Economism and the Gleichschaltung
I know that Christmas Day is supposed to be a day to muster up (or maybe serve up) some cheer (I think I have some of that around here some place). But this particular Christmas Day finds me quite downbeat about the prospects for my own country — Canada under the direction of the Harper Conservatives — as well as for much of the globe. And although the course of events may take a spontaneous and surprising turn for the better, which is not inconceivable, at present the negative, destructive, and nihilistic trends appear to have the upper hand
I have been reading former Harvard sociologist Pitrim Sorokin’s The Crisis of Our Age, first published in 1941. This was a surprising discovery for me because Sorokin’s sociology sounds very akin to Jean Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin, which was first published in German (as Ursprung und Gegenwart) in 1949. They read so uncannily similar that it’s surprising that they did not apparently know of one another.
I do, however, have a few misgivings about Sorokin’s overall thesis.
Sorokin describes what he calls “the double movement” of the trends of Late Modernity. One trend is leading towards the decay and disintegration of what he calls “Sensate culture”, the dominant form of social organisation for the last four or five hundred years, but which I have been calling more generally “the Modern Era”. Sensate culture corresponds, therefore, to what Gebser has called “perspectivist” or “the mental-rational structure of consciousness,” and as you know from my earlier posts on this, Gebser also sees this structure of consciousness as presently in the process of disintegration, decoherence, and dehiscence. This trend is what we have been calling “nihilist” after Nietzsche’s diagnosis, too. The ruling idea of Sensate culture is that true reality is sensory and there is no supersensory or supra-rational reality or, if there is, we cannot know it.
Sensate culture is, in that respect, very much what Blake was describing from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
While the trajectory of Sensate culture is now toward a kind of self-deconstruction and self-negation — disintegration, fragmentation, and atomisation, the other fork of the double-movement is the ascendency of what he calls “idealistic culture” or a “new integration.” This is quite evidently akin to Jean Gebser’s “integral consciousness structure.” I earlier posted a summary essay by Gebser on this integral consciousness, which you can read here.
Gebser, of course, sees the caustic and corrosive nihilistic trend dissolving Sensate culture or Modern Era as a necessary part of “an essential restructuration” of consciousness, much as Sorokin. This is an essential aspect of this “double movement” which resembles in its dynamics one of the paradoxes of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraklitus — “the way up and the way down are the same”. This paradox signals the breakdown of the mental-rational, for it is the dissolution of the dualistic logic and perspectivising perception of modernity, — or what I have referred to as “Point-Of-View-Line-Of-Thought” (POVLOT) consciousness — leading to widespread perplexity, confusion, and disorientation about our situation at “the end of history.” Gebser has called this decaying situation of the mental-rational consciousness structure “deficient rationality.”
In essence, then, “the times are out of joint”, as Shakespeare put it. This is the double movement. Two Eras, past and future, are now co-present but also in conflict: the declining Late Modern Era of the nation-state system (Sensate culture, mental-rational consciousness) and the ascending Global or Planetary Era (the Integral or holistic). This development would correspond to a shift from the quantitative to the qualitative, and thus also from an exaggerated emphasis on instrumentalising rationality to the issue of perception.
Gebser did caution, nonetheless, that the emerging integral consciousness could undergo an abortive or distorted development, in which case it would only resemble a “new integration” but would, in fact, be characterised as “deficient integral”. Sorokin appears to overlook that possibility and even that distinction between the “effective” integral and the “defective” integral. For a defective realisation of the integral would be nothing else but a fascist totalitarianism. This is the problem of what I have previously called “Khayyam’s Caution” — “only a hair separates the false from the true.”
This is my worry this cheery Christmas Day morning. And before I run off to pay my respects and perform my Christmas rounds, I might point out how the “deficient integral” appears to be the course the “new integration” is presently taking, and that, barring the appearance of some spiritual “champion,” it is likely to result in a new totalitarianism instead.
This outcome would be the result of the confusion of values which should not be confused, but which the vulgar-minded confuse constantly and call this “the common sense” (or the all-too-common sense).
First: The whole and the totality are not equivalent nor synonymous. As addressed earlier, the “total” is a sum or aggregate, an assemblage of parts, and not a holon. In fact, there are suggestions that the word “total” has connections with the Germanic word for death, “Tod” and “tot“. “Whole” has the opposite meaning. It means “health” and the holy, and therefore pertains to life and the sacred. To confuse “whole” and “total”, and treat these values as synonymous, is to confuse higher and lower values, quality and quantity, noble and ignoble, in fact, to utterly confuse life and death. It’s a great example of Nietzsche’s formula for nihilism — “all higher values devalue themselves.”
