Category Archives: Philosophy

The Enigmatic Radicalism of Wilhelm Reich

Despite an enduring fascination with the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), there has yet to be published a satisfactory intellectual history of Reich’s wide-ranging ideas. In particular, scholars have failed to recognize the roots of his concepts in early 19th century Romanticism. I refer here primarily to German Naturphilosophie, which strongly appealed to those temperamentally opposed to Newton’s mechanistic-mathematical laws of physics. Having grown up on a large farm in rural Galicia, Reich no doubt found the Romantic attitude toward contact with Nature quite congenial.

For centuries, pastoral-agrarian sentiments about the land and its vitalistic forces had been central to Austro-German folk traditions. Rejecting Newton’s scientific discoveries, as well as the scientific method itself, Goethe had insisted that direct sensory perception (purged of preconceived abstractions), might reveal — to the sensitive, discerning observer — the hidden secrets of Nature. (In England, Wordsworth’s nostalgia for lost childhood perceptual innocence found its counterpart in William Blake’s exhortation to “cleanse the doors of perception” — so as to regain such innocence). But Reich was creatively inspired not only by Goethe’s Romantic attitude, but also by the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s insistence that immediacy of perception and intuition could discover natural processes otherwise inaccessible to scientific procedures. (Most conspicuously: a hypothetical “life-force” or elan vital, which Reich was to refashion as “orgone energy.”)

Reich was never much interested in scientific instrumentation (or for that matter, in the scientific method of controlled experimentation). But when he did make microscopic observations, he insisted that he had directly perceived what he called “bions”–moving, living particles which had emerged from inorganic matter (in reality, no doubt Brownian movement). Seeking to fuse Bergson’s vitalism with Freud’s hypotheses about libido, Reich insisted that this was an actual energy (which he first claimed was “bio-electricity” but eventually dubbed cosmic “orgone”). Reich himself would continue along this path into his later years, insisting that–unlike “armored” individuals–he could directly perceive this energy in the atmosphere (as well as in his crude apparatus, the “orgone box”).

As was typical of his approach, Reich early on had revived another discarded theory: the young Freud’s insistence that sexual repression was the primary cause of neurotic disorders. (Freud was soon to shift his focus to early family conflict and trauma.)  But Reich extended Freud’s idea much further: only total orgasm completely discharged “dammed-up” bio-energy, thereby preventing the neurotic anxieties which otherwise would cripple the ego’s confident adaptations to the outer world. While this became an idee-fixe in his thinking, Reich’s insistence on the primal importance of sexual satisfaction certainly seems intuitively true, at least (or especially) to the young. (Given his medical training in the 1920s, Reich was unaware of what we know today about sexual endocrinology.)

If neurotic disturbances stemmed primarily from sexual frustration, a “sex-affirmative” culture would provide the foundation for healthy emotional development. As a Marxist, Reich drew upon Friedrich Engels’ speculations about “primitive” promiscuity and communal “marriage” (The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1884) — as well as upon pioneering anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s description of minimal sex-norms among the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia.  As I have written in my book Riddles of Eros (University Press of America, 1994), Reich’s bucolic vision of free love in “primitive” cultures was over-simplistic (see especially Chapter 4: “The Myth of the Insatiable Woman”).

Reich’s lifelong adherence to his Romantic naturalism was such that he continued to extol instinctual spontaneity — especially in sexual relations — as the basis for healthy human relations (ideally in loosely formed, egalitarian communities with minimal norms — a kind of “anarcho-primitivism”).  Herein is the main defect of his Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933): Reich over-emphasized the authoritarian family (and its sex-negative punishments) and almost entirely ignored the historical context of 1933 Germany: humiliated collective-narcissism (military defeat and the Versailles treaty), rampant inflation, hatred of “international bankers” (the Depression), and so forth.

Paradoxically, although Reich was a pioneer in describing the defense-mechanisms of the ego (denial, repression, projection, etc.), he was by temperament powerfully attracted to a regressive id-psychology. While mainstream psychoanalytic theory would emphasize how the maturing child modifies his spontaneous impulses through ego-growth, Reich was emotionally drawn to a vision of complete spontaneity in human relations, to an ideal of total sincerity and completely transparent contact. This, in my view, reveals Reich’s latent paranoia — his chronic suspicion of human motivations and his consequent desire to “break down” the supposed character-armor which defensively blocked such contact. (As a therapist, he could often be cruel, directly confronting “resistance” to emotional honesty in a manner that could degenerate into belligerent interrogation.) (In the context of historical parallels, one can find remarkable similarities in the tormented personality of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.)

Reich offered what amounts to a fantasized return to childhood (with the addition of free, adult sexuality). The instinctual core of the human being, if freely and spontaneously expressed, would be “naturally self-regulating.”  Drastically modifying Freud’s tripartite model of the psyche, Reich envisaged the ego developing within “primitive communism”  in a virtually conflict-free manner — without the internalization of a repressive, authoritarian superego.

Reich can be credited as an innovative thinker on pathological character structures — on the rigidly defensive maladaptations of what are now called “personality disorders” (narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, etc.). Still, in his Romantic quest, he tended to view the mature character (ego structure) of an adult as in itself primarily defensive (pathological) rather than rationally adaptive (to the limited degree, of course, possible under dehumanizing social conditions). Thus, in his enduring adherence to Romantic naturalism, his thinking became terribly flawed; the lifespan, a one-way path only traveled once, requires mature, rational coping and critical thinking to confront socio-political institutions and constraints.  A regression — to the child’s world of basic impulses and spontaneity — is no solution.

The post The Enigmatic Radicalism of Wilhelm Reich first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Wondering About Wonder

There’s a phrase in Oswald Spengler’s Man and Technics:  A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life (1931) that strikes me as of particular relevance for today’s world:1   It appears on p. 48 of this version of the book.

we cannot look at a waterfall without mentally turning it into electric power;

What this phrase suggests to me is that there are at least two ways of perceiving a waterfall (as one example):

As something that one perceives with a sense of wonder, awe, appreciation, etc.

vs.

As something that one perceives in strictly utilitarian—i. e., use—terms.

With the latter being the dominant way of perceiving elements of nature today, in “modern” countries such as the United States.

If that’s the case (and I believe that it is!), it reveals that we “moderns” think of ourselves as apart from Earth System, rather than being a part of it.  And if that’s the case (which I believe it is!), such a perception of Earth System likely—inevitably?!—has had, and continues to have, implications for our behaviors relative to Earth System.  And perhaps relative to one another as well.

My reading in the literature about foraging (i. e., hunter-gatherer) groups leads me to believe that foragers, past and present, are embedded in their Surround.  That is, whether or not they are conscious of that fact, their way of life—involving constant close contact with the Surround—causes them to be, in effect, a part of their Surround.  And being so, I suspect that although their lives require them to make use of elements of the Surround (after, for example, killing animals to eat), their embeddedness in the Surround also generates in them feelings of awe, appreciation—and wonder!  And those feelings, in turn, prevent them from engaging in destructive actions relative to Earth System.

Their way of life is not one that they have consciously chosen; rather, it is one that developed over time, and was/is learned by each new generation (by both observation and listening to elders).  Thus, one’s life as a forager is such as to make “natural” perceiving elements of Earth System with wonder, awe, etc.; and such perceptions may be the basis of the development of feelings of reverence for the Surround.  In having such a perception, one would “naturally” refrain from any actions sensed to be harmful to the Surround.

The above discussion leads me to ask at least two questions:

  1. If widespread feelings of awe, respect, wonder, etc., have only—historically—been associated with forager groups, would only a return to such a way of life enable feelings of wonder, awe, etc., to become widespread again?
  2. Can our current utilitarian perception of the Surround continue on indefinitely?

Let me first address the second question:

The fact that some scientists are now able to ask “Will humans be extinct by 2026?” suggests, clearly, that some (most?) scientists don’t believe this possible.  They believe that human activities—our burning of fossil fuels and deforestation activities, in particular—are causing 1,000,000 species to be in danger of going extinct soon, with our own species also in such danger!  And it is our utilitarian perception of Earth System that is “behind” our actions.

But—referring now to the first question—need we return to a way of life based on foraging to “save” ourselves from extinction?  One person has answered that question this way:

People from modern societies can sometimes live in a wilderness, if they learn the basic tricks.  It happened a lot on the North American frontier, and in other places.

The problem is population density. It takes a lot of land to support a hunter-gatherer, and more to support a family of them.  Land tends to get filled up.

This perspective is more optimistic:

if our working culture is an artefact of the Agricultural Revolution and the economic problem has by and large been solved then we should take comfort from the fact that hunter-gatherers show that even if we are purposive we are more than capable of leading contented lives that are not defined by our economic contributions, that automation provides exactly the opportunity we need to rethink our relationships with the workplace, and in doing so wean us of our dangerous obsession with growth.

This is of course easier said than done as the Ju/’hoansi residents2 of Canaan know all too well. And if you were to ask those among them that still remember their lives as hunter-gatherers they would remind you that “their primitive affluence” depended on far more than just a willingness to make do with having few needs easily met. It also demanded a society in which people cared little for accumulating wealth and in which everyone played an active role in jealously enforcing their fierce egalitarianism.

However, although it may be conceivable that we could “return” to a way of life that in some respects copied hunter-gatherer life, I believe it doubtful that that will occur.

For one thing, anthropologist Peter J. Wilson wrote in 1988 that “the products of culture tend to accumulate”3 —and I would add to that point that that “accumulation” creates inertia.  As a result of that “inertia,” consciously-planned societal system change is very difficult to accomplish!

A possibility exists, however—one that does involve conscious planning, but changes the societal system by adding an element to the Larger Society.  Here’s how this would “work”:

Those of us who are currently members of the Larger Society are, in effect, inmates of it!  What I mean in making that claim is that basically, at least, we are presented with just two options:  Become a member of it, or vacate it (if one can afford to do so, and if one can find a better alternative).  Put another way, one is basically presented with a “take it or leave it” option.4

Basically, but not entirely—for there is an option, but few are aware of it:  The ecovillage option.  This on the  ecovillage:

Have you ever thought about getting away from it all and moving to an ecovillage?  What’s an ecovillage you ask?  Ecovillages are communities whose inhabitants seek to live according to ecological principles, causing as little impact on the environment as possible.

Ecovillage: medium.com

It’s a rather appealing idea to a growing number of people as self-sustainability and self-governance are a growing trend. Ecovillages are popping up all around the nation with a few common themes.

This map gies one an indication of the general distribution of ecovillages in our country at present:

Given that ecovillages tend to strive for a measure of independence from the Larger Society, one can say that although they exist “in” the society, they strive not to be “of” it!

My reason for advocating for a proliferation of ecovillages is twofold:

  1. Were there a “sufficient” proliferation (here and elsewhere), and were this proliferation to occur quickly enough, our species might be able to avoid extinction in the near future.
  2. Such a proliferation could not only serve to help stave off our extinction; it could provide housing for those, here and elsewhere, who are currently homeless5 or are dissatisfied with their housing—or attracted to the possibility of living an ecologically-responsible life.

But will this occur?

If, for example, Marc Lore and Bjarke Ingels would abandon their Telosa project and focus instead on striving for a proliferation of ecovillages, our species might be saved!  The “project has a target population of 5 million people by 2050,” and that large population size is a problem!  We humans, during the lengthy period when our ancestors were foragers (at least 95%!), became “designed”6 for such a way of life.  Given that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in small groups, and that we are “designed” to be hunter-gatherers, it’s safe to conclude that a part of our design is to live in small groups.7Dunbar’s number” merely confirms this!

According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar,8 the “magic number” is 150.  Dunbar became convinced that there was a ratio between brain sizes and group sizes through his studies of non-human primates.  This ratio was mapped out using neuroimaging and observation of time spent on grooming, an important social behaviour of primates.  Dunbar concluded that the size, relative to the body, of the neocortex – the part of the brain associated with cognition and language – is linked to the size of a cohesive social group.  This ratio limits how much complexity a social system can handle.  [I added the “redification”!]

