At some point in the last fifty years, while we were all focused on day-to-day events in our own parts of the world, something important and unexpected happened that we didn’t notice. This was a half-century, for those lucky enough to live in the right part of the right part of the world at least, of unprecedented affluence. It saw a groundswell of at least nominal democracy in parts of the world that could not remember or imagine what democracy was. It was a time when technology morphed from being a tool of industrial efficiency to a new theology.
But for every action there is a reaction, and the reaction was what we missed in the details and minutiae of our daily lives. That reaction was a steady erosion of our belief in and respect for the law and the truth, to the point that today they have almost ceased to matter.
Take a look around: In the US we have the Cheney-Bush regime, in power because we don’t really know the truth about who won either of the last two elections, and have no way of ever knowing that truth. This regime has nothing but contempt for the law, and consider themselves above it, not bound by it. They are quite overt and unapologetic about continuing their illegal wiretapping of citizens. Now that the end has justified (in their minds, anyway) the means, they no longer care about concealing their deliberate distortion and lies to Congress and to the people about their reasons for invading, destroying and occupying Iraq. It’s done, it’s history. The fact that they broke, and plan to continue to break, their own country’s laws does not matter. The fact that they have publicly repudiated international law because it is not under their control is a trifle. The fact that they lied egregiously to the parts of the government that are supposed to keep them in check, and to the people who allegedly elected them, is of no consequence. Finished. Nothing more to talk about here, folks, move along.
Take a look, too, at the behaviour of the corporatist oligopolies that dominate and run our global economy. To them, any amount of socially and environmentally immoral behaviour is acceptable provided it is in the interest of “maximizing shareholder value”. If such behaviour is illegal, the corporatists will buy their way out of jail by lobbying politicians to change the law, or, even easier, lobbying them to simply not enforce it. They will threaten uncooperative politicians with bankrolling of their political opponents (they always ensure there are two corporatist-friendly parties firmly in their pockets in each political jurisdiction so they can do this, and if an corporatist-unfriendly government should somehow get into power, they will bribe their government friends in other countries to quietly, illegally overthrow it). If that doesn’t work, they will simply threaten to take their ‘business’ elsewhere, to a country where their immoral behaviour is legal, or at least tolerated because they have stolen and pillaged all that country’s resources so the people have no choice left but to do what they’re told, or starve.
Having bypassed the law, the corporatists are now busy rewriting the truth, suing in court for the right to lie to customers (‘advertising’ is hence redefined as the right of corporatists to blanket the media, which they mostly own, with lies and propaganda). I sat here last night watching an ‘advertisement’ for Shell Canada featuring an actor pretending to be a scientist who cared about remediating (“for the people”) the Alberta Tar Sands, Canada’s most disgraceful and accelerating environmental plundering, and shook my head in shame, anger and disbelief. The actor was careful to stress that this ‘development’ was essential to protect the economic security and energy independence of Canada and its allies. Massive lies bought with massive amounts of money, blanketing the media. As Goebbels said, “If you say something often enough, the people will believe it.”
Or take a look at the media, which are mostly owned by corporatist oligopolies and which, to save money for their ‘shareholders’, increasingly rely on governments to spoon-feed them the ‘news’. At one time the press prided itself on its independence, and its relentless search for the truth, but now it has new marching orders. It turns out that searching for the truth is not only expensive, it is risky, because if you say something counter to the ‘new truth’ spouted by those with power and wealth, they will sue you and force you to recant the real truth. Shareholders don’t like lawsuits. So the media found a way around barefaced lying to the citizens (corporatist advertising can look after the barefaced lying, and the media are actually paid for that advertising): They have mostly stopped being information media and morphed to become entertainment media. This has the advantage of citizen complicity: If the citizens no longer believe what the media are saying, they will stop relying on the media for information, and will only watch them for entertainment. Presto, Fox ‘News’. No pretense of telling the truth, so you can’t be accused by those with moral scruples of lying. You’re just giving the people what they want. An opinion is merely an opinion, devoid of information, so it can’t be ‘untruthful’. Problem solved. If people really want to know the truth they can seek alternative media (and we know most of them don’t — compare their ratings to ours).
