There are plenty of people to be found who will freely acknowledge that the predicament of the modern, liberal, late-stage-capitalist world comes from corporatist-growthist-bred kleptocracy, inequality and resource degradation. By contrast, there are also plenty to be found who can freely acknowledge that our predicament comes from social chaos wrought by the ever-faster dismantling of all aspects of localism, independence, tradition, spirituality, and distinctiveness. (There are also a few—the hard-boiled libertarians, for example, and the Panglosses who deny there is a predicament—who disagree with both sides.)
Yet much as one may look, there is hardly a soul who can bear to entertain that our predicament actually involves both of these tendencies together, in concert. Again and again one hears: “it must be one or the other—one or the other! Damn the one, but for Heaven’s sake keep the other!”
This intransigent “either/or” begets a tribal ferocity, between two visions of progress and liberalism: one side sees itself the defender of enterprise, universal free trade, innovation, efficiency, growth, and production; the other proclaims the rule of universal human rights and equality, harmony between all persons and peoples, reification of personal preferences, technically-assisted control of reproduction, sexual laissez-faire, “inclusiveness” towards all physical persons (though not necessarily of ideas or speech), and in general the systematic minimization (via both technology and policy) of all forms of strain, competition, discord or physical or emotional threat.
And so the usual exponents line up on their respective sides of the Progress-divide, often calling themselves “Right” or “Left”, “capitalist” or “socialist”, “individualist” or “collectivist”, and turn to excoriate their counterparts, or at least to call for their gradual phasing-out. There seems to be an unwritten rule of demarcation at work between these two, a dangerous fault-line that tenses violently whenever the ill effects of economic progressivism are pitted against the ill effects of cultural progressivism, and whereupon we hear from each side the desperate hope, again and again: “surely one of us is culpable; but even if we should fall, then let the other turn out blameless”! But note well: on both sides is progressivism, and only progressivism!
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We cannot then help but ask: why then should this demarcation exist at all, let alone be defended so fiercely? Why, in other words, might it be so hard to conceive that a dismantling of civilizational values might go hand-in-glove with pervasive greed, gluttony, corruption and short-sightedness—especially when these are all typically done under the same banners of technology, standardization, futurity, progress? Why so hard to see that the compulsions of rapacious profit-seeking and technical standardization and optimization might, by steadily dismantling traditional and individual differences—or digesting them into functionally interchangeable and disconnected units ready for exploitation—both serve and be served by the interchangeable “freedoms” espoused by cultural liberalism? And so, finally, why might it be so hard to admit these trends might all point back to the same underlying pathology—representing, in essence, opposing jaws of the same beast?
We might go further in saying that not only are both sides expressions of the same “beast”, but that this “beast”, moreover, is already known to both sides of the divide by a panoply of names, each reflecting, so to speak, a particular scale of its armor: disenchantment, nihilism, scientism, liberalization, globalization, the Reign of Quantity, “standing-reserve”, technocracy, interchangeability. There are many more such “scales”; let us choose, however, to describe the Beast to which they are attached by the term, “Simplification”, which we take to mean the aggressive deconstruction of all individual and cultural standards and differences, as well as all non-material aspects of human existence, in the service of the fundamentally technological subjugation of all life.
“Everything solid melts into air”, Marx wrote, intending it to refer to the continual upheavals wrought within capitalist societies through technological revolutions in the means of production, leading in turn to complete destruction and abandonment of ways of life and ancient beliefs and principles. Yet this expression applies to far more than just the “capitalist” or “socialist” “side” of the divide: as such it is hardly so much a motto of capitalism alone, as of Simplification in general. We might just as well restate the motto as: “everything meaningful melts into nihilism”, or “everything subtle melts into formulas”.
* * *
On reflection, it seems increasingly incredible, that many of the people on both sides of this economic-cultural pseudo-divide within progressivism have not already reached these questions and this impasse—have not already gathered in their unconscious minds the facts necessary to see that both sides not only play their indispensable part in giving rise to the predicament but, moreover, draw their power from that same source, in the drive towards mass-Simplification. We would propose that they indeed have accumulated this necessary knowledge, and it is for this very reason that these “either-or” partisans dread to think one step further and bring the connection into consciousness. For to do so would reveal their great Battle of Cultural Opposites to be the internecine turf-war that it really is—an emotionally versatile instance of the narcissism of small differences. It also would leave them with no side to hang on to in their lives, no vestige of progression in which to put their future hopes (howsoever Simplified it may be).
Moreover, were the pseudo-partisans on either side to see their connectedness to the ostentatiously loathed other side—see that both “their” side and the “other” side are just tools of Simplification, helpmates to a form of ecological and spiritual mass-destruction—they suddenly would be forced to see themselves as not only no better than those they rail against, but in a covert sense in league with them, having been co-parties in all but name to the exact same mischief, and differing only in their preferences in fig-leafs. (Hence the only apparent hypocrisy of so many who inveigh against environmental woes yet happily pursue profit and change not one speck of their comfortable lifestyles; or inversely, of those who advocate for “minimal government”, “efficiency”, and “competitiveness”, yet happily go along with intrusive restrictions on speech, political disagreement, personal autonomy, and private belief wherever these might lead to real consequences.)
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In sum, the “divide” amounts to a classic instance of psychological repression: the two pieces of the conundrum must never be joined in their minds, not because their joining would not yield an answer, but exactly because it would yield an answer—one too terrible, too shameful to bear, that of mass-Simplification’s overwhelming predominance in deed and thought.
And so for now the division remains: either advocate the wholesale decomposition of values, differences and traditions into the most minimal and insipid possible forms (under the names “diversity” and “inclusion”) or endorse the subordination of all life, human and nonhuman, to the demands of unchained greed and short-term efficacy (under the names of “prosperity” and “growth”).
And yet, while this pseudo-division does persist, it can by no means be said to be stable. For the repression on which it is based is surely destined, year upon year, to grow more exhausting, more onerous to maintain, especially as the contradictions and dissatisfactions of Simplification engender more and more discord, misfortune, and ressentiment. When at last the repression gives way under this pressure, revealing the full ugliness of both sides, there will be a mad rush for alternate viewpoints—ones that promise to return the hope and fulness that Simplification so deliberately excluded. Yet most of these, as in previous examples of mass ideological intoxication, will prove at best underdeveloped and ineffectual, and at worst grossly defective.
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Surely related to the apparent divide between the two “jaws” of Simplification is the fact that, more and more in the acceptable range of political debate, we find ourselves forced to commit to the faith that each culture and even each personal preference holds a truth that is uniquely valid and valuable, incommensurable with any other, and which must be accepted and respected on its own terms—while at the same moment, we are just as strongly exhorted to believe, in usually no less righteous terms, that we are all one humanity.
Both of these views are elements of progressivism. We are torn, in other words, between visions of unity and multiplicity, and forced to hold both visions in mind at the same time. Nature is constituted by one supreme set of laws, yet the laws are a matter of cultural construction and moreover vary from “paradigm” to “paradigm” (Kuhn); all human beings are fundamentally the same and peace will only result from teaching them such, yet their cultural differences are of supreme importance and a diversity of them is an unquestionable good; and finally, while the “arc of history” (bending towards justice) is sure to weld the human family together forevermore in a monolithic, reason-based system of universal rights, truth, trade, and tech, at the very same time history has no meaning or direction other than that defined by power, mostly exerted through the arbitrary “creative” configuring of information that has now reached its consummation in the digital.
These two groups of ideals, if taken as impassioned absolutes, are of course incompatible. One cannot look forward to a world composed of completely incommensurable, distinctive traditions, yet happily subordinate them under values that claim absolute universality, without destroying something of their original sincerity—nor inversely. Either the traditions are sideshows, heirlooms, museum-pieces kept for the sake of color and curiosity—as a way to unwind from the serious business of homogenizing the universe into a porridge of atomized conformity—or the universal development must bend its knee to the local and traditional, without irony. Therefore whoever claims to hold to both of these visions, to keep both faiths, must be less than steadfast in their commitment to at least one of them.
