The Great Levelling

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the most memorable real-life comments I heard during the corona debacle happened over a news story from here in Australia that went viral around the world. A pregnant woman in her pyjamas was arrested and handcuffed in her own home in front of her children. Her “crime”? She had posted on Facebook about an upcoming protest against the corona measures. The memorable quotation came up in a conversation I was having with a family member about the subject who pondered – “Is nothing sacred?”

Like most of those arrested during corona, the woman had her charges dropped by the government a couple of years later

Is nothing sacred? As I mentioned in a recent post on the subject, sacredness is a complex concept. It includes both the notion of holiness and the notion of danger. Since holiness is related to wholeness and to health, sacredness is also negatively linked to illness, disease and death.

The anthropological literature tells us that pregnant women have been almost universally considered sacred across cultures. The reason is not hard to see since childbirth not only creates new life but has traditionally been incredibly dangerous to the woman herself. Morality rates during childbirth would have been measured in double digit percentages for most societies throughout history.

In modern Australia, there are about 25 deaths per year of women giving birth, slightly higher if you include deaths within a month of the birth. That represents about a 0.005% fatality rate. Childbirth is still dangerous, but almost certainly less dangerous than it has been at any time during history.

Could this explain the behaviour of the policeman arresting the pregnant woman? If sacredness is related to dangerousness, it follows that things become less sacred as they become less dangerous. Now that the danger has been taken out of childbirth, pregnant women are no longer considered sacred. Therefore, they can be arrested and handcuffed in their pyjamas.

Note that this hypothesis also serves to explain the loss of the sacred in general in modern society since we live in what is almost certainly the safest society that has ever existed, not just in a medical sense.

Pregnant women are no longer dangerous (sacred), but apparently what that particular pregnant woman was doing was. It might sound ridiculous to think that posting on social media is dangerous. But, in the eyes of those who believed the official corona narrative, such posts were dangerous because they had the potential to be, well, infectious. A well-crafted social media post is potentially even more infectious than a coronavirus.

Social media posts are politically dangerous. Don’t believe it? Consider that many of the colour revolutions we have heard about over the last decade or so were organised and broadcast through social media.

If social media posts are dangerous, does that make them sacred? The question sounds absurd. Millions, if not billions, of social media posts are generated every day. Nothing seems cheaper than a social media post and, whatever the sacred is, it is not cheap.

Sacred rites are traditionally highly involved and time consuming. The initiate is made to work hard to get through. This is not merely done for effect. It mimics a truth about the real world which is that many of the most rewarding things in life do require hard work. That’s why sacred rites have traditionally included long pilgrimages and other tests of endurance and stamina.

Not exactly a sacred image (although, if you look hard, the bottom part of the “f” is actually a cross. Maybe facebook is a religion after all)

Social media posts cannot be sacred because they are way too easy. Click a few buttons on a mouse and a keyboard and you’ve got yourself a post. Because it’s so easy, it encourages impulsive behaviour. How many times do we see somebody post something on social media only to delete it minutes later? Social media seems custom designed to appeal to our lower natures, not our higher (sacred) ones.

It seems that most things that go viral appeal to our lower nature. A philosophical treatise, a beautiful poem, a brilliant novel or symphony or some theological wisdom, these do not go viral. What mostly goes viral is death, destruction and debauchery.

We saw a prime example of death and destruction in recent weeks with the killings in Israel, graphic images of which spread around the internet in just hours. Sadly, that is nothing new. TV news has been full of those for decades, albeit probably not as explicit as the ones we saw. But then something happened that, if I’m not mistaken, was new.

In the days immediately following the bloodshed, we saw what can only be called celebrations on the streets of many western cities. These too were broadcast via social media and the internet. I’m not saying that the killing of civilians is new. It may even be that people cheering on the death of civilians is not new. But such scenes would never have been broadcast on commercial news networks in the days prior to the internet. Therefore, our exposure to such images is new and we can thank the internet and social media for bringing them to us.

No doubt there were many different reactions to the images of the killing and then the images of the cheering. One strong thread that I noticed was an outpouring of what we can call, without hyperbole, despair. This despair was not just limited to the ungratifying sight of watching fellow humans cheer on each other’s deaths. Rather, it was about Western civilisation itself since the images of the cheering were not coming from somewhere foreign and exotic but right at home including some of the most famous landmarks of the West.

I’ve seen several posts from public intellectuals over the last week with an almost mourning tone predicting the end of western civilisation as a result. For these people, a line was crossed and I think we can call that line the sacred. It’s a similar line that was crossed for some of us with the corona lockdowns. Things that we had believed to be fundamental (sacred) to western civilisation turned out not to be so.

Interestingly, the people despairing this week were mostly, as far as I could tell, people who were in favour of the corona measures, which just goes to show that what is sacred differs from person to person. But we can generalise a trend that has been pickup up steam for at least a decade now in the West: the destruction of the sacred.

Whatever side of the conflicts in the Middle East you happen to be on, celebrating the deaths of civilians is heinous (Note: I’m talking here specifically about the western perspective on the matter, not the perspective of the various peoples involved in the actual conflict). Doing so in front of some of the most famous monuments of western civilisation does give the whole thing a civilisational collapse vibe. What sort of society allows people to celebrate the slaughter of others in front of its most famous monuments? The answer is: a society that has lost all notion of sacredness.

