Arendt Center members might recall Matthew Crawford, author of Shopclass as Soulcraft, from his talk at our 2013 Conference Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis. Crawford is a philosopher and has also been a motorcycle repairman in addition to a bestselling author. N.S. Lyons recently interviewed Crawford and asked him about “self-governance,” the lost art of being able to lead our lives freely. Very much in the spirit of Max Horkeimer and Theodore Adorno, Crawford is concerned with the ways modern society promises us freedom and enlightenment but inserts us within social, economic, and political systems that make personal as well as political autonomy impossible. Lyons asks Crawford to explain what he means by the loss of self-government. He answers:
I suppose that’s a good term for naming one of the main threads that runs through my work. There are uncanny new forms of tyranny that have developed in the last 30 years, but which have deeper roots in the history of the West. I sometimes wonder how difficult it may be for a young person to imagine how un-administered life was just a short time ago. And how easy. For example, material culture was not alienating and frustrating: stuff just worked. One reason, I am sure, is that there weren’t mysteries embedded in your things, a hidden social logic connecting your every action to the hive of surveillance and social management. Your refrigerator wasn’t smart. It didn’t give you a nudge for healthy habits, it just kept food cold. Your telephone didn’t want to integrate you with the hive, it just transmitted the voices of two people (and did so with great clarity). Things had straightforward functions that could be fulfilled relatively cheaply; they were tools that elicited action, rather than portals to hidden bureaucracies that foster passivity and dependence while soothingly repeating “your call is important to us.”
If you wanted some good or service, you could use this stuff called cash that you would simply hand over in exchange, without having to register yourself with a voracious machine logic, entirely extraneous to the exchange you are looking to complete, that reserves to itself the right address to you at any time, forever after, lest you miss out on some exciting opportunity.
Also, there wasn’t a pervasive moralism badgering you with abstractions (sustainability, social responsibility, whatever) while you are standing in the supermarket aisle, trying to decide which laundry soap to buy. It was just soap, you know?
If you wanted to buy your girlfriend some lingerie, or you were a woman looking to buy lingerie for yourself, you weren’t confronted with giant images of obese people (of uncertain sex) in lingerie, as though the lingerie itself is serving merely as bait for the healthy male and the healthy female, to bring them in for some aversion therapy. The lingerie chain wasn’t serving a larger social mission – inclusivity, etc. It wasn’t integrated into a sprawling ministry of culture. Public space wasn’t saturated with anti-stereotypical images that seem crafted to counteract your own social perception.
Schools and therapists didn't encourage troubled children to seek affirmation by bringing themselves into greater alignment with the great leap forward, then refer them to doctors for sterilization.
There is now an ambient political conditioning that is so pervasive, it is hard to bring into focus as an object of scrutiny. It’s just the water we swim in. It often feels like the point of it is to “trouble” us, like modern art. That is, to unsettle us and undermine the sense of ease that comes naturally when the most basic things are settled. When the world is stable in that way, people feel a kind of confidence in reality, and in themselves. They feel at home. They can make things happen, because the world is basically intelligible and open to action. That can lead to pride of ownership. Such ownership is connected to the self-governance that you referred to.
In short, a mere thirty years ago it didn't feel like a society bent on controlling thought and altering the way we feel about things, whereas now it really does have this totalitarian quality. Sure, it was decadent and trivial and probably debasing in various ways, but it was also fun and sexy. For example, you could be gay without being expected to stand on a float in a parade and serve as the mascot for a flag-waving program pushed by the Fortune 500.