"Because the world is perfidious, I am going into mourning"
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Misanthrope.
Modern day dilemma, which one of the above deserves to live?
Thoughtless plundering of the world`s resources, encroachment upon the habitats of every other species, lack of meaningful blue-collar work. The social contract has been broken and today's leaders are too busy pimping for the gluttonous voter, too in thrall to the vast trough of corporate slurry, too terrified of an unflattering word written by a capricious media to imagine or execute any genuine solution. Our cult of self-expression has spawned colossal monuments to vacuity, ugliness and mediocrity; worthy monuments to a generation who venerate democracy without democrats and individualism without equipping people to be individuals.
The only solution seems to be one proposed by Silenus.
Where is the modern day Ma Joad?
Who remembers the remarkable Joad family in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath? Certainly amongst the most admirable fictional characters ever created. The family, led by the indomitable Ma, were tormented by the most iniquitous circumstances imaginable, yet somehow managed to retain not just a semblance of dignity, but one that was so powerful it demanded a humbling respect from any reader. That they were a figment of Steinbeck's vivid imagination is irrelevant as the philosophical proposition states; "is there anything, by the mere fact that we can think of it, is shown to exist outside our thoughts?" In such a sense, the fact that Steinbeck could imagine the Joads and the suffering he allowed them to experience, meant they, or someone like them, really must have existed.
The story opens with the family losing their home, livelihoods and meager possessions, before narrating their Odyssean migration across the country, an arduous journey punctuated by death, anxiety and abandonment. Despite this, despite the banefulness of exploitative work, irregular income, permanently empty stomachs and a crushingly bleak future, the Joad family managed to exude such a moral superiority that it required every reader to question and evaluate their own troubles and measure them against this new litmus.
But the proponents of progress cannot accept such antiquated examples of suffering as comparable to today’s modern man. Today’s man is more ‘progressed’ than yesterdays, who in turn was more advanced than the man of the day before that. The fanatics of the now not only imagine that the dilemmas of the present are somehow superior to those of the past, afflictions almost merited by their place in time, but that modern man possesses the tools to solve all such problems.
Today, whole industries dedicated to blame-assignment have been created so that modern man might not suffer the ignominy of being considered the author of his own misfortunes. Inevitably, in a world that venerates the individual, culpability has alighted upon extrinsic factors, things outside ourselves, things that are ‘done to us’ usually by historical circumstances, whose characters are always white, middle class and Christian. The entire ‘Rights’ discourse has been an attempt to moderate and manipulate these extrinsic factors, these structural and cultural shackles that are impediments upon the full actualization of every individual.
Blame-assignment has become an enormous business, with social workers, interventionist politicians and lawyers wholly implicated in its foundation and continuity. The notion of stoically accepting the cruel vicissitudes of life, or as Hamlet calls them; ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ is anathema to modern democratic man, a being who demands a full and painless existence.
In previous generations society had useful signposts –admittedly sometimes claustrophobic and even oppressive- that deterred individuals from pursuing certain types of self-destructive, or socially destructive behavior. Such behavioral memes were passed on generation to generation by the conservatively minded, by people who, whilst certainly not cheerleaders of avant-gardism, probably believed that change should be gradual and never so tumultuous as to destabilize the status quo.
Such traditional ideals would have been found amongst the Church, politicians, monarchy, military, parents and elders who were repositories of values that the larger body politic identified with, or at least found useful to provide a stable framework in which to grow and evolve. Most would have been sufficiently broad-minded to have believed that rules were not permanent bonds, but merely formative tools.
Today, we have lost this self-regulatory ability. In our modern epoch, the zeitgeist demands that all institutions must be held in suspicion, must be ridiculed. That leaders should be publicly maligned, old truths must be discarded. All this has been replaced by the new truth; that individuals are sovereign and are ends in themselves, free sacred beings whose most sacred duty is to choose their own ends and the means to be employed to reach them.
Into such a miasmic environment arrive the new Welfarized poor, a new and primitive tribe, the tragic product of historical circumstances. Post-industrialism deprived low-skilled workers of the dignifying opportunity to provide for themselves, as mechanization dealt them the humiliating blow of being more efficient than they had once been. The financialization of capital commoditized every aspect of life, which meant that every individual had economic utility regardless of productivity, value to be extracted and profit to be maximalized. Twenty unemployed people meant one bureaucratic post could be created to distribute their hay and fodder, a ghastly calculation, yet one that was justifiable as it legitimized the expansion of The State. Educationalists abandoned any earlier ambition to create rounded, socially conscious humanists, instead colluding with the needs of the new Corporate State, a callous behemoth that demanded mere obedient automatons. Cynical politicians, ravenous for their votes, uttered platitudinous nonsense, and taught the Welfarized poor the new catechisms that ‘nothing was their fault’ and ‘nothing would be asked of them.’
