Monday, October 3, 2011

Social Animals in an Age of Instrumental Reason

The trouble with capitalism, Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, is that it is inhuman.
The bourgeoisie... has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment."  It has drowned... [everything] in the icy water of egotistical calculation.  In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
 And on top of that, the bourgeoisie had also conquered the "modern representative State" making it into a "committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie," and dominated presumably by the same commercial, calculating culture.

What Marx and Engels forgot to add is that culture itself had bowed to the cash nexus, for it was in the 18th century also when a professional writing class emerged into the public square, producing cultural product to be marketed to the great middle class by "publishers" with the idea of making money from culture, and truckling to the fantasies of the reading public.  And that leaves out the great calculating religious movements, specifically the Great Awakening of the mid 18th century in Britain and British North America that was run like a modern political campaign, with planning, advance men, advertising, and free media.  How inhuman, how calculating, exploitative, lacking in spontaneity, is that?

A century later, in the middle of World War II, a new generation of Marxists faced a world at war and looked into the abyss.  The whole modern project, they realized, from science to capitalism to the modern state was the project of "instrumental reason."  But instrumental reason, wrote Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, is pure domination.  Bourgeois business ends up as bourgeois domination, and this is already encoded in the idea of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.  "What men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men."  And so "Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men."

The more you think about it the more you realize that everything is tainted by this indictment.  Business and its pursuit of profit, government bureaucracies and their attempt to confine the world in a box of rules and regulations, movies, books and their prurient exploitation of fantasy, academic scholars and their pursuit of knowledge for the sake of tenure and fame, everything is exploitation, using other people for your own ends.

So what do we do about it?  Let us propose three ideas.  First, there is the idea of the separation of powers.  The sine qua non of winning battles is the idea of strategic concentration.  Concentrate your forces and disperse the forces of the enemy.  The way to limit the exploitation by instrumental reason in all sectors of modern life, from business to government to moral/culture is by a greater separation of powers, preventing the sectors from ganging up against society as a whole: no crony capitalism and the unholy combination of politics and business; no established churches (and that includes secular churches like liberalism) and the unholy totalitarian combination of religion and politics.

But if the principle of force is to be reduced, then how does society work?  The second answer lies in the very structure of the human brain, its approximate division into rational, emotional, and instinctive spheres.  If the rational sphere is all about exploitation, bending the world to our will, and the instinctive is about staying alive from moment to moment, the emotional sphere is the world of the social animal, the reduction of conflict from the bloody murder of force and feud at least to social hierarchy, the hierarchy that kept the peace in the agricultural age, and at best to friendly social cooperation, the egalitarianism of the old hunter-gatherer groups.

Marx writes of what had been drowned in the "icy water of egotistical calculation."  It was the emotions: the "heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor," "chivalrous enthusiasm," and "philistine sentimentalism."  No doubt these emotions are as capable of dominatory excess as instrumental reason.  But as a mitigation between the pitiless gaze of reason and the blind workings of instinct, it provides the rose-colored vision of the social virtues.  If the world of the future is to be a world in which domination is minimized then it must be a world in which people cooperate and work together without the promptings of the lash or the enforcement officer.  That would be a world in which the four pagan virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage; are joined to the three Christian virtues: faith, hope, and love.


The third idea is the working out of voluntary cooperation.  It was Adam Smith who noted the peculiar operation of economic cooperation.  Man the social animal takes care of his own needs by satisfying the wants of others, thus delivering public benefits from private selfishness.  Despite the despotism of instrumental reason, people do not often try to exploit each other, especially others with whom they have a long-term relationship.  They like to cooperate.  Even in the most rigorous bureaucratic organizations, even in the modern army, people have found that the best instrumental results are obtained when people are freed from the tyranny of rules, when they are given responsibility and are encouraged to work together and help each other.

Humans are social animals.  Humans do best when their natural sociability is encouraged and developed.  What a concept!

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