Month: December 2018

When the Bribes Stop Coming

I suspect the reason life without economic growth is currently so unthinkable to so many—or at best leads to a curiously circular variety of debate—is that growth effectively amounts to a continual bribing of the population, whereby a degree of social stability is purchased through an implicit promise of general enrichment—the “rising tide that lifts all boats”.

In short, the prospect of growth says to elites and general public alike: “stay with the system more or less the way it is, don’t make too many waves, just behave yourself—and I promise every year you’ll be on average 3-5% better off.”

There is no point denying that assured enrichment, even at a modest pace, has its charms. Presented with such an offer—so long as it seems credible—few people will prefer rolling the dice on a re-structuring of society, way of life, and energy use that, likely as not, could involve major sacrifice and raise the specter of chaos. (Put another way: climbing aboard the “growth-wagon” seems to promise a far more pleasant ride than the “revolution-wagon”.)

On the other hand, once the offer ceases to be credible—that is, once resource degradation, technological stagnation, extreme upward wealth-transfer, or all of the above make growth impracticable or imperceptible to most citizens—then, of course, stability can no longer be purchased in this way.

An important feature of the “endlessly-expanding payoff” way of securing stability is that it is psychologically oriented almost entirely towards pure, short-term self-enrichment. Any failure of growth in such a system is therefore likely to fall upon a population with a considerably weakened grasp of self-discipline, shared goals, community, foresight, and sacrifice—values that are intangible and almost anathema under growth, but likely essential for decent civil order in non-growth conditions.

Most economists, when questioned on the matter, will point out that most problems in society and government are made almost automatically easier to handle as long as growth continues robustly; conversely, poor growth or de-growth makes these problems more intractable. In short, bribery-through-growth is a kind of governmental shortcut that allows us to simply overlook or discount what are, in many ways, the true challenges of governance—including the civic, social, and environmental virtues instrumental to it.

So here is the supremely uncomfortable question, the one we nervously circle around when we dare approach it at all: in a society that has downplayed values in favor of bribery, what happens if the bribes stop coming?

The Atheist’s Umbrage

Despite some tedious pandering to shibboleths of both left and right (mostly in the form of waffly “I loved Hitchens’ book though I totally loathe everything it stands for” types of statements), Andrew Sullivan has written a fairly good mash-up about the sickening emptiness that seems to be slowly girdling American life both public and private. He mostly references John Gray’s main points in Seven Types of Atheism—particularly that the “new atheism” now fashionable as a marker of intellectual respectability is not particularly new, nearly always masks intense (if unconscious) commitments to some kind of surrogate-transcendental and non-negotiable absolute, and is as such far from the sagely value-neutral “absence of faith” that it portrays itself as. (Put more simply: most self-proclaimed atheists are not, in fact, meaning-indifferent blobs, affably desirous of nothing beyond bare existence.)

Most interesting, though, is the response in the comments section to Sullivan’s essay: as if on cue, there appear hundreds of comments by atheist readers in high dudgeon, trembling with scorn and heaping abuse on Sullivan’s suggestion that they might not be such purely rational, neutral blobs as they think. One after the other, with a notable conformity of content and tone, they take pains to assert—often in repeated postings—that all faith is “fairy tales”, the source of all war etc. With equal shrillness they profess to believe, enlightenedly enough, in nothing (except perhaps “love” or “what science says”)—and moreover, to have achieved this almost-nirvanal state of belieflessness entirely on their own!

The obvious irony is that this type of reflexive, rebarbative reaction has more than a whiff of fundamentalism about it. How many of these intrepid “free thinkers”, for example, would be willing to admit any uncertainty about the fundamental grounding of their reason—or of progress, or equality, or the scientific method? How might they react to hearing that these, too, might be “fairy tales”, at least in the forms they have known them? The disposition of the day is to cultivate a mantle of tough, unflinching skepticism for itself, in itself, but from there skepticism leaves off—it has become a prize to be had, instead of a guide to be followed.

What might be most striking of all about such atheism, though, is how remarkably little it offers, arguably, in return for the devotion it elicits. In times long past, in order to secure adherents, a creed had to promise spectacular and intimidating things: unseen mystical dimensions; an everlasting soul; prospects of eternal paradise; miraculous healings, revelations and conversions; reunion or communication with long-dead loved ones; epic struggles against evil; adventure, booty, and conquest; intense experiences of communion and tribe; an intricate superstructure of myth and ritual, and so on.

Nowadays, by contrast, the prospective atheist-materialist is offered… what? Complete arbitrariness with regard to origin (life as a random evolutionary fluke); reduction of one’s whole bodily and mental life to mechanical and wholly simulable interactions of chemicals in solution; reduction of individuality to interchangeable membership in a species (“humanism”) or perhaps a racial/ethnic group (“identity politics”); absence of any decisive moral grounding except negatively (whatever reduces conflict or stress); and capping it all off, the complete assurance and finality of death and oblivion.

Presented with this dismal brew (admittedly bespangled with technologies and entertainments), our aspiring atheist does not quail—he grabs the chalice and drains it to the dregs—every last teaching!—then treads forth to pounce on any hint of slander against them… and all so that he may anoint himself with that most hallowed of adjectives: “rational”!

