Materialism (Vers. 2.0, Part 5)

“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream
It is not dying, it is not dying.
Lay down all thought, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining.
That you may see, the meaning of within
It is being, it is being.
That love is all, and love is everything
It is knowing, it is knowing.”

~The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966)

The upshot, so far, is that in our moral lives in a material world in any familiar sense of moral, everything is up for grabs. The final realities in the material world are money and power. Reactions to this have varied. Corporate titans pay little attention to such matters as this. The same is true of successful members of the political class. Both have what they want, and have no qualms about using money and political connections to get more. Some, of course, give away plenty of money to causes. This allows them to take tax write-offs.

I am more interested here in the responses of those who don’t have enormous accumulations of money or wield the levers of power.

One response is to escape mentally, by turning to mind-altering drugs. This route was charted by such writers as Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963) whose The Doors of Perception (1954) was the source of a different 1960s rock group’s name, and of course Timothy Leary (“Tune in, turn on, drop out”).

Transcendent reality may not exist in the material world, but it can be found in your head!

The 1960s hippies began to “drop acid” (LSD, lysergic acid diethylamide). Some would claim to “see God.” Acid rock was their musical expression, proclaiming mystical revelations of peace, love, revelations from beyond, and blissful harmony.

Others experienced terrifying hallucinations caused by the drug’s radical altering of their perceptions. I recall, from my graduate student days, a former user telling me how he’d seen his stereo grow eyes and a mouth, the music coming from his speakers taking the form of two quavering arms reaching his way as it tried to eat him.

People with latent personality disorders, or just the anxiety-prone, were especially susceptible to bad experiences with LSD. Some users ended up with psychoses. Others, without such conditions, simply “burned out” after a couple of years of constant use. Their problem was permanent brain damage: “acid casualties,” they were called.

All of which makes the reality-is-in-your-head route a risky one to travel down!

The hippies tried to travel it. Among the things tempting them were that many of their parents had turned away from the problems we’ve been discussing. The “greatest generation” may have fought and won World War II, but later, they seemed to bury themselves in their careers and demand only conformity from their progeny. But did they have a choice?

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05), classic treatise by sociologist Max Weber (1864 – 1920), ends on an ominous note that is relevant here. Weber, having drawn the two together (Protestant morality and can-do capitalism), feared that the economic machine was already developing into an “iron cage” that would encircle everything and everyone.

The world of the 1950s reflects such a development. An era of paradox, it delivered great prosperity — the beginnings of the largest middle class in history — and very early television shows that were family-friendly (think of Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, and so on).

But on the other hand, it also produced works expressing unease, such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1953), William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), and Alan Harrington’s Life in the Crystal Palace (1959). These works all seemed to say that in a culture in which the production and consumption of material goods assumed center stage, something in us was stifled. That same era produced the Beat Generation. They refused to be stifled, and instead gave us dangerously freewheeling literary output such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956). The British had their equivalent Angry Young Men, the most famous of whom were the playwright John Osbourne best known for Look Back In Anger (1956) and author Kingsley Amis whose Lucky Jim (1954) made fun of British academia.

There was also the incisive social criticism of Vance Packard (1914 – 1996), author of The Hidden Persuaders (1957), one of the first criticisms of mass consumption culture; The Status Seekers (1959) which looked with cold eyes on social stratification; The Waste Makers (1960) then criticized planned obsolescence, the purpose of which was to keep consumers consuming; and other such books. And finally there was The Power Elite (1956) by C. Wright Mills (1916 – 1962) who did the most to introduce that phrase into the public lexicon.

The stage was set for the 1960s, as already seen. The older generation, successful though it was by its own standards, had made itself vulnerable to criticisms that it was morally shallow, having sold its collective soul to some subbranch of the corporate-state.

“If it feels good, do it” is a phrase associated with the hippies, but there was a sense in which the prevailing ethos at the center of American culture was closer to this sort of phrase than their elders cared to admit. Convenience reigned. This was true in business, in government, in academia. If it’s convenient, do it. This view that convenience is a reliable guide to decision-making grew through the 1960s and then even more in the 1970s.

Consider abortion, which had become an issue well before Roe v. Wade (1973). Sexual license (also a problem in some communities before the liberation movements of the 1960s) led to unplanned pregnancies; simple as that. Despite the prattling about those cases when “the mother’s life is in danger” or cases of rape or incest, over 99% of abortions have always been abortions of convenience.

