I have recently finished reading an excellent book by Pankaj Mishra entitled ‘Age of Anger: A History of the Present’. The book closes with this:
The contradictions and costs of a minority’s progress, long suppressed by historical revisionism, blustery denial and aggressive equivocation, have become visible on a planetary scale. They encourage the suspicion – potentially lethal among the hundreds of millions of people condemned to superfluousness – that the present order, democratic or authoritarian, is built upon force and fraud; they incite a broader and more apocalyptic mood than we have witnessed before. They also underscore the need for some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world.
Mishra contends that Western Global Capitalism (WGC) and its accompanying ideas of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ that emerged from the enlightenment with the promise of freedom and equality for all has lead to a world that is increasingly frustrated and angry about the way in which this promise is fulfilled only for the privileged few at the expense of the many.
This is not a new situation. The enlightenment came about through the emergence of scientific and philosophical thought that challenged the prevailing feudal system of a select ruling class that owned and controlled everything – land, people, everything.
This system was enforced by the church in collusion with the nobles through religious observance to the idea that God ‘rewarded’ virtuous individuals with wealth and status and punished the rest of humanity for their weakness of body and spirit. There was no fairness and justice for the masses save for the fact that they were all equally badly off.
Scientific thought challenged and undermined the biblical stories of creation and miraculous holy interventions whilst philosophers offered a new way of thinking about who we were and how our societies were unfairly structured.
The shift came by way of privilege and power now being bestowed on the captains of industry who, through the industrial revolution, built things that people could then buy with the wages they earned in the factories owned and run by the entrepreneurial business leaders.
This took a lot of time to come about and there were some serious ructions along the way (revolutions, dictators, wars etc.) but the basic template was set 300 years ago and hasn’t really changed that much since.
The smart ones amongst you will have noticed whilst a lot has undoubtedly changed for the better the basic premise – that some people are more worthy than others – still prevails and the gods still reward some people and punish others.
I am currently reading another book called The Radical Enlightenment which looks in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail at some of the thinking that was going on around the enlightenment but didn’t fully catch on due to resistance from both church and state at the time.
These more radical thinkers were going much further and deeper into notions of religion, God and the fairness of the system embracing ideas of socialism (as we might now call it) and atheism. They were developing arguments on fairness and equality (racial, gender and economical) that it is very difficult to disagree with unless, of course, you stand to lose all your power, wealth and status as a result of their implementation i.e. the ruling classes and the church.
So these ideas were repressed or made more palatable to those who held the strings of power and are still in force now however subconsciously they might be acknowledged or not.
Immanuel Kant in answer to the question ‘what is the enlightenment?’ said this:
“Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment.”
This is a plea for independent thinking, as expressed in his call ‘dare to know’ (sapere aude). It is in this sense that Kant saw his own time as a not yet enlightened age, but rather an age of enlightenment. According to this view, the Enlightenment might well still be a work in progress.
WGC promises that through hard work and diligence we will be rewarded with money, property and status. Once we acquire these we can be happy. We don’t need to be happy we need to be aware – aware of who we are and what this world we live in is about and to claim our rightful place in it.
I started writing this in the mistaken idea that we need an new enlightenment, we don’t, we need to fully realise the old one and ‘have courage to use our own reason’.
I don’t know who I am or what my rightful place in the world is yet but I am learning and, in the words of Vic Goddard, I’ll find out over time.