A Blog by Ugo Bardi

Collapses are the way the universe gets rid of the old to leave space for the new. It was noted for the first time by the Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) and it is called today the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, December 27, 2021

The Rise and Fall of Scientism. Do we Need a new Religion?

 


What is religion, exactly? Hieratic monks singing their hymns? Fanatics performing human sacrifices? Old ladies praying the rosary? Pentecostals speaking in tongues? It is all that and more. Religions are not old superstitions, but part of the way the human mind works. They are communication tools designed to build empathy in society. 



You surely noted how a new religion is being born right in front of our eyes. It includes a complete set of sacrifices, rituals, canons, saints, prayers, and competition of good and evil. It does not officially include the belief in an all-powerful God, but it worships an abstract entity called "Science." We may define it as "Scientism."  

I am not a religious person, not normally, at least. But I recognize that religion can be a good thing. It is a life hack that gives you a moral compass, a code of behavior, a social purpose, a dignity, and support as you go along the various passages of life. For some, it also provides a path to something higher than the mere human experience in this world. So, I am not surprised that many people have embraced Scientism with enthusiasm. 

The problem is that there are evil aspects of religion. Witch hunts, human sacrifices, fanatic cultists, the Spanish inquisition, suicide bombers, and more. Even moderate religions, such as Christianity, can be perfectly evil when they try to scare you into submission, or use force or deception for the same purpose.

So, what kind of religion is Scientism, good or evil? It may be both as it keeps changing and adapting to an evolving situation in which humankind is facing enormous challenges, from resource depletion to ecosystem collapse. Scientism may be understood as a desperate, last-ditch reaction to these threats, but it may well worsen the situation. It is normal when humans try to control complex systems. 

In the following, I propose to you my thoughts on this point. Sorry that it is a long story (some 5000 words). I am also sorry that it is focused mostly on Christianity in Western Europe -- it is a subject I have studied in some detail and I will use ancient Roman history as a mirror in which to see our own future. But I do believe that what I propose is valid also for other regions and other religions. 


1. Christianity: the first universal religion

In 250 AD, Emperor Decius issued a law that obliged all Roman citizens to make public sacrifices to the traditional Roman deities, including the Emperor himself as a living God. Refusal to do so enticed stiff penalties, even death. The government spared no effort to make sure that nobody could escape. The sacrifice had to take place in the presence of witnesses and a public officer would issue a "libellus," a certificate attesting that the sacrifice had been performed. 

We have a detailed description of these events from Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who tells us in his "De Lapsis" how the Roman authorities played on the responsibility of the Romans toward the state and their fellow citizens. This tactic of persuasion had a certain success: many Christians lapsed into idolatry rather than face death or ruin. But but some resisted and offered their lives as martyrs (witnesses) of the Christian faith. Cyprian himself was martyred in a later persecution ordered by Emperor Valerian (*).

At that time, the Roman state was still able to impose its will by brute force, but that did not last for long. Decius' reign lasted just two years. Later on, Valerian was captured in battle against the Persians  and it is said that he was used as a human footstool when the Persian Emperor Shapur 1st mounted his horse. A few decades later, the Roman Empire was ruled by a Christian Emperor.

If Christianity was so successful despite the effort of the state to stamp it out, there must have been good reasons. It was, mainly, because it was the first truly universal religion, at least in the western side of Eurasia (on the other side, Buddhism came centuries earlier). Before Christianity, there had been nothing like that: the term "religion" was applied mainly to cults of local deities. 

During their expansion phase, the Romans were playing the syncretism game, a term that implies combining different beliefs and mythologies. That is, by the way, the probable origin of the term "religion" that comes from the Latin verb ligare, meaning "tie together." The Romans dealt with the cults of conquered regions by asserting that the divinities worshiped there were the same as in Rome, except for having different names. So, the Greek "Zeus" was supposed to be the same entity as the Latin Iovis (Jupiter), and they went on matching every foreign divinity with its Roman counterpart.   
 
For the Romans, religion was no marginal element of their culture. They attributed their successes to their proper behavior and reverence toward the traditional Gods: it was the concept of "pietas." So, it was important for everyone to perform the sacrificial rites and refusing to do that was a serious crime. Cults that were seen as incompatible with this view were considered evil and suppressed, and their followers could be exterminated. That was the destiny of the Druids, for instance, accused of performing human sacrifices by Roman propaganda. The early Christians were also seen in this way, including the usual accusations of human sacrifices and cannibalism.
 
The Roman approach to religion worked reasonably well up to the 1st-2nd century AD, when the Empire started to show signs of decline.  As it is typical in all declining societies, the result was to attempt to solve the problems by using more of whatever had caused them. Religious rites became more and more focused on supporting the state. The Empire was gradually turned into a military dictatorship dominated by an elite concerned only with keeping their wealth and their power at the expense of everyone else. 

Christianity arose as a response to these totalitarian trends. It was an attempt to protect the poor and the dispossessed by giving them the dignity that comes from being members of the ecclesia, the community of the faithful. That surely was a highly subversive idea. Christians claimed that the Emperor was not a god and that even the Emperor had to submit to an all-powerful supernatural entity: the Pantocrator, the creator and the ruler of the universe, the one and the only God. 

In a certain sense, Christians were trying to use the holy books, the Bible and the Gospels, to impose what we call today a "constitution" on the Roman state. While God was theoretically even more powerful than Emperors, at least he was not mad, cruel, or a pervert, as many emperors turned out to be. God was good by definition and, later on, would be characterized in Islam as benevolent and merciful.
 
Countering the excessive power of the Roman elites was a badly needed idea, but not easy to put into practice. Against the repression of the Imperial police, a powerful God was needed, a pantheon of many deities just wouldn't have worked. The Stoic philosophers of that age had been already playing with monotheism, but never tried to transform it into a mass phenomenon. Christianity, instead, did exactly that. It was a triumph of social engineering performed by a single man: Paulus (Saul) of Tarsus. 

Paulus was a Jew and he created Christianity as a sort of "Hebraism light." As many religions of the time, Hebraism was not universal: it was the religion of the people of Israel who had entered a covenant with their God. But it was a special religion in its claim that there was only one God and that all the others were illusions or evil spirits. Paulus' genius was to pivot on the Jewish religious tenets to promote monotheism as a form of universal religion. Christianity could be embraced by anyone, independently of their ethnic origin. Paulus also eliminated several of the requirements of Hebraism: Christians did not need to go through the painful and risky ceremony of circumcision, nor they needed to respect special dietary rules. 

Once created, Christianity became a powerful social tool. Not only it could oppose the excessive power of emperors, but Christians could create low-cost governance services exploiting their capability of creating communities on the basis of shared beliefs rather than on law enforcement. Even after the collapse of the Empire, Christianity maintained an organization that mirrored the disappeared state: the Pope was the equivalent of the Emperor, Bishops played the role of the bureaucrats, the clergy were the army, and so on. 

Christianity continued to dominate Europe throughout the Middle Ages. It started waning with the Renaissance, when the European governments found that it was an obstacle to their plans of worldwide expansion. The "controversy of Valladolid" saw European states and the Christian Church fighting over the status of Native Americans. States wanted them as slaves, the Church as devout Christians. The Church won the debate, but it was a hollow victory. It started an irreversible decline of Christianity that continues to this day, when states seem to have decided to replace it with scientism -- a new secular religion that dispenses with many details, including "God." It is a long story that needs to be told in some detail, starting from understanding what exactly "religion" is.   
 

