The Dominating Imperative and the Golden Rule:
Reflections on the Millennial Origins of Civil Society and Totalitarianism

Richard Landes, Director
Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University


June, 1999We stand at the brink of… what? We of the era of rapid globalization must ask ourselves that question because we are part of a culture built on the notion that the future will be different. And at this particular time, the forces of global social and cultural change have such powerful dynamism that many foresee a future radically different – for better or worse – from the one we now live in. So the brink, right now, seems unusually close, and some people (whom we shall call roosters), have become quite excited at its perceived approach. Of course we will always find those (whom we shall call owls), who assure us that the brink is actually not nearly so close, or perhaps there is no brink at all. And since the future is fact free, we cannot know which attitude is the correct one.


Add to perceptions of this uncertain, and possibly radically different future, one of the most powerful triggers to apocalyptic fears and millennial hopes on record – the advent of a millennial year – and the issue becomes still more complex. To what extent can future change derive from its anticipation? If the advent of the year AD 1000 triggered widespread social manifestations of apocalyptic expectations, then, owls would argue, we can hope that the subsequent millennium of countless failed prophecies (AD 1000-2000 CE) has taught us proper skepticism this time around. As the Stephen Jay Gould puts it: it is just a number, and as countless owls will tirelessly point out, we are a secular culture, not prone to such religious credulity.


Such hopeful speculations, of course, overlook a key variable: technology has transformed both our culture and the equations whereby we anticipate the future. With nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and fears of global environmental damage, we don’t need to be religious in order to feel apocalyptic anxiety. Unlike the apocalyptic roosters of 1000, who needed to believe in God in order to anticipate cosmic transformations, we denizens of 2000 have perfectly good "scientific" reasons to worry… and hope. For the same technology that threatens us, brings us newer and more astounding delights. For every catastrophic apocalyptic scenario, we can find a correspondingly triumphant millennial scenario of mankind making an evolutionary leap to a new level of social harmony – with each other, with nature. And of all these possibilities, the one rendered least likely by modern society is that of standing still. Quo vadimus?


How does one think about the future of society? Obviously with difficulty, and a great deal of intuition. But the better informed we are about the social forces at work in our culture, the more finely honed our intuitions will be about where to look for both changes and solutions. This essay is dedicated to helping us understand whence we came and, hence, where we can go. At millennium’s edge, I offer a meditation on our millennial origins.


The initial essay addresses the underlying cultural forces that have produced the peculiarly powerful form of "modern" civil society – the combination of human rights and technological prowess – that has, in the last two centuries, conquered the world. I identify the relationships between elites and commoners as the key variable in distinguishing modern, civil societies from earlier "aristocratic empires." Using the idea of pruning as a metaphor for social cultivation, I suggest that the way in which the cultural pruning shears are wielded – in the service of the elites or the commoners – determines the type of society generated. Behind such issues lies a fundamental psycho-social issue one might call the "dominating imperative" – the belief that one either dominates or is dominated, if one does not become master, one will be made a slave. Using such conceptual approaches, I argue the following points:


The Dominating Imperative and the Prime Divider: On the Nature of Aristocratic Empires


In a seminal meditation on democracy, Eli Sagan coined the term the paranoid imperative. "Rule or be ruled," it commands: there are but two positions in the social world, dominant and dominated. Because it seems advisable to save paranoid imperative for "kill or be killed, exterminate or be exterminated," it seems worthwhile to speak of the dominating imperative. In such a worldview, we can only choose to become masters or, if we fail, we shall be made slaves. This basic psycho-social axiom, Sagan points out, is the bedrock of the vast majority of "political" thinking from earliest times. Despite the more "high-sounding" reflections of political philosophers, we can detect its powerful presence, from Thrasymachus’ aggressive defense of "might makes right" in the second book of the Republic, to the realpolitik saying, "diplomacy is warfare by other means." According to Sagan, the dominating imperative dominates thinking and action throughout the ancient world, even in the very democratic experiment in human freedom that Athenian society so brilliantly led. Thucididyes depicts the Athenians taunting the Melians with it, just before killing the men and enslaving their women and children: "[We are following] a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can… and we know that you or anybody else with the same power as ours would be acting in precisely the same way" (The Peloponnesian War, Book V, 105).


