Contra Utopia, A Politics of Heroism
There is a simple and non-explicit assumption held in common by people who seek to create a utopian human society: That society can be altered in whatever way one wishes so long as its participants consent (or are made to consent) – this assumption rests upon the culture’s dominant conception of what a society is. Beginning in the 1700s, empiricist rationalism has created the idea that society is established by a “social contract” and shaped by “social constructs.” The social contract binds people to one another in particular relationships, such as buyer and seller, and social constructs allow participants in the contract to mediate their relationship according to “landmarks” in a shared psychological space. For example: a taboo against stealing is a social construct, a psychological “landmark”. People who steal are violating the social contract and are dealt with accordingly, often to the point of being removed from the social group.
Now, suppose there was a person in that group who wanted a certain beautiful necklace which he could not afford. He might steal in secret, which may work, but still carries risk of punishment. If he wants to get the necklace risk-free, his only option is to make his peers consent to his actions. How might he go about doing this? Well, many societies already have social constructs which allow goods to be given without being paid for. Gifts, charity, sacrifice. Our would-be thief may manipulate one of these social constructs to his ends. He may appear before the owner of the necklace in beggar’s robes. In this case, he is manipulating the community’s shared psychological space and placing himself fraudulently at one end of a social contract, the contract between host and guest.
Alternatively, he may go to his peers and say: “the man I robbed has gained his wealth wrongly. He has himself broken the social contract in order to gain his wealth, and so we have the right to reclaim that wealth.” Here he again manipulates the shared social-psychological space, but this time he is going a step further and is attempting to re-negotiate the social contract itself. A truly clever thief may go even farther than that and question the social construct of ownership itself. He may say to his peers, “What is ownership, and what makes this man entitled to that necklace?” His peers may be unaware of the origin of their social construct of ownership; it has been taken for granted for so long that they have no precedent for what an argument in defense of it might look like.
If he succeeds in re-negotiating the rest of the tribe’s understanding of the social construct of ownership, then one of his peers might seize the necklace from him, and the rest of his peers would say to him “If the original owner had no right to this necklace, neither do you. We will each enjoy the necklace for a day and then pass it to the next person.” This is, in essence, a new social contract between the members of that community, a contract which is enabled by the collapse of the social construct of ownership. The unraveling of that social construct will have effects that go beyond the simple fact that now people share the necklace, though. Men will continue to be covetous and to desire things, and the construct which previously gave their greed a channel through which it could be used productively has just been eradicated. The act of crafting or creating value and the act of possessing the object of desire have become separated, and the force of greed which once acted as a pro-social motivation risks being redirected into antisocial channels such as petty crime and manipulation.
This fable is not meant to imply the superiority of modern techno-capitalism over communism – in a techno-capitalist system, ownership is even more divorced from the act of creation! Nor do I imply that property rights should be held so sacred as to excuse the starvation and privation of innocent people. In fact, overpopulation (relative to logistic capabilities) is a sure sign that a system is serving itself rather than the people living within it, and all materialism whether individualist or collectivist trends towards this evil. I simply mean to demonstrate this vital point against utopian idealizing:
Social contracts and constructs are not designed architecturally. Social contracts and constructs are emergent properties of human nature.
They arise naturally and spontaneously from the repeated interactions of human beings, and they evolve in a way which mirrors a biological organism far more than it mirrors a machine. The evolution of these contracts and constructs therefore has limits, especially with regard to certain biologically grounded human behaviors such as mate selection and status-seeking.
Because most contracts and constructs are not designed architecturally, efforts to tamper with them or create new ones rationally carry the risk of catastrophic failure for the same reason that gene editing carries risks; we are tampering with an extremely complex system while possessing only partial knowledge of it. At the same time, the very practice of restricting accepted science to the empirical (or, increasingly today, ideological) restricts us to a permanently incomplete, stunted view of what a human being is and what our societies are. In the 20th century, such failures of understanding extinguished millions of lives and nearly destroyed many beautiful and ancient cultures across the world as totalitarian ideologies crashed together in their cannibalistic contest over the material means to accomplish a goal which they failed to realize was not material: a good life for all humans.
