The hell with modernity and progress

Modernity presents itself, ideologically, as freedom, and freedom in a negative sense: freedom-from, that is, more than freedom-to. Freedom from ignorance and superstition, because modernity is enlightened; and freedom from want, discomfort, and disease, because modernity has better tech than people formerly had. Freedom from history, because history is over.

More positively, modernity does offer freedoms-to: freedom to travel easily and quickly, because modernity has jet planes; freedom to post pictures of your lunch on the internet, because modernity has the internet; freedom to consume fresh avocados year-round, no matter where you live, because of the jet planes again, and because modernity has created a global economy; freedom to go to bed with whomever, whenever. Modernity makes us free to change our sex, or to become some sort of aetherial being who has no sex at all. To choose not to do any of these things is nevertheless also an exercise of freedom, the freedom conferred by modernity. Modernity compels us to be free – on its terms; to choose from the options it presents. And, to be fair, these options are many; the bewildering variety of footwear alone defies inventory.

Stephen Daedalus famously observed that “history is a nightmare from which I am striving to escape.” Modernity claims that this escape has been consummated. At some point in the relatively recent past, a line was drawn under history, and contingency, path-dependency, and material constraint were left behind with it; or at any rate, such remnants of these obsoleta as persist are merely vestigial, adventitious annoyances, like the vermiform appendix. Mankind, now collectively outfitted with godlike powers, confronts the material world as a blank slate on which we may write what we will. Elon Musk’s nutty project of colonizing Mars, or perhaps even the whole Galaxy, or the whole cosmos, is in fact the blurted-out, imbecile, but perfectly logical, conclusion of Modernity’s fundamental axioms.

Of course a look round the modern world – perhaps from the perspective of some dispassionate, analytical, though not malicious, space alien – paints a few shadows into this shining picture. For one thing, it seems clear that modernity, through the agency of climate disaster, is poised to exterminate a good part of the human species, if not all of it – not to mention all the other species lost to the world every day. And even before the looming extermination of mankind, modernity has already killed a lot of people, and maintains a good many more in a state of shocking – and ever-worsening – misery, deprivation, and oppression; a state in which modernity’s face looks more like a death squad than a well-stocked supermarket.

Everyone knows these things, of course, but still, to invert George Costanza on God, we believe in modernity for everything but the bad stuff. Modernity is the good stuff. The bad stuff comes from somewhere else.

But suppose history does not in fact offer us an a-la-carte menu. Suppose it’s a package deal. Suppose Voltaire is the grinning, mirthful face of the chainsaw in the Amazon basin.

In that case, modernity gives with one hand what it takes away with the other. The avocados in my supermarket owe their presence (and their amazingly low price) to the immiseration of the men and women who picked them. My freedom is their un-freedom; I can buy or not, but they must pick or die.

Is modernity, in fact, the specific social and cultural form of mature, full-blown, triumphant Capital? Not an escape from history at all, but merely the latest contingent, path-dependent turn of its screw? And if so, what are the implications for us modern people?

Consider the thirteenth century, an amazing period, when people were able to do lots of things that are utterly beyond our powers now. Even so, nobody, of course, including admirers like me, would want to bring it back, even if that were possible – and it’s not; every historical moment is unique and un-recoverable, un-reproducible, as is every human being and indeed every snowflake. So forward is the only way to the egress.

But forward needn’t mean “further motion in the same direction” – and in fact, in history it never does. I suppose most of us Lefties, on the intellectual plane, have given up on the grand narrative of progress, or think we have. But it remains foundational to our culture – the culture of liberal modernity – and I suspect it lurks unacknowledged in the background of much of our thinking. For example, people who think they’re Lefties are frequently to be heard using the term “progressive” – and in a positive sense, believe it or not.

On the other hand, those of us who try to embrace and practice dialectics also don’t believe that history is just a random walk; we believe that it has a logic, though a logic that emerges from within, rather than following some ascertainable or inferrable pre-existing frame, and emerges and exfoliates over time; a logic in which genuinely new categories emerge that aren’t simply novel combinations of what has gone before; a logic whose very axioms and premises and indeed rules of inference evolve.

And of course, we believe in the negation of the negation – the way forward is simultaneously, in a sense, the way back, and vice-versa. To move forward is to discover something entirely new, and also to recover old things that we had thought were lost.

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