The mad history of the world - Michel Bounan

In this book first published in France in 2006, Michel Bounan recounts the history of the world according to a developmental schema defined not by modes of production, but by modes of “collective mental disorders”, specifically “socio-neuroses” corresponding to particular stages of human history (sedentary agricultural imperial civilization/phobia, classical capitalism/obsession, and the “society of the spectacle”/hysteria), and speculates that the catastrophic collapse of industrial society will result in a “true catharsis in which all particular neuroses are dissolved” and humanity will rediscover the lost “unitary consciousness” of our primitive ancestors.

Submitted by Alias Recluse on March 31, 2014

Chapter 1: The meaning of history

Submitted by Alias Recluse on March 31, 2014

The Mad History of the World – Michel Bounan

“… sometimes … it may be the very weakest of an author’s books that, coming in the sequel of many others, enables us at last to get hold of what underlies the whole of them—of that spinal marrow of significance that unites the work of his life into something organic and rational.”
Robert Louis Stevenson (Familiar Studies of Men and Books, “Victor Hugo’s Romances”)



“A mild and passionless disposition, want of spirit, and a crouching submissiveness … are the chief characteristics of the native Americans; and it will be long before the Europeans succeed in producing any independence of feeling in them. The inferiority of these individuals in all respects, even in regard to size, is very manifest….”
G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of History

When the Amerindian peoples discovered European civilization towards the end of the 15th century, they were surely more shocked by the encounter than the adventurers who had just disembarked on their shores. The customs of the inhabitants of America, their economic and social organization, as well as their rudimentary technics, evoked among the invaders, and among the Europeans to whom the latter recounted their achievements, a “primitive” world that was not entirely unfamiliar to them. The way of life the Amerindians—their life in common—might have reminded the Europeans of their own childhood and, for those who were not unacquainted with historical or at least Biblical accounts, it might have even recalled the origins of their own civilization. What they saw, not without a certain disdain and maybe even a touch of nostalgia mixed with a little hypocritical religious sentiment, evoked an almost familiar world for them. The inhabitants of America, on the other hand, discovered a completely unfamiliar, previously unimaginable civilization. In this sense, one could say that the discovery of Europe by the Amerindians was a much more important and shocking historical event than the discovery made by a handful of Spanish sailors along the coasts of the Antilles.

First of all, the weapons of war with which the new invaders were armed astonished the peoples of America. Against populations that, for the most part, were not even familiar with the rudiments of metallurgy, the lances, pikes and crossbows, armor and helmets of the invaders were terribly effective. As for firearms—the arquebuses, muskets and primitive cannons—it is easy to imagine the terror that they provoked. And there were other things that defied the understanding of these “primitives”: metal tools, stone architecture, horses and carts capable of transporting heavy weaponry and supplies over long distances. The visitors who had landed on their coasts were undoubtedly the bearers of a fearsome knowledge.

However, we cannot really say that the Amerindian peoples were totally intimidated by the technics of the invaders: “Will not my arrow kill? I do not need your guns…. Now go back to the country from whence you came. We do not want your presents, and we do not want you to come into our country”, declared a Pawnee chief in one of the first encounters of his people with the Europeans.1 And as for the knowledge of the Europeans and the education that was used to transmit it, they soon rejected these things, too. In the early 18th century, the Council of the Six Nations refused to send their children to the schools of the invaders: “… several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but when they came back to us … they were totally good for nothing.”2 Furthermore, the Amerindian peoples were quick to recognize the devastation that European technics and knowledge caused: “… they deface [the earth] with their buildings and their refuse. That nation is like a spring freshet that overruns its banks and destroys all who are in its path.”3

Other peculiarities, even more disturbing, seemed to characterize the recent arrivals. First of all, their insatiable greed shocked peoples who were unacquainted with the use of money: “… the love of possession is a disease with them”, was the diagnosis of a Sioux warrior during a gold rush.4 These people did not kill animals to eat them, they killed them for “the yellow metal that they worship and that makes them crazy”.5 Similarly, their propensity to lie, their deceitfulness and their repeated betrayals testified to an extraordinary lack of dignity: “They have no honesty”, declared a Canadian Indian: “They are an unsightly beast. Their faces are twisted from the appearance of honest men”.6 Likewise with respect to their gratuitous cruelty: the white men sometimes kill “merely for the sake of killing”.7

The Amerindian peoples were also surprised at the obstinate devotion shown by the invaders to hard work, their industrious frenzy more worthy of insects and, above all, their unwavering determination to inculcate this extravagant madness in everyone else: “… you tell us to work for a living…. You white men can work if you want to. We do not interfere with you, and again you say, why do you not become civilized? We do not want your civilization!”8 And again: “My young men shall never work. Men who work cannot dream; and wisdom comes to us in dreams.”9

To top it all off, these greedy, cruel, lying and frantically industrious Europeans attempted to inculcate the Indians with a kind of religion—in whose name, on the other hand, they ceaselessly fought against them—a religion that, in the view of the Amerindians, “makes the straight and plain path trod by our fathers, dark and dreary”.10

Nonetheless, despite the disdain they showed for the knowledge of the invaders and for their shocking madness, it was their social and political organization, more than any other factor, which the Amerindians found to be most contemptible. In his Essays, Michel de Montaigne recounts the visit of three Amerindians, brought to Rouen during the reign of Charles IX, who expressed their surprise at the existence among their hosts of “men full and crammed with all manner of commodities”, while other men “were begging at their doors, lean and half-starved with hunger and poverty”. It seemed very strange to them that these needy persons “were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses”. A century later, a chief of the Hurons told the Baron de Lahontan: “I am Master of my own Body, I have the absolute disposal of my self, I do what I please, I am the first and the last of my Nation, I fear no Man, and I depend only on the Great Spirit: Whereas thy Body, as well as thy Soul, are doom’d to a dependence on thy great Captain; thy Vice-Roy disposes of thee; thou hast not the liberty of doing what thou hast a mind to; thou art afraid of Robbers, false Witnesses, Assassins, etc. and thou dependest upon an infinity of Persons whose Places have rais’d ‘em above thee. Is it true, or not?”11 And around the same time: “We believe, further, that you are also incomparably poorer than we, and that you are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves, all masters and grand captains though you may appear.”12 Much later, a Sioux warrior would observe: “These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take tithes from the poor and the weak to support the rich and those who rule.”13

This is what the attitudes of this strange people who had just arrived on their coasts at the end of the 15th century looked like to the Amerindians: a considerable technical genius, but one that was for the most part useless and often harmful; a hitherto unknown mental derangement, associated with the mania for wealth and accumulation; a sadistic cruelty and a frequent inclination to lie; and to top it all off, an outlandish social organization based on work, one that was scandalously unequal and so viscerally opposed to freedom that everyone was the slave of a master who was himself nothing but a slave.

These technical feats, these aberrant mental conditions and this social organization are clearly united; it has always been the case in the history of human civilization that individual consciousness and social organization are united. But the way they are related to each other can be addressed from different angles, and the points of view that arise from this observation—which we shall examine here—merit further scrutiny.

The encounter between the old America, which seems not to have changed since time immemorial, and the new Europe, which had scarcely a few centuries of existence behind it, might at first sight appear to be an extreme case insofar as we have here related, for the most part, the customs and declarations of the Amerindians of the Great Plains of the North.

The brutal confrontation between the new Europe and the old civilizations, however, had also taken place, of course, and assumed the form of the same kind of confrontations and given rise to the same kinds of opinions almost from one end of the world to the other. These opinions were recorded not only in North America, but also in large parts of South America, in the islands of the Pacific, in almost all of Indonesia, from Borneo to Sulawesi, as well as among the peoples of Oceania, among the Inuit of the Arctic regions, and among the Siberians, as soon as the Europeans accosted them with their weapons and their technologies, their neuroses and their ideologies, their cult of work and generalized servitude, and their system of organization and social oppression. Later, the exploitation of Central Africa and the discovery of peoples who were not in contact with the Arab-Moslem civilization led to the same kinds of confrontations and the same mutual appraisals.

All of these older social formations were defeated and, for the most part, exterminated. There is nothing left of their civilizations, which were destroyed, except small enclaves—preserved for the benefit of ethnologists—within the immense European colony that the world has become. Modern weapons and technics made short work of these civilizations that were incapable of opposing them. Alcohol and drugs shattered the last pockets of resistance. The victory of Europe was therefore complete, just as the victory of Roman armies and technologies was complete fifteen centuries before when the latter were launched against all of Europe, the Berbers of Africa and the peoples of the Middle East.

The European colonizers also encountered other peoples, however, whose civilizations were deemed to be more “advanced” and more similar to their own than those of the Amerindians of North America, the Aborigines of Australia or the Pygmies of Central Africa. And there is no doubt that these civilizations had a long and distinguished past to their credit, with regard to science and technology, as well as with regard to individual neuroses and the elaboration of metaphysical systems, despotism and servitude.

On the American continent, the invaders also discovered great empires in Central America and throughout the Andes: farmers and herdsmen, builders of roads, palaces and temples. The religion of these peoples was not an individual affair, but was directed by a corps of priestly functionaries, in accordance with a very strict liturgical calendar. The purpose of this religion was to protect them against terrifying demonic powers that were exorcized by means of animal and human sacrifices. Furthermore, the people of these empires lived under hereditary monarchies. They were divided into rigid social classes, just as in Europe, and were ruled by a rigidly centralized system organized around a semi-divine monarch.

Previously, and in other regimes throughout the world, Europeans had the opportunity to become acquainted with gigantic empires, especially in the Middle East and Asia, empires that they quickly confronted in order to subject them to their own laws. In these empires, works in stone, metal, glass and textiles had reached very high levels of excellence long before they did in Europe. Their sciences, especially mathematics and astronomy, were more ancient and exhibited an exceptional degree of development. The social organization of these peoples was also based on a rigid system of hierarchical social classes; commerce flourished and, here and there, the slave trade was practiced, sometimes only to provide for the insatiable sexual needs of their ruling classes.

All of these empires, in America, Asia and the Middle East, had traversed the same road of “progress” as Europe, both with regard to their technological development as well as their customs and social organization. Nonetheless, some factor appears to have blocked their further progress at a particular juncture, and even frozen it at a stable point of equilibrium. This stasis was so pervasive that all of them were forced to capitulate to European military power in the 19th century.

For Europe had continued to follow the road of progress. There is no doubt that Europe would have been incapable of victoriously confronting China or the Arab-Moslem power during the period when it was seizing the Amerindian continent, but from then on nothing could oppose its progress in any domain—technological, moral, political—and it was able to subjugate the entire world and force it to accept its forms of existence, knowledge and life.

After long-range artillery had proven its effectiveness against China and the Ottoman Empire, other, even more sophisticated, weapons defeated those peoples who attempted to compensate for their backwardness in the military and technological fields. An industrial power that had become a veritable Leviathan completely transformed the face of the earth and the life of its inhabitants, who from then on could travel from one point to another in their countries, and even across the entire planet, in a few hours, without having any idea of what was happening in these places, which is identical everywhere insofar as the instantaneous transmission of information and orders now ensures the homogeneity of the world.

In other domains in which it had already become proficient, Europe continued on its path of progress. In view of the fact that the Europeans had already begun to examine “reason” in all of its dimensions, to divinize it and even to transform it into a religion, what explains all the madness that so shocked the peoples of the ancient civilizations? In order to get some idea of this problem, you do not even have to quote the speeches of the indigenous peoples of America or anywhere else. Its own psychiatrists, although thoroughly immersed in a culture that by no means favors the understanding of these questions, acknowledge that today, in Europe and its former overseas colonies, one out of every four adults indisputably suffers from some kind of mental disorder. And what can we say about the other three? Are any psychiatrists expressing their concern about the fact that so many people continue to buy and accumulate in their homes totally useless objects as defensive shields against the emptiness of their lives? Or even more disturbingly, since they are inveterate fantasists, the fact that most of our contemporaries identify with social roles that are considered to be noble and exalting, but which must nonetheless be incessantly renewed in order to compensate in an illusory way for their absolute submission to a system of oppression that is now universal?

For tyranny and social injustice have also been formidably exacerbated. The beggars, “lean and half-starved with hunger and poverty”, of the times of Montaigne have multiplied to such an extent in our time that a billion human beings do not have enough to eat and twenty thousand children die each day from malnutrition. Approximately two billion people now live in overcrowded slums, while a large proportion of the others survives in unsanitary housing, eats contaminated ersatz food and breathes polluted air. The new tyrannies that rule over these populations—which are themselves tyrannized by the implacable laws of a globalized economy—now possess astounding resources for killing not just the enemies of their nations, but also their own subjects, for the purpose of preventing any possible insubordination or simply to accuse those who still dare to resist their designs of perpetrating hideous crimes. The alleged “religious conflicts”, which are in their own way even more deadly than those of the 16th century, are also orchestrated to justify or pave the way for these unusual massacres.

Thus, Europe has continued down its slope, dragging the whole world along with it to participate in its unique history and increasingly detaching the world’s populations from that way of life, life in society, that was formerly observed in America, the Pacific islands and the immense regions that were previously unacquainted with European ways. The peoples of these territories were decimated and some of the survivors were sometimes put on display in “reservations”, which are actually human zoos, ethnological parks. The rest of the world followed Europe in its technological adventure, its peculiar madness, and its form of social organization.

The recitation of these devastations, these bloodbaths, and these disasters does not have the purpose of arousing feelings of either nostalgia or shame; and much less to inaugurate a debate concerning the advantages and disadvantages that this history has brought. First of all, it is intended to respond to questions that seem very timely and urgent for us to pose at the present moment. What was the initial impulse that one day led Europe to undergo this unique transformation and force the rest of the world to follow in its footsteps at gunpoint? What is the real nature of this power? By means of what mediations was it decided upon to engage in this process and these practices?

No one cares about the responses to these questions that the exterminated peoples would have given, or about the responses of those imperial civilizations that were more recently forced to submit to a way of life that they had not chosen. Instead, it is the Europeans—from the very moment when they issued forth from their territory in search of gold and slaves—who have always known how to provide excellent philosophical and moral reasons to explain and justify their exemplary adventure.

Today we laugh at the priests who accompanied the European conquerors and claimed to bring the Christian “good news” to the savages, while they legitimized massacre and pillage. Since then, however, other ideologists have in their own ways found a way to justify the path chosen by Europe—and also to some extent by the great imperial civilizations—convinced that “progress” of this kind was necessary and beneficial for all of humanity. While some have imagined that on the distant horizon of this path we will find “supreme reason”, the “absolute idea”, or the “omega point” of an ideal in their image and semblance or the perfect social organization, all, without exception, have proclaimed the necessity and the exemplary nature of this history. The great march of humanity towards its realization had to necessarily, without any excuses, follow the program such as it had been conceived in Europe centuries ago. Do we not refer to the ancient nomadic civilizations as “childlike peoples”? Doesn’t their destiny—theological, philosophical or political—assign to them a future that “is on the path towards development”, so as to finally be transformed into “developed”, fully adult peoples like the Europeans?

This idolatry of progress is, even today, so widespread and so much taken for granted that it is almost impossible to display the slightest trace of concern about, or even a certain distaste for, the most recent products of our modern civilization without falling under the suspicion, as if it was a crime or mental illness, of being “against progress” or an advocate of “anarcho-primitivism”; without having to hear about the danger of a regression “to savagery” that literature, including scientific literature, has always contrived to represent under an openly bestial or grotesque aspect, idealized by the smug pretentiousness of a ruthless Europe.

Some people—granted, in sectors that still represent a very small minority—are beginning to worry about the dangerous consequences of modern technology, the accelerated extinction of species, the new epidemics, and the new terrorist methods for subjugating populations. Sometimes, these same people dare to speak of degeneration and decline and wistfully contemplate a past that seems to them to be almost idyllic.

Most of these nostalgic people do not question the historic benefit of this “progress” chosen by Europe so long ago and imposed on the rest of the world at gunpoint. They only think that this benefit, after having remained beneficial for centuries and after having lifted humanity out of its initial barbarism, all of a sudden ceased to be beneficial, quite recently, maybe in the 18th century, and maybe even later. They do not conceal their sympathies—tinged with a trace of melancholy—for those peasants of the days of yore, who farmed their little parcels of land and tended their cattle, or for the lords who still preserved their taste for war and for the good life. The real peasant—who has always been the enemy of the rodents and the homeless, a zealous proprietor full of envy, idolatry and suspicion—of the times prior to this supposed “degeneration” never appears in their bucolic reveries. Nor does the great lord of the Crusades and the massacres of the infidels, the wars of religion and the conquest of the “new world”, nor those persons who one fine day were converted to the cause of “progress” and the latest version of “reason”, before lining up for the guillotine the unfortunates who had not understood quickly enough the new requirements of this “progress” and this “reason”.

Others situate the beginning of this “degeneration” in an even more distant epoch, after which European civilization entered into decline. They refer to a certain “golden age”, whose characteristics coincide with those of the old imperial civilizations, with their agricultural and artisanal technologies, their hierarchical and caste systems and, finally, their religions or metaphysics, all of them in conformance with that form of social organization. This reference, although historical in the strict sense of the word, situates the “degeneration” at “the beginning of time”. It would correspond to a “primordial” civilization that had later degraded over the course of the millennia, one that survived to a large extent in the Orient and which still exists, although this is not so evident when viewed from the outside, in today’s Arab-Moslem civilizations, which are inspired by the most important features of this depiction. But this civilization, which is claimed to be primordial, is nothing but the civilization of the old imperial organizations of India and China, Egypt and pre-Columbian Mexico, which began to follow the course of historical progress and then halted their progress at a certain stage of development.

The most extreme devotees of this kind of nostalgia confess their inclination for a pastoral lifestyle, similar to that of the Amerindians of North America, one that is much more archaic, of course, than the epoch in which others situate their golden age. But these people do not ask why the European peoples—who once possessed their own great imperial civilizations—all of a sudden abandoned this state of grace in order to plunge into the great adventure of technological development at the cost of their own freedom. Nor do they ask just how it would be possible to recover what they think has been lost and to collectively renounce once and for all a civilization that has not only transformed the world, but also men in their aspirations and preferences.

In order to account for this puzzling advance that characterized the great empires of America and Asia, and then also the European peoples, some have evoked a characteristic human passion, which tends to create new tools incessantly for the purpose of transforming both the world and humans themselves, to create “History”. Progress is thus satisfactorily explained by the presence of the “virtue of progress”, which made it inevitable. It must be pointed out, however, that this human passion was never a trait of numerous peoples—Amerindians, Australians, Asians, Africans—who only yielded to its charms at gunpoint. They lived, since time immemorial, immobilized with their simple technics and their nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles, apparently not without consciousness or intelligence, although unaware of the omega point of their future. Why didn’t these people plow their hunting territories, or build roads, or explore their coasts in search of gold and slaves?

Almost identical questions arise with respect to the great imperial civilizations, which had long followed the “main road of history”, invented sciences and technologies, and created cities and empires. What force of inertia all of a sudden stood in the way of the further unfolding of this process, until the power of European arms forced them, as well, to once again resume the forward march of “progress”?

What happened to Europe? Its past, after all, is not so different from that of the Amerindians of North America or that of the Aborigines of Australia. At a certain moment, it reached the technological level of China and the Islamic civilization, which had long exhibited supremacy over Europe in this and other domains. And it continued its advance until the conquest of space, organ transplants, the nuclear industry, and genetic manipulation; and it has forced the entire world to follow this same road. Why was this inertial force never manifested here, either at the beginning or anywhere along the course of Europe’s development?

