The arrested development of the “world come of age”

In his prison writings, Bonhoeffer begins to radically rethink Christianity for a world that no longer has need of religious guidance — a “world come of age” where human beings take responsibility for their own problems with no need to appeal to God. The immediate postwar era seems to bear out his prediction. In an increasingly secular world, humanity increasingly took consciously planned collective action aimed at solving previously intractable problems. Social democracy flourished in the West, for example, and the former colonies began to enjoy self-determination as they joined the community of nations. It was far from paradise, but one could entertain the possibility that humanity was increasingly coming to control its own collective destiny on any number of levels.

In the meantime, we seem to have suffered a regression into world-wide adolescence. We face the single greatest collective problem in human history, climate change, and seem incapable of taking the necessary action. Everywhere, democratic self-determination is undermined by fealty to market forces and formal politics presents an increasingly unedifying spectacle of pointless acting-out.

What happened? Humanity moved back in with its parents. We got out from under God’s roof, but then we replaced him with the new God of the Market. In the era of the “world come of age,” both the capitalist and the communist countries aimed to subdue or at least redirect market forces to human ends, albeit in very different ways — now we sacrifice all human meaning and flourishing to the economy as our new God.

In many ways, as Agamben suggests in The Kingdom and the Glory, it is the same God, working through the same indirect and providential means. The difference is that the old God made promises, and this one makes only demands. We don’t want economic growth because it will ultimately make everyone better off, we want economic growth because then there will be economic growth. We don’t seek efficiency to improve quality of life, we seek efficiency because that will put us in a position to seek further efficiency.

Yes, the system enriches particularly individuals and families — but it does so to a degree that is humanly inconceivable. Bill Gates could not possibly tell the difference, on a day-to-day level, between controlling $100 million in assets and $1 billion. And even if we do grant that these individuals are strongly motivated to maintain the system, that doesn’t answer the question of why the rest of us let them.

Is it because responsibility is scary, because decision-making is stressful and hard? Or is it because adulthood is not as fun as it looked when you were a kid?

2 thoughts on “The arrested development of the “world come of age”

  1. Isn’t this simply the central problem of the entire post-WWII era?

    some possible suggestions for further thinking:

    I throw this out as something which might be possible and perhaps is a useful thing to think about, but I am not myself convinced of:

    The entire post-WWII era suggests that the vast majority of human beings have, inherently, difficulty in understanding very complex structures of thought (not necessarily a stunning insight on my part, that). It seems to be empirically very difficult for any individual person to reason from fundamental assumptions to a comprehensive understanding of what they themselves should do as individuals, It’s further difficult to be able to understand the inevitable weaknesses of all possible sets of fundamental assumptions, especially as individuals begin to commit to one set of assumptions over other possible sets of assumptions and act on them. Even when some individuals are able to reason to all of the above, empirically, the majority (or at minimum very large minorities) of the population is unable (or at least unwilling) to do so.

    So, as a large group of humans, there’s always a wide mix of abilities to manipulate thought structures, as well as a wide mix of abilities to be able to maintain enough of a distance from the thought structures to be able to question or modify those thought structures. To a significant extent, very large portions of humans seem to need to simply accept one set of assumptions, which they then in turn have a need to elevate to, effectively, the perfection of the perfections (as many medieval followers of Aristotle liked to title the Unmoved Mover) whether or not the assumptions can support that elevation to Unmoved Mover or not. Whether you call the perfection of the perfections some sort of natural economic law (the capitalists or orthodox Marxists), or a particular pantheon of God/Gods or vulgar misinterpretations of evolutionary theory (the racists) or a wide range of other things seems secondary to that need.

    Just one potential thing the comment made me think about.

  2. Margaret Thatcher’s infamous statement from 1987 “there’s no such thing as society” summed up the move- the turn to family and individuals and the turn from society and hence the turn to the system that enriches these; which was then compounded by the events of 1989-1991 when the outside to western capitalism fell.
    We can see this with the continued “success” of financial capitalism post 2008-09; capitalism did not collapse not only because governments and citizens did not wish to consider alternatives (chinese state-dictatorship capitalism anyone?) but also because we forget that financial capitalism is now supported by global digital/data capitalism. We have a capitalism of distraction- we have moved back home and spend our days facebooking, snapchatting, tweeting, instagraming and the like… it is this pursuit of distraction that is so centrally adolescent- as Neil Postman labelled the beginnings of this shift back in the 1980s- we are amusing ourselves to death

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