The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
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
On Outlasting the Life Cycle of the Technology-Intensive Economy
John R. Harris
The West’s technology-intensive culture, despite a glorious heyday, also has a decline and death, if its vitality is measured in human rather than mechanistic terms. We must understand and respond to the cycle or else be swept away by its final stage as independent, spiritual beings.
I. Chaco Canyon: A Case Study
The prehistoric inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico, authored a technological breakthrough early in the second Christian millennium: irrigation. Called the Anasazi, these peaceful farmers must have observed the abundance of water that poured from the canyon’s high cliffs during rare cloudbursts. They must have reasoned that trapping and channeling their area’s most precious resource could advance them significantly in the struggle to survive. And so it did. They formed settlements so as to concentrate their efforts, worked together to spread water through their fields, and were eventually harvesting such surpluses that their central township—christened Pueblo Bonito by later explorers—carried huge storage rooms within its crescent-shaped, multi-storied outer structure. The finely wrought masonry of this desert Camelot, housing perhaps a thousand residents, would largely endure under shifting sands until excavation began about a century ago.
Chacoan civilization itself would prove far more fragile. In fact, despite evidence of extensive roads and watch towers suggesting a prosperous trade network, the whole complex arrangement had unraveled by 1200 A.D. Was it because the Chacoans’ very prosperity had drawn depredation upon them from ruthless neighbors like the Aztecs? Did the stored grain attract rodents and other vermin that spread plague? Did the people, squeezed into uncomfortably close proximity by urbanization, take to fighting among themselves in competition for new honors and richer profits? Did a tyrannical political system exploit the masses of ever more specialized and dependent city-dwellers who would kiss whatever hand held the key to the granary?
Whatever the ultimate moral of the Chacoan tale’s unknown denouement may be, the ill-starred adventure is already in many ways a morality play about the human struggle. We develop technologies that allow us to reduce back-breaking, time-consuming labor; since these technologies require collaboration to create or operate, we form settlements; collaboration leads to specialization, since some people do some jobs particularly well—some of us became stonemasons or tribal runners rather than ditch-diggers or savvy planters; advanced settlements become scenes of grand spectacle and petty amusement as we allocate our increased leisure to more pleasant pursuits; the provision of luxury and amusement itself turns to gainful employ, producing a wide array of new specializations; a market economy emerges, perhaps based on barter but pioneering the use of currency in more sophisticated examples; urban-dwelling specialists are at last wholly dependent upon sales or wages, since their ties to the land have been severed and the marketplace has disrupted the notion that crops are communally owned; social classes define themselves, their boundaries posed less by the logic of what the community most needs than by the relative popularity of labor’s product; and so on, and so on.
The immensely complex evolution that I have squeezed above into one long sentence only crudely observes the sequence that I have given it. Many developments are concurrent, or else overlap in a way that sets the start of one well before the finish of another. My purpose is not to represent with precise accuracy a chain of events that a book would be hard pressed to lay out, but merely to show that a chain of sorts exists. Naturally, where you have a chain, you have links; and where you have links, you have the possibility of rupture. The “advance” to civilization can run off the tracks at any one of perhaps dozens of critical junctures. It is worthwhile listing a few of these, most of them already implicit in the Chaco mystery.
Geological or meteorological catastrophe can spoil everything. An earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a tsunami, or (as may very well have happened in the case of Chaco) a prolonged drouth may effectively exterminate the political, economic, and social order within great walls, if not the walls themselves.
Epidemic disease may do the same. Archaeological evidence of such events is extremely hard to come by. The speculation that Pueblo Bonito, with its huge storage chambers and concentrated population, may have been the Petrie dish for some rodent-borne contagion is entirely my own; but we need hardly prove that people are more apt to sicken with transmissible illnesses when they live closer together, and especially when they also travel frequently to other communities (as in commercial activity).
Rich settlements make rich targets. Christy Turner’s highly controversial book Man Corn (1999) proposed that the Anasazi were brutally dominated by the Aztecs, who may well have employed (according to Turner’s reading of forensic evidence) ritual cannibalism as a means of terrorizing these merchant-farmers. Wars have winners and losers, and often only losers. Neither Athens nor Sparta would ever enjoy the same cultural dynamism and moral clarity after the Peloponessian Wars as it had known before them; and we see more plainly on every gray morning of our twenty-first century that the two world wars of its predecessor have undermined all the nations of Western Europe.
We don’t know the details of Anaszai religion, but the bowl-shaped kivas characterizing the entire region (including tiny outlier settlements) strongly suggest solar worship. The Great Kiva in Pueblo Bonito features a tunnel by which the priest would manage to appear abruptly in the center of the amphitheater, like the sun rising from the earth. Sometimes religious practices can be spliced into the political power structure in ways that stabilize the ruling elite but also demoralize the general populace. Whether or not the Aztecs cannibalized the Anasazi, their horrendous custom of eviscerating maidens on a vast scale would not seem to lay the foundation of a durable society. Certainly Islam managed to mold a robust political unit in a miraculously brief span out of various local systems trapped for centuries in a petty tribalism; but it has also suffered in our own time (and as far back as the dawning of the West’s Industrial Revolution) from a political hardening of the arteries, and one is hard put to describe any major Islamic state today as a vibrant civilization.
