Monday, January 20, 2020

Modernity: Chemins D'Enfer

Ed: Sorry, it's a long post but I think its important and Weber says it better than I can.

What comes across in Weber's book on the modernisation of France is the pivotal role that roads and more importantly, railways had in modernisation.  It really is difficult to overstate just how deeply the railway changed society but  suffice to say that Modernity would have been impossible without it. To understand the effect it produced its important to understand what life was like for the average peasant before it.

Prior to the invention of the railway, life was local with all that implies. The economy was local, social interactions were local as were materials and means. Economically, it meant that it was a world of limited economic opportunities which in turn produced a mode of life that was conditioned by these limited means.
Since for a long time they recognized few changes indeed as suitable, the peasant masses were widely regarded as passive, stubborn, and stupid. Yet we can see now that their narrow vision was the vision of frightened men in desperate circumstances; that the village was a lifeboat striving to keep afloat in heavy seas, its culture a combination of discipline and reassurance designed to keep its occupants alive. Insecurity was the rule, existence consistently marginal. Tradition, routine, vigorous adherence to the family and the community- and to their rules-alone made existence possible. The village was
an association for mutual aid. Lands, pastures, and ovens were generally ruled in common; dates for sowing and harvesting were set for one and all. Since all had to pull together, no deviance could be tolerated.

In such circumstances, innovation was almost inconceivable. Routine ruled: the structural balance attained by a long process of trial and error, reinforced by isolation and physical circumstances. At Tarascon (Ariege) in 1852, "the agricultural population thinks present agricultural methods have reached their peak of development and must not be set aside, being the fruit of long experience." Wisdom was doing things the way they always had been done, the way they were supposed to be done. "If you do as your neighbor does, you do neither ill nor well," advises a proverb of Franche-Comte. To the peasant, routine connoted not mindless labor but precious experience, what had worked and hence would work again, the accumulated wisdom without which life could not be maintained. For the Landais farmer, wrote Jean Ricard in 19I1, the past was "a guarantee of the present; in freeing himself from it he would fear to compromise the future."
Many peasants, says the Comte de Neufbourg in a book full of good sense and quite ignored, "live from day to day, and routine foresees things for them. We should not mock or destroy this routine: it would be missed, it is their wisdom." Subsistence farming-raising a bit of everything and making one's own bread and clothing-was a matter not of blind routine but of calculated necessity: "When one buys one's bread there is never any money left." Routine, concludes Daniel Faucher, is "the precious fruit of experience, a treasury of wisdom"; the peasant abandons it "only when assured that he can do so without damage." And that, as we have seen, is what happened.
Traditional communities continued to operate in the traditional manner as long as conditions retained their traditional shape: low productivity, market fluctuations beyond the producer's control, a low rate of savings, little surplus. What surplus the peasant could accumulate was taken from him in taxes or usurious interest, spent on church buildings and feasts, or invested in land. But land did not increase total production until capital investment in improvements became both possible and thinkable. And this did not happen until the market became an accessible reality, that is, until the expanding communications network brought it within reach. Economic growth could then proceed at a faster pace,· and producers could literally change their minds about what they were doing and to what end. Road and rail were the decisive factors in this change. Schools shaped and accelerated it. 
When you live an existence that is perilously close to starvation you minimise risk. Tradition was useful for precisely for that reason, and just as there are no atheists in foxholes, the precarious mode of existence, where death and ruin was a frequent and sudden occurrence, focused men on the afterlife and was conducive to religion. And it produced a certain mindset.
The very use of terms like out-of-date reflects a viewpoint alien to the traditional order. In a world highly dependent on natural conditions, seasonal and liturgical rhythms governed people's sense of time. Every situation had its earlier precedent, equivalent, or analogy. It was in the past that people sought lessons for the present: not new lessons but old ones that were never out-of date. Past and present were not two but one: a continuum of time lived, not a series of units measured by the clock. A feast or a fire, a harvest good or bad, a family event, lived on in memory and served as a more natural point of reference than the calendar. Songs and tales about events a century old evoked
powerful emotions. Proximity in time was relative, almost unimportant

Traditional time had no fixed units of measure; there was not even a break between work and leisure. Even the loss of time (comings and goings, pauses, waiting) passed largely unnoticed because integrated in routine and unquestioned. We have seen, for example, that land was often counted in the units of man or animal time it took to work it: not a fixed measure but one relative to conditions. Conditions also determined the value of time: it was cheap, very cheap, when everything else was scarce.
The railway changed everything. Weber quotes French statisticians that noted that were a railway appeared economic activity increased by about ten times. The railway bought prosperity but "prosperity" does not convey the profound change in the mode of life that it bought about.
The area around Die also changed radically after 1880. The region had stayed almost self-sufficient. So long as mules were the only means of transport, there was no point in growing commercialcrops for export, for instance fruit, to which its climate was well suited. Once roads and railroads breached the mountains and connected "this cell of the French Alps" to the life that flowed only some miles away, past the Drome gorges in the Rhone valley's plains, buyers appeared for cattle, lavender, and in due course fruit from newly developed orchards; chemical fertilizer and superphosphates could reach the narrow valleys and help meet new demands; rye gave way to wheat; comfort replaced grinding poverty. The profound transformation can be dated to the railway's coming in 1894 and the years immediately following, when the peasants became used to it and learned how to handle the formalities involved in shipping and receiving merchandise. The outside world, which till then had had little bearing on their own, now came in with a rush: skills like writing invoices and bills of lading, counting, and schooling in general acquired concrete meaning as occasions to use them multiplied. It was a story that repeated itself elsewhere
To illustrate just one way in which prosperity eroded the old order, consider the effect of dress and fashion on maintaining the social order. It's easy to maintain a heirarchy when the clothing you wear marks you out for belonging to a certain social class. However the prosperity bought about by rail also bought better clothing and the ability to keep up with fashion,  which in turn started undermining at the obvious social distinctions.  By the 1880's, Weber reports of how many people upper classes were lamenting about people dressing "above their station." On its own it means nothing, but taken in totality with all the other changes, it was part of a  force replacing the old order which was unstoppable.
My purpose is not to chronicle the growth of the wine industry or of any other, but to suggest what the presence of viable and accessible roads and rails did to people and to their way of life. It changed them radically. It opened possibilities sometimes sighed for but never within reach. The turning wheels on road and railway, even wheelbarrows, meant vastly greater carrying power, more movement and faster movement, more productivity and more resources,more choice or at least more freedom to choose. ..... Roads and rails brought men into the market, permitted them to drink wine or sell it profitably, or to develop crops that could not be marketed before, and to give up growing others that could now be bought more cheaply. They also brought ruin to local   enterprises no longer protected by earlier isolation, to outdated occupational groups like the riverboatmen, and to producers of mediocre local goods or crops fated to be  outmatched by specialized ones......The move was not only in space, but in time and mind as well: roads and rails introduced new foods into the diet, new materials in the building of the house, new objects in its interior, new tools in the fields about it, new things to do on holidays, and new kinds of clothes to wear. They offered opportunities for enterprise and hence for social mobility that were not there before; the jobs that went with roads and railways alone were temptations that set many on the move.
A few peasants had watches and displayed them with pride. But even to them a watch was "a horse in the stable," useless when one could refer to cockcrows, to the stars, to the sun's touching this or that rock or tree, or to one's own shadow. As with watches, so with the calendar. The calendar year meant nothing, the rhythm of seasons everything. In Auvergne the basic division was between winter, from All Souls to Saint George's day (November I-April 23), and summer, when beasts could sleep out of doors. In Franche-Comte, summer was divided not into months but into "times": the time for going outdoors (patchi fou, going out), essentially spring; the times for haying and for harvesting. In the late autumn and winter, there were "times" for sewing and for vieillin (veillees) .
In the French language, temps refers to both weather and duration: two concepts to us but not to the peasant whose longer hours of work came in the fair weather of the summer. To the farmer, time is work; life is work; work brings subsistence and independence. In the city, time and work have another meaning: productivity, surplus, profit, comfort, leisure. In late-nineteenth century France these two notions of time clashed, and one disappeared. No other outcome was possible. The new world of markets and of schools worked only on its kind of time; and the difference was fundamental. Old skills based on watching and imitating what one's elders did, old forms of intuition learned from the wise or simply discovered in oneself, gave way before the new techniques and practices of rationality. Success was achieved not by harder work, greater strength, or inspired guessing, but by superior reasoning. The new process was rational ("we do this because"), quantitative ("this way we turn out that much more"), abstract ("these are the rules"). Internalized rhythms of labor were replaced by learned skills and norms. A man who thinks his work is no worse, certainly, than one who does not; but he is certainly different.
What Weber documents is the change in the mindset of the common man bought about by the new prosperity. And it was a change which was qualitative, discontinuous with the mindset of the past. And it was a mindset which I feel did not actively reject the past as much as it found it irrelevant and not of any use.  Charles Taylor talks about the change from the "porous" to the "buffered" self but the approach he takes is far too intellectual and implies a conscious choice in the state of being whereas what Weber describes is an adaptation to a new state of affairs: more evolutionary than deliberately revolutionary. Less a philosophical position than a pragmatic acceptance of affairs in the minds of the average man.

For Christianity, especially Catholicism, this change in mindset proved disastrous. But it should no have had to have been so.  While it's true that the old equilibrium between the agrarian existence of Europe and Christianity had been shattered  a new one could have probably been achieved had the Church the capacity to adapt, but it didn't. Instead it took a reactionary stance that went well beyond doctrinal lines and shot itself in the foot by doing so. Perhaps this is best expressed by the actions of Pope Gregory the XVI, who in an attempt to forestall modernity banned the introduction of railways into the Papal states.  His successor, seeing the benefits of technology and the benefits it conferred to the poor reversed this decision and thereby contributed to the modernity which Christianity has been unable to deal with.

I suppose what I'm trying to say here in this post is that engineering and not the Enlightenment is the pre-eminent dimension of Modernity.