The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions yet without becoming disillusioned — Antonio Gramsci
Cracks in the Glass
Human societies have always relied upon stories to light their way. In each civilisation, the prevailing narrative serves to unite people in shared visions of the possible, to reveal and reify the truth, guide progress, and reinforce appropriate conduct in society. To the Mesoamerican Aztecs, for example, obedience to the law accompanied by blood sacrifice were paramount features. In Sinic culture, the fundamental idea of life as both inseparable yet contradictory permeated every aspect of existence, shaping astrology, art, medicine, divination and even government. Indigenous societies held sacred affiliations between animals, natural objects and the land. The interior meditative nature of Indic cultures contrasted with the Occidental need to measure and analyse external factors. And so on…
Among a range of such seminal cultural narratives, the contemporary Western civilisation archetype reigns supreme today. In a way this is surprising. Indic civilisation, for example, was equally innovative and diverse. Its legacy has been profound, not least in the arts and science. But whereas adherence to strict social hierarchies seems to have curtailed the Indic impulse to invade and colonise, expansionist instincts — fuelled by a seemingly insatiable desire to invade, inhabit, and embed Christian ideals as widely as possible — gave the West an aggressively ambitious edge.
It is possible to trace the origins of the Western civilisation model back to medieval Europe and the early years of Christendom. Over fifteen centuries this framework, with its complementary narratives, adopted first by nations across Europe, and later the Americas and Oceania, helped people elucidate and mark their status in time and place — possibly more successfully than any other cultural mindset with the exception of those integral to indigenous and Ubuntu cultures.
The evolution of the Western narrative, through various wars and cultural upheavals, including the Renaissance, Reformation, and the Enlightenment, imparted a rare vigour to the model compared with most others. This resilient nature also arose from a sense of history that was essentially linear, feelings of supremacy that rendered other epistemologies invisible, and the inclination to colonise good ideas from alternative frameworks, rather than embrace their diversity. Thus Western societies were outwardly robust, but increasingly trapped within a systemic prism of their own invention from which we are still trying to escape.
From the early years of the industrial revolution, through to the scientific revolutions of the late 20th century, a period that also happened to coincide with the escalating impact of the English-speaking world on international affairs, the mutation of the Western mindset into its industrialised, highly democratised, modern form, drew its strength from accommodating diverse influences and ideas.
Indeed, the Western model was so robust that a few of its more abstract tenets have since come to symbolise the dominant global worldview — a code of reifying axioms, expressing a world-system that goes virtually unchallenged, yet also underpins the precarious contradiction between globalism and nationalism today.
During the course of its development the Western narrative was broad-minded and inclusive. Great poets, scholars and philosophers, from Socrates and Erasmus to Diderot, Montaigne and Voltaire, all propelled Western society to an increasingly elevated appreciation of humanistic and progressive ideals.
Other threads were woven into this narrative over time — accentuating the prominence of rational discourse, measurement, the right to own property, and the need for a religiously informed public forum that was not theocratically dominated. This model set standards for what statesmanship was to become. It inspired gallant deeds, and gave birth to an astonishing range of artefacts and iconic structures. It presented disparate groups with a sense of shared enterprise. It set a framework within which liberal discourse could occur and, most importantly, provided a set of common objectives and a vocabulary that gave the impression of driving real progress.
The jumble of social movements and widescale multi-ethnic and multi-faith migrations served to cement these values. As the crucible of modern international culture, the potency of the Western model was its capacity to tolerate, integrate and absorb radically opposing views, and invent novel technologies. It was the first civilisation to put such inventions as steam, electric and nuclear power to industrial use. It was the first to abolish slavery, and the first to enfranchise women. These were the same factors that led Western nations into exercising increasing global influence.
The Curse of Neoliberalism
But then, starting around 1945, the world turned on its dark side. The Western civilisation model began to squirm its way out of its more liberal ideals and compassionate constraints. Two brutal world wars had manufactured palpably inhumane horrors. The fog of war, previously used to spread fear and disorientation, now became the new marketing tool. Propaganda colonised the minds of gullible and compliant consumers. The clear line between fact and fiction warped. Worse still, key doctrines of the Western ideal — such as carbon-based capitalism, monetarism, and elitist models of leadership, for example — began to unravel, becoming menacing caricatures of their former selves.
Starting around this time, people began to lose faith in substantial parts of the Western civilisation narrative. Spurred on by post-war governments, who were keen to generate functional employment opportunities as evidence of their economic management credentials, universities withdrew funding from the humanities, becoming nothing more than skills factories.
