Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Moods in Societal Development; Politics and Alternatives

Since the 18th century, the basic mood of Western society has been the optimism of Enlightenment, modulated by Romantic overtones of jubilant confidence and undertones of despair. Empathy can have as its object both positive and negative feelings, both vital and morbid tendencies. Much literature is preoccupied with the problematic side of life. After all, literature comes from drama, from the classical tragedy, and tragedy portrays human struggle against odds. Tragedy is not to indulge in defeat, nor to indulge in triumph, but to induce catharsis, an intense and meaningful release from human limitation.
Jean Paul Sartre, in a monograph about emotions, pointed out that emotions form an older, more primitive response to our experience than our ratio. Emotions are more related to our hormonal system and less to our nervous system. Emotions tend to be general; they influence our overall state. According to Sartre, our basic emotion is the one that reduces everything most, resolving all details, making us drift in a sea of feeling, with everything blurred, even ourselves. It is melancholy. Melancholy at least deepens the otherwise shallow optimism of the Enlightenment.
    Universal suffrage has institutionalized the view that people can influence society, and that as responsible citizens we should do so. Anyone can begin a political career. We cannot righteously complain about the state of affairs in society, or merely blame others, while staying inactive ourselves. So the Atlas syndrome afflicts more people today than in the past.
    Pessimism pervaded after the Great War of 1914-1918, and especially after the Great Depression. The coming of fascism offered optimism, but at a terrible price, and led to more pessimism in the remaining democracies. When the tide turned, and the democracies won the war, optimism returned. This was clear in my country, the Netherlands. The aftermath of the war brought a new spirit. Everyone worked hard to undo the damage done by war. The period up to about 1965 brought one of the most spectacular advances ever in the standard of living. This was the time of technocratic optimism. Pessimism was still present, but it loomed in the background. Great hopes for a postwar society, based on solidarity experienced under German occupation, did not materialize. Instead, people experienced the shock of learning of the inhumanities that had occurred in concentration camps, the distant terror of the atomic bomb, the growing influence of existentialist philosophy.
    The second period, from about 1965 to about 1975, showed a strong reaction to technocracy. This was the age of hippies, of flower power, of student demonstrations, of the rise of alternative communities, alternative life styles, a comeback of mysticism and of eschatology - back to the simple life, a clean environment, small is beautiful, great bureaucracies are ugly, dangerous, inhuman. Don’t follow leaders! The New Age is dawning!
    From about 1975 a new period set in, a time of cultural pessimism which we are now leaving. A sense of defeat is spreading. Apparently we cannot solve our problems. Whatever we do appears to have serious unintended consequences. Unemployment is rising markedly, as are government deficits. Public policies are poorly devised and poorly carried out. Any redress of ineffective but institutionalized practice proves difficult, almost impossible. Employee morale problems appear insoluble. Administrative organizations are growing more inefficient, more remote, more rigid. Crime is rising and the police feel demoralized. Once we have established standards to fight one environmental problem, another looms at our doorstep. Dissatisfaction has increased. Drug addiction has grown explosively. Development aid appears largely to have been wasted money.
    The main reaction to this new pessimism has been the rise of neoconservatism, which today is also neopositivism. In terms of cultural determinants the pendulum seems to swing back to more power distance, more avoidance of uncertainty, more individualism and probably more masculinity.
    In management literature, pessimism about the effectiveness of the proposed cures against bureaucracy, rigidity and demoralization is being countered by analyses of well-established success stories, first of Japanese, and later of U.S. companies. In Search of Excellence has been one of the greatest management bestsellers ever. The book you are reading now is also a child of its time.
    The Atlas syndrome is the price we have to pay for trying to make society more civilized, or even to prevent it from lapsing back into barbarism. In Western society the Atlas syndrome has spread under the influences of Utopias, Enlightenment, Romanticism and the scientific, technological and economical explosion, and has widened under universal suffrage.

