Enlightenment Lost: A Faustian Exchange of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for Self Glorification and Material Convenience

Yuval Harari

Tech C.E.O.s Are In Love With Their Principal Doomsayer

[Yuval Harari]

Nellie Bowles

The New York Times, November 9, 2018

Erasing Your Individuality

How Silicon Valley is Erasing Your Individuality

Franklin Foer

The Washington Post, September 8, 2017

Imagine observing a group of chimpanzees in the woodlands of western Tanzania. One day, an otherwise ordinary member of the group decides he will affix wildflowers to the hair on his head and rub a red ochre paste on his face. Imagine further that he, so adorned, then swaggers among his fellows gesturing to his new appearance and pointing at and laughing disdainfully at his group mates. Finally, imagine that this same chimp begins taking overt and deceitful actions to get what the others consider a disproportionate share of food that the group has hunted or found.

Three Questions

  1. What do you think Mr. Special’s group mates will think of him, and what consequences might he face for such behavior? His fellows might ignore his appearance or find it amusing. Then again, the ranking male and female might take umbrage if the lesser females start given Mr Fancy the attention and deference they normally give to the two leaders of the group. Eventually and more probably, his antics regarding food, if they continue for some time, will likely result in him being beaten and/or driven from the group.
  2. Now, imagine a corollary scenario among a group of modern humans. Think of a business office situation where someone adorns himself and behaves in a manner suggesting to others that he is superior to them. And that he begins stealing or bullying to obtain promotion, wealth or communal resources to a degree that degrades the wellbeing of his group mates? For example, a cologned, well-coiffed, well-dressed Wall Street financial manager becomes known in the office for his vanity and arrogance. In his work he frequently takes action to demolish low income housing that will put thousands of low income tenants on the street in order to make way for the construction of expensive, highly profitable townhouses on the same land. Does our Mr. Profit exemplify the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity in his individual and business behavior?
  3. How has it come about that the maverick among chimpanzees scenario is an obvious affront to chimp individual and group morality, yet the corollary among humans is acceptable?

I kindly ask that you not jump to a conclusion, in the currently popular mode of “gotcha, see, I can think faster and therefore better than you,” that I’m a socialist using an evolutionary biology analogy as a rationale. Also, this essay is neither a sophistic argument intent on demeaning all points of view other than mine, nor an attempt at rhetorically deceiving you or clobbering you and your ideas into submission to my way of thinking. I kindly ask that you stay with me a bit longer. I’m simply trying to expand thinking not win points of argumentation.

First, I am not a socialist. During thirty plus years of working and living in Africa, observing firsthand how various forms of national socialism fail, I found little in that social system to recommend to any large society. Now, consider the following.

You might protest my chimp analogy claiming that humans are different. Our approach to liberty, equality and fraternity, you might say, is obviously by necessity more complicated. It’s different because we have made technological and cultural progress far beyond that of our hominoid cousins. Consequently, our respective social structures and cultural systems are not comparable. That “human nature” is nothing more than what we agree upon in the times we live. Not the pattern of morality that we brought with us from our social mammal and primate past and the vast majority of the 300,000 years since we became sapiens. That we have been preening and adorning ourselves around the world for a very long time, and been competing even longer, within and between groups, for food and other resources, and other things needed or desired. You would be partially correct.

But this type of human behavior only began within the past 6,000 years, about one quarter of one percent of the entire time of human existence. Undoubtedly, as our contemporary social mammal and wily monkey and ape cousins attest, selfishness, lying, trickery and the exploitation of others have always been a deep part of the human behavioral repertoire. But there is a distinctly, more moral, human pattern that has proven successful for the greatest period of time.  That is, a way of life that one could argue is central to whatever cultural human nature we have, one that allows for some individual liberty yet socially safeguards equality, and fosters in individuals a binding emotional and rational sense of fraternity or fellowship. For examples, consider the general patterns of life practiced by our ancestral and contemporary hunter-gatherer groups. This is the social mammal, primate, human way of surviving and flourishing. And no, in suggesting this I’m not in a state of noble savage delusion that these patterns of behavior were without their problems and occasional failures. But the basic pattern of some liberty, along with concern and action in support of and in harmony with one’s fellows, is to be human. But, you ask, what about rugged individualism, libertarianism? Both are mythic fallacies having no record of a society relying on them exclusively to survive and thrive. More on this later.