If religion can be the means of political oppression, it is but one such means. I cannot help but wonder how the rituals experienced in the Chaco Canyon’s outlying kivas would have differed from those in Pueblo Bonito’s Great Kiva. The sheer numbers involved in urban existence change everything. Crowds become more unruly and volatile. Control of their behavior is necessarily less a matter of appealing to an inherited sense of decorum (which usually works in a tribal setting) and much more a matter of sheer terror. With large settlements come brutal tyrants. Rural/agrarian populations do not elect fascist dictators: urban/industrial populations do. Yet the despot who rules the people only by trampling them under the hooves of his cavalry is not secure in his power, as Machiavelli’s little book often reminds us; the best plan is to mingle brief, bloody episodes of punishment with other, longer episodes of largesse. In the absence of such statecraft, eras of strongmen merely succeed each other. Dense populations are readily manipulable. They can be formed into an army upon a promise of rich plunder or whipped into a rebellious fever over abuses suffered under a declining autocrat. When such tides of dominion become systematized (as, for instance, in the Chinese imperial dynasties), they can impose atrophy upon a civilization’s creative vigor for generations, centuries, or perhaps millennia.
II. Urban vs. Rural: Health and Safety
The fragile links of any evolving civilization are so numerous that I believe they must call into question our progressive society’s complacent truism about the superiority of the city to the farm. Any good citizen of the twenty-first century West will immediately protest that our medical technology gives us an inarguable and incalculable advantage. If the diseases and complaints from which humans suffered were uniform in kind and frequency throughout history (and pre-history), this would be sound reasoning; but such is not the case. Predominantly agrarian populations did not need clever strategies for fighting cancer because industrial wastes had not so polluted their diet that cancer constantly stalked them all. They did not require sophisticated protocols for handling heart disease because manual labor kept them fit and an unmechanized pace of life reduced their stress. Except for ritual purposes—and then often only for a select few—intoxicants and hallucinogens were rarely consumed. The relatively short lifespan of yesteryear’s yeomen has a lot more to do with childbed fever (gravely affecting female life expectancy), poor hygiene leading to inflated infant mortality rates, and the daily use of large animals or heavy equipment in labor (jeopardizing the adult male demographic) than with anything inherently unwholesome about the farm. With a very few technological fixes and a small dose of education, the tombstones of country churchyards could have had considerably more generous dates on them.
The contemporary city, on the other hand, seems to immerse us in more poisons the more it “progresses”. Its accommodation of our biological rhythms is so stinting that a permanent merger of human and robot is seriously being proposed for the near future ever more often. As long as we continue to concentrate tens of millions of people in population centers, furthermore, we will see mutant “superbugs” springing up faster than our laboratories can create antidotes. The ease and rapidity of modern transportation will ensure, besides, that any new contagion will spread within days from major cities to remote towns. These are not high-risk conditions that a little fresh knowledge and hardware might resolve; they are, on the contrary, the suffocating “bottleneck effect” of a way of life that looks distinctly suicidal as its logical consequences play out.
Surely, however, the contemporary urban lifestyle is far safer than life on the frontier, where predators human and animal ruthlessly preyed upon the poor plowman and the frail milkmaid. In the popular mind (with much encouragement from Hollywood), our pioneer-progenitors led a life fraught with sudden and mortal peril. Indian attack, molestation by wandering hoodlums, ambush by mountain lion and rattlesnake… survival on the frontier must have been no better than a day-to-day proposition. Yet this lurid portrait turns out to be highly melodramatized when one adds truthful historical detail. Toqueville dutifully recorded the observation of American settlers that buffalo would permanently flee an entire region as soon as they heard a belled cow; and where the buffalo went, most of the semi-nomadic natives would follow. Mounted hooligans, where they existed, would also have found the odds stacked against them. Every member of a frontier household knew how to shoot; and with the first bay of the loyal family hound dog at the approach of something unknown, three or four hands around the cabin would have reached for rifles. If the stranger were a cougar or a black bear, the dog’s bellow alone would probably have sent it scampering.
The closest replication of the “endangered homesteader” scenario would have appeared in border states during the Civil War, when jayhawkers and bushwhackers burned and plundered under the guise of military service. Often ununiformed, sometimes displaying distinct signs of what we would call sociopathic behavior, these itinerant partisans were in fact the product, not of living on the wilderness’s edge, but of grinding an urban/industrial economy’s demands against a rural/agrarian economy’s. The former community (i.e., the Union) was clearly better equipped to impose its will, and would continue to do so in more regular mounted actions against the Plains Indians after the war. The most sanguinary Indian engagements, then, were likewise precipitated by urban interests hidden beyond the eastern horizon (specifically and especially, by an industrial hunger for mined metals and a commercial thirst for the trade opportunities created by transcontinental railroads). But for gold, the Trail of Tears and the Sand Creek Massacre would never have happened; but for the wickedly clever policy of selling homesteads in a checkerboard pattern along railway routes, there would likely never have been a Wounded Knee.
