Illusions of (In)Dependence
Updated: May 24, 2020
An addendum to Section 9 of Democracy STRUGGLES!
The first recorded sack of Rome occurred circa 390 BCE. A large band of warlike Gauls eventually coerced the occupied city to pay heavy tribute. "Woe to the vanquished!" was their contemptuous retort to the Romans' most dignified protests.
Gauls, to ancient Greeks and Romans, were a frightening, though inferior, type of barbarian. But shortly after this humiliation, “civilized” Rome won immortal fame by embarking on an imperial career of inflicting centuries of woe onto multitudes of vanquished cities, kingdoms, and rival empires.
Only a generation earlier, democratic Athens decided it was in its strategic interest to occupy the Island of Melos. The Melians resisted but, after a long siege, were finally reduced to surrender. All surviving men of Melos were massacred. All women and children were enslaved. Rejecting any compromise short of unconditional surrender, the Athenians had, prior to hostilities, explained, “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must."
To a large extent "Might makes right" remains the operative principle governing war and international relations. To a lesser extent the same tectonic reality underlies shifting politics, laws, and class relations within every "civilized" polity. But however much "jungle law" is based on overpowering primordial drives, so too are urges for mercy, justice, and equality.
The types of "dependence" exemplified by slavery are better described as violent oppression. Other forms of coerced dependence may often (or simply seem to) lack an imminent basis in brute terror. But the race-based form of slavery, practiced for more centuries in the United States than it has been abolished, was probably the largest and most murderous forced labor regime in all human history. And even within that brutal system it was not impossible for some of its victims (but for far more of its beneficiaries) to sometimes pretend the underlying savagery was somehow distant and reserved for only the most extreme cases. For some of the most defenseless victims, this *may* have been a vital stratagem for survival.
The accommodations human culture and individual psychologies can make to horrifically sadistic regimes can superficially appear almost as shocking as the abysmal conduct of the perpetrators. Such has been observed in apartheid states (including the US), concentration camps, kidnapping and hostage ordeals, and within the intimate crucibles of family terror. Cringing helplessness does not fully explain how this happens any more than did (does?) theories of inferiority, spiritlessness, or "slave nature". And neither expedience, weakness nor "superiority" fully explain why, regardless of the milieu, forbearance (and even tenderness) is also at times extended to the victim from the oppressor.
Abused children may still desperately cling to soul crushing, bone breaking parents. When this happens, is it unreasonable to see some semblance to, or perhaps some pure manifestation of, love - even if such is merely(?) an appeal to (or invocation of) its tender innateness? An oppressed minority may exist within a system of domination, acutely conscious of all injustices and indignities. If it mostly eschews explosive paroxysms of bloody vengeance, is this only a tribute to their impotence in the face of totalitarian systems of surveillance and terror? Are efforts to appeal to the "better angels" in the nature of snarling supremacists merely expressions of helplessness, naïveté, or historical amnesia? Or could such be expressions of deep seated patience, faith, and hope based in sensations regarding realities that may somehow transcend the grimy intimacies of everyday abuse and the secular nightmares of history?
Returning to family life, as both a reality and a metaphor, there is a disorder known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. For opaque, but self-serving, reasons caregivers of elders or small children sometimes manipulate situations so that relatively healthy dependents appear to the community (and to the victims themselves) as having debilitating conditions of illness or injury. Sometimes real injuries are inflicted by the loving caretaker. Truly this is just another form of enforced dependency but, with or without physical violence, it is perhaps more insidious because of the way it infects the consciousness of the victim. Apparently, the motives of the perpetrators include soliciting support from the community along with admiration for their devotion as caregivers. These motives may also include preserving a sense of superiority or indispensability that could be lost if the victim were to achieve a dignified degree of independence.
In all known civilizations a tiny elite has made itself seem indispensable to those it does not actively terrorize in a myriad of ways. Modernity, as we know it since the 1500s or so in Western Europe, has made it untenable to overtly assert the inferiority of all commoners. Convulsions like the French Revolution may (or may not) have pounded the final nail into the coffin of that idea. But august trappings of formal authority and the mystifying mirages of meritocracy still retain potency. Religious, ethnic, racial and other distinctions based on relative status are easily used to divide and distract a majority even in the most established “democracies”. Deadly conflict over control of resources, especially those driven by competing elites with distinct international (or even international) power bases has been a very effective way of mobilizing commoners behind elite interests since the dawn of modernity.
Perhaps the most persuasive reason for keeping commoners dependent and unaware of their power is the necessity to concentrate resources in order to drive economic development and growth. Though elites may be no less short sighted than ordinary slobs, their greed and competition has been a major impetus for long term progress no matter the short-term sufferings (often lasting for centuries) imposed on their “inferiors”.
Traditional Marxism (in both practice and much theory) seems to agree with this dismal idea. The utopia of “Communism” is always put off until after capitalism has generated enough productive capacity to make coerced labor obsolete. When Lenin and Stalin ruthlessly purged and persecuted left-libertarians (anarcho-syndicalists), they could reasonably claim they were merely applying hard learned from the Paris Commune of 1871 where the workers revolution was crushed in part because of the naïveté and indiscipline of the Communards.
Finally, there are multitudes of reasons why ruling elites always find it desirable to keep most people ignorant with educated people specialized and siloed - and therefore generally ignorant of policy making processes with all the concepts and realities guiding them. Of course, all the complexities of modern economic and social policies elude even the most capacious individual minds, but it is only an article of faith (for some) that dispersing workable claims for participation in high level decisions would lead to better outcomes than the (elite controlled) fear and greed driven processes heretofore known.
Even for the most sophisticated and privileged segments of the 99%, aspirations and ideas of “freedom” tend to be colored (if not exclusively dominated) by idiotic concepts of leisure and irresponsibility. Thus, we are the partial enforcers of our own dependence and remain obstacles to the development of genuine democracy. Our (only partially induced) illusions of independence actually work to help keep us in a state of infantile dependence. What epiphany or catastrophe might force us to shoulder the actual responsibilities of true independence so entangled and identified with the reality of the interdependence of all humanity?