Section Three Introduction
Friedrich Schiller: On the Aesthetic Education of Man
Charles Fourier: Theory of Four Movements and General Destinies
Sigmund Freud: Civilization and Its Discontents
John Landau: “Civilization and the Primitive”
Max Horkheimer: Eclipse of Reason
Max Horkheimer: Dawn and Decline
Richard Heinberg: “Was Civilization a Mistake?”
Barbara Mor: Here: a small history of a mining town in the American Southwest: Warren Bisbee, AZ
Ivan Illich: Toward a History of Needs
Zygmunt Bauman: Modernity and the Holocaust
T. Fulano: “Civilization Is Like a Jetliner”
Unabomber (a.k.a. “FC”): “Industrial Society and Its Future”
What is civilization? What is culture? Is it possible for a healthy race to be fathered by violence in war or in the slaughter-house and mothered by slaves, ignorant or parasitic? Where is the historian who traces the rise and fall of nations to the standing of women?
Agnes Ryan (1952)
At the close of Section Two, Chellis Glendinning suggests that civilization sprang forth after a long period in which its latent domesticating aspects slowly developed. A gradual, almost imperceptible, growth of specialization, or division of labor, may well have abetted this slippage toward a qualitatively new world of separation and control, as I have argued in Elements of Refusal (1988) and Future Primitive (1994). It seems evident that a struggle of contrary urges was involved; civilization never triumphs without a struggle.
In this section we are concerned with what civilization is, fundamentally. Does it have an inner logic? What is its core nature? At or near its center, its sheer authoritarianism must be recognized.
Michael Mann (1990) saw it this way:
In noncivilized societies escape from the social cage was possible. Authority was freely conferred, but recoverable; power, permanent and coercive, was unattainable.
A related fact is that every civilization in recorded history has routinely engaged in systematic and bloody warfare. It is hard to think of greater control, not to mention the grisly consequences, than that displayed by the institution of war.
Technology is another central locus of domination. Hans Jonas provides an apt description of this modern juggernaut, a cardinal fruit of the will to domesticate:
The danger of disaster attending the Baconian ideal of power over nature through scientific technology arises not so much from the shortcomings of its performance as from the magnitude of its success.
Civilization extends control over the natural and personal worlds, to ever greater lengths, in the direction of absolute manipulation.
In one of the dozen entries in this section, the Unabomber cites the heightened powers of the modern order and the absence of fulfillment one experiences within its now global confines. Most of the other voices testify to other faces or facets: civilization as servitude and sacrifice, sickness, neurosis, psychological misery, frustration, repression, madness, frenzy, impoverishment, mass destruction, and self-destruction.
Civilization, far from setting us free, in fact creates some new need with every new power it develops in us. The fetters of the physical tighten ever more alarmingly, so that fear of losing what we have stifles even the most burning impulse towards improvement, and the maxim of passive obedience passes for the supreme wisdom of life.
Have I not perhaps been too hard on our age in the picture I have just drawn? That is scarcely the reproach I anticipate. Rather a different one: that I have tried to make it prove too much. Such a portrait, you will tell me, does indeed resemble mankind as it is today; but does it not also resemble any people caught up in the process of civilization, since all of them, without exception, must fall away from Nature by the abuse of Reason before they can return to her by the use of Reason?
It was civilization itself which inflicted this wound upon modern man. Once the increase of empirical knowledge, and more exact modes of thought, made sharper divisions between the sciences inevitable, and once the increasingly complex machinery of State necessitated a more rigorous separation of ranks and occupations, then the inner unity of human nature was severed too, and a disastrous conflict set its harmonious powers at variance. The intuitive and the speculative understanding now withdrew in hostility to take up positions in their respective fields, whose frontiers they now began to guard with jealous mistrust; and with this confining of our activity to a particular sphere we have given ourselves a master within, who not infrequently ends by suppressing the rest of our potentialities. While in the one a riotous imagination ravages the hard-won fruits of the intellect, in another the spirit of abstraction stifles the fire at which the heart should have warmed itself and the imagination been kindled.
Thus, however much the world as a whole may benefit through this fragmentary specialization of human powers, it cannot be denied that the individuals affected by it suffer under the curse of this cosmic purpose. Athletic bodies can, it is true, be developed by gymnastic exercises; beauty only through the free and harmonious play of the limbs. In the same way the keying up of individual functions of the mind can indeed produce extraordinary human beings; but only the equal tempering of them all, happy and complete human beings. And in what kind of relation would we stand to either past or future ages, if the development of human nature were to make such sacrifice necessary? We would have been the serfs of mankind; for several millennia we would have done slaves’ work for them, and our mutilated nature would bear impressed upon it the shameful marks of this servitude.
Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.
pp. 27, 29, 33, 35, 43, 107
After the catastrophe of 1793, illusions were swept away, and political science and moral philosophy were permanently stained and discredited. From that point, it became clear that all this acquired knowledge was useless. We had to look for the social good in some new science, and open new avenues for political genius. It was evident that neither the Philosophes or their rivals knew any remedies for social misery. Under either set of dogmas, the most shameful scourges would persist, poverty among them.
Such was the first consideration that led me to suspect the existence of a social science, as yet unknown, and prompted me to attempt to discover it. I was not scared off by my lack of learning; I set my sights on the honor of grasping what twenty-five centuries of scholars had not been able to figure out.
I was encouraged by numerous signs that reason had been led astray, and above all by the thought of the scourges that afflict social industry: indigence, the privation of work, the rewards of double-dealing, maritime piracy, commercial monopoly, the kidnapping of slaves so many misfortunes that they cannot be counted, and which give rise to the suspicion that civilized industry is nothing but a calamity, invented by God to punish humankind.
Given this premise, I assumed that this industry constituted some sort of disruption of the natural order; that it was carried out, perhaps, in a way that contradicted God’s wishes; that the tenacity of so many scourges could be attributed to the absence of some arrangement willed by God, and unknown to our savants. Finally, I thought that if human societies are infected, as Montesquieu believed, “with a sickness of listlessness, with an inward vice, with a secret, hidden venom,” the remedy might be found by avoiding the paths followed by our uncertain sciences that had failed to provide a remedy for so many centuries.”
in Oeuvres Complètes, pp. 34
We come upon a contention which is so astonishing that we must dwell upon it. This contention holds that what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions. I call this contention astonishing because, in whatever way we may define the concept of civilization, it is a certain fact that all the things with which we seek to protect ourselves against the threats that emanate from the sources of suffering are part of that very civilization.
How has it happened that so many people have come to take up this strange attitude of hostility to civilization? I believe that the basis of it was a deep and long-standing dissatisfaction with the then existing state of civilization and that on that basis a condemnation of it was built up, occasioned by certain specific historical events. I think I know what the last and the last but one of those occasions were. I am not learned enough to trace the chain of them far back enough in the history of the human species; but a factor of this kind hostile to civilization must already have been at work in the victory of Christendom over the heathen religions. For it was very closely related to the low estimation put upon earthly life by the Christian doctrine. The last but one of these occasions was when the progress of voyages of discovery led to contact with primitive peoples and races. In consequence of insufficient observation and a mistaken view of their manners and customs, they appeared to Europeans to be leading a simple, happy life with few wants, a life such as was unattainable by their visitors with their superior civilization. Later experience has corrected some of those judgements. In many cases the observers had wrongly attributed to the absence of complicated cultural demands what was in fact due to the bounty of nature and the ease with which the major human needs were satisfied. The last occasion is especially familiar to us. It arose when people came to know about the mechanism of the neuroses, which threaten to undermine the modicum of happiness enjoyed by civilized men. It was discovered that a person becomes neurotic because he cannot tolerate the amount of frustration which society imposes on him in the service of its cultural ideals, and it was inferred from this that the abolition or reduction of those demands would result in a return to possibilities of happiness.
