Archives For Progress

History isn’t a cumulative process. It isn’t a process at all. It’s a narrative.

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The hope of things to come…

February 26, 2012 — 1 Comment
It’s become quite fashionable to bash utopia. 
The notion that a society could be made more ideal or better organized, that social ills can be corrected by changing the structure of a society, or that life could be made somehow better were the general external circumstances of that life somehow changed—well, how absurd, yeah?
Most criticisms leveled against utopianism are generally in the context of state or centrally planned societal changes.  The great failures of the communist project of the soviets are fertile ground for examples—the endless five-year plans, the collectivization of farming, forced internal migrations, gulags.
Skeptics such as John Gray (an endlessly wonderful read, regardless of how much I always seem to disagree with his conclusions), in his Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia,  have also labeled Nazism as an utopian project—the work/concentration camps, eugenics, eloquent internal propaganda all in the service of a grand, “utopian” Aryan future.
And the failures of past central planning is often a repeated criticism of modern “liberal” projects—universal health care, wealth redistribution, compulsory recycling/conservation.  Two almost reflexive complaint seems to echo back against any attempts to re-introduce utopian ideals into societal discourse—the first is that central governments are either incapable or inefficient at social change; the second, that “you can’t change human nature.”
I’m completely uninterested in the first response, except to concede a few quick points and dismiss it otherwise.  Central powers—states—are very, very bad at understanding the repercussions of their projects.  Many humorous and horrific examples abound (besides the soviets), and I’d strongly recommend Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James Scott for an excellent perspective on this problem.  But on the other hand, few would ever deny the awesome/aweful power of a central authority to radically change society, whether they intend to or not—think Eisenhower’s highway projects laying the groundwork for the American car-culture (I throw up in my mouth a little when I write those two words together) or the relationship between taxation levels and income/cultural disparities after the Reagan years.
But again, I’m more interested in the second criticism of utopianism—that you cannot change human nature.  A wise friend once pointed out to me the absurdity of the term—human nature is an abyss into which we can dump anything we want in and believe it to be filled.  Depending on who you’re talking to at any given time, humans are “naturally” selfish, greedy, kind, caring, innovative, lazy, mimicking, brutal, religious, curious, close-minded, tribalistic, unrealistic, rational, irrational, sexual, depraved, artistic, noble, or, really, anything you want us to be. 
We are all that, and more.  But unfortunately, even the most rigidly careful thinkers fall into the dangerous habit of asserting that humans are, “by nature,” something or other, only to then fall back into the abyss of obstinate faith.  That is, amongst many behavioural theorists, we are “wired” to be self-interested.  In the face of conflicting evidence, this postulate can then be extended into a more complex theory—we do “selfless things” when they will, in turn, serve our self-interest.
I do not mean to attempt to argue against the whole of evolutionary psychology on these grounds, only to point again to the abyssal void of what human nature is or is not.  The most rational (and probably frustratingly meaningless to some) assertion about human nature is that we are “all of the above, and probably more.” The notion that the experiences, habits, personalities and desires of billions of individual organisms can be reduced to a few base truths seems ambitious at the very least. 
But let’s go back to communism and utopianism.  That Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Trotsky, or any of the rest of them went up against “human nature” and failed is, ultimately, a weak argument.  There’s an overabundance of failures and massacres to accuse them on—criminalizing the dreaming of a fairer society would put us all into prison. 
And there are a host of other utopian tendencies which do not receive a similar treatment.  The ideal of a society organized by rational self-interest, free of government interference is, itself, a utopian project.  So, too, is the exuberant celebration of a soon-to-be freer, more interconnected society by means of back-lit machines through which we’ll all soon be able to access any information we want.  A greener capitalism, a world free of diseases, societies unrestrained by religious dogma, increased technological advance—the popular utopianism spewed from every media source is no less ambitious and no less unfounded than any of the previous projects. 
But despite the fact that I don’t buy any of the aforementioned utopias for a second, I disagree with John Gray and others—I find it lazy to dismiss a belief merely on the basis that it’s utopian, and useless. 
What’s important here, I think, is that every utopian ideal, the ones we fear, the ones we adore, and the ones we embrace without recognizing them all come down to belief.  We cannot know the future.  We cannot predict a freer society or accelerated technological advance (sorry— singularists and transhumanists—you’re as dependant on faith as the rest of us).  There’s an exuberant optimism required to posit future answers to current societal problems, and as specious as I think it is of someone to assert that we’ll find a way to replace our dwindling fossil fuels with an equally abundant, as-of-yet unseen energy source, I won’t judge him or her on hope. 
There’s something else I’ll judge them on, though, and this I think is a better metric for evaluating ideals and ideologies.  A utopianism which says “another world is possible” (the chant of the anti-capitalist , “anti-globalisation” protestors) at least is not advocating for the continuation of a current problem in hopes of an as of yet unseen but messianic solution.  But the unstated chants of the unnamed priests of the unacknowledged utopia we’re already in, that of modern industrialized capitalism, urges that the mechanisms causing the problems of society (global warming, increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, dwindling fossil fuels) be allowed to continue until the coming of our long hoped-for, long prayed-for salvation.  Worse, and more confusingly–no man knoweth the hour—we need not less capitalism, less technological advance, less energy expenditure, but more.  Just a little more faith, a little more devotion, a little more hard work, a flatter screen, a better car and a more expensive light bulb and we shall see the promised land

