Chapter 7: The end of illusions

VII

THE END OF ILLUSIONS

“The history of mankind is like palaeontology. Owing to a certain judicial blindness, even the best minds fail to see, on principle, what lies in front of their noses. Later, when the time has come, we are surprised that there are traces everywhere of what we failed to see…. these learned men … are then surprised to find what is newest in what is oldest.”
Karl Marx (Letter to Engels, March 25, 1868)

The relations between socio-neuroses, ways of life and forms of social organization that we have outlined above—relations observed both in the agricultural civilizations with their ecclesiastical-military organization and their phobic socio-neurosis, as well as in industrial civilization, which is inseparable from capitalist development and an obsessive neurosis, and even in the current “society of the spectacle” with its Mafia-style organization and its generalized hysteria—allow us to critically examine certain currently fashionable illusions and utopias.

The most popular illusion consists in believing that a civilization like ours can survive for a long time, that is, by reforming itself, by means of certain technological or political innovations. For example: it is thought that new scientific tinkering will be able to counteract the catastrophic effects of the current course of technological development (exploitation of new sources of energy, neutralization of chemical and radioactive wastes, vaccines against new epidemics, etc.). Or that political organizations, democratic ones, of course, are still capable of further development and will be able to resist the dictates of the modern-day Mafias (“civil” power with its multiple variants, from lobbying to the political parties themselves). This illusion is amply nourished and encouraged by the various communications media. And not only has it has been received with satisfaction by gullible and malleable populations, but it has also helped disseminate favorable images of “responsible” citizens.

But those who run society today do not have any interest in changing a social, political and technological system that is so profitable for them. They possess all the media and police instruments to oppose such modifications. They control the dissemination of images and representations of the world on the basis of which they can forestall any maneuvers devoted to changing its course. They organize these representations, they assemble them at their convenience and even re-draw the strategic maps of those who seek to stand in the way of their plans. In this way—and also by means of more direct interventions—they provoke the appearance of opposition movements, moderate or violent, against their decisions, movements that are capable of attracting the interest of a part of the population; but, led astray by this falsified representation, these initiatives only lead to the defeat of those who engage in them and who are dragged down along with them. The control over images allows, on a more trivial level, for the contradiction of certain observations concerning the current state of the world by other alleged information, which is rendered plausible by its conformity with the representations of the world that are generally disseminated and received, thus neutralizing all unsuitable truths along with the unacceptable reactions they might be capable of arousing.

As for the public that is the target of these delicate operations, a public that is the modeling clay of the official artists of modern power, it no longer possesses any means that would allow it to recognize these operations for what they are and to correctly evaluate this mode of representation that is claimed to be the absolute measuring rod of truth. It lacks a foundation that is stable enough to construct another scale of values and to erect a really useful critique. For the only basis from which one can recognize and denounce the modern phantasmagoria is none other than the living subject himself in his integrity and in his consubstantial unity, that is, the subject that is simultaneously individual, social and universal. This subject of existence is completely effaced in hysterical neurosis. And that is the reason why, once uprooted, the modern public floats in this phantasmagoria at the mercy of the manipulations concerning whose source, role and objectives it is completely ignorant. The amnesia of self, which is the basis of hysteria, prevents any authentic opposition to the ongoing process of dissolution. And its remembrance or anamnesis can only arise in a direct confrontation with individual and collective death, of which the living subject is the primordial opposite. The conditions of survival must therefore be much more compromised at the very core of the nerve center of our current civilization, in order for a real resistance to be capable of organizing effectively against the forces that drive this civilization.

But before we reflect on the questions of how such a development might create the preconditions for a different development, in certain incipient zones and in an initially chaotic and episodic manner, we should reexamine all those ideas that have to be ruled out as plausible alternatives to our civilization, in the light of the observations set forth above concerning collective neuroses and the evolution of the modern world.

At the beginning of the 19th century, amidst all the excitement triggered by the idea of progress in the Europe of that time, a seductive utopia made its debut that unhesitatingly inscribed itself in the industrialization process and nonetheless claimed to be radically opposed to the social consequences of that same process. This utopia, under the name of socialism or communism, lasted right up until our times, but its most resounding successes coincided with the phase of the most unbridled industrial development.

The industrialization of Europe was said to respond to an evil that was at once natural and social (material poverty, poor hygiene, ignorance, crime), an evil that was supposed to be gradually attenuated until it could be abolished in the relatively long-term. For the ruling class, the battle against these foes, a battle that was fought with the weapons of industrial development, manifested the presence of a peculiar socio-neurosis that had appeared during the course of the Middle Ages, and of which Protestantism was the first religious expression (the relation established by Max Weber between Protestant ideology and capitalist development is indicative of this same socio-neurotic origin). The accumulation of wealth and knowledge, repeated examinations of one’s conscience (including microscopic examination) and the exploration of the universe (including telescopic exploration), the strict organization of public space and social time, as well as a whole complex of austerely conformist, repetitive, constraining and mechanical behaviors, served to combat a nature that was essentially evil, dirty and criminal, both in the external world as well as within the recesses of the ego. These achievements were also the necessary preconditions for the industrial development of Europe.

Shame and self-loathing favored the domestication of the entire population at the service of capitalist development. They inspired obedience to the orders that issued from the privileged classes. And this obedience was maintained for generations, sometimes under very extreme conditions, and even to the deepest shafts of the mines and the ossuaries of Verdun.

The socialist utopia, which had appeared in the 19th century in industrial societies, sought to put an end to the social foundations of working class servitude, but without questioning the new industrial development from which it was inseparable. Some reactionary groups of workers, who came from the old preindustrial artisanal class, attempted, here and there, to oppose this program by destroying the machines or burning down the factories. The police working on behalf of the owners quickly neutralized them, assisted by the indifference and hostility of the working class trade unions and the disdain of the socialist organizations. For these organizations had enthusiastically adopted the progressive ideology of their time. They even sought to outdo the capitalist system in the battle against evil, not only against social injustice, but also against misery, filth, and ignorance.

Because the morbid emotional foundations that justified this industrial process in the eyes of the common people were not recognized, nor was the fact that this madness was doubly responsible for both the submission of the working class and for the acquisitive frenzy of its masters, the socialist movement attempted to take control of this process in the name of the working class, the true agent of a very necessary transformation of the world. Regardless of the form of organization of this movement (government party, revolutionary party, soviet or workers council) the goal of socialism was the same: the suppression of social classes, the construction of an egalitarian society and the pursuit of continuous progress with regard to industrialization, education, health, sanitation and the “control” of nature.

Nor did the socialists conceal their admiration for capitalism’s technical achievements. They merely denounced the social inequalities that prevented the majority of the population from enjoying their results. The most influential socialists even proclaimed that their socialist program could only be realized after the preliminary capitalist advance and that the latter had to be supported in the countries with an insufficient level of industrial development.

Everyone knows what happened next. The most advanced countries, with regard to their industrial progress and the development of their capitalist social forms, never underwent the expected socialist transformation. Where socialist parties effectively took control of social policy, the furious industrialization that they implemented resulted in another system divided into two classes: that of the workers and that of the joint owners of the means of production, a system that was similar to that of the countries whose social organization the socialist parties denounced. For they could not put an end to that form of social organization without also putting an end to the idea of progress and the socio-neurosis that engenders it. Furthermore, mercantile alienation, the separation of the producer from his product, led, there as well, to an almost generalized hysterical socio-neurosis, and these “socialist” countries finally underwent the same evolution as the rest of the world.

The socialist utopia does not enjoy a lot of support in contemporary Europe. Now, no one advocates it either with regard to its current policies or its original program, except for circus freaks who have made it into a career or nostalgic individuals who pine for other, less tragic times. Others, who up until a short time ago supported its program, have only recently undertaken a critique of industrial development in general, but not of its foundations or of its dynamic, and much less of its socio-neurotic roots, but simply of its most recent aspects, those which, examined closely, are not related to the goals of the old industrial civilization. In any event, these new “socialists” advocate a very different form of social organization from the one whose virtues they praised not so long ago (what happened to their workers councils?), a form of organization that is similar to the one that the new ecological utopia has been proposing as a model for the last few years.

