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The Gods Must Be Crazy: The Rise Of The Primitive Society Of The Future

Modernity in its later phase reads like mankind’s love affair with authority.

Read more from NOTES FROM DISGRACELAND

10.XI 2018

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. (Steven Weinberg)

If God exists, then everything is allowed because every act committed by man is an expression of God’s will. This includes even the most extreme acts; especially them. For most people, hurting others is deeply traumatic. A sacred Cause serves to anesthetize their elementary sensitivity to another’s suffering. Without this Cause we would have to feel all the burden of what we did – the Cause transposes the burden of guilt[1]. So, if there is God, we do not have to reflect on the consequences of our actions. Whatever we do — and, we know, we are prepared to do terrible things if the situation requires — it is a priori legitimized.

If there is no God, however, everything is prohibited. Well, not exactly everything, but a lot of things. This is the Lacanian inversion of Dostoyevsky. In the absence of God, we are the judges of good and evil; we censor ourselves and restrict our actions. We become Kantian subjects: every man has a conscience and finds himself observed, threatened and, in general, kept at awe by an internal judge[2]. The moral subject is simultaneously defendant and judge, a doubled self or dual personality. A Kantian subject is answerable to a superego far more severe than that of the traditional morality.

Man’s discontent with God in general, and how he managed the affairs of the world in particular marks the beginning of Modernity. It is the moment in history when man puts himself in charge. This is the first point of transfer of power and responsibility in modern history. However, enlightenment, rationality, and above all, emancipation from God created their own problems. In the final stages of enlightenment, this process led naturally to the disenchantment of the world[3] as the ultimate triumph of rationality — a seminal break point in modern culture and a radical departure in the way we experience reality. It connotes the removal of a magic spell and reflects a belief that humanity can control everything by means of calculation. And so, through the advent of scientific methods and the use of enlightened reason the world was rendered transparent, demystified and, ultimately, hollowed and deprived of its richness. It became disenchanted and disenchanting, predictable and intellectualized.

God as a secular entity: Primitive society of the future makes its first appearance

Nothing vanishes; of everything that disappears there remain traces. God disappeared, but he left behind his judgment, like a Cheshire Cat’s smile. And God’s judgment is terrifying in itself, but the judgment of God without God is even more terrifying[4].

The disenchantment of the world proved to be the alienating and undesirable flip side of scientific progress. Life got more complicated and unmanageable, and became too much of a burden and responsibility. The more man tried to liberate himself, the more trapped and enslaved he felt. Unhappy again, he started plotting his escape from freedom, by looking for a worthy replacement for God. Despite centuries of enlightenment, emancipation, education, and overwhelming accumulation of empirical evidence and insight, dictators and autocrats, as God’s surrogates, never went out of vogue. In fact, their appeal only grew stronger with time. We just seem to be unable to resist their seductive powers. Modernity in its later phase reads like mankind’s love affair with authority. There has never been a comparable concentration of dictators, of the most extreme kind, in history as in the 20th century, the times marked with the most intense scientific progress and emancipation on all fronts.

Adorno and Horkheimer, and other Weber’s followers of Frankfurt School understood early on the dialectics of rationality and enlightenment and perceived the  disenchantment  as an altogether negative force. Science’s attempts to disenchant the world resulted only in a kind of return of the repressed: the irrationality that had been squelched by enlightened reason returned in the form of violence and barbarism[5]. Re-enchantment emerges as a response to an overdose of rationality, an attempt to establish new symbolism, or recycle the old one, and resurrect the supernatural qualities that were exorcised during centuries of symbolic asphyxiation.

In the mid-20th century, the market emerged as a surrogate, which temporarily filled the vacuum created by God’s disappearance. During the peak of the neoliberal post-industrial phase, it attained a status of a separate entity, worshiped like a pagan deity to which society sacrifices social prey in order to appease it. This defined the contours of a new social structure: Primitive society of the future.

