Apr 12, 2010


Is progress the solution to the problems it created?
Sometimes it takes courage to handle matters that have been discussed profusely along the centuries. If that's not the case of the concept of progress, then I can't say what may be.
A really original interpretation of this concept was offered by S. Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle ("Jenseits des Lustprinzips", 1920), where the founder of the psychoanalysis shares the view that progress is an illusory concept, in that progress is supposed to offer solutions to the same problems that it created. It's true that as a nemesis, that same principle was used against Freud, when it was said once that the psychoanalysis is the solution to the problems that it created, but that was a joke and the discussion about the efficacy of the psychoanalysis remains open.

God gives, God takes. Man gives, man takes
There are two points I want to highlight:

1) progress can be true and indisputable only when we are confronted with acts of God where human behaviour play no relevant role as a cause. In many of these cases, given the trait of inevitability, human actions may speak in favour of the reality of progress, in the form of what can be done to prevent those phenomena from damaging people and properties. The list might be much narrower than we may hope for though, if we consider the voices addressing the global warming as possible culprits of floodings, tornados and other "natural" catastrophes.

2) for all the other instances, the reality of progress is based on the consideration of a tradeoff between pros and cons, gains and losses. If in point 1) we can say that God gives and God takes (albeit with the distinctions we have made), here we have to put man front and centre, and the saying becomes: "Man gives and man takes". Using the car can save time, we live longer in relative terms (because we almost do away with the "dead times" of moving around and we can save time for doing what we consider worth living for). On the other hand, we lose time of our life in absolute terms, because the environment gets more polluted and our societies develop diseases that were unknown before. But then again, progress levels things off by providing man with a cure for most of these diseases, and if we were to look at life expectancy in modern societies, than we'd have to conclude that the reality of progress cannot be argued, because it's proved by numbers and stats.

Wait a second: did I just say "stats"?
Unfortunately, the analysis doesn't finish here. Stats are stupid and, quoting italian poet Trilussa, according to stats every citizen has three chickens, whereas in reality some have six and some have none (we could humbly perfect that example: a little minority has 1*X and a vast majority has 0*x). The point being, stats have to classify a wide population in order to be quantitatively accurate. But the more they widen the basis of their research, the more they become inaccurate from a qualitative standpoint. In the past, way more than in modern times were the children who were born dead, thus lowering the average dramatically, and wars were more frequent than today, which explains why the average life expectancy in the roman age amounted to 50 years less than today's standards. There were diseases that were mortal of course. But in that respect, our only advantage is knowledge: we know what kills us, contrary to the ancient past, but we die nontheless, and the cures for what kills us the most, like Aids and cancer, are a far cry from being achieved. In addition, what used to kill wide groups of individuals in the western world as early as in the Middle Ages, keeps killing in less civilized areas, most notably in Africa, which have made little to no progress along the way.

The recipe for becoming rich: having a lot of money!
That brings us to another problem related to interpreting progress: as it turns out, our progress in iniquitous not only from continent to continent, but from city to country within the same territory, and from citizen to citizen inside the same town. If we accept to consider the most trivial aspect of progress, namely the widening access to material resources, we find out that richness tend to favour those who are already rich. The corporative organization of modern societes tends to make only one principle count: it takes money to make money. That principle defies logic (the logic per se, not only the logic of liberalism) because going back along cause-effect chain, you reach a point when the first heir's father had to start from scratch. If "only money can make money" is the only effective principle, then legacy is the only criterium that counts*, just like in the age of the princes. In a model of society in which human processes are tautologized in the way I indicated, the logic of progress falls victim to a short circuit, because each and every time what it takes to be something is ... well, just to be it already! Since progress comes forward not only with numbers (and we've seen how problematic it can be to define progress that way), but maybe even more preminently with a conceptual baggage as any other product of culture in its originary meaning - because the humanities, not medicine or economics, are the domain in which the idea of progress was born - then we have to come to the conclusion that most part of this conceptual baggage has something to do with the concept of equity: the idea of progress makes no sense without an accompanying idea of equity.

Ok, fine, now answer the question please
Ok, so an appreciable conclusion one can draw is that equity is a defining concept for the reality of progress. But just as a person is not only a skeleton but also tissues and functions, there is so much to the concept of progress that any explanation can do nothing other than scratch the surface.
So, on to the crucial question. Progress: does it exist or does it not? I think the only honest and reasonable answer should be, even for the most educated among us: I don't know.

*Note: I reckon that consideration can be heavily influenced by the atmosphere of the country where I live (Italy). In other countries talent, not the simple fact of belonging to an influential group or family, is the predominant criterion.

 "When the dominion over Earth is returned to the apes. Only then shall the true nature of progress be clear to man."

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