An Alternative Future for America by Cassandra Rose Kerkman (2007)

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PART I: Here and There
1 The Problem
2 The Alternative
3 The Promise
4 The Prevailing Mindset
5 The New Reality

Preface

The United States is the most powerful nation in history, but it now appears that the price of such national power is the increasing — and eventually complete — powerlessness of the individual citizen. The almost perpetual state of civil strife which has recently emerged can be seen as a direct result of the refusal of rapidly growing numbers of people to accept this intolderable condition of powerlessness. Unfortunately, the tactics of lawlessness and violence used by those who seek to remedy their powerless condition are giving rise to the development of that very thing we have all thought can’t happen here: the police state. Nobody will be free in America, and few will have any real power over their own lives, if it becomes necessary to have policemen and/or soldiers on every street corner of our cities. And yet such a prospect is clearly possible in the light of recent events.

Americans neither deserve nor want such a future. Traditionally, Americans have looked forward to a future of increased freedom rather than diminished freedom. Such a future still lies before us, but to get there we must change some of our social and psychological attitudes. Our present social and psychological attitudes are leading us to disaster.

1. The Problem

Discussion about the problems and issues of the next decade will necessarily appear incredible. The appearence of credibility can only be preserved by failing to challenge the already obsolete conventional wisdom. Such a statement may appear extreme but I believe it to be an excessively sober statement of present reality The statement’s accuracy can be demonstrated both in terms of theory and in terms of the developments of the past decade.

If proposals for socioeconomic change are no longer heretical, why did I earlier refer to the inevitablility of a credibility gap? My reference was due to the fact that although we have come to accept the necessity of socioeconomic change, we are not yet ready to accept changes in our view of the nature of man.

WE MUST CHANGE OUR VIEW OF THE NATURE AND PURPOSE OF MAN

Our present institutions and values are based on a highly simplistic thesis which claims that men are moved only by negative and positive sanctions — the whip and the carrot — and that any measures which tend to remove the threat of the whip and the promise of the carrot will contribute to the collapse of the society.

We are entering a period when an individual’s right to affect decisions must depend upon his competence in the particular area in which he is working. It will not be transferable to other areas in which he does not have the skills and knowledge. We can see that the new world will be process oriented rather than goal oriented. WEstern man has always set goals toward which he should strive and has then developed measures to determine whether he was making progress toward his goals. For example, we originally agreed that more goods and services were better than less; we then agreed on rules for measuring the amount of goods and services; and we are now able to say each year that the amount of goods and services available has risen and that we are therefore nearer to our goal of a “high standard of living.”

A process-orientation is profoundly antithetical to a goal-orientation. Process means that we determine the progress of an individual or a commuinity in terms of becoming more like its desired pattern. But the extent of movement is inherently unmeasurable both because it is impossible to define clearly what is the desired state changes continually. There is no point at which a stop can be put to the process and it can be argued that perfection has been achieved. Process involved uncertainty and risk; a goal-oriented culture essentially tries to eliminate uncertainty and risk although it can, of course, never succeed in doing so.

Intimiately connected with each of the last two points, we will come to recognize that each individual is unique and that the overall educational process in which he is engaged throughout his life must help him to realize his uniqueness. This means that we must not impose a set system on any individual, but must rather attempt to provide him with the emotional space in which he can determine his own needs and resources. Our educational system presently fails almost completely to meet the personal needs of the individual for it is designed to turn out people who will fit the systemic requirements of an industrial age which has essentially already ended.

Acceptance of the “uniqueness” of the individual is perhaps part of the rhetoric of today although is is more honored in the breach than in the observance. The corollary of this pattern, however, is seldom mentioned: that it is now possible and necessary to create unique communities. In effect, the industrial age, which was based on production and transportation, required an ever-closer degree of similarity between the various towns and cities in the system so that exchange could be carried through with the greatest facility. WE are now entering the information era and this not only allows, but even facilitates, different styles of life. Thus we will be able to encourage unique individuals to discover others with whom they would like to live.

