Escape 22: The Science of Man after Hitler

Escape 22: The Science of Man after Hitler

I have lingered on guilt, sacrifice, heroism, and immortality because they are the key concepts for the science of man in society that is emerging on our time. 

 Sociology has largely ignored this kind of analysis because it’s been caught up with it’s own immortality-project, it’s own definition of itself as a structural or constructionist endeavour.  History, evolution and process are not welcome in its parlour.  In my younger days I thought that if I wrote interesting and relevant material I would be taken seriously.  I was a bit naïve.  Sociologists could ignore Hitler or Mao as aberrations.  Becker mentions two sociologists who bucked the trend, Kenneth Burke and Hugh Dalziel Duncan.  I don’t know their work.  It was never on the curriculum when I studied at university.  Although Burke died it 1995 he was born in 1897 so his work could easily have been on the menu of any number of courses.  Becker does point out though that their work is pretty much contained within Rank’s, so I don’t feel so bad not having read them.  I have read many of Rank’s books, Art and Artist being one of my favourites.

The point here is that the old-time religious immortality-ideologies, the thousands that have existed and the many that still do can promise immortality.  The body is the source of all evil and temptation.  It’s where the Devil resides.  If you can stay in the realm of the symbolic you stand a chance of heroic eternal life, but if you succumb to the pleasures of the flesh, you die just as all flesh dies.  Spirit, if you can believe in it, lives on eternally.  That has got to be the most difficult thing for people who still believe in a supernatural world.  It’s bound to be a different supernatural world than many others so who’s supernatural world is the right one?  Doubt creeps in and that brings on guilt and the need to expiate that guilt.  One way out is to strike out at other immortality-projects, destroy them.  They all, potentially, have a role to play in the expiation of guilt and in the concretization of belief in the one and only real way to heaven.  But what happens in a world where the secular rules, where science and technology cannot promise any kind of sacred absolution?  Then, as Becker points out, the nation, the race or ‘the people’ become god, the transcendent immortality-project that keeps people in the same kind of grip that ancient religions did and modern religions still do.  It’s ridiculous, but it worked for Hitler and it worked for Mao.  Both had no transcendent god to offer the people, only a vision of the people themselves as the vehicle for apotheosis.  Hitler promised the German people a heroic victory over death as represented by the Jewish people.  Mao had the great revolution and the glorious future into which his believers would march in all their glory.

In this cosmology it is the people themselves who carry the ‘immortal revolutionary substance’; God, then, ‘is none other than the masses of the Chinese people.’

 Man still gropes for transcendence, but now this is not necessarily nature and God, but the SS or the CIA; the only thing that remains constant is that the individual still gives himself with the same humble trembling as the primitive to his totemic ancestor.  The stake is identical – immortality power – and the unit of motivation is still the single individual and his fears and hopes. 

The kind of effervescence that the promise of immortality brings is evident in events from music festivals to victory celebrations to protest marches.  We don’t often have the kind of real opportunity to feel alive alongside thousands of others in a common cause where the stakes are high.  We have our substitutes on professional hockey, football, soccer, cricket, the Olympics.  These can get our blood pressure up; they can get that collective effervescence (as Durkheim described it) going in a ritual bloodletting and victorious battle.  How often have I heard someone say, “Yeah, we kicked the shit out of the Oilers last night.”  Meaning that the Canucks defeated the Oilers.  The ‘we’ there is completely out of place in this sentence given the reality of the competition, but that doesn’t matter, it’s us against them, and it’s our immortality that’s at stake.

Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.”

Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.”

This is going to be a shorter post than the last few…which have been way too long.  I fear I’m getting pedantic in my old age.  Say it ain’t so.  I’ll carry on now, pedantry or not.  One positive thing I’m getting out of this is that my typing skills are improving, if nothing else.

So, in the last post we looked at Becker’s use of the term ‘sacrifice’.  This post is about a related term, scapegoating.  Scapegoating is a form of sacrifice…in the early days using a real goat.  Now we do it with people, mostly people we blame, realistically or not, for all of our troubles.  Becker opens this part of Chapter 8 with a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist, who said “Hell is other people.”  I need to put that on a T-shirt, damn it!

From the beginning, men have served the appetites of one another in the most varying ways, but these were always reducible to a single theme: the need for fuel for one’s own aggrandizement and immunity.  Men use one another to assure their personal victory over death…In one of the most logical formulas on the human condition Rank observed: ‘The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.  No wonder men are addicted to war…war is a ritual for the emergence of heroes.

What about heroes? This is where Becker introduces the concept of heroism as a major element in his whole thought.  Heroes are not like the rest of us.  Most of us would be willing to sacrifice just about anyone who stands in our way, friend or foe, because inevitably people offend us.  A wife or husband ‘cheats’, another driver cuts us off in traffic then gives us the finger.  As Becker notes, this is the price of our natural narcissism.  We would like to kill people, or at least maim them, almost every day, but our fear of death prevents us.  Heroes are different.  They take the bullet, they take on the bad guys, they put themselves in harms way instead of throwing others in the way.  So “war IS a ritual for the emergence of heroes.”

