The Dictatorship of Desire
What we call ‘progress’ is really a shifting of lanes, from the one leading to Infinity and the Eternal, to a slipway leading in a circle that traps us into the pursuit of things that fail to satisfy.
Somebody suggested to me recently that, had Ireland remained a religious — by which they meant God-fearing — culture, none of the cruelties, inhumanities, derangements and evils of the past two years could possibly have happened. It’s a comforting thought in that it suggests that such episodes might be avoided in the future by a resurgence of religious belief. But, although I think there is something in it, it is not a simple matter of belief in God. After all, I know of a long-devout Catholic woman who for the past 10 months has been beavering away at a very senior level of the government of another European country turning out fascist decrees with the objective of denying basic human rights — including, in some cases, food and shelter — to her neighbours, in a manner that would have made Signor Mussolini’s teeth blush.
It is a little more complicated. It is not a question of having a tiny god-shaped policeman standing on your shoulder, whispering sweet moral principles into your ear. In a culture that has died religiously, the truly aware — I don’t say truly good, for that would presume too much — mostly stay away from power, even from politics. Moreover, there is no god-shaped policeman without a culture to feed him.
One of the things that happen is that people continue to act out religious rituals, intone sacred language, or maintain pious demeanours as a mode of identity that enables implicit claims of virtue, which they will maintain until the cultural climate makes it necessary to switch to other modes of self-presentation. Another is that religious concepts become appropriated by elites and regimes in post-religious contexts in order to manipulate residual elements of the religious mindset in the population.
It has been repeatedly stated in the Time of Covid that ‘this is a spiritual battle’. In several senses this can be agreed with: It relates to attacking or defending the very metaphysicality of man; it sets the technical-material account of man’s structure against the spiritual understanding; it relates to a battle concerning mortality, seeking to claim a quasi-immortality for man by which death is defeated without godly intervention. In this regard, it has frequently been remarked that the ‘Covid Project’ (® World Bank) has usurped many of the devices of religion — ritual, mantras, iconography, Commandments, penitential rites, Original Sin — to tap into residual religiosity and harness it to that project. But it is also a bogus spiritual battle — firstly because of that appropriation, but also because it is, in a sense, the opposite: a profane battle being fought out under the rubric of the sacred. Many religious people, for example, instantly jumped upon some of the iconography and effects of the Covid measures as the fulfilment of Biblical prophecies — e.g. the prophecy in Revelation 13:17, ‘that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark or the name of the beast or the number of his name’ being fulfilled in the rollout of vaccine passports et cetera. On its face, it may certainly seem so. There is, however, an alternative explanation for this. Indeed there are several — one being pure coincidence. A more sinister possibility is that the orchestrators of the ‘project’ have deliberately designed things to look like the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy so as to agitate religious-minded people in precisely the way one might expect it to.
In an interview with Steven Edginton of The Daily Telegraph in September 2021, Dr. Jordan Peterson describes what he called the ‘spilling-over of the profane into the religious.
‘One of the things that’s happening to us is that the political has collapsed into the religious. So, there’s this New Testament statement that Christ made: It’s an unbelievable impactful statement It’s a statement that is in some sense miraculous in its effects: ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.’ And, you know, the entire formal separation of church and state in the Western world is a consequence of that statement. You just think of that — how impactful that statement was. That’s literally the case. I don’t care if you’re religious or not, it’s irrelevant. Historically, that’s the case — that statement did that. So that’s a miracle in some real sense. Well, that’s true psychologically as well as politically — there’s a domain that’s sacred and there’s a domain that’s profane, and that’s true psychologically. And if you don’t keep those separate, the sacred contaminates the profane; or, alternatively, the profane gets inflated into the sacred. And that’s a catastrophe, because then everything becomes emotionally overwrought. Because you’re no longer a political enemy, you’re an “emissary of Satan. . . .” If the profane becomes inflated with the sacred, then you demonise your enemies. And then maybe you sacralise yourself, as well, and that’s not so good, you know. I mean, you’re an environmentalist — are you sure you’re not the Messiah? Are you sure that’s not what you’re doing? You’re the Saviour of the planet. It’s like, are you sure that’s so good for your ego? And . . . it’s not, it’s not, it’s not. You know, the earth has to orbit the sun, in Jung’s terminology, and if it falls into the sun it’s a catastrophe. All sorts of discussions we’re having are becoming inflated with religious concerns. And, you know, on the materialist-atheist side — let’s say the ‘scientific’ side, although it’s not really that, there’s the insistence that religion is nothing but a set of mistaken scientific propositions about the nature of reality, and that’s not a very sophisticated analysis.’
This has nothing, he says, to do with questions of belief in God, or the question of whether God exists. ‘That’s not the issue here. The issue is we have a religious instinct. And the question is: Why? And then the question is what happens when it’s not nourished? Where does it go? What does it do? Well, the rationalist idea is, “Well, if we get rid of all that superstitious claptrap, we’ll just be like straight rationalist materialists, and the world will move in a positive direction.” No! No! Wrong! Too simple! Where do we get our values? And that’s the conversation I’m trying to have with people — that’s a big part of it. Look, science does not provide values. We need values, or nihilism reigns, and do you want that? No? So where do we get our values? And if there are values, are some values higher than others? And, if so, what are the highest values? And what are they opposed to, and how do we embody them? These aren’t conversations for children. This is serious stuff, and it’s underneath all this noise and terror that we see things playing out so destructively. You see what that does to your soul? You’re on Twitter, you get tangled up in all these political arguments — it just hurts you. It’s not good for you. And, so, I’m trying to figure out what’s going on underneath that, and what we need to do about it.’
Political fanaticism, he says, is part of the danger of the contamination of the profane with the sacred. ‘It’s exactly that. Because, you see, there’s an instinct that pulls you into that, say, conspiratorial and over-committed and rapid form of thinking. What you’re doing is you’re manifesting religious devotion — to a set of ideas, let’s say, that don’t warrant that worship. And what is worship? Worship is what you imitate. That’s what it is. To worship something is to imitate it. That’s what it means, most fundamentally. Well, be careful what you worship. Be careful. And you think: Well, I don’t have to worship anything. It’s like, ‘Oho, that’s what you think, is it? Well, don’t be so sure that all those people who lived before us who did believe that you had to worship something, and that you should be very careful about what it was — don’t be so bloody sure they were stupider than you!’
Allowing for the usual caveat that Dr. Peterson would do well to reflect on the way he tends to use the word ‘conspiratorial’ (he seems to mean those who call out conspirators rather than the conspirators themselves), this analysis might be widely applied to contemporary public discourse. The danger is that there are already lots of people seeking to cover up their conspiracies by projecting the conspiring on to the whistle-blowers. But his point is valid in the round, and he goes on:
‘Let’s say that we’re prone to religious fervour, because we need to be committed to what is important. Well, then we need to figure out where that instinct should be oriented. And this is why I’m so interested in the idea of the Logos, because that is the Western world’s attempt to answer that question. What is this Logos? Well, it’s the root-word of logic, so rationality is embedded in it. It’s a very important part of that. It’s also that element of consciousness that interacts with the ground of Being to produce phenomena, to produce experience. The world of experience. It’s a world-engendering force. It’s an ethical demand as well. So you see that in your wrestling with your conscience, which is a virtually universal experience. What is that exactly, that ‘wrestling with your conscience’? Why can’t you just tell yourself what to do and you listen? Well, you’re not like that. Something in you resists. Well, what is that thing that resists? And what’s it related to? That’s the ‘union self’, by the way, technically speaking; It’s the totality of what you could be, manifesting itself in objection to your narrow-minded rational fervour, let’s say, something like that. So you want to be religious about the right things.’
When society forgets its moral values, he says, nihilism and terror reign. It would be foolish to argue with that. But it is about much more than ‘values’. Religion brings (or brought) also a multiplicity of other qualities that we still throw around as though they grew on trees: Hope, for example, (a need, not a value); empathy (a feeling, not a value); desire (a force not a value) — all these, and others, are part of the inheritance the world seems intent upon throwing away. But Peterson is right in saying that the political battles of the world have come to be fought out in the domain of religious ideation — at least in the sense that they are fought in the tones of dogma and with all the outward appearances of what is pejoratively termed ‘superstition’. There has not really been a cessation of ‘blind belief’, just a transference of faith from the realm of the sacred to the arena of the profane.
The key is what happens when faith in a deity dies within a society. The general conjecture of such cultures is that they become less ‘superstitious’ and timid, more ‘rational’ and smarter. This is delusional, for it shows they have overlooked many things about how religion works in the human imagination. In reality, a ‘post-religious’ culture is simply one who has supplanted the objects of spiritual and religious desiring with objects that appear to be the antithesis but in reality function in pretty much the same way within the human psyche. ‘Love of God’ is replaced by ‘love of things’ — materialism, of a type — and the deity is replaced by a bunch of largely self-appointed men in shiny suits, but the generality of people continue about their lives in much the same way as before, except now, having no One to talk to, they just watch TV.
At the collective level, the new focus of adoration is rarely acknowledged as ‘love of things’, but is called ‘love of progress’, which essentially amounts to the same — so to speak — thing.
And herein lies the most ominous aspect: In a religious society, God ordains all things: Things happen because He has willed them. There is a complex connection between this concept and the desires of the people, amounting to a kind of limiting or moderating of that desire. In a properly functioning religious society, the people and their leaders are one — leaders are genuinely representative — and so that which is desired is subject to checks and attenuations based on the idea of the Good of the community assessed at an elevated level. The process of decision-making is primed with asceticism, humility, postponement, sublimation, and above all a love of God that supersedes everything and therefore puts all wants and longings into a certain perspective. God ordains the future, and in it may be many things that wil make the people happier, but this is a matter to be decided in the osmotic process of hoping, praying, working, more praying — and ultimately in accepting the outcome, embracing God’s ‘gifts’ and letting go of those desires that he has silently said No to.
In a materialist society, all this goes by the wayside, and the desires of the populace are allowed to become unchecked. In itself, this would not be fatal, for reality has built into it a system of immutable ‘laws’ that set limits on the outcomes of man’s desiring — laws not in the sense of statutes but more like the law of gravity, which punishes man’s attempts to defy it. What we call ‘progress’ is really a shifting of lanes, from the one leading to Infinity and the Eternal — the religiously-defined ‘objects of desire’ — to a slipway leading into a circle that traps us into the pursuit of things that fail to satisfy our desires.
The even bigger problem enters in by virtue of the desiring of the shiny-suited caste to occupy the throne formerly occupied by God. The way this expresses itself is chiefly by virtue of the shift in emphasis that characterises how the future is regarded. Now, the desires of the populace become a matter for the deliberation and manipulation of the shiny-suits, who seek to steer the people towards things that will maximise their power and facilitate their control of the future. By controlling the minds of the people, they control also the future. By convincing the people that they are capable of changing the future in a manner more accommodating of their desires than God used to be, they acquire and hold on to power. But this is an attempt to, as it were, defy gravity, and under normal conditions is prone to failure.
This is the root of the totalitarian impulse. The key difference between totalitarianism and classical dictatorship is that totalitarianism seeks at first to manipulate the people into following the leader(s) on the basis of their wooings and promises. This is achieved by the promise of securing the future, either through the dispersal of fear or the insinuation in the minds of the populace of a prosperous and glorious outlook. The tyranny arises because this is impossible, and only fear can keep the people corralled when their expectations have been shattered.
This is what Václav Havel meant in his 1987 essay, Stories and Totalitarianism, in which he explained the deep nature of totalitarianism as the ‘assassination of history’ to achieve both ‘nihilisation of the past’ and mastery over the future. This involves removing from history — from the people’s outlook on the future — of human choice, mystery and autonomy. Because God is no longer in charge, the limits set on human desiring in reality have no possibility of being buffered so as to moderate the people’s expectations, and so the only option is to control both human desiring and, to the extent this is possible, the future itself. In this dispensation, human beings are cultivated to desire that which the totalitarians tell them is good for them, and nothing else. History becomes a fixed sequence of unfolding inevitabilities, and the lot of human beings is merely to acquiesce and embrace what is pressed upon them, thinking ‘This is what we have always wanted.’ This model of government is inevitably accompanied by terror, mass formation and coercion because, sooner or later, the people realise that they are not in the least happy.
All this is implicit in the political understanding of the word ‘progress’. Progress is not something serendipitous, but something preordained. It is not mysterious, not capricious, not unpredictable, and therefore not human. The word ‘progressive’, then, as used ideologically, is a synonym for totalitarian. Almost all Western societies have contained the seeds of such a system for a long time, and now the totalitarian system rolls out as though everyone had been expecting it, as though it were the inevitable Next Big Thing.
At the core of the progress project that propels modern man is a nexus of ideology that remains invisible, inaudible, subject to denial. The things that happen, generally speaking, appear to happen unavoidably, or naturally, or for the best of reasons, and are therefore resistant to questioning. They are — are they not? — the outcomes of human desiring mediated through politics. Moreover, the very naming of the process as ‘progress’ has insulated it from criticism or questioning. The point of progress, after all, is the fulfillment of human happiness, and who could be opposed to that?
