|From an exhibit at the museum in Dachau|
I grew up with a faith in the inevitability of progress: the evolution of societies and people from backward to advanced, from ignorant to enlightened, the steady advance of technology, prosperity, and democracy that promised better things always in the future. Today, such faith seems naive or delusional when you consider the worldwide rise of right wing extremism, the rotting out of the Republican Party, global warming, terrorism, email, and the appearance of the phrase "President Trump" in newspapers everywhere.
An article in the current Atlantic magazine quotes Claude Levi-Strauss saying that "civilization has been in decline since the Neolithic period." The article profiles an anthropology professor at Washington College who claims hunter-gatherers where healthier, happier, and probably even smarter than moderns. Jared Diamond argues similar things in his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel and elsewhere, and James Loewen coined the term chronological ethnocentrism to capture our unwarranted assumption that humans today are smarter and better than humans in the past.
Is it possible that history is one long and steady decline from golden past to dystopian future? When you look at the desperation that seems to have driven white working class Americans to vote for Trump, it seems plausible. Rising mortality among middle aged white people without a college degree, the opioid epidemic, declining incomes, the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector of the economy, the increasing precariousness of middle class families.
The Exeter faculty book group read Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, over spring break. The book supports Levi-Strauss's claim with a lot of compelling stories that show how people are really better off living in small, communal, groups like the hunter-gatherers than in our alienating, competitive, individualistic modern societies. (Reviews of the book break down along predictable lines, between those who think that life among pre-modern peoples was nasty, brutish and short, and those who think it was paradise lost.)
Hitler and the Nazis, and perhaps Trump, seem instinctively to have tapped into this chronic dissatisfaction with modern life. An exhibit at the Documentation Center at the Nazi Party rallying grounds in Nuremberg included a reference to the phrase Gemeinschaft statt Gesellschaft (community instead of society) and a video about what was going on behind the scenes at the rallies. Party members arrived by the hundreds of thousands on trains from all over, and stayed in crowded, unsanitary conditions in row after row of tents. In the film, attendees can be seen swilling beer, washing up outside, joking and horsing around. The film was meant to show that the Nazi rallies weren't as well organized as they appeared in films of orderly columns marching in lock step, enthusiastically hailing the Führer.
But more significantly, it showed how the party attracted followers in part by fulfilling a fundamental human need for belonging. The shared hardship of those camps created a sense of mission and common purpose that formed party members into a mass tribe. Accounts of Trump rallies suggests a similar tribal solidarity there.
I just read this review by Christopher Benfey in the NYRB of a batch of books on the history of utopian dreams in the US. Utopian visions and communitarian experiments tend to spring up, the author argues, when the real world seems to be getting uglier. "In the background of every utopia is there is an anti-utopia," the author of Utopian Thought in the Western World wrote back in 1979, at the beginning of our current descent into the neoliberal anti-utopia. It's no coincidence that many of the utopian visions of the 19th century emerged from the industrial hellscape of Manchester England, the Nazi Party succeed amidst the despair of the Great Depression, and Trump's surprise victory emerged from the hollowed out post-industrial rust belt .
|From the Weimar Constitution|
In our discussion of Tribe last week, the book group speculated about how we might apply lessons from the book to make Exeter a better place. According to Benfey, most utopian experiments have had a few things in common: "that society should be based on cooperation rather than competition; that the nuclear family should be subsumed into the larger community; that property should be held in common; that women should not be subordinate to men; that work of even the most menial kind must be accorded a certain dignity." The architects of these experiments hadn't read Tribe but they might have.