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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.3 (Summer 2016)
The Polis vs. Progress
The Dilemma of Hypermodernity
A decade and a half ago, the author proposed that the dilemma of hypermodernity might be addressed by creating a “postmodernity” that acknowledges nature and the spirit. The years have not visibly advanced us toward this solution; they have, indeed, made its broadcast more necessary than ever.
An earlier, academic version of this essay appeared in This World: Religion and Public Life (Culture and Consumption) no. 31 (2000), 29-45. This is the 16th anniversary of the appearance of the academic version of the essay – which had also appeared in various, different, non-academic iterations in the 1990s, including in Polish translation. A version of the essay also appeared in three parts in Quarterly Review (UK) on the journal’s 15th anniversary.
One of the most significant, yet often cursorily examined, phenomena of modern society is the increasingly enervating pace of technological change, development, or growth. It is plain to see that the amount of theoretical scientific knowledge (that is, in the “hard” sciences) is growing exponentially, as is the number of chemicals / substances / tools / devices which are being produced, as a result of the growth and practical application of such scientific theory. Ultimately, these technological processes are fuelled by the market-economies of (primarily) North America, Western Europe, and now the Pacific Rim countries. Yet among all this frenzied growth and creative entrepreneurship, one may well wonder to what ultimate end all this unbridled expansion is taking us.
Social theorists such as George Parkin Grant, David Ehrenfeld, Christopher Lasch, and Jacques Ellul, inspired by figures like Simone Weil and Martin Heidegger, have described an emergent “vicious cycle”, where all the problems caused by modern technology can only be solved by the application of further technologies—which engender newer, greater problems, for which new technological solutions have to be found… and so on. It seems impossible to think that this process can go on forever; at some point, the crises engendered by technology (a total saturation of the environment with pollutants of various sorts, for example) will catch up to humanity. And the suggestion that recombinant DNA technology could be used to “adjust” humans to live in heavily polluted or radiated environments is simply nightmarish. Our world is one with genes of mice spliced with those of carrots—mice with genetically human blood coursing through their little bodies—as well as the beginning of our entry into the wholly malleable, electronically-based “virtual reality”. Biotechnology companies develop new, unique life-forms, such as the aforementioned mice, over which they then exercise exclusive proprietary control. Recently, there was the story that scientists in Britain had developed transgenic pigs, whose organs are to be used in humans. There were also reports in the media that a research laboratory in Basel, Switzerland, had produced genetically altered flies with fly eye structures in 14 different places in their bodies, where they never naturally occur. There is ominously under way the attempt to map out or “sequence” the entire human genetic code. These various tendencies can be seen to represent only the beginning of the infinite manipulation of human and physical nature through technology, against which—along with other thinkers—Aldous Huxley warned, in his finely-crafted dystopia Brave New World.
Apart from the so-called purely physical effects (e.g., toxic waste dumps, poisoned air, skin cancer from ozone depletion, shrinking forests and green spaces, as well as dwindling or extinct natural species) which are bad enough in themselves and now obvious to almost everyone, there are also the enormous social effects and costs of total technologization (for example, massive overpopulation, especially in often overburdened urban areas) which are unfolding more quickly than the ultimate dangers of pollution and biological manipulation.
The trend through all of history has certainly been towards increasing urbanization and technologization in urban areas, but, in premodern societies, there were definite natural checks on such growth. The contemporary problem of excessive urban growth affects all parts of the Earth: the Western world, the ex-Eastern bloc, East Asia, and the vast South of the planet. What, for example, can be done today to prevent BosNYWash (Boston – New York – Washington) from swallowing up the entire Northeastern seaboard of the United States? What is to prevent Mexico City from having a population of 30 million in ten years or so? The traditional society—like all societies of the South of the planet—continues to be dislocated by overpopulation arising from cheap, band-aid infusions of Western technology, resulting in greater misery, disease, starvation, political corruption, and environmental degradation for virtually everyone afterwards. The faster the growth rates of the American and world-economies, the more enticing the images Western advertising firms offer the desperate poor in the South and ex-Eastern Bloc, and the greater the needs of the transnational corporations (TNC’s) for cheap labour pools, the faster such behemoth-cities will grow, in every part of the world. (Only East Asia shows some evidence of being able to cope with burgeoning urban populations—as typified by the authoritarian but very environment-conscious Singapore.) In terms of human social existence, the contemporary urban environment virtually always turns out to be one where, as in New York, the social bonds and ties of “small-town” family, community, and country, are largely lost, to be replaced by the “razor’s-edge” excitement of the big city.
In their hey-day from around the 1880’s to the late-1960’s, it could be argued that America’s big cities—New York, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, etc., had evolved a unique, fairly liveable, many-cornered community-structure which somehow dealt, however imperfectly, with the problems of living in these urban agglomerations. This system was partially described in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Prominent in these structures were civic politicians and “ward-heelers”; the big factory-owners; leading small businessmen; the municipal police; the Catholic Church, which represented large numbers of non-Protestant white ethnics; the virile, heavy-industry, blue-collar labour unions; the editors and reporters of the big independent papers of the city; as well as traditionally-situated organized-crime groups and youth-gangs, both exceedingly mild in their social consequences by today’s standards. This kind of urban milieu can be seen in any number of movies (especially older movies) set in this period.
