Friday, May 31, 2013

Consuming Our Capital

It must be admitted that there is a degree of instability which is inconsistent with civilization. But, on the whole, the great ages have been unstable ones.
—Alfred North Whitehead

A sure-fire sign of a business enterprise in decline is when it begins using its invested capital to pay operating expenses. Such signs of ill-health are not confined to the world of commerce and industry, but can exhibit themselves in the life of any system. We are witnessing the practice in the collapse of Western Civilization, as we scurry to meet short-term demands by sacrificing the foundations upon which our culture has long been grounded.

Neither the Industrial Revolution nor the emergence of the factory system were sufficient to account for the greatness of Western culture. There were numerous practices, attitudes, ideas, and other factors that provided the necessary conditions for this culture to flourish. It has been the preoccupation with the material benefits of our civilization—accompanied by an increasing belief in the irrelevance of its intangible foundations—that has contributed so much to the collapse of Western society. Because of the centrality of institutionalism in our lives, it can safely be said of our culture that whatever is nonmaterial has become immaterial. Whatever does not contribute to institutional purposes in our modern world is regarded, at best, as a harmless diversion or, at worst, an interference to be enjoined. But the cost of maintaining institutional primacy often becomes a weakening—or even destruction—of the conditions that allowed creative energies to produce the civilization.

Western culture is not to be praised only because it allowed creative geniuses to produce what they have, but because it has allowed all of us to live better lives than would otherwise have been available to us. Even the poorest among us enjoy technologies beyond the powers of monarchs of old to command: central heating and air conditioning, electric light and appliances, automobiles, telephones, television and computers, to name just a few of the more familiar examples. Contrary to the lingering complaints and economic ignorance of socialists, mankind has learned how to produce and distribute wealth without having recourse to looting and other forms of violence. While many continue to employ political coercion as a means of disrupting the peaceful and voluntary systems that have done so much to benefit and humanize mankind, the knowledge for how life-enhancing ends are accomplished remain available to all thoughtful minds.

What are the intangible qualities upon which a prolific society is based? As suggested earlier, they seem to include the importance of conditions such as individual liberty, the inviolability of private property, and respect for contractual obligations: factors that must exist if self-interest-driven pursuits are to be energized. While no civilization has yet to embrace these values with consistency—the powerful sentiments of the Declaration of Independence, for instance, did not extend to slaves or American Indians—the creative well-being of any society can be measured by the degree of their influence. The collapse of the Soviet Union was occasioned by its continuing war against the self-directed nature of life.

While the works of creative individuals make up so much of the substance of our culture, their efforts depended upon conditions that encouraged—or at least did not discourage—their efforts. The marketplace system of voluntary transactions facilitated exchanges that allowed people to benefit exponentially from one another’s efforts. To the degree respect for the principles of property ownership prevailed, men and women enjoyed the means for acting freely within the world. The importance of liberty and the distrust of power led to efforts (e.g., constitutionalism) it was thought could restrain political systems. A focused interplay of the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of our minds provided a base from which to analyze and evaluate human action.

It has been this underlying social environment, wherein the self-interest motivations of individuals are able to express their autonomous and spontaneous energies, that represents the capital of a healthy civilization. The products of such a culture—as much as they contribute to human well-being—are of far lesser import than the respect for intrinsic principles that allow for the production of creative works. For the same reason that erosion of the capital structure of a firm can hasten its demise, sacrificing the fundamental values of a civilization can bring about its death.

It is difficult for rational minds to look at our present societal plight and see it as only a temporary downturn. We are close enough in time to the “Great Depression” that plagued America for more than a decade, that many of us imagine that, like this earlier period, there will be a full recovery to both our economic and other social systems. We might think of our current problems as akin to a bad case of the flu that our immune system will soon subdue. Perhaps a hangover from an evening of self-indulgence provides a more comforting metaphor.
Whatever analogy we choose, our current cultural decline runs to much deeper explanations than what confronted us some eight decades ago. The hangover of prior generations has advanced to cirrhosis of the liver, and rather than facing the need for a change in lifestyle, we look for an organ donor to absorb the costs of our profligacy. Our illness, in other words, is of terminal dimensions; our erstwhile immune system—made up of those personal and social attributes that sustain a healthy organism—has been depleted through decades of ignorant and unfocused dissipation.

The creative well-being of a civilization depends upon individuals enjoying the liberty to pursue their respective self-interests. Protecting this process involves a continuing struggle against the efforts of collectives to promote their interests by coercively restraining the autonomous behavior of others. In our case, the institutionalized collective, backed by the power of the state, has often found the most expedient course of action to be found in consuming the capital upon which Western Civilization has long thrived. Like a spendthrift heir to an estate—whose upbringing has provided him with little sense of responsible behavior—far too many of us have been eager to scuttle the values that have kept us relatively free and prosperous. Being willing to play the political game of accepting short-term benefits in exchange for long-term costs—particularly if such are to be borne by others—we have helped to destroy the capital of our basic social system.

The principles of the marketplace no longer discipline economic behavior as they once did. Firms that lack the creativity and competence to withstand the rigors of competition, now call upon the government to bestow gifts of billions of dollars upon them. Just as the state has long subsidized its failures (e.g., government schools, police protection, military defense), major businesses will have their failures subsidized. They are also able to take advantage of the state’s powers of eminent domain—a practice inconsistent with the principle of private property—to force others to incur the costs of building factories, shopping malls, apartment complexes, and sports stadia. Following the invention of the automobile, there have been close to two-thousand car manufacturers in America who succumbed to the disciplines of the marketplace and became defunct. There was a time when it was understood that the opportunity to succeed in the marketplace carried with it the risk of failure. Today, firms plead for government funding under the rationale that they are “too big to fail.”

While the Constitution neither limited government power nor guaranteed individual liberty, there was a time when most people shared the illusion that it did—or, at least, that its language ought to be so interpreted. Today, the Constitution no longer has any definitive meaning: presidents can declare wars on their own initiative, or appoint “czars” to regulate whatever sectors of society they choose; legislation need not be completely drafted before being enacted into law; Bill of Rights requirements for public trials, habeas corpus, restraints on searches and seizures, are routinely violated whenever it suits government officials to do so. Administrations now openly admit to their authority to assassinate Americans whom they unilaterally select for extermination. The chief offense at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials involved the starting of a war; today, such an act is a cause for celebration among patriotic Americans. The Constitution neither protects individuals, nor empowers government: state power is now grounded in pure usurpation.

Truth-telling; respect for the obligations of contracts; stable currencies; and a willingness to overcome immediate time preferences—all of which are necessary for longer-term investments—are qualities in decline in our world. The lies that precipitated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq no longer trouble most Americans, who seem prepared to accept a new set of official falsehoods about Iran; courts have long been willing to rewrite—or refuse to enforce—contracts they deem “unfair” to one of the parties; while inflationary monetary policies encourage short-term time preferences among both investors and consumers.

Such phenomena reflect the dysfunctional and destructive attributes often associated with organizational size. In his important book, The Breakdown of Nations, Leopold Kohr identified what he called “the size theory of social misery;” that “whenever something is wrong, something is too big.”1 As Gabriel Kolko observed in The Triumph of Conservatism,2 large business organizations have a tendency to become too bureaucratic and rigidified to retain the resilience necessary to make adaptations to changes in their world. Complexity feeds upon itself, producing more complex situations for which additional rules and procedures are adopted in an effort to stabilize the system. While having resort to state power is not an inevitable consequence of an organization’s enhanced size, any reduced capacity to adapt to changing conditions increases the pressures to pursue such an option.

