By Denis G. Rancourt, PhD
This blogpost is a response to Libertarian Party of Canada leader Tim Moen's October 8, 2014 blogpost entitled "Response to Activist Teacher", which was a response to my blogpost of October 7, 2014, entitled "On what libertarian leader Tim Moen has learned", which was a critique of Tim Mohen's August 26, 2014 blogpost "10 Lessons I Learned Running for Parliament".
The exchange of criticisms and challenges has been cordial and authentic, so I now take the liberty of using a first-names basis.
Tim's closing sentence is
"I look forward to a continued dialogue with Professor Rancourt in a respectful dialogue that is concerned more with arriving at truth than about propagating a particular world view or conclusion."
Each of my statements, no matter how emphatically expressed, is advanced as a challenge to best test my own developing ideas, or to cause cognitive dissonance in order to enrich the exchange. I admit that in order to achieve these aims of communication, I often use simplifications, generalizations, and exaggerations, but where my goal is always to capture the essence and to dig deeper.
If you can't engage with a libertarian in this way, then who can you have such a conversation with now that Socrates is dead?
In this response, I want to concentrate on the main aspects of Tim's beliefs about the nature of politics, with which I disagree. We cannot both be right, and we may both be wrong.
But before I do that, I want to complain about a few attributions that Tim suggested could reasonably be made about me, as follows.
1. Tim compared my analysis to Chomsky's.
I agree that some of Chomsky's analyses of geopolitics and Chomsky's analysis of the media are brilliant, but I do NOT agree with being compared to Chomsky.
I have written an article entitled "Against Chomsky" explaining why I think Chomsky does more harm than good. In that 2008 article, I propose that Chomsky is what I have called a "service intellectual" and I explain how his view of political activism helps to support the status quo.
In fact, Chomsky's belief about how social change occurs, which I criticize, is closely related to Tim's expressed belief about the mechanism of social change in politics (see below).
2. Tim states: "Rancourt would likely posit that there exists power structures that inform behaviour and control people. He would probably suggest that wealth distribution and corporate power are the root cause of our ills."
Well, I certainly do believe that there are power structures and that these structures "inform behaviour" and exercise control on people. Guilty as charged. However, I do NOT suggest or believe that "wealth distribution and corporate power are the root cause of our ills".
3. Tim states: "What do neo-cons and climate activists have in common? They all have the belief that there is a deficiency of violence being used against individuals that they have strong opinions about, and that if the right amount of violence was used against the right people we would have peace and flourishing. I am not sure if Professor Rancourt subscribes to this theory of peace and flourishing but I am skeptical of it."
I agree with Tim's characterization of neo-cons and climate lobbyists.
My position on climate lobbyists is best expressed in this media interview I gave in 2007, entitled "Questioning Climate Politics - Denis Rancourt says the “global warming myth” is part of the problem". I have gone on to repeatedly bash global warming alarmism in the media as a vehicle to legitimize installing a carbon economy by force, at the service of -- you guessed it -- a certain "power structure". My articles and media interviews on this are listed HERE.
Of course I do NOT "subscribes to this theory of peace and flourishing".
Indeed, I expressed what I believe, and Tim ignored it in his response. Maybe that is the part that Tim finds "an inflammation of abstractions (abstractitis) prevalent here that prevents clear thinking"? Here is what I said (referencing my book):
"Systems spontaneously and mechanically evolve towards heightened hierarchical control, which is delayed and set back when the subjects find strong individual and collective impulses to partially break free. This is a constant historical battle in all human societies. Revolutionary gains towards more freedom and personal agency can be achieved either violently or non-violently, depending on the societal circumstances. The only nexus of resistance and push-back against increasing undemocratic dominance is the individual rebellion of liberation. There is a constant battle between the human impulse to be free and influential on the one hand, and the societal forces to heighten the dominance hierarchy on the other hand."
