The System Doesn’t Work Anymore

In 1962, the social critic, writer and anarchist counter planner Paul Goodman published a book called, “The Society I Live in Is Mine.” His basic argument was that every day and localized incidents present us with opportunities to fight for an improved quality of life and citizenship on a continuing basis. Goodman wrote:

“The institutions that we have are ours and anyway they fill up most of our space. In so far as our predecessors worked and fought for them in the interests of freedom-for the Common Law, the vote, civil liberties, the rule of reason, academic freedom-we have no right to surrender our inheritance to boors and tyrants. It is entailed to us as citizens. And in so far as these institutions offer means and opportunity for free action, I am glad to belong to them or cooperate with them. Naturally, when they become clogs and hindrances, and when their overwhelming drift is in the direction opposite from ours, for instance inevitably toward war, then we cannot cooperate with them or we must actively try to stop them or even to get them out of the way.”

I live in Europe, although I make frequent trips to the United States, land of my birth. With each trip I have noticed signs of decay in the basic functioning of this country. These signs tell us something about the larger picture that lies behind the scandalous headlines. The following incidents relate to products and social failure, as well as a culture blind to any notion of accountability and user rights. These incidents are part of the state and corporate order’s attempts to enforce mediocrity on us all. As C. Wright Mills wrote in 1957, the larger political system is organized according “a system of semi-organized irresponsibility.” Fifty years later one might drop the “semi”.
The Culture of Security Over Use: Examples from the Library of Congress, the Department of Transportation and U.S. Postal Service

In the Library of Congress a few weeks ago, I checked out the papers of a leading theorist concerned with increasing militarism during World War II. Yet, I did not appreciate the annoying eye strain I received when trying to reconstruct all this in the documents section of the Library of Congress. The library places its microfilm readers in a relatively bright room, leaving no contrast. I had an eye ache for about an hour, and headache the next day. The local librarian said that “no one had complained” even while my neighboring researcher placed a shawl over the reader in order to produce the desired contrast. Is this just a petty little problem? No. It reflects the underlying emphasis on a culture of security as opposed to a culture of use. The library’s procedures to avoid theft detection are rather pervasive, with detailed rules limiting the use of paper notebooks and searches of documents brought in and taken out. Yet, the care and attention so applied is hardly matched by basic considerations required for actually use of documents.

During an attempt about two years ago to analyze periodicals at the Department of Transportation library, I was told that it was now off limits to the general public because of security concerns. Even though I had a passport that could get me on to an actual airplane, I was now being barred from entering a library. Another example of the culture of security over use. Yet, something more was going on. One used to think that a government library was a public library. No longer.

When leaving the United States this holiday season, I neglected to pack a razor blade, tweezers and nail clipper into my suite case. I had to enter the security area of the airport before boarding the plane but had already checked my bags. I searched for a way to mail the material to myself or someone in the country. At the airport, I purchased two stamps for 74 cents and tried to find a regular mail box. There was no such mail box. They had all been removed. Instead, the postal service provides a special service through automated machines that weigh and mail (potentially insecure and other) material for about 11 dollars. This overcharging amounts to government sanctioned theft. All the packages are routed through Texas for some strange reason-just a little reminder of the region promoting other parasitic complexes tie to oil and military production. If removing standard mailboxes was part of the war on terror, I am confused about the motivation. The new super-priced Texas mailboxes also accept mail. If the problem with the old, standard mailboxes was the size of their entry slots, why not simply develop new “secure” mailboxes with smaller slots?

False Security Claims and the Big Lie of Advertising

What happens when we actually need security, like mailing packages? Here we experience failure. In March of 2005, I purchased a 2″ X 36″ Mailing Tube from a company called “Supply Side” at the UPS Columbia University Store in New York City. I used this to mail from New York City a poster to my home address in Europe. Any ex-ray system would detect a paper poster in a cardboard tube. Yet, the “security” system of the tube itself was defective. After mailing, the tube was bent in several places with large indentations in the tube. The poster was creased in several places and torn. Moreover, I received the tube with both plastic ends missing. The manufacturer’s statements on the tube M-145 claim the following:

1) “goes the distance”
2) “Certified Heavy Duty”
3) “protects items without folding”
4) “meets packaging requirements”

As for item 1, the claim is patently false and amounts to false advertising. As for item 2, heavy duty, the several indentations suggests another false claim. As for item 3, it is a meaningless and misleading statement: what good is it to have the tube protected when mailing it unfolded, if it is not protected after shipping. As for item 4, I can’t understand this claim except to say that the negligence of the postal service and regulatory authorities allows the company to continue to manufacture products that are largely worthless in their ability to meet their stated goals. Despite my belief in the importance of American manufacturing, I was disappointed because I ended up buying junk.
The Sad End of Antitrust and Corporate Ersatz Bonding

A few years ago, I purchased an AT&T mobile phone. The company was subsequently purchased by Cingular. I recently attempted to service this prepaid AT&T mobile phone when visiting New York during this holiday season. Instead I was given a lesson about the cynical and money grubbing way in which the company allowed service for former AT&T customers to deteriorate. The merger simply was orchestrated to drive out another competitor and was not in the interest of the public and hence-in retrospect-should have been declared illegal. Given the dismal state of the anti-trust movement in the U.S. these days, perhaps my views are anachronistic. Yet given the widespread corporate corruption that we have seen in American business these last several years, it is an anachronism that I can comfortably live with. What companies do provide is what political philosopher Marcus Raskin once called “ersatz bonding,” a phony sense of comradeship.

