capitalism Notes From Disgraceland politics populism

Dark Enlightenment

Society cannot function without myths.

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8. III 2020

The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. The ability to create imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. Any large scale human cooperation hinges on the ability to create imagined reality out of words: A modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe, are all rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination (Noah Yuval Harari).

Appearance of legends, myths, gods and religions marks the beginning of the Cognitive Revolution — the point when history declared its independence from biology[2]. Out of this revolution emerged the ascent of man and the entire civilization. However, with every new stage of his rise, man’s arrogance grew bigger and so did his desire to free himself from the shackles of his own myths. This was the period of enlightenment and emancipation. Every new installment of emancipation pulled humanity closer towards reduced myths. As rationality became the main guiding principle, myths functioned more as pragmatic protocols and less as organizing principles, losing their magic spell to their pragmatic power and became increasingly aligned with advancing individualization and the underlying emancipatory momentum.

Capitalism in its last 50 years represents the accelerated phase of systematic symbolic annihilation. During this period, ceremonial demolition of old myths of togetherness has practically completed just in time as developed world is facing synchronized irruption of unsolvable problems: Disappearance of community, deterritorialization, loss of identity coordinates, global agoraphobia, criminalization of the globe, structural unemployment, rising poverty, endemic precarity, excess population, large-scale corruption, climate change, and general hopelessness. Their magnitude and nonlinearity have become a cause of growing collective anxieties registering through widespread desecularization, reaching out towards authoritarian figures and (over-) simplified, self-serving narratives aimed at providing a chance of relief, however transient and illusory it might be.

While this might not be an utterly new configuration of collective consciousness, never before has it gained such a systemic dimension and cataclysmic perspective. In the past, progress was synonymous with hope, opening new horizons and creating new frontiers that always delivered. Nowadays, with every new installment of progress, the future looks dimmer and residual hope smaller. We have reached the limits of futurability. Individuality has run its course; disenchantment of the world has metastasized. It has left everyone alone and abandoned, without a safety net and without hope. Hard work no longer leads to redemption — progress has become toxic and, suddenly, the old myths ring hollow and empty.

Society cannot function without myths

The tensions of the last decade are a consequence of the collapse of liberal democratic mythologies – they underscore the active quest for new myths in the midst of that crisis. Everything that used to mobilize the libidinal forces of the developed West is now dissolving in the light of devaluations of these myths. Myths are necessary for any collective action. Without them, large-scale social projects are not possible and societies cannot function. Disposing of the old myths while waiting for the new ones creates a troubling disequilibrium.

Today, the developed West stands divided facing the bankruptcy of the old narratives. This division is not only a consequence of diversity of life experiences, but a reflection of irreconcilable divergence of beliefs and imagination. As divesting from reality in the form of parody, mockery, or masquerade has taken its toll, the growing fraction of the disillusioned population is eager to be mobilized by new narratives. However, at the same time they are unable to receive them due to years of symbolic hollowing out, which has deprived them of the capacity to surrender to any collective cause that transcends individual interests. Religion is returning, but in a perverse form, as a parody of itself and without its magic spell, as a grotesque reflection of reality and without any of its original substance.

At the same time, we are now facing a novel type of revolt, in no way resembling anything we have seen before. While the past uprisings had always been, in one way or another, reactions to excessive exploitation, today, most of the things can be done without people. People are becoming increasingly more redundant — there is a growing number of those that are not needed and that are not counted for — the humanity can move ahead without them. Although they cannot be reintegrated into the normal process of social functioning, they also cannot be disposed of. Their size is growing unstoppably and is threatening to exceed the managerial capability of the planet. The excluded are now revolting not because they are being overly exploited, but because they are being denied the right to be exploited.

21st century populism is a hasty political response to the historical inflection point of coincident cultural, economic and cognitive paradigm shifts, which left a void created by decay of the traditional mythology. It is an attempt at repackaging the old myths in a radicalized form disguised as novelty. In its core, the new populism is a celebration of the shock doctrine applied at home, after trying it out abroad for decades, a cruel and unethical experiment that has produced, at best, mixed result elsewhere.

