A Specter Is Haunting America

The Specter

“A specter is haunting Europe,” Karl Marx once wrote.  He wrote these words on the eve of revolutionary outbreaks that began in Italy and France in 1848 and soon engulfed much of the Continent.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, Europe is again engulfed in revolt, which threatens to spread. The financial crisis that started in the USA and swept the globe, along with the sovereign debt crisis that was inflicted upon the European Union as a result, has ignited the passions of strangled and enslaved masses everywhere. People have recognized their enslavement and have put a finger on their slave-masters. The largely capitalist regimes are no less affected than are the socialist, communist, or theocratic ones, for they all have the same owner.

On the heels of 2009 civil unrest that had swept through Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, Russia and the Czech Republic in response to diverse austerity measures implemented by the ruling elites, a full-force revolt has broken out in France. Much like the political protests following the Iranian elections in 2009, months of protests and street demonstrations across France have taken a more violent turn, and signs of an armed insurrection continue to mount. Across the Atlantic, even the Canadians have taken their eyes off the puck long enough to become enraged, staging protests at the G-20 meeting in Toronto that would make a Frenchman proud, protests that have prompted one of the tamest looking of political beasts to bare its tyrannical fangs.

The American middle class is still preoccupied with gazing at the shadows cast upon the walls of its cave (or is that prison), preferring to go on believing what we are told by our owners and handlers: that all will be right with our little world, provided we keep our heads down and work hard (at trying to find a job). Political hucksters like Obama reassuringly tell us that “Yes We Can” survive this crisis and go on begging for a piece of the American Dream. The man behind the curtain is imploring us to go on ignoring what is plainly before our eyes.  He tells us that their world is intact and will continue to prosper. And we dutifully listen, and willfully refuse to see. But the disillusioned among us can no longer ignore the mountain of evidence to the contrary that is before us. The show is coming to an end, and it promises to be an inglorious one. The wave of extinctions, peak oil, peak water, economic and financial crises worldwide, political unrest abroad that is about to spread to the homeland—are these not signs of immanent collapse?

But even our European brothers and sisters do not understand the magnitude of this seismic event. It is neither a fiscal nor an economic problem. It is not a matter of having the wrong political leadership, nor is it the result of confused or misguided personal priorities. It is a crack in the dome of the theatre of the Spectacle that began with the advent of human history, of civilization itself. It is the endgame of the human evolutionary dead end that has pathologically sought artifices of manipulation and control at all costs.

As Thomas Hobbes proleptically though unwittingly stated centuries ago, this will be a “Warre of all against all.”  But this will not be the war that he mistakenly assumed would have occurred among our pre-civilized ancestors had it not been for our constituting the social contract. Rather, it is a war resulting from that very contract, grounded in cold and calculative thinking, and from the momentum it imparted to civilization for these last six thousand years of recorded history.

The specter Marx was referring to was Communism: his contention was that it would and should be the final stage in the dialectical movement of history to a civil but classless society. He was mistaken: the communist experiment failed. The real ghostly apparition, the unpleasantness that is haunting us now is a natural reflection of the fundamental lethality of industrial civilization itself and the systems of hierarchy and domination it has spawned, all based upon the power of the syllogism. This is the logic of objective science, the principle of our legal systems, the rationality behind our social contracts, the anonymity of our civil politics, and the narrative framework of history itself. It is this logic that binds us to hierarchies that have worked to empty the world of all its resources and life, of all its significance, replacing them with impersonal systems that vainly attempt to control and manage all affairs, human or natural.

It is the inevitable culmination of six thousand years of unnatural, human history that began with the first urban empires emerging in and around Mesopotamia’s once fertile Fertile Crescent. People can still sense this basic lethality, though many have themselves become empty parts of emptying hierarchical institutions—an emptiness expressed most baldly in the following formulation: If A is a B, and B is a C, then A must be a C. Whether to control nature or our fellow humans, in this view we are all interchangeable cogs, commodities within the single logic of control – a composite of test scores, job functions, marketable fashions and other objective criteria. Herein lies the reason for our emptiness, our sense of alienation from one another, from nature, and from our own natures. Compensating for this emptiness, we have sought to acquire other commodities to make us feel whole again—televisions, cars, laptops and other gadgets. But flashy cars and big screen televisions are not a replacement for happiness, and they will not save us.

