Freedom & Other Profanities

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And those who were seen dancing, were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music – Friedrich Nietzsche

Scientists recently suggested we are living in a sophisticated computer simulation created by an advanced form of intelligence. I am confused. For while I find the proposition fanciful the logic put forward to underpin this as a legitimate scientific hypothesis is very convincing, especially because the more we learn about the universe, the more it appears to be based on mathematical laws.

But instead of a simulation I am more inclined to describe it as a shared delusion – induced inadvertently perhaps, but methodically sustained once the privileged in society cottoned on to how well such a pervasive creed served their needs – particularly in maintaining the social order through various forms of control and compliance. And although I describe this delusion as a shared phenomenon, its presence can only ever be speculative. Indeed the only way we can test the existence of an ecology of mind is by conceding a set of coherent attitudes and behaviours, accumulated over centuries, that we then use to guide and inform our instinctive responses to the conscious experiences – variously interpreted as the nature of the human condition or how things are, or are meant, to be.

Steps to Material Fealty

Early indications of this state of mind first became evident when tribal warriors, leading their cohorts to victory in local skirmishes, began to achieve mythic status – often in folklore devised by the enemy to vindicate a defeat at the hands of “great generals”.

Although we live in a highly personality-driven society today, such veneration of individuals was unusual – a break with a tradition, stretching back thousands of years, where the framing meme had been the group. There is tacit acceptance among indigenous communities even today that family, and then the broader community viewed as an extension of family, is the fundamental organising social unit. This is not a romantic idealisation of aboriginal society, but rather a picture based on the latest evidence we have of how tribal groups cooperated with each other in order to survive.

Gradually supremacy passed from warriors to monarchs, emperors and princes. Affluent and all-powerful, many of these individuals assigned renowned painters, musicians, architects, sculptors and authors to portray their deeds, both real and imagined, in works that would captivate and instruct their audiences. Such narratives and artefacts consistently emphasised the presumed differences between deities and humans, or between masters and serfs, whilst elevating their patrons to absurd heights. Incidentally these same stories became the motivating impulse behind the hierarchically-configured “leader-follower” conventions some hundreds of years later.

Meanwhile courtiers and prelates enshrined the “divine right” of rulers in pious evocations and dogma that served to reify the numinous nature of certain individuals over others. There was no logical basis for any difference between the medieval Lord of the Manor and serfs in the village of course. Both had blood coursing through their veins. Both would die from the same diseases. In certain respects, setting aside the prospect of ill-health, disease, and a short life expectancy, the lot of a serf was relatively comfortable and secure in its self-sufficiency. These were the days before the Acts of Enclosure deprived the right of ordinary men and women to farm common land after all. Meanwhile science had yet to catch up with a spiritual discourse based solely on superstition and myth.

But then, in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, another seismic shift occurred. This time unanticipated and socially disruptive, it deflected our attention towards machines and technology. As one invention gave rise to others, and inbuilt obsolescence created markets for inventiveness, the illusion of progress via technical wizardry gained the upper hand.

Actually the underlying collective mental state remained more or less intact. But now it was held more covertly at a subliminal level in society. Soon the original impulse became little more than a faded daguerreotype – adrift within a tortuous maze of increasing global trade and complex social transactions. But it refused to entirely vanish. Instead, acumen passed to a new emerging class.

In the early 19th century merchants, industrialists and bureaucrats held sway – acquiring their wealth, opportunity and influence by virtue of the new technologies and forms of energy that enabled mass production and heralded the exodus of slave labour from the countryside to the new cities.

After the end of World War II that same power shifted once more. Today it includes heads of state, ultra-wealthy individuals, corporate chiefs, media barons, and the tsars charged with optimising the industrial-military complex for a never-ending war with enemies both authentic and contrived.

So what were previously localised phenomena have become pervasive today – global yet still nebulous and elusive – with links to an archetypal community of mind as tenuous as ever. This is most convenient for those in power. It means that managers and technocrats, aided and abetted by the corporate media, can continue to skate on the surface of society and patch up the present, using convictions they have extracted from the detritus of human progress. Our attention thus distracted, and the public’s penchant for bread and circuses assuaged, the elite are unhindered – left to shape events as they choose.