2. Religion as a Technology for Large Scale Empathy Creation

The interactions among humans are based on "empathy." It is a wide-ranging concept that includes many facets of human behavior but, in any case, without empathy, humans cannot work together and cannot accomplish anything. Chuck Pezeshky gives us a basic definition of empathy:
 
[Empathy] is a stacked, nested complex phenomenon. It’s not simply ‘feeling’ for someone, or even worse, ‘feeling sorry’ for someone. That’s sympathy. And it stacks through our automatic, emotional and cognitive centers. Empathy, and how it manifests itself, is THE information coherence function for humans, and consequently, social networks. It, dependent on the level of development of the individuals, is the nuts-and-bolts of how the collective over-mind functions. 
Pezeshky lists five levels of empathy, from the lowest ("automatic") to the highest ("immersive"). The lowest level has military overtones of obeisance to orders, you do what you are told to do, or what you see others doing (marching in goose steps, for instance). The highest has some aspects of communion with others at the same global level -- you do what you think is good for everyone to do. 

These are interesting elements describing how humans interact with each other. But there is a basic requirement implicit in all these levels: empathy is possible only as long as people can understand each other. For that, they need a common language. 

The problem is that language is a local tool or at best a regional one. In ancient times, if you walked just a few hundreds of miles from where you were born, you would find yourself surrounded by people who couldn't understand a word of what you were saying -- and the reverse was also true. It was a problem known from the time of the tower of Babel. 
 
Now, how do you build an empathic feeling with people whom you cannot understand? Not easy, and it is no wonder that the ancient termed all foreigners as "Barbarians," meaning those people who speak "bar-bar," nonsense. 

Barbarians can be fought, kept away, or killed. But it is also true that a living follower is worth much more than a dead enemy. So, the problem for kings and emperors was how to rule over people who didn't understand their language. It is the problem of governance that we might consider as a state-wide form of empathy. 

One possibility for large-scale governance is to use international "trade languages," such as the koinè of the ancient Mediterranean region. These languages are powerful networking tools, but it is expensive to train people in a language that is not theirs and that most of them won't ever be able to master completely. And it is not easy to build a high-level, empathic relationship using a language that you don't master as well as a native speaker.

A solution to bypass the problem is to use non-vocal communication methods. It is a very ancient idea: if you find yourself surrounded by strange people who don't speak your language: what do you do? Before modern times, there were only two ways: 1) use gestures, 2) offer gifts. 

About the first possibility, gestures, it is remarkable how some forms of body language are universally known: a head nod, for instance, means "yes" practically everywhere in the world. From that, you can build entire languages based on gestures, as the Native Americans used to do. Of course, there are limits to the complexity of the message you can pass using gestures, but in some cases, a gesture may become a ritual

Think of making the sign of the cross: it is a simple gesture, but also a statement of what you are, what you believe, and to which group you belong. You can do that also dressing in a certain way, another form of symbolic communication. There is no specific reason why wearing a black shirt should define you as a "Fascist," but it is normally understood as exactly that. The same is true for a whole universe of flags, hats, lapel pins, and other dress accessories.  

A set of religious rituals is called "liturgy" from the Greek word leitourgia, which can be translated as "public service." Indeed, the key feature of liturgy is that it is public. It is an event where all the participants publicly declare that they belong to a certain social group and their adhesion to a set of beliefs. 

In a liturgy. it is not necessary for the faithful to know the language of the clergy and not even that of the other members of the congregation. It is enough to join with gestures and dances, and, in some cases, by chanting or reciting sacred formulas -- without the need of understanding them. Think of how, until relatively recent times, Catholic Christians would recite formulas in Latin during the mass, even though most of them didn't understand Latin. Liturgy may also involve complex manifestations of collective behavior, public prayers, abstaining from some specific foods in specific periods, performing sacrifices (meaning, "making sacred"), and more.   

Sometimes, liturgy also involves penance, a typical way to show that one is serious in proclaiming his or her beliefs. It may mean fasting, discomfort, or self-inflicted pain. It is typical of young religions when they face stiff opposition from competitors and from the state. The early Christians were sometimes asked to renounce their life to promote their beliefs. The early martyrs were a powerful factor in the diffusion of Christianity in the Roman Empire. 

In addition to liturgy, a religious group may develop a governance superstructure formed of the people who can understand the cult's sacred language: they may be called "priests," "imams," or "initiates". The result may be a structure called "church" (from the Greek term ecclesia, meaning the assembly of the believers). A Church is a more complex entity than religion and not all religions have it. Islam does not, but in some secular religions, such as Fascism and Communism, the Church took the name of the "Party."

These structures have been common empathy creation mechanisms over a few thousand years of human empire. The most diffuse religions in the world, Christianity, Islam, and others clearly state that all humans are the same in front of God and so they tend to generate a "horizontal" or egalitarian form of empathy. Not that the assembly of the faithful (the ecclesia) is truly egalitarian, but at least it tends to avoid excessive inequality: everyone is supposed to be equal in front of God.  

As you see, religions are complex and multi-faceted entities, far from being just old-styled superstitions. They respond to deep needs of humans to create empathy in complex societies. They are an innovation that appeared in history only in very recent times: just a few thousand years ago after hundreds of thousands of years in which humans lived in small groups of no more than a few hundred individuals. We are still trying to adapt to this new way of living, and religion may be a help or a hindrance. It is evolving with us all the time, and with the other complex entity that evolves in parallel: the state.  


3. State, money, and empathy

States and religions have similar aims, but different ways to put them into practice. Both aim at creating empathy-based governance systems. But whereas religion is based on liturgy, the state is based on money. 

Monetary economies and the associated states arose from the ancient tradition of gift-giving. With trade becoming widespread, metals started being used as a compact and portable form of commodity. We have evidence of metal trading as early as in the 3rd millennium before our era. From the 6th century BCE, coinage became a diffuse technology in Eurasia. "Money" soon acquired the form of standardized metal disks, gold or silver coins, with an impressed image that guaranteed their title and their value. These coins were a practical form of communication even among people who did not share a language. 

Already in ancient times, money and the state were strictly linked to each other. The state produced precious metals from mines and minted coins. The state also levied taxes, so it got back from the citizens the money it spent. It is the same nowadays, even though money is not anymore based on metals but it became "currency," an entity created by obscure virtual processes carried out by the "financial system" on behalf of the state. The triad of money, markets, and the state has been the powerhouse of human social systems during the past 5,000 years, and it still is. 

Spending money is the way to communicate to others your status and your power (nowadays,  it is called "conspicuous consumption"). The beauty of the idea is its universality. In ancient times, gold or silver-based money was recognized in all urban societies in the world. It made it possible for wealthy Romans to purchase precious silk from China (a habit that eventually ruined them, but that's another story). 

If we see human society as a complex network of nodes (single human beings) linked to each other, we can say that money is a "vertical" kind of empathy, that is a one-directional kind of communication where someone gives orders and someone else executes them. Money tends to generate a hierarchy simply because people have different amounts of it and those who have more money tend to rule over those who have less. Inequality tends to increase as states go through their cycles of decline (and, as Seneca the Stoic said: growth is sluggish, but ruin is rapid).  

Over history, young states tend to be strong and growing, and their rulers often think that they do not need a religion, except as an ornament to their glory. When these strong states enter into a conflict with a religion, the latter is nearly always the loser. The reason is simple: if you want to fight wars, you need soldiers. And soldiers need to be paid. So, you need money, and in order to have money, you need a state. It is the control of the money that gives the state its military strength. 

Religions are not so good at waging wars. From the time of the warrior monks called parabolonoi of the 5th century AD (those said to have killed the Pagan philosopher Hypatia in 415 AD) to the modern Japanese kamikaze pilots and Islamic suicide bombers, at best religions have been able to line up bands of aggressive fanatics, but nothing like a professional army. Even the Templar Knights, supposed to be elite warriors were easily defeated and exterminated by the king of France when he decided to get rid of them, in 1307. But there is no need for states to recur to brute force to subdue religions. Religious leaders are easily corrupted and turned into government employees. 

