It seems we have entered into a new age. I doubt that the present “health crisis” should be taken as its onset, but rather as the symptom of something which has been building up for a long time. Furthermore the “something” which I refer to isn’t a biological threat in our environment, as real as the biological threats might be. Rather, the something which has broken out, and which has been a long time simmering, is panic. Furthermore I don’t mean mass panic, although toilet paper and other goods disappearing from shelves would indicate that mass panic is latent and dangerous. Rather I mean a new kind of panic, a panic which is both opposite to, and in some way symbiotic with, the panic of the masses: elite panic. The masses haven’t shut down the world, although so far they have complied with that shut down. Only the elites had the power to shut down the world, and they have demonstrated that power, with great authority, during the past few weeks.
For those of us who talk, perhaps too glibly, of “elites,” this should prompt a critical review of our principles. After all, as our theories go, the elites control the world, and the world-system is the source of their power. A shut down is against everybody’s interest, but it is most of all against the interests of the elites themselves. What are we to make of this? I am skeptical enough to think that there has been an overreaction to the pandemic, although the pandemic is a reality. Of course I might be wrong, but even if I were wrong, the salient point is that one would expect the elites to err in the opposite direction. One might expect elites to sacrifice public health to economics. But that hasn’t happened, and instead the world economy has been put on indefinite hold. This bodes poorly for the near term future.
Indeed, it bodes so poorly, that, for those of us who think that a world depression would kill far more people than a pandemic, the possibility of malice naturally occurs. Perhaps the elites, like Ming the Magnificent in the space opera Flash Gordon, tiring of using planet Earth as their plaything, have resolved to destroy it. However I think not. As bad as the elites might be, they are neither wicked spirits nor space aliens, but rather composed of the same flesh as you and I. In destroying the world they would destroy themselves as well. While to the masses the elites appear to be in the drivers seat, they are actually driven themselves, by desire, by fear, and ultimately panic. As pawns in their own game, they resemble a desperate Dr. Faustus more than a scheming Mephisto, let alone a planet destroying Vader or Ming. Here I want to make a conjecture as to what drives them, and ironically drives them to destruction while seeking self-preservation. And sadly, not just “them” but us as well, elite or non-elite. I will try to avoid demonizing anyone, and will stop just short of the diabolical, to pause in the kingdom of the magical and the heroic. Along the way we may have to make a stop at the planet Mongo as well, but not to see the Emperor. I am more interested in the fatal flaws of heroes than the malice of villains. Perhaps we can survive the onslaughts of villains, but can we see through the fatal flaws of our own best intentions?
From God to heroes
Furthermore in criticizing elites, I’m not necessarily talking about world political and financial elites, although that class is obviously riddled with bad actors. I mean the kind of elite which you or I would be flattered to belong to, as if someone exclaimed,”Wow, you’re elite stuff!” I’m talking about the ideals and aspirations of our professions and the power of expert knowledge. We assume that this is good stuff, even “the right stuff.” We all embrace the principle that knowledge is superior to nescience, and that skill is superior to inability. Generally speaking, this is true. However as with everything in life, there is a limit to the application of the general principle.
By the third decade of the 21st century, we have reached some sort of tipping point. Call it “the singularity” if you want, although I dislike the term. None the less, we have gotten to a place where most people, at least in the West, consider expert knowledge the world’s highest source of wisdom. All other forms of wisdom, whether that be revelation, tradition, or personal experience, are considered either bogus or supplementary to expert knowledge. Of course there are dissenters to this world-view, but such dissent no longer plays much of a role in broad social discourse. It is assumed that humanity has attained its maturity and has cut the cords which once kept it under the control of nature, let alone God, assuming that the latter had ever existed. The world is now humanity’s to make, break, or repair.
According to Issac Asimov, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Today the priests of the High God have been banished (literally, in the case of the present shut down of churches) and the magicians are now in undisputed control. We have arrived at the age of the unchallenged expert. Only the trappings of our once vaunted “democracy” remain, and as for our religions, sometimes not even the trappings.
By and large, people seem happy with this. All the divine qualities that were once imputed to the High God have now been transferred over to the expert: omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. This is not just a magical age, but an epoch of magical monotheism, an era where the magician has no competitors. This is accepted because the millenia in which the High God ruled are now considered backward, and the handful of centuries since the Enlightenment seem, if not yet having delivered, at least showing promise towards fulfilling the demands which humanity makes of its gods: infinite life, perfect health, and universal prosperity. After having patiently endured through a series of rough industrial stages an expectant humanity now awaits the full fruits of science and technology.
