Sunday, March 26, 2017

Age of Anger

Anger is heat. Something that makes you angry makes your blood boil. In US English, if something makes you angry, it burns you up and 'an angry mood that develops slowly into something powerful' is described as a slow burn. Macmillan English Dictionaries Magazine

Anger: from Old Norse angr (grief), Latin angere, angor (strangle). Related German angst (dread), English anxiety, anguish.

Resentment: anger, bitterness, ill-will. Related French ressentimment (Wikipedia) sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one's frustration, a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one's own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be "blamed" for one's own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external "evil."

Anger and Losing

Losing things is maddening. When I lose glasses, wallets, keys, notebooks, I get pissed off at the evil gremlin who keeps moving them from the places I just put them like the washer/dryer where both my socks were. I know it’s not the result of getting older because, when I think back, I realize I’ve lost these things consistently all my life.  It still makes me mad.

Losing words, balance, stamina, and maybe the use of a limb because of a fall does indeed seem to be the result of getting old. But these losses incite more regret than madness. And losing friends and family brings grief beyond regret.

Losing a job or income might make me angry. And if that is combined with the loss of dignity, meaning, and purpose, I experience resentment and look for or make up those who caused it. I can’t fight abstract systems or the gods, so I settle on persons who I consider enemies. I resent the immigrants taking my jobs, the rich corporate CEO who moved my job overseas, the new university graduate--a woman no less--courted by employers. And I resent the intellectuals who explain it away with abstract economic theories. I join forces with others like me to bring down these evil people profiting from my loss. And I link myself with a self-proclaimed winner who will lead me to confront and win against my enemies.

Losing a sense of worth in a changing world and society, where my values are no longer appreciated, where behaviors, which I was taught were wrong, are now acceptable, where language I habitually use is no longer considered correct, where the groups with whom I identify are considered backward, where people once seen as inferior to my social identity are moving ahead of me, I identify with those who have a general sense of malaise and experience.  That is what those intellectual elites label ressentimment.
Resentment and the Rise of Trumpism

The rise of Trumpism and other alt-right movements in Europe and the popularity of demagogues (leaders who seek support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument) like Chavez, Modi, and Putin have fueled a plethora of analyses by political professors and pundits.

Alt-right movements advocate political-economic nationalism against globalism. They promote a sense of cohesion among races and ethnicities, through strong borders, and limited immigration over against a mingling of peoples with diverse traditions and religions. They go so far as to preview a war of civilizations often characterized as the European and Christian originated West over against the nativist and Muslim originated East and Mid-East. They appeal to the “common man” over against the elites and condemn the media when they see it upholding the “establishment.”

A more cultural and philosophical analysis of the rise of authoritarian populists of left and right
that I have found very useful for understanding what is happening to my country and my world is The Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra. Mishra claims that we have been here before—which is why he subtitles his book A History of the Present. The roots of the current anger that fuels the Trumps, Modis, Dutertes, Driesangs, Chavezes, Le Pens, are the same that fueled the Mussolinis, Stalins, Hitlers, Huey Longs of the 20th Century, and many others in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Modernity and Resentment

Anger, and especially its appearance as ressentiment, is a reaction to modernity which started in Europe but now has spread to the rest of the world. It is a reaction by those who had great expectations for industrialization, technology, and the progress that come from rational self-interest, but are losing out. Mishra examines the actions of people who experienced that resentment and of the theories of leaders who stirred the embers of anger into negative solidarity based on fear of loss and hatred for those they blamed.

The European Enlightenment, impacted by both the Protestant Reformation and increased contact with Eastern cultures was a source of great wonders in philosophy and art and especially in science and technology. It led from the divine right of kings to republican governments, from agricultural barter and craft mercantilism to industrial capitalism, from tribal and feudal cultures and superstitions to modern times. But modernity is built on assumptions, paradigms, and myths that need to be questioned if we are to understand and deal with its undesirable consequences.