As one with 3 wonderful children and 5 fantastic grandchildren, my fervent hope is that someone will “wake up” to the virtues of creating, and working for the proliferation of, ecovillages, and begin—yesterday!—to do so!!

I would like to believe that if the “density” of ecovillages increased in our society (and other societies), feelings of wonder, awe, respect, etc., would again become common!

I wonder, though, if they will!!

  1. Not that I have any admiration of the man! This about him: “Spengler is regarded as a nationalist and an anti-democrat, and he was a prominent member of the Conservative Revolution. However, he criticised Nazism due to its excessive racism. Instead, he saw Benito Mussolini, and entrepreneurial types, like the imperialist mining magnate Cecil Rhodes,[3] as embryonic examples of the impending Caesars of Western culture ….”
  2. See this, for example, on the Ju/’hoansi.
  3. In The Domestication of the Human Species, p. 8.
  4. America, love it or leave it”!
  5. That number estimated to be about 580,000 in our country at present! DISGRACEFUL!!!
  6. Anthropologist Alan Barnard, Hunters and Gatherers: What We Can Learn From Them (2020), p. 56.
  7. Which means that I do not accept this statement by Jonnie Hughes: “We are a social animal but have no optimal group size; we live in groups from 1 to 35.6 million.” On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves) (2011), p. 13.
  8. Here’s some information about Dr. Dunbar.
The post Wondering About Wonder first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Does New Age Mysticism REALLY Explain Quantum Physics? Communist Theory of Mind Says No

Orientation

From Marxism to de Chardin, General Systems Theory to Buckminster Fuller

Around 1975, it dawned on me that the revolutionary times of the 1960s were not coming back. I still considered myself a council communist but I felt something was missing. I thought Marxism needed to be seen within a larger framework. I began to look for a perspective that located societies as part of cosmic evolution. My first stop was Teilhard de Chardin. I was swept away by The Phenomenon of Man and continued with a few of his other books. I found other authors with an evolutionary perspective like Barbara Marx Hubbard’s Conscious Evolution and Gerald Heard’s Five Ages of Man. I was also drawn to General Systems Theory and especially liked Bogdanov’s Tektology because as a Marxist, he framed human societies as another level of cosmic evolution. People like Oliver Reiser (Cosmic Humanism) saw humanity as part of larger globalization of society. Probably most powerfully, I was drawn to the work of Buckminster Fuller. Here was a guy trained in the hard sciences who had a vision of a new society based on the wise use of technology. What all these theories had in common was they were optimistic about the future of humanity. I didn’t care so much at time that there might be contradictions between these theories and those of Marx and Engels. It wasn’t until about five years later that I came to terms with these contradictions.

Flirting with Eastern Mysticism

But that wasn’t the end of it. I soon found myself in the misty waters of New Age mysticism without really realizing it. In 1975, a book came out called The Tao of Physics which was soon followed by another book called The Dancing Wu Li Masters. Both these books were written by physicists who took full advantage of the American counter-cultural swooning over Eastern mysticism. We were told that quantum physics was revealing a sub-atomic world that resembled the teachings of ancient Eastern mysticism. I was not alone among Marxists exploring these realms. My best Marxist friend, who knew more about Marx than anyone I had ever met, had been practicing Yogananda’s form of meditation for years. He joined me to read Capra’s book.

What these New Age physicists were saying was that because subatomic particles were unstable (both a wave and a particle) the observer had to make a “decision” as to which to measure. If you couldn’t decide whether a subatomic particle was a wave or a particle without a state of consciousness, that meant that consciousness was at the heart of matter. We were told that western science has finally caught up with the wise ancients of the East. At a liberal arts, New Age university I taught at, we had a science teacher who taught a class called “Quantum Physics and Eastern Mysticism”. No one in the class was required to take any preliminary physics classes in order to take the class. We had students walking around the campus holding court about the mysteries of quantum mechanics when most of them knew nothing about physics. Here we have the New Age spirituality.

How prevalent is this New Age mysticism?

But why am I writing an article about something that happened 35-40 years ago? Two reasons:

  1. To show that the same thing is going on today with New Age gurus still claiming that the New Physics confirms eastern mysticism. Doing a search in Amazon under the word “quantum” I found 30 books on the first page with titles such as Quantum Physics and the Power of the Mind; Quantum Consciousness: Journey Through Other Realms; Quantum Consciousness; The Guide to Experiencing Quantum Psychology; Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness; The Shamanic Path to Quantum Consciousness; Quantum DNA Healing; Merging Spiritually with Quantum Consciousness; Cosmic Consciousness and the Healing with the Quantum Field. All these books are dolled up in colorful, space-age covers.
  2. Mystical explanations in physics were also prevalent over 100 years ago. In the late 19th and early 20th century Russia, Lenin battled what he considered mystical ideas about physics that he feared were taking over the Bolshevik party. We will discuss the value and the shortcomings of his attempt to rescue materialism and its theory of mind from the swoon of phenomenology and other idealist theories.

My claim

My claim in this article is that a Vygotskian socio-cultural nature of mind does a better job at combatting mysticism than Lenin’s reflective theory of mind. For this article, I will be referring to Pannekoek’s book Lenin as Philosopher; Victor Stenger’s The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology and David Bakhurst’s book Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov.

Types of Philosophy

How do we understand the relationship between sub-atomic quantum physics and how the human mind engages it? Before addressing mystical theories directly, we should review the basic types of philosophy.

Naïve realism

For the overwhelming majority of people in the West, the objective world is independent of the mind. The mind tries to know how the world works by taking pictures of reality and making copies of it. Biophysical nature is comprehensible and existed before mental life emerged. So too, it is claimed the mind is comprehensible and is relatively reliable about recording what really exists in the world.  In philosophy, this double way of making sense of reality and mind is called “naïve realism”. It is only when specialized philosophy gets hold of the relationship between nature and the mind where things get complicated.

Idealism

Various philosophers, in part because their occupation is thinking and reflection, tend to get carried away with the power of mental life. When they ask questions about the relationship between nature and mind, their answers go way beyond naïve realism. Some philosophers like Plato saw the natural world as filled with disorder, complexity, dead ends, and constant change as well as being evil. Plato thought that whatever the ultimate reality was, it was orderly and eternal. When Plato searched for what was orderly and eternal, he found his answers in mathematics. And, of course, mathematics was the product of the collective mind, humanity. So, for Plato, what was ultimately real was mathematics. Plato also believed that this orderly and eternal world was good, beautiful and true. The material world of nature was an imperfect replica of what Plato called the eternal forms.

Many other western philosophers also got carried away with mental life. Some said matter or nature was an illusion, the product of cosmic mind. Others like Spinoza said that there was a single substance from which both nature and the mind were derived. Others like Descartes said that nature and mind were independent substances that interacted with each other. Others said nature and mind were inseparable and that you could know nature as she really is through the mind. Kant said our mind does not take pictures of reality. Rather it superimposes categories of thought on nature, and we can understand nature through the categories. We can never know nature independent of those categories. For Kant we can never know “things-in-themselves”.

Skepticism about mind

Just as philosophers like Plato claimed that nature was not self-evidently true but only an appearance, so too, epistemological philosophers were skeptical that the mind simply took faithful copies of reality. The most extreme form of ancient skepticism claimed we could ever know anything beyond what was in our minds. Later, more moderate skeptics like Bacon, Locke and especially Hume and Berkeley said the mind has built in cognitive biases, prejudices, reasoning errors and language ambiguities that keep humans from seeing things clearly.  What all philosophers would agree on was that both nature and mind were harder to understand than naïve realism would present.

Materialism

There is also a school of philosophers who are called materialists and are in rough agreement with the naïve realist position. Materialists say matter is infinite, uncreated and eternal. It existed before the mind emerged with the brain and it will continue even if mind disappears. People like Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius had a sophisticated understanding of what matter was. Later emergent evolutionary materialists saw matter as having levels—such as physical, biological, and social. Materialists like Democritus also understood that the senses do not just take pictures of reality. The senses were seen as untrustworthy and needed to be corrected by reason.

Some of the cruder materialists thought of the mind as the secretions of the brain, just as bile is a secretion of the liver. With the slightest injury to the brain everything mental disappears, nothing at all remains in the mind. The material changes in the brain are thought to be the basis of psychology. All action in the surroundings produce changes in the brain and these produce thoughts. There was no distinction between the mind and the brain. There was no sense that society and history created the mind, and that mind mediated what happened between the brain and nature.

19th Century Determinism Crisis and Mystical Predators

Throughout most of the 19th century, scientists thought of nature as being more and more determined by physical laws. Natural events that occurred were the result of both necessity and probability (statistical laws). Nature at the meso level could be perceived through the five senses and matter was thought to be solids or liquids rather than gases. To a physicist, atoms were not abstractions but real, small, invisible particles, sharply limited, exactly alike for every chemical element, with precise qualities of mass and weight.  Concepts were nearly separated and the physical world was a clear system, without contradiction.

However, towards the end of the 19th century, quantum mechanics and relativity theory challenged the deterministic nature of science. Phenomenon were discovered that could be represented only by light, consisting of a stream of so-called quanta, appearing and disappearing through space. Physicists began to suspect that their physical entities, formerly considered reality behind the phenomena, were only images of abstract concepts. When you ask the physicist what it is that moves in such waves or particles, his answer consists of pointing to a mathematical equation. Now mass changes in the state of motion and cannot be separated from energy. Because in quantum mechanics, states of consciousness are inseparably involved in determining whether matter is a wave or a particle, mystics got into the act. “There” they said, “now we see that consciousness is at the root of matter.” It was just a hop, skip and a jump to saying the physical world itself is determined by consciousness.

Today, according to Victor Stenger, the dual nature of subatomic particles and waves is a material reality independent of consciousness. Consciousness is necessary if measurement of either is required. If no measurement is involved, the wave and particle nature is still there. It does not disappear as the mystics like to present. Niels Bohr once said that consciousness has nothing to do with quantum mechanics. The reality of a wave-particle characteristic is not brought into existence by consciousness. It was already there both before and after it is measured.

Ernst Mach

Mach’s original training was as a physicist. He was well read in philosophy, especially Hume and Berkeley, who appealed to sense data and common sense over metaphysical speculation over whether the world was ultimately made of mind or matter. Mach attempted to reduce all scientific and practical concepts including time, and knowing subjects to experiential field of sense data. He rejected as metaphysical and unscientific all forms not grounded in experience. Matter and mind are all derived concepts. The only thing we know directly is experience and all experience consists in sensations. Both objects and subjects are built from sensations. For Mach, the physical and psychical world consist of the same elements, only in a different arrangement. Mach accepted the external world as real, but he felt that the distinction between physics and psychic distinction of materialism was unnecessary metaphysics. His insistence on starting from sense data was done for methodological reasons within science.  He attempted to give methodological priority to positivism’s epistemology over its ontology.

But if matter and mind are never discussed independent of experience, there is a danger that the external world could be theorized as:

  1. an unknowable thing in itself;
  2. a spiritual idealist world; and,
  3. a world having no existence at all apart from the knowing subject.

As Pannekoek says:

Yet there is a certain ambiguity in Mach’s expression on the outer world revealing a manifest propensity towards subjectivism, corresponding to the general mystical turn in the capitalist world.  (106)

Lenin’s defense of materialism

Lenin understood very well that materialism had to be defended against mystical interpretations, and this is what he set out to do in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism which he wrote in 1909.  He understood that the old deterministic nature of materialism based on the five senses was now a relative, not absolute distinction, depending on the level of reality being dealt. He also had to make sense of the fact that matter and energy was convertible. How can you be a materialist when a physicist is dealing with energy not matter? How do you answer mystical claims that matter has disappeared?

Lenin argued that what matters for materialism is not what the ultimate building block is. What matters is that matter and nature is independent of consciousness. Lenin maintained that the mind makes copies of reality (his theory of reflection) but this copy theory does not mean we have certain knowledge of the world or that mistakes and vagueness cannot occur in our knowing. He just meant that most of the time our copies of reality are good enough to have helped us survive. Lenin felt that the copy theory of the mind was the only out from mysticism.

