Imperialism 3.0

Earlier this month there was what might seem like a trivial news story here in Australia.  The federal government denied a request by Qatar Airways to increase the number of flights it makes to Australia. We were told this wasn’t in the “national interest” even though it would lower airfare prices for Australian consumers and would, according to the tourism industry, significantly increase the number of tourists coming to the country.

There are a couple of ironies in this story. Firstly, Qantas began life as a private company, was nationalised in 1947 and then privatised again in the big “free market” push of the early 90s. You might think the whole point of privatisation and the “free market” was to, I dunno, increase competition and stuff. Why wouldn’t the Australian government welcome the Qatar Airways bid? Could it have anything to do with the fact that, at almost the same time, the CEO of Qantas did a big publicity stunt with the Prime Minister about an upcoming referendum here in Australia.

The two events gave a clear you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours vibe. Of course, it’s not just Qantas, but seemingly every large Australian corporate that is pushing the government’s line on the referendum. Why is corporate Australia unanimously on the government’s side in a referendum that it looks like most of the public does not support? How can that happen in a “privatised” economy where companies are supposed to be on the side of the customers?

The second irony is that the challenge in this case comes from Qatar Airways, which was founded by the government of Qatar about the same time that Qantas was privatised (1993). Qatar is an ex-British protectorate and, in a roundabout way, so is Australia. So we now have two ex-British protectorates arguing over what was always the core imperialist question: who should be able to do business where. The nominally private company of Qantas receiving a helping hand from the nominally impartial Australian government is a pattern seen countless times since the age of imperialism began in the 19th century.

So, all this looks a lot like imperialism. I’m going to give it the name Imperialism 3.0. It’s the form of imperialism that began with the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.

Imperialism 1.0 was mostly driven by private companies. Government was involved to the extent that many of these private companies were owned and controlled by men who were either in the government themselves or had close personal or financial ties with people who were in government.

In Imperialism 2.0, the government was in the driver’s seat. This was the post-Great Depression economy where governments had to step in to stabilise markets.

In Imperialism 3.0, it’s not clear who is running things. The line between private enterprise and state is increasingly blurred, as the recent Qantas decision showed.

A classic account of the transition from Imperialism 1.0 to 2.0 and the various shenanigans that went on at that time is Timothy Mitchell’s book Carbon Democracy. We might say that Imperialism 1.0 was the age of coal, Imperialism 2.0 the age of oil. Mitchell’s book maps the change between the two and how this affected politics. Continuing the pattern, Imperialism 3.0 would map to “renewable energy”. It’s a sobering thought to consider that if the political manifestation of Imperialism 1.0 was robber baron capitalism, and 2.0 was social democracy, 3.0 may very well be totalitarianism.

The correspondence between energy source and politics is not arbitrary. Mitchell’s book goes into detail about how the transition from coal to oil changed politics not just in western nations but in the middle east.

One of the more poignant stories from Mitchell’s book is from 1910 when the company that is now called BP discovered the enormous oil fields of Iran. The problem they had at that time was that there was no market for the product. Kerosene was still the main use of oil in those days, but the sulphur-heavy Iranian oil was not suitable for kerosene.

The company floated on the London stock exchange anyway. In their prospectus they said that the Iranian oil would be sold to the British Navy to use in new oil-powered ships. This was a lie. The navy had already knocked back the company’s entreaties and so the prospectus had to be updated to say that there were no real customers for the oil.

Nevertheless, the company continued lobbying government and, about three years later, it was none other than Winston Churchill who signed a deal for the Iranian oil with BP and then got it through parliament in, shall we say, less-than-honest fashion. You might call this an early example of the military-industrial complex but it’s also a prime example of the kind of imperialism that began in the 19th century: the union of private enterprise and government in foreign business/political dealings.

Imperialism 1.0 was mostly run by the European colonial powers Britain, France and Germany. It was highly disruptive. It relied on secret deals involving a complex web of domestic politics, private corporate and banking interests and international diplomacy. Eventually, this all led to WW1. The Treaty of Versailles included clauses like the one that said Deutsche Bank would have to relinquish its ownership of the Berlin-Baghdad railway.

Why would a peace treaty include a clause about a nominally private business issue? Well, the intrigue, deception and sabotage that went on around the railway was a big reason why the war began in the first place. The geopolitics was that Britain did not want to allow Germany access to the oil of the region. There were similar issues at play in most of the middle east and Africa at the time. It was impossible to say where private enterprise ended and politics began since Imperialism 1.0 was a tag team effort between enterprise and government.

In one sense, WW1 ended Imperialism 1.0, although the Great Depression was the final nail in the coffin. After that, governments took a much larger role in markets to ensure stability and, presumably, to simplify the politics. I’m calling that Imperialism 2.0. One of the things it involved was the nationalisation agenda.

I have mentioned that, here in Australia, Qantas was nationalised in 1947. An identical pattern occurred in the electricity sector as I outlined in detail in a post earlier this year. The electricity sector in Australia began with private enterprise, was then nationalised and finally privatised again in the early 90s. We’ll look at that in more detail in a minute.