What Tim believes that I think is incorrect
Beliefs define individual behaviour and government
I think Tim's view that has emerged is as follows:
- Individuals, whether wage labourers or CEOs of corporation have beliefs. These beliefs determine their actions. These beliefs can be irrational and lead to initializing violence against others or they can be rational libertarian beliefs that lead to respecting the freedoms of others without ever initializing violence.
- The liberty politician or freedom activist can succeed in helping individuals to acquire rational libertarian beliefs, via inspiration, example, political success, and discourse. If 10% of the population acquires an unshakable belief in liberty concepts then there will be a chain reaction to a majority public opinion in favour of the liberty ideals.
- Governments, by virtue of politicians needing to be elected, and by virtue of politicians themselves being individuals with beliefs, will follow this new paradigm and society will evolve towards libertarian ideals. Government will shrink of its own making and corporations will voluntarily lose their unfair advantages compared to true free enterprise.
Therefore, Tim argues, it's all about changing wrong beliefs of the individuals into liberty beliefs of the individuals and societal change will follow from that.
The problem with this theory of social change is that it is almost certainly a fantasy. Humans have had approximately one million years of the free market of ideas and there has never been a 10% flipping point of opinion that, on its own, caused an unjust system (yes, a "power structure") to dissolve itself towards human liberty.
This fantasy has many forms, so Tim is not alone.
In one form it is stated as "the pen is mightier than the sword". In this form, the model is that a really good idea about human liberty cannot not propagate, and will ultimately, on its own, overthrow brutal rule by force. Here again, the written word has been around for a very long time, and many great ideas have been penned, but this has not provided humans with liberty.
Another form of this fantasy is the form preferred by the Left and advanced by Chomsky. It goes like this: "We have great ideas and theories that would make the world more just. Therefore, we must "educate" the public about our ideas. The answer is education. We must "organize" to "educate" more and more. Teach-ins, sit-ins, documentary films, speakers, university courses, etc. A thus informed public will vote wisely and will expect accountability from politicians."
Another variant of the fantasy on the Left is known as pacifism or "non-violent resistance". Here the great idea is that we will defend our freedom by lying down in front of the bulldozers. Some have proposed that this approach, on its own, had success in India under the leadership of Gandhi. However, that interpretation of India's history has been debunked by Professor Ward Churchill in his book "Pacifism as Pathology".
Now I know that libertarians would not lie down in front of bulldozers, but that is not the point. Also, it is interesting to note that Gandhi himself supported open carry, of a sort. In the fight against the British invader, Ghandi himself wrote: "we are soldiers of nonviolence, who, if the occasion demands, will lay down their lives for it. Our nonviolence is not a mere policy of the coward. […] It is a thousand times better that we die trying to acquire the strength of arm[s]. Using physical force with courage is far superior to cowardice. At least we would have attempted to act like men."
The point is that social change has never occurred anywhere from the mere fact alone of changing individual beliefs about freedom. All the known episodes of social change towards increased freedom have involved real circumstances of revolt, whether students on campuses, workers on factory floors or in mines, soldiers in mutiny or defecting, and so on. Political parties capitalized on and managed the change but did not create the change by creating beliefs.
The Libertarian Party of Canada will have growth because people are truly fed up but people are not fed up because they developed a new belief about freedom. Ron Paul is alive first-and-foremost because freedom and democracy have died, not because there has been an awakening of beliefs.
Beliefs are parasites to the reality of the circumstances. Beliefs are malleable and adjust to provide justification for an individual's solution, and a solution must be adopted in action and behaviour to the extent that there is a problem. Face-saving and self-image are necessary but they are secondary to interest and to power relations. Beliefs are not the tail that wags the dog, when it come to the actions of people. Real and perceived necessity and social relations of support and of power are the determinants.
The battle is about real power struggles. People need work, mobility, meaningful influence, freedom, social ties, and so on. We adopt any mental framework to justify either our inability to obtain what we need or our actions in obtaining what we want. Beliefs are subservient to our actual actions in the physical and social circumstances of our lives. That is why virtually everybody's beliefs are incoherent and full of contradictions. Just look at a string of comments on Facebook or YouTube.