However, unrestrained personal hedonism gradually intruded and ultimately invaded other peoples’ pleasure horizons. Its consequences were social fragmentation, eradication of empathy, and a general breakdown of social bonds. Fueled by the machine of competition, asymmetrical distribution of wealth and misery, together with unprecedented corruption, found widespread acceptance and endorsement as a consequence of “natural” free-market forces, and was eventually normalized. It didn’t take long for the free market orgy to take the course of a full-scale autoimmune reaction.

Nothing can be more oppressive than ethical hedonism (the right to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure) – we have been enslaved by it for centuries. Religion serves to legitimize the hedonistic trespassing; the absence of religion constrains it. We look at religious suspension of the ethical[6] as our salvation from enslavement. And this opens the doors for the return of God through the vulgar materialistic interpretation of his will and judgment by the born-again Evangelical fundamentalists.

This is the answer to disenchantment with disenchantment, a barbaric eruption of discontent with the oppression of rationality and growing desire for submission. If there is one aspect that post-modernity brings in this historical moment of introspection and self-reflection, it is the realization of bottomless human capacity for submission to institutions, ideologies, or to personalities, regardless of how grotesque and destructive they may be. These are the initial conditions of the 21st century.

Deresponsibilization and the second transfer of authority: Ideology of collective contempt of reason

The same logical framework provided by the religious suspension of the ethical in fundamentalist religious interpretations is also deeply embedded in the ideological foundations of neoliberalism — so long as we follow economic rationality, this ultimate metric of value, we are exonerated of any and all the consequences of (and free of responsibility for) what any of our actions may cause. The same mechanism sits at the core of both the fundamentalist call for crusade, religious exclusivity, and its propensity to annihilate infidels as in the economic Darwinism and hyper-libidinal capitalism of libertarian neoliberalism. This is where the religious and the free-market dogmas meet each other. Economic rationality and existence of God both maximize our freedom from responsibility. They are logical twins.

This is the second point of transfer of authority and responsibility in modern history. The need for authority comes from the same center of our mind and soul as the needs for freedom, order, and coherence. Reaching that destination goes hand in hand with unwind of responsibility; this is the gift of the authoritarian project. The singular attraction of the right-wing populism, the ideology of unreason, lies precisely in the fact that it represents a movement of deresponsibilization of epochal magnitude never seen in history, the main reason the world is making a sharp right turn at this point of history. This is the face of the new primitive society of the future.

The infantile refusal to accept responsibility together with the ontological need for (unconditional) absolution legitimizes all the regressive measures that come with the ideology of unreason, and defines the core of its malignancy. We no longer need to admit our mistakes or apologize for them; we disrespect the truth and refuse to step back in the face of facts, but instead, in a collective display of contempt of reason, interpret our delusional ramblings as the voice of God’s will. After all, if God exists, everything is allowed.

[1] Slavoj Zizek, “God is Dead, but He Doesn’t Know It” (Lacan plays with Bobok), Lacanian Ink (04.04.2009)

[2] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, Suhrkamp (1982)

[3] In its original usage, the term Entzauberung is attributed to Friedrich Schiller, crystallized through his poem The Gods of Greece, first published in 1788. The German word literally means de-magic-ation, but is meant to imply the breaking of a magic spell. Around 1913, Max Weber used it to describe the character of modernized, bureaucratic, secularized Western society.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, Why hasn’t everything already disappeared?, Seagull Books (2016)

[5]Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH (1989)

[6]Seren Kierkegard, Fear and Trembling, Cambridge Text in the History of Philosophy (2011)

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6 comments on “The Gods Must Be Crazy: The Rise Of The Primitive Society Of The Future

  1. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.
    James Madison to the Virginia General Assembly June 1785

  2. You surely know it given your field of interest and research, “Escape from Freedom” by Erich Fromm describes this.

    • Erich Fromm published Escape from Freedom in 1941. His idea has to be considered one of the most accurate predictions in social sciences of all times. It is the sociological equivalent of Marx‘s dialectics between capital and labor — the more freedom man gets, the more frightened and suffocated by it he becomes. But what Fromm could not see from the 1941 perspective was the second sequal of that dialectics — to what extent the reminder of the 20th century and the begining of the 21st turned out to be a referendum on the actual validity and viability of the idea of freedom. And that the emerging result of that referendum is converging towards a unanimous verdict that freedom is an inferior and undesirable „product“ of man‘s struggle that consistently continues to be rejected.

