Ernest Becker 12: Guilty as charged!

Ernest Becker 12: Guilty as charged!

To understand the primitive mind you must understand guilt. Understanding the nature of primitive economics demands that we know what guilt is.  Guilt is not a weakness as Nietzsche and Freud thought.  Brown seems to have picked up from them this same perspective on it.  Becker, however, argues that guilt is not a weakness and to understand it this way means that an understanding of primitive economics must remain elusive.  Guilt arises because there are so many binds in life. One of these binds is that of a child who inevitably loves the people who provide her with nourishment and life but who can also frustrate her in the things she wants or doesn’t want [as we witnessed shopping this morning].  Love can quickly turn to hatred and ‘destructive impulses’ and it can be hard on the ears too.  This is one kind of bind, but as humans we experience many, many binds.  Guilt

…is a feeling of being blocked, limited, transcended, without knowing why.  It is the peculiar experience of an organism which can apprehend a totality of things and not be able to move in relation to it.  Man experiences this uniquely as a feeling of the crushing awesomeness of things and his helplessness in the face of them. 

 Think about it:  How are you feeling right now about what the Harper government is doing?  Are you feeling angry and upset?  Have you signed petitions declaring the tar sands to be the work of the devil?  Are you feeling disempowered because you can’t really do anything about it?  That sense of disempowerment is guilt.  We also feel a certain sense of guilt because we know we might be benefitting from the wealth created by the tar sands, but we don’t want to stop driving our cars and using plastic products.

We feel guilt when we don’t feel ‘enough’ gratitude towards those who nourish us and that can include our society or culture (using Becker’s word).  We owe everything to our society, even our sense of self-worth so we naturally feel subordinate to it but at the same time we resent it for constraining our actions and imposing upon us ‘unreasonable’ obligations like having to pay taxes.

This real guilt partly explains man’s willing subordinacy to his culture; after all, the world of men is even more dazzling and miraculous in its richness than the awesomeness of nature…An attitude of humble gratitude is a logical one to assume toward the forces that sustain one’s life; we see this very plainly in the learning and development of children. 

 There are so many different binds in life.  Have you achieved in life all you could?  If not, how do you feel about that?  I can’t remember where I read this but it’s the story of a multi-billionaire who was unsatisfied with his accomplishments because there was someone yet richer than he was.  He actually felt guilty about not being the richest person alive.  I feel guilt when I don’t speak up when I think I should.  Do you?  How do you feel when you see someone being abused and do nothing?  That’s that old guilty feeling.  At trial we may be found guilty and that means only that we’ve not been good and properly subordinate to our society.  In this way we are an embodiment and personification of guilt. We can then be used as a scapegoat in the struggle to ensure the gods are happy. Guilt keeps us in line.

We feel guilt for being poor and guilt for being rich and more: As Becker writes,

One can be in a bind in relation to one’s own body, which is the guilt of anality; to feel bound and doomed by one’s physical appendages and orifices.  Man also experiences guilt because he takes up space and has unintended effects on others – for example, when we hurt others without intending to, just by being what we are or by following our natural desires and appetites, not to mention when we hurt others physically by accident or thoughtlessness.

If we stand out in a crowd, if we are too prominent we experience guilt.

Some individuals achieve an intensity of individuation in which they stick out so far as that almost each day is an unbearable exposure.  [think Hollywood here, Justin Bieber in particular.  His notoriety must be near unbearable for him at times]

Of course just being human with faces unique to ourselves makes us stand out in nature.  In that we’re way ahead of other animals.

Faces fascinate us precisely because they are unique, because they stick out of nature and evolution as the most fully developed expression of the pushing of the life force in the intensity of its self-realization.  We don’t understand why the life force is personalized in this way, what it is trying to achieve; but we flatly know that it is personalizing because we have our heads and faces as empirical testimony, and as a burden of guilt. 

 Headhunting was not just a particularly gruesome way of killing.  It was a way of destroying the most personal and individual aspect of us.  In primitive society and in France not so long ago, it was dangerous to have a head!  Taking a head was probably a way of sharing guilt and atoning for our own sin of sticking out.