  • 1 George Bird Grinnell, Pawnee Hero-Stories and Folk Tales, Forest and Stream Publishing Company, New York, 1889.
  • 2 Samuel Gardner Drake, Biography and History of the Indians of North America: From Its First Discovery, 11th Edition, Sanborn, Carter & Bazin, Boston, 1857, p. 41.
  • 3 Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, To Serve the Devil: Natives and Slaves, Vol. I, Vintage Books, New York, 1971, pp. 3-4.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 4.
  • 5 Black Elk Speaks (available online in March 2014 at:
  • 6 George Francis Gillman Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions, University of Toronto, Toronto, 1961, pp. 289-290.
  • 7 “Slaughtered for the Hide”, Harper’s Weekly, December 12, 1874, p. 1022. Cited at:
  • 8 T. C. McLuhan, ed., Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence, E. P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1971, p. 67.
  • 9 Smohalla, of the Nez Perce tribe of the American Northwest, founder of the “Dreamer Religion” in the 19th century. See Jim Mason, An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature, Lantern Books, New York, 2005, p. 50.
  • 10 T. C. McLuhan, op. cit., p. 63.
  • 11 Lahontan’s “New Voyages to North America”, Vol. II, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, LL.D., A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago, 1905, p. 554.
  • 12 Father Chrestien Le Clercq, New Relation of Gaspesia. With the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians, tr. William F. Ganong, The Champlain Society, Toronto, 1910, p. 105.
  • 13 Jacobs and Landau, op. cit., p. 4.


Chapter 2: Verbum dimissum

Submitted by Alias Recluse on March 31, 2014



“We may, therefore, rest assured that among her productions nature has not really formed either classes, orders, families, genera or constant species, but only individuals who succeed one another and resemble those from which they sprung.”
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy

We would condemn ourselves to understanding nothing about the consciousness of the primitive peoples if we do not first of all grasp the fact that neither the Amerindians, nor the Africans, nor the inhabitants of Oceania, nor undoubtedly the inhabitants of archaic Europe, are mere individuals in the modern sense of the word. They perceive themselves, before anything else, as members of a kinship group, a social group, a living universe, and the cosmos. This knowledge, of course, seems strange to us but, on the one hand, it is, for most of us, purely speculative, external to our innermost nature and, on the other hand, as a result of this external quality, it is perceived as a limitation of our autonomy, of our individual freedom. Among the primitive peoples, however, this knowledge is intimately experienced and constitutes an almost infinite expansion of their existence. The “primitive” recognizes himself as the totality of the whole in which he participates.

This consciousness endured for a very long time in all parts of the world and did not completely disappear until quite recently. The circumstances surrounding the death of Socrates, as related by Plato, are already practically incomprehensible to the modern spirit. Unjustly condemned to death by the tribunal of Athens—and fully aware of the iniquity of this death sentence—he refused to escape in order not to betray the laws of Athens, respect for which he considered to be more important, for himself, than his mere individuality. For he was not just the individual Socrates; he was also an Athenian and a Greek. Even more importantly, he felt that he was invested with a universal mission that he perceived through three sources: the Oracle at Delphi, the “remembrance” of his own essence, and the direct communication of his “inner voice”. A member of a social community, he was also a member of humanity and the universe. It was under the aegis of these factors that he claimed to “act as the midwife” of the essential truth of each and every one of his contemporaries, which is beyond individuality and is thus the same for all.

Hegel, for whom ancient Greece is “the focus of light in history”, points out that “to the Greek, the idea of the fatherland, the state, was the invisible, the higher reality for which he labored and his constant motive”. The case of Greece is by no means unique. If the ancient Greek perceived himself not only as an individual, but above all as an Athenian, as a Hellene, as a member of a living universe and, for that very reason, as the interlocutor of the gods, the Amerindian of North America is not just a mere individual, either, foreign to the world that surrounds him. He is, first of all, a Sioux or an Algonquin, and beyond that, an Indian. Above all, however, he is a member of nature and the cosmos, in which he participates and of which he is fully responsible by way of his intimate communication with the “Great Spirit”.

Among all the primitive peoples observed by the anthropologists, one encounters these same characteristics, in Central Africa as well as in the islands of Oceania. And it is more than likely that they also prevailed in ancient Europe. Who can be surprised by this? A consciousness of this kind belongs to every man who comes into the world. Only a modern consciousness, forged in very different conditions from those of the primitive world, can believe that collective life is the sum of individual lives associated in a kind of “social contract”. In earliest infancy, life appears in the first stage in the form of the mother, a family, and a tribe. And the child does not distinguish his own life as differentiated from the life of the world. It is only later that the consciousness of his individuality arises in him and, in certain social conditions, so, too, does the total or partial loss of his “childlike” consciousness.

In the imperial civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mexico or Peru, China or India, civilizations that came to a halt during the course of their development and, for that reason, were vulnerable to those that continued on the path of development (first, the Roman civilization, and then European colonization), one also finds the principles of unitary consciousness, although it is not intimately experienced, but rather perceived as external to the individual, theorized and concentrated in the social strata of the political and religious powers. For the first time in history, religion testified to what had been lost. It provided an external testimony, but a real one nonetheless. It manifested, in the form of a religious phenomenon, the break with unitary consciousness, but its content translated the information of a real experience. And to the extent that the political structures and the foundations of knowledge sought to base themselves on this religion, they also reflected this consciousness, although in a caricatural form.

Thus, a Chinese Mandarin of the imperial epoch—like the priest of ancient Egypt or the Brahman of Dakshinapatha—knows that he is an element of an organized social and cosmic totality. And this totality is similar, in its structure and dynamic, to the one that he believes he can recognize in himself, both in his physical make-up as well as his emotional and intellectual dispositions. In this way he discovers affinities between each element of his organism, the social structure and his world, the cycle of the seasons and the organization of universal space.1

To different degrees and according to various modalities, all religions testify to these correspondences between the “earth” and “heaven”, between man and the divine. All have justified the social organization of their world by reference to the organization of the Universe. Sometimes, however, they asserted that it was necessary, in order to reach the heart of this knowledge, and in order to unveil its meaning and to verify its content, to rediscover a primitive consciousness of the “little child”. The religion that dominated Europe for fifteen centuries even proclaimed that the same law applied “on earth as it is in heaven” and that the “spirit” of this law was an inseparable emanation of the heavenly “father” and of the incarnated “son”, merged into a single divinity.

Thus, after the first separation of man and the universe, of living beings and life, after the loss of primitive unitary consciousness, religions preserved, in the form of images, the isolated shadow of a knowledge that had previously been directly apprehended. And these images almost always served to legitimize a social organization that was precisely the result of this lost immanence.

Since the almost general dissolution of religion in Europe and in those territories that followed in its footsteps, the ghost of unitary consciousness has served purposes that are even more bizarre than those to which it was subjected in the times of religion and of the Sun Kings. The claim that all individuals are, above all, members of a national or social community has been abundantly utilized throughout the 20th century in order to impose directives that are contrary to the personal conscience of refractory populations, and to make them obey the orders of their political leaders. This perversion has incited a rejection of this form of unitary consciousness. But the consciousness of the child or the primitive does not recognize any interruption, or any hiatus, between the world and those who observe it. The hunter-gatherer does not regulate his individual consciousness in accordance with a social or divine consciousness that is supposed to be superior. To the contrary, the primitive knows the truth of the world through his own inner truth, he can control at every moment the congruence between them; and the primitive social organization has no other foundations or justifications than these focal points and forces, which are always fluid, of his own individuality. These are the factors that allow us to understand the mental characteristics of the primitive, and of his mode of social organization; and also his knowledge and the tools he produced.

The basic difference between the primitive mentality and the modern mentality can be perceived mainly in this: the fact that the merger of the primitive with the world that surrounds him brings about the complete identity of his subjective universe and his objective world. The primitive knows his desires as comprising a force that acts in the universe through him, a force that has its origin in and is manifested by his person, which amounts to saying that it is manifested in the world. His thoughts and the words that convey them are, likewise, elements and articulations of the universe, of which they sketch the plot and reveal it to him and within him. For the primitive there is no separation between his sensations, his desires, his thoughts and the object that brings them about: his subject, his object and the relation between them are one and the same.2

In a consciousness endowed with such characteristics, religion, as we know it today, has no place. Where there is no rupture between the “spirit” of the world and the “spirit” of the individual, one cannot have any transcendent, or even immanent, god. Furthermore, the idea of personal sin, of a sin against the “spirit” or, worse yet, of original sin, is totally alien to the primitive mentality. The man of those rude times was himself the “word” of God, a center of the universe that was both unique and multiple, where the “spirit” was manifested without veils. And if the idea of sin was brought to him by the intervention of conscientious missionaries, it could only be the sin of God himself, and the idea that God had about his own sin. It is easy to imagine the horrified shock of the seminarians when they discovered this unprecedented heresy.

The “ontological” participation of the primitive in the living totality is not, however, either continuous or perfect, nor is it identical for all men. It by no means implies the egalitarian participation of all, much less of each individual, at every moment of their lives, regardless of the activity in which they are engaged. For individual life is not just the expression of universal life, but it is simultaneously an element of that universal life and a limitation of the unifying communication, insofar as it operates within the living totality in order to maintain its particular role there and to reconstitute, with the other individual lives, the totality of the work of life.

On the other hand, certain states of inactivity, such as sleeping and the dreams that come during sleep, the moment of awakening, prolonged fasting, the abandonment of the self to extreme conditions, the moments before death and “de-individualization”, can favor unity with the living totality. And each person can experience this contact and seek there for the answers to his questions and a conduct in accordance with the universal movements, a conduct outside of which he would be excluded from the living world and condemned to disappearance.

Also, some members of the group, less involved in practical social activities, are more suited than others to transmit this unifying communication. They are chosen for this purpose after a series of “tests”—fasting and abstinence, subjection to difficult conditions of survival, individual “death”—that are intended to augment their inherent dispositions and verify their real presence. These individuals are the “shamans” of Siberia, the “healers” of America, and the “witch doctors” of Africa.

Later, in the imperial civilizations where very different living conditions prevailed, where the State religion was imposed on everyone as an external, indemonstrable and indisputable truth, “centers for initiation rites” were established—introduced to the Mediterranean peoples by the “mysteries” of ancient Greece— that maintained an open portal for immediate access to the universal life for those who felt inclined to experience it. But the divulgation of any communications regarding these experiences, which was perceived as “anti-religious” in the view of these societies, was strictly prohibited and could therefore be dangerous. Similarly, in modern religions, certain “mystics” who attained this direct participation and divulged it in some way were persecuted by the ecclesiastical authorities of their own religions (such as the “Christian” Meister Eckhart, the “Moslem” Husayn ibn Mansur (also known as “al-Hallaj”), and the “Jewish” Sabbatai Zevi).

Before we conclude our discussion of this question of the primitive unitary consciousness, we must point out that certain objects or certain actions appear as bearers of a living dynamic that is enclosed within these objects or actions and separated from the universal: the pregnant woman or one who has just given birth, incestuous relations, consumption of the totem animal, etc. They are simultaneously objects of horror and veneration. They are called “taboo” in the Polynesian languages. They certainly involve something very different from what modern psychology has anachronistically imagined them to be on the basis of historically more recent neurotic dispositions, unknown to the primitive peoples, whose social relations are not comparable, in any respect, with those of the Freudian 20th century.

For the social organization of the collectives of hunter-gatherers was as different from our social organization as the mentality of the Australian Aborigine is from that of today’s European. That organization was the result of the unitary consciousness we have just described. In the primitive social group, each person recognized himself as the representative of the living totality, himself responsible for the order of the world and, at the same time, as a simple member of that totality, a specialized element of the whole that, together with the rest of the members of that totality, restored the living whole. The same thing was true at a higher level and this elementary community was involved, as an individual element, in a much more vast social whole that, in turn, was part of the living totality of the cosmos.

As the representative of the living totality, with its stages of growth, maturity, and decline, as well as its internal dynamic, each person recognized himself as the fellow of his neighbor: “men of the same age call one another generally brothers, those who are younger, children; and the old men are fathers to all”, as Montaigne points out. He later adds, however: “they have a way of speaking in their language to call men the half of one another”, since each one is a simple element of the social totality and therefore a part of each of the other members of that totality. One may add that each member of the primitive community never considered himself ill on his own account. It was always the group that was perceived to be afflicted—through one of its members—and therefore also healed.

The internal organization of the primitive group reflects that of the living universe, and the name given to each man recalls his particular disposition, his role within the group. Furthermore, the group recognizes itself as a specialized part of a much more vast living whole, and its place in this whole is revealed by means of the totem. Totemism, the fundamental characteristic of primitive social organization, proceeds from this type of unitary consciousness that we have just described.

It is from the living dynamic in which the primitive individual consciously participates, absolutely and as a constituent part of it, that his individual and collective conduct, his morality, is derived. The Amerindian of the Great Plains killed wild animals to eat or to defend himself—just as the animal kills and eats its prey—but cannot just massacre free animals without any reason, much less exterminate entire species in order to make room, for example, for cornfields or railroads. Likewise, he makes war on neighboring communities in order to seize their hunting grounds or to protect his own, but he cannot totally eliminate these communities from the world without great risk to the general equilibrium and therefore to himself. The “Delenda est Carthago” of Roman civilization is unimaginable in this context.

It is evident that the theory of value as it was minutely elaborated by the European economists of the 18th and 19th centuries has no application in these primitive societies. One could even say that it is absolutely opposed to them. The surplus obtained by each part of the whole sustains the other parts in accordance with the dynamic of life, in order to permit the survival of the whole (and therefore of each individual person), in order to make it stronger. Gifts between individuals and those exchanged between different tribes testify to this social consciousness and, in the tribes of the American Northwest, for example, where ritual ceremonies of reciprocal gift giving are known by the name of potlatch, the objects that are given away acquire their value in each transfer, so that their “exchange value” thus obtains a more and more general and superior meaning over that of their “use value” within the tribe.

Everyone knows how crazy and ridiculous primitive tribal organization might seem to modern minds. The practice of potlatch is economically disastrous. And how is it possible that someone can be named “sitting bear” or “black hawk” without making us laugh? How can someone recognize himself in the totemic representation of a wild animal or a reptile? And how can anyone feel fearful veneration towards a woman in childbirth? For most of the Europeans who came into contact with these civilizations, all these stories of the totem, the potlatch, taboos, and absurd names, indicated an unrefined consciousness and thus one that was dominated by unconscious and subconscious drives similar to those that emerge in modern psychoses. And this same wacky consciousness had given birth to the purely imaginary, so-called archaic sciences that undoubtedly merit the same derision as the puerile folklore of its collective superstitions.

The insolent arrogance of the modern attitude to the primitive sciences is based, in the first place, on a lie and a confusion, universally cultivated by the historians of science, who associate the sciences and technologies of civilizations that are completely different. When one speaks of primitive sciences it is necessary, first of all, to dismiss the pseudo-sciences later elaborated by the imperial civilizations that had crystallized into their caste systems and their State religions: astrology, certain techniques of divination, sacrificial ceremonies.

Astrology, which is common to all imperial civilizations—sometimes reduced to the mere observation of the movements of the sun and the moon, although it is often much more complex—sought to reveal the affairs of the earth and, principally, the destiny of each man by means of the examination of a system that, in appearance, was autonomous and cyclical: the movement of the stars as it was presented to the terrestrial spectator. The observation of the movement of the planets, of the conjunctions of the heavenly bodies, of eclipses, and of comets, was supposed to allow for the understanding of the dynamic of that other autonomous system, the knowledge of its lines of force and its results, and the choice of the most propitious times and places to engage in any particular enterprise. Much the same was true of the arts of the augurs, divination by examining the viscera of sacrificed animals, the yarrow stalks of the I Ching or the shells of turtles. Moreover, they, too, involved attempts to discover, by way of certain systems of correspondences, the most propitious times, places and circumstances for carrying out a project.

These pseudo-sciences, based on the alleged correspondences between two systems that were thought to be similar, viewed the real world and each individual as simple effects of mechanical arrangements that human freedom was powerless to alter. They asserted that one could know lived time by way of apparent time, and real life by the organization of things. They were the result of a reversal of perspective perpetrated by the imperial civilizations, of a perversion of the primitive unitary consciousness, a reversal and a perversion that are bound up with the very nature of these societies, concerning which we shall have more to say below.

For the hunter-gatherer societies, however, the knowledge of the world and of oneself can only be attained within oneself, by means of techniques of psychological assimilation. Primitive science, the knowledge of the world and of time, as well as of the procedures that were necessary to attain this knowledge, constituted the unitary consciousness that these peoples knew how to preserve. Such procedures, entirely ignored by modern pseudo-science, as well as by the alleged sciences of the imperial civilizations, were preserved by the latter, although in a very restricted sense, in what we today call “artistic” activity: dance, song, rhythms, music and its instruments, poetry, the graphic arts and sculpture, the art of ornamentation, masks and tattoos, the creation of weapons, tools and utensils, all of which were undertaken with a view to a use that these civilizations reserved to them in relation to the entire scope of individual and social activity.

Among the primitive peoples, all these procedures contributed to the modification of the consciousness of each individual with respect to the world and with respect to himself, in order to allow him to recognize himself in both his individuality as well as his universality; and, above all, to continuously recreate the world according to the information of this modified consciousness. They possessed the function—like all sciences—of transforming the world by and for man, but their purpose was also the transformation of man by his own creation.

No unitary civilization ever cultivated either astrology or the art of augury, for obvious reasons. Nor did any of them willingly embrace modern sciences and technologies, from which man is even more excluded than he was from the sciences of the imperial civilizations. Tools, as we know them today, and even more so, modern machinery, impose by reason of their very structure and functioning the standard form of a particular object. They partially determine the created object to the exclusion of the artisan; and all the more so, the more complex the machine is. The entire process of “machine” fabrication expropriates man of his creation. And the object thus fabricated is, obviously, incapable of transforming the machine in order to modify its effects. The object created by the primitive artisan, on the other hand, modifies its creator during the time of activity and, by virtue of its own qualities, inspires him to the fabrication of other objects that are very different from the first. The modern machine imposes on the living man the domination of the completed state of his own past and crushes him under the weight of a dead determination. No unitary people could accept this without apprehension or rebellion.

Some assessments concerning what the primitive peoples thought they had to do or leave undone provoked two kinds of reactions among modern observers. First, a critique of the irrationality of the ancient knowledge and techniques as opposed to the alleged “rationality” of the modern era. Then, an apology for the practical results that modern sciences have contributed for the beneficial transformation of the world and the conditions of its inhabitants, as opposed to the lack of results displayed by the primitive social organizations.

As for the misfortunes and inconveniences of primitive life, compared to the delights of “civilized” life, we must point out that the confrontation between the primitive peoples and the Europeans never led to any kind of enthusiasm on the part of the former for “civilized” life, and that it was necessary to massacre them in order to put an end to their obstinate resistance.

As for the claim of the “rationality” of our sciences and our technology and, above all, the demand that they be judged by their concrete results, unlike the ancient sciences, which were considered to be purely imaginary, infantile and lacking any real efficacy, such claims do not stand up to a careful examination of the goals in question when they are subjected to a comparison with the results that these sciences and technologies have obtained. What is “real” for a modern consciousness? Is it not the purpose of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and deforestation to increase the production of food in order to eliminate famines and thus to improve the health of all? Yet these products and procedures are today responsible, directly or indirectly, for the sterility of the soil, the definitive disappearance of edible plant species, and new famines and deadly epidemics. Does the “real” have to omit the inclusion, in its announcements, of information that qualifies and even totally annuls the sought-after final result? What kind of reality is a “real” that is not concerned with the effective congruence of its goals, its means and its results?

It was altogether different in the ancient sciences and technologies. The activity of the hunter, the warrior, the artisan or the dreamer, just like the product of their activities, modified for a time their consciousness, their goals and their undertakings, determined a different kind of activity that was opposed to the destruction of their living conditions. Lacking this free dynamic of life, we now know that other mechanisms and other controls enter into play, which destroy the undertaking long before the beginning of the activity that it has produced. From the comparison between the ancient sciences and the modern sciences, from the only important point of view, that of the correspondence of its intentions with its results, we have to draw the conclusion that the former are irrefutably superior.