30 years of disequilibrium

Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people[3].

2019 marks three decades of grand political disequilibrium. In the same way 1989 announced a dissolution of communism, 2019 marks the beginning of neoliberalism’s symbolic unwind. It outlines the contours of neoliberal transformation along the same lines as the fall of Berlin wall in 1989 did for the former Soviet Union.

2016 demonstrated unambiguously that a growing number of people are in desperate need for new fairy tales, new myths and representations of eternal kingdom and new authority figures, prepared to accept any surrogate that would fill the unbearable vacuum. People no longer believe in the old American myth of progress, competition, individuality, protestant ethics and the link between hard work and success.

Establishment of new social hierarchies is always accompanied with a display of latent violence, breaking of the social norms and civilized behavior. Peaceful social life in general is the sign that one class, the ruling one, has already won. Populism, as a superficial mode of revolt, has become synonymous with the middle finger to the entire system of values; this includes criminalization of politics and government institutions and normalization of large-scale corruption. As an integral part of the ritualistic power grab, vestiges of the old system become subordinated to the will of the autocrat who personifies raw power and who masquerades his personal interests as patriotism and selflessness for the nation. The two processes, which have been in full swing in the last decade, have accelerated in the last three years: 1) criminalization of the state and dissolution of its legal barriers in order to eliminate residual obstacles against release of the libidinal energy and unrealized potential of crime on state level; 2) consolidation of that power.

Nevertheless the emergence of an unaccountable autocrat is not a sign of barbarization of America. 2016 is not a relapse into fascism, just a search for new myths to replace the old ones, which no longer have mobilizing power. Trump won less than 25% of voting age population votes in 2016. This is in sharp contrast with the 1920s-30s Germany when Nazi party membership rose from roughly 2% at inception to above 32% between 1928 and 1932. This is what a real movement looks like (kept alive by the myths of master race and supremacy of the German state). Trump’s base is a relative minority. There is only a semblance of fascist aesthetics, but no movement[4].

The underlying causality chain behind the recent political developments in America starts with centrists and their compromised narratives. They refuse to bow out and exit the political scene creating in this way a configuration of unacceptable alternatives and massive abstinence from the ballot box as a consequence. For them, as representatives of the oligarchic capital, authoritarianism is preferred to other mode of social organization that imply more egalitarian distribution. Their presence, their sabotage of alternatives, and resistance to their return is likely to be the main cause for continued large-scale withdrawal from the democratic process and reinforcement of authoritarianism as plan-B.

In its targeting only a narrow segment of population, while permanently excluding the rest without any chance of reconciliation, populism is deriving its temporary strength from the division of political subjects. This divisiveness is leading effectively into a perpetual conflict that has gradually morphed into a cold civil war. However, while divisiveness can provide access to power, it cannot sustain it. This is the fatal flaw of the right-wing populism. As such, populism is not sustainable – its failure is inscribed in its basic premises.

Coda

We are always surprised by good and honest acts. They are unpredictable. Every honest act is committed impulsively; it is not natural and spontaneous. Evil, on the other hand, acts naturally. We never wonder about evil. We are surprised only if it is not realized. Myths act in the interstices between good and evil. They represent the denial of biology. In order to survive in the long run, myths have to be socially effective, they must be centered on narratives that are sustainable. Good is the essence of that sustainability – it unifies. Evil is transient – it divides. Good goes against human biology, which is concentrated on individual survival. Myths are there to protect humanity against itself and the self-destructive forces of individuality. It is this denial of biology that marks the beginning of history and the opening of the path of man’s ascent. History is on no one’s side, but it is also not completely neutral.

*Pregnant widow is the point at which the old order has given way, but the new one not yet born (Alexander Herzen)

[2] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, Harper (2015)

[3] ibid.

[4] Enzo Traverso, Trump’s Savage Capitalism: The Nightmare Is Real, World Policy Journal, vol. 34, no. 1 (2017).


 

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