By disqualifying the poor from genuine self-autonomy, their oppressors have inflicted the cruelest imaginable blow upon them. Not only have the elevating and purgative qualities of tribulation been rejected, but so also have notions of shame and duty. Ma Joad admonishes Rosasharn "don't you shame us. We got too much on us now, without no shame." Ma was painfully conscious that some acts of behavior were socially impermissible and that by restraining herself and her progeny from such acts she was exercising her God-given duty to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong. The historically evil social workers have removed the poor’s one last admirable attribute.
Instead they are told that they have ‘rights’, and it is rights shorn of duty, obligation or consequence that have become the leitmotif of the new Welfarized poor. Whilst Ma Joad offers her brother-in-law the mild rebuke "Tell 'em to God. Don' go burdenin' other people with your sins. That ain't decent" the new Welfarists are incognizant of any socially useful definition of ‘decent’, a wholly bothersome notion that died beneath the weight of the modern exaltation of the self.
In the West, especially amongst Anglo-Saxons, the notion of ‘Self’ has enjoyed near celestial status, an absolute ideal that larger bodies must, at the very least, pretend to venerate. But it’s only a red herring. Selfhood, just like any other presumed absolute truth withers under the critical examination of a relativistic eye. For selfhood is only legitimate if the aforementioned self is accorded the means to enjoy and exploit his self- volitional consciousness? Liberty is not to be confused with licentious. Simply, we do not educate people to the necessary degree so that they might be autonomous. Instead we are left between two stools, using the vocabulary of selfhood, making assumptions that individuals can be trusted to act conscientiously towards themselves and others, performing the expensive and solemn duty of implementing government policy as we elect our representatives, yet we continue to rear and tolerate a class of feral people who are incapable of self-governance.
Traditional and pre-industrial societies had many mechanisms to control their people, and in recent history Christianity has been one of the most successful methods to tame a rampant ego. Additionally, it magnanimously provided content and meaning to believers, as well as giving most people their only exposure to beauty and transcendence through its liturgies, icons, hymns and requiems. The readings were conducted in the most eloquent vocabulary. Christianity also had the attraction of being socially conscious and obliged its devotees to perform communally useful acts that benefited many rather today’s mantra of self-interest. Institutionalized religion has been responsible for all manner of tragedies in recent human history, yet it was never antithetical to beauty. Secularism, at least in harness to vacuous consumerism, often is.
As the Joads decide upon what to take with them on their involuntary expulsion –if not from Eden, then at least from an Oklahoma that they might have dared to consider as home- someone asks "How will we know it's us without our pasts?" The same might be asked of the West. All institutions have been battered and emasculated by the petulant demands of the self-indulgent. God has suffered calumny and ridicule before being consigned to cameo roles as either the embodiment of ignorance and superstition, or rather paradoxically as the master of ceremonies at births, deaths and weddings, a Being to lend such events some profundity.
If, as Nietzsche informed us, God is dead, then we must wonder who has replaced Him to provide values for the denizens of the world. For some, it has been the State, for others unrestrained individualism. Neither party can declare a complete victory. The State and the individual are in some sense antagonistic towards each other, both fighting for their own self-preservation, a condition that the other threatens to destroy. The State’s ultimate ambitions are just as pernicious and anti-individualistic as any religion, for its extravagant promises can only be paid for –using our present model- by requiring every citizen to push the Sisyphean rock of taxation and consumption. Obedience to work and buying will be the only goals and duties permitted.
Individualism on the other hand, has spent the last few centuries undermining the notion of community. The individual and his rights and expectations have been legitimized and premised upon the idea of the inviolability of the individual conscience. Luther's unmediated relationship with God, Descartes hallowed subjectivism, articulated in cogito ergo sum, Hobbes position that men were born with rights alone, and that duties were something acquired after his voluntary entry into society. Locke thought knowledge was the agreement, or disagreement of ideas, ones that had to be channeled through an individual’s cognitive apparatus. All legitimized agency and individual choice, yet all probably assumed some degree of foresight and a willingness -as Shakespeare wrote- to bare patiently the results of his conduct. But a willingness to accept those ‘results of conduct’ requires a degree of sociability that is antithetical to the modern variant of individualism.
