The Allure of Pastoralism

In art, the term pastoral refers to a genre of painting and literature based on romanticized and idealized portrayals of a pastoral lifestyle, usually for urban audiences with no direct experience of the actual squalor and oppression of pre-industrial rural life.

Biblical Pastoralism: drawing inspiration for the 21st century from shepherds.

Within religious traditions, pastorals may also be associated with the motifs and symbols of uncorrupted states of being. In the West for instance, pastoral art and literature often evoke the Garden of Eden story. In Islamic societies, the first caliphate is often evoked in a similar way.

The notion of a pastoral is useful for understanding idealized understandings of any society, real or imagined, past, present or future. In Philip Roth’s American Pastoral for instance, the term is an allusion to the idealized American lifestyle enjoyed by the protagonist Seymour “Swede” Levov, before it is ruined by the social turmoil of the 1960s.

At the center of any pastoral we find essentialized notions of what it means to be human, like Adam and Eve or William Whyte’s Organization Man, arranged in a particular social order (patriarchal in this case). From these archetypes we get to pure and virtuous idealized lifestyles. Lifestyles that deviate from these understandings seem corrupt and vice-driven. The belief that “people don’t change” is at once an approximation and a prescription: people should not change except to better conform to the ideal they are assumed to already approximate. The belief justifies building technology to serve the predictable and changeless ideal and labeling unexpected uses of technology degenerate.

We owe our increasingly farcical yearning for jetpacks and flying cars, for instance, to what we might call the “World Fairs pastoral,” since the vision was strongly shaped by mid-twentieth-century World Fairs. Even at the height of its influence, it was already being satirized by television shows like The Flintstones and The Jetsons. The shows portrayed essentially the 1950s social order, full of Organization Families, transposed to past and future pastoral settings. The humor in the shows rested on audiences recognizing the escapist non-realism.

Not quite as clever as the Flintstones or Jetsons, but we try.

The World Fairs pastoral, inspired strongly by the aerospace technologies of the 1950s, represented a future imagined around flying cars, jetpacks and glamorous airlines like Pan Am. Flying cars merely updated a familiar nuclear-family lifestyle. Jetpacks appealed to the same individualist instincts as motorcycles. Airlines like Pan Am, besides being an integral part of the military-industrial complex, owed their “glamor” in part to their deliberate perpetuation of the sexist culture of the fifties. Within this vision, truly significant developments, like the rise of vastly more efficient low-cost airlines in the 70s, seemed like decline from a “Golden Age” of air travel.

Arguably, the aerospace future that actually unfolded was vastly more interesting than the one envisioned in the World Fairs pastoral. Low-cost, long-distance air travel opened up a globalized and multicultural future, broke down barriers between insular societies, and vastly increased global human mobility. Along the way, it helped dismantle much of the institutionalized sexism behind the glamour of the airline industry. These developments were enabled in large part by post-1970s software technologies,1 rather than improvements in core aerospace engineering technologies. These were precisely the technologies that were beginning to “break smart” out of the stifling influence of the military-industrial complex.

In 2012, thanks largely to these developments, for the first time in history there were over a billion international tourist arrivals worldwide.2 Software had eaten and democratized elitist air travel. Today, software is continuing to eat airplanes in deeper ways, driving the current explosion in drone technology. Again, those fixated on jetpacks and flying cars are missing the actual, much more interesting action because it is not what they predicted. When pastoralists pay attention to drones at all, they see them primarily as morally objectionable military weapons. The fact that they replace technologies of mass slaughter such as carpet bombing, and the growing number of non-military uses, are ignored.

In fact the entire World Fairs pastoral is really a case of privileged members of society, presuming to speak for all, demanding “faster horses” for all of society (in the sense of the likely apocryphal3 quote attributed to Henry Ford, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have demanded faster horses.”)

Fortunately for the vitality of the United States and the world at large, the future proved wiser than any limiting pastoral vision of it. The aerospace story is just one among many that suddenly appear in a vastly more positive light once we drop pastoral obsessions and look at the actual unfolding action. Instead of the limited things we could imagine in the 1950s, we got much more impactful things. Software eating aerospace technology allowed it to continue progressing in the direction of maximum potential.

If pastoral visions are so limiting, why do we get so attached to them? Where do they even come from in the first place? Ironically, they arise from Promethean periods of evolution that are too successful.

The World Fairs pastoral, for instance, emerged out of a Promethean period in the United States, heralded by Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s. Hamilton recognized the enormous potential of industrial manufacturing, and in his influential 1792 Report on Manufactures,4 argued that the then-young United States ought to strive to become a manufacturing superpower. For much of the nineteenth century, Hamilton’s ideas competed for political influence5 with Thomas Jefferson’s pastoral vision of an agrarian, small-town way of life, a romanticized, sanitized version of the society that already existed.

For free Americans alive at the time, Jefferson’s vision must have seemed tangible, obviously valuable and just within reach. Hamilton’s must have seemed speculative, uncertain and profane, associated with the grime and smoke of early industrializing Britain. For almost 60 years, it was in fact Jefferson’s parochial sense of proportions that dominated American politics. It was not until the Civil War that the contradictions inherent in the Jeffersonian pastoral led to its collapse as a political force. Today, while it still supplies powerful symbolism to politicians’ speeches, all that remains of the Jeffersonian Pastoral is a nostalgic cultural memory of small-town agrarian life.

During the same period, Hamilton’s ideas, through their overwhelming success, evolved from a vague sense of direction in the 1790s into a rapidly maturing industrial social order by the 1890s. By the 1930s, this social order was already being pastoralized into an alluring vision of jetpacks and flying cars in a vast, industrialized, centralized society. A few decades later, this had turned into a sense of dead-end failure associated with the end of the Apollo program, and the reality of a massive, overbearing military-industrial complex straddling the technological world. The latter has now metastasized into an entire too-big-to-fail old economy. One indicator of the freezing of the sense of direction is that many contemporary American politicians still remain focused on physical manufacturing the way Alexander Hamilton was in 1791. What was a prescient sense of direction then has turned into nostalgia for an obsolete utopian vision today. But where we have lost our irrational attachment to the Jeffersonian Pastoral, the World Fairs pastoral is still too real to let go.

We get attached to pastorals because they offer a present condition of certainty and stability and a utopian future promise of absolutely perfected certainty and stability. Arrival at the utopia seems like a well-deserved reward for hard-won Promethean victories. Pastoral utopias are where the victors of particular historical finite games hope to secure their gains and rest indefinitely on their laurels. The dark side, of course, is that pastorals also represent fantasies of absolute and eternal power over the fate of society: absolute utopias for believers that necessarily represent dystopias for disbelievers. Totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, such as communism and fascism, are the product of pastoral mindsets in their most toxic forms. The Jeffersonian pastoral was a nightmare for black Americans.

When pastoral fantasies start to collapse under the weight of their own internal contradictions, long-repressed energies are unleashed. The result is a societal condition marked by widespread lifestyle experimentation based on previously repressed values. To those faced with a collapse of the World Fairs pastoral project today, this seems like an irreversible slide towards corruption and moral decay.

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[1] One revealing metric is “Cost per Available Seat Mile”, the main metric used to measure the efficiency of airlines. This cost has dropped 40% since the 1970s. See: R. John Hansman The Impact of Information Technologies on Air Transportation , AIAA Conference, 2005.

[2] Over 1.1 billion tourists traveled abroad in 2014, UN World Tourism Organization press release, 2014.

[3] The quote “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse” is often attributed to Henry Ford, but there is no evidence that he actually said that. It is still a convenient metaphor though.

[4] The historical context of Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures can be found in the Wikipedia entry. The actual document can be found here.

[5] Michael Lind’s 2012 book, Land of Promise provides a comprehensive overview of the interplay of Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian ideas since the 1780s. Though Lind focuses on the United States, a similar conflict has shaped the course of industrialization for every major economy. Lind comes down heavily in favor Hamiltonian models, but fails to adequately distinguish between the underlying Promethean values from the corporatist economic organization models that emerged by the 1950s. This weakens an otherwise excellent treatment of the dynamic. Edmund Phelps’ Mass Flourishing makes for a good companion read that makes up for some of the shortcomings of Lind’s treatment.