Mythology and the New Feudalism

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

I am a regular subscriber to the website WhoWhatWhy written by investigative journalist Russ Baker.  Recently he ran a response by one of his readers, Dave Parker, to a video Russ posted of Nick Hanuer, a billionaire venture capitalist  who gave a talk at TED, which is an acronym for the non-profit, Technology, Entertainment and Design, TED holds conferences around the world on business/societal issues that relate to its theme. In his talk Mr. Hanuer dispelled the idea that the Rich create wealth and instead said it was really the middle-classes that drove the economy. He disparaged the idea that it is the entrepreneurs who are the “job creators”. Although the talk was well received by the conference attendees,    TED curiously chose not to publicize it as it usually does with other such talks. Perhaps their decision was because Mr. Hanuer’s thesis goes against the current widely accepted mythology regarding job creation and  entrepreneurship. Here is a video of his talk:

In his comment on this video, Dave Parker used the writings of Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell was:

“an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work is vast, covering many aspects of the human experience.” 

My reading Dave’s article was the type of moment where you can imagine me slapping my head and exclaiming: “Damn, why didn’t I think of that”. Indeed, I’ve read all of Campbell’s books and seen all of his famed PBS series of interviews, done with Bill Moyers. What follows is my jumping off from Mr. Parker’s excellent comments and any credit for what I’m writing here goes to him for his perception. In applying Campbell to Mr. Hanuer’s comments, Dave solidified a concept for me that’s been playing in my head for years about the 1%’s need to increase the disparity between themselves and everyone else . The Rich are trying to create a new kind of feudalism where Lordships are won not on battlefields, but in corporate boardrooms. The rest of us need to be impoverished because without serfs to worship them, having everything ultimately becomes boring. Some of the 1% no doubt are less ego-driven and have empathy for those not on their level, but even they are beneficiaries of a mythology in creation. I believe that this mythology is the result of a campaign waged since the supporters of Barry Goldwater went down to an inglorious defeat. 

Joseph Campbell spent his life studying and teaching about mythology. This is a word that usually evokes images of the Hindu, Greek, Roman and Norse Gods. In a way, for some, mythology has become conflated with paganism. To Christians,  Muslims and Jews of fundamentalist beliefs mythology is the other guys religion, when in fact it is also true of their own. However, Campbell did not stop with religion as mythology, he saw it as a driving force shaping human behavior and thus also studied the effects of cultural and political beliefs on human societies.  Below is his sense of the role mythology plays in shaping ourselves and our societies via what Campbell calls the “Four Functions of Myth” taken from Campbell’s: “Pathways to Bliss (Novato, CA: New World Library), pp 6-10.”, I will discuss how these functions play out today to shape our collective views of the world.

One salient piece of Campbell’s history should be looked at before showing how these elements of mythological creation have been used in America, to lay the groundwork for a Corporate Feudalism, that will leave enthrone 1% as our Nobility. Dave Parker gives a side of Campbell that I was not aware of and I feel explains much:

“Campbell himself lectured for the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute for Decades, beginning 1956.……………That tells me that ever since the greed heads and warmongers at State and elsewhere have been steeped in a perverse reading of Campbell’s work. They read it for its utilitarian value in pursuing “National Security”. And the “successes” of the Feds are envied and emulated in the world of corporate propagandizing”

My suspicions are that we are being led via popular culture and the redefinition of celebrity, into a mindset that opens the door for Corporate Feudalism and indeed shapes the attitudes of most people. These are Campbell’s Four Functions of Mythology (.pdf):

1. …the first function of mythology [is] to evoke in the individual a sense of grateful, affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence

2. The second function of mythology is to present an image of the cosmos, an image of the universe round about, that will maintain and elicit this experience of awe. [or] …to present an image of the cosmos that will maintain your sense of mystical awe and explain everything that you come into contact with in the universe around you.

3. The third function of a mythological order is to validate and maintain a certain sociological system: a shared set of rights and wrongs, proprieties or improprieties, on which your particular social unit depends for its existence.

