The Tyranny of the Past (Societal bondage - Societal breakdown)

From a History of God by Karen Armstrong, page 133:
They now had almost enough …and were making Mecca an international center of trade and high finance … some even believed that their wealth had given them a certain immortality. But Muhammad believed that this new cult of self-sufficiency would mean the disintegration of the tribe. In the old nomadic days the tribe had had to come first and the individual second: each one of its members knew that they all depended on one another for survival. Consequently that had a duty to take care of the poor and vulnerable people of their ethnic group. Now individualism had replaced the communal idea and competition had become the norm … unless … (they) learned to put another transcendent value at the center of their lives and overcome their egotism and greed, his tribe would tear itself apart morally and politically …

A common saying is "Attitude is everything" but every attitude is supported by a culture and we can as easily say "Culture is everything". Culture surrounds our attitudes and it either grows and adapts or withers and decays. When a culture is in decay, when it is no longer responsive to the perceived needs of the times, some individuals adopt attitudes ahead of their time. We have entered such a time. New attitudes and a series of concepts heralding the birth of a new culture are already with us. The following excerpt sets out the challenge of the new to the tyranny of the past:

...the interests of people and planet are not served by economic systems obsessed with industrial growth. They consider that an ecologically-based economy would bring an increase in the quality of life for those in the already affluent countries. They argue that wealth in the North is often created at the expense of the South, that each percentage point increase in the Gross National Product quickens our consumption of finite and irreplaceable resources and that this is an injury to the rest of humanity and to the generations of the future. [1]

This statement is a starting point. It is a rejection of some of the basic values of Western industrial society, but, to understand what is emerging, the rejected values, and the reasons for rejection, must be clarified.

The catalyst for rejecting Western values is often an ecological concern. Destruction of our natural resources, pollution, and environmental degradation, have heightened the awareness that something is drastically wrong. But what is emerging goes beyond simple rejection. It goes beyond the ecology to societal concerns; it goes beyond the environmental concerns to the social community. Ecological degradation may raise social awareness but the focus must move to the society, the community, that caused environmental degradation. What is emerging is a culture where sustainability and stewardship of the biosphere is accepted as an integral part of a humane and fulfilling lifestyle.

This rejection, and the struggle to build a new culture, is the life's work of many individuals. It is subterranean host living their ideals, defending them from erosion, and at the same time strengthening, fostering, and sharpening them. It is not a struggle between massive organizations. It is a array of individual concepts worked out in diverse communities.

This culture is post-Green; it is community based, not environmentally based; it prefers interdependence to individualism. It moves towards association by choice based on individual meaning of work and life; it is opposed to the old culture where choice was determined by survival pressures and the meaning of life was a duty, encapsulated in the words, `God, King and Country'.

Societal bondage

This emerging culture is intertwined with the dominant society. This intertwining makes it difficult to distinguish it from from the structures that bind us to the past. Its differences, however, must be recognised so that we can enlarge and build on the new elements and sculpt off the bondage of the past.

The dominant society is materialistic and authoritarian. It is referred to as "the system" and a common saying is that "you cannot buck the system". It is not, however, just a `system'. It is the society into which we are socialized and we experience great difficulty in breaking the social norms accepted since birth. We have a corresponding difficulty in seeing the emerging culture as separate and opposed to the dominant society.

The prevailing view is that society cannot go through great changes. That it has always been `that way'. That it has a history, a body of lore, which contains the principles or maxims to which we must adhere. Although some may be wrong and may be altered, society will "carry on the way it always has". To believe that our world view must evolve into something different, is unacceptable to most people. It is, however, this new world view that is a generative force of the emerging culture and opposes `the system'.

Societies have restricted views of history. The winners write the history and readers assume that because something was said to have occurred in the past the reader has, or has not, some attribute. An Englishman reads of Magna Carta, for example, and assumes that the English are people who respect government. The Chinese read of their previous dynasties and assume that their five thousand year society is superior. A person is French or American because of a restricted view of history.

This view, that the piling up of incremental human experiences determines our future, is partly based on the theory of survival of the fittest. The assumption is that society has survived until now and so it must be right. We have failed, however, to see the limitations of the idea that that which survives must be right. There is also the Saltatory theory - where abrupt and marked variation occurs with little change in the intervening period of reproduction. It has been a choice to believe that our history defines us. It is equally a choice to say that our future choices define us. As Toynbee so graphically showed us, there is a choice of what interpretation one makes of a history.

As the world becomes inundated by change the Saltatory theory is more relevant. Society may have to choose `abrupt and marked variation' in the very near future and this is difficult when our perception has been so firmly molded by our present society. We have to acknowledge that we are all held in what is best described as a `trance'.

