The Tyranny of Progress

In “The Origins of Totalitarian Order,” Hannah Arendt presents the idea of ideology as a self-fulfilling process. Suppose that Stalin says that the Moscow metro is the greatest in the world. It would not be a problem if the Bolsheviks were to discover that the Paris metro was greater still because Stalin’s totalitarianism is a process, which means that if whatever is posited is not true right now, it may be true at a later date. All Stalin has to do is destroy the Paris metro for his original assertion to become true.

This may sound ridiculously false, but another example of the same principle can show us that the above applies to political thought at the present time. Both Hitler and Stalin talked about “dying classes.” For the Nazis these were the Jews and other peoples they deemed unworthy, for the Bolsheviks this was the bourgeoisie. Implicit in the term is the direction of some historical process, the idea that nature is taking its course and that the weak are perishing due to their weakness and their inability to survive in the modern world. But this idea is really the same thing as the metro example above, because it is the Nazis and the Bolsheviks who are themselves the driving force behind the processes which are in turn killing off certain classes. The political actors are fulfilling their own assertion through their actions, not stating a truth about the world.

The same insidious idea resides at the core of modern political thought in the form of an invisible, impersonal, one-way movement of “progress.” It is as if the modern man is traveling on a boat without sails or oars, being carried by the stream of history towards its inevitable outcome. And yet, this stream is of his own making. The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the seeds whose trees are now growing up before our eyes, are products of man’s thought, but we have stopped questioning their validity and their direction, and, more important, if we do question them, we are repulsed by a sense of their inevitability, that is, even if we question the value of certain technologies, we are told that technology has advanced so far that it is impossible to turn back, that technological process cannot be stopped or reversed. The technologies of our making have become like a train without breaks, which can only accelerate—it is pointless to question whether it might derail at some point because we have no ability to stop it and get off, or so we think. In the political sphere, “democracy” has become an end in itself rather than being a means to an end: we look at whether or not a country is democratic, not whether or not it is able to prosper and elevate the condition of its citizens. The word has lost its meaning and has become synonymous with goodness, ossifying any remnants of serious political discourse. Thus again the “dying classes”—dying industries, dying religions, dying traditions, dying arts. All swept away by “progress,” a force of our own making which we have abstracted from ourselves and deemed inevitable, absolving ourselves of the responsibility for its effects.

June 2018