This loss of sacredness in the West is not a new thing. It’s been going on for centuries. What is sacred is what is dangerous and what is dangerous is what is powerful. Gods are dangerous and powerful, therefore they are sacred. Kings allowed themselves to be anointed by Popes since being sanctified increases one’s perceived authority which helps to carry out the job of being the boss.

The destruction of the sacred in the West began with the Reformation which did away with the authority of the Pope. It’s no coincidence that shortly thereafter kings started getting their heads chopped off. Authority and sacredness have always been linked. The rejection of authority began with Luther, continued through the British Civil War, the French and US Revolutions and ends up with us today.

Note that this lack of authority is built into the very structure of the internet. The internet is designed to be decentralised. It will continue to work even when important (well connected) nodes get taken offline. Thus, the whole point of social media and the internet in general is that there is no authority. This is another key reason why the internet cannot be sacred.

If the internet is a spider’s web, who is the spider?

The internet might be the culmination of a trend that’s been in play for centuries. The inalienable right to free speech means that the government does not get to stop you from saying something. That means there is no authority to uphold standards of behaviour. There are positive things about that but there are also negative things. It means that nobody will stop people going into the street and cheering at the death of others.

Almost by default, free speech removes the sacredness of speech. For something to be sacred, there must be danger but also redemption and closure. There must be consequences for action. If you get to say whatever you like and there are no consequences, then your speech is not sacred. For most of history and across cultures, the consequences to speech were ultimately vested in the power of authority. Authority could provide closure and return the situation to wholeness, health and holiness.

Without authority, things cannot be made whole (holy) again. Thus, when behaviour crosses a line that people consider sacred, there is no mechanism to bring things back to equilibrium. The result is modern society where all kinds of things that cross the sacred line are left unhealed. For some it will be the sight of people celebrating death, for others it will be the corona lockdowns and forced vaccinations, for yet others it will be the sight of grown men dancing naked in front of children.

Pretty sure this violates someone’s notion of the sacred.
He’s coming for you.

The common thread from the last decade or so is that we are seeing all remaining notions of the sacred go up in flames in front of our eyes. What constitutes sacredness might be different for different people. But it seems that everybody has a target on their back at the moment and some invisible grim reaper is sharpening his symbolic scythe ready to destroy whatever it is we consider sacred.

The trend does seem to be going into overdrive at the moment. But it is not new. One of the earliest thinkers who saw the profound challenge that the loss of the sacred entails was a philosopher I’ve mentioned here many times, Soren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard’s insight is more impressive because the society he lived in still had the outward forms of the sacred. People in his day still kept up appearances. What he intuited was that people no longer really believed in the sacred and the ramifications of this were just starting to appear in the first half of the 19th century.

Kierkegaard called the process of the destruction of the sacred the Great Levelling. All authority, all regulation of behaviour, all discipline, all belief in the elevation of individuals of worth, all of the things considered sacred previously are going away. Since these attributes have also been synonymous with the concept of civilisation, it makes sense that some people believe the process represents the end of civilisation.

History is full of examples of elites who abused their authority and subsequently lost the trust of the public (and often their own heads into the bargain). The Great Levelling is not about that. It’s not about institutional corruption per se. Kierkegaard saw it as an impersonal process that was happening across the board and was not limited to any particular social class.

We should remember that Kierkegaard was writing at the time when the cult of Napoleon had imploded. Napoleon had been a prime exemplar of the notion of the great man of history; the hero who could turn the tide of civilisation through will alone. Among other things, his defeat called that understanding of history into question. The feeling of the loss of authority not just as the loss of the sacred but also as the loss of civilisation began around this time as the pessimist and nihilist movements got going.

Can it be a coincidence that it was also at this time that the alternative analysis of history as a set of impersonal forces came for the fore? Hegel, Marx, Spengler and Toynbee all followed. Kierkegaard’s Great Levelling is another example of an impersonal historical force. He describes it this way:-

“No single individual (I mean no outstanding individual – in the sense of leadership and conceived according to the dialectical category ‘fate’) will be able to arrest the abstract process of levelling, for it is negatively something higher, and the age of chivalry is gone…

The abstract levelling process, that self-combustion of the human race, produced by the friction which arises when the individual ceases to exist as singled out by religion, is bound to continue, like a trade wind, and consume everything…

the younger man …realises from the beginning that the levelling process is evil in both the selfish individual and in the selfish generation, but that it can also, if they desire it honestly and before God, become the starting-point for the highest life – for them it will indeed be an education to live in the age of levelling.”

Now, we might say that Kierkegaard’s Levelling is nothing more than the inevitable historical force that Spengler and Toynbee would later identify as the decline of civilisation. But Kierkegaard was a scholar of the ancients and made an explicit distinction between the levelling of our time and ancient Rome. Rome had its Caesars, its heroes and great men, all the way up til the end. The Great Levelling explicitly seems to negate the Caesar, as the failure of Napoleon had shown in Kierkegaard’s time.