The logic of scapegoating, then, is based on animal narcissism and hidden fear. If luck, as Aristotle said, is when the arrow hits the fellow next to you, then scapegoating is pushing the fellow into its path – with special alacrity if he is a stranger to you. 

Freud was right; in the narcissism of earthly bodies, where each is imprisoned fatally in his own finite integument, everyone is alien to oneself and subject to the status of scapegoating for one’s own life.

 We kill others, literally or socially, in order to affirm our own life. Then killing others in mass rituals like war is spectacularly affirming.  To bring it closer to home and in a bit of a less dramatic fashion, consider the way we treat the homeless and the poor and how desperately they try to hide their condition.  We kill them socially; it’s almost better than killing them physically because we prolong their suffering and see their distress and immobility as it slowly unfolds before our very eyes.  That affirms our life.

As we watch the Sochi Olympic Games, the victory celebration is a way of

…experiencing the power of our lives and the visible decrease of the enemy: it is a sort of staging of the whole meaning of a war, the demonstration of the essence of it – which is why the public display, humiliation, and execution of prisoners is so important. ‘They are weak and die: we are strong and live.’

We are disgusted by what is happening in North Korea but we turn a blind eye to the humiliation and degradation prisoners experience in our own prisons every day.

The U.S. is always keen to keep the torches lit and the electric chair warmed up.  Guantanamo Bay is a celebration of American power.

 It is obvious that man kills to cleanse the earth of tainted ones, and that is what victory means and how it commemorates life and power: man is bloodthirsty to ward off the flow of his own blood.

Other things that we have found hard to understand have been hatreds and feuds between tribes and families, and continual butchery practiced for what seemed petty, prideful motives of personal honor and revenge. 

Nothing has changed much.  We all think that we are the chosen people and if we don’t try literally to exterminate those who don’t agree with us or who aren’t like us therefore we can’t possibly ‘like’, we ostracize them, marginalize them, ignore them.

Here I would quote a passage that Becker uses from Alan Harrington, but it’s too long and I’m too tired.  Suffice it to say, that that guy over there with the funny beard and strange looking clothes and hat, what if that guy is right in his beliefs.  Can he be my equal?  “All I know is if he’s right I’m wrong.” (p. 113)

In times of peace, without an external enemy, the fear that feeds war tends to find its outlet within the society, in the hatred between classes and races, in the everyday violence of crime, of automobile accidents, and even the self-violence of suicide.

 Enough for today, don’t you think?  Is anybody really reading this stuff anyway?

Escape 21: C’mon, ya gotta make sacrifices to get ahead!

Escape 21: C’mon, ya gotta make sacrifices to get ahead!

On page 100 of EFE, Becker takes on The Mystery of Sacrifice.  I must admit that I learned a lot from Thorstein Veblen about recognizing assumptions and separating them out from research findings.  There’s no question that Becker makes loads of assumptions about value in his work.  Even his concept of evil is based on a view that he must have about non-evil or good.  For him, evil is often measured by the wonton destruction of human life and environmental destruction.  His assumption is that human life has intrinsic value and should not be destroyed in the name of an ideology of immortality.  The ‘should’ there is the key to understanding Becker’s moral assumption here.  In the world of animals, there is a great deal of killing and sometimes for the equivalent of an immortality project.  When a wandering male lion challenges the dominant male in a lion pride and kills him, he also kills the cubs so that the females will immediately go into heat and bear his cubs.  He instinctively knows that his genes are superior to his defeated foe’s and must therefore be the ones to take the pride into the future.  In fact, lions are much more predictable than humans in their behaviour, but not entirely.  We often feel that the world is driven by irrationality.  I mean how else explain the 1994 Rwandan massacre or what’s happening in Syria today.  However, according to Alex Comfort, as Becker points out, “the Freudian revolution in thought…revealed to us that the irrational had structure and so we could begin to understand it.” (p. 101)

For Becker and many others before him, such as Brown and Mumford, to whom he acknowledges an intellectual debt, sacrifice is a barter with the gods.  It’s an acknowledgment of the “pitiful finitude and powerlessness of man in the face of the mysterium trememdum of the universe, the immensity of what transcends him and negates his significance.” (p. 101)

Sacrifice, then is not an ‘irrational aberration,’ but a basic human reflex of truth, a correct expiation of natural guilt. 

