I’m glad Vocativ’s Matt Sigl clarified his inquiry over at Nick Land’s place. I can’t seem to link to particular comments, but scroll down and you’ll see what he say.. That’s what I thought he was getting at, but I thought it prudent to refrain from providing a response while there was still some risk of misunderstanding. I’ve heard this line of argument many times, so I’ll expand his impression to a more complete treatment.
His question, if I may paraphrase liberally and arrogate to myself some generous interpretive license, operates in this Techno-Whig-History frame which over-unifies political ideology with technology into one narrative of progress. He asks something like this:
“What’s the Dark Enlightenment Community really complaining about with regards to Democracy, Government, PC, and Progressive ideology? The economy has grown (albeit haphazardly) and continues to grow, or at least not shrink too badly in Europe, and real productivity has increased, for most people.”
“Technology in particular has advanced significantly. Indeed, from the perspective of people only a generation ago, some of our capabilities would seem almost magical and near-miraculous. In the past century, despite all its progressivism, many aspects of human life have improved dramatically as a result of this technological dividend. To be sure, a lot of technological development went on in the past in non-progressive societies but today it’s the progressive countries that still do the most R&D and produce the most innovative and global-market-dominant tech companies. Not only that, but with lower costs and mass production, even the poorest now have access to tools, toys, and comforts, that even the richest and more powerful could not acquire at any price mere decades ago. I mean, Jesus; iPhones!”
“So, come on you Chicken Littles, things aren’t that bad and they’re getting better all the time. Sure, some things at some places may be getting worse, and this may even be Progressivism’s fault and the blame justly laid at the Cathedral’s feet. But it’s always raining somewhere even though the skies are clear over most of the Earth. Perhaps some of those things are even the unavoidable negative trade-offs necessary to achieve what most people consider a net positive – like less racism, or something.”
“An overemphasis of – even obsession with – those particular declining factors seems a kind of neurotic hypersensitivity. At the very least, as bad as Progressivism may be, it doesn’t seem to have smothered the processes which have generated these improvements. And, yes, perhaps the causality runs the other way, which is that it was only technological improvement that has kept an otherwise calamitous Progressivism afloat. Even so, it floats; it has proven capable at not going so far in bad directions so as to sink and go under. And it’s not like it’s murdering people or putting them in gulags. So what’s the big deal? Can you really prove that the non-progressive counterfactual would have left us that much better off? That seems a hard thing to do.”
“As I see it, there are only two reasonably coherent ‘Social Critique’ possibilities remaining. 1. The DEC consensus view is that things are deteriorating and about to get much worse, perhaps because some accumulated erosion of self-sustaining attributes hits some kind of ‘singularity’ or vicious-cycle tipping point, or 2. DEC folks are just those who subjectively don’t like living in a Progressive society, even if it objectively delivers technical progress and an improved standard of living. This could makes sense, for example, if you would prefer to live in a low-tech traditionally religious society, because technical Progressive societies tend to be secular and discouraging of traditional religion in the public square.”
“I see a lot of evidence of the former explanation, given the tendency of some to engage in a lot of ultra-bear, coming-of-the-millennium talk about imminent collapse, crisis, catastrophe, apocalypse, hyperinflation, leftist singularities and so on, and sometimes with a disturbing display of eagerness. Throughout recent history, the erroneous doomsayers whose faulty predictions, while often believed, have not come to pass have outnumbered Cassandras by many orders of magnitude. That makes me justifiably skeptical of similar assertions, so why should I give DEC claims any credence or special solicitude?”
I hope I have all that right Matt. Let me know if you meant something else.
My simple answer is that I view technological progress as an almost orthogonal phenomenon to contemporary progressive politics. Good R&D, and the consequent improvement in living standards, has occurred for centuries in almost every kind of advanced society, and under all sorts of ideological and political systems.
Even totalitarian societies – and especially wartime economies – produce a lot of innovation due to necessity and dramatic reallocation of resources. The pace and direction of discovery and innovation depends on the society’s structure of incentives, its government’s priorities, it’s human and intellectual capital, not to mention its interaction with (or free riding off of) other innovative societies. Progressivism didn’t ‘earn’ the technological progress over which it presided anymore than Fascism did. Something else common to both earned it.
A little story – many years ago I was traveling in Russia and visited with an impressively multilingual young man who had, during Soviet times, taken the TransSiberian all the way to North Korea and had been granted the privilege of visiting the Hermit Kingdom during a brief interglacial period in relations, and thus with only minimal supervision by the minders. He, a man with an affinity for classical Western culture, was appalled by their cultural and social backwardness. Even the Soviet Russians thought they were unnecessarily brutal monsters.
He described the situation as if you had dropped twentieth century industrial technology and social control techniques on primitive barbarians without any capacity to develop it themselves, and without having undergone the many painful creations of the social institutions that were developed by more advanced societies to handle the ordeal of radical social change prompted by bourgeois industrialization. A tyrannical nightmare in the guise of beleaguered utopia. That ‘barbarians with technology’ bit reminds me of Afghanistan, except, instead of industry, it’s weaponry.
