The Myth of the Myth of Progress

And the progress of myth

And they call that progress. This phrase is used generally for anything unlikeable about the modern world, usually something impersonal or imposing, often something technological. Modern housing and modern townscapes are a common cause (and the one that inspired this essay): unlovely housing for unloved people blotting the horizon. Indeed, I feel that way myself about modern estates, without feeling the necessity of bringing progress into the matter.

There are two answers. The first is, what's your answer? Slums carefully hidden from the eye of the ruling class with no plumbing and the nightsoil men to remove the horrors beneath the floor are no longer regarded as acceptable. The world changed willy nilly and we have to live amid the changes.

The second answer, more central to the thrust is: no they don't. I have never heard a living person who talks of progress as the steady march of humanity to perfection that was in evidence during the Edwardian era. It's common to say that the notion of progress was destroyed by the First World War (as the word Edwardian would imply). That's not really true, however; to continue discussing architecture, the streetscapes of Le Corbusier and the insistence on the architect's own modernist vision of Mies van der Rohe long survived even the Second World War. Architectural self-satisfaction in urbanised townscapes reached a peak in Britain some time around the 1970s.

Yet by then it was unfashionable to speak of progress. By then, the notion of any advance in human society was regarded as a myth. The general satisfaction at the state of the world was destroyed in the world wars. There was a general disillusionment, a sense that the human race was incorrigible, a belief that an ability to create new monsters and perpetuate old injustices ruled out any possibility that the world would ever, in any way that could be held to one's heart, become continually better.

The disillusionment is still there. It is still virtually forbidden in intellectual circles to believe in the advance of reason, except amongst those to whom reason itself, standing for the Enlightenment, is a bugbear, the agent in banishing all that came before. It's not even a belief held by conservative thinkers; in fact, particularly not by conservative thinkers, for whom the past is a golden age of certainty, if not necessarily rational certainty.

All of this is rather strange. By any quantitative measure the world is better for more people than ever before. Though there is hunger, in former times everyone was a poor harvest away from starvation. Though there is war, there is no longer the universal tension between states neighbouring and distant that used to pervade the world. Though there is intolerance, there is always someone to deplore it. Though the natural world is under an unprecedented threat, the threat is a measure of technology—the notion that primitive societies are somehow more in balance with the world around them has little support, they merely lacked the means to do much harm—and leaves the possibility of newer technology and newer methods to improve matters; indeed, there's little sign of any other way of so doing. Even the lack of self-congratulation is a major evidence of progress over the old world view where God was in his heaven, and so, bar a few heathens, were we, give or take.

It seems that quantitative measures are beside the point. They are always shrugged aside by the weight of the disasters of the twentieth century, war and genocide on scales unknown before. More eloquent than any figures, these are used to bury the statistics beneath a heap of corpses.

If any rationalisation is attempted, the word often used is contradictions. Yet what is contradictory? Some things are bad, some things are good. No one can ever have denied that about the world. Contradictions are another way of preventing us from seeing the world in its whole mass of appalling complexity.

What is indeed contradictory is the way we demonise the past, and by implication laud the present whose successes we don't believe in. The past is a land of horror, of slavery, of racial, sexual and socail oppression, of the fear of barbarians, of crusades and holy wars and intolerance. Sometimes it seems to be taught as if—like the rationalisation of the present—the understanding of the past was beyond the pale. It must exist only as a warning.

I've just finished an otherwise intelligent piece of science fiction by a relatively new author whose one-dimensional society of masters and servants seems to have been invented as a whipping boy. The upper stratum is never conscious of the sufferings of the lower. The lower ranks are eternally kept in their place and tolerate any indignity. Yet again, there is no attempt to rationalise; this is just the way it is. It is the spectre of the past; we're so much better than they are—without having made any progress, of course.

This is the imaginative gap in a nutshell. We simply cannot bring ourselves even to attempt to put everything together and admit that, hand-wringing aside, much has been achieved and that, self-congratulation apart, much remains to be done. It's as if the point of balance between belief in good and belief in evil is too unstable even for a single thought to stand on.

Some of this must come from our personal experience. Our lives are full of self-inflicted limits. We spend all we accumulate—what else is there to do with it, after all?—and then announce we are skint. Thus it is possible for those protesting against fuel taxes to claim, apparently absurdly, that those who can afford cars are so poor that they can scarcely afford fuel. Yet for many people it may be true. It leaves aside the question of those who can't afford cars in the first place; but, they might say, we all have our cross to bear. Even I can say, without irony, that the carless masses are probably better off than their predecessors, working long hours at an overseer's whim; and that generation itself voluntarily moved from the country hovels where its ancestors from time immemorial spent their entire lives.

For my part, I seem to spend my whole life one step away from disaster; not the social abyss into which E.M. Forster's clerk in Howard's End was poised to fall, but the perpetual fear of everyday life turning against me. One missed letter—and the post hasn't been up to much recently—and I could be in any kind of trouble. One misunderstanding in the street with the wrong person, one slip of the hand on the bicycle, one slip of the tongue in the office, one slip of the foot on the accelerator… despite living in unparalleled ease in the most well-regulated and self-aware society in the history of Earth, the jaws of Hell are open at my feet.

Peter Stephenson <p.w.stephenson@ntlworld.com>
Last modified: Mon May 1 13:58:57 BST 2006