The Crisis of the Individual in Contemporary Civilization

During the Medieval period, Europe commenced small-scale education in the liberal arts, which expanded into cathedral schools and eventually a continent-wide system of universities, cultivating many brilliant talents.  This movement towards a culture of intellectuality informed by academia came to full fruition in the 18th century when scholars orchestrated a promotion of reason as the means to achieve a society of optimum cogency, and this ideal was infused into political philosophies, which made representative government and policies of legal equality feasible.  Mandatory public schooling in the 19th and 20th centuries enabled whole populations to benefit from academia’s progressiveness.  These institutions of the intellectualizing West spread to the rest of the globe, and by the end of the 20th century, the literacy rate could be as high as 99% in some regions.  The world is as conceptually empowered as it ever has been.

As for the cerebral aspects of enlightenment, society has arrived.  We all have enough knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, economics, the past, and additional domains to understand most topics that come up in writing or any medium, and citizens attempt to maintain a cognizance of events happening throughout the world.  We are saturated with information, plugged into a constant stream of descriptions and explanations of technologies, scientific discoveries and institutional strategies, so much so that human beings, at least in the West, are more inoculated to erroneous thinking than at any point in history.  But our personal comprehensions of nature and society, essentially consisting in the reasons why things happen, prove difficult to translate into collective rationality at the institutional level.  From all the causes addressed in chapter 23 of this section, “The Nature and Causes of Corruption”, such as friction between personalities, power hunger, disillusionment, the evolutionary drift of cultures, groupthink and exploitation, human beings frequently fail in transferring their reasoning to large-scale society.

Disillusionment is a subtle but significant facet of corruption to remain wary of because it exacerbates every other discontent and can erode the resolve of even those most well-prepared by learning and expert within their fields, as mobilized as anyone for a life of good decisions and benefit to humanity.  When individuals lose faith in their ability to effect positive change, life is less meaningful, and these citizens often acquiesce to the defects of social systems that are so hard to optimize as well as vulnerable to failure.  If even enlightenment flops, we can lose a forward-thinking mindset and cave in, assuming pernicious attitudes.

Some level of skepticism is healthy, for criticism is key to scientific research and can guard us against propaganda, misinformation, and the irrationality thus engendered.  Then we come up against the barriers presented by corruption as well as the perennial turmoil of a society that has so far been incapable of averting psychological disturbances with the accompanying tragedy and pain of lives compromised, disrupted or destroyed, and skepticism can quickly transform into nihilism.  

Before populaces became well-educated and competent to track the trends of civilization, probably pre-19th century in the West, disgruntlement at conditions usually resulted in mob actions, taking out one’s frustration on stereotyped subcultures or dishonorable authorities, and most of us have acquired enough knowledge about human nature to realize that cooperation is more effective for obtaining what we want than all out wars which readily intensify into a vicious cycle of feuding.  But even in learned cultures, a sense of disadvantage, especially when inequities are perpetrated by institutions in contradiction to many professed values, still has negative effects, for critical thinking gets displaced into a cynicism which rejects by default every opportunity to exercise exceptional levels of goodwill, and considers beneficent overtures a subterfuge that will develop into exploitation.  For this mindset, every philanthropic gesture is a Trojan horse: new ideas are a means of increasing control against the will of recipients, alternative perspectives are the product of ulterior motive, and intellectually difficult subject matter can seem as if it is an attempt to pull the wool over one’s eyes.  In this state, human beings do not so much repudiate the orientations of others, their subcultures, or authorities directly, but distrust the organizational mechanisms of change and convergence in viewpoint.  These individuals may still have come upon a degree of enlightenment, but if they renounce the institutional sociality that can convert enlightenment into widespread practice, every movement towards empowering and uniting intellects is incapable of gaining momentum.  No one is willing to get the ball rolling in an environment of ubiquitous unbelief, where genuine activism is anticipated as bound for the chopping block or an otherwise pitiful end, actually a self-fulfilling prophesy, and every moment of inspiration evaporates into the oblivion of dependable apathy.