I visited several Cingular stores, a Duane Reade drugstore, and learned from a sales person that service was no longer available on these phones. One such person, a “Lead Retail Sales Consultant” in New York City, offered to sell me a prepaid card “that might not work” but was not “refundable.” I became rather annoyed with this vision of “kindness” which amounted to this: I will sell you a product for about $25 bucks that might not work and for which you won’t get your money back in furtherance of the new mega company resulting from merger with AT&T’s mobile phone division.

I have had a great deal of acquaintance with different economic theories as part of my work as a social scientist, but the only explanation I can give for what transpired is simple stupidity. The Cingular company has Orwellian slogans as part of their “branding” like “raising the bar” and promotes faux public interest announcements in movie theatres about keeping cell phones quiet. While the company might have served the public interest by providing a free exchange of AT&T for Cingular telephones, they instead use their corporate monopoly to promote public relations advertisements.
Made in China: The Anti-Jobs Program

An American friend of mine explained that he tries to avoid buying products made in China because of the country’s horrific human rights practices and the contributions of Chinese manufacturing to American industrial decay. I half agreed with his attempt to resist, but had in the course of making what I considered normal purchases in the U.S. found that the room for maneuver practically nil. Almost everything was “Made in China.” I needed pajamas. Made in China. I bought a new cell phone. Made in China (by a Japanese firm). I bought a magic marker with waterproof ink. Made in China. I bought catnip for the cat. Made in China.

I thought about these products. If they were made in America, the revenue stream from my purchases would create jobs. There would be no need for the microenterprises celebrated by many an urban planner. These create a few dozen jobs here and there that amount to income-lite employment. There would be less of a trade deficit. There would be less jobless growth. I walked the streets of the Upper West Side and the lesson was there for all to see on a manhole cover: “New York City Sewer: Made in China.” Others read: “New York City Sewer: Made in India.” The fossilized violence of deindustrialization.
The Way Forward

Given the deteriorated service I have already described, I am hardly impressed by the claim that the service economy will somehow compensate for the loss in manufacturing jobs. The culture of security is a big smokescreen that constantly mobilizes the public and diverts their attention from basic economic facts: a rapidly deteriorating means of production and standard of living. The corporate scandals suggest that transnationals in America, like the government, also have something to hide. The state produces security instead of usability in basic services. The corporate order tends to provide public relations rather than economic or user-friendly products and services. Increasingly, it does not even organize work or provide jobs.

My last night in the U.S., I went to a meeting of local activists concerned with the decline of infrastructure and the mass unemployment among people of color within New York City. There we discussed various strategies for reclaiming power from big government, corporations and unions. The main theme was that if we do not take an active role in how the government and economy are organized, we will become victim to the larger political and economic processes that rule our lives. A democratized economy via cooperatives and networks of localized procurement agents in disenfranchised cities and states are part of the pieces of this larger puzzle.

We also need to reinvent basic protest activities like boycotts and civic lobbying to fight the mediocrity of various power elites. One innovation might be to create a webpage that logged complaints against various political, economic and other actors, providing a forum for public meetings and agitation against specified culprits. This virtual public space could turn the liabilities of a decaying civilization into a new source of agitation and reconstruction. One could link the strategies of Move On, Consumer Reports, and direct action activists.

Another needed innovation is to reinvent the old anarchist and syndicalist conceptions of “mutual aid” and cooperative action. Even persons in the professional classes are subject to the terror found in the absence of accountability as consumers (as illustrated above), citizens (Votergate and the New Orleans fiasco being prime examples), and workers (proletarianization, bureaucratic regulation and harassment). The mafia structures that are glorified on television have appeal because they showcase the virtues of accountability and payback, i.e. if you violate me, then I violate you. The violence and spite attached to such practices is stomached in order to participate in a vicarious realm of accountability. One way to provide a more immediate achievement of this basic need is through focal groups that emerge like “file sharing networks” around common problems. Consumers, citizens and workers could affiliate into groups of twenty to thirty persons who agreed to address accountability infringements as needed. Some have drawn the analogy of a volunteer fire department. Ultimately, one could and should move from localized problems to larger political issues like dismantling the military industrial complex, broadening the public pension and health insurance system, and direct actions against the corporate media monopoly.

JONATHAN M. FELDMAN, a lecturer at Stockholm University, is working on a history of demilitarization efforts in the United States over the last fifty years. His previous CounterPunch contribution, “US as Failed State,” examined the New Orleans tragedy. He can be reached at