Let me now simply list, with sketch comments, a few of the minimal changes which appear to be essential in the immediate future.

Income maintenance. This framework is the first step toward re-thinking and solving the problems of hunger and poverty and welfare.

Work/Leisure/Education. We must take account of the impact of cybernation on employment. Life could be an unbroken pattern of meaningful activity:no distinction between work and leisure.

Family. The nuclear family is a peculiarly Western industrial-age invention. It likely will not survive the transition from the production-transportation era to the information era which we are entering.

Housing/Environment. The historical necessity for the city has been aboloished by the new technologies.

Life/Health/Death. Our decisions about the new techniques which permit the modification of man’s body and mind will profoundly challenge all of the practical rules of conduct we have inherited.

2. The Alternative

Every period of history has considered itself unique. Nevertheless I believe that those of us who are alive at this moment can make this claim with total confidence, for we have an immediate rendezvous either with unlimited human disaster of equally unlimited human potential. It is the short-run actions of each one of us which will decide the course of history of the world.

During long periods of time, societies and culture are profoundly stable. The actions of individual human beings, or even of large groups, only have marginal effects on their own lives, for the norms within which they live are considered fixed and unshakeable. At certain points, however, a culture ceases to be stable, for its underlying bases cease to be suitable to the changed environment in which it finds itself. At this point, it must either find ways to survive within changed conditions or it must resign itself to collapse.

The potential uniqueness of our situation is that we are now sufficiently self-aware to avoid this catastrophic historical pattern. There are two reasons which can compel us to act differently if only we will use our growing knowledge and technological competence. First, the culture which will be destroyed will be our own; if we cannot gain control of existing forces we will be left without any cultural anchors to guide us through our lives. Second, if American and Western cultures should become paranoid — a development which presently seems only too possible — they possess the power to destroy the whole world.

WARNING: The world you destroy is your own

If we can avoid this catastrophic historical patters, and extraordinary future lies before the human race. The energy we will have available, the knowledge we can create, the computer we can use will make it possible for each man to live in dignity. There will no longer be any necessity to force men to carry out meaningless and degrading tasks, for the machines will be able to do them. There will be no excuse for failing to provide each human being with a right to enough resources to live in dignity. We can afford to spend our lives providing those around us, and ourselves, with the possibility for the fullest development.

The fundamental change in our social system is from the past when it was necessary for man to continue to strive to achieve the power he needed to be able to create the environment he wanted, to the immediate future when it will be possible to do what men wish; but it will be essential to have the wisdom to know what man should wish for himself.

3. The Promise

It is now quite clear that a new view of nature of man is developing, as many people reexamine the emerging data. Indeed, there are some suggestions that this insight should be perceived as part of a wider reality — that the universe itself can only be understood in terms of “self-actualization.”

POWER AND RESPONSIBILITY DENIED BRINGS ANOMIE OR VIOLENCE

Two major implications would appear to stem from the new insight. First, this convergence among leading thinkers in many disciplines should make it possible to reverse the present, apparently irreversible, thrend toward greater specialization.

Second, if it is indeed true that man can only be healthy when he is self-actualizing, it becomes possible to understand many of the developments presently occuring throughout the world which now appear to threaten our survival. Perhaps the most critical of these issues is the demand for power, using slogans such as “black power” and “student power.”

At the present time these slogans are widely understood to mean that the groups using them want power without responsibility. In the light of man’s absolute necessity to be able to strive for self-development, they take on a different meaning. They state essentially that each man must be provided with the potential to control the conditions of his own life and that the failure to develop this potential leaves him with no choice but to fall into anomie and apathy on the one hand or violence on the other.

It is in this context that today’s potential abundance takes on its full meaning: man now has the material ability to provide all human beings with the goods and services required to serve as the basis for full human development. Today, national and international poverty results from a failure of productive ability; those who are powerless sense or know this and naturally consider it intolerable.

We have no choice, therefore, but to create a new social order, one where powerlessness has been abolished. For only then will man’s drive toward self-actualization be capable of fulfillment and his self-actualization be capable of fulfillment and his self-destructive tendencies, generated through failure to honor the fundamental necessity for self-actualization, be eliminated.

