The Growthist Self: Growthism Part 3

January 17, 2017

Ed. note: You can read Part 1 of this series here and Part 2 here.

The man who is isolated—who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share  because he is already self-sufficient—is in no part of the polis, and must therefore be either a beast or a god.



“Don Quixote,” Marx remarked, “long ago paid the price for wrongly imagining that knight errantry was compatible with all economic forms of society.”  Quixote, now an icon of futility, had not adjusted to a new order of things that had swept aside what Marx would also refer to “idyllic and patriarchal relations.”  Don Quixote may have been the first work of modern fiction in part because Cervantes was the first to draw so sharp a distinction between modern and non-modern self-comportment—his protagonists being an early, if not the first, example of a character being depicted as “old-fashioned.”   The dividing up of the world according to temporal evaluations like “contemporary,” “forward-looking,” and “backwards” is so reflexive, and is so deeply embedded in all our political ideologies, that it is easy to forget that until the early sixteenth-century humans had never thought in these terms, except in random and isolated cases.

It is perhaps in contrast to this modernist awareness of one’s own historical moment that Joseph Campbell, an old-fashioned[i] universalizer, is famous for his formulation of a trans-cultural “monomyth” of “a hero’s journey,” following a single repeating pattern of departure, initiation, and return that exists in all cultures and periods.  But those (like Campbell in my mind) who make too much of this trans-historical repetition may fail to see the variety of changing social relations and social roles of various heroes across  history, their linkage to a specific time, place and, as Marx would suggest, economic system.

Literary historians likewise point out that, until the rise of both individualism and cultural mobility that accompanied market economies, the dramas of the ordinary self that form the modern novel neither existed nor would have been of conceivable interest to anyone.  Pip’s “circuitous journey” in search of self-betterment in Dickens’ Great Expectations would have been as inexplicable to ancient Greeks as Achilles’ sense of honor would have been inappropriate within the context of Victorian England, while Joyce shows the transformation required for a modern Odyssey.  The journey may follow the same pattern, but the social relations that the characters reveal, and the lessons they are meant to teach everyday people, are entirely different.

It is according to the same sort of cultural changes and thus the change in the social roles of our heroes that we might notice the way we, in American, have replaced the explorer, frontiersman, aviator and astronaut with a new hero—one with a decidedly commercial bent.  I’m thinking of the entrepreneurial innovator who excites our collective imagination with the prospect of new, life-enhancing and improving inventions, a personage who dominates the “leadership studies” blogosphere and professional literature.  One can scarcely utter the word “innovation” these days without an air of mystery and expectancy descending upon the room, with its enveloping hush quieting all questions and sedating all doubt.  The oracle has spoken.  The moment one raises the idea of limits to growth, there will be the knowing looks passed around, until someone clears his throat, adjusts his glasses, and says: “ahem, but there will be innovation.”  Ah yes, innovation.  Of course.  Why didn’t I think of that?

This, at any rate, is the sort of promise that one hears if he or she is unfortunate enough to cross paths with a Cato Institute newsletter or any of a dozen blogs filled with platitudes from self-proclaimed life- coaches sprouting from the world of entrepreneurial aspiration.  “Entrepreneurship is a path, a lifestyle and ultimately a journey,“ explains Adam Toren, one of many who thrilled at the Joseph Campbell meme that this subculture appears to have stumbled across a few years ago.  “You begin, face have [sic] challenges and, eventually through struggle and hard work, you succeed.”[ii]  Cyril Morong, another raptured devotee of the Campbell angle, explains that “the entrepreneur, too, is ‘called’ to the adventure. By chance, he or is discovers a previously unknown product or way to make a profit. The lucky discovery cannot be planned and is itself the herald of the adventure.”[iii]  Cato’s Johan Norberg similarly exclaims, “Entrepreneurs are the heroes of our world—that despite the risks, the hard work, the hostility from society, the envy from neighbors, and state regulations, they keep on creating, they keep on producing and trading. Without them, nothing would be there.”[iv]  Norberg’s protest against a culture allegedly hostile to his heroes is unnecessary: watch half a football game on network TV and you will be bestowed with more tales of heroic action in the advertisements than the game, with short and punctuated dramas of computer innovation, “driving excitement” and “innovation that excites,” as well as various reenactments of the miracle of next-day delivery.

