Man is not man as yet,Robert Browning, Paracelsus, 1835
Nor shall I deem his object served, his end
Attained, his genuine strength put fairly forth,
While only here and there a star dispels
The darkness. Here and there a towering mind
O’erlooks its prostrate fellows: when the host
Is out at once to the despair of night,
When all mankind alike is perfected,
Equal and full-blown powers – then, not till then,
I say, begins man’s general infancy.
What is egalitarianism?
It was suggested, half joking and half serious, that we are all white liberals now. There has been a radicalizing force within post-Enlightenment humanity that has manifested a particular strain of human potential, such that it has transformed our society and come to define the modern West, American society most of all in being founded on a liberal aspiration of revolutionary idealism. This has been previously explored in what kind of shared identity we are becoming in fulfilling an ancient moral vision, not initially even a promise but a mere whisper of a small voice of conscience first felt at the foundation of modern civilization as it was laid down during the Axial Age. That whisper was a tremor that became an earthquake that overturned society and now is settling back down into an unforeseen societal order clothed in new robes of moral imagination.
The beating heart of this inspiring, if tumultuous, moral vision is a profound and unshakeable sense of egalitarianism. It remains as radical today as it was in centuries and millennia past. But what does it mean and where does it come from? The conflict we are experiencing today in protests and revolt, even minor insurrection threatening far worse to come, is essentially the same conflict that arose in the Axial Age following the collapse of Bronze Age civilization and the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Archaic authorization was lost and a new kind of rule-based and brutally violent authoritarianism first emerged. That was what the Axial Age prophets were responding to, with Jesus arriving shortly after that period of the revolutionizing of the human psyche and identity.
Jesus Christ, like many Axial Age prophets before him, preached an egalitarianism that would come to rock the world starting as early as the Peasants’ Revolt in the Middle Ages when the Black Death disrupted the social order, kinship networks were being dismantled by the Catholic Church, and the enclosure movement began the erosion of feudalism (the clearest point of origin for the WEIRD culture of individualism; see Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World). The Peasants’ Revolt is what some consider the first modern revolution and class war. It presaged the far more radically transformative English Civil War that was the model of conflict from which the American revolutionaries took inspiration (see Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars), and an early expression of proto-liberalism, proto-socialism, and proto-Marxism.
Looking back on the ancient world, what stands out is that Jesus didn’t passively resist, much less peacefully submit to worldly power. At one point, he even went so far as to have commited the greatest sin in the capitalist mind, in having committed property damage with his terrorizing the moneylenders by overthrowing their tables in the temple, a direct threat to the entrenched authority of the established social order and moral order. To the respectable elite and loyal citizens of the time, such an act was unimaginable and unacceptable, a defiance of all that was good and worthy. Jesus’ violence against property, within the ruling system of wealth and power, was as bad or worse than the regular violence of Roman authority in killing and torturing untold numbers of innocent people, a fate that would later befall Jesus as well; and so established the Christian tradition of martyrdom as inherited from the Stoics’ egalitarian re-envisioning of liberty as spiritual emancipation.
The elite response to Jesus at the time probably sounded a lot like Edmund Burke’s fear-ridden condemnation of the French revolutionaries in their daring to rise up against the nobility of robed power, in their having sought to disrobe monarchical authority so as to show it as the naked power it always was (or as the infamous Thomas Paine put it: “He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird”). Surely, many in first century Rome repeated the exact same false equivalency we hear today, that Jesus was a violent terrorist like those Jewish zealots called the Sicarii who sought to overthrow the Roman Empire with revolt and killings, equating property damage to deadly violence. This claim of false equivalency is based on an ancient claim of hierarchical power in its attempt to discredit and dismiss those who challenge it from below. That is because the same fundamental conflict remains unresolved not only in society at large but, more importantly, within the human psyche.
It’s a deep and profound sense of divide within us that gets expressed in our social relations and the social order. That is why, even after all these millennia later, it still feels like a raw wound. We’ve never recovered from what was lost with the archaic bicameral mind. One can sense what that earlier mindset must have been like by looking at some simpler societies. The Piraha exemplify this with their radical sense of communal solidarity and egalitarianism, along with their more fluid sense of identity. They express none of the oppressive anxiety and violent authoritarianism that defines the modern world. They are far from the only example of this expression of human nature. It maybe should teach us something fundamental about our shared humanity. Egalitarianism isn’t juat another modern ideal invented by intellectuals. It is the core principle of human nature that we’ve forgotten. But in our rigidly hierarchical and hyper-individualistic society, we don’t know how to healthily express this egalitarian impulse.
In denying our own nature, what results is endless conflict. The answer some offer is to further suppress the impulse and to project it onto radicals as scapegoats, as if egalitarianism itself could be cast out from respectable society, something inconvenient and unecessary as with the surgical removal of a vestigial organ. This is a way of disidentifying from the egalitarianism that is so threatening not because it’s imposed from the outside by radical totalitarian dogmatism but because this primal force of moral truth keeps emerging from within. This conflict gets expressed as violence all around. How can we imagine a peaceful society when we refuse to accept the very essence of our own human nature? The first and greatest violence is the disconnection from and denial of this most fundamental moral command of spiritual authorization. We are at war with ourselves and our whole society is built on this anxiety-inducing conflict.
Egalitarianism isn’t and never was simply about modern left-wing ideology as formed out of the revolutionary philosophies of post-Enlightenment thinkers, dreamers, and activists. Egalitarianism isn’t an abstract ideal for it is rooted within us. To attempt to remove it would be to destroy our collective soul, an act akin to ripping out our heart. We don’t hold egalitarianism as a value and principle, as a vision and worldview. Egalitarianism, rather, is who we are. There is no ‘left’ and ‘right’, no division between a set of egalitarian political ideologies and what supposedly opposes them. To oppose egalitarianism would be insanity because it would be to oppose ourselves. Egalitarianism can’t be denied. Rather than a ‘left’ and ‘right’, there is simply and fundamentaly the egalitarian center of our being. To embrace this revolutionary radicialism (i.e., to return to the root) would mean to become fully human. That is the only centrism, moderate or otherwise, that has any meaning.
We need to become fiercely passionate and compassionate, to know with absolute certainty and hold with unswerving conviction the truth of who we are and who we have always been, in speaking to who we may yet become. Egalitarianism isn’t to be forced onto the world by mere social change, protest movements, and political action but, first and foremost, to be remembered and resurrected as our birthright, a gnostic unforgetting of ultimate reality (anamnesis), the awakening to the source of our humanity like a thirst-quenching spring bursting forth from a crack in ancient stone. This moral vision of faith and truth, of freedom and fairness can never be denied or destroyed. No matter how many are killed by authoritarian power, no matter how much oppression is enforced, egalitarianism itself cannot be defeated as long as there is a single human left breathing.
The proof of egalitarianism is in our heart and soul, in each of us and in all of us, irrefutably verified and proven in our own direct experience, felt in the solid ground of our shared being. The echo of archaic authorization is heard in our longing for freedom, a piercing ache that can cripple us with fear, anxiety and nostalgia or inspire us with hope and promise. No matter how lost we can feel in our shared struggles against those who seek to divide and isolate us, may we choose hope again and again; and, however difficult to grasp, may we never forget the promise of egalitarianism, of fairness and freedom, the solidarity of fellow-feeling and spiritual kinship that lifts us out of darkness into the open light of moral vision.