This same freedom which protected the environment of the primitive peoples also kept them free of modern neuroses—an issue that we shall address below—and prevented the formation of castes and social classes that we shall also discuss below. This raises the question of knowing why and how certain ancient civilizations, at first only lightly populated and dispersed compared to the rest of the world, were transformed, and technically and socially modified until they assumed the form with which we are familiar in India, China, the Middle East, and then later in Europe, where they finally developed without the least restraint.

Social Darwinism provided a response to this question of evolution that was worthy of the society that produced it: the “struggle for existence” always led to the survival of the fittest and the disappearance of the least fit and the incapable. Conscientious scrutiny of this evolution shows that it was absolutely otherwise and that, to the contrary, in certain historical or environmental conditions, it was the most narrow and deficient consciousness, the most intellectually weak individuals, who must always triumph over the fittest and impose their domination on them.

  • 1 See Marcel Granet, La pensée chinoise, Albin Michel, 1934.
  • 2 See R. P. Placide Tempels, La Philosophie bantou, Plon, 1948. In English: Placide Tempels, Bantu Philosophy, HBC Publishing, Orlando, n.d.


Chapter 3: A world to win

Submitted by Alias Recluse on March 31, 2014



“Lose science and, for a lack of light, you will return to the state of the gorillas, our ancestors. You will be obliged to retrace, for several thousand years, the entire road that has been traversed by humanity.”
Mikhail Bakunin, Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism1

In the civilizations that preserved their unitary consciousness, where this consciousness ruled the totality of individual and social conduct, man was not yet separated from his environment, or from his “fellow man”, nor did he know any insurmountable conflicts between his desires and his consciousness. This unity of the living subject with himself contributed to the stability of the societies to which he belonged; and the great Amerindian, Australian, Siberian and Central African civilizations remained outside of history for millennia until, arms in hand, the Europeans massacred their populations in order to convince them to finally take part in this modern felicity for which they were the in vivo example.

The material and social conditions of the unitary consciousness and its preservation can be easily recognized by observing the circumstances under which it was lost. In some parts of the world, the primitive civilizations must have undergone an almost identical development, which witnessed the first separation of humanity from its living universe, man from man, and each person with respect to his internal existence; that is, in different categories, the separation of the self from life. This tragic evolution began in the especially rich and opulent regions, in the deltas and fertile valleys, in the plains that were well-endowed with water and sun, but regions that were, for the most part, surrounded by arid and hostile territories: the “fertile crescent” of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the great silt-laden plains of the Yellow River, the Indian plain of the Ganges, the valleys of the Sierra and the Basin of Mexico. These privileged, although geographically limited, zones, were soon plagued by relative overpopulation and the covetous envy of the neighboring peoples. It was undoubtedly “ecological” factors that can be found to lie at the origin of the so-called “Neolithic revolution”.

In these fertile but geographically restricted zones, overpopulated and threatened by hostile incursions, the need to survive compelled the adoption of a new way of life that the primitive consciousness had up until then prohibited. Hunting and gathering proved to be insufficient to feed the population of these territories and it was necessary to intervene in the environment for the purpose of subjecting it to the new requirements. Settled agriculture, just like the domestication and breeding of cattle, were the results of these localized difficulties. They replaced the simple knowledge of the natural movements of life, with regard to plants as well as the wild herds and flocks. In order to survive in these conditions, it was necessary to modify the environment instead of moving around in it. The real history of humanity begins with this first separation of man from his living environment. The same was true of labor. The poetic symbolism related to the tree of knowledge as opposed to the tree of life, the need to work and the expulsion from “paradise” (from the “place of Being”): each recounts this tragedy in its own way.

This first agricultural revolution appeared with identical characteristics in various regions of the world but, we must recall, each of them was separated from the others by immense territories where men still lived in the unitary way, periodically threatening the existence of the sedentary civilizations. Behind their fortified defenses, the populations that had isolated themselves had to work the land and forge metals, tend to the flocks and herds, build houses, and fabricate every kind of tool necessary for their particular way of life. Alongside these new kinds of activities, the need arose for full-time warriors to protect them, men who were specialized in the use of arms, exempt from everyday labor and lavishly provided for. The people enslaved in work and always under threat experienced for the first time in history the fact that freedom (their freedom) was found outside of themselves, in that dangerous outside world from which they had withdrawn. It was there, outside, that the truth of life resided; that was where life was. The knowledge that they had previously obtained from their own efforts, now had to be sought in those distant and inaccessible locations where life flourished without constraints. From then on, dispossessed from their truth, they delivered themselves into the hands of the priests and the astrologers, to the mathematicians and the diviners, to interpret the signs of heaven, in order to know the movements of life that they had allowed to escape from within themselves. All science, all religion and all social organization in these settled civilizations were the result of their particular alienation, their separate entrenchment.

The initial separation of man from his universe was accompanied everywhere by an identical separation of men from each other and of each man from himself. In other words, the Neolithic revolution entailed an unprecedented social revolution and a collective mental disturbance of which religion was the most outstanding phenomenon. These social and mental consequences will be analyzed below.

Although this topic will be discussed at greater length later in our text, we must nonetheless point out that there were still things that were not allowed in the agricultural civilizations, things that were still subject to the unitary consciousness, or rather to its shadow projected into the heavens. With their settled lifestyle, men had imposed on the soil the cultivation they needed to survive. Some subdivided the land, others introduced the two-field system, and others the rotation of crops. But the totality of their environment largely preserved a living cohesion. The crops and the care of animals were still subject to the rhythm of the seasons, the solar and lunar cycles, the demands of the soil and the needs of the herds and flocks. Natural associations were understood and generally respected. It would never have occurred to anyone to destroy the “weeds” or eradicate the pests, much less to feed herbivorous cattle the corpses of other animals.

The remnants of the unitary consciousness among the settled agricultural peoples can be recognized particularly in the way they perceived themselves, their illnesses and the way to remedy them. In China, India, or Hippocratic Greece, in the Arab-Moslem empire and even in late Christian Europe, human physiology was linked to the living world in its totality, just as it was linked to “heaven”. The disturbances of one corresponded to disturbances in the others. Even in the medicine of Theophrastus or Pliny, physiological disorders responded to the elements of the biosphere and to the universal dynamic, just as much as in Indian or Chinese medicine, or in the Hippocratic theory of the humors.

These sciences and these technologies, agricultural and medicinal, which appeared and developed in the settled civilizations, displayed important differences depending on the peoples who cultivated them and according to the geographical conditions of each. These civilizations also evolved progressively, they improved and became more profound in themselves in response to the difficulties they had to overcome. But they always preserved the characteristic traits mentioned above.

The civilizations that emerged from the Neolithic revolution lasted for thousands of years, from the Middle East to India and China, from Peru to Mexico, and even in Europe until the beginning of modern times, characterized internally both by their agricultural way of life as well as by the development of specialized crafts and original sciences, threatened externally by the raiding peoples and their military incursions that were constantly repeated (the Hittite attacks on the Egyptian empire; the Mongol invasions of China, India and the Arab-Moslem empire; the Vikings and the Magyars in Europe; the mountain peoples against the Amerindian empires). All of these empires developed for centuries, clashed with each other where they shared frontiers, some collapsed, annexed by their neighbors, but their basic characteristics remained the same and were afterwards expressed in the maintenance of a collective life that was possible within the conditions of a settled lifestyle and relative overpopulation that lay at the origin of their creation.

At the end of the Middle Ages in Europe various causes contributed to the overturn of the old social and ideological order. The European empire, which had never been very solidly united (the emperor, at that time, was a sovereign without money or capital, often in conflict with the papal power), was divided into multiple monarchies, each opposed to the other. There were no longer any external dangers that threatened Europe: the Magyar and Viking incursions were only a bad memory and the Arab-Moslem power had been expelled from Spain. Furthermore, the relative overpopulation of Europe soon reached such levels that famines reappeared, with increasing frequency. It was in these very particular political and economic conditions that a new social class, one that had long been held in contempt, imposed on the entire world an original ideology whose characteristics and basic features will be analyzed below.

The shadow of unitary consciousness, which still hovered in the uncertain heaven of the agricultural empires, was no longer perceived as a hindrance for the economic life of the group. Under the influence of this new social class, the external world ceased to be understood as a living dynamic in relation with the entire universe and had become nothing but an immense quarry of food products and useful materials for artisans and builders.

This was not the first time in history that such a misfortune had befallen an agricultural empire. Greece was divided from its Asian colonies, and Rome, which had initially been nothing but a colony of the weak Etruscan empire, had undergone similar revolutions. But they had collapsed a few centuries later under the pressure of external invaders and Europe, henceforth, returned to its traditional agricultural lifestyle.

Beginning with the Renaissance, however, a new kind of civilization appeared in Europe, one that would have been inconceivable a few centuries before and that would still remain alien to a large part of the world for a long time. The most heavily populated regions—Flanders, Brabant, and Northern Italy—were the starting points of this fundamental transformation that was manifested, first of all, by the abolition of the two-field system (in which half the land always lay fallow). With respect to this development, Marc Bloch wrote: “Without this unprecedented conquest, neither the development of big industry … nor, in general, the ‘nineteenth century’, with all its human effervescence and the sudden transformations that these words evoke, would have been conceivable.”

Everything that had restricted agricultural profitability would be discarded without any other consideration and, more precisely, every living element that limited the production of food and industrial development had to be destroyed without any consideration of its living nature or its place in the universal harmony. “Weed” plants and “pest” animals made their appearance. Technologies were modernized not in order to separate these species from the farmland or the pastures, but to exterminate them. Other technologies were developed and implemented to make the land produce more than its natural fertility would allow. Chemical treatments, fertilizers, and pesticides directed against “weeds and pests” would never have been conceived and manufactured without this new worldview in which the consciousness of the unity of life had been lost. The extraordinary technological and scientific development that appeared in Europe during this epoch resulted in this “liberation” of man from his ancient unitary consciousness with respect to life.

The truth of life, which was experienced directly and intimately by the old nomadic civilizations, and then projected into the heavens by the agricultural civilizations, was now reintegrated in the world, but as an alien element that one could observe, modify and even destroy.

This scientific upheaval was accompanied, as always, by a social revolution that we shall analyze below, a revolution that necessarily had to grant a preponderant role to a particular social class—which until that point had been subordinated to a different power—in order to enable its view of the world to lead to the exploitation of the entire human community as a simple instrument of labor.

The technological development of the settled agricultural civilizations made it possible for them to victoriously confront the nomadic hunters who coveted their wealth. The tools that were forged by the new Europe also allowed it to take over the rest of the world, shatter the old empires of South America, and everywhere impose its own technology, social organization and ideology.

As in all the preceding civilizations, we must point out that not everything was permitted in this European civilization until the advent of the 20th century; and that the worst had yet to come. The so-called moral scruples that, due to a lack of restraints on the mandates of a moribund conscience, were attributed to the imperatives of the old religions or to their temporary substitute, humanism, still debarred people’s minds from engaging in the realization of the technical feats that we have since witnessed.

During the first half of the twentieth century humans had not yet engaged in the exploitation of a source of energy that produces millions of tons of “unmanageable” radioactive wastes, wastes capable of destroying every form of animal and human life, whose deadly effects will last for millions of years. Nor had they yet transplanted the hearts of baboons in human beings, nor had they created organ “banks”, nor had they purchased bodily organs from the poor. Nor had they dared to create living artificial organisms, alien to the equilibrium of the biosphere, without any specific biotope, and, most importantly, such organisms had not yet been disseminated all over the surface of the planet without any understanding of the long-term effects of such a disjuncture. It is possible that they would not have dared to manufacture soap or fabrics from the corpses of prisoners after gassing them. And even if the idea of “cloning” had ever arisen in the unbalanced mind of some lunatic novelist, such an idea would never have acquired its citizenship papers in the scientific community. All these things, which we have seen take place in the second half of the 20th century, marked a fundamental rupture and the absolute disappearance of what still remained of the human conscience of the 19th century.

The appearance of the latest new technologies in the last few decades was not based on certain geographical particularities, or even on any political particularities, in a world that is now unified. It was the result of the demands created by the appearance of the first living resistance to the industrial development of the preceding centuries, that is, by a totality of reactions that threatened to annul the temporary advantages that this development had conferred. The new technologies clashed, in turn, with other kinds of resistance, more widespread and more complex, and it was necessary to devote new efforts exclusively to new procedures in order to persevere on the same road. The monstrous acceleration of contemporary technological development is simply the effect of this tragic war against nature, that is, against us. The price that will have to be paid in the end, at the inevitable moment of defeat, increases with each stage of this flight forward.

The case of genetically modified organisms is an excellent example. The suppression of the two-field system, and then of crop rotations and planting crops with mutually reinforcing traits, made certain crop species more vulnerable to attack from parasites and other diseases. And this morbidity annulled the advantages that the new agricultural regime had made possible. Pesticides and fertilizers made it possible, for a certain time, to maintain and even to increase agricultural yields under artificial conditions. This was the case until these new technologies triggered their own negative reactions: the resistance of “pest” species to these pesticides, which required an intensification of their use and resulted in the greater toxicity of these chemical agents, not only with regard to the targeted pest species, but with regard to plants in general. The ineffectiveness of the quantities of pesticides currently being used and the impossibility of indefinitely increasing them, favored the development of GMOs: in order to maintain agricultural yields, an attempt was made to modify not only a fragile living environment, but life itself, regardless of the consequences that might result from the consumption of plants that are totally alien to the homeostasis of the biosphere.

These forms of intervention, unimaginable only a century ago, need not be limited to plants. The multiple outbreaks of disorders, affecting animals and humans, as a result of an increasingly more toxic and harmful environment (as well as the increasing resistance on the part of pest species to the treatments directed against them) have now led to the promotion of research to deal with this problem in the same way. And, unless this mad campaign against life rapidly leads us to an implosion point, as many indicators, fortunately, allow us to foresee, every one of us can count on having to undergo compulsory artificial genetic modifications in the name of medical progress and public health, in the form of new “vaccines”, for example.

Furthermore, with regard to the medical technologies that have appeared over the last fifty years, it may be observed that all of them are designed to disable natural reactions to a harmful environment or to other toxic therapies: antibiotics aimed at destroying the microbial agents that have become dangerous due to the new fragility of the “unhealthy terrain”; anti-inflammatories designed to block natural defensive reactions to diverse toxic intermediaries or medications; multiple tissue transplants that replace organs prematurely aged or destroyed by living conditions without any precedents; immunosuppressants that inhibit the rejection of these monstrous transplants; antidepressants and anti-anxiogenic drugs for the intensive raising of chickens and humans, etc. (in this connection, we should recall that all observers of primitive peoples were deeply impressed by their physical vigor and their lack of illness). As for the mediocre attempts at animal or human cloning, undertaken with diverse genetic manipulations, they might be very useful to select and multiply individuals adapted to survival in environmental, psychochemical and general conditions that are becoming worse with each passing day.

Other techniques, recently perfected, seek to control the collective reactions of human communities to actions conducted against them. Each new intervention intended to subject them to living conditions imposed on them from the outside entails as a consequence reactions on their part (reactions that can be neutralized by means of antidotes or decoys), but whose inhibition in turn provokes more generalized reactions that involve many more people. And these new reactions affect, in turn, other systems that depend on them.

Whether these interventions are directed against particular individuals or against human collectives, their further progress requires increasingly more capacity for control, for planning, for coordination. In this modern war against life, computer science is the instrument that permits the control of these increasingly more complex reactions. At first military and rendered necessary because of the existence of more and more vast, and more convoluted and uncertain, battlefronts, its use has rapidly spread to the totality of technical-scientific operations. Without straying too far from our topic, we can add that the initially military concept of the Internet is the original sin that is subjected to unrelenting efforts to relegate to oblivion. This instrument is used to survey the totality of available information on a mass of diverse themes (and also, at the price of a maneuver of saturation easy to implement, to transmit a “genetically modified” image of this information).

The mass of parameters that must be accounted for to register and control increasingly more confused, interdependent and generalized reactions entails an exponential increase of the volume of appropriate information systems. And the recent debut of nanotechnologies has the purpose of delaying the implosion of the system of control.

As for the conquest of space—with its telecommunications and spy satellites, linked with information technologies and nanotechnologies—it allows for the surveillance and control of our entire inhabited world and the acquisition of data that are useful for instantaneous interventions against any reaction—social, military or any other kind—directed against the current organization of the world. At the same time, this “conquest” serves to locate new spaces considered, with good reason, to be hostile, barbarous or uninhabited and to make them accessible to the modes of organization imposed today on our entire planet.

All these new technologies and new enterprises require enormous amounts of energy, both to develop them as well as to implement and operate them. The recent discovery and utilization of nuclear energy, which allows for the obtaining of considerable quantities of energy from insignificant amounts of material, should facilitate the prosecution of this flight towards the future, far beyond the predicted exhaustion of fossil fuels.

To conclude our discussion of this topic and to confirm that the technologies developed during the second half of the 20th century are the offensive weapons of a war that dares not speak its name, we must call attention to the following fact: all these technologies—computer science, nanotechnologies, nuclear power and the aerospace industry—were initially conceived for military uses before they were used, in a more general way, for that other war, the one fought against life itself, a war whose purpose is to force life to submit to laws that are alien to it.

As any unitary consciousness, and even any simply dialectical consciousness, would have suspected, the last stages of this development have provoked new and more serious forms of resistance, precisely because certain problems associated with the resistance of life have been resolved. There can be no doubt about it—all these new technologies are threats to the survival of humanity. Whether we are talking about the “unmanageable” nuclear wastes, which were at first thought to be disposable by launching them into space, but which have now been relegated to burial in the ground; or the nanotechnologies whose capacities for self-reproduction can destroy the entire balance of life; or the many industries implicated in global warming or the deterioration of the ozone layer; or even genetically modified organisms, in view of our complete ignorance regarding their ecological and biological effects in the medium term; all these factors serve to confirm the increasingly greater likelihood that life on Earth might disappear.

It would therefore appear to be the case that we find ourselves at the end of this adventure of technology that has been underway for thousands of years, which started in widely-scattered territories, and which has prosecuted a war of resistance against the natural dynamics of life that is becoming increasingly more violent and catastrophic. This adventure has witnessed the appearance throughout its history of implacable plagues, misfortunes and devastations of the living world. Nor have these been the only damages that we have suffered in the course of this history. In order to prevent the emergence of any effective resistance against this historical process, it was necessary for the latter to be controlled by social minorities that discovered advantages for themselves in this process. It was also necessary for a collective madness to allow men to tolerate, and even consider beneficial, such organizations and such devastations.

The technological development that led from settled agriculture to genetic manipulation, from human traction to nuclear energy, was accompanied, in each one of its stages, by formidable social upheavals, and the collective organization of human groups became progressively more removed from the social consciousness of the nomadic peoples, until it reached the juxtaposition of individuals isolated from one another and deprived of all social consciousness that we see today. This history is also the history of the dissolution of individual consciousness; and the stages of this madness have been the same ones that were presented in the changes mentioned above. For it is always the same historical movement that implies the disaggregation of the individual subject, that of the social subject and that of the universal subject.

  • 1 This quotation was translated from the Spanish translation; the English-language editions of this book by Bakunin that I was able to consult, which appear to contain only selections from the original text, do not contain this particular passage—American Translator’s Note.


Chapter 4: The divided society

Submitted by Alias Recluse on March 31, 2014



“But let us admit: there is no question here about scientific formulas and problems; the relations of material things are all very simple; the right comprehension of the moral forces which come into play is more difficult.”
Carl von Clausewitz, On War

The numerous testimonies, ancient and modern, concerning the nomadic civilizations confirm the fact that such societies did not know division into castes or classes, as these divisions appeared later in history. Each member of the group was, at the same time, hunter and warrior, builder and artisan, and even priest, insofar as he was in personal communication with the world spirit, of which he was the voice. These characteristics of ancient societies were common to the Africans of the equatorial jungle, the Amerindians of the plains and mesas, the peoples of Oceania, the hunters of the Arctic and the nomads of the Siberian Steppes.

