The Myth Of Progress – Pricking The Bubble

Again and again, I am reminded of the need for humility, as well as dignity and confidence. I am reminded not only by my own faults and errors, which are numerous enough, but also by many of the people I respect the most. Again, and again, I read an exceptionally brilliant book, am floored by the clarity and lucidity of mind, and then, am momentarily shell-shocked by the seemingly sudden loss of clarity, and the introduction of what to me is a glaring error. Few people are omniscient or infallible. Shared illusions, furthermore, are not only possible, but are the norm. Shared illusions with regards to the mythology of progress, are a perfect example.

(Stephen Toulmin’s, Cosmopolis, a brilliant book on the history of the modern world, made me reflect on these things again today. A once in 400 year book ends with an assumption, a presumption, of the myth of progress? As I say, question everything. If the most brilliant minds are capable of error, and often great errors, what are our politicians and media pundits capable of? Sheer idiocy, outright lies, half-truths, distortions, evasions, blatant self-delusion? Yes, all of that, and more.)

No one demolishes our modern illusions about progress so marvelously, or with such wit, as Thoreau; but I will do my best here, to follow in the footsteps of one of my great heroes; and urge everyone to read Walden, and On Civil Disobedience, again.  We need such uncommon clarity and Earthy, practical wisdom now.

This is a short bit of reflection on a subject I have returned to many times over several decades – not a comprehensive discourse or treatise on the mythology or ideology of progress, by any stretch. But pithy kernels of thought are useful, it seems to me, because they spark further thought and reflection. Consider this one small spark – knowing that that is all it takes to begin a wildfire: one that can burn through our shared illusions, like the sunrise dispels the darkness of the night.

*

The Western world is heavily influenced by certain founding mythologies (mythologies in the proper sense of the term, meaning grand narratives, subtextual philosophies or worldviews), or confluences of mythology, culture and thought: including Judaism, and later Christianity and Islam; those of ancient Greece, both pre-Hellenic and Hellenic; Roman; Medieval, that of the Renaissance, and of the Enlightenment. (We are dealing in major patterns here, though of course there have been, and are, many other currents.)

Core among Western assumptions, are assumptions or mythologies surrounding the nature of time. Four common mythology groups can be identified, as a start, with regards to views of time: linear descent, linear progress, eternal return, and time as an illusion.

Let’s take the last view first. Time as an illusion is the least common view in the West, the view or mythology with the least cultural, psychological or historical influence – though it is most accurate. All is change, as Heraclitus, the Buddha and Lao Tzu have said, and King Solomon as well; yet, as the Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist views all assert, and mystics of the West as well, time remains an illusion, because while the many are always changing and in flux, the many are always, in truth, the One – hence all is in constant change, yet all change is illusory; therefore time is illusory. Compassion within the illusion of time is paradoxically essential to an intelligent life, much less an enlightened state; yet time remains an illusion, because duality is an illusion, and hence, no true change exists, but only changes in appearance or form.

We will pass over the mystics’ view of time, for now. Let’s look at what the non-mystic great majority have believed about the nature of time – since, unfortunately, they have shaped Western history more than any sages have done.

For the great majority of people, both East and West, time is very real. (Transcendent Oneness may be an attractive idea, but few are genuinely interested in even exploring it. Maya is everything.) And here we are left with three major remaining mythologies, philosophies, or views, with regards to the nature of time:

1. Time is linear, and everything is in a state of decline from an original golden age, or the paradise of Eden. This is the view of ancient Greece, China and India, and with important variations, it is also the core Judaeo-Christian view. Everything was wonderful, then there was a fall from grace, and we are on our way down to the bottom. And if we look deeply at this view, in all cases above, the bottom is not final, but only a nadir, from which rebirth is certain to occur. There is much to be said of, and for, this view, but that is not the topic of this essay.

3. The third view is one of circularity in time: the eternal return. Time may look linear to us, but it is circular in reality. There is much to be said for this view as well, but it too, is not the topic at hand.

2. The second view is linear time marked by an inevitable upward trend. This is the mythology of progress. This is – or became in the modern world – the true religion of the West.

When the Enlightenment thinkers revisited the ancient Western mythology of time, they turned it on its head – similarly to Marx turning Hegel on his head, and with similar general confusion.

The modern view became the mirror image of the traditional Judaeo-Christian view. Now, time is viewed as linear – that much is retained of the mythology; but the path is not inevitable descent, but inevitable ascent.

Modernity became as religiously devoted to the ideology and mythology of progress, as Judaeo-Christianity was wedded to the idea of the fall, decline, decay, the end of time, and cosmic rebirth.

The modern view was simply a secularization of the mythology of redemption. But redemption was to be by our own power and cleverness. (As Nietzsche said, “The ego –  our last article of faith.”) Progress is our redemption; and progress is assured – inevitable.

Thankfully, I haven’t heard anyone use the phrase, “You can’t stop progress”, in quite some time. The mythology has cracked, and is crumbling. “Progress” is not so assured to us now.

And what of the notion of progress? (The author John Michael Greer makes the case well: it is a dying and outmoded notion, that was largely illusory to begin with.) The ideology or mythology of progress takes it as an unquestionable truism that everything that comes later in time, must, by definition, be better than which came before. But is that really true?

Clothes produced in Chinese sweatshops tend to be low quality and wear out quickly – but moving all manufacturing to China and other low-wage areas of the world is a new phenomenon: so all products made in China must therefore be better in terms of quality, since this is a new “development” or phenomenon. Clearly this is not the case.

If the mythology of progress was true, then in the 1930’s, when fascism was rising in Germany and Italy, since fascism was new, it must therefore be an improvement, and must have been better than the free and open democracies which it replaced.

