Outlines for a Possible History of Radical Progress

In our time the view that we are making progress has fallen into disrepute. Certainly, any view that takes progress as a given or automatic process has little credibility. A commitment to a radical progressive agenda cannot rest on a simplistic model of linear change. Rather than being automatic, progress demands both critical reflection and strategic activism.

Understanding what progress is and how it needs to unfold must be rethought today. What are the norms and central issues of progress? How has the past shaped the present and how can the past and present shape the future?

Examining history in light of an “Agenda for Radical Progress” the past can be distinguished from the present in order to point towards a future. For convenience sake, this examination will explore the history of progress in terms of centuries and primarily focus on US history. Naming our present era will start with claiming the legacy of the 1960s US social movements as a critical turning point.

A key event where an agenda of radical progress emerged was the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott of December 1955. That year can serve as a marker for distinguishing the present era from its immediate past. To develop a perspective on progress, it is helpful to consider the prior century before 1955 and consider historical conditions around 1855.

By 1855, several social trends that catalyzed progress were in full flower:

  1. The institution of black slavery had heretofore dominated race relations and would be decisively abolished just over a decade later.
  2. Labor struggles were assuming visible shape and socialism was becoming established in Europe.
  3. The educational status of middle-class white women was rising and setting the stage for the first wave of feminism.
  4. The United States was vastly expanding its territorial claims across the width of the continent.
  5. Conflict over slavery was precipitating the Civil War, and Western expansion was provoking wars with Native peoples.
  6. Industrial technologies were becoming widespread and setting the stage for large-scale ecological exploitation.
  7. Religious dogma and practice were under strong criticism both from within and without institutional religion.
  8. Sexual behavior and health were for the first time being studied in terms of emerging medical knowledge, and, more effective contraception such as condoms, were developed.

Considering these points, it is obvious that there is both continuity and discontinuity between the past century and a half and the contemporary era. While it is commonplace to see the 19th century as some sort of ancient history, in fact our present was clearly emerging during this era. However, it is also important to understand how the past is not the present.

Slavery’s abolition didn’t end racism. First wave feminism didn’t end sexism. Labor unions and socialism didn’t overthrow capitalist exploitation. The consolidation of the modern U.S.A. politically and territorially didn’t produce a true democracy. The establishment of religious liberalism didn’t prevent the fundamentalist backlash. The point should be quite evident that while modernity was born in the 1800s, it wasn’t a simple matter of progress.

Taking a cue from Max Horkheimer, we can characterize the era from 1855-1955 as coming under the dominance of the “instrumentality paradigm.” In 1947, Horkheimer writes in Eclipse of Reason that “Having given up autonomy, reason has become an instrument.” Further, “Reason has become completely harnessed to the social process” and “thinking itself had been reduced to industrial processes.”

Contrasting the era of the instrumental paradigm with the previous era, dated for convenience to 1755, illuminates the precedents of our agenda for radical progress. The social processes in place here were similarly both continuous and discontinuous with what comes after.

  1. Slavery was at its height and its religious justification was widespread.
  2. Industrial production methods were just emerging with steam engines, modernized roadways, and chemistry.
  3. Women were legally designated as property in marriage, though some resistance was beginning to emerge.
  4. The American Colonies were beginning to move toward independence from England, culminating in the Revolutionary War in the 1770’s.
  5. New military tactics emerged in the US context in order to defeat a more powerful foreign army.
  6. Europe and the US began experiencing a population boom, putting significant strain on the environment.
  7. Revivalism emerged in the early 1700s in the US and decisively shaped the religious culture.
  8. While marriage was still the dominant sexual practice, courtship was largely a private matter, rather than the arranged marriages of earlier eras.

Naming the paradigm here is somewhat more difficult, since many historians class this era as early modern and hence not distinct from the later instrumental era. However, developmental theory suggests a distinctive mode precedes instrumentalism premised on a greater emphasis on order and conformity. For our purposes, we can label the dominant paradigm of this era as one of conformity.

It is tempting to go back further to consider what preceded the conformist era, and without elaborating we can offer that this pre-modern 1655-1755 era can be characterized as one dominated by an affectivity paradigm, centered on emotional attachment and dependency, rather than a sense of repressed conformity. It is intellectually immature, but emotionally rich.

