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Arming Ourselves Against The Future.
With a few more books and a few old ideas.
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Because I am travelling a lot this week, and because I came across the list of books I had scribbled down but only got halfway through for my essay a couple of weeks ago, I thought I would pick up roughly where that essay left off, and try to discuss some more books that I have found useful in trying to understand the world.
But the approach this time will be rather different, in that I’m concerned with the world as it is today, irrespective of where it came from, and also where it is going, and what we can do about it. Once more, I will be offering not just a list of books, but more a series of reflections supported by references to books I’ve found useful. Once more also, I’m only going to talk about books I’ve actually read.
We can begin from a simple but really rather profound and worrying point: in most western societies today, there is a massive and increasing gap between what governments and medias say about the world, society and the economy, and the way that we experience these things in real life. I say “we,” because even the higher reaches of the Professional and Managerial Caste. (PMC), or the Inner Party, as I have come to call them, are aware of the reality of the world to some small extent: they just don’t care, and in any case the phantom society conjured up by speeches, documents and media reports from the PMC and its minions suits them just fine.
I think this is a situation unprecedented in western history. The average citizen is repeatedly told things and invited to believe things that they know cannot possibly be true, and are duly disproved by the unfolding of events; but which are then continually repeated, as though in fact they were true. Now, some who lived through the period of Communism in the Cold War have said much the same, but I think there’s an important difference. Those societies did in fact make efforts to improve the living standards of ordinary people, and to provide decent education and healthcare, all while running what amounted to a permanent wartime economy in peacetime. And the people of those countries were sufficiently mature to understand that they were being systematically lied to, in a way that we are not. After all, until the 1980s, western governments were on the whole efficient and effective, and, especially in the thirty years after 1945, they oversaw an unprecedented increase in the health, security and education of ordinary people. Rather like a frog boiled slowly in the famous saucepan, our societies today have difficulty in understanding that the institutions of the past have been sold off or neutered, the political systems have been totally corrupted, and the economy is just a way for the Inner Party to rob the people. Slow and quiet revolutions are always the most effective and long-lasting.
The actual history of this period has been written about extensively (David Edgerton’s Rise and Fall of the British Nation is a good, if dissident, example) but in many ways we have to look beyond historians, to sociologists, philosophers and cultural critics if we are to really understand what happened. And what happened was the wholesale replacement of the actual by the virtual. The ability to make things was replaced by the ability to import things. The founding of companies was replaced by the buying and selling of companies, reductions in unemployment were replaced by reductions in the figures for unemployment, now calculated differently. Money was replaced by credit, and then derivatives of credit. Share prices came to reflect nothing except how much they could be sold for to the next idiot. Football was played in front of a screen rather than on a pitch. Expertise and knowledge were replaced by paper credentials, in the spirit of The Wizard of Oz, and a more (apparently) educated society was achieved by making syllabuses and examinations easier. Truly, when Marx and Engels claimed that the disruptive and destructive effects of a capitalist society meant that “all that is solid melts into air” they can have had no idea where the process was eventually going to lead.
And unlike the situation in 1848, governments now have a substantial ability to insist, through their own statements and through the media, that the unreal is real, and the real is unreal, and that what we see with our own eyes is not to be trusted. Knowledge may once have been power, as Francis Bacon insisted, but these days power is knowledge, as Michel Foucault later argued, in the sense that if you have the power, knowledge is, for practical purposes, whatever you want it to be. If that sounds familiar, well it is essentially the unacknowledged progeny of the incoherent set of attitudes that emerged on the West Coast of the United States at the end of the 1960s. Drawing on everything from Wilhelm Reich to Gurdjieff to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Beatles fame, to Aleister Crowley, and under the influence of staggering quantities of LSD and other substances, the generation that went on to create Silicon Valley, leveraged buy-outs and many other symbols of our modern, dislocated world, emerged from a dimly recollected decade with the idea that nothing was really, like, real, man, and reality was really whatever you wanted it to be. (A process whose origins are well documented in Gary Lachmann’s sobering treatment of the dark side of the 1960s, Turn Off Your Mind.)