However, in the following decades, as the commodity, advertising, and “instant gratification” culture increased its grip on society, there came an explosion and expansion of various vicious groups (for example, greedy developers, ruthless advertisers, the parvenu rich, drug-pushers) that refused to play within the rules of the big-city, resulting in the near-complete breakdown of the urban social consensus, and the turning of large sections of downtown American cities into hell-zones. Although the city vs. country distinction has existed throughout much of history, nowhere has it been thrown into such sharp relief as in America.
One could argue, in fact, that there are two, distinct Americas: the big cities—dynamic, pulsating, heterogenous, and cosmopolitan; and the heartland—simple, quiet, and home-spun. There is, however, a serious imbalance of power, ideology, and resource-consumption between the urban centres and the rural periphery, which parallels, it could be argued, the relations between the Western world and the South of the planet, as described in node-periphery theory. The big cities siphon off the people and resources of the heartland to create an environment which, while certainly exciting, is brazen in its artificiality: gleaming corporate skyscrapers, condo-towers, and ugly housing complexes rising out of the detritus created by the death of old neighbourhoods and old town-centres—possibly the last places of civilized life in the modern city (from the Latin civis, suggesting the public-spirited “citizen”) which had continued to exist in the context of the older big-city structure.
And then, there are the suburbs, neither city nor country: the developers’ creation, “Ye Olde Victorian Homes” thrown together at impossible densities, produced with all the care and craftsmanship of an assembly-line, and centred on those vital modern institutions—the shopping-mall and the public high school (though one sometimes wonders which of these performs the greater “educative” function). In the suburbs, one finds neither the “cutting-edge” excitement of the inner-city nor any real sense of community and country values. Indeed, the suburbs continually devour the real countryside, forming a sterile “inter-zone” between the various urban conglomerations.
And what now increasingly emerges is the West Edmonton Mall scenario (which is today the world’s largest mall): human beings living in huge, totally manipulated environments, cut off from earth and sky and sea and wind. Life in such an environment would eventually come to resemble the existence portrayed in such movies as Logan’s Run or Outland—meaningless, monotonous work relieved only by perverse, polymorphous ecstasies. In fact, as the efficiency of control techniques increased, one could reward workers with less and less, until they literally became happily mindless drudges, as Jacques Ellul warns.
Through the instrumentalities of the technological media and a co-opted heterogenous lumpenproletariat—which is ever-ready to be deployed against the legitimate claims of the heartland—an extraordinarily narrow, socially liberal, economically capitalist, hyper-urban elite dominates North American society. The social liberalism of this elite is nothing more than a justification for greater and greater hypertrophic consumption for the entire population, as well as for bringing into existence innumerable pseudo-countercultural “tribes” based almost exclusively on expensive commodity fetishes (as described by Guillaume Faye in La Nouvelle Société de Consommation).
The webs of urban-and-technology-based domination, control, and influence woven by media reach deep into the heartland, creating through various technological means and simulacra a whole “other” dimension, an electronic environment, which has never hitherto existed in humanity’s history. Along with the commodity-structure they support, the media constitute the major part of the interlocking grid of what French social theorist Jean Baudrillard terms North American “hyperreality”.
The media, far from being liberating, hyper-centralize power—for those who have access to them; hence the absurd income-figures of persons who, in earlier societies, might well have been petty street-hawkers or street-singers. The electronic and other media dominate the sociophysical environment to an extent never before achievable or imaginable. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “One thousand repetitions make one truth.” And one picture (i.e., riveting visual image) is worth a thousand words!
The media do not use “inefficient” coercive methods, but rather all-pervasive normative control of virtually all societal vocabularies and imageries. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell had asserted that “Newspeak is Ingsoc, and Ingsoc is Newspeak”; i.e., that the key to capturing people’s minds was to monopolize the various “languages” current in society. The apparatus of torture and repression drawn in the book was ultimately secondary. Aldous Huxley’s society—to which our own world seems closer to than that of Orwell’s vision—can therefore be seen as a “refined” version of Orwell’s police-state.
Understanding the nature of semantic and symbolic control allows one to see North American society as both generally non-coercive and normatively totalitarian. The mass-media and their complementary mass-marketing, mass-education, and state-therapeutic systems construct the sociophysical environment in which we all live and the societal norms most of us accept. But there is a kind of hollowness and mendacity to this mediated picture of the world, a sort of prevailing miasma which has to be seen through.
What does the promised land of hyperurban North America really amount to? At the upper-most levels of Manhattan, or in its cavernous underground play-pens, corporate controllers, cynical media figures, “successful businessmen” (i.e. drug-pushers), highly-placed government apparatchiks, and decadent pseudo-dissidents, pseudo-artists, and pseudo-intellectuals commingle freely, indulging in their variegated pleasures—bought at the expense of exploiting and corrupting the heartland and the decencies of the human heart. The scene is similar in L.A. and its environs, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Detroit… with minor local variations and colour.
