house from which an unclean spirit has gone out is
left empty, swept, and garnished, the momentarily
banished possessor will sooner or later enter in
again with a retinue of other spirits more wicked
than himself, and the last state of that man will be
worse than the first.
- Arnold Toynbee, War and CivilizationMy lifelong interest in human history has led me to the conclusion that civilizations are created by individuals; they are destroyed by collectives. When you think of the major scientific discoveries; the poetry and other great literature; the speculative philosophies and religious inquiries; the important inventions; the explorations of previously unknown territories; the music, paintings, and other works of artistic expression; most of us are inclined to associate these creative works with the names of individuals. Shakespeare, Aristotle, Copernicus, da Vinci, Magellan, Beethoven, Shelley, and Dante, are among the many hundreds of names that come immediately to mind. Few of us would regard the play Hamlet as a product of the Federal Writers Project, or look upon the works of Copernicus or Newton as arising from National Science Foundation research grants. Neither would Tesla or Edison’s inventions be considered products of labor unions; nor would Isadora Duncan’s transformation of music into rhythmic dance be confused with the march steps of the Marine Corps Band.
By the very nature of how they identify themselves, institutionally-minded men and women are attracted to a collective sense of life. Theirs is a world of abstractions, with individuals dissolving into such categories as “society,” “mankind,” “community,” “the masses,” “humanity,” and other classifications of fungibility. Because institutions are organizations that have become ends in themselves, their own reasons for being; those with lesser significance are easily regarded as undifferentiated members of a herd. Such dehumanization of individuals can be found in the media, academia, advertising, schools, and in vernacular settings. The subtle ways in which such mindsets are created and reinforced from childhood on, was expressed in a book presuming to introduce philosophy to young children. In bold print on one page, the reader was told that “communities matter, not individuals.”
No more than would you personalize each corn flake you consume at breakfast would an institutionalist think of other human beings as unique, purposeful, self-directed individuals. That each one of us has our own distinct DNA triggers no questioning of the assumptions that underlie collective thinking. Nor does the fact only individuals experience joy, pain, sadness, despair, happiness, or other emotions; that only living men and women cry, laugh, bleed, or die, and are the carriers of human life on this planet to the next generation. Institutions are lifeless abstractions, capable of exerting only as much energy as can be acquired from living beings. Within human society, only individuals are capable of thought, and the content of our thinking generates either peaceful and creative outcomes or conflict-ridden and destructive ends.
Institutional purposes are mandated and universalized through the state which enjoys a legal monopoly on the use of violence. They divide us from one another by fostering conflicts and contradictions. In so doing, we end up embracing illusions about individual and collective interests. In the absence of these entities that interject their interests into society as ends in themselves, would we have occasion to consider other people’s beliefs, territories in which they live, the amount of melanin in their systems, how they produce and exchange with others, or other behavior that differs from our own, a sufficient cause to dedicate our lives and wealth to the task of destroying them? Who has taught us to engage in such insane thinking, and why have we been so gullible as to join herds in pursuit of such idiocy?
As social systems become more institutionalized, human life becomes less significant; more brutal and degraded. People pledge their lives to flags and other lifeless abstractions; their wealth is taken to sustain the interests of entities to which they have subjugated themselves; their bodies and energies shipped to foreign lands to kill and be killed in contrived conflicts that serve no purposes of their own; their children – and, thus, the fate of mankind itself – consumed in the well-organized commitment to death in its varied forms.
Never in my lifetime has the established order been so desperate to maintain and extend its unquestioned power over the lives of people. If you doubt this, please tell me of any corporate-state program that protects the liberty or property interests of individuals against the authority of the state. Political systems want ever-more-detailed surveillance of the lives of people; are bringing battlefield weaponry – such as tanks, troop carriers, drones, grenade-launchers, and automatic rifles – into American cities to enhance the power of local police departments; have circumvented legislative methods of increasing taxes in favor of more direct forms of asset forfeitures and confiscations; regulate even the most personal forms of social and economic behavior, and now propose to create a “cashless” society that would remove the control individuals have over their economic transactions and force them into the institutionalized banking system.
