The Way It Is

view out my window on Friday

I‘m walking along the river path near my home and when I look up, there’s a black bear walking toward me. Not a big deal, I know, but a new experience for me. And the path is not that wide and it’s surrounded by trees. So when it’s about 8 metres away I turn around and, watching over my shoulder, walk the other way. Two other guys who were behind me on the trail see what’s happening and likewise stop and turn around.

It’s a cliché, but I’m moving faster than the two guys, and feel enormous relief when I pass them — you know, “you only have to outrun the slowest guy”. We come to a fork and the three of us all take the lower path. The bear suddenly speeds up, takes the upper path, and then circles around through the trees to the lower path and stops right in front of us. We of course groan and turn around again. The bear gives us what can only be described as a look of pained annoyance, and then bounds off the path to the stream below.

As I make my way back, I wonder what it must be like to have everyone you encounter so frightened of you that they turn and walk the other way. I wonder what it must be like to have to deal with hordes of an insanely overly-populous, destructive, invasive species every time you just want to go for a drink.

And, most of all, I wonder what it must be like to just accept everything, the way it is, without judgement or expectation.

Last week I had been equally surprised to discover three fully-grown deer in the middle of a small city park, a park surrounded on all sides by busy four- and six-lane roads. They looked very stressed and skittish. No way out. I remember that feeling. To some extent we are perhaps all like them, today, trapped in a culture that no longer serves us, if it ever did, but unable to find our way to another culture that does.

In the light of the accelerating slide of much of the US into belligerent fascism, there has been a growing call by some progressives for stoicism. I think about that as I meander along the river path back towards home.

I mean, it’s not as if we have any choice. We can only feel what we feel, fear what we fear, believe what we believe. Stoicism is not, as some think, a “stiff upper lip” suppression of one’s feelings — that can only end badly. True Stoics (capital “S”) believe in striving to live a natural life based on the virtues of wisdom, fairness, courage and moderation, and eschewing “negative emotions”, which they assert are inevitably the result of poor judgement. It’s the judgements they try to suppress, not the emotions that those judgements can engender.

I think about my recent argument that, while some emotions (fear, rage/anger, sorrow, equanimity, and joy/enthusiasm) are instinctive and probably felt by all creatures, others (anxiety, hatred, envy, jealousy, shame, guilt, longing, loneliness, despair, and even love) require the making of, and a belief in, an unprovable assessment, deep inside your head, of what has happened, is happening, or will happen, and are therefore (probably) uniquely human.

So the Stoics, I think, believe that through an attitude and practice of wisdom, fairness, courage and moderation, the judgements and expectations we make can be minimized, and hence the “negative emotions” that stem from them can likewise be minimized. And, if that were to happen, the Stoic may then be able to live in the same state of mostly-equanimity-and-enthusiasm that wild creatures spend their lives in, except in fleeting moments of fight/flight/freeze stress. (Of course, for some wild creatures, like my neighbourhood bears and deer, who are now constantly afflicted by our destructive and oppressive presence, those moments of stress are chronic, not fleeting.)

It’s perfectly understandable that many progressives and ‘moderates’, who have sat passively by for four decades as the decline into fascism has taken hold, and just hoped that it was a passing phase, are feeling some self-doubt, shame, guilt and despair for their quiet complicity in the demise of democracy and of tolerance for diversity which seems rampant everywhere these days. But my sense is that they are small “s” stoics, rather than capital “S” Stoics. The small “s” stoics, I suspect, will keep voting for the doddering war-mongering xenophobe Biden and his Wall-Street-beholden party, as it loses to the ends-justify-the-means fascists driven by generations of fear, hatred and resentment.

The capital “S” Stoics will instead withhold their votes and patiently await the slow collapse of the US Democratic party, and their fake-liberal counterparts in other nations, paving the way for the eventual birth of radical green/socialist parties when citizens turn away, finally, from the reigning fascists in disgust. It’s likely to be bloody, and take a long time, but that, the Stoic will tell you, is the nature of humans and how social change happens. Economic and then ecological collapse will weigh heavily on the trajectory and the outcome of this political disintegration and re-emergence. By then politics may have become a much more local matter.

As I feel neither responsible for, nor patient with, this likely-brutal process, I qualify as neither stoic nor Stoic. But I have no choice in this, either. I can only attempt to divert my attention to matters less trying, and less ugly. In part, that is what these walks are about — more perceiving and less conceiving, more noticing and less thinking.

The Skytrain in our area is elevated, with lovely, changing lights at night on its support beams, and in many areas a broad pedestrian/bikeway beneath the tracks. These long islands of concrete have stone and steel benches along them, though I rarely see anyone using them. As I walk along one of them now, a car drives alongside blasting a song I recognize.

An aside here: I was first drawn to listen to K-Pop music just a few days ago by an article in the New Yorker, and thence to an extensive overview in NPR. As a lover of complex, layered, harmony-rich music, I was immediately entranced: K-Pop has come a long way in the last decade from its institutionalized, sexualized, exploitative, repetitive roots to embrace a ton of international musical influences, and now produces a dazzling array of some of the most polished, intricate and diverse dance music ever produced. I found the music of the more-popular boy bands too simple for my tastes (BTS sounds too much like a clone of Bruno Mars to me — check out the #s of views for these songs, though!). The girl bands, having to be twice as good to attract the same audience, have done exactly that. Richer harmonies, more sophisticated rhythms and melodies, and full of infectious joy. Yeah, I know they’re still exploited. That’s what happens when money enters the picture.

So the song I hear from the car alongside me is Rain on Me, by the K-Pop girl group MAJORS (you can hear it, if you’re interested, as the 5th cut in my K-Pop favourites playlist). I figure it’s probably a carful of young women blasting it and singing along, but I’m caught up in the music and I just spontaneously start to dance on this concrete island that’s as big as a dance floor. I’m a terrible dancer, but I’m just having fun and laughing as I look over into the car and it’s two guys blasting the music, which surprises me. They zoom off, and, when I get home I research the gender mix of K-Pop fans, and to my astonishment I learn that the fans of all the girl groups on my K-Pop playlist are overwhelmingly male, while most of the other girl groups I’ve listened to since I became infatuated with K-Pop music have overwhelmingly female fans. What’s the difference? Not the degree of eye-candy (all K-Pop music, by both genders, is eye-candy). I think it’s the intensity, the relentless beat, and the strong, layered harmonies. Maybe Korean men actually like powerful, confident, fierce women? Or maybe I’m just a stan.

So now I can’t get the song out of my head and, the bear forgotten, I’m dancing all the way home. There’s a sudden storm in the mountains above me, but it’s still mostly sunny here. I am filled with a sense of elation. This world is fucking amazing, and we’re all so wrapped up in the crises of the moment, our personal traumas, and the endless doom-scroll, that we’re missing it all. It’s right here.

I grab a soy matcha from the local café and take the elevator up, still glowing. And when I walk through the door to the apartment, what I see out the window is the image at the top of this post.

We’re totally fucked. It’s going to get awful. But I’m just standing here staring out the window at this incredible scene, smiling, singing, laughing, dancing.

Nothing else to be done.

Posted in Creative Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Manifestly, an Imagined Conversation

More radical non-duality nonsense. Skip it if this isn’t to your taste. The conversation included in this post is a work of fiction.


Carlo Rovelli (photo from wikipedia); Tim Cliss (photo from his web site)

I have been reading theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s Helgoland, a summary of the latest thinking in quantum science, which also ponders the nature of reality and, through a side trip into neuroscience, the nature of the self.

Since I’m now somewhat obsessed with the message of radical non-duality, I’ve been reading Carlo’s book through that particular lens. It’s fascinating to see the growing overlap between radical non-duality’s simple message and some of the new, astonishing discoveries of science.

But the message of radical non-duality and the latest scientific theories about the nature of reality are not congruent, and it’s likely they never will be.

Acceptance of radical non-duality would amount to scientists throwing up their hands and admitting that the nature of reality cannot be known, and it’s hard to conceive of any scientist being prepared to make such a career-limiting move.

And since radical non-duality is not a theory or philosophy, but just a statement of what is seen as obvious without the veil of the illusory self, its message cannot embrace science, since science is seen as just another story, an inevitably doomed attempt to enable everything to make sense to a separate self that does not exist.

Still, there’s a tantalizing temptation to try to reconcile the two. I’m doubting that anyone could arrange a conversation between Carlo and one of the messengers of radical non-duality. There was a meeting between Jim Newman and neuroscientist-philosopher Sam Harris recently, and it was an absolute debacle, with Sam wasting everyone’s time trying in vain to fit Jim’s message into his determinist/compatibilist spectrum and finally giving up. (When Sam asked Jim whether he believed in free will, and Jim replied that there is no one to have or not have free will, it was basically game over.)

So, rather than risk a similar disaster, I thought I would instead use my literary licence to imagine a conversation between two fictional characters: Carlo Rovelli’s granddaughter, who I’ve named Carla, and Tim Cliss’ granddaughter, who I’ve named Thea. In the story, both characters have followed the work of their grandfathers, and they find themselves working together on a communal farm in post-civ-collapse northern Sweden. After introductions, this is, I imagine, their conversation:


Photo “Under Cover” by MTSOFan on flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Thea: I’ve read your grandfather’s book Helgoland, and I was struck by how much it did, and yet did not, resonate with my grandfather’s book This Deafening Silence. It would have been fascinating, had they met, to have heard them talk together.

Carla: Yes, I’m familiar with the radical non-duality message, though I admit I don’t really ‘get’ it.

Thea: I don’t think it’s possible to ‘get’ it, at least, as long as the self is around, interpreting everything through its personal lens. I don’t presume to ‘get’ it. I think your grandfather’s theories come as close as any separate self’s arguments can come to articulating it in scientific terms. “Reality, including our selves, is nothing but a thin and fragile veil, beyond which . . . there is nothing.” Your grandfather, the most respected theoretical physicist of his time, wrote that! I can almost picture the eyes of his colleagues rolling back in their heads!

Carla: Yes, my grandfather was quite taken with the Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna.

Thea: Of course, there are lots of different interpretations of Nāgārjuna’s work, lost in the translation of his mostly-poetic writing style. Your grandfather seemed to believe his core argument was, like your grandfather’s, that everything exists only in relationship to other things. That’s presumably based on Nāgārjuna’s “dependent arising” (pratitya-samutpada) idea. Yet Nāgārjuna and his contemporaries also speak about the emptiness — śūnyatā — of everything, which seems closer to what my grandfather was describing in relating the radical non-duality message, which asserts there are no relationships, only appearances without causality, purpose or meaning.

Carla: I was struck by that as well. My grandfather seemed more than willing to accept that time was just a mental construct, that it didn’t really exist — he wrote a whole book about that. It is hard to understand how anything can have relationship to anything else — indeed, that anything can really exist to have relationship with anything else — without ‘real’ time or space in which that relationship can arise.

