Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Postcard from Everywhere

Holidays are always an aberration, a deviation from the day-to-day. Yet they’re also a smoothly stressed continuation in that you cannot leave yourself behind, and when a parent on a family holiday, your little group travels with you too, psychological baggage dragging holiday luggage across foreign soils. With this first contradiction firmly in place, I can proceed to the second: I always enjoy holidays, even when I don’t (and especially in hindsight). That factoid should tell you quite a lot about me.

Ah, Asia! Hierarchy-Central, materialist fleshpot for Caucasian rejectamenta, with shops slicking the bustling cities like too much sauce across a dish of cheap cuisine. Our last trip eastwards was December to January 2007-8. Since then I’ve changed my view of humanity and human society about as much as is conceivably possible for a 40-something leading a ‘normal’ middle-class life as father of a healthy, nuclear family of four. This time Asia met my new eyes and troubled me deeply. If I have a hard time selling steady state growth and resource-based economics in Europe and America; in Asia, where my contacts are either rich elites or poor home-help, such ideas are seen as little more than the deranged pontifications of society’s failures and loons. That said, the twenty-somethings and younger of those rich families (I’m talking very anecdotally here), with their exposure to the Internet, are showing signs of open-mindedness. Perhaps wealth’s glitter is rubbing off. Even in glittering Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, what was brought home to me most forcefully is the flat out impossibility of an idea like a RBE or even a demurrage currency, or even slowing growth down, being greeted as reasonable or worthy of discussion. My conversations with business people and bankers, as well as with their poor staff, was a strong reminder of how big the world is, how tightly united around the Story of Money (or what Eisenstein calls The Story of the Self) it is. Of course, this impression is hardly the result of rigorous research, even though the sample of people I talked to is representative of both rich and poor. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is wildly presumptuous of me to think of these conversations (and other impressions from TV news and other media outlets) as accurately informative and worthy of note.

Because direct democracy and other anarchic social forms strike me as necessary for humanity’s survival, the information from The Philippines, Hong Kong and China was sobering. Hierarchy is baked deeper into their cultural cakes than ours, even though we are still systemically yoked to it. Despite the ‘birth of the free individual’ preceding and subsequent to the French and American revolutions having done plenty to soften western culture to the idea of direct democracy and therefore to anarchy as a system, hierarchy and the Hobbesian monopoly-on-power the state is, are as endemic to the status quo as ever. After all, a “monopoly on power” is what the state is, by definition. Any solution within the context of the state is a perpetuation of hierarchy, elitism, scarcity and zero-sum competition. Truly translating the historical logic of the West’s revolutions will take further revolutions. In Asia doubly so. And everywhere the poor dream of being rich. For ‘rich’ to mean something, some majority or other has to be poor.

So the old conundrum seems tougher than ever. Humanity faces global challenges it must meet cohesively, under some loosely uniting vision, yet culturally we are fractious, stubborn, scattered, and suspicious of both The Enemy Other and The New. To engender a vision capable of uniting us, however loosely, we must begin locally. Translating local solutions of some anarchic form to others across the planet is proving very difficult, even with the Internet. Without it, such communication is simply impossible. Freely disseminating information is key, learning how different cultures understand your information is hard, but also key. No isolated anarchic system can hope to survive, nor could it hope to fight off attacks from corporations and nation-states eager to thwart it should it become too attractive to growing numbers of humans. Hard-earned wisdoms must be shared, successes and failures must be ‘advertised’ to all so that each can help all, rather than each be at war with all. A mighty challenge which will require on-the-fly development of a new cultural skill-set.

A further conundrum, one which concerns me deeply, is the birth and subsequent death of The Individual. This Cartesian mote of consciousness—potent, creative, active—does not exist as conceived, yet the idea of selfhood is, culturally speaking, a necessary precursor to empathy, which is a necessary precursor to ‘selflessly selfish’ interactions with other humans and the environment generally. The West is ‘ahead’ of Asia in this regard. Think Japan’s reactions to Elvis Presley and rock and roll. Think Hong Kong and China in the 1920s and 30s flirting with Western clothes and music. And yet the more unquestioning, almost subservient adherence to ‘The Way Things Are’ I detect throughout Asian cultures is also representative of a concern for the group above the individual ‘selfless selfishness’ implies. The dark side of this is the power of the state, ends justifying means, the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, and so on. How powerful should the group be relative to the individual? There is no simple answer. Death is anyway inevitable no matter what death ‘really’ is, and we fear it too much. Do we respect the famous Right to Life too much? The autarky I think is historically upon us, which we are obliged to embrace, upholds the ‘freedom’ of the ‘individual.’ Yet for such not to be a Hobbesian war of each against all, as predicted by the state, there must also be a very clear recognition of the primacy of the collective, as a network enabling the ‘freedom’ of each of us.

