Wednesday, 2 May 2012
You can stop Progress: how we got here
The idea of Progress is quite new. Most people through history have operated on the working assumption that things would stay pretty much the same. Even while great civilisations and empires were developing, people harked back to an imaginary "golden age" which may have owed more to a fantasy of returning to the womb than to any memories of past societies. It was also common for people to think in terms of cyclical change: culture, like plants or daylight, grew, reached maturity, declined, died and rose again. Even in the Middle Ages of Western and central Europe, though, when change was quite slow, social systems solid and slow-changing and economic activity not obviously heading up or down, some people, mostly intellectuals, along with myths of a golden age,saw knowledge growing: we were dwarves standing on the shoulders of the ancient philosophers, but the dwarf could see a little further than the philosopher. It's worth pointing out that believing in a golden past is not necessarily conservative or deadening of effort to improve. If you believe things were once much better and it's possible to return towards that state, you have confidence to challenge the status quo and you may achieve great change, though probably not quite what you expected. Martin Luther and the Levellers among the Parliamentary militants in the English Civil War both believed they were giving people a chance to throw off oppression and distortion and return to a better earlier state. Rapid economic growth, initially in Italy and the Netherlands, unleashed the Renaissance and an expectation of progress in all sorts of fields. It took about another two hundred years for progress to become a common and settled expectation, till the early 18th century, but by then economic development, scientific discoveries and rapid development of new skills in the arts such as music made this belief compelling - in Europe (excluding the south-east under the Turkish empire) and the European colonies in America. It was not long before this created new expectations in politics, that political systems could be devised that would be better than those before, though there was still a strong tendency to hark back to idealised past models, whether a state of primitive tribal equality (Rousseau) or the Roman Republic (theoreticians of the American republics). The brutality and devastating war unleashed by the French Revolution revived a tense conservatism, but the idea of progress across the board did not go away - nor could it as the early 19th century saw railways and massive industrial development. Few people questioned that this was progress, though many saw disadvantages and worked to overcome them. Europeans saw Australia, unspoilt as we might now say, and thought of huge opportunities to turn forest and scrub to cities and farms. A rural scene or a sleepy town turning to a mass of factories or mines and a jammed-together mass of housing for the workers was progress. We might now look back and see devastation of habitats teeming with wildlife, the ruin of both inventive civilisations and simple, sustainable lifestyles in the Americas or Africa or a subtler loss of a sense of wonder, a coarsening of spirituality perhaps, but few did so at the time. The human disbenefits of "progress" were seen as solvable - and most of them were, with better sanitation, a spread of basic schooling and so on. While the vision was mainly secular, religious people too (mainly Christians) saw economic development, colonisation and the advance of science as the realisation of God's work and plan. Darwin did not seriously disturb this: indeed, many Christians rapidly accepted the idea of evolution. The concept of biological evolution, though, did encourage people to think of evolutionary improvement in human society, false though the analogy was. In Germany in particular, before the Nazis but especially among the Nazis, it was common to see "survival of the fittest" applying to struggle between races, states and nations and to think that out of the struggle better things would emerge. Some colonialists had somewhat similar ideas. Those who fought against Fascism or colonialism still mostly believed in human progress of some kind. When I was growing up, it was still common to hear (particularly in the U.S.A.), "You can't stop progress". In other words, change was basically in a good direction, but if you didn't like it, tough. So was that fair and true, and where has it taken us? That's for next time! BY THE WAY - APOLOGIES TO READERS, BUT WHY THE $$$$$ DOES BLOGSPOT, TO WHICH I WOULD LIKE TO DO INDESCRIBABLE THINGS, KEEP REMOVING MY PARAGRAPHING???????????!!!!!!!?