Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Spectator Democracy

in his magisterial series Civilisation, Kenneth Clark blamed the decline of Ancient Greek and Roman societies on exhaustion. That 'feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people even with a high degree of material prosperity'. He explained:
'Of course, civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity - enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence - confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one's own mental powers... Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilisations - or civilising epochs - have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilisation consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. These can be among the agreeable results of civilisation, but they are not what makes a civilisation, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.'
Looking at the West today there is clearly a lack of vigour, energy and vitality - and especially a lack of confidence. Of course there's more to it than that. There's the economic burden of extraordinary levels of debt (a burden for the lenders and not just the borrowers, as Germany is discovering). Though that is a necessary but not sufficient explanation for the West's malaise.

I think it goes much deeper. One clue comes from a recent interview with Martha Nussbaum on The Philosopher's Zone. Discussing the difficulties of forging a global sense of identity and belonging, and the ongoing loss of particular local and national sources of identity (about 12 minutes into the interview) she cites Marcus Aurelius and his experience as a 'philosopher emperor':
"Here's someone leading the nation, but gradually it begins to seem meaningless and empty to him, because - once you achieve complete impartiality - and you do it without any strong attachment to any particulars, then it doesn't make any difference any more. So his writings show us - it's a warning - about impartiality, that if we cultivate impartiality in some areas of life, that shouldn't be at the expense of strong loving attachments to particulars."
Though she doesn't say it, what Martha is challenging here is the politically correct concept of multi-culturalism, or specifically, the uniquely Western idea that one culture/religion/belief system/civilisation is as good as any other. Fundamentally, without a 'Them' there is no 'Us' - we need the Other to define who we are. She rightly sees this as the biggest challenge that we face, balancing the need for group affinity (county, club, team, class, nation, race etc) with the recognition of our shared humanity with all other human beings.

So where does this leave us? Here in Ireland we have lost most of the traditional sources of our identity (religion, political affinities, trade union membership etc) with the notable exception of the GAA. We are adrift like Marcus Aurelius: 'nothing makes a difference any more'. Hence the extraordinary parade of the bland leading the bland in the ongoing Presidential election. What we are experiencing in Ireland and throughout the Western world is the onset of Spectatoritis - and its inevitable spin-off: Spectator Democracy.  In other words, we no longer participate as citizens who belong, we merely spectate as consumers who choose.

How will it end? Nature abhors a vacuum and people abhor ennui. So like the Greek and Roman civilizations, our current impasse won't last. Technology may help the transition (electricity is a very important source of modern civilization after all), but I'm with Kenneth Clark. He concluded his series thus:
'I said at the beginning that it is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs... One may be optimistic, but one can't exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.'

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