Voters seem not to understand that being a political leader is a job, and that the people who take on that role view it as a career, which means that they defer to the methods of power as much as people in the Soviet Union did.
That means that they operate in order to satisfy the needs of the people and institutions with whom they work before anything else, and they “succeed” by getting people to vote for things. Nowhere in there is your ultimate well-being considered, only the perception that government is delivering something like that, in a utilitarian context (“most people say it works OK for them”).
In a civilizational context, this means that no one has eyes on the road ahead. They are busy looking around the car, making sure that the kids have enough gum and video games to keep them busy, and the adults are tracking a map to a theoretical destination.
Consequently, while voters have been hoping for the best and expecting the worst, our civilization has declined because all of those “new” ideas, which we implemented without checking to see if their precursors worked, are failing simultaneously.
Starting with The Enlightenment,™ the West has focused on “individualism,” or a philosophy of the self as more important than social order. This has led us to a variety of utilitarian notions, or those which seem acceptable enough to most people to win a vote.
All of these have focused on the idea of “equality,” because someone who wants himself to come before social order must offer that up as a general principle and not claim privilege for himself alone, taking on a variety of forms (social, sexual, racial, ethnic, class, culture).
Now that we have spent two centuries making ourselves equal, we are seeing that placing the self before social order results in isolation of the self, since it has no framework or context of values to provide guidance:
In his 1995 essay, sociologist Robert Putnam warned of the increasing atomization of American society. The institutions of American social capital, he wrote, are on the decline: Attendance at public forums, religious groups, civic organizations, and even his eponymous bowling leagues have been steadily declining since the the heyday of the 1950s American suburban community. The social fabric of America is coming apart on the neighborhood level, wrote Putnam—and it’s only going to get worse.
Unfortunately, it seems Putnam was on to something. In a report for urbanism think-tank City Observatory, economist Joe Cortright tracks the decline of American social capital over the past 40 years not simply in terms of membership to voluntary organizations, but also through the relationships Americans have with their geographical neighbors. Data used in the report from the General Social Survey doesn’t paint a pretty picture: According to Cortright, the degree to which Americans trust one another is at a 40-year low.
Following up on that research, Putnam found that diversity destroys social trust and causes people to “hunker down” or live in their own little bubbles, separated from the society around them, and exist in an atomized state where they connect to little that is bigger than themselves.
People in such societies rage around in a stupor. Their fundamental problem, boredom, cannot be articulated in a way that makes them feel good about themselves, so they invent dramas and fascinations to keep themselves occupied, yet remain unsatisfied.
Their entire existence becomes externalized, or reliant on the group. The more this intensifies, the more they go into a Soviet-style stupor, where success depends on validating dogma and pleasing the group, not reality.
As a result, such people become terrified of any internal experience — meditations, intuition, discernment of reality — and depend entirely on the social group. This makes them terrified to encounter the inner world that they fear will reveal the emptiness of the external world:
One study published in Science even found that people would rather do mundane activities or — wait for it — administer electric shocks to themselves than be left alone with their thoughts.
“I think most people use distraction and are afraid to be alone and or sit in silence due to fear of unresolved feelings or thoughts that could come up,” says Kelley Kitley, LCSW, psychotherapist and owner of Serendipitous Psychotherapy in Chicago.
Some analysts seem the existential discomfort that people feel as evidence of their quasi-awareness of a lack of purpose to their lives:
Prof Ivo Vlaev, a behavioural psychologist at Warwick University and Imperial College, London, thinks the findings are “very interesting” but the electric shocks could be over-emphasised.
“The bottom line is that they felt miserable,” he told BBC News. “Research has shown that happiness is not only about experiencing pleasure. You need a sense of meaning and purpose – which you lack in these conditions. And when you have a task to do, you do have that sense – even if it’s a simple task.”
In an atomized society, no one has any purpose except the tautological. “I live, so that I may live,” we say, realizing guilty that this translates into “…because I am afraid to die.”
However, we have none of the framework around us that allows us to shoot for something higher. Climb Everest? Yep, ten thousand people did it last month. Invent a new gadget? We have a superfluity of gadgets. Write a great novel? All the topics are taboo, and, besides, none of what is appreciated is great anymore. Same with music and art. It has all become mass culture junk.
