The Signs of an Era

on August 10, 2012

My theory of history as a sequence of visions, which I described in the previous entry, grew out of an earlier version of the same idea in which I saw every historical era as shaped by a distinctive worldview that sets the tone for its art, technology, and social institutions. I was forced to set that simpler approach aside, however, when I attempted to define the worldviews of the 19th and 20th century more precisely and realized that each one had consisted of several discrete components.

I gradually developed that insight into the concept of a sequence of visions, each one rising and falling on the heels of the one before. As I did, I came to perceive every worldview as the product of a unique partnership between two mature visions, supplemented by a third, slightly younger vision that plays the outsider role and serves as both a source of novelty and a focus of discontent.

Although the specific visions differ from one era to the next, there is always one of each type — scientific, social, and inner experience. This means that taken in concert, they provide the basis for a well-balanced philosophical synthesis which for a time appears capable of explaining all of existence.

Eventually, though, every such synthesis develops cracks. It fails to deliver on its promises, the component visions fall into conflict, and finally it comes apart at the seams — setting off a brief but intense period of intellectual and political turmoil.

And when the turmoil ends and the dust clears, everything has changed. The oldest vision of the three has been discredited and discarded, the second in line has been reformed and modernized, and the outsider vision has cast off its wild, adolescent ways and turned into a mature and dependable leader of society.

At that point, the two visions that remain standing join together in a new partnership, the outsider role is assumed by a younger vision of the same type as the one which was discarded, and a fresh philosophical synthesis is constructed to shape a new era.

This process has been repeated over and over during the last century and a half. The worldview of the period from roughly 1865 to 1915, for example, was based on a partnership between one vision which viewed human mentality in terms of reason and another which explained the physical universe in terms of scientific materialism.

As a result, the Victorian Era was the heyday of scientific rationalism. There was a proliferation of technological marvels, Western civilization was transformed by industrialization, and its favored sons set out to colonize the world in the name of reason and science.

At the same time, the ambivalent outsider role was held by the democracy vision, which defined the ideal society in terms of equality and self-government. Democracy was applauded to the extent that it appeared more rational and scientific than aristocracy — but its wild, radical side was seen as dangerous and destabilizing and was often violently repressed.

After some fifty years, however, this seemingly rock-solid Victorian society was swept away by a wave of change that began with the vast disillusionment of World War I and concluded in the early years of the Great Depression. By the time it subsided, belief in human rationality had been abandoned and a new worldview based on the partnership of scientific materialism and democracy was settling into place.

This mid-century worldview would not last as long as its predecessor — only from the 1930’s to the 1960’s — but it was every bit as dynamic. It generated the glowing promise of the World of Tomorrow displayed at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. It was the power source for the New Deal, the American effort in World War II, and the consumer economy of television sets and interstate highways that followed the war. And even in its final days, it was capable of inspiring the futuristic gadgets of The Jetsons and the galactic explorations of Star Trek.

The third vision of the era was based on a radical new understanding of the human mind. The reason vision that had dominated the 18th and 19th centuries had been founded on the belief that humans were capable of arriving at a rational understanding of themselves and the universe and of constructing rationally-based societies. In contrast, the chaos vision embraced everything its predecessor had denied or excluded — madness, hallucination, intoxication, and general wackiness.

Early intimations of the chaos vision can be seen in the art and literature of the late 1700’s and 1800’s, but it only gained popular recognition in the 1890’s, after it received a comprehensive theoretical basis in Freud’s theory of the unconscious. By the 1920’s, the fundamental irrationality of human nature was widely accepted — but like democracy in the 19th century, it was never fully trusted and was seen as dangerous and destabilizing. By the 1950’s, chaos had become associated with the disruptive power of Hollywood movies, comic books, and sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

But just as had happened fifty years earlier, the era of scientific-materialism-and-democracy was swept away in a great social paroxysm that lasted from the mid-1960’s to the early 1970’s. This time around, it was the old mechanistic view of the cosmos that was rejected, along with its techno-futuristic dreams and its glorification of the Conquest of Nature.

Meanwhile, the democracy vision was being reformed and the chaos vision domesticated, and when things quieted down in the middle 70’s, those two visions were ready to enter into a new democracy-and-chaos partnership.

By then, chaos was no longer seen as an overwhelming anarchic force. Instead of being identified with madness and wild abandon, it was associated primarily with individualism and human rights. Even the monsters and vampires that had formerly symbolized the most terrifying aspects of chaos were reduced to cuddly muppets bearing messages about mutual consideration and self-worth..

As for democracy, although it formed one component of this new partnership, it was no longer the be-all and end-all it had been since World War II. The abuses of power that had come to light during Watergate had fostered a general distrust of government, and people on both ends of the political spectrum had concluded that it would be most prudent to subordinate democracy to the rights and freedoms of the individual.

Since then, the democracy-and-chaos partnership has provided the worldview for the era that is now coming to an end. That worldview has been the source of everything most characteristic of the last thirty-five years, from identity politics and gay rights to laissez-faire capitalism and libertarianism. All of these involve not merely a single-minded devotion to individual freedom but also a belief that intuition, passion, and gut feelings are surer guides to action than rationally-conceived plans and agendas.

At the same time, the outsider role has been filled by the holism vision, which first gained general visibility in the late 60’s as scientific materialism was fading. Like every scientifically-based vision, holism offers a model of existence derived from the natural world — but where the model of scientific materialism was based on simple, physical cause-and-effect, that of holism focuses on systems, networks, and subtle feedback loops.

During the 1970’s, everybody seemed to be enamored of the ecological ideals that were the main expression of holism, but by the 1980’s holism had been recast as a dark, subversive force — just like chaos before it and the democracy vision before that. Dedicated environmentalists were derided as fanatical tree-huggers or even eco-terrorists and were made the targets of FBI infiltration and arrests. In the early 1990’s, they were joined as scapegoats by computer hackers, who also took their inspiration from the premises of holism.

At the present moment, the war against holism is still in full swing. As I write, Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, fearing extradition to the United States. Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has skipped bail in Germany in order to avoid being extradited to Japan over his attempts to thwart the annual Japanese whale hunt. And any number of less prominent environmental activists and members of Anonymous have been hounded, arrested, or jailed.

But the pattern of the past makes it inevitable how all of this will turn out. Within a decade or so, faith in the tattered remains of representative democracy will have crumbled. At the same time, the most radical exponents of holism will have either been knocked out of the game or turned into reformed characters. The holism vision itself will have been tidied up and acknowledged as the source of moral leadership for a society that is finally turning its attention to global warming and environmental degradation. And the internet will be recognized as the heart of global civilization — though some of its anything-goes spirit will have been lost in the process.

Once these adjustments are in place, it will become possible to construct a chaos-and-holism partnership in which the hyper-individualistic tendencies of chaos will be reined in and subordinated to the task of building a more liveable world.

By then, a new outsider vision will also have stepped forward, in the form of horizontalism — the vision based on direct democracy and peer-to-peer relationships that has already begun bubbling up, in the Occupy movement and elsewhere, as the institutions of representative democracy fall into corruption and irrelevance.

And beyond that — as past example also tells us — following a few years when horizontalism is embraced as warmly as ecology was in the 1970’s, it will be thrust into the subversive and demonized antagonist role, and will take up the struggle against the increasingly visible limitations and excesses of chaos-and-holism.

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Read the Previous Entry: The Dance of the Visions 2.0
Read the Next Entry: The Long View

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