Kierkegaard’s vision is almost identical to the one that Dostoevsky later presented in The Brothers Karamazov. The only way out is through. The age of levelling is going to destroy all authority and all sacredness. For those able to sit with the spiritual nausea of it, there opens the possibility of a new religiosity born out of the explicit denial of all the theoretical abstractions that the modern world is full of. It is a childlike reconnection with immediate experience. This idea, in different forms, can be found in many other thinkers of the last couple of hundred years.

The Brothers Karamazov is a description of what it means to experience the Great Levelling and come out the other side. Alyosha must face the lies and hypocrisy of religion. Ivan must face the abyss that is the abstractions of modern thought. Dmitri must face the corruption of the state. They are each forced to deal with the destruction of what is most sacred to them.

For Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, religion, philosophy and the worship of politics only separate us from the truly religious. With the death of religion in the West, many have sought to avoid facing the Great Levelling by escaping into abstract thought or politics. That is partly what is behind the hero worship of a Napoleon, a Hitler or a Trump or the worship of abstractions like dialectical materialism. It’s also behind the desperate desire to “trust the experts”.

Even in somebody like Spengler, who was one of the most insightful analysts of the modern West, we find the desire for Caesarism and the return of authority to set things right. Spengler’s comparative history propagated the levelling process and yet he seemed to be simultaneously repulsed by it.

Of course, the levelling process is repulsive. That was Kierkegaard’s point. The internet and social media might represent the final stages of the Great Levelling since they seem tailor-made to force us to confront the repulsion that comes with the destruction of what we consider sacred.

What both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky believed was that to face this repulsion directly would give birth to something new. All past civilisations have been predicated on heroism, authority and the sacred. They have been run by what we call the elites. The Great Levelling forces a radical equality and freedom. Since this is the opposite of what we have hitherto called civilisation, it looks indistinguishable from the end of civilisation. Maybe it is the end of civilisation. But maybe Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky were also right and it is, in fact, the birth pangs of something new.

Can we afford that?

Sometimes there’s a news story that serves as a nexus of crucial issues for understanding the world we live in. This week served up such a story. It revolved around the seemingly simple question: can the US afford to fund two wars at the same time?

The question was asked to Joe Biden who retorted that America is the most powerful nation in history and so of course it can. That’s what’s called a non sequitur in first year philosophy class. But Biden’s quip does work nicely to formulate what is perhaps the only principle that has guided US foreign policy in the decades since the fall of the USSR: we can do whatever we like because nobody can stop us. Of course, that’s pretty much been true. Although, it’s one of those statements that’s true until it isn’t.

The same question about whether the US could afford two wars was asked to Janet Yellen in an interview on British television and she enthusiastically responded that yes, of course, the US could afford it. Yellen is the treasury secretary and so we assume that she should know what the US can and can’t afford. But therein lies a crucial distinction. The word “afford” has a purely financial connotation these days. But it was not always so.

Long-time readers know my love of etymology. Seemingly all the etymology I have done recently has involved Latin words. So, it’s a pleasant change of pace to have an English word to etymologise upon.

“Afford” comes from Old English where it meant to accomplish, contribute or carry out.

Back in the feudal days, monetary transactions were rare and so the word “afford” was less about whether you had cash and more about whether you could get the job done. “Can you afford a barn” did not mean “have you got enough money to have a barn built?” It meant “can you build a barn”? Do you have the materials and knowledge to carry out the task?

It’s only in recent centuries that the word “afford” has taken on the purely monetary meaning that we give it these days. That meaning has become even more acute in the post-war years as the bankers have taken over the world and financialised everything. So dominant has this mindset become that Janet Yellen gets asked whether we can afford another war in the same way you might ask a friend whether they can afford a new pair of designer jeans or dinner at an upmarket restaurant.

“Well, things are a little tight this month. But I think we can fit another war in, Tom.”

Yellen’s answer that yes, of course, we can afford it is predicated on her understanding that everything in the world can be bought with money and, since the USA can apparently print trillions of new dollars with no consequences, it can “afford” anything at all. But Ukraine and Israel are not launching dollar bills at their enemies, they are launching missiles. “Can the USA afford another war” is not a question of money but of ammunition and it’s not answerable by the treasury secretary but by the department of defence or whoever’s job it is to count the bombs and missiles.

That’s where the double meaning in the word “afford” is useful.  Using the old meaning of the word, the question of whether the US can afford another war would translate as “can the US successfully carry out another war”.

But this new question implies that there is a definition by which the USA can be said to have “won” the war and that is precisely what is missing. Unless I missed the memo, there has been no definition given by which the war in Ukraine and an impending war in the Middle East could be “won”. This is especially true for the latter since nobody knows what sort of of conflagration it could turn into.

It reminds me how, towards the end of WW1, the British unions forced Lloyd George to publicly state the conditions to end the war. Until then, the conditions hadn’t been made public. It’s possible that they didn’t even exist.

Perhaps the real reason that there are no success criteria for modern wars is because, for some parties, the war is the “success”. The US “wins” by being the financier of the war. This is not a new role. It’s the same role the US played for much of WW2 as Britain and France racked up enormous debts that took decades to pay back. Of course, the US had formerly been on the other side of that equation after its war of independence as it owed the French large sums of money.

