This is part four of a four-part series on progress. The shortened and modified version can be found here at The Hub.
Having surveyed the landscape, finding oases of growth, comfort, improving quality of life along many metrics and opportunities around every corner, we’ve also come across a few deserts – arid is the landscape of the soul of the contemporary person, who knows not where to turn for what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful, only to her own navel.
In this piece, I’ll look at some of the trends on the horizon and chart a path forward, but the answer I think, lies primarily in the pre-political.
Existential Threats and Signs of Hope
Catastrophizing and fretting about the dystopian future is a common theme in film, television and music. There’s plenty to be concerned about, as we become more and more powerful, knowing how to do a great deal, but not what we should do, or why.
Advances in artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering conspire to further degrade the dignity of the human person. Indeed, the spirit of transhumanism – to modify, ‘improve’ and transcend human nature through the application of technique – is a movement that appeals to many people.
It is instructive to look back to Humanae Vitae for an example of the insight in the predictions of Paul VI. Stemming from the widespread adoption of contraception, he claimed that in the west we would begin to see infidelity and general moral decline, a decreasing respect for women by men and of feminine nature by women and men alike; but above all, the widespread use of technology in the realm of fertility will lead people to believe that they have unlimited control and dominion over their bodies. Now, more than ever, we view our own selves as a collection of parts, mere things that can be amputated and mutilated, and cast aside.
“Treating a person as a means to an end, and an end moreover which in this case is pleasure, the maximization of pleasure, will always stand in the way of love.”Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II); Love and Responsibility, pg. 40
The future of family and community
Though much associated with social liberalism is classified as progress because it is thought of as enabling greater freedom, this is a misunderstanding. In our liberal culture, freedom is conceived as lack of constraint, where few distinctions are made between action on the basis of feeling, desire, and compulsion on the one hand, and informed agency on the other.
Every free action is one that proceeds from a determining cause, and from some motivation, be it reason, desire, or emotion; some of which are forces that act upon the person, whereas others represent agency. Yet actions are not free – in a genuine sense – unless they are preceded by awareness and reflection and result from that understanding.
Acting without restraint from the basis of raw desire, or emotion is to be acted upon by a principle and cause of action that one does not control. That is why such behaviour is referred to as addictive, compulsive, and why action on these bases will always prove contrary to well-being.
To be an agent is to act on the basis of self-possession, where one’s determining principle for action is an understanding of what is true and good. That is what is truly liberating.
Many features of today’s socially liberal society characterized the world of pre-civilization. In Ancient Greece and Rome, where there was little emphasis on marriage and family, men would rear many children, “and satisfied their sexual instincts by homosexuality or by relations with slaves and prostitutes.” These were main causes of decline in both cases.
In pre-historical societies the promotion of sexual deviancy, parentless children, widespread abortion and infanticide were common. The advent of Christianity emphasized relationships of love, understood as gift of self to another, for the sake of lifelong union and the nurturing of new life. This led to an ending of practices such as human sacrifice, infanticide and polygamy. Furthermore, Christianity improved relationship norms by condemning marital infidelity, divorce, incest, polygamy, birth control, infanticide and abortion. Today, we are headed back to the practice of norms that have characterized dying cultures throughout the ages and the world of pre-history – where instinct, and self-assertion rule the day.
Looking forward, the trends show concern in the short-term, but there is always room for optimism in the long run. On the one hand, we see rapidly declining fertility rates in many parts of the world, and growing levels of out-of wedlock childbirth, which is one of the main predictors of difficulty and dysfunction later in life. On the other, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the practice of religion cuts against these trends, and leads to, among other things, higher-quality relationships and more sexual satisfaction and a positive influence on fertility.
As cultural decline reaches a tipping point, these trends could start to reverse and we might begin to see a shift to stable forms of life that lead to health, happiness and flourishing. However, it may have to get worse before it gets better.
“Love consists of a commitment which limits one’s freedom – it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one’s freedom on behalf of another. Limitation of one’s freedom might seem to be something negative and unpleasant, but love makes it a positive, joyful and creative thing. Freedom exists for the sake of love.”Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II); Love and Responsibility, pg. 135
Globalization and the growth of the State
As states grow larger, international cooperation may increase as well as the capacity to reduce absolute deprivation, but personal and collective freedoms are at ever greater risk of erosion, and being subsumed under the web of organizations, laws, regulations, and state-funded programs. The existential threat from dangerous weaponry has been a reality since the advent of modern warfare and the atom bomb. Environmental degradation has been on the rise since the Industrial revolution, and it is unclear what the future may hold in this regard.
