Theme, Part 1: The emergent individual

A neoprogressive narrative


The following originated in the course of an email exchange some years ago over Neil Postman's Technopoly. I was critical of it, seeing Postman as simply another in a long list of "liberal-left" scolds (e.g., Bill McKibben, the Fast Food Nation guy, Canada's John Ralston Saul, and so on), and contrasted that work specifically with Virginia Postrel's The Future and its Enemies. A recurring thread in Postman that I picked up on particularly had to do with his fear of a "loss of control", around which he wove what he liked to call a "narrative", which in turn provided the title to his book. Against that narrative, I wanted to propose an alternative, and provided this preview:
This is the story that, since about the blurry end of the Middle Ages, what we've called Western culture has been engaged in a process of slowly, and unsteadily, dismantling well-defined, hierarchical control structures in favour of more complex systems. And these systems – capitalism being a prime example – typically exhibit some significant traits: they're robust under conditions of rapid change; they're characterized less by control structures than by principles of self-organization; they're capable of generating enormous (by any historical standard) amounts of social, cultural, and material wealth. And at the centrepiece of this process is a still-emergent, still-forming phenomenon called the modern individual. This emergence, however, is accompanied by considerable social and psychological stress, which in turn generates reaction, an example of which we've seen in this discussion.

In this alternative story, in other words, the notions of "progressive" and "reactionary" are reversed, with the former identified with the emergent individual, and the latter associated with all forms of re-collectivized resistence to that emergence, on both the left and the right. Here's what I called my Cole's Notes history of the modern world:

Once upon a time, all people lived in what we could call, with some precision, "traditional societies". These were societies in which each person had their place, was expected to know their place, and was required to keep their place. Such "places" were defined in a variety of ways, but almost all modes of definition were established at birth – e.g., first and foremost, gender, then so-called class or caste, then a variety of lesser variables such as location, occupation of father, etc. They had little or nothing to do, in other words, with "individual" particularities, and even less to do with anyone's choice. Within the limits of their place, of course, people could and did display the usual range of personalities and idiosyncracies, but they were essentially embedded within a social/cultural matrix which left them with very limited options, often at the mercy of arbitrary authority, and, for the vast majority, always subsisting just on the edge of the next pestilence or drought or war.

And this has persisted in the same basic form across all human cultures for millennia – to modify Hardy's poem a little, it "has gone onwards the same/ Though Dynasties pass". Still, as in all systems, change does happen, and at all scales. On the largest scale, change transforms the very nature of human society itself, bringing something wholly new into being. Caterpillar to butterfly is a commonly used example of this sort of thing, but a more interesting one is the notion of a "phase-change"*, in which the addition of an increment of energy changes the behaviour of a substance completely and quite abruptly, as in ice melting into water. There's an early instance of such a phase-change in human social/cultural systems prior to any written records, when we look at the origins of agriculture and the fairly sudden appearance of large, complex, hierarchical, geographically defined urban civilizations, where before, for hundreds of millennia, there had been little more than small roving bands of humans. Subsequent to that, the only other instance of a change of comparable magnitude began a little over five centuries ago, with the European Renaissance.
(* Borrowed from Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change)
It's not easy to say what caused this latest change – suggestions have included the so-called "voyages of discovery", the invention of the printing press, struggles for dominance among warring groups, or the cumulative effects of a rich overlay and interplay of cultures, histories and knowledge in that region at that time. Whatever the cause, it seems simply undeniable by now that something very significant has happened, that we can trace a continuity of influence back to events around the time of the fifteenth century, and that, even after 500 years, we're still in the midst of it – that the "phase-change" is still happening, and we still don't really know what it is we're changing into.

There is, however, a recurring theme, apparent in some of the fracture lines appearing in the foundations of European traditional society over that period – the emergence in the Renaissance, for example, of the notion of the individual "genius", ancient or modern, or the new-found emphasis on the notion of the individual conscience, in the Reformation. It's evident in the slow but steady spread of literacy throughout the region, and the power that placed in the hands of individuals to access a vastly larger world beyond the traditional boundaries of their "place". It appears again, in a more subtle form, in the rise of a new type of knowledge based upon the practical and effectual rather than upon authority and tradition, which we've come to call "science", and which opens a space for the individual discoverer, or "scientist". And it's particularly apparent in the rise and spread of the so-called middle class, or "bourgeoisie", with its trader's ethos that connects people across traditional barriers, and that places a new and disruptive emphasis on individual enterprise. In short, the recurrent theme or motif of this latest phase-change is the emergence of the modern concept of the "individual".

