Behind many of the confusions of the present day—political, cultural, moral, and religious—lies the problem of industrial society.
By “industrial society” I mean a society in which major social functions like government, education, and economic activity are carried on through large organizations and networks aided by up-to-date technology and coordinated through markets and supposedly neutral expertise.
People have been complaining about it ever since it began, but we can’t seem to do without it because it’s so effective. If we got rid of it we’d all starve, die in the next epidemic, or get conquered by someone who kept it. Or so it seems.
Adam Smith and then Karl Marx watched it develop and admired its productivity, but had concerns. Smith worried about its stultifying effect on workers and doubted the public spirit of those who influence it. Marx hated it, and predicted people would eventually get fed up and overthrow or radically transform it. The outcome, he claimed, would be utopia. Instead, it was an incomparably worse form of the same thing.
Novelists exposed its seamy side. Artists and designers complained about its effect on taste. Poets who lived like beatniks dreamed of more romantic ages in which people lived like saints, artists, and aristocrats. And popes, ordinary Catholics, and reformers of all kinds proposed ways to transform it or at least alleviate the problems it created.
But what were those problems?
People who take an economic view of things point to poverty and the exploitation of workers. And it’s true that industrialization initially concentrated poverty in urban slums, and produced great fortunes that made severe poverty seem more shocking.
But was poverty less common or less severe before industrialization? It doesn’t seem so, given the rise in population that followed it. And since the system increases production, and employers have to compete for workers, it seems that the more industry grows the higher wages would go. And that’s the way things turned out.
So poverty isn’t the problem. Inequality is more of an issue. People have very different productivity in a technological system, some reap enormous profits by market participation, and those who are well-placed in large networks and organizations are likely to divert wealth to themselves. But inequalities are always with us, and they don’t make a decent life impossible. I can live happily and well without being pope, president, or tycoon. And it is possible to mitigate equality somewhat while retaining industrial society.
The real problem with industrialism is the one Emerson complained about: “things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Large systems that integrate complex machinery, the latest technology, and rigorously formalized procedures are extremely effective at realizing particular goals, whether the goal is producing food, clothing, and shelter, traveling to the moon, or destroying the enemy in war.
But they eliminate the human element. Workers lose individuality, choice, and craftsmanship. And what is produced loses the human touch. If someone is making shoes he’s no longer making the best shoe he can for a particular customer he knows personally, using his skill to fit the customer’s taste, pocketbook, and foot. Instead, he’s tending a machine that repeatedly performs one part of the process of producing a shoe. And the shoe won’t be for anyone in particular. Instead, it’ll be designed for the average foot, and made no better than needed for maximum profit.
The outcome is that shoes and other goods become much cheaper and more plentiful. People, most likely including the shoemaker himself, have a lot more of them. But is a greater quantity of mediocre goods really worth the transformation of the nature of work? Does it make people better or happier?
Maybe it’s worth it when survival is at stake. Famines are horrible, and industrial agriculture, with machinery, chemical fertilizer, insecticides, and hybrid seeds, produces a lot of food. India, which had been subject to famine, increased annual wheat production from 10 million tons in the 1960s to 73 million in 2006 by making farming more industrial. And industrial medicine, with anesthesia, antibiotics, and an ever-growing array of technological interventions into the human body, saves a lot of lives.
Even so, industrialism is dehumanizing and to all appearances can’t stop being so. It has greatly contributed to the current abolition of history, culture, religion, and even human nature as socially-recognized realities. After all, what do faith, ancestral heritage, or the distinction between man and woman have to do with a chemical plant, computer network, financial system, or code of government regulations? And if the latter are the things we live by, why bother with irrelevancies?
It’s not clear what to do about the situation. It will be extremely unpleasant if—as seems quite possible—social or environmental degradation ultimately bring industrial civilization to an end. People would be happier and better if instead we could live once again in a non-industrial world of craftsmen, small farmers, and domestic economy, with technology controlled so that it becomes an adjunct to those things. That’s the sort of thing G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc had in mind with their distributism. But distributism has never gone much of anywhere, even though a great many people love the idea and some have tried to put it in practice.
The Amish have managed something of the sort with their Ordnung, their system of order, which they modify somewhat from time to time to take into account practical demands while maintaining a small-scale, local, and domestic economy. Thus, for example, they allow gasoline engines and electric generators for particular purposes to keep agriculture economic while forbidding their general use and so making truly industrial agriculture impossible.
But vanishingly few become Amish. The temptation to make things just a bit more efficient, comfortable, and entertaining is too strong for people to take on such a strong communal discipline. There is also the problem that they don’t have a complete self-sufficient way of life. They rely, for example, on the larger society for protection and for everything that requires training beyond the eighth grade.
Others have proposed solutions that seem even more demanding. In The End of the Modern World, written in Germany not long after the Second World War, Fr. Romano Guardini gave a relentlessly bleak description of the new age then arriving that lines up pretty well with current realities. His response was to call for heroes who combine the total devotion of the saint to the Faith with the absolute independence of the stoic from external circumstances. But I don’t see many people like that in the Church. Quite the contrary: our weaknesses, vanities, compromises, and self-indulgences seem only to get worse.
Maybe that’s just me. But it’s evident that the optimistic reading of the modern world that became general with the Second Vatican Council hasn’t worked out. Liberal society is falling into tyranny and madness, and the Church is shot through with mediocrity, corruption, and sometimes even what seems apostasy.
Nonetheless, human nature and needs remain the same. These cannot be fulfilled in what society is becoming, so something will change.
But what? Some propose a “Benedict Option,” which sounds to many like a new ghetto Catholicism. For my own part I’ve worried that our radically cosmopolitan society will go the way of the radically cosmopolitan society of the Middle East, and dissolve into walled enclaves inhabited by inward-turning and mutually intolerant groups that eventually take on an ethno-religious quality. Very likely the two possibilities are the same as a practical matter, viewed from different perspectives.
But the future’s not ours to see. For today I can’t help but think that the way forward will have to include a renewed emphasis on Catholic tradition and identity, together with something like the course sketched out by Fr. Guardini. We may not be up to carrying the latter effort very far, but we can only do our best. He considered that course specifically masculine—people today might call it “manning up”—and thought women would have to evolve their own complementary approach. As always, they will speak for themselves. For the rest, though, we will need to trust a great deal in Providence. We certainly will not be able to solve our problems unaided.
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