But the real power is not always held by those in the public eye. Often the celebrities we see and hear about are mere puppets – the public face of power. The puppet masters are often not to be found in the spotlight but lurking covertly in the shadows.

Throughout history the elite groups exercising power have been accompanied by cadres of aides who wield considerable authority and influence behind the scenes, seldom in the full glare of the public eye. William Shakespeare recognised this largely unseen presence, a very real force in its own right, as “the power behind the throne”. They are the true illuminati.

Hereafter I will refer to the credo of this potent shadow phenomenon as the worldview. The civilisational worldview to be precise. It remains a shared ideology – but only in the sense that its congealed impenetrability blocks out everything else. Rather like a black hole, whose strong gravitational pull ensures nothing can escape, the civilisational worldview leaves no possibility of a new narrative concerning the human family and the human condition, other than that held to be the self-evident truth by those who would have it so. Those in power and their counsellor-aides.

An additional complication is the fact that the worldview is still relatively unacknowledged and unknown. Gregory Bateson came close to defining this weltanschauung – in contrast to the more commonly understood mindset which is multiple, diverse, and individualistic; the result of environmental, social and educational conditioning. In other words, according to our cultural circumstances, all individuals possess a distinct mindset, whereas there is only a single worldview or weltanschauung.

In the past I have written a great deal on the factors distinguishing worldview and mindset. Unfortunately these terms are often used interchangeably. This distinction is not pedantic but a vital means of mulling over how contemporary society evolved and what should be done if the civilisational worldview is defective, or the manifesting world-system, as a consequence, is unable to meet current needs.

Essentially then my thesis goes something like this. The civilisational worldview is a deeply ingrained mental state – a tacit belief system expressing social norms that are common to most of us. Foreshadowed by warriors of old this worldview has been shared by humanity, with the likely exception of indigenous communities, virtually intact over centuries. In spite of this we are only ever momentarily aware of it – if at all. Acquiescence takes no effort.

Transcending artificial boundaries that compartmentalise knowledge of our environment by sorting them into distinct disciplines [such as geography, biology and history] the worldview is both subliminal and whole. It sustains itself autopoietically – its key tenets manifesting as pillars of a world-system which is the concrete reality of human existence – our relations, artefacts, transactions and interactions – as we perceive it to be.

In other words the worldview is an ideological code that covertly organizes, coordinates, and manipulates the way we expect relations and interactions to be conducted at a global level, leaving individuals to follow their personal inclinations as to how they live their lives, and particularly their relationships to each other, to the planet, and to other living species, via the world-system. In the meantime our mindset functions as an interface onto the world-system, helping us to interpret and translate the worldview in a unending dance of meaning-making. This gives us the illusion of being able to choose what actions we take at a purely practical level. But we never take the one step that could call the worldview into question. In that context choice itself is an illusion.

Although there have always been elements of this world-system we disparage, constantly complain about, challenge and tweak, the worldview itself remains uncontained. Inviolate. It is thus the unifying code of history. It is disturbing to think that it might remain that way in the future. Allow me to explain why I am alarmed by such a prospect.

The civilisational worldview code and its manifestation as a world-system assume five fundamental doctrines. For an effectively functioning society there needs to be:

  1. A ruling power group, attended to by an underclass of compliant serfs, as well as courtiers and advisers who may or may not wield the “power behind the throne”
  2. A dominant narrative, or inherent dogma, marketed as the solitary truth regarding how things must work. Over the past 70 years or more this narrative has emphasized economic growth while endorsing competition in the context of scarcity
  3. All aspects of economic production controlled, and goods distributed, by the ruling elite or their proxies. Key economic features include a belief that nature can (should) be exploited as a human right and that conflict and warfare are legitimate factors in growing the economy
  4. Wealth, influence and power of the ruling elite are protected by military and/or state mechanisms
  5. Pervasive myths of a higher intelligence to which all others are subservient.

As previously stressed, this fundamental canon can be applied to almost any community or nation – past or present and irrespective of geography, ethnicity and ideology – with the exception of indigenous nations. This last point is especially important to understand. It becomes the rationale for why liberating the indigenous estate of all first nations globally is such a powerful idea.

We can analyze the impact of these principles on past situations and we can also examine how they are playing out in the world today. The latter is what really interests me. It is also terrifying.

The Descent of Civilisation

No political system in the world is working as originally intended – unless one includes the deliberately brutal, strong-arm, practices seen in authoritarian regimes like those that exist in Sudan and North Korea for example. Even the integrity in so-called democracies appears to be crumbling before our eyes as more and more citizens express their disenchantment with politicians behaving badly and in many cases unethically.

David Cameron’s embarrassing exit from politics after the Brexit vote in the UK turned sour was an act of pure cynicism irrespective of the spin he and his colleagues cared to put on it. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female President, was thrown out of office for corruption. In an attempt to out-trump Donald Trump Malcolm Turnbull’s sanctimonious conservative party has recklessly trashed Australia’s reputation for tolerance in policies that are malicious and bigoted. In South Africa the Nelson Mandela Foundation is seeking the sacking of President Jacob Zuma having failed the test of leadership by looting state resources. President Duterte in the Philippines is simply an ignorant thug, while in a growing number of other countries we witness elected officials floundering in mayhem. The thought crosses our minds that all politicians are contemptible and should be ignored. But then we are given ringside seats to the circus that is the US model of democracy in action.

The 2016 Presidential election has descended into pure farce in a public display exposing ingrained graft and corruption among those who supposedly seek office to represent the will of the people. The situation becomes especially absurd when a majority of US citizens hold firmly to the illusion that their nation is still the leader of the free world. The fact that fewer nations aspire to US ideals, increasingly despised for its misdirected exceptionalism and acts of state-sponsored terror, is surely a reason to look for worthier models?

Of course it is not only politicians who display a thirst for power and are open to everything from sex scandals, money laundering and wiretapping to exploitation by industrial interests. But it is certainly a cause for concern when those who seek to govern also present as erratic, narcissistic sociopaths.

Not that its all bad news now that preening and posturing seem to have surpassed policy-making and planning as core business. In extracurricular activities France’s ex-President Nicholas Sarkozy was named the 68th best-dressed person in the world by Vanity Fair, alongside David Beckham and Brad Pitt. Canada’s pin-up PM Justin Trudeau lost his temper and resorted to belligerent behaviour on Parliament Hill. Thailand’s increasingly eccentric and superstitious dictator Prayut Chan-o-cha had four students arrested on charges of “eating sandwiches with political intent”. Meanwhile the clown-like antics displayed by Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi when he was in power still cause ripples of awkward embarrassment whenever he appears in public.

But that is about as good as it gets. When we need to look to Bolivia’s highly principled Evo Morales for humility, Russia’s Vladimir Putin for gravitas, and China’s Xi Jinping is held up to be the epitome of sobriety, there is something sadly amiss with the systems of governance we so readily tolerate in old empires without so much as a pause for reflection.

It is not simply the dubious temperament, ideological bluster, moral blindness and limited expertise of those elected to public office that is a concern however. It is also the bullying tactics – increasingly deployed by governments of every persuasion – to induce fear in the community. The need to uphold a semblance of social order is universally translated these days as the opportunity to hit back at critics on a scale ranging from sarcasm to pure intimidation.

Intimidation is no longer the sole preserve of petty tyrants. Indeed it has become the most commonly used and preferred strategy by ordinary politicians and their parties. Fear is used to stir up anger, cast doubt, and tarnish the integrity of those with differing opinions. It is used to threaten and cajole, to enforce compliance, to sustain war and maintain nuclear arsenals, to close borders, and even to exploit the elderly, the sick and the destitute.

The use of fear and intimidation by political leaders can be sufficient to provoke trauma in certain sections of society – especially when sustained over lengthy periods. The inculcation of national values will often be regarded as critical by governments using intimidation. This is manipulative by design – aimed at cultivating loyalty to accepted ideals and dogma while disavowing behaviour that could be regarded as unpatriotic.

In these situations citizens may even begin to identify with, and become deeply devoted to, governments that mistreat them, regard them as fools, take away their hard-won freedoms, and pay little heed to their emotional needs. Indeed citizens experiencing these conditions often develop a tendency to support government dogma to the detriment of their own emotional health and wellbeing. Citizens will also rationalise, to themselves and to others, their poor treatment as being necessary for the economy, or the security of the nation, and furiously defend their government’s actions when those actions are challenged by outsiders.

