The Revolt Against Modernity

I have long been mystified by the growth and continuing success of the Tea Party. These people espouse absurd positions that are profoundly anti-rational in nature. I had considered them an aberration, an oddity of American culture that would dry up and blow away as suddenly as it appeared. Yet it appears that the Tea Party has established dominance in the Republican Party; certainly that party has moved far to the right. 

The phenomenon is not unique to America. The rise of militant Islam is driven by the same forces that drive the Tea Party; so are the various nationalist parties that are on the rise all over the developed world. It seems that, all over the developed world, people are standing up and revolting against the way things are. They are demanding a return to the old ways.

That’s the core issue at stake here: modernity. People are increasingly stressed by the ever-accelerating pace of change. Forty five years ago Alvin Toffler published a book entitled “Future Shock”, in which he observed that the acceleration in social changes would prove increasingly stressful to more and more people. While Mr. Toffler predicted dire results from this process, I don’t think he anticipated its ugly manifestation in the form of reactionary politics. 

This rejection of modernity is not confined to the right wing; some elements of left-wing politics are also reactionary. Leftists object to some of the results of modern technology, such as fracking, nuclear power and genetically modified crops. But most of the resistance to progress is coming from the right. It is on the right that we see creationism, climate change denial, anti-abortion politics, rejection of LGBT rights, and most of the other forms of reaction to human progress. It is the right that idolizes the Constitution without understanding it; the right that emphasizes the importance of old-time religion; the right that speaks wistfully of the good old days.

The central political battle of our times is over the desirability of scientific, technological, economic, and social progress. I do not think that the progressive side enjoys sole claim to a rationalist’s credence; we cannot deny the truth that our society is crashing forward too fast for us to wisely guide its development. Things are happening faster than we can understand their implications. It is inevitable that, at some point, we will be overwhelmed by the unforeseen consequences of some leap forward. Perhaps the latest, greatest smartphone will give us all cancer; more likely, our doom will be sealed by an impossible-to-foresee development whose negative consequences cannot be imagined just now. 

Climate change provides us with a useful example. The consequences of burning fossil fuels at such a prodigious rate could not easily be appreciated by non-scientists. Those consequences would doom our civilization a few hundred years down the road — but I suspect that our doom will come before that, from something else that we cannot imagine today whose penalty is equally unforeseeable, but more devastating and even faster. Climate change is like prostate cancer — given enough time, it will kill you, but most men die of other causes before that can happen. 

As I have written before, modern humans are really just Pleistocene hunter-gatherers trying to fake it as civilized people, and doing a rather bad job of it. The further away we move from our true Pleistocene selves, the worse the mismatch between our condition and our nature. Humanity has prospered by adapting to a great variety of different environments, but we are now changing our environment faster than we can adapt to those changes, genetically or culturally. The path of progress terminates at a cliff. Are those who revolt against that progress — for all the wrong reasons — really so very wrong? Are progressives who urge us forward only hastening our doom?