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Keen

The ever-prescient Christopher Lash on the deleterious effects of “modern technology”:

Modern technology has the same effect on culture that it has on production, where it serves to assert managerial control over the labor force. The study of mass culture thus leads to the same conclusion prompted by a study of the mechanization of the workplace: that much advanced technology embodies by design (in both senses of the word) a one-way system of management and communication. It concentrates economic and political control – and, increasingly, cultural control as well – in a small elite of corporate planners, market analysts, and social engineers. It invites popular “input” or “feedback” only in the form of suggestion boxes, market surveys, and public opinion polls. Technology thus comes to serve as an effective instrument of social control (The Minimal Self, 26).

Replace “advance technology” with “Google,” or “input” with selecting Facebook’s “Like” button, and you have a fitting analysis of our contemporary internet culture.

It’s too bad that Lasch passed before the rise of the internet. He would have no doubt destroyed the faux populism of tech elites.

Although Lash is no longer with us, we do have Andrew Keen, often described as the “antichrist of Silicon Valley.” Keen offers a Laschian-type thrashing of today’s internet culture. And like Lasch, Keen has no patience for corporate speak or facile ‘conservative’ rhetoric about ‘values’ abstracted from economic realities.

In his latest book, The Internet Is Not The Answer, Keen argues that the development of the web and rise of Silicon Valley social technologies has not ushered in the utopia we were once promised. Rather than delivering more democracy, more access to the good life, and more political transparency, the internet has birthed the near opposite: robber baron-style plutocracy, rising levels of economic pain for the masses, and an unprecedented level of corporate and government surveillance that would make the Nazi Secret Police blush.

Similar to Lasch, Keen sees that the rise of social technologies does not just happen at the level of use or consumption, but is driven by the modern division of labor. We once were forced to work in factories; we now give our labor away for free, by uploading “content” to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Writing about our “data factory economy,” Keen states,

the internet is destroying our old industrial economy – transforming what was once a relatively egalitarian system into a winner-take-all economy of what Tyler Cowen calls “billionaires and beggars.” Rather than just a city, it’s a whole economy that is losing its center. For all Silicon Valley’s claims that the Internet has created more equal opportunity and distribution of wealth, the new economy actually resembles a donut – with a gaping hole in the middle where, in the old industrial system, millions of workers were once paid to manufacture valuable products (110.)

I’m not sure if Keen offers much by way of solution. But as Cornel West pointed out to Keen (around the 33 minute mark), a big part of fixing this massive imbalance of wealth will be to cultivate “soul craft.” A good a place as any to start, I suppose.

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sola fide

From Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy:

In the commentary on the modern spiritual predicament, religion is consistently treated as a source of intellectual and emotional security, not as a challenge to complacency and pride. Its ethical teachings are misconstrued as a body of simple commandments leaving no room for ambiguity or doubt. Recall Jung’s description of medieval Christians as “children of God [who] knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves…

What has to be questioned here is the assumption that religion ever provided a set of comprehensive and unambiguous answers to ethical questions, answers completely resistant to skepticism, or that it forestalled speculation about the meaning and purpose of life, or that religious people in the past were unacquainted with existential despair. The famous collection of songs written by medieval students preparing for the priesthood Carmina Burana would be enough in itself to dispel this notion; these disturbing compositions give voice to an age-old suspicion that the universe is ruled by Fortune, not by Providence, that life has no higher purpose at al, and that the better part of moral wisdom is to enjoy it while you can (242-243).

For the most part, Lasch’s assessment is spot on. Yet note how Lasch appeals to medieval Christianity in order to make his argument convincing. In so doing, he conspicuously bypasses the modern Protestant tradition – that which gave birth to religion as a well spring of security, surety and fideism. The “misconstrued” ethical teachings, rightly deplored by Lasch above, unfortunately have less to do with modern secularists like Jung or Wilde, and more to do with a contingent form of bad theology. As John Milbank argues in Theology and Social Theory (published around the time of Lasch’s book), secularism was not birthed ex nihilio; rather, it was a certain form of early modern theology that birthed secularism.

A fire hydrant is seen with an "Out of Service" sign on a blighted street on the east side of Detroit

From Patrick Deneen’s How Red (State) is Marx?, in The American Conservative:

Here’s what Marx got right—profoundly, overwhelmingly, admirably right: capitalism is unforgiving to “conservatives,” those who care about neighborhood, Church, family, loyalty, tradition. As Marx and Engels eloquently described in The Communist Manifesto,

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation….

