“Faith, very old, now scared away by science, must be restoredWalt Whitman, Democratic Vistas
brought back by the same power that caused her departure —
restored with new sway, deeper, wider, higher than ever.”
In the 1980s, Republicans hitched their wagon to the runaway express train of free enterprise and the free market. They claimed that so long as the engineer manning the controls wasn’t sporting a government-issued ID, they were agnostic as to the train’s ultimate destination. Today we are living with the consequences of that disastrous choice. The destination, it turned out, was the Woke People’s Republic, a land in which traditional culture is perpetually under siege, the West’s greatest aesthetic landmarks lie leveled, the pornification of every aspect of society is proceeding apace, and religion is an obstacle on the road to a still more glorious promised land, the paradise of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.”
Nor was any of this just an unfortunate result of a wrong turn, a detour from the straight and narrow path. Fearing—just as our corporate overlords wanted—the specter of government regulation, we forgot that freedom entails not only the exercise of rights but also of responsibilities. Markets without morals are but the pursuit of filthy lucre, and the filth grows as the lucre accrues, leading to the place in which we find ourselves today: a vicious circle in which more and more moral restraints fall away as our train hits the high-speed rail leading into the ravine.
“Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot…. How could a society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened?” wrote that most far-sighted observer of American democracy, the 19th-century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville. The point is simple enough. In a state in which the entire body politic revolves in orbit around a single star—whether France’s “Sun King” who could proclaim “l’état c’est moi” or 20th-century totalitarians like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—we have no need of religion to orient and constrain us because the purpose of life is proclaimed from on high and the rules of engagement, down to the finest detail, are clear all around. But when people are left to their own devices, if they have not the benefit of a strong shared ethos to serve as their guiding light, they will spin out in all directions, rapidly find themselves irreconcilably at odds, and lose all sense of common purposes and the welfare of the larger whole.
Capitalism, as the economic system with which democracy is typically paired, makes this need for strong and stable institutions and a religious tradition able to withstand the tremors that will inevitably come still more acute. As a variety of notable thinkers, from sociologists such as Max Weber and Georg Simmel to economists such as Werner Sombart and Joseph Schumpeter, have recognized, capitalism promotes what Weber called “the disenchantment of the world,” a cold-hearted and calculating rationality in our relationship to our surroundings, undermining systems of belief centered on a supernatural order of things. The spasms of “creative destruction,” in Schumpeter’s famous phrase, that capitalism unleashes wreak havoc on what Sombart saw as the more organic pre-capitalist lifeworld and economy of the peasant and artisan, destabilizing long-standing structures and expectations and robbing people of inner peace. Schumpeter argued, in fact, that capitalism ultimately lays the groundwork for its own destruction by unsettling the stable pre-capitalist institutions—abiding religious and moral norms, local communities, the family and so on—on which it depends for its survival.
Here is the thing about capitalism: While it is generally rational in deliberating about the means employed in pursuit of its goals, it exhibits a toddler’s mentality when it comes to ultimate ends; the only word it knows is “more!” For that reason, if permitted to run amok, it will go for the biggest, brightest, shiniest plastic baubles, while scratching up the antique furniture, piercing the priceless paintings, de-pedestalling the marble busts, and leaving the delicate glassware and fine china in pieces on the floor.
If the only aspiration is maximizing profits, the imperative will be cutting costs and increasing demand. This leads to a race to the bottom to find the lowest common denominator, a cheaply made thing lots of people will crave. The best way to induce cravings is to cultivate addiction, feeding people what psychologists call “supernormal stimuli.” Start with things we naturally crave—sugar, dopamine and adrenaline highs, sex, attention, approval, and so on—and give it to us in megadoses we would never find in the natural world.
The simplest example of this is the food industry. What would we expect a rational capitalist to offer us here? Addictive sweets and sugar water, i.e., soft drinks, and crunchy, salty, gooey, oily mains and snacks, all made with the cheapest ingredients and preservatives to ensure a shelf life somewhere between months and eternity. We would expect, moreover, such “foods” to be marketed to us in advertisements that appeal to kids, as they are most susceptible to manipulation. And we would expect the food industry’s frankenfoods—made with plants pumped full of industrial pesticides to increase harvests and animals kept in barbaric conditions to maximize space, requiring antibiotics to stave off the resulting elevated risk of infection and doused with growth hormones to maximize yield—to displace ancestral alternatives and traditional cultivation methods. Because the impact of these profit-maximizing practices on human health and natural habitats does not factor into the profit-maximizing equation, we should expect both to suffer as Big Food expands its market share. And so it is.
