COLUMN - THINKING OTHERWISE - Political Meditation for the Fourth of July, 2011:
Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?
Thomas Cole, “The Course of Empires: Destruction, 1836
Columns are take-out food for thought. So if you take away anything from this column, remember this axiom: If you live like an empire, you will die like an empire, as evidenced above in Thomas Cole’s famous painting.
The rise and fall of empires is masculine and ephemeral like the male erection, which is probably why empires appeal to the old men usually running them who send the young men who threaten their waning virility off to die in wars—men like Kaiser Wilhelm II and LBJ. When the Nobel physicist Leon Edelman was lamenting to me about the decline of American physics and the scene shift to CERN at Geneva caused by the denial of funds from the Senate for a new accelerator at Batavia, Illinois, he said—in the relaxed atmosphere of a summer party at the Ross School in Easthampton–that if they had called the project the Hardon Accelerator instead of Hadron, all the old men in the Senate would have voted for it.
Since the prehistoric universal religion of the Great Mother, the vulva and the phallus have been mythologized as icons of time. The male icon expresses the evanescent, vanishing mode of time, while the vulva as the lunar wound that heals itself expresses the enduring mode of time. Nietzsche wasn’t a radical, he was a reactionary when he tried to bring down the phallus of the God of patriarchy and replace it with the vulva of Eternal Return. This reactionary project of Nietzsche became more obvious with his follower Heidegger, whose attacks on the metaphysics of presence and whose exercises of deconstruction came to the aid of the ideologically archaic and technologically modern remythologized Nazi state of Blut und Boden.
Ochre as a symbol of menstrual blood has been used in art since 75,000 BCE. The word physis (nature), discussed by Heidegger, in Greek means the arising, and is a phallic symbol, just as the apeiron of Anaximander means the unlimited and is a demythologized invocation of the infinitude of the Great Mother. Greek philosophy, in its movement from mythos to logos, is an invocation and transformation of the archetypal icons of the prehistoric universal religion of the Great Mother.
Carved Red Ochre from South Africa, 75,000 BCE
Venus of Laussel, covered with red ochre, circa 26,000 BCE
Wall Painting from Catal Huyuk 5800 BCE
Since the birth of capitalism, the symbionts of trade and war have sustained first navies, then armadas of air and space. Recall that the Boeing 707 that was the foundation of the gigantic explosion of world tourism in the sixties was a retooled military tanker whose research and development had been carried out by Boeing with the support of the U.S. Government. Investment in the space program was not for a Star Trek free spirit to split an infinitive as well as the darkness of infinite space, but rather an American post-Sputnik effort to win the Cold War.
Patriarchal warfare is a process of destruction in which the destructions are never allowed to bring down the elite capitalist construction that profits from it—a point learned by the Dutch in the seventeenth century and made by Thomas Pynchon in his 1973 award-winning novel, Gravity’s Rainbow.
We are now at another important crossroads in history like the transformation of the United States from an agrarian republic into a military-industrial empire. Beginning with the Gilded Era and the Spanish-American War, the plutocratic nature of the American Empire has become exposed as democratic government has morphed into a small interlocking industrial Directorate that controls elections and government through donations, lobbying, and advertizing. The laws passed to regard corporations as individuals and to rescue the disastrously irresponsible experiments of Goldman Sachs’s Wall Street with the policies of Geithner, Summers, Rubin, and Greenspan have worked in favor of a smaller and richer elite. By maximizing profits and raising the stock price through lowering wages and reducing the domestic work force by outsourcing it to China, Wall Street looks to China and not America for the generation of wealth in the expectation that China will continue to buy up our Treasury bills and bonds.
This symbiosis holds for the moment because it is to China’s temporary advantage to sustain it. Since the U.S. is losing its workforce and its twentieth-century industrial economy, it can only continue to grow if it evolves to the higher level of an educated scientific civilization. But this metamorphosis from worm to butterfly also requires the shift to a higher spirituality appropriate to the new medium of air.
