In the United States today, we’re witnessing a collapse of the old agreements holding our society together. Over the last decades, critics from the Left — Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, David Graeber, among them — argued that democracy in the US was severely compromised. No matter which political party controlled government, we pursued illegal wars, bombing raids, “extraordinary renditions,” and so on. We have acted, as the political philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt explored in depth, as the center of a global Empire able to circumvent intentional laws and treaties when it serves our interests.
Today, we have reached a new stage in this process. Events take place with such dizzying speed that it leaves many of us shocked, dissociative. The recent disclosure of barbaric practices separating the children of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers from their families — and, apparently, injecting some of these children with psychotropic drugs — is just the latest example. If this trajectory seems oddly familiar, it is because it echoes what we know of past periods in history. Unfortunately, in the modern period, such epochs have often ended in convulsive episodes of mass destruction. Once underway, the sequence of events tends to follow an inexorable logic.
We need to awaken to our circumstance now so we can work together to prevent the worst outcome. It is not clear, at this point, if we can avoid the fate looming over us. Still, it seems necessary to try. How we act now may profoundly influence what the future will bring in ways we can’t yet imagine. To act effectively, we need to understand, as best we can, the underlying causes of this predicament.
In an effort to find philosophical context for current events, I turned to a strange essay by the German war hero Ernst Junger, On Pain, written in 1934, a year after Hitler’s rise to power. Junger was a fascinating character — elitist and authoritarian, yet a brilliant intellectual who illuminated many of the same themes as left-wing philosophers like Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno, from a different angle.
In 1951, a few years after World War II, he took LSD with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered it. Hofmann was a huge fan of Junger’s literary work, celebrating him in LSD: My Problem Child: “In the light of his perspective, which stereoscopically comprises the surfaces and depths of things, the world I knew took on a new, translucent splendor.” Junger later wrote a book, Approximations: Drugs and Intoxication (1970), on his exploration of substances ranging from nicotine and cocaine to LSD and mescaline.
Junger viewed suffering as not only inevitable as part of life, but invaluable for what it revealed about the individual: “Pain is one of the keys to unlock man’s innermost being as well as the world,” he wrote in On Pain (1934). “Whenever one approaches the points where man proves himself to be equal or superior to pain, one gains access to the source of his power and the secret hidden behind his dominion.” He considered heroic death — the ultimate self-sacrifice, generally made in war — as a kind of consummation, the logical answer to the problem of existence: “He who feels secure in immediate proximity to death finds himself in the highest state of security.”
What surprised me in reading Junger’s essay was that I could appreciate the philosophical coherence of his stance. It reminded me of what I know of Meso-American cultures like the Aztec and Maya who possessed a totally different view from ours on life, death, spirituality, discipline, and sacrifice. Junger called this the “heroic and cultic world” which he contrasted with our world, “the world of sensitivity.” In our world of sensitivity, we seek to marginalize pain and shelter life from it. The cultic world, instead, sought “to integrate pain and and organize life so that one is always armed against it,” psychologically and spiritually.
In our society, we focus on the alleviation of pain and suffering as something that is automatically good. We seek the indefinite extension of a type of lifestyle that is comfortable but oddly passive, almost meaningless and, in a metaphysical sense, weightless. Most people live as if suspended over this abyss. Floating, they do everything in their power to not look down.
We believe in materialist and technological progress. This faith has supplanted the religious beliefs of our ancestors. As with religious dogma, faith in progress is not meant to be questioned too closely. From this technological worldview, it is difficult to envision any kind of meaningful future. The best that Yuval Noah Harari, bestselling author of Sapiens, can offer is entombment in ever-more immersive video games: “Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside.” This seems too sad a fate to linger on.
From a Fascistic viewpoint, Junger looked toward the total integration of man into weaponry as a positive development. Anticipating the kamikaze pilots of World War Two, he described, appreciatively, how the Japanese were developing a torpedo “guided mechanically by a human being at the helm, who is locked into a tiny compartment, regarded as a technical component of the torpedo as well as its actual intelligence.” In such circumstance, the soldier’s death is not based on luck or skill, but assured. He found the Japanese soldier’s readiness to sacrifice his life in this hopeless manner a sign of superiority.
