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The View From The Top

Woman in Red

Civil society is messy, disorganized, chaotic, spontaneous and unpredictable. This is our own personal experience of life lived in the real world, with people who work for a living and struggle to make a better life for themselves and their children. This was life as experienced in Taksim Square, a tangle of plazas, streets and shops representing an unruly commons in the middle of Istanbul. At least it was until the Turkish government decided to sanitize the square, channeling the traffic underground to create a pedestrian plaza and building a mosque and a shopping mall, designed no doubt, to enrich the political elites.

The really important knowledge in our lives is local, where the best ice-cream is sold, which tree provides the best shade to read a book under, who in your network gives the best advice on relationship issues, who you can rely on at work to get the job done. This is knowledge as experienced from the ground up and is very different from the view from the top. Thus a placard at Gezi Park in Taksim Square quoted an old poem by Nazim Hikmet:

I am a walnut tree in Guhane Park

Neither you are aware of this, nor the police.

The view from the top is molded by the necessity of retaining and if possible, increasing power over those at the bottom.  Generally the domination of those at the bottom requires no knowledge of particularity or individuality, quite the reverse, it requires that those at the bottom be treated as a mass that can be measured, counted, controlled, organized, taxed, spied upon, lied to, and if necessary, imprisoned or killed (drone willing).

The general world view of those at the top is one of contempt for the rest of us as illustrated by the Turkish Prime Minister’s claim that the protesters were çapulcu or bums. Another example closer to home would be the recent reply of James Clapper, director of national intelligence, who in response to  a question from the U.S. Senate about whether the government collected information on millions of Americans, answered: “No, sir, not wittingly”.

President Obama, who met with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan recently in Washington, has praised him for “being such a strong ally and partner in the region and around the world.” Indeed, Washington has promoted Erdogan’s government as a model for the Middle East. However,while the recent confrontations in Taksim Square may be a surprise to our intelligence services, they are no surprise to those of us who view the modern state as the institutionalization of dominant interests. Managed democracy may try to channel dissent through established channels but sooner or later real life bursts through these sclerotic arrangements with the power of long repressed creative energy. Real life seeks to be messy, free and spontaneous.

As deflation tightens its grip on Europe and the US, the state together with its corporate partners will attempt to find new and more creative ways to soak the middling and poorer classes to pay for the excesses of the elites. Capital controls, travel restrictions and account confiscations are just a few of the panoply of techniques that will increasingly be used to try to seal the cracks which civil society currently uses to escape corralling and constraint.

Don’t expect all resistance to be overt. Throughout history most resistance has been under the radar and not the headline grabbing protests we have become used to over the last few weeks. As James C. Scott writes in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts:

“The hidden transcript is not just behind-the-scenes griping and grumbling; it is enacted in a host of down-to-earth, low-profile stratagems designed to minimize appropriation. In the case of slave, for example, these stratagems have typically included theft, pilfering, feigned ignorance, shirking or careless labor, footdragging, secret trade and production for sale, sabotage of crops, livestock, and machinery, arson, flight, and so on. In the case of peasants, poaching, squatting, illegal gleaning, delivery of inferior rents in kind, clearing clandestine fields, and defaults on feudal dues have been common stratagems.”

Expect the growth of high tech versions of these low-profile stratagems of resistance. Think Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the Anonymous group of hacktivists, the use of crowdsourcing to monitor big brother, political satire combined with YouTube videos and the instant and wide transmittal of memes, graphics and images on social media like Twitter. The image of the woman in red which has become the leitmotif for protesters  in Istanbul has, like the UC-Davis ’s “pepper-spray cop”, become memefied.

_____________________

“You may either win your peace or buy it: win it, by resistance to evil; buy it, by compromise with evil.” John Ruskin

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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43 Comments on “The View From The Top”

  1. Bonnie Marshall Says:

    Malcolm, your wise analysis deserves a wide audience. I shall spread the word.

    Reply

  2. Mike Says:

    Reblogged this on This Got My Attention and commented:
    An interesting perspective from Malcolm Greenhill!
    “The hidden transcript is not just behind-the-scenes griping and grumbling; it is enacted in a host of down-to-earth, low-profile stratagems designed to minimize appropriation. In the case of slave, for example, these stratagems have typically included theft, pilfering, feigned ignorance, shirking or careless labor, footdragging, secret trade and production for sale, sabotage of crops, livestock, and machinery, arson, flight, and so on. In the case of peasants, poaching, squatting, illegal gleaning, delivery of inferior rents in kind, clearing clandestine fields, and defaults on feudal dues have been common stratagems.”

    Reply

  3. aaforringer Says:

    Stealing the quote for future use pal.