Every American hero from Christopher Columbus to the present has been a Growthist; and this has not of course changed with the entrepreneurial hero.  The mono-value, here, is of course profit, and it takes an entrepreneur, Molong explains, to find that higher than usual rate of return–something the entrepreneur accomplishes by “living a life of purposeful action.”   Norberg does an even better job of merging histrionics with pedantry when he explains that “during the last 100 years, we have created more wealth, reduced poverty more, and increased life expectancy more than in the previous 100,000 years. And that happened because of people like you—entrepreneurs, thinkers, creators, innovators—who had new ideas, who traveled geographical distances and, more important, mental distances to create new things and who saw to it that old traditions [and state regulations], which would have stopped new creations, would not stop them for long.”

All this deserves some real thought.   Even, for instance, if you do accept the pursuit of profit as the paramount human accomplishment, the fact that we have chosen this sort of Growthist—the innovative entrepreneur–as one of our current cultural heroes tells us something about our current moment in history.  One no longer hears about “the rich industrialist.”  Even the Wall Street trader has fallen from his recent zenith.  J.R. Ewing step aside!  Here comes Bill Gates (everyone untuck your shirt!).  When the ideal of the entrepreneur is entwined with the wizardry of “tech,” the careful observer may note that Growthism has reached some sort of terminal velocity, or has been folded back on itself according to some sort of unselfconscious parody that somehow fails to see its outsized image.  Or perhaps we’ve all just lined up to throw the last hail-Mary pass.

Unlike his commercial predecessors, today’s entrepreneur lacks a certain calculating and cutthroat quality, at least in our idealized versions.  He (usually) is approachable, just a regular guy living a life of purposeful action at the ethereal intersection of pop-Buddhism and digital technology, suggesting that anyone might find their peace and contentment in a 20 thousand square-foot Silicon Valley villa simply by dint of their unique and inspired idiosyncrasies.  The innovator as hero is a reflection of the value of self-expression.  In his rumpled extravagances, the elitist presumptions surrounding genius make peace with our anti-elitist and egalitarian beliefs about ourselves.  We all might be heroes in this magical world of innovation, a vision aided by accompanying Microsoft or Apple images of a world-café of the planet’s school children, all vying cheerily for a seat at this banquet of global unity and clean-scrubbed prosperity.

Unlike the industrialist, whose crudity equally signifies that he actually makes things, however dirty a business that may be, the entrepreneur comes with no associations to factories or mines, even real work as it is generally conceived.  He is at once casual and “green,” an unconscious indication, I think, of the dawning but as yet unfathomable sense that if business, profits, and growth were (as they in fact are) about the dirty work of digging, melting, burning, and forging, then far too many of us would have sacrificed our small Bloomian lives to the most ignoble of pursuits—the realization, in short, that all this digging, melting, burning, and forging cannot go on.  For the tech entrepreneur is a clean Growthist—at least if laundering plunder for symbolic consumption makes one clean.  For profit and growth are largely what they have always been, and not a pretty thing if you look into it too much.  But the presiding image is that the idea-generating business-innovator of today is dematerializing himself and the economy.  Innovation, we are told, is about efficiency, and efficiencies, we are to believe, will allow us to enjoy all this consumption (perhaps even joining Charles Simonyi for a trip into space) with barely any industrial production.

But of course these, at best, are myths, and unwholesome and deceptive ones at that.  In the management and “ideas” sector of the global economy, marketing is king, and “tech” is about data—about collecting it, organizing it, and distributing it.  Sometimes tech helps replace a worker with a machine, but, more often than that, it is used to  bore into our fantasy lives so that we might buy some industrial creation that we do not need and that our biosphere cannot afford.  For it is only by moving product, or upon the speculative promises that they someday, somehow, might, that one might is compensated for his or her technical wizardry and innovative heroism.


The Rise of the Individual

I’m now going to retack my course into these winds from a different angle as I explore the origin of the Growthist self.  My insistence on historical specificity doesn’t preclude the notion of periodization—that historical moments might be grouped and divided according to periods like the middle-ages, Renaissance, and modernity, each with some commonalities across their internal generations.  Among the features common to modernity I would include not only the notion of Growth and Growthism, but also a Growthist self.  Today’s entrepreneur-hero is connected by some sort of evolutionary process (if I might be afforded a relatively wide berth for that metaphor) to some of the heroes of early modernity.

