Traditionalism brings with it a certain necessary number of Luddite tendencies, often used by liberals as sniping points in the ever progressive-seeming world of technological innovation. It’s hard not to see a connection; traditionalism’s impulse to maintain the ways of the past directly conflicts with the sort of radically impulsive stream of information that both television and the internet provide. You don’t have to be an intellectual to make note of the fact that technology has made available to billions of people the means to educate themselves with the highest achievements of Western civilization, but instead it’s generally used for reposting cat videos and calling people racial slurs on anonymous internet forums.
And yet it took an intellectual some fifteen years ago to predict exactly that. Philippe Bénéton’s Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement dissects modernity and its ideological offspring to their core. Politics and culture are ruled by greater concepts than ruling parties, regimes, and church ministers; Bénéton’s thesis attacks the entire direction of Western civilization since the conception of the individual as a metaphysical unit. Published in 2004, Bénéton not only addresses the problem head-on at a time when most of us on the Right were still preoccupied with the War on Terror, but he predicts the future technological problems that assail modern society.
And what is this metaphysical unit? The Self, the individual, freed from the shackles of religion, of nationhood, of family, even of his own conscience. Modernity’s altar is the human body, and the sacrifices it demands are both Man’s will and his reason.
Bénéton begins his book with addressing the foundations of modern thought, beginning with the Rights of Man and the hollowing out of the notion of equality. Modernity’s tendency to hollow out—to deprive of substantial meaning—the common ideas that undergirded Western thought and stability is a common theme in Equality by Default. Bénéton continues this exploration by discussing how modern institutions, particularly education and news media, have suffered the same fate. The specialization of knowledge and the push toward the creation of experts rather than philosophers or reasoned intellectuals, Bénéton argues, has fomented this purge of meaning from nearly all spheres of knowledge.
The expert, he says, is concerned only with his own field. The office he holds is one unique to his person, yet he holds little respect for the office itself. How can he, when the office was made to suit him, rather than the other way around? The respect for institutions and the importance of hierarchical organizations is degraded by the presence of his so-called individual uniqueness. Experts exist to study the field of their particular interest, but they occupy no specific office; in the cases that they do, such as college professors or even simple high school math teachers, Bénéton makes note that the overwhelming tendency toward unprofessionalism and a blurring of the student/teacher relationship is both a product of and a contribution toward the hollowing out of the institution. Teachers were once people to be respected irrelevant to whatever field they happened to specialize in, he says; today, only the scores on a pupil’s exams and papers remain relevant to him.
Bénéton’s assertion about the anthropology of modernity is brought into greater focus in chapter seven, where he presents four specific points on the sort of language modernity requires in order to sustain itself. Modern speech emphasizes an indeterminate self, he says, which gives rise to empty credos such as “embrace yourself” and “love yourself for who you are”, despite those credos targeting the most vulnerable among us that seem to have no clue how to determine who or what they are in the first place. Additionally, modern speech maintains undifferentiated social life, a great leveler of culture and tradition that demands no distinction be made between high culture and the low—one consequence, as we have seen, being the emptying of popular culture of merit, taste, and worth. Bénéton continues: modern speech presents man as a function, reducible to an economic unit explainable with the terms labor, service, and wage. Lastly, modern speech contextualizes history as a sequence of impersonal movements and events, extracting the human beings who made a difference and explaining the movers and shakers as being ‘products of their time’, as though their agency made little difference in the events that they themselves may have spearheaded. The portrait of modernity that this language paints is obvious enough: Modern Man accepts what he is—an economic bargaining chip—and he does not aspire to be greater, because there is no greater culture to truly aspire to as all culture is the same, and, even if he were to aspire to something greater—delusional as that may be—he wouldn’t be responsible for anything he has ever done, since he would merely be the manifestation of a mysterious social shift. The ideal Modern Man, Bénéton argues, is empty of will, purpose, and reality, unable to act, incapable of remembering, and impossible to be found in the historical record: a ghost.
As modernity glorified the self, it severed the bonds that gave meaning to the self. Man exists as a fundamentally social animal whose lasting achievements can be measured only in their impact upon his community. But modernity took individualism to its most logical extremes, ripping Man from his knowledge of God, appreciation for nation, proximity to his neighbor, and status in his family. The value that Man now has in relation to his neighbor is little more than as an employee or an employer; social exchanges such as friendships find themselves devalued to a mere give-and-take arrangement that resembles a contract more than a bond of fellowship; a father is denied the respect of fatherhood and is demanded of only for child support payments, etc. The degradation of the older order is made manifest in every facet of modern thought.
With this as its foundation, Bénéton begins the second part of Equality by Default: rationalizing the horrific nihilism at modernity’s root. Reason, he argues, became oriented toward function, having lost its status as a ladder toward the transcendent. Part two reveals how modernity’s hollowing-out tendencies affected not only academic institutions, but the daily lives of the industrialized and urban peoples in the West. Now more than ever, with people increasingly glued to their phones and tablets, isolated from each other even in some of the most densely populated places on the planet, Bénéton’s assertion remains evidently true. Bonds of friendship too fall victim: does Man keep friends because he values them, or because their responses trigger endorphin reactions that he wants to keep receiving? Modernity asks, what does it matter? Modernity’s only consolation when the world has been reduced to one person is that everyone is just as lonely as you are, and that the whole world is lonely, and that it’s easier to just accept that loneliness and fulfill your function as a worker than to try and question it. Self-mastery, self-expression, self-knowledge—these things modernity whispers into Man’s ear, divorced from reason oriented toward meaning, and like a fool, he loses sight of the natural order.
Yet Bénéton is not specifically a pessimist. He acknowledges the leaps in technology and science that have made modern living extraordinarily comfortable. How could anyone dismiss it all, when they’re publishing paperback books sold by online retailers, or releasing blog posts on websites frequented by tech-savvy internet users? Bénéton’s point isn’t so much that technology is innately an evil, but that, like industrialization, like the proliferation of knowledge, these things in themselves are not positive goods. They must be oriented toward the good in their use. Their mere existence makes easier Man’s propensity for self-destruction and impulsive short-sightedness, and pretending that technology is itself a positive good completely independent of its uses only coddles those who use it into a false sense of security.
Most of Bénéton’s work remains unpublished in English. Equality by Default, with the exception of a few articles, remains the only one of his books available in our language—a shame too, given the depth of his insight and the succinctness of his writing. There is no doubt that Bénéton deserves respect for this short volume. Equality by Default is a great primer on modernity’s problems, with particular emphasis on the Enlightenment principles made manifest by the revolutionaries’ cries throughout the nineteenth century, which are finding echoes in the political and social discourse floating around today. It is not a historical retrospective, however; all of his criticisms are of the present day, and very little text is devoted to this history of these ideas or the importance of their writers. This is a book written for the present age, about the present age.