4. The Prevailing Mindset

The change required if we are to survive is to alter our cultural, semantic and psychological patterns. For example, our society conforms to the Skinnerian psychology from his experiments with animals. He places rats in boxes. At one end of a simple Skinner Box there may be an electric grid, which will give you an electric shock. The rats move off the electric grid because it is unpleasant: the experimenter concludes that rats react to negative sanctions. At the other end of the grid, there is a little lever that can be pushed and food appears. The rats push the lever and they get food: the experimenter concludes that rats react to positive sanctions. The experimenter then generalizes this to apply to human beings, and claims that rats and human beings respond only to positive and negative sanctions.

The best challenge to this theory is to be found in the science fiction story fo the Skinner Box psychologist who was caught by an alien race and was put in an alien Skinner Box. He therefore knew exactly what he had to do. Having perceived that it was a Skinner Box, he knew that he had to prove to the alien race that he was intelligent. He also knew that he had to prove that he didn’t respond to positive and negative sanctions. So, he explored the box; at one end there was an electric grid. He stayed on the electric grid for some time until it became clear that the alien race would shock him to death. He got off the electric grid, although he realized that he was responding to a negative sanction. At the other end of the cage there was a little lever he could press; he pressed it once experimentally. As he expected, the food came out and he ate it. He then ignored the lever for six days. He got very hungry. Then he started pushing the lever, realizing despondently as he did so that he was responding to a positive sanction. When he had explored the Skinner Box thoroughly, he discovered that Skinner Boxes build into the experimental design what they claim to prove. All Skinner Boxes really show is that sentient beings are not willfully stupid: this is true of all living beings.

The average university today is a giant Skinner Box, although nobody meant it to happen this way. If you want a good job, you need good grades. If you want good grades, you need to do well in multiple-choice questions. If you want to do well in multiple-choice questions, you need to keep discrete those nice, attractive, discrete pieces of data you are learning, because if you get them confused you cannot give a simple yes or no answer. It is therefore essential that one does not think, because if you think you get confused.

Supposing you decide that you would like to take the chance of thinking. It is very risky because if you are in a large class, it is impossible for the professor to decide if you are thinking or simply goofing off. And a great many professors do not give you the benefit of the doubt and thus you get very bad grades. If your grades are low enough, you go to Afghanistan.

The argument I get from some professors who claim this analysis is grossly unfair is couched in the following terms: We have, they say, really tried to turn students on. My response is to ask what they mean? “Well,” they reply, “one day I went to class and spent forty minutes (or several periods) and I tried to talk to the students and they didn’t respond. That proves they need positive and negative sanctions.” My further reply is: “These students have been conditioned to such sanctions for anything from eighteen to twenty-two years of their lives. You must give them time to discover new response patterns.”

We can break out of Skinner Boxes but we have so far failed to do so. The primary reason we have failed at this is because our Skinner Boxes were not constructed by ourselves. Indeed, they were not constructed by any individual. They were constructed during an industrial age and were necessary for that age. If we are to break out of our Skinner Boxes we are going to have to work cooperatively. However, in many cases we can just walk out of the Skinner Boxes; the barriers they present are merely perceptions of barriers rather than real barriers. We don’t have to wait to get change because basically the institutions have already ceased to exist.

This sounds nonsensical but perhaps I can produce an image which will make some sense of it. Let me suggest to you that we live on a vast plane on which there are a large number of castles. These castles, representing our institutions, are unguarded: the moats are empty and the drawbridges are down. All we have to do is walk into the castles — the old institutions — and take everything out of them that would be valuable for the future. It is necessary to tiptoe in because there are some people who will get mad if you disturb them. So you move quiety. Swift. Silent. Deadly. Unfortunately, the people who have been tring to get change up to now haven’t been satisfied to tiptoe in and take and take what they wanted. They have done it in a different way. They assembled outside the castle and they blew their trumpets and claimed they were coming in to take over. The defenders, in a last access of energy, felt challenged to try and defend the castle. Normally, young and vigorous people who want to get change would win the battle, but actually they don’t because the castles have installed atomic weapons and the attackers get wiped out.