But the modern individual is more than a concept – she or he is, to a significant degree, a different, more complex kind of human being than that which prevails in traditional societies. We might characterize this difference, and this newness, in terms of the appearance of a kind of "higher" level in people's mental universe, if we think of "higher" in a "meta-" sense, not necessarily in a superior sense. Even so, from this new standpoint, the view of those still embedded in traditional society now appears limited or blinkered, dominated by superstition and prejudice, fear and faith – in place of which the modern mind would substitute skepticism and tolerance, confidence and reason.

Now, so far the narrative has been both reasonably familiar and, for we moderns, self-flattering. But even thus far there are hints of two looming dangers – the story is about to get more complicated, and more contentious.

The first danger is an obvious but always seductive one – it involves the ancient and deadly sin of hubris. Perched on this meta-level, looking back at traditional society, it can seem as though reason might have given us a vantage point above both culture and nature. And just as we're able, through reason, to mold or craft the materials of nature, so should we be able to "engineer" the stuff of culture – not seeing that the "stuff" of culture is just ourselves, the would-be engineers. Even on our new-found perch, in other words, we're still embedded in culture, and, however often we try raise our perch, we can never escape this embedding. Culture, in other words, always stands outside the reach of our rational designs, because reason itself is embedded in it, as an aspect or function of it – it represents a limit to reason that a rational reason (so to speak) can at least grasp, but a hubristic Reason cannot, and without that grasp the ambition of such a Reason can swell without bounds. (For some striking images of hubristic Reason, I've looked up some passages that have lurked in the back of my mind for eons – here, e.g., is Conrad's Kurtz: "He had kicked himself loose of the earth.... he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air"; or the revolutionary Marat's inspired and insane declamation in Weiss' "Marat/Sade": "The important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair/ to turn yourself inside out/ and see the whole world with fresh eyes." For some examples of the actual results of hubristic Reason, of the ambition to craft or mold humanity regardless of cost, we have only to think of the vast and numerous killing fields of the century past.)

The second danger is, in a sense, the opposite of the first – it involves the recognition that, for all its limitations, the world of traditional society had a kind of warmth or existential security, associated with its tightly swaddled embeddedness, that the world of the newly emerged individual altogether lacks. We might think of individual emergence as representing the coalescence of a new kind of "self", but this new entity can feel very exposed and alone – which is where modern themes of "fear and trembling", alienation and isolation come from. Remember this?
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.
Despite the talk of emergence and newness, then, this is also, in many ways, a loss of innocence, and in the face of that loss there arises a deep, inchoate nostalgia for selflessness, that can be seen in a resurgent tribalism, in New Age mysticism, in the myriad forms of group politics (the desire to submerge oneself in a class or a race, a "people" or a fatherland), and in all the dreams, fantasies and utopias of a lost, immersive solidarity. These are the true sources – and politics – of reaction in our time, whether on the right or the left.

Two dangers, two great errors that have afflicted the development of the individual since at least the Enlightenment: an over-reaching Reason and an atavistic submergence – they appear as opposites, but they frequently function as twins, or as mutually reinforcing cultural and political allies. And the primary instrument and embodiment of that unfortunate alliance in our time is the swollen, omniverous Leviathan, the modern state. We can certainly see this in those two great utopian/totalitarian experiments of the 20th century, socialism and fascism, both of which drew sustenance from a yearning for group immersion, just as both exhibited an almost lunatic faith in the ability of rational Will to shape humanity to its own designs ("shaping" through the limitless use of the capacity for coercion, violence, and outright terror that the modern state has at its disposal). But we can see it too – though in a more insidious, pastel-tinged form – in that other major political development of the last century, the rise of the so-called "welfare state". Commonly touted as a "middle way" or "third way" between the contending forces of capitalism and socialism, progress and reaction, this development was, from the start, incoherent in principle, trying simply to force state-imposed "planning" over top of that mysterious capitalist wealth-generating mechanism, and trusting that the machine will continue to function; and opportunistic in practice, fostering a rationalist, technocratic cult of the "Expert" to design our social structures, and swaddling us again in an increasingly dense mesh of regulations to secure us in a social and cultural "place". Yet so far, through an adroit combination of democratic pressure release and practical adaptation, this state has had considerable success – it has taken control of our education system, heavily influences, directly or indirectly, virtually all aspects of our artistic, cultural, and communication systems, regulates any other system of interaction between individuals, seizes between a third and two thirds of all the wealth created by these individuals, and uses the proceeds to create a culture of dependency in which any possible alternatives to it come to seem less and less imaginable. In its greatest and saddest irony, it has turned the figure who once spoke for the freedom of the individual into its ideological servant – namely, the contemporary "liberal".