  3. This article is full of interesting ideas, and perhaps some truth. However, it is ultimately a tortured effort to stuff the development of modern society over the last few centuries into an odd-shaped little box.

    Many of us would disagree that the ‘disenchanted’ real life of honey bees, the molecular mechanism of genetic information transfer, the mind of a dolphin or string theory, to name just a few scientific wonders, make life “hollowed and deprived of its richness”, compared to when we could believe in the literal existence of fairies, leprechauns, evil spirits, the machinations of Norse gods and all the other folderol of mythology.

    I remember as a teenager, our youth pastor would tell the tale of a young boy whose father once failed to take him on a promised fishing trip. The long and the short of the tale was that the resentment that the boy felt grew into hatred that turned the now mature man into a mass murderer. As teenagers, we had enough sense to have a good laugh at the pastor’s expense. We realized that he had a grain of truth but not every resentful teen will become a mass murderer if he does not forgive his father for a minor infraction. Similarly, the author is trying to draw a direct connection between the disenchantment of the world by rational thinking and the rise of Donald Trump. So many other factors are in play that this thesis becomes ludicrous when even a few of them are considered.

    • “Odd-shaped box” is an interesting metaphor, although I am not sure about your usage of it. History, and political reality in general, is like a ginger root, an oddly shaped subject, that can be sliced in many different ways. And every once in a while, if the slicing angle is right, some of these slices reveal simple and regular shapes. My way of looking at the problem was exceedingly simple. I had two objects, God and man (which really is one object seen from two different perspectives) and their interaction, enchantment and disenchantment. So, these are four points that define the corners of the most straightforward possible shape — a rectangle (or a square). And than i looked at different modes of this interaction in modernity, i.e. different ways this simple shape can be fitted into an odd-shaped box of social history. This, to me looks like an upside down version of your description.

      Your second paragraph: “Many of us would disagree that the ‘disenchanted’ real life …”. Yes, very many, indeed. But, in the country where 60% of people believe in angels (literally), there is a growing number of those who beg to differ, and they are sick and tired of being ashamed of their ignorance. I mean, try explaining this to some of the crowd at a Trump rally that the ultimate poetry of God’s creation is a possibility that all particles and gauge fields — everything in this and other universes, can be explain as a result of space-time fluctuation and compactification in higher dimensional space (the basic premise of string theory). If I didn’t know better, I would say that, if you wanted a proof of God’s existence, look no further than the beauty of science. Yet the cosmogonies that educated people toy with are all inordinately complex and to comprehend them requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even an average Trump supporter can understand it. To these ignorant folks it offers the irresistible reasonableness of nonsensical.

      Lastly, it would be an act of extreme ignorance (that I would never commit) to explain any collective mode of such a highly complex system as society in terms of one-dimensional causality chain as would be implied by explaining Trump’s political victory with any single factor like religion or re-enchantment etc. (If anything, Trump alone, is better explained by the US taxation system and developments in algorithmic trading (yes, precisely those), than anything else. )Right wing populism is a consequence of many forces and political struggles. By enumerating them wouldn’t help us understand the things better. Instead, the starting point would be to separates them into systematic, secular and idiosyncratic etc. That leads to many interesting conclusions (which I elaborated in numerous posts before).

      However, explaining Trump was not the point of the blog at all. He is not a cause, but a consequence of deeper and more general social trends. The question is more universal: What is it about our society and about us that creates a fertile ground for such historical baffoons to enter the political scene time and again despite all the empirical evidence that argues against it?

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