Perhaps the most important task in first world societies right now is to dismantle and disperse the multifaceted spell of cynicism and social despair that has gradually woven itself around our social consciousness. When we do, we will see how we fell into this unusual phase in human evolution, why we do not recognize the evolutionary mismatch at the heart of the problem, and who we are capable of being.
Bear with me, this part might seem a little dry but we will get to the good stuff right away. Sometime around the 1960s, in the leading economies, we had already developed the core of the economy for the next stage of humanity, a knowledge-driven economy. However, we did not have the social organization needed to organize this more advanced economy. No society yet ever has.
In order for a society to unleash the true knowledge-driven economy, we have to do two things at the same time: we have to pay the people doing the work and we have to turn the knowledge free. We can do one at a time. Throttling the spread of knowledge in order to pay people gives us Microsoft and Big Pharma. Letting knowledge spread freely but not paying people gives us - or more to the point does not give us - the great novel that was never written or the great album that was never made because the author or the band had to keep their day jobs and the computer innovation that never saw the light of day because, unlike Google or Facebook, there was no way to connect advertising to the innovation and monetize it.
To understand what happened when we had developed the physical infrastructure and educated work force of the future economy but within social structures from the past, think of evolution. When humans evolved language, there were many different pieces that had to come together. New, more delicate throats and jaws (which meant giving up the capacity to use biting as the kind of powerful weapon that biting still is for chimpanzees), a part of the brain to deal with signals from the ears, another to think verbally and decide what to say, then another to control the movement of mouth etc. and actually say it. To make language work, all these pieces had to come together. If you have one piece without the others, it can not do what it is meant for.
That is basically the situation that the leading edge economies ran into about half a century ago: we have part of the next stage of society but are missing other parts. The resulting evolutionary mismatch has had profound but unnoticed effects. In a process of maturation, if you do not make a required leap, you often don't stand still, but start slipping backward.
Slipping backward is what happened to the leading economies: they slowed down but because they all slowed down, this seemed normal. It is now taken for granted that catch-up economies will grow faster, but for the preceding 150 years, the leading economies mostly accelerated away from the rest. That is how the large gap between 1st world and 3rd economies was created. (That and colonization.) Notice also that when the leading edge economies slowed down, Japan was still industrializing and kept growing at a much faster rate. But when Japan caught up with the leading edge economies, it too suddenly slowed down and has stayed that way ever since. Decades of stagnation led to active decay, which became visible with the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 and with the Euro Zone crisis.
Because our elites evolved to run an industrial economy, they ceased to have a historical or evolutionary function once the core of the economy had developed past the industrial stage. In America 100 years ago (or China now), the elite was greedy and caused much suffering. But that elite also accomplished something. It built up the nation. OK, it made everyone else build up the nation while it played Great Gatsby. But the nation did get built. Now the elite no longer has any purpose, so it is fragmented and incapable of internal discipline. That is why the elite has been incapable of any attempt at reform, even in light of clear criminal behavior and dysfunctional rules in the financial sector.
If the current state of the elite is somewhat hidden but simple once examined, the position of the knowledge worker class - in a very broad sense - is both hidden and intensely contradictory. The knowledge worker class if unleashed would be so productive that this class would simply blow apart the old social structure. In order to constrain the knowledge worker class to fit within that old structure, it has been turned on its head. To a considerable degree, the knowledge worker class is paid to model and create unknowing rather than knowing.
The modeling and creation of unknowing takes different forms for different parts of the knowledge worker class, but what those parts have in common is that their job requirements usually include their not noticing the social sources of problems they deal with, or if they do notice, at least to not notice the systematic nature of those problems. Also, they work in various ways against those who do notice systemic problems.
100 years ago, it was quite difficult to get your hands on much system-wide information and far fewer people had the education to put it to use even if they could get their hands on it. So not-knowing was the natural state. However, nowadays with such a wealth of communication technology and education, not-knowing requires an active process.
Exactly how this not-knowing is actually performed requires further study, but one portion of this not-knowing may consist of a kind of sixth sense that people are required to have in order to reach even the lowest level knowledge worker positions. The very act of seeing the systematic nature of our social dysfunctions and suffering makes one's life less comfortable. It creates cognitive and emotional dissonance. And this seeing is risky. So I suspect that often before a dangerous line of thought gets too far, a sense of unease arises and the person finds some distraction or other without even noticing that she or he did so.
The net result is that the knowledge worker class leads an intensely contradictory existence. On the one hand, we (and if you are reading this, the odds are extremely high that you are part of the knowledge worker class) are the core of a future economy, of a future society vastly richer and kinder than any that exists now. More precisely, the knowledge worker class is the shadow of that core of the future economy. On the other hand, in society as it currently exists, we work as servants for a decaying elite. As a class, we have our own hands around our own throats, throttling ourselves to the point that we can breathe just barely enough to serve the elite, but not enough to grow and be ourselves. (Individuals can, but not the class as a whole.)
This does not effect every member of the knowledge worker class uniformly. There are oases of greater humaneness here and there. One can often get a saner, more constructive job if one is willing to accept lower pay. And the basic decency of most people softens things. Nonetheless for many of us, there is the job we can get paid for and there is a different job we would rather do and which would be a greater contribution to society, but that we can not get paid for. At this very moment, the odds are there is someone out there somewhere who is capable of writing a piece of enduring literature, but who is writing ad copy instead.
