When In Truth Did We Win Anything?

Progress is dead.

In the same sense that Nietzsche spoke of the death of God, only to be habitually misunderstood by the same kinds of people that misunderstand Einstein saying that God does not play dice with the universe. The question Nietzsche had was how it might be possible to retain some consistent vision of values or ethics in the absence of a belief in God as the unquestioned authority over such values. The whole point was to find some deeper, more robust way to sustain those values.

So what “progress” is it that has died? The kind that people–primarily white, educated and liberal people–told themselves had already been accomplished and would inevitably continue to be accomplished. Progress as slightly smug self-congratulation is dead. Progress as the accomplished work of an earlier generation of almost mythical heroes is dead. Progress as irreversible is dead.

The aspirational content of progress is not, any more than ethics and morality were dead with “God”. We just have to find a deeper way to work for those aspirations and to never assume that they are final, finished work if they appear, however briefly, to be an animating part of our public institutions and civic lives.

So what does this mean as a revision of the more smug style of telling the history of the modern world? It does not mean that we must tell the opposite history: that the last two centuries have been a never-ending catastrophe of anti-progress, that nothing has ever changed, that a nightmare that began in 1492 has continued uninterrupted and undifferentiated ever since. That is the same kind of nihilism that Nietzsche was desperate to avoid as the concept of God lost its status as the secure guarantor of moral claims.

We have no grounds for complaining about the failures of our present if we did not somewhere develop an understanding of what a better world would be like. That understanding has risen out of experience and experiment, out of actions taken and institutions remade. It has been and remains real. If we tell ourselves that nothing has ever changed, we are also telling ourselves, whether we mean to or not, that nothing ever can change.

The weariness that is settling over most of us–even people who long have been bowed under by the weary awareness that the promise of progress has never been fulfilled–is because we now know that anything that does change can be changed back again. Slavery was abolished, but it can be resurrected. In corners and shadows in our world, it has been. One form or another of legal racism has been edited out of the laws, but it either marches on regardless of the law or the law falls into the hands of people who would perpetuate racism. One group of people arises who reject injustice, but another group finds their way to injustice and they baptize themselves in its foul pools. There are no procedures or rules or systems that prevent the renewal of social evil. There is no philosophy or belief which is self-proving and secure against its half-hearted adoption by insincere and doubtful adherents.

Trying to figure out what in the human past is so thoroughly past that it will never come again is a fool’s errand. Trying to think of the past as an atavism that erupts somehow into a present full of progress is equally foolish. We don’t carry a terrible past inside of us like a parasite. We make new futures of terror and beauty from what we have been, but also from what we are. There’s always a new way to be terrible. The torch-bearers of Charlottesville are not mocking ghosts who can only briefly haunt the living. They are terrible children, familiar fathers, the man next door, the face behind the counter or the voice on the phone. New and urgent, but also known burdens, the rock that we sisyphi push up the hill and that veers to crush some of us–always the same some–reliably and repeatedly on its way back down.

Progress is not a machine programmed to arrive at a predestined utopia. It is not an arc that bends towards justice like the rain falling to the force of gravity. It is a twisting road we must walk in a never-ending maze of twisting roads. We walk it because we ought to, not because we’ve been given assurances of getting to the other side.

This entry was posted in Politics, Production of History. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to When In Truth Did We Win Anything?

  1. “There are no procedures or rules or systems that prevent the renewal of social evil. There is no philosophy or belief which is self-proving and secure against its half-hearted adoption by insincere and doubtful adherents.”

    You sound very sure of yourself.

    I am sure that you are wrong. There are such procedures, rules, and systems. But your dark certainty is the very thing that keeps us humans from adopting them. I hope you don’t transmit your despair to your students.

    For example, our system of government was designed to place power in the hands of a few elites and it has worked as designed–to the detriment of everyone else. Instead of modifying or replacing our fifty-one republics we proclaim that our system is the best of all possible systems. Nonsense. Someone, like you Professor Burke, or some profession like history, must stand up and champion, and work for, the idea that it is time for a change. More than two centuries of failure surely is enough to convince every PhD. in the country that our systems are failures, and this realization should immediately turn to action.

    We know why our systems are failures. We can correct them in the blink of an eye. In just a few months, everyone will be free of their debt for college, they will have money to take care of their families, to have an honest chance to build long lives worth living for themselves and their loved ones. But the dark certainty that you and others harbor is the trap that bottles up change, that defeats our hopes and dreams, that makes human life much less than it can, and ought, to be.