One of the many benefits of civilization is that it allows individuals to divide up labor such that everyone has to perform only a single line of work, and this narrowed range of tasks requires less time, so that a lifestyle of dawn til dusk toil as a jack of all trades was capable of transforming into forty hours per week, freeing up much of the population for substantial leisure.  In the West, despite some recent encroachments on worker rights that have occurred in places such as the U.S., which are making occupations more burdensome, we still possess plenty of forums for recreation, and this in principle can keep quality of life at a high level.  There are plenty of products to enjoy, community events like concerts and spectator sports, businesses that cater to fun, and for many, time to spend taking advantage of these luxuries.

But the values of Western culture have become radicalized by high-octane and subversional stimulations of media, leading citizens to seek experiences that induce intense feelings, a massive release of adrenaline or dopamine, and which tend to involve risk-taking.  We have more knowledge of how the world works than any humans in history, with a corresponding means to use this cognizance for actualizing ourselves via unprecedented pleasure, but our enlightenment is countervailed rather than reinforced due to the antivalues propounded by institutions of leisure, eroding conscience and conditioning us to crave the salacious.  

Much of Western entertainment includes a strain of the antisocial, whether images of violence, illicit sex or explosive emotion.  We are bombarded with media in which individuals fight and demean each other, engage in self-destruction, and destroy what surrounds them.  Our technology has been used to create a world where nihilistic hedonism as amusement reigns: instead of moderate activities bolstering a community’s solidarity, sustainable long-term, we often partake of instant gratification, a quick burn that leaves us wanting sensations which most of human life is incapable of providing.  In essence, modern technoculture turns us into addicts.  As most of us know, the addicted mindset is more abusive, less responsible, and can lapse into a downward spiral that toxifies relationships while putting many at the precipice of personal catastrophe.  When the culture of value-sedition overtakes a life, even the most knowledgeable, talented individuals can fall victim to poor judgement and ethical collapse.

Humans feel obligation to themselves, their families, friends, acquaintances and communities, a desire to actualize both personal and collective wants and needs, and nihilism has a detrimental effect in this domain as well, despite our intellectual enlightenment.  A hedonistic culture of value degeneracy debases relationships, producing mentalities that find the mundanity of daily communications lackluster, with no good-natured, truly fulfilling intimacy, a minimal satisfaction from the closest of connections.  Even in this state, individuals have at least a vague image of what they consider a good life, with hopes and dreams for oneself and one’s contacts, and many find that the only avenue by which they can approach attaining their collegial ideals is work, collaborating with employees to get the job done and actualizing their social circle as much as possible by indirect means, particularly via financial support.  In the modern West, especially the United States, identity and livelihood become entwined with vocation on both a private and cultural level until the absence of an all-consuming occupation makes one a loser, and the loss of independent income is devastating.

Under these conditions, citizens fear that relinquishing a career will almost certainly destroy and probably end their lives.  When institutions grow corrupt or predatory, which increases in likelihood the more nihilistic a culture becomes, individuals are faced with a difficult choice: participate in the probable destruction of beliefs, values, demographics, and the future prospects of their society, or offer themselves up, along with any dependents they may have, as an ineffectual, anonymous sacrifice on the altar of communal ideals which organizations have overthrown and coopted as a decoy or lure utilized in schemes of exploitation.  Of course even those with intellectual competence choose temporary security rather than disgrace and imminent death, willing to comply despite the commitment of atrocities which they would disapprove of if it might not ruin them.  Deterioration in relationships prevents the majority from concentrating its power to exercise the integrity secretly preferred, and if conditions get bad enough, most will start modifying attitudes into sociopathic form in order to avoid loathing their very existence.  Once a tipping point has been reached, culture is engulfed in a nihilism that would contradict almost everyone’s will if reflected upon honestly, explicitly expressed, and somehow found operationalizable.