The interaction between state and religion goes through cycles of dominance and interdependency. When the state is strong, it tends to dismiss or suppress religion. When the state goes through a phase of decline, money is expensive to produce and, more than all, in order to work there needs to exist a market where those who have money can buy something. If the economy collapses, money disappears. And, with it, the state. Then, religion appears as a cheaper form of social networking and the state discovers that it needs to enlist it as support in order to survive. Over time, the state may become so weak that religion takes over as the structure that manages society. It happened when the Western Roman Empire collapsed. 

These cycles tend to repeat themselves and we may now be in a situation in which the declining power of the state generates the necessity of new forms of religions. The one that seems to be emerging out of the battle of memes is called "Scientism."


4. The rise and fall of Scientism

Scientism arose as a set of ideas related to the rapid economic and technological developments of the Renaissance. The founder is often said to have been Galileo Galilei, who found himself in conflict with the Catholic Church and underwent a minor form of martyrdom -- as it is fit to the founders of new religions. 

At the time of Galileo, during the 17th century, the Church still had the upper hand in the conflict, but things changed with Charles Darwin and his idea of evolution by natural selection, in the mid 19th century. Soon, European leaders found that a distorted version of Darwinism could be used to justify their worldwide dominance. The idea that Europeans were a superior race, destined to rule all the others grew into an official position of several governments during the 20th century, with some of them actively engaging in the extermination of "inferior races" and unfit individuals as an act of racial hygiene. Of course, Darwin never ever remotely intended his ideas to be understood in that way, actually, they are perfectly compatible with the Christian religious views. But that's the way the human mind works.

Scientism gained enormous prestige during the 20th century. Nuclear weapons became Scientism's paradigmatic divinities. The associated spectacular liturgy of powerful explosions menaced (and in two cases obtained) human sacrifices on a scale never seen before. In time, Scientism moved into an even more powerful set of rituals, those involving the modification of the very nature of human beings, also called "genetic engineering." 

Yet, up to relatively recent times, Western states maintained a dalliance with Christianity as their state religion. But things are rapidly changing as the Western states reach the limits of the natural resources they exploit. It is a condition that normally goes unrecognized, but its effects are clear to everybody. The increasing costs of exploitation of natural resources appear in the form of deep financial troubles. 

So far, the cure to the problem has been "fiat money," that, unlike precious metal coins, can be created out of thin air. We may be running out of minerals, but for sure we won't ever run out of virtual currency. The problem is that without a market, money of any kind is useless. And a market needs resources to be created. That's the unsolvable problem faced today by the Global Empire.

At present, money is being progressively siphoned away from the commoners to the elites, who still have access to a market and can continue playing the game of conspicuous consumption (very conspicuous, nowadays). At the same time, the number of those who have zero money, presently known as the "deplorables," increases. Lockdowns are used to give the surviving members of the Middle Class the illusion that they still have money and that it is just a temporary situation that of not being able to spend it. But a larger and larger fraction of the population is being pushed out of the economic system into a limbo in which they survive only as long as the elites are able and willing to provide doles for them. And nobody can say for how long.  

The ultimate inflation occurs when there is nothing you can buy, money simply ceases to exist (or, if you like, its value becomes zero). With it, there goes the "vertical" empathy network that keeps the state together. And the state disappears. We are not there, yet, but this is the moment in which the state desperately needs the support of religion. And it seems that Western states are dumping Christianity for Scientism, by now officially the state religion almost everywhere in the world. (**) 

Scientism has been so successful in this new role because the state has been using its brute force in the form of mass propaganda to exploit the basic characteristic of all religions: creating empathic bonds among people who don't understand each other's language. The complexification of society has created specialized fields of knowledge that use different, mutually incomprehensible jargons. Scientism links together all the resulting Babel under a single banner, "trust science." Reliance on the "experts" replaces the need for understanding different sets of ideas. 

The result is that the faithful are not required to know anything of the complex rituals performed by the adepts. In fact, scientists abhor the idea of "citizen science" and they tend to believe that Science must be left to scientists only. Lay people are asked to express their acceptance of the new religion by participating in a liturgy that involves jabs, face masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing, and more.

The new liturgy seems to have been remarkably successful: the faithful are genuinely convinced that they are doing what they do as a service to others. It is the magic of "horizontal" empathy. People like to help others, it is a built-in behavior of the human psyche that has been hijacked by the creators of the new religion. Scientism, as it is now, is a remarkable success of social engineering. 

Unfortunately for the promoters of Scientism, there are enormous problems with their idea. One is that it can be defined as a "granfalloon," to use Kurt Vonnegut's term for "a proud and meaningless collection of human beings." Even though many people see the new liturgy as a service for others, Scientism's rituals need to be imposed by the government by means of stiff penalties.  It is the same as when the Roman Government imposed sacrifices to the Emperor on pain of death. We haven't arrived at that for the disbelievers of Scientism, so far, but we are clearly sliding in that direction. 

A religion that needs to be imposed by force is doomed from the beginning. It means that it cannot create a stable kind of horizontal empathy" natural for human beings. You cannot create it on the basis of the idea that humans are filthy, germ-carrying bags, that need to be kept at a distance from each other or locked in cages. And masked people cannot really speak to each other, they are only expected to receive orders from above. It is a brutish form of "vertical" empathy, based on the powerful giving orders to the powerless.  As it happened at the time of the Roman persecutions of Christians, people may lapse into formally surrendering in order to survive, but they remain ready to toss away the veneer of political correctness on the first occasion. Scientism may be already starting an irreversible decline, pushed down by its own supporters who bombard people from TV screens with sentences such as "trust science." 

Another enormous problem with Scientism is that it requires years of training for the adepts ("researchers") to make them able to perform the complex liturgy required ("scientific experiments"), also because they need expensive liturgic equipment ("instrumentation"). The whole contraption is simply impossible to keep together in a society that's rapidly sliding down to economic collapse. 

The Catholic Church lasted for nearly two thousand years, Communism (that the Italian Catholic writer Lorenzo Milani termed "a page torn out of the Christian books") lasted less than a century. Will scientism last more than a decade? And if not, what will come afterward?

 

5. The future of religion

You see in the image a group of Italian workers in the city of  Trieste protesting against the restrictions imposed by the government, this October, before they were dispersed by the police using hydrants, tear gas, and sticks. Note how some of them were holding a rosary in their hands. Not usual for protesting workers, normally supposed to be godless leftists. But you see how things change: some old ideologies have completely lost their grip on the people they were supposed to represent and now we see old values and ideas re-emerging. This image shows how Christianity may return to its original form of a way to protect ordinary people from the excesses of a totalitarian government. 

Of course, at present, Western Christianity has taken a completely submissive stance in front of the onrush of the triumphing Scientism, but that may change in the future and there is evidence of the growth of a new strong opposition. It is the same for the other major world religions, Islam, Buddhism, and others. 

Then, there is the possibility of new forms of religion. Gaianism is a movement on the rise that includes some elements of ancient Paganism, and the same is true for the Wiccan movement. Right now, these are mostly intellectual fads. Especially Gaianism seems to be making the same mistakes that traditional churches are doing, that is subservience to Scientism. Unless we develop a strong and compelling Gaian liturgy, Gaianism risks becoming little more than a public relations agency for companies involved in greenwashing. Right now, Gaia works as influencer for an Italian chain of supermarkets. 

