Progression and Simplification

For all the high praise and fawning devotion the founding philosophy of the United States of America customarily receives, and for all the attempts that have been made (albeit from oft-sycophantic motives) to imitate it, I find the more I look at it the more I notice something coldly impersonal, mechanistic, nondescript in it—in short, I find it captivated by a typically Enlightenment-style emphasis on universalized/standardized/abstracted form and procedure, completely at the expense of the needs of place, belonging, spirit, and above all heart.

(This faceless, rote mood incidentally even matches the name of the country, “USA”, which like so many other modern contrivances offers not a distinctive proper place-noun—”American” is after all claimed by all denizens of the hemisphere—but instead something almost willfully placeless, a chain of terminology mashed into an unpronounceable acronym.)

While the idea of a short list of rights such as we see in the first ten Amendments is indeed a useful minimal insurance policy for thinkers and nonconformists (that is, the real individuals) against the eventuality of degenerate and incompetent rulership, or mob justice, even in this capacity it is best understood only as a buying of time. Ultimately, the USA’s—and liberal democracy’s—founding Weltanschauung is all but tailored to favor a deepening descent into technical regimentation and bureaucratic, anomic facelessness, alongside which the advent of absolute majoritarian tyranny will eventually seem vanilla, an anticlimatctic fait accompli. At that time, assuming anyone bothers to look back, they will wonder how these two things—bureaucracy and majoritarianism—could ever have been thought incompatible. (The situation may even grow dire enough that, if any honest human passion remains to be found in the land, people may begin to pine for the good old days of the Articles of Confederation.)

* * *

At its best, “Enlightenment” means nothing more than this: it is the tool whereby one may consider radically different worlds and values, without however being consumed by them. It thereby serves as a proper and necessary foil to the relativism unleashed by Nietzsche, not by refuting it, but by coordinating it, by maintaining its suspension and tension—to “stand outside” a system, at least for a time, and see and credit other ways of thought.

Almost any expansion of the meaning of “Enlightenment” beyond this sense (and let us freely admit, pretense) of calm, detached evaluation (not excluding, however, the possibility of eventual judgment), constitutes a usurpation—it leads to rampaging reductionism, to overweening mechanism, to secular fanaticism—to what J. R. Saul calls the Dictatorship of Reason.

* * *

Diversity is prized in our age—we hear this continually. Yet the closer we look the more we find this diversity’s aim is not actually to celebrate difference, but to underscore and enforce a fundamental sameness (interchangeability) among everyone. This is the sameness of atomized conformity.

Put another way, our culture relishes diversity in the same way a foundry “relishes” a fresh shipment of pig iron: as raw material to be cast into the same few standardized, mechanical shapes. (Here, indeed, is the real sense behind the storied American “melting pot”!) That we have so easily ceded ground to identity politics and abandoned any notion of “common culture” only shows that our commitment to culture of any kind has long since become vestigial, rededicated in almost all respects to the demands of technocracy.

Of culture and morality, essentially nothing remains, except some bare-bones imperatives designed to be easily graspable even for the most mediocre of mind:

1) avoidance of all physical, and increasingly also emotional harm;

2) avoidance of conflict, including disagreement over any substantive issue;

3) reflexive, absolute equalism (an aspirational commitment to “equality” of both opportunity and outcome, subject to neither reason nor appeal nor circumstance);

4) routinized hedonism, through consumption, self-numbing and distraction;

5) an instinctual, exploitative self-interestedness, oftentimes misconstrued as “rationality”.

Even these are scarcely worthy of being seen as moral principles, although when challenged they can certainly evoke prodigies of moral posturing in many individuals; at root they are less normative than instrumental, indeed mechanical in conception, essentially intended as the “programming” of the smaller automata so as best to ensure optimal functioning of the wider machinery of government and market.

Indeed, the “Age of Reason” could just as well be called the “Age of Mass Simplification“. Complexity has risen spectacularly, it is true, in the means of purely technical production and organization, but there only; in all other areas of life, including morality, philosophy and imaginative power, a relentless smoothening, narrowing and coarsening of human vistas has been unmistakeable since at least the early-mid 1800s.

* * *

Progressivism and Enlightenment have always had special appeal to, and derived most of their political momentum from, the young—but not because the young are more open-minded, as is now admiringly said, but more because the young tend to be arrogant, ignorant, impetuous, and usually resentful when told by elders that they do not understand something or are not yet ready to undertake it. Far more than their elders, they are eager to accept fast and easy simplifications in place of those things that are difficult, or arcane, or subtle, in order that they may match the power of these elders and throw them off. The enterprising progressive or philosophe, in his own gambit for power over society, capitalizes upon this perennial resentment of the young towards the old, finding the most receptive ears again and again among those who know the least about their own civilization (and for that matter, about their own natures). These young then grow up—pleased with themselves for having cast off as ancient bunk the understanding of their forebears (though without having ever really grasped it for themselves); feeling a debt of sorts to progressivism as the supplier of that power by which they came into their own; and with a softened heart towards such rejectionism in their own children. (From this last there develops in progressive movements and states a tendency to lionize the young at the expense of the more experienced: “don’t trust anyone over thirty”.)

The overall result is a generation-by-generation simplification that continually picks up speed, stripping away information, intuition, detail, differentiation, even culture itself, until only the most coarse-grained, overt and mediocre aspects of human experience—the areas of technique, and the bare individual—stand forth alone, in commanding relief. In this regard societies where the progressive urge has taken hold can be said not to age in the normal sense, but to age backwards—till a point of complete infancy (and entropy) is attained.

* * *

The democratic citizen says to his leaders, “we hire you to rule us”—but of course, such an arrangement is not really rule at all, but a kind of circular codependency. It is even less truly rulership than the capitalist employer’s miserly and mostly cowering “rule” over his employees. The techno-democratic ideal, inflamed with equalism and constantly craving simplification, naturally resents and attacks any concept of a ruling class, and chases it forthwith from its sight. The result is that, instead of power, superiority, or destiny, ruling instead becomes anchored in the possession of knowledge—for the most part, knowledge of a deliberately arcane and unproductive kind. The natural democratic (or socialist) ruler is thus not a demagogue but an indecipherable and obscure bureaucrat, because this is the only form in which ruling authority can still be hidden from the masses. And: the more indecipherable the bureaucrat, the more indispensable (s)he becomes!

This is what J. R. Saul is referring to when he talks about the secrecy and private languages of the technocratic class; what he steadfastly cannot admit, though, is that this development is a product of democracy, even if it later rears up as an obstruction to the popular understanding and will.

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