But there is something else going on, or perhaps a whole slew of inter-related ‘something elses’, which, because they seem to snuggle into the contours of our culture, do not come to general attention. Even if we were disposed to notice them, the language lets us down. There are no words that are not already ‘owned’, which is to say ideologically colonised, and it is therefore difficult to describe these phenomena without sounding a little unhinged.
And yet, all the time, our cultures are changed by these developments, and always for the worse. The scale of progress in our societies is undeniable, but happiness does not unfold on a proportionate basis. Yet, much of the time we agree to attribute this shortfall of happiness implicitly to the idea that we are still in a period of transition between the unintelligent past and the enlightened future, awaiting and preparing for the moment when perfection descends upon us. Regarding things otherwise is defined by the governing ideology as a reactionary activity, motivated by sentimentality, ignorance, nostalgia or malign political intent. Thus, our cultures provide alibis for their drifts, much as a creature develops needles or an outer skin to protect itself from predators and the elements. All the time, the organism of culture shifts and heaves around us, trapping us in the present, cutting us off from the channels of wisdom that might caution against the blandishments of the market and the culture, and the brands of freedom they seduce us with.
There are many complex forces at work in this. In order to make these changes possible, for instance, it has been necessary to designate certain activities as antiquated and obsolete, others as vibrant and essential. It has also been necessary to communicate this classification, discreetly and discretely, to each and every heart and mind, so that no compulsion is required, or at least no overt compulsion, and especially not in the early stages. Our cultures now execute such functions automatically, without being required to state their intentions. The resulting model of ‘progress’ renders this process of classification easier as it goes, of course, since the destruction of the memory banks once provided by tradition eliminates any sense of a continuity that might alert humanity to what it is doing to itself. This represents the vindication of the prophecy in Orwell’s 1984: ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’
All this seems random, accidental, and yet its drift is assured and steady. There is no architect, at least none that is identifiable. There appears to be no one to blame or praise. The process is as though naturalistic, spontaneous, arising from the chronology of time rather than from human intervention or machination. It rarely relents or pauses, but presses on as though possessed of a mind of its own. In a certain sense, it has a mind of its own: it makes its own mind as it goes.
Classical tyrannies, as Vaclav Havel observed in The Power of the Powerless, were characterised by their stifling of freedom, whereas the modern world is distinguished by a new form of dictatorship, marked by a perversion of freedom. Havel’s writings make frequent reference to the idea of Western democracy as merely marginally a step up from Soviet communism, which he called ‘a convex-mirror image’ of the democratic-consumerist West. It is a mistake to see Havel as merely an anti-Communist dissident, since he goes deeper, to talk always of a ‘freedom’ which he understands not as mere political freedom, but something greater by far. In that essay, Havel constructed a profile of the impact of political life on the human person, using the workings of communism to identify in magnified form the conditions he believed to exist in diluted quantities in Western societies.
At the core of the modern forms of dictatorship, he wrote, is the phenomenon of ideology, which he described as ‘almost’ a secularised religion. In an era of increasing atomisation, alienation and collapsing metaphysical certainties, ideology acquires ‘a certain hypnotic charm’.
His description is remarkably akin to the recent description by the Belgian psychologist Mattias Desmet of the way the ‘free-floating anxieties’ of Western populations have been appropriated in the Covid cult by offering what seems like the panaceas of new social connection and meaning. Havel, who died ten years ago this week, continues:
‘To wandering humankind, it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on a new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle involved here is that the centre of power is identical with the centre of truth.’
Havel pointed out that the Soviet system had, on account of its long history of relationships with the West, acquired many of the values — intellectual, psychological and social — of the type of consumer and industrial society long familiar on the other side of the Iron Curtain. This, he noted, had been a key factor in the longevity of the Soviet system. He defined the Soviet regime as a ‘post-totalitarian’ system, by which he meant not that communism had put totalitarianism behind it, but that it was fundamentally different not just from classical dictatorships but from totalitarianism as conventionally understood. In a ‘post-totalitarian’ system, those who conform to the dictates of the regime become ‘both victims of the system and its instruments’, and this is merely one aspect — albeit a particularly drastic one — of the general inability of modern humanity to be the master of its own situation. ‘The automatism of the post-totalitarian system is merely an extreme version of the global automatism of technological civilization’, he wrote. ‘The human failure that it mirrors is only one variant of the general failure of modern humanity’.
And not only was there no real evidence that Western democracy, ‘of the traditional parliamentary type’, offers solutions that are any more profound, but perhaps ‘the more room there is in the Western democracies (compared to our world) for the genuine aims of life, the better the crisis is hidden from people and the more deeply do they become immersed in it.’ Traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilisation and industrial-consumer society, for their peoples, too, are being dragged helplessly along.
