Chain without Consolation

Loths of thanks to Padraig for proofreading!

It was a weirdly empty Easter this year. My girls are too old to stay painting Easter eggs, and I thought it would be time to confront the myth (and similar myths around it) and looked for an easy opening in the TV program. I was quite surprised to discover that there is no Easter left during Easter.

Now we are atheists, and one would expect that I rejoice over this void. In all conflicts about public space, whether it should be allowed to show „The Life of Brian“ in the cinema on Good Friday or whether there should be crosses in public buildings, my position is as expected. But this void didn´t leave me happy; I perceived it as a signal for a deeper and menacing emptiness. I would have liked to talk with my daughters about what gives meaning to human life or makes it precious, besides consumerism; isn´t it the standard job of adolescents to ponder upon such questions? But I discovered that the cultural discourse of the media doesn´t provide any space for that. Some years ago the time before Easter and the time before Christmas still were a momentary opening in the overwhelming silence regarding social matters, and one could glimpse that normal everyday life isn´t everything that defines the human being or that should define it. But meanwhile even this tiny window closed.

Whenever I am irritated like that I am tempted to look deeper. Why am I anything but glad about the vacuum created in these holidays? What is it that I miss in an Easter without Easter? Is it the tale of resistance that can be read into the Easter story?

No, it is something else, and this void reaches deeper, down into the foundations of human society itself.

The German language is a bit imprecise regarding the motive I discovered. There is one word, ‚Opfer‘ for victim (the involuntary) and sacrifice (voluntary). So I want to make it clear that we are talking about willing sacrifice. This is the core of the Easter tale and the Lenten rituals connected with it. It is the idea of sacrifice that seems to be disappearing, to be replaced by a worldview that just knows perpetrators and victims. That doesn´t just happen in the tales of everyday culture, even the language of adolescents shows it, where ‚Opfer‘ is an insult.

„John Maynard was our helmsman true.
To solid land he carried us through.
He saved our lives, our noble king.
He died for us; his praise we sing.
John Maynard.“

Theodor Fontane

Every culture knows such tales of heroes, even bourgeois society of the 19th century, as Fontane´s poem shows. To find them, you don´t have to look into the history of wars or mention the Battle of Thermopylae. Sure, there is abuse of such images and myths, but they are fundamental for any human culture, and the kind of behaviour they set as an ideal is, in certain situations, a requirement for the survival as group or even as species.
Human culture is based upon cooperation, and sacrifice is just an extreme form of it. To recall tales of sacrifice in different manners is at the same time an affirmation of cooperation, the base of human existence.

2012 the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft for evolutionary biology did a series of experiments that is quite interesting in this regard. They made groups of primates and human toddlers each solve a problem that could only be solved by cooperation, and observed their respective behaviour. The primates succeeded in solving the problem, but afterwards every primate tried to secure as much as possible of the reward. The behaviour of human children changed between two and three years of age – three years old took care to share the reward. They had an idea of justice that directed their behaviour.

This behavioural difference has far reaching consequences. The primate´s egotism enables cooperation just on a short term basis, for a single problem. They can identify the necessity of cooperation, but they can´t maintain it. Human children treat cooperation as a basic and permanent necessity; only when the reward is shared will the participants cooperate further.

This kind of behaviour is the result of the fact that the development of human culture, even the survival of the species itself, was possible only through permanent cooperation. We share many traits with our closest relatives, they wage wars and create tools, but at this specific point there is a decisive difference that enabled us to accumulate knowledge and abilities through thousands of years, the ability to cooperate. And it is quite important that the concept of justice and cooperation are so strongly connected.

Culture develops when cooperation supersedes the time of a single human life, when knowledge acquired by an individual gets transmitted at least in part to the next generation and becomes the basis for them to develop further. Einstein once called himself a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant, referring to Isaac Newton. But even Newton is a dwarf standing upon the shoulders of the unknown giant that invented the wheel. This long chain of sharing is the strength that led us even into space.

The necessity of cooperation can exceed a single life also in another way, as Fontane´s poem describes. There are situations where the welfare of the whole (sometimes of all of mankind) can depend upon individuals realizing that their personal benefit is comparatively less important. It might be a fictive story in the Easter tale, but right at this point there are deep rifts in our western, capitalist society.

“Man’s dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying, he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world──the fight for the Liberation of Mankind”
Nikolai Ostrovsky

If you compare the two big catastrophes of Chernobyl and Fukushima, there is an important difference. In Chernobyl the chain reaction was stopped; in Fukushima three complete molten cores are reactive to this day.

Technically, the difference is that in Chernobyl, after the explosion tons of borium were dropped from helicopters into the molten mass. Borium stops the chain reaction, when it merges with the nuclear lava, and makes the corium cool down and solidify. Due to that it was possible to stop a further spread of nuclear substances with a concrete cover. A molten core that stays reactive burns ever deeper into the ground (known as ‚China syndrome‘) and will continue to spread fission products through the groundwater. That is what is happening in Fukushima to this day.

What should have happened there is what was done in Chernobyl, even though it would have been necessary to blast open the inner containment – a massive introduction of borium.

But the helicopter pilots in Chernobyl paid with their lives for their actions, like many others that helped to contain this catastrophy. An example (and an opportunity to remember their sacrifice) is offered in the following video:

Regarding Chernobyl, it has been repeatedly claimed that all those who helped to contain the catastrophe in the Soviet Union had no idea of the danger they confronted and were sacrificed by their unscrupulous government, that they were victims, not heroes. But education in natural sciences in the Soviet Union was much better than ours. I finished German gymnasium in 1981, and I only learnt something about nuclear reactors because chemistry was one of my two main courses. Most German pupils didn´t learn anything about it then. But in GDR it was already a subject in the tenth grade.