The majority prefers progress, making the world a better place and giving the next generation a brighter future, but losing faith in the human race’s capacity for integrity gives this idealism minimal chance of being realized.  If we succumb to believing the integrity of organizations has been compromised, that human beings are incapable of averting nihilism via advocacy, most find the architecting of enlightened practices and institutions to be abortive despite personal competency.  When the mindframes which are more proficient at bending the world to their will than ever disown constructive valuation and revert to archaisms such as the pursuit of domination and superiority, this is doubly hazardous, for it is not only the case that commitment to public service and civic responsibility has been denied, but these individuals who disavow enlightenment are more adept than anyone in history for making exploitation predominate as an incentive for participation.  In this environment, authority invokes its position to beget a system where exploitative action is shrewdly rewarded, where citizens grow addicted to grasping for power, ascending the ranks by taking advantage, and in which the means to abuse communities are highly effective.  When methods of exploitation have reached nuclear proportions, society becomes susceptible to blowing itself up, and leading a life that can genuinely call itself good is almost impossible.

Many pursue a less idealistic existence than what is conceivable, a sort of antieudaimonia.  The following is a summary of the basic notions, and while no life includes all of the following elements, most involve at least some of them.  Information and theoretical advancement are a sideshow as far as the individual is concerned; while progress is potentially good and necessary to an extent, it is not inherently meaningful and only requires commitment of time, energy, and collective action if it furthers a career.  Where the real action happens is in ideological and cultural combat: it does not really matter which side you take, whatever seems to be the most appealing, fashionable or convenient camp, and you do not really have to care about what you stand for, but fighting and destruction are the ultimate stimulation as long as they do not render civilization unsustainable, giving adrenaline rushes and peak exhilaration.  If you do not want to partake of the thrills provided by at risk factionalism, it is perfectly acceptable to lay low and follow orders to stay solvent and safe, only making waves if it is essential to one’s livelihood.  Whether you choose security or battle, it is alright to break the rules for some capricious fun if you can get away with it and it does not detract from the lives of anyone but subcultural rivals or some anonymous strangers.  Take advantage of the opportunity for wealth and power because turning down a life of luxury is ludicrous.  Work hard to cement optimum status if the opportunity is available, but if high achievement is hopelessly out of reach, pursue the hedonism that at least gives a dose of superficial pleasure, and hellraise if society has earned your ill will.

As for principles, do what you have to and do not jeopardize your own well-being by sticking your neck out over ethical dilemmas which are meaningless in the long run, a futile encumbrance to place on oneself.  If the institutions your circle depend on for survival require you to cause pain and lay waste to lives, this is unfortunate but unavoidable for most; immorality is an intrinsic aspect of subsistence we must resign ourselves to.  If activism for improvement is to your liking, by all means pursue this and make the world a better place if practicable, but do not bust your balls merely for an unlikely ideal future, and do not give yourself up in the service of causes which are doomed from the getgo.  As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”.  We have a realistic idea of what our chances of success are before we begin, and should not fight for the sake of chimerical ideals.  If we are ordered to use ideals as a deception for exploiting the masses, we should not endanger ourselves in all out fighting even when we might tend to esteem these ideals or violating them is against our will, because if a scenario cannot be anticipated in which opposition will emerge triumphant while skirting rapid attrition in the process, these ideals were doomed from the start.  The key is adaption: be malleable to what the environment demands, with principles employed as instruments to be mixed, matched, altered or discarded as conditions change, and your life will commonly get some kind of satisfaction.

Within this framework, most have lives that give them enough pleasure and security to keep treading the path of least resistance, a radical pragmatism that embraces nihilism, getting as much enjoyment from it as possible or required.  And many who have become dependent on the system end up destroyed by it when their fortunes plummet in an environment of complacency about the pains and exploitation of others.  But some are castaways, rebuffed early or forsaken without being obliterated, and gain a rare independence from the mainstream rat race that allows them to make alternative plans.

This mindset is disillusioned in regards to the benefit of having many casual acquaintances, forced by the school of hard knocks to confront the fact that most of these relationships will leave you rotting on the street with a run of bad luck.  These human beings associate with those who genuinely care about the consequences of what they do, willing to stand for something and form strong bonds with like-minded individuals.  They strive to establish a tight-knit network of citizens who can be trusted to respect them and cooperate in actualizing their views, learning from the knowledgeable and mentored by extraordinary competence.  The scope of these allegiances tends to remain small, and group unity is of the utmost importance.  Members try hard to avoid letting peripheralities of a nihilistic world distract them from the community’s needs and goals, for they believe a “go with the flow” life is bankrupt, a dead end for nonconformity that is anathema to their very survival.

