power Elite”

Mills defines the Power Elite in contrast to the rest, on (3) he writes, that Americans recognize the elite as “They are all that we are not.” It comes down to being able to make decisions “that mightily affect, the everyday worlds of men and women.” (3) They make positions of major consequences affecting the rest of us. Recall Dewey’s words on necessity of State to mediate consequences. It’s not an equal exchange. On 5, Mills discusses the dropping of the bomb on Japan in the name of the USA, “although they were at no time consulted about the matter. They feel that they live in a time of big decisions; they know that they are not making any.”

A key idea in all this is the Power Elite’s connection to institutions – it’s not enough to have wealth or celebrity, but it’s necessary to be linked into the means to do something with it. On 9 he writes: “By the powerful we mean, of course, those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist it. No one, accordingly, can be truly powerful unless he has access to the command of major institutions, for it is over these institutional means of power that the truly powerful are, in the first instance, powerful.” And continues to say, “Not all power, it is true, is anchored in and exercised by means of such institutions, but only within and through them can power be more or less continuous and important.” It’s not simply about wealth, access to power matters most.

The final aspect of Mills’s definition of the Power Elite is on (18): “By the power elite, we refer to those political, economic, and military circles which as an intricate set of overlapping cliques share decisions having at least national consequences. In so far as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them.” We’re coming to know who they are – warlords, chief executives, and top politicians – and how we are to understand them and their unification (19) via: Psychology, structure and mechanics of institutional hierarchies, and explicit co-ordination.

On (22) he lays out where we are at, at a time when only small circles decide what happens. “Yet the fact is that although we are all of us within history we do not possess equal powers to make history. To pretend that we do is sociological nonsense and political irresponsibility. … We do not all have equal access to the means of power that now exist, nor equal influence over their use.” While we may live in a society where we have a democratic right to vote, Mills’s premise is that we don’t pull the levers, press the button, on the major decisions – those are made for us by those in the Power Elite. (Also, like his reasoning for using term “power elite” rather than “ruling class” (on 277) – class being an economic term, rule a political one.)

Who They Are

This “Big Three”, triple-gods that “run the show” are from big corporations, key politicians, and military leaders. (4) These are “the leading men in each of the three domains of power – the warlords, the corporation chieftains, the political directorate – [who] tend to come together, to form the power elite of America.” (9) Throughout, I’m reminded by Military man turned President, Eisenhower’s warning against the military-industrial complex (well pointed out in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.” We see this in Blackwater, Haliburton, and more today. On 6 he points out how “Other institutions seem off to the side of modern history, and, on occasion, duly subordinated to these.” Religion, education, and the family institutions are put in service of the big three, their messages used to reinforce the dominating message, rather than leading the ideas.

These three have become ever more tightly intertwined, more centralized, and fewer are making decisions affecting the lives of many. (7) In establishing themselves as the decision makers, the Power Elite also create a mythology that their ascendancy is natural. On 13 Mills writes of this notion that “they are elite because of the kind of individuals they are. The rest of the population is mass, which, according to this conception, sluggishly relaxes into uncomfortable mediocrity.” Henry Ford said of his workers, “they want to be led.” But Mills points out his is wrong, (14) “People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be the people with advantages.” This brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” that illustrates quite brilliantly the not so extraordinary circumstances that lead to success. The “self-made man” in truth had a lot going for him from generations past. Fran Liebowitz wrote an article about race once, where she compared white to being the children of celebrities. Celebrity offspring would say they still had to work hard, they only had help getting in the door. Well that’s where it all is – the hard part is access, that’s what she claimed white’s had, they looked like people they’d had.

Having dismissed this notion that the Power Elite are ordained “better”, Mills continues, “Even when we give up – as we must – the idea that the elite man or woman is born with an elite character, we need not dismiss the idea that their experiences and trainings develop in them characteristics of a specific type.” And we can think of ourselves here at Columbia, the training ground for important people. No matter our diversity, there’s something in common that’s made it possible for us to be here, and there is some commonality in psychology that unites us. This is pronounced in the Power Elite as he writes (15), “So conceived, the elite is a set of higher circles whose members are selected, trained and certified and permitted intimate access to those who command the impersonal institutional hierarchies of modern society.”

