The paradox of the anti-progress canon

Review (part 2 of 2) of Matthew W. Slaboch, A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics (U Penn Press, 2018).

In my previous post, I mentioned that the concept of progress might have a cultural or spatial dimension, one of the most important ideas I learned from reading Slaboch’s book on anti-progress. Here, I shall discuss another insightful idea in Slaboch’s book, what I call “the paradox of the anti-progress canon.” Simply put, why should anyone bother to improve man’s lot or change the course of history for the better if the ideal of progress is bullshit?

Slaboch presents this dire paradox in the chapter devoted to Henry Adams (Chapter 3), who attempted to apply the law of physics to the study of history. Briefly, Adams’s view of world history was a pessimistic one (p. 80): social and political collapse are inevitable; all such systems will “grow old and die.” At the same time, Adams deplored the venal nature of American democracy. For Adams (p. 76), politicians are not only corrupt; the citizens they represent are stupid and depraved! But as Slaboch astutely notes, these two positions–one macro (world history); the other micro (American democracy)–are in tension with each other (p. 81): “on the one hand, [Adams] freely castigates American government and society for their decrepitude, while on the other hand … [he] professes the inevitability of such decay.”

In other words, if all social and political systems must eventually “grow old and die,” to borrow Adams’s own formulation, how can one complain when history unfolds just as your theory of history predicts? Worse yet, if decline is inevitable, then any effort to reverse this decline is doomed to fail! Furthermore, this tension can easily be generalized to all critics of progress. Although Henry Adams is easy to dismiss as a crank of a bygone age (after all, who still believes that history is governed by the laws of physics?), the works of Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, by contrast, have withstood the test of time, and if you find either Schopenhauer or Tolstoy’s critiques of the concept of progress to be persuasive (as I do), i.e. if progress is either a futile or dangerous ideal, then what is to be done?

This ominous contradiction reappears in Chapter Four of Slaboch’s book, where the author turns to the leading 20th-century critics of progress: the German historian Oswald Spengler, Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and American cultural critic Christopher Lasch. All three thinkers rejected the idea of progress: Spengler, for example, famously diagnosed “the decline of the West” (p. 89) and predicted the outbreak of war between the forces of liberalism and socialism (p. 95). For his part, Solzhenitsyn emphasized the finite nature of our natural resources, describing the idea of perpetual progress as a “nonsensical myth” (p. 99), and denied that an ideal form of political organization existed (p. 101). Likewise, Lasch lamented Western decadence (p. 106) and believed that Americans are unwilling or unprepared to deal with the future (ibid.).

The problem, however, is that if any of these criticisms are true–if war is inevitable, if resources are finite, if Western culture is materialist and decadent–how are we to avoid the dangers of nihilism? Slaboch acknowledges this danger in his conclusion, and this is why I recommend A Road to Nowhere. Slaboch’s beautiful book is worth reading because it poses and answers two significant questions for us today: why should we be skeptical of the ideal of progress, and how should we act given this skepticism? In the course of addressing these questions, his book makes two important contributions to the anti-progress literature. One is purely historical: Slaboch goes back in time and reacquaints us with the leading 19th- and 20th-century critics of the ideal of progress. The other contribution is at once philosophical and practical. Slaboch identifies a paradox in the anti-progress canon. Simply put, if progress is an incoherent concept or an unattainable goal, to what great purpose or end, if any, should we devote ourselves to in the here and now? Is it even possible, in principle, for a critic of the concept of progress to solve this paradox?

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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