Brett Rants:
On Free Speech, Power and Choices...

This is actually a continuation of the free speech discussion we had in April. All quoted material is by my loyal opposition, Tim.

[following a discussion on how the conventional media has run a smear campaign on the internet]

Actually, I'm kind of pleased that the old media is fighting dirty. It means that they're scared. They're losing, and they know it, and what you see is merely the death pangs of obsolesence.

I wish this were so. I've chosen my side, and I'm sticking by it, but consider: as the number of "options" increases (500 channels of home shopping -- whee!) and creates an illusion of diversity, the number of companies who own all channels, all stations, all newspapers dwindles to a bare handful.

This new post-commodity media is monolithic, very subtle, and extremely powerful. Since MacLuhan's first vague gestures, few serious attempts have even been made to *understand* it. [1] I don't think traditional media are going to wither away in the face of decentralized communication any more than the state 'withered' away in the face of Soviet socialism. We're going to have to be dedicated, clever, and downright sneaky. And, as Chuckie points out, the electronic media 'revolution' is about to hit its first big hurdle: the bandwidth that broke the camel's back.

But they're definitely scared, and that's a good sign.

. . . the greatest threat to liberty currently comes from the new left.

Would that such a thing were even possible. The difference between "liberals" and "conservatives" in this country is the crown jewel of all media misdirection.[2]

Such distinctions aren't even *relevant* to the question of individual liberty anymore -- let alone essential to it. How often do you interact with government power? As in, how many times per day? Now, how many times do you interact with *corporate* power? Can you even count them?

Government is a guy sitting on a glacier, pretending to steer. A has-been, since at least the Eisenhower administration. The authority that reaches into our lives and touches us comes from an entirely different direction, from a source skilled at camoflage. It recognizes no boundaries; both international borders and our own skin are permeable to it. Far more subtle than the discipline of the classical era, it uses our active and voluntary participation to restrict our freedoms. It makes us happy to pay for our own manipulation. Imagine: 50 million people, Gap on their butts and Nikes on their feet, sipping their Cokes and watching Friends. No totalitarian regime could ever dream of such pervasive influence. Even at their peak, the Fascists never had such uniformity of ideals or behavior.

And on a more cynical note, maybe it's the best we deserve. I've been on Usenet for five years, and it's not too hard to say that there's no point in giving free expression to a people who have nothing to say.

I don't really believe that, but it's sometimes hard not to despair in the face of how easily we've been duped, conquered. One in three of everyone you know is going to die of cancer, most likely caused by things we were convinced we couldn't live without. Things we trusted were good for us, made by people who bought the laws that said they were. The only difference between society at large and the comet cultists is one of degree.

So then Tim went on to say:

Even the most powerful corporations in the world have less influence over my life in any given year than government does in one day. ALL the problems with corporations are really the evil actions of a government performing illegal actions.

Ah, this is the crux of our disagreement. [3]

While I don't really want to get into the various forms of power and its historical transformations, I would like to sketch out what I see as the differences between the influence wielded by government and that of corporate culture.

The easiest kind of power to recognize is the kind that comes out of a gun. It boils down to "do as we say, or there will be consequences."

Crude coercion is power's public face, and it is both clumsy and usually easy to circumvent. This is the kind of power used by governments, and it manifests itself in laws. Laws, then, are the easiest form of power to locate in our lives. We see a speed limit sign, and we have visible concrete proof of coercive limitations on our actions.

But not all power is coercion. In fact, effectively used power is rarely, if ever, coercive.

Much more subtle is the structuring of choice. Not only does this form of power have the advantage of meeting little resistance, it has the added benefit of near invisibility.

This is the kind of power used by corporations, and it pervades almost every segment of American life. It has radically changed our culture over the last fifty years, and is far more relevant to how the future will take shape than any mere political event.

The end result of coercive power is to establish boundaries. It proscribes and requires certain kinds of behavior. These boundaries can serve any number of purposes. Governments have thought of many over the centuries.

The end result of corporate power is a little more complex than "making money," but more on that in a minute. Let us just say for now that all a corporation (or the interests behind the corp.) wants you to do is *buy the product*. How does it do this? Well, advertising, competition, purchasing favorable legislation, etc. All the classic and obvious methods, sure.

But underneath that, something more disturbing. Corporate culture enforces its desires by making sure that you have no real alternatives. The rise of modern media and the phenomenon of the franchise have replaced guns and prisons in structuring individual behavior.

Note I say "structuring" and not "controlling." Control is coercive, visible, and frequently objectionable to its objects. Corporate power is so effective because it remains out of sight, and not only permits, but even helps propagate all kinds of "choices. Choices that it creates.

Corporate culture hides its power behind an illusion of diversity and freedom.