Junger’s view is an inversion of the philosophy of our “world of sensitivity,” with its horror of death and its belief that extending the life span and alleviating pain are the proper goals of civilization. Instead, Junger put the focus on death — preferably, heroic death on the battlefield — as the moment that proved the value, strength, and disciplined will of the individual. In a moment, I want to propose a synthesis of these two diametrically opposing views. But before doing that, I want to discuss Melania Trump’s jacket.
The First Lady recently flew to visit detained children, separated from their families, at a detention center on the Texas border. While her sartorial taste is usually high-end, for this mission she strangely chose to wear a $39 Zara jacket with the phrase, “I don’t really care. Do U?” scrawled in large cursive script on the back. This was clearly a message and it sent predictable shock waves of appalled reactions through the media and Twitter sphere.
One of the things I appreciate about the Trumps is how they have ripped the cover off of the false veneer of dignity that was a longstanding part of the ceremonial rites of government. We are getting a gritty Reality TV show version of authoritarian narcissism, cynicism, and naked self-interest. Trevor Noah, Host of The Daily Show did one memorable show about Trump’s post-election rallies where Trump told his supporters, over and over again, blatantly to their face, that he had been lying to them throughout the election. He had no intention to follow through on pledges, such as “Drain the Swamp,” which he only repeated because they raised his approval ratings. And yet, the crowds continued to cheer and support him.
Some psychological quirk makes many people — in this case, masses of them — enjoy being swindled. Secretly, perhaps, people who don’t have much will or self-consciousness of their own identify with the stronger will of the con artist, as they do with gurus or cult leaders. It is a kind of self-hypnotism. Once you have chosen to go into the trance, you prefer to stay there for as long as possible.
Writing in the decades before World War Two, the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin had many ideas worth considering in this regard. Benjamin noted that we constantly pass through many altered states — different kinds of trance — in our daily life. In fact, trance states and fantasy seem to be more the reality of human existence than self-conscious witnessing. The world of commodities induces a kind of trance — that slight euphoria one feels upon entering an Apple or Nike super-store. Every time we fiddle with our Smart Phone, we absent ourselves from the world around us and enter a boundary-less virtual space.
Benjamin believed that humanity needs to commune “with the cosmic powers” from time to time. This can either be done consciously, through initiatory ritual, or it happens unconsciously, through wars or other forms of mass catastrophe. He saw the First World War as an unconscious effort at collective initiation and cosmological contact. He also noted that, as a result of the alienation people felt in modern industrial society, they could increasingly appreciate their own destruction “as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”
Our society must reinvent forms of initiation that intensify the consciousness of the individual, bringing them into non-ordinary states which are expansive and transpersonal rather than constricted or dissociated. My own explorations of altered consciousness indicate we have a gigantic frontier to explore. This can occupy humanity for many generations to come. It offers the antidote to alienation, nihilism, and self-destruction.
Since art is an amoral activity, we can consider the Trumps as artists of sorts. They use language, style, and symbol to construct the world around them and bend reality in the direction they desire. The aesthetics of 1930s Fascism was dramatically operatic and mechanistic, with crowds turned into perfect machines of adulation, as we still see today in North Korea. The new American authoritarianism tilts toward over-reaching displays of gaudiness (Trump’s gilt-edged toilets) along with expressions of contempt, boredom, and apathetic detachment.
From that vantage point, Melania’s jacket makes a perfect statement. The combination of the phrase, ‘I really don’t care. Do U?,’ with the context tells us plainly that FLOTUS sees the world as a barren place where, ultimately, nothing matters. It simply doesn’t matter how you attain wealth and power, as long as you do. She telegraphs a viewpoint devoid of compassion and empathy, where the torturing and traumatizing of children that one doesn’t know — losers in the Darwinian struggle — has no value.