Imperialism 2.0 was driven by the transition from coal to oil. It created our modern concept of the “economy”. It did so on the back of the exponential growth that oil facilitated. “The economy” could not just run by itself, however. That’s what the Great Depression had shown. It needed technocrats to ensure a balance of supply and demand. Imperialism 1.0 was about ensuring the supply of oil. Imperialism 2.0 was about creating demand for its use. The post-war consumer economy was one of the mechanisms to control the demand side of the equation. The marketing, advertising and flashing neon signs were all there to get people to buy the things that oil produced.

The oil shock of the 70s was the first big red flashing light that the consumer economy was malfunctioning. It was propped up by new oil discoveries in the 70s and 80s. This brings us to the neoliberal agenda of the early 90s and the beginning of Imperialism 3.0. The nationalisation agenda of Imperialism 2.0 had to be undone. We needed a “free market” again, we were told. This was clearly a lie and the Australian electricity market provides the perfect example to show why it was a lie.

In classical economics, free markets are neither good nor bad. It depends on the context. The trick is to match the market to the context. Where you have a natural monopoly, the most efficient market is a monopoly. A monopoly will give you the lowest prices in those circumstances.

The Australian energy markets are natural monopolies. Here in Victoria, about 200kms east of Melbourne, are enormous coal reserves sitting in a geologically and meteorologically stable region. The Victorian government in the post-war years made the eminently sensible decision to build coal-fired power plants right next to the mine. The whole thing was government-owned and run. It was a monopoly market matched to a natural monopoly; exactly what classical economics says you should do.

This set up was so efficient that it delivered some of the cheapest electricity in the world to Victoria all the way until the early 90s at which point we were told by our politicians that we needed a “free market”. A free market would reduce prices, they said. This never made any sense. As anybody that’s done first year economics knows, you don’t build a free market on top of a natural monopoly. It was wrong in theory and it’s turned out to be wrong in practice. Australia has gone from having some of the cheapest electricity in the world to some of the more expensive.

The privatisation agenda of the 90s was the beginning of Imperialism 3.0. Australia was obviously no longer free to pursue its national economic interest. Whose interest was it serving? The same interest that drove Imperialism 1.0 and 2.0: the “liberal world order”.

Imperialism 3.0 is much like 1.0 in that it involves collusion between nominally private corporations and nominally independent governments. The recent clandestine censorship of social media by western governments is a prime case in point. But that censorship was done against citizens of western nations and here we see the big difference that Imperialism 3.0 has ushered in.  

In the first two versions of imperialism, the main goal was to grow demand to match the supply of fossil fuels. That demand was grown among the populations of western nations. In Imperialism 3.0, the task is now to reduce demand. Since that demand was originally created in western populations, it is among western populations that it needs to be reduced.

How do you convince those populations to reduce demand after telling them for decades that “growth” was everything? You do it with censorship and lies. That worked for a couple of decades until Trump and Brexit showed up. These days we are well beyond the lying phase and into the outright gaslighting phase.

It’s a psychological fact that people resent the loss of what they had more than if they never got it in the first place. The citizens of western nations have become used to a certain standard of living and are going to resist that standard of living being taken away from them. In addition, they have at their disposal a nominally democratic system that should allow them to elect somebody who won’t take away their standard of living.

Of course, as many people are starting to realise, there is no political party offering what they want. There is now only a uni-party that represents the interests of Imperialism 3.0. Imperialism 3.0 is about demand destruction. The main purpose of the “climate change” agenda is to convince people to reduce demand. Viruses and lockdowns are the new tool in the toolbox in case demand needs to be destroyed in a hurry.

Is any of this actually necessary or is it a devious agenda by depraved elites who hate us? To some extent, the fact that this is even a question to be asked reveals the problem with Imperialism in general. Imperialism was always run by the elites. Those elites always claimed that they were acting in the public interest but much of that was just self-serving BS. One way to figure out what is in the public interest is to, you know, let the public decide for themselves by telling them what is going on. For a brief window of history, that’s what happened. But it didn’t happen by accident.

With Imperialism 3.0, we have reverted to clandestine forms of executive power. Governments increasingly don’t bother to give answers to basic questions. Why is it in the “national interest” that Qatar Airways not have more flights to Australia? What is the definition of “national interest” in this case and why does it seem to oppose the common sense interests of consumers and tourism businesses?  

There was a brief window between the transition from Imperialism 1.0 to 2.0 where the clandestine nature of imperialism was opened to scrutiny and it seemed that the workers and the public really could get their hands on executive power. The battle for that executive power is also a part of the story that Timothy Mitchell recounts in his book. A big part of the reason why we got a modern democracy in the first place is because of the political power that the workers utilised with the advent of fossil fuels.

Imperialism 1.0 maps to the era of coal while 2.0 is the age of oil. One of the main properties that differentiated the two was that the era of coal gave far greater power to the workers. Coal was a local, or at best a national, resource. It required a large labour force to extract it and put it to use. Most importantly, its transportation was able to be easily throttled. All these properties handed organised labour the ability to stop the supply of coal with industrial action and thereby bring entire economies to a halt.

Coal was not just power in the physics sense of the word, it was political power in the hands of organised labour who promptly put it to use to extract higher pay and better conditions from its capitalist owners. That power was then extended into the political sphere with universal suffrage being one of the results.