 This is a repost of a review I wrote elsewhere, with minor editing.


While I’m still waiting for someone to do a treatise on the alchemical language employed by Marx to explain Capital and the magic the Capitalists/Bourgeoisie employ (“everything that is solid melts into air…”), I’ve had to settle instead with general clarifications.

So in the meantime, TOoC was quite useful. This is the second time i’ve read it, though for some reason the first reading (about 6 years ago) really must have been inadequate. Or, rather say, I had at that earlier point less exposure to most of the historians and economic theorists she uses and conflicts. I’d heard of E.P. Thompson but never read him; Weber was un-opened on my bookshelf, and I hadn’t even read Das Kapital yet. But none of that adequately explains why, on the second reading, i held in my hands an entirely different book.

Her premise is simple: The birth of Capitalism was a recent historical event. Within that statement, however, exists a myriad of complications, and it’s a minority view.

The typical story of Capitalism goes like this: after massive european plagues, the printing press and the Reformation, so many people lived in towns instead of feudal arrangements that we all became somehow liberated to our own self-interest, investing surplus funds (“primal accumulation”) into our own improvement and, with enough people doing so, the rate of “technological progress” sped up to make most of us not need to raise our own food anymore. We all became Capitalists (after a few beheadings in France) and spread the good word to the rest of the world, constantly making life better for ourselves and others, though we were a bit sloppy and maybe shouldn’t have burned so much coal.

Capitalism in this scenario is a natural outgrowth, then, a step along the way (or the Final Step, if you aren’t a Marxist) towards democracy and space exploration and flat-screen tv’s and kidney transplants. Marxists point to the exploitation within the system and suggest another step (Communism, or central-planned economies, where our lives will finally be better), but either way, Progress will win out (or our cities will flood).

The very lazy or the very Ayn-Randian posit Capitalism as already-always existing, merely waiting to be freed by oppressive trade barriers (like Feudalism), but their further arguments still usually follow the aforementioned pattern. Evolutionary/Behavioural/Psychologist sorts also sometimes get into this, coming up with all sorts of Scientific ™ ways of explaining how well natural selection and Capitalism go hand in hand.

But Wood has none of it. For her, Capitalism began in England when rent for farms became a market, something which had never happened in recorded history. Landlords, with the death of feudalism (she argues that Capitalism did not destroy Feudalism, against most histories), had to collect “surplus” from tenants in the form of monied-rents without “extra-economic” coercion (i.e., taxes, levies, outright violence) because they had lost much of their legal/juridical power. Markets (and trade) had always existed, but economic coercion had not (Florence and the Dutch Republic were both massive urban areas with huge markets without Capitalism–even most of the “Commercialists” agree to this and call them “failed transitions”).

With the pressure from landlords now to collect surplus money, the farmers on their land found themselves needing to grow even more than before (previous feudal arrangements were typically one-third of all produce, but now the amount was set, regardless of what markets provided). Farmers suddenly had to compete with each other for profit, which destabilised prices and made some people lose their farms. The landlords, in response, could charge more for the land of the “productive” farmers, could re-lease unrented land to them, thus rewarding the successful competitor taking from the loser their very access to self-reproduction (substinence, etc.). Those dispossessed farmers became reliant on the market now for everything they used to be able to make for themselves before, thus creating “consumer-goods” markets.

