Shiny Objects

We are not entitled to say that the classical view has been refuted.
Their implicit prophecy that the emancipation of technology, of the arts,
from moral and political control would lead to disaster or
to the dehumanization of man has not been refuted.
Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?


In 1958 Hannah Arendt wrote an odd book, The Human Condition. Penetrating but unorganized, it was perhaps intended as the nucleus of a political philosophy book she never wrote. One of Arendt’s most acute insights in the book is the distinction between labor and work which, she said, has been ignored in the face of abundant historical testimony. In every European language there are two etymologically unrelated words for two different activities we moderns wrongly believe to be the same, “the labor of our body” and “the work of our hands”:

Poneinergazesthai (Ancient Greek), laborarefacere (Latin), travaillerouvrer (French), arbeitenwerken (German), etc. There is a fundamental difference between the two activities. For example, ponein in Ancient Greek is to toil, to till the ground, to draw from the source, while ergazesthai means to work, to create, to perform, to commit, to do business, and also the opposite of inactivity or idleness.

Labor is punishment: “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat your bread until you return to the ground, from which you were taken.” Labor connotes the human toil, pain and futility required to maintain and reproduce life. Labor is despised because it is almost completely related to consumption, a constant effort that leaves no trace and has no perdurability, an effort worthy only of slaves and peasants. It is not surprising then that humanity has always wanted to eliminate labor, to replace it with machines. The classics imagined it:

“We can imagine a situation in which each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation, like the statues of Daedalus or the tripods made by Hephaestus, of which the poet relates that of their own they entered the conclave of Gods on Olympus. A shuttle would then weave of itself, and a plectrum would do its own harp-playing. In this situation managers would not need subordinates and masters would not need slaves.” (Aristotle, Politics, 1253b23)

Work, on the other hand, implies attainment, creation and permanence, as in “oeuvre” and “work of art,” and was exalted in all previous epochs as the vehicle of human achievement.

But there is a tendency in modernity with Smith, Ricardo, and especially with Marx, to reduce both activities to labor in its most basic form, only taking into account its productivity and its quantifiability. Marx even goes to the extreme of saying that man creates himself through labor, and defines man as animal laborans instead of animal rationale. Since we are far from the concept of homo faber —having forgotten the original dual meaning— we understand the modern ease in thinking about work as an ancient burden that shouldn’t exist anymore, a problem whose logical solution is abolishing it through technology, not only for reasons of cost and productivity but also for ethical reasons. It would liberate man from its historical oppression, it would be the last act required for the fulfillment of the Enlightenment promise, and it could only be a good thing. However, would it be as good as it appears? I guess that asking this question to the leader of any of our tech companies would only result in a dazed look.

To take work away from man would be like chopping off all branches from a tree, leaving only the trunk. We moderns think that leisure —otium— is the perfect human state. This is a consequence of the constriction of the political horizon by Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, a constriction that has been presented to us as a widening. We have been told that science opens all possibilities but the reality is that we don’t ask the fundamental questions any more because we believe there aren’t any fundamental questions to ask.


Closely related to this view of leisure is the dispute between the moderns and the classics about democracy. The classics saw the advantages of democracy: “since the principle of democracy is freedom, all human types can develop freely in a democracy, and hence in particular the best human type” Strauss commented, in the same work above, on Plato’s Republic: “The classics rejected democracy because they thought that the aim of human life, and hence of social life, is not freedom but virtue. Freedom as a goal is ambiguous, because it is freedom for evil as well as for good.” They also viewed human nature as something given and permanent, and that only “the few” could elevate themselves to virtue by effort, habit and the formation of character —real education— while “the many” would always be poor and uneducated. And there is a world of difference in wisdom and responsibility between the two visions, as Paul Rahe writes:

“At the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, he [Aristotle] writes, ‘People have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim.’ At the beginning of the Politics, he writes, ‘Every community gets established with some good in view (for everyone does everything for the sake of what they think good).’ This seems self-evident to me, and it puts a premium on right opinion —for we can easily err in what we think good.”