They are faced with the dilemma of maintaining idealism amongst the hypocrisy of distinguishing an in-group as more valued than those outside their circle.  On occasion these individuals adopt a love for all humanity as the standard, but this outlook is susceptible to dying on the cross.  It is more often the case that those uncommonly committed to a value system tolerate some immorality towards the outside world as an inevitable side effect of strong belief, for citizens who feel apathy towards them, despise or oppose them must of course be identified as a hindrance to their objectives.  It is typically acceptable to neglect or even mistreat individuals who lack a comparably sincere cause, for they water down society’s solidarity.  If a subculture is hostile to the coterie’s values, confrontation is permissible, and it usually seems reasonable for the severity of these conflicts to be proportional to the threat posed.  If someone else feels affinity for one’s value system and meshes well with adherents, it makes sense to bring them into the fold, and if the group’s cause is to expand its influence, time is spent attempting to gain converts.  Essentially, one renounces an existence of nihilism in favor of insular communality.

The best facets of these two approaches to life, flexible practicality and community loyalty, each have merits, and movements which managed to effect a combination are some of the most successful in history.  Christianity’s tolerance and proclivity for blending into local traditions conjoins with an emphasis on values such as love for one’s neighbor, a way of being that no reasonable person can disaffirm no matter how corrupt its institutions become, and the religion reached one billion members.  Islam converted much of the world with its front of proselytizing conquest, and like Christianity it has been modified to fit local practices everywhere.  Buddhism is liberal in its acceptation of the personalized search for enlightenment, diversifying into numerous schools around the world and achieving an influence upon culture even in the historically Christian West.  Academia’s promotion of intellectual freedom within institutions of research and pedagogy has drifted towards the core of culture.  Martial arts with its plurality of styles and edifying ethic spread to all corners of the globe.  The diversity of team sports alongside the importance they place on comradery gains millions of participants and fans in every country.  It is obvious that middle paths incorporating both pragmatism and idealism are not only possible but precedential, so one wonders why the many common sense imminglings which developed over the centuries, winning great popularity, seem to be fracturing into a culture of unprincipled radicalism with cells of ultraprincipled extremism.  How did a perennial quest for value systems that harmonize autonomy with collectivization, leading to, sustaining and restoring cohesiveness in social life as conditions change, incline towards some derailment during the most recent stages of modernity?                

During the 18th century, many intellectuals in Europe became committed to social progress.  This was motivated by the Industrial Revolution’s initial detriments to the lower class and the fact that a technological society would require broadly distributed expertise at an academic level.  In order to stay competitive economically, European countries had to offer the general population a first-rate education, and these empowered individuals would desire administrative machinery that allowed them to participate in constructing society.  Essentially, political advantage had come to require that the upper class concede preeminence.

Moving on to the 19th century, much of the intelligentsia was indeed enlightened, penning literature which celebrated liberation of the human spirit and championed the nurturing of reason, but politics were contentious as always, and many of those in power had less idealistic goals while they attenuated centuries of domination and squalor so as to prevent their countries from being drained of wealth while subordinated by rivals with more optimized systems.  Much of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie that had exercised control of governments were prejudiced against the poor and loathe to relinquish status despite the necessity of transitioning towards egalitarianism.  Most of these individuals were intoxicated with dominance, paranoid of losing hegemony, and still bent on suppressing the lower echelons of society.  As insurrectional enthusiasm began to sweep across Europe, even those for whom high class education had engendered an enlightened outlook could be disillusioned by the violence of revolutionary movements as well as the frequency with which ideals of equality and representation were compromised in favor of reactionary oppression.  Two steps forward and one step back was a grueling way to pursue progress.  

Instead of commitment towards educating populaces to intellectuality as quickly as possible and thereby warding off discontents with reason, the upper class began trying to maneuver its way into a system which gave the illusion of universal participation via propaganda while perpetuating class dominance behind the scenes, tightly regulating entrance to the circle of power by segregating demographics and developing traditions for preparing authority figures to manipulate institutions in the interests of inequality.  Even bigoted leaders were consigned to the inevitability of revolution and reform, but most wanted to temper the process so they would not have to sacrifice financial and political superiority, a harnessing of change to suit their own welfare.  

Idealistic movements took shape around the globe, but due to the aforementioned dynamics, a template of aristocratic-style wealth dictating the lives of populaces via centralized bureaucracy was never usurped with permanence.  At the same time, each generation had to be better educated than the last in order to meet a country’s needs for technical proficiency, which also equipped almost every citizen to perceptively assess human nature, economies, politics, and the motives of authorities.  A system which had been designed to instate deceit such that inequities could be preserved amongst egalitarian ideology was growing less effective.

As education became more universal and the population able to recognize duplicity on the part of authorities, leadership compensated for the self-determining adeptness that was materializing in Western thought by ramping up usage of intimidation to weaken citizenries via divisiveness and ultracautious obedience.  In foreign relations, this amounted to a promotion of imperialism, indoctrinating individuals into the pursual of political domination, superior affluence, and cultural preeminence as much as possible.  With domestic life, the instillment of draconian tactics incited contingents to bully, a strong-arming of populaces into acceptance of the status quo with threat of violence.

This framework of minor concessions to rationality accompanied by warring and fear-mongering to disunite citizens persisted until the close of WW2, when the capacity of nuclear weapons to destroy civilization made channeling human productivity into waging wars with faux enemies impossible to use as ideology in many cases.  It was clear that future invasions on the scale of world war would decimate the planet, and the tradition of all out combat between great powers had to be dismantled.  Procession towards a less hawkish culture in developed nations went through some growing pains, as the West, led by the U.S., and the East, spearheaded by the U.S.S.R., entered into a cold war which fomented high tensions and a nuclear arms race, but sovereigns in every country knew that an outbreak of large-scale bombing and incursion would eradicate their way of life along with everyone else’s, so after a few decades of posturing, concerted effort was made to deescalate and foster peace between leading militaries.

Imperialism was not wholly diffused at this stage, but diverted into controlling the affairs of foreign countries for economic advantage, setting up puppet governments in proxy states with arms dealing and payouts.  Political establishments around the developing world benefited greatly from assistance by economic powers, which often propped up corruption such that local progressiveness was inhibited.  But by the turn of the 21st century, most developing countries had been modernized such that they no longer required aid, and began to liberate themselves from outside control, with the end of colonialism and a transition from the West as base of corporate capitalism to a more equitable distribution of private enterprise throughout the world.  Superpowers made some machinations to further their international interests, such as involvement of the United States in Iraq or Russia with the Ukraine, but the age of imperialistic coups and military control of foreign economies had past.

In the U.S., culture entered a pivotal era in its history, with the interplay of dynamics whose outcome will determine the character of a new age.  Like many countries around the world, the ability of agencies to surveil behavior increased due to advances in media technology.  By the 1960’s, phones could be tapped or microphones hidden to record conversations, and the reputation of any official or private citizen was vulnerable to destruction by news coverage, which ended Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974, nearly booted president Bill Clinton from office in 1998, and similarly brings down eminence in every locale with publicized scandals.  The government monitors organizations everywhere and performs raids on dissidents, so that the capacity to initiate movements and ideologies of political subversiveness has diminished.

At the same time, multicultural diversity in the United States brought human rights to the foreground, as was the case in many Western countries, and all kinds of historically disadvantaged groups began struggling for fairer treatment, with a mass movement in pursuit of ethnic equality resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which abolished segregation, as well as the introduction of affirmative action measures to combat discrimination against minorities in the workplace.  Academic research began to prove the universality of human nature and its impressionability to conditioning, in essence the compatibility between adherents of variant traditions, while study of non-Western societies became more prevalent.  The quest to apply egalitarian values to all demographics, achieving a truly just society, was becoming more high profile and popular.  But Western civilization’s authorities had spent more than two centuries obfuscating progress towards a more rational culture, so that tendencies towards cruelty, abuse, the utilization of pain and fear as motivators remained in force, perpetually in search of an outlet.

