The Dilemma of Hypermodernity, part 3

Dynamism of a Man's Head by Umberto Boccioni
Dynamism of a Man’s Head by Umberto Boccioni

The Dilemma of Hypermodernity

Mark Wegierski completes his analysis

It is probably in the peripheries, rather than in the North American node of the world-system, that potential resistance to hypermodernity resides. The Soviet counter system has disintegrated because puritanical Marxism, with its basket-case economy and coercive violence, was no match for the scintillating allure of Western consumerism and technology, and for the promise of personal freedom (which has nevertheless turned out to be double-edged in the light of such phenomena as the rise of the Mafiya).

Yet despite everything, high-culture and genuine popular culture exist to a greater extent in Russia — and all the other national communities of the erstwhile Soviet Union and former Eastern bloc — than in most of urban North America. The intellectual or artist or religious person is both more highly valued, and closer to the roots of his or her society. Unfortunately, all this is under increasing attack today — as young people in vast numbers leave school (in which they are often being offered the closest thing to a serious classical education in the world today) to try and make a fast buck; lyceum girls say in surveys that their favourite chosen profession for the future would be “hard-currency prostitute”; and American neocon think-tankers suggest on CNN that long-time career military officers should open shoe-shine stands, as that would be more productive than their current occupation of marching around on parade grounds.

What most of the people of the former Eastern bloc societies are probably hoping for are a series of genuine national re-births, without Western interference, and without catastrophic, market-imposed pauperization. After all, the collapse of the Eastern bloc — from the perspective of the transnational corporations — could sardonically be termed the largest leveraged buyout in human history.

In his highly-perceptive essay in the March 1992 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “Jihad vs. McWorld”, Professor Benjamin J. Barber noted that the commodity and media system of “McWorld” actually intensifies the negative aspects of nationalist and religious impulses, precisely because they are under such enormous threat from it. Thus, ugly situations such as the excesses of the Iranian Islamic Revolution; the brutal Iran-Iraq war; the Iraqi plunder of the Kuwaitis; the slaughter in Rwanda; or the situation in ex-Yugoslavia, readily arise. However, the salve for such situations is NOT more globalization. In pre-modern times, ethnic and religious minorities could often endure for centuries — or even millennia — under hostile dominant cultures. It was the modern period that ushered in ethnic and religious slaughter on a truly mass scale, as well as the fading of the diversity of all rooted peoples in the face of global homogenization.

In an interview with The New York Review of Books (November 21, 1991), the 82-year old academic éminence grise Isaiah Berlin, said by some to be “the wisest man in the world” came out in favour of a tempered nationalism as the proper response to both hyper-tribalism and homogenization. He extolled the eighteenth-century philosopher of non-aggressive nationalism, one whose ideals he believes in — Johann Herder, who “virtually invented the idea of belonging.” (Herder, incidentally, was very sympathetic to the Slavic nations — and so his thought was ridiculed by the Nazi regime.) Isaiah Berlin says:

“Herder believed that just as people need to eat and drink, to have security and freedom of movement, so too they need to belong to a group. Deprived of this, they felt cut off, diminished, unhappy. To be human meant to be able to feel at home somewhere, with your own kind. Herder’s idea of the nation was deeply non-aggressive. All he wanted was cultural self-determination. He believed in a variety of national cultures, all of which could, in his view peacefully co-exist.”

This idea is similar to what Professor Paul Edward Gottfried, at the conclusion of his book on the German political theorist Carl Schmitt, has called the “pluriverse” of distinctive peoples and nationalities, each with a meaningful, cherished history and vital existence. This “pluriverse” of human diversity is menaced by the univocal “universe”, by what the preeminent Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant terms “the universal, homogenous, world-state”, or what ecologists might call “the monoculture”.

In his Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Prize, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn likewise remarked:

“The disappearance of nations would impoverish us no less than if all peoples were made alike, with one character, one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind; they are its generalized personalities: the smallest of them has its own particular colours and embodies a particular facet of God’s design.”

