Things Fall Apart

I read a couple of articles in The Guardian yesterday that seem to me quite pertinent to our current situation, and particularly illustrative of the ravages and degeneracy of dualistic thinking at our “end of history”. I want to highlight them as being very relevant to the themes of modern civilisation’s disintegration as interpreted by Jean Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, Eric Kahler, and others we’ve mentioned in past posts.

One article, by Paul Mason, is entitled “The best of capitalism is over…” and is on the decline of capitalism. The other by Anne Manne is called “The age of entitlement: how wealth breeds narcissism“, and is yet another look at  “the culture of narcissism” as identified by Christopher Lasch. The themes of these two articles complement each other quite nicely, and they touch on that theme of the “loss of the vital centre” and the principle of integrity in soul and society that makes our present situation so ominous and perilous, despite the superficial glitter and glitz and vain triumphalism of it all.

The theme of disintegration (or “nihilism”) has been prominent since at least Nietzsche, and then through W.B. Yeats in his famous poem The Second Coming. “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. That same theme recurs in the passage I have so often quoted from Jean Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin about the centrifugal forces now tearing the Modern Era and the modern consciousness structure apart — the extremes of acquisitive individualism and collectivisation, or isolation and aggregation, private and public, or the “Ego” and “It” extremes of dualistic thinking that Rosenstock-Huessy equally attacks in his great essay “Farewell to Descartes“.  This theme of the fragmentation and disintegration of the modern consciousness structure is equally what Eric Kahler calls “the breakdown of the human form” in The Tower and the Abyss.

Concerns about growing and accelerating inequality in society reflect this “loss of the vital centre” which, in contemporary terms and in terms of liberal democracy, was the stabilising role performed by “the middle class”. Current concerns about the shrinking of the middle class or even the dissolution of the middle classes is the reflection of this polarisation of the political and social order through a false logic in which “private” and “public” (or individual and society) are now viewed as antitheses and antagonists rather than complementaries — a false logic reflected in Margaret Thatcher’s famous remark that ‘there is no such thing as society’, which translates as “no such thing as a ‘public'”. She saw “only individuals and families”, rather. Translated, that means the supremacy of the private interest or self-interest.

The “middle class” in modern society was the mediator class between the extremes of acquisitive individualism (rapacious capital) and collective action. In a sense, the middle class was generated as a buffer zone, a tertium, and was sustained in that role as the intersection and reconciliation of private and public interests and values. The middle class stood between the extremes or antitheses of “Ego” and “It”, as it were, as a kind of dialectical synthesis of the values of the “upper” and the “lower” classes and in that sense it served as the “vital centre” or heart of liberal democracy. “Liberal democracy” and “middle class” are virtually synonymous. It was as much the creation of socialism as capitalism, since it could not have come into existence or be sustained without the provision of social services, such as public education, utilities, healthcare, etc and the commonwealth. The “middle class”, much like Tolkein’s “Middle Earth”, existed as the placid union of public (the commons) and private enterprise, or of the commonwealth with the private interest.

This three-fold logic of contemporary society — its classification into “upper” and “lower” mediated by the “middle term” or “middle class” — reflects that three-fold structure of the modern consciousness, the mental-rational, with its pyramid-like shape. So, the ordering of society is pretty much the exact reflection of this triune logic or ratio. The middle class came into existence only as a synthesis of “private enterprise” and social action. It does represent the “coincidence of opposites” in that sense — private and public, and the mediator class between the extremes of a rapacious capitalism (acquisitive individualism) and social or mass action.

The 2007 market meltdown was, to a large degree, the destruction and dissolution of the middle class — of its political role — and therefore also of its buffering role between the extremities of egoism and collectivism (or private and public). Since then, the problem of growing and accelerating “inequality” and of “the culture of narcissism” is really a recognition of the destruction of the middle class and its political (mediating) role in this arrangement of things and values. This has come about largely owing to a false, degenerated logic — dualism — which has set private and public, individual and collective against each other in terms of Capital and Labour, or Producer and Consumer, and therefore in terms of “good” or “evil”, as in the simple-minded logic of the followers of Ayn Rand.

The middle class in modern times has been both wooed and damned by elite power and the revolutionary left because of this buffering role and because it represents the conjunction of private and public or the individual and the commons, and so it leaned either towards liberal democracy or social democracy by degrees and circumstances — one might say even by “instinct”.  But its seduction by the lure of “privatisation” and neo-liberalism has been simultaneously its own self-destruction and collective suicide also, because it could not really exist without the commonwealth or “the commons”. So, today if people speak of the danger of “plutocracy” (inequality by another name) it is also connected with the destruction of the middle class as well and of the role of the middle class as the guardian of liberal democracy.