Empowering linear scientific reductionism with its controlling pharmaceutical-medical industrial complex and its new array of psychotropic drugs is justly frightening the Christian Right and is what is behind Palin’s and Bachmann’s attack on Obamacare and the Nanny State. They fear a government that will tell them not to smoke, lose weight and avoid the junk food they love, and floss. Evangelicals see this maternalistic social transformation as the beginnings of the emergence of the scientific totalitarian state and what C. S. Lewis described in his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength—a work I used as a text for my Freshman Humanities course on “The Technological Society”at MIT.
At its best, this Christian nativistic movement balances the excesses of the Dawkins and the Churchlands; at its worst, it is what I have called before in Pacific Shift “the Ghost Dance of the Rednecks.”
To balance the evolution of a scientific economy, we need also to develop a new post-religious spirituality. The Christian Evangelicals, the Islamists, and the extreme Right of the West Bank Israeli settlers represent an Abrahamic conservative religious reactionary force that seeks to block both science and post-religious spirituality. So the fear of this new cultural shift is global and not merely national.
The Neocons of the think-tank Project for a New American Century that guided Bush decided to ignore our decaying domestic infrastructure in favor of a project of global modernization that involved spending trillions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--and now Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya. The Directorate operates like the board of directors of a multinational corporation and has a post-national perspective on the generation of wealth. It has willingly turned the United States into a third world country of an expanding class of the poor and structurally unemployed and a contracting wealthy elite living within gated communities and offshore enclaves.
The political agenda of the Koch brothers is to deconstruct the social-democratic state by eliminating Social Security, public education, environmental protection and public health, but to characterize this transformation as one of freedom from the intrusions of the Nanny State. With the middle class now in free fall into the lower orders, the industrial elite has abandoned all sense of national identification with their “fellow American citizens.” We have become a Third World Country overnight and now are like modern India that would rather spend its resources on nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers than toilets and clean water to eliminate the necessity for millions of people to defecate in the streets and water courses they use for bathing and drinking.
A state of war usually becomes the War-State–a parasite that can kill its host. In this twenty-first century we have entered a new period of history that business leaders do not understand, one in which natural catastrophes replace wars as the process of destruction that is constructing a new culture--or a new Dark Age. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, brush and forest fires are now challenging societies around the world. As global climate change causes the glaciers to dry up in Tibet and the snow cover to disappear, the waters of the Ganges will dry up and India and China will come into conflict over the watershed of the Himalayas. Food, clean water and air, and public health--and not ideologies like capitalism and communism–are now the real issues to be dealt with in this New American Century.
Terrorism and the War on Terror—like the War on Drugs before it–are the mutually stimulating cops and robbers game of male leaders in gangs and governments who use laws to sustain the high street price and commerce of arms and drugs.
What is called for now is a shift in world-view and ideas of governance much like the earlier one from monarchy and the divine right of kings to republic. The Age of Revolutions, from 1688 to 1848, ushered in the birth of a new middle class society, a movement that seems to have come to its end.
A new transformation of consciousness expressed in the shift from the industrial nation-state to the global ecology of noetic polities is now called for. This century-long movement will involve a shift from religion to post-religious spirituality, from consumerism and economic growth to contemplative values and a deepened sense of the need for a way of life instead of a career, from corporate wealth to commonwealth, from economics to ecology as the governing science, and from bicameral legislatures of reaction and reflection to tricameral legislatures of scientific understanding, green technological development, and global communications.[i]
One can understand this series of shifts as an evolutionary process of miniaturization similar to the one in which ancient mitochondria moved inside the new eukaryotic cell.[ii] Our dangerously polluting industrial civilization must be scaled down and nature scaled up—thanks to new “living machines” and bacterially cultured remediating technologies.[iii]
In 2008, I had hoped that Obama held out the promise of this paradigm-shift in politics and foreign policy and that he could be the beginning of a needed cultural transformation. (Yes, I was naïve and let my imagination get carried away by Obama’s rhetorical gifts.) Obama is a Centrist and a voice for the established order; he has therefore conformed to the dictates of the Directorate, the Banks, the bond markets, and the defense industries. He has accepted high structural unemployment, sustained the War on Terror with renewing the Patriot Act, and he may now be playing a Three Card Monty in Afghanistan by drawing down some troops with the left hand, while with the right he shifts to set up a permanent military presence in Iraq and Central Asia even beyond his proposed date of 2014. His Cairo speech last year should have marked the beginning of a new era, but now Libya, Syria, and Iran, as well as “the Great Game” geopolitics of the gas pipeline in Central Asia, hold out the prospect of an unending Orwellian state of permanent war.
