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1st April, 2020

Bibliothèque nationale de France / Public domain

As I write in early March stock exchanges around the world are losing significant value because of the emergence and spread of the Coronavirus (and, more recently, most of the world is in lockdown) and much of Wales and northern England are flooded as a result of which many have lost their homes. At the same time the civil war in Syria is grinding towards a bloody conclusion in Idlib with the usual streams of refugees and media stories about the appalling effects on women and children.

All such occurrences might have been styled in the past as a combination of ‘Acts of God’ or of external agents like the impersonal Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This means that, in some sense, they were seen as beyond human control and evoked Gloucester’s words in King Lear - As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport. Such attitudes, perhaps, exhibit a kind of sanity in that they accept that certain things involving nature, the elements and conflict are uncontainable within any kind of neurotically laid-down limits. For this reason insurance companies invented the category of "Acts of God" in the case of natural events and "Force Majeure" for chaotic events caused by humans such as war, riot or strike.

Of course, around the time of the French Revolution the God of the Acts of God and of nature was replaced, in the 'Festival of Reason' in Notre Dame de Paris depicted above (perhaps leading Nietzsche, in the following century to anatomise the ‘Death of God’ in the West), by a woman dressed as the Enlightenment Goddess of Reason. The human mind was, thus, placed at the top of the pyramid of reality where a mysterious God used to be. Once this occurred the simple and humble acceptance of our helplessness in the face of the disorder created by Acts of God and Force Majeure no longer obtained. Enlightenment belief in human reason led to an ever greater reliance on science and technology to solve all problems, control all variables and predict all unpredictables. The illusion of perfect control was created. As this infiltrated the consciousness of the West it threw up interesting examples; in 1916, a series of unusual and unpredictable shark attacks on the coast near New Jersey caused presidential hopeful, Woodrow Wilson, to lose most of the North Eastern and Great Lake states and, consequently, almost to fail to be elected. In some way, it was considered, he should have been able to control such acts of God. Once the new ‘faith’ in perfect control was installed whenever something went wrong then it was automatically assumed that someone somewhere must be accountable or to blame. Suddenly even the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were subject to busy Health and Safety legislation. If human reason was supposed to control all things then human law, especially that branch concerned with human rights, could ensure good outcomes for everyone always. Nothing, therefore, could happen under the sun that did not have redress for the aggrieved.

When this mindset of neurotic control freakery was spliced together with another mindset  arising out of the 19th century – the Marxist one that saw all events in the human sphere as deriving from unbalanced and unequal power relations and dynamics of oppression  and exploitation - we had a heady cocktail of grievance and outrage and centuries-long meal-tickets for lawyers.

Thus excessive rationalism combined with the Gramscian ‘long march through the institutions’ has ensured that these mind-sets now infect our culture in the most profound ways. To see how true this is we only need to watch the national and local news bulletins on the BBC or Channel 4. Every time there is a war and chaos is unleashed outrage and surprise are expressed at the effects on women and children as if no one knows what war is. It is as though hot war is a board game that simply needs the playing of the right legislation card to protect women and children from its worst effects. This is not to say that we should not invent things like the Geneva Convention (or the International Court of Justice in the Hague for the after effects) but simply that to expect them to operate perfectly in theatres of war and to be surprised that they don’t is somewhat naïve or rationalistic in a very literal way. As we watch the media outlets wring their hands what we are really watching is a neurotic who has suddenly adverted to the fact that his controlling behaviour is incapable of controlling and directing all of reality within parameters which he finds reassuring. We are hearing surprised panic of a kind that more sensible people who have accommodated themselves better to the true nature of our world and lacrimae rerum will not be feeling.

Similarly local news on television can often seem like a litany of complaints about the bad behaviour of those in authority in Health, Police or Transport services. A series of victims or relatives of victims are wheeled before us to tell us the extent of their aggrievement and the progress of their litigation against those other humans charged with providing us with notionally perfect security, transport and health. There is little room for the acceptance of human error or Acts of God for a kind of ruthlessly uncompromising and mathematical standard of perfection is always demanded. Any falling away from it is always to be punished in the public forum. Financial redress, a promise that ‘lessons will be learnt’ and hapless and abject apology is always exacted. Reporters, relatives and those dependent on the perfect functioning of all services belabour authorities and a perfect standard of the human rights we can expect is always evoked.

What is the appeal of these neurotic models? Well, if we deceive ourselves that we are collectively capable of perfect control of everything, any failure to control the elements, nature or what used to be called fate can be seen as a punishable falling away by certain individuals from a perfection to which we have a right. Society, then, helpfully devolves into clearly identified victims and perpetrators. This has a great appeal for, once the perpetrators are identified, the new logic permits us to indulge in good, old-fashioned scapegoating whereby sempiternal mother-lodes of guilt and blame which each of us wishes to avoid at all costs (and what better way to avoid it than by being a registered and fist-shaking victim?) can be safely off-loaded on these newly created sin-offerings. Hence our vindictive society and hence the repeated forcing of those in authority who provide us with much needed and beneficial services into attitudes of abject apology (we actually ritually punish those we depend on and create all sorts of resentments and disillusionments in doing so). In fact we have come full circle back to the religion we so triumphantly abandoned.

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