But as the world becomes smaller, greater tolerance may prevail, acceptance of diversity and recognition of the vulnerable may become more commonplace. It is also likely– barring a cataclysmic event – that we will continue to grow wealthier and increase our technological mastery over things, which, I’ve argued, is a double-edged sword with mixed blessings.
In many ways, modernity and postmodernity are testaments to the power of instrumental reason – the ability to use our minds to understand and control physical nature through technique and technology, for specific, isolated goals. They enable the capacity for greater and higher and more meaningful forms of life, but do not themselves constitute it. In the end, man does not live on bread alone, nor primarily so.
The fruitless search: seeking connection by disconnecting from reality, and plugging into the virtual
Our contemporary moment is marked by the insatiable Promethean drive to self-assertion. It has become all the more disconcerting for today’s young people who see great wealth and technological achievements juxtaposed with their own inability to afford a family or a home. Doubly frustrating, no doubt, as so many have imbibed fashionable nonsense through the University system, and are then upset when they learn that reality is not, and cannot be how they have been taught to imagine it ought to.
Dare I say it, we need a new term for the kind of shallow, jargon-laden newspeak of the woke and progressive. It might as well be called moralysis – sweeping, empirically unfounded, moralizing judgments about states of affairs and entire systems that masquerade as analysis and explanation of the causes of the phenomena in question.
Progressives, liberals and conservatives alike drone on about some new large-scale, collective project that will promise immanent salvation for the anxious, restless, sweaty 21st century person who lacks a sense of the transcendent, and even of the mundane right in front of them. They want peace, justice, economic/social/status equality everywhere, but these are things that people cannot even achieve in their own family, among their friends, or in the workplace. An aspiration made to look all the more ridiculous when many proponents of such a view cannot even boast of knowing their own neighbours.
What people lack is not a guaranteed basic ‘income,’ ‘free’ education or health care, an army of social workers and assistants to ‘equalize’ their behaviour, or a neutered justice system. They lack a vision for their future that is desirable and attainable, and the most basic supports in life to get there – a team to play for, a hobby to pursue, a club to belong to, discipline in their lives, role models, and neighbours who know them. They need a community.
If you look at how frequently the word ‘community’ appears today, you will notice how what it refers to is so unlike an actual community. People use the term frequently, not because it is descriptive of any given situation, but because it is aspirational. There are so few genuine communities to speak of – just a vague sense of sharing a small, often highly politicized set of characteristics of members of a group that one will never see, and who probably, one does not even engage in shared projects with. The irony, of course, is that these are more and more often pursued online, ever-trying to make technology more available to connect, empower, and engage to right injustices, and imbalances. This technocratic spirit of policy-making is too often like a headless chicken playing whack-a-mole; whacking down on one problem – albeit misguidedly – only to have it spring up again somewhere else, sometimes in another guise.
Those who are impoverished do not lack just wealth and opportunity, they lack recognition for who they are – often invisible to the broader public – hope for who they might be, and real flesh and blood people to support them in how they do it. An angry protest, false demonstrations of ‘solidarity’ in public and on social media, symbolic gestures whose anger is on full display – these all fuel the fire, rather than quell it.
Most people long for something out of the hustle bustle. Equally, many enter the rat race only in the hopes of earning enough to exit it. What does this say about the state of the places we live and the lives we lead there? What does it say about the places we long to live in?
The Iron Cage of Technocratic liberalism
The boons of secularism, the cult of progress and political liberalism have been too often at the expense of a destruction of the value inherent in things, and of human dignity, in favour of injections of artificially induced highs. The result is a society of people strung out, depressed, and who don’t even know why.
This is the major flaw with the technocratic approach to problem solving. It treats the symptoms to the neglect of the underlying disease, that is allowed to continue to fester, and perpetuate itself in the form of the solution itself.
The creed of liberalism says that everyone can be happy and fulfilled, without commitment in relationships, to friends, family and place, stable moral principles, country, or creed, but simply by pursuing those things whenever they suit you, or not.
By finding technocratic fixes to every problem, the underlying causes are swept under the rug. In so doing, we neglect to cultivate the personal, and interpersonal strengths of character that not only allow for the challenges of life to be met time and again, but which form the very sources of lasting happiness and fulfilment, at the level of the personal, the social, and the political.
