We might take the demonstrative demise of strongmen such as Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and – more recently and unobtrusively – Fidel Castro in Cuba to indicate that the day of the dictator has largely passed. Alas, authoritarianism is staging a comeback. Yet it is clear to poets and political scientists alike that the new authoritarians – Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary – are not like the old ones. In his recent poem ‘Some Advice for the New Government’, the poet Adam Zagajewski gave Poland’s newly elected cabinet some mock advice on how to be a new authoritarian:
All professors of constitutional law should be interned for life.
Poets can be left alone. No one reads them anyway.
You’ll need isolation camps, but gentle ones that won’t annoy the United Nations.
Most journalists should be sent to Madagascar.
These new strongmen seem milder, less openly brutal than the likes of Stalin or Hitler. In the words of the Austrian publicist and historian Hans Rauscher: ‘Brutal, naked mass violence against subjects is, at least in Europe and around Europe, no longer declared, insofar as Putins, Erdoğans, and Orbáns govern with the consent of a becalmed people, “freed” from all critical voices.’
But the difference goes well beyond their choice of whom to oppress and how. The autocrat of the mid-20th century was a strict and demanding father out to shape you into an ideal. He wanted you to modernise, learn self-discipline and, above all, self-sacrifice. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk addressed soldiers during the Entente attack on Ottoman-held Gallipoli in 1915, he told them: ‘I am not ordering you to fight. I am ordering you to die.’ ‘In the Soviet army,’ said Stalin, ‘it takes more courage to retreat than to advance.’
Tough love was thus the signature attribute of the 20th-century dictator. Even when he wasn’t demanding the ultimate sacrifice, he wanted you to lose a few pounds, mothball your fez, lay some more bricks, join a state-run youth organisation (or five), learn a new alphabet (or even a new language) and call it your own, memorise some poems, songs or passages penned by the supreme leader and call them ‘history’. Even democratic heads of state once had higher expectations of their citizenry. That line from John F Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech – ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ – now sounds like an admonition from an earlier, distant century.
Francis Fukuyama, an acclaimed American political philosopher, entered the global imagination at the end of the Cold War when he prophesied the “end of history” — a belief that, after the fall of communism, free-market liberal democracy had won out and would become the world’s “final form of human government.” Now, at a moment when liberal democracy seems to be in crisis across the West, Fukuyama, too, wonders about its future.
“Twenty five years ago, I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward,” said Fukuyama in a phone interview. “And I think they clearly can.”
Fukuyama’s initial argument (which I’ve greatly over-simplified) framed the international zeitgeist for the past two decades. Globalization was the vehicle by which liberalism would spread across the globe. The rule of law and institutions would supplant power politics and tribal divisions. Supranational bodies like the European Union seemed to embody those ideals.
But if the havoc of the Great Recession and the growing clout of authoritarian states like China and Russia hadn’t already upset the story, Brexit and the election of President Trump last year certainly did.
[…] This interpretation blatantly disregards the actual origins of “post-truth”. These lie neither with those deemed under-educated nor with their new-found champions. Instead, the groundbreaking work on “post-truth” was performed by academics, with further contributions from an extensive roster of middle-class professionals. Left-leaning, self-confessed liberals, they sought freedom from state-sponsored truth; instead they built a new form of cognitive confinement – “post-truth”.
More than 30 years ago, academics started to discredit “truth” as one of the “grand narratives” which clever people could no longer bring themselves to believe in. Instead of “the truth”, which was to be rejected as naïve and/or repressive, a new intellectual orthodoxy permitted only “truths” – always plural, frequently personalised, inevitably relativised.
Under the terms of this outlook, all claims on truth are relative to the particular person making them; there is no position outside our own particulars from which to establish universal truth. This was one of the key tenets of postmodernism, a concept which first caught on in the 1980s after publication of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge in 1979. In this respect, for as long as we have been postmodern, we have been setting the scene for a “post-truth” era.
“Post-truth” has come to describe a type of campaigning that has turned the political world upside down.
Fuelled by emotive arguments rather than fact-checks, it was a phrase that tried to capture the gut-instinct, anti-establishment politics that swept Donald Trump and Brexit supporters to victory.
Oxford Dictionaries made it the word of the year, defining it as where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
But what does this new world mean for academics and scientists whose whole purpose is trying to establish objective facts?
