February 26, 2009

The Moral Order

The notion that there was a way of life characteristic of modern (or industrial) societies that was qualitatively different from the way of life found in pre-modern (or folk) societies goes back, at least, to the German sociologist Max Weber. Modern societies, said Weber, were governed by bureaucracy; the dominant ethos was one of “rationalization,” whereby everything was mechanized, administered according to the dictates of scientific reason. Weber famously compared this situation to that of an “iron cage”: there was no way the citizens of these societies could break free from their constraints. Pre-modern societies, on the other hand, were permeated by animism, by a belief in magic and spirits, and governance came not through bureaucracy but through the charisma of gifted leaders. The decline of magic that accompanied the transition to modernity Weber called die Entzauberung der Welt–the disenchantment of the world.

The distinction between these two fundamental types of social orders emerged in a variety of contexts in the decades that followed. Thus Ferdinand Tönnies saw the two in terms of Gemeinschaft (community) vs. Gesellschaft (society, especially the culture of business), noting that whereas the former was characterized by bonds of kinship or friendship, the latter was notable for the preponderance of impersonal or contractual relations. Linguist Edward Sapir, in turn, cast the dichotomy in terms of “genuine” vs. “spurious” cultures, and eventually the American anthropologist Robert Redfield would label it the “moral vs. the technical order.” In one of his last books, The Primitive World and Its Transformations, Redfield tried to argue that the technical order would eventually give rise to a new moral order; but it was finally not very convincing. Ultimately, Redfield believed that while the human race had made great advances in the technical order, it had made virtually no progress in the moral order–the knowledge of how to live, as it were–and that because of this, the human prospect was rather dim.

Indeed, for all one can say about the scientific inaccuracy of the pre-modern world, at least it was imbued with meaning. This is not the case with the modern industrial-corporate-consumer state, which expands technologically and economically, but to no other end than expansion itself. As the sociologist Georg Simmel wrote over a century ago, if you make money the center of your value system, then finally you have no value system, because money is not a value. All of these writers (a list that includes Franz Boas, Arthur Koestler, Jacques Ellul, and Lewis Mumford, inter alia) were pessimistic because they could see no way of reversing the direction of historical development. It was obvious that as time went on, the technical order was not merely overtaking the moral order, but actually obliterating it. This loss of meaning does much to account for the rise of the secular-religious movements of the twentieth century, including Communism, Fascism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, and so on. It also accounts for the depth and extent of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States. For there is no real meaning in the corporate-consumer state, which is at once empty and idiotic. On some level, everybody knows this.

We might, then, characterize the crashes of 1929 and 2008 as spiritual rather than strictly economic in nature. John Maynard Keynes saw the fluctuations of the stock market as being governed by human psychology, i.e. by faith and fear. So while in the case of both crashes, one can point to financial “bubbles” and hyperinflated investments, the core of meaninglessness at the center of the consumer-driven economy means that a boom-and-bust cycle is inevitable. In the case of the Depression, it took a war–which involved a huge mobilization of Meaning–to pull us out of it. At the present time, the situation is very different: American wars are now neo-colonial and self-destructive, a drain on the economy. They can only make the situation worse. Hence, the U.S. government has turned to massive bailouts of financial institutions as a solution, but this is analogous to putting band aids on the body of a cancer patient: the core of the problem remains untouched.

And what is the core of the problem? Basically, that the technical order is meaningless; that the American Way of Life finally has no moral center. Indeed, I doubt whether it ever did. In Freedom Just Around the Corner, historian Walter McDougall characterizes the United States as a “nation of hustlers,” going back to its earliest days. What began as trade and opportunism finally issued out into a full-blown crisis of meaning, and it is this that now constitutes the crisis of late capitalism.

It is with this understanding that the political scientist Benjamin Barber recently (9 February 2009) published an article in The Nation magazine claiming that the only thing that could save us now was “a revolution in spirit.” Barber points out that President Obama’s economic advisory team (which includes Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers) is squarely in the tradition of neoliberalism and the Corporate State. How, then, can we possibly expect the “change that makes a difference” that Obama promised the American people during his presidential campaign? As Barber notes, “it is hard to discern any movement toward a wholesale rethinking of the dominant role of the market in our society. No one is questioning the impulse to rehabilitate the consumer market as the driver of American commerce.” His solution is to “refashion the cultural ethos” by shifting our values from shopping to the life of the mind. We need, he says, a new cabinet post for the arts and humanities, which will somehow get Americans to think in terms of creativity and the imagination, not in terms of mindless consumerism. “Imagine,” writes Barber, “all the things we could do without having to shop: play and pray, create and relate, read and walk, listen and procreate–make art, make friends, make homes, make love.” “Idealism,” he concludes, “must become the new realism.”

How is this change going to happen? What are the political forces that will bring it about? Barber doesn’t say, and I confess that when I read his article, I couldn’t help wondering if the man had recently suffered some kind of mental lapse. What also came to mind was a book written in 1977 by the American sociologist John Robinson, entitled How Americans Use Time. Robinson discovered that on an average daily basis, five minutes were spent on reading books (of any kind), one minute on making music, thirty seconds attending theater and concerts, and less than thirty seconds on visits to art galleries or museums. As depressing as these figures are, they are surely much worse thirty-two years later, given the heavy corporatization of the culture, the dramatic increase in the attention paid to television and video screens in general, and the widely acknowledged decay of the American educational system. Indeed, the square footage of shopping malls in the U.S.–4 billion as of ten years ago–vastly exceeds that of schools and churches. All of the available data show that the typical American citizen has about as much interest in the life of the mind as your average armadillo. Rather than being on the verge of some possible cultural renaissance, or a reversal of our entire history, what we are now witnessing is the slow-motion suicide of the nation, with Mr. Obama guiding us, in a genteel and intelligent way, into the grave. Indeed, what more can he, or anybody, do at this point? For despite appearances to the contrary, Professor Barber must know that substantive political change is not a matter of voluntarism or exhortatory messages or a purported cabinet post in the arts and humanities. These are little more than jokes. To buck 200-plus years of history requires massive political power moving in the opposite direction, and no such force has emerged on the horizon.

Nor will it. There is no record of a dying civilization reassessing its values (or lack of values, in our case) and altering its trajectory. Whether the type of moral order that Professor Barber imagines can ever become a reality somewhere on the planet is certainly worth debating. But what is not worth debating is whether such a moral order might make an appearance on American soil. History is about many things, but one thing it is not about is miracles.

©Morris Berman, 2009