So many people I’ve talked with in the last several years have commented that politics has become so crazy that they try to avoid listening to the news or even discussing politics with friends or family. One might argue that they have hit bottom on the scale of civic responsibility. But can we blame them? Which is not to say that none of them hold crazy viewpoints themselves. However, where to draw the line is not always so easy. Psychiatrists struggle with where political belief can spill over into insanity.
It’s All Plato’s Fault
I’ve been reading some seemingly esoteric stuff lately, in particular Jeremy Lent’s book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. In it, he traces the development of human cognition and ideas that try to explain reality and the human condition by forming different cosmologies and religious precepts. It is a ‘tome’ at around 500 pages, describing how different cultures evolved in relation to one another, or not, and how certain visions of reality were transmitted from there to here and eventually came to dominate modern culture—the way we live and what we believe.
Lent’s book could be a tedious read if you are not into that kind of thing, but the trends in the human search for meaning over millennia are fascinating, especially if you think about how those trends play out in today’s crazy politics. In the relative isolation of China, Taoism and Confucianism developed unified visions of the spiritual and material. They became the basis for a unified vision of how humans should act in relation to other humans and to Nature. Things cognitive took a different turn in the West.
Indo-European pastoral nomads from the steppes of central Asia north of the Black and Caspian Seas used horses as effective military tools as they invaded many lands including what is now India all the way to old Europe and the islands of the Mediterranean. Their cosmology was distinctly dualistic and their culture was distinctly war-like. Their ideas were infused into the societies they conquered. Long story short, the Greeks took on elements of the Indo-European cosmology, which especially through Plato and his followers came to dominate Western culture, including its monotheistic religions.
Early Christian theologians such as Aquinas and Paul before him came to despise sexuality and to hate their own bodies because they saw all of Nature as evil and in conflict with their desire to seek spiritual perfection. All that became embedded in Western culture as well as theology. Lent points out that religious intolerance arose only with monotheism.
The image of “Man [envisioned as spirit] against Nature” [vile dirty materiality] resolved into the Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) of René Descartes. That is, Man (in patriarchal cultures, women not considered) as pure intellect, separate from nature, became the cultural foundation of science and technology in the West. That is why modern industrial consumer cultures are all based on a dualistic cosmology that pits humanity against both Nature and against anyone who holds a different view of human life on planet Earth. So, we plunder Nature and persecute ‘others’ rather than harmonizing with either.
So, What of Political Psychiatry?
Well, I have thought a lot about the dualism of modernist industrial-consumer society and the cognitively dissonant relations between its consumerist materialism and religious fundamentalism. Many Americans, for example, live by what they can or want to buy, yet hold a self-image of being ‘spiritual.’
These folks—and they are many—also profess various forms of religious ideology that renounce aspects of the material hierarchy of the corporate state (although they would not call it that). They reject the economic hierarchy, which increasingly squeezed them out, while continuing to desire the cornucopia of goods and services it provides its elites. Their anxieties ripen them for demagoguic exploitation.
Both the insecurity of the political economy and the cognitive dissonance between their position in society and their material desires mixes with their separation from the realities of Nature. Such contradictions constitute grounds for deep and confusing fears that breed hatred and suspicions of both elites and vulnerable minorities. This makes them susceptible to all sorts of magical thinking, which only amplifies historically inbred racism and suspicion. That is all fodder for their easy acceptance of conspiracy theories, which are integral to the emergence of the new American Fascism, which feeds on as well as breeds insecurity, fear, and hatred.
Out of Nature, Into Chaos, and Back?
The dualistic vision of humanity, which cognitively and emotionally separates humans from the very grounding of our existence—the habitat that Nature has so kindly provided us—drives modern political economies to exploit and ravage Nature. It also puts us all in a contradictory relationship with ourselves, our societies, and the very grounding of our existence.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, cultural insanity driven by the anti-reality of “post truth” politics make a stable sane life nearly impossible for many people. This dysfunctional intersection between personal troubles and public issues is why so many seem unhinged in their political beliefs, even to the point of committing political violence, as happened at the nation’s capitol on January 6, 2021.
Those who are able to avoid the insanity have recognized the fundamental contradictions inherent in the political economy and industrial-consumer culture. That awareness does not make things any better. A few escape by going “off the grid.” However, awareness can also be the basis for taking the actions that are required to re-establish a viable legitimate place for societies within the Earth System in which we live. The dualism of modernist culture cannot get us there because it is headed in an insane direction. Only a unified view that recognizes the inherent human embeddedness in the natural world can stop the insanity and help us re-unite with the rest of Nature.