“The march of the human mind is slow,” quoth Edmund Burke in his Speech on Conciliation with America (1775). A contrarian by nature, Burke spoke at a time when Enlightenment ideas of progress were ascendant. Enlightenment thinkers were united in the belief that the human condition, freed from superstition and monarchy, would continue to advance until man obtained a kind of earthly paradise.
For a group of thinkers who dismissed Christian eschatology it sure sounded like an echo of Christian faith. But then even atheists need something to believe in. If you cannot have your Heaven paved with streets of gold and your 72 virgins, you can always strive for your workers’ paradise on earth. What matters is having faith in something — God, progress, doesn’t matter what. As long as you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Enlightenment ideas received a bad name in the 20th century when the ideologies they spawned (Marxism, fascism, the cult of the free market) led directly to two world wars, a Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism and the Holocaust. But the myth of progress marches on, says John Gray, one of our most outspoken debunkers of progress. “What none of the Enlightenment thinkers envisaged,” writes Gray, “is that human life can become more savage and irrational even as scientific advance accelerates.”
In such works as Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, Straw Dogs, and the soon-to-be published The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, Gray has steadfastly hammered away at the mythical edifice of progress. “Improvements in government and society are [real], but they are temporary,” he says. “Not only can they be lost, they are sure to be. History is not progress or decline, but recurring gain and loss.” The upshot is that while progress seems to indicate a forward direction, history is not linear, it is cyclical. Just like the Greeks said it was.
Gray is not referring to scientific progress, which is undeniably real, but progress in morals, values, ethics, and politics. As for the former, Gray thinks we are flying blind into a techno future made more precarious by these same advances. “The world today is a vast unsupervised laboratory in which a multitude of experiments are simultaneously underway.” Some scientific advances may cure cancer and extend life expectancy, others will lead to genocide, nuclear war, or, God help us, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Gray is careful to distinguish between progress and advances. Much of what we mistake for political or social progress — the end of slavery, bans on capital punishment, women’s rights, animal rights, civil rights — are merely improvements. Hence they can be reversed at any time. Take the example of torture. As soon as post 9-11 America needed enhanced interrogation techniques torture returned. Gray believes any of these advances could be undone should the need arise.
ACCORDING TO GRAY, much of the progress we see at the moment has been bought by robbing the future to pay the present (using up crucial resources, building up massive debt), or by rich countries shifting the burden to poorer countries (moving sweatshops and polluting factories to China and India). Other authors, like Kirkpatrick Sale, go farther, stating that progress, in the form of sprawl, congestion, resource depletion, overpopulation, the decline of communities and the rise of corporate rule, will not lead to an earthly paradise, but to hell on earth.
Every advance, every increase of knowledge is a mixed good, Gray says. Many modern advances — like women’s rights, which progressives hold up as the epitome of progress — have seen mixed results, from the rearing of children in day care centers to the abortion mill. Programs for the poor prompt cycles of welfare dependency. Labor union victories lead to jobs moving overseas. Egalitarianism accelerates to the coarsening of society and popular culture. And God help us if our technology ever becomes self-aware, à la the Terminator films.
In his debunking of progress, Gray stands in a long line of conservative skeptics. Perhaps G.K. Chesterton deserves the last word on so weighty a subject. Said Chesterton: “The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.”