The Cycle Stripped Bare

on May 6, 2015

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been mulling over what seemed to be two separate questions, one having to do with current events and the other with the framework of the cycle of visions. But now I’m starting to realize they’re aspects of the same thing.

The present-day question is this: I can understand why conservative politicians have gotten so crazy. They’re chasing after the support of libertarians, the religious right, and their billionaire backers, all of whom see government as the enemy and want to elect people who will pledge to tear it down.

But what I can’t understand is the liberals. Why would a supposedly liberal mayor of New York like Bill DeBlasio order the cops to treat protesters as brutally as they ever did under Mayor Bloomberg? Why would President Obama be saying so many of the right things while also pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the face of all evidence that it would harm both workers and consumers?

In the previous entry, I suggested that this behavior by liberal politicians grows out of a desire to prop up the crumbling democracy-and-chaos partnership. But now I’m thinking it’s something simpler and more visceral — a need to maintain social stability at all costs. That’s why leftwing calls for systemic reform are treated as a greater threat than the scattershot violence of gun nuts, sovereign citizens, and other rightwing extremists.

And if we grant that present-day authority figures are ruled by an overriding impulse to preserve stability, the same was almost certainly true in the remote past.

I’ve recently become convinced that the deep emotional rhythms which drive the cycle must go back to its very start. The culture-wide swings between idealism and cynicism, hope and despair, willingness to take chances and desire to retrench must be at least as ancient as the visions themselves and possibly even older.

However, that assumption raises one difficult question. Throughout recorded history, the succession of visions has played out in terms of the tension between mature visions that set the consensus guidelines for society and younger insurgent visions that promote radical alternatives. And it is only at times of crisis, when the mature visions break down and fail to provide solutions, that the emerging visions start being taken seriously.

But at the very beginning, there were no mature visions for the younger visions to oppose and rebel against. So how would those moments of crisis and rebellion have played out?

And thinking about beginnings raises another question. I suggested two entries back that the kinship vision was devised to manage the jealousies and social tensions that arose when our remote ancestors adopted a system of long-term pair bonding in the interests of child-rearing without having fully abandoned their apelike tendencies towards promiscuity.

But fossil evidence suggests that the change in human sexuality began well over a million years ago — while the appearance of people enough like us to formulate explicit rules governing marriage and paternity was far more recent. So how did our ancestors manage for the hundreds of thousands of years in between?

My best guess is that the social life of Homo heidelbergensis was regulated according to the principles of “keep the lid on” and “don’t rock the boat.”

I’m envisioning prehuman society as something like one of those dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinners where everyone is walking on eggshells to keep the peace. Everybody knows that Aunt Susie’s youngest child was fathered by her brother-in-law and not her husband, but they never mention it. Everyone is aware that Uncle Jack and Cousin Bob hate each other’s guts and will come to blows if they’re ever left alone together, so they make sure that never happens.

This way of doing things certainly works, but it exerts a continuing emotional strain. And it isn’t easily extended beyond the immediate family, if only because everyone needs to know the family secrets if they’re to recognize what subjects to avoid.

That’s where a kinship system would have been a vast improvement. It would have enabled people to live comfortably in larger groups while allowing everyone to relax and not worry that one wrong move could spell disaster.

And that would have provided enough of an evolutionary advantage to justify the energy-intensive upgrade in brain organization that made it possible.

However, it seems clear that a million years of doing things the old way has left its mark on our species. If you look around at the state of our society today, there is a strong impulse not to rock the boat. There are things going wrong that everybody knows about but that are never discussed in public. There are inhibitions and forms of automatic self-censorship that seem to be innate.

This would also explain why the radicals of the left are treated so much more harshly than the extremists of the right. They threaten to blow the lid off the unspoken covenant, and that is far more threatening than an occasional outbreak of violence or hurt feelings.

So keeping all of this in mind, I’m going to try a thought-experiment. I’m going to retell the story I told in the previous entry about the events of the last few years and what we can expect in the immediate future. But I’m going to tell it as if there were just two emerging visions battling against the established order — and see whether it still makes sense.

