The New Definition of ‘Liberty’

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A few decades ago one could . . . still accept the expression “My Country right or wrong” as a proper expression of patriotism; today this standpoint can be regarded as lacking in moral responsibility.

~ Konrad Lorenz

I was startled the other morning to see a cable television news headline that read: "Department of Justice studying police officer shootings." My initial response was to wonder if Will Grigg's LRC articles and blogs on the brutalities, murders, and other criminal acts by police officers had generated so much attention that the political establishment was forced to deal with what appears to be a rampant problem. I later discovered that the DOJ was concerned not with police officers shooting ordinary people (what Will calls the "mundanes"), but with people shooting police officers. I felt a bit embarrassed having imagined, for even an instant, that modern government officials might have had occasion to regard such police assaults on individuals as the violation of a moral principle worthy of attention.

There is little doubt that political systems represent the most destructive, repressive, anti-life, and dehumanized form of social organization. If one were to consciously design and carry out a scheme that would prove disastrous to human well-being, it would be difficult to improve on what we now find in place. Such entities thrive on the energies generated by the mobilization of our inner, dark-side forces, a dynamic that can be brought about only through us, by you and me agreeing to structure our thinking to conform to the preeminence of such institutionalized thinking. I explored these processes in my book Calculated Chaos.

But it is not sufficient for the state, alone, to organize and direct how we think of ourselves, others, and the systems to be employed in conducting ourselves in society. Organizations that began as flexible tools that allowed us to cooperate with one another through a division of labor to accomplish our mutual ends, soon became ends in themselves, to which we attached our very sense of being. Tools became our identities; our shared self-interests became co-opted by the collective supremacy of the organization. In this way were institutions born.

In order to clearly distinguish one form of organization from another, I have defined an "institution" as "any permanent social organization with purposes of its own, having formalized and structured machinery for pursuing those purposes, and making and enforcing rules of conduct in order to control those within it." In short, an "institution" is a system that has become its own reason for being, with people becoming fungible resources to be exploited for the accomplishment of collective ends.

While the state is the most apparent and pervasive example, our institutionally-centered thinking dominates how we conduct ourselves in society. Economic organizations (e.g., business corporations, labor unions), religions, educational systems, the news media, are the more familiar forms of human activity engaged in through hierarchically-structured institutions. The values by which we measure our personal success or social benefits arising from such systems are those of particular interest to institutions themselves. These include, among others, such considerations as material well-being (e.g., income, employment, money, GDP); institutional certification (e.g., diplomas and degrees, SAT scores, professional licensing); and social status (e.g., fame, wealth, power, and other consequences of achieving success within institutions). In the vernacular of modern psychology, institutions are largely driven by such left-brained factors as linear and logical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and applied science (i.e., engineering).

Within our highly-structured world, values that do not serve institutional purposes tend to be regarded as forms of entropy (i.e., energy unavailable for productive work). These may include feelings and emotions, the role of fantasy and imagination, risk taking, spirituality, aesthetics, and spatial relationships. These make up what is referred to as right-brained expressions of our humanity. At best, such qualities are tolerated by the institutional order although, in times of turmoil, may be forcefully resisted (e.g., people being told "don't get emotional"; or to embrace "security" and "certainty" over the risks associated with liberty.

That psychologically healthy men and women incorporate both left- and right-brained influences in their lives is not to be denied. The importance of living centered lives — i.e., living with the integrity that harmonizes (i.e., integrates) our values and actions without conflict or contradiction — is what makes civil society possible. But institutionalized thinking does not allow for such symmetry. An entity that is regarded as an end in itself — its own raison d'etre — is immediately in conflict with the idea of individuals as self-owning beings. From a property perspective, one cannot enjoy decision-making autonomy over his or her life and, at the same time, respect an institution as its own reason for being. This is why a system grounded in liberty and private ownership of property cannot be reconciled with the state.

For such reasons, the interests of individuals and institutions are incompatible, a fact that is reflected in the tendency of members of the institutional order to converge on issues central to the maintenance of centralized authority over people. Whether we are considering the war on drugs; police surveillance; government regulation of the economy; state-funded welfare; the so-called "national defense" industry; support for government schools, wars and the expansion of empire; or numerous other state systems premised on the vertical structuring of human action, one rarely finds major institutions dissenting from established policy. Institutional entities have developed a symbiotic relationship that brings them together, as one, when the order, itself, is challenged. What business corporation, university, major religion, member of the mainstream media, corporate-sponsored "think-tank," international labor union, or other member of the "establishment," has offered a frontal criticism of war, defense contracting, the police system, or government schools?

As our institutionally-directed world continues to collapse into wars and domestic militarism; economic dislocations and corruption brought on by crony-capitalism; the failure of such state-controlled systems as education and health-care; the increasing resort to police brutality, torture, enhanced punishment, and imprisonment; increased levels of taxation and inflation; and other examples of the failure of expectations most of us have had of "the system," there is an ever-widening disconnection between institutions and individuals. There is also a growing awareness that the operational values essential to the interests of each group are not only incompatible, but beyond repair.

In the face of such a systemic bankruptcy within the institutional order — whose power we have been conditioned to embrace as the essence of social order – thoughtful minds might ask: "where is there any fundamental analysis or criticism coming from within these established entities?" What major corporations are heard speaking of the need to abandon our neo-mercantilist practices in favor of laissez-faire policies? What churches have denounced the run-away war system, daring to invoke the name of Jesus on behalf of conditions of love and peace? What colleges and universities truly tolerate the diversity of thought that could give rise to the consideration of new ideas and practices? What members of the major media offer the public anything more than propaganda useful to the political and corporate interests that own them?

It is this institutional group-think that now finds itself threatened by new technologies that do not lend themselves to centralized controls. The Internet and other unstructured tools will continue to destabilize the herds that the institutional order has worked so feverishly to keep confined to their assigned pastures. There is nothing quite so liberating as the increased flow of information, and there is nothing the establishment fears quite so much as a world of truly liberated people. Julian Assange's and Wikileaks' release of state secrets into the hands of persons political systems pretend to serve, are not the problem confronting the establishment: they are precursors of an emerging, life-sustaining social order.

In the meantime, do not expect institutional hierarchies to abandon their left-brained, linear, "bottom line" preoccupations with the accumulation of wealth and power. As George Orwell informed us, institutions may sense our right-brained needs for emotional and spiritual values, and will continue to corrupt language so as to persuade the weak-minded of an alleged commonality of purpose.

To such ends, "liberty" will become defined as a condition in which your obedience to the state will keep you out of prison. "Peace" will be what prevails among nations as long as they acknowledge the sovereign authority of the American Empire. "Life" will be a respected value as long as the living act in conformity with the collective interests of institutions. To expect anything more from the established order is to fail to understand the fundamental dichotomy between human beings and the organizations we have too long revered.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.

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