In contemporary Australia we can see these Stockholm syndrome-like symptoms playing out daily. The rise of fiercely patriotic groups who abuse each other verbally during street protests. The election of rightwing populist politicians who resort to racism and bigotry in order to engender fear and a dread of others. The rejection of an Amnesty International report that had the temerity to criticise the federal government for its abuse of asylum seekers. The gradual erosion of privacy and other human rights. The rifts that are opening up in what was once one of the world’s most tolerant multicultural societies…

Experiencing these symptoms puts more credulous citizens at risk of significant trauma. When combined with the alienation already being felt by many – the foreboding expressed by those living below the poverty line and the long-term unemployed, the despondency among people young and old who, in record numbers, are choosing to commit suicide or inject dangerous drugs, rather than face an uncertain future, and of course the existential threats to humanity from terrorism, nuclear armageddon, and climate change, topics that even the average six-year-old can talk about, one has to conclude that much of society is on a descent curve exacerbated by the attitudes and behaviours of those who market hate.

A fairly large silent majority continues to condone the more populist nonsense emanating from democracies in crisis – tolerating it more as light entertainment yet ignoring the crucial issue of how serious legislative work can be expected in such circumstances. The media, too, is often complicit in trivialising political debate and framing incessant leadership speculation in this manner. But many others (and it is a growing movement) are fed up, viewing this inane cabaret with frustrated bewilderment and looking for alternative solutions.

However, if dissatisfaction with systems of governance, as distinct from the scary ignorance of many elected parliamentarians, who seem out of their depth and incapable of bringing a sliver of wisdom or bipartisan empathy to the issues facing humanity, are indeed the causes of such detachment, action eventually becomes an imperative. The real question then becomes what to do.

Initially, frustrated individuals might seek solace in part-time activities, such as charitable work, volunteering for a social movement focused on social change, or lobbying for ecocide to become a corporate criminal activity, for example.

But if political performance around the world continues to decline, to the extent that the quality of life on this planet is significantly compromised, or that human rights are dismissed, only two alternatives become possible:

Either we can put up with a broken system, together with the ongoing charade of actors within these systems who continue to conduct themselves as though the entire framework is still secure, complete, and effective – while treating them with respectful disdain. Or we can rise up mindfully with others in activities targeted at reinventing governance in all its forms and manifestations. Reform movements such as MiVote and Democracy Earth spring immediately to mind, then the various Occupy movements of course, plus the myriad peer governance and commons-based entrepreneurial entities that will eventually displace current models in a future post-capitalist society.

Of course we might decide the best course of action is simply to seek sanctuary by throwing ourselves into activities that quarantine us from witnessing such depressing displays of folly by people like Jacob Zuma, Theresa May, Donald Trump or Rodrigo Duterte. But it is difficult to escape. The insidious nature of social media these days makes it impossible to ignore reality when it stares you in the face. Besides, turning our backs on the debilitating state of politics becomes even more tricky for parents with children and grandchildren who are heirs to the future we create in this moment and bequest to them.

In the meantime, in an unwavering effort to keep the populace quiescent, the elite react as we might expect from our preceding analysis of the civilisational worldview. They distract our attention by intoning predictable refrains to the press and to each other ad infinitum. There is no dearth of material for them to chat about. Politicians are fond of talking about the benefits of their policies relative to the opposition, how they are protecting us from evil, the need to balance the budget, jobs, jobs and more jobs, and matters that are of so little consequence or that could quite easily be left to responsible adults without legislation by Parliament. Company executives prefer to bore us with the obscene profits they are making, as well as how they are trying to remain relevant in a future they expect to be much like the past.

Finally the official media stretches credulity to the limit by diluting the news and bestowing it with a blanket of banal indoctrination. The result is often a kind of TV reality show. In this dumbing down process citizens are routinely denied the truth, while any sense of intellect is disparaged in celebrations of ignorance. Strategy of this kind is only apparent if we are really paying attention – for the aim is to shape a dominant narrative where we are blind to the underlying propaganda. In this dumbed-down debate an artificial dichotomy is established – a dual narrative that deliberately excludes alternatives. We can have left-wing or right-wing views, for example. We can have faith in a religion or be agnostic. We can equate Islam with terrorism or not. We can accept the reality of global warming or remain climate sceptics. Anyone with beliefs outside of these two main narrative streams runs the threat of being ignored or demonised.