That is quite a conundrum.

There is no such thing as an individual. Conception of such first requires millennia of abstract language and culture, both of which are impossible absent society—no solitary wolf-child could come up with either. The word “self-conscious” turned up in the late 1600s; that’s a lot of social history and development as preparation for the concept. Society gave birth to the idea of individuality, just as it gave birth to the idea of empathy, a word perhaps 150 years old (it comes from the German “Einfühlung” which first appeared in the mid 1800s I think) which begins to dissolve the boundaries of that which spawned it. In that dissolution, perhaps, an ‘inter-individual’ can emerge, a paradox to us now, but hopefully as obvious as breathing to some future culture. Whatever future forms society evolves for itself must remain misty and frustratingly incomprehensible for now. We push forward not knowing where we are headed, only knowing we strive to do our best for humanity and biosphere alike.


Debra said...

Hi Toby,
I have got a lot of flak over there at Russ's place for my ideas about the individual vs the masses.
Basically, I think that probably the only way for humanity to survive is to return to a traditional society, one where "the individual" has disappeared.
Western civilization has brought tremendous evil to the planet, unfortunately, with time, and continues to do so.
I say this with great... CONSCIOUSNESS of how much I too, am a product of this civilization, and perpetuate this form of consciousness which is so... DIVISIVE.
Today at the laundromat, I checked out a book by Naipaul, and will try to read him, along with maybe, Borges, who also treats the theme of tradition vs historicity and consciousness.
Maybe I will open up "Heart of Darkness" again this summer. I haven't read it in a while.
I am not thrilled that Western consciousness is busy engulfing the planet at this time, with the consequence that any other vision of consciousness seems to be rapidly disappearing.
The beginning of THE END ?
Sorry to sound so gloomy. Perhaps I will try to read Kierkegaard too. I have dabbled in Nietzsche this summer, and find him interesting.
Forwards to England next week.
I cross my fingers that I will not run into any looters. That MASS mentality really does not thrill me..

Toby said...

Hi Debbie,

sorry, but I am jetlagged at the time of day I can post comments on my blog. The firewall at work has been changed and won't let me through on blogger to comment. Now that I'm home and can get through, I'm too shagged to respond intelligently. The weekend will see a more awake Toby.

Until then...

Toby said...

You invite flak. My impression is that you need it. I hate it, avoid it where I can, and try to build bridges. The last thing I want is a Hobbesian Warre.

"Basically, I think that probably the only way for humanity to survive is to return to a traditional society, one where "the individual" has disappeared."

This cannot happen, since we have 'invented' the individual. The word and idea are in our cultural lexicon. While I believe plenty of simplification ought to take place, or will be violently forced upon us, the New Way will give birth to the embedded individual, what I'm beginning to call the inter-individual.

As to The Age Of Separation you hint at, and the Age of Reunion Eisenstein talks of, all I can say is please, please, please read The Ascent of Humanity. Your outlook is begging to do so, even if your ego seems to want to resist. Hell, send me your address and I'll buy you a copy for your latest Leo birthday (or is it still to come this year?). Deal?

Maybe watch the first episode of "The Century of the Self" which talks quite a bit about the elite's distaste for the mass you refer to. Be careful with that revulsion, Debbie. It has a horrible history behind it.

Debra said...

