This is an extract from the Introduction to Darren Allen’s new book 33 Myths of the System. We’ll be publishing a few more extracts over the coming days. The full work is available as a free download here.
Our society resembles the ultimate machine which I once saw in a New York toy shop. It was a metal casket which, when you touched a switch, snapped open to reveal a mechanical hand. Chromed fingers reached out for the lid, pulled it down, and locked it from the inside. It was a box; you expected to be able to take something out of it; yet all it contained was a mechanism for closing the cover.
For hundreds of thousands of years, people lived well in peaceful, egalitarian, healthy societies, at the very least in comparison with what followed. We did not work particularly hard and the work itself (if it could be called work; pre-civilised societies don’t make distinctions between work and play), was enjoyable, meaningful and non-alienating. Activity is alienating if it makes you feel a stranger, or alien, to your own better nature, if you are forced to do it for someone else’s profit, for example, or for no good reason, or if you don’t feel ‘at home’ with its results. For most of human history (actually pre-history — properly speaking history begins with civilisation and writing) alienating work and ways of life were unknown; coercion and futility were inconceivable, as were property, religion, law, warfare, much superstition and what we could call ‘mental illness’.
The fear of immediacy, when the senses sharpen to deal with danger in the present, was part of life—because there has always been danger — but fear of tomorrow, the profound and widespread care, anxiety, and worry that modern men and women are burdened with, was unknown. Objectively it is impossible to know all this directly—but then it is impossible to know anything directly through study.
Nevertheless, we can make some reasonably reliable inferences about our pre-historic past, just as we can about the surface of the sun or the outcome of climate change. Anthropologists can objectively assess what early people were like from studying soil, bones, tools and other archaeological remains, all of which indicate how early people lived, how violent they were, how healthy, how socially stratified and even what kind of universe they conceived themselves to be in.Anthropologists can also objectively, albeit approximately, determine the earliest state of mankind by looking at how hunter-gatherers live today.
Nobody believes that foragers today are the same as those who lived twenty-thousand years ago; groups which have had no contact with the modern industrial world or with the pre-modern agricultural world no longer exist to study, but those which, at least until recently, sur-vived relatively independently all shared the attributes listed above. Naturally there is an enormous amount of variation in hunter-gatherer societies — far more than in any other kind of society — but generally the further away from civilisation, in time or space, the more egalitarianism, freedom and well-being, both psychological and social.
There still remains, of course, a vast, impenetrable void at the heart of our objective knowledge of the distant past. We will never know, objectively, how people lived, felt and perceived for the countless dark millennia before civilisation appeared, blindingly over-lit. But if objective knowledge is notoriously limited and unreliable in matters that touch on human nature, where else are we to gain understanding from?
Subjective knowledge is even more unreliable—plain deceptive in fact; it often amounts to little more than wishful thinking and emotional guesswork.That there might be another mode of experience, an awareness of life that is neither objective—based on objects ‘out there’—nor subjective—based on ideas and emotions ‘in here,’ is ruled out by the science, psychology, history, religion and art of the system and, with a language which inevitably reflects its and our concerns, almost impossible to express in ordinary speech.
This panjective mode of experience forms the foundation of the companion volume, 33 Myths of the Ego. For now it is enough to note that there is a way we can penetrate human nature without recourse to either rational analysis or guesswork, but this mode of awareness is not available to either wishful thinkers or hyper-rationalists.
The freedom and happiness of early society doesn’t mean there weren’t prob-lems—pain, frustration, hardship, danger and [increasing] violence—nor does it mean that we should up sticks and return to the trees. It means that what we call ‘progress’ has been, in terms of quality of life, peace of mind, collective joy and so on, a millennial decline.
A few things certainly have improved — technique mostly — but these are almost entirely solutions to problems caused by ‘progress’.This ‘progress’ began around twelve thousand years ago, when a catastrophe oc-curred in human consciousness and, consequently, in human society.
