Wednesday, October 5, 2011

On Elitisim and the Growth of the Ego

“My littlest finger,” Rehoboam is reported to have said, “is thicker than my father’s loins.” Considering his Dad was Solomon this was quite the boast. Solomon had a way with the ladies, and, something of a poet myself, I’m pretty sure his sack-skills weren’t based on words alone. If you follow me.

Rehoboam was a Master of the Universe, a Mighty King. He took over from Solomon at a time when the Great Unwashed were moaning about some unfair tax burden. Being vastly superior to everyone around him, Rehoboam took council from a coterie of experts rather than talk to the plebeians directly, no doubt believing that Kings breathe a different air. Doing God’s Work requires a certain je ne sais quoi. Anyway, after long consultation his response to his people’s complaints was certainly kingly:

“Whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, so shall I add tenfold thereto. Whereas my father chastised you with whips, so shall I chastise you with scorpions. For my littlest finger is thicker than my father’s loins; and your backs, which bent like reeds at my father’s touch, shall break like straws at my own touch.”


Nowadays we’d call this austerity. That it reads to the modern ear like the ravings of a psychopath isn’t perhaps as interesting as the refreshing absence of spin. Today a very similar message, in terms of the types of decision being reached, is delivered as if we were all in it together, as if Wall Street were suffering just like Mainstreet, that the burden is shared equally by elite and non-elite alike. Thus it is our contemporary Rehoboams who are truly terrifying, who have polished their statecraft to burnished and bewitching propaganda which they shape-shift with such adroitness, deliver into all minds so omnipotently, that we are lost in a glittering web of lies and half-truths from which ‘escape’ takes discipline, perseverance and time. And what is (deliberately) scarcer today for most of us than those precious things?

Elitism is as old as farming, perhaps even as the alpha-urge to shine, dominate, be the group’s ‘generous’ center. We could also say elitism is as old as the ego, though how old the ego is no one can really tell (it is not as old as homo sapiens sapiens, I suspect). What is increasingly clear to me is that the ascendancy of elitism is like the ascendancy of the ego, that sorter of data; that measurer; that perceiver of separation, distinction, boundaries; that arch deceiver and jealous defender of its throne. It is the ego which tells us, ‘more for me is less for you,’ though regal magnanimity can ameliorate the tensions and stresses generated by such an unfortunate ‘truth.’ And yes, science is the ego’s double-edged sword, humility buried deep in its hilt, the dangers and rewards of hubris glinting from its blade. But elitism has a lifespan just as everything else. Some of its flowers; perpetual growth, institutionalized hierarchy, extortion, dehumanization, are both the primary drivers of its ascent as well as the chief architects of its demise. Its demise is woven into the fabric of its power. Which brings us, somewhat tangentially, back to spin. Why do our leaders ‘need’ it?

Change. Since Rehoboam we’ve been changing. If Jamie Dimon spoke plainly and told everyone in a televised address to bow before him because his dick is bigger than his dad’s, he’d be out on his ear, pursued by the raucous laughter of the hoi polloi. Today our Glorious Leaders must stage manage the presentation of their obvious superiority more subtly than in days of yore; we don’t allow ourselves to think that way—not explicitly—anymore. It has become distasteful. The elitist dynamic is still transmitted, but more surreptitiously, via myth, advertising, body language, size of building, office space, desk size, salary, clothes, armies, police, etc. What with the end of slavery and child labour (sort of); the advent of sexual liberation, equal rights (sort of), and Rights generally, and other such social impulses inspired by centuries of striving towards egalitarianism and justice, modern humans now exist in a cultural web which requires a different manner of leadership, no matter how elitist at heart, no matter how jointly responsible our leadership has been in bringing this about. Our leaders still operate in plain sight, yes, but not so honestly as before. Honesty would be the death of them (as it was, in a way, of Rehoboam). So the very ‘tools’ for propagating their message, manipulating and subjugating us to docility via bland educations and careers and consumerism, are also those with which ‘The People’ learn about each other, about Rights, ‘equality,’ the money system, justice, and the nature of reality as we uncover and re-interpret it via science. And this is part of what I mean when I say there is no such thing as control. Events spiral off in unknowable directions, even from our best laid plans. As the ego has designed its ascent so has it ensured its downfall. One begets the other.

And yet the future will not be ego-free—at least, I don’t think it will be. Because life is richly diverse and develops in ways we cannot foresee, there will be wide differences of success and failure, forever. Equality is an impossibility. Demanding it is an act of violence against nature, even though the urge to implement it socioeconomically is part of nature. As humans with egos capable of the self-deception of separation and Cartesian Duality, we can indeed struggle against inevitability, against ourselves as embodied by ‘elite’ versus ‘non-elite,’ even producing wonders as a result (though beauty is in the eye of the beholder), but equality can never be one of our successes. Should we manage to weather the coming storms, should something like Jacque Fresco’s resource-based economy take shape, it will mean only a shifting of the goal posts. Perhaps poverty will be vanquished, war too, but such accomplishments will shunt our experiences of success and failure into new domains; emotional, intellectual, technical, artistic, not necessarily measured by money or material possessions, nor necessarily as the sources of immature envy and class conflict, but as something new and unpredictable, unimaginable to us today.