The key-word for her is Imperative. Farmers didn’t take advantage of “opportunities,” they responded to imperatives (grow/make more or lose your land). Landowners also found themselves no longer in a voluntary position–once one landowner can’t farm out his land to tenants, his land is threatened by other landowners who can. Markets previously were governed not just by supply and demand, but community/social obligations and restrictions, but the pressure of so much displacement and imperative to earn/invest violently reduced these restrictions (Enclosure had happened before, but not with so much speed and legislative authority).

But therein lies another complication. Any Free-Market apologist will tell you that the state gets in the way of the market, though they still consistently rely upon central authorities to ensure the right conditions for their profit-taking. Without police, no one’s around to arrest the thieves or squatters, because the coercion of Capitalism is pristinely Economic. Political Coercion must come from outside of it, must serve it, and must not get too much in the way. The English State’s willingness to serve this role ensured capitalism’s naissance (consider Foucault’s point in Discipline & Punish about the number of “economic-crime” laws–and their commensurate violence-of-punishment–which did not exist before Capitalism took hold).

Capitalism didn’t take hold elsewhere for a little while, nor did it “spontaneously generate” anywhere else. Other states responded to the pressure eventually to the point we’re at now, but it’s vital for her that we continue to see the exact genesis point (in england, in the rural areas).

She makes a few other arguments, some of which almost seem extraneous and besides-the-point. Placing the birth of Capitalism in agriculture, rather than the cities, places into doubt the traditional/marxist understanding of the Bourgeoisie. She’s right to point out that the bourgeoisie in France were not fighting for capitalism, but rather access to extra-economic coercion (offices, titles, etc. that would allow the professionals of the city to collect taxes).

I’m willing to accept this, but I don’t like the consequences of her final conclusions. She separates the French and English Enlightenment (England had Locke–arguing that natives should be forced off their land because they refused to put it to productive use; France had Voltaire and Rousseau), and she can do this to a point, but by the time of the French Revolution i don’t think the differences continue. She makes a great argument for separating “modernity” from “capitalism,” believes as I do that most food shortages are due to capitalist profit-imperative, not productive capacity, and she almost completely destroys the notion of Progress.

But something suddenly stops her. The last two chapters find her shredding through her entire argument, leaving the pieces on the floor for us to paste back together in her search for some way to keep Human/Universal Rights as Progress.  She rejects much of the “post-modern” arguments about the meta-narrative concerning Capitalism because human rights/western secularism is something too important for her to destroy. She’s almost there, she’s about to axe them, and then you hear her gasp as she suddenly realises she’s throwing out what she thinks is the baby in the muddy water of the bath.  It’s not a baby, actually, there never was one. Capitalism used her tub as a toilet, and, perhaps exhausted from her brilliant intellectual work, she mistook one of the undissolved turds (the “progress” of human-rights”) for a drowning child.

