Saturday, January 18, 2014

Freedom and survival

This week saw the death of Hiroo Onada, a WWII Japanese soldier who continued his guerilla war in the Philippines until 1974. Although he killed 30 indigenous people over these years, most of us must have respect for a man fighting on alone for so long.

Except he wasn't on his own for most of that time, as the Daily Mail reveals: "Three other soldiers were with him at the end of the war. One emerged from the jungle in 1950 and the other two died, one in a 1972 clash with local troops."

Lone survival is a familiar motif in films, not so much in real life. In some tribal cultures, the punishment for major crimes such as murder was not execution, but simply shunning. Without the material and psychological support of their community, most individuals would die. Even Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, nearly broke his back hunting game.

The multiple challenges facing us - economic, environmental etc - feed the fantasies of doomsters and individualists. But if and when a whole society collapses, the disaster crushes all, not just the weak and ill-prepared - where were the rich Mayans to be found after their civilisation fell? Not drinking chocolate in some comfortable enclave among the ruins.

However, apocalypse is another hackneyed cinematic motif. As energy resources dwindle and become more expensive, it's more likely, argues John Michael Greer, that we shall see a series of economic resets, rather in the way that the coals burning in a hearth fire suddenly shuffle a bit closer together from time to time. That's something for which we can prepare, he says, and lists a number of technologies that would go towards making a sustainable local economy.

So far, so good. Yet even a cooperating community has to consider external threats. Aldous Huxley's 1962 novel "Island" depicts a society that is orderly and designed for the happiness of all, using a combination of accommodative social mores, neo-Buddhist wisdom and side-effect-free psychotropic drugs. It is overthrown when foreign oil companies move in...

"Island" is an imagined resolution of the potential disharmonies at two of what I have called the "Three Levels Of Freedom" - the conflicting or self-destructive drives within the individual, and the relationship of the individual with the group. The tragic ending is caused by a conflict at the third level, one group (the islanders) versus another (the greedy and powerful outsiders).

Worries about various potential dislocations in the global trading system are leading commentators such as Charles Hugh Smith to consider how to increase local resilience, as for example in Thursday's post, "A Thought Experiment In American Autarky". Here he is thinking on a national level, but the deeper the crisis, the greater the possibility that even countrywide arrangements could break down. Empires and nations have fractured before, as Germany did in the Middle Ages.

Most likely to survive, perhaps, are communities large enough to provide themselves with all the necessities of life (and sufficient diversity to stave off the problems of inbreeding), but protected from outside disruption by remoteness or difficult terrain. That reduces the threat of Level Three conflict, especially as technological deterioration in the long term makes it harder to wage war over long distances and great obstacles.

But material goods are not enough. There is also what one might term social wealth - shared ethical and cultural values that promote harmony and mutual support. Otherwise there will be unnecessary suffering and tensions that could tear the community apart - as Norman Cohn demonstrates with multiple horrific examples in his famous work about medieval uprisings, "The Pursuit Of The Millennium". Cohn's thesis is that the ground for revolution was prepared by want and insecurity, especially among the growing proletariat in urban areas.

Ironically, the trigger for insurrection was often an individual who had overcome his internal conflicts - achieving Level One freedom - and so could act without moral inhibitions. If one accepts the Freudian tripartite division of the psyche, such people had extinguished their superego and as full-blown psychopaths could lead their fellows in a merry, lethal dance toward ultimate calamity. (A major modern example would be Chairman Mao who, we see in a chilling 2005 biography, defeated his father's authority when a boy by threatening suicide, and one of whose early poems looked within himself and saw a mighty rushing power like a great storm, unstoppable.) So society has a stake in the mental and spiritual health of all its members, as well as their material well-being.

The long-term survival of humanity, and its prospects for reasonable contentment, requires vigilant and equitable balancing at all levels, from the mental stability of individuals, to whatever is the accepted "social contract" in society, to careful international diplomacy and robust economic arrangements. The struggle for freedom and happiness is not a solitary quest but a multi-player, multi-dimensional one; none of the Three Levels can be ignored.

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