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Analysis Last Updated: Aug 31st, 2007 - 02:37:31

Moloch and the Wizards of Oz
By Michael Hopping
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 31, 2007, 02:35

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It�s business as usual in Washington, despite the results of the 2006 general election and solid majorities of the American public dissatisfied with the job performance of President Bush and the Congress. Pick your favorite outrage.

Bush�s ability to keep a straight face while implying that democratically elected governments in Venezuela and Palestine impede the exportation of freedom may have less to do with limited intellectual prowess than his use of �freedom� in an unfamiliar context. He�s not advocating freedom for the people. What his corporate backers seek is freedom from the people, and Bush is doing his best to give it to them.

Bloodshed and American troops are up in Iraq, not down. Rep. John Conyers is active in the impeachment debate -- he�s helping Speaker Nancy Pelosi keep it off the table.

With the passage of the Protect America Act of 2007, Congress awarded the Executive Branch a six-month lease on the keys to the international wiretapping kingdom, and may have inadvertently created a Get Out of Jail Free card for officials who engaged in illegal wiretaps prior to the passage of the bill.

Hillary Clinton, who spearheaded what began as a popular call for universal healthcare in 1993, has backed away from proposals to restructure that failing system. She would now maintain the industrialized status quo and fund increased access to health care by reducing waste. Corporate profits and campaign contributions presumably do not qualify as waste.

With the presidency up for sale in 2008, another round of Washington housecleaning might produce a more significant policy redirection. If it doesn�t, contempt will rain down on the new cast of characters. But they won�t deserve the full (dis)credit for failing any more than today�s purportedly spineless wonders.

Wizards of Oz

Thomas Hobbes has held a virtual monopoly on the popular conception of massive human organizations for more than 350 years. In Leviathan, Hobbes describes the State or Commonwealth as an �artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural.� Leviathan�s famous frontispiece depicts the Commonwealth as an anthropomorphic conglomerate of anonymous citizens with a head wearing the face of the king, or as a certain Texan would have it, �the decider.� In him, Hobbes invests unlimited power to direct the body politic. The duty of all others is unquestioning obedience. Dissent is out of bounds.

Not surprisingly, the Leviathan model has been popular with some heads of state. Louis XIV was a believer, �L�etat c�est moi.� (I am the state.). So was Tom �I am the federal government� DeLay. Before the current President Bush stumbled upon pithiness, he told Bob Woodard, �I do not need to explain why I say things. -- That's the interesting thing about being the President. -- Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation.�

Organizational activity does sometimes reflect the wishes and style of a leader(s). At other times, leaders can only wish. Although Hobbes was disinclined to acknowledge the power of the body politic, his model, no doubt unintentionally, lent credence to a then popular method for resolving disputes between head and body: decapitation. People were so literal back then.

Whether literally or metaphorically performed, the operation does ensure a change of face at the top. But the general direction of an organization may remain intact. It's easy to forget the extent to which organizations control their leaders. Richard Nixon ran for president saying that his new leadership would end the war in Vietnam. Well, sort of. Twenty-five years later, the transfer of freedom from US citizens to corporations hardly slowed when Bill Clinton wrested the White House from George H. W. Bush. When the Clintons bucked business prejudices by proposing a government solution to skyrocketing healthcare costs, the initiative died. Hillary Clinton continues to repent the error of her ways. Bush the Younger promised an end to the Clinton policy of �nation-building.�

Does anyone believe that our prayerful president could convert to Islam and open cabinet meetings with a Muslim invocation? The United States isn�t even sure about Catholics and Mormons.

Hobbes is pandering when he places Man, specifically the king, at the pinnacle of earthly creation. Science has learned a few things about life on Earth since the days of Hobbes and Oliver Cromwell.