Again, the nature of this catastrophe, or fall, is laid out in the 33 Myths of the Ego; here we shall confine ourselves to the demonstrable effects; social stratification, violence towards women and children, hostility towards nature, warfare, fear of death, superstition, shame, sexual suppression and extreme cultural mediocrity, all of which first appeared at the same time (around 10,000 bc) and in the same place (the Middle East / West Asia) with the beginning of the process we call history, civilisation or the system.
The civilised system began with intense superstition; the belief that ideas—in particular gods and ancestors—were more real than reality. Prior to the superstitious world-view, the universe was intimately experienced as benevolent, alive and mysterious. This life inhered in certain kinds of things—trees, clouds, rivers, animals and so on—as qualities, or characters, which were then integrated into myths. These stories mirrored the psychological experience of people, or of groups of people, in much the same way as dreams do; indirectly, metaphorically and strangely.
With the coming of the superstitious era these living qualities, and the myths by which they were shared, became objectified; which is to say cut off from fluid, contextual experience and integrated into an abstract mythic system, or [proto] religion. They also became saturated with extremely crude emotions; revolving around sex, violence and, the foundation of superstition, existential fear.
Men and women had always been afraid of dangerous things in existence, but now they became fearful of existence itself, which became separated into two spheres; the reassuring, controllable known (the ideas and emotions of the self, ‘me and mine’) and its opposite, a disturbing-terrifying spectrum which ranged from the unknown (foreign people, new situations, etc.) to the unknowable (death, consciousness, nature, etc.).
The existential anxiety of superstition led, via the coercive absurdities of super-stitious shamanism, to the intense abstraction of priests and early [proto] scientists. Prior to 12,000 bc man had thought and reasoned, but now his thoughts began to take on a life of their own, began to seem more real and more important than reality, which now began to be shaped by the structure of thought. It was around this time that a series of interconnected events occurred which were to define the future of the world.
- Cereals were domesticated and incorporated into new agricultural societies (in the Middle East).
- Related to the rise of the cultivation of cereals, which are, uniquely, easy to tax (‘visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable and rationable’), small, hierarchical and centrally-managed states began to grow in the Middle East, which experienced population explosions.
- Larger urban areas and more intensive agriculture led to catastrophic deforesta-tion and even more catastrophic soil erosion, which led to the successive failure of the various states of classical civilisation, and to the climate of the near-east becoming drier and more hostile to human society.
- Writing was invented, in Sumer and Egypt, followed by the Phoenician alphabet, the principle use of which, for thousands of years, was bookkeeping; recording taxation and debt.
- Work became overwhelmingly unpleasant—intensely specialised, monotonous and managed. Diseases (such as flu, tb, diphtheria, smallpox, plague and typhus) became, through contact with domesticated animals, common. Life span dramatically declined as did height and general health.
- Finally, and perhaps most significantly, aggressive male ‘sun gods’ began to ap-pear in the pantheons of the Middle East (in Egypt and then Judea) which were conceived as being the lords or kings of other gods.These events took millennia to unfold, spread and integrate with each other, but by the time we reach the third millennium bc the Bronze-age near-east resembled the modern world in every crucial respect.
Mesopotamia, for example, was a place of widespread misery, constant warfare, ludicrous superstition, mediocre art, useful science, wasteful over-production, artificial scarcity, massive inequality (the ‘original 1%’) exploitation of society and nature, over-population, coercive rites, capital investment, standardisation, division of labour, time-pressure, usury and debt-peonage, taxation, prostitution, ill-health, wretched toil, iniquitous hierarchy, alienation, specialist professionals, slavery, devastating deforestation, soil erosion, repression of minorities, violent subjugation of women, children and outsiders, and rank insanity. This is what we call ‘the birth of civilisation’, an extraordinarily unpleasant state of affairs which everyone else on earth—the people known as barbarians—were desperate to avoid.It is possible to chart the spread of this civilisation by following the parallel spread of myths which represent or justify the new state of affairs.
