The End of an Era

on October 15, 2009

Since I began this series of entries in early September, the world has moved very quickly — so quickly that intuition tells me I need to cut to the chase right now and leave my more detailed discussion of the emergence of the chaos vision for a later time.

It is becoming undeniable that the financial crisis which began a year ago has enriched the bankers while screwing everyone else. In just the last few weeks, public sentiment appears to have reached some sort of tipping point, and social critics are starting to suggest that our entire system may be fatally flawed.

Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, which premiered on October 2, is dedicated to “questioning whether the whole incentive structure, moral values and political economy of American capitalism is fit for human beings.” And activist Arundhati Roy recently asked, even more pointedly, “Is there life after democracy?”

“The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy?” Roy exclaims. “What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit?”

Moore and Roy are rightfully distraught at the damage that free market capitalism has done to Western democracy — but my own perspective is both more apocalyptic and more positive. I see the current state of acute distress as an indication of the coming collapse of the democracy-and-chaos partnership.

Over my last several posts, I have been laying out a theory of history as an evolutionary process mediated by a series of increasingly comprehensive visions of the nature and meaning of existence. Within the terms of that theory, periodic collapses are both inevitable and necessary, as worn-out visions give way to new ones that are truer and more creative.

Cultures are usually dominated by the two most widely-accepted visions of the moment, working in harmony to define and guide the society. Each of these philosophical partnerships starts out bright and full of promise and capable of generating novel insights and accomplishments. In time, however, every such partnership becomes a victim of its own success and hardens into an elite ideology that stands in the way of further change.

At that point, if the culture is to continue to evolve, it must dissolve the partnership, discard the increasingly rigid senior vision, and remake the junior vision so that it can form a fresh partnership with a more recent and previously marginal vision.

The final years of a declining partnership are often an anxious and troubled time, but the phase of active renewal is triggered only when the partnership grows so out of touch that instead of meeting crises effectively it becomes a source of epic failure. A profound disillusionment then sets in, and the culture enters an extended period of radical questioning and revaluation.

The start of World War I in 1914, for example, provoked a devastating loss of faith in the reason-and-science partnership. In its heyday, that partnership had provided the philosophical underpinnings for the great European colonial empires of the late 19th century, which claimed the right to rule the world on the basis of their superior rationality and scientific objectivity.

The outbreak of a senseless and fratricidal war in the very heart of Western civilization, however, not only demonstrated that reason-and-science alone could not sustain a mature international civilization but led many people to conclude that rationality itself had been an illusion from the start.

The period which followed, from roughly 1915 to 1933, was a time of painful disenchantment, heretical notions, and frantic speculation. By the time it was over, most of Europe had fallen into a deep funk of decadence and despair that laid the groundwork for the rise of fascism.

The United States, however, had never participated fully in the European world-system and was relatively unfazed by the failure of reason. Americans were for the most part ready to cast aside the old, elitist ideal of civilization and create something new out of the raw materials of science and democracy.

Democracy — a more recent vision than either reason or science — had been slowly gathering momentum through the 1800’s, and by the early 20th century it was ripe to be perceived as a universal human birthright. The amending of the US Constitution in 1920 to provide for women’s suffrage might be taken as the moment when that recognition became a cultural norm.

At the same time, the image of science was being detached from the remote and chilly imagining of the cosmos that we see in the stories of H.G. Wells and recast on a more human scale, reflecting the jazzed-up pace of 20th century technology. This process climaxed between about 1926 and 1929 and can be seen in Art Deco, in the sleek modern lines of the Chrysler Building, and in the invention of modern science fiction, whose primary article of faith was that the future would be bigger, faster, and much, much shinier than the present.

By the middle 1930’s the pieces were all in place to create a powerful new partnership between future-oriented 20th century science and the dream of universal democracy. That partnership was forged in the New Deal, gained visible form at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, helped secure victory for the Allies in World War II, and dominated Western culture through the 1950’s and into the 60’s, when it finally spun out of control..


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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