Leviathan, you social animal

I experience myself as a unitary being, capable of self-determination. Science tells me that I�m also a dazzling construction of cells, tissues, organs, thoughts, emotions, etc. My cells continuously maintain themselves and reproduce if it suits them. Some are mobile. In special circumstances they may go on without me. My brain cells modify themselves to better cope with prevailing conditions. They fire or don�t, but have no means of understanding that the neural activity they�re participating in might be me asking them for advice. Fair�s fair. I have a hard time hearing their complaints too.

Neuroscientists like to say that I�m my brain. That�s not right. I�m contingent on my brain, true, but also on the rest of my body and external stimulation. Those who doubt the importance of the latter are welcome to seek enlightenment from the CIA during a vacation from sensory stimulation at a black prison.

I prefer not to contemplate what sort of self-experience might be available to a brain kept alive in a jar. Such a �Me� wouldn�t be one I�d recognize. Future technology might make it possible to stimulate the nerve stumps of disembodied brains in a manner mimicking natural inputs. In organizational terms, such a brain couldn�t be considered a Me any longer. Me would then be a joint production of the brain and stimulation machine, and we�re back to square one.

Subjectively, I do recognize inner selves, several of them. The ones I recall in memory or visualize in hypothetical situations can�t be me. I observe them.

What we�re left with is the idea that living things exist at multiple categorically distinct but interdependent levels. Each being, lowly cell or Sun King, depends on its environment but is also capable of some independent action. The higher on the organizational chart, the greater the complexity of possible input, processing, and output behavior.

There�s no breaching of the categorical separations, though. A rogue neuron might disrupt the function of my brain but can�t otherwise pretend to the throne of my self. In physical terms, biologists tell us that throne is unoccupied. Observers, including me observing myself, only imagine a little man in the machine. Behavior turns out to be a function of the organism as a whole.

If Hobbes were alive today, he�d get another nasty shock. The individual isn�t Nature�s only life-form template. She also works in conglomerates. Lichens are interspecies collaborations as are the intestinal beasties termites depend on to digest the wood they eat. Plant and animal cells are powered by organelles that once were apparently free-living organisms. For ants and bees, survival potential resides more in the colony than the individual bug. One could argue that the colony should be an organism of record for them as well. It performs the essential functions of a living thing; it is self-generating and maintains itself as an entity separate from its environment.

To suggest that human families, tribes, corporations, societies, and nations are somehow equivalent to colonies of social insects isn�t flattering, but it follows the pattern. Our durable organizations self-maintain a distinct boundary between what�s in and what�s out. They generate and regenerate themselves, taking what they need from the environment and expelling waste products to it. When one of them no longer performs these processes, it blends back into the environment and ceases to exist.

Like ant colonies, human organizations are also more than the sum of their parts. Microsoft, the corporation, operates in a different environment than we do and observes different sets of rules. Its needs and prerogatives are not those of its workers. Its routine behavior is weakly, if at all, under localized human control and may surpass our understanding, even though people (still?) write Microsoft�s operations manuals.

The same is true of governments. An industry lobbyist proposes a piece of legislation to her favorite members of Congress. A draft bill appears from somewhere. Congressional staffers, on the basis of whatever information, explain the bill to their bosses. The House and Senate vote -- but only sometimes -- without reading what they�re voting on. It seems unlikely that the president reads the bills crossing his desk either. He has staff for that. The signing statements exempting him from unwanted provisions are shorter. Perhaps he reads those.

Like Congress, the president does his deciding based on slivers of information selected for him by advisors and chance. His wishes and executive orders filter down like a game of Telephone through the organ systems, organs, and tissues of bureaucracy. The eventual enactment may or may not accurately reflect presidential intent. He won�t know the difference unless he receives feedback, and that�s normally a choice made by others.

Critics scoffed at Ronald Reagan�s belated acceptance of responsibility for the Iran-Contra affair, but it�s possible he was telling the truth when he said, �A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.�

The pervasion of the body snatchers

The idea that social organisms based in the human species roam the Earth is deflating to the ego. Worse, consciously or otherwise, we enact these beasts. Worse still, no matter how hard we labor on their behalf, we can�t reasonably expect them to put our concerns ahead of their own. No successful living thing does that. Worst of all, there is always the possibility that a social organism in which we participate will become deranged, at least from a human point of view.

