There’s that purported Chinese proverb that says “May you live in an interesting age,” spoken as if it were a curse. For as others have observed, it may be better to be a dog in a peaceful age than a human in an interesting — by definition not peaceful, not stable, not secure and confident — age.
As the industrial revolution winds down its first home run, the internal combustion engine, we’re seeing a shift in paradigm that is unprecedented because it rolls back four centuries to before the roots of The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment brought us reliance on the individual, not God or nature, and with that we must insist we’re all equal — or our basic idea looks really dumb.
A modern source summarizes The Enlightenment “in effect,” or its philosophy as it becomes in application and verbal transmission:
Put simply, if Europe stands for something, it is decent treatment for all. – The Economist
Here’s what is happening — people are realizing that any form of that statement, as our first and biggest goal, becomes something like socialism: we reward people for existing, not for performance, so performance declines.
Here’s the new/old European motto:
Put simply, if Europe stands for something, it is that those who perform be rewarded. – Amerika
This is how things used to be. If you want a culture that invents not just a few key objects, but the foundation of modern science, and you want that culture to make great architecture, art and accumulated wisdom, then you need this basis.
“Treat everyone decently” is not a bad idea. It’s only bad if it becomes your goal. Your goal can be “Let’s get to the top, and treat everyone decently,” but there’s an implied but to that second phrase, which makes that motto translate into Get to the top, and treat everyone decently, but not if it gets in the way of getting to the top.
Since 1789, we’ve turned toward a modernist society, which is a utilitarian/secular fulfillment of the vision of Christianity: moral judgment surpassing practical adaptation to reality. Christianity is tempting because it’s a way out of competition, natural selection and personal insufficiency. Instead of changing the reality, you change the way you measure it.
Europeans thought they were progressing towards an ideal civilisation. Now time is up, and it hurts
The construction of the welfare state is part of a European narrative that conjures civilisation from chaos. Take France, a country that, in welfare matters, more resembles Mediterranean Europe than its more rigorous northern neighbours. The incremental entrenchment of new rights in law, as a mark of progress towards a better society, dates back to just after the first world war. In 1919 the Senate limited the working day to eight hours. Léon Blum introduced the two-week paid holiday for all workers in 1936. François Mitterrand extended this to five weeks in the early 1980s. He also brought in retirement at 60, and the 39-hour working week. Ms Aubry, only ten years ago, reduced that to 35. By progressively shrinking the number of hours worked a week, or years worked over a lifetime, society seemed to be rolling towards some sort of ideal, with vin rosé and deckchairs on the beach for all. This fits France’s sense of secular, revolutionary History, carrying the country forward, however fitfully, like an “endless cortege proceeding towards the light”, in the words of Jules Ferry, a 19th-century educationalist. Even President Nicolas Sarkozy, usually averse to abstract nouns, has spoken of “the politics of civilisation” and asked economists to measure output in terms of happiness, not just growth.
Put simply, if Europe stands for something, it is decent treatment for all. To this way of thinking, to guarantee a comfortable retirement is akin to banning child labour or giving women the vote: not optional perks, but badges of a civilised society. Such social preferences are what Europe is for, and what makes it different from America. Europe may no longer be a global power, or have much military muscle. Its churches may be empty, its spiritual fibre weak. It may not boast much cutting-edge innovation or economic growth. But it knows how to look after its sick and elderly, take a long lunch break and abandon the office in August. The cold realisation that time is up, and that such progress is over, prompts anger, denial and shock. – The Economist
This is not exclusive to Europe — in the USA, similar discontent is raging. We’re realizing that (a) our politicians are corrupt and (b) that they are that way because so many people are easy to fool and (c) the solution isn’t personal, but in a motivation of groups of people to seize power:
WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?
Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. – Orion Magazine
The more extreme elements have realized this first, and as a result gone undercover as moderates who will say whatever is necessary to get elected, then seize power and not relinquish it.
They recognize that most people are oblivious to the problem, and have chosen “not to play the game” because of personal fear:
If human life is (as secular modernity asserts) ultimately about gratification (about maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering) then it will always seem tempting to take the short-term choice leading to immediate and certain happiness and avoid immediate and certain suffering; and to ignore the long-term consequences of these choices on the basis that the future cannot be known with certainty, and we might be dead anyway before the future arrives.
The resulting mentality is characteristic of the modern secular elite, but has spread to encompass much of contemporary life. Charles Murray has encapsulated this modern ‘sophisticated’ attitude very well: “Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.”
