Progress has a bad name these days. There is a certain degree of justice in this. For the vast majority of human history, things were seen to be static. What would be was what had been, at least until some sort of apocalypse brought matters to a close. Progress as a historical motif gained its greatest prominence during the Enlightenment, although it was not really new then.
In any case, both its liberal/Whiggish form and in its radical/Communist variety, progress was employed as a more or less explicit justification for all manner of dangerous things. As the history of Stalinism showed (and this is only one example among many that could be evinced) there was no crime so base or uncivilized that its justification could not be ascribed to a future, greater good. As Goethe’s Faust illustrated, even the works of Satan were progressive, as when the latter notes, “Ich bin ein teil von jener Kraft, die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft. [I am a part of that power that always intends evil and always achieves good.]”
Marxism itself is complicit in, and thus culpable for, the sins of progress. Here we mean Marxism as the doctrines developed by Marx himself and his responsible interpreters, rather than its bowdlerized versions beginning with the later writings of Engels, and including Lenin, Stalin, and a host of lesser figures standing on their intellectually dwarfish shoulders. Marx clearly thought that history had a particular trajectory.
Yet it is another matter entirely to ascribe to him the eschatological approach to history espoused by the “intellectual” elements of the Comintern. More modern and, it is probably fair to say, more judicious interpreters of Marx (one might point to Wolfgang Streeck as an obvious example) express a historicism of a different kind. Capitalism may indeed be prone to crisis and eventual collapse, but nothing in the structure of the world or of human society guarantees that what comes next will be any better.
Even the Wiggish historical views of the intellectual progeny of the Enlightenment seem to have been tempered with the passage of time. The 20th century was a hard time for purveyors of the nostrums of historical progress. One implication of the Holocaust was that the progress of scientific knowledge was not intrinsically connected to the elevation of human civilization. Taylorism made more and better automobiles, but (coupled with an ideology of purification of the human species) it also better, more efficient death factories. Now with war, resource exhaustion, and climate change forming the backdrop for every successive moment of human culture, it is hard to escape the feeling that it is doom rather than paradise toward which history is moving.
Given all of this, it is surprising to find the Marxist sociologist Göran Therborn writing in defense of progress in the most recent issue of the New Left Review. “Against, or perhaps, more cautiously, alongside the sombre mood prevailing on the left, including the environmentalist left-of-centre, it can be stated that humankind today is at a historical peak of its possibilities, in the sense of its capability and resources to shape the world, and itself. Never has humankind faced its future with greater mastery of the world.”
This mastery, Therborn notes, is not meant in the sense of the domination of nature, but rather in terms of craftsmanship and the ability to bring skillful. Human beings have greater technological capabilities than ever before. We can build computer intelligences that equal, and in many respects outstrip, our own. We have access to greater economic resources than ever before. We can control our own reproduction as never before, transplant organs, create new diagnostic and surgical techniques, and produce drugs with a facility never before available.
“It can certainly not be claimed that the human species has mastered its environment. However, what has evolved is a wider and deeper awareness and knowledge of the planetary ecology of humankind. While many peoples in the past and several in the present have had a deep understanding of their own habitat, contemporary knowledge of the planet and its atmosphere is unprecedented. Climate science has made another recent leap in human knowledge. Increasingly, it includes awareness of the self-destructive capacity of humankind, and in the future will assist in developing a third form of human mastery, that of self-limitation.”
In light of these facts, and of the unique human capacity to behave as a species, why, Therborn asks, is it the case that pessimism is so widespread? In answer he cites two reasons. The first is that capitalism is “a system of social exclusion” in which property and profitability are decisive. “A system of this kind,” Therborn notes, “is, of course, incapable of incapable of allowing the capacities of all humankind to be realized.” As a writer in the Marxist tradition, this is the sort of explanatory avenue that one might reasonably expect the author to take.
Therborn’s second reason takes him somewhat further afield. The progressive evolutionism of the 19th century, of which Marxism and social Darwinism were the two more prominent forms, is now viewed as unilinear and deterministic. With the passing of the influence of these evolutionary motifs (and their transformation to terms of abuse) human consciousness lost coherent organizing principles on which to ground positive conceptions of progress.
Human history is not, as the author notes, merely a random series of events. There are, for instance, moments of progress (like the worldwide abolition of chattel slavery) that seem unlikely to be reversed. It is thus incumbent on us to formulate a nondeterministic perspective that still allows for the inclusion of some sort of evolutionary dimension. For Therborn, this can be found in adaptive dynamics, the capacity of human beings and human societies to use what currently works as a basis for developing ever more effective solutions to human problems. In his view, the key to reaching a higher degree of success with such dynamics is greater social organization and the recognition of the dialectical quality of human social evolution. Rather than merely assuming that greater capacity will automatically result in positive progress, it is necessary to note the countervailing tendencies and to make conscious, incremental steps toward a desired future.
All of this is well taken. Therborn is certainly correct that the means (or at least many of them) to achieve positive outcomes currently exist or are within our grasp. But he seems strangely unaware, or at least ready overlook, the influence of ideology on the way that adaptive dynamics actually play out. Adaptation is predicated on information. In order to know what to do it is necessary to have accurate information about what is happening. Yet, as the current state of politics in the United States illustrates, such information can be hard to come by, especially when it is in the interest of influential groups to obscure it.
Climate change is a perfect example. Coastal states, Florida in particular, are started to feel the effects of rising sea levels. In a particularly delicious irony, even properties owned by Donald Trump himself are threatened. Yet the Republican Party (which is in power along much of the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts), and even Trump himself, remain wedded to the assertion that the emperor is, in fact, fully dressed (and quite nicely too). Here ideology, wealth, and the needs of political spectacle synergize in a way that acts to prevent substantive learning from taking place.
And this is the problem humanity faces. It’s not so much that we can’t solve our problems. It’s really a matter of not being able to convince ourselves (or each other) of what the real problems are. Therborn is correct in much of what he says. We are, as a species of craftsmen, better placed to handle the vicissitude of our existence that at any point in the past. But we are also awash in a sea of information and ideology and technologically mediated political power. The question is not so much can we fix our problems, but rather, can we recognize what they even are before the clock strikes.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit