Most Americans think of the terms modern and modernity as denoting something positive.  A modern society is advanced in science, reason, hygiene, and human goodness.  To condemn modernity is to be against progress and all of its material benefits.  Even American conservatives are essentially modern in outlook, identifying modernity with material improvement.  European conservatives are different.  To many, modernity is a more complex phenomenon that is both material and spiritual in nature.  French legal scholar and political thinker Philippe Beneton is one of these; he represents a long line of conservative writers who have looked beyond the material benefits of modernity to reveal its disturbing spiritual essence.

Beneton’s thesis is not new.  His contribution is nonetheless important for a number of reasons.  First, Beneton accurately describes the contemporary condition in the West.  Forthright about his religious conservatism, he nevertheless writes without polemical or critical bias but, in the tradition of Tocqueville, paints life as he sees it.  Second, he presents the modern world in a clear and concise way that can be readily understood by the layman.  (Credit here is also due to Prof. Ralph C. Hancock of Brigham Young University for translating the manuscript and introducing Beneton’s ideas to an American audience.)  The book is particularly suited to the reader who finds himself baffled by how rapidly the old order has vanished, while failing to understand precisely why or how it happened.

For Beneton, late modernity betrays true human freedom, which rests on the biblical view of human dignity in which all people have absolute moral value.  Historically, both Church and state upheld this vision.  However, since the 1960’s, this ancient view of human freedom has been thoroughly radicalized, leading to the proliferation of human “rights” and the subsequent disintegration of society.  As these “rights” have multiplied, they have lost their substantive meaning.  More importantly, as people have pursued individual rights, the idea of the good life, shared in common and rooted in human dignity, has given way to the atomistic world of individual autonomy.  As the author quips, “In order for [modern] man to be equally autonomous, he must have nothing but the freedom to have nothing in common.”  People are thus equal by default.  The idea of freedom is distinguished by mutual indifference.

Because reason in the modern world is focused purely on self-gratification, man is confined and cut off from the world.  Relationships with other men, nature, and God disintegrate.  Cultures are replaced by “systems” that have their own institutions, ideas, and elites to govern the newly freed lumpen rabble.  The new elites are different from former ones, however, in respecting not order and authority but only power, in the interests of which they have learned to divide and conquer by reducing society to the elemental level of the individual and thereby fragmenting it.  Once the individual has been cut off from traditional religious mores and customs, he can more easily be reoriented by modern ideas and techniques.

Scientific knowledge is the ultimate source of this new social power.  Science, after revolutionizing man’s understanding of the natural world, was then misapplied to the social realm.  Here, it became perverted into a crude scientism whose attitudes of skepticism, universality, and abstraction now define modern social life.  Pervasive doubt is particularly destructive in undermining traditional cultural forms, especially religion, that are based on trust and faith.  Thus, science became the great social equalizer, eschewing the natural hierarchies and human differences that sustained order in favor of the universal scientific (mathematical) concept of equality.  Once freedom was equated with equality, equality became the overarching social goal of modern life.

Science has replaced religion as the source of identity and the basis of human existence.  Modern ideologies are defined by universal scientific concepts such as sex, race, and class.  The modern state is a model of scientific rationality and organization.  It gauges virtually every aspect of human life and makes policy decisions according to scientific analysis.  The modern university is the center of scientific research.  More importantly, it is where scientific language and ideas are refined and assiduously applied to every sphere of life.  Today, the liberal arts are bastions of scientism.  It is here that positivists, Marxists, and feminists have successfully employed the scientific method to deconstruct traditional forms of knowledge and replace them with radical ideas.

However, it is in the world of commerce that the spread of scientific rationality has been most thoroughgoing and successful.  Like the state, the modern business corporation is an agent of revolution.  It has changed the nature of work, and it is the most effective producer and distributor of technology, which is the embodiment of scientific rationality.  Technology purportedly helps save time, labor, and money.  It also helps reinforce human autonomy and freedom.  And people desire technology because it enhances their power.  But it offers a Faustian bargain that few technophiles understand.  Technology has allowed humans to achieve autonomy by severing their traditional bonds and obligations.  As the old ties vanish, however, new forms of dependency and conformity are created.  Beneton drives home the great irony that radically free modern man is utterly dependent on massive and soulless institutions, like the corporation and the state, for his very freedom and survival.

The author identifies the McDonald’s Corporation as the great icon of economic rationality, the first global corporation.  It not only integrated production and consumption into a single process but created a standardized setting to serve that product.  By multiplying this formula, it revolutionized food production and consumption and helped create the food “industry.”  McDonald’s transformed eating from a natural and spiritual event to a purely economic function.

For Beneton, the McDonald’s phenomenon represents the hubris of scientific rationality as well as its absurdity.  Clearly, there are limits to the application of scientific thought and method.  Beneton reminds us that scientific rationality is purely material and functional in its nature.  It knows no direction or purpose.  It has no boundaries.  In contrast, the older forms of reason embodied by religion sought to establish limits to human behavior.  Most importantly, they gave purpose to life by reflecting purpose.  Beneton does not present a program for change per se, but, by contrasting the “dead” knowledge of scientific rationality with the “living” knowledge of religion, he points us in the right direction.

Conservatives must begin to understand that the modern crisis is intellectual and metaphysical in nature, the victory of scientific rationality in every sphere of life.  Modern liberalism is but an ideological manifestation of this deeper ontological shift.  Thus, any serious conservative movement must be go beyond politics to be successful.  While political action is crucial (especially as a defensive measure), it is insufficient: The real struggle is existential and must begin with the individual and his immediate household and community, where the influences of scientism can best be identified and controlled.  At the personal level, conservatives could begin by shifting allegiances away from career, consumption, and technology—the seductions on which the modern world feeds—and rediscover the obligations that once sustained community and culture.  Resistance is not futile.  The real question is: How many conservatives are willing to trade the comfortable life for the good life?


[Equality By Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement, by Philippe Beneton (Wilmington: ISI Books) 217 pp., $15.00]