Under the name of radical ecology a new utopia has recently appeared, one whose popularity is not commensurate with the scale of the ongoing catastrophe, but whose theories do, however, encounter a certain echo. This echo is important enough to have caused the managers of our modern world to deem it advisable to favor the creation of a multitude of organizations labeled “ecological”, devoted to bucolic projects (“green” spaces, bicycle lanes, “healthy” food, protection of the “biological patrimony”, etc.), organizations designed to capture the interest of an anxious public and to divert its attention from the theories of radical ecology.

The real ecologism, however, does not limit itself to denouncing, even on a global scale, the numerous ongoing instances of harm, the contamination of the air and food by products that originate in the chemical or nuclear industry, or even the carcinogenic and immunosuppressive effects of that contamination. It is not content to accuse industrial monoculture and the deforestation of the tropical jungles of transforming vast territories into sterile deserts, unleashing massive famines, causing the accelerated extinction of numerous species, or even, in the short term, of provoking extreme climate change. On the surface, its purpose is much more alarming.

Radical ecology—unlike the governmental simulacra that have been paraded on the stage—proclaims that all the evils of our time are the result of a worldwide socio-economic system whose industrial production is simultaneously the cause and the result. This is why its spokespersons advocate a massive diminution of economic activity and a considerable reduction of energy production. They seek to promote a preindustrial way of life, based on the cultivation of food, family-scale animal husbandry, locally based craft production, animal traction and the return to village life of populations that were expelled from the countryside in the past by industrial development. The new ecological utopia also calls for the rehabilitation of a socio-economic organization based on small agricultural-artisanal units and on the model of society that endured for thousands of years in most of the world, before the mercantile-industrial system and its colonial armies destroyed its foundations everywhere. Only this model, according to its proponents, will restore a life full of dignity, free and happy, for each individual, in which there will be no irresolvable contradictions between eternal nature and universal reason.

Under the current conditions, this utopia is encountering a moderate level of success among an essentially hysterical Western public, that is, a public that is deprived of its own existence and lusting for the multiple compensations offered by the modern market, compensations that can only be obtained if the wheels of the current economy continue to turn. For a globalized economic system, however, one that is liberated from the lash of competition, it could also prove to be profitable, within a short period of time, to impose upon one part of this public other rustic, “natural” and cultural images, that would make it possible for them to largely exist in the archaic living conditions advocated by the new ecological utopia, between growing carrots, knitting blankets and building ovens for baking bread. This utopia might therefore soon see its dreams become a reality.

As for the “happiness”, the “freedom” and the “dignity” of those who will have to live under these conditions, between a “nature” that is to be domesticated and a “reason” whose benefits are supposed to be enjoyed, the situation looks very different from the way the radical ecologists imagine it will be, who are apparently unfamiliar with the history of pre-industrial societies. Agricultural activity, or labor in a blacksmith’s shop, from birth to death, might not be the pleasing prospect for many people that the utopians would like to believe it is. These activities are, in themselves, so contrary to freedom that certain civilizations reserved the privilege of engaging in them to slaves. A life of that kind could only be maintained for thousands of years in the great empires that, under the dual compulsion of soldiers and a religious ideology, promised generous rewards in the eternally blue skies of heaven. No agricultural-artisanal civilization survived without a social organization ruled by the ecclesiastical-military system. And it is not hard to understand why.

If, upon the ruins of today’s society, agricultural communities attempt to organize for survival, you do not have to be a “prophet” to predict that they will rapidly become the prey of gangs of armed raiders, organized and resourceful with regard to an appropriate military technology, who will judge that their freedom, dignity and happiness would be more adequately served by specializing in this warlike activity rather than in the use of the shovel and the rake. These gangs will live on their hunting grounds, excluding everything that is not indispensable for the group’s survival and defending its territory against other occasional predators. In times of scarcity, they will become more aggressive and attempt to occupy adjacent territories that lack defenders of their kind. Most of the military castes of the old agricultural empires had this kind of historical origin.