America is the most rationally conceived of all modern, civilized societies. We have more science and technology, more laws and lawyers, more prisons and prisoners, more military bases—in short, more and larger systems of domination than any other country on the planet. We also have more money managers and swindlers, more rat race, more mental illness and more lone gunmen acting out against whatever they perceive as an injustice in their world. And yet we keep marching straight ahead to the precipice. We are a nation of rule-followers, not a community of free persons—and we are committed to the syllogism as no other.  There is no dignity in our enslavement; we have become the emptiest of souls.

What is haunting the globe today is the specter of primitive anarchy, a feral tendency buried deep within the marrow and musculature of the human species.  It is a powerful instinct, an irrepressible will to survive the artfully constructed but cold hierarchical systems of domination that have been enslaving the planet for six millennia, and which are now failing. It is anarchic in the truest sense of the word: it seeks to be leaderless not merely in a political sense, but to be free from the tyrannical hegemony imposed by the civilizing logic of syllogistic reasoning itself. It seeks to make each person, each interaction, each moment unique, unclassifiable, open to will and chance. It seeks freedom in the polysemy of the senses, of the physical body—not the body politic. This specter is not imaginary: it is real, and it is upon us.  It is now everywhere and has a will of its own. It can no longer be brought under control, through force or through reason, and there will be no escaping it. It is not interested in you; it is coming after who you are.

[This piece of mine appeared on ClubOrlov in October 2010]

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23 Responses to A Specter Is Haunting America

  1. Pythagoras says:

    Looks like Jacques Ellul is going to get the last laugh after all; what you are ascribing to “syllogism”, or perhaps rationality, sounds similar to “La technique”, the self reinforcing logic of efficiency that he beat the intellectual drum about for many years…the means subsuming the ends, becoming an end in themselves. The imperious force of naked efficiency, technological development accelerating as long as the oil holds out, a self-justifying onslaught overpowering the hapless sorcerer’s apprentices and triggering the final denuding of the material and spiritual worlds in a chaotic frenzy of industrial antics. It’s a techno-fascist planetary scale version of the end game told by the ruins of Easter Island (with large glass and steel towers standing in for the rows of giant Moai faces), unless, God forbid, we all wake up late one night to hear the “doors of Hell itself clanging shut” as flashes a hundred times brighter than the sun usher out the modern age.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Pythagoras, I bet on “the doors of Hell!”

      But, seriously, I would say that much of what Ellul was about resonates with precisely the totalitarian state we are fast approaching with technology, rationality and hierarchy laying out the plan. But, technology is merely the end game of a process of rationalization and control that was ushered in with the first cities and empires 6,000 years back. We are the heirs to a trajectory that will not admit of adjustment until the wheels spin off the truck, and the natural world is raped to death so that it can no longer support human (of much other) life.

      • Straycat says:

        Hi, Sandy. There are great posts here. I would like to distinguish between rationality and the positivist notions of efficiency and control. Technology is a small, and often trivial use of rationality. Harmony, poetry and ethics are not irrational, but require a full understanding of the relationships that exist in the universe. Just as language is misused, so are the techniques that are one outcome of rational thinking. We must separate the false assertions from those that approach truth. This cannot be done without rational thought.

        • kulturcritic says:

          Straycat – you’re making my life difficult with this one. I must reflect at bit before venturing an answer.

        • kulturcritic says:

          Hey Straycat. So, I would say that “efficiency” and “control,” as commanding concepts of modern industrial culture, are both the drivers and the direct result of syllogistic reasoning. And I don’t think I would choose to call technology a trivial use of such reasoning. In fact, experimentation (trial and error), the hallmark of the engineering methodology that creates the technologies populating our world is solidly grounded in and modeled after syllogistic reasoning:
          If A=B and B=C therefore A=C.