The domain of art and culture offers a more involved example but one where the same underlying logic holds: Expect cheap thrills at the expense of quality and our collective well-being. While their histrionic anti-capitalist paranoia results in attributing too much intentionality and orchestration to the process, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer sketched out the race to the bottom in this area some time ago in their justly renowned 1944 essay on “The Culture Industry.” As Adorno and Horkheimer explain, true culture—high culture—resists false harmonization and is unafraid to strike discordant notes and leave them unresolved. It is, in Kafka’s words, “an ice axe for the frozen sea inside us.” But ice axes intended to pierce our insides are unlikely to be especially profitable. Most people like having their prejudices confirmed rather than challenged.
The time-tested maneuver the Culture Industry employs is to take those prejudices—such as, today, the kind of self-satisfied anti-racism and anti-sexism common among the coastal elites who are the prime consumers of the middlebrow mush that typically goes by the name of “culture”—and feed such biases back to these consumers in a form ever-so-slightly elevated to a higher register by means of the usual kinds of treatments aesthetic reflection on reality can achieve. The enthralled audience member comes away still more self-satisfied for having spent a few hours bettering himself, and feels like those responsible for the work of art are paragons of the same virtues he himself embodies.
Compounding this issue is the fact that the creators of high culture tend to be original and independent thinkers who often defy, both in their politics and in their personal conduct, societal norms of decency and the prevailing prejudices of the political and cultural elites. Taking the case of major 20th-century Anglo-American poets, we have figures such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and W.B. Yeats all tending to the right or even far right. Their views, especially when they come through in their art—such as in Joseph Conrad’s nuanced and distinctly non-Manichean depictions of colonialism in classics such as Heart of Darkness and Nostromo—make us uncomfortable in precisely the way Kafka had in mind.
But unpopular views and nuance will never capture a sufficiently sizable audience, and so the Culture Industry has every interest in fending off any sense we may have that we really ought to be reading such classics rather than the fluffy would-be best-sellers offered up in their place. As the Stanford literature professor Mark McGurl described in Everything and Less: the Novel in the Age of Amazon, “For Amazon, authors should consider themselves a kind of entrepreneur and service provider” rather than the Romantic era’s channelers of the divine or the godlike geniuses of high modernism. As such, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing guidelines, as quoted by McGurl, issue this stern warning to prospective authors: “We do not allow content that disappoints our customers.” Consistent with such standards, the Culture Industry is happy to play its part in elbowing “difficult” works off of canonical reading lists and bookshelves, branding it “elitist” or even “offensive,” and replacing them with more digestible and “virtuous” fare.
Even this sort of “virtue art,” however, is only a small part of the picture, the token coins the Culture Industry places in the Sunday collection box to earn social credit and win awards so it can get a free pass to spend the rest of the week engaged in lowbrow profiteering. The big bucks, after all, are rarely made by catering to the relative few in search of anything that may be called “art” or “culture,” but rather, by doling out large dollops of entertainment to the masses looking for mindless, escapist fun. This is the ground largely covered by Adorno and Horkheimer.
We may observe, in our own age, the exhaustion of whatever meager reserve of originality might have characterized our culture merchants in earlier eras. They are left with little more than retreads, reboots, re-releases, remasters, prequels, sequels, and franchises. As commentators from Clement Greenberg to Pierre Bourdieu have observed, mass culture feeds off of high culture. In Bourdieu’s words, art intended for the masses “cannot renew its techniques and themes without borrowing from high art or, more frequently still, from the ‘bourgeois art’ of a generation or so earlier.” But with the Culture Industry—typically thinking of the short-term (up through executive-bonus season) rather than decades ahead—having choked off high culture, it has unwittingly cut off its own oxygen supply, leaving us a culture that feels more and more hollowed out.
