Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Progress as a Natural Force Versus Progress as the Great Work

Lately, some of my friends and political allies have taken me to task for my eager acceptance of the designation "progressive," and wonder if I can really be so oblivious to the damage that has often been done in the name of progress historically.

True to the instincts hammered into me by my training in analytic philosophy, I will propose to relieve this unpleasant tension by offering up an ad hoc distinction. It seems to me there is all the difference in the world between those who profess to “believe” in progress and those who would work to achieve it.

When progress is imagined to be some kind of “force” that the knowledgeable can discern in history, a natural force in which one can believe with one’s whole heart or to which profess one’s full faith, or, better yet, a force in the name of which one can claim to be some kind of priestly mouthpiece, then it tends to be little more than a self-congratulatory fable that the powerful and their orbiting opportunists tell themselves to deny the part luck has played in their attainment of power and then to justify the bad behavior they typically employ subsequently to maintain it.

This doctrine of progress as a natural force is just one more way in which the powerful add insult to injury. It is one more ruse of the ideology of the “natural,” this time one in which subject populations are re-imagined as and then reduced to developmental “atavisms” along a progressive path that has only too naturally and irresistibly culminated in the attainment of rule proper to whomever it is that calls the shots at the moment.

This “naturalizing” conception of progress figures development as an undeniable force like a typhoon wind, sweeping rulers into their prosperity and the ruled into ruin with an urgency so epic it is hard to discern or judge the merits of the proper players involved. And for those who are swept up in the exhilaration of some particular narrative of natural progress it is likewise difficult to see past the mandate of inevitability it confers, difficult to perceive the winning streak it celebrates as one that can ever come to an end, that the players it extols can ever lose their way, that the forces it documents can ever peter out.

While it is easy to find examples of this kind of naturalizing idea of progress in the crass champions of Empire from the Edwardian English to the Project for a New American Century, I will offer up as a slightly less obvious example something that strikes closer to home (for me, at any rate): the kind of corporate futurists and science fiction fanboys who sometimes like to glibly handwave about the inevitable consequences of accelerating technological development.

I think it is first of all a mystification to say technology in general is monolithically "accelerating" when in fact some developments seem to accelerate, while others stall, others converge, others altogether cease, etc. In my experience, this metaphor of a wholesale developmental acceleration tends to be employed to create an impression of inevitability and irresistibility to whatever very particular parochial political/moral outcome (or, worse yet, some particular "innovative" crap product) some self-appointed "expert" futurist is trying to avoid having to make an actual argument for at the moment.

This ideologically naturalizing tendency is never more palpable in my view than in those who declaim accelerating development to be tire-screeching in the direction of some absolute historical discontinuity -- described in its most explicit and flabbergasting variations as an apocalyptic, transcendentalizing "Singularitary" a la Ray Kurzweil or Vernor Vinge or one of their many online (and only online) enthusiasts, some altogether existential Event about which apparently very little can in principle be said in detail while, nonetheless, into which it seems all sorts of overwrought emotional baggage involving ecstatic hopes and debilitating fears can conspicuously be invested. About these unfortunates I have of course already written on several occasions.

Surely, however shattering or empowering certain technoscientific developments may be, there is little that is inevitable about the forms that such developments will take, or the scope of their impacts, or the vicissitudes in the interaction of relevant technical and normative and sociocultural developmental effects with one another over time. And all of this leads me to an altogether different conception of progress from the naturalizing ideology against which I have been railing and which I believe has inspired much of the right-minded worry of my well-meaning friends.

While it is true that I maintain something like the barest faith that life can indeed be improved for more and more people through scientific effort, the freeing up of popular creativity, and the collaboration of free people, peer-to-peer, for me progress does not so much name this bare belief as it does the work itself in which one collaborates to make the world a better place, a work on which individuals must depend on the participation of their fellows and the attainments of which are always the farthest thing from sure-footed or secure.

