Human history is the most elaborate and lengthy fairy-story we know. It is a saga of the evolutionary intricacies of the collective human soul. Whether the course we have taken is the only course available to us is doubtful. Had humanity chosen, early in its history, to use its wisdom and power to co-create history in a more intentional way, things would surely have gone a lot differently. Very differently.
Nevertheless, we have taken the course we have taken, and the results of this are what we now are challenged with today. It is as if we are now to redeem and make meaningful the suffering which majorities of humans have experienced at the hands of minorities of their fellow humans, over a period of many millennia. To make that suffering in some way worthwhile, slimly justifiable, we need to learn from it a lesson so deep that such extremes of imposed suffering are then categorically eliminated from our repertoire by collective choice. Sounds like a tall order, yet there is a resounding necessity to it.
Human evolution can at times appear to be going backwards. Humanity slides into a decline of principles and values, and much is undone through war, social degeneracy and corruption, subservience to the whims of ruling elites, collective thoughtlessness, environmental and cultural destruction and mishap. Such a situation arises from a viral infection of the collective soul, characterised by negative feelings, deteriorative standards and compounded downward spirals of unvirtue. It becomes epidemic when too many bad things have been going on for too long, unreformed, habituated and institutionalised.
Humanity has both an aspirant and a retrogressive nature, and sometimes retrogression gains strength as a result of laxity, cynicism and collusion. Retrogression has become something of a default habit, while intentional moral or evolutionary progression is perversely regarded as a high-brow effort demanding immense energy, risk or foolhardiness.
The long slow downfall of the Roman system and of advanced civilisation in the West in the first four centuries CE arose out of gradually-accumulating ills which no one sufficiently undertook to correct or transform. The glue binding Romanitas, the order of the Roman sphere, came asunder in a contaminant breakdown of trust and confidence after generations of increasingly self-serving power-games at the top, competitiveness and institutional corruption. The same tendency is visible today in the 'developed' West – we suffer similar denial to that of later Romans, and though Westerners hark back to Roman greatness and culture, we fail to draw lessons from the Roman downfall.
As insecurity in Romanitas increased, people pulled up the drawbridges and gathered around warlords and protectors. Declining social values led to a downward decline from Roman legalistic civildom towards defensive, increasingly indebted fiefdom and downturn. Collapse of cohesion, mutuality and social spirit is an eventual consequence of any serious decline of social standards and values. The West of Europe was offered an opportunity to reform and transform the Roman system, to give birth to a new European civilisation. In the East of the former Roman empire they managed this in Byzantium, carrying forward and transforming the momentum of Romanitas into a new Christian-inspired cultural system which lasted another 1,000 years - though eventually this too fell.
The psychology of self-interest on which the empire of the West was built could not allow transformation at the time when it was due and possible. This time was the 100s and 200s CE – especially the 250s-260s, when bubonic plague decimated the empire and led to economic downturn. The empire staggered on by habit for nearly tow centuries more yet it eventually fell, and the West had to painfully and directionlessly rebirth itself in an age of struggle and relative regression - the folk-wandering period. The Roman empire and system fell, and a consequent period of chaos and fluctuation eventually gave way to the consolidation of a variety of European kingdoms around 800-1000 CE which themselves gave birth to the medieval order.
While the European chaos, the Dark Ages, were going on, civilisations elsewhere in the world generally thrived – the Caliphate of Baghdad, T'ang China, Mayan Mexico, Zimbabwe and Hindu India were all doing fine, achieving peaks of culture of historic proportions. The European Dark Ages happened during most of the world's Light Ages.
Civilisation as practised has often been authoritarian, coercive and hierarchical. This leads to deep habituation to the master-slave mentality – the tendency to obey the overlords and to fit into a binary psychological game. This was reinforced by a medieval and Renaissance tendency to eliminate or cleanse dissenters and inconvenient minorities, such as Waldensians, Hussites, Cathars, witches and Jews. The pattern is reinforced or modified when necessary or when anyone is in doubt - insecurity and change tend to breed right-wing tendencies. Even rebels against such psychological patterning tend to adopt it whenever they themselves achieve power, whether by intention or not.
