Despite humanity’s considerable leaps in scientific and technological progress in the past 200 years, the collective consciousness of humankind appears to have stood still or even, in many instances, to have regressed to a stage of brutality and lack of rational thinking. This regression of the collective psyche has expressed itself by a revival of fundamentalist non-inclusive monotheist religions and quest for providential men. This journey back to the darkness of magical thinking, ignorance and permanent conflict would have puzzled the Enlightenment philosophers.
Why do so many believe that some ideological constructs and special men or women can save them from their condition? Sometimes for the better, but usually for the worse, a few individuals have changed history, but providence did not bring them like a stroke from some magic wand. They came at the right place and time, and they served as the catalysts in complex chain reactions that were largely beyond their control.
The vectors of significant historical changes belong to two different, rarely intersecting categories: people of ideas and people of action. Those few who can combine ideas with actions become the historical catalysts. Of the Enlightenment thinkers, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Montesquieu provided the intellectual foundation for the 1789 French revolution, but it was the men of ideas put into action such as Danton, Mirabeau, Saint-Just, and Robespierre who rose to the occasion and became leaders in the turmoil of the revolutionary process.
The revolution’s main driving force was the opposition of rationality and social justice to the notion of a French king picked by “divine providence.” The psychotic megalomania of Maximilien Robespierre almost jeopardized the entire process. The Girondins versus Jacobins infighting nearly dealt a deadly blow to the revolution. Drunk from his own power, Robespierre saw himself as a providential man and acted accordingly during the fratricidal period called “La Terreur.”
God complex, collective hypnosis and imperialism
Charismatic leaders and their permanent quest for power, combined with the collective hypnosis they can induce, usually have disastrous consequences for humankind. Very few men who became historical catalysts have managed to stay grounded in reality and to keep in mind that sound leadership can only have a positive and lasting impact if it is for the greater good of the people. The stratospheric rise of General Napoleon Bonaparte was due, not only to his military genius but also his ability to bring order from the chaos of the French revolution.
He quickly established himself as the sword to protect the new republic, a providential man with the extraordinary charisma to lead men and women on and off the battlefield. If Bonaparte started his ascent as a pragmatic leader, with his feet firmly on the ground, his trajectory took a dramatic wrong turn when he betrayed the revolutionary principles that brought him to power and crowned himself emperor on December 2, 1804. On that fateful day, which was supposed to celebrate his apogee, Napoleon became a believer of his own mythology. Paradoxically, this marked the beginning of the end of the Napoleonic adventures. Sword and protector of the great revolution no more, Napoleon had become a despot like Rome’s Julius Cesar.
Power as seduction and myth creation, versus real leadership
How do seemingly reasonable people become hypnotized by individuals like Napoleon Bonaparte or Adolf Hitler and come to regard them as godlike father figures? Again and again, the key to trigger this collective hypnosis has been a crafting of myths. The myths are often based on the pretense of having a privileged connection to the truth or having an intimate knowledge of the needs of “the people.” Manipulation by myths allows leaders to become pseudo-omniscient shepherds of powerless sheep. Added to this is mass seduction: a prerequisite for the providential men. “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” said Henry Kissinger. This collective seduction has been successfully staged by the fake providential men and worst mass murderers of the 20th century, like Hitler and Stalin. By contrast, real leaders such as Haiti’s Toussaint L’Ouverture, India’s Mohandas Gandhi, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, China’s Mao Zedong and, to a lesser extent, France’s Charles De Gaulle used the undeniable connection between power and personal charisma for the greater good. These leaders were not only unquestionable historical catalysts, but also were firmly anchored in reality. Their motivations and vision were altruistic in essence, and they were ultimately willing to yield power.
On the other hand, men like Hitler, Stalin and, more recently, Cambodia’s Pol Pot have wound up believing their own myths and playing god in the delusional scenarios of their paranoia. In our days, the genuine leaders, i.e. the charismatic historical catalysts, are an endangered species. They have been displaced by the interchangeable technocrats of capitalism. Since the globalization of corporatism, money has become a deity for a diffuse leadership in a godless and faceless system, and we have witnessed the revival of a brutal religious fundamentalism unseen in centuries.
Corporate imperialism and religious fundamentalism
The murderous religious fervor tearing apart the Middle-East today is a reaction to the lack of morality and brutality of the hyper-capitalist system imposed by corporate imperialism. This brand of imperialism does not build, it destroys so as to loot. It does not require an emperor but, rather, some temporary and nominal chairman of the board. The foreign legions of ISIS and other Islamists were seeded in Syria, Libya, and Iraq by the global corporate empire in the hope to destroy these countries’ statehood.
ISIS has acquired considerable momentum and its own imperialist folly: the Caliphate of the Islamic State. Soon, pseudo-providential men and want-to-be messiahs, on Sunni as well as Shiite sides, will persuade their adoring foot soldiers that they speak and act in the name of Allah and will carve, in blood, a name for themselves. The revival of the 600 year-old secular conflict between Sunnis and Shiites might have been, at first, a plan conceived by the board members of Global Empire Inc. to destroy Islam in a fratricidal all-out war. It hardly matters whether this plan was stupid or Machiavellian; it has run amok, and the mercenaries of the corporate empire will likely end up in the crosshairs of assorted Jihadists.
For a new age of Enlightenment
The anachronism of religious fundamentalism’s revival could indicate that history is cyclical rather than linear, or that at least it can suffer collective regressions. If some ideas and people may be considered vectors of progress, other ideologies and leaders can also be catalysts for disaster. In the past 200 years, hundreds of millions have died under the spell of religion and providential men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. As long as our infantile collective psyche continues to seek refuge in magical thinking, which is a major component of religions, or to long for father figures, which is the fault of our lengthy childhood, we will not enjoy the peace that a new age of reason could bring. A new Enlightenment is only possible if we toss magical thinking into the dustbin of history and swear off the habit of turning to self-proclaimed providential men to save us from ourselves.
Gilbert Mercier is the Editor in Chief of News Junkie Post.