AC Grayling, public thinker, master of the New College of the Humanities, and Remain campaigner, views the post-truth world with undisguised horror.
Some anonymous wise person once observed that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But Wolfgang Streeck, a 70-year-old German sociologist and director emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, thinks capitalism’s end is inevitable and fast approaching. He has no idea what, if anything, will replace it.
This is the premise of his latest book, How Will Capitalism End?, which goes well beyond Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Piketty thinks capitalism is getting back into the saddle after being ruined in two world wars. Streeck thinks capitalism is its own worst enemy and has effectively cut itself off from all hope of rescue by destroying all its potential rescuers.
“The end of capitalism,” he writes in the introduction, “can then be imagined as a death from a thousand cuts… No effective opposition being left, and no practicable successor model waiting in the wings of history, capitalism’s accumulation of defects, alongside its accumulation of capital, may be seen… as an entirely endogenous dynamic of self-destruction.”
According to Streeck, salvation doesn’t lie in going back to Marx, or social democracy, or any other system, because there is no salvation at all. “What comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now under way, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum — no new world system equilibrium… but a prolonged period of social entropy or disorder.”
Democracy is in retreat around the world. From Poland and Turkey to Russia and the United States, voters have placed their faith in authoritarian leaders. This should not be surprising. In fact, it is remarkable that the democratic ideal survived so long. Three centuries ago, philosophers of the Enlightenment began telling us that reason is more important than tradition, and that people should shape their own lives rather than submitting to leaders. That was an audacious rebellion against all of previous human history. For a time it seemed to be succeeding.
Today’s cry of protest, though, is a rejection of the Enlightenment. Voters are making clear that they want to be ruled with a strong hand, not rule themselves.
With its emphasis on science, the Enlightenment reshaped the world. Modern prosperity is its legacy — but so is the social upheaval that made prosperity possible. Humanity’s immense material progress has not been matched by moral or political progress. Instead, leadership failures have set off explosions of frustration and discord. Even the two countries where the Enlightenment was born, Britain and France, are being shaken by reactionary movements that reject Enlightenment ideals.
Documentary by British filmmaker Adam Curtis released on 16th October 2016 exclusively on BBC iPlayer. (BBC)
Once upon a time in the Italian Renaissance, serious scholars regarded polymath Pico della Mirandola as “the last man who knows everything”. In our post-modern wasteland, Il Professore (“the professor”) Umberto Eco (1932-2016) was arguably the last neo-Renaissance man to know everything.
Philosopher, semiologist, master of epic erudition, medieval aesthetic specialist, fiction and non-fiction writer, Eco oscillated gleefully between the roles of “Apocalyptic and Integrated” — the title of one of his seminal books (1964). His trademark touch was a delightfully erudite synthesis of tragic optimism — as if he was the supreme erudite dreamer.
Not only he wrote numerous, priceless essays on aesthetics, linguistics and philosophy, and criticized in depth the global mediascape; he was also a best-selling fiction author, from The Name of the Rose (1980) — 14 million copies sold — to Foucault’s Pendulum (1988).
[…] So much of the politics discussed by young people today, particularly in university, is about identity. Partly, it embraces this freedom of Bowie’s, particularly in the growing understanding that sexuality is on a spectrum and even, on more radical fringes, that gender itself might be too. This kind of politics points out to spoiled, privileged, middle class kids like me that the world was nowhere near as peachy perfect as we thought it was when we grew up and that while we were congratulating Britain on its liberalism, or our generation on its tolerance, people were still being put at a systemic disadvantage from which we ourselves would not suffer.
But part of this new political culture also speaks against the fluidity of identity which Bowie represented. It is about reaffirming the categories we thought we wanted to get past. When white people are banned from political meetings about racism, or people constantly use the phrase ‘person of colour’ as if a higher political validity stems from it, or when those with their own complex sexual identity are branded simply ‘cis’, we are doing the opposite of the Bowie project. We are elevating the notion of a simple, easily described, lifetime identity. We are tidying up all the weird little jagged bits of the human personality into their designated drawers and cupboards. We are telling an old lie about what it is to be a person: that there are a series of names which will sum up its parts.
There is far more truth in Bowie’s fluid, ever-changing identity, than there ever will be in a string of words we can use to define ourselves. He was one of those rare artists whose presentation was more important than the substance of his work.
- The Protest Songs Of David Bowie
- What were David Bowie’s political views?
