One of the primary divisions within the peak oil/doomer scene is the question of fast vs slow collapse. The former group expects a cascading series of crises that creates a positive feedback loop leading to the sudden end of modern civilisation. The underlying concept is the same used by climate change activists who argue that there will come a tipping point beyond which irreversible climate change will come too quickly for society to adapt.
The slow collapse notion posits that natural systems have negative feedback loops and these will kick in and provide a counterbalance when things start to get hairy. This won’t stop the overall trend of decline. In the case of resource depletion, it won’t make more resources available. But it will prevent a quick seizing up of supply and allow time for society to adapt, thereby preventing a sudden collapse.
Until a couple of years ago, I would have counted myself in the slow collapse group. I assumed that, yes, we were pushing a bunch of dumb policies that weren’t going to work. Yes, these were mostly a combination of ambitious politicians promising what they couldn’t deliver, idealistic voters wanting what they couldn’t get and greedy capitalists profiting off that combination. Yes, it was all pie-in-the-sky fantasies that were only ever possible due to the enormous economic surplus enjoyed by modern western societies. But when the proverbial hit the fan, the people who actually understood how things worked in the “real world” would come to the fore. We would stop listening to shysters and charlatans and fall back to the things that worked.
During corona, even in the early days of the hysteria, there were such people who came forward to remind us of the things that had been shown to work. A good example was the Great Barrington Declaration, signed by tens of thousands of experts from around the world. It was little more than a reiteration of the established public health guidelines on how to respond to a middling pandemic. But, of course, it was those exact guidelines that had been thrown out the window in early March 2020. Thus, the Great Barrington Declaration was a bit like the Great Don’t Poke a Bear Declaration or the Great Don’t Stick Your Finger in an Electrical Socket Declaration. It was a statement of the obvious. But we were no longer listening to the obvious.
If we zoom out, we see that corona is one example of a pattern that has been in play in the West for several decades. It’s the one I described above; pie-in-the-sky fantasies with no basis in history or reality. Why should anything have a basis in history anymore? With the collapse of the USSR, history was over. That’s what we told ourselves. All the old rules were gone and we were free to come up with whatever we liked. And that’s exactly what happened. We came up with a whole bunch of ideas and told ourselves that they had to work because, well, we said so.
In this sense, the Ukraine War is not unrelated to corona. Some pro-Russian commentators have pointed out that the behaviour of the West in relation to Russia since the fall of the USSR has been stunningly dumb. Russia could easily have been integrated into the European economy. It’s what everybody expected to happen. It’s what most people in Russia wanted at the time. And it happened anyway, despite efforts to prevent it. That’s why there’s an energy crisis facing Europe at the moment.
If Russia had been properly integrated into Europe, the West could have completely encircled China and prevented its economic rise from translating into political and military might. With just a modicum of common sense, pragmatism and realpolitik, the unchallenged hegemony of the West that began in the 1990s could have been kept going indefinitely, at least until other problems intervened. But we had other ideas; brand new ideas with no basis in history or reality.
Up until corona, it was possible to argue that such stupidities were allowed to happen because the damage was done in far flung countries where the western voting public didn’t notice or care. But with corona and the Ukraine War, the damage is now being done at home and is going to be felt at home for a long time to come. It is no longer possible to avoid the consequences of the mindset that led to these decisions. Will this fact prompt us to change course?
One theory about what will happen next comes from historian Oswald Spengler. Now that things are getting serious, he predicts we should see the rise of Caesarism alongside a Second Religiosity. As the potential for a fast collapse becomes a real possibility, we will be forced to re-learn pragmatism and fall back on the things that actually worked. This won’t happen through the clueless elites who got us into this mess in the first place, but through a strong leader who overrides them by winning the support of the public who are now suffering directly under the failed policies of the elites.
There are some signs of the Caesar phenomenon in the Trump and Brexit elections but no real evidence of a Second Religiosity yet. Church attendance continues to spiral downwards. However, it’s not hard to imagine that a couple of winters sitting in the cold and dark might incentivise people to seek meaning somewhere other than material progress in the years ahead.
All of this may happen. I’m certainly not going to say that Spengler is wrong as his theory makes a lot of sense and, in any case, time will prove it one way or another. But even if it does happen, it will do nothing more than get us off the fast collapse path and onto the slow collapse one. Caesarism and a Second Religiosity will not return us to the heyday of civilisation but merely to its decadent form which I described in the last post as the deficient Mental Consciousness. The West will still disappear but it will do so slowly and gradually like civilisations past.
