Part 33 of Prisoners of the Real
For a century, humanity has been in the early stages of a great transformation, perhaps the greatest it has ever faced. As revealed in the dissolution of the "superpower" known as the Soviet Union, it is not merely a matter of one economic and social system prevailing over another. All systems are under severe stress. Alliances crumble, ethnic and religious upheavals shake the world, class and racial conflict flares across the US, the planet itself shudders under the threat of environmental Armageddon.
Martin Buber recognized the stakes when he wrote, "What is in question, therefore, is nothing less than man’s whole existence in the world."
During the various stages of human evolution, the central dynamic has consistently been the relationship between human beings and the rest of the natural world. But over the last five hundred years the tempo of our crusade to assert power over nature has increased dramatically, and with devastating effect. As crises pile upon one another, we have slowly begun to see just how fragile our "triumph" has been. In quickly repressed moments of intuition we sense that the high road of progress is actually a high-speed ride along the narrow ledge of an abyss. What we desperately need is conscious, responsible knowledge, and flowing from it, truly heroic deeds.
But taking account of the journey ahead will not be enough. In order to act effectively we will need to acknowledge where the journey began. Human beings first emerged from nature by banding together –to protect themselves, hunt, gather food and work. Yet, from the very start, we faced each other as independent entities. A "social" world was created by beings both mutually dependent and fiercely independent. No group of animals had ever constructed such a society before.
Apes use tools, but don't "produce" them for one another. Insect societies have division of labor, but it governs them completely; they don't improvise, strike out independently, or develop one-to-one relationships. It is precisely this unique quality of humanity – the complex and dynamic tension between autonomy and unity – that has brought us to our turning point.
Communities form, reform and evolve on the basis of the twin principles of growing personal independence and collaboration. In every group, in one form or another, division of labor emerges, each person utilizing special capacities in a renewing, shifting association. This is the first step in the evolution of any human organization. The second is the development of relations between groups – in other words, some agreement to combine effort in the pursuit of an external objective. In doing both, we acknowledge differences in nature and function. No matter what the particular shape or customs of a human society, a balance between functional autonomy and mutual aid must be struck both within groups and in relations between them.
Power centers come and go – cities, states and bureaucracies that boldly guarantee order and security. Yet at the root, what counts is the organic and enduring human community in which we live and work, where we compete with and support one another. And within each community and group, asserting independence while simultaneously fulfilling responsibilities to fellow human beings, is the individual – autonomous and yet profoundly social.
How tragic, then, that these fundamental aspects of human development have been so distorted by centralistic and absolutist institutions. The problem isn't merely that the State has weakened and in many respects destroyed free associations – although it has also done that. The true tragedy is that the centralist impulse has become embedded in all forms of social interaction. It has changed the inherent structure of groups, the family, institutions, and societies, as well as the inner life of humanity. Modern industrial development has meanwhile accelerated society's subsumption within the State.
Struggles between States have become struggles between whole societies. And societies, perceiving threats both from outside and within their very nature, have often submitted further to centralized power as a result. The pattern has replayed itself in varied political systems, from the most brutally totalitarian to the proudest democratic.
As the importance of power, the interests of the State and the marketing of mass culture have saturated societies, the inner development of the individual has become confused and disfigured. The family, work group and community no longer provide a source of reassurance. Individuals cling increasingly to the great collectivities, abdicating individual freedom and responsibility. In the process, a key component in social life – mutual support between human beings – has been severely undermined. In many places and situations, autonomous relationships have become meaningless. As Buber put it, "The personal human being ceases to be the living member of a social body and becomes a cog in the 'collective' machine."
Just at the moment when, in some societies at least, there is finally time to improve community life, it has been hollowed into an empty shell.
Next: Narcissism & Grand Delusions
To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey