Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization

27 March 2010


These workers look like tough customers and I imagine that raising their class consciousness would not be easy.

A few days ago in Class Consciousness and Mythology I made the point that Marx thought the proletariat would develop class consciousness but that Marx never had anything to say about the proletariat developing a mythology. But if we think of the proletariat as a class of industrialized workers created by the Industrial Revolution, we should suppose that, like all previous peoples, some kind of mythology would emerge from the industrialized proletariat that would both draw from and speak to their condition.

It's much easier to imagine the organization and emergent class consciousness of factory workers than workers out-of-doors or in rural circumstances, probably due to the concentration of the former in urban centers.

There is a rather funny passage in Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy that suggests that there is indeed a mythology of the proletariat, and that Marx himself is at least in part responsible for producing a secularized formulation of Christian eschatology. Russell presents us with a chart that shows the emotional equivalents of the terminology created by Marx. Hopefully Russell’s chart is legible in the picture below.

For Russell, the Marxist proletariat, i.e., the proletariat who has accepted as true the doctrines of Marx, does have a mythology, and that mythology is the secularized and indeed bastardized mythology of Christian eschatology. Marx would have violently disagreed with this, but of course Russell was right, and we have seen throughout the twentieth century how Marxism functioned as a surrogate religion.

Bertrand Russell humorously compared Marxism to Christian eschatology, but, as we know, many a truth is spoken in jest.

In so far as Russell was right, Marx has done nothing to move the course of history forward, so if we judge him by his own standard as famously formulated in the last of the Theses on Feuerbach, namely, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” then Marx was a failure. Marx has not contributed anything new to history because the movement for which he served as the Messiah simply re-created in new terms and new forms the religion of their ancestors. To re-formulate Marxist mythology in Marx’s own language, what we have is a change in the appearance of the ideological superstructure while the reality of the mythological infrastructure has remained intact and unchanged.

In this famous propaganda poster, Marx appears as the first in a succession of communist prophets.

But my recent intensive involvement in listening to Joseph Campbell lectures (which I described in Class Consciousness and Mythology) has given me another way to respond to these familiar themes. We need not stop with simply observing the Marxism played the role of a surrogate religion in recent history. The very fact that a surrogate religion has moved millions and changed the lives of individuals and nation-states is significant in itself. The fact of the matter is that a great many people responded on a visceral, instinctive level to Marxist ideology, and that made it a living ideology even when the Christian template upon which it was based was something that no longer shaped the lives of individuals and nation-states alike.

One of the things that I have learned from Joseph Campbell is that different peoples respond to the same perennial dilemmas of the human condition, but they may respond to these same perennial dilemmas differently. The nature of the human condition is such that there are only a few permutations that a response to perennial dilemmas can take, so we can actually be pretty schematic about laying out the possibilities of mythology. (One might note that this is not so different from the structuralist approach of Levi-Strauss.)

One theme that occurs repeatedly in Campbell’s lectures, and one can hear Campbell in his lectures quoting himself, is this line from Transformations of Myth Through Time: “The world is an ever-burning fire of sacrifice into which an inexhaustible sacrifice is being poured. That’s the nature of life.” (p. 105) That life itself is a sacrifice, and we are all in turn sacrificed, is Campbell’s point. But he shows the rigor of his thought when he then goes on to observe that there can be two obvious responses to the metaphor of life as an ever-burning fire of sacrifice: 1) feed the fire, and 2) quench the fire. These schematically opposed responses to the sacrifice that is life are instantiated repeatedly throughout human history, and not only in religion and mythology. Stoicism is a perfect example of quenching the fire of sacrifice, whereas slogans such as “live fast, die young, and make a beautiful corpse” or “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” are equally perfect examples of feeding the fire of sacrifice.

With this in mind, we can bring a little more depth to the humorous depiction of Marxism as a surrogate religion that we find in Russell. Marxists believe, along with Christians and many others, 1) that history is linear, 2) that history exhibits a pattern, and 3) that history is converging on a goal. It has been remarked that this linear conception of salvation history has its origins in Hebraic thought, and is passed from the Jews into the Western tradition. The linear conception of history contrasts most starkly with the cyclical conception of history that is found among almost all prehistoric peoples, and occasionally instantiated (according to some interpretations) in some civilizations of the East.

Linear history not only appears in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim eschatology and in Marxism, but also in what has been called “the cult of progress” (common in the nineteenth century, though it suffered some in the twentieth century), and it could be argued that the idea of linear history is also embodied in such ideas as Manifest Destiny.

When we understand this conception of history as being central to modern, industrialized civilization, it seems to me that there could be at least a couple of responses to the “march of history” or the “march of progress”: 1) join the march, or 2) don’t join the march. These options emphasize the individual’s choice in regard to the great movements of his time. We might also schematize the responses to linear history in less individualistic terms that emphasize instead the possibilities for a society, which might include: 1) move the march of history forward, 2) move the march of history forward, but only if it can be re-directed in a particular way, 3) stand aside and let history march past, 4) try to slow or halt the march of history, or 5) reverse the march of history.

The second of these five possibilities is most transparently influenced by Joseph Campbell, since in many of his lectures he discusses those who give only a conditional affirmation of the perennial nature of life, though he always follows this with an admonition that such an attitude will never work. On this, I disagree. I think there are many mythologies and ideologies alike that give only a conditional affirmation of the world as it is, and that these attitudes are as sustainable (if not more sustainable) that absolutist acceptance or rejection of the world as it is. But my disagreement is only possible within the larger framework of mythology that Campbell has created.

Though I’m not going to take this up at present, I think that an analysis of many cultural movements of today would reveal themselves to be particular instantiations of the five possibilities of responses to linear history that I have outlined above. In so far as Western civilization took over the linearity of history and made it its own, and in so far as this Western civilization imbued with the spirit of linear history was the source of the Industrial Revolution and the industrialized civilization that has emerged from this revolution, as the world gradually industrializes, whether it likes it or not, it becomes more and more involved in the mythology of linear history, and the mythology of linear history can be expected to be propagated by the spreading industrial revolution.

The Industrial Revolution is now part of the perennial human condition. On the other hand, as has always been the case in history, different peoples will respond differently to this novel aspect of the human condition, and we can expect diverse mythologies to emerge from industrialized civilization, constrained somewhat by the possibilities of response to linear history such as I have outlined. This is not the end of the process; this is only the beginning of the process, both of the formulating and of the understanding of the mythologies of industrialized civilization.

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