Thea: Exactly. That’s why I was so puzzled when your grandfather hit upon a different word than ‘relationship’ to describe the essential nature of reality, and then quickly seemed to abandon it. That word was manifestation. He used the word a lot, but only in the ‘transitive’ sense of ‘manifested in relation to’. He even said: “It is possible to think of the manifestations of objects without having to ask what the object is in itself.” My grandfather used the word appearance to describe everything that is seemingly (but not really) happening — he might just as easily have used manifestation, but in the ‘intransitive’ sense. So it seems that they might have actually been very close to agreeing on the nature of reality.

Carla: The thing about quantum science is that it’s proved to be immensely useful in all kinds of practical areas. I wonder if my grandfather would have been unwilling to go all the way to radical non-duality because it kind of renders everything moot — it’s a pretty much useless message. It leaves a lot of the critical questions and problems of science not only unanswered, but declares them unanswerable.

Thea: I suppose. Though I suspect if your grandfather had suddenly lost his sense of any kind of self or separation, the way mine apparently did, willingness to accept something useless wouldn’t have been an issue — it would simply be obvious, and there would be no ‘un-seeing’ it. Though that would probably be pretty ghastly for an established scientist to come to grips with.

Carla: That’s the part of radical non-duality that is hardest for me to fathom, although the message does resonate intuitively and it has a certain intellectual appeal. Isn’t it possible that, instead of suddenly being ‘liberated’ from the illusory veil of self, your grandfather simply had a psychic break, and glommed onto the message of radical non-duality as a means of coping with the sheer terror of facing the meaninglessness and emptiness of life? I mean, people, especially under great stress, come to believe all kinds of absurd things, like reincarnation and alien conspiracies and gods in the skies with long beards.

Thea: Well, I guess anything is possible. During the early collapse times people felt awfully hopeless and helpless and guilty and ashamed for what they thought they’d allowed to happen. But radical non-duality seems to me a pretty poor choice of security blanket — my grandfather seemed to live his life pretty full-on, pretty unsheltered by what he said he saw to be “everything just happening, without meaning or purpose”. But then born-again Christians and spirituality converts don’t seem to have chosen a terribly easy message, either, given public animosity to their ‘extremist’ beliefs. So maybe radical non-duality is a form of last-gasp ‘salvation’, though I’m skeptical.

Carla: There have been ‘glimpses’, I think they’re called, where it seemed clear that there was no Carla, no anyone, nothing real, just things apparently happening. They came with a sense of tremendous relief, of “Duh, this is so obvious, how could I not have seen it before?”. But if that’s the ‘natural reality’ then the illusory Carla would seem to be enormously obstinate about accepting it, because she seems to be still here, in spades.

Thea: Well, maybe not obstinate, but instead, just conditioned? If we have no free will — if there is no free will because there’s no one to have it — then the illusory Carla, despite her intrigue with the radical non-duality message, has absolutely no control over what she believes. Conditioned behaviour may be just an appearance, though it’s a pretty compelling one.

Carla: Except of course that if there’s no purpose or meaning to anything, conditioned behaviour could only be just a story, another pattern we only think is real, like faces in clouds or characters in dreams… You know there are other scientists from my grandfather’s time who said some very similar things. Neuroscientist Anil Seth, for example, argued that what we “experience” as being “the world” is merely our mental model of it. He said: “When we agree on our hallucinations, we call that reality. And the experience of being a self is also a controlled hallucination generated by the brain… We ‘predict’ our selves into existence.” And then there is physicist Sean Carroll saying that all explanations about the nature of space and time fail to pass scientific muster and that the most credible explanation left is that “the universe just is” and we cannot know how or why — that there is no time or space, just an “infinite field of possibilities”.

Thea: Yes, but Sean also argued for a “multiverse” explanation of reality, and my sense is that “the universe just is” was his fallback if that explanation didn’t pan out. There’s a big gap between “we don’t know what reality is” and “we can’t know what reality is, because there is no one to know anything”. I think it’s a bit like Stephen J Gould’s lifelong desire to convince the world that religion and science were “non-overlapping magisteria”, that they could both be “right” and valuable in their own domains. Everyone really wanted to believe it, but, unlike his other work, it never really held water.

Carla: So you’re saying that we can’t have it both ways? That if radical non-duality is true, then science is no more than a story with some apparently useful lessons, but no answers for the larger questions like the nature of reality or the self. In which case belief that science is in any way ‘true’ is just deluded groupthink…. And if science is on the right track, then radical non-duality is just a mental disorder, an unprovable, unrealistic fairy tale that sweeps all the hard questions and issues facing the world under the rug as being moot and “without meaning or purpose”.

Thea: I don’t like having to label either science or radical non-duality as some kind of mental illness, though I agree they’re incompatible, irreconcilable. They can’t both be right, unless we redefine what ‘right’ means in some equivocal way. But nevertheless, I have no problem seeing the ‘logic’ in both of them, and acting ‘as if’ either is true, depending on the circumstances of the moment. After all we’ve been through, if we can’t live with a little ambiguity, uncertainty, and cognitive dissonance, we’re not going to be able to cope.

Carla: I guess so. But even if science were to gain a little humility, and radical non-duality were to become a little more compassionate, I can’t see that there could ever be a bridge between the two. If our grandfathers had actually met, it’s possible that they wouldn’t have got along at all. Tim’s message, and Carlo’s theory, really had no common thread.

Thea: Yes, except that they both cared deeply about other people, and about the world. And they were both inveterate skeptics, constantly challenging everything, including their own assumptions and beliefs.

Carla: Maybe they could have been like David Bohm and J Krishnamurti, who worked so hard to appreciate each other’s ideas about the world and reality and human nature, even though they came to those ideas from utterly different perspectives. Perspectives arguably as irreconcilable as our grandfathers’. Maybe some kind of half-way ‘convergence’ is the best one can achieve.

Thea: Hmm. Makes me think of the lines from TS Eliot: “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Carla: What an astonishing world this is, where more than 8 billion people can manage to convince each other that they have some kind of basic shared view of the truth about themselves and the world, when it’s entirely based on a mental model that is, at best, a very ragged representation of what is really true, and at worst, is a complete misconception.

Thea: Yeah. If only we could be more like the wild creatures around us, whose brain cycles are mostly focused on perceiving rather than conceiving, and which accept everything as it apparently is, instead of trying to attach meaning and make sense of everything.

Carla: My grandfather was intrigued by the famous article by Thomas Nagel asking “What is it like to be a bat?” I think he concluded that science could never answer that perfectly fair and important question. But my sense is that, if the bat, like everything else, is simply an appearance, a manifestation, then being a bat isn’t “like” anything. If there is no bat “self”, and there is no real time, then there is simply being, in the same perfect, inseparable, timeless, wondrous way that there is for very young children. There is no need for anything to have to be real, for anything to have a self, for there to be real time or space, or for anything to be ‘known’. Everything is enough.

Thea: Wow. Maybe that’s the bridge.

Carla: Hah! Well, it will have to wait for now. We have a soil reamendment workshop to attend. After you.

Posted in Creative Works, Radical Non-Duality | 4 Comments

The Implosion of the Left


comic by Reza Farazmand

You don’t have to look far to see discouraging signs of the left’s demise:

  • The total capitulation of the handful of real leftists in US government to the Biden administration’s xenophobia, war-mongering, and total inaction on income/wealth inequality and climate collapse.
  • The hard-right shift of so-called “Labour” and “Liberal” parties everywhere in the world.
  • The massive infighting that is destroying and neutralizing many progressive organizations.
  • The splits and defections among leftists by bitterly-opposed factions.
  • The success of neofascist parties and governments from the US south to eastern Europe to India and beyond.
  • And the complete incapacity of the few remaining progressive governments to enact progressive policies and programs (such as UBI) despite their mandate to do so, and despite the fact such programs are overwhelmingly supported by citizens.

Until now I have avoided trying to diagnose this, because in politics things change fast and it’s easy to see patterns where none really exists.

But now it’s pretty hard to ignore. What is behind this collapse, this implosion of the left when progressive action is now most needed? What’s been going on when we weren’t paying attention?

Probably as good a place as any to start is with George Lakoff’s classic Moral Politics.  George told us twenty years ago that the right told a better story than the left, and as such has ended up framing all discussions using its own terms of reference and vocabulary.

I think this has only worsened since then. I’d go so far as to say that the right is now the only political force telling a coherent story at all. The left’s story is ambivalent, abstract, unactionable, oppositional rather than proactive, and full of “yes buts”.

The right’s story might be simplified to the following:

  1. Governments and regulations are necessarily bad, evil, and objectionable by virtue of their inherent incompetence, bureaucracy and propensity for overreach, opacity and corruption, and they therefore need to be dismantled. (The right can call on a ton of one-sided but pretty indisputable evidence for this jaded argument.)
  2. Things are worse than they “used to be” because of a moral-spiritual vacuum that has muddied what was once clearly seen to be the line between good and bad, right and wrong. Terrorism, addiction, crime, and the anxiety and acedia of many citizens demonstrates this. Humans are naturally weak or sinful and need authority figures (police, military service, religions, strict parents and laws — but not politicians or regulators) to keep them on the right path and reverse the “moral decay” we are seeing.
  3. A strong work ethic is essential to a good, meaningful life. Progressive governments have offshored and outsourced work, allowed in too many immigrants who compete for jobs and who don’t share our “values”, and have passed laws that allow too many to live without even trying to find “real work”. That needs to be reversed.

I don’t know of many people who don’t have at least a little sympathy for these arguments.

George Lakoff argued that the left needed to construct (or repair) a coherent alternative story about the value of nurturing our children and each other, teaching and learning to think critical and independently, and the importance of government and regulation to support citizens who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot obtain the essentials of a healthy life without such support.

Because it’s hard to figure out how to make it work, this is a far less compelling story to most people, and, as success stories of its use fade further from public memory, it sounds more and more like idealistic hooey rather than a framework for social self-management and governance. Each element of it is open to attack by conservatives using their own frames of reference, which have now become the de facto frames of reference in most of the world.

Now I’m going to sound like an old fogey, which I suppose I am, because I think what has facilitated this implosion of leftist effort and energy is the serious decline in our systems of education (formal and informal) over the past forty years. This is not anyone’s fault — it was the inevitable result of several things:

  • The inability and unwillingness of governments to properly fund, facilitate and monitor educational systems that can produce a basic level of language fluency, cognitive capacity, and literacy (breadth and depth of study) in every young person.
  • Commensurately, a propensity of education systems, right up to ivy league universities, to award unwarranted passing grades and top marks, to pass the systems’ growing dysfunction and incapacity to provide education basics on to the next level of schooling.
  • The enormous increase in the complexity of our society, which of necessity has made education shallower and spread across a wider range of disciplines.
  • The decline in the quality and quantity of discourse, starting in families, about the state of the world. This is substantially the result of the necessity, due to complex changes in economic dynamics, for parents to both work, and to work two or three jobs each, reducing the communications that children have in their early years with (hopefully) more articulate and informed adults.