Comparing the Enlightenment roots of modern political liberalism, Allan Bloom observed that the conception suffers from:
“…two contradictory understandings of what counts for man. One tells us that what is important is what all men have in common; the other that what men have in common is low, while what they have from separate cultures gives them their depth and their interest.” [COTAM, 191]
We naturally must ask, then: “which is it to be”? Are we most precious in our diversity—real diversity, that volatile, rebarbative, mischief-prone thing, that challenges and asserts and draws lines and in short, stands for things—or are we to be melded together into a smooth, monolithic system? Multiplicity as difference, or overarching order and commensurability? Inclusiveness of inner, independent conceptions, or inclusiveness of externalized, group identity? Or have these categories themselves already succumbed to Simplification, so that we are choosing, yet again, between opposing jaws of the same beast? Is there an alternative—either a view of Progress that does not demand these violent internal ruptures and contradictions, or else a path leading outside of progressivism altogether?
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A fundamental oddity of the liberal mindset (both cultural and economic) is the belief that while people’s economic and ideological behavior can be rationally shaped ad libitum by creating the right system of incentives, certain other kinds of behavior—notably sexuality or drug abuse or criminality—are immune or even off limits to such incentives, to the extent that any talk of normative standards in these areas must be denounced as intolerant and misguided. Thus, paradoxically, that which is to be controlled and subject to norms (economy, ideology), is given the status of “choice”, while that which is wholly self-defining and free (sexuality, identity, drug use, crime), is stipulated to be in no way a matter of choice. (Whatever is left over, in general, is classed as “society’s” fault: but this misalignment is to be remedied through the plasticity of the economic and the ideological.)
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Under nihilism, any principles—no matter how seemingly commonsensical—by definition cannot hold in the end, for they have been “revealed” as no more than quaint (or despised) shibboleths. Principles are no more than an imposture of habit; as habits, they will inevitably be slowly digested by the palpable comforts of self-deceit and local expediency, until only atomized personal “feelings” remain—radical subjectivity, “personal truth”, identity politics, etc.
This becomes even more clear once it becomes typical to see principles purely positivistically—that is, as conventional propositions only, anchored neither through transcendental verities nor by virtue of being integral parts of a kind of living whole. In the positivist perspective, all propositions must seem arbitrary, hovering in space, needing no further explanation; like a row of switches, they appear unproblematically separable, mere functional inputs that invite us to customize—to toggle them “on” or “off” as “self-expression”, explanatory paradigm, or even personal taste dictates. Retaining the forms of truth and value, while underneath taking its orders from nihilism, the positivistic opens its doorway onto the postmodern.
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Self-negation is as powerful a force as self-inflation, but more irreversible, more likely to maim; like a diamond-blade that numbs and cauterizes on contact, we may not even notice what was lost, and this is the danger. Just as free will comes into being precisely in our positing it—and dies in our rejecting it, leaving ourselves invisibly diminished and poorer—so nobility, greatness, fineness, depth and beauty exist well and truly, but only so long as we acknowledge and honor them, without playing at extracting and isolating their “causes”. But once we declare them figments merely because this search for their causes has failed—or worse, because we believe we have found a cause, one that turns out to be thoroughly instrumental or mechanical—we are wont to banish them… whereupon they might not be got back again, even should we retain enough consciousness to recognize the void left by them and to plead for their return. The “cause” here therefore functions, deviously, as the very opposite of a cause—it is not the origin of the quality at all, but the thing that dispels, destroys it. (Not all that disappears upon dissection is illusory.)
* * *
The real wonder, then, is that the much-derided “bourgeois” mores, and also the conventions of mathematics and casual reasoning that form the backbone of daily life in most of the West have taken this long to completely deliquesce: the onset of nihilism, after all, had become widely acknowledged by the late 1800s. Yet these mores seem to have continued well into the modern era as a sort of autonomic pattern, a muscle-memory born of sheer habit and ironclad utility. It was for this autonomic, spiritless quality, and this weed-like tenacity that they were so long and so ostentatiously detested by the intellectual classes—but whoever could suspect (despite the Nietzschean blasts against the solidity of truth) that they would eventually seem to us almost colorfully antiquated, as willfully archaic as the Latin Mass?
