Friday, March 28, 2014

Social Justice and Existential Cosmicism

Hi Ben Cain,

First, your way of talking about existence has been one of the most immediately identifiable I've come across. It's consistent with various experiences I've had throughout life. It encompasses both the uncomfortable fact of the ultimate lack of recognizably human meaning in the cosmos and also our potentially absurd need for such meaning. I've had both spiritual highs brimming with hope and certitude, and nihilistic lows where I discovered the emptiness of the self. To discover drop-out academics blogging about these topics is validating. Most mainstreamers of whatever profession don't even try to approach substance.

But here's my question for you. I agree that science can't give us normative statements. And I agree that science has shown human beings to be self-conscious nothings and not the center of anything. However, knowing that the masses are deluded, what is wrong with certain pragmatic ends? Don't mistake me here for a liberal progressive. I mean global systemic changes, such as instituting a resource-based economy, setting up automated systems that allow people to work far less and everyone to have enough of the basic necessities of life.

I realize that this assumes that being alive is alright. I know that it doesn't alleviate the problem of the oligarchy. But I think there is something to be said for reducing suffering. Suffering seems to be the thing almost everyone has a problem with. It's a huge piece of why you say happiness is unbecoming. Knowledge shows the futility of much of what we think about ourselves. It shows happiness to be the product of mechanically pushing certain buttons and going along with our genetic overlords. It shows that we're at the whim of nature. But I suppose I don't see how it follows that we shouldn't alleviate suffering if we can. That's the part that trips me up. I get taking apart pragmatic and liberal progressive positions. But there's still the very real fact of people starving and thirsting. Now, we could argue that it's just chance that you are not in that situation as starkly as some others and that in ultimate reality we don't have a duty to them. But in line with your aesthetics, I find that ugly. I find suffering ugly.

Besides, if the masses are to learn more, to think outside themselves, how are they to do so when the higher functioning centers of their brains are shut off due to constant fear, anxiety, and stress? Alleviating resource concerns would go a long way to greater degrees of human enlightenment.

Anyway, this is an incomplete rant of my own. I came into contact with your blog through Bakker's a couple weeks ago. A couple years ago or so I'd read almost two of his fantasy series. When I came across RWUG, I'd been working for over two years on understanding the financial and political systems of the oligarchy. Call it baggage, if you will, but this is the one piece I have not been able to fully reconcile with your view. But because I find your rants compelling, I want to be able to. I'm a born omega. I've always felt alienated. Discovered some of the things you and Bakker talk about just through smoking weed, back when I did (you can call that delusion, but I came to some of the same conclusions without deep knowledge of scientific literature). Never understood why people take their put-ons so seriously, their fictions. It's always been an implicit understanding of mine that what we do is bullshit. BUT if we're tossing pragmatism fully out the window, I want to find other grounds for fighting suffering. I think existential cosmicism is a great way for a person to ground her existence. We live, however, with many other people who can't be forced into our views. And we could check out, except I don't feel I can ignore their suffering. I think there's something to be said for helping the ignorant, even if they keep their delusions. I may be a faulty undead robot. But if you could shed any light on this from your standpoint, I would appreciate it. I really like the idea of making one's manifest image an aesthetic object, and I find a beautiful person to be one who puts aside the illusory self to help others who still believe in that self. That seems to be the definition of selflessness, which for better or worse, I still subscribe to as an ideal virtue. Again, I don't mind tossing aside secular humanism. I already have. It ignores the biosphere we're royally fucking right now. I should like to un-fuck that as well, not just help out other people. So, if what I'm saying could be grounded in an aesthetic conception of morality, please let me know. I find so much of what you say compelling that it's hard to ignore. But I'd like to have grounds in this thought for some of the things my illusory self can't toss out just yet. (Maybe I just need to read your entries on aesthetic morality, which I haven't done yet).

Thanks,
[name redacted]

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Dear Reader,

You're asking some important questions. Most of what of I've written on the blog has tried to explain why certain groups form (e.g. alphas vs omegas), why certain structures arise (e.g. the dominance hierarchy and thus oligarchies), and other such important facts. Whether these facts are good or bad and what should be done about them are clearly different matters. I haven't done much in the way of prescribing how we should live, because I think it would depend on our circumstances but also I don't pretend to be wise or all-knowing. Who am I to say how society should be fixed or how we should pull together to help the masses?

