When faced with a crisis it is always tempting to look back at our brief history and try to locate exactly where we went wrong and when things turned so sour. After all, this is what historians teach us: to seek out proximate causes for our current predicament in events of the recent past. And certainly we may learn a good deal from such analyses. But to understand our unfolding collapse – the global proportions of which we now all bear witness to – as a failure of politics in America, and specifically democratic liberalism, is shortsighted and myopic. Hoping to grasp the cause of this crisis, Chris Hedges asks in The Corporate State Wins Again, “When did the press, labor, universities and the Democratic Party… wither and atrophy?” As if their collective failures could have been the precipitating cause of our current global calamity.
The challenges we face today – global systemic failure, including ecological, economic, financial, social and political systems – are the later symptoms of a disease that took hold of the human community many millennia ago, long before the emergence of the modern State. The Corporate State or Corporate Capitalism, which Mr. Hedges points to as the loci of our recent descent, themselves have roots in the murky hinterlands of human history. Even Hedges alludes to this remote origin when he writes: “Human history, rather than a chronicle of freedom and democracy, is characterized by ruthless domination.”
This ruthless and largely pathological lust to dominate – underpinning the Corporate State – was first given life with the establishment of institutional hierarchy and its associated tools of command and control, casuistic law. Its footings were laid at the very dawn of historical consciousness, even before the Code of Hammurabi in Babylon. The earliest example may be the Code of Ur-Nammu written in Sumerian approximately 2100 BC, lying as a foundation stone of modern legal authority and the exercise of political power.
Such hierarchical authority, whose etiology can be traced to the first urban centers, creates its own unique form of sociopathy, attracting those ‘infected’ into its ascendent ranks and affording them a lofty plateau from which to survey and manipulate the subjugated masses. It provides those elevated elites with an illusion of separation, heightening their sense of self-worth and personal superiority. It is this self-induced fantasy that enables them to create laws, pass judgments, and execute decisions that apply to all but themselves. Just look at the actions of those in our Congress and in our courts, not to mention the sociopath-in-chief and his chorus-line of cohorts sitting just down the road from that august body of jurists and lobbyists. As Hedges aptly summarizes:
These elites do not have a vision. They know only one word—more. They will continue to exploit the nation, the global economy and the ecosystem. And they will use their money to hide in gated compounds when it all implodes. Do not expect them to take care of us when it starts to unravel.
In short, the entire charade of civil society, of institutional hierarchy – be it political, religious, corporate, or armed military (for god’s sake) – the very scaffolding of the modern civilized State; all of these institutions are erected upon a singular foundation uniquely focused on enhancing command and control. That is the necessary outcome of a mode of reasoning and a logistic ushered in with the first cities approximately 6,000 years ago. It was then that the first States drew together tens of thousands of ‘citizens’ (Ur had an estimated population of 65,000) – strangers, newly quartered within tightly packed city walls and satellite villages – all scratching to find a safe place on the growing animal farm. Civilization itself is the pathology; hierarchy, the pathogen.
But writers like Hedges, as astute a thinker as he is, fail to see this; or at least they do not care to admit it – that the problems we face have roots older than the past several hundred years. Hedges himself seems to believe that we can rehabilitate the system: that its institutions are salvageable and can be used for good and noble purpose. This is no doubt why he has chosen to engage in political theatre, in public demonstrations, in choreographed attempts at disrupting the machines of commerce and government. He still feels there is some way to keep this whole charade going, but now with healthier motives and public transparency. As if this would redirect or reverse the trajectory of our global collapse.
The fact remains that we are all creatures of the Pleistocene – a geological epoch spanning nearly two million years of proto-human and human prehistory. That is the environment in which the evolution and refinement of our own species, Homo sapiens, took place. The end of that epoch coincided by-and-large with the beginning of settled agriculture and the start of the Neolithic era at the opening of the Holocene epoch approximately 10,000 years ago. It was shortly thereafter that we witness the emergence of new forms of social organization, methods of food acquisition, the building of cities, and the rapid deployment of hierarchy throughout these emergent institutions. It was there that we lost our way on a footpath leading inevitably to the cult of the individual, along with its attendant rights and privileges – privatization, securitization, legislation, and the evolution of the modern State.
Part of the problem, I suspect, goes back to a similar reorganization of our sensorium that occurred concurrently with this new form of social organization, and the transition from a predominantly nomadic existence to more domesticated arrangements. There dawned a re-ordering of our senses, with sight grabbing top-billing in another emerging hierarchy. Modern sedentary urban life now presents itself primarily as a visual field (like a screen) spread out in front of us for inspection. A Pleistocene world, on the other hand, was more aural and palpable; it surrounded one in sound and in the “earthly sensuous” – providing a rounder experience of the world-as-lived than that proffered by the visual maps we so cherish today. And, as the father of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski, pointed out: “the map is not the territory.” Territory is all-encompassing; the map (again like the screen) is a simple visual representation. Moreover, the visual event is predominantly linear in organization; with relatively marginal peripheral vision, we typically see only what is directly within our line of sight. The aural and tactile surround is more cyclical, encircling us; we can hear and even feel the predator that is stealthily approaching us from behind. We begin to recognize now just how deprived and empty life in this modern jungle has become; an emptiness due largely to the eclipsing of the sensorium by the demands of civilized existence under the watchful eye of linear (historical) Father Time.
And this gets us to the heart of the matter. Perhaps we can emerge on the other side of collapse into a new world along the lines one fellow blogger recently suggested — “decentralized societies organized around democratic communities and watersheds, with no standing armies, no more nation-states, no capitalism or macro-economies aside from loosely organized trade federations since some trade will be required.” So much for the logistics; but can we overcome our unflinching epistemological commitment to vision, to the specter of unilinear time, and its existential implications – history, planning, progress, technological advancement, production, consumption, growth and domination?
Can we step back far enough to reclaim a more natural place within the animal kingdom? Can we recover from our early civilized need to dominate nature, and the substantial hangover that really came into its own with Francis Bacon, the scientific method, and our transition into the modern era of infinite progress?
This pathology, this disease, if you will, is a feeling of dis-ease with our own feral core, a cloak foisted upon us through 6,000 years of indoctrination to the new curriculum. But, modern Homo sapiens appeared almost 200,000 years ago, and the earliest species of our genus, Homo habilis, two million years back; all indications are that they lived less obtrusively in nature and with one another. And they lived without the terror of historical consciousness until its eruption with the birth of civilization. What the scholars will not tell us is that there was something substantial lost with the emergence of this new consciousness and the subsequent development of historical thought. Recovering this buried genetic memory trace must begin with a recapitulation to the subjectivity of our bodies and a reawakening of our sentient selves.
It is not a matter of moral turpitude that drives us mad… it is this madness (civilization) that drives us to apparent moral turpitude. Changing the perspective and agenda of modern society (and its sociopathic masters of the universe) is not an ethical or a religious matter; it is an epistemological, even an ontological matter – it cannot be achieved by imploring, cajoling, threatening or harming. It may not be do-able at all on a grand scale. It may just require that those who have rediscovered that inner feral core do what they can to prepare themselves for a post-collapse world, and try to enjoy the Spectacle unfolding around us.