And beyond that, more importantly, these heroes are idealized reflections of the sort of life-course open to, and widely pursued, by everyday people.   We imitate and self-fashion accordingly, try-on their styles, engage their perceived qualities.  More importantly they outline the receding limits of possibility; we watch their eyes, looking for doors into the great an uninvented beyond.   When I suggested that the entrepreneur-hero represents the terminal velocity of Growthism, I am also (and therefore) suggesting that features common to the Growthist self have reached some sort of top speed, if you will; and because terminal velocity is reached by a falling object, I would call attention to that part of the metaphor as well.  It is, at any rate, to the broader nature of this modern self and the Growthist life-course that I now turn.

A more general version of Growthist self is quite familiar to us—indeed so familiar that we hardly recognize him or her for lack of a contrasting reputable alternative.  Another name for this self is the Individual.  Because we, today, are as much individualists as we are Growthists, we tend to see individualism as the ultimate, if not only, guardian of human dignity or well-being.  To question Individualism seems, to many, to be the same thing as questioning any reasonable notion of goodness.  But, following the pattern laid out in my previous discussion of Growthism as a condition, we forget that Individualism is a part of a particular historical sequence and situation, that it did not always exist, and that it evolved, if rather suddenly, under rather brutal conditions that we try to pretend no longer exist in our current world.

Individualism, for starters, is not merely a term meant to describe respect for individual wants, needs, and differences.  Rather, it is a way of organizing society with an absence of traditional social bonds.  It is an organization that is best understood historically, in terms of its rise out of and contrast to non-individualists societies—societies rich in social bonds.  One of my favorite ways to examine these issues is by way of literary history, whose changes may be easier to accept than a frontal assault on our most cherished senses of ourselves.  And one of my favorite guides, for the time-period in question here, is Ian Watt and his estimable The Rise of the Novel.

As Watt explains, the novel did not exist until the eighteenth-century for the simple reason that prior to then, the character the novel focuses on had not been sufficiently developed nor distinguished himself adequately.  The character I’m speaking of is of course the Individual.  Prior to the rise of the novel, say in the work of Chaucer, Milton, Spenser or Shakespeare, literary value is largely tied to its successful use of traditional stories and forms.  This can be seen in Milton’s reliance on revealed religion and Shakespeare’s on recycled classical plots.  In neither case is the ordinary bourgeois individual the subject of the drama.  In contrast, the novel, Watt explains, is a “break with the earlier literary tradition of using timeless stories to mirror the unchanging moral verities,” for in it, instead, the individual, and his or her unique experience, is the “arbiter of truth,” something entirely novel in the history of humans.  In a way reflected in the philosophy of Descartes and Locke, truth and meaning could be determined only by shaking free of tradition (and quite possibly one’s family, neighborhood, and friends), a view we maintain today.

This seemingly simple emergence of the individual person as the arbiter of truth depends on a lot of drastic changes from a medieval and even Renaissance view of a unified, hierarchical, and unchanging world whose entirety was known and revealed.  Most simply, for the rise of the novel to occur different individuals had to have unique and varied enough lives to be of interest, and the pull of tradition had to have been broken to the point that these individual experiences were not seen as deviations or anomalies, the strange wanderings of the exile.  As Watt puts it, the novel becomes possible only when society becomes “a developing but unplanned aggregate of particular individuals having particular experiences and particular times and at particular places” (31).  While previously the individual was defined by the family, the church, the guild, the township or some other collective unit, to paraphrase Watt, now “the individual. . . alone was primarily responsible for determining his own economic, social, political, and  religious roles” (61).  This, finally, was worth reading about!