It might be conceded that the violently opposed, irreconcilable demands and expectations of the State and the Individual have produced the most nihilistic period in history. Der letzte Mensch no longer seeks transcendence, no longer acknowledges obligations to anything other than his selfish and petulant ego. He has even become blind to beauty, now willing to sacrifice every spiritual and aesthetic ‘good’ upon the altars of precision, efficiency and utility. Der letzte Mensch desires only complete and painless actualization. This has been most catastrophic for the poor and ignorant who have been ‘forced to become free.’ Without education, without the restraints of communally endorsed rules, without the dignifying prospect of artisanal work, or as Simone Weil wrote; creative work, even if badly paid, does not degrade life. Without any preparation or rehearsal, the poorest and most ignorant have suffered a moral, aesthetic, cultural holocaust. They have been told they have choices, but they have been given instead the Shirt of Nessus.
No longer will the poor and ignorant enjoy their moral superiority, nor even their place beside Christ in Heaven if that had given them solace whilst suffering here on earth. Instead, intoxicated by the lies of people who despise them, they will suffer on earth in a corrupted state. And because of their superfluity and vulnerability, and because they rejected shame, their tormentors will inflict ever more agonizing humiliations upon them. They are to suffer the ignominy of being the faceless, invisible vehicles upon which corporations and their marketing stooges will hang any product. They will be cursed with plagues as bad as many inflicted upon Pharaoh. Plague of unfit housing. Plague of inhumane work. Plague of mind-numbingly witless entertainment. Plague of egregious public services. Plague of rudimentary education. Plague of hideous fashion. Plague of criminality as a route to acquisition of things they are told they should have. Plague of poisoned expectations.
To mollify the consciences of their more educated and privileged brethren, the poor and ignorant will be told they are free, and that they are free to choose. They will be indoctrinated with infantile mantras –nothing like as beautiful as the recited creeds of their grandparents- that they must ‘choose,’ that they must 'express themselves'. For self-expression is the unsightly handmaiden of consumerism. To successfully express oneself, one must have 'things' and 'combinations of things' that set one apart from other. It will be promoted as ‘fun’ and life-transforming, and the enemies of the poor, the disseminators of such lies, will speak unctuously of how ‘the people’ are sovereign and architects of their own lives. But it won’t be true, for corporate and bureaucratic Procrustean forces are actually shrinking our ability to conduct independent activity. They conduct their childish and ruinous charade using a banal, yet kaleidoscopic palette of 'things' that’s very abundance is meant to compensate for actual content. There will be a hundred colour shades of one particular product, all of which the obedient consumer will be expected to collect. The consumer will fall into perpetual debt, will be miserable, overworked and anxious that he hasn’t enough ‘things’, but he will be told he is free and exercising his own desires.
Metaphor will disappear as there will no longer be a range of genuinely different and authentic representations of life. Puerile distinctions will be lauded, petty differences which will drive an arms race that demands every person to make ever more extravagant displays of 'me-ness.' It is against such a nihilistic landscape that even the broadest and most moderate social expectations and basal constraints upon excess, are flaunted and ridiculed. In their place will be put a rigid legal system and brutal law-enforcement agencies. Atomization and ‘me-ness’ will ensure nobody notices the injustices that are being inflicted upon their neighbours. We have allowed ourselves to create a world where the self is sovereign and any manner of advancement of the self is justifiable. Kant’s idea of ‘morality as a creative process’ has been bastardized by the ignorant and the cynical who claim to champion them. It has rendered social co-operation impossible and damned the unenlightened practitioners to the darkest of existences.
And if it isn’t our morality, as the Epicureans claimed, our ability to act so as ‘not to fear another man’s resentment’, then what is it that distinguishes us from lower animals? The question is particularly germane as we have reached a moment in history when our annihilatory practices have left many other species on the brink of extinction. The Bible is explicit; And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
This passage has given predaceous man the moral authority to butcher his feathered, furred and hooved brethren. As Xenophanes rather anti-climatically pointed out, if cattle and horses had hands, they would inevitably draw their own gods as cattle and horses. This implies that only dexterity and the ability to form abstractions have afforded us such an exalted position in the animal kingdom. Yet if our dominion over lower animals is so tenuous, it seems only fair that man should be obliged to demonstrate any rare and remarkable qualities that might justify our preeminence. Such a ‘higher man' -the type that is distinguishable from lower animal and therefore worthy of his dominant status- should be capable of introspection, exaltation, aestheticism, eroticism (not making love like a lustful beast) humour, curiosity, foresight and intelligent observation. This should be a bare minimum of attributes that differentiate ourselves from the creatures that we treat so abysmally. Any of the world’s citizens who are incapable of distinguishing themselves from lower animals have surely forfeited any reasonable expectation to be treated in a manner dissimilar to how we treat other 'beasts.'
Yet paradoxically, the de-skilling of the workforce, the poisoning of expectations, the ambition of imposing uniformly egregious products upon people, has led to the creation of a breed of man that is not even indistinguishable from lower animals, but actually inferior to many of them. It seems indisputable that a beautiful tiger, a noble lion, an elegant horse, a loyal and intelligent dog is more aesthetically valuable than any ponderous, lantern-jaw, thick set dullard, one who waddles around in sports clothing at all hours of the day wearing a dazed and vacant expression, evidence that effort and comprehension are beyond his cankerous brain.
This new sub-species have certain common characteristics. Propensity to violence, irrational, ad hominem outbursts rather than considered appraisals, blindness to beauty, lustfulness, and with their new rights without duties, they have become sullen and covetous. And this is the greatest tragedy. Nobody should have to live like this. Nobody should have to experience existence without ever seeing anything beautiful. Nobody should ever have live a long and tedious, arduous life that is devoid of anything ‘good.’ Without education, without showing man the beautiful things man is capable of, existence becomes a long and painful carnival of horrors. Man as victim, man as sacrifice upon the altar of another’s ambition.
Worthy candidates for a swimming pool filled with Box-Jellyfish.
Bertrand Russell wrote, “The great ages of progress have depended upon a small number of individuals of transcendent ability. We cannot regard progress as assured: if the supply of eminent individuals should fail, we should no doubt lapse into Byzantine immobility.”
Who are today’s exceptional people, those demigods who can inspire and glorify all that is good about man? Surely there must be many, as the proponents of progress have assured us that civilization is on an upward trajectory, one of incremental improvements from one generation to the next. If that is so, then our present age possesses riches of unimaginable value, benefactions by the men of genius who graced this mortal coil over the last few thousand years. We are the proud inheritors of the ideas and works of antiquity, the achievements of the Greeks, the subsequent reverential works of Christianity. We are the progeny of the humanists, great men who lionized mans unique faculties and believed that our world was permeated with divinity, everything being touched by a numinous quality. We live amongst the spectacular political and artistic successes of the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Romantic eras, foundations upon which we could build our own utopias. In the fields of science and technology the West led the world, though often regrettably using those advantages for domination, rather than making a bequest of those innovations for all mankind. All said, the generation of today has the richest repositories from which to draw upon. It is only necessary to exhibit a little humility when doing so.
But the continuous perfectibility theory seems to have floundered within the toxic swamp that is the nexus of equalitarianism, democracy and consumerism. There has been an unfortunate alignment of planets, which specifically precludes the emergence of anyone of genuine artistic merit. This is evidenced by the plague of modern celebrities, people who despite their fantastic wealth, depressing omnipresence and tragic influence, might never be confused with ‘individuals of transcendent ability.’
Democracy is about ‘The People’ and ‘The People’ have demanded that their heroes will be ‘just like them.’ Or so they would like to believe.
For as so often has happened throughout history, ‘The People’ have been deceived by unscrupulous people who wish to keep them ignorant, malleable and helpless. Rather than being encouraged to celebrate the shared heritage of the past, the poor and dispossessed are told that the remarkable cultural works of the past were actually forms of oppression. That the timeless works of literature, architecture, music and art were inaccessible to them and that it was treasonous, an act of betrayal against their class to admire the achievements of their tormentors. That by developing their own culture, they would no longer will they have to suffer the ignominy of being mere spectators. In specious democratic parlance; they had the right to express themselves. The nonsensical phraseology encouraged them to ‘look inside themselves.’ By doing so, they would be oblivious to what was great and beautiful around them.
The results were never likely to be attractive, though you would never know it, as the self-inflated and naïve appropriated the vocabulary of excellence. Superlatives were bastardized as an illustrative and explanatory arms race developed with which to describe and hopefully distinguish people’s unremarkable wares. Great, amazing, fantastic, were used by marketeers to define their goods, leaving the creators of genuinely great, amazing, fantastic things with nothing to call their efforts. All participants became understandably cynical.
Modern celebrity has nothing to do with the representation of an ideal, the personification of a beautiful way to live, or the things that pertain to that exceptional life. Modern celebrities don’t exemplify a remarkable skill or talent; don’t lift their followers up onto a higher plane, instead, they are antithetical, even hostile, to inspirational or aesthetic values. They are simply part of the grubby and vitiating world of money and merchandising. Such an admission, even to our shameless generation would be too painful, so we pretend that it is laudable that our new heroes are ‘our own,’ are accessible. We pretend that this noxious populism, one that demands nothing more from our contemporary supermen and women than that they should be recognizable and ordinary, is worthy of adulation.