February 2009 - Posts

On The Psychology and Language of Power

The language of contemporary politics, and of politics in general, is fascinating to me. Mainstream politics, particularly in the media, seems to be filled with deceptive and meaningless verbiage. There are a lot of buzzwords meant to spark an emotional reaction in people, and the meaning of certain terms has flip-flopped to almost their polar opposite over the course of the decades and centuries (for example, the term liberalism used to signify a dedication to individual liberty, while in contemporary politics it is almost completely detached from its original meaning, and simply means someone associated with the Democratic party or someone with a vague set of ideas associated with "the left"). There are also a lot of false dichotomies that try to force us to choose between two irrational positions (liberal/conservative, republican/democrat, capitalist/socialist, and so on).

Political power, particularly in our modern sham democracies, seems to be dependant on such an abuse of language in order to control the ideological atmosphere. Political identity is largely constructed on the basis of preconcieved and ill-defined terms. Political philosophy is not discussed in any significant manner, everything is more or less reduced to a matter of petty identity politics. It's all about appealing to cultural preferances. The appeal to emotion and short-term or more petty personal interests is common. And words that typically have a positive connotation are used to get people to support politicians and win them over to certain specific ideologies. Even a perfectly good word like "freedom" can be used as a weapon to justify tyranny.

George Bush and Dick Cheney are perfect examples of this, with their justification of mass-violence in the name of freedom. I favor freedom, but it doesn't follow that I should favor them and their policies. Barack Obama is another example of this, with his justification for his authority by appealing to "hope" and "change". I have hope and want change, but it doesn't follow that I should favor Obama and his policies. These are perfect examples of the abuse of language as a weapon. I can have totally irrational premises, and bully someone with phrases such as "the truth", "morality", "the good", "the people", "the workers", "personal responsibility", and so on, as my authority to get them to agree or comply with me.

Consequentially, modern politics seems to have devolved into a confusing haze of words and signs that don't have much of a context or any significant content to them. Power elites can justify just about anything they want in the name of good-sounding things. And even then, sometimes the assumption that these good-sounding things are so good in the grand scheme of things isn't quite accurate. Appeals to things like national entity and altruism are essentially meaningless to me. So I come to reject even many of the phrases and concepts that are relied on. I reject the implicit assumptions of mainstream politics, and am unfortunately lead into a cynical attitude when I see the masses hooray for such things.

Being somewhat of an adherant of analytical philosophy, clarity is an important thing to me, and it seems like most political language completely undermines clarity. Everything breaks down into vast overgeneralizations and arbitrary categories that noone could possibly fit into as an absolute. Assumptions are made about people's beliefs based on a few terms they use, which ends up being a strawman. For example, if I talk about "free markets", some might assume I'm just some sort of Republican or conservative. I'm actually very hostile to conservatism. Or if I express concerns about corporate power and racism, some might assume I'm some kind of Marxist and politically correct. I'm actually very hostile to Marx. In a sense, mainstream politics has stolen perfectly good words and taken them out of context. In another sense, it has invented new words that we are forced to accept as a way to categorize ourselves. This confusion has to stop. Clarity is called for.


There recently has been a lot of discussion and debate among libertarians online about self-ownership, rights, responsibility, voluntary slavery and inalienability. I think that this has helped reveal some significant flaws in the way that certain libertarians approach such matters, especially as it relates to Walter Block's ideas. In essence, what the issue boils down to is wether or not rights and responsibilities are alienable or not, or if alienation is possible or consistant with libertarianism. By alienation I do not refer to the Marxist notion of alienation, but the separation of certain things from the self in a more literal sense. As I have said before, a dualistic concept of self-ownership is an incoherant concept because it tries to alienate the mind or will from the body, and this simply cannot be done, hence why Walter Block's notion of "voluntary slavery" is incoherant and contradictary. I have explained in quite a bit of detail why this is in past blog posts.

But the issue apparently is even more far reaching than this. Some people have been taking the viewpoint that rights and responsibilities are actually commodities to be bought and sold on a free market. I think this stems from taking metaphors (such as self-ownership) too literally and not fully understanding what inalienable rights means, which leads some people to take what amounts to ridiculous positions that blatantly violate basic notions of personal responsibility and individual sovereignty. Not only is it impossible to alienate the mind or will from the body, but as a consequence of this, you cannot alienate someone's responsibility as an individual as if it something that can be transfered to someone else through contract. Nor is someone's actual person a commodity to be bought and sold on a free market, as that is precisely what chattel slavery is. If libertarians really want to take such a position, they must realize that the ultimate consequence is the total elimination of any coherant meaning for rights and responsibilities in libertarianism.

One can concievably sign a contract that says that someone else is responsible for their actions, but this contract would not change the actual causal reality of responsibility, which remains in the metaphorical court of the actual people who are human actors in a given scenario. If someone murders someone else, for example, it doesn't matter if they have made a contract that delegates responsibility for their murder to someone else, they are still the murderer. Such a contract is fraudulent with regaurd to their actual behavior. The idea that criminals can be exempted for responsibility for their crimes through contract eliminates a good deal of the meaning of justice. While I myself do place a lot of emphasis on the restitution of victims, I do not accept the notion that the criminal actors in a given scenario can delegate their responsibility for restitution to someone else. This is because you cannot alienate responsibility from someone, as you cannot alienate their will and the causal reality of the scenario is that they are the ones who commited the given act in question.

I think that a lot of this also generally stems for improper concept formation or a lack of understanding of the proper order of concepts. The old saying goes "life, liberty and property", and it is in this order for a good reason. A problem I often run into is that some people appear to act as if property is primary or axoimatic at the expense of life and liberty. But a coherant theory of rights does not place property above life and liberty, property is contextual to respecting the right to life and liberty. Property rights does not grant one a legitimate right to violate someone else's right to life and liberty, and it is a grave error to conceptualize literally everything, such as personhood and responsibility, as a property right. The idea that personhood is a property right to be bought and sold is part of the very basis for slavery of all kinds, and you cannot argue for a notion of "voluntary slavery" without destroying the inalienability of rights. Trying to turn literally everything into a propertarian question is to nonsensically expand the concept of property to absurdity.

While freedom of contract is a vital component of libertarianism, it is does not supercede people's inalienable rights. There is such thing as a fraudulent or criminal contract, and a perpetual contract that is enforced onto someone against their explicit consent into the future or as a 3rd party not directly privy to the contract is fraudulent and the basis for gross rights violations, including the coercive social contract. All contracts must have a way to get out of them, even if there are conditions or consequences for opting out of a contract such as dealing with withstanding debts. A perpetual contract that you cannot possibly get out of regaurdless of your will is a significant part of the very basis for the coercive social contract, and there is a huge differance beween the delegation of the enforcement of rights to a 3rd party and the delegation of the rights themselves. If contracts are a method by which one can legitimately lose all of their rights, then rights essentially lose their meaning as something to consistantly apply to recognize in people.

Wether they realize it or not, those who advocate notions of justice that rely on an alienation of the mind, will, responsibility and rights from the self are undermining the entire basis for individual liberty. The very premises that they are using can be used against the entire libertarian notion of justice and as a way to legitimize political institutions or policies that libertarians normally would oppose. So it turns out that this is actually an extremely important issue to clarify. It is based on some fairly fundamental philosophical misnomers that threaten to undermine the entire libertarian project, despite the good intentions of some proponents of such misnomers. If this issue is not properly clarified, I fear that libertarianism can be used to push for abominable notions of justice that commodifies rights and responsibilities. But rights and responsibilities are not commodities in any rational theory of justice.