And in his work Beginning With My Streets (translated by Madeline G. Levine), Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet, philosopher, and Nobel Laureate has written that we live in a time when the person is “…deracinated, and thus deprived of collective memory…Where there is no memory, both time and space are a wasteland.” Polish literature is said to offer “better antidotes against today’s despair” than the current literatures of Western Europe, for “whoever descends from this literature receives signifying time as a gift”, and “does not sink into apathy.”

The nations of the former Eastern bloc; the peoples of the numerous, diverse cultural regions of the planet’s South; as well as China, Japan, and the so-called Newly-Industrialized Countries (NIC’s) of the Pacific Rim, are evolving in certain unpredictable directions. Even Europe is arguably showing some signs of an independent “Eurostyle”, something barely tangible but perceivable in the greater elegance and diversity of contemporary European thought, culture, fashion, and lifestyle (to cite one example, the affection for the countryside, or at least the preference for fine food and drink that can only be produced by unhurried, natural methods in the countryside); as well as in the view of technology as craftwork — sophisticated European technological artefacts can be described as being carefully “crafted”, rather than mass-produced. This distinctive European style — which also certainly has its negative aspects — is selectively interpreted as “decadence” or nihilism by some North American observers. But the West, as a whole, is defined by its American-centred corporate/media bureaucratic-oligarchic configuration, which stage-manages all “social change”, and denies the hope for real change.

It might be added here that the British state is in a curious, unfortunate, “mid-Atlantic” position. There was a point in the Eighties when the standard of living in the United Kingdom apparently fell below that of East Germany. Britain has little of the Continental “style”; but at the same time it lacks the luxurious wealth of North America. More development under the “project” of Thatcherite individualism would probably destroy even more of the countryside; lack of development would presumably deepen the division into “two nations”. The “Little Englanders” of the early twentieth century — as well as J. R. R. Tolkien — have been proven essentially correct that the gaudy edifice of British imperialism and colonialism would quickly collapse and implode upon England, leaving the nation a wreck. While the British (or what should really be called the English, or London-ruled) state seems moribund, the so-called Celtic fringe of Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall appears to be reviving, culturally if not economically. So the possibilities and configurations of resistance to globalization vary from country to country and from region to region.

Britain has the curious residue of what are probably the worst aspects — as opposed to some more positive, truly aristocratic elements — of a class-system: which excuses almost any behaviour by the elite (such as that carried out by the Cambridge spies, virtually all of whom went unpunished); but which severely punishes to the point of bankruptcy a Slavic Count (Nikolai Tolstoy) who made certain accusations against one of its members; and which slots many working-class people into a perpetual underclass. One of the reasons for the proliferation of youth subcultures in Britain, and of the unquestionably trend-setting and manifestly more independent and less brazenly commercial nature of British rock (and its various subgenres), relative to its North American counterparts, is simply that white alienation in Britain is more genuine, and can more genuinely be felt. (There are more real working-class youth there, as opposed to the well-off “bohos” pretentiously “slumming it” in North America.)

Regarding the problems of the Third World (or South), there is a constellation of trends at work, not only the permeation of Western mass-media images which undermine traditional cultures, but also the extreme poverty, caused largely by massively burgeoning overpopulation, which drastically cheapens human life in those countries.

It is impossible to imagine that any country would want to be overpopulated. While on the one hand it would seem entirely just that the West take strong steps to limit its own profligate consumption, as well as to funnel extensive, meaningful aid to the South, it also behoves the South to take extremely strong population-control measures and to understand that any large-scale aid would be contingent on the enactment of at least some significant efforts in that direction; as well as to realize that the West in general, and Europe in particular, can no longer serve as destination-points for large-scale immigration. Stabilization of population growth must be seen as one of the primary means of stabilizing the over-all situation in the South. Then, presumably, the over-all value put on human life in those countries will increase, the traditional cultures will be under less severe stress, and there will be some hope for the ultimate survival and recovery of the ravaged ecosystems and dwindling wilderness areas of the South, which include such priceless ecological treasures as the Amazon rainforest (critical to the oxygen supply and stability of weather patterns across the entire planet); the African savannah; and the forests of Northern India.