CEOs are people too
Tim states: "There seems to be an argument propagated that people are helpless and devoid of agency in the face of manufactured consent and I think this isn't helpful and in a lot of ways its insulting because it imagines that poor and middle-class people are less capable of revising their own beliefs than those considered to be the elite. Imagining that politicians or CEO's are someone outside the paradigm and recognize it and manipulate it while others are helplessly immersed and blind to it seems unlikely. I think its more likely that the individuals that comprise the so-called ruling class are as immersed in the system of delusion as everyone else and unconsciously appeal to authority to maximize their own benefit just like everyone else."
The simplest level of analysis is to posit that others think and are motivated just like us. That is valid at the level of basic needs and desires, but it is not valid in comparing the political sophistication or knowledge of people in different social dominance classes. It is undeniable that there are social dominance classes and that the class structure is much more stratified than simply "ruling class" and the rest of us.
A major stock holder that owns controlling interests in a global corporate empire that wields more resources than most national states on the planet does not move in the same circles as the average billionaire. The chairs of boards that control the global financial institutions and the Federal Reserve don't move in the same spheres as lowly Congressmen and Congresswomen. And so on. At every level, in each stratum of the hierarchy, each person knows his/her place.
Contrary to Tim's proposal, of course a CEO has a very different view of the world than a member of the middle class. This is a direct consequence of the fact that the CEO has a much better view of the actual workings of the system. To the CEO, the items we are debating are not even a subject of debate, because he/she exercises a much higher level of power than any of us, on a daily basis.
It's the difference between calling the publisher of the New York Times to get coverage you need versus wondering the extent to which the media is simply following free market news-worthiness principles... It's the difference between knowing on a daily basis how the media gets directed versus Chomsky having to painstakingly prove from end-result observations that the media is directed. And so on.
If libertarians are going to seek political leverage yet will insist on being blind to social dominance class structure, then their political instrument will not be an instrument of better information and of projected influence. It will turn into an instrument of management of the "libertarian problem". It's the Conservatives that have a "libertarian problem". At the same time, the Conservatives is where the "libertarian problem" has the most leverage.
Even if it's not true, it's practical
Tim states: "There is no denying that it is highly profitable to have people subscribe to irrational beliefs and so people in a position to profit from irrational beliefs (ie politicians, corporate owners, tenured professors) tend to become self-interested apologists for these beliefs. But it is short-sighted to suggest that the root cause of the problem is that people who profit from irrational beliefs reinforce them, and I don’t think it gets us anywhere."
Well, first, I don't believe that "the root cause of the problem is that people who profit from irrational beliefs reinforce them" since I don't believe that beliefs are the tail that wag the person-dog (as explained above). Never mind. So, Tim insists on beliefs as a "root cause", agrees that these beliefs may adjust to suit class advantages, but decides that it is pragmatic to retain his theory of social change nonetheless -- that beliefs determine personal actions and government when those beliefs pass a tipping point (the Left calls it "critical mass"); otherwise "I don't think it gets us anywhere", as he states.
On the face of it, it seems clear that Tim has a strong belief (hopefully not "unshakable") in his theory of social change, and that he insists on using this model to guide his political strategy.
It also appears to me that Tim is not keen on any political confrontations that will produce backlash: "Yikes! I hope nobody nails me to a cross. I hope my wife doesn’t read this or she may make me quit." I believe that real backlash is the only reliable measure that one has shown potential to leverage some change from the power structure. There is no such thing as a confrontationless battle to significantly change society. The task cannot be achieved by a clever take-over using beliefs as a Trojan horse. Instead it is partially achieved by every actual battle. Tim knows this but he is hoping that the battles need not be more than scoring soft public opinion points in a gentleman's game.
