Living On the Edge of the Herd
By Barrett Moore
"Today, the first step we must take toward safety is to admit that our safety is not guaranteed."
Today's Americans have convinced themselves that they are sophisticated and rational. They have education, technology and wealth. The narrow-mindedness of old has been swept away. We know the world isn't flat, and we don't burn witches. We believe we are enlightened, know how to live comfortably, and will avoid repeating the Dark Ages. We are, however, deluding ourselves. A new dark age may be around the corner. Wisdom subsists in learning from the past. Our age has forgotten the past even as we repeat its mistakes. The market bubble of the 1920s turned into the Great Depression, which led to the Second World War. The market bubble of our time may have already initiated a similar sequence.
In spite of our high levels of education and broad access to information, we Americans are all still infected, to some degree, by erroneous ideas. Those who want our money and perhaps our blind, unquestioning loyalty subject us to a constant barrage of propaganda. Enemies, as well as friends, want to influence us. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, it is increasingly difficult for us to distinguish truth from lies. Nonsense is dressed up as truth, and we are inclined to believe what is convenient or what makes us feel good-in particular, the idea that our nation, our lifestyle, and our future are secure against its enemies.
Very few can see the big picture without being misled. We all have innate biases that limit our objectivity. This paper seeks to describe the problem of popular error as it relates to the most dangerous self-deception of our time. The cult of economic optimism, fueled by the logic of market hedonism, urges us to the denial of danger. Vigilance and preparedness are inconvenient. It is easier to believe that tomorrow will be as secure and prosperous as yesterday. Everyone and anyone comment on what the future holds, no matter their lack of qualifications or level of ignorance. And, for some reason, many listen, imperiling the safety of all. Today, the first step we must take toward safety is to admit that our safety is not guaranteed. This admission alone will put us out "on the edge of the herd."
The French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested that even if we cannot prove God's existence, we should live as though God does exist - because we have, comparatively, nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing so. This is called "Pascal's Wager." In a world where biological and nuclear weapons are being deployed and we depend on distant supply chains for our daily sustenance, we introduce an analogous "Preparedness Wager": Although we experienced security and prosperity in the past, we should live as if these will cease tomorrow - comparatively speaking, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by making basic preparations for an insecure future.
America's Dangerous Delusion
"The fact that Western civilization in general, and America in particular, has enjoyed two or three centuries of material progress does not prove anything with regard to the next century."
Because of America's history of prosperity and technological innovation, most Americans take progress for granted. It is seen as a given; a broadly accepted doctrine assuming the steady and linear improvement of mankind's material and social condition over the ages. This is a dangerous conceit.
The fact that Western civilization in general and America in particular has enjoyed two or three centuries of material progress does not prove anything with regard to the next century.
The celebrated economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto elegantly demonstrated the absurdity of "progress" by an historical proof related to the theory of compound interest. In Vol. IV of The Mind and Society, he wrote: "A centime placed on compound interest at the rate of 4 per cent at the time of the birth of Christ would yield by the year 1900 a fabulous amount in francs represented by 23 followed by 29 zeroes. [More exactly the figure 23,085 followed by 26 zeroes.] Assuming the Earth was made entirely of gold, thirty-one such Earths would be necessary to cash that sum in gold."
According to Pareto, this mathematical demonstration shows that current assumptions about economic growth "cannot hold during centuries to come...." History shows that "the continuous accumulation [of wealth] is made impossible by successive destructions of wealth." In other words, social catastrophes of great scope periodically occur. Pareto lists them as follows: "wars, revolutions, epidemics, plundering and burnings, wastage of all sorts." Pareto further explained: "In human societies, as known in historical times, the producers and holders of savings are continually being robbed of them."
It is well known that material progress depends on respect for property rights. And it is a fact that property rights are insecure at all times and everywhere. Here we touch on another American delusion, namely, that American property is secure against politics and war. The regularity with which property is plundered, wasted or destroyed suggests that property rights can never be entirely assured against enemies, whether foreign or domestic. America is no exception.
