Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How Godlike Oligarchs Train Consumers

Personal liberty is mythologized by two kinds of people, whom I’ll call oligarchs and consumers. I focus here on the psychological sense of the word “oligarch.” Economically, an oligarch is someone in the minority who has undemocratic political power over the majority, due to wealth, social connections, or some other special strength. But oligarchs tend to share a social Darwinian mindset, according to which the most powerful people are, as Nietzsche said, beyond good and evil and thus above the law. The advantage of being more powerful than most isn’t just that you can afford the best lawyers, who give you practical immunity from prosecution; no, in the first place, the oligarch arrogantly assumes that no one has the right to judge him, that social laws are for those who are forced to be interdependent because they’re not completely independent. Those who can care for themselves without anyone else’s aid are gods, and gods are lawgivers not law-abiders.

Historically in Europe, Catholic oligarchs lost their political power to modern, rationalistic ones. The Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment replaced the medieval rationalization of aristocracy with the modern rationalization of stealth oligarchy by way of democracy and capitalism. In the medieval scheme, peasants served lords as more divinely blessed thanks to their blood relation or social connection to the royals whose privileges were sanctioned by the utterly-compromised, anti-Jesus Catholic Church. As money fell into the private hands of merchants and as scientists discovered more and more discrepancies between Christian theology and natural reality, the Christian myth became obsolete and modernists duly replaced it with secular humanism. According to the new myth, the individual human has the potential to be a god, depending on whether he has sufficient empowering knowledge. Eventually, this myth was extended to women, but initially faith in mortal reason and freedom was both sexist and class-based. Moreover, modernism combined elements of what are now called political liberalism and conservatism: modernism was liberal in requiring faith in human progress from the unrestricted and thus untraditional exercise of reason, as demonstrated best by the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin; but modernism was conservative in requiring a naturalistic view of human nature, according to which inequalities in rational self-control entail unequal rights to happiness or political power. In these ways, modernism was at least implicitly scientistic and social Darwinian.

In medieval terms, social progress is senseless, since God supposedly already revealed the blueprint for the perfect society, for the so-called kingdom of God, millennia ago. Modernists lost faith in that theistic metanarrative, owing largely to the Church’s elaborate betrayal of Jesus for secular power, but were inspired by demonstrations of human creativity in the Renaissance and of the power of technoscience in the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Freedom of thought evidently empowers people, which raises the standard of living and is thus socially progressive. That scientism, which reduces the improvement of values to increases in knowledge and power, is at the heart of political liberalism. But this very science-centered, naturalistic perspective entails class divisions between those who are naturally smarter or stronger and thus better equipped to enhance society in the scientistic manner, and those with natural and thus scientifically recognizable deficiencies, who depend on charity for their survival. With the death of God in the modern age, charity becomes much less motivated, and so the modernist tends to be either a libertarian, economic conservative; a warped theist who pretends to follow a humane ancient tradition but instead cherry-picks from that tradition with the impunity of a modern individualist whose trust in her apelike ego substitutes for fear of God; or a postmodern liberal, whose liberalism is only a mask for nihilistic instrumentalism.

When I say, then, that the oligarch is one of two types who cherish personal liberty, what I mean is that the arch modernist (libertarian, fundamentalist, postmodern liberal) resorts to noble lies about the benefits of freedom, to justify the greater bestial vices that attend godlike knowledge and power. The oligarch is smarter, more powerful and independent, and thus more liberated from social conventions, than those who are compelled to obey received wisdom. That politically incorrect liberty, which is the god’s freedom to sin, is the secret content of banal glorifications of freedom in modern democracies. As was known in ancient Greece, democracies devolve into stealth oligarchies, due to the potential for demagoguery, for mass manipulation by those who prey on the herd. Oligarchs demand the freedom of self-rule because they alone are fully capable of being autonomous, of being free from coercion whether by natural or social forces, due often to their greater wealth which supplies them with cutting-edge technology and with oligopolies in minimally-regulated capitalistic societies. Oligarchs are thus the truest lovers of the divine, because they’re the most narcissistic and godlike. They love to create their own worlds, like the mythical gods of yore, and so they protect the freedom needed by natural gods to rule over their pets, who are the mass of relative weaklings. When the modernist spoke of the need for “rational self-control,” then, he was effectively prescribing negative liberty, which is the freedom from any external force, and thus the open-ended positive liberty of anyone so empowered to do whatever he wants as a carefree god toying with his inferiors. And so rationalistic modernity devolves into chaotic postmodernity.

