Progress is a term on everyone’s lips. It is common to hear one of three stories on the question of social progress, and whether we’re making it: everything is getting better (Enlightenment story); progress is only material, unequal, and achieved unjustly (the Marxist story); we cannot speak of progress because we cannot compare cultures (the postmodern, relativism story). I argue that we – in the west – have stagnated and even declined in our aesthetic, ethical and spiritual lives, but have made great improvements in collective technological and institutional knowledge. The latter have led to an increased capacity for richer forms of moral and aesthetic life but do not themselves constitute it. As I see it, the problem is that a person’s capacity comes from their character, formed as it is in a community, not the impersonal structures that surround them. We should look to the ways in which new forms of living can enable growth in character, rather than deprive people of that opportunity.
Stories of Progress
We are all familiar with the story that humanity has been on a slow and patchy upward trajectory that accelerated with the cluster of activity around the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, entered warp speed with the Industrial revolution, and is humming along at a rapid clip with the continued technological developments of the 20th century, and now into the 21st. Although the belief in progress is not always explicitly articulated, it is deeply felt as part of the background assumptions we take for granted that is woven into the fabric of our daily lives. It is accompanied by a persistent, low-level confidence underlying all that we do. A confidence that, in spite of hardship and setback, things will continue to get better. Not for every person or group, but in general, over the long-term.
There are a few different variations of the stories we tell ourselves about progress that are popular in the culture, especially among the chattering classes.
The Enlightenment story
There has been slow, and uneven progress in all fields since the dawn of civilization, which began increasing at an ever-greater pace after the Enlightenment. Such progress is often characterized qualitatively with reference to the great small ‘l’ liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and social mobility. On the quantitative side, progress is articulated and represented in concepts like life span, health, wealth, educational attainment, lower crime rates and levels of violence, as well as the capacity to choose and do a greater variety of things, from types of work to expression, in both public and private realms. Collectively, this vision of progress defines it as improvements in ‘quality of life.’
For the contemporary person who considers herself educated, the powers of reason and the methods of science hold the keys to self-mastery and the ongoing progression of humanity. She has a thoroughgoing belief in the ability of education to liberate from ignorance and thereby vice, for accumulated practical knowledge to generate new technologies, and for the administrative state to continuously improve human social life. For her, belief in anything is only warranted if its contents can be defended by an underpinning theoretical explanation. Such theories refer to a discrete and tangible cause, often purported to be exclusively physical in nature. Consequently, only practices that generate direct, predictable and quantifiable outcomes are considered worthy of assent. The rest is a matter of subjectivity.
Due to this narrowed epistemological frame of reference, reductions follow suit. For one, personal experience is not considered a source of real knowledge. Therefore, the interior life and qualitative values are considered unreliable, and best understood as dispositions that confer advantages to us, selected through the evolutionary process. They have no greater meaning other than their functionality. At best, subjective experience is only a guide to what’s pleasurable, and what is not. There is little space for richer forms of love, hope, friendship, or spirituality because they are all ultimately reducible to physical stimulation that can be supposedly replicated among any number of substitute experiences, themselves with no intrinsic value or worth.
It is therefore rational to refuse to believe in and pursue higher values and purpose. Rather, the smart choice is to use one’s reason in the here and now to master what can be seen and known in some tangible sense. To strive for achievement and a life of happiness as pleasure in some way shape or form: to live a life guided by personal feeling, or conversely, to engage in a sterile self-mastery for the sake of the classical idols – money, power, fame, or pleasure.
The quality-of-life-as-captured-by-statistics approach is exemplified by renaissance men like Steven Pinker – Montreal-born, philosophically-trained and inclined cognitive scientist and linguist turned public intellectual, and a long-time defender of enlightenment humanism. In Enlightenment Now, he marshals an array of arguments for progress, by citing objective improvements in living conditions over time that most people readily take to be associated with higher quality of life. Max Rosen’s Our World in Data, and Marian L. Tupy’s Human Progress are comprehensive databases that seek to capture and interpret the truly staggering changes in human society over time.
Yuval Noah Harari is another sophisticated champion of the liberal order. With an impressive command of history, and the present state of social and technological change, his predictions chart possible futures that are intuitively believable. Then there are the techno-optimists like Elon Musk and the philanthropic Pollyanna’s like Bill & Melinda Gates. Their own immense gifts give the lie to aspiring young academics, activists, and change-makers that the world is a giant chessboard – a game with rules, pieces, and moves that are self-contained, able to be mastered, manipulated, and ultimately, played well, and undertaken like projects for the sake of some greater good.