Burckhardt's Three Powers
"Hard times are approaching, and the country isn't ready."
America has lost its bearings. Its misplaced belief in "progress" and the perfectibility of man has led America's political culture down a dead end path. Danger approaches, but the culture refuses to see the danger - or make the sacrifices necessary to avert it. Its citizens dream of affluence while that affluence is ebbing away. The government promises a solution, but the government cannot save us. Hard times are approaching, and the country isn't ready.
More than a hundred years ago, cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt described three "powers" at work in every civilization - the state, religion, and culture. " These powers, he explained, "cannot be coordinated...." Each performs an essential role.
It would be ideal if each of the three powers operated in balance. But in every age, in every nation, one power tends to be active while the others are passive. According to Burckhardt, "There are primarily political and primarily religious epochs, and finally epochs which seem to live for the great purpose of culture." These latter epochs are hedonistic, marked by a weakening of the state's protective function and of religion. Here strict moral rules are set aside and permissiveness becomes the fashion. Although the state may appear strong, it is actually weak and ineffectual.
One might ask, then, what becomes of a society in which culture has taken first place and the guiding authority of state and religion are largely gone? The society descends into a disintegrated, narcissistic egoism. The effects of this process have been described, in our day, by thinkers like Christopher Lasch, David Callahan and Jean Twenge in books with titles like The Culture of Narcissism, The Cheating Culture and Generation ME. The corresponding intellectual decline has been outlined in Rudolf Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read and Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation.
From Debt Addiction to Revolution
"The tendency of the rising generation to demand more for itself means that the economy must continue to grow... But nothing can grow forever."
More than 100 years ago, Guglielmo Ferrero (The Greatness and Decline of Rome) claimed to have found a "key that opens at the same time many mysteries in Roman and in contemporary life."
The great changes that overtake nations and empires may be traced to the progressive advance of what Ferrero called "the increase of wants" and "the advance of luxury." A man raised on a farm during the Great Depression learns to be frugal. His grandchildren learn to be compulsive shoppers. "The increase of wants and of luxury," wrote Ferrero, "continues ... in the new generation, in the children, who began to live in the ease which their fathers won after long effort and fatigue...."
The tendency of the rising generation to demand more for itself means that the economy must continue to grow. As Ferrero explained, "no generation can live quietly on the wealth gathered...." And so, economic growth becomes the centerpiece of government policy. Everything is arranged to facilitate economic progress. Everyone is required to believe in this type of progress, if only to keep the great wheel of Investment and Return in motion. But nothing can grow forever. Eventually growth sputters and people begin consuming on credit. When domestic credit is exhausted they rely on foreign credit.
The poet Horace described the process in three verses regarding four successive generations of Romans: "Our fathers were worse than our grandfathers; we have deteriorated from our fathers; our sons will cause us to be lamented." The Roman historian, Titus Livy, wrote: "Rome was originally, when it was poor and small, a unique example of austere virtue; then it corrupted, it spoiled, it rotted itself by all the vices; so, little by little, we have been brought into the present condition, in which we are able neither to tolerate the evils from which we suffer, nor the remedies we need to cure them."
People are often spoiled by success. They are not merely spoiled in economic terms, but in political terms as well. In keeping with the advance of decadence, politicians make ever-more extravagant promises (with ever-more destructive implications for the larger economy). As the individual's desires become the main focus of existence, the relations between the sexes are transformed, and the birth rate falls. The stability and security of the nation is compromised.
According to Ferrero, "To satisfy their wants, to pay their debts, the classes [of Rome] now set upon each other, in the cruelest civil war that history records.... In the great revolutions ... the debt-burdened middle classes seek to rehabilitate themselves by robbing the plutocracy and the aristocracy...." And so, the true cause of wars and revolutions, said Ferrero, may be found in private habits of spending and borrowing. "Modern civilization has made it a duty for each one to spend, to enjoy, to waste as much as he can, without any disturbing thought as to the ultimate consequences of what he does," noted Ferrero.
