Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing! The End of Progress and the Beginning of a Third Way

the end of progress final

At times I feel like George Jetson rotating round and round on my treadmill outside the Skypad apartments. I want to scream, “Jane, stop this crazy thing!”

I have this gut feeling that something is very, very wrong with the world. I am not just referring to the problem of evil or what theologians call original sin. As a Christian, I certainly believe sin resides in us all, but what I am talking about is a world that is qualitatively different than the world we had one hundred or two hundred years ago, not only technologically, but also economically, psychologically, and spiritually. In regard to magnitude, force, and speed, it has no precedent.

This essay is a summation of the ideas I present in my new book, Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Man-made Environments (Hunt, 2013). I will begin by describing some of the problems associated with modern technological society, and then proceed to recommend some solutions.

The Modern Notion of Progress

The idea that humans are progressing in a definite and desirable direction was generally unknown until the Enlightenment. Moral progress was known of course—classical antiquity spoke of the reciprocal patterns of birth, growth, decline, and decadence—but not the continuous material improvement of life on earth.

The modern notion of progress began with Bacon, Newton, and Locke, and with the declaration that scientific technique can provide us the expectation of continuous material and social improvement. J. B. Bury says in The Idea of Progress (1955) that this notion assumes advancement will continue indefinitely, as it is the earth’s great business that “a condition of general happiness will ultimately be enjoyed, which will justify the whole process of civilization” (5).

The modern notion of progress is not predicated on any external will, as with say, the idea of Providence, for this would mean its continuance could not be guaranteed—that is, if God had anything to do with it. Bacon and Newton assumed that if we observed Nature closely enough she would divulge her secrets to us—God’s secrets—to be harnessed for our benefit. However, the modern notion of progress takes the steering wheel away from God and goes at it alone.

In his classic work The Abolition of Man C. S. Lewis (1947/1968) wrote of how man’s conquest of nature could easily become nature’s conquest of man. He formulated the demise of man in this way: take some powerful technologies that reach beyond human scale, throw in the absence of traditional morality (the Tao), and then add the willingness of some (the Conditioners) to use these technologies over the many, and you have a grand tragedy on your hands.

What Lewis (1947/1968) feared was an omnicompetent state, coupled with an irresistible scientific technique, which would produce a new controlling elite determined to “cut out all posterity in what shape they please” (73). Like Faust, who bargained with the devil, the Conditioners are not seeking knowledge or truth or any other such high ideal; what they really want is gold, guns, and girls. Orwell understood perhaps better than any twentieth century observer the dangers of power when he said the Party did not seek power of its own sake, but only for their own selfish ends. “If you want a picture of the future,” says O’Brien in 1984, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

Three Stages of Liberal Capitalist Democracy

In the beginning we were not so brash as to take God’s name out of the contract entirely. The American version of liberal capitalist democracy came to us through a constitutional government, which sought to secure our liberty through a free-market economy, private property rights, and religious tolerance. Actually, the agreement favored the rising Protestant middle class, a segment of society which embraced wealth creation through hard work, thrift, and self-denial.

While the agreement respected our religious inclinations, it also possessed a one-dimensional focus on material things, a fixation on wealth creation that far exceeded what humans actually needed. As Murray Jardine notes in The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society (2004), there was a certain materialist bias in the contract that ignored spiritual and aesthetic values. We might also add that our constitution said nothing about families.

This arrangement has sometimes been called classical liberalism, but Jardine (2004) traces how this first stage of liberty was eventually replaced with reform liberalism to address the disruptions brought upon us with World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Clutch Plague, and World War II. Reform liberalism sought to correct the failures of classical liberalism, namely, the tendency of wealth and power to be concentrated in monopolies and capitalism’s propensity for boom and bust cycles. The policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt meant to stabilize these tendencies, but they also increased the powers of the federal government.

Reform liberalism held sway in America until a series of challenges in the 1960s and 1970s. Among these, notes Jardine (2004), was a less-than-successful military campaign in Vietnam, a growing alimentation between World War II generation parents and their children, and a general increase in permissiveness and secularization in the culture. These challenges were followed by an economic downturn and high inflation during the Carter years.

The impact of Reagan era was two-pronged. On one hand it attempted to revive the old classical liberal model by returning to laissez-faire economics to jump-start the economy; on the other, it attempted to unleash religious piety—especially of the evangelical variety—to counteract the growing moral permissiveness.

