The United States is currently attempting to cope with two highly visible catastrophic events. The first is the continuing economic collapse. The second is the oil volcano in the Gulf of Mexico. A third catastrophe a nuclear war in the middle east waits in the wings. In all of these situations we will find a great deal of discussion about who is to blame. Answers of course vary in accordance with preconceived notions about how reality works, but in general people will identify an individual, a group of individuals, a governmental or business entity, or some combination of the above as the cause of the problem. There will be varying degrees of accuracy with regard to how different people assign blame, and I would not suggest that the discussion is wholly irrelevant. But the great danger in the present situation is that we will identify some individual or institution as the guilty party, punish them in some highly visible manner, tinker a bit with the system, and then proceed with business as usual right on down our present path toward global destruction. It is quite possible that this will be the outcome, because organizations tend to deal with situations in which seriously unacceptable events have taken place, or come to light, by finding a scapegoat of least resort. Let me explain what I mean by the "scapegoat of least resort."
Many years ago when I worked as a house parent in an state institution for juvenile delinquents, I occasionally resorted to the use of corporal punishment. I did not like to do so, but it appeared that my only alternatives were to occasionally bring out the belt, or to allow an intolerable degree of chaos on the unit. Given the kind of regimentation that this total institution demanded, and the very limited resources that were provided for maintaining order, I was able to see no way around this problem. It soon became clear to me that without any exceptions, all of the house parents used corporal punishment in one form or another. The administration at the institution was well aware that it was impossible to maintain order in a cottage of 25 or 30 juvenile delinquents without using corporal punishment. They were also aware that without exception the counselors did so. Occasionally a counselor would be caught, usually because he left a bruise on one of the boys. He would then be called before the administrators, and disciplined in some public manner.
In thinking about the painful conflicts that this aroused in me, I became aware of a simple fact about organizations in general that continues to be useful. When an illegal, embarrassing, or unacceptable behavior becomes manifest in any institution, the institution will generally resolve the situation by publicly chastising the scapegoat of least resort. By the "scapegoat of least resort" I mean that individual or sub-section in the institution who is the weakest and most easily expendable person or group in the hierarchy. In total institutions such as prisons, delinquency centers, armies, and perhaps schools, often the scapegoat of least resort is the individual who is expected to carry out the "dirty work" of the institution without allowing the means by which he accomplishes his goals to become visible. The punishment of the designated scapegoat gives the appearance of dealing righteously with the situation, while doing nothing at all to alter the underlying social facts that will inevitably lead to a continuation of the problem behavior.
Another example. Later when I was being trained to be a family counselor, I became aware that families as well as larger institutions were capable of being, in effect, "total institutions." We discovered that many families were characterized by a variety of highly dysfunctional patterns, but that one member of the family would be identified as the "problem." All of the pain that the family was experiencing was explained in terms of the negative attributes of this one individual. Invariably it was one of the children. We learned to refer to this person as the "identified patient." The aim of family therapy was to try to refocus the family on its larger dynamics, and to help them see how inappropriate social norms, confusing communications, boundaries that were either too rigid or too loose, and other social facts, rather than the individual depravity of any one person, were source of the general unhappiness of the family. What was termed in family therapy as the "identified patient" is on the larger institutional level what I'm referring to as the scapegoat of least resort.
In the political sphere we see the same thing. Recently most of us watched with a sense of horror the murder of a variety of people in Iraq by soldiers in a helicopter. The question was raised there by a variety of people as to who was to blame for this kind of behavior. Whereas it cannot reasonably be claimed that individuals have no responsibility at all for their behavior, clearly the central blame in this situation must be placed on the United States government. These kinds of things invariably happen in a war situation. The United States began an illegal war in Iraq for the sake of gaining control of the oil in that country. This arrogant and immoral act was the root cause of the behavior of the gunners in the helicopter. The military, on the other hand, if it were to assign any blame at all would undoubtedly select one of the individual Gunners as the guilty party. That would be their scapegoat of the least resort. In the Abu Ghraib torture scandal we saw a similar kind of discussion as to who was to blame. Certainly it was obvious to everybody that Dick Cheney and George Bush knew about and approved of this kind of torture. They, of course, denied responsibility, and were content to see the individuals who did the dirty work at Abu Ghraib take the fall. Eleven soldiers were convicted of various charges relating to the incidents, and were duly punished. I think that in the minds of most Americans that more or less settled the incident. It is safe to assume that new Abu Ghraibs exist all over the globe.