These take the form of a fall from a pre-agricultural garden paradise, or age of gold, into a desacralised, sinful universe of constant toil, presided over by a male sun god (Zeus, Jahweh, In-dra, Marduk, etc.) who vanquishes a dark and mysterious female or feminine ‘devil’, usually symbolised by a snake (Typhon, Satan, Vritra, Tiamet, etc.). This Big Boss in the Sky conquered the mythos of the earth as civilised warriors and priests conquered and subjugated the freer and far more peaceful populations of Africa, Asia and Europe.The next stage in the immiseration of mankind comprised two complemen-tary-yet-antagonistic processes; the rise of Judea — the first society to recognise one ‘true’ God — and the rise of Greece—the first rational society, and one of the first in which scepticism of divinity appeared. These two events seem to be, at first glance, quite contrary, but the myths and philosophies of the ancient Greek thinkers, and those of the psychopathic old man who ruled over Judea were, in all important points, identical.
Jahweh and his Patriarchs, Plato, Aristotle and most of the writers celebrated by classical Greek and Jewish society, hated women, nature, foreigners and ordinary people, and declared that the real world—the earth that is—was devoid of the living mystery which earlier ‘backwards’ people had worshipped. Greek and Jewish myths are both comprised of psychotic child-men rampaging their way around the world, raping and murdering on the flimsiest of pretexts. We call these stories ‘classics’. Greek and Jewish societies also had a veritable obsession with law, which overtook regal—and usually despotic—whim as the means by which society, and by extension, the entire scientific universe, was to be governed.
It was through this intensely abstracted reality of the Greeks and the Jews—an abstract rational system, an abstract deity in a distant abstract heaven and an abstract, utterly impersonal, law to which all are equally sub-mitted—that what we understand as ‘science,’ was able to overtake, and then deride, superstition; and what we call ‘democracy’ supplanted monarchy. That one nightmare had been supplanted by another, essentially identical, was as difficult to perceive then as it is now.
The dismal universe of the Greeks and Jews, conceived in both cases as one of cheerless labour and exclusion from paradise, was founded on the power of severing reality from the primary technique of systemic abstraction. This went hand-in-hand with the creation or development of three secondary techniques of control, exchange and communication which revolutionised the way people related to each other and to the universe. The first technique was usurious debt, first invented by Mesopotamian kings and priests in the third millennium bc to impoverish and enslave their people, but en-thusiastically taken up by almost every ‘civilisation’ which followed.
So deeply had debt ingrained itself into the fabric of society that the religions of the Middle East began to reposition reality itself as a debtor-creditor relationship; the debtors, or sinners, being us and the creditor being the Bank of God, managed here on earth by his professional servants; accountants, managers and priests.
The second technology of control, invented by the Greeks, was money — an im-personal, indestructible, abstraction which rendered people, objects and, eventually, the entire universe as a collection of homogeneous quantities; things which could be bought and sold. It was thanks to the attitude that money engendered that Greek philosophers began to view the entire universe as a composite of discrete, rationally-apprehended particles (aka ‘atoms’) and ideas (or ‘platonic forms’), chief among them, the tragic atom — cut-off, isolated, alone — we call ‘man’.
The third revolutionary and coercive technology of civilisation, was alphabetic literacy, first developed by the Phoenicians but perfected and worshipped by the Greeks and Jews. This technique, for all its potential use and beauty, stimulated a dis-astrous change in consciousness amongst those who had access to it, who began to see inspiration not as a direct experience or mysterious flow, but as a function of memory; meaning not as an inherent quality, but as a series of words; and society not as some-thing which man has direct contextual access to, but as something which comes to him through the reading mind.
Again — as would be the case with every epochal technology which followed — almost nobody saw that the powers being gained were at the expense of faculties withering; in this case, of sensate inspiration, contextual awareness and the ineffable music of speech.These three techniques had three combined effects. Firstly they radically enhanced the separation of the individual from his or her context; as money-power requires no relationship to sustain it. Secondly, they intensified the isolated and isolating power of individual possession; as my things are no longer tied by tradition, or reciprocity to others. And thirdly, they created a belief, in all who came under the grip of debt, literacy and money, that reality is, ultimately, a mind-knowable, possessable, thing.
