Independence: Illusion and Reality

I get It. We’re celebrating the American Revolution and our independence from England today.  But the idea of independence has an odd history in the U.S.A. We treat the concept as a cultural icon, we fight “for freedom” around the world – or so we claim. We give little thought as to the real functions of any particular war of choice we allow our leaders to start. We live in a bubble of self-congratulatory national glorification. We excuse our elite’s attempts to dominate the world for their profit and power — and our debt. We give a blank check to the military-industrial-congressional complex President Eisenhower so emphatically warned us against in his farewell address.

Independence and Human Rights

So, you could say we deceive ourselves about just how “independent” each one of us really is. We hold up our ideals of personal freedom, free markets, free trade, free press, and freedom from government intrusion in our lives. Yet we willingly submit to the violation of our civil and human rights by corporate and government agencies. We tolerate mass surveillance of every citizen who has a phone, credit card, or computer by the NSA and its corporate collaborators.

We buy the argument that we should not be upset “if you have nothing to hide.” We ignore the fact that “big data” allows mass manipulation. We tolerate congressional oversight committees that allow spy-agency officials to lie to them. We accept police military assaults on homes — modeled on our night raids in Iraq — on “suspicion” that there might be some marijuana present. We endure regulators giving free reign for Big Banks to speculate with borrowers’ money and bring down the economy with impunity. We put up with local homeowners associations micromanaging property owners’ private lives over illusions about ‘property values.’ We permit the oppression of others. We value the “right to be left alone.” But we tolerate unwarranted “stop and frisk” harassment of young men of color and we ignore their mass incarceration.

Interdependence is Real

The contradictions in our misapplication of the principle of independence seem unbounded. But let’s look at what “independence” really means and how it relates to “interdependence.” I think that may give us a clue about why we are getting ourselves into so much trouble, both at home and around the world. In our relations with each other and the planet itself, we assert our rights to plunder everything in sight. But in a finite world where we are already upsetting the ecological balance to where survival is dubious, that just does not work any more.

In practical terms, our independence is an illusion. It doesn’t fit reality. In a more modest framing independence is very important. But what’s the difference? The reality of human “interdependence” needs to be considered. We have been living on the basis of an illusion of total independence ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution. It worked fairly well for the entrepreneurs as long as there was room for expansion. The industrializing nations did invade, occupy, and exterminate native populations all over the world.  They destroyed the independence of others wherever they found it in order to expand their own. That’s how those opportunities were kept available for the “independent entrepreneurs” of Empire.

Conquistadors, robber barons, and pioneers, as well as the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Hank Paulson, and Donald Trump have been the prime beneficiaries of independence. Yes, an odd assortment. All of these folks were/are innovative — and often ruthless. One person’s entrepreneur is another person’s oppressor. So called independent actions do not happen in a vacuum. Pure independence would be approximated only by a hermit.

But we must not forget social-economic power; that is what most entrepreneurs seek and gain, usually by using/exploiting others. Our idealism implies that independence is for all. Our political elites pretend to “export democracy” to the world. We equate independence with economic growth, the dominant value of American culture. But that has been achieved by the few dominating the many.

Moral Economy

Underlying it all is the fact that all human life is grounded in one way or another in inter-dependence. The very richest of the 1% are clearly dependent upon the willingness of others – such as banking regulators – to tolerate their “independent” financial speculations. In a moral economy, risk would fall on the risk taker, not the rest of us; only then could he be truly independent.

But a truly moral economy would be based in equitable interdependence, where risk and reward would be shared by all who are interdependent in their relationships. That is not about to happen in the corporate state that has evolved with over-indulgence in an illusion of independence. The most powerful elites control the most powerful institutions that now constrict the independence of “the 99%.” They squeeze the earnings of employees. They conduct mass surveillance to “manage” the population. They impose various restrictions on political participation to protect their power. To attain true independence we need to establish a morality of equitable interdependence — we have our work cut out. Happy 4th!

Incarceration Nation

The U.S. imprisons a greater portion of its citizens than any other nation in the world. We also incarcerate a larger absolute number of prisoners than any other nation, even China! What does this tell us about our culture and about how “social control” is exercised in America? One thing is certain: more and more ‘infractions’ of proliferating laws, rules, and regulations are treated by jailing the transgressor.

One huge factor, of course, is the infamous “War Against Drugs,” which has been raging on since Richard Nixon was President. A whole industry has proliferated around the ostensible suppression of the illegal drug trade, with huge profits for private corporations involved (and for the drug cartels) and equally large incentives for police around the nation to arrest and charge minor drug offenders, mostly boys and men of color – who use drugs in no greater percentage than white boys safe from police in their college dorm rooms – but with no appreciable effect on the flow of drugs into our cities and towns.

Another factor is the growing militarization of police. Both military culture and military equipment and tactics have invaded our local police departments in small towns as well as in the biggest cities, along with a “war-fighter” mentality. With them flow federal funding from the ‘Drug War’ thus enabling police to support ‘tactical units’ such as SWAT teams as the premier enforcement technique, and the lessening of crisis intervention techniques in police work. High arrest rates are rewarded by donations of “surplus” military hardware. Of course, “stop and frisk” policies and the massively discriminatory pursuit of minority “offenders” in the segregated neighborhoods of poor black and brown populations, all point to the national trend toward suppressing and socially isolating the most vulnerable populations in the nation by incarceration and by excluding them from the economy by virtue of the felony records these policies generate, as well as by the inferior public education they are allowed.

This perverse institutionalized oppression is well documented in Michelle Alexander’s definitive book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color blindness. But the general trend is toward the criminalization of everyday life in an even broader way. White folks are no longer safe either. Children are now arrested for minor altercations in school. Any deviation from some institutional standard is subject to possible criminal prosecution. [see Chase Madar, “The Over Policing Of America: How Your Daily Actions Are Being Incrementally Criminalized” at for more examples.]

But the cops are victims too. American culture suffers from a fundamental flaw sociologists call “blaming the victim,” which stems from our excessive individualism and conflation of structural causes with personal consequences. It is encouraged by the corporate media, which diverts attention from corporate and institutional sources of social problems to consequent social pathology. So, authorities fail to properly vet and train police, then we blame the unprepared cops for the excessive use of force that results from inadequate selection, bad leadership and the same insufficient support we give teachers. In a recent three-part series of posts, I discuss these and related problems of police, especially in relation to the case of frequent police shootings in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Incredible Darkness of Being … a Cop.” Read them at: .

Poorly educated and scarcely trained, today’s ‘warrior cops’ know little of the once-valued culture of the “peace officer.” Instead, police are self-selected for violent tendencies, improperly screened, inadequately trained, under-paid, and put out on the street to “enforce” laws they know little about, especially the constitution.

But the most disturbing of all is the gradual transformation of the nation itself into a ‘cultural prison’ of the whole, a society where creativity and compassion, opportunity and achievement, education and self-realization, are all sacrificed to economic domination and social control by the corporate state. Hard to get a grip on, this enveloping phenomenon is both subtle and widespread; its elements can, however, be seen in the pervasive reliance on force in every institutional context from employment to law, from educational testing to wage theft, and to the decline of a culture of civility and disappearance of compassion in every sphere of life.

This is no way to enter the era of the great transformation from the end of the fossil-fuel driven growth economy to a stable ecological economy, which will take the highest level of social cooperation and institutional commitment ever demanded of humanity.