Back in the really old days, a king would often go to war on little more than the promise to his soldiers that they could loot and pillage if they won. That’s how a war was “paid for”. But just as the meaning of the word “afford” has become abstracted from its old meaning that related to tangible things in the real world, so has the meaning of war changed. Nowadays, you don’t loot and pillage directly. You do it through financial instruments i.e. debt. It’s a game that’s been played for a few centuries now.  The US is simply the latest dominant player.

As Julian Assange once aptly noted, the point of these wars is not to win. They are as much exercises in financial warfare as military. That’s the basis of the military industrial complex. So, the real question is not whether the US can afford these wars, but whether it can afford not to have them. Politically speaking, the US cannot afford not to have wars because the people who hold power in the US profit from them. Whether the US as a nation profits from them is increasingly doubtful since wars funded from deficits have a nasty habit of causing inflation and the corona lockdowns already baked the equivalent of a war’s worth of inflation into the cake.

In many ways, the older meaning of the word “afford” was far more accurate. Can you afford something = can you accomplish something. It requires no accomplishment to “afford” something with money. Any fool with enough dollars in the bank can “afford” something. In the old meaning, you had to have real wealth in the form of raw materials and knowledge.

The braggart states “I can afford to drive my car into a brick wall” meaning “I can afford to replace it”. But it’s self-evident that, even if you have the money to afford it, driving your call into a brick wall is not a good idea. Anybody can see that.

And yet the debates that seem to comprise our entire public discourse these days are exactly of this form. A reporter asks some apparatchik “can we afford to drive our car into a brick wall?” and the apparatchik chirpily replies “of course we can. The economy is in great shape.”

If we translate the same question using the old meaning of the word “afford”, it would come out as “can we accomplish the task of driving our car into a brick wall?” And even the village idiot could see the problem with that question.

Still, that’s the world we live in. We are governed by greedy psychopaths who make money from damaged cars and their useful idiots who get to pontificate on the 6 o’clock news about how we can definitely afford it.  

A Theory of Everything

From what I can tell talking to the few writers I’ve met in real life and the forums and interviews I’ve read online, the majority start a new writing project by just beginning with an idea and figuring out the overall structure as they go. That’s never worked for me. I learned early in my writing “career” that, at least for anything longer than a blog post, I write much better when I know the overall structure upfront. So, I map out the whole synopsis before writing a single word on the body of the text. That’s the approach that I’ve taken for all of the six books I’ve published so far and it’s worked well.

Thus, when I boldly predicted earlier this year that I could knock over the majority of my next writing project The Age of the Orphan in two weeks, this prediction was actually based on past experience. I thought I had the overall structure ready to go and the only thing left to do was write the thing. But things refused to come together as I’d hoped. Rather than go back to the drawing board as I had already done a few times, I decided to try the alternative method mentioned above: force myself to write and hope that the overall structure would come later.

It’s been hard going but, a couple of weeks ago, I think I finally did figure out what I’m trying to say and I’ve actually been in denial about it since it’s a completely audacious idea that I’m calling the theory of everything. Since it will help me to solidify the concept for myself, I’m going to try and summarise it in this post.

The core realisation which started all this, even though I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, was that the underlying structure of several different theories that I’ve discussed on this blog over the past several years is the same. The Hero’s Journey is one that I’m intimately familiar with since I’ve used it to structure my four fiction novels and the several short stories I’ve written. My understanding of the Hero’s Journey was the key to my analysis of The Plague Story as the myth which drove the corona debacle.

The Hero’s Journey can be mapped as a cycle consisting of three phases. There’s a number of different labels for these phases, but what is more important to understand is that each phase is itself a Hero’s Journey. Therefore, the structure is a fractal.

The Hero’s Journey

The structural correspondence between Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey concept and anthropologist Arnold van Gennep’s rites of passage idea is well known. Van Gennep also identified 3 elements of the rites of passage: Separation – Transition – Incorporation. Again, the pattern is fractal since each individual phase also has the same 3-part structure.

The Rites of Passage

Not only is the underlying structure of the Hero’s Journey and rites of passage the same, their content corresponds since both are born out of the fundamental beliefs of the culture to which they belong.

It’s no coincidence that the foundational myth of corona (the Plague Story) was followed up by a rite of passage (vaccination). The underlying cultural belief which motivates both is the faith in “science” or “progress”. Myths and rites of passage are the ways in which a culture propagates itself, even in the secular modern West.

Myths and rites of passage are fundamental to civilisation. But civilisation also shows the same underlying structure as the Hero’s Journey and the rites of passage: a cycle.

The Cycle of Civilisation using Toynbee’s model

And, we can see that the individual lifecycle has the same circular structure:

The lifecycle of the individual

Since the above diagram links to the psychological discoveries of Freud and Jung, and since the rites of passage and Hero’s Journeys link from the individual back to the broader culture, we can posit a unifying pattern that unites the whole of civilisation: the cycle.

This pattern also qualifies as a human universal. It is the same pattern we see in the cycle of the earth around the sun and the sub-cycle of the earth spinning in relation to the sun which give us our days, seasons and years; the fundamental substrate of human existence. In this way, the cycle is the kind of archetype that Jung became interested in later in his life; namely, one which can be seen to unify the physical and psychic worlds. In my theory-of-everything, it also unifies the socio-political at the level of civilisation.