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“…spiritual power is in no way based on numbers, whose law is that of matter“. —René Guénon
Mathematics is frequently put forward as one of the few remaining sources of indestructible truth, a bulwark against the arbitrariness, chaos, schism, and contradiction that afflict us. Yet we cannot help but question where the mathematical arises and, if it is truly “indestructible”, how it stands in relation to the problems that plague us, such as Simplification.
It is easy, for instance, to imagine that mathematics is born of our encounter with separate objects in our experience that strike us as similar—of repetition, essentially, from which comes counting. For this repetition to be possible, we extend this vague impression of similarity into the world of abstraction by inventing, analogously, standards defined to be identical and countable—units, or standard identicals. By the imaginative leap of superimposing these standard identicals upon objects in our experience, followed by application of counting to these identicals, we arrive at the process of measurement. Thus, encountering a stone in our path, we imagine a “cubic centimeter”—a standard identical of “volume”—and then imagine filling the stone with these so no room is left, then count the units.
Prior to this process, even the impression of magnitude—of this stone being strikingly bigger or smaller than another—is, like the impression of similarity, not inherently mathematical. But after the process, we find that the character of magnitude itself has subtly but drastically changed; we have made it subject to quantification, placed it at quantification’s disposal. By this trick not only is mathematics set on its feet, but more and more of our experience is then locked in subjection to it—a phenomenon often given the name “progress”. The units, actually re-digestions of experience, become reified as essences—the essences then go forth to control, and cover up, the world as it was originally experienced.
Math, in such a view, does not come from the Platonic realm; rather, if anything (assuming math is part of the Platonic), the Platonic realm is configured by a mathematical demand. (The Platonic “essence” of the identical unit is posited after-the-fact, in order to escape the problem of how two such identicals can be absolutely the same, yet at the same time distinct—the problem of “the equal” which Socrates saw clearly in the Phaedo. The answer becomes that the different instances of the unit all partake in the same “Unity”. This is question-begging in the highest spiritual garb.)
In this view, multiplicity becomes distinct from unity, and hence mathematics comes into being, only through the prior demand for these “standard identicals”. Without this demand, there would be no conception of “things to count” in the first place. But this is really no different from the demand for interchangeability: for the treatment of objects as identical without respect to their subtle (or ill-understood) differences.
Note also that counting itself is absolutely progressive—once the interchangeability of things-to-be-counted is posited, a single sequence of numbers is sufficient to count any collection of any type of thing. The numerical embodies values not only in the sense of magnitude or the “unique properties” of a certain number, but in the determination to count in the first place, and in the motivation to progress in an absolutely determinate way.
It is not then the world that begins in the methodical unfolding of Number, nor even the “Platonic” world of Truth, but merely Simplification, standing both in front of and as the world.
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Money is another kind of standard identical—in economic parlance, the “universal equivalent”. The raw magnitude that it mathematizes is, roughly speaking, desirability and so also value itself.
Note that money belongs, as it must, to the world of values (both numerical and moral), and hence cannot be immune to the depredations of nihilism and relativism—even if it is considered as the very basest form of value/morality, the most mindless or “materialistic”, still money’s operations must rely on certain principles and standards, moreover on relationships and attitudes, whose erosion in the stream of solipsistic emotion must in time rob it of its articulations. Imperceptibly at first, money falls victim to the very “base”, “materialist” urges it is meant to embody, channel and facilitate (financialization, bubbles, snowballing debt, astronomical inequality result).
In itself, the erratic, chaotic nature of stock markets and of economic figures in general—their constant jostling over immense ranges in short periods, their relentless pursuit of bubbles, panics and other deceptions—gives the lie to the idea of rational agents: if markets were indeed “rational”, i.e. responded to purely objective “truths” accessible and plain to all these marvelous minds, they would instead show a tendency for all their participants to soon converge, as one might hope to “converge on the truth” though some kind of physical investigation. Instead, markets can only be seen as aggregated irrationality—that is, as dynamical, superficially mathematized speculation in different value-systems (albeit confined to ones of a roughly capitalistic flavor).