However, as I said, the modern myth of secular humanism has a liberal, progressive side, which has the potential for socialism, as became apparent in communist societies in the last century. Modern socialism combines theistic irrationality and supernaturalism with the scientistic notion of social progress. The socialist ignores natural differences between human capacities and idolizes the group rather than the individual. Progress then becomes a matter of enhancing society as a whole which requires economic equality or at least no evidence of any vastly unequal individual. While there are group dynamics and while no individual is as rational, free, or conscious as affirmed in modern myths, psychology and biology provide a wealth of evidence that individuals have limited or at least illusory degrees of rational autonomy. Socialists must ignore all of that evidence, since the latter challenges the worship of the State with the more compelling form of pseudotheism which substitutes the powerful mortal for the classic deity. One problem with socialism, then, is its aesthetic weakness, since a group--being an abstraction--can’t literally speak for itself and so doesn’t make for a compelling dramatic character. A powerful individual, however, can plainly speak and act much like an ancient god and thus can attract the same sort of adoration as was thought to be enjoyed by Zeus, Yahweh, or Allah. (This is why nationalism in general, from that of the Nazis to that of the Americans, prospers only with a cult of personality, whether the Leader is found in politics or on the silver screen.) 

Nevertheless, the progressive side of modernism (the liberal’s naturalistic fallacy committed as a result of religious faith ultimately in science) can trump modernism’s naturalistic, rationalistic side, which makes for the spectacle of gods being brought low by lesser beings whose minds, at least, are potentially created (indoctrinated and trained) by their superiors. The first such modern spectacle was the French Revolution, from which American oligarchs learned to appreciate the need for effective noble lies, to prevent a similar sort of perverse revolution in the “New World” (supposedly a world of raw materials with which European immigrants could practice their godhood). The trick was to use a limited form of democracy that has only superficial consequences, setting the branches of government against each other by way of dividing and conquering the masses. This was done not just to forestall the rise of a classic tyrant with a direct political monopoly, but to prevent either any such tyrant or the population of weaklings as a whole from revolting against those with indirect political monopolies, namely the stealth oligarchs, such as the plutocrats who in the last couple of centuries came to run the large American banks.

The Disappearance of Babies and Old People

All of that is background to what I want to discuss, which is one means by which those who enjoy godlike freedom (the oligarchs) sustain the illusion of freedom of their pets (the consumers). By “consumer” I mean someone who sacralizes the consumption of material goods, whose deepest values are therefore the most politically correct ones, instilled by popular culture which is dominated by the mass media and the entertainment industry, which in turn have been consolidated by the handful of megacorporations that comprise the military-industrial-entertainment complex. While consumers don’t identify themselves primarily as such, those whose behaviour indicates that they worship the companies that brand them and that rain down techno toys like manna from heaven should be thought of as consumers in this religious sense. Psychologically, consumers identify with the celebrities and fictional heroes who lead popular culture, but these characters become popular because they serve the modern metanarrative.

As the (relatively unpopular) science fiction movie, Cube, points out so well, there need be no conspiracy in the Creationist sense, since design can be accomplished in the Darwinian manner, by natural selection. While modern societies are stealth oligarchies in which a minority of superpowerful persons negate the socialist tendencies of democracy, oligarchs are only false gods, themselves being playthings of the inhumane cosmos. With all their knowledge and power, they can’t predict how economies will develop in the long-term and thus can’t fully control them. Instead, what happens is that dominance hierarchies evolve as stable, albeit apparently cruel social organizations, with human predators naturally winning wild competitions and acquiring monopolies, and with myths arising to reinforce that naturally advantageous order by captivating the human herd. Like everything else in nature, human society is a process in what I call figuratively the decay of the undead god. Clearly, nature is divine since natural forces produce everything from galaxies to planets to organisms. But nature is neither alive nor dead, neither a personal god nor inert and static; as argued by the biologist Stuart Kauffman, in Reinventing the Sacred, nature is creative, but nature thereby gives only the superficial appearance of being alive without actually being so, like a zombie. And like a zombie’s undeadness, nature’s sham vitality is horrible, because of its alien endpoint, because actual organic life is only a byproduct of cosmic development, with life having no necessarily uplifting ultimate role in the universe.

So consumers are enthusiastic participants in popular culture who thus most successfully fulfill whatever mysterious function is needed to help maintain the modern social order. Biologically, religious consumerism serves the genes by stabilizing a dominance hierarchy, the latter being a social structure that’s proven to prevent social collapse in most mammalian species but that in our freer, more intelligent species may not likewise succeed. In any case, the ultimate end of the subset of biological processes within the grander cosmic evolution is quite unknown. But, captivated by modern myths that reinforce grotesque power inequalities, empowering vicious human predators as oligarchs at the majority’s expense, consumers are blindly locked into that cosmic process, which makes for an aesthetically questionable lifestyle. (See Curse of Reason and Happiness.)

