Monday, 16 January 2012

Go Forth And Consume

Mankind's collective activities are a product of its collective structures, which are in turn created by its collective thoughts. And at the time of writing this, as humanity stands at the crossover from the 20th Century to the 21st, we are seeing a potential extinction scenario for our species. Yet despite warnings blaring across all temporal, cultural, language and spatial barriers, it would seem we are still collectively rushing headlong to our own demise. We had better start taking responsibility and exploring this conundrum. Today I am going to have a go at explaining what collective structures are, and if they are necessary. It will then follow that democratic capitalism, the current dominant system, is failing, and leading us into the aforementioned potential demise, and why.

And of course, the serious question - can we collectively learn our way out of this?

Collective structures are those systems that humans establish to function within and to access and manage the energy/entropy flows that keep us one step ahead of the flat line of energetic and chemical equilibrium, thereby sustaining life and all the potential that being alive makes possible. Humankind has always managed to produce these systems, and indeed, such systems are required, whether it is a system of family units bound in oral culture to facilitate subsistence agriculture, or a highly mobile, complexly globalised web of informational, human, social, and capital flows. Collective thought and learning generate ideological, technological and scientific outputs, which in turn contribute to the evolution of these systems. They are, like life itself, self-perpetuating systems - perhaps subject also to Darwinian Natural Selection*.

Multiple ideologies and systems can and do exist concurrently, such as religions, economic and political structures, but they almost always compete and conflict when they do not see eye to eye. There are many contributing factors to this. Such institutionalisation of collective awarenesses can turn them into cultural and evolutionary traps. This illustrates the ‘mind-binding and blinding power of paradigm,' in the words of David Loye, which is the worm in the core of every systemic step and structure that humanity has tried in the 20th century, the common reason for their failure. The apples of our eye aren't always delicious.

At the present time, capitalism is the dominant system. And according most earnestly to Slavoj Zizek, among the majority of others, it is currently failing. Sardar and Davies suggest that we are all ‘citizens of America,’ referring to the United States of America and its status as world superpower, and its economic influence. Dylan Moran, one of the world's best and most incisive socio-political commentator, and, incidentally, one of its best comedians, relates a chilling allegory of how the system works:
                “…America has a nosey in some war-torn…place, looking for oil…or whatever else it wants, and all the local people obviously begin to get pissed off. They begin to meet and foment…in the local bombed-out cafĂ©...and then what America does is, while these people are talking, they very, very gradually build the Starbucks around them. Then they all become addicted to latte and lose the will to rebel. And then they become Americans.”
Capitalism’s rise to become the world’s dominant collective structure has led to an inexorable, undeniable quest for newer, more profitable and productive methods of interaction, at the expense of due regard for any other consequence or circumstance. It is in this sense amoral, as the infamous Karl Marx put it, drowning ‘heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egoistic calculation.' It is arguably the most resilient system humanity has employed to date, as it aggregates and assimilates almost anything that challenges it. It, like medieval Christianity, has learned this lesson well from the Roman Empire. Paradoxically, it is also the most fragile. Since it can only exist through such progressive growth at any cost, this in effect becomes an act of borrowing from the future (Zizek 2009), and the wellspring of the future is beginning to run dry (Foster 2009 p.203). Physical waste, degradation and mistreatment of the world’s land, overpopulation, and socio-economic ruptures and inequalities, are unsustainably adding up, on a global scale. These are products of the capitalist system that is finding it has less and less of the resources of tomorrow to consume, and simultaneously accumulating an entropic debt that it will not be able to repay (Rifkin 2009).

Paradigms – or, ideologies – including those that fuel capitalism, are blinding and binding when they are institutionalised. This institutionalisation is a process of collective disavowal as opposed to collective learning, in that it addresses reality by mystifyingly distorting it. The forms of tolerance and cultural substitution that are taking place are a form of lazy idealism, serving only to further aggravate the problem, as they are just substitutive adaptations within the capitalist system, rather than replacing it with a more integrated, synchronous, and empathically embodied reality.