All these groups of hunters and warriors designated a chief who was capable of furthering their enterprises and conciliating conflicts that might arise within the group. The existence of these chiefs, in all nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, might lend credence to the idea that these social organizations were by no means egalitarian and democratic, and that, in short, political power has always existed and that real democracy was nothing but a utopia or, in the best case, a future project only possible in industrial societies.

But the chieftains of the nomadic tribes were by no means the ancestors of political power as it appeared later in the settled societies. One could say that this institution was the opposite of and even the antidote to political power. In the Amerindian civilizations of North America, as the ethnologist Pierre Clastres points out, “the chief has no authority at his disposal, no power of coercion, no means of giving an order. The chief is not a commander; the people of the tribe are under no obligation to obey…. Mainly responsible for resolving the conflicts that can surface between individuals, families, lineages, and so forth, the chief has to rely on nothing more than the prestige accorded him by the society to restore order and harmony. But prestige does not signify power, certainly, and the means the chief possesses for performing his task of peacemaker are limited to the use of speech…. armed only with his eloquence, [the chief must] try to persuade the people that it is best to calm down, stop insulting one another, and emulate the ancestors who always lived together in harmony. The success of the endeavor is never guaranteed, for the chief’s word carries no force of law”.1 In short, the chief of the nomadic societies, chosen for his personal virtues, “his oratorical talent, his expertise as a hunter, [and] his ability to coordinate martial activities, both offensive and defensive”, has the fundamental role of embodying the social unity of the group, representing and preserving this unity (by way of the invocation of the ancestors). This chieftainship is a testimony to that unitary consciousness in which the individual consciousness and the social consciousness were merged. In no case did the primitive chieftainship identify itself with political power. Pierre Clastres concludes that, “the chief is there to serve society; it is society as such—the real locus of power—that exercises its authority over the chief…. primitive society would never tolerate having a chief transform himself into a despot”.

Just as the chief of the primitive tribes has often been identified with the monarchs of later social organizations, the other key personality in nomadic societies—the shaman or healer—has often been unjustifiably compared with the priests of agricultural societies and even with the prelates of industrial societies. The shaman, however, was under no circumstances the minister of the divinity, since each member of the tribe recognized himself as the object and subject of the universal Spirit, a participant in its perpetual work. In primitive societies, each person can intimately communicate with the spirit of the world by way of various practices of “de-individualization”: fasting, sweat lodges, cold baths, etc. The shaman is not the religious chief of the tribe. He is an echo chamber of the group that puts it into relation with the subject of the world by way of certain procedures in which music, rhythms and dance play the leading roles. It is the group that uses the shaman as a passive instrument to enter into communication with the Great Spirit. And this communication allows the group to not only apprehend the universal dynamic and its action on the tribe, but also to intervene in a practical way in that dynamic. The inquiries and the fields of intervention that are entailed in these collective sessions concern all that is related to the dynamic of life, the change of seasons, the migrations of the wild animals and the growth of plants, the occasions for peace and the occasions for war, and illness. In short, the shaman is the person who, thanks to certain dispositions acquired over the course of many years, allows access of the group and of each of its members to its own central condition of universal subject. While the chief of the tribe symbolically individualizes the social subject—and he is the one who leads each member of the group to recognize himself as such—the shaman manifests universal life and allows the group to merge into and with it. The chief and the shaman, those two fundamental personalities of the primitive tribe, are the interconnecting nodes of unity between the three figures of life: individual, social and universal.

These two primordial actors of the nomadic tribe, in whom some have sought to recognize political and religious power, do not, however, have any power over the group. Should they fail in their tasks—the chief in his task as peacemaker and unifier of the group, and the shaman in his capacity as conduit and revealer, for the requirements of the collective, of the universal dynamic—their prestige does not survive and they can immediately be rejected by their own community.

Because this is real democracy, we must add that slavery, such as it arose in certain agricultural civilizations, or the wage labor of industrial societies, has no place in the organization of the nomadic tribes. Prisoners of war were either condemned to death immediately or else were adopted by the victorious tribe to replace the warriors who had fallen in battle. The later divisions of the social group into structured castes, or into social classes, was born from the separation of man with respect to his living environment, from life with respect to himself, while the specificity of man is precisely the experience of the identity of the spirit. The loss of unitary consciousness had as a consequence the fall into isolation, division and, finally, social death.

Along the Nile, on the fertile plains of Mesopotamia, in what was once India and is now Pakistan, in the vicinity of the Indus valley, on the banks of the Yellow River in China, on the sunny and fertile plains of the Cordillera of the Andes and in Central America, and also in some countries in Western Europe, the exceptional conditions of fertility, although geographically surrounded by less favorable zones, allowed for human communities that faced the dual requirement of the need to feed a growing settled population and to defend that population against nomadic warriors. In these conditions of life and under these restrictions, settled agriculture and livestock raising was born, along with a new artisanry adapted to these activities and to the needs for defense against external aggressors.

In this settled way of life, man’s view of his environment—a view that was previously filled with wonderment and gratitude—became less radiant and more dour. The land was now “domesticated” and it was imperatively forced to yield its natural products. The living individual subject no longer identified himself with the universal subject, which was now expelled from him and forced beyond the frontiers of his existence, into a distant, inaccessible location.

This upheaval was not accompanied by a great deal of violence, although there were rivalries within the core of the group. It is possible that there were tensions between those who wanted to preserve their freedom and their living identity and those whose first concern was the conditions of survival of the group and its possible expansion. History shows us that, quite often, these conflicts do not lead to a definitive break. Such ruptures might have occurred in certain places—and perhaps this misfortune lies at the origin of the wandering of the Gypsies from the Iranian plateau—but in other circumstances, the opposed groups were united in a curious form of social organization in which each individual benefited from the whole community, to which they contributed their talents, their merits and their specific skills. Frequently, the warlike nomadic tribes were victorious in their struggles with the peoples who had recently attained the stage of settled agriculture and merged with them, while preserving their unitary consciousness, that is, by refusing to work. These invaders, like the Brahmans of India or the Incas of Peru, became the new ruling classes of the community.

In any event, the separation of individual consciousness from universal consciousness, the expulsion of the former from the individual and the expulsion of the latter beyond the frontiers of the country, led, in all the sedentary civilizations, to an analogous separation between those whose concern was the “earth” and those who were concerned with “heaven”.

The religious caste, relatively independent of civil power as in Europe, or a department of the state, as in the old empires of Egypt, China or Peru, claimed to maintain close contact between the universal and the individual. It promulgated what was permitted and what was dangerous for the equilibrium of the world, of the alliance between man and universal life and the practical conditions of this alliance. Like the shaman of the nomadic societies, the priest of the agricultural empires sometimes derived his inspiration from a special way of life in which particular foods, isolation, certain drugs and music played their traditional roles. Rhyming poetry, litanies and invocations were devoted to allowing these priests to attain a less individualized state of consciousness in order to dictate to the group the personal and collective rules of life that were in accordance with the order of the world. But these rules, decreed by the priestly caste and very much influenced by the social position of those who framed them, were received from then on without anyone in the group being able to verify their validity. Religion, in the modern meaning of the word—just like the power of the priesthood—was born at this moment in history. The religious caste was obviously fed, cared for and protected by the entire community, whose mutilated and deranged consciousness acknowledged its supremacy.

Without insisting here on this special aspect, we must add that the separation of the universal from the individual sometimes caused a disaggregation of the universal consciousness itself. The lines of resistance, opposed and complementary, of the living unity were registered in the form of a blossoming of polytheism. There were divinities of love and fertility, others of conflict and destruction, and even others linked to death and the rebirth of the life force. The schism of the living subject into the individual and the universal implied the parcelization of the Universe itself and the complete loss of the unity of life.

At the same time that the consciousness of the universal was monopolized and travestied by the sacerdotal caste, social consciousness was converted into the almost exclusive privilege of another caste. The permanent necessity to fight—or, at least, to be ready for combat—in order to protect the territory and eventually to extend it, was incompatible with the task, which was also incessant, of procuring the livelihood of the group (agriculture, mining, crafts). A specialized military aristocracy emerged in all the agricultural empires, distinct from the rest of the laboring population.

This aristocracy, the heir of an activity that once belonged to the whole nomadic tribe, and whose purpose was to protect the community and defend its existence as a group, even at the price of the individual survival of its members, then became the self-proclaimed bearer of the social consciousness of the whole community. And the same collective insanity—an insanity that we shall characterize and explain below—that made everyone endorse the existence of a religious caste responsible for expressing the universal consciousness also allowed the legitimization of the existence of a military caste, the exclusive bearer of the social consciousness of the settled agricultural communities.

The situation was quite different among those who were engaged in agriculture, raising cattle or working as craftsmen. This laboring population, which had been relieved of both its universal consciousness as well as its social consciousness by privileged social groups, which forced the earth to produce crops that it would not have spontaneously produced, which raised animals for the sole purpose of transforming them into edible meat, which, in brief, labored to subjugate the living environment, formed a caste that was despised by society. Its activity, directed exclusively towards the satisfaction of material needs, only served the individual needs of each of its members, who were excluded from the tasks of protecting the collective and those involving relations with the living universe.

Above all the castes, but at the same time always chosen from among the ranks of the warriors, there was a semi-divine monarch attended by an often quite numerous army of imperial officials. He was universally worshipped as the center of the empire, the symbol of unity opposed to any possible social disintegration, the equilibrium point between the complementary activities of the specialized castes, and the spectral representative of a now lost universal consciousness. The real power of this sacred monarch varied depending on the time and the place. An absolute autocrat in the countries where large-scale public works demanded the permanent intervention of a centralized state, the emperor possessed supreme power over the military aristocracies and over the priesthood, whose members were merely state functionaries (Egypt, China, Peru, etc.). In Europe, on the other hand, where such geographical conditions did not exist, the military aristocracy was divided into multiple kingdoms, where the princes had to defend their interests against insubordinate barons. Moreover, the European clergy was still ruled by a single pontiff, who stood in the way of imperial claims for centuries. As for the Arab-Moslem world, the power of the Caliph oscillated, depending on the era, between these two extremes.

All the settled agricultural empires were ruled by this highly structured and hierarchical social organization. Most of them also adopted that institution that was unknown until the advent of these empires, human slavery, born with sedentary labor and destined to replace the native population in the most arduous and disdained jobs. This servile mass, generally captured by the military caste, was sometimes quite abundant, especially in Greece, in Rome, and later in the African kingdoms and in the Arab-Moslem empire, that is, in the countries whose policies of conquest were most aggressive.

The sedentary societies therefore invented religion, the army, the state, labor and slavery. Most of these empires endured until quite recently. They only collapsed under pressure from modern Europe, which had been transformed for the special reasons adduced above.

The revolts that took place beginning in the late Middle Ages first broke out in Flanders, and rapidly spread throughout all of Europe via a route that also took a turn into England. These rebellions, which we discussed above and in which the abolition of the two-field system was the most characteristic sign, entailed profound changes in the continent’s social organization. Europe’s assiduous dedication to the intensive and feverish exploitation of nature put an end to the old social organization of castes or, more precisely, since we are talking about Europe, the hierarchical orders of the clergy, the nobility and the common people.

Europe dedicated its efforts to the rapid production of means of subsistence, tools, and various goods for domestic consumption, and this exploitation of the living universe rendered the old religious scruples against such practices obsolete, along with, more generally, the entire ideology that was opposed to these practices and, of course, the very existence of the religious caste increasingly perceived as parasitic in the view of the rest of society.

The military caste had also lost its reason for existence and its legitimacy. It had been several centuries since the raiding incursions of the peoples of the north, the east, and the south had come to an end and although the Arab-Moslem threat was always present the military orders no longer served any other purpose than engaging in intra-European conflicts between the nations of that divided empire, which were responsible for destruction that was prejudicial to survival and general welfare. Gradually, its power and its privileges came to be viewed as scandalous usurpations.

Beginning in the 14th century, in various regions of Europe, the laboring classes and the merchants challenged the power of the nobles by force of arms, supporting one noble against another if necessary. Finally, in the 18th century, the privileges of these two classes of the ancient European empire were abolished and political power was left in the hands of the producers and administrators of goods. As a part of the same historical movement that witnessed the collapse of the religious and military orders, the activities of the laboring population—previously scorned and disdained—became the reference point with which all of society was identified. The discredit that was still attached to labor in the old imperial societies no longer possessed any reason for existence, nor any image to which one could refer that would justify it. It was the artisans, the peasants and the merchants, the lawyers and bankers, who then sought, and with every right to do so, to govern a society that was exclusively oriented toward the production of material goods and the limitless exploitation of nature.

However, these new claimants to the rule of the world and the government of society were soon at loggerheads. For the merchants and the bankers, who did not directly participate by their activity in the production of material goods, but who were responsible for the regulation of their manufacture, distribution and management, man was nothing but an instrument at the service of this productive process. This fraction of the “common people” was the most cohesive class in the new social organization. It was the conscious vanguard and the ruling class. It legitimately imposed its directives on those for whom the universe was a machine, but they sought to preserve the illusion of being men. This class appropriated all of industrial production, promoted it, organized it and managed its operations under this new mode of production called capitalism.

This business of the servile use of man in the exploitation of nature would be brutally addressed in the second half of the 19th century during the American Civil War. Everyone knows that the most important issue at stake in that war was the abolition or the preservation of slavery. The northern states wanted to abolish the distinction, which was of course obsolete, between workers and slaves, while the southern agricultural states sought to preserve it. For the industrial world, it was by no means a question of abolishing slavery, but the very condition of free men that the agrarian system of the South was trying to preserve for the ruling minority. And in this respect, as well, it was the North, more industrialized and more cohesive, that imposed its will on the whole country.

The nature of property underwent a profound transformation that was exemplified in the new mode of social organization. During the later years of feudalism, the members of the two leading orders—the ecclesiastical and the military—who had long exercised conditional usufructuary rights over the territories that they were responsible for protecting, gradually acquired fee ownership rights over these tracts as a result of a new legal principle: the concept of real property that was both alienable and subject to conveyance by testamentary bequest. But this property was still subject to restrictions in accordance with the old social order: maintenance of the laboring population on the land, and the preservation of tracts subject to collective exploitation, that is, the “commons”. With the gradual disappearance and then the total abolition of the privileged orders, these restrictions were also abolished. Ownership of land—a mere raw material that must be made fruitful in the opinion of its new possessors—was no longer subject to any restrictions or conditions. The landowner not only had the right to convey his land by testamentary bequest or to sell it, but also to expel those who inhabit it, divide it into separate parcels for sale and to privatize the commons.

These legal precepts considerably exacerbated the situation of the peasants and artisans. Marx ridiculed—and quite correctly in accordance with his own perspective—what he called “feudal socialism”, the critique of the new capitalism from the point of view of the old seigniorial regime. Although his critique is, in a certain way, relevant, it is nevertheless necessary to recognize that the new industrial-mercantile order had severely exacerbated the living conditions of the working classes. This setback, however, was accepted from the purely economic point of view that it helped to weaken the old privileged orders, a point of view that was shared by all the new society’s supporters. Insofar as the universe was nothing but a source of raw materials to exploit without limits, where even the animal is considered to be a mere machine with respect to which everything was permitted, there was nothing to prevent the ruling class from treating and exploiting the majority of men in the same manner. No religious counter-force could stop this movement. The new mode of exploitation of the land and the new laws also allowed the landowners to expel the peasants, who were driven into the industrial cities. Technical development and the generalization of wage labor then made possible an enormous increase in the production of material goods for the sole benefit of the possessing class.

The economic causes that underpinned these social upheavals also caused Europe to embark on the conquest of the world. Beginning in the 16th century, under the modest appellation of the “Age of Discovery”, Europe seized vast continents, in wars of territorial conquest in which the new military technologies would invariably triumph over the bow, the boomerang and the spear. Implanted in these new regions, the new procedures of the exploitation of nature yielded a large amount of new wealth for the invaders and sometimes a domesticated labor force working in conditions of servitude that performed the tasks necessary for this exploitation.

In this connection, we must emphasize the fact that the industrial subjugation of the laboring populations of the agricultural empires—the Africans of Benin or Ghana, the Asians of China or Cambodia, the Arab-Moslems of the Maghreb or Northern India—was carried out with relative ease. The nomadic and free peoples, however, could never be domesticated, and had to be massacred, eliminated with famines or directly poisoned in order to put an end to their resistance. In some of these territories the colonial powers then imported, under the name of “ébano vivo”, people who because of their way of life had already been partially enslaved, in order to perform the agricultural and industrial labor required by the conquerors.

Some of the old empires resisted the European incursions longer than others: China, whose conquest was finalized at the beginning of the 20th century, or the Arab-Moslem empire under the Ottomans, literally dismembered shortly thereafter. At that moment, however, the initial “globalization” of industrial-mercantile civilization was complete, shortly before the economic catastrophes of the twenties and thirties brought about an important transformation of that social organization.

The economic, social and political crisis that afflicted Europe and its old overseas colonies during the first decades of the 20th century were principally due to the monstrous accumulation of commodities produced by modern industrial development and the equally formidable accumulation of a precarious proletariat, deprived of its means of production and financially incapable of consuming the accumulated commodities.

It was, of course, possible to just destroy the surplus commodities in order to preserve an acceptable exchange value for those that remained. Such destruction, however, also hurt the possessing class and was scandalous in the eyes of those who were sinking into poverty and humiliation. Most importantly, however, it was much harder to get rid of the accumulation of poor people and the unemployed using the same method.

The devastation inflicted by the First World War, which had been provoked by economic conflicts between the European states, and which led to the collapse of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, aggravated the sufferings of the working classes throughout Europe. A social revolution appeared to be on the agenda for the continent.

This social war was between two classes. One of them, in the minority, but consistent in its projects and the means for their implementation, sought to maintain the enslavement of nature, and this included human nature. The other, clearly in the majority, also sought the instrumentalization of life and untrammeled exploitation, but in this enterprise of universal exploitation it desired to reserve for itself an incongruent freedom. Just as the technological innovations of the 20th century were driven by the need to neutralize the natural resistance to industrial development, the political organization of that same century was designed to neutralize precisely a social conflict of the same kind.

The impossible dignity and presumptuous freedom demanded by the working class in this system of subjugation of life, a system that this class did not intend to substantially overthrow, was achieved in an illusory way, in the image of its own incoherent revolutionary project. The negation of life that was inherent to this system of general exploitation, and the human demands for that same life, conferred upon the 20th century its original aspect of a “society of the spectacle”.

The chimerical demands of the working class were satisfied by means of images and swindles that the new technological organization was in a position to create in great abundance. This organization supplied it with the images of freedom, dignity and meaningful life. The “spectacle” is nothing but the totality of false compensations offered to those who are nothing. It is the most intelligent response to the insanity of its social projects. It is the lie that is the best answer to the absurdity of its requirements.

The images created by the spectacle can, for the sake of convenience, be divided into two groups. Some promote the objects or combinations of objects conceived and produced by modern industry, objects invested with extravagant meanings and designed to procure for their buyers everything that the world of production denies them: freedom, an authentic life, human dignity. The language employed in advertising has the precise role of convincing the public that the object in question is the worthy bearer of these meanings, praising its merits by highlighting how effective it is as a vehicle for such purposes. These mass-produced, materialized images have constituted the usual form of the spectacle in the most highly industrialized countries, especially in the nations that emerged victorious from the First World War. This procedure allowed them to maintain their mode of production by dumping these products on the new market composed of the working classes who needed these deceitful images.

In the countries that were most impoverished by the war, on the other hand, the spectacle adopted the form of the popular hero, the admirable individual with whom everyone was destined to identify in the form of fantasy. This personality was, in himself and thanks to his speeches, the bearer of the values that everyone desired but which were, by virtue of the role they played in the production process, forever prohibited to them. The supreme dignity of this hero, his authority and power against nameless, concealed and treacherous enemies—enemies who were responsible for everyone’s misfortunes—as well as his proclaimed love for the humble folk, transformed him into the ideal compensatory image for the downtrodden masses.