If this sounds pessimistic, that is to be expected. Within the framework I have presented in the last few posts, Spengler’s theory fits within the Mythical Consciousness. The Mythical is all about cycles; life and death, night and day, the turning of the seasons, the progression through various life stages; in short, “nature”. Spengler quite explicitly chose a biological metaphor to guide his historical analysis and so these correspondences make perfect sense. Civilisations have a lifespan in the same way as people or animals do and when your time is up there’s nothing much you can do about it.
This kind of pessimism (some might call it realism) is a cornerstone of the Mythical Consciousness. We see a prime example of it in the Book of Job. Job is ruined by God in a completely unjust way. When he objects to this treatment, his interlocutors do not sympathise with him. They don’t even try to address his arguments about justice or morality. They simply point out that God is all powerful and that’s all there is to it. If God wants to destroy you, there’s nothing to be done. Stop whining and accept your fate like the rest of us. We see a similar pessimism at the end of the Iliad where the mortally wounded Hector bitterly tells Achilles that he too will soon die as had been prophesied. The fate of man was to die. The gods and the heavens were superior as they were immortal and eternal.
Against this background, we can start to see why Christian theology was so radical because it posited a God who manifested in human form. But God was eternal, timeless and perfect while humans were finite, mortal and sinful. The idea that a God would swap one for the other was simply absurd. It was like saying black was white and bad was good. Why would a God willingly submit himself to death? The further explanation that this was done to redeem man was equally outrageous. Although Yahweh takes a peculiar interest in man in the Old Testament, he shows no sign of empathy or compassion. On the contrary, his only goal at the end of the Book of Job is to win acquiescence and thereby re-establish the proper cosmic order where Gods are superior and men know their place.
So, why did God do it? In Answer to Job, Jung sketches out an explanation by noting that, through Job’s insistence about the injustice done to him, God actually learned something about himself. Specifically, God also had an unconscious, a part of himself of which he was not aware and that part related to man. This makes some sense. Where would an eternal, timeless and perfect being have his unconscious? One place would be in the finite, mortal and sinful world of humans. If God wanted to learn about his unconscious, that was one way to go about it. Thus, Christianity can be seen as God going through a Jungian individuation process. He was integrating a part of himself about which he had previously been unconscious.
This individuation corresponds to the transition from the Mythical Consciousness to the Mental Consciousness of which Christianity was a core element, at least in Europe. To the extent that this broke down the old Mythical distinction between God and man, it also provided a way to overcome the pessimism of the Mythical.
In our time, we are so used to attacks on Christianity that most people would not take this line of argument seriously. In fact, one of the forms of attack on Christianity has been precisely that it is outrageous and delusional. It’s overcoming of the Mythical with promises of eternal life were nothing more than empty platitudes meant to console the weak. We would all be better off returning to the mentality of the heroes who were able to face death square on.
As the influence of Christianity has continued to wane in the post war years, it seems that we have begun to embrace exactly this kind of ethic and this brings us back to the current predicament of the West. With the fall of the USSR, the West started behaving very much like the God of the Old Testament. Will to power. Might is right.
Karl Rove put it best when he said “we create our own reality.” The “we” he was referring to were the western “elites”. They were now in the position of Yahweh i.e. all powerful. Anybody who was not a western elite was in the position of Job, although it wasn’t until corona that this fact became clear to the rest of us. It’s plainly obvious now that western elites simply couldn’t care less about representing the interests of their constituents.
What they do care about is a source of much speculation. Some think they are trying to usher in a new world order or a great reset. A couple of posts ago, I posited that they were possessed by their own Magic. I still think that’s true. But maybe that is just a symptom. If so, what is the disease?
I see no meaningful difference between Karl Rove’s idea that we “create our own reality” and the notion that became popular in early 2020 that we could eliminate a respiratory virus. These are examples of megalomania pure and simple. And the results of that megalomania have been identical: total failure. The difference now is that while the damage caused by the neocons was mostly suffered by people somewhere else, the damage caused by corona and the Ukraine War is being felt right here at home. Our megalomania is now actively causing damage to ourselves. I say our megalomania because, although it’s clear that western elites suffer the worst from this malady, they also enjoy much support in the general culture.
What does all this mean? It seems almost certain now that western hegemony is finished and there is going to be an extended period dealing with the consequences of the last several decades of megalomaniacal madness. Of course, this is going to have material ramifications. But it will also have psychological and, dare I say it, spiritual consequences. In our materialist culture, we don’t take psychology or spirituality seriously. These are personal issues to be worked through with your shrink or priest. But what seems up for grabs now is not just some psychological symptom but an entire worldview. What comes after megalomania?