Theorists of psycho-social development propose that one of the overarching characteristics of the growth in personality is an oscillation between self-interest and other-identification. For instance, an infant is wholly self-focused, but grows into an awareness of its surroundings and kin. This initial bonding gives way to a renewed self-assertion in the later stage commonly known as the “terrible twos.” As the child advances in mental and emotional competence it settles into a more stable connection with its immediate family. Just prior to formal schooling, cognitive powers advance and complex learning lead to a new self-confidence and desire to explore beyond the family. This oscillation is evident in our two paradigms, with the conformity paradigm emphasizing identification with others, and the instrumentality paradigm advancing self-directed individual initiative.

This would suggest that the next paradigm to emerge would be other-identified. In the era following 1955 up to around 1975, US culture underwent a traumatic conflict centered on a rejection of the individualistic instrumental paradigm and the corollary assertion of collective responsibility and cooperative potential. Hence we will dub this new paradigm the “relationality paradigm.” The social trends that shaped and propelled this new paradigm include:

  1. Rejection of racial privilege in the name of a common humanity.
  2. De-emphasis on wealth and success (post-materialism).
  3. Feminist consciousness and rapid advancement of women in public spheres.
  4. General distrust of centralized government.
  5. Anti-war mobilizations.
  6. Politicization of environmental crises.
  7. Widespread interest in non-Western religions coupled with significant innovation within Christianity.
  8. Relaxation of virginity norms, lifelong monogamy, and heterosexism, coupled with improved contraception and greater sexual explicitness.

This new paradigm will require as much as a century to establish itself as dominant, which this proposal predicts approximately 2055. Considerable regression has happened since 1975, especially in the 1980s and first decade of the 2000s. We might characterize these swings as short-term oscillations of the self/other polarity identified above. In fact, if we study the history of earlier periods in detail, we see similar swings and conflicts. In fact, we can assert that it is never the case that any paradigm has unquestioned dominance in society, but rather is always contested, both by the future-focused persons who wish to move faster into the next paradigm and by regressives who wish to pull back to the safety of familiar values.

It is now possible to stand back and see the whole of recent history since at least 1755 as a history of progress, albeit a conflicted one. The logical question becomes what lies beyond the relational paradigm? Speculation is always a tricky business, but given our attempted reconstruction of the previous eras, some educated guesses are possible.

  1. The submerging of the racial polarities necessary to combat racism within a panoramic spectrum of micro-cultures.
  2. Emergence of greater creative freedom from compulsory work, leading to aesthetic innovation and hedonic focus.
  3. Transcendence of gender polarities in favor of a transgendered self-creation transgressing classical norms and innovating new possibilities.
  4. Emergence of a global governance system, seeded by the UN, submerging individual nations within a multi-level democratic alliance.
  5. Continued development of nonviolent culture, movements, and security systems.
  6. Transition from fossil-fuels, coupled with population stabilization (predicted circa 2050 @ 9 billion).
  7. Emergence of a global ecumenical communion, emerging from subcultures within the classical religions that have long resisted the dominant paradigm.
  8. Disappearance of marriage in favor of open relationships.

Each of these projections will of course meet massive resistance and will not in any case be fully established until over a century later approximately 2155. There will doubtless be wars over national sovereignty, ecological degradation, religious reaction, economic collapse, etc. Although it is almost impossible to really know what a post-relationality paradigm will look like, I will suggest that it’s overarching theme will be the emergence of fully realized individuals within a socially-supportive matrix. The best proposal for naming this wholly hypothetical paradigm I can suggest would be the “authenticity paradigm.”

In sum, this history of radical progress is based on a narrow slice of history, largely confined to the US. It’s applicability to other cultures is limited at best. This is not a proposal for a macro-theory of development on the scale of Ken Wilber’s AQAL integral theory. I deliberately am not trying to go back to cave-dwellers and horticultural societies, or beyond to international contexts, but to stay within the society I know best.

My proposal is that this history of radical progress from the 1700s can be fruitfully characterized as a series of alternations between individual and social paradigms, namely from affectivity, to conformity, to instrumentality, to relationality, and beyond to a future paradigm of authenticity. Is there more beyond authenticity? Of course, but that is a topic for a later time.

Peace & Love! Charley

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