Through Siberia by Accident
John Murray (Publishers), London 2005
Humans are very good at following and processing sudden shifts in their environments, but very bad at being aware of gradual changes. No one noticed that life in America has little by little turned into “just holding on,” that the fun we have, when we have it, is too little too late, that we’re never completely convinced we should keep trying at any given moment rather than watch TV or drink ourselves into a stupefied calm. These changes happened slowly, over decades and generations. To complicate things, the better conditions some time ago weren’t all good for all people, and were downright awful for many: the deterioration in the quality of life over time has been a complex process. Most people have traditionally focused on improvements in material well-being to claim that life is better now than before and getting better all the time, a dubious claim itself considering how much misery there is out there today. Perhaps it isn’t all that much more, as a proportion of the total, than at the height of the abuses of the industrial revolution, but no one with any access to accurate information should claim that we today enjoy better lifestyles than cavemen or hunting/ gathering groups. (Not only did hunter/ gatherers enjoy a more varied and nutritious diet than almost anyone who came after them, their brains were bigger than ours, paralleling the decrease in brain size which happens to domesticated animals.)
We’re not merely less happy than we’ve been at perhaps any other time in our history, and we’re not just stupider, meaner, more selfish, less interesting and interested, less empathetic, less fun, and more confused. We in the west, certainly those of us in the U.S., are no longer members of human society as its always been understood and conceived of. Society has come to an end, and no one noticed. But, how would one notice the end of society? When society peters out, people go on living, its just that they no longer live as a social species, but as something else. What “else” may be for the pundits or the sci-fi writers to figure out. Whatever we ever meant by “society,” we in the West no longer practice anything of the sort.
The words “society,” “socialized,” and “social” are problematic for what I’m trying to bring to your attention, because most people understand them as referring to things people do together, without differentiating between, for example, sharing an elevator in a tall building and singing together with a group of people, and in the latter example, between singing with others in a high school music class, or around a campfire, or at a demonstration. Social, to most people, simply means things we do together, as opposed to individual. But a collection of individuals in a place and time (and sometimes neither, i.e. social media), can be simply a collection of separate beings, or it can be something more: an experience which leaves all involved transformed for the better. Consider a group of people gathered inside a mass transit bus, and a group of people gathered around a volleyball net. Both are social events, but one makes everyone involved feel like garbage and resent the people around them, whereas the other makes everyone involved feel invigorated and connected to everyone else. For what I’m trying to describe here, the two kinds of group activity have to be carefully differentiated: there is no separate word for the kind of “social” that I am concerned with here, the kind that strengthens bonds between the participants, but this is the one we need to pay attention to. I am proposing that “society,” “culture,” and such words, describe the transformative experience of people coming together in a place and a time for a common purpose, and not the results and the record of such comings together, which may be better termed “material culture” and its accoutrements.
I realize this definition leaves much to be desired, but I am hoping I can be understood anyway, and maybe helped in this project, for which I am surely woefully inadequately equipped. If I’d seen it tackled by anyone else, I would, I promise you, have the sense to bark up the right trees only. But, the ongoing end of human society seems to be well off everyone’s radar, even though everyone senses that something is very wrong. I attribute it, mostly, to a lack of a vantage point from which the whole trajectory of society can be observed.
I wouldn’t have become aware of this alarming development if I hadn’t had the experience of being born in the Soviet Union, and the privileged position being an immigrant affords to someone observing people and their ways. Obviously, the subject of differences between ethnic groups has remained a favorite from the day the first Neanderthal met the first Homo Sapiens, but I’ve recently begun to think that I may be observing something more profound than variations in ethnic color, namely, the struggle of some people to hold on to a socialized existence, and of others to deal with an existence lacking in socialization altogether.
Everyone knows that people in other parts of the world are profoundly different from Americans. When describing the difference we see in these others, we use words like, “hospitable,” “quaint,” “warm,” etc. We lack the words to describe these differences because we mostly lack the concepts for them. What we see as local color, that quaint hospitality some people in remote places across the world show us, is what people living in properly socialized environments are like. I think it’s funny that we see such people as dupes or quaint at best, and fail to see all the things which allow them to be generous, hospitable, and warm, things we lack: extended families to teach us when young, support and help us when we need it, and learn from us in turn when we’re old; a stable home rooted in a specific place to discover, love, and protect; a simple life free of the anxiety of media phantoms parading all the things we supposedly lack before us all day; a simple life dedicated to real pleasures and real goals, where you can actually be whatever you want to be, certain of the support of your loved ones, instead of having unattainable, sociopathic goals. These things comprise the social dimension of life. When we think of society, we usually think instead of the infrastructure our civilization has built to keep itself going, the different classes of people, the professions, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, etc. All those things are relevant, to be sure, but they aren’t what makes humans properly socialized, and in fact, often serve to distract us from the fact that we’re alone, miserable and confused.
Elsewhere, people still live lives socialized to various degrees. Though tearing at the seams and strained to the max almost everywhere, society is still a part of many people’s lives outside of the West. Russian people’s lives are in many cases still highly socialized. I was reminded of what Russians are like by Dervla Murphy’s Through Siberia by Accident, a great book by a great author. Murphy took her trip through Siberia in 2002, when the Russian people were finally far enough removed from the “market reforms,” which dispossessed them in the mid-1990s, to observe the effects western culture was having on their lives with some clarity.
