My thanks to my reader Lleweton who sent me a link from American Conservative with predictions for the modern world by the late sociologist Pitrim A. Sorokin.

American Conservative‘s source for Sorokin’s five points is Morris Berman’s site. Berman is an American social critic and historian who has been living in Mexico since 2006. (Regarding the ensuing comments, the tenor of what Berman has to say is in sharp contrast with what he posted. Readers, be warned!)

This is what Sorokin wrote. This comes from his magnum opus Social and Cultural Dynamics, written between 1937 and 1941:

  1. The boundary between true and false, and beautiful and ugly, will erode. Conscience will disappear in favor of special interest groups. Force and fraud will become the norm; might will become right, and brutality rampant. It will be a bellum omnium contra omnes, and the family will disintegrate as well. “The home will become a mere overnight parking place.”
  1. Sensate values “will be progressively destructive rather than constructive, representing in their totality a museum of sociocultural pathology….The Sensate mentality will increasingly interpret man and all values ‘physicochemically,’ ‘biologically,’ ‘reflexologically,’ ‘endocrinologically,’ ‘behavioristically,’ ‘economically’…[etc.].”
  1. Real creativity will die out. Instead, we shall get a multitude of mediocre pseudo-thinkers and vulgar groups and organizations. Our belief systems will turn into a strange chaotic stew of science, philosophy, and magical beliefs. “Quantitative colossalism will substitute for qualitative refinement.” What is biggest will be regarded as best. Instead of classics, we shall have best-sellers. Instead of genius, technique. Instead of real thought, Information. Instead of inner value, glittering externality. Instead of sages, smart alecs. The great cultural values of the past will be degraded; “Michelangelos and Rembrandts will be decorating soap and razor blades, washing machines and whiskey bottles.”
  1. Freedom will become a myth. “Inalienable rights will be alienated; Declarations of Rights either abolished or used only as beautiful screens for an unadulterated coercion. Governments will become more and more hoary, fraudulent, and tyrannical, giving bombs instead of bread; death instead of freedom; violence instead of law.” Security will fade; the population will become weary and scared. “Suicide, mental disease, and crime will grow.”
  1. The dies irae of transition will not be fun to live through, but the only way out of this mess, he wrote, is precisely through it. Under the conditions outlined above, the “population will not be able to help opening its eyes [this will be a very delayed phase in the U.S., I’m guessing] to the hollowness of the declining Sensate culture…. As a result, it will increasingly forsake it and shift its allegiance to either Ideational or Idealistic values.” Finally, we shall see the release of new creative forces, which “will usher in a culture and a noble society built not upon the withered Sensate root but upon a healthier and more vigorous root of integralistic principle.” In other words, we can expect “the emergence and slow growth of the first components of a new sociocultural order.”

Please feel free to discuss this in the comments.

Here’s my take.

I agree with nearly all these points. However, a few bones of contention follow.

First, I disagree with the last sentence in point 1: home will become an overnight parking place. There is no explanation as to why he said this. Therefore, I’m working on assumptions here.

Sorokin was a sociology professor at Harvard from 1930 to 1968. Living and travelling in the Northeast, he no doubt witnessed the rise in what were then known as ‘dormitory communities’, or suburbs, as we call them today. Men, particularly near New York, worked in Manhattan then returned home via commuter train to Long Island, New Jersey, Westchester County or Connecticut. A 1960s example is Mad Men‘s Don Draper.

These days, that still holds true, however, more businesses are moving to the suburbs. Their offices are located off of turnpikes and tollroads. There are also more people working from home, at least a few days a week. So it seems most of us still enjoy the charm of our own four walls.

The only men I know who like being away from home are thirtysomethings with young children. They love hopping on a plane for overnight business trips. A generalisation, I know, but those are the managers I’ve worked for in the past.

My second point of disagreement is with the last statement in point 3 regarding artistic masterpieces appearing on banal, albeit useful, objects. Ask young people if they know who Michelangelo and Rembrandt are. Most school leavers would give you a blank stare. Furthermore — and sadly — classical art is nothing more than a collection of museum pieces these days. Portraiture, classical painting and sculpture are no longer taught in art schools anywhere. Today, it’s all about photography or installation art.

Finally, the item I disagree with most is point 5. However, in order to understand it, it is important to know that Sorokin’s work relies on the following principles:

“ideational” (reality is spiritual), “sensate” (reality is material), or “idealistic” (a synthesis of the two). He suggested that major civilizations evolve from an ideational, to an idealistic, and eventually to a sensate mentality. Each of these phases of cultural development not only seeks to describe the nature of reality, but also stipulates the nature of human needs and goals to be satisfied, the extent to which they should be satisfied, and the methods of satisfaction. Sorokin has interpreted the contemporary Western civilization as a sensate civilization dedicated to technological progress and prophesied its fall into decadence and the emergence of a new ideational or idealistic era.