There is also an added factor of disappointment. During the last few generations mankind has made an extraordinary advance in the natural sciences and in their technical application and has established his control over nature in a way never before imagined. The single steps of this advance are common knowledge and it is unnecessary to enumerate them. Men are proud of those achievements, and have a right to be. But they seem to have observed that this newly-won power over space and time, this subjugation of the forces of nature, which is the fulfillment of a longing that goes back thousands of years, has not increased the amount of pleasurable satisfaction which they may expect from life and has not made them feel happier.
If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization possibly the whole of mankind have become ‘neurotic’?
pp. 3335, 91
What is Primitive?
Primitive is trusting, trusting, trusting. It is naked. It is moving through language to ecstasy. The language of the body, of vocal chords, of dreams and vital ideas. The language of smells. Primitive is the naked foot touching the naked ground. Primitive is not without ideas, but ideas that hold together, embrace, and integrate the instincts. Primitive is dancing, the body moving on impulses. Primitive is letting go of confusion, embracing multiplicity. Primitive is getting lost in all you can be. Primitive is drifting, it is mastery of power expressed. It is bodies congregated in howling, painted packs. It is passion expressing itself in form; it is cunning grounding itself in stalking; it is cruelty creating itself through sensual ritual. Primitive is combat as love, pain as coming-closer, bewilderment as freefall into the ocean of being. It is wet, it is covered in mud, it is amniotic. Primitive is the gathering of plant and animal spirits; it is the hunting of mystery. It is difference bounding wild through fields of color, running free from ideals for the dangerous traps they are, fascinated all the same. Primitive is trusting the earth, the ground beneath one’s feet.
What is Civilization?
Civilization is distrust, it is out-of-touch, it is pretense without play, pretending it is NOT. Civilization is only NOT; it makes sure it is NOT.
It must have negation or it ceases to exist. Civilization is Either/Or. Civilization is “a place for everything and everything in its place” (but nowhere except in its place; while primitive is no place for any thing, for verb is all, as activity or rest.) Civilization is the search for Extraterrestrial life, the desire to leave the earth. Civilization is disdain of the dirt, the soil, the mud. Civilization is being chained to the mind of Ideals, any ideals. Civilization is perfection wreaking havoc on a squirming, squiggling, writhing, bumbling, blustering creature. It is the machine, fragmentation, the violation of integrity into coordinated parts. It is homelessness, exiled everywhere, therefore colonizing all it sees. It is life frustrated, frustrated, frustrated. It is manipulation. It is the belief that only the Good maintains the universe, for without it all would collapse; therefore, it is the demonizing of all it calls evil. It is the domination of paranoia, and therefore the paranoia of domination. Civilization is not fooling around, not blowing your top, not having a temper tantrum, not touching, not following your drift, not ease, not acting like those who are “lower” than you, not farting, not belching, not napping, not breathing, not crying, not resting. It is a litany of “not’s” (/knots). It has no substance, therefore it must overcome all it is not in order to prove to itself it exists. Civilization is Envy, it hates itself, the other side is greener, we must have it, the greed that comes from worthlessness, the desperate blotting out of the whole, therefore the feigning of superiority to save face, whoever saves the most face wins.
Domination of nature involves domination of man. Each subject not only has to take part in the subjugation of external nature, human and nonhuman, but in order to do so must subjugate nature in himself. Domination becomes ‘internalized’ for domination’s sake. What is usually indicated as a goal the happiness of the individual, health, and wealth gains its significance exclusively from its functional potentiality. These terms designate favorable conditions for intellectual and material production. Therefore self-renunciation of the individual in industrialist society has no goal transcending industrialist society. Such abnegation brings about rationality with reference to means and irrationality with reference to human existence. Society and its institutions, no less than the individual himself, bear the mark of this discrepancy. Since the subjugation of nature, in and outside of man, goes on without a meaningful motive, nature is not really transcended or reconciled but merely repressed.
Resistance and revulsion arising from this repression of nature have beset civilization from its beginnings, in the form of social rebellions as in the spontaneous peasant insurrections of the sixteenth century or the cleverly staged race riots of our own day as well as in the form of individual crime and mental derangement. Typical of our present era is the manipulation of this revolt by the prevailing forces of civilization itself, the use of the revolt as a means of perpetuating the very conditions by which it is stirred up and against which it is directed. Civilization as rationalized irrationality integrates the revolt of nature as another means or instrument.
The story of the boy who looked up at the sky and asked, ‘Daddy, what is the moon supposed to advertise?’ is an allegory of what has happened to the relation between man and nature in the era of formalized reason. On the one hand, nature has been stripped of all intrinsic value or meaning. On the other, man has been stripped of all aims except self-preservation. He tries to transform everything within reach into a means to that end. Every word or sentence that hints of relations other than pragmatic is suspect. When a man is asked to admire a thing, to respect a feeling or attitude, to love a person for his own sake, he smells sentimentality and suspects that someone is pulling his leg or trying to sell him something. Though people may not ask what the moon is supposed to advertise, they tend to think of it in terms of ballistics or aerial mileage.
The complete transformation of the world into a world of means rather than of ends is itself the consequence of the historical development of the methods of production. As material production and social organization grow more complicated and reified, recognition of means as such becomes increasingly difficult, since they assume the appearance of autonomous entities. As long as the means of production are primitive, the forms of social organization are primitive.
Speculative thought, from the economic point of view, was doubtless a luxury that, in a society based on group domination only a class of people exempt from hard labor could afford. The intellectuals, for whom Plato and Aristotle were the first great European spokesmen, owe their very existence, and their leisure to indulge in speculation, to the system of domination from which they try to emancipate themselves intellectually. The vestiges of this paradoxical situation can be discovered in various systems of thought. Today and this is certainly progress the masses know that such freedom for contemplation crops up only occasionally. It was always a privilege of certain groups, which automatically built up an ideology hypostatizing their privilege as a human virtue; thus it served actual ideological purposes, glorifying those exempt from manual labor. Hence the distrust aroused by the group. In our era the intellectual is, indeed, not exempt from the pressure that the economy exerts upon him to satisfy the ever-changing demands of reality. Consequently, mediation, which looked to eternity, is superseded by pragmatic intelligence, which looks to the next moment. Instead of losing its character as a privilege, speculative thought is altogether liquidated and this can hardly be called progress. It is true that in this process nature has lost its awesomeness, its qualitates occultae, but, completely deprived of the chance to speak through the minds of men even in the distorted language of these privileged groups, nature seems to be taking its revenge.