Cultures that embrace the dominating imperative tend to be, formally or informally, hierarchical. They offer everyone of consequence clearly defined groups of people over whom to (legitimately) exercise power, and only those of no consequence – slaves – having no one else to push around. Friendships, in this world, are essentially alliances for dominance; and clans play a vital role in bonding because, in a world where so few could be trusted, blood counts most. In the politics of the dominating imperative, there are friends and foes, tributaries and slaves. There are no autonomous "others" who stand outside of a hierarchy of power (except, of course, for roving nomads who cannot be so domesticated).
In one form or another, this political "philosophy" and its attendant social structures, have dominated most "civilized" countries from the later stages of the Neolithic Revolution and the bronze age until the last couple of centuries. Variously called "agro-literate societies" (Ernst Gellner, Nations and Nationalism), or "aristocratic empires" (John Kautsky, The Politics of Aristocratic Empires), these cultures all exhibit the single most characteristic mark of such thinking: they have created a fundamental social division, the prime divider. On one side of this divider, we find a small group (ca. 5% of the population) of aristocratic elites (sword and pen) who enjoy privilege, power and wealth. On the other, we find a vast majority of the population living off the land, often at the margins of subsistence (famines are a feature of life). The elites dominate public life, from which they ban commoners (except under certain carefully choreographed occasions).


This prime divider operates in these societies as a kind of social membrane, limiting passage back and forth between these two radically different cultures, between two radically different approaches to the world – that of the dominant and that of the dominated. The membrane allows movement back and forth, only through a kind of osmosis, whereby the commoner becomes an aristocrat before he or she can pass in the culture above the prime divider, and aristocrats become commoners by losing all status. True to this dominant culture, aristocrats despise manual labor, cultivate the temperaments of violence (honor, martial arts, trial by battle), and, native language aside, have more in common with aristocrats from other societies than they do with their own commoners. Commoners, by contrast residing below the prime divider, live in a world of work primordially tied to the land: they are thus vulnerable to heavy taxation and forced labor, and must teach their children to avoid resistance when dealing with aristocrats.


At the core of such prime dividers lies a system of legal privilege. The wergeld system (varying fees for damages to people of different status) that we find in so many aristocratic law codes like the Hammurabi and the early Germanic warrior codes, reinforce these lessons. Typically, an aristocrat will have far less difficulty paying the cost of killing a commoner, than a commoner will have paying the cost of giving an aristocrat a bloody nose. One man walks away with a lighter purse, the other looks at a life of debt-slavery to his enemy. Such advantages, in agricultural settings, produce peasant cultures dominated by a heavily exploitative aristocracy and a thick coercial membrane. Nor do such attitudes necessarily change with the advent of bureaucracy. As Goethe put it in the late 18th century: "The German peasantry lives between administration and the land as between hammer and anvil."


Around the time Goethe expressed this concern for those below the prime divider, Western European and North American societies produced the first programmatic assaults on the prime divider at the level of the "nation-state," accompanied by an explicit and systematic challenge to the dominating’s imperative way of thinking about human relations. Here we find the first "national" efforts to leave aside the dualistic realm of dominator and dominated, and foster a society in which a wide variety of human, and even political relationships become possible. Our philosophical term for this passage is the "social contract" and our historiographical shorthand for this process is the shift from traditional to modern, or civil society. Here, in these so-called "constitutional" or "nation states," we find the elite attempting to implement a "commoner’s politics," in which rulers are mistrusted and forced to rotate power (end of monarchy), in order to avoid the permanence of dominion and its inevitable abuses. Here, instead, the commoners are trusted to participate in public, political life, indeed to chose their rulers; they are, in principle at least, equal to the aristocrats before the law; they need not, by tradition, learn the vocation of their parents, but rather have access to a common curriculum.