For me, “progress” is simply what happens when there is a fairer distribution of the benefits, costs, and risks of ongoing technoscientific developments among all the stakeholders to those developments. “Progress” happens whenever more people have more of a say in the public decisions that affect them (that is to say, when we achieve more democracy), though the participation in a legible scene of informed nonduressed consent (about which I write more here and here) in the context of the equity and diversity of a robust democratic rights-culture (and I am happy to take canonical statements such as the US Constitution, UN Declaration, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms as points of departure in the delineation of the notion of Rights Culture).

When I declare that I'm progressive in a fairly conventionally liberal or social democratic sort of way that’s just because I see sense in the belief that when the social definition of progress is satisfied (the longer, second sentence in the paragraph above, the one about consent, equity, and diversity), the technocultural definition of progress (the shorter, first sentence above, the one about the best and fairest facilitation and distribution of technoscientific accomplishments) is more likely to be satisfied as well.

I think that both the extreme market libertarianism and libertarian socialism that seem so curiously to preoccupy so many discussions of politics online (but which almost never connect particularly well to the ways in which politics subsequently plays out on the ground) are best thought of as skewed and unrealizable extrapolations from the vicissitudes of roughly workable and regularly failing social and liberal democratic practices which industrial societies are struggling to implement and maintain with, one must say, mixed results. It is regrettable that anarcho-capitalist and anarcho-socialist viewpoints are treated so often as pure positions against which we should measure the aspirations and results of actually ongoing efforts at democratization in the world when it seems to me that these efforts are the substance of the political, rather than the philosophical idealizations which declare them merely "mixed" or "compromised" or "debased." And since I have indicated that this is an analysis that applies best to "industrial societies" I think I should also add that so-called "post"-industrial societies are, in my view, simply industrial societies that disavow their industrialization through neoconservative militarist adventuring or/and with neoliberal corporatist financialization, outsourcing, and futurological posturing.

Be all that as it may, I believe that the romantic energies of the radical left were once fired by a vision of progress as a great collective work to make an incomparably better future for all, but that these revolutionary energies were shattered by the many failures, betrayals, and tyrannies of the Cold War era, and by the almost wholesale appropriation of the language of progressive enlightenment by fearful, greedy, and malign reactionaries.

The left has grown suspicious of optimistic developmental narratives that too often have been little more than apologies or cover for the ongoing consolidation of corporate-military power. And the left has been distracted from the real achievements and disenchanted from the breathtaking promise of technoscientific accomplishments by the recklessness, indifference, and pathology of their pathway, as well as by the outrageous hype and provincial perfectionism of too many commercial hucksters peddling panaceas and unsustainable lifestyles.

Too often the technophilic faith in a world "without limits" has translated into the smug assurance that there are profits to be made, and that there will always be others on hand to clean up the mess in the aftermath. Too often the real costs, risks, and burdens of development have fallen disproportionately on those who benefit least from developmental achievements. At any rate, those who suffer most at the hands of development are rarely those who subsequently benefit most from the attainments of development.

The thankless and heartbreaking work of restitution, restoration, and remediation in the aftermath of this ongoing injustice has largely fallen to the left, of course, and it is of a piece with the wider contemporary battle of progressives to conserve the institutional achievements of over a century of social struggle against an onslaught of reactionaries who have recently re-written revolution in the image of a massive looting and dismantling of democratic civilization, such as it is.

This curious inversion, whereby the left has been lured into a dreary conservative defense of the fragile embattled institutions of social welfare and representative governance, while the right is intoxicated with the fighting faith of market-triumphalist revolutionary fervor, has left the left unable plausibly to claim any longer to speak in the name of Progress conceived as the Whirlwind or the Pillar of Fire.

Why look a gift horse in the mouth? I say we leave the ideology of Nature’s Progress to the market naturalists, and grab hold again the reins of Progress conceived as a Great Work.

I believe now that only by championing and securing the emancipatory potential of emerging radical technologies (genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine, renewable energy technologies, nanoscale fabrication techniques, and decentralized media and resource networks), by insisting on their social support, funding, regulation, and the fair distribution of both their costs and benefits, that the left can regain the momentum it lost in the slow turn to the twenty-first century with the loss of its intelligible revolutionary aspirations.

While it is certainly true that the unprecedented dangers and destabilizing impact of ongoing technoscientific change will impose extraordinary risks and costs on all humanity and all species (and disproportionately so onto the relatively more vulnerable and poorer and least represented among us so long as development is driven by corporate-militarist elites), it seems to me that the left needs to embrace technoscientific progress to regain its right relevance in the world almost as much as humanity needs the fair-minded good-sense of the left to regulate technodevelopment for the good of us all and to dispel what will otherwise too likely be catastrophe.

Postscript: Who Our Friends Are

Progress has two aspects, then, one social and one instrumental.

The struggle for more representative governance, more collaborative social administration, greater transparency from institutions and agents empowered to produce and enforce laws, greater fairness in the distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of public intercourse for all of its stakeholders, the diminishment of violence and compulsion in interpersonal life, the spread of literacy, numeracy, and critical thought, the spread of cosmopolitan tolerance and multicultural celebration, the substantiation of the scene of informed, nonduressed consent, and the global expansion of a more robust rights culture are all components in the social aspect of progress. I think of this social aspect of progress as democratization.

The struggle to increase scientific, instrumental, and medical knowledge, the ramifying accumulation of technological powers, the ongoing technodevelopmental disruption of given capacities, norms, and expectations, and the facilitation through education and access of an ever growing ever diversifying population of collaborators in this process of discovery and application are all components in the instrumental aspect of progress. I think of this instrumental aspect of progress as denaturalization.

Peer-to-peer progressives maintain that any proper account of "progress" will affirm the equal and complementary indispensability of both greater democratization and greater denaturalization to the technodevelopmental social struggle for human emancipation.

We already live in ineradicably technological societies, and our problems are the problems of technoscientific societies. And we ourselves are by now all of us also ineradicably prostheticized. There is no Garden for us to return to on this earth, beyond history, or within our hearts. Any commitment to progressive democratization without a complementary commitment to ongoing denaturalization denies the terms of social struggle as they actually confront us in their material specificity in the technoscientific societies in which we find ourselves. And hence any such “progressivisms” (for example, think about left bioconservative politics, boutique Green lifestyle politics available only to oblivious elites, and most of the New Age and pastoral-luddite anarchisms) are to my mind false progressivisms, amounting usually to little more than conservative, and sometimes outright reactionary, indulgences in nostalgia and complacency.

Since instrumental powers can be deployed to indefinitely many ends, they can facilitate exploitation and exacerbate injustice just as easily as they can serve fairness and emancipate humanity when directed to better ends. As is always the case in antidemocratic politics, any commitment to progressive denaturalization without a complementary commitment to ongoing democratization denies the terms of social life -- its ineradicable plurality, insecurity, unpredictability, interdependence -- as they actually confront us in their abiding generality. And hence any such “progressivisms” (for example, think about market libertarian technophilia and the various neoliberal and neoconservative corporate futurisms) are to my mind false progressivisms amounting usually to little more than straightforward bids for power and profit, either for personal gain or in the service of the elites with whom one identifies.

Peer-to-peer progressives in this technoscientific epoch cannot afford to misdiagnose as “progress” any developmental path or outcome that does not contribute both to democratization and denaturalization, and neither can we afford to misrecognize as "allies" in the social struggle for real progress anyone who is committed only to the one aspect of “progress” over the other. This is not to deny that progressives should surely seize opportunistically upon any event or outcome that can be made to facilitate actually progressive ends, just as we should make common cause with any number of momentary allies in contingent campaigns that facilitate clear, concrete progressive ends. But the exigencies of practical political struggle should never confuse our sense of what any progress worth fighting for finally amounts to, nor how a shared understanding of and commitment to progress in its full progressive construal is all we have to ensure we never lose sight of who our friends are. -- February 13, 2006

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