Democratic Chaos

on December 30, 2011

I keep thinking I’m finally about to beat my way out of the 1940’s — and then I realize there are still crucial pieces I need to put in place. For one thing, it doesn’t seem possible to make sense of chaos without taking account of its interactions with the democracy vision.

I’ve emphasized in past entries that each type of vision relies on visions of one of the other types to fill out its picture of existence. Inner experience visions draw upon scientific visions for concrete embodiments of their mystical intimations. Scientific visions depend on social visions to provide a humanly relevant context for their raw facts and theories. Social visions look to inner experience visions to offer a transcendent justification for their allocation of political authority.

These influences tend to be highly abstract and even metaphysical in nature — but there are also simpler countercurrents that flow in the opposite direction. Chaos, for example, provided democracy with a philosophical justification based on the universal capacity for higher knowledge, while in return it acquired an attachment to the ideals of individual freedom and universal rights without which such a democracy cannot function.

This kind of reverse influence occurs primarily during a vision’s earliest phases, when it is mystical and free-floating and has little need of concrete embodiments, political justifications, or proofs of human relevance. In the case of the chaos vision, this means that the crucial engagement with democracy began in the late 18th century and was pretty well complete in the opening decades of the 20th.

The product of that interaction might aptly be called “democratic chaos,” since it is not an integral part of either vision but a synthesis that combines elements of both. That synthesis was well established by 1920 and has changed little since, but it remains a vital force in our culture to the present day.

Chaos and Democracy

The first hints of chaos in the 1700’s arose as a reaction against the reason vision, but chaos soon began to take on greater definition and make common cause with democracy. Late 18th century society was dominated by a partnership between the hierarchy and reason visions, and the successors to both of those — democracy and chaos — naturally attracted rebels and dissidents.

During the Romantic movement that began in the 1790’s, anti-rational chaos and democratic chaos both played a part. In the poetry of Shelley and Byron, for example, extreme mental states and bizarre events go hand in hand with a love of freedom and self-determination.

In the course of the Romantic period, scientific materialism was also gradually drawn towards the newer visions, culminating in the counterculture of the 1840’s, when it cast off its final attachments to hierarchy and realigned itself with democracy. Oddly enough, however, rather than binding scientific materialism more closely to democracy and chaos, that reorientation served to alienate it from both.

It seems that on the abstract level where metaphysical interactions among visions take place, the association of scientific materialism with hierarchy had meant that the physical universe could be seen as the product of a Supreme Creator — the “Nature’s God” cited in the Declaration of Independence as the source of “unalienable rights.” But following the shift towards democracy, the universe came to be viewed as a machine without a maker, governed only by Natural Law and without any concern for human values.

Thoreau’s exposition in 1849 of the concept of civil disobedience as a means to halt the “machine of government” when it becomes unjust can be taken as an early recognition of the threat of the machine universe — along with an endorsement of chaos as the most effective means to protect democracy from becoming mechanical and dehumanized in turn.

After 1850, scientific materialism became both more mainstream and increasingly mechanistic — as can be seen, for example, in the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 — while democracy and chaos maintained their collaboration. The power of democratic chaos is apparent in Lincoln’s evocation in the Gettysburg Address (1863) of “government of the people, by the people for the people,” as well as in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution (1868), which established the legal basis for personhood.

Democracy, Chaos and Holism

By the late 1860’s, however, scientific materialism had joined with the reason vision in a new dominant partnership, which took over the leadership of society in the 1870’s and 80’s. During those years, the democracy vision underwent something of a split, with its more reason-oriented and socially respectable aspects being kept firmly under the thumb of the ruling partnership, while its more chaotic and radical side was seen as socially disruptive and held at arm’s length.

This split was possible because democracy had been extensively influenced by the reason vision in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, before it started keeping company with chaos. Faith in reason had justified the belief that men were capable of self-government, and the US Constitution, with its elaborate system of indirect representation, was chiefy a reflection of that faith — although early hints of democratic chaos did appear in the Bill of Rights.

Van Gogh, Starry NightThe tension between the rational and chaotic aspects of the democracy vision would not be resolved until the counterculture of the 1910’s. Meanwhile, the most creatively fruitful association of chaos in the late 1800’s was not with either science or democracy, but with the early hints of holism that were popping up in reaction to the reductionist worldview adopted by scientific materialism. This relationship was much like that between democracy and chaos during the Romantic Era and is perhaps most clearly apparent in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh from the late 1880’s.

Democratic Pluralism

By the end of the 19th century, faith in the reason vision was beginning to erode, both because it was played out philosophically and because of its association with the bloated elite that had corrupted and undermined American democracy during the Gilded Age. Populist ideals were starting to take hold by the 1890’s, but what may be the earliest example of democratic egalitarianism completely reimagined in terms of chaos can be found, oddly enough, in a children’s book, The Wizard of Oz (1900) — which combined populist sentiments with a style of nonsensical fantasy derived from Alice in Wonderland.

This shouldn’t be as surprising as it may seem. Children’s stories are often ahead of the curve when it comes to leading-edge visions — perhaps because children are expected to be idealistic and attracted to new ideas, or perhaps because radical notions are less unsettling when addressed to those who lack the power to enforce them.

Whatever the explanation, in The Wizard of Oz the anti-rational and the democratic aspects of chaos come together seamlessly in the service of a new, pluralistic image of society. The brainless Scarecrow is the wisest member of the party, and the heartless Tin Woodman the most compassionate — while the all-powerful Wizard turns out to be a fraud. And in the sequels that followed, all sorts of unique non-humans would be accepted as full members in an increasingly diverse fellowship.

In a very real sense, the Oz books provide a template for the broadest and most generous understanding of the chaos vision to emerge during the 20th century. This is the version of chaos which argues that since the universe does not spring from a foreordained plan in the Mind of God, it cannot be understood as an integrated whole — which means that every individual has a unique and irreplaceable perspective that must be valued by society.

This understanding would gradually lead to a new concept of democracy itself — not as a system of political representation designed to install the wisest in positions of leadership, but as a mechanism to ensure the broadest possible participation of all citizens.

The Democracy-Touched-by-Chaos Counterculture

It would take more than a decade for the realignment of democracy towards chaos to move beyond children’s books and enter the larger society. One early indication that the the shift was underway came in 1913, with the passage of a constitutional amendment providing for United States senators to be chosen by popular vote rather than by state legislatures. This change reflected a growing faith in ordinary citizens — but it still fell short of actually broadening the voting base.

That final step became possible only after several things had happened: the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the collapse of the reason-and-science partnership, and the emergence of a counterculture during which all the changes of the era went into high gear. The rapid shift in attitudes that resulted is apparent in another constitutional amendment, this one adopted in 1920, that extended the vote to women. Not only did the 19th amendment involve an enthusiastic endorsement of universal rights, but — given that the prejudices of the time still cast women as hopelessly irrational — it also implied a specific rejection of the supremacy of reason.

The same idealistic dedication to democratic chaos can be seen in the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union, also in 1920. The ACLU began as an outgrowth of an anti-war group that had provided aid to individuals threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, but it soon turned to championing free speech of every kind.

An emphasis on civil rights and civil liberties — along with an occasional dose of Thoreau’s civil disobedience — has been at the heart of every reform movement since. However, the events of 1920 were also a termination-point. Like scientific materialism in the 1850’s, democracy would start to go mainstream — and as it did, the active development of democratic chaos would come to an end. Instead, the chaos vision would move in new directions and become far stranger and more philosophically challenging.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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