posted on 14 October 2015
-- this post authored by Mark Fleming-Williams
Europe is in crisis. It has been in crisis for seven years, and while its inhabitants continue to calmly go about their daily lives it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that behind the scenes, the joints and hinges that hold the Continent together are under great stress. In 2008, the global financial crisis put an end to the dream of everlasting prosperity, and 2011 saw the arrival of financial panic on Europe's shores - a panic that has continued its disruptive work in Greece for much of this year.
Now, unprecedented quantities of immigrants are arriving in the Continent, further complicating the picture and putting even more stress on the bonds that tie the European Union together. The union is under threat, as so many political constructions in the annals of human history have been; some have survived their ordeals, others have succumbed. To discover which fate might await the European Union, perhaps it is useful to break the institution down to the most basic building blocks that make it up: Europeans themselves.
The Evolution of the Human Mind
In his 1990 book The Triune Brain in Evolution, American neuroscientist Dr. Paul MacLean outlined his theories on the evolution of the human brain and how its chronological development affects the thinking process in modern people. MacLean divided the brain into three sections - layers that had been added over time like sediments of rock. The basic core he dubbed the reptilian brain, and this was where the deepest-seated instincts and urges resided. Self-preservation, reproduction, territorial behavior and other such primal imperatives were found here, and thus it had the closest relationship with the rest of the body. Layered on top of this reptilian base was the mammalian mind, which was the source of emotions. With mammals becoming social animals, their brains needed to gain more of an understanding of interaction with others and so developed the ability to empathize and nurture. The top and final layer was the human brain, which evolved through primates' use of their dexterous fingers to shape and create tools and continued developing until it was capable of tackling concepts such as the existence of other dimensions or of structuring a synthetic asset-backed security.
The idea is that while the latest, "human" layer is the part with which we think, and is thus responsible for our self-awareness, the older parts still shape our actions; the mammalian brain tells us how we feel about things, while the reptilian brain emits urgent warnings and directives. MacLean's theory was popular for a time, but as the actual mechanics of brains were studied in more depth, his scientific assertions came to be devalued. Whether or not the science fully holds water, the philosophical thesis remains appealing. Overlaid onto geopolitics, this structure of the mind - with basic urges ultimately holding sway over high-minded ideals - can be seen everywhere. With geopolitics being at its essence the interactions of people on a grander scale and within constraints, this would only be logical.
The Hierarchy in Action
The reptilian self-preservation instinct has of course shaped human behavior throughout history. Capitalism harnesses this urge; to acquire the food and shelter needed to survive, money must be earned, and the more money is accumulated, the more distant reptilian fears become. Nationalism, meanwhile, is a meld of the reptilian and the mammalian - a combination of territoriality and a wolf-pack mentality. The framework of nationalism can then have all manner of human ideals laid on top of it. Values such as human rights, freedom of speech and an abhorrence of torture arrived in Western society, but only after reptilian and mammalian values had already shaped the world.
In the world of politics, the mammalian mind seems to be making a comeback. U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump has polled unexpectedly well in advance of the Republican Party primaries, and British politician Jeremy Corbyn has just been elected leader of the opposition Labour Party. The political intelligentsia has discredited both men's policies - Trump's because of their simplicity and inconsistencies, and Corbyn's because he appears to be resuscitating socialist ideas blamed for bringing hardship to the United Kingdom in the 1970s. But party electorates seem to be looking beyond the intellectual ideas and more at the candidates themselves, and seeing something they like. In a modern world of media relations training and public focus groups, this might be the electorate listening to their mammalian minds and embracing the authenticity of Trump's straight talk and Corbyn's down-to-earth decentness. Of course, neither candidate is actually close to real power at this stage, meaning voters have some space to indulge these feelings. As the stakes rise with the approach of elections in both countries, reptilian fears, aided in this case by a dose of human rationality, can be expected to focus the public mind more on realities, and these two candidates may see their support wither.
