Monday, October 10, 2011

progress, in an absolute sense

The great difference between this century and the twentieth century concerns the way we look at progress.  If there is one idea that serves as a point of reference for the paradigm shift, then it's this one.  About this idea, we can identify 'before' and 'after,' just as we can distinguish 'then' from 'now'.

The transformation of the progressive idea coincides with the turn of the millennium but was spread out over a longer period, from the nineties to the noughts.  What we mean by progress in 2011 is not what was meant by it in 1989.

For one thing, there is now actually a 'we' about progress.  In this century we enjoy a science-based consensus.  But prior to the transformation, there was no single and coherent way of viewing the idea.  Opinions differed on both what progress is supposed to mean, and whatever its merit or value may be.

In 1989, Reagan left office, Gorbachev ruled, the Wall came down, the Iron Curtain fell, the Soviets lost the Baltic, Chinese police massacred protesters on Tiananmen Square, Deng stepped down after telling China there is nothing wrong with money, and the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street, with Gecko's line "greed is good," was two years old.  Bill McKibben's book The End of Nature came out.  So did Stephen Schneider's Global Warming, with the subtitle Are We Entering the Greenhouse Century?  The WMO published proceedings of a Toronto conference on The Changing Atmosphere in Geneva. The volume's subtitle was Implications for Global Security.  That was 1989.

And in that roiling, eventful and ominous year, the sense of progress had effectively fragmented.  There was no single unifying perspective anymore.  Instead there were three.  The Left had anchored progress on the foundation of the German Enlightenment and given it a blue-collar twist.  Here, progress meant advancing on the historic path of humankind toward the steady state of social justice, collective security and classless harmony otherwise known as socialism.  Progress consisted of scientific advances, technological innovations, social welfare, and moral progressions.  Moral progressions were step-by-step realizations of the French Revolutionary parole liberté, egalité, fraternité.  Problem was that this leftist idea of progress started looking partly obsolete, partly plain wrongAfter all, socialist systems were being swept away by a global uprising.

Enter the Right.  It also anchored progress on the basis on the Enlightenment, but did so on the Scottish variant, stressing individualism, skepticism, and empiricism.  Individualism expressed itself in the notion that government is the problem and free market the solution.  Skepticism led to doubt about science, especially about any finding at odds with moral conservativism, yet another element of the Right.  Empiricism came into play as a short-sighted focus on the bottom line and as a disdain for social ideas, environmentalist idealism, and utopian ideologies, in short for anything visionary and altruistic.  Moral conservativism, finally, included a celebration of Christian faith, not the communist spirituality taught by Jesus, preached by Master Eckhart, and lived by St Francis, but instead the puritanical and narcissist faith of personal success & screw everyone else, spread by rich white homophobic Americans with toothy smiles--Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, the Bakkers, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and today's Prosperity Gospel ministers. 

The Right measured progress in technological innovations, just as the Left did, but was uneasy about scientific advances, experiencing them more as a threat than as steps forward.  The Right did not measure progress on either social welfare or moral progressions.  The liberty of the market always trumped the rights of labor.  Morality was eternal and fixed; from a rightist point of view, moral progress was a contradiction in terms.  Morality meant regress: a return to traditions of the past.

The third perspective on progress fashionable then was that of Postmodernity.  Postmoderns rejected the Enlightenment, distrusted science and technology, and had grave doubts about the concept of progress as such.  The belief that progress is good, and that it would be the same for everyone, struck them as naive.  In a way, the Postmoderns, or Liberals, as they called themselves, were the children of the aging Left; they belonged to what Chinese today call the "golden spoon generation".  Postmodern Liberals cared little about the struggles of labor, worked in white collar professions, and aspired to be well-adjusted members of the bourgeoisie or what was called "upper middle class" in pre-downturn America.  The Liberals took social sensitivity from the Left, joined it to anti-ideological skepticism from the Right, and added as marks of their own easygoing relativism and ironic disdain for universals.
The Postmodern position was the final consequence of the fragmentation of views on progress, because it internalized the split.  The Postmodern attitude to Nature illustrates this incoherence.  Yes, Nature was good and deserving of protection; but no, bearers of information on its staggering systemic decline, the scientists, were not really to be trusted.  Yes, environmentalism, at least of the type Arne Naess called Shallow Ecology, was good; but no, climate change was probably not happening, and climatologists could well be cheaters.  So yes, let's save the planet, but please not at the price of sacrificing our self-infatuation and reality-denial. 

That was then.  In 2011, the situation has turned upside down.  Paradoxically, it did so because the Right and the Postmoderns had won, with the biospherical and climatic consequences of this victory that are evident now.  The subsequent reality-check ended the fragmentation.  Now, having sobered up from the consumerist and relativist binge, we all discover anew what progress really means.  The biospherical destabilization serves as a double falsification; it reveals the unsustainability of the conservative view, on the Right, as well as the incoherence of the postmodern view, on the side of the Liberals.  Ironically, the lone remaining survivor is the very perspective that had looked like a total loser in 1989, the old-fashioned viewpoint of the Left.

Climate change confirms the leftist faith in universality, that all humans are basically the same, with similar needs and vulnerabilities.  It also underscores the leftist fondness for technological innovations and scientific advances.  Moving away from fossil fuels towards a postcarbon world is a oneway street called progress; advancing on it depends on technology.  Mitigating climate change, moreover, and resisting the causal cascades that had been set off, are progressive stances whose success depends on appropriating scientific know-how.  Finally, the leftist principles of secular humanism and social justice constitute the moral compass for shepherding as many humans as possible through the tightening bottleneck of looming food insecurity, water scarcity, and land loss, so as to keep dieback and collapse to a minimum.  Waiting for the Rapture and embracing the Apocalypse may work for the aging American Right, but is not in the interest of the children of the world.  When it comes to confronting climate change, we are, like the Parisians storming the Bastille, all equal now.  When it comes to suffering the environmental consequences, we are all brothers and sisters now.  When it comes to renouncing the shackles of consumerism and leaping towards civil evolution, we all exist in freedom now.  Once again liberté, egalité, fraternité is the parole of universal progress.  Only this time around the planet has given us fair notice that there are no other options left.

Sixty-two months.

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