Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Has humankind really “progressed”, in the Enlightenment sense of the word?

In philosophy, there is a saying, by Hegel, that the owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk. Hence, when we take stock of our situation today, with the benefit of such hindsight, what do we perceive? Has humankind really “progressed”, in the Enlightenment sense of the word? In fact, does “progress” make any sense today? Or should we rather speak of retrogression? It all depends on what we mean by “progress”, of course.

When I mentioned the Enlightenment, I meant first of all the historical period in European history, which is usually situated in and around the 18th century CE, although one could easily make out a case for such enlightenments to have taken place in other historical periods and cultures, too. Such times include the Attica (“golden age of Pericles”) period of ancient Greek civilisation and the period in China’s history when Confucius’ thought first held sway – both of these eras blossoming more than 2000 years ago.

“Progress”, according to the 18th-century European Enlightenment, was tied to the affirmation, during that time, that all human beings were endowed with “reason”, with the implication that hierarchical oppression of some by others was unjustified. The political manifestation of this belief was, of course, the French Revolution of 1789, and its battle cry, partly inspired by the American Revolution that resulted in the creation of an independent United States, still stands as an expression of the ideals of the Enlightenment: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!” Hence, “progress” meant (among other things) increasing political freedom for every human being – something that took a long time to be actualised (think of slavery and women’s equality), and to this day has still not been completely fulfilled. In fact, judging by all the indications of contemporary forms of slavery and of the abuse of women and children, its full actualisation seems to be a pipe-dream. Progress?

The neo-Marxist analysis that Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer undertook in their Dialectic of Enlightenment in the 1940s still stands as a virtually unassailable indictment of the hypertrophy of technical rationality, which was what supposedly “emancipatory” Enlightenment reason eventually became. The irony is hard to miss: the very same faculty that 18th-century philosophers pinned their hopes on as the means of liberation, had evolved, by the 20th century, into a source of novel enslavement in the form of “iron cage” (Weber) bureaucratic administrations and a rationality that found its purest embodiment in the technical domain.

To be sure, Jürgen Habermas, one of Adorno’s younger colleagues, took his erstwhile teacher (and Horkheimer) to task as the “dark” thinkers of the Enlightenment, believing that he could provide the corrective to their pessimistic diagnosis. According to Habermas, what they had overlooked was that hitherto misrecognised, unacknowledged, “communicative” capacity of reason to bring clarity where there was obfuscation and “consensus” where there was conflict. At a purely theoretical level Habermas’s encompassing social theory looks wonderful, and some of it makes a lot of sense – like his discourse ethics, for example – but it suffers from one fatal flaw: like John Rawls’s theory of justice, it does not reckon with the nature of power, but exists in a kind of rational vacuum. Where power is at stake, Michel Foucault and Jacques Rancière are far more reliable philosophical guides, to mention only two; with Foucault demonstrating that humanity is far better understood through the metaphorical lens of “battle” than that of “langue”, and Rancière exposing the illusion of living in so-called “democracies”, which are really oligarchies of various kinds, the most encompassing one today being the neoliberal rule of the corporations.

Needless to stress (although most people, blinded by conventional morality, would disagree with me on this), the rule of corporations (or the market, or unfettered capital; call it what you like), represents the most egregious retrogression in the history of civilisation, one that could well cost humanity the earth. And by this, I mean the biosphere on planet Earth today. A valuable source of information as far as the well-being of the planet goes is Derrick Jensen, a planet which cannot be saved by means of a so-called “green revolution” that is capital-driven, instead of eco-driven, because capital will always prioritise profit over nature; if that last bit of profit can be made out of harvesting the last fish on Earth, or the last rainforest, the latter, too, will be sacrificed on the altar of Mammon.

And if you don’t know the saying attributed to an indigenous American (so-called “Indian”), you should ponder its wisdom, namely, “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will you realise that you cannot eat money”. This is a condensation of a longer observation, attributed to Alanis Obomsawin, an indigenous Canadian:

“Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realise, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”

The recent events in India, when people got terribly ill because of air pollution in one of their biggest cities, bears witness to the profundity of this saying. Imagine this being the case all over the world; where would one go? And when water purity reaches the point of degradation that necessitates building more and more water purifying plants, which will add to the problem that led to the degradation of water in the first place, will people stop this invidious economic system that undermines all life, including ours? I think not; the many dystopian films and novels of today affirm the imaginary power of complete ecological collapse (try The Road for size; it is not as far-fetched as many would like to believe). Do these levels of pollution represent progress?

To return to the question of technical rationality (which Adorno and Horkheimer saw as a source of oppression), in other respects, too, “progress” in this domain seems to be questionable (see The automatic society). Let me illustrate. I know a guy, with whom I don’t have contact any longer, who used to spend time in our home. He would sit and listen (and perhaps say a few words now and then) for a while, and then take out his smartphone. For the rest of the time he would only play around on this gadget (in a kind of digital “holy communion”), and he was very adept in doing so. But when one tried to draw him into a conversation about, say, international politics, or (heaven forbid!) the artistic merits of a movie, he had nothing to say.

Does this represent progress? When one is very dexterous in knowing which buttons to press on your smartphone, but lacks (or, more charitably, does not trust) their linguistic and intellectual ability to conduct an intelligent conversation? Or retrogression instead? I rest my case.

As Bernard Stiegler has argued in many books, technology is not “bad”, per se, as long as one uses it to enhance your memory and intelligence, instead of allowing it to take over those naturally human functions, leading to a process of global “stupidification”. But, as he has also demonstrated, it is in capital’s interest to undermine one’s critical capacities, because the “easier” it is to access information online – information that always leads to merchandise of some or other kind – the more profit is generated. The very act of using the smartphone (data, and all that) comes at a price. Here technology and capital are in cahoots. And the 1% laughs all the way to the bank.

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