We moderns see democracy in a very different way: Since the beginnings of modernity in the late 1600s, democracy as the ideal regime was the logical consequence of a revolutionary offer we couldn’t refuse from the early modern political philosophers: freedom as the highest good, something that flows by itself from our deepest desires and does not need to be slowly hammered into the soul by habit and learning like virtue was. All those freed passions needed was to be checked by obstacles and directed by boundaries in the form of institutions, and for progress in the form of science, technology, and universal education to be applied on man’s infinitely malleable self in order to move humanity ever closer to the perfect society where everybody would be equal, virtuous, educated, and interchangeable.

But liberalism has failed miserably in both its social form on the political left and in its economic form on the political right. The growth of government control, abuse, and inefficiency, and the separation between “the few” and “the many” have reached levels never seen in previous epochs. We believe in a behavioristic democracy where technology severs the last links between man and nature and makes a world government, a perfect good-intentioned tyranny, finally possible. But it could be too late for 1984. Europe is becoming Muslim and America a multicultural pastiche, and neither one brings enough children to the world anymore. Maybe this is the curse of modernity: at the height of his power, liberal man imagines a dystopian future he may never reach.

The truth is that the idea of progress and the image of “bending the arc of history” are myths. There is no universal enlightenment; education is little more than instruction and indoctrination; we use our increasing leisure for ever more trivial, stupefying and dangerous entertainment, hedonism, and drugs; the War on Poverty didn’t work even after spending “three times the amount of money that the government has spent on all military wars in its history, from the Revolutionary War to the present.”

Technology is the key aspect of modernity. As technology has advanced, not only nature but man himself is now material to be manipulated. As Patrick J. Deneen writes:

“It ought to come as no surprise, then, that these ideas might be carried further, so that human beings, as merely part of nature, could also be regarded as natural objects for manipulation. Man, too, could become no longer just subject but object. Many of the great horrors of the last century —from economic failures of all sorts to eugenics and worse— arose from this understanding. But a new movement today, calling itself transhumanism, carries these notions to their logical conclusion: human beings are not only manipulable objects, but raw, manipulable material; man himself, his very form, might be tinkered with, enhanced, and ‘reengineered,’ like a species of crop or livestock. What becomes of the political animal when politics seeks not to meet his ends but to unravel them — not to serve him but to remake him?”

Facebook, Google, YouTube, PayPal, Google Play Store, Apple Store, and Apple iTunes are ejecting anybody they see as political opponents from their social services. And they are monopolies or oligopolies. Hosting sites like GoDaddy, Cloudfare, Mailchimp, and Eventbrite are following the same pattern. Most of them are in fact public utilities and should be regulated as such. Most of their owners are billionaires totally drunk with modernity and modern philosophy, much worse and more dangerous than the original robber barons of the late 19th century. We haven’t yet seen the worst face of capitalism and individualism.

BBC’s Secrets of Silicon Valley:

“A tiny class will own all of the capital and all of the data and everybody else will add no economic value.”

Sean Parker, ex-president of Facebook:

“The disparity of wealth in the United States will create a class of immortal overlords;” “new advances in the life sciences are allowing humans to “live much longer, more productive lives [and] because I’m a billionaire, I’m going to have access to better healthcare so … I’m going to be like 160 and I’m going to be part of this, like, a class of immortal overlords.”

The extreme cost of transforming a human being into a cyborg means that there will be few “enhanced” ones —I guess Zuckerberg, Bezos, and other oligarchs— on top of the rest of us “naturals,” literally a feudal world from which there would be no escape.

This is what the classics warned about liberating technology and the arts from moral and political control. We moderns see ourselves instrumentally, humans can also be things, objects to be manipulated and some of them even “enhanced.” The fast-made tycoons mentioned above have a narrow and shallow education, they are extremely ideological, and they have no wisdom. They see technology as the power of artificial intelligence leading to our transhuman future —something they don’t understand themselves, but keep happily playing with a thermonuclear bomb without any consent from us, outside of our control as citizens, and in complete secrecy.