Societal Breakdown

There is a tribe in Australia where, during the initiation rite into manhood, the young men of the tribe are taken away from their mothers by the older men. They are taken into the desert and through elaborate rituals are shocked into a state of trance with masks, drumming, and frightening experiences. They retain this trance state for the rest of their lives.

Although most societies do not use such violent methods to inculcate their values, we all enter some sort of trance state in accepting societal values. We embrace a history that determines our place; a view that traces the growth of a society through battles, economic developments, and new inventions, to its present apex. Human growth is seen as a process of historical survival and we are shaped by those that have gone before us. Our societal bias determines how we `see' the world and the real and possible to a Japanese may be unacceptable to an American. It is a trance that renders a person blind to other realities.

One of the strongest beliefs, or `trances', that the people of various nations have is the belief that their nation and people are somehow unique. Each nation to a greater or lesser extent attempts to have its adherents believe that they possess a particular value or unique morality. Words like, "It's the American way", or "Because we are Chinese", justify viewpoints to a particular political segment of humanity merely because such words are accepted beliefs.

A trance can render an entire nation blind to what is an apparent fact to others. The result of this blindness is that some political and legal mores are purely arbitrary. An example is the Monroe Doctrine which stated that the United States would intervene if a (European) foreign power invaded a North or South American nation. In the 1980s that didn't make much sense to the Cubans, who were supposedly within Russian hegemony. Another example would be the Japanese government's belief in December of 1941 that an attack on Pearl Harbour would compel the United States to seek a quick solution by treaty. Such an idea seems incredible now, even to the Japanese. However, at the time of Pearl Harbour able and intelligent politicians were responsible for such a choice. Such situations remain unchanged and the entire matter of political decision making must be reconsidered.

Leslie A. White in THE SCIENCE OF CULTURE points out that every individual born into a culture with technologies, social systems, beliefs, and forms of art is influenced by it. Culture determines language, clothes, and what gods a person will believe in. He is "thrust by birth into" a magnetic field and "molded by the particular organization of cultural influences that play upon him".

The citizens of all nations tend to believe that the nation into which they are born is the best for them. A baby born in France will grow up to believe France is a fine place to live and it is unique, just as a baby born at the same second in Japan will grow up to believe that Japan is a fine place to live and it is unique. National chauvinism is universal. There is always some little movement, some emigration, but the vast majority of people die in the nation in which they were born. National identification and validation is universal; it is a reality consensus practiced by all nations. Each nation believes that the divine has bestowed some special attitude, land, or blessing on its people.

Another consideration is that, depending on the strength of the culture, there is a greater or lesser agreement on what is real. The Japanese culture, being a very strong one, encodes greater agreement on the individual's sense of reality. A strong culture demands greater conformity and has a correspondingly greater difficulty in dealing with ideas that do not conform with the culture. A strong culture also does not allow for much individual deviation or for withdrawal from that culture.

Japan's earlier trance, for instance, was only broken in 1946 by the devastation at the end of WW II. For some three years (1946-8) the Japanese were in a state of depression and apathy that only ended with the adoption of slogans such as `Export or Die'. Japan has now resurrected a different version of its trance that is probably the most powerful in the world.

A strong society (such as Japan's and Germany's) exerts such a hold on the thinking that its adherents are unable to empathize with cultural change. Massive cultural changes are therefore likely to occur first within weaker societies, such as Canada's, where the prevailing culture has been unable to unify large segments of the population.
This stronger societal hold that makes Japanese more attached to their ways and products than Canadians, exists because of a greater reinforcement of values. It is a mirror image phenomena where the government, the education system, the media, and the establishment, inform the populace what must be done, and the populace, in obeying those dictates, reinforce the belief system.

A weaker trance allows greater chaos and correspondingly greater change. The Americans do not belong to a particularly weak trance. However, even they find it difficult to extol the virtues of free competition and individual initiative when Japanese firms, cooperating with their government, and effacing individual talent, are superior in the global marketplace. The values of a society can only be upheld if it bestows comparably greater benefits. If American values are unsuccessful in the market place their culture and trance weakens. Other examples of value comparisons are the two party political system with a consensus system and the trade unions as adversary versus the trade unions as co-determinants. When comparisons do not favour the values upheld by any society, new patterns must be considered.

Another aspect of trances (or societal and national biases) is the concept of the `other'.

In Japan that distinction is made clear when a non-racial Japanese is called a `gaijin', which means `outsider' or `not one of us' Sociologists have known for a long time that it is possible to coalesce group support and identity by naming some person or persons outside the group as the `other' or `outsiders'. Once the `other' is identified, that person can be deprived of the noble human characteristics agreed upon by the members of the group. It is a racist mentality where the `outsider' becomes an object of hate and fear.