We are all egalitarians. We are a truly free people, the very expression of the egalitarian, a living faith. Let our actions be our prayer, the embodiment of hope’s fulfilment. This is not an endpoint but a beginning, a neverending revolution of the mind, an eternal return of what was never lost, the kingdom all around us. What is true within human nature is the truth of humanity as part of nature, as part of the world out of which we formed. We are not wandering alone in the unknown, not refugees in a foreign land. In listening to this voice of moral authorization, it tells us that we belong, that we are at home in the world, that we are welcome among friends. It is a simple assurance and sense of trust, a faith in humanity.
This is egalitarianism.
For you are all children of God in the Spirit.Based on Galations 3:28, Stephen J. Patterson, The Forgotten Creed
There is no Jew or Greek;
There is no slave or free;
There is no male and female.
For you are all one in the Spirit.
When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.John Ball, 1381 sermon at Blackheath, after his release from prison during the Peasants’ Revolt
29 thoughts on “We Are All Egalitarians, and Always Have Been”
There is the side of my personality with its depressive realism and philosopical pessimism, ruthless cynicism and jaded realism. But even that side of me is ultimately motivated by an inner moral force, a passionate idealism that can never be entirely erased. I can be so critical at times because I refuse to compromise, refuse to be reasonable and practical.
So, despite my hard-nosed atheism and agnosticism and skepticism, I find myself again and again drawn to the history and language of religious faith. Having been raised Christian in a Christian society, it is the worldview deeply embedded in my psyche. Besides, as with the deist Thomas Paine who was critical of theistic faith and organized religion, it remains a common language and cultural resource that speaks to so many others.
As this post attempted to make clear, egalitarianism is not an intellectual abstraction, not a mere left-wing ideology. It’s origins is much deeper and goes back into the mists of human evolution. Humans are essentially social creatures, through and through. The sense of egalitarianism as kinship, community, and solidarity is non-rational and pre-rational. Hence, the appeal to a faith that is nothing more than the finger pointing at the moon.
It is not logical to trust this egalitarianism. There is no proof to be had, no compelling argument that will win points in a competition of wits and debate. Intellectual prowess is impotent, as is intellectual doubt. Egalitarianism is true within itself because it is simply the ground of our being. Such a basic moral sense has no place in modern politics, even as it has always been the driving vision of the American tradition of jeremiad with its righteous command of moral authority.
It is the wellspring that is drawn upon by every great American leader, from Thomas Paine to Eugene V. Debs, from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. Even if we rarely know how to enact this moral faith in our oppressively legalistic society, it continues to be the inspiration and force behind every era of transformative change. It makes claims upon us, no matter how we fail to treat it with full respect and legitimacy, as we quickly dismiss it as impractical and threatening.
Yet there it remains within us, always present as either inspiration or irritation, but undeniable no matter what. It reminds us that there is more to our humanity, that we are not as small as we make ourselves to seem. The potency of it is in its simplicity. No complicated and involved explanation is required. It constantly flickers at the back of our consciousness, light spilling in through the cracks in the walls of an illusory isolation and individualism.
All one can do is point at it. There it is.
I agree with the above, I would also argue that the world has a way of pitting us against each other, whoever is deemed the winner will have the most power and riches, so after years of living in a nice place and driving a nice car how can we expect that person to empathize with the homeless person down the street. Egalitarianism is the truth in the abstract sense, but many people are up to their necks in consumerist culture and social media distractions that they seldom reflect on their own existence, which is really unfortunate.
Yeah. I don’t know. Words, of course, fail me. I’m not religious; but, in some sense, I’m ‘spiritual’. It seems we are missing something fundamental within our own experience and way of being in the world. For all our scientific advancement, we don’t know as much as we think we know.
Our pseudo-scientific worldview remains rather primitive, rooted in 17th century Newtonian physics, a deceptive oversimplification that gives us false confidence. The way we live and organize our society has not caught up with what the most profound scientfic insights tell us about the high weirdness of the reality we find ourselves in.
We’ve simply replaced one faith with another. Unfortunately, it is an inadequate belief system. In not comprehending the world, we don’t know ourselves and fall into contradiction to our own nature. So, we are acting destructively and self-destructively. We are surely and steadly, if slowly, committing mass suicide. Our social order is not sustainable.
I really don’t think egalitarianism is abstract in any sense. There is how we humans invent abstractions and then reify them, in treating them as if they were concretely real. Entire illusory perceptions of ideological realism are socially constructed in this manner, such that we get trapped in reality tunnels that are fantasies that only loosely correspnd to reality.
Egalitarianism, as far as I can tell, is not like that. If anything, it’s the complete opposite. We took a concrete reality of the world, out of which human nature formed, and we’ve come to pretend it were a mere abstraction. We are morally insane, spiritually sick, and epistemologically psychotic. Yet the cure is simply having the eyes to see.
If we merely took seriously our full scientific knowledge and understanding, sans all religious language, we would still be forced to take on a far different collective identity and, accordingly, transform our society. Egalitarianism, in a sense, is non-rational and pre-rational; but our present ruling paradigm is straight-up irrational.
To gain perspective, I always look backwards to how we got here. It was a slow shift over millennia, a gradual accumulation of ideological rigidity within the egoic structure. When we look at many hunter-gatherers and read ancient texts, even filtered through our WEIRD biases, we can intuit that we’ve diverged radically from how most humans have experienced identity and reality.
Something is fundamentally and profoundly wrong about our society. We see everything through a distorted lens. Our ability to manipulate materiality can’t be taken as evidence that we have even the slightest clue about what it means to be human in this world. For all that egalitarianism is undeniably real in our experience, it’s impossible for us talk about it meaningfully.
It’s like being adrift in an ocean with no specific language for ‘water’, ‘wave’, or ‘current’; much less ‘fish’, ‘shark’, and ‘whale’. Sure, one can point at the vast ocean and grunt, but no real communication is possible about the immensity, complexity, and significance of it. We can’t speak of how to determine our location and navigate toward a destination. So, all we do is drift along hoping that somehow everything will work out.
Suffering was and is the great equalizer, the existential angst in the back of everybody’s minds that we all feel especially before we die refuses to be placated other than with faith.
Faith in science as I understood from you is inadequate since science gives us the “how” and not the “why” of things, so even if we reach the know-how to colonize mars and the entire solar system we will be no closer to the truth than the ancients.
There is that. Suffering does equalize. But that isn’t the essence of egalitarianism. Rather, in denying and suppressing egalitarianism, it erupts into consciousness in a form (i.e., suffering) that forces us to acknowledge it.
As for faith and science, that brings up many issues. Part of the problem is our conception of science in how we interpret it and what we allow within the social order, as opposed to what we disallow.
Science has shown us all kinds of truths that collectively we have yet to come to terms with. Quantum physics simply defies our assumptions about reality. But even something as simple as epigenetics we don’t collectively act as if it’s real.
Our semi-scientific ideological worldview is dumbed down for mass consumption and mass social control. Rather than enlightening us, it too often constrains us in false conclusions or partial truths.
Here is another related thought.