Here lies a less obvious irony. For is this not, in a very important sense, the greatest of the swindles yet perpetrated in the arena of belief and value—perhaps even far greater than the older, “religiously-based” swindles and superstitions which our atheist proudly thinks himself to have wholly and happily transcended, and testily bashes at any opportunity? Does the technological gift that is presumed inseparable from these new teachings really compensate for what was abandoned? Or might the very insufficiency of the compensation be exactly the source of the deepening despair and unrest that Sullivan aims to diagnose? (By and large, all these questions seem totally lost on Sullivan’s commenters.)

I cannot help wondering (in a rather Nietzschean vein) whether this new depth of gullibility, this strangely devout uptake and defense of the grayest, most nihilistic possible beliefs in place of ones that at least had the virtue of being imaginative, grand, and bracing, is indicative of a weakening, not a strengthening in the human; a slackening of spirit, a replacement with ever more enfeebled, unthinking and homogenized types—whether it is a further sign, in other words, of the dominion of the Last Man.

Atomized Conformity and the Temple of Self

We are continually told to judge people “as individuals”, irrespective of group identity. This, after all, is a truism of any (small-“l”) liberal system. Yet contradictions are quick to manifest in the landscape around us: what is big data? What is statistical inference? These, the very engines of the glorious new “information economy”, are things that by their nature aim to generalize people from their groups, or even to invent groups as explanatory variables (for instance, the recent ballyhooed “Hidden Tribes” study) whenever necessary—the game being to ascribe to the individual whatever properties have been previously found in some group judged somehow similar.

“Identity politics” and hence most “social justice” are really mostly continuations of such thought: the dictum being that we judge people as individuals unless we find out they are part of some designated “aggrieved group”, at which point their individuality (and possibly that of everyone else outside that group) becomes obsolete, its mention a solecism. From the moment the dictum is invoked, all parties are required to treat purely on the basis of group identities (assigned or assumed).

Differentiation and homogenization are not strict opposites, then, but often go hand-in-hand. Big data aims to differentiate us into algorithmically constructed sub-groups based on whatever data Corporation Y or Agency X has been able to gather about us; but in the same movement it homogenizes us by consigning us to the same treatment as the rest of our sub-group.

This movement—of differentiating individuals into “bins” based on some handily available information, and then treating the members of each bin as roughly equivalent—is, in its essential nature, no different from the movement that creates racism. However there is something extra at work. In the age of the technocratic, now digitally-enhanced forms of “humanism”, there lies something that was not apparent even in the rise of racism—a possibly far profounder act of homogenization, one might say, by which the differentiation into political or marketing-based groups is purchased, so to speak, by a far larger increase in the interchangeability of all individuals, regardless of group…

***

Allan Bloom and also Ernest Becker saw into the heart of the matter: it is not so much about nature or nurture, but a third element, Self—namely the longing for Self-as-Creator, or even better, Self-as-Self-Creator. Evidence from either nature or nurture will be marshaled as needed to support the demands of the Self-Creator—that irreproachable hermaphroditic marvel—and if evidence from either or both goes against the will of the Self-Creator, then it will be suppressed and berated.

…And yet does the Self-Creator, in its whirling narcissism, ever suspect that it itself is a servant, a plaything? That it is a means to an end—just as evidence is, for its own goals, a means to an end under “post-truth” conditions? Dare we inquire what this end might be, and why it has remained so invisible to us?

In “The Closing of the American Mind”, p. 200, Bloom gives a hint, as he writes of the consequences of dismantling shared sources of meaning, of moving through “stops” ranging from universal commonality to complete solipsism/nihilism, whereupon:

“…At the next stop there turns out to be no stop, and the descent is breathtaking. If one finds anything at all, it is strictly one’s own, what Nietzsche calls one’s fatum, a stubborn, strong ass that has nothing to say for itself other than that it is. One finds, at best, oneself; and it is incommunicable and isolates each from all others, rather than uniting them.”

Later (p. 247), Bloom adds:
“The paradoxical result of the liberation of reason [brought about by democracy] is greater reliance on public opinion for guidance, a weakening of independence.”

It is in this simultaneous unmooring of all shared meaning in the blind hunt for “Self”, on the one hand, and the paradoxical “weakening of independence” brought about by a degraded, mass-dominated democratic culture, on the other, that atomized conformity is born.

***

The endpoint of this seems to be the recrudescence of man (and woman) not as genuine individuals at all, not even as sub-groups, but as the constituents of a regime of atomized conformity: as standardized tokens of “human worth”, readily exchangeable and interchangeable, equipped with obedience to the dictates of a technological, “progressive” mass-organization absolutely assumed and beyond question. Differences of sub-group become lucrative for targeted advertising, or politically useful for maintaining social control in other ways, but are otherwise (by design) powerless. This is the strange fruit of the marriage of liberalism and social constructivism into the realm of isolated Self: an incipient new racism, and an incipient new slavery, both invisible in plain sight.