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.
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