The questions are simple. Why does a small group of humanity reap the efforts of billions? Why can this elite group poison the planet to further enrich themselves? Why do we accept a soulless social order built around the concept of people staying in line? Why do we allow armed police to beat and cage us if we step off that line?

1


When you’re sitting in jail, the topic of justice can’t help but come up. You work backward from sitting in your cell, to your ride in the police car with handcuffs, to when the police threw you face-first on the ground and applied said handcuffs. You ask how and why this all happened. And in your pain in your cage, someone tells you, incredibly, that it’s because you asked for it. It’s all in your social contract.

As with any profound concept, this may take a while to digest. Connoisseurs of the brazen should at least admire the answer’s audacity. It’s delivered by someone certain or shameless enough to look you in the eye and say that, despite your insistence that you have no desire to go to jail; that you think the social arrangements you are protesting represent an abomination and stain on the human soul; that you believe people should be commended for speaking out for the public good against the rapacious few; that despite all of these things, you have really agreed to exactly the opposite.

Naturally, you want to see what you signed that said all of this. There must be a copy. Binding contracts must be in writing for all but trivial matters. (Maybe locking you up is trivial?) A contract needs to be signed by the parties to be bound. In some states, important clauses must be highlighted. The part where the police get to club you, for example, should be in bold. There should be a forum to discuss misunderstandings: “Your honor, I’m pretty sure I declined the tear gas and pepper spray options.”

The most threadbare contracts contain these basic elements. They ensure that contract parties have actually understood their agreement and consented.

2

Perhaps this knowledge makes you smug, in your cell, temporarily. But when your mind starts to wander over the acres of words-on-paper you’ve seen in your lifetime, you get uneasy. Maybe all this stuff was in the fine print on an insurance or loan form. You signed some of those. It could have been in your rent agreement or credit card application. How many Agreed to Terms and Conditions boxes have you checked? What were all the warnings on the reverse side of your tickets and receipts?

It’s possible that if you stitched together every release of liability, consent form, waiver, permission slip and application in your life, there may be so little left of you as a legal person that a trained law officer would slap you in disgust. You could have signed away your right to breathe and to have an opinion years ago.

But it’s probably even worse than even that. The modern social contract, given its importance, operates beyond traditional contract principles. Atavistic notions like print and consent insult its stature. The modern world changes too quickly. Today’s social contract shrinks already minuscule print to a quantum text, subject to probabilistic fluctuations based on the elite’s needs at any given time. Consent may be inferred; to collect everyone’s actual signature would require some kind of absurd robo-signing process.

We learn as part of the contract that we have granted a virtual, seemingly irrevocable, power of attorney to a small group in government and industry to act in our name. We appear to have granted this when we chose to be born, and ratify it daily by our continued existence.

In this context, questioning the social construct makes about as much sense as an ant putting down its burden and demanding to speak to the queen.

3

Some might point to laws and legal process as guarantors of our rights.

When you are arrested for protesting, you will spend on average at least 24 hours in jail.  No one thinks you pose a particular threat; they keep you because the system takes that long to process your existence. The mere size and impersonal nature of the system dictates this treatment. We have learned to accept this from inflexible institutions, to be cheated of our time and money, to be passive in the face of unresponsiveness. But frankly, it can be embarrassing to be locked up in a metaphor for what you’re protesting.

We know that laws can be enforced against you in a heartbeat, but that fighting for your legal rights can take years. Properly understood, laws explain to the weak what they may not do. This is seen as preferable to more autocratic arrangements, where rules are made up after the fact. We don’t seem to mind being told what to do, as long as we’re provided the simple courtesy of advance warning. Even that tender mercy comes under routine attack by the authorities.

4

Let us consider to whom or to what we have given our proxy. Even here, confusion reigns. It’s not entirely clear how the bank that owns your home relates to the police smacking you around, or what they have to do with the credit card company charging too much, or those credit rating people, and how that ties into whatever layer of government happens to hassle you on a given day, and how all that means we should have a war or two going on, or planned, while the environment is converted to a trash-strewn sauna. Whatever that thing is has grown so huge and weird that we struggle even to find a name for it—the System, the Military-Industrial Complex, the Institution, the State, the Matrix, the Man. No one really understands what the Thing means or intends, but pundits occasionally offer a metaphor.

The Thing resembles a ship that we’re all on together. Not a cruise ship exactly, but more of a steam ship/trawler. We have a captain who steers while we shovel coal and swab decks. He seems to have us headed toward a typhoon. The captain stares at the impending doom on the horizon and grins ecstatically. He’s clearly thrilled to be the captain. He faces down a storm that we can only wincingly glance at with one squinting eye, and he jabbers incessantly about hope and destiny. We realize that he does not see as a normal person, by passively receiving light through his pupils. Rather he uses his eyes offensively to project what he wants to see on the world. He has become so practiced at his fantasia that he can no longer recognize what we, cringing on deck, see as certain catastrophe.

