Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Social Reality of Heaven and Hell

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock the infamous Jewish moneylender provides what’s become rhetoric for an egalitarian rallying cry, when he compares himself to the Christian and asks rhetorically, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” The inference drawn from the extracted meme about how everyone bleeds the same is that everyone is therefore more or less equal. In fact, Shylock’s speech reads as a rationalization of his preoccupation with vengeance, on which he subsequently dwells in the last third of the speech. The implicit equality, then, isn’t so much between those belonging to different creeds or religions, but between humans and other clever primates who understand the concept of revenge. In any case, the notion that blood type matters to whether people are all in some important sense equal is quaint. The invention of the computer has demonstrated the many-to-one relationship between software and hardware: instances of the same type of computer can be running very different programs, just as individuals with the same phenotype can be mentally dissimilar. Whether we all bleed the same is thus a classic red herring, as far as an egalitarian should be concerned.

There are reasons to think, on the contrary, that the rich and the poor effectively occupy very different worlds, phenomenologically speaking. Of course they live in different parts of the city or country, in different-sized houses and so on, but their qualities of life are also divergent, as are the social systems in which they operate. This is shown, for example, by the proverbial golden parachute which saves only the wealthy. In most cases, the wealthy aren’t socially punished for their failures. They fail as often as any other fallible person, but normally they don’t suffer much as a result of their misdeeds. On the contrary, the punishment is typically externalized, which is the Orwellian kernel of truth in trickle-down economics. For example, the vulture “capitalist” swoops in, purchases and dismantles a company, earns a bonus from the short-term boost of the company’s stock price (since in theory the company’s temporarily worth more as a skeleton than as a working business, until the realization kicks in that a skeletal company can’t make much money), and flies away from the wreckage as the stock price plummets and the company goes bankrupt. Instead of being tarnished by associating himself with antisocial, Darwinian logic, the CEO is celebrated in the business literature and the banks are quick to finance his next takeover venture. Then there are the many examples of white-collar criminals hiring a team of the best lawyers to get away with their crimes, or of their having hired armies of lobbyists to have legalized their destructive lifestyle in the first place. The rarified world in which the power elite lives goes to great lengths to prevent this dashing knight from failing in the fullest sense, from hitting rock bottom by recognizing, for example, that his business model trains him to be a predatory sociopath who must segregate himself from mass society to avoid the backlash he deserves. White-collar sociopaths who wreck companies and thousands of employees’ lives are heralded as gods, while blue-collar sociopaths who rape or murder are locked away or executed.

In the ancient and medieval worlds, this difference in social class was codified in warfare, when the nobles would engage only in single combat, away from the chaos of the war itself. Often, the defeated king or lord would be captured and held for ransom instead of killed, whereas the peasant soldiers would savage each other in a free-for-all bloodsport. In the modern world, the highest-ranking military commanders are typically civilians who command the troops far from the battlefield, while the grunts languish beneath the fog of war, showing fealty not to those commanders but to their brothers-in-arms. At least in societies that have no military draft, the grunts who derive from the lower social stratum fight in a world in which the element of chance predominates. The stakes for the soldier are a matter of life or death, whereas the main concern for the generals is their military career. For reasons set out by John Ralston Saul in Voltaire’s Bastards, modern social systems compel rationalist leaders to fail upward, because these systems are amoral and their inclination is only to ensure that the systems are efficient. The ultimate outcome is irrelevant, according to the instrumentalist, as long as the system and its logic prevail. Thus, the dishonour involved in commanding the Iraqi battlefield from the Green Zone, which invites contempt from America’s adversaries and which hurts American troop morale is of no consequence, because this democratically-controlled military system is presumed to be much more technical and efficient than the Islamist militant’s guerilla warfare. As Saul points out, this instrumentalist reasoning was fatally undermined by Robert McNamara’s loss of the Vietnam War. Saul assumes, though, that this value of efficiency should be taken at face value.