All-in-all, it is rather like the world portrayed in such ambiguous or somewhat culturally-challenging films as: Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (where the desperate prophet-figure, after a brave fight, concludes, “we’re all androids now”); Wall Street (“greed is good!!”); Tim Burton’s new Batman epics; Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; Verhoeven’s RoboCop; Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic (based on William Gibson’s short story); Judge Dredd; or the Max Headroom TV series—most of which depict the so-called “air-conditioned nightmare” of the “near-future”. (Max Headroom was set “twenty minutes into the future”.) This “gritty future”—distinct in some ways from the supersanitized Brave New World environment—is also explored in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (filmed by Stanley Kubrick) and in the entire “cyberpunk” subgenre of science-fiction. There already exists—among other phenomena—a fairly popular rock music movement often called by that name, as well as other such extremal movements (which amount to being entire styles-of-life) like thrash-metal and gangsta-rap, all promoting hyperviolence and hyperdecadence.
These various contemporary artefacts (as well as the burgeoning genre of “the lonely, wounded hero”, best typified by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s operatic interpretation of The Phantom of the Opera and the Beauty and the Beast TV series) suggest that meaningful resistance to the current system—whether in strong words or deeds—must initially come from embattled lonely men and women of heroic stature, championing and joining together with all others who are brutally marginalized by the current power-realities. Many of the truly intelligent and decent people in North America wander about half-dazed and half-broken, not even conscious of what is plaguing them and the society as a whole.
And, if generational rebellion truly is inevitable, let it flow in a natural and socially-meaningful direction: towards a rejection of the whole system of media-oligarchy with all its sterility and machine-like conditioning processes. However, a certain subtlety is also called for. Although rock-music is undeniably one of the primary means for the socialization of youth into contemporary society, it maintains in places strong Romantic and idealistic themes, however distorted they might be. To properly evoke these themes, through careful lyrical and melodic analysis, in a socially meaningful way would be a quick point of entry into the very centre of current media-generated “youth-culture”. Another possibly hopeful music genre is the rising “New Country”.
Yet, ultimately, the only worthwhile attitude to contemporary North American culture—which “air-conditions hell and kills the soul”—for anyone claiming the barest shred of thought, reflection, or decency must be cutting, biting, searing, consistent criticism. Surely, there can be no cause more heroic and idealistic than to fight against a corrupt and socially-destructive oligarchy; to discover real meaning and worth in one’s own life; and to strive to recreate and then participate fully in a real social, communal, and spiritual life, “heart speaking to heart”. This deeply-felt, determined, serious-minded criticism might even be seen as the only genuine art or poetry—in the highest meaning of those terms—possible in our age. Arguably, everything else is mannerism, kitsch, commodity, or genre-piece, meaningful only in so far as it echoes the serious critique of “the contemporary order of things”.
In the face of a completely manipulated environment, it appears that most of us are left with, as our final defence and ultimate touchstone, only our subterranean underground impulses, our primeval unconscious, which remains virtually inviolate—if we can even believe in something like it, in this day and age. This disjunction between something that can be felt as our primeval eros (which is virtually the same as when we emerged from the caves) and our radically altered technological world probably explains why there are so many people today who superficially accept contemporary norms, yet are genuinely unhappy. Ever-deepening unhappiness in the midst of sybaritic luxury—or rather, more often than not, engendered by that purposeless luxury—will remain a part of the human condition in contemporary society until the real genetic manipulation, à la Brave New World, actually begins.
And there is much to criticize today. The “last men” now in charge (so well described by Nietzsche), who preside over this imploding kingdom, are such a feckless oligarchy—they rail against vigilantism, but are unable to maintain safe streets; they claim they are opposed to violence, but supersaturate society with slasher-flicks, shock-horror movies, thrash-metal, and so forth, particularly aimed at the young. They embrace the omni-directional cruelty of the contemporary inner-city (essentially Hobbes’ “war of each against all”) rather than the strictly channelled, arguably necessary evil of organized warfare between recognized states and nations—of political conflict between meaningful and humanly recognizable groupings.
These oligarchs are clearly incapable of giving genuine leadership and direction to the society they are parasitical upon. They cannot even use the justification of being a successful elite, of assuring unity and cohesion for their society—or even a minimum of safety for their citizens. They can evangelize the East to their way of thinking; exploit the South of the planet economically (and invade it militarily, too); dislocate and destroy traditional societies; and rape the environment with relish, at home and abroad; but they lack utterly the creative political energy to form something lasting and worthwhile which can be passed on to the common history of humanity. It must be understood that the big cities of North America today—completely divorced from the countryside—are really the centres or “capitals” of an emerging, transnational global culture which some term “PlanetTeen”: a borderless, planet-wide socioeconomic system, dominated by North American pop-culture, consumerism, and all-pervasive technological saturation.
Apart from the ever-present (and multifarious) possibilities for self-destruction, there seem to basically exist, it could be argued, only two real main choices before humanity. Modern Western liberal technological society is already slipping into a post-Western, hyper-technological, hyper-liberal, hyper-capitalist, homogenized, and polymorphous social construct—and will doubtless be able to mold all the societies, peoples, and tribes of the world into that same pattern, sooner or later. This is coterminous with the dystopic scenarios of the futurists and litterateurs, in somewhat differing variants. It can be said to represent the triumph of technology over humanity, of the machine over human culture, of oligarchy over community, of soul-less capital over human decency. This alternative can simply be termed hypermodernity.