We aren’t really a scientific society. Few Americans, including among the elite, actually know much about science. Our seeming faith in science is often superficial, inconsistent, and convenient. There is a ton of established and well-supported science that never or rarely informs public policy, the social order, and the economic system. Think of the research on climate change, ecological destruction, mass extinction, etc. Or think of the research on lead toxicity, economic inequality, nutritional studies, etc. Not to mention the research on mutagenics, epigenetics, transgenerational trauma, etc.
That isn’t even to talk about the science of physics that challenges our very conception and perception of reality itself. Science is used as needed in defense of our faith, not our faith being in science itself. We use science to rationalize what we value, but otherwise we have no problem dismissing science. Science is a tool used by the system of capitalism and the military-industrial complex — just a tool among many tols, not the motivating cause, much less an end in itself.
No matter what the science states and no matter how strong the evidence, the plutocratic polticians will almost always do whatever is in the interest of plutocratic system, whatever harm may follow in the long term. As a materialistic and consumerist society, we are obsessed and enamored with technological inventions and innovations, ever new gadgets and products, along with the corresponding issues of employment and income, profits and GDP.
Consider how oil companies hid their own research that a half century ago proved that climate change was real and anthropogenic, but those same companies spent immense sums of money over decades underming public debate on that science. Science itself, as always, is secondary at best and sometimes even deemed a threat to the ruling order. Then we use science in creating temporary technological fixes to hide or delay externalized costs that affect the poor, powerless, and future generations.
A truly scientific society would uphold a scientic process and public debate that was democratically open with transparency and accountability. We would have far more in the political, economic, and media elite with degrees in science and engineering, as opposed to degrees in law, economics, business management, etc. Scientists would be the leading voices in our society and government, not figures who are occasionally trotted out for a news story or otherwise used to merely serve wealth and power.
Science is in many ways inadequate, but not as inadequate as it has been made to be in practice because of the the non-scientific agendas that science serves. We don’t take science seriously. My sense is that scientific study over time, as part of an emerging liberal-mindedness, could suppoort an egalitarian view of humanity, society, and nature. That is part of what I mean about egalitarianism within concrete experience, as it would shape a particular scientific vision as a central moral force.
Even with egalitarianism as an experience that is non-rational and pre-rational, one could easily argue that it is nonetheless an integral component of and motivating force beihnd humanity’s scientic project. We could uphold science itself as part of the egalitarian impulse that emerged from the Axial Age mind and developed in Enlightenment thought. If egalitarianism is truly fundamental to human nature, then there is no way science could be separated from that egalitarianism, that embodied sense of connection to the world as expressed in a more expansive and inclusive identity.
“The simultaneous rise of antislavery feeling and the notion of race–the latter often accompanied by elaborate theories of racial inferiority– lends strong support to the contention that there is a close historical connection between egalitarianism and intolerance”. — Christopher Lasch, World of Nations
I think you have the beginning of a powerful piece of writing here, but are you willing to make it “truly modern” and become a “complete positivist”? So far the only anthropological data you’ve offered besides the evidence of your own temperament is a single Amazonian tribe. How is this evidence of a natural egalitarian human nature?
The tribes of the Amazon, as I’m sure you’re aware, are nearly as diverse as the plant life that surrounds them–and here I would like to see more on human evolution, especially Kropotkin’s idea that the real struggle for existence is against the environment by the animal life in harsh places like the tundra and jungle. This accords with Darwin’s metaphor of the struggle for existence, not a struggle between species.
I will take a leap and assume the Piraha are also ruled by convention as are all the other tribes, as much as they are able to maintain their societies in the conditions of the present day Amazon. “No one is more reliant on an artificial convention than primitive peoples” was one of Babbitt’s hardest jabs at the notion of “naturally free man” which the Second Discourse on Inequality was founded on, and I haven’t seen any convincing observation or lived experience that refutes his statement. I wield no logic worship here.
Reading some of Zitkala Sa’s stories about her early experiences with American education, it seems the most hateful thing to the Anglo reformers who ran Indian boarding schools was not the non-white racial identity of their inmates, nor their “paganism” as such, but the marks of indigenous convention — one of the first acts of the school, following monastic precedent, was to shave the long hair of the new arrivals, which she records as one of the most humiliating experiences which led her to eventually rebel against those set on reforming her and her peers.
But notice how she did fight back– echoed in the lives of not a few other activists– by taking up positions of power in the Indian Beaureus, as teachers and agents of government, they were eventually able to use the pan-tribal identity born in the boarding school experience to create the basis for a meaningful resistance to the official mandate that aimed at eliminating their people. By not refusing power or culture–she also wrote the Sun Dance opera with a Mormon composer– they succeeded in wresting power from the state.
All egalitarians inheriting the bad medicine of Rousseau’s contradictory doctrines, tend to attack culture as a logical outcome of their embrace of elemental passion over clear thinking. That is like standing on a stout oak branch to give the finger to the Mercer family, while also chopping the branch from beneath your own feet.
I have the week off from work and, as plans fell through, I’m doing a staycation. This means quality time with the kitties and quality time to focus on the blog. As I’m in the middle of writing a few posts, I was looking back at earlier thoughts and came across your comment again.
We definitely have a different view of egalitarianism. By the time Rouseau came along, the idea of eglitarianism had been bandied about for at least a couple of millennia. As for the experence of egalitarianism, as I argue, it’s likely much older in going back into hominid evolution and maybe into a shared primate evolution.
I could point to numerous examples from anthropological records, but I won’t. The main thing that makes the Piraha significant isn’t that they are different than WEIRD modernity and Jaynesian consciousness but that, even among tribal people, they are unique in maybe pointing to something extremely fundamental within human nature.
There are some similar tribes elsewhere. It actually wasn’t the Piraha, for example, who were the first tribe discovered without linguistic recursion. That was first observed much earlier, but for whatever reason Daniel Everett became targeted by the Chomskyans and so that made the Piraha into the center of an academic debate.
Be it the Piraha or others, the relationship between lack of recurson and lack of hierarchy doesn’t seem incidental. Also, it could be taken as an earlier form of language. Before the extreme reified abstractions of the Axial Age to WEIRD modernity, there was 150-200,00 years of language use, built on 2.8 million years of hominid evolution and 55 million years of primate evolution.
As culture further developed, so did complex and rigid hierarchies. This took a simply tendency within humans and other primates, that of ‘authority’, but then made it into something entirely new. Egalitarianism isn’t in opposition too ‘authority’, even as it is in oppostion to total dominance as authoritarianism — an important distinction.
Before looking to a non-human comparison, let’s return to the Piraha. Their society lacks any rigid hierarchy of permanent authority figures with a specialized social role — no chiefs, war leaders, council of elders, shamans, healers, etc. Yet, with any given task, any individual might temporarily take leadership to help guide organized actvities. But such ephemeral authority offers no special respect of prestige, privilege, and power.
That is how authority can exsit within egalitarianism without any need for authoritarianism. And so this demonstrates egalitarianism can exist without authortaranism, which could be taken as evdence that egaltarianism is more fundamental. In a neighboring region, the Yanomami are infamous for violence and they do have a more authoritarian society.