Abortion’s legal acceptability has led to the killing of over 63 million unborn babies and counting. I will not torture readers with the bizarre rationalizations feminist philosophy professors have produced (it is hard to call them philosophers with a straight face), except to note that the linguistic sleight of hand used seems intended to deprive the unborn and sometimes even the newly born of moral standing, and hence any claim on life that others are obligated to respect. (Exemplar phrases: women’s reproductive rights, a woman’s right to control her body.)

Nazis and Communists did the same thing, using sleight of hand to remove those to be eliminated from their versions of the moral community.

But then again, if Ruth Benedict, Richard Rorty, and other materialists are correct, then the only moral standing anyone has is what their society, the state, or their pocketbooks and bank accounts, give them. What the state and social approval and the banks give, the state and social approval and the banks can take away, whether its targets are Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals under the Nazis; those who resisted collectivized farming under Stalin; or the unborn in our own culture.

It is surely possible, by this reading, that a hypothetical future Christian civilization might regard what has happened to the more than 63 million unborn babies in our culture as one of the largest and most insidious holocausts of all, as its targets were completely unable to speak for themselves much less defend themselves!

The tendency, as we have seen, has been to evade such unpleasantries, to simply not think about them.

Or to change the subject. If there’s a God, does He really care? After all, during the duration of the various holocausts of the past century, He did nothing!

Many theologians succumbed fully to the “death of God” cult in the 1960s, even as their children were “finding Him” in recreational chemistry. Secularization was a major manifestation of materialism having fully captured Western culture. Harvey Cox (1929 – ) wrote in his The Secular City (1965) that secularization “bypasses and undercuts religion and goes on to other things…. The world looks less and less to religious rules and rituals for its morality or its meanings.”

A couple of years ago I read one of the most comprehensive accounts I’ve seen of the modern, secular attempt “to live after the death of God”: The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live since the Death of God (2014) by British intellectual historian Peter Watson (1943 – ). Watson’s account ranges across philosophy, art, poetry, literature, and science — or, more exactly, science-promotion, as he includes evangelical New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, which is materialism promotion in my sense of that term. Watson is a reasonably honest thinker, and those who maintain as I do that materialism has no hope of providing Western civilization with a sound moral foundation and direction will find support for their views in his work. So despite the title and themes (and tediousness at times), the book merits study. At the end, Watson does not endorse mere science-promotion but rather seeks to explain why many credible authors, writers, poets and artists have found the “scientific worldview” too narrow. His answer isn’t especially satisfying.

It comes down to the idea that, given God’s absence, the “central sane activity” (title of the book’s meandering closing chapter) is “sheer wondering inquiry,” and grasping for those lonely moments of meaningfulness and life-affirmation that science alone cannot supply. Different authors have given these moments different names. Abraham Maslow called them peak experiences; James Joyce spoke of epiphanies; Malroux, of temporary refuges; Yeats, of brief moments of ecstatic affirmation; Ibsen, of flashes of spiritual value. These moments, Watson insists, can be had in loving relationships, the satisfaction of one’s desires especially if they add value to others’ lives, the private experience of hearing an especially moving piece of music or seeing a work of art or reading poetry, or in any number of other ways and activities including just the mundane satisfaction of a job well done.

If you’re a materialist or secularist and you’ve read this far, are you really satisfied with this?

Study them closely, and you see that these experiences, real though they may be, are private and personal. One comes away sensing the difficulty the writers had in communicating their content. This is more the stuff of poetry than philosophy. Such experiences are pleasant but momentary and entirely private “highs” — and we are inching our way back to the possibility that psychoactive drugs can be used to trigger them artificially and expand them indefinitely if the results are satisfying enough to outweigh the dangers.

All this seems like denial to me. Denial of the obvious. By turning away from the larger picture, the one both Nietzsche and Russell in different ways were courageous enough to articulate, and instead focusing on these nice little particulars we experience or arrange for ourselves (whether in our private lives or through recreational chemicals), we evade the important consequence of materialism:

That once you’ve removed God and transcendence from your world, there are no binding moral values, binding in the sense of being definitive and authoritative, suggesting a lasting, inescapable, personal penalty for their violation. There is only state and corporate authority, wealth and its accumulation, popularity, physical pleasure (food, drink, sex), and these ephemeral on-top-of-the-world moments — all of which end in death, which the materialist understands as the permanent extinction of consciousness and personality.

