Sunday, November 13, 2011

A deeper analysis of the sociopolitics of the modern West

The problem reflects two sociopolitical processes that characterize the modern West, increasing with each passing generation into our present:

1) A genuinely beneficent progress (not without faults, since nothing in this life is perfect, right?) unfolding out of the virtues of the Judeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman virtues of Western Civilization


2) An increasing influence of Gnosticism in Western culture, with a long history of incremental aggrandizement, beginning in earnest in the 16th century in the wake of the Protestant Reformation; given a jump-start in the 18th century with the Enlightenment; unfolding further throughout the 19th century experimentation and expansion into the new lands of the globe affording further freedom; exploding in the 20th century with actualizations of many of its logical consequences of revolt against the order of the ancien regime -- actualizations causing untold social dislocations, economic turmoil, and mass carnage in a world-wide war catalyzed and exacerbated by mass movements of Gnosticism in Communism, Fascism and Nazism.

Let's back up a bit and lay out schematically the actual complexion of the state of sociopolitics throughout the West in our time, keeping our eye on the ball -- i.e., the primary problem.

Sociopolitics throughout the modern West has been structured by a Left-Right polarity, with a spectrum of positions in between. That spectrum has not been static, but has at times acquired a dynamic flux, whereby the phrase "the Center (between Left and Right) has shifted to the Left" (or "to the Right") have become commonplace, along with innumerable permutations of "left of center" or "a left-leaning conservative" or "moderate liberal" or "liberal conservative"; etc..

This situation is not absolutely arbitrary and relative, however. Behind this ongoing situation has been a broader, deeper historical process of what might be called "Progress" throughout the West. Many of the features of this Progress may seem Leftish (or "liberal") to many conservatives; and indeed, most of the features of Western Progress are probably accepted, if not eagerly supported, by most Leftists (even if the more radical among them impatiently want faster and more radical progress).

This overarching process of Progress, however, is a sociopolitical phenomenon so broad and deep throughout the West, it becomes increasingly strained to attempt to demonize it as solely the fruit of Leftism corruption and/or darker machinations. There would seem to be, contained in Western civilization itself, the seeds of this Progress as an inherent entelechy unfolding over time, extrapolating the logical consequences of the insights of that civilization's four pillars -- Judaeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman.

Now, that is not to say that this process of unfolding extrapolation has been perfect and uneventfully peachy keen. Like anything in this imperfect life, it has been vulnerable to flaws and defects, emanating out of fallen human nature (I hate it when feel I have to point out painfully elementary truths).

One of the most damaging flaws that has occurred within this process has been the development of modern Gnosticism, which has had disastrous actualizations -- as in Nazism, Fascism and Communism -- as well as broader, less blatantly destructive sociopolitical agendas, typically simply labelled as "Leftism" (with its edgier manifestations being termed "Socialism").

Along with all this, there has been the usual melange of varying degrees of literacy and intelligence with regard to the general flux and structure of the phenomenon. Aside from puerile partisanship reflected in "Left vs. Right" (and vice versa) between obtusely staunch proponents of either side, there is for example the subtler, but no less shallow, misapplication of the term "liberal" as a term of vague condemnation; with attempts to salvage it by many with not much of a firmer grasp of things by recourse to the coinage "classical liberalism".

Interspersed among all this are varying degrees of sociopolitical apolitical apathy, ennui, anomie, quasi-nihilism -- most of which tend, ironically enough, to lean Leftward anyway. We may also notice thrown into the mix the aberrant eccentricity of "Libertarianism" (or worse yet, attempts to make "Anarchism" chic, let alone coherent), as well as crotchets influenced by Ayn Rand. And, of course, a more serious hobbyhorse, with a potential for more serious consequences, is the vast growth, in varying viral forms, of "conspiracy theory" -- which itself is a kind of amorphous neo-Gnosticism, able to infect hosts on all points of the sociopolitical spectrum, and in the process sometimes finding strange bedfellows among its fellow travelers.

If I had the capacity on this blog to lay out visually a schematic figure, it may make my explanation easier to convey. For now, I'll do my best, by simply adumbrating all the relevant factors:

1. Virtues of Western Civilization founded in its four pillars, Judaeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman.