This basic, long-standing pattern of self-group equilibrium has been incurred upon and transformed twice in human cultural evolution. The first Age of Acquiescence occurred in Mesopotamia following the origin of plant domestication and urban living during the Bronze Age (3300-1200BCE), and subsequently elsewhere in Asia and the Americas.

In Mesopotamia, humans were forced and/or acquiesced into a pattern of life ruled by autocratic states that instituted social, accounting and codified (legal and administrative) control measures. Notions of liberty, equality and fraternity as practiced during the immediately previous hunter-gather phase became radically transformed. See “The Evolution of Western Individualism, Part I – From the East African Rift to Silicon Valley.”

The second Age of Acquiescence began in the U.S. in the early 20th Century. This was when U.S. business leaders and the federal government began using mass media to redefine notions of liberty, equality and fraternity. Why? To satisfy manufacturers’ and financiers’ desires for higher profits and to allay the political class’s fear of large populations becoming less under their control. More about this later.

After the autocracies of the early Mesopotamian kingdoms came Greek proto-democracy and Roman republicanism. Both were early forms of representative rule but participation was limited to wealthy aristocratic males. Liberty, equality and fraternity under these oligarchic plutocracies was somewhat better than it had been under the autocracies of the Middle East and Europe, despite the emergent Christian emphasis on the importance of individuals’ souls. Following the fall of the Roman Empire it would be nearly a thousand years until a secular focus on the individual would emerge during the European Renaissance.

Enlightenment I

There then came a time, again in Europe, known as the Age of Enlightenment. It was then that a potentially better, more egalitarian way of conducting ourselves, individually and socially, was suggested. This new way of life was characterized by the seemingly contradictory notions of liberty, equality and fraternity. The overarching goal was said to be a condition of individual and group existence with a reasonable level of liberty. That is, a personal freedom reasonably restrained by notions and institutions insisting upon fairness and justice. Both liberty and equality, in this sense, were anchored in the ancient, more personal notion of fraternity – we are all the same in terms of our needs, we are our brother and sisters’ keeper, and we should treat each other as we would like ourselves to be treated.

The Age of Enlightenment occurred in Europe between about 1620 and 1789. It was a period when some of the continent’s best thinkers suggested that Humankind become responsible for creating knowledge and truth through science; and, using reason, begin establishing a moral system they believed would lead to the improvement of individual and societal living conditions.
This was a way of thinking and an approach to knowledge and human living very different from the autocratic, theocentric and proto-democratic understandings and methods that preceded it. Enlightenment thinkers asserted (Bacon) and were demonstrating (Galileo and others) that answers to questions about the composition and functioning of the world and the cosmos could be found through empirical observation, experimentation and the scientific method.
They also believed that humans could devise better ways of behaving individually and organizing themselves socially, to the benefit of the greatest number of persons, compared to the ideas and methods of the past, by living in accordance with moral principles developed through reasoning. In the moral realm a range of ideals was put forward and gradually adopted by most European nations. These notions included liberty, progress, tolerance, equality, justice, fraternity, constitutional and representational government, and the separation of church and state.

The subsequent history of the West, 1789 to the present, saw many of these ideals contested yet eventually accepted and institutionalized. See Steven Pinker’s 2018 book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Prominent among these institutionalized ideals was the importance of individual freedom from tyranny as formalized in certain declarations of human rights. Notable was the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776), the motivations underlying the French Revolution (1789), and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791).

It is important to note that the institutionalization of individual freedoms and rights found in the proclamations and rebellions of the late 18th Century focused almost exclusively on freedom and protection from the tyranny of autocratic states. Other potentially tyrannical forces such as those that might somehow be imposed by members of the commercial and financial class, overtly or indirectly, were not of equal concern. Abuses made by members of the commercial and financial classes were economic matters that the people ceded to mostly local governing bodies. These bodies were, in turn, empowered to oversee and control economic activities through legislation, precedent, and regulatory and legal enforcement.

