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Myths
The 21st Letter of an Autonomous Thinker



Amsterdam, February 2 2002

Dear reader, 

Myths are important in politics, especially when times ask for a change.
A new society needs a new paradigm, a vague idea of the principles on which the new society will be based. All political paradigms are based on rational arguments and also on a mythical belief in a better future. In my critical book about democracy (About Violence and Democracy) the second chapter, presented hereunder, is dedicated to political myths and the failure of the present elitist democracy to inspire citizens to great deeds. Only a new myth will provide the masses with the inspiration needed for autonomous and creative activities that will give rise to another society.
See also the article "The guiding myth
" in the series Political Catastrophes.

Myths

A political doctrine is not only attractive because of its rational side but also because of its irrational aspects. Society is too complicated to understand everything. There is always room for irrational thoughts, for unproven ideas, for the myth that a possible situation will arise when you act now.
A myth differs fundamentally from a utopia. A utopia is a blueprint of a future situation in which the road to that future is not specified. Utopian doctrines lack ideas about possible roads from the present to the future. A myth is a vague idea of the future in which the path to that idea is an integrated part of the myth. Moreover the myth as well as the road to that myth are dynamic processes which are constantly changing. Anarchism and other utopian tendencies will never lead to another social system. There is no connection between the present situation and the utopian future. Many anarchists try therefore to realise anarchist ideas in the democratic structure, for example in education. The unattainable future is only discussed with fellow-believers.

Myths are strong and inspiring guiding principles for human activities. People are even more prepared to die for ideas than for certainties, for what is believed than for what is known. People still fight for freedom, democracy or the Jihad, although they know they can die in the struggle. Soldiers that are paid or conscripted are often less motivated.
Most myths inspire only for a restricted period of time. The democratic myth is more than two centuries old and lost most of its power. A new myth has to replace the aging democracy, a myth that is also based on irrefutable facts and irrational elements. (I give an example of a new myth based on the activity of alternating minorities of involved citizens in Beyond Democracy). 

That democracy is the best political system ever is an important contemporary myth but the trust in the organisation of the present society is diminishing though leaders continue to propagate that democracy will improve society. An additional factor in the decreasing trust is the growing amount of laws that curtail the freedom of the masses, a trend that is accelerated because of the War against Terrorism.
The waning support of the democratic myth forces the elite to come forward with new myths. The War on Drugs has been replaced by the War on Terrorism in an effort to convince citizens that a safer world is possible. The meagre results in both wars are in contradiction to the high ideals of myths and causes a further decline in the support of the elite. An important part of the increasing criminality has nothing to do with drugs or terrorism. The growing number of middle and upper class houses built in guarded compounds also contradicts the idea that the world becomes more secure. It is a pity that many citizens react too much on the policies of the elite. They do not develop an own policy, an own myth that as part of a new doctrine will replace the dying democracy.

Political systems attract massive following because part of the doctrines cannot be reasoned-out or proven. Karl Marx claimed that communism was a scientific doctrine and that the change from capitalism to communism should be irrefutable and unavoidable. I do not agree, political systems do not change by itself, changes are produced by human will and effort.  The attraction of Marxism is not its determinism, but its belief in a better future after the revolution. Despite all improvements after the October Revolution, the factual basis of the communist myth was undermined because Soviet communism could not catch up with Western prosperity. The communist myth lost its grip on Western people (and on Russians). It cannot anymore serve as a motor for further development in the West, just as religion has lost much of its mythical strength. In the Third World however religious myths are still strong. Communism has also lost its attraction, though it cannot be proven that the communist system is economically inferior for Third World countries because of the lasting poverty, repeating recessions and vast corruption. In the acceptation of political ideas facts and belief, reality and myth are factors that cannot be separated.

Nationalism is based on the myth that life will be better when the ‘own’ people lead the country. In the United States the American Dream strengthens this myth. The Monroe doctrine, that restrained the influence of non-Americans in Latin America, was a practical result of this myth. In Nazi Germany the nationalist myth was strengthened by racism, by the idea of the superiority of the German race. A few centuries ago the myth of rationality arose in the West, the belief that all problems could be solved by reasoning and by the inevitability of technical progress. This myth inspired many Europeans to great deeds. Politicians use often mythical phrases as “the people want …..”, democracy demands …..”, or “all is going well because the GNP is increasing …..” even if it is known that wages are decreasing and people become poorer. All these concepts have a vague content. Everyone can interpret these words in his own manner and determine which action he should undertake. The common point in all myths is the promise of a better future. In religion this future is heaven, in democracy the improved situation when people live and act according to rules deduced from the democratic myth by leading groups.