Modern insensitivity to nature is indeed only a variation of the pragmatic attitude that is typical of Western civilization as a whole. The forms are different. The early trapper saw in the prairies and mountains only the prospects of good hunting; the modern businessman sees in the landscape an opportunity for the display of cigarette posters. The fate of animals in our world is symbolized by an item printed in newspapers of a few years ago. It reported that landings of planes in Africa were often hampered by herds of elephants and other beasts. Animals are here considered simply as obstructors of traffic. This mentality of man as the master can be traced back to the first chapters of Genesis. The few precepts in favor of animals that we encounter in the Bible have been interpreted by the most outstanding religious thinkers, Paul, Thomas Aquinas, and Luther, as pertaining only to the moral education of man, and in no wise to any obligation of man toward other creatures. Only man’s soul can be saved; animals have but the right to suffer. “Some men and women,’ wrote a British churchman a few years ago, ‘suffer and die for the life, the welfare, the happiness of others. This law is continually seen in operation. The supreme example of it was shown to the world (I write with reverence) on Calvary. Why should animals be exempted from the operation of this law or principle?” Pope Pius IX did not permit a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals to be founded in Rome because, as he declared, theology teaches that man owes no duty to any animal. National Socialism, it is true, boasted of its protection of animals, but only in order to humiliate more deeply those ‘inferior races’ whom they treated as mere nature.
pp. 9394, 101105
In the Circus: Through the image of the elephant in the circus, man’s technological superiority becomes conscious of itself. With whip and iron hooks, the ponderous animal is brought in. On command, it raises its right, its left foot, its trunk, describes a circle, lies down laboriously and finally, as the whip is being cracked, it stands on two legs which can barely support the heavy body.
For many hundreds of years, that’s what the elephant has had to do to please people. But one should say nothing against the circus or the act in the ring. It is no more foreign, no more inappropriate, probably more suitable to the animal than the slave labor for whose sake it entered human history. In the arena, where the elephant looks like the image of eternal wisdom as it confronts the stupidity of the spectators and where, among fools, it makes a few foolish gestures for the sake of peace and quiet, the objective unreason of the compulsory service which serves the rational purpose of the Indian timber market still reveals itself. That men depend on such labor to then be obliged to subject themselves to it as well is ultimately their own disgrace. The enslavement of the animal as the mediation of their existence through work that goes against their own and alien nature has the result that that existence is as external to them as the circus act is to the animal. Rousseau had an intimation of this when he wrote his prize-winning essays. Civilization as stultification. (p. 145)
Having been chosen, whether as devil’s advocate or sacrificial lamb, I am not sure, to lead off this discussion on the question, “Was Civilization a Mistake?”, I would like to offer some preliminary thoughts.
From the viewpoint of any non-civilized person, this consideration would appear to be steeped in irony. Here we are, after all, some of the most civilized people on the planet, discussing in the most civilized way imaginable whether civilization itself might be an error. Most of our fellow civilians would likely find our discussion, in addition to being ironic, also disturbing and pointless: after all, what person who has grown up with cars, electricity, and television would relish the idea of living without a house, and of surviving only on wild foods?
Nevertheless, despite the possibility that at least some of our remarks may be ironic, disturbing, and pointless, here we are. Why? I can only speak for myself. In my own intellectual development I have found that a critique of civilization is virtually inescapable for two reasons.
The first has to do with certain deeply disturbing trends in the modern world. We are, it seems, killing the planet. Revisionist “wise use” advocates tell us there is nothing to worry about; dangers to the environment, they say, have been wildly exaggerated. To me this is the most blatant form of wishful thinking. By most estimates, the oceans are dying, the human population is expanding far beyond the long-term carrying capacity of the land, the ozone layer is disappearing, and the global climate is showing worrisome signs of instability. Unless drastic steps are taken, in fifty years the vast majority of the world’s population will likely be existing in conditions such that the lifestyle of virtually any undisturbed primitive tribe would be paradise by comparison.
Now, it can be argued that civilization per se is not at fault, that the problems we face have to do with unique economic and historical circumstances. But we should at least consider the possibility that our modern industrial system represents the flowering of tendencies that go back quite far. This, at any rate, is the implication of recent assessments of the ecological ruin left in the wake of the Roman, Mesopotamian, Chinese and other prior civilizations. Are we perhaps repeating their errors on a gargantuan scale?
If my first reason for criticizing civilization has to do with its effects on the environment, the second has to do with its impact on human beings. As civilized people, we are also domesticated. We are to primitive peoples as cows and sheep are to bears and eagles. On the rental property where I live in California my landlord keeps two white domesticated ducks. These ducks have been bred to have wings so small as to prevent them from flying. This is a convenience for their keepers, but compared to wild ducks these are pitiful creatures.
Many primal peoples tend to view us as pitiful creatures, too though powerful and dangerous because of our technology and sheer numbers. They regard civilization as a sort of social disease. We civilized people appear to act as though we were addicted to a powerful drug - a drug that comes in the forms of money, factory-made goods, oil, and electricity. We are helpless without this drug, so we have come to see any threat to its supply as a threat to our very existence. Therefore we are easily manipulated by desire (for more) or fear (that what we have will be taken away) and powerful commercial and political interests have learned to orchestrate our desires and fears in order to achieve their own purposes of profit and control. If told that the production of our drug involves slavery, stealing, and murder, or the ecological equivalents, we try to ignore the news so as not to have to face an intolerable double bind.
Since our present civilization is patently ecologically unsustainable in its present form, it follows that our descendants will be living very differently in a few decades, whether their new way of life arises by conscious choice or by default. If humankind is to choose its path deliberately, I believe that our deliberations should include a critique of civilization itself, such as we are undertaking here. The question implicit in such a critique is, What we have done poorly or thoughtlessly in the past that we can do better now? It is in this constructive spirit that I offer the comments that follow.
What is Primitivism?
The image of a lost Golden Age of freedom and innocence is at the heart of all the world’s religions, is one of the most powerful themes in the history of human thought, and is the earliest and most characteristic expression of primitivism the perennial belief in the necessity of a return to origins.
As a philosophical idea, primitivism has had as its proponents: Lao Tze, Rousseau, and Thoreau, as well as most of the pre-Socratics, the medieval Jewish and Christian theologians, and 19th- and 20th-century anarchist social theorists, all of whom argued (on different bases and in different ways) the superiority of a simple life close to nature. More recently, many anthropologists have expressed admiration for the spiritual and material advantages of the ways of life of the world’s most “primitive” societies the surviving gathering-and-hunting peoples who now make up less than one hundredth of one percent of the world’s population.
Meanwhile, as civilization approaches a crisis precipitated by overpopulation and the destruction of the ecological integrity of the planet, primitivism has enjoyed a popular resurgence, by way of increasing interest in shamanism, tribal customs, herbalism, radical environmentalism, and natural foods. There is a widespread (though by no means universally shared) sentiment that civilization has gone too far in its domination of nature, and that in order to survive or, at least, to live with satisfaction we must regain some of the spontaneity and naturalness of our early ancestors.
What is Civilization?
There are many possible definitions of the word civilization. Its derivation from civis, “town” or “city” suggests that a minimum definition would be, “urban culture.” Civilization also seems to imply writing, division of labor, agriculture, organized warfare, growth of population, and social stratification.
Yet the latest evidence calls into question the idea that these traits always go together. For example, Elizabeth Stone and Paul Zimansky’s assessment of power relations in the Mesopotamian city of Maskan-shapir (published in the April 1995 Scientific American) suggests that urban culture need not imply class divisions. Their findings seem to show that civilization in its earliest phase was free of these. Still, for the most part the history of civilization in the Near East, the Far East, and Central America, is also the history of kingship, slavery, conquest, agriculture, overpopulation, and environmental ruin. And these traits continue in civilization’s most recent phases the industrial state and the global market though now the state itself takes the place of the king, and slavery becomes wage labor and de facto colonialism administered through multinational corporations. Meanwhile, the mechanization of production (which began with agriculture) is overtaking nearly every avenue of human creativity, population is skyrocketing and organized warfare is resulting in unprecedented levels of bloodshed.
