Three lessons to fix America and prevent global decline

In an interconnected world, the consequences of one nation’s recklessness can spread quickly. Here’s how this can be averted.

As the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin notes in The Phenomenon of Man, “The existence of ‘system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature” and “Each element of the cosmos is positively woven from all the others....”

Above all, the world remains a system of closely interrelated and intersecting parts.

It follows that the grievously evident shortcomings of US society and foreign policy exert substantial impact upon world politics. Reciprocally, this impact “feeds back” to institutions in the United States, creating a constantly-changing source of persistent global transformations. This dynamic cycle of impact and counter-impact continues, perhaps more pronounced, in the openly “anti-system” and anti-globalism era of the Trump administration. Humans stubbornly cling to tribal behaviours while expecting the rest of the world to follow suit. Most plainly, the ironic consequence of individual states expanding unilateral military power is often an actual diminution or reduction of such power. In modern political philosophy, the relevant analytic problem is sometimes referred to as an example of the “tragedy of the commons.”

To respond usefully, three core lessons come to mind.

Lesson 1

Science is not always arcane or diffuse, and, in fact, generality is a conspicuous trait of all serious meaning. What matters most for science and reason are not tantalising particulars or eccentricities of various nation-states and personalities, but rather the indispensably systematic identification of recurring policy issues. In the end, therefore, all purposeful national policies and global improvements must center on the determinedly continuous discovery of regularities.

In global politics, it’s only by classifying an otherwise amorphous mass of disjointed individual cases that our leaders can ever hope to unearth illuminating and predictive data. Only by deliberately seeking general explanations can we expect to suitably tackle world problems. To begin, the conceptual focus of any such search must be at the level of individual human psychology – more precisely, this requires far greater understanding of our utterly primal human inclination to find comfort within “tribes.”

Lesson 2

The desperate human need to belong at all costs is a principal cause of species-wide suffering. In our perpetually fractionated universe, where becoming an individual is blocked by demeaning entertainments and ritual formalisations of anti-reason, “non-members” including refugees, “infidels,” “apostates,” and others are conveniently designated as extraneous, subordinate or inferior. This potentially fatal designation, one whose logical end point is inevitably some form of “tribal” extermination or conversion, was recognised not only by philosophers Søren Kierkegaard, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, but also Max Stirner whose original The Ego and its Own was the intellectual starting point for Ayn Rand.

From the start, our ancestors’ global affairs have been driven by “tribal” conflict. Without a clear and persisting sense of an outsider or enemy, of a suitably despised “other,” whole societies might have felt insufferably lost. Drawing their necessary self-worth from membership in their state, faith or race – what Friedrich Nietzsche had called “herd” and Sigmund Freud called the “horde” – such dehumanised humans could not have hoped to satisfy even the most elementary requirements of global order and system-wide coexistence. Yet, despite detailed histories and advanced technologies, global politics in the 21st century continue to mirror the most corrosive stigmata of our primal human failings.

As much as we still like to cast ourselves as a “higher” species, the veneer of human society remains razor thin. Although largely inured to almost every shade of civilisational horror, we still witness routinized accounts of child soldier atrocities, rampant slavery, proliferating terrorism, human trafficking, rape camps, nuclear proliferation and genocide. Somehow, although impressively conversant with abundantly sanitising statistics, entire nations still manage to glance smugly over freshly eviscerated corpses and declare without shame, “Life is good.” In this lethal inclination, Trump-era America is no exception.

For the jihadists, terrorism and war are only superficially about politics, diplomacy or ideology. In reality, they represented an aptly celebrated “marriage” of violence and the sacred. In this fashion, seductive whisperings of the irrational can offer potential aspirants a seemingly prudent path, a temptingly consecrated road to personal belonging and life everlasting.

Hope still exists, but it must sing softly, sotto voce, in a cultivated undertone. Although seemingly counterintuitive, in order to fix the world, we must pay closer attention to our intensely personal human feelings of empathy, anxiety, restlessness and desperation. Correspondingly, there can be no satisfactions from any atavistic celebrations of insularity, belligerent xenophobia or “America First.”

While private feelings may remain unacknowledged as hidden elements of a wider and safer world politics, they are also starkly determinative for all global relations. Instead of retrograde affirmations of crudely zero-sum orientations to world affairs, we must understand that the “whole” of world civilization cannot be greater than the sum of its individual human “parts.” This is, in fact, precisely what was meant by Swiss psychologist Jung’s “molecular” description of human civilisation as “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.”

Flagrantly, the concept of “soul” is unscientific. Still, crucial issues of the world often rest beyond easily manipulated boundaries of verifiable assessment. To wit, even before Jung, Freud placed unashamed emphasis on the centrality of “soul,” seele, in German, treating it as a helpful metaphor for human essence. He even applied the special referential richness of “soul” to the United States, a country he had regarded with deep pessimism, if not outright loathing. “America is gigantic,” he remarked to fellow psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, “but it is a gigantic mistake.” Americans, of course, are apt to be offended by such a harsh observation, but what specifically troubled Freud was this nation’s overriding commitment to crass materialism and technology. What Freud prescribed instead for human societies was a “spontaneous sympathy” of one’s own unconscious with that of all others.

Americans may or may not be prepared to embrace policy-oriented notions of “soul,” yet many struggle to understand that national and international life is always ultimately about the individual. Accordingly, and this may sound downright blasphemous in for a technology-worshipping society, the time for “modernisation,” “artificial intelligence,” “entrepreneurship” and “new information methodologies” is nearly over. To cooperate and survive together on this earth, the only really durable form of survival, the increasingly fragmented residents of this imperiled planet must discover a more authentic human existence, one detached from traditional and ultimately deadly “tribal” differentiations.

In this connection, Freud and Jung would certainly have agreed that nothing could be more patently misconceived than the ominously shallow mantra of “America First.” What’s required, instead, is an altogether fresh awareness of global interdependence. “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself is false and against nature,” reasons Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man. “No element could move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”

Lesson 3

Only in the vital expressions of a thoroughly reawakened human spirit can Americans learn to recognize what’s essential for national and global survival. The poet Bertolt Brecht warned, “The man who laughs has simply not yet heard the horrible news.”

Despite plans in Washington, the unceasing barbarisms of life on earth cannot be undone by ramping-up of competitive economies, building larger missiles or abrogating international treaties. Inevitably, intertwined humans still lack a tolerable global future not because we have been too slow to learn, but because we have failed to learn what is truly important.

To improve foreign policies, to avoid recurring global misfortunes, America must learn to look insightfully behind the news. In so doing, we might acknowledge that the root remedies for war, despotism, terrorism and genocide are never discoverable in corrosively parasitic political institutions or in intellectually barren political ideologies. Instead, these core explanations lie more or less hidden, dormant, but still promisingly latent, in the timeless personal needs of individuals.

Only when we can meet these critically underlying human needs can we hope to improve the global system in its entirety.

This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.

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