What defuses long-accumulated master-slave mentality is awareness – preferably with an outbreak of love, trust and pluralism thrown in. Social awareness arises in various ways: it can arise from an acute sense of threat as change approaches, from a belated sense of loss after changes have occurred, or from poignantly deadlocked situations – or from occasional spiritual impulses. A few examples follow.
Modern Islamic fundamentalism, Salafism, not incorrectly anticipates the degenerative effect on Islamic society of modern amoral Western commercial culture, technologies and values. One of the most marked major outbreaks (fundamentalism is centuries old) was the 1980s Ayatollah Khomeini-vs-Uncle Sam case. Khomeini took it upon himself to try to define new (and restore old) standards in Islamic society, inveighing weightily against the corrupting foreign rot of consumerism, Western-style materialism and imperialism. Despite or perhaps because of a lengthy propaganda war from both sides, the matter never was resolved.
Muslim fundamentalism yet has to make its point and is yet to be appreciated for what it is saying to Westerners. Meanwhile, the relentless march of commercialism, given new life by globalisation, has carried on, flowing around the conservative mullahs of the holy city of Qom. Muslim fundamentalism does not set out only to inveigh against the godless West: it is predominantly a domestic social, educational and welfare movement akin to the European workers' movement of the late 19th century. Even here, it favours the oppressed in an Arabic world divided by status and oil money. Its core is religious-social, parallel to the nonconformist, temperance and early socialist movements of Victorian times – in the West, religious and secular affairs come separately, while in the Middle East there is less of such a distinction.
An example of the second form of awareness (sense of loss after changes have occurred) was the acute resistance to the Romans by both the Britons and the Jews from around 65 to 120 CE, brought on by a threat of loss of cultural integrity under the occupying Romans. Both groups took decades to subdue, acting as unwitting partners in protest against the Roman order. The awareness in both instances came too late – both the Jews and the Britons were gradually subsumed into Romanitas.
Another example: the ANC in South Africa chose from an early date to fight for multi-racial tolerance, not for an Africanist, black-power, anti-white line. In doing so they paid a price, inasmuch as hate and opposition can gather more steam, make bigger waves and get more bullets fired, yet the 1990s have seen this reconciliatory cultural movement, born in the shadow of apartheid, achieve success. A multiracial system has been founded from the black experience of white racism.
The modern battles of the IRA against the English in Ulster represent another such belated awareness-movement, yet one wonders whether the original cause was lost in a habit of opposition and hard-headedness. In other words, a sharp awareness motivating a social movement can also become a mindless creator of pain and insecurity for everyone – strife and opposition for its own sake.
An example of the third social awareness, born of hopelessly deadlocked situations, is the Reformation of the mid-1400s to the mid-1500s. This arose out of a long-deadlocked medieval power-struggle between papal and secular interests, to which were aligned respective conservative and progressive interests too. The Reformation arose from an abreaction to the ongoing religious oppression and corruption of the Catholic church. It also represented a shift of the cultural-economic centre of gravity in Europe away from Rome to NW Europe, and the rise of bourgeois mercantilism and new ideas there.
However, it also fired up the fourth kind of social awareness, a religious one, in which a genuine improvement of social standards was promulgated too. There welled up a wave of Protestant communalist and idealist religious movements (Hussites, Quakers, Anabaptists, Shakers and other sects). A pandemonium of new and potent ideas sprang up in some localities, not unlike the flower power movement of the 1960s. It attracted only minorities at first, yet the ideas and tendencies at stake were potent. The movement gave birth to spiritually-motivated communalistic social experiments, many of which came to be systematically suppressed, destroyed or exiled to America.
