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Shambhala Sun | May 1998

Gods of Permanence and Gods of Change

Like Moloch, the god Free Market promises eternal life (growth) but delivers death and stultification. Instead, says Philip Grant, we could turn to a god like Shiva who encompasses the living cycle of birth and destruction, revolt and regeneration.

There is a famous story in Buddhist lore of how Gautama taught a mother who refused to accept the death of her only child. When, half-mad with grief, the woman begged the sage to resurrect the tiny corpse placed before him, he replied: "Find me a mustard seed from a house that has not known death and I will do as you ask." In desperation the poor wretch picked up her dead infant and rushed off in the direction of the nearest house. Several days later, haggard but now sane, the woman returned and asked forgiveness for having forgotten that no living thing can escape death. As the Buddha explained to her the four noble truths, tradition records she experienced a kind of epiphany and entered the path.
Today's world is in sore need of this kind of wisdom, irrespective of the tradition from which it comes. Without it we seem doomed to perpetuate the denial of death that lies at the core of our current economic and social thinking. This denial, however, is not of the death of individuals. It consists of a refusal to admit that our social institutions are governed by the inevitable cycle of birth, growth and death that govern every other phenomena of which we have knowledge. Nowhere is this kind of thinking more apparent than in the way we have imbued the market economy with an aura of invulnerability and immortality.
Once sorely challenged by Marxism's vision of the market as a relative, historical and eventually obsolete social institution, capitalism has responded to the collapse of communism by proclaiming, in an almost evangelical fashion, that it is the one and true deity who will suffer no other gods before it. It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to claim, as I will, that since 1989 the world has returned to a worship of the old Carthaginian god: Moloch-Mammon-Market.
Moloch reigns supreme by promising eternal life (never-ending growth), while actually delivering death to all forms of life that stand in its way. As economic globalization proceeds with unrelenting ferocity across the length and breadth of our planet, bringing in its train the destruction of the global ecosystem, indigenous communities, traditional societies, and indeed everything not underwritten by the mechanisms of finance capitalism, Moloch proclaims, like Shelley's Ozymandias, "Look on my works O ye mighty, and despair!" And so the peasants in the Philippines who paste pictures of refrigerators next to those of the Madonna are often the very ones driven into debt and disease by the practices of global companies that destroy communal land, air and water as the price of the development needed to provide the desired goods.
Moloch-market economics simply ignores this kind of destruction. The only things considered measurable by the latter-day priests of Moloch are functions of privatized production and use. The massive pollution of the environment caused by industrial production, the decay and disposal of the products it creates, the exhaustion of natural resources, the takeover of local and regional economies by multinationals, the disappearance of self-reliance, and with it the self-respect necessary for a vital communal life, are just a few of the casualties that cannot be recorded in the hieroglyphics used by the high priests of supply and demand. As a result, the pleas of the victims of globalization are not so much ignored as simply not heard.
Given that all social and political ideals must today be expressed in the language of the market, is meaningful change conceivable? Without the impetus of man-made and natural catastrophes, have human beings ever voluntarily pulled back from the abyss and adopted modes of thinking and living based on considerations of fairness, equality and compassion?
The Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, once said that a close study of history reveals two contradictory trends. There are eras when people will put up with the most cruel and inhumane living conditions imaginable. Even worse, they will compound their plight by thinking up the most clever and ingenious ways of justifying the miserable systems under which they live.
But that is only one-half of the human cycle. There are other epochs when people will undergo the most brutal and violent persecution in order to change their systems. Almost nothing, even death, will deter them from attempting to fulfill their appointed work. Solzhenitsyn thought that historical periods alternated between these two poles of moral contraction and expansion, social stagnation and reform. He believed there was no reliable way of predicting when the wheel would turn, prompting darkness to give way to light, or vice versa.
I would add to Solzhenitsyn's observation the comment by Tom Paine, the great proponent of global revolution, who wrote that his own considerable study of history had convinced him that there is always enough wisdom and common sense in the world to reveal a way out of even the deepest of life's predicaments. The tragic problem of social life was that the individuals with this knowledge are not listened to when their counsel is most needed.