By the early 17th Century the potential abuse of power and influence by commercial and financial forces over the public was growing and acknowledged, but it was not yet as worrisome as the threats of tyrannical power from government and religion. Commerce and finance were seen primarily as concerned with the workings of markets of goods and services; and that individuals were free to participate in these markets, to any degree, or not. Governments in particular, if they chose to do so, could pass laws and mount armed force to enforce their tyranny over the people, but members of the commercial and financial class did not yet have such power, in kind or degree.
However, beginning with the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) members of the commercial and financial class of Europe began to greatly increase their power over society based on their ever-growing accumulation of wealth. This quickly led to greater closeness between the political and economic classes in terms of their common and related interests in ever increasing the power and wealth they could wield over the public. Not surprisingly, many of those cycling in and out of government were also heavily invested in business and manufacturing.

European Colonialism (1500-1960) became the global geopolitical and economic effort in which the mutual interests of European governance and business were tangibly united and put into action.

Despite the beginning of the abolition of slavery movement in England the late 18th Century, notions of individual freedom from state and economic tyranny, especially for colonized peoples, were, at best, given lip service by European missionaries. At worst, such protections were outright denied by the colonial governing policies and practices of, to name only two, “indirect rule” (Britain) and the “iron fist in the velvet glove” (France). Some of the most horrific abuses were undertaken by the Belgians in the Congo basin and are described in King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild, 1999.

With reference to Africa the “dual mandate” rationale for colonization was best described in 1922 by English soldier and colonial administrator, Frederick Lugard (1858-1945) as the civilizing of the Africans and the production, extraction, and transfer of wealth from their land to Britain.*

In the U.S., the Civil War aside, it was not until the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) that the tyrannical powers of industry and commerce were acknowledged and protective actions begun by the U.S. government.

Despite the brutalities of the European colonial period that continued up to the late 1960s, notable protections of individual freedoms and rights were declared for all the world’s people in the early-mid 20th Century. This included the charter of the League of Nations (1920), that of the UN (1945), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Since the middle of the 20th Century a global conflict and various social movements sought to return the world to the original understandings of liberty, equality and fraternity as outlined during the Enlightenment. These included World War II, the Age of Rights – Human and Civil (1920-1980), the post-colonial Independence movements, among others.

Enlightenment Lost

In the late 20th Century and early 21st Century Hi Tech has not been a liberating force for greater individual freedom and control as many people currently think. It is a continuation of the ironclad control the powerful and wealthy in the U.S. grasped at and won during the early-mid 20th Century. See the BBC Two documentary Century of the Self (2002) for a chronicle of the various ways that corporations and governments, beginning in the late 1920s, used psychological theories and techniques in advertising and public relations to assess, create and fulfill the desires of the public. It was this beginning of business and government’s appeal to primitive impulses that gave less bearing on larger issues outside the narrow self-interests of consumer society – a shift from a need to a desire culture. Paul Mazur, a Lehman Brothers banker on Wall Street in 1929, put it this way: “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. … Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” Although we still think we are free, we have become, especially since the 1950s, the slaves of our desires.

If I read Yuval Harari correctly, as cited extensively in the above New York Times article linked above and his 2018 book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Hi Tech will lead to the coup de grâce of an individualism of true freedom and democracy most places in the world, and there is little that can be done to stop it.

Here are excerpts of Harari’s views from the article linked above:

“He told the audience that free will is an illusion, and that human rights are just a story we tell ourselves. Political parties, he said, might not make sense anymore. He went on to argue that the liberal world order has relied on fictions like ‘the customer is always right’ and ‘follow your heart,’ and that these ideas no longer work in the age of artificial intelligence, when hearts can be manipulated at scale.

“Everyone in Silicon Valley is focused on building the future, Mr. Harari continued, while most of the world’s people are not even needed enough to be exploited. ‘Now you increasingly feel that there are all these elites that just don’t need me,’ he said. ‘And it’s much worse to be irrelevant than to be exploited.’

“The useless class he describes is uniquely vulnerable. ‘If a century ago you mounted a revolution against exploitation, you knew that when bad comes to worse, they can’t shoot all of us because they need us,’ he said, citing army service and factory work.