You cease to exist as completely as the nonexistence that preceded your conception.

Presumably after those final anxious moments before you wink out, you won’t be worried about it.

Peter Watson correctly observes that many people in secular society seem to have no problem with this. They have either rejected “religion” without further thought, or simply grew up without it. He writes:

We need to remind ourselves … that many people — and perhaps the quieter souls among us — see no problem in God being dead. For them his death is no source of anxiety or perplexity…. [S]uch individuals are not “metaphysical types” and seek no “deep” meaning in existence. They just get on with their lives, making ends meet, living from day to day and season to season, enjoying themselves where they can, untroubled by matters that so perplex their neighbors. They have no great expectations that the big questions will ever be settled, so devote no time to their elucidation. In some ways, they are the most secular people of all and perhaps the most content” (The Age of Atheists, pp. 532-33).

Such folks blend smoothly into the majority, the masses of humanity in advanced civilization, meeting its demands on them, doing what they are told, and no more independent thought than the third or so who were content with British rule in the 1770s and another third who didn’t care so long as they had food in their stomachs. If asked, these contented secularists might say they have no time for such matters as these. They are too busy solving real world problems.

They may start asking questions if they suddenly find themselves with a life-threatening and perhaps bankrupting illness, wondering what it was all for. Or, if the “leaders” they trusted with their votes send their kids off to die in foreign wars as cannon fodder. By this time it is too late, of course. So while most are nice people and doubtless good at what they do, should we trust their collective judgment with matters as far from everyday experience as whether or not one should accept the removal of God from our picture of the world?

These forms of escapism are not, of course, the only responses to the situation we were left with at the conclusion of Part 4, in which materialism is fully embodied in strong institutions, corporate and governmental.

There is the possibility of learning all one can about the uses of money and structures of power, exposing them, and rebelling against them in whatever ways are available, can be found, or created.

There is indeed that something in many of us — felt by the sociologists, Beat poets and novelists, many rock musicians, and many others, an inner spirit or sense of right or justice — that rebels instinctively against that sense of being trapped in an invisible “iron cage,” and much more so against exercises of power it sees as immoral, unjust, or merely stifling what they are as human beings.

Something in many of us demands to be free, in some sense of that term. Isn’t this interesting?

Sometimes this rebellion is more important than life itself. “Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry is supposed to have said back in 1775, on the eve of the Revolutionary War, a war for independence against what was then the globe’s most powerful empire.

Which is why protestors as well as soldiers have given their lives in defense of a cause they believed was worth fighting for. The cause was more important than their lives.

No one is launching rebellions against materialism, of course. It isn’t that sort of thing. Worldviews are too abstract to inspire such actions. Most people tend to rebel against forces that harm their cultures as with policies of open borders and immigration, hit them in their pocketbooks like massive tax increases, or otherwise outrage their “gut” sense of right versus wrong. Think of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) in France. Elsewhere in Europe there is unrest directed at an EU increasingly seen as run by corrupt banking elites who are hopelessly out of touch with the lives, needs, and concerns of common peoples and their cultures. Seeing no alternatives, they are returning to nationalism.

Could something along those lines happen in the U.S., perhaps after the next major financial meltdown? Given the growing sense that America’s elites are equally corrupt if not worse, could we see parallel developments on U.S. soil? Secessionism of various sorts has existed in a sort of underground in many U.S. states and regions. At least since the 1990s there have been organized groups promoting the idea in Texas, Montana, Vermont, the Southeast, California, Alaska, Hawaii, and elsewhere.

Nothing of the sort will happen immediately, of course. Homeland Security has militarized police forces with an eye to putting down any and all civil unrest in the Land of the Free. Everybody with a brain knows this. The odds, moreover, that these groups could organize and coordinate enough of America’s divided masses to stand up to that kind of power seem to me slim to none. Many (especially those in the South) have already been demonized in mainstream media and governance. Unless something truly earthshattering happens within (or is done to) the U.S. federal government, that is not going to change any time soon.

That said, I expect that the materialism-caused death spiral of the overlapping eras of modernity and postmodernity will continue.

The “experts” have already lost a lot of their credibility, much of this courtesy of the Internet. Their blatantly propagandistic efforts to get it back would be laughable had they not done so much damage to free speech and expression in the process.