Here, rather than the mutual suspicion at the origins of aristocratic cultures, civil society works on mutual trust, on the collective agreement that citizens will resolve conflicts by discourse and have recourse to law-courts. In civil society, in addition to a friend and a foe, we find the majority of people appear as the "other" who need not – indeed should not – be dominated. In opposing the inroads of the dominating imperative, it is the task of civil society to protect the legal status of that "other." In this way, civil societies attempt to dismantle the prime divider, and rather than have violence dominate the encounters between elites and commoners, have that social intersection become the site of engaged and multi-faceted conversations, of commerce and exchange. Here we have, on a cultural scale, a collective attempt at repudiating the dominating imperative. The "Night of August 4, 1789," when the enlightened aristocrats in Paris renounced their legal privilege, marks a famous voluntary moment in that process of removing the coercive prime divider. A similar series of events occurred in 1989, when communist parties gave up power without a shot fired.


On the Cultural Origins of Civil Society: In whose hands the pruning shears?


If we think of all cultures as forms of gardening by which a "political class" cuts back the excessive growths of the society, then the key sociological question becomes, "in whose hands the shears?" In traditional aristocratic cultures, the warrior class, embedded in the dominating imperative, seizes and wields the society’s pruning shears. In so doing they cultivate the prime divider:


The late Carolingian world (two generations after the death of its only competent emperor) offers us a stark example of how aristocrats reinforce the "prime divider." In 859, the commoners of the region between the Seine and the Loire came together under a collective oath to fight the invading Northmen in the (apparent) absence of their own warrior aristocracy. "But," the ecclesiastical chronicler tells us, "because they had imprudently engaged in a conspiracy [collective oath], they were easily slaughtered by our more powerful ones (potentioribus nostris facile interficiuntur)." By this act of (surgical?) violence against its own people, the Frankish aristocracy reinforced the prime divider at the expense of civil and economic society, they pruned a growth of commoner self-organization and self assertion. It was yet one more spike in the heart of an already-failing Carolingian imperial experiment that might have given birth to Europe.


The example illustrates the thickness of the cultural membrane separating the European aristocracy from their commoners. Carolingian imperial texts had legislated repeatedly, and apparently in vain against the use of power and privilege by the potentes to exploit the impotentes. Here, as a court society collapses, and the rawest level of aristocratic dominance reasserts itself, we find the lines drawn quite starkly. Despite his biblical commitments to all Christians, the ecclesiastical commentator refers to those doing the massacring as "ours." This pen comes from above the prime divider, a political and cultural world where warriors dominated political culture, and the Frankish aristocracy has more in common with their pagan adversaries than with their own commoner, fellow Christians. Similar attitudes and behavior would mark the behavior of the French and Norman aristocracies in their wars over the next six centuries, and culminated in the "100-Years War" with its own popular "phenomena": the Jacquerie (1356-8) and English Peasant Rebellion (1381). Machiavelli’s notion of the "economy of violence", in which a short but ruthless suppression of opposition applies especially well to suppressing commoners, who cannot be permitted to gather together in unstructured public assemblies (e.g. Tianenmin Square).


In civil society, ancient and modern, at least in principle, the commoners and their representatives wield the shears. Here, the shears are supposed to cut back the weed of aristocratic privilege (e.g. monarchy, legal privilege, monopoly on violence, separate educational curriculum). Indeed, one might define civil society as that which, in principle and practice, dismantles the prime divider. Here we find widespread experiments in an egalitarian educational and legal reform, in a public voice for commoners, in the right of commoners to assemble, organize, act, and keep a good portion of the profits of their labor. Here commoners see courts as a recourse, an appeal, not as an omnivorous machine that will devour anyone unfortunate to get caught in its grinding gears. Viewed from this angle, and considering how daunting the task of establishing a viable civil society that continues to renounce the dominating imperative, as Sagan put, "the amazing thing is that human beings begin a journey toward it in the first place,"


The three great champions of this effort to transcend the dominating imperative in Antiquity were Jerusalem (Israelites/Jews), Athens (Greeks), and Rome (Romans). Each culture and polity at one point in its development showed the characteristic signs of this effort: They

Greece and Rome eventually succumbed to the dominating imperative, developing two of the world’s most powerful imperial cultures the ancient world ever knew. The Israelites/Jews succumbed to the military might of the great empires, including Greece and Rome, and became, in the process, a permanent and powerless minority, radically dependent on the workings of elements of civil society within these imperial systems (markets and law courts), to survive.


