Thursday, October 25, 2012

Modernist Liberalism

Modernists believed that all of society's serious work would be taken over by big industry and big government, which were too large and impersonal for ordinary people to influence, and which made decisions based on technical questions that ordinary people could not even understand.

The idea of positive freedom - of freedom as the right to run your own business affairs, raise your own children, and help govern your own community - was totally obsolete. Instead, the modernist left focused on two different sets of rights: On the one hand, there was the right to have the technological economy provide you with necessities, and on the other hand, there was the right to a purely negative "personal freedom," freedom from interference when you make private decisions that affect only yourself.

The first set of rights came from nineteenth-century socialism. The second came from nineteenth-century bohemianism. Around the turn of the twentieth century, radical thinkers began to fuse the two to create bohemian socialism.

Oscar Wilde's 1891 essay, "The Soul of Man under Socialism," was the first manifesto of bohemian socialism. Wilde argued that scientific and technological progress would eliminate poverty and drudgery. Because the economy would be collectively owned and managed by the state, progress would also free us from the responsibility of managing our own property. Under socialism - that is, under a fully modernized, state managed economy - people would be freed from all economic constraints and responsibilities, and they would devote themselves entirely to pleasure and to self-expression.

In America, this new political ideal was spread by the bohemian socialists who thrived in Greenwich Village before World War I, and it was revived during the 1960s, when Students for a Democratic Society and other radical groups combined the old socialist demands for more government funded health care, education, and jobs, with the new culture of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The perfect symbol of the sixties is a Mies van der Rohe office building with Jackson Pollack paintings in its lobby. The technological system produces a perfectly engineered building, and the people in it express themselves through uninhibited action. Both of these styles began early in the twentieth century, as avant garde art that was meant as a radical attack on traditional society. But by the 1960s, the most prestigious new corporate high-rises were built in these styles: The avant garde began to look less radical and more like the status quo of the technological society.

From my book Classical Liberalism.


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