Interestingly, unlike the Piraha, they’re located along a contested post-colonial border. The violence and authoritarianism they’ve developed might be more of a reactionary result of unnatural levels of stress, not entirely unlike what has happened to so many other populations. What makes this comparison important is that, otherwise, these two tribes are living in the same natural environment.
That brings us to the comparison of chimpanzees and bonobos. Humans were presumed to be naturally violent and authoritarian because chimpanzees were initially studied more than the bonobos. But it turns out the bonobos are more peaceful and egalitarian. Yet the two primate populations are divided by nothing more than a river. Even their genetics are extremely similar.
So, what caused the divergence of primate culture in these two cases? As with the Yanomami, chimpanzees have been under extreme pressure from civil war, poaching, human encroachment, and environmental destruction. Those are not natural conditions and so we have no reason to think their reactionary-like culture represents normal behavior. That is emphasized by the point that the bonobos have been less negatively affected.
For most of human, hominid, and primate existence, extreme levels of stress were rare and continuous stress was next to non-existent. I don’t see how we can rationally take examples of traumatized populations as telling us anything about fundamental human nature. Wild animals under typical conditions rarely are traumatized in this manner, an issue explored in Robert M. Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.
As I keep repeating: The reactionary mind is not normal. Transgenerational trauma is not normal. Widescale addiction is not normal. Rampant mental illness is not normal. Dark Tetrad dominance is not normal. Yet all of these have been normalized within WEIRD modernity in how we continue to enforce the conditions of abnormality. Our collective ignorance and amnesia about human nature under healthy conditions has been exacerbated by the WEIRD biases of almost all social science research.
Anyway, don’t confuse egalitarianism with abstract ideals of freedom or rather don’t confuse freedom with liberty. Freedom, as I’m wont to repeat, originally meant the sense of solidarity in being among friends in a kinship community where those belonging would help and protect each other. The Piraha have freedom in this sense, as there is no one to tell them what to do. They come and go as they please without fear of punishment, reprimand, or social control.
Yet this egalitarian freedom as communal solidarity includes, of course, sociocultural conventions. No Pirahaha authority figure has to tell a Piraha individual what to do because Piraha identity is so powerful that the Piraha would never think of acting contrary to the basic shared identity, any more than you’d think of acting contray to your own personality. Being Piraha is entirely who they are. But the point is that Piraha identity excludes authoitarianism.
Your example is interesting and I should respond to it: “one of the first acts of the school, following monastic precedent, was to shave the long hair of the new arrivals, which she records as one of the most humiliating experiences which led her to eventually rebel against those set on reforming her and her peers.”
One of Everett’s teachers, in preparing him as a missionary, told him that no one can be saved before they are made to feel lost. That is why Everett and generations of missionaries before him failed to convert the Piraha. In their egalitarian freedom, they had never felt lost. And, unlike those boarding schools, no one had sought to forcefully and systematically destroy their culture. The point is they weren’t going to be freely converted for they would never willingly give up their egalitarianism.
There is something about ‘egalitarianism’ that is so powerfully attractive, even when we are incapable of understanding it, much less acting on it in a healthy way. The reason someone like Rousseau could have such difficulty with such an idea is because, even back then, few elite Westerners back then had any actual experience of egalitarianism. All they could go by, at best, was an inkling of it in the shadows of the psyche, a fading echo from the ancient mind when it was recorded in words by the earliest scribes. There is this sense of something lost.
This relates to nostalgia, what Julian Jaynes noted was a defining feature of post-bicameral consciousness. But Corey Robin and Mark Lilla are right that nostalgia, in its most extreme and potent form, has particularly become associated with the reactionary mind. In a sense, I too am expressing ‘nostalgia’, although invoking it in its original sense as a disease of the mind/soul. Or, better yet, a symptom of a disease where the symptom is neither good nor bad but merely useful for diagnosis.
“Collective nostalgia is an emotional weapon, capable of mobilizing a nation toward a common goal. Although that goal is often tinged with anger today, it is not necessarily a source of gloom and doom. Svetlana Boym, who was a professor at Harvard University, made a distinction between two types of homesickness. Reflective nostalgia is the benign form of the malaise. It looks at the past through critical eyes and recognizes that something might have been lost, but that much has been gained along the way. Restorative nostalgia, instead, proposes to rebuild what was lost as it was.”
Anyway, many have explored what egalitarianism means in looking at different angles. Another thinker on the topic is Sebastian Junger, having written a popular book on group belonging, Tribe. He talks about the powerful experience people have in the military, particularly in war zones where a cohesive solidarity takes hold within a unit. Many veterans find themselves incapable of returning to normal life Western hyper-individualism. Few of us in the modern world get a taste of egalitarianism is visceral lived experience, but those who do realize that ‘egalitarianism’ is not an intellectual debate.
That relates to something that was observed by many early Americans, including Benjamin Franklin. Captured Indans would almost always seek to escape in returning to the greater egalitarianism of tribes, particularly in the freedom women had. Yet captured whites when returned to white society also would often head right back to their Native American ‘captors’. Pretty much no one would choose to give up that egalitarianism, as it represents the most natural and the healthiest form of human relations.
Nonetheless, everything we moderns now prize and pride ourselves in necessitates that such egalitarianism be destroyed and all traces of it be eliminated. Even the vague memory and primal instinct of egaltarianism lingerng incohate in the human psyche is one of the greatest threats of civilizaton built on the rigid hierarchies of authoritarianism. Admittedly, having only ever known the comforts of industrialized society, I couldn’t imagine giving it up.
It just is what it is. And I acknowledge the benefits that I enjoy. Yet the price paid for humanity has been devastating, if not yet fully acknowledged, as most of the externalized costs are offloaded onto the poor, minorities, and foreigners. We are so stressed, anxious, and traumatized — which we medicate through addictive substances and behaviors. What if we could find a way to have some of the benefits without all of the horrific costs? What if we could relearn the lessons of egalitarianism?
After all, the egalitarian impulse can never be destroyed and so we might as well come to terms with it. It is those who deny, dismiss, and denigrate the fundamental human nature of egalitarianism who are “standing on a stout oak branch… while also chopping the branch from beneath [their] own feet.” We’ve been committing self-harm and acting self-destructively. Maybe there is another way.
Anyway, that radical thought of an alternative has been haunting the human mind for a long time now. It never goes away, no matter what rational critique or reasonable argument one tries to use to repress it or cast it out like a demon. Still, let me be clear. I’m not proposing anarchoprimitivism or even attacking WEIRD modernity and Jaynesian consciousness. I’m simply pointing out an inconvenient observation about human nature.
Yet as a product of this society, I have no outside perspective to stand above it all. I’m just another drowning man pontificating about water and preaching about land. I can’t prove to anyone that land exists, even as I swim toward what I hope to be a shore. Sure, I could try to convince others by pointing to human legs and analyzing how they are designed for bipedal travel on a hard flat surface. But for those who were born in water and never knew anything other than water, any mention of land would sound abstract or absurd.
I was responding to what seemed like a primitivist line of thinking, thanks for clearing that up. The experience of uncontacted peoples is extemely interesting, and you might look up some of the background info on how the studies of Yanomami may have been botched in a way that supports some of yr arguments– https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/magazine/napoleon-chagnon-americas-most-controversial-anthropologist.html
This also came up in Curtis’ earlier series, Century of the Self I think. I was tickled by this since it underlies many evo psych arguments for the inevitability of capitalist organization. It was my intention to play devil’s advocate on the subject of natural equality. My preferred view is one that favors an Athenian demos without slavery, built by self consciously modern people.
But you point out that the tribes mentioned do live in a highly unnatural border zone where conflict with extraction efforts complicates any conclusions drawn from observed facts. I’ll also add that another essay by Lasch on the growth of American compulsory education finds that the managed capitalism and beauracracy in the early 20th cen was a response by the upper class to increased worker power, rooted in the continuity with pre-industrial forms of work that migrated onto the factory floor. So these authoritarian modes are not inevitable products of sophisticated society as someone like Jordan Peterson would see them ( hence the “80/20” rule invoked as natural law). You can also find evidence in ancient Mayan society for a highly temporaral view of authority, where the decision to build monarchical power was revoked by a society wide decision that resulted in various rituals of desecration and return to a semi-hunter gatherer lifestyle, without coercion. I guess I need to read more books, but that’s why blog, to put my ideas on firmer ground.
You have some good thoughts. I can see what you’re talking about in terms of compulsory education, managed capitalism, and all that. They may not be inevitable in the larger sense in seeing contrary examples. The ancient Mayan society could be interpreted as evidence. They did seem to have a bicameral or bicameral-like culture that included voice-hearing.
But we sure haven’t figured out how to come to terms with that. Most people accept it as a default because that is what ideological realism does, another form of internalized oppression. As the Piraha can’t imagine not being Piraha, most people in capitalist society can’t imagine not being defined by capitalism. That is the shadow of the animistic/bicameral mind as translated through totalitarian ideologies.
I’ve come across some of that criticism about the anthropological research on the Yanomami. I read a few articles about it and it’s the kind of thing that I might write about sometime. But I’ve so far only looked into it briefly some years back. It formed some vague background to my thoughts, as the claims about them make such a stark contrast with the Piraha.
I don’t mean to idealize egalitarianism as an abstraction. As I point out, it’s similar to my thoughts on freedom. In both cases, I’m taking an approach of more social science and cultural history. There is an egalitarian component to Germanic ‘freedom’, although it can get distorted. I’ve speculated that maybe the Nazis could kill the Jews because they weren’t perceived as part of group, where equality only applies to those who belong.
That is quite different from the legalistic traditions of Latin ‘liberty’ that, although authoritarian, allow the potental for outsiders to gain legal status of belonging through citizenship and civil rights. That is exemplifed with non-Romans being Roman citizens and most of Napoleon’s military being non-French. So, authoritarianism isn’t all bad, depending on context. Civilization alters the context of human nature.
That is something I think Hannah Arendt didn’t quite grasp, even as she made a distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism that can be useful. By authoritarianism, she meant any system based on authority, such as is common in traditional societies. But totalitarianism is more about modern abstractions of totalizing ideologies. That does get at an important point.
Bicameral societies had some minimal hierarchical authority, although it wasn’t based on individual authority but on authorization of voice-hearing which is an entirely different kind of thing. In bicameral societies, the voice speaking through an individual is what mattered, not the individual. A similar phenomenon was observed with the Piraha who when ‘possessed’ by a spirit were perceived as not being there because the spirit was speaking.
Authority is a much more interesting thing when thought of in terms of what Julian Jaynes called archaic authorization. This can be oppressive, in how the Piraha can’t imagine doing anything outside of their Piraha identity. Yet they are completely free from physical threat or legalistic compulsion. The oppression is imposed by the authorization of cultural identity itself and wouldn’t even be perceived as oppression. It’s simply who they are.
Totalitarianism is entirely different. What I think Arendt may have misunderstood was the Germanic tradition of ‘freedom’ was maybe more like the Piraha’s identity. A visitor to Nazi Germany observed that the Nazis had no coherent ideology. The Jews were not necessarily the victims of ideological totalitarianism but of a ‘freedom’ that just so happened to not include them. To be free in that Germanic sense means to belong to a community and be among friends who identify with you and so will defend you.
The Jews were victims of the remnants of archaic authorization. The Nazis, in a distorted and demented way, were enforcing a malignantly expressed egalitarian freedom. A less violent example was the forced Melting Pot that took hold in the American Midwest where Germanic ancestry was the majority. Ironically, it was the Germanic culture that was eliminated in creating a new American identity. Only after assimilated could the immigrant be equal, but this was helped by the US also incorporating legalistic liberty of civil rights.
Obviously, it’s complex. I’m trying to point to deep impulses within the human psyche. But in a modern context, it’s hard to know what they mean or how they can be expressed in healthy ways. Like the Nazi Germans, the early American colonists talked of the rights of Englishmen and so sought freedom and liberty, but this so happened to not include blacks, Native Americans, etc. Yet there was a genuine egalitarian impulse that could not be denied, no matter how it was manipulated by demagogues and co-opted by reactionaries.
Still, even in pre-modern societies, it’s not as if there was no violence. Part of it was a difference in the kind of violence. It typically was more personal and small-scale. One of the changes with the ending of bicameralism was new long-distance warfare, standing armies, and torture of captured enemies. There is no evidence of this prior to that. The earlier bicameral societies, like hunter-gatherers, would have small battles but even then they were often strangely ritualistic. Archaic battles were described as people leaping and spinning about in ritual displays, not an effective strategy if one simply wants to kill as many people as possible.
The very understanding/perception of violence and death was entirely different in these other kinds of societies. With the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations, there appeared violence of statism, of the heroic individual, of ideological systems, and abstract identities. This is where the Nazis definitely had embraced the post-bicameral mentality such as their idealization of the individual soldier, even as it was being subverted back into the return of repressed bicameralism.
Let me respond to a couple of things in the article.
“When the protein studies were finally published, the findings, perhaps unsurprisingly, were split: Good showed that the Yanomami in his village ate slightly less protein than what’s in a Big Mac; Chagnon and Hames showed that their group ate much more. Daniel Gross, who recently retired from the World Bank, says the debate remains unresolved. He pointed out that the Yanomami are about five feet tall, on average. “You have to wonder what accounts for their low stature,” he said. “It’s most likely not a genetic trait.””
That fits the observation of Everett. Two Piraha tribes had separate ancestries, as a non-Piraha tribe had at some point assimilated as Piraha, however that happened. So, they had different skin color, hair, and features. Yet their body shape was very similar while being diferent from outsiders. That indicates that diet, lifestyle, and environment were creating the conditions for a specific physical development. It’s likely similar to the Yanomami.
““It shouldn’t be a shocking finding,” Steven Pinker, the Harvard evolutionary psychologist who cites the paper in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” told me. “As a pattern in history, it’s well documented.” Pinker said that he was troubled by the notion that social scientists should suppress unflattering information about their subjects because it could be exploited by others. “This whole tactic is a terrible mistake: always putting your moral action in jeopardy of empirical findings,” he told me. “Once you have the equation that the Yanomami are nonviolent and deserve to be protected, the converse is that if they are violent they don’t deserve to be protected.””
I get the argument he is making. But the data he is relying on is extremely limited, partial, and biased. He is not taking into the full account of violence, harm, suffering, and death caused by modern societies. In order to argue the world has become more peaceful, he has to exaggerate the violence of the past while downplaying the violence of the present.
Some further thoughts. Yes, science mostly focuses on “how” and not “why.” But that is not entirely true, as the social sciences often study the “why” of things. Talk of egalitarianism predisposes one to religious language for a simple reason. It was in religion that egalitarianism was first articulated, specifically in the shared language we’ve inherited. Still, the pre-scientific origins of egalitarianism within human nature and society does not put it separate from science, much less contrary to it. I’d argue that egalitarianism can not only be expressed through science but that science itself is egalitarian in essence, even as inegalitarian forces have sought to claim it control it.
Think about it. Egalitarianism has always been a challenge to hierarchical systems of power. That was true within religion, such as Jesus challenging Jewsh orthodoxy. But it’s also true in science and that gives science it’s radical edge. Anyone can learn the mentality and methodology of science. Anyone can challenge and test, observe and experiment. This made science immensely attractive during the revolutionary era as science could be pursued by anyone, including working class radicals like Thomas Paine. The most lowly person without a formal education might end up disproving an accepted theory or discovering something new. Science can be genuinely meritocratic and democratic in this manner.
I’ve been harping on about this message (of egalitarianism, freedom, liberalism, etc) for a long time now. I keep returning to it and coming at it from various directions. Maybe a basic element is that egalitarianism is most simply about being connected to reality. And what is disconnection from reality? That is the state of being psychotic.
That goes back to why I also write so often about conservatism and the reactionary mind. The inegalitarian worldview ultimately is about that disconnection. In modern society, all of us experience disconnection to a fairly great detail. But it is on the political right where this is felt most strongly. And so the political right can tell us much about the modern condition.
This overpowering sense of disconnection is the reason the reactionary mind is defined by anxiety and fear, loss and nostalgia. Yet we have to be careful in not too casually scapegoating the political right. As I often argue, all of modern society has become reactionary. And in how we may all be liberals now, we also all are reactionaries in carrying the shadow of liberalism within us.
I definitely want to avoid defeatism, though. There is a major change going on that gives me hope. In the previous post, I spoke of white liberalism as symbolic of the general state of the American people and the American psyche. For the first time in human existence, a demographic has measured with a pro-outgroup bias.
That is a revolution of the mind. It means a growing number of Americans have expanded their identity so strongly as to contain the other within it. That was always the radical dream buried within Axial Age thought, if only become a more major force with the Enlightenment and American Revolution.
Egalitarianism, what had been falsely made into a disconnected abstraction, is being brought back into subjective experience, personal reality, and social identity. That means this moral impulse is becoming realigned with and grounded in concrete perception. We may be coming back around to an old understanding but with new insight.
This goes along with the fact that most Americans have gone so much further than recognized or acknowledged by the more right-wing (i.e., inegalitarian) ruling elite. The challenge is most of us in the moral majority still don’t know we are a majority. A sense of egalitarianism is creeping into our shared identity, but it’s still being suppressed.
An emerging psychological fact, as seen in public opinion, has not yet become a social fact. Yet we are moving in that direction. When it does become a social fact, that will radicalize our society in ways we can’t at present imagine or predict. Egalitarianism may be the spirit of a new age.
Very inspiring indeed, perhaps the American dream wasnt America specific after all, but a dream for humanity.
We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.
Farewell address, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
That is probably true. Liberal-mindedness is not only about liberals. And it’s far from being limited to white liberals or American liberals. The Axial Age vision and Enlightenment ideals were based on a belief that such things are universally true, real, and/or applicable.
Eisenhower seemed to have some strong convictions. He said a number of things like that. It probably comes from his German Pietist upbringing. The German Pietists were a major social influence on American idealism, such as being among the early abolitionists.
Sadly, because Eisenhower hated war, he promoted CIA covert operations to avoid war, but those actions were often oppressively anti-democratic. It is hard to apply moral values to a fundamentally immoral system of authoritarian power like the American Empire.
Everything that Tony Blair set loose on earth during his terms in office he did from his own sense of being right. I don’t care about lizards behind the scenes, that’s a charm brandished to ward off the spirit of nemesis.
Every war, every slash to public services, and every shock therapy was done to free people as individuals to pursue their own truths, their own sense of freedom. We can’t talk about Putin without talking about Yeltsin or we aren’t worth listening to.
I must admit that I don’t follow how Tony Blair relates to my comments or the post. A sense of being right is a very general human experience that surely precedes all of modernity, maybe all of civilization. Probably, from the moment humans had language, they developed strong views and disagreed over them. Blair thought he was right, as did Ghandi and Hitler, Genghis Khan and Jesus, along with you and I. This is a commonality of human expeience, at least these past few millennia, if not further back.
That said, there does seem to be a difference prior to certain developments in language, as evidenced by many hunter-gatherers (for example, the Piraha are not the only tribe that lacks linguistic recursion, arguably indicating the earliest expression of language), a shift most clearly seen with the end of the Bronze Age. Such ideological ‘righteousness’ that we now take as as a social norm of human nature may not be as universal as we assume. That relates to my point about what is more fundamental to human nature, as pre-Axial people also seemed less caught up in abstractions, specifcally reified abstractions, such as the lack of complex rigid hierarchies even in the earliest advanced bicameral socetes.
In our respective views, you and I are living in separate realities if you genuinely beleve that, “Every war, every slash to public services, and every shock therapy was done to free people as individuals to pursue their own truths, their own sense of freedom.” I honestly and absolutely disagree with that assessment and conclusion. But I’d be curious to know how you came to that view. From my perspective, it sounds extremely cynical and it could be seen as resonating with the typical kind of criticisms made by reactionary right-wingers based on illiberal and inegalitarian assumptions. As I argue, this is not a rational debate to be had, as these moral impulses are pre-Enlightenment and pre-ratonal in beng archaic, maybe primal (although the exact origins and timeline could be debated).
Anyway, as with Blair, I’m not sure what Yeltsin has to do with it. He was a professional bureaucrat in the Soviet regime who helped Russia transition to the post-Soviet era largely through ‘practical’ realpolitik in lacking any clear ideological principles, which prevented the possibility of needed democratic reforms and left the country defenseless to a strong man like Putin. Whatever Yeltsin may have been, he was no Western-style liberal democrat following in the egalitarian tradition of the early modern revolutionary period (America, France, Haiti, etc) and going back to the English Civil War and the Medieval peasants’ revolts (England, Germany, etc), not to mention the radical teachings of the Axial Age prophets. It’s similar to the reason Stalinism (inegalitarian, hierarchical, and authoritarian) is confusedly labeled as left-wing, despte being in complete contradiction to Western leftist ideals and norms.
Is Boris Yeltsin a Democrat?
John Wallach, The Brown Journal of Foreign Affairs
“President Boris Yeltsin is hardly a Jeffersonian democrat. I doubt that he has a very good idea of what democracy means; indeed he may not be much better than George Bush in defining who he is or what he stands for.”
What was the political ideology of Boris Yeltsin?
by Helga Ignateva, studied at Stavropol, Russia
“As for internal politics he wanted all the power in Russia for himself. He even had the constitution rewritten to stop the parliament from “messing” with his political decisions. He wasn’t really a democrat if you ask me, he wanted the same kind of absolute power that the Soviet dictators had.
