What this society needs is a rebirth of hope and desire


Only by rebooting our desires and reanimating our hopes can we be regenerated from materialist atrophy, writes JOHN WATERS

AN OFFICIAL study of the state of Italian society, the report of the 2010 Censis, which combines elements of demographic survey and social analysis, describes Italy “in its most intimate essence” as “a collective unconscious without any law or desire”. It is so gnawingly evocative and yet such an unusual way for a modern society to be described by the technocrats appointed for this purpose, that it causes one to pause and look up.

Italian society, the report outlines, “slides under a wave of disorderly instincts”, becoming “dangerously marked by emptiness”. The report speaks of “a painful alienation”; of a “flattened society”, dazed and disoriented; of nihilism and of the weakening of the individual citizen’s sense of connection to the pubic realm. It identifies profound patterns of cynicism, indifference, passivity, and excessive enslavement to media perspectives and prognoses, which condemn the population “to the present without possibility of going deeper in the memory and in the future”. Trust in long-term drifts and in the effectiveness of the governing class fades.

Is this beginning to sound germane?

The picture provided by the report – of a nation less willing to grow, to build, to hope for happiness – is one that resonates with the experience of other European societies, including – jarringly – our own. For decades, western societies have adopted an ideologically motivated ostrich-posture towards inconvenient or incoherent drifts within themselves, and these now burst out in all kinds of unexpected ways. And still, we speak of them in reduced and disingenuous contexts, defining the changing conditions so as to imply they are the inevitable consequences of ancient repressions and assuming that they will ultimately yield to technocratic manageability.

The key symptoms identified by the Italian report – lawlessness and the lack of desire – make, on the face of it, for a strange combination. Although problems with lawlessness are familiar, desire is perhaps the thing our societies pride themselves on understanding better than anything, on catering for and pandering to absolutely.

Desire is the driving agent of our markets, consumer culture, media, our individual “mechanisms” as “components” of our societies. In cultural terms, we tend to think of desire as something abstract or perhaps as an optional extra that can be summoned up by an advertising campaign. Culture persuades us to forget that human desire is a pure energy, that when it cannot achieve correspondence for itself, it does not simply remain static, waiting.

We have been touching on these symptoms in our own country for some time, but have mistakenly tended to identify them as moral failings. We talk about the “spiritual vacuum” and how the “consumer society” has led us to become so accustomed to having our desires satisfied in a certain way that we can no longer get enough, cannot even decide what we want, don’t know what to do with ourselves, have “lost the run of ourselves” etc etc.

But there is a further stage that we have not yet considered: human desire answered in the wrong way starts to atrophy. Failing to find some true path forward to an object equal to itself, it either turns inwards and begins to destroy the human being, or becomes flattened, reduced by persistent disappointments to a husk of itself.

The result is cynicism, disillusionment and alienation. When a whole society does this, it loses the will to grow and build.

The problem, the Censis Report makes clear, exists in the collective unconscious. The failure to define human desire within an absolute framework, in which satisfaction is something to be achieved over the long run, creates an implosion of human energies which in turns sets off a crisis of hope.

Disappointment with outcomes in the economic sphere creates a “flattening” of faith in future development, and increased cynicism about values and tradition. This accelerates an erosion of faith in all of the former repositories of moral or judicial order and unleashes a “widespread and disturbing instinctual disorder”, with individual behaviours increasingly born out of a “self-referential and narcissistic selfishness”: gratuitous violence; an impulsive tendency to commit misdemeanours; casual sexual behaviours; the pursuit of personal satisfaction through shopping; a quest for excessive external stimuli that make up for the subject’s interior emptiness; and a “demential quest for experiences that challenge death”.

What the Censis Report outlines is not fundamentally a social or economic problem but an existential and anthropological crisis of enormous proportions. And, as should be immediately obvious, it is not confined to Italy. Irish society, too, is increasingly yielding up the same symptoms, at the core of which can be detected the same depletion of desire, reduced by the recurrent inadequacy of material answering.

Starting to desire again in a healthy way is the essential starting point of the rebooting of civil society. It should be obvious that this will not result from a reinvigoration of material appetites, markets or other elements of the economic system. What is required is not a new government or banking system or a stricter form of regulation. What is required is the generation of a new kind of humanity in both public and private realms.