Over the past several months I’ve done my best to avoid writing a post on this topic but obviously the effort at deflection is futile. The issue keeps surfacing in my thoughts over and over again, so I’m going to bite the bullet and get those thoughts out into text. Maybe then the thoughts will leave me alone. Here’s hoping …
The topic is lost potential. Just what’s that supposed to mean? It means a lot of things — that’s the problem. The main reason I avoided writing about it is because the enormity of scope my thoughts covered gave me a proper fright. When something like that looms on the horizon what immediately comes to mind is the old chestnut from Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind — “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
But tomorrow becomes today and at my age you realize there are only so many tomorrows. So it’s time for me to bite the bullet and put flesh on the bones of those skeletal thoughts that rattle around in my head doing their Halloween jig. Both the individual and collective levels are involved because it’s impossible to separate the two in this instance — more’s the pity. In many regards I manage to exempt myself from the woes that betide the collective but not in this case. So I’ll begin with the general and work toward the individual.
In order to realize what has been lost we need to understand what is possible of realization. We need to distinguish in some concrete manner those things that lie within human power to accomplish and those that fall clearly into the category of pipe dreams. I see as I write that last sentence that my awareness of the issue I’m tackling here goes back to my early adulthood and led me to the work of the Frankfurt School (info here) with its focus on critical theory (info here). I’ll use a quotation from Max Horkheimer I used in another post on a different topic because it’s foundational to this issue, as well:
Die kritische Theorie erklärt: es muss nicht so sein, die Menschen können das Sein ändern, die Umstände dafür sind jetzt vorhanden.
(Critical theory declares: things need not be so, people can change how life is, the conditions for change are present now.)
Max Horkheimer, “Traditionelle und kritische Theorie”
If one makes that statement retroactive to the beginnings of organized human life then an astonishing picture forms in the mind of the alternatives to recorded history that were available. At how many junctures in human history have humans chosen NOT to change reality in a way available to them that would have enlarged it but instead chose a path that diminished it? As I’ve mentioned in other posts, it eventually became too painful for me to read history because of the pointless repetitions it contains of haphazard and unenlightened actions on the part of humanity across the globe. Time and again we fall into the same senseless patterns of behavior that in hindsight reveal themselves as blatantly destructive of human potential and detrimental to the biosphere which gives us the means for our very existence. Horkheimer’s statement points out the bald truth of the situation: it need not be so, humans have the ability to change their lives. Indeed they do, but they don’t do it.
Since we’re talking about change and human potential at the level of the collective, let’s use the Industrial Revolution as our example for the sake of argument. That approach seems justified when I read these lines from the Wikipedia article on the phenomenon (here):
GDP per capita was broadly stable before the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the modern capitalist economy, while the Industrial Revolution began an era of per-capita economic growth in capitalist economies. Economic historians are in agreement that the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants.
Instead of the actual history of the world since the Industrial Revolution — a grim story — let’s think for a moment about the potentials that lay within reach of humanity at its inception. They were obviously enormous for a historical point characterized as the most important event since the domestication of animals and plants in the Neolithic Revolution (info here). Had humanity chosen to enhance reality as a collective — which certainly lay within its power, let’s be clear on that fact — it could have steered the development of industry toward the well-being of both humanity and of the Planet that gives us all life. Humanity is the sole active agent in that historical equation, no external constraints or pressures applied. Humans decided what would happen and how it would happen and were free to imagine and realize any path forward they chose as a collective.
What potentials did industralization offer? They are so many the mind boggles. Imagine that human nature tilted natively toward the creation of collective well-being, toward the enhancement rather than the limitation of reality. The wealth and resources industrialization created could have started a worldwide trend of general improvement in the standard of living for the entire human population. It could simultaneously have invested a substantive portion of those resources into the preservation of the biosphere’s integrity — an approach that serves both humanity and the Planet. For example, an entire branch of industrial operations could have been devoted to ways to minimize the effect of extractive processes on the biosphere, which is a win/win proposition if ever there was one. Examples multiply enormously as one considers alternative trajectories based on very real potentials that were clearly intrinsic to the Industrial Revolution.
We all know what happened in fact:
The history of the Industrial Revolution is a history of throwing away potentials as much as of embracing them. As I consider the reasons for that massive loss and the infinite misery that filled in its place in the long draw of history I find no agent at whom to point the finger of blame other than humanity itself. What we chose at that point and in the few centuries since then has led to the current world of nearly eight billion people busy precipitating an environmental disaster which humanity will likely not survive over the course of the next few hundred years. We’re having a foretaste of the fun to come right now with the coronavirus pandemic — following close on the heels of Australia and California burning like tinder, Arctic permafrost melting and releasing its stores of methane and various other portents of doom piling up lickety-split.