“What made him different from the Soviet dictators however was the freedom the Russian press enjoyed during his time in power, no journalists, political opponents or activists were ever prosecuted at that time. Never before or after has the press in Russia been so free of censorship.
“His international policy was determined by the country’s poverty and need for financing, food and consumer products, so he shook the hands of everyone who was ready to help, whatever the cost to the country’s long-term interests. What many take for his friendliness towards the West and its values was just pretense out of necessity.”
Gorbachev and Yeltsin: Reformer and Terminator
by Lilia Shevtosova, Cargnegie Moscow Center
“Compared to Gorbachev, Yeltsin seemed like a revolutionary ready to go much further than his slow-moving opponent. Indeed, it was Yeltsin who, elected by popular vote as the democratic leader of an independent Russia, sounded the Soviet Union’s death knell. Yeltsin became the anti-communist banner; it was he who introduced the capitalist market.
“At the same time, however, his radical political actions concealed a movement toward a more traditional Russian government. By casting off the old state and ideological shell, Yeltsin made it easier to revive a system based on personal power in a new form. Under Yeltsin, Russia’s traditional matrix was revived: power reverted to one pair of hands; power and assets merged; and Russia returned to its “spheres of influence.” It was no coincidence that Russia declared itself the inheritor of the Soviet Union’s role.
“Yeltsin let a historic opportunity in late 1991 slip by. At a moment when he had immense public confidence and benefited from a spontaneously formed consensus on the need for freedom—even the communists voted in favor of market reforms—he did not try to convert this consensus into a new constitution and build a new political system. Yeltsin and his team were more concerned with establishing their own monopoly on power and returning to the old rules of the political game.
“The violent showdown with the parliament in 1993 and the adoption of Yeltsin’s constitution returned Russia to a system that invested power in a single person, setting the president above society and beyond its control. The manipulation of the 1996 presidential election to enable an ill and inadequate Yeltsin to remain in power marked the start of the imitation politics that has replaced the real political life today. The handover of power to Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, in 1999 became a means of consolidating and continuing the personal power system. Yeltsin can justifiably be called the architect of the system in place today.
“The rebuilding of personal power in a new form—under the guise of liberal slogans—have discredited liberal democracy and its standards in Russia for a long time to come. Yeltsin therefore bears much more responsibility than Putin for the democratic experiment’s failure. Today’s system of personal power, along with a corrupt state and demoralized society, is Yeltsin’s legacy.
“This was not the only result of Yeltsin’s years as president. His time in power—characterized by a synthesis of imitation of liberal politics and Russian traditionalism—allowed the West to adopt its current policy toward Russia, which includes pursuing its interests by currying favor with the Russian elite. The West thus gradually became a factor in legitimizing and supporting the Russian system, which exists through the Russian rentier class’ personal integration into Western society even as they reject Western principles within Russia itself.”
It’d be hard to avoid the conclusion that somone who criticizes the Republic and it’s founding thought, while making attempts at writing muscle-corded adventure fiction, would harbor a not-so-secret aim of kissing royal toes and sniffing out “po-mo libertine Marxist degenerates”.
I was speaking from a panic after watching the latest Adam Curtis doc. I don’t want to repeat the points made in the film, but its hard to avoid concluding that certain strains of individualist anarchist — not the labor libertarian– ideas took on new life in the market experiments perpetrated by Western free-market partisans on the shaken post-Soviet world in the 90’s.
“From my perspective, it sounds extremely cynical and it could be seen as resonating with the typical kind of criticisms made by reactionary right-wingers based on illiberal and inegalitarian assumptions. As I argue, this is not a rational debate to be had, as these moral impulses are pre-Enlightenment and pre-ratonal in beng archaic, maybe primal (although the exact origins and timeline could be debated).”
I want would-be left leaders– and leaders will exist, as I’m sure you agree– to honestly grapple with critiques that go straight to the heart. One of these is Babbitt’s problem with both humanitarian types of Enlightenment humanism– The utilitarian, “man as a rational machine” and the emotional Romantic all deny the possibility of human knowledge that takes the long road toward the supra-rational.
They deny the primacy of illusion in human life, and believe we can either dispense with it completely or we should sink below the rational to find anything of real meaning– Its all either pure calculus or a primal welling up from the deeps, which is kind of disturbing when it comes to questions of leadership.
The British state as revealed in Curtis’ entire body of work looks besotted by the worst type of unreal fancy. The broader Labor party’s biggest embarassment is a lack of clear direction after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I don’t see the harm in being cynical about something that commands derision.
The real nightmare festers in Thatcher’s romantic dream of the English countryside. If you think Tom Cruise had it rough, look at what’s locked in the attic above Westminister.
I consider it a supreme irony, and a sterling example of the Nemesis in human affairs, that the movement which captured the British state and imagination was spearheaded by comitted Romantics.
Thatcher “foremostly” but all of them beguiled by dreams of “Arcadian fantasy, projected onto the void” as Babbitt described Rousseau’s particular brand of “Self-dreaming”.
Arthur Machen in “The White People” had a far more interesting vision of what awaits in the mist-wrapped countryside for the world weary dreamer, consumed by vague longing for strange revels and nobler times.
How much abstract thinking is happening in these think tanks and policy corporations anyway? It’s diffucult for me to affirm the American conservative’s cries for “Judeo-Christian” civilization when the world is hardly dying from an excess of Socratic reason.
The word is invoked like a mantra by the new industrial bouge of Silicon Valley, but they always mean the neo-Classical , instrumental reason that Rousseau’s emotionalism was a protest against.
I think the lack of genuine democracy in managerial liberalism is related to this need to withdraw human decision making from any place in society.
It’s not that an imagined tradition offers any real answer to this automated stasis.
But that when we depart from tradition we can do so in the emotional vagrant way of the French dreamer or with “utmost keeness of analysis” as Babbit was arguing for. I think finding fault with the entire effort of humanist letters is the wrong place to look for an answer, since our educated elites long abandoned any interest in becoming a leisured, cultural elite, and bent themselves to applying Emerson’s “Law for Thing” to their dreams of becoming a warrior class astride the world, instead of using reason to studying the “Law for Man” in history and culture.
Those latter studies might give us more secure ground for building a democracy in America than the futile Occupy and CHAZ style efforts at a mostly performative radicalism that doesn’t deal with questions of power in the actual world.
I appreciate the Russia related info, like I said I don’t know much about the place, and my knowledge of Yeltsin comes from reading US News at age 12 and saying to myself “He looks just like my gran who believes in raw potatoes as a cure for hangovers.”
Curtis’ latest documentary makes a case that the Western interventions into Russia in the 90’s set in motion the collapse of the remaining state, which allowed a characterless man of the beaureau like Putin to stand in for a champion of the people.
The stock market giveaways are what I have in mind here. How can America decide which countries will be democracies when almost no politician or unelected official embodied the “egalitarian tradition of the early modern revolutionary period (America, France, Haiti, etc) and going back to the English Civil War and the Medieval peasants’ revolts (England, Germany, etc)” since the mugwumps were chased out of the party halls by Roosevelt’s crowd of fitness freaks? Again, I don’t evoke a thinker like Luxemburg for nothing. I want equality and freedom, but in America first.