The concept of "the individual" exists in opposition to the concept of "the masses".
I am not making any JUDGMENT on "the masses".
Indeed, the judgment that is made is one instinctively made by "the individual" because he does not want to SEE the school of fish when he is IN it. He desperately wants to FEEL UNIQUE, in the midst of so many who look, act, like him. (Of course, technically he IS unique, but the circumstances that would allow him to experience his uniqueness are not present very often.)
At this time, I feel that the major problem in our "democratic" societies is the publicity edifice.
It has absorbed our political institutions.
Publicity basically is made to APPEAL TO THE MASSES, Toby.
I saw "Hamlet" two days ago. Fascinating that Shakespeare is already exploring the problems of too much SELF CONSCIOUSNESS.
The impass that it leads to.
It is funny that you automatically assume that I feel revulsion for the "masses", Toby.
I do NOT feel revulsion for "the masses".
I sometimes wonder what I would do if I were caught in a crowd shouting "Heil.... whatever", how I would react, what I would do.
I am not sure. That is why I tend to try to avoid ALL crowds at this time, other than the fact that I feel swallowed up in them, and dislike this.
I must confess, Toby, that after all this time chatting over the Internet, I am a little DISAPPOINTED that you seem to quickly attribute NASTY ideas to me that I do not believe.
For the looters... I do feel that "mass" behavior was present there.
That is why crowding lots of unemployed, disenchanted people of any age, but particularly young men in the cities is a recipe for social unrest. WE need to be offering some kind of PLACE for those young people where they can feel that their TALENTS or APTITUDES are valued, or where they can find OLDER MEN to identify with, and learn from.
It is a question (among other questions) of male VIRILITY and how to channel it, and make it work FOR society, instead of against it.
We are not very good at even accepting it these days, in my opinion.
My word verification word.. "curse". LOL.

Debra said...

Gotta be careful over there at Russ's place, Toby. I seem to remember that a while ago you THOUGHT I said something that I DIDN'T over there...

Toby said...

I'm not perfect.

But aren't you contradicting yourself? Here you say:

"to return to a traditional society, one where "the individual" has disappeared."

and yet want no part of the mass. Is it really so whacky for me to detect revulsion there? I share that revulsion by the way, which is part of the point I was making over at Volatility. Then comes the crippling self-consciousness you hint at, the self-policing. I think it is both good and bad, though all things are that anyway. I've written a number of poems on this theme, aimed at my own revulsion and my shame in feeling it. You complimented my latest effort. The landscape that piece portrays is as inner as outer, and the muck ignored is the mass the patrician ego is reviled by, seeks to escape to rise above. Is this not in you too? Aren't we alike on that, you and I, idiosyncratic loners? Isn't the Western culture all about that? Flight from horrible uncertainty into 'civilized' order?

Debra said...

I nitpick over your choice of the word "revulsion", Toby.
Funnily enough, Freud noticed that psychological/psychic conflict was a direct result of attempting to REJECT parts of ourselves that we find distasteful.
I avoid the crowds, Toby.
But consider this...
I think that I have told you already about the pages in "Mein Kampf" where Adolf Hitler talks about his attempt to reject his burgeoning antisemitism. His fight to triumph over this IRRATIONAL descent into the heart of darkness.
In one of my favorite psy books, Octave Mannoni says that reason is the last, most fragile attempt to distance oneself from being submerged by what one has rejected, for example.
He says that it OFTEN does not work.
I subscribe totally to that point.
For example, four years ago when I broke down, I KNEW why I was breaking down. That didn't stop me from breaking down...
I think that, as animals, we are tremendously influenceable, and that at this time, our hubristic volontarism, and positivism are keeping us from understanding just how easy it is to lose the North, as we say in French.
This discussion ties into your above post. Is it possible to recognize DIFFERENCE without making subtle value judgments as to whether our differences are good/bad, better or worse ?
I don't know.
Yes, we are a lot alike. I enjoy engaging with you ON YOUR BLOG.

Toby said...


That brought a smile ;-)

And very interesting about becoming submerged in what we reject. I went through my own mini midlifer about 4 years ago too, new I was dipping in there and bringing it on, but couldn't control (hate that word more and more) the fallout at all.

"Is it possible to recognize DIFFERENCE without making subtle value judgments as to whether our differences are good/bad, better or worse ?"

Excellent question. My answer is the beautiful German word jein (ja und nein mixed). I think we can be effective in being humble about our unavoidable value judgements because we are coming to realize how dangerous they can be. Allow diversity to flourish, that sort of thing.

If we're lucky, life stays interesting, and we get to stay creative in how we respond for a very long time.