By some accounts, Americans have the lowest savings rate since 1929. As of this writing, the U.S. national debt exceeds $11 trillion. If one takes account of all future U.S. government obligations, including pensions and social security, we are talking about a sum exceeding $70 trillion. If history is any indication, America is in trouble.
Revolutionary Psychology and the Sequence of Upheaval
"It is folly to expect that the next ten years will be like the previous ten years."
People don't want to see what is coming, so they stick their heads in the sand. Saving oneself requires effort, and most people are lazy. Better to deny a problem, and hope for the best.
Pascal once wrote, "Man would fain be great and sees that he is little; would fain be happy and sees that he is miserable; would fain be perfect and sees that he is full of imperfections; would fain be the object of the love and esteem of men, and sees that his faults merit only their aversion and contempt. The embarrassment wherein he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passions imaginable, for he conceives a mortal hatred against that truth which blames him and convinces him of his faults."
Through Pascal's insight, we may better understand the collective madness that breaks forth during periods of economic distress and political crisis. It seems to happen, again and again, that in a fit of shared inferiority, the mob conceives a mortal hatred of that which was previously successful, dominant and superior. Everything is then overturned. Representatives of the old order are thrown out of power, even executed; property is confiscated and redistributed and war is waged. This happened during the French and Russian revolutions. In fact, it seems to happen to all nations - at one time or another.
The typical sequence of violent upheaval follows a pattern that includes financial crisis, war, revolution and civil war - not necessarily in that order. It is a mistake to think that America, at this present time, is safe or somehow exempt from the usual patterns of history. It is folly to expect that the next ten years will be like the previous ten years.
Public Discourse as Dangerous Nonsense
"Today's television-watching public has a shorter attention span, weaker understanding and smaller vocabulary than the literate farmers and townspeople of the nineteenth century."
In 1986 Neil Postman wrote Entertaining Ourselves to Death: Public Business in the Age of Show Business. "It is my intention in this book," he wrote, "to show ... that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense." The correctness of Postman's argument, spelled out in 11 chapters, is undeniable. We are no longer a literate culture, but a television culture. The structure of our thinking, and the quality of public thought, has undergone a transformation for the worse. Today's television-watching public has a shorter attention span, weaker understanding and smaller vocabulary than the literate farmers and townspeople of the nineteenth century.
In 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in a series of debates. Sometimes the debates would last seven hours. People would come from miles around to hear these debates. They would listen patiently and attentively. "Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk?" asks Postman. "One must begin ... by pointing to the obvious fact that the written word, and an oratory based upon it, has ... propositional content." If we examine public discourse today, noted Postman, we will find "that much of our discourse today has only a marginal propositional content." What we get instead is sensory images that overwhelm the process of thought.
The technological innovations of visual media comprise just one of several devastating "revolutions" that have changed us. If television is decisive in terms of spreading "dangerous nonsense" from without, then birth control and abortion have proved decisive within the family. Thanks to modern birth control, the traditional role of the woman has been eliminated (along with woman's protected status). There arises a new hostility between male and female. The birthrate in developed countries is falling below what is needed for bare/basic replacement; divorce has become an epidemic; one- parent households are on the rise, with attending poverty; the courts regularly intervene into the business of so many broken families. There has arisen from this an emotionally scarred generation, who have difficulty forming stable relationships. None of this is good, especially if a country is about to experience an economic depression.
The collapse of old-fashioned morality is no longer the unworthy complaint of an aging curmudgeon. It is a real phenomenon, observable in everyday life and measurable by social science. For many years the Josephson Institute has conducted surveys on "The Ethics of American Youth." In their 2008 survey, it was discovered that one in three boys (35 percent) and one-fourth of girls (26 percent) admitted stealing from a store within the past year. This is markedly higher than in earlier surveys.
In David Callahan's book, The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, we read: "The fall of trust in the United States over the past forty years has long been discussed and debated. It is well known that Americans trust nearly every institution less than we used to. We're less trusting of government, less trusting of the media, less trusting of religious institutions, and less trusting of lawyers and other professionals."
