Jan. 7, 2014. White whales and their trainers present a show for visitors at Harbin Pole Aquarium in Harbin, China. Image Source: Lintao Zhang—Getty Images via Time.
For many today, this is a secular age. Yet everywhere, we base our actions on belief. Popular investment in the system depends on faith. Every time you get on an airplane, you are participating in a culture of belief; you are trusting the credentials, training and abilities of the pilot and co-pilot; the company which hired them and which maintains the airplane; and the company which built the machine in the first place. You have to believe that they will collectively see you through to the arrivals gate at the other end of your journey. You are placing your life in their hands for a few precious hours. To travel by air, you have to believe you will survive.
Faith transmits an individual's power into the system. On the basis of belief, we offer our ability to work, think and function - the whole span of a personal lifetime - to every facet of larger society. Institutions and governments demand the same trust as an airline, but extend the period of trust across decades. In exchange for accepting these structures, as well as cultural and sub-cultural products marketed as mass and niche norms, we develop relationships and communities which support us. We participate in economies which should support us. The political, economic, social, institutional, business and governmental systems are worth as much faith as we give them. And if we stop believing in them, their power dwindles down, sometimes to nothing, and migrates elsewhere.
University students protesting against austerity cuts in London UK (October 2013). Image Source: The Guardian.
So what happens, as during the recession, when the systems in which we have placed all our faith stop compensating and protecting its members as was promised? What happens when the demands for participation in said systems become ever more demanding and difficult, and the rewards are thinner on the ground and of diminishing value?
Image Source: Adam Weinstein.
During the recession, Generation Y students protested against university fee hikes. However, their core mentality, no matter how they described it in radical or left-wing terms, involved a basic conservatism. Protesters of this type demanded changes to established power system such that the system remained broad, or would be broadened, enough so that it would be sure to include them. Millennials wanted a system which would deliver on promises of boundless prosperity, as it did two or three generations ago.
Thus, many students still thought in terms of a post-World War II bubble of growth and widespread wealth. That bubble informs the Baby Boomers' mental paradigm. During the Cold War, attending university became one gateway to the middle class social contract. No matter how the Millennials revamp their political rhetoric, that is their bottom line. Members of Generation Y just don't want to be cast out of the middle classes. Then again, these students don't realize that their Gen X professors worry about falling out of the middle classes, too.
Most responses to failures of the post-war system have involved a search for someone to blame. Salon remarked in an anti-right-wing article from November 2013, "The super-rich no longer need a middle class. They now inhabit a privatized economy and have left us at the mercy of the market." Some pro-right arguments have found a villain elsewhere in this picture, and claimed that the Baby Boomers are the bogeymen sucking the system dry, since they demand social welfare entitlements which will benefit them, but not those who come after them. Occasionally, younger leftists agree with conservatives on this anti-Boomer thesis. And sometimes the left and right converge, such that one finds Salon agreeing with far-right populist American Gen X pundit, Alex Jones. In this case, Jones took issue with the right-wing American Fox News network, when the latter reported on a 2010 anti-Boomer documentary, Generation Zero:
Is this all about one wealthy class, or one older generation, plundering the system and pulling the ladder up after themselves?The current economic crisis is not a failure of capitalism, but a failure of culture. Generation Zero explores the cultural roots of the global financial meltdown – beginning with the narcissism of the 1960′s, spreading like a virus through the self-indulgent 90′s, and exploding across the world in the present economic cataclysm,” explains the Generation Zero website. “Generation Zero exposes the little told story of how the mindset of the baby boomers sowed the seeds of economic disaster that will be reaped by coming generations.”[Jones responded: i]n fact, the real little told story has nothing to do with a particular generation. It has to do with a small number of global banksters who exploited a rigged financial system to engineer a series of financial bubbles designed to loot wealth, consolidate power, and destroy the economy.
Not necessarily. As it casts about looking for political and generational answers, the documentary Generation Zero is obviously hackneyed and simplistic. Old left-right polarities, with their traditional values and villains, do not explain how people are moving beyond the confines of 20th century systems of belief. Nevertheless, the film's initial assertion, that there has been a failure of culture, is partly true.
To find someone to blame, look within. How much is anyone today willing to give to the established system? How much do we believe in it? How much do we accept it unquestioningly? When people seek to exploit a system, but no longer subscribe to its underlying beliefs, the society and economy those beliefs uphold begin to die. If we no longer believe in the system and its founding principles, why would we still expect that system to support us?