On the other hand, a variety of figures and thinkers, rebelling against and transcending the stultifying categories of present-day politics, have begun the search for a cluster of alternatives centred on the possible breaking of technology’s strangle-hold on humanity. This positive alternative could be termed as postmodernity, with the understanding that it represents something fundamentally different from hypermodernity. (In the literature of the topic, postmodernity is generally equated with what was called hypermodernity above—but it is necessary to be better able to see and give a concrete name to the better and worse alternatives arising from our current predicament.) The so-called “postmodern” society would seek to combine that sense of spirit, community, and closeness to nature which existed in virtually all premodern societies, with a sensible measure of the material benefits and comforts gained through the technology of the modern world.
Intimations of such a society are today prefigured in the West itself by the so-called “New Physics”, whose transcending of the Western subject/object distinction suggests a re-union of humanity and nature; by the thought of Joseph Campbell and C. G. Jung, who have called for a “re-enchantment” of human relations; by the millenarian fervours soon to emerge; by the New Age movement of “new spirituality”; by certain types of feminism which stress a return to the natural world; and, most importantly, by the emergence of ecological and environmental issues as a serious concern. The reassertion of the necessity of limits on our exploitation of physical nature—now accepted, at least in theory, by almost everyone on the planet—is truly a moral breakthrough. But one also hopes that the further development of ecology will extend this sense of boundaries to the awareness of natural limitations on “social engineering” and frenzied consumption, which are all-too-pervasive characteristics of modern societies.
All these emerging tendencies seem to be working towards building a different kind of society than the one based on rationalism, technology, and purely materialist science which has been dominant in the West for about two hundred years.
The new society, by contrast, would be one where technology, and the excess of rationalism and materialism, would be kept strictly in check within a paradigm of Nature which would unite Humanity, the World, and the Cosmos. The source of our strength would be a renewed emphasis on the deepest roots of our unconscious; our openness to human feeling; the evocation of our distinctive, historically-rooted ways of being to reduce our boundless material craving for acquiring and having superfluous commodities; and the desire for closeness and re-union with Nature arising from the upsurge of our true eros.
It is possible that only this higher, positive synthesis could offer a real way out of the current mega-dilemmas, which might well destroy the sense of humanity within us, and quite possibly the physical existence of the human species. André Malraux has said that “the Twenty-First Century will be spiritual—or it will not be.”
It is only by maintaining some degree of reflection concerning technology and the way the world is going (even as we are all forced to participate in it, to a greater or lesser extent) that anything recognizably human can be salvaged from the wreck that seems increasingly inevitable, if current trends and directions continue unopposed.
The Resistance to Hypermodernity
The broad outline of the question of humanity versus technology has been posed. It had been suggested that there in essence lie two main alternatives before humanity: the dystopic “hypermodernity” and a more positive “postmodernity”. The use of the term “postmodern” as something distinct from “hypermodern” is, it should be cautioned, rather eclectic and original. The author’s meaning of “postmodern” is probably best reflected in architectural theory—where a postmodern style tries to combine “the best elements of old and new”—rather than in contemporary political thought.
The concept of “postmodernity” arises, like many worthwhile ideas, from the systematization of a quasi-intuitive, quasi-commonsense notion. The manifest problems of late modernity—the disenchantment of a once meaningful and “magical” cosmos, the attenuation of truly meaningful collective identifications, and the virtual elimination of a serious public-political realm from human existence—are accepted as valid criticisms across virtually the entire spectrum of serious political thought. (Generally-speaking, differences arise only in ascertaining the real importance and actual severity of these problems to the polity—which are of course minimized in individualist, liberal political discourse—as well as in the proposed solutions: liberal political theory, for example, would probably say that “taking rights seriously”—along with a tiny eye-dropper’s worth of collectivity in the vast ocean of society—is the optimal solution.) On the other hand, the problems of premodernity, whatever warm ecstasies of “belonging” and “meaning” it might have offered, are also manifest. These basically consist in the wretched material conditions of existence of the time, as well as in the often too-vehement denial of the material. The idea of “postmodernity” arises as a hope for a saner world in which “our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era.” This is from a passage which was probably the original inspiration of this concept for the author: the conclusion of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s startling commencement address to Harvard University, June 8, 1978 (published as A World Split Apart). To cite the conclusion in fuller form:
If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era. This ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage. No one on earth has any other way left but—upward. (A World Split Apart, pp. 59-61)
A common reaction among many people to this strong appeal might be that, while it seems quite positive, where and how is it likely to be realized in today’s tangled and confused world? The author will attempt to identify some of the possible centres and idea-streams from whence this so-called “postmodern” resolution of history might arise, as well as to sketch out (partially as a consequence of the identification of these foci) the actual possible shape (if only in the roughest contours) of a saner, better world. Some attention will also be paid to the enormous obstacles standing in the way. The coming struggle for humanity will demand the utmost sacrifice and commitment from every person who is more-or-less conscious of the near-impending disaster before us.