Pannekoek argues:

Mach’s opinion that causes and effect as well as natural laws do not factually exist in nature but are man-made expressions of observed regularities is said by Lenin to be identical with Kant… To deny the objective existence of these laws means that denial of nature itself. To make man the creator of natural laws means to him to make human mind the creator of the world. (129-130)

Unlike Mach, Lenin argued that the categories of Space and Time were real properties of the objective world and not simply categories of the human mind. Right or wrong, Lenin thought Mach’s system was a rehash of Berkeley’s subjective idealism. Lenin thought Mach confused the problem of the new properties of matter with the old problem of the theory of knowledge. He felt that Marxist philosophers needed to preserve the philosophical function performed by materialism from its scientific role in providing particular explanatory framework for natural phenomena.

Criticism of Lenin

Pannekoek says Lenin accepted Newton’s model that there is absolute space and time. But Einstein refuted absolute time and space which Lenin did not address. Further:

He identified the real objective world with physical matter. Electricity too is objective reality? Is it physical matter? Our sensation shows us light; is it reality but not matter? Photons cannot easily be denoted as a kind of matter. (137)

The problem with Lenin’s copy theory is he gives no detailed discussion of how mental images copy physical objects, nor does he address the traditional objections to naïve realism. He has ignored more skeptical theories and even scientific epistemology about the limits of the mind that developed with Hume and Kant and beyond.

Socio-historical nature of mind

In his rush to defend materialism from being attacked by mysticism, without realizing it, Lenin accepted the same subjective epistemological framework as mystics and mechanical materialists had about the starting point of the mind. The epistemological framework for mystics is with the relationship between a spiritual world and an individual. For mechanical materialists, the relationship is between nature the biological individual. Where mystics and mechanical materialists differ is in the ultimate nature of objective reality. For mystics the ultimate reality is the spiritual world. For mechanical materialists it is biophysical nature. But they agree that subjectivity begins with the individual. For Vygotsky and the socio-historical school, in between the biophysical world and the individual mind is a socio-historical layer of reality. It covers the earth the way the lithosphere and biosphere does. It is akin to Vernadsky and Chardin’s noosphere. It is socio-historical objectivity which engages in an expanding feedback loop with nature. Individual subjectivity emerges from and interacts with the historical-social layer of reality. The individual mind does not engage nature directly, only indirectly.

What Lenin ignored in his epistemology was that the human mind does not engage nature directly. The individual mind does not even become a human mind until it is socialized and historicized. For dialectical materialists like Vygotsky, the human mind is created out of a socio-historical network from birth to death. Vygotsky, Leontiev and Luria claimed that psychological skills first originate through structural, meaningful, cooperative, and recurring through three phases:

  • local interpersonal relations between people;
  • these skills then get internalized as private; and
  • these skills are then reapplied to large social global contexts.

Please see my article on What is Socialist Psychology? for a longer discussion of these phases.

The main function of the mind is externally, not internally, driven. Primarily, the human mind is concerned with the collective engagement of transforming external objects through the laboring process in order to satisfy basic needs. Introspection or self-reflection is the second stage of this process, but it is not the main focus as it is with idealist mysticism.

For dialectical materialists the human mind is a function, not a substance (as it is for mystics) of highly organized material bodies – human beings. To say that the human mind is inseparable from society and history is not to say that other animals do not have minds. What it does mean is that without intense social life and verbal language, their minds are mostly imprisoned in the present. It is the socialization and historization of homo sapiens that is responsible for making the mind a human mind.

Before the emergence of the human mind, mind had an origin in nature, specifically the brain. The brain is an adaptive responsive to rapidly changing nature where instinct was a less and less reliable resource. There are non-social creatures without brains that have no mind. With the emergence of a central nervous system, animals developed brains. But it is only when animals have a social life and brains, that pre-human minds appear. Nature was physical, chemical and biological before the brain or the mind appeared. So, the mind is first a product of nature and later through the social and historical practice of human beings, the mind becomes a coproducer through society and history with nature. For materialists, there is no mind beyond nature, society or history. A dialectical materialist, unlike a mechanical materialist, does not reduce the mind to the brain. While the brain is a necessary condition for the mind, once the mind emerges through its building of a socio-historic layer of nature, mind becomes more than the brain.

 Idealist theories of the mind of everyday people

Contrary to this worldview, consciously or not most people combine a naïve realist picture of reality with idealist theories regarding the mind. They imagine that the human mind is autonomous from society and history. They are convinced the mind is a special property, beyond society and history. They believe that while the human mind may serve partly as an adaptive function in society and history, it is much more than that. Additionally, from the idealist viewpoint, the mind’s most important function is not interpersonal, but personal and self-reflective. Through introspection it can potentially find its real destiny which is to tap its otherworldly source, God. This is done through meditation, prayer, or other spiritual techniques. The idealist theory of individual mind is a product of a religious orientation to life. Please see Table A for a comparison between idealist, mechanical materialist, and socio-historical theories of mind.

Table A

Mystical, Mechanical Materialist, and Socio-Historical Theories of Mind

Category of comparison Mystical (Idealism) Mechanical Materialism Dialectical Materialism
Starting point Individual relationship to God Individual’s relationship to nature Society’ relationship to nature
Are there levels in reality? Yes. Matter, life, mind spirit, Aurobindo No, just one level primarily – physical Everything else reduces to matter Yes. Matter, life society, mind
How broad is matter?

 

Controlled by God – Not infinite or eternal Infinite and eternal Infinite and eternal
How active is matter? Spirit is immanent in matter and guides it along Matter is passive and determined by necessity and chance

 

Matter is self-active and creative
Relationship between mind and brain Minds can exist without brains The brain and the mind are interchangeable – Mind is an epiphenomenon

 

The brain is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the mind
What drives the mind?

 

 

Internally driven by self-reflection Externally driven and adapted to biophysical constraints Externally driven through laboring to adapt to socio-historical constraints

 

What is mind? Spiritual substance Secretion of the brain A function of the brain
Theoretical examples of what mind is Plato’s theory of form Lenin’s theory of reflection Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development
How important is society in determining human behavior? Unimportant – We are primarily spiritual beings with our home in the stars Unimportant – We are primarily biological beings Vitally important – We could not be human without social life
How trustworthy are the senses? Untrustworthy – Revelation introspective more trustworthy

 

Generally trustworthy and corrected by reason Generally trustworthy and corrected by reason
What is the nature of contradictions? Mistakes of the human mind Mistakes in the human mind Contradictions exist in nature, society, and the human mind
What is the emphasis in human activity? Spiritual learning through prayer, meditation. Individual adaptation Human socio-historical accumulating practice
How active are human beings? Active in the spiritual domain Passive and determined by bio-physical forces: sex, senses Active in socio-history as both products and coproducers of society
What is an illusion and what is real? Matter is an inferior replica or an illusion Matter is real and the spiritual world is an illusion Matter is real and spiritual world is an expression of social alienation
Theoretical philosophers Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, St. Thomas, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Leibniz, Bradley Democritus, Epicurus Lucretius, Descartes, Hobbes, Laplace, d’Holbach, Helvetius, La Mettrie, Lenin Heraclitus, Spinoza, Diderot, Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Ilyenkov, Vygotsky

Why Are New Age Ideas So Popular in Yankeedom: A Socio-historical Checklist

Interest in parts of New Age thinking includes what are called paranormal phenomena such as ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy, astral projection, and homeopathy. In my previous article, The Political Economy of Preternatural Parapsychology I identified twelve materialistic reasons why mystical and New Age ideas are attractive to Yankees, offering hope and escape from the following problems I list here. Please see my previous article for a fuller explanation. Here they are:

  • The Decline of living standards in Yankeedom produces psychological reactance. This means parapsychology is devoted to individual freedom because real freedom is in decline.
  • Economic, political, and ecological life in the United States seem to be falling apart, and it is difficult for people to understand why.
  • There is a sense in which the current political system has little or nothing to do with democracy. There is a belief that the world is run by people behind the scenes.
  • Science has not delivered on its promise to make a better life for all.
  • People have an increasing sense of their personal lives being out of control with an unpredictable work-life and growing debt.
  • Cross-cultural surveys of happiness show people in the United States are not very happy.
  • There is a lack of security and unity in personal life and with the family.
  • People have trouble finding adventure and mystery in their current work life.
  • People in the United States seem so passive compared to people in other countries and are willing to put up with anything.
  • People fear death and cling to life at all costs.
  • Personal troubles don’t seem to have a single cause. Multiple causation and chance are unsatisfying answers.
  • Lack of universal health care makes hospital stays brief and gives doctors scant time to visit with patients.

Conclusion

New Age ideas about the relationship between mysticism and science were hot stuff by the mid-1970s, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area.  My article began with an experiential description of how even a council communist Marxist such as I could get caught up in New Age ideas about the relationship between quantum mechanists and the human mind. Next, I suggested that these New Age ideas have had a long-lasting shelf-life. On the one hand, they are still prevalent 45 years later. On the other hand, mystical ideas about quantum mechanics began over 120 years ago at the end of the 19th century. I also briefly introduced philosophical systems to show what kind of theories mysticism is competing with. I identified the everyday use of what has been called “naïve realism” and contrasted it to idealism (mysticism), materialism, and skepticism.

Most of the article is devoted to understanding how the crisis in physics with quantum mechanics at the end of the 19th century led some physicists such as Ernst Mach to claim that philosophical categories like materialism, idealism, and time and space categories were outdated metaphysical abstractions. All we know is the sense data of our experience. Further, the deterministic nature of science was questioned because the foundation of quantum mechanics is uncertainty and chance. Some of the more scientifically oriented among the Bolsheviks thought Mach had a point.

Lenin had a fit. While Mach was no mystic, Lenin understood quite clearly that a mystical interpretation of quantum mechanics was possible and very dangerous for the forces of socialism to adapt. Because consciousness is an inevitable part of measuring subatomic particles, this led some thinkers to claim that consciousness lies at the heart of matter. Lenin presented his own naïve realism understanding of the relationship between matter and consciousness. It was insensitive to the 18th century philosophical criticisms made of naïve realism by Hume and Kant and, more importantly, Lenin accepted that the epistemology subject was an individual mind.

I contrasted Lenin’s mechanical materialism interpretation of mind with a socio-historical understanding of mind based on the work of Ilyenkov and Vygotsky. In this theory, the individual mind does not directly encounter nature. Individual mental life is mediated through a kind of socio-historical membrane. It is society and history that engage and interact with nature, not the individual. Without socio-history to draw sustenance from, there would be no individual mind.

Lastly, I raised the question of why mystical theories of matter are attractive at all. I argued that this interest is part of New Age thinking that includes what are called paranormal phenomena such as ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy, astral projection, and homeopathy. Using socio-historical analysis from a previous article I offered twelve reasons for their popularity.

The post Does New Age Mysticism REALLY Explain Quantum Physics? Communist Theory of Mind Says No first appeared on Dissident Voice.

I’ve Been Called “Negative” for Decades. Why?

For as long as I’ve been writing (articles and books) and giving public talks, I’ve aimed to bluntly challenge conventional wisdom. For doing the grunt work of digging up uncomfortable truths, I’ve often heard the refrain: Why are you so negative? On more than one occasion, I’ve replied to this blatant straw man. Below is an amalgam of those responses from over the years. Most of these notes were written before I came to recognize the dual charades of “woke-ness” and “activism” but the basic premises hold. 

If not for the cult of woke-ness and the scourge of virtue signaling, becoming an activist could be an incredibly positive experience: creating community, inspiring change, feeling empowered. While most humans choose instead to use their meager time chasing money, collecting possessions, and obsessing over pop culture, some folks see a bigger picture, a longer view, a deeper connection. However, being an effective activist also requires us to tear off the blinders and become acutely aware of how our way of life has devastated the planet.

