Technology and liberalism

Yesterday, commenter JohnK sent me a link to this piece on Christopher Dawson.

Dawson touches on a lot of topics that I find interesting – liberalism, progress, moral decline, the rise of unaccountable elites and more. In brief, his argument is that "liberalism failed to control technology, by failing to assign to the machine some end beyond a merely materialistic idea of progress and well-being."

Here are some excerpts from the long article that I’ve selected to try to expand on the thesis:

Modern technology, he went on to say, is a “Frankenstein” that increases governmental power and decreases individual liberty. . . . But Dawson contended that the ideology of the Cold War distracts our attention from the fact that the democracies and the totalitarian regimes converge in at least one important respect: namely, that they are planned societies, organized around technology, and governed by technocratic elites. Dawson concluded by insisting that “the ultimate issue for modern civilization” is the recovery of a humanism sufficient to withstand “the disintegrating and dehumanizing influences of technology.”

. . .

The secular religions of progress which arose during the 18th and 19th centuries expressed an older humanistic culture, going back at least to the Renaissance. These ideologies defined progress in humane terms. They envisioned perfections which belong or ought to belong to individuals: e.g. enlightenment, benevolence, justice, and rights. In Dawson’s estimation, however, liberalism was a transitory and relatively brief phase of culture, lasting less than a century. It was a mere bit player on a stage controlled by larger forces, which measured progress in terms of an array of tools, not the least of which are the methods of the managerial class.

. . .

The liberal believed that the individual, emancipated from the public force of religion and custom, is the engine of cultural, economic, and even religious creativity. . . . Liberalism was truly a new and awesome idea of how culture ought to be reproduced. It was to be reproduced not by custom and habit, not by central management, but pell-mell, by spontaneous individual choices. . . . Dawson called liberalism a “sublimated Christianity”—a humanitarian Christianity, relieved of the burdens of the supernatural and ecclesial authority.

. . .

According to Dawson, liberalism was “transitional and impermanent,” lasting for less than a century. What took its place was what Dawson called “the planned society,” which aspires to reproduce culture by means of technology. Technological order, he claimed, is “now the real basis of secular culture.” The only thing it shares with liberalism is the faith in a progress that is merely temporal and this-worldly. In all of the other relevant respects, the new order is the opposite of liberalism. Where liberals had faith in individual liberty and creativity, the technological order bespeaks necessity and uniformity; where liberals wanted to break the monopoly of the state, the technological order guarantees that only the state can mobilize the forces necessary for basic human undertakings. But the most important point is that liberal culture was still humanistic; despite liberal ideas, most people continued to live in the fashion of what C.S. Lewis called “old western man.” Real secularism, according to Dawson, could not emerge until technology made it possible for most people to live without the ideals and practices of the older western order. Modern science changed the way that the educated class conceived of the world; but technology changed the way people lived.

. . .

But most distinctive of contemporary technology is the replacement of the human act; or, of what the scholastic philosophers called the actus humanus. The machine reorganizes and to some extent supplants the world of human action, in the moral sense of the term. Hence, the policy of mutual assured destruction supplants diplomacy; the contraceptive pill supplants chastity; the cinema supplants recreation, especially prayer; managerial and propaganda techniques replace older practices and virtues of loyalty, etc. Therefore, it is important to understand that Dawson’s criticism of technology is not aimed at the tool per se. His criticism has nothing to do with the older, and in our context, misleading notion of “labor saving” devices. Rather, it is aimed at a new cultural pattern in which tools are either deliberately designed to replace the human act, or at least have the unintended effect of making the human act unnecessary or subordinate to the machine.

. . .

Today, across all of the different political cultures, technology is required for the state’s administration, for its military security, its propaganda, its markets, indeed for its very legitimacy. Governments rise and fall on the basis of their success in supplying the population with the technological means to achieve temporal happiness. The older liberal ideals of limited government, individual creativity, of an autonomous private sphere more or less immune from centralized planning are violated whenever the technological imperative dictates otherwise.

The article then delves into a specific example of the problems associated with the intersection of liberalism and technology: the birth control pill.

The point I want to make is that even during the hay-day of laissez faire, the principle was well established, and often followed, that technology ought to be subordinated to society’s moral interest in the family. With respect to contraceptives, it was a matter of common sense that, if widely distributed, they would undermine the principal cell of society. . . . The fact remained, that until the 1960’s, no one claimed fundamental rights to have contraceptive sex; nor did anyone seriously challenge the authority of the state to pass morals legislation of this sort.

What changed? Was society more liberal in the 1960’s than it was at the turn of the century? The change took place primarily because of a technological advance. The progesterone pill was developed in the late 1950’s, and shortly thereafter was marketed in the United States. The technological characteristic of the pill was crucial: orally administered, requiring no surgical procedure, it was seemingly a pill alongside other pills. Significantly, it was marketed as a birth-control pill rather than as a contraceptive. In a technological society, the word “control” signifies a responsible act. And because it was not a barrier method, even Catholic physicians urged that the pill was not a contraceptive.

What follows was the use of liberal language to justify the use of new technology, which ultimately destroyed the family. Or to put it more elegantly:

In other words, the increments of legal emancipation track the increments of technology, and the increments of technology are recast as kinds of social necessity. In order to make room for what was, in itself, a relatively small part of the pharmacological revolution, the entire legal and moral order of the polity was changed: (1) the Bill of Rights was reinterpreted, to make what was once homicide at criminal law a fundamental right at Constitutional law; (2) all common law pertaining to the responsibility of husbands over wives and children was summarily struck down; (3) divorce laws were changed; (4) professional associations of physicians and lawyers changed their by-laws to condemn any opposition to this continuum of technologies; (5) churches changed their moral theologies to accommodate the separation of sex and procreation; (6) public school curricula changed, and indeed new cabinet offices invented for the purpose of habituating even pre-pubescent children to the use of the technology; (7) even a conservative writer like George Will, who authored the book Statescraft As Soulcraft, now recommends Norplant patches as a remedy for the breakdown of the family in the inner city.

No culture would permit its basic institutions and practices to be so dramatically changed simply by the dictate of individual liberty, or for that matter, as a rationalization for sexual pleasure; the remarkably rapid nature of these changes can be understood only if we realize that the technological order is regarded as a necessity.

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One Response to Technology and liberalism

  1. RS says:

    So our elites, generally not engineers, are wildly ardent for hormone-based prophylaxis technology, and not that into sex? A likely story.

    It’s an interesting approach but I think he went a little too far with it. It doesn’t explain everything that’s happened, and of course nor need it do.

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