 If one feels blocked, immobilized, guilty in a word, the solution is to expiate that guilt and reassert the flow of life by sacrificing life to the gods.  The gods give life, but they want the sacrifice of life in return or their gift giving may just dry up.  Gift giving must be reciprocal between the gods and us.  Now, of course, the expiation of our guilt is a social-political affair. People are quite willing to put up with much tyranny “because of its rewards not only to their stomachs but also to their souls.” (p. 101)  Becker writes:

They support tyranny by willingly marching off to war, not only because that reduces the frustration they feel at home toward authority, not only because it enables them to project their hatreds on the enemy, but also because it expiates their guilt.  How else explain the parents that we read about during each war who, when told about the tragic death if their son, have expressed regret that they had not more to give?  This is  the age-old essence of primitive gift giving; it chills us only by the nature of the sacrifice that they make so willingly and by the secondhand god to whom it is offered – the nation-state.  But it is not cynical or callous: in guilt one gives with a melting heart and choking tears because one is guilty, one is transcended by the unspeakable majesty and superlativeness of the natural and cultural world, against which one feels realistically humbled; by giving one draws oneself into that power and emerges one’s existence with it. 

 Of course, there may be choking tears and genuine gratitude to the gods for providing us with life, but there is celebration in sacrifice too.  A scapegoat, in the original meaning of the word was really a goat over which a ritual was performed so that all the tribe’s uncleanliness and weakness was transferred to the goat which was then killed or run off leaving the village clean.

Men spill blood because it makes their hearts glad and fills out their organisms with a sense of vital power; ceremoniously killing captives is a way of affirming power over life, and therefore over death. 

 We want to feel as though we have casual control over powerful forces.  Becker notes that Detroit car makers sell power and speed –“with their businessman’s realism about the truth of life –“ (p. 102) They knew that to sell cars they would be wasting their time talking about how great their cars were on gas.  It’s no coincidence that car ads on TV always show the manufacturer’s car with no other car in sight barreling down a highway, the driver with not a care in the world.  Perfect control.   The sacrifice in this case may be personal indebtedness but what is more important, having a sense of power driving a special car or living a prosaic, meek, invisible life with nothing obvious to show how great a person you are?   We feel guilt for driving an inferior vehicle or getting stuck in traffic unlike those fortunate, strong people in the car ads who apparently never experience traffic jams.

To bring this to an end for today, I think this quote from Becker is appropriate:

if you kill your enemy, your life is affirmed because it proves that the gods favor you.

 Does this analysis make any sense to you in trying to figure out what Harper and the conservatives are doing in Canada?  Harper is desperate to know that the gods of capital favour him.  He seems to be willing to sacrifice everything for that to happen.  Whatever it takes.

Escape 20: Why do we have to fight the death star?

Escape 20: Why do we have to fight the death star?

No, this post isn’t exactly about Star Wars, but that movie is such a brilliant commentary on a power mega-machine gone mad that it could easily serve as a basis for the discussion here. In many ways, movie makers have been more intuitively in tune with the insanity of the world today than most intellectuals and politicians, of course. Maybe after I finish this Becker marathon, I’ll turn to how movies and books have given us insights into our basis fears of life and death.

Chapter 8 in Becker’s EFE is called The Nature of Social Evil.  It’s a very dense chapter in which Becker can now get to the nitty-gritty.  He’s laid the groundwork and summarizes it in the first paragraph of the chapter, which I reproduce here in its entirety.

We have seen with Rank that the driving force behind evil in human affairs stems from man’s paradoxical nature: in the flesh and doomed with it, out of the flesh in the world of symbol and trying to continue on a heavenly flight.  The thing that makes man the most devastating animal that ever stuck his neck up into the sky is that the wants a stature and a destiny that is impossible for an animal; he wants an earth that is not an earth but a heaven, and the price for this kind of fantastic ambition is to make the earth an even more eager graveyard than it naturally is. 

 In the primitive world heroism and expiation were small time affairs.  Primitives weren’t capable technologically or ideationally to wreak havoc on the planet.  That’s changed now.  There is no comparing even the destructive power of an Aztec murderous ritual of thousands of victims with Hiroshima.  What can be said of a species that can pull off a Hiroshima and then (to make the point absolutely clear) a Nagasaki, a blood potlatch like the Nazi Holocaust or the Chinese Cultural Revolution under Mao?

Today we are agreed that the picture looks something like this: that once mankind got the means for large-scale manipulation of the world, the lust for power began to take devastating tolls…Masses of men were forged into obedient tools for really large-scale power operations directed by a powerful, exploitive class.  [in the process]… We see this in the degradation of tribal peoples today, when they hire themselves out for money to work monotonously in the mines. Primitive man could be transformed, in one small step, from a rich creator of meaning in a society of equals to a mechanical thing.

 It’s been ten or twelve thousand years in the making, but we’ve now unleashed this “colossus of power gone mad…” (p. 99)

…and with it began mankind’s real woes.  The new class society of conquerors and slaves right away had its own internal frictions; what better way to siphon them off than by directing the energies of the masses outward toward an ‘alien’ enemy?..this was the start of large-scale scapegoating that has consumed such mountains of lives down through history and continues to do so today, right up to Viet Nam and Bangladesh [and Rwanda, Eritria, Cambodia, East Timor, Iraq, Syria, etc.]: what better way to forge a nation into a unity, to take everyone’s eyes off the frightening state of domestic affairs, than by focusing on a heroic foreign cause? 