(Mickey Z)

When you call me “negative,” what does that word mean in this context? If you went to a doctor, would you deem them negative for talking about how high your cholesterol levels are instead of, say, focusing on your excellent fingernail health? If you brought your car in for a tune-up, do you want the mechanic to compliment you for keeping your tire pressure at the right level but stay away from a negative topic like defective brakes?

Why then do so many humans shut down when confronted with the realities of our current social, economic, political, and environmental crises? Why is an analysis that presents a dose of reality smugly dismissed as negative? Don’t you want to know what’s going on and how you can help address it beyond minor lifestyle changes and the petty conflicts of party politics? Why not save your knee-jerk “negative” retort for those who directly or indirectly support the corporate-sponsored plundering of our planet? News Flash: It’s not the negativity that’s the issue here, friends. It’s denial.

Antonio Gramsci wrote, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” I can think of no better mantra. Don’t shy away from learning the ugly realities of industrial civilization but never let these brutal truths prevent you from taking urgent action and believing you can create change and save human and non-human lives. It’s a delicate balance but our ability to walk this fine line could literally make all the difference in the world for those within our reach. Translation: We need a planet brimming with pessimistic optimists.

Again, I still stand by much of what I’ve written above… but I always keep my mind open to learning about other approaches. The other day, for example, I heard the author Neal Allen talking on a podcast about how most people do not want to hear the truth. He then offered a provocative example of how to work around this long-term trend. 

Allen pointed out that the first big “speech” given by Jesus was the Sermon on the Mount. It was, to use today’s vernacular, a wake-up call of truth-telling… but it did not have its intended effect. So, from that moment on, Jesus spoke almost exclusively in parables (as far as we know). Part of his goal was to conceal the truth; e.g., “I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”

I have no intention to stop writing researched articles jam-packed with facts. But I will definitely sprinkle in more parables than I usually do and see how it goes. Hey, it worked pretty well for Jesus, right? 

The post I’ve Been Called “Negative” for Decades. Why? first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The Despisers of the Earth

“Knowledge of death helps us also to find a good road,” Jack D. Forbes tells us, “because perhaps it can bring us to deep considerations of our place in nature.” I recall this reflection Forbes makes, among other revelations, in his 1978 book Columbus and Other Cannibals, now, rather queerly, in relation to the environmental movement. Written by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert, Bright Green Lies comes at a critical moment, as this machine called by the name civilization wages its war on nature, to the devastation of the living world.

Analyzed here, bright green environmentalism occupies the position that industrial civilization, otherwise unsustainable, can be salvaged into sustainability through continued, rapid technological innovation. Anthropocentric in its thinking, thus also egocentric, all for the industrial human, rather than ecocentric, it argues for an “environmentalism,” as such, “less about nature, and more about us.” But, as the authors show us, lies should not be dressed up as truths, no matter how desperately one might desire to avoid discomfort.

Central to the analysis in Bright Green Lies, which criticizes this anthropocentrism, we see a critique of technology, a subject also seen in other forms before in Jensen’s work, such as in his and George Draffan’s 2004 book Welcome to the Machine. Technology should not be seen as truly neutral, indeed as if apolitical, since any such neutrality simply cannot be so in technology’s connection to culture.

Technic, a term from Lewis Mumford, refers to this relation. “A social milieu,” the authors write of it, “creates specific technologies which in turn shape the culture.” On this point, they refer to Mumford’s two-volume work The Myth of the Machine, particularly the first volume Technics and Human Development, published in 1967. On what he terms “authoritarian technics,” as referenced by the authors, Mumford, writes in his 1964 article “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics”:

[A]uthoritarian technics is a much more recent achievement: it begins around the fourth millennium B.C. in a new configuration of technical invention, scientific observation, and centralized political control that gave rise to the peculiar mode of life we may now identify, without eulogy, as civilization. Under the new institution of kingship, activities that had been scattered, diversified, cut to the human measure, were united on a monumental scale into an entirely new kind of theological-technological mass organization.

Mumford’s phrase “theological-technological mass organization” matters. Here, as I do, one might recall, as examples most familiar to many, Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984. We might well consider, as Margaret Atwood remarks, the dystopian arising from the utopian: “Why is it that when we grab for heaven—socialist or capitalist or even religious—we so often produce hell?” Civilization’s battle against biology itself, being in its hatred for nature, seems to be hell in reality, with heaven as fantasy. One discovers only a deceitful promise to deaden the consciousness and counteract any social change against the machine. Both ecocidal and death-bringing, as it pretends to be ecological and life-giving, this deceit seems to be characteristic of bright green environmentalism.

“Around the world,” the authors write, “frontline activists are fighting not only big corporations but also the climate movement as wild beings and wild places now need protection from green energy projects.” It would be too simplistic, then, to misrepresent this most serious critique as seeing all technology, from the dawn of humankind, as being an inherent act of destruction. Context matters, clearly, with us in this ongoing cultural transition into what Neil Postman calls technopoly. In his 1992 book Technopoly, Postman defines it as a “totalitarian technocracy,” characterized by “submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.” It embodies the arrogant sense of solutionism in technological innovation, man’s new theology, under current industrial civilization. Making problems, as the authors here show, the industrial human’s use of technology, also including biotechnology, has been destructive, rather than restorative, toward the living world.

“These technologies will not save the earth,” Keith writes in the prologue, adding: “They will only hasten its demise.” And so, as the authors show, it simply does not make sense for us, as Jeff Gibbs posits this question in his 2019 film Planet of the Humans, to believe that machines built by industrial civilization can save us, including the living world being colonized at the biological level, from industrial civilization. “Weapons are tools that civilizations will make,” the authors write, “because civilization itself is a war.”

As it has come to be, industrial civilization poses many problems for the living world, among those noted by the authors, which cannot be worked around by only more technology. Seen as if its own theology, our technology seems to keep us within a paradigm, one that has been anthropocentric, consuming nature around civilization to feed its apparently bottomless greed. On civilization, the authors continue:

Its most basic material activity is a war against the living world, and as life is destroyed, the war must spread. The spread is not just geographic, though that is both inevitable and catastrophic, turning biotic communities into gutted colonies and sovereign people into slaves. Civilization penetrates the culture as well, because the weapons are not just a technology—no tool ever is. Technologies contain the transmutational force of a technic, creating a seamless suite of social institutions and corresponding ideologies. Those ideologies will either be authoritarian or democratic, hierarchical or egalitarian. Technics are never neutral.

Here, after this passage, the authors reference Chellis Glendinning, author of the 1990 book When Technology Wounds, who writes: “All technologies are political.” Power remains primary in how we must orient ourselves, in terms of our understanding, regarding the element of the theological-technological. “The mechanistic mind is built on an epistemology of domination. It wants a hierarchy,” the authors write. “It needs to separate the animate from the inanimate and then rank them in order of moral standing.” Man comes to be driven in making an order of things under which he can name all and make the world’s meaning with relation to himself, seeing woman and nature as subject to his desire. Imagined as freedom, seen for man as the self-made individual in the man-made world, it becomes realized as slavery.

On the mechanical mind, Sir Francis Bacon, inquisitor at witch trials and inventor of the scientific method, describes his objective, science as he saw it, as “dominion over creation.” And René Descartes adds: “I have described this earth, and indeed this whole visible world, as a machine.” Clearly, even if seen among bright green environmentalists analyzed by the authors, one can see the tradition of Bacon and Descartes continuing today across social movements. The mechanical mind appears most evident in man’s continued desire to carve out nature and claim the corpse as his, colonizing and occupying that which he feels driven to possess.

Narcissistic, consuming everything around it, the mechanistic mind, as the system of beliefs with this desire, insists upon itself as the center of all things. Any identity developed from this ideology becomes one based on destruction, thus doomed to be a repetition of reversals “in a reversal society,” as Mary Daly remarks. The death of the flesh—indeed, what Luce Irigaray describes as “the murder of the mother”—becomes life for the self, with destruction as creation, emptiness as fulfillment. It can be characterized by what Erich Fromm analyzes as necrophilia, being “the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive,” “the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical.”

“Having declared the cosmos lifeless,” the authors write, “industrial humans are now transforming the biosphere into the technosphere, a dead world of our own artifacts that life as a whole may not survive.” Technological fundamentalism, a term used by David W. Orr in his 1994 analysis, discussed by Robert Jensen in his 2017 book The End of Patriarchy, has been deployed for describing this ideology against biology and ecology. Technology, although substituted for the sacred, is killing the living world, civilization being its consumer.

Seen in the example of bright green environmentalism, the authors critique this dependency, which, in the increasing enslavement to the machine, seems a tell-tale sign of desperation, not hope. “Unable to separate can do from should do,” Orr writes, “we suffer a kind of technological immune deficiency syndrome that renders us vulnerable to whatever can be done and too weak to question what it is that we should do” (336). At its most basic, there seems to be a failure to see boundaries, as one becomes only more obsessed with breaking them, including everything in nature to be dominated.

A declared sense of “dominion over creation,” as Bacon would have it, does not seem compatible with local knowledge and natural variation, as globalization, and the declared universality of dominant western knowledge, has worked to make the world a monolith. On biodiversity, Rachel Carson, whom the authors cite, writes in her 1962 book Silent Spring: “Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it.” Just as Carson identifies man’s desire to control nature, to its simplification on his terms, Vandana Shiva likewise identifies it, much as the authors do here, in the violence of the Green Revolution, analyzed in her 1993 book Monocultures of the Mind. “The destruction of diversity and the creation of uniformity,” Shiva writes, “simultaneously involves the destruction of stability and the creation of vulnerability.” Nature becomes more bound to what Barbara Christian, in her 1987 essay “The Race for Theory,” terms monolithism, becoming more so mystified, thus brought into destruction, in man’s claim to control all life. “Ideologies of dominance,” as Christian analyzes them, appear to manifest in man’s technology, to manipulate nature, rather than letting the living world simply be in its multiplicity.

Among the consequences of man’s attempted total control of nature, the world has witnessed a radical decrease in biodiversity, corresponding with the rise of industrial civilization as it colonizes nature—indeed, life—itself. As the authors note, Carson felt an urgent sense, first and foremost, of us needing to save, in her words, “the living world” in its beauty, a being in and of itself, unenslaved by any man-made sense of meaning. Added to this sensibility of hers, Carson felt, also in her words, “anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done,” a feeling seen in Shiva’s work. And, with their own work, Jensen, Keith, and Wilbert seem to follow Carson’s and Shiva’s sensibilities, being kindred witnesses for nature, seen in this time of great need.

“Mainstream environmentalists,” the authors write, “now overwhelmingly prioritize saving industrial civilization over saving life on the planet.” As but one example of civilization as contagion, in his article “The Race to Save Civilization,” Lester Brown argues how we can “save civilization,” because the living world is, so he says, “going to be around for a while.” Indeed, as Wilbert writes in his review of Brown’s 2009 book Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, it is “fundamentally anthropocentric,” neglecting a critique of both capitalism and civilization. “If we can get the market to tell the truth,” Brown writes, “then we can avoid being blindsided by a faulty accounting system that leads to bankruptcy.” But it does not seem wise to put our hope in the market, when, as it has been so, the market would seem unlikely to tell any truth not manipulated by the green power of profit.

Recalling the work of Robert Jay Lifton, the authors remind us that, before “any mass atrocity,” one “must have a claim to virtue.” Aside from here in Bright Green Lies, Jensen writes of this “claim to virtue” in his 2000 book A Language Older Than Words. Jensen references Lifton’s 1986 book The Nazi Doctors in which, among the doctors at Auschwitz, we see what it means to claim virtue and collaborate in atrocity. A few among us might well come to consciousness of the falsities, seeing it all for what it actually is. “But the rest of us want this bright, happy future, and we refuse to close the distance,” the authors write. “We don’t want to know about the acid rain falling, the fish strangling, and the rubble that once was mountains going up in smoke.” There seems to be a true fear of the real world there. Rather than face reality, as we should do, without lying to ourselves, we retreat into fantasy worlds, where we can have it all—even when it will not work. Desperate, one comes to convince oneself that the atrocity, whatever it might be, “is not in fact an atrocity, but instead a good thing.” Disembodied and dismembered, we become the despisers of the earth.

