Harvard as Moloch
By AIDAN FITZSIMONS
The political-economic structures of power in society form the bones and tendons of “culture.” The fact that “counterculture” has itself been folded into our general culture signifies the failure of its motivating politics. The narrativized Sixties were not really about flower crowns or tie-dye or even music; at bottom, the counterculture was the reaction of smart young people to the realization that the system they were inheriting was deeply flawed, full of injustice, misaligned with human flourishing, and self-destructive. Some among the largest cohort of affluent young people in history to get high school and college educations (by millions) woke up and realized that “the system” operated through their entire culture. Thus, they acted, and went “counter-culture.” The system had even molded their own minds through society, the media, and the very educational institutions that gave them that small chance for critique. This is why drugs became important as a way to explore a greater freedom of consciousness, since they recognized the constructedness of their own conscious experience by the one-dimensional “system.”
In 1954, Allen Ginsberg took a bunch of peyote in San Francisco, and wrote down his vision of Moloch. Moloch was an ancient metal idol built for sacrifices; small children were burned alive inside.
“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!
Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!
They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!”
Ginsberg uses Moloch to symbolize the modern “system”: capitalism, instrumental rationality, domination, government power, corporate power. The system goes deeper than that, though— it is all-pervasive— it has shaped our very consciousnesses. Moloch is in our minds, in our attitudes about selfishness and greed and moral obligations, in the ways we perceive the world of value, the ways we feel limited responsibility, the ways we accept the internal logics of the systems we are small parts of, the ways we accept imperialism and class oppression and consumer propaganda and corporate shareholder priorities. We all individually maintain the system, over ourselves and others, even though it does not produce efficient outcomes. Slate Star Codex’s famous blog post “Meditations on Moloch” does a great job of explaining how Moloch is formed by many multipolar traps. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma with little hope for escape.
Moloch has been growing for a long time. In the 60s, the most educated youths in world history bubbled up some resistance, in what we call the “counterculture,” and tried to fight back against the system. They fought politically (protesting imperialism), culturally (long, non-business friendly hair), and mentally (drugs to alter their consciousnesses). They made gains. But, they failed. MLK and RFK and Fred Hampton were shot; Nixon won; drugs were banned; Vietnam went on; TV tightened the noose on the narrative for the “silent majority”; corporations continued following their own cancerous logics; people went back to the small business of personally surviving within the system, and began caring less and less about the survival of others. Since then, corporations have gotten more and more obscenely powerful; the result has been the destruction of our planet’s biodiversity and massive inequality. We have gotten deeper and deeper into the system for generations now, so deep that it feels like a permanent status quo, that this is just how modern life should be and will continue to be; radical change seems foreign and unlikely. Even academia has been co-opted as part of the system. The institutions that could raise awareness and action instead produce either cogs in the machine or, at best, impotent academics. All resistance has been co-opted, the same way that “the counterculture” was co-opted.
The powerful are mostly responsible for the preservation of Moloch. It is the elite of Harvard and elsewhere that have done the most breaking their backs lifting Moloch to heaven. The elite make choices every day to renew the inherited system, whether they are aware of it or not. The system as it is obviously does not work— just think of McKinsey working for ICE, Facebook allowing fake news, the stock buybacks that occurred with the last tax cut, our broken Senate, our inability to stop climate destruction, and the terrible banality of our culture’s responses to these things. The system has bought complicity and silence, through consumption and the promise of becoming one of the “winners.” Harvard students have the power to be winners, to take their place upholding Moloch for another generation, and, if they wear AirPods, they don’t have to hear the children burning alive. Maybe they can even tweet about certain issues to feel good about themselves.
But Harvard students also have more power to change the system than anyone. If real change is possible at all, it is possible here. There are two possible reactions to this, (barring willful ignorance), for the Harvard student. One is to assume that radical change is impossible, that the system is too powerful, and therefore, as an individual, they might as well just try to make the best life possible for themselves. In other words, they should become part of the system, take a job, watch Netflix, and not worry about the species. This is an unexamined form of nihilism. It is a denial of anything like a human spirit, a denial of the radical contingencies of history, a denial of possibility. But it is by far the easier choice— after all, to make truly radical change means a change in one’s values, one’s lifestyle, one’s very consciousness. This is the true meaning of “counterculture,” and it takes sacrifice. Resistance can be accomplished from within the system only with a massive amount of sustained mental effort; it is far too easy to believe in the logic of the systems of which you are part, and to miss your own complicity. Even academia is a trap, unless you use your power publically and radically, as Brother Cornel West does. The real resistance will have to be bolder, more creative, active; it cannot simply take the form of donations or posturings in alignment with systemic incentives. The system is falling apart before our eyes; the security envisioned by those believing in the system seems to be hollowing. It may break. To be on the right side of this break, Harvard students will have to sacrifice some personal opportunity costs for a greater good. If they don’t, we may all be screwed. If they do, we just might all be saved. The Boomers gave up; we do not have that luxury. We have choices to make, and these choices matter a lot— we can either become part of Moloch or resist it. It is unclear if resistance can even work. But if we want to live meaningful lives, we have to try, however we can.
Aidan Fitzsimons (firstname.lastname@example.org) is currently on time off from Harvard, but would love to be contacted by any student with a crazy idea.