With the lens thus described, humanity’s ills seem like technical problems to be solved with the right application of ingenuity, scientific advances, and know-how. Things are improving and they will only continue to do so with the application of this recipe.
There has been little progress because it has not come about in a manner that is just, or it is at the expense of too much inequality. On the orthodox Marxist view, history is class struggle driven by material need, where oppressors dominate the oppressed, and naïve belief systems keep the many ignorant of their plight. In its many contemporary offshoots, malign power lurks around every corner and is the principle motivating force of our actions; or, identity groups that struggle for dominance over one another and recognition amongst themselves. In any case, the Marxist attitude takes aim at the question of progress – acknowledging that there has been some no doubt, but affirming that it has been fundamentally unjust. The ever-changing landscape of thinkers, factions, and movements motivated by this spirit of contempt for injustice and inequality share in the oppressor/oppressed view of social relations, and harbour an antagonistic vision of the movement of history.
How can we say that we are truly progressing when injustices are never removed, but take on new shape? As Foucault would have it, the clarity, directness, and transparency of the brutal physical punishments of bygone eras have something to say for themselves, when compared with the soft despotism of sprawling, labyrinthine bureaucracy and the insidious psychological effects of the contemporary source of worth – status and recognition in the eyes of others, in the here and now. When crude inequalities remain, when the old relations of dominance are replaced with new ones, and those with privilege, power, and ability continue to take advantage of, and benefit from those beneath them – who are we to say that material progress and greater freedoms are signs of progress, and not just a more physically comfortable repetition of the same story, and history as written by the victors?
These perspectives focus on group disparities, present and past injustices, and sometimes the very fact of hierarchy and power imbalances as evidence of history as not just one damn thing after another, but one damn oppression after another. What emerges is a history of power imbalance and abuse, whose defining feature is zero-sum transactions, where one group profits at another’s expense, in perpetuity.
Our contemporaries who most embody this way of thinking are people like ‘anti-racist’ Ibram Kendi, the members of ‘the Squad’, sex and gender social constructionists like Judith Butler, activist historian Nikole Hannah Jones, and public intellectual and New Yorker writer Ta Nehisi Coates.
In Ibram Kendi’s version of anti-racism, “racial groups are equals and none needs developing,” and “to be antiracist is to reject cultural standards and level cultural difference.” Furthermore, “racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country (United States) and in the world at large.”
If you switch racial, sex, or identity groups around – ‘white’ and ‘black’, ‘male’ and ‘female’, for example – in the critical passages of these writers who subscribe to ‘critical theories‘ about race, sex and gender, you will find how vehement and filled with resentment it is. They label and cast entire ethnic, identity and cultural groups in the pejorative, deploying terms like ‘supremacy’, ‘privilege’, and ‘toxicity’ to refer to them, and use barely comprehensible faculty lounge jargon to make sweeping, unverifiable and unfalsifiable generalizations about their subject matter.
Dripping in vitriol and contempt, the genuine pain of personal struggle, oppression and exclusion that many of these authors – and those on the activist right and left more generally – have no doubt felt in their own lives shines through in angry rhetoric. Many of these contemporaries on the race front have imbibed the group essentialism and radically antagonistic spirit of a Malcolm X, and cast aside the grace and universal appeals of Martin Luther King Jr; many feminists and gender theorists adopted the extremism and assault on femininity of Catharine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin, instead of the balance and equality as embrace of natural difference that the average woman yearns for.
Though, many of these people argue that a certain amount of this is justified. Oppression and inequality are evils that must be stamped out at all costs with fervour and righteous anger, as well as theories that are not about understanding the world at it is, but whose point is rather to mobilize and unite people against a common enemy, and bring about change through activism of all sorts.
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.“Karl Marx; “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), Thesis 11, Marx Engels Selected Works,(MESW), Volume I, p. 15
Live and let live: Postmodern Authenticity and New Age Spirituality
The question of progress is meaningless because values have no objective existence. They are at best a kind of personal fiction, imbued with socially constructed concepts from the culture, history, and our own hopelessly biased and evolved natures. So it goes for the tools of reason as well. On this view then, personal subjective experience is the best we can hope for, as everything is a product of it, anyway.
The sheer cultural and intellectual variety was once known only to a few, and was always at a distance that kept it unfamiliar. Now it is in everyone’s backyard. The result, a globalized world that has expanded in cultural variety with greater wealth and population growth, but has also shrunk and homogenized with the levelling effects of technology and increasing interconnectedness. To some, it makes the differences that we once fought, and were willing to die for seem trivial. A commanding and ever-more detailed understanding of history renders our own beliefs and values seem contingent and somewhat arbitrary.
