Escape 13: “…men fashion unfreedom as a bribe for self-perpetuation.”
So, this is my 13th post looking at Ernest Becker’s last book Escape From Evil (EFE) published posthumously in 1975. I’m taking a different tack from now on in these posts. First of all, I’m changing the titles so that they always start with Escape, rather than Ernest Becker. I’ll start with a short quote from Becker’s EFE then put that quote into perspective and elaborate. So far I’ve used sometimes long quotes from Becker so as to let Becker speak for himself. As I said before, there’s no substitute for reading Becker himself, but this will hopefully tweak your interest in the subject of Becker’s work which can be summarized in this quote:
Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death. [EFE 125]
Of course that promise is empty, always unfulfilled except temporarily, and brings with it astonishing pain and suffering to millions of innocent people, because more often than not evil and death are seen to have a face and that face must be destroyed at all cost. This is exactly how Hitler thought of the Jews. To him, the Jewish people presented a threat to the Aryan race. Every Jewish face was a reminder for the Nazis of disease and death. In the end, Hitler’s promise was a monumental con and he himself became the personification of evil and death for millions of people who vowed to destroy him even at the cost of their own lives.
But back to the quote in the title: “…men fashion unfreedom as a bribe for self-perpetuation.” This quote is from the last paragraph of Chapter 3 in EFE called The Origins of Inequality. In this chapter Becker tackles a basic fact of life in virtually all societies beyond the primitive. Hunting and gathering societies had virtual equality, but even then there were people who stood out because of their prowess in certain things like hunting or healing. Becker argues in this chapter that we are unequal in society because from the very beginning personal qualities gave rise to rank, power and privilege. And those personal qualities were there for all to recognize. Becker notes that a Sioux warrior announced by means of decorations on his moccasins how many horses he had captured, ‘enemies killed…etc.’ If a person is particularly good at hunting and consistently ‘brings home the bacon’ it’s hard not to see how all benefit from his skill. He will always be rewarded and eventually the rewards become part of the structure of society. This is the origins of the concept of hero. As Becker notes “…he is the one who gambles with is very life and successfully defies death, and men follow him and eventually worship his memory because he embodies the triumph over what they fear most, extinction and death.” (p. 43)
So, we’ve always sorted ourselves out by personal characteristics, but Becker argues that the first real class distinction was between humans (mortals) and immortal beings which were not only gods, but ancestors and other fauna inhabiting the invisible world and played with human lives, or so the primitive thought. What else was he supposed to think? Without science, there was no recourse but to imagine or dream of what it might be that controls us. So, class society began with the distinction between immortal and mortal. It wasn’t much of a stretch then to see that heroes, because of their special skills might just have a special connection with the invisible forces that surrounded the primitives in their world. Heroes were revered for their special gifts, but also feared because of their connection to the sometimes merciless and volatile forces that controlled life on this planet.
Once the ‘hero’ who was also the shaman and chief created the techniques of perpetuating his power even as he aged and became weaker the stage was set for society to have a structure of followship where the chief and shaman spoke for the gods and demanded subservience and tribute from the people. “Who has the power to mystify?” (p.49) Class distinctions have always been and still are sacred because they are all about the quest for immortality. The leaders promise immortality or at least future prosperity and we sometimes gladly, sometimes reluctantly, surrender our own personal power. We defer because we are promised immortality, we hold on to that promise with dear life and we bend to the wishes of the gods through their earthly intermediaries. We may complain now and again, but our first instinct is to submit. Still, there are moments in history when our gods have abandoned us and that’s made it necessary to abandon their promises and adopt new, more powerful ones.
I haven’t been overtly critical of Becker yet in these posts but I must disagree with his analysis of Marxism in this chapter. That won’t concern most of you. Suffice it to say that his emphasis on the control of economic power by the elite is grounded in the humanism of a certain brand of Marxism and not of Marx himself whose analysis of class was purely historical and structural.