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.

Ernest Becker 9: Morality is Fundamentally a Matter of Power

Ernest Becker 9: Morality is Fundamentally a Matter of Power

I know that I’m dealing with Becker in these posts but there was a sociologist, the first bone fide European sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1857-1917), who considered sociology the science of morality.  Morality is not what most people think it is.  It’s not some abstract universal condition that has no relationship to reality.  No, morality is fundamentally rooted in political power.  This is not the place for it (I don’t think) but sometime it would be nice for you to challenge me to prove this by announcing what you think are moral precepts and defying me to show how they are connected to the material, real world.  It would be especially fun if you think that morality lies exclusively in the realm of ideas.

In any case, I digress.  Morality underlies all of his work, but now back to Becker and his closing remarks to Chapter 1.  So far he has established clearly that we are animals and that our animality must be considered if we wish to construct a model of humanity’s time on this planet.  We must eat and procreate, both activities that require certain types of organization for a species that is as social as ours.  In fact these activities are so important to us that we elevate them to lofty heights creating elaborate symbol systems around them including what we call morality.  We seek to control life and death although we can’t in any fundamental sense but we try just as primitive man did.  We do it with science, engineering and technology.   The primitives did it with ritual altars. They weren’t happy with just creating life, of course, they wanted it to last for an eternity.  So, they invented immortality ideologies or projects with the requisite ritual organization so as to convince themselves that immortality is possible.  This wasn’t easy.  Becker writes:

…man quickly saw beyond mere physical nourishment and had to conceive ways to qualify for immortality.  In this way the simple food quest was transmuted into a quest for spiritual excellence, for goodness and purity.  All of man’s higher spiritual ideals were a continuation of the original quest for energy-power.  Nietzsche was one of the first to state this blatantly, and he shocked the world with it:  that all morality is fundamentally a matter of power, of the power of organisms to continue existing by reaching for a superhuman purity. 

 I haven’t mentioned in previous posts Becker’s thoughts on what he calls macrocosmitization and microcosmitization.  These unwieldy terms refer to the primitive’s tendency to ‘humanize the cosmos’ with the zodiac or think that reading entrails or engaging in any number of other similar rituals could bring us in touch with the heavens.

By opposing culture to nature in these ways, man allotted to himself a special spiritual destiny, one that enabled him to transcend his animal condition and assume a special status in nature.  No longer was he an animal who died and vanished from the earth; he was a creator of life who could also give eternal life to himself by means of communal rituals of cosmic regeneration.

 Obviously to primitives, nature was being controlled by forces beyond their capacity to understand sensually so they had to imagine what these forces might look like and not surprisingly, they came to look surprisingly like humans, special humans, of course, but human in look and with superheated capacities.  These forces were the ones who created life and took it away, often, it seemed on a whim.  How to control such capricious forces?  By giving them what they trucked in, life.  Sacrificing life to the invisible forces so that they would give up life and not take it away so casually.  Hence, Becker’s comment:

Man has always casually sacrificed life for more life.

 And of course we’re still into that.   The Rwandan massacre of 1994 was just this kind of sacrificial ritualistic search for purity with a concomitant cleansing of unpure, evil ‘others’.  Historical examples abound of our attempts to control life by sacrificing life.

Each organism preens itself on the specialness of the life that throbs within it, and is ready to subordinate all others to its own continuation.  Man was always conceited; he only began to show his destructive side to the rest of nature when the ritual technology of the spiritual production of animals was superseded by other technologies.  The unfolding of history is precisely the saga of the succession of new and different ideologies of organismic self-perpetuation – and the new injustices and heightened destructiveness of historical man.  Let us now turn to this.

Ernest Becker 8: The Logic of Sacrifice

Ernest Becker 8: The Logic of Sacrifice

 How many times have we heard our government tell us that we have to make sacrifices now so that we can have prosperity in the future.  Sacrifice usually means putting off gratification now for pleasure and prosperity later.  Becker, along with his special ‘informants’ like Hocart, understood the nature of sacrifice.  In EFE Becker dedicates part of Chapter 1 to sacrifice.  It’s critical to his whole argument.  He writes:

 At the centre of the primitive technics of nature stands the act of sacrifice, which reveals the essence of the whole science of ritual.  In a way, we might see it as the atomic physics of the primitive world view…If he does things [performs the ritual ceremony] exactly as prescribed, as the gods did them in the beginning of time, then he gets control over the earth and creation.  He can put vigor into animals, milk into females…

In the Hindu ritual and in coronation rituals, this is the point at which the contest came in.  In order to control nature, man must drive away demons and hostile forces.  If he makes a slip in the ritual, it gives power to the demons.  The ritual triumph is thus winning of a contest with evil…dice and chess probably had their origin as the way of deciding whether the king really could outwit and defeat the forces of darkness.