Buoyed by such strategic adjustments in tertiary education, governments started to betray Western civilisation principles on a regular basis. Short-term financial pragmatism and preparing for the next election, defined politicians everywhere. Beholden to big business the entire focus of governments became one of patching up the present while putting the future on pause. Meanwhile, the corporate media were turning their attention to histrionics and celebrities behaving badly. No longer content with accurate reporting of the news, tabloids owned by media moguls like Rupert Murdoch started to distort and invent news — brazenly promoting rumours, fabricating facts and embellishing stories at whim.
All of this has caused a rupture in the cultural transmission of core beliefs and ethics. We are far more likely to interpret the Western civilisation model today as one of xenophobia and intolerance than a source of liberty and open-mindedness. As this fracturing intensifies the model is less and less able to recuperate from the various upheavals to its structure. These include the growing severity of climatic destabilisation, conflict, poverty, famine, the weaponised use of fear and terror and misinformation, embedded corruption, and financial inequity in a population about to exceed 7.5 billion inhabitants.
Even more alarming is the dismantling of democratic institutions and their replacement by various forms of authoritarianism. Mainstream political parties polarise in an extreme hollowing-out of the centre, while the middle classes are in rapid decline. But it gets worse. Some governments are either starting to take on the look of pre-modern mafia states, run by commercially-oriented family clans, or bigoted, party-based, personality cults. Even the fundamental fabric of civic self-government seems to be unravelling following the loss of faith (from within) of liberal ideals.
As one might expect, this collapse is being hastened and exacerbated by a range of ancillary factors — facets of human existence that stare us in the face, but that we routinely discount, rationalise as an inevitable corollary of contemporary living, ignore, or simply refuse to acknowledge — that are inimical to human health and wellbeing.
Most public intellectuals and elders — those to whom we usually turn for wisdom — look away. Baffled by the complexity perhaps, they have stopped trying to make sense of an increasingly frenzied danse macabre, and seem utterly incapable of explaining wayward patterns, or cautioning us about possible vulnerabilities, in ways that ordinary men and women might be able to understand and act upon. The residue is an ideas industry comprising a few self-styled thought leaders and sponsored academics in partisan think-tanks. Evangelistic super-stars of the established order, individuals like Niall Ferguson, Thomas Friedman, Clayton Christenson, and Jim Collins, develop their own insular explanations of the world, amidst claims of innovation and a desire for massive change, and proselytise those views to all and sundry. The result of these feedback loops, in echo chambers of pseudo-academic orthodoxy, merely fuels social metastasis and degrades even further our ability to escape the gravitational pull of the past.
The most critical dilemma facing us is one of structural or system design. For while we deliberately shape our structures, eventually we lose interest and stop paying attention. At that point they begin to shape us. That would be fine except that our most life-critical systems, with few exceptions, were not designed to consciously evolve in alignment with changes to external conditions. This simple truth results in any number of disparities between one group and another.
For example, most people are probably familiar with the absurd situation that just five men own half the world’s wealth, while more than 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day, and more than 1.3 billion of those live in extreme poverty. There are other discrepancies that are just as preposterous. Take life expectancy, for example. If you are fortunate enough to live in Japan, which has the lowest rate of heart disease in the OECD, as well as the lowest levels of dementia in the developed world, your average life expectancy will be 84 years. If you were born in Sierra Leone this average falls dramatically to 50 years.
Other situations, though far less disturbing, are still serious enough to warrant concern — indicative of the constraints we design into our systems based upon ingrained assumptions and expectations we expect to remain constant. For example, although I can be heard complaining daily about the speed of my broadband connection, almost one third of the world’s population still do not have access to the internet.
There are disparities, too, between our innate knowledge and ability to function in the increasingly sophisticated technocratic world we have invented. Uneasiness concerning the wisdom of developing artificially super-intelligent beings that might eventually be smart enough to eliminate humans is a case in point. The disparity between contemporary lifestyles and human physiology is also a growing problem — recently acknowledged as the underlying cause of so many modern diseases, like coronary heart disease, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, epithelial cell cancers and autoimmune disease, as well as a mental health pandemic that includes autism, anxiety and clinical depression, for example.
These disparities are increasingly disrupting the social order — transforming relations, exacerbating nation state fragility, forcing human migrations, triggering protests, gang vandalism, civil disobedience and rebelliousness. Given the levels of societal interconnectedness it is highly probable they will lead to an escalation of social confusion and turmoil, thus intensifying the already severe challenges facing humanity.
The impacts of such disparities are already severe and widespread. They could be irreversible. Yet still we allow a powerful clique of industrial corporations to determine what we value, buy, eat and drink. Still we turn a blind eye to brazen corruption and the hording of wealth. Still we attempt to govern by applying practises that are centuries old and way past their use-by date. And still we permit obsolete beliefs and superstition to impede true progress.
