Count me out of this cultural pessimism

Count me out of this cultural pessimism

Both the woke and unwoke are wrong about modernity.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books Feminism Science & Tech

Everyone hates progress these days. Left and right, woke and unwoke. The great unifying idea is that modernity sucks. That we’d all be happier if those dark Satanic mills had never started rolling. You couldn’t fit a cigarette paper between Boris Johnson’s moan about the Industrial Revolution (that’s when the doomsday clock ‘began to tick’, apparently) and Greta Thunberg’s. The blue-haired nonbinary pitchfork-wielder of modern internet manners shares with the coy ‘tradwife’ the belief that industrial society has torn us from nature, though the former frets over our estrangement from Mother Nature while the latter panics that we’ve lost our human nature. And they all live in terror of technology. The bedroom-bound conspiracy theorist who thinks 5G masts are infecting us with viruses and the plummy, dreadlock-wearing green who camps in trees to prevent the building of coal-power stations might seem worlds apart, but they’re as one in their conviction that demonic tech is destroying life as we know it.

And now here comes another manifesto against progress, in the shape of Mary Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress. It’s a strange book. Apparently modernity’s violent shake-up of family life, motherhood and the relations between the sexes means we’re headed for a ‘howlingly dystopian scenario’ in which ‘the machine’ will seek to ‘deregulate all of human nature’ and ‘enslave our minds’ so that we’ll end up in a ‘cyborg era’ in which we will be little more than ‘Lego bricks made of meat’. Blimey.

Harrington’s thesis is that modernity has ‘disembedded’ human beings. The Industrial Revolution ‘disembedded’ us from the home by socialising work. With brutish speed, historically speaking, the economically self-sufficient homestead in which both man and wife worked – in animal husbandry, artisanship, textile-making – was replaced with ‘factories filled with large, dangerous machines’ to which all were expected to traipse to earn a wage. This was especially bad for mothers, says Harrington, who suddenly had to decide what to do with their kids while they were at work.

Then the later sexual revolution, and in particular the contraceptive technologies that helped to facilitate it, disembedded us from our own nature. Our own bodies. Harrington describes the Pill as the first ‘transhumanist’ technology, the first medicine that sought to fix something that isn’t actually an ailment: female fertility. Her hostility to the Pill is extraordinary. At one point, she even channels Alex Jones, referencing his infamous talking point that chemicals in the water are ‘turning the frogs gay’. Women on the Pill piss estradiol into the sewage system, she says, and this ‘literal poison’ is harming ‘fish and amphibians’. So if you’re on the Pill, then ‘it’s not the government messing with frogs’ sexual behaviour. It’s you.’

Even worse than the contraceptive revolution’s ‘catastrophic ecological impact’, says our valiant warrior against progress who thinks a little disruption to the endocrine system of frogs is too high a price to pay for women having greater control over their bodies and destinies, is its ‘disembedding’ of women from the instinct for ‘motherly nurture’. The invention of a pill that prevents pregnancy has birthed a world (no pun intended) in which sex is casual and motherhood is downgraded. The 20th century’s revolutions in tech have ‘disembedded care in the name of freedom’, complains Harrington.

In a nutshell, modernity is a great, terrible disembedding, first from the cosy homesteads in which men and women happily lived and loved (yes, I’m being sarcastic), and second from our very bodies. The end result of Harrington’s late-bourgeois technophobia is that she ends up feeling nostalgic for the 1450s. We need to recover a ‘lifelong solidarity between the sexes that owes more to the 1450s than the 1950s’, she says. Move over tradwife, here comes the Wife of Bath.

Harrington is not so crass as to say that everything was great pre-Industrial Revolution or that nothing improved as a result of the Industrial Revolution. But her dread of tech – one of her concluding rallying cries is ‘No more freedom, no more technology’ – means she does peddle the sadly common and ahistorical belief that man existed in a good state of nature until those pesky Satanic mills arrived and messed everything up. Especially for mums.

Her pining for the sexual relations that pertained in the agrarian era is bizarre. In the economically contained pre-modern homestead, where women both worked and mothered, women enjoyed something like sexual equality with men, she says. ‘Male supremacy’ was contained by the everyday ‘interdependence of the sexes in practice’. What’s more, women enjoyed ‘considerable informal power’ in these pre-modern communities, for example through their use of gossip to ‘inflict’ a loss of reputation on certain targets. Ditch the Pill, ladies, and get gossiping! This book shows more concern for the glands of frogs than it does for those individuals who fell victim to the rural idiocy and rumour-mongering of pre-modern scolds.

Harrington shares with the rest of Britain’s cultural elite a visceral alarm at the impact of the Industrial Revolution. You see such thin Blakeism everywhere these days, from that infernal 2012 Olympics opening ceremony to the neo-religious ceremonies of the XR death cult. She cites Engels’ vivid description of the appalling working conditions women endured in factories, where some women even gave birth on the factory floor. Grim indeed.

