THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT life in a society from which higher goods have been expelled, leaving no place for love, wonder, or beauty. The “compulsion” of the title is that which guides people in such a setting. In default of anything better, people fall under the dominion of itches, obsessions, and impositions, and mistake their slavery for freedom. No higher principle is telling them what to do, and that, they believe, is liberty.
Today’s commercial and managerial technocracy is increasingly just such a society, one that views the world and everything in it primarily as a resource for achieving whatever goals people and institutions happen to choose. God has been exorcised, leaving only a this-worldly system of force and desire. In such a world things are not valued in themselves but as means to the triumph of the will, which has been rebranded as Choice and Autonomy and made the foundation of what now counts as human dignity.
The book discusses the pathologies to which such a situation gives rise, especially in connection with the world of childhood. Adults are mostly formed already, and they have to get things done, so there are aspects of technocratic society they find at least convenient. That is one reason for the widespread support it enjoys: It destroys the joy of life, but after a while we forget what we have lost, and turn to solving immediate practical problems and to distractions.
Children are less concerned with getting things done than with coming to know the world and how to think and feel about it. That happens partly through the instruction they receive, but mostly through play, imagination, adventure, and admiration. In a technocratic society there’s little place for such things—so little that the authorities find it natural to arrest parents for allowing children to play outside unsupervised. After all, what could be the purpose of such conduct in a world conceived as a sort of industrial process? The result is a real-life dystopia in which children can no longer be children. Anthony Esolen offers an example of a theme park in which young ones can add to imitation bank accounts by working on an imitation assembly line, and quotes an amazing passage from John Dewey in which the man actually claims that children who look as if they’re impressed with some romantic image or noble ideal are in fact “occupied only with transitory physical excitations.”
Under such circumstances children become a problem or a lifestyle accessory, but most of all a resource for other purposes—our “greatest resource,” as they say. So what do we do with them? We can’t let them be what they are, and we can’t find joy in forming ties with them that guide them step by step into an adult world understood as good and worth aspiring to. No such world now exists, and each of us has his own projects and problems to manage. So the question becomes how to avoid having them or, if they do show up, how best to fit them into their place in global postindustrial society. If they are our own children, we add to that the question of how to give them a leg up on the competition.
The author shows how it all works out in one part of life after another: the aimlessness and boredom, the perverse ideals, the forced celebrations, the growing stupidity, the mechanization of teaching and what is taught, the treadmill of work that has absorbed even young people’s sports, the reduction of the wonder of what joins man and woman to an itch—it goes on and on.
Life Under Compulsion is not a treatise. It explores the very large topic of everyday modern inhumanity in an essayistic and episodic way. It might seem at bottom a rant against various aspects of technocratic society loosely organized by reference to their effect on children. If so, there are worse things someone could write. Extended denunciations have a bad name in a world accustomed to passing off insanity as normal and even praiseworthy, but they can be intelligent, well written, sharply observed, deeply considered, and entirely justified, and there are times when to speak in a calm and balanced manner is not to be a man.
Nonetheless, this book is much more than denunciation. The author stands for the natural, the cultured, and the ideal in a world that has no idea what those things mean. His book is full of observation, analysis, and examples from daily life, literature, history, and personal anecdote that bring out concretely and vividly the depth, breadth, and complexity of what is now being suppressed, and the mechanical nihilism that’s being put in its place. His gift for portraying both makes reading this book an education in the unbought grace of life—where it comes from, how it works, how it is lost, and what happens then.Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (October 2015) Contributing editor James Kalb is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism (ISI Books).