Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Lunatic is in My Head

"The possibility of madness is therefore implicit in the very phenomenon of passion."
- Michel Foucault (Madness and Civilisation)

The mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona was a sad and unpleasant event, but it was fully expected by those of us who stay informed. We couldn't predict exactly where such an event would occur, when it would occur or how it would occur, but we knew that it was only a matter of time before people began lashing out against "the system" in violent ways. In early 2010, a man lashed out by flying a plane into an IRS building in Texas, but this time the violence directly targeted a federal politician, who is currently hospitalized in critical condition.

The shooter was Jared Loughner, a 22-year old who was "studying" in an Arizona Community College. Since the event, many people have obviously started digging through every single detail of this man's history, from the "incoherent" and "inappropriate" things he said in class, to his "disturbing" postings on the Internet and his drug-related criminal record. There were all kinds of different "warning signs" available to foreshadow the shooting and potentially prevent it, if only those who had observed him had been more vigilant and took some action.

Perhaps it is true that Loughner's parents, friends or classmates could have deciphered his murderous plans and prevented the shooting. But does that mean this rampage was an isolated incident, specific to a hopelessly deranged individual who had inexplicably fallen from the good graces of "normal" society? Frankly, the whole post-event routine reminds me of CNBC pundits attempting to explain a large market sell-off by referencing a mish-mash of "unexpected" economic events and "temporarily" negative data.

Already, politicians and the mainstream media have framed the event as one involving an individual person who was suffering from mental illness, perhaps even bordering on paranoid schizophrenia. He was clearly a delusional young man, unlike the rest of us "normal" folk, and he eventually succumbed to his "crazy" thoughts and urges to kill. CNN reports:

"Forensic psychologist Kathy Seifert called the postings "absolutely psychotic." Loughner should have been evaluated for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism or other mental illnesses, she said." [].
And what exactly do these postings say that make them so "absolutely psychotic"? Here are some of the things that Loughner had to say on the Internet:

"In conclusion, reading the second United States constitution I can't trust the current government because of the ratifications: the government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar..." []
It isn't really clear which "ratifications" he was referring to or even what he meant by "the second United States Constitution", but he obviously felt the U.S. government was using its alleged Constitutional powers to inappropriately manipulate the ways in which American people think about the world. I, for one, am not afraid to admit that I have very similar thoughts about our government and its exploitative/manipulative powers. Here is a statement found in a YouTube message, and another statement from a classmate who had spoken with Loughner:

"No! I won't pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver! No! I wont trust in God!" []
He added that one topic that Mr. Loughner seemed to be obsessed with was the American dollar. “He had talked about not liking the currency,” Mr. Cates said. “And he wished that the U.S. would change to a different currency because our currency is worthless.” [].
Well, informed people in the economic blogosphere who say they don't identify with the above statements are either lying or confused. Loughner's YouTube page also contains the following:

A list of his favorite books included both "Mein Kampf" and the "Communist Manifesto," along with works by George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Ken Kesey, Herman Hesse, Ernest Hemingway, Plato and Aesop's Fables. []
With the exception of "Mein Kampf", I can honestly say that I deeply respect all of those writers and most of their works. In the context of our current economic environment, the writings of Karl Marx should especially resonate with people who understand the nature of our predicament. Is it so difficult, then, to connect the dots between Loughner's shooting spree and the ongoing collapse of our financial economic paradigm? For politicians and the media, it is either too difficult or too inconvenient, and I lean towards an explanation with a healthy dose of both.

Outside of these Internet messages, Loughner had revealed himself to be generally disruptive in class and to have a pretty hot temper. Did this make him an absolute psychopath, or someone who had an extremely hard time dealing with the contradictions and exploitations that he witnessed in American society every day? For the latter explanation to make any sense, we must first admit that these contradictions actually exist, and status quo power structures could not possibly conceive of making such a confession. What better way to hide this underlying truth than to relegate Loughner and his actions to the exotic realm of psychiatric disorder?

