Water Man Spouts

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Sane Society

"Many people are seized by one and the same effect with great consistency. All his senses are so strongly affected by one object that he believes this object to be present even if it is not. If this happens when the person is awake, the person is believed to be insane. … But if the greedy person thinks only of money and possessions, the ambitious one only of fame, one does not think of them as being insane, but only as annoying; generally one has contempt for them. But factually greediness, ambition, and so forth are forms of insanity, although usually one does not think of them as ‘illnesses’."
--Spinoza; Ethics; IV Prop., 44 Schol.

{1} The 2008 democratic primary presents the us with a significant option: our party will not only nominate either an African-American man or a woman as our candidate for president, but we will offer the American public a choice between a continuation of the Bush-Cheney policies or the possibility of restoring our Constitutional democracy.

There are risks associated with such an opportunity. Some of those dangers are being promoted by agents of the republican party, who are intent on dividing democrats into hostile groups that are incapable of uniting in November. Others are found within the party itself, and involve the diseases of racism and sexism. In the past three months, we have witnessed an increasing amount of tensions that could divide our party, and fuel republican victories in state and national elections.

Today, I’d like to examine some of the issues involved in the contests. My goal is not to try to sway anyone to support either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Rather, I think it might be worth looking at some of the concepts associated with matriarchal and patriarchal influences on our society.

Sociologists debate if human society has produced any "pure" matriarchal cultures. A couple of valuable resources are the writings of Austrian intellectual Bertha Diener and Swiss sociologist Johann Jakob Bachofen. Diener, also known as "Helen Diner" in some American texts,authored "Mothers and Amazons" in 1930. I am familiar with Bachofen primarily through Erich Fromm’s books "The Sane Society" and "To Have or To Be?"

Fromm was interested in the concepts of matriarchal and patriarchal influences on the relationship that individuals had with each other, and how those relationships translated into the social fabric of various cultures. Let’s take a closer look at some of his ideas.

"All passions and strivings of man are attempts to find an answer to his existence or, as we may also say, they are an attempt to avoid insanity. (It may be said in passing that the real problem of mental life is not why some people become insane, but rather why most avoid insanity.) ….All cultures provide for a patterned system in which certain solutions are predominant, hence certain strivings and satisfactions. Whether we deal with primitive religions, with theistic or non-theistic religions, they are all attempts to give an answer to man’s existential problem. The finest, as well as the most barbaric cultures all have the same function – the difference is only whether the answer given is better or worse. The deviate from the cultural pattern is just as much in search of an answer as his more well-adjusted brother. His answer may be better or worse than the one given by his culture – it is always another answer to the same fundamental question raised by human existence. In this sense all cultures are religious and every neurosis is a private form of religion, provided we mean by religion an attempt to answer the problem of human existence. Indeed, the tremendous energy in the forces producing mental illness, as well as those behind art and religion, could never be understood as an outcome of frustrated or sublimated physiological needs; they are attempts to solve the problem of being born human. All men are idealists and cannot help being idealists, providing we mean by idealism the striving for the satisfaction of needs which are specifically human and transcend the physiological needs of the organism. The difference is only that one idealism is a good and adequate solution, and the other a bad and destructive one."
--Erich Fromm; The Sane Society; 1955; pages 34-35.

{2} Fromm recognized that societies, like individuals, had the potential for both good and bad. Healthy, or sane societies, tend to have some differences from unhealthy societies. Some of these are measured in the frequencies of things such as certain types of mental illness, substance abuse, violent crime (including the various types of domestic violence), and suicide.

Nation-states with high rates of these dysfunctions are more likely, I believe, to identify people such as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as "leaders." It is safe to say that in the world community, the United States is considered an unstable neighbor, with family members who range from good and decent to those who are hostile and aggressive. There are times, including in the democratic primary discussions and debates, when those ranges behaviors are attributed to matriarchal and patriarchal influences that translate into racism and sexism. Not surprisingly, there are times when people confuse those traits.

Fromm identified both the good and bad potential in matriarchal society. The positive attributes include a sense of affirmation of life; the sacredness of life; equality among people; a sense of personal freedom; and humanism. The negative attributes include the sense of being bound by nature to one’s bloodline and the soil, in a manner that blocks individuality and reason.

In terms of patriarchal society, he identified the positive attributes as being reason, discipline, rationality, objectivity and individualism. The negative attributes include inequality, oppression, and submission to man-made "laws" and the modern state.

Often, these potentials find their expression in human relationships in the matriarchal influences seeking equality and cooperation, and the patriarchal in hierarchy and competition.

"In the Middle Ages it was the vision of the City of God that inspired us. Then, beginning in the 18th century, it was the vision of the City, of Earthly Progress, the sense that we must understand nature in order to dominate it. Now this has all ended in what looks like the Tower of Babel – that which was progressive in the Middle Ages and in the 18th and 19th centuries has been lost. What we now desperately need is a synthesis between the faith of the late Middle Ages and the reason and science of the last two centuries. That’s the only way I see that we can be saved from a sort of technocratic fascism."
--Erich Fromm; To Have or To Be?; 1976; page 1.

{3} In the 1800s, Lewis Henry Morgan, a lawyer from New York City was tasked by the "men’s club" that he joined, to create a set of guidelines based on the Iroquois Confederacy. The Iroquois were a matriarchal society, with family structure defined by female lineage. Morgan became fascinated by Iroquois culture, and became an early social anthropologist. His book "Ancient Society" influenced Engels to write "Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State."

Fromm believed that the combination of the best matriarchal and patriarchal influences would result in a form of democratic socialism, which would still encourage individual accomplishment.
The United States has had glimpses of that best potential: certainly, the Constitution (particularly the Bill of Rights) is the best example of this in theory. There are numerous other examples, some great and some small, of this potential for a Great Society.

There are also historic examples of the sinister potential: fascism, nazism, and Stalinism stand out as stark examples of man’s inhumanity to man.

The severe problems that we face today – including the environmental crises, the energy shortages, the health care failures, the economic depression, and the domestic and international violence – are systematic. Our nation cannot resolve them by simply voting in new "leaders" ….and yet they surely cannot begin to deal with them so long as misfits like Bush and Cheney remain in power.

"Mental health is characterized by the ability to love and to create, by the emergence from incestuous ties to clan and soil, by a sense of identity based on one’s experience of self as the subject and agent of one’s powers, by the grasp of reality inside and outside ourselves, that is, by the development of objectivity and reason."
--Erich Fromm; The Sane Society; page 58.

{4} The 2008 presidential election will help to influence the ability of our society to move towards being a constitutional democracy, or to continue on the path towards a technocratic fascism. It’s a choice between a sane society and an insane society.

The good and bad potentials that Fromm identified are not exclusive to the Clinton campaign, or the Obama campaign. These are qualities found in the majority of us, as we engage in this most important struggle. We are faced with the choice of achieving victory by cooperating, or risking failure by continuing the ugly competition within the democratic community.

"Come, my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world." –Tennyson


Post a Comment

<< Home