If something like a resource-based economy includes direct democracy, flexible and wise adaptation to ongoing change, transparency and openness of all public endeavour, it will, I believe, be a far better world, regardless of the moral relativity one might detect in this post. For whatever freedom and debt are, I’m sure a more mature relationship with and understanding of both are within our collective reach. Our next maturation is tantalizingly close, yet light years away, and will evolve unevenly—there are no beginnings, no endings. Getting ‘there,’ as ever, will take time, discipline and perseverance, which each of us must win by fighting for them.

9 comments:

Debra said...

I started out angry reading this post.
Yet another attack on elitism.
The major failing of the "unwashed masses" remains... wanting to have their cake and eat it too (just like their "rich/elite" counterparts).
Voluntary servitude is rarely analyzed, comprehended, or ACKNOWLEDGED in the attacks on the "elites".
TO EACH HIS BLIND SPOT, EH ?
That is as old as the world, as we say here.
I maintain that one of the MAJOR motors of the consumer society is a carefully orchestrated and maintained ENVY. It fuels keeping up with the Joneses.
Envy is NOT A PRETTY SPECTACLE.
It is classed in the seven deadly sins, I believe. (I'm not Catholic, and the Protestantism I am familiar with does not talk about the seven deadly sins.)
Cute how we have managed to create a society whose unacknowledged motor is a deadly sin for its predecessor, huh ?
Very telling, in my book.
The EGO is a major French specialty. It emerges... with Montaigne, and Renaissance humanism at the expense of the medieval cosmogony, and sense of connection (I think...).
It culminates with Freud's psychoanalytic theory of the Ego/le moi.
ME ME ME.
As OBJECT of myself, of my consciousness, etc.
ME is not I...
Dixit Lacan. Good job. I agree with that.
Freud said something along the lines of where there was "that", "I" must emerge.
Talk about moving from an objective... POINT OF VIEW to a subjective one... I don't think he really suspected what he was saying. Thank heavens. Because when you have your eyes trained on the OBJECTIVE, well, GRACE doesn't enter into the picture, right ?
And it never shows up in calculations, or on the graphs either...

Toby said...

An attack on elites is likewise an attack on their twin the non-elites. What I'm driving at (and failing in it seems) is the relationship we have with diversity as it gives rise to our need to measure value, how this leads to elite/non-elite issues, the presentation of which has changed over time in a way which, hopefully, gives us a dim sense of its potential resolution. And yet the resolution will not mean the end of the ego, nor the end of diversity of ability, usefulness to the group, value, and other such measurements beloved of the ego.

The very dichotomy elite/non-elite is at the heart of this system. The duality of how we think is embedded in 'languaging' (which I learned from you), since to name we must draw distinctions, after which we have preferences, Separation, The Fall, and so on. I think we'll co-evolve further with language and that the dualism that so riddles how we think and analyze will become more evident to us, something we'll get better at handling, as it were. And yet value judgments will remain.

The dualism of "the object of myself" is an illusion, no? "ME is not I" is casuistry arising from this dualism. But writing almost anything 'opinionated' on this topic must occur within this dualism, cannot really rise above it. My objective (ha ha) was to paint an angle showing how the elite/non-elite dualism has within it the seeds of its dissolution, but I cannot but fail to make such an attempt from within this paradigm.

Was that effort invisible to you, Debbie? Did you finish the article believing it was merely another plebeian attack on The Other?

Also, should 'we' grow up and not be immaturely caught up in the spite and envy of elite/non-elite, stop playing victim-saviour games, that would be the end of this system. It is, in my view, precisely what 'we' should be concentrating on. But part of that is discussing the issues, and the more important part is building new systems capable of coping with a maturer populace. My reading of the current system is that it is elite/non-elite at core, it generates that which we are tasked with overcoming. And of course the poison of it is still in me. I've been squeezing it out in these pages for a couple of years now, but these things take time. Lots of time...

Debra said...

I responded to your posts on violence in the comments.

Debra said...

