Although belief in automatic progress has dissipated, Innerarity hopes individuals will now take responsibility for an open future with its character dependent on a leading role for civil society. And in this present devoid of meaning, we have as much trouble accepting the legacy of the past as we do envisaging collective action that would take us beyond ourselves. We're obsessed by the here and now and incapable of making plans that would engage us and the future of society as a whole. Without a vision of what is yet to come, and without the will to endow it with meaning, we are reduced to the insignificance of our moment, that of a present ignorant of both its past and future.
Daniel Innerarity ferrets out this future and finds it where it is to be found: in the discussions that give rise to it, discussions powerful enough to anticipate the ever faster changes to our present. The future is not the result of necessity but of political action. This last only has meaning if it entails choosing a future; if it does not, it already belongs to the past.
[PDF] Slavery and the Civil War in Cultural Memory - Semantic Scholar
Political action must look ever further ahead so as not to be overtaken by the convulsions of the short term. Against those who define themselves as post-modern, Innerarity discovers a world of hope and of controlled transformations. The more we discover the future behind the accelerations of the present, the more we find the possibility of choice and the responsibility of making decisions. The Taxpayer has a k. That this economics could be so overbearingly sure of itself ought to be remarkable given recent history, but its voice is magnified in the void left by the default of other traditional centers of authority.
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In any case, whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have. Since printing became established in the West and the great usefulness of literacy began to be recognized, it has been as characteristic of cultures to withhold learning as it has to promote it.
Many cultures do both, selectively, and their discrimination has had profound effects that have persisted into the present, as they will certainly persist into the future. In most Western cultures the emergence of literacy in women lagged far behind literacy in men, and in many parts of the world women are still forbidden or discouraged from reading and writing, even though limiting them in this way radically slows economic development, among other things.
But insofar as Western civilization has made a value of freeing the mind by giving it ability and resources, it has been a wondrous phenomenon.
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Wherever its strong, skilled attention has fallen on the world, it has made some very interesting errors, without doubt, and has also revealed true splendors. In either case it has given us good reason to ponder the mind itself, the character of the human mind that is so richly inscribed on the cultural experience of all of us, in the ways and degrees that we, as individuals, are prepared to read its inscriptions.
It also fails to make an important minority of its people competent in this skill, which most of us could not imagine living without. The argument was made that peasants, women, slaves, and industrial workers would be happier knowing nothing about a world that was closed to them in any case.
For a very long time that world was closed to them, and they could be assumed to be ignorant of it. To the degree that all this has changed, social equality and mobility have followed. Many traditional barriers are lower, though they have not yet fallen. What exactly is the impetus behind the progressive change that was simultaneous with the emergence of modern society? Our era could well be said to have had its origins in a dark age. The emergence of the factory system and mass production brought a degree of exploitation for which even feudalism had no equivalent.
The severest possible cheapening of labor in early industry was supported by the same theories that drove colonialism and chattel slavery. The system yielded spectacular wealth, of course, islands of wealth that depended on extreme poverty and the profounder impoverishments of slavery.
Comparisons are made between slavery and so-called free labor that seem always to imply the second was more efficient than the first, and therefore destined, on economic grounds, to become the dominant system, which would mean a general amelioration of conditions. It is a very imprecise use of language, however, to describe as free a labor force that was largely composed of children, who, on the testimony of Benjamin Disraeli among many others, could not and did not expect to live far beyond childhood.
It is an imprecise use of language to call free the great class of laborers who, outside the parishes where they were born, had no rights even to shelter.
The fact of social progress has been treated as a demonstration that laissez-faire works for us all, that the markets are not only wise but also benign, indeed humane. This argument is based on a history that was effectively invented to serve it, and on a quasi theology of economic determinism, a monotheism that cannot entertain the possibility that social circumstances might have any other origin than economics.