Because of the inconstancies and uncertainties inherent in our world, a tension is generated between creative persons who seek to take advantage of the processes of change, and those with established interests to protect. The latter group responds to the specter of change with conservative, moderating proposals. The sense of security associated with permanency—particularly as to systems and practices that have proven beneficial in the past—fosters tendencies for restraint and regularity and opposition to liberty and spontaneity. Such preservationist efforts add to the complexity with which people must contend in their actions. To the degree human action interferes with such regularizing purposes, more rules and bureaucratic procedures are introduced, creating more stabilizing complexity. In the words of George Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein, such dynamics create “the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life. . . . Who wields power is not important, provided that the hierarchical structure remains always the same.”

It must be noted that there is nothing intrinsic about size or complexity that necessarily devitalizes an organization. The benefits arising from economies of scale and the specialization of labor are well-established. Business historian Alfred Chandler has analyzed the economic advantages size played in such developing industries as electricity, automobile manufacturing, and other industries. In his view, a combination of technological innovations and organizational changes contributed to the development of large, nationally organized industries. On the other hand, the general failure of both voluntary cartels and the merger movement to stabilize prices and other competitive conditions in industries5 helps to refute intuitive notions about inherent powers associated with size. The 165 million years in which dinosaurs dominated the earth—compared to the 1–2 million years of humans—should make us reluctant to assume that great size is necessarily dysfunctional. It is simplistic to conclude that organizational size and preferences for maintaining the status quo make collapse inevitable. 
Nonetheless, the history of business organizations as well as civilizations demonstrates how size tends to foster conservative, less resilient, bureaucratic, and stabilizing practices that make a system less able to make creative responses to change. The observations of one student, Joseph Tainter, help to explain Carroll Quigley’s views:
Sociopolitical organizations constantly encounter problems that require increased investment merely to preserve the status quo. This investment comes in such forms as increasing size of bureaucracies, increasing specialization of bureaucracies, cumulative organizational solutions, increasing costs of legitimizing activities, and increasing costs of internal control and external defense. . . . As the number and costliness of organizational investments increases, the proportion of a society’s budget available for investment in future economic growth must decline.

When “continued investment in complexity” produces a decline in marginal returns, “a complex society reaches the phase where it becomes increasingly vulnerable to collapse.’”

Neither is there anything in social organization that mandates institutional arrangements. As Kohr and others have observed, there are forces associated with size that increase the pressures for institutionalization. One such influence has been the movement from what Joseph Schumpeter identified as owner-controlled to manager-controlled business firms. This transformation produces a shift in perspective from longer-term to shorter-term considerations in decision-making. I encountered this tendency when, in law practice, I witnessed owners of businesses considering the impact their actions might have on their children and grandchildren who might one day own their enterprises; while managers—whom Schumpeter correctly characterized as having the mindset of employees—tended to focus the scope of their actions only upon immediate concerns. Politicians and bureaucrats typify such thinking, looking only to the next election or their own retirement to define their time-frames.

This should remind us that social organizations, like religions, ideologies, or other belief systems, are the products of our minds. Why do so many mergers and consolidations continue to take place when the empirical record so often attests to their ineffectiveness in increasing market shares, profits, or growth for the firm?9 Part of the answer may lie in Schumpeter’s analysis, which triggers an explanation grounded in the concept of property, in which “ownership” and “control” are severed from one another, creating differing motivations for each. Two students of the subject have offered an explanation for the phenomenon that goes more to psychological and ego satisfaction: “managers prefer to control larger enterprises, because social prestige, salary and perquisites increase with the size of the enterprise managed.”10 Doesn’t this separation of ownership and control underlie all of politics, as men and women seek to exercise control over what they do not own?

As I have developed elsewhere,11 an institutionalizing imperative begins to dominate our thinking; we learn to identify ourselves with and attach ourselves to organizations that produce the values upon which we believe our well-being depends. At this point, the organizations become transformed into institutions; they become a doppelganger, a shadowy counterpart of ourselves; we transfer to them the fears of our own mortality; they become “too large to fail.”

What we fail to understand when we elevate the products of our actions above the free and creative processes that generated them, is how the vibrancy that defines life itself gets diminished, taking our culture with it. If we were to take our children or grandchildren to a taxidermist to have them forever preserved in the cuteness of their infancy, we would at once see that it is their life-sustaining energy we want to perpetuate, not some momentary form in which such dynamism finds expression.

To relate such distinctions to current political behavior, the creative health of the American economy would be fostered by allowing Detroit auto manufacturers to go out of business, rather than having their insufficiencies subsidized by the state. Did the auto industry really suffer when the Brush, the Omaha, the Stanley Steamer, the Moon, the Maxwell, or the Eldredge Runabout failed to survive? Were such enterprises regarded as so significant as to be bailed out by the government? Certainly, the deadly virus of institutionalism had already infected that industry when, by the late 1940s, established firms were able to call upon the federal government to thwart the competition from Preston Tucker’s innovative car.

Historians have warned us of the threats to a civilization arising from treating its productive institutions as ends-in-themselves, whose interests are to be stabilized through standardization and the structuring of the conduct of others. It is through resiliency and adaptability—not the preservation of established forms and practices—that a culture can remain productive. Can we learn, from history, to see through the destructive and debilitating nature of our attachments, and to focus our thinking upon fostering the endless processes of liberty which, alone, make for a creative society? Or, shall we continue mouthing our institution-serving catechisms that tell us how major industries are “too big to fail;” that state and local governments are “too big to fail;” or, that the American Empire is “too big to fail”? At what point do we begin to understand that the printing of money does not create wealth?

After the illusory nature of money no longer sustains even short-term political thinking, and the political establishment intensifies its perpetual war upon human beings, will we continue to allow our gullibility to be exploited? When we are then told that “Western Civilization is too big to fail,” to whom will we look for a bailout? Having consumed the capital upon which our civilization was grounded, what printing presses, or military forces, or legislative enactments, will the state have at its disposal to restore what has been destroyed?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Life and Death of Civilizations

In my view, many Americans could qualify as collective recipients of a Darwin Award: the recognition given to those “who contribute to human evolution by self-selecting themselves out of the gene pool through putting themselves (unnecessarily) in life-threatening situations.”1 While the awards are given to those who perish through some “astonishing misapplications of judgment,” it may be the American branch of Western Civilization that will cease to exist as a consequence of the combined judgments and practices of most of us.

Only the most vacuous minds—whose opinions are grounded in conventional delusions rather than empirical evidence and rational analysis—can fail to recognize that modern civilization, as we have known it, has reached a terminal state. No amount of public opinion polling can restore any former greatness. The only question is whether its remnants can be transmuted into fundamentally new forms and practices making for a more free and productive society, or whether it shall continue its downward spiral.

Western Civilization appears to be at a bifurcation point; one of those conditions that eventually confronts complex systems. The study of “complexity,” or “chaos,” informs us that a complex system can be thrown into turbulent states to which it might respond either by actions (or inaction) that hasten its collapse into total entropy2; or by the development of practices that allow it to adapt to the complexities it encounters. Such processes are seen in the efforts of biological systems to sustain themselves; in the mind’s debate between learning and ignorance; in the competitive success or failure of businesses; or in the life and death of entire civilizations.

Modern society is in a state of turbulence brought about, in large part, by political efforts to maintain static, equilibrium conditions; practices that interfere with the ceaseless processes of change that provide the fluctuating order upon which any creative system—such as the marketplace—depends. Institutions, being ends in themselves, have trained us to resist change and favor the status quo; to insist upon the certain and the concrete and to dismiss the uncertain and the fanciful; and to embrace security and fear risk. Life, on the other hand is change, is adaptation, creativity, and novelty. But creativity has always depended upon a fascination with the mysterious, and an appreciation for the kinds of questions that reveal more than answers can ever provide. When creative processes become subordinated to preserving established interests; when the glorification of systems takes priority over the sanctity of individual lives, societies begin to lose their life-sustaining vibrancy and may collapse.

