Friday, January 07, 2005

Progress as a Natural Force Versus Progress as the Great Work

[Expurgated, via Amor Mundi] It seems to me there is all the difference in the world between those who profess to “believe” in progress and those who would work to achieve it.

When progress is imagined to be some kind of “force” that the knowledgeable can discern in history, a natural force one can believe in with one’s whole heart or... better yet, a force in the name of which one can claim to be some kind of priestly mouthpiece, then it tends to be little more than a self-congratulatory fable that the powerful and their orbiting opportunists tell themselves to deny the part luck has played in their attainment of power and then to justify the bad behavior they typically employ subsequently to maintain it.

This doctrine of progress as a natural force is just one more way in which the powerful add insult to injury. It is one more ruse of the ideology of the “natural,” this time one in which subject populations are re-imagined as and then reduced to developmental “atavisms” along a progressive path that has only too naturally and irresistibly culminated in the attainment of rule proper to whomever it is that calls the shots at the moment....

While it is easy to find examples of this kind of naturalizing idea of progress in the crass champions of Empire from the Edwardian English to the Project for a New American Century, I will offer up as a slightly less obvious example something that strikes closer to home... the kind of corporate futurists and science fiction fanboys who sometimes like to glibly handwave about the inevitable consequences of accelerating technological development.

I think it is first of all a mystification to say technology in general is "accelerating" when in fact some developments seem to accelerate, while others stall, others converge, others altogether cease, etc.

In my experience, this wholesale developmental acceleration metaphor tends to be employed to create an impression of inevitability and irresistibility to whatever very particular parochial political/moral values (or, worse yet, whatever particular quotidian crap product) whatever futurist is trying to avoid making an actual argument for at the moment....

Surely, however shattering or empowering certain technological developments may be, there is little that is inevitable about the forms that development will take, or the scope of its impact, or the vicissitudes in the interaction of technical and normative developmental effects with one another over time.

And all of this leads me to an altogether different conception of progress....

While it is true that I maintain something like the barest faith that life can indeed be improved for more and more people through scientific effort, the freeing up of popular creativity, and the co-operation of free people, for me progress does not so much name this bare belief as it does the work itself in which one collaborates to make the world a better place, a work on which individuals must depend on the participation of their fellows and the attainments of which are always the farthest thing from sure-footed or secure.

For me, “progress” is simply what happens when there is a fairer distribution of the benefits, costs, and risks of ongoing technological development among all the stakeholders to that development. “Progress” happens whenever more people have more of a say in the public decisions that affect them (that is, when we achieve more democracy) and when more people enjoy participation in a robust rights-culture....

I'm a social and liberal democrat... because I... belie[ve] that when the social definition of progress is satisfied (the second sentence in the paragraph above), the technocultural definition of progress (the first sentence) is more likely to be satisfied as well....

I believe that the romantic energies of the radical left were once fired by a vision of progress as a great collective work to make an incomparably better future for all, but that these revolutionary energies were shattered by the many failures, betrayals, and tyrannies of the Cold War era, and by the almost wholesale appropriation of the language of progressive enlightenment by fearful, greedy, and malign reactionaries.

The left has grown suspicious of optimistic developmental narratives that too often have been little more than apologies or cover for the ongoing consolidation of corporate-military power. The left has been distracted from the real achievements and disenchanted from the breathtaking promise of technological advance by the recklessness and sometime brutality of that advance, as well as by the outrageous hype and provincial perfectionism of too many commercial hucksters peddling panaceas and unsustainable lifestyles.

Too often the technophilic faith in a world "without limits" has translated into the smug assurance that there are profits to be made, and that there will always be others on hand to clean up the mess in the aftermath.

Too often the real costs, risks, and burdens of development have fallen disproportionately on those who benefit least from developmental achievements....

The thankless and heartbreaking work of restitution, restoration, and remediation in the aftermath of this ongoing injustice has largely fallen to the left, of course, and it is of a piece with the wider contemporary battle of progressives to conserve the institutional achievements of over a century of social struggle against an onslaught of reactionaries who have recently re-written revolution in the image of a massive looting and dismantling of democratic civilization, such as it is.

This curious inversion, whereby the left has been lured into a dreary conservative defense of the fragile embattled institutions of social welfare and representative governance, while the right is intoxicated with the fighting faith of market-triumphalist Revolutionary fervor, has left the left unable to plausibly claim any longer to speak in the name of Progress conceived as the Whirlwind or the Pillar of Fire.

Why look a gift horse in the mouth? I say we leave the ideology of Nature’s Progress to the market naturalists, and grab hold again the reins of Progress conceived as a Great Work.

I believe now that only by championing and securing the emancipatory potential of emerging radical technologies (genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification medicine, nanoscale fabrication techniques, and decentralized media and resource networks), by insisting on their social support, funding, regulation, and the fair distribution of both their costs and benefits, that the left can regain the momentum it lost in the slow turn to the twenty-first century with the loss of its intelligible revolutionary aspirations.

While it is certainly true that the unprecedented dangers and destabilizing impact of emerging technological development will impose extraordinary risks and costs on all humanity and all species (and disproportionately so onto the relatively weaker and poorer among us so long as development is driven by corporate-militarist elites), it seems to me that the left needs to embrace technology to regain its right relevance in the world almost as much as humanity needs the fair-minded good-sense of the left to regulate technological development for the good of us all and to dispel what will otherwise too likely be catastrophe.

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