Enlightenment Lost: A Faustian Exchange of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for Self Glorification and Material Convenience
This was a way of thinking and an approach to knowledge and human living very different from the autocratic, theocentric and proto-democratic understandings and methods that preceded it. Enlightenment thinkers asserted (Bacon) and were demonstrating (Galileo and others) that answers to questions about the composition and functioning of the world and the cosmos could be found through empirical observation, experimentation and the scientific method.
They also believed that humans could devise better ways of behaving individually and organizing themselves socially, to the benefit of the greatest number of persons, compared to the ideas and methods of the past, by living in accordance with moral principles developed through reasoning. In the moral realm a range of ideals was put forward and gradually adopted by most European nations. These notions included liberty, progress, tolerance, equality, justice, fraternity, constitutional and representational government, and the separation of church and state.
The subsequent history of the West, 1789 to the present, saw many of these ideals contested yet eventually accepted and institutionalized. See Steven Pinker's 2018 book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Prominent among these institutionalized ideals was the importance of individual freedom from tyranny as formalized in certain declarations of human rights. Notable was the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776), the motivations underlying the French Revolution (1789), and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791).
It is important to note that the institutionalization of individual freedoms and rights found in the proclamations and rebellions of the late 18th Century focused almost exclusively on freedom and protection from the tyranny of autocratic states. Other potentially tyrannical forces such as those that might somehow be imposed by members of the commercial and financial class, overtly or indirectly, were not of equal concern. Abuses made by members of the commercial and financial classes were economic matters that the people ceded to mostly local governing bodies. These bodies were, in turn, empowered to oversee and control economic activities through legislation, precedent, and regulatory and legal enforcement.
By the early 17th Century the potential abuse of power and influence by commercial and financial forces over the public was growing and acknowledged, but it was not yet as worrisome as the threats of tyrannical power from government and religion. Commerce and finance were seen primarily as concerned with the workings of markets of goods and services; and that individuals were free to participate in these markets, to any degree, or not. Governments in particular, if they chose to do so, could pass laws and mount armed force to enforce their tyranny over the people, but members of the commercial and financial class did not yet have such power, in kind or degree.
However, beginning with the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) members of the commercial and financial class of Europe began to greatly increase their power over society based on their ever-growing accumulation of wealth. This quickly led to greater closeness between the political and economic classes in terms of their common and related interests in ever increasing the power and wealth they could wield over the public. Not surprisingly, many of those cycling in and out of government were also heavily invested in business and manufacturing.
European Colonialism (1500-1960) became the global geopolitical and economic effort in which the mutual interests of European governance and business were tangibly united and put into action.
If I read Yuval Harari correctly, as cited extensively in the above New York Times article linked above and his 2018 book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Hi Tech will lead to the coup de grâce of an individualism of true freedom and democracy most places in the world, and there is little that can be done to stop it.
The Enlightenment was led by a variety of moral thinkers in pursuit of better living for all individuals and groups. Currently, Hi Tech is led by technical thinkers and venture capitalists pursuing profit. They are funded to a large degree by the federal government (science and tech research grants, and military contracts), and backed by the legislation and enforcement of the government in their joint pursuit of every more power and personal wealth for members of the upper economic and political classes. The powerful and wealthy shall prevail through Tech and thereby have the final say over morality - freedom, justice, and individual empowerment and flourishing.
Again, if I understand Harari properly, I doubt the elites’ quest for ever more power and wealth will ever be satisfied and they will, in turn, allow more freedom. And if they do it will be a freedom they “allow,” not one that comes from noble moral principles or organically from the hearts and minds of the people and their best thinkers. But we will continue to be led to believe we are free and our societies are becoming more just and equal. Since Edward Bernays in the mid-1920s they have never been and the future will be no different.