What we need is a higher form of empathy that involves relations not just among human beings, but among all living creatures as well. Maybe it could take completely and unexpected new forms: religion is, after all, is just a tool to attain empathy and enlightenment. So, could we perhaps revitalize Scientism returning it to its original meaning "natural philosophy"? Not impossible but not easy, either. Centuries ago, St. Francis tried to revitalize a corrupt Christian church by eliminate the very source of corruption: money. It didn't work, but today there are proposal to replace money with forms of "social credit" which are not controlled by the state, at least not directly. So, how about using Google to create empathy via social credit? Could the new religion be called "Googlism?" Who knows? At the very least, a religion should defend us, poor human beings, from the tiranny of governments. 

Or might it be that we could go along without any form of religion and be what we are and we have been over our history? Simply human. Imagine! 


h/t "Il Pedante," Chuck Pezeshky, Michael Dowd


(*) On September 13, 258, Cyprian was imprisoned on the orders of the new proconsul, Galerius Maximus. The public examination of Cyprian by Galerius Maximus, on 14 September 258 has been preserved.
Galerius Maximus: "Are you Thascius Cyprianus?" Cyprian: "I am." Galerius: "The most sacred Emperors have commanded you to conform to the Roman rites." Cyprian: "I refuse." Galerius: "Take heed for yourself." Cyprian: "Do as you are bid; in so clear a case I may not take heed." Galerius, after briefly conferring with his judicial council, with much reluctance pronounced the following sentence: "You have long lived an irreligious life, and have drawn together a number of men bound by an unlawful association, and professed yourself an open enemy to the gods and the religion of Rome; and the pious, most sacred and august Emperors ... have endeavoured in vain to bring you back to conformity with their religious observances; whereas therefore you have been apprehended as principal and ringleader in these infamous crimes, you shall be made an example to those whom you have wickedly associated with you; the authority of law shall be ratified in your blood." He then read the sentence of the court from a written tablet: "It is the sentence of this court that Thascius Cyprianus be executed with the sword." Cyprian: "Thanks be to God.”

(**) Note that scientism as state religion is the political opposite of "Technocracy." In a technocracy, science dominates the government but in this case the government dominates science 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Science, Forests, Bears, and Clouds

 From "Kelebek," Miguel Martinez's blog


by Miguel Martinez

Last night at sunset, a big chill, dark red clouds to the west. And the half moon, above the black cypress trees to the right, silhouetted against the fire of the dying sun.

Below  Bellosguardo, that silent little wall where sometimes a black cat walks, and to the left you can see the snow on the mountains, and, below, the city of the old enemy, Fiesole....

We go up towards Marignolle, and Marco recites to me the verses of the mad poet, Dino Campana:

To the ghostly garden of mute laurels

To the green garlands

To the autumnal earth

A final greeting!

Walking between the silent walls that hide the secrets of an occult city, we arrive at the villa of the ancient family.

From one end of the great hall, Abraham looks at us in an eighteenth-century painting, as he prepares to sacrifice Isaac; from the other end, the ancestor of the family looks at us in a portrait, and has the same beard and the same look (and faith) as Abraham. And between the two, the menorah, on the wooden sideboard that bears the date MDCXXXVII engraved on it.

We gathered to hear Anastasija Makarieva, black hair, almond-shaped blue eyes and high cheekbones, from the Institute of Nuclear Physics in St. Petersburg. An institution heir to that other half of the world, which not only managed to build Soviet atomic bombs from scratch, but explored worlds unknown to Westerners.

Anastasija (with the accent on the "i") doesn't deal with atomic bombs at all, but with forests.

We've all heard of the forests of the Amazon, but we never talk about the perhaps even larger ones that stretch from the Baltic to the Pacific.

Now, as an oriental language major who has a hard time telling an ash tree from an elm, who hasn't taken notes, and is going from memory, I'm going to try to report to you what Anastasiya said, any nonsense is just my own.

It is said that we are living an immense environmental crisis, linked to CO2 emissions with related global warming; and that we must therefore reduce these emissions.

Which however has a huge consequence: if the problem is too much CO2, we reduce CO2 even at the cost of an extermination, end of the problem. The war against climate change is all there.

The scientists in St. Petersburg do not deny the issue of emissions at all, but they say that there is another factor, which is perhaps even more important, that is leading us towards climate catastrophe.

If life exists, it exists because the biosphere exists; and the biosphere is intimately linked to something the Russians call the biotic pump.

Trees are apparently remarkably incompetent machines: they disperse 90% (I'm quoting from memory) of the water they absorb into the atmosphere.

But coastal trees catch what little water the sea sends down to the earth; they alone, through evapotranspiration, are able to make what by its nature goes down go up. Emitting not only water, but also other substances that allow the water to condense, they form clouds, and through various very complex mechanisms - which complement those known to meteorology - they create winds, which bring moisture inland.

And they therefore allow life on the continents, and generate rivers. So, life on earth depends on the forest world. But it's not enough to plant millions of trees at random, as the technogreens would like to do.

Anastasija tells us about the fir trees, planted en masse at the beginning of the twentieth century, in Bohemia, which today have been infested and destroyed in a short time by pests, because there is no variety; about the problem of coeval trees - the biotic pump really works only when there is the set of trees of many generations, with the whole surrounding ecosystem.

And an American artist listening to us tells of a friend of his, who in order to recreate a forest, very slowly took the humus of a still intact forest, with all its variety.

Siberia and Amazonia are the two forest poles of the world, in their immense diversity. But for some reason, the Siberia they're selling off to the multinational timber industry doesn't seem to interest anyone.

"I've only been to Siberia twice," Anastasija admits. "But every year my partner and I camp in a tent on the coast of the White Sea."

Once we saw a bear. From very far away... so we got closer.

We found him in front of us, and then I felt inside me, what the bear was thinking inside his head: the end had come!

He looked one last time at the sea, then turned around, trying to show as little as he could of his profile. And then suddenly, he gathered all his strength, and ran off into the woods!"

And she gives us the picture of the owl, seen in a tree far, far north, with which we open this story.


Sunday, December 19, 2021

Anastassia Makarieva in Florence: Explaining how the Biotic Pump Works

Republished from "The Proud Holobionts."


Anastassia Makarieva  (center) receives a gift of appreciation for her talk in Florence, on Dec 11th, 2021, from Nicola and Anna in the form of a jewel made by Nicola, jeweler in Florence.

From "The Proud Holobionts," by Ugo Bardi


This week, we had the pleasure of a visit to Florence of Anastassia Makarieva, one of the world's most creative and brilliant scientists in the field of ecosystems. Anastassia is the originator, together with Viktor Gorshkov, of the concepts of "biotic regulation" and "biotic pump" -- both fundamental in our understanding of the functioning of the ecosphere. Together, they mean that the current climate change is only in part the direct consequence of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, but in significant part the result of the human perturbation of the ecosystem, and in particular the destruction of the old-growth forests. 

So, Anastassia bears a message: it is vital for the planet to keep forests alive and in their pristine state. And that means just what the word says: forests, not just trees. Those politicians who compete for who plants more trees are just doing greenwashing. They may be harming the planetary ecosystem more than helping it. A tree, alone or as part of a plantation, does not have the same balancing effect and water carrying system that a forest has. A message that's not easy to understand for the current generation of decision-makers, used to the concept that a tree is worth only what profit it can provide once it is cut and sold on the market. Nevertheless, we must try to pass this message. 

For Anastassia's talk in Florence, we experimented with a new format of presentation. The university, nowadays, has become something like Dracula's castle, with the difference that it is a scary place even in the daytime. To have Anastassia give an "official" talk, I should have gone through I don't even know what mass of paperwork, and then her talk would have been attended only by the few academics who still have some interest in creative research. All that in a super-safe, soulless room. 

To say that these official seminars can be disappointing is an understatement. A few years ago I organized a talk by a Russian scientist on the question of the supply of gas from Russia to Europe. You would think it is an interesting subject in Europe. Well, the attendees were exactly zero, besides me, the sponsor of the talk, and the Russian scientist herself. And at that time there was no Covid yet to make people afraid even of their shadows.   