On a larger scale, the hierarchy of urges might also be used to explain the triumph of capitalism over communism. In 1917, reptilian fears of death, either through starvation or on World War I battlefields, drove Russia's peasantry and intelligentsia to rise up and overthrow the government. The new government was based on the idea that all should work for the good of the system. This notion appealed to the idealistic upper minds of Russians, who had long labored in a deeply unequal czarist society. The problem was that it did not cater to their reptilian minds, since it broke the link between work and survival. That link then had to be replaced by a state threat - instead of, "Work or you'll starve," the threat became, "Work or the state will kill you." Thus, fear and ideology became the twin pillars that held up the Soviet Union, particularly in its early decades. The end came when the relative success of the capitalists combined with the diminished fear of the czars to finally discredit the Marxist ideology. But even though it was the ideology that ultimately crumbled, in truth it had been fear that held the Soviet Union up for 70 years; the problem was that the fear could not be sustained without the ideology to justify it. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, meanwhile, the capitalists were having their reptilian requirements met in a way that was hard-wired into the system, ensuring that the system's relevance could not fade or be eroded by time.
The Triune Brain and the German Question
The European project is another example of an ideological concept becoming a reality. The foundations for a European Union were built among the ruins of a shattered Europe. Germany had sucked the Continent into war three times in the previous 70 years, and a general reptilian fear of a fourth occurrence led the countries to gradually overcome their wolf-pack nationalism and join in embracing the beautiful concept of brotherly harmony. U.S. dollars helped keep hunger at bay, particularly in those early days, as Europe saw strong economic growth and prosperity, and the idealistic trajectory continued. But by 2008, the financial crisis and the accompanying high unemployment ushered in a return of the population's baser urges and fears, and those in power were not finding solutions. Tribal nationalism re-emerged, and the ideologically constructed bonds between countries have begun to fray as voters step away from grand concepts and focus on their more immediate concerns.
The process is best illustrated by the latest immigrant crisis. Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans, themselves driven from their homes by the reptilian drive for self-preservation, are crossing into Europe seeking safety. If Europeans were functioning from the top mind downward, with the rational mind to the fore, the first response to this development might have been a welcome. Large parts of the Continent are experiencing demographic aging, and economists generally agree that an influx of immigrants will benefit Europe in the long run.
But this is not what we have seen. Instead, nationalism has created a feeling that newcomers are not welcome. These are powerful impulses particularly in democracies, where politicians must consider the public mood, and they have begun eroding the idealistic European principles that led these countries to open up to each other in the first place. Thus, although countries agreed to submit to the higher principles during the good times, economic hardship and the recent arrival of outsiders have thrown these ideals into disarray. Borders have been closed, newcomers attacked and treated badly, and the four freedoms that form the foundation of Europe's single market now look to be under threat.
But a splintering of the European project, if it were to come about, would bring to the fore much deeper concerns than merely resurrected trade barriers and national currencies. Originally a French plan, the European Union was conceived as a solution to the question of how to restrain a united Germany - the so-called German Question that had plagued the Continent ever since the country's unification in 1871.
If a country is essentially a large group of people acting within geographical constraints, then it is logical that it should be susceptible to the same urges and drives as humans themselves, and so it proved with Germany. Germany's position on the North European Plain gives it a unique position both of great power - thanks to strong capital generation capabilities - and immense vulnerability, with gaping holes on its east and west flanks that leave it vulnerable to invasion from both sides. This vulnerability played to the country's reptilian fears, since security is the most basic of urges. Germany's power gave it the ability to try to secure a more stable position by militarily drawing a new western border at the Atlantic Ocean and extending its lands eastward to create a buffer against invasion. The European project - in which Germany and its neighbors embarked on a path toward eventually becoming one country - allayed these fears, since under this canopy its borders could stretch to the Atlantic and the eastern reaches of Poland without the need for military occupation. The European Union plays to the intellectual mind, but it also stifles Germany's reptilian fears. If it should crumble, the union's absence might allow Germany's primal urges to surface once again.
Human history can be read as the story of man's development away from basic urges and toward a rational society. Citizens no longer need the fear of hanging, drawing and quartering to discourage them from breaking the law, partly because they are generally in much less desperate positions than their forebears were. Genghis Khan was trusting his animalistic instincts when he led his Mongol horde rampaging across Eurasia in the 13th century, and everyone alive today shares his physiology (in fact there is evidence that 8 percent of modern Asian men are directly descended from him). Any developments, then, have not been within ourselves, but in the institutions that surround us. New social constructs emerge and are put to the practical test to see whether they function; if they succeed in harnessing humanity's urges while putting them to constructive use, they may prevail. Systems that do not pass the test fall by the wayside. Capitalism succeeded where communism failed, and democracy is resurging after a couple of thousand fallow years. The European idea is at the moment being tested by these forces of humanity, and it may very well fail. If it does, it will take with it the current answer to the German Question, and a new one will need to be found.
"The Hierarchy of the European Mind is republished with permission of Stratfor."
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