Until 1990, in a world threatened by nuclear devastation, Americans and Russians have refused to believe there is any humanity in the opposing nation's people although the differences between the life of a factory worker in Flint, Michigan and a factory worker at the Gorki factory in Moscow are minimal. Both workers sleep comfortably, both have a good breakfast; one drives to work, the other takes a bus; they may do exactly the same job for eight hours, both have a good dinner and they both watch television in the evening.

Every nation feeds its own bias or propaganda as facts to its citizens. The extent of ego involvement by politicians, business leaders, newspaper barons, judges and others in their political entity compels them to believe in `facts' that buttress their political beliefs. Canadian politicians and some business people in 1988 believed as a `fact' that the only way Canada could assert sovereignty over its Arctic islands was by purchasing (consuming) atomic submarines at a cost of untold billions. That the untold billions may be more than the islands are economically worth is not a `fact' that is acceptable. The Canadian politicians and business people did not get their atomic submarines and, despite their dire predictions, no loss of sovereignty occurred.

To address global changes, such as environmental degradation, there has to be a re-evaluation of, and moving beyond, nationalistic `facts'. There has to be an alternate view of how humankind evolved. The trance has to be broken.

An alternate view of history is to see humankind as groups of hunters for most of their time on Earth. It was only about 10,000 BC when the great herds of Europe declined due to increased hunting by more people that humanity turned to farming. From 10,000 BC to 1,000 BC there was enough land for farming and gathering, and as food gathering was primarily women's work it was also the time of the fertility goddess. Man as hunter was of less importance. He was not the primary supplier of sustenance. It was only when the hunter was transformed into the warrior that he once again became more important. About 1,000 B.C. the fertile areas of the Earth had become crowded and the male warrior (and a male god) was needed to ensure security. This became the period where nations developed as a means of survival against barbarian incursions. It is a period epitomised by the Roman and Chinese Empires as the centres of civilization with the rest of the world being barbarous. The barbarian tribes had to be kept out by walls, natural fortifications and standing armies. To a Roman, or a Chinese, the empire meant survival and had to be supported.

Fear of invasion (a survival fear) drove the civilized states to construct great defenses, culminating in NATO. The societal structure became male dominated and authoritarian, with an emperor or king at the head. It became a pyramidal power structure composed of men who obeyed, usually as soldiers, a ruler or protector who had the authority to defend or expand the nation.

The legal system is a graphic example of survival fear and male domination. The common law system of Britain partly grew out of the battle of the knights. From 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D., to be accused of a crime might meant that life was forfeit unless a champion was hired to fight the accuser.

One of the King Arthur legends illustrates this type of justice. A Scottish knight died when he ate an apple given to him by Queen Guenever. The apple was poisoned by an adversary of Sir Gawain who mistakenly thought the Queen would give it to his enemy. The dead knight's brother, Sir Mador, accused the Queen and vowed to kill her (as was his right) unless she could find a knight to risk his life in support of her innocence. The Queen then had to beg for a champion. Sir Lancelot, as champion, challenged Mador of falsely accusing the Queen of treachery. A battle was fought and Lancelot prevailed. This was God's sign that the Queen was innocent.

This myth is a depiction of what actually happened in those times.
God's wrath on those who lied and the belief that He aided the innocent was so strongly accepted in Western Europe from 500 A.D. to 1,500 A.D. that the use of champions and trial by battle was the major way of resolving disputes. It was only after the turn of the first millennium that the church stated that it could interpret the word of God directly in regard to disputes. The clerics in their black gowns slowly took over from the champions and the matter was decided before God in the person of the bishop, or some other church figure. The black gowns still remain and are worn by lawyers in Britain, Canada and other nations.

The legal systems of most Western nations are replicas of the structures that use authority and dependency. The common law legal systems have been canvassed thoroughly and Jonathan Caplan in his article, LAWYERS AND LITIGANTS: A CULT REVIEWED in the book, DISABLING PROFESSIONS, has succinctly covered most points.
The easiest way to create a monopoly is to invent a language and procedure which will be unintelligible to the layman. This illusion of complexity- whose grand finale, like the rabbit out of a hat, is the divination of simplicity- has, in the past, been the art of countless quacks. In many ways, it is also the art of the ancient and noble profession of law. ...

Dependence is a powerful fuel to any cult; in relation to the legal profession, it is founded on the propagation of the idea- promoted by our legislative assemblies- that laymen can only view the law through a glass darkly. Professionals must interpret and apply it. ...

It is the lawyers who solve our problems and who, like the high priesthood, alone are familiar with the workings of the legal machine. [2]
The legal system bases its decisions on precedence. It looks backward to a similar situation in deciding how to deal with the present. It does not trust intelligence and analysis but rather consistency. Results are of little consequence. An illustration is the amusing story of pickpockets always gathering at a hanging of a pickpocket in Elizabethan times. The hanging was because judges believed that public hanging deterred pickpockets. The pickpockets were there because it was a good opportunity to pick pockets in the crowd. They were obviously not deterred.