Wild Self/Domesticated Self
People are shaped from birth by their cultural surroundings and by their interactions with the people closest to them. Civilization manipulates these primary relationships in such a way as to domesticate the infant that is, so as to accustom it to life in a social structure one step removed from nature. The actual process of domestication is describable as follows, using terms borrowed from the object-relations school of psychology.
The infant lives entirely in the present moment in a state of pure lust and guilelessness, deeply bonded with her mother. But as she grows, she discovers that her mother is a separate entity with her own priorities and limits. The infant’s experience of relationship changes from one of spontaneous trust to one that is suffused with need and longing. This creates a gap between Self and Other in the consciousness of the child, who tries to fill this deepening rift with transitional objects initially, perhaps a teddy bear; later, additions and beliefs that serve to fill the psychic gap and thus provide a sense of security. It is the powerful human need for transitional objects that drives individuals in their search for property and power, and that generates bureaucracies and technologies as people pool their efforts.
This process does not occur in the same way in the case of primitive childbearing, where the infant is treated with indulgence, is in constant physical contact with a caregiver throughout infancy, and later undergoes rites of passage. In primal cultures the need for transitional objects appears to be minimized. Anthropological and psychological research converge to suggest that many of civilized people’s emotional ills come from our culture’s abandonment of natural childrearing methods and initiatory rites and its systematic substitution of alienating pedagogical practices from crib through university.
Health: Natural or Artificial?
In terms of health and quality of life, civilization has been a mitigated disaster. S. Boyd Eaton, M.D., et al., argued in The Paleolithic Prescription (1988) that pre-agricultural peoples enjoyed a generally healthy way of life, and that cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, emphysema, hypertension, and cirrhosis which together lead to 75 percent of all mortality in industrialized nations are caused by our civilized lifestyles. In terms of diet and exercise, preagricultural lifestyles showed a clear superiority to those of agricultural and civilized peoples.
Much-vaunted increases in longevity in civilized populations have resulted not so much from wonder drugs, as merely from better sanitation - a corrective for conditions created by the overcrowding of cities; and from reductions in infant mortality. It is true that many lives have been spared by modern antibiotics. Yet antibiotics also appear responsible for the evolution of resistant strains of microbes, which health officials now fear could produce unprecedented epidemics in the next century.
The ancient practice of herbalism, evidence of which dates back at least 60,000 years, is practiced in instinctive fashion by all higher animals. Herbal knowledge formed the basis of modern medicine and remains in many ways superior to it. In countless instances, modern synthetic drugs have replaced herbs not because they are safer or more effective, but because they are more profitable to manufacture.
Other forms of “natural” healing massage, the “placebo effect,” the use of meditation and visualization are also being shown effective. Medical doctors Bernie Siegel and Deepak Chopra are critical of mechanized medicine and say that the future of the healing profession lies in the direction of attitudinal and natural therapies.
Spirituality: Raw or Cooked?
Spirituality means different things to different people - humility before a higher power or powers; compassion for the suffering of others; obedience to a lineage or tradition; a felt connection with the Earth or with Nature; evolution toward “higher” states of consciousness; or the mystical experience of oneness with all life or with God. With regard to each of these fundamental ways of defining or experiencing the sacred, spontaneous spirituality seems to become regimented, dogmatized, even militarized, with the growth of civilization. While some of the founders of world religions were intuitive primitivists (Jesus, Lao Tze, the Buddha), their followers have often fostered the growth of dominance hierarchies.
The picture is not always simple, though. The thoroughly civilized Roman Catholic Church produced two of the West’s great primitivists - St. Francis and St. Clair; while the neo-shamanic, vegetarian, and herbalist movements of early 20th century Germany attracted arch-authoritarians Heinrich Himmler and Adolph Hitler. Of course, Nazism’s militarism and rigid dominator organization were completely alien to primitive life, while St. Francis’s and St. Clair’s voluntary poverty and treatment of animals as sacred were reminiscent of the lifestyle and worldview of most gathering-and-hunting peoples. If Nazism was atavistic, it was only highly selectively so.
Economics: Free or Affordable?
At its base, economics is about how people relate with the land and with one another in the process of fulfilling their material wants and needs. In the most primitive societies, these relations are direct and straightforward. Land, shelter, and food are free. Everything is shared, there are no rich people or poor people, and happiness has little to do with accumulating material possessions. The primitive lives in relative abundance (all needs and wants are easily met) and has plenty of leisure time.
Civilization, in contrast, straddles two economic pillars technological innovation and the marketplace. “Technology” here includes everything from the plow to the nuclear reactor all are means to more efficiently extract energy and resources from nature. But efficiency implies the reification of time, and so civilization always brings with it a preoccupation with past and future; eventually the present moment nearly vanishes from view. The elevation of efficiency over other human values is epitomized in the factory the automated workplace in which the worker becomes merely an appendage of the machine, a slave to clocks and wages.
The market is civilization’s means of equating dissimilar things through a medium of exchange. As we grow accustomed to valuing everything according to money, we tend to lose a sense of the uniqueness of things. What, after all, is an animal worth, or a mountain, or a redwood tree, or an hour of human life? The market gives us a numerical answer based on scarcity and demand. To the degree that we believe that such values have meaning, we live in a world that is desacralized and desensitized, without heart or spirit.
We can get some idea of ways out of our ecologically ruinous, humanly deadening economic cage by examining not only primitive lifestyles, but the proposals of economist E. F. Schumacher, the experiences of people in utopian communities in which technology and money are marginalized, and the lives of individuals who have adopted an attitude of voluntary simplicity.
Government: Bottom Up or Top Down?
In the most primitive human societies there are no leaders, bosses, politics, laws, crime, or taxes. There is often little division of labor between women and men, and where such division exists both gender’s contributions are often valued more or less equally. Probably as a result, many foraging peoples are relatively peaceful. Anthropologist Richard Lee found that the !Kung [Bushmen of southern Africa] hate fighting, and think anybody who fought would be stupid.
With agriculture usually come division of labor, increased sexual inequality, and the beginnings of social hierarchy. Priests, kings, and organized impersonal warfare all seem to come together in one package. Eventually, laws and borders define the creation of the fully fledged state. The state as a focus of coercion and violence has reached its culmination in the 19th and 20th centuries in colonialism, fascism, and Stalinism. Even the democratic industrial state functions essentially as an instrument of multinational corporate-style colonial oppression and domestic enslavement, its citizens merely being given the choice between selected professional bureaucrats representing political parties with slightly varying agendas for the advancement of corporate power.
Beginning with William Godwin in the early 19th century, anarchist social philosophers have offered a critical counterpoint to the increasingly radical statism of most of the world’s civilized political leaders. The core idea of anarchism is that human beings are fundamentally sociable; left to themselves, they tend to cooperate to their mutual benefit. There will always be exceptions, but these are best dealt with informally and on an individual basis. Many anarchists cite the Athenian polis, the “sections” in Paris during the French Revolution, the New England town meetings of the 18th century, the popular assemblies in Barcelona in the late 1930s, and the Paris general strike of 1968 as positive examples of anarchy in action. They point to the possibility of a kind of social ecology, in which diversity and spontaneity are permitted to flourish unhindered both in human affairs and in Nature.