No one likes to feel dragged down by problems. If we cannot solve a problem we may substitute something else for it, or we may avoid or ignore the problem altogether. Some things are simply too big for us. I could not make my two-year-old son see an elephant in the zoo. He just saw the sparrows around the elephant’s legs. Our first defense to a budding Atlas syndrome is to ignore the challenge. Perhaps we do not see a problem, or we do not accept that it is there, or we see it as something that will be solved some other day. Perhaps we feel that a problem is not for us to solve, but for the politicians and the authorities. We can go to sleep, be optimistic or simply not bother about it. ‘They have always found a solution, so there is no reason they will not find one now.’
    A related response is not to worry about the course of the ship we are all on, but to use our talents to be on the upper deck, with the trend-setters, the in-crowd. Being at the front of things, we assume that we can adapt ourselves with grace and wit to whatever comes. Usually this attitude does not help when the ship is going down, although we may have more chance of getting on a lifeboat.
    A more useful response is to turn to politics. We accept the challenge, assuming that it can be handled within the existing political framework. By that approach we run the considerable risk either of not getting enough influence or of having to forget what we wanted to use our influence for in the first place. Politics functions with the uncanny habit of turning every issue into a political game issue, and thus often transforming issues beyond recognition. Going political is often ineffective, but it has few alternatives. To be effective, we have to win the game without becoming absorbed by it.
    The third response to major social problems is to go political without trusting the present political framework. We may engage in political activism, protesting and seeking public attention. By meetings, discussions and publicity events we try to create grass-roots or special interest support and to exert political pressure. So we mobilize influence outside of the established political framework. Much of this activity goes by the name of awareness raising.
    The main effect of becoming aware is usually the irrepressible urge to make others aware. Often the same happens with religious conversion. Apart from feeling better, the main consequence for many converts seems to be persistence in attempting to convert others. Starting a religious revival compares to starting a chain letter, although the chain letter is much more ephemeral.
    In democratic politics this game of awareness raising is assumed to be infectious. We escape from the Atlas syndrome by passing it on to others, assuming that in the end so many people will be converted that the world’s problems will be solved. The underlying assumption is that the main reason problems are not solved is obstruction by selfish, indifferent, devious or mistaken people in power positions. We trust that such mistaken people just will be swept away by the tide.
    We also can go ‘political-plus’, trying to change the political system itself. We need much power if we are to do that. Usually we cannot muster institutional power, because the people involved are likely to prefer the status quo, unless they are frightened and may gamble on us, as some German industrialists gambled on Adolf Hitler. We need to muster grass-roots support, for which we have to be rather demagogic, and we need to be clever enough to outwit the existing political influences that oppose us. We may even have to deal with such factors as arrest, mob violence or assassination. Or we may turn to violence ourselves and go revolutionary. All those means, however, are incompatible with the end of a more civilized, more humane society. The idea that the end justifies the means, is dangerous. Usually the reverse is true: the means desecrate the end, and by that desecration destroy it.
    We may, however, have to use means that are not compatible with the end. Tolerance toward intolerance should be limited, just as nonviolence toward violence needs to be limited. Tyrannicide, the killing of tyrants, is the subject that originated political philosophy, because the killing of tyrants lies at the heart of the paradox of creating and maintaining a civilized society that contains uncivilized people. But beware of choosing the option of changing the political system, unless you go easy on self-justification.
    The fourth response to major social problems is that of people who do not trust pragmatic Machiavellian politics at all, whether inside or outside of the present system. The key success factors in improving society are those of having pure altruist intentions and of being upright and inspired. Only a really humane, idealistic approach will do. Such an approach can avert pending hostilities, break deadlocks, bypass bureaucratic and diplomatic rigidity and reach out immediately to other people of good will.