Students of thinking, engrossed in ancient and current studies in philosophy of mind, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience, understand, in Douglas Hofstadter’s terms, that thinking is the evolved capacity to use categories, metaphors, and analogies (all constructed images) useful for communicating to others both dangers and opportunities. With words, symbols, images, metaphors--all human artifacts--humans can project feelings, make connections, and anticipate possibilities. A myth, an elaborate story of our place in the cosmos, is an extended metaphor that serves an important function: giving us a sense of meaning and purpose.

Gödels theorem in mathematics proves that there is no complete system of knowledge that does not rest on undefined terms and assumptions which can always be revised towards the building of a new system. Our modern language, our science, philosophy, and all our knowledge are founded in the myths we accept collectively often without notice.

The Myths of Modernity

There are three myths undergirding modernity:

The first is the Myth of the Invisible Hand that guides society through rational self-interest in a free market. There are two parts to that myth 1) that humans generally act, or should act, rationally and 2) that markets are or can be free.

The second is the Myth of Nationalism. This myth assumes that people fare better with their own kind, within boundaries that maintain cultural identity, that there are different races each with their own capacities, some better than others with the most fit that will survive and thrive. If the first centers on rational self-interest, this centers on national self-interest. This myth feeds into the next myth that history is a struggle among civilizations among nations

The third is the Myth of History, the myth that human history has a meaning and purpose. This myth takes two forms: 1) history as cyclical and 2) history as linear. The cyclical theory of history is the myth of revolution, like the inexorable recurrence of the seasons from death to birth, growth, cultivation, and death. The linear theory with an end to history enshrines progressive being-on-the-side-of-history thinking.  Historian Timothy Snyder identifies the “history of inevitability” that goes in one direction with a finality that leaves us comatose; and the “history of eternity” that goes around and round and leaves us in deep hypnosis. Both remove us blissfully from responsibility.

Mircea Eliade, cited by Howe, authored many studies of the myths of archaic societies. Myth is the story by which the members of a tribe and society find their meaning in the cosmos. The story is reenacted in special times and places providing moral guidance in day-to-day life. Myth and ritual, the cosmic story with its telling and reenactment, are the stuff of religion and morality. In Eliade’s terms, all theories of history are myths. Epochs, eras, and cycles are imaginative constructions we employ to try to understand ourselves and our world. 

In archaic hunter-gathering and then in early farming communities, the stories connect to the cycle of life and death in rhythm with nature. Each new year, the people are led to enact the devastation of the old world. And out of this chaos without rules, there is a ritual rebuilding of what was (the golden age) or what will-be (the new age).

As Biblical studies demonstrate, linear theories of history, in contrast with pagan cyclical notions, emerge in the High God or monotheistic creation religions of nomadic societies. They culminate in Hegel and disciples who project an end or culmination to history—a manifest destiny, a new Jerusalem, a moral arc to history, a reign of God, an Omega Point, inevitable progress, the American Dream, and being-on-the-side-of-History.

Biblical experts call this Judeo-Christian-Muslim linear thinking “eschatology”—the study of final events, while they often identify “Apocalyptic behavior” with cycles of devastation and rebuilding. Cyclical or eternal recurrence thinking is revolutionary—what does around, comes around, again and again like the revolution of the stars in the night sky. But linear or eschatological thinking is, in Albert Camus’s, terms rebellion over revolution whereby a brand new can defy without devastating the old to make progress. 

Modernity’s three myths relate to 1) modern economy or homo economicus as an animal endowed with reason (animal rationalis) who can sort out its material interests and act accordingly, 2) modern politics which is fundamentally tribal by which homo socialis is able to cooperate with his kind to compete with and overpower those of other kinds, and 3) modern culture by which homo religiosis is oriented to certainty in meaning, a transcendent purpose, and absolute truth behind appearances.