Now criticisms of the superficiality of capitalist society are hardly new. If you can struggle through Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man there are some useful ideas hidden in it. Likewise, if you can put up with the endless tricksy rhetoric of Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle, much of what he has to say is of even more relevance now than it was then. The idea that reality is, in the end, a social construct, was a preoccupation of philosophers like John Searle, and sociologists like Peter Berger, for a long time. But even the fiercest critics of “spectacle” never really argued that the visible world is nothing but spectacle. But Orwell got that right, of course. In 1984,Winston Smith realises that there is no way in which he can even be sure that the war involving Eurasia and Eastasia is actually taking place. As he knows personally, facts and statistics can simply be invented, people who never existed can come into being, and people who did exist can disappear. As often with Orwell, what was originally intended as satire looks much more like intelligent anticipation of the future. Jean Baudrillard’s argument that the Gulf War of 1990 never took place is simply a logical extension of Orwell’s point. (Many years ago, I got into trouble at a seminar for a paper in which I argued the Africa did not, in fact, exist. Or rather, unless you had been there it was impossible to know, since all the sources available were western ones. The paper was not well received.) It’s in this context, perhaps, that the idea that we might be living in a simulation (discussed seriously by the the philosopher Nick Bostom, and frivolously by any number of people since) assumes its full significance. It depends whose simulation it is, of course.
The problem is that Crowley believed that, through spells and rituals, it was possible to actually change the nature of reality, and many people followed him, generally in the most casual and unreflective of ways. But outside the worlds of Thelema and Wican, and once you had grown out of satanic heavy rock music (and boy was there a lot of that), reality had a way of imposing itself nonetheless. The magical thinkers (just consider that phrase for a moment) of the PMC can control the discourse to a large degree, they can force other people to act as if what the discourse said was actually true, but they can’t genuinely change the nature of reality. This is particularly the case with economics, and there, I’m grateful that I studied economics in the days when economists were considered rather like engineers: practical people working within the constraints of what was actually possible. Now, of course, economics has become a type of magic itself, complete with spells, rituals and magic alphabets. (The relationship between magic and mathematics has always been close, after all.) I was struck by this not so long ago when I arrived slightly early for a lecture I was giving, and saw my predecessor, teaching, I think, international trade theory, trying to explain to a student that the outcome of an equation he had written must be correct, even if the answer didn’t correspond to the real world, because the equation itself was correctly formulated.
So we’re living in an essentially ritualised world, where certain habitual magical practices are asserted to have certain defined outcomes, irrespective of any hard evidence that they in fact do so. Many of these assumed outcomes are inherently faith-based, in the sense that they are incapable of proof anyway. Thus, to say that “immigration benefits the economy” (or the reverse, for that matter) is clearly a statement of faith, because the actual economic effects of immigration are so wildly varied and context dependent that it’s impossible to make any broad judgements about them at all. Nonetheless, for practical purposes, judgements about immigration, uncontrolled trade, rates of taxation and so forth, can be imposed on populations as though they were simple truths, and their practical consequences can be confidently (if erroneously) predicted in advance. If reality fails to behave, then obviously the ritual was wrongly conducted.
It follows that there’s not much point arguing with economists, because they just retreat into mumbled spells. That said, there are a number of dissident economists out there who have written books that at least show you the size and nature of the gap between the real world, and what the grimoires of modern economics actually say. I’ve mentioned Ha-Joon Chang before, but I’d add his Twenty-three Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism to any self-educational list. Steve Keen’s books, notably The New Economics and Debunking Economics are not only very good, but of interest to this argument because he explicitly treats neoclassical economics as a religious doctrine that fails to explain the real world. And the books of William Mitchell (not to mention his extraordinary output of blog posts and articles) jump up and down with enthusiasm on the pieces of what’s left. None of these works has had any appreciable influence on actual economic practice or the thinking of mainstream economists, because economists these days have to swear an oath and sign a non-disclosure agreement with Satan in blood before they are allowed to work, but at least they will help you to understand the incredible gap between how the world is, and how economists see it.