Under these circumstances, when armed specialists assure the protection of a group, specialists who are generously maintained and served with fear, when men are deprived of their free aggressive impulses and their right to self-defense, a phobic socio-neurosis develops. Phobic symptoms also appear, although often temporarily, in second infancy, when violent reactions directed against an intolerable environment are prohibited and suppressed in the name of protecting the child. This neurosis then invades consciousness and structures the view that one has of the world. In the dark corners of the bedroom or, for the subject peoples, in the inscrutable storm-wracked skies, demonic forms arise that are imbued with inhibited drives and are turned against the dreamer and against those on the threshold of sleep. That is when the walls and spaces of protection are constructed where indulgent, beneficent and omniscient divinities reign, divinities that allow the somnolent to enjoy a dream-filled rest. But these protective deities do not give their favors away for free and demand, in exchange for their help, an irreproachable obedience and blind servility. The constant reminders of these demands, as well as certain forms of conduct that are extremely sophisticated and symbolic of the entire system of real social alienation, are guaranteed and directed by a specialized caste, that of the priesthood, intermediaries between the real world and the world of the spirits, the true guardians of the phobic ideology. This socio-neurosis can now be recognized in the organization of what have been called the “new religious movements”, as well as in the lucubrations of New Age philosophy.

The establishment of small agricultural-artisanal communities, of the kind that are promoted by the ecological utopia and whose merits the latter praises, can only lead to the reappearance of the old feudal orders or of the agricultural empires. For that same “ecosystem” inseparably contains their preindustrial mode of production, their caste system and their old phobic religion of protective divinities. Whereas the socialist utopia had sought to put an end to social divisions without any concern for the balance of life, the new ecological utopia, to the contrary, while cognizant of the coherence of the biosphere, nonetheless leads to a servile social organization dominated by armed men and priests.

In reality, autonomous communities cannot be created nor can they survive except by themselves deploying the means and techniques of individual and collective self-defense, and opposing any attempt to monopolize these activities by a specialized group. They will not survive unless they constitute armed assemblies from the very start. And each community must assume responsibility, in a dilapidated, polluted and hostile environment, for the task of preserving the nutritive quality of the living world, that is, the science of the coherence of life, and not allowing it to be usurped by new specialists, regardless of the religion they proclaim and however remarkable it might seem. These requirements are, it would appear, quite alien to the current concerns of radical ecology.

So, where do we stand today? Hundreds of millions of men, women and children are concentrated in immense poverty-stricken megacities, each of which is surrounded by a devastated countryside. Chemical complexes or nuclear power plants, increasingly more numerous and ubiquitous, and toxic emissions caused by burning petroleum products, pollute the air, soil, water and food. Industrial agriculture, deforestation, and hydroelectric dams have resulted in endemic nutritional deficiencies and increasing mortality rates. And these living conditions are imposed and maintained manu militari by the transnational institutions that are avidly defending their freedom to traffic in commodities.

On this globally devastated planet, accidents are not only assuming unexpected forms, but they are also becoming more frequent with each passing day and the passage of a few days makes our already miserable living conditions even worse. Leaks from fires at nuclear power plants or fires at chemical plants, tsunamis and devastating hurricanes, are just some of the direct or indirect effects of the current industrialization and systematic deforestation. Not to mention the many local wars, unleashed by the Mafia-style industrial groups to appropriate new wealth and new markets. These accidents contribute to local pollution, famines, and disease, and in some locations generalized disorder and looting. The only concern of the managers is to maintain order and discipline, and to suppress looting and insurrectionary violence.

A new territorial configuration, almost always ephemeral, although sometimes more enduring but never permanent, is tending to be established in the form of devastated or ravaged zones, on a larger or smaller scale, areas that are deprived of the basic means of survival and contaminated by various toxic emissions. These zones, patrolled by helicopters flying overhead, are rapidly quarantined by the armed forces. And the besieged must soon do what is necessary to meet their need for food by looting the supermarkets and the administrative and police offices, and to protect themselves—if possible—from the most dangerous pollution in addition to having to defend themselves from the forces of order. For these populations, deprived of everything, poisoned and besieged, the psychological barriers that maintain social order gradually collapse and this collapse liberates forces by virtue of which a new consciousness can arise.

