Sunday, November 22, 2009

Heidegger and the fear of technology

Fascism and Communism were failed experiments of the 20th Century, but looking back in time, what has not been an experiment? Is there a norm from which all deviations are experiments? Back in the 18th century, Democracy was an experiment. There were antecedents, but not recent ones and not confronting the circumstances the Thirteen Colonies faced.

A few years later, France had its own Democratic revolution. It was bloodier than the American one but only because the monarchists and revolutionaries were both impregnated in the state. In America that wasnt quite the case. The Monarchy, at least the soldiers of the Monarchy were outsiders. There were monarchist sympathizers in America at the time, but for the most part it was easier to see an us versus them over here.

We know from Spengler and the ideas of 1914 that Capitalism was thought to be on its last legs. That idea, that the West (Capitalism) was in decline and near collapse pervaded German thought and much of the Europen in the years leading up to World War II. That was the view of Heidegger, but it wasnt original with him. It was in the climate of the opinion of his day.

In reading Heideggers Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse, it seems that all of these philosophical disciples of Heidegger retained a poor opinion of the West. Though Jews, and rejected by Heidegger, only Herbert Marcuse was able to break loose from Heideggers influence, and then only because he embraced Communism as the potent alternative.

I frankly have not been used to thinking of Liberal Democracy as near collapse. It is a bit easier to entertain that idea during a recession, but are ideas like Spenglers still seriously entertained? You hear of someone from time to time who is as extreme as Spengler and Heidegger in his belief that the West is doomed to collapse. The Berkeley professor Theodore Kaczynski left his teaching post in 1969 and chose to live his anti-technology-belief by sending letter bombs to representatives of modern technology.

Why fear Technology? Heidegger, and although I read the Unabombers Manifesto I cant recall the political mechanics of his proposal, believed that Capitalism could not manage the burgeoning challenges of Technology. Capitalism, they believed, was sure to allow (through its intrinsic nihilism) the destruction of all (or most) life on this planet. It is no accident that various nations are planning programs to move humankind to other planets and other solar systems. They (we) fear that we are doomed to destroy this one. And given that fear, should we not be open to other forms of government to better manage technology?

My knee-jerk reaction is to say no. We Liberal Democratic nations are slowly working to curb the evils of technology. But is there any chance that Heidegger could have been right that a great leader, maybe not Hitler, but someone with that level of charisma and power could better manage technology? I still think no. A National Socialism is by definition peculiar to a single nation. More than one nation can have a National Socialistic form of government, but if they each have a leader with the power of Hitler, then wont they be using their technology to conquer each other? I cant see National Socialistic states getting along with each other as well as Liberal-Democratic states.

Yes, Heidegger wanted a spiritual leader and not quite what Hitler became; although he didnt give up on him for some time, but I cant imagine an argument that could convince me that National Socialism could better manage technology than Liberal Democracy. Neither am I convinced that the Communist experiment could better manage technology. But it is worth watching the shadows of these experiments as time goes on. China today might be said to be practicing Communism-Lite. And in the former Soviet Socialist Republic, the Russian Federation is practicing National Socialism-Lite. Neither government seems terribly dynamic and could better be accounted for by an unwillingness to utterly abandon totalitarianism than to be experimenting with a viable alternative to Liberal Democracy. They seem no more anxious to manage technology than we are.

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