It is the nature of complex systems to be subject to both unforeseen and unknowable influences and irregularities. As a consequence, the factors contributing to either the emergence or decline of civilizations are too incomprehensible to allow for precision in predicting or accounting for the occurrence of either. The history of civilizations has always involved a struggle between the forces of life and death. To continue as a vibrant system, a civilization must generate practices allowing for the production of the life-sustaining values that define itself. Our modern, industrialized civilization arose—and has managed to maintain itself—through practices conducive to the creation of new technologies, methods of production and distribution, and the free exchange of material and intellectual resources. By remaining resilient and adaptive to the inconstancies that define life, marketplace systems have placed human action in harmony with life itself.

But once social systems began producing vibrant, life-sustaining values, the forces of death began to ooze up from the depths of humanity’s “dark side.” People who were incapable of creative acts themselves, or were envious of the successes and rewards enjoyed by others, resorted to violence to despoil others. From simple acts of piracy and pillaging, clever minds developed formal systems (i.e., governments) and intellectual rationales (i.e., political philosophies) that would institutionalize theft and the violent methods upon which thievery depends.

It should come as no great news to report that when “dark side” forces begin to prevail—whether within an individual or a society—life-promoting qualities and values go into a decline. When incentives for creativity subside in favor of schemes for plundering others—i.e., when wealth is increasingly transferred not by voluntary exchange, but by coercion—the civilization exhibiting such traits has begun its entropic decline. The benefits of innovation—particularly when financed with one’s own resources—become less attractive than the rewards to be reaped from street-smart maneuverings for a government subsidy, legislative restraints on a competitor, or a multimillion dollar lawsuit engineered by shallow lawyers against corporate “deep-pockets.” Whether such a course can be reversed depends upon whether the thinking of those who comprise that civilization can be transformed.

Western Civilization was spurred by an admittedly uneven embrace of life-enhancing values and practices. The Renaissance, in rediscovering classical Greece, helped shift the focus of thinking and behavior to human well-being. Renaissance historian Jacob Burckhardt chronicled the transformation in consciousness that took place in post-medieval years. From a period in which people thought of themselves in collective terms (e.g., “a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category”), there emerged the “man [who] became a spiritual individual and recognized himself as such.”3 The arts, scientific inquiries, the enlightenment—with its emphasis on individualism and reason—and the Industrial Revolution, were the more significant life-sustaining influences of modern civilization. To what extent has the modern emphasis on group identities and legal rights (e.g., race, gender, lifestyle, religion, etc.) impeded the creative processes that arise from individualism?

The creative richness of a civilization derives from the behavior of individuals, not from some imagined collective genius. The creative process depends upon men and women being free to experiment; to generate and pursue any of a variety of options; to be mistaken; and to offend the habits, tastes, sensibilities, or established interests of others. Individuals may combine their efforts with others but, as one experiences in brainstorming sessions, it is the interplay of individual insights and responses that gives birth to the new.

Individuals have produced the art, music, literature, philosophies, scientific discoveries, inventions, engineering and technological innovation, that underlie great civilizations. The statue of David was conceived and sculpted by Michelangelo, not by an artists’ guild. The Mona Lisa derived from the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, not from some corporate “paint-by-the-numbers” kit.4 The writings of Shakespeare and Milton were the products of individual minds, not a government-funded writers’ workshop. It was Thomas Edison, not a local labor union, who worked in his simple workshop for long hours, often at subsistence levels, to invent many of the technological underpinnings of modern civilization.

We ought to have learned from basic biology that the individual is not only the carrier of DNA (hence, life itself) from one generation to the next, but also the carrier of the values upon which a civilization depends if it is to retain its vigor. A moment’s reflection should suggest that there is more than an allegorical relationship here. But what are the conditions that are conducive to individual creativity and productiveness?

Our inquiry ought to begin with a clear assessment of the nature of life itself. We need to strip away a lot of foolish thinking and recognize that the pursuit of self-interest goes to the very essence of all living things. As such, we need to become aware that spontaneity and autonomy are vital to life processes. Coercion is thus anti-life, for it forces life to go in directions it doesn’t want to go. Neither can the creative process be commanded or directed by others, but must arise within individuals who are disposed to inventiveness. I once visited a government school classroom and saw a primary grade teacher clap her hands and announce to her conscripts: “all right, it is time for self-directed learning!” The idea that one’s creative motivation can be mandated by another is as absurd as ordering another to “be spontaneous!”

A civilization cannot remain creative unless its members are free to control their own energies and to convert some portion of the material world to their self-interested purposes. This fact of existence—which various ideologies have managed to distort but not refute—gives rise to a need for the private ownership of property. One would have thought that the utter failure of Marxist systems to provide for mankind’s material well-being would have been sufficient to disabuse gullible souls of the fallacy—woven into the social fabric by socialist obscurants—that “human rights are more important than property rights.” This notion continues to erode the conditions essential to the well-being of societies.
State regulatory systems are the most pervasive means by which coercion restrains the creative process. Government mandates and restraints are always directed against the property interests of persons. They function as imposed, nonproductive costs—a form of entropy—to the efforts of actors to pursue their interests. To the extent of their imposition, they provide disincentives to creativity.

A current example illustrates the point. The costs of state regulation have been a major factor in the decisions of many businesses to relocate some of their operations to foreign countries. It is illusory to believe that the self-interest pursuits of some people can be hindered by others without consequences. To the degree state policies increase the costs or reduce the benefits of a course of action desired by someone, the actor will try to circumvent such restraints in the least costly manner. In the same way, a dammed-up river may eventually burst the constraints humans have designed for it; but rather than condemn the river—or, as an exaggeration of our hubris, build a bigger dam!—we ought to make ourselves aware of the anti-life implications of interfering with irresistible flows of energy. Our failure to respect the autonomous processes by which life creates its well-being, will prove as destructive to our civilization as it was to those that preceded it.

Because life processes involve continuing transactions with nature—which, contrary to the biases of many, includes human beings—the viability of a civilization depends on its having a healthy working relationship with reality. It is no coincidence that the enlightenment and the scientific revolution were central influences in the emergence of Western Civilization. The “age of reason” helped us appreciate that, while “truth” had an ephemeral and amorphous quality to it, its pursuit was critical to the health of a society. From such a perspective, freedom of speech and religion can be seen not as sops conferred upon dissidents in order to confirm the liberal sentiments of the established order, but qualities upon which the vibrancy of a system depends. Freedom of inquiry and expression are not so much to be tolerated as to be actively encouraged.

But the relevance of truth to a civilization has a much broader reach than this. Our world is an interconnected labyrinth shrouded in causal uncertainties. But because we must act in the present in anticipation of desired consequences, we need all the truth we can get. Lies, deceptions, inaccuracies, and other errors, compound the difficulties associated with the pursuit of efficacious behavior in an inherently uncertain world. The well-being of both individuals and societies are restrained by incorrect information, a fact that can be quickly confirmed by any physician.

While the health of individuals and civilizations depends upon the value of truth, all political systems are firmly grounded in lies, illusions, and false promises. Almost all who support the state do so out of a conditioned belief that it will protect our lives and property; and yet it is the essence of the state to coerce with threats of punishment or death, and plunder through taxation, its alleged beneficiaries. Unlike a productive civilization, a healthy state cannot coexist with truthfulness.