Only a minority is in the West opposed to the democratic myth (by lack of an alternative?). Right as well as left political tendencies support democracy. The left wants to improve the situation of the lower paid people though the masses will always remain subordinate to the elite. Most leftist grass roots organisations have the same organisational form as other democratic organisations. They have a vast membership and a small leading group on which members have hardly any influence. The masses are never allowed to use freely their individuality and their creativity. Green Parties and organisations as Greenpeace have some sympathetic features but they want to improve life only within the boundaries of democracy. They do not believe in the possibility of another society and prominent leftist people propagate masses can only get influence by electing better representatives. After a century of universal suffrage, the masses begin to understand that elections are just an excuse to preserve the existing power relations.

Just as it is impossible to predict the weather in the long term, it is impossible to predict the social future. The result of many proposals is time and again different from what was said when they were introduced. Irrationality is an integrated part of human existence. But that does not contradict with the rational basis of our life. The Bible is based on the facts known in the time the book was written. Many irrational facts were added but are now attacked by rational reality. Religion started to be undermined when the future that was deduced by church leaders from the ancient texts did not conform to daily reality. 
The conservatives at the top of the Catholic Church see their following diminish because their ideas on sex do not agree with the practical experience of the masses. When a myth becomes too old, more insurmountable problems arise that undermine its strength. To cope with this problem leaders try to change the myth. New myths, new religions or new sects cannot prevent that the original myth loses more and more its influence. To fight a myth it is better to counter practical achievements with rational arguments than to prohibit the doctrine. In this way democracy and the Theory of Evolution undermined the influence of religion.

Myths contain a rational part that is deduced from facts. Political systems are built on logical assumptions. This rational basis is difficult to combat because it is founded on historical facts. It is very difficult to determine if Jesus was a prophet or a fantast, it is even difficult to ascertain if such a person ever lived. But such a debate is not important because the deduced facts can be attacked. In democracy for example it is possible to attack the myth of the Trias Politica, the separation of the legislative, the executive and the judiciary power. An attack on this democratic principle is indeed seen as an attack on the principles of democracy. The practical experience that this separation does not exist for the majority of the population diminishes the belief in democracy (see for example the fifth chapter of The Scarists about democracy.
The rational basis of a myth provides guidelines for the present and the near future. The irrational determines the future that is further away. Democracy is working quite well in short-term economics though the results are not always what is wanted or predicted. Recessions occur because nobody understands how the myth of the free market really works. Economic freedom has many unpleasant side effects especially for the masses. That is one of the reasons that the belief in the democratic myth diminishes. But economics should serve the people and not rule them. The present economic power is concentrated in the hands of those who have already high and prosperous positions. Masspeople should strive for political power by putting pressure on these leaders. Economic power can only partly be measured, an important part is based on the mythical believe that only leaders are capable to do the right things.

The freedom of expression is also a myth and is undermined because the elite regulates the media. Though it is allowed to say what one wants to say (even that is now attacked by the American anti-terrorist laws) it is hardly possible to transfer these ideas to other people. The American administration even wanted to close dow the Arabian news channel Al Jazeera because it distributed news about the Afghan War that was not appreciated. The Americans even bought all commercial satellite photographs of Afghanistan to prevent that the public could see the collateral damage (dead civilians) caused by American bombs. The democratic myth of Freedom, Equality and Fraternity (the three inspiring features of the French Revolution) is undermined. And this is strengthened by many facts such as the lack of houses for the young in contradiction to the surplus of houses for the older well to do.

Because the near future can ever more be precisely determined, the irrational side of the myth is pushed further in the future and the contact between rational and irrational is diminishing. Political parties are more and more organisations that talk about what can be accomplished now. But humans live longer than a few years and they notice that many ideas of democratic parties are not realised. When the future is thrown away, when in the present the future factor is abandoned, the guiding principle for progress is abandoned and practical deeds become out of control. Humans are the only living beings that can connect past, present and future. Pragmatism eliminates the future and thus removes part of the essence of human existence. By being pragmatic humans become animals that only live by the day.

Democracy has lost much of its irrationality. In the past it was an inspiring force because it offered an interesting future. The present democracy is pragmatic, less mythical and less inspiring. “When there is no future how can there be sin, we are the flowers in the dustbin” were lines from a 1977 hit of the punk band The Sex Pistols. They were right. The ‘no future generation’ lost its mythical beliefs and is living by the day. To get another world we need a new future, another myth. One of the central points of such a new myth can be the individualisation of autonomous humans, the belief that by creative actions humans can influence their own life as well as society. Democratic majorities suppress the autonomy of individuals. Only autonomous minorities can repel the growing powerlessness. Small groups of alternating minorities are forced to act individually and to create their own practice. No leader may tell individual members what they have to do. In the past is often proved that masspeople can take their own future in their own hands. In special circumstances, for examples in wars, apparently insignificant people developed a power, an initiative and a responsibility that they did not have, or were not permitted to have, in times of peace. The seemingly irrational belief to be capable to repulse the enemy – a myth of course – inspired some people to rise to unexpected heights.

