Thursday


Queen Victoria reigned 20 June 1837 to 22 January 1901.

There is not only an insufficient appreciation of the Victorian achievement in history, but perhaps more importantly there is an insufficient understanding of the Victorian achievement. Victorian civilization — and I will avail myself of this locution understanding that most would allow that the Victorianism was a period in the history of western civilization, but not itself a distinct civilization — achieved nothing less than the orderly transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization. As such, Victorianism became the template for other societies to make this transition without revolutionary violence.

The transition from agriculturalism to industrialism was the most disruptive in the history of civilization, and can only be compared in its impact to the emergence of agricultural civilization from pre-civilized nomadic hunter-gatherers. But whereas the the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism occurred over thousands of years, the transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization has in some cases occurred within a hundred years (though the transition is still underway on a planetary scale). The Victorians not only managed this transition, and were the first people in history to manage this transition, they moreover managed this transition without catastrophic warfare, without the widespread breakdown of civil order, and with a certain sense of style. It could be argued that, if the Victorians had not managed this transition so well, rather than a new form of civilization taking shape, the industrial revolution might have resulted in the collapse of civilization and a new dark age.

Today we think of Victorianism as a highly repressive social and cultural milieu that was finally cast aside with the innovations of the Edwardian era and then the great scientific and social revolutions that characterized the early twentieth century and which then instituted dramatic social and cultural changes that ever after left the Victorian period in the shadows of history. But Victorian repression was not arbitrary; it served a crucial social function in its time, and it may well have been the only possible social and cultural mechanism that would have made it possible for any society to be the first to make the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism.

Victorianism not only made an orderly transition possible from agriculturalism to industrialism, it also made possible an orderly transition from a social order (i.e., a central project) based on religious tradition to a social order that was largely secular. Americans (especially Americans who don’t travel) are not aware of the degree to which European society is secularized, and much of this occurred in the nineteenth century. Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach was an important early expression of secularization.

Nietzsche already saw this secularization happening in the nineteenth century, and, of course, Darwin, a proper English gentleman, worked his own scientific revolution in the midst of the Victorian period, which played an important role in secularization. Rather than being personally destroyed for his efforts — which is what almost any other society would have done to a man like Darwin — Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey and treated like a national hero.

Considerable intellectual toughness was a necessary condition of making a peaceful transition from agriculturalism to industrialism, and we can find the requisite toughness in the writers of nineteenth century England. The intellectual honesty of Matthew Arnold is bracing and refreshing. Arnold’s “Sweetness and Light” is a remarkable essay, and not at all how we today would characterize the aspirations of Victorian society, but in comparison to the horrific counterfactual that might have attended the industrial revolution under other circumstances, the grim Victorian world described so movingly by Charles Dickens is relatively benign. Since we have, for the most part, in our collective historical imagination, consigned nineteenth century English literature to our understanding of a genteel and proper Victorianism, it is easy to believe that the men of the nineteenth century did not yet possess the kind of raw, unsparing honesty that the twentieth century forced upon us. Reading Arnold now, in the twenty-first century, I see that this is not true.

Matthew Arnold’s world may have been innocent of World Wars, Holocausts, genocides, nuclear annihilation, and the rigorously realized horrors bequeathed to us by the twentieth century, but it was not an innocent world. History may always reveal new horrors to us, but even in the slightly less horrific past, there were horrors aplenty to preclude any kind of robust innocence on the part of human beings. And it is interesting to reflect that, while the Victorian Era is remembered for its social and cultural repression, it is not remembered for the scope and scale of its atrocities.

This is significant in light of the fact that the twentieth century, which has been seen as a liberation of society once Victorian constraints were swept away, is remembered for the scope and scale of its atrocities. Again, the Victorians did a better job than we did in managing the great transitions of our respective times. Voltaire famously said (during the Enlightenment) that we commit atrocities because we believe absurdities. If this is true, then the absurdities believed by the Victorians were less pernicious than the absurdities believed in the twentieth century.