A synonym for living in harmony with reality is “integrity.” To live with integrity is to live the integrated life, without contradiction or conflict. Have we not seen enough of the pyramiding of lies, fabricated “evidence,” meaningless distinctions, and other conscious acts of deception leading to the U.S. invasion of Iraq to cause any decent human to question the integrity of both the state and its leaders? There is a common phrase among the British that reflects such dishonesty: “do not accept something as true until it has been officially denied.” How long would you have maintained a business partnership with a person who behaved in this manner? How profitable would your enterprise be if you had to spend half your time countering the influence of falsehoods generated from within your organization?

The death of civilizations is facilitated by a movement from individualized to collective patterns of thinking. It is mass-mindedness that produces the state’s deadliest expressions: wars and genocides. The indiscriminate slaughter of people and the massive destruction of cities, factories, transportation systems, and other forms of material wealth are inconsistent with the creative processes of civilizations. To bring about our participation in such devastating activities requires the systematic conditioning of how we view ourselves.

When we move from a more personal sense of who we are to such collective identities as race, religion, nationality, ideology, gender, or other groupings, we have prepared our minds to be energized on behalf of institutionally-defined causes. The state has long been the primary conductor of such practices. As Carl Jung and others observed, our willingness to identify with groups of any sort, produces a herd-mentality that is easily mobilized on behalf of destructive, collective purposes. Evidence of such dynamics can be seen in the sudden emergence of American flags after 9/11, and the continued willingness of many Americans to support their government’s enraged, high-handed reaction to this event by attacking and killing innocent Iraqis.

Still, I remain optimistic. I believe that the American civilization has about run its course, and is collapsing into a dehumanizing destructiveness. Nonetheless, I suspect that we may be able to extricate ourselves from our present turbulence by rediscovering the conditions that make for a free and productive world, and learning to walk away from those systems and practices that are destroying us. We may end up fundamentally transforming our world. To do so will require us to do more than tinker with the details of our well-organized madness.

The history of our language may provide us with insights for unraveling our confused and conflict-ridden minds. While reading an etymological dictionary a number of years ago, I discovered that the words “peace,” “freedom,” “love,” and “friend” had common ancestries.5 Perhaps our intuitive energies will permit us to rediscover the more harmonious vision of society held by our predecessors. Whether the forces of life can overcome our present lemming-like death march is the question now confronting the mind and soul of mankind.

A metaphor may prove useful in making my point. For decades, the federal government has poured tens of billions of dollars into the space program, in an effort to extend the militarization of mankind beyond Earth itself. More recently, private enterprises have arisen to conduct space exploration for productive, life-enhancing ends. One such entrepreneur is Burt Rutan who designed and produced the “Voyager,” a plane that was the first to make a non-stop, non-refueling flight around the world. Later, Rutan successfully launched SpaceShipOne, the first non-governmental spacecraft to leave Earth’s atmosphere.

These alternative approaches to space flight provide a fitting contrast between institutionalized and individualized ways of living. We are beginning to more fully understand the dysfunctional nature of larger systems, and to appreciate the advantages associated with relatively smaller organizations, a comparison I explored in my In Restraint of Trade6 book, and taken up herein. This is not to suggest that increased organizational size will inevitably make a system less resilient to change and less creative. But larger organizations are subject to increased internal forces that encourage bureaucratization, ossification, and other moderating influences that make effective responses more difficult. A visual expression of this distinction was made after the landing of SpaceShipOne, as this tiny plane taxied past a number of huge, major airline jets that were quietly parked on adjoining aprons. What more poignant example of the human, rather than the institutionalized, scale of creative action; a contrast made even more apparent when, after his plane had landed, Rutan held up a large sign—produced by a friend of mine, Ernie Hancock—that read: “SpaceShipOne, Government Zero.”

But the comparative analysis of organizational size did not end there. When SpaceshipOne completed its orbit around the earth, a more profound, spiritual meaning of the flight was expressed by its pilot, Mike Melvill who, while coming in for his landing, yelled out “hoo-ha!” This is the kind of response we were accustomed to making as children while experiencing the thrills of a roller-coaster ride, or speeding on a bicycle, or other acts that allowed us to exceed the ordinary. In our institutionalized world, however, we have learned to suppress our emotions; to not run on school playgrounds; and, if we want to continue working as NASA astronauts, not to express ourselves as Melvill did. This man’s spirited outcry reflected the emergence of a space program mobilized by human passion rather than robotic conditioning.

The spiritual dimensions of travel into outer space have been expressed by some NASA astronauts. If spirituality is experienced as a personal sense of transcendence (e.g., of moving beyond the confines of one’s present physical, emotional, or intellectual consciousness), wouldn’t the act of leaving the earth—seeing the base from which one’s life and understanding has literally been grounded—be expected to generate such sensations? Might viewing the launch of these spacecraft provide us some two-dimensional vicarious sense that astronauts experience in three dimensions?

But it is not the purpose of NASA—or, for that matter, any other governmental programs—to promote the spiritual enrichment of people’s lives. The dreary curricula of government schools demonstrates the state’s hostility to such elevating purposes. Burt Rutan is not alone in grasping that space travel is too spiritually uplifting an experience to be monopolized by the bureaucratically-structured and dispirited nature of governmental agencies.

NASA’s programs were never designed to provide ordinary men and women the opportunity of experiencing space flight; an individual who wanted to have such an experience had to pay the Russian government twenty million dollars to be taken to its space platform. By contrast, Rutan’s company is working toward the creation of space flights for individuals who want to experience space and, he added, at prices that will eventually be within the reach of most of us.

Institutions dislike spontaneity, emotional responses, and other unpredictabilities whose energies cannot be made to serve organizational purposes. This is why institutions have a uniform dislike for individual liberty; why, in the course of some social or natural disturbance, we are admonished to “stay calm” and “not get emotional.” Human actions that do not further institutional interests are a form of “entropy;” of energy unavailable for productive work.

As I watched—and delighted in—Mike Melvill’s reaction to his SpaceshipOne trip, my mind recalled the earlier Challenger disaster. Immediately following the explosion, the institutional reporting of what had occurred failed to match the release of emotions with which the rest of us responded. In perfunctory style, the NASA spokesman continued to provide a linear reporting of telemetric readings and other data, telling us of down-range distances, velocity, and other facts that had just been proven irrelevant. He performed his job correctly, just as he had been trained and expected to do, without the expression of any emotion or break in the established mantra. Only later did he calmly report that there was “obviously a major malfunction.”

The calmness with which the institutionalists spoke that day contrasted sharply with newscaster Herbert Morrison’s live reporting of another spacecraft explosion: the 1937 fiery destruction of the Zeppelin “Hindenburg.” The classic news footage of Morrison’s reporting reveals the depth of his emotions over the catastrophe: “oh, my,” and “oh, the humanity” are intermixed with his tears, leading him to finally tell us “I can’t talk.” For his emotional involvement in the event, Morrison was fired from his job! Even in 1937, the institutional order could not abide the passions of individuals.

How much of such attitudes carry over into our daily work, whatever that may be? We have conditioned ourselves to regard material costs and rewards as the paramount standard by which to judge the propriety of our actions. Spiritual and emotional expressions—the unconscious inner voices we have learned to ignore and suppress—will be tolerated as long as they do not interfere with our commitments to institutional purposes. But what is the quality of a job that trains us to give mechanistic reports on the behavior of machines, even as human beings are being killed in the malfunctioning of the machines? Is life enhanced or diminished by the kind of work that deadens or eradicates the inner sense of humanity from its performance, and why ought we to care?