Tim states: "[...] The state is a corporation from whence all other corporations are birthed. It is the pen-ultimate umbrella corporation and its only product is initiatory force. [...] The minute you have any group organize around the use of initiatory force you immediately set up the conditions and the incentives for everybody to struggle for control of that force. The wealthy stand a much better chance of buying this power, that is true, but I think it is a mistake to say that this makes them inherently more culpable than anyone else. They are only able to buy that power because we want a corporation that monopolizes violence called the state."
First, I would never say that the "wealthy" are "inherently more culpable than anyone else", because such a statement again abstracts-away the all-important societal-dominance hierarchy. It's like we are all equal individuals in terms of access to structural power but some are wealthier... Never mind. The problem I see here is that Tim seems to believe that if the state were to disappear then the negative aspects of corporations would whither away. Tim would say that the causal poison is the state.
Now the state is indeed as bad as Tim says, I agree! But my criticism is that predatory and rapacious mega-corporations and finance empires would not stop to exist simply because the governments that they predominantly control are removed from them. They would simply increase their funding to their private militias, and continue controlling the territories and populations that they already control. Simply put, where there is no state, there are war lords and mafia families, and confederations of war lords and mafia families. I'm not saying that the mafia is worst than government. At least the mafia has strict rules about not killing the women and children of competitors. I'm just saying that the state is not the cause of the nasty characteristics of dominance hierarchies.
There is no utopian chaos of freely associating libertarians or anarchists "producing value for each other". The self-organized firefighters that are more efficient than the firefighters ruled by an authoritarian director of operations, in Tim's masters degree university thesis, are real but represent an isolated pocket of practice within a broader structure, and cannot be generalized to all of society. Not because it would be physically impossible, but because it would be humanly impossible. There is always a dominance hierarchy, and there is a perpetual struggle for individual freedom. It is in our animal nature, our human nature, both to spontaneously make and reenforce dominance hierarchies that we inhabit, and, as individuals, to seek freedom and personal agency, influence and meaning.
The Libertarian model that, left to themselves, corporations evolve towards the benefits of optimizing profits in a free market has been disproved by the late and eminent historian of science and technology David F. Noble. In his books "America By Design; Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism" and "Forces of Production; A Social History of Industrial Automation", Noble has shown that modern corporations, when forced to choose, virtually always sacrifice profits for absolute control over their workforce. In this way, corporations are regularly willing to sacrifice significant profits, increases in efficiency, and technological progress, in order to assert their authoritarianism. The name of the game is dominance, over markets and over both employees and clients or consumers. The "ruling class" knows this well, and it is high time that libertarians learn it.
The real question is who controls the corporations, including the state corporation, and is democracy possible and what does it look like. Tim and I agree on the essential point. Regarding the macro-structures of corporations and government, Tim complains that there is a "deficiency of reality congruence". I enthusiastically agree! Tim means reality congruence of free individuals. On the Left the said deficiency would be called "a deficiency of participatory democracy", and that has real libertarian meaning on the Left, among the few Left thinkers that have survived or avoided state indoctrination.
I want to conclude optimistically, exactly the same way I did in my October 7th blogpost about Tim's ideas:
Therefore, one can predict that Moen will continue to search for his own mode of unconventional participation in party politics, designed to cause voter cognitive dissonance, and to maximize occasions for life-changing political discourse.
I hope that he will also be an aggressive agent of criticism, denunciation, and reform of the dysfunctional system itself. How can one create cognitive dissonance while ignoring the elephant in the room?
We will know that Moen has been effective and has touched a nerve when the entire establishment visciously attacks him, or at least is unhinged by him, or at least significant adjusts its discourse to make him irrelevant... Any such sign will be a gauge that freedom is making headway.
Dr. Denis G. Rancourt is a former tenured and Full Professor of physics at the University of Ottawa, Canada. He is known for his applications of physics education research (TVO Interview). He has published over 100 articles in leading scientific journals, and has written several social commentary essays. He is the author of the book Hierarchy and Free Expression in the Fight Against Racism. While he was at the University of Ottawa, he supported student activism and opposed the influence of the Israel lobby on that institution, which fired him for a false pretext in 2009: LINK.