Friday, July 8, 2011

Modernity's Original Sin

Hey, said the serpent to Eve. Eat that apple and you could learn a thing or two.

So she could and so she did. But the thing about the apples from the tree of knowledge is that the knowledge they bring doesn't solve anything. It just raises the stakes.

That is the point about Original Sin. It isn't the sin itself, its the self-consciousness. Back in the old Garden of Eden you can live your life away in the bliss of ignorance. If you live, you live. If you die, you die. But after acquiring knowledge and the power it brings, life is no longer the simple bliss of ignorance. Life is serious; life has responsibilities.

So it was in the Dawn of the Modern Age. Bliss it was to be alive, and to be young was very heaven. Mankind ate anew from the Tree of Knowledge, and the new sciences, the triumphs of instrumental reason, burst like flowers into bloom. But then came the bitter fruit, the responsibilities of power, and the reality of the modern Original Sin.

Instrumental reason, the Enlightenment, write Horkheimer and Adorno is a dance of domination, domination over nature and domination over man. "What men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men."

It was the businessman that first applied this dictum in the years right after the Crusades. They built rational, efficient plantations on Cyprus, and eventually in the West Indies, to grow and refine sugar. They made tons of money, and they enslaved men and women to work the plantations, first Muslim slaves on Cyprus, and then Africans from West Africa. It ended up a huge, global business, and many fortunes were made and country houses built upon it. But the ruthless pursuit of wealth, made by rational planning and by enslaving men and women as mere factors of production, inspired a moral movement of rejection, the anti-slavery movement, that curbed and humbled this pure application of instrumental reason to business. And from that time we have always demanded of businessmen that they limit their appetites and their plans, treading lightly on the earth, and dealing gently with men. It turned out, anyway, that it was better that way.

But it was not just in business that the modern knowledge of instrumental reason could be applied. The new educated elite wanted to apply instrumental reason to politics, to make government equal and rational, to build a perfect society, carefully administered in every department, articulated in every joint, peaceful and just. But, Horkheimer and Adorno warned: "Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator towards men." And so it was that the effort to build a perfected, articulated society led to the most awful and cruel dictatorships ever known. In Nazi Germany, 6 million Jews killed; in Russia 10 million Ukrainian peasants killed. In China 30 million peasants killed in the Great Leap Forward alone.

When capitalism committed its Original Sin with plantation slavery, the educated middle class rose up in a moral movement that socialized this new force, creating a new moral culture to critique and to humanize capitalism, the efficient calculating monster.

But it has proved much harder to socialize instrumental reason when applied to politics and government. This is not hard to understand. The new educated class was just the social agent to critique and tame the economic monster. But it has proved remarkably resistant to the many critiques of its own monument to instrumental reason: big government and administrative bureaucracy. Instrumental reason applied to business created the bourgeoisie of merchants and manufacturers and barons of finance. Instrumental reason applied to politics created the educated class that occupies the commanding heights of government, education, and culture. It has the means to marginalize its critics and it uses it.

We humans must socialize the government monster, and tame this monstrous force. It will take a moral movement, just like the anti-slavery movement. It was already envisioned, two hundred years ago by Edmund Burke, but his sentiments did not grow into a moral movement. Not then.

But now that we see the failures of big government all around us, and its profoundly mechanical, un-social, in-human culture, it is time to rise up and develop the moral critique of rational, instrumental, big-government politics. It is time to put the "social" back in society.

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