 Of course we sophisticates in the modern world don’t believe in this kind of thing or do we?  Oh, I think we do. 

 Hocart warns us that if we think this is so foreign to our own traditional ways of thinking we should look closely at the Christian communion.  By performing the prescribed rites the communicant unites himself with Christ – the sacrifice – who is God, and in this way the worshiper accrues to himself a mystical body or soul which has immortal life.   Everything depends on the prescribed ritual, which puts one in possession of the power of eternity by union with the sacrifice. 

 We don’t have to dig too deep into our personal lives to see how much ritual and especially rituals of sacrifice play a role.  Think of the hockey player who must lace his skates in exactly the same, precise order before every game or risk losing the game.  If his or her team loses, the loss can be blamed on the ‘fact’ that the ritual wasn’t performed properly.  Think of people putting small (or large) amounts of money into savings accounts so that they will ultimately be ‘saved.’  But I don’t want to rush Becker into the modern world just yet.  He has yet to finish his look at primitive society, how it was organized and why.  But in the Conclusion to this chapter, Becker tells us that:

 Man has always casually sacrificed life for more life.

 I find this particularly touching as we are spectators to our government’s treatment of veterans.  Of course they are expected to sacrifice everything, even their own lives, for our future prosperity and ‘freedom.’  Problem is the sacrificial fodder doesn’t want to just lie down and accept that its role is completed on the battlefield.  Sacrificial objects aren’t supposed to ask to be recognized for their sacrifice.  Witness Fantino’s casual dismissal of them. Harper wants to sacrifice lives for future prosperity alright, just not their future prosperity.  It’s for him and his buddies, not for the vets who have already played out their role and should now just slink off into obscurity and not cost the government one more cent.  What an asshole Harper is, but he’s no different than the Aztec priest who cut open the chests of thousands of captives in massive sacrificial ceremonies so that the kingdom would continue with the gods looking down in favour on him.  

Hitler’s Willing Executioners meet your Potential Modern Inheritors

Yes, the title is a wee bit provocative but let me explain.  In 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.  This book, from the back cover on my edition, “…lays to rest many myths about the Holocaust: that Germans were ignorant of the mass destruction of Jews, that the killers were all SS men, and that those who slaughtered Jews did so reluctantly.  Hitler’s Willing Executioners provides conclusive evidence that the extermination of European Jewry engaged the energies and enthusiasm of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans.”  Goldhagen systematically addresses many conventional explanations for The Holocaust: 1) the perpetrators were coerced, 2) that they were merely following orders, 3) that they were under very severe psychological pressure, 4) that they were petty bureaucrats needing to perform whatever tasks assigned them for the sake of their own career advancement, and 5) that people performed isolated and fragmented tasks so that they couldn’t appreciate the significance of their actions.  He then addresses each of these explanations and rejects them categorically.  He argues that a great deal of horrifying brutality and genocide was exercised not by insane people, but by ordinary people carrying out their sacred duty to The Fatherland.  This may be hard to believe, and the only real antidote to this scepticism is a thorough reading of Goldhagen’s book, but he is very convincing in his argument.  His book is carefully researched and highly insightful.

