The New Dystopia

Holocaust memorial. Friedrichstraße rail station, Berlin.

I have, from time to time, been wont to quote the opening passage of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. It is perhaps the most compelling statement of the deeply unsettling character of the modern world. “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters.”

So far, so good. The Enlightenment stands, among the literate classes in Europe and the Americas, for the emancipatory character of reason.

If there are those who look askance of it, it is only those small-minded atavists who harken back to a time when men were men and elves were elves, and the divine right of kings was just how things were.If there are those who look askance of the

If there are those who look askance of the Enlightenment, it is only those small-minded atavists who harken back to a time when men were men and elves were elves, and the divine right of kings was just how things were.

But then a discordant note. In the original German it goes, “Aber die vollends aufgeklärte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils.”

The first English translation of this line (by John Cumming in 1972) renders this as, “Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” Jephcott’s 2002 edition, typically more precise and prosaic, runs, “Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.”

In fact, the line can’t quite be optimally translated, in no small part because doing something in the sign of something else is a turn of phrase which has mostly fallen out of modern English. Literally it should read, “But the wholly enlightened earth radiates in the sign of triumphant calamity.” Still, the force of the utterance is roughly the same. That which we thought would usher in an age of light that would banish the darkness has now, in the fullness of its development, become a threat of a wholly different kind.

Herein is the underlying narrative of the postwar cultural pessimism. Max Weber had written of an iron cage, in which the epigones of the West would find themselves when capitalism had evacuated the substance from modern culture. The Frankfurt School, of which Horkheimer and Adorno were the leading figures, gave this a Marxist twist.

Rather than hollowing culture out, leaving “specialists without spirit” and “sensualists without heart” imagining that they had reached a level of culture never before achieved, rationality would synergize with capitalism, creating forms of domination far more insidious (and lethal) than the mythos that they superseded.

No entrepeneurial spirit. Brussels, November 2016.

Weber, in fact, lists a number of possible outcomes of the process of rationalization that transformed modern human beings from godly men trying to manifest salvation to soulless technicians filling an endless succession of days with the products of lowbrow culture. Perhaps, he suggested, there will be new prophets and perhaps new prophets there were. But the most prominent of these foretold a rebirth of the thousand year Reich, and that turned out quite badly for all concerned.

This movement and its various cognates sought to clothe themselves in the garments of “old ideas and ideals,” but their atavism was all for show and few outside the Lederhosen set took it seriously anyway. Perhaps, too, this is a lesson about the nature of political atavism worthy of general application. Ronald Reagan made a career of the same sort of thing, and to much better effect, especially given that past seen Leave it to Beaver that he was referencing was no more real (at least for the vast majority of people) than was Hitler’s image of Black Forest peasants.

Francis Fukuyama famously argued in the late 1980s that world history, having found its concluding moment in liberal capitalism, was headed for a mechanistic, problem solving sort of future, the prospective self-importance of which seemed to recall another of Weber’s possible outcomes for modernity. But, alas, it turned out that many denizens of the flat world of global neoliberalism were not content to persevere in this condition. Rather, they felt the need to create another flavor of political atavism, the basis of which was no less illusory than any of its precursors.

But where, then, are we left. The ideologically flavored totalitarianisms of left and right that shaped the previous century, and which colored so many dystopian projections, have passed onto the rubbish heap of history. Although the rise of the modern surveillance state shares many alarming features with Orwell’s 1984, there is no abstract ideology, no Ingsoc, tying it all together. Instead, at least in the United States, we have a bitter, blustering nationalism that has no common underlying substance save the flag.

Hats bearing the slogan “Make America Great” again will now be consigned to attics and second hand stores, now that this resurgent nationalism has seen off the forces of moderate, rational, capital accumulation. Perhaps they will, in future, be used as a container for the magic beans sold the white working class in the guise the return of blue collar manufacturing jobs. Sadly, even these magic beans will, in future, be produced by robots.

Gifts of the spirit, August 2016.

The utopias of the second half of the 20th century (to say nothing of those of the first) have passed away, throttled by low growth and concentration of wealth. Our dystopias, too, have gone, or at least those that didn’t center on the degradation of the environment. Although there is a certain amount of friction between Donald Trump and his patrons in the what’s left of the Republican Party, they share a common commitment not simply to reject climate change but simply to ignore it.

The hallmark of the new orthodoxy, shared by Trump and by his Republican enablers is that truth is whatever cannot immediately be proved false. So that when Trump asserted that two or three million illegal votes had been cast for Hillary Clinton, the standard of truth, asserted by everybody from Reince Priebus on down the line, was that nobody could be sure that it was not true. To which one must say: Fair enough, if one is willing to follow that epistemological principle out to its obligatory conclusions.

I do not know that two or three million votes were not cast for Hillary Clinton. For the record, I also do not know that I am not a brain in a vat on Alpha Centauri, or that my next step will not plunge me into a bottomless abyss, or that Donald Trump did not engage in an SS-themed snogging session with Vladimir Putin. Sadly, these things it is not the lot of man to be sure about and so, according to Priebus’ theory of knowledge, they are effectively true.

The dystopias that we imagine are generally more grim than the ones that we live, if only because of the difference between the slow transformation of the conditions of actual human life by comparison to the immediacy of fictional narratives. For much of the 20th century, educated men feared an all-encompassing domination that would extinguish human freedom.

Now it looks very much like the dystopia that we will live will involve a surfeit of freedom: the freedom to starve and to become ill, the freedom to exploit the weak, the freedom to denigrate the marginal, the freedom to destroy all that cannot be defended. And these freedoms will be based on the reduction of fact to the immediate assertions of power, amplified by a media culture that long since ceased to maintain even the quaint fiction of critical function.

Viewed in this light, it’s hard not to feel a sort of nostalgia for dystopias past.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit