Wednesday, July 24, 2019

And the future?

What is it that Yeats wrote back in 1919 after The Great War?
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, [...]
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Martin Gurri, at The Fifth Wave, "Notes from a Nameless Conference":
The industrial elites have lost their way. In every major profession and institution, they once commanded vast, widely-admired projects that filled their lives with meaning and endowed the entire class with an unconquerable confidence. But the twentieth century couldn’t be preserved forever, like a bug in amber. The elites now face a radically transformed environment – and they are maladapted and demoralized. An inability to listen, an impulse to spew jargon in broadcast mode, a demand for social distance as the reward for professional success: such habits, which in the past placed them above and beyond the mob’s reach, now drag them down to contempt and mockery in the information sphere. Among the public, trust has curdled into loathing. The elites are horribly aware of their fall from grace – hence the conference – but being deaf to the public’s voice, they are clueless about how to respond.
What next?
We are living through the early stages of a colossal transformation: from the industrial age to something that doesn’t yet have a name. Many periods of history have been constrained by structural necessity. This isn’t one of them. Rather than a forking path, we face possibilities that radiate in every direction, like spokes from a hub. Even the immediate future seems up for grabs. We could see the formation of a hyper-connected liberal democracy, or plunge into nihilism and chaos – or we could contemplate arrangements and relations that are, at present, unimaginable.

The future will be determined not by vast, impersonal forces but by an accumulation of individual choices. Ultimately, the elites must lead the way. Whether selected by the public or self-anointed and self-perpetuating, they hold in hand the institutional levers of change: that’s just how the world works in a complex civilization. We will not transcend our petty and immobile present with protests or referendums.

The dilemma is that this present is defined by a radical distrust of the institutions of industrial society, and of the elites that control them, and of their statements and descriptions of reality. The conference organizers got our predicament right. At every level of contemporary social and political life, we are stuck in the muck of a profound crisis of authority. The mass audience of the twentieth century has fractured like a fallen mirror. An angry and alienated public inhabits the broken shards – and nobody speaks for the whole. The elites who should take the first step into the unknown are paralyzed by doubt and fear. They utter the words science and reason like incantations, claim ownership to Platonic truth, and believe, with astonishing unanimity, that they have been overthrown by a tsunami of lies. One need only restore truth to its former throne of glory, with themselves as mediating lords, they imagine, and the masses, as in the golden past, will bend the knee of trust.

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