About the furthest I've gone in terms of offering prescriptions rather than descriptions is to distinguish between original and clich├ęd behaviour. From an aesthetic perspective, the latter is bad and it includes pretty much everything Plato regarded as bad, namely all of our more animalistic behaviours that arise from our lower nature. Plato was a rationalist, though, so I reject that side of his view. But Plato was interested in transcendence, in climbing the ontological ladder. I'm also interested in transcendence and I've been trying to lay out an entirely naturalistic kind in terms of the existential rebellion against undead nature, by means of our artificial, aesthetically interpretable microcosms.

But as you say, none of this tells us what should be done about the fact of suffering or about the existence of economic inequality and unjust social systems. Should we work to eliminate dominance hierarchies and plutocracies? Should the enlightened omegas try to help the masses of betas or should they leave them to their devices and ridicule them from the sidelines? I've talked about Leo Strauss's cynical, elitist view, which is also Plato's. The elitist thing to say is that we should give in to fate and accept that certain fundamental facts won't change: there will always be a difference between betas and omegas and there will always be dominance hierarchies and predatorial, virtually sociopathic oligarchs, and there will always be mass delusion as well as a minority of enlightened outsiders.

The modern idea of social progress, of changing these natural dynamics, is noble in its creativity, but it's become dubious in light of postmodernity. As for me, I stand somewhere between the modernist and the cynic. After all, I've written RWUG for anyone to read, but I'm realistic enough to understand that merely writing about problems doesn't usually lead to much progress and that birds of a feather flock together, so that my kind of writing will tend to reinforce people's views rather than shake up the natural divisions between groups. Indeed, the internet generally reinforces cliques, such as the divisions between liberals and conservatives and between theists and atheists. Likewise, dominance hierarchies form organically because variety is essential to natural selection: natural differences between people push them in certain directions, and pecking orders stabilize the different groups that form, to avoid social chaos which is bad for the genes.

Now, if you're asking whether capitalism and modern industry achieve the goals of alleviating the majority's suffering and making them happy, that may well be so. I'm interested in the dark side of those goals and in the delusions that sustain such projects. Strauss thought it's foolish to give the game away, to reveal the deception in our noble lies, because then the masses may rebel. But that's unlikely for the reasons I gave: social divisions happen naturally and even when you try to inform people that their happiness is based on childish myths, they won't listen or care or be able to understand. So the divisions remain.

Indeed, capitalism, mass production, and consumerism have raised the living standards of millions of people, although their happiness depends on the suffering of the lower classes of drudges who toil to support the elite lifestyle, not to mention the enslaved animal species that feed and entertain us. But I'm more interested in a different kind of suffering, namely that of the relatively enlightened omegas. I'm interested in the existential questions and in the curse of reason, which is that there are dreadful consequences to getting the philosophical answers right. Those who get them wrong may ironically have the happier lives, but they've dehumanized themselves.

As to how omegas should relate to the masses, it's hard to say. I've said that mass delusion provides fodder for grim comedy to mitigate the horrors faced by the enlightened outsiders. But should those outsiders unite to improve society? They're hardly well-equipped to compete with big businesses, in terms of having much social impact. What tends to happen is that these introverted, tormented outsiders become artists of some kind, so that what they offer the masses are the mirrors of their artworks. But art has become much less important in the postmodern climate. Western civilization may be declining, as Oswald Spengler said. So maybe the best the enlightened minority can do is band together to preserve cultural insights for a future renaissance. Who knows? I have no crystal ball.

Ben C.

