There is some debate about exactly when the eras begin and end, but, according to Traditionalists — who take their cue from Hinduism — we have descended from the Golden Age (Satya Yuga), when mankind was intimately connected with Deity and lived in harmony with nature, and are now in the materialist Iron Age (Kali Yuga).
In the Kali Yuga, quantity rules over quality; wealth (not intelligence or wisdom) is seen as proof of a man’s worth; people will no longer care about their parents or elders, and men and women will join together out of physical attraction alone.
Perhaps because we have come to associate the Age with “quantity” and, more especially, “the reign of quantity,” we have come to think of the Kali Yuga as heavy, burdensome, a time of iron and rubble. Yet this is not the case today.
In Liquid Modernity, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes how the politics of the Enlightenment was intended to corrode what had become static and oppressive. The idea was that once the old regime had been destroyed, new but ultimately truer, fairer, and more rewarding systems would be put in place. But it hasn’t turned out that way. The corrosive acid has kept on disintegrating everything it touches, so that we now have a “liquid modernity” — a modernity where everything is light, fleeting, fluid, changing, self-destructive, and — perhaps most important — empty of meaning.
Orwell’s vision of our the world post World War II was gray, doomy, rigid, oppressive, and industrial. Some “Orwellian” characteristics are a part of our era, admittedly: in particular, the political abuse of words, transforming them into their opposite (“collateral damage” — a military term for deaths, being one of the better known), and the “doublethink” that “political correctness” forces on its believers, who must believe different things according to whom is speaking, and what political category their “identity” falls into.
Oppressiveness appears also in the screaming mob, denouncing the individual for incorrect thoughts. But such mobs are made up of volunteers, rather than state actors. and though they view themselves as the guardians of high morality, and denounce the shallowness of Westerners who are interested only in movies, pop music, and television, it is their screaming and mob behavior that aims to create such a world of disengagement from serious issues, and the absence of thinking. In other words, in contrast to Orwell’s 1984, the oppressiveness, too, acts to liquify and make light. But let’s looks at a couple of examples of liquid reality of our Iron Age:
We have all heard of the necessity of “liquidity” in the financial markets — long freed from the burdensome, solid “gold standard” — and the need for individual corporations to have liquidity. Since Bauman wrote Liquid Modernity, “gender fluid” has become a part of the language and the ideology of the modern world. Gender is mutable, and since “heteronormativity” — or the traditional gender standard, we might say — is oppressive. Fluidity in gender is as desirable as liquidity in finance — not that these are entirely separate.
“Quantity” isn’t about what is heavy and immovable, but what is light, smaller, empty, and fluid. Take food, for example. Cheap food is everywhere. Yet this often mass-produced food gives us little more than “empty calories” that sometimes contribute to disease. From vegetables sprayed with pesticides to row upon row of colorful boxes with cartoon characters on the front — appealing to small children — the reign of quantity is either hidden or evident but friendly in appearance.
Then there is war. This is no longer a matter of defense of the nation, and certainly not of its traditional culture. War, says Bauman, “looks increasingly like a ‘promotion of global free trade by other means’ ” (p. 12.). But it is also justified on the slipperiest of things: to bring them “freedom,” “democracy,” or perhaps women’s rights. War also means nomadism. Traditional cultures are uprooted for the first time in a thousand years or more.
Besides lighter and more fluid, there is another character to modernity: cheaper. A century ago, or less, we understood that it was worth buying something that would last a lifetime. It could be passed to the next generation. Today, the average consumer wants to buy the cheapest product, even if it falls apart after only some use, since the chances are that, whatever it may be, it will be out of fashion before that point.
“Undocumented workers” obviously help to keep prices low. When people speak about the “American dream” in regard to immigration, underlying the comforting conscious idea of immigrants making it big in the USA lies the unconscious but true “dream”: that the ever-increasingly impoverished middle-class can maintain a middle-class lifestyle on the back of ever-cheaper labor.
In Europe, too, immigrants and refugees will not be integrated into the British, French, or German dream — whatever that may be. They are useful for cheap labor, and useful to elites who need to show how moral and caring they are but who do not wish to do so at any cost to themselves.
For all the talk of integration, people cannot integrate into the shifting, liquid, and empty existence of modernity. Instead, ironically, immigrants from Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and elsewhere bring what is definite, and rooted in tradition and religion, and will not let go of it easily, particularly because they are immigrants. The US — which until recently was little more than Europe transported to the new world — has hung on to religion and European traditions in a way that modern European states have not, because it, too, is a “nation of immigrants.”
In the movie Dune “the spice must flow.” The spice is similar to what we know about Soma or the Zoroastrian Hoama, some kind of narcotic or substance that appears to bring enlightenment of some kind. Perhaps because the movie, and the novel on which it was based, is set in the desert, “spice” has naturally been compared to oil: “the oil must flow,” preferably westwards. But oil is yesterday’s economic stable. Today, to sustain the illusion of wealth and modernity, it is immigration that must flow.
“We are witnessing the revenge of nomadism over the principle of territoriality and settlement,” says Bauman. “In the fluid stage of modernity, the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and extraterritorial elite. Keeping the roads free for nomadic traffic and phasing out the remaining check-points has now become the meta-purpose of politics, and also of wars…” (p. 13).
But even cheap labor cannot be made cheap enough. If we have trouble replacing oil with solar power, we have less trouble replacing people with machines — which started with the Industrial Revolution. Recently, OppenheimerFunds released its “inhuman is beautiful” ad. In the ad we see a robot helping a woman put on her coat and another, small robot, serving drinks at a pool party. We may be scared of robots — the way that people are nervous about uncontrolled immigration, perhaps — but the global investment management company reassures us that robots will be in every home by 2025. Robots are “beautiful,” and we should invest in a “beautiful future” — or, to put it another way, a more liquid future.
The Iron Age has melted or been made molten. How then can we live in such a liquid era? “Tradition,”Gustav Mahler tells us, “is not to preserve the ashes, but to pass on the flame.” We might also say that is to pass along the essence. But it must also be to pass along the shapes of things — to pass along a realm that has deceased and become psychic, with warriors, priests, mystics, lovers, great works of art, great buildings, skills, ideas, and so on existing now as legend, stories, philosophies, sayings, paintings, sculpture, and so on.
Iron is a peculiar thing. Considered by alchemists as one of the base metals, and by modern people as archaic and not as useful as steel, the ancients saw it differently. The Zoroastrians thought that the heavens were made of “hard stone,” by which they seem to have meant meteoric iron — which many early peoples made use of, especially ritualistically. Iron, dark and dense, is, we find, symbolic of heaven, the gods, the Divine. Whether intended or not, we can take this as a clue as how to live in the current Iron Age: strengthen our bodies, and sharpen our spirit, mind, and skills.
Whether intended or not, we can take this as a clue as how to live in the current Iron Age. Like the metallurgist we can apply heat to our own lives, purifying ourselves, but making ourselves more solid, shaping our lives into something reflecting the eternal. We can think of exercise, where our bodies drip with our own “liquid” sweat but are shaped and hardened because of it. The molten Iron Age wants to sweep us along, but by applying the flame and reimagining the shapes of ancient values and practices — from areas of physical strength and health to mental and spiritual elevation — and reshaping ourselves in accordance with them, we can resist the molten rivers of modernity.