Outbreaks of public awareness, witnessed more recently in 1965-69 and 1988-89, tend to go against the presiding authorities and norms of the time, threatening or rumbling the established order. These outbreaks do not at first set out to oppose the status quo, only to reform or liberalise it – yet the status quo feels opposed, closes ranks and forces a clash. What is particularly dangerous – or exciting, depending on your position – is that such tides of awareness draw people together, causing them to suspend self-interest in favour of bigger ideas or shared interests. Solidarinosz. Sometimes they arise from manifest need, sometimes from a big idea, and often from a combination of both. The soul of humanity burps a new paradigm of possibility for the estranged, atomised human family to reunite itself. People lose their fear of stepping out of line, taking on personal risk for the collective good.
To maintain established social dominance-patterns, any heightening of societal awareness must be curtailed by any means possible by the controlling authorities by means of temptation, persuasion, coercion, covert operations or force. The most effective means of control is to split people apart from each other and reinforce their distrust of each other. Divide and rule – in any available sense. This method has quite deep roots going back thousands of years. It arose in religion before any other social sector. It's what the Adam and Eve story is about.
The human fall from grace, however and whenever that happened, arose from one single moment when someone made a decision to go against the natural order of things. An act was carried out which started an accelerating slide out of innocence. Humanity asserted its intentions and 'fell' from a simplicity of natural grace into the complexity of choice and power. It felt its selfhood and it found that selfhood could be amplified whenever conflict was taking place. Humankind learned how to compete with nature and with Creation – and with itself. Like an addiction, this painful-pleasurable power-feeling was strengthened by repetition until it became a fundamental psychological pattern. It became the norm, extrapolated in increasing detail. This came, over the millennia, to express itself in increasingly crazy proportions.
The power-feeling sat better on the shoulders of some than others. In societies becoming ever more sophisticated, diversifying into specialised social roles to cover ever-widening skills and responsibilities, some people were given, or took, the power to decide over collective matters. In many societies these were elders, whose wisdom and experience befitted them for the position. In other societies it was the strongest and most assertive who rose in influence. This specialisation naturally meant that many members of society lost their understanding of overall issues, and overall issues grew larger than their everyday field of attention. They became experts only in their own area.
This was no problem while there was a sense of social commonality and unity. Those who possessed greater power to decide or to effect outcomes tended to act on behalf of the whole social organism, in appreciation of everyone's interdependency and relatedness. However, a critical point came when the normal flow of things was disrupted by a new force – a force which acted individualistically, causing some to agree and others to disagree in an irreconcilable way. This was where the exercise of power became something which ceased to serve the whole. The complexity of changing whole systems made individualism gain ascendancy.
The form this intervening force takes varied in form – outside incursion or pressure, internal manipulation, contentious issues, rebellion, betrayal or tragedy – but the psychological issues are much the same. People begin to mistrust one another or to withdraw energy from the integral system of social relations - the circle of mutuality, trust and humanness which a balanced and fair society in hernetly possesses. Negative feelings set in to exacerbate things. What particularly destroyed social integrity was the assumption by one or several members of any society that they held greater truth or right-to-decide than others. What confirmed this was the acceptance by the majority that nothing could be done about it – a retraction of public influence. The investiture of power in individuals or hegemonies was no problem when supported by the population, but when power was gained by force, subterfuge, dishonesty or other shady means, the integrity of the whole was betrayed or undermined.
This is where two power-principles clash: one is communal, the other individualistic. In the former, power could be held by individuals or subgroups on behalf of others, with their aware commission. In such a system, the clan or community held land and resources on behalf of all, and needs were catered for over time by redistributing available resources to suit changing conditions – the growth of families, the death of individuals or changes of conditions. Resources were circulated. Even if the ruler was autocratic, s/he belonged to the people and was, in a sense, the greatest servant in society – a parent of a large family, acting generally for the benefit of the group as a whole.
In contrast, in an individualistic system, power is held by individuals or hegemonies primarily on behalf of themselves, and all others are treated as affected subjects. Here, resources are passed down through patronage and primogeniture – parcels of property are distributed and held intact for individual control by being passed down to eldest sons or appointed fiefs.