And so, by the time Greece ceded power to Rome (which, with the adoption of Christianity, fused Graeco-Judaism into one empire), all the basic components of a brutally subordinating mechanical civilisation were in place; intense social stratification, hostility towards the unknown, an abstract image of the universe which was taken to be real and a sense that money, mind, language and the cosmos are all similarly struc-tured—and equally significant—entities. All the consequences of such foundational attitudes were also in place; namely law and crime, armed forces and war, spectacle and boredom, religion and scientism, widespread suffering, loneliness, alienation, insanity and ecological ruin.
These components, in various forms and combinations, continued to govern the affairs of men and women for the next thousand years in Europe, Asia, large parts of Africa and, eventually, in South America.
Sometimes civilisations fell, such as Rome; an event greeted by relief and an im-provement in quality of life for ordinary people. Sometimes they were kept in check, such as Japan’s long history of successful independence, and less uncivilised social systems could then reassert themselves.
These systems, which we normally call feudal, although encouraging exploitation — sometimes extreme suffering — represented an overall improvement in the lives of ordinary people. The European medieval peasant, for example, was self-sufficient, had abundant access to common land, did non-alienating labour to an extremely high standard, and very often at an exceedingly leisurely pace, had a colossal number of holidays and had reasonably healthy social relations with his fellows, even those outside of his class. Subservience to the clock was unknown outside of monasteries, death was viewed as a lifelong companion rather than a time-obsessed ‘reaper’, madness was rarely a pretext for exclusion and even gender relations, despite many horrendous exceptions, were reasonably egalitarian.
Medieval men and women were also, particularly in the later middle-ages, an inspiring, heretical and anarchic pain in the feudal arse. There was, of course, sickness, warfare and the psychological miseries of religion, especially towards the end of the period when something like hell descended on the feudal world in Western Europe, but exploitation such as was prac-ticed before, in Imperial Rome say, or after, in Victorian England, was relatively low; poverty, the kind that, for example, modern Indians are familiar with, was relatively rare and radical rebellion, the kind that twentieth century Spanish anarchists and European hippies could only dream of, was relatively common.
All this was to change. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a new form of the system arose; capitalism. In all essential aspects capitalism was a continuation and refinement of the civilised project that was conceived at the dawn of superstition, first made manifest in Mesopotamia and Egypt—the first societies to operate as if the people who comprise it were components of a mechanism—and then developed by Judea, Greece, Rome, China, the Abbasids, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Spanish, the Dutch the British and the us. With each successive civilisation the social-machine was refined and improved. The organisation of classical armies, the growth and regi-mented management of city-states, the repressive institutionalisation and time-keeping of medieval monasteries, the banking systems of the renaissance; each new technique of social control added to the means by which an autonomous, mechanical, and then digital, governing system could be constructed.
From the seventeenth century onwards every step taken by the elites of Europe (particularly the new class of businessmen and technicians) was towards the creation of this self-regulating system. The industrial revolution, the management of a ‘free’ industrial workforce, the hyper-rationalisation of experience, the conversion of time into money, the proliferation and evolution of schools, workhouses, hospitals, factories, banks, armies and the modern nation state, along with their coercive techniques of surveillance and control (imposing common, standard, uniform names, measurements, currencies, religions, legal systems, urban layouts and so on) were and continue to be to this one end, the manufacture of a mechanical world. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become clear that the creation of a ‘perfect’ global system was going to lead to the total annihilation of society in short order, and so measures were taken to, firstly, protect the labour force against its onslaught and, secondly, to appease the many revolutionary movements which had sprung up in an attempt to resist their horrific fate.
The series of reforms that spanned the century between 1860 and 1960 succeeded in improving life for many, but with the deep foundations of the system ignored, and the common ground beneath those completely unperceived, the juggernaut of civilisa-tion rolled on, untroubled and undiminished—indeed in many ways strengthened by reform — until what few brakes men and women had managed to install were, at the end of the twentieth century, ‘rolled back,’ so that the system could finish its business; the amalgamation of the people, ideas, emotions, techniques, tools, objects, behaviours and ‘natural resources’ (i.e. natural life) which comprise civilisation into a single, monolithic and entirely self-directing mechanism.