Ironically, as neoclassical liberalism surged forward, the market became a model for everything. Reagan personified the rugged individual in an economic milieu where individual choice was deified. The exuberance of the empowered consumer had the unintended consequence of extinguishing the old Protestant work ethic. One cannot be thrifty and overindulgent at the same time. Few members of the Moral Majority probably ever stopped to consider how unbridled consumerism could squelch their religious piety.

The New Global Economy

Industrial capitalism has given way to a new order where everybody is connected to everybody. McLuhan’s global village has not only become a reality, but universal consciousness is now touted as something desirable to possess as a global citizen. Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google, stated in a 2004 interview with Newsweek, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain, you’d be better off” (cited in Carr, 2008).

In this new global environment hard products (soap, food, and furniture) have taken a backseat to soft products (corporate branding, television programming, and computer software). Benjamin R. Barber observes in Jihad vs. McWorld (1995) that soft products have a religious nature, because, unlike hard goods, they serve the mind and spirit. Consumerism is our new prophet, priest, and king.

Multinational corporate entities have distanced themselves from their long-standing contract with employees, families, and local communities. In this dog-eat-dog climate economics has been reduced to a worldwide hunting ground where survival of the fittest is the primary directive for conducting business.

A generation ago America lost blue-collar jobs as they went south and overseas, but now we are seeing the outsourcing of white-collar professional service jobs, or the elimination of them altogether, due to advances in technology. No wonder Thomas Friedman (2006) quipped in The World is Flat, “If it can be digitized, it can be outsourced” (15).

There is little shame in what a corporation is capable of doing to a person, community, or ecosystem. During the banking crisis several years ago the CEO of Mellon Bank, Robert Kelly, appeared on the PBS News Hour to defend his industry, saying, “Capitalism works. Darwinism works.” Kelly’s comment was reminiscent of Michael Douglas’ famous line in Wall Street: “Greed is right. Greed works.”

It is surprising how closely fervent capitalists have aligned themselves with the social Darwinists. It is even more surprising how “conservatives,” even Christian conservatives, readily identify with Darwinian global economics. Historically, Christians have been adversaries of the social Darwinists, but apparently, many of them are now card-carrying members of the Huxley Club.

Big business and big government are to a large degree joined at the hip. They work in tandem to form what Hilarie Belloc recognized a century ago as the “Servile State,” whereby an unfree majority of non-owners work for the pleasure of a free minority of owners. Although Washington and Wall Street have been in bed with each other for sometime, the distance between the haves and have-nots has only widened, making the typical American feel like a pawn in an incomprehensible came of chess.

A Third Way

The evidence is piling up that modern capitalism has exhausted itself, and the sooner we admit to it, the more empowered we will be to do something about it. Our current economic system is not sustainable and will eventually implode upon itself and may be doing so now. We can no longer afford public policies that have little regard for what people are for or treat the planet as if it has no limits. Neither can we assume that human flourishing can be accomplished without functional families and communities.

You might be thinking, “This guy wants us to go back to those miserable days when there was no electricity and strained backs, early death, and the plague were common.” Not really. Electricity is not going away anytime soon, and this is not entirely a bad thing. Technological staying power has its benefits, especially when one considers the performance of penicillin or sewage treatment plants.

Yet, there is a cumulative effect of technological reliance, especially in relation to increasing scale and when no thought is given to the unintended consequences of what we so often call progress. We are therefore left with negotiating and appropriating new technologies. The key is not to loath technology, but to properly appropriate it for the quality of life we seek. One does not have to be Amish to do this; he or she only has to be deliberate.

What we should be striving for is a synthesis—a balance—between a sane past and a hysterical future. We need a new model that is not only ecologically astute with regards to the natural environment, but also with the sociological environment in which humans interact, create, and form cultures.

At least what I am proposing is not as ridiculous as colonizing Mars (what NASA has proposed) or we should all go out and shop some more (what George W. Bush proposed when the Twin Towers fell down). What I am suggesting has sometimes been called a “third way.” Some of its best proponents are dead. But let’s list them anyway: Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, Pope Leo XIII, Edmund Burke, G. K. Chesterton, Richard Weaver, Wilhem Röpke, Christopher Lasch, Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, and E. F. Schumacher. Here are some living people who are third way supporters: Alasdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, Kirkpatrick Sale, Rod Dreher, Mark T. Mitchell, Bill Kauffman, Joseph Pearce, and many, many others.

The third way model has sometimes be called micro-capitalism. Chesterton and Belloc called it distributism, which should not be confused with socialism or communism, systems which concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few (much like modern capitalism). Distributism sees the widest use of private productive property as the most desirable economic system to ensure true liberty and prosperity. An American version of distributism is perceived in Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian society. A Russian version of distributism is reflected in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “democracy of small places.”

