The Prodigal Daughters of Modernity

June 2014  |  Status: Second Draft

Three of modernity’s proudest brainchildren — science, democracy, and market economy — were all based on the same insight that the best, and perhaps the only, way to contain power is to turn it against itself.

Thus science ruthlessly tries to falsify her own claims to knowledge; democracy seeks, always precariously, to balance each faction and/or agency’s power against another’s; and the entire economic system of the developed world is predicated on fierce competition.

Because power is like fire. It is dangerous in the wild, but it can also be a great source of energy when tamed and channeled. Modernity’s forefathers understood this principles. So they built councils, universities, amphitheaters, and stock exchanges wherein power would be pitted against power, knowledge against knowledge, and money against money, like subatomic particles zipping around in the Large Hadron Collider and annihilating one another in brilliant flashes of newfound wisdom. Like fire, power would be tamed, subdued, and put at the service of humanity. The plan was impeccable, the promise unimaginable. The three children would change the world.

Or so hoped the modern man, naively optimistic as he was.

In their adolescence, unfortunately, the three daughters [1] of modernity fell victim to a hallucinogenic substance: the romantic narrative of the 18th and 19th centuries. That trend didn’t last long, but it left a lasting impression in the malleable psyche of the girls: a pretense of grandiosity, a promise of totality, and most importantly, a soothing whisper that they could achieve it. Long traumatized by the tumultuous circumstances of their birth, the girls eagerly chased the romantic high, preferring the confort of theoretical naiveté to the humble practicality for which they were designed.

Wars ravaged the Earth, stamping out the romantic mindset; decades came and went, bringing new political and intellectual trends with them. But the girls’ addiction to totality and grandiosity survived well into the next two centuries, bringing them, haggard and crackbrained but still quite attractive, to the center stage of our own world…

…Where science fancies herself to be the one and only purveyor of truth, both physical and metaphysical. Wait a second, didn’t Dad tell you that you shouldn’t touch anything that isn’t falsifiable? Making grand claims about metaphysical truths, trying to prove a negative going beyond what is into the realm of what ought to be, puts you on an equal footing with every cult and superstition ever. But that’s not who you are! You were meant to be anathema to the unfalsifiable dogmas of the world, not act like one of them! Why, or why, can’t you be happy with your own beautiful self?

…Where democracy imagines herself embodying the uncriticizable and undisobeyable “general will”, a leviathan who claims to be an avatar of Reason herself but who in fact is worth little more than a social psychologist’s stale fart. What happened to the spirit of the Magna Carta, firmly establishing the foundations of democracy on a delicate balance of power between ruler and ruled in the land of Realpolitik, rather than any myth of procedural legitimacy? What made you, dear, so eager to throw the very concept of accountability under the bus of super PACs and secret courts?

…Where the market, meanwhile, is convinced that she is the ultimate solution to all the mischiefs of the other two, not realizing that she, too, is only dreaming. Wake up, child! It’s past midnight and your shoes don’t really fit. Uncle Mises might have told you that you can be Superwoman as soon as you ripped off your modest dress, but he just wants to see you naked and sell your pics to Ayn Rand’s boys. I’m sorry to say this, but you’re no princess; you’re just a servant girl who wants fewer regulations on chimney cleaning so you can slack off [2].

When power (or knowledge, or money, or sex, or… well, it’s all power anyway) refuses to meet itself in battle, when science forgets the tentative nature of its conjectures and claims to be the ultimate arbiter of truth, when democracy gets obsessed with consensus-making and political correctness, when economic theories exalt themselves to the level of axioms, competition gives way to collusion, collusion forms orthodoxies, orthodoxies becomes religions, and modernity weeps in the sanatorium to which his delusional children have now relegated him.

So we return, sic semper tyrannis [3], as we do every single time.

[1] The choice of gender was for contrast with the “modern man”, for the Cinderella reference, for continuity with the traditional treatment of science and democracy as women/goddesses, and for overall literary effect. If you’re uncomfortable with that, click here.

[2] That sounds a bit harsh, but remember that economic systems exist for the sole purpose of serving us. It’s perfectly legal (and moral) to own and abuse non-sentient slaves of either gender.

[3] “Thus always to tyrants”, or in this case, to tyranny. I know that’s not how that phrase is usually interpreted, but it kinda works in this sentence, doesn’t it?