. . . by Samuel Alexander
Alexander: If an individual knowingly destroyed the conditions of his or her own existence, we’d question their sanity . . . In his 1955 book The Sane Society, the great psychoanalyst Erich Fromm suggested that nothing is more common than the assumption that we, people living in the advanced industrial economies, are eminently sane.
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Back to Fromm. He was quoted extensively during the Sixties. Samuel Alexander’s 2021 article would have fit right in among those that appeared in the compendium:
But Fromm was prescient all the way back in 1955. He said our society is not simply unjust, not just unsustainable . . . our society is insane.
Moreover, its inhabitants can hardly imagine sanity.
We’ve lost our bearings, our points of reference. We accept insane standards and scales. Then we endeavor to find success or at least to cope within the Leviathan. It’s too hard — but we have no other point of reference.
“Leviathan” means that it’s an awesome, awful, monstrous behemoth of a social-institutional-technological reality. Within it we live alone or perhaps among a tiny group of nuclear family confronting the behemoth every day. We try to cope with it every day. It’s frustrating, but “it is what it is.” We have no other point of reference.
We don’t even remember human scales. We have no idea that current scales are a thousand times beyond sanity. Scales of governments, institutions, technologies, media. The internet networking of everything everywhere. Scales of production, pollution, consumption. The amount of stuff is insane. Our social domain of experience is insane. We live amongst millions of strangers. Our inclination normally would be to establish relationships, but we confront strangers like billiard balls careening through our daily lives — contacts ephemeral, relationships superficial.
We take it for granted. We don’t know anything else.
We should always reserve the right to think for ourselves about these matters, to be brave enough to stare into the abyss — and be prepared for the abyss to stare back — no matter what we find.
The entity called the United States of America is insane. Its “economy” spins around depleting and polluting. Sanity suggests that it should be slowed down. But every time a jobs report comes in below expectations its government spends more, borrows more, stimulates more. It spends a trillion dollars a year on militarism. Do you and I approve of that? Of course not. So how can that be the reality of the situation?
Its extent of inequality is unbelievably insane. Do you and I approve of that? Of course not. So why can’t we fix that problem?
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A spiritual malaise seems to be spreading throughout advanced capitalist societies, as if the material rewards of consumerism have failed to fulfill their promise of a meaningful existence.
Why is the monstrousness, injustice, pollution, unsustainability, inequality, plutocracy, frustration, loneliness, superficiality, militarism, malaise, exploitation, withering of community, alienation, treadmill work-life accepted? Because the Leviathan has grown up around us over time with a dynamic of its own. Yes, like the frog in the pot of boiling water.
. . . a society might go insane without being aware of its own degeneration.
There’s been a trajectory in that direction culminating in our era of industrial modernism, the Technosphere, the globalized industrial system where commerce flows, goods flow, capital flows, culture flows, and individuals are inundated. Our bearings have been washed away and we cling to whatever we can, seeking stabilization.
The deconstruction can start when the insanity is recognized.
Like a fleet of ships that has been unmoored in a storm, our species is drifting in dangerous seas without a clear sense of direction.