“Now it is becoming less clear why the ruling elite would not just kill the new useless class. ‘You’re totally expendable,’ he told the audience.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Enlightenment was led by a variety of moral thinkers in pursuit of better living for all individuals and groups. Hi Tech is led by technical thinkers and venture capitalists pursuing profit, and funded by governments in pursuit of power. The powerful and wealthy shall prevail through Tech and thereby have the final say over morality – freedom, justice, and individual empowerment and flourishing.

Again, if I understand Harari properly, I doubt the elites’ quest for ever more power and wealth will ever be satisfied and they will, in turn, allow more freedom. And if they do it will be a freedom they “allow,” not one that comes from noble moral principles or organically from the hearts and minds of the people and their best thinkers. But we will continue to be led to believe we are free and our societies are becoming more just and equal. Since Edward Bernays in the mid-1920s they have never been and the future will be no different.

That said, I think, as long as we do not become extinct, freedom, justice and equality will survive on the fringes, and in the crevices of our lives and psyches. In our silent walks in mountains and woods and on deserted beaches. In our observances of sunrises and sunsets, and in our loves and dreams. But no longer in our institutions for they are no longer ours. There really is no stemming or reversing this tide.

But two centuries later this new and better way was co-opted by the forces of wealth and power and reconfigured. That is, cleverly modified in a manner where the people were persuaded that their liberty was more about the freedom to deviate than about freedom from tyranny. That they were free to become unequally superior to their fellows, and that their obligations to themselves as individuals were far more important than their responsibilities to the needs of their brothers and sisters in society. Finally, that the manufacturers and the politicians knew just what to promise and provide for you to excel in your specialness. And, most astonishing of all, the majority of people believed them, bought their products, and gave them their votes.

This is how the noble ideals of the Enlightenment became abandoned and transformed into an all-powerful politico-economic system under which the people falsely believed they were truly free individuals and that their groups would flourish by them pursuing style and convenience over moral considerations of equality and fraternity. Hi Tech, led by Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA) are the prime movers of for institutionalizing these views and supplanting politics and governance as forces of tyranny. This fallacious recasting of the Enlightenment has spread from the West, the U.S. in particular, to the rest of the world.

Now, you can say that people are free to support or not support GAFA. But are they really, based on what we’ve learned about the wealthy and powerful’s powers of persuasion via marketing and mass media? Beginning in the 1930s and especially so since the end of WWII, politicians and Madison Avenue successfully transformed freedom into obedience to them yet leaving the public thinking they are truly free, and persuading most of the public to exchange satisfying their material needs as their first priority for the pursuit of their desires and self-glorification. Some would say that the power over the hearts and minds of the majority of the U.S. public wielded by GAFA far surpasses all others including the political class and our universities.

I conclude this essay with the thoughts of someone very much in line with the thinking of Harari, Franklin Foer, writer at The Atlantic and former editor of The New Republic. From his 2017 essay linked above, Foer wrote this about Hi Tech and the future of liberty, equality and fraternity:

“More than any previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolies aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it. They think they have the opportunity to complete the long merger between man and machine — to redirect the trajectory of human evolution.

“It is assumed that libertarianism dominates Silicon Valley, and that isn’t wholly wrong. High-profile devotees of Ayn Rand can be found there. But if you listen hard to the titans of tech, it’s clear that their worldview is something much closer to the opposite of a libertarian’s veneration of the heroic, solitary individual. The big tech companies think we’re fundamentally social beings, born to collective existence. They invest their faith in the network, the wisdom of crowds, collaboration. They harbor a deep desire for the atomistic world to be made whole. … By stitching the world together, they can cure its ills.

“Rhetorically, the tech companies gesture toward individuality — to the empowerment of the ‘user’ — but their worldview rolls over it. … The big tech companies are shredding the principles that protect individuality. Their devices and sites have collapsed privacy; they disrespect the value of authorship, with their hostility toward intellectual property. In the realm of economics, they justify monopoly by suggesting that competition merely distracts from the important problems like erasing language barriers and building artificial brains.

“When it comes to the most central tenet of individualism — free will — the tech companies have a different way. They hope to automate the choices, both large and small, we make as we float through the day. It’s their algorithms that suggest the news we read, the goods we buy, the paths we travel, the friends we invite into our circles.