(As I was preparing this post, a comment by LittleBigMan to the post “Come the Revolution” stirred the pot a bit. You can read a bit more about this theme in my reply there).

I wanted to address this issue because Gebser’s (or Yeats’) diagnosis of the “loss of the vital centre” might be interpreted too much in merely “spiritual” terms and not enough in sociological or political terms, although there isn’t that great a difference between them at root.

This three-term logic of the social order of upper, lower, and middle — the pyramid of power and sacrifice — won’t do for the social and political arrangements of future society in any case, now that we live in a four-dimensional cosmos. So, the switch from the pyramid form of thinking (triune logic) to a mandala form (quadrilateral or four-term logic) is going to have profound implications for the re-ordering of social relations and political arrangements. There is a profound difference in the ordering of the senses and the architecture of consciousness between this shape,

Perspectivism: The pyramid of vision

Perspectivism: The pyramid of vision

And this,

Buddhist "Vantra" -- Mandala of the Integral

Buddhist “Vantra” — Mandala of the Integral

4 responses to “Things Fall Apart”

  1. alex jay says :

    You might find this essay of interest on the topic. Albeit the “Commons” concept is stil very much in its infancy in terms of practical appliction there is a move afoot in that direction in contrast to the worst of all worlds “public-private partnerships”, which is an euphamism for corporate plundering.

    • Scott Preston says :

      That was an interesting article. I was particularly taken by the quote from Ostrom

      “…the abiding logic of the commons is not based, as we have seen, on a balancing act between the roles of the state and the market, but on the idea of a polycentrism, decentralization and agreement between those touched by common problems. More co-operation, less competition. More conservation and the dynamics of resilience with regard to resources and their relationship with the environment than erosion, limitless exploitation and unstoppable appropriation.”

      “Polycentrism” is the Hermetic or Heraclitean philosophy as I’ve been exploring it — the description of God or Logos as “the centre which is everywhere and the circumference which is nowhere”. This “logic of the commons” is the commonality of the Logos, as Heraclitus put it.

      “We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each had a private intelligence of his own.”

      There is a profound political judgement and a social philosophy in that statement, which is reiterated in Blake’s “The Whole business of Man is the Arts & all things common”. There is in that statement a solid social and political philosophy, too.

      For Blake, real self-realisation and individuality is the purpose of art, and is realised through art, not in private property or acquisitiveness (certainly not consumerism, therefore). Human uniqueness is only expressed through its being creatively expressed. All else belongs to what is common or public.

      Blake detested the fact that “Commerce” (capital) was in the driver’s seat in society and that art was in the subordinate or subservient role to this Commerce. Rather, he saw Commerce (and Science) as being creations of the Imagination and therefore subordinate to Art — as being themselves art-forms rooted in the creative “Poetic Genius”, which was now enslaved and devoured by its own creations as “the mind-forg’d manacles”.

      So, “the Whole business of Man is the Arts & all things common” is Heraclitean, but is also a political statement of the proper relationship of “private” and “public”. Art (imagination), for Blake, is the true principium individuationis or individuating priniciple.

      This is the pretty much the same as Nietzsche’s aesthetic philosophy of “the free spirit”. For Nietzsche, individuation and creation are virtually identical.

      • Scott Preston says :

        By the way, for what it’s worth, I believe the fate of the Soviet Union was sealed early when it subordinated art to propaganda in the name of “Socialist Realism”. This subordination and enslavement of the arts suffocated the individuality which, I think, sealed the fate for the communist experiment definitively.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    Movies like “The Apartment,” and “The Secret of My Success” make comic productions of what is actually the corrupt nature of the workplace. It seems to me that this environment of doing business or even just making a living, and the fact that so many people have to spend so much of their time in this environment has a significant impact on the “loss of the vital centre.” To begin with, it represents a life which is out-of-balance.

    Even in the 19th century, this seems to have been a noticeable issue as Thoreau states in this excerpt from Walden:

    “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive oil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine.” (p. 4 of a 1995 annotated version of Walden)

    From Alex Jay’s link, I have added “Governing the Commons” to my list of must read books. That “International Journal of the Commons” is a remarkable collection, too. Now, all I have to do is find a bigger planet to live on so that each day is at least 36 or more hours – if I want to do everything I want to do 🙂

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