Friday, January 3, 2014

Efficient tyranny

Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, writing about a collectivized, mechanized society in 1932, goes beyond Luddism:

Technology has come to seem more powerful than man himself, it subjugates him to itself. Technology is the sole sphere of the optimistic faith of man, his greatest achievement. But it brings man, however, much grief and disappointment, it enslaves man, it weakens his spiritualness, it threatens him with ruin.

The crisis of our time is to a remarkable degree begotten by technology, which man lacks the strength to deal with. And this crisis is first of all a spiritual one. It is important for our theme to emphasise that Christians have proven to be completely unprepared for an appraisal of technology and the machine, for an understanding of its place within life. The Christian consciousness does not know, how to relate to the tremendous worldwide event, connected with the introduction into human life of the machine and technology.

The natural world, in which man was accustomed to live in the past, no longer still seems to be in the eternal order of things. Man lives in a new world, altogether quite different from that in which the Christian revelation occurred, in which lived the apostles, the teachers of the Church, the saints, all with which the symbolism of Christianity is connected. Christianity was very representative of a connection with the land, with a patriarchal order of life.

But technology has torn man away from the soil, it has with finality destroyed the patriarchal order.


Technology signifies the transfer of the whole of human existence from the organism to the organisation. Man no longer lives in an organic order. Man is accustomed to live in an organic connection with the soil, with plants and animals.


Technology radically alters the attitude of man to space and to time. It is hostile to any organic embodiment. In the technological period of civilisation man ceases to live amidst animals and plants, he is flung into a coldly-metallic medium, in which there is no longer any animal warmth, no warm-bloodedness. The might of technology bears with it an enfeebling of cordiality within human life, of cordial warmth, coziness, lyricism, sorrows, always connected with the emotion of soul, and not with spirit. Technology kills everything organic in life and sets it under the standard of the organisation of the whole of human existence.

The inevitability of the transition from organism to organisation is one of the sources of the contemporary crisis of the world. It is not so easy to be torn asunder from the organic. The machine with a cold ferocity rips the spirit from its intertwined organic flesh, from vegetative-animate life. And this expresses itself first of all in the weakening of the soul-emotive element within human life, in the dissociation of integral human feelings.

We are entering upon an harsh epoch of spirit and technology. The soul, connected with organic life, has proven very fragile, it shrinks back from the fierce blows which the machine inflicts upon it, it flows with blood, and sometimes it seems, that it is dead. We perceive this as a fatal process of technisation, mechanisation, the materialisation of life.

The exponential growth of knowledge relegates wisdom, which is static through the ages, to an ever shrinking corner of human thought. The complex systems and tools man invents to ease his passage through life do their job too well. They shield him from deprivation and the cruelty of nature, but they also obscure fundamental truths and the primitive sources of his humanity.

Specialization in service of the systems’ technical precision compartmentalizes man, incorporating him into the anonymous body politic. He is lost and lonely—but not alone—in its vast, incomprehensible interdependencies. As in Plato’s Republic, a head must govern the body, a philosopher-king must rule the polis.

Of a piece with Berdyaev’s technization and materialization is James Kalb’s definition of modern liberalism, through the eyes of reviewer Stefan McDaniel at First Things. The bold is mine, relating back to the technocratic state:

Kalb begins by defining liberalism, which he understands as the belief that the ruling imperative of politics is to achieve equal freedom by “rational” means. To be rationally administered (that is, administered through markets or government bureaucracy), freedom must mean the license valued by a preference utilitarian, excluding all reference to goods transcending individual human desire. Liberal practices, institutions, and ideas therefore lead to the destruction or trivialization of all communal and religious life. Liberalism justifies itself by identifying its controlling (utilitarian) concept of rationality with the technical rationality that has yielded so much fruit in the modern scientific project.

“Rationalism” lies behind President Obama’s claim, “I’m not a particularly ideological person.” See, he’s really a pragmatist. He’s seeking the most effective means to organize the mess of humanity and move us forward. Hosanna!

“Whatever works” sounds innocuous, but it’s not, writes Tibor Machan:

[Pragmatism] insists that no basic principles can be identified in any area of human concern, not in ethics, not politics, not even metaphysics or epistemology (or theory of knowledge). Instead of finding basic principles on which to rest one’s reasoning and actions–in morality or law, for instance—an attitude of practical expediency is all that human beings can hope for.

“Whatever works,” is the simplified motto of pragmatism but there is a big problem with this, since things work always with respect to some goal and certain goals are clearly not worth pursuing, others are. Pragmatism insists, however, that there is no way to tell which goals are important, which are trivial and which are out and out insidious. That is all a matter of the intuitions of those who are in charge of calling the shots. (Currently, for example, President Obama and his team—most notably Professor Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School—proclaim the superior merit of pragmatism and pursue workable approaches to solving problems they feel need solving.)

Both egalitarianism and pragmatism tend to unleash an army of government regulators upon members of society, in the effort to cut everyone down to the same size and achieve goals the leaders believe need to be achieved, respectively. But both of these outlooks are hopeless, futile and must produce confusion and the tyranny of some people over others. As a result, the egalitarian objectives will mostly turn out exactly as George Orwell indicated in his novella, Animal Farm, namely, a group of members of society will be running the show and thus defeat the very idea of equality among human beings.

These “two insidious trends,” as Machan calls them, pragmatism and egalitarianism, are the (ultimately contradictory) principles of the elite. Egalitarianism seeks equality of means and equality of result, which are not possible with government limited and respectful of natural rights. Egalitarianism is social and collective in nature, involving, in the best circumstances, sharing, but usually forced redistribution by authorities with the imprimatur of the corportate body.

Pragmatism eschews “ideology” and “belief” for what is quantifiable and measurable. It seeks the most effective means to maximize material, human ends. Due to economies of scale, these ends are maximized in the largest organization. Hence, the organization of society into fewer and larger units for the purpose of centralizing administrative power.

It’s natural for egalitarianism and pragmatism to be married. Both trounce liberty. Both organize around the power of the state. Egalitarianism is liberal ideology, pragmatism its application.

Proactive in man’s economic life to effect the greatest material equality, liberalism strives in the opposite direction with respect to sin. Concordant with the principle of equality, liberalism opens the floodgates and announces everything is permitted.

Here is where democratic nihilism comes in. Restrictions on the will confound the principle of equality. Liberalism rejects limits on drug use, sexual expression, the definition of marriage, prostitution, gambling, etc. Happiness should be available to all sinners, no matter their preference.

In McDaniel’s words, under liberalism “freedom must mean the license valued by a preference utilitarian, excluding all reference to goods transcending individual human desire.” The only goods are material goods and whatever brings one happiness. Goods transcending individual human desire, moral goods, don’t figure into the equation. Freedom is unchained from morality, rendered solely as license to do whatever makes one happy as long as it does not disrupt material well-being.

Related reading: “Density, dependence, destruction.”

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