 …even if it has to be contrived, as in George Bush’s Iraqi ‘war’, probably the most blatantly contrived invasion of a country since Hitler invaded Poland. (

Keeping up the lie for the sake of power takes its toll although people like Dick Cheney have no regrets because they are willing to make the sacrifice for domestic peace and future profits for oil producers.  This goes back a long way, way before Bush, of course, but as Becker notes:

Once you start an arms race, you are consumed by it.  This is the tragic fatality of power, that it leads to a fundamental distortion of the reality of man’s relationship with nature – and so can undermine his own well-being. 

How can this be?  Tomorrow we tackle the role of sacrifice in all of this.  We’ve had a taste of it in previous blogs.  Now for the main course.

 Let me tell you again that there is no substitute for reading Becker’s Denial of Death or Escape From Evil if you want to understand his thought in its richness and wholeness.  I must say, though, that his message is not in the least upbeat.  This is scary stuff and it requires a certain degree of courage and detachment to wrestle with it.  I know it nearly drove me crazy, but it seems so familiar to me now, comforting in a way.  And let me say here and now that I do have an immortality-ideology and at the end of this Becker marathon I’ll tell you exactly what it is.  But for now, let’s carry on with the task at hand.  

Escape 19: All you wanted to know about human evil but were afraid to ask!

Escape 19: All you wanted to know about human evil but were afraid to ask!

Well, it looks like I may just get through this 30 day Becker marathon in 30 days.  I’m on Chapter 7 now, which starts on page 91.  Since there’s 170 pages in the book I’m close to half way there.

As noted earlier, Becker is the great synthesizer.  He gleans in a critical way the works of others to build his own model of how the world works.  Those ‘others’ include hundreds of scholars of all disciplines as can be verified by a glance at the bibliographic entries in his many books, but major influences have been Hocart, Huizinga, Brown and Rank.  The school of psychoanalysis to which Becker subscribes is the school, which broke away from Freud.  Rank was a special protégé of Freud’s but could not accept Freud’s Oedipus Complex and other aspects of his work.  Freud was no slouch, of course, but his work was nowhere near as historical as his detractors, Brown and Rank, not to mention Jung and Adler.  For Rank and Brown, following Freud, the basic foundation of an understanding of humankind’s evolution on this planet is our fear of life and death.  Of course we wouldn’t be able to stand it for long if every day of every year we were consumed by fear of life and death.  Rank accepted without any resistance one of the pillars of Freud’s work and that’s the idea of repression.  As Becker writes:

…men do not actually live stretched openly on a rack of cowardice and terror; if they did, they couldn’t continue on with such apparent equanimity and thoughtlessness.  Men’s fears are buried deep by repression, which gives to everyday life its tranquil façade; only occasionally does the desperation show through, and only for some people.  It is repression, then, that great discovery of psychoanalysis, that explains how well man can hide their basic motivations even from themselves.  But men also live in a dimension of carefreeness, trust, hope, and joy which gives them a buoyancy beyond that which repression alone could give.  This, as we saw with Rank, is achieved by the symbolic engineering of culture, which everywhere serves men as an antidote to terror by giving them a new and durable life beyond that of the body.

 I don’t think I could find a quote in EFE that better represents Rank’s thought as expressed here by Becker.  Following this quote Becker introduces Wilhelm Reich and his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism.  In his conclusion that much of the misery on this planet is a consequence of our attempt to deny our animal nature, the question for Reich is: how could we so willingly give over [our] destiny to the state and the great leader? (p. 93) Because we’re such suckers for promises of prosperity and good times ahead if only we follow the great leader, the steady, thoughtful great leader.  But, unfortunately, in attempts to avoid natural plagues and disasters by investing our trust in great leaders we unwittingly unleashed another plague brought on by our thoughtless allegiance and obedience to the politician.

Reich coined the apt term “political plague-mongers” to describe all politicians.  They are the ones who lied to the people about the real and the possible and launched mankind on impossible dreams which took impossible tolls of real life.  Once you base your whole life-striving on a desperate lie and try to implement that lie, try to make the world just the opposite of what it is, then you instrument your own undoing…all you have to do is to say that your group is pure and good, eligible for a full life and for some kind of eternal meaning.  But others, like Jews or Gypsies are the real animals, are spoiling everything for you, contaminating your purity and bringing disease and weakness into your vitality. 

It’s all about scapegoating…a theme we’ll run into again in this exercise.

Escape 18: Our Bodies, Our Deaths.

Escape 18: Our Bodies our Deaths: What evil has history wrought?

Chapter 6 in EFE ends with a section called The Demonics of History.  How to summarize Becker’s arguments here?  Not without some difficulty: every sentence is jam packed with meaning.  In the last post we noted that money is the new immortality ideology but ‘new’ here means after the fall of primitive society and the rise of classes some 10 to 12 thousand years ago in some parts of the world, much later in others.  But, it’s complicated.  As Becker writes:

If we say that ‘money is God,’ this seems like a simple and cynical observation on the corruptibility of men.  But if we say that ‘money negotiates immortality and therefore is God,’ this is a scientific formula that is limpidly objective to any serious student of man…We see the changes from tribal modes of achieving power to money modes right before our eyes.