We have passed the threshold where the cards are hidden. They are laid bare on the table. The cultural shock absorbers have been removed. Why is this happening now?
I believe that the reason for this is the generally unspoken awareness that we are reaching a threshold of planetary transformation unlike anything we have known. There is an inescapable dilemma facing us: Post-industrial civilization is at war with the Earth’s ecology. As technology advances, precious natural resources are diminishing. We have set off a cascade of destructive effects across the world. The gigantic forest fires happening every summer, the beached whales with their bellies full of plastic, the exponential increase in allergies and environmental sensititivies, the spread of disease-carrying mosquitos to the north: these are all expressions of it. The problem is so overwhelming that we push it out of our awareness.
As Peak Oil theorists like Richard Heinberg predicted, we are, indeed, running out of fossil fuels. Over the last decades, oil companies were able to prevent a sudden contraction in supply by developing new means to extract carbon-based energy, such as the mining and processing of tar sands for bitumen, and hydraulic fracturing or fracking that smashes rocks to release natural gas. Unfortunately, these new sources of energy are dirtier, less efficient, and more expensive. Their exploitation accelerates warming and ecological collapse.
As a global civilization, we face a choice. We can reckon with this mega-crisis truthfully, which requires profound changes to our industrial and commercial practices that will impact all of our lives. Or we don’t change our ways and take increasingly brutal measures needed to preserve our excessive lifestyle — and in particular, the privileges of the wealthy elite, whether they prefer to cavort at Mar a Lago or Burning Man — in the short term.
If we choose this second path — the one we are currently on — we can either allow marginalized human populations to die, or we can actively dispose of them. Either choice requires, first, dehumanizing them, as the Nazis did with gypsies and Jews. Trump is preparing the ground for this in a way that is familiar as well as intentional. In a recent Tweet, he said we shouldn’t allow illegal immigrants to “infest our Country,” equating them with pests.
As a result of these large-scale processes, our liberal and progressive culture — what Junger called the “world of sensitivity” — must finally address its internal contradictions, one way or the other. If we look inside our hearts to find that not only our own lives, but the lives of the poor and dispossessed, actually matter to us — that we do care — then we will have to change how we live as well as our priorities. This will become increasingly, starkly, clear over the next years. If we do not care, we will be forced to admit this, in full consciousness, and accept the shame of it.
To address the crisis confronting us in a humane and ethical way requires a transformation of consciousness, as many indigenous prophecies tell us. The traditional, aristocratic ideal of heroic sacrifice as initiation, which Junger explores, can provide a template — not for making war but for creating peace. In other words, we can choose to confront the global paroxysms as an invitation to evolve. We can live this initiation through determination and devotion, through actions and public expressions that function like living prayers.
This idea of pursuing initiation through social engagement seems a strange one at first. I recognize it is totally anathema to our current culture, based on narcissistic Selfie displays, the pursuit of wealth and creature comforts, and endless forms of entertainment. Yet this latent potential exists as a natural step forward from where many of us find ourselves now. It would only be a question of recognizing it first, then accessing it through a collective effort and shared intention. This is, I believe, the only path that can lead to authentic joy.
We see how people will undergo difficult and even painful ordeals if they awaken something within themselves while building community. We find this at transformational festivals, ayahuasca retreats, yoga training programs. We know that our most intense, difficult experiences are often the most memorable and valuable ones. Rebecca Solnit explored this idea thoroughly in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, where she found that people remembered the times after disasters as the best experiences of their lives, because they were brought together with a common purpose.
There is no reason we can’t approach the task of social change and ecological regeneration in this spirit, even before disaster strikes. We can embrace it as an opportunity to resonate at a deeper level of consciousness, acting from a place of generosity and service. We can define a new way of life that is egalitarian and nonhierarchical, as a number of tribal and traditional cultures demonstrate. Wouldn’t this be the natural way to put the ideals so many of us espouse into practice? And if we don’t take this path, will we accept responsibility for the alternative?