Friday, October 15, 2010

The Extremists Are Usually Right

If you’re a regular follower of U.S. cable news and mainstream editorial pages, you’ve probably learned that some arguments don’t have to be answered. They just have to be quoted or paraphrased, with an eye roll, and summarily dismissed.

So you get Keith Olbermann treating suggestions that the federal government might become tyrannical, and have to be disobeyed or resisted, as entertaining lunacy on the same order as David Ickes’ “space lizard” talk. And establishment liberals on CNN give pretty much the same treatment to Noam Chomsky’s views on the corporate nature of American foreign policy.

You see, the critics of federal law enforcement’s tyranny, or of America’s frequently democidal corporate foreign policy, are “extremists.” The unspoken implication is that the way things are represents some sort of mainstream consensus, something that “we as a society agree on,” about the way things ought to be.

If you stop to think about it, the words “extremist” and “moderate” are really meaningless. They classify an assertion about reality based, not on its truth-value, but on where it lies on the bell curve of public opinion.

But the thing is, the extremists are usually right on the facts. If you don’t know it, it’s only because you’re ignorant.

If you think the anti-government paranoids of right and left are “extremists,” it’s a safe bet you don’t know much of anything at all about the actual historical record of federal law enforcement, the content of legislation like the 1996 Counter-Terrorism Act or USA PATRIOT, or the broad range of “national security” powers claimed by the Executive in the event of martial law proclaimed unilaterally by… wait for it… the Executive.

If you think Noam Chomsky is a raving anti-American lunatic, it’s a safe bet that you don’t know anything about the role of the U.S. government after WWII in setting up provisional governments staffed by former Axis collaborators, about the things the U.S. government did in Guatemala in 1954 and Jakarta in 1965, about Operation Condor, or about the School of the Americas.

What it comes down to is that the “mainstream consensus” is manufactured — manufactured by the very institutions that depend on it for their survival. One of the most important functions in any society is the cultural apparatus, whose job is to reproduce a population that accepts the system of power as legitimate and as the only natural or inevitable way of doing things. The range of “mainstream” or “moderate” policy proposals, by definition, encompasses only those policies that can be carried out within the existing framework of dominant institutions, by the kinds of people currently running them. Any proposal that requires fundamental changes in the institutional framework or structure of power, by definition, is “extremist.”

And you should also bear in mind that the fundamental structure of power itself did not, in fact, come about through a general public consensus, in which “we as a society agreed” that things ought to be this way. It came about as a radical change, imposed from above, by the consensus of a small minority of society. The corporate economy that emerged in the Gilded Age was brought about by a tiny, unaccountable minority of plutocrats who exercised unaccountable control of the government. The transformation of the corporate economy into the full-blown managerial state capitalism of the 20th century, likewise, was brought about by a tiny fraction of the population with no real debate in society at large.

American foreign policy throughout the 20th century, right up to the present, has been driven by considerations of these tiny plutocratic and managerial elites. But the average American uncritically accepts a view of the world, absorbed through the media and the publik skools, in which the United States has pursued a foreign policy of promoting “freedom,” “feeds the world,” and has never started a war for sordid reasons of money or power. And far from learning the real nature of the power elite that controls the American corporate state (as described by sociologists C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff), the average American learns that our society is governed by some sort of interest group pluralism, in which government shifts back and forth over time between Democrats and Republicans as the majority consensus changes.

If you’re not an extremist, it’s because the cultural reproduction apparatus is doing its job. As George Carlin put it in his “It’s a Big Club and You Ain’t in It” routine (unfortunately there’s no way to quote it at length and still get this printed on a newspaper op-ed page), the “real owners” of America need a population that’s just smart enough to keep doing their jobs — but too stupid to look at the man behind the curtain. -Kevin Carson: If You’re Not an Extremist, You’re Not Paying Attention

C4SS Research Associate Kevin Carson is a contemporary mutualist author and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. Carson has also written for such print publications as The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty and a variety of internet-based journals and blogs, including Just Things, The Art of the Possible, the P2P Foundation and his own Mutualist Blog.


  1. Hitler wasn't right.

    And no, Godwin's Law doesn't apply here.

    That being said, I can go along with the notion some views deemed "extreme" are in fact true but challenge the prevailing orthodoxy.

    Dale Gribbel does make some sense sometimes.

    1. Hitler wasn't an extremist. Look around the world of the 1930s and you find the same thing everywhere. People claiming that the only solution is more government power over the economy and society. Churchill believed in it, FDR believed in it, you KNOW Stalin believed in it. How was he really "extremist"? He was part of the flow.

  2. Dale Gribbel does make some sense sometimes.

    Ah, one of my favorite shows, The Gribble Cartoon Conspiracy Hour.

  3. Ooops. Mispelled his name.

    I haven't seen that one! I'll look out for it. Big fan of King of the Hill.

  4. I think it's ridiculous to just simply say, "Oh, he's an outsider, he must be right!"

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: being part of the establishment doesn't make you wrong, being wrong makes you wrong. I wouldn't have surgery done by a doctor who was a "medical outsider" or have my taxes done by someone who "completely redefines numbers."

    There's plenty of "skeptical" views out there that are a thousand times dumber than the "establishment" they oppose. Vaccines are a good thing, not the cause of autism. Chlorinating water saves lives, its not a conspiracy. Plenty of extremists are nothing but incredibly stupid contrarians.

  5. "...or have my taxes done by someone who "completely redefines numbers."

    Although it would be nice if it goes in my favor.

  6. I think it's ridiculous to just simply say, "Oh, he's an outsider, he must be right!"

    Besides you, who said that? It's so easy to "win" arguments when you're knocking down strawmen, isn't it?

  7. The Extremists Are Usually Right

    Okay then... straw titles?

  8. Okay then... straw titles?

    The word "usually" is in there. But have you ever heard of this other word, "context"? The article isn't talking about extremism across the board, as in, hey. then those Biblical Creationists must be right, too! It's about the existing political and economic power structure, and how those in power seek to limit what views can be considered "mainstream" and acceptable regarding the way that system operates.

  9. Well, you're usually retarded. This is one of those times. This isn't a comment about your posts across the board, it's about the political and economic propaganda structure of SE and how the conspiracy theorists seek to limit what views are considered "skeptical" and acceptable regarding the way this site operates.

  10. Another fail, Ginx, as you didn't get the point (or did, but choose to ignore it), again.

    Oh, and a great comparison, equating a little private blog with the vast and nearly unlimited powers of the ruling class of the United States.

  11. Nikkolas; Although Bret may not be developing good reasoning to support his conclusion that doesn't mean that your blog does. You sneak the word "usually" into the title to avoid an absolute, but you don't support "usually" with any numbers, or even a few good examples. You make a good point about Noam Chomsky, and provide some excellent links, but you start out with a fairly outrageous statement that anyone would have difficulty defending.

    Since you use George Carlin as a source, I assume you are going for some entertainment value and then hoping your reader will think about what you said and do some further reading. I think you succeed there, but I am a sympathetic reader.

    Maybe a better title would have been "Moderation is for Wussies." That seems to be the theme you are developing. Instead you start out with this idea of extremists "usually" being right, then shift to a discussion about how the moderates are defined by plutocrats. I agree, but I'm an extremist who agreed before I read your blog. I question whether this would convince someone who currently views themselves as moderate, and believes they arrived at that view through rational consideration.

    But them I'm just an extremists.


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