Every age, says Viktor Frankl, has its own sense of collective neurosis, and ours is an existential, apathetic vacuum. The ‘Starbucks’ cultural capitalism of Zizekian awesomeness provides an example that encapsulates all of these cracks in the integrity of the system: a percentage of the (high) price of your (delicious) beverage goes towards feeding starving children, or sustaining fair trade coffee. In essence, here one’s redemption from one’s consumerism is already included into the very act, and the price tag of their purchase. Many who might otherwise be facilitating real change are caught up in this trap of institutionalised collective disavowal, instead of collectively learning their way out of the system. So if you hear me call anyone a "Soros," yes, it is an insult, and this is why.

This is compounded by the gloomy idea that ecology is becoming the new opiate of the masses. Thanks, Zizek, for pointing that out. Bastard.

Our survival as a species may depend on our ability to collectively learn our way forward, and thus the question – “Can we?” Ronald Wright argues that we can and indeed must, because the current system is a ‘suicide machine.’ Wright contends that the advantage we have is hindsight, but wonders if it will be enough. Henryk Skolimowski promotes ‘lucid understanding’ as the missing piece of the current thought-system equation. Thoughts and values are of the utmost importance in this process, because they define our systems. This is the proverbial fork in the road, with the stakes as high as our extinction, and as low as a return to something bleaker than the post-roman Dark Ages, agree both Jeremy Rifkin and David Christian.  More and more minds (and at a slower pace, hearts) are turning to the question of how to move forward. This is collective learning slowly building momentum. Autonomy and empathy have been suggested as the key ingredients for any coming changes, because they are physically and emotionally embodied, and a positive, synchronous application of energy. These attitudes have seen more and more of the human race recognised and actualised over the 20th century; slavery has been abolished, women emancipated and persons with disabilities are widely accepted, religious dogma has lost its absolute authority, and the prejudice against homosexual individuals has markedly reduced.

While the ideology behind the capitalist system, especially in its current eco-cultural incarnation, is indeed very slowly becoming the new opiate of the masses, this trap has been identified, and progress is still being made. It's not perfect, and it has a long way to go - but at least there are lights in the darkness...beacons of hope to guide our way. If, of course, we choose to follow them.

Collective consciousness is evolving, positively, exponentially, though it has only just begun, and perhaps this is why an impatient bastard like me can get so perplexed. Take the Occupy movement that spread to over three thousand cities worldwide in its first six weeks, for example. Its function may eventually be to marinate all the different ingredients that have gone into it: people and ideas and wounds to heal and love, essential ingredients in the recipe (that fell forgotten and unseen behind the cosmic bookshelf a long time ago) that others have begun calling things like “The Empathic Civilisation” (Rifkin), “practical humanism” (Ralston-Saul), bringing together structure and agency in ‘human geography’ (Cloke, Philo & Sadler).

Nobody knows it yet but what they are doing every day precisely by being in that slow-cooker is literally creating exactly that unknown new system that they have been searching for. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, said:
“Let us be alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”

While it remains to be seen whether or not it will happen in time, humankind is finally learning to be alert.

There is an overwhelming trend at play in the wider world that transcends mythology, religion, ideology, psychology, nationalism, and any other -logy or -ism or evolutionary stepping stone in human that has come before. Humankind is learning to empathically embrace more and more of itself at an ever-increasing rate. The collective mind of man is learning that thinking is doing, and doing is becoming. Becoming an embodied, synchronous, sustainably evolving juggernaut of collective consciousness. Fragmented interpretations of fragmented, specific doctrine will be drowned out. We are coming into our own as a species. Finally. Those who bury their head too deeply in temples or mosques, climate change crusades or ‘ancient’ groves, pubs or brothels, science, boardrooms, or occupy somewhere rallies might just poke their head out the window one day and wonder why they're suddenly on their own. The analogy of the watermelon seed fits well to conclude this dialectic. When one presses a watermelon seed (humanity’s destiny) between the thumb (the system and old ways of thought we are “under (the thumb of)”) and forefinger (new ideas and collective learning), the seed will want to go down, or up, but the squeezing pressure forces it to remain in the grip, until eventually it will suddenly shoot out at great speed in a direction that nobody can really predict, and never even knew existed before.

*Since we still have no clear understanding amongst the battlefield that is evolutionary debate, we will leave this point to be looked at another day.

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