It is instructive to look at the problems of the day – mental health, homelessness, poverty, racial tensions, and the like – and assess the causes and solutions proposed. It is liberalism that has been the dominant ideology of the past two centuries in the western world. Behind many mental health problems, rates of addiction, and homelessness – which are not in fact perennial, but the result of social circumstances – lie higher levels of isolation and disconnection, which flow from liberalism’s deemphasis on the importance of cultural continuity, attachments to place and family, and a general promotion of transience and uprootedness people in pursuit of individual ‘fulfilment’ and ‘social mobility’.
Ironically, to address these issues, the typical solution that is proposed is more of what led to the problems in the first place. Governments of all stripes create publicly-funded ‘caregiving’ professions that establish official, contractual relationships with patients and clients. This furthers the technocratic management of yet another aspect of life, removing people from genuine relations of care and dependency that – to be sure, demand and tie down – but also connect, ground, and provide richness and intergenerational continuity to people, and supports for the most vulnerable.
Another place in which the ideology of choice, difference, and liberality shows up is in the assumption that diversity is unequivocally a strength. Difference and diversity are as much drivers of division as they are sources of dynamism, growth, and opportunity for cultivating tolerance. Throw ethnic and cultural groups from around the world into one place, deemphasize cultural continuity over time, and rejection of tradition and culture in its place, and you are unsurprisingly left with racial and identity group competition, status anxiety, and disparities that seem threatening, but are in fact to be expected. When not mindful of pace of change, integration and a balance between unity and diversity, multiculturalism can be anti-cultural – a destabilizing force that disconnects, and renders relationships and community hard to come by.
The technocratic mindset is one in which all problems are treated as technical, requiring the application of technique to solve them. It is all-pervasive. We see it in Keynesian economics – what is thrift and saving, when you can finance growth by debt-leveraged consumption? Having trouble sleeping? – don’t change your habits, take a pill. Having trouble finding a mate? – there’s pornography for that. Want to balance family and a career? – freeze your eggs and put off marriage. Need to get out of the hustle bustle? – listen to some nature sounds and practice mindfulness for a few minutes a day. Want to learn about something? – read the summary, watch a video, ask google.
We hide much beneath a labyrinth of taxation and public policy that borrows on the future at the expense of the present, and sends heaps of garbage halfway around the globe so that we don’t have to see it, or feel the effects of our own habits. We’ve become people who lead double lives – dieting during the week and binging on the weekends, who can be prim and proper at work, but vicious online; defenders of the poor and marginalized when it suits and is fashionable, except for when it will draws criticism, or requires genuine sacrifice.
On the contrary, there are no shortcuts in life. No matter how you slice it, you have to live with your own defects, and those of your culture.
The Future of Progress – an uncertain one
Every generation must learn by making mistakes, so to neglect to pass on those lessons that previous generations learn is detrimental to both personal character and civic health. But that seems to be what we’re going for – historical amnesia – in an atmosphere that is focused on instrumental, technical knowledge, and rejecting the past out of hand.
But to be fair, the application of rationality, process, technique, and efficiency to problem-solving has led to many great successes. This has fostered a worldview built around social engineering and the cult of progress.
However, it only applies in discrete situations and in time-limited frames. There are many difficulties that arise from the confluence of our human nature and our finitude – temporal, spatial and material. We are agents, who learn by failing in the course of every new life. All good things – happiness, development of skill, knowledge love, relationships, – come through the development of character, friendships, and social units. This must be transmitted across time through institutions, family and culture.
This kind of scarcity is definitional of who we are, woven into the very fabric of a universe with space and the forward arrow of time. All of our ‘problems’ boil down to the way we live our own lives. No external project, be it political, technocratic, or other contains the keys to life’s greatest mysteries, and its meaning. That is why the poorest of the poor can be happier than the most successful and wealthy, if they have family, friends, and lead a good life.
Therefore, it’s fundamentally misguided to speak of problem solving, or progress on any of the constitutive aspects of what it means to be human that arise from the confluence of our agency, finitude, and fallen nature.
Much of the search for progress is deeply misguided, even fundamentally so. That’s why I think it’s neither too pessimistic or optimistic to state this as I have tried to. Progress, regress, stagnation and decadence are always right around the corner. And happiness is always firmly attainable, for it does not require degrees, or wealth or grand ideas and projects. It is the humble acceptance of things as they are. Collectively reverting to various forms of idolatry, from tilting at windmills of grand social projects, running on a treadmill or the hamster wheel for success and status are the ways to miss it.