People, he argued, are manipulated in democratic societies in ways ‘infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies’. Modern democracy, with its systems of political apparatuses and professional representation, releases the citizen from direct responsibility for many aspects of his life, filling the gap with consumerism, information and other manipulative forms of distraction. This, Havel drily noted, ‘can only at a stretch be regarded as the answer to humanity’s questions about itself.’
A related argument has been advanced by the Spanish novelist, journalist and Catholic convert, Juan Manuel de Prada — in recent years a controversial figure in the Spanish press for his strong, traditionalist positions on social issues. In a collection of his journalism published in 2009, La nueva tiranía. El sentido común frente al Mátrix progre (Libros Libres) — ‘The New Tyranny: Common Sense versus the Progressive Matrix’ — De Prada illuminates the ways in which such a new form of dictatorship might be operating in modern cultures to block us off from the authentic condition of our own humanity. The ‘progressive Matrix’ is de Prada's term for the grand deception that he sees at work in modern cultures like Spain. ‘The dictatorships of the past stifled personal freedom’, he says. ‘The modern ones induce man to worship himself, and thus deny his own nature.’He, too, has things to say about Caesar.
‘The new tyranny of which we are speaking exalts man to the point of adoration, giving him the opportunity to turn his interests and desires into freedoms and rights, which however are no longer inherent in him by nature, but become the “gracious concessions” of a power that legally ratifies them. And so, turned into a child who contemplates his own whims as these are maximized and satisfied, the man of our time is more than ever the hostage of the assertions of power that guarantee him the enjoyment of all-encompassing liberty and constantly expanding rights. In the classical tyrannies, the subject at least still had the consolation of knowing that he was oppressed by a power that was violating his nature; but those who are subjected to this new tyranny have no consolation other than the protection of the same power that has lifted them up to the altar of adoration. And so without even realizing it man has become a tool in the hands of those who tend to him with painstaking care, as ants tend to aphids before feeding on them.’
The deception that is the ‘progressive Matrix’, represents the central ideological proposal of our time. It is, says de Prada, ‘a mirage, a grand illusion’, which has been adopted by the political right as well as the political left.
‘The progressive Matrix has become a sort of Messianic faith; it has instituted a new order, it has imposed unassailable cultural principles, it has established a new anthropology that, while promising ultimate liberation to man, holds nothing for him but future suicide. And standing against this new order is only the religious order, which restores to man his true nature and offers him a correct view of the world that undermines the foundations of the trompe-l'oeil [optical illusion] on which the new tyranny is based, dispelling its falsehoods.’
‘Rampant secularism,’ de Prada notes, ‘accuses the Church of meddling in politics, citing for support the Gospel passage that is typically flourished by those who do not read the Gospel: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.” But what is it that belongs to Caesar? Temporal things, earthly realities; but, naturally, not the principles of the moral order that are born from human nature itself, not the ethical foundations of the temporal order. The new tyranny, which is so intent on expanding the “liberties” of its subjects, denies the Church the liberty of judging the morality of temporal actions, since it knows that this judgment would include a radical subversion of the trompe-l'oeil on which its very existence is based.’ The battle to be fought, de Prada insists, is not ideological, but anthropological, requiring mankind to emerge from the ideological jungle and contemplate again the fundamental nature of the human structure. ‘If it succeeds — if the Matrix is dismantled — men will discover that they do not need to build towers in order to reach heaven, for the simple reason that heaven is already within them, even if the new tyranny seeks to strip it from them.’
By this analysis, one might guess that de Prada would concede Jordan Peterson’s point about the cultural divide in the modern world between Jesus and Caesar, but might hasten to add that — of course — this way of leaving things is misguided and dangerous: Humans belong to the sacred, not the profane.
Quite a few years ago now, I was speaking to a large gathering of Catholics in Ireland — laypeople and some priests — about the state of Irish culture in respect of faith and Christianity. When the time came for questions, a priest, who has a reputation as a left-winger, stood up and said that, contrary to what I had said, there was more to the problems of the Irish church than the culture of materialism I had decried. The funny thing was that I hadn’t mentioned the word ‘materialism’ at all. The nearest I’d come was to suggest that wall-to-wall coverage of economic issues on the radio and TV did not reflect a true engagement with the nature of our continuing difficulties as a people and a nation.