- David Bowie’s Strange Politics
- David Bowie symbolised the liberation of pop music
- David Bowie, the ‘Apolitical’ Insurrectionist Who Taught Us How to Rebel
- German government thanks Bowie for helping bring down the Berlin Wall
- Local politician claims David Bowie was a ‘gay Nazi’ and a witch
- David Bowie albums make up 25% of top 40
People contact Edward Luttwak with unusual requests. The prime minister of Kazakhstan wants to find a way to remove ethnic Russians from a city on his northern border; a major Asian government wants a plan to train its new intelligence services; an Italian chemical company wants help settling an asbestos lawsuit with a local commune; a citizens’ group in Tonga wants to scare away Japanese dolphin poachers from its shores; the London Review of Books wants a piece on the Armenian genocide; a woman is having a custody battle over her children in Washington DC – can Luttwak “reason” with her husband? And that is just in the last 12 months.
Luttwak is a self-proclaimed “grand strategist”, who makes a healthy living dispensing his insights around the globe. He believes that the guiding principles of the market are antithetical to what he calls “the logic of strategy”, which usually involves doing the least efficient thing possible in order to gain the upper hand over your enemy by confusing them. If your tank battalion has the choice of a good highway or a bad road, take the bad road, says Luttwak. If you can divide your fighter squadrons onto two aircraft carriers instead of one, then waste the fuel and do it. And if two of your enemies are squaring off in Syria, sit back and toast your good fortune.
Luttwak believes that the logic of strategy contains truths that apply to all times and places. His books and articles have devoted followings among academics, journalists, businessmen, military officers and prime ministers. His 1987 book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace is a set text at universities and military academies across the world. His official – and unofficial – advisory work for the US government has been praised by generals and secretaries of state. He is a familiar figure at government ministries, in the pages of leading journals and on Italian television.
But his work is not limited to armchair theorising. Readers who have been treated to Luttwak’s counterintuitive provocations on the op-ed page of the New York Times might be surprised to know that he considers writing an extra-curricular activity. For the past 30 years, Luttwak has run his own strategic consultancy – a sort of one-man security firm – that provides bespoke “solutions” to some very intractable problems. In his long career, Luttwak has been asked by the president of Mexico to help eliminate a street gang that was burning tourist buses in the city of Mexicali; the Dalai Lama has consulted him about relations with China, European governments have hired him to root out al-Qaida operatives, and the US army has commissioned him to update its counterinsurgency manual. He earns around $1m a year from his “jobs”. “It’s always important to get paid,” he likes to insist. “It protects you from the liberal problem of good intentions and from being called an intriguer.”
Sheldon Wolin, our most important contemporary political theorist, died Oct. 21 at the age of 93. In his books “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism” and “Politics and Vision,” a massive survey of Western political thought that his former student Cornel West calls “magisterial,” Wolin lays bare the realities of our bankrupt democracy, the causes behind the decline of American empire and the rise of a new and terrifying configuration of corporate power he calls “inverted totalitarianism.”
Wendy Brown, a political science professor at UC Berkeley and another former student of Wolin’s, said in an email to me: “Resisting the monopolies on left theory by Marxism and on democratic theory by liberalism, Wolin developed a distinctive—even distinctively American—analysis of the political present and of radical democratic possibilities. He was especially prescient in theorizing the heavy statism forging what we now call neoliberalism, and in revealing the novel fusions of economic with political power that he took to be poisoning democracy at its root.”
Wolin throughout his scholarship charted the devolution of American democracy and in his last book, “Democracy Incorporated,” details our peculiar form of corporate totalitarianism. “One cannot point to any national institution[s] that can accurately be described as democratic,” he writes in that book, “surely not in the highly managed, money-saturated elections, the lobby-infested Congress, the imperial presidency, the class-biased judicial and penal system, or, least of all, the media.”
Inverted totalitarianism is different from classical forms of totalitarianism. It does not find its expression in a demagogue or charismatic leader but in the faceless anonymity of the corporate state. Our inverted totalitarianism pays outward fealty to the facade of electoral politics, the Constitution, civil liberties, freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, and the iconography, traditions and language of American patriotism, but it has effectively seized all of the mechanisms of power to render the citizen impotent.
- Chris Hedges and Sheldon Wolin: Can Capitalism and Democracy Coexist?