Perhaps Jung gave us the answer. The individuation process we may be about to undergo could be similar to the one described in Answer to Job. Of course, this time it won’t be God who is individuating but human beings. As Jung pointed out, humans tend to do anything to avoid psychological introspection and suffering. One of the most common ways to avoid introspection is to find something to blame outside ourselves. That is where Spengler re-enters the picture.
Viewed from this perspective, Caesarism and a Second Religiosity would both be examples of finding blame elsewhere. Caesarism implies a reversion to nationalism which would externalise personal pride onto the nation and then assign blame to other nations i.e. Putin or China or whoever. A Second Religiosity would externalise onto God. We might then expect to hear how all the bad things happening are punishment for our sins. Both of these would fulfil the psychological need to process the failures of the last few decades by blaming external factors.
What if that does not happen? What if we either can’t or won’t find anybody else to blame? This would make sense. Yahweh had nobody else to blame. He was an all-powerful God. The megalomania of our culture puts us in a similar position, at least psychologically. If we are all-powerful, if we create our own reality, then how can Putin or China be the cause of our problems? Like Yahweh, we must be the cause. Is it possible that it’s precisely the megalomania of the West that opens up the possibility for individuation to occur?
In some respects, corona represents an ideal possibility for that to happen. I’ve been fascinated to see that in just the last few weeks the powers that be have begun to float the idea that lockdowns were a mistake and maybe, just maybe, the vaccines were too. For reasons that I don’t really understand, perhaps raw political survival instinct, the politicians seem to be getting ready to throw the “experts” under the bus. Leaving aside why and how this might happen, what would it mean if it does?
The lockdowns and the vaccine had majority public approval. Many people were vociferously in favour of both and not just in an abstract, idealistic sense but in a real, emotional sense. A sizeable portion of the public really thought we were going to stop a respiratory virus. This wouldn’t be the usual business of somebody supporting a political party and then the party not delivering. This would be a real, tangible error made by individuals.
The fact is that the lockdowns and vaccine mandates were not enforceable by the authorities for logistical reasons. If enough people had refused to comply, they would never have happened. Therefore, they only happened because people assented to them. Nobody was forced at gunpoint to take the vaccine. Yes, there were consequences like potentially losing a job but history shows us that people have made far greater sacrifices than that when they truly believe in something. Thus, it was an individual decision to take the vaccine or acquiesce to the lockdowns.
It is these individual decisions and the individual psychological processes that led to them which may be, just maybe, about to get called into question in the West both because the political winds are starting to blow that way and also because the ramifications of the last several decades of dumb decisions are coming home to roost on a daily basis now. As an isolated incident, this might have been be able to be brushed off. But can it be brushed off when inflation is running rampant, the economy is tanking, the lights won’t turn on and the supermarket shelves are half empty? The West could and should have gone down the slow collapse route and all this would have taken place over decades or even centuries. Instead, we have brought it on ourselves in a condensed fashion where it cannot be ignored.
Spengler predicts people will deal with the cognitive dissonance by looking for external things to blame but there is good reason to think that we may not be able to find anybody to blame but ourselves. What Jung implies in Answer to Job is that this might be the time of the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit is in everyone, this amount to a personal individuation process. Of course, this is a Christian interpretation that most people in the West would not take seriously anymore but it also seems to fit the psychological context.
Furthermore, just as the transition from the Old Testament to the New marked the emergence of the Mental Consciousness and the decline of the Mythical, this development may also signal the emergence of the Integral Consciousness. Even geopolitical developments point in that direction. If we do indeed see the end of Western hegemony and the emergence of a multi-polar world order, that is broadly in line with the Integral. And if that happens, it will have been the West which gave rise to it. Not the conscious mind of the West, but the unconscious mind.
Just as it was Yahweh’s unconscious which gave rise to Christianity, so it could be the western unconscious which gives rise to the Integral. Thus, the decisions of the last few decades, which look to the conscious mind (the Mental Consciousness) as rank stupidity, may be symbolic of something coming from the unconscious. It is precisely because of the bias of the Mental Consciousness against the unconscious that we are apt to see this in negative terms. The unconscious was for centuries associated with Satan by the Church.
It seems to me that one of the central points of the Integral Consciousness is to transcend this bias against the unconscious and perhaps even to transcend the whole conscious-unconscious dichotomy. Megalomania can be seen as the complete identification with the Ego-conscious mind. The belief that nothing else matters; that we create our own reality.