When you have a strong and vital culture, you know what everyday actions will be rewarded. Strong, clear instructions beat out ambiguity every time. You know how to great others, how to treat them, and what they will find inspiring and reward.
Even more than physical reward, you know what they will esteem. To be part of a social group, you have to be known for doing something well. Maybe it is as simple as being an expert at fitting together moonshine stills, or fixing motorbikes, but it must be something.
Without the cultural backdrop of shared activities, these quests take on a personal meaning only, and this deprives us of having our works be enjoyed by others, thus having them enjoy us, and more importantly, the idea that the good that we do will outlast us.
Right now, we are merely living to die. We have a set sentence here on Earth, most of which is taken up by school+job+paperwork+shopping, and then some time to try to please ourselves. Without a framework larger than the individual, all of this self time becomes masturbatory.
No wonder we are drowning in porn of every conceivable type, including many which should have stayed on the drawing board in a forgotten basement somewhere. Anything more than naked people in nature is a failure of imagination on our part, an externalization of sexual desire to a life someone else is living.
Cultural health is a positive externality, or something that benefits all of us without having to control the situation. Externalities are part of civilization:
An externality is an economic term referring to a cost or benefit incurred or received by a third party. However, the third party has no control over the creation of that cost or benefit.
Pollution emitted by a factory that muddies the surrounding environment and affects the health of nearby residents is a negative externality. The effect of a well-educated labor force on the productivity of a company is an example of a positive externality.
With a strong culture, we know how to be good; these things are specific to each culture, and there is no universal good, nor any of the universal feelings that unite a crowd like Hollywood movies and sentimental postmodern novels promise.
An economist might argue that this delivers a type of value that is hard to assess because it consists of quality applied in the long term; a society with a strong culture will produce greater quality output, and therefore, be more valuable as a place to live in.
Certainly we see the results of that from past centuries. The West made itself stable and good, and therefore, remains desired even as it encounters vast internal problems. Who does not want to live in the shadow of Notre Dame or an ancient Nordic castle?
A society based in the enduring value of culture might consider recognizing intangibles — continuity, heritage, beliefs, behaviors — as tangibles by giving them legal representation for non-persons which would enable us to legally defend them, thus making them participants in the economy with rights of their own:
Toledo voters passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, a unique charter amendment that establishes the huge lake as a person and grants it the legal rights that a human being or corporation would have.
The new law will allow the people of Toledo to act as legal guardians for Lake Erie – as if the citizens were the parents and the lake were their child – and polluters of the lake could be sued to pay for cleanup costs and prevention programs. It is one of the first of its kind in the US, as it grants human rights to a body of water that is 10,000 sq miles in size, provides drinking water for 11 million people and has four states and two countries along its 870 miles of shoreline.
If sanity prevails, we will see more of this type of thinking, because in a legal system designed for people, only people have rights. Everything else — nature, culture, genetics, philosophy — becomes a hobby or other voluntary lifestyle choice.
This new political system will quickly gravitate toward being similar to the feudal caste system, with nature and culture occupying a role similar to that of the aristocrats. Recognizing these positive externalities allows us to defend and integrate them.
Few want to talk about it, but the breakdown in civilization has its greatest impacts on the individual. Without social trust, it becomes difficult or impossible to find a mate, friends, or community. That impoverishes life in the same way having a polluted lake does.
Right now we have designed political systems to cater to the individual, based on our individualistic theories from The Enlightenment,™ but this causes us to think solely in terms of individuals, ending up with isolated and paranoid individuals.
A society which wishes to endure will commit itself to defending that which bonds together individuals, which is civilization in the sense not only of mutual economic need but also need for significance and meaning in life.
In such an order, one can strive to do good and rise above past attempts, knowing that instead of fifteen minutes of fame, the good will join part of a lengthy canon of greatness and those works will be preserved in perpetuity.
Without social trust and faith in the continuity of civilization, people have very little to live for except transient pleasures, and those are never satisfying, making us like drug addicts come back and try again and again even though we are never made happy.
Tags: alone, atomization, externalization, isolation, social trust, solipsism