Sunday, 4 November 2012

Progress


Perhaps the dominant ideology of the relatively modern era, its ambient background, is that of Progress, which could be described as the belief that the increased understanding and harnessing of matter automatically leads to a bettering of human life. That even though these immersions in matter would be ‘pure’ and unimpeded by ‘irrelevant’ ethical concerns - which interruptions would be alien to these scientific investigations - that life as a whole, including the ethical field, would also somehow benefit as a matter of course from the increased harnessing of matter. The manipulations of matter would be intrinsically ‘good’in their effect, even though unencumbered by concern with the good. As a consciously pronounced ideology the latter half of the nineteenth century was the apex of this doctrinal optimism, while as an applied ideology it has of course gained incrementally in the meantime, though as this consciously pronounced ideology it has tended to fade into the background, its relatively crude propaganda work done and now existing in the silent background and probably all the more powerful for that. Progress as a thought moved beyond a position of conscious faith towards that of an unspoken omniscience or omnipresence. Materialism became effectively deified, a new and more total paganism, where the elements of nature are revered as a religious absolute.

So all in all, optimistic rationalists of the nineteenth century believed man was progressing towards a new Eden – hence Progress - that the pathways of materialism would of themselves lead there, while man’s ethical nature would also progress as a matter of inevitable course in the wake of and in tandem with this scientific progress.

Things like medical advances and improvements in methods of transport might seem to add irrefutable weight to such notions of inevitable progress but, simultaneous to these developments, scientists could place in the hands of the political powers ever progressive militaristic tools, from sub-machine guns to tanks, poison gases, biological and nuclear weapons, etc., and the scientists could do this with an easy conscience, without being seen, as might seem reasonable, as instruments of applied evil, the most useful of servants to the power elites.

And why could the scientists go unmolested by these obvious accusations? Because matter in whatever form it is assembled must be good, since matter is unquestioningly good, and so such scientific work is at worst neutral - but even that is unfair, and instead the increasing understanding and harnessing of matter in whatever direction must be positively good, even though as said one could do one’s work without any considerations of the good. It is inferentially claimed that somehow the good infallibly introduces itself into the process of material investigation and manipulation without man having to concern himself at all with goodness. Goodness is intrinsic to matter and its manipulations, a kind of reverse Gnosticism.

Unsettlingly however, in the twentieth century this rational path to glory began to throw up some unexpected phenomena, such as World War One where, in western Europe, the very engine-room of modernity and Progress, instead of man’s rational perfecting of himself as had been optimistically envisaged, with the improved methods of transport obedient Western man was efficiently delivered in his millions to the desired destinations of organized slaughter, while the machine guns, poison gases, etc. did the efficient slaughtering of modern man in these millions.
The methods of transport naturally themselves evolved into ever more efficient militaristic tools as the immersion in matter progressed, from ships to planes, submarines, etc.

So, particularly after the first World War, this new god of progress with its supposed attendant rationalizing development of man must have begun to appear to some a slightly more dubious deity. One perhaps couldn’t, at least some might have felt, just abandon one’s conscience and expect Progress and its fruits to conveniently deliver up ever increasing measures of goodness as a natural by-product.

Unfortunately the scope of this piece has widened way beyond its initial intentions, but beyond the more violent and dramatic fields of applied science and war, Aldous Huxley in Brave New World had a look at where man in his uncritical surrender to the manipulations of matter might be heading, particularly in a future world of perfectly achieved social stability.

An important and obvious point made by Huxley was that these scientific manipulations are apt not to be so disinterested at all. In the emerging world of mass-production, in all its many forms, power would become ever more centrifugally focused on the mass-producers, and inevitably these ruling elites would direct the manipulations of matter in directions beneficial to the consolidation and expansion of their power; from the obvious militaristic fields to the fields of ‘public entertainment’ particularly stressed by Huxley, where man’s potentially free consciousness, a force correctly seen as inimical to the continued power of the ruling elites, would be harnessed and neutralised. By offering ‘mass-man’ a saturation diet of inane stress-relieving pleasures and false pictures of the world of reality, man would be a creature of delusion, inhabiting the simulated ‘reality’ served up to him; conditioned to love his own servitude – a servitude he would be entirely unaware of. This would be effected both consciously by the ruling elites but also by means of the inner logic of progress.

H.G. Wells for one felt betrayed and insulted by Huxley’s future vision, equating as it clearly did with a disbelief in the deity of Progress to whom, or rather which, Wells like the great majority bowed down - regardless of whether or not they were conscious of the bowing down.

[ Months, perhaps even a year or two later . . .  I obviously got fed up with this essay that snowballed beyond what I intended, and so never even got to the kernel of the piece that got me writing in the first place. And the initial kernel hopefully follows.]

 . . . That the error in believing in Inevitable Progress could be truthfully reduced to or described as a semantic error; that the word 'progress' when used in the ideological sense described above is simply being misused, and this misuse has aided and encouraged man to bow down to the childish notion of Inevitable Progress.

And so what is this misuse of the word 'progress'? Well, progress is a very simple notion and process, that is, one begins from some point and progresses from there. The word simply relates to movement. And so within the whole process of Progress in the modern sense from, lets simplify, the Industrial Revolution onwards, a process of was set in motion along whose tracks mankind has deigned to progress, i.e. to move; or as Webster's Dictionary describes 'progress': forward movement in time or place . However, so deeply ingrained has become the misuse of 'Progress' that automatically once it is mentioned in this sense a kind of mental lever is switched in the mind, and instead of progress simply inferring to movement along a certain course, it is universally implied that this movement includes inescapably an ever more unfolding utopia along the pathways of this movement. The word has been completely distorted to signify that rather than simply movement in a certain direction Progress also implies that this movement is to somewhere better than previously inhabited. 

This is all far more important a point than may superficially or at first appear. So to help practically illustrate the matter, someone might say “I am an ardent believer in Progress,” meaning that this person believes in the reality of the ever more unfolding Utopia as one continues along the path of Progress. Or someone else, a little proud perhaps of their independent thought and scepticism, might say, “I do not believe in Progress,” again accepting that Progress implies unfolding Utopia, but in this case disbelieving in its attendant existence. But this is just as ridiculous and perhaps more so than the former believer in Progress. For progress in its true semantic sense of course exists; in the area of manipulation of matter in a myriad of ways we have progressed, we have gone along that path. This is indisputable. In some or many ways this has unfolded what we could say is  a better world, with manifestations such as  better hygiene, less disease, better means of transport. However just as easily we could say it has unleashed a worse world - Chernobyl, biological warfare, technologically induced or utilised forms of  mass-hypnotism, etc.

The error being made is to distort and falsify the word Progress from its true directional meaning to being inclusive of what we can broadly say is the ethical or idealistic dimension. That this error may be wholly unintentional or unconscious does not make it any less an error, and in the the relative recent history of man a very important one. The helpful manipulating of matter should obviously be a tool of great benefit to mankind but not some idea turned god to bow down to, and to which we should strangely surrender the burden of genuine inner freedom.



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