Unsurprisingly all of this lulls us into a torpor where expectations are stultified and energy dissipates. We have become as the world-system intends – cogs in the capitalist machinery where the factories most vital for maintaining production and sustaining economic growth are the shopping malls and casinos.

Life in the Bubble

Now I realise this is perilous territory. A few readers will find all kinds of conspiracy theories embedded in my text. If that is the case then we are all complicit witnesses to some extent. It is possible that some of us are more awake to the reality of a meta-discourse while others, fearful of living in a deluded state (or even a digital simulation) prefer to take cover in the comfort of the civilisational bubble. Many may simply dismiss my proposition as socialist claptrap in spite of a genuine attempt to rise above such artificial distinctions, in order to face the hard, cold facts. Perhaps my hypothesis will simply affirm beliefs already held. But others may start to think more deeply about the civilisational model that gives rise to the conditions within the world-system we see today – for our present path is unfavourable in terms of our future prosperity, and even our survival.

We take so many things for granted – assumed and inherited axioms that have become detrimental to humanity. Yet these same axioms also prevent us imagining and inquiring into alternatives – even where the current world-system is not functioning as intended, is working as intended but to the disadvantage of the majority, or has become irrelevant given a range of new factors like technological innovation, the size of the global population, and the problems posed by climate refugees or nuclear accidents, for example.

If we really do see the need to reform the world-system in order that it generates different outcomes, we need to start by reinventing the tenets that comprise the worldview. We must start thinking the unthinkable.

Tackling elite power structures requires that we revisit governance. For example, we might decide that we want more egalitarian, feminine and distributed forms of government. It is clear that new forms of online democracy challenge many of the points at which current democratic structures fail: lobbying and infiltration by big business, corporate donations, the paucity in ideological conditioning, and politics as a life-time career, for example. But is that sufficient? Rather than attempting to institute democratic reform, perhaps we should be challenging the need for central governments of any kind. Conventional wisdom posits the need for every country to have a central government to enact legislation. We assume no society can be allowed, or would be able, to blunder along by itself. Political control is vital if the world is to continue to turn on its current axis and to avoid anarchy. That is just dogma – integral to the dominant power narrative of course, but by no means sacrosanct. Anything invented by humans can be reinvented. And if we are to alter the speed or nature of the turning world we may want to try other things. Things that make more sense given today’s contextual dynamics.

We put great faith in empirical evidence. Empirical evidence suggests the civilisational worldview orthodoxies might be misleading – particularly in terms of the effectiveness of current governance structures. For example, because of political deadlock, Spain has not really had an effective central government for the past 10 months. No new legislation has been passed. Yet it is expected to be one of the fastest-growing eurozone economies this year. And as a result the unemployment rate has just fallen from 20% to 18.9% in the past three months. If central governments are unnecessary, or could beneficially be redirected towards international collaboration rather than domestic meddling, might citizen juries be a more effective and engaging proposition for local governance? Again the empirical evidence in a variety of countries in West Africa, South Asia, Britain and Australia suggests a positive answer to this question.

Perhaps then we should apply these types of challenge to all five of the tenets comprising the civilisational worldview. For example, and again following empirical evidence, we could generate new narratives emphasising cooperation, self-sufficiency and abundance as more mutually beneficial than competition, dependency, and scarcity. We could introduce new laws that value biomimicry over the more toxic applications of chemical engineering and that forbid environmental damage of any kind. We could liberate the indigenous estate by actively engaging the wisdom of first nation elders. We could promote the design principles of permaculture so as to shift the balance between industry and nature. And we could redraft corporate law to favour peer production and commons-based businesses over proprietary shareholding entities. We might even reconceptualise the role of the military to guarantee peace rather than to wage war, and the priority for police to nurture the social maturity of communities rather than on focusing on law enforcement.

