Sunday, August 19, 2018

Humanists, Technocrats, and a World of Babies

In Oh, the Humanities! NY Times columnist and Christian apologist, Ross Douthat, looks at the triumph of technocrats over humanists in American culture. He writes of “the motley humanists against the efficient technocrats, the aesthetes and poets and philosophers and theologians against the managers and scientists and financiers and bureaucrats,” and of how “neither a Christian humanism nor any other has been able to withstand the spirit of Conant [former president of Harvard], the spirit of technocratic ambition, the spirit of truth-replaced-by-useful-knowledge, that rules today not just in Washington and Silicon Valley but in much of academia as well.”

Humanism and Technocracy

For Douthat, humanism should be preserved as a buffer between the toxic outgrowths of secularism and his cherished religious traditions. These outgrowths would include not just the technocratic mindset, but nihilism, moral relativism, postmodern cynicism and apathy, and the hopelessness resulting from what Nietzsche diagnosed as the death of God, meaning the obsolescence of theological concepts. Much of the humanist outlook is thus a means to an end for Douthat. He’s not interested so much in human nature, since unlike more mystical theists such as those you’ll find in greater abundance in East Asia, he regards human beings as subservient to a transcendent deity. By contrast, many Hindus, Daoists, and Buddhists identify some level of our nature with God. As a conventional Catholic, Douthat must think that while God gifted us with reason and freedom, we’ve abused God’s generosity and are “fallen” creatures. Thus, for him our inherent qualities should be lamented rather than celebrated, since we’re tainted by the original sin precisely of taking pride in ourselves as though we could run our affairs as mature adults without kowtowing to an all-knowing father figure in the sky. In short, religious humanism rests precariously on a slippery slope that passes through secular humanism, which in turn leads to those apparent valleys of technocracy and so-called postmodernity.  

But Douthat’s finding that the humanities are in trouble is corroborated by Thomas Frank’s more comprehensive treatment of the matter. For example, Frank connects student indebtedness and the “de-professionalization of the faculty” with the ballooning of the class of college administrators. As he points out, “teaching college students” has steadily become “an occupation for people with no tenure, no benefits, and no job security. These lumpen-profs, who have spent many years earning advanced degrees but sometimes make less than minimum wage, now account for more than three-quarters of the teaching that is done at our insanely expensive, oh-so-excellent American universities.” Tuition has increased and put students in debt, largely to pay for the salaries of the true “masters of academia.” Following Ginsberg’s 2011 book, The Fall of the Faculty, Frank says that “what has really fueled the student’s ever-growing indebtedness, as anyone with a connection to academia can tell you, is the insane proliferation of university administrators.” Whereas the American university used to be run by professors, today “the business side of the university has been captured by a class of professionals who have nothing to do with the pedagogical enterprise itself.” Today, administrators and staffers may even outnumber the teachers, and so there’s a culture war between those who fulfill the original function of higher education—the educators—and those who fulfill the new one—the pencil pushers. According to Frank, the new function is to earn a profit as a business. Thus, humanism has been defeated by economic forces: American culture has been overtaken by a capitalist ethos that has reshaped not just the country’s education systems, but its democracy, religions, and arts.

As for humanistic values, these go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Cicero, for example, wrote of humanitas, the love of human potential that thrives with education, as crucial to the ideal orator. Such an orator would have studied literature and poetry to inculcate him (or her) with virtues suitable for public service and a fulfilling private life. Revived by the European Renaissance, the original point of familiarizing the young person with value-laden subject matters derives ultimately from the virtue ethics of Plato and Aristotle—which are similar to those of Confucian philosophy. The assumption was that when we’re young we’re innocent and malleable creatures, but that as individuals and collectives we have the potential to reach a certain ideal stature if our character and behaviour have been properly cultivated. For those Greek philosophers who appealed most to the medieval Church (namely Plato and Aristotle), our ideal development is objectively determined by the teleological fabric of nature. Just as a rock ought to head lower and lower, towards the earth, because that’s the rock’s natural tendency, a person should demonstrate rational self-control because that’s what’s good for creatures with our potential. Christians merely added the myth that natural forms were intelligently designed by God and that they were somehow corrupted. (Notice, again, that the classical concept of humanitas or philanthrĂ´pĂ­a, that is, the assumption that our fundamental goodness is revealed when we fulfill our potential, conflicts with the Pauline contention that Christ had to sacrifice his life for humanity, because our nature is otherwise irredeemable and so we can’t save ourselves from God’s wrath.) In any case, higher education was meant to instill students with virtues that enable them to succeed not just in narrow economic terms, but as civilized people and as free, responsible citizens of a democratic republic.

