Democracy has meant so many things over the past 2,500 years that it is really impossible to make any comprehensive statement about it that applies to all of its usages. The historical record shows that what people called democratic government and democratic society existed for millennia before the birth of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th (some say 17th) century. That does not alter the fact that modern democracy and industrialism are inextricably interrelated and mutually dependent: the twin pillars of the Western world in the modern age. It has been plain for a couple of decades now that the West is confronting still another in a series of crises that have occurred over the past hundred years, each one of which has put its ultimate survival in doubt. The present crisis has political, economic, social, and religious elements, all of them related to the inadequacy of the two institutions on which our present world stands: mass democracy and industrialism.
It was Karl Marx who popularized the term contradictions, as in “the contradictions of capitalism.” Two results followed from this. The first is that contradiction became a suspect, if not discredited, concept on the political center and on the right, which correctly perceived it as an example of vulgar pseudo-intellectualism, as well as a false historical insight. Yet it is a perfectly valid and indeed undeniable one, if for contradiction one substitutes the term entropy. Every system—inorganic, biological, social, economic—runs down in time, collapses, dies, and is replaced by something else. Political philosophers have debated from the beginning of recorded history which political and economic systems “work” and which do not. The sole verifiable answer is that no setup works long-term, though many do in the short run. It is also true that some systems are intrinsically better than others, being grounded in metaphysical reality and in human nature. As Tocqueville observed, democratic government answers in many ways to human nature and the human condition—but so, in other ways, does aristocratic government. One pays one’s money and one takes one’s choice, but one cannot enjoy the advantages of both choices together. There have been periods in history when imperial, monarchical, constitutional-monarchical (or mixed), republican, and democratic governments have operated successfully and with benefit to society at large. All, in time, have weakened and yielded to one or another of the several, but not greatly numerous, political systems devised by human ingenuity. It is no good saying which—democracy, republicanism, monarchy, or tyranny—is the “best” form of government, or which, for that matter, is the worst. There is a time for everything, as Ecclesiastes says, though that time may not last very long. Hence one can plausibly argue that democracy, for a couple of centuries now, has proved the best of all imaginable systems for the organization of human society in the modern world. The problem is that that world is, as I have said, supported by twin columns, the second being industrialism: a system of organized mechanical production on a large scale, which does not answer in any way to nature, human nature, or the laws of historical sustainability.
Autocracy and democracy, though opposites, are not unnatural political systems. Neither the notion that men are capable of self-government, nor, alternately, that they need to be ruled autocratically with an iron rod, does violence to a biblical understanding of human nature. By contrast, the notion of nature and the natural world as a commodity, an indefinitely available cornucopia of wealth awaiting human exploitation, violates that understanding in the same way that, according to Christ, adulterous thoughts are acts of aggression against both the object of illicit desire and the marital relationship involved.
The contemporary case against industrialism holds that it exhausts natural resources and lays waste the natural world on which it preys, and therefore is unsustainable. Historical “optimists” like the late Julian Simon argue that human ingenuity itself is infinite and thus infinitely capable of discovering new resources and exploiting them infinitely through its own infinite inventiveness. But the logical fallacy is obvious, a play on words rather than an intellectually serious argument. I read in the papers last summer about a program the federal government hopes to promote (allegedly with private funds, in these times of public economic exhaustion), the goal of which is to establish human colonies beyond the solar system in a few hundred years’ time. The casual and apparently unquestioning assumption that advanced industrial technology will still be around centuries from now seems naive, if touching. The world, Paul Theroux wrote in a recent book describing his travels through Africa and its overpopulated, poorly managed, devastated, and exhausted lands, is not aging well. And the original cause of this advancing decrepitude is the far-reaching global industrialism that is responsible for, among many other things, a huge population increase made possible by the availability of Western medicines and medical technique throughout the Third World. While global warming in the short term does seem to be occurring, no one has yet proved that industrial activity is in fact responsible for this, largely or in part. Yet it seems highly unlikely that the unimaginable, if more or less quantifiable, volume of emissions vented into the atmosphere, the oceans and fresh-water systems, and spewed across the land over the past 200 years could have had no deleterious effect on the natural environment. Environmentalists’ vision of a world incapable of supporting human civilization, and the present profuse (though dwindling) variety of biological species, is not necessarily a misanthropic dream.