Second: Assimilation and integration are not the same process. This is a very common confusion, and a most disturbing one. The word “integrate” means to heal, to mend, to make whole again, and therefore has connections with the meaning of “whole” as health. Assimilate does not mean this. It means “to make same”. It is digestive rather than healing, and therefore pertains to “totality” — a sum of sameness — to compel and coerce what is not identical to become identical. In that sense, totality and assimilation belong together as the shadow, or debased versions, of the whole and the integral.
These value confusions, or perhaps even value vandalism and defacement, do in fact point to a difference between the sensory and the supersensory as being discernible realities, related but different orders, which Nietzsche characterised as the “ignoble” and the “noble” values and virtues.
There are other value confusions extant which are just as injurious and damaging for the prospects of a “new integration” (intelligence with intellect, confusing wisdom with knowledge, for example), and this seems to be the prevailing trend, presently. These confusions of values belong to the very problem of Sensate culture and the belief that sensory reality is the only true reality. This trend is presently embodied in the notion of “economism”.
Economism is this new totalitarianism masquerading as the new integration. “Economy” is actually displacing “nation” as the preferred idiom for describing public life. The “body politic” is being recast as being the form of a corporation, and the political leaders more akin to Chief Executive Officers. This conception of society as a corporation, however, belongs to fascist totalitarianism, otherwise called “corporatism” by Mussolini.
In German fascism, the word “Gleichschaltung” came to signify this re-arrangement of public life into the corporatist model of der Volksstaat. The word Gleichschaltung is difficult to translate directly, but means “coordination” and is quite akin in meaning to “assimilation” (Gleich in German meaning “same” or “like”, and “Schaltung” meaning “switching” or “engaging gears” or closing a circuit). In fact, “assimilation” is probably the most accurate translation of the term, and it became the public policy of the Nazi state. No compartment of social life — culture, science, education, work, media, family — was to be permitted any autonomy or independence. All had to undergo assimilation into one corporate body — der Volksstaat which then became embodied, in publicly visible form, as Der Führer or Il Duce. In their form, der Volksstaat would see itself totally represented and embodied.
Economism — the reduction of all human relations to mediated relations of economic exchange — is guided by the ruling principle of “net benefit”. This is the central mantra, for example, of the ruling Conservative Party in Canada. This is the principle and policy of “Gleichschaltung” applied to the various zones of public life in Canada, and in much of the rest of the so-called “developed” world. It is why some Canadians have compared Canada’s Prime Minister with Mussolini, for example, or even as a new pharoahism or caesarism. No autonomous or independent ways of life are to be permitted which do not produce “net benefit” in narrow economic terms. It’s a very ignoble and vulgar-minded conception of social life. But it is the application of the principle of corporatism and the corporate rule to the re-organisation of public and social life.
Of course, this is being conducted under the rhetoric of “democracy”. But then, the fascists also claimed to be truly “democratic”. It depends on how you understand the word “demos” — or, intend it to be so understood.
Our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has boasted that we won’t recognise Canada once he’s through with it. I’m afraid he may be right. But that is always the ambition of a tyrant and autocrat who intends to remake a society in his own image. Unfortunately, too many Canadians appear to find this paternalistic rhetoric appealing, and for the reasons already given. They confuse higher and lower values. This is the problem I cited earlier about the “mass mind”, “the commonplace mind” or “the vulgar mind”.
It is, unfortunately, very easy to draw minds into the dark side, and a lot more difficult to retrieve them from the shadows.
On the positive side, totalitarian societies do not endure long, and perhaps that’s our best hope for outrunning it in the longer term. When a crisis comes, a totalitarian state collapses also as a totality. Caught together, hanged together is the fate of all compartments of social life — science, art, economy, etc — that have been “coordinated” or “assimilated” to a single state model or unitary policy and objective such as “net benefit” (ie, profit motive writ large). No autonomous or independent compartments of social life that have been so “coordinated” or assimilated can avoid the general crisis and endure to pick up the slack or provide compensating stabilisation. This is exactly what happened to the Soviet Union. When the crisis came, it collapsed as a totality.
An ecological model, that respects diversity, is more durable in the long term. The long term sustainability of a natural ecology is dependent upon its inherent diversity and redundancies. Nature’s “inefficiencies” and variabilities are its strengths and resiliencies, the sources of its vitality and sustainability, and also of its recovery and convalescence after suffering a crisis. Lessons we need to learn.