The arts have been working with ideas of social organism as Other for the better part of a hundred years. Fritz Lange's 1927 silent movie classic, Metropolis, depicts the collective as a merciless mechanized city controlled by a man. In Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin�s Little Tramp is mechanically force-fed and dragged through the gears of a giant industrial machine. George Orwell hid the mechanisms and gave an oppressive Other a human face, Big Brother.

In 1955, Allen Ginsberg introduced the standing room only crowd in San Francisco's Six Gallery to the first section of a new poem. �Howl� wailed against the devouring machine of civilization and electrified the audience with a work that helped define the Beat era. The passage of 50 years has not diminished its urgency. Ginsberg called the beast Moloch, a name with a lineage stretching back through Metropolis and radical Jewry to the Old Testament.

Once the province of the avant garde, concern with the domineering social Other has become the stuff of blockbuster science fiction. The Terminator imagines a post-apocalyptic culture dominated and terrorized by centrally-directed humanoid robots. Star Trek prefers cyborgs. The Matrix offers us the, uh, Matrix.

But these metaphors oversimplify. There�s more than one social organism or Moloch. They come in all sizes and display wide behavioral variety. Each of us is enmeshed in several of them. Families, governments, corporations, and religious institutions collude and collide, dragging us willy-nilly to the aid of tsunami victims, the ravishing of ecosystems, the wonders of the Internet, and the slaughter of innocents by bombs directed to their targets by cubicle dwellers half a world away. It's hard to watch news programs without hearing the voice of Star Trek's Borg in the background, "Prepare to be assimilated . . . You will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile."

The cold fact is that we've already been assimilated, have always been. The Terror Ginsberg only heard through the wall is inseparable from us. Collectively, we are Moloch and cannot be otherwise on Earth. Regardless of the roles we choose: partisan, abstainer, worker, sycophant, or rebel, we participate.


The social organisms we enact are what they are because we enact them as we do. They even display personality quirks. An oddly persistent trait of the United States, the most powerful political animal on Earth, is fear. Since Jamestown, somebody has been out to get US.

First it was the Indians, then the French and the King of England. Mexicans have been pressed into service on multiple occasions. So have African-Americans, immigrants, and labor unions, not to mention Imperial Japan and al Qaeda. The conservative coalition of the 1960s and 70s hitched national fears of communism, Arabs, the federal government, and cultural disorder into a mule team that Ronald Reagan drove into the White House.

Today�s progressives took a lesson from the counterculture experience of the Vietnam era. Organizers work hard to ensure that police are shown to be responsible for any violent chaos associated with protest actions. If the United States must be fearful about internal matters, let it be fearful of its own institutional excess.

We�d have long since been living in a police state if fear were the nation�s only prominent characteristic, though. The United States also prizes individual initiative, personal responsibility, and concern for the welfare of others, values incompatible with State repression.

Externally, the US confronts militant Islamic fanatics, a significant influx of Latinos desperate for money, and a global chorus of criticism for our heavy-handed responses to security threats, real or imagined. Our national Moloch�s paranoia is partly provoked, partly self-inflicted. Her curtailment of domestic civil liberties might be something closer to an autoimmune disease. Whatever the diagnosis, the old girl is plainly miserable and tempted to take it out on all and sundry.

People not content to shut up and play their roles in this have to confront the problem of inducing a social organism to change behavior. Hobbesian headhunting is one method, but the 2006 election is a case study in limited effectiveness. When stupidly pursued, the result can be a barbarous Whac-a-Mole exercise that paradoxically strengthens an enemy. Israel and the United States might both take a note to reread the story of Hercules and the Hydra.

Organizations, like kings, can be killed. World War II, a contest between national Molochs, killed Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. The societies that emerged from the Axis ruins are different and more pleasant beasts from a humanistic point of view. A civil death penalty was carried out against Arthur Anderson. Enron was eviscerated and consigned to indefinite suspended animation. United Fruit, a corporate Moloch with a bloody reputation, appeared to disappear but reemerged as Chiquita and continues its exploitative practices.

