Industrial civilization is now in the throes of a historically unprecedented, meteoric realignment of social, economic, and cognitive patterning Max Weber called "rationalization" and more generally is referred to as "modernity." Institutions and relationships are being permeated by an urge toward logical planning, structured management, measurement and calculation on all fronts.
Some argue this Enlightenment-spawned project goes well enough. Rational economic organization combines capitalism, machine process, and cybernetic control to produce goods and services in unprecedented abundance. Technology, rationalization's concrete manifestation, provides the leverage to pry away the Earth's crust, capture the power of the sun, and fling men to the moon. It brings within grasp the abilities to suppress polio, reattach retinas with tiny blades of laser light, and restructure the genetic foundations of living organisms. Reason in law continues to enfranchise and even opportunities, increase tolerance for diversity, and broaden the range of peoples included in self-determination. These are the benefits claimed for rationality. Others point to the deficiencies.
In the French tradition the rate of change in opportunity structures outstrips the normative order, leaving persons "separated from the social substance" as Hegel put it, anomic in Durkheim's terms, confused, destabilized, disoriented, cut off from the collective conscience. The rationalized world increasingly becomes an artificial product of mechanical manipulation, estranged and separated from conquered nature. Modern science replaces primitive superstition, but with new ways of knowing comes a vast new unknown. The pantheon of ancient gods, the mysterious animation of ever present spirits and sprites have vanished. The once-sacred stream is channeled and dammed, the sacred grove measured for board-feet of timber. Astronomers and astronauts reach out into the expanding universe and discover humanity's insignificance and solitude. Instead of the surety of God's grace there remains only the ability to reject null hypotheses, to reduce the probability of error. Knowledge of material things is gained, but encompassing, spiritual understanding of life is lost. The residuum is the sparse legacy of Democritus: atoms, empty space, and "mere opinion."
Rationality begins to set its own agenda. Expanding scientific inquiry, commercial applications, and the burgeoning affairs of state demand ever larger and more specialized organizations, further dispassionate management and refined calculation. Late-stage capitalism and monolithic governments reduce persons to objects and objects to commodities, occasioning what Hegel called a "separation from self," an estrangement Marx labeled the alienation of labor. Workplace loyalty and tradition are replaced by meritocracy and cost-benefit analysis; craft and skill are subjugated to the depersonalized routines of automated mass assembly. Personal worth is increasingly gauged by the control, display, and consumption of material goods and visible services rather than one's role in producing them.
How are these intrusions met? Not well, according to many accounts. Faced with the growing power and complexity of modern institutions, the diminishing individual no longer hopes to comprehend or control even a fraction of the forces that surround her or him. Bloated, sclerotic social structures, amoral inconstancy, powerlessness, purposelessness— these too are the legacies claimed for rationalization. In response, the human condition declines in two directions: toward frenetic hyper-conformity, the "one-dimensional," "other-directed," "organizational," or "protean" marionettes of modem bureaucratic life; or toward disintegrating deviance—suicide, crime, mental illness, political apathy or extremism, and other destructive behaviors and beliefs.