- Sheldon S. Wolin, 93, Dies; Political Theorist Saw Limits of Popular Democracy
- Sheldon Wolin: The Theorist Who Reached Across Time
- The Theorist Who Reached Across Time
- Sheldon Wolin, 1922–2015
- Inverted totalitarianism
- Politics and Vision
- Sheldon Wolin
‘[…] In Zoe Svendsen’s play World Factory at the Young Vic, the audience becomes the cast. Sixteen teams sit around factory desks playing out a carefully constructed game that requires you to run a clothing factory in China. How to deal with a troublemaker? How to dupe the buyers from ethical retail brands? What to do about the ever-present problem of clients that do not pay? Because the choices are binary they are rarely palatable. But what shocked me – and has surprised the theatre – is the capacity of perfectly decent, liberal hipsters on London’s south bank to become ruthless capitalists when seated at the boardroom table.
The classic problem presented by the game is one all managers face: short-term issues, usually involving cashflow, versus the long-term challenge of nurturing your workforce and your client base. Despite the fact that a public-address system was blaring out, in English and Chinese, that “your workforce is your vital asset” our assembled young professionals repeatedly had to be cajoled not to treat them like dirt.
And because the theatre captures data on every choice by every team, for every performance, I know we were not alone. The aggregated flowchart reveals that every audience, on every night, veers towards money and away from ethics.’
- The True History of Libertarianism in America: A Phony Ideology to Promote a Corporate Agenda
- When Congress Busted Milton Friedman (and Libertarianism Was Created By Big Business Lobbyists)
- Koch Brothers Exposed: The Chilling New Documentary Republicans Don’t Want You to See
- Libertarian Holocaust Denial Brought to You by the Kochs: Interview with Mark Ames
- Koch Brothers’ Fake Libertarianism: War, Forced Pregnancies, and Homophobia
- Gary Johnson on Social Libertarianism, Free Markets and the Koch Brothers
- Just Another Calculating Politician: The Fake Libertarianism of Rand Paul
- Rand Paul’s Favorite Philosophers Think Poor People Are ‘Parasites’
- The Immoral Intellectual Roots of Libertarianism
- 1 in 5 Millennials describe themselves as libertarian
- Foundation for Economic Education – Sourcewatch
- Mont Pelerin Society – Sourcewatch
- Koch Industries – RationalWiki
- Libertarianism – RationalWiki
- Libertarianism – Wikipedia
‘Of all the writers in the “realist” canon—from Thucydides and Hobbes to Morgenthau and Mearsheimer—it is Niccolo Machiavelli who retains the greatest capacity to shock. In 1513, banished from his beloved Florence, Machiavelli drafted his masterwork, The Prince. Five centuries later his primer on statecraft remains required if unsettling reading for practitioners and students of politics. Machiavelli’s originality—and the source of his enduring, if notorious, reputation—was his blatant rejection of traditional morality as a guide to political action, and his insistence that statecraft be based on a realistic view of corrupted human nature.
Although frequently damned as an amoral cynic—author of “a handbook for gangsters”, in Bertrand Russell’s words—Machiavelli in fact occupies a more complicated ethical terrain. His central claim is that politics has a moral logic of its own, at times requiring actions to preserve the state that might be regarded as reprehensible within polite society. There are times, in other words, when conventional ethics must be set aside for the pragmatic and expedient dictates of (what would later become known as) raison d’etat or “reasons of state”.’
‘[…] What Dostoyevsky diagnosed – and at times suffered from himself – was the tendency to think of ideas as being somehow more real than actual human beings. It would be a mistake to imagine that we haven’t also fallen into this sort of delusional thinking. The wars the West has fought in the Middle East over the past decade and more are often attacked as being little more than attempts to seize natural resources, but I’m sure this isn’t the whole story. A type of moral fantasy has been just as important in explaining the West’s repeated interventions and their recurring failure.’
‘Abby Martin interviews the creator of the Zeitgeist Movement, Peter Joseph, covering everything from the upcoming Zeitgeist Festival in Los Angeles on October 4th to economic and societal solutions to global problems ranging from environmental destruction to mass inequality. (Breaking the Set)
‘Plenty of Rand-y acolytes have dreamed of fleeing Obama’s (and Clinton’s and Carter’s and Johnson’s and Kennedy’s) America and entering the warm, dopamine confines of their own Galt’s Gulch. Last year, one group appeared to have succeeded with a settlement in Chile—”a fully self-sustaining community” that would enable individualistic immigrants (with sufficient funds) to fully renounce “the oppression of the over-regulated, over-taxed, war-riddled and welfare-riddled society consuming the world.” They take Bitcoin and everything.