But even when it comes to the hollowest, most empty-headed mass-market mega-franchises, the Culture Industry remains careful to keep up virtuous appearances. Fearing, as ever, the outsized voices of the progressive elites who patrol cultural production, each team of superheroes must now include at least one representative of every notable racial and sexual minority, and undoubtedly, in the future, every self-respecting set of transformers will include at least one who transforms from male to female and is so delighted with the transformation that she never feels the need to go back.
The industry’s obsessive focus on sex and sexuality is also a symptom of the larger creeping pornification of anything and everything in a free market not reined in by a higher moral order. Sex sells, as we well know. But it is not as simple as that. When governing spiritual and moral restraints dissuade merchants and consumers from selling and buying sex in all its forms, permitting the expression of our carnal desires through appropriate, narrow channels while sublimating what remains into more fulfilling and creative pursuits, then genuine feeling—or, at least, fear of shaming—inhibits the formation of a public market for sex and sexuality.
When there is no longer a prevailing higher order in which we believe and find social communion, however, we turn to other outlets, and specifically to sex, in two different ways: we use it as a cheap-thrill substitute for higher spirituality, and we use it, along with allegiances to race, ethnicity, gender and other tribal identities, to give us a sense of the communal belonging now missing from our lives. The end result is a society obsessed with all things sexual, what the old leftist Herbert Marcuse termed “repressive desublimation” because of how it marries the appearance of sexual liberation with the reality of mind-numbing social and spiritual repression.
This increasing sexualization is obvious to anyone remotely familiar with what passes for mainstream music, particularly mainstream hip-hop (which is at the core of mainstream music) today. To see the progression, contrast the lyrics and video for Peter Gabriel’s 1986 hit single, “Sledgehammer,” a masterpiece of sexual innuendo that will never be recognized as such by children, with the deliberately suggestive Britney Spears 1999 hit single “Baby One More Time,” a song that is not about sex at all but intentionally sounds as though it is, in a way that kids will likely process as naughty (and so, alas, fun), with the lyrics and videos for any number of hit singles over the course of the past decade, such as Megan Thee Stallion’s “Thot Sh-t,” Cardi B’s “WAP,” or Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” where nothing is left to the imagination. Kids who listen find their brains immediately scrambled and their innocence ravaged. Such music, reflecting a race to the bottom of the human anatomy, finds the Culture Industry selling us words, sounds, and images embodying contemporary hip-hop’s degraded vision of humanity, and if we dare to protest, the powers-that-be will rush in to silence us with charges of racism.
Beyond that, we have the free availability of porn and, just a bit short of that, the phenomenon of what might be called “softcore prostitution,” viz., women who call themselves “content providers” earning a living by amassing followers and sponsorships by shamelessly showcasing themselves on social media in various states of undress. We have sexualized and immersive video games, too, again often targeted at children. And then there are the likes of Tinder and other dating and hookup sites that are little more than meat markets. Is it any wonder, given this state of affairs, that grade-school children are being sexualized at an early age with drag-queen story hours and the presentation of a menu of genders and sexual identities to choose from?
Ironically, actual sex of the ordinary physical sort is on the wane, with a massive decline between 2009 and 2018. Populations in first-world societies are collapsing. Social pornification is undermining the default gender roles that remain prevalent in nearly all non-first-world societies. It is problematizing real-world sexual relations through the #MeToo movement’s overreach and abetting the proliferation of sexual identities and the collapse of the sacralizing framework offered by traditional religious narratives. These forces have combined to de-romanticize and de-mythologize ordinary matrimonial relations and sexual practices.
Aggravating these developments as well is how corporations have driven us out of public spaces where we would have normally engaged with one another. The transition to doing everything from home was hastened, of course, by our leaders’ histrionic overreactions to Covid, but corporations, especially in the tech and e-commerce sectors, served as eager cheerleaders and even helped our rulers orchestrate the fear-mongering campaign by silencing dissenting voices. The likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, and Pornhub have every interest in our staying home in isolation, glued to our devices, as much as possible.
