Thursday, January 28, 2010

As the radical Enlightenment retreats the Counter-Enlightenment advances

I am always sceptical of critiques of “the” Enlightenment since, following Gress, I divide the Enlightenment into two streams. One is the sceptical Enlightenment—human nature is consistent throughout history, which is why history is such a source of useful understanding: the issue is to apply reason to the facts of the matter, which include the enduring characteristics of human nature.

The other stream is the radical Enlightenment—human nature is malleable/has been deformed by the burden of the past and the path to the glorious future is to transform/release “true” human nature. [Or, the very least, that human society is somehow perfectible.] The radical Enlightenment has been the path to tyranny, mass murder and failure with its utopian wars against people-as-they-are in the name of people-as-they-are-allegedly-supposed-to-be.

These are rather different beasts, even if both are impressed by the claims and possibilities of human reason.

Then there is the Counter-Enlightenment: the rejection of those claims on behalf of human reason, a wish to go back to an imagined “authentic” and “organic” past which is, in fact, irrevocable because the Enlightenment cannot be entirely undone: however much one may wish to reject it, its perspectives and insights are irrevocably part of the cognitive landscape. We cannot go back to the cognitive world before Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and (especially) Darwin nor, for that matter, before Adam Smith. The paradox of the Counter-Enlightenment is that it rejects, but has to react to, the Enlightenment. Emotion, faith, identity and nature are the touchstones of the Counter-Enlightenment: the things that put limits on, or trump, human reason.

The C20th’s great three-way Western Civil War (1917-1991) between the two wings of the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment each had its champion ideology-states. In the sceptical Enlightenment corner was the Anglosphere: the alliance between that great creation of the sceptical Enlightenment, the US, and the birthplace and disseminator of so much of the sceptical Enlightenment, the United Kingdom and its Empire. In the radical Enlightenment corner was the Soviet Union and Leninism. In the Counter-Enlightenment corner was Nazi Germany.

The champions of the radical and sceptical Enlightenment’s ended up in alliance against the Counter-Enlightenment. Having won, they then struggled for mastery of the human future: a struggle that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, whose ruin brought down the radical Enlightenment as a serious contender.

With the triumph of the Western alliance, we in the developed world live largely in a world created by the sceptical Enlightenment. Which means, if oppositional critique to the existing, surrounding society is the path to virtue—a grand path to virtue, since the imagined future can be so much more morally “pure” than any grubby existing reality, and the more oppositional, the grander the virtue—then such critique needs to be based on quite different premises from those of the sceptical Enlightenment: hence on the radical Enlightenment or the Counter-Enlightenment, the historical streams of thought on offer.

But the lustre of the radical Enlightenment is besmirched by too much grotesque failure. There is a certain intellectual cabaret Marxism still around, but—however emotionally satisfying for its adherents—it is nowhere near the serious basis for critique and oppositional virtue it used to be. Internationally, we live, apart from a few pathetic holdouts, in a post-Leninist world. The transform-society-by-controlling-language ambitions of political correctness represent the radical Enlightenment’s last sputterings: albeit noxious sputterings, as the trial of Geert Wilders is demonstrating and previous contretemps, such as the campaign against the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, illustrated.

Which means those wishing for premises to support maximally virtuous oppositional politics are driven to the Counter-Enlightenment: particularly to the romantic stream of thinking. So, we see among “progressives” retreat from cultural politics that Lenin and his disciples (Stalin, Mao, the Kim family dynasty, etc) are the ultimate exemplars of and advance towards cultural politics more like those of Hitler’s—cultural politics very concerned with identity, authenticity and nature.

Not that they are the same cultural politics as Hitler’s. They cannot be, because they are from people whose stream of thinking has passed through the radical Enlightenment first. Hence, for example, they make a fetish of equality. (A fetish because equality is exalted as a nominal virtue while all sorts of deep inequalities—of ascribed causal agency, of cognitive understanding, of moral status, of substantive power—are happily tolerated, exemplified or advocated.)

The area of debate that well exemplifies this shift in the balance of oppositional politics against the sceptical Enlightenment from the radical Enlightenment to the Counter-Enlightenment is the change from conservationism to environmentalism. The conservation movement dates back to the C19th and included such luminaries as Teddy Roosevelt. It was largely a product of the sceptical Enlightenment (though there were tinges of Counter-Enlightenment romanticism of nature). The conservation movement saw things in terms of practical stewardship. It was about what was worthy to care about, understood as being a concern for what works.

Environmentalism is, by contrast, very Counter-Enlightenment. Not only do concern for things such as “organic food” and “food miles” come straight out of blood-and-soil mysticism of about 1900, but it sees a trumping moral value in its conception of the “natural order” that is, at deep level, anti-reason, using science only when convenient and, even when it does, engaging in a quasi-religious fervour which is fundamentally anti-science in it is hostility to open-ended scepticism.