What if the unconscious is simply what is not currently elevated to focus. In that case, what is currently elevated to focus has no necessary superiority. It is not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but simply one perspective among many. The imperative then becomes to ensure that other perspectives are integrated too. To understand that is to overcome megalomania and also to begin to see the Integral.
13 thoughts on “Megalomaniacs Anonymous”
Megalomania it certainly is. I’m not sure how this will go in the United States, but when it comes to Europe, I think we’re headed for some serious impoverishment and potentially Soviet-type collapse (let’s hope it’s not a Yugoslav-type collapse, since that would involve quite a lot of bloodshed). When that sort of thing happens, most people just get used to a much lower standard of living, and they become much more realistic about their country’s place in the world. If a great power decides to invade its neighbor, you say “well, that really sucks, but there simply isn’t an awful lot we can do about this, and gods be thanked we weren’t the ones invaded.” (Unless it is “us” being invaded, and then it’s a whole new layer of oh-crap.) So, I don’t think Europe’s megalomania will last all that much longer. (Again, I’m not too sure how this will play out at the heart of the Empire, i.e. the United States.)
On that note: one thing that’s been on my mind is just how similar all these speeches/articles/etc. extolling the West sound to the apologiae of late-stage communism. I’m not talking about the revolutionaries. I’m talking about the communism proponents from the 1970s and 1980s. “Yeah, we’ve got all these problems, but we know that our system is, essentially, the best in the world.” Right. Modern West is going through the same process as we speak.
I do wonder about how anti-corona policies will mix with energy shortages. “Social distancing” is predicated on cheap and plentiful energy. If you never know which of your colleagues has power at a given moment, then you cannot schedule Zoom meetings. Let’s not even talk about Zoom school. Do you remember Sharon Astyk (who used to have a blog called Casaubon’s Book)? She once posted this graph of well-being (I don’t remember exactly how it was measured; I believe it involved infant mortality and a number of other variables) as a function of energy consumption per capita. Initially, increases in energy consumption massively improve well-being. Then, well-being plateaus (more energy doesn’t seem to do anything), and then after some point, further increases in energy consumption lead to a reduction in well-being (perhaps because energy-rich societies invest into stupid stuff such as exurbs, and then their population winds up spending hours per day in traffic). Well… Without cheap energy and highly reliable Internet, we would never have gotten ourselves into this anti-corona mess. Which isn’t to say that energy shocks coming in the next few months are likely to improve anything. That’s a different matter.
And speaking of Sharon Astyk herself… She didn’t blog for a number of years (as far as I know), but I googled her just today, and here she is:
If you just casually glance at her posts, you’ll quickly discover that she’s, sadly, completely lost her mind. She’s gone full blown covidian, what with “long COVID,” and COVID causing hepatitis in children (who will never forgive us for it), etc. Yeah. Sad. She used to write some pretty good stuff back in the day.
Irena – hadn’t heard of Astyk. I don’t actually read a lot of doomer stuff and that link has reminded me why. There’s a certain weird pleasure some people get from wallowing in misery.
One of the interesting things about the current situation is that, yes, there’s talk about how good we are. But there’s also a lot of talk about how the West is responsible for every bad thing in the world. This is also a kind of megalomania because it implies the West is all powerful. I also think the lockdowns showed that there are a lot of people who are ready for radical change. In some sense that’s dangerous because radical change untethered from things that work is bad. But could that willingness for radical change be channeled into something productive? Seems unlikely. But then things that happen on almost daily basis now that are unlikely.
Yes, both the “West is the best” and “West is the worst” crowd are megalomaniacs. But as I said, I don’t think it’ll last all that much longer in Europe (maybe it will in the States).
About lockdowns showing that people are ready for radical change: well, people do get used to a significant worsening of their lives. I was just starting elementary school back when Yugoslavia collapsed (I was born and raised in Belgrade), and everyone suddenly got a lot poorer overnight. A fair number of people did some really dumb things (such as put their meager foreign currency savings in banks promising enormous interest rates, only to end up losing the principal), but ultimately, people just ended up accepting that this was what life was like now. Sure, many emigrated and ended up improving their material prospects that way, though they generally paid for it with a loss of status (especially if they weren’t that young anymore). You get a lot of ordinary people feeling humiliated, everyone has their favorite villain to blame, “miracle” schemes proliferate, but ultimately, people get used to it and life just goes on.
