In 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington, a fellow Virginian soldier and statesman, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) offered different but complementary, if less critical, notions of progress. “Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites,” Mills wrote. “Even progress, which ought to superadd, for the most part only substitutes, one partial and incomplete truth for another.” Marx’s belief in progress extended Hegel’s more spiritual notion that history was the process by which of humanity toward true freedom, through what he called historical materialism.
In our era, the notion of progress has become anchored in a liberal, neo-Marxian materialism of everyday life. Writing in The Atlantic, Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen noted “by ‘progress,’ we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.”
Sadly, in the two-and-a-half centuries since Jefferson wrote his letter, since Mills and Marx reflected on historical change, and – more recently — since liberal apologists sought to rationalize profound social changes, American life has become a great treadmill with people ceaselessly moving forward but returning to the same starting point over and over again. Does this mean that “progress” is at a standstill?
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Since the Enlightenment, many Western theorists linked developments in mathematics and the natural sciences, notably physics and astronomy, with societal advances. Such advances include improvements in people’s standards of living (i.e., they are better off than their parents) to increased life expectancy and more humane social relations (e.g., end of slavery, women’s rights). Together, these advances have come to define “progress” or at least the ideological glue that holds together the U.S. and much of the West.
At the heart of the Enlightenment notion of progress is an assumption, an unstated teleology. Secular notions of progress assume that, while it many not have a goal, it has a direction or trajectory, one that points to an ever-better tomorrow for human experience. This teleology undermines once-traditional religious morality – i.e., belief in god – with a “modern” one that is grounded human achievement. Finally, progress involves what has been identified as “chronological unfairness” – the belief that if things are getting better for people today, doesn’t that mean that things were unfair for earlier generations?.
This Enlightenment notion of progress has come under serious question in the light of actually historical development. Yes, life expectancy has steadily risen over the centuries; but so too has the human ability to inflict mass murder in warfare, revolutions and everyday life. Similarly, while industrial manufacturing and farming have increased the food supply, industrialization has led to what Shoshana Zuboff identifies as ever-increasing “surveillance capitalism,” ever-greater corporate control of the workplace and personal life. And then there is the long, torturous history of racism, colonialism, imperialism and outright domination that shadowed the evolution of “progress.”
“So long as there is injustice, violence, oppression, and domination, so long as there are rulers and ruled, masters who command and subjects who obey,” reflects John Lundy, “those who wield illegitimate power will use every conceivable tool and trick at their disposal to convince the oppressed that their chains set them free, that “progress” consists in nothing other than the maintenance and growth of that which serves to oppress them while maintaining the interests of the privileged.”
Today, “progress” in the U.S. seems to be at a standstill. Long-championed indicators appear to have been eclipses by capitalism’s mad, ceaseless demands for more and ever more profit. Globalizations, driven by carbon-based industries, has achieved its complete triumph with the environmental crisis (i.e., global warming), one which spells the doom of all life on the globe itself. And the 1 percent’s ceaseless, never-enough effort at wealth accumulation fosters growing inequality that deepens social animosities, fueling rightwing populism.
So, what of “progress”? Walter Benjamin — in Thesis IX of “On the Concept of History” — suggests a very different way of glimpsing it.
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Mill, Marx and most modernists concepts of progress resonating a quasi- teleological belief in looking forward, whether as a wish for the divine or for a form of heaven-on-earth, a tomorrow that will be a better day for “humanity” and each individual.
Benjamin offers a different perspective, one symbolized by the Klee painting, an angel that looks backward to look forward. It is the witness to the sins and suffering of the past that, as social and historical forces, shape the present and make us who we are – “what we call progress.”
Today, what has traditionally and conventionally been known as “progress” appears to be at a standstill. Such standstills are not new or uncommon in the two-and-a-half centuries of U.S. history. They define periods of ever-deepening economic or social crisis and none was more historically consequential as the early phase of Great Depression, from 1929 to early 1930s when FDR’s implemented the New Deal. The standstill gave rise to fascism.
Its almost two-and-a-half centuries since Jefferson wrote, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” His words have never rang truer.