The established order now operates on the premises that the late Randolph Bourne made known decades ago: there is nothing so conducive to the well-being of political agencies than the formal war-system. The creation and mobilization of foreign “enemies” – the Taliban and ISIS being America’s more recent inventions – has produced an endless demand for the lucrative production of new and more powerful weapons to be supplied by members of the military-industrial complex. Scientists and other academics can be counted on to design super-hydrogen bombs, with which to threaten – or even attack – the rest of the world. In the end, as Bourne reminded us, the war system is really directed against the state’s own population, a truth recognized in the early 1950s by that eminent political philosopher, Pogo Possum, who informed his neighbors that “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
It should surprise no intelligent mind that elevating the presumed interests of abstractions over those of living individuals, is bound to be destructive of life, and of the cultures around which life organizes itself. Historians have told us how the stabilization of social and economic conditions that appear to promote the permanency of institutions actually frustrate the processes of adaptation upon which life depends. In using their political influence to standardize and make human behavior more uniform, institutions have, without intending to do so, contributed to the stifling of the creative forces that keep a culture vibrant. This has relevance not only to the depletion of material values – what Carroll Quigley referred to as a civilization’s “instruments of expansion” – but, as Toynbee noted, spiritual values as well.
The consequences of our belief that “communities matter, not individuals,” are being played out in the ashes of Western Civilization, just as they did in the decline of earlier cultures. Toynbee’s words help to explain this process as it is now finding expression in Europe and the United States. Politicians and voices from the establishment media insist on treating the movement of foreigners into their countries as an “immigration” problem. But people relocating from one territory to another has long been understood as part of the dynamics of change that fosters both liberty and creativity. Frederick Jackson Turner’s classic study, The Frontier In American History, illustrates this attribute of the human spirit. In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “the vivid people keep moving on.”
Those – particularly Americans – who criticize the practice of people emigrating from their homeland to other countries would do well to consider that such movement explains how each of us now calls “America,” rather than Lower Ruritania, our home. Furthermore, those who still look upon political systems as essential to life and social order, need to consider how so much emigration is attributable to “refugees” fleeing the intolerable conditions in their home country. The Einsteins and Chopins, the Victor Hugos and the Hannah Arendts, are among the familiar names we associate with a phenomenon that is not endemic to any particular environment.
It would be an exaggeration to suggest that those who now immigrate into Europe or America are all peaceful and intelligent geniuses who wish only to allow their creative talents to blossom in lands more appreciative of the talents they could confer. It would be equally without justification to dismiss the motivations of such immigrants in some collective fashion.
What can be said of what has become known as the “immigration” issue is bound up in Arnold Toynbee’s words. The uniqueness that inheres in the individualistic expression of life goes far beyond the chemical diversity found in DNA. There is a spiritual dimension to life – best referred to, perhaps, as a need for transcendence – that the institutional order prefers to extinguish in favor of a twisted and distorted collective mindset. There was a time when great numbers of people found both personal and communal meaning in working within formally organized systems. But while wars and other violent undertakings continue to excite, they do not inspire. When this spiritual sense is destroyed, a society composed of such depleted men and women loses its inner direction and collapses into a zombie-like state of death. Such a fate has befallen Western Civilization, and “all the king’s horses” can do nothing to revive its lifeless remains. Only by rediscovering the individualized nature of what it means to be human can men and women walk away from the collective dunghills onto which they have been conditioned, by the power-hungry, to cast their souls. Those able to reclaim their souls will likely become part of The Remnant that Albert Jay Nock suggested will create new systems based on cooperation with others instead of subjugation to others.
In the short-term, the major centers of the erstwhile Western Civilization will continue to receive immigrants from other lands. “Death” has a way of recycling the life processes into new forms. Empty buildings in a city become attractions for the homeless; lifeless elements (e.g., silica) often replace the cells of once vibrant organisms to create fossils; fungi settle on the remains of dead trees or other plants to establish new foundations for life; vultures and other scavengers feed on road kill and other deceased life forms; while viruses and bacteria can more easily infect a weakened body than a healthy one.
It is more comforting to look upon invading forces as “terrorists,” or “agents of ISIS,” or – as the Romans did during the decline that foreshadowed their collapse – “barbarians,” than it is to acknowledge the terminal state of your own culture. The rear-guard defenders of a defunct Western culture will continue the charade of fighting with would-be invaders to determine who will rule in the shadows of a civilization that once contributed greatness to mankind. To be victorious within a soulless vacuum will continue to be important to the operators of institutional collectives. Those who intuit that there are spiritual dimensions to life of which abstract entities have no awareness, will take their quests elsewhere.