Social and psychological sciences today can create quite intricate maps of human motivations and habits, at least if you trust their institutions. I, and many others, are inclined to believe that an entire transcendent dimension of spirituality and philosophy is absent from the empirical conception of man and society. Even from a merely empirical perspective, it is clear that we are not yet knowledgeable enough to create social systems which are as complete, intricate, and robust as those of a traditionalist society. Traditions accumulate, mutate, and die out through an intergenerational process of trial and error in a similar way to how animals evolve. A living tradition is always in dialogue with its environment. Before I am accused of implicitly advocating for things like witch trials and slavery, I will say this: The environments which shaped our traditions have been hugely disrupted by industrialism; Industrialism has always been the true cause of humanism and liberalization, starting with the printing press and trade guilds and culminating with international corporations (including the corporate nation-state) and the internet. Without their native environment our traditions are orphaned, and technologies such as print and social media have changed the way that human interactions happen.
We live in a liminal age, an age in which behaviors, standards, and relationships in their old form have lost their inertia. This means that there is tremendous opportunity for creation, regeneration, healing, and organization, and in light of this it’s not surprising or inappropriate that utopian tendencies have re-emerged. There is certainly a place for constructionism in the near future. Unfortunately this also means that there is a lot of room for error and disaster. So how can we avoid this and re-conjoin our digital humanity into something with a recognition of transcendent principles?
It starts with a two-pronged understanding of what we are dealing with: We must recognize other humans as both solar and lunar, both acting and being acted upon. We must remember that what is done to a human will always change how that person acts, but we must do so without forgetting that in all human action there is at least a little bit of agency and consciousness. This problem of agency is where the obsessive empiricism of political materialism (the mother of both capitalism and communism) begins to show its insufficience. Material utopianism takes it for granted that people will be happy and satisfied once their material desires are met. In this view, the exercise of agency is only a means to a material end, and so there is no moral issue with taking away the ability of the human being to be a conscious, solar agent. The human being is reduced to a technicality, a creature with the specific purpose of creating material security for itself. Capitalism and communism only disagree on whether or not the human unit can be trusted with deciding how it is most profitably put to use. That illusion of agency is partly responsible for the fall of the Berlin wall — I am reminded of Nietsche’s famous quote, “hope is the worst of all evils.”
So, if not material, then what is necessary in order for a human to live a fulfilled life, and how can politics and economics be made to accommodate it? Many of you reading may not yet accept any spiritual or religious answer, so a social one must suffice. To put it shortly, our emotional and mental wellbeing hinges mostly on our relationships with other people and with our inner selves. The absurd amount and complexity of hormonal and cerebral hardware which our bodies dedicate to socialization and compartmentalization is testament to this.
From a scientific standpoint, these apparati evolved over thousands of years of intense pressure to maximize reproductive advantage in a species which had nearly surpassed normal evolutionary constraints such as predators and food shortage. When lions become a dangerous pest rather than an existential threat to the entire species, the competitive instinct which brought us to that height in the first place gets rerouted inwards rather than outwards, and suddenly competition happens between tribes rather than between species. With weaponry and fire making further physiological adaptation redundant, mutations begin to happen not so much to the blueprint of what a human animal is but rather to the blueprint of how humans interact. Basic behaviors such as altruism, cooperation, and punishment get scaled up and elaborated upon until they grow into a complex system – a culture. In this context peoples’ choice of mates, once dependent on simple things like mere survival, becomes instead dependent on abstract indicators.
Some of these indicators, like sturdy muscles or healthy skin, are physical and very real, but they are nonetheless ultimately only signifiers of things like strength, the ability to heal rapidly, and – perhaps paradoxically the most important – the ability to produce offspring who in turn possess these indicators that will allow them to find a mate. There are other indicators, though, which are not physical. Charisma, humor, and free agency all factor into a person’s desirability. More importantly, they factor into a person’s position in interpersonal hierarchies. Hierarchy exists in human societies at many levels and for many reasons, and complex or large-scale societies produce more complex hierarchies, but perhaps the most important feature of social hierarchies is that they have a demonstrable effect on members’ sexual desirability.
