04-27-2016 | Small Revolutions

How is it that when we try to do good we can often end up creating greater evil? The Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 ended in the Reign of Terror and the rise of the dictatorship of Napoleon. The temporary dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia ended up in the permanent dictatorship of the ex-proletariat in the new bourgeoisie of the Communist Party. America fought a revolutionary war against the British Empire, and then became an empire fighting to suppress a guerrilla war of national liberation in Vietnam. But these enantiodromias are not restricted to contradictory world of revolution and politics, for the Green Revolution started out as a project to feed the masses in starving India, and then ended up as the Americanization of Indian agriculture in which the rich got richer and the poor got poorer through the introduction of the petrochemicals, fertilizers, tractors, and large land holding of the modern agro-industry. The industrialization of the planet and the global distribution of medical services have increased the population so that more people are suffering than ever before. This year four hundred million people are dying of starvation.

Liberals speak of progress, especially of progress in terms of "modernization," but hunters and gatherers have more leisure time than we have and no way of institutionalizing conflict in warfare. Every step toward progress, whether it is the agricultural revolution of 9000 BC, the urban revolution of 3500 BC, or the industrial revolution of 1770, has carried with it an equal and opposite horror. As Homer recognized long ago, your unique excellence is also your tragic flaw; your greatness hobbles you. We have tried to do good in modernizing the planet through industrialization, but the internal contradictions of industrial society are beginning to become painfully visible; now some ecologists are predicting that the population of the earth with drop a hundred fold in the next ten to twenty years. If this is the case, then the entire Industrial Revolution and the whole philosophy of progress which went along with it will culminate, either through famine, ecological catastrophe, and economic disaster, or through thermonuclear war, in the greatest cataclysm in the history of the human species. When this happens, it will not be because people were consciously trying to do evil; in many cases, the leaders were trying to do good.

If evil can grow out of efforts to do good, it also seems to be the case that good can grow out of our efforts to do evil. The Roman military engineers built the roads that the Christian missionaries traveled to convert an empire. The British executed by firing squad the Irish rebels of 1916, and thus helped to free Ireland. The Nazis executed six million, and thus helped to bring the nation of Israel into existence. But much of this seems unconscious, for those who do evil certainly do not plan on having good result from it; and those who think they are working for progress do not wish to create the apocalypse. The inventor of the aerosol spray can did not wish to destroy the ozone layer of the planet, but whether it is dynamite, atomic energy, psychosurgery, or genetic engineering, it does seem to be the case that our very unconsciousness of these enantiodromias increases the likelihood of evil emerging from our acts. It is no longer safe to assume that good intentions are enough. One can wreak havoc with benevolence; therefore we have to stop and call into question the ideas of progress and philanthropy upon which modern liberalism is based.

A new race of liberals is arising to seek "The Creation of Just World Order," but if we remain as unconscious in this second global wave of liberalism as we were in the first wave which came at the end of the Second World War, then we are likely to create untold horror on a planetary scale. IF the Green Revolution can increase starvation, if antibiotics can be described as a threat to the evolutionary viability of the human species, if the entire edifice of modernization can be seen to be a curse, then how can we assume that those who write proposals for a "Systems Approach to World Order" know what they are doing? If a thing as tiny as an aerosol spray can generate intense scientific debate about the future of life on this planet, then what of a grand scheme of a handful of academics creating an entire world order?

We are like flies crawling across the cieling of the Sistine Chapel; we cannot see what angels and gods lie underneath the threshold of our perceptions. We do not live in reality; we live in our paradigms, our habituated perceptions, our illusions; the illusions we share through culture we call reality, but the true historical reality of our condition is invisible to us. How can you fix up history if you cannot see it? What if history cannot be fixed from inside history? What if the attempt to fix human history is an effort to seek out the dark with a searchlight?

- William Irwin Thompson, Evil and World Order p. 79-81

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