The industrial system has brought enormous benefits to the human race in terms of comfort, convenience, health, longevity, and intellect, by encouraging inventiveness and enterprise and by broadening the average man’s geographical and cultural horizons. None of us—including the most rabid environmentalists, deep ecologists, and Gaians—can honestly say that he is willing to surrender these benefits, save in the most selective way possible. Yet those of us who live within the industrial system or are touched by it (which is nearly everyone on earth today) are living a lie, however innocent and unintended.
The industrial system is essentially hostile to human nature, as well as to nature itself. Industrialism, though it has enriched, relatively speaking, even the Western poor, has distorted the natural relationship between man and nature, man and man, man and family, man and society, and man and God. There is no need here to expand on this theme. Almost every Western artist and thinker worth his salt in the 19th century recognized and deplored the relentless and ubiquitous ravages of industrialism on society in whole, and so, at century’s end, did the Catholic Church. The indictment continued through the 20th century, and into the 21st.
Christian social and moral teaching over two millennia is fiercely at odds with the social conditions created by industrialism and with many of the moral results it has produced, among them contraception, abortion, and in vitro fertilization. Defenders of industrial technique of this sort argue that freedom from family ties and responsibilities, and liberation from biological and reproductive “fate,” have immeasurably increased the possibilities for human freedom and happiness. A glance round at the hundreds of millions of unhappy people, in the West and now elsewhere, who are living broken, lonely, pointless, and hopeless lives contradicts their claim. When Flannery O’Connor remarked, half a century ago, that the condemnation of contraception is the Catholic Church’s most spiritual teaching and that a world unwilling to practice sexual restraint deserved to live piled on top of itself, she was pointing to a painful and unwelcome fact. When history makes Christian precepts inconvenient or (allegedly) impossible to observe, it is history and “progress” that are out of step with human reality, not human tradition and religious doctrine, whether Christian, Muslim, or something else.
Industrialism is a Faustian project, a result of Francis Bacon’s dictum that knowledge is power. Naturally, power is what industrialism expends, produces, and acquires for itself. A power of this magnitude requires an equal power to oppose it, and the only power capable of doing so is government, which means, in a democratic age, democratic government. But democratic government was originally designed to reduce and disperse power, not to augment and centralize it. Theoretically, it is possible for localized government to regulate industrial power, yet the size and geographical reach of modern industrial corporations and of communications and transport systems, as well as the cost of regulatory activity, make it nearly impossible in practice. One leviathan requires another to confront it effectively, but the leviathan state is either the totalitarian state (the Soviet Union) or the corporate, more or less authoritarian state (China).
Modern democracy and industrialism, which once worked so well together, now work against each other. Mass industrial society, by its nature a hedonistic and selfish society, is no longer one composed of independent persons or autonomous social institutions and arrangements suited to, or capable of, democratic self-government; while the social-democratic welfare state that was created in response to industrialism is hostile to free enterprise and efficiency in industry, preferring instead the corporate statist or socialist model, neither of which is efficient in terms of profit or production in the long run. Moreover, the self-serving closeness of industry to government, and of government to industry, has discredited both in the eyes of the public, which persists in its naive belief that the Western nations remain, in spite of everything, “democracies,” or that they can succeed somehow in regaining their lost democratic identities. Western citizens demand the goods that both socialist government and industrialism deliver, yet they are jealous and resentful of the interlocking, reinforcing powers of industry and government. Finally, the environmentalist left has succeeded in compromising industrialism’s reputation in the view of Western publics as the bearer of prosperity and progress and the means by which humanity can transcend itself, as more and more people associate it with climate change and environmental degradation, whether or not they are ultimately willing to sacrifice its benefits.
Mass disillusionment is always a potent cause for generalized anger, unrest, and disruption, especially when the grounds for disillusionment are real.