Kirkpatrick Sale says in the foreword to Beyond Capitalism (2008) that a third way society is based on “small self-sufficient regions, empowered communities, vibrant neighborhoods, gainfully employed families, individual self satisfactions, decentralized politics, local economies, sustained organic culture, cooperative work, environmental humility, and careful nurturing of the earth” (xi).

We might surmise a third way under three simple precepts: small is beautiful, household economy, and a sacramental ethos that says nature and nature’s God should be respected.

Small is Beautiful

Small can be a hard sell in a world where Big Macs, megachurches, and multinational conglomerates rule the day, but the love of big lends itself to more centralization and less economic freedom. We should move toward de-massification, and minimize massification with regard to those culture-forming apparatuses such as markets, schools, and entertainments.

It is encouraging to see movements already afoot that seek to create local living economies where employees can earn a living wage while producing high-quality products in the context of a locally based steady market of fair exchange. Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy provides one such example. Although the region consists of 4.2 million people, 45 percent of its GDP comes from eight thousand cooperatively owned enterprises. (A cooperative is a business venture that is jointly owned and operated by the people who work there or benefit from its services.)

Writer-farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry (2002) has noted that while a factory farm might heavily invest and go into debt to realize a profit of twenty or thirty thousand dollars on a sale of one million chickens crowded into a metal building the size of Walmart, a small family-owned-and run farm can produce 2000 high quality free-range chickens for a profit of six thousand dollars with little investment for housing or equipment, no large debt, no corporate contract, and no environmental destruction.

Studies have shown that schools with a student body of 200 function better than those with 2000. Small neighborhood public schools with strong parental involvement and community-based objectives should be preferred over large city schools run by a central office that bends over backwards under the threat of federal harassments. Of course, private academies and homeschools are quintessential third way endeavors.

Our colleges must be more diverse in purpose and reflect the kind of economy and culture a third way society would demand. This would mean more private apprenticeships, more vocational schools organized by professions and guilds, and more colleges offering a classical education suited for religious and political leaders.

Local bands, community theaters, and independently made films should be preferred over piped-in music, paying a cable fee, or patronizing a Hollywood establishment movie house. Third way precept: It is better to make music yourself by getting the fiddle down from the mantle to play at the barnyard Contra dance than to download the latest celebrity mood dream.

We must invoke the notion of subsidiary, the belief that higher-level organizations can only justify their existence by the necessary support it gives to lower-level ones. The greatest value should be given to the things closest to us—family, church, and community. Things more distant—state, nation, and world—deserve our allegiance, but only to the degree they can give credence to closer entities.

Household Economy

Industrialism brought an end to the family as an economic unit in Western society. First, the fathers went off to work in the factory. Then, the mothers started entering the workforce beginning with the Second World War. Finally, the care of the children was outsourced to various surrogate institutions. What was once provided by the home economy—education, health care, child rearing, and care of the elderly—became provided by the state. The rest of our needs—food, clothing, shelter, and entertainment—became provided by the corporations.

A third way society would seek to revive the old notion oikos or household so that the home is once again seen as a legitimate economic, educational, and care-providing unit. In ancient Greece the home was considered the cornerstone of society and was directly connected to the success of the polis or city-state. In most cases the oikos was an agricultural unit, but a family-run business certainly fits the ideal.

The home should once again become a center for production, not just consumption. In a third way society family farms, cottage industries, and locally own shops would out shine agribusinesses, multinational corporations, and big box distribution centers. Technologies that are highly efficient, rely on renewable energy, and are human-to-scale, if properly appropriated, make the home-based businesses much more feasible.

As to the criticism that returning to the home narrows one’s full potential or nullifies the progress made for women over the last seventy years, the case can be made that a household economy can actually broaden one’s potential. Certainly if the home is little more than a temporary sleeping quarters or an entertainment center, then, yes, being at home requires little intelligence, and might even be considered demeaning. But what happens when the home becomes a place of production? What if the home was a place where people found their vocational fulfillment, where children received their education, and elderly parents spent their twilight years? What kind of intelligence and skill would that demand?

Chesterton (1910/2011) wrote that life around the home actually allowed women to have five or six professions and be skilled in hundreds of trades. “Women were not kept at home in order to keep them narrow,” he said, “on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad” (128).

What is true of the potential broadness of homegirls is also true for homeboys. Instead of trying to escape the material reality of a tangible world, embracing the obscure forces of a global marketplace, we should be bringing things closer to home where we can put our hands on them.