The story of these people sounds quite different when we are talking about willing, not unwilling sacrifice, like the video tells it. Not only because then we have to think whether we don´t owe them gratitude, even here, in Germany, but also because another question is raised along with it – would there be sufficient people willing to bring this sacrifice in our society, if need be?

Fukushima answered this question. No, there aren´t.

The Japanese government at that time didn´t even muster the courage to nationalize Tepco Corporation, to be able to deal with a national catastrophe as a nation. And f.e. to engage those pilots who at least in theory consented to bring such a sacrifice, the pilots of the airforce. No, the government didn´t want to be connected with the whole situation, and nobody will sacrifice his life for a corporation; that notion is ridiculous. In consequence of that, to this day, and into the foreseeable future, there are three molten cores that deliver radioactive material into the Pacific ocean. The consequences for all of mankind can´t be calculated yet…

Yes, the risk of this specific type of catastrophe is man-made. But every human society contends with the risk of different catastrophes, and whether it is capable to confront them determines their physical survival. In that regard, the Soviet Union had a strength which our society lacks.

„There is no such thing as society.“
Maggie Thatcher

Human society develops towards ever higher levels of cooperation, spanning ever larger spaces and connections. Marxist historiography calls that the development of the forces of production. Today cooperation has reached an unimaginable extent, and is right before the next large step, the internet of things. But this cooperation happens unconsciously, the producers involved don´t know how far it reaches and with whom they cooperate, and they do it involuntarily. Everyday consciousness, where the competition of everybody against everybody is emphasized, moves straight in the opposite direction. Or is moved into the opposite direction.

Due to cooperation being so central for the survival of our species, the psychological structure of human beings developed accordingly. Joint work is more satisfying than solitary work, recognition is a more positive experience than material reward, and work perceived as meaningful satisfies more than meaningless work does. This structure gets degraded permanently by ever-present competition. Even to create an idea of ‚I‘ we need the counterpart, a group; but the actual offer is ‚Germany´s next top model‘ and a for most unfulfillable dream of unlimited consumption. What was the pursuit of happiness in the beginning of the bourgeois era is now the pursuit of fortune, the true ideal of present society. And because it is not possible or not opportune to satisfy the true needs (people would f.e. be less manageable if there would be affordable housing for everyone), but the machinery of production needs the sales, innumerable false needs have to be created and inoculated, needs for certain brands and objects. The individual that allegedly should develop fully under this condition is actually left empty and disoriented.

It shall not perceive its share of real cooperation. In the field of knowledge, artificial new hurdles are raised, while sharing and cooperation get easier through technical development, to submit it to the control of corporations. Thus what actually is just a single stone of a building that generations built becomes private property. To enable these claims of property it is necessary to hide cooperation, the collective character of human labour, behind a wall of fog.

„There is no such thing as society,“ is a famous statement of Maggie Thatcher, neoliberalism´s prophetess. She was wrong in regard to her time. But in our time the danger is real – people who are trained out of cooperation at a certain point turn unable to cooperate, and then society really dissappears. Bad luck that our species can´t survive with the mentality of primates.

Just my imagination? No, our present society rewards psychopathic behaviour, it promotes careers and is a requirement for the entrance into the upper levels. A recent study proved that even the subject of study is chosen in such a way that the psychopaths end where power lies, leading the corporations, and the normal people lead their lives in less well paid positions. When money and property become the ultimate measure of success the antisocial personality becomes the social ideal.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Karl Marx

This dehumanization of present society is the reason why I found the type of secularization taking place disgusting. It isn´t the human ideal once heaved into heaven that gets realized upon Earth and turns the projection superfluous. No, it is the society living the anti-ideal that needs to destroy even the projection in heaven. There isn´t any idea of a better future around any longer, and the ideal of human development is now a psychopathic egomaniac; an image so remote from human nature that even the memory of the latter has to be deleted. What gets to replace it, this brew made of divinized capital and hollow ‚values‘, is so devoid of any substance that the sermon of the last village parson turns into an intellectual revelation. A surrogate of a surrogate, the inversion of the second derivation of mindless conditions, a simulation of ideology on the intellectual level of an advertising spot, behind which a reality of unlimited servitude and unbridled imperialist hypocrisy are hidden. Sometimes I ask myself how Marx would react if he saw the condition of today’s capitalist society. Would he be horrified? Disgusted? Probably he would say that this degree of decay is the result, if the move from one social formation to the next gets delayed to long, and he would be right.

Mammon´s believers regard religion as an inconvenience. If it doesn´t empty itself too, of any social consideration, any human ideal, as it is the case in Takfirism or the American tv-churches, it inhibits the work of the ideal labour-slave/consumer.

But any real change needs an anti-image to the present, an image of another world, another life, everything which is shoved aside with the phrase ‚there is no alternative‘. Suddenly the adherents of Christian belief are closer to me than the devotees of capital, because for the latter the idea of humanism is anathema, a fall from true faith. And at the same time resistance needs the idea of sacrifice to gain strength; all those hip internet-protests that don´t collide with the idea of consumerist individualism, that don´t demand any sacrifice, are nothing but show, entertainment, anemic games that absorb contradiction and defang it at the same time. Real change needs the posture of Ostrowski. Perseverance, tenacity and the willingness even to bring the highest sacrifice.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. (…) The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest essence for man – hence, with the categoric imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence, relations which cannot be better described than by the cry of a Frenchman when it was planned to introduce a tax on dogs: Poor dogs! They want to treat you as human beings!
Karl Marx

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