I said... "I STARTED OUT"...
You say that the difference I maintain between me/I is a form of casuistry, an ILLUSION ?
Look at those words...
"Illusion" is a word that is rooted in VISUAL EXPERIENCE.
The control game is one that is very hooked into visual experience, privileged over other forms of sensory experience.
Are you saying the same thing if you say..
"I went to the market yesterday"
or "He kicked ME in the shins ?"
Really ? Is that CASUISTRY ?
May I be casuistic enough to maintain that calling my proposition casuistry is.. casuistic ?
If we have DIFFERENT WORDS, then.. doesn't that correspond to DIFFERENCES, and more importantly, different words ensure that WE WILL LOOK FOR DIFFERENCES to justify those different words ?
No ??
I think that we don't need to REDUCE differences to DUAL forms.
Indeed, reducing differences to DUAL forms fosters thinking along an EXCLUSIVE paradigm.
Like either/or
"Or" is synonymous with the competition pattern, and the idea that somebody can win without losing something AT THE SAME TIME.
"And" is an inclusive paradigm that you like to identify with cooperation, and empathy (if I am reading you right).
Envy, for example... is a motor for the competition pattern. Keeping up with the Joneses means that you will identify yourself in constant comparison with what your neighbor is/does/has. The community created arises because we are ALL competing to keep up with each other ? Pretty exhausting, no ?
One of the worst things that THE WRITTEN WORD is doing to us at this time is fostering the illusion that THINGS ARE AND WILL REMAIN AS THEY ALWAYS HAVE BEEN. (World without end, amen...) Like... when I said, "I started out"... ?
The words work that way. And boy, oh boy do we ever believe in THE PERMANENCE/INTEMPORALITY OF THE WRITTEN WORD. Even.. over the Internet.

Toby said...

I didn't think the I/ME distinction was your proposition. ;-)

But I actually think the I and the ME of your two sentences are the same phenomenon. The illusion I refer to may or may not be rooted in the visual, I used that word to mean something more general, that the distinction we draw with the words I/ME (German has ich/mich/mir, and for our single "you" they have "du/dich/dir/Sie/Ihnen/Ihr/Euch") are conventions of grammar. What "I" am is a part of the universe in a constant state of flux, co-creatively becoming as a subsystem of Universe until some end (whatever that is), or, possibly, forever. How we deal with the notion of the self in our language is based on the self-deception (illusion) of Separation. That this self-deception is useful and has generated a lot of data we continue to manipulate and discuss and seem to profit from, is besides the point. And language drags us along with it when we contemplate All That Is.

What a huge topic. Eisenstein's "The Ascent of Humanity" is close to 600 pages, Foucault has written extensively on the problem of being, as have countless others. I can only allude to it all here. It takes books and culture evolving over time and heaps of other stuff to develop our sense of ourselves and our relationships, understandings, etc. Sadly, in comments on blogs we get quickly bogged down. Nevertheless...

Do you really think I and ME refer to different 'things'?

Debra said...

Yep.
If for no other reason than the observation that "me" is in the objective case, and "I" is in the subjective case.
IN OUR OWN EYES, we do not experience ourselves as the same, while... experiencing ourselves as the same (paradox).
This is the "alienation" of language which depends on creating DIFFERENCES in order to mean.
How do people think/experience their world, whose language does not follow our basic grammatical structure of subject/verb/object ? Is it universal ?
I don't know...
There is something that appears in Anglo Saxon culture, Toby, it is our tendancy to reduce ourSELVES to what we consciously and voluntarily WANT TO SAY/MEAN. (True for me, too.)
French, for the word "meaning" has the expression "vouloir dire", to WANT TO SAY.
That's pretty positivist, in my book.
I got a response from a marketing director to my letter advising the company not to put up billboards all over the country marked "tout est permis" (everything is permitted, anything goes...), in a context of 0 social mobility, envy, penury, etc, because the campaign was provocative.
And he responded, saying that IT WAS NOT THEIR INTENTION to excite social unrest with the campaign.
My husband said that he was double talking, dissimulating, but sometimes I wonder if obtuse positivism has reached new heights of naivete, where the admen believe that their activity is reduced to a Pavlovian one of setting off little bells, and having HERDS of consumers rush for the stores ?
Could scientific positivism, that consummate NAIVETE have dumbed us down that far, that even the advertisers don't understand that language elicits associations that THEY CAN'T TOTALLY CONTROL ??
That is one hell of a naiveté, Toby, for people who have reputations for so much cynicism.
But.. I have often found that one man's cynicism is another's naiveté...and vice versa.
The way of the world.

Toby said...

We experience a variety of things, yes, anything else would mean no distinction were possible, which would mean zero discernible difference and hence zero information. The location in space-time (whatever that is) we call I/ME experiences a variety of sensations. "I go shopping" can be expressed as "my mood took me to the shops in search of chocolate"; "He kicked me in the shins" as "I invited a kick to the shins by provoking him". The same (past) event can be described differently, and in describing it differently experienced differently, but the 'thing' experiencing is somehow the same 'thing', the same 'point of reference.' There is unity beneath the distinctions. The cornucopia of distinctions we can draw, and the way in which we draw them, arise from the primary self-deception of separation, which is a necessary pre-requisite for ego-mind, perception, subject-object, and so on. The grammar is then part of this, part of 'languaging'.

Interesting observation on cynicism-naivety. But I suspect he was being disingenuous. Maybe I'm just too cynical.

Debra said...

Do you know if the subject/verb/object paradigm is universal ?

Toby said...

If only I did.

How about you?