Civilization and Nature
Civilized people are accustomed to an anthropocentric view of the world. Our interest in the environment is utilitarian: it is of value because it is of use (or potential use) to human beings - if only as a place for camping and recreation.
Primitive peoples, in contrast, tended to see nature as intrinsically meaningful. In many cultures prohibitions surrounded the overhunting of animals or the felling of trees. The aboriginal peoples of Australia believed that their primary purpose in the cosmic scheme of things was to take care of the land, which meant performing ceremonies for the periodic renewal of plant and animal species, and of the landscape itself. The difference in effects between the anthropocentric and ecocentric worldviews is incalculable. At present, we human beings while considering ourselves the most intelligent species on the planet are engaged in the most unintelligent enterprise imaginable: the destruction of our own natural life-support system. We need here only mention matters such as the standard treatment of factory-farmed domesticated food animals, the destruction of soils, the pollution of air and water, and the extinctions of wild species, as these horrors are well documented. It seems unlikely that these could ever have arisen but for an entrenched and ever-deepening trend of thinking that separates humanity from its natural context and denies inherent worth to non-human nature.
in Green Anarchist, Autumn 1997
From the top rim downward, sheer cascades of colors: mauve, gold, rust, purple, pink, silver, blue, incandescent turquoise. Streaks of orange, streaks of fire, yellow streaks of toxic arsenic. Radioactive greens of lime and fungus. Each color spilled over the others, in corroded terraced levels, channeled by erosion, avalanched by rain, crusted, broken open, merged; each geologic texture, as though alive, crawling over the variegated lumps and rubble of the earthly flesh that came before. And over this, the solid spills of individual rocks, orthorhombic crystals, dredging gears, rusted-out elbows, coils of wire, buttons, nails, hair curlers, stray lead bullets, all runneling, flowing in geological slow motion one over another down to the center of the hole. Deep, deep down. The entire technological history of the Pit was thus laid bare to any observer, in concentric layer after layer, vast polychronic slide upon slide, sloping down from the first simple surface diggings, by hand and stick, of the precivilized beings, immemorial years ago, downward through sediments of beauty, sediments of grief, sediments of nothing very important or useful, sediments of historical overthrow, one solid layer of crushed bones; and then further down the notable sediments of great wealth and petrochemical power, sediments of capital gains, sediments of wrapping paper, one solid sedimentary level each of glass, electrical conducting alloy, and stockpiled war material.
When first civilized beings arrived in the region, in wagons and on horseback, they found indigenous naked creatures squatting in the dirt, digging up small geological objects with bare hands and pointed sticks. Thus the Pit’s origin, in what was then only a slight depression of the earth, a sandy little dip. The objects sought by the natives were simple gem stones, turquoise, azurite, malachite, roughly polished and used ornamentally. In the childlike mental grasp of these early beings there was no concept of serious mining, a factor which helped account for their elimination.
With settlement, mining began in earnest. Men came from everywhere, attracted by the adventure. The Pit grew into the largest intentional hole on the earth’s surface. Innovators, in the early years, introduced various subterranean approaches to the extraction of ores from earth, but the straightforward digging of a hole, deeper and deeper into the ground, always seemed the most expeditious method for this terrain. Several hundred males, equipped with picks and shovels, simply began digging; as the hole grew, timbers were used to shore up the higher levels of dirt, and these shorings congealed into a circumference of terraces. Later, tracks were built, for railcars, and mules brought in to haul them; deeper down, around and around; the workforce grew from a few hundred to thousands. When groundwater seeped into working levels, as it did more often at greater depths, giant sponges were brought in to soak up the intruding fluids. When water flooded in, violently, without warning, drowning hundreds of workers, and burying hundreds more beneath tons of collapsed earth, the sponges were hooked up behind the mule-drawn railcars and dragged down and around the wet circumference, gradually soaking up the waters. The sponges were periodically wrung out by giant rollers (similar to old-fashioned washingmachine wringers), into the railcars, and the water hauled by more patient mules around and upward to the dry surface; the method was as simple as it was efficient. Drowned bodies were usually soaked up also, lodging in the sponge holes, and removed by the same process; if not, the bones were extracted by shovels from dried sediments at a later date. At great depths, the sponges were working constantly, and pipe systems were eventually installed to transport the fluids, which at some point became quite valuable.
The first substances ordinary gold, silver, copper. Gears. When the legendary gear ran out, no problem. It was followed in quick succession by equally enormous outpourings of nails, ballbearings, screws, the aforementioned lead bullets, and office paper clips. Car windshields and batteries alternated with hand grenades and gasmasks. At one point cigarette lighters flowed out at the rate of 1,523 per minute in precise alternation with 1,523 cans of lighter fluid; this was troublesome when they ignited each other (due to worker error) and the entire level erupted in a blazing inferno of metallic flames reaching almost to the Pit’s rim. It burned for three nights and three days. Untold numbers of workers were lost, along with the tragic destruction of 8,632,948 cans of lighter fluid and 8,632,948 cigarette lighters.
When the smoke cleared, the Pit revealed walls of char and molten rivulets; a season’s rain was needed to wash down the blackness. This was a difficult time. The fire had sealed over, cauterized the hundreds of thousands of productive little holes from which such great abundance had recently poured. The earth was streaked with hardness, a surface meld of alloys from so many stray bullets, gears, paper clips, cigarette lighters, etc. Newly recruited workteams went down into the Pit to dig with pickaxes and sledgehammers. As they shattered, uprooted, peeled back this fused metalloid carapace from large scarred flanks and thighs of the damaged inner hole, they uncovered raw blotches of more disgusting things: layers upon layers of half-corroded used sanitary napkins, douche bags, enema hoses and syringes, broken rotten teeth, and the overwhelming stench of something dead. As before, but with increased efficiency, these nauseating items were gathered into large heaps and disposed of immediately. (The death smell of course lingered until the production of aerosol cans.) And then around the edges of these picked scabs, as it were, from around the nocturnal fringes of such terrible scars and unmentionable uses, something new began to ooze. A gooey substance, pellucid green in color. Shyly at first, and then with increasing ebullience, it crept and flowed and jiggled over the lower Pit surface, covering over the recent devastation like an innocent vegetation or spring grass. Something about it invited tasting. Several workers vomited at the thought. But then one, then another, then another and another, bent over and dipped a delicate forefinger in the happy green substance overwhelming their rubber boots, now, to the knees; and tasted. And found it good.
It was mid-century. A difficult period had been experienced, but a challenging one.
Then the deep well of Ink turned red viscid red; when managers went down to test it, their pens clogged, or the words they wrote all looked like death scrawls. And the air was saturated with a thick odor, unlike all others; Dobermans guarding the town’s five mansions howled day and night, an incessant whining that became invisible, inaudible as the voice of everything and everyone.