The social transmogrification that has overtaken us is inwardly devastating, and must eventually produce devastating material losses. Already we can see how Congress has reacted to the economic crisis. When times are good, Congress wants to spend every available penny. When times are bad, Congress wants to spend even more money as a "stimulus" package. The insanity and dishonesty of the process is without comparison.
The remedies and policies of today bear only a superficial resemblance to those of earlier generations. Wishful thinking and utopian notions are combined with unprecedented selfishness and cynicism. Society is led by media performers who don't understand what they are talking about. The public has lost its ability to discern, and often believes what is most unlikely.
The Psychological Crowd
"By the mere fact he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization..."
In 1895 Gustave Le Bon wrote The Psychology of the Crowd. It was a groundbreaking work with a wide following. The book influenced many thinkers and statesmen, from Sigmund Freud to Theodore Roosevelt. Le Bon's book was about mass psychology, and mass behavior. He did not paint a pretty picture. According to Le Bon, "an agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it." Whether a group is large or small, it can develop a collective mentality which makes each member "feel, think and act in a manner quite different ... than if he were in a state of isolation."
The "psychological crowd," wrote Le Bon, "forms a single being and is subject to the law of the mental unity of crowds." Belonging to a crowd weakens critical thought, leading to the acceptance of irrational propositions and morally questionable actions. A crowd is suggestible. The sense of belonging overrides common sense. Ideas are absorbed by a crowd the way a cold virus is absorbed - as if it were infectious. "The conscious personality has entirely vanished," wrote Le Bon. "All feelings and thoughts are bent in the direction determined by the hypnotizer...." One thinks of Hitler, mesmerizing crowds with dramatic gestures and spellbinding speeches.
"The individualities in the crowd who might possess a personality sufficiently strong to resist the suggestions are too few in number to struggle against the current," wrote Le Bon. The hypnotic suggestions of the media, or a skillful demagogue, can make sensible people behave insensibly. It can lead moral people to commit immoral acts. "By the mere fact he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization," noted Le Bon. "Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian - that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows himself to be impressed by words and images ... to be induced to common acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits."
When hypnotized by certain images and words, nations have been known to march toward destruction. During the French Revolution, noted Le Bon, "[u]nited in a crowd, the enlightened citizens of the French Revolutionary Convention did not hesitate to give their consent to the most savage proposals, to guillotine individuals most clearly innocent...." While a crowd might be motivated by benevolence and inspired by courage, everything depends on those that dominate the flow of images and words that crowds feed upon.
As an advertising executive might explain, today's mass audience is cognizant "only of simple and extreme sentiments." As Le Bon explained, "the opinions, ideas and beliefs suggested to them are accepted or rejected as a whole, and considered as absolute truths or as no less absolute errors." There is no nuance, no subtle insight in mass- mindedness. In today's mass media, where American invulnerability is taken for granted, you will not hear realistic talk about mass destruction warfare. The commercial regime knows that so-called "fear-mongering" causes consumers to retrench, to hold onto their money.
"History repeats itself, and we are living in history."
The individual citizen today, more than ever, must think critically and avoid relying on the government. Following "the herd", whether in the stock market or real estate, may lead to serious losses. But there is more at stake than money. We know that wars and revolutions are sometimes born out of economic crisis, and that people caught unprepared lose more than their property. They can lose their lives.
When a country's culture has become decadent, when public opinion has gone astray, when millions wager on the safety of their families, there is no reason to follow suit. The popular notion of America's invulnerability is delusional. This must be understood. History repeats itself, and we are living in history. Under such circumstances it is best to think for oneself. In a world where biological and nuclear weapons are deployed, and just-in-time supply chains are the rule, consider well our Preparedness Wager: Although we experienced security and prosperity in the past, we should live as if these will cease tomorrow -comparatively speaking, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by making basic preparations for an insecure future.