Saturday, November 30, 2013

Michel Bauwens on New Age

In other ways, New Age thinking was an heir to utopian socialism. Given the difficulty of changing society in radical ways at the macro level, people began to change their own lives by abandoning blind trust in the mechanistic approaches to the human body that were espoused by Western medicine; and by leaving aside the knowledge-stuffing, rote-learning style of education they were fed in order to treat children as whole persons. These changes have made the world unrecognizable from thirty years ago.

Whatever the negative features of the neoliberal age, many institutions have become more humane, more egalitarian, more respectful, and more attuned to the whole individual. People have changed, institutions have evolved, and many small-scale communal experiments have yielded valuable learning experiences even if they have failed to change the bigger picture. 
At a time when the left was disintegrating and many social gains were undone, New Age thinking provided a banner under which millions of people continued their concrete efforts for personal and social change. Nevertheless, this thinking was also reactionary in its exaggerated rejection of 'cognicentrism' - the Western focus on the thinking mind alone. It went too far in dismissing the role of critical intelligence.

Instead of being integrative it was often regressive, a 'liberation' where selfish desire could reign unchecked. It fell prey to cults, mindless anti-modernism and extremism in the fields of diet and medicine that refused to see anything positive in western science. Spiritually, it had a romantic, rosy-tinted outlook that served to compensate for a life of dreary reality in which hyper-competition was degrading the quality of human relationships.

Finally, being born in an age of hyper-commerce, New Age thinking took on the trappings of the market, and it started functioning in ways akin to market logic. It encouraged people to behave like consumers in picking and choosing what they wanted. It became too focused on the individual and neglected processes of social change. Many of these trappings, which sometimes verged on exploitation by scumbag cults and gurus, were incompatible with authentic spirituality, which must be open-ended and participative, not based on a market model of paid experience.

In pre-modern times, people lived as members of communities with roles that were largely externally defined; in modern times they live as atomized but autonomous self-directing individuals who are bound together through social contracts and institutions. Post-modernity, seen as a critique of neoliberal capitalist structures, sees the individual as increasingly fragmented, and it has developed a strong critique of all the forces that have shown us that we are not nearly as autonomous as we think, including language and power. But this process has also left us stranded as fragmented individuals without much sense of a direction, forever deconstructing realities but rarely reconstructing them with much success. Therefore it is time for something new.

Today, individuals are no longer defined only by their membership in traditional communities or rigid roles. In my world, for example, an increasing number of people see themselves as contributors to open-source software systems like Linux rather than employees of Microsoft or Google. In this context, the key to an integrated self is to construct a rich identity of contributions that stem from active participation in many different communities. No longer New Age or Old Age but building on elements of both, a relational spirituality could form a cornerstone of the contributive societies on which the twenty-first century will be built. - Michel Bauwens

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