Yet in every age, in even the darkest moments, a sensitive student of history can detect the attempts of philanthropists in every center of civilization to remedy the most intractable problems and set their respective civilizations on the proper course. While the effectiveness of their efforts is a function of their community's willingness to learn from them, sometimes messages ignored when they are first given are resurrected by future generations and used to initiate subsequent cultural renaissances and reforms.
There is some evidence, for example, that a great global reform was attempted about seven centuries ago in four of the major centers of civilization that existed at the time. At the end of the fourteenth century, Central Asia, China, India and Western Europe were either in or about to enter a state of extreme social paralysis. What the Spanish philosopher, Ortega Y Gasset, wrote about Europe holds true for the other civilizations as well: "In the fourteenth century man disappeared beneath his social role. Everything was syndicates, guilds, corporations, states. Everybody wore the uniform of his office, even to the cut of his clothing. Everything was conventional form, preordained and settled; everything was ritual, and infinitely complicated. "
In a similar vein, Amaury de Riencort writes in The Soul of China, the colossal splendor of the Ming dynasty had provoked a social reaction in which: "Real cultural growth was out of the question...original thought could no longer emerge. Basic energy and vitality ebbed...." To the west of China, Tibetan society also had become extremely rigid, with almost the entire religious establishment of Central Asia having degenerated into a money-making machine for providing spells, potions and incantations to propitiate the dead. An analogous condition prevailed across the Himalayas in India, where a hardening caste system strangled any attempt to deviate from the detailed rituals and ceremonies prescribed by the Brahmins for their own enrichment.
In response to this social ice age, a thaw was attempted by four very different and, as far as we know, unconnected individuals. Each attempted to introduce into his society some element of the creativity, autonomy and responsibility that we today associate with the individuality of modernism.
In Central Asia, Tsong-kapa was the most triumphant. Against fantastic odds, his Buddhist reform movement, later institutionalized as the Gelugpa monastic order, successfully exiled the rich and powerful class of sorcerers and necromancers to the furthermost borders of Tibet. In its place he introduced monastic reforms that lasted over five centuries and put again at the heart of Buddhist discipline the last words of Gautama: "All conditioned things are perishable. Work out your own salvation with diligence." Tsong-kapa's system of spiritual emancipation started with a strict textual analysis in which the monks collectively participated, but ended in a tantra yoga practice that was uniquely individualized for each practitioner.
Similarly, in Ming China, Wang Yang-ming challenged the state ideology of Neo-Confucianism with his version of individuality, later known as the mad Ch'an school. In an almost secular counterpart to the Gelugpa Annuttara tantra yoga, Wang counseled his followers to find the true principles of things as existing within their own minds, and then, once intuitively grasped, to test this knowledge by immediate translation into practice. While his profound and very modern understanding of the relationship between thought and action was ultimately rejected by the Mandarin establishment, Wang, called Oyomei in Japan, eventually inspired the architects of the Meiji reform several centuries later.
Similar assertions of the moral and rational autonomy of the individual were attempted in Europe and India. In the late fifteenth century, about the time of Wang, Pico della Mirandola put forth his great restatement of the medieval idea of the "great chain of being" in his Oration to the Dignity of Man. Here, for the first time, was the claim that humanity was a species essentially unfinished, and that through the exercise of will, the individual could connect himself with the entire universe and rise above any limited conception of god. The key to this self-transformation, Pico believed, lay in finding the common thread that linked Judaism, Islam and Christianity, a kind of oral tradition, or Kabbalah, that had been transmitted by the wisest practitioners of each faith, including Moses, Jesus and the Prophet.
The Mughul emperor, Akbar, attempted an analogous reform in early sixteenth-century India. From his new capital of Fatepuhr-sikri, outside of Agra, Akbar tried for more than half a century to transform the opposing faiths of his kingdom and break the stranglehold of the caste system by introducing a new religion based on the best in all the world's religious traditions. As might have been expected, both Pico and Akbar were fanatically opposed by the religious establishments in their home countries. But, while Brahmin opposition doomed to failure most of Akbar's efforts, the Vatican suppression of Pico's ideas actually stimulated their study by most of the Renaissance humanists, including Erasmus and More.