Social Inequality and Welfare Systems

But before turning to that deeper question of the ruling values that are implicit in technologically-advanced societies, let’s distinguish a little more carefully between these different worlds of experience. As a ceteris paribus rule, the wealthiest and most powerful individuals are rewarded whether they succeed or fail, while all of the negative effects of their failures or other misdeeds are suffered by the lower class. Thus, the poor take on a double portion of punitive effects, one from the failures of the superiors and another from their own failures. Moreover, as Marx showed with his concept of the worker’s alienation from the product of his or her labour in a capitalist system, most of the benefits of the worker’s success are leached away and transferred to the upper class in the form of profit. The two social classes are thus in a converse relationship. Both are confined to their social station, their class membership secured, but by systems that have the opposite moral effects. The upper class elites are few while the poor are many; the rich are spared from suffering, while the poor are kept from luxury; suffering trickles down from the top of the social ladder, as though the rich were immune to it, while wealth is funneled upward from the poor.

You might think these differences imply that the rich are happier than the poor, but this would be an oversimplification since happiness depends on expectations and these are adjusted to reach equilibrium in the environment in which we find ourselves. Indeed, the Easterlin Paradox is that while rich countries are generally happier than poor ones, over the long run happiness doesn’t increase with an increase in wealth (although this is a finding in economics, so it could easily be politically-motivated hokum). Another approach shows that average citizens from the poorest countries report having more meaningful lives than those of rich countries. Perhaps this is because the poor have little to lose and their experiences are more meaningful for being more quintessentially human than the “civilized” kind that’s orchestrated by the abstract logic of “advanced” social systems. That is, the ostracized poor more closely resemble the nomadic hunter-gatherers who accounted for the vast majority of people who have ever lived (the Paleolithic period lasted for over three million years, while the Neolithic began only twelve thousand years ago) and whose anti-modern lifestyle is the one to which our neural structures adapted.

It’s as though there were two, separate welfare systems operating with perfect irony. Outside of Scandinavian democracies, at least, the social support systems for the poor ought to be the only ones in effect, but typically these are flawed in that they don’t achieve their stated aim of ensuring the health and happiness of that lower class. The poor become inured to their circumstances and thus aren’t necessarily miserable, but they’ll nevertheless suffer myriad harms as a result of their poverty, family background, personal appearance, or mental condition. By contrast, whereas the wealthy need no favours, including the benefits of their having captured the mass media and democratic mechanisms in their respective country, the wealthy are supported not just by a welfare state but by the most effective one that rarely fails to sustain the illusion of the upper class’s sense of entitlement.

The welfare system for the poor, which is the welfare state as such, consists of most societies’ inability to progress beyond the natural lot of the masses who are relatively undistinguished by their successes in life. Their successes are primarily biological: the poor somehow survive to adulthood, mate, procreate, and scrape together a living that pays for their family’s survival. Culturally speaking, their other private and public achievements will be quickly forgotten after their death, their meager obituaries notwithstanding. Again, the peasant class could most use social assistance in overcoming this natural tendency to sort groups into winners and losers, with the latter necessarily outnumbering the former. Only in short-lived, virtually miraculous social democracies is this natural dehumanization and oblivion of the masses countered by Herculean efforts. These efforts include a taboo against social Darwinian values and a preference for an expanded, socialist sense of human rights. More precisely, though, the welfare state for most of the world’s poor consists of half-hearted social measures that are easily overcome by the default, natural dynamics that govern the rest of the animal kingdom. In other words, this “welfare system” is principally a natural phenomenon, not anything intelligently designed. The poor and powerless suffer and are exploited the most, because that’s Mother Nature’s will. Primitive, natural mechanisms are responsible primarily for negating upward social mobility and for establishing the defeatist lower-class consciousness. 

