How can we analyze forces that seek to destroy civilization (to save it)?
Posted in Global Net Assessment
Richard Koenigsberg, great social psychologist, and director of The Library of Social Science) writes to me:
“The desire to destroy civilization: it has always been thus” (He goes on to talk about the apocalyptic end of the movie, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove).
I respond: “Dear Richard, This is a great meme. It is being played out today, and not simply by the usual suspects, like Boko Haram or Ihor Girkin or ISIS, but also in the highest financial and corporate seats. The drivers seem parasitical, in that their dreams of destruction are borne on the backs of institutions and a fabric of life that is vulnerable and passive. The iron dreams of the nuclear maniacs of the 1950s feasted off American fear.”
He comes back with: “What is the motivation for the wish to destroy civilization? What a burden civilization often is: The mental representation of an object bound to the self. Why does one want to rescue this object? What a burden the rescue fantasy is.”
To which I add: “This is truly a paradox: Some self-chosen people do believe that civilization — or the identity package we all share that takes the form of some sacred chalice — is a sort of object that must be actively guarded, and which they are responsible for protecting. While most persons are fixated on simple me-neediness, the special self-selected ones move into guardianship mode, proclaiming themselves not only the protectors but the purifiers. So those I mentioned: Abubakar Shekau, Ihor Girkin, and Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, are completely burdened by their desperate need to rescue their chalices of civilization through the same process. Ritual purification. There are noteworthy resonances here:
To which he replies: “And as you observe, Michael, the greatest destroyers have always been THE GREATEST PROTECTORS: Mao wanted to “rescue” the Chinese people, and ended up being the great mass-murderer of all time. Likewise, Hitler. The motive to rescue is bound with the motive to destroy. Perhaps one hates the people one wishes to rescue because they constitute such a BURDEN upon the self.”
This conversation highlights a difficult and elusive area of analysis in global net assessment, namely: How do we identify social-cultural coming apart? Richard Koenigsberg identifies the individual dimension to dynamically destructive human eras, and we can identify persons today who appear to have the individual motivations we saw in Mao and Hitler. But how would we know whether we are entering an era in which such individuals could again gain such collective sway? Certainly from world media there is the sensation that such bloody purifiers are on the rise. But is this a real trend, or simply the appearance of the moment?
What we do know is that the widespread emergence and success of such revolutionary purifiers in the 20th century was most probably a direct consequence of World War I and the late stages of European colonialism in Africa, China, and the Middle East. So many identities were torn down or deeply abused and wounded during this time, and the idea that civilization was almost lost was an existential assumption among hundreds of millions, perhaps a majority of humanity. In this collective context, the simultaneous appearance of purifiers everywhere — beginning in Mexico and China in 1912, and continuing through to the 1960s in the Third World — and their seemingly unstoppable success makes easy sense.
But there are two questions that do not so easily make sense: Why did purification and the promise of renewal so often take the form of self-destruction? Are the comings apart we see today a token of a new wave, or simply the remnants of what the 20th century wrought — part of the ongoing clean-up at the margins? Clearly the crescendo of violence in the 20th century explicitly equated destruction with purification, and this deep association may have been linked to the ultra-violence of World War I — which in a sense legitimated the centrality of the state in wholesale and extravagant slaughter, extravagantly fulfilled. World War I renewed the passion and power of blood rites and blood sacrifice, which became a central theme of 20th century life and death.
Yet global violence has been declining for decades, as the data shows:
It is highly likely that, living in a world that 1-Is highly sensitive to violence as part of an altered global consciousness, 2-Will know about or even see violence where ever it happens, and because of the impact of (1) and (2) on our perception, we are (3) unable to distinguish scale of violence between the reports and video inputs we receive. We “feel” the world is more violent, when in fact global violence is at historic lows.
The overarching issue for our course is how we analytically apprehend the onset of future cultural dynamics that threaten to move humanity back to the almost unstoppable crescendo it embarked on in 1914.
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