15. The Conscience of a Nation
Conscience is a receptivity to the moral intimations of our deeper knowingness. In the public domain it can be channelled through official bodies if such bodies are open, impartial, altruistic and sufficiently clean-handed. Official bodies, to channel the public conscience, need to demonstrate themselves genuinely to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. This is difficult in modern times: authorities and institutions are nowadays seen with general disrespect, as a result of their previous acts and their tendency to further the wishes of ruling elites. They have, in many cases, undermined their own legitimacy, and the chickens have now begun to come home to roost.
Often this task of funnelling collective conscience is borne by the judiciary, the independence of which is vital if it is to be regarded as legitimate. Religious organisations are logically expected to be guardians of the moral fibre of nations, though cleanliness of motive and deed by churches, temples and mosques over time has not by any means been spotless. So problems exist in our current day which arise from weakened institutional legitimacy and from their soiled reputation as instruments of justice and morality. Without perceived legitimacy, their power to catalyse and channel social processes diminishes rapidly. They become part of the problem.
There are exceptions. In the case of liberation theology pursued in the Latin American Catholic church, giving attention to the core teachings of Christ as applied to the poor and destitute, a liberal attitude from the Vatican in the 1970s allowed such socially-oriented theology to override established Church doctrine and practice. This raised the respect held for the Church by ordinary people in Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela. However, this did not last long. The Vatican of the 1980s, afraid of modern disintegrative forces in its aisles, changed course, rooting out offending priests, cutting charitable expenditure in certain areas and making iron-clad theological statements to enforce institutional conformity. The liberation theology of the 1970s, counteracting the excesses of Latin American dictatorships of the time, lapsed into a strict, conservative rigidity when Latin America, in the 1980s, became a free-market, drug-financed development zone. The result was a rapid rise of Pentecostalism in South America. Catholicism lost much of its capacity to channel the aspirations and finer values of its vast congregations.
Nowadays, international aid charities funnel the large-scale financial and logistical outpourings of public conscience into the world's disaster zones – though rescuing the destitute is a poor substitute for prevention of the causes of destitution. These causes are inextricably tied to the insidious influence of the military-industrial-financial systems of charitable donor countries. In other words, the energy of Western conscience leaks out through the aid charities, yet this conscience has also lacked the integrity and balls necessary to shine light on the very Western system of aggressive materialism which caused the problem.
Here, the public ego gets in the way. While people feel sympathy for starving children and destitute folk, they fear loss of the conveniences and the stacked shelves of modern prosperous countries – which, incidentally, got rich on militarism, colonialism and financial dominance of today's aid-recipient countries. Thus, Western aid charities, while indeed channelling public conscience, also tragically channel Western public hypocrisy – with visibly mixed results in the countries they support.
Conscience also shows itself in reform-oriented political parties or governments, in enlightening musicians, fund-raising telethons on TV or pressure-groups and helping organisations. It also manifests in the form of spontaneous public displays of altruistic opinion, initiative or protest. However, there is a serious paradigm problem here. Established aid and campaign bodies or figures, with their own interests to protect, cannot succeed within today's economic system if they advocate philosophies and changes too deep or too broad for assimilation by that system. If they question key fundamentals, they quickly lose credibility, funding and power – or they threaten the system and invoke strong retaliatory action.
Thus, during the 1980s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), despite being the largest political organism in Britain at the time, was successfully marginalised by disapproving and negative governmental and media pressure. The idea of unilateral disarmament was rubbished and relegated to the realms of idealistic impossibility. Intelligence services tracked and bugged prominent campaigners and smear-campaigns were introduced, suggesting that CND was Soviet-funded and subversive. The public dutifully gave up on nuclear disarmament. In doing so, they missed a golden opportunity to initiate larger social changes – changes in the collective interest. Yet these were times of self-interest in which self-sacrifice was anathema: CND could not be permitted to succeed.
If voluntary public bodies such as CND are unable to wring significant changes (though they do often have effects on public opinion and values), it often falls on non-organised or non-legitimised groups, networks or crowds to give form to a nation's conscience. In Britain, the Greenham Common women's peace camps in the early 1980s drew together tens of thousands of women from a wide variety of backgrounds to protest in newly-creative, even magical, ways, at a large American nuclear cruise missile base near Newbury, England. Although this movement suffered news black-outs and smearing accusations of lesbianism and extremism, its cause nevertheless prevailed: within seven years of the goddess-invocations and womanly campaign strategies around the Greenham base, the nuclear missiles indeed were withdrawn – paradoxically, by a KGB placeman (Gorbachev) and a right-wing yankee megalomaniac (Reagan), both devils turned saints.