It’s noteworthy that both Freud and Jung both attempted several times in their careers to make a similar extrapolation from the domain of individual psychology to the civilisational. Freud did this in his books Totem and Taboo and Civilisation and Its Discontents. Jung was on a similar track in Aion and Answer to Job.

Meanwhile, Spengler and Toynbee were coming at it from the other direction. Their approach to history, much like Marx was to abstract away from individuals and focus on forces. What they implied, but never explicitly spelled out in psychological terms (Spengler sort of did), was that the overall pattern of civilisation affects the psychology of each generation which is born into a different phase of the cycle . That was the realisation I had also stumbled across with my Devouring Mother – Orphan analysis. I began with a socio-psychological analysis and then tried to trace its emergence over time.  

What we have then are cycles within cycles. We are each born into one of the generations which makes up a civilisation. The arc of our own life is part of the arc of our generation which is part of the arc of the civilisation. The rites of passage and myths (Hero’s Journeys) are the primary ways in which we are initiated into that civilisation.

Trying to diagram this dynamic is something I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out. Originally, I was trying to do it using the circle diagrams above. Finally, I realised that a sine wave makes more sense because the sine wave allows us to more easily represent the fractal nature of the relationships.

We can map the cycle of civilisation as a sine wave as follows:

Although I have left them off the diagram for clarity, what we see here are Toynbee’s four phases playing out over time: Genesis – Growth – Breakdown – Disintegration. In the early phase of a civilisation, society is poor and militarily weak. It resonates mostly in the esoteric realm as the core great ideas which will shape its destiny are taking form. To take one example, Faustian civilisation had right from the beginning a genuinely international institution – the Church. Is it a coincidence that the Faustian would go on to create another set of international institutions (UN, WTO, WHO etc) during its Dominant phase?

If we assume that each generation follows the same trajectory as the overall civilisation, that gives us a fractal sine wave as follows:-

Each individual sine wave is a generation within the overall arc of civilisation. Obviously, the diagram is not accurate in that there are only a small number of generations represented, but this helps with the clarity of presentation. As a thought experiment, we can walk through the arc of the civilisation and consider each generation in its relation to the overall pattern:

Here is a generation that occurs around the transition from the Genesis to Growth phases. We know from history that this will be a time of relative economic and military weakness and political incohesion. On the other hand, we would expect to see great breakthroughs in the arts, theology and philosophy as the Creative Minority reaches the peak of its powers.

An individual born into the general population at this time is going to have a very different life to one born later in the cycle. They are likely to be much poorer and have a physically more challenging existence. On the other hand, they will be part of a tight-knit community based on firm notions of the sacred which are reinforced in a rich variety of ceremonies and stories (Hero’s Journeys) which propagate the growing culture.

Here I reach the limit of my diagramming abilities. But imagine that we added an extra dimension of sine waves to represent the lives of each member of the generation. We would then have represented the individual psychological viewpoint “beneath” the generational (collective). Imagine, then, that we zoomed in on the individual life and represented that as a sine wave. It would look like this:  

The archetypes of the Child – Orphan – Adult and Elder represent the developmental phases that we each must go through in life, although, as Freud and Jung noted, human psychology is complex and its possible to get wholly or partially stuck in one of the phases which manifests as complexes, neuroses or even psychoses later on.

The individual sine waves on this graph then represent psychologically important parts of the cycle which the society and the individual navigate via rites of passage. Rites of passage are there to both assist the individual through the phases of life while also connecting the individual with the wider society. The green area highlighted above could, for example, be the Christian rite of passage of Communion which marks the coming of age of the individual as they become Adult members of the congregation.

Since the meaning of the Eucharist is closely tied with the mythology of Jesus, we see once again the cohesion between rites of passage and myths, in this case based on the underlying cultural template of Christianity. A rite of passage undergone by a single individual ties back to the mythology and theology that grounds the entire civilisation.

The progression of the individual from Orphan to Adult is arguably the most important transition for the propagation of the culture. When that process breaks down or changes, this is not an arbitrary or random development. It signals a change in the broader society. Early in the civilisational cycle, such changes are taken very seriously and are normally fiercely resisted. Later on, they happen with rapidity as the bonds of tradition are loosed.

Here in the late Faustian civilisation, few people go through the rite of passage of Communion and few know the mythology of Jesus to any great extent. Instead, we have education and the myth of science as our guiding initiation rites both of which fit the materialist bias of late civilisation as the Dominant Minority comes into its own.

What I came to realise writing my Age of the Orphan series was that the breakdown of tradition is, in fact, the breakdown of the Orphan – Elder relationship. Freud and Jung spent a great deal of time talking about the psychology of the Parent – Child relationship. I have come to believe that there is another fundamental pairing: Orphan – Elder.

To the extent that Freud or Jung talked about this, they seemed to assume that the Elder is an extension of the Parent. That is possibly true in a psychological sense. However, what the Orphan Story shows is that this must be transcended on the journey to Adulthood.

