Modernity and Alienation. Nanning, Guangxi, China

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China)

Some photos of Nanning, Guangxi while looking at the next chapter of The Authenticity Hoax, where Andrew Potter theorises about the circumstances leading to the emergence of the cult of authenticity.

The Authenticity Hoax: The Malaise of Modernity:

Nanning, Guangxi, China
fishing beside a river, Nanning, Guangxi, China“Here, I am concerned with modernity less as a specific historical epoch than as a worldview. to be modern is to be part of a culture that has a distinctive outlook or attitude…”

“The rise of the modern worldview is marked by three major developments: the disenchantment of the world, the rise of liberal individualism, and the emergence of the market economy, also known as capitalism.”

“Between 1500 and 1800, these three developments ushered in profound changes in people’s attitudes toward everything from science, technology and art, to religion, politics, and personal identity. Put together, they gave rise to the idea of progress, which…does not necessarily mean “things are getting better all the time.” More than anything, progress means constant change, something that many people find unpleasant and even alienating.”

drum, Nanning, Guangxi, China
Nanning Provincial Museum, Guangxi, China

Disenchantment of the world

“Once upon a time, humans experienced the world as a “cosmos,” from a Greek word meaning “order” or “orderly arrangement.” The order in this world operated on three levels. First, all of creation was itself one big cosmos, at the center of which was Earth…Second, life on Earth was a sort of enchanted garden, a living whole in which each being or element had its proper place. And finally, human society was itself properly ordered, with people naturally slotted…into predetermined castes, classes, or social roles” [Comment: this is rather generalised (superficial, ha!) summary of all of human history. But let’s see where he’s going with this.]

“The work of Jane Austen is so important precisely because it marks the transition from that world to a more modern sensibility – most of her stories hinge on her characters’ nascent individualism straining against the given roles of the old social order.”

“The disenchantment of the world occurs when appeals to ultimate ends or purposes or roles being built into the very fabric of the universe come to be seen as illegitimate or nonsensical.” [Potter then discusses how the Catholic Church was adept “at accommodating the truths of divine revelation to those discovered through scientific inquiry”. To be looked into at another time.]

Nanning, Guangxi, China
Nanning, Guangxi, China“…what gives Thales his well-deserved reputation as the first true philosopher is a conceptual innovation we can call the generality of reason…Once we have the idea of the generality of reason, we are armed with a tremendously powerful cognitive tool, since the notion that the world operates according to predictable general laws is what gives us logic, science, and technology, as well as the principles of impartiality and equality in the ethical and moral realms.” [Comment: this didn’t start with philosophy, this would have started with the genesis of humankind so people could interact, know what to eat, how to farm, etc.]

“For [Max] Weber, the commitment to science

means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service.

…Weber’s final repudiation of magical thinking represents a genuine paradigm shift in our outlook on the world, and is a giant step toward becoming fully modern.” [Comment: first, the conflation of all religions without examining their truth claims, with magic in unfortunate. Second, the assumption that scientific theories can explain everything is erroneous because its presupposition is that the material world is all there is (and therefore the whole world can be examined and subject to “the scientific method”)]

“…disenchantment transformed our understanding of the self, it privileged a utilitarian philosophy that saw the maximizing of happiness as the ultimate goal, and it encouraged an instrumental and exploitative approach to nature through the use of technology. A key effect of disenchantment, though, was its action as a social solvent, helping break up the old bonds in which individuals and groups found their place within larger class-based divisions or hierarchies…They are free to make their own way, find their own path.”

Nanning, Guangxi, China

Rise of individual liberalism

“Thus, the disenchantment of the world leads directly to the second major characteristic of modernity, the rise of the individual as the relevant unit of political concern.”

The rise of the modern state and the emergence of the individual] “are actually just two aspects of the same process, and it is no coincidence that the individual became the focus of political concern just as the centralised state was beginning to consolidate its power in the sixteenth century.”

“…most of us find it difficult to imagine any other way of carving up the world, so much so that we habitually describe territories that employ other forms of government…as “failed states.” It was not always so.”

Nanning, Guangxi, China[Comment: I’d been thinking about this in relation to China. Of course, it is not a coalition of feudal lords but it does not subscribe to the idea of democracy (whatever that is), and has patronisingly told to “modernise” by Western commentators. But surely, its long history, its prevailing culture, and furthermore, the size of its population and land, would require a different form of political structure and ethos.]

“With the idea of the state comes the notion of sovereignty…the paired ideas here are supremacy and territoriality; together, they embody the form of government we know as the sovereign state.”

“As…Larry Siedentop puts it, the modern state is a Trojan horse, carrying with it an implicit promise of equality before the law.”

“…the state is first and foremost a collection of individuals…Individuality is now the primary social role, shared equally by all.”

“A second, related distinction is between…laws, which are the explicit and obligatory commands of the sovereign backed up by a sanction, and customs, which might be enforced through social pressure but which have no legitimate legal backing.”

