With Bernie Sanders’ recent insurgent success on the presidential nomination campaign trail, preaching the Gospel of Bernie as TIME magazine’s Sam Frizell calls it, positioned as he is upon his platform of Democratic socialism, there’s been much talk about the foundations of socialism, the spectre of Marxism it seems to evoke, and the comparison of the US system with that of many highly succesful industrialized countries of the modern world it has provoked. At the same time, the rock star pope Francis has also been winning over the hearts and minds of many with his message of “closeness”, not walking “unaccompanied”, and caring for one another and for our home planet. These and several other influences have been planting themes in the subterranean depths of my mind and intertwining towards a very important discussion that I believe humanity is now having with itself, via the innermost reaches of each individual’s reckonings with the cosmos. The discussion is not by any means a new one, nor is it any more important now than it has always been. But what is so interesting about the current cycling back to it is the unique moment in the historical trajectory of our species that we seem to occupy, with technological development having reached a moment of such immense transformative potential, so as to make what has been merely theoretical now a distinctly realizable goal.
To begin with, let me try me best to describe the poles of the issue, as I see it. One way to concisely summarize it is as the good pontiff put it, and I’ll paraphrase him slightly here if I may: what is required is a Friendship of Society, in contrast to the way of the world that encourages an Enmity of Society whose creed is “I take care of myself and you take care of yourself” – a social Darwinism, if you will. At the very core, this is the issue at stake, whether we choose to view ourselves as members of a community, or rather as individuals surviving by virtue of our fitness. Do you live for yourself and your loved ones only, or do you live for the the larger society of which you are one among many?
The evolutionary argument carries a lot of weight behind it, to be sure, and it is clear that non-human nature engenders a “dog-eat-dog” context. This is what drives the uber-capitalists of our current era to favor privatization of every sector of human life and to ‘leave it to the markets’, as they say. This abstract notion, the Market, is supposed to be the pinnacle of nature’s inherent competitiveness as it manifests in the human arena. The sort of laissez faire capitalism that America prides itself on, which has brought about the unrestrained market activity that has repeatedly brought about devastating global economic crises, is the ultimate epitome of this line of thinking. In the final analysis, if these rugged American individualistic cowboys and gals will have their way, we will one day see the eventual abolition of government as wing after wing is clipped until it is rendered impotent and ineffectual, comparable to the relegation of the monarch to a merely ceremonial post upon the advent of constitutional monarchies.
Make no mistake: we are already more than halfway there. In a list of the largest economic entities of the world as of 2011, many corporations ranked rather highly, such as Wal-Mart occupying position 28, BP at position 32, and even Apple at position 114. In other words, some of the corporations of today’s world have been allowed to balloon up so much so that they are now overseeing budgets on a scale comparable to that of many of the world’s countries. The situation where corporations are allowed to get that big and to even exceed the economic power of some of the countries that they operate in introduces an existential problem for the very notion of government itself. This should be an obvious point, but I’ll spell it out in case it isn’t: the ability of lawmakers and regulators to serve the needs of the population they are tasked with representing diminishes rapidly as the ability to compensate them skews from public funds towards private interests. We don’t use the word bribery in modern days, but the actions of special interests groups and other such massive lobbying activity in this country can be called by no other non-euphemistic name. Government needs a bulwark against these assaults on its integrity, and this cannot reside solely within an honor system-like phenomenon wherein every lawmaker is expected to uphold the principle of the post and to remain untainted by the allure of all that shines. Furthermore, global trade deals such as the TPP that is currently under discussion, which some have likened to a corporate coup d’etat, continue to erode the powers of the various governments of the world and shift more and more power to private entities, whose only concern is the maximization of profit.
Contrasted to this hyper-individualistic outlook on existence, we must consider the socialist alternative, alongside the many other forms of communal coexistence that humanity has experimented with in the past. Why has socialism suddenly sprung into the public debate and collective consciousness? Not least among the reasons must be the failure of the so-called recovery from the Great Recession to “trickle-down”. The rich are getting richer, and everyone else is getting poorer. At some point, a threshold is reached and people refuse to continue on with their apathy and indifference and begin to look for alternative ideas. They begin to see that nobody is looking out for them. Government, this farce that they have grown weary of entertaining as they walk acquiescently to their designated voting booths, starts to reveal itself as representing donors rather than voters. Politicians, with their silly pompous airs, their groveling supplicant arms outstretched towards the highest bidder, have started to reveal themselves for the prostitutes they are, who whore using their political power rather than their bodies. The common man or woman wants a society that caters to the needs of all its members, and would see to it to be presided over by a government that shines down its bounties upon all just as does the sun rain its photons upon the least of us no less than upon the greatest. To quote the great Khalil Gibran: “The wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant Oaks than to the least of all blades of grass”.