We have come to a place where these assumptions are being tested against reality, if not in our universities and think tanks. Reality is that turbulent region our thoughts visit seldom and briefly, like Baedeker tourists eager to glimpse the sights that will confirm their expectations and put them on shared conversational ground with decades of fellow tourists. We leave trash on Mount Everest, we drop trash in the sea, and reality goes on with its life, reacting to our depredations as it must while ages pass, continents clash, and infernos boil over. It is true that our carelessness affects the world adversely, and it is also true that the world can fetch autochthonous surprises up out of its fiery belly.
The metaphor is meant to suggest that we are poor observers, rarely seeing more than we intend to see. Our expectations are received, and therefore static, which makes it certain that they will be like nothing in reality. Still, we bring our expectations with us, and we take them home with us again, reinforced. Historical time also has a fiery belly and a capacity for devastating eruptions. It has equivalents for drought and desert, for glaciation.
Its atmosphere can dim and sicken. Any reader of history knows this. If the changes that occur in the past are substantially the result of human activity, they nevertheless rarely reflect human intention, at least when they are viewed in retrospect. They seem always to elude human notice until they are irreversible, overwhelming. Western civilization once had a significant place among world cultures in articulating a sense of vastness and richness through its painting, poetry, music, architecture, and philosophy. Then, rather suddenly, this great, ancient project was discountenanced altogether.
The sacred was declared a meaningless category, a name for something compounded of fear, hope, and ignorance, the forgivable error of an earlier age that was configured around certain ancient tales and ceremonies. That it yielded works of extraordinary beauty and profundity was acknowledged fulsomely in modernist nostalgia, whose exponents saw themselves as the victims of the transformations they had announced, and, to a considerable degree, created. Grand-scale change was imminent and inevitable, of course.
Empires were falling, technology was rising. Whether the new age needed to bring with it this mawkish gloom is another question. I propose that the thought we call modern was by no means robust and coherent enough intellectually to discredit metaphysics or theology, though it did discredit them. It created the narrative of a breach with the European past by ignoring European history.
That is to say, humankind has always given itself occasions for grief and despair, and has seldom made better use of them than to store up grudges and provocations to prepare the next occasion.
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H uman cultural achievements may be thought of as somewhat separate from these periodic rampages. So long as warfare and other enormities are treated as paradoxical, anomalous, and aberrant, we will lack a sufficiently complex conception of humankind. History can tell us that neither side of our nature precludes the other. The badness of the worst we do does not diminish the goodness of the best we do. That our best is so often artistic rather than utilitarian, in the usual senses of both words, is a truth with which we should learn to be at peace.
Since Plato at least, the arts have been under attack on the grounds that they have no useful role in society. They are under attack at present. If today is any guide, we can anticipate further profound disruption. Whatever coherence the economy has created in the culture to this point cannot be assumed. The reverence paid to economic forces, as well as the accelerating accumulation of wealth in very few hands, increasingly amounts to little more than faceless people with no certain qualifications playing with money, and enforces the belief that our hopes must be surrendered to these forces.
At the moment, two propositions are taken to be true: that our society must be disciplined and trained to compete in a global market, and that these competitive skills have no definable character. Who might not be displaced by a computer or a robot? Who might not be displaced by a foreign worker or an adjunct? Economics from its brutal beginnings has told us that cheap labor will give its employers a competitive advantage, and that costly labor will drive industries into extinction or into foreign markets.
Slavery and the Civil War in Cultural Memory
Oddly, the monstrously costly executives who work in these industries seem never to have this effect. Nineteenth-century economics told us that labor both creates value and is the greatest expense in the production of value. When Marx wrote about these things he was using a vocabulary that is still descriptive, and therefore useful, now.
Nationalism was involved in all this, historically. The colonial system, which was entirely bound up with trade and industry, enjoyed the power and the grandeur of the old European empires. The global reach of the early industrial system made mass poverty a national asset, as it remains. This brazen law, as they called it, is still in force in many of those societies with which we are told we are competing.
T he most obvious evidence that the United States proceeded for a long time on other assumptions is our educational system, which is now seen by many people as an obstacle to recruiting ourselves to the great project of competing in the world economy.