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"They're out to get us!" On trust, distrust, and organizing for change

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People no longer trust Congress, the President, the courts, the media, corporations, political parties, and other institutions of society. People even doubt science and medicine.

Edvard Munch's The Scream

In this precarious, frightened state of mind, people are susceptible to fear-mongering, to despotism, and to scapegoating. They turn to religion, to crazy conspiracy theories, to despair, or -- if they have a job -- to increased workaholism and avarice.

Conservatives put their faith in the magic Invisible Hand of capitalism and in America's military and economic power. They think self-interest and competition are all that matters.

Progressives know that in the absence of effective government regulation and policing, wealth and power tend to concentrate, private corporations produce dangerous goods and pollutants, and the "tragedy of the commons" takes effect. There are many public goods -- the courts, the police, the environment, public health, and education, to name just a few -- for which we need government and taxation. Considerable central planning is desirable to efficiently and equitably allocate resources (e.g., for energy policy and health policy). The Invisible Hand of Adam Smith often drops the ball on your foot and punches you in the face.

But can we trust government??? Often despots or corrupt private interests take over the reins of government.

Indeed, many leftists are as distrustful of the government as they are of corporations. Some progressives on OpEdNews sound like libertarians. Many of the people who promote conspiracy theories (for example, about 9/11 and vaccines and government takeovers) believe that both the government and the corporations are out to get them.

The far Left merges with the far Right.

So if you can't trust corporations and you can't trust government, who or what can you trust?

We mustn't trust just ourselves and our families. (Alas, many of us can't reliably trust even our families or ourselves.) We need to try and organize into bigger units of cooperation: clubs, communities, political parties, advocacy groups, blogs like OpEdNews, corporations, and governments. It's tough.

Progressives believe in the power of human reason and in the possibility of human cooperation. They believe that organizations and government can work. They believe that people can join together, put aside their differences, and work for the common good -- or at least for specific shared goals. Cooperation is in our genes. It makes us happy, allows us to transcend our small egos (progressivism as spirituality).

This is an idealistic, perhaps quixotic ideology: that people can cooperate. But people do cooperate. A lot. Government does work, in some situations and in some societies. Here too, often. People often do cooperate in all sorts of organizations (including good and bad corporations, as well as crime gangs). Even conservatives cooperate, all too well! Unfortunately, cooperation is easiest when there are ethnic or religious or economic ties -- see Book review: Mark Buchanan's The Social Atom. Humans are clannish.

Still, despite their optimism about cooperation, most progressives aren't socialist or communist. Most progressives believe that corporations and private wealth are OK, within limits. The best approach is a mixture of government and private initiative. Neither pure laissez-faire capitalism nor pure state-run socialism will work. Organizations at all scales are needed.

If government is too powerful, people will become lazy and unproductive, and government will become tyrannical. If government is too weak, private corporations and individuals will accumulate too much wealth and power. Pure communism (= a libertarian utopia!) is a fantasy.

The real, hard question isn't: what's the best balance between private and public? We need both.

The real, hard question is: how can we organize society and institutions, at multiple scales, to prevent monopolization of power and information by corrupt interests, whether private or public? How can people hold each other and their institutions accountable? Even progressive groups become corrupted. One needs constant vigilance. Citizens need to be involved and informed and willing to take responsibility. Institutions must allow them the chance to take responsibility. For example, domain specialists could take responsibility for a website or part of a website. And progressive groups need to join together in coalitions so they're not in competition for money and supporters, and so they can coordinate.

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DFA organizer, Democratic Precinct Committee Officer, writer, and programmer. My op-ed pieces have appeared in the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and elsewhere. See and for my writing, my (more...)

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