    In my working life, I encountered this defeatist attitude constantly, but a few men, here and there, were willing to think for themselves, were willing to ask people to explain the reasons they rejected change, and, lo, the explanations were lacking or nonexistent, and, lo, the changes were made, and life was improved. But such men are the exception. I don’t know why, but I suspect the defeatism begins with our education system.

    What would you say, Professor Burke, if 30 of your students came to you and said tht they would like to have a semester-long course in which they would redesign our systems of government and economics?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I would say that’s a good effort. But that it’s only a small part of the work that we all must undertake. You should understand what I said here, in reference to Nietzsche, very carefully. It is not that progress is impossible. It is that there is no system which automates it or renders it impossible to reverse. Real progress is a matter of endless vigilance and continuous hard work.

  3. Bill McCallum says:

    There are some aspects of progress which are well-nigh irreversible. It is generally very difficult to undiscover things we have discovered. Not impossible—on could annihilate all knowledge simply by annihilating the species—but very difficult. We could try to suppress effective birth control, nuclear weapons, and the mysterious process by which grapes become wine, but we would be hard press to make those discoveries unhappen. So, endless vigilance, yes, but we need not exactly go in circles.

  4. In the movie “A Hole in the Head,” Frank Sinatra is passing through the lobby of the hotel that he manages when he says to the desk clerk, “Life is just a bowl of cherries.” The clerk replies, “Well, I don’t know. I ain’t no philosopher.” I freely and happily admit that I am no philosopher either. Systems, of the kind that affect human lives, do so by affecting their access to rights, resources, opportunities, and protections. I don’t know what Nietzsche would have called them, and I don’t care, because I know they exist and can be designed to actually work for the common good. So, I refuse to be sidetracked.

    Sure, reversal is possible. Take the case of hyperinflation. Most people in the United States say that such runaway price increases are due to the printing of too much money. They cry, “Weimar! Hungary! Bolivia! Zimbabwe!” and they throw up their hands when I suggest that we have an unlimited supply of money and we should give everybody a basic income large enough to handle the basics of life.

    They are just as certain as you. They think that what they say is true about the causes of hyperinflation and you think that what you say about the reversal of systems is true. I have many times asked the people who claim to know the causes of hyperinflation to explain it to me. They can’t. They are just plain wrong. Where did they get such wrong beliefs? From their schooling and the media.

    So, our education system is a system that fails our youth. Otherwise you would not see the rampant racism that is on display, you would not see the frequent battles in Congress over the debt ceiling—Congress believes, or at least claims to believe, that we have a limited supply of money. But our supply of money is infinite. I ask people to prove to me that our supply of money is finite, and they can’t do it—and it angers them.

    Will a system stamp out racism? No, not entirely. But it would be vanishingly small. Just as we toilet train our children so they don’t defecate on the courthouse steps, we can train them to leave their racist beliefs at home.

    You see, systems that work in the real world, outside the covers of philosophy texts, systems that actually provide “real progress” for those they serve, are to be discussed in concrete terms, in terms of biological and physical possibilities. In that context, dealing with real people in a real world, systems that build and protect progress, that define and implement the common good, are real, they are concrete, they are measurable. So, if you want me to defend my argument on Nietzsche’s playing field I concede. But I did not lose. I just am tired of having my attempts at concrete discussions diverted by switching the basis for the discussion.

    When you talked about progress I never for a moment thought you meant to have a philosophical discussion. And that is because systems, which control our lives for better or worse, have no place in your world. I have taken a couple of American History courses and I have read many books about different aspects of our history. In none of those situations has the teacher or the author discussed the impact of human nature and the design of our major systems have on our history.

    There are systems that automate progress, I have built them along with hundreds of other systems designers. And the progress they produced was never reversed. In some cases the systems were abandoned so they stopped generating progress, but that was the choice of the systems owners.

    “Real progress is a matter of endless vigilance and continuous hard work.” What you say is true, but your implication is not true. You are implying that the vigilance and the hard work must be performed by human beings, because if computers, rather than humans, were constantly vigilant and were continuously doing the hard work, humans would have nothing to do except enjoy the fruits of progress.