Probably the most important dimension of guilt is its social nature.  What did Brown mean when he said that social organization was a structure of shared guilt, “a symbolic mutual confession of it?” (p. 35) What Brown concluded was this:

Mankind has so many things that put it into a bind that it simply cannot stand them unless it expiates them in some way.  Each person cannot stand his own emergence and the many ways in which his organism is dumbly baffled from within and transcended from without…This is why the main general characteristic of guilt is that it must be shared: man cannot stand alone.

 What you do when you give a gift is lose guilt, if only temporarily.  Giving is a way of re-establishing balance or even putting obligations on others.  In real terms, guilt motivates individuals to strive to achieve social standards of acceptability.  Shopping relieves guilt and raises spirits. In a society like ours where possessions and the market rule, having no possessions or money imposes a huge burden of guilt to the point that it drives people into physical and mental illness.  To be idle in a society founded on work is to be guilty whether idle by choice or not.

If guilt is the experience of fear and powerlessness, then immersing oneself in a group is one way of actively defeating it: groups alone can make big surplus, can generate extravagant power in the form of large harvests, the capture of dangerous animals and many of them, the manufacture of splendid and intricate items based on sophisticated techniques, etc.  From the beginning of time the group has represented big power, big victory, much life…[we feel giddy in victory, depressed in defeat]

 If we thus look at both sides of the picture of guilt, we can see that primitive man allocated to himself the two things that man needs most: the experience of prestige and power that constitutes man a hero, and the experience of expiation that relieves him of the guilt of being human…Man needs self-esteem more than anything; he wants to be a cosmic hero, contributing with his energies to nothing less than the greatness and pleasure of the gods themselves.  At the same time, this risks inflating him to proportions he cannot stand; he becomes too much like the gods themselves, and he must renounce this dangerous power.  Not to do so is to be unbalanced, to run the great sin of hubris as the Greeks understood it.  Hubris means forgetting where the real source of power lies and imagining that it is in oneself. 

 So, the individualism that characterizes our world is based on the fantasy that we somehow control our own lives, that we are in charge.  To some extent we are, of course, but fundamentally we are not.  Again, I could point to others who have explained this much more clearly than I can or that Becker has.  I think here of Norbert Elias who argues that there is no such thing as a human individual.  We are a system of interdependencies and interweavings.  The real power in our lives lies in our social relations not in our individual initiative which is meaningless unless it is socially guided and sanctioned.

Guilt makes the world go round.  How and when we feel guilt is determined by social expectations.  Whenever we feel guilt, whenever we feel blocked, we need to expiate it by some form or another.  When we feel an especially strong attachment to our social group in times of awful stress, we may be in a position to relate to what a mother said upon hearing of the death of her son overseas in war.  She said in so many words: “If only I had another son to sacrifice too.  I feel that what I’ve done already is not enough.”  She could not have acknowledged in stronger terms her unconscious realization that she was completely dependent and beholden to her society while realizing at the same time that her sacrifice had not made any difference, had not made her society a better one.

Ernest Becker 11: Bartering with the gods: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Bartering with the gods: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

So, the forces of nature are pretty scary and can be downright devastating, mean and nasty killers.  What does a primitive to do in the face of such capriciousness?  Well, it’s always better to have something tangible to deal with so instead of thinking about the ‘forces of nature’ early humans created immortality projects that usually incorporated a god, or at least some kind of entity that served as a stand-in for those anonymous forces.  The forces of nature, gods, were obviously the source of life but they could just as easily be the source of death.  So a two pronged approach was required.  Gods had to be thanked for the bounty they provided, but they also had to be appeased in case they got pissed off at something humans were doing.  Humans were in debt to the gods all the time and paying off that debt was a constant preoccupation of primitives.  They were driven to accumulate a surplus so they could offer something to the gods and food was a logical choice.  Becker writes:

Food is a sacred element because it gives the power of life.  The original sacrifice is always food because this is what one wants from the gods as the basis for life.  “Give us our daily bread…”

And of course food is not just a physical thing.  After all, milk contains the essence of the cow, beef too.  Sharks fins are more than a delicacy for certain people, they embody the fierceness and boldness of the fish itself.  Maybe that fierceness and boldness gets transferred over in the process of eating the things.  So, giving food as a gift to the gods meant that you were also giving them mana power, “the strength of supernatural life.” (p. 39)

This is how we are to understand the potlatch giving and one-upmanship, the destruction of quantities of goods: the eternal flux of power in the broad stream of life was generated by the greatest possible expenditure; man wanted that stream to flow as bountifully as possible. It then became hard to distinguish who gave and who received, since all were bathed in the power of the movement: everyone participated in the powers that were opened up – the giver, the community, the gods.  “I give you power so that you may have power.” The more you give, the more everyone gets.

