An Epic Failure

on May 15, 2019

I haven’t posted any new entries for the last two years, because the two I wrote immediately after Trump was elected offered my best projections for what was to come and I felt I had nothing more to add. But events have continued to move on, the crisis that grips us grows more acute, and it appears to be time for an update.

This blog has been devoted to laying out a theory of human history and culture as structured by a succession of competing visions of the fundamental nature of existence. These visions develop according to a cyclical process in which each one begins as vague mystical intimations that gradually take on greater definition and public visibility. In a second phase, the vision acquires sufficient authority to influence worldly affairs on a practical level. And every vision ends by degenerating into an ideology of power that must be challenged and overthrown by younger and still uncorrupted alternatives

Much of this process is slow and incremental, but the moments of challenge and replacement always represent a sharp break that occurs during a time of extreme turmoil. During these transitions, the social consensus that prevails as long as most people share a common understanding of how the world works gives way to conflict and fragmentation, and the effects can be painful to endure.

At such times, society falls prey to violence, a loss of shared values, and a pervasive sense of despair. And yet these are also times of deep spiritual renewal. They end with the rejection or radical reformulation of the corrupted oldest visions, while newer visions that offer fresh solutions to the most urgent problems of the day take over the leadership of society and begin to restore stability.

We are reaching the climax of such a changeover period right now. We were in its earliest stages in 2009-11, when I created this blog and began writing about Occupy Wall Street and other hints of a shift in attitudes. We were just entering the phase of maximum turmoil two years ago, when I wrote those most recent entries. And in the last few months we have moved closer to overt conflict, as the increasingly authoritarian impulses of the declining visions have become focused on crushing the threats to their authority posed by those that are on the rise.

At the present moment, my Facebook feed is dominated by three types of posts. The first type features the latest horror stories about how Trump is attempting to dismantle accepted democratic norms and deregulate everything — interspersed with school shootings, fascist provocations, and police brutality. The second category combines hand-wringing over the prospect of environmental doom with hopeful signs of change and promising alternatives. And the third, which serves as a respite from the other two, primarily offers wordless images of a more peaceful and spiritually nourishing world.

All three categories represent different aspects of the current transition. The horror stories reflect the collapse of the partnership between two long-established visions that has shaped our society for the last forty years. One is the venerable democracy vision that has guided the United States since its founding. And the other is the hyper-individualistic chaos vision, which began as a call for personal empowerment but has now decayed into a justification for the absolute freedom of powerful interests from any kind of government control.

The hopeful alternatives come from an alliance between the younger and more dynamic holism and horizontalism visions, an alliance reflected in demands for a “Green New Deal.” The holism vision expresses a perception of nature as consisting of spontaneously self-organizing communities that benefit all their participants. And the horizontalism vision seeks to apply the same perception to human society, offering collective action and mutual support as an alternative to the competitive, winner-take-all systems endorsed by both democracy and chaos.

But it’s the wordless images that I find most intriguing. They evoke the still ineffable intimations of the creative imagination vision, which is younger than both holism and horizontalism and is the direct successor to the chaos vision as an understanding of human nature. And the message they convey is that we humans are not fundamentally primitive, violent, and self-serving, as the chaos vision would have it, but are defined by our creativity and our ability to imagine a world of wonder and then bring it into being.

Holism, horizontalism, and creative imagination will shape our future for the next fifty years. But first we have to get through the terror and dismay of the present moment. And to aid in that passage, I’d like to refer to some of my entries from 2009-10, written when we were just entering the current period of crisis, as a way of offering a broader frame of reference.

In a post from 2009 titled The End of an Era, I reflected on the then-ongoing financial crisis as a sign of “the coming collapse of the democracy-and-chaos partnership.” I wrote that “the final years of a declining partnership are often an anxious and troubled time, but the phase of active renewal is triggered only when the partnership grows so out of touch that instead of meeting crises effectively it becomes a source of epic failure. A profound disillusionment then sets in, and the culture enters an extended period of radical questioning and revaluation.”

That point of epic failure and radical questioning is precisely where we are right now. However, we need to recognize that the revaluation will not automatically be for the best. In that same entry, I offered the onset of World War I as an example of epic failure but also noted that “the period which followed, from roughly 1915 to 1933, was a time of painful disenchantment, heretical notions, and frantic speculation. By the time it was over, most of Europe had fallen into a deep funk of decadence and despair that laid the groundwork for the rise of fascism.”

I went on to suggest that the United States had been immune to the worst of that despair because it had been less invested in the imperial dreams that led up to the war. This enabled it to survive the collapse of the European world-system with its ideals intact and eventually paved the way for American cultural and military dominance after World War II.

But which of those two positions is the United States in this time round? Are we so attached to the late twentieth century era of American hegemony that we will be crushed in the wreckage when that era ends? But in that case, what peoples or cultures will thrive in our place? I frankly don’t see any good candidates at the moment, none that display the exuberant self-confidence that characterized the U.S. on the eve of World War I, but I keep looking.

I took up the same themes again a few months later, in a post from 2010 titled Democracy Inverted. There I discussed the Watergate crisis of 1972-76, when the democracy vision underwent the same kind of breakdown the chaos vision is undergoing right now.

I quoted President Jimmy Carter’s speech of 1979, in which he stated, “I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. … It is a crisis of confidence … that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” But I also noted that Carter’s proposed solution of consuming less and turning down the thermostats did nothing to restore confidence in democracy. And I suggested this was why he lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, who promoted a dream of continuing American greatness that I summarized as based on “a radical redefinition of democracy — one in which it was seen not as a system of government, but as a guarantee of freedom from government.”

Reagan’s ideal of freedom from government managed to restore the wounded democracy vision by linking it to the younger chaos vision, which was just coming off its high point in the 1960s counterculture. The result was a stable partnership that reinvigorated democracy while smoothing out the rough edges of chaos. But as I went on to comment, “In the long run, Reagan’s small government rhetoric has served to justify a radical enhancement of government power in the name of ‘freedom,’ combined with a reckless agenda of tax cuts and deregulation which has resulted in an upward redistribution of wealth to the already wealthy while exploding the federal deficit.”

That was my final observation at the time, but what I would add now is that we should take the events of the 1970s as a cautionary tale for where we may find ourselves in another five or ten years. For one thing, Carter’s mistake was that he attempted to link the democracy vision to the still-emerging holism vision, which was not yet sufficiently mature to bear that weight. In the same way, we should be aware that the hyper-individualism of the chaos vision will have to be tamed by subordinating it to the planet-saving concerns of holism, while the utopian collectivism of horizontalism remains a still-emerging dream.

But we also have to beware of Reagan’s error, which was to frame his fusion of democracy and chaos in a way that pandered to a regressive agenda of national greatness while suppressing the nascent stirrings of holism and horizontalism that had emerged strongly at the end of the 1960s. There are already potential fusions of chaos and holism (most notably eco-fascism) that would follow Reagan’s course in an ever more toxic manner. And the only way I see past that is to start thinking of the chaos vision as something that can and must be redeemed and to consider how that might best be done.

More to come…

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Read the Previous Entry: The Birth of a New World

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