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Presented April 8, 2012, by Michael J. Vera Eastmond
Karl Marx wrote, "Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion . . . as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence," they "are indirectly producing their actual material life." Furthermore, what distinguishes men from animals and other forms of life is that we are endowed with conscience, and this distinction has given man, and all his synthetic institutions of business and government exclusive right to negotiate and dominate his local and global environment, most notably in the past one hundred years.
The 20th century brought with its unfolding, the rapid succession of technological change of industrialized structures and populations, whereby the latter were transformed from the collective into individuals by what the Frankfurt philosopher Herbert Marcuse noted as "an intrinsic connection between individual and property. According to this philosophy, man could not develop self without conquering and cultivating a domain of his own, to be shaped exclusively by his free will and reason."
But what happens when free will and reason are manipulated to make the irrational seem rational, when God and soul is replaced by Machine and money? When, as Ludwig Feuerbach wrote, "sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness." This is a personal question I have been asking for a few years now, and I find that contemporary capitalism and much of Western political thought cannot cogently explain or justify the existence of a system that can consume and exploit so many resources and produce so much destruction to all the biological systems of the Earth -- all for the sake of acquiring mineral, financial and capital wealth. What I have found is that when capitalism established the connection between the individual and property, it took one major form of energy from him: his connection with the Earth and God, thus, his soul.
And while this may seem like a completely laughable premise, let me make it a little bit more so when I say that I agree with Friedrich Nietzsche when he said, "the individual human being is in precisely the same case as the lowest worm." Some people may actually take personal offense to that, but let us take a look at the bigger, elemental picture. Human beings are composed of the same matter as worms; we have brains and we both perform functions in this world. The one, universal thing that connects us to worms or any other matter is that we all contain energy, life, anima, soul: we are born to produce, consume, and die where, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, our energy, that which was once present in life and absent in death, is merely transferred elsewhere.
To clarify my argument, I say this: all living matter on this Earth is endowed with energy (this should not be controversial). What separates humans from all other living matter is our conscientious ability to perpetuate this dialectic with the production of ideas and material, the goal of which (according to political philosophy and economists) is to produce the most good for the most people. But I argue that the current mode of capitalism, and the supplemental philosophy that apologizes for it are not sustainable, because the former is concerned with the exploitation of natural energy (human, ecological) for the acquisition of material energy (money). Both capitalism and political philosophy are complicit in the myth that we can continue indefinite growth with finite resources while simultaneously repressing the soul and sanctity of the natural world and natural energy -- the spirit between God, man and everything in between.
For capitalism has created a virtual world, away from the natural world, that consumes our time and energy with labor and technology, which aligns the energy of the global workforce with a super-structure that is built around petroleum, which makes irreconcilable demands of the worker and remunerates his spent-energy via a paycheck. A portion of this must be paid to the state-machine in order to maintain and perpetuate the super-structure -- the other portion of which must be spent in the social realm on consumer goods and services. This is the great and enlightening process of human history that stole our time and relationship with the natural, replacing it with a material world of production and consumption. Produce, get paid, consume -- and the public education system is complicit in this myth by conditioning generations of children the practices of consumerism.
I am not arguing against a system where individuals are allowed to be rewarded for innovation and societies progress technologically or socially, where people work together in a structure for the execution of a public or private function for some type of financial compensation for their spent energy. But is there not more to life than the material world? Isn't there some type of spiritual connection between all of us and this machine we created? What about the energy, "the inconspicuous but vital solidarity that binds humans together," that philosophy professor Max Pensky wrote in the preface of the Postnational Constellation? Indeed there is much more to this energy as I have found, but it does not exist solely in the external, material spheres of the mind. It deals with the individual's internal interpretation of this reality. It is not just a problem with structuralism and the extensive role of petroleum in a global capitalist economy; it is primarily a post-structural issue, wherein the interpretive space between the object and user is distorted because the current values of labor and technology demands obedience from the worker, which is the carried out in his behavior in society and as part of the masses. Until we wake up and realize the collective connections and public obligations we have to one another and the Earth, and actually learn to activate it in the private and public spheres, we will never be able to realize and actualize the possibilities that the mid 20th century French philosopher Guy Debord spoke of.