The very existence of the other welfare system, the one for the rich should be an outrage. This system consists of what Marx called the ideological superstructure, that is, the entire culture in so far as it rationalizes and preserves the status quo in which a small minority enjoys the vast majority of wealth and power in society. Were the Darwinian logic to extend to the upper class, for example, so that companies were run by owners rather than carefree “managers” or employees, as Saul would put it, the power elites would be eaten alive as soon as they proved unworthy of their godlike privileges by running their company into the ground. Bankruptcy laws protect even small business owners, but these owners actually have to compete and suffer should their business fails, whereas the wealthy are celebrated for their failures. This is because in postindustrial societies, at least, the wealthy businesspeople function as parasites, so that when they destroy a company, a town, or a nation, this demonstrates their success in fulfilling their antisocial function. Accordingly, the power elites are disproportionately sociopathic and so success in their terms is part of a rigged zero-sum game. Again, genuine capitalism is the rat race for the poor, while the rich form oligopolies, duopolies, monopolies, or kleptocracies to avoid having to compete and thus to play fair.

A soon-to-be classic example is Donald Trump’s rise to infamy. Despite failure after failure in the real estate business, Trump “won” because the banking and entertainment systems recognized the value of his brand, given that ruling American ideology which is biased in favour of predators (and thus is anti-Christian), and because Trump made shady deals with Russian kleptocrats. Moreover, Trump’s father was wealthy and helped him start his disastrous real estate business. Trump considers himself a victorious capitalist, he is indeed wealthy, and yet he never once competed fairly. This is because the kind of capitalist system at issue has been warped to suit predatory practices, and fairness is for suckers and losers.

The upper class welfare system is largely artificial, because the wealthy control the cultural resources which set the Overton Window, for example, and yet this system succeeds not by any heroic antinatural effort, but by co-opting the natural mechanisms that complement those that punish the lower class. Alpha males are hailed for evolutionary reasons: their success in hunting and in capturing resources signals genetic strength, and so the best genes are indirectly safeguarded thanks to the flaunting of their vessels. Still, whereas the welfare systems for the poor are often broken, so that once again the poor are doubly punished for attempting to make use of them—once for being poor in the first place and again for having to subject themselves to the indignities of the Kafkaesque bureaucracies—the needless assistance to the rich is typically seamless. The doctors, lawyers, teachers, cooks, and other service providers for the poor are naturally of the lowest quality in non-egalitarian societies, whereas the rich obviously enjoy the highest quality services. While the rich and the poor alike suffer from ailments, the poor are doubly afflicted by having to visit, at best, a harried doctor at a walk-in clinic who keeps the patients moving on a conveyor belt. The wealthy have a team of private physicians, and having donated money to hospitals, they’re first in line for health services. The main point isn’t that these systems are fair or unfair, but that they establish separate qualities of life or worlds of experience for the social classes.

The Social Basis of Heaven and Hell

In fact, this social inequality seems to be a major inspiration for the religious dichotomy between heaven and hell. Those religious concepts have various sources, such as interpretations of altered states of consciousness, as in dreams or the result of entheogens, or of the apparent differences between earth and sky, the presumed abodes of the dead. But one indispensible element is the familiarity with the mechanisms that divide the upper and lower social classes, which provide for opposite standards of living. Indeed, the Buddhist versions of heaven and hell are explicitly psychological, as is the mystical Christian formulation that echoes it in the notion that the kingdom of heaven is already spread upon the earth even though people don’t notice it. According to Buddhists, heaven and hell are primarily mental states: heaven is serenity as in the attainment of nirvana, while hell is the suffering due to the “fires” of anger, greed, lust, or ignorance. While Buddhists focus on the psychological mechanisms that maintain these different mentalities, there are evidently social and cultural ones too.

For example, a dictator surrounds himself with sycophants who maintain their boss’s bliss so as not to face his wrath. Likewise, while celebrities can afford to purchase whatever merchandise they wish, companies frequently provide them with the best purses, jewelry, or clothing that money can buy, for free, as a form of advertising. This is called a “perk,” which is slang for “perquisite,” deriving from the Latin word “perquirere,” meaning to search everywhere for, which gives us also the word “inquisitive.” The point of a perk, then, is that the upper class should leave no stone unturned in securing their advantages. At the opposite social stratum, the upper and middle classes ignore or sneer at the homeless to reinforce the divisions and to add to the weight the homeless must bear as outcasts. And again, the economic costs of doing Western-style, sociopathic business are frequently passed onto poorer, more capitalistic nations in Africa, Central America, or East Asia that manufacture or farm tangible goods for their mere survival in a topsy-turvy world that prizes illusions and frauds (as Chris Hedges points out in Empire of Illusion).

This, then, is another case of the full anthropocentricity of religions. Religious myths aren’t just for us; they’re also secretly about us to the extent that they’re true. We distinguish between immortals and slaves, gods and creatures, paradise and hell, because the animal kingdom is already full of such dichotomies; all we do is exaggerate class inequalities for dramatic effect. The alphas and omegas, masters and slaves, gratuitous welfare assistance for the rich and redundant punishment of the poor are all the stuff of everyday life, here and now and throughout history. The eternal paradise is modeled on our worship of the sociopaths who tend to dominate our “civilized” societies. We fawn over them so as not to be squashed by them; thus the wealthy seem invincible and immune to blowback. The power elites seem to be incapable of doing wrong because society insulates them from the repercussions of their madness. The lower classes’ role is to play the music that soothes the savage beast (or as in the original 1697 play, the savage “breast” or heart). Of course there are exceptions, such as the French Revolution or the odd titan of industry who somehow loses all his wealth and can’t reacquire it. But these really are exceptions because there are manifestly systems in place to protect the wealthy who need no such assistance, to multiply their wealth many times over and thus to widen economic inequality, as Thomas Piketty showed in Capital.

This social reality isn’t just the root of the concept of Heaven; it’s the reality of that blissful state, because of course there is no God as the theistic religions conceive of him. The eternity and inviolability of Heaven is esoterically the natural and civilized insistence on maintaining the upper class’s euphoria no matter how undignified or unfair the consequences. Gods dwell in heaven, and because the gods are naturally corrupted by their power, their home turf is bound to be an affront to any sense of decency. It goes without saying that sociopaths would belong in Hell not in Heaven, if morality had anything to say about those ideal repositories. The boundless irony of Heaven’s basis in dominance hierarchy and in the malignancy of alpha males, the latter serving as the model of God’s fearfulness is the surest sign of this proposition’s truth.

The myth of Hell in the afterlife also derives largely from the societal quarantining of the lower class. The underground which supplies the lava erupting from volcanoes may have served as a metaphor of Hell’s enclosure, but the poetic justice of the punishments, meaning their perfect fitness to the crime was likely based on the lower class’s earthly quality of life. The “masses” that can be spoken of so collectively because they’re necessarily undistinguished compared to the more godlike oligarchs, titans, and kings are confined to an invisible prison. The prison is built and operated by evolutionary forces that compel us to worship wealth and power, to praise the dominators and to shun the weak. We lock the doors to our cells when we berate ourselves for failing in the rigged system or when we lust after the power elite’s lifestyle. We reinforce our lowly social status when we act the part of slaves. Exoteric theists consider the torture in hell to be everlasting because they surmise that God’s justice is eternal, but that inference is only a fanciful codification of a human, social reality. The lowly state of the poor does seem inevitable because practically no one comes to their aid, because the low classes are quickly forgotten and powerless even to speak for themselves, let alone to have adequate political or legal representation.

The poor are punished for their failures in life, and theirs is ultra-lowliness, because they act as scapegoats, afflicted as they are with most of the costs of business done by the selfish and greedy power elites. If the upper class winner is the resurrected Christ, invulnerable and ascended to Heaven, the lower class loser is the suffering Jesus, crucified on the cross. Although the poor may not suffer constantly, as in the moralistic notion of Hell, they are uniformly humiliated by natural and social dynamics, and are almost never allowed to rise above their degree of debasement. We rush to remind the downtrodden that they belong at the bottom of the pecking order, because without such unmistakable social divisions, no one would likewise appear to be in charge. We fear egalitarianism as a return to the chaotic state of nature, to the Paleolithic wilderness in which we bands of hunter-gatherers wandered, equal not just to each other but to most other animal species—albeit prey ourselves to animal predators. Evidently, most societies prefer the indignity of our version of the animal dominance hierarchy, complete with the ideological excuses, to the loss of pride entailed by a true conviction of our equality.

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