I believe the reason why people have been unwillingto tiptoe in is their fundamental insecurity. In order for many people to know that they are doing good things they need to be convinced that somebody they dislike believes they are doing bad things. If you are not sure of yourself, the thing you need is a letter from the president of the college which shows he believes you are terrible people. But you believe the president of the college is irrelevant. Therefore is he says you are doing terrible things you must be doing good things.

I’m afraid that, in addition, many of the people who have been attacking the castles are not content to let them decay but would like to see them refurbished with new owners — themselves. They are not looking toward a society without coercive power but rather toward one in which they themselves monopolize the coercive power.

5. The New Reality

The new reality of today is a very simple one: man now has the power to do what he wants to do. This development is revolutionary because until just this moment of history man has been constrained by his environment. As a result of this novel power, man’s present cultural system has become irrelevant, in the same way as man’s cultural system became irrelevant when he moved from his hunting and gathering stage to his agricultural stage.

man has the ability to provide for all men

The reasons man has this power can be very briefly set out. First, he has power because he has energy, energy being derived today primarily from fossil fuels, but tomorrow coming from nuclear energy. Nuclear energy has the peculiar characteristic that it not only produces energy but in the very process of producing energy it can create more fuel to produce more energy. We are very rapidly getting to the energy potential for a perpetual motion machine. Energy can be used for anything that man wishes — to produce metals from low grade ores, to turn the desert into a garden or whatever it strikes his fancy to do.

The second reason for our power I like to call “alchemy.” By that I mean the ability to manipulate the basic building blocks of nature to create materials with the types of properties that one desires. The word alchemy is appropriate for two reasons. It reminds us that some of the materials we have created are already considerably more valuable than gold, and it reminds us of what would happen to the economic system if we simply developed the abilityto produce gold. In other words, the economic system is running on a mythology; and the mythology is extraordinarily vulnerable.

The third factor which gives us power is the educational possibilities of our culture. For the first time it is possible for a very substantial proportion of the population to learn for twenty-two years of their lives or more. The fact that we are still running colleges which are largely producing surrogate computers is not the fault of the situation but only the fault of the people within the system. By “producing surrogate computers” I mean that we are educating people who can give answers to questions which have already been posed, which is what a computer can do, rather than teaching them how to pose questions. This is disasterous because the computer will certainly learn to answer structured questions better than we can. This is why we must always ask the questions rather than only answer them.

The fourth factor that we have going for us is the computer. The computer is a wonderful instrument.

A computer is a wonderful way of solving problems. But you had better be careful because the computer will give you the “right” answer. This is illustrated in the story about a war planner of a friendly power who asked its computer “What steps should I take to do the most harm to Russia?” The computer, after whirring a few times, came back with an answer, “Bomb the United States.” The computer was strictly logical because if this friendly power bombed the United States “intelligently,” the U.S. would assume that it had been bombed by Russia. It would then bomb Russia and it could certainly do much more harm to Russia than the friendly power could, because America had more bombs. Theoretically, the great advantage about human beings is that when they see that sort of chasm they stop and say “No, that wasn’t what I meant.” But computers aren’t that sensible.

Using a computer is a good way of getting away from responsibility. We use it in California as a justification for logging redwood groves. The way that this gets done is to instruct the computer to build the best road, and then to inform the computer best road is the cheapest road. Next one feeds into the computer the values for the various strips of land, and of course you put in a very low value for the redwoods because, after all, they are not doing any good, are they? The computer then designs a road which goes through the redwood system. Then one says “It wasn’t our fault. You know, logic compels us to build the road through the redwood groves. We regret this as much as anubody else.”

The computer is a very good servant and a very bad master. There is rather distressing evidence that the computer is becoming a new god. When the computer has spoken, who shall question it? There is no doubt in my mind that the computer has been one of the factors that has lead us to the present disasterous situation in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think that everybody now agrees that the War on Terror is a disasterous mess. People may disagree about what should have been done or what ought to be done now, but the assumption that errors have been made is common to all of us. One of the factors that got fed into the computer is that the willingness of societies to surrender is a function of the number of bombs dropped on it. Being British I have some graves doubts about this!