Time only goes in one direction, unfortunately. It’s possible that if humanity, knowing what we know now, could turn the clock back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution it might make different choices. But as I give that benefit of the doubt there are a number of regimes around the world — the USA included — who continue to make choices as self-serving and self-destructive as the choices made in the 18th century that set the template for our current environmental crisis. All the evidence points to the fact that humanity as it haphazardly bumbles through life on the Planet is incapable of enhancing life with a capital L. And so we will kill ourselves and millions of species along with us. That qualifies as the perfect definition for loss of potential, don’t you find?
I’ve considered in other posts the practical aspects of living as an individual in that state of affairs. I believe I’ve positioned myself as the individual I am as well as I possibly can to weather whatever storms may be brewing on humanity’s horizon. But the nagging thoughts that induced me to write this post look backward, not forward, to what I lost over the course of my own lifetime with regard to the potential that was, not any potential that may be in future.
Surprisingly I find the number of identifiable instances of loss of potential as overwhelming for the individual level as they are for the collective. I look back over the decades of my own life experience and see — quite easily, it’s not rocket science — myriad points at which my life couldhave improved decisively by following a particular path I discerned imaginatively but to which practical access was thwarted. The limitations of the collective constrained my choice as an individual, over and over again. I could only choose among those possibilities civilization made available. The coercive power civilization had over me was, of course, primarily economic. I had to make a living. So I had to play by civilization’s rules in order to sustain myself. Had things gone differently at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, none of us would find ourselves under such slavish constraint because the means were present, are present, to change that dynamic of coercion fundamentally and permanently. Humanity chose not to engage that path. The proof of both history and personal experience shows that humanity is inordinately fond of domination and servitude, no doubt because — as Desmond Morris pointed out years ago — we are still essentially apes in the final accounting. What happens when you give an ape higher consciousness still looks on the evidence of behavior pretty much like ape stuff. What a pity.
As I said, time moves only in one direction. All the years I spent in slavery to the ways of “civilized” life (a term that deserves more than quotation marks given the heavy charge of irony it carries) could have been lived very differently. To change tense on Mr. Horkheimer, things need not have been so, people could have changed how life is, the conditions for change were present at that point just as they are now. But my own history is as indelible as that of the collective. All the years I spent doing what “life” (what else to call it we do not know) required for its own maintenance are gone forever.
In my view the history of the collective is unredeemable. The collective is of course completely indifferent to that opinion as it continues in callous disregard of any consequence of its own actions. Is my personal past by corollary also unredeemable? If so, what does that mean about the person I was living through it? Similarly, what does it make of the remainder of my life now that I’m on humanity’s slagheap and no longer coercively engaged in the collective’s main enterprises?
I think those are the underlying questions that have nagged at me for the past several months. They demand a coming to terms with the personal past and a definition of its relationship to the collective. After all, no man is an island, as John Donne’s saying goes, and he’s right, of course. An individual life always stands in some relation to the collective. The question is what exactly the nature of that relation is.
As I look back over my own past the focus shifts continually between my own life and the lives of others with whom I was involved in all those arenas of activity through which the course of life takes one — family, school, the workplace, social interactions, etc. etc. From the stance I now have of freedom — blessed freedom, which will go faithfully with me to my grave — I’m aware of two things: constraint and imagination. In every situation in which I found myself under constraint I imagined an alternative to it that lay beyond my powers of realization. In other words, I spent my entire adult lifetime making do, stiff-upper-lipping, finding the silver lining, however you care to style it. How inordinately dreary. No wonder I passed a good part of my time feeling frustrated and railing against The System. It was the only intelligent response possible.