Actually, this distinction was never absolute. The German “Volkswagen” or the Moscow Metro, and Nazi, Stalinist or fascist architecture, all show that these compensatory images were, in these countries as well, upheld by material objects devoted to collective admiration, and not only by the dictatorial heroes and their retinues. Above all, however, the most “concentrated” and the most “diffuse” spectacles have always been mediated, in the industrial societies, by fictitious or real heroes, enviable personalities, destined to possess the objects that arouse the covetousness of all and who have attained an admirable position. It was the function of advertising to spotlight this fairy tale.

Thus, the object of the spectacle is always man, apparently liberated from the burden of his modern alienation. Everywhere and always, the spectacle offers a hero of this kind, the bearer of values that each individual has been deprived of in the current mode of production, and the instigator of behaviors that are definitively reserved for its admirers. The hero offered by the spectacle, whether the dictator of a banana, oil or wine producing republic, an advertising personality or movie actor, is always a monstrous chimera who unites two irreconcilable elements: the image of an enviable human condition and the affirmation that such a condition can be acquired and maintained by participating in a modern system of production or consumption.

In order to justify the persistence and even the augmentation of private and collective suffering, despite the docile identification of the public with the mandates of these fantasy heroes, the spectacle is often obliged to feature other heroes, embodied by various actors, who are also bearers of irreconcilable values, but these values are diametrically opposed to those of the positive hero. These public personalities brag about how they have no respect for the current organization of the world, which they denounce right to its roots, and they call for revolt. Simultaneously, they terrorize civilian populations, apologize for slave regimes, and organize collective massacres.

The fundamental duplicity of the spectacle and its ambiguous heroes can be recognized in the new ruling class, which is responsible for the production of these heroes. The raw material that must be mined, transformed, managed and restored in the form of images is constituted of the permanently unsatisfied desires—desires for freedom and dignity—of those who are economically condemned to keep the system functioning at the cost of their own freedom and dignity. Those who are deprived of their humanity are also those who are today forced to manufacture, for their own use, the images of this lost humanity. In the most modern countries, the managerial class presents itself, first of all, as the faithful representative of collective desires and demands and, at the same time, as the creator of the material and political structures whose purpose is to satisfy these desires and these demands, structures that are obviously adapted to the current political-industrial organization, which excludes the effective realization of both.

This class is often divided into two ruling factions. The members of the first group, perhaps originating in the working class but exempt from any productive activity, are externalized as representatives and transmission lines of popular demands. The second group, largely derived from the old bourgeois or bureaucratic managerial class, obliged to pay attention to the new appetites of its clientele, assumes responsibility for transforming these dreams into reality and creating objects or structures adapted to the illusory satisfaction of these desires, thus integrating them into the modern system of production.

These two factors, in which one transmits the demands and the other transforms them into images, constitute a single instrument of management, whose articulation is commercial advertising and political propaganda. And what once passed for a “class struggle” is now nothing but a pincer movement between whose arms each person’s efforts to recover his humanity are crushed and shredded.

Such an instrument of government also serves to create the political objects or structures that the governing class and the economy require in order to continue to exist, defend themselves and develop. Like the monopolists of old, the managerial class can dismember certain public services, or abolish certain means of production and certain domestic consumer goods, for the purpose of arousing new desires, to which it will be attentive and which it will attempt to satisfy in the way that is most suitable at the moment. Is it not sufficient to abolish one or another type of mass transit in order to make a car “desirable”? A full tank of gasoline? Is it not enough to prohibit some ancient manufacturing process—which the “experts” declare to be dangerous—in order to make certain new instruments “desirable” and necessary that industry, fulfilling its responsibilities, will conceive, manufacture and sell?

In the same way, the managerial class can find it necessary, in order to control insubordinate or merely suspicious populations, to expand its police and military capacities, organize its systems of surveillance, and generalize inquisitorial controls: none of these operations are demanded by the populations that they affect. But the unforeseen occurrence of inexplicable attacks or riots can provoke the “desire” for these instruments of control and coercion. Might there not even be a great advantage in facilitating such events, by creating the suitable conditions for their occurrence and even maintaining the constant presence of an enemy in the shadows, endlessly conspiring in secret, in order to justify the increasingly more invasive surveillance of reticent populations, or to legitimize military operations against remote populations and seize their wealth? The class that today manages the production of images is therefore “conspiratorial”. It must convince its public of the existence of “conspiracies”, whether national or international, in order to justify its police initiatives or its military adventures. And, paradoxically, the fact that its spokesmen accuse those who describe the mode of functioning of our modern society of being “conspiracy theorists” is in reality the most original innovation of the current managerial class.

In the modern social organization, where each individual is deprived of his creation and his existence, anxieties and rebellions are neutralized by means of commodities or socio-political formations devoted to the illusory compensation for these privations. But the meaning of this profane world is situated beyond its confines, in a fantastic heaven towards which all desires are directed. That is where the inaccessible divinities reign; the popular icons, the battles of the titans and the secrets of the bedroom, the wars between the giants and the gods embarked on Manichaean adventures that are constantly renewed. Most of our young people hope that some day the doors of this heaven will open, in an individual apotheosis that their talents as football players, rappers, fashion models or computer geniuses will make possible. Their parents, even the most unbalanced ones, hope to get there thanks to the games of chance organized by the state. The disillusioned elderly, in the meantime, are limited to contemplating the images in the specialized press. All of them alleviate their malaise with the drugs that they obtain from the pharmaceutical industry or the neighborhood dealer.

This profane world, over which an imaginary heaven is extended, also has its own hell, populated by those who have not respected the rules of the social game. A continuously expanding prison population is today paying the price for its infractions and serves as an object lesson to those who might feel tempted to imitate it. After the First World War, in the countries that were engaged in a crash program to create or rebuild their industries, immense carceral spaces were constructed where millions of slaves lived like rats, malnourished, tortured, imprisoned behind barbed wire and watched from towers. Nazi concentration camps or Soviet gulags, this institutionalized hell has survived into our times in numerous countries in the process of accelerated development and especially in that modernized China that will soon have one billion five hundred million inhabitants.

This division of the Universe between a purely imaginary paradise, a very real hell and an intermediate world greedy for celestial promises and tormented by the fear of hell, is the one that today structures the geopolitical organization of the planet. Hell has its continents, immense territories devastated by industrial corporations where the inhabitants die, each year, by the millions from malnutrition, epidemics and massacres orchestrated by opposed financial interests. The alleged “chiefs of state” of this archipelago are at the service of one or another industrial empire and can be overthrown when their protectors suffer a setback. The populations imprisoned in these countries are watched by armed troops and, recently, in Melilla, desperation has caused them to launch themselves in waves against the barbed wire fences, despite the gunfire of their guards. The existence of this worldwide hell, which some people occasionally are allowed to depart thanks to “positive discrimination”, but who always live under the threat of being returned to it for the most insignificant infraction, serves to reassure the rest of the world, which pretends to believe that these populations are “undergoing a process of development”, just as people used to think that the populations of the gulag were “undergoing a process of re-education”.

Thus, at the same time that modern science invented telecommunications, information science, nanotechnology and genetically modified organisms, a system of tyranny that had full access to these technologies was installed all over the planet. People whose ancestors were the bearers of social consciousness and universal consciousness then found themselves socially isolated, excluded from their living environment and robbed of their humanity. It is therefore not the case that the slavery of the agricultural societies has been abolished, nor has the colonialism of the industrial societies been done away with; what has really been abolished is the general condition of the free man in a generalized neocolonialism and neo-slavery.

This intimate connection and complicity between the technical discoveries of an era and its social organization can be verified in all historical periods and in all parts of the world. Moreover, this relation is neither purely causal nor unilateral. It is also associated with profound changes in individual consciousness. For the loss of the living universal subject is not only accompanied by the weakening of social consciousness, but it is also linked—as we shall see below—to the collapse of the individual living subject.

  • 1 See Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State, tr. Robert Hurley and Abe Stein, Zone Books, Brooklyn, 1987.


Chapter 5: The negation of the self

Submitted by Alias Recluse on March 31, 2014



“The two things, therefore, are to be distinctly observed—viz. that being thus perverted and corrupted in all the parts of our nature, we are, merely on account of such corruption, deservedly condemned by God…. For our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle.”
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536)

The social structures of a civilization, whether agricultural-imperial, industrial-mercantile or spectacular-mafiosi, are sometimes experienced, due to the rules of morality and conduct that they impose, as disagreeable restraints on the individual desires of life, when the latter arise or when their immediate, or even deferred, satisfaction is demanded. A painful conflict therefore exists between the individual subject, his emotions, his desires, on the one side, and, on the other, the behavior required by the social organization, behavior that his consciousness validates and whose necessity he internalizes.

Apart from suicide, which allows one to put an end to this shattered life, there are only two choices: reject the moral imperatives or always live with this lacerating conflict, even striving to live with its denial. The rejection of its imperatives can take the form of individual insanity, or of moral and behavioral “perversions”. Both courses often lead to psychiatric or judicial incarceration. It may also adopt the form of active and conscious resistance against this social organization that is so obviously opposed to the requirements of life.

These different forms of rejection and resistance are only engaged in by a minority of people in periods of political and economic stability. The most common response is therefore to accept the social imperatives, submit to society’s moral laws, internalize these laws and deny the existence of the conflict. This internalization is called neurosis. It is defined as an “unconscious internal psychic conflict” between the life drives that are hard to control and an internalized socio-cultural “superego”, a conflict in which the individual “ego” tries to survive and hold itself together as well as it can.

This definition of neurosis implies that, in a solidly constructed social organization, each individual is the victim of a more or less manifest form of neurosis, with the exception of the “insane”, the “criminals” and the “politicals”, who are the raw material for extermination in the concentration camps. Over the last century, numerous studies have contributed to the establishment of certain relations between neurosis and culture. The works of Branislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead, among others, contributed to the clarification of these relations. Previously, Sigmund Freud and his followers explained the infantile origin of neuroses by the organization of the family, such as it was presented in their own socio-cultural milieu. But the Oedipus Complex upon which psychoanalysis founded its Church is nothing but the fundamental conflict between Desire and the Law, in which the substitutes are often the mother and the father of the child. And this family structure in which the Oedipal conflict is so comfortably organized is also the product of a particular civilization.

In any case, modern psychiatry recently decided not to trespass any further into a territory that was already undermined by anthropology. It renounced the very existence of neuroses, of which it no longer recognized anything but heterogeneous symptoms without any connection with each other (the new international classifications of the CIE-10 and the DSM-IV). But this recent denial has not, of course, abolished the reality of the manifestations and the other forms of expression of neurosis.

Actually, in almost all societies, the neurotic character structure offers major advantages. It allows each person to maintain a certain contact with his contemporaries, in a world that they all consider to be “real”. This entails, however, intense suffering. It is not free of pain or of risks for the living being in controlling his own life, which is why it gives rise to a whole set of problems that simultaneously manifest the suffocation of that life and the effort to find a way out. The crises of life-threatening anxieties can suddenly engulf an impotent consciousness. Amidst these crises a basis of permanent anxiety persists, a vague feeling of danger, a ubiquitous fear. Sometimes they are associated with sleep disorders, a fear of sleeping and a fear of allowing the emergence—even in the form of the nightmare—of this unacceptable life. Sexual activity is also disturbed and oscillates, depending on the moral pressure undergone by the individual, between more or less complete impotence and constant masturbation. This suffocation of the desires leads to chronic, intense, intractable fatigue, a “generalized shortage of energy”.1

This complex of sufferings has been given the name, “anxiety neurosis”. The alterations that characterize it are literally unbearable, but the neurosis is almost always successfully concealed or largely suppressed by way of various magical operations of false consciousness, which transform this anxiety neurosis into “structured neuroses” which have been given the names, “phobic neurosis”, “obsessive neurosis” and “hysterical neurosis”. These structured forms are seldom presented in their pure state. Their symptoms are often combined and associated. In general, however, one of the structures predominates and it is advantageous to describe them separately.

In the first form of neurosis, known as “phobic”, the neurotic experiences his anxiety of self-destruction as produced by an object outside of himself. This object is sometimes indeterminate and without any discernable content: open spaces where unknown dangers might arise; closed spaces experienced as places of suffocation and death, and also darkness, which can give rise to distressing hallucinatory images. It can even adopt the aspect of threatening animals imagined to be stalking, attacking or attempting to kill the subject. It pertains, finally, to the “other”, the foreigner, the unknown: fear of contact with this other, fear of his glance, panic-stricken fear of engaging in conversation with strangers, who are assumed to be malicious and dangerous, especially “superiors” or those imagined to be “superior”, encounters with whom trigger “fight or flight” reactions.

To escape from this anxiety, some subjects shut themselves into their homes to avoid a fearful encounter. Often, a particular room in the house performs this calming function. The sick person seeks what has been called his “refuge”, a place where he can hide away from the dangerous space where the objects of terror can arise. In the absence of such a refuge, the phobic resorts to various maneuvers evocative of protection. A certain object that means something to him can be enough to pacify his anxieties. Superstitious behaviors are also related to this neurosis: maleficent words or gestures, certain numbers or, on the other hand, objects that bear a protective quality. His perpetual anxiety leads the phobic to explore his surroundings in search of the object that causes his distress. This investigation is carried out with an almost inquisitorial impatience, like a police detective, sometimes suspicious, “almost hallucinatory”, as the psychiatrists point out, to justify his avoidance of the offending object and to obtain peace of mind.

The entire life, all the feelings, and all the tastes of the phobic are marked by his mode of perceiving the world. Sometimes he seems like a detective who is constantly prying into the unknown in search of positive reference points. “The solitude of wide open spaces” scares him. That is where he seeks and where he imagines the existence of places where he can find peace. The same is true of his artistic tastes. He is torn between his need for safety and his fear of being confined in a space from which he cannot escape. Atonal music gives him the creeps but he feels imprisoned by the tonal system. In any case, he always likes medieval music. And he also adores eastern icons, Romanesque chapels, and the old songs of the past. He likes the smell of incense. In short, whether or not he presents himself as a democrat, the phobic is the exact opposite of a real libertarian. He has too much need for feeling protected by a state, by a social or religious organization, by a party. But he never allows himself to be imprisoned in any of these organizations without reluctance. And this resistance might perhaps confer upon him a libertarian air when, in fact, he proceeds from betrayal to betrayal in his flight.

In the second form of structured neurosis, called “obsessive”, the individual’s vital forces that are incompatible with the collective morality, prohibited or constrained, are not projected into the external world. They are recognized, with horror and shock, as having emerged from the deepest recesses of the individual’s being, although in strange and outlandish configurations. Sometimes they arise in consciousness as obscene images, aggressive impulses, insults, vulgarity, desires for violence and death. For the “good” conscience of the neurotic—which always conforms to that of his milieu and his times—these configurations invariably strike him as scandalous, undignified and absolutely alien. In order to dominate them, in order to prevent them from emerging, the obsessive utilizes various magical procedures that are nothing but internal police operations, minute categorizations of his own life. The obsessive strives to detect, in himself and everywhere, filth, disorder, the impure and the unjust. Internal inquisition and self-criticism are second nature to him. He hunts down spelling errors, dust, foul odors. He is obsessed with order, symmetry, cataloging, cleanliness and hygiene. Neglect horrifies him. In short, he strives to stock his thought and his surroundings with objects that he accumulates, classifies and keeps clean and that can take the form of collections, erudition, or of meticulously organized material wealth. He loves money for what it allows him to acquire and accumulate, and adores everything that is “shiny like bars of gold”. This filling up of himself prevents any unexpected emergence of his horrible secret life. His aggressiveness, which he shares with all neurotics, is manifested in the form of irony and witty repartee. He almost always forbids himself from engaging in physical and even verbal violence. His posture is rigid; his hands, sweaty from anxiety; his attitude, inflexible.

These magical operations are really effective and most obsessives never experience the emergence of the fearful life that they have successfully repressed. It is instead their own obsessions for order, classification, cleanliness, suspicious investigation, and maniacal introspection that strike them as incomprehensible, desperate and painful impulses. If they go to a doctor, it is because of these impulses. On certain occasions, however, the obsessive “lets go” and explodes in violence and coarse behavior (alcohol can help him do this), or shares his possessions in an unwonted fit of prodigality, or even smears the walls of his home with excrement, or obscene and indecent inscriptions. But then we find him on the terrain of psychiatry, that is, insanity recognized as such.

These two structured neuroses, the phobic and the obsessive, are strictly opposed. In one, prohibited life is projected into the outside world and experienced as dangerous aggressiveness. In the other, it is suffered as intimate and foul. The first arouses fear and the second, repulsion. There is a third form of neurosis, in which life has not only been expelled from the individual or kept under the steel lid of a police consciousness, but where it has been simply annihilated, ignored by a mutilated consciousness, like a forgotten memory of childhood that is never manifested in the conscious mind, but which is expressed exclusively in the body. This form of neurosis is called “hysterical” neurosis. In this form of neurosis, the neurotic has really obliterated his own life. He has not rejected it and expelled it into the outside world in order to confront it under the aspect of imaginary monsters as in the case of the phobic; nor has he buried it within himself, sealing it off in magical chains as in the case of the obsessive. He simply denies it and forgets it.

Entire dimensions of his existence have been enshrouded by self-forgetting and, obviously, this includes his authenticity and his personal identity. This fundamental emptiness appears in the inconsistency of his persona, in his propensity to gullibility and in his ability to deceive himself. He is constantly seeking a replacement personality. He is an “actor in search of an author”. The hysteric replaces his true being with a fictitious personality, with which he is not well acquainted, whose traits he must constantly perfect or correct. He has false memories; he is a mythomaniac and a teller of tall tales. He permanently fakes a sexual pleasure that he does not really experience, and does so in a theatrical and excessive manner. He is tenaciously devoted to his artificial personality in the form of a spectacle. His entire existence is essentially falsified.

Of course, his own source of life is not really annihilated; it is only destroyed in his consciousness. It is occasionally manifested and, sometimes, volcanically under the aspect of a “hysterical crisis”. The “great crisis”, described by Jean-Martin Charcot, is no longer seen, with its loss of consciousness, its contortions, its trances, and its breathless declamations that express “a struggle against an imaginary being” (Richer, 1885), in violent and erotic scenes. Today, it assumes a latent, degraded, less explicit form, as aborted “nervous breakdowns”, simple fainting fits, or “spasmophilia”. What we see, with greater frequency, is the onset of prolonged nervous disturbances, accompanied by painful spasms that can cause real organic disorders.

This hysterical neurosis generally tends to stabilize and crystallize in socially acceptable forms. It can, however, happen that hysteria “goes wrong”; it can disintegrate and give way to a “schizophrenic” psychosis—(delusions of grandeur, a feeling of depersonalization)—in which the sick person feels in all its crudeness the real experience of annihilation and possession.

All the forms of neurosis we have just briefly described are the result of tyrannical social pressures exercised by the neurotic himself against his own life drives. Often, these pressures are transmitted at first by the family, which is the elementary form of social organization, in general and depending on each epoch. And they can only be internalized by the neurotic who would otherwise lose all his intellectual, emotional and social refuges.

As for the particular form of neurosis—phobic, obsessive, or hysterical—it appears that it is also very much influenced by the structure of the societies in which it is most often manifested. It is not going too far to call them “socio-neuroses”.

Among the nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples, neurotic manifestations seem to be abundant and some ethnologists and psychiatrists have not refrained from making an inventory of them, just as the Christian missionaries of the past catalogued lists of all the signs of satanic possession. Thus, the belief of these peoples in hideous evil spirits, sometimes embodied in wild animals, spirits that are invoked or exorcised by means of magical or superstitious ceremonies, testifies to the presence of a collective phobic neurosis; not to mention the religious taboos and the tribal totems about which we have already spoken in this essay. Furthermore, their belief that the individual can be “possessed” by an evil spirit, and the practices devoted to preventing this spirit from harming him, can easily be interpreted as symptoms of an obsessive neurosis. As for the ceremonies of the dance, trances, ecstatic states, and rhythmic shouts and chants, they undoubtedly evoke, in the eyes of modern observers, manifestations of collective hysteria. As a result, it might seem that primitive peoples are the victims of polymorphous neuroses that totally dominate their individual and social life.