In their histories of democracy and civil society, Western historians have paid most of their attention to Athens and Rome. One seeks in vain in books on the history of political thought, even books on the origins of political freedom, for observations on the systematic attack on aristocratic privilege that biblical legislation entails. And yet, when viewed from the perspective of legislative and moral purpose, the biblical law code represents the most pervasive effort to minimize the emergence of an entrenched aristocracy dominating a servile peasantry.


This scholarly oversight seems all the stranger, when one considers that, as a collection of historical documents from antiquity (1000 – 200 BCE), the Bible’s commitment to the values of civil society and to the dismantling of the prime divider, may be the most systematic and radical of all those produced in the classical era. Whereas Solon’s debt amnesty and land reform may have inaugurated the Athenian experiment (ca. 600 BCE), later generations did not return to it. The biblical text, however, legally inscribed a cycle of Sabbaticals and Jubilees in which such amnesties and property reforms punctuated the very life of the body social, regularly reversing the natural tendency of some to become very rich and some very poor. Once every fifty years, therefore, the people are committed to "proclaiming liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants (Lev. 25:10)." However successful this practice was, the mere inclusion of so radical a notion in the composition and canonization of the culture’s core texts (900-500 BCE), makes biblical legislation the earliest example before modern legislation, of so severe and pervasive a "cutting back" of the natural growth of aristocratic privilege. Indeed, one might even claim that the Hebrew Bible, with its isonomic legislation and its prophetic denunciations of abuse of power as a moral crime, constituted the most subversive collection of political documents in the ancient world.

Interpreting the Origins of Civil Society: Between Function and Morality


Of course, virtually every effort to organize a society with as few institutional elements of a prime divider as possible, fights against huge odds. How does one remove weapons as an essential element in establishing hierarchies of "proper" [deferential] behavior? How does one establish lasting rules of public discourse which permit dissent by those without the force to insist on being heard? The victory of Alexandrian Hellenism and Roman imperialism illustrate clearly how difficult it is over time (and with material and military success) to resist the intense gravitational pull towards hierarchical structures. (We see the same tendencies in the emergence of a unified Temple cult and the monarchy in Israel, although that social direction fails to "take.") Eventually, it seems, almost every major culture "settles" into a pattern where thick prime dividers separate the potentes (powerful) and the inermes (unarmed, powerless). As Augustine put it, in famous passages where he both denounced and legitimated this libido dominandi (City of God), not everyone is driven by this lust to dominate, but those who are, naturally rise to the top of the political order. In the terms I am suggesting here, politics in aristocratic empires is a self-selected field populated by the most successful adherents to the social vision of the dominating imperative. Social Darwinism is the way of the world.


What then might be the advantages to civil society, what purchase might it have in efforts to overcome the dominating imperative? How does one fortify the long steps demanded by so arduous a task as an assault on so compelling vision of social reality as that of the dominating imperative? What, in the imagery of the early political theoreticians of civil society, would get people to sign and keep the social contract? How, even if one feels that "might makes right" and "the survival of the fittest" are inappropriate approaches, can one convince sufficient numbers of others to dislodge an obviously well-ensconced aristocracy, whose power and ease rest on defending such "philosophies."


The answer, ironically, may lie in the profitability of such civic virtue. For, indeed, civil society, when given the opportunity to thrive, rapidly puts to shame all but the most glorious imperial deeds of aristocracy.