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Reading John Gray’s latest book, “Seven Types of Atheism”, brings one to the sense that there must be an inseparable millenarian aspect to progressive beliefs: for, even having attained “perfect” social and economic justice, where then does one go? Number continues endlessly, and so, we assume, does time; yet the vision of an “end time” is common to both religious and secular faiths. Then, there must be some means by which Progress is discarded as aggressively as it was once taken up, and some timeless perfection stills the engines of time.
There is no real consideration of the absurdity and difficulty of maintaining such a condition, in suspenso, in the real world, for the rest of eternity–of preventing any movement in any other direction, ever–in short of maintaining a supremely anti-progressive regime. Rather the implication must be that this is an end-point, whereupon the progressives will have simply “won” and the whole game ends. Presumably then the progressive Faithful will be “raptured” off into a transcendental state of history-less perfection… in this they are more apocalyptic than the average mainline Christian… indeed they are more Christian too in some sense, as Gray points out. (One incidentally cannot help marveling at the coincidence that these people are called “millennials”.)
Bloom was aware of this tension, noting that
“Engels had a divination of what is needed when he said that the classless society would last, if not forever, a very long time. This reminds us of Dottore Dulcamare in The Elixir of Love, who says that he is known throughout the whole universe—and elsewhere. All one has to do is forget about eternity or blur the distinction between it and temporality; then the most intractable of man’s problems will have been resolved.” (COTAM, 230)
But one also sees this blurring in more “establishment” progressive writers like Pinker and Rosling: extolling advances against hunger and poverty and many diseases, they fail to note that these have been accompanied by exponential increases in resource consumption and pollution—the “Great Acceleration”. They cannot imagine that the very “progress” they write about very plausibly makes a worse crisis more likely down the road; for them, world-time can only go in one direction, so that nothing, once gained, can ever be lost—or at least, they mutter into their sleeves, not for “a very long time”. How can this strike us as anything but an unforgivable shortsightedness, if not duplicity?
* * *
The journalist and social critic Chris Hedges recently noted,
‘In “The Postmodern Condition” the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard painted a picture of the future neoliberal order as one in which “the temporary contract” supplants “permanent institutions in the professional, emotional, sexual, cultural, family and international domains, as well as in political affairs.” This temporal relationship to people, things, institutions and the natural world ensures collective self-annihilation.’
Hedges generally is known as a strong, if not radical leftist/progressive/pacifist. But doesn’t this kind of wistful talk about the loss of “permanent institutions” and the “annihilation” this would bring sound almost like an inchoate traditionalism? Here is another glaring signpost of our confusions: even the fiercest progressives have begun to sneak wistful gazes at the distant past. (This tends to take the form of a pseudo-scientific exaltation of primitive tribal societies, which they would see as lower-tech kibbitzes, or perhaps as “hippie communes done right”.)
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It may be only a platitude born of modern complacency that tells us gods are impossibly distant and uninvolved. Indeed, for the person or nation that reaches out imploringly enough—in extremis, let us say, or from the chaos of nihilism and self-contradiction—some god or other will almost surely turn up close at hand—for good or ill, depending on the god. Yet the modern man’s flatlander vision—which sees only the Simplified “material” (whatever that is), and views life largely as a switchboard of customizable, countable propositions operating within the isolated, information-laden “self”—makes him unable to appreciate these dangers. The demands of his top-heavy, painfully individualized consciousness drag on him like shackles that he would in a heartbeat do away with; yet these very shackles are none other than the restraining (often “bourgeois”) habits left by his departed former truths. Thus when the god does come, his intoxication is more massive, more compulsive, more thorough than that of old.
We would do well to hope, then, that whatever god presents itself to us in the times ahead has an indulgent nature where we are concerned—very indulgent indeed.