To contain Iran, Russia, and China, the military-industrial foreign policy of the Directorate will demand that we maintain a permanent military presence in Central Asia. To camouflage its commercial interests, the Directorate will use the boogey man of Al Qaeda to try to convince us that we will be giving new bases for this loose terrorist franchise if we abandon our military presence in Central Asia. And the inability of NATO to remove Gaddafi from power swiftly will embolden all the dictators who resist the Arab Spring--as well as our own military contractors and Neocons who will lobby for American Might and interventionism in Iran.
In point of fact, our military presence in Islamic countries is Al Qaeda’s best recruiting strategy. So we will have to decide whether we wish to continue to surrender our civil liberties to live in the protectorate of an authoritarian and militarist empire or protect our liberties in a democratic republic—a policy that was misrepresented as “isolationism” by Obama in his speech of June 22.
To be realistic, it is unlikely that the U.S. will reverse history to move from empire back to republic, since not even an inspiring and intellectually brilliant Obama can effect a paradigm-shift in our politics and foreign policy. Our planetary future may depend on well-watered and scientifically developed democracies elsewhere–like gigantic Canada and tiny Switzerland–to serve as the Cooper Twins that transform the electronic lattice of a metal and shift it from resistant to a superconducting unified single quantum state. In this enormous transformation, two electrons can make a difference. Without some domains of emergent noetic polities somewhere, the coming Dark Age brought on by our decline will be longer and darker than the last one.
Nevertheless, for this July 4, 2011 we must still try to make the first moves in shifting America from empire to republic, and from the media celebrityhood of our fatuous State of Entertainment in which running for President is a way of increasing one’s market share of media attention, stimulating one’s business, signing a book deal, or acquiring one’s own TV show. If we continue down this path of decline, we will vote for President some new version of a pagan Caligula or a Puritan Cromwell, depending upon our national bipolar mood swing.
The first step in backing out of the Dead End of our decline is to reboot and bring the boots on the ground of our army home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Armies can fill sand bags against the flood, or build bridges to cross it, but they can’t fight nature. And Nature is now the enemy we have made for ourselves with our industrial excesses. So our greatest act of patriotism for this July 4, 2011 is to begin the process of reconstructing the republic not by building more nuclear reactors but by turning our swords into the blades of windmills and healing our enflamed, polluting, military-industrial mind dumbing-down and mountain top leveling national sickness.
Culture is a complex dynamical system and is not a political or religious ideology, so what is required in this planetary transformation is an understanding of planetary dynamics in the interlocking exchanges of atmosphere, ocean, and continent. Science left to itself can become authoritarian and tyrannical; religion left to itself can become genocidal, and art left to itself can become narcissistic. What is needed is the triple description of these three different and independent cognitive domains, a triple circularity that is presented to us in the dynamics of atmosphere, ocean, and continent. A homogenized planetary sludge is not a planet. It is for this reason that I have devoted my whole career, from MIT to the Lindisfarne Association, to the articulation of a new planetary culture in which art, science, and post-religious spirituality engender a new global civilization.
America the Beautiful, before and after mountain top removal coal mining
Scaling down industrial technology, scaling up nature in Bariloche, Argentina.
Eco-friendly Hilton Hotel
[i] See the Conclusion, “Catastrophist Governance and the Need for Tricameral Legislatures” in my book, Self and Society: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness.
[ii] See the works of Lynn Margulis to understand the political implications of the new biological theories of symbiotic evolution in works such as Acquired Genomes and Chimeras and Consciousness.
[iii] See Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd, From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design (North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA, 1994).