One of the reasons the elites wanted to transition to oil was that it was produced in foreign countries and would allow governments to bypass national unions. Winston Churchill was well aware of this problem since in 1912 there had been the first national strike of coal miners in Britain. With the outbreak of WW1, many unionists were against the war and there was strike action that threatened the war effort. Following a strike in November 1916, the government of Lloyd George decided to nationalise the coal industry since fighting the war was reliant on the supply of coal.

But there is another part of this story which is highly relevant to our current situation. The workers at that time used their political power to force politicians to be honest about the war aims. In early 1918, under pressure from the unions who were increasingly demanding peace, Lloyd George addressed a union meeting and outlined the conditions under which peace could be obtained. The workers had forced to government to actually state why the war was being fought and under what conditions it could end.

This sounds kind of obvious and yet we all live in a time where a war is being fought in Ukraine, where enormous sums of money are being spent and where, unless I missed the memo, our government has not stated why the war is being fought or how it can be made to end. All we get is the usual war propaganda about how the enemy is “evil” and we are all perfect little angels. Of course, there was all this war propaganda in WW1 too. It was only the significant political power that the coal miners of the early 20th century in Britain wielded that forced their government to tell the truth.

Another great example of this power came in 1920. Britain had an enormous number of soldiers in what is now Iraq trying to get control of the oil fields. The labour parties in Britain forced Winston Churchill to declare the cost of keeping the soldiers in Iraq. It was huge. Under pressure again from the labour movement, the government had to make plans to withdraw the soldiers and bring them home.

Again, the same question can be asked in our time: how much money has the United States and its allies spent in Ukraine, and before that in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in whose interest is that money spent? The reason that question does not get asked is because nobody who doesn’t have their snout in the trough has the political power to ask it. We live in Imperialism 3.0. The workers/public no longer have the power force the government to tell the truth. And so a seemingly pointless war continues to rage and nobody has even begun to explain why it is happening. That is the real world effect of the loss of political power that has happened between Imperialism 1.0 and where we are now in 3.0.

The loss of that political power is a long story. Timothy Mitchell argues that one of the main reasons for it is the transition to oil. As far as most of Europe was concerned, oil had to be imported. The labour and infrastructure to refine and transport it was outsourced to places where unions did not exist. This subsequently reduced the political power of unions at home since they could not so easily disrupt the supply of oil as they could with coal.

There were other reasons too that we don’t need to go into. The result was that Imperialism 2.0 was built on an implicit agreement that the unions and workers would forego demands for direct executive decision making power in favour of the implementation of the welfare state. The result was a massive increase in the size of government. With the exponential growth afforded by oil, this system was stable and political issues easily dealt with by buying off whoever complained. Government power might have increased in this time, but beneath the covers it was still the same old tag team of private enterprise and government sharing executive power at the expense of the workers and the public.

In a sense, with Imperialism 3.0, we have rolled all the way back to the robber baron days of 1.0. The unions are now a hollow shell of what they once were. They have become nothing more than bag men for corporate interests. Our democracy is also a hollow shell of what it once was. For most of the last hundred and fifty years, there was a real political battle based on the genuine interests of different social classes. That went away with Imperialism 3.0.

If Imperialism 3.0 had a catch phrase, it would be “we’re all in this together”. Orderly demand destruction is the name of the game. China has figured out how to do this by a form of techno-dystopian authoritarianism. In the West, the battle is being fought in the psychological realm. And we’re reverting back to some of the old familiar tricks of western culture.

After centuries of being told by priests that we were sinners, we now receive the same treatment from “the experts”. It is actually quite amusing that people who would call themselves atheists have taken on the exact job that protestant priests once carried out. They are the moral policeman to the masses. And just like the protestant priests, they are hypocrites of the first order. Of course, many people believe it too. It’s the old Christian need for contrition in secular guise.

But there’s the rub. It is the nation states of the West that are now being targeted not just with familiar old tactics of social control but with many that were once used by western politicians and business interests against foreign countries. Imperialism 3.0 has proletarianised us all. Western governments and their citizens are being divided and conquered in exactly the same way that governments and citizens of the middle east or Africa once were.

There is, of course, one wildcard in all this. The labour movement of the 19th and 20th centuries was an internationalist movement. When the workers pushed back against the imperialists they did so because they saw workers in another country as having the same interests as themselves.

The labour movement might be all but dead, but this time around we have another internationalist technology and that’s the internet. Can the internet provide a check on imperialist power? In some sense, it already has since it was instrumental in the Trump and Brexit votes. Of course, TPTB are already at work to try and make sure something like that doesn’t happen again. History does not repeat, but it sure does rhyme.

Play it again, Sam

Last week a video of Sam Harris went viral online. In the clip, Harris makes the claim that, with a deadly enough virus and a safe enough vaccine, nobody should be allowed to refuse and that it would be justifiable to have police forcibly injecting people against their will. It’s quite clear from the events of the last three-and-a-half years that many people share Harris’ view that such a course of action would be morally permissible.

Harris’ moral view and the understanding of the world that underpins it are really articles of faith. The faith in question is what we might call Technocracy. In this post, I want to do a quick overview of what the Technocracy is, where it fails and how those failures are now reaching a fever pitch in politics and culture.