It struck me, not for the first time, that, when you talk about faith or religion, people listen for a while in order to decide which box to put you in. This priest, who presumably scanned every situation for indicators favourable or unfavourable to his own position, had put me in the box labeled ‘anti-materialist’ and then stopped listening. And, actually, the definition of ‘materialism’ put forward by the priest was remarkably narrow for a Catholic priest, since Catholic theology holds that materialism properly understood from a metaphysical perspective is the elevation of matter — or things, objects — above the spiritual, decreeing that, so to speak, ‘all things’, including human consciousness and mental processes, are the outcomes of material interactions. The priest was actually accessing a common religions trope and using ‘materialism’ as a synonym for ‘consumerism’, a topic he had heard me speaking of, without my having done so.
The idea that ‘materialism’ in this sense is bad is a frequent refrain in many religious contexts. People have come to expect this line from dog-collared males, and to switch off when they hear it. Even within Christian discourse itself, the concept of materialism has become reduced to slogans, whereby it might be interpreted that the apparent Christian disapproval of materialism is merely an objection to money, to the enjoyment of earthly things, and to the pursuit of a life in which the ‘material’ and the ‘spiritual’ remain unintegrated to the detriment of the latter. Hence, the analysis seems to be a purely moralistic one, wagging a finger at self-indulgence and consumerism. Among the many problems associated with this understanding is that it invites quizzical responses, drawing attention to, for example, the church's abundance of fabulous buildings et cetera, thereby provoking charges of hypocrisy and doublethink.
Of course, as I say, the Christian objection to materialism is far more complex than this. It has, in fact, a somewhat different significance than merely an opposition to the concept of materialism as treated in the general discourse, where the condition translates simply as an excessive emphasis on material wants and needs, perhaps to the detriment of a spirit of community and human solidarity. The Christian objection to ‘materialism’ is actually far less abstract than this. It seeks to draw attention to the reduction of man to a biological presence at the mercy of his origins — ‘thinking machine’ rather than ‘embodied spirit’. This perspective on the human, when consolidated in a socio-political context and the attendant conversation, results in the denial of, or obliviousness to, the existence of eternal, absolute and infinite dimensions in the human state of being. This places the emphasis on production, economics and ‘material things’ as the chief paraphernalia of human desiring. Man builds a machine, then imagines himself one, then ‘fuels’ himself to move himself forwards on the face of the earth.
Since the human person is both body and spirit — i.e. indisputably a biological entity — ‘materialism’ in this context does not present immediate incongruencies. It becomes problematic only when unaccompanied by a consciousness of the broader reality of being, when man starts to deny his spiritual dimension so as to avoid the ‘laws’ that accompany it. This absence of awareness — paradoxically — tends to come about as a result of the flattening out of wonder at the very nature of physical existence itself.
The conventional complaints about ‘materialism’, therefore — both ‘religious’ and even sometimes ‘secular’ ones — suggest that man should try to be more ‘spiritual’, perhaps as a leavening for his material nature and pursuits, a kind of counter-balancing of piety and ‘holiness’, or vague ‘otheriness’ of outlook. But really the problem is that man, in his materiality, has become concentrated increasingly in this most visible dimension of himself, assuming his being to reside wholly in this three-dimensional realm, oblivious to the wondrousness of existence, the uniqueness of his subjectivity and consciousness, and that’s just to begin. In our body-centric condition, we overlook that it is out of this very state that we are capable of asking the questions: ‘What is this body in which I live?; Who is this discrete “I” who asks?’ It is as though each of us has had erected in front of us a plate-glass window through which we look into reality, as though into a shop window. We have ceased to be first persons in culture, and have joined the masses of 'third persons', seeking to mimic and emulate the actions and behaviours of the other 'third persons’ all around. We ‘go into’ ourselves, become selfish and self-obsessed, but always in a negative comparison with others. We never become ourselves, and never come to know the ‘I’ that defines us differently to, and discretely from, all other beings.
But, actually, the prospect of a truer understanding of this condition lies precisely in contemplating the physical and material dimensions, for only in this way does the spirit become knowable. There is, even in the densest depths of self-obsession (perhaps especially in this condition in, for example, the narcissism of the teenager who continually wonders why he was born) always an unspoken comparison with something that we do not, or should not, ‘know’. If we think ourselves blessed with existence, it is because we intuit some other dimension of being. Even if we do not, even if — at the extreme — we fight against this existence and want to put an end to it, we imply that there is something else which will come to bear upon us, some peace perhaps, if only the peace of unconsciousness.