The Elder’s role is to initiate the Orphan into the wider society. That is what differentiates them from a parent. It’s possible for an actual parent to fulfill both roles but they must still state change from archetypal Parent to archetypal Elder to successfully get the job done. When they don’t, they become either Devouring Mothers or Tyrannical Fathers.

In feudal European society, the two primary Elder roles were the local priest and the local lord. Both carried out specific rites of passage that formed the initiation by which Orphans graduated to become Adult members of the church and the manor.

What happens as civilisation progresses through its cycle is that the Orphan – Elder relationship breaks down. Toynbee called this the breakdown of tradition and the subsequent loss of a feeling of connection to the ancestors. The Elder is the bridge to the ancestors. Once the Elder relationship breaks down, so too does the connection backwards to history.

What this means in practice is that the connection becomes abstract. In the early phases of the civilisational cycle, the Orphan is directly connected to the ancestors through local rites of passage, local myths and local Elders. With the homogenisation and centralisation that occurs in late civilisation, this direct connection with Elders is replaced by abstractions. This coincides with the transfer of culture from the countryside to the mega-cities.

We see this progression in ancient Rome with the cult of Caesar and later the Christian church. What is notable about the cult of Caesar, and this ties in with my Devouring Mother discovery, is that it included the concept of Pater Patriae, which means father of the fatherland. This honorific was bestowed by the Roman senate on the Caesars starting around the time of Julius Caesar. At the same time, Rome became a military dictatorship. In archetypal terms, the Caesars were manifesting the Tyrannical Father.

This is the same pattern we see in our time except that the Dominant Minority of the British-American Empire has manifested the Devouring Mother. This leads me to a hypothesis I haven’t been able to fully investigate yet: the Creative Minority manifests the Elder archetype while the Dominant Minority manifests the Parent (Tyrannical Father or Devouring Mother).

The link between the microcosm and macrocosm is the Orphan – Elder relationship. The rites of passage break down at the local level and this severs the individual connection with the ancestors. The Creative Minority had previously held its position of authority based on mythology and rites of passage. From our vantage point in late civilisation, we call this “superstition”. But it is an organic and decentralised way of uniting a culture.

Later in the cycle, the Dominant Minority is concerned only with power. In order to fully realise the economic and military opportunities in the second half of the cycle, society must be homogenised and centralised. Culture moves to the mega-cities and the State begins to rule through propaganda which is, of course, nothing more than degraded “superstition”; mythology stripped of belief. The State becomes the archetypal Parent ruling by obedience and force alone.

(Of course, this is the exact objection that people in our time level against the medieval period. Ironically, it may be that we are just projecting our own circumstances onto the early phase of the cycle. We are ruled over by abstractions. The average person from earlier in the cycle was ruled over not so much by an abstraction as by a real person. The exercise of power was more direct and a lot more honest).

With arrival of the Dominant Minority as Tyrannical Parent, we also see the appearance of what I have called in past posts the Rebel Priests. Can it be a coincidence that these arise once the local Orphan – Elder relationship has broken down? The Rebel Priests are the Elders of the late civilisation. They fill the archetypal role that is left vacant once the localised Orphan – Elder relationship disappears.

As if that wasn’t enough of a theory-of-everything, consider what happens if we zoom out from our civilisational sine wave.

The cycle of civilisation shows the same underlying structure as the Hero’s Journey. In fact, all these correspondences between the cycle of civilisation, the rites of passage, the Hero’s Journey and the Freudian and Jungian psychology (the Ego, Self) are themselves likely to be part of a cycle of history which we might call the Age of the Heroes.

The Creative and Dominant Minorities are the Heroes who drive civilisation on. Civilisation is itself a Hero’s Journey and, therefore a journey into the Unconscious per Campbell and the Sacred per van Gennep. We each partake of that journey by virtue of our belonging to the larger cycle. Our link to the larger cycle is through the rites of passage and myths of our culture.

What the modern West has realised with our science is that the pattern of civilisation is a recent arrival on the scene. History stretches back well before. It may well be that civilisation is part of some larger cycle that we don’t understand yet. That is exactly what the Hindu mystics presupposed with their enormous astrological cycles that stretched over hundreds of thousands of years. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the Age of Civilisation will itself give way to something qualitatively different.

Whether we view the cycle of civilisation as a repetition-of-the-same as the ancient Greeks believed (and which Nietzsche later modified with his eternal recurrence idea), or whether we view it as a cycle of transcendence as implied by the Hero’s Journey, is a matter of theology. It requires a leap of faith.

The Intellectual Proletariat

Back when I was at university, I did a semester of sociology in my first year. The tutor we had was a jovial, laid back guy. So laid back, in fact, that he pretty much allowed us to write whatever we liked for our class essays foregoing all the usual scholarly conventions like citing references or even having references. You could bloviate what amounted to nothing more than a personal opinion for 2,000 words and that was perfectly fine as far as he was concerned.

It turned out that scholarly standards were not the only rules our tutor liked to break. During a class outlining the basics of Marxist theory, he told us that when he wasn’t working as a university tutor he had a part-time job in the distribution centre for a large Australian supermarket chain and that he availed himself of every opportunity to steal from said corporation. Why would a man with two jobs need to steal from a supermarket chain? It wasn’t to feed himself or others. It was to “bring down the capitalist system from within”.

