On culture, government, and social class
An interview with Dr. Ray Peat
Dr. Ray Peat is a philosopher, writer, teacher, scientist, and artist whose work continues to influence the thinking of thousands of readers worldwide.
Much of Peat’s work centres around how individual growth and well-being are affected by our environment, and how language and information are used to manipulate public opinion and behaviour with regards to how we view our environment.
Peat’s encyclopaedic knowledge of politics, philosophy, biology, chemistry, physics, and art—and their respective histories—provides him with a broad and unique perspective of our contemporary human experience. Although often contrarian, his work is well-referenced and consistent.
Reformer interviewed Dr. Peat to hear his thoughts on how government shapes our daily lives.
GM: Gavin Morrice
RP: Ray Peat
GM: Ray, for the benefit of those who might not be familiar with your work, can you give a brief outline of your background and the political issues you’ve been concerned with over the years?
RP: I was born in 1936 in southern California, so that my early memories and thoughts included knowing immigrants from the Oklahoma dust-bowl, seeing wandering homeless people looking for food and work, hearing about the Spanish civil war, Japan’s war in China, Italy’s bombing in Africa, and then the local young men being drafted. One of our neighbors was a policeman who described the “accidents” experienced in the local jail by union organizers. The very last of the local native people were being removed to a reservation in the barren hills. Without ever discussing it with anyone, I began developing a general picture of how the world works by the time I was 5 years old.
At the beginning of the war, we moved to Oregon, where I went to a rural one-room grade school during most of the war, and enjoyed the somewhat formless school experience. In the larger school in town, I saw a majority of the teachers as agents of a malevolent system.
In the ’50s, capital punishment, racism, militarism, and the atomic bomb were my main concerns.
In my first teaching job, my main course was called “physics for biology majors”; cybernetics as it could be applied to biological regulatory systems, and the ways that various forms of energy interact with organisms, were the main themes of the course. Some of the students noticed the relevance of the subject to the issue of radioactive fallout from atmospheric bomb testing, and the trustees noticed, and I found that I needed to find a new job. A biologist from a big university came to lecture, apparently as a prospective replacement for me, but his lecture turned out to be on the dangers of radiation and especially radioactive isotopes from bomb testing; he didn’t get the job, and also lost his existing job. I had previously studied in Mexico for several months, and knew that Mexicans were generally more sympathetic to my political orientation, so I decided to start a school in Mexico City, and the now-unemployed professor went on a lecture tour talking about academic freedom, mentioning that we would be starting a school based on the idea that students and teachers could study together without outside interference. I worked for two years to get enough money to rent a big building, and in 1962, with my parents participating, got Blake College started.
Soon after we opened, the cultural attache’ from the US embassy came to visit to see what we were doing. I gave him information about our courses and teachers, but he didn’t seem interested in that; he was interested in why, with my interest in linguistics, I wasn’t working with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. It was generally recognized that the SIL was a front for imperialism, but I just told him that I wasn’t interested in bible translation. I had the impression that he knew something about me that bothered him. In the next few weeks, some prospective students asked the embassy for information about our school, and they were told that the embassy had no information, so I kept taking copies of our charter and catalogs and brochures describing the school to the embassy’s cultural department. They later answered student inquiries with explicitly false information.
After a year we got a cheaper and bigger place 90 miles out of Mexico City. I got acquainted with a local ex-marine, Dick O’Hair, who had previously been an FBI spy on communists in Chicago; he said he had decided the school had no political agenda, and had reported that to his embassy contact. As the Vietnam war was escalating, the embassy’s military attache’ came to visit, and interviewed some of the students and teachers. He wanted to know my opinion of the war, and what I thought the reason for it was. I thought the main reason was to stimulate the US economy. Our anthropology teacher was a widely respected Mexican professor who was also an official in the Partido Popular Socialista, and one of our philosophy teachers was a conservative Husserlian, others worked at Mexican universities; as far as Mexico was concerned, the presence of the school didn’t seem to be a problem. In the fall of ’65, I left with the intention of spending a year teaching linguistics in Montana; as I drove out of the country, I was accompanied by a hitch-hiker who, near the end of the trip, identified himself as a Mexican Federal Police agent, and invited me to his house in C. Juarez for a beer before I crossed the border. When I got to California, I found that the students had been deported, and Madalyn Murray, who had married Dick O’Hair, had taken over, to turn the school into her “atheist university.”