But all is not so sweet. Wendy McElroy, a “Canadian individualist anarchist” of some note, bought a 1.25-acre plot in Galt’s Gulch Chile last year, or so she thought. She wrote a blistering post Monday suggesting that the Real Men of Genius behind the settlement are grifters, or incompetents, or both.’
- The Fate Of Galt’s Gulch Chile
- The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on Galt’s Gulch Chile
- Tree Hugging Libertarians Unknowingly Buys Pieces Of Chilean Hell
- Ayn Rand’s capitalist paradise lost: The inside story of a libertarian scam
- Libertarians Plan to Sit Out the Coming Collapse of America…in Chile
- What Paul Ryan Learned From Ayn Rand
- Objectivism (Ayn Rand)
‘[…] And as my horizons broadened, I knew that millions were not supposed to be starving, that nuclear weapons were not supposed to be hanging over our heads, that the rainforests were not supposed to be shrinking, or the fish dying, or the condors and eagles disappearing. I could not accept the way the dominant narrative of my culture handled these things: as fragmentary problems to be solved, as unfortunate facts of life to be regretted, or as unmentionable taboo subjects to be simply ignored.
On some level, we all know better. This knowledge seldom finds clear articulation, so instead we express it indirectly through covert and overt rebellion. Addiction, self-sabotage, procrastination, laziness, rage, chronic fatigue, and depression are all ways that we withhold our full participation in the program of life we are offered. When the conscious mind cannot find a reason to say no, the unconscious says no in its own way. More and more of us cannot bear to stay in the “old normal” any longer.
This narrative of normal is crumbling on a systemic level too. We live today at a moment of transition between worlds. The institutions that have borne us through the centuries have lost their vitality; only with increasing self-delusion can we pretend they are sustainable. Our systems of money, politics, energy, medicine, education, and more are no longer delivering the benefits they once did (or seemed to). Their Utopian promise, so inspiring a century ago, recedes further every year. Millions of us know this; more and more, we hardly bother to pretend otherwise. Yet we seem helpless to change, helpless even to stop participating in industrial civilization’s rush over the cliff.’
‘Every one in the world knows that the government of the United States is a democracy, and that the United States stands for promoting democracy around the world. How do we know this is true? Because the government says so, all the time.
“Democracy and respect for human rights have long been central components of U.S. foreign policy,” claims the State Department. “Supporting democracy not only promotes such fundamental American values as religious freedom and worker rights, but also helps create a more secure, stable and prosperous global arena in which the United States can advance its national interests.”
Idealists would say this is a very benevolent sounding notion. Realists might say it is vacuous and inane. But the media, textbooks, even human rights organizations choose to propagate the idealistic version and claim as an article of faith that the United States does not just practice democracy, but embodies the very idea itself.
Democracy is used as a justification for everything the government does – domestically and abroad. Since the U.S. is the embodiment of democracy and democracy is good, then everything the U.S. does is good, by definition.
But it’s not very often that anyone bothers to actually analyze this. Other than being an abstract concept, what actually is democracy and how does the U.S. fit this definition?’
“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” ~ Albert Camus
“For the first time in history,” Bertrand Russell asserted in reflecting on the impact of the Industrial Revolution, “it is now possible … to create a world where everybody shall have a reasonable chance of happiness.” Indeed, we’ve pounced on that chance with overzealous want: Ours is a culture so consumed with the relentless pursuit of happiness, its secrets and its science, that it layers over the already uncomfortable state of unhappiness a stigma of humiliation and shame. But unhappiness can have its own dignity and can tell us as much, if not more, about who we are than happiness. That’s precisely what French philosopher and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, born 100 years ago today, considers in a portion of his private writings, collected in Notebooks 1951–1959.
