They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot...
They took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em
— Joni Mitchell
Today I will discuss the failures of Progress, and the "liberal" tradition which defines it. The notion that humankind is moving down an ever-better road has once again been overthrown in the 21st century. No honest person could look around at the current chaos and corruption in the United States and elsewhere on Earth and still argue that humanity continues to travel down the road of perpetual improvement. The tradition I am talking about began in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and has its roots in the Enlightenment. Whether they know it or not, nearly everybody in America, excluding some "reactionary" elements of our society, is firmly ensconced within the Progress myth. It's just like the air you breathe.
Let me be clear about what I'm not talking about. The current political divide between the "liberal" left-wing and the "conservative" right-wing represents a caricature of the original meaning of these words. In the original sense, Barack Obama is a Progressive, but so is Mitt Romney. Both believe in the magical ability of free markets, democratic governments and technology to make our lives better, to achieve the greatest prosperity and comfort for the greatest number.
Except for a few atavistic throwbacks and Luddites, everybody is a Keynesian now. Or an Austrian, or a Libertarian, or whatever. These distinctions make little difference. All these people are "liberals" in the grandest, philosophical sense of this hallowed tradition. Without exception, these groups believe in continual "improvement" of the human condition, whether they emphasize markets over government or vice versa. Again, such distinctions make little difference, for everybody is swimming in the same water. Technology is universally hailed as humankind's continuing and ultimate savior. Gross Domestic Product is a precise measurement of our progress. If GDP goes up, everyone rejoices. If it goes down, we vow to try harder. No one questions these assumptions, despite ultimately trivial political differences about how to grow GDP.
Before I begin my critique of Progress, I must be sure to point out that liberalism in the traditional sense has given us some very good things. Equal rights for women and minorities, child labor laws, an end to slavery, religious tolerance, important advances in medical science—all these developments and many others are unequivocally positive. I would never advocate returning to a world without them.
The critique of Progress begins with the question of human rationality, for it is the assumption of pure reason which drives the improvement engine. Let's start with a quote from Christopher Lasch's The True And Only Heaven: Progress And It's Critics. In this passage, Lasch is discussing John Maynard Keynes and his lingering doubts about the program of improvement he advocated (pp. 76-77).
[Keynes] never modified his belief that civilization was a product of the "personality and the will of a very few," but he now took the position, having lived through two world wars and a global economic crisis [the Great Depression], that civilization was altogether more "precarious" than he and his companions had been willing to admit in the confident years before World War I. "We were amongst the last of the Utopians, or Meliorists, ... who believed in a continuing moral progress by virtue of which the human race already consists of reliable, rational, decent people ... who can be safely released from the outward constraints of convention and traditional standards and inflexible rules of conduct."
Keynes's memoir was slightly equivocal. Was the vision of men and women released from outward constraints—the essence of liberalism and the core of the belief in progress—wholly misguided or merely premature? When Keynes questioned the assumption that humanity "already" consisted of individuals who could dispense with convention, he left open the possibility that it might consist of such individuals in the long run.
He went on to argue, however, that he and his contemporaries had "completely misunderstood human nature, including our own." Their "irreverence" for "traditional wisdom or the restraints of custom" derived from an excessive confidence in reason. "It did not occur to us to respect the extraordinary accomplishments of our predecessors in the ordering of life ... or the elaborate framework which they had devised to protect this order."
Keynes's theory of "abundance through full employment" ... gave "new life to the old ideology of progress and national economic growth." ... Keynes was neither the first nor the last exponent of progress to rediscover the value of "outward constraints" and "traditional standards" that his own work helped to undermine. But no other career exemplified the contradictory implications of progressive ideology quite so clearly...
It is high time we re-evaluated the ideology of progress. I am not the first to do it, nor will I be the last.
Let us start with some open questions which should be closed. Are humans rational creatures who can be "safely" freed from outward constraints and traditional standards? No. Are our politicians rational in this sense? No. Are our monied elites and business leaders rational in this sense? No. Are American citizens—the hoi polloi, also called "consumers"—rational in this sense? No. Are economists, environmentalists and other "thought leaders" rational in this sense? No. I am not going to argue these points. If these conclusions are not clear to the reader in 2012, four years after another global economic crisis and the ensuing, continuing chaos, and the coming train wreck, they never will be. In short, does the human race consist of "reliable, rational, decent people" who can be counted on to do the right thing for the good of the whole, whether it is through Adam Smith's "invisible hand" or a powerful central government's alleged altrusim? No.
Might we then leave open the possibility that humanity might consist of such individuals in the long run as Keynes hoped? No. A long time has passed since Keynes expressed some doubts about the ideology of progress, and despite a few triumphs here and there like the Civil Rights Movement in the decades after World War II, the notion of perpetual progress has once again been stood on its head in the early 21st century. It appears that Keynes and his contemporaries did indeed "completely misunderstand human nature, including their own." And if they and others did not understand the human animal, then the ideology of progress is wholly misguided. I am wondering how many decisive, falsifying demonstrations of the lack of "improvement" in human behavior are required before this theory of perpetual progress is completely discarded.
I shall require another essay to discuss the details of my critique of Progress, but for now I want you to consider what has been lost in American society, not what has been gained over the last 150 years. Specifically, I want you to think about these propositions concerning what characterizes a Good Society. Do you disagree with any of the following?
- Tradition has great value
- Continuity has great value
- Conservation has great value
- Stability has great value
- Constraints (on behavior) have great value
All these things, these great values, have been lost in America, a society which more than any other was founded on (or at least taken over by) the ideology of progress. All these things have been effectively lost in the name of progress.
If you disagree with all these propositions, you are indeed a liberal in the sense described here. If you agree with most or all of them, you are a conservative in the traditional sense or have those leanings. I am a conservative. As I said, I would not be willing to give up the liberal reforms we have achieved, as unimpressive as they appear to be given the great difficulties we face, but I do not generally subscribe to a philosophy of "improvement" in the human condition. Progress is illusory, and all we've achieved could be lost in a heartbeat if things go badly in the future, which they almost certainly will.
Think about all this. I'll write the second part of this essay later this week.