All this cries out for awareness of itself. It requires language to enable the thought process that might connect it to other, more everyday thoughts and experiences. But this language has largely atrophied within us, or remains and seems inadequate, too contaminated or arcane, too particular to modes of thinking that the dominating culture tells us are either excessively primitive or simply redundant.
I’ve noticed, then, that, whenever I try to get underneath the surface of things in a language that implies an association with Christianity, I am assumed to be engaging in an attack on ‘materialism’ understood in the most basic way. Invariably, too, it is assumed by those who take it on themselves to answer back on behalf of the culture that I am engaging solely in an exercise in accusation. In fact, most of the time I am seeking to engage in a confession, by offering a commentary on something we are all ensnared or seduced by. So, for the avoidance of doubt, I exclude myself from nothing I am about to observe. Indeed, it is largely from watching my own behaviour, and comparing it with what happens more generally that I have come to observe these things at all.
If you were Inspector Columbo and went to the scene of an incident in which the mystery to be unpicked was The Meaning of A Human Life, you’d have to consider different pieces of evidence, including the way you yourself behave in reality. The first evidence is something inside us, something that makes us ‘go’, and which we notice makes us ‘go’ in a coherent way. We are not like clockwork toys that, being wound up, go around in a circle and then burn out. We are animated, not powered. We are clearly driven in a certain direction, even if we don’t know what that direction is: We get out of bed, we look to the horizon, we step forward, we move towards objects, people, places, we try to resolve things, to answer questions. There is a clear order to our movement, even if we don’t see this order. There is something we are seeking, even though we don’t know what that ‘something’ is.
Man has constructed many things in the world, built many things, out of that seeking. And, in doing this, it’s not that we randomly and arbitrarily decided to organise ourselves to somehow tame some crazy disorder in ourselves. We are following something, seeking order, pursuing some intuited coherence. Our civilisation has come out of that seeking. And each of us is primed with its energies and implicit purposes.
But latterly our cultures have moved from a prior ethos in which the idea of happiness was bound up with a crude religion-centred notion of eternity to an earth-centred dispensation in which the idea of happiness has boomeranged back and begun to hover over the present moment. ‘Heaven’, ‘heavenly’, are matters of how we might look, feel and be. Pure materialism, then, is not merely an excess of spending; it is an altered way of seeing reality.
Few things in the modern world enable us to observe the acting out of human desiring in the context of de Prada’s ‘new tyranny’ like the floor of a busy department store. It goes beyond the sway of shoes, garments, objects. To ‘shop’ is to engage fully with the illusion created on the back of human desire misappropriated. Shopping for clothes or shoes or cars is a way of reconstructing – perfecting – ourselves. A pair of jeans, a BMW, is no longer something to wear or drive, but part of a technology of being. These things, objects, accoutrements, are not merely the objects of our desire but also the instrument of our continual transformation of our bodies — ‘selves’ in as far as we are consciously concerned — into ‘things’ and no more. When we succumb to it, the things we buy ourselves to wear or drive are no longer about looking good for ourselves or even about making us more attractive to others, but a way of reinventing ourselves in accordance with a utopian fantasy of earthly potential, which draws its energy from a transcendental impulse in the process of being denied. It is as if we have plundered our very souls to invent a Paradise for ourselves here and now, or here and soon. This makes us ripe fodder for the totalitarians waiting in the wings, eyeing up the throne of God and wondering if enough time has passed since He ‘passed’ for them to make a lunge for it and have it over with. That which does not serve the transcendent, flirts with service to the totalitarian.
I know, more or less, how advertising gurus manage to push our buttons and tweak our levers in this regard. Pick up any fashion magazine or catalogue and you can see how it’s done, how transparent, efficient and shameless it all is. (These next couple of paragraphs may be somewhat familiar to readers of my weekly Diary.)
On the cover of a brochure I picked up in a boutique I visited with my wife-to-be, there’s a picture of two beautiful blonde women straddling a Harley Davidson. They’re wearing pink trousers and red leather jackets, and looking sultry and seductive. The bike is just sort of standing there underneath them, a third object of desire, presumably standing for the notional man, whom the woman thinking of buying some of these clothes might wish to appeal to. You can almost see him: windswept and capable, brave, untamable, a little oily. Inside the catalogue are pictures of more women astride various bikes. One of them is bent backwards, eyes closed, as though in the heights of sexual passion, one hand raised over her neck, the other clutching the handlebar. Overleaf is a double-page spread, in which we see the backs of two leather-clad James Dean wannabes shuffling down a desert highway, an abandoned tyre by the roadside. Overlaid is a line from J.R.R. Tolkien: ‘Not all those who wander are lost’. Further on, an unattributed injunction urges the reader to ‘Turn off course and travel the wayward road’. Still further, a couple in an open-topped sedan urge the onlooker to ‘Refuse that which is known and seek liberation’. On another page, the reader is urged to ‘Persevere, wayward spirit, forge your path, uncover your truth’. Throughout, the catalogue presents a miasma of suggestion in images ostensibly intended to show off what in truth are no more than moderately interesting garments.
