Signs of Our Times --by Michael Rectenwald
"It is no very good symptom either of nations or individuals, that they deal much in vaticination,” wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1829, in his characteristic preference for unselfconsciousness as an indication of healthy physical, psychical and spiritual well-being. For Carlyle, the very preponderence of prophecy was an indication that times were already bad. The overbearing prophets of doom echo each other, contributing their echoes into a maddening din. In 1829, the increasing ‘noise’ was due to the rise in literacy and the veritable explosion in printing. Today, when the explosion in printing is redoubled by that of the internet, the following passage from Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” is even more apt:
But Carlyle goes on to suggest that each age necessarily requires its “vaticination.” Especially when the “distemper” recurs periodically, we have no recourse but to examine it. And so, as Carlyle suggests, Let us
What are the signs of our times? Well, since Carlyle looked to his own time’s vaticination for his “Signs,” let is too turn to what others see, and make some recommendations based on these symptoms. What are the prophets of today saying and where are they? According to some, they do not exist. William Bowles has suggested that our age is bereft of real intellectuals. And the press, as many commentators note, are all but absent in addressing the worst crimes of our times. The print explosion has given way to the internet explosion. On the internet, we are told, especially by those ensconced in the older media, dwell the fringe lunatics, cooking conspiracy theories and declaring a secret and semi-official cabal behind every imaginable act. Even the supposed photographs of the London bombers have been interrogated as the rumors fly about photo-doctoring and the like. We hear the official stories regarding two signal events in recent history, 9/11 and 7/7, called into question.
The most conspicuous sign of our times is not that such acts may actually be undertaken by our leaders, but that a great many people actually believe such to be possible. And, based on historical patterns and precedents, this belief is not entirely unfounded. But even their attribution to causes other than declared ones makes the symptoms indicative of a real disease. This is a sign of a malady that has metastasized throughout the entire social body, from the Far East to the Far Out. The serial assassinations of progressive leaders in the US and the hunch that some government agency was involved in some or all of them; the losses of war in futile and horrific ‘causes’ in which nary a citizen can see his or her own interests; the imprisonment of leaders fighting an apartheid buttressed by state policy and international economic support; the regularized deep throat revelations of political treachery by the powerful; the signs of secret death squads ordered illegally by a ‘popular’ president and against the will of his Congress and unbeknownst to his constituency; these are but few, few of the horrors committed by major powers and administrations, as their peoples see it.
Recently, as this website makes clear, we see even greater horrors: outright thefts of two presidential elections, outright lies leading to major blood baths in Afghanistan and Iraq, and most incongruously and strangely, the justifications for such acts, themselves cooked, as more and more are beginning to believe, by the leaderships of the most powerful nations themselves, or else a few not-so-secret neo-conspirators within them.
Would the leaders of the most advanced nations in the world stage faux terrorist attacks on their own populations in order to cow those respective constituencies into complete submission? What would be the need for such acts? What are they afraid of? What is the state of the politico-economic system under which we live that would necessitate such drastic and seemingly desperate acts of violence upon these states’ own peoples? Could it be that the economic system is on the brink of complete disaster? Is the oil running out? Is capitalism running out of new markets, new areas of exploitation? Was the conquest of Iraq a necessary consequence of the iron logic of capitalist-imperialist expansion, the inevitable outcome of capitalism’s ineluctable need for endless growth--as Lenin suggested, imperialism, the necessary consequence of capitalism? (The frontiers of capitalism are not only ‘outward,’ but also ‘inward,’ as the genes themselves will soon be subject to the commodity logic, for sale on the market, with the poor being maintained as 'junkyards' for the harvesting of their useful genetic parts).
And then, if we have dared to think this far: How and by what means can this order of rule be overcome, overturned, taken over, to put the world juggernaut off its path, which is apparently heading to even greater crises, to include the loss of a great deal of the planet’s natural populations? (Robots may survive to serve their remaining masters—the capitalist dream for Robotics from its inception).
That these and other such questions and considerations must invariably rise to the mind of any half-unconscious denizen of the world—this in itself is a sign of the deep maladies of our time. A good deal of the world believes that we are being completely lied to, completely misled, completely betrayed and endangered, misled down a path of no-return and much to our own potential detriment and that of future generations. Furthermore, the theoretical paradigms of change seem strangely obtuse or inapt. The idea of a propertyless working class overthrowing the ruling dictatorship of capitalists seems quaint and charming at best, confused and dangerously simplistic at worst. The agents of any possible change seem far more diffuse, far more disintegrated, far less organized, and far-flung about the globe, and, outside of the propertyless lumpen proles and slave-shop workers within and without the ‘first world,’ less conspicuously in dire need of material revolution. And yet the danger is seen and decried, as clearly as if hooded death were knocking imperiously at the door.