So, this time we decided to play it differently: a colleague of mine kindly offered her living room to host Anastassia's seminar and we announced it on the social channels in addition to the regular university channels. We also offered drinks and snacks. We didn't know what to expect and we had no idea of how many people would bother taking a trip to the hills near Florence to listen to a Russian researcher speaking in English about her research. 

It was a remarkable success. Not a big crowd, but we collected about 25 persons, of whom only 3 were professional scientists (I think they were those who would have shown up had we organized the talk in the university). And they all listened with extreme interest to Anastassia's talk, fascinated by the story of how the ecosphere stabilizes climate and how the forest's biotic pump creates wind and rain. When it was the time of telling the story of how Anastassia and Viktor survived for months in the Boreal forests in a tent, with bears strolling nearby, the audience was completely captivated. The informal party after the seminar was an occasion to build up friendship among people who share the same views of the world, even though they are not necessarily scientists.  

There is something to learn, here. Science is not a Moloch to worship, nor a dictator to be obeyed. And it is not even a conventicle of hyperspecialists who know so much about so little that they can be said to know everything about nothing. Science is one of the several possible embodiments of the concept of "philosophy," the love of knowledge. It is something that does not belong to anybody, it belongs to everybody. And that was clear at Anastassia's talk. 

h/t Benedetta Treves and all those who helped organize this seminar. To know more about the biotic pump and biotic regulation, see the site https://bioticregulation.ru/


Monday, December 13, 2021

Lessons from the USSR Crisis - What brought down the second largest empire of modern times?

 


The collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, was seen in the West as a demonstration of the superiority of the Western economical and political system. In reality, the story was much more complex and the Soviet Union fell because of the same reasons which may cause the impending collapse of the West. This point was made forcefully by Dmitry Orlov, but he is not the only one who noted the similarities of the two systems. Here, a guest post by the Russian Scientist Svatoslav Zabelin. It is a revised and updated version of a piece that appeared in 1998. Zabelin is also a contributor of the book on the 50th anniversary of the publication of the 1972 book "The Limits to Growth," expected to appear on the market in March 2022.  


Lessons from the USSR Crisis

From “A time to seek, and a time to lose.” 1998.

 by Sviatoslav Zabelin

 

...there are no limits to development, but there are limits to growth.

Meadows DH, Meadows DL, Randers Y. (Beyond limits to growth. Moscow, 1994)

From the book by Donella H. Meadows et al. The Limits to Growth. New York. Universe Books. 1972.

"The world community is developing without any major political changes for as long as possible. The number of people and industrial production increases as long as the state of the environment and natural resources does not limit the ability of the industrial capital sector to provide investment. Industrial capital begins to depreciate faster than new investment flows. As its reserves decrease, food production and health care also fall, leading to a reduction in life expectancy and an increase in mortality."

1. The collapse of the USSR

The ecological and socio-economic macro-crises we are seeing are in one way or another a kind of crisis of the limits of growth. They bring a qualitative change that occurs sooner or later with any system where there is a quantitative growth of any parameter. These crises have not yet happened, in the West, and therefore for too many people remain an unknown and unimaginable danger, a speculative abstraction. 

However, how THIS happens, how IT can be, can already be studied on a concrete and recent example. The events of the 1980s and 1990s which happened to the USSR, its economy, population, and power system, are the result of the sum of several crises of growth limits in a highly isolated system from the world economy. The fact that the crisis was relatively soft can be explained considering that, with the end of the cold war, the USSR had become part of the world economic system that took care of at least some of the problems. Nobody really wanted the former USSR states to collapse completely, if nothing else because Russia was considered "the world's service station." But, if the global economic system starts collapsing, help from the Moon or Mars will not come.

First, it was the crisis of the limits to growth of the price that society can pay for the extraction of natural resources, as described as early as 1972 by the World3 model of a team of authors who prepared the report "Limits to growth" for the club of Rome.

"When the deposits begin to run out," it becomes necessary to use ever-increasing amounts of capital in resource industries, which reduces the share going to investment and growth in other industries. Finally, investment becomes so small that it can no longer cover even the depreciation of capital, and there is a crisis of the industrial production base." D. H. Meadows, D. L. Meadows, Y. Randers, V. V. Behrens III. The limits to growth.

The industrial system of the USSR "broke down" on the production of oil in the Siberian fields -- a vital export commodity on which the country survived during the era of stagnation, in the 1970s.  Then, production and proven oil reserves began to decline catastrophically, and attempts to maintain the achieved level found the USSR relying on outdated and worn-out technologies. In some industries, 70-80%, the main production tools were estimated as obsolete. 

The country's industry could not bear the memorable "acceleration" on such "horses", and in a few years Russia turned from a self-sufficient space power into a country where raw materials are exported abroad on an ever-increasing scale, and its processed products were imported from abroad. The result was that the production of consumer goods was replaced by imports, and the facilities for internal production were irretrievably lost. 

Simply put, the USSR paid for the growth of natural resource extraction by destroying the system of converting these natural resources into goods that people need, and even more simply, it paid for the destruction of most of the production itself, which resulted in unemployment, lack of funds for education, health, science, non - payment of pensions, and many other troubles that are common for all post-Soviet countries. And it is clear: where will the funds for education come from if the country's industry no longer produces something that can be sold?

Second, it was a crisis of limits to the growth of the money supply. In the U.S.S.R., the money printing press worked non-stop to pay for a huge mass of dead labor - to produce a gigantic quantity of weapons that were not sold to anyone, to dig canals that never paid off, to build reservoirs on the site of the most fertile pastures and arable land, and so on.

By the end of 1991, it turned out that they had printed several thousand times more than they "needed". And in 1992, when this money bubble burst, the country found itself without money, and every citizen had lost all the savings accumulated. In other words, the consequence of the industrial crisis left the country and its population literally left with empty pockets, without money to start a new life with.

Third, it was a crisis of the limits to growth, pollution of the environment in relation to the possibilities of human populations to tolerate it resulting in a catastrophic decline in the immune status of the population, a catastrophic increase in morbidity of newborn generations, lower life expectancy, increase in mortality and reduction in the number of Russians. The crisis caused by the placement of industrial enterprises in cities, deepened by the Chernobyl disaster, reinforced by the large-scale and stupid reliance on chemicals in agriculture and many other decisions of the Soviet government.

Fourth, it was a crisis of the limits of the increasing complexity of the managed system in relation to the control system.

The Soviet system of management was an extreme case of the 20th-century expression of a strictly hierarchical system of management of society as a whole, a management system where, in the end, the final decision depends on the ability of one person to choose the best option from the available or proposed set of options.

When it comes to accounting for the interests or managing the behavior of a hundred or a thousand subjects (people, businesses, battalions), this is still possible (provided that the decision-maker is smart and experienced, and his assistants, offering options, at least, do not seek personal gain). When subjects are numbered in the tens and hundreds of thousands, millions, and so on, no brain is able to make an objectively balanced decision. He can guess it, but the more complex the situation, the less likely it is to be guessed. As a result, in search of stability or in the name of survival of its constituent elements, the system under the leader begins to split into simpler self-managed subsystems.<>

One of the results of the crisis of the management system was the collapse of the USSR into its constituent parts, which at the beginning of the perestroika were objectively almost independent subjects with their own interests, which they defended in the fight against other similar subjects. First, there were the former republics of the USSR, whose transformation into sovereign countries was secured by the Bialowieza agreements of December 1991. Second, agencies that began to form industrial conglomerates, such as Gazprom, RAO, "EU Russia", etc. Another result of the crisis of the management system was a sharp reduction in the number of functions performed by the state, in the form of its taking care of most of the normal functions of social security of the population (education, health, etc.)...), as well as ensuring law and order.

