Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles. The first appeared at NRO on September 19.
Today’s elites portray themselves as champions of community.
Mark Zuckerberg invokes the power of Facebook to help “one billion people” build “meaningful communities.” The World Economic Forum, sponsor of the Davos conference, persuades itself that the “common denominator” of the young talent it is grooming for planetary leadership “is a desire to act and meaningfully contribute to the public good.” In fact our classes supérieures are committed to a dehumanizing brew of globalist conformity and cyber-utopianism, one that is destroying older forms of common life and the places in which they flourish, with unhappy consequences for the soul.
To be sure, the moguls insist that their cosmopolitan vision of multiculturalism and online solidarity promotes tolerance and respect for different cultures and communities. But in reality it is producing an appalling sameness hardly less corrosive than discrimination itself, as what is distinctive in particular traditions is boiled down in the global melting pot to an insipid uniformity.
The bankers and tech magnificos who in the Alpine councils of Davos sip Veuve Clicquot with regulators ensconced in supranational organizations are in thrall to perhaps the most subtle and dangerous prophet of global regimentation and lowest-common-denominator humanity, Alexandre Kojève, the enigmatic Russian philosopher who as a civil servant under de Gaulle drafted the blueprint for the European Union.
Taking a hint from Hegel, Kojève devoted his life to preparing the way for the universal state he believed would crown the end of history. Yet what is most remarkable about Kojève’s conception of a new world order is the candor with which he acknowledged its dehumanizing qualities.
In Kojève’s tragic or comic philosophy, no sooner does our geographically and culturally fragmented humanity — a Burkean hodgepodge of idiosyncratic people and places — evolve into a post-historical universal society than human beings themselves insensibly degenerate into what he calls “automata,” interchangeable non-beings. “In the final state,” Kojève writes, “there can be no more ‘human beings’ in our sense of an historical human being. The ‘healthy’ automata are ‘satisfied’ (sports, art, eroticism, etc.), and the ‘sick’ ones get locked up.” What is distinctively human disappears. The species survives merely as the soulless mediocrities Nietzsche depicted as the last men.
“Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same.”
It is not just that Kojève supplies today’s elites with a philosophically chic justification for homogenization and amalgamation, a world not only of interchangeable parts but of interchangeable towns, regions, and people. More crucially, Kojèvism advances the Silicon Valley faith that progress lies in a greater intimacy with machines, a more impassioned absorption in artificial realities.
The placefulness Edmund Burke commended — an attachment to what is local, habitual, rooted in the soil — stands in the way of this technological nirvana, the “singularity,” when nature is finally subdued and death and all our woe banished through a mating with machines. Human beings thriving in living communities will resist absorption in synthetic ones.
It is in the dying community, the desolate place — the stagnant suburb and forgotten outer borough, the Appalachian hill town and Rust Belt deathtrap — that today’s power elite sees its opportunity. The dreary presents that leave our fingers itching for the smartphone are for the new establishment full of promise. For it is in such places and such moments that we are most receptive to their siren song. Escape your own rancid here-and-now by leaping into a photoshopped fantasy of your neighbor’s. Hitch your wagon to somebody else’s star.
For today’s Kojèvist elites, traditional community represents the competition, if not for our souls, for the biochemical reward centers in our brains. A deep attachment to the old poetries of place — the kind, say, that made Dante feel his banishment from Florence to be a foreshadowing of hell — is for them an obstacle to progress.
An obstacle, however, that technology that can overcome, by means of techniques Kojève understood all too well. Long before Facebook invented the “like” button, he saw that our human craving to be liked — to be recognized, affirmed, in some small way famous — could be manipulated to advance the ends of what he saw as progress.
In the bad old days people had to work to obtain this sort of recognition; they had to live laborious days, and develop qualities in themselves worthy of being recognized. Then, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the first rights states emerged. They secured equality and abolished caste privilege, and at the same time made what Kojève calls recognition virtually automatic. True, the recognition they afforded was legal and bureaucratic, and perhaps rather superficial as well — but it was nevertheless recognition.
Everyone got a prize.
The nobs who gather in the Tonic Bar in Davos each January are now carrying this largely benign revolution into more doubtful territory. We now post some artifact of our being on our screens and are almost immediately gratified by the recognition we receive in the form of the reciprocal “likes” and “♥s” and “☺s,” those Pavlovian bells of the cyber age.
That the validation is trivial, the recognition shallow and unearned — akin to that experienced by laboratory rats who have been offered a neural shortcut to the brain’s pleasure stores, the precious dopamine and serotonin reserves — has not escaped the notice of the moguls. But in Kojève they find a justification for the zeal with which they wield their social-media cattle prods. With each passing day Facebook and Instagram nudge us a little closer toward a world of virtual pseudo-communities. The result is the crisis now upon us, with its cancerous isolation and disconnection and dehumanizing Frankenstein technology that takes us out of the spaces in which we actually find ourselves and leaves phone-possessed zombies in our place.
The role for conservatives today is to resist this revolution through efforts, however quixotic, to revive a localist infrastructure of community. The modern Right today tends to be suspicious of the idea of community, with good reason. The word has provided cover for a host of bad ideas, from Jacobinism to Bolshevism. But traditional conservatives have always recognized a healthy common life as an essential element of human flourishing.
Yet at present only a few inspired renegades such as Léon Krier and Rod Dreher seek to revive this sort of community. And their work does not go far enough. Krier is more successful in emulating the masonry of the old communities than in reproducing their deeper culture, the agora life Plato brought to life in the Laws, that profound and too-little-read manual on how to create places in which both commerce and community prosper. And while one can hardly be too grateful to Dreher for his revitalization of the notion of religious community, he derives more inspiration from the monastery than from the market square.
But to elites in the grip of ever ranker eschatologies, the traditional arts of common life can only seem so much archaic rubbish. Overinvested, as Oedipus was, in a technical, puzzle-solving acumen, Silicon Valley is blind to the tragedy its technologies are now preparing.