The strength of religions is also not only based on historical facts but on the mythical belief in a better future that cannot be proven to be true or untrue. In Iran the failing democratic myth was replaced by the Islamic myth. During the reign of the Shah economic improvement became an illusion. A new myth was needed to get a better future. The new Iranian leaders undermine however the religious myth because politics and not ancient religion should decide over economic problems. Without the separation of state and religion the irrational part of one doctrine will be damaged by rational facts that are connected to the other doctrine. Economic failures are written on the account of religion and the impotence of religion to solve the daily needs are seen as a result of the incompetence of political leaders. An undermined myth gives room for a new myth, for a fresh start that will indeed advance the country. In the West the influence of religion has been reduced and religion has become personal. Modern politics and economics need more or less free humans while religion tries to subordinate people to Old Writings, which are elevated to a sacred status that cannot be discussed.  When a myth is applied to daily events, it will lose its strength when this application contradicts daily life. The myth loses its irrational force and thus its power. That is the case after a military coup. In the first years economy is thriving but when the military want to impose their strict rules on the entire society people begin to experience they are hindered in their private life by military-like rules. This undermines enthusiasm and old problems return in a stronger form.

In social Movements the myth for a better future leads to contemporary activities. The squatters put the mythical slogan into practice that people without living space could take the houses they needed. Part of the myth was realised on the way towards the better future. The Movement collapsed when the number of houses that could be squatted became too small. Negotiations of a part of the Movement with the Town Council in an effort to reach their goal within the democratic structure was another reason for the dwindling influence of the squatters’ myth. The negotiating squatters had abandoned the mythical view of another housing policy and the Movement lost its mythical power because it became embedded in the democratic system.
Most Movements have followers who believe that democracy can be improved and others who strive for fundamental change. Some parts of the Anti Nuclear Movement only wanted to stop the production of nuclear power because possible nuclear accidents were too dangerous while others wanted to promote green energy. The second tendency also looked for solutions within democracy. Some conscious objectors in the Peace Movement (in the time there was general conscription in Holland) fulfilled their military duty during an alternative (civilian) service. Others saw the army as an integral part of the aggressive democratic system and did not want to support democracy by serving the state in a non-military function. They adhered to another myth.

Religious fundamentalist tendencies are based on the myth that a religious state will replace the secular state. A compromise can often not be reached. Khomeiny showed in Iran the road towards the Islamic state. The road of Bin Laden towards an Islamic state is less clear because the proposed Jihad is in the first place directed against the influence of the West, the existence of Israel and the blockade of Iraq. They demand something from the existing system and have not enough own ideas. Terrorist attacks are limited to a vanguard and are not supported by the masses who lack technical knowledge to perpetrate complicated terrorist acts. Moreover the weak myth will not inspire Islamic masses because it is not clear what they can do in their own country to come closer to the myth. The Intifada of the Palestinians on the contrary is indeed a clear step on the road towards the fulfilment of the myth of an independent Palestine. I predict that the Bin Laden Movement (but it is not really a Movement, it is better to speak about a terrorist organisation) will not exist for long. But the horrendous situation on the world will time and again give birth to new groups that will even carry out bigger actions. The arrogant policy of Western democracy provides a fertile recruiting ground for Moslem masses. This arrogance is also an important reason why the democratic myth will never get a big impact on the poor masses.

The guerrilla wars in the Third World make also use of the myth of a bright future. The Peruvian Guerrilla Movement was even named Shining Path. In trying to realise the myth the followers were inspired to practical activities. Though some Westerns admire these fighters, a Third World guerrilla will never take place in the rich First World. Groups as the German RAF or the Italian Red Brigades remained in the margin of society and their myth could not attract massive following. These organisations did not promote individual autonomous mass activities. The masses should only follow the road paved by the actions of the revolutionary vanguard. This concrete way to reach the future contradicts the principle of a successful myth in which the future and the road to that future are both vague and ever changing. The masses must use a myth to generate their own activities, not only to applaud the activities of some self-styled leaders.

The democratic myth is losing its appeal because it is said that the future can be deduced from the present when the leaders are followed. It is possible to attack democracy with the rational argument that the results of the doctrine do not conform to the promises that follow from the myth. It is however better when vague arguments are being used that are deduced from a new myth. But still discussions will often end with vague phrases like: “I believe that democracy is better”.
A new myth does not arise automatically when the old myth is negated.  Critical analysis of the old myth can give some indications but the new myth must contain independent and new elements. It must be based on new rational and irrational elements that will lead to an unknown future. The arguments will only penetrate in the minds of the masses when they have lost most of their trust in the old myth.

The democratic myth is dying. It is time for a new and inspiring myth that will bring humanity further.   

Yours truly, Joost van Steenis


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22. Why should you believe anything anymore?
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