With the country's bankruptcy, and then the persistent budget deficit, this process of simplification of state power was essentially irreversible and supported by the law of positive feedback:

  • lower budget - less ability to take care of the population, less ability to ensure order;
  • less care and order - less interest in paying taxes; worse with tax collection - less budget...

Of course, I do not pretend that the list of crises of the limits of growth in the USSR that I have given is exhaustive. But these crises are real and, from my point of view, obvious and understandable. All the causes of these crises, which led to the collapse of the "USSR" system, continue to operate in the global system, of which the fragments of the socialist camp have become an organic part.


2. The Future

The production of all types of natural resources, including energy carriers, continues to grow. And the growth of financial resources continues to outstrip the growth of production, determined by speculative play on the dynamics of the difference in the exchange rates of the world's leading currencies, the distribution of loans that have no prospects of repayment, etc.

"In the mid-and late '80s, global markets were gripped by financial fever. Financial and currency speculation carried out with the help of computer communication systems, turned into a game completely disconnected from the real economic reality." King A., Schneider B. The First global revolution. Report of the club of Rome. Moscow, 1991.

Environmental pollution from human waste continues to grow.

"Over the past 20 years, the number of natural disasters, primarily hurricane-force winds, and floods, has increased four times, the amount of material damage caused by them - eight times, and the losses of insurance companies associated with these disasters - 15 times, and this is a direct consequence of environmentally poorly controlled human economic activity," - said in one of the reports of specialists of "Munich Re", a German insurance company." Financial News. July 21, 1998

The complexity of the world economic system as such continues to grow in relation to the structures created to manage it by the UN, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, etc. and sooner rather than later, all these crises will happen to humanity as "unexpectedly" as the ones described above happened to the population of the USSR. The World3 model predicts a resource crisis for approximately 2010-2015.

The self-destruction of the Soviet system was mainly reflected in the loss of the integrity and coherence of the system, which was replaced by the sum of economic, social, etc., subjects, who lost almost the entire set of familiar connections as they were known before.

Citizens have lost their former support and protection of the state - from crime, from diseases, from the elements, as well as pension protection, payment for public service, etc.at The same time, citizens have lost their usual connections with friends and relatives scattered throughout the crisis territory.

State authorities at all levels have lost the support of the population, lost the usual sources of income (both taxes from the bottom and subsidies from the top), and the usual levers of control.

Economic entities have lost established ties with their" neighbors " along the technological chain, with familiar consumers, sales markets, sources of investment, lost government orders, and lost ground in the form of a population able to buy.

The social consequences of an unexpected fall into crisis are most clearly shown in the example of Russia.

Escalating violence at all levels - from domestic to state, violence becomes the main lever of control: the power of law is everywhere replaced by the power of force, including the power of money, which is absent from the majority of the population.

The loss of science is not so much as a complex of knowledge, but primarily as a tool in demand by society for organizing life, interacting with the environment, etc., including in the field of health and education. Discontinuation of high-tech production, discontinuation of production of complex equipment.

Disruption of communications, primarily systems for the physical movement of raw materials, goods, and people. The safety of electronic communications turned out to depend on the production or purchase of computer equipment abroad that ensures their functioning, so it is also questionable.

Mass unemployment, the transition to pre-industrial forms of self-sufficiency in food and basic necessities, and life support in general. A sharp drop in living standards.

The increase in morbidity and mortality is most noticeable among young and middle-aged people: from stress, accidents, armed conflicts, and epidemics.

Of course, we would like to see developed countries, whose behavior largely determines the timing and scale of upcoming global crises, try this scenario on themselves. And if they don't want to do this, they would draw conclusions. But this is unlikely.

"In other words, a dispassionate person might have noticed that in a certain sense the nineteenth century in the West is still going on. In Russia, it ended; and if I say that it ended in tragedy, it is primarily because of the number of human victims that the social and chronological change brought about. In a real tragedy, it is not the hero who dies - it is the chorus that dies." Joseph Brodsky. Nobel lecture. 1987.


3. Lessons from the Soviet Collapse

From my point of view, it is important for residents of post-Soviet States to understand the following.

First, the "USSR" system did not lag behind, but overtook the so-called civilized world, becoming the first industrially developed country to survive the crisis of growth limits predicted by the experts of the club of Rome in all its various aspects.

Therefore, it is initially pointless to look for a way out of the crisis in the past or in the "West", since this has not happened before with industrialized countries. And the countries that reached the limits of the growth of natural resource exploitation at earlier stages of development simply disappeared from the face of the Earth long ago, leaving descendants only picturesque ruins.

That is why the sincere advice and recipes of leading Western economists, to their and our surprise, did not work for the former USSR republic, even if you cry, even if you laugh. And the economic revival is being pushed back and back to an uncertain day after tomorrow.

"Blind copying by developing countries of the path that the Western economy has taken is not a viable strategy, both from the point of view of ecology and for other reasons." King A., Schneider B. The First global revolution. Report of the club of Rome. Moscow, 1991.

Secondly, all the factors and causes that led to the crisis of the USSR are present and active in the global economic system. The crisis of the USSR is misunderstood as the defeat of one of the management systems (socialism) in competition with another management system (capitalism), and not as the defeat of the way nature is managed (including the use of human resources) inherent in our civilization.

Therefore, the global systemic crisis of growth limits should be considered an inevitable event in the near future, which should be prepared for in order to minimize suffering and losses. There is no reason to expect universal economic prosperity in the twenty-FIRST century. This century will be no less difficult than the twentieth. And it depends only on us how difficult it is.

Third, the population of post-Soviet States objectively finds itself in a winning situation, which it may or may not take advantage of.

In fact, due to external investment and foreign trade in raw materials, the decline in living standards was not so terrible. And at the stage of pre-crisis growth of the global economy, the standard of living in post-Soviet countries will grow or stabilize.

The relatively high average intellectual level of the population in principle allows you to understand what happened and draw constructive conclusions from it, that is, to learn from your own experience, which is incomparably easier than from someone else's.

External and internal resources, if desired, can be used to create infrastructure and production facilities that allow us to meet the global crisis more prepared (including significantly more prepared) than our own domestic one.

Fourth, in our experience, there are many forces for which the predicted development of events in the crisis scenario is objectively acceptable and even favorable.

These are almost all structures of organized crime. Perhaps with the exception of the drug mafia, whose profits are directly proportional to the strictness of prohibitions on the production and consumption of drugs.

These are manufacturers of low-tech battlefield weapons, the demand for which will grow.

These are any organized structures and groups focused on establishing authoritarian control over the population, including some associations that call themselves "green".

This also needs to be remembered by ourselves and reminded by others.

Fifth, looking at fifteen to twenty past years of crisis, we have every reason to say that the next wave of the crisis can be overcome if most of the population will be aware of the reasons for the crisis. If socially active citizens will understand that given the past you can come to a crisis armed with new connections, new relations, such that will help to overcome the crisis, preserving the best of our civilization.

You don't need to work miracles to do this. The elements of the constructor from which a new civilization is being built are scattered on the ground: you only have to bend down to pick them up, you only have to unite, reach out to each other to put these elements together.

If everyone adapts, we may not notice how the waves of history will carry away the mistakes and errors, the dirt and pride of our world, as one morning we will find ourselves on the other side.