Throughout Siberia, Murphy met plenty of people who viewed Russia as only getting better with increasing western influence, and plenty of others who saw western culture as intrinsically at odds with indigenous culture, and ultimately displacing it to everyone’s detriment. Opinions split, unsurprisingly, along economic lines: those who were making money hand over fist in the “New Russia” were inclined to see it as improved by westernization, while many of those approaching the changes with more caution came from the public sector–teachers, architects, and the like. According to Murphy, many Russians are worried about the dissolution of their society as the result of the free flow of western values. Murphy quotes a Siberian acquaintance: “For ten years we have democracy and all are free, no one telling children what to do and when, no one organizing anything for them. And what are they doing with their freedom? How can they be expected to organize themselves? The intelligentsia can use freedom but not the rest.” (p.57) Western values consider freedom unequivocally good, for anyone, in any circumstance. I know young American parents who wouldn’t think to thwart the freedom and development of their child in any way– before they can talk, they are allowed to pursue anything that catches their fancy in any way. That’s fine, but kids have no concept of freedom, and need, above all, a stable, loving environment, adult role-models, a good home in a good community. These aren’t things that the parents can provide their children on their own, but without them, kids will grow up improperly socialized to various degrees, and eventually, unhappy.
Russians are different from Americans in specific ways. Traits having to do with strengthening social bonds such as thoughtfulness, politeness, accommodation, are held up for praise in Russian society. Dervla Murphy, in her 60s when visiting Siberia, could always count on a seat when riding crowded mass transit: young men or women invariably stand up and offers their seat to an older person should there be nowhere to sit. These qualities are, by contrast, very rare in America, where instead traits focusing on the individual are held in esteem. It is a rare home I’ve visited in Milwaukee, WI– a quaint city by many standards– where the host offered their guests so much as a glass of water. This is, for many people the world over, treatment one wouldn’t give to one’s enemies. Yet, these aren’t bad people, they are just clueless that another way of living exists because they weren’t raised with any other way. They see their crappy, lonely lives as normal, and stoically blow their brains out, as well as, increasingly, the brains of others’ who may happen to be in the way, when their ludicrous dreams prove unattainable and no deus ex machina is at hand. These are two different breeds of men, but only one is capable of replicating human society– the other can only recreate the pyramid scheme which got them where they are.
What would a society that’s dissolved look and feel like to the people forced to inhabit its’ ruins? I think the most important benchmark of a functioning society is the empathy its members experience towards one another. Empathy is both a prerequisite and a consequence of human society. Ours is perhaps the first civilization in human history to have a serious enough problem with individuals lacking in empathy to create a word and a concept for it, “sociopath.” But the breakdown in empathy between members of a group is not always due to an individual pathology. Some people are unable to experience empathy, some don’t experience it because they haven’t been taught to experience it to the appropriate extent in childhood, and some might simply not want to, for any number of reasons. It seems to me that when the levels of empathy fall below a certain threshold, you may no longer be dealing with a society deserving of the name. Again, empathy is not so much a metaphysical way of getting inside other people’s heads, and more about the way people who live together, spend time together, share values, habits, dreams, and so on, just know what the other members of their group experience. Naturally, this faculty is diminished when you live a life largely removed from others, or in a belief that everyone is so “individual” the things we have in common don’t matter, or both.
But it is important to remember that a bunch of people will keep on going about their things, buying, selling, fighting, fucking, and the sort, long after any meaningful social component has been taken out of their way of life. Instead of the common good, they will serve laws written by people they chose to represent them far away. Mostly, they’ll have no clue why they value the things they value, because people they’ve never seen will dictate their tastes to them, common taste for conformists and rare tastes for the rebels. Civilization doesn’t end because everyone becomes a petty Napoleon, convinced that their expansion is limitless until checked by another in a never-ending war of all against all. It doesn’t even slow down. It just becomes unbearable for everyone involved.
Can it be fixed? I think there’s nothing simpler. Empathy isn’t a complicated, hard to understand quality– it’s simply the way people who share in a human society interact. All that needs to happen for empathy to be restored is for people to go back to living in a more mutually-dependent, mutually-assisted, way. Anyone incapable of seeing the world through the eyes of their fellow man will probably not be able to live closely with others. Empathy is simply that adaptation to close-quartered life, which carries the additional benefit of keeping us sane. That is to say, we can’t be fulfilled and probably not even retain our sanity without having the benefit of others’ empathy and being empathetic ourselves: our nature as human beings is to live with others of our own kind.
So, I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of what’s been occupying my mind for a long while. Society, obviously, didn’t end in so far as most people think of society as the machinery and ideology of our system of life, in all its glorious, inhuman complexity. But something did end– namely, that component of our lives which allows us to be happy, the social component. No one’s ever paid much attention to it because no one’s ever had any reason to imagine a life without it. No matter how bad things have previously gotten for men, slavery, Auschwitz, famine, we always had each other to make it through the bad times. For the first time, this is no longer the case. We’re finding that not only are we unable to get through the bad times alone, but we can’t make it through the good times, either– we can’t accomplish anything alone at all. Any task one might pursue requires an army of supporting characters, from the day you’re born to the present moment, and all the way back to the dawn of history if you want to be really thorough.
It’s fascinating that all these years, the conventional wisdom has insisted that if you’re unhappy, you’re not pursuing your dreams– the answer is, more freedom, more individualism. The conventional social roles we are forced to act out against our will are stifling us and making us miserable. Our goal is to “find ourselves” and tap into our individual-ness. Was it really the opposite the entire time? How could so many get things so wrong for so long? This isn’t the first time human nature has been completely misunderstood, and yet… Perhaps no one should be surprised that the idea that what’s making us all miserable is a lack of individual freedom has been as influential for as long as it has: it fits all too neatly into the longer-term project to destroy local human communities in order to advance the goals of international capitalism.