To accept that the democratic market system is here to stay, that there is no more stable system available to human social organization than one that allows for the free exchange of goods and services on the one hand and compensatory resentments on the other, is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. The very openness of the market system that incarnates its highest value for us minimizes the predictability of future outcomes. Whence the misunderstanding that surrounds the term “end of history” that has been applied to the vision expressed in the opening sentence.
What Daniel Bell saw in his 1976 volume as The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism had been decried by the hyperrevolutionary Herbert Marcuse in 1964 as a sinister effacement of all contradictions through “repressive tolerance.” But consumer society is neither being torn asunder nor congealed into dead unanimity. Even hyped-up versions of the classical bread and circuses do not lead the consuming classes to become incapable either of working or of complaining. No doubt there is a “contradiction” between the sobriety required of the market producer and the inebriation he deliberately induces in his potential consumer. But the consumers are also the producers; they produce in order to consume, restrain themselves on weekdays in order to revel in weekend leisure–far more soberly than the nineteenth-century worker who could only drink to forget his misery. The fact that the average person lives the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” in his own life means both that the contradictions are not allowed to get out of hand and that the real tension between them is not forgotten.
These alarmist analyses fail to take into account the not merely quantitative but qualitative dynamism of the market system, the products of which cannot simply be extrapolated from present developments. They are analogous in their myopia to the early critiques of industrial society as producing at the expense of the workers ever-greater quantities of goods to fulfill human “needs.” In the long term, whatever the sentiments of the propertied classes, the market system cannot operate without generating desires for new products among the workers themselves and providing them with the means to possess them: the so-called consumer society. But in our age, the market system appears to be reaching a new threshold, where it is becoming able not merely to create new products to enhance our lives but to modify our genetic constitution and that of our potential children, to generate complete virtual realities on command–in short, to create and modify information on the same level of complexity as our genetic machinery and our brains. These new capacities not only pose ethical dilemmas of the sort that “ethicists” busy themselves with; they revive fears of social collapse.
The ages of market society are defined by new technologies but the human significance of technique is in its interaction with human desire. However reactionary and irrelevant the technophobia of a philosopher such as Heidegger seems today, our anxiety before the latest scientific advances demonstrates that every new technique for manipulating the natural world holds a potential danger for the human social order. As the market operates to satisfy our desires and to generate new ones, we unendingly play the role of the Sorcerer’s apprentice who risks getting more of his desire than he can cope with.
The first and most common disorder of modern consumption, which decades of exercise programs have not been able to contain, is obesity; because we tend to want more food than we need, the market produces it and we eat it. Overweight is rarely cited as one of our most serious preoccupations, but it offers a simple model of the paradox implicit in the technologically driven satisfaction of desire. But cloning and genetic manipulation pose problems far more challenging than overeating. They begin to impinge upon the limit of mortality that has always framed human desire. Our consciousness of mortality is not in the first place a solitary “being-toward-death” but is turned toward the potential of human violence. As is well known, in primitive societies, death is virtually always understood as a consequence of human or anthropomorphic intentions–a striking demonstration of the fundamental premise of Generative Anthropology. Even in more advanced societies, the equipotence of human violence and “natural causes” remains an essential determinant of our relationship with the natural world. Human violence can kill us, but we know we are fated to die in any case. But what if we remained able to kill each other yet, absent this or other accidents, could live forever? The possibility is no longer inconceivable. Life expectancies have gradually increased over the past decades, and older people (among whom I have begun to include myself) increasingly practice activities previously confined to the young. If even these gradual increases in longevity have become a source of worry for the younger generation, what would be the consequence of, say, doubling our life expectancy within a century?
I have always been skeptical of futurists, having lived long enough to witness many examples of the unpredictability of technological progress: copy machines, ball-point pens, microcomputers. (I still remember an Isaac Asimov sci-fi tale from the 50s that portrays “future” computers as having grown so large that they occupy entire asteroids.) But whatever the effects of this or that innovation, that we are becoming able to modify the information-transferring functions that during the early phases of industrialization still remained the exclusive province of biology is an epoch-making development. Barring a catastrophic return to more primitive conditions, we will continue inexorably to generate techniques that will increasingly permit us to transcend our biological limitations.