I suppose that stealing from a faceless corporation is a minor crime in both a legal and moral sense. Still, it seemed rather strange for a university tutor to be bragging about it to his students. Perhaps he was hoping that some of us would follow his lead and we could all bring down the system together.

I’ve been thinking about my old sociology tutor and his criminal activities in recent weeks as I stumbled across a couple of news stories that featured other academics breaking the law. This week there was one out of the US where a university professor had pulled a machete on a news reporter. Meanwhile, here in Australia, a professor at ANU was caught on video spitting in someone’s face at an event for the upcoming referendum.

Is this all a passing fad? Has crime become fashionable among university professors all of a sudden? Is it a cry for help from pampered elites? Perhaps. But it fits the pattern that Arnold Toynbee described with his concept of the intellectual proletariat. The question is: how did the intellectual proletariat end up in universities? Doesn’t that make them part of the establishment? The answer is: yes. We are now at the phase of the civilisational cycle where the State and the proletariat have been conjoined.

Arnold Toynbee

To understand this development, we first need to be clear about the meaning of the word proletariat. Most people know it from the writings of Marx and therefore believe it denotes a purely economic distinction. But Toynbee used it in a much broader sense. For him, proletarianism was an attitude and a feeling. It’s the feeling of being disinherited from society; of having lost one’s connection with the ancestors.

We are so far into the process of proletarianisation in the modern West that the whole idea of having a connection to the ancestors is foreign to us. We may have vague emotions or theoretical understandings of the past. What we don’t have is tangible, everyday ties to the past; the kind of ties we see in Romeo and Juliet where to belong to the house of Capulet or Montague entails obligations that significantly determine your life path.

To be proletarian is a state of mind and this state of mind can occur to people from all walks of life including those born into the top of the social hierarchy. Toynbee’s concept of the intellectual proletariat specifically refers to the members of the intelligentsia who feel themselves disconnected from the ancestors. These are educated and often intelligent people who become outcasts from the mainstream.

St Paul tries to win over some Greek intellectuals

For this reason, the intellectual proletariat almost always comes up with new ideologies that break with past traditions. Initially, they carry out the battle for those ideas in the intellectual sphere. St Paul is perhaps the most famous member of the intellectual proletariat from the Classical civilisation. He travelled around widely trying to convert other intellectuals to the Christian cause.

St Paul and other early Christian leaders like St Peter got themselves on the wrong side of the establishment and lost their lives as a result. Within the Christian tradition that we have subsequently inherited, they are martyrs. But to the Roman authorities, they were criminals.

This brings us back to my sociology tutor and his penchant for theft. The proletariat is, by definition, a rebellious movement against the state. For that reason, it’s not hard to understand why it gets itself in trouble with the law. The key point which Toynbee’s concept makes clear is that this rebellion is not primarily about economics. That’s even more true among the intellectual proletariat who are usually more financially secure than others.

Tutoring at an Australian university is a well-paying, high status job. My sociology tutor was not stealing out of economic necessity. He was stealing to bring down the system. Similarly, the Christians of the Classical civilisation became criminals not by committing overt crimes but by failing to show allegiance to society e.g. by refusing to uphold the cult of Caesar. In both cases, what is primarily at stake is ideology and belief.

Proletarianisation is about the striving after meaning. The intellectual proletariat have a crucial role to play in that process. They are the ones who create new frameworks of meaning. They win followers to the extent that the mainstream society no longer provides meaning for people and they go looking for it elsewhere.

This process of meaning creation is what I have been calling the esoteric. In psychoanalysis, it is called the libido. Freud would have analysed the proletarian break with the ancestors as an Oedipal rebellion against the father. Jung expanded the concept of libido to encompass the more general striving for meaning and growth. It’s this general striving for meaning that I call the esoteric. The pursuit of esoteric meaning occurs at both the individual level and the collective level in large social movements. That’s why the intellectual proletariat have traditionally been tied in with religion.

Civilisations become the victims of their own success. They create conditions of material stability, peace and prosperity for their citizens. But this always seem to come at a cost. Citizens must agree to give up the search for individual meaning by sacrificing themselves to the greater good. That sacrifice must be made at all times. But, later on it is tied in with the centralisation and homogenisation process that takes place in the second half of the civilisational cycle. The pursuit of the esoteric moves from the local and individual level to the mass societal level. It moves away from smaller dispersed communities and into the mega-cities of late civilisation.

When we analyse the Roman Empire, we tend to focus on the political move from oligarchy to monarchy that occurred with the reign of Octavian. However, there was a corresponding  religious movement at that time known as the cult of Caesar. The Caesars became the “fathers” of the civilisation. This abstract “fatherhood” entailed the deprecation of individual fathers as heads of families and carriers of local ancestral tradition. The esoteric became centralised around Rome and the Caesars.

Julius Caesar was pronounced a god after his death

Nietzsche and Gibbon were wrong to blame the Christian church for the breakdown of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Christian church was made possible because of the cult of Caesar which had preceded it. Both developments were part of the proletarianisation process i.e. the loss of esoteric meaning and the break with tradition.

