The devolution and evolution of society as a whole is easier to see than the development of the individual. By looking at the former, we may get a better picture of the latter, meaning the choices we as individuals make to cope with our sense of history. To understand the mechanics of decay in a society means to also understand the mechanics of progress. What are the signs of a declining society? Does a narrowing of self always correspond with societal degeneration? One place to look for signs of decline is in a society’s institutions, which is to say in the kind of institutions that multiply in a declining society and in the kind that become scarce.
The institutions of a declining society will become increasingly static; static institutions enforce the imitations of established conventions and, in the extreme, glorify the personalities that represent their conservatism. Here, conservatism is largely defined as fear, as in fear of change, fear of losing power, and fear of imagined enemies. With this fear comes an overdeveloped sense of want, resulting in excessive greed, as in greed for resources, materialistic competitiveness, and cronyism and corruption.
The progressive institutions of an evolving society, on the other hand, enable the imitation of the creative process and the mimicry of the pioneers that embody that creativity.
Authoritarian individuals – whether in the political, economic, religious, or even the artistic, educative, and scientific arenas – represent a minority that oversees static institutions. Creative individuals in all of these fields compose a minority that instead infuses progressive institutions with new questions and new perspectives. The remaining majority of a society is divided into imitators of one minority or the other. During a decline, the number imitating fear increases. During the evolution of society, the number imitating creativity increases. Ironically, a society (meaning its prevailing institutions) can decline during a surge of self-awareness in humanity if the institutions embody past degeneration.
A society in decline authors myopic histories full of self-glorification and self-mystification, historical errors and unscientific claims, and deities that take a personal interest in the daily lives of a select group of believers. Members of every organized religion extant today sanctify one or more such “history” books. A society bent on the expansion of self-knowledge (reflected outwardly in a well-developed material knowledge) authors humbling histories, both of the human race and the world as part of a larger universe, which consistently challenge the individual to see past the divisiveness that plagued lesser ancestors.
In contradistinction to degenerative histories, which praise the listener by praising that with which the listener identifies, regenerative histories praise the exploration of the unknown despite any instinctive hesitation on the part of listeners and readers. Degenerative histories span hundreds or thousands of years, while regenerative histories span millions or billions of years. Degenerative histories must have an imminent ending to lend validity to their relatively recent beginning, while regenerative histories acknowledge the utter impossibility of defining absolute beginnings and endings in time.
Unless a society is at an extreme phase of decline or prosperity, no one will neatly fall into any one group. Still, pause for a moment and ask yourself: In what aspects of your life and the decisions you make are you likely a member of a majority imitating a minority? When making habituated decisions regarding any myriad of issues set before you by the dictates of human history, what minority are you prone to imitate – the creative or the conservative? If you are of a minority, an elite that others imitate, do you use the muscle of wealth (itself a measure of what a majority values via large scale mimicry) to suggest the imitation of creative expression or hesitation and status quo? Since today’s minority elite is yesterday’s majority imitating, what values of a past, and perhaps archaic, elite do you keep alive?
In evolving creative societies, the conservative minority, ever resorting to fear in order to further its agenda and maintain power, becomes increasingly easier to root out. But in declining societies, it becomes increasingly difficult for the majority to distinguish between the creative and conservative elite. Authoritarian minorities are routinely found subverting creative genius. The classic example is of the perversion of the fictional Jesus, meaning the character of a book, whose creative precepts, reflecting the sensibilities of a past evolved society, might have breathed new life into the decaying Hellenic world. But with the conservative minority in power, the story of Jesus the mortal man was perverted into the divine Jesus Christ, a weapon of propaganda wielded by authoritarian individuals in the Catholic Church. The character of Jesus lost its creative potential in becoming Jesus Christ, devolving into a force of conservatism. But the mimicking majority, confident in the issue of Jesus’s established creativity, became confused regarding the motives of Jesus’s handlers; and, failing to discriminate between the two, imitated the handlers instead.
Often, pioneering individuals lose their creative spirit as a result of aging or simply the acquisition of wealth, fame, or power. Such creative individuals, fearing to lose prestige or to be outshone, become authoritarian individuals, self-doomed to forever defend past theories and, true to conservative form, inhibit future creativity. If creative individuals maintain their flexibility and fearlessness, they eventually become more powerful than conservative authoritarians, even in extremely degenerate societies or microsocietal atmospheres. If they win the hearts of the majority, regeneration will take place in their particular fields in a short period of time.
Of course, such creative individuals will earn the ire of conservative rulers. The conservative elite will then speak voluminously of the danger the creative individual poses to society. In point of fact, danger to society has arrived when the majority did not properly mimic the creative individual's thoughts and actions, but merely nodded to them out of fear of or hatred for authoritarian rulers. In the extreme, this causes sudden and violent revolutions that are directionless. To be precise, this danger is not caused by the creative individual, but rather by years of conservative rule. The creative elite merely failed to transmute the violence bottled over year of conservative authoritarianism into a regenerative force.
If authoritarian individuals are able to tighten their grip on established institutions, they too can become far more powerful than the creative few. They may even be able to enlarge their field so that it has jurisdiction over other institutions that might attempt to be regenerative, such as science or medicine or art. This occurring in numerous fields signals a declining phase. If authoritarian individuals win the hearts of the majority, no meaningful changes will take place in their arenas for as long as they are mimicked. Dangers befall society as the majority blinds itself to the authoritarian body’s inability to secure peace and prosperity; they majority also ignores the conservative elite’s sole ability to gather to itself more power, create enemies, and eat at its own foundation. The majority, which by definition is unable to clearly reason, merely embraces the conservative minority’s fear and suicidal tendency. In the extreme, this leads to generations of dogmatic stagnation.
In fear, conservatives limit the avenues through which creativity flows. If they limit too much, they greedily destroy their foundation; if they limit too little, their foundation destroys them as it ceases to mimic them since, all things being equal, the majority will always choose by a narrow margin to mimic creativity. Declines in societies are caused by the failure or inability of creative individuals to express their visions, i.e. too much limitations burden them. As a result of this failure, the majority ceases to have the opportunity to imitate the creative process. Societies then exhibit predictable symptoms of the failure of creative individuals to offer the majority an ideal to imitate.
As a society declines, it becomes the target of hostility from elements of majorities, both internal and external to the society, who prior were appeased in imitation of the creative genius. Peoples outside a declining dominant society will, like the majority inside the society, divide between those who wish to mimic the dominant society in its decline and those disenfranchised who prefer to take up arms against the dominant society. The result is excessive militarization and the establishment of military front lines.
Militarization is the most universal sign of a declining dominant society. Militarization serves many functions: raise moral or national loyalty, deflect attention from economic woes, raise or borrow more domestic money, defend against external majorities that sense the dominant society faltering, reduce population, and increase markets and resources. Routinely, the conservative elite in power during a declining phase will militarize as a means for noble ends. But since hegemony, and not virtue, is the end, and furthermore actual obliteration of external peoples is not the end either, subdued adversaries rise from the ashes of defeat stronger than they were before conflict with the dominant society.
With militarization, the conservative political elite is inclined to glorify its rule as some variation of a Heroic Age. Propaganda will then begin to frequently employ the word hero, particularly in relation to armed conflict. Instead of singing of wiser and more creative times, the exploits of heroes and martyrs are sung, with songs of peace and brotherhood drowned out. Reflecting this societal malaise, the disenfranchised will glorify their version of the hero: the martyr. As during the Maccabean revolt, where dying for the tribe was suddenly rewarded with resurrection to a heavenly afterlife, heroes and martyrs will be revered in their respective societies so as to glorify aggression – all amounting to humanity’s incrementally increased suicide. For whatever it wants to be called, the Heroic Age or New World Order is really the romanticizing barbarism.
With the establishment of a military frontier, the frontiers of material knowledge are abandoned; scientific research is increasingly applied to the technology of war. Like the impoverished within the dominant society, scientists are recruited in the service of the military. Advancing technology is not the criterion for a progressive society because it does not necessarily imply advancing material knowledge; it can in fact give the misleading semblance of progress while hiding the signs of decline. Improvement in technology might very well take place during a society's decline just as might technological devolvement. And while a devolving technology might not, of itself be a sign of progress, it might actually accompany social progress where a prior technology was inappropriate for long term use. Case in point, authoritarian leaders no longer give due attention to nature and natural consequences when they are supplied with unearned advancing technology. In their hubris, they assume the power to determine their own laws since the nature can supposedly be manipulated by technology to suit their ends. In short, it is poor application of material knowledge that is a result of social decay.
