It’s the Modernity, Stupid!

As readers here have probably figured out by now, I take a special pleasure in identifying cultural and political arguments that have, almost miraculously, been recycled from the past. Nothing annoys me more than another rant about how we really are going to Hell in a handbasket. Or that the immigrants pose an existential threat to our sovereignty or national identity. Or, from other quarters, the notion that Americans once treated Mother Earth with such lovingkindness until the big, bad industrial capitalists came in and blew off the mountaintops, destroyed the Gulf Coast, and poisoned the food supply with genetically modified beef. As if our age was the first to ponder the great questions of human existence.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore these recurring protests either. Instead, we should analyze WHY they keep re-emerging, and what sorts of patterns do they reveal.

Ross Douthat has an interesting piece in the New York Times today on the ironic push toward consolidation in the wake of the financial crisis. As Douthat notes, the very “experts” who got us into the trouble that ails us are the only ones with the wherewithal to get us out. Surely we see that on display in the Gulf as nobody but BP possesses the tools to plug a mile-deep oil gusher. The net result is further consolidation of power – even as populists demand some sort of major reform and devolution.

But, again, we’ve been here before. The Progressive Era 100 years ago witnessed a similar consolidation of not only governmental power – as was intended – but also corporate power. Despite the trust-busting acts of the TR era corporations only grew stronger.

Why does this happen? Douthat fingers meritocracy as the culprit. And he has a point. Who is to judge the brightest, the most diligent, the most ambitious, etc. but a consolidated financial and governmental structure? But I think the answer is deeper: modernity itself.

Sociologist Max Weber noticed a century ago that modernity tends to produce bureaucratic structures of administration that exist merely to serve the bureaucracy itself. He was speaking both of corporate and governmental bureaucracy. But he was making a point far larger than the now-obvious observation that bureaucrats want to protect their jobs. What he was outlining, instead, was the logic of modernity itself. As humans moved further away from traditional modes of agricultural production – to the point where very little of the population engages in food production at all – the rest of our existence is governed by increasingly sophisticated mechanisms of resource distribution that most of us neither control nor understand.

Later technological developments have only accelerated this process. Imagine a world today – commerce, politics, social interaction – without the World Wide Web. While many people can program in HTML and explain roughly how the internet works, does anybody really know how a computer works – beyond the elite core of IT experts who populate the basement offices of corporations around the world? Our lives are essentially controlled by experts who give us the sense of “personal interactivity” – even as we become more and more helpless to control the nature of basic communication.

On a deeper level, we are as alone today as we were in the days of the Lonely Crowd, or, for that matter, in the era of the first great critic of modernity: Friedrich Nietzsche.

Is it any surprise that politics today resembles sports more than anything else? Should we really be shocked that political parties today are run not by technocrats or public servants, but by self-important media clowns who mash up entertainment and power? Is it any wonder that consumerism is so rampant that even born again Christians have taken to mocking corporate emblems (t-shirt I just saw, saying “Jesus: The Choice of Every Generation”) even as they wear Bible quotes on sweaty, disposable t-shirts (isn’t the Bible sacrosanct to Protestants?).

The logic of modernity is to consolidate power in the hands of experts. With the struggle for existence essentially “solved” by modern methods of food production and distribution, and modern health care, we now substitute frivolous political spitballing for serious debate.

But then again, is that really new? Weren’t politics in the 19th century driven by “distractions” like Masonic conspiracies and fights over temperance laws? Weren’t the corrupt machines of old just as driven by personal jealousies and prejudices as are politicians of today?

Douthat concludes his column: “Which is why, despite all the populist backlash and all the promises from Washington, this isn’t the end of the “too big to fail” era. It’s the beginning.” He is right that this is not the end of the “too big to fail” era. But it isn’t the beginning either.

Ever since we embarked on the project of full-on economic, political and social modernization in the 19th century we’ve played by the rules of “too big to fail”. Obviously there are different approaches out there, and some have worked better than others. But the notion of self-sufficient, rugged individualism has always been a mirage – at least since the demise of the Jeffersonian yeomanry (which itself was largely illusory). We will always tend toward consolidation because we cannot imagine surviving entirely on our own – and I live in the heart of Southern Appalachia where the dream of subsistence farming probably persisted longer than elsewhere. Threats to individual liberty from government find outlet in underground economies and in religious institutions of protest. Threats to economic self-sufficiency and survival are mitigated by the bureaucracy of the welfare state. We are free to perceive the world as we wish…except that our language to conceptualize things is, itself, generated in cultural and technological realms outside of our control.

And that’s the key to modernity. As we struggle for greater freedom, we find ourselves more reliant on some balancing power structure for our protection.

Freedom is largely an illusion. But then who controls us? Albert Camus suggests our lives should be defined by rebellion against our fate. We should resist the dehumanizing elements of modernity, not because we will ultimately “win” and “regain” our lost freedom or authenticity. Rather, we must rebel because it is in the moments of choice and action that we define ourselves – in SPITE of the totalizing forces of modernity.

All of which brings us back to the politics of entertainment. The worst sin in the modern – or shall we say post-modern – world is not selfishness, or violence, or fanaticism, or laziness, or narcissism. No, the worst sin is blandness. To be boring and to go along with the powers that be is to be spiritually dead. To refuse to ask tough questions is to acquiesce in our own dehumanized fate.

The only freedom we truly have is the freedom to be interesting.

Author: AARON ASTOR

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