As long-term readers would know, I’ve recently been making extensive use of the esoteric – exoteric dichotomy as a map of understanding the world. Here, I’d like to use a map which is based on the same underlying ideas but which is more fitting for the purpose. It’s the one that E.F. Schumacher describes in A Guide for the Perplexed, a book which I heartily recommend to all.

Per Schumacher, we define four fields of knowledge:

Field 1: what happens “inside” me
Field 2: what I can know about what happens “inside” other people
Field 3: how the world perceives me
Field 4: what I and others can know about the outer world

The two fields we’ll be paying the most attention to are 1 and 4.

Field 1 includes all our personal experiences, our hang-ups, our biases, our life history, our education, our spiritual experiences and beliefs etc.

Field 4 is what we broadly call “science”. Within Field 4 there are two main branches: descriptive knowledge and instrumental knowledge.

Descriptive knowledge takes complex phenomena and tries to simplify it down to just the essential patterns. Over the last few years, I’ve referenced many great thinkers in the descriptive knowledge domain including the historians Spengler and Toynbee, Jung in psychology, Gebser in phenomenology, Guenon in theology etc. My book on the Devouring Mother also fits into the descriptive knowledge category.

Instrumental knowledge is what we normally think of when we think of the “hard sciences”. The gold standard for instrumental knowledge is to produce simple logical statements: If-A, then-B.

We prove the truth of theories in the instrumental domain by verifying for ourselves that if we take the same set of steps, we get the same outcome. This might involve very long chains of reasoning, calculation and empirical testing.

What differentiates instrumental knowledge from descriptive knowledge is that the former is testable and the latter is not. Descriptive knowledge invariably deals with subject matter that is not quantifiable in the way instrumental knowledge requires.

Schumacher points out that explanations in the descriptive knowledge domain usually fall into those which attribute a meaning or intelligence behind surface phenomena and those which posit only chance or necessity. In comparative history, Spengler falls into the latter category since he saw only necessity behind historical events. Toynbee, on the other hand, found meaning in history.

The phenomena themselves cannot tell us whether they are meaningful, random or inevitable. Our choice of interpretation is, therefore, an act of faith and belongs to Field 1.

For this reason, some exponents of instrumental knowledge look down their noses at the descriptive. Some, such as Karl Popper, deny the validity of descriptive knowledge altogether. For Popper, only what is testable and falsifiable counts.

There is, however, a sub-domain of instrumental knowledge which also suffers from a testability problem. The systems thinkers of the 20th century differentiated between simple systems where the number of variables can be reduced to allow calculation and testing to be carried out and complex systems where the number of variables cannot be reduced. Simple systems are those which are theoretically reducible to an If-A, then-B  format.  Complex systems are those which are theoretically not reducible.

(Note: it is arguable that the Descriptive domain is really about complex systems but we’ll skip over that for now).

We can summarise these considerations in the following diagram:-

We have already pointed out that the interpretations in the descriptive domain are matters of faith and therefore relate back to the Field 1. But, in a way, so are the formulas of the Instrumental – Simple domain. If-A, then-B might be valid. But so might If-C, then-B. There are always multiple ways to get to the outcome. Which option “wins” is often a matter of convention.

A great deal of “hard science” amounts to conventional agreements to fix the meanings of symbols. This makes perfect sense because it prevents endless arguing over semantics. But it’s very easy to forget that these are just man-made conventions. They point back to Fields 1 and 2. Conventions are social agreements made for convenience, not laws handed down from God.

What this boils down to is that Field 4, which deals with the outer world, points back to Field 1, which is about the human inner world. Field 1 chooses an interpretation for descriptive fields of knowledge, Field 1 determines the ontology that is conventionally defined in the Instrumental – Simple domain, and the observation of complex systems in the Instrumental – Complex domain are inextricably tied to Field 1. One way or another, it all points back to us.

This is the meaning of know thyself. Without knowing the ways in which you are interpreting the world, without knowing that you are interpreting the world in the first place, you project interpretations thinking they are “in the world” when they don’t really exist there at all. Where do they exist? In your own mind and the collective mind of our species and the culture to which we belong.

(Of course, there is no “where”. These are spatial metaphors for what is ultimately non-spatial. It is mental or spiritual).

Acknowledging these truths does not invalidate knowledge. But it does involve accepting that there is an inherent subjective element in any interpretation. We might as well call this subjective element faith.

What is the difference between projection in a psychological sense and faith? Only one thing: you are aware of faith but unaware of projection. Projection is an unconscious process. Faith implies consciousness (perhaps even super-consciousness). We are always sliding back from faith into projection; from consciousness to unconsciousness.

So, what does all this have to do with Sam Harris and his desire to forcibly inject people with vaccines?

What Harris was implying was that there could be a pandemic which belonged to the Instrumental – Simple domain. He proposed a simple If-A, then-B format for dealing with such a pandemic. If deadly-virus-killing-lots-of-people, then-administer-safe-and-effective-vaccine. Problem solved.

The irony of Harris’ statement, an irony which he is apparently completely unaware of, is that he did nothing more than restate the propaganda we were force-fed during the height of the corona madness. We were told this was a super deadly virus and that a flawless vaccine existed which would solve the problem. Of course, none of that was true.

