Here’s another installment in my “What Was History (with a Capital H)?”

The End of History in the strong or revolutionary sense was discredited by the Marxist tyrannies that turned people into history fodder and nothing more. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t surrounded by all sorts of remnants of Historical thinking. All those philosophers who put their faith in History thought the alternatives were History or nothing. And lots of thinkers today believe that we live in a world full of miserable, worthless, lonely, alienated people totally dominated by modern technology. They believe that modern theory—the theory of conscious constructionism or abstract individualism—has totally transformed human lives in a most unnatural direction. Every moment of human life has been given over to the laborious processes of calculation, contract, and consent at the expense of the natural compensations that have made life worth living. Life, as a result, has become contemptibly ignoble or morally empty, ruthlessly exploitive, and a spiral of endlessly deferred gratification.

These thinkers, on both the left and the right, accept Marx’s description of “capitalism” as our present situation without endorsing Marx’s revolutionary hopes. “Left conservatives” or “Red Tories,” for example, accept Marx’s analysis while aiming at something like Burke’s more traditionalist or organic vision—a return to less calculating, more chivalrous, less laborious, less urban and more pastoral, more loving and familial, more pious ways of life.

By dismissing Marx’s ultimate faith in the goodness of Historical progress—and by holding open the possibility of a return to a life both more human and more natural, left conservatives might seem to have freed themselves of the illusions of History. Still, they often still accept what Marx says as more empirical than even he meant it to be. Marx surely exaggerated the effects of History or modern technology or capitalism to transform the character of human life. After all, he was trying to get people to so hate their condition that they would fling themselves into revolution. He wanted to convince people that their lives had been reduced to nothing but that they had the power to give themselves everything.

Marx made life under capitalism seem much worse than it actually is, and he didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the good side of modern prosperity and freedom. Even the word “capitalism” is a big-time exaggeration. It means that every feature of life is determined by the prevailing mode of the division of labor—or that technology and the market deTermines everything about who we are. We see that Marxist thinking in those who really believe that we live “after virtue.” For those who believe we’re not fundamentally Historical beings, we’re always living “during virtue.” I’m not saying there’s not a lot of truth in what Marx and left conservatives say about the toll modern life and modern theory take on our moral self-understanding and our happiness, but even today American practice—ordinary American lives—are much better than our transformative theories would suggest. Virtues like gratitude and charity persist, and God hasn’t been replaced by Progress or Nothing in our country.

The philosopher Heidegger—who is usually contrasted with Marx—actually said that Marx described best how rootless and displaced people are these days. And he was so convinced of the danger the technological worldview posed to our future—the worldview that dominated equally both the United States and the Soviet Union—that for a while he thought it was Hitler or nothing. Then he thought we’re stuck with nothing until we’re mysteriously rescued by some new God.

Some students of Heidegger actually corrected Marx on what THE END OF HISTORY would have to mean—making it plausible again. Marx, they observe, thought people would remain human at the end of history—self-conscious, mortal, free choosers. But according to the deeper thinkers about who an Historical being is, the primary cause of human alienation is living in time and being moved by death. Unconscious natural man was content because he’s too stupid or unenlightened, Rousseau explained, to be moved by time and death.

At Marx’s end of history, people will still die, and they’ll know it. So it makes sense to say that they’ll remain alienated or anxious and restless in the midst of prosperity. They won’t be satisfied filling their time with hobbies, and their behavior will often be perverse and obsessive. They’ll join fight clubs, commit suicide, do anything they can not to look old, spend lots of time avoiding every conceivable risk factor that might switch them from being to nonbeing, work much harder than it makes economic sense, and might, in general, be in some ways more screwed up than people have ever been. Those people, it seems to me, would really need government and really need religion to get by. Marx’s communism would really be hell for a self-conscious mortal, because every human activity that might be some compensation for his or her mortality has been deprived of its weight. The compensations of love and work and God described by psychologists ancient and modern will be gone—obliterated by History. But Historical or distinctively human beings would remain.

The End of History, Marx’s Heideggerian critics say, would have to be the end of humanity. It would have to be the end of our freedom, our self-consciousness, our distinctively human desires. History is the accomplishment of beings with time in them, each of those time-filled beings is temporary, and it makes sense to say that History as a whole is temporary. History is the record of the cosmic accident becoming conscious of his or herself as miserable error and so self-destructing. Nature cheers when the techno-accident who we are disappears.