    Reply

  4. Raunak Says:

    Great post, Malcolm. On democracy, I wish we could get rid of herd mentality. Only then would democracy truly work. If every individual voted on the basis of his own singular well being, this world would be a much better place.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Raunak, thank you. Just to play the devil’s advocate on this one, would the world “be a much better place” if everyone voted on their own well being? Such a world would hardly be a paradise since we are all fallible human creatures subject to ignorance and bias. Furthermore, majority rule is all too often a way for the majority to off-load the costs of their decisions onto the minority.

      Reply

  5. kateshrewsday Says:

    Subversification; and now cybersubversification. Fantastic post as usual, Malcolm, leaving me much to think about today.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Kate, thank you. I just love that word you used ‘subversification’.I had to check that it was a real word and of course it is. How sad that this word had to be invented to describe the process by which dissidents are made into outlaws.

      Reply

  6. Ishaiya Says:

    The reason democracy does not exist is because there is always someone else making the decisions, in addition to Raunak’s comment. Very interesting and wonderfully written article Malcolm, as ever. It is always a please to read you and your work 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Ishaiya, thank you. You are absolutely correct. Direct democracy can work very well in small groups but once you transition to representative democracy it is like opening a completely different can of worms.

      Reply

  7. Michele Seminara Says:

    Malcolm, your posts always stimulate critical thinking (something we need much more of in this world.) Thank you!

    Reply

  8. Tom Knorr Says:

    Malcolm, again a great, thought inspiring piece.

    I was discussing same subject in another group where the argument was much about how diverse and deeper the differences are between the Turkish and other Middle Eastern societies. All this is happening in a country with a democratic elected government.
    Over the last days, I was listening to a comment, maybe on PBS – I cannot remember –the key point was that today’s societies are extremely polarized (the Turkish society, in this case) but it equally applies to our society at this time. A 51% majority means that half of the society did not agree with the ruling party and concepts. So are we expecting similar to happen in the US? It seems to me that the pressures are building up with lid and valve firmly in place.
    Another thought occurred, David Kilcullen wrote an interesting book: “The accidental guerilla”, analysis about the involvement of non-military locals in seemingly unrelated fire fights purely out of “entertainment” value (maybe unrelated grudges to the reason of fighting).
    The cause of the Taksim Square was a real estate management issue, seemingly benign and certainly solvable in a civilized society. How did it end up overthrowing a democratic elected government involving more and more opposition to the initial issue?

    Reply

  9. chr1 Says:

    There’s a reason you’re in the blog roll, and regular reading for me. Posts like this. Thank you.

    I don’t want to see an oppressive secularist, Statist, Turkish government trampling upon people any more than you do, still carrying out Ataturk’s project with a leader who is deeply religious and also handling the rise of Islamism in a deeply authoritarian manner…it’s their history.

    By the same token, I think sometimes that the view from inside ideas, libertarian, free market, Leftist, religious etc. are like Erdogan looking down upon those people and that tree.

    We always see certain things and miss others.

    Like you though, I’m nearly always up for battling the unholy alliance of cronyism and corporatism with local knowledge, freely chosen associations and free market solutions.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Chris, thank you for your kind words. I agree that things are not always what they seem and Turkey is a particularly complex situation. I centered the post on Taksim Square but as you know it could easily have been about the urban planning of Robert Moses in New York or the Central Banking (read ‘Planning’) of the Fed. I believe that if we see statism and corporatism in a country our natural sympathies ought to be with the people at the bottom of the heap, because they are the ones that invariably get shafted the most, even if they are frequently wrong about the reasons for their plight. Yes, it’s their history but history rhymes, it does not necessarily repeat, so we can help them, although definitely not by sending in the marines.

      Reply

      • chr1 Says:

        You’re welcome, sir.

        I say we consider tolerating some authoritarianism to prevent worse authoritarianism. It’s the Middle East!

        But you’ve got a good point.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Chris, I’m loath to take that path because it’s too easy to make glib generalizations that are usually untrue and frequently turn out to be dangerous. While tribal regimes were not particularly egalitarian there used to be a balance of power maintained between various ancestral groups, while the modern nation state was a western import into the Middle East allowing for a much greater exercise of despotic power. The Middle East as we know it is a fusion of tribalism and western imperialism. How do you expect civil society to grow strong roots under an authoritarian regime?

        • chr1 Says:

          Just being contrarian. I’m generally swayed by your argument for the freedoms necessary for civil society, and consider this to be an important development.

          Tribalism, guilds, the old Caliphate did meet Western imperialism, from railroads to armies, and we’ve seen awful totalitarian hybrids, but I guess I maintain a slight suspicion of the Western model of protest politics only because it may upset some Western influence that Turkey already has and the Ataturk model. I don’t want to see the lid removed, Syria spill over, and another worse option in Turkey, but that’s a less probable outcome. It looks like representative democracy is working, so let’s let it work.

          Let’s support the Green revolution in Iran too.

  10. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    Civil and society; sometimes I wonder if either words are very well matched!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Bex, maybe not, but so many other similar words have had their original meaning wrenched from them e.g. ‘freedom’ and ‘liberal’, that I’m just glad there currently exists the term ‘civil society’ to describe the totality of non-governmental entities. I suspect that at some point Orwell will be completely vindicated and it will be suggested that nothing can truly exist without government and so the term will come to be replaced by ‘civic society’ which will encompass everything touched by government and leaving nothing untouched 🙂

      Reply

      • The Savvy Senorita Says:

        Yes, I think so too. It seems we are losing faith in ourselves, yet, I wonder; has Government existed for so long because humans have become too lazy?? We can’t, or refuse to regulate ourselves, and decide what it is we want as individuals? We seem to always be governed by some collective or another, earning bracket (class), gender, social group and so on and so on. Maybe we are so used to this that we don’t hardly notice the Government ruling our lives too.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          It’s very tiring and enervating to keep fighting the influence of government in our lives. Niall Ferguson described this well in an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

          http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324021104578551291160259734.html?mod=trending_now_1

          Quoting Toqueville Ferguson says:

          Tocqueville also foresaw exactly how this regulatory state would suffocate the spirit of free enterprise: “It rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces [the] nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

        • The Savvy Senorita Says:

          Interesting article, and seems the motives behind the French Revolution were quickly forgotten!! Once one group hold ‘absolute’ power then the ordinary folk always end up shovelling the poop! Toqueville truly describes Government – and democracy too is another line used to reinforce that we are truly free under their rule. It makes me shudder.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          I also shudder when someone says something along the lines of “we are the government and the government is us” meaning that we can’t criticize the government in any way. It is true that many people believe this but that is only because that is what they have been taught. One day that belief will seem as foolish as the doctrine of the divine right of kings is to us now.

        • The Savvy Senorita Says:

          Yes, that is true. No-one is above being questioned. Hopefully so, that would be a day to commemorate.

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      As a follow-up someone just sent me this great little video on government surveillance:

      Reply

  11. Miss Lou Says:

    Interesting post. I feel disheartened when experiencing the arrogance of people who maintain positions of power. Working with our own federal government on a roll out of measures focused on ‘Community Development’ it very quickly became evident that purpose of the exercise for many of those in positions where they had the resources to make a difference, was about scoring political points and not about the people they were delivering the services to, OR about how effective they even were.

    I spent much of the 12 months in that role banging heads with other members of my executive team. I got out of there before I was transformed or too jaded to continue working within the Community Development Area – which is my passion.

    Thanks for sharing

    Miss Lou

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Ms. Lou, I’m sorry you had such a frustrating experience. I suspect that what you saw was far from being an isolated event. A government bureaucracy would not be my first choice for a group whose sole purpose is to enhance the lives of others.

      Reply

      • Miss Lou Says:

        I personal feel it is important to get in there and fight the good fight, All that is required to Bad to overcome is for good people to do nothing etc etc

        My experience prior to working on that project was primarily with NGO’s, NFP and Corporate Organisations. All of them came with their own set of challenges, mostly involving internal politics. None of them had the same level of disregard for the concept of inclusion and genuine consultation and participation as the Government Agency. The media can certainly report consultation is taking place, but no where does telling someone something how it is going to be indicate any consultation as far as I am concerned.

        Reply

  12. History of Capitalism Says:

    @Ferguson, Tocqueville was marveling at a society built on chattel slavery. As for Scott’s books, including Domination: yet another old lefty who does great intellectual work (much love in that respect) but who has overseen a breakdown (while he was busy teaching at fucking Yale) in which there has been a serious dearth of tutelage offered to a younger generation in how to organize or agitate. Also, Charles Taylor wrote an interesting but largely problematic article a few decades ago on “Modes of Civil Society” which charts a history of ideas and institutions germane to the recent resurgence of interest in that sphere and I have a pdf of it should that sound interesting to you for material.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I would be interested in Chuck Taylor’s article. A lifetime ago I studied under him for a brief period.

      Reply

      • History of Capitalism Says:

        Oh sweet deal. I will try to find a way to post a download link to my blog tomorrow.

        Reply

      • History of Capitalism Says:

        Ah! How was he? Also, link is up.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          He was a very impressive speaker, tall and lean with a razor sharp mind. I never saw him wear anything but jeans. I think he enjoyed emulating the working class in dress despite being anything but.

      • History of Capitalism Says:

        Hahaha, sounds entirely fitting. Also, I read something really pretty mediocre by him recently, and the book was just made stranger knowing (like when he glowingly invokes Eliade, among others) that he is an avowed papist.

        Reply

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