How They Came To Be

Mills expressly states that his thesis is not that an omnipotent elite has always shaped historical events. However, they are the history makers. (20) He then discusses the origins of the Power Elite, and on 12, contrasts this with Europe, which had a nobility class. Without such a thing in the US, ours emerged from the middle class and the wealth created by the industrial revolution. Lots of people got rich on the labor of others. In Chapter 12, Mills lays out 5 different epochs in American history in terms of shifts of power from the time of the revolution to the present day. In the First, Revolution through John Adams admin, we were a small country, with many-sided men who crossed easily from one institution to another. He writes the “Social and economic, political and military unified in a simple and direct way.” In the Second, “the economic and political and military orders fitted loosely into the great scatter of the American social structure.” This was very loose, a plurality of leaders. By Epoch 3, “the supremacy of corporate economic power began” as result of the 14th Amendment corporations became individual entities. At this point the military remained subordinate to political (as it had been so far) and “thus off to the side of the main driving forces of US history” Rather, the “economy was the dynamic” With the New Deal, Epoch 4 started, the economic elite, after being brought down and humbled to some degree, decided to get into the business of government. Whereas up to the 30s, “political order was still an instrument of small propertied farmers and businessmen” – (274)

WWII signaled the start of the 5th and current epoch, “the long time tendency of business and government to become more intricately and deeply involved with each other has reached a new point of explicitness.” (274) The economic, political and military leaders came together to make the war possible, and continued to become more tightly intertwined afterwards. (275) And this is a scary thought, “Not politicians, but corporate executives, sit with the military and plan the organization of the war effort.” (276) Again, this speaks to Eisenhower’s warning, and his own position at the head of the table.


With the Big Three truly in place after WWII, we ask if it’s a conspiracy. Mills argues it’s not, on 292, “The conception of the power elite, accordingly, does not rest upon the assumption that American history since the origins of WWII must be understood as a secret plot, or as a great and coordinated conspiracy of the members of this elite. The conception rests upon quite impersonal grounds.” He makes use of a wonderful statement by Richard Hofstadter along these lines on 293, “There is a great difference between locating conspiracies in history and saying that history is, in effect, a conspiracy…” On 27 Mills writes, “to accept either view – of all history as conspiracy or of all history as drift – is to relax the effort to understand the facts of power and the ways of the powerful.”

The idea that all these people know each other, work together, and have interchanging roles within each others’ circles is illustrated beautifully by Mark Lombardi and his Global Networks. These are network drawings showing how people are connected. Learn a little bit about it here: http://www.pierogi2000.com/flatfile/lombardi.html

Even if it’s not a conspiracy, the Power Elite are tightly interwoven. Mills writes (288), “They assume positions in one another’s domains.” There’s a back and forth between people in each organization, one minute their lobbyists, then in government, then running a company. Dick Cheney is a prime example, but just one of many. Obama’s picks for treasury were running the organizations they now oversee. Mills writes (10) that the top positions are “increasingly interchangeable.” But it’s less conspiracy than the idea that “The power elite, as we conceive it, also rests upon the similarity of its personnel, and their personal and official relations with one another, upon their social and psychological affinities.” (278) He suggests (281) “Even if their recruitment and formal training were more heterogeneous than they are, these men would still be of quite homogeneous social type.” They come though the same social circles, ‘personalities’ tend to become similar.” They know each other, intermingle. There’s a feeling that these others are “one of us” (283) even if it’s not premeditated. Mills states the interwoven nature of the power elite clearly (294) “there is nothing hidden about it, although its activities are not publicized. As an elite, it is not organized, although its members often know one another… there is nothing conspiratorial about it, although its decisions are often publicly unknown and its mode of operation manipulative rather than explicit.”

When CE Wilson was nominated for secretary of Defense by Eisenhower, the head of GM say something along the lines of “what’s good for GM is good for the US and vice versa.” (285) There’s an attitude as expressed earlier, that (294) control of society needs to be “in the hands of experts. It is just that everyone knows somebody has got to run the show, and that somebody usually does. Others do not really care anyway, and besides, they do not know how. So the gap between the two types gets wider.” This again refers to Ford’s words. We just happen to be better equipped to do this and the little people just want to live their lives without the bother...

Mills sets out key contrasts throughout. On 17, he talks about the deliberate deception that leaders follow the will of the people and are powerless to it. It’s a contrast between “Omnipotence and impotence.” The truth is leaders make decisions. On 26 he writes, “But-if events come out well, talk as though you had decided.” “If events come out badly, say that you didn’t have the real choice, and are, of course, not accountable: they, the others, had the choice and they are responsible.” This is insidious – claim to be servants, responding only to the will of the people, yet all the while making the decisions that affect all of them.

This raises real questions of how to transform this power dynamic, to wrest control from the big three and think about the Great Community Dewey wrote of. How to get there? It starts with understanding, with seeing how decisions were made (or not made) that led us to this point and perhaps in that understanding, we can begin to act different decisions. This is powerful reading, enjoying it, and emboldened by it. – N

PS: I like this (21) “During most of human history, historical change has not been visible to the people who were involved in it, or even to those enacting it.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jindal/Katrina Fabrication

Following up on the speech we watched by Jindal, Talking Points Memo reports his Katrina story wasn’t even true. Disgusting as it was to begin with, not sure what to make of it when it’s totally fabricated. Check it out here: http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2009/02/jindals_office_tries_to_spin_katrina_story_digs_it.php