Things weren't always this way. Debord wrote of a time when human beings used to have an intrinsic and valued relationship with the natural world and time, specifically when "the agrarian mode of production, governed by the rhythms of the seasons, was the basis of cyclical time in its fullest development." Here Debord speaks of human history, from the rise of the Ancient societies up to the turn of the Great Depression. Even in the early 20th century, the workers of the agricultural sector had this sense of obligation to and respect for the land, as well as to members of the community who struggled together like any family would. But then came a foundational shift in man's balance of energy between the natural and material world.
It had already occurred some time before when the secular and 'enlightened' political philosophers found Reason indispensible to man, and thus to be of the utmost importance. Accordingly, John Locke had a method to this reasoning: the first is to discover truths; the next is to regularly and methodically organize them. The next step is to perceive their connections, and then draw the right conclusion. Another Frankfurt School philosopher Max Horkheimer notes that, "reason in this sense is as indispensible . . . as it always has been in the conduct of business. It is a pragmatic instrument oriented to expediency, cold and sober." Whether John Locke intended this method of reason to be applied to economic decisions-- I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was -- is of no matter. What does matter is that we have used the philosophy of Locke and others to base the livelihood of humanity on a highly industrialized, bureaucratized and technologized structure that creates an economic inefficiency and does not consider the negative implications on human beings or natural resources.
A great and tragic example is the Great Depression -- the coupe de grace to the communal agrarian sector in America. As part of a free-market economy, we are blessed and cursed with energy-exchange institutions (stock markets) where people can use money earned from their labor and invest in companies that might yield a return. And in October of 1929, there was a sudden shift of money (energy) as businesses and individuals went bankrupt. As it went for farmers, many of them had enormous outstanding debts from acquiring machinery in an attempt to mechanize and increase production, so many were displaced from their land, which they had a historical relationship with, and driven into urban areas to find work. Thus, a few corporations and banks consolidated the wealth and capital they received during and after the stock-market crash; communal agriculture was executed and the machine had its way in creating the concept known the Spectacle that Guy Debord coined in the 1970s. But then we incurred a second boon to the mechanized economy when the Japanese bombed the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. This sparked a revolution in American culture and perception, as it came out of the war sitting triumphantly upon the ashes of fascism. The financial prosperity that occurred out of the death of millions of human beings around the world increased the standard of living in America and increased the notion of the American as a commodified individual. It also captured what energy was left between humans and the natural world, to channel it to the "culture of industry."
As industry went from manual to mechanized, everything was based on time and how efficiently ideas could be materialized and sent out to market for consumption. Marcuse argues that technology and the machine created a "mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patters, an instrument for control and domination," through technical efficiency. This, created a technocracy whereby, "the technical considerations of imperialistic efficiency and rationality supersede the traditional standards of profitability and general welfare." The moment where conscientiousness separates from the general welfare of human energy for the sake of monetary energy is where public and private institutions separate consciousness from anima and channels it to the machine. In basing economic decisions on the self-interested acquisition of wealth by means of exploiting human and material energy, institutions effectively terminate their obligations to the natural world and create an imbalance, whereby energy is siphoned from the natural world and diverted to the machine.
And as the power of technology increases, so too does the concentration of economic power, while Debord adds that it also increases isolation, and the relationship between man and machine sees an ever-increasing imbalance of power and energy, where the latter is not yielding an equitable amount back to the former. This seems to be a dialectic that is rapidly increasing as the advanced industrial economies of the 21st century are being remarkably characterized by a "quaternary sector of knowledge based activities . . . which all depend on the influx of new information." This quaternary sector is dependent upon the existence of a continually updated and innovated technologic apparatus, which exists in a reality that is quite independent of human consciousness, yet whose life is dependent on our interaction with it. This "reigning economic system," Debord says, "is founded on isolation; at the same time it is a circular process designed to produce isolation. Isolation underpins technology, and isolates in its turn."