          And yes, the foundations of harmonic “theory” are rational, as is that of ethics. Poetry as well gains its power perhaps by contravening the usual dictates of our usual reason processes.

          Just some thoughts!

          • I am somewhat uncomfortable with the notion that logic and reason are the root of our woes. As odd as it may sound it seems to me that the U.S. is highly illogical in its reasoning about things. We are gifted at starting with something fundamentally irrational like say, asserting corporations are equal to people, but then proceeding in a perfectly logical manner thereafter. In other words the machine we have created does not auto-check it’s own logic. Worse yet, the logic of certain “authority” figures is deemed complete and wholesome and without need for further inquiry by certain members of our society like the media. While you may complain about logic taking the place of matters of the spirit I would argue that we are masters of neither logic nor spirit in the US. We really aren’t very good at thinking critically/logically OR feeling OR intuiting anything anymore – we are pretty much being reduced to sheep as I see it.

            • kulturcritic says:

              Colin an illogical premise, does not make for bad reasoning… it makes for bad decisions. But I do believe that the articulation of the syllogism (deductive reasoning) has tied us into a view of causality and unidirectional temporality that ultimately undermines our relation to the world we participate, leading inexorably to domination and control (of nature and other creatures).

              • Perhaps we are getting lost somewhat in semantics here. I guess the issue I am pointing out is that so few Americans can do even the most basic logic so how do you postulate then that syllogism is the form of logic that’s causing such harm? I am with you on the domination of nature and creatures – I love the wilderness, outdoors etc. I am often struck by the sterility of the modern world we have created and the sort of prison it has become for so many Americans who seem to know nothing else. That said, I would like I don’t agree that logic is the enemy here, even our nature loving ancestors who were in touch with nature could do some very complicated logic that you and I would find difficult – these are civilizations that mapped the stars and heavens long before telescopes existed. I personally am a fan of Gurdjieff who postulated that certain memes or robotic though patterns come to dominate the psyche of the masses as they become trained through life and eventually they start behaving in incredibly predictable and irrational ways. They are stirred up by knee-jerk emotions and reactions by forces they don’t understand. Gurdjieff claimed that for these people, life simply “happens” to them. I doubt very much these individuals are involved in critical thinking of any kind or even know what syllogism, deduction or inference even is.

                • kulturcritic says:

                  Colin

                  No one in particular needs to understand what a syllogism is; just as they do not ned to understand aristotle. However, these have helped shape (create) the lifeworld we inhabit daily. Our pre-conceptual understanding of causality, of progress, of liability, of accountability, of time, of space, of things; find their grounding there. I am not sure what “nature loving ancestors” you are referring to. And, personally, it is of no interest to me what Gurdjieff claimed. best, sandy

                  • We then we will have to disagree. To act on logic that you don’t yourself understand is in fact the heart of the problem. A simple, well-designed commercial can trigger all kinds of internal “logic” of “must buy this so I can have that” or “must vote for this person to make me feel safe” or other irrational cravings but to me that is NOT logic as I know it but rather dukkha. Also, many cultures of the past were “nature loving” relative to our current modern westernized american culture. Perhaps nature worshiping would be a better term. Regardless though, these civilizations were not lacking in advanced knowledge, even technical knowledge however they were also more advanced spiritually. Thats all I was pointing out. I enjoy reading your articles but I think there’s some finer points you are missing – the Orwellian World we are constructing right now in the US hates logic and I don’t see any reason to join them in stamping it out.

                    -Colin

                    • This may help explain things or confuse them further…

                    • kulturcritic says:

                      I am not sure I am missing anything, Colin. But I can see you have been reading your version of Buddhism for the West. Whatever it may be I am missing Colin, I don’t believe I can learn it from you. I am glad you enjoy the articles. Keep reading, keep learning.

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  3. Straycat says:

    While I concur on the systematic grip that the predators have on our culture, I would argue that the arc of history os not of a piece, but is made of decisions over time. Changes can be made by those aware of history, although in smaller ways than most of us would like. There is a counterculture, with its own visions, and its own errors in thought and emotion. there is, then, some prospect that the techno-predators may be defeated by their own desire for order, and their own short view horizon. It is coming apart because it is lifeless. Yet, life, and its demands will continue. We are only realizing now that happiness does not come from a warm gun, but from a condition of peace, love and joy. This means real security, both physical and economic, the closeness of other humans that we can trust, and a sense of excitement and wonder at the beauty of it all. While the present state of society demeans these basics, those who see will demand them, as the Egyptians have done so beautifully and honestly, and the people of other countries and regions will continue to do. I suggest that the real problem is whether we can retain the scientific, medical and economic benefits of organization while destroying the hierarchical, life sucking power claims of the predator.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Straycat, your final question is critical and penetrating. But, it raises yet further issues. What, for example, is the real driver of scientific and medical progress? I would suspect it is a specific mode of thinking (grounded in the syllogism, hypothesis formation and certain reasoning processes). But, if that is the case then the question is, can we maintain such rational processes and yet overcome the hierarchical nature of knowledge, specialization and control? Or is that a logical impossibility. Or, can we retain specialization without hierarchy?

      And yes, the Egyptians did a great job of toppling one system, but will that deliver to them what they want? Or is civilized hierarchy, ie., the State, incapable of doing anything else but enslave, plunder and pillage?

      And, I remember well the counterculture of the 60’s and 70’s when I was a teenager and part of it. But, every hierarchy, i.e., State, has its ways of dealing with countercultural (heterodox) movements. Some, like Gadaffi resort to the sword immediately, in typical totalitarian fashion. Others, like America, use marketing, commodification, and pipe dreams to both bring the counterculture into the mainstream, and lull the greater masses to sleep (also a totalitarian methodology

  4. Straycat says:

    Much of the development of the rational basis for science and medicine occurred during the late middle ages, the Renaissance and the early period of state building. At that time, there were no overarching hierarchical institutions to either help or hinder that development. The only substrate that was new was the printed word, and the beginnings of fairly rapid international communication. The letters and papers of the Philosophical Society here, and the other scientific bodies heeded only, for the most part, the dictate of reason, repeatability and strict, formal logic.
    The imposition of formal hierarchies and controls came when medicine and science became profit centers and objects of national hubris. Seeing history through Hegel’s eyes leaves one with a limited duality, and misses the multifaceted movements and forces that occur before and during human decision-making. Such leaves us with limited vision, and unnecessary surprises, as in the fall of the Soviet Union, which I saw in the middle seventies, the Egyptian uprising, and so many other events that our leaders shrugged over and cried “Who could have known.” Many knew, but were ignored, as the analysis failed to fit the hierarchy’s mode d’idee.
    Thus, I submit that the institutions necessary for scientific and medical progress are not governmental, national or economic in any modern sense of the word, but are personal to those engaged in these endeavors, and will flourish once again absent the presently suffocating institutions that encrust them. Today, with computers, internet and practically unlimited safe storage, the need for the religious, economic and state substructure is both unnecessary and hostile to science.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Straycat – Again, some very penetrating comments. But, I beg to disagree, hierarchies have existed since status and stratification began in the late Neolithic. And what you say here:
      “Today, with computers, internet and practically unlimited safe storage, the need for the religious, economic and state substructure is both unnecessary and hostile to science.”

      What good will your computers, internet, etc. do when there is no more electricity to run things? I know, you will tell me that the experts will come up with new sources of energy, they will save us; just as their past actions have put us at the edge of a precipice already? Just like trusting the banksters and corporate elite who brought the economies of the world to their knees to now save us again?