Less extreme systemic interventions may be as powerful. In The Corporation, Joel Bakan looks beyond corrupt CEOs to identify the forces that repeatedly produce them and enshrine pillage as a corporate business plan. The answers he finds are straightforward.

Corporations behave like psychopaths because business law says they must. Shareholder return on investment subordinates all other goals. Boardroom decisions violating that prime directive are grounds for legal action even if they are made for socially responsible reasons. Non-stockholders and the environment are directly relevant only when they impact profits. In a milieu organized around unapologetic self-interest, Ken Lay, Michael Milken, Kozlowski, Ebbers, Boesky, et al should be expected.

Bakan's proposals for improving corporate citizenship are systemic. Human psychopaths are regulated by police. Bakan would beef up the policing of corporations. Regulatory cops should be put back on the beat and insulated from industry payoffs. The revolving door between public service and industry must be better controlled. Campaign financing and the electoral process itself require major reform if the influence of industry and allied social organisms, such as political parties, is to be reduced.

Sabotage from within is another means of altering a Moloch�s activity. This is a bipartisan political specialty, but the Bush administration has raised monkeywrenching to an art form. If you want to scuttle or distort an agency or program, begin by appointing managers that are incompetent, hostile to the mission, or ideologues for a change of direction. Michael Brown at FEMA, Kenneth Tomlinson at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and veterinarian Lester Crawford at the Food and Drug Administration are notorious but by no means isolated cases.

The offending entity or initiative can be further disabled by budgetary manipulations or toxic regulation. In new rules announced on a Friday evening in the middle of the August congressional recess, Dennis G. Smith, director of the federal Center for Medicaid and State Operations, dispensed the poison to states that want to expand state Children�s Health Insurance Programs (SCHIP) to cover uninsured middle-income kids.

Smith decreed that a state must first prove a statewide SCHIP enrollment rate of at least 95 percent for lower-income children. It must impose a minimum one-year uninsured waiting period on middle-income children and must show that the number of such children covered by private insurance has not declined by more than 2 percent over the prior five years. Veto-proof congressional majorities will be required to rescind the rules.

Finally, a problematic social organism can be neutralized through irrelevance. Open source software seeks to reduce the power of Microsoft and other proprietary venders. The alternative media seeks to break the corporate stranglehold on information. �Buy Local� movements undermine corporate globalization. Small energy technology companies are stepping into the market to assist people in creating decentralized power generation alternatives to the grid.

Moloch can also play at this game. Abetted by friendly governments, big business is sprouting privatized versions of everything from public schools to military and intelligence-gathering services. A day may come when corporate Molochs supplant geographically-bounded political entities as the world�s de facto rulers.

Moloch, my Moloch

A world dominated by any of these behemoths brings the question of personal human dignity front and center. Are we, as Ginsberg feared, fodder for the "cannibal dynamo?" Worker bees in a Brave New World? Borg? Copper tops in the Matrix? Repugnant as it may first appear, the honest answer is perilously close to yes.

We want our mail delivered on time and have little interest in how that's accomplished. We support the idea of law as a social constraint. We don't want to have to build our own computers out of piles of sand, exotic metal ores, and beakers of oil. We agree to the strictures imposed on us by a common language.

Even artistic, political, and scientific radicals object only to limited aspects of the status quo. Orderliness and dependability are important to the survival of all classes of living beings. When a Moloch treats us well, support for its innate conservatism is in our human interest.

But the world is about change. Unchecked conservative instincts lead to calcification. Rigid people and social organisms can�t adapt to changing circumstances and are liable to fail under stress. Rigidity in a social animal amounts to tyranny for its constituent humans as well.

