The idea of inevitable progress is worse than folly: it is a positive impediment to thought, leading to decrepitude.
Finding patterns in things, Isaiah Berlin observed, is a human trait (“To understand is to perceive patterns”) but he explained that it was all fantasy, like seeing the shapes of animals in the clouds. History, viewed from a distance shows few examples of constant motion in any direction: short of the social changes brought about by the discovery of metal and new materials, the invention of wheels and writing, it is hard to place any ‘inevitable’ thread in the human story, but for one, which Thomas Hobbes observed:
it is evident that dominion, government, and laws, are far more ancient than history or any other writing.
Things may change in any society in a way we perceive, from tyranny to freedom, from oligarchy to democracy, but all these concepts have come and flourished and decayed and fallen many times in recorded history. There is no inevitability. Berlin again said:
Historians of ideas, however scrupulous and minute they may feel it necessary to be, cannot avoid perceiving their material in terms of some kind of pattern.
There is no pattern though, and there is no set idea of progress, whatever the Whig historians thought or Marx wrote. As to inevitability, consider the Augustine Age of the Roman Empire; universal peace, prosperity, law and cultural continuum – and compare it with the situation in Europe just 500 years later. Europe did not match the achievements of Rome until the Renaissance, if then. The Renaissance was not to last either: it posited a stable relationship of crown, mitre and scholarship, but it just took a monk nailing his theses to a church door showing the falsehoods on which that culture was built, and it came crashing down.
If you who believe that the process of modernity is proof of rightness, consider these:
In 1642 the Civil War began in England. It is seen today as a modernising struggle for democracy, but it was the opposite. Parliament was old, mediaeval and progress in that age, demonstrably, was to enlightened despotism as demonstrated by Europe’s most advanced monarch: Louis XIII of France. King Charles gathered young and energetic advisers, while those who opposed him were the older generation. John Pym was 58 in 1642 (four years older than Thomas Hobbes); John Hampden and Cromwell spritely at 47 and 43 respectively. The coming men would dispense with the mediaeval hang-over that was parliament. The Civil War was reactionary, a rebellion launched by the passing generation quickly before it was too late, before the young pups could take over. Democracy was against the tide of history.
In 1688, James II & VII tried again. He had lived in exile in France, seeing the spectacular achievements of his cousin, Louis XIV, who excelled his father (and bankrupted his nation, but that was unseen). The old ways got in the way and had to go; the reformation was a past enthusiasm to be replaced by the modern counter-reformation. King James removed the old guard from their positions, appointing new, younger men steeped in the ideas of the Sun King. Parliament was dismissed and royal authority over state and church established. It was the way all the world was going. Democracy was reactionary and old-fashioned; it survived only by a rebellion of the old guard.
The Whig Interpretation of History which followed the Glorious Revolution tried to recast the reactionary rebellions by imagining a general progression towards freedom and democracy. It served well: it gave a rousing national story to encourage us to ever-greater achievements and it ensured that future developments in Britain and its Empire followed that idea, but it was based on wishfulness, not fact.
In the 1850s, slavery in the southern states of America was perfected as a system, as the local establishment thought, such that the Manifest Destiny of these slave states was to expand their system over a ‘Golden Circle’ embracing Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Led by the Democratic Party, the bold new vision declared that “We will expand, as our growth and civilization shall demand – over Mexico – over the isles of the sea – over the far-off Southern tropics – until we shall establish a great Confederation of Republics – the greatest, freest and most useful the world has ever seen.” To bring it to reality, private armies invaded Mexico and conquered Nicaragua (until an attempt to conquer the rest of Central America caused a reverse). In Congress, a proposal was debated to establish slavery as the law in any new territory acquired by the United States to the south, in anticipation of this expansion. It was the future. Only the Civil War and the merciful abolition of slavery ended this vision of progress.
In 1912 the first of the International Conferences of Eugenics met. This was a vigorous scientific discipline, promising an improvement of all mankind. Chairs in Eugenics were founded at universities, the imagined benefits became a staple of futurist literature, because this was the certain future. Those who opposed eugenics were ignorant, superstitious reactionaries, so the world was assured by its ‘enlightened’ minds. The opened gates of the Nazi death camps and the sight of what lay within wiped this grotesque future from our future.
In the 1930s, democracy and ideas of individuality seemed to be winding to their end. Socialism was the future, the nations were assured, and the only struggle was between factions of socialism: Communism or Fascism. Pliant journalists shown the new Soviet Union came back to say “I have been over into the future, and it works.”, even as Ukrainian peasants starved in their millions. Anyone opposing socialism was behind the times, ignorant of modern thinking, harking back to an anarchic system incompatible with modern life. A modern, mechanised age required a modern, ordered, mechanised system of rule, of life and of death. Both fascism and communism promised order and effective action. We saw how that went.
In each case, the widespread acceptance of inevitability sapped resistance. It narrowed the scope of the imagination. Those who opposed socialist takeovers, as Franco did, just imposed their own versions; because that was modern.
Belief in today’s enthusiasm as a universal, timeless ideal drives out constructive thought. From this will come only stagnation and collapse.
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