And this is the basic problem of the world today: we are ruled by incompetent ideological fanatics, with an inherited view of the world that is basically egoistical and magical. What is worse, is that they are competent enough at gaining and holding power within the Party, and for the most part they are not actually conscious of being ideological fanatics. But by a stroke of classic irony, their own policies over thirty or forty years now have had the effect of destroying the very institutions and capabilities that they actually need to put their policies (such as they are) into effect. As a result, they increasingly live in a world of collective fantasy, where things will happen if the Will is strong enough, even in the absence of the pragmatic means that are actually required to bring them about. After all, the idea that sanctions would make the Russian economy collapse and lead to a change of government, or the subsequent idea that western weapons and training would somehow enable the Ukrainian armed forces to break through Russian lines, are the result of thinking that can only be described as magical in the full sense of that term: ie, using rituals to effect actual changes in reality. Sanctions were in effect magical rites, which did not depend on real-world conditions and requirements to be effective. (Needless to say, attacking someone on Twitter is the symbolic modern equivalent of putting a curse on them.) But then these people are the descendants of the hippies who tried to levitate the Pentagon in 1967, chanting “out! demons out!”
This is why I have consistently argued that purely materialist explanations of international politics these days fundamentally miss the point. It’s true that, if you try hard enough, you can construct some vaguely coherent-sounding hypothesis to explain the absurd behaviour of western powers on the subject of economic sanctions against Russia, in spite of the damage they are doing to their own economies. But then this is true of virtually any collection of facts. As Professor RV Jones, one of Churchill’s brightest scientific advisors, aptly wrote: “No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which some human intellect cannot conceive a coherent explanation, however complicated.” And notice that Jones doesn’t say “exists,” he says “can exist:” in other words, he describing a scientific law, and I think he’s right.
We have to accept, therefore, that purely materialist-based critiques of our current economic and political situation are not going to be very helpful. Of course, there are always going to be greedy people, and there are always going to be ambitious and ruthless people as well, but the real motivations lie deeper, and those possessed by them do not necessarily fully understand what they are doing anyway. Nor are moral critiques and sermons of much value, unfortunately, because the greedy and powerful rationalise their greed and their desire for power in ways they always have done. If demonstrating in the streets and chanting slogans (another kind of magic) could change the world, we would be living in a Utopia.
I’m tempted to say, therefore, that the best way to understand the lunacy of the PMC today is through reading a classic such as William James’s The Variety of Religious Experience, or one of the accounts of how our ancestors saw the world that I mentioned last time. Come to that, power-struggles in an ideologically charged environment within a powerful but divided group have been covered in all sorts of ways, from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, to, well, perhaps the first volume of Stephen Kotkin’s life of Stalin.
It follows that there’s not much point in taking a political science approach to what’s going on today, nor indeed any approach which presupposes the existence of rational actors, at least in the sense that outside observers would see them as being rational. For example, if we want to understand the serial violence of western powers against others over the last thirty years, a good place to start is with the behaviour of violent criminals. The American psychiatrist James Gilligan studied violent criminals in prisons for years, and was surprised to discover that few of them felt any remorse about what they had done. As he explained in a number of books, most of them justified their behaviour by the need to retain self-respect and to absolve themselves of feelings of shame, even if they themselves suffered great injury as a result. And this is also very similar to the motivations behind some of the African conflicts that I wrote about in the last essay. It’s not hard to extend this kind of analysis to the behaviour of western governments today, concerned at threats to their status and self-respect, and behaving pretty much as gang leaders would do in such circumstances, even if, as in the case of Ukraine, the consequences are negative for them as well.
We should thus try to understand what is happening in terms of symbolism and myth, as much as anything else. I’ve commented before on the eschatological nature of the West’s antipathy to Russia, but this is only one part of it. Paradoxically, in fact, the opposite logic is applied internally. You will remember that in 1984, O’Brien tells Winston Smith that the party actually has control of time and reality: there is no independent past, and reality is whatever the Party says it is. We may detect contemporary resonances in the Party’s consistent belittling of the past and rewriting what little history is allowed to be remembered to be entirely negative, as well as progressively banning or heavily rewriting all the great works of English literature. But the most important point here is the deliberate inculcation of a sense of hopelessness in the population in general, and in the Outer Party. Nothing will ever improve, everything will get worse, the power of the Party will steadily increase, a boot will stamp on the human face forever. There is no point in struggling, or even protesting. There is no alternative: indeed, there is no ability to even think of alternatives (a point made about our society by the late lamented cultural critic Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism.)