The future — if indeed there is a future — will result from the convergence of various trends which from the current standpoint might seem contradictory, yet which ultimately have some points in common. The most hopeful development today is probably ecology. It would be even more positive, however, if the rather abstract allegiances of the ecological movement could be reinterpreted on the level of a specific communities. The “postmodern” idea of the future clearly calls for a strict sense of limits on consumption, limits on economic growth, and limits on the now-untrammelled exploitation of the planet. However, it would seem that the ecological argument for sacrifices in consumption could much more easily and meaningfully be made if it meant sacrifices for something more local, tangible, and particular than an abstract ecological principle. Here is where the argument for this land, this countryside, this country, must come in. The combined position of communitarian ecology offers the careful shepherding of resources and custodianship of nature for the sake of a particular community which is to derive its sustenance from these resources for the ongoing millennia. This also implies that either all communities on the planet will be following such policies, or that the particular community must be capable of decisively repelling possible incursions from such communities that are refusing to participate in this model. Presumably, ecologically-minded communities and societies will form themselves into various alliances that would be able not only to repel incursions, but, more importantly, to bring about the triumph of communitarian-ecological principles across the entire planet.

What we are talking about could be characterized as the return of the “steady-state society” (or the stationary state, as envisaged by J S Mill), which might also be called a “hydraulic-ecological” society. What in the 21st century will become the increasingly precious resources of clean running water; real food with minimal chemicals and carcinogens; energy-supplies, especially petroleum and coal; high-tech medical care; green space in which one can breathe and relax; and large personal dwelling-places (not to mention the current profligacy of rampant consumption) will presumably be subject to some kind of very real — though not, in the final analysis, necessarily all that onerous — rationing. The grotesque excesses of “car-culture”, for example, will have to be significantly and meaningfully curtailed. Realistically-speaking, such an ecological program cannot be based on wholesale de-urbanization or ruralization, but rather on a saner and more ecological management of the situation as it currently is.

A central premise of the critique of late modernity is that late capitalism is NOT in fact a truly rational system of allocation of resources. Enormous amounts of energy are superfluously wasted in the creation of advertising to inflame appetites for largely unnecessary products; and obsolescence is “planned-in” to keep consumption at a high rate, etc. For example, it has been estimated that the actual cumulative speed of commuting to and from work by car, in the very largest urban centres, is slower than that of walking by foot, because of the state of terminal gridlock. The personal and psychological rewards that will compensate for the decrease in consumption, for the decrease in quantity, is to be the increase in the quality of life, the emergence of time for pause and reflection in many people’s lives, as well as the sense of participation in and belonging to a genuine, friendlier, and safer community.

The other path for humanity, of hypermodernity, which the planet today unfortunately seems to be moving on with a startling degree of unidirectional intensity, implies an increasingly dystopic future for humanity. As the once-Western-derived technology increasingly encroaches upon the world, our ultimate fate is most likely one of these alternatives: the possible extinction of human beings through some massive ecological or bio-engineering disaster; the possible destruction of the human spirit, and then presumably of physical humanity (if that proverbial “unlimited energy source” is actually found, and technology is able to “solve” all of our problems, but without our ability to set any limits on it); or what could be called the “Brazilification” (the term first prominently used in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X) of the West, as well as of the planet as a whole: to wit, extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty; attenuation of the public-political realm and endemic crime, violence, and corruption; burgeoning overpopulation; and ongoing environmental degradation.

To conclude: the future, though uncertain, can still be won. The painfully minimal resources available to the critics of late modernity today must be marshalled in such a fashion as to create maximum impact — to bend flexibly, where possible; to use the opposing forces’ strength against them, where possible; but also to be able to possibly deliver, at some point, a very telling blow. These essays are intended as a contribution to the absolutely critical fight for the future of a humanity living in accord with Nature but facing the risk of extreme spiritual and physical degradation, or outright extinction.

The Forces of the Street by Umberto Boccioni
The Forces of the Street by Umberto Boccioni

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher

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