The Social Lie

(An interview with Kenneth Rexroth) 


“Since all society is organized in the interest of exploiting classes and since if men knew this they would cease to work and society would fall apart, it has always been necessary, at least since the urban revolutions, for societies to be governed ideologically by a system of fraud.”

This is the Social Lie, according to Kenneth Rexroth.

“There is an unending series of sayings which are taught at your mother’s knee and in school, and they simply are not true. And all sensible men know this, of course.”

Does the rejection of the social lie imply a rejection of the idea of a “social contract”?

“This,” says Rexroth, “is the old deliberate confusion between society and the state, culture and civilization and so forth and so on. There was once a man by the name of Oppenheimer who was very popular in anarchist circles. He said the state was going to wither away in a sort of utopia of bureaucrats who serve the state. And you are always being told that your taxes go to provide you with services. This is what they teach in school as social studies. There is nothing contractual about it. There is an organic relationship which has endured from the time that man became a group animal and is as essential a part of his biology as his fingernails. That other thing, the state, is fraudulent. The state does not tax you to provide you with services. The state taxes you to kill you. The services are something which it has kidnapped from you in your organic relations with your fellow man, to justify its police and war-making powers. It provides no services at all. There is no such thing as a social contract. This is just an eighteenth-century piece of verbalism.”

And what of services like sanitation, water and, in some communities, also public utilities like gas and electricity?

“These are not functions of the state at all. These are normal functions of the community which have been invaded by the state, which are used by the state to mask its own actual activities, like the mask that the burglar wears. Conceivably a burglar could wear a mask of Kim Novak but this doesn’t mean he is Kim Novak, he is still a burglar. The state has invaded and taken over the normal community relations of men. Now, it is true that if the state was suddenly to give this up today, people would probably go out and chop down all the trees in the national forests and kill all the bears in the national parks, catch all the fish in the rivers and so forth and so on. But this is due to six thousand years of exploitation and corruption by the state, not due to anything inherent in the community of man.”

In rejecting the social lie, what is the disaffiliate disaffiliating himself from?

“He isn’t disaffiliated from society, he is disaffiliated from the social order, from the state and the capitalist system. There is nothing unusual about this. It’s just that in America there is an immense myth which is promulgated by the horrors of Madison Avenue and Morningside Heights, by the professors and the advertising men (the two are now practically indistinguishable), that intellectual achievement lies within the social order and that you can be a great poet as an advertising man, a great thinker as a professor, and of course this isn’t true. There happens to be a peculiar situation in literature due to the fact that literature — and this is true of Russia too — that literature is the thing that sells the ideology. After all, just as the scribe knew in ancient Egypt, writing and handling words is the thing that sells the ruling class to the ruled. So departments of English are particularly whorish. On the other hand, a philosopher like Pitirim Sorokin can say at a meeting of a philosophical association, ‘of course we are operating on the assumption that politics attracts only the lowest criminal types’ — he happened to be speaking of the president of the United States. The entire pressure of the social order is always to turn literature into advertising. This is what they shoot people for in Russia, because they are bad advertising men.”

What is it, then, that holds the natural community of men together?

“The organic community of men is a community of love. This doesn’t mean that it’s all a great gang fuck. In fact, it doesn’t have anything to do with that at all. It means that what holds a natural society together is an all-pervading Eros which is an extension and reflection, a multiple reflection, of the satisfactions which are eventually traced to the actual lover and beloved. Out of the union of the lover and the lover as the basic unit of society flares this whole community of love. Curiously enough, this is Hegelianism, particularly the neo-Hegelians who are the only people who ever envisaged a multiple absolute which was a community of love. It is unfortunate that the Judeo-Christian wrath of Marx and the Prussianism of Engels has so transformed us that we forget that this is what lay back of the whole notion of the Hegelian absolute. But, irrespective of the metaphysical meanings, this is what makes a primitive society work. The reason that the Zunis all get along together is that they are bound together by rays which are emitted from one lamp and reflected from one lamp to another and these rays are ultimately traced back to their sources in each lamp in the act of the lover and the beloved. So the whole community is a community of lovers. This sounds very romantic but it is actually quite anthropological.”

To counter this cohesive social force the state employs the social lie.

“The masters, whether they be priests or kings or capitalists, when they want to exploit you, the first thing they have to do is demoralize you, and they demoralize you very simply by kicking you in the nuts. This is how it’s done. Nobody is going to read any advertising copy if he is what the Reichians call orgastically potent. This is a principle of the advertising copy writer, that he must stir up discontent in the family. Modern American advertising is aimed at the woman, who is, if not always the buyer at least the pesterer, and it is designed to create sexual discontent. Children are affected too — there is a deliberate appeal to them — you see, children have very primitive emotional possibilities which do not normally function except in the nightmares of Freudians. Television is designed to arouse the most perverse, sadistic, acquisitive drives. I mean, a child’s television program is a real vision of hell, and it’s only because we are so used to these things that we pass them over. If any of the people who have had visions of hell, like Virgil or Dante or Homer, were to see these things it would scare them into fits. But with the adult, the young married couple, which is the object of almost all advertising, the copy is pitched to stir up insatiable sexual discontent. It provides pictures of women who never existed. A guy gets in bed with his wife and she isn’t like that and so he is discontented all the time and is therefore fit material for exploitation.”


Interview with Kenneth Rexroth, from Lawrence Lipton’s The Holy Barbarians (Messner, 1959).