The context for this sudden variety and this onslaught of choices is of course the rise of capitalism.  Capitalism at once provided the opportunities for novelty and constant decision-making, while destroying the social bonds that had maintained the old order.  Without the guidance or direction of previous social roles, the easiest course of action for a free individual, history has suggested, is the pursuit of increasingly narrow individual interests, often appearing as profit, the most quantifiable of results.  The modern individual, Watt explains, is a contract writer, filling the void left by the slow disappearance of the unwritten social norms of tradition with double-entry bookkeeping.  As Defoe shows in Robinson Crusoe, the first modern novel, Crusoe is focused on productivity and efficiency, working tirelessly to change the status quo and “transform it incessantly.”  Crusoe is a contract maker, an obsessive bookkeeper.  “Profit,” Watt reminds us, “is Crusoe’s only vocation, and the whole world is his territory” (67).  In prioritizing this restless, this Lockean “uneasieness” as “the centre of his system of motivation” (65), Watt explains, Crusoe likewise devalues “other modes of thought, feeling and action: the various forms of traditional group relationships, the family, the guild, the village, the sense of nationality” (64).   As Defoe’s Moll Flanders, another ground-breaking modern Individual, puts it, “with money in the pocket, one is at home anywhere.”   These other, more traditional, values are left for those not motivated by economics, whose preoccupations are seen as quixotic.

But prior to modernity, a society in which the social order merely formed the backdrop for individual aspiration would have been seen as a kind of unsociety, if were imaginable at all.  Likewise, a self cut-loose from social bonds would be thought of (and probably experienced from the inside) as a non-self.  As moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre explains  in his historical account of ethical beliefs, to be asked, as we modern people are, to choose among competing values in order to set a life-path for ourselves would “appear more like the freedom of ghosts—of those whose human substance approached the vanishing point—than of men” (127).  Where in modernity the individual is constituted in terms of his or her requirement to make choices and design a life for themselves, “in much of the ancient and medieval worlds, as in many other premodern societies, the individual is identified and constituted in and through certain of his or her roles, those roles which bind the individual to the community through which alone specifically human goods are to be attained; I confront the world as a member of this family, this household, this clan, this tribe, this city, this nation, this kingdom.  There is no ‘I’ apart from these” (172).

But, one might argue, this lack of a distinct pre- or post-social “I” in medieval society only confirms its moral poverty, not to mention the physical poverty that someone like Cato’s Johan Norberg attributes to a society wanting in the entrepreneurial spirit.  This of course brings us to the sixty-four million dollar philosophical question about comparative frameworks: which framework do you use to compare two competing frameworks?  Norberg, like most of us, wants to use ours, one which values individual autonomy and material advancement above all else.

I certainly understand that response, but I should probably come clean with my motivation for questioning it as well.  While there have long been criticism of the modernist, consumerist, egotistical, acquisitive, instrumental, disenchanted self from the standpoint of philosophy, religion, even art, today I feel compelled to breathe new life into them for a very simple reason: our modern framework, with its Growthist Self leading the charge, is responsible for the destruction of the world’s biosphere and is bringing on what scientists refer to as the 6th Great Extinction.  Whether this character as our primary hero is abandoned in order to preempt this extinction, or as a shattered result of it, humans will in the future be forced to reorganize according to a new kind of social bonds with a greater sense of community and a decreases sense of freedom of the type I will continue to ascribe to the Growthist self.

So the visceral reaction that so many people experience in response to the questioning of Individualism or freedom to do pretty much whatever we want in a value-free social context, may have some decent philosophical backing, as well as heaps of material wealth at its display; but perhaps a modest way I want to challenge this visceral response, chip away at its foundation if I can, because as long as we adhere to Individualism, or any other aspects of Growthism at this unconscious and unquestioning level, any alternatives, and the truly radical ones that we need, remain largely unthinkable.  In order that a society based on principles other than Growthism become thinkable, we need, for instance, to stop imagining premodern societies as if living in one is like having ourselves, complete with our current social and psychological wiring, suddenly transplanted to another time and place.  Thus do we imagine the middle ages as one extensive Gulag into which versions of a long-suffering Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg found themselves thrust, fully formed into a time and place where they could not follow their dreams or passions, or unleash their genius and find their fortunes–not unlike Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan’s experience in King Arthur’s court.  What this view forgets is something difficult to understand even more difficult to feel and imagine as a sort of lived experience, perhaps in large part because the modern novel has provides the inner monologue we use to course our lives.

