Friday, January 29, 2016

The Dance of the "Three Peoples"

When Karl Marx described the world in the 1840s he explained it all as a fight between the bourgeoisie and the proletarians. Just as the old feudal lords preyed on their serfs and peasants, so the bourgeoisie exploited the helpless proletarians.

But all was not lost. Into this binary fight to the death came riding Marx and his merry band of Educated Youth. They would teach the bourgeoisie a lesson and, through the fierce crucible of revolution, inaugurate a thousand-year community of liberation and emancipation.

As was common in the mechanical Newtonian age, God, or Marx's revolutionary cadre, directs traffic from outside the universe. Marx's revolutionaries are not represented as well-born youths, yearning for relevance -- not to mention power -- in the social and economic and political swirl of the industrial revolution. They descend like Homeric gods to direct the destinies of the mere mortals on the plains of Troy. But in our modern 21st century we have moved on from the Newtonian action at a distance through the 20th century revolution in physics to the notion of quantum entanglement, in that everything is influenced by everything else.

So, as thoroughly modern, I have a better idea. Let us rename the proletarians of Marx's melodrama as the eternal People of the Subordinate Self. Most humans, most of the time since the dawn, have been go-along-to-get-along people, the nomadic troop under the dominant male, the villagers under the thumb of the big man, the serfs of the feudal lord, the factory workers of the corporate behemoth, the ward heelers of the precinct captain. These subordinate folk do not consider themselves as independent actors. They attach themselves to a powerful patron in return for scraps from the lordly table. They complain and they grumble, but they don't do anything about it; they already sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

Let us rename the beastly bourgeoisie as the dull and boring People of the Responsible Self. These people began to emerge on the human scene during the so-called Axial Age between two and three thousand years ago when all the modern religions got their start. All of a sudden people started to think that they could understand the world and had a responsibility to do something about it. Before the Axial Age you have the world of Homer in the Iliad. Everything on the plains of Troy is decided by the gods up on Mt. Olympus, who back now the Achaeans, now the Trojans, as the mood takes them. But in the Axial Age you start to get a Hinduism that teaches there are consequences to earthly behavior in subsequent reincarnations. In Christianity, the good go to Heaven and the evil to Hell, and it's up to us to live our lives as a testament to the glory of God. As Robert Bellah writes, the new religions "promise man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it." I maintain that these new religions are crucially city religions that meet the needs of city people. City people cannot rest in rural idiocy doing the same thing every year; they must figure out every day how to adjust their skills to serve the market. There is no feudal lord to take care of them; they must individually shoulder the responsibility of finding their place in the city scramble and holding onto it. In my view the great story of the last half millennium is the astonished transformation of millions of humans from experiencing themselves as subordinate peasants into responsible individuals. Finke and Stark in The Churching of America 1776-1990 report on the findings of the preachers of the Great Awakening in the 1740s.
“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.” 
That is what happens when a person of the subordinate self becomes a person of the responsible self. He awakes from the sleep of ages. If you want to get a taste of what such a person is like, the go-to place is George Eliot's Adam Bede, set in the Methodist England of 1800. Of course the real star of the show is the lay Methodist preacher Dinah Morris.

But where do Marx and the Educated Youth of the 19th century fit into all this? Where does today's NPR liberal fit in? I will tell you. The Marxes and the liberals are the new breed, the People of the Creative Self. Ask yourself: what in the world are the dutiful sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie to do with themselves? Are they to follow their fathers and carry on in the family business, like Friedrich Engels? Are they to get a job or start a career and become a stolid banker like George Banks in Mary Poppins? Heavens no! Our modern son of the middle class wants to live a creative life, as a writer, an artist, a videographer, an activist, a revolutionary. His sister wants to work in global health for a non-profit.

But there is a problem. Anyone can be a subordinate peasant. Many people can become responsible individuals. But very few people have the chops to become a genuinely creative person. It is a sobering fact that, in the quest for creativity, many are called by few are chosen. It was the genius of Marx to intuit the solution to this problem. The dull sons of the bourgeoisie that weren't likely to be chosen for creative immortality could form a creative class of not-very-creatives and rule the world by forming a political alliance with the People of the Subordinate Self in a global war against the People of the Responsible Self. That is what Marx proposed in his proletarian revolution against the oppression of the bourgeoisie. Yay!

We see that this model explains delightfully today's politics in the United States. Well-born liberals, committed to a creative life, tell the workers, the African Americans, the well-born but downtrodden daughters of the middle class that they are cruelly exploited and oppressed by the bigots and racists and sexists of the white male patriarchy. Follow us, the liberals cry, and we will give you Peace and Justice, not to mention reduce inequality.

On this view we can describe the politics and the culture of the United States as the battle between two forces. Over here is an over-under coalition between the People of the Creative Self and the People of the Subordinate Self, institutionalized in the Democratic Party, the education bureaucracy and the media hive. Over there are the People of the Responsible Self, the white middle class with families, jobs, mortgages, and 401ks, supposedly institutionalized in the Republican Party, the big corporations and the country club. You can see that in the presidential politics of 2016 the Republican Party is in fact split. On the one hand you have  billionaire Donald Trump representing the blue-collar white working class, who are really People of the Subordinate Self, while Ted Cruz represents the Republican base of People of the Responsible Self.

Does this reductive theory three-part theory make any sense? Well, think about this. Sigmund Freud, once beloved by our liberal friends, divided consciousness into three parts: the Id, the Super-ego, and the Ego. (By the way, in the original German, these are das Es, das Über-ich, and das Ich. the word "ich" means "I" as in "Ich bin ein Berliner"). Do you not think that Freud's instinctive Id stands for the consciousness of my People of the Subordinate Self, his Super-ego for the consciousness of the People of the Responsible Self, and his Ego for the consciousness of the People of the Creative Self? Anyway, I like to say that Michelangelo's great sculpture the David that stands enthroned in the Accademia is The Birth of the Ego. The David is not about David; it is about the glorification of the creative artist, Michelangelo.

When you divide the world into three parts, like Gaul, it changes things. It certainly has for me. In particular, it provokes me to think about the various Peoples of the Subordinate Self that have been taken under the wing of the ruling class of the day, subordinate workers and peasants who have become the "little darlings" of the rulers. But that is another story.


  1. I loved your trilogy of self. It was truly enlightening and radiantly speaks to the point of the condition of todays civil situation.


  2. Your theory makes sense and explains much. Thank you. Will share with my super-egoic friends and relatives :-)

  3. Love it - Im using it from now on!!! Great Job

  4. Excellent article. The only thing I disagree with is those of us who support Trump are of the "Subordinate Self". To the contrary, we believe in taking control of our lives--as do the Cruz people-- but we also see the greatest threats to the country being immigration (legal and illegal), national security, and the economy. We believe Trump is the best to handle those three.

    Cruz is a good man and will make an excellent president but I think Trump is the man needed to get us out of the morass in which we find ourselves.

    1. that's exactly why you are a sub ordinate- you gotta follow the Big Man

  5. Excellent, Bravo, Amen!!!

    Alright, I beg a further analysis- what happens when the People of the Responsible Self invert to a degenerate mush that is confused by every basic concept of law, economics, money, systems, and environment? I'm thinking of the whole Baby Boomers generation- whether one type or another they are vastly infantile at even this later date.

    the 3 Peoples are an axis crossected by another, the generations themselves.