The most dangerous of these dynamics can be seen in (i) the destruction we are prepared to wreak on the natural environment needed to sustain life, (ii) the growing disrespect we have for each other that fractures any inherent sense of affiliation, and (iii) our nonchalant acceptance of socio-economic stratification that directly gives rise to division, strife, and inequity.
We are beginning to acknowledge the first of these, by trying to minimise pollution and drawdown carbon in the atmosphere — although some scientists believe our attempts to reduce the impacts of a warming climate may be too little too late. But the second factor is being allowed to fester. Moreover, it is entangled with, and is further aggravated by the third, which is not on the agenda of even those advocating radical social reform. We rail at the rich, denouncing the accumulation of wealth by small numbers of successful individuals, but do little to reinvent the system of economic production that is the source of such anomalies.
In the past, the relationship between these last two factors were mostly disregarded or rationalised as an inevitable consequence of societal development. Nevertheless, at their most elemental, they can be framed from within the construct of a system in which those who owned capital assets created opportunities for workers to produce the goods and services demanded by consumers. Carbon-driven capitalism, bolstered by the twin concepts of competition and entrepreneurship, became the key driver of wealth creation across much of Western civilisation — and beyond.
Initially the benefits to society were incalculable. But as industrial serfdom took hold, a gap opened up between privileged owners and deferential workers. Excluded from sharing in the means by which prosperity was being generated, greater numbers of people were marginalised. Disillusionment grew.
Realising the industrialised system of production was unfairly biased in favour of those who owned assets, and comprehending the risks in allowing that state of affairs to prevail, economists like John Maynard Keynes, proposed various policies for recalibrating key elements within the system. Unions, for example, established to represent workers, were charged with holding owners to account for safe working conditions and the provision of adequate wages. Meanwhile governments provided a safety net for the unemployed by introducing costly welfare schemes. On the other side of the ideological divide, those who extolled the virtues of free markets, like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, encouraged privatisation and deregulation — a trend that politicians like Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US, zealously adopted.
It is worth noting here that recent advocacy for a universal basic income is merely an extension of the prevailing social contract. Like many so-called new ideas, the proposal is a band-aid — patching up the current system yet maintaining its foundation in scarcity. However, appealing to some, it moves us no closer to the fundamental overhaul of a structure that no longer benefits much of humanity. In fact, applied imprudently, it could have a detrimental impact on the psychology and motivation of the long-term unemployed. Today this is particularly pertinent given the contentious issue of artificially-intelligent automation and the progressive erosion of jobs available in the workplace as a result.
And so the incessant battle between left and right-leaning political ideologies goes on unabated while fundamental structural elements that cause the system to behave in a manner we find both alarming and destructive remain intact. We face the imminent breakdown of agricultural systems and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere, continuing cultural fragmentation, and a deterioration of the Western civilisation model. Some even consider the extinction of our species a distinct possibility.
Learning How to Die
We have certainly entered a new era for our species. Just now the transition from one kind of society to the next is bewildering and messy. And as conceptual and existential matters concerning individual mortality morph into a universal predicament, questions concerning what it means to be human, what constitute a meaningful life, and how we can adapt to life in the hot, volatile conditions we have created, are on everyone’s mind.
It would be foolish to rely on old thinking and past habits for the answers to such questions. In order to adapt we will need a new conceptual understanding of reality, new ideas, new narratives and new relationships. Above all else we will need an appreciation of our collective existence. A new form of post-humanistic inquiry. These prerequisites are more relevant than ever before and should surely form the basis of any new schema for the human family?
So why does it all seem to be so difficult? We are hard-wired to believe that tomorrow will be like today. We close our minds to any anticipated discomfort of change. But just as individual mortality disturbs our casual faith in permanence, so the reality of global warming, and its related shockwaves, must keep infringing on our illusion of perpetual growth, endless energy extraction, and constant rounds of innovation. Eventually we will need to accept an unpalatable truth: that only by changing our minds about ourselves, and changing our destructive tendencies, will we be able to turn away from our apocalyptic destination towards more beneficial futures.
Today, power is in the hands of a tiny minority and the mechanisms of the world-system over which they preside threaten to destroy much that we cherish. We cannot avoid the consequences of prior decisions. Nor can we wave a magic wand to heal the world’s ills. But we can face the future with wisdom, rather than with panic, blind outrage or denial.
