The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the commons,
But lets the greater villain loose
That steals the commons from the goose.
— 16th century English rhyme
Anthropologists have noted three main pathways to power. I say there are four. And out of these pathways come four types of weapons used against us, and four types of weapon industries. One of these has been obvious to all, two became more and more visible as the 20th century progressed, and the last needs far greater exposure than it has received. What are those weapons? What are the main ways to inflict damage on human beings by those who seek to dominate?
The list leads off with physical weapons, of course. From thuggish brawn, through pikes and pitchforks, on to tanks, bombs and computerized stealth killers, they have been relied on by rulers through the ages who hastened to build a military industry and a standing army as soon as they could afford it. But such weapons have two big disadvantages. They are expensive and they are crassly obvious, leaving too many visibly dead and maimed, generating anger and resentment. That is why clever aggrandizers have always resorted to more subtle weapons whenever possible.
Economic weapons, launched primarily nowadays by the financial industry, come next. Look past their endless mutations; you will see that these weapons come in three forms: extortion, enclosure and debt. When the first aggrandizers rose to power in forager and subsistence agriculture societies, extortion was a common tactic. Ambitious, scheming individuals with despotic tendencies inflamed conflicts among neighboring societies, stoking fears and insecurity, then extorted protection payments from their own people. Next, they gradually expropriated chunks of the commons under the guise of “public benefit.” And the strategy of indebtedness was not far behind. As aggrandizers grew more entrepreneurial, they began to twist traditions and customs into tools for self-promotion, and debt became the favorite venue. It is still so today. The poor and dispossessed began to multiply.
The third class of weapons, though visible in aggrandizer-run tribal societies, only received proper recognition when the communists and fascists used it so prominently in their rise to power. Probably invented in Upper Paleolithic via religious societies and embodied in various sneaky manipulations of fear and superstition, ideological weaponry was much later utilized by kings, emperors and high priests via religious dogma, coopting the universal human spiritual impulse for the uses of power. But it was the rise of secular ideologies in the 19th century and most notably the blatant propaganda of the 20th century that drew massive public scrutiny. Ideological weapons include lies, misinformation, misdirection, designer propaganda, astroturfing, political intrigue and panic-mongering, all the way to institutionalizing children so they can be subjected to a relentless, dispiriting and confusing barrage of outdated trivia to short-circuit their learning and competence. The main industry of mystification is the media. Casualties? The dumbed down, the chronically confused, the hoodwinked, the depressed.
But the sneakiest weapon of all is the weapon oozing all around us nowadays like brackish water around gasping fish. We believe we need this weapon for our very own protection. And Mother Culture whispers in the background: there will be mayhem loosed upon the world if you step outside its shadow. If you want to be safe, you need law and order. You need government, she sings softly; without it, brute chaos reins. The fourth class of weapons consists of legal manipulations, laws and regulations, and the weapon industry that builds and applies them is the government itself. The powerless are its casualties.
Political rule making traps its victims in a maze, tilting at windmills. Such choices we have! We can work hard to reform the rules, yes siree. It took the women of New Jersey only 113 years to get back the vote they lost in 1807! Or we can replace the legislators with new ones who promise a whole different windmill design, easier to tilt; once in power, even such changes will be cosmetic. Or we can do as did the mechanicks (tradesmen) of 1770s New England who simply barged into town meetings and began to have things to say and the chutzpah to vote despite being officially disenfranchised. The extra-legal solution worked, of course. The good mechanicks stepped out of the rules box! (Alas, they did not account for the problem of power. The newly-American gentry got so alarmed by these “excesses of democracy” they sent delegates to a secretive constitutional convention in Philadelphia to put a stop to them. And so they did. But that’s another story.)
Rules, laws and legalities are a game those in power play to hide reality. Here is a simple example from life in the United States. Well publicized hospital regulations say that each patient has a right to see their medical record. The patient asks the nurse, he delays. Hours later, she asks again. He claims the doctor had not given permission. (The patient had asked the doctor to give permission, having grown savvy from a previous stay.) She asks for the records again. Some hours later, it is now 11 p.m., she asks again. The irritated nurse turns around and calls the doctor at home, waking him and pissing him off. In the morning, doctor yells at patient. Patient is too ill and worn to explain. She shrugs and lets it go. After release, the former patient applies for a copy of the records to be given her. After some weeks, she receives a letter from an outside copy contractor wanting $52. She shrugs and lets it go.
The reality behind those pretty “patient rights” posters? The hospital was forced by earnest legislation to accept certain rules and to let each patient know. But nothing has changed behavior-wise: most of the doctors, nurses, and administrators do not wish the patients to see their records any more than they did before the law was passed. The rules mask the truth, mislead patients, and pacify the patient advocates who pushed the law through in the first place. Rules in the political arena work the same way. They take people’s attention away from reality and lead would-be reformers by the nose. People in positions of power who wish above all to protect their privileges, if pressed to put some democratic rights on a hallowed parchment, will seek to whittle them away in real life.
But more than this. I am starting to think that government is a house of smoke and mirrors, a front for whoever really pulls the strings. So whenever people try to counter evils by getting into the government, by trying to reform it, or by some other focus on the “governing bodies,” their efforts play out as another bout of battling the windmills. Those who run things in a system of domination and privilege are not fool enough to be subject to popular control or sent packing by means of our votes. And the complex layers of mystification and legal gobbledygook called the government is the keystone in the whole scheme. Shielded Powers-That-Be decree the legal code that steals the commons from the goose and twists the cultural fabric into a curtain concealing their activities and removing them far from any public checks or balances.