 In the early days of French ‘exploration’ in North America, once the Huron, Montagnais and other tribes understood the power of the invaders from Europe they didn’t need to be coerced to let go of their previous immortality ideologies.  They were confronted by a relentless and powerful new god, one that did not want to compromise with theirs, a god who showed that the only way to salvation and eternal life was in the worship of it and it alone.  The earliest ‘conversions’ had been gotten with bribes and coercion, but in time that was no longer necessary.

Think; if a race of men with advanced learning, health, and weapons were to land on our planet and tell us about the god who sustains them in Alpha Centauri, a new religion would sweep over large numbers of people overnight and discredit most of our institutions. 

 So, money represents real earthly power, but its power is sacred.  Money gives power now!  No need to wait on an earthly death for apotheosis.

Man has become dependent on social symbols of prestige that single him out as especially worthy of being remembered in the eyes of the gods and in the minds of men.  But for an animal who actually lives on the level of the visible and knows nothing of the invisible, it is easy for the eyes of men to take precedence over the eyes of the gods.  The symbols of immortality power that money buys exist on the level of the visible, and so crowd out their invisible competitor.  Man succumbs easily to created life, which is to exercise power mainly in the dimension in which he moves and acts as an organism.  The pull of the body is so strong, lived experience is so direct; the ‘supernatural’ is so remote and problematic, so abstract and intangible.

 Indeed the pull of the body is strong but it’s the body that is the source of sin.  The body dies and that’s not an acceptable outcome for such a narcissistic species as our own.  That’s why we divide ourselves into body and soul.  The body dies but the soul lives on.  The soul is an immortality project in the real sense of the term.  The body leads us into temptation.  It’s the source of all death and guilt.  As I get older, in my penultimate years, I feel that as the life drains out of me I am betraying our most cherished immortality symbols and I must feel guilt for the loss of life.  But the immortality ideologies that dominate the planet now are betraying me because their promises of immortality are empty ones.  It’s interesting to me how the symbol of the devil represents “physical, earthly, visible power and on this planet easily holds sway over his more ethereal competitor, spiritual power.” (p. 85)

As we noted earlier we need evidence that we are being heard by the gods in our search for immortality; that assurance does not come easily.  But if we can convince ourselves, as the Calvinists suggested after some initial stumbling, that how we conduct ourselves on this planet may be an indication of where we will end up after we die, that can give us some comfort but it also can bring on anxiety.  As Becker writes:

No wonder economic equality is beyond the endurance of modern democratic man: the house, the car, the bank balance are his immortality symbols.  Or to put it another way, if a black man moves next door, it is not merely that your house diminishes in real estate value, but that you diminish in fullness on the level of visible immortality – and so you die…the decline of traditional religion has eclipsed the god whose eyes judged merit according to the goods you piled up…In other words, modern man cannot endure economic equality because he has no faith in self-transcendent, otherworldly immortality symbols; visible physical worth is the only thing he has to give him eternal life.  No wonder that people segregate themselves with such consuming dedication, that special ness is so much a fight to the death: man lashes out all the harder when he is cornered, when he is a pathetically impoverished immortality seeker.  He dies when his little symbols of specialness die. 

 This is a long quotation but I feel no qualms in putting it down here for you to read. It sums up a great deal of Becker’s thought in this chapter.  Over time we came to distrust invisible symbols of immortality.  As Becker writes: “Immortality power, then, came to reside in accumulated wealth.” (p. 87)

So, in a world dominated by secular immortality symbols, where we judge people on their possessions how do we understand the concept of sin?  In a world where our immortality is gotten by bartering with the gods, sin meant distancing oneself from invisible power.  It might mean angering the gods by not performing a ritual properly or by ignoring prescribed behaviours.

Sin is the experience of uncertainty in one’s relation to the divine ground of his being; he no longer is sure of possessing the right connection, the right means of expiation. 

Sin, in a Christian sense, defines a situation, created by certain actions or thoughts, that distances the believer from his God.  It’s a denial of the symbolic side of humankind.  And, of course, it’s our symbolic side that is the seat of our immortality.  The body betrays us, drags us down.  No wonder we often speak of the body in terms that connect it to the earth and in doing so we can barely mask our loathing of it.  Sex is ‘dirty’ unless of course it’s sanctioned and made acceptable by the application of essential rituals to ‘cleanse’ it.  In this sense, it’s easy for men to think of women as the source of evil and death.  Men can think of themselves as purely symbolic creatures whereas women’s bodies are the source of temptation and descent into death.  Women bleed monthly, they bleed in labour, they give life, but in so doing create death.  They are the carriers of death by giving birth.  The idea is perverse but any simple and cursory study of the ethnographic record easily demonstrates how widely it was, and is still, accepted.  I will explore this further in subsequent posts, but for now I have to wrap up this already too long post.