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Deneen adds an important note about Christopher Lasch, “Marxism’s best heir”:

Conservatives would do well to read some Christopher Lasch, who in the 1980s wrote a series of devastating critiques of the elite as those least likely to advance the cause of the working classes. An atheist Marxist early in his career, Lasch’s late work—especially his books The True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites—exposed the intellectual and financial elites for their irresponsibility and deep hostility toward the working classes. His fears that the society they envisioned—globalized libertinism—has come to pass, with these elites now reaping the advantages while the (unemployed) working poor “enjoy” the fruits of sexual liberation: the de-linking of individuals from robust and settled communities, the destruction of networks, cultures, and traditions that supported families and neighborhoods. He identified liberals especially for special and searing scorn, exposing their sentimental pity as a veneer that covered their main aim of outsourcing actual responsibility toward the less fortunate to a faceless, uncaring, distant and irresponsible government while they enjoyed the fruits of their outsized gains and organized license.

This is the kind of Marxism we need today. People who really want to work, make things, build families and communities and dig deep roots—Unite!

 

Fritz

Is it the case that the left abandoned its revolutionary spirit when it shifted away from the syndicalist vision of decentralized ownership, local virtue, and yes, the family (gasp!), in favor of a politics of consumption, growth, and a capitulation to the wage system? Christopher Lasch paints a convincing picture that this is in fact what happened in the early twentieth century.

Several chapters in Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven recount how state-centered socialist movements quickly overcame the working class tradition of syndicalism. As Lash argues, the state socialists quickly realized that the only way to win the class war was to fight for better wages rather than the democratized ownership of production, as the syndicalists stubbornly insisted. Marxists, state socialists and liberals all rejected the claim to widespread ownership and local responsibility on the grounds that it was pre-scientific. They denounced it as petty-bourgeois and worst of all, utopian rather than evolutionary. The iron laws of historical motion had been set in place and any attempt to undue or question this law was regarded as hopelessly romantic or nostalgic. Growth and progress were the name of the game.

The Marxists and statists went on to advocate for “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” with wage growth opportunities and better access to consumer goods soon becoming the hallmark of future progressive movements. The syndicalists, by marked contrast, attacked the entire notion of the wage system itself and resisted proletarianization in all its forms. They wanted to eliminate the distinction between capital and labor altogether. As such, artisans, yeoman farmers and other working class radicals look far more radical than their Marxists counterparts. Lasch provides a telling quote from Craig Calhoun’s The Question of Class Struggle: “the most potentially revolutionary claims were those which demanded that industrial capitalism be resisted in order to protect craft communities and traditional values” (210).

Lasch goes on to clarify what’s at stake in any historical recounting of syndicalist movement once it bumps up against the inexorable rhetoric of progress:

For those committed to the dogma of progress, the syndicalist sociology of virtue was deplorably regressive and “utopian,” and it found most of its adherents as they never tired of pointing out, in “backward” countries like France and Italy. They could not deny, however, that its adherents displayed an intensity or revolutionary conviction unmatched by any other social movement. Herein lay the scandal of syndicalism: it was retrograde but obviously revolutionary and therefore difficult for people on the left to dismiss. Its existence was particularly embarrassing to revolutionary socialists, because its radicalism made Marxism look tame by comparison and serve to reveal many points of agreement between Marxism and the “new liberalism” (335).

Is Lasch correct? Did he give the Marxist social vision a fair hearing? With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight following the publication of The True and Only Heaven, it seems clear that  Lash was onto something about “the narrowing of political debate” related to the wage system, consumption, and growth. In a telling footnote that appears more true today than ever before, Lash writes,

The growing acceptance of wage labor is only one indication of the narrowing of political debate in the twentieth century. Another indication is the narrowing of the kind of questions asked about work. In the nineteenth century, people asked whether the work was good for the worker. Today we ask whether the workers are satisfied with their jobs (208).

The only downside to Lasch’s reading is that he neglected the early Christian Socialist movement. Ludlow, Maurice, Kingsley, others, did not organize workers for the sake of greater profit sharing or rising wages; rather, they looked to control the enterprise from the bottom up. Like the syndicalist movement, the Christian Socialists rejected mechanical efficiency and centralization in favor of widespread ownership. This put them in the unfortunate position, in the eyes of critics like Sidney Webb, of having to place their trust in the working class along with their religious ideals. This also meant the much more difficult and painstaking task of working for a cultural as well as an economic revolution.

 

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