Against Progress; For Sustenance

I abhor progress.  Let’s just get that out of the way at the beginning.  I am contemptuous of the concept.  I do not believe in the perfectibility of man or society.  I do not long for some ideal future any more than I am horrified by the past.

“Progress” is a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian myth of the coming messiah.  Instead of the coming messiah, we are moving towards a state of perfect equality, an end to poverty, an end to war, a techno-utopia, prefect knowledge, universal human rights, or whatever else we might dream up.  Beginning in late-nineteenth century America, progress became more and more linked to the spread and then development of technology.  But technology cannot provide a utopia.

To associate motions of harmony with a state of technical perfection or to suppose a political and social idyll where it can never be found is sheer pipedreaming.  Those dreams of leisure, freedom, and wealth created by technical progress are utopian, and so are the ideas of peace, well-being, and happiness in future times.  They are utopian because they combine what cannot be combined.  The machine is not a godhead lavishing cornucopias of happiness, and the era of the machine does not lead to a peaceful and charming idyll.  At all times the power proffered by technology has exacted and forever will exact, a high price; the price of the blood and sinew of human hecatombs who in one way or another get caught in the cogs and wheels of that vast machine. (Juenger, The Failure of Technology, 176-177).

I offer the above, not as an argument, but as a statement of my position.  I don’t intend here to argue against progress.  Instead I am writing to sort out some long-standing difficulties with my thinking about progress.

As much as I abhor progress, I am not satisfied with things as they are.  But does that require me to long for something akin to progress.  I have long struggled with the language to deal with this issue.  I just read Ludwig Klages for the first time.  Although there is much similarity in thought between him, Juenger (whom I quote above), and other writers from the pre-WW II period, he provides particular language that helps me tremendously.

First of all, his view of progress: “Make no mistake: ‘progress’ is the lust for power and nothing besides.”

Utilizing such pretexts as “necessity,” “economic development,” and “culture,” the final goal of “progress” is nothing less than the destruction of life.  This destructive urge takes many forms: progress is devastating forests, exterminating animal species, extinguishing native cultures, [etc.].  To achieve this end, the whole weight of technology has been pressed into service. (The Biocentric Worldview, 34)

Keep in mind that he wrote the above in 1913.

For both Juenger and Klages, it isn’t actually technology itself that is the problem; it is, for Juenger, “technic” or the hyper-rationalism of the Enlightenment, and, for Klages, capitalism, though I suspect both resolve into the same force.  Propelled by rational-materialism, technology and systematic organization spread itself according to its own logic into every aspect of life, subordinating all to the logic of those systems.

I am dissatisfied with this modern regime of technology.  So, does rejecting it and seeking something different mean I must in fact accept some concept of progress?  I don’t think so.

Klages argues that there are two fundamental forces or orientations.  The spirit or will stands high above, aloof from the world.  It is isolated and tends towards tyrannical imposition of its will upon all.  It is the spirit that is dominant today.  It is the lofty and isolated imaginings of the spirit that allow for the conception of progress towards perfection.  In opposition to the spirit is the soul, which corresponds to life, love, and nature.  (See Philip Shepherd’s description of the tyranny of the cranial brain over the gut brain in New Self, New World.  He offers a way of going beyond criticism to finding new ways of living and relating.)

It isn’t Klages’s binary of spirit and soul that is important for me, but the tendencies of both.  The spirit demands progress and perfection.  In contrast, “No guide of the soul will ever be persuaded that he can change or improve anything at all.”

From the pine cone comes the pine tree, from the beechnut comes the beechtreee, from the acorn comes the oak tree, and the guardian of the seed is neither its procreator nor the sculptor of its form.  A plant does, nonetheless, require light and moisture, and the fortunes of the plant will depend to a large extent upon my caring for its needs. … Vital guidance serves to provide the soul with sustenance. … Love—– in the broadest meaning of the word—–entails reverence, admiration, and adoration. (54-55)

That’s it.  My dissatisfaction is not a yearning for perfection; it is a yearning for things to be allowed and even nurtured to be what they are.  Klages provides a philosophy of limits.  We must accept the limits of what we are.  But we may also nurture that being to promote its fullest expression.  But man cannot be other than man.  Klages also provides a philosophy of distinctions.  Everything has its own nature.  Things cannot be collapsed into a grand homogeneity to be managed rationally.

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