Is there a Higher Calling?

To understand the problem with humanitas, humanism, and virtue ethics, from the technocrat’s perspective, we should turn to Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty. Positive liberty is being equipped to master yourself, while negative liberty is freedom from constraints on doing almost whatever you want, regardless of whether your goals are in your best interest. The notion of positive liberty thus assumes an objectively ideal endpoint for human growth, whereas negative liberty carries no such implication. Berlin thought the liberal should affirm the need for both kinds of liberty, but with the fall of the Soviet Union, the triumph of capitalistic America as the world’s only superpower, and the concomitant deficits of postmodernity—especially what the philosopher Lyotard called distrust of all myths or metanarratives—liberals lost their faith in the notion of a fixed limit on human potential. And so liberals began subscribing only to the need for negative liberty, whereupon they became known as neoliberals. This abandonment of positive liberty is apparent, for example, from the mainstream economist’s concept of utility, of the measure of what the consumer finds useful in what an economy provides. Anything that satisfies the consumer is deemed useful, and so the only values that are relevant to a functioning economy are subjective. To be a (pseudo)scientist, the economist must be concerned just with the instrumental relationship between the consumer’s ends or demands and the supplier’s means of fulfilling those demands, not with society’s ultimate values.

This is because what Aristotle called the “final cause” or purpose of human action, the objective ideal we should be striving to achieve has turned out to be faith-based. Scientists have discovered no such purpose, because in explaining the facts, scientists are supposed to abstract from all values that might bias their understanding or obscure the truth. By subjecting hypotheses to rigorous tests, scientific practice lets the world speak for itself and so scientific knowledge has tended to be counter-intuitive. If we want there to be an objective telos for humanity, a master plan of what we should be doing with our life, that yearning would itself be a reason to doubt there’s any such thing. Whereas humanism is necessarily anthropocentric, science has taught us to doubt ourselves, including our significance in the grand scope of the universe. To insist in the face of scientific de-centering of human history from the ground-up process of evolution, that there is an objective, nonarbitrary and otherwise perfectly worthy morality is to embrace a late-modern faith. If you’ve already tricked yourself into thinking that the belief that nature is run by a loving God is still dignified, adding the humanistic belief in objective morality is easy, which is why Douthat can make common cause with secular humanists. But if you suspect that God is dead, that the stories we tell about God no longer inspire or are no longer relevant to our dealings with the wider world, humanism and the humanities, too, may seem dubious.

What matters to the technocrat, pragmatist, or neoliberal isn’t telos but techne, not speculation about ultimate ends but the business of achieving the relative, subjective ends that are manifest, for example, in the consumer’s desires for certain products. The technocrat thus defers, in effect, to nature and to the evolutionary sorting of animal groups when it comes to our societal outcomes, since the technocrat maintains that we should concern ourselves only with observable processes. For example, consumer desires are bound to be affected by the rhetoric of demagogues and charlatans, because we’re inherently irrational, as cognitive scientists have shown. So while negative liberty begins with a paean to the individual’s freedom from coercion, the individual is in practice prey to inception from the powers that be. Thus, social hierarchies and power differentials form that have nothing to do with justice or the Good. Contrary to Martin Luther King, there’s no “arc of the moral universe,” neither long nor short, because morality is imaginary and isn’t built into the universe at large. The technocrat is obliged only to be a good social scientist or engineer, to study social processes with a view to making them more efficient. If doing so facilitates the rise of a rapacious form of capitalism that empowers a cabal of psychopathic kleptocrats at the expense of hundreds of millions of middle class dupes, that’s what the real world calls for.