So what does it mean to sin in a secular world?  Well, I don’t agree completely with Becker in his conclusion here.  He claims that we’ve avoided sin by “simply denying the existence of the invisible dimension to which it is related.” (p. 89) But, in my mind to sin in a secular world that promises victory over death by the accumulation of wealth, sin must be the inability to accumulate wealth.  The poor, by definition, are sinners of the worse kind.  But how do we atone for this sin?  In a Christian world simply asking for forgiveness and promising to lead a better life can be enough.  In a secular world it’s not so easy.  Of course we make the poor pay for their ‘sin’ by treating them like shit.  “There, that will teach you for not being wealthy.”  Becker concludes:

History is the tragic record of heroism and expiation out of control and of man’s efforts to earn expiation in new, frantically driven and contrived ways.  The burden of guilt created by cumulative possessions, linear time, and secularization is assuredly greater than that experienced by primitive man; it has to come out some way…The point I am making is that most of the evil that man has visited on his world is the result precisely of the greater passion of his denials and his historical drivenness.  

Escape 17: Money: The New Universal Immortality Ideology

Escape 17: Money: The New Universal Immortality Ideology

That’s the title of Chapter 6 of Escape from Evil.  We all take money for granted, it’s such a common feature of our lives.  It’s funny how we think about money.  Technically, money is a social relationship.  It doesn’t refer to the stuff we carry around in our wallets.  Coins are technically called specie and the folding plastic (used to be paper) things are banknotes.  They are actually the physical representation of money.  So they’re kind of like a metaphor.  Chapter 6 is Norman O. Brown’s chapter.  Otto Rank and Brown share a unifying principle in their work, the universal urge to immortality.  It underlies everything they write about.

In a pre-scientific world a person could get some kind of immortality by leaving behind children.  That’s not entirely satisfactory because for men it’s never certain that your children are really your own.  In this circumstance it’s not a bad idea to have a back-up plan.  How about leaving something else behind that reminds the living of how great a person you were?  How about things, physical things, things you know are yours.  Surround yourself with things and maybe you have a little insulation against insignificance.  Leave many wondrous things and maybe you gain a little immortality.  Yes, indeed, have your name placed on buildings…that will not thwart the grim reaper but it will be a lasting symbolic reminder of your life on this planet.  That’s about all we can expect.  It’s not much, but for an animal like ourselves we need to reach out and grab any bit of hope we can.

Money it seems is a great way to get yourself a little sense of immortality.  If you can, have a likeness of your face stamped into gold coins.  Yeah, that ought to work.  Money is a new magic object.  As Becker writes: “Money is the new ‘totemic’ possession.” (p. 75) Money soon became the new ritual focus.  The old rituals were just not doing it anymore.  Time to move on.  Money was the perfect replacement for the old rituals.  Becker quotes Mary Douglas from her book Purity and Danger:

Money provides a fixed, external, recognizable sigh for what would be confused, contradictable operations: ritual makes visible external signs of internal states. Money mediates transactions; ritual mediates experience, including social experience.  Money provides a standard for measuring worth; ritual standardizes situations, and so helps to evaluate them.  Money makes a link between the present and the future, so does ritual.  The more we reflect on the richness of the metaphor, the more it becomes clear that this is no metaphor.  Money is only an extreme and specialized type of ritual.

 Money, in fact, is religious.  It has become the new immortality ideology.  It provides life like no other ritual could.  The more of it you have, the more mobility you have, the more liberty you have, the more assurance you have of your value to others.  Life is mobility, death is immobility.  From this perspective the poor are the walking dead.  It’s not surprising that zombie movies are so popular these days and that zombie characters are often made up to look like ‘street’ people.  Money gives life, it is life.  There is no other way to put it.  I take exception to some extent to Becker’s analysis here.  If as Marx points out money is the average commodity then ‘commodity’ is the god here and not money.  Or to put it another way, the market is the thing.  Money is a representation of the relations of the market.  The market is the venue par excellence of exchange, gift giving and receiving.  It’s why we feel so good on a shopping spree and down when we are short of cash.  We are feeling a little connection to the gods. It sucks to be poor.  No connecting to the gods for you!

I’m not going to go into a lot of the content of chapter 6.  It’s a lot about how money came to have such power a long time ago, how it came to have supernatural power.

A little money goes a long way, but a lot of money goes a lot further:

And so we see how it was that money came to buy many things: if it was magic, people would give anything to have it.  As Géza Róheim put it in a very happy formulation, “originally people do not desire money because you can buy things for it, but you can buy things for money because people desire it.”

That’s a bit convoluted as a way to state it, but it’s clear that the evolution of money into want it is today was fairly slow.  Now, banks have replaced churches and cathedrals as the favoured display of immortality.  How many new cathedrals have you seen built lately?  How many bank towers?