In Britain, the main indigenous transition between these two power-principles arose in Britain during the Roman period, settling in after the fall of the Roman empire (early 400s CE), when the Jutes, Angles and Saxons began infiltrating what was to become England. The first Jutes were hired as mercenaries by the British high king Vortigern to help fend off assaults from abroad and to help him stay in power despite the wishes of people who didn't like him. The issue at stake was this: the Celtic system elected a high king from amongst the local chiefs, and the high king could legally be deposed if deemed not to be carrying out his duties. Not wanting to be deposed for his maladministration and torpidity, and influenced by Roman ideas of primogeniture, the British king Vortigern called on the Jutes to assist him in holding power. However, Vortigern failed to pay his mercenaries properly. So they applied a classic form of primogenitive thinking: let rip and get as much as you can. Vortigern's days were soon over. His successor, selected by the Celtic system, was Uther Pendragon (father of the legendary Arthur). The day was saved, for a while. However, the tide of history was already running against the Britons.
Primogeniture, owing to its ruthless simplicity and indisputability, tends eventually to win over collective systems of inheritance of property, status or power. Successful consensus-building during a state of emergency is very difficult and time-consuming. Under primogeniture, succession and decision-making issues are direct and straightforward. Consensus-building involves the consideration and balancing of all relevant issues and lobbies, while primogenitive power-holders have no inherent obligations to anyone except themselves – though gathering supporters does involve cajoling, bribery or other ways of activating others' self-interest in one's own favour. Whatever the case, the collectivist system, though less amenable to change and rapid response, includes people, while the competitive primogenitive system excludes anyone who fails to obey or succeed in the rules of pecking order or obedience. Thus did primogeniture dominate the centuries which followed until the arrival of a more meritocratic system, which nevertheless is founded on a similar basic principle of rule by the winners.
Similar patterns evolved religiously. At first shaman-priests with the gift of spirit served the collectivity and the perceived cosmological order, and all was more or less well – except for the fact that a spiritual specialisation was gradually occurring. As time went on, spiritual secrets became increasingly arcane, and popular spirituality became increasingly vicarious and religious (in distinction to spiritual). Then came a further shift, when priesthoods became selected less on spiritual qualification and increasingly on secular or power grounds. People with secular ambitions started taking the role of priests – and the priesthood, however it was constituted, tended to decline in moral-spiritual standards, to wander incrementally from basic spiritual truths into more artificial moral codes, cosmologies and ideologies.
Either way, both priesthood and people gradually lost touch with innate transformative spirituality and its accompanying gifts: the public depended more and more on oracles, ceremonies and religious systems – and on those who pronounced on them. As priests became increasingly self-serving (often without necessarily knowing so, by accretion), religion gradually adopted ever more false forms, using ritual, implied threat or theology to increasingly manipulate or delude. As time went on, standards shifted. While reform movements have periodically taken place worldwide, something has been lost each time, and a new baseline became the anchorage of unfolding religious methods. Religion creepingly became a medium of psychological and social control, accumulating a vested interest in fostering and perpetuating popular ignorance. This is not to deny the sincere and true presence of the spirit in the religions of yesterday and today – yet we nevertheless do need to recognise what has been done throughout history in the name of religion and its institutions.
Both of these social processes brought an increasing degeneration and breakdown of social trust. At root, the belief that everything and everyone were connected and interdependent yielded to the idea of an individualised relationship with the gods or with God – or worse, it yielded to the loss of any realistic grip on living spiritual reality. This was a process of spiritual alienation, of befogment of inner truth. Similarly, in daily life, the functional and emotional integrity of families and clans degenerated toward a point where strong individuals in the collective were in a position to betray weaker members, depriving them of opportunity, resources or security. People became beholden to power-holders, who set the rules and decided the fates of others.