When the tools of reflective analysis and science are turned inward – on our language through the linguistic turns of continental and analytic philosophy of the past century, on culture, history and science through the cultural and historical turns of the sociology of thought – our attempts at understanding can seem insignificant and provincial. The assumptions that we take for granted, the meta-narratives we tell ourselves about our capacity for freedom, the stories of the development of culture over time, and our place in the universe seem partial, and paltry – mere expressions of our longing for understanding.
The view of the cynic, you may think. Admittedly, to hold to these positions explicitly is indeed rare. More the stuff of youthful angst found among the thinking types.
Nevertheless, it is implicit among all of us to a certain extent. We live and breathe scepticism, detachment, cynicism, and an individualistic framework. It may be more prominent among the left-libertine and right-libertarian crowds, but for so many of us this kind of thinking is present in the background. We constantly vacillate between optimism and belief in what we say and do, and are perpetually nagged by a gnawing sense that it’s all just contrived, and doesn’t really matter anyway, so why bother getting too upset or frustrated, and conversely, excited or hopeful.
The omnipresence of sarcasm and cynicism are key indicators of this mindset that is pervasive in our culture. Look no further than the body language, mannerisms, and speech of not just young people, but the generations who bequeathed such apathy, detachment, and self-deprecation – the boomers and every generation after them. The paradigmatic exemplar is late night talk shows. In no place do you find so much contempt-laden irreverence. It does mask the pain for many, no doubt, who see in it wit and the quintessential standard-bearer of modern wisdom – that is to say, mockery.
But on second glance, it is clear that in the cynic and the perpetually sarcastic, the self-deprecating and easy-going manner can be a coping mechanism, one aimed at maintaining a humorous distance from the fact that we think little of ourselves, our society, and our own beliefs, and know not what to do with ourselves. The contemporary adult is so often someone still lost in childhood, unable to take anything seriously, so he constantly dissimulates and adopts an ironic posture.
We are all – to some extent – New Age now. Detached and fluid, and embracing personal spiritualities, many people incorporate elements of the Pagan worship of nature as divine into their lives. Taking as its gods health, wellness, and new variations on old forms of spirituality, many find solace in the pursuit of quality of life through a recovery of feeling, sentimentality, and a pastiche of ad hoc practices of reflection and spirituality in the attempt to fill the God- and community-shaped holes in our hearts.
The common thread between characters as diverse as careerists, those who cultivate a personal brand, activists, and spiritual seekers is the shared doubt in reason’s capacity to know, and the consequent illusory nature of our entire social reality. Everything is merely a ‘social construct’ that arose from historical forces that need not have been.
The sheer contingency of things, and the inability to know, are considered justifications for a philosophy based on the expression and performance of personal subjectivity.
The guiding principle is the pursuit of subjective truth, itself an oxymoron. Thus, the common mantras of the day: ‘live your best life,’ ‘you do you,’ ‘just be yourself,’ ‘follow your passion,’ or ‘speak your own truth.’
The contemporary person has great difficulty in believing that anything in the realm of value – morality, cultural and social norms, or anything to do with taste – could even have a tinge of objectivity to it. But we are inherently attuned to the spiritual, and pursue a life shot through with meaning. When packaged for western consumption, watered-down eastern religious traditions and New Age spirituality are extremely attractive, offering non-threatening à-la-carte practices from which to pick and choose at your pleasure. Dogma and actual beliefs are excluded because those are not inclusive, and thought to be irrational. Forget the fact that this position is itself rigid and dogmatic.
The more serious western modifications of eastern spirituality deny the reality of the self, value and phenomenal experience for a retreat into the internal reality of enlightened subjectivity, achieved through a kind of self-denial. One’s actions are neither good nor bad, they simply are. Some of the tech CEOs embody this spirit, for instance Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.
Such visions of boundless freedom produce a dizzying array of possible life paths, for all of them are equal, if only lived with authenticity. Activism for the latest cause, a life of pleasure-seeking, travel and the pursuit of ‘experience’, if chosen with authenticity, are all in this view, rational and meaningful choices.
The Enlightenment, the Marxist and the Postmodern are all on to something important, and contain many kernels truth, but they are inadequate as they stand. The visions of progress that they hold up and critique, and of the good life they offer up are incomplete, and partial. In the next instalment, I’ll look at what they get right, and where they are left wanting.