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Ben,

I'd like to clarify my views. I've been mainly probing yours. When I talk about automated production, I'm using the concept in a very specific way. I emphatically think capitalism is fucked up. Or at least, has an immense amount of darkness that keeps it functioning. So when I say I want production to be automated, I mean well beyond the assembly-line. I'm talking robotics and AI to replace human labor. I recognize that the kind of suffering you're talking about is existential. And I also recognize that you acknowledge the kind I'm talking about. I clarify because I see the same problems with naturally forming hierarchies and capitalism as you do. I don't think it's right for us to use other human beings as machines (as we have been for our entire existence), if we now have machines that we've created that can almost wholly replace us (in terms of the production of goods). I forget who said it, but making a person stand at an assembly line, a job which uses a millionth of her brainpower, is barely less demeaning than chaining her to an oar and making her row. You could say I'm still describing capitalism and modern industry, but I'd argue that I'm going beyond it. Or at least, the category of system I'm contemplating requires a new taxonomy. There may be elements of capitalism and socialism in this system. The difference is that with some creativity and mass implementation of increasingly available technology, human labor is becoming a thing of the past. Why do we reward people for work? One could argue that it is partially to keep the masses distracted, preventing them from rising up. And I don't disagree with this. But another practical reason is that we need things produced to sustain ourselves. What happens when you no longer need people to work? I won't go into too many of my suggestions on this, but I believe we're going to be facing this question soon, at a publicly conscious level. If not that, then war. I agree with you that there are dark sides to capitalism. I gravitated to your blog precisely because I'd been so focused on sorting out how our physical systems work, and I haven't been paying as much attention to my existential situation in the past couple of years. Though that situation is precisely what made me an omega in the first place. I don't know what else could. I'd love to get into this more.

Maybe the above provides better context for my previous questions. I would classify myself again similarly to how you classified yourself. I am somewhere between modernist and cynic. I believe that with creativity it is feasible to build a better world, especially at this point in time, with our current types of technology. Human-made machines exhibiting properties they've never exhibited before. For example, researchers in 2006 had trouble making a car park itself, and had difficulty imagining when a car might be able to drive itself. Now look at self-driving autos. (Admittedly, these tales of tech work if you believe that the oligarchs don't hold out on us, though they most assuredly do.) However, despite its feasibility, my rampant politicization against work, for automation, against inequality and bailouts and debt over the past two and a half years has taught me precisely what you brought up in your email. People don't like their illusions destroyed. Call it cognitive dissonance (I do) or whatever else, if something uncomfortable, if something upsets their balance, the beta will reject it out of hand. I've become resigned to this fact. My parents and friends can't change. At first I thought it was because they're all relatively well off, but no matter what class you come from you're totally brainwashed into this system. From the alpha-oligarch standpoint, the myth that constitutes the cage is brilliantly constructed. If you're down and out, you just wish you weren't. You wish you were rich and happy. You don't question the myth itself. Or, people rarely question it. 

A bit of hope before I shut up. Part of my views have been developed in conjunction with a fallen alpha. He used to be a hedge fund manager and lawyer, but quit when the bank bail-outs occurred. He used to drive a Hummer. Used to be the life of every party. Knows all the rich people around town (Minneapolis). But now he wants to say retool the system. He wants help people who are suffering. He quit working, because he doesn't want to be rich based on the debt of the next generation. He doesn't eat as much meat as he used to. Doesn't have the Hummer. Actively fights all of his former friends on a daily basis through email and on the phone over how immoral this system is. You could make the argument that he's simply a dejected alpha who's trying to get back on top, and I wouldn't argue with you on that score. I secretly harbor that sentiment. However, it does give me some hope that people on top can have a sense of morality, and can actively reject injustice and become enlightened. He taught me about how money and debt are one and the same, and over time he's eventually come to see my view of how fucked up and egocentric our culture is. All that is to say that despite the apparent structure, the universe also has emergent properties. And my relationship with my friend is an example of one such emergent situation. An alpha and an omega contemplating collapse and rebirth. Not bad.

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Dear Reader,
 
I see now. I think you're bypassing liberalism and toying with radical socialism, based on something like transhumanist expectations for the sort of society that technology will soon make possible. I've laid out my political views mostly under the section Liberalism and Conservatism in the Map of the Rants. As I see it, social progress is made unlikely because it has to overcome the default scenario as defined by three principles: the dominance hierarchy, the Law of Oligarchy, and the corruption by power. In particular, these principles explain the shift from modern to postmodern liberalism. Liberals become decadent and weak-willed, as in the American Democrats or the Canadian Liberals. They're infamous for giving in to their "conservative" opponents, because the latter are crazy enough to have ideals or shameless enough to con the masses into supporting their self-centered, sociopathic goals.