If young people aren’t given the tools for basic cognitive development and intellectual exercise, we shouldn’t be surprised when they are just overwhelmed by what’s happening, and cleave to simplistic narratives and an over-reliance on “what my friends say” in forming their own beliefs and values. If you never wean your child off pablum, how can you expect them to digest solid foods?

I would argue that we have, with the best of intentions, pretty much cast young people adrift at an early age to try to make sense of the world among their equally clueless peers. And while I am aware of the “helicopter parent” phenomenon, my observations have been that the interventions of such parents are more about the parents’ egos (“Why did my brilliant child get such a poor grade in your class?”) and about grades, than they are about the education of children.

I have been reading Carlo Rovelli’s book Helgoland, about the development of quantum science, and what struck me most in reading it was that the bright lights in science in the last century had a staggeringly broad and deep understanding of disciplines spanning not only many sciences, but also politics, the arts, philosophy and literature, and they drew on all these disciplines and their reading and studies, in making the momentous advances achieved in their fields. I think our modern education and work-world systems are so hollowed-out and specialized that they preclude the chances of this happening now, and I think the documented sharp decline in innovation over the past forty years, exactly when we need more of it, is evidence of that.

So we end up with people who go to work for progressive organizations getting immediately embroiled in how those organizations are themselves suboptimal in terms of the ideals they aspire to, and not understanding the context for or the importance of subordinating those concerns to the objective of achieving the organization’s vital goals, whether those goals be climate action, institutional reform, or regulating corporatist excesses.

They can’t be blamed for wanting to put their own organization’s house in order before trying to change the world. And they also can’t be blamed for their ignorance, naïveté or cynicism about whether changing the world is even possible: “This system has never worked for me; why should I work to reform it?”. If they had as background an understanding of the history of what the organization has accomplished, and of the urgency of what it needs to accomplish now, they would perhaps be willing to set aside their (mostly legitimate) concerns in non-urgent areas they do feel they have come say and control over, to focus on urgent actions that they most likely feel are hopeless no matter what they do.

Without that historical background and understanding, and the cognitive capacities to understand its implications, it’s not surprising that they bring a certain self-centred nihilism to the work they do, and a certain us-vs-the-world-including-progressive-organizations attitude to the workplace.

The result is that, as this exhaustive study has found, many, many progressive organizations have been paralyzed or even destroyed by idealistic internal disputes, infighting and distraction from their mission. That has left the right, including the courts that are now in many places stacked with the extremist appointees of neofascist governments, free to further undermine and dismantle restrictions on those governments’ power, and to perpetuate that power in overtly anti-democratic ways. A recent international study found that more than half of the young people surveyed didn’t think it was important that the government of the country they lived and worked in was democratically elected. How can we expect them, with such ignorance of (and/or cynicism about) the importance of democracy, to work to defend it?

A recent newsletter from a progressive organization I have followed and encouraged for years, commenting on the ruling of a panel of right-wing judges that the decisions of American regulatory authorities (like the SEC, FTC, FDA, EPA etc) are, across-the-board, unconstitutional, actually said the organization found the ruling “a relief”, in that they could now get on with the work of creating replacements for these regulatory authorities that were more accountable. What planet are they living on? Their naïve assumption seems to be that if the ruling is upheld, they will be empowered to “build back better”. In reality, this ruling, if upheld, opens wide the door to massive levels of securities fraud, mega-pollution, toxins in our food and water, price-fixing and other monopolistic practices, and bribes, extortions and other illegal trade practices, with complete impunity for the corporations perpetrating them. Any corporate regulation will have to be subject to exhaustive court proceedings, which are almost invariably won by the side with the deepest pockets — the corporations.

But I suppose, if people haven’t studied history, and don’t understand how the world really works, such fanciful utopian “build back better” dreams will incline them to celebrate, rather than be enraged at, the egregious judicial malpractice of the type that led to this demented ruling.

Max Planck famously said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”  The same is true of other beliefs and truths — each new generation will grow up, for better or worse, free of many of the beliefs and prejudices, as well as the historical knowledge. context, and learnings, of the ones that passed before. Unfortunately, that’s one of the reasons our species keeps repeating the same mistakes.

In the book The Fourth Turning, the authors foresee the current generation just starting to take over as being one that is somewhat insular, idealistic and fiercely loyal to its self-selected groups. They also warn about the current times, as a reviewer summarizes:

[The fourth turning] means America and the free world are due for a deepening crisis characterized by severe drops in financial markets, declining confidence in America’s institutions, and, very likely, “a sudden downward spiral, an implosion of societal trust” (p. 275). This deepening crisis should reach a climax at about the year 2020, when all of America’s problems will seem to have congealed into “one giant problem, the very survival of the society will feel at stake.”

The historical pattern is strong enough that we should take this scenario seriously. But we do not need to accept it as inevitable. We have choices, and we can choose to change the future. Even Strauss and Howe, on their WEB discussion group, state that “changes in how we think about events can determine the direction and outcome of the events themselves.” If consumer confidence is shattered, the government overreacts to the terrorist threat, and the public is seduced by maximalist solutions, then the Fourth Turning will be upon us.

So, perhaps, here we are. Fourth Turnings are a time of upheaval and unrest — the last one ushered in two world wars and the Great Depression. To have this happening exactly when the left seems to be imploding, and is bereft of a coherent story to tell a world floundering with anxiety and despair about our future, is not auspicious.

In his latest article (and his upcoming book) Rhyd Wildermuth, who grew up as an anarchist and spent much of his youth working with the homeless and the addicted in Seattle, is less kind in his assessment of the left’s internal dissension and naïve idealism, which he says has led to the kind of colossal blunders that led to the recall of Chesa Boudin. That recall movement, while admittedly funded by right-wing billionaires, was, he says, most fiercely supported by BIPOC people and others living in poor, working-class neighbourhoods, who had to deal directly with the often-unnerving consequences of Chesa Boudin’s bold experiment, far more than did the idealistic insulated-by-wealth “Professional-Managerial Class” (mostly in tech jobs) who supported Chesa’s experiment.

Rhyd argues that the relative wealth and privilege of many young progressives has “blinded” them to the realities that their idealistic beliefs, when implemented (in progressive cities and organizations), impose on the lower castes and classes of citizens, leading to a left that is dysfunctional, disconnected, and alienating to the rest of the population. He goes so far as to say:

In the end these progressive policies are acts of class warfare against the poor. It’s the lower class who is dying from these overdoses, it’s the lower class (and especially the minority communities Woke Ideology claims to defend) who are harmed most by drug-related crime, and it’s the lower class who has begun revolting against the Professional-Managerial Class’s vision of ideally-managed societies.

Particularly in the United States, anarchist frameworks are hobbling any real leftist organizing towards class-based analysis of these problems. This is of course partially because the most prominent US anarchists are all part of the Professional-Managerial Class, but more significantly because their relentlessly juvenile perception of what is “authoritarian” means they oppose not just state efforts but also any collective effort to deal with crime.

So perhaps the problem that has caused the implosion of the left is that, as it has become increasingly disconnected from the working classes and the poor, it has forgotten, lost track of, and stopped fighting for, the citizens it once espoused as its allies, the core of its constituency. And in the process, it has played perfectly into the hands of conservative groups who are more than willing to pay lip service to the beliefs of the dumbed-down working classes, and to exploit their anger and recruit them with the simplistic three-part story I outlined above.

The climate crisis movement, and other once-inspiring leftist groups, have IMO let their critical goals and messages be diluted by what Rhyd calls Woke Ideology that insists that climate action, to prevent the collapse of our ecosphere, cannot proceed until and unless it incorporates “social justice”, including reparations for past injustices. What hope does any movement, already facing fierce opposition from conservatives and corporations, have if it is distracted by debates on historical justice, race and ideology, from its urgent need for direct action now — to damn well block, break and take over (occupy) corporate activities that are destroying our planet’s ecosystem. In a world ravaged by ecological and related economic collapse, no one is going to give a tinker’s damn about which groups were more or less disadvantaged by the corporatist misdeeds that gave rise to it. And only an extremely insulated, ignorant, sheltered, idealistic, ideology-obsessed cohort could believe otherwise.

How will this all play out? My guess is that this decade will see the further decline of the left as it sinks further into internal squabbling and dysfunctional irrelevance, and a mostly-unrestricted advance of neofascist governments just about everywhere. Private corporate interests and billionaire oligopolies will finish their looting of the public purse and public assets and, with the exception of its ‘moral section’ (law enforcement of the oppressed classes, security, and the military), the hollowing-out and slow drowning of central governments as providers of social and support services.

That will leave us totally fucked as economic and ecological collapse deepen and become global in the 2030s, since there will be nothing left in the treasury to fund the kinds of rescue operations that prevented the most catastrophic misery of the 1930s — rescue operations like the New Deals, with widely-accepted 90% taxes on corporate profits. When we reach that stage in the 2030s, the governments will, at the behest of their owners, the oligarchs, probably instead turn on the citizenry to try, unsuccessfully, to maintain order. It’s not going to be pretty, but we’ll survive it.

In the meantime, the left might actually wake up and act on behalf of the struggling 99%, and might once again become relevant. But talk about dangerous times: This won’t be a genteel slue to socialism. It could well be more like the times of the Russian revolution than anything most of us have ever conceived of (or read about). In terms of our propensity to gravitate towards radical collective action — a true rebellion, not the play-acting of XR and its ilk — there will be a strong pull, fed by generations brought up in the cult of me-first individuality, to dissolve into everyone-for-themselves atomized struggle instead. That’s what the oligarchs and their paid-for politicians are counting on.

They may be in for a surprise. And Generation Z might surprise us most of all. Especially that generation of young people outside of the countries of White Empire. Having lived lives of precarity, with social cohesion their strong suit, and little to lose, they might prove to be better revolutionaries, more prepared to risk everything for their cause, than the rest of us. Whether they’ll then be considered leftists is anyone’s guess. Their verses for The Times They Are a-Changin’ may be very different from ours. They may very well not be in English.

Still, we can be pretty sure that “The order is rapidly fadin'”. And the demise of the “old left” will lead to some new group, eventually. A group with a better first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be poor, oppressed, and exploited, and an appreciation that ideology and idealism are not the tools of change.

This old fogey hopes to be around to cheer them on.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 7 Comments

What Does It Mean to Be Yourself?


Painting in oil pastels, “Family Portrait”,  by the Polish graphic artist Sławek Gruca


Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

– ee cummings

Rhyd Wildermuth has a new essay about the importance of learning who we really are, and then being authentically ourselves. He quotes poet John O’Donohue as saying “Most people are afraid of being themselves”, so we live instead through personas that are more acceptable to those around us and those we care about.

Rhyd’s view is that “we imagine things are going to be much, much worse when we act true to ourselves than they ever really are”.

I’ve written of late about the near-impossibility of knowing what our unique gifts and our greatest passions are, because we are streamed throughout our lives in ways that narrow our exposure to the world and its possibilities, and hence to our own possibilities. I’ve also come to believe we are completely conditioned in our behaviours, and hence have no free will whatsoever. And of course I’ve also written ad nauseam about the possibility there is no ‘us’ and the sense we have of self and separation is completely illusory.