How, though, are so many people captured by modern myths? How do so many succumb to liberal Scientism, to the colossal naturalistic fallacy of trusting that society generally can progress just as obviously as can technoscience? I want to explore here just one facet of this domestication of the herd. Since consumers are chained to popular culture, it behooves us to investigate that culture’s content, and one curious feature of that content is well-known, which is the pretense that old people don’t exist. The Simpsons cartoon, for example, has for a couple of decades now satirized retirement homes, contrasting the modernist’s penchant for eliminating old people from public view, with the more traditional culture in which old people are respected and more directly cared for by their relatives. In addition to being abandoned by their modern families, old people seldom appear in the mass media or in any form of mass entertainment. Sterilized representatives may be concocted to sell life insurance or drugs on television, but you rarely see old people in mass-consumed contents. Even though their job consists of reading from teleprompters, when a news anchor reaches a certain age, he or she’s often replaced by a younger mouthpiece, and the same is true of movie or television actors. Moreover, not just the living old people are conspicuously absent from modern society, but so are dead bodies. In a traditional or so-called premodern society, the dead are more visible, sometimes even paraded in public or left to rot with no pretense of an afterlife, as in the Tibetan practice of the sky burial in which the corpse is left to rot out in the open. In modern society, though, corpses are rushed to funeral homes where they’re burned to ashes or secreted within coffins and buried, sparing friends or relatives the hardship of looking Death in its hideously alien face.

Less well appreciated is the fact that the same phenomenon is found at the opposite end of the spectrum: babies are also kept as secrets in modern societies, seldom appearing anywhere in public, including the narratives of pop culture. The point isn’t just that babies are rarely shown in movies or in magazines, for example, but that babies are hardly ever even the subjects of public discourse. Indirectly, of course, many aspects of popular culture bear on old people and on babies, but there’s little direct observation or discussion of what we might call the alpha and the omega of the human life cycle.

Two tempting explanations of these curious facts can be dismissed, I think. First, the fiction writer will point out that babies obviously make for poor actors and thus are useless as stars of advertisements, movies, novels, and so on. At best, babies are used as props in the entertainment industry, because this industry is in the business of telling stories/spreading myths, and babies are incapable of acting. This explanation has two drawbacks. First, it doesn’t account as well for the comparable banishment of old people, since older people can act and indeed may have all the more experience in that respect. Second, this doesn’t address the neglect that occurs outside of commercial enterprises, by modern families themselves.

The second explanation is the evolutionary one that old people naturally won’t become the focus of a human culture which must ultimately be directed towards the fulfillment of our biological function of sexual reproduction. Old people no longer carry out that function and thus tend to fall by the wayside. As it stands, this explanation has numerous problems. For one thing, its major premise seems false, since while all human cultures may affirm our biological function, thus instituting marriage, for example, cultures can do this by indirect means. Thus, far from ignoring old people, traditional cultures treasure them, giving them pride of place and codifying or mythologizing respect for old people. Also, this explanation doesn’t account for the dearth of babies in modern public places. On the contrary, the naïve evolutionist should predict that babies are culturally central: at least, any culture that deals explicitly with sexual reproduction should prize the biological result, which is of course the birth of infants.

Part of a more satisfying explanation, though, is related to the second one, which is that in the case of commercial endeavours, at least, such as advertising, neither babies nor old people are most welcome, because sexuality is the primary technique for selling merchandise, and those in the eighteen to thirty-five age group are naturally the sexiest.

Sustaining Individualism by an Illusion

But more generally, I propose, people at their youngest or their oldest are detrimental to the myth of freedom on which consumerism and thus the whole modern social order depend. As I said, oligarchic freedom is just the lack of inhibitions and of any external restriction on the will to get what it wants. In this respect, oligarchs are like infants as much as gods, but however objectionable their exploitations, oppressions, or fraudulent extractions of wealth, and however incompatible their infantile recklessness may be with the modern myth of rational self-control, they’re ensconced in their privately-operated worlds and thus likely beyond reform.