Man’s new power is not, despite the apparent realities, simply an American or a Western phenomenon. That it can be so limited is one of the great comforting myths. I am asked why I talk about the whole world in these terms. I am told to look at Asia, at Latin America, at Africa, all of whom do not have power. But everybody know that mankind has power. We live in a global village. And the fact that some continents do not yet have the power does not prevent them from knowing that they ought to have the power and that they can haev the power if the rish are willing to develop it and share it with them.

It would appear at first sight as though a society in which man had power over the conditions of his life would be extremely desirable: indeed, at some level it is. But this power doesn’t mesh our present social system, and as a result we fall into five very serious traps. The first of these traps is what I call the war trap, the fact that in our international system the ultimate sanction in international dispute is war. Each country must therefore be able to defend itself against any potential attacker, which means that it must install and indeed invent any weapon of defense system that it can. This results in a profoundly unstable world. We have to take the same leap in international affairs as we took in personal affairs some time ago when we abolished dueling. I was taught when I was young that we abolished dueling because people became humane. I have reached the conclusion that this is not true, but that basically people discovered that dueling with modern weapons was too dangerous. Let me point out that we now have available approximately thirty tons of TNT per person, plus enormous destructive potential through biological and chemical weapons. The statement that “war will wipe us out or we will wipe out war” remains as true as it was when it was first stated, but we have numbed ourselves to its reality.

The second trap is the efficiency trap. We run a society in which if something can be done more efficiently, immensely strong forces come into action to ensure change. But the very fact that man has such power over his environment means that he may wish to preserve certain possibilities of human activity which are not efficient. He must therefore change the socioeconomic rules governing international trade and the relationship between income and work.

This can be seen most clearly in relationship to job patterns. In our society everybody must hold a job, unless he is independently wealthy or in a certain limited group. Computers and machinery are becoming more efficient but men are not becoming more efficient nearly as fast. The efficiency of computers doubles at the present time about every three years, and the cost of computer work probably goes down to one-tenth of its previous cost. At the same time the cost of hiring a worker continues to rise. It is therefore not surprising that a very severe problem of unemployability is emerging. The data is now quite clear: there are more and more people at the bottom of the society who do not have jobs and who are not about to get jobs.

There are only two ways out of this trap. One of them is the idea that the government should become the employer of last resort. That sounds good until you analyze it. What happens when the government becomes the employer of last resort? Some 1,000,000 or more unemployables are placed under the control of federal bureaucrats. These people are unskilled, uneducated, untrained, and uninterested in work. The program runs for six months and then Congress wants to know what’s going on. It levels charges of inefficiency and lack of control, so the bureaucrats start to straighten up. They pass rules such as: anybody who is fifteen minutes late for work loses a day’s pay.

Another rule might be: in order to ensure efficient operation of the system, nobody may change his government-supported job more than once in six months. I would suggest a short word for the result of such rules — an old-fashioned word — slavery. If you think it is an unfair word, I would suggest that you look at some existing national and state welfare policies. The only other alternative is the guaranteed income which says that people are entitled to income as a right and that society has a responsibility to find meaningful work for people to do. It is not the role of society to find work for the individual, but of that of the individual in order to feel the rewards of self-actualization.

The next trap is the consumption trap, which is related to our productive capacity. If everybody has to have a job we must be willian to consume everything we can produce. We must therefore convince people they should buy. This is particularly visible in our patterns of advertizing for children from ages one to five, in an era where television is the prime parent. Television encourages frenetic consumership and permanent debt. “Daddy, Daddy, please buy me…”

I said this on TV recently, and somebody said to me, “Well it is reall quite all right because children have understood by the age of ten that all advertizing is false, anyway.” And I said, “You know, if you are right — and you may be right — you have probably explained to me why it is that young people are thoroughly discontented with the society in which they find themselves.”