“[Thomas] Hobbes was quite certain that the citizens of a commonwealth would prefer an absolute sovereign to the nasty and brutish condition of the state of nature (the “war of all against all”), but [John] Locke…proposed that the state be divided into separate branches, where the citizens have a right to appeal to one branch against another…the beginning of constitutionalism, or the idea of the limited state…The main principles of constitutionalism are that the state is governed according to the rule of law; that everyone is equally subject to the law; and that the scope of what is legitimate law is limited by a charter of individual rights and liberties.” [Comment: sounds good, but what grounds are there for equal rights, and who defines individual rights and liberties and adjudicates between competing individual rights and liberties?]

new army recruits, Nanning, Guangxi, China“This puts the question of individual rights onto the agenda: as philosopher Ronald Dworkin has argued,”Rights are best understood as trumps over some background justification for political decisions that states a goal for the community as a whole.””

“Locke summarized things with the declaration that everyone had the right to life, liberty, and property, the ultimate consequence of which was a group-up rethink of the appropriate relationship between the state, morality, and the good life.”

pork seller, market, Nanning, Guangxi, China
shoes for sale in a market, Nanning, Guangxi, ChinaEmergence of the market economy (aka. capitalism)

“An essential part of this system of individual liberty that emerges from the Hobbes-to-Locke trajectory is a species of economic individualism, also known as a market economy, also known, to its critics anyway, as capitalism.”

“…the term capitalism puts a misleading emphasis on material forces, while neglecting the powerful ideals motivating this new economic individualism. In particular, focusing on material relations (and even the class struggle) obscures the role of individual autonomy, the rise of the private sphere, and the importance of contract in conceiving a fundamentally new approach to the morality of economic production and consumption.”

“On the economic side of things, the most important consequence of Locke’s liberalism was the idea that the public good could be served by individuals pursuing their private interest. With the “privatization of virtue”, ostensible vices such as greed, lust, ambition, and vanity were held to be morally praiseworthy as long as their consequences were socially beneficial.” [See Bernard de Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees – Private Vices, Publick Benefits, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.]

“This is clearly at odds with almost all popular moralities, including Christianity, which emphasize the importance to public order and to the common good of individual sentiments of benevolence and public-mindedness. But it is no great leap from Locke’s economic individualism to the idea that what matters to morality are not intentions, but outcomes…The theory that best served this new morality was utilitarianism, summarised by…Jeremy Bentham as the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.”

men playing chess, Nanning, Guangxi, China
men playing chess, Nanning, Guangxi, China
“What ultimately validated the utilitarian pursuit of happiness – that is, hedonism – as morally acceptable end in itself was the great consumer revolution, which began in the second half of the eighteenth century, in which both leisure and consumption ceased to be purely aristocratic indulgences. Not only did consumerism become accessible to the middle classes, it became an acceptable pursuit; buying stuff, even buying into the spiritual promise of goods, came to be seen as a virtue.”

“In order for there to be a consumer revolution, there had to be a corresponding revolution in production.”

“The Industrial Revolution affected almost every aspect of the economy, but there were two main aspects to the growth in innovation: first, the substitution of work done by machines for skilled human labour, and second, the replacement of work done by unskilled humans and animals with inanimate sources of work, especially steampower…This marked the death of the cottage industry and the birth of the factory, where power, machines, and relatively unskilled workers were brought together under common managerial supervision.” [Comment: so it was an exchange of one supreme authority for another, only the second expressed a vested self-interest?]

“…the most remarkable aspect of the Industrial Revolution is that it was powered almost entirely by the private, household consumption desires of the middle classes. In their pursuit of personal happiness and self-fulfilment through economic development and consumption, the British nation of shoppers and shopkeepers unleashed a force unlike anything the world had ever seen.”

“Yet capitalism proved to be a universal solvent, eating away at the social bonds between people in a given society as well as cultural barriers that formerly served to separate one society from another. In place of the family or feudal ties, of religiosity, of codes of conduct like chivalry and honour, there is now nothing left but the pitiless demands of the cash nexus…”

“A capitalist society puts tremendous pressure on people to constantly innovate and upgrade, to keep on their toes. They must be willing to move anywhere and do anything, and “anyone who does not actively change on his own will become a passive victim of changes draconically imposed by those who dominate the market.””

“[Modernity] gave us a new kind of society and, inevitably, a new kind of person, one who has learned to thrive in a milieu in which freedom is equated with progress, and where progress is nothing more than constant competition, mobility, renewal, and change…[Karl Marx] writes,

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.”

Chinese opera singers? practising in a park in Nanning, Guangxi, China“We have replaced the injustices of fixed social relations with consumer-driven obsession with status and the esteem of others, and where we once saw intrinsic meaning and value we now find only the nihilism of market exchange. Critics have found it useful to gather all of these problems and objections to modernity under the term alienation.”

“For many people, alienation is like victimhood: if you feel alienated, then you are…Regardless of [whether we are talking about psychological alienation or social alienation], it is vital to keep in mind the following: just because you are alienated, it does not mean that there is a problem and that something ought to be done about it.

“Alienation theory tries to bridge the [Hume’s guillotine] is-ought gap by treating alienation like a disease: it not only describes a state of affairs, it also considers that state of affairs as abnormal or unnatural…It needs a theory of human nature or of self-fulfilment that is not just relative to a given place or culture, or relative to an individual’s desires at a certain time. It needs an account of human flourishing that is in some sense natural or essential…for a theory of alienation to do any work, it needs a corresponding theory of authenticity.”

“This, in a nutshell, was the burden of Romanticism.”
Nanning, Guangxi, China

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax
**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

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