For Goldhagen, The Holocaust was not the result of aberrant individuals, bureaucracy, indifference, ignorance or individual pathology of any kind and it was only possible because Germany and Germans, ordinary Germans, were systematically changed  into anti-semites in very large numbers well before the war started. It was, he argues, the culmination of a process by which the German people, ordinary Germans, were convinced over decades that the biggest impediment to Germany’s apotheosis, its rise to true glory, was the Jewish people.  Over decades before the war, Jews were portrayed as the greatest evil that Germany faced as a nation.  So, it seems that Germans in their passionate love of The Fatherland were not only willing executioners of Jews (and other groups of people seen as a threat, either to The Fatherland, as in the case of Jews, or the Aryan race as in the case of people with mental or physical disabilities, the Romany, etc.), but enthusiastic, gleeful, inventive, proud and patriotic perpetrators of unbelievable brutality towards Jews.  There is a photograph in Goldhagen’s book of a German soldier, an ordinary German soldier, shooting in the back of the head a young mother while she holds her child in her arms.  He did it in front of the camera, proud of his patriotic deed.  Obviously, human beings are capable of incredible personal barbarism but that barbarism is more often than not released against ‘the other,’ the perceived source of all evil and danger to the group, whether it be the marriage, family, community, town, city, province, country or ideology (pick any one).  The soldier who shot the young mother did not see his deed as barbaric, but rather as patriotic, as one more step in the elimination of the Jewish evil infecting glorious Germany and threatening to weaken the Aryan race.  From this viewpoint, every time a German kills a Jew, man, woman or child, Germany gets stronger.  Essentially, the Jewish people were offered up as a sacrifice to ensure the future prosperity of the German nation. From here on, my argument gets a little complex and much of it arises in Ernest Becker’s work summarized in his posthumous book Escape From Evil (1975) in which he writes:

…the psychology of the Nazi experience, […] served as a grim refresher course on the metaphysics of mass slaughter.  Leo Alexander, in his outstanding paper on the SS, points out how much the Nazis were animated by what he calls a ‘heathen concept’: they had a whole philosophy of blood and soil which contained the belief that death nourishes life.  This was ‘heathen’ indeed: we recognize it as the familiar archaic idea that the sacrifice of life makes life flow more plentifully…Goering, for example, made a statement early in the war that ‘with every German airman who is killed by the enemy our Luftwaffe becomes stronger. (p.103)

So the logic of mass murder becomes clear. The ‘cleansing’ of Germany of the ‘dirty’ Jews was supposed to make Germany stronger, an idea that had been brewing for a long time in the German mind.  In essence, Goldhagen’s insistance that Germany was infected long before the Nazi era with a profound antisemitism fits in perfectly with Becker’s observation that The Holocaust was not an ‘event’ in history, but a consequence of a profound and longstanding insecurity that ordinary Germans had regarding the state of Germany.  Relief from this insecurity culminated in the execution and torture of masses of Jewish people.  It became the duty of all right-thinking, patriotic and heroic citizens to participate fully in the elimination of the Jewish evil, an evil inherent in every sub-human Jewish man, woman and child, the evil that threatened, in their minds, the very source of their life and power, The Fatherland.  Of course, the whole enterprise was a lie.  No amount of killing could save the German nation.

So, what can we now make of Goldhagen’s contention that it was ordinary Germans who were the perpetrators of Hitler’s program to eliminate Jews from Germany (and everywhere else given enough time)?  What we can say is that most evil in the world is not the result of the actions of aberrant individuals -although they definitely express their aberrance when permitted  to or encouraged by the state – but of ordinary people expressing their love for country or idea (racial purity, the uselessness of the poor, God, the glory of money, etc…).  As Becker states it, “…evil comes from man’s urge to heroic victory over evil.” (p.136)

What lesson can we learn from Goldhagen (and Becker – but more on that later)?  That blind nationalism and unquestioning faith in God and country have, and can still, lead ordinary people into committing the most atrocious, genocidal actions possible.  The Rwandan massacre of 1994 is an example of just such a thing and let us not think for a moment that it will never happen again.  From the vitriol I’ve been reading in comments following articles on the Idle No More movement, I expect that ordinary Canadians could be led into the same genocidal frame of mind as ordinary Germans were during the Nazi era.  Canadians are not anywhere close to becoming genocidal now, but systemic racism, scapegoating and a profound ignorance of the actions of their own government towards aboriginal people can set the stage for popular descent into crass racism and incivility.  When the government’s agenda are dominated by the private accumulation of capital, any perceived impediment to economic growth such as treaty negotiations will be seen by some as a threat to Canada as a nation and it’s sovereignty.  Once aboriginal people are openly scapegoated and blamed for a poor economy we will have to be doubly vigilant to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand and degenerate into widespread and open hostility towards First Nations.