Some Serious Social Illusions

It’s hard to accept the idea that most human activities are based on illusions.  But look at the nature and kinds of illusions out there.  Some illusions are necessary and good, while others are quite destructive.  We tend to see the illusions of tribal cultures as “myths,” illusory fictions about the world, whereas we see our beliefs as real.  But what’s the difference between the Native American’s image of the origins of “Turtle Island” and the biblical creation story?  Both are creation myths (stories around which a people organize their understanding of life) and they serve mostly the same purpose in their respective cultures.  Some myths conflict directly with scientific evidence, such as the idea that the earth was created four thousand years ago and that man walked with dinosaurs, or that recent and forecasted unprecedented climate disruption is unrelated to 200 years of accelerated emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere. Well, in these cases, the evidence just conflicts with the myth.

Some illusions conflict with reality because they are more detached from our everyday lives; others are consistent with everyday observations.  Yet, the idea that society operates on illusions points to some other kinds of phenomena.  Social illusions are mental constructions that are used as a means of interacting with the lived world.  They appear to be real because they are consistent with our experience and help guide our actions.  But our experience may also be constrained by those illusions – that’s where we get into trouble.  For tribal peoples who have lived in a particular stable ecological context for many generations, the social illusions they use work for them, or else the group would have died out.  Today, in our far more complex societies – really, our complex world financial and industrial system – social illusions that are so abstracted from our experience and observations, and are controlled by powerful institutions, can get us into very serious trouble.

If our ideas conflict with the environmental conditions under which we live, then the result can be detrimental to our survival.  Think of the Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Norse in Greenland, or the collapse of other societies that Jared Diamond so presciently described in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.   The Mayan “chronic emphasis on war and erecting monuments rather than on solving underlying problems,” is more prophetic than recent speculations about the meaning of their calendar.  While the ecology could sustain it, Mayan illusions worked well as the abstractions around which the society was organized.  The economic illusions of our waning industrial age worked rather well until growth got out of hand; now they confront contrary conditions of planetary ecology.

Certain groups in the deep jungles of the Amazon hold complex views of the nature and uses of certain plants.  These ideas have been worked out over many generations and result in an indigenous pharmacology that works because it is precisely integrated with the conditions of jungle life and the properties of those plants.  But for the university trained pharmacology researcher, the native conceptualization of such plants may be considered misguided (unscientific) illusions.  Through laboratory research the western professional can isolate certain molecular compounds key to the medicinal benefit of the plants.  Oh, boy!  It’s patentable-profitable!  The abstractions each believes best represent reality may or may not work depending on the environmental context – the jungle or the economics of Big Pharma.

So, who is right?  Both illusions work for their respective adherents within the right context.  What?  Yes, the pharmacologist’s ideas are illusions too.  In this sense, I am using the word to indicate that illusions can be defined as particular conceptual packages that represent our experiences in the world and that what’s an illusion within one framework is a fact within another.  So, let’s just call them all illusions for simplicity and examine their usefulness and veracity separately.  We can thus state that all human imaginations regarding reality are illusions, because none are reality, they merely represent reality in the abstract.  Seriously.  If we can make that leap and recognize that all images and concepts we have about reality are not reality but illusions that represent reality well or poorly, it will be easier to evaluate each one on, dare I say it, a realistic basis.

Now, that is where ideology comes in.  All illusions reflect in some way the interests people have in their reality, or more accurately, in those aspects of reality that interest them.  So, we are not so surprised to find that the executives of the giant multinational oil and gas companies are not so interested in the fact that peak oil production has already occurred (2005) and that world production has flat-lined ever since – except to the extent that they can temporarily use “fracking” to forestall the inevitable decline in supplies – which raises society’s obvious need to contemplate energy-source substitution.  Their financial interests lie in keeping the focus of energy policy on more exploration and production – not on the catastrophic effects of climate disruption on the rest of us – even as the fruits of exploration rapidly diminish.  The seriousness of their illusion is to be found in its effects on survival of our species on the planet.

Nor do we really expect the Big Banksters to give up their control of the real economy they so handily manipulate by using the money system, or to give up the continued promotion of their illusion that the vastly expanded abstract debt-driven system of financial expansion is somehow the core driver of the real economy.  The seriously damaging illusions promoted by financial, petro-chemical, and industrial-military elites all merge into the political-economic illusions of permanent prosperity through imperial expansion and endless economic growth in a finite world of rapidly diminishing environmental resources.  Sometimes it’s too easy to believe in magic, especially when the prestidigitators so totally control the illusions.

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