Five very powerful and incisive cultural structures support a view of history similar to that of Solzhenitsyn’s. First, there is the Hegelian system of thesis – antithesis – synthesis. Applying this schema to the contemporary world-historical situation, the thesis could be interpreted to be premodernity, the antithesis modernity, and (a possible) synthesis (“the negation of the negation”) is “postmodernity”. The thesis is really “re-established at a higher level”, having passed through historical experience and consciousness of what modernity entails. (History would not necessarily “end” then, but presumably develop in directions of which we can have no knowledge.)
Secondly, there is the psychology of the human being, where one typically sees the progress from a “magical” childhood, to a troubled adolescence of rebellion and questioning, to (in most cases) a settled, integrated adulthood.
Thirdly, there is one of the central ideas of the visionary poet, William Blake, who suggested another type of psychology which passes from the child’s world of innocence into the adult world of experience (“the school of hard knocks”), but with the re-emergence of what critics have called a “higher innocence” at the end. Reinterpreting this idea for the contemporary context, it may be seen that some people, although they are older, have some remnant of a distinctly unjaded, “fresh” approach to life left in them, whereas many younger people seem to have all their idealism burnt out of them, by excessive sensual and sensory indulgence early in their lives. They can at best be good technicians and lawyers, being significantly diminished in their real sense of humanity. (This argument has been advanced by, among others, Alan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, and by Malcolm Muggeridge, in his cutting, mordant essay, “The Great Liberal Death Wish”.) It is more likely that it is through the informed and conscious idealism of those persons who remain somewhat unjaded that the world might possibly be taken in more positive directions, rather than by the jaded cynicism of those who only seek personal power and self-aggrandizement, and are often also thoroughly debauched.
Fourthly, there is the philosophical insight about education, which is that one passes from ignorance, which may indeed be blissful, to education, where one rejects intuition and is unsettled by constant self-questioning (“a little education is a dangerous thing”)—but finally to the state of wisdom, where many of the intuitions once held are validated “at a higher level” (“a true and extensive education allows one to find again one’s place in the world”).
Finally, one sees in the history of philosophy and philosophy of science a movement away from “myth and mystery” in favour of mechanistic calculation with full predictability; but, with the emergence of speculative physics in the Twentieth Century, the possibility re-emerges of a non-dualistic view of the cosmos—of a “virtuous circle”, where “the observer affects the event”, thereby presumably establishing a kind of “post-rational” worldview, where “reason is put in its place” and “myth and mystery” can exist again.
One of the most interesting images I have come across which relates to this threefold schema is Rousseau’s analogy of the three gardens. It appears in one of Rousseau’s novels, La Nouvelle Héloïse. The three gardens consist of one which is naturally wild, a second which is clipped in artificial geometric shapes, and a third which, although it appears as exceedingly wild and exuberant, is in fact carefully cultivated by human hands. They are seen in succession by the protagonist of the story. The analogy seems to mirror the development of humanity—from a spontaneously wild state of nature, to a state of enchained and regulated civilization, and then, possibly, to a situation where a sense of organic harmony is maintained through conscious human intervention. Without passing out of the naturally wild garden to the artificial garden, we would not have the ability to have the exuberant and humanly maintained third garden. (See Lester G. Crocker, “Order and Disorder in Rousseau’s Social Thought,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America vol. 94, no. 2 [March 1979], pp. 247-260.)
It has been said that one of the greatest obstacles to truly meaningful social change today is the heavy weight, impressed on virtually all societies, of the obstinate presence of the so-called “New Class”, or world-level corporate/media oligarchy, which is centred in North America (i.e., the United States of America and its Canadian appendage). Because of the continuing ineffectiveness of the challenge to its control of the mass-media and mass-education systems, the New Class is able to impose its highly selective worldview on virtually everyone in North America, and thereby on most of the planet, to a greater or lesser extent.
It should be pointed out that most people will follow that which is presented to them as inherently just and decent (regardless of its possibly negative underlying results) out of idealistic motives—not because they are selfishly seeking careers or self-aggrandizement. (An example of real selflessness is afforded by the young Irishwoman, profiled some time ago in the media, who has dedicated herself to caring for destitute and disabled orphans in Vietnam, in the midst of savagely grinding poverty.) Unfortunately, it is then typically a selfish minority of erstwhile activists that enjoys the material spoils of the over-all effort and mobilization. A good example of this is aid programs of the type which send idealistically-minded young people into Third World countries, paying them a bare-minimum local salary (in Nigeria, there are instances of such students begging for food from Western technicians and engineers working there), while the executives of the organization enjoys high-level, senior-civil-service-type salaries and perquisites, and hobnobs in various embassies during their infrequent visits to the South.
Though in some senses, the putative Sixties Revolution has succeeded spectacularly, in others it has failed miserably. One of the defining ideas of the Sixties was, prima facie, the opposition to the big corporations. Yet today we have ended up in a world where the transnational corporations are bigger and stronger than ever before. There was also in the Sixties, prima facie, a desire for a return to nature, and for a more natural existence, yet the world has only become more mechanized, more commercialized, more paved over, and more technologized over the intervening period.