However, the consumer can’t afford to recognize the sham of the modern ideal of human nature. The passive downloader of pop culture mustn’t become aware of the dark pseudo-agenda of the undead god, of the natural powers behind the cultural Matrix; instead, the consumer must blindly follow the modern ideal as though it were just a harmless conventional stipulation, like another rule of the road. This modern ideal is called Individualism, since it depicts a person as an independent entity walled-off from everything else by the trinity of Consciousness, Reason, and Freedom. These forces unite to empower a person, to make her the “master of her destiny.” Modern liberty is freedom from tradition, from preposterous institutions like the Church, from antiprogressive forces such as superstition, from tyrannical governments, and from the whims of Mother Nature. Consumption of material goods, then, is the fuelling of the ego, the divorce between the increasingly-autonomous individual and the rest of the world, the spinning of a cocoon to nurture a god-in-training. Less figuratively, the point is that material goods add to a person’s control--supposedly over herself as well as nature--since they’re artificially functional and thus more predictable and benevolent than natural processes. Also, consumption of mass-produced toys and of other luxuries is pleasurable, which reassures the consumer that modernism is worthwhile.

But as an ingredient of the modern myth, consumerism is broader than the commercial sphere, extending to politics, sexuality, family dynamics, and to any egocentric, “individualistic” endeavour. The individual is supposed to exercise perfectly free choice not just in the supermarket, when faced with aisles of stacked products that tower overhead, but in democratic elections. Liberated men and women are free also to have recreational sex with no limits between consenting adults, selecting among the myriad ways in which bodies can be conjoined. And being an autonomous, self-sufficient pseudogod, with no overriding social obligations, an adult can dispense with his or her old parents when they become burdensome, hiding their bodies again when they die, in graves or urns.

With this modern ideal in mind, there are a host of reasons why the public presence of old people and of infants is awkward in any society committed to that ideal. The fantasy of technoscientific mastery over natural forces is shown to be ludicrous by evidence of nature’s mastery over us, which is found all over the deteriorating bodies of old people, still plagued as they are by diseases despite all the advances in medical science. Their organs and mental faculties fail them as they near the permanent cessation of their inner being, which cessation is so incomprehensible to the living. No one escapes that submission to natural forces, not even the oligarch who is the most godlike among us.

While old people show that even godlike humans are conquered by natural forces, babies give the lie to modernism by showing how most of us can be conquered by social ones. In the first place, a baby is a sponge, mimicking what those around it do. In this way, a baby is transparently trained like any pet. By analogy, weaker adults may be trained by stronger ones. Granted, babies and children occupy biologically formative stages of development, but even the adult brain is highly adaptable, changing to suit stimuli from different environments. Moreover, as shown by cognitive scientists, even an average adult is much less rational than classic rationalists assumed. Adults are susceptible to many fallacies and biases. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt says in The Righteous Mind, reason evolved not to discover the ultimate truth but to flatter the ego and to navigate social networks. (Unfortunately, Haidt’s defense of political conservatism commits the naturalistic fallacy in an egregious fashion.) All of which strengthens the analogy between a parent’s evident training of her baby with the prospect of an oligarch’s training of a consumer. But a consumer who’s effectively a domesticated pet of godlike predators obviously falls short of the modern myth of the rationally self-determining agent. So the existence of babies is politically incorrect in a stealth oligarchy.

Moreover, a baby is perfectly innocent and naïve, content with the most trivial activities such as scrunching a piece of paper or throwing a toy across the floor. An existential cosmicist, with a merciless philosophical perspective on our tragic position in nature, should be heartbroken whenever she confirms that a baby’s bliss depends on the baby’s complete ignorance. Again, then, by a reasonable analogy, anyone can infer that just as a baby’s happiness is both tragically doomed, as the baby grows and loses its ignorance, and also absurdly inconsequential and out-of-touch with natural reality, so too an adult consumer’s lifestyle is doomed and ridiculous from an even broader perspective. This analogy undermines faith in the sacredness of a technologically-enhanced, self-directing individual. Just as a modern baby is surrounded by a toy environment that separates the baby from the dangers of the rest of the household, so too an adult consumer’s artificial world separates the individual from the natural wilderness, conferring the illusion of independence as long as the consumer’s vision is limited to the dreams and fantasies purveyed by pop culture. Just as in the Gnostic science fiction movie, The Matrix, we live with illusions that spare us from confronting harsh reality. If the artificial intelligence of the futuristic machines that enslave humans and install virtual reality software programs in their minds, as shown in the movie, is comparable to the undeadness of nature’s creativity that operates via the oligarchs (the “Agents”) and their industries, The Matrix is an apt dramatization of consumerism and only barely metaphorical.  