Nonetheless, these pictures that are so rich in detail lack the very basis that would allow us to consider them as psychopathological: the neurotic personality and the behaviors that derive from that personality. None of the numerous testimonies of ethnologists concerning the nomadic Amerindians, the Pygmies of Central Africa or the Eskimos provide any evidence of such neurotic disturbances. The apparent phobias of these peoples never lead them to seek specific places of refuge. To the contrary, their entire nomadic civilization is based on the absence and rejection of such protective places. Likewise, the collective expressions that might be interpreted as signs of obsessive neurosis are not accompanied by any mania for order, classification or the accumulation of objects, or the creation of collections or accumulation of wealth. As for the hysterical personality, or more correctly, the tragic absence of real personality in the hysteric, no sign of it is observed among these peoples: the nomad does not need to look for a fictitious personality, he is “attached” to his own authenticity.

This surprising discrepancy between the apparent excess of symptoms and the absence of the ordinarily underlying neurotic disturbances is significant. Everything takes place here as if the neurotic symptoms—which are common to all organized societies, insofar as the individual confronts a set of collective rules—are neutralized by truly therapeutic cultural mechanisms. Thus, the phobias, connected to the perception of one’s own asocial and predatory life as external to oneself, in the form of a wild animal, for example, are spontaneously extinguished in the identification with the object of the phobia. In the same way, obsessions, which are the expressions of the rise of these same impulses from within oneself, are consumed in the identification with a universal life force. As for the manifestations of “collective hysteria”, they are what allow the living subject who is fenced in by social restrictions to freely express himself: the risk of hysteria, of self-forgetting, is periodically exorcised by means of organized sessions of orgiastic expression.

By means of a whole range of socio-cultural mechanisms, the nomadic civilizations successfully prevented the emergence of individual and collective neuroses, unlike what took place later in other forms of civilization. Nor should we be surprised. The nomad recognized himself as an element of a group with which he totally identified. His participation in the rules of the community never stands opposed, with regard to its fundamental aspects, to the expression of his individual impulses, and cannot lead to the emergence of real neuroses. Here, the social rules are not, in any respect, tyrannical, or imposed by an external power, but are permanently dictated by the group as a whole. In the identification of the individual subject and the social subject, the internalization of the collective rules does not lead to the formation of a “superego” that would impose laws and standards of conduct that are radically opposed to those of the individual subject, and the potential for a neurotic conflict is considerably diminished. In addition, the identification of the nomad with universal life also prevents the formation of a real neurosis. For in this kind of consciousness, no reality of the outside world is separate from the person who conceives it. The phobic object is also internal; the obsessive theme is also external, and the affirmation of the individual subject is confirmed and guaranteed by way of the affirmation of the subject of the world. No neurosis has any chance of being constituted and crystallizing in this kind of civilization.

It is altogether otherwise in the social groups that permanently occupied a particular geographic space to cultivate the land from generation to generation, with or without slaves. The confinement of human collectivities in enclosed territories—and fortified against possible external aggressors—as well as the social organization into specialized castes that resulted from these new ways of life, led to singular mental disturbances.

Universal consciousness and social consciousness, usurped by the religious and military castes, were separated from individual consciousness from that point on; and the unitary consciousness was lost for everyone. The collective moral imperatives, internalized by each member of the group, no longer recognized the legitimacy of individual impulses, which had become unacceptable with respect to the social rules. These individual impulses, which were dangerous for the survival of the settled group and rejected by the consciousness of each person, did not have free rein except outside of the fortified frontiers. They took the form of predatory hordes, and the wild beasts that prowled around the vicinity of the settlements. Individual aggressiveness, which originated in these impulses and which consciousness could not admit as proper, was then projected into that threatening outside world from which the group had isolated itself. Here were the grounds of the phobic neurosis, which developed in all the settled agricultural societies.

Each member of these societies expressed via this phobic neurosis his irrational fears with regard to certain objects that allegedly were the bearers of aggressive intentions, of fictitious dangers, as well as with regard to the empty spaces—the sky, the ocean, the far horizons—or during quiet times in the form, for example, of the vague shapes in the twilight; spaces and moments where imaginary forms and forces, malignant and terrifying, were apprehended and hallucinated. The old imperial civilizations of India and China, Pharaonic Egypt and Mesopotamia, Mexico and the Andes were tormented by these purely immaterial malignant powers. The real dangers to which these civilizations were necessarily exposed—potential invaders, wild animals or natural catastrophes—were perceived as the material representations and tangible proofs of these abstract, incorporeal and timeless powers, which had to be incessantly exorcized and combated and whose approach had to be anticipated. From the demon armies of Taoism to the djinns of Islam and the satanic legions of medieval Christianity, along with the evil genies of ancient Egypt and the Mesopotamian devils, among others, the men of these settled agricultural civilizations were bewitched by and obsessed with the invisible forces whose presence they experienced in a confused but real way. These nefarious powers possessed all the characteristics of the living individual subject, hemmed in by a social morality whose rules were internalized by all: there were demons devoted to pillage, wreckers, soul-stealers; they were often erotomaniacs and always inveterate enemies of the rules acknowledged by the refined civilizations.

This same phobic neurosis was manifested, of course, in medieval Europe, as is testified by the popular religion, art and even the sciences of this period of European history. The men of the Middle Ages lived in a state of constant alert and this anxiety cast its shadow over their existence. Those times, of course, did not lack danger: the risks of invaders bent on pillage, unforeseen famines, and violent death, were ubiquitous. But these dangers do not by themselves explain such anxiety; today one can live a stone’s throw from a nuclear power plant or amidst a full-blown AIDS epidemic without any misgivings. The Middle Ages were tormented by an irrational anxiety, nourished on visions, apprehensions and fantastic interpretations. Terrifying beasts were reported in hallucinations; dragons and monsters of the wilderness made the inhabitants of entire towns tremble in fear; domestic animals were claimed to possess evil attributes—black cats, goats with cloven hooves, and other horned beasts—creations or materializations of the devil in person. From the depths of the night fearful apparitions emerged; that was when the witches danced at their black Sabbaths in the forests that still covered immense tracts of the European continent. And that is when the seventh sons took on their true form as sorcerers and prepared terrible sendings against those who did not have sufficient protection.

The unknown spaces were also full of terrifying images. Marc Bloch says: “In stormy skies people still saw phantom armies passing by: armies of the dead, said the populace; armies of deceitful demons, declared the learned, much less inclined to deny these visions than to find for them a quasi-orthodox interpretation.” (These processions of the dead that the common people projected into the sky were, as far as the bastions of moral order were concerned, nothing but the false representations of devils.) Monsters also guarded the portals of the horizons and the depths of the ocean concealed all kinds of fabulous incarnations that prevented travelers from venturing too far from the coasts.

All these images and anxieties represented a basic fear: the fear of the devil, the devourer of souls and convicted sex fiend. It was the devil that was recognized in evil animals, in the vague images of the twilight sky, behind the infinite horizon or in the farthest reaches of the ocean. Everyone knew that there would be a final confrontation with him some day, at the moment of individual death, of absolute solitude. This encounter is also inscribed in history under the form of the “End Times” and the “Last Judgment”. Around the year 1000, in accordance with a somewhat loose interpretation of the Book of Revelation, it was announced with great fanfare that the date of the Second Coming would be the one-thousandth year after Christ (after his birth? Or his death? According to which calendar?), and during those years “waves of fear swept almost incessantly over this region or that, subsiding at one point only to rise again elsewhere” (Marc Bloch).

Such phobic socio-neuroses are therefore easily identified in all the imperial agricultural civilizations for which we have historical accounts. Everywhere, evil forces swarmed around and beneath the anxious masses. But what definitively characterize the phobic nature of these societies are the means that they used to protect themselves from or to neutralize these evil forces. As in the individual phobic neurosis, this mainly took the form of places of refuge, but also of objects invested with the same protective virtue, or even magical practices devoted to ward off danger.

All the territories where the settled agricultural civilizations developed are covered with temples, sanctuaries, and monasteries, sacred spaces for providing shelter from the machinations of the devils, where the individual could find asylum and safety. In medieval Europe, an entire town sang the words of the Psalmist: “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings” [Psalm 61:4] and “May there be peace inside your walls and prosperity in your palaces” [Psalm 122:7]. In his Manuel de psychiatrie, Henri Ey quotes these words spoken by a patient who suffered from phobic neurosis: “Now that I am sitting down, I feel at peace. When I see my refuge, the fear subsides: I am neither cold nor hot, my heart palpitations stop, while, a minute before, I was filled with panic, my legs gave out from under me, I was covered in sweat”. The same form, the same content, the same inspiration.

The men of the settled agricultural civilizations also had recourse to diverse tranquilizing objects, to which they attributed an authentic protective value—relics, talismans, medallions, crucifixes, amulets—just as the modern phobic neurotic uses certain objects invested by him with a protective and calming power (four-leafed clovers, touching wood, etc.). In short, daily prayers, exorcism ceremonies and pilgrimages played the same role that is performed, for the phobic neurotic, by the utterance of certain formulas, the repetition of certain gestures, attitudes or charms.

As for voluntary, and often irrevocable, withdrawal into monasteries, such as those of Hinduism, Buddhism or medieval Christianity, this also pertains to the most serious forms of phobic neuroses, forms in which the afflicted person definitively shuts himself away in a place of refuge, “devoid of desires”, reducing his existence to repeated stereotyped activities that are never varied. This life is undoubtedly similar to that of the men and women of the past who took refuge in convents and cloisters to the day of their death, places where the days and the nights followed the rhythm of repetitive activities.

If we add to this picture the fact that the sexual life of the phobic is always disturbed, in the sense that it is dominated by an intense inhibition, insofar as the “sexual desire is experienced as a threat of destruction in which anxiety prevents one from ever getting close to another person”,2 we would not be mistaken to compare this with the medieval Church’s repudiation of “fornication” and the “flesh”, as well as with the various requirements of sexual mutilation demanded in other similar civilizations in order to attain the status of an adult in the community.

The polymorphous anxieties of the imperial agricultural civilizations, and above all, the means that they deployed to protect themselves, confirm the fact that these civilizations were powerfully dominated by a phobic socio-neurosis for which their entire cultural edifice provides testimony, in their writings, in their buildings, and in their individual and collective activities. There is no reason to be surprised at the extent to which these civilizations were compelled, in order to remain faithful to their principles, to demonize the individual living subject who, at bottom, was opposed to the social subject of these civilizations.

The immense apparatus of protection constructed by the phobic civilizations, demonstrated by the multitude of temples, monasteries, objects and behaviors that served an exorcizing purpose—to which apparatus there was also a corresponding apparatus, in the secular world, of fortified castles, towers, coats of mail and helmets—was nothing but the expression of a fundamental measure of protection: that of the social order itself. This order was based on the dual ecclesiastical-military foundation, and on the happy marriage between these two orders in the medieval knighthood, and in other analogous organizations in the Far East and in Islam. The soldier-monk was undoubtedly the ideal and most respected figure in these civilizations, the perfect representative of its phobic neuroses: “He is truly a fearless knight and secure on every side, for his soul is protected by the armor of faith just as his body is protected by armor of steel. He is thus doubly armed and need fear neither demons nor men” (Bernard de Clairvaux, Liber ad milites Templi: De laude novae militae). Thus, the universal submission to the ecclesiastical-military system had its real basis in the phobic socio-neurosis; and the question that we asked above, concerning what aberration could have possibly caused men to tolerate such social organizations, encounters its answer in this collective madness.

Some readers will be shocked by this “psychiatrization” of a way of life that lasted for thousands of years, and which has left behind such admirable architecture, paintings and literature. They might even produce the texts that show that, in many of these civilizations, men were capable of recognizing the fact that their anxiety and the protections erected against it were nothing but expressions of the divided soul and that, in short, they were not unaware of the fact that this involved an interior upheaval that was taking place within man himself. This objection is unacceptable, insofar as this knowledge was always exceptional, accessible to very few individuals and, furthermore, these individuals were generally persecuted by their own religious institutions, which sometimes put them to death.

In any event, one may observe that the most salient traits of the phobic socio-neurosis were preserved for as long as these civilizations lasted. They did not begin to disintegrate until the collapse of the imperial agricultural system, in order to then give way to a civilization of a totally different kind that entailed a different kind of lunacy.

The rise of the mercantile-industrial system, first in Europe, and then in the rest of the world under the pressure of the European armies, is distinguished not only by its breakthrough scientific discoveries, or by its novel social organization, but by the fact that it entailed a different kind of perception, a way of thought and of conduct that were very different from those of the imperial agricultural civilizations, and it is not hard to identify in these new traits the broad outlines of the obsessive neurosis described by psychiatry.

The demonization of the “foreigner”, of the “infidel”, of the “barbarian” and, finally, of the unknown in general, which were characteristics of the imperial agricultural civilizations, could neither be embraced nor recognized by the new class of cosmopolitan merchants and bankers whose activities were based on foreign trade. The unacceptable freedom of life, which the old feudal order had banished beyond its frontiers and beyond the world itself, projected into the heavens and beyond the seas, combated by its priests and its armies, had to be reintegrated into the new civilization, but as an obscene and unendurable intruder, who had to be dominated, suppressed, imprisoned, and prohibited from speaking or acting. The demon had come home and it was there that he had to be fought. The basic features of obsessive neurosis are well known, with its shame-stricken ego and its neurotic firebreaks: accumulation, maniacal desire for order, scrupulous hygiene, strict and rigid moralism, and morbid introspection. These new traits were precisely the ones that characterized the new civilization.

Concerning feudal society, Marc Bloch mentions the “vast indifference to time” that was characteristic of the men of that era and adds that “the regard for accuracy, with its firmest buttress, the respect for figures, remained profoundly alien to the minds even of the leading men of that age” (it would have undoubtedly been more correct to say, “especially of the leading men of that age”). He also observes that, despite the elevated intellectual speculations of that era, medieval science was not at all devoted to understanding a “nature which, after all, was not regarded as greatly deserving of attention”. The mercantile-industrial civilization brought an entirely different kind of intellectual focus, one that would be further elaborated in the following centuries.

Among the fundamental changes that took place with the rise of the new civilization, we must first call attention to an almost generalized passion that was previously rare: the accumulation of wealth. While the ruling classes of the medieval era generously squandered the usufruct of their goods in festivals, feasts and other sumptuary expenditures, the new class of merchants accumulated their gains and re-invested them in the production process. This accumulation served to construct, consolidate and generalize a world that was completely unlike the one it replaced. Whereas the medieval ruling classes claimed to protect the group against the machinations of the devil and his worldly representatives, the new class of merchants hoped to construct a society that would be a refuge from polymorphous but internal enemies: disorder, illness, filth, ignorance, and even death itself. The new protective divinity was no longer in heaven, but in monetary reserves. The fortified tower and the temple gave way to international banks and the headquarters of trade union federations.

This passion for accumulation was even manifested in the form of art collecting, the construction of gigantic libraries, botanical gardens, public and private zoos, museums, collecting antique weapons, and stamp collecting. It can also be discerned in a maniacal zeal for learning, often very specialized and far removed from any particular intellectual project. This new passion was also institutionalized and inculcated in children in the schools, as if it were the new mercantile catechism. Everyone is exhorted not to spend without consideration, to economize, to husband their scarce resources so that one day they can acquire a little house, a broom, a dictionary, an edifying book, in order to protect themselves from homelessness, from dirt, from ignorance and from intemperance.

The war that was launched against these new enemies of the human race was never completely won, any more than was the combat waged by the obsessive neurotic against his inner demons. It would sometimes happen that a rich banker would be ruined in one night, in an outburst of unprecedented prodigality with a cabaret dancer. And it was even more common for bad workers to spend their entire week’s wages in one night at the tavern. But these paradoxical and universally condemned behaviors confirm, as if this was necessary, the obsessive and compulsive nature of the general movement of accumulation-retention that is characteristic of the new mercantile-industrial society.

This dominant passion must be considered in connection with another inclination that is also a unique characteristic of obsessive neurosis: the mania for order, classification, and uniformity. From its origin, the new civilization concerned itself with organizing and unifying the world in accordance with its rigid schemas. In France, regional customs were combated and then abolished; local dialects were persecuted and then prohibited, so that they could be replaced by a single official language. And contrary to what has been repeated endlessly, this uniformity did not have the sole purpose of facilitating the circulation of commodities, because the same tendency is observed in all fields, regardless of its advantages in each case. During that same period, of course, classical literature established the rigid rules of literary and theatrical composition. Laws were passed to regulate spelling and syntax. Medieval architecture, which was judged during this period to be detestable and incompatible with “good taste”, was replaced by a geometrical architectonic order. Alexandrine symmetry was increasingly imposed on poets and the literary innovations of François Rabelais were censured.

Apologetics for order and moderation spread to every aspect of culture. Science was not content with accumulating innumerable observations of exotic plants and animals, it had to classify them and put them into some kind of order, with botanical and zoological nomenclature, in accordance with criteria that would have not possessed the least practical value in the eyes of primitive peoples. Science warehoused and catalogued its discoveries in “neo-classical” style edifices surrounded by improbable geometrical gardens, “à la française”. This hatred of exuberance, fantasy, and living movement; this obsessive taste for order, unification, symmetry and moderation, characterized this civilization as well as its passion for the accumulation of wealth.

Another cultural peculiarity merits consideration. The new civilization engaged in a total war against “filth”, that is, dirt, “deleterious miasmas”, and “obscenity”. It cleaned and paved its streets, prohibited urination in parks and installed public urinals and washrooms everywhere. Long before the invention of microbiology, medicine no longer believed that diseases were produced by external demons, and had come to view them as indicative of the internal and invisible presence of deadly “miasmas”, which science had to detect, neutralize and destroy.

We can also mention, as yet another obsessive trait of this civilization, a strict and narrow-minded moralism, which demanded sobriety and decency, and proper language and a modest attitude, from everyone. Under this cloak of inflexibility and affectation, however, one could discern an ill-concealed aggressiveness that was expressed in the new irony, in “repartee” or by way of a rigorous casuistry that gave its most caricatural representatives a straight-jacketed, severe, stiff and artificial air, characteristic of the merchants painted by Rembrandt and Van Eyck, as well as of certain intellectuals of the 18th century (in The Last Days of Immanuel Kant, by Thomas de Quincey, and in The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one may find veritable clinical treatises on this neurosis). On the other hand, the modesty of the era and its constrained language concealed totally contrary tendencies that the austerity of the recommended manners sought to restrain. And one may add to the achievements of this mercantile-industrial society the invention of pornography, with the dissemination of multiple works and obscene engravings “for collectors”.

All the original traits of this civilization—accumulation of wealth, classificatory mania, inquisitorial persecution of “filth”, obtuse moralism—combined with its orgiastic, eschatological and pornographic compensations, provide a fair depiction of an obsessive socio-neurosis, where spontaneous individual life, socially unacceptable and experienced as repugnant and shameful, is subjected to the constraints of specific neurotic mechanisms.

These mechanisms form part of the construction and protection of the new mercantile-industrial organization. Just as the phobic socio-neurosis of the settled agricultural civilizations had contributed to the preservation of the ecclesiastical-military system, the obsessive socio-neurosis constituted the most solid support for capitalism for several centuries. It was responsible for giving one and all an inclination for order, for economy, for repression and self-censorship. Everywhere, it favored saving, individual discipline and respect for property, all of which were virtues that contributed to capitalist organization and working class submission.

From the very beginnings of mercantile-industrial civilization, the old Catholic religion, with its patron saints and its holy medallions, was denounced and combated by those who opposed both the absolute monarchy as well as the supremacy of the priesthood. This civilization forged a new religion, under the provisional name of “Protestantism”, with its shopkeeper’s morality, its prudery, its severity, its maniacal cult of hygiene and its constant examinations of one’s conscience whose purpose was to detect the roots of an inner sinfulness that it sought to extirpate. This loss of interest in heaven and this new passion for scrupulous self-examination on earth spread to every aspect of the culture of the era. The attention of the scientists and artists was no longer directed towards the beyond in a combination of metaphysical dimensions, but turned towards the earth and towards the inner nature of matter. The painters also rejected the old metaphysical perspective and adopted the geometrical perspective. The men of science no longer constructed theological systems, but delved tenaciously into matter, in search of its primary building blocks and its laws of association, with new instruments that were constantly being improved.