 

 

Monday, December 6, 2021

Propaganda: the Doom of the Western Empire


This painting by Konstantin Vasiliev (1942-1976) celebrates the great patriotic war of 1941-1945 (Вели́кая Оте́чественная война́). It is a good example of Soviet propaganda at its best: sometimes it could produce stunningly beautiful images. But, on average, propaganda in the Soviet Union was primitive and heavily based on censorship, eventually turning out to be unable to keep together the Union in a moment of crisis. In the West, propaganda was much more sophisticated and, for a while, it managed to convince Western citizens that they were told the truth by their governments. That phase is now over and the Western propaganda system has moved to a fully "Soviet-style" censorship system. With this development, the Western Empire may well have sealed its doom: no government can survive for long if the people it rules don't believe in it.


“The devil's finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.” Charles Baudelaire


I distinctly remember when I was a child and my father saw me reading a small book illustrated with images showing red flags, sickles, and hammers. Worried, he took it from my hands, looked at it, and gave it back to me. "It is all right," he said. "It is our propaganda." 

What I had in my hands was an anti-communist pamphlet of the 1960s, issued by the Christian Democratic party. I remember it well, it was full of images of evil Soviet Communists slaughtering their own dissidents, part of the general anti-communist propaganda in Italy of the post-war period. 

At that time, it was still fine to state openly that something was propaganda. And it was normal in a bi-polar world to be expected to believe in the propaganda issued by one's political side while despising the symmetrical propaganda issued by the other side. 

Things changed over the years. With the Soviet Union spiraling down into a crisis from which it would not survive, its propaganda system revealed its limits. It is the basic problem of censorship: if you have to suppress contrasting opinions, it means that you have something to hide. The Soviet public understood that very well and it maintained a healthy dose of skepticism toward anything that their government was telling them. They still do.  

In the West, instead, the propaganda system evolved into a more and more sophisticated instrument that even managed to elevate itself into a "non-propaganda" system by abandoning censorship. In this way, it managed to convince most people that propaganda did not exist in the West (the devil's finest trick, according to Baudelaire). 

Consequently, Westerners started to believe that their "free press" was providing them with objective and trustworthy information, unlike the state-controlled press of those evil Soviets. That was truly a triumph: still today, the naïve trust of Western citizens in the media baffles the people who lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain. 

But things keep changing, as they always do. The apparent triumph of the West turned out to be hollow. Now, the West faces the same problems that the Soviet Union faced at the time of its demise: how to maintain the cohesion of a large group of states and populations which don't find it attractive anymore to be part of an empire?

One consequence is the return of rather primitive propaganda methods to support the military control of the Western sphere of influence. During the past few decades, the West started using a series of "shock and awe" propaganda campaigns designed to demonize foreign governments, and to open the way for their military elimination. Saddam Hussein was the first victim, others followed. The mechanism is still in operation, although it seems to have become less effective in recent times.

During the past two years, the Western propaganda system underwent a further evolution. Under the banner of fighting "fake news," it started to enforce a pervasive Soviet-Style censorship system over the Web, coupled with the complete government control of the media. Propaganda has become truly all-encompassing and brutal, at present taking as a target for demonization the so-called "anti-vaxxers." 

Why this evolution? Everything that happens, happens for a reason. And it is clear that the West is reacting to a major economic, environmental, and resource crisis. As it happens to all societies in crisis, it reacts by trying to tighten the links that keep the system together. But these "solutions" may well be worsening the problem. 

It is a well-known story, noted perhaps for the first time by the founder of System Dynamics, Jay Forrester. When people find themselves in trouble, they are normally able to identify the elements that cause the problems: the "leverage points" of the system. And almost always they tend to act on these points in such a way to worsen the problem. 

In this case, the evolution of the Western propaganda system into a censorship-based Soviet-style apparatus may temporarily be effective, But, in the long run, is destined to have disastrous effects. Eliminating dissent looks like a good idea by the elites in power, but it has a deadly consequence: it "freezes" society into a rigid structure. Rigid means fragile, as those who work in materials science know very well. In this case, it becomes impossible for society to adapt to new problems except by collapsing: it is the "Seneca Effect."  

Most Westerners have been taken by surprise by this rapid change in the management of a communication system that, up to just a few years ago, glorified "freedom of speech." They seem to refuse to believe in what's happening, even though they see it happening in front of them. They still have to develop the memetic antibodies against propaganda that the Soviet citizens had developed long ago. But, as they are fed more and more blatant lies, eventually they are going to develop a certain degree of immunity. 

And that's the basic problem: no government can exist for long if the people it rules don't believe in it. That was the doom of the Soviet Empire and it may well be that the Western Empire has sealed its own doom by destroying its free press system of which it was justly proud. Without an internal method to critically evaluate the government's decisions, huge mistakes -- even deadly ones -- are unavoidable.

What form the doom of the Western Empire will take, and how fast it will come, is difficult to say. We may just remember Seneca's statement that "increases are of sluggish growth but the way to ruin is rapid." 



On this subject, see also Simon Sheridan's "The Twilight of Narrative"  and Franco Bifo Berardi's "Rassegnatevi" (in Italian)

Friday, December 3, 2021

The Twilight of the Narrative: Why the Truth will never be Revealed



 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.  Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? (John 18:38)


What is truth? We often have a "Hollywood" model of truth: we expect it to triumph at the end of the movie, when the bad guy confesses his crime and everyone agrees on what really happened. 

Reality is very different. Truth is multiple, fractal, hierarchical, a game of mirrors, never showing herself in full. Think of the pandemic: aren't we in the age where the "scientific method" gives us a rational, objective view of the world? And yet, the multifaceted aspects of a hugely complex story seem to be beyond our capability to process it rationally.  Truth is not coming. It may never come. (And you may also be reminded of another case whose 20th anniversary we recently commemorated -- there, too, the truth did not come out and probably never will).

In the post, below, Sheridan analyzes the structure of the memesphere and challenges at the core the idea that the "narrative (about the pandemic) is going to crack" any day now and that the "truth" will be revealed. He says, "There is no longer a unifying narrative that is going to crack and be replaced by a better, more truthful narrative. Rather, there is now only a seemingly infinite number of sub-narratives with a dominant narrative imposed over them. The dominant narrative is not necessarily truthful, it's just dominant."

In essence, the memetic sphere has shattered into an infinite series of closed microspheres. The dominant macrosphere can no longer control them, despite its desperate efforts at censorship, intimidation, and obfuscation. But if the microspheres don't talk to each other, the truth won't come out, whatever it is.

Read this post: it is truly enlightening


The Twilight of the Narrative

by Simon Sheridan

November 27, 2021 (posted here by the author's kind permission)


Recently, I was visiting a friend’s house when a Michael Jackson song came on the radio and my friend said something interesting that I hadn’t really thought about before. He noted that, at the peak of Jackson’s fame, the releasing of one of his albums was a global event with a coordinated marketing campaign which meant that pretty much everybody in the western world and many parts of the non-western world would have known when a Michael Jackson album was released whether they liked his music or not. This is something the young people these days wouldn’t comprehend as they each have their own social media influencer or Youtube celebrity or whatever that they follow in much smaller sub-cultures than before. Even the most popular pop stars of today are only known to a subset of the population never the whole population like Jackson was. 

This observation got me thinking about a subject that I have been pondering for a while which is the impact of the internet on our culture. It seems to me this impact is not really discussed much anymore even though it is directly contributing to our current woes. One of the main changes wrought by the internet is the shattering of “grand narratives”. A Michael Jackson album release is one. But the pattern extends into other areas of the public discourse where its effects are far more important such as the narratives that hold countries together. As the corona event drags on interminably, there are those in the dissenter camp who still think the “narrative is about to crack” any day now and the “truth” will be revealed. 