Today’s metropolitan centers are indeed quite dangerous by almost any historical measure. As many as 50,000 Americans die in a given year simply from traffic accidents. Gang activity has achieved a lethality in many major cities that equals or surpasses a Saturday night in an old mining town’s corridor of saloons and brothels. Inhabitants of trouble-spots like Jefferson, Missouri, tend to vote in favor of gun-control advocates, as if young gangsters might be disarmed by ink on a page; yet they sometimes claim to be just as fearful of the police who patrol their streets, even as they complain that patrols are too few. If a Comanche had visited your ranch under cover of darkness, he would have made straight for the horses in your corral; when bullets fly through an infant’s bedroom in a marginal neighborhood as a drive-by shooter sprays an urban block, they have no particular target or objective. The Comanche was the lesser risk.
I will draw out this contrast no further. Anyone endowed with a sense of proportion and a moderate degree of historical awareness can carry its terms to other situations. My point, in any case, is not that life was necessarily better in a log cabin with a long rifle over the mantelpiece than it is in a Manhattan apartment or a Kansas City suburb; I suggest merely that the frontier option was not necessarily worse. Our lifestyle has certainly changed—but those who insist that it has unequivocally improved speak in narrow-minded ignorance.
III. Postmodernity’s Unique Formula: Inhuman Producers and Dumbed-Down Consumers
Nevertheless, I acknowledge that my own skepticism of progress is not widely embraced, unless with the help of lubricating self-contradictions. Many policy-makers and rank-and-file denizens of the contemporary world will at once maintain that we should live closer to nature and that our social, political, and cultural institutions should continue to “evolve” into some ever-elusive higher state. We are to rid our world of pollution by living in an Edenic simplicity while abandoning natural notions of gender and reproduction and enhancing brain function with implanted microchips or nanobots. As we attempt to muddle our way into the future with maps whose polarities spin, something more is happening to us than a mere reprise of the Chacoan cycle (whatever that may have been). We are not now courting calamity just because our drinking water is carcinogenic or because the supervolcano upon which Yellowstone Park sits may erupt without warning. Our political problems do not reduce merely to the lust of powerful representatives for more power and the lazy cowardice of electors who bestow it upon them. Our economic troubles extend beyond our desertion of the land to seek urban wages, and beyond the invincible fluctuation in free markets that carries wages up and down. Our security, even, is infinitely more complicated than keeping nuclear weapons away from megalomaniacs and fanatics. We are not a Pueblo Bonito whose kivas are built of steel and concrete. A watershed has been crossed. We have become a qualitatively different sort of human civilization, and the past offers us no clues about our destiny in the form of precedents.
The word “hypermodernity” is sometimes used to portray our state. It is probably no more likely that any human intelligence could accurately, fully imagine the sequence of causes behind our “hypermodern” dilemma than a flatworm could picture life in three dimensions. To begin with our technological shift, though, is not completely arbitrary. After all, the machine is the efficient cause of our running out of wage-paying jobs as the entire economy has turned urban/industrial. It wasn’t supposed to work this way—and, of course, it didn’t in North America as long as capitalist expansion could create new categories of manual labor along with new products. The train reduced jobs related to the production of horse-drawn carriages but provided new opportunities for surveyors, engineers, iron-workers, porters, and so forth. The automobile robbed many a train conductor and switchman of their employment (especially after World War II, with Congress’s bought-and-paid-for blessing) but ushered in millions of positions for assembly-line workers, gas station attendants, car salesmen, drillers, etc. In many such cases, the emergence of new product lines may indeed have created more jobs than were lost in the obsolescence of forerunner-products. This was because, while new items themselves reflected a more sophisticated level of technology, the essential means of producing them still called for clever, active hands—and lots of them.
An economic sound barrier was broken when innovation began to address the thing produced less than the means of producing it. Our cars have not inarguably improved over the past half-century (some would argue the opposite). What has changed is the assembly line, which is now entirely robotic at most points. Even the humble garage mechanic is enslaved to a computer; for the malfunctioning vehicle diagnoses itself when plugged into special software, and the mechanic (he who remains after six have been laid off) merely substitutes the ordered part when it arrives—using an automatic screwdriver. Our economy is now pledged to creating gadgetry that performs repetitive tasks much faster and more reliably than human beings ever could while also, in the long run, engineering huge savings in salaries not paid. For a while, we could sell ourselves (or the underclass, if we belonged to the socio-economic elite) on the notion that re-educated, more skilled laborers make better salaries and achieve a higher standard of living. Yet eventually all could plainly see what only a fool wouldn’t have guessed from the start: that the employment pyramid must narrow as we climb the vertical “time” axis—that better jobs become fewer, and that no amount of re-education can absorb all blue-collar lay-offs into white-collar hires.
