Wearing my historian’s hat
“I am under no obligation to be the person I was five minutes ago.”— Facebook poster ( no author )
Pessimism, the incidence of violence, and progress
Is there evidence that humanity is on a historical course toward a progressive, better future?
Every reader of this column by now understands I am a pessimist, I do not perceive “progress” in the human condition over historical time, and I predict a dark age ahead for humanity while we transition from this era of failing capitalist materialism and planetary environmental changes, to some new period with lowered human populations.
I have put myself firmly against the optimists and progressivists, who still believe we are going forward in a positive direction, and who believe we are doing so by applying our rationalist, materialist sciences, by the weakening of religion in postmodern consciousness, and by the transformation of a humanity evolved into an improved being with higher spiritual capacities.
A recent book much beloved of my opponents in the debate over progress is The Better Angels of our Natures, by Stephen Pinker. Pinker argues that violence in human life is in decline and tries to prove it from history, but I think his critics have the better of him in the debates which have ensued.* Violence in the West is less since WWII; I am happy for that, but it is hardly proof of a global advance for humanity.
Three reasons to doubt progress toward global peace and prosperity
A quick survey of African circumstances, of the Middle East, and of climate change and corporate capitalists’ (and affluent citizens’) response to that change, should convince a fair observer it just isn’t credible to see progress in human history.
Africa is a tragedy. Europe was in the same tragic state of chronic wars for a long period from around 1490 to 1945, (and East Europe has never been as peaceful as the west since WWII), and other regions of the globe will be sunk into such pits of daily violence, famine, war, epidemic, and mass death, in the future.
Rwanda’s genocide, atrocious Congolese (Zairean) wars over precious resources such as coltan used in cellphones, Ebola, dengue, polio, HIV/AIDS, Sudanese civil wars, Liberian blood-diamond wars, Ethiopian droughts and famines, Islamic jihadism in Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia – how does any of that fit into a narrative of humanity’s ascent into higher realms of consciousness and spirituality? Relativism fails. Africa was much more peaceful 200 years ago.
The Middle East gets worse, not better. Israel may have begun with an inspiring dream for world Judaism, but Zionism has become a very black phenomenon indeed. It damages all Israelis, it divides world opinion and renders the UN useless. This is only one Middle Eastern issue, alongside Arab nations’ political miseries from Egypt and Syria to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Iranian theocratic tyranny, Afghan and Iraqi anarchy, Pakistani chaos and poverty. Care to fit this into the story of humanity’s improving destiny?
And last, but likely more impactful on the middle class of affluent Western nations, climate change: the difference we ardently do not want to make any difference in our lives. Most troubling is not the mere fact of the climate changing so rapidly and in harmful ways to our needs. We are in constant reactive mode to drought, wildfires, crop failures, water shortages, hurricane and tornado destruction, and falling or rising levels of oceans and lakes. We missed the opportunity to be proactive in the 1970s when concrete policy change in the rich nations might have anticipated damage to ecosystems and prevented some climate change.
The worst aspect for me is how we refuse to consider a radical fundamental change in how human society and economy is balanced with the environment and other species.
Since 2008 at least, it ought to be clear that capitalism is so defective for human decency in living standards as to mobilize us into a search for a better economic order. But instead we have more and more resources dedicated to keeping our consciousness in thrall to this economic blueprint. Growth and scientific-technical progress is all we seem to be offered as solutions to our problems. I fervently wish for the dissolution of capitalism but I have no clue how we move to the next phase without a scale of human suffering I do not wish to see.
The mind of postmodern consciousness: against history, memory, and tradition
I placed an epigraph at the start of this column, taken from my Facebook pages where it was posted by a friend. I believe she approves of the sentiment, and I reacted negatively. The very idea that we can dispense with the past, with personal history and collective human history, as valuable ingredients in our knowledge of ourselves, of other people, and of our present, is a repulsive notion to me. Historians take the past seriously not because it is our livelihood, but because we think we can learn something. Do we not, each of us, think we can learn something from our personal past, from experience of life as we have lived it?
I think I see a trend toward people wanting the past to have no relevance for their futures.
