The Complete Disconnect

We have reached — in fact, to be fair, we’ve been here for a while already — a point where our institutions and leaders are completely disconnected from reality.

If you want to know what motivated the #Occupy movement in 2011, or is driving the cacerolazo (banging pots and pans protests) that emerged this year in Québec, start with that.

Thomas Langan, in Tradition and Authenticiy in the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom, pointed out that all institutions that embody traditions deviate from their purposes over time. This is because the people in them have their own agendas, and because institutions start to carry culture forward within themselves. (He took this further in his discussion of “little worlds” or cosmiota in Being and Truth, and at the extremes this can become a complete “horizon of interpretation” taking over an entire society, the point of his Surviving the Age of Virtual Reality.)

Langan called this “hypocrisy” — and it is the reason all institutions are constantly in the need of reform, to return them to a better fit with their founding tradition. (His book The Catholic Tradition is an extended meditation on this tension in one tradition and institution.)

If we remember Toynbee and his magisterial A Study of History, Toynbee talked about the vital role of creative minorities in providing revitalisation and the rethinking of older forms (institutions, offices, etc.) for changed circumstances. This is, if you like, the “engine” by which traditions differentiate and grow (the other driver is the one pointed to by Eric Voegelin in his five volumes of Order and History, the differentiation of symbol systems — and that [as he discussed throughout his The New Science of Politics] these can also lose differentiation and meaning, shrinking rather than growing).

Toynbee talked as well about decline and decay — and said that one of its hallmarks was the loss of a creative minority and its replacement by a dominant one.

Around the world, resistance to the dominant minorities that exist is growing. As Umair Haque tweeted this morning, “The stakes are not ‘austerity vs stimulus’. They’re ‘redesign the sociopathic global economy, or kiss the future goodbye’.”

Doing more of what clearly isn’t working is a sure sign of a dominant minority being in charge. The hypocritical mind-set gets that way by virtue of operating in a closed world.

Its horizons of interpretation shrink to what fits into the symbols of the institutions. Events are “read into” that framework — or ignored. Appeals are made to the tradition, but actions are taken to neutralise, sterilise or abandon it where it no longer “fits” the little cosmion created by the minority.

This is how in the United States corporations can have more freedom of speech than citizens; how in Canada we can lie to ourselves about how we’re doing; how European Union technocrats can imagine that “one more little fix” is all that’s required and that citizens will just vote for the interests of the dominant minority over their own; how a Starbucks can see a single café on Haida Gw’aii as a “threat” to their global corporation; how universities think that their incomes can rise forever faster than the economy grows because students can just take on more debt; how people can believe technology can create cheap energy on demand … the list is endless.

What happens at a time like this, based on history?

Eventually reality wins. The closed world of the dominant minority collapses.

Up until now every time that’s happened it’s taken its society with it.

Is there another future? Yes: it comes with reasserting a creative minority, instead of accepting a future as an internal proletariat hoping for crumbs from the dominant minority. (Here is where #Occupy and the cacerolazo both failed: crumbs was what they were looking for.)

By that I don’t mean “oh, let’s have lots of entrepreneurial start ups and fantastic new technologies”. There may be some of that. But what’s really required are new institutions grounded in the best of our traditions.

Rebuilding community, for instance, where instead of worrying about size you worry about locale, your neighbours, keeping your custom within their circles, working to provide something of value to them, honours our traditions of self-government, freedom to associate, to speak, to pursue (each of us) our happiness.

It will mean rethinking money and capital: to stop sending the fruits of our labour into distant places and to think of investing our energies in our own places rather than in markets and instruments we have no control over.

It means taking the message of Alain de Botton in Religion for Atheists to heart: to forge community using the wisdom of our pasts, even if we ourselves do not share it.

It means, in other words, building “what comes next” before “what is now” collapses around us from its own internal flaws and the force of external events that can no longer be pushed aside.

It will be hard — but it is less hard than waiting for the alternative to unfold.

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