This brings us back full circle to the teachings of Christ, echoed today by the unconventional and good-hearted Pope Francis. In many ways, religious teaching has often encouraged communities to come together and feel connected. Churches and mosques and temples continue to serve this important function in the places where they continue to exist. Unfortunately, the casting off of the fetters of religion has left the modern non-believer without what I like to call a Social Infrastructure, or in the slightly more poetic title of this piece, a Social Fabric. I am not a member of any large-scale organized religion, and am happier for it for the unchaining of my intellectual faculties from their immovable anchors in ancient scripture. However, I feel a distinct lack of connection with my fellow cosmic travellers because of the implications of that unchaining. Societies are inherently fractured structures, always being subdividable into smaller sub-communities and even families within sub-communities. And although I don’t advocate a common creed that all must believe in, I do lament the loss of the cohesiveness such a framework had provided. We are seemingly faced with the choice between meaninglessness and nihilism on the one hand, and puerile mythological fantasy and patriarchal social structure on the other. Can we not find a modern social consciousness to tie us together without necessitating that we adopt ideas that have no place in the modern world? Where is society to turn to in search of new garments after she has shorn off all her prior inhibitions and liberated herself?
And finally, we arrive at the crux of the whole argument by finally discussing the role of the technological power that I alluded to earlier. Bernie Sanders’ insurgency has largely not been televised, as the old adage goes (I know it’s not actually that old, but casting it as such emphasizes my point and I’ll therefore take the liberty to do so). We are living in highly unpredictable times, where anything can go “viral”, and where the number of “retweets” or “likes” of an event is almost more consequential than other more mainstream forms of coverage. Everyone is connected, not by divine inspirations, but by electronic communication. We are all in each other’s presence at all times, being a mere instant message away. With the arrival of newer technologies like Snapchat, Periscope and Meerkat, the everyday observer is in more and more control of media production. What need is there for expensive camera crews and satellite links, when you can log into one of these services and get live feeds directly from the scene, for free? We are increasingly capable of usurping the powers that be because we are no longer controllable by their traditional media machinery. We are now able to decide what gets covered because we are empowered to broadcast it ourselves. Can we use this enormous new power at our disposal to upend the old formula, and wrest power back from the modern day feudal lords and resume our trajectory towards purer and purer forms of democracy? I willingly accept the label “naive” that comes with believing that we can.
In a socialist society, the state is large and governs effectively. A prerequisite for that is the indiscriminate taxation of all citizens as per a rationally designed progressive taxation system. In our current state of affairs here in the US, we have discrimination regarding who is taxed and who is not, the latter category being occupied mainly by those wealthy enough to pay less money in bribes than what would have been owed in taxes to get the laws changed in their favor. This is how our government is currently in the process of being sold off to the highest bidder. This would not occur in a society where government is large and capable of enforcing its laws. More important than empowering government, however, is involving the people in its affairs. And this is where control of the media has traditionally been used to obscure governmental activity, thus enabling these multifarious forms of corruption that are eating away at the very foundations. In today’s world, a member of Congress merely has to tweet about legislation that his constituency is opposed to. The coming generations of Representatives and Senators are going to operate in a wildly different manner than what we are used to. I for one will not agree to be governed by those who only care about increasing the size of their coffers, and will do all I can to rally those around me who wish to see a government that protects their rights and guarantees a standard of living commensurate with their own views of self-worth and not the kind of slum lifestyle that the mega-rich would rather pile us into like too many sardines in too small a tin can.
And finally, I’ll end on a more metaphysical note. In the grand scheme of things, there appears to be a cosmic trajectory to things, coalescing as they do from plasma soup in the early moments after the Big Bang, to subatomic particles which cohered into hydrogen, later fusing to form the heavier elements, which then allowed solid land and liquid water on planets to appear, paving the way for the more complex macromolecules of biochemistry to begin to combine to form single-celled organisms, which then came together and organized their activity to form the multicellular varieties of life that we see today. The next stage can only be that we too begin to act as one, living for the common good, so that our societies can ultimately unite and bring about a global consciousness to send us off on the remaining steps along our cosmic journey, the end of which can only be ultimate unification of all with all. And here I begin to echo the wise words of Jesus, who admonished us to love our neighbors and to love our enemies and to care for the poor and the sick. If any man alive today can claim to echo the words of the Christ, it must be the pontiff of the Holy See himself, who I’ll quote now from his recent address to the joint session of the US Congress as it perfectly encapsulates the entire spirit of this essay.
If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort. — Pope Francis addressing Congress today