Where is the ‘space’ for being one’s ‘authentic self’, given such ghastly constraints?

Brené Brown has explained how, when out of fear of loss, we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, we become numb, we try to inure ourselves to pain and hence at the same time inure ourselves to joy. In the process we lose connection to ourselves, she argues, and we become ‘somebody else’, someone cowed and oppressed by fear. But whether or not we can overcome that intolerance and fearfulness is, I would argue, also a matter of our conditioning, which is not in the least a matter of our choice or within our control.

Radical non-duality throws us a clue about who we ‘really’ are, beyond the mask of self. Those who have ‘lost’ their sense of self and separation, and ‘see’ that there is really no one, just appearances, report that there are ‘still’ characters, apparent bodies apparently behaving in certain ways, having certain apparent preferences. But these apparent preferences, they say, appear to be purely conditioned by the body’s biology and the enculturation of other apparent characters. There is no volition, no agency, no individuality or originality in any of it, beyond the ‘uniqueness’ of each character’s conditioning. It’s just like actors, reading pre-written scripts, on cue, that play off each other’s lines.

Without conditioning by “the world” trying to make us “everybody else”, perhaps we would just be more conditioned by our biology and genetics and less conditioned by our culture. What’s the difference, really?

And why should human creatures have evolved to be anything other than the sum of our conditioning? Wild creatures do not have to “self-inquire” and work and fight hard and think critically in order to be exactly who they are; and they are no less or more conditioned than we are.

My brief study of Ikigai told me some things about myself — what I care about, delight in, where I feel I belong and what captures my attention, but these things are all the results of my conditioning. The fact that the list has changed a lot, especially recently, reflects what has shaped my conditioning in the last few years, and the things (ideas, places, activities etc) I was already inclined to nod ‘yes’ to before I’d even encountered them. I had no agency in it.

I used to believe that ‘being yourself’ was an unlearning process, getting rid of all the gunk that gets attached to us before we ‘learn to think for ourselves’. But this is fanciful, self-aggrandizing, heroic talk. I’ve shaken off ideas and behaviours not out of personal volition, but because where I have been, and who I have been with, and what I have done, predisposed me to do so. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve probably taken on just as much new ‘gunk’ as I’ve gotten rid of; the new stuff is just shinier and more appealing to me, due to my conditioning in the interim.

As Nietzsche said, to some extent we “become who we are” through contrast with others’ interpretation and understanding of things. But the evolution of our selves through how our thoughts and ideas contrast with others’ is, I think, just a subtler form of conditioning.

We now live in a society that is increasingly obsessed with ‘identity’. I find this utterly annoying, and when I’m asked any question that starts “Do you identify…”, my answer is always (since there’s invariably a list to choose from) — None of the above. The answer to who we are will not be found, IMO, in labels, which are just boxes that limit and imprison us. How is asking others to define us with ‘identity’ labels of our own ‘choosing’ any better or any more meaningful than whatever (mostly unspoken) labels they will inevitably apply to us anyway? Who are we trying to kid? And who are we trying to convince?

I’m laughing as I write this. This character has apparently been conditioned to get enormous enjoyment from exploring puzzles that have no solution. And this — the search to be ‘our true selves’ — is a really terrible rabbit hole. There is no escape.


A couple more works by Sławek Gruca to think about (though the one above remains my favourite of his):

“Land of Happiness” (perhaps a reflection on the challenges of trying to be yourself?):

and, below, “Cosmic Thoughts” (my read: are our thoughts really our own, or do they just arise and we claim ownership and try to make sense of them?):

In addition to his website where you can buy his original works, and his DeviantArt page, which sells prints, Sławek also has a Facebook page with his most recent works.

Even Nietzsche understood that art is the most important work we can do, the closest we can hope to get to the ‘real’ truth.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 1 Comment

Links of the Month: June 2022


cartoon by the incomparable Michael Leunig

I wouldn’t pretend to know what Michael was thinking when he created the cartoon and poem above, but it really resonated with me. To me it describes the virtue of openness, of equanimity, of being comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, and unknowing. Listeners to my music library have often commented that much of my favourite music seems ‘sad’ in tone to them. I found that curious, since, while a lot of wonderful music makes me cry, it is tears of joy, of recognition, of ‘seeing’ something that can’t normally be seen. Michael’s character in the cartoon looks rather sad, but he also looks to be at peace, in that kind-of-magic place that is at once aware and relaxed. As I get older, I seem to be spending more and more time in that place. For me at least, it’s a good place to be.


COLLAPSE WATCH


cartoon in the New Yorker by Paul Noth

What kind of collapsnik are you?: Indrajit Samarajiva has re-conceived my 2015 ‘new political map‘, and riffs about it. He’s added a lot to think about.

An intro to Gaianism: I’ve signed up for Eric Assadourian’s Gaian Reflections, since, despite the site’s religious overtones, I found his essays on Gaianism and its creed, on greensong (the sounds of the more-than-human world), on our lives not being our own (especially in a time of collapse), and on our unsuitability for captivity, to be perceptive and novel. Thanks to Paul Heft for the links.

Passing eight tipping points = total collapse: Economics professor Steve Keen (with colleagues including Tim Garrett) tear a strip off mainstream economists who continue to publish ludicrous articles in mainstream economics journals that disregard (and seemingly can’t fathom) the interrelationship between ecological tipping points and the inevitability of them leading to collapse, economic and ecological. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.


LIVING BETTER


my own caption for a memebrary post

Workhorses of the global transportation system: The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore provides a fascinating history of the little-changed, ubiquitous bicycle, and the ongoing war between drivers and cyclists, in her review of a new book on the subject.

Is China the most democratic country in the world?: They think they are, and there’s a lot of data to support them in that belief. There’s a lot more to ‘democracy’ than stuffed ballot boxes, gerrymandering, and disenfranchised voters with no real choice.

The tyranny of bureaucracy: A lead article by Justin Smith in the Atlantic, much of which I very much disagree with, makes a compelling case for how run-amok bureaucracy, coupled with now-mandatory technology that forces us to adapt to it rather than the other way around, is breaking our democracy and making our society increasingly dysfunctional. While I agree with this part of the diagnosis, I don’t at all see this is evidence of, or necessarily even leading to, authoritarianism and government overreach. As many have said since we started protesting in the 1960s: It’s the system, stupid. As I’ve written elsewhere, I wish writers like Justin would read more Kafka, and less Orwell, to get a more balanced view of what’s behind the dysfunction, and where it’s leading.

Male Aghan TV anchors cover faces on air in solidarity with Afghan women: This is a powerful response to government oppression and misrule, and, as several women reporters have confirmed, far more than a symbolic gesture.

Make the internet a public utility: Ben Tarnoff in the NYT (if you can make your way around the double paywall) argues that regulation can’t fix the broken internet; the only solution is to make it a public utility and remove the financial incentives for abusing it. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

New common currencies to replace the US dollar: Hot on the heels of the recent announcement to create a Latin American currency (the Sur), Iran has proposed a common currency among the SCO countries (China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia). These arrangements are essential to break the illegal (under international law) financial embargoes used by the US in its proxy wars against ‘unfriendly’ nations.

Tax the rich (estates): Counterpunch explains the massive gift recent US governments have given the rich in halving the top marginal tax rate and increasing the estate tax threshold by a factor of 50. Time to claw it back. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.

Could red flag laws reduce mass shootings?: Oregon’s law allowing seizure of weapons from those considered a danger to society is working. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


data from Biobot suggests US CoVid-19 wave 6 case numbers are once again about at the peak levels reached during waves 1, 3 & 4, though because of drastically-reduced testing and reporting, reported numbers are much lower

The only power working whites have left: The always-eloquent Chris Hedges, who grew up in a family with guns, explains the feelings of helplessness, more than hate, that underlies America’s obsessions with guns. Good to see that, despite Google, Chris hasn’t been totally erased from the internet. Thanks to John Whiting for the link, and the one that follows.

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism: Short takes:

Ukraine Peace: Short takes:

Misinformation, Disinformation, Propaganda and Censorship: Not-so-short take:

  • If the above video of the Nuland-Pratt skulduggery orchestrating the 2014 Ukraine coup didn’t convince you to be wary of the US War Machine and its power on both sides of the aisle of US government, then consider the Biden/CIA hastily-assembled and then temporarily-disassembled DHS “Disinformation Governance Board” (aka “Ministry of Truth”) under the ‘leadership’ of another fine piece of work, Nina Jankowicz. Or the extremist make-up of the “news review” agency NewsGuard, with its retinue of torturers, warrantless wiretappers, and NATO war generals. Or the twitchy zeal of PayPal to cancel the accounts of anyone who dares question the Biden narrative on Ukraine, Russia and China. Former CIA analyst and investigator John Kiriakou provides the details. This scary, bloodthirsty group is running things while the doddering US president twiddles his thumbs.

CoVid-19 Becomes the Pandemic (mostly) of the Unvaccinated: Short takes:


FUN AND INSPIRATION


from the memebrary, original source unknown

In defence of difference: A brilliant and engaging analysis of culture, race, ethnicity, diversity, and generalization vs universalization, by Rhyd Wildermuth, drawing on his new life as a Lëtzebuerger (Luxembourger). This month’s ‘must read’.

Dave’s preposterous predictions: I made a bunch of predictions back in December. My predictions are usually about half-right and come true much later than I’d expected, but I seem to have had a pretty good crystal ball in December, especially on predictions 1, 4 and 5.

What’s happening in Sweden?: A wonderful ‘newcomer’s’ take on Swedish culture from Dark Mountain co-founder Dougald Hine. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

Playing for change: Entertaining large-group videos of Santana’s Oye Como Va and John Lennon’s Imagine.

That’ll be the drink then: Perceptive note from Euan Semple on the social effects of alcohol. I just had my first drink in a bar in a year on Thursday, and I became a different person.

Types of scopes: A hilarious compilation by Randall Munroe at xkcd.

Defending your worldview: Caitlin Johnstone does a perceptive psychoanalysis of people who aren’t so much defending dubious pro- or anti-government narratives, as they are defending their well-entrenched and threatened worldview.

It’s all in the metrics: As the reactionary UK Johnson government proposes to jettison the metric system and further insulate themselves from the rest of the world, some countries that are still in transition are considering whether, at last, it’s time to let go of ‘imperial’ measures.

Scientists twisted in Gordian knots: Veritasium explores the “absurd” search for ‘dark matter’, while Sabine Hossenfelder (while acknowledging that the Olympics, in pursuit of big money, have largely degenerated into a “freak show”) provides a detailed and balanced argument for/against the presence of trans women in women’s sports.

Singing in the dead of nacht: Paul McCartney explains where the chord progression for Blackbird came from. See if you can guess before you watch.

Let sleeping humans lie: A couple of Vancouver students have invented a bed for your living-room, modelled on the ones made for lucky dogs.


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH


from Ali Smith’s Spring

From Bruce Cockburn’s song Burn (this song is fifty years old next year; change a couple words and it still works just fine):

Look away across the bay; Yankee gunboat come this way.
Uncle Sam gonna save the day; Come tomorrow we all gonna pay,
And it’s burn baby burn; When am I going to get my turn?
Burn baby burn; When am I going to get my turn?

Something dead under the bed; Local diplomats hang their heads.
Never mind what the government said. They’re either lying or they’ve been misled.
And it’s burn baby burn; When am I going to get my turn?
Philippines was yesterday; Santiago and Greece today.
How would they ever make the late news pay, if they didn’t have the CIA?
And it’s burn baby burn; When am I going to get my turn?

Here it comes, the loaded gun — Must keep the Commies on the run.
You’d buy or bury everyone, for liberty and life and just plain fun,
And it’s burn baby burn; When am I going to get my turn?
Burn baby burn; When am I going to get my turn?

From Richard Shelton’s poem “Glen Canyon on the Colorado”, in The Last Person to Hear Your Voice:

where sometimes the shadow of a heron
would hoist itself above the water
flapping its wings
as though they needed oiling
while the determined beaver
followed his nose in a straight line
going somewhere important upstream
his silver wake spreading behind him

and at night when the cliffs
seemed to lean inward over the river
like giant black guardians
protecting stone cathedrals from the moon
and the beaver slept in lodges
so close to the surface they could hear
every word the river said

and all that the willows replied
a brilliant ribbon of stars
would unwind itself above the cliffs
following each turn of the canyon walls

soon that place will no longer exist
in the memory of anyone living
and will be hinted at only in photographs
and in the dim visions of words
as untrustworthy as our own

when we say at this point in time
to avoid the terror of saying now
the unredeemable moment where we live
with all past actions beyond our reach
and sinking down through dark water…

sink softly down
black silt to the canyon floor
as flower petals fall
as motes of sunlight drift through air
and settle in the evening
when the wind is still
sink softly down
fill the canyon from wall to wall

fall gently rain
upon the surface of the lake
shine softly moon and stars
it is no mirror for your light
it is the tomb of beauty
lost forever
and it is despair
the darkness in ourselves we fear


 

 

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Leave a comment

Modernity as Whipping-Boy


from back in the days when modernity was considered a good thing

There’s been a major increase in the use of the term “modernity” in this century. In recent decades it had become mostly a term used by academics and arts students, but now I’m starting to see it everywhere.

It’s almost always being used disparagingly. By reactionaries it’s used nostalgically — things were better, apparently, in ‘pre-modern’ times. By technophiles and idealistic one-world globalists it’s used hopefully, a stepping stone towards the singularity or ‘the end of history’. And by progressives it’s used, usually, despairingly, describing everything that has turned out disappointingly.

It’s intriguing that the term seems to be outlasting “pomo”, which was also a mostly academic term that seemed mired in a sense of pretentious irony from the start, and was often seemingly used as a synonym for obsessive relativism, a kind of ‘well, anything’s got to be better than what we’ve got, but don’t count on it’.

But there doesn’t seem much agreement on what ‘modernity’ actually means.

Here is one writer’s list of the characteristics of modernity today:

  • Bureaucracy–impersonal, social hierarchies that practice a division of labor and are marked by a regularity of method and procedure
  • Disenchantment with the world–the loss of sacred and metaphysical understandings of al facets of life and culture
  • Rationalization–the world can be understood and managed through a reasonable and logical system of objectively accessible theories and data
  • Secularization–the loss of religious influence and/or religious belief at a societal level
  • Alienation–isolation of the individual from systems of meaning–family, meaningful work, religion, clan, etc.
  • Commodification–the reduction of all aspects of life to objects of monetary consumption and exchange
  • Decontextualization–the removal of social practices, beliefs, and cultural objects from their local cultures of origin
  • Individualismgrowing stress on individuals as opposed to mediating structures such as family, clan, academy, village, church
  • Nationalism–the rise of modern nation-states as rational centralized governments that often cross local, ethnic groupings
  • Urbanization–the move of people, cultural centers, and political influence to large cities
  • Subjectivism–the turn inward for definitions and evaluations of truth and meaning
  • Linear-progression–preference for forms of reasoning that stress presuppositions and resulting chains of propositions
  • Objectivism–the belief that truth-claims can be established by autonomous information accessible by all
  • Universalism–application of ideas/claims to all cultures/circumstances regardless of local distinctions
  • Reductionism–the belief that something can be understood by studying the parts that make it up
  • Mass society–the growth of societies united by mass media and widespread dissemination of cultural practices as opposed to local and regional culture particulars
  • Industrial society–societies formed around the industrial production and distribution of products
  • Homogenization–the social forces that tend toward a uniformity of cultural ideas and products
  • Democratization–political systems characterized by free elections, independent judiciaries, rule of law, and respect of human rights
  • Mechanization–the transfer of the means of production from human labor to mechanized, advanced technology
  • Totalitarianism–absolutist central governments that suppress free expression and political dissent, and that practice propaganda and indoctrination of its citizens
  • Therapeutic motivations–the understanding that the human self is a product of evolutionary desires and that the self should be assisted in achieving those desires as opposed to projects of ethical improvement or pursuits of public virtue

There’s something on this list for everyone to abhor. In fact, my suspicion is that modernity is mostly used as a weasel word for ‘what’s wrong with the world’, or, more precisely, what each of us particularly hates about the state of the world. If that’s the case, it really means nothing. We can all agree that the world seems fucked up, but we may have diametrically opposed views of what exactly is fucked up and why, and what should be done about it.

Are there any parts of the list above that we can all agree upon as abhorrent, distressing, undesirable? I think there are a few:

  • Complexity, unmanageability, and lack of control — There seems to be something inherent in human nature that loathes complexity, and wants everything to be simple, binary, and straight-forward.
  • Bureaucracy and other failures of scale — Despite the desires of many across the political and social spectrum to centralize and/or replicate the aspects of systems that seem to be working really well, the sad truth is that moving systems to a larger scale almost always brings dysfunctionality, disconnection, and fragility. Nature understands this, and goes instead for diversity, redundancy and ‘small is beautiful’ processes. Large systems aren’t necessarily evil, homogenizing or inflexible; rather, they’re clumsy, incompetent (‘efficient’ rather than ‘effective’), maladaptive and hugely vulnerable to failure. Think: less Orwellian and more Kafkaesque.
  • Unknowability, uncertainty and ambiguity — We hate not knowing what’s going on, and why. As the world gets ever-larger and more interrelated and technologies evolve faster than cultures, we know less and less and get more distressed and anxious about our inability to keep up. We want things to be clear and predictable, almost as much as we want them to be as we’d like.
  • Chronic stress — Alienation, industrialization, the speed of everything, confusion and confrontation never give us time to rest, to reflect, to get things sorted out.
  • Disconnection — The ‘modern world’ in which most of us live is simply unnatural, prosthetic, arguably not how humans (or any species) were ‘meant’ to live, and not how indigenous peoples or wild creatures live. This has less to do I think with a loss of ‘freedom’ (freedom from, vs freedom to) or loss of autonomy than it has to do with our sense of bewilderment and dissatisfaction of not belonging anywhere.

These are not things that can be ‘fixed’ by moving forward from ‘modernity’ to something ‘better’. These are things that are only going to get more so, more infuriating, more anxiety-creating, and more distressing as collapse deepens.

What the growing and ubiquitous use of the term ‘modernity’ really signifies, I think, is a broad sense that ‘this isn’t how it was supposed to be’ — a sense of despair that all those well-intentioned and promising things we hoped and fought for have actually, mostly, made things worse rather than better.

Perhaps our criticism of modernity is an earnest attempt to re-establish connection with people from whom we are increasingly polarized. Maybe, the thought is, if we can find common ground on what’s wrong, we can stop fighting and neutralizing each other and start to move forward.

Or perhaps the malaise of ‘modernity’ is just the inevitable result of the realization that our vaunted civilization culture just doesn’t work for us anymore, if it ever did, and that in our ‘modern’ imaginative poverty, we simply cannot conceive of or draw upon any alternative way to live.

What comes after modernity, I suspect, is collapse, a clumsy walking away, a period of chaos, and then, much too late for our liking, some radically new, local, small experiments in how to live together, and some scary, wondrous new beginnings.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

What Makes Your Life Worthwhile?


the three-circle ‘Venn model of Purpose’ from my book, designed to help you find ‘the work you’re meant to do’

Fourteen years ago, Chelsea Green published my first book, Finding the Sweet Spot, describing what I had learned advising successful small, green enterprises. The book drew on decades of experience working with about 150 such businesses, plus a lot of external research. A core message of the book grew out of an observation that the most successful small enterprises, through good times and bad, seemed to consist of people who had found their ‘sweet spot’ — work that drew upon their particular passions and sense of purpose, and enabled them to bring their unique gifts to bear. In most such organizations, the workers had complementary gifts; that is, their gifts were, one could say, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, so there were no ‘skill gaps’ and no stepping on each other’s toes.

When I started to apply this to my entire client portfolio, and talked with other writers about entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurs in particularly joyful organizations, this finding was confirmed again and again. There was no ‘one way’ they had stumbled into their ‘sweet spots’, but these especially successful and joyful businesspeople were undoubtedly working in them. So I was eager to share this information with the world, so others could find their own ‘sweet spots’ and hence discover ‘the work they were meant to do’.

I did the usual crazy book tour across the continent, focused especially on B Com and MBA classes and a wild mix of media outlets. Everyone seemed to almost intuitively ‘get’ the model, which is summarized in the graphic above. I was really surprised that no one seemed to have published a book or article about this earlier. But what chagrined me when I did workshops on the book was that, as easy as the model was to understand, it seemed impossible to implement effectively, either with start-ups or with established businesses looking to improve their processes.

The problem was that most people have no idea what their gifts, their purpose, or even their passions are. They simply haven’t had the time, inclination, and breadth and depth of experience doing very different things, to discover them. And they also didn’t have the empirical knowledge to see what the world needed that wasn’t already being provided by others.

In the book I profile a young couple who actually applied the ‘process’ suggested in the book to successfully start their business (which is still thriving today). But they were a very unusual pair — extremely intelligent and self-aware, introspective, curious, with an endless thirst for new knowledge and experiences (they’d just come back from a long visit to Asia to learn more about themselves and what the world needed, and what it might have to offer).

So, it would seem that my model is probably conceptually valid. Variations of it have in fact been seen by millions of people in at least three later publications by others. But it is also, I now think, impracticable for the vast majority. You can’t find your ‘sweet spot’ if you haven’t fully discovered the things you really care about, the things you’re uniquely good at, and what the world really needs. And exercises can only take you so far.

The book’s now out of print (a long story), but I still think it was interesting, and its findings important. The three very similar models that followed, all include a fourth ‘circle’ about whether what you offer is affordable to those who need it; I had tried to wrap that in as being part of the Purpose circle, to avoid the technical drawback of four-circle Venn diagrams (they can’t capture all of the possible intersections). Although my Venn diagram appears to be the earliest one published, it’s entirely likely that the four-circle models were independently derived — it’s a very intuitive idea, and someone was inevitably going to produce a model of it. Even quantum theory was independently invented by two scientists who didn’t know each other!