The fourteenth-century attempt at global reform presupposed that once any limited set of ideas, no matter how noble or progressive, becomes accepted as the totality of truth, such a faith or ideology will predispose most people to cling to it long after it has ceased to be useful in confronting social problems. The result of such a divergence between thought and life, if not corrected, would then produce grotesque exaggerations in our social practices, assuring the inevitability of great collective suffering and eventual social collapse.
If we exclude the great success of Tibet (which eventually failed, as the Dalai Lama has admitted, after half a millennium - still a pretty good run), we can see that this kind of ideological thinking reasserted itself throughout the world in the seventeenth century, causing the rapid decline of India, China, Persia and Turkey. In Western Europe the great religious wars almost destroyed that civilization and it only survived by transferring its faith-ridden ideologies to first the political and then the economic spheres of life. This transformed economics, which used to be thought of as only part of an integrated science of humanity, into what I have been calling the religion of Moloch.
The chief victim of the spread of this ideological influenza in the West was the concept of individuality itself. Originally conceived as a means of transcending all intellectual and social systems that arbitrarily limited human growth and aspiration, Pico's idea of human beings as "divine chameleons," capable of ceaseless self-transformation, was replaced by an ideal of individuality that resembled the Old Testament tyrant named Jehovah, a close cousin in the history of religions to his Carthaginian neighbor, Moloch-Mammon.
The results of this curse on the thinking of the entire Western world was succinctly expressed by the social prophet, Henri Saint-Simon, in the eighteenth century: "Every man, every grouping of men, whatever its character, tends toward the increase of power. The warrior with the saber, the diplomat with his wiles, the geometer with his compass, the chemist with his retorts, the physiologist with his scalpel, the hero by his deeds, the philosopher by his combinations, all struggle to achieve command. From different sides they scale the plateau on whose height stands the fantastic being who rules all of nature and whom every man who has a strong constitution tries to replace." (My italics)
That Freud took this idea and used it to formulate his theory of the super-ego only supports its central insight. We can rise no higher than the highest being we can imagine, and in the case of the West this supreme role model has turned out to be a jealous, vindictive, authoritarian patriarch (Blake's Nobodaddy) who can do whatever he damn well pleases.
With the advent of secularization and mass society the pervasiveness of this conception has proved lethal. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the U.S.A., where the delusion that everybody can be Number One has assumed the dimensions of a national psychosis. It is no help to justify the hallucination by restating it to claim that everyone can be Number One in her or his own way. A world of seven billion Jehovahs is only another way of describing hell.
Yet this is precisely the image that the priests of Moloch are trying to push on the underdeveloped world with their media-generated vision of the Earth as Planet Hollywood. The package of advanced technology used to perpetuate this fraud does not, however, disguise the fact that humanity has once again returned to the ritualism characteristic of the fourteenth century. Only this time it is not uniforms and banners that separate portions of humanity from each other in ritualistic ways, but credit lines, consumption patterns, urban life-styles and possession of financial instruments.
But while these are promised to all by the priests of Moloch, there is simply no way, under even the most optimistic scenarios of global development, that they can be enjoyed except by the wealthy (by world standards) few. The collapse of communism has provided the religion of Moloch with billions of new converts, most of whom will end up living in the soul-destroying slums ringing the soaring glass towers that serve as the market's main centers of worship. Meanwhile the media's self-celebration of its "star-making machinery" grinds on, condemning much of the world's population to endure by living vicariously the lives of celebrities.
Acceptance of the religion of the global marketplace commits its adherents to the assumption that its laws are unerring and its institutions immortal. We have endowed the system that produces capital with the omnipotence, supreme intelligence and invulnerability previously allowed only to Jehovah. This is why the most fervent proponents of globalization are also the ones who blame the weak, the poor and the disadvantaged for not being able to take advantage of the great opportunity the market offers them.
Under this system of economic predestination, the perfect justice of Jehovah-Moloch-Market dictates that only those who deserve to could possibly fail. Failure to own financial instruments has thus become the global system's scarlet letter, a sure sign of sin.
Any religion based on faith in omnipotent idols is sure to fail. Its most vulnerable point is its own logic of irresponsibility. Salvation can only be guaranteed to individuals, not systems.
Hence there is no inducement in Moloch's universe to provide an equitable distribution of the wealth it produces. In fact, most of the key players look for ways they can accumulate more and more, and thus become, in terms of the system, invulnerable and immortal. Once in such a position they can violate the laws of the market at will, even to the point of endangering the system which allowed them to accumulate their wealth. Like Jehovah, who has no reason to obey the laws he has created, there is always the overwhelming temptation in this religion for the big winners to take the money and run.
(Masters of the market, however, sometimes take great pains to conceal this logic of irresponsibility. The billionaire Henry Kravis was recently reported as telling his ex-wife that the megarich must make a well-publicized show of contributing to well-known charities in order to avoid unsettling the minds of the masses who have little or nothing, and always will.)
Fortunately, some of the wealth of Moloch that is ever concentrating itself in the most industrialized countries has funded an increasing number of converts to a counter-religion that bases its worship not on faith but on direct, personal experience of the dominant system. This is the vanguard of what I think represents a new attempt at global reform, a movement that can only grow in numbers and influence. Its adherents include all those who want to move towards a society more in keeping with a community of creativity and responsibility, autonomy and interdependence, individuality and the recognition that the human species must act as a custodian to all the forms of life that support it.
The symbols of this new movement are many, but foremost among them must be placed the mythological figures of Shiva and Hermes. Classical Indian iconography always represented Shiva, the god of death and regeneration, as a graceful youth. Alternatively, in the Mediterranean mythologies, Hermes was a winged youth bearing in his hands the caduceus, symbol of the power to create and destroy.
In these images is contained a great truth about the importance of the idea of generations in understanding how civilizations are to be renewed. As Ortega explained in his forgotten classic, Man and Crisis: "Culture, the purest product of the live and genuine, since it comes out of the fact that man feels with an awful anguish and a burning enthusiasm the relentless needs of which his life is made up, ends by becoming a falsification of that life. Man's genuine self is swallowed up by his cultured, conventional, social self."
It is the natural task of the young, Ortega claims, those who feel the "awful anguish" and the "burning enthusiasm" of life's problems most keenly, to correct the tendency towards unthinking ritualism and restore to their culture the vitality that is always lost when institutions, however enlightened, become well established.
Conversely, if the young are not given the chance to perform their allotted role in life, the results can be socially suicidal. What makes the alienation of the young a natural and unfortunate part of the process of socialization is that only rarely are they allowed to take an active role in creating their own identities. Moreover, the problem increases almost proportionately to the success of the social institutions they inherit. In any culture in which the immediate problems of life have been met, the complex of rules, roles and relationships into which the young are socialized becomes almost irresistibly seductive. The smoothly lubricated machinery of life makes it too easy to accept the sense of self that the culture thrusts upon them, without thinking any of it through. And by abdicating responsibility for fashioning their own identities, undeniably the most creative act any human being can undertake, it is just another short step to the observation of Thoreau that "most people live lives of quiet desperation."
The most famous representation of Shiva in Indian art shows the youth dancing within a ring of fire upon the body of an ugly dwarf, who could very well represent the constricted sense of identity that socialization into any highly defined culture conditions us to take for granted. This symbol might also mean that the flourishing of any civilization depends on the ability of the young of each generation to mirror the heroic cycle of withdrawal, assimilation and return to which Joseph Campbell so tirelessly worked at drawing our attention. Ortega also believed that a society remains flexible, versatile and creative when social conditions allow the young to complete this cycle of withdrawal and return.
Young people who have as yet no stake in the existing system of social relations are more likely to see through its failures and betrayals. They are driven by a real desire to act authentically and discover who they really are. Youth does not like compromise and tries to live life on its own terms. It often looks with contempt on older generations who take society so much for granted that they will compromise almost any ideal to avoid disrupting their habitual routine.
