Every army fights the battles of its forebears. So too does every society fight the intellectual and social battles of the past. Our problems -- environmental and social -- fundamentally cannot be addressed by the society that created them. This is a discussion of what they are, where they come from, and why a more radical approach is required.
Note: This is part of an extended project. For an introduction, see "Welcoming in the Next Intellectual Revolution." For some historical background that is referenced, see "Summary of Robert Bellah's Historical Epochs."
Where We Are
It would be a great mistake to identify the same problems in contemporary life as were found at the beginning of the Axial age and take those as a basis for major social or mental change. No doubt we do have economic problems, injustice and oppression; by governments and financial interests. But we should also admit that these problems are much reduced since the Axial age, where debt and the power of kings were the primary difficulties of society.
We should also realize that we may be hypersensitive to those problems -- precisely because we maintain Axial age thinking, and it was Axial age thinking that arose in direct response to those problems, with the purpose of defeating them. It could not defeat them entirely, but it did a great deal.
We cannot retread the same battles and hope to solve our difficulties. Marxism, for example, is basically still talking about oppression from kings and from debt -- Axial age problems. Instead, we need to identify the most significant problems that are unique to our age.
Our immediate problems have two major components. Environmental destruction is one. It, in fact, has many dimensions: we may suffer the destruction itself, grief about it, and despair that our culture seems incapable of acting. Further, if that anguish grows, it can lead to guilt over any action: to live is inevitably to cause destruction in some form -- thus a paradoxical difficulty is created. The other problem we suffer is a kind of ennui known well since the 1960s: rootlessness, having few ties to family or community, meaningless work, oppression by faceless bureaucracy, and ultimately purposelessness. This is accompanied by hyper-competitiveness, self-marketing, advertising, and "coolness" as the ideal demeanor: no emotion can be shown except (mild) personal preference. Just as with environmental concern, there is a paradox: amid increasing "prosperity," genuine satisfaction seems to be decreasing.
These are the immediate problems we face -- and face uniquely in this age. They all have much to do with consumer culture. Markets have penetrated all spheres of life, and come to dominate all thought. We view the world through economic abstractions like price, debt, growth, and investment. Thus do we interact with the world on an almost exclusively instrumental level. This also turns politics, and public life, into a technocratic game. The only place left for people is through their preferences; their desires. Nothing besides those desires has any value, including nature: it is all just fodder for growth.
The dominance of desire, as the only allowable emotion, is tied to consumerism but extends beyond it. Democracy is yet another preference, expressed through voting (or protesting). Personal interactions are limited to work or to love; and indeed, everything that can be sexualized has been. In general, we believe that choice will bring happiness, and advertising will help us be aware of choices.
Desire and markets as dominant modes of thought are thus intermediate causes of our problems. But they may be traced back one step further.
The Roots of Our Discontent
All this has happened because we see the material world as essentially amoral: ethics do not impinge on it, or relate to it. Rather, ethics concerns humans. This split is brought about by the essential dualism of our culture: mind versus matter. Mind is where decisions happen and ethics apply. Matter is where we must live, but it has no value of its own (neither esthetic nor ethical). One might ask, If this split is so large, how can we actually make decisions about material life, or think about it at all? Only through abstractions -- economic or scientific: we create an abstraction of the world, make decisions about that, and then enact the decision. Our decisions are therefore restricted in character: they can either be mechanical and technocratic, or they must hinge upon personal preference. Hence the elevation of desire as the paramount emotion.
Our basic dualism has become, on the surface, utterly one-sided, with matter the dominant half. Thus does the economy trump all other considerations. This is encouraged by a view that matter is real, while thought is basically unreal: it is seen as either an epiphenomenon, according to science; external to the universe, according to some religion; or possibly an illusion, according to some philosophers. Markets are simply the utilitarian, abstracted view of reality, i.e. material reality. The power and simplicity of market logic has caused markets to colonize all aspects of life -- to bring ever more competitiveness, as well as bureaucracy and hyper-specialization. Such demands on people crowd out other ways of thinking or behaving: humans become consumers alone. The wars of an industrial complex, and environmental destruction also follow. The elevation of private, profit-seeking corporations -- abstract persons perfectly suited to abstraction -- is the greatest symbol of this process.
