The Alchemical Marriage of Holism and Horizontalism

on October 10, 2014

I’ve spent the last five years at this blog laying out a theory of human history as determined by a succession of visions of the nature of existence. But although I have no doubts about the reality of that sequence, I’m still struggling to identify the underlying mechanisms.

I’ve most recently been developing what I think is a plausible scenario for how the earliest visions arose out of the changes in brain organization that first made us human. But that scenario can’t explain why those initial visions should have failed and been replaced by others — or why those others then failed and were replaced in turn, following an amazingly consistent pattern of events.

I’m therefore trying out a new hypothesis which assumes that the mechanisms behind the visions operate on two different levels. On the intellectual level, each vision is elaborated out of a limited set of fundamental premises — comparable to the rules of grammar or the axioms of mathematics — that is believed to explain an entire area of human experience. This produces a tightly woven logical structure which gives each vision a high degree of coherence and enables it to remain intact over an extended period of time.

However, any system that narrowly based can only provide a partial picture of reality. Newborn visions may dazzle us with their ability to tap into areas of experience that have previously been neglected, but as visions age they get stale and over-familiar and start to reveal gaps and weak spots. This is one reason why new visions become necessary.

A further problem is that each vision draws its premises from just a single area of human experience — the natural world, society, or the inner reaches of our own minds. A vision of any given type may be effective in its own domain but quickly loses plausibility when we attempt to expand it to other areas.

This prompts us to attempt to reconcile visions of different types by establishing equivalences between their implications. The result is often philosophically exhilarating, but it also introduces distortions into those visions, undercutting their core premises and weakening their integrity. That is a second reason why visions decay over time.

However, all this interplay of premises and conclusions would be just an intellectual game if it weren’t for the ability of the visions to access a deep well of transformative energy.

That ability is what makes the visions the driving force behind human history. It’s also what keeps the cycle of replacement in motion — because visions only retain access to this transformative power for as long as they are true to their own essential nature. Once their integrity is compromised they become increasingly hollow and inauthentic.

I’ll confess that I don’t altogether understand the nature of transformative energy. It might be located either within us or out there in the universe — or perhaps it is what happens when we and the cosmos are most perfectly in tune. But I know it when I see it in action, and at the present moment the energy levels are off the scale.

The immediate cause of this great release of transformative power is the collapse of the partnership between the democracy and chaos visions that has dominated our society for close to forty years.

When that partnership was formed in the 1970s, the democracy vision was well established and universally accepted, but it had long since expended its reserves of transformational energy and was growing bureaucratic and out of touch. The slightly younger chaos vision — which arose in the 1700s and 1800s out of a perception of human nature as essentially irrational and spontaneous — was rapidly settling into respectability after the psychedelic excesses of the 1960, but it had just enough transformative energy remaining to jump-start the partnership.

The two visions bonded over a shared belief that the overriding purpose of government is to preserve individual freedom — and that has been the central credo of our society ever since. But now the democracy vision is in a state of collapse as it displays its inability to address the twin problems of economic crisis and looming environmental disaster, curb the arrogance of global corporations, or even protect personal liberties against surveillance and abuses of power.

In the wake of that failure, the partnership itself is disintegrating. The most diehard adherents of the chaos vision perceive even democratic government as the enemy and seek to supplant long-established social institutions with unrestrained individualism. The halls of Congress are full of Tea Party rabble-rousers, while the extremists of the sovereign citizen movement deny that government has any power over them at all.

If this is chiefly a meltdown on the part of the right, it’s because the progressives and radicals of the left are more inclined to move on to younger visions in search of solutions. Most of them have already washed their hands of the failing partnership and aligned themselves with holism and horizontalism.

Holism is the next vision after chaos in the sequence. It emerged out of the pantheistic nature-worship of the 1800s, took on greater definition in the mid-twentieth century through an association with ecology, and started generating dreams of ecological utopia in the 1970s and 80s.

Since then, holism has remained in an ambivalent relationship with the dominant partnership — sometimes a tolerated eccentricity, at other times actively revolutionary, and occasionally tying itself into knots in an effort to accommodate the free-market agenda of global capitalism.

That ambivalence is typical of every vision as it passes through the “outsider” phase. The partnership attempts to draw on the greater freshness of the younger vision while keeping its radical tendencies in check. The outsider vision itself is torn between a desire for acceptance and a romantic rebelliousness. And the outcome is ultimately destructive for both.

The intense gravitation attraction of the partnership deforms the outsider vision and chips away at its integrity. The younger vision comes under great pressure to deny certain core aspects of itself and assimilate bits and pieces of the partnership instead. These changes sow the first seeds of what will become the outsider vision’s own successor.

Meanwhile, the outsider vision is growing increasingly alienated from the partnership and turning into a focal point for every kind of discontent. The partnership responds by becoming repressive and closing itself off from new ideas, and that rigidity is part of what will make it susceptible to catastrophic failure as soon as a serious crisis comes along.

That’s the moment we’ve reached currently — but something very interesting is happening as a result, because the collapse of the democracy vision has liberated its own successor, horizontalism. This means there are currently four visions in play, not just three, which greatly alters the dynamic.

The successor to each vision is born when its predecessor reaches the end of its outsider phase and starts to go mainstream. At that point, most of the vision’s transformative energy is transferred to its own successor, leaving just a little bit over to jump-start the new partnership of which it will become the junior member.

But the former outsider vision doesn’t quite let go. It continues to draw energy from its successor, and it feeds that energy into the partnership as a source of legitimacy and public appeal. The newborn vision may be recognized for what it is by artists and mystics, but from the outside it appears as merely the idealistic leading edge of its predecessor.

This parasitism continues for an extended period, first while the predecessor is the junior member of one partnership and then when it becomes the senior member of another. It’s not until the older vision finally collapses that the younger one is able to permanently break away.

But when that long-deferred separation occurs, the result is an extraordinary outburst of transformative energy that radiates throughout the culture. That is what is going on right now, as the failure of the democracy vision unleashes the creative energies of horizontalism.

The horizontalism vision was born in the early 20th century and has been most closely associated with civil liberties, the civil rights movement, and multiculturalism. However, its core value has always been a perception of the ideal society as governed by peer-to-peer relationships and grassroots decision-making, rather than the top-down institutions of electoral democracy.

This vision was what animated the whistleblowers and Occupy Wall Street protesters of 2011 — but now we’re entering a second phase, in which horizontalism re-energizes the distorted and demoralized holism vision and the two join in an alliance that is more effective than either has been in isolation.

That alliance is not entirely unprecedented. The same pairing was briefly prominent in the Whole Earth Catalog days of the early 1970s, just prior to the formation of the democracy-and-chaos partnership. Since then it’s been exiled to the radical fringes of the environmentalist and anti-globalization movements, but now it’s back in force.

The formal announcement of this return can be seen in two significant events just last month — the publication of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate and the massive climate march in New York with its slogans of “environmental justice” and “climate justice.”

When two mature visions come together in a long-term partnership, they seem to do so through an intellectual effort that ultimately diminishes both. But when two younger visions join forces, the result is a temporary fusion that wildly exceeds the innate capabilities of either.

Five years ago, I wrote about “The Alchemical Marriage of Chaos and Holism” which provided the magic at the heart of the psychedelic Sixties. The marriage of holism and horizontalism will be every bit as magical, but in its own way.

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