In this context, old forms of leadership are not only obsolete but scarily divisive. We need those who are in positions of trust to become the custodians of what it means to be human and to live up to the wisdom implied by the label sapiens. Their role must be to nurture the coevolution of humanity with wisdom for adaptation. Indeed, learning how to live with and through the collapse of our current civilisation model is fast becoming a fundamental literacy required from us all.
If we are to persist as the dominant species on this planet we will need to navigate the decline of carbon-fuelled capitalism. Tolerance will need to mature into conservation and integration; concern into compassion and love. That will require us to embrace the diversity of our species; use the tools we have invented more intelligently; work within our limits, and those of nature; accept the reality of impermanence, and the limits imposed upon us by nature; and ground our advancement in human collegiality — a sense of deep interconnection existing in an expanded now of potential, beyond any singular or parochial notion of identity, life, and place.
Roy Scranton, in his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, suggests there is a clear choice: We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without detachment or fear.
At this point in the evolution of the human story, in an age of such complexity, when our potential to create life and to delay death is matched only by an irrational desire for destruction, the emergence of a new philosophical and moral framework for thinking about ourselves and this world, and to guide our efforts in curating universal peace and wellbeing, could not be more urgent.
But there is a snag. For the genesis of a more sophisticated and benign worldview and world-system, can emerge only from outside and beyond the constraints of the current Western archetype. For the most part our intelligence and thought processes are trapped within trite conventions that permit us merely to recycle what we already know. They preserve the misconception we are original, inventive and unique, when we are not. The challenge is to find truths that enable the human imagination to soar but that do not depend on frail illusions and are resilient in the face of doubt and uncertainty.
Beyond the Humanistic Ideal
Time and time again, throughout the course of human history, we have seen how prevailing belief structures are shaped — but then eventually start shaping society. There is no design rule to ensure such structures consciously evolve to keep pace with external conditions.
Behind every advance and each revolution there are custodians of professed truths. Their advocacy of essential axioms and cultural imperatives helping to craft a worldview that instils all variations with legitimate and, on occasions, even sacred significance.
In our shared, occidental-led, world-system these axioms were initially instituted and communicated by clerics. Then came philosophers, and later scientists. Currently, economists hold sway. Tomorrow it may well be a few technocrats. But the grievous ideological tenets of today’s neoliberal high priests are so ingrained that we are only just waking up to the manner in which they covertly determine our behaviours and interactions. Prejudiced, lacking any sense of compassion, they have allowed the callous conviction that money is the measure of all things to creep into the cracks of everyday life. Cracks that are now gaping chasms.
The result is a destructive economic system that pays scant regard to nature, degrades relations between one social group and others, and substitutes homogeneity for diversity, in order to better justify and embed the dogma of rivalry.
The most marked characteristic of the Western paradigm was adherence to the notion of progress — from exploration, colonisation, and empire-building, to industrialisation, the flows of capital markets, and technological disruption. In the twenty-first century this narrative is in decline. Having recognised the fragility of the advanced nation model, we are gradually redefining what is meant by the term progress, accepting epistemological pluralism, and developing an appreciation that the problems facing humanity are all interconnected and all interdependent. In other words, they are systemic.
As we evolve towards an alternate worldview, with an ontological purpose capable of stewarding the human family through unfamiliar territory and unprecedented conditions, we should try to slough off the scarred skin of reckless self-centredness, which is the cause of so much distress. Perhaps we can even learn to embrace a truly unprejudiced outlook — viewing the consequences of human endeavour with renewed wisdom; a species accepting the responsibility of sharing its environment peacefully and in reciprocity with other sentient organisms.
The next worldview must surely be one where we move on from the oppressive mindset of the state, accepting the pluralism and diversity that reflect and reinforce the complexity of our traditions while acknowledging present dynamics and morphology. It must be one in which we reject deterministic economic orthodoxy — the idea that anything good about our society must invariably hinge on scarcity and competition — for these beliefs are utterly at odds with human wellbeing. Above all else we must ensure that whatever emerges as our shared world-system has the inbuilt capacity to consciously and generatively evolve. The conscious adoption of such an uber-worldview would recognise not just the need for us to shape the world-system cooperatively and in an ongoing manner, but also accept the limits of our ability to shape it at all.
I gratefully acknowledge the extraordinary scholars and authors who have inspired and influenced my work. In this essay alone I have drawn extensively from the recent transdisciplinary writings of Daniel Wahl, Joe Brewer, Noam Chomsky, Roy Scranton, and my Centre for the Future colleague Michael McAllum, often without seeking their permission. I register here my profound appreciation to each one of these individuals, and the many others who, from time to time, have inadvertently enriched and stretched my own thinking.