What has moved into the vacuum where law and truth once held sway is naked power and wealth. Might makes right, and money defines truth. If those with power say this is the way it will be, that is the way it will be, and the law does not matter. If those with wealth spend it to blanket the airwaves and the media with their message of what is happening and what happened, then that is what is happening and what happened, and the truth does not matter. And if you dare mourn the death of law or truth, the cynics and spin doctors will shut you down and shut you up by telling you it’s always been that way, that power has always trumped the law and wealth has always exerted its influence to obscure and restate the truth.
But it hasn’t always been that way. It is too easy, and dishonest, to shrug off as mere illusion the prevalence of rule by democratic law that applies to all, and truth as something pervasive that is kept alive by people despite the volume and ubiquity of propaganda. Of course there have been people who have been able to get away with murder, even mass murder, at various times in our history. Of course Orwellian deceptions have been promulgated to lead masses of people to acts of madness and atrocity, and to rewrite history to cover up these deceptions. But our civilization rests absolutely on law and truth as two of its cornerstones, and without belief in at least the possibility and ultimate prevalence of law and truth, civilization cannot be sustained. As soon as the bully imposes his rule over the sandlot baseball game, changing the rules so his team cannot lose, and changing the reported score so that his team is declared to be winning when they are losing, the other team will simply cease to play and walk away. Civilization is nothing more than an elaborate game we have all agreed to play because the rules appear to be mostly fair, and the scorekeeping mostly truthful.
Those of us on the pessimistic side of the blogosphere have been predicting the collapse of civilization in this century, brought about by some combination of overpopulation, overconsumption, global warming, the end of oil, epidemic disease, cascading natural disasters and universal access to recipes for weapons of mass destruction. What we may not have noticed, like those in the Great Depression who didn’t call it that until it had been in full swing for four years, is that civilizational collapse has already begun. Not with any of the aforementioned ‘bangs’ but with a whimper: the loss of importance of law and truth, as the belief and respect of many for them has slowly eroded to nothing.
No surprise, then, that most people don’t vote, and instinctively believe that what they do as individual citizens and consumers doesn’t matter, doesn’t make any difference. On one side you have conservatives calling for de-regulation and the libertarians calling for dismantling of government, so that power will shift from the corporatists in government to the corporatists in industry. On the other side you have the liberals calling for tighter regulation, so that the power will shift from the corporatists in industry to the corporatists in government that are beholden to the corporatists in industry for their campaign financing. So why should the citizen care, when it really doesn’t matter? The law doesn’t matter, because if you’re rich and powerful you can get away with anything, and if you’re poor and disenfranchised they’ll execute you on trumped-up charges without a second thought. The truth doesn’t matter, because those with wealth and power will use all their resources to drown it out and replace it with what they want you to believe. And if you’re too adamant about telling the truth, they’ll use their money and power to sue you, force you to recant, label you a ‘terrorist’, make you their whipping-boy, or even have you killed or overthrown.
So soon the people without wealth or power also start to realize that the law and the truth have ceased to matter. Now civilization is in trouble. It is OK for the rich and powerful to lie and cheat, but when everyone starts to do it the whole society starts to break down. Just as the stock market is a Ponzi scheme, a ‘confidence game’ that can only be sustained as long as the majority believe there is somehow value there, our society can only continue if the vast majority have confidence that it ‘works’ for them, that its advantages outweigh its disadvantages. Goebbels maxim notwithstanding, people will only take so much propaganda when the evidence all around them contradicts it. Eventually, they will realize that they are being ‘had’. When reported GDP keeps rising but real income for 90% keeps falling, when the majority are working two or three menial, meaningless jobs to make ends meet while a handful hoard obscene wealth, when people get chronically sick and die and the only possible culprit left is the poisons the rich and powerful have thoughtlessly pumped into the food, water and air, when the Lomborgian denials of global warming become ludicrous in the face of wild, devastating swings in weather — the people, whose acceptance and participation in this unfair con game are needed to continue it, will just throw down their mitts and bats and walk away, refuse to play any more.
They will do what those who have walked away from past collapsing civilizations have done — they will build a newcivilization, a new society, from the bottom up.
One where the law and the truth matter.
The bullies from the old game will not be invited to play.