The Price of Progress

From Steven Pinker’s twitter account, December 10, 2018: “Fewer babies and mothers dying; more kids educated; fewer starving, lynched, executed, oppressed, killed in wars; more with access to travel and culture… True, it’s a value judgment to call this ‘progress.’ But something’s fishy when affluent intellectuals deem all this ‘meaningless.’”

Over the last ten years Steven Pinker has drifted away from his forte of writing about linguistics and psychology into studies of world history. His two recent books (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress) extoll the virtues of what is loosely described as modernity. In spite of all the violence of recent centuries when Western European culture rose to dominance, he claims that the statistics show violence has declined and all the evils listed in the tweet above are on a downward trend. He has been hailed by billionaires like Bill Gates as one of the leading thinkers of our times, and such mundane statements about “affluent intellectuals” quickly get retweeted over 1,000 times.

A long article I wrote a few years ago took issue with Pinker’s thesis about progress, and within it I did accuse him of proposing a definition of progress that was a “value judgment.” I don’t know if he was referring to my article because in his tweet he doesn’t identify the “affluent intellectuals” who deemed his version of progress a “value judgment” and “meaningless” (a term I didn’t use). He cited no context or nuance within which someone might argue that progress is a contentious and difficult concept to define and quantify. In my criticism of his work I argued that the progress he favors was made possible by the exploitation of energy resources, structural violence and the elimination of peoples and cultures that stood in the way of progress. Furthermore, I added that future generations will pay the cost of nuclear waste and an overheated and polluted world. These considerations would all seem worthy of a certain amount of humility when we express our gratitude for whatever modern comforts and security we enjoy.

Several of the evils listed in the tweet were products of Western civilization, not ailments conquered by it. They were not common in the hunter-gatherer societies that were wiped out by contact with civilization. Starvation, lynching, executions, wars and oppression were part of the heritage of the civilizing mission that Pinker now extolls as so virtuous. As for babies and mothers dying, yes, it’s a sad fact of nature that the human head is too big for the birth canal. Pinker explained in his earlier books that this was a trade-off of evolution—bigger brains in bigger heads in exchange for a higher rate of death in childbirth. Perhaps pre-contact cultures were willing to live with what nature had dealt them, and besides, at the time of their contact with guns, germs and steel, no one knew there would someday be surgery, anti-biotics and other wonders of modernity. In the 1590s, after a few years of contact with Spaniards, the Taino people of the Caribbean certainly wished to be left alone regardless of whatever benefits might lie in store for humanity 500 years later. And access to culture, travel and education? What need did they have of these gifts? Of everything on the list, these are the most relativistic values. On education, a century before George Carlin gave us his scathing evaluation of American education,[1] Flaubert wrote in a letter to George Sand in 1871:

Free compulsory education will do nothing but augment the number of imbeciles… The most important thing is to instruct the rich, who, on the whole, are the strongest. Enlighten the bourgeois first, for he knows nothing, absolutely nothing. The whole dream of democracy is to elevate the proletarian to the level of the imbecility of the bourgeois. The dream is partly accomplished. He reads the same papers and has the same passions.[2]

The moral argument against the zealous defense of modernity should be obvious. One cannot, in the present or retroactively, justify violence by results that might come in the future or by the results of past actions that we can see in hindsight. This was the essence of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov tried to justify his murder of the wicked pawnbroker, but in the end he couldn’t, not to others nor to himself. The only thing that matters is what we do in the present. Certainly it is nice to have heated homes and hospitals, but we should curb our enthusiasm lest it look like triumphalism, a justification for past atrocities, or a willful blindness about the costs we are leaving to future generations for the comforts we enjoy today.

I think it is not hypocritical of affluent intellectuals or anyone to point out such things. And if intellectuals can’t speak out just because they are “affluent,” this belief suggests that one should only speak out from self-interest and not show concern for those who are worse off and have no voice. Surely, the great thinker contradicts himself with such views because he states elsewhere that progress has come from our expanding circles of empathy.

Retroactive Justification

The extolling of modernity is really praise of the present global economic, cultural and military order established by the United States in the 20th century, so an appraisal of its benefits needs to be made with full knowledge of what deeds it was built upon. After 1917, socialist revolution was spreading from Russia to Europe, China and the colonized parts of the world. Britain and the United States countered this force by supporting Nazi Germany during its rise and, to a lesser extent, during the war itself. They delayed in opening a Western front, hoping that Germany would weaken the Soviet Union and Germany could be dealt with later after it too was weakened by the war. There was not much concern with the fate of Jews until late in war. If Britain and the United States had intervened much earlier and helped the Soviet Union more eagerly, the Holocaust could have been shortened or prevented, but socialism would have emerged much stronger than it did, and nuclear technologies might have been developed much later, without being used so carelessly only three weeks after the Bomb was proven to work.

All this is to say that when we justify modernity for the progress it has brought, we routinely shrug off the genocide of indigenous cultures, and much else, as an inevitability, but we don’t make justifications for the Nazi Holocaust. Why is that? Citing George Carlin again: “Germany lost the war. Fascism won it.” In addition to the genocide of European Jews, we have to add all the victims of the Cold War: the genocide in Indonesia, Mobutu’s reign in Zaire (now Congo) and Museveni’s in Uganda, coups in Greece and Iran, apartheid in South Africa and the war Angola and Namibia, fascist governments in Latin America, wars in Southeast Asia, not to mention the oppression and political assassinations that occurred within the United States itself. Pinker adds up all the statistics on violence from this bloody century and concludes that, yes, it was all horrific, but take comfort. Compared to the past, the data show violence is in decline. We have just exaggerated what it all means because of our negative bias and need of the media to sell bad news.

What would the world be like now if Germany had won WWII? It’s easy to imagine its gradual transition back to a superficially benevolent liberal democracy, or the sort of inverted totalitarianism that exists now in the United States. Nazism would have run its course, then a peaceful and prosperous era would have emerged in which elected leaders made the necessary avowals of the mistakes of the past. They would have come to the sites of atrocities and made speeches like Barack Obama did in Hiroshima in 2016.[3] They would talk about how “death fell from the sky” but then remind everyone that “the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is.” If you think this is an absurd comparison, take the time to view Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. He spent over a decade with the perpetrators and victims of the Indonesian genocide. The perpetrators stayed in power and school children still learn about the victorious liquidation of one million unarmed communist party members. He asked viewers to understand modern Indonesia by imagining the Nazis had won and stayed in power ever since.[4]

The answer to this selected focus on Western crimes is always that they were necessary to fight that greater evil, communism, which was really any perceived threat to American interests. Socialism was the preferred choice of the developing world in the 20th century. The Vietnamese wanted it no matter how many bombs and toxic chemicals were dropped on them. The socialist revolutions aspired to democratize the productive capacity of society. They were the natural step beyond capitalism, but they were forced to postpone their progress by the constant need to fight counter-revolutionary forces. There is no way to know what they could have become if they had been left alone or assisted in their growth. The constant refrain by affluent intellectuals like Pinker is that revolution always leads to terror and the guillotine, but they say this out of a deliberate neglect of what counter-revolutionary wars did to kill the potential of revolutions. They don’t even acknowledge what violent revolutions did to advance the progress of liberal democracy which they claim to be the pinnacle of social evolution. The record shows, however, that socialism just doesn’t work. Every country that tries it gets bribed, propagandized or bombed back into the embrace of the free market.[5]

The Soviet dissident Alexander Zinoviev spoke on this theme by speculating on the future from his vantage point in 1999. By this time he had revised some of his views of the Soviet system and become a critic of the unipolar order established by the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His mention of the fate of French people is highly relevant now when the Gilets Jaunes have emerged as a potentially revolutionary force in history:

Ten generations from now, people will, indeed, be able to say that it all happened in the name of humanity, i.e. for their greater good. But what about the Russians or the French who are alive today? Should they be happy that their people will have the same future as the American Indians? The term “humanity” is an abstraction. In reality, there are Russian, French, Serbs, etc. However, if the current trend continues, then the nations who founded modern civilization (I mean the Latin peoples), will gradually disappear. Western Europe is already bursting with foreigners. We have yet to speak about it, but this phenomenon is not accidental, and it is certainly not the consequence of the allegedly uncontrollable human migration flows. The goal for Europe is to create a situation similar to the situation in the United States. I suspect that the French will hardly be delighted to learn that mankind will come to be happy, but only without the French. After all, it might well be a rational project to only leave a limited number of people in the world, who could then live in a paradise on earth. Those remaining people would certainly believe that their happiness is the result of historical development... No. All that matters is the life that we and our loved ones are living today.[6]


[1] George Carlin: “[The people who own this country] don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking… They want obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.”
[3] Tessa Berensen, “Full Text of President Obama's Speech In Hiroshima,” Time, May 27, 2016.
[4]Joshua Oppenheimer extended Interview,” The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, August 13, 2013.
[5] David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard: the CIA and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (William Collins, 2016). If readers find it alarming to hear that the sectors of the US government plotted to delay Nazi defeat, I refer them to Talbot’s work and other books on the CIA and the Dulles brothers written in recent years.
[6] Alexander Zinoviev, “The End of Communism in Russia Meant the End of Democracy in the West,” Zinoviev Info, 1999.

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