The loss of the esoteric also had a more mundane manifestation in antiquity. The Roman Empire was so stable and prosperous that it was dead boring. Many of the Caesars famously sought stimulation in debauchery and absurd luxury. The plebs got bread and circuses. Everybody was bored out of their mind. The esoteric part of life had disappeared.

Another way to view the proletarian impulse is that it consists of people who refuse to give up the quest for meaning and growth. Since the mainstream society of late civilisation no longer offers pathways for such people, they turn elsewhere. Specifically, they turn to the intellectual proletariat.

While the intellectual proletariat are confined to the coffee houses, they represent no threat to the established order. It’s when they arrive in the beer halls that the trouble begins because that means the intellectual proletariat has found the broader proletariat and their ideas will get put into action. At that point, the proletariat comes into open conflict with the State.

The intellectual proletariat pay a heavy price for their beliefs

The strength of the intellectual proletariat lies in the fact that the pen is mightier than the sword. Putting them to death, as in the case of St Paul and St Peter, does not work to eradicate the problem. In fact, it only draws more attention to their ideas. But that doesn’t stop the State from trying.

What history shows is a long period of conflict where the State tries and fails to put an end to the various social movements initiated by the intellectual proletariat. Eventually, the State tries to solve the problem by incorporating the proletariat into itself. That’s what happened in the Classical civilisation as the Christian church became the state church of the Roman Empire.

By my reckoning, Roosevelt is the modern equivalent of Diocletian

In Faustian civilisation, we saw the exact same development in the post-war years of the 20th century. The huge expansion of the bureaucracy and the public service during this time maps back to the reforms of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, who was trying to re-stabilise Roman society following the crises of the third century. Those crises were very similar to our Great Depression/World Wars.

What confuses the matter in the modern West is that we are also running a complex technological civilisation that requires educated people to keep the machines going. We train our technicians in the same institutions (universities) as the intellectual proletariat. From the point of view of the general public, they are the same class of people; the “experts”.

But there is a world of difference between a doctor, an engineer or a physicist and a sociology professor, and that’s before we get into professors of journalism, ecogastronomy or critical discourse theory. I haven’t done any research into the matter, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that the number of physics or chemistry professors committing theft, assault or pulling machetes on people is a tiny fraction of their counterparts in the “humanities”. The humanities departments are where the intellectual proletariat have been housed in the post-war years to keep them off the streets (literally).

The reason it becomes necessary for the state to incorporate the intellectual proletariat is because of the significant power that the latter wields. Consider that Stalin was a trainee priest who wrote poetry. Hitler was famously a failed artist who also considered the priesthood. Mussolini was a journalist. Lenin graduated top of his class. Mao was born into a peasant family, renounced Buddhism and became a scholar. In short, they were all members of the intellectual proletariat of their respective societies.

This is what the intellectual proletariat looks like

In the modern West, the intellectual proletariat has become part of the State to a degree that is unprecedented in history. This was only ever possible due to the discovery of fossil fuels. We might say that fossil fuels were both the cause and the solution to the problem. Industrial capitalism caused mass unemployment but it also generated enough wealth to allow the welfare state to grow large enough to balance out the scales and to give the intellectual proletariat jobs in the bureaucracy.

Just as it’s hard to tell the difference between the technicians needed to actually run modern society and the intellectual proletariat pursuing an ideological agenda, the corruption of the bureaucracy is also harder to ascertain in the modern West. The corruption of the Roman bureaucracy was done the old-fashioned way through bribery and nepotism. Modern bureaucratic corruption is far more sophisticated. It occurs through what we might call ideological shakedowns.

Ever notice how the ideas cooked up in academia and “think tanks” somehow always end up being implemented in government departments and even private corporations, even when those ideas make zero sense? This is a feature, not a bug. The more absurd the ideology, the better it serves to mark out who is going to toe the line and who is not.

The fact that the ideology is becoming more absurd in recent years is an indication that there is an internal battle going on within the broader bureaucracy. The corona debacle was a great example of that. Plenty of well-meaning technicians got thrown to the wolves for speaking out against the ideologues. The same thing is happening in other domains. In Australia last year, the CEO of an energy company “resigned” after telling the government its demands to use hydrogen to generate electricity could not be done. A technician told the ideologues the truth and lost his job as a result.

All of this can be done in the name of “science” only because the general public doesn’t know how to differentiate between technicians who know how to keep systems running and ideologues pursuing other agendas. It’s quite possible that the politicians themselves also do not know the difference since they are at the mercy of the bureaucracy too.

The existential crisis we are heading towards is this: if the intellectual proletariat continues to dominate government, things are going to fall apart at a rapid pace since a complex technological society cannot be governed by ideology.

However, even assuming the government has the power to restore sanity by handing power back to the technicians, and even assuming there are enough technicians left who know how to make things work, there will still be the huge problem of what to do with the disgruntled intellectual proletariat. They will take to the streets. We saw a precursor to that with the BLM riots in 2020. That was part ideological shakedown and part burn-your-city-down shakedown.

We’re in what Gregory Bateson called a double bind which means that the answer, whatever it is, will have to come from outside the status quo.