To the extent that blue-collar, low-skilled labor still survives in the West, it has held off the machine by beating the costs of mechanization with rock-bottom wages. A robotic waitresss costs more to construct, for the moment, than half a dozen flesh-and-blood waitresses cost to employ. (Yet order-by-computer “kiosks” on restaurant tables are already reducing the number of waiters and waitresses on staff to those strictly necessary for serving food.) In many industries, the so-called point of singularity looms, when artificial creations will recreate improved versions of themselves on a schedule that they have independently devised. Human employees will be needed neither to write the software nor to turn the screws (and, perhaps, will not be able to control the direction, scale, or tempo of reproduction).
Our grandchildren, if not our children, will not be citizens of Pueblo Bonito clamoring for grain after a drouth; they will be stray dogs fit only to be expelled from city streets no longer made for footsteps, their one remaining freedom a choice of where to go in the wasteland. They will have no practical use, hence no job, hence no wage, hence no food… hence no chance of life. A few may fuse with their robotic creations in the manner whose anticipation elates Ray Kurzweil; but even Kurzweil has lately admitted that our multitudes will mostly be excluded from this hybridization. Tomorrow’s world will have rendered mere humanity, and the vast majority of humans, obsolete.
An incalculable tally of human bodies, at some critical juncture, will have to be disposed of in the transition. The disposal might proceed through such relatively benign and scarcely noticeable means as sterilization; but in the end, a virtual extermination of the species will have taken place as surely as if nine out of every ten had been pushed off the Tarpeian Rock. There are too many of us already, and there will be far too many in an ultra-high-tech future. This is partly because the same technical advances responsible for AI (artificial intelligence) have also produced medical miracles significantly prolonging life and increasing populations. Urbanization has also contributed to our mushrooming numbers, inasmuch as more mating takes place where more mate-material is at hand. Then, too, the politics of the hypermodern “democracy” rely heavily upon immense, needy hordes of urban dwellers milling about the streets restlessly in search of work, always ready to riot and loot, and not remotely aware of the cruel endgame in which they are pawns. Western metropolitan centers are indeed flooding themselves with large-family, low-skilled Third World laborers drawn in by the magnet of social-welfare benefits. These masses create an invincible voting bloc that secures the power of the welfare state’s engineers until such time as resources run out… at which point, a national emergency—food riots, race wars, or very likely a pandemic nursed along by the unscreened and indiscriminate mingling of the planet’s people—will justify an indefinite suspension of elections. Checkmate.
Another wholly unique facet of our hypermodern dystopia: our own intellectual degradation at the historical moment when we most need to be curious, skeptical, and creative. This unprecedented moment (whose duration we can only guess at) stretches between the end of blue-collar factory labor and the absorption of virtually all jobs, blue- and white-collar alike, by the Machine. In such a tenuous span do we presently find ourselves. For the time being, yes, factory lay-offs are bussing tables, trucking merchandise, and mowing lawns—all of which jobs are mentally more dulling than challenging. For the time being, too, many of the laid-off who cannot find even menial work (and some who can, but not full-time) are surviving on the monthly largesse of their government. One way and another, enough money continues to circulate through the hands of consumers that a thriving market in frivolities persists—and why wouldn’t it, when so many are in such need of an illusory escape? Unemployed mothers of three receive free smartphones with free WiFi from Uncle Sam (that ultimate sugar daddy). Underemployed college grads spend hours in their parents’ den playing Mortal Kombat. Blue-collar twenty-somethings “between jobs” grow obese on Slurpees and Blasts as they putter about putting in applications at Dairy Queen and Taco Bueno. Draft Kings becomes a major industry. Vintage Kens and Barbies may fetch hundreds on eBay.
The chicken or the egg? Is the prospect of utter economic marginalization, however dimly brought into focus, so palpable that people flee to giddy diversion the way soldiers get roaring drunk before another post to the front line? Or is control of our economic future exiting our hands so quickly because, like children in the proverbial candy shop, we cannot hold onto our money? Probably both: the picture’s haze is again insolubly dense. Some of its lines, nevertheless, are thick and clear. Pornography in its myriad forms is always an easy sell; so is sugar, and so is caffeine. Snake-oil pills that cure cancer or cut your weight in half, bracelets that reduce stress, cruises to the Blessed Isles, front-row seats at the ballgame or the fight, cars that shoot along like the Enterprise’s launch and speak in the rich tones of Robin Meade… there is much in these both of the escapist intoxicant and of the puerile seduction. Yet whether we are willfully medicating ourselves or blindly surrendering ourselves, no one who retains a hold upon objective judgment will claim that the process makes us smarter or more mature. Perhaps the very successes of our technology have reduced us to “spoiled brats” (as Ortega y Gasset recognized almost a century ago); perhaps we want more titillation and obsequy even as material means of support are dissolving around us because instant, servile attention is what an electronic upbringing has accustomed us to.