And if there is anything which really distinguishes our society from other times, it is probably that. We no longer look forward to the future, as we did when I was a child: we no longer even look back nostalgically to a past, because that past is being dismantled and degraded, and rewritten before our eyes. The author most influential in this line of thinking is Franco Berardi, whose After the Future sets out very clearly the distinction between the “future” that is just next year and the year after, and the positive image of the “future” as a time when things might be better, or at the very least different. (It’s interesting that his later work The Second Coming plays with the symbolism of the Apocalypse.) Similarly, Derrida coined the term hantologie (the pun on “ontology” works better in French than in the English “hauntology”) to describe the way in which the present is “haunted” by the past. Especially in the Arts, it seems, new work consists simply of endlessly recycled fragments of the past (a point of view which those of us who think that popular music hasn’t had an original idea in thirty years will quickly agree with.) The idea was taken up with force and verve by Mark Fisher, in his book of essays Ghosts of My Life.
It follows that our enemies are as much symbolic as they are material. These magical ideas are held by people with access to money and violence, but defeating a party, a movement or even an entire Caste is not going to help unless the ideas themselves can be somehow defeated. The problem is that it is hard, if not impossible to fight against ideas: you can only fight against those who hold or express them. The reason why political changes do not necessarily lead to policy changes is not that some hereditary power gang is pulling all the strings, but rather that the supply and variety of ideas at any one time is limited. History suggests that dominant ideas—discourses if you prefer—change only under extraordinary conditions such as war and revolution. The problem we have today, as I’ve pointed out several times, is that there is no consistent scheme of ideas just waiting to be implemented, nor the structures and competence to implement them, even if they could be identified. So the new boss may look superficially different from the old boss but will think and act the same.
If this analysis is correct then I am afraid that we are going to have to plan for a crash landing, and this has two equally gloomy consequences. One is that we should accept that the current western political system is hopelessly broken and incapable of reform. Now of course it’s possible to imagine changes—peaceful or violent—just as it’s possible to imagine more sensible and coherent economic and social policies that don’t depend on some magic ritual for them to be effective. But most people recognise that in practice this is not going to happen. So, brutally, whilst there are any number of books already available about how we need to tackle global warming, in practice we know that nothing of importance will be done.
The second is that we therefore need to fall back on our own resources and those of people we trust, both for practical and for moral survival. I’m not qualified to talk about the first of these, having lived in cities all my life, being unable to repair the simplest object or distinguish one end of a potato from another. But I feel a little more confident talking about books and ways of thinking that may help us to survive psychically, since that’s something I have been interested in for a number of years.
First of all , though, there is a need to dispose of a preliminary question. It’s often suggested that looking after one’s own mental and psychic health is at best irrelevant and at worst a dangerous distraction that prevents us getting out there and storming the barricades and changing society. It’s even a bit selfish. I think this argument is quite wrong, not least because in reality, and as we all know, the barricades are not going to be stormed. The idea that looking after one's mental and psychic health is some kind of weakness, or even treason in such circumstances, is quite misguided.
For a start, the contrary idea--that what's needed is a populace unhappy and desperate enough to revolt spontaneously-- is quite unrealistic in historical terms. Revolutions are not made that way, and insurrections that happen that way do not last, and are generally taken over by powerful forces that know what they want. Desperation and unhappiness are of no value in the struggle for a better society, or at least to preserve what can be saved, and are the last things we should be encouraging.
Now, it seems to be a rule of our society that if something can be misused, trivialised and commercialised it will be. So greedy multinational corporations have incorporated such practices as Yoga and Mindfulness into their management systems, but that no more shows that these practices are wrong than providing a canteen discredits the idea of eating at midday. Likewise, an enormous percentage of the books on subjects calling themselves "personal development" or something similar, are simple garbage and not worth opening, even when (actually, especially when) they claim to be dispensing ancient wisdom: a point I will come back to in a moment.
