A 21st Century Counter-Reformation? Circles of Power
By KENNETH COUESBOUC
The term “middle class” does not mean anything. There can be no sense of cohesion among members of a group jostling to climb the social ladder. The possessors and the dispossessed can be described as antagonistic social classes. But those in between, those hooked to the dominant ideology of possession and power, have no class structure of their own. They are neither nor and are condemned to perpetual schizophrenia.
Plutocracy depends on mercenary intermediaries. The wealthy few cannot rule alone. They would be submerged by the sheer weight of numbers. So the citizen guards the slave and the freeman guards the serf. Guard and guarded necessarily lead quite similar lives, but they are separated by an ideological chasm. The slave sees his chains, knows he is chattel and dreams of being free. The freeman resents his bondage, realises he is nothing and dreams of being Caesar. The one aspires to human rights, the other to dominion.
Like a Dantean hell, power is a structure of widening concentric circles, the Outer Circle being the most infernal. The interface between the have and the have-not is a place where power is brutal and ideas are radical. But it is also the place where transfers occur. Deserving slaves are emancipated and rebellious deviants are enslaved. These passages blur the boundary so completely that it can only exist in the mind. The Outer Circle of power needs the strongest convictions to compensate its meagre material benefits.
The most important element of the power structure, the base of the pyramid, the interface with the rest of humanity, is neglected materially and must be bolstered morally as a consequence. The ideology of power needs to be as total as possible. When there is no alternative, the system is secure. And, when an alternative does seem possible, it is denied, divided, turned around and finally destroyed or integrated. Protestantism and socialism were historic alternatives. Both were the products of their times. Neither restrained power, wealth or oligarchic rule. But, as past examples, they highlight the difficulties of opposing a totalitarian organisation that is backed by unlimited means.
The power structure depends mainly on ideology to maintain its base. The control of ideas and knowledge is essential. This in turn means controlling the media that circulate words, images and concepts. Technology, however, follows its own unpredictable path and some media are more difficult to control than others. Throughout the Middle Ages, publishing had been the absolute monopoly of monastic workshops. But the arrival of the printing press and paper from China, and the invention of movable type by Gutenberg (42-line Bible, 1448) produced a new medium that was uncontrollable. It coincided with the siege (1422) and fall (1453) of Constantinople and a back surge from Byzantium carrying oriental flotsam, Greek, Hebrew and Arab books, materialism and mysticism, the crafts of state and war, astrology and al’jebr, the art of interpreting the scriptures. The printing press became a guarantee that ideas could be circulated without the consent of authority. The freedom of expression brought about by printing was behind all the major social upheavals of the following centuries, from reformation to revolution. Until the late 19th century, when rotary printing, the telegraph and the railways produced the first mass medium, the popular press.
Mass media give a level of control unequalled since the times before Gutenberg. When millions read, hear (radio) and see (TV) the same thing at the same time, the effect can be compared to that of church rituals in medieval Europe. The mere communion of so many gives credence to the ideology being propagated. The 20th century saw the multiplicity of opinions competing for attention on a fairly level playing field that was the result of the printing press, replaced by a top down totalitarian mass culture, with central offices pontificating for readers, listeners and viewers in ever greater numbers. But, when personal computers plugged in to the telephone network creating the World Wide Web, centralised media suddenly seemed meaningless. This coincided with the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the end of the USSR. And the resulting culture shock is as intense as that produced by printing five hundred years ago. Except that the “Gutenberg Galaxy” only concerned Christianity, whereas the Internet galaxy is global.
The church re-formers of the 16th century were fundamentalists. They preached a return to the teachings of the Gospels and the Old Testament, to the instructions of Paul and Augustine. They abhorred the pomp of ecclesiastic dignitaries, the superstitious worship of saintly relics and the selling of indulgences. Muslim radicals to-day sound much the same as Zwingli, Luther and Calvin would have sounded to their contemporaries. And what of the “Protestant Rome” in Geneva protected by mountains and hordes of fierce Swiss halberdiers, or the short lived “New Jerusalem” in Münster, or the insurgency in Flanders? These events were perceived by the Catholic power structure to be threatening its values and existence. And the backlash was horrific. Islam is going through the throes of re-formation surfing on the web medium, and its tribulations can be compared to those of the Christian Reformation carried by the print medium. In both cases, it is the Outer Circle voicing its doubts as to the First Circle’s moral right to hold power and wealth. But this can only happen at historic moments, when a new medium makes expression possible.