As for the socialists in North America, for example, they too are crazy enough to have ideals, such as those that are based on New Age myths. Your socialism may not be so crazy, but it seems to presuppose optimism about technology. At least, you hold out the hope that technology can make our lives better in the long run and can even free us from the drudgery of work (although some people will have to keep the machines running, right?).

 
But technological advances in our outer environment won't suffice for social progress. Technology will have to change us for the better as well. Otherwise, our machines will merely empower some of us and the three principles will reestablish the default social scenario: dominance hierarchies ruled by a minority of individuals who are corrupted by their centralized power.
 
It's interesting to look at Occupy Wall Street as a conscious alternative to the default situation. The occupiers resisted the idea of electing someone to lead them and to draw up a list of demands and guiding principles. Instead, they tried to set up a radically egalitarian system, voting on ideas by shaking their hands, and so on. The movement fizzled out and became something of a laughingstock.

But the internet and communications technologies seem to make a global democracy possible. At least, they allow for mass organization and communication. These were used in the Arab Spring, but once again social justice failed to materialize in Egypt and elsewhere. In Tunisia, a moderate Islamist party won the election and the leader of the leftist opposition was assassinated. Of course, the Arab revolutions have only just started, so maybe the writing's on the wall and democracies will replace those dictatorships. That would hardly suffice for a socialist utopia, though. Look at how democracy and capitalism turned the Soviet Union into the Russian kleptocracy. The US style of democracy carries with it the potential for a stealth oligarchy through the use of demagoguery, which has been made all the more potent by mass communications technology.


So the point is that technology has advantages and disadvantages: it has some potential to establish a social system that transcends the default one (e.g. radical socialism), but it can also be used to reinforce the default social structure. I think Yeats was right when he said that "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity." I've tried to explain why that's so (curse of reason, introversion-extroversion, and the delusions that sustain happiness, given the horrible undeadness of natural reality). In short, I'm pessimistic but not quite fatalistic about the prospects for socialist utopia (for freedom, egalitarianism, transcendence through high tech).  

Even if we just look at the ideal of individual liberty, I've said that that ideal is actually satanic. The problem is that we're social beings and we prefer to be united by belief in something greater than ourselves, to give us direction. Without that, our lives are somehow empty, regardless of our material success. The only alternative is to be an artistic visionary, an ubermensch in Nietzsche sense, someone who can lead a fulfilling life with no external direction (because he knows the outer world is a horror), because he trusts in his inner vision. Those artists, however, are rarely successful in earthly terms. Maybe Steve Jobs was an exception. Anyway, there's a reason most artists are starving and virtual ascetics. They care more about ideas than about worldly things, because they're possessed by their demoniac muse.  

What this all means is that a progressive society needs a religion. Modernism was that religion, but it no longer enchants in our postmodern time. That's the big problem for liberals and socialists. Conservatives have their old-school religions and shamelessly promote them in the face of scientific naturalism. What myths and religions will oppose that cynical use of the ancient religions while being consistent with naturalism and with socially progressive ideals? That's the big question, as I see it.
 
Ben C.

6 comments:

  1. Perhaps capitalism is the new religion. Our worship of the Alphas, consumerism, love of inequality, maybe those are the commandments of the new religion. Perhaps the nihilism we fear from the meaningless of existence is rendered mute by the values of the new religion.
    The Romans believed power makes right. The only moral justification needed to kill a gladiator was that he lost. So it is possible for us to construct a moral framework based entirely on the triviality and cruelty of nature.
    Capitalism, in my view, is no different.

