Some thoughts on progress and on Condorcet

Published online 24 July 2011.

One of the most controversial things I said in my first two diaries at Progressive Blue was that I didn’t think we were progressing toward anything.  Perhaps the wording on this was unclear; I don’t think there’s much of anything in the way of progress going on right now; generally world society has fallen into a static pattern in which there is a “global governance,” a “global capitalist system,” and a “global communication network,” but that all of the major world-problems continue, and the same folks stay on top as they always have.

Here I am going to take a closer look at the constituent history of “progress” and try to come up with an assessment of what is happening.  In this discussion I will examine the idealism of progress through a brief look at the Condorcet’s “Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind,” as a precursor of the Enlightenment idealism of the last two centuries.

There is a short passage in the first volume of Jurgen Habermas’s brilliant Theory of Communicative Action in which Habermas discusses the concept of the rationalization, or modernization, of society (as you can read about it in the works of Max Weber) as having its origins in a “philosophy of history” (145).  All of the motifs of this “philosophy of history” that forms the basis for sociological theories of modernization can be found in the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, published in 1794 by the Marquis de Condorcet.

A few things about Condorcet (1743-1794) should sufficiently introduce him.  He was a vociferous participant in the French Revolution, participated for a time in the revolutionary government, was involved in its intrigues, and was eventually forced into hiding by a warrant for his arrest.  He was an advocate of women’s rights and an opponent of the death penalty.  He did work in mathematics.  At some point, just after he’d finished the book synopsized below, he was arrested and jailed, where he died under mysterious circumstances soon thereafter.

Here I’d like to take a brief look at Condorcet’s archaic little book, because it consolidates all of the Enlightenment ideas of historical progress to which we currently subscribe.

For Condorcet, all of human history could be divided into ten stages, from tribal history to that of the future as he imagined it.  Agriculture is invented in stages two and three; stage four is about ancient Greece.  In stage five a sort of decline is depicted, in which “the triumph of Christianity was the signal for the complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences” (72).  Stage six depicts (among other things) the Arab contribution to the progress of the human mind:

With the Arabs the sciences were free, and to this freedom was due their success in reviving some sparks of the Greek genius, but they lived under a despotism sanctified by religion.  So this light shone only for a few minutes to give way to the blackest darkness… (87)

A few centuries is shortened here to a few minutes, but I suppose he was being metaphorical.  Stage eight was about the invention of printing, which for Condorcet gave rise to the Protestant reformation, and thereafter the rise of science, but also in the social realm “there arose in Europe a sort of freedom of thought, not for all men, but for all Christians; and indeed if we except France, it in only Christians who enjoy this freedom everywhere today.” (110)  Condorcet, then, placed a high value on the idea of freedom of thought, and as one of the “philosophes” he disliked the oppressive role of churches, religions, and kings in stifling free, rational thought.

Condorcet’s discussion of the ninth stage has a lot of content about the hard sciences, but Condorcet also believed in “moral and political science,” which was to promote the equality of man.  Here is Condorcet’s effusive praise for the then-newly-formed United States of America:

We see then for the first time, a great people delivered from all its chains, giving itself in peace the laws and the constitution that it believed most likely to bring it happiness.  Its geographical situation and its old political form obliging it to form a federal republic, there were at once set up thirteen republican constitutions, each based on a solemn recognition of the natural rights of man, and having for its chief end the preservation of those rights.  (144)

Condorcet’s tenth stage was reserved for his speculations on the future; while awaiting his eventual capture, imprisonment, and death, Condorcet wrote of the future in glowingly optimistic terms:

Are those differences which have hitherto been seen in every civilized country in respect of the enlightenment, the resources, and the wealth enjoyed by the different classes into which it is divided, is that inequality between men which was aggravated or perhaps produced by the earliest progress of society, are these part of civilization itself, or are they due to the present imperfections of the social art?  Will they necessarily decrease and ultimately make way for a real equality, the final end of the social art, in which even the effects of the natural differences between men will be mitigated, and the only kind of inequality to persist will be that which is in the interests of all and which favors the progress of civilization, of education, and of industry, without entailing either poverty, humiliation, or dependence?  In other words, will men approach a condition in which everyone will have the knowledge necessary to conduct himself in the ordinary affairs of life, according to the light of his own reason, to preserve his mind free from prejudice, to understand his rights and to exercise them in accordance with his conscience or his creed; in which everyone will become able, through the development of his faculties, to find the means of providing for his needs; and in which at last misery and folly will be the exception, and no longer the habitual lot of a section of society? (174)

What’s amazing, of course, is that practically all of Condorcet’s laundry list of rational ideals, and of signifiers of social and technical progress, have become part of today’s common notion of “progress.”  The history he offers is reminiscent of the histories we still read today.  (There are, of course, telling little details in this text to remind readers that they are reading a translation of an 18th century French author.)  Equality, education, reason, science, human rights, democracy, life, liberty, pursuit of happiness; Condorcet’s history charts the rise of Enlightenment ideals as still respected today, culminating in a vision of liberal utopia to be echoed two centuries later in Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man.”

