Friday, November 21, 2008

The Lemming Theory of History

I think that conspiracy theory, in the sense of world events being secretly controlled by small groups of people, is similar in principle to the old-fashioned ‘great man’ view of history, which Tolstoy attempted to discredit in his novel War and Peace. According to this theory, history is largely shaped by great men like Napoleon: “highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence and wisdom or Machiavellianism, used power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.”

Tolstoy’s most effective presentation of his case was in describing the nature of battles, of which he had first hand experience. What we might learn in a history book is Napoleon’s brilliant victory at such-and-such a battle, brought about by the orders he gave. What Tolstoy points out in detail is the huge disparity between the orders that were given, and the course of events on the ground. The outcome of the battle, in other words, had nothing to do with the orders given by the ‘great man’. The victorious Russian general Kutuzov in War and Peace goes to sleep in his tent during a battle, having the wisdom to know that any orders he gives won’t make any difference.

It’s not that ‘great men’, or small powerful groups of people, do not make a difference. They can, if they seize the moment. But it is soon gone in the wider current of forces that shape society. In the last analysis, I think it is this wider current, the collective will of society, that has the most power.

Barack Obama may make a difference to America. But he is in the position he is in because there is a collective longing for certain types of change that he has been able to respond to and articulate. There have always been leaders and influential groups of people. Sometimes they are able to rise above the collective and shape it, for better or for worse, at least for a while. But they are like temporary islands in an ocean.

The ongoing world financial crisis, and plunge into recession, is a good example of the unconscious collective having the upper hand. A huge force has swept through the world, and gone are our usual illusions that anyone is in control. The notion that somehow a few people engineered this is risible. It has been a wonderful and instructive example of the ultimate power of blind collective forces. These forces haven’t come out of nowhere. They have been building for years through the reckless, herd-like actions of the banking system, the politicians who are supposed to regulate it, and the millions of people who have borrowed far more than they should have. It’s very hard to point a finger at particular groups of people and blame them. It’s human nature at a collective level that has brought it about.

Hence my title ‘The Lemming Theory of History’, which remarkably doesn’t produce any results on Google. The lemmings go over the cliff because all the other lemmings are, and they are being pushed on from behind. Even if you have been financially prudent over the last decade, you are still having to go over the cliff, you are still being affected by the recession.

So individuals, or even, if you want, secret conspiring groups can make a difference for a period, even for decades, while the currents are with them. But the bigger trends are fundamentally collectively determined.

This view ties in with society seen as a chart in mundane astrology. Yes, the inner planets are there: there is the Sun as the leader, the Moon as the people, Mars is the army and the violent gangsters, Venus is the women, Jupiter the gamblers and empire builders and so on. But then you have the outer planets, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. We know from our own individual lives that we cannot control these planets when they are active, we can only do our best to co-operate and to remain conscious. These planets carry the deeper themes of our lives, as well as ushering in the new phases, the big transformations. Living with outer planets can be hard enough for us as individuals, with our capacity to make choices. So how much harder it is for a collective, where choice-making and consciousness are much more problematic, to live consciously with these planets.

It is therefore entirely in keeping with the astrological view of the outer planets to see society as fundamentally, and largely unconsciously, in the grip of collective forces, with the odd moment of inner planet consciousness here and there. The Lemming Theory of History! Yes there are great men and women, and yes there are conspiracies/cabals, but they are small fry in the bigger sweep of things.

With Uranus moving in to square Pluto over the next few years, we are at the beginning of one of those great collective transformations that we see from time to time. The last was Uranus conjunct Neptune in the early 90s. Despite his best efforts, the leader of the USSR at the time, Gorbachev, was completely powerless in the face of the collective forces that tore apart the Russian Empire, with a speed and ferocity that surprised everyone. These moments when outer planets join up and completely take over do not come from nowhere: they are like underground rivers meeting and bursting through to the surface, sweeping through towns and villages. They were there all the time, quietly growing in strength and carrying the collective with them, which in its hubris thinks it controls events.

By the way, what keeps me on these sort of themes is living in Glastonbury, UK. For many people here, it is a common sense fact that any major world event has been deliberately and secretly engineered. They are not clear about who or what or how. But that’s not the point. The point, I think, is to avoid engagement with reality, while retaining a sense of superiority to it.

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