The fifth trap is the education trap. If you have to bring up people so that they will accept the present traps — the war trap, the efficiency trap, the job trap, and the consumption trap — you dare not set people free to think and study. The educational system ceases to be an opportunity for people to find out for themselves what they believe and becomes a method for inculcating a set of beliefs from the past which are not relevant to today’s world.

We have to understand what has happened to us. We are living in a new generation. This new generation has been brought up within new realities. The people now in college were usually born born after the end of the Second World War. Their key realities are basically alien to older people. One of those realities is the fact that the atomic bomb has made international violence impossible in the long run. This rejection of international violence must be abolished if we are to survive. The other reality can be best set out in the words of a young colleague of mine: “abundance is a free gift.” It is awfully difficult to believe, if one has never done real work as defined by the society, that one is personally responsible for and entitled to that which one has inherited, and to claim that one has produced the food, clothing, and shelter needed for his upbringing.

Recognition of the availability of abundance leads to fundamental changes in one’s mindset. When people have food, clothing and shelter, they demand to move toward self-actualization and to become more fully human. The first step on this route it a search for a degree of security in their lifestyles. People are therefore no longer willing to be forced into actions through positive and negative sanctions, or as I prefer, the carrot and the whip. They demand themselves in terms of what is meaningful for them. All of the old drives of the human being — drives for food, sex, and similar animal drives — are in the process of being replaced by a much higher drive, a drive towards the right to be human.

violence must be abolished
abundance is a free gift

The new reality entails some very fundamental consequences. If you interrupt this right, if you stop consequent drives from being realized you develop the same problems as have existed whenever fundamental psychological drives have been thwarted. The individual is either forced into anomie and apathy, or into violence. I use the word “forced” quite advisedly. It is not a question of “Do you wish to be anomic and apathetic; do you wish to be violent?” Rather, if a human being who needs to be self-actualizing is deprived of any possibility of being self-actualizing, he will either become anomic or violent. For this reason our statements about student power, black power and poor power make no sense. Society says it deplores the riots, and that it also deplores the conditions which give rise to the riots. We must deplore the fact that society continues to tolerate situations in which human beings are placed in conditions where violence of anomie is inevitable.

The intitiative is with us. Are those of us who have the opportunity to be self-actualizing going to use this freedom to find ways to give people power over theirover their own lives, or are we going to continue to do nothing about it? There is a difference between the situation on minorities and the situation of white people. Most of the traps which restrain people who are black or members of other minority groups are real and no amount of thinking will make them vanish. The basic realities of the inner city are not about to be solved until we change our social systems. On the other hand, the traps in which white people keep themselves are largely of their own making and of their own perpetuation.

The violence and anomie we see around us are symbols of a crisis. But they are not necessarily the harbringers of a disasterous situation. These are the very symptoms which prove that people are ready to change. The very fact that people talk about black power, student power, and women power shows that we might be able to live in a free world in which we make our own decisions other than bureaucrats making our decisions for us.

In contemplating the creation of sucha world, we must take account of four realities about our present situation. The first and simplest is that the odds are very much against achievement of adequate change. When an environment alters, becoming unsuitable to the culture based on it, the culture collapses: it usually becomes paranoid in the process. (This is a valid description of the present state of American, and indeed, Western culture.) We must recognize that the odds are against change. Those who are engaged in creating change should not be forced to prove they will be successful, rather they must only show that this is the best visible plan at a particular point in time.

Imagine that you are standing at the bottom of a cliff. There is a baby caught on a treetop a hundred feet above you, and the cliff is covered with ice. If you are fully human, the question is not “Do I go up the cliff?” but rather “How do I go up the cliff?” We are entitled to argue, when anybody claims that success is not inevitable, that unless the critic can come up with a better plan we will move as best we know how. It is true that we will certainly know how to do something better tomorrow but we will usually know how to do it better tomorrow because we did it today. Knowledge derives from action as well as intellectual analysis.

To the power you have left
To the freedom you have coming.
May you use the former to secure the latter.

SEMPER FIDELIS!!

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