It soaked the rolling hills, pushing gelatinous clots to the surface of coarse dirt. Cracks in the sidewalks filled with red, cement and dust lots permeated with red stains. Red flowing gutters, the flood ditches awash with red. Citizens sprayed driveways and garages with lawn hoses, trying to prevent the disfigurement of cars. But the blood seeped everywhere, and the arroyos surrounding the town were as open veins. Trees and bushes began to suck up the red fluid from their roots, as did the porous walls of the great houses. Within five days it had entered the town’s water supply. A mine manager, sprinkling his front lawn in the summer evening of a dry day, turned his hose on a little garden patch of cacti, oleander and budding agave. The black-flecked water spraying out suddenly turned to rust, clogged, and then with explosive force began pouring a stream of pure blood. With the mental control of an executive he continued spraying plants, a perfect, silent adjustment to this final change, as the red viscosity covered his lawn and garden, his gray pants and canvas shoes, with spatters, globs and blotches of an irrepressible bloody dew. With the appearance of blood in the water pipes, the town’s small hospital staff fled, citing a conflict of interest. And with great regret, the Mine Museum closed. The few visitors who did come, after the news got out, were reluctant to park their cars and then walk 25 yards through sticky, scarlet clots to the Museum entrance. In high winds the clots moved, like tumbleweeds of blood. A bridge was built, to accommodate these tourists; but the gluey blobs continued to mass and ooze on the threshold and pile up against the Museum windows. Beings not used to it found this offensive. With cessation of the tourist trade, the town’s residents also realized the market shelves had grown quite bare; no food had been delivered for weeks. At this point the Town Council voted to become officially self-sufficient. Indeed, with blood flowing freely through all the town’s plumbing, from home faucets, from drinking fountains in banks and gas stations and even the dusty park, most beings had become quite satisfied with this diet.
Some worried about the town’s isolation. Incoming roads were silent, mail to and from the outside world ceased. Rarely, a small private airplane flew over in the late afternoon, attempting colored postcard shots of the Pit; but these were sensationalists, who never landed, who were not interested in the ordinary, daily life of the town. In a lonely show of spirit, the postmaster and two postal workers devised a combination stamp and postmark for the local mail. Using sponges soaked in blood from the bathroom tap, they dipped and affixed their bloody thumbprints to the top righthand corner of every envelope dropped through their slots. Unfortunately, town residents had little to say to each other, by mail or otherwise; the post office closed. Eventually the postal workers were reemployed as trash burners at the dumpsite east of town. They now shovel great white and red heaps of paper products into the flames, blood-saturated napkins, tablecloths and medical gowns that smoulder and crackle thickly throughout the night, releasing a stench similar to burning corpse flesh; which, of course, everyone has grown used to.
From its experience, the town has learned something profound about the nature of its own will, as of the mysterious hidden resources of the Earth. Deeper and deeper, as it had descended into the dark downward and abysm not solely of time but of its own evolution, what it had dug with its historic fingers from this soiled Hole, so to speak, was an implacable knowledge others could profit from, if others would: That the inexorable becomes the simply inextricable, and thus the normal; and vice versa. If only beings strive to make it so. The question of whose blood is never raised. Nor, if the hole extends through the globe to China, could it be Communist blood? Intellectual quibbling is extraneous to the town’s experience of itself.
Some beings from the outside have called the Pit a Living Wound, citing the bloodflow as a strong proof. But morbid and negative metaphors do not make the world turn; as gears do, for example, or ball bearings. Or as now, the mining of blood.
Modernized poverty appears when the intensity of market dependence reaches a certain threshold. Subjectively, it is the experience of frustrating affluence which occurs in persons mutilated by their overwhelming reliance on the riches of industrial productivity. Simply, it deprives those affected by it of their freedom and power to act autonomously, to live creatively; it confines them to survival through being plugged into market relations. And precisely because this new impotence is so deeply experienced, it is with difficulty expressed. We are the witnesses of a barely perceptible transformation in ordinary language by which verbs that formerly designated satisfying actions are replaced by nouns that denote packages designed for passive consumption only: for example, “to learn” becomes “acquisition of credits.” A profound change in individual and social self-images is here reflected. And the layman is not the only one who has difficulty in accurately describing what he experiences. The professional economist is unable to recognize the poverty his conventional instruments fail to uncover. Nevertheless, the new mutant of impoverishment continues to spread. The peculiarly modern inability to use personal endowments, communal life, and environmental resources in an autonomous way infects every aspect of life where a professionally engineered commodity has succeeded in replacing a culturally shaped use-value. The opportunity to experience personal and social satisfaction outside the market is thus destroyed. I am poor, for instance, when the use-value of my feet is lost because I live in Los Angeles on the thirty-fifth floor.
This new impotence-producing poverty must not be confused with the widening gap between the consumption of rich and poor in a world where basic needs are increasingly shaped by industrial commodities. That gap is the form traditional poverty assumes in an industrial society, and the conventional terms of class struggle appropriately reveal and reduce it. I further distinguish modernized poverty from the burdensome price exacted by the externalities which increased levels of production spew into the environment. It is clear that these kinds of pollution, stress, and taxation are unequally imposed. Correspondingly, defenses against such depredations are unequally distributed. But like the new gaps in access, such inequities in social costs are aspects of industrialized poverty for which economic indicators and objective verification can be found. Such is not true for the industrialized impotence which affects both rich and poor. Where this kind of poverty reigns, life without addictive access to commodities is rendered either impossible or criminal. Making do without consumption becomes impossible, not just for the average consumer but even for the poor. All forms of welfare, from affirmative action to environmental action, are of no help. The liberty to design and craft one’s own distinctive dwelling is abolished in favor of the bureaucratic provision of standardized housing, as in the United States, Cuba or Sweden. The organization of employment, skills, building resources, rules, and credit favor shelter as a commodity rather than as an activity. Whether the product is provided by an entrepreneur or an apparatchik, the effective result is the same: citizen impotence, our specifically modern experience of poverty.
Wherever the shadow of economic growth touches us, we are left useless unless employed on a job or engaged in consumption; the attempt to build a house or set a bone outside the control of certified specialists appears as anarchic conceit. We lose sight of our resources, lose control over the environmental conditions which make these resources applicable, lose taste for self-reliant coping with challenges from without and anxiety from within. Take childbirth in Mexico today: delivery without professional care has become unthinkable for those women whose husbands are regularly employed and therefore have access to social services, no matter how marginal or tenuous. They move in circles where the production of babies faithfully reflects the patterns of industrial outputs. Yet their sisters in the slums of the poor or the villages of the isolated still feel quite competent to give birth on their own mats, unaware that they face a modern indictment of criminal neglect toward their infants. But as professionally engineered delivery models reach these independent women, the desire, competence, and conditions for autonomous behavior are being destroyed.
For advanced industrial society, the modernization of poverty means that people are helpless to recognize evidence unless it has been certified by a professional, be he a television weather commentator or an educator; that organic discomfort becomes intolerably threatening unless it has been medicalized into dependence on a therapist; that neighbors and friends are lost unless vehicles bridge the separating distance (created by the vehicles in the first place). In short, most of the time we find ourselves out of touch with our world, out of sight of those for whom we work, out of tune with what we feel.
The meaning of the civilizing process he etiological myth deeply entrenched in the self-consciousness of our Western society is the morally elevating story of humanity emerging from pre-social barbarity. This myth lent stimulus and popularity to, and in turn was given a learned and sophisticated support by, quite a few influential sociological theories and historical narratives.