From those years I have a deep and abiding disdain for the human collective and its way of structuring life on the Planet. The major objection: it need not be so. It needn’t be so chaotic and stupid. It needn’t be so mean-spirited and nasty. At this juncture I’m reminded of a passage by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own where she describes her visit to an acquaintance at Girton College where they discuss the Herculean labor involved in the foundation of the College amid the constraints under which women labored in the 19th century. Woolf and her friend considered the past and saw constraint and imagination just as I did:
At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo? There were some photographs on the mantelpiece. Mary’s mother — if that was her in the picture — may have been a wastrel in her spare time (she had thirteen children by a minister of the church), but if so her gay and dissipated life had left too few traces of its pleasures on her face. She was a homely body; an old lady in a plaid shawl which was fastened by a large cameo; and she sat in a basket-chair, encouraging a spaniel to look at the camera, with the amused, yet strained expression of one who is sure that the dog will move directly the bulb is pressed. … If only Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine … it is equally useless to ask what might have happened if Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before her had amassed great wealth and laid it under the foundations of the college and library, because, in the first place, to earn money was impossible for them and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned. …
At any rate, whether or not the blame rested on the old lady who was looking at the spaniel, there could be no doubt that for some reason or other our mothers had mismanaged their affairs very gravely. Not a penny could be spared for “amenities”; for partridges and wine, beadles and turf, books and cigars, libraries and leisure. To raise bare walls out of the bare earth was the utmost they could do.
The comment that affairs had been mismanaged very gravely is ironic, of course — putting a sly grin on a grim truth. For the truth is grim: constraint was present, imagination was thwarted, life was diminished by difficulty and the result of difficult work fell far short of the intent that spawned it.
That’s the story of my life under the constraints of civilization, too, unfortunately. It’s the story of most lives I’m aware of, truth be told. And none of us were looking in at shop windows (going to the mall doesn’t count LOL) or flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo, where they don’t let people like me in because our bank accounts aren’t big enough.
The past is the past and and as the saying goes there’s no use crying over spilled milk. That may be true, but it becomes particularly difficult to shrug the matter off with a cavalier toss of the head when the matter happens to be the course of your own lifetime over long decades.
To repeat: the history of the collective level is unredeemable in my opinion. The current sh*tshow involving humanity’s incredibly bumbling efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic points that fact out as clearly as may be. I expect no improvement in humanity’s ability or willingness to deal intelligently, creatively or imaginatively with reality. The enormous potentials inherent in human beingness — they are legion, have no doubt about it — will continue to go lost until humanity finally succumbs to its own self-destruction.
The same loss of potential applies to my own life but with an important difference: I now have a measure of freedom as an individual I didn’t have earlier. I stand free and clear of most of the constraints in which most people are embroiled by the circumstances of their lives. Their concerns, their coercions — be they external or self-imposed through their own decisions and choices — are now irrelevant to my experience. I push blithely past them with cool disregard. In addition to being great fun, it works a treat. I’ve never had it better at any earlier point in life. In that regard getting older has everything to recommend it.
As for my past, it remains as unredeemable as it is unrecoverable. If you get into the middle of a muddle all you have from it is muddle. That exactly describes what my own past seems to me in my backward glance — getting through a muddle until finally, after long years, I escaped. There are only a few points of redemption I can identify. They serve as the only bright spots in the general gloom of the past.
The first bright point is that throughout my adult lifetime I held fast to the intent for early exit from the collective muddle and did everything in my power to make that exit happen as soon as possible. I did indeed retire early and also had two periods during my working life when I stepped aside from the brouhaha for a few years despite not yet being in a position to ditch it permanently. That pathway toward early exit was crafted consciously and I brought to bear on it all the intelligence and creativity I could muster. The satisfaction the point brings me has largely to do with an A for effort — would that it could have occurred much earlier. Oh well … at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that my affairs were not mismanaged very gravely. I managed them as best I could under the circumstances.
The second point is that the consciousness I developed during my captivity by the collective — with my potential going out the window right and left — retained the native elements of intelligence, creativity and imagination that now serve me in my freedom. They are useful and nimble tools for the fashioning of my experience outside the constraints imposed on me earlier in life. It has taken a while to get the feel for freedom after long years of living like a slave, but my consciousness was well up to the job and itself led me forward into the embrace and use of that freedom. I find that other people have precisely the opposite effect. They inevitably impose limitations and constraints where none need be. I now sweep those limitations out of my path as soon as they arise. No more of that nonsense, thank you very much. I had more than enough of it to last a lifetime.
In the final accounting, then, I find my past to show no more than odd bits and pieces of a life I consider worthwhile and tons of detritus fit only for the dustbin. But as I move forward in my freedom the detritus of my slavish past becomes ever more distant. What a blessing it is to see that gap grow ever greater between the dessicated wasteland of the unredeemable past and the green grass on which my feet now fall. That distance is itself a redemption of the person I now am from the life that went before. The past becomes less and less immediate and therefore presses less and less on my awareness. I can easily imagine that in a few more years I’ll give it hardly a thought.
Now there’s an idea I can get excited about. 🙂