In truth, material scarcity of the actual necessities of life has not been the driving factor of human life in most civilizations for thousands of years now. The average human social group of any size, from a rural tribe to an urban civilization, had enough food and energy to feed and clothe the supermajority of its population because if it didn’t its population would simply shrink. Although such re-establishments of equilibrium were not uncommon, times and places in which starvation reigns are the exception rather than the rule. Ironically, we have seen in the last hundred years that the materialist ideologies which claim to be combating poverty have in fact increased starvation tenfold worldwide! Famines in socialist countries, capitalist economies artificially inflating third world populations in order to exploit their labor, and innumerable genocidal projects across the world from Africa to Tibet and even nascent war drums in America are all results of hypertechnic societies treating the intricate systems of society like a simple machine.
In the modern western world, materialism completely warps our perception of these facts of nature by positing that our relationship with wealth is our central concern. Socialism at least attempts to address the fact that relationships and wealth are connected, but it gets the dynamic backwards: Normally, wealth does not create social status. Social status creates wealth. The former often appears true because capitalism has so thoroughly hijacked our status-seeking instinct because that instinct is stupendously profitable to companies who jockey to position themselves as indicators of status. A socialist looks at the petit bourgeois and thinks she feels envy at their material wealth, when in fact she envies their status and the agency which status grants in society. Thus she resents picket fences and McMansions, and she becomes willing to bundle these modern Kulaks in with the demonically rich technocrats as members of an oppressor class.
Unfortunately, because status and wealth are not 100% correlated, If you redistribute wealth then other factors will simply emerge as indicators of status. In 20th century communist states, this phenomenon was plainly visible amongst commissars and bureaucrats who delighted in exercising their little portion of the state’s absolute power. The fact that wealth distribution didn’t do enough to flatten hierarchies is also what led these states to establish their death camps and exercise their various purges. Both capitalism and communism weaponise and sublimate humans’ innate status anxiety. Capitalism elegantly convinces people to spend their efforts acting within the system using the promise of social mobility that accompanies wealth accumulation, while communism erects an effigy of capitalism and declares that anything is permissible in the pursuit of the destruction of that system. In the course of this struggle, social mobility is achieved for particularly fanatic fighters, just as military action has been the primary driver of upwards mobility in human society for millenia. In short, capitalism is peacetime materialism, and communism its wartime counterpart – FDR’s approximation of democratic socialism can only be understood on these terms, as can the necessity of the Cold War. Under both systems, humans must be prevented from having stable and prosperous inner lives because an individual whose life and energy is harmonious and self-contained does not leak enough effort and worry into the system to create the level of productivity which an industrial economy and war machine demands. As the materialist mode of being operates from a position of hunger and lack, all growth is only entropic replication and expansion.
If, in our opposition to the entropic tendencies of modernity, we adopt the communist stance of defining ourselves only by our enemy, we would in fact be only a third party of materialism. We would still be ruled by lack and hunger. Instead, what is necessary in the pursuit of establishing a pro-human politics is a recovery of the self-generating and self-sustaining principles which enable true sovereignty both in the microcosm of the individual and the macrocosm of society, which we have established as an organic and emergent entity which arises from the interaction of individuals. The cultivation of this sovereignty is where spirituality becomes unavoidable, as there is no empirical measure of what the self is, what different parts it may consist of, and what its origin and goals are.
For a model of what the human being is and how this being should exist socially, we must turn to those psychological landmarks of our ancestors’ which constitute the image of the Hero. We must also concede that by all accounts and in all cultures the structure of heroism involves contact with both the transcendent and the subterranean; only by pressing up against these two boundaries does the human being establish for himself a living-space, an environment in which he is sovereign, although he does so only with the help of the transcendent domain, which is often poetically represented as withdrawing from or judging humanity. Heroic mythography is a mystic blueprint of life and enlightenment which imprints itself upon the subconscious through the use of art and poetry. From its perch deep in the psyche, if heeded, the heroic blueprint is capable of producing virtuous people, and it is the repeated organic interaction of virtuous people with each other which creates a virtuous society. Even more importantly, it is the operation of the levers of power by virtuous people which safeguards the ability of average people to develop their own agency, sovereignty, and virtue.
For a cursory look at Heroic Politics, we may examine a certain mythological institution of early Rome: The Capitoline Triad. The early fathers of Rome adopted as the patrons, guides, and protectors of their State the three Gods which the ancients understood to be most vital to the perfection of the Hero: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (Zeus, Hera, and Athena). A secular modern might understand these deities partially as manifestations of that famous Hegelian formula of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.