In his excellent book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford’s (2009) says, “The question of what a good job looks like—of what sort of work is both secure and worthy of being honored—is more open now than it has been for a long time” (9). Crawford (2009) calls for the revitalization of manual trades, craftsmanship, and self-reliance. He believes the love of vocation can once again be found in working with both our minds and hands together.

Sacramental Ethos

Accompanying the third way model is a deliberate sacramentalism, which recognizes Jefferson’s phrase the laws of nature and nature’s God. It is entirely possible to honor these words without establishing a national religion or yearning for a theocracy. This would mean a stance of humility toward the natural world as well as returning to natural law moral formulations found in our greatest philosophers—Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Burke.

Several decades ago there was a television commercial with a tall, middle-aged woman standing beneath a tree tasting the contents of a tub of margarine. She is surrounded by animals from the forest and wears a garland of clover. As the shot zooms in she says something about the creamy sweet flavor of butter. Then an off-camera voice tells her it’s not butter. The woman assumes a dramatic pose, summons thunder and lightning from the sky, and declares, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

The commercial subtly communicated to the audience that Mother Nature was a buffoon, a force that keeps us from having fun and enjoying newly invented foods. The immediate meaning of the message was that margarine tastes as good as butter, maybe even better. But the deeper meaning beneath the sales pitch—one that is rooted in the ethos of all technological societies—is that Mother Nature can be fooled, and in fact deserves to be fooled.

Techno-industrialism prescribes that we detach ourselves from nature for the purpose of exploiting, fooling, manipulating, or waging war with it. If we take the greatest possible advantage of nature, ignoring her signs or presence, there will be long-term consequences for our actions. As T. S. Eliot (1939) warned us in The Idea of a Christian Society, “a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and that the consequence is an inevitable doom” (62).

Conclusion

I realize that not everyone can or wants to be a farmer or a shopkeeper or a cooperative business owner. But I am inclined to agree with Chesterton’s quip: “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” We need more entrepreneurs of a smaller order. Jefferson knew that having more productive property owners would safeguard democracy because it produces citizens who have a compelling interest to participate.

What I am suggesting is what Alasdair MacIntyre (2007) has called the Benedict Option—the creation of new forms of community that repair and redeem the moral imagination distorted by modern society. The growth of rural America is only about half of what it was in the previous decade, and it seems to me that herein lies an opportunity for third way planners to resettle the West—those large pockets of rural America that encompass three-fourths of our landmass, yet with only about 15 percent of the country’s population. Only, let’s do it right this time.

A similar version of this article appears in the book Confronting Technopoly: Charting a Course Towards Human Survival, Phil Rose, editor (Intellect, 2017)

Works Cited

Barber, B. R. (1995). Jihad vs. McWorld: Terrorism’s challenge to democracy. New York: Ballantine.

Berry, W. (2002). The whole horse. In Citizenship papers: Essays. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 113-126.

Bury, J. B. (1955). The idea of progress: An inquiry into its origin and growth. New York: Dover.

Carr, N. (2008, July/August). Is Google making us stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains. Atlantic Monthly, 56-58; 60, 62-63.

Chesterton, G. K. (2011). The emancipation of domesticity. In What’s wrong with the world. Reprint. New York: Simon & Brown, 126-134. (Original work published 1919).

Crawford, M. B. (2009). Shop class as soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work. New York: Penguin.

Eliot, T. S. (1939). The idea of a Christian society. London: Faber & Faber.

Friedman, T. L. ((2006). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century: Undated and expanded. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Jardine, M. (2004) The making and unmaking of technological society: How Christianity can save modernity from itself. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

Lewis, C.S. (1968). The abolition of man. Reprint. New York: Macmillian. (Original work published 1947).

MacIntyre, A. (2007). After virtue: A study in moral theory (3rd ed.). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Sale, K. (2008). Foreword. In Tobias J. Lanz (Ed.), Beyond capitalism & socialism: A new statement of an old ideal. Norfolk, VA: HIS, xi-xii.

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About the Contributor

Arthur Hunt

Arthur W. Hunt III
Arthur W. Hunt III is professor of communications at The University of Tennessee at Martin and author of Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Manmade Environments (Pickwick, 2013). 

Comments

  1. I followed a link on the MEA Listserv to your website and thought you might be interested in a post I made on my blog. You might also be interested in visiting the Systemic Disorder blog – there is a comment on the post from that blog-owner. You also might find two other posts on my blog interesting: “Glimpses of Nirvana” and “Hard Truths”.

    Capitalism, in whatever clothes you choose to dress it in, does not work.

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