Ah, money.  The best thing about it is that it can be accumulated and passed on.  In our time, we’ve made this into a sacred duty.  We sin if we don’t save.  We get chastised by the finance minister for not saving while out of the other side of his mouth he is urging us to spend otherwise we’ll find ourselves in a depression…which reminds us way too much of failure, immobility and death.  Spending means life and prosperity, even if we accumulate guilt as we borrow our way to communing with the gods.  When the bills come in after Christmas, then what?  But still, we believe in it.  We trust it.  It can be good to us, at least some of us.  Best of all,

…[money] radiates its power even after one’s death, giving one a semblance of immortality as he lives in the vicarious enjoyment of his heirs that his money continues to buy, or in the statues of himself and the majesty of his own mausoleum.  In short, money is the human mode, par excellence of cooly denying animal boundness, the determinism of nature.

 Enough for now.  I’ll finish up dealing with Chapter 6 of EFE tomorrow as Becker addresses what he calls The Demonics of History.

Escape 16: Promises, empty promises of immortality!

Escape 16: Promises, empty promises of immortality.

A group that doesn’t promise its members immortality doesn’t exist for long.  Of course promises of immortality in a secular society are hard to figure out, but we manage.  If your group has power and its proven it over and over again by military action and by delivering prosperity to most of its members then you’d be crazy to cross it.  We get locked into group ideologies precisely because our group delivers on its promises of prosperity.  We resent dissenters, we think protesters are fools and ingrates.  Not only that,

[man] accepts the social limitations on his appetites because the group gives expression to the most important appetite of all, the hunger for the continuation of life. (p. 65)

We’ve given over our power to the state sometimes reluctantly, sometimes gleefully but we do it because of the power we feel and see everyday exercised around us.  Of course, there are police, the military, the courts, and virtually the whole apparatus of the state to ensure its continuity.  And, of course, there’s our complicity.  As we saw earlier, be barter away our freedom for promises of immortality.  We don’t ever get immortality if we think of ourselves only as physical things but we do if we think of ourselves as being symbolic creatures as well as physical ones and who or what controls the symbols in our lives?  The groups in which we are born, learn language (an ultimate symbol system), and the values we live by, that’s who.  The groups I refer to here can be as small as a nuclear family or as large as ‘Western Civilization’.  We often relate to our countries as our group, but they aren’t necessarily so.  In fact, there is increasingly a global power emerging to challenge the nation-state.  The era of the nation-state is coming to an end, but slowly, bit by bit.  We hardly notice it, really, until we lose our job because the company we work for has decided to manufacture in Malaysia the products it sells.  How it will continue to sell product to unemployed workers is besides the point.  It’s anarchy out there.  There is no global economic planning, just economic activity that increasingly jumps borders.  People normally stay put, capital need not.  It moves freely anywhere for the most part.  So it could be that our nation-states, our secular gods, are losing their gloss.  The poor poll ratings of most ‘Western’ leaders is an indication that the tarnish is rubbing off on them too.

Primitives knew that very powerful invisible forces ruled the world and that they had no control over them unless, just maybe, by engaging just the right sacrificial ritual at just the right time, those forces might just sit up and take notice.  Better still, pick a special person in the group and make them a representative of the invisible forces.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  Then go one step further and give that person or his proxies ongoing power as a reward for bringing prosperity to the group.

Now, though, as Becker points out following Rank, we have entered a new era, what Rank called the ‘era of the son’ and it carried with it a new development.

It took the form of a new kind of scientific individualism that burst out of the Renaissance and the Reformation.  It represented a new power candidate for replacing all the previous ideologies of immortality, but now an almost completely and unashamedly secular one.  This was a new Faustian pursuit of immortality through one’s own acts, his own works, his own discovery of truth.  This was a kind of secular-humanist immortality based on the gifts of the individual.  Instead of having one hero chieftain leading a tribe or a kingdom or one hero savior leading all of mankind, society would now become the breeding ground for the development of many heroes as possible, individual geniuses in great numbers who would enrich mankind. 

…But alas it has been our sad experience that the new scientific Faustian man too has failed. 

 We haven’t created equality for one thing nor have we learned the Truth.  The Truth might have made us real gods, but we haven’t learned much.  As Becker so wryly notes:

…[man] is actually ruining the very theater of his own immortality with his own poisonous and madly driven works; once he had eclipsed the sacred dimension , he had only the earth left to testify to the value of his life.

 Ironic, isn’t it?

Escape 15: If your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die.

Escape 15: If your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die.