Inspired by thinkers such as Michel Foucault, who wrote an acclaimed historical treatise on "madness" in Western society [], the "anti-psychiatry" movement has been very critical of institutional practices in modern psychiatry and their tendency to lump complex people into general categories of insanity. It specifically criticizes the "miscategorization of normal reactions to extreme situations as psychiatric disorders". []. Loughner may have made peculiar comments and exhibited erratic behavior, but it would be foolish to dismiss his violent actions as the result of officially-defined "madness" without considering the systemic context in which they occurred. Unfortunately, this process of dismissal is exactly what is occurring and we should expect it to continue.

Loughner is just another crazy individual who finally went off the deep end and snapped. The only thing left to do now is to dramatically report on the victims for television ratings, stir up some faux debate over mental health procedures and gun regulation, use the event for political advantage and, perhaps most importantly, use Loughner's "mental illness" as a way of discrediting accurate representations of reality. The New York Times has already gotten to work on that last part, and this is what Mark Potok from the Southern Poverty Law Center has to say:

"The position, for instance, that currency not backed by a gold or silver standard is worthless is a hallmark of the far right and the militia movement...That idea is linked closely to the belief among militia supporters that the Federal Reserve is a completely private entity engaged in ripping off the American people." []
Such grossly inaccurate characterizations of reality by the so-called "educated" in American society were prevalent well before Loughner's rampage, but there is no doubt that power structures are already attempting to use this event to further reinforce the alternative reality. One where only hardcore "extremists" can believe that our country is systemically corrupt, and that the Federal Reserve is funneling trillions of dollars from taxpayers to large financial institutions. However, we can take some solace in the fact that these attempts are being carried out from a deathbed, and there is increasingly little room in the minds of Americans for contrived realities.

The truth is that we are all living in an "extreme situation", where the fabric of modern society is bursting at the seams, and the normal reaction is a combination of sadness, fear, frustration and anger. In the ever-present battle between logical composure and dissonant rage, the latter obviously won out in Loughner's brain. He could have been an informed young man discussing his philosophical and political ideas with people in school and on the Internet, being extremely critical but also calm and respectful. Instead, he ended up with a 9mm Glock in a grocery store with a federal politician and a head full of rage. Still, his lunacy was fundamentally no different from that of millions of other Americans across the nation, and our society continues to ignore that lesson at its own peril.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Highly Efficient Systems and Agonizing Death

"Not one has shown an iota of fear of death. They want to end this agony." - Jack Kevorkian

Perhaps what we need as a society is a better understanding of "efficiency", since it is such a key aspect of all complex systems. Take the human body, for example, which is perhaps the most complex life form that has evolved on Earth. After increasing specialization and inter-connection of various bodily components through millions of years of evolution, the systems of the human body have become extremely efficient at their specific functions. The arteries, veins and capillaries of the cardiovascular system have evolved an intricate fractal design that competently delivers oxygen and nutrients to all of the body's cells as necessary.

What's important to understand is that every systemic component of the body has a specific function that serves to keep the body alive, growing and relatively stable over periods of time. These functions take place without any regard to concepts of fairness or equality. If my individual skin cells had an emergent sense of self-aware conscience (like me), then they would probably be very upset with my brain cells, which are much fewer in number and receive a disproportionate share of my resource intake (the brain receives 20% of the body's blood) [1]. In fact, the comfortable brain cells typically remain alive for a person's entire lifetime, while the average skin cell lasts for about a couple of weeks before it dies off and is replaced.

This systems theoretical framework of understanding applies just as well to our global economic, social, cultural and political structures. These evolved systems are amazingly efficient at keeping the overarching human civilization "alive", growing and relatively stable. Consistent material growth is achieved by exploiting limited resources and concentrating such resources in centralized structures through various mechanisms of action. Just as a biological species must eventually adapt to its surroundings or go extinct, human socioeconomic systems that are inefficient at promoting consistent growth/concentration will be marginalized, modified or replaced.