1) Education
All cultures that rise above the dominating imperative do so by emphasizing quite self-consciously, a curriculum reform, a new way of educating succeeding generations. The earliest such societies on record – the Jews and the Greeks (especially the Athenians) – represent particularly successful ways of deploying a demotic literacy among a broad population. This, obviously, creates all kinds of social problems (perhaps most of all between a younger, better educated generation and an older one). And yet, the better educated the generation, the more capable of both sustaining civil society and substituting brains for brawn in the combat with imperial bullies (e.g., the tactics of the few, disciplined, foot soldiers). As opposed to the "social Darwinian" approach of aristocratic/dominating evolutionary theory, the education of civil society is, evolutionarily viewed, an effort to substitute the software of educated choice for hardwired instinct. This educational process is difficult, fraught with psychological and emotional problems, and repeatedly subject to reformulation. But it stands out as the cultural foundation of civil society. Indeed, the fundamental difference between an aristocratic ethos and a demotic one – say the difference between Moses and Plato – turns precisely on whether one believes that the commoners are educable or not.


2) Production (technology and manual labor)

One of the key elements in aristocratic self-identity (e.g. the self perception of the "masters," that is those who most successfully play the game by the rules of domination), is that they do not engage in manual labor. Hard work is the principle price paid by the losers in the wars of social domination; indeed one of the key definitions of commoners was that they worked with their hands, and were, by that token, excluded from public voice. Civic cultures, which break down this divide, find extensive benefits. For one thing, technological advance flourishes where educated people engage in manual labor and where manual laborers get an education. Technology increases both energy available and the productivity such energy permits. The signs of such dynamics – legal franchises and economic growth – are evident in both rural and urban sectors of western European society from the eleventh century onwards.


3) Commerce (markets and positive sum outcomes)
A corollary to the dominating imperative is the notion of a zero-sum game, one in which any gain must be at another’s expense. The mentality is sadly illustrated by the joke about the man, so consumed by envy of his neighbor that, when given one wish by a genie, exclaimed, "I wish Ivan’s goat were dead.". If I win, you lose; if you win, I lose (in the joke, "I win when you lose"). In economic matters such attitudes are a blight on joint-venture, and turn economic exchange into another form of warfare. The natural social manifestation of such attitudes is a small and very wealthy elite, a vast population living at the margins of existence, and an intermediary population of craftsmen and tradesmen who primarily service the aristocrats. But economic activity need not be zero-sum; to the contrary, going beyond the dominating imperative is to discover the world of positive sum encounters, and to move from servicing the elite to producing for the vastly larger population of commoners. In the words of one of the great medieval economic historians, Robert Lopez, "credit was the great lubricant of the commercial revolution" that transformed Western Europe in the period between the 11th and the 14th centuries. And, of course, without trust, there is no credit.


4) Cultural achievement:

It’s almost a commonplace that "open societies", where commoners participate in public life, have high levels of cultural creativity. We can point to the obvious contrast between Athens and Sparta, between republican and imperial Rome, between Florence before and after ducal rule, between Weimar and Nazi Germany, between the US in the 20th century and the USSR.) Such contrasts are partly due to the extension of education to a larger pool of candidates, and the importance placed on imaginative communication in civil society (as opposed to the emphasis, for most of the "cultural leaders", of maintaining "tried and true" cultural forms in traditional society). One of the very definitions of modernity is its favorable attitude towards the "new," and science, with its technological impact and its commitment to recognizing past conclusions as erroneous or incomplete, is the most powerful product of such an attitude.


To sum up these observations, one might argue, civic virtue is its own reward, if it can survive long enough to make its rewards evident. The question then becomes, under what circumstances can commitment to civic values hold at bay the workings of the dominating imperative long enough for the longer-term profits to make themselves felt? The fact that this process has occurred with unquestionable success in the "modern" West – no culture on the globe seems able to resist the allure of modern technology – leads us to a number of mistaken conclusions. Living in the midst of the obvious advantages, we Westerners have a tendency to think that civil society explains itself, that it is, like science, a "rational" choice. And yet, such a "reading" of history ends up backwards, projecting later realizations back onto actors whose motivations – the key here – may have been significantly different from what we imagine. This superficial reading (Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth) produced the notoriously ineffective campaigns of modernization in the post-war period (1950s on) around the globe.


Historians often have difficulty sorting out this paradox. As Nietzsche pointed out in Genealogy of Morals, "the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart…" Sagan notes a corollary where civil society is involved: "Being reasonable, acting rationally [are] the results of this transformation, not its cause. Society [does not undertake] a moral revolution because it is urged to be rational any more than a patient in psycho-therapy may be cured by being told to cut out the nonsense." (33) Thus, when the historian identifies the choice of a "virtuous" path (i.e. one that favors the egalitarian ethos) as motivated by rational choice, we have a "functionalist" fallacy that explains the success of civil society in terms of the eventual rewards it brings. With such an approach, we reason that many of the city-states of Europe gave freedom and citizenship to any serf who fled there and remained for a year and a day, because it recruited new people. But then why, given the availability of such "rational" choices to cities for millennia, did no earlier ones adopt such "shrewd" strategies. Rather, even in Athens, strangers were legally at a decided disadvantage. Who would give up the "home-court" advantage? Indeed, asks the dominating imperative, who would be so foolish as not to exploit the home-court advantage to its fullest? Only retrospectively, from the position of successful civil society do any such self-limiting moves seem "reasonable".


This genealogical, as opposed to functional, approach, gives a completely different spin to Western development. The Western experiment with civil society (as an alternative to social structures with coercive prime dividers), with its extraordinary accompaniment of economic growth, technological development, and accurate ballistics, is not the "natural" result of following "reason’s dictates." It is not the "obvious" thing to do which, somehow, most other places haven’t been able to copy. On the contrary, Western culture’s sustained and energetic denial of the legitimacy of the prime divider, stems from a drive that literally defied the forces of social gravity both political and "familial." We must explain not the "failure" of others to copy the West, even when the technological benefits are so attractively evident; but rather what motivated Westerners to pursue, at whatever cost, the allures of a system whose ultimate benefits were not at all "evident."

The Pruned-back Dominating Imperative in Civil Society: On Conspiracy-Thinking


Whatever the explanation for the successful experiments in civil society, Sagan notes that none of them put an end to the operation of the dominating imperative. On the contrary, the thesis of his book is that any democratic experiment lives in constant tension with the pressures of the dominating imperative. And yet, although it remains powerful, often in positions of great prominence (army, police forces, party politics), this mode of thinking becomes, in civil society, what James Scott would call a "hidden transcript." The new politically correct public transcript – isonomia – drove paranoid thinking underground and what had previously been a widespread mode of public discourse – conspiracy mongering – was driven to the margins. There it festered and produced the "great conspiracy" theories: the Illuminati, the Masons, the Elders of Zion. In such thinking, the agents of modernity (e.g. the Jews) do not seek "civil society" and the "freeing" the commoners (everyone knows that’s not possible because commoners are incapable of handling "freedom"), but, rather, such pious goals are a cover for a world-wide plot to enslave all mankind.


"A conspiracy theory is a narrative that victimizers tell themselves in order to claim the status of (future) victims, and justify striking out as a preemptive move" (Chuck Strozier). Put in the language of the dominating imperative, one might say: a conspiracy theory can be the narrative that frustrated "dominators", would-be aggressors, tell themselves about a civil society which at once denies them the power to dominate, but does not enslave them. According to the dominating imperative, such a phenomenon is impossible. Thus adherents to its dictates find a story that explains this apparent disconfirmation of a deeply held belief: civil society is a plot to alienate, disorient, and degenerate the peoples of the world in order to enslave all humanity. By leading a foolish populace into believing that they can run their own lives and make political decisions, demagogues can get them, first to overthrow their rightful rulers (the necessarily severe aristocracy), and then to fall into such chaos that they can easily be enslaved. Thus, at some (generally imminent) point in the future, the plotters will need no longer hide their nefarious intentions, and the "true" nature of their endeavor will become clear. The startling aspect of this argument is that it represents a forceful articulation of Platonic political thinking: democracy is the equivalent of anarchy, the populace cannot be educated, only dominated by an aristocratic elite which must, alas, use force to discipline the mob and must, necessarily, have a special status before the law. Karl Popper was exactly right: the enemies of the Open Society are, in profound ways, descendents of Plato.