Given Harris is apparently ultra-concerned with the problem of misinformation, you’d think figuring out why the official corona story was so far removed from reality would be top of his list of problems to work through. Instead, his main concern seems to be how to regulate the internet so that people with political views he disagrees with are shut down. In this respect, he is representative of the class of people running western societies nowadays; the “elites”.

Our “elites” are the Technocracy. They all share the faith of the Technocracy. We can now be specific about what that faith means: all problems can and should be reduced to the Instrumental – Simple domain of knowledge.

The belief that pandemics can and should be handled within the Instrumental – Simple paradigm is, therefore, an article of faith for people like Harris. That’s why the failure of the corona response is of no concern to him. What is of concern is to silence the people pointing out the failure because they are challenging the faith.

The truth is that pandemics belong to the Instrumental – Complex domain. There is very good reason to suspect they will always be too complex to simplify down. But the faith of Technocracy assumes that, even if we have failed so far, in the future we will be able to simplify pandemics down to an If-A, then-B format. Once you understand that it is a faith, the attitude of people like Harris makes sense.

Of course, in a pandemic such as Harris describes, where people would be dropping dead in the street, trying to respond in a scientific fashion would be near impossible because there would be widespread panic. One of the surreal elements of corona was that people calmly lined-up right next to total strangers to be tested and later vaccinated. That would never happen in a real pandemic. Police would be too busy trying to keep basic law and order to be able to forcibly vaccinate citizens.

Still, none of the logistical or pragmatic issues matter much because what we are dealing with is faith. If it doesn’t work once, then we just have to keep trying until it does work.

The trouble is that the Technocrats have been trying and failing to deal with the Instrumental – Complex domain for more than a century now. Anybody looking for a catalogue of the errors of the Technocracy should check out James C. Scott’s great book Seeing like a State.

The evidence (and the theory) suggests that the systems thinkers were right. Some domains cannot be simplified. This does not mean we can’t deal with Complex domains, just that we must use different methods. The error of the Technocrats is to continue to apply methods that belong to the Instrumental – Simple domain to the Complex domains where those methods do not work.

Technocracy has been dominant in the post-war years because the Instrumental – Simple paradigm does work. It works beautifully in simple domains. But all the low-hanging fruit was picked decades ago. The Technocrats then moved on to complex domains and are racking up failure after failure. Corona is the biggest one so far but there are others in the pipeline. The problems caused by the faith of Technocracy are becoming too big to ignore. That is the background of our current ideological crisis.

Of course, the Technocrats are not going to go down without a fight. Here in Australia, and I believe a number of other countries, so-called “misinformation” bills are working their way through parliament. These give governments the right to ban anything on the internet that goes against the official narrative.

Imagine a world where the Technocracy holds all the positions of power, has access to enormous financial resources, controls the mainstream media narrative, and can get almost universal consensus from aligned politicians. Then imagine that the same Technocrats are worried that some anonymous nobody on the internet might post some “misinformation”. This is not the behaviour of people who have confidence in their position. The more the faith of Technocracy fails, the more its adherents double down. Hence, the increasingly cult-like behaviour we are seeing.

When we flip the arrows on our diagram, we see that it is really Field 1 which determines our understanding of Field 4.

We are always projecting onto the world. When we do it consciously, it is called faith. What happens when an article of faith fails to produce results? We can accept that failure and try to get to the root cause. Or we can deny it and push it down into the unconscious. When we do that, faith turns into projection.

The faith of the Technocrats is that all problems can be reduced to the Instrumental – Simple domain. That faith is failing on multiple fronts right now. It is these failures which are causing great anxiety amongst the “elites”. That’s what was behind the corona debacle. It’s what’s behind the misinformation bills, the censorship, the bullying and demoralisation that comes down from pretty much all public offices in the West at the moment. Our “elites” are projecting their own failures onto the public.

The Sam Harrises of the world are almost certainly never going to admit failure. They are true believers. Like all true believers they will continue to say that we just need one more try to get it right. Eventually, however, the cost of keeping the faith is going to be too high to pay.

Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational

We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four…” 

G.K. Chesterton

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows… You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two times two makes four…”

Orwell, 1984

“There is only one truth, and only one true way; this truth is two times two, and the true way—four. And would it not be an absurdity if these happily, ideally multiplied twos began to think of some nonsensical freedom—i.e., clearly, to error?…”

Zamyatin, We

“…two times two makes four is no longer life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death. Anyway, man has always been somehow afraid of this two times two makes four and I am afraid of it even now…”

Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

On the surface of it, this set of quotes seem to be in contradiction to each other. The two English writers, Chesterton and Orwell, were pointing to a heightened irrationality that was already in motion about a hundred years ago. In the public sphere, it had become acceptable, even encouraged, to deny basic truths.

We are living at what is probably the tail end of that trend. I’m not sure if anybody in our time has been howled down for saying 2 + 2 = 4, but plenty have met the same fate for saying a woman is a woman. We’ve even created a thing called social media which let’s you howl down other people from the comfort of your own home. In Chesterton’s day, you had to do it in person.