John Adams Was Right

John Adams was the most conservative, prudent and skeptical founder, the prime mover of independence in the Continental Congress, and our second president. In his message of October 1798 to the Massachusetts Militia he wrote the most succinct explanation I have seen of the central problem at the origin of liberalism:

“Because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion, avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest chords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

No matter how much some try to hide it, this is liberalism’s central problem, its original sin, something that would weigh heavily on its development but that only now can be seen in its full effect. Liberalism as originally conceived replaced religion and virtue with passions and rights. Those are fragile supports on which to found a society, never mind a virtuous one. Machiavelli was wrong, the high cannot be defined by the low.

In 1689, John Locke, the philosopher of liberalism, wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration:

“I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other … The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like. It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all the people in general and to every one of his subjects in particular the just possession of these things belonging to this life.”

There you have it: liberal government is based exclusively on interests and rights. The rest of the letter deals with the need to tolerate all religions. In other words, the government should only concern itself with satisfying the desires and protecting the rights of the collection of individuals who would form the liberal republic. Machiavelli thought that Fortuna had finally been conquered but, ironically, only by chance could a society founded on such low bases avoid degeneration: that its citizens continue to be religious and virtuous persons in the private realm, and that those virtues would translate, again by chance, to the public realm.

Christianity and traditional morality were embedded as second nature in the American Colonies, but John Adams, who understood human nature, admonished us of the dangers ahead. As Patrick J. Deneen writes, even American liberalism, by far the best system modernity could create based on its low expectations, lives off its pre-modern inheritance:

“The most thoughtful liberals —perhaps above all, Tocqueville— recognized that liberalism contained an internal logic that threatened its own self-destruction. The anthropological individualism at the heart of its theory could be given institutional credence so long as those assumptions did not colonize every aspect of human life. Liberalism rested fundamentally on pre-modern and pre-liberal institutions and practices, ranging from family to community, from church to civil society. In spite of the official rejection of the pre-modern tradition, liberalism assumed and benefitted from a kind of ‘unofficial’ continuity of the pre-modern, Aristotelian-inflected inheritance. Thus, Tocqueville observed, though Americans justified their actions in terms of self-interest, they continued to act altruistically. He wrote that ‘they would rather do honor to their philosophy than to themselves’.”

And there is another irony in liberalism, as Phillip Blond notes in his superb review of the book The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future by John Milbank and Adrian Pabst:

“The triumph of liberalism today more and more brings about the ‘war of all against all.’ Liberalism brings about the very thing, a universal civil war, from which it initially promised deliverance. It also brings about what has never existed before, but what it claims was there in the beginning: an isolated individual abstracted from all social ties and duties. Thus what liberalism claims to base itself upon, and escape from, is what it both constructs and ensures.”

As I have written before, the founders couldn’t foresee the radicalization of liberalism: the transfiguration of Rousseau’s romanticism and Nietzsche’s nihilism into postmodernism, a metamorphosis that has made our time unlike any other before it, when subjectivism rules and when truth and belief are one and the same. But the seeds were there from the beginning. Now a majority of modern Americans say it’s not necessary to believe in God to be moral, and the unaffiliated proportion of the population is growing. Absorbed by this new morality, we talk about “values” without noticing that they are subjective preferences, moral choices without any objective basis. And we talk about “community” when there are very few real ones left.

Frustrated but hopeful, I end this essay with another quote from Phillip Blond’s review:

“So it is fitting that Milbank and Pabst issue an implicit call to realism and an explicit call to Christianity. A just politics requires ‘the weight of objectivity and the glimpsed seriousness of the Good.’ We cannot have this without a ‘new irruption of a communicable ethical and probably religious vision, genuinely able to move people.’ Unfortunately, the institutions that could advance this are in disarray. Christian shepherds are distracted by their own liberal dreams; their flocks are scattered.”