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    1. In so far as a religion is a social practice based on a myth that unites a population, consumerism can indeed be regarded as a religion. The myths would be the delusions proliferated by associative advertizing and by Hollywood. And you're right that those myths prevent most consumers from feeling the despair that naturalism ought to cause. I differ from postmodernists in that I don't think all religions or worldviews are equal. As I say in Ironies of Modern Progress and Infantilization, though, I think consumerism is dehumanizing, so I look forward to a religion that encourages us to be existentially authentic, to transcend our base inclinations for the sake of artistic originality, and to act as tragic heroes in our confrontations with undead nature.

      By the way, I recently saw an interesting documentary on the Roman gladiators, according to which they didn't usually fight to the death, because their promoters didn't want to lose money by losing the combatants. They were killed only when they got injured, because the ancient world had no medical science to treat them adequately, and in that case they actually killed themselves (they held the victor's weapon to guide it into them). The rest is Hollywood fiction.

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  2. Religion: Craving structure without seeing one craves structure.

    Here's a bit of fun - I'll bring up an analogy which would generally just cause most folks to focus on the analogy - but I'm guessing not so with you, Ben. Okay, the analogy is that deliberate religion is a bit like roleplaying rape - ie, a consensual roleplay of rape. Ie, it's not the real deal. (and yup, at this point most folks sour on the R word)

    So how viable is the idea of religion when you are deliberately doing it?

    Sports have various structures and a hell of alot of people follow those or even practice it (let's ignore the big money players for now though, cause...for alot of reasons). What's wrong with that model rather than attempting religion?

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  3. I think you're saying that religion requires self-deception, so we might as well prefer some substitutes, like sports, which likewise unite people. Of course, that is happening in modern societies, which have civic religions and materialistic consumerism, Hollywood movies and associative ads substituting for traditional myths. But most substitute religions will likewise require self-deception on the part of the practitioners.

    I wonder whether there's a kind of spirituality that doesn't require it and that even truly seeks to dispose of delusions wherever they're found. Buddhism and indeed all sorts of mysticism are supposed to be forms of enlightenment, but not even Buddhism may be sufficiently naturalistic. I look at existential cosmicism as a possible basis for a superior, viable religion in the postmodern context.

    But I think you're suggesting that we can just give up on the goal of spirituality and be thoroughly irreligious. I wonder whether that's possible without changing our neural hardware. I think the Old Testament is likely right when it says that the Israelites turned away from God only to fall prey to idols. We always seek substitute gods even when we pretend to be beyond the need to worship anything sacred.

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  4. No, self-deception doesn't cut it - you can't pretend to yourself you're a christian/pretend to yourself all that christian stuff is going on then believe it. Were decieving ourselves if we think religion involves self deception. No, you considerably reduce the charge I gave.

    Further, how did you tie materialistic consumerism and sports together? If that were so, we could have people on a couch watching people on TV who are on a couch, eating a hamburger. Granted some reality TV is essentially that, but I mentioned sports, not reality TV.

    And precisely what is wrong with hollywood? What if there was no money involved? What if they passed on the movies and ads for love of the myth they repeated/crafted? Would you have a problem with hollywood then - because that's all myths have ever been?

    I think the Old Testament is likely right when it says that the Israelites turned away from God only to fall prey to idols.
    The only way that is a lesson is if there was a god they turned away from.

    Otherwise it's: the Israelites turned away from idol only to fall prey to idols.

    As for need, I think everyones pretty much beyond the need to worship anything sacred. I've heard of people needing air, or needing water, and dying from a lack. They certainly needed it. I haven't heard of anyone dying of lack of sacred things to worship. Perhaps you over state the claim, making 'need' out of 'want'. Once it becomes 'want', how much is it about the 'gods' vs just what we want?

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    1. I don't have a problem with Hollywood itself, necessarily, since I see a lot of movies. My problem is with delusions, such as a person's delusion that she's beyond the need for myths even when she buys into Hollywood ones. I'm annoyed when people aren't as authentic or consistent as they could be.

      The point about consumerism and sports is that we have substitute, civic religions. The question of whether we're beyond the need for worshiping something sacred depends a little on how we define the terms. As long as we regard something as ultimately important so that our behaviour becomes irrational with respect to it, we seem to have that religious attitude toward it. Is there someone who doesn't care much about anything? I'm not sure how such a person could get up in the morning.

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