Ritualization in global capitalism

When we think of rituals, it might be natural to think of ancient tribes and practices related to classic mythologies. However, we also have rituals as well: Christmas, Halloween, etc. all have ritualistic aspects. According to Watson-Jones and Legare, recent research points to rituals having key functions in society: identifying group members, demonstrating commitment to the values of a group, and facilitating cooperation.

Thus, the psychological mechanism of rituals is important for the smooth-functioning of the group. But as with any psychological mechanism, we must ask: when does the ritual become maladaptive? This question is crucial because behaviors and traits evolve over time in one environment to solve specific problems in that environment. But when placed in a different environment, the behaviour or trait may easily become maladaptive or at the very least, no longer optimal like the physical trait of wings for flight for birds on small islands.

Rituals demand an even closer scrutiny compared to physical traits when it comes to their effects in society because rituals evolve more quickly whereas the physical conditions of society change more slowly. Therefore, they can quickly become maladaptive. I would argue that Christmas is one such ritual that at least has taken on some maladaptive traits because it strong encourages consumerism and has been assimilated into the consumerist machine.

But on the whole, rituals like Christmas are not so interesting because their new maladaptive aspects are quite easily perceived. Right now, we’ve got global problems, so we should ask: how do global rituals function to create global problems?

I would argue that one such ritual that is often not seen as a ritual is science. Originally being the domain of solitary people driven by pure curiosity, the practice of science is now an industry, and I would argue, the pursuit of science has become partially ritualized. This is especially true in the science of the environment. Yes, we absolutely need to understand the basics of environmental science. But it is precisely because of this need that the practice of science as a ritual is hidden: but indeed, environmental science and in fact all science does function as a ritual because what we discover in science in terms of our effects on the planet is rarely used in practice.

Instead, most climate and environmental science is ignored. The CO2 curve is not going down, plastic production is not going down, and we are only given small tokens such as a little conserved land here and there despite the dire warnings. In effect, scientific research has become more of a ritual than a problem-solving strategy: it allows us to pretend to do something while not doing something. It is like praying to the gods to bring rain while waiting for the rain: except in this case, we do have control over the rain but we do nothing.

But the ritualization of science points to the ultimate ritual: the development of technology. There is simply no logical reason to further develop technology, as a species. Of course, there are individual monetary reasons: some people get richer by developing it. But beyond that, the majority of people do not even simply acknowledge this: they truly believe technology improves life. Because of the lack of questioning or true reasoning behind this, the development of technology is a ritual. Of course, it has other motivations and it arose not simply arbitrarily, but from practical considerations. But the ritualistic part is simply that we take action because the development of technology, more than anything else, has become a ritual that we merely participate it because we’ve always done it that way.

This of course does not deny the autonomy of technology in a metaphysical sense: it only describes the immediate psychological response to technological development. Yes, technology still proceeds via a series of prisoner-dilemma instantiations and it still seems to be a fundamental autonomous force that has reached sufficient mass to exhibit emergent behaviors of a single organism, but the explanation of why we participate in the growth of this organism is through our tendency to develop rituals.

Understanding this is one of the crucial steps we need to understand to break our trance-like state that we have entered when it comes to developing technology. By questioning the fundamental reasons why we tend to develop technology, and understanding that the autonomous force of technology induces ritualistic formation in human societies, we can begin to dismantle it and redevelop our primal knowledge to counteract the elephantine growth of the parasitic technological organism.

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