One of the authors of a four-circle ‘Venn model of Purpose’, labelled their model Ikigai. Ikigai is a four-hundred-year-old Japanese philosophy that has almost nothing to do with ‘finding the work you’re meant to do’, and certainly can’t be captured in a simple model. But you still see many versions of the model with this incorrect label.

When I stumbled upon Ikigai expert Nick Kemp’s article debunking the idea that the Venn model captured the essence of Ikigai, I became intrigued about what Ikigai was really about. And I was immediately excited about what I learned.

Ikigai is about the lifelong discovery of what makes your life worthwhile. It may or may not help you discover your life’s ‘purposes’, but at a more basic level it’s simply what brings you joy and inspires you to get out of bed every day.

Finding your Ikigai is, in Nick’s words, “the process of cultivating, in a self-aware manner, your inner potential, as you actively pursue what you enjoy doing in service of your family, tribe and community, via your life roles”.


my own synopsis of the some of the elements that can comprise your Ikigai; note that any errors or misunderstandings in this graphic or article about Ikigai are mine alone — this article is unreviewed and unedited, and I apologize if I’ve got some of it ‘wrong’

The chart above is my first cut at listing some of the things that can make up your Ikigai. Unlike a Venn chart model, you are not looking for intersections or ‘sweet spots’ when thinking about this list — the entire circle, including anything in any of the four suggested categories of elements, is your Ikigai. It can be one thing or many.

It is also an attempt to see and appreciate what actually is true for you, now — so it is not aspirational, not what you wish or hope to be or do.

Ikigai requires cultivating self-knowledge and self-awareness, and one of the main ways we come to know ourselves is through getting to know other people, through our community, and discovering our difference, our uniqueness. Also, in traditional Japanese culture, the concept of service to others is important, and plays into what many in that culture likely see as their Ikigai.

We can start to find our Ikigai, Nick explains, by discovering the small things that make our lives worthwhile, the little private joys, that don’t depend on external validation or recognition. From that special first cup of coffee in the morning, to the cat that curls up on your lap whenever you sit on the sofa, it’s all Ikigai.

A related concept, Ikigai-kan, refers to the awareness of, and feelings toward, the ‘things’ that comprise our Ikigai.

I was fascinated to discover that neuroscientist Ken Mogi, who has written two popular books on Ikigai, does not believe we have free will. So for him Ikigai is about discovering how our Ikigai, in a way, plays itself out through us; it’s not about willing ourselves to be other than who we are or to do things differently. It’s about knowing and appreciating ourselves, so that we can be our authentic, fulfilled selves, free of guilt, shame and self-recrimination for not being other than who we really are.

In his Little Book of Ikigai, Ken outlines what he calls the five ‘pillars’ of Ikigai, which are guidelines for ways of living to discover and stay true to your Ikigai. They are:

  1. Start small — begin everything with gentle, modest steps
  2. Release the self — recognize and let go of the burden of the self, identity and ego
  3. Live in harmony and sustainability with everything around you
  4. Take joy in small things
  5. Live in the here and now — be in the flow of the present moment and focus your attention accordingly

The last chapter of the book is entitled: Accept yourself for who you really are. And finding your Ikigai can help you see and appreciate “who you really are”.

I’d love to have a chat with Ken to hear him explain how one can do these things when there’s no such thing as free will; but that’s a subject for another post.

(Ken has a new book out called The Way of Nagomi, which explores some additional characteristically-Japanese ideas and values, such as about moderation, childlike wonder, the folly of individual decision-making, the unsustainability of romantic love, the dangerous simplifications of our stories of history, and the causes of modern alienation.)

I found it illuminating to use the list in the graphic above to self-assess what some of the elements or aspects of my Ikigai might be. It’s worth mentioning that to most Japanese, one’s Ikigai is a private, and evolving, matter. I suppose that if you feel you have to censor acknowledging things that bring you joy, things you really care about, or aspects of your true nature, for fear they may be judged harshly by others, you cannot be truly honest about your Ikigai. I’ve reached the age where I no longer care much how I’m judged, so I don’t think I’ve subconsciously omitted anything from the following list, which is illustrative only, undoubtedly incomplete, and not in any particular order:

  • my favourite music
  • the view from my ‘terrace in the sky’ home
  • tropical ocean beaches
  • my tiny number of true friends
  • rainforests
  • my small, changing blog circles, family circles, and neighbourhood circles
  • the more-than-human world
  • reading and writing (in order to learn new things, not to chronicle collapse)
  • my creative writing (words and music)
  • play (online and board games, occasional flirtations, philosophic ideas like radical non-duality and no-free-will, clever exchanges, challenging crosswords, and collaborative creative activities)
  • equanimity
  • curiosity, and imagining possibilities
  • clever humour and theatre
  • hedonistic pleasures (eg hot baths by candlelight)
  • gentle, peaceful activities, people and places

These are the things that “get me up in the morning”. Making such a list was, for me, its own reward. I learned something about myself, particularly why I seem to be in such an extraordinarily good space in my life these days, despite the chaos that the rest of the world seems to be experiencing.

It was also interesting to note what, when I was honest with myself, was not on the list, and why: no foods or drinks, no forms of exercise, little or nothing related to science, politics, economics, or even philosophy or the arts. My list might have been quite different a decade ago, when I thought so differently about so much. I think my current list is probably close to what it would have been when I was a young child.

If I have the self-discipline to maintain this list over time, it will be interesting to see how it might evolve.

One final idea that caught my attention: Moai is a Japanese term meaning “meeting for a common purpose”, and on Okinawa, it takes the form of cohorts of 5-6 people selected at an early age to support each other all through their lives, and identifying and discussing Ikigai is part of that support group’s role. I wonder if such a concept might work in the west? There is something magic about that number 5, and it’s likely not a coincidence that Okinawa has the world’s longest healthy life expectancy.


For lots more on Ikigai, check out Nick’s website and/or subscribe to his podcasts. Thanks to Nick for our conversation yesterday.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Working Smarter | Leave a comment

Regulating Hate, Hate Speech and Hate Crimes

Warning: Some of the descriptions in this post may be triggering to some readers.


one answer to hateful online posts, that has so far, in most cases, worked colossally badly

The spreading of hate is responsible for creating a huge amount of distrust and social conflict, a lot of suffering, and not a few wars. Until recently, regulating this entailed monitoring and policing public spaces and mass media. But now, with social media giving anyone and everyone a megaphone for spreading hate, and providing spaces and organizing tools for hate groups to echo and coordinate with each other, it has quickly become an unmanageable problem. If the US does indeed descend into fascism and/or civil war this decade, hate-mongering online will have been one of its key enablers.

A quick recap on the current state of regulation:

  • In many jurisdictions, criminal codes do regulate hate speech and hate crimes in “public places”, and provide specific definitions of hate speech and hate crimes. Inciting violence is likewise illegal in most places.
  • Most of these laws limit their reach to hate speech and hate crimes that demonstrably initiate, instil or encourage hatred or violence against a particular person or group, to prevent overreach into areas of protected ‘free speech’ or ‘freedom of expression’. Of course, the line can be tricky to delineate.
  • Online hate-mongering (inciting hate or hate crimes) is still largely unregulated, and arguably, the attempts to regulate it have been incompetent, arbitrary and in some cases dangerous, aggravating the situation.
  • Most jurisdictions acknowledge that it is impossible to regulate against hate per se — you can only regulate behaviours (including hate speech).

I think most of us can agree that hate doesn’t necessarily lead to anger, and anger doesn’t necessary lead to violence or other social harms, and that we want to focus on where it does.

A huge challenge in ‘drawing the line’ on what is and is not hate-speech, hate-mongering or hate crime, is the issue of whether/when there is “genuine belief in the truth” of something that others deem to be hate speech or a hate crime. War propaganda, for example, is specifically designed to use disinformation to engender such “genuine belief” in order to recruit allies and detract from criticism. Censorship can have the same effect: Blocking access to information and alternative perspectives can lead to “genuine belief” that something that is actually hate speech or a hate crime is just a “righteous” response to an absolutely-clear situation.

Hate speech, hate-mongering, and hate crimes do not necessarily rely on misinformation (unintentionally misleading information), disinformation (intentionally deceptive information), propaganda (information intended to provoke or incite a specific angry or hate-driven response or action), or censorship (deliberate selective blocking of information). You can incite hatred and violence, for example, by simply using derogatory and otherwise hate-charged words, without including any ‘information’ at all.

So dealing effectively with these four information abuses may help mitigate hate speech, hate-mongering, and hate crimes, but in some situations it will not, or will not be enough.

And of course it is even harder to regulate censorship, especially when it is unconscious, self-imposed, or subtle (like simply not inviting Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges to provide their views in any mainstream media publications, versus actually blocking and taking down their writing, as Google has done with Chris).

What sits behind hatred is, I think, a volatile mix of emotions. It could be argued that anger is intuitive, situational and autonomic, while hatred is conditioned over time. Mis- and disinformation, propaganda, censorship, and direct (‘information-free’) hate speech can provoke both anger and hatred. And fear can underlie both.

So what can, and should, be done about it? Let’s consider seven examples that cut across the spectrum of hate speech, hate-mongering and hate crimes:

  1. Live-streaming of the Christchurch massacre or other atrocities;
  2. Bullying or otherwise humiliating, say, a child or spouse;
  3. Fake ‘news’ designed to incite hate or violence, such as the anonymous video of a public bible-burning by supposed BLM protestors;
  4. Unsubstantiated or debunked claims about wars and other atrocities, such as the recent allegation by the Ukrainian government that Russians were raping Ukrainian babies;
  5. Stirring up hatred with inflammatory rhetoric and claims, such as by one popular group that insists women have a social duty to have sex with incels because males will (they assert) naturally become violent if not given an outlet for their sexual energy;
  6. Publicly (including online, and including in ‘closed’ groups) espousing racist or otherwise hate- and violence-mongering statements, proposals, and theories;
  7. Threatening to deprive a selected group of basic human rights, such as actions depriving women of the right to decide what to do with their own bodies.

One of the problems is that everyone now has an online megaphone loud enough to make their rage or anger contagious, even viral. (And their audience may have an arsenal of machine guns to boot.)

These behaviours are ultimately about power, and its abuse. And as has often been said, people, especially fearful people, almost never give up their power voluntarily.

Should any of the above hate speech, hate-mongering, or hate crimes be tolerated in a healthy society? Of course not.

What then should be done to prohibit them? I haven’t the faintest idea. And none of the ideas fervently proposed and tried thus far has worked well.

This is what complex, intractable, ‘wicked’ problems are about. They defy solution. In some cases attempting to solve them actually makes them worse.