Back in the US, a few of us got a small version of Blake College going in Eugene, Oregon, and as the war escalated it became a center for anti-war activists. During this period I learned that an American I had known in Mexico worked in “surveillance” (his wife told me while she was drunk); he had started regular visits in 1962, and continued until just before he died in 2012. When he approached retirement age, he brought a younger friend of his, an air force officer, to meet me, and that person visited periodically until he died, a little over a year ago. I suppose now they have more efficient ways of keeping track of people.
Seeing how successful the system has been in keeping the culture in line, I have increasingly looked for places in the culture that are designed to prevent change, but that are susceptible to criticism. Some of these were Chomsky’s doctrine of innate language knowledge, genetic determinism, neo-kantianism, ideas of substance and fields, definitions of consciousness, and ideas of complexity and time.
GM: The US has just elected Donald Trump as president. During his campaign, Mr. Trump openly supported authoritarian sentiments like capital punishment, ethnocentricity, military action, and even nuclear weapons — many of the same things you were concerned by in the ’50s. Do you think we are seeing a resurgence in authoritarianism in the West, or is there another aspect to the overall picture?
RP: I think much of the outrage concerning Trump’s election is driven by his clear opposition to war with Russia, and his protectionist opposition to “globalization.” Those issues are essential for the ruling class, so everything will be done to interfere with any attempt Trump makes to change the empire’s course.
No US president has ever opposed capital punishment or nuclear weapons, and any verbal opposition to militarism has been hypocritical. Eisenhower’s belated 1961 warning about the military-industrial complex followed 8 years of trying to make “preventive” nuclear destruction of the Soviet Union possible, and the destruction of democratic or independent governments in Iran, Guatemala, Thailand, Laos, the Congo, Turkey, and the preparation of an invasion of Cuba; Kennedy’s campaign called for a more aggressive militarism. I think any resurgence of authoritarianism in the US could be dated from the 1944 Democratic Party convention, that imposed Harry Truman as vice president. There was a slight respite under Carter, during which, with Brzezinski’s guidance, the US created the mujahideen (precursor to Al-Qaeda) to depose Afghanistan’s secular government, and its policy of equal rights for women.
Presidents, including Clinton and Obama, have been saying that the US is a post-racist society, and that no remedial federal activity is needed. Now the Democrats have the partisan stimulus to start advocating concrete measures to improve the situation for blacks and other minorities, things that they opposed when they had opportunities.
The huge amount of money the CIA had from the Marshall Plan allowed them, starting around 1950, to shape the culture and political movements in the US, providing carrots to complement the FBI’s sticks. Their biggest achievement has probably been to obliterate coherent thinking about the meaning of “left” and “right” in politics. People with policies very much like Mussolini’s call themselves liberals, and promote war. The culture has been shaped to exclude the idea of class from political thinking. Several years ago, when John Edwards’ spoke of social class issues during his campaign for the presidency, the media immediately stopped treating him as a viable candidate. Trump’s focus on class issues helped to enfuriate his opposition, but didn’t stop people from voting. If class becomes a continuing part of political discussion, it might lead toward a restoration of democracy.
GM: Why do you think class has been excluded from political discussion?
RP: If people think they are being treated fairly by the government, they won’t oppose what it does. For many years, schools, mass media, and government agencies have convinced lower income people that they are in the “middle class,” by publicizing the median personal or household income, which they often call average income, rather than the actual average income. At present, the median household income in the U.S. is about $54,000, and the average household income is about $140,000. I’ve spoken to many educated people, including newspaper writers, over the last several decades who were unaware of the real numbers. In a graduate seminar in 1960, the professor interrupted me to say “there are no classes in the United States.” I had heard that in high school, but I was shocked to hear it bluntly stated by a professor, and it sensitized me to the extent of the craziness that constitutes our public culture.
Richard Cummings has written about some of the ways that the public consciousness has been deliberately muddled. From the end of the 18th century (Rousseau, Blake, Jefferson) to the end of the second world war, the idea of social-economic class powerfully guided political activity. Since then, the meaning of “left” and “right” has been detached from class. “Identity politics” has been a powerful way to distract people from their economic interests. As soon as M.L. King made the issue class, rather than race, he was killed. Many prominent “leftists” have been agents of the FBI or CIA, in the promotion of that cultural confusion.
GM: As a country that was apparently founded on such strong libertarian values, why do you think US culture has grown to be so authoritarian?
RP: The meaning of the word “liberty” has been expanded since the 18th century, and many “libertarians” see something in the founders of the republic that wasn’t there. Following Locke, most of them believed that the chief purpose of the government was the preservation of property; they were the propertied class. Since voting was restricted to white men with property, only about 3% of the population voted. Slavery and the annihilation of the native population were part of the context of their understanding of liberty. In England, the Enclosure movement was an important context for what was meant when people talked about civil rights and freedom — money should have the freedom to do what money does. Thatcherism and neoliberalism grew naturally out of the political philosophy of that time. The greater concentration of wealth in recent decades has made the government’s service to property more conspicuous, and more powerful, but I doubt that the intent is more authoritarian.