Having got all that out of the way, then, we can begin with books that help you resist and fight back against the system you find yourself in. This system may be an organisation, and here we have to accept that organisations these days are not only increasingly dysfunctional, but in many cases seem to actively hate the people who work for them, and try to destroy them. But even if you don't work in an organisation, you will still find that your private and professional life can become overwhelming at times, through no fault of your own. What can you do to preserve your sanity?
There are librairies of books now on Productivity, and here again there is an ideological problem, because being more productive is often held to imply that you are voluntarily squeezing more out of your day to please your employer. And indeed there are some books that give that impression, of the "How to get ahead in your company" type. That's not what I'm concerned with here: rather, I'm concerned with methodologies for resisting and fighting back against the stress that organisations (and life for that matter) place on you. There are two I have found especially helpful.
One is David Allen's classic Getting Things Done, which first appeared a quarter of a century ago, in the pre-smartphone era. Allen, who not coincidentally has a black belt in Aikido, focuses on the idea of the "mind like water," the effortless management of one's life because everything has been taken care of by a system you trust. He argues that it is possible to have an overwhelming number of things to do in your professional and private life, and yet still be relaxed and productive, and avoid stress. In outline, the system is very simple: write down or otherwise store everything that needs doing, organise by category and date, create projects with steps and do things when they are due. If you have to go on a business trip, or repaint the spare room, this can be reduced to a series of tasks to be done by particular dates. Once you have the system established, you can relax, because you know that everything has been accounted for, and you will be reminded when you have to do something. It does work, although it requires self-discipline, which is not a fashionable skill these days but one worth cultivating nonetheless.
The second example is the work of Cal Newport, especially his book Deep Work. Newport's proud boast is that he has a full-time teaching job, writes books, hosts a weekly podcast and writes blogposts and academic articles, and still goes home at around 5pm every day. As the title perhaps indicates, his method is one of total concentration on one given task for a sustained period of time. It's become clear now that multi-tasking always was a myth, but it's also clear from psychological research that if you change between contexts (say from writing a paper to answering emails) then it can take up to twenty-five minutes for you to become fully productive in the new context. So Newport's idea is to map out your day at the beginning, assigning chunks of time to specific activities, and do nothing else in that time. Like most good ideas this seems obvious and simple, but if you actually observe yourself, you will find that you almost certainly switch between tasks all the time. I found it useful myself: I work on these essays from Friday to Tuesday, putting aside one hour each day for the production of a thousand words, in two blocks of twenty-five minutes separated by five minutes non-intellectual activity, such as making a cup of coffee. Wednesdays are for final polishing and uploading. With a block of time set aside for emails, a block set aside for research, and incorporating other commitments, I begin to get the sense that I am in control of my day rather than the reverse.
Which brings us neatly to concentration and mindfulness, which bizarrely have also acquired a bad reputation, not for what they are but because of how they have been abused. Concentration is an acquired skill, and most of us are very bad at it. If you doubt me, just try sitting absolutely still for two minutes, and you'll see what I mean. There are lots of books of concentration exercises: the late Mieczyslaw Sudowski, under his pen-name Mouni Sadhu, wrote one of the best ones, appropriately called Concentration. Mindfulness is a natural development of concentration, for all that it's often confused with esoteric Zen exercises to abolish the mind. Jon Kabbat-Zinn, the originator of mindfulness in its modern form, began the practice in a clinic where he worked, dealing with patients who had become ill from stress, and he was very clear in his several excellent books on the subject that the purpose was not to “empty the mind” or anything similar, but rather to discipline it so that you concentrate on one thing at a time, and so suffer less stress. (And if you think that’s easy, try thinking about the same subject for a whole minute without deviating.) As Kabbat-Zinn and other authors including Charles Tart have pointed out, most of us live our lives in a mental fog, thinking of ten things at the same time and alternating between anger and disappointment about the past and fear and uncertainty about the future, without ever really being in the present. That’s no way to live, and it’s certainly no way to make the world a better place.