And, indeed, anti-human. Environmentalism has been a serial policy disaster because effects for people are so massively discounted, because it is a substitute religion (with all the intolerance, arrogance and self-righteousness that goes with that), because it has all that mystical anti-reason concern for “authenticity”, “naturalness” and allied to the politics of noble intention—intentions its discounting of concern for reasoned consequences make trumping.

This is not what the radical Enlightenment, for all its manifest flaws, was about. Hence the antipathy to environmentalism of radical Enlightenment folk such as Alexander Cockburn (who has compared the recent Copenhagen Climate Summit to the Council of Nicea) or Martin Durkin the director of The Great Global Warming Swindle.

A piece by Ian Abley of Audacity about the effect of environmentalism on housing policy in the UK in particular attacks the Counter-Enlightenment thinking of environmentalism in the name of more Enlightenment concerns (such as affordable, decent housing for ordinary folk: modern environmentalists indignantly insist they “care” about such matters and then demonstrate, by the policies they advocate, that they do not—the fetish of equality operating, not the reality).

The Counter-Enlightenment surge of the later C19th and early C20th appealed to those whose status was threatened, or otherwise made uncertain, by the mass society of industrialization. Particularly aristocracies, established Churches and fearful middle classes: people who looked at the changes all around them and either saw their traditional position threatened or simply were very unclear about where they would fit. The notion of being “grounded” in the past, and that there were things greater than the threatening offshoots of human reason and human ingenuity which adherents were part of, was very comforting. The jihadi movement in Islam represents another go around for this response to modernity.

Back in the West, with the collapse of the radical Enlightenment, a lot of its former scions were left homeless. Stephen Hicks has splendidly detailed the impact of that in philosophy with his very historically grounded and philosophical acute dissection of post-modernism. Their problem was straightforward: to just accept the triumph of the sceptical Enlightenment left them too ordinary. There was no summit of moral and cognitive superiority from which to look down on their fellow citizens. There was also a certain free-floating moral concern. An environmentalism grounded in the Counter-Enlightenment solved all those problems. It is splendidly oppositional to the sceptical Enlightenment, having quite different premises, and systematically discounts both the “vulgar material” concerns of their fellow citizens (particularly working class citizens, such as affordable houses-with-garden and liberating cars: it is a perennial middle class concern to differentiate themselves in status from the working class) and casts “vulgar commerce” as destructive (while giving a way for denizens of “vulgar commerce” to buy moral indulgences by going green).

It is a rather pale reflection of the surge that led to the Nazi ascension in Weimar Germany, largely because life in the West is very comfortable, and those taken by these cultural politics are particularly comfortable. It is a status-moral indulgence of the comfortable class, rather than of fearful classes. It also eschews ethnic narcissism: partly because patriotism is vulgarly working class, but also because Nazism itself so discredited overt ethnic narcissism. Having passed through the radical Enlightenment, an ostentatious internationalism is much more congenial. Particularly to those who career paths are cosmopolitan rather than limited to a particular country.

This is why multiculturalism works so well for them. It appeals to a sense of cosmopolitan chic, differentiates them from the vulgar masses, identifies them as being loftily aware of the flaws of their own society and allows to engage in a romantic exaltation of (other people’s) ethnic identities. In ways that typically deny the marginal in those cultures (particularly, women) the Enlightenment benefits multiculturalist sentimentalists so happily grab for themselves. All tied together in an arrogant (though largely unthinking) assumption that the patterns of history apply neither to them nor what they believe (something that is very radical Enlightenment, with its belief that transforming humanity frees one of the legacies of the past).

The radical Enlightenment failed because its belief in its capacity to transform humanity turned to be brutal and hollow nonsense. A vile war against people as they are in the name of people as they were deemed to ought to be. The Counter-Enlightenment failed because its claims to trump human reason also turned out to be destructive nonsense that exalted some humans brutally over others. The modern progressivist melding of the two may be much less brutal and oppressive than either, but it is a melding of vices rather than of virtues. The radical Enlightenment and the Counter Enlightenment both had the virtues of their vices: that is what made them so attractive and destructive. Modern progressivism has the attraction of easy virtue, of an easy sense of superiority, it wants its moral toys. But it is less threatening in itself than either of its precursors. Where it is more of a problem is in getting in the way of dealing realistically with those problems that genuinely confront us, rather than those which are overblown creations of frustrated, status-driven cultural oppositionism.

The latter have rarely been better dissected than in this splendid comment:

The whole of Australia was aware of the burgeoning multi-ethnic melting point Australia had become. … So when all these white middle class people who read The Age like The Bible start jumping up and down about how racist Australians are, the rest of the country looks around their suburb, their shopping centre, their place of work, their customers, their clients, their deli workers, their buses, their trains, their spouses, their in-laws, their school playgrounds, their university lecture halls, their doctors, and says “WTF are you talking about”. 
(Note that over a quarter of Australia’s population was born overseas about twice the proportion of Americans who were born overseas.) But, since these cultural politics are driven by status-convenience more than anything else, a certain pervasive unreality is to be expected.

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