At the same time, most of us have some set of experiences—perhaps drawn from family, a sports team, or religious activity—that may give us some view to a set of values that compete (at least for a moment) with individual ones.  For in premodern societies people pursued what political philosophers refer to as “the good,” some vision of life that organized and motivates our action.  Prior to modernity, “the good” was generally inseparable from a specific social context and a role within it.  Alasdair MacIntyre, who may be able to help us articulate a sustainable alternative to the Growthist self, usefully contrasts this view of “the good life” to the modern one.  Society, according to the premodern view, provided the “communities in which men in company pursue the human good and not merely as–what the modern liberal state takes itself to be—providing the area in which each individual seeks his or her own private good” (After Virtue 172).

While I would never suggest that these past conditions would feel stultifying to those of us who have been trained in the obligations of constant choice, especially were we to somehow visit the past equipped with our devices, our surpluses, our access to information and alternatives.  But as MacIntyre reminds us, medieval hierarchies contained an equally strong set of obligations and reciprocity, at least when the social order was enacted with some degree of virtue.  As MacIntyre describes it, we make the mistake of interpreting hierarchy mainly in terms of being subjected to state power or some other sort of oppressive rule that works just to keep us down, or keep us from where we think we want to go.  As he puts it, in modernity “a man is related to the state not via a web of social relations binding superior to inferiors in all sorts of ways [as in medieval society], but just as subjects.  A man is related to the economic order not via a well-defined status in a set of linked associations and guilds [as he was in medieval society], but just as one who has the legal power to make contracts” (A Short History of Ethics 124).

It would be a mistake to suggest that premodern societies provided a consistent and unwavering sense of that feeling we might still get when we are deeply held and embraced by a community.  But by the same token, it is equally untrue that modern freedom provides some consistent and unwavering sense of that exhilaration one also experiences when suddenly released from a social obligation.  Our modern freedom, to put it another way, is not as free as we like to believe, and we work overtime to excuse its side-effects and byproducts as acceptable collateral damage, the fair price of progress—claims much harder to make as we barrel towards various ecological cliffs within a world that appears to be increasingly unhinged from whatever social order modern individualism was able to secure.

Setting aside the ecological issues and the historical life-expectancy of homo economicus, let’s consider some of the other costs of Individualism.  Although we are a legally free (indeed required) to make contracts as we proceed through life, modern social relations are not only defined by fierce competition, according to which there are  many losers, suffering loss in large part due to circumstances  beyond control, these social relations are highly manipulative.  The most obvious example, of course, comes in the form of advertising, according to which we, in America, have a $1500/per capita bounty on our heads, or at least what happens in there.  Those who doubt the degree of manipulation involved in advertising probably haven’t studied advertisement from the inside.  Marketing is the study of manipulation.  It gets people to do what the seller of a product wants, and often in predictable and successful ways.  But advertisements don’t simply sell products, by virtue of their omnipresence and their uniform messaging of the new, better, and improved, they paint a picture of the good life and preach it according to a gilded infrastructure that would have made the Spanish Inquisition turn green with envy.   We may believe ourselves to be free from all this messaging.  But because the self that is looking inward was, in most cases, constituted in this social context, it is difficult, if not impossible, to know how much.

The modern state is also manipulative in ways we may not notice.  The rise of the state lottery, a few decades ago, provides a vivid example of the modern state, now running things “more like a business,” encouraging its citizens to engage in activity its knows to result in individual and collective damage.   Most examples, though, are more subtle.  We are taught to fear outright oppression, and are right to be wary of certain kinds of state control.  But what about all the other ways in which the modern state creates a context for our lives that is about freedom, true, but mainly the freedom to compete or the freedom to pursue a very private identity.  We are given constant incentives encouraging us to be more mobile, more acquisitive, to separate into discrete spending entities or units.  It exists in our tax code and our educational system.

Anyone who has attempted a certain kind of social activism based on community-building might see it in something mundane as zoning codes, or prohibitions on certain kinds of agricultural activity.  Consider, for example, laws about how many non-family members might share an apartment or house in some places.  Consider something as simple and omnipresent as the construction of neighborhoods without sidewalks, or prohibiting front porches or other front-yard public spaces in so many American suburbs, the way the sort of development necessary to continued economic growth makes it impossible for family farmers to pay their property taxes.  Is this best referred to as “freedom”?  Or do we need another concept, like forced privatization, compulsory isolation, or obligated choice-making?  The answer probably lies somewhere between, but both aspects of the modern self need to be kept in mind as we explore an alternative, non-Growthist self.