The two Russian writers, Dostoevsky and Zamyatin, seem to be arguing for the opposite position; the one which denies the basic truths of common sense. But this is actually the denial of what we have been calling in this series the doctrine of Necessity which is tied up in the “laws” of reason and logic. Zamyatin acknowledges the power of reason by noting that freedom from it seems absurd and nonsensical.

Is the nonsensical freedom of the existentialists the same as the irrationality that wants to deny basic truths? If so, we might say that we are living in a world that the existentialists would have approved of since our society serves up logical absurdities on a daily basis and not just from random corners of the internet but from the highest political offices.

The situation is made more complex by the fact that, while we increasingly embrace irrationality in the general culture, institutional science retains the right to invoke the doctrine of Necessity. The result is a society which simultaneously denies basic truths about reality while talking about very complex issues with absolute certainty as if they were indomitable truths handed down from God. We don’t know what a woman is, but we can tell you with surety what sub-sub-sub-strain of what virus is causing you to feel ill.

“I’m sorry to say you’re infected with the AKXF.23234234 strain. On the plus side, it’s lucky you’re not infected with the AFAD.23982342 strain because that has a 0.0000023423% higher fatality rate.”

In Orwell’s 1984, the Party told you to reject your eyes and ears. It’s not a coincidence, then, that science is now authoritarian about issues which are not accessible to a standard pair of eyes and ears. Viruses are invisible to anybody not in possession of an electron microscope. Meanwhile, the process of viral spread or climate change are invisible by definition. To understand them, you need a model. And anybody daring to challenge the output of a model by recourse to their own eyes and ears can rely on being told their own perceptions are just “anecdotes” and are, therefore, irrelevant. It is not the Party, but science itself, which now tells you to reject your eyes and ears.

The irony is that, for most of its history, science had limited itself to what could be known with eyes and ears. That was the whole point. Science was about that which everybody could agree on because they could see it for themselves whether directly or through instruments created to enhance perception such as telescopes and microscopes.

Recall that Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky had posited that what lay behind the doctrine of Necessity was resignation, fear and coercion. Sam Harris recently provided the perfect example of this in a video where he describes a situation where people could be forcibly vaccinated. Note that his description hinges on the certainty of knowledge which he imagines we can have.

A society based on perfect knowledge would be a society of total coercion over the people who just couldn’t understand “truth”. That was always Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky’s problem with the doctrine of Necessity; the more seemingly certain the knowledge, even about abstractions, the more coercion can be justified.

What is noteworthy about the rise of irrationality is that it is also coercive in nature. As Chesterton saw in his day, the unpredictability of an irrational mob generates fear and, ultimately, resignation. Who is going to speak basic truths in public if you’re never sure that you won’t be howled down?

Thus, in modern society, we have managed to combine the rational and irrational into a team. “Science” has ceded basic truths to the mob. It remains silent while common sense ideas are held up to extreme “scepticism”. It simultaneously demands that complex issues be followed with mindless obedience. The common denominator in both these developments is resignation, fear and coercion.

The change of focus in science towards more esoteric and complex phenomena coincided with the rise of irrationality. All this began in the first few decades of the 20th century. Most of the existentialist thinkers we have been discussing in this series were concerned with the older kind of coercion; the one that came from the Doctrine of Necessity embodied in reason and logic which dominated in the 19th century.

The 19th century was a time when people really were convinced that laws of nature were iron laws of necessity. Determinism was all the rage and it was sincerely believed that humans would soon use the laws of nature to solve every problem and deliver a materialist utopia in the form of communism, capitalism or some kind of Darwinian survival of the fittest.

This belief went along with the stifling social atmosphere of the Victorian era where conformity was mandatory and where you could guess with exact precision the social class to which somebody belonged, and what their corresponding beliefs about the world would be, based on nothing more than what kind of hat they were wearing.

A gentleman’s attire also included a stick in case a member of the riff-raff was in need of a thwacking

One way to sum up the Victorian era, and this is, of course, a generalisation to which many exceptions can be found, is to say that there was no “inner” life. This inner life is what I have been calling the esoteric and I have been contrasting it against the exoteric which are the outer institutions of society.

In general, the Victorian era was devoid of the esoteric and it was this world that Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and the other existentialists were railing against. (Note: among a sub-section of society, there was a strong interest in the occult in Victorian times which was itself a reaction to the lack of esoteric in the general culture).

The cultivation and development of an inner life, the esoteric element of our being, has been a priority for practically all religions throughout history. What it really amounts to is the understanding, which can only be achieved through experience, that there is something “higher” than consciousness. We can give this something whatever name we want. We can call it “God”, “Allah”, “nirvana” or whatever.

Most of the time, when we give something a name, we are used to being able to point to it. We point to an object and say “that is a tree”. What’s more, as the linguist George Lakoff detailed extensively in his book The Metaphors We Live By, even when we talk about abstract notions, we almost always use spatial metaphors to aid understanding. That is, we talk about abstract domains as if they contained objects that could be pointed to.

The problem with “God”, “Allah” and “nirvana” is that these words not only do not denote an object, they denote an experience which is the absence of all objects and therefore even metaphors become misleading. That’s why the author of The Cloud of Unknowing spends several chapters of the book warning about the use of spatial metaphors to understand the spiritual. We might use the words “higher” or “inner”, but these aren’t really valid.