Civil society and society’s with coercive prime dividers display contrasting configurations of conspiracy thinking. In the latter, in aristocratic empires, conspiracy thinking is widespread, endemic, part of the social and political landscape (e.g. the Middle East today). Millennial groups in such settings predictably develop paranoid tendencies – the prime divider is, ipso facto, an aristocratic conspiracy to enslave the commoners. This is true even when they start out radically committed to the non-dominating ("love your enemy as yourself"). We see this with especial clarity in the increasing violence and hostility that permeated the millennial thinking of commoners in response to aristocratic behavior after the Black Death (1350), in peasant revolts and in proto-racist violence.


In civil societies, where, at least in principle, there is no prime divider behind which the conspiracy takes place, conspiracy thinking moves to the margins of the culture. At the same time, however, it becomes considerably more intense, elaborate, and consuming. Conspiracy theories in civil societies, according to this reading, do especially well among disinherited aristocrats and frustrated dominators. These people project onto the newly dominant group which has hamstrung their own domineering modus operandi, the same ruthless desire to dominate that they have.
The earliest expressions of a belief in the great global conspiracy come in the 18th century, just as the intellectual forces that would transform (unsuccessful) millennial revolt into (successful) secular revolution began to take shape. It is tempting to call this marginal phenomenon the toxic waste of frustrated testosterone in a culture that does not allow the kind of harem-keeping, solitary, male dominance that we find in certain animal groupings. It is a mistake to ignore it as the ravings of kooks and knaves. These people suffer from a real and compelling problem, and, under the right circumstances (e.g., when civil society begins to fray), they will find willing ears for their theories. And with audiences, occasionally, comes power. Hitler was the best known case of a paranoid millennialist, bent on enslaving mankind while invoking a world-wide Jewish plot as his justification. He emerged from a cultic milieu where gnostic, apocalyptic, mythic, and conspiracist thinking mingled freely, and, at the right time (1930s), and with the right passionate conviction, he took these ideas from the margins to the center of German culture. With such an extreme example as both an object lesson and a seemingly remote possibility, let us turn to the case of the US at the turn of the millennium.


Here we find a curious situation. Unlike the elites of an aristocratic culture which often evoke conspiracies as a way to manipulate public opinion, the cultural elites in the US are decidedly non- even anti-conspiracist, especially since our unfortunate experience with the HUAC in the 1950s. There is no single more rapid way to be dismissed in public discourse than to become a "conspiracy nut." And yet, just below the surface of such public pronouncements, we find a widening circle of conspiracy beliefs that permeate the popular culture. Since the assassinations of J. F. Kennedy (1963), R. F. Kennedy, M. L. King, and Malcolm X (1968), and the Vietnam war debacle (1965-75), large numbers of Americans have come to believe that the government lies to the public systematically, that there are powerful rogue agencies within the government that operate covertly, and that, if at any time, a conspiracy were called for, both the means and the will to carry it out exist.


But such suspicions only involve ad hoc conspiracies. The vast global conspiracy thinking that gave us Hitler and Stalin (and to some extent, the worst of the Cold War) does not necessarily come into play here. Indeed, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the most powerful anti-conspiracist argument – the incompetence of any vast body of conspirators – has gained credibility. And yet, ironically but not surprisingly, at levels that we often fail to notice or to take seriously, global conspiracy has become a staple of many elements of our culture.
The most obvious place we find such ideas is on the subject of space aliens. In the early 50s, a handful of people believed that aliens had landed at Roswell in 1947. In the last 50 years, this argument, replete with elaborate explanations about how and why the government hides this from us, has gone from this handful of faithful to at least 10% of adult Americans polled. These beliefs fructify the imagination of popular culture; they serve as premises to movies (Clear and Present Danger, Enemy of the State) to TV shows (X-Files). On the wings of such absorbing narratives we have not only raised a generation saturated with conspiracism, but have exported it to the global community we have created with our technology. The most recent millennial movement to appear on our screens is the Falun Gong, a group whose spiritual leader believes that aliens have infiltrated humanity in the course of this century, have brought all this technology in order to clone us, and once they succeed, they will do away with the human race – a mixture of the Protocols and the X-Files.