In those long-ago days of the 1990s, many Americans felt they were living in a golden age. The country was peaceful and prosperous and life was good for almost everyone. However, there were two groups of malcontents who just couldn’t be satisfied with things as they were.

One was the sect of the horizontalists, who objected that the peace and prosperity they saw around them came at the cost of war and poverty elsewhere. However, their complaints rarely rose beyond the nuisance level, and it was always possible to slap them down when necessary, either through direct repression or by finding a foreign enemy to divert attention.

The other group consisted of the various tribes devoted to creative imagination — chaos magicians, Goths, Deadheads, and other fringe eccentrics. But they were scattered and seemingly frivolous, and they were easy to ridicule or ignore.

However, a turning point came when the system encountered a wave of economic problems it was unable to handle — in part because it had dismantled the very institutions that had been designed to maintain stability. Once that happened, the grievances of the horizontalists suddenly took on greater weight, since the pinch of inequality was now being felt even by the middle class.

But although the horizontalists had found their voice, they seemed unable to articulate a coherent agenda or alter the momentum of powerful social institutions. As a further complication, the established order was also being attacked from below by those who hoped to profit from destroying it and returning to a subhuman condition of raw dominance, sexual predation, and the war of all against all.

That threat from below was sufficiently daunting to cause even potential allies of the horizontalists to think twice about endorsing radical change and insist it should be possible to simply go back to the good old days of the Nineties.

Amid all these counterpoised forces, everything seemed stuck. However, there was one player that had yet to appear on the field. That was creative imagination.

The pervasive cynicism and despair of the moment, combined with the fear of being caught between business as usual and being thrown to the wolves, engendered widespread fantasies of escaping into a more beautiful and fulfilling reality. And the creative imagination vision was custom-made to resonate with those dreams.

However, this was not the creative imagination of twenty years earlier, with its baggage of neo-hippie attitudes and New Age woo. This was a vision that was increasingly attuned to horizontalist appeals for equality and social justice. And under that influence, creative imagination underwent a burst of radical speculation that generated new ideas, new possibilities for action, and new ways of constructing reality.

During the next few years, many things would happen almost simultaneously. The social order would grow increasingly repressive, come nearly to the brink of collapse, and then be reconstituted in a form that incorporated a certain measure of horizontalism — though never as much as the horizontalists themselves might have hoped.

The more pragmatic horizontalists would buy into the system at that point, while the radicals and romantics remained on the outside as gadflies and dissidents. Meanwhile, creative imagination would fade back into the woodwork, even as it continued to expand upon the philosophical basis established during its brief period of speculative ferment. And it would be joined by a third vision that had been born out of that same ferment and was focused on applying the concept of creativity to the physical universe itself.

So there you have it. No democracy, no chaos, not even holism. Just the two youngest visions, in all their otherworldly purity, struggling to make their voices heard at a time of social upheaval and disintegration.

And to my surprise, this greatly simplified account seems to explain at least 90% of what has been happening. Both democracy and chaos have long since become meaningless mouth-noises used to justify politics as usual. Even holism has been reduced to a grab-bag of environmental strategies with very little remaining of its mystical basis in a perception of the oneness of all life.

The only visions that possess the transcendent power to alter lives and worlds are the two youngest — and that must also have been the case at very start.

Read the Previous Entry: And the Beat Goes On
Read the Next Entry: The Importance of Stone-Throwing

One Response to “The Cycle Stripped Bare”

  1. Bill Larsen says:

    Interesting development of your thesis. Your characterization of the 90’s was not what I experienced. I viewed the decade as a continuing consolidation of the power structure that was at the same time setting the behind the scenes the institutional attitudes that would lead us to today. Actually, as I think about it briefly, the interwar years of the 20th Century set up the violence to follow.

    I think the most powerful social contract set up in the U.S. during the 20th Century was the policies of the Roosevelt administration. (Which of course developed from thoughts from prior decades. That social contract was expanded over the years. It is currently being dismantled by the political system. So much for contracts.

    Just some things to consider. Regards, Bill Larsen

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