In a healthy Moloch, the conservative tendency is counterbalanced by a force arising naturally from its people -- the power of dissent. Here, in the sociopolitical sense, lies the irreducible value of individual men and women. When a woman says no, she steps out of the collective consciousness and assumes a personal identity in relation to it. Rosa Parks said no when she didn't relinquish her seat on the bus. Albert Einstein insisted that the universe has elasticities undreamt of by Sir Isaac Newton. Vincent van Gogh painted pictures lacking conventional gracefulness of form or technique. Jesus had a problem with Jewish orthodoxy.

It's easy to criticize the groupthink that resisted these dissidents, but chaos threatens the continuity of living systems as much as calcification. Internal mechanisms are required to distinguish the good guys from the bad. Growth is fine, but cancer kills. The fate of Yugoslavia since the death of Marshal Tito hasn't been pretty. Ditto parts of the former Soviet Union and post-Saddam Iraq. Some ideas are just plain bad.

The Weather Underground bombed itself into the role of FBI poster child for the necessity of COINTELPRO dirty tricks. Mark Rudd, an early leader of the Weather group, has lamented, �the consequences of our revolutionary violence line were terrible.� He accused himself of being an unwitting government agent.

Timothy McVeigh convinced himself it was a good idea to bomb a federal building and commit mass murder.

Eric Rudolph killed for Christ.

Worldwide mass demonstrations question the virtues of free market capitalism. The commercial rush toward genetic modification of plants and animals may well turn out to have more tragic than beneficial consequences. Was the packaging of fast food in plastic boxes an improvement over paper? What about importing consumer products without testing them for safety? It seemed so once, now not so much.

Unfortunately, this winnowing process is largely ad hoc and somewhat unreliable. Great ideas have shriveled on the vine. The electric battery was invented 2,000-3,000 years ago, possibly in what is now Iraq. Then, for lack of a flashlight to put it in, batteries disappeared from human consciousness for the better part of two millennia. Horrid ideas sometimes slip through and catch on: the KKK, Pol Pot's experiment in social engineering via the wholesale slaughter of Cambodians, gas-guzzling automobiles, riding a motorcycle without a helmet, skanky celebutantes.

The chronic friction between dissent and conservatism has produced one of humanity�s great mythic traditions. The story of the hero is at least as old as written language. In the classic telling, a future hero is chosen for greatness by the gods. He or she somehow becomes separated from society and undergoes a series of formative trials before returning to the community in triumph, bearing gifts of leadership or wisdom. Everybody wins.

In the real world, such stories are easier to appreciate in retrospect than as they unfold. Actual heroes often begin their journeys as victims of chance. The trials that separate them from crackpots and villains may be capricious. Ungrateful societies sometimes kill heroes first and adopt their programs later. Selfish interests on either side may overwhelm altruistic motivations. Sometimes villains win and rewrite history in their favor. There may be no winners. Modern versions of the myth, from film noir to spaghetti Western, often comment on these darker truths.

Somewhere in the triangular space between the hero of classical mythology, the anti-hero's bitter victory, and Big Brother's obliteration of Winston Smith in 1984, the social organisms of the world and their dissidents conduct negotiations. Although both sides prefer to view mavericks as outsiders, at a deep level it isn't so.

Fence-jumpers are Moloch's exploratory tendrils, the growing tips of what might be. We and Moloch forget at our mutual peril that those who wander from the designated trails perform a social function equal in adaptive value to those who yell at the strays to get back on the trail right now.

I can't do justice to my dual roles as man and enactor of Moloch without respecting the complexity of the positions I and we are in. I have to be primarily responsible for holding up my personal side of the bargain. I must insist upon my own dignity and freedom, including the occasional duty to take a stand and disagree. Moloch is the poorer if I don�t, though it�s likely to slap me down for my efforts. Alternatively, when I'm a contented bee in the hive, I ought to consider the possibility that that lunatic outside the window might be howling about something we ought to hear.

I think I'll invite him in for a cup of coffee.

Michael Hopping is the author of Meet Me In Paradise and a freelance journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina. He can be reached at

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