The current state of the world-system is ambiguous – a fragile pathology at best. For many of us, on many levels, life continues as it always has. We face the daily round of travelling to work, taking care of our families, doing the grocery shopping, and ferrying the kids to and from school. We relax when we are on holiday, enjoy the solitude when pottering around the garden, and look forward to the next trip overseas.

But life is not so predictable if you happen to be a member of the Standing Rock nation protesting the proposed North Dakota oil pipeline. Life is even more precarious if you happen to live in countries like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan that have been ravaged by war. If you are a genuine refugee you will still be turned away should you approach Australian shores by boat. And if you are a child in Ethiopia or Yemen there is not enough food to guarantee you will become a teenager.

Documented evidence from organisations like the Pentagon, the UN, World Wildlife Fund, Save the Children, and Amnesty International, all point to an unsustainable end-game in some form or other. Nearly half of the world’s population live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty. Approximately 1 billion of these are children. According to UNICEF 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.

Yet more than $14 trillion was spent on international conflicts in 2015. This represents around 13% of global GDP – or roughly the combined value of the economies of the UK, France, Germany, Canada, Spain and Brazil combined.

Average life expectancy in most nations is higher – mostly because of good nutrition, hygiene, and medical breakthroughs. Suicide, however, is now a global phenomenon accounting for around 1.4% of all deaths. We are far more powerful today than ever before but seem unable incapable of translating that power and affluence into peace and happiness.

When all the evidence is synthesised there can be little doubt that the current worldview has led us down a rabbit hole from which escape will be problematic. Ironically, given our ingenuity and relative affluence, we are the first and only species on the planet capable of destroying ourselves. But instead of addressing that possibility we seem intent on hastening our demise – caught up in some kind of masochism or the arrogant belief that extinction only happens to less creative species.

Having read numerous reports on every issue from drought and famine to poverty, conflict, crime and drug abuse, education, climate, global affairs, trade, employment and technology I am left in no doubt that the global outlook is one of a number of symptoms indicating a continuing and serious collapse. There is a deterioration in the conditions and dynamics of all five of the tenets comprising the civilisational worldview. But movement is exponential and so not easily observed.

Power is misused by the elite in our society and there are no signs that this will change in the near future. Wealth is owned by fewer and fewer people. Governance is inadequate, having been unable to adjust to the complexity of a globalised world. The narratives we use to make meaning are controlled by corporate media and skewed to trap us within dualistic arguments that lead nowhere. There is no destiny story – which is why we are losing hope.

The overwhelming imperative for humankind is not the various emergencies that are now besetting up. The demographics of an aging population, global warming, food shortages, degradation of soils, the divisions in society between the affluent and the disadvantaged, drought, energy, debt, pollution, poverty, terrorism, and the spotlight put on borders by the refugee crisis, are merely symptoms of a far more pressing problem.

We should stop trying to escape our terrestrial home in order to populate other planets. We humans have become a scourge on the Earth and should do our very best to reverse the unsustainable anthropocene conditions we have created by halting our tendency to patch up the present in the hope that the future will take care of itself. It will not.

In that context a comprehensive reinvention of the worldview itself is the only universal endeavour that makes any sense. It must be redesigned from first principles as a post-civilisational and post-capitalist paradigm that has the destiny of the human family and its advancement as its prime purpose. If we do not undertake this reinvention, by professing it to be too hard, or unnecessary, we can expect a continuing deterioration of current trends to the extent that they will soon overwhelm our capacity to recover.

This work has already started. Many hundreds of thousands of small initiatives all around the world are edging towards a new kind of connected global community based on equality, abundance, empathy, transparency and cooperation. The various transitions moving us towards to a sustainable, self-sufficient, low-carbon economy, are offering us important lessons in how to live more gently with nature. Likewise the liberation of the new commons, peer-based methods of production and shared technologies, will transform the rules around ownership, trade and value. Very soon the various models experimenting with eradicating corruption in politics and restoring power to the people rather than as the prerogative of a privileged class, will disrupt and reconstruct the way we choose to govern and organise.

We can expect increasing opposition from those who perceive they have so much to lose. The empire will strike back. But sooner or later the current worldview will come crashing down. Gandhi’s dictum will come true and we will be able to say: First they ignored us. Then they laughed at us. Then they tried to stop us. Then we won.

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