This landed up in feudal situations where serfs had become virtual slaves to lords, to whom they had bound themselves in return for protection in an insecure situation often stimulated by the lords themselves. Later this led to the appearance of increasing numbers of landless people who came to populate the cities – cities operating with laws and prescribed behaviour-patterns but without binding interpersonal bonds of feeling and care. The end-product of this process is what we see today in metropolitan countries, where everyone is responsible for themselves or for their immediate families only. Though there might be bills of rights, laws and sophisticated social procedures, there is today little emotional bonding in cities or nations. Helping people in need has become a strictly voluntary and specialised exercise, increasingly undervalued. The modern world has become a culturally-insensitive, unsafe emotional disaster-zone. Peple have moved together into cities while becoming more distant psychologically.
However, spirit has its ways of awakening within people's hearts, spontaneously and anarchically. This can be subversive to a power-elite. Individuals and movements arise to uphold decent principles and set positive precedents which, if they succeed, gradually become incorporated and institutionalised. Human nature is not irredeemable, and when given a chance, people can indeed be nice to one another and improve each others' lot. However, if a society's social psychology is basically rotten, even high principles can easily be subverted while nevertheless appearing intact. 'A caring society' becomes a slogan replacing reality. This problem afflicts reform attempts in our day, to the extent that politics has become increasingly cosmetic. It is arguable that spin-doctors and political managers (the directors and producers of the political stage) have superseded politicians, mere actors in a PR-oriented game of government-by-appearance.
Be this as it may, the central question determining the health and evolving history of any culture or period is social awareness. Whatever a society's forms and institutions, awareness constitutes the central factor reinforcing the immune system of any society, strengthening social values and literal societal friendship, diluting the influence of manipulation, injustice and other insanities.
Without such a feeling of emotional warmth, where strangers are welcome at the hearth and where society is essentially supportive, people resort to guarding their own patch – both psychologically and physically. Spirituality and sense of humanity shut down. Things go wrong, becoming harder for many. Social relations become complexified, stratified and mutually-defensive. In such a context, children learn the reality of either aggression and insensitivity or victimhood and complicity at an early age. It then becomes easy for a society to fall into the trap of believing that life or the gods are against it, that we are on our own, and that God is distant, up there in heaven, while we are down here, marooned squalidly on Earth. Spirituality becomes the privilege of the few, or it even becomes an unattainable goal. Happiness is believed to be given to us only when we deserve it – according to someone else's moral rules.
Separativeness gives rise to a sense of ego – exaggerated individual selfhood. When growing up in an insensitive world, a youngster learns to define its sense of selfhood by saying "No" to things and by pushing against adults, authority-figures or presented situations. This habit of winning or losing is carried into adulthood and passed down to the next generation. The more that adults and role-models impose their ways or demonstrate hypocritical doublethink, the more a youngster comes to kick against authority or tradition – with a mixture of insightful wisdom and reactive excess. The same goes for masses of people. Alternatively, the 'underdog' lapses into passivity, compensatory self-destructive tendencies or feelings of hopelessness.
In the case of children whose upbringing has made no sense to them or where they have experienced (in their view) unfair treatment, a habit of lawlessness or defiance can grow to become normal. This can sometimes breed reformers and innovators, or it can breed criminals, misfits, guerrillas or destroyers, who wish on some level to get their own back on society. More frequently than it admits, society deserves such people, for degenerates and outsiders teach citizens where their own errors lie. When a society ignores and suppresses its seers, critics, rebels, misfits and reformers, by alienating, impounding or criminalising them, it is in trouble with itself, failing to acknowledge its own core weaknesses. The clock is ticking, and a time-bomb is waiting to go off.
Social alienation, separativeness and psycho-spiritual isolation are key factors retarding a social inner growth process. Such a process – a truth-emergence and a clearing-out of locked cupboards – is a key ingredient in world transformation. Meanwhile, alienation keeps people powerless. Compensatory activities such as affluence and consumerism constitute a major part of the destruction which must be addressed if the fate of our world is to be turned around. Such a turn-around involves engendering a sense of the benefits of cooperation, a sense of solidarity and shared interest – the antithesis of isolation. The tribes of humanity need to embark on a process of healing of ancient woes, and the way this is done involves a coming back-together of humanity.