Let's look at the obvious cases. Modern media employs one kind of communication: the one-way, vertical kind. As I've mentioned before, mass-market information is very centralized, and of course you can't talk back to it. Even more significant is that, unlike the droning voices in _1984_, modern media is seductive enough that people *voluntarily* glue themselves to the tube.

By actively seeking out one (corporate-authorized) voice, we cut ourselves off from each other. If the average American watches four hours of TV per day (the number I keep seeing is higher, but let's be conservative), how much time do they spend talking to each other? In the current state of affairs, there are few ideas in circulation that didn't originate in corporate media. And now we have cable, and satellites, and Real Soon Now<tm>, a bizillion channels. A perfect example of the kind of bogus diversity mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Most of the TV stations in America are currently owned by a tiny handful of indistinguishable companies. You can turn the knob, but the message never changes.

Next: we're always hearing about the erosion of our communities. And it's true: things just aren't the way they were fifty years ago. I've lived next door to a woman for two years, and I've never even seen her face. It's probably much the same where you live. How did this happen?

Well, in addition to factors like the decline of the importance of churches and the conversion of our schools into medium-security prisons, we have the vanishing local business. Get on 290 sometime and drive north. It's like one of those old westerns where the scenery went by on a roll of canvas. Blockbuster, Target, Schlotsky's, Bennigan's, NationsBank, Blockbuster, Target, ad nauseam. There are no communities any more because the entire country has become an endless strip-mall.

I must again stress our own complicity here. I am not a conspiracy theorist. Build a new Starbuck's and we'll flock like geese. In the end, the culture is homogenized to increase its penetrability. A uniform culture presents fewer marketing challenges, and allows even greater growth for the 100 or so businesses which are repeated along every stretch of urban highway in the nation.

The movement of goods becomes much like the movement of information. Large entities move the product directly to the consumer, and local commerce atrophies. And every advance of this sort of one-way and vertical method of distribution just makes the next step that much easier.

What I'm talking about here isn't a yoke pressed on the masses by some monolithic center of control. It's a blind process fueled by greed, shortsightedness, and love of convenience that creates a system which authorizes positions of power, and positions of subjugation. An architecture, if you will. The good Dr. Strychnine has this to say on the subject: [4]

Check this out. After the college campus 'riots' of the sixties, the friendly architects who drew up the blueprints for the University of California Irvine were tasked to design a campus that would be a much less conducive environment for holding mass demonstrations of unrest and general peevery. They produced a fine campus in which all of the buildings have crowd control choke points on the doors and the central quad has a huge hill right in the middle and it's covered with spots of trees so as to make it difficult to address a large gathering where everyone's attention can be directed to one location. You have a right to assemble, but not a right to assemble easily.

It is the same way in the United States on a larger scale. Control of the population is achieved with an intelligent architecture. It's really very elegant, and clearly not the product of an industrial society mentality. The most influential institutions in the lives of ordinary people are private enterprises controlled behind closed doors, usually unmarked ones. Information propagation is primarily done through commercial broadcast media edited with a set of selection criteria that begins and ends with suitability for attracting advertising revenue. In other words, it's hard to find out what's really going on, and even when you do find out, it's hard to tell everyone else unless what you have to say is likely to get people with dollars to pony up for ad time.

The reorganization of society along vectors of mass marketing has almost entirely overwhelmed what used to be called communities. The true endpoint is the reduction of the individual to a pure "consumer unit." This process is well under way. Already, personal identity has much less to do with what one does or believes so much as what one *buys*. Once consumption is the essence of the individual, politics ceases to exist; it no longer has a site on which to operate. The only real power left is the friendly fascism of the post-capitalist corporation.

How far along are we? Well, how much of your day is taken with being a citizen, and how much with being a consumer? How many of your decisions were concerned with legality? How many coercive limits did you bump into?

Modern market forces are already much more influential in the lives of the individual than government regulations. Corporate influence can also manipulate and even create larger social moments. All this endless talk about "Generation X" is little more than an attempt to organize a dispersed and fragmented demographic into a coherent target market.

And it's working. Even areas which would seem the exclusive province of governernment (education, police, and prison systems) are manipulated by corporate interests at very basic levels. We all work at the same job, come home and watch the same shows, and then go out and buy a bunch of stuff in the same stores. All of these choices have been subtly engineered by processes that tend to transform the individual into a unit of corporate power.

Older, more obvious forms of oppression vanish as new schemes of control emerge in which the controlled actively participate in their own manipulation. The immediate objection of the "capitalism-is-powered-by-individual-choice" crowd is easily dismissed: actual choices are few and far between, and vanishing faster than clean groundwater.

Bookstop, Barron's, Walden, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Crown are all owned by a whopping *two* companies. Where once there were over fifty auto manufacturers in America, there are now only two. Lets not even talk about Disney. And even if you go to a competitor, do you really think you're getting something different?