The late-Victorian or early Edwardian Oscar Wilde in his De Profundis was raw and unsparing, but was rather too self-serving to measure up to the standard of intellectual honesty set by Matthew Arnold. (I fully understand that most of my contemporaries would probably disagree with this judgment.) However, Wilde’s heresies, like Arnold’s honesty, was characterized by a great sense of style. We may criticize the Victorian legal and penal system for essentially destroying Wilde, but it was also the Victorian cultural milieu that made Oscar Wilde possible. If Wilde had not been quite so daring, he might have gotten by without provoking the authorities to respond to him as it did.

Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism is a wonderful essay, employing the resources of Wilde’s legendary wit in order to to make a serious point. Like many of Wilde’s famous witticisms, his central motif is the contravention of received wisdom, forcing us to see things in a new perspective. Though we know in hindsight the caustic if not criminal consequences for individualism under socialism, Wilde did not have the benefit of hindsight, and Wilde makes the case that socialism will make authentic individualism possible for the first time. Wilde’s conception of individualism under socialism was in fact a paean to his own individualism, carved out within the limitations of Victorian society. This, too, is an ongoing legacy of Victorianism, which was sufficiently large and comprehensive to include individuals as diverse as Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde.

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Wednesday


pew poll graph

A story on the BBC, US Christians numbers ‘decline sharply’, poll finds, made me aware of a new poll by the Pew Research Center, reported in America’s Changing Religious Landscape. It is unusual for such a poll result to be reported so bluntly. Some time ago in Appearance and Reality in Demographics I noted that the WIN/GIP “Religiosity and Atheism Index” poll that I discussed in American Religious Individualism, had been reported under the headline WIN-Gallup International ‘Religiosity and Atheism Index’ reveals atheists are a small minority in the early years of 21st century, which seems to have been purposefully contrived to give the reader the wrong impression of what the poll revealed. This newest headline is another matter entirely. It is becoming more difficult to conceal the fact the traditional religious belief is on the decline.

While religious observance appears to be one of the most pervasive features of civilization from its inception, the example of Europe demonstrates that religious belief can pretty much vanish once conditions change. The US remains an anomaly as an industrialized nation-state with unusually high popular identification with religious faith, but the US may yet experience the kind of catastrophic collapse of religious observance that occurred in Europe from the middle of the twentieth century onward. In other worlds, secularization may yet come to America. Of course, if widespread secularism comes to the US, it will not play out as it played out in Europe, because these societies are so profoundly different.

The secularization thesis was widely believed in the middle of the twentieth century (when secularization was transforming European society), and then was widely abandoned at the end of the twentieth century as surging religious fundamentalism and religiously-inspired terrorism grabbed headlines and appeared to some (as strange as this may sound) as a sign of religious vitality. I discussed the secularization thesis in Secularization (which I characterized in terms of confirmation and disconfirmation in history) and more recently in The Existential Precarity of Civilization.

It is important to understand the religious backlash against modernity that became apparent in the later twentieth century in the context of traditionalism, as the role of a narrowly conceived religious belief is often made central in the debates over secularization, but this can be deceptive. In this context, “traditionalism” means any ideology or belief system dating from before the industrial revolution (which marked the advent of a new form of civilization), and so is a much wider concept than religion simpliciter, which is the most common exemplar of traditionalism.

Beliefs and practices associated with the pre-industrial form of our culture of origin persisted for ten thousand years (from the origins of civilization to the industrial revolution) and so they have left an enormous cultural legacy, and they are still very powerful elements of the human imagination. Almost every famous work of art which is a cultural point of reference for westerners (think of the Nike of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s David, or the Mona Lisa), dates to this pre-industrialized period. The industrial revolution meant the dissolution of these ancient institutions and practices, sometimes within the life span of a single individual. The entire economic basis of civilization changed.

Even though civilization was forced to change, the cultural legacy of the past remains, and its hold upon the human mind remains. Although we live in modern industrialized societies, we don’t grow our own food, and we live alone in cities and not in multi-generational households, we continue to honor traditions that have become disconnected from our daily lives. Eventually the disconnect leads to cognitive dissonance as traditional attitudes come face-to-face with modern realities. There are two ways to attempt to address the cognitive dissonance: 1) a return to traditionalism, or 2) the abandonment of traditionalism.