Which brings us in turn to meditation, which suffers from some of the same presentational problems that mindfulness does. It’s often considered to be an Eastern practice, which is silly, because there is a very rich tradition of meditation in the Christian world, and for that matter in Islam as well. (It’s hard to get more western than Descartes, after all.) Although the popular image of meditation is of concentrating on the breath or on words, and this can be valuable and useful for some, the western tradition is more one of discursive meditation, where a phrase or sentence is used as a point of departure for a structured and progressive exploration. Traditionally, this was a verse from the Bible or a Classical maxim, but it could be anything from, say, a sentence from Marcus Aurelius every day, to a favourite poem. The intellectual effort involved in developing a train of thought for more than a few minutes at a time is valuable in itself, but it can be combined, according to taste, with reflections on your own life (some people use daily I Ching or Tarot readings), or attempts to explore larger spiritual themes. Sadhu’s book on Meditation has a whole series of such exercises, including many from the western tradition, and if you want to go the whole hog, John Michael Greer’s Occult Philosophy Workbook will have you meditating on planes of being and the very nature of the universe. By contrast, if you want to study Eastern meditation traditions, you need an Eastern teacher like Thich Naht Hanh.
And finally, that brings us to the kind of esoteric and spiritual studies that many people find helpful in resisting the absolute awfulness of the world we live in. There’s yet another preliminary issue to dispose of here. Most people today have a view of reality loosely based on nineteenth-century physics; There’s a world consisting of matter out there which we can see and measure, matter is made up of hard but tiny thingies called atoms, and mind and matter are two completely different things that cannot interact. This view of things—which no longer reflects scientific understanding—is really a folk belief, and is often called Scientism, or as I prefer to call it, Vulgar Materialism. The first time you read a popular book on quantum physics (n my case the books of the British physicist Paul Davies) you will be cured of such delusions. If you want a full-on demolition of materialism from a scientific perspective, read the books of Bernardo Kastrup, especially Why Materialism is Baloney.
Of course, western philosophers since Kant have been pointing out the impossibility of knowing for sure that an outside world even exists, let alone being able to describe it. This is a view traditionally associated with mysticism, and mysticism, by another misunderstanding, is seen as essentially “eastern.” Yet mysticism has been a strand in all religions, and has had a strong influence in Christianity since the beginning: some of the greatest mystic thinkers (Meister Eckhart for example) worked in that tradition. Mysticism doesn’t even have to be directly associated with religious belief as such: many traditions simply see the lack of distinction between the individual and the whole—the essence of mysticism—just as a pragmatic fact to be worked with.
For example, the non-dual interpretation of reality, where effectively there is only consciousness, leads us naturally to conclude that what we think of as “me”—hopes, fears, memories, anticipation, anger—are just passing emotions and mental phenomena. They are not “me.” After all, if I have been lying awake all night worried about money, and then my money problems are suddenly solved, have I lost part of “me” if I don’t worry any more? The realisation that I am not my ego is not only enormously liberating, it releases huge pent-up energies that can be used to make our lives better, and those of others as well.
There are western authors—Rupert Spira is a particular example—who explain these ideas simply and persuasively. But if you want to go for the hard stuff, be very careful, because few subjects have been more butchered and exploited than the complex corpus of ideas that spread from India via China, Tibet and Japan, and has a multiplicity of names, schools and doctrines. In particular, beware of westerners claiming to understand such things, especially when they live in Southern California, shave their heads and adopt Tibetan names.
That said, there are two final books I would recommend if you want to have your brain stretched and your view of reality changed. One, that I’ve written about before, is James Garfield’s Losing Ourselves. Garfield is a distinguished western trained philosopher, and he’s not having any of this New Age crap, thank you. The other is by Rob Burbea, an English teacher of Buddhism, whose Seeing That Frees is an intellectually extremely demanding but absolutely fascinating introduction to the Buddhist concept of emptiness, complete with progressive meditations.
I seriously doubt that, in practical terms, we can stop the world from coming to bits entirely. But in the end, all societies are made up of collections of individuals, and the better educated, the more thoughtful and in the last analysis the wiser and more balanced individuals are, the better off we will all be. Here, I have just scratched the surface of books that may help us understand the present, and arm us better for the future. Any other ideas?