Since the middle generations, on average, continually counsel young people to grow up, accept the system and enjoy its fruits, often the only allies of youth are the very old who have passed beyond the spell society once cast over them and gained a detachment not attainable by those who take the current system of rules, roles and social relationships too seriously. This natural alliance between those who are just entering life and those who are getting ready to leave it is one more meaning of the iconography of depicting the god of death as a dancing youth.
An associated meaning was also contained in the symbol of Hermes' caduceus, now familiar to us as the physician's staff: a pair of intertwined cobras gliding up a central wooden pole or axis. The two serpents represented life and death, with the axis emblematic of stability or stasis. At the top of the pole is a circular ornament suggestive of the perfection towards which the two reptiles are climbing but will never reach - an ever-receding goal.
Try to separate the two serpents, the ancient Greeks believed, and they will both bite you. Life will become a kind of perpetual fever which we can never shake; death will assume the form of a vast negation, a darkness from which we must continually flee, while the staff of life, the great tree of knowledge itself, will wither and die. When the three elements are in balance, however, upward movement is assured through a spiral-like process that is simultaneously steady and dynamic, expanding and contracting, living and dying.
While originally conceived as an image representing perfectly balanced physical and moral health, the idea can also be fruitfully applied to social and environmental health, and the relationship between generations as well.
Can we imagine social structures, economic systems, and political institutions that reflect these profound ideas of the proper relationship between creation, preservation, death and regeneration? Can we design schools that teach versatility and self-education; work that allows periods of daily withdrawal and contemplation as well as longer periods of travel, study and retraining; pricing systems that recognize disposal as part of the cost of production; health care systems that give equal attention to promoting health as well as treating illness; flexible leadership that provides guidance but also empowers the led?
More immediately, can our knowledge that life and death are inseparable reveal ways of living based on a sense of the sacredness of the sphere, Gaia, that supports us all? And most important of all, can we allow the young to ask questions that we cannot, at present, even remotely conceive?
What the young require most is the conviction that a substantial part of the world they are about to inherit will remain plastic to the impress of their touch.
Tom Paine recognized this when he proposed to the U.S. Congress that upon reaching the age of adulthood, every adolescent should be given a portion of the national wealth equivalent to the value of the natural resources that had been consumed by an average member of the preceding generations. Paine, whose motto, "My country is the world, my religion is to do good" inspired the young of his day, felt keenly that the great promise of the American revolution was also the promise of the whole world.
For this global revolution to succeed, he wrote, every youth must be made to feel that he or she will enter life on equal terms with those who went before. Any social system that allows its members to squander what properly belongs to future generations should therefore be torn down and replaced. This idea so impressed Jefferson that he proposed in turn that each generation should create its own Constitution to ensure the social system would reflect its own vital needs.
All of these ideas reflect the importance of providing the young with a living matrix of possibility within which they can dream and experiment with their own lives. This cannot be done if the very vehicle that supports life, the global ecosystem, is irreparably damaged through the irresponsible acts of the proponents of economic globalization. The destruction of the environment represents the death of all of youth's dreams. More than that, it robs youth of the very ability to dream by depriving them of hope. Much like the nuclear threat of the cold war was shown to have a devastating effect on the moral lives of children, so the looming specter of ecological collapse works in countless ways to poison the imaginations of those who are born "trailing clouds of glory."
Adults can only respond to this crisis in creativity by working to replace the religion of Moloch, which in ancient Carthage was practiced through the mass sacrifice of children, with the new religions of responsibility that celebrate the logic of possibility. As the current series of international conferences on global warming was designed to apply the best knowledge we have available of the effects of our patterns of living on the biosphere, so must the nations of the world hold similar conclaves on the consequences of all aspects of economic globalization for increasing opportunities for the young. These meetings might slowly push us into recognizing that the young can act responsibly if they are convinced that what they do will make a difference.
For the youth of the world to be socially reborn we must allow them to play their appointed role in helping the current system to die a natural death. Then perhaps we can answer with some sincerity the question posed by that now forgotten New Age pioneer and spokesman for the young, Cat Stevens, when he sang: "We've come a long way, we're changing day to day, but tell me, where do the children play?"

Gods of Permanence and Gods of Change, Phillip Grant, Shambhala Sun, May 1998.


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