Arbitrary - Part I: Mechanism
If you want to render a population neutral, divide them along lines they cannot help but feel within themselves. This enables equal groups to oppose each other and thus cancel out their influences, all while believing that what they do is "natural." Although it sounds like conspiracy fodder, this practice most commonly happens through a process like that of erosion: successive similar actions produce radical, almost grotesque, results when each individual action is as non-threatening as pouring water.
Our modern populations are conveniently divided among those who feel and those who judge; conveniently, these groups are not only the two largest on the Meyers-Briggs personality assessment but correspond, through balance of hormones, to female (inductive) and male (deductive) approaches to logical process. Just in case you're like most modern people and cannot tell the difference between categorical logic as demographic and categorical logic in an absolute and religious sense, this does not mean all males behave one way and all females another; it states that the archetype on which males and females are built has this general structure, and while it can be modified, the overwhelming tendency is toward this behavior. (Most of you are inexperienced enough with logic to think that because something is a member of a category, that implies it is a rigid duplicate of the archetype of the category -- if you think about this for a minute, you'll see that this kind of categorical logic reflects mechanical-material thinking and not logic and you'll grow out of this practice.)
How this process of erosion happens: we're all in a room arguing about how to put out a fire. All agree the fire must be smothered. One person suggests water; another suggests sand. The room is divided into three camps now, which are water, sand and neither/undecided. In the meantime, the goddamn fire is getting bigger. So, smart Politician from the water group realizes he must do the same thing advertising execs do, which is to make sure his viewpoint is distinctive. Where once upon a time his slogan was "Water -- smothers better than sand," he's now catchily humming a new jingle, "Water is the opposite of fire." The sand camp reacts in horror, and releases their own little bombshell, "Sand is rock and rock isn't changed by fire." Where they formerly agreed on 80% of the task -- smother the fire -- and differed only on the materials used, they now agree on nothing and have constructed two radically different approaches. This is a simplified version of the erosion that in every democracy creates a radical-ish party and a reactionary-ish party to oppose one another; ideas, distinct narrowly at first, are by thousands of repetitions of this differentiation process made into extreme opposition for the sake of currying votes.
Dysfunctional, isn't it?
In the status quo, we have two major poles -- right and left -- and variants inbetween. The left is united by its intent to feel (empathize) its way through existence, believing that if we are compassionate to every individual we will achieve justice and thus an end to strife; the left feels strife rewards the stronger, and that the stronger will then abuse the weaker, and that this is inherently terrible. The left stretches from neo-conservatives to Communists, with its moderate element being the American Democratic Party or in Europe, the Social Democrats. The right judges more than feels, but its judgment eschews the individual to avoid being bitchy and thus tends to rest on natural law, or the idea that the smarter get ahead and the slower, more criminal, stupider are deprecated. The right extends from some neoconservatives to John Birch Society style radicals, with its moderate arm being the American Republican Party. At its most extreme, rightism is a philosophy more than a political action, and can be expressed best in the work of Aristotle and (contiguously) F.W. Nietzsche -- of course, in one of the great paradoxes of history, modern rightists are in bed with the Christians who fear excessively that their dualistic religion might be made-up nonsense and thus are very, very, very, very sensitive to any critique, and thus force rightist parties to reject Nietzsche (a form of ideological suicide none of them have yet been intelligent enough to recognize!).
We say these right/left splits are arbitrary because they serve no purpose in getting us closer to the truth. From all indications, one or the other wins and, having a partial picture of what must be done, is replaced by the other. And the changes? With the right you get an explicit link to heavy industry (Reagan) but with the left you get a clandestine assumption of the necessity of the entertainment media (Clinton). The right tends to focus on foreign policy/defense, cultivating industry and protecting families; the left will explore civil rights, welfare and protecting individualism. The arbitrary swing factor that causes these paths to differentiate themselves in order to market themselves becomes influential here, and we see areas where these ideas overlap ignored in favor of dramatic conflict. They both play the roles: the right as the towering Authority Figure come to drive away evils, and the left as the slightly-hip older brother who hangs out with black people (knows the "secret handshakes") and offers a clumsily rolled joint when the parents are gone. We say the result is arbitrary becomes one comes to power, cancels out what the other did, and then is in turn replaced. The result is schizophrenic policy: we can expect no consistent leadership and each side has items it will not change, taboos not because of fear of consequence but fear of public image: if the left lets off of its civil rights agenda for one moment, it will be seen as less lefty and lose many constitutents; if the right accidentally cheered a gay pride parade, many of its constituents would pull back. This is not a response to logic, but to image, and this is the root of the exaggerated division between the political houses: we must appear unique and as alternatives to whatever is in power.
