The leftist thinker and essayist George Scialabba has some interesting things to say about modernity and the challenges of living within it. Excerpt:
TNI: What is the “philosophy of limits” and what do we have to learn from it? Where do liberals/radicals err in their disdain of conservativism? Conversely, where is there still too much piety among liberals? Any chance of concrete right-left alliances, or just fertile intellectual possibilities?
When the modern world was being born, the supposedly inescapable limitations of human nature was a conservative theme. Inherited traditional beliefs and forms of authority were held to be all that most people could understand or live by. To convince a wide public to reject these a priori limits and trust themselves morally and politically was the first, heroic task of Enlightenment intellectuals. Faith in progress was once a precondition of progress. It still is, to the extent that contemporary right-wing libertarianism insists that democratically controlled enterprises must always be less efficient than hierarchical ones like corporations.
But entwined with democratic self-confidence, there grew up a less reflective faith in unlimited material progress, based partly on a belief that human wants and needs would grow to match increases in productive capacity. This may have seemed plausible before the environmental limits to growth became obvious in the mid-twentieth century; but more important, it was also convenient for those who wished to deflect attention from the gradual and many-sided loss of autonomy that industrial mass production and bureaucratically organized medical/educational/psychotherapeutic expertise imposed on nearly everyone. As the state, the economy, and the institutions regulating everyday life all grew in scale, the only sphere of autonomy left to ordinary people was consumption. And so an entire ideology and technology of consumption arose, on the premise that happiness consisted primarily in consumption, which could apparently be increased without limit. And if that’s true, then our powerlessness doesn’t matter.
But it’s not true. Powerlessness and lack of autonomy do matter to our psychic health: they produce weak, immature selves and a culture of narcissism – the latter a psychoanalytic concept that has little to do with the popular notion of “narcissism” as mere self-absorption or self-importance. We can’t grow to psychic maturity through social relations on just any scale – they have to be on a scale that allows us at least a modest sense of mastery in work and community life and imposes personal, not purely impersonal, obligations. That scale may not be achievable in a mass society.
The people who understand this best at the moment seem to be conservatives of the “paleo” or religious variety, like those around The American Conservative, a very interesting (and quirky) magazine for which I’ve been writing occasionally in the past couple of years. But paleoconservatives often seem to think that the state is the primary agent of massification. Radicals know better (as Lasch did): the modern state is a creature of corporate capitalism, which can only be controlled through what Lasch called “completing the democratic revolution of the 18th century.”