    But, finally, the systems we should be talking about are those that can save our civilization and our species from the deadly effects of burning fossil fuels. The onrushing catastrophe of global warming is being ignored. The reason for this is that our system of government delegates too much power, to too few people, for far too long a time. Those defects are easily cured. We could do it in thirty days. And most of the men who are delegated the power of the people are among the most deluded people in history. How did they get to be so ignorant, so self-certain? You tell me. You are the Professor. I am just a systems designer. But I know how to overcome their delusion and all it takes is a system change that could be done in a week. But attitude is everything.

  5. David says:

    Life expectancy has doubled in the last two hundred years. That is real progress. Also, a multitude of diseases that once ravaged humankind have been vanquished – polio, small pox, etc. And most children today survive birth and live beyond three years old, which was not the case two centuries ago. These medical advances are often forgotten or taken for granted as people obsess over political drama. There is much more to human progress than politics and philosophical speculation.

  6. W.P. McNeill says:

    But hasn’t Progress been one of those meta-narratives we’re supposed to be suspicious of for decades now? Point taken: the blithe assumption that things can only get better as a kind of law of thermodynamics is naive: nothing is certain, atrocities have and will continue to happen. But there’s always been the possibility that everything will go to hell. I grew up with the gently humming background knowledge that a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Union could reset the civilization clock back to the Stone Age at any minute. I don’t worry about that as much now, which is a kind of progress (or naivete) of its own.

    Setting up Progress as a God is as foolish as setting up God as a God, but I still operationalize a certain kind of historical optimism with what I call the Time Machine Game. You’re standing in front of a time machine. You can spin the dial to take you to any point in the past, so what do you chose? The 1490s? The 1880s? The Summer of Love? 1939 through 1945? Ten years in the future? A hundred? In this thought experiment, I either walk away or spin the dial forward. That’s not a conscious faith in progress, but just what my gut tells me is my best shot.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I hear you–and certainly that’s an example of how Progress is as secretly indispensible as God, and why religion in a sense has survived the erosion of a temporal power to enforce religiosity. Our institutions encode a presentism that is entangled in progress, and we too are only too aware that most of the things we take for granted as good aspects of our lives are unavailable to us in the past.

    But this also goes to David’s point above. Progress’ partner is the fear of apocalyptic failure–the proposition that the only circumstance under which much of what progress has achieved could be undone is sudden catastrophe. But what if the doubling of life expectancy (which is primarily about falling infant mortality) and the vanquishing of old diseases is simply slowly eroded by the incremental defunding of biomedical institutions, by the spread of a low-level rejection of scientism, by the corrosion of domestic norms that hold the lives of infants as crucial parental duties, and by the appearance of new diseases and dangers to health that are a byproduct of Anthropocene life? (Resistant strains of bacterial pathogens, the spread of diseases and other dangers to health due to climate change or human travel, etc.)

    All of that might be less a sudden catastrophe that utterly undoes “progress” and more simply an entropic erosion of changes that we took for granted. There is nothing necessarily permanent about any of these changes.

  8. W.P. McNeill says:

    We might not get nuked, just frog-boiled. It’s true that when I play the Time Machine game in my head, I am reluctant to jump ahead a few decades for fear that I’ll be dropped in the middle of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I don’t consider the scenario in which things haven’t gone to hell but have merely become a little more stultified and unfree than they are now. I frame this outcome as backsliding, so in that sense I believe in progress. You’ve given me something else to worry about, so thanks I guess.

    But I want to go back to the Nietzsche comparison. The way I understand his “God is Dead” business now in retrospect is as a description of a particular shift in European culture: the end of religion as the sole unifying framework for envisioning morality. A meta-narrative that had lost its monopoly status. Granting that a similar Progress meta-narrative has been operative for a while, are you saying here that it is also losing adherents, or that it isn’t currently losing adherents, but realistically it should be?

    If the latter, how does that amount to more than just “don’t get complacent”? That’s good advice, but also evergreen. Probably more germane in 1918, say, when Europeans were telling themselves they’d just gotten through the war to end all wars, than a period of general unease such as now. (Assuming this is a period of particular unease, rather than the general unease we always feel.) Is there something specifically damaging about a Progress narrative?

  9. Professor Burke:

    I am always giving you a hard time about the Arts & Humanities as if you are responsible for the whole mammoth structure. So, it is only fair that I congratulate you personally, and give you full credit for your part in the resignations of the members of the President’s Commission on Arts and Humanities earlier today.

    Good job! Keep it up!

  10. Prastaweb says:

    But there’s always been the possibility that everything will go to hell. I grew up with the gently humming background knowledge that a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Union could reset the civilization clock back to the Stone Age at any minute.

Comments are closed.