Technical Civilization and its Discontents

2 April 2011


Anomie, Nihilism, and Anarchism:

Agreeing to Violently Disagree

Recently in Our Less than Optimal Labor Market I made several observations about employment in contemporary industrialized economies, especially in relation to the fading ideal of a liberal education in the traditional humanities. As university education nears universality in the populations of the most advanced industrialized economies, a subtle yet steady underlying shift in the educational curriculum is squeezing out the humanities in favor of the technical skills required to function (not to mention prosper) in the contemporary economy. At the same time, the increasing numbers of graduates mean that supply is outpacing demand, with the inevitable consequences in the labor market favoring only the most highly qualified and credentialed for those positions of technical expertise that will result in the highest socio-economic status within the economy as we know it today (and not as we might wish it to be).

One of the great and decisive trends in civilization today is the escalating role of technology in our lives. This began with the industrial revolution, continued with the telecommunications revolution, and continues today with computers and the internet. The social changes that have followed these revolutions have been dramatic and wrenching. I have written about these changes in a great many posts, not least to draw attention to the fact that the industrial revolution is an ongoing process, transforming our world as we speak, and also because it has become a little passé to speak of the industrial revolution, so that some effort is required to keep our minds fixed upon the most basic and fundamental strategic trends shaping the world, and not to be distracted by fads, fashions, and passing fancies.

I have, in particular, and on many occasions, argued (for example, in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society) that industrialized society has passed through two paradigms of social organization — the early factory system (a species of social Darwinism) and the nuclear-family-in-the-suburbs model — and is now adrift in search of a third social consensus around which industrialized society can organize itself. That is to say, we are in search of an ideal that we can plausibly believe in, and this is especially difficult to frame in the contemporary intellectual context in which every ideal is seen through as soon as it is entertained.

In the absence of a plausible ideal that could unify the increasingly diverse basis of social organization, and a workforce becoming ever more technically diversified and specialized, society is driven and developed not according to an ideal or a social consensus, but entirely by emergent strategic trends that are sufficiently robust to shape the lives of individuals and nation-states alike. The emergence of high technology, mentioned above, is one of these trends. In absence of any explicit social direction, the strategic trend develops according to its own internal logic. Thus we see spikes of uneven development in society and industry as particular trends emerge and are rapidly developed simply because this is the only vision about which individuals can organize themselves at the moment.

We are all familiar with the term “bandwagon” and what it signifies. What I have described above could be called bandwagon development. The latest and greatest new thing comes along, and everyone wants to be a part of it. Some want to make money, some want to get famous, some want to socialize, some want to perfect the nascent idea — the motivations are legion, but the result is the same: everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon.

It is easy to suppose that this is part of the human condition, has always been the case, and always will be the case, but I think this is wrong. In Human Nature and the Human Condition I argued that human nature is a function of the human condition, and that the human condition is a function of the longue durée. It follows from this that human nature changes over time, and that it adopts the characteristic features of its epoch. Since we live in an age (and have since the advent of the industrial revolution) driven by the bandwagon development of technology rather than by a social vision and a humane ideal, we assume that this has always been the case, but it has not always been the case.

If you take the time to familiarize yourself with the history of civilization, you will find that social vision and ideal has often trumped pragmatic concern. A surprisingly high level of technology was available in the ancient world, and there was a nearly hemispherical civilization around the Mediterranean basin that could have systematically exploited this technology, but this remains a historical development that never happened. When I see some of the mechanisms of antiquity in museums (such as the water pump that I mentioned in Historical Disruption), I always ask myself why these things were not mass produced, why they were not applied in other areas of life, why steady improvements in production did not advance the technology and the expertise of those who produced it.

Despite the technical capacity of classical antiquity, technology was a sideshow for them. The main events were attending a chariot race or socializing at the baths. For us, on the contrary, technology is the main event — technology, and economic development, and improving living standards, and myriad other expressions of a consumer-driven society whose efforts are dictated by what Rousseau called the “will of all” (in contradistinction to the “general will”).

The technological civilization that we are creating by default — and I say “by default” in indicate the absence of alternative ideals and social institutions that might be the focus of human efforts if any such were available — is giving us higher standards of living, but it is not giving us a higher civilization. I remarked in The Very Idea of Higher Civilization that we cannot consider our world today a peer or even near-peer competitor (on the basis of civilization alone) to classical antiquity or the Middle Ages. These were epochs of civilizations very much driven by social visions rather than by technological expedients. We have a civilization, on the contrary, driven by technological expedients.

A civilization based on technological expedients, however impressive its achievements and accomplishments, cannot on this basis alone, survive. It must, in the fullness of time, arrive at some point when that which is peculiarly human is valued above the benefits of bandwagon development, or that civilization will give way to something very different than does value that which is peculiarly human, because this is ultimately the only thing that we have to contribute to history.

We see ourselves as worldly wise, and as having learned the harsh lessons of history and been made ruthless and skeptical by them, but in fact ours is an age of almost histrionic innocence. We are innocent because we think that we can get by without making the effort to understand what we are doing. Technology carries us along, building ever new structures, and every greater constructions, but we don’t know what were doing, we don’t know what our actions mean, and we don’t know the value of our efforts, however heroic.

It is this palpable absence of meaning and value that haunts all our efforts, and haunts our lives individually. Sometimes we see the absence take its toll on the individual life, when someone we know gives up the rat race and casts aside their voluminous possessions in order to do something that at first sight looks mad. We have not yet seen this force act at a social level. It could, but I am not making that prediction. I am not suggesting an apocalypse of our technological civilization, but I am suggesting some rather wrenching readjustments — as wrenching as those already visited upon society by the industrial revolution.

In meantime, and in the absence of ideals and a social vision, we agree to disagree — often violently. Nietzsche famously said that man would rather will nothing than not will. Not only do I believe this to be true, I believe that we can see the consequences of this all around us every day. The sociological analysis of anomie, the emergence of social attitudes like nihilism, and the emergence of social movements like anarchism are nearly pure expressions of a willing of nothing in the absence of substantive ideals and in view of the alternative not to will anything at all.

Thus do many people today feel the need to violently assert themselves to no end at all, so that that protest itself becomes the point of protest, a self-justifying and self-contained will to nothingness that, in its hermetic enclosure of the individual, insulates that individual from his or her despair, at least for a time.

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