Finally, into this mix, we must locate the phenomenon of Y2K. In the mid-1990s, when Information Technology specialists were sounding the alarm about an oncoming Y2K catastrophe, they found that most people, in particular the CEOs who held the purse strings, dismissed them. Partly as a rhetorical strategy, partly as an effort to mobilize popular pressure, these alarmists went public with their concerns. At this point – mid 1999 – this strategy has paid off. Intensive work on Y2K is proceeding apace, and spokesmen assure us that the worst has been avoided, at a cost that exceeds the upper end of the alarmist estimates from the mid-‘90s (e.g., the Gartner Group’s $600 billion). But the collateral damage of getting this response, has been to spread the alarm throughout the US population, especially in places that are most receptive to doomsday prophecies.


Among militia and survivalist groups, and among the more apocalyptic of the Christian pre-millennialists, we find great agitation about Y2K and elaborate conspiracy theories about how it will trigger a global collapse of technologically-based civil society. From such believers, we hear about plans by the agents of the New World Order (e.g. FEMA, the US government and the UN, all run by the Zionists) to take over as a result. These conspiracy models can be either secular (totalitarian government) or religious (the reign of Antichrist), and they feed off of the tendency of government officials to handle the problem through denial. Thus, any "contingency planning" for a problem that the government reassures its citizens is "not a problem" becomes fodder for conspiracy theory. In the Spring, Jack Anderson ran a column (May 3, 1999) discussing the "Government’s secret Y2K plans." No single phenomenon has contributed more to the mainstreaming of "survivalism" in American culture than Y2K – from stockpiling to the accompanying profound suspicion of the government. When we read that 15% of the population thinks Y2K will be severe, that is no small number of people who disbelieve what the government tells them, and are ripe for the appeal of conspiracist apocalyptic rhetoric, be it secular or religious.


What does all this mean? What potential developments can come from a mainstreaming of conspiracy theory and the dominating, become paranoid imperative that undergirds it psychologically? According to Sagan, the forms of democracy that we find in Periclean Athens, the Britain of Disraeli, the US of Teddy Roosevelt, all represent a half measure, a sublimation but retention of the dominating imperative so that imperialism, aggressive military and economic warfare, racism, and abject poverty remain integral elements of an incomplete transition to civil society. Were we to lose our status as world dominators, many Americans believe we would be enslaved by another people (e.g., the Yellow menace). Democracies, civil societies, are in a constant struggle with the demands of the dominating imperative, and moments of crisis tend to bring out a culture’s worst fears. Has not a culture where conspiracy narratives abound both in popular and marginal culture, greased the wheels of its own descent into the world of masters, slaves, and the violence needed for such dramatic social divisions?
Y2K is a CSAT, a Civil Society Aptitude Test. All those factors that strengthen civil society – transparency, accountability, mutual trust and respect, good relations between elites and commoners, flexibility, open public discourse – will provide the social resilience to both prepare well and to handle whatever shocks the techno-quake will provide. Similarly all those factors characteristic of authoritarian cultures – arbitrary power, corruption, sycophancy, unwillingness to admit mistakes and "lose public face," mistrust and hostility between elites and commoners, radical splits between public pronouncements and private feelings – will ill incline a culture to prepare for Y2K in time, and will encourage them to resort to scape-goating when the shocks hit.


How does one direct social energies towards a social contract, rather than a civil war? How can we, and this global community of civil society that we are so instrumental in bringing to life, handle the next "crisis" of change with a renunciation rather than an explosion of the dominating imperative? How can we grease the wheels of public, collective commitment to each others’ welfare? All good question. All well worth asking now, rather than later.


Richard Landes, Director
Center for Millennial Studies at Boston U.,
Summer, 1999

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