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Progress as a Natural Force Versus Progress as the Great Work
Dale Carrico   Jan 5, 2005   Amor Mundi  

(Or; How Do You Like Your Progress, Maam, Faith-Based Or Reality-Based?)

Even occasional readers of the blog likely know already (via the wonders of relentless self-promotion) that I write a regular column called Progressive Futures, and have already noticed that although I am probably best described as a social, radical, or liberal democrat (depending on my mood or my company) its also true I have often taken on the label progressive to describe myself.

Lately, some of my friends and political allies have taken me to task for what seems to be my eager acceptance of this designation, and wonder if I can really be so oblivious to the damage that has often been done in the name of progress historically.

True to the insincts hammered into me by my training in analytic philosophy, I will propose to relieve this unpleasant tension by offering up an ad hoc distinction.

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 in which one can believe with ones whole heart or to which profess ones full faith, 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.

This naturalizing conception of progress figures development as a natural force like a typhoon wind, sweeping rulers into their prosperity and the ruled into ruin with an urgency so epic it is hard to discern or judge the merits of the proper players involved. And for those who are swept up in the exhilaration of some particular narrative of natural progress it is likewise difficult to see past the mandate of inevitability it confers, difficult to perceive the winning streak it celebrates as one that can ever come to an end, that the players it extols can ever lose their way, that the forces it documents can ever peter out.

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 (for me, at any rate): 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.

This ideologically naturalizing tendency is never more palpable in my view than in those who declaim accelerating development to be tire-screeching in the direction of some absolute historical discontinuity, usually an apocalyptic, transcendentalizing, singularitarian, altogether existential Event about which little can in principle be said while into which much overwrought emotional baggage involving hopes and fears in their more ecstatic guises can nonetheless conspicuously be invested. About these unfortunates I have of course already written on several occasions here on the blog (for example here and here and here and here and here).

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 from the naturalizing ideology against which I have been railing and which I believe has inspired much of the right-minded worry of my well-meaning friends.

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 (and I am happy to take canonical statements such as the US Constitution, UN Declaration, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms or the like as my point of departure here).

When I declare I’m a social and liberal democrat thats just because I see sense in the belief 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.

As it happens, I think that both the market libertarianism and libertarian socialism that seem so curiously to prevail in many discussions of politics online (but which almost never connect particularly well to the ways in which politics subsequently plays out on the ground) are unrealizable extrapolations from the varieties of roughly workable social and liberal democratic orders with which North Atlantic societies are experimenting with mixed results but better success than anybody else has yet managed or is likely to. (I fully expect, by the way, that the diverse societies in the “developing” world will leapfrog the North Atlantic democracies in achieving greater social progress in these democratic modes, just as I feel sure they will in technocultural progress, in our generation.)

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. At any rate, those who suffer most at the hands of development are rarely those who subsequently benefit most from the attainments of development.

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 Natures 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.

Dale Carrico Ph.D. was a fellow of the IEET from 2004 to 2008 and is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.



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