Brace for the hyper-enlightenment

Arguably the two most poignant dystopic fictions written in the 20th Century, books that perhaps launched thousands of young students into politics, are 1984 and Brave New World. Published around the same period – the tumultuous 30s and 40s – the two books paint radically different, almost opposite, dysfunctional societies. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley depicts a society where immense technological advances have provided for the creation of an intelligence-based social hierarchy, while ordinary people remain satisficed by ingesting a happiness-inducing drug called Soma and romantic relationships are deemed as “savage”. There is no overarching, ever-present authority, yet the people are always controlled. George Orwell’s 1984, on the other hand, believes that new technological advancements will more effective at surveillance than at appeasement. Instead of drugs, he imagines a world filled with cameras and televisions – the “Big Brother” watching us at all times.

To many, the two books are to be understood as symmetrically opposed – Orwell portrays the dangers of centralized totalitarianism and Huxley warns of the ever-growing reach of capitalistic individualism. Naturally, both works are more complex than what political preachers from each side want to present; yet, the fact that such contrasting views of the future could coexist around the same timeframe should not be disregarded. Those models of society, which at first look so drastically different, are actually but two results of one same project – one which we now call the Enlightenment.

The 18th Century Enlightenment, is an umbrella-movement that, to some historians of philosophy, encompasses thinkers as diverse as John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was predicated on two guiding values: reason and liberty. On both sides of the Channel, intellectuals were united by the common belief that mankind’s ultimate potential would be ushered in by a society that upheld freedom and incentivized reason. One by one, tradition, religion and poverty, all constraints that restricted this nearly unlimited potential, were to be tore down.

The last two hundred years saw their project turning into reality. First, we had the liberalization of the economy, which took millions out of poverty and unleashed a level of technological accomplishment unrivalled by any previous moment in our history. The successes of liberlization swept over Europe and Northern America, eventually engulfing the global south as well. At the same time, political liberalism – the conception of the “liberal-democracy” – began to take shape, eventually becoming the world’s predominant regime after the World Wars and achieving a temporary hegemony after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Finally, the enlightenment project also intended to free humanity from religion. Even if some of its forefathers, like Locke or Kant, were actually faithful men, they ultimately sought a world where religion was secondary in public life. Others, like Voltaire, were explicit in their disdain of it. Either way, the societal project they backed gradually decreased the Church’s grip on life, usually by transferring its competences to the state. In that sense, the emergence of the welfare state completed this long trend towards secularization – its natural consequence, one generation later, being the 60s’ Sexual Revolution.

In all these trends and beyond, man has been further detached from traditional sources of authority. Today, we trust no politicians, no clergymen, no Lords. At most, we trust academic experts – themselves a product of this new reason-oriented society. At same time, globalization pushes for a dismissal of old ties to home, extended family, and even friendship; it has become natural, sometimes even expected, that most people change places, careers and even relationships over their lifetimes. There is nore longer any anchoring identity. In the West, even concepts once taken for granted, like gender, are now being questioned.

The result of the enlightenment project seems to be of an atomized, liberty-centred world. Even now, we seem still unable to “pursue happiness”, as growing numbers of suicide and antidepressant-use compellingly suggest; it turns out that liberty and reason alone cannot help us to find meaning in life.

For that reason, while some on the right cheered the populist revolts of the last few years as an attack to this long-enduring trend, Portuguese writer Bruno Maçães saw a different story. To him, the last decade of political tension and polarization was not a reaction to liberalism, but its ultimate consequence – freedom. After liberating man from most societal and material obstacles, one big barrier remained: facts. No matter how free we like to think we are, we are still compelled to see the world in one specific way, to believe in one “narrative” as postmodern philosophers would call. The final battle of liberty, it turns out, is against reality.

The emergence of fake news, “alternative facts”, and societal polarization is a product of this last grand battle. On the left, it is shown by the increasing belief in “critical theories” that replace facts with ideological narratives. On the right, it turned out that feelings no longer care about facts either – in his article “The Roleplaying Coup”, Maçães sums up:

“Trump is not a figure of authority but a figure of freedom—freedom understood as the realization of every desire, no matter how extreme, in the here and now—and therefore someone representing powerful and growing forces in contemporary American society.”

The widespread belief in electoral fraud and other conspiracy theories by the former president’s most ardent supports is proof of the pervasiveness of this new form of freedom.

So, on one hand, we are heading towards a civilization that holds liberty to be its sole guiding value. On the other, we see China heading in the opposite direction. Like the West, it profited immensely, in material terms, from the advances of the enlightenment. Yet, instead of focusing on increasing liberty, China made technology its overarching goal. High-speed rails, genetics, data science, cybernetics– in nearly every area, they are making powerful advances that threaten even to undermine American leadership. At same time, these new technologies uphold the power of the CCP, serving as tools for mass surveillance and for shutting down opposers of their regime.

This dichotomy is quite clear when we consider the latest technological advances of the major competing superpowers: while China has made breakthroughs in the 5G network and artificial intelligence, the United States’ most definitive contribution to the 21st Century was the invention of social media: the essential artifact of alternative realities. It is no surprise that, according to Foreign Affairs magazine, China is set to surpass the American R&D spending by 2026 if the trend continues. In the West, technology became a facet of “consumer experience”, while in the East it is about governance and control.

Liberty and reason, instead of leading humanity to unlimited progress, have clashed with each other midway: liberty cannot be fully accomplished if we remain subject to reason; and reason sometimes demands different things than our liberty would desire. As the two longstanding allies part ways, West and East seem poised for a renewed ideological clash. Hyper-liberalism on one side, hyper-rationalism on the other – or, in their likely dystopian forms, Brave New World versus 1984.

Such a world would most likely be plagued with censorship, authoritarianism, depression, drug abuse and suicide. In the West, hyper-alienated individuals will increasingly resort to antidepressants and other chemicals in order to avoid the deep meaninglessness in which they deal with their own lives – devoid of any sense of religion, community or even familial relationship, we would be destined to live in sadness. Yet, the alternative will be to live in fear, under the auspices of a regime who’s already involved in genocide against its own population. Instead of unleashing the human potential, as the 18th Century philosophers believed it, the post-enlightenment will curb it.

Luckily, those are not the only ways forward. Conservatives spent the last century trying hard to maintain the delicate balance between freedom and reason; ultimately, they were only successful in mediating faith, tradition, virtue. Political theorist Leo Strauss understood this: to him, the reason why the enlightenment project had lasted so long was precisely that it had relied on foundational values built before its existence. According to him, we had to reject the “modern” liberalism and rationalism, and instead look to the “ancients” of Athens, to whom liberty and reason existed not as ends in themselves, but as means for virtue. Virtue forms a tripod with the two competing values, allowing society to stand in equilibrium and avoid the sight of dystopia. If we are to stop the advances of the Hyper-Enlightenment, we might need to go back to the Classics.

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