 Of course, we need things to flow, to move, to grow.  We get all bent out of shape when the stock market falls.  We need to keep the economy moving.  The magical free entreprise powers are working only so long as goods keep moving.  That’s why at every turn we are pressured to buy, buy, buy.  Buy anything.  Don’t have any more money?  Well then, borrow some, borrow lots.  If you don’t, prosperity will cease and the whole deck of cards will come toppling down.

Like the primitive, modern man feels that he can prosper only if he shows that he already has power.

 Giving gifts to the gods or the gods of your kinsmen Hocart sees as the origins of trade.  Of course the exchange was always a contest.  Who could give the most.  Who  had the power.  Who was obviously already favoured by the gods.  The more you could give, the more heroic you were.  The one who gave the most away was a ‘big power’ man.  Why, because everyone benefited if the gods were appeased and life flowed out of soil and there was plenty to eat.

And so, all this seemingly useless surplus, dangerously and painstakingly wrought, yields the highest usage of all in terms of power. Man the animal who knows he is not safe here, who needs continued affirmation of his powers, is the one animal who is implacably driven to work beyond animal needs precisely because he is not a secure animal.  The origin of human drivenness is religious because man experiences creatureliness. The amassing of a surplus, then, goes to the very heart of human motivation, the urge to stand out as a hero, to transcend the limitations of the human condition and achieve victory over impotence and finitude. 

 In fact, in primitive society, the greatest prestige went to the ‘big man’ who gave everything away and kept nothing for himself.  The ‘smooth flow of life’ had to be ensured.

This reveals a central fact about social life; primitive man immersed himself in a network of social obligations for psychological reasons.  Just as Rank said, man has to have a core psychological motive for being in a group in the first place, otherwise he would not be a group-living animal.  Or as Brown, who likes to call a spade a spade, put it, “man entered social organization in order to share guilt.  Social organization…is a structure of shared guilt…a symbolic mutual confession of guilt.” 

 What the hell!  What does guilt have to do with anything?  Well, stay tuned for the next post when we discuss the nature of guilt.  It’s a good one.

You don’t have an RRSP – Shame on You!

The Daily — Registered retirement savings plan contributions, 2011.

Click on the link above to see Statistics Canada’s latest accounting of RRSP contributions.  Turns out the median contribution in 2011 was $2,830.  This is not a huge median contribution but up from the previous year by a bit.  Twenty four percent of tax filers contributed to an RRSP in 2011.  That’s not what I would consider a big percentage. So what else are people doing to prepare for retirement?  Of course a certain percentage of taxpayers contributed to registered pension plans.  Just over 6 million contributed to pension plans, public and private sector (other than the CPP).  That means that a quarter of Canadians have a pension plan or RRSPs to help them survive in their retirement years.  That’s it!  We know that Canadians are also saving less and around 50% of Canadian households would be in significant financial trouble if they missed just one paycheque.  Doesn’t look good for us.

I write this because the TV ads for RRSPs this time of year make it seem as though everybody contributes to RRSPs and what’s wrong with you that you don’t.  Their aim is to use the old tried and true strategies of shame and guilt to increase RRSP business.  First we get urged to spend because if we don’t the economy will go for a crap.  If we haven’t got the money to spend, we need to borrow and the Bank of Canada has made it easy to do that so we dutifully borrow more and more money to buy things, things that we depend on to give our lives meaning.  Now we get berated for not saving enough and we hear on the radio that Canadians are further in debt than ever before.  Shame on us!  We don’t spend enough and we don’t save enough!  We borrow too much and we’re not productive enough.  We must be completely responsible for the poor performance of the economy.  We’re so fickle and untrustworthy.  Poor government, just trying to do what it can to help us out even though we’re hardly worth the effort.

The banks and the government along with their very well paid public relations firms have been playing us like a violin.  Maybe it’s time for all of us to really try to figure out what’s going on out there and to stop taking on the load of shame and guilt they want us to carry so that we blame ourselves for the problems in the Canadian economy and don’t look elsewhere, like at the banks and the government themselves.