So the idea of the End of History is present in some sense in every perception that people are right to be surrendering what distinguishes themselves as human beings these days. It’s certainly present in our various forms of pantheism and Western Buddhism and deep ecology. The deep thought of deep ecology is that the environment will be better off without the being with real depth.

End of History thinking is also present in those who take Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD as a serious warning about our future. There government makes a real big effort to reduce human desire to an infantile or wholly self-absorbed and readily satisfied level. With that kind of benevolent rational control, people for the first time experience themselves as unalienated or happy. They’re conditioned not to regard death as any big deal, and they’re kept in fine physical and mental condition until the moment of death. They spend lots of time playing stuff like electro-magnetic golf, and they can’t imagine that time is for anything else. They’re genetically engineered to be fit for doing the work that must be done, and so nobody feels alienated by being reduced to a cog in a machine or anything like that.

Because the ruling class has to retain some freedom and self-consciousness to make tough judgments and be ready for emergencies, its members’ happiness may not be perfect. But they have ready access to a mood altering drug without any undesirable side effects that can give them a vacation from any unpleasant facts at a moment’s notice. It is a perfectly reliable source of bliss without the need for virtue or love.

Biotechnology, the general BRAVE NEW WORLD fear is, will bring history to an end by making happiness so easy that it won’t be human. It makes the unobsessive, unalienated life available to us all, and so nobody will have any desire to make any more History.

There are writers, such as Allan Bloom in THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, who have actually claimed that the End of History is already here for sophisticated young Americans, and without our any biotechnological help. They live, he claims, as nice or unobsessed emotional solitaries, unmoved by love and death, but only by music that imitates the mechanical rutting of animals. They’re completely lacking in distinctively human EROS; their souls are flat. They’re in the final stages of the heart disease called individualism Tocqueville describes. They’re satisfied enough with their present existence that they have no ambition to make history; they can’t even imagine a social or political world better than the one they inhabit. They live the wholly natural life, free from specifically human discontent. The life the “left conservatives” believe is unnatural and hugely alienating Bloom says is just a return to our natural state as described by Rousseau.

Bloom’s premise is that history—understood as the theoretical transformation of human life—has empted human life of its human content. Human beings have become nothing. So the only thing left to do for those who, for some reason, haven’t had their souls flattened is to become philosophers. It’s no longer possible to be a Historical being, but it’s still possible to think about the insignificance of human existence in the light of eternity. At the end of history, we can return to nature or eternity as either soulless animals or contemplative thinkers. It’s our historical wisdom, either way, that makes possible our return to nature. Bloom tells us that today it’s philosophy or nothing, just as the Marxists told us it’s revolution or nothing. Bloom and Marx—not to mention Heidegger—all display Historical thinking by agreeing on the NOTHING part.

Bloom criticizes American life today for being so unerotic that it’s hard to know where the philosophers of the future will come from. But any reader of BRAVE NEW WORLD knows he shouldn’t worry so much. Any real society needs people who are more than clever, competent technical specialists to run it. And so it’s inevitable that a few philosophic types will emerge accidentally as a byproduct of what’s required for the education of leaders. A wise, benevolent leader-in-chief will identify with their specifically human pain, and he’ll know it’s pointless cruelty to kill them. They can be sent off to islands—like Iceland or the Falkland Islands—where they can live in harmless critical discontent together. And unlike those on the Isle of the Blessed in Plato’s REPUBLIC, they won’t have to drudge back periodically to go through the unpleasantness of actually wielding power.

The big thing wrong with both Bloom and THE BRAVE NEW WORLD is that neither really describes a return to nature as the outcome of history or technology. Both describe a kind of isolated individualism that is a human construction that would require constant technological maintenance against the real impulses of nature—a world so unnatural or unerotic that people would even be repulsed by the idea of natural reproduction. Both describe, in my view, a more extreme negation of our nature than is sustainable for real people.

A real return to nature for human beings would be a return to the gregarious life of the dolphin or the chimp. People would stop living for and generally being obsessed with themselves as individuals and start living as social animals for the species, finding their happiness primarily in the pleasures and duties of families and friendship. From this view, the people who best describe what the End of History would have to be like are certain sociobiologists or DARWINIAN CONSERVATIVES.


Articles by Peter Lawler


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