This entire culture was inseparable from the obsessive socio-neurosis that coexisted with mercantile-industrial civilization. It was dominant in Europe, and then spread to the immense territories that were gradually transformed in Europe’s image and semblance, and it remained dominant right up until quite recently. Today, however, it has given way to another socio-neurosis, one that is more compatible with our current form of social organization.

This new modern epoch, which began less than a century ago, entailed a new socio-neurosis very different from the previous one. Its characteristics are those of the old hysteria. Today, the unacceptable living subject is no longer cast up into the heavens, nor into the submarine depths, nor beyond the bounds of the horizon, nor is it combated as a shameful abscess, but has instead been completely concealed, denied, and ignored.

Whereas the possessing classes of the mercantile organization manifested, from the very beginning of that civilization, all the symptoms of an obsessive neurosis that would soon become the predominant madness of the world in accordance with the neurotic desires of those who ruled it, the producing class, the workers in particular, were the victims of another neurosis, one that resulted from the social activity to which they were relegated. In the mercantile-industrial society, the producer of goods is separated from his product at the very instant of his creative activity. His creation does not belong to him. The system of production denies his existence as a subject. And the producer rejects himself for submitting to this system. This self-rejection constitutes the basis of hysteria. Since the first decades of the 20th century, the adaptation of industry and commerce to the demands fomented by the neurotic tendencies of this class has conferred upon our current civilization its peculiar aspect of a “society of the spectacle”.

Everything that characterized the old obsessive mercantile civilization lost its main attributes. The ownership of the industrial means of production, which had previously allowed its beneficiaries to dominate all of society, had to yield a privileged position to the control of the means of information and the ownership of the instruments of communication. The current order is no longer guaranteed merely by bourgeois property and the police, but mainly by the organization of the spectacle and by the structure of language that the latter has shaped. As for the possibility of possessing or accumulating anything (except for nuclear wastes), this has now become impossible due to the instability of the entire system of production and its incessant renewal.

Likewise, the old mania for order and classification, which had helped to forge the society and the science of the preceding centuries, is now a thing of the past. Its old manorial homes, modest or seigniorial, its monotonous boulevards and its quaint little neighborhoods in the suburbs, have given way to a completely different arrangement of urban space in the new suburbs. The “disinterested” scientific research of the 18th and 19th centuries no longer conceals its total submission to the directives imposed on it by political power; and the training of new students, by way of “practice” in business and financial “apologetics”, is controlled by institutions whose goals are very different from those that were previously assigned to the university and scientific research. Even the old language, with its orthographic manias, its rigorous vocabulary and its pompous syntax, is no longer respected anywhere. Those who used to be its official guarantors have now set themselves the task of simplifying it and making it easier to use, as if it were an antiquated and ridiculous tool.

As for the demanding moralism that served as a façade for the old mercantile-industrial society, it, too, has entirely disappeared. Fraud has become a sport that is esteemed and admired by most people. No political-financial scandal, no revolt on a national scale, provokes the resignation of a government minister. Not even a notorious conviction pronounced by a criminal court interrupts the politician’s career.

The obsessive socio-neurosis, which had suffused every aspect of social life and culture throughout the last few centuries, gradually began to dissolve from the moment when industry began pay attention to the neurotic desires of those who are condemned, due to their social role, to non-existence and self-denial. This created the domain for a new socio-neurosis, whose peculiar traits coincide with those of the old hysteria described by psychiatry.

The fundamental importance of the image in hysterical neurosis is such that the latter has successfully restored “the psychoplastic and mythoplastic faculty of realization of the image”,3 and this process has gone so far that one can write, concerning this neurosis, that its motto is “Only the image, nothing but the image”.4 Our current “society of the spectacle” is also permanently inundated by a torrent of images produced by the ubiquitous television, information networks, newspapers, advertising billboards or political propaganda. This collective immersion in images is of course quite obvious today, but it is the role of identification that is performed by these images that allows us to recognize a hysterical socio-neurosis. The spectacle offers roles with which each individual can identify by way of industrially manufactured accessories that are distributed on the mass market: ridiculous clothing, electronic gadgets, furniture and decorative objects, books and other “cultural” products. The associations that pertain to these diverse elements are proposed thanks to the audiovisual productions of commercial advertising and political propaganda: the role of “young person”, “municipal councilman”, “entrepreneur”, “rebel”, “intellectual” or “creative artist”, all of them providing the opportunity to choose a fictitious personality that, eventually, you can change with each new fashion trend.

The current spectacle therefore obtains the response of a generalized mythomania, a plasticity of the persona, and, above all, a complete concealment of real life. The unemployed person, the wage worker, the tele-spectator, the abject executive, can identify with Bill Gates, with the drug trafficker Marcola, with Zinedine Zidane, with Bin Laden, with the seducer or seductress of the latest television soap opera, rather than with their own reality that they find appalling and which has no place in that spectacle. The prevailing generalized mythomania is the direct result of an abysmal vacuum of personality, of a complete concealment of the individual living subject (of which alexithymia is one of the most disturbing symptoms). If the spectacle has succeeded in dominating modern social life, this is because, first of all, it has encountered this emptiness and because it has served to compensate for it in an illusory way.

“The spectacle is not a collection of images”, Guy Debord pointed out in 1967, “but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” This social relation precisely defines hysteria. This generalized form of neurosis is therefore the one that best characterizes the “society of the spectacle”. And it is the old mercantile alienation—the privation of the ego in the modern mode of production—that generates this socio-neurosis. The spectacle is not “capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image”; it is capitalist alienation that has become so generalized and unquestioned that it engenders a universal madness. The spectacle is the clinical aspect of this madness.

Today’s hysterical socio-neurosis is manifested even more clearly in an ostentatious eroticization of all of modern social life, accompanied by an absence, which is equally evident, of sexual satisfaction. The banalization of erotic images and spectacles is, without the least doubt, a new reality in our societies. The flourishing and audacious business conducted in pornographic films, magazines and other such products confirms this invasion of our world by the sexual imaginary, previously concealed and an object of shame; as it is also confirmed by the sexual dissatisfaction of those who seek to satisfy themselves with such means. But even more significant than this specialized commercial sector, is the eroticization of advertising, of the monstrosities of fashion and even of contemporary speech, which have stupefied our fellow citizens for less than a century. Are these erotic depictions necessary to praise the virtues of a household appliance or a brand of soft drink? The contamination of today’s imagination by eroticism is such that any attempt to attract the votes of the modern public must make use of this generalized appetite. As for real sexual behavior and, above all, the satisfactions that it delivers, it is possible to measure its tragic void by the standard of these same preoccupations and of all this exhibitionism. They constitute, in the strict meaning of the word, hysterical behaviors.

The exemplary personalities on the basis of which the hysteric reconstructs his fictitious persona are easily identifiable, but the hysteric does not find the remedy for what ails him there. He contemplates his model and wants to be contemplated in this identification. He recognizes himself as admirable. He is nourished on the gaze of others and this gaze gives him life, because any other life has been prohibited to him.

This way of existing in the world exclusively through the mediation of images has given way to outrageous collective manifestations, which distinguish our hysterical epoch, of a kind that history has not witnessed since the Late Roman Empire. The extraordinary importance of sporting events, from one end of the world to the other, from the most insignificant little village to major international competitions, the attention devoted to sports by the media, and the violence to which the public surrenders itself in these events, are indicative of the modern hysteria. The spectators of a sporting event experience, vicariously, a confrontation in which they are personally committed. They identify with this contestant, or this team and, by means of this identification, they experience the intensity of emotions. Their joy or their rage can take the form of extreme violence and can continue long after the end of the spectacle, in alcohol-drenched nights. At the same time, they make their appearance at the scene of the spectacle as followers or fans and are admired as such. Afterwards, they will identify themselves with their models in real life and will offer themselves as a spectacle before the little children of the village. The universal nature of these exhibitions was unknown in previous centuries. But today, in what other less fictitious circumstances could one experience these emotions and these confrontations? These events possess, of course, the function of channeling prohibited impulses and producing a false substitute for an absent life. How could the powers that be and the media not promote them?

The same is true of contemporary musical entertainments, which are furthermore often presented at the same stadiums as the sporting events and have nothing to do with the kinds of musical concerts that were staged in previous centuries. At Woodstock or Bercy, as on the streets where “music festivals” are organized, the members of the audience composed of fans identify with the actors on the stage and they are also the object of attentions from the spectacle in their capacity as enlightened aficionados, bathed in the aura of their admirable models. The identification is so complete and the model is so perfectly internalized that today the model can only have a phantom existence in the rave parties, as it did before in the old happenings.

This collective hysteria is easily mobilized, and today’s managerial personnel use it to control crowds and induce them to participate in useful enterprises at certain economic conjunctures. The Nuremberg rallies, the great fascist demonstrations, the parades at Red Square or the militarization of the Maoist schoolchildren showed the world what a modern power could achieve on the basis of this madness. The enthusiastic public that attends the major sporting events or the big music festivals is, in any event, the breeding ground from which the states can always obtain their troops if the economic circumstances so require. This political utilization of collective hysteria has become the norm. It serves to mobilize the population around a general-president, a national hero, or an ambitious leader of the state. Ordinarily, however, this hysteria also plays a role in all the elections held in the so-called “democratic” countries: for each candidate, it is a matter of presenting to the public a suitable image with which it can identify and, with its vote, elevate itself to the level of its own representation.

The spectators who identify with their political, sports or cinema models can, in turn, serve as images for other spectators, as we see in “Reality TV” programs, or in interviews about current affairs with ordinary people who do not have the slightest idea of what they are talking about. Here is the evident triviality that is proposed as an admirable image insofar as it has been dressed up in the glamorous vestments of identifiable models. For the spectator of these displays, identification and participation are almost instantaneous. And this person, in his banality and his stupidity, is not unworthy of a certain kind of admiration. For being what he is, and nothing more, he can be contemplated by millions of tele-spectators. His nonsense ends up being an exemplary nonsense.

The hysterical transformation of non-existence into fictitious existence can also be guaranteed in games of chance (lotteries, betting on sports, etc.), on account of the luck that transforms a nobody into a somebody. By this means one can magically attain an enviable social position; from one day to the next you can go from your apartment in a high security housing complex in some suburb to a sumptuous mansion, to a whole life lived in the sun without working, surrounded by attentive servants. These games of chance have spread rapidly and, all over the world, newsstands and street vendors offer these tickets that give you a chance to enter the kingdom of marvels. Such commerce, which was considered during the obsessive era to be immoral and reprehensible, is now organized by governments, which have imposed their monopoly on this business. Most of those who participate in these games do not even believe that they have the slightest chance of winning, but they nonetheless get to participate in the magical world offered by these occasions.

More prosaically, access to a world without poverty and anxiety and, above all, to a gratifying personality, a passionate vision of oneself, can be miraculously achieved by means of various modern or ancient drugs, obtained by prescription or illicitly. And this transmutation of the ego, which previously did not interest anyone outside of artistic milieus, presently affects a significant part of the population. Toxicomanias have become truly universal. They are, unfortunately, so effective that they detract from the sales of the modern commodities that also claim to facilitate such metamorphoses.

Beyond these mythomaniacal and erotomaniacal symptoms, hysteria even manifests itself via phenomena of “somatic conversion”, in the form of various kinds of spasms or pains. While the term, “hysteria”, has almost completely disappeared from the vocabulary of modern psychiatry, its various disorders have nonetheless made great progress: today its manifestations are designated by the benign and absurd word, “spasmophilia”. These disorders can lead in turn to organic afflictions of greater or lesser severity or favor the onset of multiple illnesses that are today quite widespread. The connection that has recently been established between alexithymia and certain immune deficiencies suggests, moreover, that the latter might be on the rise as a result of hysteria.

Whatever the case may be with regard to alexithymia, the clinical profile that we have described clearly demonstrates that a hysterical socio-neurosis has become dominant in our modern societies. The impossibility of giving free rein to the individual living subject in our current form of social organization has generalized this neurosis that, in other times, only affected women in misogynist societies.

Others before me have called attention to certain even more serious psychopathological symptoms in modern societies, symptoms that they have connected, with good reason, to schizophrenia. But this very serious disorder is, precisely, one of the more developed forms of hysteria and it is not at all surprising that some of its symptoms should be appearing today.

The relation between the dominant neurosis of an era and its mode of social organization might appear, however, to be practically refuted by the existence of individual neuroses linked to the particular living conditions of individuals, to their unique individual histories. The European Middle Ages, phobic in a collective way, was not unaffected by the other forms of neurosis. Popular fables portray misers and moralists, who are clearly obsessives; and the Witches’ Sabbaths were related to hysteria. Our industrial 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, naturally obsessive, were not unacquainted with individual phobias and their effects. Nor were they unfamiliar with hysterical fits among courtesans and young socialites. Today, doctors have the opportunity to become familiar with a large number of phobias and obsessive disorders among their patients, despite the essentially hysterical nature of our modern societies. The social structures of an era are therefore not the only causes of neuroses, and different factors, individual and micro-social—that is, family-related, occupational and cultural—play a role and contribute their own symptoms to those peculiar to the era.

The relations between neurosis and culture, however, are displayed in such cases by the predilection of neurotics for the era in which their own particular neurosis was dominant, and in their aversion towards their own historical time. The phobics whom one encounters these days feel in a confused way the presence in their environment of dangerous, hidden forces, against which they must protect themselves and whose attacks must be anticipated. To a significant degree they display a preference for sectarian religious or parapsychological groups. They might participate in study groups that address such issues, they might go to meetings or even lectures on these topics or they may even attend retreats. They feel a preference for the epochs and civilizations in which those concerns and interests to which they devote so much attention were more relevant than they are today. Some of them are waiting for our world to be saved by celestial intervention—whether by extraterrestrials or by the “king of the world”—that will dispel all its nightmares in one fell swoop. Such phobics already existed in the 18th century and had the same kind of nostalgic dreams. In the same way, the obsessives of our hysterical era reproach the modern world for its filth, its violence, its disorder, and its ignorance. In the refuges of their studies, meticulously ordered, they deplore the disappearance of an art of living such as the 18th century had effectively fostered. The pure hysterics, however, go to the concerts at Bercy or the Roland Garros stadium, they delight in watching television and in virtual encounters and they feel very happy to live in times that offer them such opportunities and tools. In this way, individual neuroses confirm the relations that exist between them and the civilizations in which they were dominant.

In addition, those neuroses that apparently contradict their epoch are often caused by cultural factors that are specific to a social milieu or a particular economic situation. Hysteria, long considered to be a female neurosis (from the Greek ὑστερικός: disease of the womb), was actually quite common among women in those civilizations that denied their social existence, in the gynaecea of the misogynist civilizations or in the bourgeois society of the 19th century, which allowed them only a utilitarian (mother), a decorative (mistress) or a notorious role (whore); that is, in eras when this privation of the ego had yet to affect the entire population. Similarly, the obsessive character of certain individuals of the European Middle Ages or our times is to be found especially among those whose professional activities cause them to handle money and keep accounts. The painting of the Arnolfini Wedding, by Van Eyck, at the end of the 15th century; the medieval illustrations of the sin of avarice or certain reflections contained in the 13th century Book of Marvels of the World, allow us to presume that this neurosis was particularly widespread among merchants, long before that class became the ruling class.

Even today, amidst full-blown collective hysteria, the managers of the modern world, stuffy, orderly and self-sufficient, are more like their merchant ancestors than those whom they are supposed to represent. For neuroses are initially transmitted in the family and through the family’s way of life, and Klaulis has even pointed out that cases of hysteria are forty-five times more common in families with a history of hysteria than in the general population.5

The existence of a range of different kinds of individual neuroses during the epochs when a particular socio-neurosis was dominant thus does not preclude the relation between neurosis and civilization. To the contrary, these paradoxical neuroses confirm and refine this relation. The phobic neurosis, linked to enclosure within a system of seemingly protective prohibitions, generally arises in early infancy. It may reappear in adulthood under certain circumstances. This neurosis was prevalent in the settled agricultural civilizations that endured the constraints of isolation and submission to a defensive social organization. The obsessive neurosis, which almost always emerges later in childhood, is linked to a moralistic, introspective and self-repressive upbringing. It develops in the most disciplinarian milieus, among the mercantile or intellectual bourgeoisie, and this neurosis had its moment of glory when these sectors took the reins of leadership in Western Europe. As for hysteria, which is the forgetting and denial of the ego, it first develops even later, when the child is called upon to adapt to precise models of behavior, with a total disregard for his own authenticity. It is found, of course, among the women of misogynist societies and is generalized in our time, when such models are imposed on everyone.

These different socio-neuroses are thus very characteristic of specific modes of civilization and the history of humanity is not just that of its technical development or some kind of “progress”, nor is it even just that of its institutions and revolutions. It is also the history of its collective mental disorders.

These mental disorders, which are engendered by fear, by shame or by amnesia with respect to oneself, helped to model and preserve, for relatively long periods of time, various forms of civilization in the great sedentary social organizations. They rapidly dissolved when the historical conditions that had given rise to them also disappeared and, at that moment, the civilizations that they had helped to construct became really intolerable and were rapidly transformed.

  • 1 See Henri Ey, Manuel de psychiatrie, Masson, 1967.
  • 2 Ibid.
  • 3 Ibid.
  • 4 See M. B. J. Logre, État mental des hystériques, 1924.
  • 5 See Henri Ey, op. cit.


Chapter 6: A provisional balance sheet

Submitted by Alias Recluse on March 31, 2014



“To be sure, we can slow down the processes already underway, legislate reductions in fossil-fuel consumption, massively replant the devastated forests … all fine initiatives, but together they amount to the image of a ship sailing at twenty-five knots toward a rocky bar on which it will inevitably be smashed to pieces, and on whose bridge the officer of the watch advises the engine room to reduce speed by a tenth without changing direction.”
Michel Serres (The Natural Contract, 1989)

At the conclusion of this adventure that began several thousand years ago on certain fertile plains and has led us—from progress to progress, from revolution to revolution and from one collective madness to another—to the world in which we now live, we can no longer believe that such a history has delivered what it had always promised at every stage of its development: individual well being, social peace, consciousness and freedom.

The living environment that the nomadic peoples were able to preserve through their ways of life is today largely destroyed; and what remains of it is obviously in dire straits. The lush forests that covered immense territories up until quite recently have been considerably diminished in just a few decades. In the past they made it possible to retain the water of heavy rains, stabilize and enrich the soil, oxygenate the atmosphere and purify it of toxic gases. Not to mention the fact that they comprised the irreplaceable environment for numerous species of life.

The vast regions that used to be fertile have become arid, the land, without anything to protect it, has been scoured by the wind, and the desertification of the planet is now proceeding at the rate of several thousand hectares per day. The gases that the forests no longer absorb, and which industry is continuing to produce in ever greater quantities, are accumulating in the atmosphere and contributing to the warming of the climate, to the melting of the polar icecaps and, soon, to the inundation of vast areas along the coasts. As for the living species that need this natural environment, they are disappearing—they, too—at a constantly accelerating rate, just like their predators and the other species that live in symbiosis with them.