I am not the first to suggest it by any means, but the modern Individual is forced to go without a great deal of support provided to his or her forebears.  Modernity’s gains, especially in material possessions and experiences are of course undeniable, but the transition to modernity involved other sorts of depravation and wants.  There may be a heroism to this modern self, going it alone, solitary and isolated, reliant on his or her own system of values, always treading new ground, alone, into a great and vast wilderness.

This, perhaps, is what Daniel Defoe had in mind with his shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe.  As Watt explains, Crusoe was already the wandering, solitary, self-seeking Individual; his stranded and shipwrecked status merely permitted him to live out the fantasies of complete autonomy that has motivated his entire life-journey up to that point, and indeed after he returns to the company of society.  His island empire allows Defoe to explore the modernity’s newly created individual self, constituted and at home outside of social bonds.  But to call it freedom, plain and simple, is to forget that he is stranded and shipwrecked.  As Watt puts it,

It is appropriate that the tradition of the novel should begin with a work that annihilated the relationships of the traditional social order, and thus drew attention to the opportunity and the need for building up a network of personal relationships on a new and conscious pattern; the terms of the problem of the novel and of modern thought alike were established when the old order of moral and social relationships was shipwrecked, with Robinson Crusoe, by the rising tide of individualism.

But there is another sense in which being shipwrecked portends another side of the modern self: namely the part that is required to be free, stripped as it is from communal bonds that may be crucial to human well-being.   There is a sense, then, that we are shipwrecked in modernity, just as Crusoe was shipwrecked, and before him, Columbus and the first Pilgrims.  Here we might dream of having anything and everything—except, of course, a world based on communal cohesion.



It is easy enough to date the birth of the Individual, even as we recognize close ancestors like the Crusaders, Marco Polo and the traders of Venice and Genoa, the first Portuguese sugar planters and, not coincidentally, African slave traders, all of who stretched the boundaries of the closed world and tested the waters of sudden uninherited wealth as they set sail towards increasingly distant lands before returning to safe harbors of church, crown, and country.  Milton Friedman is probably correct to argue that freedom is only possible in the company of open markets and free trade, though he forgets to note that this sort of freedom was always accompanied by the contrasting slavery against which liberty came to be defined.   It was certainly as entrepreneurs that individuals began to separate themselves from societies with fixed role and hierarchy, and it was equally in commercial societies that life became organized around the pursuits of the individual.

In my previous installment I suggested that it was the dizzying geographical expansion inaugurated by Columbus that cracked open the closed world of a closed European cosmology and unmoored the old orders.  We can imagine what it would feel like to learn that we had a brother or sister whose existence had been kept hidden, how that would topple our conceptions of our family, our past, and perhaps the future.  Europe experienced this same sudden need to reconceive at the level of its entire world picture and conception of itself.  With a new world, previously unimagined, sitting over the horizon, the old science no longer worked; the old picture of the universe only half complete, the stories of origin and destiny lost credibility.  Everything was thrown into question

Am I am overestimating the sense of crisis this caused to European consciousness?  Perhaps.  Familiar landmarks from the old social map remained—the church and throne, for instance, and towns, cities, and timeworn landscapes—but the relationships between them all could never be the same, and the claims they had upon each other, and desperately tried to maintain, had shifted.  Within fifty years of Columbus’s first voyage, as a measure of the changes in scope, scale, and sense of possibility for Europeans, the Incas has been decimated by Pizarro and his 158 men, and the great triple alliance that ruled a rich and powerful Mexico had been conquered by Cortes, whose Mexican holdings required the labor of 20,000 slaves, but still did not provide enough to satisfy his restless and bloodthirsty soul.  Sugar plantations sprung up across the Americas, while the hemisphere’s largest silver mine, at Potosi was being worked by tens of thousands of captive Indians in lethal conditions.  By 1600, perhaps half a million slaves had already made the horrible journey from Africa to Central and South America, and Spain swelled and buckled under the weight of newfound gold and silver.  It is generally held that Don Quxiote’s antiquated virtues and misaimed ventures were a comic stand-in for a corrupt and decadent Spanish Court.  Perhaps.  But the humor of it all, at least to Cervantes’ contemporary Spanish readers, may have come from an entirely different comparison.   For by 1600, any self-respecting Iberian nobleman was seeking wealth and glory in the New World, with, more likely than not, a large stake in the bourgeoning slave trade.  This was a world whose customs had been overrun by ambition and egotistical calculation.  What sort of hobbled has-been would waste his time with ancient romantic fantasies amidst a world swelling with real wealth, adventure, and glory?  If this explains the novel’s initial popularity, it may also explain it staying power.  We, too, tend to assume that things old-fashioned—usually an unwillingness to enjoy the latest in consumption—are worthy of humorous scorn.