Condorcet believed in a version of “progress” that could suffer reverses, yet was made possible in all eras by the accumulation of knowledge.  A better gauge of progress, however, could be developed out of a consideration of whether history after Condorcet’s death has borne out the predictions of progress in his book.

The idea of “progress” has its strongest case as regards the historical period covering the 19th century and the first three-quarters of the 20th century.  As Castoriadis points out, “the essential character of this epoch is the opposition and the tension between the two core significations: individual and social autonomy, on the one hand, and unlimited expansion of ‘rational mastery’ on the other.”  When the project of “individual and social autonomy,” the project suggested by Condorcet’s last chapter, had a chance as against the project of “rational mastery,” we could say with certainty that we weren’t merely transitioning into some sort of mindless consumer society or authoritarian surveillance state, and that progress in what Condorcet called the “social art” still held out hope.  (Today we see this progress in acts such as the legalization of gay marriage, which indicates a sort of diminished participation in a struggle which once burned brighter.)

Neoliberalism, the economic trend after 1973, is the primary trend putting progress into question.  Neoliberalism, as Harry Shutt points out, is characterized by an ongoing and worsening glut of capital, such that the owners of capital, the capitalists, look to restructure the whole of society to maintain their profit rates amidst a declining global growth rate.  It is with neoliberalism that the whole of society becomes a mere resource to be mined for investor profit — thus the project of “individual and social autonomy” slows to a halt.  In the meantime, the capitalists and their client politicians plan an ongoing “passive revolution.”

In this light, the most obvious prime mover on the horizon of the future is the ecological crisis, which by now operates as a force of blowback from the exploitative processes of our dominant capitalist system and which may eventually destroy said system while taking out most of us in the process.  The fundamental problem in this regard is that in a society composed of businesses all watching their respective bottom lines, energy consumption is largely dependent upon what is called “energy return on energy investment” (EROEI) and so a great infrastructure has been erected toward the end of universal dependence upon cheap oil, the energy source with the best EROEI.  Thus as the oil reserves of the planet are depleted, and as the consumption of sweet crude is replaced by the consumption of tar sands, the accumulated rises in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels promise a roaring global warming effect.

(I am here going to skip a discussion of the disaster our oceans and forests have become, for purposes of brevity.)

James Hansen, the globe’s most honest expert in climate science, argues in Storms of my Grandchildren (2009) that “if we want to solve the climate problem, we must phase out coal emissions” (176) while at the same time applying a carbon tax to phase out coal and natural gas consumption.  But since no political will for such a solution exists anywhere in the world, or anywhere on the horizon, there is almost a surety of the disaster predicted in the subtitle of Hansen’s book: “the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity.”  The truth of the matter will emerge more rapidly after the polar icecaps melt away.

We are arguably further from human equality than we ever were.  Capitalism has created a world of 793 billionaires and 10 million millionaires and a bottom half of humanity which lives on less than $2.50/day.  Slavery is back; the benefits of the world economy flow more securely to the rich few than ever before.  “Freedom” in this regard is freedom to earn a living in nations undergoing austerity planning.

The greatest rises in literacy in world history have been in countries that have been liberated from oppressive dictatorships and which are ostensibly heading toward something that is not capitalism.  I say “ostensibly” here because it is usually the promise of something better that motivates people to learn to read and write; a mover in this regard was the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997), whose methods and philosophy were significantly adopted by a number of third world liberation movements during the Cold War.  In capitalist countries, and indeed in all countries whose elites are conscious of economic competition between nations, education exists, and part of its effect may be to enlighten people.  However, as Joel Spring points out in Pedagogies of Globalization, such countries run educational systems largely as a mechanism for certifying professional classes through exams and degrees while marginalizing those who are, by dint of hierarchy, not “cut out” to be professionals.  One recalls in this regard chapter 25 of volume 1 of Marx’s Capital, in which capitalism is said to produce an industrial reserve army, a working class which didn’t, to turn a phrase, “make the grade.”

Indeed capitalism has its fingerprints on everything in our era.  Science and technology may proceed forward, but they typically do so on the grounds of what Castoriadis calls “rational mastery” (with an edge to technologies which improve the profit rate) while technical fields such as agroecology, which might annul the current divorce between nature-as-biology and nature-as-instrument-of-capital, seem largely concerned with the preservation of traditional knowledge against its impending loss, as its peasant possessors are integrated into neoliberal capitalism.  (See e.g. John Vandermeer’s The Ecology of Agroecosystems for further discussion.)

In short, “progress” as synopsized by Condorcet can be said to have stalled, and will be stalled indefinitely until large, proactive spaces are made outside of the “Church” and monarchy of our time, the capitalist system.  In the meantime, we might expect natural disasters and neoliberal malfeasance to open up possibilities for social regression.


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