Furthermore, modern industry—whether agribusiness, petrochemical or nuclear—is everywhere releasing—into the atmosphere, the soil, the rivers and the oceans—incredible amounts of harmful and deadly substances. Millions of tons of petrochemical products, in various forms, are poisoning our living environment. Pesticide residues contaminate the entire food chain, in which we constitute the last link. Toxic heavy metals—such as mercury, lead, etc.—and also other chemical products, have rendered certain foods that we used to eat inedible. “Unmanageable” nuclear wastes, that will remain toxic for centuries, are being released into the air, into the rivers and into the sea, or are even buried in containers that cannot contain their contents, in most cases, for more than a few decades. All of these products, concerning which we never hear except when there is a nuclear accident, or an oil tanker breaks up, or a chemical plant goes up in flames, or when a tsunami engulfs an industrial zone, are accumulating everywhere and have spread to all living organisms—plants, animals, and humans—further exacerbating deforestation, and contributing to the extinction of numerous species and higher rates of illness in general. In addition, other industrial products destroy the ozone layer that protects our planet from carcinogenic and immunosuppressive solar rays.

Our conditions of survival have been severely compromised and mortality has increased at a dizzying rate in many countries. Famines and endemic malnutrition kill tens of millions of people each year. And while the main cause of this worldwide famine is the desertification of the soil by deforestation and water shortages, it is also caused in part by the destruction of ancient local traditional farming and its replacement with industrial monoculture (cotton, peanuts, sugarcane, etc.), imposed by the managers of our commercialized world. Furthermore, these trends have been amplified by local wars, provoked and logistically supplied by the same entities that impose these industrial monocultures, as well as by other industries that are also harmful to the living ecosphere.

Both endemic malnutrition and the dissemination in the atmosphere and in our food of numerous industrial toxins generate illnesses that today affect every population group in the world. Not only is the incidence of cancer undergoing an almost exponential increase in some populations, and for which pesticides and other industrial products that are ubiquitous in the environment are the least disputable causes, but the latter are also responsible for multiple epidemics of infectious diseases and parasitic disorders that were previously controlled and kept in check by the capacities of living matter to mount an immune response, capacities that are being progressively undermined with each passing year by malnutrition and modern pollution.

To these disastrous conditions we must add the increasingly more drastic alternation of droughts and floods, due to climate change and the unbridled deforestation of the last few decades (the catastrophic effects of the tsunami that struck Indonesia a few years ago were the result of the destruction of the mangroves that once protected the coastal areas). A UN report reveals that there are now twenty million “environmental” refugees and that “desertification, flooding, and storm damage related to climate change will displace fifty million people between now and 2010” (Libération, October 12, 2005). Another report, this one by the Pentagon, predicts that extreme climate disturbances due to industrial activities could affect the entire planet after 2010.1 Certain major European cities will be flooded and world conflicts will be inevitable because of famines, shortages of fresh water and also because of the unscrupulous use of nuclear weapons that such circumstances might produce.

Such a disaster, such imminent threats that affect us all, cannot be a matter of indifference to those who still claim to govern this dump. After all, wouldn’t they also be victims? Or at least their children? But these alleged “leaders”, as well as those who aspire to replace them, are nothing but intermediaries between a population on the chopping block and the financial powers that allowed these rulers to rise to their positions and which can dismiss them like valets for the slightest false step. They are condemned to be answerable to their great captains, they are afraid of Robbers, false Witnesses, Assassins, etc., and dependest upon an infinity of Persons situated above them.

As for those who manage the interests of the financial groups—and who are still considered, erroneously, to be a ruling class—they are forced to obey economic imperatives independent of their will and regardless of any personal opinions they may have. Otherwise, they, too, would disappear, swept aside by the same process that once placed them in power. Despite their resemblance to masters and great captains, they are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves of the laws of the market.

Thus, the only response to the current disaster is the one offered by the economy itself, and it is the economy that will pilot our ghost ship to the end of this civilization. Of course, it is necessary to conceal these trivial matters from those who might feel tempted to abolish, the sooner the better, a social organization that is exclusively subordinated to economic imperatives. The public must be pacified, often lied to, the most alarming information must be kept secret, and the excuse of alleged miraculous remedies must be brandished. And, above all, the fact that this ship does not have a captain must be concealed; indeed, that it never had a captain, and that it moves solely at the mercy of the winds and storms of the world market. Here is the real secret of this world, the one that contains all the others: all the lies of the media, all the political manipulations, and all the crimes of state.

To discover the answers that might be provided for the current disaster by the economic laws that have led us to this point, we must first recall the following fact: the mercantile system has been based, since its origins, on desire and deprivation. It grows, it survives and it thrives where human communities do not enjoy self-sufficiency. Who would buy food where you can hunt and gather it to your heart’s content? Who would engage in disagreeable activities in exchange for goods that you possess in abundance? The nemesis of the mercantile system is the ability to satisfy, in a free and autonomous manner, one’s basic needs, whereas the mercantile system’s fruits are poverty and frustration. This poverty permits the managers of the system to employ those who have been deprived of their autonomy in the production of commodities that they will then sell to others who are in need. It is in the articulation of these two moments—manufacture and distribution—that the mercantile surplus value is accumulated; and it obviously constitutes the power of the system itself. This power enables it to self-reproduce by the same method, yet further reducing human autonomy in order to increase its advantages. The poverty of needs is undoubtedly the raw material of the mercantile system, and those who manage it must always continuously erode what remains of human freedom in order to impose their monopoly over the satisfaction of vital needs.

That is why the new miseries—whether famines, planetary pollution, new epidemics, privation of freedom, and even insecurity—contribute to the reinforcement of the mercantile organization. Despite their proclamations to the contrary, the managers of our world can only celebrate a situation that is even more advantageous for the system they serve. Far from disrupting the mercantile mode of production, the ongoing disasters augment its power by aggravating privation and suffering. Some examples will serve as illustrations of this fact.

Global famine, provoked by the destruction of traditional economies and food crops—replaced by industrial crops that cause the sterilization of the soil, which is further exacerbated by intensive deforestation and the desertification of immense territories—serves the interests of our mercantile organization quite well. It supplies the starving, under the guise of “humanitarian aid”, with the surpluses of the foods produced elsewhere, in exchange for submission to industrial crops and to the corporations that are pillaging their natural wealth. In this way, servile masses are “liberated” and employed in situ to industrialize the predatory activities of their industrial masters, or are deported in order to perform the most oppressive and disdained work in other parts of the world. Our mercantile organization therefore does not have any interest in putting an end to a situation that is so advantageous for it, by allowing the restoration, for example, of family farms and food self-sufficiency among those peoples who today suffer from hunger.

The vulnerability of food crops, due to the depletion of the soil—for which industrial farming is solely responsible—also proves to be advantageous for them. Why attempt to reconstitute agricultural practices that are more in accordance with the natural dynamic of life, when the invention of GMOs (whose seeds are sterile) assures to the agribusiness corporations the preservation of the absolute monopoly in seeds that, in the past, the farmer would indecorously obtain without providing any surplus value to the managerial class? The mercantile system has every interest in generalizing such procedures. Nor is there any question of trying to prevent the contamination of traditional crops by GMOs; to the contrary, such contamination is favored by every means in order to put an end to an autonomous mode of production.

The excess of pollution by petrochemicals as well as the radical changes in the climate caused by that pollution are also in the interests of those who have to buy petroleum at very high prices. For them it is unthinkable, and entirely out of the question, to re-appropriate the ancient forces of energy, or even to promote new ones (except for domestic uses like lighting and heating) that could be accessible to such autonomous communities. Nuclear power, however, can be monopolized by states or by supranational organizations. This energy source is therefore very profitable for the current system and will continue to be developed despite the health risks that it entails, and despite the “unmanageable” nuclear wastes and the threat of terrifying accidents that looms over all the inhabitants of the planet.

Of course, these inhabitants are becoming a little more ill every day. The epidemics of cancer and the new deadly infections—not to mention anxiety and depression that lead to suicide—afflict more and more people. This new morbidity, however, this new misery, like all the other privations, is quite convenient for our mercantile economy. Why attenuate the causes of such a catastrophe—poor nutrition, chemical and radioactive pollution, and the immunosuppressants or endocrine disruptors that are ubiquitous in our environment—if the flourishing pharmaceutical industry (whose leading investors are the banks and the insurance companies) can produce in abundance, thanks to their wage workers, a multitude of blue, red, white and bi-color pills, which they will then sell to the entire world, precisely for the purpose of temporarily masking the most immediate effects of this health disaster? Thanks to this universal morbidity, health, which used to be something natural, has become a monopolized product from which our mercantile economy derives a constant flow of surplus value.

As for the risk of nuclear, chemical or biological accidents—accidents that mysterious terrorists can intentionally provoke—we must admit that they offer special advantages. There is no question, of course, of abolishing the causes of such accidents by renouncing nuclear energy, the most dangerous chemical industries, or genetic engineering. It would be preferable to bolster the police forces around these installations, which is to say everywhere, in order to impose more controls on the discontented population in its most intimate refuges. In this respect, even terrorism is beneficial for our mercantile organization in order to protect its global empire, and one can only be stupefied by the clumsy efforts that are being deployed to neutralize it.

Even wars and hurricanes are profitable. An entire economy of reconstruction, rehabilitation, security and “humanitarian aid” contractors flourishes in the necropolises of Baghdad, Jakarta, and New Orleans. It actually reached the point where, before the first shot was fired in Iraq, the multinational corporations were already fighting over the market for rebuilding the country before their government leaders had even decided to destroy its infrastructure.

Who would have thought that the shortage of fresh water that is beginning to affect entire continents and which is contributing to millions of deaths each year is also favorable for our mercantile civilization? The most powerful political-financial groups can monopolize water, which used to be abundant and free. They can sell it to those who do not have it in exchange for other products, obtaining surplus value from both ends of the business. Maybe some day they will even be in a position, by the utilization of desalination or synthesis, to obtain the exclusive patent on water, which is so necessary for life, and thus acquire the absolute monopoly over its manufacture.

In any event, whenever a choice is presented concerning any particular technical problem, today’s economy always selects the solution that it can patent and monopolize, while it makes arrangements to prohibit the ones that are not susceptible to such treatment. The example of leaded gasoline, which poisoned tens of millions of people for many years, is a case in point.2 And the toxic lead additive was only prohibited because it ruined catalytic converters and other costly and patented automotive parts. If you could get a bird’s eye view of this episodic history of patents and monopolies, you would see that the trend towards the acquisition of patents on life itself, something that alarmed certain people and provoked virtuous protests, is the masterwork of our mercantile civilization. All of its choices, from its very beginnings, converge towards this final result.

The most modern privations, of course, those that result from the loss of the ego in the mercantile system of wage labor—the confiscation of the worker’s personal creativity, of his living individuality, of his humanity and his freedom—are the ones that are most advantageous for our mercantile organization. It sells to these new paupers the images of freedom, personality, autonomy and natural life, in the form of gadgets that are the bearers, according to the advertisers’ claims, of those magical qualities, gadgets that were manufactured by other wage workers. Furthermore, this circumstance is favorable for the rise to power of “saviors” who promise to put an end to all miseries and all injustices, but who are condemned to follow orders or disappear, swallowed up by an adverse election, a civil war, or a brutal and inexplicable death.

The mercantile system, which produces these new ecological and social miseries, and which everywhere promotes the return of the most archaic poverty, is reinforced by its own destructive course, and its power grows exponentially. Today, the managers of this power are no longer prepared to help any power but their own, even in the most modest and relative fashion, nor will they assist other states besides those that have submitted to their requirements without the least resistance. We thus behold the dismantling of the old organizations of the state, which were still too dependent on their capricious populations, as in other times regional particularities and the tariffs and customs duties imposed by the municipalities were abolished. And these demolition operations are organized and executed in conformance with methods pioneered by the Mafia.

One of the typical activities of the historical Mafia was, by way of various measures of intimidation—financial or terrorist—to ruin certain businesses that competed with its own enterprises and then to buy them at bargain prices, for the exclusive purpose of destroying them or integrating some of their elements into its own patrimony. Today, this process takes place on the scale of entire countries, economically weakened by ad hoc political-economic machinations and overwhelmed by indebtedness to international organizations, and then redeemed by means of a “liberal” program and by the subsequent privatizations, before they are definitively ruined by being subjected to the repayment of the borrowed capital. On the pretext of an alleged “debt” or “penalties”, which are disturbingly reminiscent of the procedures and even the terminology of the Mafia and pimps, a population without jobs, starving and surrounded by an army of police armed to the teeth, is forced to accept national and international directives that are profitable for those who, behind the scenes, control the operation as a whole.

After destroying most of the African countries in this way, along with numerous Asian and South American countries, then it was the turn of the industrial countries to become the victims of these maneuvers. The case of Argentina was a model for the rapidity with which they were put into effect. But the implementation of this program has only just begun and, if one notes the construction of the so-called “liberal” Europe and the privatizations that are following in its wake, one can only conclude that the whole continent is now the target of these Mafia-style strategies.

This program, which consists in “liberalizing” the economies of these nations, in ruining them, in buying up their patrimonies at bargain prices, as well as in depriving their populations of their means of subsistence, starving them and forcing them to their knees in total submission, has already resulted in the fact that almost two billion people live in subhuman conditions in impoverished and overcrowded shantytowns. And the “chiefs of state” are nothing but the high-paid valets and footmen working for those who pursue the path of the highest profits.

Sometimes, however, it turns out that these maneuvers alone are inadequate or insufficient, due to the existence of rebellious populations or simply due to the ill will of reticent or too-demanding chiefs of state, and then military operations are necessary. Then one sees, here and there, brutal mercenaries sent to provoke wars that will be called “civil wars”, or allegedly “ethnic”, “religious” or “inter-communal” conflicts, wars and confrontations that allow their organizers to take the political reins of a state and reorganize it, in accordance with their interests, as a “liberal democracy”. In other places, and especially in the countries that are most capable of resisting these maneuvers, strange terrorist organizations opportunely arise that, thanks to the active participation of the media, scare the population and legitimize the implementation of police and military controls, searches and armed raids in disobedient territories, and the close surveillance of those sectors of the population said to be “at risk”; all of which allow the reinforcement of the power of those who are organizing these Mafia-style operations.

All of these successes and victorious offensive operations of the modern economy considerably exacerbate social misery and ecological disaster. The mercantile system is careening forward at an insane speed in the middle of the night. It does not know what to do with millions of tons of chemical and radioactive wastes, which it dumps in the oceans, releases into the air, or buries in the earth. It disseminates the products of genetic and nanotechnological tinkering everywhere, absolutely ignorant of the possible consequences. It has no apparatus to counteract the hurricanes, floods or tsunamis that are continually provoked by deforestation and radical climate change. As for the disaster of increasing morbidity and the new epidemics that are expected to break out, how do the managers of this system think they can protect their armies, their personnel and their own lives? For the time being, they are cheered up by the prospect of discovering other habitable planets beyond the solar system, to which they can flee from the one they have destroyed. They dream of launching lifeboats into which the crew can jump when they abandon ship. But the clock is ticking, and they will not have time to save themselves.

In order to keep the populations that are the victims of this disaster anesthetized, as well as to successfully carry out the various Mafia-style operations that are currently underway—economic, political, police or military—the system possesses certain instantaneous and universal means of communication, with multiple networks of transmitters, thanks to which it can constantly disseminate the required information. But this involves, above all, the circulation of the deceitful image and conferring credibility on a model of society that promises each individual that he can escape from the ruin of society, on the condition that he assimilates and adopts certain types of behavior whose merits are praised by the system. Each individual must, from now on, feel responsible for the system, free and proud to participate in it, happy and the master of his own fate. How can such a discourse convince individuals whose present reality contradicts these cynical claims—individuals who are irresponsible, servile and humiliated, wretched and excluded from all decisions that affect their own lives?

In the past, when the dominant form of madness was completely different from the one that prevails today, an educated Chinese Mandarin, a Spanish Grandee or a Member of Parliament was not unaware of the fact that his style of dress and his elegance were the privileges of his Estate. It was not the symbols that conferred his function upon him, but the other way around. And only a court jester would have tried to amuse his audience by pretending that it was otherwise.

Today, however, anyone can surround himself with the signs that are supposed to represent illusory qualities, signs offered up in abundance by a fashion industry whose production is oriented for just such a purpose. Mythomania and hypnotic suggestion, characteristics of the modern hysterical socio-neurosis, also allow each individual to magically acquire a fake personality in a social theater accepted by the entire collective. And this brand of shoes, that manner of speech, this soft drink, by way of a chain of mediations in which particular values are inscribed—youth, responsibility, seduction, courage, talent or success—authorize one to occupy an outstanding place on the stage of this imaginary theater.

This stage set is the real basis of these particular roles and every modern play-actor, by way of his behavior, justifies it and reinforces it. The social basis of today’s collective hysteria is constituted by this fantastic organization of interpersonal relations, fictitious values, and illusory meanings. And it is within this framework, within its limits and according to the lines of force of its composition, that all modern beliefs, judgments, and fragments of pseudo-knowledge are forged today.

The contemporaries of Demosthenes would never have allowed themselves to be gulled by the discourses of such politicians, or of such business leaders, who would have been thrown into prison in those days by the courts for fraud or for abuse of society’s goods, and whose crimes are so obvious today that no one even dreams of calling them into question. Today, however, such gallows-fodder is listened to and manages to convince an indulgent public with its deceitful promises. This is not made possible merely by the power of the media, just as it was not only the stage machinery of a Stalin or a Goebbels that made it possible for immense crowds to be dragged along to the adventures with which we are so familiar. It is, above all, the thirst for illusions, the gluttony for this kind of representation, where each individual can assign himself a favored place and inscribe himself in the purely imaginary collective model that is offered to him by the lying candidate, the social con man, or the political criminal. The modern, essentially hysterical, public, avidly feeds on these images because it has permanently lost its own reality, because it has forgotten its truth as a social subject, because it was first expelled—“alienated”—from itself.

Could anyone imagine, for example, that in the Europe of the 17th century, a gang of masked individuals could commit a random massacre in a village and that a greedy despot would manage to convince the multitude that the organizers of the massacre were precisely those whose wealth he coveted and that he was taking advantage of the situation by confiscating it? Except for Nero’s Rome, where hysteria had become so widespread prior to the fall of the Empire, could anyone imagine anything like this taking place in any other era besides our modern times, in which it has become generalized? Belief in such childish absurdities is not possible unless it coincides with a social stage-management that is accepted with delight, like any other, by a mythomaniacal public.

Today’s collective hysteria, with its amnesia with regard to the self, its tendency to succumb to the power of suggestion, its thirst for images and representations, was formed over the course of the last few centuries in mercantile social relations. In this kind of social relation, where the subject is deprived of his creation at the very moment that he produces it, where the created object presents itself as autonomous and as the primum movens of social relations, the loss of self naturally leads to hysteria. Thus, it is not the “society of the spectacle” that generates today’s mythomania. This neurosis was first forged in the old mercantile “alienation”; and it became generalized with the globalization of this alienation.

Hysteria then became almost universal in the modern social organization. This is what permitted the Mafia managers to fabricate a kind of empire and lead the world to its present state. The mythomaniacal multitudes eager for fairy tales now sustain the destruction of the planet, their own decline in urban fringes that are like concentration camps or immense refugee internment camps and, finally, their own deaths in worldwide famines, the poisoning of the environment, and the new epidemics, as long as they are still offered implausible stories about “humanitarian aid”, the “Zionist conspiracy”, ongoing “democratic reforms”, the “global debt crisis”, the threats posed by “Al Qaeda” or, in other territories whose collapse is less visible, stories about the new Internet sites, the latest fashion in clothing, or the most recent advances in the treatment of cancer.

A minority fraction of the population, however, does not doubt that such a disaster will provoke, over the course of its unfolding, such significant social reactions that they will seriously disturb this organization in its entirety, its mode of production, its social relations and its generalized madness. Some are even attempting, at this very moment, not to propose reforms of the current system, but to provoke a really subversive social movement, for the purpose of establishing another kind of society that is less suicidal. These other models of society, intended to succeed our dominant civilization, now deserve to be examined without any illusions.

  • 1 Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for United States National Security, 2003. Available online in March 2014 at:
  • 2 See Jamie Lincoln Kitman, “The Secret History of Lead”, The Nation, March 20, 2000. Available online in March 2014 at:


Chapter 7: The end of illusions

Submitted by Alias Recluse on March 31, 2014



“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.