Institutions gained a vice grip on activism, with all kinds of citizens subjected to surveillance and possible arrest if they grew too outspoken or influential.  As citizens lost political life as a forum for agitation and spontaneous change, rebelliousness diverted into art, especially media production, which was aimed towards subversive themes.  Some of this is innocuous enough, such as a strong female character, a sitcom with an African-American family, or favorable portrayal of a gay man, but violence, illicit sexuality and otherwise antisocial behavior are much more indulgent, in addition to being a simpler means of attracting attention and marketing products than ideologies of rationality, so that progressive liberalism and sociopathy began to merge in popular culture.

The populace has been conditioned by these archetypes for decades, which shaped collective consciousness towards nihilistic radicalism and unprincipled commercialism fronted by a disingenuous veneer of freedom fighting.  Just as this ethically compromised aesthetic was reaching its peak, internet was born, the most potent mechanism for distributing memes and molding society to yet exist, exceeding any previous cultural determinant by a huge margin.  In only a couple decades, the entire Western world’s media had been largely integrated, with popular nihilism blown up to massive proportions, saturating the lives of hundreds of millions.  The modicum of rationality that had been fostered since Europe’s Enlightenment awakening was fast being choked out by malevolence gone mainstream.

When culture is consolidated mimetically while lacking the impact of rational values, it has seemed to rally around stereotyping and abuse, a mob mentality to which human consciousness is extraordinarily receptive.  This imperialism of the mind cooperates on even the most intellectual levels to subdue those not in the loop with institutional mechanisms, gradually modifying laws and practices to serve domination, a fleeting experience of mastery that does not truly satisfy but is straightforward enough as a goal.  However, even the most committed proponents never get too close in their personal relationships, and are willing to throw each other under the bus if conflict spirals out of control.  Citizens who have been ostracized or attacked by this belligerence either end up annihilated or gather together in more tightly knit groups that propound alternatives, with various degrees of benevolence or hostility.  Western civilization has thus become a desert of nihilism containing pockets of strong community that must buffer themselves from the mainstream, with everyone leading a dangerous and largely unfulfilling life which has not however lost sight of an oasis shimmering like a mirage on the horizon, the ideal of an ethical utopia that most can intuitively conceive during their most reflective, philosophical moments.

Contemporary culture in the U.S. and perhaps elsewhere is in weltering upheaval, with much indecision in regards to its course.  An environmental crisis has been brewing for decades, with action on climate change unable to garner political action nor broad support from the public as conspiracy theories and distrust of scientific authority abound.  A pandemic has stirred up suspicions of conspiracy along with unrest around the globe, and the extent of economic damage caused by quarantine shutdowns, how deep the depression has really become and what the prospects are for recovery, is uncertain.  It is clear that tens of millions may lose apartments and homes due to unemployment as government relief has been inadequate, and even simple childcare is a logistical hurdle as schools everywhere closed or reduced their hours of operation.  The last time a crisis of this magnitude materialized, it was immediately followed with upsurging fascism, invasions by totalitarian regimes in Europe and Asia, and a world war that nearly ended democracy in Europe, with much of the globe becoming more authoritarian.  Yet the unprecedented integration of culture via online communication gives us greater capacity to compensate for these challenges than any humans in history.  Thanks to our information technology, we may rapidly get back on track, reestablishing and then beginning to enhance solidarity and progressiveness on a scale that earlier humans could not have imagined.  

Infocentric culture is a seachanging force that will push social organization in the direction of either actualization or catastrophe without much delay.  We are teetering on the fence between utopia and dystopia, on the brink of a new scientific revolution which may radiate out from our study of the mind to better culture in ways unheard of since the Renaissance, and also flirting with political tumult and a nihilism-induced degeneration of institutions that might lead to regressive centuries.  Human will is about to be tested beyond anything yet encountered in our two hundred thousand year history, an unwieldy population of billions seeking to organize itself and understand the unfolding of a dramatically new reality.  We shall find out just how resilient our intellects and communities really are, for an age is close at hand that will conclusively prove the strength or weakness of human nature.  Rationality and the world system which depends on it are irrevocably bound to stand or fall this millennium.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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