Another important idea of the Sixties, again prima facie, was a sort of robust individualism; yet looking at the “jean generation”, one could conclude that, in effect, a new uniform had been put on, and any “squares” who dissented were to be treated as badly as “the beats” had been in the Fifties. In the aftermath of the Sixties, the ultimately meaningless quasi-collectivities of various “consumer-tribes”, based on different status-symbols and commodity-fetishes—and sharply excluding “outsiders”—quickly arose. The realization of the extreme nature of “collective” peer-pressure in the typical modern North American high school, which effectively rips one away from one’s family and roots, is acknowledged somewhat even by the most ardent liberals. The surprisingly sharply defined “new hierarchy” of “cool” vs. “square” (in a society claiming to be hyper-egalitarian) is probably the least socially germane—if not most socially destructive—social distinction in human history. After the reductive mill of MTV and immersion in electronic media from age five, after the droning lectures of liberal pedagogues, after the intense collective pressures of adolescence (which together probably constitute the most intensive program of indoctrination ever hitherto devised in human history), corporate liberalism disingenuously says that it offers those who reach adulthood “freedom of choice” concerning the values they will hold and the lifestyle by which they will live. Some choice! Some freedom!
Nowhere were the burgeoning contradictions of the Sixties exemplified more than in the emerging rock-world. The fine points of selling or not selling out became a sort of game, as it is patently clear that rock-music was and is commercially-driven from the beginning. By the time one has heard of a rising, struggling rock-artist on the radio, it is almost certain that he has done any number of questionable deals to get there. Yet somehow, the public had to be convinced of the rock-star’s unsullied “honesty”, which was more often than not attested to by the obscenity of his lyrics and personal behaviour. And then again, it had to be reassured that, although a real party animal, the rock-star was at bottom a nice person who cared about various “causes”.
One might well ask “what is the point?” of so much of allegedly “subversive” rock-music. One can observe such rock subgenres as “cyberpunk”, as well as other extremal movements (which amount to being entire styles-of-life), like thrash-metal and “gangsta rap”, that only seem to promote hyperviolence and hyperdecadence without any real challenge to the system.
Continuing analysis of the various phenomena of “pop-culture” can be very useful in the formulation of the over-all critique of late modernity. The rock-world can be criticized much more than the music itself, some genres of which the author greatly enjoys, and which constitutes his almost exclusive listening experience today. TV and especially films can also serve as excellent reference points which are commonly recognized.
The Final Fight for Nature and Humanity
The emerging choice for humanity between postmodernity and hypermodernity had been discussed by the author. He will continue to assess the chances of resistance to hypermodernity, as well as further develop some of his arguments.
A figurative trip around the world will now be taken, in order to get an inkling of its state today. It is probably in the peripheries rather than in the North American node of the world-system that serious hope for change lies.
The Soviet countersystem has now disintegrated because puritanical Marxism, with its basket-case economy and coercive violence, was no match for the scintillating allure of Western consumerism and technology and for the promise of personal freedom (which has nevertheless turned out to be very double-edged—for example, in such phenomena as the rise of the Mafiya). Despite everything, there probably remains today more of a basic decency to the average Eastern lifestyle.
Serious reading, high-culture and genuine popular culture exist to a greater extent in Russia—and all the other national communities of the erstwhile Soviet Union and former Eastern bloc—than in most of urban North America. The intellectual or artist or religious person is both more highly valued and closer to the roots of his or her society. Unfortunately, all this is under increasing attack today, as young people in vast numbers leave school (in which they are often being offered the closest thing to a serious classical education in the world today) to try and make a fast buck; lyceum girls say in surveys that their favourite chosen profession for the future would be “hard-currency prostitute”; and American neocon think-tankers suggest on CNN that long-time career military officers could open shoe-shine stands, as that would be more productive than their current occupation of marching around on parade grounds.
What most of the people of the former Eastern bloc societies are probably hoping for are a series of genuine national re-births, without Western interference and without catastrophic, market-imposed pauperization. After all, the collapse of the Eastern bloc—from the perspective of the transnational corporations—could sardonically be termed the largest leveraged buyout in human history.
In his highly-perceptive essay in the March 1992 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “Jihad vs. McWorld”, Professor Benjamin J. Barber noted that the commodity and media system of “McWorld” actually intensifies the negative aspects of nationalist and religious impulses, precisely because they are under such enormous threat from it. Thus, ugly situations such as the excesses of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, the brutal Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi plunder of the Kuwaitis, the slaughter in Rwanda, and the situation in ex-Yugoslavia readily arise. However, the salve for such situations is NOT more globalization. In premodern times, ethnic and religious minorities could often endure for centuries—or even millennia—under hostile dominant cultures. It was the modern period that ushered in ethnic and religious slaughters on a truly mass scale, as well as the fading of the diversity of all rooted peoples in the face of global homogenization.