In Poland, the Solidarity movement arose from the shipyards of Gdansk in the late 1970s, fulfilling a need which all other official workers' organisations in that country could not fulfil. They embodied and channelled a popular power so strong that it eventually overcame a very rigid and powerful system, affecting not only their own country. The power of the collective unconscious often comes through the back door.
The Beatles emerged from Liverpool – not exactly the centre of the world – bearing no qualifications, social standing or even approval, to channel copious images and ideas affecting the unfoldment of society for decades afterwards. Even though the Beatles were provincial lads of no inherent consequence, their music was the first music ever in human history to be heard and sung by every nationality, class and type of person across the world – Eleanor Rigby and something crazy about walruses and Norwegian wood passed the lips of more millions of people than ever before or since, whether or not they actually understood it. However, such movements can also meet difficulties by questioning the dominant agenda – John and Yoko's bed-for-peace was dubiously received and misunderstood. Some greeted Lennon's assassination with relief.
These difficulties arise when the comfortable game-plan of society is fundamentally threatened or disrupted by players refusing to play the game. Thus, in Ulster in the 1970s-80s, it could be more dangerous to be a peace activist than a member of a paramilitary organisation. In Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia of the early 1990s the few pacifists there could easily be terrorised or shot. Serbs with principles who supported multiculturalism found themselves awkwardly alienated from Serbian nationalists, lumped suddenly on the side of the Bosnian Muslims and risking opprobrium from any side, depending on the outcome of the conflict. In some Islamic countries, free-thinking religious reformers or vocal atheists and their families lead a dangerous life. In many 'free' democratic countries ufologists, psychics and healers have been regarded as nuts and cranks – and not a few of them have landed up in psychiatric wards, in trumped-up scandals or criminal convictions, just to silence them.
The world-view of dissidents, who often simply give voice to commonsense, does not fit into the conventional worldview and is therefore highly threatening. Perceived threats posed by dissidents are often overemphasised or painted in horrendous proportions in order to distort the true message dissidents are seeking to convey. Any punitive threats by the system against dissidents are either overlooked or supported by the media, as if order and sanity were being protected and restored. This dominance game can continue even when many of its players know it is obsolete or misplaced.
In 'developed' countries, regulations limiting the activities of healers, herbalists and homeopaths are common and growing, even though the public has turned to holistic medicine in frustration over medical abuse by doctors and hospital treatments. The national ego (the authorities) don't like what's going on in the unconscious (the public domain), in the back-rooms of the nation. Sadly for medical authorities, in the case of complementary therapies, the tide is against them – public preferences are quite clearly moving in favour of non-industrial medicines and therapies. So, instead of outright suppression, the technique used is to quietly allow complementary therapies to grow and unfold, to rein them in by specifying standards, tests and procedures inappropriate to complementary therapies, and to quietly take over such services as they become increasingly commercially viable. Thus it is that the largest health food chain in Britain (Holland & Barrett) was originally owned by tobacco and sugar companies.
If the official culture and ruling elite diverges excessively from the ordinary people and their perceptions, and if the prevailing system cannot bend to fluxing tides, then mass action and change usually result. This can take the form of simple consumer boycotts of products, of food additives or French wines; it can take the form of general strikes (like those of 1930s UK or of Poland's Solidarity movement in 1980); it can take the form of mass actions (like the 'Velvet Revolutions' and the ill-fated Tienanmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing in 1989, or the Hindu-Muslim Ayodhya religious riots in India in 1992-93); or, most fundamental of all, it takes the form of shifts of opinion and belief which underlyingly and fundamentally change whole systems (such as the international shift toward workers' syndicates and Socialist parties in the 1890s-1900s, or the general dawning of widespread 'green' awareness in the late 1980s).
Here, collective conscience, the corrective device of the group psyche, so much threatens the ego of the nation that the ego either disintegrates or it radically reforms itself. Either way, crowds of people or their chosen heroes give body and expression to the collective unconscious of nations and humanity as a whole, and it is well worth observing current events in this light to understand their deeper dynamics at work.