Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Time of Shatter

Healthy societies are complexly integrated whereas decadent societies are engaged in a process of slow-motion shatter. If I stare at the word complexity long enough, I realize that in a complex system every part and aspect of the whole is equally important although the parts are always hierarchically related. In a monoculture everything is the same. My Mother used to say, by way of dismissing certain kinds of views, “Everything is wood.” When asked what she meant, she would say: “Those people are just like termites. For them everything is wood.” Or everything is money. I picture a book in its normal use. Every word in it is meaningful—in placement and in sequence. So are the letters in the words. The covers have their purpose, the pages are numbered, and the use of the book is governed by its internal arrangements. But if that same book has been discarded, perhaps because it has been damaged, and is now relegated to serve as kindling next to the fireplace, it matters not what page you tear out to light the fire. Complexity has been reduced to monoculture. The words have lost all of their relevance.

Disintegration manifests by the separation of parts once meaningfully linked. So in a decadent society mutually supportive orders became alienated one from the other. What used to be relationships turn into uses. People are commodified. They become markets, human resources, labor, management, constituencies, blocks, interests, lobbies. Creative work becomes content. These are not merely verbal distinctions. They come with feeling tones attached. They are attitudes. They signal distance and indifference. “We’re having some labor problems. But we’re getting on top of them.” My favorite symbols for this include the recorded telephone call (“Your call is very important to us”) and the old Russian communist adage: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”

This situation is pregnant with meanings—as is its opposite, community. For instance: as society loosens, freedom increases but relationships weaken. As one Russian émigré writer, living in New York, once complained: “At least back home the NKVD read what I wrote.” The urge to escape the oppressive integration of the small town or the village—in order to enjoy the freedom of city life—becomes the oppressive anonymity of urban life where you don’t even know your neighbors. When community shatters a complex network of relationships yields a single means of relating to everything—through money. Only money carries universal value. Thus is born celebrity and the yearning for visibility—that fifteen minutes of fame on television. And this is what feeds American Idol, brings it contestants and the vicarious participation of the vast alienated masses.

But life in a complex community has its down-side too. It requires attention, time, and effort expended on the community itself—very often “just because,” as in noblesse oblige—thus without any compensation in return. The obligation to work for the common good is not pragmatically rewarded—or, if it is done for reward, it is not that kind of effort. Nothing forces you to do it. It can be and often is felt as a burden. Its support is ethics, thus a moral sense. And this moral sense is reinforced by a hierarchical conception of reality, thus it has a religious connotation or underpinning.

Now, it seems, societies decay by a curious process. Community spirit and complex relationships produce order; order produces wealth; and wealth, as it spreads, weakens the sense that effort on behalf of the community is necessary. It is easier to avoid its burdens. This tendency to turn aside is felt as liberating. The notion is then expanded philosophically into a cult of freedom and individualism. This, in turn, damages the hierarchical arrangement on which the whole society rests. How wide this alienation spreads depends on the extent of the wealth produced. In pre-industrial times, only elites became wealthy enough to lose their bearings—hence also dynasties fell. The so-called ignorant masses kept clinging to whatever spirits or gods they worshipped. In our times, the devastation reaches much deeper into the population because the wealth produced has been so great.

The process of decay is also marked by a movement from the personal to the abstract—because love (one of the three theological virtues) is withdrawn. The farmers market where contact is vividly real becomes capitalism. Trade—at core a vital, complex, two-way river—becomes soulless globalization. It is a negative phenomenon because its single glassy eye is focused solely on gain. It produces a monoculture of technique. Everything must align with it or perish. Good-by to the shop, farewell the local merchant. In agriculture we literally have it—monoculture. Industrial means of raising chickens, pigs, and cattle are, frankly, obscene. What is the justification for this? The only denominator common to everything in a shattering culture: money. When a hierarchy of values is absent, complexity begins to disappear. When complexity begins to show cracks, only time is required for the whole to fall apart. In the midst of this process it is almost impossible to believe that the society is doomed. But such is the case.

The human community revives from these long and painful periods of desertification only because minorities fiercely cling to the more complex value systems which are the full expression of humanity. Small communities, often isolated, certainly separated, continue to exist. As things fall apart, these seeds begin to link. Out of them are formed new cultures which, for a time anyway, realize the values we celebrate over the centuries. To this I might add that the Decline of the West (as Spengler called it) can be and is resisted by those other societies in which the ethical current still flows strong.


  1. Hi Arsen,

    This was a very nice post! We see eye-to-eye and therefore I guess I don't have much to add or complain about except maybe the following two matters:
    1) I have a best friend who was born and raised far to the east of your Budapest and like your mother about wood, she would complain that everything comes down to money in America. She had a far more harsh way of putting it too which I shall not repeat. For better or worse Heidegger's philosophy has had a profound impact on my own thinking and therefore I do not think our current way of "thinking about being" (lichtung) has anything to do with money per se. I think it is precisely as Heidegger described that we hold up "efficiency" as the ultimate value (or as Hubert Dreyfus put it, everything is viewed as a resource to be used efficiency-- even our own selves.) I think this is very profound. I wrote about it at the bottom here if you ever have time:

    2)I don't believe (based on my travels and life experiences) that the cycle you descibe above is universal. I do think it is accurate for Western civilization but other civilizations would in all probability go through different styles of decay not necessarily based on individual profit. I don't see anything categorical to in the western we know from history that other empires held up and then were undone but different types of values....

    The Ottomans and Mongols had very different values... and no matter how high Japan might rise in the world of empires, I cannot in my wildest imagination picture them going down the US or ex-Soviet style centralized food path. Efficiency and individual over community is not a value being valued here to that kind of extent.

    3)Even though the above sound like my typical Peony complaining-- in fact, we do see eye to eye and I therefore hope you are right about the isolated communities that cling to *traditional* values. Hmmmm......

  2. "Penelope Waiting" is a very relevant post, Peony. Read it, noted with chagrin that Goethe already felt the evil wind blowing. I see culture under the "organic" category and "soul" as beyond the organic, hence decadence is something we can study. And, to be sure, there are undoubtedly many different forms of it. I think that in different stages of a culture's organic development, the views of human worth are different. Medieval Europe had a different view of humans than is current here now.


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