It is impossible to return to a traditional (pre-industrial) way of life in an industrialized nation-state because you can’t just start farming in the middle of a city or create a multi-generational household out of thin air. So the return to traditionalism simply means the aggressive assertion of traditionalist claims, however empty these claims are. The most familiar form that the aggressive assertion of traditional claims can take is that of religious fundamentalism. This is not the only form of traditionalism, but it has become symbolic of traditionalism, and, as Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart have noted in their paper Are high levels of existential security conducive to secularization? A response to our critics, “…residual and symbolic elements often remain, such as formal adherence to religious identities and beliefs, even when their substantive meaning has faded away.”

If industrial-technological civilization endures (i.e., if it does not succumb to existential risk), all traditionalism is doomed to extinction. However, that does not mean that religion is doomed to extinction. Although I have defended the secularization hypothesis, secularization is only a stage in the transition from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization. The idea that the extinction of tradition (given the gradual lapse of a now-defunct form of civilization) is the same as the extinction of religion is only possible through a conflation of traditionalism and religion. This conflation is as invidious to the understanding of history as is the misinterpretation (at times a willful misinterpretation) of the secularization hypothesis.

Religion can and often does take non-traditional forms, but the (historically recent) experience of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, in which all social organization was subordinate to theological principles, has distorted our perception of the role of religion and civilization, and led to the conflation of religion and tradition.

In Europe Returns to its Roots I discussed the tentative return to pre-Christian forms of religion in Europe in the wake of secularization. Such cultural movements will, of course, be influenced by subsequent developments of civilization. No more than we can return to traditionalism now that traditional agrarian ways of life have disappeared can we return to Neolithic religious practices, but whatever religious practices there are must be consonant with the life of the people.

On my other blog I produced a series of posts concerned with the relation of religion to civilization, extending from the Paleolithic past to into the future. These posts include:

Settled and Nomadic Religious Experience

Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization

Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Responding to the World we Find

These were a mere sketch, of course, and one might well invest an entire lifetime in attempting to describe the relation between civilization and religion. The take-away lesson is that religion is a perennial aspect of human experience, and so it will be a perennial part of civilization, but it is a mistake to conflate religion and traditionalism. After the extinction of traditionalism, once terrestrial industrialization achieves totality (not only eliminating traditional ways of life, but also greatly reducing existential precarity), religion will remain, but it will not be the religions of the Axial Age that defined agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

When secularization comes to America, then, we should be surprised neither by the rear-guard action of traditionalism to defend the claims of a now-vanished civilization, nor by the inevitable emergence and rise of religious beliefs and practices independent of traditionalism. Expect popular accounts to conflate the two, but a developmental understanding of the relationship of civilization and religion reveals how starkly different they are.

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Marxist Eschatology

13 January 2012

Friday


Why do I keep writing about Marx? I have already discovered that repeatedly writing about Marx confuses people. Indeed, it confuses some people so completely that if you write a long, detailed criticism of some Marxian idea, those who don’t take the time to read or don’t have the capacity of understand simply assume you’re a Marxist because you’re writing about Marx. Why not get “Karl Marx” tattooed across my knuckles, then? It’s a fun idea. People who read me, but don’t read me closely, sometimes think I’m a Marxist, while people who see me but don’t look closely sometimes think I’m a John Bircher. Really. I was in a coffee house in a trendy part of Portland some years ago having a long and detailed conversation about logic with a friend, and someone asked us if we were from the John Birch Society. I guess it must have been due to our clean-cut looks and the moral earnestness of our discussion. I once asked one of my sisters why people often mistake me for a reactionary, and she said I wasn’t “flying the flag,” and that if I wore my hair in dreadlocks and dressed the part, people would probably think differently. I realized later how right she was.

For my part, I continue to write about Marx because Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas. And so it is necessary to grapple with Marx. I might even be willing to go so far as to say of Marx what Hegel said of Spinoza: To be a philosopher, one must first be a Marxist.

I have on many occasions written about the eschatology implicit in Marx, which is a pretty straight-forward secularization of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. Recently in Missing the point I used this famous phrase to describe the dead-end ritualism of mass labor under advanced industrialized capitalism, but it is just as true of Marx’s original vision. Some time ago I quoted a famous passage from Bertrand Russell to this end (Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization). This post was cited in a discussion on The Rational Responders web site. No one told me about the discussion; I found it by following the links back from hits to my post. Some seemed to agree with me, while others thought I got it all wrong, and Russell too.