In his interview with The New York Review of Books (November 21, 1991), the 82-year-old academic éminence grise Isaiah Berlin, said by some to be “the wisest man in the world”, came out in favour of a tempered nationalism as the proper response to both hyper-tribalism and homogenization. He extolled an eighteenth-century philosopher of non-aggressive nationalism, one whose ideals he believes in: a German, Johann Herder, who “virtually invented the idea of belonging”. (Herder, incidentally, was very sympathetic to the Slavic nations—and so his thought was ridiculed by the Nazi regime.) Isaiah Berlin says:
Herder believed that just as people need to eat and drink, to have security and freedom of movement, so too they need to belong to a group. Deprived of this, they felt cut off, diminished, unhappy. To be human meant to be able to feel at home somewhere, with your own kind. Herder’s idea of the nation was deeply non-aggressive. All he wanted was cultural self-determination. He believed in a variety of national cultures, all of which could in his view peacefully co-exist.
This is similar to what Professor Paul Edward Gottfried, at the conclusion of his book on the German political theorist Carl Schmitt and his ideas, has called the “pluriverse” of distinctive peoples and nationalities, each with a meaningful, cherished history and vital existence. This “pluriverse” of human diversity is menaced by the univocal “universe”, by what the preeminent Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant has called “the universal, homogenous, world-state”, or what ecologists might call “the monoculture”.
In his Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Prize, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had said:
The disappearance of nations would impoverish us no less than if all peoples were made alike, with one character, one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind; they are its generalized personalities: the smallest of them has its own particular colours and embodies a particular facet of God’s design.
In his work, Beginning With My Streets (translated by Madeline G. Levine), Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet, philosopher, and Nobel Laureate has written that we live in a time when the person is “deracinated, and thus deprived of collective memory…. Where there is no memory, both time and space are a wasteland.” Polish literature is said to offer “better antidotes against today’s despair” than the current literatures of Western Europe, for “whoever descends from this literature receives signifying time as a gift” and “does not sink into apathy.”
It can be seen that the nations of the former Eastern bloc; the peoples of the numerous, diverse cultural regions of the planet’s South; as well as China, Japan, and the so-called Newly-Industrialized Countries (NIC’s) of the Pacific Rim; are evolving in certain unpredictable directions. Even Europe is arguably showing some signs of an independent “Eurostyle”, something barely tangible but perceivable in the greater elegance and diversity of contemporary European thought, culture, fashion, and lifestyle (to cite one example, the affection for the countryside, or at least the preference for fine food and drink that can only be produced by unhurried, natural methods in the countryside); and further perceivable, therefore, in the view of technology as craftwork. Sophisticated European technological artefacts can be described as being carefully “crafted” rather than mass-produced. This distinctive European style—which also certainly has its negative aspects—is selectively interpreted as “decadence” or nihilism by some North American observers. But the West, as a whole, is defined by its American-centred corporate/media bureaucratic-oligarchic configuration, which stage-manages all “social change” and denies the hope for real change.
It might be added here that the British state is in a curious, unfortunate, “mid-Atlantic” position. There was a point in the Eighties when the standard of living in the United Kingdom apparently fell below that of East Germany. Britain has little of the Continental “style”, but at the same time it lacks the luxurious wealth of North America. Greater London is largely a concrete blight; the old industrial centres of the midlands and the north are hardly better. More development under the “project” of Thatcherite individualism will presumably destroy what little remains of the countryside; lack of development will presumably deepen the misery of the division into “two nations”. Britain has the curious residue of what are probably the worst aspects—as opposed to some more positive, truly aristocratic elements—of a class-system which excuses almost any behaviour by the elite (such as that carried out by the Cambridge spies, virtually all of whom emerged unscathed); which severely punishes to the point of enpenurement a Slavic Count (Nikolai Tolstoy) who makes certain accusations against one of its members; and which virtually slots many working-class people into a perpetual underclass. One of the reasons for the proliferation of youth subcultures in Britain, and of the unquestionably trend-setting and manifestly more independent and less brazenly commercial nature of British rock (and its various subgenres) relative to its North American counterparts, is simply that white alienation in Britain is more genuine and can more genuinely be felt. (There are more real working-class youth there, as opposed to the well-off “bohos” pretentiously “slumming it” in North America.) The “Little Englanders” of the early twentieth century—as well as J. R. R. Tolkien—have been proven essentially correct that the gaudy edifice of British imperialism and colonialism would quickly collapse and implode upon England, leaving the nation a wreck. Ireland, for so long a despised province of the British Empire, seems now to be in better national, spiritual, and environmental shape than her long-time occupier. The cultural identifications in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (or Ulster), however much they contribute to intercommunal strife, seem so much more vivid and alive than in England, especially in its “Southern Third”, the most prosperous part of the country, which is particularly supportive of Thatcherism. (A curious comment on the situation in Northern Ireland is that the cumulative murder rate there, even with all “the Troubles”, is apparently much less per capita than that of Washington, D.C.) While the British (or what should really be called the English, or London-ruled) state seems moribund, the so-called Celtic fringe of Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall appears to be reviving, culturally if not economically. So the possibilities and configurations of resistance to globalization vary from country to country and from region to region.
Regarding the problems of the Third World (or South), there is a constellation of trends at work—not only the Western mass-media images which undermine traditional cultures, but also the extreme poverty, caused largely by massively burgeoning overpopulation, which drastically cheapens human life in those countries.