‘Just like Orwell’ he said. But even the Norks – with their semi-open-prison of a country, inability of most people to access information from the outside world, international sanctions and meager resources – have managed to pull off greater technological progress (mostly in the military realm) than other freer, richer countries. I’ve been on the wrong end of the barrel, so to speak, of some of their achievements. One wonders what they could do with more resources and trade … oh wait, it’s called South Korea.
And absent some kind of Dark-Age inducing cataclysm, advances in the storage, dissemination, and transmission (especially intergenerational transmission) of information mean that the history of technological capability really is Whiggish. Once something is known to be true it remains true and can be known forever for free. It feeds on itself and is a positive ratchet, an evolutionary tower of babble with stages that never crumble, upon which we can always build new floors. Maxwell’s anti-entropy Daemon realized.
In general, we may slow or stagnate in our refinement and advancement of applied knowledge of nature, but we don’t forget and we don’t go backwards. Indeed, I believe outside IT (and software, robotics, automation, etc.) that technical progress is slowing, not because of politics but mainly because we’ve eaten all the low hanging fruit, but that is a separate discussion.
The best thing about technology is that, unlike a lot of the pretense at ‘knowledge’ you’ll find in other intellectual fields, technology actually has to work in reality. Not just work, but work better than all competitors. The combination of the constant competitive pressure provided by this kind of reality-test market discipline (both for nations and enterprises), and the unidirectional preservation of past achievements, is what gives us actual progress.
None of this applies to politics or ideology. The competitiveness of such ideas is more related to their relative attractiveness than their effectiveness. Human nature being what it tragically is, there is, alas, little correlation between those two criteria. It also doesn’t hurt if your side has control over your society’s major lines of opinion-forming communication, along with the orthodoxy-enforcing disciplinary mechanism of ‘social consequences’. That allows one to spread seductive manipulations and pretty lies without meaningful resistance. It’s a bad medieval theocracy.
So, like Moses, I divide the sea of ‘progress’ into two. Technology over there on the right, political ideology, naturally, over there on the left. If you name something and call it ‘progress’ or ‘things aren’t so bad’, the question is to which side of the Mosaic Marine divide it is more properly attributed. My guess, 99 times out of 100, it’s the tech side. ‘Policy’ is an ambiguous category of ’cause’ for beneficial effects, as it can result from technocratic concerns, political ideology, or some combination. It’s important to disaggregate the inputs.
We’re complaining about what’s happening on the left, not the right, which is subsidizing the left. My personal view is that the subsidy is more than sufficient to keep the lights on for the foreseeable future, but it all depends on what’s important to you. The left is spreading lots of those pretty lies, which is slowly hurting us in lots of little and a few big ways. If what was important to you was ‘Detroit’, and you were to compare snapshots from 1953 and 2013, then things looks pretty bad and you wouldn’t call it ‘progress’ at all.
If someone had told you we went from the former snapshot to the latter in just a few years, you would think, ‘Cataclysm!’ But we boiled that frog nice and slow. Progressivism has been using the techno subsidy to afford boiling all kinds of frogs all over the place. Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” is a decent overview of the social dimension of the fallout.
Why do the pretty lies matter? Where to begin! For one, we are wasting enormous amounts of lives and treasure pursuing mythical El Dorados and impossible egalitarian pipedreams. People really want to believe in these El Dorados. We don’t learn from our failures which only cause us to redouble our efforts and the magnitude of the waste and misallocation of scarce resources. There are massive economic and sociological penalties, many of which I plan to explore in this space in due time.
Second, the PC inquisition and threats of ‘social consequences’ under which we live is spiritually corrosive and, as with any taboos, intellectually stifling. Taboo really does smother the pursuit of lots of efforts with big potential gains.
You know, instead of trying to get blacks and Hispanics to score a full standard deviation higher while preventing whites and Asians from scoring higher, why not try to get everybody to score a half standard deviation higher? That’s both more feasible and more equitable.
But, to me, the worst part of the false consciousness spread by the left is that many people are prevented from achieving their goals (and even psychological health) because they have been convinced to follow strategies that achieve the opposite of what they claim. They have been sold a false ‘happiness model’, and upon following its prescriptions, end up frustrated with failure and cannot understand why.
At least, they can’t understand on their own. But now we have the post-critical-mass internet.
An obvious DEC example is Game, with Heartiste being the best online source for general disabusement, in my judgment. Progressivism, Feminism, etc., tells both men and women how they should behave, interact, and live their lives in order to accomplish their goals and achieve sustained satisfaction and contentedness. Surely I don’t have to explain how critical the truth or falsity of advice for this particular concern is for human happiness.
And yet it is utterly false, and both men and women become dissatisfied and discontent. No man who discovers game on the internet after a few years of haphazard experience with courting the opposite sex, who then tries it out and enjoys success with it, feels anything but profound resentment at being lied to, embarrassment at being fooled, and regret over their wasted opportunities.
Multiply that by everything. Then clear it all away, discover and embrace the truth, and press forward to imagining a better, truer way to live. That’s the DE to me.