“The time has arrived to consider the consequences of these monopolies, to reassert our role in determining the human path. … Something like the midcentury food revolution is now reordering the production and consumption of knowledge. Our intellectual habits are being scrambled by the dominant firms. … In the realm of knowledge, monopoly and conformism are inseparable perils. The danger is that these firms will inadvertently use their dominance to squash diversity of opinion and taste. Concentration is followed by homogenization.

“Over time, the long merger of man and machine has worked out pretty well for man. But we’re drifting into a new era, when that merger threatens the individual. We’re drifting toward monopoly, conformism….”

We’re screwed, really. The Dark Mountain Project folks have it right. Their passive, write new stories recommendation, however, is just not good enough. I have a personal strategy including the Stoic’s “open door” if it all becomes unbearable. I’m still trying to come up with one for Humankind. Catastrophes may be the only opportunities to force change.

Nationally, what leaders do we produce when Enlightenment liberty, equality and fraternity have been transformed by the wealthy and powerful to mean freedom to become ever more unequal for members of my tribe, not the rest of you? Obama was elected on original Enlightenment values and ideals. The 2016 U.S. presidential election backlash of the white acquiescent masses was profound: I am free to be unequal, may my brother get his own or die! Why it even took the wealthy and powerful on the Right by surprise, how effective their efforts at turning the Enlightenment against itself had been.

Dylan and others said in the 1960s “the times are a changin’.” They haven’t. It was a loud, sincere voice for a return to Enlightenment liberty, equality and fraternity. But it was quickly strangled by government as a law and order matter. It was further sated by the manufacturers, with the help of their Mad Men, with sugar-coated foods, fancy clothes & jewelry, and all manner of affordable gadgetry. Know thyself? Value fairness and equality? Be thy brother’s keeper? Tread softly in Nature? Pfft. Acquiesce.

The system of consumptive self-glorification, growing inequality and a greater ignoring of the needs of, and in fact punishing, our brothers and sisters for protesting their lack of freedom, equality and fraternal treatment, ground on, and the powerful threw more laws, cops, money and advertising at the problem.

And beating the loudest drum these days are white privileged libertarians and others with beliefs such as these:

“Crucial about all this is that the commercial seers who get the future right will grow stunningly rich for being right. The more convenient life is, the more unequal are the living. But as opposed to a sign of hardship, the happier truth is that life is truly cruel when the talented aren’t getting rich. That’s when we know that no one is devising ways to make our lives easier, cheaper, healthier, more productive, and everything else good. Life without rising inequality is very much like life with socialism.”

Hi Tech is the most recent mass manipulation method of the wealthy and powerful. Freethinkers, skeptics, social activists and all others are dragged along by the plodding, sometimes thundering, herd of humans the powerful have corralled and broken, and who have themselves willingly acquiesced to the bridle bit of consumer capitalism.

In looking for a solution I’m only coming up with a personal strategy. The herd and the wealthy and powerful that entice, pacify and drive them cannot be stopped or turned. By the end of the drive, from infancy to death, we all have become fattened up for the virtual abattoirs of Silicon Valley, Washington and Wall Street, and logged into commerce’s bottom lines and the media’s surveys and voter exit polls. Driven, sated, dead and discarded – all to the glory of wealth and power, from sea to shining sea.

Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Don’t talk about what a good person should be like. Be that person.” The problem is, ideas about what a good person should be like have been commandeered by the wealthy and powerful classes and reformulated, both with the public’s acquiescence, to mean a kind a good that is best for the wealthy and powerful, but not one that is best for all of us.

Being virtuous in a true Enlightenment sense in a society with a widely accepted moral system opposing those ideals and goals is not easy. Nor is it easy to change a moral system when the rulers and ruled are in sync. It can be done locally, very locally, but rarely at higher social levels without great hardship arising from catastrophe or revolution.

Enlightenment reasoning worked for two and half centuries. A thousand years of feudalism and darkness preceded that. Will we survive to see a second Enlightenment? Will it be anything like the first?


*- Circumcision and Coffee in Uganda: Bamasaaba Responses to Incursion, Colonialism and Nationalism 1840-1962 by James E. Lassiter, 2017.


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