Malpractice and Magical Monotheism
In short, the modern magician (whatever professional label secular society might apply to him or her) has inherited the mantle of the High God. At first blush, this is an exhilarating ascendance. Yet, delving into the dark psyche of human history, one is alarmed to discover that the deepest collective emotion of the human race is an implacable hatred of God. Here followers of the Abrahamic religions will instantly recognize the ubiquity of sin. Yet even those who deny the Torah or its sequels will find disturbing pointers towards god-hatred throughout the anthropological record. Like Job, humanity frames its own questions and hurls them out into the void: “Who is the mysterious bad actor who has managed to ruin humanity’s prospect of infinite life, perfect health, and universal prosperity?” The riotous masses are ill-disposed to blame themselves. Instead, they search for a scapegoat. From the beginning, the obvious scapegoat was the Creator of the world. Ignoring the scriptures, humanity concocted its own gnostic myths which portrayed the creator as a blind and potentially malevolent being.
As shocking as that might be, what ensued was even more shocking. Miraculously, God, concurring with the desires of humanity, willingly offered himself up as a scapegoat. Out of this miracle issued what Alexander Solzhentizen called “the fragile and diminishing capital of the Christian centuries.” As a spiritual legacy this is simply the principle of charity but in terms of social capital it had the effect of underwriting the benevolent principle of limited moral liability. Though never perfect, this enabled God-complient societies to function with temporary moratoriums on vendettas and witch-hunts. In effect, God offered himself as a buffer between the warring tribes of humanity.
Today this spiritual capital is all but exhausted, and the magicians (i.e., experts, professionals) sit on the seat of the Almighty. However the masses still assert the same list of non-negotiable demands as they did during the theological ages: infinite life, perfect health, and universal prosperity. With the disappearance of God, the burden of satisfying these demands has shifted to the expert classes and professions. They can no longer afford to fail, and yet they are human, only too human.
This hatred remains latent until the experts exhaust their resources, and then it flares forth with implacable fury. Here we find the answer to our question: What is the origin of elite panic? It is the fear of total liability. A total liability assumed for the finite conditions of the human condition, mortality and scarcity.
Can flesh save flesh?
Whether or not the top elites of the political and financial worlds are worried or not, the professional and expert elites are most certainly living in a state of constant anxiety. It is not the villains, the bad actors, who have a panic problem. Rather it is the good actors, the heroes, who face the prospect of damnation by humanity if they fail to acquit themselves as beings who possess the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence.
There is nothing worse than the fate of a failed magician who is being hunted down as a sorcerer. Yet this is one consequence of the new Godless social construct which has been erected on the foundation of modern propaganda and technology. The salient effect of total liability is to render expert elites extremely cautious. Since the prospect of utter damnation in the court of humanity is so frightful, whether or not it leads to ostracism or the guillotine, prudence borders on panic. Prudence is, of course, a virtue. But a new fear seems to have pushed the frontier of prudence towards panic. What is this new fear? It cannot be the fear of germs or bullets, meteorological or geological calamity, for these things have been with us for a long time. If this new fear had any antecedent in traditional societies, it would be what anthropologists call “the evil eye.” However this new “eye” has been magnified to the dimensions of a global village. Like the local village of yore, the global village keeps it’s eye on the gods-d’jour waiting for the smallest infraction to cast them in the role of scapegoats. Under such stringent conditions is it any wonder that panic prevails over common sense?
Yes, we love our heroes of the professional and expert elites, perhaps we even love them to death. For in removing God from our presence we have also given our elites a deferred death sentence, a question of moral if not physical death. Their newfound omnipotence is as toxic to heroes as it is intoxicating to the masses. As Queen sang of Flash Gordon, “He’s saving every one of us! He’s saving every one of us!” Yes, that is our unilateral and non-negotiable demand, that everyone be saved. Unfortunately our Flash Gordons are not up to the task, because Flash is, after all, only flesh. It is murderously unfair to ask of flesh what can only be accomplished by God. And yet, there is One who indeed can save, but he is not, contrary to Queen‘s lyrics, “…just a man.”