In truth though, we are all still committed to dualisms' other half, mind. Even as mentality shrinks in practical significance, it retains an absolute authority. We believe our mind is "who we really are" and we believe absolutely in a free will unencumbered by circumstance. This is what allows us to be consumers, making choices: our decisions supposedly arise from outside the consumed materials. We feel that mind is permanent: destined for an afterlife of pure ethics and beauty, utterly apart from our physical world. This cements the dualistic split and encourages us to see matter as the exact opposite of our ideal: a fallen world, lacking any trace of ethics, beauty, or permanence.
The Religious Response
There are two reactionary strains that have emerged in response to the dominance of consumer materialism. One is fundamentalist religion, which tries to reassert the importance of mind, and bring ethics back into consideration.
This effort will ultimately fail, or bring an alternative just as bad as consumerism, because it is retrogressive in its goals. That is ironic, because even while fundamentalism is generally ahistorical in detail, its motivations recall the historical moment when current world religions were founded, the axial age, and thus the social crises those religions were meant to overcome: debt and oppressive god-kings. This cannot work today because god-kings are not our problem; and while debt is still oppressive, it is the dominance of market thinking that allows it to be. (And we should remember that even at their height, the axial religions never totally resolved debt).
So while fundamental religion does try to bring back ethics, it is ill-suited to the specifics of our situation, and cannot allow us to move forward. It tries to restore balance to our dualism -- by shifting weight to the opposite side -- but is still trapped within that dualism. Even if fundamentalism gained favor for a while and ameliorated the worst excesses of capitalism, it would still contain the seeds of capitalism's renewal. And further, it would not address some very basic intellectual problems, like a material world that has no value. Environmental peril cannot not be solved through it, and consumerism would only be solved by undoing the real benefits of enlightenment thought, including the liberation of women and the abolishment of slavery.
The Academic Answer
The second reaction against our current system comes from the academic elite instead of the general populace. Post-modern, post-structuralist, deconstructionist theory is humanism's response to the obvious flaws of capitalism and (more self-defensively) intellectual colonizing by the sciences. In some ways, this is very similar to the religious answer, seeking to bring ethics back in, and to resist market/science universalism by appeals to differentiated human culture. But it is strictly reactionary, exploding oppressive concepts without offering any replacements. In this, it is also highly contradictory: it hopes for Enlightenment values -- to enable multiculturalism -- while denying the preeminence or universalism of any ideology or culture.
In fact, deconstruction is not the new, forward-thinking mode it presents itself as. It is simply the newest incarnation of idealism in the philosophical sense: thoughts are what's real and what have importance. This has appeared many times in the past, from the Greeks to Romanticism. Thus, post-modernism is stuck with the same dualistic, theoretical, and utterly anthropocentric thinking that market capitalism represents; it simply emphasizes the opposite side of the coin. Looking at that other side may be a welcome antidote in the short-term, but offers no serious resolution (no synthesis).
Consider how each of our major problems go undressed by leftist academic theory. It insists on respect for nature, but does not establish any conceptual shift that would make this so -- it is left appealing to human self-interest generally, or the interests of non-Western, indigenous cultures. It warns against eliminating the value that other cultures see in the world, but itself eliminates value through relativism. It abhors the crassness of capitalism but continues to separate mind from matter and to elevate abstract theory, just as market-fundamentalism now does. Post-structuralism embodies the problems we now suffer; it will not save us.
The solution must lie in eliminating dualism, and thus reunifying matter and ethics, while still retaining a theoretical imagination -- albeit incapsulated in a less dominating package. This will indeed entail a reaction against markets and a promotion of nature, but must be broader. Desire also cannot be foresworn, but it must be realigned -- with new modes and goals -- while other emotions regain prominence.
What will happen to theory, or to markets, is unknown. Our targets should include dualism and desire, while our goal should include a re-identification with nature. What sort of nature? Most pressingly, other organisms, individually or together as a biosphere; but ultimately our own bodies, the non-living Earth, and perhaps the whole universe.