Reclaiming What Makes Us Human

Through the ages, the killjoys of governing elites have been threatened by public expressions of collective joy

BY Barbara Ehrenreich

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The prehistoric ritual dancer or the Caribbean practitioner of Voudou did not believe in her god of gods; she knew them, because, at the height or group ecstasy, they filled her with presence.

The enemies of festivity have argued for centuries that festivities and ecstatic rituals are incompatible with civilization. In our own time, the incompatibility of festivity with industrialization, market economies and a complex division of labor is usually simply assumed, in the same way that Freud assumed–or posited–the incompatibility of civilization and unbridled sexual activity. In other words, if you want antibiotics and heated buildings and air travel, you must abstain from taking hold of the hands of strangers and dancing in the streets.

The presumed incompatibility of civilization and collective ecstatic traditions presents a kind of paradox: Civilization is good–right?–and builds on many fine human traits such as intelligence, self-sacrifice and technological craftiness. But ecstatic rituals are also good, and expressive of our artistic temperament and spiritual yearnings as well as our solidarity. So how can civilization be regarded as a form of progress if it precludes something as distinctively human, and deeply satisfying, as the collective joy of festivities and ecstatic rituals?

In a remarkable 1952 essay titled “The Decline of the Choral Dance,” Paul Halmos wrote that the ancient and universal tradition of the choral dance–meaning the group dance, as opposed to the relatively recent, European-derived practice of dancing in couples–was an expression of our “group-ward drives” and “biological sociality.” Hence its disappearance within complex societies, and especially within industrial civilization, can only represent a “decline of our biosocial life”–a painfully disturbing conclusion.

Perhaps the problem with civilization is simply a matter of scale: Ecstatic rituals and festivities seem to have evolved to bind people in groups of a few hundred at a time–a group size at which it is possible for each participant to hear the same (unamplified) music and see all the other participants at once. Civilizations, however, tend to involve many thousands–or in our time, millions–of people bound by economic interdependencies, military exigency and law. In a large society, ancient or modern, an emotional sense of bonding is usually found in mass spectacles that can be witnessed by thousands–or with television, even billions–of people at a time.

Ours is what the French theorist Guy Debord called the “society of the spectacle,” which he described as occurring in “an epoch without festivals.” Instead of generating their own collective pleasures, people absorb, or consume, the spectacles of commercial entertainment, nationalist rituals and the consumer culture, with its endless advertisements for the pleasure of individual ownership. Debord bemoaned the passivity engendered by constant spectatorship, announcing that “the spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep.”

But there is no obvious reason why festivities and ecstatic rituals can’t survive within large-scale societies. Whole cities were swept up in the French Revolution’s Festival of Federation in 1790, with lines of dancers extending from the streets and out into the countryside. Rock events have sometimes drawn tens of thousands for days of peaceful dancing and socializing. Modern Brazil still celebrates Carnaval and Trinidad preserves its Carnival. Recent nonviolent uprisings, like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, invariably feature rock or rap music, dancing in the streets, and “costuming” in the revolution-appropriate color. There is no apparent limit on the number of people who can celebrate together.

Nor can the growing size of human societies explain the long hostility of elites to their people’s festivities and ecstatic rituals–a hostility that goes back at least to the city-states of ancient Greece, which contained only a few tens of thousands of people each. No, the repression of festivities and ecstatic rituals over the centuries was the conscious work of men, and occasionally women, who saw in them a real and urgent threat. The aspect of “civilization” that is most hostile to festivity is not capitalism or industrialism–both of which are fairly recent innovations–but social hierarchy, which is far more ancient. When one class, or ethnic group or gender, rules over a population of subordinates, it comes to fear the empowering rituals of the subordinates as a threat to civil order.

For example, in late medieval Europe, and later the Caribbean, first the elite withdrew from the festivities, whether out of fear or in an effort to maintain its dignity and distance from the hoi polloi. The festivities continued for a while without them and continued to serve their ancient function of building group unity among the participants. But since the participants are now solely, or almost solely, members of the subordinate group or groups, their unity inevitably presented a challenge to the ruling parties, a challenge that may be articulated in carnival rituals that mock the king and Church. In much of the world, it was the conquering elite of European colonizers that imposed itself on native cultures and saw their rituals as “savage” and menacing from the start. This is the real bone of contention between civilization and collective ecstasy: Ecstatic rituals still build group cohesion, but when they build it among subordinates–peasants, slaves, women, colonized people–the elite calls out its troops.

In one way, the musically driven celebrations of subordinates may be more threatening to elites than overt political threats. Even kings and colonizers can feel the invitational power of the music. Why did 19th century European colonizers so often describe the dancing natives as “out of control”? The ritual participants hadn’t lost control of their actions and were in fact usually performing carefully rehearsed rituals. The “loss of control” is what the colonizers feared would happen to themselves. In some cases, the temptation might be projected onto others, especially the young. In the fairy tale, the Pied Piper used his pipe to lure away the children from a German town. Rock ‘n’ roll might have been more acceptable to adults in the ’50s if it could have been contained within the black population, instead of percolating out to a generation of young whites.


