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!”

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