There’s a bumper sticker still clinging to the back of my old camper, bearing a phrase you’ve probably heard before or perhaps even uttered: “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm.” At the time I’d placed this on the tailgate for display, it made perfect sense to me. The Dominant Paradigm was the one manufactured by the warmongers, corporateers, securitizers, and mediamen. The rest of us were living in a Subordinate Paradigm, and the path to our salvation lay in tearing down the one imposing itself upon us. Since those halcyon bumper-sticker days, however, I’ve come to see that this logic is actually inverted, and that in fact WE are the Dominant Paradigm while those ostensibly in charge are the ones who continually attempt to subvert it.
This seems counterintuitive, of course. The world is wired by powerful interests who have propped themselves up by virtue of a nascent “corp d’etat” in which the policies and practices established at the upper echelons serve only to increase their wealth and privilege at the expense of the masses. The billionaires buoy themselves with bailouts, tax breaks, and subsidized boondoggles. They loot the treasury in the name of national security, capitalize on and/or foment dubious threats in order to justify their lockstep control, and interpose Big Brother mechanisms in all spheres of society so as to maintain this ineluctable combination of security and control. Ideologically, they utilize their wholly-owned media subsidiaries and increasingly-regimented school systems to produce a society of dampened consumers with little more on their minds than titillating toys, prescribed pills, and faster faux-food.
Nevertheless, it is increasingly apparent that the forces of subjugation are on the wrong side of history, and are by far a minority class on the planet. They’ve convinced us that we matter little while their every move is newsworthy. It’s a sublime illusion, one that we’ve been paid a relatively handsome sum (compared to most of history’s denizens) to swallow. Over time, it has even come to appear that this stratified state of affairs is the natural order of things, and thus have we generally accepted the rightful status of inherited wealth as a precondition of political power. Democracy has been rendered a quaint exercise in which we are asked to select which robber baron will loot our resources, which moral entrepreneur will pander to us, and which corporate elitist will decide our fates. What makes this openly fascistic enterprise unique in history is precisely its transparent quality and the ways in which it exists alongside popular conceptions of liberty and justice for all. We don’t require leaks to expose this blatant corporatocracy; the empire brazenly stands stark naked before our gerrymandered gaze.
Against this state of affairs, people the world over launch rebellions and insurrections of every possible kind. Some openly resist with their bodies, others deploy the power of the pen, still others practice slow-downs and other forms of subtle sabotage, and many raise their voices in response to the myriad injustices delivered on our doorsteps every day. The number of people protesting unconscionable wars, corporate globalization pacts, and other shady deals almost always outstrips the number of those enacting the policies in question. At every turn it is obvious that we are many, and they are few — but the design of the world is a pyramid scheme, where the masses comprising the foundation often feel weak despite shouldering the weight of the freeloading “cloud minders” cavorting in the ether while their wastes trickle down on us.
More than half a century ago, the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills cogently described the workings of this burgeoning “power elite” in terms that in retrospect seem like a feat of gifted insight. Mills depicted a ruling class of military, corporate, and political figures who perpetuate their stations by rendering the citizenry effectively powerless and subject to ready manipulation. Part of the inspiration for his seminal work was a 1942 book called Behemoth that chronicled the Nazis’ rise to power, which Mills later said provided him with the “tools to grasp and analyze the entire total structure and as a warning of what could happen in a modern capitalist democracy.” The basic thesis of The Power Elite is that a highly unified and centralized elite class has monopolized power, rendered democracy a charade, and coopted the ideologies of both conservatism and liberalism to serve the preordained continuance of their rule. Mills’ insights echoed a prior account of these trends by John F. Hylan, New York City mayor, in 1922:
“The real menace of our republic is this invisible government which like a giant octopus sprawls its slimy length over city, State and nation. Like the octopus of real life it operates under cover of a self-created screen. It seizes in its long and powerful tentacles our executive officers, our legislative bodies, our schools, our courts, our newspapers and every agency created for the public protection. It squirms in the jaws of darkness and thus is the better able to clutch the reins of government, secure enactment of the legislation favorable to corrupt business, violate the law with impunity, smother the press and reach into the courts.
“To depart from mere generalizations, let me say that at the head of this octopus are the Rockefeller-Standard Oil interests and a small group of powerful banking houses generally referred to as the international bankers. The little coterie of powerful international bankers virtually run the United States Government for their own selfish purposes. They practically control both parties, write political platforms, make catspaws of party leaders, use the leading men of private organizations and resort to every device to place in nomination for high public office only such candidates as will be amenable to the dictates of corrupt big business. They connive at centralization of government on the theory that a small group of hand-picked, privately controlled individuals in power can be more easily handled than a larger group among whom there will most likely be men sincerely interested in public welfare.
“These international bankers and Rockefeller-Standard Oil interests control the majority of newspapers and magazines in this country. They use the columns of these papers to club into submission or drive out of office public officials who refuse to do the bidding of the powerful corrupt cliques which compose the invisible government. It operates under cover of a self-created screen [and] seizes our executive officers, legislative bodies, schools, courts, newspapers and every agency created for the public protection.”
Others have similarly pointed out the hijacked nature of governance and the lockstep union of corporate, political, and military interests — from William Jennings Bryan to Dwight David Eisenhower — and in all of these formulations it is understood that the ruling class is numerically very small, a “little coterie” as Hylan described it. The paradigm in which they operate is a mere fiction plied by a self-perpetuating cadre who claim the mantle of power in order to preempt the exercise of actual power by “the people.” Their worldview is designed to insulate their interests from contestation by reinforcing at every turn a sense of resignation among the masses, who are provided with just enough “bread and circuses” to keep their place in the misguided but well-publicized notion that “you can’t fight city hall.” In this sense, the so-called Dominant Paradigm is actually a wholly contrived and artificially induced version of reality.
The real Dominant Paradigm — the one held by the overwhelming majority of people on the planet — is more decentralized and amorphous, yet is grounded in shared values that merit enunciation. These include: a belief in the virtues of community; a desire to be part of something greater than oneself; a reciprocal relationship with nature and life’s essential resources; an aversion to open hostilities and devastating warfare; an interest in the wellbeing of others as a precondition of personal prosperity; an adherence to culturally-transcendent principles such as the Golden Rule; and a willingness to work hard in return for an equitable existence. Remarkably, this truly Dominant Paradigm continues to proliferate despite attempts to manipulate and eradicate it, and despite the fact that its practicability is highly disincentivized in modern life. It is perpetually being subverted by the “power elite” through the interlocking devices of politics, media, education, and economics — and yet it continually emerges from the heart of humanity like green grass poking through the cracks of a lifeless concrete jungle.
At this juncture, the true Dominant Paradigm desperately needs our open encouragement, thoughtful attention, and unconditional support. If humankind is to find its collective way through the storm in a world seemingly gone mad with avarice and despoliation, it will take nothing short of a total paradigm shift — back to the one from whence we came and, by some miracle of persistence in the face of persecution, in many respects have never really abandoned.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College, and is the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is Lost In Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly 2008).