On the “Death-System(s)” (Part Two of “Naming the Multi-System”)

Psychoanalytical theory declares that the end of the road is the dominion of death-in-life. History has brought [hu]mankind to that pinnacle on which the total obliteration of [hu]mankind is at last a practical possibility. At this moment of history the friends of the life instinct must warn that the victory of death is by no means impossible; the malignant death instinct can unleash those hydrogen bombs. For if we discard our fond illusion that the human race has a privileged or providential status in the life of the universe, it seems plain that the malignant death instinct is a built-in guarantee that the human experiment, if it fails to attain its possible perfection, will cancel itself out, as the dinosaur experiment canceled itself out.”  Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History Norman O. Brown, p. 307.


(Note: I ended my last posting with a new term for the totality of systems that oppress, exploit, repress, and dominate our lives, the “Necro-System.” While this term does have suggestive possibilities, it also has a bit of a theatrical tone, so I will most likely use the more pedestrian term “Death-System(s)” throughout this posting.)

The opening quote from Norman O. Brown introduces the climactic chapters of his still provocative examination of the human condition, Life Against Death. Writing in the late 50s, with “Civil Defense” drills preparing children for extermination by evil Communism, those hydrogen bombs did haunt every child’s imagination. In that era, the “life-system” was American Democracy against the “death-system” of Soviet Communism. The fact that the US built as much as 12 times the number of hydrogen bombs apparently didn’t contradict the claim that we were the “good guys.”

I have proposed that beginning around 1955, a new configuration of social movements, nascent institutions, and cultural forms have been struggling to achieve mass influence in the US, with similar struggles in most of the world. I’ve called this configuration the “relationality paradigm.” In contrast, the opposing older paradigm was the “instrumentality paradigm” borrowing from the characterization of modern reason as “instrumental” made famous by Max Horkheimer.

Although it would be superficially logical to equate the “relationality paradigm” to the “life-system” that would be to overlook the real advances that were produced by the instrumentality paradigm. Science itself was born from instrumental reason, as was the democratic overthrow of monarchies. The abolition of slavery in the European and American nations in the 19th century was directly related to the emergence of individual autonomy as an instrumental conception of humanity.

Of course, if one probes beneath the realm of ideas, one finds that as Marx put it, the “ruling ideas” are the ideas of the ruling class. In other words, individualism became the dominant conception in its historical era because men of wealth and power achieved their position by means of disconnection from traditional communities bound by systems that I labeled the “affectivity paradigm” namely familial, religious, and cultural. Always within the womb of the old lies the seeds of the new.

However, the new world may be “powerless to be born” as Matthew Arnold suggests. The way forward may be glimpsed by considering the work of Ken Wilber, who has written extensively on the concepts of social evolution. While Wilber has yet to gain mainstream acceptance, and I acknowledge his troubling problematic aspects, I still find some of his proposals to be deeply illuminatiing.

Wilber posits a parallel between individual and social development. While his system has varied over the years, its most recent form proposes that social evolution is currently locked in a conflict between 4 social value-systems, which parallel the sketch I’ve drawn. Where I differ from Wilber is that I seek a historical specificity, in US cultural history, that he submerges in a quest for a grand cosmological trajectory. I want to understand how we can move forward in the present, not construct an exhaustive and universal scheme of trans-dimensional evolution.

Wilber names the four most salient value-systems as 1) Mythic, 2) Rational, 3) Pluralistic, & 4) Integral. Wilber projects the Mythic system (which is centered in religions like Christianity and Islam) back over the previous millennia, while the latter 3 systems are each relatively young and still emergent. My alternate labels are 1) Affectivity, 2) Instrumentality, 3) Relationality, & 4) Authenticity. I find the historic focal point of each of these systems at the mid-century points of the 1700s (American Revolution), 1800s (Civil War), 1900s (The “Sixties”) and prospectively, the mid 21st Century. Each value-system or paradigm arose prior to their historical focal point, but each established their cultural beachheads in those eras.

Where Wilber’s work illuminates this analysis is in his proposal of distinct lines of development within a value-system, as well as conflict between value-systems. What is proposed is not a uniform evolutionary ascent, but rather a complex uneven development. It is possible for a paradigm to be very theoretically advanced, yet practically deformed.

I would argue that this is exactly the problem with modern science, which is nearly always right about the facts and how to discover them, but is often constrained by internal problematics and external social conflicts from developing its full capacity to propel human transformation. One of the constraining factors is the presence of a large constituency of adherents of the mythic/affectivity paradigm who fight to suppress the scientific evidence for natural evolution or repress advances in sexual psychology. Even more disabling for science is the controlling influence of the military-industrial complex (an instrumentality paradigm institution) that diverts scientific research into weaponry development rather than health or economic advancement.

From these considerations of value-systems of paradigms, it becomes evident that the “death-systems” which threaten humanity are not simply one easily identifiable enemy, such as religion or capitalism. Rather, in the historical perspective, each of the paradigms represented significant advances over their predecessors, while also presenting new contradictions and pathologies. As a value-system amasses social influence and matures over its lifespan, it eventually reaches critical junctures that threaten widespread destruction and inhibits new evolutionary advances. The result is usually quite violent, as was the case in the focal eras cited earlier, the American Revolution, Civil War, and the Sixties.

While capitalism, for example, at one point in its history represented an advance over the previous feudal and aristocratic economies, today it has become ecocidally unsustainable, its wage-labor system exploitative, and its profit-motive ethically degenerate. Similarly, religion has devolved into authoritarian moral codes rather than the promise of emancipation that we find in the teachings of Jesus or Buddha. Representative democracy has degenerated under present conditions into a facade for plutocratic oligarchy.

The lesson that needs to be learned from the past, especially the era of the 1960s, is that a new integral perspective is necessary to overcome the conflicts and pathologies that plague us. In the 60s, US society fractured along racial, economic, gender, religious, and political lines to the degree that the greatest potential success for social progress, glimpsed most powerfully in the Civil Rights movement, was derailed by the regressive death-systems that dominate our society today.

However, the answer is not to simply return to the glory days of Woodstock or the March on Washington. Those events still retain powerful legacies, but time has moved on. As historical regression has deformed  the social potentials once so clearly visible in that era, a new paradigm does have to be formed. It will be informed by the relationality/pluralistic paradigm of the Sixties, as well as the best legacies of the instrumentality value-system. Even more difficult for some progressives to believe, the mythic/affectivity paradigm has a crucial role to play in the next historical focal point.

An integrative revolutionary social ecology fights to advance the life-systems of freedom, equality, spirituality, peace, and love into their rightful place as the leading vision of our future.


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