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Progress and Pessimism

October 2, 2010

Commenting on a post by Jonathan Schwarz, Matthew Yglesias argues against “world-historical pessimism:”

The average Chinese person today is clearly much better off than the average Chinese person of 30 years ago. Same in India or Brazil or Indonesia. The same in all the Central European countries that are now liberal democracies. And the same is true even in Russia that’s not a liberal democracy. Median income in the United States is only up slightly over thirty years and that’s a shame, but there is the “new goods” issue along with the fact that an awful lot of the families in this country were in Mexico 30 years ago where average living standards are much lower. But for that matter, the average Mexican in Mexico is much better-off than the average Mexican was 30 years ago. Which is all just to say that for all the world is a rotten and cruel place ruled by rotten and cruel people, it really is getting better. A lot better. And there’s something ultimately very conservative about the kind of apocalyptic worldview that just writes everyone and everything off as irremediably rotten and cruel. Things have improved a lot. Things should improve more in the future. Progress is slow and frustrating, but also real.

First, I think it is mistaken to believe that an apocalyptic worldview is inherently pessimistic or conservative. In its original and truest sense, that of “the lifting of the veil,” apocalypse is a necessary prelude to utopia. The final clash of good and evil is the only way to vanquish the rottenness and cruelty of man and transform human affairs. Truly apocalyptic thinkers look forward to Ragnarok or Armageddon, and the paradise that victory will make possible. This sort of apocalypticism is obvious in religious movements – whether they be Seventh Day Adventists, Aum Shinrikyo or al Qaeda’s takfiris, but as plenty of people have pointed out, it is also apparent in secular movements which hope to create utopia through catastrophic revolutionary action. There is very little that is politically conservative about these movements, at least insofar as they believe human action can or should hasten the transformation in human affairs.

That aside, Yglesias’s argument that progress is empirically verifiable does not inherently contradict pessimism. Most pessimist thinkers acknowledge that some degree of progress – in this case material progress – exists. Many pessimist thinkers acknowledge the possibility of material prosperity increasing even as moral and political decline accelerates or war, injustice, oppression and suffering persist as inescapable elements of the human condition. Yglesias is essentially arguing that because of material and political changes in the past 50 years or so, we should be adherents of progress rather than pessimism.

But pessimists can acknowledge progress without believing, as progressives do, that “things should improve more in the future.” There is no reason that history is a narrative of progress, or at least there is nothing inherent in history that should make us believe “things should improve more in the future.” For example, instead of experiencing enormous material improvements in the second half of the twentieth century and early decades of the twenty first, we could have had a nuclear war and obliterated the northern hemisphere, or at least the two superpowers. Progress, even material progress, if real, is also something of an accident. Of course, if you believe E.H. Carr, there is no point in musing about counterfactual history unless you’re on the “wrong side” of history, and in this view the pessimists are on the wrong side.

Ideas about progress are historically subjective – the optimists were very convincing in the era leading up to WWI, and The Decline of the West was very convincing in the era that came after it. There are so many elements required in defining what progress is – what we are progressing towards, what we are progressing away from, etc – that to simply declare “progress is real” on the basis of 30-50 years of material improvements in the standard of living seems to be talking past pessimism instead of refuting it. Pessimism is what recognizes that there are some things in human nature and the human condition that, regardless of wealth or material conditions, cannot be ameliorated.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 4, 2010 12:22 am

    Just on the basis of the passage from Yglesias you quote (I haven’t read his full post nor Schwartz’s post that he’s responding to), I’m inclined to agree this is rather superficial, though perhaps not for exactly the same reasons as yours. It is peculiar to observe that the ‘average’ person in China, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia is better off materially than 30 years ago without at the same time acknowledging that extreme poverty remains widespread (just under a billion people malnourished, more than a billion without access to clean water, many more than that [well over 2 billion, I believe] without access to basic sanitation). Moreover, as Thomas Pogge has argued (I picked up his latest book recently but haven’t had a chance to read it yet), policymakers and publics in the richer countries continue to gloss over or ignore the ways in which global institutions serve their interests while contributing to the perpetuation of world poverty, and the heralded Millennium Development Goals have been watered down, surreptitiously. So even on Yglesias’s own ground of material well-being, there are reasons to temper optimism and belief in progress with a dose of, I guess, pessimism (for lack of a better word).

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