And what the technocrat misses in turn is that unless she’s on the spectrum of antisocial personality disorders, she’ll inevitably posit a telos after all. Faith in some ultimate end of self-mastery is inevitable just because human nature is inherently irrational and includes features of so-called right-brained thinking, including metaphors, intuitions, and holistic or totalizing as opposed to analytical and reductive judgments. Our final purpose isn’t something immediately apparent to your five senses; instead, it’s what you reconstruct as being inherent in the general pattern of our activity, as a precondition of our getting out of bed in the morning. This means that we act as though there were such an objective ideal, because we wish to belong to something greater than ourselves, and this wish keeps us from madness and so has had tremendous causal power throughout history. The alternative to the feeling that we belong to some lasting home that transcends our death—whether that home is Heaven or just nature or our family, nation, economic class, or social club—is the litany of hypermodern afflictions: alienation, angst, depression, apathy, nihilism, and cynicism. We either stew in our delusions of solipsistic freedom from society, pretending we’re the master of our domain rather than playthings of evolutionary and oligarchic forces, or we identify with some idea of a higher good, whether it’s God, America, the NRA, President Trump, or French cheese and wine. The neoliberal doesn’t ignore questions of positive liberty or of ultimate goods in general; she only presupposes the irrelevance of those normative options that don’t actually hold sway in the current state of her society. As Marxism implies, therefore, she presupposes a ruling ideology.

To say that the humanities have been undermined by technocracy isn’t to say that facts have won out over values. What the loss means, rather, is that only the top one percent alone is now deemed worthy of positive liberty because only that rarified class succeeds in the prevailing social Darwinian terms. The majority who buy into the myth that capitalism isn’t an amoral threat to the planet’s ability to sustain life deserve to be victimized by the scams of Trump or of Goldman Sachs. The humanities are implicitly egalitarian since their emphasis is on human nature generally, whereas instrumentalism in the context of hyper-capitalistic, superpowerful America is aristocratic. Neoliberals are effectively pagan nature-worshippers who bow before material wealth and the insanity resulting from the wealthy minority’s corruption due to its godlike power over the majority. To turn a university into a business with its ultimate aim being determined by economic considerations is to transform the university into an instrument of some wealthy donor who’s captured the institution. The same has happened to American journalism and to its military, intelligence industry, and government, which are now effectively privatized and corporatized.

One capitalistic value in particular runs counter to humanism, and this is the investment in mass infantilization. Recall that humanism is implicitly about the fulfillment of human potential (not just that of rich, white, slave-holding males). The humanist’s vision is for all free citizens to have the rational wherewithal to moderate their behaviour for the general good. Those who fulfill their potential as persons are autonomous, virtuous agents who excel in their fields. By contrast, the capitalistic imperative is to domesticate the majority of persons, to turn them into the equivalent of cattle, or into consumers. The perfect consumer is the helpless infant whose demands are simple and unfiltered and who has no ability yet to moderate her desires or to rationally judge what she’s offered. Businesses therefore find themselves talking down to their customers, training the masses to behave as obedient children or as helpless vassals of vast corporate entities that are so many legal fictions protecting the natural rights of wealthy shareholders and executives. The goal is to keep the self-destructive charade of capitalism going by generating artificial demands in a population that can no longer understand what it’s really doing or what’s become of it. Like the dog food that turns out to be drug-infested road kill, we middle class Westerners are fed poisonous schlock stitched together by the wage slaves of Third-World tyrannies. Our trajectory is apparent from the sad state of the Millennials who have been trained to be as powerless and dependent as pets. Both the radicals of the alt-left and of the alt-right are “snowflakes,” fragile adult babies who can’t face harsh truths.

Humanism is thus antithetical to Americanism in so far as Americans worship nothing as outdated as the Judeo-Christian God, but, rather, the capitalistic system that funnels wealth into the few hands of the country’s true gods. This is why there’s no massive outcry against the crisis in America’s humanities departments: philosophy, theology, literature, and the arts don’t pay (for the plutocrats).  


  1. right on the money as usual, but just the thought of how many people will find this offensive is dizzying :)

  2. So glad a few people out here actually get it! Thanks for writing. It's very strange times we're in, going from living in a society with actual people in communities to standing on the outside of the system watching as neoliberalism rapidly turns the vast bulk of them into atomized zombies. Even the mass man is now only a shell of what he was...