Past precedent is the authority and if a decision does not accord with past authority an appeal can be undertaken. A case can ascend upwards through the courts of appeal to the supreme court of the land. It is a perfect pyramidal concept with a few judges at the top deciding the law. That those judges have never experienced an unwanted pregnancy does not disqualify them from deciding on abortion. It is assumed that they are professionals -experts in law - and what they decide is the law. Whether their decision is in keeping with the times, or useful, or even just, is not an issue.

Law combines all the attributes of a pyramidal, male dominated, authoritarian system to a unique degree. It is not a system of justice, it is a legal system. Its view is that law determines the society - society does not determine the law. It exists as a system because of precedence backed with political power. It has only limited social approval and many are openly scornful of lawyers. No matter how strong social disapproval may be it cannot be easily overturned. It is entrenched in survival polity.

Survival fear's long pall so shaped millions of lives that it defined what was an acceptable viewpoint. It defined and shaped the family as a social and economic unit. The peasant family became the social and economic base on which the state waged war or repelled invasion. In its simplest form, it tied men to the land of the lord, a woman was tied to the man, and the children became the workforce for the lord's land. The only acceptable viewpoint was the family with an authoritarian male head.

The dominant society is still based on survival fear. Fear that we might not survive is the underlying justification for accumulation. Security means more than stocks and bonds, it means peace of mind based on how much a person has accumulated. The overpowering urge for security in capitalistic society is based on the fear that we might not survive. This fear remains as the expressed economic motivator even though there is enough for all in the industrial world.

Jerry and Rena LeBlanc point out in their book SUDDENLY RICH, that for instant lottery millionaires the most important thing is freedom from insecurity. Financial security is the major blessing that sudden riches bring and "it constitutes a national shame that financial insecurity, which in most instances is really more of a fear than a reaality, should be as widespread that relief from it is the major dream".

Authority figures and structures rely on survival fear for public acquiesance to their power. A dramatic example of that was the attempted overthrow of the Soviet government in 1991 by a powerful political collective. On seizing power from Chairman Gorbachev, they assumed the public would meekly acquiesce to their dictates. The overthrow failed because the public were not cowed by the fear that those authority figures assumed they had. The power of all authoritatian structures is being eroded as the fear of survival retreats. As a result, the ability of authoritarian structures to make society conform to their wishes is diminishing. For those steeped in authoritarian beliefs this diminishment is seen as a breakdown of society.

Many other individuals perceive a breakdown of society because of dramitic contrasts; unemployment and poverty existing alongside conspicuous wealth; the world as a whole spening U.S.$1,000,000.00 a second (1983) on arms and at the same time workers agonizing over the loss of defense related jobs; ecological destruction threatening global climate changes and companies refusing to consider anything but the bottom line.

No matter how the breakdown of society is perceived, many cannot consider believing that the entire society has to be transformed. For many, it is too big a jump, emotionally, to accept that our faith in the organizations that form the pillars of our society are misplaced. We are rooted in our society and to accept that much of society's structures are archaic and crumbling is an attack on the persona; on the person as defined and circumscribed by society.

There are others, such as feminists, environmentalists, community organizers, alternative teachers and healers who have accepted that our society is "out of synch". They have recognized that to break free of the dominant materialistic and authoritarian society that a new type of person is needed. One who chooses how he or she wishes to live based on desire, not fear. An individual choice mentality that moves towards what Abraham Maslow has described as "...defining the main function of a healthy culture as a fostering of universal self actualization".

The quest for a 'healthy culture' is the positive aspect of the rejection of authoritarianism. What is sought is a culture composed of interdependent groups where an individual will join out of choice, not survival fear. Gender and racial equality will be accepted without question and although these groups may be attached to a particular area their outlook will be global.

The 'healthy culture' rejects acceptance of the status quo, racism, national bias, top-down structures, and a survival mentality. These are seen as inferior values and the freedom to make fearless individual choices is preferred.

Our position now is similar to early Renaissance man who had to shift from a belief that the entire reason for life was a spiritual quest for God to a belief of producing a material heaven on Earth. Now, as heirs to the Renaissance man we often find a debased intellect and spirituality. We have become disillusioned in the belief that prosperity and education will solve the problems of the world. In place of the myth of endless consumption and growth we have found an finite world with resouces that are already strained.

To stride forward to the third millenium with optimism and creativity new forms of politics, governance, law, and society must be established. The potent truths of past centuries may be a vital force in altered forms but the vision quest for new forms, for a new culture in a profoundly different world, is already underway.


[1]. March 1986 issue of the magazine, New Internationalist.
[2]. Pp 93, 102-3, Ivan Illich, et al, Disabling Professions, published by Burns and MacEachern Ltd., Suite 3, 62 Railside Road,Don Mills, Ontario, Canada, M3A 1A6.