It’s for this exact reason that the experience of the spiritual feels like nothingness when we first encounter it. It’s also why, as Kierkegaard noted, nothingness and terror go hand-in-hand. The fear of God is not just some mumbo-jumbo cooked up to control people, even though that is the exact use to which it has so often been put throughout history. It describes the esoteric experience of connecting with the realm beyond reason, logic and consciousness; beyond space and time.

In this sense, therefore, the spiritual is irrational and one of the main debates in theology down through the ages is to try and figure out how the spiritual relates back to reason and logic. One of the forms this has taken is to argue that even God is bound by the laws of reason and logic. This puts the spiritual “beneath” reason. It is this idea that Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky were arguing against. But, more generally, they were railing against a society which had given up the pursuit of the inner life in favour of materialism. Materialism and science at that time were basically synonymous.  

The cushy, comfortable, rational materialist world of the bourgeois got blown up (literally) in WW1. What then occurred was the development of the social trend towards irrationality that Chesterton was referring to.

This irrationality does have some things in common with the themes of existentialism. It does, for example, fall under the concept of the esoteric in the broader, non-religious sense of that word. The people howling down the man who says 2 + 2 = 4 were not putting on an act. They were shouting because they felt something inside themselves. It had become socially acceptable to express such feelings as a rejection of the 19th century where you were told your feelings were irrelevant and where you were encouraged to mechanically repeat what you had been taught.

Superficially, this irrationality does look similar to the “nonsensical freedom” that existentialism talks about. But the nonsensical freedom of the true inner life comes from transcending consciousness through the confrontation with Nothingness. It does not come from a hyper-emotional destruction of consciousness from “below”. The post-war outbreak of irrationality is a simulacrum of the spiritual.

The embrace of irrationality has not been limited to politics either. Consumer capitalism has learned to channel the irrational to sell goods and services. The invisible hand of the market has figured out just what amounts of sugar and salt would get people hooked on food and just what combination of flashing lights and sounds would get them hooked on television, computer games and websites.

The whole post-war period has been about hijacking the automated functions of the body and lower psyche in order to sell goods and services. The lessons learned were then applied to politics. The scale of the enterprise has no precedent in history. The Romans had bread and circuses. We’ve got 263 types of baked dough products (not including the gluten free varieties) and countless forms of amusement.

The result is that the body politic of the modern West is the equivalent of a heroin junkie desperately trying to find a stimulus that can make it feel alive one more time. The cheap thrills of outrage and cancel culture are just one more type of stimulus that get us through the day.

Remembering that the doctrine of Necessity and the doctrine of Faith have been the two threads running through Faustian civilisation from the start. We have now arrived at a decadent form of both.

We allow the most common sense propositions to be open to a fake scepticism. Meanwhile, in the most complex domains of science we are told there is “consensus” opinions about things for which there cannot be consensus. We pretend there is convergence where it cannot exist and divergence where it should not exist. Where it would be useful to have authority shut down frivolous and irrational opinions, we allow free reign. Where open enquiry would be beneficial, we demand obedience.

The irrational is the decadent form of faith. We can represent it using the same table from last week’s post:-

NecessityFaithThe Irrational
Laws of NatureProblem of InductionDenial of truth
Church (Exoteric)Mysticism (esoteric)Emotionality
Institutional Science (Exoteric)Scepticism (exploration)Cynicism
AthensJerusalemLondon, Berlin, Moscow (USSR),  Washington, D.C.

The funny thing about the Irrational is that it is exactly our stereotype of our ancestors; the backwards ones who “believed in religion”. History has a sense of irony.

All posts in this series:
Christian Existentialism Part 1: The Confrontation with Nothingness
Christian Existentialism Part 2: The Worship of Idols
Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith
Christian Existentialism Part 4: The Boiling Point of Water
Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman
Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational

Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman

The discussion about exploratory intellect and empirical science in the last post might seem a world away from the standard fare of Christian existentialism. But the thesis I have been inching towards in this series is that existentialism and science are not unrelated even though most existentialists were not scientists and most scientists would not consider themselves existentialists.

Conversely, it’s a commonplace assumption in our culture that the Church has been opposed to science and yet it’s quite clear now that institutionalised science has wound up in exactly the same corrupt state as the Church throughout its history. That is also not accidental.

The Church was not always corrupt, of course. For the first several centuries of Faustian (European) civilisation, the Church was a meritocracy as well as being the conduit for both Christianity and the knowledge of Ancient Greece. Eventually, however, it stopped being willing or able to incorporate new knowledge.

Some thinkers and experimenters had started to realise that the knowledge handed down from antiquity was not infallible. In those days, anybody who wanted to promote a new theory had to go through the Church in the same way that nowadays you must go through whatever scientific journals are accepted authorities in the field in question. But the Church was not in the mood for new theories and didn’t mind ruining the lives of people who it saw as a threat.

The more blatant financial and political corruption in the Church coincided with a more repressive attitude to dissenting opinions. And so Luther’s rebellion against the authority of the Church also opened opportunities for “new science” in the north of Europe which had been closed in the south.

Luther was no scientist and yet his sceptical attitude to authority opened the way for new science. We might put this down to chance. But I suspect there was more going. We can group the distinctions at play as follows:-

Laws of NatureProblem of Induction
Church (Exoteric)Mysticism (esoteric)
Institutional Science (Exoteric)Scepticism (exploration)
The mad monk

When we look at it this way, a historical correspondence with Luther arises which is actually quite funny because the two men in question were vastly different in personality, what they believed, and how they lived. I’m referring to the American scientist, Richard Feynman.

Luther and Feynman were united in their opposition to what I have been calling the doctrine of Necessity and its associated traits including its political and social manifestation in the institutions of church and science. Neither man cared for exoteric authority. They both explicitly rejected the authority of institutions and traditions in favour of the individual.

The slightly less mad scientist

Luther wasn’t just rejecting the corruption of the Catholic Church of his time, there were plenty of people who objected to that, he was rejecting the whole idea that a Church could have authority over spiritual matters. In this he was famously opposed by Erasmus and this is where things take another ironic turn because history thinks of Erasmus as the free-thinking humanist and yet Erasmus was sticking up for authority while Luther was in favour of (spiritual) rebellion.

Erasmus stated that truth should only be told when it was expedient. This was in keeping with the philosophy of the Greeks and the idea of the noble lie. Erasmus had no problem at all with the State or the Church lying to the public to achieve an outcome and he would have had no problem with modern institutional science doing the same.

Luther, on the other hand, demanded that the truth should always be spoken even where it was inexpedient. Erasmus argued that the common people were depraved and needed to be taught obedience for their own good (basket of deplorables anyone?) while Luther argued that obedience gained through authority led to hypocrisy and inhibited the exercise of individual conscience. Luther argued that there is no authority beyond Christ and that each individual has direct access to Christ which cannot be mediated through an external institution such as a church.

The content of Luther’s argument is very different but the underlying meaning is identical to the one that Feynman would later make in relation to science. Consider this quote:

“When someone says science teaches such and such, he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach it; experience teaches it. If they say to you science has shown such and such, you might ask, How does science show it – how did the scientists find out – how, what, where? Not science has shown, but this experiment, this effect, is shown. And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments…to judge whether a reusable conclusion has been arrived at.”

The last sentence is the crucial one. Feynman states that we as individuals have a right to judge the truths of science. We do so based not on authority but on experiment. We should demand to be shown the evidence, not the conclusion. Feynman had also stated elsewhere that nobody should blindly trust an experiment carried out by somebody else but should reproduce it and see the results for themselves.

Note that this attitude to science is essentially the same one promulgated by Christian mysticism as discussed earlier in this series. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing did not say “here is a set of metaphysical statements about God”. What he said was “here is a set of steps you should take to experience God” just like a scientist lays out the steps to reproduce an experiment.

How many times in the last three and a half years did we hear the opposite of these ideas? How many times were we told to abandon our own experience and trust the experts. I lost count of how many discussions I saw which amounted to nothing more than somebody telling somebody else that they did not have the right to judge whether a truth really was a truth or even to ask the simple questions about how supposed truths had been proven. Science has now become Necessity, authority and, increasingly, tyranny. This had already been happening in Feynman’s time. Another quote:

“I think we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television words, book, and so on are unscientific. That doesn’t mean they are bad, but they are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science.”

Feynman and Luther lived in vastly different times and were vastly different men, but they were both in agreement about one thing: the individual must have the right to judge matters of truth in science and in faith. Real science, just like real faith, only exists in the individual.

Of course, we set up institutions to try and instill the spirit of science or of faith in people. But institutions run on the doctrine of Necessity with its laws and its authority. This tends to snuff out individualism. With no individuals left to carry the true spirit of science and faith, the exoteric institutions become hollowed out shells. Institutions are dead esoterically well before they crumble exoterically.

What is highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented, about Faustian civilisation is that we have not gone down the usual pathway of stagnation. We have had the Luthers and the Feynmans in our culture who pop up now and then to remind us that only individuals can carry the esoteric spirit that keeps a culture alive. In my opinion, this is a direct result of Christianity. Faustian civilisation was built upon the symbol of the esoteric individual crucified by the exoteric institutions. It was in the name of the esoteric that Luther rebelled against the Church.

It’s seems no coincidence, therefore, that the powers-that-be in our society are not only anti-Christian but also that they have also turned science into nothing more than “intellectual tyranny”. This development has been going on since the time when the nation states of the West began vying to become the Universal State (starting with Napoleon).

And here there is a historical irony because Feynman inadvertently joined the battle on the side of Necessity by signing up for the Manhattan Project. That project was ostensibly run on the basis that the Americans had to make the bomb before the Germans did. Of course, they succeeded and America became the Universal State of the Faustian instead of Germany. It’s arguable that science became moribund at exactly that moment.

It’s also no coincidence that the USA (and the rest of the West) in the post-war years has increasingly become what can only be described as satanic. It seems that if you pursue the doctrine of Necessity, you also destroy real science and true faith. And you get tyranny and authoritarianism into the bargain. It’s a package deal. Buy one, get one free. Special limited offer. Call now while stocks last.   

All posts in this series:
Christian Existentialism Part 1: The Confrontation with Nothingness
Christian Existentialism Part 2: The Worship of Idols
Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith
Christian Existentialism Part 4: The Boiling Point of Water
Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman
Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational