20th-century centralization and 21st-century decentralization

Walter Russell Mead recently wrote on the Scottish independence referendum. The real point of his essay, though, was his contrast of the centralizing trends of the 20th century and, in his mind, the need for decentralization in the 21st:

The 20th century was an age of centralization. Industrialization made societies much more complex and increased the demand for uniform national legislation and policy, while the limits on communications and technology made the rise of large, centralized bureaucracies the most efficient and often the only feasible way to manage the affairs of large organizations. Moreover, with only a very small percentage of the population (only 1 or 2 percent early in the century, and not rising fast until after World War 2) having college educations, there was a shortage of people with the experience and breadth of knowledge necessary for many of the functions of government administration. Progressive ideology was all about creating effective bureaucracies and taking key issues out of politics and handing them over to (allegedly) meritocratic and apolitical administrators who would serve as the guardians of the public weal.

The 20th century was the golden age of the centralizing state, and the advanced industrial nations, including ones like the US and the UK where historically governments had been smaller and less intrusive, were marked by strong progressive and bureaucratic governments. This form of government had its problems and limitations, but it did many things well: improving public health and education, providing a framework for the development of a much more sophisticated and technologically advanced economy, organizing for victory in World War Two and the Cold War and so on.

However, in the 21st century it appears that the progressive ideal of the state will no longer suffice. A better educated and more sophisticated population is less willing to delegate important decisions to technocrats. Parents who feel they are as well or better educated than their children’s schoolteachers are less willing to defer to educational bureaucracies. Patients who surf the web want to understand their treatment options and look to doctors more as advisers than as authorities.

Additionally, in consumer societies people are used to getting satisfaction from their transactions with large entities. They refuse to stand in line for hours at the department store checkout counter, so why should they stand in line for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles? As commercial institutions get better at providing services that are individualized and convenient, our expectations for the delivery of government services also rise. That puts great stress on centralized bureaucracies; making ‘customers’ happy is not the way that government offices and bureaucrats traditionally work.

Beyond that, advances in communications and information management technology both enable and require new methods of working. The immense power of these technologies—whether related to the ability of the state to monitor more and more of what citizens do or to the potential that the collection and processing of vast volumes of data offers—means that government now has more power that can potentially be abused than ever before. (This is not what the naive prophets of the technological age forecast, back when technology was going to free us up into a new kind of benign libertarian anarchy, but life is complicated that way.)

If you favor decentralization, you may find him too optimistic that this is the wave of the future (and you may find his assessment of the 20th century progressive state’s accomplishments to be too positive). Still, it’s an interesting argument and might be identifying an important countertrend against the large-scale movements and identities of the modern period that I pointed to in my last post.

Urbanization, Pentecostalism, and Islamism

Writing at The Christian Century, Philip Jenkins notes parallels between the rise of modern Pentecostalism and modern Islamism among urban newcomers.

On Pentecostalism:

Most have moved to new megacities in their own countries, but other former rural dwellers have journeyed to cities in the Global North. In the challenging situations they face in their new homes, migrants naturally gravitate to those religious groups that offer them the means of survival. They find there opportunities for fellowship and community, but also the basic necessities of welfare, education, and health that the state cannot provide. Commonly, it is the Pentecostal and charismatic churches that are best organized to supply these needs, and in turn they benefit most from the repeated infusions of the uprooted.

Social change means religious transformation. People abandon the old sacred landscapes they knew in their rural homes, with all their saints and shrines, and a sacred year marked by religious feasts and fasts. In the cities, they adopt a globalized form of modern faith, characterized by sophisticated modern media and advertising, including the most contemporary social media. They abandon their old languages and dialects, so that pastors hold their revival crusades in the global languages of modernity—English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

But whatever new believers have lost through cultural change, they feel that they have gained much. However poor in material things, they know in their hearts that they are following a pristine form of apostolic faith.

On Muslim immigrants in the West:

In books like Holy Ignorance, [Olivier] Roy relates global religious change to such mega­trends as mass migration, urbanization, and modernization. He stresses how deeply integrated Islam was in traditional societies like Morocco or Pakistan, where faith was tied to particular communities and clan structures, to shrines, saints, and sacred landscapes, and to a sacred calendar. All were severed with the migration to the West, creating an Islam that was suddenly and painfully deterritorialized….

In the Muslim case, the young respond by rejecting both the lost traditional culture and the new Western alternative. They turn instead to the apparent certainties of a universalized or globalized Islam, which in practice offers the sternest and most demanding standards of the Wahhabis or Salafists. In return, believers receive a vision of themselves as the heroes of a glorious historical narrative in which faith defeats the temporary and illusory triumph of disbelief and paganism.

I think that this also works for the appeal of socialism and popular nationalism to urban workers in 19th-century Europe, who also were recently uprooted from their rural communities and traditions. This isn’t something that I came up with on my own, but I don’t remember where I read it.

The appeal of membership in large-scale groups — the global umma for Muslims, the (German, French, etc.) nation for nationalists, the working class for workers — is all part of the movement in modern times away from local identities toward large-scale ideologies, states, identities, and movements. Of course, with independence movements in regions of different European countries and the breakup of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, we could be seeing the limits of that trend in the contemporary world.

How to encourage parents with disabled children

My friend Rick put together a short list of things that parents of kids with disabilities appreciate hearing:

1. “I love his/her smile.” Or think of some other beautiful reflection of their humanity worth noting.
2. “What are his/her hobbies, favorite activities, sports?” Again, focus on a shared aspect of their humanity by inquiring about what they like. You can be a source of joy by providing a thoughtful gift oriented towards something he/she likes.
3. “What’s his/her favorite food to eat?” Another inquiry about shared humanity. You can be a blessing by perhaps dropping off a meal or snack or dessert that the child likes.

Rick also wrote a good response to Richard Dawkins’ recent comments about the moral necessity of aborting children with Down Syndrome.

Interpreting contemporary sexual morality

Alastair Roberts recently wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition that tried to summarize “the new sexual morality” in a systematic way. He believes that we should understand “that the shift we’re witnessing is not the abandonment of all morality but a shift to a new moral system, one with its roots firmly within the philosophical tradition of liberalism. This new moral system is loosely coherent, and its underlying principles will work like yeast through the dough of our moral vision. Rather than advocating mere amorality, it forcefully presses moral claims against Christian sexual and relational ethics: for this moral system, Christian morality isn’t just wrong, it is immoral.”

Here are the five principles, and the article contains fuller explanations of each:

First, sexual acts don’t have intrinsic meanings or purposes….

Second, our sexuality is a subjective sense and intrinsic to our self-identity….

Third, sexual agents are autonomous, rights-bearing individuals….

Fourth, freely given consent is the watchword for sexual relations….

Fifth, beyond the prevention of harm, sexual relations should be freed from social policing and constraint, from norms and from stigmas.

Liberalism and its enemies

Ross Douthat pointed to a long piece by Abram Shulsky on the tendency of liberalism to provoke “counter-ideologies,” from positivism to various types of socialism to Islamism:

However varied they are, these counter-ideologies generally share a sense that liberalism’s protection and privileging of individual self-interest as opposed to the common good (however defined) makes it ignoble; potentially or actually unjust; and chaotic or anarchic and hence ultimately weak. This sensibility is evident in the pejorative meaning of the term “bourgeois”: someone who is so immersed in the pursuit of petty material concerns that he is blind to both nobility of soul and the claims of social justice.

Roughly speaking, there are two ideal types of counter-ideologies: those holding that liberalism is too disorganized to work well and hence cannot survive, and those fearing that liberalism will succeed (or has already succeeded) and will diminish human life as a result. These sound like mutually contradictory objections, but by calling them ideal types we recognize that in practice most counter-ideologies have elements of both: Liberalism is bad because it is successful in forcing or seducing people to adopt a “bad” way of life, but its faults mean that it will fail eventually.

His conclusion makes sense:

So to assess the health of liberal democracy, we must keep in mind two opposing thoughts: It is strong because it opens the way to the satisfaction of the real needs and desires of most people, most of the time; and it is weak, ultimately, because its own intellectuals no longer truly believe in it and because there are seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul that it ignores or pretends do not exist—and, indeed, that its own liberality encourages into expression.

The “incidental” weaknesses (the “not invented here” syndrome and the stresses of transition) can perhaps be expected to fade over time, in some places more slowly than in others, no doubt. But the inherent ones [the lack of consensus on liberalism's tenets and its exclusion of the "seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul"] are another matter. Our only defense against them, in the long run, is the inculcation in the body politic of a sense of moderation that understands the inherent limits of politics in the search for human happiness.

Of course, this is easier said that done because it requires those involved in politics to accept limits. The more I understand about the modern state (ca. 1648-present) and modern politics, the more evident it seems to me that political figures and theorists promote the state as the universal solver of all problems that truly matter, making it difficult for modern political leaders of whatever stripe to stay out of the happiness-promotion business.

A critique of the Zimbardo prison experiment

My friend Kevin sent me an article by Peter Gray that criticizes the famous prison experiment in which Stanford students were made guards and prisoners to see how the environment of a prison affected human behavior.

Gray’s arguments are compelling, although of course it would be fascinating to see a response defending the experiment.

Begotten or MadeBegotten or Made by Oliver O’Donovan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

O’Donovan’s jumping-off point was a British government report on artificial fertilization in the 1980s. He explores the differences between making a child through technique (which a technology society wants to do for everything) and begetting (or attempting to beget) a child like ourselves but without the level of control that advances in reproductive technology promise. He attempts to think through these issues, and the purpose of medicine in general, in a Christian way, and also discusses sex change operations as examples of this modern assertion of technique over the human body.

I found his arguments provocative and persuasive, but I have read very little in the area of bioethics. It’s an area that I wish I knew more about.

View all my reviews


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