So I suppose that makes me closer to Stalin, as far as revolution in a single country is superior to neo-imperial crusades ( as ex-Marxist brigadeers in the Anglo countries waged over the course of our lives without much regard for political or social reality ).
Curtis focuses on the opposition’s lack of direction and nerve more than the evil of elites, though he doesn’t spare the utopian Romantics in Conservative parties.
The Iraq War went against Babbitt’s terrifying warning that in the future, democracy and imperialism would “hunt together”, but the opposition was so listless and myopic that people might as well have stayed home.
The Democractic Party is playing to the progressive style but I don’t see them reaching beyond procedural tinkering to craft an inspiring story for ordinary people, which Curtis, despite some of his cynical conservatism, also desperately wants to recover in Western democracy.
I’m not sure about these “certain strains of individualist anarchist — not the labor libertarian– ideas.” Though, in general, I’ve become highly suspect of individualism. And I don’t see how individualism and anarchism can co-exist since the former is socially constructed within a particular cultural mindset as shaped by a particular economic/political project. The egoic mind of individualism seems to be fundamentally non-anarchist.
Actual anarchism maybe could be taken in a more basic sense, such that anthropologically one might interpret some simple societies as anarchist or anarchist-like. But modern individualism, as we know it, clearly did not always exist. The more expansive and interrelational, fluid and shifting identities of many animistic hunter-gatherers simply cannot be described as individualistic. And so individualism can’t be taken as a presumed foundation of the human psyche.
It’s hard for me to take seriously the Anglo-American hyper-individualism that has been legally and violently enforced by an oppressive neoliberal system. In a free society, whatever that might be, it seems doubtful that this kind of individualism would prevail, with or without bull shit claims of free market anarchism and such. The following appears to be key point to your argument:
“I want would-be left leaders– and leaders will exist, as I’m sure you agree– to honestly grapple with critiques that go straight to the heart. One of these is Babbitt’s problem with both humanitarian types of Enlightenment humanism– The utilitarian, “man as a rational machine” and the emotional Romantic all deny the possibility of human knowledge that takes the long road toward the supra-rational.
“They deny the primacy of illusion in human life, and believe we can either dispense with it completely or we should sink below the rational to find anything of real meaning– Its all either pure calculus or a primal welling up from the deeps, which is kind of disturbing when it comes to questions of leadership.”
I suppose I get the basic issue conveyed, although I feel a bit resistant to the framing. Among political and media elite, the so-called ‘leaders’ are largely comfortable careerists, partisan hacks, groupminded conformsts, amoral actors, ideological chameleons, cynical opportunists, authoritarian demagogues, social dominators, and ambitious psychopaths.
Is it particularly relevant or fair to blame humanism of one sort or another? It’s unclear to me that any of this necessarily has much to do with the rationalistic and romantic. Did Thatcher genuinely believe in a “romantic dream of the English countryside”? Was neoliberalism “spearheaded by comitted Romantics”? On a gut-level, that feels wrong; but I can’t prove what were their true intentions.
I always assumed that ideological rhetoric of capitalist realism was empty and manipulative bull shit. With knee-jerk cynicism, I could be wrong in that interpretation. Maybe they actually were dogmatic ideologues and true believers. If so, cynical or not, it would deserve derision. And with that in mind, your two following comments do resonate with me. I get a better sense of your target of criticism.
You write that, “Those latter studies might give us more secure ground for building a democracy in America than the futile Occupy and CHAZ style efforts at a mostly performative radicalism that doesn’t deal with questions of power in the actual world.” I don’t know. I tend to look toward underlying forces that, for lack of a better word, can be referred to as ‘culture’. Politics, official and activist, is the result and not the cause, so I’d argue. Then again, every result potentially becomes the cause of something else.
The following example is helpful in clarifying the problem: “The Iraq War went against Babbitt’s terrifying warning that in the future, democracy and imperialism would “hunt together”, but the opposition was so listless and myopic that people might as well have stayed home.” Democracy seems moot in a banana republic, as do claims of opposition within such a banana republic. The closest we get to democracy was the anti-war protest, the largest movement in world history at the time. It was highly unusual in that people worldwide were protesting the very proposal of war before the war had begun.
So, there was a real force of opposition among the people, if not among those who play the role of leaders in the scripted melodramas narratized on corporate media. That goes back to my repeated observation about a suppressed and silenced moral majority to the left of an elite that styles itself as the ‘center’. Did the anti-war protest movement fail? Did Occupy fail? If so, will BLM also fail? I don’t know, as potential success might not be apparent until enough informed perspective is gained from decades or generations of hindsight.
It’s hard for me to fully shake off my idealistic upbringing. I’ve always had an optimistic faith in human potential, no matter how cynical I may sound in voicing criticisms and complaints. What is the probability of humanity living up to its potential? Well, maybe it’s a slim chance, but we might as well aspire to something greater than this waking nightmare of dreary realism. With moral urgency, we are right to be impatient. Justice delayed, indeed, is justice denied. But the fact is most societal changes happen slowly until, all of a sudden, they happen quickly.
I know enough history to realize that success usually follows after long periods of repeated failures. This was seen with the medeval religious dissenter movmeents and peasants’ revolts that were dress rehearsals for the democratic revolutions and reforms that would come centures later. Or, on a shorter time scale, think of the repeated failed abolitionist movements and slave revolts that requried generations upon generations to gain full freedom, universal suffrage, and equal civil rights. The moral arc, sadly, too often bends at a glacial pace with action and result being far apart.
A little late in commenting but I really liked this blog. As a long-time reader, it seemed like a culmination of sorts to me. I don’t know whether it was for you or not. You seemed to get to the ‘root’ of the issue. Inspirational, grounding, and hopeful without being unrealistic. Much that I could comment on but I particularly liked the imagery of ” the awakening to the source of our humanity like a thirst-quenching spring bursting forth from a crack in ancient stone.” Many thanks.
I could see how, in following my blog over time, this post could seem like a culmination of sorts. It wasn’t intended as such, but it is my style to return to themes that I build upon. In coming back to it again, this time I wanted to pare it down to its essence. The power of egaliarianism is that it can be felt so deeply within our experience. We too easily dismiss such feelings as mere feelings.
For me, this is a core vision. Altough atheist now, I was raised in a hyper-liberal Christian faith that expressed a pure sense of egalitarianism. I’m thankful for this upbringing, as I gained the experience what it feels like to be around people who strongly hold to this faith. But it’s taken me a lifetime to gain the confidence to give voice to it without doubt and reservation, as the pessimism and cynicism of our society is so powerful, and no doubt our daily experience offers us endless reasons to dismiss it.
In the end, egalitarianism is not rational, not that it’s irrational either. It’s simply defines who we are, a starting point. I’m glad you understood what I was trying to communicate and I’m glad it didn’t seem unrealistic. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point. I used to avoid religious language because this is a society that praises intellectual arguments, especially on the left where egaitaranism is openly held as an ideal, but religious language is so powerful because it draws upon concrete experience and imagery.
Here is a good video that looks at an example of a more egalitarian example from the Middle Ages. It’s egalitarian to the extent of apparently having been democratic.