Clearly, only the criminally insane and the pathological would agree that Nazism and fascism were improvements over democracy, or free and open societies, simply because they came after democracy, and (for a time) crushed democracy. Clearly, what comes later in time is not necessarily better than what came before.

*

I do have faith, or confidence, if you prefer, in the long-term upward trajectory of humanity. I firmly believe that Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But I have no illusions that we cannot have set-backs, or that temporary regression is not possible. Clearly it is. Look at the Nazis and other fascists in the 1930’s and ’40’s. Clearly, we can regress, just as easily as we can progress. You can climb up a mountain, stumble, and fall back down again. Stumbling and falling are not impossible. Descent is as real as ascent.

China is now ruled by a totalitarian bureaucracy that has wedded itself to neoliberalism, every bit as much as Western corporate neoliberalism has wedded itself to it. It is a match made in hell, and the two deserve each other – while humanity deserves neither.

China represents neofeudal technocratic corporatism (or Red fascism, as I call it); the West is ruled by a technocratic corporate neofeudalism. One is the mirror image of the other. Neither can be tolerated by those who value freedom or democracy, civil rights, or a world where people are something other than slaves, consumer drones, and mindless cogs in a great machine.

But this new form of society for China, this new Confuscianist-Orwellian neofeudal corporatism, came after Taoism and Zen. Does that make it superior to Taoism and Zen, because it came later in time? The newer is better, right? Everything that is new is best. That is the mythology of inevitable progress.

To my mind, one would have to be out of one’s mind, to say that an Orwellian-Confucian neo-feudal bureaucratic corporate police state is superior to either ancient Taoism or Zen. I think there is absolutely no question about this. What came latter, happens to be a profound regression – not progress at all. That can and does happen in history. We can make miss-steps.

Neoliberalism is a recent ideological construct, not yet quite 50 years old – because it is new does that mean it is better? Must the drive toward a global corporate oligarchy be accepted as inevitable, or worse, as inevitable progress? I think we would be quite delusional and deranged to assume such a thing, when all the evidence is that neoliberalism, and the corporatism – aka fascism – which it represents, is extraordinarily destructive to people and the planet both.

Viewed in this light, we have had 50 years of regress.

Culturally, it is clear we have progressed greatly in the past 50 years. But in terms of reigning political-economic systems, structures and ideologies, we have simply fallen into a ditch – because we followed blind men.

We’ve had fifty years of neoliberalism – which is the ideology which rationalizes the corporate take-over of the world – and fifty years of post-modernism – which effectively lobotomized intellectuals for five decades, spinning polysyllabic webs of confusion justifying a hidden nihilism, which in turn provided the perfect cover for a corporatist (that is, fascist) take-over.

Maybe now we can regain our senses, and reject both neoliberal corporatism, which is fascism with a pretty face, and also post-modernist nihilism, which vacates all intellect and common sense, neuters the people, and paves the way for the justification of, and collusion with, almost anything – including the worst of evils, and the worst regression.

Are post-modernism and global neoliberal corporatism improvements over the values of the Renaissance, of dignity and confidence, with a counterbalancing of  tolerance and humility? Are they improvements over Spinoza, or over Plotinus, Socrates or Aristotle? Are they improvements over Jesus, Mohammed, Daniel or Moses? Are they improvements over the Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, and solidarity, the values of the American and French Revolutions, the values of democracy and common sense? I would say that any reasonable or honest accounting would show both post-modernism and neoliberal corporatism to be deeply regressive, barbaric, profoundly myopic, and frankly delusional. We had best retrace our steps, and think again.

There are many treasures to be saved, and preserved, and cherished, from our 5,000 year journey. Neoliberalism and post-modernism are not among them. These belong on the dung heap,

*

We can take the best from the past and the present, and decide to reject certain new trends, ideologies or technologies as destructive to life on Earth: nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons; along with fascism, neofeudalism, and neoliberal corporate oligarchy – all of which are various ways of describing the same single system; are among the things which we should reasonably and unequivocally, and firmly reject.

In short, we have choices. There are dangers, and there are opportunities. We must make the best of the latter, while navigating around, overcoming, or defeating the former. This should be a matter of common sense.

Chomsky sums it up well, as he so often does:

(I am paraphrasing from memory here)

“The world is filled with ominous portent, and signs of great hope. Which result ensues, is largely up to what we do with the opportunities at hand.”

Exactly.

Let’s not be complacent. There is work to be done. We have a better future, and a better world to build – a task we are entirely capable of fulfilling. But complacency and denial are luxuries that we most certainly cannot afford.

JTR,
April 6, 2020

 

Further reading:

Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control In Democratic Societies,
Year 501: The Conquest Continues,
Class Warfare,
and
Requiem For The American Dream: The Principles Of Concentration Of Wealth & Power
George Orwell, 1984
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, and Brave New World Revisited
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
Jack London, Iron Heel
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine
David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule The World
Susan George, Shadow Sovereigns
John Pilger, The New Rulers Of The World
John Perkins, A Game As Old As Empire, and
The New Confessions Of An Economic Hitman
C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite
Peter Phillips, Giants: The Global Power Elite
Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom
Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom
Bertrand Russell, Roads To Freedom
Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self

And perhaps most urgently:

Ronald Wright, A Short History Of Progress

For philosophical, cultural, anthropological and historical perspective, there is no better guide or place to start than here – an immenseley erudite and deeply perceptive book which reveals precisely, by contrast, and exactly where we stand in the early 21st century: still lost in a continuing dark age that daily threatens to get ever darker – until we reflect, and change our course:

Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Time to wake up. Fascism is rising, and the planet and the people are in peril.

 

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