On the 1st of October, a gunman opened sustained machine gun fire on a music festival in Las Vegas, killing 59 and injuring hundreds more. Police and investigators still have no idea why. The gunman was a success by the standards of our society, a multimillionaire real estate developer who lived a privileged life as a high roller. He had no criminal history, no mental health problems, no discernable ideology. Yet he assembled an arsenal of 42 guns and planned his pre-meditated attack on a crowd of concert-goers. For all his material success, he must have been entirely unfulfilled by his life to even contemplate such an action.
This pattern of dissatisfation with supposed success is familiar to me through my own experience. By the age of 25, I had risen through the ranks to become a director of a company turning over more than 10 million dollars a year. I found only three things at this aspirational peak. First, membership of a vapid class concerned only with the accoutrements of social status (private schools, pointless watches, etc) disabused me of any notion that our society is a meritocracy. Secondly, I found that the work was unfulfilling and dehumanising, not something from which I could derive any job satisfaction. Thirdly, I found that having reached these heights, I am firmly pigeonholed within that particular area.
What these examples show is that even the successful in our society are left unfulfilled and empty. I posit that the structures of our society act to alienate ourselves from our very human spirit, our essence as human beings. From the dawn of humanity, our core spirit has driven us (in varying proportions across individuals) to craft, to create, to physical exertion, to commune with both nature and our fellows, to find security and seek a higher purpose. The society which we have built has driven us away from all these values, to become a pure Homo economicus which goes against our human spirit and nature. In pursuit of efficiency, we have lost our souls.
From the earliest tool makers we have been driven to craft, to find fulfillment in using our skills to build things. 300 years ago, the majority of folks were either artisan craftsmen or farmers – either doing skilled work building things or in direct communion with the natural environment. The rise of mass production changed our relationship to work, allowing greater specialisation and exponential increases in outputs and material standards of living. But along the way, that craft has been lost. Jobs are increasingly atomised and work repetitive to enable greater throughput. So in pursuit of this efficiency, the factory worker does not get to use the same range of skills as the artisan. They no longer craft. The rise of globalisation has driven first world workers even further away from the craftsmanship which is core to our spirit. The popularity of DIY home improvements shows an attempt to reconnect with the craftsmanship which is core to our being, but in our working lives most of us are entirely alienated from this side of our nature. Our craftsmanship has been banished in the name of efficiency.
From the earliest cave paintings and tattoos to the great artists of the modern era, one can draw a line of creativity which is core to our spirit. Yet the average worker has no outlet for this creativity, being stuck in a kind of repetitive drudgery which is the modern work environment. The completion of monotonous tasks, over and over again, day after day is at the core of what we have been conditioned to think of as work. Workers are dehumanised in this environment, acting as pure automatons rather than creative human beings who may have better ideas for these processes. The emergence of specialist managers has served to further prevent the worker from having any chance to use their innate creativity by stifling their own self-authority. We now only absorb creativity through consumer media from the handful who are allowed to create. Our creativity has been banished by Taylorism.
Even before we established societies at all, physical exertion has been core to our being. We were persistance hunters, who would pursue our prey as marathon runners or walkers until it could no longer stand. Our bodies are meant to run, to walk and otherwise to move, with substantial positive benefits of exercise established on cognition. Yet our modern society has been built around the motorcar, with many folks falling short of even basic guidelines calling for 30 minutes of exercise per day. In our work, we are mostly cooped up sitting infront of computers. A boss of mine was bemused that I preferred to walk 400m to get lunch rather than travelling in his car. Physical exertion has become a badge of honour for the folks who can afford to spend the time and money to perform in their leisure time, indicating both its centrality to our spirit and absence from our general society. The motorcar has banished physical exertion.
As animals ourselves, we have a fundamental need to be immersed in nature. The natural environment is where we feel most comfortable, with measured mental health benefits associated with access to green spaces. As we have moved from agrarian to mechanised societies, we have moved away from nature as part of the migration to cities. Within the planned development of cities, maintaining green natural spaces was realised to be important, but the rising influence of commercial imperatives on society has driven their continued destruction. Natural spaces have become privately owned, to be privately abused for more gigantic houses or to sell the shiny rocks underneath. The continued popularity of hiking and eco-tourism shows how core natural spaces are to our spirit, but we nonethless continue to treat nature as a resource to be exploited. We’ve torn down the real jungle for concrete jungles. Private property has banished nature.
Man is fundamentally a social animal, our ability to build deep loving relationships with our fellows having been core to the initial establishment of societies. Our spirit needs to build genuine bonds with others and with our communities to such an extent that solitary confinement is the worst punishment we offer. Instead we are encouraged to see others as our enemies, simply because they may have a different skin colour or way of looking at the world. Raised in a climate of fear, our envelope of love grows ever smaller, cutting us off from each other. So instead we replace genuine relationships with vapid celebrity and dialogue with fandom. The growth of phones and social media has expanded the existing level of small talk which only serves as a barrier to a deeper understanding of one another. We ‘like’, instead of engaging with one another, ‘share’ instead of opening up a dialogue. Media has banished deep relationships with our fellow men.
The first man to craft a hut understood the importance of security to the human spirit. We live in houses and banish criminals to prison in the name of security. The ability to provide security to our loved ones is still a prized characteristic of a person. The neoliberals who have taken the reins of our states have undermined our sense of security, reducing our social safety nets to meager trifles in the name of mutual obligation. The pervasive corporate media has sought to undermine this sense of security, pursuing sensationalism in the service of profits. These two forces have combined in the War on Terror, which keeps the many in fear so that the few can reap the profits. The pervasive power of appeals to ‘law and order’ show how fundamental our need for security is to our human spirit. But the media-neoliberal alliance has banished security.
The prevalence of religion throughout human societies shows how fundamental our search for a higher purpose is to the human spirit. Our search to find a way to understand the world beyond our material senses takes many forms, but all share this common bond. Organised religion has broadly collapsed into irrelevance, but we have not found anything with which to replace it. Our Bohdisattva is Kim Kardashian, our modern day prophets Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. We now worship at the altar of consumerism. New gadgets are more important than new thoughts, new marketing campaigns more important than new philosophies. Consumerism has banished the search for a higher purpose.
Our society has banished that which makes us human from our existences. But all is not lost. Just as we made this society, we can remake it in a superior image. We can use the knowledge and tools we have built through the capitalist experiment to build something new, something better. Something modern, but without this sweeping alienation from our nature. A society which embraces both technological automation and our innate human spirit. A social-ism which reaches beyond the narrow confines of economics commonly associated with the term to encompass the entire human experience. A society for Homo sapiens – the wise man, not Homo economicus – the wealth maximising man.