Alternatively, there is the contradiction between the way we as human beings would want to do our job and the way we are required to do it. An example is the health care worker who knows what the patient needs and what the insurance company and/or the hospital demands. Or the scientist who could have discovered a new, genuinely useful drug, but who is working on tweaking an existing one in order to game the patent system. This increases the tension and cynicism among the knowledge worker class, which is subject to more severe competition among its members than the traditional working class was. The result is the cultural tone of recent decades.
Another way to understand this is to see the knowledge worker class as a whole as a kind of performance art piece, a society-wide theater of capitalist realism whose theme is There Is No Alternative. Again, maintaining unknowing in an age with so much information technology requires active intervention. Such intervention is one of the ways that failing to put a newly developed capacity to use causes us to fall back. The incorporation of the once slightly autonomous knowledge worker class into the current system and into the TINA performance art even impedes our development as individuals.
One of the ways that this impeding shows up is that the loose human potential movement and spirituality that sprung up in the 1960s has developed much new and insightful into the roots of psychology but has avoided examining society. As one example example, A.H. Almaas has developed a model of the human personality and its development that maps the ego level (the end stage of adult development in current society) and enlightenment (in the Buddhist not European sense) as part of a single natural developmental ladder. However, the sociological side was missed: The fact that the ego is the typical end stage of adult development is itself a matter of social evolution. The literate ego with the emotional skills to work in teams and to instinctively stay within the bounds of the knowledge class's playpen is a more demanding level of maturity than what was required of most people centuries ago. It is even a bit more demanding than what was required half a century ago.
On the other hand, the very fact that the enlightened/awakened beyond-ego has historically been understood in opposition to the ego rather than as its natural culmination is itself a product of evolutionary precocity being turned on its head. Enlightenment may be the first bit of what is now the next-stage in human evolution to have shown up. With the development of the foundation for the knowledge-driven economy, it is all but imperative to make the jump, but when enlightenment first emerged into the historical record about 2500 years ago, human society was completely unready for it. Turned on its head was the only way that enlightenment could survive in societies that had no political freedoms and in which even ego development was not all that complete. In those days, societies had maybe 95% ground-down peasants, 4% soldiers to hold them down, and 1% with any chance at all at some of the comforts or the chance at individual development that nowadays are widespread throughout the leading-edge economies and increasingly common in many of the catch-up economies too. Such suppressive social systems may have been the only way to have had any kind of civilization in those days. They were the only way that was actually found. (Although there were ungoverned pockets of humanity with less brutality and less high culture.)
In such pre-industrial societies, in the more severely autocratic states, beyond-ego teachings were primarily used as a decorative legitimizer for the elites. In countries that were not quite as unfree, such as China, the awakening teachings were actually practiced, but kept largely quarantined. The greatest flowerings of beyond-ego teachings were in times and places such as Pala India, where elite Buddhism interacted with lower caste people and tribal people, and post-Silk Road Tibet, where there was not sufficient surplus value to support an elite large enough to keep the teachings in check. Even then though, maturing beyond the ego was held as an exceedingly rare event.
Now the time has come to turn this right side up too. Once beyond-ego development is understood as the natural next stage of human development, then the development of societies capable of supporting this fuller human development instead of cutting it off at the ego level emerges as a spiritual project.
This has not happened yet precisely because the human potential movement in general and post-ego teachings in particular are part of the current conflicted knowledge worker class. They serve as a means for dealing with the tension of that existence and for making some progress despite the social-historical constraints.
Beyond-ego teachings in the West were imported after WW2, primarily from India and East Asia. These teachings were absorbed from the donor societies without much examination of the various ways in which the teachings reflected societies that were even less developed than ours and without much examination of how the new context that the teachings were now placed in altered their effects. The result was a flowering of beyond-ego practice (there may be more serious meditators in the West now than the entire population of India in the days of the Buddha) and a fruitful interaction between the beyond-ego teachings from Asia and psychology from the West that created new psychologies.
A society with a knowledge-driven economy will eventually develop into a conscious society. This means a society that is conscious of itself as a society, not just that some individuals within the society are conscious of it. But this will not necessarily be an early feature of the next society.
To be clear, I am not saying that everyone has to or will reach the full maturity of beyond-ego development, especially since post-beyond-ego maturation itself will continue to evolve and mature. I am not saying that everyone has to be some kind of mystic saint or even nice before they get involved in social change. Almost the opposite is true. But the relative ease with which a decaying incoherent neo-liberal elite has steamrollered all opposition across the 1st world shows that we need something more. A cross-pollination between the spirituality of the next stage, that does not know itself as such, and the political values that need the next stage in order to manifest but do not know how to get there, is one way we might overcome the current situation.
A crucial early step is to understand what the actual situation is: That for past five decades, the leading edge economies have stalled because of the incompatibility between the new forces of actual production and the old rules for organizing production, that those parts of society connected with these new forces of production have been turned upside down and turned against themselves and all of us, and that behind the fog of unknowing that the knowledge worker stratum is assigned to generate, our individual and social efforts are impeded, the most important of our efforts most of all. Most importantly, having understood this, we must realize that this current phase of evolutionary incompatibility is only how we are when we are stumbling. When we run and run fast enough to take flight, only then will we fully grasp who we really are.