Of course, socioeconomic evolution takes place much more rapidly than its biological counterpart. Over the last few hundred years, every dominant system of human civilization has evolved to efficiently maintain the status quo processes of material growth and wealth concentration. These systems will almost always sacrifice "fairness" and "equality" for efficiency, because the former have no role in preserving the overarching civilization as it has come to exist. Each one of these systems also has its own unique evolutionary function:

--Economic System - Here is the foundational system of human civilization, as it allows vital resources to be extracted, manipulated and traded between humans. As greater resource pools are generated between diverse economic actors, larger populations of humans can be supported in a given area and more complex forms of social and political organization can be established. The Industrial Revolution took this logic to its parabolic extreme and has obviously allowed immense growth in net wealth and "standards of living". This system, similar to the human cardiovascular system, must deliver a disproportionate share of resources to centralized structures that are vital to maintaining/growing the current body of civilization (i.e. developed countries, large corporations, prominent corporate executives, strategic political groups, etc.)

--Social System - The dominant social structure is best described as one containing hierarchical class divisions determined by levels of material wealth. It is an inevitable byproduct of industrial economic evolution, and primarily serves to reinforce the legitimacy of the naturally-occurring wealth disparity in our world. People in the developed world, especially, are socially conditioned by parents, teachers, public figures, etc. to believe that everyone has an opportunity to be materially "successful", and to look down on those who happen to fall short. The severe stigmas that attach to poverty and homelessness, or even an "average" lifestyle, ensure that the distressing symptoms of economic growth/concentration will be tolerated for some time.

--Cultural System - Many people describe developed societies as having "consumption cultures", and that is probably the most apt description. Material consumption, of course, is absolutely necessary for the consistent material growth of human civilization, and therefore this cultural system is naturally dominant. The need to continually increase wealth concentration (due to limited resources), however, means that only specific segments of civilization can be imbued with this cultural feature, which comes at the expense of the less materially fortunate. A consumption culture provides an extremely efficient mechanism for directing resources to various centralized structures, since economic actors (individuals, corporations, governments)  within it  deeply believe such a process to be "normal" , routine and beneficial to all.

--Political System - The political systems of Western nations are currently, without a doubt, the most "corrupt" in the world, and this nature is typically criticized as being a disease marked by inefficiency. Corruption, however, could just as easily be described as a highly efficient means of maintaining the structures of global society by promoting growth and wealth concentration. It provides wealthy economic entities with direct access to sovereign power, a sweeping dominion conditionally granted by the people to their respective states. This power essentially allows the elites to force people in a certain direction through physical or financial coercion. It also allows them to use threats of violence or violence itself to obtain valuable resources and economic concessions. No other political system, such as one more "representative" or "democratic", would have allowed human civilization to achieve material growth/concentration at the frightening pace and scale that we have witnessed to date.

Still, there are many different types of economic, social, cultural and political systems that have emerged and/or survived in various regions of the world in the last few hundred years. It is true that not all of these systems have evolved to efficiently maintain/grow the existing civilization, and some of them may even be in direct opposition to the status quo. However, it is clear that systems which have failed to adapt to the dominant environment have been thoroughly isolated or have struggled to survive before simply going extinct. Eventually, they have all ended up as minor infections subject to the brutal mercy of a healthy immune system.

Some may point to China as an exception, since it is a country with a "Communist" economic/political system that has thrived in recent years. While it is true that they have been materially successful, it is only because they have adapted to the dominant economic, social, cultural and political modes of operation. There are many fundamental similarities between their models of speculative financial investment, bureaucratic government, careless environmental policy, pronounced socioeconomic division, etc. and ours. We cannot let simple labels or mainstream conventions distract us from the systemic reality lying underneath. Despite their different and misleading labels, all of these dominant systems in global civilization have evolved to efficiently promote material growth and concentrate wealth.

Of course, the life of every system eventually comes to its material end. The skin begins to sag and lose color, the bones becomes fragile, the blood flow meets increasing resistance and mental processes start to fade. The "immune system" of our global civilization is not nearly as effective as it used to be, and even the slightest infection could bypass its defenses and spell society's demise. Efficient systems will always and forever become fragile and burn themselves out, given enough time. It may take millions of years to occur in large biological or ecological systems, but it only takes a few human generations in socioeconomic ones. The evolved systems of global civilization are absolutely necessary for its survival, and they are all quickly deteriorating now. Given the surety of this impending death, the only thing left to fear is the possibility that our society dies in bitter and painful agony, rather than a state of composed dignity.