But these goods that are right in front of us require personal investment, interdependency, and self-sacrifice. With a culture of ‘safetyism,’ hyper specialization, and the outsourcing of familial, maternal and paternal care to specialists, we are left as experts in the use of technology, but woefully inadequate generalists, and unschooled in the basics of life. The virtues required to live a decent, fulfilling life are growing scarcer and scarcer.
However, the many benefits that come with the technologized world cannot be ignored, and it is difficult to see how they can be balanced on a large-scale with the need to cultivate relationships, and personal strength and character.
In fact, countercultural attempts to blindly reassert traditional virtues come across as cheesy and anachronistic, while endeavours to get serious and engage in self-denial seem manufactured, however needed they may be. Perhaps this is because of the all-encompassing immanent frame that constitutes life for so many people; you can’t really take anything too seriously if it’s all made up, or some big cosmic joke, perhaps even fake news.
Encouragingly, a substantial minority of people are realizing that the set of assumptions laid bare in the visions of progress I’ve been examining make little sense, while the intellectual resources of the great faith traditions and their millennia of resources upon which to draw are much richer. Not at all retreats into naïve credulity, but the very fertile ground and source of the major values and achievements we hold dear, across the political spectrum. What is classical liberalism after all, but a political philosophy essentially linked to the assumption that we are made in the Imago Dei – inherent, equal dignity insofar as we are Created by God, the hypothesis of an independent, rationally ordered universe that we can come to know?
The most important upshot of this is that while there is a story of continuing technological progress, that is not the case insofar as human wisdom is concerned. There is increasingly less wisdom to be found at a quantum physics seminar or entire wings of the humanities and social science departments than there is around a Bingo table at a retirement home.
What do conservatives have to offer? A ‘Common-sense’ revolution, of an even more common sort
Conservatism has much to offer here, but it’s not where you might expect it. Pundits typically argue for the steady correcting mechanism in conservatism, the fiscal prudency, and the trickle-down effect of economic growth, but I think the greatest strength of conservatism is its people.
Many of those who call themselves conservative in some way, are – quite frankly – normal. They are fortunate to be in a position to want to conserve what they know to be good, for having experienced the fruits of that society themselves. They do not fall for pie-in-the-sky theoretical gobbledygook, or the next fad that comes along promising an ‘end’ to all our woes. They do not look to the world with frenzied zeal, or dewy-eyed mysticism. They try to look at it as it is, has been, and can be in light of those facts. They are – for the most part, and at their best – non-ideological, pragmatic, humble, and willing to compromise for the good of the polity, and the people that they serve.
Conservatives ought to do their best not to descend into the rhetoric that is so easy for them (myself included) – poking fun at the naïveté, the ignorance, and frenzied fury of their political opponents who are always falling over themselves to turn whichever way the wind is blowing, following along like sheep.
But in many ways, conservatives are no better. The typical vices are laziness, stubbornness, strongman rhetoric, and an idealization of the past. Liberals take new ideas as necessary for the ineffectiveness of those of the past, but the latter have never been – nor can they be to a certain extent – ever fully manifested. Bringing to life those timeless principles that the conservatively-inclined can defend is not an archaeology project, but one of renovation, rejuvenation, and development – bringing out what was only partially manifested in previous generations and can therefore constitute solid building blocks for the future.
Conservatives can, and should speak from the heart – for it is the goodness of what we have that must be conserved, and shared. Too often, that message is lost in the fray. There are too few voices in the public sphere who can speak convincingly with decorum, style and substance of a positive vision. That can only come with a cultivation of social and cultural capital at the grassroots.
People do need a new common-sense revolution – but not of the public policy sort. A true return to the obvious, and the everyday. As everyone is fatigued, it means stepping away from toxic spaces online, spending time with family and friends, and those who don’t think like you or share the same background. That’s the way to build up a foundation of unity, from which healthy discussions and disagreements can be had.
We can build on the great strengths of the Enlightenment, address the wrongs of the past, and attempt to quell the spiritual malaise of this era of decadence and relativism, but it requires a little less of each of the social engineer, the radical, the yuppie and the hippie, and a little more back to basics.
Conservatives should find solace in the reality that the facts of life are conservative. It might just take a little longer for people to realize it, but they must in the end. As distractions, injections, numbing and exciting experiences become more widely available and increasingly a click away, it may just take mid-life crises that come later and later, as people remain children for longer and longer.
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