When poverty is absolute and looting and criminal activity permanent, the foundations of neurosis are no longer secure. Neither the fear of violence that inheres in the individual, upon which the priests have erected their religions, nor the sense of propriety that accompanies respect for property and the ideas of an emancipating progress, nor even self-amnesia in the disgusting immersion in modern illusions, can endure such tests. These conditions constitute a true catharsis in which all particular neuroses are dissolved. The right to be yourself in your own home just seems self-evident. The return of the individual living subject is the first fruit of insubordination.

Insurrectionary war and resistance on the part of an armed group against the forces of order that are trying to destroy it resuscitates the old social consciousness, today annihilated. The looters of New Orleans, like looters before them, organized to equitably share out their booty. For in this kind of war, the life of each individual person and practical solidarity make the whole group stronger, while the death of a single person makes it poorer. This is the sole foundation of social consciousness.

Finally, in these contaminated, toxic and dangerous zones, the environment can kill the entire community or enable it to live, depending on the practical activity pursued by the community. This environment must be subjected to constant monitoring, attempts must be made to protect the community from it and efforts must be undertaken to avoid compromising its viability due to imprudent individual or collective actions. This is the basis of ecological consciousness. In an environment of this kind, the question of the living totality is no longer a theoretical problem but an immediate vital necessity. In this way, the reunification of the individual subject, the social subject and the universal living subject can encounter real foundations in these black holes of our catastrophic present.

At the present time, these geographical enclaves of the new living consciousness are rapidly reconquered by the forces of order. Their inhabitants are evacuated, deported, and sometimes massacred. They have a very short lifespan. And even the ashes of their experiences are soon buried in oblivion. But the continued existence of the current industrial and social system guarantees that such zones will reappear in greater numbers, spread, and converge in the form of a protean archipelago. The increasingly more difficult task of rapidly destroying them, due to their proliferation, their extension and the mobility of their populations, assures that they will have a relatively extended duration, in a civil war on the scale of our modern globalization. Can one believe that these forces of order will always be there, when even today the troops are complaining about the weaponry and the methods they are forced to use and because of those soldiers who die a few years later, amidst general silence and indifference?

And although it is true that from now on, and in a very ephemeral manner, human communities will arise in which it is possible to reconstruct a unitary living consciousness where there is no longer an absolute separation between what is innermost and what is most general, where in a single process the individual “ego”, the social “we” and the universal “it” will be united, it is also possible to foresee the dangers that threaten these communities, dangers that they will not escape except by means of the consciousness of what they are and of the real issues that are at stake.

First, these dangers will appear in the prolonged war against the forces that will try to suppress the insurrection, or they will be presented by those forces that will join it, in other circumstances. Without going into superfluous details—details that anyone can easily imagine for themselves—there is the possibility of a regression towards a new system of archaic domination, with its agricultural-artisanal slavery and its old phobic religion. Other risks threaten these communities in prolonged periods of peace. Social consciousness takes shape to the same degree that serious material difficulties have to be addressed. And in the simple individuality confronted with difficult living conditions self-loathing can emerge, a sense of propriety that reconstructs the religion of “progress” and its mercantile-industrial organization. Would we exchange today’s madness for a more ancient and equally repugnant madness?

Regardless of what one may think of these difficulties and these dangers, everyone knows that human communities avoided succumbing to such snares for longer than the combined histories of imperial China and ancient Egypt. For those primitive communities, there was a time for war and a time for peace, a time for seeking and a time for giving, a time for striking blows and a time for dancing, which allowed them to preserve what they considered to be most dear: themselves.

In conditions so unlike the ones experienced by those communities, the foundations of a certainly very different civilization may be redefined, but one that will not have repudiated the old unitary societies. And no one will any longer view these societies with the vindictive scorn of the university professors of Jena or anywhere else, nor of those who, even now, want to preserve something of such a calamitous historical legacy.

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***

Translated in February-March 2014 from the Spanish translation:

Michel Bounan, La loca historia del mundo, tr. Julieta Lionetti, Editorial Melusina, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, 2007.

Originally published in French:

Michel Bounan, La Folle Histoire du Monde, Editions Allia, Paris, 2006.