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Against Progress: an introduction
(I intend to write multiple posts regarding this topic, and will, after editing, post them all again together on a separate page. In the meantime, I greatly welcome comments and arguments concerning what I’ve written here.)
Unseen and often unexamined exist frames of thinking, postulates and “truths” by which we filter our understanding of the world and each other. I suspect we exist in perpetual shorthand, developing habits and assumptions which serve us (usually) so well that we rarely have reason to question them, let alone even acknowledge them.
When we sit in a chair, we do not usually ask ourselves whether or not that chair is sufficient to bear our weight. We do not invoke gods or spirits or the scientific method before lowering ourselves backward upon a surface—we just do it, and for the most part, our unseen presumptions are rewarded. Anyone who’s ever had a chair break when they’ve sat upon it, or worse, had some asshole think he’s being funny by removing it just before we’ve landed would probably agree that the experience is horribly jarring. The trust in our own assumptions, the ease brought to the mind by not needing to question each and every physical motion, the freedom to think about other things might be crucial to our everyday sanity, and the strange shock when something so basic no longer appears to be true is far from amusing.
This shorthand has been variously explained by multiple systems, but I’m not interested (and I don’t find it relevant) as to -why- we do this, only that we do. The inclination, desire, tendency or even need to explain the mechanisms behind such behaviour is both equally interesting and irritating—to the same degree that some find spirits or divine forces influencing all human behaviour, other find evolutionary or societal drives, and they get quite heated over topics that seem more fitting to lesiurely conversations or quiet contemplation, not angry, often political, debates.
Similarly, I’m not interested in the semiological or semantic urgency and precision which would require me to use universally-recognised terminology; instead, I’ll define for you what I intend to mean by some of the more contentious words I’ll be using in this argument (if, indeed, I mean to argue, which I think I do.)
Suffice it first to say, though, that I intend to speak against the narrative of progress, and I hope you won’t decide what I mean by that before I’ve had the chance to tell you. I’m aware that, by now, I’ve already used a few words that seem already to borrow from whole systems of thought which some are (probably correctly) inclined to reject altogether.
NARRATIVE
An entire chapter could be written to explain what I mean by “narrative,” which in multiple ways does indeed overlap with some specific fields, but in a few ways attempts to break out of their limited uses and reduce, when possible, the “bludgeoning effect” of post-modern contortions of language. Not really wanting to write such a chapter, I’ll do what I can here.
By narrative, I mean, at its most basic, the process by which we show relationships or make connections between things, particularly events. As such, I mean it to be a close synonym of logic, but a distant relative of “myth” and “story.”
You’re standing on the sidewalk. Two cars, passing each other, collide, and you witnessed it and are then asked to describe (that is, narrate) what occurred. The details you actually saw and can remember will highly influence your account. So, too, will many other things about the way you think, whether you are blind to certain colors, whether you knew and felt sympathy for one of the drivers, whether you drive yourself or dislike cars. The account you give of that event is your narrative of that event.
Most people are aware of how different two people’s account of the same event can be, even if they were both standing as close to same point and were both equally attentive to the event. The variations seem to increase when the event is not common, but those variations do seem to continue even in realms where everyone is supposed to be paying attention. Consider the discussions you may have with a friend who watched the same film with you, sitting next to you in a theatre; consider the odd moments when you realise that someone very dear to you, whom you considered thought very much like you, heard the same conversation or story but experienced a very different meaning from what you did.
These variations, I assert, are the operation of different personal narrative styles, different ways of observing and drawing conclusions derived from what the narrator sees as relevant or important. An example here might suffice to make this more clear: About 8 years ago, I worked in an office in a skyscraper, processing legal documents (photocopying, digitally archiving). I was trained on days, and then moved to evenings, and was told that, when I arrived for my first swing shift, I should talk to “Mike.”
I didn’t know Mike, or what he looked like, and so asked the friendliest appearing person in the office which person was Mike. She pointed to a crowd of people of about 12 people and said, “he’s the one with the blue shirt.”
There were 12 people standing together. 5 of them were female, 7 were male, and of the men standing there, only one was wearing a blue dress shirt. But it took me a few seconds to sort through the colors of the shirts, longer than I’d like to admit, because there was another distinguishing characteristic which set Mike apart from the others: he was black.
It took me weeks of self-contemplation to understand why I’d been so confused by which detail she’d chosen to distinguish this person from the others. I got to know her better, and was able to learn that she’d had no special sensitivity training or political-correctness indoctrination—she was bi-racial, had lived surrounded by people of varying skin colors, and had, because of her background, not learned to see skin color as a useful way of distinguishing one person from a group.
Beyond suggesting that there are multiple ways that a white man (even one very consciously anti-racist) might be perpetuating racism, this disconnect between what detail she used to identify a subject and what I thought the most obvious/natural detail to bring to the forefront is important for understanding this concept of narrative.
That is, the details one chooses (consciously or habitually) to mention in an account are not “natural” or “self-evident.” There is the “real” of a thing, what “really happened” or “really exists,” and then there are the things we overlay upon an event in order both to describe and understand it. I take an agnostic position upon whether or not anyone can get at the “real” thing—that area is either the realm of religion or philosophy, not of anything that is settled.