      • Straycat says:

        I agree that hierarchies have existed at least since the neolithic. if not before – see “The Ancient City” forgot who wrote it, and “Before Philosophy, again ?, for some insight into the development of the hierarchies and the religious underpinnings of those human resource control systems. However, the scientific revolution, printing and the travel of money and ideas was a break from the systems that grew up after the decline of the Roman central culture, and the land based feudal systems.
        There will always be structured social systems, using strata and variable status/income criteria for control processes. However, just as the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment development outpaced feudal economic ideas and practices relatively clumsy and useless, so the development of the internet, distributed solar/wind and other energy sources, combined with new efficiencies may, hopefully, outstrip the need, if such it is, for the top down corporate system we have in place now.
        As more and more people realize that they can live comfortably, securely and fully without “Dancing with the Stars” and 350 horsepower status symbols, the hierarchies, religious, governmental and corporate will either fall or be altered. While there is no guarantee that the alterations will be in directions that you and I deem optimal or desireable, the opportunity exists. At least one set of conditions that made the idea of hierarchical power so compelling in the periods of the Neolithic to today is the huge amount of energy and coordination required for agriculture. This lasts even into the 21st. c. However, the new energies available, together with the ever increasing efficiencies of energy use (the importation of foreign oil has decreased by 7% since 2008, for example) may allow an general escape from the previous iron fist of compelled cooperation.
        I do not quarrel with your analysis of the past, but I have come to the conclusion, as always, a conditional one, that the overarching governmental/religious/economic systems that are culturally imbedded by the competitive nature of the mammal animal order as a response to population, etc. are sets of interlocking choices made over time, and not indelible features of the human condition.
        I truly hope that we are not speaking past one another, as I have found these conversations stimulating, even exiting. Peace, love and joy, Rick

  5. kulturcritic says:

    “the overarching governmental/religious/economic systems that are culturally imbedded… are sets of interlocking choices made over time, and not indelible features of the human condition.” – I agree with this statement completely Rick!!

  6. Disaffected says:

    I really like this post Sandy. In addition to shining a light on aspects of modern culture that are rarely if ever discussed among the non-academic elite, you really turn a mean phrase:

    America is the most rationally conceived of all modern, civilized societies. We have more science and technology, more laws and lawyers, more prisons and prisoners, more military bases—in short, more and larger systems of domination than any other country on the planet. We also have more money managers and swindlers, more rat race, more mental illness and more lone gunmen acting out against whatever they perceive as an injustice in their world. And yet we keep marching straight ahead to the precipice. We are a nation of rule-followers, not a community of free persons—and we are committed to the syllogism as no other. There is no dignity in our enslavement; we have become the emptiest of souls.

    That’s the whole shootin’ match right there, in a nutshell. And yet, the cultural myth we tell ourselves is we’re “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” Oh well, I imagine every failed empire throughout history has suffered from the same inconsistencies during the downslope of their run. Of course ours will be bigger, louder, and more universally proclaimed (no doubt enabled by the corporate capitalist media propaganda machine), just because that’s who we are. Perpetual growth capitalism is not only our ethos, it’s literally who we are culturally. We’re bigger, badder, better, and just generally MORE OF EVERYTHING than anything the world has ever seen. Sadly, that will be our epitaph as well.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Yes Disaffected – I am afraid I agree with you and Kant; it is too late for civilization. But I do believe that people individually (in small groups) can still live different lives and reconnect, however briefly, with something more visceral that animates them and the world of which they are a part.

  7. troutsky says:

    Culture is contingent, in other words is produced, as is the syllogistic logic. Ernesto Laclau for instance, replaces A= B with A is equivalent to B . A relates to B but is not the same as B. Western civilization simply naturalizes the syllogism through hegemonic articulation meaning other articulations (and hegemonies) are possible. Only we can create those conditions of possibility.

    The Optimist, Troutsky.

    Straycat posits the empirically neutral “science” as a path to truth but I argue it too is contaminated by hegemony. We have to be just as wary of science as we are of ideology. Rather than opposing it to politics we should accept it as such and fight for the transformation of the political.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Agreed Troutsky – scence is a key part of this overarching hegemony’s equation. In fact, it lays the foundation, logically, for the mechanisms of legal management and control.

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