Half way through this exercise.  Becker is in my blood, it seems, not because of him as a person.  He is not my Christ.  What he does do for me is summarize and synthesize ideas that I slowly came to accept over 40 years of scholarship.  Actually by 1975 only a year after Becker’s death I was already ‘predisposed’ to accept his arguments having spent many hours reading the ethologists, Emile Durkheim, the Bible (2 versions), as many ethnographies as I could get my hands on, Thorstein Veblen, Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Will Durant and scores of others.  The idea of an immortality-project that became the centre of people’s lives and embodied all of their hopes for eternal life, I had already intuited but not articulated as such.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as I read Becker and his muses, Norman O. Brown and Otto Rank, I felt that I found my way home.  Of course, the irony hasn’t escaped me that this could very well be my own immortality-project, but I’m OK with that.  We as humans can’t exist alone, as individuals.  We need company, meaningful company and we gather life from it.  We get stronger with every association we make so it’s not surprising that we hunt down every ‘like’ we can get on Facebook.  We need others to share our project because there’s strength in numbers.  As Becker writes:

Each person nourishes his immortality in the ideology of self-perpetuation to which he gives his allegiance; this gives his life the only abiding significance it can have. No wonder men go into a rage over fine points of belief: if your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die.  Your immortality system has been shown to be fallible, your life fallible.  History, then, can be seen as a succession of ideologies that console for death. 

 In this sense all cultures are sacred.  Becker does not subscribe to the common idea that cultures contain sacred and profane elements.  For him, all culture is sacred because it promises victory over death and disease.  So, now we get to the critical point:  it’s the group and the group alone that confers immortality.  There is no immortality outside of the group’s promise of it.  Furthermore, the power of the group can only be released with the proper ritual executed to perfection.  The group can demand from us countless practices, ideas, behaviours, scarifications, tattoos, lip plugs, genuflections, tips-of-the-hat, and what have you because in the end these things will get us immortality.  Not doing them or not doing them properly voids the contract and we die.

Unlike Freud, Rand argued that all taboos, morals, customs, and laws represent a self-limitation of man so that he could transcend his condition, get more life by denying life.  As he paradoxically put it, men seek to preserve their immortality rather than their lives.

 That’s all for today.  This is a short one but I’ve been at this keyboard for many hours today and I’ve had enough.  Tomorrow is a new day and a new post.

Escape 14: Promise me immortality and I’ll kiss your boots.

Escape 14: Promise me immortality and I’ll kiss your boots.

 So how did we go from creating inequality just on the basis of personal qualities to what we have now?  In present times, in lots of ways it isn’t even people who we bow down to it’s capital.  That’s how abstracted from the original basis of inequality it’s become.  Chapter 4 of EFE is called The Evolution of Inequality and that’s what it delivers.  The next chapter brings us closer to the present, but for the moment we must stay with primitives for a while longer.

Once men consented to live by the redistribution of life’s goods through a god figure who represented life, they had sealed their fate.  There was no stopping the process of the monopolization of life in the king’s hands.

 Actually, this quote, although representative of part of the thesis of this chapter only reflects the trajectory in broad terms of the creation of ‘organized’ inequality and the development of classes.  In early primitive societies there was a basic equality.  Yes, some individuals were superior hunters and received prestige because of it but there was a mutual support system built into this arrangement.  The gods provided life and the society provided prestige for the gods or their intermediaries, the priest-rulers who fancied themselves capable of harnessing the power of the sun to benefit the society in question.  Early on there were people who commandeered the ritual techniques of manufacture and demanded that people followed them precisely or else death and destruction would follow.  Most Indiana Jones movies are based on this kind of scenario.  People weren’t necessarily happy about giving up some of their own power to the king or ruler, but they were willing to put up with a certain amount of tyranny if the harvests were good.  If not, one consequence was often the violent deposition of the ruler.  ‘You deliver, or else.’  Still things are never simple or straightforward everything considered: people like to be cajoled and seduced into following.  They don’t want it to be simply a question of force.

…men will not give in to power unless it is accompanied by mystification, as in the service of something that has a grander aura of legitimacy, of symbolic compellingness. (p. 58)

 So, eventually, after a period of thousands of years through the power of mystification and a good measure of coercion humankind moved from a simple system of sharing to one of redistribution by the ruler.  Slowly, without noticing it, people bartered away social equality and some individual freedom for prosperity and order.

Once you went from an economy of simple sharing to one of redistribution, goods ceased to be your natural right.  (p. 58)

Here Becker uses the potlatch as an example of a situation whereby economic activity and social morality began to be disconnected from each other.  He calls the classic potlatch as practiced by the ‘Kwakiutl’ a redistribution ceremony pure and simple.  Huge surpluses were gathered and concentrated in the hands of the chief without creating severe hardship for the people then redistributed.  It created a situation where heroism and expiation could be exercised concurrently.  The more goods one could give away or destroy the more heroic he would be and the more power could be accrued.  Expiation came too because in giving away loads of goods, the chief atoned for the sin of accumulating the surplus in the first place.  Now the invisible powers started to take a back seat to the more visible chief.  Now we were witness to what Hocart calls the ‘growing conceit’ of man.  Communal ritual now replaces the ritual importance of the family.  The thing about the classic potlatch though was that it didn’t transcend the group.  The modern ‘potlatch’ whereby Ted Turner gives the  UN billions of dollars or public buildings are donated by the likes of Carnegie, Rockefeller or more tellingly, Telus, GM and Molson’s is good publicity but it’s giving but a tiny fraction of what was gotten by exploitation.