    Such do-gooders are often naive. They may trust unreliable information and may even be dangerous, as the preludes and beginning of both World Wars illustrate. Usually such people mistake good intentions for good results, and never question the factual effects. They mistake good input for good output, and although the two are undoubtedly related, the relationship is not a simple one. Financial people know this: good money does not save bad money. The abolition of alcohol consumption in the U.S. is an example of well-meant measures having disastrous effects. Self-righteous virtue is often very good soil to the weed of effective vice. Good intentions are an easy way out of poor results.
    The fifth response is that of substituting one challenge for another. Such a response reasons that we should improve the world by improving ourselves: ‘Forget politics, it only winks us away from our real task. Instead, turn inward, discover the inner realms, meditate, contemplate’. This may be a constructive road to take, if we do not use it as a substitute for social action.
    People engaging in Transcendental Meditation believe that even if only some people in an area practice this form of meditation, crime rates there will drop. Alternative spiritual communities may appear aloof from the wheelings and dealings of ordinary society. They may seem insignificant, but in reality they are situated on important etheric centers or crossroads of this planet. Though nobody notices, they are great forces for the betterment of humankind.
    I happen to believe that in the age-old question of the precedence between contemplation and action, we should prefer action. Of course, preferably the two do go together: action without contemplation is rush; contemplation without action is sterile. Rush, however, still leads to experience, and experience will eventually lead to contemplation. However, contemplation that does not lead to action is essentially spiritual masturbation, a higher but not necessarily more attractive form of narcissism.
    Arnold Toynbee concludes that mystics and hermits are our true guides to the future. St. Francis of Assisi is his favorite. St. Francis apparently was a very active sort of mystic. It is worth noting that the alleged function of hermits becomes useless without people who are inspired by them but who do not necessarily follow their example. Besides, I don’t happen to see the intrinsic value in becoming poor and going begging. Of course it can be a tremendous educational experience to free yourself from stifling wealth, from financial cares and from fetishist attachment to objects. But once the lesson has been learned, please return to an active and responsible life.
    Being a beggar, as a person or as a church institution, without a social function (of course many church institutions have social functions) is merely being parasitic. The only useful function of such a role is to relieve other people’s guilt feelings, giving them beautiful feelings instead. But society provides more than enough sensible not-parasitic occasions for that.
    Aristotle gives contemplation the highest marks because it sets the mind to things that do not change and therefore are the highest, a philosophy fitting world-weary people. One good thing about action is that it requires contemplation, and the experience of contemplation within action is, in terms of Abram Maslov, a top experience.
    The sixth response is to redefine the challenge until it is no longer a challenge. This approach can be combined perfectly with the fifth response, but still it is a response in its own right. What we are really witnessing nowadays is a cosmic transition. What we are seeing are not the signs of an overburdening challenge, but rather the birth pangs of the new age that will come about anyway. The New Age is dawning, the Age of Aquarius is upon us. We need only to prepare ourselves for that new time. We need only to set our sails to the new wind that is blowing. In the words of Bob Dylan, the minstrel of the sixties: ‘This is the hour that the ship comes in’, and ‘the times are a-changing’.
    The more stubborn reality seems, the more we see everywhere the signs of what really is changing. Such a time of change provides fruitful soil for conspiracy theories, for a change of the positive kind. In the minds of some people there is, for example an Aquarian conspiracy, or there is a hidden revolution going on in science toward a holistic vision.
    The more apocalyptic versions will have it that there first has to be a global purge, a deluge, an Armageddon. After a huge crisis, there will come a new beginning. This view is a typically pre-Enlightenment religious version. It could become true, pending a now improbable outbreak of a nuclear world war. Possibly there would be Noahs, but they would not find a cleansed earth after 40 days. Although they might see in the sky more fantastic phenomena than rainbows, they will derive no comfort or inspiration from such sights. A post-nuclear sunset will not be a covenant with the Lord, but a covenant with their past, doubling the crushing weight of their unattractive present. Then, an Atlas syndrome may be worse than a disease - it may prove fatal.

From 'The Atlas-syndrome,' the first chapter of Humanity, Civilization and Politics, also available as e-book at

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