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.
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,