Or maybe the Thing should be understood as the body politic. We each have our own role as cell or organ within the body. The brain tells everyone what to do, because bodies just work that way. If you were part of the brain, you would know. Beyond that, things get foggy. From what we can tell, our collective body is some kind of morbidly obese ranting child that eats what it sees and screams when someone threatens its toys. It may have severe emotional deficits and boundary issues. Are we part of the spleen? Free-floating radicals? Maybe we are some vague notion of decency trying to make our way to the brain to make our plea for the rest of humanity.

5

What succor can we draw from our social arrangements? The elite have hijacked our institutions and bent them to their will. They have been sustained by the cultural myth that humanity advances only through unchecked greed.

Our present institutions exploit our weaker aspects, our laziness and passivity, our love of ease, our self-centeredness. They encourage our addictions to the vain and superficial. In return for our dignity, they offer us the salve of television, magazines, movies, games, from which we invent fantasies and identities in which to hide. Escapism has grown from occasional distraction to central social tenet. No one wants to deal with life, really. We want to believe the beautiful lie that humanity has overcome the ancient need to work and suffer, despite all evidence to the contrary.

6

The basic themes have been with us now for centuries. The machine grows too great to control or comprehend; the sweat of the many sustains the dreams of the few; obsessions built on hatred and false mythologies occupy our minds. We have shown ourselves capable of great compassion and depravity.

For a small percentage of the population, the world seems a wonderland played out in the spotlight of a magical theatrical show. Those standing off-stage with brooms and hammers understand the true costs of the production, the falsity of its script and imagery, but still can’t look away. Some even cheer for the tacky actors who gobble up the world, as if their open disdain for humanity were somehow heroic.

The true nature of our circus has by now revealed itself. We notice that the big top has burst into flame, that when we turn to the ringmaster we see his sweat streaking away his greasepaint, revealing the clown beneath.

7

Most of what we have, we received as a gift from our forbearers and creation itself. We should not surrender the hard-earned concessions wrung from life by past generations for the comfort of the few. We must also recognize that each generation inherits a different world and requires different solutions, and that the sources of yesterday’s hope and liberation can become tools of today’s oppression.

Our past solutions no longer serve as guarantors, exemplars, protectors, and do not deserve the power we have ceded to them. We must wean ourselves from them and reclaim that power.

Our present solutions must build on the generous aspects of our beings and the potential of our time. We must no longer abdicate responsibility for developing our lives and spirit to others.

8

Each age brings changes in human capacities and creates new space for possibilities. Past generations have fought oppression to claim as much of that space for the good as possible, sometimes succeeding, often not.

In our age, the capacity for connection, self-education and self-cooperation has exploded. This offers a window of opportunity, with its unspoken, unresolved question: Who will take and shape the bulk of the resulting potential? The space can be used for the benefit of all, or employed to enrich the few at the cost of the many. The window will not remain open long before being overwhelmed by claims from those in power.

9

It occurs to you in jail how much you’ve been had. Locked away, apart from the mesmerizing screens, the deal seems plain: There is no deal. The social contract exists only as rationalization. In its place, there is what you can be suckered or bullied in to accepting, and whether you are brave and strong enough to resist.

What’s galling in this light is the creepy, sanctimonious importance that the elite attach to honoring contractual obligations when something comes due from you. You gave your binding promise! Never mind that every manner of manipulation, false promise, lie, obfuscation, pressure or cajolery was employed to extract it; you’re too insignificant to back out of your word.

10

The questions are simple. Why does a small group of humanity reap the efforts of billions? Why can this elite group poison the planet to further enrich themselves? Why do we accept a soulless social order built around the concept of people staying in line? Why do we allow armed police to beat and cage us if we step off that line?

One might answer, “because we allow it, and because we are content with the beggar’s portion,” but this is uncharitable. Forging unity among ourselves to resist, to act, is hard.  It must be built person-by-person by engaging with each other, believing that each of us has value, that if we learn the trick of working together we will change the world. We must unplug ourselves from the bloviating network of the banal and talk with someone.

We must nurture the habit of thinking for ourselves. We have surrendered most of the space we should occupy to others, and we have accepted a sliver in return. This pattern has become so established that, when we attempt to assert otherwise, we will be attacked and jailed. When we live and think independently, we lessen our dependence on institutions we can’t control. Their strength depends entirely upon our relative ignorance and powerlessness, our willingness to acquiesce. We can develop the skills needed to live together as a human race that might actually be able to share the planet without destroying it.

11

It is customary to give some type of notice when ending a contractual relationship. We should respect the formalities, even in the face of a sham.

Since we’re not sure who’s supposed to get the notice, we are forced to deliver it generally to the world by word and deed in every available forum. We proclaim from our jail cells, in city squares, on Wall Street, from every space we occupy: We want no part of any contract that produces a world like this; we do not consent to be governed; we take responsibility for our own lives.

Any powers of attorney are hereby terminated. If we want you to do something in our name, we will tell you.

When you come to collect on the fruits of your arrangements, we will not comply. We will go out of our way to thwart the efforts of the 1% to take what does not belong to it, to wipe away the old orders of oppression, to change the world for the good.

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