229. Difficulty at the beginning (III)
Conservatives typically meet leftist ideology, currently instantiated in “wokeness”, with the riposte that everyone is better off than ever before, by which they mean that we have more access to luxuries than ever before—and this is true. Even a single mother I knew—confined to a modest wage—had Netflix, a video game console, and two laptops. “Just think,” says the conservative, “a hundred years ago she would have been in some damp slum with barely enough to eat.” True enough; although I must add that she would very likely have been married—and perhaps that would have added an ineffable quality to her life quite absent in contemporary modernity.
Centuries and centuries ago the Buddha—before he was the Buddha—lived in a walled pleasure garden with everything he could desire. His parents built it that way so that he would never suffer; as you already know, it all went wrong when he glimpsed a dead body—from that moment on no material reward could satisfying him; everything tasted of death. In the 19th century, Schopenhauer—student of the East—observed that pleasure is really the absence or release of pain. We urinate and remove pressure from our bladder; we feel a moment of elation, but then our stomach rumbles; we eat a biscuit from the fridge, again there is a moment of elation—and then we want something else.
It never stops; and Schopenhauer spoke of the discontent identified by the Buddha: we are all tied to our desires—some material, some abstract—and all of these are bounded by the knowledge that one day it will stop. It is a condition that Tolstoy memorably likened to a man who clings to a branch over a great hole; the branch has a little nectar on it, and he reaches up to lick it as he hangs over the void—the void is death.
The reason why people are Marxists, progressives, or woke is not—as I know, since I was once a Marxist—because they are upset about the material distribution of goods in society. Although this is a proximate demand, the demand is made on the behalf of the supposedly oppressed; and the terminal demand revolves around a myth of liberation, revolution, and authentic work. Marxism, liberalism, and progressivism are all secular forms of Christianity. Their attraction is mythical: the idea that you, a privileged middle-class person, will sacrifice yourself to pull others up to a higher level. The aspiration is noble, and it gives people a firm purpose in life.
Mainstream conservatives respond: “You’ve never had it so good! Look at the technology! You’re so ungrateful—or envious!” They play into the left’s religious dialectic. The left says: “The people in charge are shallow materialists who only care about money and possessions. Selfish white supremacists!” The official right replies: “Look at this new iPhone! It’s an amazing product of Western civilisation! You use it to send your Marxist quotes! Hypocrites!” They prove the left’s point: they answer like shallow materialists who only care about financial success—because they are, they are nihilists.
I am not sure what I saw last summer when I eventually checked the media after months offline and saw George Floyd choked under a policeman’s knee. Whatever really happened there, I know what I really saw: the birth of a myth—a myth like Che Guevara, a man to die for. Yes, people loot sneakers in a riot for the material pleasure; but the initial motive force for a riot is the myth of the struggle against injustice. The myth makes life meaningful: the myth is stronger than peer review, facts, and logic. As Buddha and Schopenhauer knew, man is always dissatisfied: the fear of death and the hunger for more will not abate because you tell him that statistically life has never been so good. The only way to stop a myth is with a myth, anything else is to play the devil in a false religion.