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Mass-Man & the Social Meaning of Modernity
The social meaning of modernity expresses itself in domination, hierarchy, and oppression. The individual person living under such a social system is reduced to a state of passivity and bewilderment, pinned down by nameless, faceless bureaucracies. Such institutions are totalitarian in the strictly descriptive and empirical sense, existing to incorporate competing foci of power into themselves, to dominate and order all of society. This passivity, this disengagement and disembodiment, is also deeply bound up with, in Jerry Mander’s words, “the consumer lifestyle that’s being promoted worldwide by television and its parent—advertising.” Mander was speaking more than twenty years ago, but the glorification of unthinking consumption and the relentless barrage of advertisements—now supercharged by intimate knowledge of your tastes and desires—has only increased with the rise of the internet. The modern person, particularly the late-modern person, inhabits Foucault’s “disciplinary society,” haunted by a gnawing sense of inadequacy, the “consequence of the unrealistic demands of consumer culture.”1 Our focus on consumption and entertainment has made us docile, easy targets for authoritarian social control and hierarchical class rule.
It is said that individualism is among the most salient features of the suite of characteristics defining modernity. But what could be further from the truth? The individualism offered by modern institutions is only the pathetic simulacrum of genuine individualism, which would mean self-awareness and thus an awareness of one’s connection to other people and to the planet from which we arose. Unable to assert itself in the construction of meaningful community of the kind so necessary to human wellbeing, individualism is relegated and confined to diversions—our individual tastes in music or clothes, for example. Conformity to a monoculture, of which heedless consumerism is a key component, is the true face of modernity behind the semblance of individualism. The individual here is a producer and consumer, an economic machine only, a source or potential source of that most unassailable of modern values: economic growth. Emotional and psychological needs have perversely been “transformed into demands for [physical] commodities.” Democracy cannot be made compatible with such a violently-imposed system of class rule and passive bewilderment. As David Graeber noted in There Never Was a West,
The democratic state was always a contradiction. Globalization has simply exposed the rotten underpinnings, by creating the need for decision making structures on a planetary scale where any attempt to maintain the pretense of popular sovereignty, let alone participation, would be obviously absurd.
How many of the social practices and patterns we take to result from invariable laws of human nature are in fact constructs that can be changed, repaired, or abandoned? How do we meaningfully interrogate our institutions and the language we use to describe them? Anarchism necessarily takes an interest in questions of language, in asking whether our language obscures aspects of reality or reveals them.2 Language is an inherently low-resolution medium, but the impoverished state of the prevailing discourse on politics leaves us plenty of room for improvement. What is needed is a richer and more textured way of talking about and categorizing the social possibilities open to us. And, importantly, they are all open to us, every possibility. The claims of growth and progress cultists notwithstanding, history is not proceeding according to a preordained plan. We’re defining the boundaries of what’s possible anew every day, in the things we choose to value and the ways we treat each other.
Interesting, constructive ideas are to be discovered in the reconciliation of opposites. Both the socialist left and the libertarian right regard themselves as anti-theft movements, concerned to create and/or preserve (and this distinction is important) a free and equitable economic system. Admitting the imperfection and imprecision of this terminology, we can nonetheless fairly say that the left (the real left, at least) sees the private owners of capital as having stolen it, cordoning off land, natural resources, and even ideas themselves (as the “intellectual property” of multinational corporations); they call for a radical redistribution of wealth to remedy these historical wrongs, and they see individualist and free market rhetoric in the defense of gross social, political, and economic inequalities as a form of propaganda. The libertarian right, which the author sees as an absurd, if interesting, oxymoron, wants to defend that inequality as the natural and inevitable result of the market processes they associate with progress and prosperity.
A look at the historical record of the development of global capitalism clearly vindicates a left-wing position on economic reality, though that can’t be taken to mean that economic freedom of the kind articulated by market libertarians is a system that must be reined in by the state. The state created the existing system of power and privilege—i.e., capitalism—through violence and continues to recreate it through the same means. By anyone’s definition, there has never been a free market system or anything like one. Both worldviews contain some truths and some falsehoods, but because existing institutions are fundamentally indefensible, born of violence and robbery, we must be leftists—at least in the sense that we must hope for a radical departure from the crimes and injustices of the past.
What kinds of leftists should we be then? For here, too, we find authoritarians and centralists of various kinds arrayed against left-libertarians and decentralists of various kinds. Is the ideal of local self-sufficiency a socialist one? Or is the centralized, monolithic modern state the socialist’s model? The answer may depend on the context within which economic exploitation takes place and the social dynamics from which it arises. Economic exploitation takes place, as Kropotkin observed in The Modern State, “under the supervision of the state”—that is to say, the immiseration of the worker and the domination of a small ruling class come about not in spite of the state, but because of it. Kropotkin continues,
Is it sensible to give the institution which currently exists to hold the worker in servitude—because who would doubt that such is today the main function of the State?—is it sensible to strengthen it by giving it the ownership of a vast railway network? To give it the monopoly of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, sugar, etc., as well as that of credit and banking—in addition to that of justice, public education, territorial defence, and colonial banditry?