In time, the disenfranchised external to the dominant society learn the ways of war practiced by the stronger dominant military. As a result, the declining dominant society will be forced to use underhanded tactics (such as illegal weapons) and establish unethical alliances with criminals and tyrants in order to contain the disenfranchised. The corrupt conservative elite will give arms and aid to little better than murderous thugs in order to maintain the flow of resources and their economic hegemony. To be expected, these alliances turn against the declining dominating society.
Militarism turns against itself by enforcing the perception that the society must narrowly identify itself with the expansionist or world savior image of itself, obliterating any potential for progress to be made on any other front but a military one. In extreme cases, the military will turn on its own civilians, with sons threatening parents, brothers, and sisters.
The conservative minority will also engage in psychological warfare. Dominant declining societies and their organized religions demean those members of the human race outside of their fold. When the foreigner is seen as a godless heathen, for example, the foreigner's dehumanized status can be absolved only if the foreigner converts to the religion of the dominant society. Missionary activities will then be on the rise. If the foreigner is seen as ignorant, then the foreigner must graduate from a university of the dominant society in order to join the ranks of humanity once again. This gives rise to academic elitism and the subordination of exotic systems of thought. But if the foreigner is not a foreigner at all, and is rather a mongoloid aboriginal, meaning a native, then the native has little hope in being considered fully human by the dominant society.
Regenerative societies are largely middle-class societies. The middle-class must remain the majority for the society to continue to progress. Extremes of wealth and poverty undermine the capacity for human beings to mimic the creative genius. This is true to such a degree that if a foreign tyranny were to create a bogus middle-class so that it might import dominant society products, entertainment, and commercial values, that middle-class would eventually become self-aware and turn against the tyranny. Therefore, tyrannies will view the middle-class as a threat to their power. Another way of stating this is that societies in decline will economically undermine their middle-class. Policies will come into effect with the sole purpose of subduing the majority, and the fear-ridden majority will follow for want of security or protection.
A degenerative society destroys its own creative treasures, forging them into appendages of the authoritarian body. Eventually, the conservative elite infiltrates all branches of government, every organized religion, and all corporate powers, with the firm belief that it is untouchable and cannot be held accountable by the majority for its actions. Its surety is largely based on observation, since the majority within a declining society will imitate the political, religious, and economic ruling bodies and the dictates of their dominant will.
Those of the majority that customarily imitated creative genius will either surrender to the power of the conservative elite or become a disenfranchised segment of the majority, acting contrary to the will of the ruling minority. This counterculture segment will be branded as unpatriotic and weak. Although a military campaign against dissidents within the dominant society remains out of the question, a propaganda frontier is established to combat growing indifference and distrust of the conservative minority.
The disenfranchised external to the dominant society may be violent, but the element of the internal majority that has become antagonistic to the authoritarian government will usually avoid violent behavior because it has more to lose than the impoverished outside the dominant society. It instead voices its disgust and angst by not participating in elections, in violence-infused entertainment, and extreme sexual activities. These are sad attempts at reaching for creativity.
When creativity is on the decline, a dichotomy will form in the imitating majority on many different levels. Some of the majority will respond with reckless abandon while others will respond with puritanical self-control. Some will look backward for answers as in Khomeini's Islamic Revolution or even in the more benign Society for Creative Anachronisms. The former will introduce a medieval attitude toward women while the latter will introduce chivalry, duels with swords and armor, and jousting. Both are forms of escapism.
Others in the majority will look to the future with hope that the humanity of tomorrow will have figured out how to live happily and progressively, causing a boom in the science-fiction industry. This is a form of utopianism. Some writers (Zamiatin, Huxley, and Orwell) responded to the predilection of futurists to paint perfect pictures of tomorrow with dystopian novels.
Millennial cults is another example of looking to the future, but instead of watching Star Trek or dressing up like a character from the show, they believe that they are actually of the Star Trek generation by creating places of worship that replicate the deck of the Enterprise, or by believing that aliens will rescue them from earth.
Whether we look to the past or the future, the present is no longer considered sufficient for a creative realization. We will project onto the future or the past a strong degree of creativity on the part of human beings. Both of these movements eventually fail as neither is rooted in the urgencies of the present. They can only postpone the inevitable decline of the society.
Excessive absorption in epics and sagas is often accompanied by the unspoken feeling that the world has grown lame and stale. Sagas are more widely retold and written when the awareness of momentous public events dawn on a people; epics develop among migrating people or people going through dramatic changes; and dramas develop during less turbulent times. When large events seem out of one's control and people feel powerless to influence their monstrous circumstances, sagas and epics telling the story of a few people or an individual changing the course of history for the good, become popular.