As much as I hate to invoke the idea of a ruling class, there's no escaping that the vast majority of the large corporations in this country are owned by a tiny fraction of the population. So buy GM or buy Ford, you're lining the pockets of the exact same group of people.

"All right," you say, "but it doesn't affect *me*. I'm smarter than that. My choices aren't determined for me. I don't even watch TV."

Well, great, neither do I. Guess what? It's irrelevant. Corporate power can afford to ignore individuals or even small groups that it doesn't directly touch. Unlike a government, it has no interest in enforcing conformity. Moody loners with handguns (you) and anarcho-leftist acidhead burnouts (me) simply aren't a *viable target market*. Any countercultural movement on a larger scale simply gets co-opted.

It takes about two years now for something to move from an underground scene into a Gap ad. Any spark of insurgency can be declawed and sold back to us at a profit.

You say you don't care what a bunch of "sheeple" do? Tough. Every person who buys as they're told is a unit of power for corporate interests.

Doesn't affect you? Sorry, corporations decided what sorts of chemicals were in your breakfast, what kind of clothes you wore, and how you got to work today. They'll decide what kind of medicines you can buy, and what kind of treatment you'll receive if you're ill. And currently, they're trying to determine exactly how much they'll have to pay for our basic Constitutional freedoms.

Looking to government for a scapegoat for the erosion of individual liberties isn't just misguided, it's exactly what you're supposed to do. What's really at risk isn't what this or that individual is or isn't permitted to do; it's *individuals,* period.

b r e t t --


Hello and greetings from beautiful British Columbia (where the environmentally sensitive American paper companies have no problem turning ancient forest into the Yellow Pages).

I'm taking my first real vacation since October 1995, [5] so I too would like to wrap this up. Final bits of peevery follow:

Tim comments on franchises driving local businesses out of business:

Well, if I worked or owned the 5 local businesses, bad. If I lived there and enjoy the lower prices and greater variety of goods instead of wasting my life driving 20 miles to town where the nearest Wal-Mart used to be, good.

Penetrating insight. I ask again (rhetorically, of course), is it a *net* good? I say no. Local businesses (restaurants, stores, coffee houses, even video stores) serve as important connection points for a community. A big franchise not only displaces more workers than it employs (at lower wages), but its depersonalized and mass-marketed M.O. have effects that don't show up on any balance sheet. Personal contacts are severed, the community is homogenized.

I'll say one last time (though no one seems to hear it) that if corporations are doing this, they do so with our near-total complicity. We have eagerly turned ourselves into ideal target markets. Some of you seem to think this is a good thing. If so, well, then maybe it's all we deserve. [6]

I certainly will not allow anyone to redistributed the wealth I'VE gathered to the sheeple that didn't realize that either.

I remain bewildered by these statements. I have at no time said "wealth should be redistributed," let alone *your* wealth.

"Keeping everyone in their place?" There couldn't be any better place!

Odd how many women, blacks, gays don't seem to think so. Oh wait -- they're just *lazy*. Even odder how many white straight males buy into this, even though most of them are about as likely to make it to "the top" as one of Nike's Indonesian slave laborers.

Final point: the flag-waving "what's good for business is good for America" routine is (and while I've tried to refrain from my usual "colorful" expressions in this conversation, I can think of no better word) bullshit.

The big corporations aren't even American -- they've outgrown any kind of national allegiance. They produce where they can get the cheapest labor and sell where they can find the best markets. Their only accountability is to the bottom line. The fundamental practice of any modern multinational is to play the interests of one country against another to make the best deal. And if that means, say, laying off 75,000 workers in one year to move your plants to Mexico (*purely* hypothetical -- could *never* happen of course), well, so be it.

Democracy is changing. I don't think it's too late reverse the process, to restore political power to the people, but to do this we must be aware of the ways power intersects our lives. Is a wide array of consumer products and reasonably high level of comfort a fair trade for "the last and greatest of human dreams?" [7]

b r e t t

[1] See Jean Beaudrillard for a much closer look at the media. Or Arthur Kroker (I think he's a wank, but he has his adherents). GO BACK

[2] The current edition of 'Fortune' has an amusing, if not especially penetrating, piece on how to tell Clinton from Gingrich. The point being, you really can't. GO BACK

[3] Were this a philosophy seminar, this is where I'd say, "This is where you're wrong, Wrong, WRONG!" GO BACK

[4] From an excellent essay on class struggle in the information age, which I'll be posting for your reading pleasure. GO BACK

[5] "Those goddamn liberals would change their tune if they just did an honest day's work in their lives!" GO BACK

[6] Libertarian government-hating gun nuts accuse me of cynicism. Will wonders never cease? GO BACK

[7] W.S. Burroughs, most likely quoting someone else. GO BACK


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