These limitations have already long been exceeded in the negative direction by the invention of weapons of destruction powerful enough to destroy all human life. Our success for over fifty years in preventing use of these weapons has been remarkable, and although we should not blithely assume that this success will continue indefinitely, at least we understand what has to be done. In contrast, the constructive possibilities are not only harder to control, their very nature is unpredictable. As yet we have conceived no non-catastrophic mechanism for stemming or even stabilizing the continual generation of new and increasingly powerful capacities for human self-transformation. The social order doesn’t control our weight and, even at its worst, euthanasia à la hollandaise provides but a mild brake on longevity. Yet we can hardly tolerate this laxness in the case of self-cloning or virtual immortality. As the market becomes increasingly able to satisfy our “impossible” desires, stricter forms of regulation and rationing would seem inevitable.
A modern improvement on the traditional paradigm of decline from a golden age, the sociological model of social decadence most significantly associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau opposes a “natural” social order characterized by a minimum of social intercourse to one corrupted by the increased circulation of desire. Rousseau understood (quite correctly, I think) the causes of this circulation to be les sciences et les arts of civilized life rather than technology as such, but the interactive basis of the model is the same. Today we tend to smile at the pseudo-Rousseauian figure of the “noble savage,” but our reaction to, say, cloning obeys the same structure as Rousseau’s critique of civilization: to put it in GA terminology, a point exists beyond which the satisfaction of human desire interferes with the deferral of violence that culture operates to maintain.
The biological and anthropological knowledge we have gained since Rousseau’s time has added surprisingly little grounding to our sense of the “natural.” In the case of overeating, we have learned to blame our “paleolithic” physical constitution: our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have supermarkets. But when similar biologically based explanations are given for modern anomie, urban violence, the decline of the family, and what have you, this is just Rousseau spiffed up with some Darwinian vocabulary. Sociobiology offers interesting analogies, but analogies between human and animal societies not only lack ethical force, they have little value as a source of practical suggestions.
Whatever the future shape of the ethics of cloning and genetic modification, I see no reason to lose our faith in the resiliency of the democratic market system. It is no accident that only in democratic nations has there evolved sufficient coordination between science and industry to create these highly complex technologies. The very pessimistic horror aroused in democracies by the extreme possibilities of genetic technology is a strong indication that any applications of such technology will fall subject to the self-protection mechanisms that limit the access to the market of goods and services that might undermine the functioning of the system as a whole.
But the very need for “self-protection” in this context constitutes a historic change. What would it mean for us to possess a technology that could render us virtually immortal yet whose very power made it as unusable as the hydrogen bomb? The analogy is more significant than appears at first glance. The perception that in Hiroshima and Auschwitz human violence attained a maximum from which it had to retreat if the human race were not to destroy itself defines what we call the postmodern era. For the first time, humanity possesses weapons it cannot use and increasingly refuses to enforce hierarchical differences among human groups. Decolonization, the civil rights movement, feminism, gay liberation, the rights of the disabled are all products of this ethically motivated renunciation of the technologically possible.
We cannot do more than speculate about the new era that would be defined by the necessity of restraining constructive rather than destructive technology. Surely it would be pervaded by a sense of the limitations of our manipulation of nature, including “human nature,” as means of solving the problems inherent in the human condition. This suggests that this condition itself might come to be understood in more generative terms. The necessity of renouncing our ability to “play God” would reinforce not simply religious faith but a deeper understanding of the anthropological function of this faith than that common today among either believers or nonbelievers. In last week’s Chronicle, I reaffirmed my conviction that, despite the popular view of postmodern thought as nihilist ideology, authentic postmodern thinking is originary thinking. But perhaps only in the still unnamed age defined, not by the Holocaust and the Bomb, but by mastery of information-processing and the genetic code, will the need to view the human in the light of the “little bang” of our origin prove inescapable.