It was one of the central features of Karl Löwith’s philosophy of history that modernity itself consists of a number of secularizations of originally theological concepts, and Löwith clearly implied that this rendered much modern thought essentially illegitimate. This implication was sufficiently clear that Hans Blumenberg wrote a long book, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in order to rebut Löwith. Unfortunately, Löwith and Blumenberg are not well known in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, so their works are little discussed. Marx seems to slot in well with Löwith’s secularization thesis, but if secularization is a legitimate historical process, what’s the problem?

I just argued yesterday in Areté and Selection that the medieval world was the direct ancestor of modernity, and if this is indeed the case, then no one should be surprised that many modern concepts of our secular civilization are secularizations of medieval concepts derived from a primarily theological civilization. This is just what happens when a theological civilization gives way to a secular civilization. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think that I will begin referring to that which preceded industrial-technological civilization as religio-philosophical civilization.

In any case, to get around to my main point of today’s post, I was thinking about Marx’s own conception of Marx’s communist millennium that would be a worker’s paradise in which:

“…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, A. Idealism and Materialism

Marx was careful to be vague about the coming worker’s paradise under communism partly because he didn’t want to held to any overly-specific predictions, and partly because he wanted to avoid being called a Utopian. In social science circles, to be called a Utopian is the end the discussion with one’s exclusion as a serious thinker. Marx knew it, dismissed other social theorists himself as utopians, and forcefully argued that communism would come about as a result of inevitable historical processes, not in order to fulfill our dreams of a more just social order in the future.

In other words, Marx’s conception of communism is closely parallel to the line I have consistently argued about the industrial revolution, and, by extension, globalization, since I have also argued that globalization is simply an extension of the industrial revolution — its continuation, and eventually, some decades hence, its completion and fulfillment.

The industrialization of the world’s economies has not come about because of utopian plans for a better, healthier, and more just society, and it did not come about as the result of the nefarious plotting of hidden powers who pull levers behind a curtain. The industrial revolution came about as an historical process that escalated due to a feedback loop of science, technology, and industry. This process is still incomplete. As the process continues its march around the globe — again, not as the result of utopian dreams or evil conspiracies — it creates what we now call globalization, as institutions that first appeared in Western Europe begin to appear elsewhere in the world. But the institutions are symptoms, not causes. People who see only the surface of things see the institutions of industrialized societies as the causes of changes; they are not the causes; these institutions follow from deep structural changes in economic organization.

I don’t think that Marx would have disagreed with me too strenuous only this, and I don’t think that he would disagree all that much with the next claim I will make. I have called the industrial revolution a macro-historical revolution, as it initiates a new stage in human history. There have only been two previous fundamentally distinct forms of human society, and these were hunter-gatherer nomadic societies, and settled agricultural societies. If communism had come about as Marx believed it would come about, then this too would have qualified as a fundamentally new form of human society, and communism would have inaugurated a new macro-historical division. The material conditions of life would have changed for the greater part of humanity. This is simply to put Marx’s idea in my terminology.

I have also argued that Marx’s theory has not really received its experimentum crusis, because the industrial revolution has even in our time not yet been completed. We cannot say that Marx was wrong in his essential argument until globalization has transformed the world entire into an industrialized economy, and then, under these conditions, no communist revolution occurs that expropriates the expropriators. People who still argue today about whether Marx was right or wrong, whether he has been refuted or validated by history, are missing the point: the conditions do not yet obtain under which Marx can be judged to be right or wrong. Thus Marxism must remain an open question for us if we are going to maintain our intellectual integrity.

Given, then, that the fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy is still a live option for history, I ought to count it among the macro-historical possibilities that I began to delineate in Three Futures, where I identified singularization, pastoralization, and extraterrestrialization as historical forces that could sufficiently transform the basic organization of human societies to the point that a new macro-historical division is defined by the transformation. I ought, then, to speak of four futures, except that I am working on another possibility that I hope to discuss soon, which would define five futures — or, better, five strategic trends that suggest transformation on the civilizational level if extrapolated to a sufficient degree.

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