Humans, alone among the mammals and other life-forms on the planet Earth, invented “no.” The power of negation lies at the root of conceptual thought, and hence of abstract thinking. And with it comes the power of deception. Deception applied to oneself is basically illusion.
Error and deception make very good allies. Politicians are considered notorious liars. But are they deceiving themselves as well? Apart from questions of moral turpitude, what most politicians have to lie about is economics. They are forever making promises that they either know cannot be kept or that amount to so much pie in the sky. Politicians have amassed a well-deserved reputation for keeping “secrets of state,” which is another euphemism for lying to the public, but even this pales beside the often sincere conviction that capitalism really works.
A placard that appeared recently declares: “Egobama is a liar.” It makes, however, little difference whether Barack Obama knew he wouldn’t be able to keep the promises he made in 2008, because he was telling voters what the economists told him and have been telling everyone for a quarter of a millennium — that capitalism works for most people, that someday it will benefit everyone. Adam Smith is probably the most famous self-deceiver of all: “the public would be a gainer” if the social order were recast to reflect the class struggle between profit-makers and wage-earners, he tells us in The Wealth of Nations (Chapter X).
As we know too well, someday never comes. The biggest lie ever invented, that capitalist production can eventually benefit the majority of people, is more in the way of a religious myth than a tissue of deception, it is true. You could never mount a revolution on lies — but that says nothing about making rosy promises, which is how the liberal bourgeoisie of the 19th Century finally made itself the power behind the state. That is how the religious doctrine of the old middle class became the foundation of the social order we know today that has conquered the world and is still breezily regaling the rest of us with beautiful stories about our power over nature. Even that illustrious liar and tragic figure, Abraham Lincoln, recognized that ultimately the power of deception is limited by the majority’s uncluttered thinking. When it does at last sink in that capitalism is not designed to save the world, people will have no choice but to reject it.
The face of Mother Nature has meanwhile taken on a threatening scowl that should be making us all quake in our boots. Humanity could end up paying a terrible price for relying on the wonderful make-believe stories told us by those wise old men still known as the capitalist class. In another couple of centuries, conceivably, no one will even remember who Barack Obama was, let alone that he might ever have lied to the public on purpose or by default — or that there once was an English-speaking country called “The United States” that aspired to rule the world economically if not politically: or even (perish the thought) that there was a world of capitalist economies grouped in states in which a shrinking élite had the incredible gall to believe it could decide the fate of billions of people.