We’re going to move on this week to another of Romano Guardini’s texts – Power and Responsibility. I’ve spent some time criticising Guardini – for his Eurocentrism, for his insular religious arrogance – but he does have some interesting things to say. Partly the issue is that the previous text, The End of the Modern World, is in some ways a work of futurology. It’s trying to anticipate the world that is to come – or that was to come, given that he was writing in the 50s. Some of his analysis really rings true, but it’s not interesting to write about. This is the problem with futurology – when they get it wrong, it’s useless piffle, and when they get it right, it’s mundane. The present feels so familiar that it’s hard to muster much of a response. Of course they got it right – obviously this is where we ended up. The present moment has an air of inevitability. It’s not interesting when futurologists get it right, because it’s hard to imagine how they could have got it wrong. So instead we spent our time haranguing Guardini for his outdated opinions – which also existed among the other Catholic writers that we’ve looked at this year, but Guardini – I don’t know, maybe he annoyed me with the Metropolis thing.
Anyway, today we’re looking at Power and Responsibility. Guardini has a real concern for the advance of technology, which he sees as threatening to reduce or contain humanity as much as benefit it. We discussed this concern back in August, in ‘Technology vs the Human’ – to repeat what I said there:
“In Guardini’s view, then, in an age of machines we risk becoming detached from the world around us – becoming abstracted from material conditions, from complexity and nuance. We arguably see that process in how our internet footprint is tracked, collated and sold to marketers and advertisers, or in how kids in school are heavily tested – and maybe in some sense reduced to their scores. We are conscious of ourselves as numbers in systems, as bank accounts and credit ratings. We are abbreviated; our humanity is quantified and codified under a collection of statistics and rankings – and there is a sense that it is inhumane, that it strips us of our dignity.”
In Power and Responsibility, Guardini returns to this theme, shifting it into the context of nation states. Just as machinery or technology reduces us as individuals, it also threatens to overwrite differences between countries:
“As population mounts, people grow more uniform, and families with genuine tradition and distinction become rarer, the possibilities of leading an individual life get fewer all the time. Modern cities everywhere are all alike, whether in Western Europe, China, North or South America, or Russia. A type of man is evolving who lives only in the present, who is ‘replaceable’ to a terrifying degree, and who all too easily falls victim to power.”
All of the key concerns that we’ve traced through are present here. Guardini associates the problem with growing population, as he did in his attack on Metropolis, where he railed against ‘mass man’. So too the gendered reference to ‘man’ instead of ‘people’, which we discussed two weeks ago, and again the central concern with technology reducing the diversity of our human nature. Really what Guardini is noticing – he doesn’t use these terms, but today we’d call it the joint forces of capitalism and globalisation. Being replaceable is a key feature of capitalism – throughout our working life, we are molded to the demands of the market, with particular roles or functions – marketing, sales, HR – repeating across virtually every business. As a worker, you conform to the demands of the market, or you drop out of it, and society rejects you as an unproductive bludger – as a parasite, as someone unable to contribute to the global economic machine. The common nature of these roles makes it easier and quicker for employers to find cogs and fit them into the machine – but it also makes those cogs replaceable. If one breaks or wears down, it can be easily replaced.
Similarly – I’m not going to say that globalisation is entirely a product of capitalism, because I don’t think that’s correct, but it sure as fuck doesn’t hurt it. A labour market with some degree of global standardization makes it even easier for employers to find the cogs they’re looking for. If you’ve done marketing in Canada, you can probably do marketing in Australia. Globalisation connects nations together, but it also increasingly creates certain global norms. As Guardini says, where historically different nations “showed unmistakable individuality, today they are growing more and more alike. Their mutual economic and political dependence grows constantly greater, their dress and way of life more similar.” We see this interdependence quite clearly in the modern day – for instance with COP26 going on in Glasgow, all the world’s nations trying to work together to solve the problem of climate change – which will affect the whole world indiscriminately. Covid obviously doesn’t respect national borders either. The English language is increasingly entrenched as a global language, as the common language of commerce and politics, and – I mean, even to take an incidental example, the first KFC in the Middle East opened in Kuwait, in 1973. That’s what Guardini is talking about – different countries becoming more alike. The obvious point of reference from here is Benjamin Barber’s 1995 book Jihad vs. McWorld, just as long as we’re discussing fast food – where Guardini writes that “perhaps modern nationalism is the peoples’ last attempt to defend themselves against absorption,” Barber would agree, although the tribalism that he refers to as ‘jihad’ is not always operating on the level of nation-states – it can be smaller than that.
Clearly Power and Responsibility touches on themes that are still relevant to our world today. If anything they’ve become more relevant – and the clarity of Guardini’s view is remarkable, even if his terms haven’t all aged so well. Really, though, I think the most salient point for us is his connection between globalisation and our potential loss of humanity. Guardini draws a long arc between those two topics. He doesn’t see globalisation as generating a complex cosmopolitan identity, as in the melting pot of the United States. He sees it as reducing us to paste, generic and indistinguishable. “Constantly improved techniques of stock-taking, man-power survey, and bureaucratic management – to put it brutally, increasingly effective social engineering – tend to treat people much as the machine treats the raw materials fed into it.” Capitalism is the missing link in his argument. It serves as the engine by which globalisation abbreviates us, transforming us into packaged economic products. That’s a pretty crucial part of the equation – if we’re going to articulate the problem fully, let alone plan to do anything about it, that’s the bit we need.