In addition, a baby is, of course, physically helpless, with a head that’s initially too big for its body, requiring an adult to carry and feed the baby, and with instinctively grasping, puny hands that can’t yet manipulate its environment with any sophistication. And then there’s the baby’s naked egoism, its wailing whenever it doesn’t get its way, its self-centered disdain for anything in its dream world which the baby doesn’t identify as an extension of itself. When the baby eventually learns to distinguish between itself and other things, one of the first lessons it learns in modern society is that of private property, as the baby’s asked to hand over its toy but often refuses and cries when forcibly separated from its presumed property. I trust that, following the above lines of argument, the further analogies with adults along these lines are plain. Compared to hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and the potential of a huge meteor's collision with Earth, an adult human is just as helpless as a baby without the charity of adults. Oligarchs are relatively self-sufficient, but they bless consumers with the gifts of modern myths and a toy environment that save the fragile masses from the horror and the angst that follow from existential insight. And all secular humanists, including modern oligarchs and consumers, are egotists, idolizing the godlike human as a stand-in for the dead and buried God. Little do these enthusiastic modernists appreciate that the ancient gods of theists, killed off, as it were, by modern scientists and philosophers, were pipsqueaks next to the undead monster of the natural universe, which evidently builds on itself in a mindless, pointless evolutionary process in which even liberated humanists are imprisoned.

In short, from the esoteric, existential perspective, the baby is a fitting symbol of the adult. As I’ve said, both the consumer and the oligarch are infantile in their own ways, but when the oligarch appreciates the fictional nature of modern myths and so suffers the stress of cognitive dissonance when he fails to live as an awe-inspiring god, the oligarch can fall back on the infinite distractions supplied by his wealth, as well as on the thrill of abusing his immense power with impunity. An oligarch can afford to recognize his relative infancy compared to mighty Mother Nature, but a modern dominance hierarchy could collapse were the masses generally to become disenchanted with the myths that prop up the practice of endless consumption. And this isn’t just speculation. The social revolution in the 1960s was led by anarchist hippies who deprogrammed themselves with psychedelic drugs, thereby attaining the broader, existential perspective by means of which they grasped precisely the absurdity of the modern worldview. Lacking a viable alternative after the Soviet Union imploded, though, the hippies sold out and the modern scientistic and social Darwinian dominance hierarchies in the US and Europe reestablished themselves in the ‘80s. Still, the French Revolution and the ‘60s social revolution both demonstrate a power hierarchy’s vulnerability, given sufficient disenchantment with the noble lies that rationalize gross political and economic inequalities.

One of the ways in which modern dominance hierarchies are maintained, I’m suggesting, is by excluding babies and old people from politically correct discourse, effectively identifying them as taboo. That way, consumers tend to live only with others of our ilk, which allows us to retain our warped ideal of human nature. We’re led to think that humans are essentially autonomous, responsible adults, and that babies and old people are subhuman; after all, in the majority of public contents, from mass media and entertainment narratives to the sorts of people who literally tend to exist in public spaces, we adult consumers are narcissistically treated to reflections of ourselves.

Sure, like most adults throughout history, we modern consumers have our own children, but we tend to cherish our careers, daycare services, or nannies which separate parent from child for much of the day. Thus, the immersion in pop culture and in the world of godlike adult responsibilities can compete successfully with the nagging existential worries that should follow from much experience with babies. And sure, there are public places dominated by old people, such as cruise ships and certain beaches in Florida, but those places function as extended retirement homes which younger consumers duly tend to avoid.


To summarize the overall argument, then, the modernist upholds an ideology that celebrates individual freedom, explaining this freedom as an inheritance of Reason. Reason frees us from the dead weight of the past and creates a progressive future in which we’re further empowered. While this ideology is hardly baseless, it does replace a theistic religion only by becoming a science-centered one, which inevitably renders the commitment to modernism an irrational leap of faith. Logic and empirical evidence won’t suffice to sustain that faith; force of some sort is needed. When inherent wishes and predilections for fallacies don’t ensure faith in the myths that prop up modern stealth oligarchies, external pressures may emerge. One such pressure seems to be the illusion in modern society that that society is populated exclusively by the freest, most rational and godlike humans, by young and middle-aged adults. This illusion reinforces the modern conceit that we have the potential to be godlike, a potential that’s supposedly fulfilled by the oligarchs who climb to the top of the power pyramid. Too much familiarity with the physical and mental weaknesses to which old people are prone and with the habits of babies threatens the consumers--who comprise the majority of modernists--with a debilitating existential perspective that could undermine the modern social order. Thus, one way or another, babies and old people are excluded from modern public spaces, to help sustain secular humanistic narcissism and arrogance which are hallmarks of consumerism, the latter being the way in which the majority of modernists express their so-called freedom. 

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