The addictive technology through which social media reels us in by giving us supernormal doses of the social approval we are biologically engineered to crave creates the illusion of social interaction as a substitute for the real thing. And the looming metaverse threatens to ensnare us completely in this matrix. We can look forward to a future in which we are hooked up 'round the clock to technology that seems to fulfill our every need as we interact with avatars and bots, unable any longer to discern which is which, while learning to fear actual human contact. This kind of virtual interaction cannot displace real-world interaction and has, in fact, already triggered an epidemic of depression. That fact does not factor into the calculus and, if anything, will serve to allow Big Pharma to get it on the act.
Meanwhile, ever-more-centralized control over our access to and sources of information will allow governments and the corporate entities that work hand-in-hand with governments to propagandize us in every possible way still more effectively than they do today. We can be assured of this: left to their own devices, they will have us dependent upon them for all our needs and living in fear of what kind of danger or toxin we might encounter should we venture into the wilds outside, where we might chance upon one another without the safety of our technological filters and mediators. What terrifies the powers-that-be the most is genuine populism (as we know from their consistent hysteria in response to various populist victories around the world)—left and right working together to further an agenda that benefits the majority of human beings rather than the comparatively tiny subsets of elites running corporations and institutions.
To keep us from uniting around issues that should properly unite us—whether the quality of our food, our natural environment, or our art; the explicit sexual imagery and adult ideas to which our kids are exposed early and often; or the increasing corporate control over every aspect of our lives—these entities have eagerly embraced a politics of tribal warfare to keep us distracted and divided. They pit the black working class, shepherded by white elites, against the white working class by embracing the violent and hateful rhetoric of BLM, or try to pit women against men by embracing the excesses of #MeToo and similar agendas. The corporate adoption and amplification of such ideas has the added benefit, as described above, of virtue-laundering the reputations of these corporations in the eyes of the influential left elites who would otherwise be the ones from whom corporate actors have the most to fear.
This, then, is what we can expect to get and have gotten from allowing corporations to run wild: poison in our food, air, and water; a degenerate aesthetic sphere drowning us in explicit sexuality and violence while shunting great works of art aside; addictive technology that isolates us, pits us against one another, and silences dissenting voices; and a politics that pushes divisive "wokeness" that immobilizes us, miring us in petty disputes about microaggressions and matters of nomenclature, while impeding the formation of a mass movement that could threaten the hegemony of our corporate overlords.
Most discussions of capitalism go wrong because they lose the nuance, getting caught up in the cross-talk between those who love it and those who hate it. But the extent to which our dominant economic system is good or bad depends on the background against which it unfolds. In considering how to find our way out of our present predicament, we need not remain trapped in a false Reagan-era dichotomy between the free market and government regulation—especially since the entities to be regulated have been so spectacularly successful at steering the process in their own favor. As Tocqueville and others (such as the influential Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell) have suggested, religion offers us another way forward.
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For capitalism not to buckle under the weight of its cultural contradictions or, in the manner Schumpeter predicted, unmake the stable social structures on which it itself depends, it must be girded by a robust religious tradition that counterbalances its coldly rational materialism and reins in its race to the bottom. If the “virtue” that corporations must signal in order to remain in our good graces is not woke “virtue” but moral virtue, they will regulate themselves without our having to call upon Big Brother to regulate them into compliance, and when they step out of line, public opinion and pressure campaigns of the sort the woke mob now employs to such great effect will bring the hammer down.
Alas, we are going in the wrong direction. A recent Gallup survey shows belief in God in the United States has dipped to a new low of 81 percent, down from 89 percent as recently as 2016 and from the 90s and even high 90s from the period from 1944 through 2011. The most pronounced dips, unsurprisingly, are among self-described “liberals” and “Democrats,” and, more disturbingly, among younger Americans. We are in desperate need of a religious revival.
Without the abiding moral foundation that religion brings, we are defenseless against the predations and excesses of the market. But with religion in place to anchor it, capitalism offers us its dynamism and its enormous capacity to unleash and channel our skills and creativity for the benefit of ourselves and the larger whole. Capitalism’s “creative destruction,” to say it another way, is inherently entropic and destabilizing, an ongoing economic revolution that always threatens to become a political revolution. To resist the downward pull of its maelstrom, we need a sturdy life-preserver that steadies and uplifts us, that props us up again and again when the waters are rising, the winds are howling, and we are most in danger of going under once and for all.