By Chris Hedges
We are rapidly losing the capacity for the moral life. We reject the anxiety of individual responsibility that laid the foundations for the open society. We are enjoined, after all, to love our neighbor, not our tribe. This empowerment of individual conscience was the starting point of the great ethical systems of all civilizations. Those who championed this radical individualism, from Confucius to Socrates to Jesus, fostered not obedience and conformity, but dissent and self-criticism. They initiated the separation of individual responsibility from the demands of the state. They taught that culture and society were not the sole prerogative of the powerful, that freedom and indeed the religious and moral life required us to often oppose and challenge those in authority, even at great personal cost. Immanuel Kant built his ethics upon this radical individualism. And Kant’s injunction to “always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means” runs in a direct line from the Socratic ideal and the Christian Gospels.
As we devolve into a commodity culture, in which celebrity, power and money reign, the older, dimming values of another era are being replaced. We are becoming objects, consumer products and marketable commodities. We have no intrinsic value. We are obsessed with self-presentation. We must remain youthful. We must achieve notoriety and money or the illusion of it. And it does not matter what we do to get there. Success, as Goldman Sachs illustrates, is its own morality. Other people’s humiliation, pain and weakness become the fodder for popular entertainment. Education, building community, honesty, transparency and sharing see contestants disappeared from any reality television show or laughed out of any Wall Street firm.
Nietzsche had his doubts. He suspected that this new secular faith might prefigure an endless middle-class charade. Nietzsche feared the deadening effects of the constant search for material possessions and personal hedonism. Science and technology might rather bring about a new, distorted character Nietzsche called “the Last Man.” The Last Man, Nietzsche feared, would engage in the worst kinds of provincialism, believing he had nothing to learn from history. The Last Man would wallow and revel in his ignorance and quest for personal fulfillment. He would be satisfied with everything that he had done and become, and would seek to become nothing more. He would be intellectually and morally stagnant, incapable of growth, and become part of an easily manipulated herd. The Last Man would mistake cynicism for knowledge.