Monday, November 23, 2015

An abridged history of Western Dominant Reason II

I’ve been somewhat muted of late, not because of the infamous “blogger’s laziness” (a well known seasonal malady that affects our species) or the even more dreaded “blogger’s disillusionment with the medium” (not so seasonal, but usually with a much higher fatality rate), but because I had to travel to Ankara for a negotiation that turned out to be more complex than expected, and kept me holed between the hotel and my prospective customer’s premises for all of last week, and didn’t left much free time the week before that with all the preparations. On the plus side, I had a really great time (negotiating, although sometimes tense, can be a lot of fun if approached with the right mindset), and was dazzled with how much Turkey has evolved since my last visit there (a bit over six years ago). A very, very fascinating country and culture, which I intend to learn more about in the next months. Now, back to my usual concerns, in my previous post on the subject of the title (History of WDR I) I described the evolution of “dominant reason” that determines how we think, how we rationalize our choices, how we decide about possible courses of action  and thus what kind of solutions to our society’s problems we can arrive at. I run out of time when describing the type of reason that dominated Western society at the end of the XIXth century, and it is high time to resume the narration at that point:

·         Bureaucratic reason (1900-1945): By the end of the XIXth century, then, the Romantic Movement in art is exhausting its enormous initial energies, partially consumed by its own excesses, and partially displaced by the unrelenting advance of science and technology. A predictable nature which seems to yield its bounties to those wielding the knowledge of the universal rules that bound its behavior doesn’t easily fit with the belief in an unruly “spirit” (be it of the age, of History or animating each individual being) that romanticism so much exalted, so it was the latter which was jettisoned from the common understanding of what it was that made us tick, which then had to be reformulated towards the following:

1.        The goal of life is to satisfy desires (no surprises here)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is marked by the title bestowed by the State/ the Party

3.       There is only one worthy desire that society should not just condone, but actively foster: to get as high as possible in the social hierarchy (aha!)

It is worthy to note which society adopted this kind of reason first: Prussia, which in this timeframe grows much faster, both in its ability to produce material goods (and, associated unavoidably to such growth, in its military might) than its traditional enemy, France, which stayed mired in a more romantic way of thinking (all the way to the trench warfare, with her soldiers marching to the Somme gaudily dressed in red and blue). England got a whiff of the new trends, but they were still buffeted by their burgeoning empire and their ability to play the alliance game to compensate for their dwindling military superiority, and did not fully feel the bite of their comparative disadvantage until they barely saved the remnants of their expeditionary force in Dunkirk. The Ottoman empire fell because of its inability to bureaucratize until a young officer (Kemal Ataturk) imposed the new rationality, and something similar happened with Tsarist Russia, where the bureaucratizing Bolsheviks found a romantic social structure so rotten from inside that just a kick in the right place sent the whole edifice tumbling down. So did the whole economically advanced world, led by Germany (as the old Prussia absorbed the rest of the traditional German-speaking principalities and kingdoms not already part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), turn to the dictates of the new dominant reason in that very convulse period? Not really, as the polity that was becoming the hegemonic power, taking the mantle from the British, was experimenting with an alternative form of reason that would prove to be even more efficient than the bureaucratic one to extract every ounce of effort from the citizenry. It is towards the other side of the Atlantic we have to turn now to find the latest twist in the history of our civilization’s frame of thought

·        Desiderative reason (1945-????): Indeed, at the beginning of the last century it briefly seemed as if the USA would adopt the same model for justifying human behavior as the rest of the economically advanced world. Specially after the Great Depression and through the New Deal the State was becoming more and more important in determining each citizen’s social position, the public intervention in the economy accounting for a bigger percentage of the nation’s GDP (through increasing regulation, anti-trust legislation and direct investment in infrastructure). But instead of following the path that Prussia was trailblazing, based on centralization of collective decision making within a cadre of highly trained, enlightened civil servants, who were above all entrusted with determining everybody else’s worth (and their own) by some official title or other in a rigidly regimented and compartmentalized social body (able to benefit from a high degree of specialization), they chose instead to test an alternative way of recognizing merit, much simpler and, if rougher, more effective in the end: money, assigned through the vagaries of an apparently (although never substantially) free market from which it derived its legitimacy, which in turn presupposed individual citizens( consumers rather than citizens) with no debts and no allegiance to any higher group (a convenient fiction if there ever was one, still widely held).