In our institutions of higher learning, no less, where the cream of the crop is supposed to be learning to take command of the ship, infantilism is courting derangement on one side and idiocy on the other. Speech codes, originally the Nanny State’s crash course in basic manners no longer taught at home, have morphed until they impair open discussion of delicate issues. Students are encouraged, and even required, to curl up in a utopian womb where moral challenges never set their hearts to racing. So-called “trigger alerts” are issued to warn their eyes and ears away from “unpleasant” directions. An Anglo-Saxon coed who wants to be African for a day, a year, or the rest of her life must not be dissuaded; or if a young man wishes to become that coed for the same unspecified duration, he/she must not feel the discomfort of stares. “Ze” is the new gender-neutral pronoun enforced on many campuses. In hypermodern circumstances, we might redact Hamlet’s “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” to read, “All is good except the thoughts that make things thus-and-so.”
Lunatic self-indulgence of this sort is unique in human history (unless one looks for it in individuals: the Suetonian portrait of Caligula might be a model). Of course, any society that embraces it wholesale is committing suicide. The human inhabitants of our baffling pocket in time have no significant contact with the sun, the rain, the seasons, the soil, or food and water in their immediate form as natural products. They—we—seem more akin to the fantasy-inducing machines we endlessly play on than to flesh-and-blood fauna. Our tastes and whims are increasingly dictated, indeed, by technology that was supposed to have served a fully human will. So far have we slipped down the path to self-annihilation that we contemplate with equanimity a future wherein a robotic shell absorbs us. Indeed, we are all but volunteering to be sucked up by H.G. Wells’s mechanized, pitiless Martian invaders, our terror transformed to admiration. What else can we do—through what other mutation can we survive? For we understand circuitry a lot better than photosynthesis, and one may fairly say, obesity notwithstanding, that our craving for electricity far exceeds our hunger for calories.
IV. Self-Sufficiency: The Path Away From the Abyss
What is to save us from this descent into the lobster pot which will anesthetize us so slowly, so luxuriously, that we settle into a sleep with no awakening? Prophets of high-tech trajectory like Wired magazine’s Bill Joy assure us that the ultimate triumph of AI is inevitable (the “resistance is futile” line so popular in bad sci-fi movies). More glib, less canny futurists like Marina Gorbis (whose book, The Nature of the Future, I chided in these pages a few months ago for intellectual dishonesty) seem to think that we will make our way simply by giving—or “gifting”—each other what we need! Technology is supposed to make this easier by expanding exponentially the community of eager donors. Alas, eBay has yet to read the Gorbis memo.
I am a minimalist by nature. When confronted with an immensely complex question or chore, I seek to simplify it by identifying the bare essentials or necessities. To survive, a human being needs water and food. Over the longer haul, he also needs shelter and clothing in most environments; and shelter often includes some defensive provision, to which might be added offensive means of protecting oneself and one’s dependents. (Though hungry humans only ever ask for food in Ms. Gorbis’s universe, in mine they sometimes kill for it.) Nothing much else is truly indispensable: certainly not iPhones, televisions, computers, cars, sound systems, GPS’s, and the host of other electronic gadgets whose steady contribution of EMR (electro-magnetic radiation) to our environment may indeed be quite unhealthy. The refrigerator is far and away the most useful of such devices: keeping a steady supply of ripening food in the field or salted away in the storehouse was one of the frontiersman’s major challenges. I will repeat that my purpose here is not to glamorize the log cabin and the blazing hearth. The consequences of returning to those days, besides introducing unremittent hard labor, would be devastating to two millennia of more or less constantly flourishing literate culture.
We would do ourselves no harm at all, however, to redirect technology toward a refinement of the pioneer’s rugged self-sufficiency. While we need not hew our houses from felled logs, we can design them to be so energy-efficient that little or no electricity will be required in most months to heat or cool their interior, and to be so invasion-proof that alarm systems and 911-responders will become rarities. While we need not find a mule to yoke to our plow, we can operate greenhouses year-round along glassed-in sections of currently wasted attic space. As for the refrigerator, though solar power is often a boondoggle purveyed by cynical politicians, a few solar panels could probably preserve our food resources electrically.
Very little of this, once built, would require a salary to sustain. The economic Armageddon of massive and permanent unemployment which looms in the rise of the machine would pass its blade over our heads and wreak havoc only upon the foolish giants of the Spoiled Child clan. We would build our houses and then stay in them, adapting and improving them as the years wore on. If the high-tech, human-hybrid oligarchy were already well on its way to colonizing Mars (in an interesting reversal of War of the Worlds), it would probably not even torment us “neo-frontiersmen” with building permits and revised property-tax assessments. We would stay in our little communities instead of pulling up stakes every time the plant closed or the payroll was cut. We would get to know each other as neighbors, finding a lost species of happiness in abiding friendships based on physical proximity and collaboration in the basic, vital tasks of living. For there would be, yes, a certain amount of Gorbis’s generosity among fellow villagers—not twittering and facebooking “friends” who volley clichés and selfies, but hard-working people who swap a bit of engineering skill for some gardening savvy. Elementary bartering would grow commonplace, as it has always been in well-knit communities. Since the settlement’s denizens would know each other by sight, suspicious characters would stick out like a wolf among sheep, and locally grown vandals and pranksters would also be recognized by sharp eyes at some window. Crime would therefore be minimal. Responsibility would be taught to the young through daily exchanges—as opposed to being integrated into the “learning outcomes” of state-funded institutions; and regional schools, for that matter, would have autonomy over the content of lessons, perhaps accomplishing their work in actual homes along residential blocks after the fashion being pioneered now by home-schoolers.
