Myth and madness in the modern age

Myth and madness in the modern age

We haven’t come very far, have we? The Enlightenment that began in Europe during the 17th century was a defining point of Western culture and intended to usher in a brave new world of science, progress and rational and open discourse, which was free from the oppression, myths and superstitions of the past. The second millennium is now behind us, and the 20th century was the bloodiest period of all, with science and technology being used to fuel industrial scale wars and atrocities. Are we set to repeat the history of the previous century on an even greater scale?

Prior to the 20th century, the grand theories of society and social change, stemming from the Enlightenment and posited by the likes of Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim, were all based on faith in the evolution and ultimate progress of humankind, however much those theories differed from one another. But various commentators have questioned the very notion of ‘progress’ and the outcome of the Enlightenment project.

The new mythology

Many philosophers and theorists, such as Theodore Adorno and Jurgen Habermas, noted that science itself had become the new mythology in the modern age and its institutions and practitioners willing servants in the market place and in the pay of the military-industrial complex. Far from liberating humankind, science and the often preset and closed nature of rational debate in the political and public sphere had very often become a tool of oppression in the hands of the oppressors.

Indeed, disillusionment with modernity has subsequently been encompassed by the catch-all term ‘postmodern discontent’ to account for anything from political apathy to the trend towards hedonistic materialism.

Of course, there is always the hope that things will get better. Just how much that hope is grounded in reality is another matter entirely, particularly when it comes to political leaders. Despite the ongoing impact of the ‘war on terror’ and the attempts to stick with a free market system and ideology that has failed so many across the world, the current crop of world leaders never gets tired of trotting out a series platitudes that point to ‘success’ or ‘recovery’ in order to convince a sceptical public that we are about to turn the corner and embark on a renewed golden age of economic neo-liberalism. There seems to be some confusion among political leaders between reason and fantasy here.

The G20 leaders live in an warped world in which right is wrong and wrong is right. Everything has turned sour, and it is the ordinary person who is paying the price. Instead of implementing real and radical change, these leaders have now turned their attention to regulating finance-sector bonuses, which are put forward as the main problem that must be addressed if the economic crisis is to be overcome.

The construction of such narratives, with the help of an assortment of sympathetic economists, financial ‘experts’ and media outlets, are merely an attempt to legitimate and continue a system that prioritises the wishes of the few at the expense of many. The very fact that controls are being mooted by political leaders undermines the theory on which their free market vision of society is based.

Alternative truth

At the very least, they are being unreasonable in their approach. Traditionally, in Europe, ‘unreasonable’ members of the population were often locked away and institutionalised. In the 18th century, madness came to be seen as the reverse of reason, and, finally, in the 19th century as ‘mental illness’. Madness was silenced by reason and lost its power to signify the limits of social order and to point to an alternative truth.

Well, madness is well and truly back in fashion. This time, the unreasonable ones are not to be found within the walls of asylums, but in the corridors of power. But, let’s be honest, looking back over the last few hundred years, we never really left the pre-Enlightenment age of myth and superstition behind. As many social anthropologists will tell you, we just became a little more sophisticated into fooling ourselves that we did.
As our great political leaders try to convince us of their ‘reasoned’ arguments and justifications for unfettered capitalism and ongoing wars, they exhibit a blind faith with their unbending allegiance to a particular economic dogma and the continued belief in the righteousness of failed invasions. Far from liberating humanity, the powerful are attempting to construct a brave new world shrouded in deception and superstition, under the guise of those high minded notions of openness and democracy. We haven’t come very far, have we?

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