This mindset from the old, pre-internet world is no longer valid in the world we live. There is no unifying narrative any more that is going to crack and be replaced by a better, more truthful narrative. Rather, there are now just a seemingly infinite number of sub-narratives with a dominant narrative imposed on top of them. The dominant narrative is not necessarily truthful, just dominant. The emergence of the “conspiracy theory” label alongside the daily censorship that now happens on social media platforms are among a number of tactics that are now used to try and subdue alternative narratives in the hope of allowing a centralised narrative to form. But it never does for the simple reason that you cannot coerce people into believing a narrative. Narratives must evolve organically with a feedback loop between top-down and bottom-up. The increasing use of censorious tactics in the last couple of years reveals the underlying weakness of the dominant narrative. The powers that be have gone all out in attempting to hold together a narrative that itself doesn’t make sense as it is changed willy-nilly according to purely political considerations. 

It’s tempting to think the politicians are doing it on purpose with some larger objective in mind. But what if there is no larger objective? What if these tactics are simply what is required now to create any type of dominant narrative at all? What if these tactics are now the price you pay to create a narrative? If so, that price has gone through the roof. We can usefully call this narrative inflation. If you increase the supply of money, you get monetary inflation. If you increase the supply of narratives, you get narrative inflation. The price to create a dominant narrative has gone up for a number of reasons but one is that the internet opened the floodgates on the flow of information and allowed multiple alternative narratives to be created. This has created its own dynamic independent of the political and economic considerations that are also driving the trend. It may turn out that one of the consequences of allowing free and instant information is to destroy centralised narratives. There are good sociological and psychological reasons why this would be the case.

Eyewitness testimony has long been problematic for police trying to investigate an incident or crime. Even for something relatively straightforward like a car accident, where the eyewitnesses themselves have no personal stake in the story, accounts can diverge radically. Ten people witnessing a car accident can give you ten different stories of the crash. These problems are greatly exacerbated when the individuals involved have a vested interest in the case as often happens in criminal investigations. This eternal problem has been dealt with in numerous fiction and non-fiction works. The best non-fiction work I have seen about the subject is the documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” in which a school teacher is found to have child pornography in his home which leads to a series of events including him pleading guilty to sexually abusing some of his students. The documentary follows the motivations of those involved as rumour of the crime spreads in the local community creating its own dynamic as gossip and innuendo put enormous pressure of the family at the centre of the case. By the end of the documentary, we don’t know whether any of the official story is true as the lies and deceits create second and third order effects that distort the whole picture. 

This real-life account mirrors one of the best fictional representations of the problem, Akira Kurosawa’s movie “Rashomon”, in which a murder occurs in the forest but we hear radically different versions of the event told by the people involved (including, dramatically, the deceased). The philosophical question raised by both films is whether or not there can be found an objective standard of truth. This is a problem philosophers have wrestled with for millennia but it becomes a practical problem in cases involving crime where we want to see justice served and yet we have multiple, irreconcilable accounts about reality and seemingly no way to choose between them. At the end of the process, the system gives a verdict of guilty-not guilty and this is taken as the “truth” but is it really the truth?

With the internet, we have seen the same psychology applied to the public discourse and this has created practical problems for politics. Politicians love to divide the public where it suits their interest but it’s also true that they need to appeal to a foundation which unites the public. The process is similar to the justice system. Although there is disagreement and competition within the system, everybody must agree to play by the rules. The system itself is the thing people believe in. The public discourse which existed prior to the internet was facilitated through a system in which the media was known as the “fourth estate”. Its job was to hold government to account. Of course, this was not a perfect system but, as the saying goes, it seems it was better than all the others. It was certainly better than the system we have now where the media does not hold the government to account at all and is little more than a public relations branch of the government. 

Recently in the New Zealand parliament, Jacinda Ardern was questioned about $55 million her government gave to media with certain conditions attached about what could be reported on. In Australia, the government waived the usual licence fee for the mainstream media channels back in March 2020. This amounted to around $44 million in subsidies. The theory was that this was needed because covid was expected to reduce advertising revenue, a strange claim given that the whole population was about to be locked at home with every incentive to watch the news. That measure came after the Australian government famously held Facebook and other big tech players to ransom and forced them to pay money to Australian media companies for content. Whatever the ethical dimensions of these issues, what lies beneath is the fact that the media companies are no longer viable businesses capable of existing without government support. Because they are now reliant on government money, their function as the fourth estate that holds government to account has also all but disappeared. That’s a problem for them but it’s also a problem for the government. The “official narrative” is transmitted through the legacy media. If the legacy media goes away, so does the narrative. Governments know that if the media disappeared, so would a large chunk of their power. The government needs the media as much as the media needs the government.

I would argue that the public also needs the media. It needs the media to act as its representative. That was the whole point of the Fourth Estate arrangement. The public paid for the media and that meant the media had an incentive to represents the readership’s interests. But that is all gone now. Some people think the public doesn’t really need the media. For almost any event, we are able to watch live video online now. Once upon a time we needed the newspaper to tell us the facts, but we simply don’t need that anymore. You might think that’s a good thing. We remove the middle man and allow the public to see events for themselves. But that introduces the same problem you have with eyewitness accounts which is that you get as many versions of the “truth” as there are people. The discourse becomes fragmented and the checks and balances that once held disappear. It’s a bit like having a crime investigation without a detective. “The system” can no longer control the discourse the way it previously could. This is not a trivial matter. It leads us back to one of Plato’s most dangerous ideas which is the Noble Lie. The idea goes that society cannot exist and justice cannot be served unless there are a number of lies which bind society together. Lie is, of course, a very strong word. We could soften it by calling them myths or ideals but the effect is the same. The myths and ideals are the glue that holds things together and, according to Plato, without them society will disintegrate.

Our post-internet public discourse provides some evidence for this assertion. It has become completely detached from reality or, to put it another way, it represents only one version of reality: the one that comes from the top-down. This process is especially advanced in the US. It hit a fever pitch with the Trump presidency and has not relaxed since. There are now at least two mutually incompatible narratives going on in the US meaning that agreement about the fundamentals which hold society together is called into question on an almost daily basis. It’s quite common to hear somebody on either side of the debate label somebody on the other side as “crazy” or “insane” and that is one manifestation of the problem. Within this new world, the idea that the “narrative is about to crack” doesn’t make sense. The dominant narrative is held in place by power, not by truth. By definition, the only thing that can “crack” it is another source of power. This was Trump’s genius. He hijacked the entire machinery that generates the narrative and turned it to his own purposes. But I think Trump was the end of the road. They got rid of him but in doing so they removed any last pretence that the narrative was “fair” or “truthful”. You can’t just delete the sitting President and then go back to normal as if nothing happened. As a result, a large proportion of the population no longer has any faith whatsoever in the system. That holds true no matter who is in power. The dominant narrative is now nothing more than the story told by those in power.

In Australia and much of Europe and Canada, we are just now catching up with the US. Here in Melbourne, more than a hundred thousand people marched against the government last weekend. The Premier’s response was to write them off as “thugs” and “extremists”. It reminded me an awful lot of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” moment. When politicians no longer feel like they need to accommodate the interests and opinions of a substantial proportion of the population you know the narrative is already fractured. Andrews may or may not get away with that politically for now but the protestors represent a new group in Australian public life; the ones excluded from the narrative. The same goes for the demonstrators in Europe who are simply ignored by the mainstream media. Because the public discourse no longer pretends to reflect reality, nobody really believes in it including the people who nominally go along with it. Deep down they also must know that it is fake. 

We are entering a time when even the idea of a centralised narrative is no longer believed in. If Plato was right, this fact alone is an existential threat to the state and it is understandable that the state would strive to fix the problem. But it’s almost certainly too late. All of the censorship and victimisation in the world won’t put humpty dumpty together again. Going forward I expect we’ll still have an “official narrative” but nobody will really believe it. That’s what is implied by the falling revenue numbers of the mainstream media channels. Will that lead to the disintegration of the state? Plato would have said yes. We may be about to test that theory.