In view of this myth, long ago ossified into the common sense of our era, the Holocaust can only be understood as the failure of civilization (i.e. of human purposive, reason-guided activity) to contain the morbid natural predilections of whatever has been left of nature in man. Obviously, the Hobbesian world has not been fully chained, the Hobbesian problem has not been fully resolved. In other words, we do not have as yet enough civilization. The unfinished civilizing process is yet to be brought to its conclusion. If the lesson of mass murder does teach us anything it is that the prevention of similar hiccups of barbarism evidently requires still more civilizing efforts. There is nothing in this lesson to cast doubt on the future effectiveness of such efforts and their ultimate results. We certainly move in the right direction; perhaps we do not move fast enough.
As its full picture emerges from historical research, so does an alternative, and possible more credible, interpretation of the Holocaust as an event which disclosed the weakness and fragility of human nature (of the abhorrence of murder, disinclination to violence, fear of guilty conscience and of responsibility for immoral behaviour) when confronted with the matter-of-fact efficiency of the most cherished among the products of civilization; its technology, its rational criteria of choice, its tendency to subordinate thought and action to the pragmatics of economy and effectiveness. The Hobbesian world of the Holocaust did not surface from its too-shallow grave, resurrected by the tumult of irrational emotions. It arrived (in a formidable shape Hobbes would certainly disown) in a factory-produced vehicle, wielding weapons only the most advanced science could supply, and following an itinerary designed by scientifically managed organization. Modern civilization was not the Holocaust’s sufficient condition; it was, however, most certainly its necessary condition. Without it, the Holocaust would be unthinkable. It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable. The Nazi mass murder of the European Jewry was not only the technological achievement of an industrial society, but also the organizational achievement of a bureaucratic society.
The most shattering of lessons deriving from the analysis of the ‘twisted road to Auschwitz’ is that - in the last resort - the choice of physical extermination as the right means to the task of Entfernung was a product of routine bureaucratic procedures: means-end calculus, budget balancing, universal rule application. To make the point sharper still the choice was an effect of the earnest effort to find rational solutions to successive ‘problems’, as they arose in the changing circumstances. It was also affected by the widely described bureaucratic tendency to goal-displacement - an affliction as normal in all bureaucracies as their routines. The very presence of functionaries charged with their specific tasks led to further initiatives and a continuous expansion of original purposes. Once again, expertise demonstrated its self-propelling capacity, its proclivity to expand and enrich the target which supplied its raison d’etre.
The mere existence of a corpus of Jewish experts created a certain bureaucratic momentum behind Nazi Jewish policy. Even when deportations and mass murder were already under way, decrees appeared in 1942 prohibiting German Jews from having pets, getting their hair cut by Aryan barbers, or receiving the Reich sport badge! It did not require orders from above, merely the existence of the job itself, to ensure that the Jewish experts kept up the flow of discriminating measures.
At no point of its long and tortuous execution did the Holocaust come in conflict with the principles of rationality. The ‘Final Solution’ did not clash at any stage with the rational pursuit of efficient, optimal goal-implementation. On the contrary, it arose out of a genuinely rational concern, and it was generated by bureaucracy true to its form and purpose. We know of many massacres, pogroms, mass murders, indeed instances not far removed from genocide, that have been perpetrated without modern bureaucracy, the skills and technologies it commands, the scientific principles of its internal management. The Holocaust, however, was clearly unthinkable without such bureaucracy. The Holocaust was not an irrational outflow of the not-yet-fully-eradicated residues of pre-modern barbarity. It was a legitimate resident in the house of modernity; indeed, one who would not be at home in any other house.
This is not to suggest that the incidence of the Holocaust was determined by modern bureaucracy or the culture of instrumental rationality it epitomizes; much less still, that modern bureaucracy must result in Holocaust-style phenomena. I do suggest, however, that the rules of instrumental rationality are singularly incapable of preventing such phenomena; that there is nothing in those rules which disqualifies the Holocaust-style methods of ‘social-engineering’ as improper or, indeed, the actions they served as irrational. I suggest, further, that the bureaucratic culture which prompts us to view society as an object of administration, as a collection of so many ‘problems’ to be solved, as ‘nature’ to be ‘controlled’, ‘mastered’ and ‘improved’ or ‘remade’, as a legitimate target for ‘social engineering’, and in general a garden to be designed and kept in the planned shape by force (the gardening posture divides vegetation into ‘cultured plants’ to be taken care of, and weeds to be exterminated), was the very atmosphere in which the idea of the Holocaust could be conceived, slowly yet consistently developed, and brought to its conclusion. And I also suggest that it was the spirit of instrumental rationality, and its modern, bureaucratic form of institutionalization, which had made the Holocaust-style solutions not only possible, but eminently ‘reasonable ‘and increased the probability of their choice. This increase in probability is more than fortuitously related to the ability of modern bureaucracy to co-ordinate the action of great number of moral individuals in the pursuit of any, also immoral, ends.
Modern culture is a garden culture. It defines itself as the design for an ideal life and a perfect arrangement of human conditions. It constructs its own identity out of distrust of nature. In fact, it defines itself and nature, and the distinction between them, through its endemic distrust of spontaneity and its longing for a better, and necessarily artificial, order. Apart from the overall plan, the artificial order of the garden needs tools and raw materials. It also needs defence against the unrelenting danger of what is, obviously, a disorder. The order, first conceived of as a design, determines what is a tool, what is a raw material, what is useless, what is irrelevant, what is harmful, what is a weed or a pest. It classifies all elements of the universe by their relation to itself. This relation is the only meaning it grants them and tolerate sand the only justification of the gardener’s actions, as differentiated as the relations themselves. From the point of view of the design all actions are instrumental, while all the objects of action are either facilities or hindrances.
Modern genocide, like modern culture in general, is a gardener’s job. It is just one of the many chores that people who treat society as a garden need to undertake. If garden design defines its weeds, there are weeds wherever there is a garden. And weeds are to be exterminated. Weeding out is a creative, not a destructive activity. It does not differ in kind from other activities which combine in the construction and sustenance of the perfect garden. All visions of society-as-garden define parts of the social habitat as human weeds. Like other weeds, they must be segregated, contained, prevented from spreading, removed and kept outside the society boundaries; if all these means prove insufficient, they must be killed.
Stalin’s and Hitler’s victims were not killed in order to capture and colonize the territory they occupied.
Often they were killed in a dull, mechanical fashion with no human emotions - hatred included – to enliven it. They were killed because they did not fit, for one reason or another, the scheme of a perfect society. Their killing was not the work of destruction, but creation. They were eliminated, so that an objectively better human world more efficient, more moral, more beautiful could be established. A Communist world. Or a racially pure, Aryan world. In both cases, a harmonious world, conflict-free, docile in the hands of their rulers, orderly, controlled. People tainted with ineradicable blight of their past or origin could not be fitted into such unblemished, healthy and shining world. Like weeds, their nature could not be changed. They could not be improved or re-educated. They had to be eliminated for reasons of genetic or ideational heredity of a natural mechanism resilient and immune to cultural processing.
The two most notorious and extreme cases of modern genocide did not betray the spirit of modernity. They did not deviously depart from the main track of the civilizing process. They were the most consistent, uninhibited expressions of that spirit. They attempted to reach the most ambitious aims of the civilizing process most other processes stop short of, not necessarily for the lack of good will. They showed what the rationalizing, designing, controlling dreams and efforts of modern civilization are able to accomplish if not mitigated, curbed or counteracted.
These dreams and efforts have been with us for a long time. They spawned the vast and powerful arsenal of technology and managerial skills. They gave birth to institutions which serve the sole purpose of instrumentalizing human behavior to such an extent that any aim may be pursued with efficiency and vigor, with or without ideological dedication or moral approval on the part of the pursuers. They legitimize the rulers’ monopoly on ends and the confinement of the ruled to the role of means. They define most actions as means, and means as subordination to the ultimate end, to those who set it, to supreme will, to supra-individual knowledge.
Emphatically, this does not mean that we all live daily according to Auschwitz principles. From the fact that the Holocaust is modern, it does not follow that modernity is a Holocaust. The Holocaust is a by-product of the modern drive to a fully designed, fully controlled world, once the drive is getting out of control and running wild. Most of the time, modernity is prevented from doing so. Its ambitions clash with the pluralism of the human world; they stop short of their fulfillment for the lack of an absolute power absolute enough and a monopolistic agency monopolistic enough to be able to disregard, shrug off, or overwhelm all autonomous, and thus countervailing and mitigating, forces.
pp. 12, 1718, 9293
The night the Korean airliner crashed into the newspapers, I dreamed of a tornado. A tornado is a kind of spiral, which is the labyrinth and which is Death.
Death is very powerful right now. Instead of being a passage, Death has become a kind of equipment failure, a technical slaughterhouse. Human and technical failure become indistinguishable when the unquestioning robot and the drooling sadist merge. (I see the Soviet pilot being interviewed - he could be any Air Force gunslinger in any military machine - “I’d do it again and even more and love every second of it.” Of course he had the cooperation of the CIA and the U. S. military, who listened in, taping it all, without issuing any warnings to save lives. That, after all, is certainly not their business.)
So we inch closer to midnight. Death’s festival. Reagan, on a California surfboard of lies and hypocritical self-righteousness, rides the crest triumphant, saying that the downing of the KAL 007 (how could it not be a spy plane with such a number!) represents “a major turning point” in world history, adding, “We can start preparing ourselves for what John F. Kennedy called a long twilight struggle.” Another falsehood: crime flows into crime, from the extermination of the Indian “savages” to the wholesale massacres of Vietnamese “natives” they’ve been fighting their twilight struggle for as long as anyone can remember, these evangelical maniacs, these scourges of the Great Darkness, these agents of Entropy.
But we must remember that the crash is representative, ultimately, of all air disasters, with its dash of militaristic insanity in a sense, only a variant of the technological frenzy thrown in for good measure. Civilization is like a jetliner, its East and West versions just the two wings, whose resistance holds the bulky, riveted monster aloft.
Civilization is like a jetliner, noisy, burning up enormous amounts of fuel. Every imaginable and unimaginable crime and pollution had to be committed in order to make it go. Whole species were rendered extinct, whole populations dispersed. Its shadow on the waters resembles an oil slick. Birds are sucked into its jets and vaporized. Every part as Gus Grim once nervously remarked about space capsules before he was burned up in one has been made by the lowest bidder.
Civilization is like a 747, the filtered air, the muzak oozing over the earphones, the phony sense of security, the chemical food, the plastic trays, all the passengers sitting passively in the orderly row of padded seats staring at Death on the movie screen. Civilization is like a jet liner, an idiot savant in the cockpit manipulating computerized controls built by sullen wage workers, and dependent for his directions on sleepy technicians high on amphetamines with their minds wandering to sports and sex.
Civilization is like a 747, filled beyond capacity with coerced volunteers some in love with the velocity, most wavering at the abyss of terror and nausea, yet still seduced by advertising and propaganda. It is like a DC-10, so incredibly enclosed that you want to break through the tin can walls and escape, make your own way through the clouds, and leave this rattling, screaming fiend approaching its breaking point. The smallest error or technical failure leads to catastrophe, scattering your sad entrails like belated omens all over the runway; knocks you out of your shoes, breaks all your bones like eggshells.
(Of course, civilization is like many other things besides jets always things a chemical drainage ditch, a woodland knocked down to lengthen an airstrip or to build a slick new shopping mall where people can buy salad bowls made out of exotic tropical trees which will be extinct next week, or perhaps a graveyard for cars, or a suspension bridge which collapses because a single metal pin has shaken loose. Civilization is a hydra. There is a multitude of styles, colors, and sizes of Death to choose from.)
Civilization is like a Boeing jumbo jet because it transports people who have never experienced their humanity where they were to places where they shouldn’t go. In fact, it mainly transports businessmen in suits with briefcases filled with charts, contracts, more mischiefbusinessmen who are identical everywhere and hence have no reason at all to be ferried about. And it goes faster and faster, turning more and more places into airports, the (un)natural habitat of businessmen.
It is an utter mystery how it gets off the ground. It rolls down the runway, the blinking lights along the ground like electronic scar tissue on the flesh of the earth, picks up speed and somehow grunts, raping the air, working its way up along the shimmering waves of heat and the trash blowing about like refugees fleeing the bombing of a city. Yes, it is exciting, a mystery, when life has been evacuated and the very stones have been murdered. But civilization, like the jetliner, this freak phoenix incapable of rising from its ashes, also collapses across the earth like a million bursting wasps, flames spreading across the runway in tentacles of gasoline, samsonite, and charred flesh. And always the absurd rubbish, Death’s confetti, the fragments left to mock us lying along the weary trajectory of the dying bird the doll’s head, the shoes, eyeglasses, a beltbuckle.
Jetliners fall, civilizations fall, this civilization will fall. The gauges will be read wrong on some snowy day (perhaps they will fail). The wings, supposedly defrosted, will be too frozen to beat against the wind and the bird will sink like a millstone, first gratuitously skimming a bridge (because civilization is also like a bridge, from Paradise to Nowhere), a bridge laden, say, with commuters on their way to or from work, which is to say, to or from an airport, packed in their cars (wingless jetliners) like additional votive offerings to a ravenous Medusa.
Then it will dive into the icy waters of a river, the Potomac perhaps, or the River Jordan, or Lethe. And we will be inside, each one of us at our specially assigned porthole, going down for the last time, like dolls’ heads encased in plexiglass.
in Fifth Estate, Winter 1983
Needless to say, the scenarios outlined above do not exhaust all the possibilities. They only indicate the kinds of outcomes that seem to us most likely. But we can envision no plausible scenarios that are any more palatable than the ones we’ve just described. It is overwhelmingly probable that if the industrial-technological system survives the next 40 to 100 years, it will by that time have developed certain general characteristics: Individuals (at least those of the “bourgeois” type, who are integrated into the system and make it run, and who therefore have all the power) will be more dependent than ever on large organizations; they will be more “socialized” than ever and their physical and mental qualities to a significant extent (possibly to a very great extent) will be those that are engineered into them rather than being the results of chance (or of God’s will, or whatever); and whatever may be left of wild nature will be reduced to remnants preserved for scientific study and kept under the supervision and management of scientists (hence it will no longer be truly wild). In the long run (say a few centuries from now) it is likely that neither the human race nor any other important organisms will exist as we know them today, because once you start modifying organisms through genetic engineering there is no reason to stop at any particular point, so that the modifications will probably continue until man and other organisms have been utterly transformed.
Whatever else may be the case, it is certain that technology is creating for human beings a new physical and social environment radically different from the spectrum of environments to which natural selection has adapted the human race physically and psychologically. If man is not adjusted to this new environment by being artificially reengineered, then he will be adapted to it through a long and painful process of natural selection. The former is far more likely than the latter.
It would be better to dump the whole stinking system and take the consequences.
in Washington Post, September 21,
1995, theses 177179