‘Radical’ Publisher Claims Copyright On Free Collection Of Marx And Engels Works; Orders Them Taken Down
I have to admit that I had no idea that the Marxist Internet Archive was even a thing, but apparently it is. And it’s in the midst of a copyright fight, because some folks representing publisher Lawrence & Wishart — who, it should be noted, declare themselves as “independent radical publishers” — have claimed a copyright on many of Marx and Engels’ works, and forced them offline. To be fair, the book they’re concerned about is the Marx/Engels Collected Works, which was translated and put together over the past few decades — meaning that new and unique elements of it may very well be under copyright. However, the underlying material, written in the mid-19th century, is absolutely in the public domain. And, yes, the Archive says that other translations of many of the same works will remain online, but the whole thing seems bizarre — especially given the general views of Marx and Engels.
‘Abby Martin speaks with Alex & Allyson Grey, the most prolific psychedelic artists in the world, discussing the role of transcendentalism, spirituality and entheogenic drugs have played in their art and personal lives, as well as their work on the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors.’ (Breaking the Set)
The Zombification of the West (and the need for inner tranquillity in order to avoid authoritarianism)
The preamble of the US Constitution contains this prodigious message: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. … ” Words can be powerful, especially poetic words that carry loads of meaning. But do we today live according to these constitutional principles? Or to put it differently, what did Western governments do in recent years to establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility?
Well, first they helped our inner tranquility by dusting off medieval practices like waterboarding and humiliation; they simply tortured people. Next, they hypnotically repeated the unjust idea that taxpayers, not the unregulated banking sector, were the root cause of our economic problems. And to further our calm, they extended the use of secret evidence; they spied upon us and increased the instalation of cameras on every corner of our streets. This process toward possible authoritarianism is still far from over. Somehow, we all seem to accept this McCarthyist paranoia. That highlights the following question: what is going on in the West? Why do we have this uneasiness inside our minds that makes all of this possible? Why do we forget the lessons about tranquility our ancestors once wrote down?
According to an AP-GfK poll conducted last month, most Americans don’t trust each other. Only a third are inclined to put their faith in fellow Americans. We do not assume the best in each other anymore, and this is evidenced even and especially in the workings of our government.
This reflects the disintegration of the middle in American politics, the predominance of ideology and the absence of a truly centrist way of thinking.
In an environment where everybody assumes everyone else is wrong about everything, nothing gets done. This is the way conservatives feel about liberals, and vice-versa. It is the vanity of ideology, the disregard of practicality. Yet the thinkers that both sides trace their intellectual heritage to were much more balanced in their viewpoints than are their modern acolytes.
Consciousness is one of the great mysteries of science – perhaps the greatest mystery. We all know we have it, when we think, when we dream, when we savour tastes and aromas, when we hear a great symphony, when we fall in love, and it is surely the most intimate, the most sapient, the most personal part of ourselves. Yet no one can really claim to have understood and explained it completely. There’s no doubt it’s associated with the brain in some way but the nature of that association is far from clear. In particular how do these three pounds of material stuff inside our skulls allow us to have experiences?
Professor David Chalmers of the Australian National University has dubbed this the “hard problem” of consciousness; but many scientists, particularly those (still in the majority) who are philosophically inclined to believe that all phenomena can be reduced to material interactions, deny that any problem exists. To them it seems self-evident that physical processes within the stuff of the brain produce consciousness rather in the way that a generator produces electricity – i.e. consciousness is an “epiphenomenon” of brain activity. And they see it as equally obvious that there cannot be such things as conscious survival of death or out-of-body experiences since both consciousness and experience are confined to the brain and must die when the brain dies.
Yet other scientists with equally impressive credentials are not so sure and are increasingly willing to consider a very different analogy – namely that the relationship of consciousness to the brain may be less like the relationship of the generator to the electricity it produces and more like the relationship of the TV signal to the TV set. In that case when the TV set is destroyed – dead – the signal still continues. Nothing in the present state of knowledge of neuroscience rules this revolutionary possibility out. True, if you damage certain areas of the brain certain areas of consciousness are compromised, but this does not prove that those areas of the brain generate the relevant areas of consciousness. If you were to damage certain areas of your TV set the picture would deteriorate or vanish but the TV signal would remain intact.
We are, in other words, confronted by at least as much mystery as fact around the subject of consciousness and this being the case we should remember that what seems obvious and self-evident to one generation may not seem at all obvious or self-evident to the next. For hundreds of years it was obvious and self-evident to the greatest human minds that the sun moved around the earth – one need only look to the sky, they said, to see the truth of this proposition. Indeed those who maintained the revolutionary view that the earth moved around the sun faced the Inquisition and death by burning at the stake. Yet as it turned out the revolutionaries were right and orthodoxy was terribly, ridiculously wrong.