While the claims and charges against our governments are not all necessarily accurate, the belief in betrayal is indicative of real disease. The signs indicate that the current regimes are deadly. The leaders who call for ‘freedom’ pose the greatest danger to it. Anyone who has looked beyond his or her own solipsistic, spoon-fed, corporate-mediated horizon can see this as plain as day. Yet terrorism will do these leaders more good than harm. Terrorism will grant them, as Leon Trotsky wrote in 1909, greater and greater powers of repression over one and all, internal and external, although these lines are beyond blurred and getting murkier every day. That is, for this ruling elite, the enemy is always already within, not just in London of late. But our enemies’ enemies do not always act the part of friends, and their insane terrorism represents our jail. We do not reproach them on moral as much as political grounds. They are actually contributing to the very powers that they oppose.
But, provided these are signs of underlying disease, which I believe they most certainly are, the question then remains: How can we organize ourselves against our leaders while buttressing ourselves against charges of treason and alliance with the terrorists whose aims are not ours, but whose enemies we share?
For reasons I have alluded to above, calls of “workers of all countries, unite!,” while charming, are not useful. And democracy is a bandied about term and completely misused, to the point of meaninglessness. Individual terrorism or violence is of no avail. Mass protest is all but impossible.
Does the answer lie with science? Should we reconsider the scientific method? Should we have recourse to the Enlightenment project, and move to reconcile it with our postmodern condition? Perhaps we should look at the metascientific theories of that not-so-politically-correct thinker, E. O. Wilson, whose notions of cultural memes or epigenetic rules in his book, Consilience, might aid us here? (Remember, our enemies’ friends are not necessarily our enemies). Survival of the species, if the “consilience” view of biological and cultural evolution is correct, depends on survival of successful epigenetic rules that may be propagated by cultural memes. Humans are unique in that they are cultural beings. Their behavior contributes to culture, which in turn contributes to the selection of their behavior. The point is, as purveyors of culture, a culture that in turn has a role in our own natural selection, our evolutionary survival is largely in our own hands. We can select for our own survival! But we must purvey the cultural memes that will guarantee it -- and that will foster the survival of our fellows -- which as a social species, amounts to the same thing. That is, human survival is social, not individual, because the human being is a social species. Even Darwin said as much, and Marx corroborated it by referring to humans as “species beings.”
What are these memes? How do we circulate them? How do these memes work on underlying epigenetic rules to which the deep nature of our fellows will respond, almost invariably? The epigenetic rules on which we must depend for survival, I argue, are the rules against murder, against lying, against hoarding, against waste, that are encoded in our genes as selected for by biological and cultural evolution. As social and cultural beings, we can perpetrate the memes that will speak to these epigenetic rules, and shame those who do not abide by them. Make no mistake; these memes are competing with other, less friendly ones, ones that speak to the baser elements of our nature. But we must find the right cultural carriers, the very ones that match the rules we seek to elicit. We must find and propagate the memes that save.
Is this recommendation ‘scientistic,’ ‘modernist,’ and hopelessly un-postmodern? Perhaps it is. But then again, fashion is not the answer. If we were to worry about being fashionable, we would do better to resort to torture, war, murder and the exploitation tactics of neoconservative imperialism. If we wanted to be fashionable, we would do better in corporate media, which amazingly turns a blind eye to the ironies and blatant contradictions of the cultural memes they spread on behalf of the governments who dictate to them. Lies, torture and murder in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy,’ these are the fashionable memes of the day. We seek a deeper fashion, one fashioned on our own historical survivorship, which, I have argued, depends on our cooperation as social beings.
I will recur to this topic in the future as we seek answers to our predicament. For now, I ask you to look for and to spread the memes that save.
Michael Rectenwald is the Founder and Chair of Citizens for Legitimate Government. He earned a Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies from Carnegie Mellon University. Rectenwald's essays and book reviews have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and in academic journals and anthologies. He teaches in the Literary and Cultural Studies program at Carnegie Mellon University and is working on a book dealing with 19th century British science and politics.
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