But this is hardly the end of the story. Capitalism too, after all, has shown itself to be adroit and adaptable, continuing to produce wealth at such a rate that it has so far swamped the dampening effects of state taxation and regulation. And so if, in this narrative, collectivism generally is the face of political reaction, then the question arises as to what here constitutes "progress", and where we should look for it. In the conventional story, of course, it's the left – that is, the socialist, social democratic, or, generally, collectivist left – that appears as "progressive". But if we go back to a period closer to the origin of that convention we can find a hint of another way of telling the story -- in the remarkable paean to the newly dominant middle class in the early pages of the Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.... – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?
Now, of course, Marx and Engels go on to say, in effect, to the bourgeoisie: "Thanks very much, but we, the Proletariat, will take it from here." The problem, however, was that M&E never gave any indication that they had the slightest ideawhy or how it was that the bourgeoisie had managed to accomplish these wonders, and the ensuing hundred and fifty years have shown their dismissive prediction to have been a mistake – a big mistake, and a particularly tragic and bloody one at that. Instead, two things have happened: those "massive" and "colossal" productive forces of a century and a half ago have themselves been dwarfed by the – what's left, "immense and stupendous"? – productive forces that have been developed by the bourgeois economic system (aka "capitalism") since, and that are still being developed; and it wasn't the so-called "working class" that turned into the human race, as the "Internationale" forecast, but rather – the irony! – the "middle class", the left's despised bourgeoisie, which has always been the truly progressive force of modern history after all, and which, by encorporating everyone, has put an end to "class" as a systemic category (except, of course, in the inert imaginations of some academics).

So how did the bourgeoisie generate its miracles of production? Well, we've already seen the answer to the question that Marx couldn't ask, and that answer is yet another irony – it had nothing really to do with the class as such at all, it had to do instead with what the class represented, which was the opposite of "class" or "class-consciousness": the liberation and empowerment of the individual elements that make up all human groupings, that liberation sparking a kind of slow-burning historical explosion. Because, while the productive forces do indeed reside in the "lap of social labor", they can only be awoken when the constituents of "social labor" are released from the chains of both tradition and state, and are able to organize themselves as they each see fit, whether in free association, or free trade, or both. That great liberation and the ensuing explosion, despite all the errors and reversions of the past century or so, all the alarums and all the violence, for better or worse, is still going on – and we're all still participants in the midst of the story, writing it or telling it with our lives.

That's a good and proper place to end. But, you might wonder, is it a happy ending? The question doesn't seem altogether silly – wouldn't we all want to say that there's more to life than "productive forces", after all? And if that's really all that that's been developed over the last five centuries, well ... perhaps a reaction against such crassly material, commercial triumphalism is really due. But this itself betrays an old and unwarranted prejudice – the development of productive forces was certainly a powerful initiator of change, but it was not the only thing that's happened over the modern era. It's not just that literacy has spread throughout entire populations, nor that the once-universal scourge of slavery has been universally abolished, nor that the arts and sciences have flourished along with the rise of a vigorous popular culture, nor that the idea of a self-governing people has come to be seen as a norm (even if it has yet to prevail), nor even that more people have been fed, clothed and housed better than ever before in history, and that as a consequence more than ever are living longer, healthier, better lives – no, it's that, with all that, and on the basis of the "bourgeois" development of productive forces, individual human beings, of all genders, races and walks of life have been given the chance to transcend arbitrary cultural barriers, and have assumed the Socratic dignity of the possibility of living an examined life; and that, like it or no, we've all become deeper, more complex individual entities, sloughing off the innocent ignorance of peasants and serfs for the "sober senses" of adults, with both an adult's freedom, and an adult's responsibility. That doesn't always make us happier, it's true. But I think it does give this narrative a positive ending.