FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Moral Order

The notion that there was a way of life characteristic of modern (or industrial) societies that was qualitatively different from the way of life found in pre-modern (or folk) societies goes back, at least, to the German sociologist Max Weber.  Modern societies, said Weber, are governed by bureaucracies; the dominant ethos is one of “rationalization,” whereby everything is mechanized, administered according to the dictates of scientific reason.  Weber famously compared this situation to that of an “iron cage”: there was no way the citizens of these societies could break free from their constraints.  Pre-modern societies, on the other hand, were permeated by animism, by a belief in magic and spirits, and governance came not through bureaucracy but through the charisma of gifted leaders.  The decline of magic that accompanied the transition to modernity Weber called die Entzauberung der Welt–the disenchantment of the world.

The distinction between these two fundamental types of social orders emerged in a variety of contexts in the decades that followed.  Thus Ferdinand Tönnies saw the two in terms of Gemeinschaft (community) vs. Gesellschaft  (society, especially the culture of business), noting that whereas the former was characterized by bonds of kinship or friendship, the latter is notable for the preponderance of impersonal or contractual relations.  Linguist Edward Sapir, in turn, cast the dichotomy in terms of “genuine” vs. “spurious” cultures, and eventually the American anthropologist Robert Redfield would label it the “moral vs. the technical order.”  In one of his last books, The Primitive World and Its Transformations, Redfield tried to argue that the technical order would eventually give rise to a new moral order; but it was finally not very convincing.  Ultimately, Redfield believed that while the human race had made great advances in the technical order, it had made virtually no progress in the moral order–the knowledge of how to live, as it were–and that because of this, the human prospect was rather dim.

Indeed, for all one can say about the scientific inaccuracy of the pre-modern world, at least it was imbued with meaning.  This is not the case with the modern industrial-corporate-consumer state, which expands technologically and economically, but to no other end than expansion itself.  As the sociologist Georg Simmel wrote over a century ago, if you make money the center of your value system, then finally you have no value system, because money is not a value.  All of these scholars (a list that includes Franz Boas, Arthur Koestler, Jacques Ellul, and Lewis Mumford, inter alia) were, like Redfield, pessimistic, because they could see no way of reversing the direction of historical development.  It was obvious that as time went on, the technical order was not merely overtaking the moral order, but actually obliterating it.  This loss of meaning does much to account for the rise of the secular-religious movements of the twentieth century, including Communism, Fascism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, and so on.  It also accounts for the depth and extent of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States.  For there is no real meaning in the corporate-consumer state, which is at once empty and idiotic.  On some level, everybody knows this.

We might, then, characterize the crashes of 1929 and 2008 as spiritual rather than strictly economic in nature.  John Maynard Keynes saw the fluctuations of the stock market as being governed by human psychology, i.e. by faith and fear.  So while in the case of both crashes, one can point to financial “bubbles” and hyperinflated investments, the core of meaninglessness at the center of the consumer-driven economy means that a boom-and-bust cycle is inevitable.  In the case of the
Depression, it took a war–which involved a huge mobilization of Meaning–to pull us out of it.  At the present time, the situation is very different: American wars are now neocolonial and self-destructive, a drain on the economy.  They can only make the situation worse.  Hence, the U.S. government has turned to massive bailouts of financial institutions as a solution, but this is analogous to putting band aids on the body of a cancer patient: the core of the problem remains untouched.

And what is the core of the problem?  Basically, that the technical order is meaningless; that the American Way of Life finally has no moral center.  Indeed, it is not clear that it ever did.  In Freedom Just Around the Corner, historian Walter McDougall characterizes the United States as a “nation of hustlers,” going back to its earliest days.  What began as trade and opportunism finally issued out into a full-blown crisis of meaning, and it is this that now constitutes the crisis of late capitalism.

It is with this understanding that the political scientist Benjamin Barber published an article in The Nation some time ago (9 February 2009), claiming that the only thing that could save us was “a revolution in spirit.”  Barber points out that President Obama’s economic advisory team is squarely in the tradition of neoliberalism and the corporate state.  How, then, can we possibly expect the “change that makes a difference” that Obama promised the American people during his first presidential campaign?  As Barber notes, “it is hard to discern any movement toward a wholesale rethinking of the dominant role of the market in our society.  No one is questioning the impulse to rehabilitate the consumer market as the driver of American commerce.”  His solution is to “refashion the cultural ethos” by shifting our values from shopping to the life of the mind.  We need, he says, a new cabinet post for the arts and humanities, which will somehow get Americans to think in terms of creativity and the imagination, not in terms of mindless consumerism.  “Imagine,” writes Barber, “all the things we could do without having to shop: play and pray, create and relate, read and walk, listen and procreate–make art, make friends, make homes, make love.”  “Idealism,” he concludes, “must become the new realism.”

How is this change going to happen?  What are the political forces that will bring it about?  Barber doesn’t say, and I confess that when I read his article, I couldn’t help wondering if the man had suffered some kind of mental lapse.  What also came to mind was a book written in 1977 by the American sociologist John Robinson, entitled How Americans Use Time.  Robinson discovered that on an average daily basis, five minutes were spent on reading books (of any kind), one minute on making music, thirty seconds attending theater and concerts, and less than thirty seconds on visits to art galleries or museums.  As depressing as these figures are, they are surely much worse thirty-six  years later, given the heavy corporatization of the culture, the dramatic increase in the attention paid to television and video screens in general, and the widely acknowledged disintegration of the American educational system.  Indeed, the square footage of shopping malls in the United States–4 billion as of fifteen years ago–vastly exceeds that of schools and churches.  All of the available data show that the typical American citizen has about as much interest in the life of the mind as does your average armadillo.  Rather than being on the verge of some possible cultural renaissance, or a reversal of our entire history, what we are now witnessing is the slow-motion suicide of the nation, with Mr. Obama guiding us, in a pseudo-upbeat and unconscious way, into the grave.  Indeed, what else can he, or anybody, do at this point?  For despite appearances to the contrary, Professor Barber must know that substantive political change is not a matter of voluntarism or exhortatory messages or some purported cabinet post in the arts.  These are little more than jokes.  To buck 200-plus years of history (or, as I argue in Why America Failed, 400-plus) requires massive political power moving in the opposite direction, and no such force has emerged on the horizon.

Nor will it.  There is no record of a dying civilization reassessing its values (or lack of values, in our case) and altering its trajectory.  Whether the type of moral order that Professor Barber has in mind actually exists, or might someday exist somewhere on the planet, is certainly worth debating.  But what is not worth debating is whether such a moral order might make an appearance on American soil.  History is about many things, but one thing it is not about is miracles.

Morris Berman’s latest book is Why America Failed.

 

More articles by:

February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail