Existentialism, A Reaction to the Age of Organization Precis by GG

Abstract: The rise of highly bureaucratized large-scale organizations in the 20th century, caused by a need for social control through rationalism and technology, have dehumanized and alienated man into a submissive dependent. Existentialism is a philosophy of resistance against this rational collectivism, which interferes with man’s individual responsibility; such resistance liberates man from a part to a whole and safeguards democracy.

The crisis of the 20th century is one of human relationship; a deadly sterility and passivity. This conclusion stems from analyzing social environments dominated by large-scale organizations such as government, labor, universities and businesses, which confront the individual. The age of organization’s guiding belief, beginning in the 19th century, is that human superiority over animal comes from the superiority of human organization. 20th century organizations have become the means by which man transcends individual limitations; thus man can achieve great things without he himself becoming great. Organization compensates for individual shortcomings, as seen in bureaucracy, which epitomizes the era of unprecedented organizational growth. The formal organization is established explicitly for the purpose of achieving specific goals and is characterized by hierarchy, specialization, systems of rules and impersonality.

Attempts to explain the rise of modern organizations cite direct and indirect causes. Direct causes say the dominance of large organizations is a consequence of the demand for higher living standards, technological changes and the laws of economics. Another direct cause is that modern large-scale organizations provide the administrative machinery of bureaucracy necessary to implement social policies en masse. Indirect causes say modern collectivism stems from rationality and technology, not socioeconomics. One historian argues that organization comes from the modern desire to convert complex societies into efficient machines; thus perfecting the higher functioning of the machine by expanding organization (bureaucratization) becomes a core principle in collectivism. 19th century organization indirectly considered economics and technology while modern organization directly stems from a need for social control, maintenance of order, and the regularization of society. None of these explanations for the rise of large-scale organizations are mutually exclusive.

Modern man is a product of organization. The organized man, the man who leaves home to join the organization and work in the self-perpetuating institutions, dominates the modern age. The Protestant work ethic has been replaced by a new social ethic with three core principles; belief in the group as the source of creativity, belief that belonging is the individual’s greatest need, and a belief that science is applied to achieve said belonging. The group, not the individual, is the decisive factor; it is the standard unit of modernity. As largeness becomes ubiquitous in the modern age bureaucracy shall expand indefinitely. Man’s life resembles a cog in the machine of bureaucracy; the overemphasized organization is the whole, the man is an abstract dehumanized fragment. Organizations take healthy men and degrade them into submissive dependents who only utilize a few superficial abilities. This fragmentation causes alienation; organization, industrialization, secularization, bureaucratization and urbanization have replaced community and intensified the alienation of man in an increasingly impersonal society. Society requires that man perform function and that the rest of his being sink below consciousness; thus man is a stranger to God, others and himself. Rebellion to this bureaucracy is both unconscious and conscious. Those in favor of organization say men who desire childhood indulgences and tenderness cannot adapt to the orderliness and impersonality of bureaucracy; they unconsciously and immaturely rebel. Other, such as existentialists, say man must rebel in order to live.

Existentialism, a reaction to the age of organization, is a style of thought, a specific approach to life and existence. Existentialism embodies the self-questioning of this age; it dissects alienation, the fragility of human life, futile reason against complex existence, the threat of Nothingness, and the solitary individual before all this. Existentialism, like organization, has roots in the 19th century, with Kierkegaard as the champion of the individual, and has grown out of alienation, aiming to liberate men from estrangement. Thus existentialism is a philosophy of resistance against collectivism’s machine production, which dehumanizes man. Kierkegaard criticizes the rise of the masses and public opinions; Jaspers criticizes the modern welfare state’s absorption of man; Marcel criticizes the extended power of the state and the registration card’s replacement of the person. Government bureaucracy, totalitarian state, industrial machines, morals, laws, science and religion are all threats to the individual if they interfere with his total responsibility to himself. The greatest threat is abstract rationalism, which can replace individual thoughts with fundamental routines by which life moves. Technology and bureaucracy, rulers of the organized modern age, are manifestations of abstract rationalism. Existentialists recognize that life as a cog is easy but must be resisted, and life as a whole is hard but must be aimed for.

Organization and society are important; technology and bureaucracy are inescapable. Yet we must be wary of dominance. Organizations are dangerous, for they require submissiveness and conformity to produce efficiency; when these attitudes enter sociopolitical life the consequences can be disastrous. Democracies require freedom of expression, which must be protected from conformist bureaucracy. As long as there are man (like existentialists) who suggest that man is whole and organizations are not masters, democracy will be safe.

Precis by G.G.

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