Against the sacred, civilization has been presented as the cure, when it worsens the living world, akin to mere snake oil as healing salve, in a false hope for some miraculous salvation. Such would seem to be the man-eat-world world logic of environmentalism against the environment. In their analysis, the authors show a selection of lies in terms of technology, ones which not only will not work but also make things much worse. Certainly, a very commodifying vocabulary, a quality of the mechanical mind considered here, might well sell the environment to buyers, maybe even those considerably invested in its consumption, but that does not seem compatible with saving the living world. As we see argued in Bright Green Lies, the color green for the modern environmental movement has ended up becoming far less about the living world than about the money to be made from nature by man’s exploitation of it. Really mistaken for its own religion, money, in a symbiosis with technology, should not be that on which we form our faith.

“By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature,” Carson asks us in Silent Spring, “who among us is not diminished as a human being?” Human beings have been diminished by seeing all of nature, including our bodies and ourselves, as though mechanical, both deadened and dispossessed. But, as seen before, in our fear and guilt, being against nature, we lie. Such has been seen in man’s dominion over woman. Man tells himself all manner of lies, even seeing woman hating as a way of life, occupying himself with it as if his innermost self, all in his attempt to alleviate his own fear and guilt over the subjection of women.

“Civilization consumes the circle, so all civilizations end in collapse,” Keith writes, asking: “How could it be otherwise if your way of life relies on destroying the place you live?” Civilization, in its doing of domination, as can be apprehended in its current form, must die for nature—indeed, all life and the interactions therein—to live in the living world. Identity should not be insisted upon as collapsing all others around the self into it, for it leads to an idea of the individual as a destroyer, caught in his own illusion of being a creator. Of the work to be done on humanity’s part, that beyond the life of Bright Green Lies, Jensen writes in the afterword:

This way of living will not and cannot last. What we do now determines how much of the planet remains later. We can voluntarily reduce the harm caused by this culture now, and work to create spaces where nature can regenerate, or we can continue to allow—indeed, to subsidize—further destruction of the planet’s ecological infrastructure. And while that may allow the economy to limp along a few more years, I guarantee that none of us—salmon, right whales, piscine life in the oceans, humans—are going to like where that takes us.

Human beings must consider our place in nature, not as its masters, becoming those who control it, as if the creators of all, but rather, in our being, as another part of the living world. Humanity must reject civilization’s dominion over nature. To resist the machine, one must really come to terms with biology, rejecting that mechanical mind that makes us go against nature into nothingness. There must be an understanding of the connectedness of beings in the living world, that we do not exist as disembodied and dismembered parts in any machine. “All things participate in the circle of death,” Forbes reminds us, “but as mentioned earlier, death is life.”

The post The Despisers of the Earth first appeared on Dissident Voice.

In our hurry to conquer nature and death, we have made a new religion of science

Back in the 1880s, the mathematician and theologian Edwin Abbott tried to help us better understand our world by describing a very different one he called Flatland.

Imagine a world that is not a sphere moving through space like our own planet, but more like a vast sheet of paper inhabited by conscious, flat geometric shapes. These shape-people can move forwards and backwards, and they can turn left and right. But they have no sense of up or down. The very idea of a tree, or a well, or a mountain makes no sense to them because they lack the concepts and experiences of height and depth. They cannot imagine, let alone describe, objects familiar to us.

In this two-dimensional world, the closest scientists can come to comprehending a third dimension are the baffling gaps in measurements that register on their most sophisticated equipment. They sense the shadows cast by a larger universe outside Flatland. The best brains infer that there must be more to the universe than can be observed but they have no way of knowing what it is they don’t know.

This sense of the the unknowable, the ineffable has been with humans since our earliest ancestors became self-conscious. They inhabited a world of immediate, cataclysmic events – storms, droughts, volcanoes and earthquakes – caused by forces they could not explain. But they also lived with a larger, permanent wonder at the mysteries of nature itself: the change from day to night, and the cycle of the seasons; the pinpricks of light in the night sky, and their continual movement; the rising and falling of the seas; and the inevitability of life and death.

Perhaps not surprisingly, our ancestors tended to attribute common cause to these mysterious events, whether of the catastrophic or the cyclical variety, whether of chaos or order. They ascribed them to another world or dimension – to the spiritual realm, to the divine.

Paradox and mystery

Science has sought to shrink the realm of the inexplicable. We now understand – at least approximately – the laws of nature that govern the weather and catastrophic events like an earthquake. Telescopes and rocket-ships have also allowed us to probe deeper into the heavens to make a little more sense of the universe outside our tiny corner of it.

But the more we investigate the universe the more rigid appear the limits to our knowledge. Like the shape-people of Flatland, our ability to understand is constrained by the dimensions we can observe and experience: in our case, the three dimensions of space and the additional one of time. Influential “string theory” posits another six dimensions, though we would be unlikely to ever sense them in any more detail than the shadows almost-detected by the scientists of Flatland.

The deeper we peer into the big universe of the night sky and our cosmic past, and the deeper we peer into the small universe inside the atom and our personal past, the greater the sense of mystery and wonder.

At the sub-atomic level, the normal laws of physics break down. Quantum mechanics is a best-guess attempt to explain the mysteries of movement of the tiniest particles we can observe, which appear to be operating, at least in part, in a dimension we cannot observe directly.

And most cosmologists, looking outwards rather inwards, have long known that there are questions we are unlikely ever to answer: not least what exists outside our universe – or expressed another way, what existed before the Big Bang. For some time, dark matter and black holes have baffled the best minds. This month scientists conceded to the New York Times that there are forms of matter and energy unknown to science but which can be inferred because they disrupt the known laws of physics.

Inside and outside the atom, our world is full of paradox and mystery.

Conceit and humility

Despite our science-venerating culture, we have arrived at a similar moment to our forebears, who gazed at the night sky in awe. We have been forced to acknowledge the boundaries of knowledge.

There is a difference, however. Our ancestors feared the unknowable, and therefore preferred to show caution and humility in the face of what could not be understood. They treated the ineffable with respect and reverence. Our culture encourages precisely the opposite approach. We show only conceit and arrogance. We seek to defeat, ignore or trivialise that which we cannot explain or understand.

The greatest scientists do not make this mistake. As an avid viewer of science programmes like the BBC’s Horizon, I am always struck by the number of cosmologists who openly speak of their religious belief. Carl Sagan, the most famous cosmologist, never lost his sense of awestruck wonder as he examined the universe. Outside the lab, his was not the language of hard, cold, calculating science. He described the universe in the language of poetry. He understood the necessary limits of science. Rather than being threatened by the universe’s mysteries and paradoxes, he celebrated them.

When in 1990, for example, space probe Voyager 1 showed us for the first time our planet from 6 billion km away, Sagan did not mistake himself or his fellow NASA scientists for gods. He saw “a pale blue dot” and marvelled at a planet reduced to a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Humility was his response to the vast scale of the universe, our fleeting place within it, and our struggle to grapple with “the great enveloping cosmic dark”.

Mind and matter

Sadly, Sagan’s approach is not the one that dominates the western tradition. All too often, we behave as if we are gods. Foolishly, we have made a religion of science. We have forgotten that in a world of unknowables, the application of science is necessarily tentative and ideological. It is a tool, one of many that we can use to understand our place in the universe, and one that is easily appropriated by the corrupt, by the vain, by those who seek power over others, by those who worship money.

Until relatively recently, science, philosophy and theology sought to investigate the same mysteries and answer the same existential questions. Through much of history, they were seen as complementary, not in competition. Abbott, remember, was a mathematician and theologian, and Flatland was his attempt to explain the nature of faith. Similarly, the man who has perhaps most shaped the paradigm within which much western science still operates was a French philosopher using the scientific methods of the time to prove the existence of God.

Today, Rene Descartes is best remembered for his famous – if rarely understood – dictum: “I think, therefore I am.” Four hundred years ago, he believed he could prove God’s existence through his argument that mind and matter are separate. Just as human bodies were distinct from souls, so God was separate and distinct from humans. Descartes believed knowledge was innate, and therefore our idea of a perfect being, of God, could only derive from something that was perfect and objectively real outside us.

Weak and self-serving as many of his arguments sound today, Descartes’ lasting ideological influence on western science was profound. Not least so-called Cartesian dualism – the treatment of mind and matter as separate realms – has encouraged and perpetuated a mechanistic view of the world around us.

We can briefly grasp how strong the continuing grip of his thinking is on us when we are confronted with more ancient cultures that have resisted the west’s extreme rationalist discourse – in part, we should note, because they were exposed to it in hostile, oppressive ways that served only to alienate them from the western canon.

Hearing a Native American or an Australian Aboriginal speak of the sacred significance of a river or a rock – or about their ancestors – is to become suddenly aware of how alien their thinking sounds to our “modern” ears. It is the moment when we are likely to respond in one of two ways: either to smirk internally at their childish ignorance, or to gulp at a wisdom that seems to fill a yawning emptiness in our own lives.

Science and power

Descartes’ legacy – a dualism that assumes separation between soul and body, mind and matter – has in many ways proved a poisonous one for western societies. An impoverished, mechanistic worldview treats both the planet and our bodies primarily as material objects: one a plaything for our greed, the other a canvas for our insecurities.

The British scientist James Lovelock who helped model conditions on Mars for NASA so it would have a better idea how to build the first probes to land there, is still ridiculed for the Gaia hypothesis he developed in the 1970s. He understood that our planet was best not viewed as a very large lump of rock with life-forms living on it, though distinct from it. Rather Earth was as a complete, endlessly complex, delicately balanced living entity. Over billions of years, life had grown more sophisticated, but each species, from the most primitive to the most advanced, was vital to the whole, maintaining a harmony that sustained the diversity.

Few listened to Lovelock. Our god-complex got the better of us. And now, as the bees and other insects disappear, everything he warned of decades ago seems far more urgent. Through our arrogance, we are destroying the conditions for advanced life. If we don’t stop soon, the planet will dispose of us and return to an earlier stage of its evolution. It will begin again, without us, as simple flora and microbes once again begin recreating gradually – measured in aeons – the conditions favourable to higher life forms.

But the abusive, mechanistic relationship we have with our planet is mirrored by the one we have with our bodies and our health. Dualism has encouraged us to think of our bodies as fleshy vehicles, which like the metal ones need regular outside intervention, from a service to a respray or an upgrade. The pandemic has only served to underscore these unwholesome tendencies.

In part, the medical establishment, like all establishments, has been corrupted by the desire for power and enrichment. Science is not some pristine discipline, free from real-world pressures. Scientists need funding for research, they have mortgages to pay, and they crave status and career advancement like everyone else.

Kamran Abbasi, executive editor of the British Medical Journal, wrote an editorial last November warning of British state corruption that had been unleashed on a grand scale by covid-19. But it was not just politicians responsible. Scientists and health experts had been implicated too: “The pandemic has revealed how the medical-political complex can be manipulated in an emergency.”     

He added: “The UK’s pandemic response relies too heavily on scientists and other government appointees with worrying competing interests, including shareholdings in companies that manufacture covid-19 diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines.”

Global warming? We can create an even whiter paint to reflect back the sun’s heat. Plastics in every corner of our oceans? We can build giant vacuum-cleaners that will suck it all out. Vanishing bee populations? We can invent pollinator drones to take their place. A dying planet? Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk will fly millions of us to space colonies.

Were we not so technology obsessed, were we not so greedy, were we not so terrified of insecurity and death, if we did not see our bodies and minds as separate, and humans as separate from everything else, we might pause to ponder whether our approach is not a little misguided.

Science and technology can be wonderful things. They can advance our knowledge of ourselves and the world we inhabit. But they need to be conducted with a sense of humility we increasingly seem incapable of. We are not conquerors of our bodies, or the planet, or the universe – and if we imagine we are, we will soon find out that the battle we are waging is one we can never hope to win.