2. Seeds of "Progress" in #1, and over time unfolding and developing.

3. Perennial imperfections of human nature that impinge on sociopolitical existence.

4. Millennial incubation of Gnosticism from the very beginning of Western Civilization, over the centuries waxing and waning, but mostly kept suppressed until the modern era beginning in the 18th century, with the important catalyzing precursor of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

5. The increasing influence of neo-Gnosticism from the 18th century forward becomes an important part of the dynamism of the ongoing development of Western sociopolitical progress --

a) having seemingly benign effects in such movements as Abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and other sociopolitical idealisms by which to transfigure society -- if not into, at least toward, utopia -- efforts which may be less simplistically benign but at least not blatantly malevolent (e.g., increasing attempts to help poor and underprivileged through government programs; increasing attempts to translate respect for the Other in various forms of policy; attempts to make society reflect more "fairness" in general; etc.)

b) and manifesting blatantly disastrous and malevolent eruptions in the mass movements of Communism, Fascism and Nazism.

Before we move onto #6, it may be necessary to point out that in 5a, I am not asserting that all relatively benign sociopolitical progress we have seen in modern times is "neo-Gnostic": it is, rather, an inextricable intertwining of the progress latent as seeds in the virtues of Western Civilization with the influences of Gnosticism over the ages. (Whether or not Gnosticism is "alien" to Western Civilization, or a malignant part of it, is another matter which may never be definitively settled; Eric Voegelin, in his masterfully fascinating late essay Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme, and Simone Pétrement in her study on Plato and Gnosticism, Le Dualisme chez Platon, les Gnostiques et les Manichées, indicate a dynamic internal to the West.)

6. Meanwhile, the sociopolitical virtue of Western Reason continues to thrive, amid all these challenges and crises that wracked the 20th century. While thriving, it did not necessarily conduct itself impeccably (pace #3 above), and often succumbed to specious degradations of its principles. Nevertheless, proof of its high degree of health is to be found in the spirited and energetic and self-sacrificing rallying of its forces to roundly defeat the outburst of violently virulent forms of formidably deadly Gnosticism in the form of World War II.  (Meanwhile, indications of a debilitating neurosis unfolded out of that very same crisis, through various forms of Denial to the threat of Communist subversion, as Diana West has disturbingly pointed out in her meticulously research book, American Betrayal, and in numerous essays she has written since its publication defending its thesis from a strange gaggle of mostly Conservatives hostile to it.)

7. While Western Reason won the war (both 20th century wars), its very form of winning in many ways represented a kind of acceleration of the process of Progress -- which, as we noted above, has been the unfolding of intrinsic features of the virtues of Western Civilization. Of course, it should also be noted that there exists, more or less latently, in conservatism a kind of resistance to, and resentment against, the very notion that those virtues even need to be unfolded at all. Thus: "Aren't they good enough by themselves? Why do we have to 'progress' any further? Any of this 'progress' business is really just regress, corruption, decadence -- a falling away from our former pristine Good Old Days handed down from God and from Socrates, respectively."   Or, as T.S. Eliot magisterially sermonized in his poem The Rock:

...what have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?


And the wind shall say: “Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”

In so many words. Needless to say, we may relocate such an attitude as being simply the silly mirror-image of its evil twin, the unthinking champion of Progress who doesn't really have a clear idea of where he's progressing to, and along with that bases his enthusiasm for progress on a childish demonization of the Bad Old Days when Mean Old White Men oppressed and exploited for their wicked ends all good people.

The truth, as is usually the case, lies somewhere in the middle. And it's in the middle where things get complex and resist the easy reduction.  And the middle -- Plato's Metaxy, Dante's selva oscura, Voegelin's "we can't begin at the Beginning" of his final volume -- is where we're stuck whether we like it or not, for all time, as we may learn enough to want to seek the "intersection of time and the timeless", or through various Pascalian divértissements try to avoid its unpleasant tangents prompting us, reminding us, of the Apeirontic depth of which death stands in the way.


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