But elite hostility to Dionysian festivities goes beyond pragmatic concerns about the possibility of uprisings or the seduction of the young. Philosophically, too, elites cringe from the spectacle of disorderly public joy. Hierarchy, by its nature, establishes boundaries between people–who can go where, who can approach whom, who is welcome, and who is not. Festivity breaks the boundaries down.

While hierarchy is about exclusion, festivity generates inclusiveness. The music invites everyone to the dance; shared food briefly undermines the privilege of class. As for masks, they may serve symbolic, ritual functions, but, to the extent that they conceal identity, they also dissolve the difference between stranger and neighbor, making the neighbor temporarily strange and the stranger no more foreign than anyone else. No source of human difference or identity is immune to the carnival challenge: cross-dressers defy gender just as those who costume as priests and kings mock power and rank. At the height of the festivity, we step out of our assigned roles and statuses–of gender, ethnicity, tribe and rank–and into a brief utopia defined by egalitarianism, creativity and mutual love. This is how danced rituals and festivities served to bind prehistoric human groups, and this is what still beckons us today.

So civilization, as humans have known it for thousands of years, has this fundamental flaw: It tends to be hierarchical, with some class or group wielding power over the majority, and hierarchy is antagonistic to the festive and ecstatic tradition. (Whether this is an inherent feature of civilization, we do not know, though advocates of genuine democracy can only hope that this is not the case. Contemporary anarchists and socialists differ on this point, with some proposing complex methods of grassroots democratic planning that would presumably abolish hierarchy of all kinds while preserving modern means of production. Michael Albert proposes such a system in his 2003 book Parecon. Others, most notably the anarchist thinker John Zerzan, argue that the problem goes much deeper, and that we cannot achieve true democracy without eliminating industrialization and possibly the entire division of labor.) This leaves hierarchical societies with no means of holding people together except for mass spectacles–and force.

Contemporary civilization, which, for all its democratic pretensions, is egregiously hierarchical along lines of class and race and gender, may unite millions in economic interdependency, but it “unites” them with no strong affective ties. We who inhabit the wealthier parts of the world may be aware of our dependence on Chinese factory workers, Indian tech workers and immigrant janitors, but we do not know these people or, for the most part, have any interest in them. We barely know our neighbors and, all too often, see our fellow workers as competitors. If civilization offers few forms of communal emotional connection other than those provided by the occasional televised war or celebrity funeral, it would seem to be a rather hollow business.


We pay a high price for this emotional emptiness. Individually, we suffer from social isolation and depression, which, while usually not fatal on their own, are risk factors for cardiovascular and a host of other diseases. Collectively, we seem to have trouble coming to terms with our situation, which grows more ominous every day. Half the world’s people live in debilitating poverty. Epidemics devastate whole nations. The icecaps melt, and natural disasters multiply. But we remain for the most part paralyzed, lacking the means or will to organize for our survival. In fact the very notion of the “collective,” of the common good, has been eroded by the self-serving agendas of the powerful–their greed and hunger for still more power. Throughout the world (capitalist and postcommunist), decades of conservative social policy have undermined any sense of mutual responsibility and placed the burden of risk squarely on the individual or the family.

The family is all we need, America’s ostensibly Christian evangelicists tell us–a fit container for all our social loyalties and yearnings. But this, if anything, represents a kind of evolutionary regression. Insofar as we compress our sociality into the limits of the family, we do not so much resemble our Paleolithic human ancestors as we do those far earlier prehuman primates who had not yet discovered the danced ritual as a “biotechnology” for the formation of larger groups. Humans had the wisdom, wit and generosity to reach out to unrelated others; hominids huddled with their kin.

Our civilization has its compensatory pleasures of course. Most often cited is the consumer culture, which encourages us to deflect our desires into the acquisition and display of things: the new car, or shoes, or face-lift, which will enhance our status and make us less lonely, or so we are promised. The mall may be a dreary place compared to a late medieval English fair, but it offers goods undreamed of in that humbler setting–conveniences and temptations from around the globe. We have “entertainment” too, in the form of movies; ever-available, iPod-delivered music for solitary enjoyment; computer games; and, possibly, coming soon, experiences in virtual reality. And we have drugs, both legal and illegal, to lift the depression, calm the anxiety and bolster our self-confidence. It is a measure of our general deprivation that the most common referent for ecstasy in usage today is not an experience but a drug, MDMA, that offers fleeting feelings of euphoria and connectedness.

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Barbara Ehrenreich, a journalist and author, first wrote for In These Times in 1977. Her recent books include Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, and Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. She has been a regular contributor to The Progressive, Harper’s, Time and In These Times, where she is a contributing editor.

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