The post In our hurry to conquer nature and death, we have made a new religion of science first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Reason, Sociability, and Ethics

Aristotle famously said that man was a social animal: ζῷον πολιτικόν. He also strongly implied that what distinguished man from all other animals was his rationality.

Today this description seems to make more sense than ever.

Human beings, contrary to the contract theorists such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, were never lone beings in search of society. They always were in society already.

Humans evolved within groups not as singletons like modern day Orangutans.

And this prehistorical social history is what shaped who we were to become.

While sociality came first, the rise of reason was not far behind.

To navigate increasingly complex social dynamics, early hominins would need to make use of their ever expanding reasoning powers. And here is where the dialectic of human history began.

As early hominins became increasingly adept at manipulating their environment through tools such as fire and stone implements they also became more able to mold and direct their social lives.

The more they understood about their environment, the more they began to understand about themselves both as individuals and as members of a group.

Intra-group social dynamics, tool making, and individual awareness all rose complexly together with an ever more powerful capacity to reason about all three and, most importantly, to improve upon them.

Thus human intelligence/technology was always social. And sociality fueled that intelligence along with technological change.

For example, tool use was not just the invention of a useful technology but the introduction of a new element within the social life of the group. It became part of group dynamics and inevitably changed how the group functioned on a daily basis. In this way, the introduction of tools within the social group led to more complex behaviors and the multiplication of the possibilities for social interactions of all kinds through a combination of reason and its fanciful twin, imagination. Learning to make tools and thinking of new ways to use them would be just two of the new cognitive challenges presented by a new tool or technique within the group. Social status, a sense of aesthetics, even a sort of primitive narratology would all potentially intertwine in any kind of material or organizational change. The introduction of any kind of technology is always changing group dynamics by pushing individuals in new directions.

Yet, if man is indeed a rational, social animal as Aristotle would have it, where does ethics fit in?

For a rational, social animal ethics is the blueprint that shapes social living. It is the compass to which we look as to how to behave in relation to others. It is the essential guide to group living. Without it, there would be no groups, they would disintegrate into a selfish chaos leading to eventual extinction.

With the rise of reason, sociality would be strengthened and ever more complex rules (ethics) established to maintain group order and stability. Together, reason, sociality, and ethics would over time prove to be the successful algorithm of mankind. This powerful dialectical triumvirate would eventually allow for ever greater forms of material, social, and mental complexity thrusting mankind forward towards mastery of his environment and himself. For indeed both abilities were needed if humankind were to not only survive, but thrive as well.

It is in this sense that I posit the following unfashionable thought: Every highly intelligent, social species by the very fact of its being intelligent and social presupposes the emergence of a basic ethics. In this way, ethics can be viewed as inherently teleological as pertains to any intelligent, social species. Sociality:Reason:Ethics. It is in this particular sense that ethics could be said to be objective. It is teleologically necessary for the continued successful emergence of an intelligent, social species. Ethics necessarily emerges from the twin prior capabilities of reason and sociality with the latter being the dominant factor if not, by itself, sufficient. However, what kind of ethics emerges remains an open possibility.

The post Reason, Sociability, and Ethics first appeared on Dissident Voice.

“Our Indifference To Ourselves”: Beyond The “Virtue” Of Self-Sacrifice (Part 2)

As we saw in Part 1, in 1914 and again in 1939, millions of men and women welcomed war. Arnold Ridley and his pals did make this choice, but in reality the choice had been made for them by decades and centuries of the relentless ‘patriotic’ propaganda described by Tolstoy, which most people were powerless to resist.

The enthusiasm for war seems immensely significant. It tells us that, facing the ultimate test of self-interestedness – whether they were willing to risk being shot, burned, blasted and horribly mutilated in the ‘national interest’ – many millions of people put that self-interest aside and marched off to kill and be killed.

This fact alone should encourage us to question the extent to which our capacity to be self-interested – to work for our own benefit over the imposed demands of others – is undermined more generally. Erich Fromm described the reality:

Our moral problem is man’s indifference to himself. It lies in the fact that we have lost the sense of the significance and uniqueness of the individual, that we have made ourselves into instruments for purposes outside ourselves, that we experience and treat ourselves as commodities.1

In her remarkable book, ‘For Your Own Good – Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence’, psychologist Alice Miller traced the roots of Nazi militarism in wildly popular pedagogical theories that flourished in 18th, 19th and early 20th century Germany.

Did Nazi stormtroopers arise out of an orgy of self-centred self-indulgence? In fact, they were nurtured by what Miller called a ‘poisonous pedagogy’ that crushed the will of the child, destroying the child’s ability to follow his or her own feelings and self-interest.2

Miller quoted J. Sulzer from his highly popular book published in Germany in 1748, An Essay on the Education and Instruction of Children. Sulzer commented on infant behaviour:

They see something they want but cannot have; they become angry, cry, and flail about. Or they are given something that does not please them; they fling it aside and begin to cry. These are dangerous faults that hinder their entire education and encourage undesirable qualities in children… The moment these flaws appear in a child, it is high time to resist this evil so that it does not become ingrained through habit and the children do not become thoroughly depraved.

Therefore, I advise all those whose concern is the education of children to make it their main occupation to drive out willfulness and wickedness and to persist until they have reached their goal.

The chief target for attack, wrote J.G. Kruger in Some Thoughts on the Education of Children (1752) was defiance:

Such disobedience amounts to a declaration of war against you. Your son is trying to usurp your authority, and you are justified in answering force with force in order to insure his respect, without which you will be unable to train him. The blows you administer should not be merely playful ones but should convince him that you are his master. Therefore, you must not desist until he does what he previously refused out of wickedness to do.

In Handbook for Fathers and Mothers of Families and Nations (1773), J. B. Basedow recommended additional beatings in response to the inevitable, ‘annoying’ tears:

If after the chastisement the pain lasts for a time, it is unnatural to forbid weeping and groaning at once. But if the chastised use these annoying sounds as a means of revenge, then the first step is to distract them by assigning little tasks or activities. If this does not help, it is permissible to forbid the weeping and to punish them if it persists, until it finally ceases after the new chastisement.

The conscious aim was to destroy the will of the child and replace it with the will of parents and teachers. Sulzer wrote:

…willfulness must be the main target of all our toils until it is completely abolished… The first and foremost matter to be attended to is implanting in children a love of order; this is the first step we require in the way of virtue.

Sulzer noted that it was vital to break children at an age when they would be unable to remember what had been done to them:

One of the advantages of these early years is that then force and compulsion can be used. Over the years, children forget everything that happened to them in early childhood. If their wills can be broken at this time, they will never remember afterwards that they had a will, and for this very reason the severity that is required will not have any serious consequences.’ (Miller, my emphasis.)

Miller commented:

If primary emphasis is placed upon raising children so that they are not aware of what is being done to them or what is being taken from them, of what they are losing in the process, of who they otherwise would have been and who they actually are, and if this is begun early enough, then as adults, regardless of their intelligence, they will later look upon the will of another person as if it were their own. How can they know that their own will was broken since they were never allowed to express it?  (Miller, my emphasis.)

In 1858, D.G.M. Schreber explained how this cultivated in the child ‘the art of self-denial’: ‘the salutary and indispensable process of learning to subordinate and control his will’.

Do we imagine these efforts to break the will of children, to teach them ‘the art of self-denial’, were limited to pre-Nazi Germany? In a comment that will be familiar to many of us in our time, Miller quoted a German schoolteacher (1796) explaining how he promoted obedience:

I reward the one who is the most amenable, the most obedient, the most diligent in his lessons by preferring him over the other; I call on him the most, I permit him to read his composition before the class, I let him do the necessary writing on the blackboard. This way I awaken the children’s zeal so that each wishes to excel, to be preferred. When one of them then upon occasion does something that deserves punishment, I reduce his status in the class, I don’t call on him, I don’t let him read aloud, I act as though he were not there. This distresses the children so much that those who are punished weep copious tears.

Miller commented:

I have selected the foregoing passages in order to characterize an attitude that reveals itself more or less openly, not only in Fascism but in other ideologies as well. The scorn and abuse directed at the helpless child as well as the suppression of vitality, creativity, and feeling in the child and in oneself permeate so many areas of our life that we hardly notice it anymore.’ (Miller, my emphasis.)

Yes, in many areas of our life! The evidence is all around us and deeply rooted in our cultural traditions. For example, German pedagogues loved to quote the Bible:

He who loves his son chastises him often with the rod, that he may be his joy when he grows up’, and, ‘Pamper your child and he will be a terror for you, indulge him and he will bring you grief.

The Prime Coercive Instrument For Cultural Modification

Are we pursuing freely-chosen self-interest when forced to wear uniforms and trained for conformity and ambition at school? Is it our choice to be manipulated to feel exalted when we do better at exams than our friends and humiliated when we do worse? Is it self-indulgence that has us spending our precious youth memorising dead facts and figures for regurgitation, supposedly establishing our level of ‘brightness’? Is there any essential difference between the way we are manipulated to become cogs in the educational machine, the corporate machine and the war machine?

Sobering perspective is supplied by cultural anthropologist John Bodley’s description of the methods employed by Western colonisers to undermine traditional cultures:

In many countries schooling has been the prime coercive instrument of cultural modification and has proven to be a highly effective means of destroying self-esteem, fostering new needs, creating dissatisfactions, and generally disrupting traditional cultures. As representatives of the prestige and power of the dominant culture, teachers deliberately assume positions of authority over students, overshadowing parents and traditional tribal leaders…3

Training us for ambition is about far more than just boredom and stress. Every moment in the classroom, the child’s natural prioritisation of the present moment is, in effect, outlawed. No choice is allowed – the childish love of play must be sacrificed to the educational Higher Cause. We quickly learn that we will suffer serious, escalating consequences if we follow our instincts. This powerfully undermines our ability to be sensitive to, and to follow, our feelings, our true self-interest. Time and again, we are taught to reject our natural inclinations – to reject what we find most fascinating and enjoyable for the sake of what we find utterly boring. We learn that we cannot safely be in the moment, that the price of respecting our feelings is too high – we must prioritise the future and the opinions of authority.

Our capacity to feel and respect our feelings is subject to relentless attack. If we don’t know what we feel, we don’t know what we want. And if we don’t know what we want, state-corporate interests are free to decide for us.

As the leftist poster says, ‘If you liked school, you’ll LOVE work.’ Education dovetails perfectly as we replace black or grey school uniforms with black or grey work suits, pack ourselves into trains, buses and cars to perform as cogs in corporate machines, allowed an hour off for lunch and four or five weeks ‘annual leave’ (extra ‘leave’, possibly paid, or not, if we suffer a ‘blighty one’). All of this we hate, but we have already been trained to do what we hate, to perform relentlessly boring tasks at school, to override our internal opposition, which we cannot properly feel.

We are also not following our self-interest when we sit in front of the TV to watch corporate entertainment filtered of all but the most banal, advertiser-friendly content. As media analysts Michael Jacobson and Laurie Ann Mazur noted, our freedom extends to watching ‘TV programmes that flow seamlessly into commercials, avoiding controversy, lulling us into submission, like an electronic tranquillizer.’ 4  The last thing advertisers want is for us to be so interested in the programme we’re watching that we’re lost in thought during the ad break.

It is not you or I who decides that happiness lies in high status work facilitating high status consumption, any more than we decide it is ‘glorious’ to die in battle. Again, Bodley reflects our own contemporary experience:

One of the most significant obstacles blocking native economic “progress” was the ability of the natives to find satisfactions at relatively low and stable consumption levels… Outsiders quickly realised that if tribal peoples could somehow be made to reject the material satisfactions provided by their own cultures and if they could be successfully urged to desire more and more industrial goods, they would become far more willing participants in the cash economy.5

As late as 1963, applied anthropologist Ward Goodenough described Western strategies to undermine the contentment found in traditional cultures:

The problem that faces development agents is to find ways of stimulating in others a desire for change in such a way that the desire is theirs independent of further prompting from outside. Restated, the problem is one of creating in another a sufficient dissatisfaction with his present condition of self so that he wants to change it. This calls for some kind of experience that leads him to reappraise his self-image and re-evaluate his self-esteem.6

This is the same process of manufacturing discontent by which you and I are targeted. US psychologist Tim Kasser commented:

Existing scientific research on the value of materialism yields clear and consistent findings. People who are highly focused on materialistic values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic pursuits are relatively unimportant. These relationships have been documented in samples of people ranging from the wealthy to the poor, from teenagers to the elderly, and from Australians to South Koreans.7

Where, then, is the freedom that allows us to be considered self-interested, self-centred, self-indulgent? It doesn’t exist. The call for us to sacrifice ourselves thrusts a red-hot poker into a wound of imposed self-neglect that has made us such well-schooled, career-climbing, war-fighting, self-destructive pawns of state policy, corporate profit and, yes, revolutionary fervour.