In this reckoning, Jupiter is the beginning of all things and the model of total selfhood. Juno is both the mold into which the unbound substance of Zeus is poured and the grindstone against which that blade, once cast, is sharpened. In Platonist religious thinking, she turns “Being” into “Beings.” In a Campbellian sense she is responsible for the separation of the Hero from his idyllic home and the incitement of his adventure. This is mythologized nowhere better than in the ancient stories of Hercules, who in the original Greek was called “Herakles” – translating to “Pride of Hera.” It is a common formula for demigods: Zeus carelessly creates excess life, and Hera offers the opposition which forges that life into something powerful and independent once it has left the loins of Zeus. Although the myths are often unflattering to her, in actual ancient religious practice she was acknowledged as a necessary and benevolent step in the process of selfhood. For the Roman State, Juno was also the goddess who sanctified oaths and offices, binding the parts of a system to each other and protecting the harmonious relationship of all the different parts, as the very fact that they are “parts” is due to her refinement of them from their state of unbound oneness. Finally we come to Minerva, the weaver, who is to be found in almost every ancient myth where a hero is present. She is universally hailed as the special protectress of heroes, as she is neither the (poetically) “indifferent” father nor the mother Hera who offers opposition to the Hero, but is the wind in Odysseus’ sails and the one who grants whatever magical item or advice allows the Hero to succeed. Her blessing of wisdom and understanding is what enables the hero to finally become a synthesized, complete, independent Soul, which was the goal of Jupiter in the first place. This Heroic soul then becomes like a little Jupiter, capable of emanating from itself the abundance of life and virtue which makes future generations of humans possible at all.
That state of perfection, in which at least a few human souls are able to become self-sustaining and even able to offer overflowing sustenance in the form of their wisdom and selfless labors, was the ultimate aim of the ancient polity. This practice of cultivating virtue and spirituality in society was, like all other adaptations, able to survive because it had tangible material effects. Among these effects were benefits like the creation of artistic and mechanical geniuses like Archimedes, Orpheus, or the mythical Daedalus. The more immediate effect, though, and the primary driver of this practice’s survival in the ancient and medieval worlds, was the cultivation of warriors and rulers in which the fear of death had been eradicated. Here again we come up against that fundamental failing of modern society: That today the dominant practice is to perform all of our works and duties from a place of lack, fear, and desire rather than from a place of centered, abundant sovereignty. This sovereignty can only be gained if we are able to bring our soul – our appetite, thumos, and logos – into a harmonious arrangement in which there is no fear and no desire. This is, in part, Nirvana. It is also what the Bhagavad Gita calls “Yoga.” In the Western tradition, this is a prerequisite to Apotheosis – “Joining with godhood.”
Those who attain this state in turn encourage it in others, either directly through instruction or indirectly by sheer osmosis and the creation of environments in which virtue and growth are encouraged, as Hercules mythically cleared so many monsters from Greece that thousands of new cities sprung up in his wake. Only once this state is attained by certain people does a political structure become sustainable, able to propagate itself through itself rather than relying on external factors in an entropic tailspin. Again, we need only to look at Rome; by the time of the late republic, the economic model had shifted from a network of agrarian citizens to one of metropolitanism propped up by a slave economy whose labor pool could only be maintained and expanded by conquest in a process which resulted in the heat death of the Roman Empire.
The attainment of the Heroic state of self-sufficience and pure Will devoid of fear is the end of suffering, which all material ideologies of our day claim to want to bring about; but any society which is not structured so as to create and celebrate Heroes is doomed instead to serve as the Adversary, as Rome served to the ascendant Germanic tribes. The anti-heroic state necessarily makes itself the test of hostile heroes, and is doomed to be the beast which the Hero slays and out of whose corpse a new world is made, like the bodies of titans or jotnar. Such is the sheer perfection of Jupiter’s justice.
1 thought on “Contra Utopia, A Politics of Heroism”
Brandon, I love what you have written! ‘The Intimate Systems Of Society’ is an awesome teaching that comes straight from your heart. I find this to be a Beautiful Garden Of Words that could point people in a good direction. Thank You so much for writing this. Jonathan your dad I am sure is jumping up & down proud ( his beautiful soul in a perfect place). I hope you will continue grow and expand in your writing and in all that you do. Love, Grandmother ( Nana Constance ) Constance Denise Crawford Pratt