Each of these myths have set up expectations: 1) growing wealth, 2) victory in conflict, and 3) ultimate purpose here and hereafter. These correspond to the three drives identified in ancient philosophy: the desire for life or the satisfaction of life’s needs, the desire for recognition or having place and status, the desire to know and have meaning; and to the three spheres of human existence: economic, political, and cultural. These expectations are being frustrated for most of modern humanity. And so, we have the modern ressentiment, malaise, and angst from which arises this Age of Fear, Anger, and Depression.

Regarding the needs of biological life. It is true that gross domestic product (GDP), the monetary value of all finished goods and services has increased throughout the world but in a mounting unequal way. And while more of life’s necessities are being met for more people than in ancient and medieval ages, there are huge numbers of people and communities who have inadequate nutrition, shelter, health care, and income. Moreover, the very condition of life, the earth, is being wasted and destroyed.

Regarding the possibilities for the common good. Common goods, including assembly, speech, and collective action that shapes a safe and just community were cultivated in modernity. But national boundaries are fortified and persist that foster antagonism and permanent war. The commons have never been more threatened through the rational individualistic belief system that would equate community with the sum of individuals totally neglecting the fabric of relationships that hold them together.

Regarding the meaning and dignity of human persons. In modernity worth is measured by productive accomplishment that can be quantified by monetary value. The persons who have the most accumulation of things and the highest capacity to consume direct the markets of economy and the policies of government that protect them. Persons aspire to either achieve this capacity or to ensure that their progeny will achieve it. Education, morality, leadership, and religion are valued primarily insofar as they advance persons and nations monetarily. Moreover, this “advancement” is measured in relation to the achievements of others.

Individualism, tribalism, and aggression can all be traced to the genetic make-up of the human species as it has evolved. And so has cooperation, community, and civility have roots in our genetic constitution. But in modernity individualism has become rational self-interest, tribalism has become nationalism, and aggression has become perpetual conflict in which fewer win and more lose at least relatively. The more modernity and its ideals have prospered, the more it is being attacked by those being left behind who are envious or depressed--especially those who see no path to achieve modernity’s ideals and actualize its myths.

The Postmodern Turn

The European Enlightenment like earlier enlightenments in ancient Athenian Greece, the Islamic golden age under the caliphates, and the peak of Chinese culture in the Tang dynasty made reason the base of authority, legitimacy, truth, and justice. Scientific method using rules of logic, empirical inquiry, and verification by evidence and the judgment of scholars was used to question conventional wisdom and the superstitions and idolatries of religion.

The European Enlightenment, following the Protestant Reformation and worldwide discoveries, ushered in modernity in Europe at the end of the 17th century, spreading to the Americas in the 18th century and throughout the world in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Modernity is characterized by 1) rationalism and the rationalization of the economy through industrial capitalism as described by Adam Smith, 2) nationalism and the organization of societies into bounded states ruled by central governments which held a monopoly on the means of violence as described by Max Weber, and 3) coherent belief systems with shared values and attitudes with God as the Principle of Reason, Judgment, and Will working His Way in History, as described by Baruch Spinoza to G.W.F. Hegel. 

Thus, the three myths of modernity as described above frame the 1) belief that reason and rational behavior can achieve the absolute in Nature and History over emotion, common sense, superstition, and supernatural revelation, 2) belief that ethnic groups gathered in nation-states in conflict vying for hegemony and exceptionalism can achieve the perfect society, and 3) belief that history as a conquest of nature including the earth and its resources to produce consumables through industry. The nationalistic World Wars and the Cold War, the rationalistic culmination of science and technology, and the globalization of economy, culture, and politics are challenging the assumptions of modernity, including its myths, belief systems, and the behaviors they generate.

The postmodern insight was the transition from reason as an entity or event to thinking as an evolved human behavior. I think therefore I am, says modernity. But what does it mean to think, asks postmodernity? The focus moved from reason in the world and in history to thinking as an activity of confronting and creating the world. The focus moved from what language, science, art, religion and all the human activities were encountering in the world to the very activity of thinking. We began to think about thinking. We began to discover the nervous system coordinated by the brain by which our bodies interacted with the environment through images or symbols.

