The current hostile atmosphere in the United States might have caught some by surprise. But we would do well to consider the origins of this distress. Growing distrust and several decades of economic pain have been all too apparent for those with the eyes to see.
The pandemic has only deepened the alienation already felt by many Americans.
I invite you to join me in thinking about the steady social and economic deterioration that has brought us to this place. Practical solutions depend on objective understanding.
The rapid development of science and an industrial society had promised Americans the benefits of prosperity and power—despite showing indifference to the consequences of degraded communities and compromised autonomy.
While little could shake public faith in modern scientific and industrial enterprise, the subversion of civil society and community coherence has been profound.
Constructive energy and a self-conscious sense of individuality came to America with European immigrants and gave impetus to accelerating development of industry and commerce.
Almost everything about modern America came about by means of this fierce individualism, for better or worse. And yet, ironically, the blind mechanistic character of industrial culture led directly to the demise of the same autonomous individuality that had originally brought it to life.
As early as 1941 the theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, warned of this unexpected challenge. Our attention was elsewhere then, and the cruel truth is only now becoming clear:
“The social and economic destruction of individuality is a consequence of the mechanical and impersonal elaborations of a commercial culture which reach their culmination in the development of industrial civilization. Modern industrialism pushes the logic of impersonal money and credit relationships to its final conclusion.
“The process of production and exchange, which remained embedded in the texture of personal relationships in a simpler economy, are gradually emancipated and established as a realm of automatic and rationalized relations in which the individual is subordinated to the process….
“Modern society is consequently involved in a process of friction and decay which threaten the whole world with disaster and which seem to develop a kind of inexorable logic of their own, defying all human efforts to arrest the decay.”
Is this a criticism of capitalism? No. not at all! Savings and working capital are essential for any healthy economy.
Commerce and industry are an integral part of an advancing civilization. Why should this be a problem? We expect our personal freedom and autonomy to be threatened by tyrants, as it often is, but not by industry.
A healthy society needs a productive economy. It does not need repetitive financial crises, the destruction of civil society, or absurd extremes of wealth and poverty.
This is what we have inherited, and by 1990 it was driving the economic confidence of working Americans into the ground. Following still another financial crisis in 2008, much of the middle-class joined them in poverty.
Are we surprised by the turmoil that has followed? Really? Reality has manifested itself politically, but reality is about human lives—not politics.
Sociologist and noted conservative thinker Robert Nisbet places the problem in historical context: “During the past two centuries,” he writes, “mankind has undergone the most traumatic social change it has experienced since the beginnings of settled culture in the Neolithic age.
“I refer to the decline—even disappearance in spreading sections—of the local community, the dislocation of kinship, and the erosion of the sacred in human affairs…. The historical roots of culture and personality alike lie deep in the neighborhood, family, and religion.
“Unlike all preceding major changes in human history, these… went below the superstructure of society, went right to man’s most ancient and cherished sources of identity. With the rise of the factory system and the mass electorate, there was inevitably a wrenching of the individual from his accustomed family, local, and religious contexts.”
Needless to say, when people lose economic security and emotional safety, it leads to alienation and disorientation—both individual and societal.
What happens when people are denied the sources of personal identity?
We are left with a vacuum to be filled by centralized governance and the consolidation of power—and the growing potential for manipulation and despotism.
Note to regular readers: You may watch for the next post on or about January 19. A description of the project and several recently revised chapter drafts are available at the top of the homepage.