Democratic Materialism

on June 18, 2012

For a brief period in the early 1920’s, holism might have appeared to be on the verge of sweeping scientific materialism aside entirely. It had the philosophical ambition, the artistic creativity, and the popular excitement that the older vision lacked. And yet that never happened. Instead, scientific materialism made a triumphant comeback, pushing the holism vision to the margins of the culture, where it would remain for the next several decades.

On one level, there was nothing strange about this, since the same thing happens at the end of every counterculture. The powerful dynamic that has favored change and innovation burns itself out and is replaced by a widespread impulse to retreat from the sea of infinite possibility and regroup in more familiar territory.

Once that urge to restabilize the culture takes hold, it quickly becomes obvious that the newest visions are not yet mature enough to provide the basis of a social consensus. They are too mystical and otherworldly, or too radical and untested in the crucible of practical politics, or too prone to fly off in all directions. They need more time to ripen and discover their place in the larger scheme of things.

In the case of the 1920’s, this means that society could not cast its lot with the upstart new association of chaos and holism — but neither was it prepared to revert to the discredited partnership of reason-and-scientific-materialism. Instead, it gravitated towards the sweet spot between those two extremes: the democracy vision.

The democracy vision had already lost much of its original transcendence by then. During the corrupt and oppressive Gilded Age of the late 1800’s, democratic ideals had taken a beating, with the more conventional, middle-class aspects being coopted and the radical appeals to social justice being demonized. However, the energy of the counterculture had revitalized democracy and infused it with a sense of renewed idealism, leaving it perfectly placed to take over the leadership of society.

This assumption of cultural dominance had already begun in the course of World War I. When the conflict broke out in 1914, it was widely seen as a great struggle to preserve civilization — which is to say, the failing reason-and-scientific-materialism partnership. But by the time President Woodrow Wilson went before the United States Congress in 1917 to seek a declaration of war against Germany, he did so with the argument that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”

At the same time, the vision was undergoing a final purge of its most radical aspects. The Espionage and Sedition Acts, passed in 1917 and 1918, were followed immediately after the war by the Palmer Raids, whose purpose was to round up and deport foreign-born anarchists and other leftists. The result of that ruthless pruning was that even as the United States became more wholeheartedly dedicated to democracy than any other nation, it did so with a strangely limited perspective, in which anything outside a narrow spectrum of permissible beliefs was regarded as both unpatriotic and undemocratic.

But although the democracy vision now had all the necessary qualifications to assume the mantle of Western Civilization, that alone wasn’t enough. To fully stabilize society and ward off all possible challenges to its authority, it also needed to form an alliance with visions of the other two types and bring them into line with its own core assumptions.

It seems as though the visions regularly operate in threesomes of that sort, with one vision providing most of the cultural energy and the visions immediately senior and junior to it being brought along for the ride. In the late 19th century, the focus had been on scientific materialism, with the reason vision as its senior partner and the democracy vision as the younger sidekick. During the counterculture of the 1910’s, the primary energy source was the chaos vision, whose power both revitalized democracy and accelerated the emergence of holism.

And in much the same way, when the culture took a step backwards in the 1920’s and shifted its focus to the democracy vision, the outcome was a new dominant partnership of scientific-materialism-and-democracy, with chaos demoted to the sidekick role and holism barely visible.

But even if this result was natural in certain respects, there was also something distinctly artificial about it. Unlike the relationships among countercultural visions, which arise spontaneously out of a shared sense of higher possibility, those which are deliberately constructed to reestablish social order are far more calculated and are based not on transcendence but on pragmatic goals and intellectual abstractions.

During the reassessment of the 1920’s, the association between democracy and chaos was the most natural part. It represented a direct continuation of the values of the counterculture, and its exaltation of the new 20th century spirit of freewheeling individualism still maintained a large dose of transcendent aspiration.

The association between scientific materialism and democracy, however, was a great deal more problematic. Those two visions had been closely associated in the past and had continued to be linked by a common faith that physical reality and human society must both involve a simple, uniform system of laws that applied everywhere without distinction. But starting in the 1890’s, democracy had leaped ahead under the influence of chaos, becoming much looser and more freedom-loving and leaving scientific materialism lagging far behind.

As long as scientific materialism remained tied down by its partnership with the reason vision, it was constrained to view existence in terms of absolute control by a rigid system of Natural Law in which individuals were at the mercy of the cosmos and had little or no sway over their own destiny. That deterministic outlook would have to be abandoned to make scientific materialism a fitting partner for the new, improved democracy vision.

As it happens, while I was preparing this entry I saw a revealing snapshot of precisely that change in progress, in the form of an article commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, which was initially proposed in 1912 but then rejected as pseudo-science for the next fifty years.

According to the article, Wegener’s theory attracted little interest or opposition when it was first presented, but “when it was published in English, in 1922, the intellectual fireworks exploded.” Geologists everywhere accused Wegener of “delirious ravings” and sneered at him as a mere meteorologist with no understanding of their field. The greatest opposition, however, came from the Americans, and particularly from the elderly and distinguished Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin.

“Like Wegener,” the article explains, “Chamberlin had launched his career with an iconoclastic attack on establishment thinking. He went on to define a distinctly democratic and American way of doing science. … Making the evidence fit grandiose theories was the fatal flaw in Old World science, Chamberlin said; the true scientist’s role was to lay out the facts and let all theories compete on equal terms. . . . But he had also become besotted with his own theory of earth’s origins, which treated the oceans and continents as fixed features.”

The writer of the article treats Chamberlin’s attachment to his concept of a fixed and rigid geology as a regrettable obsession, but I suspect there may have been more to it than that. For one thing, I would guess that Chamberlin (like Jacques Loeb, about whom I wrote a few entries back) probably had an engrained democratic aversion to the old metaphysical habits of thought that were still used to justify racism and elitism.

But Chamberlin’s insistence on a non-evolving earth suggests something even stronger — a belief that materialistic theories could be equally dangerous to democratic ideals if they cast the physical universe as anything more than a passive backdrop to the actions of individuals and and the unfolding of human history.

I can’t be sure whether that was actually Chamberlin’s motivation, but it’s undeniable that a shift to precisely that position was underway in the 1920’s and 30’s, spurred on by the influence of democracy and democratic chaos. During those years, the venerable scientific materialism vision, which had previously portrayed humans as buffeted this way and that by an all-powerful and indifferent cosmos, was reduced to a simple set of physical laws that had only a limited ability to shape human life and human nature.

This drastic change can be clearly seen in the history of SF. It is the difference between the scientific romances of H.G. Wells, or the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, and the self-assured, can-do modern science fiction of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, with its unquenchable belief in the Conquest of Nature.

I’ve touched on this transition in previous entries, but I’ve always tended to throw up my hands and compare it to a Rube Goldberg device. It’s only now that I’m starting to perceive the actual mechanisms behind the shift.

One of these mechanisms was the overwhelming moral authority of the democracy vision, which for a time was powerful enough to pull everything around it into its sphere of influence. And the other was the increasing weakness and loss of identity of scientific materialism itself.

The scientific materialism vision had been through many changes since its birth some 700 years earlier. It had long since lost any true sense of transcendence. It had suffered irreversible blows to its integrity when it joined in a dominant partnership with the reason vision and became part of a ruling system of elite control. And it was still further undermined by the failure of the reason vision in the 1910’s — which left it with no counterweight to the influence of the democracy vision — and by the brief but intense challenge from holism.

By the 1920’s, its only hope of survival was to go along with the reshaping demanded by the democracy vision — even though that bargain would eventually seal its doom.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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