Just as Copernicus led us to see that the earth revolved around the shining sun, Kant helped us see that reality revolved around our thinking mind. Just as Newton led us to understand how our solar system was a minute speck of the milky way galaxy, Nietzsche and Heidegger helped us to understand that human existence is but one way of being in the world. Thinking about thinking pushed us to transcend modernity.

Thinking about thinking raised questions regarding the absoluteness of reality, the certainty of science, the meaning and end of human history, the eternal value of human being and behavior. By thinking about thinking, guided by philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, we are made aware of what is formal and what is formal in thinking, in the difference between slow deliberate critical thinking and fast habit-driven thinking, and between consciousness and the pre- or sub-conscious aspects of thinking.

Postmodernism is identified with the forfeiture of the absolute, the victory of uncertainty, objectivity through intersubjectivity, and the social construction of reality. It is also identified with universal doubt and inquiry, the relativizing of values, the unmooring of science and religion, and the undermining of the assumptions, myths, and beliefs of modernity.

Response to Modernity Under Fire

One response to modernity is acceptance in the belief system or myth and ideals of modernity, but reacting with resentment because of continual frustration to prosper monetarily, the loneliness of individualism, and failed attempts to reach the promised American Dream or return to the golden age of innocence. This is the response of neo-reaction that retreats more into self-interest, nationalism, and religiosity. It is the response of those who feel left behind, who have followed the teachings of their parents and their churches, who have watched their beliefs ridiculed, who feel that they do not count and have no purpose. They want to revive what they believed was true for all times. They want to make America (or Germany or Indonesia) great again.

I conjecture that the present crisis in culture (including morality and religion), in economics (including rational market driven industry and new mission driven production), and in politics (especially the redefinition of democratic republicanism) is at root a spiritual crisis. A crisis of soul, of character, of collective self-consciousness.  It rests on a decision of who we personally and socially want to be as we face a very uncertain future.

Another response is to question and revise the myths of modernism, use both the Enlightenment and the postmodern turn to pass beyond the Age of Anger and Resentment into a new Age of Responsibility and Hope.

The Steve Bannon (and so Donald Trump) worldview of the conflict between nationalists and globalists, the clash of Western Christian and Eastern Islamic civilizations, and the destruction of the administrative state, as he outlined in his talk to the Conservative Political Action Conference, has been influenced by Neil Howe and Willian Strauss, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy.

For Howe and Bannon, history is cyclical with four repeating eras: first High, to second Awakening, to third Unraveling, to fourth Turning, then back to High. Since 2008, we are in our fourth Turning or Crisis stage which has never before, Howe says, finished without a war. He easily selects events in American history that illustrate each of the stages we have been enduring. 

Linear theory with an end to history enshrines progressive being-on-the-side-of-history thinking. This thinking has a purpose in history which is outside human thinking and behavior in Nature or God, in a Creator Alpha and/or an End Omega. Historian Snyder in his book On Tyranny calls this historical inevitability. History is working its way out and we can get on Its side by going with the flow or not. This is the history of religious monotheistic fundamentalists by which we follow the Will of God as found in divine revelation. It is also the history of those scientific historians who discern a pattern that is already there as did Aquinas and Hegel and or discover a law of nature that determines events as did Karl Marx and Adam Smith. It is the myth of both modern conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and progressives.

Cyclical theory is the myth of revolution--harvest, destroy, seed, cultivate, harvest, destroy, round and round, or as Howe says "inexorably."  Snyder calls this the myth of eternity that often occurs when the myth of progress is frustrated. Eternal recurrence replaces teleology. It is linked also to generational theory in which generations are named with special characteristics that react against the previous generation. The metaphor here is the pendulum as opposed to the path to the top of the mountain. Though sometimes the metaphors are mixed by graphing a perpetual line of circles or circle of lines.

Cyclical theory is the myth for “authoritarian populism,” which is “mass democracy” in distinction from “republican democracy.” Mass democracy undermines civil society and its institutions trying to wipe the slate clean so that a brand-new order can be built on the ashes of the old. That brand-new order may be a future paradise or divine realm that is given from above (apocalyptic left) or a past paradise or realm which was also given from above but which humans strayed (originalist right).  Mass democracy is achieved through revolution in which there are two sides, my side/your side or our side/their side or patriots/enemies—one evil and one good—that must confront each other in a win-lose conflict. In that struggle, those of us gripped by ressentiment achieve dignity and purpose.

As Howe points out and dismisses, other theories of history attempt to explain our place in the cosmos: the more linear myths of nomadic peoples (associated with the Abrahamic High God traditions) and the "chaotic" theory of history where there are no discernable paths.
But this latter, according to Snyder, is true history. We don’t pretend to have divine revelation of the purpose which grounds apocalyptic expectation, nor insight into the inexorable cycles which incites revolutionary reaction. We study history to free ourselves from it. We accept our concrete situation so we can find the options to both preserve what we think should be observed and change what we think must be changed. Instead of discerning rational cycles or intuiting revealed ends of history, we choose to take responsibility with others to blaze our trails through the jungle, learning as we go.

From Resentment to Hope

The big question is how do we get through this late modern Age of Anger to a post-modern Age of Hope rather than a postmodern age of cynicism and despair. Here are some counsels:

1.     Understand the role of metaphor and myth within our thinking and behavior, and therefore our personal and collective ability to revise these fictions.
2.     Analyze the metaphors and myths that now sustain late modern thought and behavior and assess the consequences of the fictions and illusions by which we are operating.
3.     Reveal the structural aspects of these metaphors and myths; that is, how they are economic, political, cultural.
4.     Propose alternative metaphors and myths that suggest policies and actions that might lead to more desirable consequences.
5.     Listen, communicate, and organize persons in our networks and communities. Keep building civil society. Do what you can through your existing institutions, whether public or private, whether for profit or nonprofit, whether religious or secular, to foster persons to meet each other across cultural, economic, and political boundaries.

Most Americans do not consider themselves philosophers. They would like to change the world, not contemplate it. Many like to think that they are secular in the real world here and now. They want to keep any religious sentiments to themselves or at least confined to church, synagogue, temple, and mosque. However, action is always shaped by thinking. The story that we fabricate and agree on is what holds us together not just as nations, but as a species. As this-worldly as we may be, we do not escape the myths and rites that make up the civic religion, cutting across all the specific religions we might profess, that guides our behavior and action with each other.

The human spirit or soul, personal and collective, is a metaphor for the consciousness of being present here in space and now in time. This presence ranges between our self and society, between the individual person and the community of persons, between interior (or subjective) experience and that from the outer (or objective) world which we catalogue and organize through concepts, words, and models. Presence is between the poles of past and future, in-here and out-there, self and others, none of which exist absolutely in themselves, but only in our shared presence with each other. The more we probe, contemplate, and give ourselves to this presence, the more conscious we become. And the more we recognize the illusions of absoluteness, certainty, and finality. Thus, our presence becomes transcendence. We transcend ourselves, our answers, our beliefs, our past, our visions, and our myths. Homo sapiens is homo transcendens. If humans fix their sight on becoming homo deus (see Homo Deus by Yuval Harari) we will self-destruct. If we confuse ourselves with the Transcendent, we will no longer transcend.

The way out of anger and resentment is a way many spiritual masters have taught us from the beginning of our species and throughout all the stages and ages of our development. We must grow our souls personally and communally. We must write the story of the universe, of life, and of humanity, which informed by science motivates us to admit the limits and contingencies of matter and use them to transcend by acting ad infinitum to build the humanity, the world, and the universe in which all of us might become, as the slogan says, all we can be. That’s a spiritual enterprise—one that underwrites our culture, our economy, and our politics.

No, we will never be gods, but I hope that we will always be transcending towards greater community, freedom, and knowledge. No, progress is not inevitable. But it is possible.

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