“There is no there there.”
- Gertrude Stein
The study of history has long been an enjoyable activity for me. A conclusion I have drawn from it has been that civilizations are created by individuals; they are destroyed by collectives. One can see such dynamics at work in what has been taking place in recent decades in the collapse of a once life-sustaining Western Civilization. I have discussed this process in previous articles, as well as in two of my books: Boundaries of Order, and The Wizards of Ozymandias. What began as the creation of values that enhance and celebrate life, ended up sanctifying the systems generated by expectations that the preservation of once-successful forms would assure future well-being. Liberty and spontaneity that was essential to creativity became subordinated to the structured, status quo needs of organizations that are now considered to be ends in themselves and, thus, “too big to fail.” When individualism was sacrificed to an institutional imperative, Western Civilization began its death-march. I explored this theme in another book, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.
In a culture grounded in individual liberty, any system that insisted upon the maintenance of existing conditions and not having to adapt to environmental changes would quickly face extinction. But if political institutions are available to help preserve the status quo by forcibly regulating the behavior of others, those able to control the political machinery can overcome this need to remain resilient. By fostering enforceable rules that standardize and make uniform the actions of others, the state gives birth to collectivism, a concept that one dictionary defines as “a doctrine or system that makes the group or state responsible for the social and economic welfare of its members.” This idea produces consequences that are detrimental to the long-term vibrancy of cultures that embrace its stifling assumptions. Entropic forces accumulate when the liberty of men and women to adapt themselves to the needs for change are frustrated by the state suppressing behavior; a behavior that is contrary to the interests of those who enjoy political power. With “entropy” defined as “energy unavailable for productive work,” it becomes clear how the state’s regulation, control, and prohibition of creative activity contributes to the disintegration of civilizations.
When institutions are shielded from the necessity of remaining resilient and robust, they lose their capacity for being what historian Carroll Quigley called an “instrument of expansion” for producing the values upon which they depend for their survival. When such restraints are extended by law to all members of society, the culture itself becomes burdened with rigidity and ossification, turning civilizations into what historians Will and Ariel Durant termed “stagnant pools left by once life-giving streams.” Substitute the words “rust belt” for “stagnant pools,” and the metaphor for modern America becomes evident. Life is a continuing process of change, of the capacity to adapt to new situations. One can no more structure life forces in the hope of preserving the dynamic energies that define life than can the owner of a deceased dog hope to preserve the pet by taking it to a taxidermist.
As with a small child who threatens to hold her breath until a parent meets her demands, the life forces will ultimately prevail in defense of their expression. This is what is occurring in modern Western nations, with unseen influences so deeply embedded in the nature of life as to be immune to conscious efforts to describe them in words. Life is resiliency, and if the living refuse to conduct themselves in harmony with the existential need for flexibility, they will become extinct. Economic history is laden with the examples of firms and industries that refused to adapt to competitive alternatives or creative opportunities and were quickly swept into the dust-bin of failed systems.
It is neither the “voters” nor “mankind” nor the combination of any so-called “demographic groupings” that explain the turbulence of recent elections, secession campaigns, or other anti-establishment expressions. Psychologists have long articulated what is known as the “frustration/aggression hypothesis,” the idea that as people’s purposeful activity is interfered with and intensified, the resulting frustration they experience may result in violent reactions. Such behavior is a reflection of the anti-life implications of some persons intervening to forcibly redirect or prohibit the actions of others. It is another of the many instances of Newton’s Third Law of Motion (i.e., for every action there is an opposite but equal reaction). This is the principle that Ron Paul and others have used to help explain the “blowback” consequences of American foreign policies. Perhaps it is the life force itself that is mobilizing, at levels that transcend conscious thought, a veto power over practices that war against the conditions upon which life depends for its spirited vitality.
Institutions, whose existence depends upon their being regarded as ends in themselves; and with a need for permanency whose interests outrank others, are attracted to collectivist thinking. Collectivism, in turn, is grounded in a belief in objective definitions of truth, values, and human understanding; qualities that allow for popular acceptance of state-imposed rules that foster the standardization and uniformity of conduct upon which the institutional order depends. If the principles and understanding upon which we act were recognized as varying from person to person, that the individual nature of life’s diversity finds expression in our subjective preferences; it would be difficult to create a hierarchically-structured political establishment. To defend the use of state-sanctioned violence against others on no higher ground than “my life and interests are more important than yours,” would upset the schemes upon which all politics depend.
The Renaissance, Enlightenment, Reformation, scientific and industrial revolutions, and other transformations in human understanding – changes that gave birth to Western Civilization itself – can be traced to Gutenberg’s invention that helped free individual minds from their captivity. An even-more expansive awareness of the life-enhancing powers of individuality and decentralized, informal organizational systems, has been emerging in the aftermath of computerized technologies – including the Internet. Just as the Industrial Revolution helped humanity learn how to more abundantly produce the material values upon which life depends, our current explorations which I regard as the fourth stage in the “information revolution,” is helping us learn how to live qualitatively more abundant lives by freely communicating with our multi-billion neighbors in communities that have no tops or bottoms.
In a word, collectivism is dying a long-overdue death. But, embracing Dylan Thomas’ advice to “not go gentle into that good night,” the faithful are making a spectacle of themselves; not unlike the Luddites who feverishly reacted to the liberating nature of the early Industrial Revolution by engaging in machine-breaking riots. Current collectivists remind me of a chicken that has just had its head chopped off. It noisily and reflexively flaps and flutters around, splattering blood in all directions, giving the outward appearance of willful action, but with a fate already determined by the axe.
Having long burdened the rest of humanity with the smug arrogance that their understanding and values are “objectively true” – an assumption that provides their elitist-egos the comfort associated with compelling others to live as the “philosopher-kings” dictate – collectivists must now confront the reality opening up before them. Principles and other values that collectivists once pretended to embrace in order to persuade others to support their policies are now being jettisoned in a desperate effort to shore up the crumbling foundations of their base of absolute power. “Free speech” and a “free press” – so useful to them in acquiring political influence – have been watered down in “speech codes” and proposals for “gatekeepers” to regulate what persons and what content can get on the Internet. Objectionable opinions that were once welcomed as expressions of the “marketplace of ideas,” are now subjected to prior restraint as “hate speech,” “racism,” “anti-Semitism,” or “xenophobia.” Philosophies that college students used to read, analyze, and discuss to energize their minds, have given way to dogmatic forms of “political correctness,” a practice grounded in illusions of “objective” standards of thinking.
Name-calling has become a substitute for what were once enjoyable debates and discussions when collectivist ideologies were dominant. Opposition to the unprovoked initiation of wars – a principle that underlay the Nuremberg trials – is another casualty in the emerging tradition of endless wars against endless enemies. Collectivist politicians who once condemned the influence of great wealth in politics, now enjoy net worths running into the hundreds of millions of dollars derived from serving major corporate interests. At the same time, they seek to buy off voters in the same shabby manner they were bought and paid for by their crony capitalist supporters. Growing lists of government “entitlements” – such as “free” college tuitions, “free” medical care, and “free” food,” the costs of which are to be paid by others – are promised in exchange for voting-booth support.
The rights of “privacy” that were once considered sacrosanct in a free society, are now routinely invaded in virtually any manner that state-funded surveillance technologies can produce. The supposed protections of “due process of law” have little meaning remaining; nor are there any clear limits on the power of the state to confiscate private property through taxation, eminent domain, asset forfeiture, or the imposition of “contractual” obligations. Those whose identities and sense of purpose are tied up in having power over all of humanity have resorted to justifications later shown to have no validity (e.g., centralized economic planning). Their appetites for centralized authority over life found expression in the 1980s with the plea – supported by some scientists – that the earth would soon experience “global cooling” (a new “ice age”) unless the state was given the power to regulate human activity. When the basis for such a prediction was called into question, the “threat” quickly shifted to “global warming,” and more recently to “climate change” – with many of the same scientists lining up on behalf of the amended cause. Like John Maynard Keynes, collectivists have long operated on the principle “on the basis of my conclusions, I draw my facts.” Even the democratic process, the collectivists’ last refuge of appeal for popular support is now under attack from many angles to overturn Donald Trump’s election victory!
The plight of modern collectivists is reflected in Gertrude Stein’s words at the beginning of my article. Her “there is no there there” reference to Oakland, the city in which she was raised, was not intended as a put-down of the city but was a nostalgic disappointment in not being able to locate landmarks of her childhood. I suspect that many collectivists are experiencing a similar wistfulness in no longer being able to find the cultural benchmarks they grew up presuming to be permanent expressions of objective truths. The disenchantment of a world that no longer conforms itself to prescriptions from the past may help to account for the desperation with which older values can so easily be discarded. Collectivism is now like a sinking ship with no freight left to throw overboard.
Work being done in the study of chaos and complexity remind me that the outcome of complex systems will always be unpredictable. As such, I have no definitive offerings to make regarding the shapes in our future. I do suspect that the ongoing collapse of vertically-structured pyramidal power systems will continue, if for no other reason than life forces insisting upon the individual, spontaneous, and autonomous nature of life.
“Collectivism” is an idea that is contrary to the individual nature of our lives. We were conceived, with a DNA unique to each one of us, because our sperm was able to outrace the 200,000,000 others just as eager to fertilize our mother’s egg. We live and die; feel pain, joy, happiness, or despair; are able to create and discover; and can mobilize our own energies, only as individuals. Left to the pursuit of our own interests, we would probably never be inclined to demote ourselves to purposes and systems created by others for their self-interested ends. The way in which collectivism wars against our individuality is reflected in the fact that the former interests are mandated and enforced by the coercive machinery of the state.
Though I am mildly amused at watching collectivists perform their frenzied decapitated chicken dance over the election of Donald Trump, I see no latent long-term benefits in his administration. His presence in the White House has so rattled the cages of the high-church establishment faithful, both in the media and academia, that it was worth the price of staying up election night watching the majority of voters in state after state go for Trump. At best, I see his presidency as the illusion of a break in the sanctified madness of the political management of human existence; an opportunity for millions to shout “enough!” Hopefully, it might also provide members of Albert Jay Nock’s “Remnant” time to rediscover the deeper understanding of the principles underlying social practices that benefit, rather than sacrifice, the lives of all individuals. Trump’s time in office may serve as the shaking of a kaleidoscope that supplants a tired image with fresh and vibrant ones coming from outside the political circus tents. In much, the same way that our immune systems are able to overcome threats posed by bacteria and other microorganisms, the decline of collective systems may serve as a catalyst for fundamentally transforming the destructive nature of the world we have created for ourselves, our children, and grandchildren. Perhaps intelligence, rather than structured cunning, can once again inform human behavior.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] is Professor Emeritus at Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, and Boundaries of Order. His latest book is The Wizards of Ozymandias.