Every new technology runs the risk of empowering people to use it abusively. Explosives. Dams. The printing press. Mass production and automation. Combustion/electric engines. Radio and television. Large-scale industrial monoculture agriculture and factory farming. Cameras. Data mining and harvesting tools. Nuclear energy. Biological and genetic engineering. Robots and drones. And now, the internet and social media.

The horrific war and genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was driven and enabled largely by an intense program of radio hate propaganda.

As John Gray wrote in his work on collapse, Straw Dogs:

If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. If it becomes possible to clone human beings, soldiers will be bred in whom normal human emotions are stunted or absent. Genetic engineering may enable centuries-old diseases to be eradicated. At the same time, it is likely to be the technology of choice in future genocides. Those who ignore the destructive potential of new technologies can only do so because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies, but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

Almost all of the existential risks I identified in my recent article stem largely from (often inadvertent) misuse of technologies. Such technologies will continue to be, invented, and we cannot ‘un-invent’ them. And once invented, it is nearly impossible to prevent them being used, when they can be, to promote things like hate speech, hate-mongering, and hate crimes. Trump’s xenophobic ‘wall’, uncompleted but un-demolished, stands as a reminder and symbol of what this can lead to, and xenophobic hate now reaches so deep in the US that fewer than half of Americans oppose its completion.

So, the hate, and the hate speech, hate-mongering and hate crime mounts, and deepens, and all attempts to regulate it have, at best, curtailed some of the most egregious excesses, and mostly have failed miserably.

I question whether, as with so many of the complex, intractable problems we face today (like poverty and gross inequality, economic and climate collapse, chronic illness and pandemic mitigation, and the threat of war), there is any real solution to the problem of hate speech, hate-mongering and hate crimes, short of dealing effectively with the underlying problems that give rise to hate in the first place. And those underlying problems are likewise mostly complex and intractable.

If we can’t get at the underlying causes of hate, then we need to grapple with a host of challenges to try to mitigate and control it. This raises a bunch of other questions:

  1. Can censoring work, and who decides what should or should not be censored?
  2. Can rigorous attempts to regulate and prosecute online and other new forms of hate speech, succeed, or at least ‘work’ well enough to discourage others, and if so, who decides what’s prosecutable, and how, and what isn’t? 
  3. If the most serious new problem here is the powerful and far-reaching “bullhorn” that social media has provided to hate propagators, can we fix this by regulating the “bullhorn” owners, and if so, how? Specifically, can “duty-of-care” regulations and prosecutions work?
  4. How do we personally and collectively support and protect the victims of hate, hate speech and hate crimes? (The UN has tried to address this, but its prescription seems naive and clueless.)
  5. Is it enough, and really all we can do, to work to prevent these things happening in the first place? How can we best do so?

I have no answers to these questions, if there even are answers. In our modern world of exploding precarity, distrust, and confusion, our global culture seems increasingly entrenched in fear. And fear will almost always seek expression in anger and in hatred.

I continue to believe we’ve all done the best we could. Hate may not be a natural emotion, but once it’s provoked it takes a long time to heal. And sadly, we don’t have a lot of time.


For a deeper dive into some of these issues, here’s a great article from a criminology perspective, reviewing Canada’s latest proposed hate-speech law.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

No Matter

This is another musing about radical non-duality. Skip it if the subject is not of interest. If you don’t know what it’s about and would like to, start here.


asphalt 8 car race game, from gameloft

When I’m writing about politics, war, economics, collapse, or our culture these days, I often catch myself getting worked up about what I’m writing, which often shows up now in sarcastic asides, rather than all-out, blame-filled rants.

I have to smile at myself. My instincts, my scientific explorations, my research, the ‘glimpses‘, and my curiosity, all have me acknowledging that I’m getting worked up about nothing. The compelling (to me anyway) message of radical non-duality acknowledges that nothing is real or separate (including our selves), and nothing is really happening — the sense we make of it is all made up in our heads, a concocted fiction. And this message asserts that there is no one — no individual, nothing with free will or control over the body it presumes to inhabit.

While I intellectually and intuitively appreciate this astonishing message, my self labours on, presuming to exist and to guide this body’s behaviour, though it’s increasingly clear it does not, and that what this apparent body apparently does is independent of any controlling homunculus, and is only an appearance in any case.

Nevertheless, I have noticed some apparent subtle changes. What I recently called my instinctive emotions (fear, anger, and sadness) seem to flare up more readily than they used to, but they also seem to dissipate more quickly, often before I’ve even finished grumbling or writing about what has me worked up.

Meanwhile, what I called my judgemental emotions (anxiety, hatred, shame, jealousy, envy, guilt, longing, despair) seem mostly in retreat, though my old friend anxiety does still present itself periodically. But as I have accepted that there is no ‘real’ time, and hence no past and no future, what is left to be anxious, resentful, ashamed, jealous, envious, guilty, wishful, or despairing about? And as I’ve accepted that these apparent bodies’ apparent behaviours seem to be completely conditioned, and not under any ‘one’s’ control, without any free will, how can I blame, judge, or have expectations about anything or anyone, including my self?

Easy to say, of course. But it seems to be true that I’m much quicker to discount my judgements and the feelings they engender than I used to be, and to shrug off the pointless attempts to lay blame.

Because our human languages were written by selves to enable them to communicate their ideas with other selves (and also to indulge in internal dialogues), it is absurdly difficult to explain this message, which essentially doesn’t allow for the existence of selves, of anything ‘really’ separate, or of time or space or purpose or meaning, in language. But once the ‘bug’ of radical non-duality has bitten you, trying to do so seems irresistible.

The language problems start with words as basic as ‘reality’, ‘appearance’, and ‘illusion’. Radical non-duality would define them something like this:

  • Real is something that is substantial, physical, made of enduring matter. Radical non-duality asserts that nothing is real, or really happening.
  • Apparent is something that can ‘be seen’, is obvious, or evident, or seems to be. Radical non-duality asserts that everything is apparent, or apparently happening, except what is illusory. Happening (etymologically) means ‘coming about without cause’ and it is in that sense this word is used.
  • Illusory is something that is imagined, made-up, dreamt-up, an invention, an idea, a conception, a story, fictitious. Not real or apparent. Radical non-duality asserts that the self, and everything it imagines and believes to be true and real, including separate space and time and ‘real’ things, is illusory. That everything that is apparently happening, is apparently and ‘already’ happening to no one. It is apparently happening ‘all by itself’.

I’ve dealt with the obvious objections to this message at length elsewhere and won’t do so again here. I just wanted to define the terms the message uses, because therein I think lies much of the confusion about it. Suffice it to say that this message is so radical that it strikes most people as immediately preposterous, much as Copernicus’ and Galileo’s assertion that the Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe must have struck most of their contemporaries. It is intriguing that many recent discoveries in neuroscience, physics and quantum science would seem to corroborate this preposterous, radical message — suggesting that the self, and time, are in fact fictions, and that what we perceive as space is just ‘an infinite field of possibilities’.

I could try to provide a plausible explanation for how and why we humans came to be (apparently) afflicted with the delusion of self and separation. But it would only be a story, another fiction. The message tells us that there is no ‘how’ or ‘why’ for anything, because there is no time and no causality, just things appearing to happen for no reason. But the story might go something like this:

  1. The things that are appearing to happen, can seem to follow certain patterns.
  2. One such apparent pattern (though since it is ‘over time’ it is just a story) is what we call evolution — that creatures appear to evolve in accordance with some seeming rules, testing out variations and keeping the ones that help the creatures better ‘fit’ within their apparent environments.
  3. At one point, perhaps after an enormous storm of cosmic radiation almost obliterated proto-human species a few million years ago and rendered most of their habitats unliveable, humans migrated to the oceans, where their new seafood diets had much of the stuff needed to evolve larger and more complex brains, at precisely the time larger brains seemed useful to adapt to strange new habitats.
  4. These larger brains, perhaps by accident, evolved from having separate bicameral to integrated signal processing hemispheres, allowing the development of a capacity for abstraction and for imagining things to be real.
  5. This new imagination and conceptualization ability allowed the human brain to develop a complete representation of the ‘outside’ world, using the information it was perceiving and its new abstraction capacity.
  6. This new representation or model of the world seemed to make more sense (ie the model worked best) if something we call the ‘self’ was placed in the centre of the model.
  7. Since that time, humans have used this model as the basis for how we make sense of reality, and we invented languages to enable us to coordinate this sense-making with that of other human selves.
  8. Whether this model has anything to do with ‘reality’ is irrelevant; it’s actually more important as a means of helping humans socialize with each other, than it is as a useful tool for making decisions or doing anything. In fact, there’s lots of evidence that decisions and actions of human creatures are made instinctively without reference to this model at all, and the ‘self’ merely rationalizes decisions and actions as being ‘its’ decisions and actions after the fact.

Again, this is just a story. But this ‘self’ can’t help trying to bring the message of radical non-duality into some sync with scientific knowledge and theory. Those I’ve spoken with who ‘no longer have’ selves or a sense that anything is real or separate, find this story entertaining, but of no meaning. What is obvious to them is that nothing has meaning or purpose, and stories are merely stories — they don’t describe anything ‘real’ or ‘really happening’ because nothing is real or really happening.

One of the speakers about this message suggested that part of the reason that selves cannot wrap our heads around this is our fierce belief in the reality of time, past, future, consequence and causality. Without this concept, the whole model of what we conceive of as reality and existence breaks down. It’s like a devout Christian learning that the story of Jesus was just an invention by a travelling storyteller in 4BCE, made up to amuse children and get them to behave. Or learning in the 16 century CE that the sun travelling around the earth was merely an illusion.

A second part of the reason this is unfathomable to selves is that while we might be able to kind of imagine ourselves as being illusory, and our bodies and their apparent actions as being merely appearances, it is even harder for us to imagine everyone else as being illusory. When I’m working out in the gym, the others around me sure as hell look real, and seem very much driven by selves. They don’t seem to be mere figments of my imagination.

One of the metaphors used to explain why we are so convinced our selves and our conceptions about reality are real, is the story of the child, bored while waiting at the airport, walking up to a demonstration of a new car-race video game, picking up the controller and starting to play. The child does really well, passing vehicles and avoiding collisions with deft and timely manipulation of the controller. Soon, a crowd has gathered, cheering on the child as the points mount up into the millions and additional more challenging levels begin. As the point total nears a billion, a worker decorating the game display booth says to the child and the crowd: “Sorry to disappoint you, but this controller isn’t really hooked up to the game. It’s just a demo; the game is playing itself. At a billion points, it will crash, reset to zero, and start all over again.” There are loud boos of disbelief, but on an easy curve at a billion points, the car crashes. The crowd is furious at the worker, calling him a “monster”. He says “I could set it to crash at two billion points, if you prefer.”

I just looked at my list of potential upcoming blog article topics. Almost all of them are meaningless, purposeless, if selves are all illusory. But I still feel compelled to write them.

I suppose it’s a bit like the leap of faith we take when we play a video game, be it Minecraft, Among Us, Fortnite, or Asphalt 8. We know none of it is real. It’s just pixels on a screen. We know its outcomes really mean nothing. Yet we can feel exuberant when we win, and despairing when we lose. We can even get addicted to playing it.