Outward escapists withdraw from the world, attempt to get off the social grid, form communities that have little to no interaction with the rest of the society, and abandon the world in some way. A few of these will hold to the belief that the end of the world is fast approaching. Inward escapists will immerse themselves in the declining society, attempting to appreciate it according to an idealistic vision. Any effort they make to change society so that it actually resembles their idealism fails because their ideas, born from little more than platitudes, pay little attention to any far-reaching social ramifications. They will espouse doctrines that are not well thought out on social, economic, and governmental levels and give little practical consideration to transition phases of creative regeneration.
Decadent attitudes toward detachment are prevalent in Eastern religions, thus informing Western New Age, and are based on the idea that society's rise and fall does not affect the individual where it matters, i.e. in the soul. But this is just another form of escapism, only one more equivalent to a denial based on egocentrism. In the extreme, delusively detached individuals will believe that their mere presence beneficially affects the whole, but deny that the whole influences them. "In the world but not of the world" decays into "pervading the world but not perverted by the world."
Elements of the majority will respond to decline by believing that chance and luck reign in the world, while others will believe that predestination, fate, and the consequences of sin rule the world. Living in a world of chance subdues the proactive spirit. Living in a world of sin promotes guilt, fear, and the "hellfire and damnation" response. The latter response stimulates missionary work, works of atonement, and in the extremes self-inflicted torture; it also stimulates divisiveness and the "saints and sinners" demarcation that manifests as an auditorium full of evangelical saints and a world full of sinners. With the death, or at least dearth, of creative individuals, the principle of cause and effect has fewer and fewer adherents, with one group denying any rhyme or reason to the world while the other attempting to outwit that reason through vicarious atonement.
In the absence of creative progress, perversion manifests in many different ways and on many levels. It manifests as vulgar speech and clothing, poor manners and behavior, crude forms of art and entertainment, the deterioration of language and habits of discourse, the rise of organized religions that dilute spiritual ideals until they are easily assimilated through mass distribution (wholly valueless in terms of ethical living), the dilution of science by compromising it with theology, and the authoritarian body’s enforcement of its religious ideals and political system on the majority.
This leads to the perversion of the worship of God into the idolization of a corporate church. This corporate church embodies a theological imperialism that interferes with secular authority, scientific authority, and even legislative and judicial authority. The corporate church thrives in decaying societies and thus becomes the centerpiece around which new societies are born. The classic example is the Catholic Church, thriving in the declining Hellenic society, and becoming the center for the decadent Holy Roman Empire.
Dehumanization of mimickers, in addition to the disenfranchised and the rebellious, both within and external to the dominant society, is common during decline. Universalizing written, spoken and computer languages, units of measure, and calendars are signs of a progressive society, but standardizations in a bureaucratic system that manifest in labeling individuals with numbers (such as credit reports), grades (such as virtually meaningless stamps of accreditation), impersonal identities (such as ID cards and computer chips), all happening with increased interaction between individuals and pre-programmed bureaucratic servants (such as machines), with a decrease in interaction between people, are signs of a society in decline. Standardization as a manifestation of societal decline also appears in the mass-indoctrination of individuals across the lines of generation, class, race, and religion. With this standardization, governments will promote a single hierarchical organized religion because it efficiently lends to keeping order and imposing uniformity of opinion.
As with most of the policies of the conservative elite, the imposition of uniformity is a two-edged sword; on occasion, it can be used to serve the ends of creative individuals. Creative individuals can use communication system established by the dominant society, if they do not appear to threaten the status quo. Once this is done, the challenge will be to translate their uniting creative genius across the same lines that the authoritarian body disseminates divisive propaganda and the normalization of fear.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? This model of societies in decline was formulated long before Americans or Europeans ever heard of the Cold War, Vietnam, Islamic terrorists, Iraq, or Bush and Blair. And yet, our recent history follows this analysis to the hilt – almost as if our foreign policy advisers, from one administration to the next, were doing their best to follow the playbook of a declining dominant society.
If the progression of a society’s decline can be so precisely predicted, is it not sheer folly to deny the predictability of our own responses to the challenges of history?
In the third and final article of this series, we’ll discuss how a society in decline turns on its heels and begins the process of regeneration.