Until the end of the capitalist phase of civilised progress, which lasted from approximately 1600 to 1900, the various elements of the system were more or less in-tegrated with nature, human nature and the culture that humans in groups naturally create. The advent of capitalism saw land, labour, energy and time commodified and assimilated with all the other components of civilisation into a multitude of rational-sci-entific-technological processes the sole purpose of which was the production of more output (profit, production, efficiency, etc.).
These processes, by externalising or ignoring anything not relevant to the task at hand, inevitably distorted, degraded or destroyed everything they came into contact with. Cotton mills produced more cheap cotton, while devastating local communities, schools produced more compliant workers while terminally corrupting their initiative and sensitivity, farms produced more food while stripping the soil of nutrients and eliminating the wild, gadgets produced more ‘saved time’ while multiplying the work required to build them, and so on. Every technologi-cal innovation since has solved one set of isolated problems while producing multiple sets of new problems for which more technical processes are developed to solve. Much fanfare accompanies each new solution—plastic, nuclear fission, high-speed travel, ge-netic engineering, the internet—or each new prospective solution—smart drugs, virtual reality, cybernetics, nanotechnology, nuclear fusion—while the disastrous pollution, boredom, sickness and madness which they cause are excused, ignored or exploited as new possibilities for technological progress.
By the close of the capitalist era the technical approach to life had separated itself from human culture and dominated material life on earth. Over the course of the twentieth century this dominance would spread to every aspect of human and natural experience; for the technical approach was not just restricted to the construction of powerful machines, the harnessing of new forms of energy, the refinement of methods ofontrol or the manufacture of merchandise, but was applied to the full range of natural and human life; indeed it had to be applied to everything because anything which is independent to rational restructuring, impedes or threatens output. Technical develop-ment of one aspect of the system, in one place, demands concomitant development in those aspects that supply its inputs and relieve its outputs.
A high-tech factory cannot be developed unless there are high-tech supplies, arriving at high-tech speeds and processed by high-tech employees. These employees are no longer allowed to discover their own style of work, train themselves or live the kind of life they want to, but must be entirely integrated into scientific techniques of programming proven to produce the most speed, power, efficiency, accuracy or whatever the desired output happens to be. The same pressures are applied to literally every human endeavour. Whether you are a sportsman, a potter, a programmer, a singer, a road-sweeper or a police-officer, you are not permitted to go at your own pace, to work out for yourself how to work, to create from your own experience or inspiration, to do as you please, when you please or, God-help you, to wonder why you are working as you do, to what end. Independence of thought, action or even feeling is not an option, considering the distant or long-term effects of your activity is not an option, any practice or reality which cannot be assimi-lated to techniques of maximum control, productivity and efficiency is not an option.
This is one reason why it is useless to reform, refuse or even to attempt to under-stand independent aspects of the system, in isolation from the whole. Politics, com-munication, transport, medicine, economics, academia, housing, food, entertainment, management and all work are integrated into a single system of interlocking processes. It is ultimately meaningless to speculate on how the internet has changed human life, or analyse the influence of ‘Big Pharma,’ or attempt to diagnose the problems with ‘our education system;’ just as it is ultimately futile to reform prisons, or ban plastic bags, or sign petitions; just as it is ultimately useless to oppose the domination of energy companies, medical professionals or state bureaucracy over human life by powering your house with a wood-stove, self-medicating or deleting your Facebook account and tearing up your passport.
This isn’t to say that it is meaningless, useless and futile to investigate or try to solve or circumvent these problems at all. We are, after all, about to look at thirty-three aspects of the system, each addressed individually. What is mean-ingless, useless and futile is to tackle these aspects without reference to the system as a whole into which each element is inextricably integrated; and those who defend the system understand this. They know, or they unconsciously intuit, that the system is best served by focusing on its isolated elements, which they spend their lives doing.
Such people we normally call ‘specialists.’ The system more or less forces everyone to become a specialist, to treat separate parts of the universe as objects for technical manipulation. The teacher, for example, must separate the child from his home, his society, his natural milieu and the extraordinary complexity and subtlety of his own life and character, apply fixed inputs to the child’s attention (the various books, tests and projects of the syllabus, augmented by whatever games, trips and ‘experiences’ the school or teacher can add, either officially or pro bono) in order to obtain a desired output; namely integration into the system. Doctors work in the same way, as do scientists, lawyers, social workers, politicians, managers, designers, plumbers, farmers, kitchen porters… everyone.