Who has been steering us into the abyss of technologic isolation? "Men who want power for the sake of power," Nietzsche would argue, "political parties." These are the individuals who have made careers allocating and appropriating the energy of the masses, and working in conjunction with industry have effectively isolated the individual by locking him into a system that is dependent upon the assumption that he will use his energy to work a job and earn taxable income. Part of this energy is vested in the political parties with authority, whose "hallmark is unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey." By allowing the energy of the masses to be controlled by the authority of the government, Marcuse notes, generations of politicians have effected a "totalitarian order" which "marks the leap from the indirect to direct forms of domination, while maintaining a system of private enterprise," where "lack of efficiency is a capital offense."
Here we are now at the beginning of the first financial quarter of 2012 and on this path of the economic and global unknown. Both the public and private sectors are declaring insolvency in record numbers because the dictates of capitalism demand that individuals put their financial interests ahead of the public good and the future. John Corzine has no idea where $1 billion of his clients' money is and does not expect to be held financially or legally accountable because MF Global was going through a lot of transactions and information influxes at the time. Seems how Corzine is a former-Senator, it will be a shock if anything actually happens to him. But the most tragic thing to note is the lack of public outrage from this or the multiplicity of financial related robberies that have happened in the past three years. The Corzine example underscores the premise of the argument here and segues into the next section: a capitalist loses human energy in the form of $1 billion, and the masses have not ordered for his last meal yet.
What we are witnessing are the "intolerable powers" that Marx spoke of, in this case being the private and public financial institutions, rendering "the great mass of humanity 'propertyless,'" and producing the utmost "contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture." Unfortunately, here in America, the masses have been continually exposed to and have knowledge of this contradiction, yet we continue our complicity with the myth that capitalism is the best way of ordering commercial trade. And as long as we continue to allow the perpetuity of this myth, we will forever be powerless against it.
When man gave up his relationship to the natural world, the latter was replaced with individuality that was conferred upon him by the machine. This individualism according to Marcuse, "the pursuit of self-interest, was conditioned upon the proposition that self-interest is rational . . . that it resulted from and was constantly guided by autonomous thinking," when in fact, individualism was the ruse used to govern the behavior of the individual. This rationalizing of man and machine is what Marcuse calls "the mechanics of conformity" which spread from the technological to the social order -- automating performance and reifying "a matter-of-factness which teaches unreasonable submissiveness and thus guarantees getting along with the prevailing order." These "mechanics of conformity" are so pervasive and ubiquitous, especially in American society, that it becomes hard to recognize "the process which hardens men by breaking down their individuality -- a process consciously and planfully undertaken in the various camps of fascism -- take place tacitly and mechanically in them everywhere under mass culture, and at such an early age that when children come to consciousness everything is settled." This process has been enacted through history, legislation, popular culture, business, and education, and it is conditioned upon the society and masses by the corresponding structures and institutions. It confirms The Society of the Spectacle, which Debord said, "appears at once as society and as a means for unification . . . it is that center where all consciousness converges," and "serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system."
The Spectacle expresses, "the total practice of one particular economic and social formation; it is . . . that formation's agenda," and "subjects living human beings (emphasis added) to its will to the extent that the economy has brought them under its sway." When we actually stop and think of how this economic system has "made men dependent upon the world of things to an even higher degree than before," it should hopefully produce an anxious emotion that children experience when they separate from their parents. But in mainstream, manufactured American society, we are not allowed the time to stop and think about such nonsense. What happens when the oil runs out? If an EMP attack happened in the United States what would be the effects on the electrical systems? What would happen if China called on the United States to pay its debt? These question are instead deferred to politicians, who "under conditions of representative government the people are supposed to rule." The German philosopher Hannah Arendt correctly postures that "all political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them."
Horkheimer contributes to this vision of a society in decline when he aptly notes, "the fundamental concepts of civilization are in a process of rapid decay. The rising generation no longer feels any confidence in them, and fascism has strengthened their suspicions." This is continuing today and I believe that society is starting to become cognizant of the contradictions inherent in capitalism, the government and the Spectacle, but the energy that is diverting itself away from it is not nearly large enough to bridge the gap between nature and man again. I pessimistically state that it will take a cataclysmic event to occur, either natural or manmade, for the majority of living beings to realize that something has to change in the way we conduct our relationships with each other and the natural world.