If you've grown up with the benevolent words of government and hysterical words of mass media in your mind, this is alien information. You have been brought up to believe that democracy solves all ills, and that the triumvirate of "freedom" -- democracy (political freedom), capitalism (economic freedom), civil rights (personal freedom) -- is somehow not only inseparable but is the only option to both godless Communism and Jew/Negro-hating Nationalism. You run (don't walk) to the self-erasing system of two oppositional outlooks because you are conditioned to think that without constant conflict, you will fall into the hands of egregious Control... not yet aware, perhaps, that control can happen obliquely. If all one must do is convince a crowd of people to vote for something -- well, salespeople do it all the time, as the procession of defective cars, slow computers, ugly clothing, disgusting foods, etc. attests. People make bad decisions. In fact, they do it more commonly than they make good decisions. Yet we do not consider this a form of control; we consider it "freedom" from control. Even working through this series of thoughts is beyond most ordinary citizens. Unlike philosophers, they deal in tangibles or things that sound like them. They can identify an invader, decide drugs are generally bad, or ban personal nuclear weapons, but beyond that, they are driftwood in a sea of equally incomprehensible ideas.
But even more than allowing a kind of passive control, or authoritarianism by keeping the citizens distracted and operating behind the scenes with the legal favoritism of business contracts and other rewards for silence, this type of system guarantees us a headless control: it has no goal and no controllers. Anyone who learns to use the system is able to influence it, and thus society at large wanders without direction while people inside find a way to make themselves a retirement income and retreat to mountain homes in Aspen. The poor rise to become rich, and the rich might get richer or rub themselves out with distractions, but the fact remains that society is not something with a purpose to it; it is carcass off which we feast because we lack a forward direction that might provide nutrition. We do not look forward to great deeds, or to a society that existentially and qualitatively rewards us with a higher type of living; we carve up the wealth of the past, and fight endlessly over how we distribute it. Both left and right are complicit here: the left wants more equal distribution, where the right wants to reward the most productive. Yet neither criticizes the overall direction of society, something that author Tom Wolfe refers to as "cynicism": a hard look at, behind the rhetoric, what a system is designed to achieve. If I set up a prison camp where the most violent offenders are given their own cells and televisions, it enforces a type of "natural selection" that promotes only the most violent; the camp, whether deliberately or not, is designed to produce a stream of aggressive people because it rewards aggression. Cynicism is a look at this design behind the marketing, propaganda, pleasant speeches and social conventions of a society.
As we have established, the left/right divide obliterates its own leadership, removes our focus on leadership at large, and obscures the inner workings of society and thus makes image more important than reality as a means of political control. It is superior to dictatorship for the purposes of control because it contains all dissent within its process, innoculating itself against the threat by weakening it through committees, public debate, and of course, absorption by the two-party system. How can you rebel against a system that gives you the right to start a political party of your own and run against it? On paper -- according to the rules and statements of its public agencies -- the system is perfect. In reality, and behind the scenes, it is ruled by money: your political party needs a half-billion dollars in order to influence enough voters to stand a chance of election, assuming that you can convince them your message is more important than the endless stream of platitudes from right and left. The public show of elections and debates is entirely irrelevant, because its goal is not the finding of direction but the maintenance of directionlessness; its purpose, in the design of our society, is to allow those with money to distract the voters with pleasant fictions while carrying off more wealth, consuming more natural resources, exploiting more workers... in short, the dominant theme of our society is individual profit at the expense of the whole, and the two-party system facilitates it by distracting us with a plausible but unlikely scenario for change.
October 13, 2007