So, again, by Narrative I mean the entire process of putting together events, showing relationships between them (including what-caused-what), and choosing which details are important and relevant, and which ones are not. And this process extends not just to individuals and individual events, but to entire groups of people.
Most of us are educated in similar ways, a product both of universal schooling and near ubiquitous media (or mediation). Also, our parents, who usually first define our world had rather similar educational experiences, as well, so many of us from similar geographical locations, of similar ages and similar financial circumstances very likely think some of the same things about the world. We may all generally believe that the place we were born and live in is called America, that it is a good thing called a democracy, and that is a place where anyone can be what they want to be. These ideas, together, are also a narrative, a story we tell ourselves or are told about who we are and what we are. This narrative is also largely inherited—nobody I have known received an education when they were young which also stated “you were born on land which is still claimed to belong to people your ancestors mostly slaughtered,” but most people I know were taught with educations which asserted “America is the greatest, most free, richest country in the world.” I don’t know anyone who came upon this narrative on their own, but I know quite a few (in fact, my favorite sort of people) who at some point recognised that it wasn’t their own idea nor the product of their own rational processes. Most of them rejected it, one or two decided, mostly independent of their earlier indoctrination, that there was something to that narrative.
Narratives, functioning on more than an individual level, can be seen to act as a filter on experiential data flowing to each person, and can define how new events are ordered and understood. Just as my bi-racial friend didn’t divide people into black and white, although she most likely experienced the same skin tones as I did, so too might an entire section of society interpret a bombing by an individual to be an attack “on democracy,” or on any other principle, while others might instead see it as an act of resistance to an oppression, or a consequence of previous bombings, etc..
But I need to clarify. I do not believe Narratives themselves are bad or good—they seem to just exist, in the same way that ideas or thoughts just exist; intangible, unable to be scientifically dissected or proven, but still, as “things,” they just are. Certain narratives seem to take hold and dominate huge sections of societies and perpetuate themselves, but I do not believe this dominance makes them “good” or “superior,” anymore than an honest biologist (brunette or not) would assert that the brown-dominant color of most human’s hair is superior to any other color, only that it is dominant. There are explanations for dominant traits in organic life, and they are mostly extrapolations from adaptation theories, but just as external environmental changes can make a dominant trait suddenly become a disadvantage for a species, so, too, can external environmental changes cause a narrative to no longer be useful for us.
PROGRESS
There is worse, and there is better. There is earlier, and there is later. But for very specific historical reasons, and because of a very specific narrative, many of us equate these two statements together.
This is the problem, and the point of these essays. Time is a form of narration of events—one thing happens, another thing happens after it. Evolution is another narration of events—something was once this, then it changed and became this. Progress combines these two separate narratives together, with a statement of belief—what was before was not as good as what is now, and what will come will be better still.
I am defining Progress thus—it is the belief that change over time (evolution, not limited to biology) generally results in a quantitatively superior resulting form of what existed previously. Put more simply, the present is better than the past (and can be shown to be), and the future will be better than the present (because the present is so much better than the past).
I intend specifically to avoid discussing too thoroughly the narrative of progress as it relates to evolution, because others far more knowledgeable than myself have done a better job of it (specifically, Steven Jay Gould). I’m also aware that John Gray, a fantastic writer who is rather damn pessimistic, has written extensively regarding what he considers the “utopian” idea of progress, an evaluation with which I agree but a metric I find less useful for my purposes here.
Instead, I’ll be examining the Narrative of Progress particularly insofar as it relates to several key concepts which have become analogues of the broken or missing chair, areas in which our reliance on the short-hand or habitual may actually cause us pain.
A friend of mine developed excruciatingly painful Sciatica. She went to multiple doctors, each who gave her tests and made suggestions about its cause (sciatica is not a causal medical problem itself, its the painful result of another underlying dis-alignment, just as a headache is a symptom, not a disease). Each of the disagnoses and prescribed changes in behavior (stretching, more exercise, wearing flats instead of boots) resulted in no change in her situation, and she endured quite a bit of pain until, at her wit’s end, she relented to the suggestion that she check in with a naturopath. Possessing no high-level degree or equipment (and maybe dubious training), the naturopath listened to her complaints and previous treatment, and then asked what sort of chair she had at her computer desk at home. She owned an ergonomic desk chair, one of those expensive sort developed by engineers familiar with the science of human anatomy, built to reduce back trouble and the negative effects of sitting too much.
He told her to get rid of it, to get a normal chair, and she did, and her sciatica went away.
New does not equal better, though sometimes it might equal more useful or more efficient. Old does not equal primitive or backwards, although sometimes is may less desirable. Sometimes, an old chair, the sort that people’d been sitting in for centuries, might just be more durable and less harsh on one’s back than the product of “progress.”
I must make this clear, though: while the notion that something new is therefore better and something old is therefore worse is integral to the narrative of Progress, I do not mean to take measures of time out of the realm of measures by which we evaluate ideas or things. There is also something to be said for the span of time during which a thing has been used or an idea has survived. Though I’m aware of the converse of the progress narrative—that believing something from the past is useful and maybe even desirable is the delusion of nostalgia—I will be asserting that, like the sort of chair that people have been sitting in for centuries might have survived so long for a reason, old narratives that have refused to die must still be kicking around for a reason.