Such questions carry us far beyond the excitements of space travel, but bring us back to what most of us have come to regard as the default position of our “humdrum” lives. Can we become as determined to walk away from our conditioning as organizational servo-mechanisms as the institutional order was in so training us? Can we find a kind of work, or play, or learn how to raise our children, or plant a garden, or engage in any other activity, that will provide us the spontaneous outburst that Mike Melvill expressed that day? Can we rediscover that “recreation” is far more meaningful than simply joining the company’s bowling team; that it means to “re-create”—not just expend—our energy; to reenergize our creative ways? Can we come to think of “success” in our work as more than just an increase in salary or net receipts over expenses, or the accumulation of billable hours, but of the enjoyment of the work as an end in itself? Can we re-learn what we knew as children but have been trained to forget, namely, that whatever we do should energize the human spirit; that the meaning of life is to be found in the “hoo-ha!”?

Burt Rutan will not transform Western Civilization, anymore than Michelangelo created the Renaissance. Each is only representative of a vision of mankind’s capacity for a greatness that has always lain light-years beyond the grasp of kings and emperors. But whether the exploration of space will continue to be dominated by the militaristic and political control premises that underlie NASA, or the humanity-serving purposes of Rutan’s undertaking, will be one of many indicators of the broader direction our society will take. This is just one area of human activity in which each of us will—whether by conscious act or by default—channel our energies and other resources into systems of death or of life. The best of what it means to be human is not to be found in improving the systems of death, destruction, coercion, torture, and control that define political behavior. It is only when we are free to explore, question, innovate, and cooperate with one another that we can experience the fullest sense of what it means to live as human beings.

That the state must employ violence to achieve its ends is, perhaps, the best evidence for the presence of a life force that insists upon its expression in the world regardless of the barriers placed in its path. The individuals and societies who are able to transcend barriers will be the ones who will survive and prosper. Whether Americans will continue to insist upon our civilization’s freefall into history’s black hole, or whether we shall transform our practices into life-sustaining systems, is a question that only you and I can answer. But as I said, I remain optimistic. I am betting my life on the Burt Rutans, the Mike Melvills, and our inner sense of “hoo-ha!”

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On the Decline and Fall

As events inform us, it is not a pleasant experience to witness the decline and fall of a once vibrant civilization. There is a sadness in any deathwatch, particularly when one’s vigil is interrupted by memories of a once robust parent, aunt, or uncle—with whom one learned and enjoyed so much of life—now in a weakened and terminal state. Whether we are considering a relative or the society in which one lives, there is no joy to be found in the final days of either. In either instance, one realizes that his or her life experiences, if not sense of being itself, are connected with others. As with any relationship, each of us helps to fashion the other, such that the sadness and joys of one sadden and delight the other.
The society in which I was born, raised, and work, and into which my wife and I brought our children, is now in a state of rapid decline. But as most of us are wont to do when informed of the impending death of a loved one, we desperately reach out for a remedy that we hope will reverse the fatal condition. Surely there is some new “leader” or political/religious ideology that can reinspire us, or some as yet undiscovered legislative nostrum which, if unable to reverse our apparent fate, may at least disguise the symptoms for a period of time.

Because civilizations transcend individual lives, we are unaccustomed to thinking that the society in which we live could ever have an end point or, if it did, that we might find ourselves in its final days. I strongly suspect that those who lived in the civilizations that preceded our own, were thoroughly convinced that their social structures, practices, and culture would endure forever. But history teaches us otherwise. Just as small children must eventually confront the mortality of their parents—and, in the process, theirs as well—there is nothing remarkable in the pattern of civilizations, like human beings, being born, growing into adulthood, and eventually dying.

What defines a great civilization, and what conditions are necessary to its existence? Is it wondrous buildings and monuments to its political leaders, or a succession of military conquests and elaborate systems of social control? These are the features that government schools have trained us to consider, characteristics that define the aspirations of political institutions.

To my mind, such a view is far too noun-oriented, conceiving of greatness more in terms of the things produced, rather than the verb-oriented processes by which such civilizations function. Has Western Civilization been great because of the works of such people as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Einstein, as well as the life-enhancing products of industrialization, or because of the existence of conditions in which such creativity could take place?

Because the principle of entropy maintains its constant influence in the world, all living systems must generate new energy (or “negative entropy”) if they are to resist—at least temporarily—their collapse into their ultimate fate. We eat, in other words, not because someone has prepared an attractive meal for us, but because our continuing failure to do so will soon bring about our death.

The health of any system—be it an individual or a society—depends upon the production of those values necessary for that system’s survival. The production and distribution of goods and services, technology, the sciences, medicine, the arts, and agriculture, are just a few of the more prominent examples of the values upon which Western societies have depended.

If we misfocus our attention, we may erroneously conclude that our material well-being is dependent upon the creation of the “things” that we consume in our efforts to sustain ourselves. In so doing, we tend to ignore the underlying conditions that make the production of such values possible. The Industrial Revolution was a humanizing epoch because it taught us how to produce the material wealth that can sustain the lives of millions of people. It would take a misanthropic disposition to deny the benefits to mankind arising from this period. But when our mind connects up the benefits with the organizational systems that created them, we are inclined to regard them as inseparable. We come to value, and depend upon, the goose that lays the golden egg, rather than upon the processes by which creative individuals might produce more geese, or more efficient means of generating gold.

Western Civilization is in the crisis it is because we have sacrificed more profound values than the immediate and quantifiable consequences we tend to associate with the pursuit of our material interests. Among these are peace; liberty; respect for property, contracts, and the inviolability of the individual; truthfulness and the development of the mind; integrity; distrust of power; a sense of spirituality; and philosophically-principled behavior. But when our culture becomes driven by material concerns, these less tangible values recede in importance, and our thinking becomes dominated by the need to preserve the organizational forms that we see as having served our interests.

In such ways do we create institutions. In order to clearly distinguish one form of organization from another, I define an “institution” as “any permanent social organization with purposes of its own, having formalized and structured machinery for pursuing those purposes, and making and enforcing rules of conduct in order to control those within it.” In short, an “institution” is a system that has become its own reason for being—rather than just a means for producing life-sustaining values—with people becoming fungible resources to be exploited for the accomplishment of collective ends.
The very existence of institutions depends upon people developing a collective identity for themselves, a topic I explored in depth in Calculated Chaos. We learn to associate our very being with the herd(s) of which we are part and to which we consider ourselves subservient. While organized behavior is both natural and beneficial to us as social beings, institutions invert the role of social systems: organizations that began as tools of cooperation to foster the mutual interests of individuals, get twisted into systems that become their own reasons for being (i.e., institutions).

Having accepted the primacy of such agencies over our lives, most of us express nary a doubt about the necessity of taxpayers coming to the rescue of such systems when they face difficulties. When banks faced substantial losses as a result of New York City’s financial crisis in the 1970s, only a handful of people found any flaw in having the taxpayers bail them out. So, too, with major corporations, or professional baseball and football franchises calling upon the taxpayers to underwrite their expenses. The government schools have also relied upon our worship of institutions to get taxpayers to continually fund a system that should have been allowed to die its entropic death decades ago. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center (WTC), airlines, insurance companies, and various other institutions managed to get whisked through Congress, legislation to force the taxpayers to recompense them for their losses. Even commercial advertising can dredge up no more meaningful response to these events than for us to equate spending our money—with such advertisers, of course—as acts of patriotism! More recently, the major recession of the Bush/Obama years led the federal government to provide major corporate interests with billions of dollars of loans and bailouts on what so clearly expressed the institutionalist premise: “too big to fail.”