The market economy would not disappear: it would simply lose its power of life and death over our future. Indeed, what would emerge would certainly resemble the vibrant free-enterprise zones that small American townships everywhere knew before mega-corporations captured our economic activity through the combined effects of Internet marketing, outsourcing, and the promoting of oppressive regulations that suffocate independent craftsmen. No longer crushed under the “convenience” of a vast sameness, indivduals would flourish. Mama Giovanella could operate her Italian restaurant out of the first floor of her residence. Old Man Callahan could sell sports memorabilia and ancient signage from a collection in his garage. The Panopoulos brothers would make and repair furniture; Mme. Yvette would style hair, and give children a trim on slow days. Nobody would “make it big” in such a setting. Nobody would really need to. Americans lived this way from the landing at Plymouth Rock until the dictatorial ascent of OSHA, local health departments, zoning laws, the minimum wage, and all the other “protective” bureaucracies and strictures of Nanny State mandarinism.
When some tentacle of Government instead of a neighbor is first to your house upon a fire’s breaking out or a brawl’s developing in the front yard, then you might as well view yourself as a tenant and minion of Government. The high-tech, urban/suburban, wage-dependent society and economy created by capitalism’s final stages has ironically reduced us to just such tenantry. “Eschato-capitalism” (as one might call it) is the antithesis of free enterprise. Through wage-dependency reaffirmed by paternalistic safety nets and guard rails, it keeps us looking to “the system” for our day’s bread. That the nets and rails eventually form a chute to the slaughterhouse (or, better yet, to that Auschwitz-like Lobster Pot) is something we haven’t the leisure to notice—or the energy to resist, if we should somehow notice it.
I am assuming, then, that our neo-pioneers have managed largely to escape taxation, regulation, and observation. They may have done so simply by accident, the way some Detroiters are growing food on empty lots that do not, after all, belong to them… but who cares now? As I suggested earlier, the dysfunctional hypermodern community may well be left by its elitist architects to dry up and blow away. At most, contraception and sterilization will be “charitably” dispensed to reduce the number of mouths needing food, diminish strain on the planet’s resources, and spare an unborn generation the misery of entering this world. (Such initiatives, as every reader of these pages must know, are already beyond the preliminary stage.) I do not, in contrast, foresee roving paramilitary teams in jeeps mounted with machine guns driving up and down decadent urban neighborhoods and spraying whatever moves. A standard dystopian scenario of popular fiction has dissidents being hunted down through the spying of their own televisions (viz, Nineteen Eighty-Four) and, if successful in their evasion, banding together in some extra-urban wilderness (viz., Fahrenheit 451). The truth, as well documented in Priest and Arkin’s Top Secret America (2011), is that our “keepers” are already inundated in so much information than they can neither share it nor even process it effectively. The inevitable result will be the consignment of triage to AI, of course—and a computerized brain will be far too interested in genuine subversion to monitor “threshold resistance” closely.
So the neo-pioneer, whether he is such by design or by accident—whether a survivalist or just trying to survive—will likely have the opportunity to cling to his humanity and pass it along to his children. Why wouldn’t he? The means to survive are as accessible as ever, “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Who will deny us a little sun to grow beans and tomatoes or a little rain to water them? The landlords of the Enclosure period had their reasons for wanting to see the Potato Famines starve out their Irish tenants, and Stalin had his for wanting to starve millions of Ukrainians. The situation I describe, however, does not involve any land that Central Authority wishes otherwise to deploy or any riotous rabble that it must quell. On the contrary, the neo-pioneer is staying out of the way—and there is no better plan for living off the twenty-second century’s grid than to stay out of the way.
Machines, always remember, see what they are made to see. A flashlight pointed into the darkness illumines everything before its ray—and nothing to either side. As long as we resist desiring that which the machine dangles before us and hence defining our values according to the machine’s vision of the good life, we will remain incomprehensible to mechanized understanding. We will continue to be as imperceptible as a dog whistle is to a man or as the colors of a Van Gogh are to a dog. What machines we do make to ease our chores should stay offline, their information not available for harvest by any database. We must grasp that to be united (i.e., “brought together”) is no longer to be unified (i.e., “made one”); it is, perhaps, the very opposite. Every germinating apple seed (as my own sophomoric efforts at cultivation have taught me) looks like every other, yet they are not clones. One individual survives and thrives, while another mysteriously perishes in the same circumstances. Nature has made us to be thus individualistic, some of us responding better to heat or to cold, some better to bacterial attack or injury. The “root” in all of us paleo-humans struggles to reach for nourishment: that much we all have in common. It is those of us (and I fear that this may prove to be the vast majority) inclined to draw in the root atrophically and content to be fed by an artificial hand who face fusion with artifice, and so oblivion as human beings.
