December 16, 2014

Civilization and Its End(s)

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:32 am

The paradox of civilization is that renunciation leads to benefits. This must be true even of earlier social forms, what our forefathers insensitively called “barbarism” and “savagery,” to some extent—among hunter gathering communities, for example, the man capable of exhibiting patience and discipline on the hunt would surely acquire “followers” and hence prestige and power. But only in a civilized order does this relation between renunciation and benefit become an open ended dialectic—starting with the rise of the ‘Big Man,” that precursor of civilized order, the possibility of accumulating wealth through renunciation becomes ever more unlimited.

For a civilization to get off the ground and then sustain itself, this relation between renunciation and benefit must be generalized: most everyone must believe that their own renunciations will yield corresponding benefits. But there is another paradox here, one related to the moral problem Kant tried to solve through his “categorical imperative”: for Kant, if you did good in order to be rewarded in heaven, you weren’t really good; goodness was only goodness if pursued for its own sake. This conception has its own perversions, which become evident if one reflects on what would be involved in assuring oneself (first of all) that one only loves goodness and not any praise or love or wealth that comes from its exercise. For the civilized order, though, those pioneers in renunciation who founded the order were not looking for benefits: they were renouncing forms of desire that they perceived led to self-defeating violence including violence to self; their renunciations are acts of liberation in their own right, which others are welcome to follow. Hence the paradox of the charisma emanating from such moral innovators, and the power, wealth and prestige that accrues, if not to them, than to those who most credibly “inherit” their “kingdom of ends.”

Once the model is generalized, though, the relation between renunciation and benefit is subjected to a much more hard-headed cost-benefit analysis. And here two things go wrong. First, once people start asking themselves how much renunciation is strictly necessary for the potential benefits, it is likely that some will decide that the renunciation isn’t worth it, and others will seek out easier ways to the benefits. (They will often be the same people.) This unraveling becomes more likely the wealthier the civilization in question, and the more it can tolerate transgressors and support deadbeats. Second, the relation between renunciation and benefits among those with the most benefits becomes more obscure—to those who have shall be given seems to be the principle, and it makes sense to ask, if they have benefits, and far more than I ever will, without any signs of renunciation, why shouldn’t the rest of us? There is a threshold at which this cynicism breaks the articulation of renunciation and benefit altogether, and that is the point at which civilization becomes impossible, regardless of how long it takes before it collapses.

The only thing that can fend off collapse or, failing that, make regeneration possible in its wake, is renewed commitment to renunciation. On the part of some—how many is impossible to say in advance. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people should start building monasteries (although that wouldn’t hurt!)—there can be many forms of renunciation, and to be politically and civilizationally meaningful, they will need to have a public side. Every renunciation begins with an imperative—a resounding, overwhelming imperative that cannot be refused: the individual who engages in even the simplest renunciations (quitting smoking, going on a diet) hears a voice, more or less literally, saying “you must stop!” The imperatives that found civilizations are more imposing, but take the same form (“you must no longer sacrifice your children to Moloch”).

In a fully developed civilization, these imperatives evolve into multilayered interrogatives, the basis for religions, philosophy, art, and culture (there can be many ways of “sacrificing” one’s children, for example)—but the original imperative remains active underneath, or the questions themselves would not be meaningful. The imperatives that take must emanate from within some crux in the pre-civilized or existing, but decadent civilized order: it is not too hard to see how the Judaic and then Christian imperatives involved renunciations of participation in the depraved violences of Middle Eastern and then Roman imperial civilizations.

It follows from these reflections that politically redemptive activity today (and no other political activity makes any difference now) must be located at the nexus of the victimary (where benefits are demanded and renunciation, seen as a sham, is replaced by denunciation) and a largely rigged globalized political and economic order, where benefits accrue out of any proportion to renunciation. The two poles are in fact closely connected, as the global elite freely uses victimary hysteria to deepen control of economies and the everyday life of people. It’s not for any person to pronounce on what these new renunciations might be (and, to be honest, I don’t have any idea), but one imperative I can take upon myself is speak and write in such a way as to confer responsibility all around, and to resist the corrosions of language that lead us to absolve “victims” of responsibility, to attribute the decisions of the elite to “social forces” presumably beyond their control, and to treat the middle class as itself nothing more than a victim of these pincers squeezing it on both sides. If we lose this civilization, we will all play our role in losing it.

Powered by WordPress