We, who have received a European cultural heritage, have gone beyond religious reform, though the passage was a continual blood bath. And, with even more bloodshed, we have constructed secular nation states. These two transformations were the consequences of printing and mass media. The first movement was fuelled by freedom of expression. The technologies of printing and of paper making were simple enough to be set up anywhere and everywhere in an anarchic manner. This movement went on to social reform, as the more radical Protestant churches and budding proletarian organisations often intermingled (1). The printing press had given a means of expression to the Outer Circle of power. Mass media replaced this mosaic of convictions with centralised modes of expression. Thoughts, beliefs and ideas were no longer exchanged, they were received. The voice of the elite who knows repeated endlessly, by press, radio and TV. Giving a total control that invites and supports tyranny. But this splendid propaganda machine is now on the verge of redundancy.
The Outer Circle’s questioning comes from its intermediary situation. Does it identify itself with the dispossessed on the basis of a common humanity? Or does it identify itself with the First Circle on the basis of a possible social climb (if not I, my children or my grandchildren). This positioning depends on the level of ideological control and its material credibility (hence the symbolic importance of economic growth). But, more importantly, it depends on the actual perception of a human identity with the dispossessed. For the Outer Circles of the Western World, the dispossessed are in other countries, on other continents, while the relatively few local ones are kept off the streets and out of mind, by robust policing and harsh sentencing. This makes identification difficult. As was the case with slaves brought to America from Africa, the otherness is extreme enough to seem unbridgeable. How can a car driving, card toting, electricity dependent, overfed Westerner imagine that his aspirations are shared by forlorn creatures whose only possessions are a loin-cloth and a hoe? “Are they really human?” he asks himself, as they gibber away in uncouth tongues, whose conceptual poverty mirrors the material deprivation of their users.
The once blurred boundaries between the Outer Circles of the Western World and the dispossessed have become national frontiers, with border patrols, concrete walls and razor wire. The once meritorious lawful passage has become a surreptitious criminal activity. Those who pass the boundary are illegal and must live in the crannies of society. They become invisible. Unseen and unknown, here in the darkest shadows, over there in vast sunlit throngs, the dispossessed seem ever more menacing. And, as fear gains on empathy, the violent path seems to beckon with a martial gesture. And, no doubt, that is the way it must be, having always been so. In times of doubt, power must divest itself of all its fancy trappings to expose the naked reality of dominion. These brutal demonstrations attract and repulse. But their essential function is to show that there is no alternative to power, other than greater power. (2)
For the time being, we have a media struggle for the minds of the Outer Circle, between the prime-time talk-show and the bloggersphere, on air or on line. In some post colonial nations, where mass media have not been fully developed, the First Circles of power already seem to have their backs to the wall. Being unable to identify with the dispossessed, the Outer Circles of the Western World could perhaps identify with the Outer Circles of the post-colonial nations, who are urging for religious and social reforms. The tools of expression are on hand, the web medium and universal English, but this identification entails turning against the First Circle and contesting its legitimacy. At present, this seems an unlikely eventuality. If, however, the unpopular and costly wars in the East are coupled to a contracting economy, a global link-up may take place. Unless war, recession and growing discontent manage to turn fear into hate. In that case, the counter-reformation of the 21st century may just be warming up.
Kenneth Couesbouc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) See the Anabaptists and the Baptists, the Quakers, the Presbyterians, etc. In Catholic and Orthodox countries, social movements had no such church support and were generally anticlerical and less consensual.
(2) Just as the prehistoric kings of Greek legends were obliged, at regular intervals, to challenge all-comers to mortal combat.