We can call this ‘conditioning’ and provide a scientific explanation for it. Or we can simply say “It’s what appears to be happening”. Nothing is real. Everything is just an appearance of nothing, without meaning or purpose. Nothing really matters. As Hamlet said “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. But wow, it’s a convincing illusion. Enough to keep me furiously playing the game, until it ends, or I do. Apparently.

Posted in Radical Non-Duality | 3 Comments

Capitalist Oligarchies See Governments As Their Last Competitors


(right click to open chart in a new tab, or click here, to view full-size)

The idea of a corporation was originally as a means for a group of people to pool their resources to do or get something that none of the members could manage individually. That is, it was a communist idea — share things among community members for their collective benefit. Many co-ops and ‘buying groups’ continue to operate on a similar basis. In this idea, one’s ‘investment’ often includes contributing some form of work that advances the collective benefit, not just a loan of funds.

Because civilization had ushered in the idea of public property (“commons”) vs private property ( “estates”), the idea ran into the inevitable problems of “ownership”, “rights” and “liability”. It would take a much longer article to explore what’s wrong with that idea, but suffice it to say that most tribal and confederated cultures had no need for the idea of property — the people belonged to the land, and the people, as its stewards, collectively decided how the land would be used for the community’s benefit. I visited a remote culture a few years ago where this was still the case. As The Dawn of Everything effectively argued, this tribal sensibility scales a lot better than one might think.

But for whatever reason, ‘civilized’ cultures have fought thousands of wars over the ownership of property, and continue to do so. So soon corporations were allowed to own property, and were given rights. And to continue to enable them to raise funds for larger and larger projects, they were granted ‘limited liability’, on the basis no one would allot personal funds to a project if they could end up losing more than the money they put into it, through no fault of their own. And so, the die was cast.

Going back to the idea of a corporation, it was not, in fact, an entity, but rather an agreement. Agreements are the basis for many things in most cultures — currencies and marriages and markets, for example. But what bothered the new ‘capitalists’ — people who made a living arranging such agreements — was that these agreements are only good as long as the agreers are alive. They were also bothered by the fact that different people put more money into projects than others and expected appropriate compensation for their risk.

As a result, the idea of shares, and shareholders, was born. Shares could be unequally distributed, and would live on with a new shareholder when a shareholder died, or wanted to trade it to another. So corporations, and their shareholders, no longer existed for the purpose of financing or otherwise arranging an agreement among trusted peers. Instead, corporations became creatures whose purpose was tied to whatever the ever-changing shareholders wanted it to be. And those shareholders increasingly did not even know each other.

Some low common denominator had to be found to satisfy all present and future shareholders, and the one that was agreed upon was: to optimize the return on the shareholders’ investment. In other words, to earn a profit. That profit was a very rough surrogate for the benefit that the original ‘communist’ corporations might have received from their known-and-trusted community members. But it removed the requirement that the corporation’s activities be focused specifically on meeting the articulated collective needs of the agreers (the shareholders) because Who could possibly know what their collective needs now might be, if there even were any? If that didn’t meet the morals or principles of a shareholder, or if they didn’t have the money to buy a share, well, they could go back to using a ‘communist’ collective agreement. The new ‘shareholder agreement’ was far more versatile, and independent of knowledge of the shareholders or their needs, and was also far more scalable.

This idea of earning a profit as a means of compensating investors was very different from the traditional idea of return on investment (interest or rents). It played very well to the working and merchant classes, because earning interest and rents was viewed (with some justification) as a rather deplorable process of the rich property-owners charging working people for the use of their property, essentially making money by doing nothing. “Nice work if you can afford it.”

But the problem with this new scheme is that, if the shares were to be worth anything, given that there was some risk of loss of one’s investment involved, the potential profit needed to be large enough to justify the risk. That means that profits would have to go up every year, forever, so that the value of the shares could be justified by the present value of all future cash flows from the corporation (dividends, if any, plus capital appreciation) even when discounted at the high-risk cost-of-capital rate.

Who in their right mind could possibly believe that any corporation’s profits would go up by a significant amount every year forever? That’s the question, and that’s the point that led to capitalism morphing from being a beneficent means of raising funds for collective capital projects for mutual benefit, to a Ponzi scheme, a religion for believers in either the myth of perpetual growth, or their capacity to gamble money so shrewdly as to come out ahead, repeatedly and sustainably, in a zero-sum game.

So far, so bad. At least at that point you had (i) a regulatory system that investigated, prohibited, and ‘broke up’ monopolies and oligopolies in any industry segment, and (ii) a balanced economy where public organizations provided the goods and services that were not ‘profitable’ enough for private corporations to offer — public institutions and services, funded by tax dollars.

But once the corporation had been reinvented to singularly pursue profit and to require large annual increases in profits every year forever, the essentially pathological nature of this amoral, impossible and singular pursuit became evident, as the book and film The Corporation so brilliantly showed (and the sequel film, The New Corporation, is just as good, though ironically it has been taken off YouTube due to alleged copyright violation).

So what do you do if you’re in charge of a corporation and you’ll be rewarded if and only if its profits increase dramatically every year? The graphic at the top of this post provides some common, and logical strategies.

Here’s a walk-through of these steps, which are designed to eliminate the five ‘enemies’ of endlessly increasing profits:

STEP 1: ELIMINATE THE FIRST ENEMY, COMPETITION

  1. lobby* to deregulate monopolies
  2. become a monopoly, or at least an oligopoly, and hence raise prices and cut costs by squeezing suppliers

STEP 2: ELIMINATE THE SECOND ENEMY, REGULATION

  1. lobby to deregulate your industry
  2. exploit deregulation: externalize all social and environmental costs, outsource, exploit weak labour laws, eliminate employee benefits
  3. lobby to make capital gains (and estate gains) essentially tax-free, relative to income earned from doing real work
  4. use the company’s excess cash to have the corporation buy back its own shares, so shareholders’ remaining shares are worth more, rather than reinvesting that cash to provide more/cheaper goods and services
  5. lobby to make it easier for corporations to place risky-activity numbered company subsidiaries into bankruptcy, stiffing employees and creditors and minimizing losses, while making it harder for individuals to escape hardship through bankruptcy protection
  6. lobby to suppress interest rates and to regulate lending practices so you can borrow money practically free and invest it in high risk/return activities that you can push into bankruptcy if/when they fail

STEP 3: ELIMINATE THE THIRD ENEMY, INTERNATIONAL COMPETITORS AND REGULATIONS

  1. lobby for regulations to block international competitors and get access to their markets
  2. use tax avoidance schemes, international transfers, secret offshore accounts and tax havens to minimize taxes
  3. bribe foreign officials to steal foreign assets, and offshore labour and dirty production to the countries with the lowest costs and least regulation

STEP 4: CONFUSE, DECEIVE AND INTIMIDATE THE FOURTH ENEMY, THOSE ANNOYING, DEMANDING CUSTOMERS AND EMPLOYEES

  1. use virtue signalling, greenwashing and celebrity endorsements to pretend to care about customers while actually working against their interests
  2. use PR/marketing/disinformation to demonize environmentalists as ‘terrorists’ and unions as corrupt
  3. use PR/marketing/disinformation to oversell and lie about your product/service; use squads of lawyers to intimidate anyone who threatens to sue you for your wrongful actions
  4. use PR/marketing/misinformation to con citizens into believing their poverty, illness, unemployment, addictions, ruined environment, and other failures are their own fault or governments’, not anything corporations are responsible for (even if they caused them)

At this point, there is only one ‘enemy’, one ‘competitor’ left, to be eliminated: government, offering essential services that do not depend on generating profitable returns. So:

STEP 5: DISMANTLE THE FIFTH ENEMY, THE GOVERNMENTS STILL OFFERING PUBLIC SERVICES — THE LAST COMPETITOR STANDING

  1. use PR/marketing/misinformation to badmouth the government and engender distrust in all public institutions and regulatory bodies as being inefficient, corrupt and incompetent
  2. lobby the government to sell off public lands and properties to you at low prices, and to privatize, piece by piece, everything potentially profitable that government does
  3. take over large swaths of what government once did, and run them for profit instead of for the benefit of citizens; cut costs, cut services, cut staff, and focus on services and tiers that the rich can afford to pay a lot of money for

None of this is inherently ‘evil’ behaviour. It is perfectly rational amoral (not immoral) behaviour designed to generate a perpetual, steady increase in profits every year. It is what corporations and their executives are specifically employed to do and rewarded for doing.

There is no putting this genie back in the bottle**. It is inevitably leading to massively inequitable distribution of wealth and and a completely dysfunctional, citizen- and customer-loathing, oligopolistic, corporate-dominated economy. It is going to collapse because it is overextended, drowning in un-repayable debts, and completely unsustainable. And because it utterly fails to meet the needs of the majority of the population it was designed to serve.

We saw in the 1930s, in many countries, the types of steps that are possible to take when the existing economy is in shambles and there is a collective will to build something new that works equitably for all citizens. Sadly, in the 2030’s, even if we have the will, we will no longer have the means, in a globally, economically bankrupt economy, to do anything on any scale. We have given away the power and leverage we once had that could sustain a balanced economy.

As with CoVid-19, we are going to be left to our own resources to figure out how to make ends meet in a radically broken, ravaged, dysfunctional civilization. Capitalism seemed like a good idea in its early days. But like many ideas and technologies (eg plastics, nuclear energy, private automobiles) it has proved utterly dysfunctional in practice and at scale.

As ghastly as the resultant economic collapse is likely to be, it may lessen, to some degree, the horrific damage that 7.9B people and a run-amok global capitalist economy have wreaked on our planet, though not enough to prevent ecological collapse from following economic collapse in short order.

We did our best, taking capitalism and other seemingly good ideas, and trying to put them into practice, only to lose control of them and watch as they have created vastly more harm than good. The outcome was inevitable from the start, had we been able to foresee it, and we are now starting to live with the dreadful consequences. It’s going to be interesting.


* “Lobbying” is, in effect, legally bribing, and strong-arming, politicians, with offers of huge campaign donations, and jobs if they lose their seats and threats if they don’t toe the line. Although ‘bribe’ is a charged term, it’s a calculated and accounted-for “cost of doing business” in most of the world, including large swaths of the Global North.

** There are a lot of idealists who would have you believe we can ‘reform’ the economic system by changing the mandates of corporations, re-regulating businesses to prevent abuses, and reestablishing public institutions and services in a balanced economy. That’s another great idea, but it is now completely unfeasible:

  • Without growing profits, corporations and shares have almost no value, and this would bring about utter market collapse.
  • The only way to take power and property back after you’ve allowed it to be all given away to a small cadre of private interests, is to take it by force, and attempts to do so have always been bloody, chaotic, and usually unsuccessful.
  • And there is not enough money left in public coffers even to continue historical public services, let alone reestablish the public institutions and services that have been privatized, hopelessly degraded or abandoned entirely.
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