For it was the Conquistadors who kicked open the doors holding in the closed world of Medieval Europe.  They shattered the settled hierarchies and patriarchal relations, and broke the table of virtues into pieces, as this newly unbounded self slashed his way out of his womb, scattering himself with furious abandon to the utmost ends of the earth.  To the Conquistadors we owe our land, to be sure, and our sugar, tobacco, and coffee, as well as our wealth and the advantage that Europe and Europeans have maintained over the rest of the world ever since.   But to the Conquistadors we also owe our freedom and our sense of the self as an explorer and conqueror of the unknown, of life as an open book that we might write as we will.  To them we owe the heroic and glorious air which hovers over commerce and wealth, as something pursued with great risk, courage, but an equally profound blindness to consequences.   They were the first revolutionary class of upwardly mobile, the first wide-scale entrepreneurs, profit seekers, wealth creators, Growthists.  They were the first Europeans who, by dint of contrast to their global exploits, revealed the limitations of inherited social roles.  It was from them that we first learned that greed is good and that restless dissatisfaction is some sort of virtue, that one might always want more and get it, that there were no limits to what one could do if he only followed his dreams, or the smoldering desire for more.

These claims are, I think, more clearly the case on the empirical and practical level than it is on the speculative and moral level that I’m actually more interested in.   As Charles Mann has documented in his epochal 1493: Uncovering the New World that Columbus Created, whose research I have been drawing on here, globalism began in earnest with the Columbian inauguration of westward trans-oceanic navigation, and to the Columbian Exchange we can attribute everything about modernity, from our pathogenic illnesses to the current balance of international power, from the rise of industrial production and industrial agriculture to Enlightenment debates over philosophy and political science.  Without the “finding” of a new world, there wouldn’t have been an old one in contrast.  There would have been no Reformation, no rising bourgeois power, no Enlightenment, no Individual, no American Revolution, obviously, and thus no French one either.  It was the most ecologically significant event since the death of the dinosaurs, says Mann.  It changed the day to day life of people from China to Mexico to Rome.  It flooded Europe with silk, sugar, and spices, and the Ming Dynasty with silver.  It instigated the joint stock company, creating an investment class eventually able to topple monarchies.  From all this arose an accompanying sent of new values whereby “regular” people might become wealthy, while Princes foundered upon inexplicable impoverishment brought on by a new and inexplicable phenomenon, inflation.  For the first time, money, and not lack of grain, caused hunger.   The Columbian Exchanges provided the first evidence that the wealth of nations were not fixed and frozen but might expand beyond the most giddy expectations imaginable.  At the same time, though, and without warning, the infinite, a quality previously attributed only to God, was now used to describe the quests and ventures of men, who began to think of themselves as gods.

The shattering of the European order, I think, may have taken place most explosively in the hearts of men, according to mild-seeming notions like possibility and expectations.  For these men, and soon women, who set off in rather small and creaky wooden ships without a shred of assurance or security, could not be contained within any known moral order or conceived code of conduct.  Their subsequent brutality and heartlessness, I imagine, was stirred up from a deep and bewildering sense of moral solitude, of the sort that could still be found centuries later, according to Joseph Conrad’s depiction of it, even as the blank spots on the map were quickly disappearing.  These were troubled men, never satisfied, never at ease, always questing for more, after something bigger or better.   Perhaps people have always longed for more, dreamed of greatness, imagined complete freedom or solitude.  But now it had living and breathing exemplars, not only permitted to do the previously unthinkable (not the murder and maiming, but the infinite pursuit of Earthly goods), but celebrated for it.   And just as no moral code could contain Conquistador, then pilgrim, and then pioneer, none has yet to contain his paunchy middle-class descendants.

As a number of different philosophers and social critics have argued, from a number of different perspectives,[v] a moral code based on the free and unbound, castaway Individual will slide unerringly towards an unguided calculative and technocratic pursuer of wants, living in a fractured and fragmented society unable to make distinctions of value, even, we are more recently discovering, when the survival of the species is at stake.  The triumph of the Liberal state, after all, is, as Bert Van Den Brink explains in his worthwhile, but shortsighted, defense of Liberalism,[vi] “the politically liberal aim for state neutrality towards various conceptions of the good life” (2).  Freedom is our highest goal, and freedom, he explains, is “the freedom to live one’s life according to one’s given conception of the good life, and not say anything more about the exact quality of such conceptions” (12).  As such, he points out, it loses its neutrality just enough to discriminate against any communal notions of the good.  There was a time at which philosophers attributed high-sounding moral labels to the rational individual and his “good will,” and we still speak in serious tones about moral obligation, conferring “upon it an objectivity that it does not in fact possess” (After Virtue 17), while at the same time requiring each individual to determine which moral code best suits her character.

But, in ways make our economists rub their hands together with churlish glee, we have more generally come to accept that the individual is obligated only to pursue his or her wants and desires, regardless of their origin, at best adventuring into the wilds of self-discovery or towards the waters of Eldorado.  It was only according to an irrational and antiquated relics of tradition that J.S. Mill chose Socrates dissatisfied over a pig satisfied.  Nothing in his philosophy of the Growthist self would lead to that conclusion.  And if the individual becomes the measure of the truth, the truth will, as holdover social norms erode, increasingly become an expression of arbitrary will or bland preference, a haphazard chain running from consumer choice to consumer choice.  As long as they are based on Individual freedom, moral codes seeking greater substance will, like the Paris Climate Agreement, remain only aspirational and non-binding, while free trade and “development,” like self-discovery and self-actualization, are bitterly defended.   There is no easy alternative to this—no easy one.   This all may be good for the Individual, until the common good has been crowded out by mountains of stuff.  But in the shipwrecked wake of the Conquistadors, we might still note that without communal bonds, however restrictive and limiting they are, there is nothing to stop the pursuit of more and the celebration of the entrepreneurs who step blindly before us off the edge of the Earth as they follow the misty signals of the invisible hand.[vii]  No binding oneself to the mast, here.  Values of the kind that bind, and steer a course beyond those of desire and quantifiable accumulation, are grounded in collective need and communal mystifications.  They are normative, binding, religious, rubbed raw with the blood of sacrifice.  But, except under very specific conditions of expansion—except, that is, when the doors to a new and unknown world have been just kicked open, something we continually beg of our innovators—such norms may be required for the fair passage of human life.

But perhaps this is to underestimate the strength of the global community.  It sets our course and establishes the end as much as any tribe, village, or guild, and has its own guiding table of virtues to instruct us in the ways of Growth—the Growth that it demand of us and that holds us together or, perhaps, trajects us safely apart.


[i] I jest.  Part of the modernist historical consciousness is a renewed effort to isolate that part of human history that doesn’t change from that part that does.  Being historically minded and being ahistorical are both employed with a wide degree of sophistication and mischief, alike.


[iii] Remarks prepared for the first HERO’S JOURNEY ENTREPRENEURSHIP FESTIVAL, March 31st, 2007 at Pepperdine University

[iv] As Theodor Adorno once said, “indifference to style is indicative of a dogmatic sclerosisof content.”

[v] Chief in my mind is Alasdair MacIntyre, who I am drawing on heavily, though Hegel is always hovering in the background.  Also making this sort of diagnosis would be Adorno and Horkheimer, Charles Taylor, and Pope Francis.

[vi] The Tragedy of Liberalism: An Alternative Defense of a Political Tradition

[vii][vii] I am not so naïve as to hold that a communal truth is universal or transcendental, any more than an individual one.  Rather, I am suggesting as we face the consequences of individual “truths,” we need to develop strong collective and communal ones to take their place, with the keen sense that most recent collective and communal truths have not worked out very well.

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee.... Read more.

Tags: economic growth, neoliberal ideology