4. …the fourth function of myth is psychological. That myth must carry the individual through the stages of his life, from birth through maturity through senility to death. The mythology must do so in accords with the social order of his group, the cosmos as understood by his group”

As sentient beings, self-involved, the fear of our inevitable demise is primary to our existence. This gives rise in us to yearnings for meaning in our lives and purpose to our lives. Most of us need the comfort that when our inevitable end comes, we will continue to exist in some form. Beyond religion though, we are essentially social beings, who have learned the benefit of co-existence with other members of our species. In shaping our society it is essential that we have some over-arching concept that something exists around us to keep us safe from the terrors that are the legacy of our predatory past. We develop words like Republic, Democracy, Islamism, Libertarianism, Fascism and others of that ilk that provide individuals with a sense of something larger than themselves that provide protection for us and give meaning to our lives. In tandem to those words connoting societal structure are conflated words relating to the economic systems we live under such as Capitalism, Liberalism, Socialism, Communism etc. In truth all of these words meanings varies with each individuals perception of their meanings.

Most Americans have been inculcated with a set of mythological buzzwords if you will, that connote our Country’s notion of “exceptionalism“. We have been taught that America is a “Republican Democracy” thriving under a “Capitalist” economic system that provides us “Freedom”. We use symbols such as our Flag, our Anthem, and our Constitution to invoke the “grateful, affirmative awe” that Campbell describes. We are proud to be Americans and most importantly we feel protected by our mythology.

These mythological symbols have been translated by our government beginning in WWII and throughout the “Cold War” into awe inspiring emotions within us. Even as I try maintain a skeptical distance between myself and the myth of America’s Dream, I am also emotionally stirred by the evocation of this mythology, that approaches the “grateful awe” of which Campbell speaks. My sense of that awe is limned by my understanding that America’s Constitution nowhere mentions Capitalism, or even sets up a national economic system, so when I see this economic theory conflated with the notion of Freedom my hackles rise. I imagine this is not true for the majority of Americans and this has led to the widespread belief in the “American Dream” and our viewpoint that even the least among us can achieve untold success.  People seem to not want to vote in their own self interest. It is this notion of the “American Dream” that has allowed taxation to become inequitable to the point where the rich pay a lesser percentage of their income than the rest of the people, yet many of those shouldering this burden are lured by the siren call of  “no more taxes” for fear that they will be burdened once their own success is achieved.

This matches well with another piece of the American mythological order in that there is the widespread concept of a “free market” being the apex of economic freedom. Thus all economic problems can be solved by ensuring that the “free market” is allowed to reign undisturbed by  selfish manipulations of the government. The argument about whether there even is such a thing as a “free market” I’ll leave for another day. It is incontrovertible though, that this is a belief of a large majority of Americans and certainly has fared well in the political context. In the notion though of a “free market” comes a further notion that those who partake in the market’s freedom, indeed the movers and shakers of the market itself, are the “real heroes” of the “American Dream”. The Entrepreneur is held up as the most meritorious among us, because it is the Entrepreneur whose efforts create all of the blessings we share in common. The definition of entrepreneur of course is quite stretchable and leads from people of modest birth like Buffett/Gates, to those whose fortunes have been inherited like the Koch Brothers/Walton’s/Trump’s.

If our society is driven by these entrepreneurs then of course their status is rightfully at the top of our particular American food chain. They become sources to be venerated, copied, modeled after and of course envied. I believe they are well aware of this, luxuriate in their Alpha positions and assume the trappings suited to their status. Interestingly, many of the scions of “Old Wealth” in this country eschew the immodest lifestyle, thinking it gauche and nouveau riche. While their living standard reflects the elite into which they were born, they don’t feel the need to flaunt it like those parveneau’s such as Trump. For the masses of us we understand on some level that the Mellon’s for instance, are better than we, even though they don’t comport themselves in a way that draws publicity. Our role models for wealth come from those such as Donald Trump, who beyond his money and/or accomplishment, branded himself as the epitome of wealth and living luxuriously, even though his example is one of gaudy ostentation in the worst of taste. He is the entrepreneur as version of the Movie Star, which has been so confused with success and the “American Dream” that one became President and another the Governor of California.

Awe can be described as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder”.  This in truth is the way many of us view the elite of this country. This has been reinforced time and again by both media and by those in Academia who have functioned as their minions. It has also been the thrust of a massive propaganda campaign to disparage “liberalism” and turn the country towards what was redefined as a “conservative”viewpoint. I believe  that viewpoint is less about political philosophy and more about solidifying the hold upon this country of a newly defined aristocracy. We are in “awe” of these our bettors, just as much as the medieval peasantry was in awe of the nobility of their day. Back then the gossip about the local Dukes latest mistress was as interesting and as titillating as Tom Cruise’s divorce, or The Kardashian’s TV show.