Why the Americans pioneered such kind of reason is an interesting (and highly debatable) topic I will leave for another day. I’ll just point out that Sigmund Freud traveled to the USA in 1909, and since then the influence of his system of thought only grew (as the NYT reminded us a few years ago, tracing the first references to the doctor in its pages: Freud in the NYT), until it took a monopolistic hold of psychology unrivaled in any other country. Only in France, after the bitter defeat of WWII, can we find a similar enthusiasm for the psychoanalytic doctrine, although by then it is arguable to what point were the French intellectuals still significant contributors to Western dominant reason (well, the most noted existentialists, Sartre and Camus, wrote there and then, and the term postmodernism, if not necessarily the concept, is also mostly a French creation, as is structuralism, so until the late 70’s they were still punching well above their weight in the intellectual scene).

Be it as it may, it is my contention that desiderative reason is a significant factor in the Allied victory in WWII. But in that conflict it did not yet prove its superiority over bureaucratic reason (we will come to that soon), but over the previous incarnation, sentimental one, as the axis powers (most definitely Germany and Italy, with Japan being caught in the middle of the transition between Sentimental and Bureaucratic) had regressed to that form, with their cult of the hero, their worship of their own historical genius and their recognition of might as ultimate arbiter, and thus their rejection of reason and their enshrinement of the most irrational tendencies of the human spirit.

Now, what had that new iteration of dominant reason changed over the previous one?, a very significant factor, as for the first time reason becomes a closed, self-sustaining system in which what the individual is taught as a valid reason for acting (satisfying desires) receives a social sanction, and is given content by society itself, through a social construct in whose creation everybody participates (money), thus taking the form we are already so familiar with:

1.       The goal of life is to satisfy desires

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is marked by how much money one has (by how many material goods one can exclusively enjoy and how many services exchanged in the market one can pay for)

3.       There is only one worthy desire that society should not just condone, but actively foster: to get as high as possible in the social hierarchy

As I’ve said in other places, the genius of such system is its perfect independence from any external factor. The very concept of value is hypostatized in money, made immanent and freed thanks to that purported immanence from any state of affairs that may obtain in the world. That’s why so many people believes in the extrinsic, unarguable value of money (and try to justify it by appealing to some obscure intrinsic property, or propose to “anchor” it to some other equally socially constructed commodity like gold), and get truly nervous and confused when it is pointed to them that it is just a convention, a convenient way of keeping track of who owes what to whom (whose fluctuations always favor some group and pauperize others).

Remember that, according to my system, different reasons are promoted and extended not because they are “closer to the truth”, and definitely not because they make the citizens that subscribe them any happier or better off, but because they make the societies that embrace them better at producing things, thus allowing them to be militarily superior to those that do not, until they obliterate them. That obliteration can take different forms, from the gentler (let them play “catch up” until they become undistinguishable from you), like is happening with China, to the most brutal (drop a couple of atomic bombs in populous cities until they surrender unconditionally and allow themselves to be administered by foreign consuls until they adopt your values, including first and foremost your dominant rationality and they come to think of what is rational and what is not exactly as you). So it may be argued that desiderative reason proved in the traditional way its superiority (a term entirely devoid of any moral connotation, as should be clear by now) over sentimental reason, but not over its immediate predecessor (bureaucratic). 

Well, I just have to remember my readers that after the brutal conflict that pitted desiderative reason against sentimental reason, there was a more protracted, albeit less intense one that saw it face off against bureaucratic reason. It is called the Cold War, as it should be apparent by now that the Soviet Bloc was the direct heir of the latter, the original Prussian State having transformed itself after the October Revolution in the Communist Party. And it should be clear enough that the reason the liberal democracies modeled after the American template “won” unambiguously that contest is because they proved without a doubt they were much better at making their citizens produce more material goods, more thingies, which allowed them to have more capable armies (of course, the burden of the proof was very unequally distributed, with the USA bearing the brunt of it, but also ironically showing the potential of a massive State intervention through their “weaponized Keynesianism” to stimulate economic growth in a more comprehensive way, all the while publicizing the supposedly superior virtues of “unbridled individualism” and a “minimal intervention of the state in the free market”).

The fact remains that by the end of the XXth century desiderative reason was the only rationality standing, and that it reigned supreme over the first complete World-System in the history of our species, to which it could be applied the immortal verses:

One reason to rule them all
One reason to find them
One reason to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them
(let’s just remember that the ruling, and finding, and binding have already taken place, so that means we are already “in the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie”, which is not the merriest of thoughts…)

It may be argued that such rationality is becoming old news, and that something else must be on the horizon, with the advent of the internet, and mobile communications, and the rise of China and Secular Stagnation (the result of a thought system geared towards intersocial competition when there is nobody else to compete against) and whatnot. There are indeed some signs that desiderative reason may be crumbling under the weight of its own success (as there were some similar signs regarding the weakening of sentimental reason in 1848, but then it lasted for 50 additional years), but interpreting them will be the matter of a future post.

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