This catalogue, for the fashion/design company Guess, taps all the buttons of the modern culture-magpie’s desiring: rebellion, wanderlust, lust, the awareness of mystery, the promise of ‘truth’, all directed at an horizon that defines these beautiful birds trapped in their naves of longing. When you turn the last page, you find on the back a simmering image of a young couple in intimate embrace, about to kiss. The road behind them blurs into a blinding light that might be a sunrise, a sunset, the apocalypse, the Second Coming, or an oncoming vehicle of indeterminate character. Superimposed on the image is the line: ‘Freedom is found’
It’s all just clobber: jeans, skirts, hats, leather jackets. But I can observe this and still not become sufficiently educated to the knowledge of what it reveals to me to resist similar if less impressively-packaged inducements in other contexts. Knowledge doesn’t render me immune. To come across something that really speaks to me of my innermost earthly fantasies is to encounter something literally breathtaking. On encountering the object of my desire, I am thrown into a conflict with my rationality, my sense of value, prudence and balance — and reason is doomed to lose. But these are the ‘false infinities’ cautioned of by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. To want something you do not really need, but which your unconscious has become convinced will reinvent or redeem you, is to meet something in yourself that you cannot fathom or control.
Again, we see that when Pope Benedict spoke of using God’s materials in the bunker, he was not thinking about sticks and stones and slates. The deepest desires of the human heart are used also in the marketplace to create economic activity — to ensure that the wheels of commerce keep turning, and that business continues to grow and that people continue to be convinced that this growth is a measure of collective well-being, and therefore happiness. And of course there is one guaranteed aspect of all this, from the viewpoint of the market, from the perspective of continuing growth: that the desire will never be satisfied.
And you might think that the consequence of this might be that people would in time begin to see through their repetition of the same fruitless actions, the same fruitless behaviours. That, after buying — how much stuff? — six suits, or seven suits, nine suits, 15 handbags, four cars, three boats, two mansions, and each time glimpsing but ignoring that none of it has worked — ‘None of it has satisfied me’. You would think that, before long, the penny would drop — that we might exclaim: ‘Suits are not the answer!’ Or: ‘Shoes are not the answer!’; ‘Leather jackets are not the answer!’; ‘Things are not the answer!’ But this never seems to occur to most of us, not definitively at least. Always, there is the possibility of another seduction.
Do not think that, because I am now describing this, I have finally acquired immunity to what I depict. No, I understand this syndrome sufficiently to portray it, but mine is an intellectual understanding only. A part of me remains, in a sense, captive to the same misunderstanding of my desire and therefore open to being seduced all over again.
The amount of money each of our societies now owes — sometimes to other societies, sometimes to interests within — has moved far beyond the human capacity for apprehension. When you see these debts expressed in an economist’s graph, like a range of mountains on the skyline, it becomes a striking image of our desire focused on the wrong things. Our desire has become so rampant that we have far exceeded not just our own capacity to repay the debts incurred in chasing it, but also the capacity of our children, and maybe even our children’s children. What an irony, then, that the limits of earthly attempts to manipulate the mysterious nature of reality should result in the two-years-and-counting closure of the world because the debt was on the point of creating of the human economy one big black hole!
Human desire has burst through our manmade systems like a hurricane through a village fete. To understand more fully, therefore, we need to see our desire as a thing in itself, and to ask ourselves what we have imagined it to be for, and where this has led us. We might by now have embarked on an exploration of the way, in the absence of deeper understandings of their existences, human beings seek ever newer and more varied modes of self-differentiation. When man feels unloved, he pursues baubles of different shapes and colours by which to announce himself anew. It is important that we see these phenomena not as simply the avoidance of reality, but as a new kind of reality, a pseudo-reality, aspiring to become a virtual reality in which men (the ‘few’ men) will create a virtual mirror of reality that they are able to control, and which offers a replica of human existence in the world that is not subject to the laws or limits of reality, and ‘invite’ us in to live there, provided we are willing to inhabit it as machines subject to their manipulation, and agree with them to call this ‘human existence’.