The only particular place that can change it is within. It is necessary, Horkheimer writes, for "the individual has to do violence to himself and learn that the life of the whole is the necessary precondition of his own. Reason has to master rebellious feelings and instincts, the inhibition of which is supposed to make human existence possible." He continues that the form of reason which we were given under capitalism "has degenerated because it was the ideological projection of a false universality which now shows the autonomy of the subject to have been an illusion. Reason has been used over the course of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century as an instrument of oppression against the masses in order to maintain the progress of the machine and preserve its authority, but the first step in destroying authority's power over the course human history, according to Arendt, lies in the masses contempt for authority, "and the surest way to undermine it is laughter."
The contemporary French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote in his work The Postnational Constellation, "it is useless to dream of a revolution through form, because the medium and the real are now in a single nebula whose truth is indecipherable." He furthermore contends that we live in a society where information is constantly being pumped from the machine that it gives less meaning and "dissolves . . . the social . . . to total entropy," leading to "the implosion of the social in the masses." Media communication, especially in America, is, according to Debord, "essentially one-way," where we are consumers of information but do not have the ability to input any critical thought upon the structures and events that contradict the prevailing order.
This is due to what Marcuse called "standardization of thought" that is an intended consequence of the Spectacle. The machine produces goods and services that are to be consumed, not contemplated which has lead to the "social impotence of critical thought": this "increases in proportion to 'the growth of the industrial apparatus'" and "has been further facilitated by the fact that important strata of the opposition have for long been incorporated into the apparatus itself -- without losing the title of the opposition," . So it does not matter what side of a social debate one chooses to engage, whether a person is regurgitating opinions from CNN or FOX to back up beliefs, because both sides belong to the same illusion and are two sides to the same coin.
If one ever expects to escape "from the apparatus which has mechanized and standardized the world," which Marcuse says is impossible, then it must divest its energy from the Spectacle and become aware of alternative sources or forums which human energy can be reinvested into. Two potentialities that are starved for activation and energy are the public sphere and universality. The latter, "is embedded in the most basic capacities that we possess as persons capable of speaking, hearing, giving, and accepting reasons for our actions, and conducting our lives accordingly," and the former, according to Debord, "is predicated entirely on the requirement that . . . theory as the understanding of human practice be recognized and directly lived by the masses."
The only way for this revolution of the masses and the activation of the public sphere to occur is through the education of our progeny and ourselves as individuals. We must release ourselves of the images that we are addicted to and strive for a higher level of consciousness whereby true human reason accords with and dictates the public good. This begins at the local level of political and civic engagement where individuals, municipalities and states can begin to think of themselves less as groups with conflicting interests and learn to harmonize the interests of all individuals through the communicative power that Arendt spoke of.
Habermas writes that "democratic self-determination can only come about if the population of a state is transformed into a nation of citizens who take their political destiny into their own hands," and that "politics must see to it that the social conditions for public and private autonomy are met," otherwise a legitimation crisis, exactly like the one we are currently experiencing, will continue unfettered. However uneasy this task may seem, it must be remembered that not all public bureaucracies/spheres are going to look the same. Michael Walzer rightly states that "political theory must be grounded in the traditions and culture of a particular society," (which does not bode well for America since its culture is based on the consumption of standardized goods) and also recognizes that "the nature and number of our identities will be different," so "a great variety of arrangements ought to be expected and welcomed."
The key element here is that of Radical Perspectivism, or the reconciliation of world perspectives by individuals and groups at particular moments of time. I have had my own Radical Perspectivism recently, and I can say that it is not a pleasant trip because it shakes the very foundations of a world that was considered indestructible. But one must explore the realms outside of individual comfort, leaving behind the Spectacle, because "without the demand for, without this susceptibility to, without this minimal participation in meaning, power is nothing but an empty simulacrum and an isolated effect of perspective." Once we recognize the consciousness and anima that all living beings share, we will be driven, not by the production and consumption of material energy, but by the metaphysical actions that are concerned with fulfilling sacred obligations that anima and God blesses us with.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.