V. A Postscript on “Conservative” Exponents: Why Their Message Fails
It cannot have escaped the careful reader that increased centralization (centripety) plays the villain’s role in my forecasts, whereas devolution of power to bestow more choice upon the individual (centrifugy) is the hero. Though the technological revolution has empowered individuals to perform certain traditionally collaborative tasks all by themselves (e.g., a single occupant traveling a thousand miles in a car, two cellphone clients holding an intimate conversation from distant parts of the world), I do not see how any reasonable mind would fail to recognize the overall centripetal effects of advanced technology. (As noted earlier, all cars now have computers and cannot be repaired by one mechanic with a wrench; and we need not review all the ways in which cellphone-users are susceptible to eavesdropping and data-mining.)
My suspicion of Big Brother would conventionally qualify my remarks as “right wing”, since all progressive projects depend upon an expert, elite body of leaders making choices for the masses. Yet I will conclude by observing with surprise and disappointment that the most audible voices on the presumed Right seem to disagree with some or most of my theses.
Rush Limbaugh, radio’s patron saint of titularly conservative positions, may seem an implausible place to start, despite his voice’s level of circulation and influence. After all (one may protest), he’s an entertainer, not an intellectual. Yet in an age when the host of a “reality” TV show is likely to be elected president, when kid-show celebrity Bill Nye is a much quoted “science guy”, and when “activist” actors are invited to testify before Congress almost every week, the respect for “serious qualifications” must be understood as having completely evaporated. The “spoiled brat” frivolity of the late-capitalist marketplace carries right over into other areas of our degenerative culture, and… and so, everybody’s an expert on everything (as Ortega y Gasset also prophesied). A central plank of Limbaugh conservatism, indeed, may be said to maintain the worthlessness—and even the subversive dangers—of the academy and other intellectual institutions. No doubt, there is an ironic throwback in the electronic world’s high-tech dumbing-down to the ethos of the proudly unlettered peasant. I might mention the rural Irish of a century or so ago who burned books in Gaelic and refused to acquire Gaelic literacy because they associated all such things with a Protestant seduction. (Protestant missionaries held that conversion would be simplified once the locals could read the Bible for themselves in their own tongue; and the rather sinister offer of soup for conversion during the Famines led to the designating of anyone with Gaelic literacy as a “Souper”: i.e., a turncoat.)
Let it stand, then, that contempt for education really does have a certain affinity with the “old ways” (an affinity of which Limbaugh and his votaries seem utterly unaware). This earthy anti-intellectualism actually explains quite a lot about Rush’s other positions. Though he was rationally drawn to support the constitutionalist among the array of Republican candidates during the primary season, he was viscerally drawn with even greater magnetism toward the rude iconoclast whose mockery of all polite forms and all humble, thoughtful suspension of judgment was the sole engine of his popularity. The Limbaugh conservative “knows what he knows” and jeers, threatens, or “talks over” when contradicted.
In fairness, the behavior described in my last sentence characterizes the amiable Rush’s standard operating procedure infinitely less often than it does that of his fellow fireside-philosopher, Sean Hannity. What is perhaps more revealing about Limbaugh than such railing at the Ivory Tower (deserved railing—but, for that very reason, a target within easy shot of anyone’s popgun) is his clear attraction to new technology. To be sure, any professional in broadcast media would almost necessarily feel the allure of the new. Limbaugh, however (who must not be confused with his pensive and profound brother David), has more than once within this writer’s hearing extolled the high-tech revolution as the golden gift of capitalism: an unlimited source of new jobs for freshly trained technicians and of new markets for consumers hungering after the latest “must have”. The old irony abides; for the untutored peasant, too, often splurges to adorn his mantelpiece with some gismo after a good harvest, not really understanding what the thing does but admiring its bright clockwork cleverness. People of my father’s generation, having grown up without television, would sit for hours in front of the latest model and snooze, since they could find nothing worth watching. Simply being in the presence of such a miracle gave them a little slice of heaven.
This is surely the most disappointing aspect of “popular conservatism” to me: its bland, blind embracing of new gadgetry. Far from conserving our culture in any manner, I have seen television, the Internet, and now smartphones render young people more shallow, more unsociable, more passive, more gullible, more whimsical, and more conformist as I approach my fortieth year as an educator. These devices have exploded our sense of the past and of our duty to continue in a tradition. They could not well be more antithetical to any project of moral or cultural conservation. Image, appearance, trend, fad, clique, “following”… these have supplanted two and a half millennia of painfully evolved principles advancing the basic rights of human beings in the West and identifying a calling higher than our bestial nature. We cannot at once condemn the deracination of our values and applaud the means by which they have been uprooted. The medium is the message. A “gotta have it” culture cannot also be a self-disciplined and spiritual culture.