The same may well prove to be true with the mystery of consciousness. Yes, it does seem obvious and self-evident that the brain produces it (the generator analogy), but this is a deduction from incomplete data and categorically NOT yet an established and irrefutable fact. New discoveries may force materialist science to rescind this theory in favour of something more like the TV analogy in which the brain comes to be understood as a transceiver rather than as a generator of consciousness and in which consciousness is recognized as fundamentally “non-local” in nature – perhaps even as one of the basic driving forces of the universe. At the very least we should withhold judgment on this “hard problem” until more evidence is in and view with suspicion those who hold dogmatic and ideological views about the nature of consciousness.
It’s at this point that the whole seemingly academic issue becomes intensely political and current because modern technological society idealises and is monopolistically focused on only one state of consciousness – the alert, problem-solving state of consciousness that makes us efficient producers and consumers of material goods and services. At the same time our society seeks to police and control a wide range of other “altered” states of consciousness on the basis of the unproven proposition that consciousness is generated by the brain.
I refer here to the so-called “war on drugs” which is really better understood as a war on consciousness and which maintains, supposedly in the interests of society, that we as adults do not have the right or maturity to make sovereign decisions about our own consciousness and about the states of consciousness we wish to explore and embrace. This extraordinary imposition on adult cognitive liberty is justified by the idea that our brain activity, disturbed by drugs, will adversely impact our behaviour towards others. Yet anyone who pauses to think seriously for even a moment must realize that we already have adequate laws that govern adverse behaviour towards others and that the real purpose of the “war on drugs” must therefore be to bear down on consciousness itself.
Confirmation that this is so came from the last British Labour government. It declared that its drug policy would be based on scientific evidence yet in 2009 it sacked Professor David Nutt, Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, for stating the simple statistical fact that cannabis is less dangerous (in terms of measured “harms”) than tobacco and alcohol and that ecstasy is less dangerous than horse-riding. Clearly what was at play here were ideological issues of great importance to the powers that be. And this is an ideology that sticks stubbornly in place regardless of changes in the complexion of the government of the day. The present Conservative-Liberal coalition remains just as adamant in its enforcement of the so-called war on drugs as its Labour predecessor, and continues in the name of this “war” to pour public money – our money – into large, armed, drug-enforcement bureaucracies which are entitled to break down our doors at dead of night, invade our homes, ruin our reputations and put us behind bars.
All of this, we have been persuaded, is in our own interests. Yet if we as adults are not free to make sovereign decisions – right or wrong – about our own consciousness, that most intimate, that most sapient, that most personal part of ourselves, then in what useful sense can we be said to be free at all? And how are we to begin to take real and meaningful responsibility for all the other aspects of our lives when our governments seek to disenfranchise us from this most fundamental of all human rights and responsibilities?
In this connection it is interesting to note that our society has no objection to altering consciousness per se. On the contrary many consciousness-altering drugs, such as Prozac, Seroxat, Ritalin and alcohol, are either massively over-prescribed or freely available today, and make huge fortunes for their manufacturers, but remain entirely legal despite causing obvious harms. Could this be because such legal drugs do not alter consciousness in ways that threaten the monopolistic dominance of the alert problem-solving state of consciousness, while a good number of illegal drugs, such as cannabis, LSD, DMT and psilocybin, do?
There is a revolution in the making here, and what is at stake transcends the case for cognitive liberty as an essential and inalienable adult human right. If it turns out that the brain is not a generator but a transceiver of consciousness then we must consider some little-known scientific research that points to a seemingly outlandish possibility, namely that a particular category of illegal drugs, the hallucinogens such as LSD, DMT and psilocybin, may alter the receiver wavelength of the brain and allow us to gain contact with intelligent non-material entities, “light beings”, “spirits”, “machine elves” (as Terence McKenna called them) – perhaps even the inhabitants of other dimensions. This possibility is regarded as plain fact by shamans in hunter-gatherer societies who for thousands of years have made use of visionary plants and fungi to enter and interact with what they construe as the “spirit world”. Intriguingly it was also specifically envisaged by Dr Rick Strassman, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, following his ground-breaking research with human volunteers and DMT carried out in the 1990’s – a project that produced findings with shattering implications for our understanding of the nature of reality. For further information on Strassman’s revolutionary work see his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule.