Friday, January 15, 2010

Cultural Poverty: Disappointment and depression

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

In 1930 Sigmund Freud wrote his famous book Civilization and Its Discontents and in the first line he complained: "It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement - that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life." Today, these factors have reached such a magnitude that the discontent has become poverty in the culture. COP-15 in Copenhagen gave us the most complete demonstration: to save the system of profits and national economic interests there was no fear of endangering the future of life and the equilibrium of the planet which has been subjected to warming that, if not addressed quickly, could wipe out millions and liquidate much of the biodiversity.

The poverty in the culture, or rather, of the culture is revealed through two verifiable symptoms throughout the world: the widespread disappointment in society and a deep depression in people. Both have their raison d'etre. They are caused by the crisis of faith the world system is going through.

Which faith? The faith in unlimited progress, in the omnipotence of scientific technology, in the economic and financial system with its market, which act as the structuring core of society. The faith in these gods had its creeds, its high priests, its prophets, an army of acolytes and an unimaginable mass of faithful.

Today those faithful are deeply disappointed because such gods have been revealed as false. Now they are dying or have simply died, and the G-20 are trying in vain to resuscitate the corpses. Those who profess this fetishist religion now find that unlimited progress has devastated nature dangerously and is the main cause of global warming. Scientific technology which, on the one hand, has brought many benefits, has created a death machine that in the 20th century alone has killed 200 million people and is now able to exterminate the whole human race; the economic-financial system and market collapsed, and had it not been for the money of the contributors, through the State, would have caused a social catastrophe. The disappointment is stamped on the perplexed faces of political leaders who no longer know who to believe and what new gods to enthrone. There is a kind of sweet nihilism.

Max Weber and Friedrich Nietzsche had predicted such effects when they announced secularization and the death of God. Not that God is dead, since a God who dies is not "God". Nietzsche is clear: God did not die, we killed him. That is, for secularized society God does not count either for life or for social cohesion. Instead he entered the pantheon of gods that we mentioned earlier. As they are idols, one day they will show what they produce: disappointment and death.

The solution does not lie in simply returning to God or religion, but in salvaging what they mean: the connection to the whole, the perception that life, not profit, should occupy the center, and the affirmation of shared values that can provide social cohesiveness.

The disappointment is accompanied by depression. This is a late fruit of the youth revolution of the 60s in the 20th century. There, it was about challenging a society of repression, especially sexual, and full of social masks. A general liberalization was imposed. Everything was tried. The motto was "live without dead time, enjoy life without barriers". That led to the removal of any interval between desire and its fulfillment. Everything had to be immediate and quick.

The result was the breaking of all taboos, the loss of right measure, and complete permissiveness. A new oppression emerged: having to be modern, rebellious, sexy and having to undress inside and out. The greatest punishment is aging. Wholistic health was conceived and beauty models were created based on thinness to the point of anorexia. Death was abolished, turned into a horror.

Such a postmodern project also failed, as you cannot do just anything with life. It has an intrinsic sacredness, and limits. If they are broken, depression sets in. Disappointment and frustration are recipes for aimless violence, for the high consumption of anxyolitic agents and even suicide, as happens in many countries.

Where are we going? Nobody knows. We only know that we must change if we want to continue. But everywhere there are noticeable blossoms representing the perennial values of the human condition: marriage with love, sex with affection, caring for nature, win-win rather than win-lose, the search for "living well", the basis for happiness, which today is the fruit of voluntary simplicity and wanting to have less in order to be more.

This is encouraging. We should advance in this direction.

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