No set of circumstances could more bitterly and dramatically illustrate the contradiction here than the implicit or overt support extended by Limbaugh, Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Bill O’Reilly, Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan, Dennis Lynch, Pat Robertson, and other “save our culture” warriors to a nihilist profiteer who has made his fortune exploiting bankruptcy laws, buying political favors, and putting strippers in casinos.
I will contain my moral indignation long enough to underscore an equally important economic point, since this essay purports to be about economics. Grinding out new gadgetry is a dead end when the gadgets themselves begin to do all the grinding out, and when the only role left to humans is to buy, buy, buy. I made this case above in Section III. Yet I recall hearing as far back as the early nineties the confident claims of conservative luminaries like George Gilder that the Internet would free our individuality while creating boundless opportunities in the market. A gilder of the truth, indeed! Or consider this passage from Howard French’s China’s Second Continent (2014) about the bonanza of economic growth awaiting Africa:
Across the continent, investment in education is booming, and according to the United Nations, enrollment in secondary schools jumped 48 percent between 2000 and 2008, while enrollment rates in higher education grew by 80 percent. In 2011, meanwhile, the World Bank attributed 60 percent of Africa’s economic growth to strong consumer spending. As a consequence of changes like these, the African Development Bank predicts that by 2010 a large number of African societies will be dominated by lower-middle-class and middle-class majorities. (41)
I have no idea what politics Mr. French espouses—and it should be emphasized, in fact, that the rosy forecast above is fundamentally progressive. Let the market work, educate children to occupy positions in high-tech industries, and the money will come rolling in—which, in turn, will create opportunities for hucksters of sweets, porn, knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, and all the rest. If only we keep churning out new stuff and buying the stuff we churn out, the rising tide will lift canoes as well as yachts. This mega-capitalist rapture, properly assessed, belongs more to left-of-center thinking than to the Right. That one hears it most often enunciated by “conservative” mouthpieces indicates just how muddled and meaningless our political categories are.
Make no mistake: the dark side of such fair-weather forecasts is very cloudy indeed (and by the way, Mr. French is not insensitive to this.) Africa’s mineral resources will run out. In the meantime, the amount of lethal pollution released in mining them will lift the human misery index several ticks for generations. The people in closest contact with the dirt and grime will grow restless at the poor wages they draw for the high risks they run. Strikes and riots will follow. Corruption, long a fact of life in Africa, will assume Chinese proportions: i.e., it will graduate from bribing a traffic cop to awarding billion-dollar contracts and then winking at safety violations on the work site. And once again, at the end of the line, even technicians with an elite education will find their skills obsolete as AI begins to run itself.
We’ve already built this train in the West, and we have traveled far enough to know that it shoots over the mountaintop and into the abyss. The Chinese have built it to run twice as fast, and now they are exporting the design to other parts of the world. Yet the only voices one hears raising an objection in the political forum bewail the destruction of spotted-owl and kangaroo-rat habitat… whereupon they are richly derided by the Limbaughs of the Right, and with just cause. At stake is not the extinction of a long-tailed rat, but the possible extermination of humanity as a biological species and a spiritual life form.
That tireless prophet of doom, Glenn Beck, appears to me actually to understand the true stakes more than most of his fellow broadcasters; but again, as a broadcaster—and particularly as a pioneer broadcaster who has invested all of his resources in exploring new media platforms and outlets—Beck seems naively optimistic about the transformative powers of the electronic lifestyle. If only readers, viewers, and listeners would concentrate upon the message’s content, they might be alerted to the pressing need for self-sufficiency… but electronic reading, viewing, and listening are not content-friendly. They have created an ADHD culture: the audience will not sit still. A word too long or a sentence too complex, and the fish wriggles off the hook. If a box with an arrow in the middle offers a chance to watch an exchange posted on YouTube, the contemporary “reader” will hit the arrow rather than read the transcript below it. The editors of Beck’s online magazine, The Blaze, grasp the “giddiness” factor sufficiently to lard their daily offerings with scoops like, “Watch What Happens When This Pregnant MMA Champ Confronts Three Burglars,” and, “Watch How an Off-Duty Security Guard Responds When a Bankrobber Drives Thru the MacDonald’s Window the Wrong Way”. To get customers into the contemporary shop, you have to offer free candy; but at what point do people start to wander in off the streets for the free candy instead of the finely wrought product?
We are at that point, I should say. Everybody wants the free candy… and nobody wants to wait in line for it, either. As cattle line up for the slaughter, so we line up to vote for the candidate who promises more and better jobs. We have accepted that our destiny in this world is to do something for money—anything for enough money—rather than live with dignity and feed our families directly from the earth’s bounty. Whether we slave in the private sector for a wage or loll about waiting for the public sector to cut our monthly check, we exist at someone else’s sufferance: some invisible, infinitely remote entity, perhaps not even human. Or not for long. And we, too, have grown a little less than human, just by allowing a cord to be run through our nose.
Dr. John Harris founded The Center for Literate Values and serves as its current president. He is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.