GM: Can you explain what you mean by “property”?
RP: The general sense is that it’s anything the control of which has been assigned to a person or corporation in a way that’s recognized by government. “Enforceable claim” in the definition of ownership encapsulates the relationship of force, government, and property. In capitalism, property always had value related to production, but now, whatever is enforceable has displaced the idea of real-world value. “Wealth” that produces nothing of real value presents opportunities for an alternative real-world society of production for need, with its own culture.
GM: In Civil Disobedience by Thoreau, his acceptation of the motto “That government is best which governs least” made a lasting impression on me. It seems more natural and preferable that people be free from government impingement, and protected from the corruption that often comes with power. But without layers of regulation and law, it seems that the general public can quickly become vulnerable to greed and exploitation by private actors, as we see in neoliberalism. Is there a mode of governance that can both protect people from government oppression and from exploitation by private interests?
RP: I read Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Blake before I read Thoreau, and since Kropotkin’s political philosophy incorporated a lot of work in biology, I was looking for that sort of correspondence in Thoreau’s thinking. I think Thoreau’s biggest contribution was in learning to distinguish the natural man from the culture, including its laws, which usually rules the person and obscures the real potential of the essential person. I think his identification of culture itself as the problem was more basic than his putting morality above civil law. His attitude toward work was based on making natural life and consciousness the starting point for everything else.
From the beginning of the U.S., there was some recognition that government should be concerned about the dangers of powerful corporations, but the existence of a corporation is an act of government, and regulation of business is always done with the best interests of business in mind. Historically, when a regulatory agency is formed, the regulated industry manages to control it.
If government could be separated from the interests of the propertied class, and could grant primacy to the living people, it would no longer “govern” in the sense that we have known. Communication, education, and the protection of privacy would be its most important functions. Instead of prosecuting Aaron Swartz for liberating information from JSTOR, government would prevent the privatization of things that are properly public property. It would prevent the creation and enforcement of myths that make illegitimate power possible.
“The growing wealth aquired by them [corporations] never fails to be a source of abuses.”
–President James Madison
GM: So you don’t view this as a big government/small government dilemma, as it’s often framed, but whose interests the government is ultimately serving?
RP: Powerful individuals and their corporations are simply aware that small streamlined governments are easier to control. The “small government advocates” want to privatize all the constructive functions — water, roads, schools, and medicine — and to limit government to taxing, policing, and war-making, but with the unstated function of defining property rights with a class bias. The power functions, taxing, policing, and war-making, can’t be privatized, because they have no constructive social function. The destructive powers of corporations were widely recognized 200 years ago, but skilled ideological construction has shifted the fear of bigness away from corporations, toward “government,” when government threatened to interfere with their power. Constructive social functions can be performed cooperatively, and borders or size limitations are probably irrelevant.
GM: How do you think we can move closer towards governments like the one you’ve just described?
RP: The wars for empire are now the leading business of government, and if the economic nationalists can stop them that will be a big step in the right direction. The village of Marinaleda in Spain shows that municipal police can be eliminated, Public service through civil disobedience, such as Alexandra Elbakyan’s Sci-Hub, might gradually break down the monopolies that have been created by the government for the corporations. The mystiques of schooling, medicine, and legal services are part of the system of control and exploitation that can be painlessly dissolved. The monopoly of the broadcast frequencies that’s maintained by the FCC should be broken as soon as possible, while preventing monopoly manipulation of the internet. The advertising industry powerfully shapes the culture, and this effect would be weakened without the broadcast monopolies. Assigning some broadcast channels for political campaigns would greatly reduce the cost of political campaigns, and the associated influence of money on policy. Repealing the law prohibiting strikes for political purposes would help to balance the power of money in politics.
The culture has been engineered to create unconsciousness of class, so that democratic voting would reliably support ruling class policies. I think an insight such as Thoreau’s, that the natural person is impaired by the culture, is necessary if the culture is to be revised intelligently and quickly enough.
GM: Are there any other remarks you’d like to make in closing?
RP: I’m hoping that the recent electoral shock will stimulate some new kinds of critical philosophical thinking. Understanding the culture as a control system, programmed to maintain the class system, is a first step toward discovering what we, as organisms in a half-destroyed ecosystem, really need, and what we can want and intend.
For those interested in reading more of Dr. Peat’s work, he has published several interesting and well-referenced articles on his website www.RayPeat.com
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