It seems impossible for the author to imagine that any country would consciously want to be overpopulated. While on the one hand it would seem entirely just that the West take strong steps to limit its own profligate consumption, as well as to funnel extensive, meaningful aid to the South, it also behooves the South to take extremely strong population-control measures and to understand that any large-scale aid would be contingent on the enactment of at least some significant efforts in that direction—as well as to realize that the West in general, and Europe in particular, could no longer serve as destination-points for large-scale immigration. Stabilization of population growth must be seen as one of the primary means of stabilizing the over-all situation in the South. Then, presumably, the over-all value put on human life in those countries will increase, the traditional cultures will be under less severe stress, and there will be some hope for the ultimate survival and recovery of the ravaged ecosystems and dwindling wilderness areas of the South, which include such priceless ecological treasures as the Amazon rainforest (critical to the oxygen supply and stability of weather patterns across the entire planet), the African savannah, and the forests of Northern India.
The future—if there is indeed a future—will result from the convergence of various trends which from the current standpoint might seem contradictory, yet which ultimately have some points in common. The most hopeful development today is probably ecology. It would be even more positive, however, if the rather abstract allegiances of the ecological movement could be reinterpreted on the level of a specific community or communities. The “postmodern” idea of the future clearly calls for a strict sense of limits on consumption, limits on economic growth, and limits on the now-untrammelled exploitation of the planet. However, it would seem that the ecological argument for sacrifices in consumption could much more easily and meaningfully be made if it meant sacrifices for something more local, tangible, and particular than an abstract ecological principle. Here is where the argument for this land, this countryside, this country, must come in. The combined position of communitarian ecology offers the careful shepherding of resources and custodianship of nature for the sake of a particular community which is to derive its sustenance from these resources for the ongoing millennia. This also implies that either all communities on the planet will be following such policies, or that the particular community must be capable of decisively repelling possible incursions from such communities that are refusing to participate in this model. Presumably, ecologically-minded communities and societies will form themselves into various alliances that would be able not only to repel incursions, but, more importantly, to bring about the triumph of communitarian-ecological principles across the entire planet. What we are talking about could be characterized as the return of “the steady-state society” (or at least one of very measured and slow economic growth), which might also be called a “hydraulic-ecological” society. What in the 21st century will become the increasingly precious resources of clean running water; real food with minimal chemicals and carcinogens; energy-supplies, especially petroleum and coal; high-tech medical care; green space in which one can breathe and relax; and large personal dwelling-places (not to mention the current profligacies of mad consumption) will presumably be subject to some kind of very real—though not, in the final analysis, necessarily all that onerous—rationing. The grotesque excesses of “car-culture”, for example, will have to be significantly and meaningfully curtailed—which is not to say that there will be a return to the horse-and-buggy. Realistically speaking, such an ecological program cannot be based on wholesale de-urbanization or ruralization, but rather on a saner and more ecological management of the situation as it currently is.
A central premise of the critique of late modernity is that late capitalism is NOT in fact a truly rational system of allocation of resources. The facts are that enormous amounts of energy are superfluously wasted in the creation of advertising to inflame appetites for largely unnecessary products, obsolescence is “planned-in” to keep consumption at a high rate, etc. For example, it has been estimated that the actual cumulative speed of commuting to and from work by car, in the very largest urban centres, is slower than that of walking by foot, because of the state of terminal gridlock. The personal and psychological rewards that will compensate for the decrease in consumption and in quantity are to be the increase in the quality of life, the emergence of time for pause and reflection in many people’s lives, as well as the sense of participation in and belonging to a genuine, friendlier, and safer community.
The other path for humanity—that of hypermodernity—which the planet today unfortunately seems to be moving on with a startling degree of unidirectional intensity implies an increasingly dystopic future for humanity. As the once-Western-derived technology increasingly encroaches upon the world, our ultimate fate is most likely one of these alternatives: the possible extinction of human beings through some massive ecological or bio-engineering disaster; the possible extinction of the human spirit, and then presumably of physical humanity (if that proverbial “unlimited energy source” is actually found, and technology is able to “solve” all of our problems, but without our ability to set any limits on it); or what could be called the “Brazilification” (this term first prominently used in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X) of the West, as well as of the planet as a whole—i.e., extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty; attenuation of the public-political realm and endemic crime, violence, and corruption everywhere; burgeoning overpopulation; and ongoing environmental degradation.
To conclude: the future, though uncertain, can still be won. The painfully minimal resources available to the critics of late modernity today must be marshalled in such a fashion as to create maximum impact—to bend flexibly, where possible; to use the opposing forces’ strength against them, where possible; but also to be able to possibly deliver, at some point, a very telling blow. These writings, based on extensive reading, study, and discussion, have attempted, with forthright honesty and intellectual integrity, and to the best of the author’s abilities, to begin the enormous work now needed in the direction of fashioning a line of attack which should hold the greatest chance of success in this very unequal, but absolutely critical, fight for the future of a humanity living in accord with Nature—or else facing extreme spiritual and physical degradation, or outright extinction.
Mark Wegierski is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada, whose commentaries on political philosophy and analyses of pop-culture are very familiar to this audience.