Notably, though, she doesn’t cite Engels’ broader view of the Industrial Revolution, and of the earlier bourgeois revolutions that made it possible – which was essentially that they represented the most dynamic moment in human history so far. The socialisation of labour – which necessitated the decimation of those old work / life homesteads Ms Harrington likes the sound of – ‘created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together’, said Engels and Marx. The industrial era’s ‘subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?’, asked Marx and Engels. Social labour ‘has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals’, they said. ‘It has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.’

Had production remained home-based, human society would hardly have advanced over the past 500 years. Yes, the socialisation of labour was a violent upheaval, but it was the precondition for the creation of a world of more things and more freedom than our ancestors could have imagined in their wildest dreams. Marx and Engels had Ms Harrington’s number 180 years ago. The ‘lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class’, they said. ‘[They] are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history’, they continued.

Harrington, of course, wears that R-word as a badge of honour – she describes her worldview as ‘reactionary feminism’. But her belief that rolling back the wheel of history might help to restore a semi-golden age of local living and sexual equality is pure fantasy. That is not what the old world was like. I don’t know if Harrington has had any direct interaction with people who lived the agrarian life. I have. My grandmother worked in the home, tending animals, alongside my grandfather, who worked from home making boats. She enjoyed some informal power, sure. She was also illiterate and never travelled more than 40 miles from where she was born. Marx and Engels were surely right when they said the socialisation of labour and industrialisation of society ‘rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life’. Modernity draws ‘all, even the most barbarian… into civilisation’, they said. Not PC, I know; true, though.

As to the industrial era’s undoubted disruption of family life as it was then constituted, here, too, I prefer Marx to Harrington. Marx bowed to no one in his analysis of the savage living conditions of early industrial society. But he saw promise in modernity’s rude intrusion into the pre-modern homestead. Yes, family life is changing dramatically, he observed – but so what? It is ‘just as absurd to hold the Teutonic-Christian form of family to be absolute and final as it would be to apply that character to the ancient Roman, the ancient Greek, or the Eastern forms [of family]’, he wrote in Capital.

What’s more, bourgeois society’s rescue of people from rural backwardness, its forcing of them into cities and factories, would increase ‘human development’, believed Marx, especially for women. ‘[M]odern industry, by assigning, as it does, an important part in the socially organised process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women… creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes’, he said. The ‘fact of the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages, must necessarily, under suitable conditions, become a source of human development’, he continued. And so it did. Education, solidarity, political organisation, democracy and freedom all flowed from the ‘disembedding’ – I prefer liberation – of humankind from its agrarian chains that Harrington and virtually every other modern talking head laments. The ‘radical solidarity’ that Harrington sees in marriage, even in the marriages of the Middle Ages, comes across as a regressive retreat from the complementary and far more radical forms of solidarity gifted to us, unwittingly, by the bourgeois architects of the industrial era.

No one doubts that the Industrial Revolution was a mad, volatile event. ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’, as Marx and Engels said of that era. And yet, by both its unleashing of the forces of social production and its promise of liberation from the ignorance so many of our ancestors stewed in, it remains, without question, the greatest thing that has thus far happened to humankind. We mustn’t let today’s fashionable reactionaries, whether of the green or the ‘feminist’ variety, distract from that.

Then we come to the second act of Harrington’s technophobia – her antagonism towards the reproductive technologies of the 1960s and the revolution in sexual behaviour that followed. She loathes the Pill. Stop taking it, she tells young women, because it will only make you ‘fat, miserable and sexless’. On the Pill, all you’ll get is a ‘loveless fuck’, where ‘90 per cent of the time you won’t even come’. On the issue of abortion, I regret to inform you that she favourably quotes the view that it is ‘ante-natal murder’. It speaks to a society that ‘prioritise[s] autonomy even to the extent of killing an unborn child’, apparently.

Harrington is a technological determinist. The sexual revolution was ‘less a moral change than a technological one’, she says, which strikes me as an extraordinary disavowal of the agency of the women of the 1950s and 1960s who campaigned for greater autonomy. It surely gets things the wrong way around. It wasn’t the Pill that transformed sexual behaviour, as if a mere tablet could shatter centuries of social tradition. Rather, it was the desire among human beings to explore new sexual and social frontiers that created the conditions in which something like the Pill could be conceived of and invented. Harrington’s view of technology as the shaper and reshaper of human relations, from the industrial era to the ‘cyborg’ era, verges at times on depicting people as the witless automatons of what she describes as ‘the machine’.

It is a general truth of human society that we get the technologies we deserve. Or rather, technological innovation occurs in tandem with cultural vision, or lack thereof. So in that daring, exploratory period of the Renaissance, we got ships capable of traversing once terrifying, impassable oceans, whereupon entire new worlds were discovered. ‘How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!’ Whereas in today’s more culturally depressed times, when the discovery of America has been wholly reimagined as a racist crime against humanity, we get gadget upon gadget that allows us to use our thumbs to tell everyone our pronouns, our troubles, our dick size. Technology once took us out of ourselves, now it drives us ever more inward.

It takes until page 78 for Harrington to contemplate a question most readers will have been asking themselves from page 1: ‘[If] we can defy “nature” by using pumps to make water run uphill… why should we not defy “nature” in our own bodies [by taking the Pill]?’ It’s a rhetorical question, of course. I wish it hadn’t been. For it is true that every technology that has ever existed is an act of defiance against nature. The scythe defies the extraordinary strength nature accorded to the roots of plants. Bridges defy nature’s irritating rivers and canyons (‘What Nature rent asunder long ago, man has joined today’, said Joseph Strauss about his Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco). Airplanes correct nature’s failure to give man wings. And the Pill defies nature’s inexorable link between sex and pregnancy, creating a historically unimagined space for new forms of sexual thinking and sexual behaviour. Harrington’s treatment of the Pill as a uniquely malevolent form of technology, one that defies nature in a bad way, is simply unconvincing. I think she knows it is. Hence, she must fall back on moralistically scolding the women who take it, whom will be damned, she decrees, to fatness and fucking without orgasms.

Harrington’s technological determinism means she misses many of the cultural dynamics of our times. Consider her argument that the bodily mortification of transgenderism – what she refers to as ‘meat-lego gnosticism’ – is the logical conclusion to the ‘transhumanist’ medicines of reproductive technology. That is, there’s a straight line from the Pill to an 18-year-old girl having her breasts cut off because she is under the delusion that she is male.

It is hard to know where to start with this. It seems clear to me that modern contraception was a technology born of the mid-20th century’s positive cultural yearning for greater autonomy so that one might venture further into the world, à la Lasch’s vision of ‘the rugged individual’ who saw the world as ‘an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design’. Whereas the contemporary technology of sexual mutilation that arrives under the banner of transgenderism is the bastard offspring of a nervous, narcissistic culture that sees the body as the only site of radical overhaul and which expects the world to be a mirror faithfully reflecting our identities back to us. Harrington’s neglect of cultural nuance in preference for technophobia weakens her skills of historical specificity.

This leads us to what is surely the most glaring historical oversight in the book – the 1990s. So convinced is Harrington that today’s undoubted crisis of intimacy and cult of atomisation have their origins in the arrival of the Pill in your local pharmacy that she skirts speedily over everything that happened between then – 1960 – and now. Of her own experience in the 1990s, the decade in which I too came of age, she says: ‘I don’t recall ever taking any clear message from the culture I grew up in that sexual contact need involve anything more than the most minimal risk of accidental pregnancy.’

That isn’t right, is it? The 1990s were a period of extraordinary fear around sex. Strikingly, this book contains not one mention of AIDS or ‘safe sex’, despite the institutionalisation of the ideology of ‘safe sex’ – for all sexualities – from the late 1980s onwards. I recall crazy scare campaigns around chlamydia and gonorrhoea in the 1990s. There were posters in nightclub toilets. Beer mats warned of STIs. Everyone was obsessed with condoms. Having sex without one was tantamount to a crime. Dread attended sexual encounters. I put it to Ms Harrington and the other post-feminists that it wasn’t the sexual revolution that gave rise to today’s obsessive onanism and porn-use and swiping right, etc – it was the later turn against the sexual revolution. Masturbatory millennials and Gen Z folk who orgasm as much ‘with’ their OnlyFans idols as they do with human beings they actually know strike me as a product not of the 1960s’ liberation of sex, but of the 1990s’ problematisation of sex. It was surely the fin de siècle culture of fear, not women’s lib, that gave rise to our world of wankers.

Harrington writes about having once been a fully paid-up member of the woke before the scales fell from her eyes and she discovered motherhood, hormones and ‘reactionary feminism’. But it seems to me she has merely swapped one religion for another. Her reactionary feminism is a mirror image of woke. It shares woke’s discomfort with industrial modernity. It echoes its antagonism towards technology, though where they fear coal-burning, she fears Pill-popping. And, most importantly, it mimics woke’s dread of freedom. Harrington spits out the word ‘autonomy’ like an expletive. We live in the ‘rubble of absolute freedom’, she says. She sneers at ‘Team Freedom’. Everyone needs a ‘freedom haircut’, she says. Everyone needs to rediscover how to live within the limits of both natural and ‘social ecology’. Go tell that to the billions of women – and men – who still have next to no freedom. Who do live within the limits enforced on them by nature, mainly because their societies are not yet advanced enough to ‘defy nature’ in the ways we do. Their lives are unimaginable to people like Harrington. She calls it ‘agrarian’; I call it hell.

Cultural pessimism is in the air. You see it not only in woke and environmentalism and all the movements that falsely describe themselves as ‘progressive’, but increasingly in the right-wing reaction against woke, too. In the way that scepticism towards Big Tech is morphing into hostility towards technology itself. In the ‘trad’ movement’s retreat from social solidarity into homestead solidarity. In the trend for both right and left to be ostensibly anti-capitalist but really anti-modern. You see it, indeed, in capitalism’s own turn against its historic project of remaking the world in its own image.

I want no part of this depressing project. Progress remains my aspiration. ‘What travels under the term “progress” is revolutionary destruction of previously immutable-seeming limits’, cries Harrington. Boom. That’s me. Guilty as charged.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Feminism Against Progress, by Mary Harrington, is published by Forum. Order it here.

Picture by: Udayaditya Barua.

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Topics Books Feminism Science & Tech


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