In medieval times entertainers were considered to be much less reputable, even while sharing relatively wide fame. Shakespeare was considered disreputable despite his fame in his day. Today entertainers are lionized as members of the elite which is mainly to conflate their fame with that of the Corporate/Inherited Elite, thus borrowing their glamour for the latter. In our society today the doings of the super-rich and other celebrities has become mainstream news. HGTV, for instance, has three programs dedicated to lovingly show the housing of the rich in New York, LA and London. The edifice homes, some costing as much as $50 million are displayed to us peasants for what reasons exactly, if not to inspire us with awe at the lives of our “betters“? Can we all remember the adulation poured out on the passing of Steve Jobs? He certainly was a man who made many contributions, but from his deification one would think he was directly transported to Valhalla. There is deification of our Armed Forces as the heroic exemplars of all that is good and true in America, yet are true gratitude is such that 50% of their families are on Food Stamps.  Remember the hushed tones in which the news media portrayed General Petreus?  That polls have shown many Americans to believe Ronald Reagan was our “Greatest President” is yet another example of the conflation of celebrity with supposed greatness. Neither Petreus, nor Reagan were either super-rich or super-competent, but they were treated with the deference of nobility and that is the point. We hold all these symbols in awe and the underlying message is one of gratitude to them for showing us what to aspire to and by leading us benighted fools through example. Jesus is of course the ultimate myth since in the opinion of many his decisions control our lives for eternity. “What would Jesus do” is a question asked by multitudes and many have been led to believe that if returned today he would be our ultimate entrepreneur.

This returns us full circle to Mr. Hanuer dispelling the idea that the “rich” create wealth. They are not in the end the “job creators” that Mr. Romney and conservative “wisdom” would have us believe. Yet I must acknowledge that a sizable number of Americans would take exception to that assertion. I think too that the “creator” part of that meme is one fraught with connotation. Just as religion deems that God created the world, isn’t there a strong inference with the term “job creator” that would lead one to feel that the Entrepreneur created America. Doesn’t the mythological creature in that reference stand above the Founding Fathers in our current mythological reference of America being the most exceptional country in history? I believe we are blinded by this American mythology to such an extent that the problems we face as a society will not be fully recognized until it is too late and we will collapse in the shattering realization that so many of our life perceptions are mythological in origin.

Adolph Hitler took a shattered country with a hyper-inflated, impoverished economy and through the brilliance of a master of mythology, Joseph Goebbels, created a world power with the potential for empire. NAZI Germany’s destruction though came about chiefly because the mythologists began to believe, along with those they had gulled, that their mythology was absolute truth and that they the “Master Race“ would prevail against all odds. Fresh from the incredible triumph of World War II and with the evidence of the most impressive military/industrial buildup in history, our politicians and public became convinced of the “exceptional nature” of the United States. We discovered another implacable foe to oppose and fought a new kind of war on a global basis. That having ended with the USSR’s collapse the country’s elite searched for new “enemies” with which to keep our military occupied and our defense industry rich. Perhaps the culmination of the idea of our country’s exceptional nature came with the writing of the “Project For The New American Century” a design to make the United States into an Empire in the Twenty-First Century. The two main guiding architects of that manifesto were Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield, who also were the architects of the two wars in which we are still enmeshed.

Joseph Campbell correctly believed that mythology serves as a glue to maintain human beings in the close relationship of society, to give meaning to our lives and to give us inspiration to progress and achieve heretofore unthought-of accomplishments. Mythology though can also be the undoing of a society, community, ethnicity and religion. I believe that in the case of our country I see the signs of our common mythology seeding the possibility of disaster. For the dream captured, however imperfectly, in our Constitution, to culminate in a feudal system dominated by Corporatism, would seem to me tragic. My hope is that this piece will initiate some creative thought in the reader, just as Dave Parker’s comments did with me and I’m interested in how others view this concept of mythology recreating the Feudal System.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

386 thoughts on “Mythology and the New Feudalism”

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