From the French Revolution onward we’ve entertained dreams of a single, profound, and decisive moment that will transform society, or even human nature itself. Marxism provides an obvious example, as does Hitler’s National Socialism and its promise of a New Man. But there are others as well. The twentieth century was full of secular prophets who preached revolutions of the soul: Wilhelm Reich, Timothy Leary, D. H. Lawrence.
Today’s dreams of transformation are different. Political revolutions no longer seem alluring. (The exception has been advocates of interventionist foreign policy, who dreamed of a revolution of freedom in the Middle East, sparked by our invasion of Iraq.) Our therapeutic ambitions have become more modest. For the most part we try to manage our souls rather than liberate them. The apocalypse we anticipate now tends to be technological. The Internet, artificial intelligence, medical advances—many are the prophets who announce the imminent arrival of a New World and New Man.
Take education as an example. Over the last decade it’s become common to hear that online education will bring dramatic changes. One company that provides access to MOOCs (massive open online courses) explains its mission in grandiose terms. “We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” This future does not stem from social or political changes. Instead, the revolution is technical: “Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds.” We’re at a crucial juncture, a great turning point. Now, “anyone around the world can learn without limits.” The revolution is coming—anyone and without limits—brought to you by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
As David Rieff observes in “The Singularity of Fools,” a recent article in Foreign Policy, it’s easy to mock the technological optimists (and he doesn’t let the opportunity pass him by). But something of the same utopian spirit is at work more broadly, for technology isn’t limited to bytes. We’ve also developed sophisticated techniques to manage economic affairs and administer public policy.
Rieff points to economist Jeffrey Sachs. The title of his 2005 book says it all: The End of Poverty. In the past we suffered limitations. Food was scarce and commerce restricted. Moreover, in our backward state we suffered from political, social, and cultural ignorance that created unnecessary conflicts and unjustified inequities. But now we have reason! As Sachs writes, “Technological progress has been fueled by the ongoing revolutions of basic science and spread by the power of global markets and public investments in health, education, and infrastructure.” Thus, “we can realistically envision a world without extreme poverty by the year 2025.”
The word “technology” comes from the Greek word techne, which refers to the kind of knowledge and skill that allows us to complete tasks effectively and efficiently. A tailor possesses the techne of tailoring, the potter the techne of pottery. Plato and Aristotle juxtaposed this sort of knowledge to episteme, knowledge of first principles. One way to put the difference is to say that techne or technique involves a “knowing how,” while episteme allows us to know why.
By Aristotle’s way of thinking, household administration requires techne. In his world, the household was the key mode of economic organization. It needed to be run effectively and efficiently, which of course meant by men and women expert in the various techniques of production and management. However, this administration did not require episteme. That was something only the head of the household, the paterfamilias, needed. For he alone decided on the goals and purposes of the household; everybody else executed his commands.
That’s what makes Aristotle’s polis (city) different from the oikos (household). The goals and purposes of a community of free men are open questions. What counts as a crime? What makes for a just punishment? What virtues do we want to encourage? What vices to suppress? These and other basic questions are to be debated and deliberated about. If this is to be done well, then citizens need episteme, knowledge of first principles. Technical know-how won’t settle the question of whether religious piety is to be encouraged or discouraged. That’s a political question in Aristotle’s full sense of the term, and he thought it is our special dignity as human beings that we have the capacity to answer it, however fallibly, by using our reason.
The modern era dreams of an end of politics. In its classic form this involves an apocalyptic act of revolutionary will. The French Revolution was colored by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of perfect democracy, the fusion of the free individual with the general will. In the mystical union of democratic solidarity we are fused into a single, all-powerful paterfamilias. Factions, parties, and divisions? They fall away. All that is left is administration. The same of course characterizes Marx’s account of the end of history: the dictatorship of the proletariat.
A great deal of our present-day intellectual leadership dreams the same dream, though now achieved by technique rather than revolutionary action. The techno-utopians represent the most obvious case. For them there are no political problems, only technical ones. Political conflict over the allocation of wealth? The great new wealth created by the technological revolution will create a “post-scarcity” world. There won’t even be existential problems. Sickness, suffering, and even death will be conquered by scientific techniques, or so futurists promise.
Jeffrey Sachs isn’t Ray Kurzweil (author of The Age of Spiritual Machines and prophet of a technological immortality). But Sachs traffics in the same dream. His program rests on three pillars: technological progress, global markets, and public investments. Each is a domain of technique. The scientist engineers better crops, investors and entrepreneurs refine their business models, and non-partisan experts advise governments on how best to invest in infrastructure, education, and public health. The world is a vast household to be administered by experts. Politics—a debate about whether poverty is the greatest evil or about whether the social changes necessary to alleviate it should be endorsed—has no role to play.
Administration rather than politics: this is, I think, a widespread contemporary ambition, and not just among liberals. Free-market libertarians embrace it as well. They differ from today’s regulation-loving liberals only in their supreme confidence that the marketplace can invisibly administer our freedom. The upshot is the suppression of political debate about the common good, which is why thorough-going libertarians are such a destructive force in our political culture, perhaps as much so as contemporary liberals whose main vice is the serene smugness that assumes that all we have left is administration because everybody worth talking to already agrees with them about first principles.
No doubt there are many reasons why our age prefers administration over politics. One is the perennial human desire to be delivered from the responsibilities and uncertainties of what Aristotle thought was the source of our dignity as men and citizens: our capacity for freedom and reason. But it’s a seductive desire. For as Aristotle reminds us, in a world of administration without politics, our only civic role is to execute orders, which is another way of saying, only to obey.
R.R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.