“But what is wrong with coming to the rescue of these institutions?,” it may be asked. “Think of all the money that has been invested, and all the men and women who are employed by such firms.” The same argument might well have been made, a century ago, when the buggy whip and carriage manufacturers, horse ranchers, and hay farmers, were faced with bankruptcy as a consequence of the automobile. Or what of the motion picture industry, which has regularly sent lobbyists to Washington to fight the “threat” of television, then cable television, and then VCR’s—all of which ended up being boons to Hollywood: should they have, as they continue to demand, government support for their enterprises?
The problem with all of this, as historians advise us, is that the institutionalization of the systems that produce the values upon which a civilization depends, ultimately bring about the destruction of that civilization. Arnold Toynbee observed that a civilization begins to break down when there is “a loss of creative power in the souls of creative individuals,” and, in time, the “differentiation and diversity” that characterized a dynamic civilization, is replaced by “a tendency towards standardization and uniformity.” The emergence of a “universal state,” and increased militarism, represent later stages in the disintegration of a civilization.

Will and Ariel Durant reached similar conclusions, observing that the health of a civilization depends upon “individuals with clarity of mind and energy of will . . . capable of effective responses to new situations.” Carroll Quigley demonstrated how the maintenance of static, equilibrium conditions can lead to the collapse of civilizations, a process he directly relates to the institutionalization of what he calls the “instruments of expansion.”

A creative civilization, in other words, is dynamic, not stable; adaptive to change, not seeking equilibrium. It is characterized not by those who seek to preserve what they have, but by those who seek to produce what their minds tell them they can have. Individual liberty abounds in such a society, as men and women advance new ideas, new technologies, and new practices.
The explanation for the interrelatedness of institutionalism and the collapse of civilizations is not difficult. Because of their size and bureaucratic sluggishness, institutions tend to become less adaptable to the constancies of change inherent in all living systems. Life is a continuing process of making adjustments and creative responses in a world of complicated inexactitude. But institutions insist not only upon their illusions of predictability, but their systems of control by which they imagine they can direct the world to their ends. This is why institutions have always aligned themselves with the forces of power, in order to compel the rest of nature—particularly mankind—to conform to their interests.
But power wars against life, for power seeks to force life to become what it does not choose to be. Because “life” expresses itself as autonomous and spontaneous activity, it is inextricably dependent upon the liberty of individuals. Liberty is not simply a proposition designed to placate intellectuals who want to protect the expression of their opinions. It is, rather, the condition in which individuals—and the societies in which they live—can remain resilient, adaptive to changing conditions, and thus maintain the creative impulses necessary for their vibrancy.

The individual, with his or her uniqueness and self-directed nature, is the expression of life on this planet. As such, a condition of liberty tends to generate variation and non-uniformity, with social order arising as the unintended consequence of individuals pursuing their varied self-interests. Manners, customs, the dynamics of the marketplace, cooperation, negotiation, and other social pressures, help to regularize human behavior while keeping it flexible. The antisocial conduct of the few is met with ostracism, boycotts, and other refusals to deal.

But most institutions tend to be uncomfortable with liberty, for the processes of change that are implicit therein run counter to their purposes of a structured permanency. Because of their size and scope of operation, institutions deal with people on a mass, rather than individualized, basis. As our world becomes more institutionalized, standardization and uniformity become more dominant values. The informal systems and practices that connect people to one another get replaced by coercive rules, hierarchically-structured organizations, violence and the threats of violence, SWAT teams, torture, enhanced punishments, and longer prison sentences for an ever-widening group of offenses. As such coercive practices proliferate, there is a continual weakening of the informal social mechanisms and, like muscles that fall into disuse after a serious illness or injury, begin to atrophy. Manners and social habits soon give way to speech codes, “hate” crimes, and other forms of institutionally-mandated standards of conduct. When a civilization reaches the point at which only coercive force is capable of holding it together, it is finished as a viable system.

Civilizations die out for the same reason organisms do: their failure to maintain a sufficient resiliency that will permit them to overcome entropy. As the Durants put it, they then “linger on as stagnant pools left by once life-giving streams.”4 Still, there is no historical determinism at work that would make the collapse of Western Civilization inevitable. The health of any system depends on its being sufficiently resilient to allow it to adapt to the constancy of change that is inherent in all of life. A vibrant system—whether an individual, a business firm, or a civilization—will incorporate the need for self-corrective behavior into its methods. Such thinking is contrasted with what preceded the construction of highly-structured open-hearth steel mills or automobile assembly lines in those American cities that are now referred to as the “rust belt.” When the need for adaptability is ignored or resisted, stagnation is a likely consequence.

In any society, there has always been an underlying current of energy through which the life processes seek expression. Political systems, grounded in coercion and violence, have always represented a continuing war against such life processes. But it is institutionalism—the belief that established organizations are ends in themselves whose interests must be preserved and protected—that makes political systems so dangerous and destructive to the liberty upon which life forces depend. Just as water can be dammed up for only so long until it either bursts through or circumvents the structure kept in its way, life energies will continue to seek their expression. To the extent a civilization welcomes such expression, it will prosper and extend its beneficent influences to the rest of mankind. Indeed, in recent decades, Western society has been exhibiting a sufficient resiliency to overcome many of the institutionalizing tendencies of a pyramidally-structured world. Organizations have been moving from systems of centralized, vertical authority, to decentralized horizontal networks. The pyramid has been collapsing in favor of what I call a holographic organizational model, wherein authority is distributed throughout the system rather than concentrated at the top.

Well-managed business firms now recognize the greater productivity and profitability of having increased decision-making decentralized into the hands of employees. Alternative health care, educational, religious, and dispute resolution systems have been challenging the Kafkaesque bureaucratic structures of the institutional order. The recent proliferation of private schools and homeschooling reflect such transformations. The Internet, and other computerized technologies, have decentralized the flow of information, as well as banking, consumer-driven retailing, and other business practices.

These decentralizing changes have been occurring in the political realm as well, with the collapse of the Soviet Union providing the most vivid example. The monolithic USSR splintered into fifteen independent countries, while the erstwhile Yugoslavia fractured into five separate countries. Else-where, fourteen additional subdivisions have been created, producing a total of thirty-four new countries since 1990 alone, and with more apparently on the way.5 Secession movements are challenging centralized political authority in cities, states, and countries throughout the world. The previous solidity of a mass-minded culture—exemplified in the phrase e pluribus unum—has centrifuged into numerous hyphenated identities based upon race, gender, religion, nationality, or lifestyles of various groups.

While these changes were taking place long before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, the events of that day portend a much deeper psychic meaning than most of us have begun to realize. As brutal and horrific as these atrocities were, the shock they brought on goes far beyond the numbers of casualties. Nor does the trauma lie in the fact that America, itself, had been attacked by terrorists: the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the downing of Pan Am Flight 103, and the suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole, preceded September 11th.

It is in the symbolism of the World Trade Center’s demolition that the deeper psychological meaning is to be found. On one level, of course, the WTC symbolized private capitalism, whose virtues and efficiencies had so recently won out over socialism and other forms of state planning as the system best able to maximize the material well-being of humanity. This may have been a contributing consideration, on the part of the terrorists, in its being selected as the principal target.

But the central factor in these buildings being selected as targets was their being symbols of the American government practices through which wars and other military operations have been conducted throughout the Middle East. It was not laissez-faire capitalism or other expressions of liberty that were attacked that day, but corporate-statism, through which major business interests control the destructive machinery of the state to achieve ends they are unable to obtain in free markets.

The World Trade Center symbolized something more, something that I suspect its brutish attackers would never have sensed, but which, I believe, underlies the deeper shock all of us are experiencing. Almost like a pair of Jungian archetypes, the WTC buildings stood, at the base of Wall Street, as towering symbols of a vertically structured, institutionalized world. Such symbols were utterly destroyed by a handful of box-cutter-armed terrorists, who symbolized to the world that war, itself, had become decentralized. For Americans who still think of “defense” in terms of nuclear missiles; fleets of battleships, aircraft carriers, and atomic submarines; and tens of thousands of hierarchically disciplined soldiers, the confluence of these symbolic forces has generated much turbulence within our minds.
The present “war against terrorism” goes much deeper than simply trying to eradicate cadres of maniacal butchers—as desirable as such ends would be if capable of being realized through warfare. The decentralizing influences that have been at work throughout our world for a number of years—and whose processes are becoming better understood through the study of chaos and complexity, marketplace economics, biological systems, psychology, and systems analysis—are proving to be incompatible with the hierarchically-structured forms through which institutions have come to dominate Western Civilization. Institutions tend to lack resiliency. They are generally less interested in adapting their systems and methodologies to a changing environment, than in forcing the environment—including people—to adapt their behavior to conform to institutional interests.

It is just such attitudes, as we have seen, that have brought down prior civilizations. Considered from a broader historical perspective, it becomes evident that terrorists have not been the cause of the decline of Western Civilization any more than were the invading barbarians the cause of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Each such group was but a symptom, among many, of the vulnerability of a civilization that had become weakened by its own contradictions and lack of responsiveness to the conditions upon which life depends.

Understood in its broader context, this war could more properly be defined as a War for the Preservation of Institutional Hierarchies, a war against the processes of change that are working against vertically-structured, command-and-control social systems. That this has been declared to be a “permanent” war against humanity in general (i.e., “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”) should awaken us to its broader implications. It is ironic—but understandable—that, at a time when the world is becoming more decentralized, institutional interests are hard at work to expand upon their mechanisms of centralized control. Whether flying the banner of the “New World Order,” or NATO, or the United Nations, or the European Community, or the World Trade Organization, the institutional order continues to insist upon its command-and-control mechanisms.

As this war continues, those of us who persist in conducting our lives outside institutional walls, or who continue to use the Internet as though it were a tool by which free minds communicate with one another, or who insist upon the privacy of our lives and business transactions, will discover ourselves thrown into the new suspect class of “terrorists.” As the state increases its demands for national identity cards, secret trials conducted by the military (rather than by untrustworthy juries), the use of torture against suspects, the assassination of Americans, greater surveillance of our lives—including having police enter our homes without our knowledge or consent—and military patrolling of American streets, we should become aware of the truth of Pogo Possum’s observation: “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Though our civilization finds itself in a state of turbulence, it is not fated to collapse. While the institutional order lacks resiliency, there is a life force within nature that insists upon adaptability. In a material sense, this life force may find expression as DNA, which all living things have in common. Biological evolution fosters the variability that allows living systems to respond to changes in their environments. But such processes are at work beyond—albeit interconnected with—biology. In the dynamics of the marketplace we find the most vibrant expression of the creative, life-sustaining nature of resilient behavior. When institutional interests conspire against change, they have declared themselves to be in a state of war with life itself!

But you and I are part of this same life force, and our resiliency may be the means through which our civilization reenergizes itself and allows all of the institutional entropy to work its way out of a fundamentally new social system. Just as the creative energies of the Industrial Revolution replaced the rigidly structured and stultifying system of feudalism, our present civilization may—if you and I are up to the task—transform itself into an even more productive society.

But to do so, we must be prepared to move beyond the vertically-structured, institutionalized thinking in which we have been carefully conditioned. You and I can bring civilization back into order neither by seizing political power, nor by attacking it, but by moving away from it, by diverting our focus from marbled temples and legislative halls to the conduct of our daily lives. The “order” of a creative civilization will emerge in much the same way that order manifests itself throughout the rest of nature: not from those who fashion themselves leaders of others, but from the inter-connectedness of individuals pursuing their respective self-interests.

In the institutional order’s war to preserve itself against the life-sustaining processes of change, the most treasonable of propositions will be that which affirms that life belongs to the living, not to institutional power structures! We must learn to love our children more than we do the dehumanizing agencies of restraint and destruction that now threaten their futures with announced plans for an endless war against all. The time is now upon us, as individuals, to assert that life is going to prevail on this planet; that we shall reclaim our free and creative spirit and, in so doing, revitalize Western Civilization; and that those structured systems that insist upon exploiting and destroying life in the course of advancing their own interests must now stand aside. What if a fundamentally transformed civilization—one that expresses decentralized, autonomous, and peaceful behavior, while discarding its destructive, anti-life, institutional structures—is already unfolding before you? Would you be prepared for it?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reflections on the Decline and Fall

While I was aware of this fairly common practice in Austria, I was only later able to put names and faces to those who had actually done so. Various musical composers, painters, poets, philosophers, inventors, writers, journalists, found the study of law an integral part of their intellectual development. These major contributors to the life of Western Civilization included such Austrian students of the law as two of the fathers of sociology, Max Weber and Ludwig Gumplowicz; major figures of the “Austrian School” of economics, Carl Menger, Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, Ludwig von Mises, and Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, as well as the economists Friedrich von Wieser and Leopold Kohr (who authored the phrase “small is beautiful”); philosophers Anton Menger, Otto Bauer, Max Adler, Fritz Mauthner, Adolf Stohr, Gottfried Leibniz, and Gustav Bergmann; lawyers and philosophers Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, and Hans Kelsen; the inventor Wolfgang von Klempelen; journalist Karl Kraus; artist and psychologist Anton Ehrenzweig; art historian Alois Riegl; the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal; music composer Emil von Reznicek; and students of music, Guido Adler and Eduard Hanslick. The world-renowned symphonic conductor, Fritz Reiner, provided another example. Throughout my years of law school teaching, I have often wondered why men and women with backgrounds in music tended to do so well. Perhaps in the interconnectedness of Austrian culture can be found insights lost in modern student concerns over grade-point averages and bar exams! Nor can I overlook the major contributions made to civilization by such erstwhile students of the law as the literary giants Kakfa and Goethe.
The study of law is but one example of the creative nature of the metamorphic powers of an integrative culture. Those who pursued other inter-disciplinary studies illustrate a similar influence. Such dynamics—rather than the modern reductionist emphasis on specialization—helps us understand why Austria became a focal point for the creativity that found expression in such music composers as Haydn, Schubert, Mozart, the two Johann Strausses, Schonberg, Beethoven, and Mahler; such scientific minds as Gregor Mendel, Freud, Alfred Adler, Konrad Lorenz, Ernst Brucke, Theodor Meynert, Erwin Schrodinger, Ludwig Boltzmann, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernst Mach, Fritjof Capra, and Paul Feyerabend; the novelist and first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Bertha von Suttner; the writer and inventor Josef Popper-Lynkeus; as well as such prolific thinkers as Edmund Husserl, Viktor Frankl, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Popper, Arthur Koestler, Franz Brentano, Bernard Bolzano, Eric Voegelin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; and actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr. While not all of these persons were students of multiple subject areas, the more holistic, integrated Austrian culture in which they and other individuals worked doubtless produced an environment that added to their creativity.
The processes that allow the genius and creative energies of individuals to merge into a prolific civilization, include such powerful domains as frontiers. The course of American history has led many of us to think of a frontier in geographic terms, as an unknown and uncertain territory existing beyond the known and established. Frederick Jackson Turner has written of the pivotal role played by a politically unstructured environment in which people were free to explore and innovate and, as a consequence, generate a free and productive society.7 States whose political systems were too restrictive and structured found themselves in competition with an ever-expanding “west,” to which creative persons were attracted. The presence of reasonably accessible and less-regulated environments also served to temper state efforts for control.
Of greater significance than geographically defined frontiers are the psychological and intellectual dimensions—the “state of mind”—of people who either accept or disregard the restraints placed upon their behavior by external authorities. As Alfred North Whitehead expressed it, “the vivid people keep moving on, geographically and otherwise, for men can be provincial in time, as well as in place.”8 There is a vibrancy in the life process that manifests itself along the boundary lines that separate the known from the unknown; the stable from the changeable; the familiar from the novel. In the interplay between the conscious and unconscious minds—often experienced when the brain is in an alpha state—we can experience this dynamic of creativity.
One can see this same creativity where the boundaries of various intellectual disciplines meet. The study of “history,” “economics,” “law,” “physics,” etc., takes place within realms whose inviolabilities are often fiercely guarded by certified professors within each field. Not unlike the nature of political “peace” talks, so-called “inter-disciplinary” conferences frequently encounter resistance from participants dedicated to the defense of their respective “turfs.” The historian who invades the territory of the physicists, or the economist who incorporates legal doctrine into his presentation—and, I must add, vice-versa—risks attack from the home-guard.
But it is precisely where such boundary lines meet that much creativity occurs. Looking across the boundary line into the neighbor s space can reveal a frontier to be explored. One might discover qualities on the other side that can be synthesized with their own discipline to create an expanded understanding of the world. Cross-disciplinary similarities might also be found, helping to confirm one’s prior thinking. As one noted historian has observed, nineteenth century medical practice in Austria was premised on allowing natural processes of healing to take precedence over interventionist procedures. This attitude also prevailed among many Austrians regarding politics, as well as in the Austrian economics—pioneered by Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises—that eschewed government interference with the marketplace.9 Did earlier principles from the realm of medicine influence economic thought, or might this common principle have a deeper basis of understanding that surfaced within each of these fields?
All creative actions confront the energies that seek to stabilize existing systems, practices, and thought. Elsewhere, I use the metaphor of the “cutting-and-filling” functions of rivers to illustrate the constant interplay between forces of stability and change that pervade nature.10 On the cutting side—where its energy is greater—the river eats into the surrounding bank, bringing earth, plants, and other debris into the stream. On the weaker filling side, dirt and silt collect, and it is here where new plant life forms. In this interaction is found the synthesis between the forces of destruction and consolidation that is the essence of creativity.
We are beginning to develop a better understanding of how the turbulence of chaotic systems produces order in the world. From this enhanced awareness comes a growing appreciation for the individualized and spontaneous nature of the creative process. Privately owned property; personal liberty; respect for contracts—which, in turn, is dependent upon longer-term time preferences; and the decentralization of decision-making, provide the necessary social environment for such inventiveness. The creative energies that gave birth to Western Civilization arose from within individuals who were able to transcend the lines that constrain our understanding and practices to within established boundaries. As has always been the case, within free and independent minds are to be found the frontiers for the creation of new ideas and forms to help us live humanely.
We have seen how civilizations are created by individuals. In the following pages, we shall discover how they are destroyed by collectives11 which are good for little more than the destruction of what others have created. We see this in the sharp contrasts between market economies and state socialism; between the Industrial Revolution and the Soviet Union. In many ways does history remind us of the continuing struggles between the creative energies unleashed by liberty, and the repressive forces of politics. The members of collectives are too dominated by “dark side” forces of mob psychology to ever undertake the prolonged and highly-focused inquiries necessary to the creation of anything fundamentally original. Collectives provide mirror images of minds in the default mode, capable of only reflecting the shared ignorance and prejudices upon which the institutionalized control of humans depends. Because we are unable to identify the names of distant ancestors who produced so much of what we modernly embrace as our common understanding, we are inclined to imagine a collective genesis for the insights of ancient individuals. We gaze, in awe, upon 32,000-year-old handprints found in ancient caves in Spain and France, forgetting that these represented the efforts of individuals to communicate something of themselves to others. Even folk-music and ballads were the creation of unknown individuals rather than collective groups. In the words of H.L. Mencken, there is the “sheer impossibility to imagine them being composed by a gang of oafs whooping and galloping around a May pole.”
Returning to the Austrian microcosm that reflects the fate of Western Civilization generally, when collectivism—in the form of German National Socialism—infected that country, many of its more creative individuals fled to such less-repressive frontiers as America, Switzerland, and England. Gresham’s law finds expression beyond the more familiar confines of government monetary practices. Arnold Schonberg, Franz Werfel, Sigmund Freud, Erwin Schrodinger, Leopold Kohr, the brothers Ludwig and Richard von Mises, Kurt Godel, Karl Popper, Otto Loewi, Olga Hahn-Neurath and her husband Otto Neurath, Anton Ehrenzweig, Lise Meitner, Rudolf Carnap, novelist Stefan Zweig, Rose Rand, Walter Mischel, Edgar Zilsel, Philip Frank, Nobel laureates (in physics) Viktor Francis Hess, Wolfgang Pauli, and (in chemistry) Walter Kohn; painters Herbert Bayer and Georg Mayer-Marton; noted lawyer Hans Kelsen, Fritz Lang, Josef Frank, Gustav Bergmann, Robert Stolz, and Billy Wilder, were among the better known to depart Austria. They joined with such refugees from other European countries as the writers Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann; painters Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Piet Mondrian; conductor Georg Solti, composer Darius Milhaud, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, film-stars Marlene Dietrich and Conrad Veidt; along with Nobel laureates Max Born and Albert Einstein (physics), Fritz Haber (chemistry), and Bernard Katz and Hans Krebs (medicine). In such highly personal ways have civilizations continued the dance between the life-enhancing creativity of individuals, and the collective forces of death and destruction.
Mindful of the historic interplay of forces at work in the creation and death of civilizations, I am of the opinion that Western Civilization—with particular attention directed to its American franchise—has about run its course. While this book focuses on such a prognosis, I also address the question: what is likely to follow from this imminent “decline and fall?” Might the remnants of our terminal culture—like an estate bequeathed us by a rich benefactor—provide the foundations for a fundamentally transformed culture; one that does not cannibalize itself?
Previous civilizations continue to exert their influences, long after their death-certificates have been signed by historians. Philosophy students still begin their studies by reading the ancient Greeks; Roman law and engineering retain their influences into the twenty-first century; Western Civilization, itself, also finds its foundations greatly influenced by the Saracens, whose contributions to mathematics, science, and the replacement of Roman with Arabic numerals, helped lay the foundations for the Renaissance. The evolution of human language, biology, and culture, has arisen through millennia of interconnected, cross-fertilizing relationships. The influences of our ancient, primitive ancestors—who learned how to organize with fellow tribesmen either to hunt for food, or to destroy their neighbors—continue to direct our thought and behavior. Our lineage is traceable both to Attila the Hun and Homer; to Machiavelli as well as Shakespeare; while the contrasting images of Ozymandias and Botticelli’s “Venus” speak to passionate emotions.
Western culture has produced material and spiritual values that have done so much to humanize and civilize mankind. It has also produced highly-structured institutions and practices that not only impede, but reverse these life-enhancing qualities. Is it possible for us to energize our intelligence in order to rediscover, in the debris of our dying civilization, the requisite components for a fundamentally transformed culture grounded in free, peaceful, and productive systems that sustain rather than diminish life?