Our problem is not that we are too indulgent, too selfish. Our problem is that we are not self-centred enough; that we are manipulated, seduced, punished, conformed away from exploring, feeling and respecting our actual self-interest. We are made to seek happiness in very specific ways by systems of power that need us to be unhappy, discontented, and even to die in wars, in ways that benefit them.

This has been disastrous, not simply because our real self-interest has been hijacked, but because our whole society has become oblivious to a buried treasure of human experience found at the end of an authentic exploration of self-interest. It is a truth that has been understood by cultures around the word for millennia, but is almost completely unknown to our primitive Western corporate monoculture.

The Man With No Skin

What happens when we are genuinely self-interested, self-centred? What happens when we don’t subordinate self-awareness to external pressures?

Consider the case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, unique among 18th century Enlightenment philosophes in that he retained extreme sensitivity and respect for his feelings. Rousseau radically bucked the trend promoting ‘man’s indifference to himself’.

The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who knew Rousseau well, described him as ‘one of the most singular of all human beings… his extreme sensibility of temper is his torment’; ‘he is like a man who were stripped not only of his clothes but of his skin’.8

Rousseau felt every pleasure, every pain, every delight and despair, deeply. It was this acuity of awareness that helped him uncover a hidden secret of the human condition.

Remarkably, Rousseau’s final work, Reveries of The Solitary Walker, written in the two years before his death in 1778, contains a basic guide to what amounts to ‘zazen’ meditation (‘zazen’ sounds esoteric but literally means ‘just sitting, doing nothing’). As clearly as any Eastern mystic, Rousseau began by describing the inevitable failure of ordinary happiness:

Thus our earthly joys are almost without exception the creatures of a moment; I doubt whether any of us knows the meaning of lasting happiness. Even in our keenest pleasures there is scarcely a single moment of which the heart could truthfully say: “Would that this moment could last for ever!” And how can we give the name of happiness to a fleeting state which leaves our hearts still empty and anxious, either regretting something that is past or desiring something that is yet to come?9

Readers might like to conduct this thought experiment for themselves! Looking back, it is clear that even our happiest moments are tainted by fear of change, failure and loss.

Attainment of some object of desire gives momentary pleasure, then, but our minds remain ‘empty and anxious’ – we quickly latch onto some other person, experience or object ‘yet to come’, and desire reaches out into this new, alluring distance. The distance is alluring because it provides us with a blank or half-empty canvas on which we can project our idealised fantasies. Desire is endless, insatiable, because the mind quickly tires of reality, but not of fantasy, our inexhaustible dream fuel.

Two and a half centuries before ‘mindfulness’ became the rage, Rousseau wrote:

Foresight! Foresight which is ever bidding us look forward into the future, a future which in many cases we shall never reach. Here is the real source of all our troubles! How mad it is for so short-lived a creature as man to look forward into a future which he rarely attains, while he neglects the present which is his!… We no longer live where we are, but where we are not!10

If we reject self-abnegation, self-sacrifice, and investigate how we actually feel, we arrive at the key understanding that it is impossible to satisfy a mind that ‘neglects the present’, that values only what it does not have. Corporate culture being, of course, the ultimate manifestation and exploitation of this phenomenon.

Ironically, we are so readily seduced by calls to sacrifice ourselves precisely because the mind is ever ready to sacrifice the devalued present – all the ‘uninteresting’ stuff that we have here and now – for some fantasy-hyped future. We spend our lives aspiring to the next moment, sure to be a ‘glorious adventure’, even if that means fighting and dying on some distant battlefield.

Along with mystics like Buddha, Bodhidharma, Chuang Tzu, Ikkyu, Jesus, Kabir, Krishna, Lao-tse, Mansoor, Meera, Nanak, Patanjali, Tolle and Yoka, the ultra-sensitive Rousseau came to understand that all attempts to find happiness in external pleasures and ‘success’ fail. The end-point of self-aware self-indulgence, he found, is a great turning point – a turning within. But what on earth might we find there?

As we all know, our standard search for external happiness generates a torrent of mental activity: we must forever plan, scheme, worry and strive to shorten the distance between ourselves and our ever-retreating, ever-changing goals. Having attained one desire, another instantly pops up on the horizon and mental activity surges again.

But when, time after time, this exhausting campaign fails, when the futility of the effort becomes undeniable because we can see that every attainment ‘leaves our hearts still empty and anxious’, mental activity can start to subside. This may happen naturally as the search for external happiness is met with disillusionment and disaster, or it can be consciously encouraged through meditation, by paying careful attention to our thoughts and feelings. We cannot think and feel at the same time – repeatedly focusing on emotions in our chest, for example, interrupts and slows compulsive thinking.

As mental chatter subsides, gaps start to appear between thoughts. In even the briefest moments when this happens, in tiny silences between thought, something completely unexpected occurs – deep delight arises from nowhere for no apparent reason. This is not just happiness; it is ecstasy, a bliss saturated with love for everyone and everything. Even a sliver of this ‘light’ is devastating, but the potential exists to experience an inner supernova. Kabir said:

As if thousands of suns have arisen in me… I cannot count them, the light is so dazzling.

Rousseau discovered this phenomenon simply by paying close attention to his suffering and happiness:

But if there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul. Such is the state which I often experienced in my solitary reveries on the Island of Saint-Pierre…11

As Osho commented, this experience is the revolutionary moment in the life of a human being:

Now you are nothing but misery. Those who are cunning, they go on deceiving themselves that they are not miserable, or they go on hoping that something will change, something will happen, and they will achieve at the end of life – but you are miserable.

You can create faces, deceptions, false faces; you can go on smiling continuously, but deep down you know you are in misery. That is natural. Confined in thoughts you will be in misery. Unconfined, beyond thoughts – alert, conscious, aware, but unclouded by thoughts – you will be joy, you will be bliss.12

This is why Jesus made the extraordinary comment that has mystified non-meditators for millennia: ‘Resist not evil’. It is not that turning the other cheek, or giving someone your cloak as well as your shirt, is best practice for managing bullies and petty criminals.

The point, as Jesus also said, is that ‘The kingdom of heaven lies within’ – the experience described above. If a choice is possible, it is better to go the extra mile to avoid conflict so that we can remain centred in this inner love and bliss. When we resist external ‘evil’, we inevitably generate great storms of thought in ourselves and others, which obstruct love and bliss in them and us. The remarkable truth is that, for all its practical usefulness, thought is subtly dehumanising, and torrential thought is deeply dehumanising.

The best measure of the extent to which our society is truly civilised is the number of loving feelings in our hearts, not the number of loving, just, egalitarian thoughts in our heads. Thought is hot air. Disconnected from feeling, it means almost nothing.

‘Ehi-Passiko’ – ‘Come And See!’

The central claim is not a fantasy, not an invention; it is a simple but almost completely hidden truth: confined in thoughts we will be in misery; unconfined, beyond thoughts, we will be in ‘complete and perfect happiness’.

This, not collapsing on the sofa with junk food, is the end-point of self-aware self-centredness: a limitless source of loving kindness that naturally overflows to others in what we say and do.

It is a truth that can be known only through feeling, through the heart, when we are free to experience and respect our emotions, unhindered by calls to sacrifice ‘trivial’, ‘indulgent’ personal concerns to ‘duty’, ‘service’, the ‘national interest’, the ‘Fatherland’, the ‘Revolution’.

Of course, thinking is needed; of course, working for the benefit of others, and even subordinating our welfare for others, can be a beautiful thing; but the most beautiful thing of all is when we subordinate everything to a profound investigation into what does and does not make us miserable and blissful.

Without this investigation, we may end up doing more harm than good. As Norman Mailer said:

I think that the only way socialism can work is if there is a religious core. A belief that there is some larger sense of things.

Otherwise, Mailer argued, ‘you just get the play of egos’. 13

Alas, trying ‘to make the world a better place’ is a prime way of winning attention, applause, respect, even fame outside the corporate ‘mainstream’. If the rich and famous feel ‘special’, what to say of ‘altruists’, so heroic that they subordinate their personal concerns, risk their very lives, for the welfare of others?

If our motivation is attention, applause, we may look like a counter-force to ego-driven, state-corporate capitalism, but, in fact, we may be a version of the same madness, almost a kind of niche marketing. Like corporate executives, we will compete furiously with the rival activists we are supposed to be supporting, tear them down at the first opportunity for utterly trivial reasons (rational disagreement on key issues is another matter entirely). Above all, we will be highly vulnerable to the seductions of a ‘mainstream’ that has the power to bestow far more respectability, fame and fortune.

Rooted in our heads rather than our hearts, we will be miserable and spreading that misery around us. Regardless of what virtue we claim as our motive, our first priority will be, not other people, but the expansion of our egoic empire. We will contribute to the building of a ‘righteous’ but ugly world where barely a drop of genuine love and happiness is found.

To those so keen for us to sacrifice ourselves for a Higher Cause we can answer that there is no Higher Cause than the pursuit of self-aware self-interest because this is the only way to become a genuinely blissful, genuinely loving human being. And only when we become genuinely blissful and loving are we able to resist the calls to sacrifice ourselves on some distant educational, corporate, or actual battlefield.

The insatiable, tragicomic craving of the Trumpian ego – to have more, to be more, to spend more, to consume more, to be applauded more – can never be transcended on the level of the mind. Only when we experience genuine happiness, a loving bliss with no taint of suffering, do the baubles and toys of ego start to lose their appeal.

As Buddha said, there is no need to take his or anyone else’s word for it: ‘Ehi-passiko’, ‘Come and see!’ Try it for yourself – all is not as it seems.

  1. Fromm, Man For Himself, Ark, 1986, p. 248, original emphasis.
  2. Miller, For Your Own Good – Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2002, e-book version.
  3. John Bodley, Victims of Progress, Mayfield Publishing, 1982, p. 113, my emphasis.
  4. Jacobson and Mazur, Marketing Madness, Westview Press, 1995, pp. 43-44.
  5. Bodley, op.cit, p. 131.
  6. Bodley, pp. 111-112, my emphasis.
  7. Kasser, The High Price Of Materialism, MIT Press, 2002, p. 22.
  8. John Hope Mason, The Indispensable Rousseau, Quartet Books, 1979, p. 5.
  9. Rousseau, Reveries of The Solitary Walker, Penguin Classics, 1979, p. 88.
  10. Hope Mason, op.cit, pp. 188-9.
  11. Rousseau, op.cit, p. 88, my emphasis.
  12. Osho, The Book Of Secrets, e-book version.
  13. Norman Mailer, at a talk in Shaftesbury Avenue, the Guardian, 23 September 1997.
The post “Our Indifference To Ourselves”: Beyond The “Virtue” Of Self-Sacrifice (Part 2) first appeared on Dissident Voice.

En Garde 2021

From the viral fun of the Wuhan Age straight into the fevered depths of Orwell’s wet dream, welcome to round two of the roaring twenties.

With all the resolutions and excitement of the holiday season that took place of late, we all knew that a simple ceremonial spin around the sun wasn’t going to alter the trajectory of our current orbit. The turning underway at this point in history is of a higher calling, and it doesn’t much matter what numbers are used to timestamp the occasion from one year to the next.

Perception isn’t necessarily reality, but it does play a key role in how well one is able to continually adapt through the process of change.

