Progress?! You’ve Got To Be Kidding Me!

“…the unevenness of historical development of different countries and continents is in itself uneven. European countries develop unevenly in relation to one another. Nevertheless it can be maintained with absolute historical certainty that not a single one of these countries is fated, at least in the historical epoch under review, to run so far ahead in relation to other countries as America has run ahead of Europe. For America there is one scale of unevenness, for Europe there is another.” Leon Trotsky. The Third International After Lenin

“Human evolution (like evolution everywhere else) is marked by a series of important differentiations, which are absolutely normal and altogether crucial for the evolution and integration of consciousness (it is only by differentiation that an acorn grows into an oak). But at each stage, these differentiations can go too far into dissociation, which converts depth into disease, growth into cancer, culture into nightmare, consciousness into agony. And any balanced account of history is a chronicle not only of the necessary differentiations of consciousness evolution, but also of the pathological dissociations and distortions that all too often followed in their wake.” Wilber, Ken. Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy

What Does Progress Mean?

More than once over the years when I’ve referred to my model of “radical progress” the word progress is seized upon as liberal nonsense. After all, contemporary society isn’t getting better in any obvious way. Depending on the critic, the impediment to progress is either capitalism, original sin, patriarchy, or something else. I personally struggled with the term for quite a while, along the lines of both my former belief in original sin and my present beliefs in the regressive power of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy.

However, I’ve came to view “progress” as a normative, not a descriptive term. That means, progress is what I hold should be the outcome of social change, whatever the actual outcome should be or has been. In other words, like Leon Trotsky above, I believe that the course of human history under capitalism should have been the growth of an international revolutionary movement overthrowing capitalism and ushering in a communist future. What we actually got was the Bolshevik Revolution, a failed German revolution, the rise of Nazism and WW2, the Cold War, triumphant American hegemony, and now the War on Terror. To see progress in that historical sequence requires either blind optimism or an ability to critically differentiate the events within that sequence.

The quote from Ken Wilber draws a contrast between depth, growth, culture, and consciousness as positive elements of progress, with disease, cancer, nightmare, and agony as the contrasting regressions. What is hard for most of us to see is that both things are always going on. There is progress and regression occurring at every moment of time. Is that an article of faith, perhaps? How does this view not fall into a naive optimism? I would say that it is far more likely to collapse into uncritical pessimism. Give me an optimist over a pessimist any day, but far better to develop a critical realism, perhaps.

Can Social Systems Evolve? Characterizing Progress

What has spurred me to re-examine the concept of progress recently was an argument I had online with a fellow revolutionary over religion. At every point I would raise about the possibility of progressive religion, he would counter with his view that religion has no mechanism for growth, it is just a an “abstraction of ideas.” He also criticized the “memetic” theory of religion that has become popular among atheists. The Memetic theory holds that an “idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture” is a meme that can be analyzed and modeled as a system of ideas, including religion, morality, etc.

Both the “abstraction of ideas” and memetic view of religion fail to capture what religion actually is and what it might mean for a religion to change and evolve. Religion is a complex social phenomena that overlaps other phenomena, it isn’t a discrete entity nor merely a system of ideas. Perhaps even more damaging to my position is the criticism that the very concept of social evolution is invalid. As my challenger put it, “social logics are not organisms.” So, the challenge to my view of normative progress and critical realism about religion require a sort of meta-theoretical re-framing. That is a tall order, and I can’t do it justice in this one blog posting. I will refer the reader to other postings of mine that outline the scaffolding of my general system. Specifically, the “Eightfold Revolution” and “Outlines for a Possible History of Radical Progress.”

I hold that religion, gender/sexuality, culture/race, economics, and politics as well as a other social phenomena are all non-discrete systems, that is they interpenetrate each other within reality as a whole. For example, the Roman Catholic church is organized hierarchically, with local parishes presided over by priests, under bishops, cardinals, and the Pope. A pretty clear vertical pyramid. However, if we look at the time and spatial aspects of how the Roman Catholic church physically operates, the hierarchy is reducible to a nodal network of human beings in communicative interactions. Each priest or cardinal can be replaced with someone else and over time all of them will be replaced. My theory of religious progress argues that as social conditions change rapidly under the influence of modern technology and economic production, religions will reflect that change, however much they may build barriers to such change. Even further, I hold that religions generate their own influences or feedback to the social systems and structures.

This brings in the Wilberian duality of social evolution/revolution as simultaneously pathological and progressive. Instead of a constant steady growth of healthy change – the Pollyanna view of descriptive progress – humanity is subject to a dynamic and conflictual process of uneven development. New technologies make new products available. New science make new technologies possible. Social certainties erode and human beings react, with both healthy and unhealthy results. Religion is part of this field of social evolution/revolution. I will close with a quote from one of my all-time favorite philosophers of religion, John Macmurray.

“Religion is the original, and the one universal expression of our human capacity to reflect; as primitive and as general as speech. It is atheists and agnostics who have been exceptional and abnormal. They have indeed constituted a very small minority at all times, although their numbers have tended to increase in epochs of social dissolution. So far, too, from being heterogeneous with other aspects of culture, and resting upon abnormal experience which contrasts with our common awareness of the world, religion is the source from which the various aspects of human culture have been derived….” John Macmurray. The Self As Agent <- Link to the entire text of this work, I highly recommend it.

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