In the modern state we have “a new capitalist, even more dangerous than the bourgeois companies, the State.” The modern state arises with capital, as the one capitalist to rule them all, not as some kind of socialist counterweight. Here the social dynamics of and precursors to the twentieth century deserve a much more careful and rigorous look. We must come to grips with the fact that the horrors of last century are consistent expressions of modernity’s motive force, not anomalies, mere “noise.” Zygmunt Bauman’s words cannot be improved upon: “The two most notorious and extreme cases of modern genocide did not betray the spirit of modernity. They did not deviously depart from the main track of the civilizing process.” They are the practically inevitable implications of a world bewitched by the idea of totalizing, scientific social control, of a human species whose dreamed-of triumph over nature has been realized. It bears repeating that Nazi Germany was extraordinarily sophisticated in its developments of technology and the hard sciences.
Detlev Peukert, socialist and historian of the Alltagsgeschichte school, argued quite similarly that Nazism was not a break with the main currents of modernity, with its emphasis on science and its hope for a centralized, administrative government of experts, but an incarnation of the “peculiarly crisis-prone nature of the process of modernization itself.” The question arises: from where do these inherent crisis tendencies come? What is it about modern people and our institutions that made the last century, which saw so many scientific and technological breakthroughs, one of unimaginable mass murder? That these phenomena should coincide is important. As Kirkpatrick Sale has observed, we should not treat their contemporaneousness as merely accidental. Humanity’s future now requires that we face—directly, with awareness and honesty—the fact that our current socio-political institutions are not equipped to confront the issues created by the growing technological power of our species.
Such is the shape of power within the context of modernity. So steeped are we in the language and philosophy of power—of unquestioning loyalty and obedience to an oppressor class—that we cheer the denial of our civil rights. We even wave their flags and pledge our allegiance. Our overlords can spy on us and monitor our activities, put us on house arrest, mask our children, and steal our money for imperialist wars and corporate bailouts. They can torture us, murder us with unmanned drones without any legal process, and sentence most of the world to grinding poverty and wagedom—and we prostrate ourselves meekly. Perhaps surprisingly, many of our “progressives” have become the surest defenders of such abuses of power. These corporate liberals—highly educated and credentialed, mostly white, urban—simply trust that the system works. And why not? It’s always worked for them; they were pliable and successful in that bizarre, industrial, years-long test we call school.
Among the most salient features of the modern age is our toxic obsession with schooling. Schooling is the way we train obedient workers and attempt to quantify and predict the economic value of children, measuring them against their peers and sorting them into groups, future low earners and future high earners. They are not people, with the irreducible complexity that fact implies, but raw materials, human capital. William Godwin wrote that the chief function of compulsory education is to teach pupils to defend the status quo and yield to authority, “to bow to every man in a handsome coat,” as he put it. Through this training we are inured to hierarchy and humiliation, our minds reshaped against our natural curiosity and desire for freedom.
To hear our ruling classes tell it, this process of psychological training and conditioning is an inevitability, a reward for reaching a certain level of progress. Whether this process in fact serves the well-being of the people being trained and conditioned is not even a ridiculous question—it’s no question at all. We’d have to ask children how they feel about it, and, well, of course we can’t indulge that kind of frivolity. If schools were to teach children to think for themselves and question authority, they would sow the seeds of their own demise, an uprising of students, their eyes opened to the cruel absurdity of the process. In education, as elsewhere, modernity expresses itself as “the urge to control, direct and limit the flow of life.” The homogeneity and rigidity required by the modern age would be unthinkable without this fundamentally abusive system of power.
Though it presents itself as morally neutral and rational, compulsory schooling is a key component of bureaucratic modernity, which prevents us (using violence, it must be noted) from acquiring the tools necessary to actively question the status quo and engage with the world. It is decidedly not value-free. These systems of power, which define almost everything about our lives, are creations of human minds and actions. They can be changed, and they must be changed, for every civilization has fallen, and everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve left mass-extinction and desertification. On a long enough timeline—and this could happen much sooner than we think—there will be nothing left to sustain human life. We can pin our hopes on finding another planet or we can begin to recognize the obvious relationship between our authoritarian social institutions and our reckless destruction of our one home.
The Enduring Fantastic: Essays on Imagination and Western Culture, edited by Anna Höglund and Cecilia Trenter (McFarland 2021).
Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique, Sally Haslanger (OUP 2012).