A world comprised entirely of such rational specialists inevitably leads to nobody knowing what the effects of their actions are or taking responsibility for them.
They aren’t trained to do so, and if they do step beyond their allotted roles, they inevitably tread on the toes of someone [else] whose entire life depends on the power they exert over their specialised task. This results in the generation of a near infinite quantity of stupid jobs, created to manage microscopic details or protect specialised power, without the interference of anyone who might know what they are doing.The system is not, nor can ever be, ruled by men and women who know what they are doing, who perceive the context or who are prepared to put non-systemic ends above the system’s proliferation of means.
In this sense, the system is entirely auton-omous and self-directed; its prime directive being the only one which an autonomous machine can conceive of; grow, expand, reproduce. Never die. Men and women own or manage various parts of the system, but the only actions which the system allows them to take are those which promote its ceaseless growth. Likewise only those who instinctively promote these actions, who have been accustomed to the systemic way of life since childhood, are promoted into positions where they can ‘freely’ make the right decisions. The system automatically creates filters to remove ‘trouble-makers’ from the path to positions of influence.
If someone who is kindly, well-meaning or intelligent ever gains power, he finds himself completely impotent before the system, which will either do everything it can to expel his useless presence, or just allow him to bash his head against a brick wall until his supporters are disappointed and abandon him.
The pre-modern phase of the system was characterised, then, by the abstracted commodification of space, time and energy. Surveyors divided up the land, clocks divided up the day and the state divided up the people, and all three were put on the market, where they were integrated into ever more sophisticated technologies of production (or manufacture) and techniques of reproduction (or ‘service’) which we normally call capitalism.
This pre-modern phase then evolved, in the first half of the twentieth century, into the modern or postmodern system we are familiar with, which seeks to commodify knowledge (or data), debt (via the process called financialisation, whereby the commodified future is manipulated and traded at hyper-speed), perception and emotion (through the virtualisation of all kinds of social interaction), matter (artificial materials, copyrighted molecules, proprietary genes, etc.) and new forms of hyper-energy (petrochemical and nuclear power); in short, the removal of every barrier between the system and the last recesses of reality.
Ultimately even our own conscious experience of our own bodies were to be incorporated (or privatised) into the world-mechanism and forced to conform to its rhythms and laws. Another notable feature of the post-capitalist world is that it increasingly takes on features of other forms of the system, such as feudalism, socialism and fascism.
Financialisation has led to enormous amounts of money sloshing around the higher levels of the system which, in turn, has led to, effectively, a feudal network of favours, kickbacks and sinecures; means to keep friends, family and other allies well remunerated while, effectively, doing nothing: Large corporations have long depended on government support via military spending, tax-breaks, tax-credits, favourable legislation, state-spon-sored r&d and bailouts during depressions and recessions; which is, effectively, a form of state-sponsored socialism for the rich.
And the system frequently demands extreme forms of authoritarianism which, particularly under duress, are indistinguishable from fascism and totalitarianism.The term ‘capitalism’ might, therefore, be useful shorthand, but it is far from accurate. The ‘capitalism’ of today is radically different to the one dissected by Marx, which is why some of his key predictions did not come to pass. He had no idea that the entire world, up to and including the psyche of everyone in it. would become a ‘means of production,’ nor that, consequently, the working-class would become almost completely subdued and domesticated.
This is partly why today’s capitalism is now frequently referred to as late-stage, or sometimes neo-liberal. But if we accept that these terms refer to the latest and greatest stage of a project which has been ongoing for at least ten millennia—if we are to understand the entire process—we need a term which encompasses it.
Although, as we shall see, it is also problematic, there is no tool better suited to the task than the system, a term which simultaneously refers to civi-lisation in toto, and the prevailing, encompassing, hyper-sophisticated, post-capitalist world-order we find ourselves in today.