None of this will not solve the long-term problems brought about by institutions and practices that will prove unsustainable in the long run — in the context of the ongoing collapse of all vestiges of “conventional” morality.

I am not talking about homosexuality or transgenders, although academic debates over who has the right to use which bathroom, and newly invented pronouns, may cause future generations to wonder why the interlocutors weren’t told to have their heads examined.

I am talking about retirees (if there are any) having less and less to look forward to as social security is increasingly strained, and are forced to work until they drop dead — if they can find work. The reason: fewer people are paying into the social security system because of falling birthrates, and those who are paying in, are paying less because of stagnant wages.

One of the curious things about advanced, prosperous civilization: population growth declines. This is true however we explain it, although the slow fracturing of families seems most credible. What this means is that systems depending for their sustainability on population growth will eventually strain and break.

I am also talking about many university graduates who can look forward to years of debt slavery due to ridiculously high tuition rates. Sometimes this is due to their foolishness in getting degrees in silly pseudo-subjects like gender studies. But not always. It is a given that technology is replacing human labor. Some will argue that this has always been the case. But the rate of replacement of human beings by technology (robots, artificial intelligence) has increased geometrically during the information age.

Driverless vehicles threaten to dump millions of workers in affected industries into the streets. Realistically, most will be too old to “reinvent themselves” as, say, IT professionals, although some will fall for multi-level marketing con games which may multiply.

Corporate profits will, of course, be up, because robots and driverless vehicles don’t demand paychecks.

Those making such policies will be mostly indifferent to those who need income to live.

The long and the short of it: modernity has yielded no answer to Nietzsche. It has not even approached Russell’s ideals.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the near future as the U.S. gets increasingly nihilist on its way into the history books. Anglo-European civilization as a whole is already a civilization of haves and have-nots, where the former ignore the latter as much as possible. Most of the haves will have protected their interests when the next crash hits (including moving inside gated communities with well-paid security). The have-nots either will not organize at all, or will organize only token protests that will be quickly put down or simply ignored, as was Occupy.

So assuming no major change of worldview, the once-Christian West will end slowly and painfully with a dramatic contrast between billionaire CEOs and IT hotshots on the one hand, and tent-cities people on the other. The former will go right past the latter and not even see them.

The U.S. federal government will grow increasingly dysfunctional, as only Twitterverse and Instagram-era celebrity candidates will have a chance at visibility and electability. Corruption will be endemic, and people will gradually cease to look to government for help — having been told too many times about “the need to cut costs.”

Programs like social security and Medicare may not survive. Obamacare almost surely will not.

Adopting policies based on the concept of primary prevention is the only feasible solution to the health care cost crisis — a different essay! All I will say here is that health education for primary prevention presupposes a nonmaterialist ethic where “all lives matter” intrinsically.

If policies based on such ideas are not developed, promulgated and adopted, not even at the grassroots, hundreds of thousands and maybe millions will eventually die in their homes, many from treatable conditions.

Many of the best minds, or just those with the money to do so, will have fled to overseas havens. Sadly, they will take many of their problems with them. How many indigenous cultures, worldwide, have been destroyed by having been pulled against their will into that money-focused, political-economic “iron cage”?

We end this section where we began: with a look at drugs.

For those the expats left behind, who had already been left behind by the economic system and saw no hope for the future, increasingly turned to drugs. This is already happening, as the opioid epidemic illustrates. The drugs done are not psychedelics. You see, among the loose categories of recreational drugs there are mind drugs, and then there are body drugs. Mind drugs tended to be done by the historical optimists of the 1960s-1970s who saw a future of peace, love, and rock ‘n’ roll. Those who have given up on the world and on themselves turn to body drugs such as opioids: welcome to the 2010s and 2020s. What is happening in rural communities now may just be a prelude to what is to come, especially as the real economy outside the big cities continues its ongoing collapse and there is no real recovery outside the ideology-addled imaginations of mainstream “economists” who cite doctored unemployment and inflation figures and recite fabulous productivity stats due to robots and artificial intelligence having replaced expendable human labor.

And whatever else happens, perfectly groomed (and well paid) shills in the financial centers and on CNN will assure anyone who still cares that all is well in the ship of state. Didn’t you know, they will ask through glassy smiles, the stock market just hit a new high?

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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