Archive for June, 2009

I finished reading Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia by John Gray. The language is a bit of a struggle. Whereas the words and sentences are clear, the organization within the paragraph and from section to section is often lacking. (This functions as a reminder that a good part of the work of a writer is to organize his thinking into a form that communicates effectively to his reader. For all his obvious erudition, Gray often fails on this account. I’m also bugged by the absence of commas in many places that causes me to focus on parsing sentences properly rather than on content. That’s an editorial value rather than a rule, and it favors flow over excessive interruption, but it’s poorly applied in this book.) In addition, since Black Mass draws on 2,500+ years of Western intellectual history, one has to be pretty well read to fully grasp the weave of so many threads. I’m probably not quite up to the task, but I wanted to offer a brief review anyway.

Gray’s central thesis is that free market ideologues and neoconservatives, for all their confusion and revisionist history, find intellectual antecedents in a variety of questionable political movements that arose periodically but were ultimately defeated or abandoned in the wages of history. Perhaps most notable among those antecedents are revolutionary, militant, apocalyptic religious beliefs sprung from early Christianity and associated with millenarianism or chiliasm. Gray believes that classical liberalism and free market ideology (or more succinctly, globalization) have been transformed in the last 30+ years into a secular religion that represents, for some at least, a panacea for all types of social organization and a Utopian project worth imposing globally by force. Although not exclusive to America, this attitude is most virulent here. This new Zeitgeist bears similarity to other transformative projects and purges, especially the French Terror, Nazism, and the rules of Lenin and Stalin in Soviet Russia.

Here’s a good example of neoconservative revisionist history:

The classical economists themselves had serious doubts about the commercial society they saw coming into being around them. For Adam Smith[,] commercial society was the best kind of human association, but it was highly imperfect. At times[,] he refers to the market — or the ‘system of natural liberty’, as he often calls it — as being a Utopia; but he means that it is the best achievable system, not that it is without serious flaws. While he was impressed by the productivity of free markets, Adam Smith feared their moral hazards. Workers did not need to be well educated to perform the simple[,] repetitive tasks required of them in the factories that were being set up in the north of England, while the anonymous cities that were springing up around the factories did not encourage virtue. In the long run[,] this posed a risk to commercial civilization. Smith’s anxieties echoed those of earlier thinkers in the civic republican tradition and influenced later critics of capitalism. Marx’s theory of the alienating effects of wage-labour owes a good deal to Smith’s insights into the flaws of commercial societies. Caricatured by twentieth-century ideologues as a market missionary, Smith was in fact an early theorist of the cultural contradictions of capitalism.

I especially like that last phrase: cultural contradictions of capitalism. It impresses me that cultural critics such as Smith and Marx (among many others) could see coming what we are now experiencing in late-stage capitalism, namely, the cumulative effects of moral hazard, lack of civic virtue, and alienation of wage-labor. Gray identifies this condition as anomie and suggests that it often results in disaffected young adults attempting to forge meaning in life through born-again religion and radical politics or a lethal combination of the two. Such antidotes to anomie are arguably as bad as or worse than the sickness. Since most of us are conditioned within this system, it’s fundamentally antithetical for us to recognize our spiritual decay (not the same a religious decay) or to criticize it effectively from within the bubble.

Here’s where I depart from Gray. If we’re indeed embarked on a historical trajectory at all similar to those mentioned above, it’s probably fair to say that in the early stages, the worst effects are being felt in societies around the globe where democratic capitalism has been imposed by force, often through the International Monetary Fund, sometimes by conventional military force, which have had the effect of destabilized sovereign states, since their cultural institutions are not amenable to such wholesale transformation. Iraq and modern-day Russia spring to mind. When the full sweep of history catches up to us in the West, however, following on the strains being felt in financial markets over the past year in particular, we may well prove to be vulnerable to an intensified Fascism, replacing the creeping Fascism we know today, probably led by some messianic ideologue more bold in his thinking and rhetoric than Obama is subtle.

Techies and Fuzzies

Posted: June 23, 2009 in Education, Idealism, Nomenclature

During a drinking expedition with a few coworkers, the friendly conversation turned toward the curious directions we all take in life and how many of us probably wouldn’t choose the same college major today with the benefit of hindsight. The enthusiasm of youth lends itself toward declarations of life-long fidelity to some field about which one feels passion, or perhaps more typically, one drifts purposelessly into a major only to discover at some later time what would have been a better choice. That isn’t to say anyone should live with regrets for not knowing something before being prepared to know it. Such wisdom has a tendency to be acquired after it’s already relatively useless, which calls to mind the George Bernard Shaw remark that youth is wasted on the young.

All this was preliminary to what could have been an ugly dispute: the value of a liberal arts education versus a technical or professional degree. Being clever folks, we deftly and diplomatically avoided extreme positions and agreed that both types are necessary for a pluralistic society — sometimes even coexisting in one person. One of the older, wiser in the group offered for use techie and fuzzy. Both terms are pretty reductive and not so charitable, depending on how one interprets them, but everyone understood the harmless intent. He also communicated his surprise that his daughter, who had excelled at precisely the techie subjects that are stereotypically rare among females, later took an abrupt turn toward the fuzzy side in graduate school. By my lights, it’s a fairly logical development for anyone leaning somewhat heavily to one side or the other to become interested in contrasting disciplines. Curious people break new ground again and again throughout life, which isn’t something that one can typically do by continuously deepening knowledge within a single field. Of course, extremely high achievers do tend to focus exclusively on one subject and are accordingly vulnerable to character distortions and notorious blind spots.

My own trajectory is fairly typical. Without revealing too much, I focused my early efforts on a fuzzy subject, which in its more advanced stages began to rather paradoxically take on the flavor of vocational school, which while not quite being techie was very much applied. While I continue working in the field, I’ve become an autodidact in a number of other disciplines that offer new perspectives on the world. Although I have no regrets other than I can’t do it all again and again, I’ve wondered if an education in anthropology or Western intellectual history would have launched me sooner in the areas of my current interest. These are arguably just more fuzzy subjects to add to my principal focus, but I’m less concerned with covering all parts of the spectrum than I am in seeking out what interests me now.

One further comment: a Classical education (the study of the art, literature, languages, culture, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) strikes most people as hopelessly remote and pointless in the modern world. To the contrary, as history plods on, it’s clear that we are little closer to solving the quintessential problems of the human condition (a fuzzy issue) than were the ancients, despite our putatively impressive techie prowess. This is sometimes regarded as the intent behind the Shakespearean line that there is nothing new under the sun — human nature remains essentially unchanged. And not so surprisingly, if craftsmanship interests you, I have heard that the History Channel show Life After People suggests that the architectural works of the ancients may actually prove more enduring than anything we have managed in since the Industrial Revolution.