Except that in all his research on the subject, he found only two eras in the whole of history which he considered idealistic. Varacalli Nichols, writing for Catholic Social Scientists, explains (p. 6 of PDF, emphasis mine):

In 1937, in the first three volumes of Social and Cultural Dynamics, Sorokin provided the first relatively full statement of Integralism, although he used the term “idealistic culture mentality” for it.13 This mentality was defined as a harmonious blend of two fundamentally opposed premises about reality/value: that it was spiritual (ideational premise) and that it was secular (sensate premise). Within the idealistic synthesis, the ideational component retained primacy. Although some persons in all eras had idealistic mentalities, idealistic systems of culture and society were relatively rare and short-lived. The fourth century B.C. and the twelfth to thirteenth centuries of the Christian era in Europe were the only two examples Sorokin found over a period of twenty-five centuries.

Therefore, it hardly seems realistic to expect another anytime soon.

Yet, Sorokin strongly believed in utopian society. His obituary in the Harvard Crimson of February 12, 1968, tells us:

In 1949, he founded the Harvard Center for Research in Creative Altruism. As the Center’s first and only chairman, he was often criticized. His research into the lives of 4600 Christian saints, and 500 living American altruists, his descriptions of five-dimensional love, and his study of Raja-Yoga techniques led some to regard him mistakenly as a ludicrous eccentric.

Sorokin knew that. He said:

Since governments, big foundations, and better brains seem to be absorbed mainly in the promotion of wars and in the invention of increasingly destructive means for the extermination of man by man, someone, somehow, and sometime had to engage in the study of the phenomena of unselfish love, no matter how inadequate were his capabilities or how low the esteem of colleagues for his engaging in such a ‘foolish enterprise’.

He believed Man is basically good. Humanity just needs to be channelled into doing good things for others in order for utopia to happen. Once we put away our selfishness and antagonism, we will have fewer wars and greater harmony.

Hmm. If we were basically good, we would not cajoling to be altruistic. Scripture tells us we have lived in a fallen world since Original Sin. Nothing will change that, although the effects can be ameliorated somewhat.

Sorokin was brought up in a Russian Orthodox peasant household in Komi, near the Finnish border. He attended Russian Orthodox school prior to studying at the University of St Petersburg. He became involved in the Social Revolutionary Party whilst in school. Unlike the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries were the only ones open to bringing together peasants, the proletariat and intellectuals.

Sorokin ran into trouble with the Tsarist police, then the Bolsheviks. He was no stranger to arrest or imprisonment. Nonetheless, he was far from being the only political activist to encounter such things. He completed his studies and, by 1914, was lecturing at the University of St Petersburg’s Psycho-Neurological Institute.

For a time, he served as secretary to Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky in the Russian Constituent Assembly. After the October Revolution, he refused to tow the Bolshevik line and was imprisoned. Lenin sentenced him to death but released him in 1918. Sorokin resigned from the Assembly and sent a letter to Pravda accordingly. Lenin published his own lengthy response to Sorokin’s letter. Lenin wrote:

Pitirim Sorokin is representative of the Menshevik Socialist-Revolutionary trend, an extremely broad public and political trend. That this is a single trend, that the difference between the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries in their attitude towards the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is insignificant, is especially convincingly and strikingly borne out by the events in the Russian revolution since February 1917. The Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries are varieties of petty-bourgeois democrats—that is the economic essence and fundamental political characteristic of the trend in question. We know from the history of the advanced countries how frequently this trend in its early stages assumes a “socialist” hue.

Soon afterward, he founded the University of St Petersburg’s sociology department. However, he was arrested again in 1922. He and his wife were able to migrate across Europe towards the United States.

Once in the Midwest in 1923, universities invited Sorokin to lecture on the Russian Revolution. The University of Minnesota offered him a professorship in their sociology department. By 1930, he had accepted a similar position at Harvard, where he taught for the next 38 years.

Sorokin, drawing on his background, did several years’ work in rural sociology, which encompassed the changing countryside landscape, including farming and family life.

Afterward, in 1948, he obtained funding from the Eli Lilly Foundation to research altruism and how it could be made into more of a commonplace social practice.

No doubt Sorokin was able to use much research and many insights which gave him — and others — hope for the future.

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