Irena – yeah, I guess in some sense this could just be another garden-variety crash that’s no different from others. The scale and the timeframes feel different though. As the saying goes, Rome didn’t fall in a day. But, in historical timelines, the fall here could be equivalent to a day and it seems to me that there is some energy behind it. We might call it a death wish but death is just transformation.
It might help if you gave some concrete historical examples of a fast vs. slow collapse. Getting much poorer overnight, along with everyone else around you, feels like fast collapse to those on the ground. But from a distance, it’s just a “garden-variety crash,” right?
A big question is what kinds of things our societies will “choose” to overreact to. There was an enormous overreaction to da virus. But now many western countries have elevated all-cause mortality, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a reaction at all. That may change, of course, but so far, that’s what it’s like.
BTW, I was just watching some interviews with Czech politicians and the like. It appears that CZ is a net electricity exporter (exporting mostly to Austria and Germany). So, what exactly happens if it stops exporting electricity this winter? Can we avoid blackouts that way? Germany has made one fine mess of things, and so as far as I’m concerned, it should be told to go fend for itself.
Irena – i’m more concerned with the cultural, psychological or spiritual aspect. Perhaps the sack of Rome in 1527 is a good example. That would have looked like a fast collapse at the time but it was also a fairly natural result of pressures that had been building (I suppose the same could have been said about the breakup of Yugoslavia). The main spiritual result in the longer run was the confirmation of the split between protestant and catholic.
What appears to me unique about the current situation of the west is that there really is no opponent. Yeah, we can blame Putin or China. But even for corona, there was a US sponsored virology lab in Wuhan for God’s sake. So, yeah, mea culpa. Because there is no real opponent, there’s really nobody else to blame. What does that mean psychologically and spiritually? One of the things it means, is that we can’t do the usual human thing of externalising our faults onto others. Or maybe we can. Time will tell.
I published some excerpts of your post on my blog. Thanks for the good work you are doing!
Ugo – thanks!
The insight: “One of the most common ways to avoid introspection is to find something to blame outside ourselves”, is alarmingly true. Perhaps it is also true that introspection is not encouraged in the population, and that lesson begins at a very early age. For example, the school system tends to favour rote learning over other modes such as comprehension, and let’s not forget the constant bombardment of messages. It’s a mess. Introspection it should be noted, are pathways to exercising a modicum of free will, not to mention consideration of spirituality.
I agree with your analysis in that greater hardships have been suffered.
As to the dichotomy of fast versus slow, why not a combination of the two processes? You could even chuck in periods of stability, before the next crunch. History suggests that this is how things err, progress. However, a regression line always tends downwards.
You’ve asked and pondered some tough questions. I’ve wondering recently whether the lack of consequences for previous failures has produced a certain recklessness? Dunno.
Chris – there’s that saying you don’t know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out. To extend the metaphor, the tide has been “in” for so long in the west (economic surplus) that we’ve been swimming naked for a long time without realising it. It’s not hard to see that this is not good for mental health. Imagine you keep making decisions and there are no consequences to those decisions. But it’s worse than that. You don’t ever know if the decision was good or bad. That would drive anybody nuts.
I was born 1956 and begun to read Jung around 1973. The thoughts of Jung has followed me since that time. Some years before, I was for the first time fascinated by Tom Bombadill, who was not affected by the power of the Ring, and his life outside history. In Silmarillion J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a short chapter about mankind and the purpose with the creation of man, a mortal creature.
I started my life as a farmer, worked later for 30 years as a psychiatrist in southern Sweden. For 10 years I organized an exchange with psychiatry in Russia, but is today disappointed. Now I am back in the countryside, and beside my work I have one cow, Doris, who I milk. I compare my life with the Second Foundation in Asimovs space odyssé.
Jung has been very important in my life and in my professionell work. One of the last years in 2d millenia I read Jung and Martin Buber on a bus trip to Praha and later found the individuation in society excellent formulated by Octavio Paz in his book ” The Double Flame – Love and Eroticism”.
I found your blog via Ugo Bardi and felt som kind of resonance, which I think has its origin in the archetypes of Jung. I have tried to imagine the consequenses of limits of growth and the relation to the humane psyche. I just wanted to present my personal history, because it may explain why I support many of your conclusions about megalomania, corona pandemic, man, society, spirituality and civilisation.
Olle – many thanks for that. As an amateur Jungian, I’m always glad to hear from people with more professional and personal experience with Jung which makes me think I’m on the right track. By coincidence, I also grew up on a farm and had a pet cow as a boy. Say hi to Doris from me. Thanks for that reference to Paz. I hadn’t heard of him but will add him to my reading list.