The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How capitalism cornered the market on authenticity

It's easy to reject modernism. It's not so easy to achieve meaningful political change as a result.

The search for authenticity has spawned the craft beer revolution, including at bars such as Churchkey in the District. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

We might have just hit peak authenticity.

Never mind battles over who gets to own the term “craft” in the beer universe or which version of Thai street food gets to be called genuine, the quest for authenticity has now become a mantra in human resources, social media and marketing agencies. In one field, it’s a career tool; in another, it’s about “debranding,” which emphasizes less noise and more effort to forge a sincere connection with the consumer. Even the Democrats were recently advised by Time magazine that the key to retaking Congress was “authenticity” (as opposed to, say, taking on voter suppression).

It’s easy to mistake this hipster authenticity as an expression of progressive politics or a blow to capitalism, since it’s often framed as such. But it’s actually just a combination of smart marketing and new levels of conspicuous consumption, made especially conspicuous as a result of social media such as Instagram.

It’s not the first time “authenticity” has been a hot commodity. In late-19th-century America, the quest for an authentic self was at the center of a wide range of cultural activities, from arts and crafts to spiritualism, all antidotes to the epidemic of complaints that people felt adrift, unmoored, psychologically fractured and “weightless.” Those feelings came from a period of rapid changes — technological advances, increasing industrialization and a crazy-fast move from a predominantly rural country to an urban one — that had people feeling as if the ground had shifted beneath them.

In response, creative entrepreneurs looked for alternative lifestyle options. One particularly successful example was Roycroft, a Utopian community in western New York. Established by Elbert Hubbard, a late-19th-century soap mogul turned anarchist publisher, Roycroft offered an off-grid respite from urban industrialism, one where members could focus on making artisanal crafts.

The cost of Hubbard’s incubator craftsman start-up was underwritten by nearly two decades of work as a partner in the Larkin Soap Co., where he creatively developed ways to get people to buy more soap than they needed through branding and customer-loyalty programs. He also eliminated salesmen (and their commissions) by employing a disruptive technology that marketed direct to the consumer — mail-order catalogues. Though his hunt for a more authentic life might sound like a precursor to modern hipsterdom, Hubbard wasn’t progressive; he was anti-modern.

Anti-modernism is a big, unwieldy concept that, like modernism itself, can be tricky to define. Modern life has been characterized by theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Marshall Berman as a “maelstrom” of changes that constantly shake our foundation. Some people find a home in this constant motion and lack of terra firma, while others, the anti-moderns, are more likely to ask for a seat in the exit row.

Modernity, which began transforming work, home and social life a few centuries back in Europe, became particularly tumultuous in the United States at the end of the 19th century, leaving many people feeling they no longer had a solid foundation or whole, authentic identity. These conditions allowed the anti-moderns to flourish, a phenomenon painstakingly chronicled in Jackson Lears’s 1981 “No Place of Grace.”

Lears’s book has drifted from the public conversation, but it can still tell us a lot about the time in which we’re now living. In the era Lears wrote about — one stretching from 1880 to 1920 — several seemingly unrelated movements were thriving. In addition to the Arts and Crafts movement, of which Hubbard was a part, there was also medievalism, spiritualism, religious revival, militant masculinity and obsessions with “over-civilized” individuals. Each of these was a quest for “authentic” experience that would lead to an “authentic,” whole, unfractured self.

Unlike in places such as Germany, where anti-modernism was captured by fascism, in America the anti-modern impulse was almost always channeled into consumer culture, which siphoned off energy that could have been devoted to political change. Overworked people picked up crafts as a hobby, soothing frayed nerves by learning how to make things from scratch. Or instead, they bought wonderfully expensive handmade soap.

By the 1930s, anti-modernism had to vie with modernism as the overriding force in American life. The nation was propelled into vast, ambitious, modernist public works projects, including infrastructure such as public housing, bridges and dams, but also programs such as Social Security, which aimed to protect people from some of the worst hardships of rapidly shifting modern life. That modernist vision, plus real accomplishments, ushered in an overall era of optimism, one that was expressed in the futuristic, modernist extravaganza that was the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where the theme was “Dawn of a New Day.”

Anti-modernism wasn’t fully driven out by modernist enthusiasm. As long as there’s modernism, anti-modernism is there, existing in tension with it. But it’s hard to remember a time since the 1930s in which its presence has been so strongly felt as it is now, evident in some peoples’ concerns about over-civilized, coddled, soft millennials and, in response, militant masculinity expressed in increasingly aggressive ways on social media and elsewhere.

The call to return to “traditional values,” which includes taking aim at women in the workforce and denying people access to abortion and assaults on same-sex marriage and transgender rights, among other things, is part of the same anti-modern impulse, albeit a fairly extreme expression. Then there’s the current religious revivalism; a nearly obsessive love of medieval fantasy books, films, television and games; an obsession with all things “craft”; and the never-ending quest to find the most authentic of everything, from travel destination to taco.

Some of these are more dangerous than others. Creeping fascism may not be looming in the next taco. But it’s important to recognize that it’s all a part of the same impulse, which can be manipulated and lead us to extremes.

And a recommitment to the modernist project, with all its complicated paradoxes and shifting meanings — at the level of the one we embarked on in the 1930s — can provide security as well. Channeling energy from rejecting modernism into making meaning and political change is possible, too. It’s not as easy a path, of course. But that’s the modern world for you. And last we checked, it’s the only one we’ve got.