How much should one invest in a disintegrating culture of belief, such as the Cold War belief in being middle class? On 13 December 2013, the liberal Toronto Star published a report, From middle-class to minimum wage. With no way back, about people who involuntarily fell out of the middle class during the recession, but who now voluntarily have given up on the whole idea and everything that comes with it. Yes, the recession gave them a push, but analysts cannot understand a popular refusal to return and play the bourgeois game:
Eric Schuppert’s realization that he had left the middle class did not occur in 2008, when his $75,000-a-year salary with full benefits, pension and five weeks’ paid vacation vanished along with his job as a public-service manager for the municipality of Caledon.
It did not occur when, at age 46, he had to borrow money from his parents to meet his monthly living costs. It did not occur when he was forced to sell his house in nearby Alliston.
It did not even occur when he found himself behind a counter at his local Tim Hortons — “Standing there in that crappy uniform with that dinky little hat on serving my friends coffee” — at the minimum wage of $10.25 an hour, taking direction from kids 20 years younger.
It occurred when the fear came to him that he would never be back to where he had been, that he was looking at a slammed-shut door to anything that resembled progress.
Nor are these middle class dissenters necessarily turning to the traditional alternative for disenchanted members of the bourgeoisie: Marxism.And with that fear, Schuppert, now 51 and working in Toronto as a night-shift college porter earning $30,000 a year, became part of a new phenomenon in Canada that social scientists haven’t previously encountered: he self-deselected from the middle class.
If we are the architects of our own middle class alienation, and if there are no political villains at play except our own apathy and disillusionment, then the collapse of values, or anomie, appears less as a crisis and more as a choice to devise an alternative. In another impoverished era, the Great Depression demanded a total change in perception of society, politics and economics. If the 1930s taught us anything, it is that wild new ideas are not always good ones and caution is necessary.
That is why as we look within, the question must not involve the usual blame-casting, labeling, abrogation of responsibility, seizing of power and building of alternate hierarchies. To quote the dodgy new Gen X darling of political guru punditry, Russell Brand, in his guest piece at the left-leaning New Statesman: "We no longer have the luxury of tradition. But before we change the world, we need to change the way we think."
Brand is never entirely coherent and very far from authoritative; he specializes in pithy asides. Some of his recent comments do chime with calls for new Millennial perspectives of society, politics, culture and the economy. In the New Statesman piece from 24 October 2013, he wrote further:
When people talk about politics within the existing Westminster framework I feel a dull thud in my stomach and my eyes involuntarily glaze. ... I try to remain engaged but behind my eyes I am adrift in immediate nostalgia; “How happy I was earlier in this chat,” I instantly think. ...
We have become prisoners of comfort in the absence of meaning. A people without a unifying myth. Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist, says our global problems are all due to the lack of relevant myths. That we are trying to sustain social cohesion using redundant ideologies devised for a population that lived in deserts millennia ago. What does it matter if 2,000 years ago Christ died on the cross and was resurrected if we are not constantly resurrected to the truth, anew, moment to moment? How is his transcendence relevant if we do not resurrect our consciousness from the deceased, moribund mind of our obsolete ideologies and align with our conditions?
The model of pre-Christian man has fulfilled its simian objectives. We have survived, we have created agriculture and cities. Now this version of man must be sacrificed that we can evolve beyond the reaches of the ape. These stories contain great clues to our survival when we release ourselves from literalism and superstition. What are ideologies other than a guide for life? Throughout paganism one finds stories that integrate our species with our environment to the benefit of both. The function and benefits of these belief matrixes have been lost, with good reason. They were socialist, egalitarian and integrated. If like the Celtic people we revered the rivers we would prioritise this sacred knowledge and curtail the attempts of any that sought to pollute the rivers. If like the Nordic people we believed the souls of our ancestors lived in the trees, this connection would make mass deforestation anathema. If like the native people of America we believed God was in the soil what would our intuitive response be to the implementation of fracking?
Little wonder then that these myths, these codes for our protection and survival, have been aborted and replaced with nihilistic narratives of individualism, peopled by sequin-covered vacuous heroes.
To grasp the meaning of this transition, consider this quote from Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910), which is a main quotation cited at the amazing Trans-D Digital art blog:
"This all-important spark of inner life today is at present only a spark. Our minds, which are even now only just awakening after years of materialism, are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal. The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip. Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness. This feeble light is but a presentiment, and the soul, when it sees it, trembles in doubt whether the light is not a dream, and the gulf of darkness reality."