My point is that a society which regards the purpose of life as being to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible is a society which cannot make tough decisions. – Bruce Charlton
Maybe we needs the gods back, so we have a reason to feel good about self-sacrifice… and to stop worrying about death so much. boring!
And while we’re on this delusional tear, in the words of one wise sage, “Problems remain!”
On our current path, more and more U.S. workers are likely to be turned into knowledge workers, meme generators, hype merchants, identity mongers — making “cool” while transforming their social life into a stream of branded idea-products.
Increases in the standard of living may thereby have the paradoxical effect of turning “living” itself into a ceaseless work process. The more leisure eliminates work in the traditional sense, the more it becomes work itself in the immaterial sense. By making traditional types of skills irrelevant, productivity innovations are making us reconceive our leisure time activities as a skill set.
The nature of the “skills” being reproduced in U.S., the ones that we can still incorporate into production, are oriented more and more toward lifestyle making. The sector of “productive jobs” in the U.S. seems to be in those areas sometimes decried as inessential if not corrosive to the human spirit—cultural meanings, identity tokens, marketing, etc. Given the proclivities of our workforce, the U.S.‘s comparative advantage is in manufacturing desires and refining them in the realm of language and feeling, as opposed to making things. – PopMatters
We’re not going to be taken in by callow Utopians who want us to invent “new ways” of dealing with a bad situation (it’s a misdirection: they don’t think we can solve the situation, but want to promise us these “new ways” like a snake oil salesman, so we don’t stop their decay). Even more, Europeans and Americans are seeing that increasingly racial favoritism goes both (or more) ways; as long as we have diversity, we have conflict, just like as long as we have equality, we have class warfare as people scrabble to be more equal than their equals.
Hard stuff. We’ve grown up being told 180 degrees opposites of what reality is. But now the awakening is slow, and when it hits a crucial 2-5% of the population, the overthrow will commence.
Even more, we’re seeing that some of our greatest taboos — like censorship, for example — are misplaced:
There may be a literal truth underlying the common-sense intuition that happiness and sadness are contagious.
A new study on the spread of emotions through social networks shows that these feelings circulate in patterns analogous to what’s seen from epidemiological models of disease. – Wired
You want to talk about The Selfish Gene or The Broken Windows theory? Screw that, there’s a new game in town: the memetic spread of behavior. When one person starts doing something, and there are not bad responses from the world and other people, then other people start to imitate that person.
The learning we can take from that: tolerating insane behavior makes more of it, and behaviors that start out in a context that’s not harmful will then spread to other contexts where they are. It’s not harmful when kids dance at random in their bedrooms; when groups of them do it at school all day, the educational system collapses.
Even more, these memes have secondary effects, meaning that if we replace an existing behavior, other behaviors collapse because of what takes over the space/energy previously devoted to the replaced behavior:
A new study has come up with a possible explanation, suggesting that the break-up of relationships within groups of friends is contagious – one couple within a social group divorces and their friends’ relationships collapse around them like ninepins.
The researchers have called it “divorce clustering” and say that a split up between immediate friends increases your own chances of getting divorced by 75%. – The Guardian
Displacement of existing institutions causes shockwaves of harm and confusion. You want to crush the system, do you? Well, what do you envision in its place? Unless you have a really clear idea of what daily life will look like, stop: you have no idea. You’re going to destroy and not create.
The ancien regime of today is European liberalism, which basically took over the known world starting in 1789. In the European liberal view, every person is a sacred object and we must take care of all of them, competent or not. This encourages tolerance of crazy behavior, and a lowering of standards.
In the view that will replace it, life itself is sacred — and we, who briefly hold life in ourselves, are merely means to that end. Our individual lives are not sacred. What is sacred is what we can contribute to the sacredness of life, and what “meaning” we can give to life by overcoming pains and creating positive responses instead.
People are starting to realize that 1789 was a mistake, and that it occurred only because of several centuries of bad thought before it. History takes decades or centuries to manifest its responses to the things we do — we won’t know, for example, if Barack Obama was a good president until 2210 or 2410. That’s way beyond what most can understand.
And now that we’re seeing an end to what we thought was a good path — the make sure everyone is fed before we know if we have enough grain approach — we’re altering our thinking. Our morality is no longer about the individual, but the health of the group, and even more, the achievement of the group. Just being there isn’t enough anymore, and that’s a positive evolution of humankind.