The tendency of the postmodern culture I perceive evolving around me in the rich nations is toward an individualism that amounts to ego as the final arbiter of what a human is. Each ego is free to decide for itself how to conduct its life.
Such an ego will not suffer the limitations of its own past to draw a line around what it is in the present moment. “That was then. This is now.” Do not expect such an ego to believe in the integrity of personhood. An integrated person holds connections to a past, to what the person has said and done, and the people with whom the person has meaningful relationships. When the past is denied, when the past is refused as a brake on the absolute liberty of the ego to do what it wills, then there is no such thing as integrity of the person.
It has been natural over our history that each generation challenges the wisdom and teachings of its forerunners. It has been just as natural that what rebellious challenges a younger generation throws at its parents, are moderated and muted as the young grow older.
Revolutionary changes do happen, violence can transform social orders, yet many things reassert their continuity. It is one of the fascinations of studying history, to observe the equilibrium struck between change and tradition. Humanity has accepted until now that we are limited by what has gone before, and that tradition exerts a rightful claim upon us.
Historians maintain that humanity can learn from the study of our collective history.
A History of Ethical Progress?
I agree with historians who think we, the human species, can learn something from the past. History is a vast record of human experience. The actions, thinking and speaking of humans who have lived before are studied, an attempt to explain them is made, and conclusions are extracted.
Of course historians do not agree with one another on the conclusions to be drawn. The argument I am engaging today – is there progress in human history? – has engaged the minds of many serious writers about the human condition.
Religion has a gargantuan place in human history, and it is in the evolution of religious and spiritual thought and practice that some writers profess to see progress. Monotheism, we are told by many writers, is a progressive advance over polytheism and pantheism, and finally atheism is supposed to be a fine destination for humanity in the opinion of Sir Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens among many others.
It is monotheism that gives Western culture its belief in progress. God has a plan, and the plan is good. We are headed for perfection. The Israelites are praised for originating the idea of one cosmic god who works inside physical history toward a good conclusion of the human story.
But, after monotheism in Western cultural history, comes deism and rationalism; historians of ethics who write in the tradition of Europe’s Rationalist Enlightenment tell us that leaving monotheism behind us is progress. One such author is Kenan Malik, in his current book The Quest for a Moral Compass. Malik purports to see historical advance in morals and ethics.
Not all agree with Malik. Philosopher and professor John N. Gray is one such critic: “Once you have really given up monotheism, you have to say goodbye to the idea that human values can be universal or objective in the sense that rationalists such as Malik want to believe. You are left with the existing human animal, with its many different histories and perpetually warring moralities… Here below, on the conflict-ridden earth, human beings are raucously diverse and often savagely divided in their values, and vanishingly few of them have any interest in Malik’s inchoate post-Marxian visions.”
Gray’s conclusion is where I leave this discussion about progress. Our history as a species does not give evidence for progress in ‘universal human values.’ There is no way to prove an absolute set of ethical rules that are true and right, while others are false and wrong. To quote the Dave Mason song, “there’s no good guys, there’s no bad guys, there’s only you and me, and we just disagree.”
Charles Eisenstein writes persuasively about the vast narrative of “the Story of Separation” with which humanity has understood its condition until now, and he writes that the next narrative is “the Story of Interbeing” – while being very careful to apply no judgments against corporations, capitalists, politicians and military leaders for what they have done in history. Eisenstein, like Gray, is not asserting any universal moral code against which we can measure people and find them good or evil.
I wish it were this simple: Harper and Clark are evil leaders bent on ruin for BC and Canada by serving evil corporate masters. But that is not what I believe.
For a long period of my own life, in Canada, as a middle class, university-educated citizen, and a disciple of the Marxian method of studying history, it had been easy for me to believe in human progress — until the evidence of deterioration accumulated.
When one loses a long-held, even cherished, world-view, there is a period of floundering before another paradigm of understanding is adopted. I am in my floundering period.
* From the Wikipedia entry on Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Natures.
Today, I will append a long outline of Pinker’s thesis, and the critics who reject his argument. Also, I have added more remarks by John Gray. Please see the attached pdf.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of Arc Of The Cognizant can be found here.