I am not suggesting that the individuals who did the torturing had no responsibility at all for their behavior. Neither would I claim that I had no responsibility for my own actions in resorting to corporal punishment in one of my first jobs. Also, it is more than possible that the "identified patient" in a family does in fact, contribute his or her share to the dysfunction. My point is that when any organization is permitted to blame a scapegoat of least resort to bring apparent closure to a situation, without looking at the larger systemic issues, the real causes of the problem are covered up and nothing is changed.
Which brings us to the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe and the economic collapse. Certainly BP is in part responsible for what has happened in the Gulf. Certainly irresponsible and greedy people on the stock market are in part responsible for the economic collapse. But neither holding BP accountable, nor slapping the wrists of a few inside traders, is going to change anything fundamental. Also it is true that the government was in bed with BP, as it was in bed with the irresponsible traders on the stock market. This has been true for a long time. Minimally it has been true since the election of Reagan. But even blaming an uninformed electorate, Obama, congress, the government or some of government's agencies does not go deep enough.
The root cause behind both of these crises is unregulated capitalism.
Placing the primary blame on any lesser person, agency or organization will simply lead to more catastrophes in the future.
There are, astonishing as it may seem, still reasonably articulate people who believe the current problems with the economy and with the Gulf of Mexico are the result of too much government regulation. I'm not sure how we can best deal with people who are so totally out of touch with the real world. But it is important that in our own minds we not let the big fish off the hook. The world at the present time is under the rule of multinational corporations and banks corporations that are too big to regulate, and need to fail, or in some way be dismantled, and banks that usurp the rights of individual countries to create their own money, and determine their own overall fiscal policies. These large central banks need to be either dismantled or nationalized .
The government, which is now owned by the banks and the multinationals, will stop at nothing to prevent an authentic democracy from establishing itself. As we have seen in the Gulf crisis, their preferred ways of dealing with a threat to their power is to hide behind the best window dressing they can muster, and use deceit and intimidation. It should not be assumed, however, that they will not employ harsher means with those who are not taken in by the show.
The situation faced by the multinationals is escalating out of their control. Its hard to find a window dressing that is not besmirched by over a hundred thousand barrels of oil a day. Clearly someone will have to be blamed. They will have to come up with a bigger fish than some poor worker on a the rig who made a bad call. Perhaps heads will roll high up in BP. Maybe the EPA will be blamed for not doing its job. Never-mind that they long ago had all their teeth removed. With really big catastrophes, sometimes organizations must go fairly high up to find the scape-goat of least resort. But however high they go, we should not permit ourselves to be deceived. Clearly there are many guilty parties in all this, but the fundamental problem is systemic. Its at the top. The fundamental problem, I repeat, is unregulated capitalism.
The government needs to be retaken by the people. This can only be done by a radical election reform that prevents the multinationals and the banks from buying their candidates. The policies that oversee the economic activity of every country in the world needs to be accountable to a legitimately elected body of legislators who are mandated to act in accordance with the public good.
Unregulated capitalism has destroyed our economy, destroyed our ecology, and destroyed our democracy. We have allowed the military-industrial complex to swallow up the resources that are sorely needed here in our country for the health, education, and welfare of its own citizens. We have allowed this criminal re-deployment of needed resources in order to feed one of the most horrifying war machines the world has ever known a machine that seems to have an insatiable need to bomb people.
We need to dismantle our foreign bases, and bring what resources we still have home, for the re-building of our own society, and by doing so allow other struggling nations the opportunity to rebuild theirs, without our interference.
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