I’m not entirely sure what my exact purpose is in life, as these things can take some time to firmly flesh out and settle upon, but I’m 100% certain that one of the fundamental themes is resisting all forms of tyranny and opposing the Beast System of this world and all its insidious tentacles that are wrapped around the throat of humanity. Unfortunately, some people get their kicks and kinks from asphyxiation and tend to identify favorably with dominating powers. It’s a sad persuasion of influence to fall under. So that’s a bummer.

In an age of great deceit, it has become abundantly clear that it is not freedom which some people seek, but rather freedom from freedom. A willful turning over of consciousness and critical thinking to pundits, officials, experts, technocrats, and other politicized hacks and clowns of the ruling elite/degenerates.

Ah, may you live in interesting times, it has been said; but also, be careful what you wish for.

I’ve been thinking about our ancestors of late, how they emerged from the gene swarm soup and then trudged around naked in the freezing cold for countless ages, surviving, struggling, striving, pushing ever-forward with the fire of creation roaring within their bellies, propelling the species with an inherent urge toward progression.

Humanity gets a bad rap in certain circles. But I’m not feeling that nihilistic vibe. I love our essence of evolution.

And knowing every cataclysm, catastrophe, plague, pestilence, famine, natural disaster, war, revolution, and epoch-shattering event our forebears made it through on earth, I’m heartened by the fact that we will as well.

Every dirty trick in the book has been tossed on our path during the past 12 months, but we’re making it through because that’s just what we do. We are a tried and tested species.

And though there are heavy forces at work in the world that would seek to see us fall, they always end up failing in the end. Because that’s just what they do.

We must always honor the sacrifices made by those who came before by continuously putting our best effort into conquering whatever challenges lie ahead. And one day we’ll be remembered in kind as future generations keep the same promise. Pass it on.

The greatest sin I can think of, during the present moment at least, is to live a life devoid of courage. The blessing of being a part of this magnificent creation of God comes with the gift of infinite possibilities that can be brought forth through ingenuity and creativity, but it also comes with a great responsibility to stand with a strong spine when confronted by forces that sway toward the ideology of victimized apathy, which, in turn, leads to naught but destruction, chaos, confusion, and ruins. Yikes!

Whether it’s the international banking cartels or the Big Tech Oligarchs perched high in their Silicon Valley castles or the propaganda machine of the corporate Medes or the military industrial complex or the pharmaceutical lobbying interests or any of the other corrupted mafia institutions that have failed to serve as honest gatekeepers and arbiters of truth in society, it’s all cut from a similar cloth.

You can call it fascism, you can call it communism, or you can call it a centralized, command-and-control, collectivist leviathan of authoritarianism. After all, a thorn by any other name still stings the same.

Fill me with the Holy Spirit and I will write something beautiful. Or speak of terrible things concerning love, war, God, and what we all saw coming.

The parasitic Priest Class of the entrenched establishment has its fangs sunk deep into the body politics and culture of this world. A decadent empire thrashing and wailing, held in place by fraudulent means. The way of the wicked always weaves deceit in darkness.

But it’s nothing to get all bent out of shape about. Schemes hatched by hyenas are prone to shriek loudest when exposed under pressure. Light burns hottest at the melting point of truth.

The New World Order globalist agenda promises to “build back better” with a “great reset.” No, thank you. The ideology is destined to collapse.

The moral high ground will always prove to be the most precarious perch for hypocrites to hold. Take heart and walk steady in good spirits

The post En Garde 2021 first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Christians as Dangerous Good Samaritans

The Good Samaritan by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

Lately, I’ve been musing about religion and politics. And more specifically, the thought that keeps recurring to me is the following: Is the idea of born agains and other Christians becoming political radicals, a far-fetched one? Or, should the question be, how could they not become  politically radical Christians?

One sees frequent references to the large number of white, born again Christians who voted for Trump and the unmistakable inference is that there is a deep, principled  gap between these folks and so-called political “radicals” that can never be bridged. For whatever reasons, that may be true for some, but I refuse to buy this sweeping generalization as the final word.

To state my case from the outset:  Whatever other difference may exist about some issues,  my understanding of what Jesus was all about and what honest Christians should take from his message, inclines me to believe that common cause is not only consistent but the best path forward for realizing what should be shared goals.

Economic elites, abetted by some faith leaders, have taken over Christianity and transformed it into a state religion which functions to legitimate and further their rule. And I won’t mince words out of fear that some might take offense: The principles of our capitalist economic system and the irreducible core of Jesus’s teaching are irreconcilable.

As a child growing up in northern Great Plains, my own religious training was in the American Lutheran church, the most fundamentalist of the synods within Lutheranism. This was the faith my grandparents brought from Scandinavia, especially rural Norway, where it was known as the “Dark Religion.” There was a heavy emphasis on sin, scripture, the devil and a stern judgmental God. I recall attending weeklong, summer Bible camps where I was “saved” more than once at campfire revival meetings. Later, I attended a private Lutheran high school and Lutheran college, both steeped in fundamentalist Lutheran doctrine.

From childhood on, I heard  Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan countless times in Sunday School and subsequently in sermons and required chapel and  religion courses. If there’s a bedrock principle in the Gospels, this famous parable is it.  According to Luke 10: 24-37, Jesus told the parable as part of a Socratic dialogue with an expert in Jewish law. The lawyer  asks Jesus  how to attain eternal life, a question that Jesus turns on the lawyer, asking him, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer cites Deuteronomy 6:5 about loving God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind but then adds “and your neighbor as yourself.” That’s it, replies Jesus. But then, the lawyer asks, desiring to justify himself and perhaps trip up Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer may have wanted Jesus to demarcate some specific boundaries, thus enabling him to ignore everyone outside of them. Rather than a direct answer, Jesus responds with the parable:

“A certain man” (probably Jewish)  is walking down the seventeen mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a treacherous area known locally as “The Bloody Pass” where bandits were known to prey on travelers. The man is severely beaten, robbed of his clothes, and left half dead by the side of the road. At this point, two highly regarded figures from the Jewish community come along. The first to arrive was a priest who “passed by to the other side of the road.” Soon, a Levite (a priest’s helper) comes along but he also continues “on the other side.” Eventually, a stranger from Samaria stops by to help the robbery victim. Here it’s important to note the long standing enmity between Israelites and Samaritans, to the point where the two people had virtually no social contact. The Jews despised the Samaritans as apostates and the hatred was mutual. Undoubtedly, Jesus knew that his audience would find it incredible that a Samaritan would be the paragon of virtue in the parable.

The Samaritan administers first aid to the victim, takes him to an inn, and remains with him overnight. He even gives the innkeeper two denari (roughly two days wages) for any bills incurred by the man and  even promises that on his return trip he’ll reimburse the innkeeper for any additional expenses. At the end of the parable, Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three men behaved as the good neighbor to the victim. Probably squirming a bit and unable to utter the word “Samaritan,” the lawyer replied, “The man who had mercy on him.” And with that, Jesus tells the lawyer — and by extension, us —“Go and do likewise.”

For many years, perhaps like most people who hear the parable, I took it as a “Jesus wants us to help others trope,” a feel good story that a decent person should follow the  Good Samaritan’s example and come to the aid of others, even at some personal risk.  However, it wasn’t until reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s updating of the parable that I began to appreciate just how much Jesus was  a counter-culture revolutionary. I also began to recognize its updated applicability, especially when grounded in a wider socioeconomic context. Without invoking any supernatural dimension to the parable, we know there is overwhelming evidence  that (almost) all people have an innate capacity for empathy. Empathy is central to the story because it’s about being able to feel, imagine and identify with the pain of others and then engage in the appropriate response. And in the parable imparted by Jesus, the Samaritan didn’t act because of religious beliefs but was “moved by compassion.”

In our world, with all of its victims lying by the side of the road, the parable raises at least two additional lessons.  First, the Samaritan didn’t consult a checklist of prohibited victims like undocumented worker,  those with different sexual orientations,  accent, skin color, political or religious affiliation, whether he was pro-life or a member of a marginalized community.  Dr. King frequently preached about the Good Samaritan, invariably sourcing “Love Thy Neighbor” within a moral universalism and we know it’s the unifying moral principle in all the world’s great religions, including Christianity.

Second, and this directly relates to my purpose here, King cautioned that while philanthropy is commendable we can’t “overlook the circumstances which makes philanthropy necessary.”

In other words, King is suggesting that the problem is as much the identity of the robbers and the treacherous journey taken by the injured man.  It’s apparent King is suggesting that, yes, helping the injured roadside victim is laudatory but  that Jesus also means one’s neighbor is “any needy man on one of the numerous Jericho roads of life.” King is  updating the parable to mean all victims of injustice and calling out modern day pillagers and plunderers here in the United States.   Jesus’s admonition of “Go and do likewise” takes on new meaning because making the world more conducive to loving our neighbors requires one to practice what I’ve termed elsewhere “dangerous empathy.”

King and Jesus’s Jericho Road is a metaphor for radical change and as such, embodies dangerous empathy — radical love in action. Adding the adjective “dangerous” permits the parable to rise to the level of a moral stimulus package. Dangerous, because the wealthy, powerful and privileged elite in this country can’t allow such ideas to gain purchase. Just as the powers of the time saw Jesus as a threat, those promoting dangerous empathy today are branded subversive, anti-American radicals.

One doesn’t find the word “radical” in the Scriptures but the original meaning of the word describes precisely how Dr. King interpreted the meaning of the parable. And here it’s instructive to parse and get beyond the divisive and often misused word, radical. Those who own and control virtually everything that matters our country are quick to label any critics as “radical” in an effort to stigmatize and discredit them. However, the original definition of radical  comes from the Latin radicalis, from radix, or root or as in someone speaking or writing about fundamental truths. The tie-in with the Good Samaritan parable means going beyond addressing symptoms to identifying and doing something about the root causes of our neighbors’ suffering. My take is that honest Christians must unapologetically assert that Jesus’s message is totally at odds with society’s dominant culture.

Parenthetically, for this undertaking,  it won’t do for liberals or “progressives” who identify as Christians to adopt an overweening, censorious  attitude toward more conservative Christians. I say that for a reason, again grounded in Scripture, but with a important contemporary political turn. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the mote out of  your own eye,’ when there is a beam in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7: 1-5 KJV).

The modern twist is that the beam or plank is the Democratic Party to which many liberals and “progressives” remain attached. A blinders-free Christian will  acknowledge, along with Black Agenda Report’s Danny Haiphong, that “The Democratic Party is where movements go to die and where austerity is given a friendly, more diverse face from which to shatter  the lives of working class people.” Although advertising itself as the party of compassion, even the mild reformism of the Sanders’ campaign was fiercely opposed by the Democratic establishment. And as Haiphong reminds us, the so-called progressive “Resistance” within the party  refuses to confront the fact that “The U.S. state is the enforcement mechanism of capitalism.”

Nixon campaign strategist Kevin Phillips once called  the Democrats “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party but it’s certainly as pro-capitalist as the Republicans. The first and last allegiance of national level Democrats is to Wall Street, to the establishment of which they’re charter members. In the words of political historian Lance Serfa, rather than undertaking radical measures to help marginalized people and working class Americans, the Democratic Party seeks to “corral them and ensure that they don’t strike out as an independent party.”  Written in 2012, we need only substitute “sheep herding them” for “corral them” to update it. In short, the Democratic Party functions as a political prophylactic seeking to prevent deep and desperately needed structural change. For Christians this would mean distrusting the state and its official religion of the market and all its attendant myths.

Finally, lest I be misunderstood , this does not mean hating plutocrats and their enablers or wishing that physical harm is visited upon them. It does mean Christians becoming dangerous Good Samaritans, working to dismantle a  system that values profits over humanity and replacing it with a democratic one that’s responsive to people’s needs. Acknowledging these truths might prove a cathartic, liberating and for many, even  a secular atonement experience. Can I get an “Amen?”

The post Christians as Dangerous Good Samaritans first appeared on Dissident Voice.