Thesis Number: #10 (Page 1 of 8)
Our societies are a thousand years behind their schedule of cultural evolution. We can catch up by building the world as it could have been. Paradise becomes practical once we banish the parasite in our midst. We just need to restore to good working order the financial feedback mechanism required by all healthy communities. It’s either that, or remaining hostage to a culture that is devouring the material and moral foundations of civilisation.
Paradise and the Parasite
PARADISE is not a place. It is a state of mind. We have learnt that much from the failure of utopians like Plato and Thomas More. Their blueprints for justice-based communities could not be converted into practical solutions. But if we emancipate our imaginations, apply the basic tenets of morality and work with the plasticity of culture, we can create new ways of living. That means co-existing with each other and with nature in what we would happily call paradise on Earth.
An Italian artist, Michelangelo Pistoletto, evoked paradise symbolically by twisting the infinity sign into three circles. Nature was the first paradise. The human condition that emerged out of nature was the second paradise. And then, referring to the universal judgement portrayed in the fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Pistoletto argued that “the apocalypse does not end in nothing, but has a sequel: Heaven and Hell. For me the sequel is the Third Paradise, a heaven on Earth in which the reasons that have led to the infernal consequences which threatened to swallow up humanity today are absorbed and dissolved” (2010: 86).
Pistoletto does not rely on the religious concept of transcendence. His ideal is wrought through “the generative function of art”. But we need to fuse art with ancient wisdom, and test insights with the tools of science. By combining these elements, we would begin to reconstruct our communities. The moments of paradise would be extended into ever longer periods of contentment. Paradise would be perceived all around us, in the beauty radiated by nature and society: from a sunset to the smile on the face of a child. Paradise is a dialectical experience: achieved by emancipating our minds from the limitations that restrain us from realising our full potential.
Barriers to the transformation of our earthly condition do appear insuperable. Freedom of the individual is the declared objective of philosophy, a legacy from classical Greece. And yet, concurrent with the fine words was the violent disconnection of people from the natural rights that defined the state of liberty. Freedom is a hollow notion if children cannot grow into fully formed personalities because they are denied access to all of the social and ecological endowments that are necessary to achieve maturity.
We treat society as the subordinated servant of atomised individuals. Yet we derive our identities – and our pathologies – from both nature and nurture. Self-fulfilment cannot be achieved if the potential of the whole population is not realised. So the first step towards paradise begins by striking the correct balance between the needs of the individual with the collective rights of all citizens.
The pre-histories of early humans is encouraging. There were cul-de-sacs episodes, but our ancestors re-orientated themselves back onto the path of evolutionary development. Ominously, this time may be different.
Our central problem was identified by Cambridge University sociologist Gary Runciman (3rd Viscount Runciman of Doxford). Social evolution, he notes, can be constrained “by a parasitical practice which reproduces itself at others’ expense” (2009: 184). As we have explained in the Ten Theses, European cultures were deformed by a parasitic virus known as rent-seeking. That virus has now pushed our civilisation to the point where the characteristics of parasitism are analytically inadequate.
In nature, a balance is maintained between parasites and their hosts. Parasites do not devour their hosts, for that would extinguish the means of their existence. Early humans developed immune systems within their cultures to ensure the sustainability of their biological units. This enabled them to expand demographically into ever-larger societies. That process of growth could continue for so long as the immune system was kept in good working order. Switch it off and anarchy reigns. That is what happens when we permit rent-seeking to corrupt responsible behaviour.
Rent-seeking is an autolytic process (Box 1). It is the anti-social parasite that rewards behaviour that devours the host when too many people are lured into living off the labour of others. That is when people cease to produce sufficient means for their social existence. Once incubated, the parasite is unrelenting in its quest for privileged greed. The accelerating trajectory terminates in self-devouring death. This is how and why previous civilisations imploded.
In biology, autolysis (commonly known as self-digestion), refers to destruction of tissues or cells through the action of enzymes that are produced within the organism. The term derives from the Greek words αυτό (“self”) and λύσις (“splitting”). This is auto-digestion.
Urban civilisations became possible when people learnt how to produce a net income (economic rent). That income was required to create the cultural and material infrastructures that sustain complex settlements. When the ratio of predators to producers reaches critical levels – when too many people want to live off the labour of others – civilisations tip into depletion mode. For a while, they survive by devouring the accumulated capital, or by displacing some costs of living onto future generations. Eventually, the system becomes too heavy a burden for the producers, and it implodes.
So, to construct paradise in the here and now, we must recover the natural and social laws that maintain our social galaxy in equilibrium. Early warnings of danger abound, but they tend to be ignored (EEA 2013). Too often, ignorance or complacency prevents action.